Thursday, October 15, 2009

Fateful Fall Day

Last weekend we went hiking and a series of events were spun into action that led to a quite improbable outcome.

First, at some point Katie and I realized that we had diverted off the trail and were now walking up a mountain river-bed. Neither of us objected though because we kinda dig climbing rocks and scaling the side of small waterfalls. We reached one particular cascade and a group of other hikers were gathered at the base. They acknowledged being in a similar situation as us: lost the trail. Two of the guys told me they had tried to climb this waterfall but were unable. Well this was obviously a royal invitation to prove my adventure prowess, which I readily accepted. And with a few daring moves I had climbed the rock face. Unfortunately, in my eager haste I made a fateful miscalculation: I hadn’t removed my backpack. And as I tried to come back down the precipice I realized the bulky backpack was going to seriously hinder my mobility and endanger my musculo-skeletal safety. Fateful error #2: I decided to throw my backpack down ahead of me (about a 25 foot drop). After bouncing off Katie’s leg (leaving a huge black- and-blue bruise) it proceeded to bounce off a few boulders. The end result was a cell phone that didn’t turn on and sounded horrible when I tried to slide it open.

I sat dejected. The adrenaline high of my waterfall ascent had worn off leaving me morose. I loved that cell phone- its smooth sliding action, easy email access, and full texting keyboard! So I did what was required…..I sulked. I stewed. I whined.

And then out of the blue a guy comes walking up the river-bed. As he gets closer our glances met and a look of perplexed recognition came across our faces. “Brandon?” “Dave?” In the middle of the woods, sitting on a rock, not even on a trail, I had bumped into a friend from college I hadn’t seen in 6 years. Crazy!

We ended up spending the entire day hiking with him and his fiancĂ© Amanda. They helped us find the trail which ultimately led to a scenic alpine mountain lake. And then they took us to a place where I had the best root beer float I’ve ever tasted.

And just to think…What if we didn’t get lost in the first place? Or what if I hadn’t scaled that cascade, or smashed my phone into oblivion? Maybe we never would have met up with them.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Seductively Salmon Days

Last weekend we went to Salmon Days, a festival with a slightly deceptive name.

I didn’t eat anything all morning because I assumed I’d be eating all things salmon related. I pictured rows of vendors with salmon steaks grilling on a bbq fed by cedar chips. Delicious Coho, Sockeye, Shinook varietals. But I couldn’t find them. Perhaps a salmon sandwich or something creative like salmon crepes. Nope. At the very least I’d procure fried salmon on a stick (ala corn-dog style). Zilch. Nada.

Then we discovered why it’s called Salmon Days. A stream runs through this town (Issaquah) giving the salmon a passageway to return to their birthplace in the mountains. What we learned (from a fish docent wearing 82 pieces of flair on her vest…very reminiscent of a TGIF waitress) was that the fish are actually in the process of dying when they return. They stop eating and shut down their immune systems so that days after they lay eggs they die.

At one particular junction in the stream there is a fish hatchery that creates an artificial dam and diverts the salmon into large holding tanks. Then they wait for the salmon to lay eggs and artificially spawn the eggs ensuring that the population of salmon remains stable. If they didn’t do this there would be no salmon left because industrial development has left the river too warm to sustain large populations of salmon. However, one stage of this process involves volunteers killing the fish after they have spawned in the hatchery (others are released upstream).

I stood behind this one woman as the fish docent explained this process. She was incredulous and kept repeating “You mean you kill the fish?” And the kind old docent would say “You see, the fish are already dying, it’s inevitable.” And she would say “But you hit them with a mallet on the nose?” To which he replied, “Lady, normally the fish’s lungs will start stop working, it will wash up on a log or the river bank, and it will struggle and flap around until it suffocates out of water. Instead we end their life quickly. It’s actually less painful for the fish.” The woman shook her head with disapproving eyes.

Another interesting aspect of the Salmon Days festival was a subtle undercurrent of sexuality. Keep in mind this is a family affair. First, the firefighters of Issaquah had put together a racy calendar which they were selling (mostly to teenage girls). Second, a stand was selling chocolate-covered strawberries called Dingleberries (yikes). This dessert entails a row of strawberries on a stick with a strikingly phallic shaped chocolate-covered banana at the end. Third, we passed a booth advertising “the only credible voice of reason in the fight for nude recreation.” The sign displayed over-weight retired couples with strategically placed bush branches. A hail to our ancestors Adam and Eve. Finally, there was a contraption for kids to play on involving a series of ropes, harnesses, and nets. The wording of the sign used ropes to spell out the name of the device. Unfortunately the graphic designer hadn’t thought this thru very well. It read: Rape-a-Phobia. I believe the intended spelling was “Rope.” It didn’t help that all 3 kids currently on the Rape-a-Phobia were crying hysterically. Although this kind of environment was perfect for me to find a Christmas present for my brother Steve, who has a strong academic interest in sexuality.

Other noted notables of the week: Did you know that women’s deodorant advertises “Extra responsive in emotional moments.” For example, when we’re shopping and bump into a girl I went on a few dates with in college.

A Shrink goes Spelunking

How do you know you have what it takes?

Recently I was back on the East Coast for a wedding of our good friends Jon and Kelly in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. The day of the wedding we had some time to kill so a few of my friends and I went to Luray Caverns. Before I get into the story too deep I just want to mention how good it was to see old friends. Well not really old friends but I hadn’t seen these folks for 2 months. I missed them.

We’re at the caves and I’m walking through them listening to my audio-guided self tour. All of a sudden two teenagers come barreling past me. It’s a boy with his arm around the shoulders of a girl who looks like she is about to collapse. She is audibly panting to catch her breath and even without much ambient light I could see a look of fright in her eyes. It’s obvious to me what’s happening. She’s having a panic attack. The kids get past me and further up in the tunnels I can hear an adult chaperone with the kids. The adult is doing the best he can to calm the girl down but my guess is that it was probably making things worse. Voices echo down there but it sure sounded like he was screaming at her “BREATHE, BREATHE, LISTEN TO ME, BREATHE!” Good advice but maybe not the best delivery. Then a cave docent comes running past and I hear someone saying “Call 911!” Later when I got out of the cave my friends told me they heard the boy shouting “TAKE OFF HER SHIRT.” Teenage boys will do anything to get a girl’s shirt off!

On my car ride back from the caves I took a look back at my internal dialogue during that event. As soon as those kids passed me I started listing reasons why I shouldn’t go and provide assistance. “I don’t want to get in the way”; “Too many cooks in the kitchen”; “They are too far ahead now”, etc. In fact the only thing I had done was make a half-audible announcement to the crowd in the cave who looked on helplessly, “Don’t worry everyone, she’ll be fine, its probably just a panic attack.” Nobody even paid me attention. But the reality is that more than likely I was the most qualified person in that cave to handle that situation. I should have leaped into action. Calmed the panicky-teenage girl down. Educated her friends and teachers about panic attacks. Instead I was busy coming up with reasons I shouldn’t get involved.

It’s made me reflect on other times I froze in the heat of the moment. When I was a lifeguard and should have made a save but instead I sat in my tower incapacitated. My mind was going over reasons why I should let the other lifeguard finish the save even though she was swimming like a sloth. Or the handful of times in high-school or college when punk kids have challenged me to fights. I wuss out. I don’t rise to the occasion. Sure it’s easy to say later “Its better not to have fought them.” But it leaves me wondering if I had what it takes.

I’m realizing now that a lot of my freeze response has to do with the environment. If I’m solo then I go into immediate response mode (I did have a save the previous summer when I was the only lifeguard on duty). But if other people are around I immediately think about my potential actions through their eyes. I analyze how I’ll look from their perspective. This is a well studied aspect of human nature called the bystander effect. So I’m not alone in being its victim but somehow that doesn’t seem to matter to me.

After something like that happens I always make a promise to myself. Like “I will always intervene if I’m in a cave and someone is having a panic attack.” Or “I will always jump in to save someone if they are drowning.” But the problem with this post hoc strategy is that these situations rarely arise again. I’m still left wondering “Do I have what it takes?”