Month: December 2010

Homar and the Alluvial Cirque

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Hic Sunt Dracones

A tire flattened by the resentful rutted rock strewn road delayed us, but we arrived on a cloudless late summer Sunday afternoon, accompanied by Cristián’s father, who carried part of our gear.   I knocked on the door of the caretaker’s cabin where the tin roof was lashed down against future winter weather by a long 7/8 inch thick plastic rope. It stood near a long trail that wound its way about 100 meters up past a series of seven hot spring pools, each overflowing into the one below. The narrow flat valley floor was populated by several small tents to shelter visitors from the searing high altitude sun. I tried to imagine Winter when the valley would be deserted, reclaimed by white wind and  drifted snow.  But wind and weather are concerns even at the height of summer; an afternoon updraft arose as we set up camp about 50 meters away, so that  raising our bulky tent  required a great deal of  struggle and raucous banter.

The day visitors left before sunset and we found ourselves alone on the flat narrow valley floor. I considered supper, thinking to make hot soup, but found that there were no cooking pots.

“Where are the pots? Did anyone get them out of the trunk”?

“Marmota emptied the trunk.” Felipe’s nickname is ‘marmota’ (marmot); Chileans don’t fear being politically incorrect, and are never shy about nicknames.

“Marmota! “said Sebastián, you left the pots in the trunk!” Ricardo who is devoted to foul language , piled on.

“Huebón!” said Ricardo, who tries never speak without a foul word. In this case he chose a variant of ‘big egg(s)’, that I leave to the reader to interpret. “I told you to check the trunk before the car went!”  And so on to infinity; any parent knows the routine.

So I went back Homar’s cabin to ask for the loan of a pot. He was a local from the town of San José del Maipo, named after the volcano that dominates the Northeast quarter of the valley where an extensive watershed begins at the Andean crest between Chile and Argentina. Mountain people are mountain kin, and without hesitation he rummaged about and pulled out a large cast iron pot, saying, “¿Algo mas?”

“ No, ¡ gracias Homar!”

“ Bueno, avisenme, cualquier cosa. Su casa.”, an abbreviated old saying  ‘My house is your house.’


In the mountains twilight is long and luxurious. A clear moonless night sky slowly rolled down from the surrounding peaks. The wind abated.  As the darkness thickened a myriad stars appeared and to the west, the faint outlines of two galactic clusters, the Magellanic Clouds. The Southern Cross began to tick off the hours as it rotated about the void that is celestial South.   From the east, we began to see intermittent flashes of light.

“¿Que es eso, Tío?”

“Maybe lightening. An electrical storm over the pampas of Argentina.” But there was no distant thunder, and I soon realized: We were seeing light from eruptions of the earth dragon who heated the hot springs; the caldera of San José del Maipo volcano.

A person can get a reputation, may try to live up to it, or live it down, instead of quietly outliving it. Most every year, during more than 30 years, I have taken two or three teenagers, usually relatives, backpacking in the Chilean Andes. These adventures have become greatly exaggerated in the telling and re –telling, morphing into beautiful lies, or rites of passage. New volunteers hope to be tested, and to be accepted into the Order of Tío Jhon.

In the ‘70s most of my Chilean relatives were scandalized by the idea of anyone going into the mountains, let alone their own children.

“What for? And no horse! There’s  the  puna,  and wind that burns, and smugglers. The whole place should be off limits, like the unknown oceans of 15th century maps: Hic Sunt Dracones’”.   But Chile was a different country then, among the poorest in the hemisphere by almost every standard measure.  It has changed radically, even in regard to the way people think of mountains. Now Patagonia and the Andes are encrusted with foreign and native backpackers, as well as Chilean teens. Seeping bags, and back packs, like blue jeans, are part of many active youngster’s standard gear. Now those who want to be introduced to the mountain are no longer only nephews, but nieces. None of them will believe that Tío Jhon is no longer young or strong, even though objectively the packing involves less back and more internal combustion engine.


This year I went again, partly to keep the faith, but also because my own spiritual home is still somewhere in the dry high air under a black cobalt sky. There were ten volunteers, among them my two youngest daughters. Yet I have always limited the group to three, because the Andes can be treacherous; how could I keep more than two or three safe from the mountain and from themselves?  I asked my youngest daughter, Sandi, and her three cousins to wait for another time. She felt terribly abused.

“You took Rodrigo and Álvaro when they were 11 and 12;  and 13 and 14!”

“Yes, but…” No explanation was sufficient. I would be a condemned father. At least until next year. That left five, still too many for a real backpack.  I decided to take them to this  remote natural hot spring, accessible by car. Though there were still six, Pablo, son of a Santiago psychiatrist, and my daughter Lilí were both 18, and reliably mature. That left Cristián, 13, Ricardo and Felipe, 15, and Sebastián, 14. I could almost  meet the standard of three adolescents. Pablo’s parent’s contributed the large Brazilian canvas tent, a  3×4 meter old style external aluminum tube frame affair with three 1×2 meter ‘rooms’ at one end for privacy, and sturdy enough to withstand the high valley summer updrafts.


The hot springs are at about 11,000 ft elevation in the Cajon Del Maipo, to the Southeast of Santiago in a narrow mountain valley on sparsely vegetated private land otherwise occupied in summer mainly by the occasional goatherd family. Translation: Possibly For Sale: day-fresh hot bread, goat cheese and milk, some simple staples, wine,  or  sometimes barbecued kid.


If you have ever organized a camping trip for a group like this, you know the problems: Do they have appropriate clothes, shoes, socks, sleeping bags, rain gear, hats, and personal items for hygiene and protection from the elements? Is the food and equipment adequate? Does any one have health or related limitations? But by the time we left things were triple checked and I was confident we would establish a comfortable and well provisioned base camp from which to explore the surrounding area.  I would be better acclimated to the altitude than my charges, giving  felt the altitude giving me an advantage, at least until  they adapted.

Chile is a several thousand long volcanic land, with the longest north-south length  of any country in the world, yet one of the narrowest.  People live at the battle line in an eon’s long war between continental plates. Off the Chilean coast lies an abyss which is deeper than the Andean Heights. The entire country lies  between the Andes and the Abyss, clinging to an unstable piece of continental shelf.  The Maipo is just one of many fast rivers intent on moving the Andes back down into the Abyss, its icy waters made mud brown by eroded material during spring and early summer snow melts.


The termas, thermal baths, are five open air oval 5×4 meter palisade pools, each cooler than the one above. In the daylight they are milky blue unless muddied by bathers; in the cold night air they are steaming India ink black. The rims of the pools are merely accreted mineral salts, where water has long flowed over a man made rim, gradually building up walls of salt. There is so much mineral in the hot water that after bathing, one must wash off in fresh water, otherwise the skin remains slightly plastered, and swim suits crust so as to almost stand alone.


As dark invaded the valley, much to our surprise, a generator kicked in at the caretaker cabin, and the trail leading to the uppermost hot pool was low voltage lighted.  We labored, short of breath, up to the pools, joining  about six locals, including Homar.

¡Bienvenidos! This is the best time. No tourists. La copucha.” -, tall tales, gossip, lies and news.- “ The early morning is good  too.  Big contrast, cold, hot, steam subrightening  air. Try it. ”

“What time, about?”

“ Oh. Early. 5 AM or so.”

“Liar!  Nice try! You won’t catch me up here all alone at five!”

Despite a prolonged soaking under the cold stars we remained unwrinkled because of  hot spring’s high mineral content,


The next afternoon was devoted to light walking and adapting to the thin air.  After a light snack we headed for a ridge of black where Homar said there were fossils.  In hiking with children I insist that we stay together and that I lead. It was a stunningly perfect afternoon, with light cool updrafts. The area was rocky, dry, and relatively barren, populated only by sedges, chartreuse colonies of woody plants called llareta, low thick leaved alpine shrubs, and low clusters of  flowers.  There was occasionally some light  puna (altitude sickness sometimes called soroche) relieved by rest. We  found some flat shell fossils in black slate, explored a limestone cave, and  a gypsum mine where the entrances were still partly filled with last winter’s snow. In the distance were occasional condors and a lone guanaco, a small camelid like a delicate llama. Though guanacos are herd animals, there is only one male to a herd, and the young live alone until they can whip some dominant male or steal some females.  Late in the afternoon summer cumulus darkened the sky, threatening rain, so we returned to camp, ready for supper and another hot soak.


The third day I pushed our acclimation to the altitude and exercise a bit further. The geologically young Andes are very porous in this area so snowmelt disappears into the ground immediately. Yet I believed there should be stream or a lake or a meadow beneath a large south facing cirque. We were rewarded by a long narrow meadow with five small lakes, a perfect string of crystal blue aquatic pearls threaded on a  tiny silver stream. Arriving back at the tent, I was aware that I was quite tired while my charges were still full of energy.  When youth is physically stressed it quickly becomes stronger while when age is stressed it doesn’t; this third day at altitude had made them guanacos though I was still just an old man.

Six teens in a tent is an unforgettable experience, not limited to mere continuous crudity and farting. You may imagine what the tent looked like on the third day: Cosmic disorder wrapped in 90 to 100 decibels of undecipherable debate punctuated by bouts of uncontrollable mirth. In my adult ignorance I perceived that as noise. I thought of calling for order, but desisted. Wha?  In the end I’d have to make order myself.   After supper and spa, they were sent off into the weeds to brush their teeth, possibly with toothpaste, though soap would have been quite appropriate.


I like to sleep in the open whenever I can, and set up about 20 meters away; but Homar called out  “Vengan a jugar Pimpó”. (Pingpong!)

¡Tío! ¡ Vamos con el Homar! I declined, preferring the peaceful sleep of the innocent under quiet curious southern stars, while the dragon in the caldera, unseen and unheard, spit occasional defiant flashes at the night.


The fourth morning my charges slept late, thanks to the ping pong fest; we breakfasted, went to a late morning hot bath, and lunched in the shade of the big tent until 2 PM.

The summer sunset would be nine or ten hours away, offering plenty of time for an exploration of a nearby waterfall and whitewater stream spilling from the Argentine border.  With a light pack of food, some drinking water, and fruit, we set off. All my teens were enthusiastic, frisky, and competitive. We crossed the steam, and headed toward the sound of the falls.  After only 20 minutes it became necessary to climb a 40 meter rock-fall, consisting chiefly of head sized boulders cascading toward the streambed at the steep angle of repose.  The stream now had more fury, angered by the nearby falls.  Concerned that people might scramble up the rock slide too closely and dislodge a boulder on one another, I decided to send Pablo up first, to wait at the top, while I released each hiker one at a time. This took about 15 minutes.


Arriving at the top of the rock-fall, I found we were at the base of a very large fan-shaped cirque: a 200 meter high seashell like face of fine dirt and small rocks, originating from the eroded earth above,  gradually becoming steepest at the top. The surface, having been punished and polished by wind and rain, was almost like cement. The only safe ascent was to avoid it, and move laterally to find topsoil and brush. Yet all except Pablo had, immediately on arriving, started a race for the top, directly up the cirque.

“¡Bájense imbéciles! Bájenseeeee! ” I gestured frantically and called repeatedly, to no avail because of their intense focus on the race and the noise.


Every mountain lover learns that, as in life itself, the going up is almost always easier than the coming down. My charges had reached a place  of instability and  fear where they could neither safely move farther upward, nor descend without losing control.  Felipe was flattened face to face with the cirque, clutching the mountain. Lilí was perched on a big rock, secure but stuck. Ricardo and Felipe were stranded in between them, in a in a five point attachment to the packed earth, if one includes the butt.   Sebastián was frantic, clinging to a steeper area to my right. Pablo had waited for me. It was about 4 PM with 4 or 5 hours of light left.


¡Oiga  Pablo! Go on up to left,  climb up where there’s topsoil and bush. Take your time.  I have to do something about Sebastián. The rest are ok.”

“When I get to the top, what?”

“I don’t know. Go get Homar. And a rope.”  I climbed up  a way to speak with the children, to prepare them for a few hours there.  As I approached they all responded quite calmly and rationally, excepting Sebastián, who was simply panicked. I felt he could not hold on the way he was; though a fall would not be fatal,  he’d likely be hurt on the rocks below, and I very much feared explaining  how that happened.  Like, Why I was still alive and unhurt.  So felt compelled to try and reach him and inch him to a safer spot.


In short order I was close enough to speak with him.  “Put your whole body belly first,  close to the mountain!  Like you can stick to it. Kick your toes into the dirt until you make  a little niche!”

“¡No, no puedo, tío!”

“Yes, you can!  Take your time. Go slow. ” And he did just that, calming down nicely. But I realized that I myself couldn’t descend safely either.  My only recourse was to reach the top of the fan shaped cirque. “You’re good now. Try to relax as much as you can because… Sorry, you will be there for a couple of hours. But there’s no rain, no snow.”

“What if I have to take a crap?”

“Enjoy! Who gives a shit?!” At least his sense of humor was back.


Slowly, laboriously kicking footholds in the stubborn earth, I made my way upward, and at last reached the overhanging layer of topsoil at the upper lip of the cirque. Dry mouthed, trembling, and exhausted, I pulled myself up over the root bound lip onto level ground, amazed that my life was still mostly my own. Pablo arrived, and I sent him to the caretaker cabin to get a rope, and help, while I stayed with the stranded climbers.


There were still four children trapped on the fan.  They had remained where they were, as instructed. Gradually accepting the absurdity and inevitability of their situation, they began to joke back and forth, to sing songs and tell tall tales under the burning alpine sun. a hot wind, one architect of the cirque, began to blow harder.    In about 40 minutes, Pablo, and a ping pong player arrived with a rawhide lariat about 10 yards long; it was not nearly long enough to reach even the nearest child.  But  they said Homar would bring a better rope, and in another hour Homar and a second man appeared with the long thick rope from the caretaker house roof. Ricardo, the most obstreperous of the teens, shouted up to the rescuers;

¡Si me sacai’[1] primero te chupo el pico!’ promising an explicit sexual favor to  be rescued first.  The newcomer called down to Sebastián.

Chucha Sebastián,¡que te imagináis!” But Sebastián couldn’t hear him.

“You know him? I asked.

Si. I came to visit just for today. He was my brother’s best friend.”

“They quarreled?”

“No. My brother was killed in an auto accident 6 months ago. I wanted to check on Sebastián, I don’t know why, just felt I should. Besides, Felipe’s mom said she’d bring lunch day after tomorrow.”

“Well. I’m glad you are here. He will be too when he realizes it. He’s the one way down to the left.”


Four of us held the rope fast, and four times Homar was let down to rescue each child one by one until they were all safely on top. They had been on the fan clutching the planet desperately for almost four hours. Ricardo was first to be rescued so he will never live down his bribe.

That evening I walked to a nearby goatherd shelter, and arranged for delivery next day of a cabrito asado, (barbecued kid) with all the trimmings. We gathered in honor of Homar, Pablo, and my remarkably cool and collected ‘teens. We were joined by locals, spa employees, the spa owners who provided red wine, and a sixty year old  great grandmother named Ximena claiming first name friendship with every radical leftist in the region. One owner tried to convince my daughter that he was some sort of movie mogul, and another hoped I’d invest in the Spa. (Actually, not a bad idea if I lived there.)  The ping pong tourney started up again at the insistence of Homar and Felipe, who both avoided alcohol in favor of the sport. I didn’t see anyone else make that sacrifice.


When I finally herded my charges to bed, it was early morning. Our hosts continued to celebrate life, the volcano, and perhaps, the numinous. I found myself again under the starry pantheon, listening to the wired children in the tent, and sounds of the party in the distance. The Earth Dragon again spit volcanic flashes intermittently at the dark. I was happy to have followed to my own rule: never take more than three children to the mountains. There are too many dragons lurking there in the earth’s crust.




[1] Language traits in neighboring countries are often comingled. For example, Chilean slang has adapted the preference for honorific grammar (Vos)  from Argentina, as  here in ‘sacai’, suppressing the terminal s ; and in  using an article before a name as in Brazilian  Portuguese.  (El Homar rather than simply  the grammatically correct Homar.)



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Body and mind raced as he responded to the code blue call. There is no day or night in a busy emergency room, no Time, no season. “An emergency room is light” he thought.“We are hens tricked into accelerated laying by the light. It comes on and BAM there’s another one, you’re welcome, thank you very much!”


An ER staff moves constantly in cool restless filtered air, and it’s kept that way because they are almost always very active; so blankets must be handed out regularly to patients.  He spent the first ‘overnights’ in a small ‘ER’ as a junior medical student.  The $8 pay was a bargain since he could sleep intermittently, and miss only the early lecture or clerkship round, slipping into the back layers of students, avoiding the eye of the professor.  Forty years in ERs followed. At first the harsh cold fluorescent light, an electric wind of sorts, used to leave his eyes  light- burned after a long shift. Black wrap around sunglasses would have helped but they were too hostile, too military. The noise, lights, crush of duty were conditions that soon seemed as natural as never waking up feeling totally rested due to constant change in work-sleep patterns.  He learned to eat, or inhale, a full meal in three minutes, to sleep any time, anywhere, instantly; and awaken as quickly, fully functional. Or usually so;  he chuckled, remembering when, as an intern after delivering twins, his first, alone, he immediately fell into a dark deep sleep of relief and exhaustion; a nurse called and asked something about the infants, and he responded;

“Give them each 100 mg of Demerol!”  Should have left the lights on!


As supervising attending physician he would observe closely while the resident physician ran the code.  Slipping quietly into the room like a late med student, but now  was an experienced physician prepared to offer occasional constructive question or a suggestion, if needed.


The old man was handsome; a golden black face and slender habitus made him seem young.  But it is always the eyes and the backs of the hands that  confess a person’s true age.  And they said, “ Well over 80.”  The man seemed vaguely familiar, yet he couldn’t place him among the accumulated codes and years of people threatening to die. Ventricular Asystole. No heart activity. He reflected;

“Not very likely we we’ll be able to send him upstairs to the ICU; and if we do they’ll probably send him way upstairs. Or downstairs if he’s Greek or somesuch.” But that thought was cynical and he quickly brushed it aside.


The new resident did not disappoint. Nor did anyone else. Resuscitation is always a team effort. Compressions, oxygen, intubation, confirmed, IV access, and  Drugs IV, labs.  All at the same time.   As he watched an attractive nurse do chest compressions, an unwelcome recollection of the first chapter of The House of God invaded his mind, and again he thrust it aside thinking,

“Some books should have warning labels: ‘ Said to be brilliant, insightful, but the Surgeon General has determined that the reader may be infested with mental garbage.’


After the initial chaos, the action became more ordered, deliberate, thoughtful. Team members commented and suggested.  And suddenly the monitor revealed Ventricular Fibrillation!  There was hope.  Electricity, three shocks, and the faint smell of burned gray chest hair. No change, more of the same, and once again, Asystole. Algorithms or recipes for resuscitation were followed.


The chart appeared.  The patient was almost 90. He  rather uncharitably thought,

“There must be a new person in records. Someone is awake”.  The charge nurse stepped in to say the patient’s wife and son were in the quiet room, so he stepped out to speak briefly with them, and review the history provided by the ambulance crew. The man, always very physically active, had been mowing the lawn with his push mower when he collapsed. Outside it was 112 degrees F.  His only surgery had been for cataracts, and his sole medication was estrogen for prostate cancer. There were no risk factors for heart disease except age and male sex.  The patient had been retired since age 65.  He had no special  activities or interests. “ My God!” he mused, “How has he survived 25 good years without the most addictive of all drugs: work.” In one of those recurring coincidences of life, his father had been a miner, and worked in the same mine at about the same time as the patient¸ Noranda, Quebec, where he had been born.  He wanted to ask more detail but had to return to the code. “Back to the henhouse.”


Relaying the information to the resident, he found that the patient’s situation was grim; a pulseless wide slow complex.  The labs were back, the x-ray studied.   He watched the resident methodically repeat the algorithm, consider and actually attempt to treat the only other possible treatable conditions. Yet she seemed to unable to make the obvious conclusion.


The resident was a single mother. She and her two children lived at a distance where rents were reasonable, in tiny apartment,  paid for child care, paid taxes, social security, drove back and forth to on street parking.  Her son had had a recent serious injury, and he had treated the younger child for severe asthma.  “We weren’t paid, but had free housing for me and my family, and free food.  We were really residents, working 36 on and 12 off. Why are they still called residents? But perhaps she will not beccome a robo-doc. The young docs don’t tend to abandon their spouses and children in the name of Hippocrates, like I did. I hope so.”


The seconds became minutes. The code team awaited orders. The inviolate code atmosphere was pierced from outside the room by voices, sounds of pain or retching, paging , buzzers,  bells and smells. The regular electric convulsion of the big code wall clock second hand soundlessly shredded the air.


Abandoning his role as observer, he called the resident aside and spoke in a whisper.  “ Good job. Very well done. But, unless you want to crack an 90 year old chest for practice, don’t you think you can ‘call’ the code?”  And in that moment he knew he had been negligent. He had not remembered that the resident was just returned from her own father’s funeral the week before.  He had forgotten that a resident is family. Like the family that he had so often neglected to value to nurture, to simply share his time with.   “What do the architects say”, he thought,“ ‘Function follows form?’  But in living it is the other way round. We become what we do. I hope she will do better than I have. ”


After the usual and always painful talk of informing the family, he asked as usual if they would like to visit with the patient. As usual, yes, but briefly. They left.  Returning to the bedside with the resident to review documentation of the code, nothing, however was as usual.   He felt as if he could see beyond the veil of Time. He had the sensation of gazing into a three thousand year old mirror from the side rather that front on. He could see, or sense, centuries of reflected images bouncing back and forth between the silvered and face surfaces of glass. It was clear that he and the dead man and the resident and Hippocrates are the same person, each a reflection of the others.

Fearing some sort of revealed truth or understanding would dominate him, he hurried away, out of the blinding eternal light, into the clean and translucid blackness of rain washed night air.

A Case of Memory over Mind

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An old friend is the manager of one of those repositories of arcane history and selective remembrance that used to be called ‘Rest Homes’. It is in a different universe than the Dorotea Puente model, and a long ways from the 200 bed megarest home. There are generally about 20 residents, who are able to walk, bathe, dress and feed themselves. They live in a cluster of four buildings, set on two acres in a wide expanse of lawn among old shade trees and gardens laced with wheelchair accessible walkways.  Each cottage home has four single rooms, a shared living area, a small kitchen, and two bathrooms. Residents can cook for themselves or eat in a central dining room. There is often no family nearby, so the residents and the operators of the home become a prosthetic family.  The home has a comfortable van, used for optional outings, for concerts, movies, or visits to local places of interest. This is a very high end well run rest home. Old people often have medical problems, and though the residents are limited to followers of Christian Science, they may require visits to physicians or other providers of health care. My friend explains that when a physician’s advice   is sought, it is considered carefully, and prayerfully; a medical intervention is possible when it is consistent with those basic practical and ethical considerations.

I admire the Japanese idea that very old yet functioning people are national treasures, a library of the numinous; and the Nepali thought that any very old living thing is the home of a god.  I try to find time to listen to my old people seeking to venerate them in my own way. So when my friend told me that Dorothy, an octogenarian woman in his boarding home had been a glider pilot during much of the 20th Century, I had to visit with her. She had lived in Northern California all her life; I had first soloed in an old Musketeer at Watts airport in Woodland in 1963. We had possibly been in the same patch of sky at the same time.

My interview with Dorothy reminded me that we, humankind, have probed the chemical, physiological, physical aspects of our existence, and have made our lives almost entirely artificial. Despite a commonly professed desire to live naturally, to protect, to honor nature, there is no longer any aspect of a human life that is natural. Our time on earth is entirely man made, from long before birth until long after death; now, not content with earth we strive to colonize the universe.  The only thing that can be said to be natural about humanity is this: it is our nature to work our will on our environment, to probe it, to manipulate it, to reform, to control, to dominate it.

Yet we remain ignorant of the reasons of life; the why. We want to believe life, our own life, has meaning. Our ignorance about our existence, or non existence, remains as profound today as it did 3000 or 30,000 years ago. So we invent gods. Simple observation makes us aware that there is good and evil in each and all of us. But faith, many different faiths, can provide the power, the way, to deal with those aspects of our nature. Since the faithful are people too, both good and evil must exist in them and in their institutions.

Every powerful invention, including faith, can be used for good and for evil, and history makes clear the need to restrain the temporal power of faith.  It is when government and faith are monolithic that the result is blood, genocide, and organized evil. Given that caveat, it seems clear that the elderly or poor, or conflicted, or suffering fare best at the hands of those NGOs called churches who are guided by faith.  It was my friend’s church that built and supports his old folk’s home. It was a multitude of little churches that first and best responded to the tragedy of Katrina.  Missionaries, so often excommunicated by modern secular dogma,  change more lives, and are often more persistent, more effective,  in that effort than the best intentioned government projects.

I was greeted by Jeanie, the receptionist-secretary. Yes, she was aware of my appointment with Dorothy, known to have been a glider pilot. Dorothy was alert, bright eyed, slender, well groomed, simply dressed.  We spoke in the living room of her cottage within earshot of Jeanie. Dorothy had been married, raised her children, and lived mainly in the Livermore area. Her husband taught her to fly. At least on one occasion she had flown from Livermore to Los Angeles.  My admiration was more than casual because I had been a passenger in a  glider only once, rising on the updrafts of a hot summer day in Santiago, Chile, and do not want to do it again; it was hot, boring, surprisingly noisy and unsurprisingly nauseating.  Give me a quiet paraglider or an honest ear splitting ultra-lite any time!

Often Dorothy towed her glider to Nevada for extended trips. Nonetheless, many details of her flying were lost to her mind, and I was unable to clarify what sort of glider she flew, or actually, the details of where and when. She seemed only slightly discomfited by her forgetfulness, simply saying with a smile that she didn’t remember. I asked her if she knew another acquaintance of mine, who was a wing walker during the ‘20s at Lind (Lodi) airport. She didn’t recall.

Our conversation shifted to subjects more clear to Dorothy’s memory, and more dear to her heart. She is a devout Christian Scientist, and began to speak in luxurious detail of having met Mary Baker Eddy. She had always wanted to do so, and one day discovered that Mary was visiting nearby.  With conflicting trepidation and hope, she simply took a cab, knocked on the door, and was greeted by Mary herself. They talked for nearly half an hour, an eternity.  Mary was warm, thoughtful, intelligent, and suffused with deep conviction. Mary left shortly and Dorothy has never seen Eddy again, though their conversation is among Dorothy’s fondest memories.

Unable to learn much more about gliding in the early part of the 20th Century, I was nonetheless intrigued to know a firsthand acquaintance with that fierce founder of a religious order, so scourged by Mark Twain. Yet I vaguely recalled that Eddy had died shortly after founding her famous newspaper, in about 1912. Dorothy would have been only a child then. On arriving home I googled Eddy and Twain. It was this Twain quote that made clear to me what had happened:


“When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it was true or not; but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened.”

Surely even Twain, so acidic in his disdain of religion, and as outraged by disillusionment with Mary Baker Eddy herself, would not deny to Dorothy the comfort of the personal history she remembers. And if anyone should try to revise those memories, they would, mercifully, fail. As Twain, Eddy, Dorothy and I could agree, it is a question of  Mind over Matter and Memory over Mind.

33 Chilean Miners Are All Miners

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The 33 miners in Chile, so dramatically rescued from Mina San José were revealed to be admirable, intelligent, hard working people. They are representative of  miners everywhere, and   Mina San José is every mine.  Consider  the mine at Holden, Washington:

Googling Holden Village, one finds only a curious little looping line in the Wenatchee National Forest in North central Washington. But the satellite view allows one to zoom down Copper peak to an abandoned mine, mill, and tailing pond. Holden village lies just to the North across Railroad Creek and National Forest development road 8301. The mine is closed now, but the Village survives. There is a one room school, and the former Company Store. There are  several two story bunk houses where single miners lived, men attracted by unusually high 1940 pay, upward of $1.25 daily.  Uphill are  8 family homes built for administrators and their families. After the mining company closed it sold the village to the Lutheran Church for $1.

The main Holden family housing area for miners was a half mile down the road to the West; it is gone now because the Forest Service permitted the homes to be built only on condition they be removed when the mine closed. My father built our home after working hours  with material purchased through Montgomery (‘monkey’) Wards and Sears Roebuck catalogs.

It required a four hour boat ride and a 12 mile mountain road to reach the village. There was only one newspaper available in the company town, which I delivered after school to about 100 subscribers.  The early nightfall of winter often froze my wet corduroy pants into sonorous icy clacking tubes. On Sunday, when I had to deliver the heaver papers, I hired a schoolmate to carry the second double front and back newspaper bag half a mile to the family miner homes. His pay was a five cent candy bar, purchased at the company store. Of course 5 cents bought a very large Hershey then. I netted about $8 or $10 monthly, in big Howe Sound company  tin coins. Even so the flimsy light money worked as well as the stuff we use today, also now all base metal. It seems likely our nation has become a company town, though the owners are  called Washington DC. My mother kept the tin coins in a sock in her bedroom. I never saw them again, there being little for a kid to buy there.

When WWII hit the US my father wanted to join the Sea-Bees and take a more active part. But he was declined because he was in a vital industry: copper. He sold the house for $800. We went to Mexico, to another copper mine.

For nine and ten year old boy in Holden it was mostly fun, freedom, food, and fancy. One more mining town. To move every year from one mine, one country, one culture, one language, to another, was normal. It wasn’t easy. But I loved the wildness of small mining towns, the changes, the excitement, the challenge.

In Holden I looked out my little Sears attic window at big soft falling flakes of crystallized Pacific moisture and thought about Flash Gordon. The average winter’s snowfall was 350 inches  with 35 inches of rain in the summer. On clear  moonlit nights I knew I would one day walk the face of the moon.

The investment in time, money, sweat, and  blood required to  find, develop, and operate a mine is huge. It takes years. It includes scouring remote areas to discover where a mineral ore is likely; drilling  hundreds of rock core samples; and analyzing the cores. If there is mineral, that is only the beginning. The real cost balloons: establishing access  to the mine site through roads, conveyor belts, lift lines; providing for  housing, schooling for children, health care, entertainment. (Holden,  like many big mines in those days, had  a school,  bowling alley, dance hall, a  baseball diamond.); providing water,  sewage, electricity. Then one must add up all the costs of infrastructure and of mining, extracting, milling the ore,  dealing with waste rock and tailings, dust, toxic smoke,  possible ligation,  and of complying with myriad known and unknown governmental  regulations; and selling the product…  Only then might one see the  first penny of income.  Profit, if any,  not until years later.

Holden was one of the biggest copper mines in the nation at the time.  But in the 1950′s the ore body was exhausted, the war was over, and it closed. That is the fate of all mines. Yet often the infrastructure remains in  a very remote and lovely place. Holden like many other mining towns, survived the demise of the mine; consider the upscale resorts in Colorado, and Arizona. The  old mining towns at  El Teniente and Chuquicamata  in Chile are World Heritage sites.  ( see We  ourselves lived in a number of mining towns that now are resorts: Balatoc and  Baguio, Filipinas,  and tiny Manhattan, Nevada, and Holden,Washington.

We never understood one another, my father and I.  He seemed irritated because life came so easy to me. I was grateful that it was so. I  could always arrogantly choose the course that was most exciting, selfish, exotic, and at the same time  seemed to me most ethical, knowing that life was good and God was fair. Only later was I taught we had been poor, that our Holden house, most all our houses, should have been condemned by multiple layers of government as unfit; that my parents were neglectful and abusive to allow me so much unsupervised freedom in old mines, caves, jungles, deserts and high mountains where mines are found; that mining companies  abuse poor ignorant miners and pillage the earth.

My father never  did ‘get it’. At 88 he still consulted with remote and soon to be bankrupt mine operators who agreed to fly him to a place like Borneo to talk about their underground water problem. They would pay him off with a big party and roasted suckling pig. He was always just a conservative, always working, driving around in his old wreck of a car, never wasting, never wanting, wearing his old clothes and acting like Thoreau. But of course the generations never understand one another any better than we understand ourselves. Too bad I didn’t realize all that in Holden. I thought it was paradise. But what else could anyone expect of an ignorant  kid? Mina San José, 32 Chilean miners  and one Bolivian miner taught me what my father knew all along.


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About 2500 years ago, Charon, the mythological boatman, helped the disembodied Greek soul across the River Styx. He insisted on a small fee for his services, so Greeks were buried with a coin on their tongues, lest their souls languish forever on the banks of that dark river. Today, astounding technologic developments in medicine have devalued that coin to the point of worthlessness, and channeled the Styx through Nursing and Extended Care Facilities. There, often in foul fluorescent air, many Americans wait, imprisoned by well intended but costly and ultimately cruel care.


A brain dead teenage woman survives a head injury.  Her mother had died in the same accident. Her father is with her constantly during the first several months, searching for any sign of cognition, pouring into his child every shred of hope, love, strength, and longing he owns. He prays for the miraculous return of sentient life. Many years later he still visits regularly, to hold the hand, touch the face, and speak with the memory of his lovely daughter. For several years her young body retains its youthful promise and beauty.  But in time she undergoes a heart rending metamorphosis, with muscle wasting, skin, joint, and tissue changes related to seizure medication and chronic invalidism. Her bodily functions are provided by various catheters, IV ports, and diapers. She is a ‘no code’ but her frequent infections and pressure sores are treated aggressively and expertly.  Pneumonia, the ‘old man’s friend’ is not allowed to intervene or invite the ministrations of Charon. Her father waits. The State and taxpayers wait. The child waits. Death waits.


My dear friend and colleague had developed a persistent cough. One night, while on duty in the ER he ordered his own chest XRay. Looking  at the ugly Xray film silently and alone he discovered his lungs riddled with cancer. Following pathologic confirmation and a decision to attempt chemotherapy, he and his wife threw an all day swim party for his two families: his nearby blood relations, and those he lived and worked with for eight or ten hours daily.  It was a celebration of all he was, all we are. Defiantly, we scheduled another party in a year. But he deteriorated very rapidly, focused on two things: Reaching out to his extensive families, and avoiding hospitalization. We stayed with him as he reached out to his own past, and his own death. In the advanced state of dying, or living, we kept 8 hour shifts so that both a relative and a colleague were with him at all times. He was never hospitalized, or hospiced. It was a transcendent experience for us all.


Carlos Castaneda’s invented Yaqui warrior, Don Juan, usually speaks in metaphorical terms. His own death, for example, is always with him. It takes the form of a black crow, and at times when he turns his head quickly, he sees it flit away. In any crisis, that crow is his best counselor. Yet when asked about old age Don Juan says simply: “Fight like hell!”, despite knowing that in the end he will lose. But not all of us are Yaqui warriors. As physicians we see those who desperately want release from living. They may find comfort in religious sources like Ecclesiastes 4:2-3: ‘There is a time for all things under heaven: a time for birth, a time for death…’, or Revelations 9:6:  ‘…they shall seek death, and not find it.’ Or in Aleuts, whose elderly are allowed to walk out into the cold alone when they are ready to die. They may find solace in the eastern religions’ respect for the continuing cycles of interrelated life and death.


Beyond ‘patient directives’ to the medical community to limit interference with dying, they may appeal to a physician to accept their decision to expedite the end of their own life; to be counseled and assisted in considering or acting on their will to die in a way and at a time of their choosing.  What is ‘free will’ if such an option is denied people? While the famous oath of Hippocrates denies  physician the possibility of assisting dying, it is almost as old as Charon. It’s not that time is unimportant, but that reality does change. Times change.


So I suggest this is the time for a subspecialty of primary care or geriatrics/gerontology, called Charontology. Ethically and legally the involvement of more than one physician should be required, and when possible, family should participate. Charon’s fee might be more than a coin, though low cost fare across the Styx could be provided by insurance of various sorts. People buy funeral services and burial plots, why not include the services of a charontologist?


I suppose some might consider Dr. Kevorkian the ‘father of charontology.’ Or the State of Oregon’s assisted suicide laws the current expression of Kevorkianism. Others might beat the drums about ‘death squads’. Yet there should be a way for a person to choose a clearly expressed and considered wish to end his own life on earth, other than suicide. And for a family to choose to end the legalized torture imposed by society on a loved one who has no hope, no  voice, and no mind. Who does the choice of death belong to, and who do the choices of life belong to? The state? Or the professions of medicine or law? I don’t think so. These options belong to the free individual,  and to the family of an individual who is imprisoned in a hopeless living death.  While opponents can rant about ‘death squads’ and ‘euthanasia’ or ‘mercy killing’,  society has only the right to place  rational safeguards and limitations on these choices.  As in the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, the right a ticket on Charon’s little boat is clear.