Political Ecology: My Fulcrum

The surprise came early.  7th Grade.

All through elementary school, I was an academic wizard. Well, as magical as non-grade grades could be. “Outstanding” and “very good” were accompanied by “Danny is an enthusiastic learner” or “Danny loves to sing.”  My two much older sisters were also academic stars, but with actual grades to prove it.

So, when I started 7th Grade and got only a 3.0 GPA, it was more than a disappointment to me and my parents.  It was a surprise.  Worse, the numbers steadily went down from there. My high school guidance counselor instructed me as a senior to pursue technical training. “You know, Dan, college isn’t for everyone.” He pulled an Al Campanis[1] and claimed that “some folks just don’t have ‘the necessities.’ But that’s OK!” He meant it comfortingly.

I didn’t listen to him.  Entering Western Washington State College directly from high school, I quit after one quarter. My 2.02 GPA belied a deeper reality.  I had no idea where I was going, who I was, and what I wanted. And my D in French was undeserved.  I should have flunked.

A succeeding year of unskilled dead-end jobs and flirtations with the wrong side of mental health came to focus my mind. Conclusion? I needed SOME career track, and for reasons no longer remembered,  decided it was as a biologist.  At 19, I enrolled at Bellevue Community College with that aim.  Oddly enough though, if one wants to be a biologist, one does not actually take biology classes.  Chemistry – yes.  Physics, trigonometry, calculus – absolutely.  Liberal arts “breadth” classes in English, political science, anthropology – of course.  But not biology.

This community college late bloomer (as my dad called me at the time) began to come into his academic competence.  For the first time, my numerical grades were good. Quite good actually. In approaching the decision of where – not if – to go on to a four-year school, I spent intense hours looking at academic catalogs. Each college wooed prospective students with heimishe photos, playful graphics, and haughty statements of the institution’s noble purposes and fine accomplishments.

Flipping through The Evergreen State College’s catalog, I read about a program called “Political Ecology.”  Initially bewildered and enraptured at the same time, reading program details delivered a self-recognition. For the first time, my values and passions had a structure to inhabit.  An epiphanic moment!

Heck – speaking to myself – I read newspapers. Volunteered for political campaigns.  And I wanted to be a biologist.  Was there actually something that included all that?! Later, I was to find that that something was called land use and environmental planning. 

Evergreen’s catalog did the trick.  I enrolled there, though never did take “Political Ecology” as it was a program for lower division students.  Rather, I took “Environments:  Chemistry, Ecology and Politics,” an upper division program that covered many of the same topics.  Starting as the chemistry expert in ECEP, I ended the program more attracted to the politics angle than anything else. As I learned more about land use planning, my academic and career goals fell quickly and smoothly into place.  I set myself up with a bizarrely specific goal – to be a Planning Director of a small city or rural county on the edge of a metropolitan area.  Eight years later, at age 30, I achieved that career objective precisely, as the Community and Economic Development Director for the city of Tumwater, Washington.

The “Political Ecology” moment proved decisive.  It would link personal growth with personality orientation and eventually professional advancement and accomplishment. So much of my identity would be wrapped in that professional milieu. Citizen involvement, public policy development, governance structure, land use, environmental and fiscal analyses became much of who I was.  Not just what I did.  

Possessing an identity, being someone you want to be and present yourself as, is crucial to a healthy life.  It provides meaning and purpose. A cohesive narrative of self. So much of my identity was derived from my professional work.  Yet, there were doubtless downsides in integrating ones work tightly with identity.

I ponder how different it must be for those folks who don’t “find themselves” in their work. Is it hard to maintain an interest and purpose in one’s daily toils? Retirement now is a test of that proposition.  Certainly, a career also keeps one away from much in life.  People can and do find their identity outside of paid work. Hobbies. Avocations. Family and friends.

I count myself lucky to have had the epiphany of “Political Ecology.” In general, I feel blessed where it took me. But there is only so much one can do and be in this snippet of time we have on Earth.  My epiphanic moment cut off options to explore others. Fulcrums open and close paths. Whether we want them to or not.

Choosing life is about seeking and embracing those fulcrums that may still be to come.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al_Campanis

Aage

Aage forced John Lennon to cut his hair.  Yoko too. Least wise, that was the story Aage told, and who was I to doubt it.

I first met Aage Rosendal Nielsen five months before the alleged crew cut incident took place at the New Experimental College (NEC) campus in the hilly northwest Jutland farmland of Skyum Bjerge, Denmark. It was the summer of 1969. I was 14 years old and had been hitchhiking around the UK and Europe for six weeks with my big sister Ann. She was 21 and had just finished her studies at the London School of Economics.  (I wrote earlier in this blog about our initial travels in Great Britain and Ireland in a piece titled “Breaking Away.”)  Mom and dad too were traveling elsewhere in Europe, and we were all to meet up at NEC.

Aage was the founder and rector of NEC, part of what he had labeled Nordenfjord World University.  It was a pedagogical inheritor of the Danish Folk High School tradition started in the 19th century by N. F. S. Grundtvig.  Aage boastfully said that the college would last for 1000 years.  As it turned out, he was off by about 975.

These were authority-challenging times in the late 60’s, and NEC’s structure was made for that weltanschauung. It had no regular classes and no published curriculum. No paid faculty members, in fact no “teachers” at all. Each student would pursue study interests, without interference or outside influence.  Students could study for as little as  one week or  up to one year. If they felt like teaching something, they could offer that too.  There was no tuition per se, other than paying the daily cost of sleeping and eating at the converted farmhouse that served as the college’s all-everything building. 

Like any seemingly non-hierarchical organization, Aage was the charismatic leadership that held the place together.  He published his magnum opus, “Lust for Learning,” in 1968 and NEC was born from that lodestar. He was famous enough to draw in my sister Ann from London, John and Yoko from wherever they were churning out “Peace Studies”, and my social work professor father and mother, intellectually curious about what was labeled then the European “Youth Movement.”

Aage was middle aged, iconoclastic, challenging, brilliant and arrogant.  My sister was having problems with my parents, and she determined that NEC could serve as a place to directly address those problems. A core decision making tool at NEC were Aage-led sessions called tings. Disputants would sit around and express their problems with others and work to resolve them.  Our family did a ting.

To my 14-year-old self, Aage gave the impression of a deeply “cool” person, and the encounter with Ann and the folks was an opportunity for all of them to learn from each other in a safe environment. He called us “The Funny Family” and called me “Little Brother.” He seemed avuncular and sardonic and whip smart. I grew to trust him.

Our ting was in the vast farmhouse central room.  Ringed with bookshelves filled with the works of R.D. Laing, C.G. Jung, and other titles of the counterculture zeitgeist; walls with art by students; long wooden dining tables and upright chairs; and plush soft couches and futons; the room was for dining, lounging, studying, presentations, and tings.

Aage led off our ting with a question.  “Why are we here?” At first there was awkwardness, then Ann started in.  She had been misunderstood. She had had unfair expectations placed upon her by our parents. She was struggling with many questions that our parents could not understand. As the ting continued, I listened intently.  Because the controversy was not upon me, I had an opportunity for detached perspective. I remember distinctly, and perhaps for the first time, feeling smart and mature and wise and clever in my family. And I remember Aage credentialing what I said.

The ting ended well.  Tears of reconciliation. Hugs.  A sense of bonding from a shared emotional experience.

But in the perspective of time and a horrible later event, it all seems gimmicky now.

Seven years later, just prior to starting at The Evergreen State College, I was traveling around Europe and contacted Aage to see if I could stay at NEC, study, and do some farm work to offset daily “tuition” costs.  Aage agreed.  But when I arrived, I had a horrible flu.  Temperature well over 100 that lasted for days and days. I was bedridden.  After close to a week, I began to come out of it.  Aage told me that I would have to pay full tuition since I had not been working.  I said I didn’t have that full tuition. He called me a filthy, money-grubbing Jew and that I had to pay the full cost. “Whatever happened to the honest, smart boy I knew seven years ago?” he screamed.

I called my parents to tell them of the situation, and to wire money. But Aage wanted more than just the money for the days I had been there.  He wanted the full amount for the entire time that I had intended to stay, even though I now wanted to leave immediately. I was distraught. Frightened. His face was in a rage as he laid into my character.

When he concluded his ultimatum, he left the room swiftly, expecting me to take action to rectify my error.  His younger, Indian girlfriend remained.  “Aage can be so unnecessarily cruel sometimes,” she said to me in a mixture of sympathy and intellectual detachment. Then she left too.

That evening, I gathered my belongings, paid what I could along with a note of explanation, and escaped NEC in the dark of night. And wondering, for the rest of my life, what constituted “necessary cruelty.”

January 5, 1970 – New Experimental College – Aage’s hand gesturing with John listening

I hitchhiked away and got picked up by a middle-aged Danish couple who owned a farm down the road.  I told them what happened with Aage and they were incensed.  They had heard of him, didn’t know him well, but were appalled by what he did to me.  I asked them whether I could make a collect call to my parents at their home and they graciously allowed me to do that. 

This is where it gets a bit vague.  I remember talking with Mom and Dad and Dad saying, “let me talk with Aage and see what I can do.”  After a while, Dad called me back and said something to the extent that Aage felt badly about the outburst and wanted to get back together with me to talk about the situation. I told Dad I’d think about it.

My hosts at the time were adamantly against it.  “Don’t go back to that man, Aage. He’s not a good man.”  But I decided to go back and try to work something out. 

In retrospect, my best guess is that Dad called Aage and read him the riot act.  Essentially shaming him into talking with me.  He and Mom might even have decided to pay off Aage to some degree just to protect me.  I don’t know if either of those scenarios are correct. But what I do remember is going back and having a tête-à-tête with Aage, no longer feeling cowed by him, but coming to an agreement about money and time.  I then stayed a day or two more before taking off.  I did not leave in a huff, but more with a sense of dignity intact, and an important lesson learned that anti-Semitism is lying under the surface of so many, including the perceived enlightened liberals.

Strumming at NEC – Perhaps Aage, John and Yoko had a ting, and this was the result!

Peach Juice: Memories of Summer in the Darkness of a COVID-Infused January

A fruit can be bad, or ok, or fine or wonderful, or everything in the universe at the moment that it meets the mouth.  A great peach is my favorite fruit.  A bad peach is inedible.

One scorching-hot August day, next to Maryhill State Park, Jean and I came upon a u-pick peach orchard.  The peaches were huge. The peaches were orangy crimson. They looked picture-perfect.  When pressed, the flesh gave just so. But one never knows, does one? Not until the first bite.

Locally Grown Maryhill Peaches from Gunkel Orchards

We picked a basketful.  Perhaps 20 of the largest, orangiest, crimsonyist specimens.  Paid the farmer’s son for the privilege. Washed a couple of our haul from a nearby water hose, and bit in.

The juice squirted from my mouth… exploding out of its fuzzy confinement. The taste, a sublime blending of sweet and tart, took me to the heavens.  I was living the Zen hot dog vendor order joke – make me “one with everything.” 

 It’s nuts, really, but if I could have a choice of my last sentient moment on earth, I would take memories of sitting next to someone I love, with a searing sun beating down on us, adjacent to a peach orchard overlooking Mt. Hood and the Columbia River, and splattering warm peach juice over my face, neck and chest from that first spectacular bite. 

Safe Harbor Day

We have our momentary influences. Momentary inspirations. Often, combinations of seemingly unrelated inputs, joined at once, produce… well, produce something.

Our writing class prompt from a fellow student was the following:

Writers!
I am inspired by This I Believe, https://thisibelieve.org/There are lots of examples of topics to choose from.
For our writing exercise, I suggest 250 words, which is the word limit for a letter to The Olympian.

Your writing can be fanciful, satirical,absurd, and/or satirical (like Jonathon Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”, where one solution to the challenge of poverty would be to eat the children of the poor. (!) Or it could be serious. Though come to think of it, Swift was making a serious point, and now I’m even more intrigued by his approach. In my case, I want to plumb my feelings/confusions/questions that are surfacing about the reality of racism. (Maybe I’ll take a Swift approach? I doubt I’d have the focus, skill, and courage to do that but that is a possibility out there for the taking.)

Anything is fair game!And thanks for being so game!

Well, that was a broad choice of topics and styles. Then, another student suggested, just because I think he liked it, that we listen to this unexpected amalgam performance:

J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 3; Paul Simon (Arr. Colin Jacobsen): American Tune

As I considered a topic upon which to write, I found that it was “Safe Harbor Day” in the USA. An arcane bit of presidential electoral college mumbo jumbo that never has really mattered before, but apparently is yet another ignore-at-your-peril step toward realizing a de-Trumpifed inevitability. A step that I will choose to embrace – against all good sense – as a turning point toward better days.

COVID is killing more than ever. A high percentage of my fellow citizens are either crazy, hungry, angry, or all three. But perhaps, just perhaps, we can slow down, if you are as fortunate as I, and grab hold of a little hope with a little poetry.

“Letter to the Editor”

It’s all over.

It really is.

All over but the screaming

The whining

The madness.

All over but the tears.

All over but the tears. And the tears.

Now …  let’s let those tears heal those tears.[1]

Refocus.

Turn to beauty.

To the Bachs. JS, Johann Christian, Carl Phillip Emanuel. All of them.

To Paul Simon’s “American Tune.”

To Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Van Gogh.

Let’s turn to truth.

To Keats and Whitman

Newton and Lavoisier.

Let’s spend our time in the company of those

Whose greatness

And whose goodness

We can bathe.

Breathe deeply.

Let’s begin again.


[1] First tears is pronounced “teers” and second “tares.”

My Feets

(The below was cobbled together for my “Beautiful Lies, Beautiful Truths” writing class assignment:  Write about feet in 250 words or less.)

In Florida, for officer candidate school during WWII, Dad claimed he was “saved by my feet!”  Scheduled to ship out to the European theater, the Army couldn’t find or make size 14AAA shoes in time for him to join his regiment eastward across the Atlantic.  His feet let him skip the war.

My 15AA’s haven’t exactly saved my life. All of London in 1972 lacked English football shoes that fit, so I couldn’t play on my youth club team when asked last minute to join.  Frustrating? Sure! But no survival at stake.

Pointing downwards, strangers inevitably ask to this day, “how big are those things?”  They don’t inquire politely. No.  They ridicule. They laugh.

What other body part is treated this way?  You know. Mockable.  No one comes up to me and says “My, your hands are incredibly long!”  At 6’5”, my height is a common query. But it’s the darn feet that bring on the jocular ribbing.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is dfpds-business-logo.jpg
My business logo from the 1980’s, imprinted on the company stationery. Does the image invoke anything familiar?

Sometimes I lose it, responding, “Is there another part of my body that I have absolutely no control over that you would like to make fun of?”  But that unpleasantness only surfaces when I’m having a bad day. And occasionally, my feet emerge as actual assets.

 “You know what they say about men with long feet?” a flirtatious woman once asked me.  

“No what?” I innocently replied.

“Well…  you know,” she demurred, with a coyly arched eyebrow.

OK, I’ll admit it.  My racing scull-shaped pods have their advantages after all. Who else has feet as their personal theme song?  

 

Mexico As Muse

((In a previous blog post titled Breaking Away I referenced the following writing piece, which was written about a year ago, prior to the COVID pandemic. One theme of Breaking Away was the maturing influence in my life of foreign travel.))

“Chicklets… Chicklets” the tiny child implored, as he reached out, doe-eyed, face-smudged, clothing-torn, along the broad sidewalk of Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico’s capital city.  Already comparatively tall and lanky, I looked down at the boy and then up at my mom, asking whether I could buy gum that the niño was purveying.  

“Of course,” she said, in a manner which I sensed to be both approving and proud.  I turned back to the pleading boy in my best elementary school Spanish, “Si, quiero dos chicklets, por favor,” and gave him a peso.  

“Gracias,” he responded, as he took my money and handed over the gum. We both smiled at each other, but I felt terribly sad. 

How has it been that in retrospect, Mexico, somehow, without my intention, became a touchpoint for critical junctures on my life?  From the above-referenced first confrontation with pervasive poverty and inequality, to the beginning of recovery from a disastrous marriage, to a brand-new start to the rest of my work and love life.  With its tests of courage and stamina, Mexico has drawn me in, inspired me, changed me.  Mexico has been my muse.

1967: Leaving Innocence

The summer after I just turned 12, my parents and I took our first trip abroad to Mexico.  By this time, my two older sisters were already off to college, so this was the first trip that was just the new three-person household.

Upon deplaning at Aeropuerto de Ciudad de México, I was fully engaged in all the sensory stimuli that come with foreign travel.  A different language, of course. But for the first time, seeing real poverty, real unmet needs.  There wasn’t one child selling Chicklets on the sidewalk.  There were dozens of them, seemingly wherever we went. Old men and women, lying on the ground, slumping on benches, leaning against walls, arms outstretched, softly, non-threateningly, asking for alms.  I was crushed by the poverty.  Scared for them.  Didn’t understand how such poverty could be.

Mexico considers 'ban' on street children - CSMonitor.com

Our family, the gringo tourists, were not ostentatious. My parents sought to be deliberately, intentionally modest. But we were also a source for local’s economic survival. We slept in hotels, ate in restaurants, visited Teotihuacan and its magnificent Pyramids of the Moon and Sun; all with “servientes” present.  We went bowling, and little boys would set up the pins after each roll. Was it ok for me, a boy myself, to take advantage of such need? Or was it good that I helped give them employment? I kept thinking hard about such things.

Musee National Anthropologie-Entree.jpg

There, too, remain delightful memories, divorced from poverty.  Playing chess in the park with old men. No Spanish needed. Spending the whole day at the Museo Nacional de Antropología, the archaeological museum in Mexico City, mesmerized by stories and artifacts.  Visiting construction sites for the new stadia and other venues setting up for that next year’s 1968 Summer Olympics.  Touring a glass-blowing artisan’s workshop. Dad haggling for a painting of an outdoor market scene at an outdoor market, which to this day hangs on my living room wall. Adventurous eating throughout the trip, in which I took pride in my mature openness to new smells and tastes. 

More on the food! The colorful, vibrant, spicy, beautiful food. Fried fish cooked and consumed on the beach in Puerto Vallarta. A fresh coconut sliced with a machete, drilled with a screw, its sweet warm milk sucked out with an inserted straw. The warnings about eating street food and drinking unpurified water, notwithstanding, oh what fabulous street food there was! Tacos, chorizos, buttered corn with hot peppers.

Restaurante Blanco Y Negro Fotografías de stock - FreeImages.com
Restaurante Blanco y Negro

And the Mexico experience seemingly all summed up at the Blanco y Negro restaurant in Guadalajara. Dad, who didn’t know a word of Spanish (other than “la cuenta, por favor” – the check please), would simply speak his English slower and louder until I would intervene with my few Spanish phrases to get us what we needed. “Mmm… this is delicious,” I said to my parents with the waitress standing by. “And so cheap!”  My parents were aghast at my insensitivity.

“Oh, I mean inexpensive… uh… doesn’t cost a lot,” I tried to correct.  They were getting more uncomfortable, not less, as I clearly had not picked up that for them it was rude to talk about prices in front of the waitress. 

I had my first banana split at that Blanco y Negro. How funny, I thought, that what felt like a quintessential American dish, would be inaugurated in my mouth in this little restaurant down south.  For the next year, I carefully made my own banana splits at home. Ah, the taste of Mexico! 

1989: Leaving Marriage

After trying off and on for 8 months of grueling counseling, small advances and crushing realizations, I gave up. The marriage was irretrievably broken. As was I.  “Get your motor running,” screamed the song, blaring from my car’s speakers, as I drove down I-5 to visit with my old college roommate, Andy. “Born to be wild,” rang out the song I had taped and played over and over on that road trip south.

San Diego was warm, not hot, in the pleasant December air. Andy thought a day trip to Mexico would do good for my soul, as he, his girlfriend Adrian, and I crossed the border into Tijuana and drove down the coast of Baja California Norte to a beach restaurant they knew.

Best Beaches to Visit in Baja California | Hertz
Baja California Norte Beach

After a sumptuous meal – ah, fried fish again on a Pacific Ocean Mexican shore! – we set out down a gentle slope for the white sand beach expanding beneath us at lowering tide.  The sun was setting, the wind warmly tousling my hair. Adrian and Andy strolled north, holding hands.  Mexican teens playfully laughed as they chased each other across the sands. And I peered out at the vast sea and rolling waves, breathing sporadically, as I deeply sobbed the cathartic cry of relief and fear and the very beginnings of a determined hope.

Spring 2001: Leaving Work and Welcoming Love

It was a time of both exhaustion, loss and potential rebirth. I was physically worn out.  I had taken care of my Alzheimer’s-afflicted mom as she transitioned from independence to a nursing home.  I had passed a couple of kidney stones which depleted my energies and left me vulnerable and frail. Allowed – if not endorsed – by my ex, my 12-year old son, my only child, had left me – no longer agreeing to go along with the residential placement described in the divorce decree.  I had myself left a secure job of seven years with State Parks to take on a new big management position at the Department of Natural Resources, and it was a stretch. An interesting stretch, and a promotion, but also a mission which wasn’t quite the right fit.  And then there was Jean, my new girlfriend. My partner?  Was this relationship the real thing?  

I decided – with her blessing, even her encouragement – to simply quit my job and go to Mexico for ten weeks.  I would call it my sabbatical., but I had no job for which to return. This was a risk. A mid-career reevaluation.   The aim?  A complete break from work.  A chance to see if my brain still functioned enough to tackle something that I had tried several times between that 12-year-old boy’s Mexican summer vacation and the present – to learn Spanish.  And it would also be a test of my relationship with Jean.  For while I would go for ten weeks, she planned to join me for the final four.  Could we travel together?  Could we be a couple in the eyes of the conservative families we were staying with in home stays during our language school studies? Could we be a couple in our own eyes?

Ah, Mexico. Warm and wild. Gentle people and narco-terrorists.  An economy on the upswing.  Corruption undeterred. Was this the new start I sought?

The language school concept – immersion, live with a Mexican family, engage with the people – was just what I wanted. Just what I needed.  And it worked!  By the time Jean arrived, my Spanish was better than hers (that lasted about a week, but she was impressed at the time). I could dialog with the historic preservation official in Oaxaca, make my way around town for shopping and eating, and begin to understand the local newspapers.

CEMANAHUAC SPANISH SCHOOL - Home
Cemanahuac Educational Community in Cuernavaca, Mexico

Our month together was my test for a decision to move in with her and her boys.  And that’s just what we did.  Upon my return to the USA, I decided that I wanted to work part time, and got that opportunity back at State Parks where I felt most at home and most competent.  And over the next five years, I returned to Mexico twice more. Once with Jean and my son Zac to reconnect with him and try to establish some relationship between those two.  And once with Jean, to retain my Spanish, and bring renewed vitality to our lives.

Wither Mexico now?  Another hinge-point for retirement?  Por que, no?

Bodyguarding Paul

(The following piece was part of a public presentation by students in Keith Eisner’s “Beautiful Truths, Beautiful Lies” writing class of which I am one member of 12 intelligent and generous students.)

When I was 17, I lived with my parents in London, England, while my dad was on an academic sabbatical.  We rented a lovely second floor walk-up flat in the tidy Belsize Park neighborhood, a few blocks from Hampstead Heath.  It was my senior year of high school.  The plan was for me to spend the first semester with mom and dad in London and then return to the States by myself to live with friends for six months. I wanted to graduate on time.

It was the autumn of 1972 and I took to volunteering with the McGovern for President campaign’s London office.  There is a long history of American presidential campaigns setting up shop in major European cities.  They would wring as many bucks from affluent ex-pats as they could muster and send the dollars home. 

Joyce, the campaign’s Office Manager in London, got used to seeing me come around every Friday afternoon to help. I would tube down to Piccadilly Circus, walk past the seedy striptease joints on Shaftsbury Avenue, then enter the tiny, cluttered campaign office to take on whatever menial task Joyce could throw my way.  I’d stuff envelopes, run errands, and hang around with 30-something chain-smoking Joyce to talk politics.  I thought she was very cool but did implore her – once too many times and unsuccessfully – to stop the nicotine habit.

One day, Joyce informed me that there was to be a “Gala for McGovern” at Global Village, located under the arches of Charing Cross Railroad Station. Among the celebrities planning to attend were Kurt Vonnegut, my favorite writer, and Paul Newman, who I admired and mimicked for his roles in Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Gala day arrived. I had never really been part of anything of that sort. It was a bit like I imagined a Hollywood party to be, with ladies all dressed up and a wild and festive atmosphere surrounding the multi-storied site.  Along with the other staff and volunteers, I wore a red, white, and blue McGovern t-shirt, signifying legitimacy (and avoiding the cover charge). Joyce set me up in front of the “Count the Jellybeans in the Jar” game. 

I hated my task.  The fundraising game area was almost an afterthought, hidden under a peripheral stairwell. Virtually no one was going there. You could hear the commotion and the tinkling of glasses outside our pen, and I wanted to be a part of it. Joyce kept on running around frenetically announcing the latest star.  “Lee Remick” she’d squeal. “Ava Gardner, Nicol Williamson,” she gushed.

Rumors began to buzz that Paul Newman had made it to the event and would be speaking from the upper balcony.  I decided to leave my lonely post to see if I could get a look and snuck deftly up the rear stairwell. 

Just as I got to the top of the stairs, another McGovern for President official spotted me, and motioned me to approach. 

“Paul is going to come out of that door to the right,” he whispered. “Stand in front of the door, and when the door opens, I want you to walk in front of Mr. Newman to clear the way for him to address the crowd. Over there, on top of the balcony. Can you do that?”

“Sure,” I said.  “I can do that.”

I took my 6’4”, wiry 160lb frame and stationed it in front of the doorway. 

The room was getting more and more filled with a mass of excited, slightly boozed humanity.  The word must have gotten out as to the location of Mr. Newman’s entry, for a set of teenybopper girls began to coalesce right in front of me. 

“Please, please, please let us in,” they squealed.  “We want to see, Paul.  Can you at least take this paper and get us his autograph?”

“I can’t do that,” I commanded in my lowest and most imperious voice. “But I’m going to touch him soon.  I’ll give you my autograph.”

They fell for it.  And for the next couple of minutes, I was signing autographs for 12-year-old girls who were thrilled to have them. 
 

Then, the door opened. I didn’t look back.  I just “felt” his presence.

“Make way,” I intoned, and spread my arms as I led him up a few stairs and over to a point of prominence. From there, he drew even with me and began his address to the assembled admirers.

My goodness, that man’s eyes were blue!  He held his coffee cup in his left hand, and I stood aside him, about one foot away to his left, as he spoke about peace and justice and Nixonian horrors.  I marveled at his calmness, his graceful motions, his famous smile, and his ridiculously blue eyes.  Oh. Right. I already mentioned that last one.

As he finished his oration, he turned to me and said, “Let me be with the people.”

Just as he spun around to greet his admirers, my right upper arm “accidentally” brushed his right shoulder.

After all, I had promised the 12-year old’s!

Breaking Away

My son Zac, visiting from Minnesota with his partner Vicky, noticed yesterday that a peg on one of the dining room chair banisters was a bit loose. “I think this chair spindle may be breaking away, see?” he showed me with a worried look.

The chair is part of a knotty eastern maple dining room table, chair, bench, and hutch set that he has known all his life. And I have known all of mine.  When my parents moved from New York to Seattle in 1955, leaving 3000 miles between family and friends, they brought along probably their most valuable possession – this Pennsylvania-Dutch handmade furniture set.

“Why are there three small chairs and one large one?” Zac asked.  I explained that there were also two benches as we began to discuss where each member of my family of origin sat for dinner. 

“Dad would be in the large chair at the front of the table, Mom on the opposite end and then… I forget who sat on the bench and who sat on the two chairs. Perhaps Ann and Laurie sat in the two chairs with me opposite on the bench?  Perhaps the other way around?[1]  I do remember that I was sitting closest to the kitchen.”

The conversation moved toward the role of a dad as head of the household and then on to the meals we ate.  “We had specific dishes for specific days,” I said, as I strained to remember the details. “One day was spaghetti day, one day for hamburgers, another for hot dogs. No. Wait.  We didn’t regularly do hot dogs.[2]  But Mom made sure we had a salad at every meal.”

I spent 20 years, more or less, with my parents at that table.  A good ten of which were with both my older sisters. And I can’t remember the daily ritual with any detail. Any certainty.  I still have my sister Laurie to ask, who usually has a better memory for daily life than me.  But she and I are all that are left of that family sitting around the table.

Why is it that daily life is so unmemorable? At least to me. Psychologists will say that memory is connected to deep emotions.  Only great joys or great traumas stick around. There is sorrow in that.  The years with your parents reduced to episodes.

The vast majority of our lives – 90% plus – are the day-to-day of sleeping and doing chores and eating and interacting with family. I ate thousands of meals at that table with those who loved me most and for whom I am most indebted for helping to make me who I am, yet those years now are but vagueness and incidents.

Counter that with not just the memories, but the life impact of experiences during travel.  There is a vividness from voyages and an outsized sense of influence.  So, let’s use up a few lines chronologically, exploring highlights, as I now recall them, of those episodes in my life that seem most significant.  My times of breaking away from daily life.

To New York and Back

Our family flew, as I understand it, from New York to Seattle when I was six months old. No memories there.  But we went back to family and friends in New York by train or plane three or four times during my childhood.

On one early trip, I’m guessing I was about eight, my sisters and I were in the train’s sleeping compartment and I was experiencing stomach distress for the first time. It wasn’t clear to me about the source of my discomfort.  Laurie suggested that it might be gas, so she and Ann taught me “the farting position.”  Ass up, head down, and let the gas rise to meet its freedom.  Wow!  It worked! And it was really fun too!  I was conscious of this being a key stage in my maturity, knowing that adults farted all the time and now I would learn the tricks of that trade.

There were three other indelible experiences on those early train rides:

  1. Entering a Chicago train station, seeing a large scrolling neon weather sign that read “90° FAIR” and then exiting the train onto an outside platform almost choking on the hot dampness. Growing up in the Seattle area, I had never experienced combined heat and humidity and I thought to myself “nothing fair about this!”  It was the first time I knew that life was different in different parts of the globe.
  2. Hanging out in the train’s “Vista Dome” by myself and watching American diversity roll along.  As a child, it was an extraordinary opportunity for both safety and exploration. The passing landscapes were both mesmerizing and educational.  I remember feeling an overwhelming compassion for poorer folks hanging laundry in small backyards adjacent to the tracks. In other stretches, excited to see the essential alignment of commerce and industry to the lifeline that was the railroad.
  3. Watching the movie “Made in Paris,” an Ann Margaret vehicle, with my family on the train’s small screen movie car.  That movie became the butt of family jokes for years as the “worst move ever made.” But we would preface it with the promotional line “there’s movies on the B&O!” and then off we’d go on some tangent.

Leaving the Country

In living only 120 miles from Canada, we did take trips to Vancouver occasionally.  Pitch-putt golf in Stanley Park, sleeping at the Sylvia Hotel, the only time I remember our family paying for overnight accommodations in a big city before I was ten, and visiting the wonderful Museum of Anthropology at UBC.  A BC-based basketball competition between the Seattle and Vancouver Jewish Community Centers was the occasion for my greatest athletic heroics. But that one will have to be a story for another day.

The first significantly impactful, personality-forming foreign travel was the 1967 visit to Mexico with my parents.  By then, my two older sisters were off to college, and at age 12, I was still pre-pubescent with a tight and loving relationship with both parents. Mexico was a chance to really connect with them when they weren’t in busy, working mode.

I have previously written about Mexico in my writing class. I just reread it and hereby adopt it to this piece in toto. It fits this writing’s theme, and I’ll move on to other travels. (“Mexico as Muse” has been added as a November 2020 entry in this blog.)

At age 14, I traveled to Europe for the first time.  The plan was for me and my sister Ann to spend a month together, hitching around Britain, Ireland, and Northern Europe. Ann was spending a year abroad in her final undergraduate year at the London School of Economics.  Mom, Dad, and I would fly to London, visit friends and family for a few days, then the kids would separate from our parents and go our separate ways.  We would meet up again at the New Experimental College in Denmark for the final leg of our travels.

What our parents permitted, and in retrospect surprisingly condoned, now sounds highly risky from my modern-day parental eyes. They trusted 21-year-old Ann to take care of her little brother.  As we hitchhiked from youth hostel to youth hostel, stayed with friends or friends of friends, and explored historic sites, museums, and European daily life, this was an opportunity for massive maturation and self-confidence-building experiences.

Ann and I set off north from London and we quickly got the hang of hitchhiking.  We were an unbeatable duo!  Ann put her hair in pigtails.  We made calligraphically lovely hand-drawn signs for each destination with the word “please” added in bright colors.  I was still pretty small at the time, and together we appeared as an innocent, altogether cutely safe couple.  One little old lady picked us up saying “I’ve never picked up a hitchhiker before but you two look so sweet.”

Scanning our International Youth Hostel travel booklet, we not only had hostel destinations to achieve each day, but special sites to explore.  In Helmsley, we explored my first castle ruins and smelled the products from the nearby Roundtree Chocolate factory.  In York, we scaled the old city’s medieval walls and toured its child-friendly Viking museum.

When we arrived in Edinburgh, we stayed with Esmee Roberts, a social work colleague of Dad’s social work colleague Henry Maier. Esmee, in her 50’s at the time, was welcoming, warm, refined, and fun. She spoke with a strong Scottish brogue, with cadence and mannerisms matching her nation’s standard fare. And she was black. 

“Bingo!  I’ve got it now.  I understand what racism is,” I concluded. “Culture is just about everything.”

I walked out onto the streets of Edinburgh and saw a bunch of teens hanging around the sidewalk.  One of them came up to me and we started talking. They instantly recognized my accent as foreign. “You American?” one boy asked.  I answered in the affirmative.  Then the kids gathered round me and started peppering me with questions.  They wondered why American’s were such racists. They wondered why we insisted on warring on the Vietnamese.  No. They didn’t wonder. They outright opposed American intervention and started getting angry about it. And I began to feel a bit scared. I assured them I opposed our involvement in Vietnam, then quickly bid my adieu.

I walked off to Arthur’s Seat, the town’s central undeveloped mountain park. It was a cool, sunny, and breezy day.  As I climbed the richly green pastures, replete with grazing sheep, the winds picked up. I had a light windbreaker on.  At the top of the mountain, where the gusts were at their peak, I opened the jacket, grabbed each flap with my fingers, and outstretched my arms.  Leaping into the air, the winds caught my faux sails and kept me, however briefly, aloft.  For moments more than none, it felt like gravity’s hold was broken.

The view from Edinburgh’s Arthur’s Seat

Eleven years later, soon after the death of my father Arthur, I would awaken with a knowing smile on my face to the line “I learned to fly at Arthur’s Seat.” Twenty-seven years after that, Jean and I flew to our cousins Sybil and Arnold Castle’s flat in Cape Town, South Africa. The name of their apartment complex:  Arthur’s Seat.

From Edinburgh, Ann and I took a train and ferry through Glasgow to Belfast, Northern Ireland.  We were there two days before the infamous 1969 riots broke out.  I remember feeling, even then, that the air was thick with tension.  The place just didn’t feel right, and we decided that we would immediately hitch south to Dublin.

The Irish countryside was a deeply rich green, even in the middle of summer. We stayed in a hostel in the center of Dublin, and in our first full day in town, toured the Guinness brewery. That evening, we went to a pub. Sitting at a booth, a tall, dark-haired Spaniard came up and started chatting up Ann.  She appeared to like it, but I didn’t.  I told Ann that it was time to go back to the hostel, but she refused and kept talking to the man.  I reiterated that it was time to go and what’s more, it was time to go the next morning back to London.  With that, I went back to my hostel bed – men and women slept in different rooms – and didn’t see Ann until the next morning. Again, I told her then that I would be taking off to the ferry that morning and she refused to join me.  So… off I went.

For no legitimate reason, I felt oddly calm and unafraid.  I knew how to hitchhike, had all the proper maps, knew the addresses and phone numbers of contacts in London with my cousins. Piece of cake.

As I disembarked the ferry in Holyhead, Wales after a beautiful and uneventful passage across the Irish Sea, I stuck my finger out and immediately got picked up by a man in a formal grey suit and fancy car.  At no time did I feel at risk or feel like my age was a matter of concern to the gentleman.  He dropped me off at a youth hostel in a magnificent setting along the north Welsh coastal town of Penmaenmawr.  As I was fetching my backpack from the back seat of the sedan, he opened up the “boot” and beckoned me to come back to him.  There, filling the space completely, was an assortment of chocolate treats.  Turns out, my driver was a Vice President of the Roundtree Chocolate Company – the same one we smelled in Helmsley – and insisted that I take as many treats as I could fit in my pack.  I pleaded for mercy, but he kept adding to my load with a giant smile.

The youth hostel was a short walk from the coast, and it was there that I found out that blue mussels, a similar species that were so common in Puget Sound, were actually edible and delicious. I harvested a dinner’s fill with a fellow hosteler for that evening’s meal. He already had the wine and garlic for the steaming.

It was a good first day of my independence.


[1] A subsequent conversation with sister Laurie resolved the matter.  The girls sat on the chairs and I was on the bench.

[2] The very same subsequent conversation with Laurie answered this one too.  Thursdays were spaghetti night, when we eagerly ran upstairs for dinner immediately after watching “Huckleberry Hound” on TV. No other night according to her, and I trust her on these types of things, had a designated meal. 

No Party Animal

September 24, 2020

Sen. Robert Kennedy’s grandson Max found himself in Jared Kushner’s special “volunteer-only” Covid ad hoc committee.  He was horrified by the lack of expertise assigned to this enormous federal responsibility.  Soon after agreeing to join in the effort, he quit.  He couldn’t participate in what he saw as an ineffectual charade.

The report on Max’s experience reminded me of one I had 28 years ago….

“I think I’ve got a 3fer,” I said to Bill, with an embarrassingly boastful air. Bill Daley was a former Mayor of Olympia, current colleague on the Child Care Action Council board, and an aide to Governor-elect Mike Lowry. I asked him how I could help Lowry, and he brought me on board the gubernatorial transition team.

Here’s the way it was to work.  The month was November 1992. At Lowry’s transition team our task was to fill slots in about a dozen policy working groups. My group was titled “Land Use and Environmental Protection.” Each group of about a dozen “experts” was to have a representative demographic balance of age, sex and race/ethnicity. A “3fer” met the traditionally excluded of all three categories – a real prize candidate!

“Hello, is this Janelle?” I inquired brightly.

“Yes, how may I help you,” she replied in an even-tempered, professional voice.

“My name is Daniel Farber and I am a member of Governor-elect Lowry’s transition team here in Olympia. Do you have a couple of minutes to talk now, or can you suggest a better time for me to call?”

I heard silence for a few moments before Janelle responded. “Oh, well, yes, we can talk for a few minutes now.  What is this regarding?”

“Governor Lowry is forming a series of short-term ad hoc working groups to discuss critical issues facing the state and to assist him in developing an agenda for action in the upcoming legislative session and beyond.  Your name has been brought to our attention as someone who could contribute to our work in the ‘Land Use and Environmental Protection’ working group.”

“Um… why me?  I’m just starting out in my career.  Why wouldn’t you want our Planning Director Jones or someone else with more experience?”

“That’s just the thing.  We are looking for a wide range of input, from older professionals and younger, from those with much experience and those who are just starting out.  Would you consider joining this ad hoc group? The group will be in place for only one month, starting December 1. It will meet in person twice on Saturdays in December and several times by phone in the evenings.” Was my statement a lie?  Uh, not exactly, but….

“Well, I want to check with my supervisor, but I think I’ll be able to make that work.”

“Great.  Can I give you a call next week to confirm?”

“Yes, that will be fine,” Janelle replied.

“Great.  Bye for now,” I said in closure.

“Bye,” responded Janelle, still a bit nonplussed by the whole interaction.

The process and objectives kind of stuck in my craw. “I’m talking to this nice young lady, Bill, and she is clearly suspicious about why she is being singled out for this ‘great honor.’  I can’t tell her the truth, which is that the only reason we are asking her to be on the committee is that she is under 30, a woman, and black. It’s just awkward as hell.”

“Yeah… I know.  But that’s what we are doing here.  You know that people in those groups have been excluded from such committees in the past. Mike feels strongly about this.”

Now, I understood what Bill was saying and of course, as a political liberal, I had a certain consciousness about social justice issues.  But the weirdness of the call with Janelle remained a reality, and just as I was getting my “3fers” and “2fers” that month, I was aware of – and had a measured sympathy for – the critiques of such efforts that no doubt came mostly from political conservatives.

I use, in the above paragraph, the terms liberal and conservative, not Democrat and Republican, because back in 1992, they were not synonymous. Our state had had a long tradition of liberal to moderate Republicans, as well as some racist, quite conservative Democrats.

Nowadays, things are considerably different.  The political left and right have pretty much separated into the two American political parties, with each establishing a broad and comprehensive set of positions to universally distinguish one from the other. If you are “pro-choice” you are a Democrat. If you are “pro-gun rights” you are a Republican.

That process of party conformity both fascinates and appalls. What is it about we humans, that advantages conformity of views?

I look back on my civic/political life and think of all the times I dallied in Democratic Party politics and found myself unable to dig in deep. This aversion to fully buying into that group – or any group – has been due to my overwhelming tendency to see the legitimacy of different points of view.  Add to that my discomfort – and disagreement – with the agglomeration of different issues into one platform, necessarily agreed upon in total.

At age 17, I volunteered in London for the McGovern for President campaign.  At age 19, I was an alternate delegate to the Washington State Democratic Convention and volunteered to help Sen. Warren Magnuson get reelected.  I also had my personal moment that same year urging Jimmy Carter to run for president, 3 months before he announced. At age 21, mom, dad and I controlled the Democratic neighborhood caucus and moved it away from Sen. Jackson and toward “Undecided.”  But it never really stuck.  I didn’t go all in for the Dems.

I’ve thought over the years, about people’s need to be wanted and welcome and part of something. For some, politics and politicians meet that need.  The thrill of going to a Trump rally must be like that.  I remember in 1988 going to a rally with Michael Dukakis just a few days before the election.  It was a spillover crowd next to the UPS Fieldhouse in Tacoma. Dukakis was famously one of the driest, least charismatic presidential candidates ever. But I tell you with the certainty of my soul, just being there with the crowd and eventually seeing Dukakis and his wife Kitty come to talk with us “spillovers” was absolutely thrilling.  I shouted my lungs out.

My sister Laurie told me once that she was indeed a “screamer” at age 13 at a Seattle-area “Beatles” concert (She has since denied it!). When the Mariners came back from a 6-run deficit to win 10-7 as part of their “Refuse to Lose” 1995 last ditch successful playoff run, I was part of that capacity crowd with my son Zac and I was exultant with my fellow 51,000 comrades. All smiles and shouts of joy as we walked down the Kingdome’s ramps after the game. We had all shared a life experience on the same side.

And then I think of shul.  Joining a religious congregation is easy.  Staying is easy. Being welcomed, an almost certainty.  All you have to do is buy in – to some obvious degree – in the organization’s ethos and you’re in.  We have this need to belong. We get comfort being part of a team. We get comfort about sharing in meaningful ritual and having that ritual be part of a lifelong process.

But this need for belonging can also be dangerous.  In an interview with Bob Woodward, President Trump can be heard to say “So, you’ve drunk the KoolAid, Bob” as he was asked to comment on America’s history of racial discrimination. Trump was being critical of what he viewed as Woodward’s group-think and was referring to the mass death in Guyana by the People’s Temple cult followers of Jim Jones. How ironic of him, of course, to make such a reference, for he is the one who said, “I could shoot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue and not lose a vote.”

Independent thought versus the comfort of being part of a team. There is value in both.

On Jean’s and my trip through the Intermountain West, how bizarre it has become to see the wearing of masks so associated with both personal choice/freedom and being part of a group. We are seeing a predictable diversity of American ethnicities, cultures and social statuses.  Yet how odd and how terrible is it that masks have become a group choice symbol?

I have been thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of the powerful and influential species – humanity – that I am a part of.  What are the strengths of our resistance to authority?  How does authority claim and maintain legitimacy? What does this say about humanity’s capability to not destroy the planet and ourselves?  Who are the gatekeepers to collective sanity?

As we approach this crucial election, I see many differences I have with the mainstream of the Democratic Party.  I am also terrified of the potential for autocratic anti-democratic (small d) trauma in a second Trump term, and beyond. But politics is not the only group identity occupying my days and shouldn’t be.

I suspect my approach to the balance between group participation and individual choice will be practical.  I will continue to participate in group activities (temple, non-profit boards, etc.), civic efforts (voting and urging others to do the same), family and friendship connections, and individual and even iconoclastic beliefs and actions. A healthy balance of all that, nice reservoirs of skepticisms, and a willingness to continue to act on my judgments seems to be the only reasonable way to move forward in these weird and frightening times.

Elevations

October 3, 2020

Elevation determines life in the Intermountain West. 

Thousands upon thousands of square miles of uplift of the earth’s crust over millions of years.  3, 4, 7, 13 thousand feet above sea level the land rose from the churning of magma below the primordial ground, and the squishing and squashing of the tectonic plates. The land rose – and still rises.  And the snows fell and still fall.  And the snows melted and still melt.  Melted in the highlands, with overwhelming force, ripping and tearing the rocks, crushing one against the other, in massive erosive flows. Carving and carving the landscape.

When humans came, they needed water year-round.  They needed plants and animals to eat.  They needed wood for heat. They needed rocks and mud and wood for shelter.  And for all that, they needed elevations. Not one elevation, for not one could supply all that they needed. They needed many elevations.  Warm enough in the winter to survive.  Wet enough in the summer to survive. 

At Mesa Verde, for thousands of years, they found what they needed.  They figured it out. Climb high enough to have access to trees.  For the elevation between 7,000 and 9,000 feet grew ponderosa, limber and pinion pines, Engelmann spruce, Douglas fir, and subalpine fir.  Wonderful trees, that provided food and shelter and shade.  Climb high enough and then dwell in the cliffs for protection from both the weather and other humans.

At Mesa Verde it was the very sheerness of the elevation changes that promoted civilization. That advanced civilization.  That allowed permanent communities to form.

But throughout our travels to the Intermountain West, we have traversed immense stretches of relative sameness. West by southwest from Mesa Verde, we drove for hundreds of miles through the Navajo reservation to Flagstaff, Arizona.  As elevation ranged between 6 and 4 thousand feet, the trees shrunk down to the “Pigmy forest” of pinions and junipers, and then disappeared completely.  The rabbit and sage brush took over and then even they couldn’t abide the unrelenting dry scorching days and freezing nights of the desert, leaving nothing but rocks and sands at the lower elevations.  Bleak, brown, bereft, barren, we drove through the “b’s.”  Desolate, dark, dim, deserted, we drove through the “d’s.” Add two scoops of extreme poverty and the corona virus pandemic, and you get to the “g’s” of gloomy and grim.

The “Star Wars” city of Mos Eisley was a more welcoming place than the Navaho’s largest community, Tuba City, as we passed through at noon.  Nothing was open, save a gas station.  The unincorporated town of about 8,000 was on a nearly complete Covid lockdown.  The only restaurants we saw were national fast-food chains, McDonalds, KFC, etc., and they were all closed.  100 miles down the road was another Navaho community called Cameron.  Everything there was closed, as was the road from there to the Grand Canyon’s eastern entrance.  We needed to drive all the way to Flagstaff, another 100 miles or so, just to relieve ourselves. Safeway had never seemed such an oasis of civilization as its pot to pee in.

But then Flagstaff was again over 7,000 feet and the ponderosa’s proved it.  The much more verdant drive north from there to the South Rim was less grim, but still a measured drama-less sameness.  There is no hint to what lies in store when one reaches the Grand Canyon.  No peekaboo views of the giant hole.  No smaller side canyons or cuts to the earth.  Just miles upon miles of ponderosas when the elevation rises, and junipers, pinions and rabbit brush when it doesn’t.

Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim is a settlement.  Again, like Mesa Verde, it is the steep elevation change that draws humans. But this time, civilizational settlement is not based on survival, but on the international attraction of wondrous aesthetics that rapid elevation change creates. The Village has a train station, commercial center, hotels and residences.  It has trails for horses, bikers and pedestrians above the rim.  And it has, of course, the mighty Bright Angel and Kaibab trailheads, where thousands of people take off or arrive to test their fitness, trying to go “rim to rim” through 27 miles of canyon.

The Hopi House at the South Rim, focuses on selling the arts and crafts emanating from the Navajo reservation.  That which I saw as the location of desperation and bleakness just the day before in Tuba City, was also a source of beauty and creativity. The economics of trade, however, can seem the opposite of justice. I couldn’t help but think of the relative wealth of the tourists purchasing crafts from the relative impoverishment of the artisans.

The Southwest national parks, national monuments, and other public places preserved for all to enjoy and appreciate, all seemed to have major elevation relief as a core to their value and draw.  Chasms, gaps, voids, ravines, crevasses, and arches. The Grand Canyon is, of course, the largest, deepest Canyon in the area.  But its structures are somehow understandable. Its cliff faces vertical and largely flat.

At our next stop, the relief gets weird. Comically, stunningly, beautifully weird. Bryce Canyon National Park, land of the hoodoos. https://www.google.com/search?hl=en&sxsrf=ALeKk02BDu0L6kXWt_UDDRbGXVZh_Xq5qA%3A1601747958329&source=hp&ei=9rt4X6v6D9bq-gTe8KHIBA&q=hoodoos&oq=hoodoos&gs_lcp=CgZwc3ktYWIQAzIFCAAQsQMyAggAMgIIADICCAAyAggAMgIIADICCAAyCgguEMcBEK8BEAoyAggAMgIIADoOCC4QsQMQxwEQowIQkwI6CAgAELEDEIMBOgsILhCxAxDHARCjAjoICC4QsQMQgwE6AgguOgsILhDHARCvARCTAjoOCC4QsQMQgwEQxwEQowI6CAguEMcBEK8BOgUILhCxAzoICC4QxwEQowI6CwguELEDEMcBEK8BSgUIIBIBMEoFCCgSATBQqR1Y5UVg7EdoAXAAeACAAXGIAaYEkgEDNi4xmAEAoAEBqgEHZ3dzLXdperABAA&sclient=psy-ab&ved=0ahUKEwirzcmQgJnsAhVWtZ4KHV54CEkQ4dUDCAk&uact=5

Here, the forces of water, wind, tectonic plates, and time just decided to have lots of fun. Those natural architects created “look at me” shapes, that will not endure for more than a few more millions of years, but we, the lucky, happen to arrive at the right time to take a few pictures.

We learned, at Bryce, that there is an order to all this altitude madness. Bryce, Zion and the Grand Canyon National Parks, as well as the Vermillion Cliffs and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments are part of a larger story of elevation and relief.  That tale is of the rising of the earth’s crust and then the subsequent erosion, sediment loading, pressure and time that created layers upon layers of differential sedimentary and metamorphic rocks with differential erosion rates.  At different elevations, these differences play out in different rock faces and forms.

Bryce, it turns out, is the highest part of the story.  We drove to its southern rim, more than 9,000 ft above sea level.  Grand Canyon’s bottom is the lowest part of the story.  In between is Zion National Park.  It was to Zion that we went next on our trip.

 Ah… Zion.  Zion is heaven, of course, speaking biblically.  It is Jerusalem, or rather the mountain upon which Jerusalem sits, or rather the concept of a central place upon which G-d directed David to create his holy city or rather the overall concept of a central holy place. Or it is a bit of all those things without a singular specific meaning.  When I lived last year for three months in Jerusalem, I just knew, I just felt, the city’s holy might.  It was Jerusalem that drew me to Israel.  It was a tug at my soul. 

Thirty-five years ago, I went to Zion National Park with my then girlfriend, and future wife, Karen.  I remembered it as the most beautiful place I had ever seen. Thirty-five years later, as we were about to enter Zion, I still FELT it as the most beautiful place I had ever seen.  The reality proved my memory right.

What is beauty? What is the holy might of beauty?

Zion’s sheer cliffs, its soft mountains, its river valley floor are all stunning contrasts to almost everything we have seen the last two weeks. Zion is verdant!  Even at the end of September.  Its seeps and streams and rushing waters, its fine mists, provide habitat for ferns, mosses, bullrushes, and massive cottonwoods. It has emerald pools.  I repeat. It has emerald pools!  It is lush, luxurious, and leafy.

Zion Cliffs and Valley, carved by the Virgin River

Emerald Pool, Indeed!

After Zion we were ready to return home.  We had two long drives ahead.  The first across southern Utah all the way to northern Nevada. This was plumb down the center of “The loneliest road in America.”  The broad, flat valleys were at 5 to 6 thousand feet high and the mountain ranges we would cross periodically brought us up to 7 thousand feet and a tad more. Rabbit brush yielding occasionally to junipers of various heights. The only reason it was less bleak than Navajo lands was that there was little pretense that people could actually live in such a place. Over 80% of Nevada is owned by the federal government, most of that by the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Defense.

Our overnight destination was Elko.  Back to Mos Eisley, this is probably a much closer analogy to that town.  Elko is built on avarice and other sins.  It is a mining town. Copper, silver, gold, lead, zinc, mercury, tungsten, manganese, iron, uranium, and antimony have all been harvested in the hills around Elko. It is a boom and bust city now very much in the latter stage.  The biggest city of the 4th largest country in the continental US, Elko now looks like a depressing mess.  Boarded up casinos.  Brothels out of business due to Covid.  

I looked up the town on Wikipedia.  It’s a self-proclaimed “conservative” town politically. Voted for Trump 75%-25% in 2016.  Trump signs are everywhere.  Elko has a Basque heritage and we are recommended by a friend to go to a certain Basque restaurant.  We order takeout and I go to pick it up.  Walking through the bar to get to the takeout counter is like a Covid concourse.  Tattooed ladies in low-cut tight shirts.  Tattooed young men, laughing – and coughing – as they guzzle their beers. I come up to a young staff person, who is not wearing a mask, and ask her if this is the takeout counter.  She says yes and asks me for my order.  I say I already provided it and am here to pick up the food.  She goes back to the kitchen.  I peer in as she talks with unmasked cooks.  Turns out, they mistakenly sent our food out with a delivery woman.  Oh my.  I return to the hotel room where we are staying only to find that the delivery person never came because she forgot part of the order.  We cancel the order.

But here’s where it gets fun.  Instead of Basque, we get food from a Palestinian-run Mediterranean restaurant.  I pick it up and have a great conversation with a middle-aged couple from Bethlehem. I tell them that I was there last year, and we chat amiably for a while.  “How’d you end up in Elko?” I ask. It is anyone’s most obvious question.  Turns out their parents were there and that they didn’t want to live in a big city.  So, even if Elko, at the moment, is a certifiably hellhole, it’s got great hummus and falafel.

Boom and bust. Boom and bust.  Elko will elevate again!