The Spirit in Which My Father Was Born

My father was born a short half lifespan removed from an eerily quiet single-street town, Clinton Indiana. His mother Etta took herself from rural Indiana into downtown Chicago by herself in the 1950’s. Etta was a beautiful rebel in that way. A beautiful rebel was the spirit in which my father was born. 

He grew up on the southside of Chicago poor. He was deeply affected by the windswept streets of that city, and he never stopped talking about Chicago and it’s many suburbs for very long. He would tell us about the empty overgrown lots that dotted his neighborhood, where he and my uncle and their friends would play as children. When we’d drive there in the summers, he would point to these empty lots and exclaim how he loved them and why they were important and how they would have been shrinking in numbers as new real estate built on top. 

My father John and uncle Bill

Fields of thistle and creeping charlie overlooked by the hot Chicago sun and shaded by their four story brownstone walk ups, were the spirit in which my father was born. 

Father’s father was a wiry, fascinating man. He started our family with Etta. They had my dad and uncle. Father’s father was a haunted alcoholic who grew more angular and removed as the years went on. He had been in the Navy in World War Two. He took off on the family when my dad was 8, and never returned even a Christmas card thereafter. A nomad, a ghost from then on. That man’s hopes, bright eyes and fierce working class intelligence were the spirits in which my father was born.

Father’s father with my father.

My father John Chuckman was giggly, rascally, intellectual, extremely sensitive and artistic. His instinct for being social never really rebounded after his dad left. Unspeakable abandonment danced with my dad for the rest of his life. They, too were the spirit in which he was born.

My father was 6 foot 5 inches by age 13. Though physically strong, he was not given to athletics- but he vicariously enjoyed mine. We played catch in the park with hardball 4 nights a week when he got home from work. He would act so impressed with me- he was. He helped me become a fine T-ball star and little league outfielder. He had a good arm. He maybe felt too awkward to have played on a team. His tallness made him more introspective, a serious challenge for an already serious boy. Also, his father probably never played catch with him, but I don’t know. Tallness, awkwardness, physical strength and vicarious enjoyment were the spirits in which my father was born. 

John and Bill’s mom Etta became an American gypsy when she mostly retired in her 60’s- when people used to retire. She was a royal wanderer and snowbird, and was physically very beautiful. She and my grandpa did three seasons in Illinois, then the winters in Arizona. I think she and my grandpa Wayne, who she married long before I was born, just loved the drive. Even in Arizona, where I visited on the wise insistence of my father, Wayne and Etta never stopped moving. Calculating the next route across the desert to a casino, or up to Laughlin, or to a restaurant 110 miles away cause there was nothing else to do but watch TV, and they had a good smorgasbord there.

Wayne and Etta were the first seniors I saw in passionate love with one another. Their marriage and Wayne himself was a perfect antidote to the abandonment of my father’s father. Wayne was a beautiful man, a mechanic who taught all his boys to repair cars, who grew up in Harvey Illinois- a suburb of The Windy City. Wayne had been a trucker after The War. He already had volumes of immediate kin when he and my father’s mother married in ‘64. They loved the road. He and Etta had the US highway system memorized, and they would give us detailed instructions on the best routes to get to Chicago, or anywhere else in America.

Wayne and Etta

My dad would meet us in either Homewood Illinois, or later Crown Point Indiana. The summer when I was 11, my father allowed me and Grandpa Wayne and Grandma Etta to take a tour through the southern states. Dad insisted on me knowing my American side- a great fortune to me I think. They drove a Chevy van with blue vinyl seats and no air through southern Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, then Mississippi. At probably half our stopping points we met with distant relatives I had never even heard of. Working class Americans who ate their eggs runny and talked in gruff accents and had hands like clubs. We worked our way back up Oklahoma and Kansas, back to Chicago. It was a two week whirlwind. 

My father was so happy and proud that I got that experience. Dad only had a few weeks vacation. Otherwise, he surely would have joined us. Wanderers and gypsies were spirits in which my father was born.

Father was half mathematician and half artist. Not an easy line to divide. He became a prominent economist in the oil industry in Canada, where he also wrote speeches for the company’s figureheads. Some of them were published in high profile periodicals. His writing could have have contributed to his introspective dislike of the boy’s-club that was the oil business- though he left Texaco in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster. He dedicated the rest of his career to writing. Economics was a spirit my father possessed. 

Father did not fight in Vietnam. He took himself and my mom to Canada just prior to conscription, an act that surely enabled me and my brother to be born. Muhammad Ali also refused conscription, and my father talked about him incessantly. They had met once in O’Hare Airport in the 70’s. Others caught up in that pitch-perfect casket machine of a war labelled John a coward, which affected him greatly and alienated him in a situation in which history proved him right. It was one of his most courageous acts- refusing the draft. Being on the right side of a senseless war was part of the spirit born with my father. 

My father took hundreds of thousands of photos, which he painstakingly organized through the years. He used a meticulously cared for Pentax. I remember posing in front of the Grand Canyon with Wayne and Etta as dad reloaded another spool with feverish dexterity, sincerity and love. My grandpa asked once in the desert heat, “Why do you need to take so many damned pictures, John? Why?” One of my father’s great legacies were the photographs he took all the time, a dedication that never left him from the moment he picked up a camera.

He and I would draw the blinds and sit in the comfort of the living room on Sunnyside avenue for slideshows. These were some of the best times I had with my dad. The photographer holds themselves outside of the action they record- it wasn’t until slideshow nights that I understood this paradox, deep seated in my father. The high pitched bulb and soothing fan of the projector were sure signs that good times would be relived. The photographer, cataloguer and keen observer of the light-plays on people and buildings- was the spirit in which my father was born. 

He was a temperamental idealist, ideologue and individualist. A ranter, lover and alcoholic, but he didn’t drink much. An anxious worshiper of slowly disappearing liberal-left values. Of pointing things out. Of intelligence, english and words put together in serious ways. He was a master’s degree student who wrote out his essays by hand with cheap pens pressed too hard into yellow foolscap, which my mother would then type for handing in. My father was a writer- the spirit in which my father was born. 

My father was completely and childishly in love with trains. We had model trains- HO-gauge until we eventually got an O-gauge Lionel- a bucket-list-level model train that father had always dreamed of owning. I remember when it occurred to me that model trains were real trains, not toys in the proper sense of the word. I ran in and squealed to dad, who beamed with acknowledgement. “Yes they are real trains,” he said, smiling.

My father and I shared a love for trains.

Furthermore, growing up in Toronto, we had subways and streetcars to enjoy, and he loved them. To be honest if there’s one thing my immediate family all agree on, it would be love of public transit, based I think on our love of trains. Father beautifully photographed Toronto’s burgeoning transit system in the early 60’s when he and my mom first came. Some of his iconic pics of Toronto Streetcars are collected. I remember riding with him on an empty 506 to the University of Toronto on a quiet weekday. He sat at the edge of his seat the whole time, indestructible orange vinyl squeaking under his butt. He turned around this way and that, happily pointing out to me the switches and details of the complex infrastructure of energy lines fueling our car.

There was a streetcar barnyard at the end of our street where they were repaired- a not surprising coincidence given his love for trains. He was fascinated by a small short turn spot for the Westbound Queen-car near Roncesvalles. I remember kicking at the steel rails embedded in the concrete and being fascinated as well. 

A photo by my father of a Toronto Streetcar at Front St. in the early 1960’s.

There was not an Alfred Hitchcock movie he didnt love. His films all seem to have a train in them somewhere. Father would nearly shout anytime one showed up in a scene. I think he literally salivated every time we re-watched the train sequences in North By Northwest. (Father insisted on me watching great films). I think it was John’s love of post-war America that inspired his infectious romance about trains. The America of his childhood when anything seemed possible, and his idealism was matched by the idealism and industry of the society around him.

But it didn’t end there. My mother’s father, grandpa Sorensen, was an engineer on Chicago’s elevated line after the war. My father held that man in a state of unparalleled reverence because of it. Grandpa Sorensen also loved and supported my father unwaveringly. I think my father would have been happiest as a train engineer. He had the perfect temperament for it. 

My Grandpa Sorensen in his Chicago Transit Authority uniform.

We visited trains on our vacations all the time. There was a giant, imposing Chicago-built Burlington Steam engine in one of the big rooms at the Museum of Science and Industry. We stood under its spell whenever he took me there. He spoke with venerence about famous train engines like the Zephyr and the 20th Century Unlimited., as if they were super heroes who had saved people’s lives.

A Zephyr at The Museum of Science and Industry

Also, one time, my dad had to jump up from his seat on the 506 streetcar and apply the brakes because it was rolling down the other side of the Dundas bridge, west of Landsdowne. The operator had gone in for a piss and forgot to take it out of drive.

I wonder if the clock-like rattle and swoosh of a passenger train weren’t sounds that made my father feel truly peaceful. I picture him on a train now. Going somewhere. Between two places. Looking forward to his trip. Like a kid. Safe. A ride on a train is a break from the hardships of everyday life for anyone. But for my dad, trains subdued the very feeling of ecstasy and put it into his spirit better than anything else. We were on them a lot together. He showed me everything he could out those fast-tripping windows. He would have commented on the “terrific speed,” or how the train “hurtled along.” 

I will remember my father with the smile of a child, in a state of pure presence and joy. That was the spirit in which my father was born. RIP John William Chuckman, February 1945- March 2021

A fuzzy shot, but one that captures the spirit in which my father was born.

Kindness in the Treatment of Traumatic Stress.

The experience of safety enables individuals healing from trauma to access levels of emotional pain required for healing. Feeling deeply is a natural human response to inescapably painful experiences. However, the personal and interpersonal dynamics that characterize traumatic stress prevent individuals from feeling at depth. This is part of the “hell” of PTSD- psychological disturbance combined with an unconscious apparatus that prevents sufficient awareness of traumatic memories.

Clinicians working with sufferers work firstly to establish safety. Safety is an internal experience related to calmness, and it includes a sense of connection to others. Thus, safety is both an interpersonal and intrapersonal phenomenon, reliant on the expression of humanistic traits such as empathy, creativity, and trust. These are modelled by clinicians in authentic ways, and emerge spontaneously in clients during treatment. Safety is a critical dialectic to trauma that must be realized in clients seeking recovery.

Kindness is a practical tool that can be taught to clients that also helps clients realize a dialectic to their pain. Like the stage-one trauma goal of safety, kindness creates feelings of well being and trust. Expressions of kindness likely result in kindness being returned, creating a self sustaining system of psychological reward, which can act in service to overall trauma recovery.

Kindness could therefore be used as the purposeful engagement of the complex, positive emotions that facilitate deep social connections. 

Polyvagal theory has discovered that traumatic stress disrupts functioning in areas of the body responsible for creating well-oiled social exchange. For example, warm facial expressions are sometimes reduced, making it difficult for others to approach them. Sufferer’s perceptions of positive social behaviour in others is also often disturbed. The hostility associated with PTSD, for example, can be attributed in part to missed or erroneous interpretations of social cues and their physiologic underpinnings in the body-mind.

The establishment of safety can be increased using kindness as a systematic interpersonal goal, in service to the dialectics of trauma recovery. Like the manner in which safety operates on an individual level, kindness resolves the social disconnectedness that lies at the heart of traumatic stress. 

Life In The Rest Of The Universe

The answer to whether life exists elsewhere in the universe is already available to you and me. 

We have a tremendous need for comfort on this matter and nothing provides relief like remembering how isolated and alone we humans are in the cosmos. If the universe happened instead to be full of life, as I believe it is, then not knowing this and not understanding this would be painful. Alone and isolated, or surrounded by life.

Our current approach is to put this question into science’s hands, which is totally understandable. Science’s approach, however, is to systematically deny it. That way, no one needs to feel pestered by the thought. 

I am going to try to demonstrate that life exists in the rest of the universe, but first let me mention beer-pong. If it were of interest to them, scientists might systematically observe some games of beer-pong, record those observations, use logic to reflect on their data, and compare this information to what we already know about the game of beer pong, or other drinking games. The scientists might uncover the game’s usefulness in helping students graduate college, by asking questions such as: “Does beer pong lead to bad grades in chemistry courses?” For the most part, science incrementally advances us towards knowledge, like this. 

Science has made some revolutionary discoveries: “The rest of the universe doesn’t revolve around the earth!” Most scientific headlines, though, make less of a splash outside their respective disciplines: “Mantis shrimp genes downregulate carrier proteins that control shell colour!”

If our question was instead related to whether beer-pong or mantis shrimp actually exist, scientific inquiry might not be the way to go. It’s too simple for science, in a way. It does not require systematic analysis to come to terms with the fact that beer pong exists. The existence of the game itself is understood through the much more basic level of experience. That would also mean getting drunk, by the way, which would probably count as a methodologic flaw in a study design.

How about the question, “does life exist?” Has it been answered fully for us? If a systematic inquiry were required for this question, science would probably have answered it long ago. This is not the case, however. A customer service rep at Wal Mart and DeGrasse Tyson are on equal footing here. The answer is available to both by experience.

“Does life exist” is already answered for the vast majority of people. First, we experience it. Secondly it is inferred. Admittedly, the inference, “life exists” is an assumption, but it is reinforced by the fact that the opposite sounds ridiculous: “Life does not exist.” The reason this statement sounds absurd is that it does not line up with the simple proof provided by experience. That is all that is required to answer basic questions about existence itself- beer-pong, mantis shrimp, or life.

By the way I’m not trying to prove this with logic. I’m sure this is full of fallacies. They do not interfere however with how simple experience answers simple questions of fundamental existence. The inference that life exists is the automatic conclusion of the experience. Even a 12th Century Priest would have agreed that life indeed exists. No peer-reviewed study needs to do the subject justice:

“Science Finally Proves That Life Exists!” 

Let’s consider the question, “Does life exist in the rest of the universe?” Sticking to the assumption that we don’t know whether life exists in the rest of the universe, might be the best way to avoid being one of those hippies that gather on rooftops in the California desert to invite “The Peaceful Ebens” for chamomile tea.

However, if life does exist in the rest of the universe, then our assumption is not only wrong, it includes a clear kind of suffering. You might call it the “desert island syndrome.”

When we say that we don’t know if life exists in other parts of the universe, what most of us honestly mean is that life does not exist in the rest of the universe until proven otherwise. In spite of what I’m about to demonstrate, most people spend their lives assuming that this beautiful blue rock is like a desert island.

Keep in mind, that our earth is positioned in a Milky Way with hundreds of billions of planets, a galaxy within a universe with maybe two trillion other galaxies

That life exists in other parts of the universe (or not) is not at all dependent on the human discovery of it. If that’s how reality worked, the sun wouldn’t have switched on until Hans Beth caused nuclear fusion in the 1940’s (bless his soul!). The modern scientist- and this is my complaint- currently has themselves and most of us convinced that life does not exist on other planets until it is proven by them.

Here is the thing. We are surrounded by life in the universe just as we are surrounded by life on this planet, and one day it will seem silly that we denied it. This denial though is not simply naïve, it is unhealthy. Like the belief in a geocentric universe, where the heavens revolve around the earth, denying a life-abundant universe disallows everyday people an understanding of their cosmic identity. There is an incredible feeling of interconnectedness that attends the realization of this truth. A lack of that is what I define as suffering in this case.

My basic proof is as follows: To say that life doesn’t exist in the rest of the universe relies on an implicit decision that we humans make, to divide “my world” from “the rest of the universe.” This is as much an existential problem as it is an astrological one, because as soon as my definition of the universe includes my backyard, then I notice that the very first example I see when I walk out the patio door is not a desert island floating randomly in space. Instead, my yard is abundant with life- my own life included. 

The universe hosts life in the way that my yard hosts life.

The stogy status quo would hasten to qualify their denial: “Haha, Bob. You can’t include the rest of the earth- or your yard- in your definition of the universe. I’m sorry we didn’t mention that at first!” You see? It’s one of those cases where the primordial assumption of our aloneness, prevents the simplest, most basic form of proof from being inferred: experience.

Experience is what tells us this universe hosts a staggering amount of life. We just look at our local universe. So long as we don’t exclude the earth from the cosmos, we understand this. Of course, it just so happens that it is the spiritualists who are closer to understanding this, because spirituality often start from the assumption of an interconnected cosmos, rather than proceeding from the assumption of a cold dead rock.

I don’t deny that from our current scientific angle, life in the universe is extremely rare, but we likely have a poor understanding of the apparent vast distances between celestial objects, which makes traversing those distances seem impossible. There is extraordinary abundance, along with vast distances of space. The addition of a technology beyond our current grasp likely fills this deeply mysterious paradox.

The earth also happens to contain a proliferation of sentient beings, should we apply the same simple, experiential proof. We couldn’t fantasize of a place with a greater abundance of sentient beings than earth- our home and the very first aspect of the cosmos of which every human has an experience.

That likely means 

there is a feline species, 

out by quasar 66, 

rolling around in the dirt right now, 

eating something like tuna out of an old tea-saucer, 

put out by someone in an apron does dishes

under a fan-like-thing sweeping back and forth

only poorly cooling things off.

One day, the erroneous belief that we exist in a cold and dead universe will evaporate and everyone will be better for it. 

Desert Mountain Drive Meditation

You are driving along a two lane highway, through the desert, in Nevada. There is no where particular to get. It is a warm day, and the car you are driving moves effortlessly, at 60 or 70 miles per hour. If this is too fast or too slow, increase or decrease your speed as you wish. It is safe and easy to do so on this road.

The road you are on runs a clear, straight line from your position, takes on a slight incline before disappearing in a set of purple mountains in the distance, 20, 30 or even 50 miles in front.

Notice the road. It has some loose gravel, but is otherwise clean and dry, near perfect for driving. Its once black asphalt surface has been blanched by the sun and now appears light grey. There are cracks here and there that the car goes over.

You notice that this road is like a tiny spine running through the desert. The road takes you as much as you it.

Purple mountains are visible to the left and right. They seem closer than they are, like you could reach their footings by an hour’s walk, however this is an illusion. To reach them, one would walk for many days. Noticing the sheer immensity of this place has a sheltering quality.

Here and there, a few of the higher mountains have a brief section of snow at their top, before giving way to the sky above and beyond. Beautiful.

The windows to your car are open and the air is gusting in. Notice how different the air looks out on the desert-plain, where it is noticeably still, vast, and silent.

You seem to barely be moving. The car’s velocity is steady and comforting.

The sky is a shade of purple, and has gold, blue, and white. There are a few clouds. You can see that a few larger clouds cast shadows on the desert floor as they speed along, changing their color like a fine artists brush.

Maybe 15 miles on, a car is travels ahead. You wonder who is in the car. Are they noticing the things you are? Every ten minutes or so, a car passes in the other direction, with a thrush of wind that rocks your vehicle for a second, then disappears.

You notice then that the car in front of you begins to melt into the mountains ahead as it drives on, until you cannot see it anymore. Notice that as it does, that you are now by yourself, a feeling in this case that you welcome. Ahhh.

Notice how your car floats as it moves. The landscape shifts, but only subtly as you drive. The light brown color of the desert floor, from lighter to darker shades. It’s undulations. Notice the plant life. There are low shrubs all around. You notice the occasional whip-tail cactus, which have large, sharp thorns. There are other cactus types, visible in any direction you look. Some of these have curious, interesting shapes.

Consider the wildlife that populates this landscape. Though you may not see them right now, you wonder about rabbits and coyotes. Where do they sleep? What other small furballs exist here and call this their home? You then remember that rattlesnakes must live here too, of no danger to you as you drive.

Just as you think about the strange and amazing creatures that call this place home, you notice two hawks out to the right, maybe 70 feet from the desert floor. Their wings hardly move. The smallest adjustment seems to keep them afloat. They are nearly effortless, shifting lightly to make circles. They appear lifted, which indeed they are.

Now notice that you are also one of the organisms inhabiting this place, for this moment in time, with all of these other creatures and plants.

Notice how good it feels to drive on a long smooth desert road. Notice thoughts as they arise, but then drive past them.

The Grounding Nature of Cooking

Caramelized onions may one day be studied for their antidepressant effects

Christmas and Hanukah reveal the chef inside me. I just took Fanny Farmer chocolate chip cookies out of the oven for the third time in 10 days. I could do that recipe with my eyes closed and they’d still turn out, I’ve made the very same ones on so many lonely Saturday nights that I’ve honestly stopped counting.

And though I am not the greatest cook, I believe cooking is great for me. Cooking is grounding.

To describe. Cooking is grounding because the food I prepare fills my belly when I’m done. This is due to the fact that I’m fucking hungry just before I cook, and doing so tells me I’m about to eat, which fills me with unequalled hope and other pleasant emotions. The equation is simple: on one side of the equals sign is most of my problems, and on the other side is a picture of me smiling and wiping au jus from my face.

Furthermore, I verge at times on hunger’s slightly less emotionally regulated, demented cousin, “hangry.” A good portion of the most fulfilling cooking-events throughout my life happened after I had waited way too long to eat. And as the sage noted, “eat when hungry.” But I am nearly positive he/she just forgot to also mention to “eat when hangry.“ If only they’d thought of it. Eating food is guaranteed to remove hunger and “hanger,” and looking forward to that while in the process of preparing food is pleasant in a way I call grounding.

Preparing food is also grounding because it’s inventive. True story: I used to cook for myself when I was a bit poorer. Oft times as a teenager, I went from despondently scanning our sparingly stocked cupboards to turning out an edible three-course meal, sometimes even for my buddies, too. It was creative. A piece of bacon, half a broccoli, butter and some fettuccini. Voila! These memories are conjured when I cook. They remind me of the fun I had creating something from nothing.

Keep in mind, my mom had to feed my brother and I when our teenage bodies were expanding on a daily basis, a growth that was facilitated by our unique ability to wolf down several days’ meals’ worth of food and then take long, unearned naps, behaviour patterns seen only in some dogs and bears basically operating on a gorge-fast cycle.

Moving on. Cooking also reduces anxiety. For starters, hunger causes a type of anxiety that only eating can quench- the anxiety of not knowing if you’ll have enough to eat. Poverty also makes hunger worse in that you don’t have as much food going into your body, which in turn could exacerbate anxiety on a physiological level. It’s therefore easy to see how eating- including the preparation of food- might protect against anxiousness, especially the type related to poorness and hungriness.

Also, the act of making food can clearly be made into a mindfulness practice- which is good for anxiety. Working with our hands, creating something, following a recipe, chopping vegetables, seasoning meats. Each produces inherent gratification because of their meditative aspect. Further, cooking is often done to feed others, and contributing to others can boost feelings of gratitude, connection and help us to enjoy the moment. Helping others basically helps us feel better about ourselves. Cooking is an ideal thing to do for someone else.

(Ahem.. cant help but to reflect on the positive impact on romantic intentions- themselves often hampered by anxiety- that can be wrought from some garlic and butter sizzling in a pan).

Physical tasks like food-prep are also naturally therapeutic. Work such as cooking, painting a bedroom and gardening inspire mindfulness, but they also produce something quite tangible. Making things can be good for us. Doesn’t hurt that with food, we get to eat it afterwards.

Finally, cooking is grounding in that it smells good. Can we not agree that certain kitchen odours, such as onions in olive oil, ought to be studied one day for their anxiolytic effects? Maybe they already have. Try it sometime. Remove anxiousness by making some good-smelling stuff: Cookies. Toast. French fried potatoes.

Who doesn’t like the smell of coffee, even if actually drinking it might contribute to anxiety? Who doesn’t love snapping open a fresh kielbasa, especially if your wife is vegetarian and eating sausage is like dining on rare burgundy truffles? Who hasn’t noticed that the food court at Sherway Gardens is one of the few places we can take a well-earned break from fast fashion outlets and Hudson’s Bay sales reps still hawking “Fahrenheit”? It’s the one place in the mall I can be myself, order the same, steaming pile of tempura that the last guy got, and allow myself to simply witness the ecstatic dance between MSG, my salivating tongue, evaporating hunger, and Christmas shopping. It’s like coming home.


Yoga As Phase One Trauma Treatment in EMDR

Before a course of trauma therapy gets into a client’s troubling experiences, they and their therapist usually work diligently to establish a sense of safety and calm in the present moment. I use yoga for this purpose as well. It helps me help clients to develop inner and outer resources required for the treatment of their trauma, because it connects people to their bodies and helps them feel strong and relaxed. Yoga can be felt as increased resiliency, relaxation and more adaptive thinking.

Safety and calm are trauma recovery skills. Traditional EMDR teaches the use of visualization exercises to increase these, but there is a wide set of available skills to increase or establish safety that do not require visualizations. Learning to feel safe and calm is what we are really after, not that we “know” the course of a particular mindfulness routine. Safe/calm place exercises are thus called affect regulation skills- where we make ourselves feel better. The body and breath are allies in this journey to increase regulation.

What inner resources and skills are you already using for the things you find stressful in your life? What helps you feel like you are rebounding after stressful things happen? Maybe therapy, maybe music, maybe your partner, friends and allies. Hatha yoga is simply another type to add.

Hatha yoga- generally speaking the physical branch of yoga- is a means to create space for inner awareness. It includes ancient as well as ever-evolving sets of techniques that remain viable thousands years later for millions of people due in part to the benefits of slowing down the mind’s compulsive thought-emotion-behavior patterns. Yoga increases awareness of and control over the body, necessary parts of the creation of a sense of safety and calm.

Neuroception

Polyvagal theory explains why yoga and other mindfulness are so helpful in phase one trauma treatment. Polyvagal postulates that the body is specially equipped to quickly sense safety and danger, which through the vagus nerve accumulates information and sends it back to the brain, informing it about the environment. This talent is called “neuroception.” Polyvagal shows that when we strategically engage and relax some of these parts of the body, our entire nervous system including the brain benefits, leading to various gains related to stress resiliency and trauma recovery.

Polyvagal refers to a set of three possible responses to our circumstances. It seems we had first conceived of two possible responses to our outside worlds: Sympathetic fight/ flight, and parasympathetic rest/digest. The third response third response – socialization- is considered in polyvagal to come first. We first try to resolve things with cooperating and communicating. It is only when this fails that we end up fighting, fleeing or freezing (parasympathetic from this standpoint talked of as freeze).

Associated with more recent evolution, this third response is also called our “smart vagus.”

Smart vagus is critical to having a functional relationship to our environment. Since fight, fight and freeze are less adaptive and require more caloric energy, they are less sustainable than connecting. Polyvagal’s developer Stephen Porges sstates,“To switch effectively from defensive to social engagement strategies, the nervous system must do two things: (1) Assess risk, and (2) if the environment looks safe, inhibit the primitive defensive reactions to fight, flee, or freeze.” Our intelligence and communication skills act as brakes on our more primitive responses.

When a person experiences trauma, socialization and problem solving responses are sacrificed. Sometimes this becomes a tragic and permanent transformation. We can become stuck in fight, flight or freeze responses. But we have reason to hope: We can re-teach the mind-body that we are safe in the world. Socialization and problem solving can again take precedence in our lives, keeping less adaptive and defensive thinking in the background. That is the promise of neuroception.

Hatha yoga may be a kind of neuroceptive activity, where chronic defense activations associated with trauma are re-written by controlling certain aspects of our physical lives. Yoga teaches we are simply at our best more often when we are not only relaxed, but when we know we can make ourselves relaxed, an empowerment that is indispensible to trauma recovery plans.

Stage one trauma work is about practicing the talents of safety, trust, strength and connection. Yoga provides the psychotherapy space with a host of specific techniques, such as asana and pranayama, each with hundreds of exercises to choose from. Coordinating with a trained yoga instructor- better yet one who knows therapeutic yoga- can play an important role in helping psychotherapy clients gain control of their inherent abilities to relax and be present. Hatha yoga is also a good alternative for clients who do not respond to verbally-guided mindfulness meditations. Adding coordinated breath and physical movement to relaxation programs can draw such clients in, make them want to try different things, and ultimately reap more of the the benefits of phase one trauma treatment.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR is an advanced psychotherapy technique used primarily to treat trauma. Known for it’s potent, predictable and relatively fast treatment effects, EMDR is supported by a wide body of research literature. It is an excellent treatment option for conditions like PTSD, addiction, dissociation and anxiety.

EMDR compliments and indeed relies upon the success of other psychotherapy strategies, while also being totally unique. EMDR uses bilateral stimulation (BLS) during recall of traumatic memories to induce the mind’s own information processing/ healing systems. If eye movement is chosen as the BLS, client follows therapist’s hand to the left and right.

The central explanation put forth regarding EMDR’s effect is the Adaptive Information Processing model (AIP). This theory suggests that the mind normally stores memories in adaptive ways, which creates homeostasis and a sense of resilience after stressful things happen. According to AIP, we come to understand troubling memories in their rightful context as the mind inherently processes information.

But sometimes, what happens to us is so troubling, that the mind is hindered from normal integration of an experience. Childhood abuse, for example. Car accidents. In such cases, the mind’s natural ability to process information is impaired, and memories are stored in dysfunctional ways. Therapy is generally aimed at accessing these memories to resolve them.

Traumatic events can therefore damage the mind’s inherent ability to store memories in adaptive ways. This means that dysfunctional material is not connected to adaptive thinking and is easily activated in the present. It is quite literally as if the part of the mind of trauma sufferers lives in the past. This leads people to re-experience, have nightmares and be afraid- the hallmarks of traumatic injury.

EMDR clinician and client carefully access these maladaptive memory networks through 8 phases of treatment. As these are carried out, memory and physical sensations are reorganized from a state-specific, trauma-induced form, into an adaptive form. EMDR assists the mind to create new neural networks around old material, such as a car accident. Signs that new neural networks are forming around old material during sessions include relief of knots in the stomach, new perspectives on the disturbing event, clearer recall of the event, and a general feeling of calm and safety… in relation to the trauma.

 For those of you well versed in this kind of work, you can understand the importance of this distinction. EMDR in essence has the power to connect disconnected parts of the self. It reaches into the client’s very own history, heals it, and instills permanent gains in the various presentations of traumatic injury.

I am so excited to be offering this technique.

How it Works

As with any psychotherapy technique, EMDR relies upon general therapist skills such as rapport building, the ability to hold space, grounding techniques, and awareness of client readiness factors. The therapist’s job is to build a solid relationship and helps client develop self-soothing skills. It is then that reprocessing can begin.

This technique is very specific. As with any psychotherapy, its power to heal can also be the capacity to do harm. Maintaining fidelity to the core aspects of the technique is a must. Unskilled or amateur practitioners in EMDR could be a hazard to people dealing with real trauma.

To help clients prepare, EMDR therapists also use The Window of Tolerance model. I teach it to my clients. It can act as a form of biofeedback, similar to the SUD (subjective units of distress) scale. As such it is a valuable skill as well as a theoretical model.

The Window depicts a zone of optimal arousal, where feelings of safety and connectedness pervade the individual’s experience. This is sandwiched between zones of hyper and hypo arousal, where the client experiences fight/flight/bite/ freeze responses, typical to trauma. The EMDR therapist guides their client into these dysfunctional states to reprocess them, while working to keep the client in optimal (connected) arousal. This is a skill known as dual awareness- one foot in the past and one foot safely in the present. You and your therapist work towards developing dual awareness prior to reprocessing the memories you have selected.

SUDs from 1-10 help clients subjectively gauge their current level of upset for targeted memories. Each SUD adds to therapist’s growing clinical picture of what and how the client has been affected. A sense of competence emerges in clients through history-taking, as they begin to look forward to ameliorating problems that have been holding them back.

EMDR empowers clients to be bold. We can resolve our trauma! EMDR is one of the psychotherapy techniques that make this statement true.

You will be introduced to bilateral stimulation. Eye movement is my preferred method. I use hand pulsars or headphone beeps as a second option. Everything is explained as part of informed consent. Sometimes clients used to talk therapy find this technique feels quite different. EMDR does not place a high priority on the words that occur between sets as healing is taking place. Words spoken between sets are noted, held compassionately, but then followed up by another set of bilateral stimulation and processing is resumed immediately. There is a debrief after each session, where the things which did come up in reprocessing are discussed at greater length.

Clients can expect relatively rapid resolution of traumatic memories during EMDR. One of the best things about being an EMDR clinician is the effect seen in clients, often regarding issues that have proven resistant to other forms of therapy.

I am excited to be fully trained in a psychotherapy technique with the impact of properly conducted EMDR therapy. I offer free 20 minute telephone conversations to anyone interested in finding out if this kind of therapy is right for you.

 

 

 

 

The Power of Drishti

There are 9 common drishtis, or gazing techniques regularly utilized in Yoga. I have been really using them regularly and they have totally transformed my inner practice. That’s why I’m writing about them now.

Deliberately manipulating the eyes- known in ordinary language as the “windows to the soul,” creates a more sound inner yoga practice… a yoga aimed at quieting the mind, observing the self and moving past it.

The eyes are formidable entertainers, however. They do not exactly like to give up first billing in the theatre of mind’s entertainments and distractions. All of the senses are of course capable of pulling a yoga student away from their personal and immediate yoga goals- like when in deep savasana, your neighbor cranks his new Harley Davidson up, leaving your ears and mind ringing. But the eyes are constantly making this kind of noise. As it relates to my own mental practice, the eyes seem to be the sense organ most affiliated with the constant production of “self” or ego that is the purpose of yoga to transform.

The eyes compare, search, notice, investigate, flit, flutter and express. They sense danger one moment, and the next they are bidding one to enjoy the glance of a handsome fellow yoga student! There is a tremendous power in eye contact- consider for example the highly important yet differing expectations regarding eye contact depending on the culture or nation in which you find yourself. The eyes express the self in so many ways- they announce it- like no other part of the body.

But the eyes can also express divinity, discipline and laser focus. Drishti is the manipulation of eye expression to drastically transform these visual circumstances.

The genius of the technique of drishti is that it teaches us to express soul, depth, love and connection to god. And its really the simplest of techniques that require little more than a sentence of instruction. For example, I find when I reorganize for even a few moments the quality and object of eye-focus, an inner world beams open. Adding drishti to practice is like adding an extra glimmer of previously unnoticed light to a prism.

The eyes are so powerful. They can just as easily be used to yoke as they can be used to distract. These are several of the drishtis I have come to regularly utilize in my practice to yoke, or connect.

Hand (hastagre). Focusing on the hands is incredibly rewarding. I especially use this technique during seated meditation, prior to or after practice, with hands at heart centre (Anjali mudra). This morning I used this technique. I focused on the tips of my two middle fingers. Just to be a yoga nerd, I incorporated the idea entailed in chapter 1, verse 40 of the Yoga Sutras as well, where the student visualizes infinitely small objects to achieve stability.

While seated in rock pose, I studied and reveled at the fineness and detail of my finger tips, – the etching- like quality of the pads’ unique prints, and the vast intelligence and experience of my hands.

I also use this drishti during tree pose. It makes the pose far more challenging in terms of balance, and in that regard alone, it is worth trying. With a little practice, gazing at the hands during tree amplifies the tendency of this pose to relax, calm and steady my mind.

Mind is immediately quieted by this eyes-down-at-the-hands-in-heart-center position. I sometimes feel like I have entered a small room that is still and welcoming, and where I can hang out for hours.. Not only that, but the muscles of my eyes relax in this position. Furthermore, this small dedication is a way of observing the small self and its habitual agitations. In hashtagre, one immediately notes the mental challenge of “not looking around,” while at the same time feeling the benefits of “not looking around.”

Secondly, I use urdva drishti. This gaze is loosely translated “upward” but that can be slightly confusing, since this gaze (to me) also entails focusing horizontally and outward into infinity or space. This is the drishti I use in chair pose or warrior 2 nearly always. It has required probably the most practice for me to feel like I’m getting it. However, it’s simple to begin. Lean back, for example in your chair pose, and blur the eyes. Its that easy. As you try, begin to control the “blur.” That is, blur your eyes so that if some object were 4 or 5 feet in front of you, it would be in focus… but of course there is nothing in front of you. “In space.” The small self has no clue what that is, but the big Self does and it grabs hold quick when doing this technique.

Of course, as the name implies, this drishti is also used in upwards gaze- poses like warrior 1 or advanced versions of tree. However, I have found that simply looking at an object on the ceiling of your studio, or a leaf on the tree in the park, does not meet the definition of this particular gaze. Landing on an object does not have the same impact on the practice as“looking into space,” and that is the essence of this drishti for me.

The benefits of this one are numerous. Once again, used in tree pose, it immediately puts one back in the beginners seat- where we can always benefit from hanging out for a while. It’s worth tripping and falling and flailing 10 or 100 times to really nail gazing into space upwards in tree pose and keeping one’s balance. It’s incredibly liberating, and adds to all the muscular benefits derived from balance such as knee and ankle strength. Soccor players do this one to keep from getting injured. Plus, if you master it a little at home each day for 15 minutes, you can show off at the studio the next time you go, since few people tend to be able to look up and balance.

I also highly recommend this gaze to advanced students in mirrored yoga practices. I have certainly used the mirrors in Bikram and Moksha/Modo studios to greatly enhance my pose techniques. But my mind also uses the mirror to be self- absorbed. It’s that self-eye connection that warrants being cautious about. I have to remember that the mirror in Western cultures means the place where we check our make-up, abs, or hair before going out. Some of us stare longingly like Narcissus into our own reflections as we get better and better at the poses. But the flip side is that some more unfortunate students- people with body dysmorphia conditions for example, associate mirrors with feeling bad about themselves. It is there, in that precise location, that urdva drishti can come to the rescue. Use it in chair. Practice it in warrir1 and 2. Even at your local Moksha studio.

Urdva eye technique also produces a similar feeling to hastagre. I feel like I am in my own peaceful little world- and I am. The eyes love it, too, while they relax, and the constant need to “identify objects” in one’s surroundings dissipates. This drishti also influences the self to take a noteable backseat to my practice. It adds an extra bit of divinity to the work. It’s a bit blissful in that way.

The final eye-gaze I will discuss is bhrumadhye, or “third-eye- point- gaze.” This technique is often done with eyes closed. I then look upwards by about 15 degrees- into the spot in the head behind the middle of the eyebrows. Its simpler than all that sounds: just close the eyes and look slightly up.

This technique can be used in nearly every one of my practices- usually during seated or lying-down meditation. It produces a nice feeling for the eye muscles, and creates the same kind of “container” or small room in which one feels protected and calm. This technique is said to increase intuition, as the point between the eyebrows contains the 6th chakra, and focusing on it evokes it’s talents.

I also use this gaze anytime I feel like it in poses like warrior 1, downward facing dog, or chair pose. It can make my practice immediately more personal, but at the same time a little more ecstatic, and connected to the higher self. It certainly affords the student a break- as do all of these techniques- from the mind’s powerful, distracting and nearly obligatory operation of the visual organs.

By taking the eyes back from the wandering mind, I teach myself daily lessons about the power of yoga to reconnect me. Drishti is a whole realm of discipline that I only recently began to fully incorporate into my asana practice. It produces immediate results, especially towards the work of an inner yoga.

 

The Invasion

I brought home expensive wine that night before Russia. The first glass stopped halfway to my wife’s mouth, its contents trembling along with her hand. She looked up at me. “What do you mean you’re going?”

“I’m the only one that will do it,” I said.

“So what, that doesn’t mean you should.” Lisa could see it was pointless. I had that look in my eyes, that fire-like addictive substance of fear, obsession and excitement. It was the real reason I did my job. She brought the wine up to her lips, dispatched the entire glass in two gulps, got up from the table without touching her steak and went upstairs to our room. I was going to have to work harder if I wanted to get a little warm and fuzzy with the wife before I left. I finished my dinner and let things cool off for a couple of hours.

She was mad because she was scared. So was I. The reports coming into the States from Europe were from so many credible sources that our paper finally sent someone. I drew the short straw. I was a reporter for the Chicago Sun Times and I was assigned to investigate stories coming from a rural Russian village about something that had crash landed in one of their fields. You may rest assured that none of us- none of the reporters assigned to the event- were very confident we would ever come back alive. There was a sense of dread… even doom. The woman who booked our travel arrangements at the paper was normally really talkative and friendly, but when I picked up my itinerary for this assignment, she wouldn’t even make eye contact. The look of stark pity on her face summed it up.

I remember that Monday morning when I first found out. My voicemail had blown up from nearly every corner in journalism. Yes, my work phone stayed in a drawer on weekends. There was an urgent message from my good friend John in Munich at the US foreign office. I called him back. “What is it?” I asked.

“You haven’t heard? Something happened in Russia, not far from Moscow. A ship landing. Not human origin.” I giggled, knowing that me and John spent many a night drinking and discussing shoddy journalism, and a growing lack of integrity in the field. “I am not fucking with you,” he went on. “There’s a blackout from the Kremlin and diplomats everywhere from Washington to Prague are trying to wet down these rumors. Check it out yourself. I have to go.” And he hung up.

I raced down to my editor’s desk and crashed through the door. He sat looking out his window, peacefully. “What the hell?” I said. I was like a badger then. I had some issues with… diplomacy.

“I know, Bob. Calm down,” he said.

I couldn’t believe it: “You know about this? Why aren’t we on it? This is huge.” He got up without looking at me and made himself a small drink from his mini fridge, taking his sweet time. He shot it down and planted his ass back into his chair.

“You know shit like this can sink a real news outlet. You chase down enough rabbit holes got nuthin but dirty water, you can bet yourself out of a job in this racket.”

He was right. I took a breath, calmed down a bit, grabbed a chair and thought about what to say next. “John Silver in Munich confirmed, plus three others from the feed all saying the same thing.”

“Fine,” he said, “you can go.” A smile broadened the concern written across his face.

“I never said I wanted to go,” which was a lie. I smiled right back

“Well you’re going anyways,” he said and poured us both a 9:30 am Remy Marin.

By seven o’clock that same evening- after my wife stormed away from the dinner table- I had phoned all my relatives, and assured my mother that all the rumors that had spread couldn’t have been anything more that a hoax, and I was simply going to debunk the whole thing. And I was lucky enough to get some goodbye loving in with Lisa- I didn’t know then that I was going to be gone for the next twelve weeks, on this crazy story.

I sat back in my seat the next morning as the plane lifted out of New York on a cool, sunny Tuesday and I went over what I actually knew. Not much: A ship of unknown origin had landed just north of Moscow. That was it, but it had got everyone talking. Some people were saying they had seen little brown aliens running around. Some people panicked, some people celebrated. I was going to see a guy named John who said he saw the whole thing. I wondered, just as my ears popped, if this was just a plane ride and a few nights in a shit hotel away from my wife. We had reached altitude.

John was my first of many interviews on this story. I first spoke with him over the phone the night before leaving. His English was very good.. He had been out walking his dog when he witnessed an airship come to a severe and sudden skid across the back of his neighbor’s long field. Curiosity pushed him past his fear. His trusty female Doberman helped too: “With one word she is ready, you understand?” he said proudly.

“I went closer to see, with my Klatchka on a short leash.” John stopped talking and I thought we had been cut off. I asked him to go on. “No,” he said. “I do not know who could be listening. I will only meet you in person.” So I went.

John’s town of Ozerestokye is about 35 miles north of Moscow. The Kremlin definitely wanted the town’s people to keep silent but none of my good contacts took that very seriously… The KGB also released a “military command” for the people of Ozerestokye to not speak to any foreign reporters- so I had to sneak around a bit to get there. Fortunately for me, the people of Ozerestokye didn’t give a damn about the Kremlin and the various things Mother Russia asked of them.

John and I met 36 hours after the incident. I got in through Ukraine. I had to drop my laptop, phone and everything, and crossed into Russia as a beet field worker to keep things under the radar. I didn’t want to miss this meeting. We met in front of his house and shook hands. John was thin and had a brisk walking pace and began immediately to talk. “This was day before yesterday, in the night,” he said, beckoning me towards his house. “I haven’t slept since.” I believed him on that at least. Whatever he needed to tell me was weighing on him, physically.

We walked around to his back yard. From about twenty-five meters, I could just make out the pit left by some force of impact. “Is that it?” I said.

“Yes,” he answered. “When it smashed down, we thought it was to explode. Klatchka and I saw the whole thing.” Dogs weren’t much of a second witness, I secretly thought.

We ambled towards the crater it had left, and as we did he whistled, summoning a massive Doberman that came out of nowhere and heeled at his side. “When Klatchka is with me, I do not even fear our local bears. Her ruthlessness is a prize. You must see it.” I nodded and smiled as if I understood ferocious canines. Lisa and I had a Morkie at home.

Unlike his neighbours who were all farmers, John was a hunter. He said that the vessels’ last few moments in the air reminded him of, “Watching an injured beast lurching and dying right in front of me.”

“What exactly did the ship look like?” I asked.

“It wobbled,” he said, as he used his hands to outline its erratic movement in the sky. “A disk, I thought. Very difficult to know shape and size…impossible speed through the air.” It looped above chaotically, he said, nearly fading from view, then returning full swing, “Like a boomerang.” It came close several times to cracking up into a stand of trees in the back of his field.

“Klatchka wouldn’t take her eyes off it. I ducked when it passed back over our heads. The air became very heavy. I cannot describe it, like a wall of warm air pushing through.” He was nearly in a trance just watching it, he said. He reported later that he had felt hypnotized by some unknown force. “Then Klatchka started barking, and it woke me up.”

The cadence of his speech became rapid and he peered down to the ground as many do who are recalling a bad memory which maybe no one will believe. “I was scared and raised my rifle. I was worried my dog would draw them to us, so I whispered, ‘Klatchka stop, stop barking. Stop now.’ But she would not.” He looked at me with wide eyes and gathered himself. “Then it stopped and fell straight down from about 10 meters up.”

We inched closer, traipsing over the knee-high troughs in in the rows of last year’s lentils. As we did, his dog drew to the ground and began to slink along behind, whimpering. “We hunt bear- I have never seen her like this,” John said.

We got to within 20 feet of the pit, which was marked off by frayed police tape, barely hanging on in the wind. On one end was the unmistakeable mark of where something had crashed: the soil there had been carved clean as if by a guillotine or large shovel. At the other end was a hill of dirt about 45 feet high, where the earth had been pushed forward like a wave. I reached down and touched the ground in front of me- it was still very hard.

John went on. “About three of the neighboring families had already arrived, and stayed back of maybe 15 meters.” They heard hisses and metallic clicks coming from the thing.

All of the other witnesses confirmed these facts in nearly identical detail. The one exception was the town’s mayor, who maintained a more diplomatic position, in spite of the fact that he had not been present for the crash landing and the drama that ensued just after it.

“These people are simple,” he said to me on the day after I met with John. “Do not believe everything they tell you. You probably do not understand Russian farmers. Have a drink with me.” We drank strong beer while the mayor smoked a small Cuban cigar. He seemed to want to position himself as the centerpiece of my story- I was used to this sort of thing and I let him go on thinking he would be. He later gave an official statement to the press that concluded, “The ship of our visitors must have been built in heaven itself, and landed gracefully upon the welcoming, cooperative and fertile soil of Russia (translation).” It was the most common tact taken by leaders from various nations in response to our newly arrived visitors. That is, before we figured out what kind of visitors they actually were…

Let me get back to John’s version, though. It was getting late and chilly and we walked back from the crash site towards his home for something to eat. “It is the first time I have eaten since all this happened,” he said. “Maybe telling someone has given me back an appetite.” He cooked us venison and potato stew and continued his story while I sat at the small kitchen table. “Everything got still for over one hour while the ship just sat there. No one said a word.”

Suddenly, whatever organism was inside turned on some kind of loudspeaker. “Those of us gathered outside- good Russians, let me tell you- we could hear them but we could not see them.” I admit I was getting spooked. I was actually starting to believe him. I scanned the room nervously where blue-faded pictures of his relatives stared back at me from the kitchen walls; the head of a large brown bear slung over the fireplace, its glass eyes spelling out unheard warnings; a rifle case half open in the corner with a well-worn brass latch; the wood stove; and next to it, Klatchka, sitting right in front of the only door, staring outwards, whimpering and panting. “Don’t mind her,” he said and went on.

“A voice came out of the microphone- in perfect Russian by the way- and introduced themselves: The Boronstock, who roamed the galaxy, using planets for resources and entertainment.” John said one of his cousins smirked at him and whispered, “Did they say ‘entertainment?’”

“We had begun to feel a chill in our bones,” John continued, “at what this thing was saying. Even poor people like us can understand, you know. But then something changed,” he went on. “There was a rumbling in the background, and another voice. There were two of them!”

Whoever or whatever had the microphone barked at the other one, muffled though, “Like when you cover the telephone receiver for a moment. Then voices that john assured me were not Russian, German or English. “They got louder, one yelling over the other. Then even louder. Then they were almost screaming.”

The microphone must have been dropped and John said he believed they began to fight over its use. “They were arguing, there is no doubt,” he said. An object was thrown and something screeched out loud. “Whatever was inside that ship, I swear a fight took place between them that lasted at least two minutes.”

I took a breath. I tell you, this part of the story had few variations, even after I interviewed every single person present, and went over police reports. In journalism this is very rare. Yet I found myself very troubled to believe. That is of course until I eventually saw our visitors in action for myself.

John went on. “We heard crashing. Something broke like glass. It sounded like they were cursing each other.”

John said that he and the other onlookers began to shake their heads. “One of the grandmothers said “Idiotski,” under her breath and laughed, which got all of us giggling.

“Then something went off with a bang and we stopped laughing. A pitiful cry was heard, then silence.” The microphone was slowly retrieved, and the creature cleared its throat to resume its message, which began:

“To the many people of the earth before us.”

The suspension of my disbelief had reached its outermost limit and John must have noticed the look on my face. “It sounds impossible?” It had been a long day, I said and I asked John for a drink. I told him a good journalist needed to be open to anything, but also picky. I liked him and felt that I could be frank.

He continued. The organism emerged from its ship several minutes later. John and everyone else present agreed that it had an unmistakeable look of surprise on its face- though it were hard to distinguish the gestures of a thing so hideous and unseemly. There were rapid, furtive movements to its skittish black eyes. It seemed to be constantly looking about and it regularly turned its head to peer behind itself- the way a fearful person does in the street. Its nose was wet like a dogs, but shinier, and a loathsome white tongue frequently licked it with a mucous-like saliva, which ran down to its lip, only to be re-swallowed every few seconds. Their mouths curled down as if always in complaint, with thin lips. Later, when I saw one of them, their appearance reminded me of features which one generally associates with a bias towards dishonesty. It stood about four feet tall, had a long torso, short legs and wore a cream coloured gown.

It must be noted that for all its hideousness, we later came to discover that their species had a robust appetite and even crude talent for the erotic…

 

*   *   *

I Skyped with Lisa that night on an internet connection that wasn’t great. When the screen switched on at her end, I could see she was still a little pissed. But I had a sarcastic smile stretched across my face.

“What is it?” she said, and I told her about John and Klatchka. “Great, you made a new friend,” she said. I told her about the pit and the police tape. “A hole in the ground in the middle of Russia,” she retorted back. So I told her a little more about John’s story and the crash he witnessed. “Did anyone else see it?” she said.

“No, well, I mean there were other witnesses who came after it crashed…”

“Was there anything more? Or can you come home now?”

I explained the rest of the story, and told her that at least 15 other people said the exact same thing.

“You’re telling me that an organism has flown halfway across a galaxy, crash lands in a field in the middle of the night, only to end up in a fistfight over a microphone so it can give a speech to 15 Russian farmers?”

“Yes, that’s the story,” I said and smiled. She smiled too, and we had a decent little laugh. I actually felt a relief. Maybe it was just a hoax, I thought to myself. “They’ve called a press conference in the Dominican, for tomorrow,” I said and just then our connection was lost.

I attended this event, flying out of Moscow after claiming to the US consulate I had lost my passport. It didn’t matter. By now, the floodgates had opened and reporters were getting into Ozerystokye like bull sharks on prey. I admit that my story was the first that broke about John and his incredible tale. He swiftly became a bit of a celebrity.

The Dominican press conference went well except for one small detail towards the end. First off, the Dominican President could not have been more proud and he sent his very top aide to assist the creatures, whom he described as, “Our alien friends.” The Boronstock spent the afternoon on the beach and when they finally took the stage they delivered a four-hour speech in the sweltering, Caribbean spring heat. “Cronky,” was the name of their ambassador, their leader was an alien named Glotten, who was unable to make the press conference because he was indisposed at the moment.

Most of us were drenched in sweat and started to become impatient but Cronky stood up there and rambled through a history of their species, referring many times to the great degree of refinement and beauty their race possessed, “The likes of which humanity had probably never been exposed.” There were few real details, however. It seemed rather to be what my friend Able Adams from the New York Times described as, “A protracted series of self-congratulations and blustery pretensions.”

All we were thinking about that day were the plans these creatures had for the earth and its inhabitants, but when Cronky finally addressed this, it was three and a half hours in. We were done- we couldn’t take any more. I remember I had forgotten my recorder that day, and the small notepad I was using became so soaked with sweat from my writing hand, that I could make out little of what I had written. I am pretty sure Cronky said we would fall under their strict control and that everything would be explained. He said that what we needed to know now was that this was not the first time they had taken over a planet from a lesser race, and that fighting them would only make things so much worse.

Just then a smarmy little grin passed across his thin lips, but it was so hot that I thought my mind was playing tricks on me.

We were falling into heat-induced dementia, to the point where I just didn’t care what this little thing was going on about anymore. It reminded me of the three-hour Pentecostal church services my dad used to bring me to when I was a kid in west Texas. I just remember squirming and begging for it end. I know they were talking some really important stuff, but I couldn’t help it, I just couldn’t pay any more attention.

Then Cronky pulled out an overhead (which he had borrowed last minute from us) and began to place photographs onto it, which projected onto a fold out screen. They were snapshots of organisms, “From other planets.” We woke up a little, out of fear. It looked like these creatures seemed to be in various states of agony and despair- though their alien features masked their expressions to us, and so we relied on Cronky commenting on each photo. He pulled up one particular photo on the overhead that I do remember. It was brownish and faded, and reminded me of photos guys take after they’ve caught a fish. “Look at this pitiful organism,” Cronky said, “look at the pain and suffering.” I winced, partly to try to make out the details of the photograph. It appeared that the poor thing was being hung upside down by its ankles, and two Boronstock stood at either side, mugging for the camera.

Cronky pointed to one of the Boronstock in the picture, and said proudly, “That’s me, when I was much younger.” He seemed to really enjoy this. He began to giggle and kibitz back and forth with the other Boronstock who stood beside him. They were in fond memory of earlier times. To be truthful, it was crass.

They caught themselves suddenly, or else noticed that none of us were laughing, and few of us were even paying attention- it was too damn hot.

“Do not underestimate us,” he said sternly, clearing his throat and speaking English again. That was the end of the conference. He took a long gulp from a glass of brown liquid on the podium, licked his lips, looked around and tried to walk down from the stage.

This is where things got interesting. Cronky would have been fine, except that he fell on those three short steps leaving the stage, cut his knee open and nearly broke his leg. We gasped in terror. An American medic was later praised for her quick response, as she was able to stabilize the wound, and assuage the creature’s great distress. Cronky writhed on the ground uncontrollably and cried out for almost 20 minutes. We watched helplessly while the medic appeared several times- in my opinion- to try to break off the strange embrace between the two of them, though she denied this to me later when I interviewed her. Thank goodness that Cronky’s wound turned out to be quite superficial.

Two well-known papers in France immediately did humour pieces on the aliens’ apparent lack of physical coordination. Our galactic invaders immediately shot back with a press release of their own, which appeared in several major news outlets the following day. According to them Cronky had, “Tripped on his long and impressive garment, the exceptional beauty of which could not possibly be understood by such a lowly species as the human.” Someone should have been holding up the draping fabric of his gown, they said. They admitted that our lack of awareness was not at all surprising to them, so they would have mercy on us for screwing things up. Meanwhile, the world sat spellbound and confounded in front of our televisions, radios and newspapers.

Though their arrival had provoked nearly total chaos and fear amongst the people of the earth, a small anecdote from that first Dominican press conference hinted at something far less sinister: It was something that we humans could at least make sense of. You see, Cronky was drunk. The human aide from the Dominican president’s office who was assigned to coordinate the event told me later that the creature who fell off the stage that day had not tripped on his gown at all. “He was hammered,” she said. “In the hour leading up to his speech, he and his two associates must have downed at least twelve half -litre bottles of local spiced rum. I should know, I was the one who kept running out to get them more.”

They called another press conference. About a week later. I flew there too. They wanted us to convene in the parliament building in London so they could announce a list of world leaders with whom they wished to work. They wanted our help with their invasion! So we came, from around the world, and clambered into the stodgy, wooden interior of the parliament house, until every inch of every hall were filled and still we spilled out into the street. Our leaders gave speeches at their own press conferences leading up to the event, arguing why the Boronstock should pick them for the momentous task.

The day arrived for the London press conference. It was scheduled for one o’clock. Then a call from Cronky- at 1:15- Glotten was running behind they said-they would be there by two. Two came around and they still weren’t there. At 2:30 there was another call. They suggested we should all go have tea, because they weren’t ready yet, due to the immense preparation required. Five o’clock was much more appropriate, they said. So we had tea, delivered to the 5000 of us in attendance. Then five rolled around. No call, no show. Grumblings from the huge audience were heard, though everyone still waited. By 9 pm, people started to leave- we had flights to catch, and kids at home. I was supposed to Skype with my wife that night after dinner, but I didn’t get back to my hotel until well after 1:30 in the morning. They just never came.

The explanation for their absence, though heavily underreported at first, became the touchstone of a growing doubt about these creatures’ true intentions. It had turned out that the leader, Glotten, was partying in a well known brothel in London with Cronky and their other associates. They had run up a 72,000-pound tab, which they couldn’t pay. They had no money. As the owner of the establishment could no longer take the constant insults his galactic guests were hurling at him and his staff, and the poor way in which the women attendants were being handled, he called the police. In one small article left to the back of the London Herald, a female worker from the brothel had this to say: “They were the randiest creatures you’ve ever seen. They wouldn’t take their paws off us. They stayed awake for days drinking! It was awful.”

The British Prime Minister stepped in and proudly paid the brothel owner’s invoice for the party. There was a very strange picture published in one of Paris’ more liberal papers that showed this grey- suited diplomat from the British prime minister’s office shaking hands with the brothel owner and cutting him a check. The prime minister meanwhile tried to use it as an opportunity to show the Boronstock and the rest of the world what true cooperatives the Brits were and how, “We intend to be fully amicable to our new visitors and their aspirations.” I’ll be honest, as an American- as a southerner at that- I felt my stomach turn a little.

This incident was followed directly by another like it, two days later. The Parisian mayor at the time personally invited Glotten to the Opera, hoping also to dig up favours for his city and nation, and to create a nice chance for publicity. Manon by Massenet was running and everyone of importance in France would be there. I caught wind and got there just in time to witness the spectacle that ensued.

Our visitors attended in grand fashion: The world’s entertainment press photographed them as they approached the doors to the Palais Garnier. Though the mayor never admitted it publicly, a driver from their limousine, a ticket taker from the opera and one of the photographers who dared get close to her alien subject all confirmed to me that Glotten and his associate got sauced before the performance.

Things were going well until towards the end of the first intermission, when the Diva opened the curtain and came out in rare fashion, stunning the audience. She wanted to address her stupendous and galactic audience members, and a spot was proudly put up onto the box where Glotten and the mayor were sitting. But as everyone’s eyes adjusted, we could see that nearly everyone in the entire group had fallen asleep during the first act. The Parisian mayor’s wife nudged the mayor awake, and he in turn nudged Glotten, alerting him to the unexpected bath of attention.

Sensing a moment of celebrity, Glotten and his assistant stood- haplessly forgetting just how drunk they were. The full house in attendance applauded almost wildly. Glotten was steady on his feet- we learned that none of the other Boronstock could hold their liquor as well as he. His alien assistant, however, swooned under the light then teetered and lost his balance. The audience gasped and stopped clapping all at once, just as the creature fell over the handrail, 35 feet onto seats below. A woman screamed and a brief panic set in. A medic was called but it was too late. Apparently their bones were quite thin- much thinner than ours, and the poor alien had crushed his skull on the edge of the dense, 100 year old walnut seats of the Palais Garnier.

The death of the visitor sparked rumours about some kind of retaliation and people all around the world were generally in a panic. The only response from them, however, was another press release, this time lambasting the Diva of Manon for her untimely and spontaneous deviation from the show. It was our fault- again. I gathered reports- from five or six people from the orchestra pit, who hopelessly watched the creature expire: they all agreed on one thing: that the dying organism absolutely reeked of hard liquor.

The press was suddenly becoming less interested in these events. It was actually my wife who pointed this out to me, during one of our Skype calls after the Paris incident: “Bob, haven’t you noticed something?”

“What?” I said.

She smiled. “Every time they set up a press conference or something, they don’t show.” I had to admit she was right, though no one from the mainstream press had yet alluded to it. “Either that or they go on these long tirades about their species. The plan to take over the earth never gets discussed, or it always gets put off. They haven’t given us one detail and they haven’t actually done anything.” We giggled then started to laugh. It was at that moment that I remembered John from Ozerestokye, and the Russian grandmother who got everyone laughing during the Boronstock’s scuttle over the microphone. My wife was right. Nothing up to that point matched what an alien invasion should look like.

Cronky’s incident about a week later at a Cleveland Indians game was no exception to this pattern of dysfunction. Apparently the Boronstock loved gambling, as well as drinking. We found out later that Cronky had bet a huge quantity of money on the game against the Yankees that Sunday afternoon. A consortium of nations who wanted to help the creatures’ state of abject poverty had donated the money to them. Unfortunately, a large Indians lead got blown in the 8th inning by an admittedly shoddy outing from the Cleveland bullpen, and as the go ahead run rounded third, a teenage girl sitting behind Cronky began to cheer most innocently for her beloved Yanks. Perhaps it was in bad taste on her part- after all it was a Cleveland home game- but the response she received was truly unfair. The creature- drunk by that time- wheeled around to chastise her. People said Cronky was frothing at the loss of his monies and his hatred of Yankees baseball and became quite abusive. The poor girl was only 14.

The group of people near them in the stands along the third base line, casually turned to see what was up. Such incidents were not unusual for Indians games against the Yanks. But after about 45 seconds of a vicious verbal berating by this drunk little alien, the girl’s father finally stepped in and told the creature where to go. He was a big man- a New Yorker.

The over confident Cronky then turned his attention to the dad, and started into him with little thought of what he was saying. The daughter- and it must be noted that this was the very first act of human aggression against our visitors- took what was left of her hot dog and planted it directly onto the creature’s bald, brown head. She followed it with her drink and giggled at the mustard dripping down his brow. The crowd gasped or laughed in equal parts.

Everything became still. Sensing his own embarrassment, Cronky looked around at the crowd and perhaps briefly thought of controlling himself, but his temper got the best of him and he lurched from his seat and grabbed the scruff of the girl’s Yankees jersey. People began twisting to get out of the way and holding up their cameras and phones. Somebody whistled for the cops. The creature would not let go, however, and the father, unable to contain himself any longer, quickly landed two excellent right hands directly onto the creature’s poor forehead. It reeled, and for a moment nearly caught its balance, but then fell into the back of the Cleveland dugout, vomited and passed out.

We started to really lose interest as a whole. Major news outlets either stopped reporting for fear they would look like tabloids, or else tabloids were the only ones reporting these events. I suppose it was because we were less afraid, and other really important matters began come back up in world journalism.

My wife and I continued to talk via Skype as I followed these shenanigans around the country and the rest of the world. It was exhausting, and our conversations produced much-needed relief from the weariness I was beginning to feel from all the travel. It was like covering a war, but one that was only ever about to take place, and whose main aggressor seemed far more interested in getting hammered in the worlds dirtiest corners than they were interested in taking over our planet. I needed home, and just about then- twelve weeks to the day they arrived- I finally gave up full time coverage on the story.

My editor pulled me off, right after it came out that their leader, Glotton had slept with the Russian president’s wife. She and Glotton had apparently become good friends in the days after their crash landing. Her reputation for heavy drinking drink was well known and she and the alien leader became inseparable. They often drank together into the night and commonly ended up in friendly arguments about who was more intelligent- the Russians or the Boronstock. The creatures’ ship was large enough to be their home, but it was damaged in the crash and was uninhabitable. So, homeless, they had been staying in the guest- house of the Russian President, where everything took place.

As it happens sometimes in human affairs, the combination of drinking and excessive amounts of time spent together between a male and a female who have a natural liking for each other- well… you understand. Things happen. I mean, how did Svetla think it would turn out? The Russian President had been completely oblivious, until the one night he happened to come into the room where the two of them… in front of the television… it was disgusting. An aide and a security detail of three men accompanied the President during his discovery, and, knowing the story would have been impossible to contain, the Kremlin held a press conference to announce what had happened.

It was truly dysfunctional. I attended and stood at the front with the press while the President made a brief speech. His wife and Glotton stood on either side of him with doleful expressions on all of their faces- at first. Svetla was gloomy, crying and apologizing. Yet just as the Russian president was disclosing the horrific revelation of the affair, Glotton’s expression changed. A grin- I swear it was a grin, we all did- began to invade the corners of his unseemly mouth. His beady, black eyes darted back and forth. A reporter from Moskow noticed immediately, raised his hand and asked impatiently what Glotton thought was so funny about this embarrassing affair. Glotton quickly retorted that his expression was one of profound sadness and grief- not a smile at all. He added that no one understood him- especially not anyone from a race of creatures as illogical and short sighted as we humans.

He then told a long story about how he had been more poorly treated on earth than on any other planet he had visited. He went on to discuss that his job was really stressing him out right now, and that he really just needed some affection. He sobbed.

It’s really funny the things we notice or don’t notice. I Skyped with Lisa one last time before heading home. Towards the end of our conversation, she remarked, “What happened to their women? All of the Boronstock are men.” We both thought for a minute on that one, then Lisa snorted, “Maybe their women kicked their asses out of the house,” and we both howled in laughter.

I caught the red eye out of Minneapolis where Cronky had been admitted to the hospital after another fight. I got home that night twelve weeks after I had left. An alien species had crash-landed the earth, only to end up a bunch of hedonistic drunks.

I walked up the three steps to the front door that Saturday morning in July, put the key in and turned the knob. In exhaustion and gratitude, I embraced my wife. She looked up at me and her lips curved into a smile. “I’m pregnant,” she said. “It must have been that night before you left, I’m exactly twelve weeks along.”

The Boronstock stuck around. Their ship was broken, so they kind of had to. We just kept feeding them liquor wherever they went, and pretended to listen to them go on about some invasion. After all, they had done this before.

 

Bathroom Garbages: A Critique

The bathroom garbage is not a real garbage. This is why.

The bathroom garbage is really small. It’s so small that it’s useless. It has a little lever that you are supposed to press with your foot, like a real garbage, but I never use the lever-it’s too small. Also, I rarely put anything in there, because I know that very soon, I will have to take it back out and throw it away again, into the regular garbage, anyhow. So why wouldn’t I just put it into the real garbage to begin with? Why keep moving garbage around the apartment?

The bathroom garbage is also useless because it is behind the toilet. The only place it fits is in the little spot between the toilet and the bathroom cabinet, and that makes it hard to get to. When I do put something in there, it’s a big production. I have to bend over, reach down, lift the lid and carefully to put something in. It makes tossing something into the garbage a real chore. That’s not what throwing things away is supposed to feel like! Plus it reeks down there.

The bathroom garbage is also useless because it takes forever to fill up. I never use it! Whatever is in there is really old and possibly smelly. By the time I have to empty it, the stuff in there is at least four months old. Items like one q-tip, a kleenex, or an old toothpaste container don’t seem to warrant their own garbage can, either. Also, I never remember to put a bag in there, so I practically have to wear gloves when I’m emptying it into the real garbage can, where the items could have gone in the first place.

The items I put in the bathroom garbage don’t need their own container. its too small to really hold anything, it’s way down beside the smelly toilet bowl, and it takes at least four months to fill up. From now on, I’m not using the bathroom garbage anymore.