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Go beyond the market for a minute. That fruit you’re holding has a story, about work and care, sun and water. It’s also about the harvest, a dance of exploration, partnering, and purpose that changes and delights both parties.

First, as for any dance, you need the proper costume–here, that’s long sleeved shirt, long pants, and sun hat. Gloves are optional; I mostly go without unless I’m picking berries. Also, tools–not many, just a sturdy picking box or bag, and a light but trusted ladder.

Next, survey the scene and plot your choreography: what is the angle of the sun, and the set of the branches? Where is the fruit sparse or heavy, inviting or still green, smooth-skinned or bird-bit? Where will the ladder best be placed to reach this one, and then that? Where will the tree accept embrace, and where will it refuse? Once sure of your partner, set the ladder firmly and begin.

Every sense will guide you–sight for judging blush or hue, smell to catch a sudden waft of nectar, hearing for the creak and rustle of the tree echoing your movement, taste to spot check as the impulse strikes you. And touch–the last, but the most critical. Take the fruit in your hand and hold it, gently. Feel its heft, the firmness or slight give against your grasp, and ask the tree if it is ready. As you tug ever so slightly, she will tell you: ripeness falls to you like water into sand–softly, smoothly, silently. Resistance says perhaps tomorrow, but not now.

When the picking’s done, climb down and thank the tree. Is that her sighing, free now to begin another season’s work? No telling, but perhaps you’ll hear it as you bite into that peach.

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This pieced aired as part of KQED FM’s Perspectives series on 8/4/14. Listen here.

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I’ve been doing commentaries for KQED FM for two years now, and it’s been a huge kick: the transition from being ‘just a listener’ to being part of making radio has been fascinating, informative, and above all, a lot of fun. The engineers and other staffers are all fabulous, helping put newbies like me at ease, the editor often has helpful suggestions, and the attendant at the garage always smiles warmly for me when I pull up to the gate. But I do have one small peeve about the process, as you’ll see below.

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It’s a game we play, the editor and I. For each Perspectives piece you hear on the radio, its author writes a brief introduction to set the scene. Then there’s the ‘back-announce,’ radio lingo for what the announcer says to put a tidy cap on what just aired. This is short, usually just one sentence, and its purpose is to place the writer in context for the audience. So far, so good.

The problem arises when a contributor, like me, wears several very different hats—and writes pieces wearing one or another with no bearing on the others. Since my essays describe very different aspects of my life, I feel each identity should get its props.

For each commentary, I write a back-announce that feels right for the topic at hand but may differ from the ones I’ve used before. Then I record the piece, turn in my manuscript and notes, and wait for it to air. It’s not till then that I know who has won: will my new back-announce make it, or will the old standby triumph yet again? Since the editor has the final word, it’s hardly a fair fight.

For a piece on medicine, for example, I’d certainly include that I’m a radiologist—basic cred for playing a doctor on the radio. But for essays on gardening, or photography, or food, that just isn’t pertinent. My job is what I do, not who I am, after all. So I might omit the doctor bit, describing myself instead as ‘an avid cook’, ‘an organic gardener,’ or even an ‘expert cat-herder.’ These, alas, most often die behind the scenes, and never make it on air.

I’ll keep trying, though. It’s part of the fun, and I can’t turn down a challenge. Wonder what he’ll go with for the next one—I can hardly wait to hear it and find out!

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copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

The squeals were incredibly loud, for such a small creature. The chipmunk who’d been despoiling my blueberries was in the planter munching away when I approached. She panicked, and somehow got neck and all 4 limbs tangled in the bird netting I thought was protecting the bush from just such meddling. My first thought was serves you right–maybe now you’ll leave my plants alone. The next was even worse: I could just leave her there, trapped, and put an end to the marauding. Maybe I’d get to enjoy a few berries myself, if she were out of the picture. After all, wasn’t that why I’d planted the bush, and nurtured it painstakingly? Then I drew that picture to its one possible conclusion–a slow, tortured death from fear and dehydration–and I couldn’t do it. I turned and went into the kitchen for a pair of scissors.

Holding the netting up and carefully untwisting it, I found the strands that bound her and cut them, each by each, taking care not to cut her or let her bite me. I could only imagine the terror she felt, and the bewilderment. Seconds later, she was free, and promptly scampered off to hide beneath the grill, chittering as she ran.

Will she remember our encounter? Will she be grateful? Will she and her progeny forswear forevermore my garden’s bounty? I have no reason to believe it. No doubt a day from now, or a week, or a month, I’ll search in vain for the plump, ripe purple berries I desire….and have second thoughts. Maybe I’ll wish I had left her there to die. I’m not a fanatic, after all: I do kill mosquitos, gophers, and other assorted pests. But this was a line I could not cross–I can’t say precisely why, but I can say I’m glad of it.

update: I’ve since started using Havahart live traps to catch and relocate the chipmunks, with some success. They sure do love almond butter!

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

This essay aired on KQED FM as part of its Perspectives series on August 16, 2011. See their website for the downloadable MP3 file, as well as some interesting listener comments.

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Over the years I’ve had lots of thoughts about what it means to be a doctor, to care for others. Those thoughts have varied as the nature of my practice has changed, which is to be expected. My relationship to patients differs vastly now from what it was during my years as an interventional radiologist, on the front lines in the ER, ICU, and throughout the hospital. These days I rarely talk to patients or their families, instead sitting in my office looking at their images and trying to maintain compassion and some sense of contact. It can be a challenge when 1,000 slices of an abdomen and pelvis need to be scrolled through and reviewed in lung, bone, and soft tissue window format (yes, that means I have to look at each slice 3 times—or 3,000 total images)….followed by another thousand for somebody else’s CT scan. Since I don’t know my patients personally, finding out so much about them doesn’t really feel like an intrusion–or, at least, not an inappropriate one. It is, after all, essential to doing my job. In social situations, though, the story changes drastically, and the balance between caring and invasion is ever shifting, tricky and unsure. Somehow, I always seem to manage it, and I haven’t fallen off the tightrope yet.

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One minute he seemed fine, the next pale and tenuous. “My head is killing me,” he moaned, and curled on his side in the grass. It was late, 2 a.m., and we’d been soaking in a hot spring after a night-time photo shoot high in the Eastern Sierra. The water was just right, hot but not scalding, mineral but not too sulfurous, the pool lined with silken mud that slipped soft against the skin.

A little learning, Pope said, is a dangerous thing. Knowing too much isn’t so great either: as my friend lay suffering in the darkness, I couldn’t help running lists of diagnoses through my head. The most likely thing was dehydration and exhaustion, but what about altitude sickness? Our shoot had been at nearly 10,000 feet, and none of us was acclimated. Or worse, could it be an aneurysm? The doctor thing, it turns out, can’t readily be turned off. Unknowing is impossible, and thirty years’ experience can weigh heavily.

It’s delicate, to be sure, a balance between intrusion and concern—especially in settings where some may not know me as a doctor. Do I cross a line and risk altering a friendship with unbidden personal disclosures? Or do I hold back, wonder what might be going on, and hope it isn’t serious?

I sat down beside him, and put my hand on his shoulder. The moon was still high, cool silver highlighting his pain. “Tell me about this headache,” I said. He relaxed a bit, and we talked softly, at first tentative but soon more confident. Before long, the moonlight showed relief in his eyes: someone was here to listen, to care, to help.

Next day, he was fine. We didn’t speak of it again, but we both knew things had changed. Secrets had been shared, yes, but more important was the trust that bound us now, precious, sure, and weightless.

This essay aired as part of the Perspectives series on KQED-FM (88.5 in the SF bay area, or streaming live online) on July 15, 2011. See their website for more info.

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My friend sent me his thoughts on the experience and asked me to share them. Here they are, unedited:

It’s become a tradition of my friend and teaching partner and I to visit a spectacular natural hot spring in the Eastern Sierra after our photography workshop in the area every year. This time was no different except that I was even more exhausted than usual after the event, and we had two others join us. One was a friend I had known for fifteen years, but only through email communications until that week. He had joined us at the workshop to do a presentation on his work, and I was looking forward to having some down time to get to know him better. The other was a woman who had been a participant in our workshop, a doctor who had made a strong impression on me. We seemed to have quite a few common interests and values, and I was excited by our budding friendship. She didn’t seem like any other doctor I had ever met.

At the end of our photo shoot that night, I realized as we were leaving our location that I had left my camera gear about three hundred yards away in the ghost town that had been our shooting location for the night. Eager to get to the hot springs, and not wanting to make my friends wait, I ran at full clip to retrieve my camera bag and tripod. When I got back to the waiting car, a nasty headache set in immediately. It could have been the altitude, as we were at nearly 10,000 feet, it could have been dehydration or simple exhaustion, but probably was a combination of all three. Regardless, even though the hot spring is where I wanted to be, it wasn’t a good idea. After just a few minutes in the pool of silky mineral water, the headache got worse, and I became severely nauseated. I climbed out of the water, and did my best to get dressed. After what seemed like an eternity of struggling to pull my pants on with my head spinning and stomach churning, I stumbled to a grassy spot a short distance away from the hot springs and collapsed on the ground.

Lying motionless on the ground felt better than being vertical, but still I was miserable. I was largely oblivious to my friends talking in the hot water under the stars a few yards away, and it seemed at first that they were oblivious to my suffering. After a few minutes, my new doctor friend came over to check on me. She sat down beside me and asked how I was feeling. Her tone revealed that she was concerned, and she asked me a few questions about what I was experiencing. The questions were the same that any doctor would ask- describe your symptoms, how bad is the pain on a scale from 1-10?, but her voice was warm and comforting, and I began to relax in her presence. She put her hand on my shoulder, and reassured me that it would pass. Her manner was unlike any doctor I have ever known before.

After a few minutes, the nausea began to subside, and as we spoke in hushed tones, she comforted me with her kindness. It wasn’t the detached indifference, or the “Here’s a scrip” without searching for the cause of the problem that we’re all used to. This event occurred outside of the office, about as far from it as we could be, but still this doctor instinctively knew what would make me feel better, and wasn’t afraid to care, and for that, I’ll always be grateful.

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