Monday, April 30, 2012

Vinny G and Mindfulness

I’ve been digitally disconnected—sort of—for the past 4 days, on vacation in Vegas with my husband's golfing siblings.(more on that coming!) I am so addicted to my i-Phone, that, of course, I checked my email, but have not been using my laptop and my back pain suddenly has disappeared. Could it be that hunching over the keyboard 8 hours a day has been causing my problems?  Need to bring in the “ergonomic advisor” (Roche actually had one who would come to your desk and evaluate your posture, positioning, chair height,etc.)  Ah, sometimes I miss those nice little corporate touches.

Back on topic—Mindfulness—a popular subject in the breast cancer community. When you see that Vinny G from Jersey Shore has written a book which includes meditation, you know Mindfulness has arrived. Never mind that the Times also ran a story last week, Putting Meditation Back on the Mat, which chronicled a return to the mind part of yoga over the strictly physical emphasis, the big news was Vinny making the rounds of B&N stores including Clifton to talk about his book: Control the Crazy: My Plan to Stop Stressing, Avoid Drama and Maintain Inner Cool.

Most cancer patients are introduced at some point to the idea of mindful meditation to control their own crazies. Cure magazine’s Spring 2012 article on Stressed during Cancer Treatment? Try Meditating. quotes mindfulness coach Elena Rosenbaum …"there is more right with you than wrong and that your attitude does make a difference. There is so much fear around what is happening, but if you stop struggling against what you cannot control, you’re more able to find that peace and strength inside of you that allows you to manage and cope."

So what is Mindfulness exactly? According to Saki Santorelli, Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts: “mindfulness meditation is paying attention on purpose, the present moment, nonjudgmentally." Ooh, there's a therapy word for you—nonjudgmentally—but simply means not denying your negative thoughts, just deciding at this moment that you are going to purposefully set them aside and concentrate on breathing and “what is before us at the moment, such as the beautiful sky or the feeling of being alive.”

I’m not a New Ager by any means, but through Yoga and now Tai-chi, I’ve been trying to focus on breathing and slowing things down, being grounded in the present. I imagine what my mother‘s comment would be, if she were still here:  "Well, just say a rosary, you don’t need to say 'om shanti shanti' or some such nonsense.” She’d probably go on to remind me of the Serenity Prayer, which hung over her kitchen sink:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference. 

It’s not a religious competition, of course, and although related to Buddhism, mindfulness can stand on its own non sectarian basis. 

I have to admit I haven’t even skimmed Vinny’s book, couldn’t pick him out of a lineup and don’t watch Jersey Shore, but maybe this year there will be an episode where Vinny gets up early (or maybe never goes to bed), wanders down to the beautiful Jersey beach, pre-dawn, lays out his towel and breathes deeply, as the sun rises and a new day begins.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Tramping through the Meadowlands

You can't get a more iconic place in New Jersey than the Meadowlands--exotic wetlands, bird sanctuary, water resource and graveyard to mobsters, crisscrossed by the Jersey Turnpike, with the New York City skyline in the background. The email from the NJ Audubon Society was inviting: come visit Harrier Meadow - NOT usually open to the public. Why is an exclusive event so irresistible? Not exactly a pass to Studio 54, but I wanted to be an insider -- even if it's just in the birding world.

Reclaimed landfill along Disposal Road
I showed up promptly at 9:30 at the Meadowlands Environmental Center in Lyndhurst, following my GPS and a few scattered signs. After passing a number of  non-descript office buildings, the road yielded to scrubby fields. We carpooled for the short ride to Harrier Meadow in North Arlington, along Disposal Road, prompting me to muse on the uniqueness of birding in Jersey. 

A birder's landmark: Look for the tire!
How many wildlife sanctuaries abut reclaimed landfills? How often does the leader of a birding hike instruct you to focus your binoculars on the cinnamon teal or the shoveller ducks swimming near those black truck tires? It makes observation easier for me because I always felt challenged locating the three branched cottonwood with the birds at 9 o'clock. I'd have to sneak peeks at everyone else to see which direction I should be facing.  But tires? Now that's an easy landmark to spot.

I was worried about not fitting in with the crowd, but soon found out that it was equally split between experienced Auduboners and the newly curious. A busload of college students from Jersey City were definitely newbies. The contrast was striking: senior citizens with floppy outback hats or baseball caps, hiking boots, bug spray, sunscreen, water bottles, and pants tucked into socks to discourage ticks versus urban, carefree teenagers in shorts and sneakers, a few with white earbuds dangling from their ears, glad to be out of the classroom and definitely underdressed compared to their older safari partners.

We began with a short talk and demonstration from the Meadowlands study team, who were capturing birds, measuring them, recording data and then banding them for release. Mike, the presenter, was good and suddenly we were all enthusiastic, as two volunteers stepped up to hold the fragile Savannah sparrows in their hands and send them skyward.
Savannah sparrow

Blue Jay
Of the forty people, all had binoculars, but some had their bird books and shouldered hefty scopes and professional cameras. At various points along the hike, the leader would set up her high powered scope, trained on a feathery friend, for all to observe. As the woman ahead of me stepped back, allowing me my turn, I asked her, "What are we looking at again?"  She bent her head towards me, and shifty-eyed, lowered her voice, so only I could hear.  "A bird" she whispered.

My favorite part of the morning was the juxtaposition of nature and the modern, industrial world. Keep your eyes downward and you could have been in the Everglades, but raise them above the horizon and you were surprised how close the highway was, how many utility poles and lines there were, how illusive the city skyline appeared, like a faraway Oz. I was simultaneously "counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike" and gazing at the majestic flight of the harrier, a raptor, and namesake of the meadow. I was feeling pleasantly distracted with one foot in each world.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Rockin the Highline

What better way to start a week than to visit NYC's beautiful Highline Park with friends on a sunny, windy Monday.
At the top of the popular bleachers, overlooking the street below
The Highline is constructed on an old elevated freight line that served the meatpacking district on the West side of Manhattan and was used from the 1930's until 1980. Abandoned, with plans for demolition, the rail line was saved by two residents who organized and lobbied the city government to consider designing a park. Park construction began in 2006 and the first section from Gansevoort St to 20th St opened in June 2009. The latest section from 20th to 30th Sts. opened in June 2011. The final section up through 34th St has been acquired but plans not finalized.

The end of the line at 30th St.
The park is currently about a mile long and we had a pleasant stroll along the relatively uncrowded path with native spring flowers in bloom. I'm sure my son Eric, the historic interpreter, would be happy at the group's evaluation that more signage was needed to identify the types of plants. According to the website there are over 160 species, so that sounds like a lot of signs! (They do have a plant booklet available on the website that we didn't know about in advance)

We passed the Standard Hotel, but, disappointingly, not a naked body in sight. Apparently when the park first opened in 2009,  it was not uncommon to have hotel guests frolicking au naturel in their rooms in full view of park goers, causing a bit of a stir.

We had lunch at Chelsea Market and traveled back to NJ via the ferry. I was busy enjoying the day, so didn't take many photos, but here are some from the website:

the Highline Freight line back in the day
grassland and people
  walkway that evokes the feel of the rail lines
this one even I know-- crocus!

Monday, April 2, 2012

West Virginia #46

Checked off # 46 on my US states list last weekend with a four hour visit to West Virginia. (Yes, that counts!) We crossed the Potomac and entered into WV near Harper's Ferry on a rainy, cool Saturday, after a morning at Antietam Battlefield in Maryland.

First a bit about Antietam:  After visiting Gettysburg in the rain last year, I'm beginning to think it's best to view a Civil War battlefield with the mist pillowing in the valleys and surrounding the cannons and soldier monuments, as if a ragged, ghostly band of fighters might suddenly appear in the penetrating dampness. "I love the smell of new, wet grass in the morning."

I know, bad parody of the Robert Duval line from Apocalypse Now. Here's that famous cut:

These Civil War battles were absolutely amazing in terms of the carnage. Lines of soldiers would simply march across the rolling fields toward each other with guns and cannons blazing. Antietam was a one day battle with 17,000 killed and 6,000 wounded--the largest single day loss of life in the Civil War. Gettysburg claimed around 50,000 casualties, but that was over a three day period. The famous photographer Matthew Brady turned his portrait skills to scenes of battle dead, the first time that had ever been done. While newspapers could not yet publish photographs, they could publish woodcuts made from the photos and Brady's originals were displayed in his NYC gallery, bringing home the horrors of wartime. Sharpsburg, the town nearest the battle, was never quite the same, with the burden of caring for the wounded and the spread of disease transforming the farming community into an extended field hospital for many years. Clara Barton, the Angel of the Battlefield, nursed the wounded.

Strategically, Antietam was a lost opportunity for the North, since they won the battle, but reluctant General McClellan hesitated to chase after the decimated Army of Northern Virginia and historians claim the war could have ended then in 1862 with a decisive routing of Lee. Instead, McClellan allowed Lee to escape and regroup to fight another day and the war would drag on for another three years. For Lincoln, it was the Northern victory he had been waiting for in order to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which initially applied only to rebel states. Lincoln visited the battlefield two weeks after the fighting ended, met with McClellan with whom he was extremely disappointed. One year later the scenario would replay with a timid General Meade also not pursuing Lee after Gettysburg.

Harper's Ferry, WV also played a role in the civil war, changing hands several times between the Union and the Confederates. It served as a major armory and arsenal for the US Army. The town is at the confluence of the Potomac and the Shenandoah Rivers, surrounded by wooded green mountains. Who owned the strategic high ground determined who ultimately would control the town, a lesson the Union learned early on.

But Harpers Ferry is best known for John Brown's raid in 1859, the fanatical abolitionist's call to arms for a slave rebellion. His 21 man party was able to capture the arsenal, but unable to hold it more than 36 hours. Here is the building where Brown made his last stand, later being called John Brown's Fort. Brown was captured, tried and hung within 2 months--swift justice in those days.

This famous picture shows him as the crusading biblical figure and captures the intensity and fanaticism of his movement. Some things you might not have known about him: He was married twice, had 20 children, 11 of whom died before adulthood, is buried in North Elba NY, the last farm where he lived.   He and his sons had traveled to Bleeding Kansas in 1856, where the issue of free vs slave state had not been resolved, and participated in bloody, nighttime killing spree of those who believed Kansas should be a slave state. He escaped back to Ohio and NY, eventually planning his final disastrous rebellion that would become an emotional touchstone of the deep seated divisions between North and South that would lead to the Civil War.

If you've gotten this far in the reading, you know I love history,  but let us not forget that April is National Poetry month. Not exactly high literature, but I will end with a famous poem (song) from the 1860's: John Brown's Song. It grew from the folk tradition, had popular versions as a Union marching song with the Glory, Glory, Hallelujah chorus and its melody became the Battle Hymn of the Republic written by Julia Howe in 1861.

Here is a version of the poem by William Weston Patton, written in 1861 and published in the Chicago Tribune. (If the meter seems a bit off to you, just sing the verses!)

Old John Brown’s body lies moldering in the grave,
While weep the sons of bondage whom he ventured all to save;
But tho he lost his life while struggling for the slave,
His soul is marching on.

John Brown was a hero, undaunted, true and brave,
And Kansas knows his valor when he fought her rights to save;
Now, tho the grass grows green above his grave,
His soul is marching on.
He captured Harper’s Ferry, with his nineteen men so few,
And frightened "Old Virginny" till she trembled thru and thru;
They hung him for a traitor, they themselves the traitor crew,
But his soul is marching on.
John Brown was John the Baptist of the Christ we are to see,
Christ who of the bondmen shall the Liberator be,
And soon thruout the Sunny South the slaves shall all be free,
For his soul is marching on.
The conflict that he heralded he looks from heaven to view,
On the army of the Union with its flag red, white and blue.
And heaven shall ring with anthems o’er the deed they mean to do,
For his soul is marching on.
Ye soldiers of Freedom, then strike, while strike ye may,
The death blow of oppression in a better time and way,
For the dawn of old John Brown has brightened into day,
And his soul is marching on