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Gunshot: A Cautionary Tale

I blame gun culture: in the news, in TV shows and movies, in games. I’m just another stupid American with a gun. To be clear, there was nothing wrong with what I did; just with how I did it. It’s three days this morning, and my hearing still isn’t right. It’s much better—but not all that much. MFC was right, I never should have fired that second shot. It turns out one gunshot can do permanent damage.

Now that I understand what I actually did to my ears, I am even more chagrined. With one violent act I brought instant karma down on my poor ears, and I blame the normalization of guns in our culture. Because they never show, in news of mass shootings, of cop killings or cop killers or ‘stand your ground’ murders, in movies with wild west gunfights, gangsters, or the mob—they never show a shooter stop to put in earplugs or pull down their earmuffs, no, they just whip out a gun and start shooting. Like an elk hunter suddenly attacked by a bear—even bow hunters carry a gun for that, just in case.

So that’s what I did. Whipped out my gun and took a quick shot to the ground behind the last of the two big dogs patrolling my east fence like they owned it. I’m tired of these brutes, who have troubled me and Stellar at the end of our own driveway, charged across the road into our space menacing me and my decrepit old dog. I yelled at them and shooed them away a couple of times before we just quit walking to the mailbox.

I know they’ve been around all winter, I’ve seen their tracks in the snow. But I couldn’t be sure it was them until the other morning, when I saw them both trotting along just outside the yard fence, in the heart of my safe zone, the very woods I walk for peace and solace with my tender cat. I decided to give them a piece of my mind.

And mind only. It was never my intention to hurt one. Like I’ve seen Chris and Dave fire their guns into the dirt to break up a dog fight (and even they didn’t stop to put in earplugs) I pulled out my .357 revolver, braced it on the deck railing, waited until the second dog was just past the south fence, and shot downward well behind it. I never heard or saw the dogs after that—well, I didn’t hear anything for awhile, but I didn’t see them run off so don’t know if they got the message, but I assume so.

I certainly got the message: guns are incredibly loud. It’s not like on TV. You really do have to stop and don ear protection, even for just one shot, if you don’t want to wreck your hearing. In my foolish, spontaneous urge to teach those rogues a lesson, I forgot everything I ever learned in the few shooting tutorials I was given years ago (all of which included ear protection). The kick alone could have knocked me over: I hadn’t braced nearly enough, and I’d done it all wrong. I know what a powder burn is now, too. I got one on my left thumb along with a cut from bracing too close to the barrel. 

I only took the second shot to do it right—well, also to drive the point home with the marauders. I held the gun straight out, sighted well away from my face, braced the base with my left hand just the way I was taught, took my time to aim at the plastic dogloo in the pen, a big fat target, just to see if I could hit it. I didn’t. It wasn’t as loud as the first shot when I’d had my elbow bent, my ear twice as close to the gun. It somehow escaped me that I also had half the hearing I had before. And I didn’t think to put in earplugs the second time, because it didn’t occur to me that I could be doing permanent damage.

A simple explanation of the complex, miraculous process of hearing is described here. 80 decibels is considered loud. Hearing loss can occur with sounds above 85 dB. Last night, falling asleep, I remembered a party at the home of a former boss in the Park Service. At his frequent parties, he routinely played Pink Floyd at top volume on huge speakers, likely well over 100 dB, and that night his little girl came in her pajamas into the living room, crying because her ears hurt. He told her to go back to bed. I learned years later that she had eventually gone deaf. The 165 dB shockwave my pistol produced for 2 milliseconds was the equivalent of working a jackhammer for a forty-hour week without ear protection.

A bomb can register more than 200 dB, well beyond the threshold of “deadly shock waves.” Weeks of exposure to bombs and gunfire… I cannot imagine the trauma of sound shock alone on the people of Ukraine, those who survive the bombs and artillery assaults. Contemplating with painful compassion how any war causes such unutterable suffering. 

I am in the throes of Temporary Threshold Shift. Immediately after shooting, every sound was deeply muffled, as though I had a down comforter stuffed in my ears from both outside and in. For the next two days, my own voice sounded like I had a mouth full of custard. External sounds are gradually improving but I still can’t hear myself clearly. At rest, my ears burble with the faint sound of water boiling in the next room. 

My poor stereocilia are still recovering from their traumatic flattening, and here I’ve been talking on the phone, listening to music, watching TV, zooming for work, further assaulting my inner ears for most of my waking hours the past two days just trying to force things back to normal. It’s time for a break. At least one full day of silence, no talking, no music, TV only with closed captioning if I watch it at all. A great opportunity for a silent retreat, reading the book club selection, appreciating nature. This could take weeks to heal, if I’m lucky.

I’m optimistic. I just blew my nose and my left ear whistled. That could be a good sign. Let’s pretend it is. And outside, I can hear bluebirds faintly chirping as they fly over, and the whoosh of raven wings. I’m grateful for these sweet subtle sounds, and the silence that surrounds them.

Adaptability

Next week it’s my birthday! I’m so grateful just anticipating that I’ll get to have another one! Dawn was going to come over for a birthday dinner and puzzle night. We had it planned for weeks. She was kind enough to agree to isolate for four days prior to our date, and we both planned to take rapid antigen tests shortly before she came over. But because of my high risk factors for Covid, and the Omicron surge, and the fact that we both were, unavoidably, around unmasked people in confined spaces four days ago, and the recent suggestion that the rapid tests may not be as reliable for Omicron, we adapted to a plan B.

I roasted a chicken with garden carrots and some sweet potatoes, and steam-sautéed some garden green beans from the freezer. She baked shortbread. She delivered the cookies and picked up a box of dinner and a new puzzle, and drove the couple miles back home. Then, we zoomed together for dinner, put away our dishes, and opened our puzzles. It was almost as good as being in the same space working on the same puzzle–not quite, but almost. The camaraderie was still there, the quiet focus on the puzzles interspersed with meaningful conversation.

The virus sucks. The ignorance that facilitated and perpetuates the Covid crisis sucks. I feel profound compassion for the healthcare workers who are overwhelmed because of the sheer stupidity of a staggering number of humans. It’s my patriotic duty to stay healthy and well. Given that this is the world we live in for now, I’m grateful for adaptability, and for the ongoing tolerance and acceptance my friends show for my super high risk threshold.

Queer Eye

One vestige of my darker days, the framed photo of James Van Der Zee’s Prohibition Era poster, top left. But see how she is surrounded by light?

I’m going to tell you a horrible story, about a young man who sings on the subway to supplement his income. I know it’s true because I heard it from the relative he told it to. He makes a meager wage at a day job, and he’s talented. So he’s been singing on the subway for a few years. He tested positive for Covid the other day, and he kept on singing on the train.

“On the platform?” I asked, “or on the train?” As if one were better. Which it might be.

On the train–in the cars!” she shrieked. My first thought was, You should turn him in! She went on to say that she told him, “That’s unconscionable! You should be arrested!”

And I went on to think, with snap judgment and barely a shred of equanimity (but notably, with some compassion): No wonder New York City cases have exploded. Because that one naive young man, pursuing his dreams oblivious to the stark reality of this ongoing pandemic, probably infected dozens if not hundreds of innocent subway riders, many of whom may have infected 3 or more others. Our busker was a super-spreader event all by himself. Like potentially thousands, or millions, of other people across the country, either oblivious to the truth or arrogantly “done with Covid,” as my cousin proclaimed he would be once ski season started.

Ski season started, and a week later he found himself symptomatic, awaiting results of a PCR test. Did he have it, or was it just a cold? (That’s another thorny existential worry these days, for another day.) I’ll probably never know; I doubt he’d admit it. And there’s fuckall I can do about any of this ignorance.

This came in a text just now, synchronistically articulating my perspective. See more satire from Brittlestar.

So that’s my rant for the day. Sleazeweasel wants me to give outrage and gratitude “equal consideration.” He worried when I seemed stuck in gratitude for a whole year. I don’t think he’s been paying attention! Brilliant though he is, he seems to have missed the essence of my personal gratitude challenge: I was mired in outrage and despair for most of my adult life. My personal gratitude epiphany saved me, gave me back the joy and meaning of my youth, when everything that happened was a new gift. Now I understand what Brother Steindl-Rast was talking about. Having practiced focusing on gratitude instead of humanity’s dark side, immersing myself in gratitude for an entire year, I brought some balance to my perceptions, gaining the capacity to hold light as well as dark, to see reality through a less distorted lens. Gratitude has helped me achieve the equanimity I’ve been seeking for decades.

Meanwhile, I’m grateful for SNOW! More than we’ve seen at one time in a couple of years, I think. I was grateful to wake up alive, and find deep snow at last; grateful to see sweet does bedded down under the junipers just beyond the patio. Grateful for good neighbors of any species, and greeting one gliding by on skis in the drifted driveway.

Grateful for cheesos, a simple, delicious hot lunch after arduous maintenance shoveling and brushing…

And finally, I’m grateful today for Queer Eye, a ‘season interrupted,’ now back on Netflix. The first episode was shot in March 2020, and lockdown prevented the final act, so that was filmed in May 2021. The featured mother’s father had died, as well as her daughter’s husband. (In a weird way, the pandemic has presented a global ‘Compassion Challenge’–let that take off on social media!)

The transformation of Terri was profound and complete. The Fab 5 had given the family tools to heal relationships and weather their own brutal challenges just in the nick of time. Yet another feel-good series from the loving heart of gay culture to lift everyone’s spirits. I’m grateful for satire, laughter, gay men, snow, compassion, equanimity, and seeing truth clearly, among many other things in this new year.

Diagnostic Imaging

Amy reminded me that I may not have mentioned popcorn yet: I’m grateful for popcorn!

I’m so grateful for all the X-rays, sonograms, mammograms, echocardiograms, CT scans, MRIs, and other diagnostic imaging I’ve had in my life; grateful for the technicians who performed them, the radiologists who interpreted them, the medical schools and personnel who taught these people how to make these images and read them; the doctors and nurse practitioners who’ve shared my results with me. I’m grateful for the various machines, and all their tiny, complicated components, and the decades, centuries, of scientific investigation by thousands of humans whose names I’ll never know, that led to these machines being invented and improved.

And I’m grateful for the nameless lives of various creatures, maybe humans, lost ‘in the interest of science’ as these inventions evolved. This doesn’t mean that I condone testing on animals; simply that I accept that it has been done in the past (and there may be occasions when it’s still necessary, but certainly we’ve come far enough that most of it can be avoided), and I appreciate the sacrifices, willing or unwilling, that test ‘subjects’ have made through centuries. I can feel sorry that some things have happened, and still be grateful for the ramifications of the outcomes.

Anyway, back to the list: I’m grateful for the specific people that work in the Delta Hospital radiology department (and I know I’m not the only one) who consistently show such professionalism, efficiency, and compassion in their work. I’m grateful that my recent brain MRIs show only average signs of ‘aging.’ And I’m grateful that my cervical spine MRIs don’t show anything imminently life-threatening. I could whinge about the catastrophic evidence of: degeneration in the vertebral facets, “reversal of the normal cervical lordosis,” “moderate to severe left foraminal narrowing due to left-sided arthropathy and hypertrophy,” and “central canal stenosis with ventral cord flattening.” It doesn’t sound good, and certainly is enough words to explain this ongoing, worsening neck pain.

Oh well. It is what it is. Accepting this, now I can move forward taking into consideration options, making informed choices on the best ways to minimize physical and mental suffering, adapting my lifestyle with diet, appropriate postural adjustments, exercises, and therapies to improve my health. Yeah, it wasn’t great news, but it was more information than I had before, and reassuring in some respects: I don’t need surgery right now, for example, and there’s no cancer. While my brain may be a little older than the years allotted me so far, my spine might be fifty years older than that. One thing, though: my heart keeps getting lighter and younger every step of the way. Too bad they don’t yet have diagnostic imaging to evaluate consciousness; mine would show I’m getting better every day.

Acceptance

“Yacht Race off Boston Light” three days underway. This pink sky is one of the most challenging sections of any puzzle yet.

Yesterday was interesting. I was too tired to write about it last night, and probably won’t do it justice tonight, but want to express my gratitude to the imaging technicians at Delta Hospital. Everyone was so kind, from the receptionists on. There were some little glitches, at intake and with the MRIs, that would once have really frustrated me, but my growing capacity for accepting things as they are instead of thinking that they should be different served me well.

I may have never met a more tender, compassionate, and sweet tech than Toni, the woman who did the bone density scan. We were practically in tears of loving-kindness by the time she led me back to the waiting room. The MRI tech was very business-like, though also considerate and kind. I remembered Deb’s encouragement to ask for what I needed, so asked for extra pillows to support my knees to reduce sciatic strain; and when the classical music station wouldn’t play, I squeezed the ‘stop’ bulb. Remarkably, the only stations that would play were country, and something called ‘soft rock,’ which was horrible. I experienced extreme aversion during the first MRI as the DJ blithered on and on, and when there was ‘music’ its beat clashed with the machine noises inside my head until, despite a concerted effort to remain focused on my breath, I was completely rattled. I squeezed the ‘stop’ bulb again when anxiety rose to unbearable-verging-on-panic, and fortunately that was the end of the first session. I continued in blessed internal silence for the next three tests. It was a lengthy exercise in conscious relaxation, first my face, then abdomen, then shoulders, back to abdomen, back to face–as one area relaxed another tensed up, and I cycled through one after the other, consistently returning attention to the breath. Nothing like a long MRI to strengthen meditation practice.

During the whole second scan, there was a little lump in the pillow, which bored into my head. I breathed through that, but it got worse and worse. It was fascinating to watch my mind deal with all these sensational challenges. She wanted me to keep my head perfectly still when she pulled me out to inject the contrast dye, but I had to insist that she smooth the pillow. It wasn’t really a pillow, just a folded cloth. She was exasperated, and in a hurry. I said calmly, as she prepared my arm to stick a needle into it, “I need to not feel anxious, and I need to feel that you’re not in a hurry.” She softened instantly, apologized, and explained that there were two emergencies waiting and there was only this one machine, and one of her. This put things in a different perspective for me, and we both calmed way down. She thought to put a little lavender patch on my chest, which actually helped a lot. This experience, which was stressful and could have been really horrible, was transformed by my ability to accept things as they were each step of the way, do what I could to change them, and then accept again. And again, there was much tenderness and well-wishing between us as she walked me out.

I was feeling pretty pleased with myself as I left the hospital, for the emotional skill with which I’d navigated the morning, and decided to treat myself to a deli sandwich. But there’s no deli near the hospital, so I stopped at Sonic to see what I could find. At the drive-up menu, I realized I couldn’t bring myself to order factory-farmed chicken or beef, so I left; but circled back and ordered three fried sides. I was glowing with acceptance when the little girl brought my limeade and a small bag, and was only mildly disappointed to find inside the bag just one little wrapped burger. I accepted the error with good cheer, and she said she’d be right back with my order. Way too long later, two more “Welcome to Sonic, may I take your order” queries, and finally my bag of sides, I almost lost it when I opened the bag to find they were small instead of medium, and there was no mayo. Acceptance out the window! Attachment in high gear: I wanted what I wanted and I wanted it NOW! But still, I managed not to be too grumpy. When the manager brought a double handful of condiments and apologized, she said “It’s just the two of us, people didn’t show up…” My perspective adjusted itself instantaneously, all frustration melted, and I assured her it was no problem. We smiled and laughed and wished each other happy holidays.

The food was a big disappointment. But I accepted that easily. Fast food is what it is. I drove home filled with compassion for the people who worked at the hospital, the patients who needed emergency MRIs, the harried staff at Sonic, and deeply grateful for the skill of acceptance.

Surviving the Day

Detail from “Yacht Race Off Boston Light,” James Edward Buttersworth c. 1880, Liberty puzzle.

It sounds melodramatic on the surface. Why wouldn’t I have survived the day? Why bother to be grateful for something so mundane? Yet this was the first day I’ve driven beyond Crawford since witnessing that shocking wreck on the highway. I passed the scene twice, on my way to Hotchkiss and back. I ran some quotidian errands–gasoline, picking up cat fud at the vet, a few groceries at City Market–and drove home. That’s all. But I was tense and anxious, not only because of the wreck, but the Covid risk of going about in a county that largely never believed in the virus in the first place, flouted the original mask mandate (down to the Sheriff’s department which became an instant hot spot), and has concluded that it’s through with Covid now whether or not Covid is through with it. In the past couple of weeks the county has recorded roughly 1.1 deaths a day from the virus.

We tend to assume, each morning that we rise alive, that today is just another day to spend like any other day, that we’ll make it through this day without dying; and that’s just ridiculous. Lots of people die every day, many of them without pre-existing conditions and without any warning. Shit happens. I’m learning to take nothing for granted. I was grateful to wake up alive again this morning, and I’m grateful for surviving the day. Each night I try to fall asleep with my pulse pounding in my neck. Tomorrow, I’ll be grateful to make it to the hospital (and back) for some tests to try to determine what this sensation is about, and pinpoint the cause of other strange symptoms as well.

Or at least rule out some icky options. As Francisco said, “When you know what it is, it’s just pain.” When you don’t know what it is, it can grow into a menacing monster. Driving from town this afternoon, the thought of home beckoned like a lighthouse, as it will again tomorrow. If I can only make it there, and back again to safe harbour, then I can finally relax; then I will be happy. Ha! Each day, each breath, a new adventure.

Meditation

Monkey mind had me in its grip tonight but meditation quickly calmed the screaming beast inside. (photo from Unsplash)

I found myself ruminating about an upcoming stressful event, and getting more and more physically uncomfortable, feeling flushed and short of breath, anxious, shaky, even angry–all from my thoughts alone. I am grateful I’ve been practicing meditation for years, and recognized a good opportunity to use this skill to calm myself. I lay down and played a 24-minute recorded meditation by B. Alan Wallace called “A Tour of Shamatha Practices,” which focuses the mind on the breath. In no time, my breath calmed, my mind calmed, and I let go of unskillful thoughts and projections. I certainly don’t know what the future will bring: why waste precious time fretting over it? It could as easily go well as poorly, and the attitude I bring to it will largely determine how stressful, unpleasant, or comfortable it will be for me. I’m grateful meditation restored mental balance tonight, and grateful I had the presence of mind to turn to it instead of letting monkey mind ruin my evening.

Opportunity

Opportunity knocked, and I opened the door. I accepted the invitation to create an online Introduction to Mindfulness course for a large group of educators. It will be a cursory overview, a tip of the tip of the iceberg, that may entice people to try meditation and some basic mindfulness practices. My hope is that it will give teachers who opt to take it a glimpse of the possibilities that meditation and mindfulness practice offer to find mental and emotional balance in a complicated and stressful work environment. During this pandemic educators, like health workers, face increasing anxiety, overwhelm, and burnout due to short-staffing, higher workload, traumatized students, and conservative pushback against the science of masks and vaccines.

Mindfulness changed my life. I’m grateful for the opportunity I stumbled upon early in the pandemic to learn simple and effective skills to manage my own anxiety, fear, and depression, and transform my life into one of gratitude and contentment. I’m grateful for a decade of meditation practice, a year of intense mindfulness training, and the opportunity to teach these skills online, helping people explore their own potential for less mental suffering and more genuine happiness. I’m grateful for the decades of adventure I’ve had exploring fun, creative, interesting, and varied ways of making a living; for all the lessons, influences, and conditions that led me to discover my true calling and right livelihood at long last. I’m grateful for opportunities to share the gifts of meditation and mindfulness with this new custom course for Oregon educators; and with anyone who is interested in a more thorough exploration, through the Mindful Life Program’s Foundations Course offered online quarterly, with the next class starting in January.

Joy and Sorrow

I was awakened this morning by a soft kangaroo kick in my face, two little furry-toed feet practically in my mouth as Topaz stretched out on her back alongside me. I’m grateful for the little purrball snuggling in the morning. She’s still not quite right in the head, and we may go get her eyes and ears examined next week in Montrose, as none of those seem to be functioning the way they should. But she’s otherwise almost back to normal, and I’m grateful for that.

So simple, so delicious: a homemade roll toasted, slathered with mayo and Swiss cheese and broiled briefly, then topped with homemade bread&butter pickles. I’m grateful for lunch, and especially for ‘the cheese sandwich.’

I’m grateful for the delightful diversion provided by this charming puzzle full of exquisite detail both in the artwork and in the laser cut. I used to enjoy doing these puzzles with other people sometimes, before the pandemic. It’s an intimate act to sit heads bent close over a puzzle table, singing along to music or chatting amiably, passing each other pieces that fit with the different sections we’re working, cheering each other on. I also used to enjoy doing them alone, so I’m grateful that my pleasure hasn’t been diminished with my cautious solitude.

I learned recently of several more Covid infections in vaccinated friends, so I’m even more grateful for getting the booster. I watched with deep emotion the trailer for the new documentary “The First Wave.” As a culture, perhaps as a species, we are about to drop all precautions and pretend that this ongoing pandemic isn’t happening, despite the evidence of what we see and know. Why? Because we’re tired of it; we want to get back to normal. Like that’s ever gonna happen. This stunning film chronicles four early months in 2020, and filmmaker Matthew Heineman told The Guardian, “One of the greatest tragedies of Covid is that we as a general public were so shielded from the realities of what was happening…. If it was easier for journalists and film-makers to get inside hospitals and to show the public how this was all actually going down, how people were dying and the horror of what was happening, I think it would have changed the narrative…. It saddens me that this issue that could have brought our country together further divided us, that truth and science became politicised.”

And for a refreshing change of pace, because we must also experience joy as well as outrage, check out the Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards from NPR, guaranteed to put a smile on your face. My favorite is the “Majestic and Graceful Bald Eagle.” Maybe. I’m grateful for Kathleen for many reasons, including finding this in my inbox this morning.

Cosmic Time

I’m grateful today that I had no real ill effects from the booster; grateful that I slept long and well last night, and that everyone I love (that I know of) woke up alive this morning. Even though CC felt poopy after her booster shot yesterday, she was still alive and still had her sense of humor; even though S had a kidney removed last week, the cancer is gone and he’s recovering well; even though Topaz still isn’t quite right in the head, she’s getting better and she snuggled most of the night. And grateful there are many more people whom I love and who love me, and as far as I know they are all fine.

Grateful I’ve been able to spend a couple of hours throughout the day on this delightful puzzle, assembling tiny vignettes one at a time and then piecing them together and noticing even more brilliant details. And some subliminal influence must have been at work this morning, because I craved and made a bean and cheese burrito for lunch, on one of those delicious gigantic spinach tortillas from Farm Runners, with homemade fermented hot sauce. Grateful for groceries and for growing food.

I’m grateful that I can still walk to the canyon even without a dog, which I did for the first time today–I think for the first time ever. There was a lot more to notice since I wasn’t keeping at least one eye on a dog the whole way: various birds, silence, the feel of my own footsteps. As I sat in silence on the bench, pondering things, there was a sudden noise which I recognized as something crashing down in Ice Canyon–but there was hardly any ice. I got up to check it out, and just inside the curve visible above, there had been a rock slide. I got so lost in contemplation that I plumb forgot to take a picture of the aftermath. I’ll do that tomorrow. The next thing I did was call my friend who once upon a time took a photo of me standing under the tiny waterfall, where now there is a pile of boulders–right where I had been standing! In cosmic time, it was a near miss. I’m grateful for perspective, for humor, for true friends, and for more time to puzzle…

I’m also grateful for Krista Tippett and her podcast “On Being,” which I’ve been listening to during this puzzle. Yesterday I caught up with Katherine Hayhoe, chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy, and climate ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance, talking with Krista about how we can still put the brakes on the climate crisis. “Talk about it,” is one of her main strategies, and she makes a strong case for that. Today I listened to Pico Iyer talking with Elizabeth Gilbert about solitude, gratitude, and mindfulness, three of my favorite things.