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kindness

Living with Migraines

Regarding the Painlessness of Others

December 15, 2017

There is a book that I read in college called Regarding the Pain of Others. Written by American philosopher Susan Sontag, it explored the repercussions of viewing images of other people in pain, especially in the surreal real-but-not world of photographs. Sontag says that there can be no we when dealing with another’s pain, as one cannot experience another’s’ experience.

A question that I often ask myself, especially in seasons in which I find myself sick more often than not sick, is how to deal not with seeing others in pain (there is of course the old adage “misery loves company), but how to deal with seeing health in others. 

For someone with chronic pain seeing another individual living carefree and in good health with their four humors sloshing about in perfect harmony can easily become in itself a form of pain. That pain can even more easily slide into bitterness, coldness and hatred, which leads only to more pain as the only person that coldness, hated, and bitterness is guaranteed to harm is the person doing it, and those harms are doubled because the chronic pain that started the shenanigan is still there.  

Or, and I have found this to be most common, you sink into a deep sadness as the pipes drone the tune of Spancil Hill in the back of your mind and you watch your dreams and happy songs sail away.

But how can one with chronic pain avoid all these bad things? 

Apart from becoming a hermit, you will still have to encounter people in life. And since you are reading this online, you also get to encounter people’s peppy facades that they put up online.

So what is there to do, since the only person who stands to get hurt by your reaction is yourself?

One thing to do is to reverse roles. Put yourself in their shoes. Everyone has pains and problems in their life. Everyone. Those pains and problems will be different from person to person, but they are still in pain. I would argue that almost everything done by people is done out of pain or fear of pain. If not, why would anyone do anything? You ask out a girl because the pain of being without her is too great to bear. You get a job because of the pain of being able to afford food. You train your puppy not to bite because the pain of the bites are too much. 

Believe that last bit or not, my point is that everyone on earth has an acute sense of fear and pain. If we are all suffering, ought we to give some slack to those around us? That’s what I advocate at least. Not doing so just makes everything worse, and by everything I mean it makes you worse and the other people just keep on living.

I have never met a happy person who sits in the dark hating the world. And I would know; for many years I was that person. Of course I did not put my hand on a Bible and say “I Quaid, hold myself in contempt of the world”, but I still didn’t like it one bit.

The lights are too bright.

The music is too loud. 

Yes I can hear you through the earplugs.

No I will not take off my hat for your wedding. *

It definitely takes work when your own body is fundamentally unequipped to exist in the artificial world in which we live, and the people in that world seem to be working to force you out. It is very easy to retreat into yourself, cut yourself off, and contact filthy outsiders only when you need them to sell you food. 

But the problem with that is that it assumes that others are fundamentally against you. This is incorrect, as more often than not, they don’t care about you. 

And beyond that, how could they know that you are suffering? You don’t even know their name, they don’t know yours. How could they know what you are going through? And, what if they too are going through pain, or even more chillingly, the very same pain as you? Unless you talk to each other, you would never know. They will be like the soldiers who crucified Christ—they know not what they do. Or you both will know not what you do, and hurt each other. And in that case, who is in the wrong?

And sometimes, some people who do know about your pains will continue to hurt you, accidentally or otherwise. For those times, there is the classic solution. Take a sock, fill it with a generous handful of pebbles, and invite them down to the lake for a midnight stroll just the two of you. Then talk about your problems with them while skipping the stones across the calm nighttime water.

Sometimes so many problems can be solved by talking. 

Finally, there is the grease that helps all this run smoother, and that is forgiveness. Sometimes you will just have to forgive people, whether they apologize or not, whether they know what they do or not. Grudge-holding is of course a time honored tradition, but it is certainly not the best way to live a healthy life. Again, it will only hurt you. Or if its a special, rare, and magical kind of grudge that is mutual, it will hurt you and the other person. It won’t be good, is what I am saying.

And yes, I recognize that this is painting a picture of myself as a growling hater of the world, and I do not deny it. A dream of mine that recurs whenever the sound guy at church equates loudness with God’s presence is to acquire an island between Ireland and Scotland (please don’t tell the Republic of Ireland or the United Kingdom, thank you kindly) build a castle there, and vanish. But I hope that by writing this I have proven that I have vowed to repent.

So then, what of the original statement of Sontag’s, that there can be no we when dealing with pain in others? I agree with it, but with this caveat: since we do not know each others’ pain, we ought to recognize that we all are in different kinds of pain, and cut each other slack because of that. 

*If I do agree to take off my hat for your wedding, consider yourself loved.

Happiness

Pop!

December 2, 2017

I like to think of myself as a rather robust individual. Excepting my migraines, of course, but that is hardly sporting. Beyond my faulty brain, I like to imagine myself as a man who can take a punch, stumble, and get back up and give them what for.The kind of fish that eats a bowl of nails for breakfast without any milk. 

But then life happens and reminds me that I am not, in fact, a pinnacle of health.

It happened one day, yesterday in fact. I had come home from lunch, and as I do every time I leave the house, my puppy Little Sir Finn (he’ll cease being ‘little’ when he stops chewing on the furniture) was locked inside his kennel. So naturally I wanted to let him out, and I decided to do something that I had not done in an age.

Run.

I am not a runner, and have not been for a long time. I have not been a runner ever since a wayward migraine medication made me balloon up like a stuck pig (and there was wailing and gnashing of teeth). 

Well, I ran that day, not wanting to leave Finn waiting. I had my eyes fixed on the prize—my dog in his crate, and he was watching me too with eagerness in his tiny frame.

Pop!

I was on the ground, one leg forward, the other bent behind me. Then there was searing pain.

I had failed to see Finn’s mat on the ground before me, and I had paid the price. I had slipped and fallen, and done something heinous to my ankle.

I’d like to say I took it like a mountain man who had just clawed his way out of his own grave—silent, with a dour face and clenched fists.

But no. I was hysterical, nauseous, and crying. I think I was screaming God’s name and asking for strength. (As an aside, it is at the moment of pain that faith is most real, with the least amount of trumpets on corners and showiness) 

Finn was upset, he was crying too, and I composed myself and reassured him that I was all right, even though I wasn’t sure myself. I scooted across the floor, and with a sound that was almost a laugh I twisted my leg to see my ankle. With the amount of messages that the little theoretical men who run my ankle’s branch of the Office of Nervous System Telecommunications were sending to my brain, I figured it at least had to be broken. 

My ankle’s Office of Nervous System Telecommunications may need to fire a few key members down there, because it was decidedly not hanging limp, turned purple, or showing any of the other signs of a break. 

I still was not comforted, so I called my dad, who despite being an engineer has an extensive first aid knowledge. He assured me that it was not broken, but that it needed ice. 

Finn looked at me with concern as I grabbed a nearby walking stick—I fell merely a few feet from where I kept it leaned against the wall. I reassured him that I would be back, and he calmly laid down his head.

I am certain that he understands my words when I talk to him. 

Anyways I inched my way to the kitchen, and appraised myself of ice and a plastic baggie, and began the work of trying to fix my hurt ankle. I am certain that it was a sprain.

This hurting ankle has made me feel quite unlike myself. I cannot move as I wish, and I cannot play with my dog. I barely slept last night because I could not get comfortable. It was a new pain of a sort I am wholly unused to (except the last time Finn indirectly caused me to fall).

It is a great lesson in humility, and a reminder that migraines are not the only pain in the world, and that people the world over all have similar or different troubles and pains. In being forced, quite against my will, to taste of a new sort of pain, I have been reminded of the great value of empathy.

It is also a grand start to the Christmas season as I hobble about like Tiny Tim. 

Living with Migraines

The Lord of the Rings and Illness

October 26, 2017

This last week I received a text message from my sister, asking me to come back to our family home for the weekend.
I thought about it. Then I prayed about it. After that, I thought about it some more.
“Why not?” said I after a while.

So I decided to pack up myself, my puppy, and my car and drive across Southern California. Then a thought came to my head. I should listen to an audiobook on the drive. I can count the number of audiobooks I own on one hand, and it wound not matter how many fingers that hand had.
“If I could have any one travelling book to listen to, what would that be?”

I thought for a moment. There was only one that came to mind, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring.

Now my migraines and their brain-altering effects have made me more prone to emotional outbursts and weird attachments to mundane things (the color blue, European Starlings, Christmas Trees, and the constellation Orion are each on that list) but let me tell you, The Lord of the Rings is at the top of that list.

It is my very favorite book, and for good reason. It is, in fact, the source of my outlook on life. The Lord of the Rings, and its first book The Hobbit, made a painful life worth living.

Now let me explain.

I will preface my explanation with this: I know that The Lord of the Rings is not for everybody, and that the fans tend to either be bookish outcasts or Led Zeppelin. You either know they involve something little elf-men with big feet or you wear a cape on the daily. There is little middle ground.

The books are massive word blocks with adjectives and adverbs and drama killing phrases like “They set out to the northwest”. Even watching the movies is a twelve hour marathon, and tend to either put people to sleep or turn them into lunatics.

Tolkien’s works have, for the fifty or so years since their publishing, have been thought of as allegorical, either for the World Wars, nuclear power, environmentalism, the hippie movement (Frodo Lives!) or Christianity. Tolkien himself had a strong dislike of allegory, and instead wrote books that were applicable to their readers’ lives.

Hence the unbridled fanaticism his works inspire fans.

As a Tolkienite fanatic, let me summarize the books with one sentence: Tolkien creates cute little happy creatures and sends them off, willingly or otherwise, on a journey that beats them into a pulp, but they carry on because in that moment it is the only choice they have.

The Lord of the Rings features at its core three main themes: the importance of unexpected things, perseverance, and the foolishness of despair.

Unexpected importance is a very crucial thing when one struggles in life, especially with chronic illness. In the story many side characters reveal themselves to be of dire importance, often taking up little more than a page or two. But without them the story would be over.

An example of this is one of my favorites, a farmer named Maggot. The archetypal stoic old farmer, Maggot keeps massive dogs and terrorizes all of the youths in the neighborhood who trespass on his lands with threats of feeding them to his dogs. His reputation is one of terror, but when we actually meet him he is a kindly helper who is far from the crotchety figure he is made out to be.

Farmer Maggot Chronic Pain Encouragement Migraines

My very own Farmer Maggot illustration, complete with one of his dogs.

The unexpected, and its revealing to be good, permeates all of Tolkien’s writings. You cannot know what is coming around the corner, or who the stranger you meet may actually be. Therefore it is foolish to fear what is coming, or strangers just because they are strangers. You never know when something or someone good is coming, and for someone living from migraine to migraine, that is a very encouraging thing to have recited to you.

Perseverance is the second main theme of the book, and its importance to a sickly person is self-evident. Every hero of the book has a task that they are given by destiny, fate, chance, or someone wiser than they are. And they stick to it to see it through even when it is hard, because that is what they have to do.

Each character is torn down and remade stronger. This is done by difficulties they face. Their fears, their homesickness, possessions that are theirs by right that they do not possess, each character has weaknesses, and they work hard to overcome them, or they are forced to.

This is a theme that is near and dear to my heart, as it is the story of my life, and everybody’s life. Sometimes life just gets tough, and you have to keep going, because that is the only option you have at the moment.

And that walks quite nicely into the final theme: the folly of despair. For that, I will just place a quote from the greatest wizard in fiction, Gandalf:

“Despair, or folly? Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.”

This bit of wisdom had carried me through many difficult times, and I remind myself of it often.

And so, with these and countless more reasons flashing through my brain like starlight, I downloaded an unabridged, nineteen and a half hour long audiobook of The Fellowship of the Ring for my few hour drive home. I, uh, I kinda overdid it.

Medicine

The Hero’s Journey that I had Last Wednesday

May 30, 2017

In which our Hero (me) went to refill my medication, met with extraordinary figures, met with magic and mystery, and descending through my greatest Phobias descended into the Underworld and emerged with newfound wisdom and my medication.

Part One: The Call

It was one of the worst feelings possible, a thing of stark horror and long-lingering fear. I had gone to the shelf where I keep my medicine, and discovered that I was out. Not, mind you, of everything. I still had a score of my preventative medications. But I was out of what I consider the most important medications: the emergency onset ones, the ones that you take when a migraine stands on your doorstep and knocks. Being out of those is an emergency all of its own, and I suppose that you could very well guess why. So, I logged onto my computer to purchase another box of Rizatriptan, my onset migraine medication of choice. It is by far the best that I have used, and I have used a lot of onset medications.

Being a young adult grappling for independence and yet still living in the shadow of your family does have its particular perks, such as inclusion on your family’s health insurance plan until the age of twenty-six. This greatly streamlines the process of the acquisition of vital medications. Until, of course, it doesn’t. Like this tale that I am about to tell you.I tried to order my Rizatriptan, but the website flagged it. It needed a doctor’s approval. I shot a text message to my dad, who is more versed in these sort of things, on the virtue of having negotiated with doctors from long before I was born. Hopefully, I would not have to go see a doctor.

My phone rang. It was my father, and I answered.

“It looks like you need to schedule a doctor’s appointment,” said he over the phone.

I grunted my agreement. There are three sorts of people I greatly dislike seeing in a professional setting: the first is a dentist, the second is a mathematics teacher, and the third is a doctor. But, as I needed my medicine lest anything bad happen, I called the insurance company’s hotline to schedule an appointment. The very next day, at two-thirty in the afternoon. “Arrive fifteen minutes early,” said the phone operator, “parking can be difficult.”

Part Two: Crossing the Threshold

Two-fifteen on the next day arrived, and I found myself in a full parking lot. Half of it was designated Staff Parking, and they were all the spots in the shade. “Typical” I said, and negotiated the ways and byways of the parking lot to find a place that I could park my car and enter the office. I had been to doctor’s offices before, and I knew the drill. A building full of a myriad of offices, all housing doctors of differing degrees. An ophthalmologist may share a wall with a pediatrician, and a dermatologist with a gynecologist, and there is bound to be a neurologist and an oncologist in there too. In short, a vast, labyrinthine complex forming a patchwork nation of doctors.

I needed to find myself a directory so that I may find my doctor in less than fifteen minutes. There was no directory. There was a receptionist.

“Hello,” I said to her, hoping to make it to the appointment that I knew I was likely now going to be late to. “Where is the office called “Medical Two?”

“It is on floor two,” she said in a quite droll voice that indicated she had answered this query to a thousand faces.

“Thank you,” I said.

Now I had to find the stairs. I walked up and down the hallway, and I could not find them. All I could find was an elevator. I looked at the time. I prefer stairs. Something about them is fun. Elevators, especially hospital elevators, have a sense of foreboding doom about them. My anxiety picks up inside them, especially the windowless ones, as there is always an off chance that those doors won’t open again. Think of it like the “You put faith in a chair every time you sit in it” parable every motivational speaker thinks constitutes the wisdom of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Kierkegaard combined, but only in this case you are trusting a strange automated steel box you just met to let you out.

The two steel doors opened, and I, having no other choice, stepped over the threshold. The controls had two choices. One, or two. Since I was on floor one, I only truly had one choice.

“Easy to use the elevator in this hospital,” said a cheery voice that gave me a right good start.

“Yep,” said I to the smiling middle-aged woman and pressed “Two” for us both.

The doors opened, and I found myself looking down yet another hallway with five hundred doors. At least these were easily labelled, and I found my destination.

Part Three: The Maze of Trials

The interior of that office was, to say the least, a menagerie of people of all shapes and sizes and ages. There, once again, was the woman from the elevator. She’d found her way faster than me. With a smile, she pointed me to the front desk.

I guess I looked that lost.

I gratefully smiled back at the kind middle aged woman, and made my way to the desk.

“Insurance member number,” said the checker kindly. I proudly handed her my insurance card and ID. It was like my golden coin letting me into the Ferryman’s boat. “Is this a Southern California number?” she asked. My golden coin turned out to be but a bewitched leaf.

“I am from SoCal, but I have a NorCal visitor’s number,” I replied.

“I need that,” said she.

“Hold on,” said I.

I was ready for this. I’d saved my number for just this occasion. I fumbled through my phone’s notes, and read out the numerals. A few clicks later and I was checked in.

“First time visitors need their picture taken in case you need to come back” she added, and I smiled into her backwards-mounted webcam.

I sat down in the waiting room’s chairs, marveling that I was not late. So much had happened in fifteen minutes.

“Ens, Quaid?” called out the Practitioner.

I got up and followed her deeper into the office, which was a maze of corridors and alcoves, all filled with baroque medical equipment. “Stand there, I need to take your weight; sit there, I need to take your blood pressure” she said, and I dutifully obeyed, taking off my sandals and presenting my arm. “Take off your hat, please,” said the Practitioner, producing a strange wand. She quickly waved it about my forehead three times over, until the thing let out a thermometer’s beep. She might as well have said some word in the language of angels and fairies. Magic like that I had never seen before.

Then she led me further into the maze to the actual room where I was to meet with the Doctor. She left me there, and I sat alone in contemplation.

“I need medicines refilled,” I reminded myself.

NO CELLPHONES ALLOWED cried a flyer printed on yellow that was paper magic-taped to the door.

“I need to ask him about something else, I think,” I said to myself, taking out my phone to snapchat the cellphone flyer.

DISPOSE OF SHARPS AND BIOLOGICAL WASTE HERE screamed the label on a trash can. I quivered.

Anything involving sharp objects in a medical setting is a nightmarish affair, the work of vampires, ghouls, hobgoblins, and other members of the Unseelie Court. I felt a tinge of anxiety run through my heart, making my blood run cold and my skin to perspire, my stomach become nauseous and my ears to go numb. It is all on account of myself being accursed with of haemophobia and trypanophobia–fear of blood and fear of needles respectively. It should be added that these two fears greatly hinder any possible employment in the medical industry.

HERE BE MONSTERS writes the cartographer when labelling the spot just before the edge of the world.

To distract myself I quickly went back to my SnapChat. I’d forgotten to even take the photo. My thumb stretched towards the button when the door flew open.

Part Four: The King of Trials

In strode the Doctor. He was tall, wrapped in a flowing labcoat belying his wisdom in the medical arts. He carried himself with a sort of imperium, the authoritative manner of one who knows he is, at the moment, the most powerful personage in the room.

He sat down, and as this was our first meeting, began to ask his riddles with a smile that revealed a kind individual who was simply getting his work done by acting imperious. The best kind of doctor, in my opinion.

“Quaid A. Ens, answer me these questions three,” said he. I nodded, and waited.

“Why are you here to see me?”

“I am here to get medications refilled,” I said.

He nodded, and produced a small book that was a catalog of medications. The cover caught my eye, as it was an old woodcut of a pair of renaissance doctors and their dog. He thumbed through the book, scrying for the unusual European medications an eccentric Neurologist put me on years ago.

“How have you been feeling lately?”

“Feeling well is a relative term, I have chronic headaches, but I feel good when I don’t have them.”

The Doctor looked at me, and then looked at his screen, and back to his tome.

“Have you had Labwork done lately?”

My head began to spin.

“I just sent a refill order to the pharmacy. Your medications will be filled and delivered to your address. All I need is to go downstairs and get your labwork done.”

The Doctor’s printer whirred, and he handed me a warm summary of our visit, the ink still drying. And with that he was gone with a handshake and a swoosh of his labcoat.

I found my way out of the Doctor’s Maze alone, doing my very best to remember the way the Practitioner had led me in. Soon I was back in the long hallway, and I sank into a bench, trembling with fear. I sent a text message to my father, and waited for a reply.

Part Five: Temptation and Atonement

“How can I get out of this one?” I said to myself. “I could go home. He refilled my prescription. What bad can be in my blood anyways?”

The dread beast diabetes said my mind. Man-slaying cancer helpfully added my memory.

These two cast their gnarled shadows on the wall behind me, and joined in the tempest of fear that circled about my head. There was still no reply to my text message. Images of medical equipment, horrendous tubes ending in points and beeping machinery flooded my mind. “I cannot do this. I’d rather die” I said, and walked down the hallway. There before me, were the stairs. “Finally found them,” I said.

I was in my car, fumbling to get my non-working hands to place my key in the ignition when my phone rang. It was my father.

“Blood test, eh?” He said.

“Y-yes,” I stammered.

“Bummer. You going to do it?”

“I don’t want to.”

“If you wait, it will only get worse. This is the best time to do it, or you will be destroyed by knowing you have to take one.”

Cancer, diabetes, blood, and syringes swirled in my head. Nevertheless, I knew he was right.

“I’ll do it.” I declared, reaching for a book of poetry I had brought along in case anything like this happened.

“Slay the dragon,” he said. “I will pray for you.”

Part Six: Apostasis and Winning the Prize

The lab was dreadfully easy to find. It was on the first floor, just below the Doctor’s Maze, and mindful of each of my footfalls I entered that underworld. It was crowded with people, all waiting, and none of them smiling. With no Virgil to guide me through this limbo I found my way to a great red wheel that produced numbers on tags. I reached out and plucked one—number ninety-five. I smiled. Having that high of a number meant something. Maybe a longer wait? Was that good, or was that bad?

“Ninety-three!” called the lab’s Receptionist.

Turns out it wasn’t really that high of a number. I sat down, struggling not to abandon all hope.

I thumbed through my book to distract myself, and found “Sir Lionel”, and began to read as I waited. Sir Lionel was a Knight of the Round Table who fought a monstrous wild pig that had itself killed forty knights.

“Sir Lionel would not be fearful in this situation,” I said, looking about with a watery eye.

“Ninety-Five!”

I took a deep breath, and walked up to the receptionist, who pointed to a doorway. With a churning stomach and a swirling head, I entered that dungeon well-lit and cold.

“Hello,” said the Practitioner sweetly. She was another middle-aged woman, the kindest face I had seen that day.

“Take a seat right here,” she said, motioning to an empty cubicle.

“I must be honest, I am terribly afraid,” I said.

“This will be over quick,” she said, and I looked away as my unfairly sensitive arm began to be lashed with pain.

“All over!” she said, and I waited five seconds so I would not see anything. Then I turning saw my bandaged elbow, and looked away again.

“Have a nice day!” she said, and I got up to leave.

My arm was weak, but I had done it. I hurt, but it was all over. Fast, just as my father said was best. I sighed, and clicked the seat belt in my car and drove away, still unsettled. But nevertheless, I had faced my fears, and better yet, I had made it out of the Doctors’ Maze with my intended prize, my Rizatriptan prescription refilled.

Part Seven: The Return Home

The next day I found a voicemail on my phone. It was the Doctor, informing me that my blood had nothing wrong in it. I sighed a sigh of relief, and watched my fears die away.

“But,” said he, “Your white blood cell count is a little high.”

Understandable, I thought. I had a cold recently, and that’s what white blood cells are for.

“So, in a month or so I’d like another test to check on that.”

“Oh, come on,” I said aloud as my Roommate handed me my prescriptions, which he had found in the mailbox.

“What?” he said.

“Oh nothing,” I said, putting my phone away.

And now as I sit here, reflecting upon and typing up my story, it makes me think of many things. The value of bravery, sure, with myself as the bravest man at last, the cruelty of modern medicine (my arm is still sore, my sensitivity is a complicated medical issue all its own) as well as the virtues of modern telecommunications, but I think the most important moral of this story is the value of kindness. Everyone involved, from the Middle-Aged Woman to the Doctor, and even the dour Receptionist, was the pinnacle of kindness. And that, I think, is one of the most important pinnacles to be.

As I conclude this tale, and to finish any disputes, I will vouch that ninety-five percent of this is true. Direct conversations were paraphrased as per my memory, but all of these people are real and interactions happened. I omitted the doctor’s name for privacy reasons, and used titles for others to maintain the Fairy Tale vibe. Only cred I will give is my roommate Blake. He is a good deliverer of already delivered medications.

Happiness

Once I met a Lumberjack

April 18, 2017

It was a summer morning, the kind of summer morning where one wakes up and is suddenly transported back to the joy of waking up with the realization that he is off from school for three whole months. My eyes meandered around in my closet, trying to decide upon the best clothes for the day–today was a special day. Of course you’d have figured that out by now, as I am telling you about it.

I stepped out of the house dressed in an olive green jacket that was a callback to 2012 when dressing for an apocalypse was high fashion (a fashion trend I never left), and khaki cargo pants that gave a utilitarian bend to a classy look. Thick leather boots were laced about my feet, and a kelly green scarf was wrapped about my neck. Crowning it all was a royal blue French cap, a voyageur cap to be specific, a sort of long stocking cap with a tassel on the end of it. No proper Frenchman of the eighteenth century went exploring and trapping in the icy wastelands of New France without one.

I tramped out my door with my hands full. In one hand I had a blue cooler, in the other, my little mandolin. Now for before you ask–and I have been asked this as many times as I bring up my little friend, a mandolin is like a guitar mixed with a violin. It has eight strings, in four pairs like a very very small country dance. The strings in each pair are tuned the same, so in actual use a mandolin has four strings, it’s just that each string is actually two strings. And the two strings shall become one. I play British folk music on mine, that is to say, music from England, Ireland, and Scotland. I am rather devoted to it; my mandolin is a specially designed to be a “Celtic mandolin”. It has all the right specifications and sound. It is also shaped like something you would expect a trooping fairy to play while enrapturing a countryman or a fair damsel who had the fortune or misfortune to encounter a fairy court.

I went straight to my car and threw the cooler in the trunk and placed my mandolin in the passenger’s seat, carefully positioned so that he would not fall as I took turns and embankments. There would be a lot of those where we were going. I plugged in my iPod, and thumbed through my music. I needed a good and proper set of songs to listen to. I knew exactly who I would listen to.

Steeleye Span is a British folk-rock group formed in the late sixties in the shadow of the British folk revival movement and the widespread popularity of rock-n-roll. They are still active today, and their acts consist of arrangements of traditional ballads and instrumental jigs and reels. Their songs have the original poets’ madness about them, an unrepentant celebration of life that only comes about from the hearts of anonymous commoners who honestly do not know if they will survive until next Christmas, coupled with excellent musicianship and a calming but energizing sound. They are my favorite band.

I started up my car’s engine and set off bounding down the road. I made a quick detour at my first-favorite sandwich shop. I cracked my windows open so my mandolin could breathe and ordered my regular: “tuna on white bread with lettuce, pickles, olives, and banana peppers, and mayo.  No, would not like the juice and spices, thank you though”. The good people there know me. Well, they know my sandwich anyway. None of us wear nametags so I know them collectively as “Sandwich Peeps” and they probably know me as “tuna on white bread with lettuce, pickles, olives, and banana peppers, and mayo. No, I would not like the juice and spices, thank you though, Boy”.

After placing my sandwich in my cooler I set off down the road once again, only this time for real. I sped along until I reached the open highway, turning my car eastward like a Magi returning home. And then I beheld my destination.

“Montjoy” I intoned over the music.

There before me, in a rugged splendor that has weathered and will weather the test of time, stood the glorious Sierra Nevadas. I revved up my engine, and rushed down the road at great speed towards their towering embrace.

There is a little town nestled in the shadow of the Sierras called Squaw Valley. Now I say little because that is how much I have seen of it; the Highway cuts through it, and there are buildings clustered all about the road, forming what I assume to be the downtown area. I hear that Squaw Valley is in actuality a bunch of large properties scattered out over the hills and the rocks, inhabited by both a remnant of a more rural time and those city folk who want to return to such a time.

In Squaw Valley there is a little gas station that I always stop in. Never to get gas, but to use the toilet and to buy a candy bar. The only place I feel comfortable using the toilet and not making a purchase is Starbucks–they set the tone of their restaurant by giving away their internet for free and letting hipsters who dress like it is the 1890’s sit in their restaurant and type away on their laptop without purchasing nary a sweetroll or overpriced coffee. But this gas station in Squaw Valley is no Starbucks. So I stepped in, and emerged refreshed with a gigantic Twix bar and a Snickers bar. It’s amazing how much candy $2 can buy when there are no parents around to tell you no.

Thus proverbially refueled, I set off up the mountain again. The road outside of Squaw Valley quickly begins to climb over hills and then up and down, and then after that it begins to weave up the side of the mountains. Eventually it gets to the point where there is a cliff on one side of you and a sheet drop on the other, with nothing but a little barricade to stop your car from potentially falling from heaven like a bolt of lightning. Then you hit the snowline, which is both an environmental marker and an old inn in which I have never stepped foot but like to imagine plays host to all sorts of adventurous types including a perpetually made-up female wizard, a perpetually angry dwarf, and a perpetually shady fighter who broods in the back and just happens to be the rightful heir to the kingdom and is the only one who can free the land from a dread curse. Anyways, once you pass the snowline you find yourself encompassed by trees. Thick trees, tall trees, wild trees. Also dying trees. The part about the curse is real. Only instead of a wicked sorcerer or a general case of injustice it is but a tiny beetle that eats trees. It is a real problem.

My car zoomed along the road as it wove through the trees, still climbing and falling along the mountainside. I came to a bend, and then Steeleye Span hit a merry olde crescendo as I beheld the second best thing to behold when going to the mountains–the park entrance to Kings Canyon National Park. I heaved my car to and pulled into the line, rolling down my window to talk to the ranger. I handed him one of my favored possessions–a U.S. National Parks pass. I got it from my parents for my birthday, and it has a little polar bear on it, presumably to remind all adventurers that polar bears are migrating southwards and mating with grizzly bears and will soon unleash a giant bear apocalypse of giant bears on us all. (But not before the Wild Pig apocalypse. Time to invest in a good spear. They are coming)

I pass the little bear to the ranger, and he smiles. “Map and Newspaper today?” He asks. I said yes. Always say yes when offered a map. That’s one of my mottoes. Keeps you from getting lost, and those maps look good on your wall, especially with x’s and lines drawn on them. The ranger passed me the paper goods.

“They are doing some logging down the road past General Grant” he said as I took them from his hand.

I drove on into the forest, absentmindedly thinking not of the ranger’s warning but instead of the beauty of this place all around me. I never feel more at ease than when I am in God’s creation–really gets into that primal, natural world where one is truly free from all pretense and bonds. Even if I am cruising in a car.

I was looking for a little campground that is a lesser known one, a favorite haunt of ravens and French tour busses who are spilling over from when the parking lot for the Big Trees–Generals Grant and Sherman, tallest and largest in the world respectively, are too full. I was going to go sit on a rock and play a song on my mandolin for my raven friends.

I missed my turn–I had only found the campsite the previous trip, so I didn’t exactly know the way. I kept going along the road, until I found myself stopped behind a great line of cars.

“They are doing some logging down the road past General Grant” said the ranger’s voice in my head.

There was a big fire the previous winter–I remember the ash and the sweet wood smoke smell. Apparently there were a lot of damaged trees left over, trees mostly dead but not fully dead. So they were clearing them out, and they blocked the road for the log carrying trucks. Now this is all part of first-rate forestry, and is necessary for keeping the forest healthy and well, and falls well under what the Bible says about being “stewards of the earth”, but deep down, I was not too pleased with being in a traffic jam. That was Los Angeles business. Not Sierra Nevada business. I sighed, put my car in park, and reached for my map. Ah yes, there is the wrong turn I took. I knew I should have made that left turn at General Grant. Ah well, I said, turning down the Steeleye and reaching for my mandolin. Its twang filled the car, and even though I was not on a rock, I was playing mandolin in the mountains.

I put myself in a fairy trance (The Irish got their music from the Fairies, don’t you know–whether it was given freely or they stole it is a matter of folkloric debate) and smiled. If being in the mountains is the most liberating feeling, then playing mandolin is a close second.

Then I was interrupted by the hissing sound of a truck’s brakes. I looked out the window to see one of the enormous log hauling trucks off of the starboard prow of my car. And a very, very beardy construction worker in a checkered shirt, khaki suspenders, and a yellow hardhat looking down into my car with a great grin on his face.

“What is that thing?” bellowed Thorin.

“It is a mandolin” I said.

“That is the most hardcore thing I have seen today” he said, and drove away with his logs.

With the truck gone, so too was the need for a traffic jam. Of course it took five minutes for the traffic to realize that, but I was soon underway once more. I could have turned back, but the traffic had already taken so long, so I figured I’d keep going. I drove on, and found a nice clearing with a big rock in it. I sat atop that rock, and resumed my music, playing a fast-paced polka.

Once again I heard the sound of brakes. I looked up, and there was the loggers’ truck again, and Thorin Oakenshield grinning out of the window.

“I just wanted to hear what that thing sounded like” he cried.

I smiled back. “Thank you!” I cried back. I was rather at a loss for words. I’m not good at talking back to strangers, especially if a stranger is being kind.

“Thank you, and have a nice day!” he said, and drove away with another truckload of logs.

I smiled. I finally got to sit on a rock and play, and I also got to brighten this lumberjack’s day. Twice, and all before I ate my picnic dinner of tuna on white bread with lettuce, pickles, olives, and banana peppers, and mayo. No, would not like the juice and spices, thank you though.