BERRY HAPPY HARVEST by Jean Snow VanOrden

October 24th, 2013

When I was a newlywed, and we faced years of temporary housing arrangements, I heard a speaker talk about planting cherry trees. His point was that it’s beneficial to present happiness to put down roots wherever you are and not delay working at projects that take time to come to fruition even if you don’t expect to stay in a particular location for long. You just never know what will happen and it’s better to plant with the hope of harvest than to mark time and invest nothing in long–term rewards. At my home in Eagle River, Alaska I procrastinated putting this idea into practice (as far as landscaping) for years but finally planted raspberries along the east side of the house. The starts were free from a dear friend with a very productive green thumb and instead of having 10 years of mouth-watering, home-grown raspberry jam I only harvested berries for five summers and it took a couple of summers before we had a harvest sufficient to make jam.

When we were looking for a home in the Boise area, we had dreams of a large garden where we could grow tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, melons, and even fruit trees. We ended up on a windy hillside with a spectacular view and significant barriers to cultivating a vegetable garden. But we were determined to produce something on our sagebrush littered hillside. The task was daunting so we started off small by repurposing a tulip bed at the back of the house for growing berries. We made a trip to Fruitland Nursery where we bought strawberry and raspberry starts.

In the past I’ve avoided planting a strawberry patch because I’ve seen one too many weedy grass choked beds of tangled strawberries. Thankfully, the rich soil of our little flower bed, with the help of some Miracle Grow time-release fertilizer and a simple drip-hose watering system, produced five or six pickings of luscious glossy strawberries that taste better than any strawberries I’ve ever eaten. My grandson can testify to that as he ate one whole picking all by himself. The berries are beautiful and I am grateful we didn’t procrastinate.

The raspberries will not produce much until next summer but the few that ripened this year have such a rich color and flavor that we are motivated to expand our little berry patch into two separate beds next spring. It will be well worth the work and at a very small expense give us a great sense of accomplishment and a tasty harvest.

I have to confess that we also planted three fruit trees which did not survive our experiment but we are not defeated, thanks to our berry patch. We have planted not just for ourselves but to the benefit of our grandchildren and whoever may own this home in the future. Planting and harvesting breathes a little more pleasure, a little more hope, and a little more faith into every day. Maybe it won’t be a garden we plant or fruit we harvest but investing in any long-term reward will make the world a better place for everyone.

THE SWEET SCENT OF WELL BEING: Coconut-Lime

September 25th, 2013

THE SWEET SCENT OF WELLBEING: Coconut-Lime
I have reached an important six year anniversary. Oddly, I was reminded of this vital milestone while cleaning out the guest bathroom. The bathroom needed to be cleaned in preparation for our next visitors scheduled to arrive sometime in November. My daughter, having left for graduate school at Appalachian State University, abandoned a number of bottles of lotion, body wash, conditioner, and shampoo. Some bottles I just tossed others I sniffed at to see if they were worth keeping for my own use.

And there it was, a near empty bottle of Coconut-Lime Shampoo. The scent struck me with a vivid array of sensations and images. I realized that it has been six years since I finished cancer treatment and a series of biopsies showed that the tumor was gone. My youngest sister’s gift to me just as I was starting cancer treatment in the summer of 2007 was a set of bathing products including Coconut-Lime Shampoo from Bath and Body Works. Because I would not be able to get adequate treatment for my particular brand of cancer in Anchorage, Alaska I had to leave behind my home and family so I could be treated at Huntsman Cancer Center. During that summer my husband and children pampered me and worried over me. My two older sisters housed me, cared for me, and watched over me as I endured chemotherapy and radiation treatment for a tumor in my tongue (a saliva gland gone wrong.) And daily I was bathed in coconut-lime. It is remarkable how powerfully a scent can infuse and even give more significance to our memories. The scent of coconut-lime brings to mind the loving care I experienced from so many people and the relief I felt over the next six years as I gradually recovered from the devastating side-effects of radiation.

Cancer treatment was wretched. But mostly I don’t think of the awful times at all. I catch a whiff of coconut-lime and I feel a sense of wellbeing that comes from being carried along by powers above and beyond myself. I’m also reminded of the importance of gently and aggressively caring for myself so that I can have the energy and wellness to enjoy life and help others enjoy life.

This is a crucial reminder at this “retirement” phase of life. I have been an active person: dancing, hiking, water-skiing, yoga, biking, boating, golfing and more. I want to keep being active well into my old age, to stay as young as possible for as long as possible, able to enjoy activities of all kinds with my children and grandchildren. However, I have realized in the last couple of years that I have a stubborn resistance to getting to the doctor in a timely manner. With health issues great and small this can easily lead to crippling or even life threatening problems.

In the spring of 2012, I had a two month bout of bronchitis that I neglected until it became pneumonia. I finally got to the doctor and was treated with antibiotics but it was too late. Within a week the pneumonia exploded in my lung. I ended up in the hospital with a high temperature, racing pulse, crushing pain in my chest and sepsis. All because I was just too busy to take the time to get to the doctor early on.

We don’t need to be hypochondriacs but we do need to take better care of ourselves. We all eat too much, move to little, and wait too long to take care of symptoms that would be much easier taken care of early on. Thank goodness I didn’t do that with cancer, if I had, I would be dead.

Many of you may have followed my husband’s experience with carpal tunnel surgery. This is a condition that is pretty common. I don’t know when exactly the right time for any one individual to have carpal tunnel surgery is, but I do know that once it starts eroding your quality of life it is not going to get any better without serious treatment. Interestingly, Ralph has now found that he has a pinched ulnar nerve and this very likely could not have been discovered without first resolving the carpal tunnel syndrome.
Much of this first year of retirement has been spent addressing a number of health issues that have been a drag on our quality of life. I am so grateful for the excellent healthcare professionals we’ve found who have compassionately and aggressively addressed our needs. I’ve also learned to be more articulate and assertive when discussing my health issues. In the long run prevention, early treatment, and good communication with our healthcare providers reduces our suffering and saves us money. There is nothing noble about suffering unnecessarily or stubbornly avoiding doctor visits.

I’m going restock my supply of Coconut-Lime bath products to be a sweet and vivid reminder of how good it feels to take care of myself, to be cared for, and to care for those around me. Whatever inspires a sense of wellbeing for you, get it, and get as well as you possibly can as soon as you can. It will make you and everyone around you happier.

A SUNDAY DRIVE: in search of hot springs by Jean Snow VanOrden

July 1st, 2013

Last Sunday my husband and I drove a scenic byway north of Boise in search of hot springs. Drive in any direction from our home in Emmett and there are developed and unimproved examples of these volcanic remnants along the roads and rivers. My family has a tradition of visiting hot springs. We’ve searched out bathing spots from Wyoming to Alaska. And we were hoping to find a new, picturesque place to take a soak. A quick check of the internet gave us some ideas of places to search, quite a few not marked on a map but shared word of mouth by die-hard enthusiasts.

Our family’s first hot spring adventure and favorite bathing spot is along the Alaska Highway in British Columbia. First, a little family history. In 1976, my husband and I sold most of our possessions, bought an old Volkswagen bus, and drove the Alaska Highway. It was September, our oldest child was six months old, and the Alaska Highway (or Alcan), at that time was a serpentine length of mostly dirt and gravel fraught with myriad dangers for the unseasoned motorist. We suffered two flat tires, two broken fan belts, and blew up one engine along the way. In the deep woods of British Columbia when we were weary and grimey and still had a long drive ahead, we came upon Liard Hot Springs along the Liard River. Liard Hot Springs is quite simply a paradise. Steaming jade pools veiled in mist are surrounded by stately birch trees, dripping ferns, and wild flowers. Our road-weary bodies and spirits were refreshed in its gentle currents of hot and cool water. We have visited it in the full bloom of summer and when hemmed in by thick banks of snow. Our last visit there was in late May of this year. The decks and dressings rooms have been nicely rebuilt, the pools still natural and even more magical.

Our next hot springs encounter was in Wyoming as we traveled between Riverton and Cody for meetings related to my husbands profession. On several occasions we stopped at Thermopolis, home of “the world’s largest mineral hot springs”. At Thermopolis the hot springs are piped into a series of plaster lined pools adjacent to dressing rooms and showers. Not as picturesque as Liard Hot Springs but a welcome respite amidst dry sage-covered hills.

When we lived in North Pole, Alaska we made several visits to Chena Hot Springs nearly sixty miles northeast of Fairbanks and home of the Aurora Ice Museum. Back in the 80′s it was a humble spot with a small swimming pool and a few wood tubs. Now it has expanded into a resort of some renown boasting geothermal energy to keep the Ice Museum chilled year round.

Second only to Liard Hot Springs, our favorite soaking resort is Lava Hot Springs, Idaho. The hot mineral pools are beautifully landscaped and formed of rock, the two largest pools have black gravel bottoms. The spring water at Lava has no sulfur odor. Best soaking times are during a rain storm. Soak until your too hot then lay out in the rain and cool off. Lava Hot Springs is conveniently accessible from Interstate 15 and the town has many charms: float the Port Neuf River which flows through town or swim in the Olympic size pool. Be sure to get the Bleu Burger with sweet potato fries at 78 Main Street Eatery. It is the best burger I ever had.

In 2007 when I was recovering from cancer radiation treatment, my son and his wife and children guided us to Kirkham Hot Springs along side the South Fork of the Payette River near Lowman. Falls of hot water tumble into unimproved natural pools above and beside the river. It was October and the air temperature was uncomfortably chilly but the water was deliciously warm. Clearly this was a good time of year to avoid crowds at this popular bathing spot.

Our Sunday Drive did not reward us with a Sunday soak. We explored Middle Fork Road along the Middle Fork of the Payette River. The river is pretty gentle here and easily approachable in many places. Rafters and swimmers were out in force. Camping and swimming sites were easy to spot. But the hot springs were illusive. Boiling Springs lay 1/4 mile beyond the road’s end near a public use cabin behind a forest service gate. Since expectations of its condition were low we passed on the hike and headed back the way we had come, we also passed on the extra eleven mile loop up to Silver Creek Hot Springs, a small mountain resort popular with snowmachiners. As we headed back to Crouch we were able to pinpoint the location of Rock Canyon Hot Springs as being across the river near Tie Creek Campground, but were unable to pinpoint the location of Fire Crew Hot Springs, a popular soaking spot for forest fire fighters. As we descended and took the highway toward Boise along the South Fork of the Payette River, I found the trail head for Skinnydipper Hot Springs four miles from Banks. This hot springs has a devoted group of “guardians” who improve and maintain the pools fed by volcanic waters.

We found great camping and swimming spots, enjoyed dramatic views of deep boulder strewn canyons, and pastoral views of rural farming communities. But unfortunately had to go home for a hot soak in our large master bedroom tub. Or rather fortunate for us we have such a luxury. We will try again to add another soaking spot to our collection of hot springs adventures. And when you are out doing your own exploring for bathing spots, be a responsible steward of these natural treasures. Don’t use the isolation as an excuse to misbehave: don’t trash the wilderness and wear a swimsuit!

BODIES IN MOTION by Jean Snow VanOrden

March 26th, 2013

It has been a year since I posted anything here at Embattled Christian. My creative efforts were entirely absorbed elsewhere for all this time. More about that in another post. In February and early March of this year, I traveled as far west as the Oregon Coast and as far east as Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The trip was wonderful but I picked up a hitchhiking bug and was in bed for over a week so sick I wondered if I would ever recover. Finally, I am well and I am working hard to regain the energy, muscle, and fitness that was eroded over the weeks of flying, driving, and languishing in bed. My mind has been very much on the battle to nurture a healthy body as a worthy vessel for my spirit.

Ultimately, I think it is quality of life we crave, not quantity. Unfortunately, we get sidetracked by the stresses of life into neglecting the one thing that is most likely to give us a higher quality of life: movement. We have got to keep our bodies moving. Find a physical activity you love to do and do it regularly.

MOVEMENT FOR JOY: When I was eleven my parents sat me down and asked me, “Which would you rather do, take piano lessons or take dance lessons.”
This is not such a simple question. My older sisters are both skilled pianists. I idolized my sisters. They were the coolest. They performed in plays and in singing groups with their friends and were often called upon to accompany on the piano. I wanted to be like them.
However, as fate would have it, a lovely, statuesque blonde woman showed up at our door with a flyer advertising dance lessons at her home. As a child I was a bouncing ball of energy which drove my Mom crazy as I was constantly asking, “What can I do!” I think my parents were relieved when I chose dance. It suited me better than hours spent sitting at the piano practicing. And thus dance entered my life and gave form and joy to all that undisciplined energy. I spent my teen and college years dancing in recitals, church programs, school dance concerts, and musicals. It seemed I was always in motion. I am grateful for this early foundation in keeping my body moving. It has paid big dividends throughout my life. But it is never too late to pick-up the habit especially if you find something you love to do.
MOVEMENT FOR SANITY: When I was thirty-five I encountered a new world of bodies in motion. We were living in North Pole, Alaska and had just welcomed our fifth child. We were often house-bound by the cold and dark, so we joined the Alaska Club in Fairbanks to break out of our cabin fever. I went to a dance fitness class and after a few weeks gathered the courage to step into the weight room. It is pretty common today to find women in weight rooms at fitness clubs all over the country, but back then I saw very few. It was tremendously intimidating. After my first session with the trainer, I was hooked. My muscles craved that burn and there was something meditative and calming about the sets and reps. After six months of working out I realized that I was stronger, had more energy, had definition in my arms and abs I’d never had before, and more sanity. At thirty-five most of us wonder how we can hang on to our youth a little longer: weight-training, even just a little bit, pays off with long term health benefits. Always consult a physician and a trainer to avoid injury. Life has interrupted the routine but I have come back to weight lifting again and again, starting off slowly with light weights and building up gradually. I feel stronger, I feel younger, and I look better when I am including weights in my fitness routine. My younger sister walks holding weights and at 58 she has great looking, sculpted arms.
MOVEMENT FOR FUN: Golf, it isn’t dancing but it is a lot of fun. Golf exercises mind and body. It is challenging and refreshing and tantalizing. It is never too late to start playing golf. In 1994, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. A short time before that my husband began to teach me how to golf. I was beginning to catch on but the arthritis derailed that effort for more than a decade. In those ten years I was able, with the aid of a series of new treatments, to calm the arthritis. In 2007, I was underwent chemo therapy and radiation treatment for cancer. When I finished treatment my body was back to square one in the fitness department and I needed a happy challenge. I needed something fun to do. I started golfing again. Ralph and I began to golf together on a regular basis during the summer in Alaska. We were living in Eagle River and would go to the Palmer Golf Course or Moose Run Creek Course. I never considered myself athletically competent. But to my surprise I have discovered that I have the potential to be a good golfer. That tantalizing goal sparks my interest every time I golf. I am always learning something new or acquiring a new skill. The best part of golfing is being out in the sunshine, getting fresh air, and moving my body for the fun of it. Find movement for the fun of it. If you get bored try something new. But keep moving.
MOVEMENT FOR SURVIVAL: No matter how fit we try to be, age and gravity and genetic tendencies will afflict us with aches and pains and injuries that will threaten our mobility as we reach retirement age. Just when we are feeling free to do things we’ve only dreamt of, our bodies will sabotage our efforts if we don’t pay attention. The solution is a good physical work up by a doctor, the proper treatment, and the proper movement. Often our instinct is to do less and curtail our physical activity which will only reduce our enjoyment of life and spell disaster for our hopes and dreams in retirement.
Keeping our bodies limber is another fountain of youth. Taking the time for stretching is a challenge. Most of us just want to get on with participating in the main event: the tennis game, the golf game, the running, the hiking. These are the activities that invite injury if we aren’t prepared.
I have been very lucky to be free of injury most of my life. But recently, my lower back has been giving me problems that were persistent. A dose of Advil wasn’t enough to relieve the sore spot. Twinges of pain would grab and my hip would give out suddenly mid-step. I saw my doctor who ordered a back x-ray and the conclusion is that I have the normal amount of wear and tear in my lower spine for a person my age; nothing that needs a drastic fix. She suggested taking a prescription pain killer for a short time to see if that would disrupt the tension and pain cycle and to come back to see her if it didn’t improve.
I did that but at the same time I finally resolved to do what I had meant to make a habit for years: yoga. I don’t go to class. I just do it in my home using a series of recordings on my DVR. It is peaceful, relaxing, meditative, and healing for both mind and body. Yoga may not be an attractive option for everybody but I can say without a doubt that gentle yoga-like stretching of some kind daily or as often as possible will benefit anyone. The advantage of yoga is that it is systematic and incorporates stretching muscles and places on your body you never even felt before. No muscle or tendon will be neglected if you do yoga stretches. In yoga the student is encouraged to go at their own pace and participate at their own comfort level. Yoga solved my back problem. I learned quickly, that I am at the stage of my life that regular stretching is no longer an option if I want to stay fully mobile and active. Remember with any exercise to check with your doctor.
Encourage yourself and encourage others to start moving and keeping moving. Find something you love to do and participate by yourself or with others. For joy, for sanity, for fun, for survival, any effort small or great to keep your body moving will pay big dividends in health, peace, and enjoyment today and for the rest of your life.

Las Vegas: my personal connection with Sin City

January 26th, 2012


Las Vegas is loud. Everywhere you go there is music blaring over the intercom: in the airport, in restaurants, casinos, hotel lobbies, buffets, and stores. And the milling crowds of people talk louder to be heard over the music. You can’t seem to get away from the noise. On our recent trip to Las Vegas to escape the cold and snow of Alaska and recharge our batteries with sunshine, I heard forgotten tunes that I don’t even hear on the oldies stations. It’s probably cheaper to play “Wichita Lineman” than it is to pay royalties to ASCAP for the latest Lady Gaga offering. Las Vegas exists to make you drop as much money as possible and for investors to spend as little as possible.

I have a long history with Las Vegas. I don’t gamble, I don’t drink alcoholic beverages, and I don’t seek out opportunities to do in Vegas what will stay in Vegas. But from the time I was born until I left my parent’s home as a newlywed, I made almost yearly pilgrimages to the city of neon lights. My parents were both from Utah. We migrated to Southern California and took up residence in Palos Verdes, an L.A. suburb on a picturesque peninsula overlooking the ocean. Every year my family made the pilgrimage back to Utah to visit family. The shortest route from L.A. to Salt Lake City is through Las Vegas.

Our voyages across the desert spanned the history of interstate 15 which streamlined the stop and go two-lane Highway 191 that linked desert communities from Victorville to Mesquite. When we moved from Massachusetts to California my parents had just purchased a shiny new white and “Sunset Orchid” Mercury station wagon. It was as sleek and modern as Sputnik. I was particularly fascinated by the push-button transmission control. My dad built a trailer from a basic metal frame and plywood boards to tow some of our belongings. The trailer was spray painted silver.

Somewhere outside of Las Vegas a passing car threw off a fiery shower of sparks as a chunk of its tire rim spun off and destroyed one of our car tires leaving us stranded. It was late at night and the sky was filled with stars. Daddy hitched a ride into Mesquite and scrounged up a replacement tire. Once back at the car he realized that not one but two tires were damaged and had to return to Mesquite again. My younger sister and I curled up in the rear of the station wagon but I couldn’t sleep. By the time Dad returned it was light and I was bored silly. We pressed on to our brand new home in Palos Verdes where the wood floors echoed our relief that the long cross country odyssey was over.

Preparations for our return visits to Utah always included my Mom making a fresh batch of fried chicken which she would pack in a wax paper lined shoe box for one meal on the road. She would also pack a bag of celery and carrot sticks for snacking on which were also useful for keeping the driver awake as we generally drove all night to escape the desert
heat. Our slick new car didn’t have air-conditioning. There were no bags of chips, no Cheetos, no junk food. There were no wet wipes. Mama always packed a wet wash cloth in a plastic bag. Sometimes there were Triscuits and Wheat Thins. There was always a container of water and sometimes an old fashioned burlap bag of water hanging somewhere on the outside of the car to keep cool. There were no McDonald’s only greasy spoons along the way. Occasionally, we would stop at a diner for breakfast which was a special treat. My favorite diner breakfast was fried eggs and bacon cut up into a bed of hash brown potatoes. I remember the scent of petrol filling the gas tank and the hunt for a respectable restroom.

We’d leave Palos Verdes late in the evening and weave our way along an assortment of freeways under various stages of construction until we reached the long climb up El Cajon pass between the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountain: a sweeping rise in elevation from the valley to the high desert where Victorville was an important pit stop.

During the Korean War, my Dad was activated and stationed at George Air Force Base in Victorville where we lived from my birth until I was two years old. In those days the family was already making the trips home to Utah. My older sisters remember that on one trip across the desert they spotted a mushroom cloud in the distance: evidence of a nuclear bomb test. Years later we would stop in Victorville to visit old friends there. I remember many conversations about how close my Dad came to being shipped out to Korea but somehow, miraculously, things didn’t end up that way and my parents were spared that separation. Instead they went from Victorville to Sioux City, Iowa; then Granby, Massachusetts; and then Palos Verdes, California.

After gassing up in Victorville and maybe having a meal with friends, the biggest diversion on the long journey to Utah was Las Vegas. We’d slow down as we pulled into the south end of The Strip and gape at the impressive display of lights at the Hacienda, Aladdin, Dunes, Sands, Desert Inn, and Stardust. The Stardust with its blinking stars and planets display was my favorite. But that was just the appetizer. As exciting as these iconic casino hotels were the big feast for the eyes was Fremont Street downtown. On rare occasions we drove down Fremont Street to soak in the daylight at midnight but usually we would just slow down as we approached Fremont from Las Vegas Boulevard and peak down the corridor of dizzying neon and swirling light bulbs and wave at the beckoning, giant, neon Cowboy.

After Las Vegas we drove along desolate stretches of Highway 191 where there seemed to be little life and nothing of interest. As we turned north at Littlefield and headed toward the mountain pass through the Shivwits Indian Reservation, Dad would point off to the right at a puff of dust between distant barren mountains where Interstate 15 would eventually blast through the Virgin River Gorge on its journey toward becoming one of the most important travel and commerce corridors in the United States. The old pass through the mountains was narrow and winding with signs warning to watch for rocks on the road. For years I fell for Dad’s joke about keeping an eye out for Chief Rocks on Road who was wandering in the night trying to hitch a ride. At Santa Clara, if the hour of the day was right, we’d stop at a fruit stand and load up on peaches and apricots or whatever else was in season before pressing on to St. George, a resplendent green gem nestled among red rock formations.

As a six, seven, eight year-old I had hyper anticipation for our yearly trips to visit family. California was my home but I looked forward to visiting the farm fields and peaceful mountains of Utah and getting away from the frantic suburban crush of Los Angeles. I don’t remember ever stopping overnight in Las Vegas on our family trips. It was only a brief diversion in the beeline back to Utah and family. For several years we participated in the building of an extended family cabin in Lamb’s Canyon above Salt Lake City. For me it was the ultimate peaceful retreat from the stress of California.


Las Vegas isn’t exactly a serene retreat but this year the winter in Alaska has been particularly brutal and Vegas offered a pleasant escape. Thanks to Groupon, Ralph and I secured a peaceful studio condo off the strip with a lovely view of the city. We thought we might go golfing in Mesquite but rather than embarrass ourselves on the course with our very rusty golf swings, we struck out across the desert to visit Grand Canyon West on the Hualapai Indian Reservation. It’s a two hour drive past Hoover Dam along rural desert roads. This is the location of the Skywalk adventure which soars out over the rim of the Grand Canyon giving a jolt of vertigo and a spectacular view of the colorful mesas and river below. This attraction is owned and operated by the Hualapia Indians. Employees at the site commute up to two hours to work at this extraordinary venue. The viewpoints of Eagle Point (location of the Skywalk) and Guano Point are accessible only by buses which require a ticket purchase and can include a meal at either location. We had the roast chicken, mashed potatoes and coleslaw at Guano Point.

Back in Las Vegas the next day, we enjoyed meals on the sophisticated side at our hotel restaurant. I reluctantly tried a raw tuna sushi that turned out to be amazingly yummy: hot crispy sesame rice cake topped with cold raw tuna spread, a tiny slice of avocado, with a dab of hot mustard on a bed of sweet soy sauce. After dinner we ventured out into the noise and lights of the strip. We went to Phantom of The Opera at the Venetian. Wonderful! The next night we took a chance on a new show by an Australian group, “Human Nature.” High energy Motown tunes with action packed movements and smooth harmonies: a strangely appealing Australian white boy take on Motown. Next we saw David Copperfield perform his amazing magic at the MGM Grand. Wow! How did he do that?! Stunning!

The Alaska snow moved south and pummeled Seattle with an ice storm so our flight out of Las Vegas on Friday was cancelled and we couldn’t get a flight out until Sunday so we had to scramble to figure out what to do with ourselves for a couple more days. We wrangled an extra couple of days of car use and checked into the Tuscany on Flamingo a few blocks east of Las Vegas Blvd. The Tuscany has nicely landscaped grounds, is tastefully decorated, clean, and a great deal. The room was beautiful although the bathroom was a bit spartan after the luxury bath in the condo at Palms Place. But the price was right. We set out to make the best of being stuck in Vegas.

By now we had learned the ropes for scrounging up discounted tickets for events. I’ve always wanted to see Cirque du Soleil “O” at the Bellagio. We weren’t disappointed. Although, there were a few weird random aspects to the show the spectacular water set and the grand scale of this Cirque Du Soleil event was thoroughly entertaining.

We filled in the blanks with shopping at Town Square Centre and Premium Outlet Malls North and South. We checked out Whole Foods. To deprived Alaskans this specialty grocery giant is pretty overwhelming. We loved the prodigious salad bar. However, in the end, no cheaper than picking up lunch at a restaurant.

I harbor such great nostalgia for the simple pleasures of those family journeys that I pestered Ralph until he finally drove me downtown to see Fremont Street, now billed as The Fremont Street Experience. The street is closed to traffic for several blocks and a canopy has been erected over this outdoor mall-like setting. We were reluctant to be down there after dark and the weather wasn’t good for strolling, so we did the slow drive by glimpse of the old dazzling marquees.

Much is familiar but the scale has lost its grandeur. The once sparkling light extravaganza is a little seedy and lacks the glamour it once had to my little girl eyes. But I can still taste the fried chicken and feel the warm night breeze through the windows of the slick Mercury station wagon as it glided through Las Vegas and into the dark, quiet desert beyond.

See this: 1957 Mercury Station Wagon

A GIRL, A DOG, AND A LITTLE FAITH

January 13th, 2012


“What can I do? What can I do?” At five-years-old this was my mantra. I nearly drove my mother crazy. We lived in a little white clapboard colonial on a dead end street near a pond. I had two older sisters who were fifteen and twelve: not exactly eager playmates for me. My baby sister was two, no entertainment value there. I remember the pond being endlessly fascinating but clearly dangerous and unavailable unless I was accompanied by an adult. My mother opened the front door and said, “Go outside and play!” I sat glumly on the front porch for awhile and then wandered along the sidewalk about a block up the street.

Suddenly a yapping little terrier came streaking out of a neighbor’s yard and made a beeline right for my heels. I turned and ran back down the street as fast as I could. The dog, encouraged by the flight of its prey, gave chase and danced around my legs threatening to tangle my feet and send me sprawling on the cement. I was terrified. I scrambled up the porch stairs and pounded on the front door. By the time my mother opened the door the dog had lost interest and disappeared into the woods. I poured out my sad story of nearly being eaten alive by a girl-eating monster. My mother heartlessly said, “That dog is more scared of you than you are of him. If you run it makes the dog want to chase you. Next time don’t run just calmly walk away. He won’t hurt you.”

Having faith that my mother knew what she was talking about and loved me, I believed her and took her advice to heart. Not being smart enough to stop bugging her about “what to do” I was again, a few days later, sent out to play. Again, I wandered up the street. Again, the dog came out to toy with me but this time I mustered every ounce of courage and self-control my little five-year-old frame possessed and slowly turned around and sauntered casually back toward my home. To this day I can hardly believe that I had the fortitude to not panic. Certain that my mother’s advice would work, I suppressed my natural instinct to run, and calmly walked home. The dog, robbed of his fun, turned around and went home too.

This was an important moment. I made a hard choice. I made a conscious effort to exert control over my situation and my quite natural instinct to run.

BE STILL: Yoga and my obscure malady by Jean Snow VanOrden

January 6th, 2012

I did my Yoga routine this morning. This is one of my goals for 2012: incorporate calming, deep breathing, stretching yoga into my daily life. I have recorded about eight routines on the DVR. This particular Yoga series is very mild and relaxing and I have found that it significantly improves my health. I could have used its healing power a long time ago.

When I was eleven my mother and father sat me down and said, “Which would you rather do, take dance or take piano lessons?” My older sisters both took piano lessons and were accomplished singers and musicians. It was discovered that my younger sister could benefit from dance lessons as physical therapy for short tendons in her legs. My mother found a dance teacher who gave lessons in her home. So there I was with the option of one or the other. I chose dance.

I very much wish that I could play piano but if I could only do one, dance was by far the best choice for me. I was a middle child sandwiched between two talented older sisters, an adorable younger sister whose needs required extra attention, and a long awaited baby brother. It seems silly now but I was plagued by feelings of being awkward and unlovely and dance was great therapy.

My teacher was a blonde statuesque beauty by the name of Jean Enright. Her garage was fitted with mirrors and a ballet barre. I was one of her older students. I took lessons from her for about five years. My last performance at one of her recitals was when I was sixteen. Because of those lessons I was in Choreodancers at Rolling Hills High School, I danced in high school dance concerts and musicals, I danced in church plays and talent shows, and I danced for a short time at Brigham Young University in Ballet Theater and Modern Dance Club.

My mother encouraged me to get a degree in dance and do as my teacher had done, teach dance. My mother was probably right but I resisted. I think I resisted because although dance was a joy, it was also a heartache. It was very hard for me. All dancers must work hard and be disciplined but I felt like I was fighting my body’s basic nature. I am not naturally limber or flexible. I struggled to be confident on stage. Although I am slender, I don’t have the curveless figure of the ideal ballet dancer, and I felt like I was too tall. Knowing what I know now about the varieties of dance styles and opportunities, I realize I was too self-conscious and too pessimistic. In spite of that, dance was a great blessing in my life. I acquired poise and grace and confidence that my awkward young self very much needed. I love to dance. I had wonderful experiences performing and making friends through dance.

After I had my second child, while I was at the doctor being treated for strep throat, I learned something about my body that shed more light on why dance was hard for me. I have an obscure malady with the weird name, “Essential Tremors.” http://essentialtremor.org/ I realized that the trembling in my legs and arms was not just because of exertion during a difficult work out. I learned that being still and steady on stage wasn’t just because I had stage fright. I love performing. I am not afraid of performing. I am afraid of the unexpected trembling of my body that I cannot control. I sing and that same malady had consequences during vocal performance. I once toyed with becoming a nurse, but tremors in my hands made me give up that as a possibility because I could not imagine being able to give shots and place IV needles in patients with my trembling hands.

The worst part is that people often express concern that I am anxious or nervous because they notice the trembling. Truthfully, I am at times anxious and nervous, and I am sometimes a bit frenetic. I think I’m a productivity junkie. I bustle around at high speed getting as much done as possible. Which isn’t actually all that productive sometimes. All this does not help calm my essential tremors.
These days I take beta-blockers to control my tremors. Beta blockers are also useful for performance anxiety and shakiness. Yoga with its stretching, deep breathing, Zen quality is probably the best thing I am doing to get my tremors under control.

To get the most out of my Yoga sessions both physically and mentally, I must slow down, still my mind, and create a zone of existence where nothing matters but the present NOW: the body breathing in health, light, and peace; breathing out stress and discomfiture of all kinds. It was very hard at first. Hard like dance was hard. I’m not limber. Some poses are difficult. But it gets easier every day. My muscles are more flexible every day. I feel more youthful and more productive as I take this time to slow down.

Aches and pains and stress are eased in that timeless space where I am at peace with myself and my maker and the challenges he as blessed me with. Be still and breathe.

“Be still and know that I am God.” Psalms 46:10

A NEW YEAR: so many mountains climbed, so many more to go

December 30th, 2011

Denali

Denali


One of my earliest memories is of hiking on Cadillac Mountain in Maine which for roughly five months each year is the first place in the United States to view the sunset. My family was living in Granby, Massachusetts and took the opportunity to visit places of interest around New England. I was a fidgety four-year-old with a short attention span. Likely my energy started out strong and waned quickly as the hike dragged on. My clever parents came up with a way to engage me and keep me moving. They made me the leader. I was given the job of spotting rock cairns that marked the trail. This focused my skittish energy with something important to do. I became useful to my family’s expedition. As useful as a four-year-old can be. In my memory I see myself leading the way up the mountain, reaching the top, and with a flourish pointing to a rock cairn marking the summit. My sister tells me we were just traipsing through the forest gathering fire wood. But from that small expedition to the present, rock cairns have been meaningful to me: markers that give a sense of direction, a sense of perspective, a way to mark progress toward a goal. We may not actually have hiked to the top of Cadillac Mountain that day but from my four-year-old point-of-view, whatever our destination; it might as well have been Everest.

Everest: a metaphor for the ultimate personal challenge, obsession, and achievement. A cliché too often used considering the awful price people pay in pain and treasure for the Everest experience. A year ago I read “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer about his tragic experience on Everest. He reached the summit but found himself caught up in one of the worst Everest disasters on record. Five of his climbing companions, including two experienced guides, died in a freak storm. Everything on Everest is freakish and unpredictable. In the death zone even the most seasoned mountaineers crumble suddenly and fatally. Climbers are at the limits of human endurance and there is little energy, time, or resources left to come to the aid of faltering companions. I am just finishing Michael Kodas’ book “High Crimes” about corruption, greed, and criminal behavior in the rush to cash in on the Everest experience. It is shocking what humans are willing to do to summit Everest and then peddle that experience to fame and fortune. My reading sparked an Everest movie night at home. We watched a video about the first blind climber to summit Everest. Erik Weihenmayer’s achievements which include climbing the “Seven Summits” got me thinking about my own resolutions and hopes for what I would like to achieve in 2012.

Like many of the difficult challenges in my life, a number of my 2011 experiences were not of my own choosing. The way I see it our most character revealing and defining experiences come not from events we plan for and choose to bring into our lives, but the ones that are thrust upon us. Suddenly, no matter what else we were planning; we are required to summon enough grit, and gumption, and positive attitude to face and overcome opportunities we would rather not. It is one thing to scrape together $65,000 and a good guide to fulfill a long-held aspiration to get to the top of Everest. It is quite another to find out that you must fight cancer, or suffer alongside a child who is critically ill, or endure the sudden death of a loved one and not let it destroy you. Actually, these kinds of experiences will destroy you. The secret is not to just survive but be born again from the ashes to a new life. Crushing challenges demand that we humbly accept that we are being formed by forces beyond our control and not be bitter about it.

This year I’ve chosen Denali as my symbol. It is the mountain of my adopted home, Alaska. It looms large in the Alaskan mind and heart and can be seen on a clear day from Anchorage to Fairbanks. I will never climb Denali and that doesn’t bother me an ounce. I realize that the idea of conquering Denali’s slopes is sufficient. Denali symbolizes the confidence that I can do hard things, I will do hard things, and I will in the process, become a better person.

For some of us the smallest steps forward can be extraordinarily difficult. But as long as we insist on pressing forward to a better version of ourselves and never stop that forward motion, we have conquered the mountain. Every person’s life journey can be a sacred journey to sacred knowledge and sacred space.

My goals are simple this year:
1. Take good care of my body. I need all the energy I can muster to do all the wonderful things that are ahead for me. Being a cancer survivor gives me additional impetus because I have already beaten the odds and should gratefully nurture the precious gift of extra years that I have been given. I will gently take care of my health.
2. Yoga. I discovered that yoga is as much about my peace of mind as it is about having a healthy body. I am a person that moves fast and crams every day with more than I should. Yoga slows me down and helps me to clear my mind. It works hand in hand with meditation and prayer.
3. Write every day. The need to write is like a spring coiling up inside of me tighter and tighter. The tension must be sprung regularly or I start turning blue. 2011 was a sparse year for writing. Blue is not a good color on me. 2012 will be a year of disciplined effort in the writing department.
4. Take lots of pictures and learn how to you use my fabulous new Canon 60D DSLR camera. Photography snuck up on me. Before the advent of digital photography, I never supposed that I would come to enjoy it so much. It is too close to the physics department and I have little confidence when it comes to math and physics. However, I discovered that I do have a talent, small as it may be, for creating a nice photograph now and then.

I’ve climbed Cadillac Mountain (at least in my imagination), a mountain in Lambs Canyon above Salt Lake City, Timpanogas peak in the Wasatch Mountains, Rendezvous Peak and Wolverine Peak in the Chugach mountains above Anchorage, Alaska. But these were all just cairns along the trail of my life, not the actual summits that allowed me larger views of where I’ve been, what I am becoming, and what I want to be. The summits and the views they give are brief. It is the climb that matters most. And so I will climb.

OUR CHRISTMAS HOLY LAND FEAST: family, food, and transport across time and space

December 24th, 2011

Best Baklava Ever


It started with Baklava, that delicious middle-eastern nut stuffed pastry dripping with honey syrup. A Greek foreign exchange student brought baklava to a cast party for a high school musical I was dancing in. It was the most exotic thing I had ever tasted and the experience burned in my memory though I didn’t eat Baklava again for more than a decade. That time came when one Christmas a friend brought us homemade baklava and then invited me to her house to learn to make it. Making baklava with my own hands was a watershed event.

Then came falafel. We had just arrived in Tel Aviv, Isarael from Cairo, Egypt. We had spent the previous several days in Egypt where our tour group abstained from all fresh fruits and vegetables as we were warned over and over that this was the surest way to ruin an inspiring trip through lands of the Bible by picking-up uninspiring parasites that would make us sick. (We learned later that we may have been overly fastidious on this point but better safe than sorry.) One of the first things we did in Tel Aviv after checking into our hotel, was walk to the beach where we bought falafel at a nearby kiosk. By this time on the tour this middle-eastern sandwich was legendary. Nowadays even here in Anchorage, Alaska you can get a decent freshly made falafel, but in the early eighties when we visited Israel we had yet to run across this now common street food. The fragrance of freshly fried falafel balls made from ground chickpeas and spices, stuffed into pita bread, and garnished with a generous handful of fresh lettuce, cucumbers, and tahina sauce was deeply satisfying to our salad hungry souls.

In Jerusalem we experienced Israeli breakfast in which bacon is conspicuously absent but cucumbers, salad, boiled eggs, pickles, humus, cheeses, and breads are abundant. In the old city marketplace we found baklava made from pistachios and walnuts in a dozen different shapes and sizes. Here we also grabbed a hot round loaf of sesame sprinkled bread to fuel our hike through the city where among other monuments of antiquity we visited the Church of the Nativity and the grotto where Christ was born.

One year I dreamed up a new Christmas tradition for our family. I wanted to create an experience that would transport us in time and space to the world where Jesus was born and lived. It started out humbly: cheese, olives, dried fruit, pita bread and grape juice. We took an imaginary journey to Bethlehem and ate foods that Mary and Joseph might have eaten in some form. We read the Christmas story from the Bible.

But as is my habit my imagination runs wild. I thought of so many wonderful possibilities for “Holy Land” foods. I discovered that my sister, who spent years living in the Middle East, established a similar tradition and is a fountain of ideas and recipes. I’m getting hungry writing this. I try something new each year to add to the dozens of dishes which burden my table. All this makes for a delicious meal and a great deal of cooking. Lentils made pottage for Esau but they also make a terrific soup. Olives are nice but tapenade on homemade flat bread with goat cheese is much better. And though I can buy ready made humus, homemade is the only way to go. There’s also tabouleh, baba ganoush, okra stew, stuffed dates and . . . That brings us back to bakalava, homemade baklava. There were no Christmas cookies this year but I did make the best baklava ever.

This Holy Land Feast is a central tradition of our family’s Christmas. The smell of frying falafel balls, the flatbread on the counter top grill manned by an unsuspecting guest, carols playing in the background. At Christmas our family comes together around a meal that has been created because a baby was born, a baby celebrated, and this baby brought love transcendent to the family of man: love which is constantly yearned for, little understood, and earnestly sought by all people of goodwill.

Our Holy Land Feast binds us together with memories of a far away place and time made present with food for our bodies and our souls. Merry Christmas.

DON’T GET EATEN BY A BEAR: anxiety in an anxious world

October 5th, 2011

All summer long I’ve been dodging bears, real ones: bears on the golf course, bears on the trail while hiking in Denali National Park, bears in my backyard. And figurative ones: renovating our deck (a bear of a job that I’ve dreaded for ten years), procrastinating onerous tasks, or postponing long desired goals because I fear failure. Bears are everywhere.

I live on the edge of the Chugach State Park where it borders a greenbelt along the Eagle River. We humans are intruders here where salmon spawn and bears roam in search of food unfazed by fences and neighborhood streets. But we humans, stumbling upon a black bear in our garage pawing through our garbage or a grizzly strolling through our backyard, have the imagination to visualize Timothy Treadwell’s fate, or other scarred unfortunates who barely escaped with their lives. 

When it comes to creativity a vivid imagination is a good thing but when it comes to anxiety,our human capacity to imagine the worst is the fount of all ulcers and panic attacks.

Yes, I read that in a book. Ok, so I paraphrase, or rather augmented upon. I’ve yet to read most of the book but the brief snippet I read from “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” pointed out that to survive danger our bodies  are designed to get us either ready for a fight or ready to run. Which is all well and good if there really is imminent need. However, we can fake our bodies out by vividly imagining a crisis when there is none which sends our fight or flight response into an unhealthy feedback loop that literally eats us alive.

Thus, we get eaten by that imaginary bear (or threats of all kinds) over and over again without ever releasing the anxiety through a real fight or a burst of physical speed to save our skin. We are mauled daily by self-inflicted anxiety. The result: real pain and real wounds with nothing to show for it.

I’m not yet sure how to resolve this conundrum fully but I do know we suffer needless pain over threats that never fully or even partially materialize. I’ve given that anxious imaginary bear scores of premature meals. But no more. I’m closing down that not-so-free lunch.

And so I repeat advice given me many years ago: “don’t get eaten by a bear”. 

Oh yeah, the deck. It wasn’t hard. It’s beautiful. What was I afraid of!