The Practice of Wandering

Mary Oliver wrote:

“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.”

This weekend we took our new, little T@B travel trailer out on a test run. Yes, we’ve joined the ranks of the RV folk, in anticipation of some extended vagabond time in the next era of life. It was an impulsive move. It is very cute. It is simple. It is small. We pulled it over to the Madison River with our ancient Honda Odyssey with 365,000 miles on it, camped next to the river, tried out the rig.

On Sunday we slept in, snuggled in the cozy bed. We made coffee and sat under the awning, watching the scud of gray sky, threatening weather. Eventually we had breakfast, and it was nearly noon before we unhitched the car and drove a few miles to Madison Buffalo Jump State Park. It is the time of year when, historians tell us, native peoples gathered in large numbers there to drive bison over the cliffs to their deaths. We walked through the yellowed grasses up a sloping valley, angled uphill toward the bench behind the cliff escarpment. It is a place that fairly hums with history, but now, is quiet and largely unvisited. Rising above the valley, the view spreads, to the line of trees along the Madison River, the cliffs on the opposite side, away into the Tobacco Root Mountains. Over it the gray skies and the hum of history. At the top we noticed another trail down below that looked like it might intersect farther up the bench. We followed the narrow grassy ridge to see. The trails did meet, just below a fence with an unequivocal No Trespassing sign. We turned and strolled back down toward the cliffs, making detours to see where side trails might lead. On the way one of the ancient teepee rings lay before us. We lay down in it, looked at the sky, smelled juniper and sage. The wind stirred.

Along the edge of cliffs trails web here and there. At one point a series of potholes had filled with water from recent rains. Robins were everywhere, and Townsend’s solitaires, juncos. Glistening pools, and birds. Eventually we found a break in the cliffs we could scramble down, and then sidehill gingerly through prickly pear on the steep slope where, presumably, hundreds, probably thousands, of bison had met their demise. Impossible not to entertain images of the carnage, that joyous, macabre harvest: bawling, injured animals, crews of people butchering with stone tools, the smell of blood and hide and smoke and sweat saturating the day.

Late in the afternoon we returned to the trailer. While we ate sandwiches at the picnic table, a gang of warblers thronged the willows nearby. Dozens of yellow-tinged birds, busy with something. Suddenly, they disappeared. Just then, the flair of Cooper’s hawk tilted past our table, banded tail and sharp beak. It landed in the vacated willows, settled itself, as if asserting hierarchy, watchful for an inattentive warbler, or, perhaps, chagrined at missing a chance. We saw it all, sitting with our sandwiches in hand, with the gray sky wreathing above, and the river murmuring past.

Maybe prayer is nothing more than being still and paying some attention.

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Letter To The Editor

I am a writer. I take it personally when President Trump echoes fellow authoritarians, Joseph Stalin and Chairman Mao, and calls the media “the enemy of the people.”

It is no accident that job one on the authoritarian “to-do” list is to take over and demean the media. It is no accident that these regimes, throughout history, attack libraries, universities, and the educated populace. They have a simple, practical reason. They fear the truth. They fear knowledge. They don’t want people to know what is behind the curtain of corruption. They don’t want people to understand history, to appreciate other cultures, to discover other ways to see the world.

For millennia this has been so. Now it is so in our country. Our president speaks those words for the same reason Stalin did, for the same reason all tyrants speak them. Because truth and knowledge are the greatest threats to his tyranny. Worse yet, his Republican minions facilitate him through their cowardly, silent complicity.

It is time to address this danger. Ballots are coming. The election looms. We have a chance to speak to power in the most fundamental way, through our votes. Do we want truth, or do we accept our own version of Stalin?

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Still Tuned . . . ?

Sorry about that. I meant to get back to my Plan B post in a few days, but things got away from me. Good things.

Like a week spent on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, in Idaho, a trip many paddlers list in their top 5 expeditions. A trip we’ve had on our list for decades, but never managed, until now, to pull a permit or have the time to go on. Now we have, and we understand why it’s on everyone’s top tier of river trip experiences. Our time was typified by low water, great weather, sterling company, and nearby forest fires. In a nutshell – fun, busy water for inflatable canoes, hot springs along the way, persistent good weather and a group of friends who have known each other for decades.

Then we got back and got pulled in to being the support crew for two of the kids (Ruby and Sawyer) and a friend who were competing in a 24-hour mountain bike race near Kalispell, MT. When was the last time I pulled an all-nighter?? I don’t know, but I don’t need another one in the next decade. Fun to be part of the crazy scene, and doubly so because our team, Punk Rock Ev, won the day, but it’s one of those activities like the 100-mile runs that make you ask . . . why???

Enough excuses. Back to the early summer and what became of our thwarted northern expedition plans. The fact that we needed a Plan B was due to an earlier decision to rent our house for the 5-6 weeks that we’d be gone. Those renters were still planning on moving in, and a deal is a deal, so we had to vacate between June 24 and August 1.

The Plan was pretty loose and required us to render our Toyota Prius into a recreational vehicle, loaded down with the inflatable canoe and paddling gear, two mountain bikes and their equipment, backpacking supplies, and general camping outfit. Nothing the Prius, with the addition of a roof rack, rocket box, bike rack and some creative packing, couldn’t accomplish. Off we drove, after giving the renters the run-through on our quirky home.

Honestly, we didn’t know how far we’d range, from Canada to the Pacific coast. We were flexible and unplanned. In the end, we never left the confines of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. The organizing theme was to do things and go places we hadn’t indulged before – paddle streams we’d always meant to get to, hike in mountains we’d never explored, visit folks we’d lost touch with, check out communities we were curious about. Above all, to be flexible enough to take in a matinee movie that seemed intriguing, or detour 100 miles to see an old friend, or take up the suggestion of a local about a nice ride/paddle/event to experience.

Some highlights:

– New rivers . . . the Popo Agie, the Grays, the Buffalo Fork, the upper Snake, the upper Green, the upper Stillwater, and more.
– New hikes . . . Italian Peaks (Montana), the Big Snowies (Montana), the Pioneers (Montana), Table Mountain (Wyoming), Timberline Lake (MT).
– Bike rides . . . Red Canyon (Wyo), 200 miles of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Trail between Ashton, Id. and Pinedale, Wyo., assorted river shuttles.
– Other notable events – a tour of Tippet Rise in Fishtail, Mont. (look it up – pretty incredible), a matinee viewing of RBG in Jackson Hole, Wyo. (worth seeing!), 4th of July in Dillon with family and friends, an overnight return to a favorite stretch of the Yellowstone River – (God I love that piece of water!).

The Upshot:

– Yeah, I guess we could be vagabonds for a while. With a few tweaks and a different rig, we could go a long time and stay pretty occupied.
– Not only did we get the satisfaction of checking off a list of places we’ve long wanted to experience, the list only got longer because in those visits, we kept uncovering more cool places to get to next time.
– It was really nice to come home. It is good to have a home base and community of friends, even if we get away for extended periods. Nothing replaces that.

Summer is waning now in Montana, as sure as the rivers ebb toward fall trickles. School and teaching gigs begin in a week. Life will resume a work, home, play pattern tethered to our long-standing community. But inevitably, plans are afoot – next year’s summer expedition in the north, our dance with retirement (can we???) and what we might do with it, decisions about downsizing our life, making the most of our dwindling time, watching the kids grow into their futures, and always, aware of the unexpected turns which loom on the horizon, inevitable as they are unpredictable.

So yeah, stay tuned, stay ready, love life.

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Ah . . . Life!

It has been a long time, even by my standards. The (very) occasional blogger reappears. If you pick this up expecting a chronicle of northern canoe adventure from the tundra of Nunavut, you’re about to be disappointed. To give away the punch line, we didn’t end up going. Here’s why.

It is a testimony to how life gets in the way of our best laid plans. In our case, life inserted itself around mid-February, when, one morning, Marypat and I were sitting in the living room with our cups of coffee, contemplating the gray dawn. Out of the quiet, Marypat said, “Something’s wrong with me.” I resisted the obvious snarky come back, and instead, felt the chill of dread sparked by a statement like that, at our age. Dread because we know so many people who have fallen prey to mishap, illness, circumstance in ways that have fundamentally changed their lives, altered their abilities, thwarted their ambitions. Debilitating migraines, strokes, falls, cancer, car wrecks, amputations, heart attacks, surgeries gone very wrong. In some cases, friends and acquaintances have succumbed, tragically and too early. These days, we go to a lot more memorial services than weddings . . .

So yes, dread. Also, some impulse to discount that sort of statement. Things come and go, especially at our age. You have a bad month. Inexplicable issues come up and then fade. Maybe it’s a passing thing.

Sometime mid-winter, Marypat started feeling an alarming, full-body ache. Her shoulders, her hips, her neck, her hands. She could barely turn over in bed. She couldn’t open a jar, pick up a box, sit in a car, lift the end of a canoe. When she got out of bed and tried to walk, it was like watching an 80-year old getting her bearings, trusting her legs, taking the first shaky step. Going for a ski that she would normally knock off without any effect would leave her exhausted for days. No more yoga, no more gym workouts, no more all-day outings. It was all she could do to get through a work day teaching art at the elementary school.

This from a woman who is nothing if not physically fierce. Marypat’s identity is inextricably knotted up with the joys and challenges of physical activity. To lose that . . . well, it’s not a thing I like to contemplate.

We tried acupuncture, dietary changes, massage. She had blood work and doctor consults. Everyone had their theory, their diagnosis, their treatment plan. Nothing had any effect. She might have a good day with anti-inflammatory drugs, but relapse, in tears, the next. As spring came on she couldn’t bike ride. We went for a short paddle on a local stream, just a couple of hours on the water, and she couldn’t open her hands for the next two days.

Through all this we were continuing to dry food and gear up for a 40-day expedition to the Far North. I had joked that it was an opportunity to see if we still had it in us. Suddenly, it wasn’t such a joke.

We finally were able to get in with a local rheumatologist. At this point our departure was only a month off. The doc looked at MP’s blood work, asked good questions, ordered more tests. She came up with a diagnosis of Polymyalgia Rheumatica (sp?) that she was pretty confident of. It’s one of those baffling auto-immune disorders so many people seem afflicted by, and that also seem so little understood. She prescribed a tapering dose of Prednisone that might continue for a period of years, along with a bone-building drug to counteract one of the side-effects of the Prednisone regimen. By the time we were in full treatment, the clock was down to two weeks. Still, we held off, we kept drying food, piling up gear.

Over Memorial Day, we continued a very fun group tradition of paddling three rivers in three days. That Monday morning, two rivers down, Marypat was standing with me and Ruby at the camp table, waiting for coffee. “I’ve made my decision,” she said. “I can’t do the trip this year.” Silence. It was one of those turning-point moments. Honestly, it wasn’t a huge surprise. We had all been watching her, wondering how this could possibly work, coming to that same conclusion. But it was her call, and for her to give up on a trip like that, to admit she couldn’t pull it off, to assess her physical ability and realize it wasn’t up to the challenge. That was a huge thing. Also, admittedly, a bit of a relief to have a decision, even a decision that wasn’t preferred. It meant that we could move on, make alternative plans, get to the next thing.

In typical style, Marypat followed her announcement with a pledge. “I’m not giving up on the trip,” she went on. “I’m just putting it off. I’m in for next year when we get this stuff figured out. Are you guys?”

Stay tuned for the next installment, in which our Plan B is revealed – how we spent our expedition time as vagabonds.

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You See These Things

The other day Sawyer asked if I’d drive a shuttle car for him. He and some friends were planning to “crust-cruise” (a spring skate ski phenomenon) over the Gallatin Range. My picking them up would save them a prohibitive drive to stage a car on the far side. I couldn’t think of a good reason not to, so I agreed. Actually, it’s a pretty nice drive, up Paradise Valley along the Yellowstone River and then, using my “geezer pass”, into Yellowstone Park. Beautiful morning. The Yellowstone coming up, but still far from flooding. The mountains deep in snowpack, potent with uncertain prospects for flooding, great paddling, natural drama.

I drove up past the Mammoth Terraces, the roads gritty with sand. Few visitors, winter-gaunt elk and bison searching for greening grass. I got to our rendezvous before the crew arrived and was standing by the car, chastising myself for forgetting binoculars, surveying the distant slopes and meadows for skiers. Geese flew overhead. A sandhill crane called from a nearby meadow. Some bison moved slowly across a bare hillside near Bunsen Peak. I heard a funny ticking noise, some soft thumping. I figured it was the cooling engine, didn’t give it much thought, but it persisted. Finally I looked over.

On the far side of the car a female mountain bluebird was flitting energetically around the sideview mirror. She landed on the mirror itself and started pecking away at her reflection, then hopped on top of the mirror, then to the window, back to the mirror, more pecking. She paid me no mind. Eventually she came to my side of the car and repeated her obsessive behavior on that mirror, completely oblivious to me. The male bluebird arrived. The two birds twirled together in a spiraling flight maybe thirty feet high, then broke off – courtship, spring energy, love . . . They disappeared into the open end of a metal hitching rail near the trailhead, emerged again, did another acrobatic spiraling flight, blue wings tangling in the blue sky. Then the female returned to the mirror, took up her OCD preoccupation with her image. I assume she thought the bird in the mirror was an intruder. She was so energetic in her attacks I worried she might break her thin beak on the glass.

I had brought a couple of magazines to read while I waited, but the birds were so entertaining, so bright, so active. Then I caught some distant movement on far slopes, four skiers skating across the final feathering stretches of melting snow, eating distance. Suddenly they were there, twenty-some miles in their wake. They were full of all the wildlife they’d seen – grizzly and wolf tracks, moose and bison and elk, a fox, a skunk. I showed them the bright birds, still obsessed with the car mirror.

When we drove off I imagined the relief that bluebird must have felt, finally free of the territorial interloper so immune to her attacks. I wanted to put up a no parking sign so she’d be spared the trial of another reflected challenger showing up. How much spring energy will she use up fighting off the endless stream of herself, provoking her, strangely oblivious to her attacks, and then mysteriously disappearing? What unintended challenges we present, being in the world with our inexplicable geegaws.

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Antidote To War

Yes, we’re back! Survived, actually thrived, for a month in South Korea and have returned to a lingering winter, the prospects of paddling and biking season held at bay by wet slushy conditions and cool temperatures. Also back with my personal prescription to end warfare in the world. It’s really a pretty simple solution – I’m shocked it hasn’t been promoted by politicians. Well, I take that back, I’m not shocked by anything political any more. But first, a quick update on the month.

It was a two-part experience.

Part I – the Paralympics, during which we hunkered down in an AirBnB in Gangneung (on the northeastern coast) and yo-yoed back and forth between Olympic venues to watch Sawyer’s races and various other events like hockey and downhill skiing. Our little apartment mirrored the living space for as much as 90% of Korea’s population – the 15th floor of a high-rise apartment building in a thicket of identical buildings. These fields of apartment towers rise up in every city in the country. They house small, efficient living spaces, well soundproofed, with no containment on showers, with little attention to chairs and tables. Ours did have a dining table and chairs, a nice bed, and bedding for others on the floor. Our host was incredibly sweet, stocking food for us, dropping off gifts, and very helpful with directions. Eli and Ruby and one of Sawyer’s old school buddies, Fletcher, all showed up during that phase to witness the events, add their personalities to the mix, and generally ramp up energy levels.

We interspersed going to events and ceremonies with outings to a couple of national parks, temples, and local sights, getting to know our surroundings, becoming more comfortable with local transport, and sampling local markets, squid ink ice cream, exercise stations along city trails, steep hiking trails and incredibly friendly and helpful locals. The highlight, of course, was Sawyer and Jake’s silver medal race in the 10K event late in the week of competition. They were denied an earlier bronze medal because of a pretty sketchy disqualification protest, but brought home silver in style. The medal ceremony was one of those proud parental moments for the books. Too bad the Paralympics are so ignored by television coverage and general interest, because it is an inspiring and powerful display of overcoming odds and heroic effort at an elite level. And the personal stories of tragedy and commitment are pretty incredible. As Sawyer suggested, we ought to schedule the Paralympic games ahead of the actual Olympics and give it the coverage it deserves.

Anyway, the good news is that we all got to participate in it, got tours of the athlete village, benefited from all the schwag showered on Sawyer and the team, and mingled with other families/athletes doing the same.

Part II – After the games, we traveled the country with Sawyer for another two weeks. We had a rental car, which made it pretty luxurious and nimble by comparison to depending on public transport. Luckily the navigation system (we named it Karen) got us wherever we desired (mostly). Just type in the destination and follow directions. If we’d had to depend on paper maps, we’d probably still be in Seoul! Also turns out that it is incredibly helpful to have a 25-year-old with a good phone along these days. Sawyer saved us on numerous occasions when it came to finding a room, deciphering a town, locating a restaurant. Would have been pretty different without him. We covered a lot of ground, only missing the southeastern quadrant of the country. Mostly we hopped from national park to national park, hiking trails, visiting temples, getting doses of culture. We stayed in a variety of AirBnB and motels, mostly at $50/night, either cooking in our rooms, or going out for Korean food. Again, little emphasis on beds and chairs and tables. Rooms were often just a warm floor with mats and blankets and a bathroom with uncontained shower drainage. Workable, but spare. We did have a couple of nicer rooms, with beds, chairs, balconies.

Our travels took us all the way south to the island of Jeju, which was quite tropical by comparison – palm trees and blossoming cherry trees, volcanic peaks and lava tube caves, sea food everywhere (think live octopus and squid). We rented bikes one day to cruise through some islands – no bikes big enough for Sawyer or me – pretty much a BMX experience. Recreation, South Korea style, is a very social affair. Peaks generally had 30-50 people on them, all taking selfies and talking at high volume. Tourists arrived literally by the busload and trails were packed with Koreans all in the same outfits – stretch pants, trekking poles, big hats, day packs.

Rather than try to chronicle our time, I started a list of Korean observations. So, in the interest of saving space, here’s a sample:

– Koreans pour their friend’s drinks, never their own – a symbol of the Confucian/Buddhist emphasis on community over individual;
– Koreans are helpful to an excruciating degree;
– I never felt threatened or unsafe anywhere;
– Recycling is routine and expected, from food waste to cardboard, and from apartment buildings to ferry terminals;
– They may pride themselves on Korean beef and pork, but we never saw livestock, anywhere;
– Always park your car straight and between the white lines, and always back into parking spaces;
– Bread isn’t easy to find – have to go to bakeries for it;
– Korean restaurant food comes fast and is served REALLY hot;
– Korea may be the only country on earth with an extensive and impressive penis park (really!);
– Trails in Korea feature steep stairways bolted into rock walls – there isn’t a switchback in sight;
– Not a book or magazine in view – screens everywhere;
– Paths and trails and city parks have exercise stations for workouts and stretching, and they get used;
– Smog is the biggest downside to Korean life – masks abound;
– Nature in solitude is not a thing – recreation is social;
– Motel rooms come with toothbrushes, razors and toothpaste, a vanity table complete with hair spray, dryer, and cosmetics;
– Holidays in Korea seem somewhat random and unexplained;
– Trails/nature is manicured – topiary, paved walkways, aisles of flowering trees, pagodas on lakes;
– Nude public baths are the norm, and refreshingly so;
– Obesity is not a thing.

So, here’s my strategy to produce world peace. One word – travel.

Once you experience a place, a culture, a local history, a people, it is really hard to imagine visiting the terror and devastation of warfare on them. It’s that simple. From a distance, and through the fog of propaganda and ignorance, it’s easy to stereotype a culture, to demonize them, to basically dehumanize them. In essence, it’s easy to fall prey to the hype and disinformation fed to us by people in power with ulterior motives. Once you go there and meet people, share a water bottle with them on a hot trail, get directions from them in a strange city, find out about the backdrop of history that informs their culture, appreciate just how much like you they are, it’s well nigh impossible to imagine dropping bombs on them, leveling their cities, throwing thousands into refuge camps, ruining lives by the score, killing civilians.

I know, it’s simplistic. It’s naive. And you can come up with examples of warfare and horror visited on people by neighbors who know them intimately. But it is also undeniable that visiting a place, whether it’s downtown Nairobi, the shores of the Yucatan, the markets of Seoul, or the mosques of Istanbul, mingling first-hand with the streams of culture and religion and custom and history there, coming face to face with the reality of how fundamentally the same we all are, when the politics and drama are stripped away, it becomes much more difficult to perform the act of dehumanization it requires to visit death and destruction for political purposes on those same people.

The whole time we were in South Korea, I kept flashing on the tension we are experiencing with that part of the world. With the posturing and threat bandied about as if there are no casualties that come from such behavior. With the legacy of conquest and conflict that has been visited on that country – from the Mongols to the Japanese to the Korean War – each one flattening the country, erasing history, burning and pillaging and terrorizing the population. How the peninsula has been razed and rebuilt repeatedly. How incredibly resilient it has been, and how warm and accepting and helpful it remains. And I leaven that with the vitriol spewed by politicians, and the absolute disregard for any nuance of understanding or compassion, never mind any reckoning with history or deeper introspection.

That’s it. Travel. Experience. Be there first hand, meet people, get your hair cut, buy food from a stall, look at art, walk the beaches and trails, shake hands, watch parents with their children, take pictures of each other, laugh at the awkwardness of trying to order food off a Korean menu – then go back and see how you feel about pushing the “big button” and raining hell down on that part of the world.

Probably won’t get me the Nobel Peace Prize, but there you have it . . . Al’s Rx for peace on Earth!

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Paralympic Travel Odyssey

Usually, my approach to big trips is to largely ignore them (besides taking care of details like checking the passport expiration) until I’m on my way. This time, heading for South Korea for a month, leaving in a couple of days, I’ve been doing a bit more stewing. Don’t get me wrong, it is very exciting. First time to Asia. Our son competing on the world stage. Having Ruby and Eli join us for part of the time. And then following up the games with two more weeks of travel with Sawyer. All pretty damn cool. There will be stories!

At the same time, I go back to my usual bias on travel adventure, which is that I’d far rather be dropped off in the middle of nowhere and figure things out than, in this case, be dropped into a country and culture utterly foreign, exotic and challenging on many levels. Totally undecipherable language and signs for starters. An absolute antpile of humanity – this is a country of 40 million the size of Indiana, and much of it is too steep to live on. A small town in South Korea is 500,000 people. Then there’s the angst of getting around, finding our AirBNB, reuniting with the kids, trying to communicate – all in the knowledge of how limited my tech abilities really are. What could go wrong, right?

A friend who spent several years in South Korea recently said it’s like landing in a country where everyone wears their underwear backwards. Once you get past the different habits and customs, you just go with it. So yeah, maybe we’ll come home with some different underwear styles.

Another friend who spent time in S. Korea in the 80s went over from Japan for a weekend and ended up spending two months because he loved the people, the food, the country so much. “They finally kicked me out because my visa was up,” he said.

My strategy, at this point, is to go with it. This is no official tour. We’ll go, we’ll check things out, we’ll follow local intel and travel tips, we’ll eat some strange and wonderful and maybe alarming food, we’ll go to baths and get scrubbed til we bleed, we’ll hike and bike and island-hop. We’ll no doubt have some sobering, culturally awkward, maybe dangerous, certainly hilarious, escapades. We are almost certainly not fully prepared. We’ll do our best, get help from our children, lean on the good nature of locals, and then, kind of appropriately, we’ll return on April Fool’s Day, back to Seattle and the land of things familiar. By then, no doubt, it will be a great relief to be home, to look back on our silly anxieties, and we will look at our turf with new eyes.

Why does everyone wear their underwear that way???

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To The Moon!

We made plans. Set the alarm. Put our warm clothes out, got the binos. We would rise in the early, frigid dark and make our way along icy paths to the ridge above town, just down the street, where we would find a seat from which to witness the shadowy, silent spectacle of lunar eclipse – this special blue, super moon. My only dilemma, whether I’d have time and inclination to make coffee for the outing.

At 5 am the shadow had already started to creep across the face of the moon. The sky was clear, the moon low in the sky, but high enough that we could see it clearly from our bedroom. “Maybe we could watch from the front porch,” Marypat said. “Hell with that,” I said. “We can watch from bed!” Which we did. Pillows propped behind us, mugs of hot coffee in hand, binos at the ready, a luxurious perch from which to observe the slow-moving drama.

For a time a blue rim edged the moon. A bird flew across the lunar face, like a movie clip. Marypat caught the streak of shooting star. The moon lay bathed in orange glow, gray and cratered and serene. We talked about the ancients who watched such events, how they made sense of them, how they figured them out, what stories they might have told. Marypat thought it was the moon closing its eye, an opportunity to change, and when the eye opened again, you could be reborn, transformed, illuminated anew.

The full eclipse lasted and lasted. Eventually the moon slid to the edge of our window, and started to drop below the roofline of the neighbor’s house. Only then did we gird ourselves, take the dog, walk down toward the low ridge overlooking town. Lots of people were there – dogs, cameras on tripods, cars in the parking lot.

Finally, as daylight seeped into the scene, the edge of the moon gradually began to brighten. Then it flared silver, like the bright edge of new coin. Slowly, slowly, it became a fingernail crescent. The wind came up, a cold wind. I started back toward home, careful on the ice, watching the creep of cold light engulf the red face. By the time I got to the bottom of the hill, I could just make it out, huge through the trees, heading to the far side of the earth, half lit on its inexorable and mysterious journey.

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What a World . . . (rant warning!)

Lately I’ve been plagued by more than the usual ANNOYING ENCOUNTERS WITH THE ELECTRONIC WORLD and it makes me consider the state of our lives, dominated, as they are, by electronic devices that are more and more maddening and patently unhelpful. First, Marypat and I tried to book flights to South Korea in March to watch Sawyer compete as a guide in the Paralympic games. Exciting stuff, but the engagement with the Internet, trying to navigate the process to purchase tickets, turned into a complete quagmire. I admit to plenty of pilot error in this regard. If you make a single mistake – say, like saying there are 2 passengers, one of whom is a senior, it becomes impossible not to be charged for three tickets. It’s a long story with multiple chapters that makes me tired to even try and recap, but I don’t think I need to recap, because we’ve all been there, right? In the end I spent almost two and a half hours on the phone with a very nice young man in India. We finally decided that the best course of action was to cancel our original tickets and purchase direct flights, despite a price tag several hundreds of dollars higher. By the end of it, I felt like I’d actually made out like a bandit, the relief was so great. Hours on the phone with someone in India – really? What ever happened to the travel agency you booked a flight with? Don’t get me started on the AirBNB booking. Luckily Sawyer helped with that so it went relatively smoothly and probably only took us an hour.

Then there was the task of signing Ruby up for next year’s FAFSA Pell Grant for college. Once you’ve ground through the process one time with each kid, it’s relatively easy, except, in this case, when we got to the sign and submit page and it wouldn’t take the user name and password that I’d so carefully written down from the year before. No amount of trying to change the password seemed to help, even with Ruby at my side. Finally we gave up, called the FAFSA help line and navigated this whole process, barely understanding the accent of the person on the other end of the line. Again, close to an hour on the phone and it turned out to be some stupid missed step that made everyone feel like an absolute imbecile and, once we figured it out, it went through like a charm. But, by then, we’d avoided the problem for days, spent hours on our own and another hour on the phone to sign a damn piece of electronic paper.

Sure, I know, I come from the age of the typewriter, but this is our world!!?? We have to keep a hand-written list of user names and passwords and security question answers in the desk drawer because there is no way to keep track of that stupid shit. Then, every six months or so, we are told to change the password for security purposes? What security, by the way? Suddenly, all those things that used to get handled by HR departments at work, customer service agents, travel agencies and so on are our responsibility? We have to keep track of our hours, submit time sheets, book tickets . . . and, more often than not, there’s a service fee tacked on for the privilege of submitting online. I remember, for example, in the old days when we wanted to reserve a Forest Service cabin for an overnight stay. We’d call the FS office, ask about availability, talk to a desk ranger who would book us in and take our payment. Now, we have to log on to a government site, remember the damn password, search out the targeted cabin, put in all sorts of information, find out if it’s available, and then pay an additional $9 booking charge because now the process is so spiffy and trouble free.

All of this is presented to us as a wonderful and efficient improvement on the clunky old ways of doing business. More than that, we are told that it is a much more seamless and very secure way of getting things done. All of this is total mythology. Security??? Well, we know better now, don’t we? Efficiency, for who? Didn’t feel very efficient spending an afternoon talking to a room full of phone cacophony in India just to change a ticket.

Look at all the information we have access to! Look how we can find cheap deals! Look how we can contact anyone about anything in the world! Look how we can buy everything from books to vacuum cleaners from the comfort of our kitchen table!

Yeah, yeah, of course there are some advances that are worth it. Am I glad that I don’t have to type an entire page over because I made a typo? Sure. Am I relieved that I don’t have to spend hours in the library researching some arcane bit of knowledge that I can now find on the internet in seconds? Yup. Am I happy that I can email an editor or business contact and not have to wait two weeks for the snail mail to deliver a reply? Yes I am. But in the entirety of life, is this juggernaut we have no choice but to be hitched to a bargain worth making? That seems very much up for debate.

In my college classes we sometimes have discussions over the costs and benefits of electronic devices, the World Wide Web, and social media. Especially social media. Even for those who were born on the Internet side of the divide the price is obvious, the extent to which their lives are dictated by these devices is seen as burdensome. And yet, what are they to do? Can’t very well just hop off that bus and survive in this culture, can we? I know, I tried. I held on to that typewriter to the bitter end, until, literally, it became completely impossible to do my work. And hey, look at me now, Mr. Blogger.

What we end up concluding, inevitably, in those course discussions, is that we need to get better at treating these devices and services as tools. And we need to remember that we are the boss, not the phone. Yeah, sounds good, except that these things aren’t like the hammer you have in the tool box. That hammer just sits there, inert, waiting the days and weeks and months between times it’s needed. The Internet and the devices that run off of it are not inert. No, they are hungry beasts. They are expressions of capitalism that want our attention in the worst way. They nag us, they chirp and beep and alarm at us, they entice us, they wave frilly geegaws in our face. They make it all but impossible to treat them as tools, and to forget them between jobs.

I read somewhere recently that only the truly wealthy among us will be able to afford the “luxury” of escaping the electronic world. Struck me as interesting. You’d think that greater wealth, if you believe the conventional wisdom we’ve been fed, would afford us more toys and more access. If these things were actually the freeing, liberating, joyous toys we are told they are, then of course you’d have more of them if you could afford it. But no, the quote called freedom from the electronic world a “luxury”. The luxury of being left alone, of experiencing silence and simplicity and a lack of clutter, freedom from the nagging, beeping, distracting world we have gotten ourselves plugged into over the past couple of decades. The wherewithal to purchase our freedom from enslavement, which is what it has become.

Now there’s some incentive to make my fortune!

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Snow Geese

Snow geese have been filling the sky,
along with the first big November snows.
Through the gray, sifting day as
I shoveled the sidewalk,
their talk constant and urgent overhead,
their elegant geometry, lines and V’s,
skeins of them pushing south through the
weather.

And this morning, out walking Beans
in the barely lit day,
full moon bathing the white fields,
no one else about.
Again, overhead, invisible in the pale light,
loud and steady,
talking their way toward open water
and fields of grain stubble,
leaving me with winter.

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