Where to Search

photo by Josh Scholten

“A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.”
Kathleen Norris

I remember well the feeling of restlessness, having an itch that couldn’t be reached, feeling too rooted and uneasy staying in one place for long, especially if that place was my hometown.  I knew I must be destined for greater things, grander plans and extraordinary destinations.  There exists in most human beings an inborn compulsion to wander far beyond one’s own threshold, venturing out into unfamiliar and sometimes hostile surroundings simply because one can.   It is the prerogative of the young to explore, loosen anchor and pull up stakes and simply go.  Most cannot articulate why but simply feel something akin to a siren call.

And so at twenty I heard and I went, considerably aging my parents in the process and not much caring that I did.  To their credit, they never told me no, never questioned my judgement, and never inflicted guilt when I returned home after the adventure went sour.

I had gone on a personal quest to the other side of the world and had come home empty.  But home itself was not empty nor had it ever been and has not been since.

There is a Dorothy-esque feeling in returning home from a land of wonders and horrors, to realize there is no place like home.    There was no way to know until I went away,  searching, then coming home empty-handed, to understand home was right inside my heart the whole time.  There was no leaving after all, not really.

So I’m here to stay–there is no greater, grander or more extraordinary than right here.  Even when I board a plane for a far off place, I know I’ll be back as this is where the search ends and the lost found.

My head now rests easy on the pillow.

Green Wet Trembling June

“Green was the silence, wet was the light, the month of June trembled like a butterfly”.
Pablo Neruda

We may be three days into summer but aside from the date on the calendar, it would be difficult to prove otherwise.  It is unseasonably cool, the skies stony gray, the rivers running full and fast, the ground peppered with puddles. Rain fell in torrents last night, hiding behind the cover of darkness as if ashamed of itself.   As it should be.  Then a mid-afternoon thunder and lightening gully-washing storm passed through and completely drenched my drying laundry on the clothesline.

Enough is enough.

What all this moisture yields is acres and acres of towering grass growth, more grass than imaginable, more grass than we can keep mowed,  burying the horses up to their backs as they dive head long into the pasture.  The Haflingers don’t need to lower their necks to graze,  choosing instead to simply strip off the ripe tops of the grasses as they forge paths through five foot forage.   It is like children at a birthday party swiping the frosting off cupcake after cupcake, licking their fingers as they go.  Instead of icing, the horses’ muzzles are smeared with dandelion fluff,  grass seed and buttercup petals.

June tends to shroud its promise of longer days under clouds in the northwest.  Outdoor weddings brace for rain and wind with a supply of umbrellas, graduation picnics are served in the garage and Fathers’ Day barbeques under tent canopies.  There is a wary anticipation of solstice as it signals the slow inexorable return of darkness from which we have not yet recovered.

So I tremble as I splash through the squishiness of June,  quivering like a wet butterfly emerging from its cocoon ready to unfurl its wings to dry, but unsure how to fly and uncertain of the new world that awaits.  In fact the dark empty cocoon can look mighty inviting on a rainy June night or during a loud mid-day thunderstorm.   If I could manage to squeeze myself back in, it might be worth a try.

After all, there is no place like home.

Council of Clowns

“Coyotes have the gift of seldom being seen; they keep to the edge of vision and beyond, loping in and out of cover on the plains and highlands. And at night, when the whole world belongs to them, they parley at the river with the dogs, their higher, sharper voices full of authority and rebuke. They are an old council of clowns, and they are listened to.”
N. Scott Momaday in “House Made of Dawn”

On early summer nights like this, with light just fading from the sky at 10 PM, it will be only a few minutes before the local coyote choristers begin their nightly serenade.   This can be a surround-sound experience with coyote packs echoing back and forth from distant corners of farmland and woodlands below the hill where we live.  Their shrill yipping and yapping song, with hollering, chortling and hooting, becomes  impossible to ignore just as it is time to go to sleep.  Like priming a pump, the rise and fall of the coyote ensemble inevitably inspires the farm dogs to tune up, exercising their vocal cords with a howl or two.  It becomes canine bedlam outside our windows, right at bedtime.

Coyotes send a mixed message:   they insist on being heard and listened to, yet are seldom visible.  In a rare sighting, it is a low slung slinking form scooting across a field with a rabbit in its mouth, or patiently waiting at a fence line as a new calf is born, hoping to duck in and grab the placenta before the cow notices.   They are not particularly brave nor bold yet they insist on commanding attention and ear drums.

Irritating not only for their ill-timed concerts, they also have a propensity for thieving sleeping chickens from coop roosts in the night.  Despite my disgust for that behavior, I have to grudgingly admire such independent self sufficient characters.   They do know how to take care of themselves in a dog-eat-dog world, primarily by eating whatever they can get their jaws around and carry away, no matter who it may belong to.

I can just envision this old council of clowns gathered around giggling and sniggering in the dark at their own silly stories of the hunt.   As I listen from a distance, sometimes just a few yards, sometimes miles, I wish to be let in on the joke.

Just once I want to howl back, plaintive, pleading, pejorative–another bozo adding my voice to the noisy nocturnal chorus– hoping somebody, anybody might listen, hear and join in the laughter.

Learning the Hard Way

photo by Nate Gibson

“There are three kinds of men. The ones that learn by reading. The few who learn by observation.  The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”
— Will Rogers

photo by Nate Gibson

Learning is a universal human experience from the moment we take our first breath.  It is never finished until the last breath is given up.  With a lifetime of learning, eventually we should get it right.

But we don’t.  We tend to learn the hard way when it comes to our health.

As physicians we “see one, do one, teach one.”   That kind of approach doesn’t always go so well for the patient.   As patients, we like to eat, drink, and live how we wish,  which also doesn’t go so well for the patient.  You’d think we’d know better, but as fallible human beings, we sometimes impulsively make decisions about our health without using our heads (is it evidence-based?) or even listening to our hearts (is this what I really must have right at this moment?).

The cows and horses on our farm need to touch an electric fence only once when reaching for greener grass on the other side.  That moment provides a sufficient learning curve for them to make an important decision.  They won’t try testing it again no matter how alluring the world appears on the other side.   Human beings should learn as quickly as animals but don’t always.  I know all too well what a shock feels like and I want to avoid repeating that experience.  Even so, in unguarded careless moments of feeling invulnerable (it can’t happen to me!), and yearning to have what I don’t necessarily need,   I may find myself touching a hot fence even though I know better.   I suspect I’m not alone in my surprise when I’m jolted back to reality.

Many great minds have worked out various theories of effective learning, but, great mind or not,  Will Rogers confirms a common sense suspicion: a painful or scary experience can be a powerful teacher and,  as health care providers, we need to know when to use the momentum of this kind of bolt out of the blue.  As clinicians, we call it “a teachable moment.”  It could be a DUI, an abused spouse finally walking out, an unexpected unwanted positive pregnancy test,  or a diagnosis of a sexually transmitted infection in a “monogamous” relationship.  Such moments make up any primary care physician’s clinic day, creating many opportunities for us to teach while the patient is open to absorb what we say.

Patient health education is about how decisions made today affect health and well being now and into the future.  Physicians know how futile many of our prevention education efforts are.  We hand out reams of health ed pamphlets, show endless loops of video messages in our waiting rooms, have attractive web sites and interactivity on social media, send out innumerable invitations to on-site wellness classes.  Yet until that patient is hit over the head and impacted directly– the elevated lab value, the abnormality on an imaging study, the rising blood pressure, the BMI topping 30, a family member facing a life threatening illness– that patient’s “head”  knowledge may not translate to actual motivation to change and do things differently.

Tobacco use is an example of how little impact well documented and unquestioned scientific facts have on behavioral change.   The change is more likely to happen when the patient finds it too uncomfortable to continue to do what they are doing–cigarettes get priced out of reach, no smoking is allowed at work or public places, becoming socially isolated because of being avoided by others due to ashtray breath and smelling like a chimney (i.e. “Grandma stinks so I don’t want her to kiss me any more”).  That’s when the motivation to change potentially overcomes the rewards of continuing the behavior.

Health care providers and the systems they work within need to find ways to create incentives to make it “easy” to choose healthier behaviors–increasing insurance premium rebates for maintaining healthy weight or non-smoking status, encouraging free preventive screening that significantly impacts quality and length of life, emphasizing positive change with a flood of encouraging words.

When there is discomfort inflicted by unhealthy lifestyle choices, that misery should not be glossed over by the physician– not avoided, dismissed or forgotten.  It needs emphasis that is gently emphatic yet compassionate– using words that say “I know you can do better and now you know too.  How can I help you turn this around?”

Sometimes both physicians and patients learn the hard way.  We need to come along aside one another to help absorb the shock.

Gernumbli gardensi Infestation

She lingered in that charming little garden to say hello to the gnomes, such a glorious infestation!  How few wizards realize just how much we can learn from the wise little gnomes-or, to give them their correct names, the Gernumbli gardensi.
‘Ours do know a lot of excellent swear words,’ said Ron…
J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

It is hard to say exactly when the first one moved in.  This farm was distinctly gnome-less when we bought it, largely due to twenty-seven hungry barn cats residing here at the time,  in various stages of pregnancy, growth, development and aging.  It took awhile for the feline numbers to whittle down to an equilibrium that matched the rodent population.  In the mean time,  our horse numbers increased from three to seven to over fifteen with a resultant exponential increase in barn chores.   One spring over a decade ago,  I was surprised to walk in the barn one morning to find numerous complex knots tied in the Haflingers’ manes.  Puzzling as I took precious time to undo them, literally adding hours to my chores, I knew I needed to find the cause or culprit.

It took some research to determine the probable origin of these tight tangles.  Based on everything I read, they appeared to be the work of Gernumbli faenilesi, a usually transient species of gnome preferring to live in barns and haylofts in close proximity to heavy maned ponies.  In this case, as the tangles persisted for months, they clearly had moved in, lock, stock and barrel.   The complicated knots were their signature pride and joy, their artistic way of showing their devotion to a happy farm.

All well and good,  but the extra work was killing my fingers and thinning my horses’ hair.  I plotted ways to get them to cease and desist.

I set live traps of cheese and peanut butter cracker sandwiches, hoping to lure them into cages for a “catch and release”. Hoping to drive them away, I played polka music on the radio in the barn at night.  Hoping to be preemptive, I braided the manes up to be less tempting but even those got twisted and jumbled.  Just as I was becoming ever more desperate and about to round up more feral cats, the tangling stopped.

It appeared the gnomes had moved on to a more hospitable habitat.   I had succeeded in my gnome eradication plan.  Or so I thought.

Not long after, I had the distinct feeling of being watched as I walked past some rose bushes in the yard.  I stopped to take a look, expecting to spy the shining eyes of one of the pesky raccoons that frequents our yard to steal from the cats’ food dish.  Instead, beneath the thorny foliage, I saw two round blue eyes peering at me serenely.   This little gal was not at all intimidated by me, and made no move to escape.   She was an ideal example of Gernumbli gardensi, a garden gnome known for their ability to keep varmints and vermin away from plants and flowers.  They also happen to actively feud with Gernumbli Faenilesi so that explained the sudden disappearance of my little knot-tying pests in the barn.

It wasn’t long before more Gardensi moved in, a gnomey infestation.  They tended to arrive in pairs and bunches, liked to play music, smoked pipes, played on a teeter totter, worked with garden tools, took naps on sun-warmed rocks and one even preferred a swing.  They are a bit of a rowdy bunch but I enjoy their happy presence and jovial demeanor.   I haven’t yet heard any bad language as we have a “keep it clean” policy about bad words around here.  They seem quite hardy, stoically withstand extremes in weather, and only seem fearful when hornets build a nest right in their lap.

As long as they continue to coexist peaceably with us and each other, keep the varmints and their knot tying cousins away,  and avoid bad habits and swear words, I’m quite happy they are here.   Actually, I’ve given them the run of the place.  I’ve been told to be cautious as there are now news reports of an even more invasive species of gnome,  Gernumbli kitschsi, that could move in and take over if I’m not careful.

I shudder to think.  One has to consider the neighborhood.

I wrote this for Father’s Day two years ago in honor of my father, Henry “Hank” Polis, and it is every bit as true now as it was then. I also wrote about another “project” of his here: https://briarcroft.wordpress.com/2009/02/08/branching-out/ and about his service as a WWII Marine here : https://briarcroft.wordpress.com/2009/11/14/coming-full-circle/ He’s been gone nearly 17 years and when I look at his 47 years young face in these pictures, I am in awe at what he accomplished through sheer muscle, will, stubbornness and determination. I’m a lot like him, if you subtract the sheer muscle. Emily

Barnstorming

In acknowledgment of Father’s Day, I pulled out a particular photo album that chronicles my father’s 1968 backyard project.   This was no ordinary project, but like every other project he took on, it was accomplished during the daylight hours after he got home from his desk job and then consumed most of his weekend waking hours.  He had been dreaming it up for a number of years, and then one day, grabbed a shovel and simply got started and didn’t quit until it was finished.

He was determined to build a full size swimming pool, by himself, with his own two hands.  He did use our little Farmall Cub tractor to blade away the first layer of topsoil, but the rest of the digging was by the shovel-full.   He wanted a kidney shaped pool rather than a rectangular one, so he soaked the wooden forms in water to form the…

View original post 341 more words

Raising the Lodged

After death, willing or not, the body serves,
entering the earth. And so what was heaviest
and most mute is at last raised up into song.
Wendell Berry

When abundant grasses in our hay field were hit hard with heavy rainfall today, they collapsed under the weight of the moisture.  Thousands of 3-4 foot tall tender stems are now lodged and flattened in undulating waves of green, bent over as if to embrace the earth from which they arose.  If the rain continues as predicted this week, the grass may not recover, unable to dry out enough to stand upright again.  It is ironic to lose a crop from too much of a good thing– heavy growth does demand,  but often cannot withstand, a quenching rain.  The grass simply keels over in community, broken and crumpled, unsuitable for cutting or baling into hay, and will melt back into the soil again.

However–if there are dry spells amid the showers over the next few days, with a breeze to lift the soaked heads and squeeze out the wet sponge created by layered forage–the lodged crop may survive and rise back up. It may be raised and lifted again, pushing up to meet the sun, the stems strengthening and straightening.

What once was heavy laden will lighten;
what was silent could once again move and sing with the wind.