I Seen the Elephant

There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
A race that can’t stay still;
So the break the hearts of kith and kin,
And the roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain’s crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don’t know how to rest.
“The Men That Don’t Fit In”
Robert W. Service

August 17, 1896 at the mouth of Rabbit creek on the east bank of the Yukon River, Skookum Jim Mason, Tagish Charlie, George Carmack and Carmack’s Tagish wife Shaawa Tla’a “Kate”, discovered placer gold with nuggets the size and quantity of which were unimagined since James Marshall’s strike at Sutter’s mill half-a-century before!  July 14, 1897 the Steamer Portland docked at Seattle with its storied “Ton Of Gold!”  Like a tidal wave, news surged over the waterfront and into town.

Within weeks the shock-troops of what would grow to 100,000 dreamers scallywags and hucksters crowded the beach at Dyea, Alaska, for the 33 mile hike, lugging a ton of supplies each, over 3759 foot Chilkoot Pass, then cobble-together watercraft for the four hundred miles voyage across Lake Bennett and down the Yukon to Dawson and Eldorado!

By fall of 1898 the estimated 30,000 to 40,000  farmers, accountants, teachers, loggers, mechanics, gamblers and riffraff who actually made it to the gold field, men who heretofore didn’t know a gold pan from a bedpan, crowded cheek-by-jowl along the twenty-mile reach of Rabbit, now “Bonanza,” creek from the Yukon to King Solomon’s Dome.

It’s said less than a hundred, maybe less than fifty, of those who rushed to the Yukon came home with enough bullion for a 640 acre spread in Montana, to pay off a mortgage, see the kids through college, or retire early.  But in the end those not preserved in the arctic permafrost returned, empty pockets or with a rucksack of bullion, could boast or feel silent consolation just knowing, “I saw the elephant!”

One telling of a tale whose roots may be traced to Hannibal’s elephants, goes like this.  Somewhere like the pinewoods of Tennessee, an old man lived alone in the log house where he was born.  Apart from household necessities he owned a dozen hens, a contrary rooster, a sow, a boar, a milk cow, an aged gray mule, a small cart, and a plot where he tended potatoes, carrots, turnips, onion and cabbage.

The first days of September and April punctuated the old farmer’s year.  September first he butchered a hog, salt-cured hams, hocks, chops, and sow-belly, and hung them in the root cellar behind the house.  Then he harvested.  With a winter’s supply of potatoes, carrots, and onions in wooden crates beneath the pork, he piled the remainder into his cart.

The following morning after a semi-annual scrub in a washtub on the porch, the old man put on his clean flannel shirt and bib overalls.  Hitching up his mule, he climbed to the seat of the cart and urged the tired animal up rutted tracks to the county road, then five miles to town.  At Abner’s Mercantile he sold and traded carrots, potatoes, onions, corn and cabbage for flour, cornmeal, salt, sugar, coffee, and tobacco.  On the April first town visit his few remaining dollars went for carrot and corn seed, onion and cabbage sets and tobacco.

Summers passed planting, watering, weeding, tending animals, gathering eggs, beheading and frying the occasional ill-fated hen, and on the back porch in his grandfather’s rocking chair, smoking his pipe and appraising his world.

For decades this routine passed with the certainty of the seasons, until one fateful April first town visit.  As he crossed the street from Abner’s, the usual brown paper bag in his arms, a bright new poster on the livery stable door caught his eye.  Deviating from a straight line path to his cart, the farmer walked to the stable and stared at the advertisement.  A beast, trunk raised, triangular multicolored scarf with gold tassel down its forehead dominated the scene.  Astride its neck, legs tucked behind cart-wheels size ears, sat a near-naked brown-skinned boy, a white towel wound around his head, holding a staff with a hooked end.  Behind and above the elephant, on the high seat over a cage a hostler held the lines to a draft team.  Below a Bengal tiger paced behind steel bars.  Wagons, clowns leaping and turning cartwheels, juggled balls and white pins, followed.

After Gawking at the apparition for a full two minutes, the old man’s attention settled to “August 1-3 – Admission $2” at the bottom with the realization that minutes before, for a tin of Prince Albert tobacco he laid his last twenty-five piece on  Abner’s counter.

As summer passed, hoeing corn, feeding hogs, gathering eggs, chopping wood, on the porch smoking, the vision of that great gray beast, trunk raised, brown-skinned boy astride its neck, returned to the his mind’s eye as clearly as chickens scratching in the yard, green leaves in the old oak, Morning-glory curling about the corner posts of his porch.  The fact that he didn’t possess a single dime, much less two dollars, plagued him.

At last, sitting and smoking on a calm July evening, a thought which had lurked at the back of the farmer’s mind demanded attention.  August first, a month before harvest.  With four more weeks his corn, potatoes, carrots, onions, and cabbage would grow by a full one-third.  Harvesting on August first meant sacrificing a third of his annual income.  Still, in an instant the obsession to see that elephant took control of old man’s homely inclination.

On the thirtieth day of July, after eggs and bacon, the farmer went to his garden, picked up his shovel, and started to dig.  The following morning, after a scrub on porch, dressed in clean shirt and overalls he hitched up the mule and urged him up the rutted tracks.

At the county road decades of experience had impressed on the old man prudence of stop, look, and listen.  A hundred paces to his right hawthorn hedge blocked his view.  A vehicle emerging around a curve could cover the distance before the mule completed a step, scattering animal, cart and teamster like a cannonball striking a woodpile.

For a minute the teamster remained perched on his cart-seat listening, waiting and watching.  There was a sound, but not the rush of rubber tires on gravel.  More like the plodding of hooves but deeper and slower than a draft team.  Then motion behind the hawthorn became a great gray head, swaying slowly back and forth, a trunk swinging side-to-side, a brown-skinned boy astride its neck!

Mouth agape, eyes large as quarter-dollars, the farmer watched the beast approach.  On stopping, the mule’s muzzle had routinely dropped to within inches of the grass beside the roadway.  When a huge gray hoof crushed the gravel two paces from his face, as if jabbed under the chin with a sharp stick the animal’s head jerked up.  With spirit and dexterity not exhibited in a decade the mule reared, yanked the reins from the teamster’s hands, pivoted, snapped both cart shafts, completed a hundred-and-eighty degree turn on his rear legs, and raced like a yearling toward home.

Lying beside his overturned cart while the elephant passed, the old man’s gaze remained fixed, its spine was tall as a ridgepole, body a quarter the size of his house, legs like maple trunks, feet big as water buckets.  Behind the elephant came cages with the tiger, monkeys, and a great brown bear.  Clowns and performers rode the roofs of  painted vans.  Wagons with poles, ropes, and mounds of canvas followed.

The farmer sat up beside his overturned cart and surveyed his harvest.  Small ears of corn and heads of cabbage lay hidden in the brambles and primrose beside the road.  Seeing potatoes, turnips and carrots crushed by hooves and wheels an astonishing thought arose in the old man’s mind, “It’s no matter.”  His gaze lifted to the last wagon disappearing over a hill, “For I seen the elephant.”

Of millions who heard of the Klondike Bonanza, a scant handful kissed girlfriends, wives, and mamas goodbye, took the gamble, headed North.  The complexity of human experience makes distinguishing those who rush after the elephant from we who stay home impossible.  And the spectrum of those who go ranges from prosaic and exotic.

While the rest of us put in thirty years at the mill or on the farm, assemble the cars, grow the corn, raise the beef, slaughter the hogs, drive the semis, mind the store, teach the children, sit at a desk, and take our two-week Yellowstone vacation, those “who don’t fit in,” risk life and fortune rushing off to the Yukon, climbing Everest, diving the Mariana Trench, driving at Indy, breaking the sound barrier, and squeezing into a Volkswagon-size capsule to be kicked by a hundred ton rocket to the Moon.

Elephant chasers represent two sides of a coin: invention and creation.  Henry Ford’s elephant was a motorcar.  For brothers working in a Dayton bicycle shop, a flying machine.  The Wizard of Menlo Pork chased a herd of elephants: electric light, a talking machine, a hundred more.  Richard Goddard’s elephant was a rocket into space.  For folks at NASA seeing the elephant was seeing Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon, Rovers creeping across Mars’s the red dirt.  Chasing his elephant, Albert Einstein rode a beam of light.

On the creative side, Shakespeare envisioned and created elephants with words, van Gough with paint on canvas.  Michelangelo painted and sculpted elephants, da Vinci imagined and created a catalog of elephants.  Mozart’s elephants were harmony and rhythm, symphony and opera.

It takes us all, the Doers and Dreamers.  Right?  While we who assemble the cars, build the houses, grow the wheat, teach the kids, drive the trucks, coach Little League, cook, wash dishes, and scrub the toilets, elephant chasers lead or pull us, some would say arguably, “forward.”  While the mass of us make day-to-day life possible a handful feel compelled to  see the elephant.

“A vision without a task is but a dream.  A task without a vision is drudgery.  A vision and a task is the hope of the world.”
Inscription of a church wall in Sussex England, c. 1730

See How it Feels

It’s said, debate arose among Churchmen of Medieval Europe regarding the native language of man.  Greek or Latin?  When prayer, the study of scripture, Plato and Aristotle failed to address their question, the learned Clergy devised a scheme which, a millennia before the Renaissance, became a hallmark of Science: an experiment.

A group of newborns was isolated as never to hear human speech. Anticipating what researchers would label “extraneous variables,” the subjects would be fed, diapered and clothed but otherwise experience the barest minimum of human contact.   The hypothesis was, uncontaminated by hearing human speech, the subject would reveal humankind’s native tongue.  The outcome was indecisive.  The little subjects never spoke.  Denied meaningful human contact, nurturing, they just died.

A millennia down the road, economic and societal meltdown lead Bulgaria’s child welfare system to conditions eerily reminiscent of that–I hope apocryphal–Dark Age experiment.  In 2007 BBC exposed “Bulgaria’s Abandoned Children” to the world.  Vacant-eyed infants peering through steel cribs bars, rows of naked emaciated bodies nodding silently on cold plastic pots, legs barely able to support skin-and-bones frames, orphans scraping spoons in metal bowls, frantically competing for a last fragment of potato.  Overshadowed by the graphic horror of this disaster is, despite being warehoused cheek-by-jowl, total absence of physical contact, touch, talk, nothing resembling play.  Of course, the mental and emotional impact on these victims is profound.  In the “Daily Mail” Rosa Monckton reports, “Because of a lack of interaction, children in Bulgarian institutions grow slowly mad.”  With the tragedy exposed, organizations and individuals rushed to foster and adopt.

A documentary recounted the challenges confronting American families having the love and courage to take in these profoundly damaged little people.  Of many physical and emotional encounters between adoptee and adoptive parents, for me one stood out.  An out of control boy threw objects, broke pictures and mirrors, punched holes in walls.  When a desperate Mom tried to placate him the six- or seven-year-old punched her in the stomach, “See how it feels!”

For some time this ignominious act and exclamation puzzled me.  Here was a woman who, surely knowing life would be significantly impacted if not turned upside down by the gesture, knocked herself out, jumped through bureaucratic hoops and over hurdles, went to significant financial expense, and overcame unforeseen obstacles and challenges to rescuing a profoundly physically and emotionally stunted child, rewarded with a punch to the gut!  “See how it feels!”

See how what feels?  Lady in the big house, see how it feels to stare through steel crib bars for days on end.  Lady in the bed with its sweet-smelling comforter and  half-a-dozen pillows, see how it feels to lie in a moldering nightshirt on a dank mattress day and night.  Lady with cupboards, refrigerators, and freezers stocked with food to feed an orphanage for days, see how it feels to experience constant gnawing hunger, to fight over a handful of spoiled beans.  Lady on the gleaming white toilet in her antiseptic, porcelain and chrome bathroom, see how it feels to squat for hours on a plastic pot amid naked, emaciated, near-zombies swaying slowly back and forth.  See how it feels Lady!  See how it feels really to hurt!  See how it feels to suffer!

The Buddha taught life is suffering.  My life, and from my perspective other people’s, seems to bear this out.  What we do with suffering makes all the difference.  Mostly, we suck it up.  We’re Heroes.  We suffer in silence.  We’re patient.  To be “patient” is “to suffer.”  It’s why doctors have patients.  Sometimes the pain seeps out through passive-aggressive or vicarious means; we can be sneaky, mean.  A popular outlet for suffering is addiction.  To “addict” is “to assign or surrender.”  When life is too much we assign or surrender our pain to alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, heroine, work, money, success, relationship.

See how it feels is the tap-root of abuse: child abuse, spousal abuse, elder abuse, colleague abuse, employee abuse.  As if through perverse, crazy thinking we feel we can be rid of our suffering by giving it to someone else.  When the pain seems unbearable we punch somebody in the gut.  Sick, tired, injured, insulted, frightened or had a really bad day, some if us come home, curse, kick the dog, shout at the spouse, beat the kid.  Driven by madness some walk into a school, church or synagogue with an AK47!  See how it feels to hurt inside!

See how it feels America.  In your grand cities, with your skyscrapers, your streets crowded with cars, your sidewalks crowded with shoppers, your homes with  electric power, hot and cold running water, heating and air conditioning, see how it feels to live for generations in tents, mud huts, and refugee camps.  In your automobiles cruising streets and highways paved with asphalt stolen from beneath our feet, see how it feels to walk barefoot down rutted tracks.  In your Super Markets, shelves loaded with so much food a quarter is wasted, see how it feels to suffer from hunger, to die from starvation!  See how it feels to be marginalized, exploited, humiliated.

When we fly aircraft into your World Trade Center, see how it feels to have our city, one of the oldest on Earth bombed without provocation, its infrastructure destroyed, its citizens murdered, leaving us in perpetual economic and cultural chaos behind!

See How it Feels has a corollary: Misery Likes Company.  In the former case we let others, if not feel, at least know our suffering.  The latter offers prosaic if not perverse relief knowing others suffer.  The paparazzi and tabloids, “National Inquirer” and others capitalize on this.  Waiting at the checkout counter, with a sick kid and spouse just laid off, about to charge another weeks groceries to a nearly maxed-out VISA, a shopper finds fleeting consolation reading of “Hillary’s Breakdown,” “The Pope’s Love Child,” “Obama’s Porno Addiction,” “Tom Cruse Dying of Aids.”

Misery Likes Company found creative outlet when, in 1935, Bill W. and Bob S. expanded peer support from church, synagogue, Elks, Rotary and Masons to the broad world of suffering.  Over ensuing decades their Alcoholics Anonymous model was adopted by folks suffering from other drug addictions, mental illness, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, suicide prevention, those impacted by suicide and violent death, grief, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Parents of Murdered Children and more.

With all of the above said, it’s important to point out we really don’t hurt others out of malevolent intent.  Whether we suffer in silence, find relief knowing we don’t suffer alone, or beat up on the next object or person in sight, for better or worse, the lion’s share of human behavior has unconscious roots.  We act out  of unconscious motivation, we don’t want to hurt others; we just want the suffering to stop.  Even the horrors inflicted by sociopaths are rooted in profound mentally illness.

It is important to know all is not lost.  There is hope.  One key to managing suffering, a hallmark of the Buddha’s teaching, is “Mindfulness.”  Thick Nhat Hanh puts it succinctly, “Practicing mindfulness I can recognize what is happening in the present without grasping or aversion.  I can practice mere recognition of what is going on within me and around me without judgment or reaction.  This helps me to keep stability and freedom alive within myself.”  Touching the Earth (P.22)

Two and a half millennia after the Buddha, Sigmund Freud defined the purpose of psychoanalysis, if memory serves, as “to make unconscious process conscious.”  It seems not too much of a stretch to call this “mindfulness.”  Over the ensuing century psychiatry, psychology and counselors have helped millions find, if not total, significant relief from mental and emotional suffering.  Psychiatrists Dr. Eugene Chernell and Dr. Patrick Freehill saved my life.

Eastern practices of Tai Chi, Yoga and acupuncture have helped Westerners experience mind-body connection significantly effective in relieving stress.  Today in American homes, groups, schools, and hospitals, meditation gains significant traction.

If we screw up our courage and confront the ghosts who, for decades, have grumbled and stirred in the attic, if we are brave enough to climb the ladder, push open that little door in the ceiling and shine a light up there, what do we see?  Dust and cobwebs.  What we thought were ghosts are imaginary, parasites with no power.  The only power they seem to have is the power we choose to give them.  They never existed!

Who’s Driving?

Seeing eight decades in the rearview mirror, I realize this aged body is a machine, a motorcar–quaint term, motorcar, you don’t hear it today–a highly complex assemble of parts and processes performing with unnoticed and unappreciated precision.  And life is a road race, like Le Mans.

It’s all here: engine, transmission, frame, running gear, cab, seats, the works.  With fuel, an occasional oil change and tune-up, despite blow-outs and dents, a burst radiator hose, a broken fan belt, near-fatal crashes and a major overhaul, over three-quarters of a century my little race car sped with precision and dependability I have no right to expect.

For something like a  million miles my 1937 Alfa Romeo–Ferrari’s predecessor–powered around hairpin curves and up steep grades, fender-to-fender with the swiftest.  Now it struggles just to keep up.  The bearings are loose, the engine strains, the radiator leaks.  Decades of grit, pebbles and stones leave the body weathered, scratched, dented.  Uncounted impacts of bug, bird, sleet and hail leave the windscreen glazed.

With the finish line lurking around every curve it seems prudent to ease up on the accelerator, to retire from racing.  Before I run head-on with a semi, drive ‘er over a cliff, or coast slowly to the side of the freeway, it’s time to slow down, way down.  Besides focusing intently on the road ahead, it’s time to look around, inside and out, appreciate what, caught up in the chase, I missed.  It’s never too late to enjoy the ride.

Oh, I almost forgot!  The big rarely asked and for me never answered question: Who’s driving?

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For this I’m wholly in debt to the Buddha’s two-and-half-millennia old wisdom.

What Next?

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The Mariner’s option was sea water.  We have choices: water from a faucet or plastic bottle.  Despite the cheapest, safest municipal drinking water on Earth, Americans increasingly choose the latter.  Why?  Because Nestle, Coca Cola, Danone, and PepsiCo sell it.  As I’ve said, this worries me.

In “Stuff” I expressed Angst around drinking-water in plastic bottles.  This current rant was triggered on learning that, despite 80,000 arguments against versus 75 in favor, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality approved Nestle’s, the largest food and beverage company on earth, petition to increase production of free, plastic-bottled well-water from over a quarter- to over a half-million gallons a day.  While, for unrelated factors, Flint citizens are forced to buy water which may well come from beneath their feet.

We assume well or spring water is “pure,” but is it any more-so than Boston’s, Kansas City’s, Denver’s, or Los Angeles’s municipal water?  The fact is, much of the water in the avalanche of plastic bottles on Supermarket and Quick-Stop shelves comes from municipal spigots!  Read the fine print.  To appear healthy and scientific it’s “filtered,” “oxygenated.”  For fastidious consumers it’s “vapor distilled” with “electrolytes” “antioxidants” even vitamins.  But a huge volume of the bottled water on folks’ counters comes from faucets little different than from the one in the kitchen sink two feet away.

Then there’s plastic.  In Nestle’s Mecosta County, Michigan, factory–one of over a hundred–pellets from 125 ton silos are turned into plastic bottles.  On ZDNet Andrew Nusca reports Americans throws away 2.5 million plastic bottles an hour!  If my math serves–it’s an eye-crossing row of zeros–the number approaches 22 billion bottles a year!  Plastic bottles to litter sidewalks, streets, highways, parks, forests, deserts and tundra; foul streams, rivers, seashores and oceans, and never disintegrate!  Again, do we need water in plastic bottles?  Of course not.  It’s because of jaded Americans like me and corporate profit!

What next, air?

Rest assured, PepsiCo, Nestle, and the others’ have plans in place to park cargo ships at the Weddell Sea ice sheet, lay an eight-inch line a thousand miles south, suck air to compressors, fill those big steel containers with ten liter canisters and steam north with “South Pole Air” which Amazon, Costco, and Wal-Mart will market.  An individual one day supply for  $9.95 or monthly delivery for $250.  Fed-Ex and UPS are ordering vans fited for various size canisters.

Not just the South Pole.  Oh no!  Contracts are being negotiated for North Pole, Sahara, Amazon, Congo, Himalayan, and Mongolian operations, “Arctic Breeze,” “Zephyr,” “Mountain Morning,” “Jungle Calm.” And not just continental air.  How about Mid-Pacific, Mid-Atlantic, Mid-Bearing Sea, Mid-Indian Ocean air?  Picking up on flavored water, they’ll add scent: “ice-cold,” “sandstorm,” “plumaria,” “high-altitude,” “desert sunrise,” “tropic breeze.”  The options and profits are limitless!

Will the time come when those who can afford it wear a mask or those little forked numbers stuck up their nostrils piping air from floral, cartoon, or camo designer, for conservatives breathers just plain gray or blue, cylinders strapped to our backs?

How cool is that?