Sunday, August 29, 2010

Alaska!! Humpback Whale in Icy Straits

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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Almost to Angoon: An Alaskan Adventure

No one wore fur parkas or big boots when we got on the plane in Seattle, like I half expected. We were headed for Juneau and, after all, it was August. Still, I had my rainproof coat and a few layers of fleece stashed in my bag. We were headed for a weeklong cruise in the Inside Passage, and the cruise company had urged us to consider rain gear and even long underwear. Good advice, I learned later on.

Glaciers were on our destination, and even Glacier Bay, which is a 45 mile long fjord that was filled with a huge glacier just two hundred years ago, and some glaciers there were even growing, despite global warming.

When we got to Juneau, it was raining. Typical for late August, we learned. The rainy season of nine months begins the day after the Fourth of July. Still, the downtown dock area was overrun with tourists from four giant cruise ships, and half of them seemed fixated on the dozen diamond stores on the main street. Never mind that Alaska doesn’t exactly have too many of the world’s diamond mines. But, it does attract tourists on big cruise ships, and I guess that diamond stores go hand in hand with tourists fresh off the big cruise ships, the casinos and the formal dress for dinner crowd.

We were headed for a different adventure, and the big attraction to our ship was the presence of two wildlife biologists on board, and a professional wildlife photographer. My camera was safely stashed in my daypack, along with a half dozen extra memory cards, and a telephoto lens. My favorite binoculars were also there, lenses cleaned and ready to spot the anticipated sightings of whales, sea otters, eagles, and whatever other sorts of wildlife we would spot during the next week.

We wandered around town a bit, taking in the superb Alaska state museum and the local museum. We had a close encounter with the memorabilia of the Klondike gold rush, the oil boom, and even saw the pen used by President Eisenhower that made Alaska a state. The whale ivory gavel that convened the territorial and the first state legislatures was also in reach of this eager history buff. No big cruise ship tourists here. They must still be at the diamond store.

An hour after we got underway and were safely out of sight of the cruise ships at the Juneau docks, we saw our first pod of humpback whales, cavorting in the drizzle. We got amazingly close to them and my camera was happy to get some good shots of these creatures, which seemed to take delight in blowing out gallons of sea water, which announced their arrival on the surface.

In the days ahead, we would see more of these creatures, gracefully arching over the surface of the water, and proudly displaying their tails. Each tail is apparently unique, and veteran whale watchers can quickly identify individual whales in the pod. One afternoon, several even breached for us, almost flying fully out of the water before crashing down with all their weight. My camera shutter nearly overheated when that occurred.

The next morning found us nearing a glacier in Tracy Arm, a 25 mile long fjord carved out of three thousand vertical feet of granite. A thousand feet of that rock was missing below us, as we headed to the end of the fjord, to take in yet another glacier. It was a drizzly morning, which seemed to accent the rich deep blue of the toe of the glacier, just before large chunks would calve off with a loud cannon blast crack and fall into the sea, creating a sizeable wave that would rock our boat in a few minutes. We were a quarter mile away from the glacier, yet the mile long face of the glacier seemed almost close enough to touch.

Getting a perspective on size in this place proved to be the most challenging task of the trip, I was to learn. I’d been on a similar voyage to Prince William Sound and also experienced Denali National Park, and had the same problems with perspective and distance there. Mt. McKinley was easily three times the size of any mountain I’d ever seen before. I think the real meaning of the word “Alaska” is “enormous”.

We stopped to admire several sizeable waterfalls gushing down from the granite cliffs, allowing all of the photographers on board, which was nearly all of us, to fill our photographic bellies with all the waterfall shots we could imagine. Some folks went out in dinghies and were able to literally take close up photos of the waterfalls.

The late afternoon was spent sailing out of Tracy Arm into Frederick Sound, and a sizeable glacier up on a ridge, its end a thousand feet of vertical ice, about two thousand feet above the water, didn’t even gain a comment from the crew. It was a “hanging glacier” and apparently they are quite common in these parts. We in the “Lower 48” would be making one of those into a destination resort and advertising the heck out of it in all the travel magazines. Here, not even worth more than a footnote in the travel guide. What people did comment about was that the drizzle and rain had ended and we saw the sun.

In Alaska, a spot of blue sky is called a “sucker hole”. It’s a promise of sunshine, but only a promise and the idea is that the true Alaskan doesn’t expect the sun to come out when a bit of blue sky appears. I suppose this is the “glass is half empty” view of life, but in this rain forest between the warm Japanese current and the mile high “coast range” mountains, it is probably the logical perspective on the weather.

The next morning brought us into Wrangell, a town of barely a thousand souls who were all devoted to fishing. The harbor had only a few boats in, as there was a short salmon season going on and nearly everyone was out to sea. A crew of women helped the ship dock. They all wore pink hardhats and commented that all the men in town were out fishing and they had work to do. No slackers in this town.

We got on a jet boat where Capt. “Little John”, who was a mere seven feet tall, whisked us at warp speed across the water and the mudflats of the Stikine River. He skillfully guided us through the meanders of the river delta, pointing out eagles, old trees, and old river channels. Soon, we were on our way up river, taking in waterfalls, cliffs, and stopped on a beach, where he nonchalantly pointed out moose and wolf tracks in the sand. I took pictures, secretly glad I wasn’t face to face with the makers of the prints on the tiny island.

He pointed out a sign nailed high up in a tree, warning people of traps. A trapper has a duty here to warn folk that he is trapping the area. He apparently didn’t use a ladder to climb the tree, either, as snow here gets thirty feet high, and the river freezes five feet thick in ice. I’m cold enough in the drizzle and flying along the river at twenty miles per hour. I can’t imagine what it’s like at 20 below.

We make a hard left and flew up a tributary, soon navigating through ice bergs clogging the river. Some of them had melted enough so that they “flipped”, showing the icy gravel and mud the glacier had carved out of the canyon upriver. I reached out to tough the icy smoothness, satiny in the midday sun. My camera went into overdrive again, taking in the light shining through the ice, and the reflections on the slow moving stream. The walls of this gorge were only a thousand feet high, hardly enough to comment on. And, of course, another waterfall, falling a good eight hundred feet over glacier polished granite. The waterfall didn’t even merit a name.

When we got back into town, we had enough time for a quick walking tour of downtown Wrangell, all four blocks of it. The hardware store was literally the general store and Home Depot of Wrangell, carrying every plumbing, electrical and fishing boat part you could ever need. No jewelry stores here, but then, the big cruise ships can’t find a spot in the fishing harbor, either. The espresso stand near the docks did a lively business, and we took advantage of a good latte to warm us up after the jet boat ride to the glacier.

We did make our requisite tourist purchase of T shirts, and the clothing store dedicates a portion of their space to tourism, amidst the aisles of serious fishing rain gear and boots. In Alaska, the boot de jour is an “Ever Tough”, a sturdy mid calf rubber boot. Even the June brides are known to wear them under their gowns, so that their feet stay dry during the outdoor ceremonies.

That afternoon, we wound our way northward through the Wrangell Narrows, a curvy narrow path between two islands, with about a hundred navigational markers. Fishing cabins dotted the shore, and everyone here has a boat to get around. On Mitkof Island, there is a road, which leads to Petersburg. It’s the only road out of town, and Petersburgians call it “the road”. When you travel the road, you “go out the road”. I’m not sure it even has a name. It is the only road, you know. So, why give it a name?

We anchor overnight at the northern end of the Narrows, watching the sunset and enjoying the peace and quiet of the water once the engines shut down. A few fishing boats motor past, headed for port and hopefully they have a lot of salmon to unload at the fish buying station in the harbor.

Petersburg was started by a Norwegian by the name of Peter, surprisingly. The area reminded him of Norway, and the glacier on the island was an easy supplier of ice for the fish processing plant he built. Soon, other Norwegians came, and their desire to remember their homeland culminated in the building of the Sons of Norway hall on pilings next to the harbor. The next morning, we went there, for coffee and Norwegian pastries, and a wonderful exhibition of Norwegian dancing by a number of kids in the town. The dancing has become quite the activity in town, and is now open to every kid. The dancing and the “Norwegian-ness” of the place goes into hyper drive in May, as everyone dresses up as a Norwegian, or maybe a Viking, and celebrates Norwegian Independence Day.

After my fill of pastries and watching the dancing, I head off with a fisherman’s wife and good Norwegian for a hike through the rain forest. Thirty of us plod down the trail, which, of course, starts at a wide spot on “the road” about fifteen miles out of town. We take in the huge Sitka spruce, Sitka alder, and the tall thorny Devil’s Walking Cane. I’d tangled with that when I was a kid and its name is well deserved. Well, it turns out, it is a valuable plant. It’s related to ginseng, and has medicinal qualities that help with arthritis and the healing of wounds.

On our way back, we stop to wander through muskeg, which is a peat bog. The soil is poor here, sphagnum moss and a few other small plants. When you walk on the muskeg, you create a wave in the “soil”, which is really more water than soil. Small trees struggle to survive and I am amazed when our guide says the shrub like trees are three hundred years old.

Our hiking group is the last to straggle onto the ship and we sail north again, then west, headed for Sitka. We take the back route to Sitka, finding a narrow passage at the north end of Baranof Island, the home island of Sitka, named after the Russian who founded the town and moved the capital of Russian American from Kodiak to Sitka. He had to fight the local Tlingits, who kicked out the Russians for three years, until the Russians finally prevailed at the Battle of Sitka.

Alaska proved too much for Russia, drained by losing the Crimean War and the exhaustion of the sea otter fur trade with the Chinese Emperor. Russians also didn’t adapt to the local diet, and their hunger for potatoes and wheat was left unsatisfied in the Alaskan agribusiness economy of the 1800s. The Czar sold Alaska to the Americans in 1867, as a way to get some cash, get out of Alaska, and to strengthen the Americans against the interests of the British, the Russians’ long term enemy.

That afternoon, we see humpback whales again, “tailing” as they dive deep, looking for krill and other food. Several of the whales breach, flying out of the water and creating a tremendous splash. There are several theories for why they do this, but the one I like is that they simply do it for fun.

During dinner, we quietly motor into a cove, and come to a peaceful stop. In the fading light of the day, we look at seven black bears, snacking on salmon struggling upstream to spawn. The sunset is stunning, after yet another drizzly day, and we again marvel at the simple delights this area offers us. No Princess or Holland America ships here, as the quiet evening air carries the grunts and snorts of the bears, and the splashes of the salmon in the shallow stream.

The next morning, we slowly enter the harbor at Sitka. There are at least five fishing boat harbors and I later learn that Sitka has more miles of boat docks than roads. It makes sense, as, once again, this is another town where there is simply “the road” out of town. To really go anywhere, there is the Alaska State Ferry System, called the Marine Highway, or the airport. There is a daily flight to Seattle, and another one to Anchorage. There’s simply the “morning flight” and the “afternoon flight”. Everyone in town knows the destination, but it’s really only either “morning” or “afternoon”.

Our first stop is a visit to the local Tlingit cultural center. This is a huge cedar lodge in the middle of town, built inside the boundaries of the Russian fort. Tlingit folks couldn’t live in the town, or in the fort, and had to live “outside”. Now, they are making a comeback with their culture, and proudly teach their children their language, their dances, and their cultural values. We watch in delight at a young boy dancing and crying out as “Raven”. We are invited to join him and the other dancers, and soon, I am dancing to the Tlingit drum and listening to the boy speak in Raven.

We take a brief tour in the Sitka National Park, which commemorates the Battle of Sitka, and see more salmon spawning, and some amazing totem poles. Then, we saunter back to town and take a walking tour of the area, learning about real life during the times of Russian America, and Mr. Baronof’s Tlingit wife and his Russian wife back home in St. Petersburg.

Feelings run long and deep here. When the centennial of the Alaskan Purchase was held in 1967, the town council wanted to erect a bronze statue of Mr. Baronof. The topic was hotly debated, and the night before the statue was dedicated, someone sawed off Mr. Baranof’s nose, necessitating a quick repair.

We end the tour at the Russian Orthodox church, with its “onion dome” and the cross with the extra, tilted, bar. Unlike other Christian missionaries, the Russian Orthodox priests learned the local languages, and began to teach local natives how to read and write in their native languages. Their languages were used in the Church liturgies and hymns. Their respect and interest in local cultures endeared them to the Tlingits, who were receptive to joining the church. Later, when I got back to Juneau, I found a CD of Russian Orthodox liturgies and hymns, sung in Tlingit. I wonder if I could find that online at iTunes?

The biggest industry in Sitka is health care. There is a big Native American health clinic and hospital here, as well as the Pioneer Home, which is a retirement home for Alaskans who can’t afford their own care in their old age. The Pioneer Home is the nicest building in town and has the most beautiful landscaping, as well.

This was a huge mobilization center for the Army during World War II, and the airplane hangars built then are now the home for a boarding high school, as well as the local campus of the University of Alaska.

We ran into a tour group of the boarding high school students, who come from all over rural Alaska, and learned they can’t go to the hilltop site where the Russian flag was lowered when Alaska was transferred to the United States. It’s now the place where folks go to get drunk, and is not a proper “hang out” for the youth of the town.

We leave Sitka and retrace our steps through narrow passages around Baronof Island, on our way to Glacier Bay. The rain sets in again, and even the Captain admits we are having a “squall”. The next day, we anchor in an inlet and go exploring in rubber dinghies. We get soaked to the skin, of course, but it is nice to get off of the ship and get a feel of the area. The shorelines are interesting, with lots of kelp and starfish. I am numb now, and it takes a change of clothes, two new layers of fleece, and three hot cups of hot chocolate and coffee to bring me back to “lukewarm”.

That night, I wake up to see the lights of what looks like a thriving community on the shore of a nearby island. Angoon is its name, at least from what I can tell on the map. Mostly Tlingit folk there, and I use my proximity to civilization to send a few of my cell phone photos to family and friends, via the cell tower of Angoon. I may want to come back here, and be able to tell folks I went to Angoon. The next town up the strait, is Hoonah, and I may want to visit here, as well. Guaranteed there’s no McDonald’s or WalMart.

The next morning brings us to Glacier Bay. When Capt. Vancouver was here in the 1770s, the glaciers had filled up the bay, and he sailed right past the place, noting that there was just a huge glacier on the side of Icy Strait. Now, the glacier has retreated 45 miles, and the area is a national park. The Tlingits around here used to live in the valley in Glacier Bay, before the last advance of the glaciers took out the soil and the forest, and deepened the area into a bay.

When John Muir was here in the 1890s, the glaciers had retreated about 20 miles, and his description of the place got Teddy Roosevelt interested enough to declare the area a national monument. The Tlingits still claim an interest here, and how this place is managed and how that debate will end up will be an interesting question.

As we enter the park, a park ranger and a Tlingit guide both board the ship. The Tlingit lady brings her elk hide drum and the ranger brings her violin. We are treated to their music and their collective passion for the beauty and spirituality of this place.

As we move into the bay, we spy a large pod of sea otters. They were exterminated by the Russians, but have made a comeback here, with transplants from survivors in the Aleutians in the 1970s. There are 5000 sea otters here now, and their presence has rebalanced the ecology of the bay, bringing kelp and star fish and, now, otters, into their natural balance.

Later on, we see more humpback whales, and glaciers. Yes, more glaciers than our biologist guides care to name. We wake the next morning in front of two of them, at the head of the 45 mile long bay. One glacier, its toe black with gravel and dirt, is, at first glance, not worthy of bearing the title of glacier. But, it leads back at least fifteen miles. Two miles “up river” on the glacier is the international boundary with Canada, and somewhere around here, within two miles of the Gulf of Alaska, there is Mt. St. Elias, a 15,000 foot peak, noteworthy even by Alaska standards.

Another glacier is huge, and its size is incomprehensible from our vantage point, five miles away. It comes into view as we take a jag around “Jaw Point”, which is named for the jaw dropping that occurs when one first sees this astonishing wonder.

Later on, we approach a beach, where two grizzlies, called “browns” around here, lunch upon a whale, beached here four months ago. They seem oblivious to our approaching ship and the increasing roar of camera shutters, as they snack, and then wander back into the brush. Several sailboats approach, drawn to our presence and the crowd of passengers on the bow. They, too, bring out their cameras and their binoculars, in awe of what wonders lie ahead of us on the rocky shores of Glacier Bay.

We head back down the bay, pausing to circle what our guides call “Bird Island”. On the map, it is called “South Marble Island”, a rather bland description for a place jam packed with Stellar sea lions, pigeon guillemots, puffins, and kittiwakes, all crying and, in the case of the sea lions, bellowing. It is quite a sight, and the camera shutter roar is equally intense.

The weather is lifting and even the occasional “sucker hole” appears. I pause to take off a layer or two of fleece, though my hands are still numb from the morning at the glacier, where the cold rain turned to sleet for about a half hour. I keep reminding myself this is August, but then, this is also Glacier Bay. There was fresh snow on the mountain near one of the glaciers we saw this morning, the first snow of the season.

At the mouth of the bay, we stop again at the dock by the visitor’s center, to let off our ranger and our Tlingit guide. The Captain gives us an hour and a half ashore, and we tumble off the boat, eager to stretch our legs in the welcome warmth of the sunny afternoon. We head off down a nature trail, and my camera is attracted to the quiet reflections of the ponds in the forest, and the spruce trees with Tlingit art carved into the bark.

We buy a few T shirts at the visitors’ center, and see the waitresses on our ship enjoying cheeseburgers in the cafeteria. They, too, seem to welcome a few hours away from the ship and the chance to be ashore in what the sign says is “Gustavus, Alaska”. That’s a long A on “Gustavus”, thank you very much.

That night, our guides give us a slide show of the photos they’ve taken of us as we have taken in the beauty on this trip. Our faces reveal our emotions of awe and amazement, and our joy at the beauty and wonder of nature in this amazing area. Sadly, we head to Juneau and the five “big cruise ships” now tied up to the pier there, and the dozen jewelry stores, pandering the “wonders” of Alaska.

Juneau and Southeast Alaska are different than the rest of Alaska. Still independent, and still adventurous. But, they are more isolated here than folks in Anchorage and Fairbanks. There are no roads to anywhere, except after a ferry boat ride of at least several hours. “Out the road” says a lot about this place.

Even Sarah Palin didn’t want to be around here very much. When she was Governor, she didn’t live in Juneau, and left vacant the Governor’s mansion on the hill, with its four large white columns, the Governor’s totem pole overlooking the Inside Passage, and the remains of Joe Juneau’s gold mine on the side of the hill at the other end of town. There are two great coffee shops and delis within a few blocks of the State Capitol, with great coffee, and great pastries. Both are good places to sit and sip a freshly made latte on a drizzly day, and meet some great people. If Sarah and her clan had taken the time to really live here, and be part of the people of this wondrous area, perhaps she’d still want to be Governor. After all, how cool would it be to have a house with a totem pole in the front yard?

We walk around town again, saying goodbye to Juneau and goodbye to Alaska. The Tlingits don’t have a word for goodbye, but use a phrase meaning “until we see each other again”.


Sunday, August 8, 2010

Getting Well

By Neal Lemery

I had work to do, I realized, as I lay in my hospital bed in the intensive cardiac care unit. I’d had a heart attack two days before, and I knew I was close to dying when I looked into the eyes of my long time doctor and good friend.

He’d driven me to the emergency room of the local hospital, after I spent a sleepless night with what I thought was back pain. I’m 57 and my dad had his first heart attack at age 59 and his last one a year later. Oh, I’d been trying to eat right, exercising, and taking my anti-cholesterol medication for quite a few years, but I knew the genetic clock was ticking quietly and steadily in the background of my life.

Last month, I’d had my annual physical, including blood work to check on my cholesterol. I passed with flying colors. I’d been exercising a bit, too, and eating pretty sensibly. Still, I felt kind of run down, sluggish. In the last few weeks, I felt pretty punky, just not myself. I blamed in on the winter blahs, and a mild cold. But, the last few days, I’d been short of breath, and then, the day of my heart attack, I thought all the pain was some strained back muscles. Boy, was I wrong!

Today, I was having heart surgery. They called it an angioplasty, but step one was running a wire up through my femoral artery into my heart and having a look inside. If I was lucky, my three blocked heart arteries would be reopened with metal mesh stents, the same technique that President Clinton had had a few weeks earlier.

Or, they’d cut open my chest and replace the blocked arteries with arteries in my leg, and hopefully I’d make it out of that process alive.

But all the amazing medical science I was experiencing here in one of the region’s finest and most advanced cardiac care hospitals wouldn’t really matter unless I did my part. It was either step up to the plate and swing my bat the best I could, or I could choose to wither away and probably die.

I’d seen my second choice about six years ago, when I watched my mother quickly fade away, deciding that she didn’t want to live, and certainly didn’t want to take the initiative to be in charge of her own life. She was 86, and could have lived another ten years or so, like her mother. But, instead, she found every reason not to exercise, or eat right, or involve herself in daily life so that she could be an active, thoughtful person, the person I had known as my mom for all of my life.

I’d seen a number of people come out of the hospital after a heart attack, and steadily slide downhill, becoming depressed and more frail, giving up on life. And, I’d seen others who had taken the bull by the horns and were healthy, energetic people, enjoying life and making a difference in the lives of others.

Even in intensive care, I was able to order my meals off a menu. And, I was amazed to see a cheeseburger and fries on the menu. Really? In the coronary care unit? My nurse shook her head when I mentioned this anomaly. But, she said, a lot of patients want that kind of food, even while they are waiting for their heart surgeries to repair their arteries, clogged with the cheeseburger and fries kind of diet.

I opted for the salads and the salmon, knowing that the least I could do before my own heart surgery was to give my body a little fish oil, and leave out the bad cholesterol. The doctors and the nurses were certainly doing their part here, and I could at least be a member of their team.

For many years, I’d known that the mind-body connection was essential to good health and good healing. My spirit needed to be engaged in this battle, and without my mental and spiritual commitment to recovering and healing, I was dramatically increasing the odds of me not coming out of surgery. Leaving my wife as a widow tomorrow was not a viable option.

And, I had stuff to do. A lot of stuff. I enjoy my job as a judge in my community, using that seat on the bench to do some good things for people, and stimulate a lot of healing for folks dealing with family crises, addictions, and violence. My work there was not done, and I have a few more years left there before I retire.

Equally important to me is the work I have to do in the rest of my life. I have poems to write, essays and probably a few books that aren’t down in print yet. And, those creations of my heart and soul need to see the light of day. It’s taken a lifetime for me to get to the point of having the experiences and the wisdom to say the things that I think I need to say to the world, before I leave here.

And, my guitar needs more work, and I have a lot of songs to sing and a lot of songs to write. And, the empty canvasses in my shop need to have me cover them in paint, too. My camera hasn’t taken all of my photos yet, either, and, of course, I have more trees to plant.

We had a trip planned to Alaska this summer, and I had promised one son I’d come to California to see his new house. My to do list was pretty long and had some exciting things on it. And, there were some items to add to the list, like fly fishing, and writing songs, and getting better playing my guitar.

So, it really boiled down to me that early morning, do I live or do I die? That really isn’t the heart surgeon’s call, though I had certainly relying on his expertise. I’d signed the consent form, giving him permission to roam around my heart with his wire, and do his amazing work to get my heart fixed up again.

But, I needed to negotiate my own consent form, giving myself permission to get on with life, to be an activist in healing my body, and becoming, once again, fully alive. Being the lawyer that I am, I started outlining the terms of my own informed consent form. Doing what the doctors ordered, exercising, eating right, and having the right mental attitude were the essential terms of this new contract. And, working on my “to do” list of my life was right up there, too.

And, I knew I wouldn’t keep up my end of the bargain unless I built in some rewards. I knew myself well enough that I needed the carrot at the end of the stick. Otherwise, I’d find the excuses not to do my work. And, the consequences of that breach of contract wouldn’t involve a lawsuit. It would result in a dramatic decline in my health, and, sooner than later, my death. I knew what it meant to me when my dad died at age 60, leaving me a 20 year old college student adrift in the world.

I didn’t want to do that to my sons. They are older, but the early death of a dad is a real blow to a young man’s sense of well being in this crazy world. And, I wouldn’t want to do that to my wife. She is in the full bloom of her retirement and we had too many things to do on our collective to do list.

The surgery went amazingly well, and I woke up feeling astonishingly great. So great that I first had thought I’d died. I felt the surge of oxygen in my body and my brain, and my heart was beating strong. It wasn’t all the “happy drugs” I’d had that morning, either. It was the proverbial new lease on life.

God and my good doctor and his wonderful surgery team had given me a new chance at life. I decided to accept their offer and get on with it.

As soon as my nurse would let me, I was out of bed and shuffling down the hall. OK, the first stroll was 50 feet long, and I was pooped. But, I rested up and after an hour, I took another stroll, making it a bit farther. A few hours later, I was making it to the end of the ward and back, and a nurse held up a sign promising a new pair of bed socks if I made another trip. I took her up on her offer and she laughed.

I learned all about my new drug regimen, and settled into the daily routine. Most of what I take are vitamins and aspirin. I learned that vitamins D and B6 are crucial to good heart health, as well as flaxseed oil.

My wife has helped me get back to the local Y, and I am now proudly doing 40 minutes a day on the treadmill, and lifting weights. I walk a lot, and have given up the lazy approach of using the elevator at work.

And, I’ve indulged myself. I bought myself a new iPod, and zealously load it up with my favorite music, using my workout time to enjoy my songs, and listen to podcasts of some great shows on NPR, the ones I’ve always wanted to listen to, but have used the excuse of not having the time. I’m not shy about buying new workout shoes when they start to wear out and go “flat”. And, I have new sweatpants and a nice pair of ear phones. The carrot and stick approach works for me. I know that, and I accept that. It is money well spent.

I keep a daily journal of my health. I weigh myself every morning, and take my blood pressure. I wear a pedometer, and I write down my workouts. I’ve lost a lot of weight, and that is an irregular line on a chart. I don’t lose weight steadily and sometimes, I hit a plateau. But, I am the tortoise in this race, and my slow and sure work has let me drop four inches on my waist, and I have had the pleasure of a spending spree on new clothes.

The hour of working up a sweat has become a sacred time for me. On my daily calendar, which can become chock full of projects and meetings, that hour is my first priority. Without my good health, I won’t be able to do anything else on the schedule, so it really is number one for me. And, it’s really my hour. I have my music or a good program on NPR, or simply have some peace and quiet while I work up a sweat and take care of my body. It is a spiritual time, a time of contemplation, and, strangely, a time of rest from the chaos and demands of the rest of the day.

No one can bug me during that hour. And, the headphones have a good way of deterring people from talking to me or asking me a question when I am on the treadmill or pumping some iron. It is really “me time”, and I treasure it. And, when I don’t keep that appointment, I feel sluggish and I am grumpy.

Sometimes, I take that hour and don’t go to the Y. Sometimes, I head out to the beach, or go for a walk in the country near my house, or walk around town during the lunch hour. Or, if I am at a conference, I take an hour to work out, settling myself into my routine of exercise, making sure I take care of myself. No one else will. This is my job. And, I certainly don’t want to be sued for breach of contract!

But, then there is food. Unlike a lot of the other addictive things one can fall into, but also can make the decision to completely avoid, I still have to eat, nearly every day. Well, three times a day for me. I love food. But, it’s more than love or even nutritional necessity for me.

As a kid, food was comfort and a way to escape some of the traumas and uncomfortableness of childhood angst and family dynamics. And, because one of the family rules is that you had to clean your plate, if I heaped my plate full of comfort food, I didn’t have to talk much, and I got more comfort. And, more comfort eating bought more silence from me, and when I needed more comfort, I ate more.

So, I was a fat kid. I thought I wasn’t any good at sports anyway, so being fat and withdrawn from other kids kicked the eating wheel into high gear, and I ate more, got fatter, and felt more miserable being fat and socially isolated. Thus, more food was needed.

I tried to break the cycle a bit in high school, and was pretty successful in college. Still, the twin demons of comfort and “clean your plate” sing a quiet medley in the background every time I sit down for a meal. It can be a catchy tune, and sometimes I realize I am humming it without really thinking.

But, now I have to think. The cardiologist told me to lose thirty pounds and be serious about it. Otherwise, the medications and the new stents wouldn’t really do much good, not in the long run.

I’ve tried a new tact now, not only chasing away the twin demons of comfort and “clean your plate” with my knife and fork, and practicing eating small portions. I’m no dummy and I’ve been reading a lot about nutrition these last few years.

There are other demons around, as well. The corporate food industry has dumped tons of high fructose corn syrup into much of the ordinary, everyday foodstuffs, like canned vegetables, ketchup, and a host of other foods you wouldn’t think needed sweetening. And, I know for myself, when I eat high fructose corn syrup, one bit, or one serving isn’t nearly enough. I want more. A lot more. And, I know that eating cycle all too well. I don’t need anything else in my life that makes me want to “clean my plate” and want more.

And, a lot of our food has a lot of added salt, which helps raise my blood pressure, and leaves me wanting more food and liquid. Not too surprisingly, the liquids you buy at the store, not only the pop, but soup and juice, also have high fructose corn syrup and added salt. We only need a quarter teaspoon a day. Most “servings” of prepared food has at least that much. But, salt makes us thirsty and makes us eat and drink more. Good for the corporate food industry, but not so good for my arteries!

MSG is another ugly food ingredient, which, at my current age, gives me a lot of itching and twitching, sometimes half way into the night, not to mention some nasty headaches. It has a lot of other names, too, including hydrolyzed yeast, gelatin, calcium caseinate, monosodium glutamate, hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP), textured protein, monopotassium glutamate, hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP), yeast extract, glutamate, autolyzed plant protein, yeast food or nutrient glutamic acid sodium, caseinate, autolyzed yeast, vegetable protein extract, senomyx (wheat extract labeled as artificial flavor). It doesn’t exist in nature, either, and if I buy fresh, wholesome food, I certainly don’t need this “flavor enhancer”.

So, I’ve tried a new mindset, and it seems to be working for me quite well. I am looking at food and the whole daily eating game as a form of spiritual communion. For me, food is now energy and sustenance, on all levels, from the Universe. It is akin to the vitamins and prescribed drugs from my doctor. Everything that goes into my mouth is limited to what is “prescribed”, what is to be viewed as spiritual sustenance and energy.

If it is grown in nature and has only healthy, organic, truly nutritional “stuff”, then I can eat it. If it’s highly processed, contains manufactured chemicals and is altered by the corporations, then it’s not medicine for me. It is poison.

I’ve become one of those shoppers who only shops around the edges of the grocery store. I avoid the processed food that occupies all of the middle aisles, including the canned food, the “salt” aisle, and the “sugar” aisle. Instead, I stalk the produce section, and take my pleasure in finding real taste with organic vegetables, whole grain bread and grains, and the more flavorful, raw items that are becoming popular.

I shop for taste, now, and real nutritional value. And, I eat that way now in restaurants, too. Even in the chain restaurants, I’ve learned to substitute the fresh fruit cup for the hash browns, and leave out the fried breakfast meats, or the heavy sauces and white flour products. I hunt out the healthy choices on the menu, and I’ve learned to advocate for my diet and my own nutritional needs.
I’ve cut way back on eating red meat, too. A lot of red meat has hormones and chemicals, and is grown on feedlots. And, the fat in those meats is literally deadly to me. Oh, I still have a steak once in a while, or a hamburger, but I limit myself to buffalo, or grass fed beef.

I feel good about all this, as I’m supporting healthy ranching practices, and I’m taking care of myself, too. And, like most Americans, I’ve been eating way too much meat anyway. Our ancestors ate very little meat, and either grew or gathered their meals from their gardens, the prairie, or the forests. Politically, I even feel I’m doing my part to fight global warming, and not supporting bad agricultural practices. For my analytical brain, it’s a good re-enforcer to this new attitude of mine.

Not that I don’t have a life or that I don’t indulge once in a while. A few days ago, I took myself on an adventure in the city, riding the light rail train and being a city boy. At the mall at the end of the track, I bought myself a double scoop of ice cream, enjoying the treat on a warm summer’s day, savoring being the boy inside of me on the way back on the train. The ice cream shop made a point of advertising the ice cream as organic. Oh, sure, there was sugar, but none of the high fructose corn syrup, and it was a treat for a special occasion.

I treat myself to a glass of red wine every evening, or a scotch and soda. A lot of the research says that is good for my heart, and well, I do enjoy a drink at the end of the day with my wife, talking about our days and having a life with the woman I love. Life needs wine and roses.

I really try to listen to my body now. If I have a craving, then I listen for what it is I want. And, then, being the good steward of my body, I feed my body what it needs. But, that doesn’t mean grease and sugar. Often, when I think I’m hungry, I’m really just thirsty. So, I drink some water, or get some tea or decaf coffee. If I’m still hungry, I’ll have a healthy snack, or listen to myself, to see if there is a nutritional craving that signals a nutritional need.

I surprise myself sometimes, not wanting to clean out the bread basket at a banquet, and even passing it along without taking a roll. I almost always turn down the desserts, as they really never taste as good as they look, and I know they are usually loaded with high fructose corn syrup and white flour. If I’m going to splurge, I save my tastes for things that are really good and wholesome. And, almost always, not giving in is always worthwhile, especially when the bathroom scale keeps showing lower numbers, and I get to buy skinnier clothes.

I still want something sweet at night, and I always replenish my stash of high cacao dark chocolate. Some stores hide it in the baking section and one store thinks it needs to be in the organic snack section. Whatever. I’m becoming a good scrounge in the grocery stores. A nibble of that often ends my cravings, and the cacao has a high level of anti-oxidants. And, for the sweetness in my life, I make a cup of wild sweet orange herbal tea, with a healthy teaspoon of honey. The tea, and the honey satisfy my craving for sweet, and the honey has some of the anti-oxidants that are good for me. Again, it is looking at what passes my lips as needing to be nutritious and caring for my body’s needs.

There are benefits at the gym, too, and I’ve been increasing my speed on the treadmill, and I feel myself feeling stronger and healthier. The stairs at work don’t steal my breath anymore, and I just feel a whole lot better. The last time I saw my cardiologist, he grinned at my story of success and said he didn’t want to see me until next year. If eating better and enjoying tastier food is what I need to be doing, then this whole diet regimen isn’t all that bad!

Friday, August 6, 2010