Saturday, January 19, 2013

Who Am I?

Allow me to share a little of my inner-self with you: I would love to go through boot camp.

Call it a boyish desire for guns, sweat and tears, but there's something about the physical and mental struggles that our armed forces members go through that I would like to experience.

The Discovery Channel has put together a series called Surviving the Cut. If you have Netflix, look it up. It's pretty interesting to watch. Each 40-45 minute episode covers the training or interview process for a different kind of specially trained troop in the various branches of our military.

So far I've watched episodes on Army Rangers, Air Force Para-rescue, Marine Recon, Special Forces Diver, Marine and Army Sniper, and Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewman. I also watched Two Weeks In Hell, a separate documentary on Green Baret training. Surprisingly, there's no episode on the popular Navy Seal. Each school or program has one thing in common. They. Kick. Your. Ass.

You get to watch soldier after soldier vomit from exhaustion, collapse trying to simply walk down the street. Thousands of push-ups. Leg-lifts. Running. Carrying. Log drills. More running. Snot, blood, sweat and, yes, lots of tears come out during so many of these trainings. And I find that I'm captivated it.

It's not that they assign a lot of PT (physical training). It's that they assign more than anyone could possibly do. Each of the programs seems to involve an element of bringing a man to the point of physical fatigue to then see what he does. All of the candidates interviewed state that its a battle of the mind - mental toughness (along with a dose of physical toughness I'm sure, too). The armed forces are looking for individuals who, when they've reached their breaking point, will keep pushing anyway or break trying.

And many do. Dozens of candidates are discharged from the tryouts because they've pushed their bodies too much and medics won't allow them to continue. I'll take a moment to say that the sniper schools were very clearly the least demanding physically and there was far less emphasis on PT and the will to go on. However, sniper school presents it's own challenges and still had a high attrition rate.

To me, the worst looking one to survive was probably Marine Recon. In addition to spending lots of time operating on no sleep and no energy, they finished their training with what's called the Zombie March. In a staged exercise to rescue several injured soldiers and carry them miles away to safety, the instructors started throwing cans of tear gas. Can after can. For an hour.

The gas made candidates vomit, tear up, ooze snot and saliva from everywhere, and made them feel as  if their lungs were on fire. But, apparently, tear gas doesn't kill you. Technically, you can breathe through it, suck it up, and keep going. And that's what the candidates for Marine Recon had to do. They marched and heaved for an hour, over several miles, through dozens of tear gas clouds. All the while they carried 200lb dummies, extra gear, and their own 70lb packs. After the hour of tear gas, they still marched and carried another two hours. At the end, they all looked like zombies, hence the name.

The most elite of the specialized schools seemed, to me, to be the Special Forces Combat Diver. The guys enrolled in this school had already passed one of the other special forces schools (e.g. Marine Recon, Green Baret, Army Rangers, Navy Seals). So they had already proven they were bad-ass. But underwater is a very dangerous environment to operate tactically.

The combat diver school pushed candidates to the point of panic, and then watched how they responded. There were specific drills, done in the water, to test whether a candidate could continue thinking clearly, even when his body and lungs began physical panic. This was very interesting to me as I spent lots of my childhood swimming in lakes and pools and I'm familiar with at least the first moments of panic due to lack of air. Not fun. These guys were being asked to continue functioning when panic set it. Yikes.

Also, the combat diver training involved much less of the traditional loud-in-you-face-drill-seargent-yelling than the other schools. Like I said, these guys had already proven themselves and didn't need that. It was much more laid back. "Let's learn how to become even more bad-ass." And you could tell.

The final mission of combat diver school included a mock military operation. They had to infiltrate undetected via the water. Then go on land, and take down their instructors with military grade paintball guns, recover a hostage, make it back to the water and boat away. Now, some of the other schools had mock missions simulating real combat. But the combat diver school included a bunch of bad ass veterans, most of whom had already seen real combat as a special force unit. And you could tell. They rocked the final mission! Even though the instructors (posing as bad guys) knew they were coming at some point, these candidates took them apart. They went in, took names, and got out of there.

But back to the reason for this post. Watching these guys find their breaking point and decide what to do next is inspiring. Some give up. Some press on. It makes me ask the question, What's my breaking point? There's a part of me that very much would like to find out. The problem is, it's a rough journey just to get to your breaking point, and then, I can't imagine the mental fortitude it takes to continue at something when your entire body says "no." But that's what I want to find out.

What kind of stuff am I made of? There's a way in which you can't know until you've pushed for something beyond what you thought possible. And that's why it's a fantasy of mine to go to boot camp.
If only the military offered a way for civilians to experience boot camp, I'd be in the first line.

I'm not saying boot camp is as hard as these special military schools. I also don't think it would be easy either. But I'm sure basic boot camp creates plenty of moments that cause soldiers to question who they are. And in a way we don't really know who we are until we're pushed. And that's why I want to go do boot camp. To continue answering this life-long question, Who am I?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

On blogging and motivation

Greetings faithful readers,

If you're reading this post, you're probably thinking, "well it's about time that yokle put up a new blog post!" In fact, I'm thinking that myself, about myself. To the three of you who followed follow my blog, I offer a mediocre apology for the lack of posts.

But here's the deal: the future of this blog is still up in the air, undecided, less than certain. The fact is, most of my goals or motivations for keeping up the blog have been accomplished.

When I started, my goals were to explore my ability as a "writer" and find my own voice in writing. These I have done. I have found my voice (as all writers must do), bland as it may be, and I have even surprised myself a few occasions concerning my literary ability.

Also, starting it up, I thought I had something in me the world needed to hear. If you go back to the early posts you'll notice a few of these types of "prescriptive" or opinionated or even sermon-like posts. But this desire in me - to boss people around - has subsided as I've learned more about myself. I have found, instead, I am a listener, not a bosser. 

As I entered the world of chaplancy, the goals for my blog changed. It became a mechanism through which I processed all of the new experiences and things I was learning, seeing and coping with. Being thrust from a happy-go-lucky existence into the world of trauma hospitals comes with a certain amount of shock. Sharing stories and thoughts on my blog helped me to sort it all out. When I learned something new, there was an energy that would sit inside me, waiting to get out and onto the blog. There's a large way in which blogging on those topics was very healing. Let's call it "blog therapy."

During my second residency as a chaplain (in AK), much less of what I was seeing and experiencing was new. I had already processed my thoughts for the most part. Thus, there are far less posts on that residency, even though my experiences of death, trauma, tears and heartache were no fewer.

As we moved to AK, I posted a wonderful daily trip update of where we were and what we had seen. This was so much fun that I later had those posts turned into a little book for Heather and I to keep. That process however, set a precedent for trip and travel updates, which I had not intended. These posts I have kept up fairly well until this summer. There are so many pictures and stories and places we've seen, and family whose visited, it just became too large a job to keep up the trip updates. It has become more of a burden than anything. They're not something that I want, from within me, to share on my blog. Yes, I want family to be able to read them; however, they're not the sort of things that jumps out of my fingers, onto the keyboard on into the screen. There's no energy inside me that just can't wait to post a trip update. Trip updates are not theraputic blogging.

I also like reviewing books on the blog. I've written about my motivation on this topic in another post. I won't rehash it here. But, I will still blog on books (I hope) about which I feel I have something worthwhile to say.

What, then, shall I blog about? At this point I'm not sure. I guess you could say, I'm in search of new blogging motivation. I've thought often about blogging more on hospice and hospice issues that arise. But there's no great energy behind it. Secondly, I find I have much less time for blogging these days too. That needs changing. So, bear with me, as I search for new topics and motivations. Pray that I find a subject(s) for which the words can't wait to leave my fingers.

Yours (both of you),


Sunday, September 9, 2012

Grieving God's Way, by Margaret Brownley

In my work as a bereavement chaplain for a hospice, I am always on the look out for helpful books concerning grief, recovery, emotional schtuff and topics around death & dying. So of course, I took the opportunity to browse through this new book from Thomas Nelson Publishing.

I've never heard of Margaret Brownley, but her author bio touts her as an accomplished writer of fiction. Her eldest son died, and from that experience came this book, Grieving God's Way.

I will not claim to be an expert on grief, recovery theory, or what most people, or anyone, particularly need when grieving the loss of a loved one. However, my job puts me listening to grieving people daily, and I am learning from them daily. THis is the background from which I comment on Brownley's book.

The book is not a through-reader. Meaning, you might read a page a day. It is written to the griever, and each page contains a Bible verse, a short topical reflection around grief, a haiku and a "Healing Way" (practical suggestions for healing). There are 90 days total.

In the reflections, it quickly becomes clear that Brownley is a gifted writer. Her tone is approachable, smooth, inviting and at times winsome. I can see why this book approved for publishing and may be attractive to many a bereaved person.

That said, it is unlikely I will ever recommend this book to a grieving person. Allow me to be a little nit-picky, only because, as I've said, I listen to bereaved people daily and I feel a little protective of them.

The first thing I noticed was the title. Grieving God's Way is pretentious. I don't like it. Are we supposed to think that there is a Christian way to grieve and/or a non-Christian way? Can we sin by grieving the wrong way? Or is the title suggesting that there's one way to grieve, and it's God's way, and that this book explains that "way"? I'm just not sure. So, I would've gone with a different title. However, the book does not attempt to explain God's way of grieving (whatever that is). It simply offers 90 reflections, haiku's etc. about grief. So, the book has a bad title that it's not trying to live up to. Whatever.

Call me a stickler, but she got Kubler-Ross wrong. A few decades ago Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote a ground breaking book called On Death and Dying. She interviewed dying people and published her findings. One of the things she talked about was "the stages of grief": denial/isolation, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance. Margaret Brownley, unfortunately talks about them in terms of what folks go through after losing a loved one (p17). But Kubler-Ross' stages of grief pertain to what dying people experience. There are plenty of similarities between these two groups of people; however, there are plenty of differences in their grief processes as well. Splitting hairs? Maybe. But I'd hope that someone authoring a self-help book on grief would appropriately handle the famed "stages of grief."

The book is a little to prescriptive for my liking. My approach when doing grief counseling is to take the posture of a companion to the griever. Walking side-by-side with one who is broken by loss, doing my best to offer the support of a friend while letting the griever find his/her own way. Many of the pages containing "Healing Ways" were wise and useful. However, there were also those places where Brownley seemed a little too pushy in the should department. Everyone's grief and processing of it is unique. I am wary of those offering any sort of should to someone else who is grieving.

I've spent considerable space discussing negatives of this book. Overall, I think there is a Christian population that will be helped by this book very much. But in my profession there are other better books that I will turn to before Grieving God's Way. 

Tzana's visit: 2012

My mother-in-law, Tzena (pronounced Zay-nah), came to visit us for a week at the end of June till just after July 4th. And with her visit, our adventurous exploring of Alaska continued. 

The beginning of our venture took us to Whittier, AK. To get there, you have to drive through a 2 mile tunnel. The tunnel was built for a train, and so its very thin - only one direction of driving at a time (the direction changes every 1/2 hour), and we were driving over train tracks.
Whittier tunnel entrance, straight into a mountain
There's not a whole lot to do in Whittier, so we walked just outside of town to look at the river and waterfalls.
Heather and her Momma by the river
Yes it was June, and yes that's snow behind them!
Whittier is one of those quirky little towns you hear about. One of the "quirks" is this building. This is the dormitory, where everyone (yes, everyone) in Whittier lives.
Makes life easy for the postman
Alas, we only briefly passed through Whittier, because soon after touring the small town, we drove Jayne onto a ferry. Our plan: take the Alaska Marine Highway (a.k.a. big boat that holds cars and stuff) over to Valdez (another quirky town) and drive back to Anchorage.

The boat ride was absolutely beautiful. Completely surrounded by snow-speckled mountains, there wasn't a dull view in sight for the entire 6+ hour boat ride.
Front of the boat, with gorgeous-ness in sight
 This is one of two glaciers we passed on the trip. Sorry, but I've forgotten their names.

The second glacier we passed was s tide-water glacier (meaning it ends in the ocean) and it left lots of floating ice chunks in the water.
Sea Otters sun bathing on an ice chunk
The captain slowed the boat way down to navigate the clogged up ice-filled waters. But there's no avoiding it. We were constantly crunching into the ice chunks. He was just avoiding the really big ones. And there were plenty out there as big as a house. (You can see the tide-water glacier in the back ground in the picture below.) (Click to enlarge)
This is what I mean by "lots of ice chunks"
We passed this buoy, which had three stellar sea lions hanging out.

Awesome mountains with waterfalls were everywhere
Finally, we docked in Valdeze, AK, home the second largest oil spill in history.

We found this cool little "park" called Dock Point Park. It was more like a really high knoll on the side of town, you had to hike up and then walk around in the woods following a trail.
You can never get too many hugs
We also found the base of a huge waterfall that you could see from anywhere in town. It made its way a few thousand feet down a mountain that bowled in the town.
Momma and daughter, enjoying the falls!
Our friend, and Heather's former pharmacy tech, Coleen, was doing an internship in Valdez at the oil terminal. When she had to go out on a boat with her boss for something work related, her boss was like, "Well, we're out here, why don't we put out the shrimp pots?" Later they pulled up a bunch of fresh caught shrimp, of which Coleen generously gave us a bag.
Don't mind that Coleen is flipping YOU the bird!
The next morning, we walked out to the car, ready to start our journey back toward Anchorage, and right across the street (only about 50 feet away) we saw this black bear. And he had strewn someone's trash all over the road.

I gotta admit, this one made me laugh
"Bazinga! Score! 
Then he made off with it like he stole something.....which I guess he did
 Here's the final moments of him making off with his treasure.

Before leaving town, we drove out to the oil terminal, where all of our Alaskan oil ends up and gets processed. It was kind of neat to see, but we couldn't go past this spot.

At one of the pull-offs we spotted this guy in a tree only 10 feet above our heads.

At the next pull off, we spotted this little inquisitive harbor seal looking back at us.

Looks like little puppy eyes
Moments later, a steller sea lion popped up and started yawning and growling.

Everyone told us that just outside of Valdez there are some beautiful waterfalls. But, we never found them. We only found these lame ones.

Jayne like water fall
Horse Tail Falls
A few hours into our journey and we unexpectedly passed Worthington Glacier. This is an in-land glacier that you can walk right up to, which I did.

Notice the pathway is completely covered in snow in early July
Worthington Glacier 
We came into Anchorage from the north, and that drive up through the valley is one of the most beautiful drives. It follows a carved out glacier valley that now is home to the Matanuska (pronounced matt-uh-noos-kuh) River. But along the way there are some breath taking sights. Here' sone of them. 

Behind us, in the picture below, you can barely make out the Matanuska Glacier (the little white strip that's even with my hair).

We were also celebrating Tzena's birthday during her visit. Below is the blanket we had woven with a picture on it from Tzena's last visit to Alaska. It's a piece of scenery from Kenai Lake, AK. The water was so crystal clear it made for a perfect reflection, and on the left hand side you can sort of make out the front portion of the train from which the picture was taken.

She liked her blankee
We then took her up the tram in Girdwood to take in the sights of the Turnagain Arm before eating at the restaurant on the mountain called Seven Glaciers, so named for the nearby ice formations. Can you guess how many there are?!

At about 3,000 ft elevation, looking down at sea level
And lastly, before she left, we took her up to Flat Top to walk with the puptons to take in the sights. This picture is very near the spot where my brother-out-law was the coldest he's ever been!
Momma T and her grand-dogs
Tzena, as always we loved having you visit, and you can't come back too soon!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Wrangell - St. Elias: America's Largest National Park

Last June Heather and I ventured to a non-touristy area of Alaska to go camping. We made the 9-hour drive from Anchorage to McCarthy, which is the center most town in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.

The view upon entering the park
After receiving a tip from a person I met through work, we planned a four day trip to go explore this little-explored part of our state. But first, we had to get there. The entrance to the park is through a little town called Chitina ("chit-nuh"), which is about a 6 hour drive if you're eating up some good road. And Chitina is only 60 miles from McCarthy, our destination. HOWEVER, those last 60 miles took us tttthhhhhrrrrreeeeeee  llllooooooooonnnnnngg hhhoooooouuuuuuurrrrrrsssssss..........
McCarthy Road and mountains all around!

The McCarthy Road. Definition: worst road in the United States! It runs from Chitina, into the park to McCarthy. A dirt path filled with potholes that never end. Maybe it should be described as a path of potholes with a few flat spots between them. We began driving the McCarthy Road at 9pm. We arrived a little after midnight. It became clear to me why this is not a tourist hot spot.

This view was just there, minding its own business, so we decided to take it with us
But, despite being a most frustrating and painfully slow road to travel, the scenery was sure beautiful. For me, it was more beautiful than Denali National Park (the popular one with that big mountain). Although, this park does contain Mount St. Elias, which is the 2nd tallest mountain in N. America!

We hit our campsite about 12:30am. We set up camp (without needing a lantern) and slept. The next morning we headed into McCarthy. You can't drive in McCarthy. You must walk. From our campground, it was about 1/2 mile into town, and you had to cross this foot bridge you see below. We brought our bikes to expedite our time and reduce the amount of walking.

 A little cool and drizzly that day on the foot bridge
Behold the great city of McCarthy! We toured the town on our bikes and ventured to the general store to have some ice cream. As you can see, McCarthy is a little place. There's a few shops, and no gas station for the few cars that are over there.
Main street
One of the main reasons to visit this area is to go to the next "town," Kennicott. About 5 miles past McCarthy is this old historic mining town. It's up on the side of a mountain with some killer views of several glaciers and mountain ranges. There's a shuttle you can pay that will drive you up the road to Kennicott, but we had our bikes - no shuttle! A local recommended we bike the Old Wagon Trail instead of the road. It parallels the road but is in the woods and has come good scenery.

This....was a mistake. The first mile of the wagon "trail" was pleasant with a slight incline, dirt path and nice foliage. But after that, after we'd gone so far that turning back was out of the question, it became treacherous. The incline became a hill. The hill never ended. The dirt path became gravel. That gravel became bigger rocks that were loose and very difficult to bike over. Several times we were forced to dismount and walk the bikes over crops of small boulders. Did I mention it was uphill the whole way?! The foliage remained nice though.

It took us somewhere around an hour to do 5 miles. We sweated. And then, we sweat some more. Finally, finally, we reached our destination. The ground leveled out and the trees opened up to an incredible view.

Cue incredible view behind us
 Kennicott overlooks a valley, several miles wide, into which at least two glaciers let out. Notice what appears to be mounds of dirt behind us. That's actually the Root Glacier and the Kennicott Glacier, which have come together, and the ice is covered with a layer of dirt called a moraine. The valley is crawling with crawling glacial ice.

After looking around the old mining town, having lunch and regaining some strength, we biked through and out of Kennicott to follow a trail to the Root Glacier. The path soon became un-bikeable, so we abandoned our bikes on the side of the path and continued on. The view remained "view-y" and we walked.
Taking in the sights, just after leaving bikes

Jumbo Falls, on the way to glacier access 
W eventually came to a place where the moraine was not covering the glacier, and followed the trail like Frodo and Sam through Mordor to our destination.

Heather, on the path to the glacier
This trench shows the edge of the glacier against the mountain side
We spent a few minutes walking around on a little piece of the glacier. The few times so far I've had the chance to walk on or up to a glacier I've always gotten a brooding or ominous sense. There's something about being next to an enormous glacier that dwarfs my sense of being. I get that slightly nervous or edgy feeling in my gut. The air is instantly cold. And nature becomes quiet. The feeling that I'm stepping on something that stretches for miles, is bigger than I can comprehend and is physically moving beneath my feet, makes me feel uneasy. There's a fearful respect of the glacier's power and force that alights in me. That's the best I know how to describe it.

After heading back, we picked up our bikes and made it back into Kennicott. By this time, it was late in the day, and were were getting very hungry and were short on snacks and water. We decide to take the road back to McCarthy, not the wagon trail. It's five miles of downhill coasting on our bikes. Though not exactly a pleasure cruise because we're constantly zig-zagging and weaving between potholes. Some you just had to go over because there's not other option. But we make it back to our campsite and  start on dinner.

The pups of course, had a great time at our campsite, because we were next to an open field where we played lots of fetch!

(I should stop here, parenthetically(!) and say that it was on this trip that I've seen the most mosquitos. Most of the time, they were swarming. We were constantly swatting at them with hats and spraying repellant. They swarmed Dakota and Lola if they were outside the tent or Jayne. Sadly, their little bellies got eaten up by mosquito bites. There were dozens of little red bumps on their bellies, so we had to start leaving them in the tent even while we were just mulling about the campsite.)

You can kind of get a sense of the view from our campsite
On our second full day in the park we went on a flight-seeing tour. My friend had advised me that you can't truly see the Wrangell-St. Elias park without seeing it by air. And he was right. We were advised to hook up with Gary Green of Wrangell-Mountain Air, who's been flying these mountains for something like 40 years and is his own airplane mechanic.

Me and Gary next to his Cessna 182 (I think)
We flew for about 75 minutes and were amazed for 75 minutes. He flew straight toward the glaciers and ice formations. From the ground and from a distance, you can easily get a sense that the glaciers and mountains are huge and majestic and all that. But from the air, the effect is compounded.

Kennicott form the air

Root Glacier on right, Kennicott Glacier on left, coming down and joining
The stripes of dirt in between the white glacial ice is more of the moraine - dirt that is coving ice. When two glaciers come together, they each push dirt and rock and sand along their sides. So when they push together it forms these long strips of moraine. You can tell how many glaciers are joining by counting the stripes of dirt. Each stripe represents two glaciers that have joined. And again, the dirt is just a top layer, underneath is more ice!

Looking up the plain with a couple of the glaciers in sight

Looking back down the plain. Here you can see how glaciers flow like rivers 
At one point, we were about 5,000 feet up and we were just flying directly at the side of an ice covered mountain. It had the effect of being a wall, because we couldn't see the top of the mountain for the clouds. Gary said they go up to about 13,000 feet around here. The effect was more menacing than standing on a glacier. My sense of being became smaller as my sense of the world became larger, if that makes sense.

You know how sometimes pictures just don't do justice to what you saw? This is one of those times. The ice formations, snowy mountains, glaciers everywhere were some of the most incredible scenes I've ever laid eyes upon.

This is the best picture I have that gives the sense of brooding
Finally, here's a video of some flying and snow and ice!

And wouldn't you know, after about 20 minutes....our camera battery died! We had no replacement. So we were forced to put away the tiny digital screen and simply take in the beauty with our eyes and with our hearts. What I can't show you is the packs of mountain goats, the mile high cliffs or the enormous rock glacier that looks like a giant lava flow. Those will just have to live in my memory (until we go back!)

With the time we had left that day, we took the shuttle back in to Kennicott, took in the sights, toured the old town a bit more, and got some pizza from the Pizza Bus.

The next morning, before leaving, we ate lunch at the campground restaurant (if you can call it that) and both got the famous "Glacier Burger." It was basically, just a hamburger, but pretty good. We swatted a few more mosquitos and got on the road for the long trip back to Anchorage.

On last picture from the foot bridge to McCarthy

The mountains behind us is part of the area we flew around.
Hope you enjoyed the pics!