Peregrine flight

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sunday Ramble

It was an interesting conversation. A friend came by, his name is not important, about my age, and we talked for several hours. We haven't known each other really for very long, but when we do talk, the minutes seem to peel off the clock. Our world views are largely dissimilar, but once the outer shell is pierced, we find that we share more in common than we first imagine.

My friend is going through the dreaded male menopause. Being on the far side of fifty, I am starting to see more of it creep up among my circle.  Very successful in his chosen field, he is contemplating getting off a winning horse and retiring at a relatively young age. He perceives a certain emptiness in his life, a gnawing sense of something missing in life's script. His singular pursuit has delivered rich rewards but left him at the finish line staring uneasily into the void.

I often see this existential longing with my doctor friends. The kind that work constantly, never marry, never develop a social aspect to their lives. Quick to get back to the E.R. on the weekends, if necessary, their life on temporary hold outside of the medical setting. It's easy to understand with the medical profession - have to ace math and chemistry in high school, get a normal degree, med school, residency, suddenly you are 8 years down the road and you have never learned to play in a social setting or have much time to make friends. And the hierarchal nature of the doctor/patient, doctor/nurse relationship adds an element of savior, god complex, autocrat to the mix.

My life has been a study in the reverse - lots of friends, but largely undisciplined and a poor money manager who tended to give it all away when he had it. But I don't see myself looking back with a lot of regrets. I have done things, albeit sometimes very foolishly, my way.

I was doing my inner pontification thing when my friend left the other day and thought about the danger of living a seamless life. We really let so little in, our armor is so very tight. Not so much left to chance. We were at a party at a doctor friend's last weekend and I told a story of an experience that happened a long time and marriage ago.

My ex wife Diann and I were in the south of Oaxaca at Puerto Escondido and decided to explore some of the deserted area and jungle north of the quiet (at the time) coastal town.  We went to Puerto Angelito, a small beach several miles away.  An old man lived on the promontory with some cows but he was not to be seen.  There was a lonely palapa where a young man sold bottles of squirt but we were the only humans beside him for miles around.

I walked up to an apple tree near the beach and picked a small green apple. I took a bite and immediately felt an intense burning sensation in my chest. I had to sit down on the sand. Diann found the boy, who summoned an old man from somewhere.  She pointed at the tree and than at me and the man said, in a breathy, hushed voice, "La Manzana del Diablo!"  Because of the language problem and my writhing pain, we could get no more information from the old man. He looked quite worried. I sat on the beach, not knowing if I would be dead in a minute, an hour, or whenever.  Probably a feeling somewhat akin to what those who feast on curious and unknown wild mushrooms from the forest floor might have. Hey, it was near a beach, who would allow the devil's apple to grow near the beach, even a beach perched on the edge of the Oaxacan jungle?

The upshot was that I survived and walked away after a few hours, with a newfound healthy caution for sampling unknown produce. Decidedly dumb, I agree.  I guess my point is, how seldom we as humans ever put ourselves in situations where the outcome is so undecided.  We used to have organs like appendixes and spleens that filtered poisons and the unknown but they have largely become vestigial.  Our hermetically sealed lives are carefully programmed to keep the slightest danger and unknown factors at a safe distance. Maybe we suffer for it?

I was 13 or 14 and living at a boarding school in Idyllwild.  A group of 8 or 9 kids along with two teachers from Desert Sun, Norwood Hazard and Joe Beauchamp, took a day hike out to the very hot dolomite mine in Pinyon Flats to look for bighorn sheep. Unbeknownst to us, our maps were from 1966 and the trails had been washed out in 1969 in a flood. We ran out of food and water in the hundred degree heat around midday.  We were hopelessly lost and ended up sliding down near vertical mountains, catching our falls by grabbing thorny cactus to break our momentum. Night came and Mr. Beauchamp and I and a girl named Ann left the main group, who were now suffering from hypothermia.  We had to find help. A 12 mile hike had turned into a thirty mile hike. All of us were thirsty, hungry and beyond exhaustion. It was a case of walk or die. We walked through treacherous rock filled canyons, with no help from a new moon, often dropping several feet in an instant.  We walked for wordless hours that filled an eternity.

I remember hallucinating that I was in the biblical valley of the shadow of death, my recent foray into religion not helping my internal dialogue any. At 4 in the morning, we wandered into a farmer's orange grove in Indio and I pulled two oranges off a tree, eating one in the pitch darkness, the first moisture in my cracked and parched mouth in 16 hours. The farmer's dogs discovered us and a helicopter and a search team were quickly summoned to retrieve the rest of our party. The next day, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the other orange.  It was bright green, a confusing thing because I could have sworn that piece of fruit in the middle of the night was the sweetest thing I have ever tasted.

I remember seeing people soon afterwards, who nodded their heads after they heard our tale as if they understood our predicament, but had no real clue as to the slender thread our lives had precariously hung to, since it is impossible to translate. I think back to that experience a lot. It helped define me and the limits of my strength, will and endurance. As difficult as it was, it was a peak episode in my life.

I didn't have all that much useful to say to my friend. He's probably smarter that I am and he has made his choices. Smart choices. But I also feel pretty good about my own because I have had the courage to occasionally fail. So here's to taking an occasional bite out of the devil's apple. Cheers.