Thursday, January 31, 2008

If we could all just ski together

This morning, before the sun rose slow and cold, pulling itself up like someone who'd broken through the ice, it was 17 degrees below zero here in downtown Durango. That's cold for Durango, even in January. Even in January when Durango's in its "mountain town" mood-swing phase. As it is very much is this year, with more than three feet of snow in our yard, and snowbanks stories high in places along the roads and parking lots and driveways around town. And Purgatory? Most glorious.

And Purgatory is where my friend Scott is today. It's his birthday, so he took the day off. And he's a judge, an important and busy guy. This willingness to forgo a day of important work (at least when compared to, say, blogging), is admirable, I think. In fact, I think it's vital. By being willing to take a day to himself, and to go out there, where he lives, he is manifesting the values I, myself, would like to see many more -- or all -- public officials supporting, encouraging, and themselves practicing. And more corporate leaders. And politicians. And other important people. Even judges.

The values of the ski bum.

With Scott, those values are a given. Not even a hard choice. That's why we're friends. Still, those are the values I'd like to see everyone practice. Because, everyone, let's understand this: Play is the point. That's what the ski bum, even the professionally-employed one, knows.

(Hence, let's, A. Protect places for play, everything from neighborhood stands of trees and open lots, to backcountry and wilderness; and B. Teach our kids how to play, at least as much as we teach them to do math, do their homework, do the CSAPs, and do what it takes to get ahead. A modest proposal.)

The ski bum in everyone says, Let's just ... relax. We don't need so much stuff. We don't need to be so busy. We don't need to accomplish so much or fret so much or be so frantic. Let's remember: Play. Is. The Point.

And when people gather around playing, good things happen.

As legendary surfer Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz says, "If you can surf together, you can live together." He was talking about his attempt, along with surfing champ Kelly Slater, to bring together Palestinian and Israeli kids through surfing, with the vision that an injection of surf-bum culture can transform the larger, entrenched culture. But I think this also applies here in the Four Corners, and the unique variety of communities and cultures dispersed and interwoven here, as well -- particularly in the the various "bum" cultures that are interwoven in the fabric of most communities around here.

Herein I define "bums" as people who live in a place because it's where they want to be. In the Four Corners, then, that'd be ski bums and river rats and desert wanderers, of course, but also many ranchers and farmers, and free-lance entrepreneurs, and professionals who could make much more dough elsewhere. There's a variety, because many people live in Durango and elsewhere in the Four Corners because the Four Corners offers places to play. And they're willing to do what it takes to play here.

It's not always easy to scrape out a living to make it here and/or have the time to play near as much as one would like, but mountain town struggling can be its own kind of play, full of other people struggling along with you for the same reasons you are. But here's the secret: when you're where you want to be, then work, too, is play.

Even today.

I decline Scott's offer to join him and Dave in his birthday ski, because I have important work to do. Like blogging. But I don't mind because, work or not, it sucks not: I sit in my little garage office (The Wordshop), and peck away, while that blue-cold sun screams in the window and heaps of snow stand in the yard and the town rolls around through the canyon country of snowbanks and through the skin-biting cold of this particularly playful winter. In the midst of all that, all that set in this elegantly snow-shrouded and red-rock rimmed high-country valley set at the feet of crystal mountains.

And I know I'll be out in it soon, sometime soon.

Until then, I walk out into the back yard and take it in. I breath. I stand. I bow.

Then I go back to work. And I don't mind, because it's all of a piece in a place where we ski together. Where play is the point.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Snow Day!

I was thinking it might never happen.

All my kids and their friends have ever wanted is a snow day -- a day off from school because there's just too much snow. But snow days don't seem to happen in Durango, snow or not. Oh, we get delayed openings and early releases, and we've had days that we ourselves have kept the kids home from school on our own because of snow -- because sometimes powder days are just more important than another day in the Big Box of School.

But not since my kids have been in school -- and they're now in high school and middle school -- have they heard those blessed and magical childhood words: snow day! While other area schools seem to have the wherewithal to occasionally let kids stay home for inclement weather, the Durango school district seems to be a mission to keep the children indoors as much as humanly -- and sometimes inhumanly -- possible. So it's been more than then years since Durango kids have been given that dispensation from the authorities -- and my kids have never experienced it.

But yesterday it came. Heavy overnight snowfall and a winter storm warning finally broke the resolve of the stalwart ramparts of the most strident District 9R administrators, and kids all over town were at last able to sing together those elusive words: Snow Day!

We made the best of it. My wife works at the high school, and on Mondays I teach at Fort Lewis College -- which also canceled classes, for the first time since 1993 (as near as I can remember) -- so we, too, were set free. So we grabbed our ski gear and headed up to Purgatory to cash in our Get Out of Jail Free cards. We were greeted with nearly two feet of fresh snow -- and most of the rest of Durango, it seemed. And everyone else, it also seemed, was every bit as relieved and joyous as our little clan of snow-dayers.

What a day. We passed the day skiing hard, savoring the deep winter snowfall, and enjoying the company of those others up there with us -- running into many people we know (lots of school and college folks, of course), crossing paths with others whose paths we hadn't crossed in a while, and meeting still more whose paths we'd never encountered. Everybody was grinning, icicles hanging from beards and mustaches and exposed locks of hair. Hoots came from the woods along the steep runs, and were echoed by calls and cheers from chairlifts. Everybody arrived at the bottom of the lifts covered with snow, either freshly fallen or from falling in the freshy.

And the kids had similar days, even though they, of course, were off their own much of the time. They, too, ran into friends -- and teachers -- and met some new ones. They, too, came back with stories to share of the epic day on their home mountain. And they, too, were all grins all day -- on this day that they and their friends already call one of the best ever.

How can it not be? A powder day is always grand, for sure. But a powder day and a snow day -- that is something special! A free day -- like a bonus day just tacked onto life. And for a kid, that snow day goes beyond just fun -- it's mythic. It's one of the days you talk about for the rest of your life. What will they remember more on our death bed: that quiz they took, that chapter they read, that test they studied for? Or that snow day ...

Remember that, please, school administrators: You have a huge impact on our kids lives, and it's a big responsibility. We appreciate your efforts to prepare our kids for their lives to come. But don't neglect their lives now. Please remember that there's more to being a kid than school, than getting in the classroom hours, than the fricken CSAPs, for gawdsakes!

Please don't be afraid to every now and then let it all go, so the kids can remember that they're still kids. Every now and then please be sure to give them a snow day.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Big Picture of the Big Threats

The future is being shaped now.

That, of course, is always true, almost cliche. But regardless, here in the Four Corners, this may never have been more true than it is right now.

Several major and enormous projects in various stages of design, decision, review and approval now would lock the Four Corners, and the entire Southwest, into a future of a deepened role as the nation's "National Sacrifice Area" -- a title the region has already earned for more than half a century. (For some history, check out this film.)

The cumulative effects of a series of projects in production right now would set us even farther down that destructive path for the next century. These include:
  • The carving of a major new powerline route across the region to ship that energy to the major cities to the west -- Las Vagas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles.
  • The development of Wolf Creek Village, a mega-resort proposed by billionaire B.J. Red McCombs on southwestern Colorado's Wolf Creek Pass -- a swath of land connecting the South San Juan and Weminuche wilderness areas, and a major migration route between these two islands of wildness.
  • Expansion of the dwindling San Juan Basin oil-and-gas production into the last, most inaccessible, most sensitive and still-undeveloped and unroaded nooks and crannies -- particularly the HD Mountains in southwestern Colorado and the Roan Plateau, in western Colorado.
  • The launching of strip mining operations for oil shale, which underlies much of Colorado's central West Slope.
  • The re-opening of uranium mining and processing, including new facilities in Grants, NM, and in the Paradox Valley, along the Dolores River, in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah.
Yes, there are other big battles under way as well, of course, that would have huge culture-and-lifestyle-altering implications for the region -- the expansion of the use of ORVs into the backcountry, the dewatering of the San Juan River, the completion of four lanes of traffic between Salt Lake City and Albuquerque, and proposals for a larger airport in southwestern Colorado. But the six projects cited above stand out because their fates are being decided right now, and because, as I said, they would irreversibly seal the fate of the Four Corners as a plundered province for the wealthy and the urbanites who can't get enough.

And they would lock the region out of a brighter -- and smarter -- future as a leader in alternative energy, alternative lifestyles, affordable living, and preserved, protected, wild, and undeveloped landscapes.

The time is now to shape the future. We love what we have here now, but what will our kids, and our kids' kids -- those who'll need the kinds of places we love now even more than we do -- have in 50 or 100 years? It's up to us to decide. Now.

To get involved, check out some of these fine groups:
  • Desert Rock: There's good blog that posts up-to-date information. Also, check out Dine CARE, a Navajo-based grassroots group.

"Society is like a stew. If you don't keep it stirred up you get a lot of scum on the top."
Ed Abbey

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Star Trek lives -- we hope

This just out: The trailer for the new Star Trek film -- the 11th! -- titled simply Star Trek.

The film is only now being filmed and is not scheduled for release until December 2008, but already it is kicking up a storm of controversy in the Star Trek world here on Earth.

The reason is, as the trailer shows, this newest Star Trek film is a return to the oldest Star Trek -- the adventures of the Starship Enterprise crew of the original series, Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, et al. The new film, directed by J.J. Abrams of Lost fame (and rumored to be the first of a three-picture package), will be a retelling of Star Trek's earliest incarnation for a new generation of viewers (one generation later than the "next generation" generation), as a well a look at the earliest years of the Enterprise's travels. The movie will be set in both the StarFleet Academy and on the Enterprise's first mission, as again revealed in the trailer's images of the Enterprise's being built in a "shipyard" (a "starshipyard"?), and will feature, for the first time, new actors playing the classic characters.

Therein lyeth the great controversy among Star Trek fans: is the re-visioning of Star Trek's foundations blasphemy, or a restatement of faith? How about the nerve to manipulate the Star Trek "canon" -- the sacred pseudo-history of the 23rd and 24th centuries and the pseudo-stories of its cast of heroes. (Even the trailer has already raised Cain: the Enterprise is shown under construction on Earth, yet the "canon" says it was built in space.)

The religious phrasing is not mere metaphor. Certainly there is a core group of Trekkies (or "Trekkers" -- even those terms are grounds of controversy in Trek culture) who are a bit ... zealous about their Trek (see the film Trekkies). But, in some cases, I have to agree with at least the rationale: Star Trek, I argue, is very much a religious text, in the broadest sense of the term: as a "world view"; and as a story of the the meaning of being human and alive.

And I happen to like those "religious" messages of Star Trek. In fact, I would argue that Star Trek is the only positive image of the future and compass bearing for how to get there that is available to us today. And to our kids. Star Trek offers -- in a visual narrative, the language of our century -- a picture of a human future where we live with technology, yet technology doesn't control us; of where technology is used to increase the freedom of the individual rather than to enslave people. And it's a story about how we got that way by being good people: a picture of humans at their best being courageous, creative, cooperative, and compassionate explorers.

As such, Star Trek is an ancient story -- the one that at their cores all religious texts seek to tell -- but Star Trek places it into the future, where those positive morals become not as maps of where others have been, but a compass bearing of where we can go. That, to me, is Star Trek at it's best. (Even if it's not for everyone -- so what? The largest audience cannot always be the highest goal! (Please remember that J.J.!)).

The question then is: will this new Star Trek movie stick to that canon? That, to me, is the bigger question: It's a retelling of the tale -- and that can be a good, healthy thing -- but will it devolve into just another cinemagraphic high-action romp? Or will it truly be an evolution for a new generation -- the oldest of stories told anew again?

There's no controversy there yet for me. Yet. I'm waiting to see.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Getting going

It seems to me, how we start our mornings is how we live our days. It certainly helps a lot, anyway.

My wife, though, is a bit far on the extreme for me on this topic. She starts every single day with a run -- through darkness, frigid cold, snow and rain, and threat of wild animals (she sees a badger regularly, coyotes, dozens of deer, and even a small mountain lion that was seen for several months roaming the trails we run on the mesa-side behind our house), she's out there, usually by 5:30 a.m., trotting along fresh from bed. For her, her day will wobble on its axis if she doesn't getting it spinning with that ritual run.

I, myself, also love to run, but cannot bear to put shoe to pavement before mid-morning and three cups of coffee. But that doesn't mean I don't feel just as evangelically about launching my day deliberately, and with the right vibe.

Take my commute to work today, for example. Today's commuting equipment included boots on my feet, two layers of jackets, thick sheep-skin leather gloves, and a fat pile hat pulled as low as it'll go -- all needed because it was 9 below zero when I left the house, the second day in a row with that depth of cold. After bundling, I threw my bag over my shoulder, grabbed a cup of coffee in my padded hand, and left.

Outside I walked past my parked car -- looking forlorn and cold, and sitting somewhat askew, still somewhat plowed in from the recent dumps -- and headed a half a block up the street, to the same trail Sarah had descended an hour and a half earlier. And then I crunched my way uphill on the frozen-styrofoam snow.

Lines of deer prints were sunk in the hardpack. The pinion and junipers still held clods of week-old snow. Spanish bayonet yucca thrust out of the snow like barbed traps. As I got higher, the view over the valley opened up -- a thin veil of woodsmoke and train smog hung over the town -- and the foothills, wearing their best Sunday-white skirts, seemed to rise with me. Two switchbacks up and the first views of La Platas debuted, the peaks standing like glistening crystals bursting from the forested foothills in the hard morning light. My nosehairs froze. My feet slipped on the icy track. My exposed skin burned with bitter cold and my fingertips ached already, only a quarter of the way into my commute.

I knew it was going to be a good day.

I also know that I could work somewhere else -- somewhere with a real commute to a real job -- and make a lot more money (I mean, a lot more -- with benefits) than this one offers, even when added to my other poker-hand of odd jobs I play to get by in our little mountain metro-area here in the Four Corners.

But, somehow, I think if I did that my days wouldn't get going in a way the gets me going. And keeps my life going the way I want it to.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Culture Thing

Here's an idea: What if "culture" is not a concept, but a thing. A real, tangible, malleable, usable, organic thing in the world. And something that is as much a part of us, individually, as our head and hands; as much a part of our shared living as mothers and fathers and kids; and as vital to our health and well-being -- both individually and socially -- as food and water and air.

We are, I believe, symbolizers. That is what we do; that is the attribute and skill that truly separates us from the other creatures on this planet. We give things meaning, we categorize, we label -- and we function by mapping the world and our place in it by these symbols. It's how we function and navigate. And cultures are our sets of shared symbols and their meanings that allow us to function in groups and to have relationships (with each other, including with ourselves, and with the world at large, other creatures, the land, and circumstances we find ourselves in).

I am arguing that culture is an extension of our very minds and bodies and spirits -- a fourth thing to add to that sacred trinity, which we all already recognize and acknowledge, even if we all give them different labels. And I argue that the health and maintenance and control of our cultures is as much our individual responsibility as it is over those other things -- because I also argue that the condition of our cultures affects us, individually and as groups, as the condition of our minds, bodies, and spirits.

So these symbols and meanings -- both individually and how we coalesce them into cultures -- are real things, for they decide what those relationships and groups will be like. They decide what we see. They decide how we act, and so how we shape ourselves, our lives, and the world around us. And therefore we must take culture, our many cultures, as seriously as our houses and our cars and our clothes. And we must treat them as tenderly as our kin or our own skin, and with as much care and protection and affection as we offer our food and water and air supplies.

So what does this mean? It means, since these cultures are built, brick by brick, by each of individual choices about how we symbolize and what meanings we give things, that we each have both a great responsibility and a great potential role in the shaping and reshaping of our greater cultures.It means that we can't be so casual about our relations, to ourselves, to our closest kin and friends and family (our "tribes," in a the general sense of the term), and even to our physical places and spaces.

It means that what we do, individually, matters. For we each are the foundation, the root, the main veins, of every culture we are part of.

It means that our cultures -- and our own individual perceptions that comprise them -- are much too important to leave to the machinations and purveyors of so-called "mass culture" -- celebrities, advertising, mass media, politicos and their financial backers, and so-called leaders of every bent.

It means we are not victims of those cultures. It means that we, each of us, can be antibodies and immune systems to the illnesses in mass culture that are also making our land and communities and homes and even ourselves sick.

So, want to change the world? Start by changing yourself. Don't wait for the revolution, any revolution, out there. BE the revolution here and now -- in everything you choose to see and do.

For those seemingly small, symbolic, insignificant-on-a-global-scale changes are real, tangible things too. Use that symbolizing skill, that culture-making skill that makes us human. There is nothing to wait for. See the world differently than how the mass culture says to see it. Live differently now. It is our true power.

And it's a real thing

Monday, January 14, 2008

Hip hop comes to the Four Corners

A slow, sluggish morning. But it's not often a middle-aged country-fried guy like me gets to stay out 'til 2 a.m. bopping at a hip hop show. That's right: Last night Durango was blessed with a visit from the world-famous MC Guru, and his latest sidekick, "super producer" Solar. Warming up the rap duo was the mash-up artist DJ Vajra.

The show was outstanding. A big, happy, loud, sold-out crowd of 250 or so packed the dance floor at the Abbey Theatre, first bouncing to the hour-and-a-half-long turntable show from DJ Vajra, then turning it up a couple of notches for the thumping and bumping beats of Guru and Solar, backed by a Brooklyn DJ (whose name escapes my groggy mind this morning).

Hip hop in Durango? That's right -- and thanks to the good folks at the Abbey Theatre, our local art-film and alternative-music venue, our humble little mini-meto-area finally seems to find itself a stop for relatively major city-like acts. Even hip hop. Recent acts popping up at the Abbey have included the Crown City Rockers, Aesop Rock, and even RZA, from Wu Tang Clan fame.

And I think this is very, very good thing when even a little hick town can get to experience something like a New York City-style hip hop show (although I must point out that Guru is from Boston!), and when a hilliblly backcountry guy like me -- on the surface much more of a hick-hopper than hip-hopper -- can get to see something like this just a few blocks from my humble little mountain-town home.

Because I myself love hip hop. Not all of it, for sure -- but I don't like all classic rock or bluegrass or jazz, either. But in particular I have grown in my middle years to be a faithful follower of what is sometimes called "conscious hip hop" -- more thoughtful, positive, melodic rap, in the vein of rappers like Blackalicious, Common, de la Soul, Roots, Tribe Called Quest ... and Guru (and his former group, GangStarr). Guru in particular I admire and enjoy for his brilliant and addictive four-album jazz-hip hop fusion series called Jazzmatazz.

In ths vein of hip hop -- embodied by Guru and others -- I love the rhythms, the beats, the poetic lyrics, and the explorations of both cosnciousness and rebellion. And I admire the attitude of, let's call it compassionate arrogance that runs through both the music and the trail-blazing self-promotion strategies that many of these artists have taken with their work, leaving the corporate music industry to use new technologies to control both their creativity and distribution. (Guru and Solar recently launched 7 Grand Records.)

As an artist myself -- albeit a rural, white, older, literary kind of artist -- I find myself inspired and motivated by these hip hop artists. I believe in my fifteeen years of listening to hip hop (which, it should be noted, I first got turned on to by listening to our college radio station, KDUR, here at Fort Lewis College), that rap's lyricism and spirit has spilled over into both my writing, and where and how I have chosen to take my writing to get it out into the world. I believe even this distant and pretty different subculture has managed to affect even me, even here. And I believe this is a good thing.

And I'm thankful for the chance to see these types of acts right here in Durango. And so is my 14-year-old son, who joined us for our late-night of hip hopping. I'm also thankful for the chance to share this kind of rare cultural experience with him. I just hope he's suffering as much as I am -- it's only fair.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Snow day. For now.

Damn cold, near 0 this morning. And my yard and the foothills surrounding town are all shrouded in toga-white sheets of deep snow.

This is a real winter in the Four Corners, particularly here in the Southern San Juans, where the snowpack for the San Juan and Animas river drainages continues to climb to near 150 percent of normal. Damn-near very day for the past week I've had to shovel, and every time we've skied at Purgatory this season has been a powder day. This, after upwards of a decade of mostly below-average snow years. This, after early meteorological prognostications of a dry winter -- and which was coming true, with the snowpack at zero, up until early December.

One of the beauties of life in the Four Corners -- and, again, particularly squatting here on the flanks of the southern San Juans, perched on the upper edge of the Colorado Plateau -- is the range of, not just weather we get to experience, but actual climate we are exposed to. Of complete ecologies that we inhabit at varying times.

Durango, for example, is not classifiable. Sometimes it's a desert town -- for days, weeks, months, or even years at whack it can be dry and hot, or dry and cold. The air cracks the skin and rasps the throat, and water is a precious as the gold that once was channeled through here. The shale-and-dirt landscape blows away in a stiff breeze, and the plants brown and shrivel and hunker down for better, wetter times.

Sometimes, though, it's a mountain town, with rich, crisp air that feels like it funneled right down from the peaks rising upstream above the Animas River. Mountain-forged rainclouds surge over and dump gully-fulls of flood water, or snow piles up in the neighborhoods like any classic Rocky Mountain ski town. The hillsides green up, or the snowfall piles up. And these changes can happen like the flick of some grand and erratic celestial wall switch, the moody impossible to predict. Like this year: Cool, damp spring; hot, dry early summer; cool-again, rain-filled late summer; clear-sky, parched fall; and now, snow-buried, high-country-chilled winter.

It's what we love about it here. "Change of seasons," my ass! We get our climate on constant shuffle -- God's iPod. And you never know what's going to come next. A little desert, anyone? Or shall we have a mountain day?

Today we live in a mountain town. And we are blessed.

New Neanderthal Crossing

Check out "Pyrophilia," my latest "Neanderthal Crossing" column in Inside Outside Southwest magazine. Enjoy.