Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Way My Brain Works

           Mike handed me his jumper cables and explained carefully how to use them, including telling me how the electricity goes from one car to the other because, he said, if he understands how a thing works – how or why – he is more likely to remember directions.
            But that's not how my brain works. I remember how to use the jumper cables by visualizing the scene – RAV4 on the right, Yaris on the left. Attach red to the dead battery (on the right), then red to the good battery (on the left), then black on the good battery (the left one), then black on the dead battery (on the right). I see it all as I repeat it: red to dead, red to good; black to good, back with black. How and why it works is no help at all. I don't even remember it. I visualize what to do, so I can do it. Words help, too.
            The difference in the way our brains work came up again when we played a game of "dictionary." We found some fabulous words: wittering (a token or hint), twire (to peep out), opsimath (a late learner), ponty-pool (relating to japanned metalware, not, as Mike would have it, the pool of water around the pilings of a bridge, or, as I would have it, the biggest stakes in a gambling game). Later when we tried to recall as many of those words as we could, thinking we might want to keep them in our vocabularies for future use, I was running through the words as they appeared in my mind, visualizing them in the column I had made of them, on paper, after the game.
            Mike said he didn't see written words in his mind. He just remembered them by remembering them.
            But I do. I see the column of words I wrote down. I see where on a page I was when I stopped reading. I see the written word when I want to know how to spell it. I see the jumper cables being put first on one car, then on the other, accompanied by the jingle. It isn't a photographic memory. It's just a visual memory, and it works best with words.
            I asked Mike what he saw when, for instance, there was a December 2016 date and an April 2016 date. How did he know which date came first?
            Okay, that was a dumb question.
          He knew which date came first because April comes before December. Yes, I know that, but I made a mistake recently, when the question was asked me (in circumstances that made it not such a dumb question as it sounds), thinking that December came before April because I see the calendar as a circle in my head: December (spelled out) at the top, April on the extreme right, July on the bottom, and October on the extreme left, the other months filling in the quarters. The year revolves clockwise around that circle. That seasonal calendar ignores the years, only referencing the months according to seasons. Therefore, when the question came up of whether December 2016 came before April of the same year, well, yes, in that calendar in my mind, which shows the months but not the years, December, being on top, does come before April. It's very rational.
            Curiously, this kind of visualization doesn't work with maps. I don't visualize the land as on a map, and I often get east and west mixed up. My internal compass doesn't orient me easily in the landscape, and I get confused. I asked Mike how he knew what was where, and he said he had a map in his head. If my brain can see words on a page, why can't it see formations on a map?

            This way of "thinking" isn't something I consciously decide to do because I think it would be helpful, for instance, to see the calendar as a circle of months or remember words by visualizing them. In fact, it's probably not a good idea, as the December-April example proves, and I see that although I have a rational explanation of why I made a certain mistake, other people can't know the rationale, and I look kind of dumb. Oh, well. I know that the thinking was perfectly rational, and whether it's a good way for the brain to work or not doesn't matter. It's just the way my brain works.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Sin Crops

            The Applegate is going to pot.
           It used to be ranches and farms. When I first arrived, in 1972, the Krauses were still running cattle on Grayback Mountain, herding ten or twelve head twice a year up Thompson Creek Road, not on horseback but from their pick-up. That only lasted a few more years. The Applegate was mostly cattle and sheep farms then, and hay fields.
This is not in the Applegate, but you get the idea.
Farmers would get at least two cuttings of hay every summer. Bales would stand in the cut fields, ready for pick-up. Seeing them always reminded me of a home movie of my mother as a young woman, "helping" with the haying on my grandfather's farm. She is struggling to haul a bale to the truck, laughing, calling out, "Help me!" We can't hear her words, of course, but the shape of her mouth makes the words clear. In the Applegate the smell of dry hay used to permeate the air, as it did on my grandfather's farm.
            Before hay, tomatoes were king. When I arrived in the Applegate, they were just being phased out as the main crop. I worked one summer picking tomatoes at Messinger's Farm, the last commercial tomato field in the Applegate. When tomato was king, the air in the Applegate at harvest, I've been told, smelled like catsup.
            The main crop on my grandfather's Kentucky farm was tobacco. The barn, with its long leaves of tobacco curing in the rafters and its bales of hay stacked on one side, smelled of a rich mixture of tobacco and hay. When we were little and visiting our grandparents, my sisters and I used to jump from the top hay bales to the rumpled piles of broken bales on the floor, sending up poofs of redolent hay dust. After my grandparents died, the farm was sold, the barn torn down, and the fields made into a golf course.
            In the Applegate, after the tomatoes, came the hay and corn, and, more gradually, organic vegetable farms. But if there was an "after tomatoes," there was also an "after cattle and sheep, hay and corn," and what came after was grapes. Hay fields were supplanted by vineyards. Trees were cut down, and grapes went in. Wineries won awards and opened tasting rooms. People began referring to the Applegate Valley as another Napa.
Troon Vineyards, in the Applegate
           Then marijuana became legal in Oregon, and, more suddenly than grapes displaced corn, marijuana snatched up land. Suddenly landlords could raise rent on agricultural lands to such exorbitant levels that organic farmers were forced out.
Three guesses who'll be buying this property!
Suddenly large fences blocked the views of fields along the highway, and we all knew what grew behind them.
Suddenly greenhouses glowed with blindingly bright grow lights for indoor marijuana,
and the smell in the air at harvest in the Applegate was no longer either catsup of years gone by nor hay of recent years but the pungent odor, some say the skunk-like stink, of highly resinous marijuana buds.
            Maybe the Applegate hasn't entirely gone to pot, though. Sheep with their leaping lambs still dot the pasture down the road, and organic vegetable farms still thrive in the Applegate. Still, the money is in the sin crops: wine grapes and marijuana in the Applegate, tobacco in Kentucky.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Hiking with the Feet I've Got

            Last weekend I hiked a new trail that ends, or in my case, begins, just up the mountain from my house. It follows an old mining ditch that contours for miles around the mountains, so the walking is level.
  I walked 14 1/2 miles along that ditch. When I came home, my feet were aching
            My feet had reason to ache. They have a number of problems.
            Problem #1: hallux rigidus: rigid big toe. The big toes don't bend.
           My brother, who also has hallux rigidus, had the surgery that is supposed to fix it, which fuses the bones of the big toe so it doesn't even try to bend any more. The success of the surgery was dubious. I'm not even considering it. My sister told me to stand with my toes on a piece of paper every day, gradually increasing the number of sheets of paper till my toes bend. Never mind that. I used to hang my feet over the end of the bed while I slept because they couldn't stand the slightest pressure, but gradually, over the years, the pain has diminished. I think the bones of my toes have fused on their own. Downhill hiking is still hard, and so is just walking for hours, as I found out on the Layton Ditch trail last weekend. But years ago I told myself that I would stop hiking when the pain was greater than the pleasure. I'm still hiking.
            Problem #2: On the right foot, Morton's neuroma – a sort of pinched nerve on the ball of the foot between the third and fourth toes that feels like walking with a pebble in my foot. On backpacking trips, when I start on a trail first thing in the morning, the pain level is about an 8 on a scale of 10. I tell myself that if I can just put up with it for half an hour, it'll stop hurting. As I walk I remind myself: "It's about a 6 now. Now it's at level 4. Pretty soon it'll be at level 2, and I'll be able to forget about it." It takes half an hour to work that pebble out of my foot.
            Problem #3: On the left foot, a bone spur. This causes the worst pain of all. It splinters with pain, like glass shattering. When that happens I have to stop immediately and take off my boot. Then I stand by the side of the trail, one shoe off and one shoe on, resting my foot like a horse resting with one uplifted leg, until, after a minute or two, the pain abates. Then I put the boot back on and continue my walk without pain – if the Morton's neuroma isn't placing that pebble in my foot and if my boots aren't irritating the hallux rigidus and if my feet aren't getting pounded on a steep descent. And if my bunions aren't hurting, either.
            Buying shoes is a nightmare. Shoes that fit in the toe are too big in the heel and give me blisters. If they fit in the heel, the unbendable big toes won't even go into the shoe. A shoe saleswoman at REI showed me how to tie my boots differently, to take pressure off the toes. 

I tie my boots as tightly as possible around the ankles, but to tie them too tightly worsens the hallux rigidus. It's a balancing act: tight enough but not too tight. I often have to stop and retie my boots. 

            It's a wonder I can hike at all. Hiking poles help. That I can ski is even more of a wonder. I have found ski boots I can wear, but in order for the toes to fit, the boots are slightly too big. In certain conditions that poor fit makes skiing difficult, if not dangerous. Traversing an icy slope, for instance, when the technique is to jam the metal edge of the uphill ski into the ice, step by step, I can force the ski into the ice as hard as I want, but then my foot slips in my boot, towards the downhill side, bringing the ski with it. It's not poor skiing technique. It's the condition of the feet. There is nothing to do but keep stepping and slipping all the way across the slope.
            The pain from the hallux rigidus, Morton's neuroma, and the bone spur is easier to deal with when I'm hiking. I can stop and take off my boots and rest my feet. Or I can always go barefooted.


Thursday, April 6, 2017


            Yesterday I saw a flock of tiny birds emerge from the top of a tree, as scattered as bread crumbs tossed into the air (only much, much higher). They twinkled as they crossed a grey sky softly striated like spun sugar: light, dark, light, dark, like a constellation of stars.
            Twinkled? What is this word, twinkle?
            We know it in stars. Because stars twinkle, we recognize in the word not only something that rapidly changes from dark to light with a shining to it, but also something with a hint of mystery or mischief behind it, something that teases the eye and pleases the imagination.
            A lemon-yellow alder leaf falling slowly through the slanted light of an autumn morning into the swift run of the river below twinkles as it falls, now full-color-forward, now on edge, now broad again, rapidly turning, catching the sunlight, like the light of stars. Like the birds, it is a tease to vision.
            A high mountain lake, gentian blue, twinkles with sparks of silver as a wind sweeps across its surface, stars on a liquid sky.
           The glint and shimmer of metallic paint and glittered surfaces make Christmas tree ornaments twinkle in the glow of the wound-around-the-tree lights. 
         Eyes twinkle, or so we say, equating eyes with stars even though to be starry-eyed is not the same as to have a twinkle in the eye. I think the phrase is more literal than metaphorical, that some thought of mischievousness or joy actually causes the eye to sparkle with rapid movement between light and dark, the visual effect we call twinkling.
            My online dictionary, so conveniently provided by Apple, lists as synonyms of “twinkle” glitter, gleam, and glint; glimmer and shimmer, flicker and flash, sparkle and shine and wink. Except for their absence of mystery and mischief, all these words come close to meaning "twinkle" except for "wink." I take issue with “wink.” You might wink with a twinkle in your eye, but the wink is something you deliberately do, whereas the twinkle is there through thought only, not because you put it in your eye. “Gleam” and “glint” imply a longer shining than “twinkle” does. “Flash” implies a stronger nano-second of light. “Flicker” is a purely mechanical motion with no connotation of mischievousness, as in eyes that twinkle, or of distant mystery, as in stars.
            Twinkle is its own magic.