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copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

Photography is all about the light: chasing it, capturing it, using it to make an image that brings that light to life in someone else’s eyes. Light, good or bad, can make or break a picture–think the golden hour, that magic span of breaths before the sun goes down, or the low, soft light right after sunrise.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

How, then, to make a photograph at night, with no sunlight at all? And why would this be worth doing in the first place? Our eyes, it turns out, are but poor guides: things are happening at night that we can’t perceive, seeing as we do in tiny bursts of time that follow on each other’s heels but never quite connect to tell a longer story. At night, the long exposures needed to make images without added light stitch those fleeting bursts into a quilt of mystery, suspense, and revelation: you never know quite what you’ll see after the shutter’s been open 10, 20, even 30 minutes at a stretch.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

The answer, often, is nothing like what you imagined. Over many minutes, moonlight, stars, and the play of shadows compress and combine to make a strange and unexpected beauty. Perhaps most surprising is the color: hues lost to our eyes in the dark loom extravagant in night-time photographs, luxuriant and ripe as orchids.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

Next full moon, go out and find the night, wherever you may be. Sit, or stand, with no goal, desire, or thought in mind for 10 or 20 minutes–just listen, watch, and feel the night around you for a time. Let your ears take in its sounds, your eyes grow accustomed to its subtleties, and your skin absorb its complex texture. Now, if you’re really feeling bold, get your camera, a tripod, and a timer. Frame your shot, open up the shutter, and see what magic you and the night can make together.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

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copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

One of the world’s oldest beverages, beer is mentioned in ancient Sumerian poetry, Egyptian texts, and Norse mythology. First brewed as early as 9500 BC, it remains beloved: after water and tea, it’s the third most popular drink worldwide. Though brewed primarily at home for millennia, these days most beer is commercially produced–a change that isn’t always an improvement.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

Like any devotee, I love to try new beers, especially when traveling. This often creates disappointment, but every now and then lightning strikes and I find a new treasure. On a recent trip to Brazil, I followed my custom and tried some of the local beers–produced by large national breweries–and found them devoid of character and charm.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

A quick internet search turned up a possible antidote, and a handful of us agreed to give it a whirl. The congested streets of Sao Paulo, a massive sprawl that covers over 750 square miles, hold many unlikely gems tucked between suco stands and airless shops crammed with cheap T shirts and bootleg DVDs. One such prize, in the center of Pinheiros, is Cervejaria Nacional–a small brew-pub that offers unpasteurized, preservative-free artisanal brews that are a welcome counter to the undistinguished ‘yellow beers’ found elsewhere.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

The entry level showcases gleaming steel fermentation tanks behind plate-glass, an enticing promise that draws visitors upstairs to the bar or restaurant. In the bar, we read the legends of Brazilian spirits Y-iara, Mula, Kurupira, and Sa’Si, as well as the Domina Weiss (the ‘woman in white’ of folklore the world over), and tried to choose among their namesake brews. Chalkboards on the wall displayed SRM (Standard Reference Measure, a scale of color density), IBU (International Bitterness Units–pretty much just what it sounds like, and a reflection of a beer’s ‘hoppiness’ ), and alcohol content for the current batch of all five house-produced beers on tap.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

The sampler, generous glasses of the whole quintet, sparked lively debate about our favorites, and of course required deeper exploration. Accompanied by spicy linguica, delicate farofa, light and crispy batatas frita da casa, tender cubes of polenta frita, and smoky vegetais grelhados, the weiss beer, IPA, and stout were savored by all as we discussed their flavor, color, and complexity. But for the melodic Portuguese being spoken all around us, and the fragrant remnants of the meal, we could have been in any bar, in any country, where beer is loved and celebrated.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

Beer, it seems, is a lot like love. True believers speak a universal language, understood the world over. Malt or malte, cor or color, bouquet or aroma, it’s all about the mystery, experience, and exploration. What happy combination of soil and sunlight, hops and yeast, malt and time, shines in your glass like jewels bright on velvet, and how will it compare to others that have gone before? You never know until you taste, and that anticipation is a sweet intoxicant….near as sweet, and timeless, as the beer itself.

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Nocturne

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A few months ago, I discovered something amazing. I’d seen it thousands of times before, but never really paid attention–it was just there, a background as I hurried from point A to point B, a wordless blanket shrouding my house as I slept, an invisible backdrop to an outdoor concert or a rooftop drink with friends.

What is this wonder, so unquestioned yet so fascinating? It’s nothing fancy or exotic, and you don’t have to go far to find it. It’s no more or less than night itself—implicit, deep, and intricate. Perhaps you’re wondering what I’m talking about–we all know what night is, right? What’s the big deal?

Night isn’t just the absence of day, though it certainly is that. Night can be a time of freedom as we leave our jobs, commutes, and daytime stress behind. Other things fall away with the sun’s light too–colors are less bright, shadows become less sharply defined, and the busy noise of day fades quickly as the moon ascends the arc of heaven. In their place, night brings treasures of its own: softer and more subtle colors, richer and more complex shadows, and the music of its many creatures, varied and evocative.

Next full moon, go outside, stand still, and just be in the night for 10 or 20 minutes with nowhere to go and nothing to do but pay attention. No doubt you’ll notice something new. At first, it may be your own breathing, or the beating of your heart, sounds the busy press of daytime overrides. After a few minutes, perhaps you’ll be struck by the way the air moves and breathes, the way the stars and planets track overhead, or the way the moon’s glow transmutes ordinary into extra-ordinary. Make the night itself your sole intention, for a minute or an hour, and who knows what you’ll discover?

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Medicine is full of shorthand, abbreviations and acronyms used to speed the conversation along and get to the important stuff—what’s really going on, and what should be done about it? Some of these shortcuts are eponyms, in which a condition bears the name of the scientist or doctor who first described it. Those have never done much for me, since they aren’t especially evocative and demand a lot of memorization. Others are more colorful, including many acronyms that fly freely in the chart and on morning rounds: SOB, a classic, nominally means ‘shortness of breath,’ but could be taken for, well, something else. Some are made-up words that seem somehow to fit the situation perfectly. My favorite in this category is FOOSH, ‘fall onto outstretched hand,’ which evokes the act of injury and ensuing fracture to a T. You can hear the slip, the frantic attempt to break the fall, and the crunch of cracking bone, all in those five letters. FOOSH indeed.

When it comes to mishap and mayhem, though, the slang we toss about most frequently is the everyday word versus. It’s used to describe all manner of unwanted confrontations and collisions—between man and beast, man and motor vehicle, man and machine, man and anything under the sun you can conjure: I assure you it’s been done. “Finger versus saw” is infinitely faster, and gets the point across more vividly, than “finger cut by saw in accident” ever could. Ditto “bike versus SUV”, “fist versus wall”, or ” leg versus tiger shark.”

Slang and shortcuts abound in every sphere of work, and they do make things more streamlined. Don’t be fooled, though, by their seeming brisk impersonality—in medicine we are always mindful that behind the shortcut there’s a person. It isn’t ultimately them versus anyone or anything—it’s us and them, working together to do what can be done.

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copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

Every gardener knows it, the special sadness that lurks in every season. It starts out small, so tiny you can easily discount it: no, it couldn’t be, I didn’t really feel that, that’s just crazy! But while you’re busy thinning out the seedlings, or hardening them off, or turning compost into beds with the new fork that fits your hand so perfectly, it’s there—waiting for you to look up, turn your head, let down your guard the slightest little sliver. That moment may not come for weeks, but one day you’ll be in the garden, in mid-summer, say–overwhelmed by squash and wishing it would just stop–when suddenly you’ll feel the wave wash and toss you like a bit of sea glass. Soon enough, you will know in that instant, and not be able to deny, it will stop, and the bounty you’re enjoying will be one more shade adrift in memory’s vast hall.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

That end, the familiar turn of seasons so rooted in us all, is certainly no mystery. We know it’s coming, it’s natural and inevitable, part of life’s cycles and all that. All things, and all seasons, must indeed pass. The knowing isn’t what hurts, though–it’s the feeling, and the letting go. The trick is to hold back the wave as long as you can, in whatever way you can.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

In late summer and early fall, that’s usually simple enough–there’s just too much doing to fret about the coming winter. Canning, drying, freezing, saucing, and pickling can fill a weekend faster than a wish, a thought, or a whisper. A long string of weekends can vanish into water baths, brine crocks, and slow cookers before you look up and realize it’s practically the holidays…again. And in any season, there are seeds to contemplate for the next: those tantalizing names and photos in the catalogues, with descriptions that lure and entice you, the eyes that are always bigger than your garden beds.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

Once the seeds arrive, there’s lots more to keep you occupied–readying the flats and warming trays, nestling each seed in its new home, tending the trays like a broody hen till the tender shoots are up and sparkling. Not long after, it’s time for thinning, then repotting up a size or two, and before long they’re ready to be snugged into the soil you’ve prepared so carefully. This takes a lot of planning, and serves as a natural transition between seasons when done skillfully.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

This year, though, I have no soft landing on the other side of summer. I’ve been traveling much more than usual, and perforce have found myself with less time for the garden–and for the succession plan that ushers fall out one door while winter steals in through the other. This isn’t a bad thing–quite the contrary–but it’s a definite departure (more on that as the time seems right), and sharpens the sadness I feel as the redwoods coat my deck with brittle castoffs and the days grow noticeably shorter. The air is crisp now, no longer languid with the lazy bliss of August or September, and the zucchini have indeed stopped: I ripped the vines out this very afternoon, after filling one final basket with bright, small jewels. As is their due, I will savor them, perhaps stir-fried with hot and sweet peppers, garlic, lemongrass, and Thai basil from the garden, and raise a glass to summer. The new season will find me hopeful, looking forward to the new life and challenges it will surely bring.

copyright 2008 Peggy Hansen

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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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copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

It’s easy sometimes to get caught up in the weaving and lose track of all the separate strands. Before beginning, each component was deliberately selected, and the pattern chosen thoughtfully. Hours have been devoted to creation of the tapestry–yet here you are, suddenly, amazed and speechless. How did you get here, and what on earth is going on?

I looked around my garden recently and had that very thought. What is this web, and who exactly is the weaver? It is I, of course; I readily admit it. The nature of the web, it must be said, is somewhat murkier. How have these elements been chosen, and to what purpose? They seem at best haphazard, testaments to impulse and my inability to resist a plant tag or seed packet promising interesting and delicious bounty. It started with a love of food, interest in self-sufficiency, and curiosity about what might be possible. From there, it’s expanded well beyond my first intentions. Plans have been cast out in favor of what sounds good to eat, or what’s at the farmers market–on the theory that what they grow here, I can grow here.

copyright 2011 Peggy Hansen

Yesterday, I wrote a list of what I’m growing now, and it doesn’t seem entirely plausible–even to me–but here it is:

melons
sugar baby watermelon
hearts of gold canteloupe
early silver line honeydew

strawberries
Alpine
Seascape

beans
Roc d’or
Maxibel
Royal Burgundy

purple mizuna
rainbow chard
red Russian kale
Bordeaux spinach
carrots
peppers

red bell
yellow bell
thai bird pepper
habanero

mints
chocolate mint
spearmint
catnip

lemongrass
fingerling potatoes

Russian banana
La Ratte

onions
Walla Walla
California red
European long red

lemon cucumber
zucchini
garlic
tomatoes

Love Apple
Paul Robeson
Caspian pink
black Ethiopian
Jaune Flamme
green zebra

herbs
rosemary
thyme
sage
lavender
oregano
marjoram
parsley

chives
basil

Genovese
thai

blueberries

On top of this, add several young fruit trees that aren’t yet bearing, including:

Meyer lemon
fig
peach
pomegranate
persimmon

copyright 2010 Peggy Hansen

Admittedly, I have small amounts of each of these crops–and I’m still working at the concept of succession planting to ensure a steady yield throughout a given season. I’m testing the limits of available space, sun, and time…and my own energy. I know exactly how many bags of compost can be crammed into my Prius, and I’ve given up worrying about the cargo area being dirty. I’ve just ordered a movable electric fence, to surround the beds and keep out hungry critters. This summer, I’m envisioning a spacious greenhouse, maybe up by the garage, where I can get an early start on things and keep my seedlings safe and happy. And I’m pondering sites for a small chicken coop and run…but that’s a project for another year, maybe next year. Right now I’ve got my hands full, adding to the weaving at one end while keeping the other from unraveling. But my stomach’s full too, and I’m not going anywhere.

copyright 2010 Peggy Hansen

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