Archive for the ‘New Zealand’ Category

New Zealand Roadtrip 4: to Dunedin and the yellow-eyed penguin

June 11, 2011

To penguins, every and each
Here is a lesson to learn and to teach
After a day fishin’
The mating fruition
Starts off down at the beach

Synopsis: I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. On sabbatical to dance back from the verge of burnout, I’m having adventures and working in out-of-the-way places. We’re touring after a month-long assignment an hour outside of quake-stricken Christchurch, in New Zealand’s South Island. We’ll be back home, Good Lord willing and Missouri River behaves, in a day and a half.

The ferry brought us from Oban on Stewart Island to Bluff as the sun set; we stayed the night at the outskirts of town.
We drove the next morning from to Dunedin, coming in from the south, and plotted our departure day moves. The airport sits thirty kilometers from the city center; we checked with the rental car office about dropping the Hyundai off early.
In the city center we enquired at the I-Site for penguin viewing, and booked a guided tour on the Otago Peninsula.
With plenty of time, we set out using the low-detail map from the tourist center, but having no directions to Penguin Place. In Portobello, faced with a Y intersection, we made the mistake and took the literal high road. The name Highcliff Road should have tipped me off.
I think the world of Kiwis but hold low opinions of their roads. Highcliff Road, winding sharply high above steep drop-offs, would have been bad enough. Younger men with no trauma experience might find the drive exhilarating; I found it terrifying. With loose gravel, grossly inadequate lane width, and no barriers, I soon found myself straddling the white line, until it gave out and, without the option of turning around, I continued on asphalt narrower than the infamous Oil Strip of the Nebraska Sandhills. At one point I faced an oncoming Mercedes, with a driver either overconfident from untreated mania or just careless because he had the inside lane. With my outside wheels on the ten-centimeter shoulder, I cleared his rearview mirror by millimeters.
We finally descended to sea level. At Penguin World we met eleven other tourists from New Zealand and Asia. We got a look in the penguin hospital, and we went out to the viewing area to see the wild yellow-eyed penguins.
At this time of year, when the short days limit the amount of time the aquatic birds can spend fishing, they leave land early in the morning, eat all day, and return in the evening. We walked the trail through the replanted native bush, and saw a little blue penguin (the smallest species) in its burrow and not looking well. Without moving, we saw two fur seals lounging on the dune grass, and the yellow-eyed penguins coming onto the beach with the waves.
Our guide discussed the seasonal mate selection process of penguins, and called the gathering in the surf a “beach party.” First three, then six stood on the beach just at the high edge of the waves, representing one percent of the earth’s total of yellow-eyed penguins.
Penguins mate monogamously but divorce; the rate runs much higher in the emperor penguins in Antartica, which maintain closer contact because of the cold. The yellow-eyed penguins spend less time together and have a lower divorce rate. They sometimes form same-sex unions.
I suppose there’s a lesson about human behavior, but I’m not sure what it is.

New Zealand Road Trip 3: Haast, Bluff, and Stewart Island

June 11, 2011

To Stewart we took the ferry

We arrived and longed for the prairie

     From New Zealand to Nome

     There’s no place like home

We’ll fly with no help from a fairy.

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  On sabbatical to dance back from the verge of burnout, I’m having adventures and working in out-of-the-way places.  We’re touring after a month-long assignment an hour outside of quake-stricken Christchurch, in New Zealand’s South Island.

We drove south from Paparoa and Bruce Bay, along New Zealand’s southwest coast, down the loneliest stretch of highway either of us could remember.  So little traffic passed we saw no other cars for thirty minutes at a stretch.  Two sheep wandered outside their paddocks in evident safety.

Despite Southern Hemisphere’s  fast-pproaching  wnter, though we drove further south than Minneapolis lays north, the temperature stayed above freezing.  We filled the tank in Haast at the slowest pump I can remember, requiring a quarter-hour for six gallons (twenty-four liters) while I swatted at biting black flies.

Rains forests require rain which biting insects love; no surprise that flying blood suckers abound in the environment.  They’re just doing their job.

Further south we lunched in Queenstown, a mountain resort that reminded Bethany us of the tourist glitz in Keystone, Colorado, complete with a huge lake.

On south we went, further south than either of us had ever been before, and stopped in Kingston, the only guests at a motel that would have charmed if we hadn’t had to wrap ourselves in blankets to play Scrabble.  New Zealanders don’t think much of central heating; during the few cold months many heat with wood, a few with coal, but hostelry relies on space heaters. 

Further south yet, through Invercargill to Bluff, the southern tip of the South Island and famous for its oysters.  We walked from the Drunken Sailor car park further south, to the point, and looked across the water to Stewart Island.

The author inspects a sign post in the parking lot of the Drunken Sailor

We took the afternoon ferry there, landing at sunset.  The usually laid-back Kiwi attitude slows to the speed of the tides on Stewart Island and outside the tourist season they really relax.  One shop turned on its lights during the posted store hours of 1:00 to 3:00 but didn’t unlock its doors till 1:30.

Oban remains as the sole town on the island, with a year-round population of 600.  The rest of the island hosts the southernmost wild whitetail deer population in the world.  I briefly contemplated the irony and absurdity of leaving Iowa to hunt the same species that browses in my back yard.

Two hours before sunrise we awoke at the South Seas Hotel and walked out to Ackers Point in hopes of seeing little blue penguins, the smallest species.  Having made a mistaken detour into a sheep paddock in the darkness despite the use of the clip-on headlight I bought in Barrow, we arrived too late to see the raft depart.

We walked around town after breakfast, then went back to the hotel to sit in the midday sun, never more than halfway from the horizon.

“I’m ready to go back,” Bethany said.

“So am I,” I said, standing, closing my eyes and clicking my heels three times.  “There’s no place like home”.  I opened my eyes.  “We’re not in Kansas!”

“Nor in Iowa,” Bethany said.  “We still have to drive to Dunedin, fly to Christchurch to Wellington to Auckland to LA to Phoenix to Omaha and drive to Sioux City.”

New Zealand road trip 2: Hari Hari to Makarora

June 7, 2011

While passing the beach at Bruce Bay
On a rainy but still lovely day
Across rocks that were white
Some people did write
And piled the stones up in play.

Synopsis: I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. On sabbatical to dance back from the verge of burnout, I’m having adventures and working in out-of-the-way places. We’re touring after a month-long assignment an hour outside of quake-stricken Christchurch, in New Zealand’s South Island.

Tourist destinations outside the tourist season have a special mood. The crowds gone, the ratio of locals to outsiders improves. Lonely staffers seem glad to have company.

Sometimes, prices go down.

The transient crowds shrink.

Franz Josef, on the South Island, ranks as New Zealand’s most visited glacier, but we bypassed it for the next glacier south, Fox. The two maintain the distinction of being the only glaciers in the world next to rain forests. Huge snowfalls in the Southern Alps feed the rivers of ice that drop almost to sea level; the same forces that bring the heavy snows bring rains of Biblical proportions to the lowlands.

Thrilled by the vista in the car park as I exited the rental car, I started snapping digital photos that cannot hope to capture to emotional impact of looking across a desolate quarter mile of glacial debris and three hundred feet up a sheer cliff.

I donned my jacket and gloves to ward off biting black flies. We left the car park just as a tour busload walked back from the end of the glacier. Most looked tired; the children and adolescents appeared sullen and irritated.

Bethany and I walked across the lifeless, boulder-strewn valley bottom, tracks the glacier had left in retreat. The approach path used stepping stones across two creeks. When I arrived, I had the glacier face to myself.

On the way back we crossed paths with another busload of tourists, this bunch happier than the last, small children holding parents’ hands and asking unending questions.

Down the coast, the highway runs under treetop canopy blotting out the sun.

At Bruce Bay, I slowed the car and stopped to look at the surf of the Tasman Sea.

I motioned Bethany into the rain, to join me.

All up and down the verge between the highway and the beach, people had piled stones and driftwood. Bethany noticed before I did.

Human hands had jammed driftwood vertically between boulders, and stacked rounded rocks, one on top of the other. Flecks of gold glittered in the granite, and writing graced some of the cobbles; people left names, dates, and messages with permanent marker on the smooth white marble.

We had found a moraine of the universal human urge to travel and see and leave evidence of their passing, along a lonely stretch of highway, order imposed on chaos for two kilometers.

We are tourists in the off-season.

New Zealand Road Trip : Punakaiki to Hari Hari

June 6, 2011

The greenstone’s a gem just like jade

For jewelry, for bowls, or for blades

     What it looked so official,

     Just like my initial

Was the thing that the artist had made.

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  On sabbatical to dance back from the verge of burnout, I’m having adventures and working in out-of-the-way places.  We’re touring after a month-long assignment an hour outside of quake-stricken Christchurch, in New Zealand’s South Island.

This morning we got off to a leisurely start to the Paparoa National Park, famous for pancake rocks and blow-holes.

The mood of the beaches of the South Island’s West Coast differs from the beaches of the East Coast, where we started our New Zealand odyssey, as much as Big Sur differs from New Jersey.  The Tasman Sea, which separates New Zealand and Australia, generates much bigger surf than the Pacific.

We found the East Coast rainy, but the West Coast, where parts flow with 3 meters (ten feet) of rain in an average year, makes all that greenery look positively drought-stricken.

We took the short Truman Walk down to the beach north of Punkaiki proper as the tide rose. We entered the cool zone of the rain forest and followed the path downhill out into the open where trees give way to New Zealand flax, then down the rocks to the sand.  Bethany found a piece of jade.

“Look how gorgeous this is,” she said, “and with the main attraction by the visitor’s center, I’ll bet almost no one comes here.”

In fact, the number of tourists at the Pancake Rocks increased steadily as high tide approached.  We went out on the path across the rocks and looked over the eroded, layered dolomite, feeling the ground shake as the waves pounded through the grottos under our feet.  A brief rain made me zip up my duck-hunting jacket and drove the other tourists away.  When the number of smokers reached critical mass, we left.

An easy afternoon’s drive through driving rain, past brooding mountains with low hanging clouds brought us to Hokitika, famous for greenstone and jade.

The Maori prized greenstone for its beauty and utility, and grew ceremony and custom to go with it.  Found nowhere else in the world, greenstone jewelry finds favor with Maori and Pakeha alike, and two years ago attained recognition as a gemstone separate from jade.  You don’t find the greenstone, the Maori say, the greenstone finds you; never purchased for oneself, it should only be bought as a gift.

The local Maori iwi owns the only privately held river in the country; they find jade and greenstone in the bed, and carve it for market at their shop in Hokitika.

We walked in, and as I looked through the display case, the goose bumps hit.

Fifty years ago I combined my first and last initial into a monogram; it evolved as I finished medical school and started signing things hundreds of times a day.  Not particularly legible, but consistent and distinctive, the center resembles a treble clef.

I called Bethany over and pointed; she gasped.  The piece could pass for my signature.  The greenstone had found me, but Bethany would have to make the actual purchase.

The Maori clerk, a nurse, also works full-time at the Greymouth hospital, and in short order we fell to talking about medicine.

Their hospital has lab and x-ray.  Depending on who has the duty, surgery can be performed there, but complicated fractures get flown to Christchurch on weekends.  A top-heavy administration uses resources to make rules for the sake of rules, while such facilities as an Alzheimer’s unit lack the money for beds.

I told her that, outside the specialty hospitals, the same problems crop up in American facilities. Here, as in the US, rural areas and small towns have problems recruiting doctors.

I explained the Medical Council of New Zealand’s rules for provisional licensure the first year; the registration comes tied to a specific location, and the doc has to notify the Council before any practice move.  My registration expired yesterday, I told her, and I smiled.


The three little pigs had it wrong: in an earthquake zone, you’re better off with a house of sticks than of bricks.

June 5, 2011

In a country that’s so earthquake prone,
Outside the riskiest zone
A city’s a mess
And ravaged by stress
And so many people have flown.

Synopsis: I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. On sabbatical to dance back from the verge of burnout, I’m having adventures and working in out-of-the-way places. I’ve just finished a month-long assignment in New Zealand’s South Island, just outside of earthquake stricken Christchurch.

Saturday Bethany and I traveled into Christchurch and with some inhabitants who discussed their quake experiences.

The city has turned into a community of applied seismologists. Everyone knows an S-wave from a P-wave. They have embraced with understanding the geologic map under their homes and businesses.

Their vigilance doesn’t stop; they keep waiting for the next shock. The sleep deprivation has added into the post-traumatic stress. I talked about the mental health problems I’d seen amongst the relocated, the surprising and terrible amount of bipolar disorder unmasked by the ongoing stress.

After the experience, they cannot enter a room without looking for a place to duck into if a temblor hits; they want to know the location of the nearest table or door frame. They don’t like being in a room with glass or china in cupboards or breakfronts. They like to get heavy, precious, or dangerous things down on the floor where they can do the least damage and get damaged the least. They don’t like libraries, where books become deadly missiles.

And so many people have left; we had all talked with those who, having left, will never return to their home.

Yet as we sat down at a nice lunch the mood stayed light-hearted. We heard about a young man who ran out of the house when the quake started, then ran right back in because the bricks from the chimney had flown at him; the story-teller’s delivery came perfectly timed with a riotous punch line, and we all laughed.

New Zealand has earthquake building codes. Whereas Wellington builds to 1.4 of the quake-proofing standards, Christchurch, thought to be much more stable, built to a factor of .8.

The city’s inhabitants want to know two things about a quake now: the Richter scale and the depth. Each parameter holds a separate emotional connotation.

Around the table each person recounted where they’d been during the quake and what they’d done. They talked about how things had changed in the city, and they didn’t mind getting local junk mail advertising services.

Most everyone had insurance, we learned, but no company will insure the work done to repair the earthquake damage.

They told us about townhouses that collapsed the entire ground floor, but have two good-looking levels above ground.

Politics and personal grudges have delayed the rebuilding of the Art Center, an important social focus. Yet people now know their neighbors in a way they never had before.

I mentioned America’s New Madrid quake in the early 1800’s. I soon learned the difference between quakes between plates, such as in New Zealand, and those that happen within a plate, such as the one in Missouri.

In an earthquake zone, they said, watch out for underground streambeds. Build your house of wood, not brick, with foundations anchored on bedrock.

The Three Little Pigs had it wrong.

Learning to say no, but still saying yes.

June 4, 2011

My maturity is starting to show

I tell you I’m learning but slow

     If the patient’s deranged

     Their mind can’t be changed

But I’m starting now to say no.


Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  On sabbatical to dance back from the verge of burnout, I’m having adventures and working in out-of-the-way places.  Right now I’m living in Amberley, and just finished working a four-week assignment in Waikari, less than an hour from quake-stricken Christchurch, in New Zealand’s South Island. 

I worked this last month so the regular doctor could go back to the UK to get married; I wanted to leave an orderly desk so I arrived early.

The office staff booked me light for my last day.

In midmorning a patient came in for the first time since November requesting prescription refills.    When a person has press of speech, flight of ideas, over-detailing, and tangential associations, the differential diagnosis (the list of possible diseases) narrows down to mania, hyperthyroidism, and abuse of drugs like speed.  I told the patient my concerns, politely declined to renew his prescriptions, and sent him across the hall to get his blood drawn.

After lunch I stopped at the hospital on the way back to the clinic.  I signed off medications and drew blood.  The charge nurse told me there’d been a glitch in getting a patient transferred from Christchurch, and wouldn’t I be happy to do the admission?

I firmly and politely declined twice, but third and fourth time I said no I quit smiling.  So, she asked, should I phone them and tell them not to send the patient?

I wrestled with that one.  I could have succumbed to the guilt tripping.  But I didn’t.  I nodded.

Even though with the long holiday weekend, the Queen’s Birthday and all, she won’t get here till Tuesday?

I nodded again, and this time I smiled.

The afternoon went well.  I had breaks between patients.  The last person had eye irritation from a phlyctenule (she gave her permission to use this information).   I’ve written before about this rare eye disorder that comes from an infection in another part of the body.  I explained the problem, phoned the ophthalmology resident in Christchurch and wrote a prescription.

I had my computer shut off, my coat on and my hand on the doorknob when the receptionist stopped me with a message from the patient whose refills I’d declined.

I had a bad feeling about the call, but said yes.

His already rapid speech had accelerated; he made his anger clear, and held me responsible for his problems.  I walked across the corridor to the nurse and held the phone up so she could listen to him ramble.  After two minutes of non-stop diatribe, on her advice I said, “If you don’t let me speak I’ll terminate the call.”

Never argue with a crazy person, a drunk, or a woman in labor.  Pointing out logical inconsistencies to a person out of touch with reality does no good.  After interruptions and threats to ring off, I pointed out that he could talk to his regular doctor next week.

By the last minute of the conversation his mood had changed to friendly, he wished me well six or seven times.

I added unstable mood to the list of findings, but it didn’t help me make the diagnosis.

A 200 kilometer wild goose chase. I don’t mind. Really.

June 2, 2011

It was late when I got the call

About a person, a car, and a wall.

     When I did arrive

     After quite a long drive

My skills were not needed at all.

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  On sabbatical to dance back from the verge of burnout, I’m having adventures and working in out-of-the-way places.  Right now I’m living in Amberley, and working the last week of a four-week assignment in Waikari, less than an hour from quake-stricken Christchurch, in New Zealand’s South Island. 

Yesterday my clinic hummed along at a steady pace.  I saw a lot of farmers and a few teachers and school kids.  The younger children make up a fair chunk of the patient load.

Now in the last month of Southern Hemisphere autumn, the sun goes down early, and I loaded the PRIME medical kit into the car for my last night on call here in Waikari/Amberley.

I stopped off at the clinic in Amberley to pick up my two beepers; one of the receptionists informed me that, under the mistaken impression I would work an evening clinic, I had a patient at 5:45.

I don’t get annoyed with one-time (or, as the Kiwis say, a one-off) flubs any more.  I nodded, waited for the patient to arrive, had a great conversation, made some lifestyle modification recommendations, and refilled a prescription. 

I drove home in the dark. Bethany and I went to the Thai restaurant and afterwards played Scrabble.  I was about to start practicing my (borrowed) saxophone when one of my two beepers went off.

The St John Ambulance dispatcher sounded a bit abrupt over the phone, and in places, hard to understand.  A motor vehicle accident, she said, and specified a location.

Without geography you’re nowhere.

I had her repeat the location, which still didn’t make any sense, but, hey, OK, not mine to reason why.  After all, I have a GPS.

Hold on, I told her, and I called my back-up.

You’ll do fine, she told me, if you have your ATLS certification that’s more sophisticated than PRIME.

I called the dispatcher back.  The more I tried to find out where I needed to go the more annoyed she got with me, but, darn it, I’m not about to set off in a hurry to an undisclosed location. 

I didn’t recognize the name of the town, and she had to spell PARNASSUS.  But, feeling it an emergency, I had no time for internet map research.

Bethany, thankfully, volunteered to come with me.

With the revolving green light on the roof we set off north.  Ten kilometers out of town, I had Bethany call the ambulance people again.  Where?

“Ten kilometers north of Parnassus, which is ten kilometers north of Cheviot,” I heard Bethany repeat as I passed the sign saying CHEVIOT 59K at a speed in excess of the 100 KPH limit.

As the kilometers whizzed by at the rate of 1.6 to a mile, I thought things through and realized that minutes wouldn’t make a difference.  I fell in behind three semis and had Bethany unplug the light.

North of Waipara the road grows tight curves and a one-lane bridge.  We sang some Bob Dylan songs.  We passed Cheviot and Parnassus, and 11 kilometers later came to the scene.

Three fire engines and four police cars flashed their lights.  I drove on the wrong side of the road past the backed-up traffic, announced myself to the cop with the STOP sign, and parked behind a fire truck.

As I got out of the car, a paramedic came to me from the ambulance.

The patient, already aboard the helicopter, would take off at any moment. 

I stood on the asphalt as the chopper lifted, fingers in my ears, clinging to the bill of my cap, with walls of limestone setting the stage for the brutal reality of theater in the streets, grateful the patient hadn’t needed my services.

We drove back at a more sedate pace.  I filled the tank in Amberley in case I received another 200 K round-trip call.  After three hours on the road we came back to the flat with jangled nerves, and slept poorly.

Adrenaline kept me going through the day; at my exit interview this evening I learned I could have refused the call for being too far away.

I was just finishing my souffle when the police came to pick me up.

May 31, 2011

Too late for the one on the rug

To meet or to greet or to hug

     It wasn’t a hunch

     I hurried my lunch

And nobody pulled out the plug.

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  On sabbatical to dance back from the verge of burnout, I’m having adventures and working in out-of-the-way places.  Right now I’m living in Amberley, and working the last four days of a four-week assignment in Waikari, less than an hour from quake-stricken Christchurch, in New Zealand’s South Island. 

I was just finishing my lunch souffle when the police came to pick me up.

I stepped out the staff door and got in the car.

I had had a full morning. Complicated clinical problems intertwined with the ravages of tobacco and alcohol. Inescapable realities stalked the clinical landscape: gravity, mortality, Newton’s laws of motion, and the fact that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time.

I took care of as many people by phone and message as I did face-to-face; lab results rolled in one after another, some demanding treatment, others demanding neglect.

As I was getting ready for lunch, the police called.

Bethany had dropped me at the Hurunui Health Center, aka the Waikari Clinic, early in the morning, taking the car into Rangiora to do some grocery shopping.

Thus without transport, I told the police I didn’t mind, I’d be happy to help, but they would have to send someone to pick me up. 

I didn’t exactly bolt my food, but I didn’t savor it, and I didn’t have time to heat it up.  I had no idea how long the task would take, and I didn’t know if I’d be able to eat once I got back.

The policewoman had just started to walk away from the blue and white cruiser when I stepped out of the door into the clear, cool sunshine under the brilliant blue sky.  We made small talk during the 6 kilometer drive.  South Island police don’t need to carry guns; tasers do well.  The methamphetamine (here called P) epidemic has started in a small way; it has made its usual criminal inroads in South Auckland.

We agreed that neither of us would be nearly as busy without drugs and alcohol.

The pavement ended and we continued down a gravel road to a narrow driveway.  By the house the space opened up; like most Kiwi yards it deserves the local term “garden,” well-tended and groomed, neat, free of junk.

I found the house cold, the drama and irony on the carpet.

The body lay on the floor, arms outstretched; the inevitable had evidently arrived as a surprise.  I noted rigor mortis (the stiffening muscles that come after death) and dependent livido (the red color where blood, no longer circulating, has pooled).  Still I knelt with the stethoscope in my hand and listened for the heartbeat that would never come.  I felt for the absent carotid pulse.  I tried to open the eyes to check for pupillary reflex, but the muscles controlling the lids had stiffened as well. 

I filled out the form the other policeman had waiting for me, confirming the person’s life had ended. 

A bumper sticker, I BRAKE FOR HALLUCINATIONS, graced the side of the refrigerator.

I looked around at the layers of uniqueness that had been the person’s life. 

I did my best to drink in the scene, but I didn’t have time to linger.

While I’m away, tornados and floods hit close to home

May 30, 2011

Out here I still have to worry

About my friends on the River Missouri

     In the spring flowers bud

     But the rivers run flood

And they might have to leave in a hurry.

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  On sabbatical to dance back from the verge of burnout, I’m having adventures and working in out-of-the-way places.  Right now I’m living in Amberley, and working the last half of a four-week assignment in Waikari, less than an hour from quake-stricken Christchurch, in New Zealand’s South Island. 

When I left Sioux City a year ago (to the day) and flew to Barrow on the shore of the Arctic Ocean, I lost my concerns about the Practice Formerly Known As Mine.  I took a vacation from my worries. 

People on the North Slope might know about world events, but hold more interest in the whale harvest, Nalukaataaq, and the Fourth of July Parade.  Barrow ceased being the middle of nowhere and became, in my mind, the center of the universe.

I have never been able to control world events, and during my travels I started to take more interest in the happenings on the ground around me. 

The big September temblor in Christchurch made headlines last year at a time when I didn’t have New Zealand firmly on my radar, and I noted it only in passing.  I heard about the big quake in February, when I returned to Barrow, and took a ribbing from the hospital staff about my goals.  At the time, I didn’t know Christchurch’s status as the largest city on the South Island, nor did I appreciate the difference between the two islands.

American news interests me less now that I’m in New Zealand, and I’ve taken a growing interest in Kiwi doings, following, for example, the schism in the Maori Party that formed the Mana Party and the ongoing problem with the Christchurch rebuild.

I still take an eight-hour break from worrying every night (except call) because my cell phone doesn’t work reliably. 

Not that I’ve ever been able to solve world problems but when I measure my distance from hotspots in thousands of miles, I give them less energy.

Some American news can’t be ignored; the Joplin tornado story rated front page status here.  That twister struck literally too close to home.  I shake my head and I think about the Midwest.  Tornado season hasn’t come close to peaking yet.   This summer could set some terrible records.

Today I heard about rising waters on the Missouri River, threatening an upscale town close to my house.  I have good friends living there who, under orders from the governor, have moved out their personal belongings and sandbagged their homes, staying alert for an evacuation order. 

Via the Internet we have offered our Midwest home to those who need it.   There’s a big difference between problems you can do something about and problems you can’t.

Planning too much versus not planning: the optimum dances.

May 29, 2011

In the past I’ve done what I can

For the future, just making a scan

     I took a chance on a blunder

     To re-ignite wonder

Sometimes I still make a plan.

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  On sabbatical to dance back from the verge of burnout, I’m having adventures and working in out-of-the-way places.  Right now I’m living in Amberley, and working the last half of a four-week assignment in Waikari, less than an hour from quake-stricken Christchurch, in New Zealand’s South Island. 

Bethany and I taught and participated in a diet/exercise program, Ultimate Bodyshaping Challenge (UBC) for five years.  One of its guiding principles, “when you fail to plan you plan to fail,” rings true in a lot of human endeavors.

The opposite slogan, “just do it,” carries the message of spontaneity and adventure.

I have learned that both approaches carry validity.  I don’t know if I want to strike a balance or resonate between the two principles.

For years I did an inhuman amount of work, going top speed at peak efficiency sixteen hours a day.  I reached that level of productivity by knowing each step of the day before I got out of bed.  Such a system gets a lot done but lacks resilience and strains the psyche.

I faced a tradeoff: efficiency vs flexibility.  And while life is full of tradeoffs, I had gotten a particular mental set of what life felt like.

In the last year I’ve learned that slowing down 20% did away with half the stress (check my posts from a year ago in Barrow).  I also found out that I fail to plan a day and still enjoy it.

Bethany and I, with another physician/teacher couple, Cheryl and Larry, took an excursion via train from Christchurch to Greymouth, on the west coast of the South Island.  We arrived with few plans and no expectations.  The hotel we’d booked turned out to be 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) from the railway station.  We took a taxi out, dropped our bags, and walked into town on the beach.

I’d never been close to the Tasman Sea before.  I hadn’t read anything on the net, I had no expectations.  I watched the violent surf crashing a dozen meters from where I stood at the low tide line.  Rounded rocks, grey smooth granite and white and pink marble, dotted the light grey sand.

If we plan everything we do, and if everything goes according to plan, the world loses its surprise, and, with it, its wonder.  Encountering new things involves risk, but fear and risk don’t keep us stuck in a rut as much the mental set that tells us what life should be.

Yet without a plan I wouldn’t have gotten to the beach.

Where do we find the optimum between planning and spontaneity?  If we can’t define an end point, does an optimum exist? 

Or does the optimum shift and dance away, depending on our phase of life?