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A reader writes … By Carlos Acuña

May 14, 2001

I jog. Now it's only critical because I get to do two things: I observe nature in the raw and lose myself in thought. Exercise is a byproduct. Once I hit my stride, the isolating silence of the fields by the canal banks is quite soothing to the soul. Soon enough I am in meditation mode and few things can bring me back but the usual forces of nature. Or men.

Some people call this state "runner's high." Modern science tells us vigorous exercise releases brain endorphins — a similar stimulus is given by banned substances — and the mind breaks into the ozone.

There I'll be running and deep in my mind's ear I'm listening to the theme from "Chariots of Fire" but before too long I am startled and shocked out of my reverie by an unexpected splash. I'll turn in the direction of the sound to trace its source, and if my eyes are fast enough I'll catch a quick glimpse of racing outlines of two catfish just beneath the calm, greenish waters of the concrete lined canal. As if I weren't there, the frisky finned ones just speed off and vanish into the darkness of the current. Had I chosen to jog on a treadmill while reading a magazine in an air-conditioned gym away from that lonely corner of the earth, would the fish have made a splashing sound?

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On windy days, the meditation busters get downright eerie. Along the canal banks tall, brown poles with their T braces support endless miles of arching utility wires. These poles planted in a straight line one after the other converge ahead in an ever-receding vanishing point. Periodically, one of these poles serves as an anchor for the rest in the line. Taut wires, in turn, brace this pole and keep it upright. The wire, the pole and ground form a perfect 90-degree scalene triangle.

When the time is right the west wind races down the mountain and plucks these brace wires. To my eye, they barely sway, but I know they dance their invisible vibration, for I hear them cast their natural hum in tune with the perfect ebb and flow of the wind. As I approach and then leave the musical wires behind, the Doppler effect kicks in. You know, that change in pitch you hear when a honking car or roaring train passes you at full speed and switches from aaaahhh to ooommmm. Logically, I understand it's merely the effect of the sound wave source approaching, then moving away. From someplace long forgotten my slowly decaying memory cells recall early lectures in Philosophy 101, and Pythagoras' theological notion of the music of the spheres comes to mind.

By then I am in the zone, my heart is pumping to an inner beat, my lungs relax and breathing has slipped into automatic, the funny brain juices I previously mentioned kick in and mix ancestral memories with personal ones gleaned from history books into a surreal cocktail that connects me with those Greeks from 2,500 years ago. Pheidippides' final mission and mine are one. I am on earth but not in it.

The other man-made wonder is the sepia effect on the countryside and the sky on agricultural burn days. The acrid, smoky stench lingers long enough to deplete the precious CCs of oxygen I inhale per minute, an unpleasant side effect. At this point in my journey I don't even want to think about the long-term effect of years of inhaling burnt ag debris such as pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and who knows what other matter pumped into the plant's systems for maximum yield.

Shadows, bathed by a softer, golden light, surrender their stark quality. The muted play of this soft light as it ricochets off eucalyptus groves, sugar beet tops, steers and fences, then bounces back into the air unto the rest of creation and finally shoots through my eyeball to land at the base of my brain is magnificent. I look at life through a 19th century veil. Funny how images of time-worn, Civil-war daguerreotypes and the film poster form "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" come to mind.

But the oddest phenomenon occurs early in the morning, infrequently, just as the sun is about to rise after a night of rain and the clouds have begun to disperse — but with an uncanny precision. So much for chaos theory. I assume the distance between the dissolving clouds just over the horizon has to be even and perfect. Then the long, pink rays of the rising sun stretch overhead from east to west like the extended fingers of a person's hand. I've lived in the desert for decades, but in the epiphany of a second I come to understand Homer's image from "The Odyssey": the rosy-fingered dawn. To Mediterranean populations this was probably a daily event. The sun rose over dust-free, moisture-rich, sea air and on any given day burst through evenly dispersed clouds. The dawn light clustered and glowed within the suspended water droplets and thus the rosy fingers. Not a common sight in our Imperial Valley desert. That one line from among thousands Homer, the long-dead, blind Greek poet, sang, comes alive. And it is worth it.

Occasionally, as I jog I'll hear a car honk and see the driver wave. The sound and sight has the effect of a mid-wife's slap on a newborn's behind and I am snapped out of eternity. From years of unconscious, trained politeness I'll wave back unaware of who the waving stranger was. Weeks later a friend will approach and tell me they honked and waved when they saw me jogging at some ungodly hour somewhere out in the country.

We'll chit-chat, connect for a few precious seconds, then continue on our way. So if you ever see me and honk and observe that I jog on, oblivious perhaps, don't feel slighted, for surely I'm lost in the human race for a Homeric moment.

Carlos Acuña is an El Centro attorney.

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