Hollyhock Dolls

Hollyhocks are weeds. Or so I’ve been told by several “real” gardeners. The kind of gardeners who know the proper temperature for compost, whose tomatoes flourish, and whose gladiolus (gladioluses? gladioli?) win awards at county fairs. The kind of gardener that I definitely am not.

Maybe feeling intimidated by those experts is the reason I never got around to planting hollyhocks, even though I always wanted some in my yard. Even though I carried a secret stash of hollyhock seeds in a little plastic bag through six moves. Both their identity and their provenance were definite, because in the bag with them was a scrap of cardboard torn from the top of a cereal box. Written on it, in my Uncle Ernie’s careful handwriting, was “Hollyhock seeds from the Smith place, 1983.”

Three years ago, I finally planted those seeds, along with some others scavenged with permission from the garden of an old mansion-turned-museum in Trinidad, Colorado. Amazingly, some of them sprouted. Some of them grew. Some of them even thrived.

This year, despite drought and heat, they and their descendants have taken over half of one bed in our flower garden and are blooming vigorously. I have to admit that they have spread like, well, weeds. And that with their huge leaves and tall stems they do look a bit, well, weedy. I might even acknowledge that I would be wise to cut some of them back this fall before all those seeds mature.

But in the meantime, I can show my grandkids how to make hollyhock dolls the way my sisters and I used to do.

Here’s how: You pick a few blossoms that are fully open, plus a matching number of half-open buds or smaller blossoms. You strip the stem off of the buds, along with the green leaves that support the bottom of the flower. (A real gardener, no doubt, would know what those are called.) This reveals a little eye-shaped opening between each partially furled petal. Carefully slide the stem of one of the open flowers into one of those openings as far as it will go. The larger open blossom, upside down, becomes the long, full skirt of a gown. The white bottom part of the half-open bud becomes the doll’s face, adorned with a frilly hat.

 

Okay, maybe the faces are a little rabbity, the hats a bit crooked, and the gowns a trifle uneven. But they’re fun. And, given the generous abundance of hollyhocks, nobody cares that you pick them.

The other day, as we passed on our daily walks, one of my neighbors said, “I just love your hollyhocks. They remind me of my grandmother.” She asked if she could harvest some seeds, which I’ll be happy to share.

So it isn’t just me who understands what’s going on here. It doesn’t matter that, to some gardeners, hollyhocks look like weeds. To some of us, they look like memories.

Categories: Family, Remembering When | Tags: | Leave a comment

Fairy Tales You Thought You Knew

We all know how the fairy tales go: Stepmothers are invariably wicked. Stepsisters, ditto. Even porridge-eating bears are terrifying. A handful of magic beans, and Jack the not-so-bright son turns into Jack the giant-slaying hero. The big bad wolf is, well, big and bad.

Or maybe not.

Once Upon a Different Story retells five classic fairy tales from another point of view. I can’t be sure this is what really happened, of course. But this is the way I heard it, in their own words, from characters who have been misunderstood or overlooked for years. These stories were told to me in the voices of:

The Big Bureaucrat Wolf, a public servant with a clipboard and an attitude. “The guys say B. B. stands for Big and Bad, on account of I’m such a hardass in my building inspections. Most of them, they take a little cash on the side every now and then, to overlook stuff. Not me. But you wouldn’t believe some of the things I see. Like that little pig’s shack. It didn’t just violate every building code in the book; it violated logic, common sense, and the law of gravity. Hell, I didn’t even dare knock on the door for fear the whole flimsy mess would come down.”

The Murdered Giant’s Wife, traumatized by a tattooed drug dealer out of control. “Well, of course it all started because Jack found those beans. Magic beans, you Downlanders call them, but there’s nothing magic about them, really. We all know how important the beans are to our diets and how dangerous they are to you. We all see the videos about Downlander addicts and how crazy and unpredictable they can get. So something we take seriously is bean control.”

The Fairest Queen of All, Snow White’s frustrated stepmother. “From the beginning, I did the best I could to make friends with Snow White and love her even though she didn’t love me back. I don’t think I could have managed without the magic mirror. It couldn’t help me deal with Snow White, but at least it simplified the other major challenge of being a queen: looking fabulous. Let’s face it, looking beautiful is what princesses and queens do. Nobody wants to know what we think; nobody cares how we feel. They just expect us to show up, look perfect, and smile graciously.”

The Determined Mama Bear, coping with a tiny golden-haired home invader and the child welfare system. “Poor little Goldie; everyone in our part of the forest knew about her. Out in the woods by herself, all hours of the day, when she should have been safe at home. And her only a little older than my Baby. Oh, I’m sure Goldie’s parents have plenty of problems of their own. Usually I’m not one to judge people if I haven’t walked a mile in their paw prints, as the saying goes. But I don’t care what their issues were—it was no excuse for neglecting that sweet little girl the way they did.”

The Softhearted Stepsister, who can’t see the charm in Cinderella’s anti-royal crusading. “‘Oh my God! That’s Cinderella!’ Jane’s shriek made me drop my sociology book and focus on the television. A hunky young reporter with perfect hair and gleaming teeth was in front of the palace, reporting live on the latest demonstration from the anti-aristocracy group calling themselves “Unoccupy the Throne.” The camera zoomed in on a slender girl carrying a sign so big she could barely balance it. I could see why they chose our little sister. Even in ragged jeans and a scruffy sweatshirt, Cinderella was beautiful.”

Once Upon a Different Story is available in print and ebook formats. You can find out more about it here.

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Driving Ms. Crazy

Driving across South Dakota on I-90, even in heavy summer traffic—or, as they would call it in many other places, light traffic—can give a person plenty of time to think. Especially once the news analysis from NPR is starting to repeat itself, you have memorized the repeated ads and local news on both of the country music stations you can pick up, and you still haven’t figured out how to download audio books onto the portable media player you bought specifically for trips like this.

At this point, somewhere between mile markers 73 and 237, there’s not much else to do but ponder great thoughts about significant subjects. Such as: how do the biggest, juiciest bugs always manage to hit the windshield right in front of the driver’s eyes?

It’s inevitable. You stop for gas, you scrub the windshield clean of greasy green grasshopper guts and other unidentifiable bug body parts, and you pull back out onto the highway. And within the first couple of miles, splat! Not on the passenger’s side, not toward the top of the windshield, not in some inconspicuous spot along the edge. Nope. Right in your field of vision, exactly at eye level.

The “why” of this isn’t at issue. It’s fairly obvious that smearing up windshields right where drivers most need to see through them is about getting even. It’s sacrificial sabotage, in revenge for the millions of innocent victims of vehicular insecticide on our highways.

But how do they do it?

Is it something to do with aerodynamics? Does the air flow over the hood carry the biggest bugs right toward eye level on the driver’s side?

Or do they work in pairs? One bug as the designated saboteur, the second flying alongside as the spotter. “All right, George, you’re nearly there. Closer, closer . . . a little to the left. No, not that way—your other left! Now just a little higher—a bit more—got it. Aim for the whites of her eyes, George. You’re on it, you’re on it, almost there . . . Faster, faster, faster—now!”

Splat!

“We’ll miss you, George.”

“Next!”

Or possibly I’m overthinking this. Maybe the real explanation is much simpler. As in: “Hey, there’s an SUV. Hold my nectar and watch this.”

“No, Fred, wait—you’re going too fas—”

Splat!

Categories: Just For Fun, Travel | Leave a comment

Improper Nouns; Tedx Rapid City Talk

World peace. Everybody, from preachers to political leaders to beauty pageant winners, seems to be in favor of it. But nobody seems to know how to create it.

However, I recently had a revelation. I discovered one common factor tied to many of the beliefs and behaviors that separate us into “us” and “them.” This insight has the potential to end prejudice, cyberbullying, racism, sexism, religious extremism, and all sorts of other extreme isms. Which could lead us to world peace.

Here’s my discovery. The real problem at the heart of all these isms is—adjectives.

Specifically, adjectives being improperly used as nouns.

Of course, you all know what a noun is: a person, place, or thing. And an adjective describes a noun. If you see me wearing a pink jacket, you wouldn’t stop at the adjective and call it a “pink.” You’d finish the sentence with the noun “jacket.”

But all too often, when we refer to other people, stopping at the adjective is exactly what we do. We forget to finish the sentence with the noun “person.”

Here’s just one example: “creative.” It’s a perfectly respectable, reliable, responsible adjective. But increasingly, I’m seeing it used improperly as a noun—calling people who make beautiful or interesting things not “creative people,” or “people doing creative things,” or even “creators,” but “creatives.”

I think this is actually a well-intentioned attempt to be inclusive, to use a term that’s broader than “artist.” But ironically, it has the opposite effect. It twists the descriptive adjective creative into a label that only applies to the “right” sort of people.

As a writer, I get to be a “creative” who belongs over here. If you make photographs or music or paintings or quilts, you’re creatives, too. Come on over here with me—we’re “us.” But if you’re a scientist? Or an accountant? Or an engineer? Or a plumber? Nope, so sorry. You’re not creatives. Never mind all the complex and creative problem-solving that your work requires. You belong over there—you’re “them.” We’ve been arbitrarily and artificially divided into separate groups.

But what about all the other adjectives we misuse so often that we don’t even notice? Aren’t the divisions they create just as arbitrary and artificial?

Words like white. Black. Native. Muslim. Christian. Victim. Liberal. Conservative. Rich. Poor. Redneck. Disabled. Homeless. Elderly. We use these as nouns so commonly that even the dictionary calls many of them nouns. But what they really are is adjectives, words that describe the noun “person.” Any time a word is used as shorthand to define a given group, that’s an adjective. Any time a word is used with “the” in front of it and “community” behind it, that’s an adjective.

Much of the time, when we use adjectives improperly as nouns, there’s no malicious intent. It’s just a handy verbal shortcut. But, just as with the word “creative,” we are twisting descriptions into labels.

And there are several problems with labels.

First, they often come attached to baggage—all the prejudices, assumptions, misconceptions, and expectations we each form out of our own complex experiences. This baggage can lead, not just to using labels, but to using ugly, hateful, hurtful ones; labels intended to put more distance between “us” and “them.”

A second thing about labels is that they tend to stick. And when you stick on a label, you hide whatever is behind it. If I categorize you with a label like “liberal” or “redneck” or “homeless,” I see you one-dimensionally. I put you into a box and make that one aspect of you the only thing I see. I disregard everything else that makes you unique and individual.

Third, labels limit the ways we see ourselves as well as others. They give us only one or two ways to define our tribes. As humans, we evolved to belong to communities—to small family groups and larger tribal groups. It’s possible that our survival may have depended on thinking in terms of “us” and “them,” on defending our people and our resources against outsiders.

But in today’s world, our survival may depend instead on broadening our view of “us,” expanding the way we define our tribes.

Imagine an enormous stadium filled with thousands of people from all over the planet: male and female, all ages, different races, different nationalities, different abilities, different walks of life. Imagine walking into this huge and diverse group. Where would you belong? Who might be like you? How would you find your tribe?

It would be easy to start with the obvious, as we so often do because that’s where we are comfortable. I, for example, might define my tribe as white people, or female people, or older people. All those adjectives legitimately describe aspects of who I am. But if grab one or two of them and stop there, I overlook all the other tribes I might belong to.

Here are just a few of them: People who write. People with children or grandchildren. People who have been widowed or divorced. People in 12-step programs. People who love to read. People who can’t recognize their own faces in the mirror without corrective lenses. In this enormous gathering, there are dozens of tribes each of us might belong to. In fact, once we start finding common experiences and characteristics, potentially everyone in that vast gathering could become “us” instead of “them.”

Of course, in order to identify those tribes, we need to be willing to discover people instead of labeling them. To have conversations. And you can’t really have a conversation with an adjective.

By now you may be assuming I have something against adjectives. Not at all. They are useful words with important work to do. Suppose, for example, I have just robbed a convenience store and am running off down the street as fast as I can go with a case of beer in each hand. When the clerk calls the cops, it would certainly be a good idea to use adjectives. To describe my gender, my race, my age, my physical appearance, my height, and even, God forbid, my weight. This is exactly what adjectives are for.

I don’t suggest we should stop using adjectives, just that we use them more carefully and consciously. That we remember that their purpose is not to define us, but to describe aspects of who we are. Of course these different aspects matter. Things like our race, our religion, where and how we grow up, our abilities and experiences—all these shape who we are and how we are in the world. It’s ridiculous to pretend they don’t exist. But it’s just as ridiculous to pretend that one or two of them are the only things that define us.

Organizations that support people with special needs encourage us to use phrases like “people with disabilities” rather than “the disabled.” To see the person first, not the disability. All I suggest is that we extend that same courtesy and respect to everyone.

Would this really lead to world peace? When I suggested that it might, of course I was exaggerating. But . . . not entirely.

Being more conscious of our adjectives is a simple thing. Something each of us can do. But because that small shift in our language can create a shift in our thinking, it has the potential to make a big difference.

So why don’t we try it? To choose not to stop at the easy adjective, but to always get to the end of the sentence, where the person is. To focus on the part of speech that matters most—that essential, human noun.

 

This is a talk I gave at Tedx Rapid City on June 28, 2017. It was a wonderful opportunity and an exhilarating experience—at least after it was over! I’ll post a link to the video when it’s available in a few weeks.

Categories: Living Consciously | Tags: | Leave a comment

Cool Dudes and Cooler Dads

A quiet summer evening, the Safeway parking lot, a family heading to their car with a few groceries. Mom was walking beside a child who looked about five, holding the hand of another little one who might have been two or three. Dad, behind them, had an even littler kid up on his shoulders.

And Dad was skipping. The toddler, held safely on top of the world in his father’s firm hands, with his own fists full of Dad’s hair by way of insurance, bounced high with every skip and giggled with glee. No one, seeing this, could help but smile.

Well, almost no one. Coming after this happy pair was one more child, a boy of around ten. He was slouching along several steps behind, looking down, with his cap pulled down over his face. Everything about his posture said he was doing his best to pretend the rest of the family had nothing to do with him. You could practically hear him thinking, “I can’t believe this. My dad is skipping. In the parking lot at Safeway, in front of everybody in the whole wide world. Please, please, please, don’t let any of my friends see this.”

Back when Dad was 19 or 20, he might have felt the same way. He probably couldn’t imagine his future self doing something so undignified and so uncool.

Several children later, he knows better. It will be a while yet before the embarrassed older brother appreciates the value of the lesson his dad was demonstrating there in the parking lot. That good fathers care more about getting shrieks of delight from their children than about whether they look cool to strangers.

Categories: Family | 1 Comment

Just Don’t Call Me Late for Dinner

“You were born just in time for supper, and you haven’t missed a meal since.”

My mother told me that once, when we were talking about the births of our children and I asked her what time I had arrived.

I assumed the “haven’t missed a meal” part referred to my appetite. I am neither a glutton nor a gourmand, but I do like to know where my next meal is coming from. I much prefer my meals to show up reliably and regularly, even when I provide them myself. The people around me prefer this, too, since I tend to get just a teeny, tiny bit irritable if it’s 15 minutes or so past mealtime and I haven’t been fed yet. By 30 minutes or so past mealtime, I develop a headache and get shaky, and the people around me tend to get nervous. I would blame this on hypoglycemia if I were more sure of how to spell it.

It makes no sense to me that some people routinely skip breakfast or get so busy that they forget to eat. I never miss a meal myself except in extreme circumstances, such as serious illness or the unreasonable demands of medical professionals.

I was not happy this morning, for instance, that my blood work—my fasting blood work—for a routine checkup was scheduled at the outrageous hour of 8:30 a.m. When you regularly wake up at 5:00 or 5:30, that’s practically the middle of the morning. By the time I got out of the clinic at 8:52, I had a serious headache. My hand was shaking so much that I had trouble peeling the banana I had stashed in my purse. On the bright side, at least I had neither passed out nor been actively rude to anybody.

Back in my own kitchen a few minutes later, savoring the aroma of brewing coffee and waiting for the toast to pop up, I summoned up enough grace for gratitude. Gratitude that, in my world, hunger is an occasional inconvenience and not a chronic condition. Gratitude that I consistently know where my next meal is coming from. Gratitude that I have the means not only to feed myself but to give to those who can’t.

And gratitude for my mother, whose teasing about my “never missing a meal” I suddenly understood in a different way. Members of my family didn’t miss meals. We didn’t have to, because of her. She put nutritious, tasty food on the table three times a day, every day. Even though she didn’t especially enjoy cooking. Even when there wasn’t much to cook with. Even though cooking “from scratch” often included canning or freezing the vegetables, gathering the eggs (after raising the hens who laid them), and butchering the chickens. She did this, day in and day out, for decades.

No wonder I developed the habit of relying on regular meals. It’s the way I was raised.

Categories: Family, Food and Drink | Leave a comment

Regular or Extra Steamy?

Warning: You may find some material in this post tacky and inappropriate. However, it would be unfair to label it as poor taste.
Apparently this is not a joke from KFC. A spoof, maybe, but according to a story in USA Today, it’s a genuine marketing gimmick. You might even call it a bodice ripoff. Colonel Sanders, the white-bearded icon of fried chicken, is the newly-muscled hero of a romance novella that the restaurant chain is giving away as a promotion for Mother’s Day.

How nice. There’s no sweeter way for a mother to be honored on her special day than to be presented with a racy book while having dinner with her children.

All that aside, what caught my attention was the title of this book: Tender Wings of Desire. It’s romantic and sensual, delicately evoking both the erotic and the culinary. If this is successful, it surely will inspire other fast-food restaurants to serve up their own sizzling sides of romance. Their various specialties and slogans offer a broad menu of alluring potential for delicious titles.

 

McDonalds: Love with a Side of Fries. Supersized With Special Sauce. A series featuring “Big Mac” is just waiting to be written.

Dairy Queen: Love in the Heart of a Blizzard, Soft Servings of Desire, Parfait Love.

Burger King: Whopping Love. Even better, if the King and the Queen got together, you could have possibilities like Frozen Flaming Love and Crowned With Delight.

Taco Bell: A Double Wrap of Delight. Sorry, but the protective people at PETA wouldn’t like What the Chihuahua Saw.

Little Caesars: Hot and Ready for Love.

Subway: Foot Long, Fast and Fresh.

Of course, once the imagination starts mixing racy romance and fast food, it doesn’t take long to venture into a kitchen that’s much too hot. Some restaurant names need no embellishment at all: Hardees, for example. Long John Silver’s. In-N-Out Burger.

Once you have possibilities like that handed to you on a steamy platter, there is simply nothing more to say. Except possibly, “Would you like fries with that?”

Categories: Food and Drink, Just For Fun | 2 Comments

DIY Distressed Denim

Of the many oddities of fashion that make no sense to me, one of the most bizarre—right up there with four-inch stiletto heels and neckties—is ripped jeans. Not the grubby old ones you wear for cleaning the garage or gardening, but the oh-so-fashionable ones you can buy already strategically shredded.

Even though they may look like they came from the “Free” bin at the thrift store, these pre-torn jeans actually cost more than ordinary jeans with all their parts intact. If you want fashionably ventilated bottoms, it’s going to cost you top dollar.

No worries, though. You can save a bundle by distressing your denim yourself. I know this, because the other day I noticed a video on “how to rip your jeans yourself.”

I saw no need to watch the video, not having any interest in deliberately causing harm to a perfectly good pair of pants. Besides, I have years of experience in ripping my own jeans and observing the ways other people rip theirs. Here are some of the proven methods you might try:

1. Climb through a barbed-wire fence that is just a little higher than your legs are long or just a little narrower than other parts of your anatomy are wide.

2. Catch the pocket or belt loop on a door handle or some other protruding object.

3. Have an unexpected encounter with a fish hook. (Note: it’s not strictly necessary for the hook to be attached to a line or in use for actual fishing at the time.)

4. Trip over a sharp-ended stick that was hidden in the grass.

5. Wreck your bicycle.

6. Stumble, fall, and slide down a steep rocky hiking trail. Depending on the sharpness of the rocks, ten to twenty feet ought to do it.

7. Annoy the cat once too often.

8. Play a little too energetically with the puppy.

9. Spend a summer afternoon sliding down the concrete spillway at Canyon Lake Dam. This is especially effective for cut-off jeans. Hint: it’s a good idea to wear underwear that is decent but not necessarily your favorite.

10. Have an “oops” moment with the hedge trimmer, or for real efficiency, the chainsaw.

Just like other instructions, these do come with some warnings about care, maintenance, and safety:

A. Don’t take the mangled jeans to your mother or wife and ask her plaintively if she can fix them so the tear won’t show. Especially if the jeans are ones she bought for you within, say, the past week.

B. Before wearing the self-shredded jeans, soak and then wash them in cold water to remove any blood.

C. It may be wise to delay wearing the newly fashionable jeans until any incidental distress to your skin has healed, depending on the location and extent of any bandages, scabs, or stitches.

If all this seems like too much trouble, you might try another time-tested method. It takes longer but is guaranteed to get results. It’s simple:

Wear jeans. Work in jeans. Play in jeans. Wash jeans. Repeat as needed.

Categories: Fashion | 2 Comments

Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet

I blew up the planet today. Twice, actually.

Oh, wait—maybe I’m not supposed to say things like that on the Internet? Let me clarify.

For the past couple of years the shower curtain in our main bathroom has been a world map. It’s been quite useful for things like finding Madagascar, checking the spelling of Namibia, or looking up answers to crossword puzzle clues like “the capital of Eritrea.” But it has its limitations.

For one thing, it’s flat, which means the sizes of land masses near the top and bottom are distorted. I don’t mind Canada or Greenland seeming bigger than they really are, but I’m not sure the wide expanse of Russia needs to loom any larger than it is in reality. And if Antarctica is really the size the shower curtain seems to think it is, I’m not sure why we need to be concerned about global warming.

Besides, the printing on the shower curtain isn’t precisely aligned, which can be disorienting. I do know that the U.S. state labeled “Kansas” is really Oklahoma, but I’m a little confused to see that Cape Town appears to be located out in the ocean about half an inch southwest of the coast of Africa.

What I really wanted was a globe. But not, cool as it might be, a traditional classroom type spin-with-your-finger globe on a stand. It would take up too much space, for one thing. And it would be too permanent. Stuff happens: nations rename themselves, divided countries reunite, united countries separate, national borders change. For someone who ignored geography in school because it was so boring, I’m already confused enough without relying on an out-of-date globe.

The solution, found after a quick online search, was a relatively cheap, readily replaceable, and reliably spherical inflatable globe. Sixteen inches in diameter—big enough to be readable but small enough not to need its own room. I ordered several. Pre-inflation, they would be easy to mail to distant grandkids who might be more geographically curious than I was at their ages.

The trouble with an inflatable globe, of course, is that you have to inflate it. Here are some of the things one can learn in that process.

1. Read the directions carefully. Otherwise you might not know to “blow into valve with mouth only.”

2. There’s nothing quite like the smell of a freshly-unpackaged plastic object. Except the taste of a freshly-unpackaged plastic object.

3. If, theoretically speaking, you’re blowing into the valve of a big plastic ball and you happen to lose your grip on the stem, a partially inflated globe jet-propelled by escaping air might shoot around the room in an erratic frenzy until it collapses. This is not necessarily to be taken as a commentary on the current state of world affairs.

4. When, after industrious effort, you hold the world in both hands, with your left thumb on California and your right thumb on Zambia, you realize it’s smaller than you expected and looks to be in need of respectful handling.

Fortunately, this globe came with instructions for proper care and maintenance. Such as: Avoid contact with hot or sharp objects. Do not attempt to remove every wrinkle. And be aware that, with too much hot air, it “can become defect.”

Not bad advice for a small and fragile planet.

Categories: Odds and Ends | Tags: | Leave a comment

Adventure Travel

Last month I spent two delightful weeks in New Zealand. One of things I discovered is that tourism there is designed for the adventurous. You’re invited to roar along rivers in jet boats, bicycle up and down mountains, climb mountains, leap off of mountaintops with a parachute, bungee jump, ice-climb on glaciers, and hike on trails where signs warn you that rocks might fall down upon you at any moment.

I’d like to tell you more about one of those adrenaline-boosting choices. Join me in your imagination, and let me take you on an adventure.

First picture a deep, narrow gorge with a cold, fast-moving river at the bottom. Scared to death, you’re standing at one end of a bridge that spans this gorge. You take a deep breath and start walking onto the bridge. You glance down at the water—a big mistake, because you can see just how far down it is. You could change your mind and go back, but your friends are cheering you on and you don’t want them to think you’re a chicken.

At the middle of the bridge you are met by an athletic guy who, in an annoyingly cheerful and encouraging manner, fastens a harness around your ankles. You just hope all the cords and fasteners are as secure as he reassures you they are. You do your best to listen carefully to his instructions, but you’re so nervous you can hardly comprehend them.

Finally, when he seems to think you’re ready and you can’t think of any reason you aren’t, he opens a gate. You step out onto a platform at the edge of the bridge. You gulp. You gasp in one last deep breath and squeeze your eyes shut. Just before the annoying guy has to push you off, you jump.

You plunge headfirst toward the water. You’re falling so fast you can’t breathe, and at the same time everything is in slow motion so it feels as if you fall, and fall, and fall for a long, long time.

At last you hit the end of the bungee cord. It isn’t the whiplash jerk you were expecting, but your head feels thumped, and your stomach tries to push itself into your throat, and there’s an endless spine-stretching moment when the rope starts pulling you up while gravity is still pulling you down.

You bounce back up, then down again, then back up and down, at the same time swinging forward and backward like a human pendulum. You open your eyes, then quickly shut them again because the upside-down view of the world makes you dizzy. Your heart is pounding so hard you can feel it in your ears. Your upended lungs feel so squashed that you can’t get enough air.

What seems like hours later, the swinging slows and stops, leaving you dangling at the end of the line with your arms hanging. The blood rushing toward your head makes your brain feel too big for your skull.

Then something grabs one of your limp arms. The pickup team in their little inflatable boat has reached you. They haul you in and undo your harness. You collapse in the bottom of the boat, shaking all over. You feel a strong urge to curl up into a ball and burst into tears.

From what sounds like a long ways away, you can hear your friends cheering. You’ve done a bungee jump, and you might even live to tell the tale.

That’s our adventure. It’s finished; please take a deep breath. We’re all okay, except that I need to explain something.

I have no idea if this description is accurate, because I made it up. I didn’t—wouldn’t—couldn’t—ever jump off of that bridge. Just watching other people bungee jump was more than enough adrenaline rush for me. I don’t have the kind of physical daring for stuff like that. Or the disregard for my well-being. In fact, I secretly suspect that bungee jumping was invented by a cabal of chiropractors and massage therapists as a way to increase their clientele.

I didn’t try parasailing, either. Mountain climbing? Forget it. Glacier climbing? Not a chance. Jet boats? No, thanks. Though I did hike a couple of trails where signs warned me that rocks might fall down upon me at any moment.

I also stood with one foot on each side of a spot that is adventurous in a way that thrilled the geologists in our group: the Alpine Fault. The Pacific and Australian tectonic plates meet and slide past each other at this fault, which extends through much of New Zealand and where earthquakes can and do happen regularly. None did while we were on the spot. I was grateful.

Otherwise, our group explored spectacular landscapes: Sharp-edged young mountains carved by glaciers. Dry rocky hills pockmarked with old gold mines. Thriving farmlands fenced with trees sharply trimmed into tall hedges. Rain forests so green and lush that it felt as if lingering over a picnic would put you at risk of being covered with moss like everything else in sight.

We also learned a bit about the history and culture of this fascinating land, from the Maori who arrived first to the various Europeans who came later. We discovered why flightless birds probably evolved that way (predators in the sky but not on the ground) and that several of them, including the country’s iconic kiwi, had to be brought back from near extinction after predators like the stoat were introduced. I learned that the New Zealand accent is much easier to appreciate than to imitate.

Along the way, I was reminded that for me, the adventure of travel isn’t a physical one. I don’t need the adrenaline rush of stepping out of my physical comfort zone. It’s more interesting—and quite exciting enough, thank you—to venture out of my emotional comfort zone.

That kind of adventure travel involves having the conversations that help me learn a little bit about other places, other cultures, and other people. It requires me to be both a curious and a courteous visitor. And perhaps most important, it means keeping one thing in mind: I’m among people whose landscapes seem exotic and whose pronunciation seems strange to me. At the same time, they might be seeing me as someone who comes from an odd place and talks funny.

Categories: Living Consciously, Travel | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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