Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Mountains, friends.

I have a deepening relationship with the mountains of New Hampshire. Casual acquaintance with a few well-known peaks-- Lafayette, Cardigan, Monadnock-- began during childhood, when my folks arranged low-budget (and often very damp) family camping trips to scenic spots up north. But my real affection for the mountains started in 1997, when I was a harried intern. That year, I set out to climb all of the summits in New Hampshire over 4000 feet, of which there are 48. Before too long I had visited all of them once, some more than once. I became able to stand on any summit and name most of the others in view. I saw little-known sides of popular mountains, much the way a friend may glimpse sides of you that the public doesn’t see.

Mostly, however, these mountain-friendships were of the fair-weather variety. The mountains played gracious host to sunny-day tea parties and picnic excursions drawing, besides me, crowds of the well-heeled from Boston and elsewhere. The mountains' parties were usually quite well-attended, and I rarely had private time with the hosts. Sometimes I would show up early, or linger late, in hopes of developing a more intimate relationship.

After a while, just out of persistence, I tried visiting in the winter. At first, this felt like showing up unannounced and unexpected. Would the mountains welcome company at that season? Would they even answer the door? Would I be interrupting something? Would they yell and chase me off? Sometimes, yes, these things happened. “You forgot your snowshoes!!?”, one might scream, “Get off my porch! Go home!” But gradually, the welcome improved. Not to say the mountains would drop what they were doing when I showed up, but I learned better how to join in and play along. A friend might answer the door saying, “I’m on the phone with my mom, have a cupcake”, or, “Great, I need to move my bed upstairs, you can help”, or, “I’ve had the crappiest day, you’re not going to believe this…”, or run past you soaking wet wrapped in a towel saying, “Sorry, no hot water, you can come in but I can’t deal with you right now.” The mountains seem to do similarly, and by going back again and again you begin to learn their deeper personalities.

Yesterday, I dropped in on Zealand Mountain, a peak without a lot of outward charm and rarely visited except out of politeness. This visit, however, I found Zealand full of personality, engaged in a fierce argument with a blizzard. The wind screamed, snow whipped horizontally, she seemed angry and too busy to stop for my visit. There was nothing I could do to help her, and we shouted just a few words to each other before I ran off. But I got to see how the mountain behaved in that situation, and what it looked like covered in snowdrifts as high as my waist. And if the mountain has a soul-- and it might-- it knows that I bothered to visit on a very dark day.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Things I Love To Do With My Cat

This is a list of things I love to do with my cat, Jake. Admittedly, I stole the concept (though not content) of this list from S.’s list of "Things I Love To Do With My Dog". But it's a whole different species, you know. So here they are:

  • Leading him around the house with the string-on-a-stick toy. Enticing him to work up unsafe speeds of chase and crash into furniture.
  • Rolling him over and counting the spots on his belly, poking each one as I count.
  • Putting a stuffed octopus toy on his head, with tentacles hanging down on all sides, and watching the mad look in his eyes as he tries to determine what’s happening.
  • Watching him dozing in the shade of the crabapple tree in the back yard, on a warm summer afternoon.
  • Engaging him in a participatory theatrical production re-enacting the day we met at the animal shelter, eight years ago.
  • Throwing him over my shoulder like a sack of rice, and walking from window to window looking for birds or squirrels.
  • Laughing at his feeble attempts to be “stealthy” around the house-- ears poking over a table edge, tail hanging around a corner-- and questioning aloud whose body parts I might be seeing.
  • Describing to him things that he is too short to see (“I’m looking over the fence, and there are twelve sparrows playing in a puddle in the parking lot.”)
  • Referring to Rules for Cats as if there are many of his kind in the house (“No cats on counters. No cats allowed to drink from the toilet. No muddy paws in bed. Etc.) Implying that I would make an exception for him if I could, but that would be unfair to all the others.
  • Carrying on prolonged conversations in cat-language, trying to appear confident that I know exactly what I’m saying. And always trying to have the last word.
  • Coaxing him to get up his courage to enter “the cave” under the sheets in bed.
  • Curling up nightly to sleep with his nose tucked under my arm.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Reality less exciting

Top three vehicles believed by my patients to be what their doctors drive:

1) Mercedes Benz (by far the most frequently mentioned)
2) Cadillac
3) Rolls-Royce (distant runner-up)

Top three vehicles actually driven by doctors I know:

1) Subaru
2) Volkswagen
3) Old pickups of various flavors

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Keys to adventure

At one time, I led bike in Utah and Colorado for city kids from back east. I used to tell my kids that the key to leading an adventurous life was the willingness to eat anything put in front of them and use any bathroom they found. I think I still believe that, though I only eat goat cheese if absolutely necessary.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The end... the end... the end... the

Last night, S. and I played several dozen ends of chess games. These came from a book called "Practical Chess Endings", a faded, pre-Bobby Fisher-era volume written by a Russian master sometime around the Cuban missile crisis. According to the blurb on the back, the author's chess writing is "full of humor and amusement". Judging by my lack of laughs in reading his book, I imagine I would not have found the Soviet Union a very funny place.

We started with the minimalist scenarios, each involving two kings and one pawn. Despite the apparent simplicity, however, the paths to finality were hazy. We had to play each one several times, moving the pieces, rewinding, and restarting, before the right way to end things became clear. It felt like living the last minutes of life over and over and over.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Question for Readers

A question for my readers (all three of you can answer, if you want):

Suppose you could ensure that all your desicions would lead to happiness, simply by interviewing other people who had already made the same decisions and taking whichever route had made them happy. Would you do it? In other words, would you be willing to trade your originality for eternal happiness?

Friday, February 11, 2005

1% Vermont

After a snow-bound night in a crappy motel, I stopped in this morning at an independent bagel shop en route to work. There was a little sign on the cash register: "99% OF OUR SUPPLIERS ARE MAINE-BASED. (1% VERMONT)"

I love New England. Most Americans probably lump Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont into one conglomerate image of covered bridges and red barns. We know differently-- each Northern New England state has its own personality, and its own priorities, and knows very well that the others are just not as good (we won't even mention the southern New England states). 1% Vermont may be all a real Mainer can tolerate-- just about the right percentage to add a little flavor. The rest of the country tolerates 1% maple syrup "Log Cabin" concoctions on their pancakes. 1% Vermont may be all anyone can stand. It's too pure to take it straight.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005


Each morning at the hospital, en route to my morning meetings, I pass through a hallway lined with consumer art ("consumer" being the PC term for “person with a mental illness”). These paintings and drawings were, I believe, purchased from their producers (or consumers? whatever) when our new building opened last spring. I'm not sure just how mentally ill you had to be to participate in this art-buy-up. The pieces vary considerably in sophistication; some are pretty good. Often I look at the works and try to envision the type and severity of mental illness experienced by their artists.

One piece stands out: a large, sketchy pastel of a small, ketch-rigged sailboat. It's under full sail, lightly heeled away from the viewer, moving along at what looks like a pleasant speed towards the top-right of the frame. The boat’s name on the transom reads “PASHON”. The weather looks lovely. A couple, both fuzzily-rendered but friendly looking, sit to windward on the cockpit coamings, their backs to us. He has a light hand on the tiller, facing forward. She's looking back at him. Unlike so many sailing couples, they appear relaxed.

The picture doesn't show much technical refinement—perhaps high-school art quality. But it impresses me in spite of that, because it joyfully captures the sense and essence of a sailboat under way. It makes a sailor smile. There are none of the clichéd inaccuracies typical of stylized sailboats drawn by landlubbers-- no jibs attached at the wrong edge, sails trimmed flat amidships, masts without stays or shrouds. No, this one was drawn by someone who had spent a lot of time around boats and knew which details were important. Or was copying it out of a boating magazine (but I prefer not to think so.)

So for months I've been wondering about this person, and his (or her) interest in sailing, and his mental illness, and where these things intersected, and what effect they had on each other. And I thank him for reminding me, every day, that there's more to life than what I do in this building.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Chillin' with toast

Just left an anxiety-producing meeting, full of reports of worrisome patient behavior, and stepped into the staff break room. Someone had been making toast in there, and the lingering aroma took my blood pressure down about 15 points. Wouldn't it be a good idea to waft the reassuring smell of toast onto the unit now and then, to calm everyone down? What others smells would work well for this? Please leave suggestions.