Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Out there, right here

Sad, but it had to be.

This past weekend, my family got out there. Monday was a holiday -- obvious to most, I know, but not to the faculty and students at Fort Lewis College, where there are no three-day weekends because holidays are horded away to make the Winter and Thanksgiving breaks longer -- so Sarah, Webb, and Anna and some other families headed up into the splendor of the San Juans in midwinter.

On Saturday, they skied in the five miles or so to the Alta Lakes Hut, set in a dramatic alpine basin in the backcountry behind Telluride Ski Area. Not far away, but far enough. There they spent two nights and three days backcountry skiing, sledding, playing cards in front of the fire, soaking in the sauna, etc. etc. All under either a dense Colorado Rocky Mountain snowfall by day or the brilliant black-light light of the nearly full moon at night. Yes, it was that perfect.

Or so I heard. See, as one of the aforementioned Fort Lewis College faculty, I had to work on Monday. And, besides, it being near midterms, I was besieged by a battalion of papers demanding to be graded, and taxes loomed, and other things begged to be caught up on ... So, much to my chagrin, I bowed out of this most alluring of winter getaways with friends and family. No matter how much it was needed.

And it was needed. February, I like to say, usually through clenched teeth, is the longest short month of the year. It's always that way, February's feeling caught in the netherworld between long winter and elusive spring. And of late I have felt myself swirling loopily in that February eddy. (At least here in the Southern Rockies, though, we know truly spring days, at least down here in the valley, are only a month away -- February in the mountains of northern Colorado when we lived up there meant spring was still a long chilly swim away from that February eddy.)

So I felt that need, too, to get out there for a while, away from work and town and house and office, to at least open a little window to let some fresh air into winter's stuffy room. But if I was going to do it, it had to be from somewhere within arm's reach of my backyard office -- the closest thing to a mountain hut I was going to experience last weekend.

So that is exactly what I did. I went mentally even though I stayed physically. I graded. I wrote. I edited. I corresponded. I chipped away at the ice on our walkways and checked off some chores around the house. I worked from early morning to near midnight both Saturday and Sunday. I even squeezed in a Saturday night business meeting -- although I will admit to its involving performance-enhancing drugs: an 18-pack of Tecate.

I jammed and never left home. But I still managed to get out in the wild places -- it was just that they happened to be little spaces around home.

I started the day with a cup of coffee in the hot tub. I slipped out of my office door regularly for stretching and practicing karate kata. In the middle of the day, when the temperature grunted up to the mid-40s (no Rocky Mountain snowfall on this side of the San Juans) I sat out on the deck off my office and graded papers in the sun, with sunglasses on and shirt off. At night, I went for several short strolls in the moonlight before getting back at it. And when I finally crawled off to bed, my bed was outside, on the little second-floor porch off Webb's room -- I slipped inside my down sleeping bag tucked inside a bivvy sack and on top of a thick paco pad, and I slept out under that same full moon as my backcountry family was at that very same time.

As much as I could, I got out into the backcountry right here in the front country. Because it's the getting out that is the real skill, and the real point. And you don't have to go far at all to do that.

And I'm glad I remembered that just when I needed it most.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

A plastic prediction


Here's what I think: In 50 years, we'll look back on our present mindless use of plastic with the same shame we today look back on our spray-happy days with DDT.

Here's a startling story from Orion Magazine on effects of plastics we couldn't have predicted.

Taking a trip and never leaving the town

Worlds within worlds. Even within our daily world. If we'll just travel there. As we learned right here in Downtown Durango on a Friday night.

See, the story goes, my friend Matt won an appearance by a local band at a silent auction recently -- a band we all love, Durango's own Lawn Chair Kings. So he reserved the auditorium at the local VFW -- the largest dance floor in town -- for a night in February, and planned a gathering for friends and friends of friends as a novel way to wile away a mid-winter night, rocking to some live music.

While navigating the arctic weeks beforehand, we locked onto that date like a ship homing on a lighthouse. But winter struck first. On the day of the show, the lead singer regretfully bagged the gig, in the choke hold of laryngitis and flogged by the flu.

Word went out about the cancellation, but with such short notice, Matt and his wife, Janet, thought it best to personally intercept any eager party-seekers whom the news hadn't reached. Sarah and I, being the devoted friends we are (and being all revved up with no place to go) joined them on their vigil at the VFW.

Off the big party room in the VFW hall is a little bar with four little veneer-topped tables fronting a window, still draped in holiday garland, that looks out over the iceberged Main Avenue. Softball trophies line one wall and a lonely spider plant hangs in the far corner of the room. Sillouetted battlefield diaoramas line the back of the bar, manned that night by a woman in a tucked-in long-sleeve t-shirt and jeans sporting a Harley Davidson belt buckle.

When we arrived, about 6 p.m., a half dozen or so well-worn patrons were already anchored at the bar. Our entrance was just like in an old movie -- like, say, Easy Rider-- all present paused visibly and in unison, silently shifting their attention our way. We paused right back, until Matt stepped forward and explained to the bartender that it was his event that had been canceled that night, and we'd like to have a few drinks while we wait to rope any strays.

This seemed to fit protocol. We signed in, ordered some drinks, then circled the wagons around one of the round bar tables. The natives perched at the bar went back to their own drinks. And that seemed to be that. I felt prepared to check off "friday night at the VFW" from my life to-do list, dismissing it as meeting my pre-packaged image. One time, when my friend Matt was here for another event, he used the men's restroom, where he found himself pissing on a Hilary Clinton sticker stuck to the target zone of the urinal. I looked around. No Obama people here, either, I bet.

None of the other dozen-or-so late-arrivers who slipped in in the next hour dispelled my stereotypes, either. And none of them had to sign in -- all were greeted warmly and loudly by their bar buddies. And just when my impressions couldn't get any more chiseled into my mind, a guy shuffled through the bar with a laptop and a couple of boxes, unloaded his equipment at the table next to us, clipped some cables into the big silent TV overhead, and -- I probably audibly gasped -- launched karaoke night at the VFW.

But here's where things took a twist. (Yes, true, I'm sure another gin and tonic helped turn the screw). For the next hour we were treated to the sounds of various wannabe Gand Ol' Opry stars taking their turns turning the microphone over in their hands and turning in passable, sometimes downright plausible, renditions of old-time country-and-western classics.

The night began with two women offering solos of Tammy Wynette and Loretta Young. Then others rose for their chance to share versions of other twangy classics, like "Bad Bad Leroy Brown" and "Sweet Caroline" and others. And they, well, weren't horrific. And, the funny thing is, everyone was into it, and rallying heartily behind their bar buddies' turns at the mic. I guess my stereotype didn't have room for this kind of, well, zany public exhibition -- and, to be honest , of such quality -- and, for sure , such warm barroom camaraderie for ... karaoke? At the VFW??

Even the highest flying of the bar flys got his 1.5 minutes of VFW fame. The drunkest guy at the bar had been claiming to be leaving since we had arrived, but had only managed to swerve around the room while he swirled the bar's eddyline, saying good by to each pal along his route. Until even he got hooked by the mic, and slurred his way through a sloppy-happy version of "On the Road Again." And even he was met after with cheers and backslaps and hugs.

As we sat there, four foreigners -- even if we're from the same country, even the same town -- watching in bemused fascination, as these veterans of foreign wars, and mostly wars we ourselves had been only kids during, both men and women, stood to grasp the microphone and sing sincerely, heart-felt country-and-western standards, while lyrics rolled across the TV in HD and steel guitar filled the bar.

I was surprised.

Then a guy named Bob with a silver mustache and in a corduroy jacket belted out a booming version of "Sixteen Tons," which he then followed up with, displaying his range, an emotional take on Eddie Arnold's "Make the World Go Away." Now I'm impressed. (And, in the spirit of full disclosure, was served another gin and tonic.) Bob was the turning point: we were no longer able to remain just dumbfrounded bystanders, and joined in shaking his hand, congratulating him. The bar was so enthused at this point, that Bob and another woman were inspired to croon together through Johnny Mathis' "Chances Are."

The high point, as far as I'm concerned, though, was the guy with long hair and grey beard and leather vest and truckers cap who offered a moving version of "Live like You were Dying," Tim McGraw's song about his father's, baseball player Tug McGraw, getting cancer.

The bar by that point exuded a warmth and spirit that we (or I, at least -- I shan't speak for my comrades) felt a surprising and comforting kinship with, like, hey, we (or I) could hang here, I think. Something like the sentimentally the traveler feels when in he finally grasps some insight into the spirit of some fascinating foreign land.

That bar-community feeling I was feeling then asserted itself, when the whole bar joined together and sang in a festive, festival-like unision, "Save a horse, ride a cowboy."

Okay, at that point we decided it was time to leave. As a traveler, sometimes it's best to leave the natives alone to their most intimate rituals. But, still, I could only think to myself, as I made a point to offer personal "thanks" and "good t'meet cha"s to Bob and the drunk guy and the bartender -- who had taken exceptional care of us -- that as bizarre as it is on the surface, karaoke at the VFW is a whole hell of a lot more fun and helathy and social and worldly than "better" bars with a TV (or TVs) babbling off in the corner over the tops of withdrawn faces buried in their beers. And it takes nerve. More nerve than I have.

But I get it. And like all traveling , I'm better for having gone there. And, hell, maybe I'll be back.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Uranium and the Navajos


A good editorial in the L.A. Times today argues that new uranium mining on the Navajo Nation should not be allowed until reparations are made with the Native victims of Cold War mining's toxic legacy, and the still-hazardous waste from those past operations are dealt with.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Michael Moore on Larry King


Stayed up late last night (okay, after 10 p.m., my 40something definition of "late") to watch Michael Moore on CNN's Larry King show. And I was reminded just why I so admire that rather chunky, kinda plain-looking, somewhat foul-mouthed and always high-octane muckraker.

I admire him, of course, because he is a warrior. But more than that, last night's appearance reminded me that I respect the fact that despite his virulence and vituperative, he is nonetheless neither nihilist nor cynic; his driving force is optimism. I look up to him because he fights, yes -- but more so because isn't fighting so much against things as he's fighting for things.

And some of those things were reiterated last night, when Moore restated some key ideas behind his journalistic forays.
  • He believes in government because government is Us, it is the People. Is is all of us working to assure some common good that are best provided by ourselves for ourselves -- like health care and social security. And those things really can work well and efficiently and fairly -- just look at the rest of the civilized countries in the world.
  • That he does have a spiritual ethic behind his work (citing his Irish Catholic upbringing) -- but that he doesn't wear it on his sleeve or use his podium to be evangelical. Because he believes religion is a personal choice, and should stay that way.
  • And most powerfully, he believes in Americans -- that we are a good, kind, caring people. "We might be a little slow on the uptake sometimes," he joked, but, ultimately, we will do what's right, and correct what's wrong -- if we're given good information.
The bottom line: You gotta believe. And act like you believe. Or else, what are you fighting for? If you're not fighting for things, you're just fighting against things. You're just fighting, with no place to go.

Like Thoreau said, "Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something."

You can watch Michael Moore's appearance (about 20 minutes total), in three parts: part 1, part 2, and part 3.

PS As a side note, although he didn't explicitly endorse any presidential candidate, he commented that he could not, in good conscience, vote for Hilary Clinton -- even though he has long been an fan of hers -- because of her repeated support for the war "when 40 percent of the country knew from the start it was wrong." Food for thought.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

A winter to remember

The Big Winter.

This is how our kids will remember the winter of '07-'08. (And as the year the Patriots almost had a perfect season ... but that's another story.) And as challenging as this winter is -- the endless shoveling, the four-wheel-driving around town, the gargantuan snowbanks, the car getting plowed in yet again, the worry over the glacial buildup on the roof of the house, the slipping and falling and trudging around our ice-encrusted town like Washington's army at Valley Forge -- I'm really quite excited that we're getting to experience this, a real mountain-town-quality winter, with our kids.

As I said before, I'm relieved and glad they finally at least had a snow day last week -- something every kid dreams about and deserves, and an event as rare in Durango as a big-name rap star making an appearance in our little rural town (oh, wait! that happened this year, too!). But this week they had another snow day from school -- following yet another epic snowfall -- and so the official Big Winter is on.

And challenges and all, I'm ecstatic, because we and the kids will always have this great memory to share -- of the yard rounded and bulbous under four feet of snow (is that lump our grill?), of moving the mailbox off the porch to the blue spruce in the front yard so the mailman won't break his neck on our sledding-hill steps, of Sarah cross country skiing to work, of our neighbors telemarking down the college mesa into town.

And of our epic ski days. Like yesterday: another two feet dumped on Purg, and so we all headed up -- our third day in a row, and our second week in row of scoring a hat-trick of powder days -- for another day of glory-skiing on hero-snow. As always, grinning, hooting locals everywhere. And what will sure embed itself in my brain as a favorite memory: watching Webb and Anna and their friends slicing through the powder below us as we ride the lift, and hearing their yells and cheers for us from the chair as we take face shots below them.

That's why, despite the hardships (is there enough firewood to get us into March? How far behind on work can I afford to get? Is my back going to recover from huffing this fluff over the banks again?), I'm deeply thankful that all this happened, again, finally, while our kids were still around, and we could get out -- two generations ski bums -- to suck up these rare good times together.