Slipstream

By Keith Patterson

“It takes a big head to fill these shoes.” I think I just quoted myself. Dang. Did it again. It’s hard to be me. But it’s supposed to be hard. And it’s supposed to hurt. Because when you’re in the most pain is when you’re the most alive. And when you’re the most alive is when you might wish to be dead. And this basic disconnect is one reason that we must dull our senses to enhance our perceptions. Or so says I.

I like to make a wildly bold declaration and then spend some time creating a backstory that somehow justifies it. I put these thoughts down on paper. “M will say it right to your face. M realizes that saying it directly to your face is probably not his most endearing quality, so he puts a lot of miles on his motorcycle to cut down on 
his opportunities.”

The story of M

M downshifted his big Harley cruiser, checked his mirrors, and throttled up to switch lanes, jumping out from the shade between two eighteen-wheelers into the left-hand passing lane. There was sand dust on M’s shaded goggles from an open-bed dump truck he’d passed a few miles back. Interstate 81 was packed with big diesel rigs moving America, which made it less than ideal for a long trip on a motorcycle, but it’s the fastest way home up the valley. As M accelerated to pass the 18-wheeler to his right, the brilliant light rays of a newly naked sun reflected chaotically off the silicate dust coating his glasses, and a mirror ball of blinding lasers sent him into a slipstream of flash-back hallucinations . . . .

M was hiding in muck up to his neck in the monsoon rains of the Mekong Delta. He’d been out in the bush for nearly a month. His body weight at enlistment had been 195 pounds. He was down to probably 125. M had eaten very little for several days, and was completely out of rations. He was barely conscious, existing in shadow, invisible, quietly grinding his teeth to keep from drowning. His boots were mired in deep mud somewhere down below him. He heard the report of a rifle … CRACK!

Then, M was in a schoolyard fight, ducking, weaving, trying to keep his feet underneath him and throw a decent punch. There was one kid in front of him, but he was surrounded by fifteen others. The bull ring. No way out. Nobody coming to help. Worried about getting sucker punched, he let a straight jab sneak by while he was leaning-in. SMACK!

And, M is standing on the front porch of the beautiful log frame home that he and his wonderful wife had built together. Dinner was on the table. Clean bill of health. Feeling like he wanted to die. The storm door he’d thrown open slams shut. BAM!

M had a mission. Take the enemy’s radio and call in an air-strike. People had already died. More people were going to die. M could die. M was more sure of death than not. M was in the shadows behind the fronds of tropical plants with his Randall knife clenched in his left hand. Fifty meters away was his objective, a bamboo hut on stilts surrounded by a deck. M heard boots on the deck. STOMP!

One kid was in front of M, jabbing at him with his fists. Another kid crouched down behind M, and M tripped over him and fell to the ground on his back without being hit. The hit came after the fall in the form of a kick to the head. THUD!

M was in a small office talking to a staff psychologist at the Veterans Administration. It was a long drive from M’s home to the VA office. He had been waiting patiently for hours to see this psychologist. M was explaining about the debilitating nature of his flashbacks and hallucinations, and how, even then, some fifty years after the fact, the PTSD was getting only worse and was worthy of the disability claim that lay on the desk between them. The staff psychologist calmly explained that if M could ride his Harley all the way out to the VA facility and express himself so eloquently, then that alone effectively preemptively disproved his claim. “I don’t even need to look at your claim again.” M slammed his closed fist on the desk. BAM!

“Dinner is ready!” called out M’s wife from her summer kitchen. M was on the porch with the mangy cat. Tears were rolling off of M’s face and splattering down on the matted fur of the mangy cat as images flashed through his head of brothers-in-arms and civilians lost, crises created, deflected, diverted and perverted. The blood lust of allies and enemies and the senseless deaths and destruction that is war. The mangy cat had been dying when M and his wife had rescued it. It should have been dead weeks ago and hadn’t eaten in thirteen days and nights. It was a mean cat, and took exception to M‘s tears splashing down on its matted head. The mean, mangy cat that had no name because it was assumed that it would be dead already then attacked M’s leg and found 
flesh. YOW!

M was back on his feet. The two boys that’d flanked and felled him had receded. Next up was Lumpy Taylor. Lumpy had an extra lump on the back of his head. He was also known as Double Lump. M landed a punch and received two and then each kid landed haymakers simultaneously and chattered each other’s teeth. CHANG!

M peered into the enemy radio hut as best as he could from twenty meters out. He would have to break cover to get any closer. He prayed to a God that he did not recognize to give him the strength to mount a frontal assault on the guarded outpost armed only with his Randall knife and a cyanide pill. M’s soul was bound in darkness. There was no hope in life or death. The rain continued to fall. M used the darkness to summon his Chi. He was a wraith. Then M heard marching boots and shuffling feet. The enemy had a prisoner. The butt of a rifle crunched against bony flesh. UNGH!

 “Security! Room 202 Please!”

“Thanks for nothing!” M stood and grabbed his disability claim papers off of the desk. The VA staff psychologist tried to grab them, as well. “Oh, so now you’re interested in my claim?” M left quickly and slammed the door behind
him. BAM!

It was Christmas Eve. M’s aunt and uncle and cousins were coming over for dinner and a party. M had received an early present from the family cat, a box full of kittens! M could hardly wait to show the kittens to his cousins. They were so adorable. “M, you better not bring those kittens outside. It’s too cold. Leave the box in the basement near the furnace.” M didn’t listen. His cousins would want to see these kittens right away. 

It was 5 0’clock. The guests were due. M ran outside into a brisk twilight of falling snow with the box of kittens in his arms. M heard his mother call out, “Don’t leave the door open!” M set the box of kittens down at the edge of the driveway and ran back to shut the front door. M’s relatives pulled into the driveway and unwittingly parked the big left front tire of their Chrysler sedan squarely upon the box of 
kittens. CRUNCH!

Fran was M’s second wife. She had brought him back out into the light and he knew to his core that she loved what was best in him. They worked well together, believed in the same things and fought for the same causes. Fran was M’s partner. He knew that he’d sailed the seas of many creations to finally find this respite from the ravages of eternity. This was his Eden. His forgiving and loving Eve was by his side and calling him to dinner. M thought of grabbing the mean, mangy cat by the scruff and going on a one-handed hundred-mile-an-hour bike-ride to put them both out of their misery. The mangy cat looked M directly in the eye. “That cat knows what I’m thinking.” “Yeoh.”

The bull ring drew in close. Two boys dragged M back to his feet. Next up, Fox Wheeler. Fox was every bit M’s equal and had the advantage of not already being knocked half senseless. M tasted his own blood on his lips, wiped his lips with his hand, and beheld his own red life’s milk. A terrible rage ran up his spine and he made a furious rush at Fox Wheeler, who calmly looked for an opening and delivered an uppercut to M’s sternum. WUMP!

Alive or dead. It didn’t matter. Everything dies. Kittens, children, heroes, villains, the Son of God. The fathers, sons, mothers, brothers, sisters and children of the lovely and dignified people that live and work in the Mekong Delta. M was authorized to call in airstrikes on anything that moved in the entire province of Vinh Long. Half a million civilians. 6,000 Viet Cong. Kill ‘em all. M’s closest associate, a fellow colonel, had succumbed to the barbarism and was wantonly laying waste to all that piqued his fancy. 

He had done some damage to the enemy, but had inflicted a hell’s broth of horror on the civilians. M would’ve just as soon killed the Colonel as the radio operator in the bamboo hut. But M’s mission was to secure the enemy’s radio and call in an air strike that might very well kill them all. What had been M was already dead. All that was left was a killer on a mission. The sentries were changing. The second detail was late. The radio and operator were alone. Adrenaline shot through M’s depleted veins. He could hear the savage beating of his own heart. Thump! Thump! Thump!

Everybody was screaming and crying

Uncle jumped back into the big sedan and backed up. The box of kittens was stuck to the tire and rolled up into the Chrysler’s undercarriage. The kittens were all dead. M’s aunt was beating on her husband and cursing his name. Their marriage would never recover. Uncle turned off the Chrysler’s motor and it back-fired. BLAM!

M recovered his breath and stood tall in the middle of the bull ring. He was battered but not beaten, and rage still burned in his eyes. Next up was Big Timmy. Timmy was the biggest kid in school. M waded in, crazed and looking for 
a knock-out.

M’s heart was pounding in his chest as he prepared to rush the enemy’s radio-shack and attack and kill the radio operator. M heard American jets coming-in on a bombing run.

Big Timmy dropped M with one ham-fisted punch to 
the head.

M dove down into the muck as his own bombers laid waste to the radio shack and operator that he was stalking. SCRAK! White light.M upshifted and accelerated out of the slipstream beside the 18-wheeler on his right. The sun was behind some clouds and the road was clear, and M made it home for dinner, and I, for one, am grateful that he did. Because, even though it might not be his most popular attribute, when M has something to say he says it directly to my face. Then I wrote this down on paper.

Less Stress in the New Year

10 Ideas to Keep Stress at Bay

by JiJi Russell

Over the last ten years, I’ve worked with a colorful variety of people in the realm of wellness — many ages and backgrounds. If I had to choose just one concern that most, if not all, confront, it’s stress. My purely observational, unscientific opinion on stress and health is that if we can become better at managing stress, and in some cases avoiding it altogether, our collective health status would improve greatly. But stress can be such an amorphous, multi-pronged tangle of junk, both internal and external, that it can take a lot of real effort and commitment to pick it apart. Like the airlines’ inflight safety instructions state, however, take care of your oxygen first, then help those around you. Similarly, applying some effort to combat stress can help you while it ripples outward to others. If we could all dedicate a little time, compassion, and yes, effort, to the task of recognizing and managing stress, we will 
all benefit. 

Below are ten ideas that I’ve culled from many workshops, surveys, personal conversations, and other work I’ve done with clients and corporate employees in the service of reducing stress and/or improving resilience to counter stress when it arises. 

My suggestion is to select just one of the ten that might spark your interest, and try it out for a week or so. See how things go. Add on as you like, or concoct your own stress buffer techniques. Eventually, with some persistence, you will be able to make positive changes for yourself. 

1) Write down your worries and concerns once a day; get them “out of your head.” If your problems are on paper, then at least you can let them go for the moment, knowing you won’t forget them (goodness forbid it!). Writing things down can neutralize their power. It can also give you something to look back on, and, perhaps in some cases, to view your progress.  

2) Schedule “gaps” in your day, particularly at the beginning and end, as a way to power down your body and mind. Instead of booking yourself, your kids, your tasks in a back-to-back march against time, create some gaps when you can just sit or walk, and think about nothing in particular. Or perhaps use the gap as a little planning time to more wisely use your day. 

3) Get into the habit of taking a breath before you speak or act. Deep breathing has a real and measurable physical impact on you. It can calm your nervous system, relax your muscles, and bring better balance to your emotions. It’s never a bad time to take a deep breath. 

4) Find someone you admire for his or her ability to remain calm and balanced, and ask that person to be an advisor to you when you have a question or concern arise. I have several such folks in my life, even for different areas of life, including career stress, parenting stress, and many other categories in between. Seek these people out and talk to them. 

5) Take a two-minute breathing break before you log on to your computer, before you eat a meal, before you go to bed. Just 10 minutes of deep breathing a day can help. A tangent on the “taking a breath” and scheduling “gaps” suggestions, this one is an intentional moment of deep breathing. Put your phone on airplane mode; set a two-minute timer; and just sit and breathe. 
Benefits abound. 

6) Eat a satisfying breakfast that contains protein as a way to jumpstart your mental and physical energy and keep your metabolism “fired up.” You’ve heard the stats that kids who don’t eat breakfast are less able to concentrate at school and don’t perform as well as those who do eat breakfast. Well, many adults skip breakfast, too, and then hit the ground running with their overly-ambitious schedules. Put some thought into your first meal of the day. Give your body and mind what it needs to be you for the day.

7) Consider limiting or giving up “C.A.T.S.” (C = caffeine,  A = alcohol,  T = tobacco,  S = sugar). These are known to cause fluctuations in energy and mood. This suggestion always elicited a bit of scoffing in the corporate world, but because each of these edible items can either stimulate or depress the nervous system, using them can interrupt healthy sleep patterns, amplify cravings and dependency, and complicate other health conditions. If giving it up does not seem an option, think of cutting back more gradually, and see how you feel.  

8) Recall and re-visit a favorite activity or hobby. Doing an activity that brings you joy or allows you to be fully engaged in something uplifting, can have a very positive effect on your mental and emotional state. Making jewelry, fishing, photography, bird watching, whatever it is you used to love to do — do it again. 

9) Make of goal of getting seven to nine hours of sleep a night. Many people will argue that they don’t need as much sleep as the average person, but according to the Centers for Disease Control, that’s just not true. Humans need sufficient sleep for a host of good reasons, including cardio-pulmonary health, proper hormone function, healthy immune function, and many, many more. Of course, it might not be so easy to simply lie down and zonk out for eight hours. It might demand a good look at what it is that’s keeping you awake. Is it mind chatter; is it your desire to binge watch your favorite TV shows until midnight? What is the root of your restlessness, and how can you begin to right your course to better sleep? 

10) Make a cut-off time for electronic communications, and stick to it. You’ve probably heard about the “blue light” of electronics, which interrupts your brain’s ability to create melatonin, the hormone your body produces to help you feel sleepy and fall asleep at appropriate times (e.g., nighttime). Well, most functions of the electronics in our lives are stimulating, and stimulation is not what you need when your body needs sleep to reset and recover. Text messages, social media posts, emails, news … each of these things can stimulate mental activity, and, certainly, emotions ‑ not what you need at 9 p.m. 

One need not be a social scientist to predict that stressors will continue to abound in our human lives. We need to develop more resilience and compassion to ride the tides in constructive ways. These ten suggestions might lead you to discover something you can do for your own good in 2019. As with all things in well-being, it’s up to you. No one can do it for you. Cheers to your efforts toward a good cause!

Timothy Johnson, Small Town Lawyer

As the Crow Flies

Grassland Nesting Birds Are Disappearing!

Story and illustration by Doug Pifer
Eastern meadowlarks used to be common birds in local hayfields, and their songs drifted across the fields in the early summer air. Now they’re on a growing list of field nesting birds — bobwhite quail, vesper sparrow, American kestrel, and red-winged blackbird — whose numbers have seriously dropped. Now you can drive though the countryside and never see any
of them!
In 2015 the Potomac Valley Audubon Society (PVAS) launched its Grassland Birds Initiative. The first property to enroll was Claymont Farm. As of this month, a total of nine properties in the Potomac Valley participate, according to PVAS executive director Kristin Alexander.
Last summer, I enrolled our two hayfields as designated grassland bird habitat. My wife and I have been managing our property for wildlife since we bought the place in 2016. Until recently, I believed we were encouraging grassland birds by allowing natural vegetation to grow in our fencerows and rock breaks, and mowing only once a year, late in the season. Since enrolling in the Grassland Birds Initiative, I’ve learned this isn’t enough. In fact, studies show that long fence lines of trees, shrubs and vegetation that separate and constrict open fields offer predators like feral cats and red foxes easier access to any birds living in the fields, hampering their nesting success and adding to the problem.
Better strategies include allowing certain parts of a field to go un-mowed for more than one year instead of cutting the whole field. PVAS cites a large field in the Steamboat Run area near Shepherdstown as a prime example. They cut some of their hayfields only once a year on a rotating basis, while leaving others uncut for a couple of years. Birds nesting there have increased to levels that were never seen when they mowed everything yearly.
Farmers used to allow their fencerows to grow up, and would let certain fields lay fallow for a year or two to “rest the soil” and allow nitrogen to build up. Today’s more intensive agriculture requires all the land to be used. This means maintaining “clean” fencerows and applying additional chemical fertilizer to make up for the depleted elements in the soil. This also means added expense.
A better conservation practice, and one farmers are now starting to adopt, is to sow warm season grasses in fields that would formerly be allowed to grow up or lay fallow. Native grasses like big bluestem, Indian grass, fowl manna grass, switchgrass, muhly grass, and Eastern gamma grass can be cut for hay. But, unlike annual cool season forage grasses, they develop perennial hummocks of vegetation that offer grassland birds year-round protection: hiding places in winter, summer nesting places, and autumn food in the form of seed.
Results of these programs show an increase in field nesting birds and other wildlife. Fields planted in native warm season grasses attract more beneficial insects, such as bees, butterflies, and dragonflies. Turtles, non-poisonous snakes, toads, and frogs also find more food and places to hide in such fields.
I’m encouraging my neighbors to join us in creating more grassland wildlife habitat. You can improve your own backyard, even if it’s under an acre. Maybe you’re tired of weekly mowing — or of paying somebody else to do it. Instead, you could transform it into a beautiful, more bird-friendly place. Contact the Potomac Valley Audubon Society at www.potomacaudubon.org to learn more about the Grassland Birds Initiative and about Habitat Certification for smaller properties, a new program they launched
this spring.