Saturday, December 29, 2012

Cycling for Nessie

It was 1988.  I remember because it was the year of the Libyan sponsored Lockerbie plane terrorism in Scotland and very few tourist were traveling there as a result.

The fabled monster of the Loch
When you work for a German firm, as I did, you get a lot of time off.  Six weeks paid vacation every year, twenty plus holidays, and yet another two weeks at Christmas.  It’s the law!  This particular year, I had gotten a bug up my trousers to go to Scotland and see Loch Ness for myself.  It was far away.  It was exotic.  Who knows… I might get to see the famous Nessie!  Since I was living in Augsburg, taking a long bike ride  to Scotland and a faster train ride back home seemed like just the adventure that would put to good use the extended vacation time available.

For several months leading up to this adventure I started training five to ten miles each night and twenty to thirty more twice on the weekend. Being a whole lot younger and in pretty good shape to begin with, this really was not much of a challenge.

Winters in Bavaria, the southern farming district of Germany are quite mild; comparable to Virginia in the United States.  By late April, when the journey started, the days were reaching into the low 80’s occasionally and rain was only an intermittent problem.  So I packed about sixty pounds of gear on the frame of my brand spanking  new fancy French ten speed bicycle and proceeded with the expedition.

The total distance from Augsburg to Inverness, near where Lock Ness begins, was about 800 miles; not including the journey across the English Channel by boat.  Even at 30 miles a day this made for a rather tight schedule and left no room for lolly-gagging, site-seeing, or a margin for any kind of problems that could arise.

To be on the safe side, the first 300 or so miles were aboard one of those precisely punctual German trains.  The rubber really did not hit the road until the Mosel valley where, to my dull taste buds, some of the best sweet white wines in the world are grown.  From this pleasantly buzzed lay over, good time was made across a piece of France and into Amsterdam where a day of recovery and a trip to a 17th century art museum made for a total burying of any care about work or the normal stresses of day-to-day life.

From Amsterdam it was a short boat ride across the pre-Chunnel channel to a little dock just south of London.  Being my first time in London, I learned that the heavy dark dipping vinegar meant Fish-n-Chips are nothing like what we eat state-side.

The rest of the journey up to Scotland was quite pleasant, but it did seem to be getting a bit colder each day.  It was not until I checked into a little bed and breakfast in Inverness that something seemed quite out-of-place and even then I could not quite put my finger on it.


The image and sound of meeting the graying plump Scottish proprietor of that comfy establishment will be burned into my brain until I pass along from this mortal existence.  When I told him who I was and asked to check in for the night he replied with suppressed laughter, “Och ye will be stayin' fur mair than a body nicht loon, an' a trip tae th' sweater merchant will be in order tay!”  The semi-sardonic smile of the lady, whom I later found to be a good cook and his admitted better half, should have warned me for what was to come.

Inverness was a quaint town on a hill, with many old Tudor style buildings and a profusion of steep cobble stone streets still in use.  Resolved, I was, to start my journey early the next morning for the last few miles overland to the start of the Loch.

A mild drizzle was coming down as I biked my way up that hill and reached the crest where the discovery that Inverness is a naturally sheltered harbor and that there were no other blockades between the fierce spring winds on the North Atlantic and my pedaling.  It was not until much later that I found out this particular latitude was only a few degrees south of the arctic circle.  Yet there I was, in early May, going against a forty mile per head wind and it was not just drizzling anymore.

From the crest of that hill, I made only 6 miles the rest of the day.  Most of it was walked, pushing the bike and sixty plus pounds of stuff along. Even with my hi-tech scotch-guarded rain gear, I was soaked through to the elastic in my underpants quite quickly.  The baggy rain gear acted like a wind sock slowing me even further.  The effective temperature had dropped well below the freezing point of water when you factor in the wind chill.

Calm day on the Loch
By night fall, I was no where near my next planned destination for lodging, so I made a little shelter of branches a bit off the road and tried to rustle up some food.  The only way I could keep my can of Sterno lit was to shelter it inside my rain gear.  This provided a cup of much needed hot chocolate and some instant soup to tide me over.  To get any sleep at all would have seemed impossible, but the day had been so physically hard that I slept at least three hours straight.

Venturing forth in the barely visible next daybreak, I found that the previous leg of my journey had been a mere preamble to the real storm that blows through this beautiful landscape in what was still late winter there.  It was about seven miles to the next hotel and I was bound and determined to make it there that night.  Mother Nature had a different plan.  At one point the wind and rain where so fierce that I was literally pushing the bike on my hands and knees in order to reduce the wind drag and minimize my profile against the relentless pounding of the rain.

When the road turned a corner and the powerful wind blowing off the long east-west Loch was sheltered for a moment, it felt as if I were light as a feather.  But then the road would turn back into the wind and the weather would slam like hammers into my face, chest and equipment.

Despite three layers of clothing under the rain gear, every thread was wet within an hour of starting, but at least some insulation from the breeze to my body was provided.  Despite my best efforts when night fall came again, I was still a couple of miles from the next village where arrangements had long since before been made to put up the previous night.  It was not until after midnight that I finally dragged my way into this village with out street lamps or moon light to help me see what was there.

In desperation I knocked on the door of a house with lights on asking for the location of the Inn.  I must have been quite the sight as the lady of the house after looking at me through the curtains called a man to answer.  He gave me a wayward eye and pointed just down the little lane to a dark building and promptly shut the barely cracked door.

As I stumbled up to what I was so fervently wishing to be end of my dreadful day and banged on the door, but no one answered right away.  If you have ever been in a situation where you’re miserable, it’s amazing how easily your manners can “go out with the wind”.  I was not about to go anywhere else at that time of night in such weather so I kept knocking for what seemed an eternity until finally what seemed to be a recently awakened proprietor appeared.

My explanation of being held up and needing a room was met with hesitation to say the least.  At first the gentleman in his robe and slippers took me to be a thief, common criminal, or vagrant at least.  After I dug in my bags and produced my passport and reservation receipt he started to consider letting me step across the threshold into his dwelling.  In his consternation, the master of the inn demanded cash up front and once I had proffered him this payment, he pointedly demanded I change my clothes before I came in as not to dirty his house.  Stripping down to my undies, I stood outside and put on the cleanest, but not dry at all, changes of clothes from my kit available.  At least I was no longer dirty when entering his warm, dry establishment.

Late the next morning, when I arose, the innkeeper was much friendlier and I could tell that he began to see me as a normally strange American. After a good hot bowl of porridge and tea, I resolved to bathe.  Such feelings of ecstasy from a soak in a tiny tub are indescribable unless you too have suffered severe privation and filth upon your person.

The inn proprietor's  kindness in providing me with a weather forecast indicating the next several days would be just like the one before, terminated with his firm recommendation to stay at on at his establishment until the storms passed.  I was discouraged but still seriously considering continuing on even then.  He earnestly pressed that the next village was many miles on and it would be the height of foolishness to travel forward.

Looking out his large wavy glassed window at the Loch, my will gradually diminished until I considered, then resolved to head back to Inverness; putting aside my grand plan to bike the length of Loch Ness and leave that legendary aquatic beast within it unseen.

 Having a tail wind made the journey back quite fast.  In fact I road my brakes the whole way back to Inverness so hard that the brand new little braking rubber’s where worn down to the aluminum by the time I reached the Inverness lodgings again where I was greeted by a smiling "Awrite".

The rest of my vacations travel was chiefly by rail.  I returned slowly to Augsburg , after taking a long ride on the Royal Scotsman around the scenic Scottish highlands and Lochs.  If you ever do go to Scotland, take my word for it; see it through comfort of a glass windowed sleeping car atop two thin rails rather than two thin wheels.  Oh, and be sure you go in August when its warm and balmy.

Friday, December 28, 2012


Vast, quiet complacency
Slow growing gulf
Piling, drifting snow bank
Silence like handfuls of earth
Incremental burial of sunshine
Solitude expands sponge like
Deadening emotion , absorbing life
Physical distance follows emotional death
Icicles form into
En  t   r    o     p      y

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Nail Soup

Sven's home caught fire on Christmas Eve and left him with nothing but a cooking pot to salvage.

Sven went to the village and begged for alms, "We know your kind, if we help you, you will leach off of us forever, go away you bum." was the answer to him at every door he tried.

So Sven hiked to the stream, filled the pot with water, dropped in a large nail from his charred house, and place the pot over a fire he made of twigs and grass.

As the sun broke on Christmas Day, one of the villagers became curious and asked Sven what he was doing.

Sven said "I am making nail soup. It tastes wonderful  although it still needs a little bit of garnish to improve the flavor. Can you help with that?"

The villager exclaimed "If i put in a few carrots in can I have some of the nail soup?"

"Why of course you can." replied Sven and added the villager's carrots to his nail soup.

A gentleman of the village walked by, inquiring about the pot, "Can I have some of your nail soup?"

"The soup might be a little thin." Sven said, "If you have a little salt, that would surely make it fit for any gentleman´s house."

"I'll be right back with some salt if I might have some of your soup!" cried the gentleman and soon returned with a some salt which was quickly put into the pot.

On and on the villagers came as the sun of Christmas Day rose, each providing a little more for the soup in order to taste it.

Soon the broth was thick and its zesty aroma filled the town. And one by one, each in their turn, the villagers shared a bubbling bowl of their common nail soup.

To Sven it was the best Christmas feast he had ever had.

Grandma Eleanor Finstead told me this traditional Norwegian story long ago:

Monday, December 24, 2012

Using Myself Up

The idea of breathing does not enter human thought until about the age of five. Until then, breathing is an automatic function.

Breathing, like the beating heart or walking feet, is known to us through our senses and not our consciousness.

Learning to swim is often a trigger for our initial focus on our breath. When the ability to bring in oxygen to our lungs is hindered by the thick fluid, we suddenly know we want to breathe. 

 Holding our breath gives another automatic reaction to want to breathe more. Most people can only hold their breath for two or three minutes before their body overwhelms their will and the lungs begin to suck oxygen again.

Although we breathe faster as children and slower as adults, we average about seventeen breaths a minute during the course of our lives.

Seventeen times each minute our diaphragm pulls in oxygen and pushes out carbon dioxide. Seventeen times each minute we take a piece of the world into ourselves, extract what we need, and eject the waste.

Countless Billions

Every breath contains about a liter of air.

There are about 600,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (600 sextillion) molecules of oxygen in a single breath of air. There are only about 300,000,000,000 (300 billion) stars in our galaxy.

The amount of material we ingest and reject with each breath is beyond our ability to comprehend.

There is a limited amount of air that we all breathe. In a life time there is high probability that we all breathe the same air that everyone who has lived before us breathed.

Shared Breath

The breath that was in you was in Moses. The breath that was in you was in Stalin. Your breath is my breath, the breath we all share in common.

Learning to measure our breath is a sign of self-control, a means of defining our maturity.  Steadying your breathing can bring calm.

Hyperventilating can bring excitement.

Breath is Life

Breathing deeply is a metaphor of taking in the little joys of life.  Breathing words is to be alive with others.

Breath, like life, is finite; it eventually comes to an end.

When we start breathing we are said to be alive. When we stop breathing we are said to be dead.  Breath is our universal image of life.

Breath Counts

Most animals have about an equal proportion of breaths in their span of existence. Mice breathe faster and elephants breathe slower, but they have a similar quota of breaths from the time they are born until they are alive no more.

The average human breathes just over 40 billion times in their lives.  I have used well over half of mine.  And with each breath, I use me up.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Past As Now

The moment before is gone. We cannot go back to it. Yet we live in a now that is composed of what was and not of what is.

It Takes Time

It takes a long time for the light from a star to reach my eye. Each of the stars in the sky is a different distance away. I see each star from a different time in the past.

The same is true of all the objects around us. We see each part of each object at a different time in the past.

The light itself contains a pattern reflected off the surface of thing perceived. We decode this pattern to construct a sensual experience of the moment, of the now.

Mind Constructs

Our mind constructs a now from the past. The reflections of the light are combined into a now. It is not the now that is, it is our personal internal representation of the now we think is happening.

Imagine I touch your toe with a feather. It takes a few micro seconds for the feeling from your toe to reach your brain.

Now imagine I touch your lip with the feather. It takes less time for the signal from your lip to reach your brain than from your toe.

What if I touch both your toe and your lip with a feather at the same time? We think we experience both touches at the same time. However, this is only how our mind chose to arrange the sequence of events.

 Our brains make it seem like events happened at the same time, even though our brain got the signals of touches at different times.

Memory Sediment

Our memory of the past is a residue of what was. The layers of sediment in a river are the residue of the river. The sediment is where the river was. The sediment is not the river.

Sediment is the arrangement of sand and rock and dirt that were carried by the river. Those pieces left the river of the moment and stayed behind as the river flowed on.

Our memory occurs when we use the now to reflect on the past. The light bouncing off our skin must move to the mirror then be reflected back to our eyes. The light we perceive is of an object in the past, not the now.

Now is Past

Even our experience of the moment now is of the past.

We live in the now, but what we experience is not the now, rather we live in our perception of what happened before.

We live in our idea of the past our whole lives.

I am all that -  What good manners demand - Matter Drifts - Santa's Claws - Past As Now

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Santa's Claws

  • gives bad people coal which burns with the sulfur of hell-fire.
  • expects to be bribed with milk and cookies so he will go away.
  • wears red and black.
  • has a beard and mustache.
  • falls down from heaven.
  • is surrounded by inhuman minions who do his bidding.
  • is obsessed with those who are naughty and nice.
  • has been secretly taking over Christmas.
  • sneaks into your house at the same time as the bogey man.
  • is pulled around by creatures with horns and glowing noses the color of hot sulfur.
  • is fat from gluttony.
  • bearded old men want your children in their laps
  • wants you to covet things.
  • wants parents to lie about his existence.
  • Laplander (Reindeer herders) know Santa as an evil demon who dined on the flesh of children
  • calls each of us a “ho” three times!

But most damning of all... Santa's very name is an anagram for his real identity.

Oh, and have a Merry Christmas Y'all!


Friday, December 21, 2012

Matter Drifts

Hormones built
Genetic silt
Flowing blood
Lustful flood

Desire grows
Filling lobes
Union set
Passion met

Chemical bond
Feeling fond
Psychic chain
Evolved plain

Molecular join
Internal groin
Replicate norm
Pattern form

Mistakes come
Never done
Being change

Thursday, December 20, 2012

What Good Manners Demand

I do not know if on black Friday, the traditional American day of buying stuff to give away on Christmas day, do I say "Savvy Shopping" or "Grateful Giving"?

Once Thanksgiving is past and Advent not yet started, it is not a Holy day so should I not say Holi-day?

If I wish someone a happy Yuletide season am I suggesting they are traditional Germanic pagans or has the 12th century adoption of the twelve day yule festival by some English monks what I am recommending to them?

My Jewish friend, who happens to be in the construction trades, has a birthday on December 25th. Is it wrong to say "Happy Birthday" to him?

Another friend who has common protestant faith that has no equivalent of "Mass" like those of the Catholic do, yet she still attends to her church on Christmas Day to listen and learn. Should I wish her a "Happy Christ Sermon" instead?

On December 26th what is the proper greeting? "Happy Post-Christmas"? "Merry Pre-New Year"? "Oops I gave the wrong gift to Charity"?

I do know that I wish peace and goodwill to all. Patience, forgiveness, and tolerance will help strangers, family and friends more than cookies, gift wrap and standing in lines at a store.

Whatever good manners demand, let me just say that I wish you all the thing that you want to have, the way you want to have it. I hope that you give what you ought and get what you deserve.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Feliz Navidad, Savvy Shopping, and a Grateful Giving season to ALL!

I am all that -  What good manners demand - Matter Drifts - Santa's Claws - Past As Now

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

I Am All That

Perceived motion leads to a belief in separateness
Although to my perspective I am separate and apart from the universe, this view is an illusion.

With each breath I suck in billions of atoms of oxygen, nitrogen, argon, water, carbon dioxide.  Salt crystals from sea spray, microbes that live in the air, dust floating all around me comes in through my lungs.

Billion of molecules come in my mouth when eating and are deposited out the other end of the digestion tube several times a day.  For some reason I prefer to observe about what is coming in this digestion tube more than pay attention to what goes out it.

Sitting in the bathtub, water and soap are absorbed through my skin.  Swelling skin is quickly dried and water and the pieces of me attached to it evaporate into the atmosphere without a notice.

So many millions of cells are shed each day that there is a complete eco-system of flora and fauna in the carpet and bed sheets that feeds on this bodily refuse.

At any moment all of these things are apart of the gathering called “me”.  I am not a single thing, but a collection of many, many things.

The stuff that makes me up at this moment will be different in another moment.  Each trace of time has a unique combination of  particular constituents composing my body.  The oxygen breathed in became carbon dioxide that was breathed out.  The parts of that salad from last night are quickly becoming blood cells, muscles, bone  and other things.   The toenails that pop so far away when cut were once apart of that thing I call me.

Becoming Me
When my cat licked my hand she got not only the faint residue of grease and salt from that yummy hamburger eaten earlier, but also licked and swallowed some of my skin cells.  The cat has part of me in her.

There is only so much water on planet earth, a limited and finite amount of that life necessary molecule.  The water cycle of evaporation and rain means that we share these water molecules in common.  The water in me now could have been in you a year ago.  Since we are mostly composed of water, which molecule of water is truly me or truly you?

Rather than thinking about myself then as a collection of things, it may be more useful to think of myself as a process containing things. Things that we share in common.  Things that are in the universe.  Each element that composes my bodily substance comes into to me, moves about, then goes away. Yet the collection identified as me remains.

I am a therefore a process in the universe, made of different things in that universe at different times.  I am apart of the universe and it is apart of me.

Where does the river begin and end?
Sometimes I dream I am like a  river.  A movement of things in a pattern made mostly of water falling through time and space.  The river is constantly changing but remains a unit.  Its boundaries and parts vary at every instant, yet we still see their assemblage as a whole, as an identifiable thing.

This knowledge of myself as a pattern of things that are within and shared by the universe around me  is both humbling and enriching.  I am apart of all the universe yet only a temporary pattern within its grander existence.  I look up at the stars and know, I too am all of that.

I am all that -  What good manners demand - Matter Drifts - Santa's Claws - Past As Now