Listen to the music

Recently, I had the good fortune to get away to Ontario for an extended weekend with a group of guys who play together in a folk band. One of them swims with our early morning Masters’ group, hence the invitation.

Now you need to understand that I am no musician. When pressed, I can pick out a few chords on a six-string acoustic guitar or draw of couple of bluesy tones from a Hohner harp; otherwise, I confess to being musically illiterate. But I hit the skids on a rough stretch lately, and the opportunity to spend several days in the pristine Canadian wilderness was just plain too good to pass up.

Besides, I knew several of the guys in the band peripherally. I had attended a number of their Friday evening gigs at a local restaurant, and when invited, even added my voice impromptu to a few numbers from time to time.

The morning of our departure we met at the home of the lead guitarist, some time between 9:00 AM and noon. (I quickly learned that the only time musicians pay any attention to is metered by an imaginary metronome.) I passed the hours chatting with one fellow in the yard outside. He assured me that everyone in the band was in some stage of arrested adolescent development. As we moved through the weekend, he charged me with determining who was stuck where. (Immediately I thought of Erickson’s developmental stage of identity vs. role confusion.)

Somehow we managed to cram five guitars, a fiddle, a mandolin, a squeezebox, numerous wooden flutes, harmonicas and percussion sticks into the minivan, as well as everybody’s personal gear, two fishing rods and a stack of CDs as high as the leaning tower of Pisa. Intense discussions ensued during the six-hour trek to Kingston. I learned a good bit of the personal histories of my compatriots; some went as far back as early childhood.

After crossing over the Saint Lawrence into Canada, we pulled up at a market in the environs of Kingston to procure sustenance for the four-day excursion. Leeks were among the first foods selected for inclusion in the menu, followed by grapefruit, cherry tomatoes, heavy cream, one raspberry pie, fresh-baked bread, blueberries, a watermelon, two pounds of bacon, two dozen eggs, and several cuts of meat, including chicken and beef kabobs. The bill came to $203 Canadian—not bad for a few days’ grub in the wilderness.

We arrived at the cottage on Big Clear Lake half an hour later. After unloading the van and firing up the gas grill, the boys in the band broke out their instruments and began to jam. Ten or twelve numbers later we broke for dinner, haphazardly cleaned up, then jammed again through the rest of the evening. I lent my voice to these latter numbers: “Midnight Moonlight,” “Margaritaville,” “Sloop John B.” That first night we turned in shortly before 1:00 AM.

The following morning someone put the two pounds of bacon in a huge cast iron skillet to fry. Shortly, the guitars came out; and the boys in the band were off jamming again. We ate, we jammed another hour or two, we made our way down to the lake and swam out to one of the closer islands to dive off the rocks and lay in the sun. Later, we took the canoe and a kayak out for a paddle to the far end of the crescent shaped lake before returning for lunch around 4:00 PM, musician time. More jamming; another swim, then jamming into the evening hours. This time I tried my hand at bass guitar. The boys in the band nodded their approval.

One fellow had brought along a computer printout delineating the times that the iridium satellites would be visible in the night sky. At some point he and I slipped outside to the deck to catch a glimpse of one as it flared overhead.

The following morning we went for another swim, then I had a wind surfing lesson. After struggling with the craft for half an hour, I hoisted myself out of the water onto the dock to watch one of the guys ride the sail-rigged surfboard back and forth across the expanse of lake in the morning breeze. Back at the cottage, we jammed until noon, had lunch, then decided to drive into Kingston to catch the last day of the Blues festival.

From the steps of city hall we watched a young couple—Elyssa Mahoney and Lucas Haneman—perform songs from their new CD Pull Me In across the street under a tent in the open air. After dinner we returned to the square to hear Watermelon Slim bend some bluesy notes from his harmonica with his band. Back at the lake we crashed in the cottage and slept straight through ’til Sunday morning.

We polished off the rest of the grub in a makeshift breakfast of watermelon, chicken thighs, sausages and fresh tomatoes, then jammed the rest of the morning away. I took a stab at the words to “Bobbie McGee,” while three guitars offered up strings of melodic chords. At some point I found a book on the shelf by the door and retreated down to the dock to read.

Out on the lake a loon bobbed in the wavelets, occasionally disappearing beneath the surface. Overhead, a herring gull screeched his greeting in a loud raspy voice. Up the hill behind me the sound of bluesy guitar music drifted down from the cottage deck through the tall stately pines. It was pleasant sitting out on the steps in the sun with the open book on my lap, listening to the tinny rhythms permeate the air.

It had taken four days, but I finally learned to hear to the music again. The skids were gone; once more, I was sailing on the wind. I must say, the harmony was superb.

Brilliant Babies, Brilliant Doctor

An August 15, 2008, article in the Bangor Daily News documents the retirement of Doctor Leonardo Leonidas, pediatrician extraordinaire. After 37 years of practice, much to the chagrin of his patients, Dr. Leo has closed the door to his office for the last time.

Many physicians are sorely missed by their patients when they step down from practice, but Dr. Leo is a bit of a maverick. For most of his career he has practiced as a solo pediatrician. He believes that educating parents is the key to quality healthcare delivery. He has written two books on child rearing and operates an open website for his patients, Brilliant Baby.com.

Dr. Leo counsels parents to indoctrinate their children from a young age with great expectations: achieve a graduate degree before getting married and having children. He firmly believes that children should not be exposed to television before six years of age. He’s currently working on a third book—about pregnancy. Dr. Leo opines that during pregnancy, women should be protected against undue stress, anxiety and other negative emotions to ensure healthier babies, ones less likely to develop attention problems and learning disabilities.

Dr. Leo teaches parents to stimulate the minds of their children from birth. His apple and orange experiment is a case in point. By coupling visual and verbal stimulation, parents can teach infants as young as 4 months of age to differentiate between the two fruits in as little as 7 days. Almost all children can learn to select the right fruit in 2 to 4 weeks.

One of Dr. Leo’s 5-year-old patients, Ciarra, can tie her shoes and read a book, even though she has Down syndrome. Dr. Leo writes: “Early brain stimulation through playing, reading, counting, and other fun activities could make a big difference in the advanced development of all children.”

Perhaps those of us who still practice clinical pediatrics can garner a few insights from Dr. Leonardo Leonidas as well.

Running the Race

My son stopped by my office last Friday over the lunch hour to chat. In the midst of our casual conversation he suddenly asked me if I knew how Steve Prefontaine died. His question took me by surprise. “Where did you hear about Steve Prefontaine?” I asked.

Steve Prefontaine—or “Pre” as he was known by scores of distance runners in the early 70s—at one time held the American record in every long distance race from the 2,000 to the 10,000 meters. Pre was the darling of the distance men. He met his death tragically when the small MGB he was driving struck a rock wall by the side of the road and overturned, effectively pinning him underneath. The weight of the vehicle crushed his chest. Suddenly, at 24 years of age, this living legend belonged to the ages.

“This morning I met a guy I used to run with in high school at the track,” my son said. “He still runs. He had his dog with him. The dog’s name is Pre.”

I googled Prefontaine on my laptop. Together we scanned the Wikipedia entry. I learned a few things. As a high school sophomore, Prefontaine ran a 4:31 indoor mile. During his junior and senior years he ran undefeated. By the time he graduated, Prefontaine had set 19 national high school records in track. He went on to participate in the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, and was preparing for the 1976 Games when he died in 1975.

“He was some runner,” my son said over my shoulder.

“Well,” I said, clearing my throat, “your old man ran undefeated in the mile his senior year, with a personal best of 4:31 for the season. The following year, as a college freshman, I turned in a 4:21.8 indoor mile and placed third at the Middle Atlantic Championships.”

“I didn’t know that, Dad. What happened then?”

“A small intervention called the draft. That was at the tail end of the Vietnam war.”

We were both silent for a moment. Then I said: “It says here that Prefontaine used to say ‘To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the Gift.’”

“Sounds like he was quite a guy.”

“One of the greats,” I said.

The following day Michael Phelps won his first gold medal at the Beijing Games, breaking his own world record in the 400 meter IM swim. The time was an astounding 4:03.84—61 seconds per 100 meters of water.

Phelps has the perfect body for the water—a long torso and a wingspan of 6’ – 7”—perfect form and the drive of a champion. In training, he habitually swims 50 to 60 miles a week. At 23 years of age, he has become a world class athlete at the pinnacle of his career. Phelps is now the darling of the mermen.

Steve Prefontaine, Michael Phelps—athletes in their prime. Pre inspired one generation of runners; Phelps inspires another generation of swimmers.

Yet, like A. E. Housman’s athlete dying young, Steve Prefontaine never had to grapple with fame that fades when records fall to faster runners:

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

Like many world class athletes who spend years in intensive training to realize the goal of Olympic Gold, Michael Phelps will have to wrestle with finding meaning in life after he passes his prime.

Only a select few of us can achieve goals of such magnitude in this life, yet each one of us has been given a race to run, a distance to cover.

I don’t mourn my “what if” days. Thankfully, I somehow managed to channel my athletic energies into other areas and pursue different sets of goals. For me, these days it’s no longer about winning the race. Instead, it’s about learning to pace myself to find meaning in this journey to the finish.

Thoughts on Thinking

A recent BBC News article No Time to Think? delves into the concept of thinking—specifically, how to carve out time during our busy days to actively engage in this philosophical pastime.

A few pointers offered include: use your lunch hour for quiet contemplation; go out for a walk and leave unfinished work at your desk; study water as it shimmers in the light; listen to classical music; write down what’s on your mind to develop your train of thought more clearly; or discuss it with another person, particularly someone who doesn’t necessarily agree with your line of reasoning (the challenge is the thing); unplug the TV or stop listening to the news for a few days; and strive to develop an understanding of the importance of thought. After all, the ability to think is what sets our species apart.

Thoreau allowed that we can recreate our inner man by engaging in active thought. “Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts,” he wrote in the concluding chapter of Walden. “If I were confined to a corner of a garret all my days, like a spider, the world would be just as large to me while I had my thoughts about me.”

This evening I pause to open the back window before climbing into bed. The night air is cool after the recent rains. Sounds of serenading insects drift in through the screen. In the upper corner of the window casing, I see a small spider transfixed in her web. I turn out the light and lie down on soft sheets, mesmerized by the entomological symphony outside.

Weathering the Storm

Here in New England, we recently hit a stretch of hot, humid summer weather. It was unbelievably humid, so humid in fact that I resorted to stepping into the shower just to dry off.

Earlier in the week the heat and humidity gave way to several days of storms. I drove home through one late in the evening.

Up ahead in the blackness, lightning bolts split the sky from top to bottom. Thunder rolled overhead, temporarily drowning out the sound of wipers slapping across the windshield. Rain fell to the earth in torrents. I passed through several stretches where water lay over the road. At one juncture, plowing through one of the deeper puddles, I nearly lost control of the car.

I pulled into my driveway and shut down the engine. Even though I was just yards away, I got a good soaking as I dashed for the back porch.

The following morning, great grey billows of clouds hovered overhead and persisted throughout the day. Although it continued to rain on and off, temperatures dropped considerably.

Today I left the house at dawn and drove down through the cool moist air along the road by the river. Cottony mists lay across the fields. Overhead, the moon hung suspended in a crystal clear sky. The storms had finally passed, taking the unbearable heat with them, leaving only a serene coolness in their wake.

In the interim, I too had passed through several storms of my own. At one point I felt as though I were riding an inflatable life raft, plunging down a deep canyon through churning white water with no paddle to navigate the rapids. In near panic I looked about for help. Finally, it came in the form of a few words from a friend. They were balm to my soul. I rode out the rock-strewn rapids into calmer waters.

In the epilogue to his greatest work, Out of My Life and Thought, Albert Schweitzer wrote: “In my own life, I had times in which anxiety, trouble, and sorrow were so overwhelming that, had my nerves not been so strong, I might have broken down under the weight. Heavy is the burden of fatigue and responsibility that has lain upon me… But I have had blessings too: I receive from other people affection and kindness in abundance…and I can recognize whatever happiness I feel and accept it as a gift.”

This morning the coolness on my cheek is refreshing; it feels good to be alive.