Monday, May 31, 2010


Sophia. (My brother's photograph.)

I’m sitting at yet another McDonald’s, this one at the edge of the Minnesota prairie. I’ve just spent another fantastic weekend with my family, this time with my brother and sister, her husband and children, and her brother- and sister-in-law. It is cool how there is this real way that we’ve all become family to each other. My sister’s husband is really my brother, as is his brother. We’ve created a new family for ourselves, or the family is evolving and changing, and if we want to maintain these relationships, we have to accept that. And relish it.

We spent the weekend at an incredible Wisconsin lake cabin, and I spent two hours both days rowing my sister and her daughter across the lake. We chased box turtles, spied sandhill cranes, and watched a family of Canada geese, the chicks fluffy and gray, disappear up from the water. This weekend was billed as my brother’s bachelor party. It’s the first long weekend the three of us have spent together in a very long time. Both my sister and I are standing up for my brother at his wedding, so, as groomsmen, we had to show him a good time.

Not that we did anything particularly spectacular. But two days of laying in the sun, good conversation, and marine exploration make for a perfect weekend. Not to mention my sister’s near-perfect menu, with an all-day marinade of skirt steak in garlic and cilantro, grilled and sliced for carne asada tacos topping the list. My nieces are perfect, as usual. Sophia had about three children chasing her around the beach, trying to get her attention. She attracts a fan following anywhere she goes.

Now we head west. Westward ho. The goal today is to get to Boulder, where we meet up with friends of Peter’s. It’s going to be an epic, seventeen-hour day of driving, which freaked me out enough that I couldn't sleep last night and woke up at two in the morning and did some yoga outside on the deck. Seventeen hours in a car does not make my lower back happy.

In other news, the Pacific Crest Trail hike looks like a more distant possibility. I’m getting consistent feedback that section is still impassable from snow. Another, more low-elevation hike, is a possibility, especially later in the season. I’m disappointed, but I also want to be realistic. Then again, one can always start a southbound thru-hike of the PCT on July 1… Why are these ideas always so tempting to me? And so tough to follow through on?

Friday, May 28, 2010

The grass was made for the cows

Bridge over the New River Gorge in West Virginia

Yesterday I spent a day with my grandmother and grandfather in Grand Rapids. They're family legends--up until last August, my grandmother, at 86, was preparing meals at which four of the five dishes came from her own garden. This year she's much changed. Yesterday, I made a rhubarb pie for her, at her request, with rhubarb from my aunt's backyard.

I never thought I'd have her blessing bestowed on me like that. She's never been good at letting go in the kitchen, and she always seemed to believe that culinary skill was bestowed from above after a wedding, and only then. A month from now, I will be her lone unmarried grandchild, and the main thing she wanted for all of us was a family. But she trusts me to make pie crust, and that's a gift I never thought I'd get. I never made a rhubarb pie before, either. My crust, with her supervision, was more flaky and delicate than I ever thought I'd be able to make it, and I took extensive notes. So maybe that can be my inheritance.

It's hard to talk about the future, though. One of the main reasons I wanted to drive across the country with my brother was because I knew we'd be stopping here. I don't know how many visits we have left. Up until last fall, all four of my grandparents were still alive, still married to their original spouses. I had four full grandparents, a complete set. Now they’re dwindling, and it’s hard to feel that I’m gradually moving into the position of the second generation, rather than the third. The reality of it doesn't make it any easier to think about.

I don’t know why. All four lived amazing and full lives. I doubt they would say there was anything they wished for that they didn't accomplish. My grandparents are surrounded by love and I imagine that they are satisfied. Age is still hard, though. Aging is hard. The passage of time is hard, death especially hard. No matter who we are, at the end of our lives, we grab and hold on to every last minute.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Across the sea

Iris, niece

My dinner the evening of Friday, when I was supposed to post, was McDonald’s, because they have wifi. Theoretically. The network didn’t show up, so my grand plans to post were shot. I should have posted when I had internet access in the morning, at the hotel, but everything seemed too stressful. Instead, I’m tried to find internet access in the mountains of West Virginia, where my family and I spent the week at a cabin on a camping trip. These are the advantages of these trips with the family—some stress, but lots of fun. Maybe I’m one of the few people in the world that still has a blast hanging out with my immediate family.

The disadvantage to these grand trips are the spending of money. I think about that more and more as I progress west across the nation. I am spending money now. I am choosing to spend money right now, because I’m doing something that I believe in. Spending time with my family is important, as is giving myself the gift of a mini-adventure this summer. But it’s still difficult.

My brother and I had this conversation about how money only gives me freedom if I’m willing to spend it. He’s right, too, as hard as it is for me to admit. If I let it sit in my bank account and don’t do anything, then it’s not giving me freedom at all. Knowing it’s there doesn’t allow me to do anything I want with it. Like buying a plane ticket for Argentina.

The real reason I don’t like spending money is because I like having it, because it makes me feel safe, because no matter what happens I have something to fall back on. Or maybe because of the starving babies in Africa.

I hate talking about the starving African babies, because it feels like such a cliche, just a guilt trip that we lay on each other. But they’re real, and the only way Americans know how to deal with them is by ignoring their existence. I’ve talked before about how I try to handle global inequity in my own conscience, but there are only two real ways:
1. Go feed them.
2. Give money to feed them.

My third way, which feels like a massive cop-out, is to minimize my participation in an unjust system, and to raise others’ consciousness by making art. I have to believe that art has a place in the universe, despite the reality of suffering. I make art in the face of suffering. But when I buy an Extra Value Meal for $5, rather than spending that $5 to save another human being’s life, I begin to have a hard time.

How can I deal with that in my own conscience? It’s so hard to understand. How can I spend money on anything when I know that $5 can save someone’s life?

Friends argue that it’s not enough to simply choose poverty as a life choice. Maybe they’re right. I just don’t know what my other choice is, if I want to follow the vocation I believe God has chosen for me. Maybe by feeding the babies at the same time that I follow my vocation? Maybe I should buy that ticket for Algeria instead.

Friday, May 21, 2010

During the year I spent dying


Every time I spend time with my family, I realize that I love my nieces more than life itself. I believe that they are literally enchanting. They enchant me, like fairy princesses waving magic wands at my face and sending me into a utopian state. They could change me into a frog and I wouldn’t even notice.

That being said, I must acknowledge that going to family weddings is an ordeal, primarily because it reminds me of the fact of children’s existence and, thus, my lack of them. Since I am an unmarried woman (everyone go read this Maureen Dowd article right now, which makes me so angry I could spit), I get to share a room with my widowed grandmother. She’s my date. I accompany her around, with her hand on my arm. Which is fine--I love her, and I’m happy to help. It just affects my perception of myself. It doesn’t matter what adventures I have partaken in, or how much I’ve published, or if I’ve won the effin’ Nobel Peace Prize. (Heck, it certainly didn’t help Obama.) In the context of my Republican family members, for whom marriage and children are almost all-important, I’m merely a spinster, no more nor less, a person sans companion or the patter of little feet in my future.

This fact used to make me so angry I could cry and scream and cry and do all of that at the same time. Now, when it doesn’t make me cry and scream, it makes me laugh. How ridiculous is it that nothing matters except children? What about my own life? Don’t all of my cousins want exactly the same things for their children that I want for myself? To wit: I am following my dreams. They want their children to follow their dreams. But what about their own dreams?

My real source of terror is that I’ll wake up on my 35th birthday and say: d’oh. I’ll realize that all of my ova have rotted on the shelf, and then realize that true happiness in life comes from progeny and progeny alone, and I blew it and now it’s too late. That’s what I’m afraid of. Or I’m afraid of ending up with a life partner who wakes up and says that same thing, minus the end bit, replacing it with: now I’ll go find a 21-year-old with ova raring to go.

So every day I progress farther into my thirties (or every day I think of it) I ask myself this question: do I want children? Do I? Do I? The answer: yes. I do. The biological imperative is too strong not to fight. Of course I do. Of course. Millions of years of DNA are screaming at me, louder and louder every passing day.

Then I ask myself the more important question, which is: do I want to raise children? And the answer to that one? Um, not so much.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Oh, they tell me of a home

View from Lookout Mountain

I bought a new pair of shoes, Vasque Mindbenders, trail running shoes. Vasque evidently sponsors a 100-mile ultra-marathoner, so if they’re good enough for her, they’re good enough for me. Joke nalang--I don’t really buy things based on who sponsors them, but it does give me confidence. The real reason was that they were on sale at the outfitter in my size, and my AT hiking companion wore Vasque Velocities for 1000 miles. So I know they’ll stand up for the duration. It’s the first new pair of hiking shoes I’ve bought in six years. I even wore my second-half AT pair of New Balances for my full 900 miles of the PCT in 2005.

That’s exactly why I want to do a solo hike this year. I feel like I’m waking up all those old joints, all those old feelings of anxiety, adrenaline, excitement. I love hiking, and I also hate it. I went and reread my trail journals from June of 2005, and remembered how much of hiking is sheer pain. That’s okay, right? Maybe not at the time I’m hiking.

Anyway. I’m trying not to make my expectations too high. I know it’s a high-snow year in the Sierra, and I know (from a friend) that there’s still snow at 7000 feet. Evidently Donner Pass, where I begin, had a freak snowstorm last week that dropped twelve inches. And it’s been in the twenties at night all week. Yikes.

I’m also trying to remind myself that I’m fairly comfortable in the snow, that I have the equipment I need, that I’ve done this before, and I’m much more experienced with snowshoes and crampons than I was five years ago. And I’m trying to remember that I can always cry uncle. Maybe the best thing for me would be to get a quarter-mile down the trail, realize I can’t hack it, pitch my one-person tent, and hang out for three weeks. By myself. In the woods. How cool does that sound? It blows my mind that I’ve even given myself permission to do that sort of thing.

Maybe I’ll bring a copy of Dharma Bums, just to give myself an air of authenticity.

Back to my new Vasques. I half-thought about dropping a line to Vasque and asking if they wanted to sponsor me, but this little tiny hike isn’t nearly epic enough. Corporate sponsors are fascinating to me. They remind me of the medieval Medicis, that corrupt Italian family that kept artists as pets. And in the best possible way, although that sounds awful. I love the idea of medieval patronage, especially because it reminds me that artists (and adventurers, in this case, although I know I’m stretching the metaphor) have always needed patrons. They’ve always been forced to participate in the marketplace, and a lot of times the way they’ve had to do that is by finding people who believe in what they do and accepting their financial support.

So, does anyone want to be my patron? I think I’ve asked this before. But now I’m being specific: Prana (tank tops that lasted 3000+ miles), Vasque, Salomon (best AT shoes), New Balance (second best), Duofold (tee-shirt that lasted 3000+miles), Smartwool, REI (tent and hiking shorts), EMS (best long underwear), North Face (fantastic fifteen-degree sleeping bag), etc...

Is that in bad taste? I don’t know. If I had the funding, I’d jet off to South America in a heartbeat. I’d wander around Mongolia and write about it. Maybe I’d spend six months a year here on my five acres, but I’d go as far as I needed to go. Maybe what I’m saying is that I’m not as distrustful as the corporate impulse as most hippies are. I believe in old-fashioned capitalism: good people selling a good product that they believe in and that does a good job, what it says it does. What I don’t belive in are government-sponsored Medici/Walmart-style monopolies. I do realize that artists and adventurers have to find ways to sell their work, their stories. That’s the work they do. Maybe, some day, my art will fund my new shoe purchases.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

I just need twenty dollars.

Sky above Trenton
Sky above Trenton

I have been wanting to do an environmental post for a while, but I don't think I have enough energy tonight. I'm sure there's a great pun in there about energy efficiency or something, but I can't make the effort to find it, either. Tonight is the fourth night in a row I've broken the one o'clock barrier, and I still feel like I'm not getting half of the things done that I need to. I have to be completely ready for California and the next month of my life, including a death-defying snow hike, in four days. Four friggin' days. I don't know how I'm going to do it.

But I'm posting! Maybe this goal is important only to me. I don't know. I can't figure that out. I still get this weirdness around blogs, that it just doesn't seem very important, even though I know that when I do it consistently, I stay happier. Isn't that perverse? Does that just show what a creature of the electronic age I am? Or what an egoist I am?

I'm going to try to stay on a consistent posting schedule as I travel west, mainly for myself, but it should lend itself to some interesting photographs and some interesting posts. I'm looking forward to seeing friends and family, and just being on the road again. I'm never happier than when I'm moving. Moving and writing. Moving and writing and doing yoga. That's the hard part. Maybe I will achieve true enlightenment when I can whip out my mat at a rest area and do yoga in the rain. That would probably make anyone achieve true enlightenment.

In the meantime, I'm just wicked stressed out. I'm going to bed at 1:30, but unable to sleep until well past two, because I keep waking up and making to-do lists. I have about eight to-do lists now, and I spend most of my time reorganizing them. When in doubt, restructure.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Cymbals crashed

New leaf in Georgia

I'm trying to plan my trip to California, and it's not going so well. So far my plan is to spend about three weeks doing about 250 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, which is not all that ambitious, considering the scope of some of my previous adventures. But I'm trying to hike north of Yosemite National Park, in early June, which means that my problems with snow will probably be significant. If you've read any of my other journals, you know that I don't always do that well with snow.

I'm hoping that I've made progress since then, that I've become a better snow-walker. I did do a fair amount of snowshoeing in Maine, and also tried a lot of walking on icy snow in crampons. If you recall those journals, though, I also did a fair amount of wallowing. Wallowing is never good for one's psyche. Or one's daily mileage. I can't decide if my plan is ambitious in a good way, or ambitious in a dangerous, I'm-going-to-die way. Which is always the fatal flaw with any of my plans.

If you recall, this was my major dilemma with the boat, too. It's at this point that I always say: screw it. If I die, I die. A lot less amusing when I'm standing at the edge of a field of snow at 9000 feet by myself with only a pair of running shorts, a backpack, and an ice axe.

Bravery is an interesting virtue. We revere it, or at least I do, and I have a tremendous amount of healthy respect for it. And some scorn. What's brave for one person is folly for another. But what's wrong with folly? Only death. That's what's wrong with folly. And pain. Pain is always a significant companion in any hiking adventure, something else that I always forget until about the second mile.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

When will she see that to gain is only to lose?

Walnut Street Bridge

One thing about living in the South is the wound of slavery forever on the landscape. It's so hard to talk about. It's almost impossible to have an honest discussion about race in this country, which makes our problem with it even greater. Nationally, we're always ready to condemn other nations for their failings, but not ourselves. It's that famous verse writ large: "Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?"

Of course, all other nations are the same. When I lived in France, they were forever having conferences about "the American race problem," or "racisme Americaine," as they called it. All the while they were kicking Arabs out of their bars and restaurants, completely legally and without recourse. The French were unable to acknowledge that they had a race problem themselves, just because happened to have not kept slaves. At least not on their own soil.

Our race problem, admittedly, is deeper and darker and longer and bloodier. I just learned from the Chattanooga paper that two black men were lynched from the Walnut Street Bridge. During the twentieth century. The bridge is now a pedestrian footbridge, the heart of Chattanooga's scenic downtown. I'll never be able to look at it the same way. I knew these things happened, but it's another thing to know they happened here, on this dirt.

I keep thinking about the Billie Holiday song "Strange Fruit." It blows my mind that an African-American woman, a mythic and powerful singer, was able to create art out of such horror. As it was happening. Especially when we can barely breath a word about it now. We're so afraid of telling the truth--about both our own past and our own present.

Here's the truth: racism is alive and well in Chattanooga. Maybe that's not a newsflash, but after years in the north, it shocked me. I work in a service industry, and the blatant disregard my bosses have for racial equality disgusts me. We hold to the letter of the law when it comes to African-American teenagers, and give rich white men enough wiggle room to do anything they want. I try to enforce our policies equitably, but I feel myself accepting and participating in that discrimination, as much as I try to fight it.

Here's another truth that makes me squirm: almost all of the problems I've had at work have been with those same black teenage boys. What does that mean? Can my statement even be trusted? Isn't my anecdotal evidence corrupted by the cultural lens through which I see the world, the racism I've been taught since I was a baby? Maybe those tendencies are rooted so subconsciously that they can't be changed.

But that's crap. I believe in change. I adore Tupac's song "Changes," too--an interesting counterpoint to Billie Holiday's song. Here's his line: "although it seems heaven sent, we ain't ready to see a black president..." It isn't true anymore. We have a black president, and that song is only twelve years old.

I'm not sure it helps the African-American kids that come to my desk, though. They're swimming against a strong tide. I just hope they keep swimming, and I hope the tide is changing. I'm going to swim and join them.

In land news, I found a beautiful five-acre piece on Monday, emailed the realtor immediately, visited the property yesterday, and was on my way to make an offer when she called back. It had sold. The contract was on her desk. So another one bites the dust. In blog news, I continue to be unhappy with my redesign. So more changes may be coming. I believe in change, after all.

Friday, May 07, 2010

La prophete

Hand-drawn map of crossing from Bimini to Nassau

So I redesigned the blog today. Does it look awful? I kind of think it looks awful. But that's mainly because I have an aggressive love-hate relationship with change.

Hmm. If you have any thoughts, or colors you'd prefer, or, heck, if you happen to be a web designer with some time on your hands, please let me know. I'm happy to be finally giving credit to all the blogs I read, and also letting all of you know what I do with my time that I'm supposed to be spending writing. Maybe eventually I'll add all of the fancy elements that all of my favorite blogs have.

Maybe I spent all of this time doing this because I found out yesterday that one of the pieces of land I was prepared to make an offer on has already sold. Merde. It's making me more sad than I thought it would. I always knew that this would happen, that as soon as I decided on a piece it would be gone, but still. It's one thing to believe it will happen, it's another to actually have it happen.

Now it's back to the drawing board. At least I can draw beautiful diagrams, as indicated above. I can also make cheesy sunset blog headers.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Before I reached the bottom

Bob Dylan's song "All Along the Watchtower" is his best short story. I won't argue that it's his best poem, or best song, but as a straight-up short-short, it succeeds completely.
“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth”

“No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late”

All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too

Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl
There's so much story there. I can't begin to explain it. My goal as a writer, for the rest of my life, will be to come close to something that reaches that level of complexity and beauty. One of Keats central concepts of literature was negative capability, and a fiction writer struggles with that idea as Dylan does here. I always imagine negative capability like one of those metal pin art things, where you press your face into it and it leaves an impression. I want each story to be something where each individual can find their own face in it.

But the symbolism and mystery and myth in stories can't ever be generic, because it's in the specific that we find the universal. We know all sorts of things about the characters in this story. We know their professions. We know that they are in a watchtower--not just a tower, but a watchtower. We know that something changes profoundly for them at the end of the story. We also know a lot about their character, based on the conversation they have. Those specific references lead us to specific images--the one that always occurs to me are the thief on the cross next to Christ. Who's to say the other fellow wasn't a joker? And the riders at the end. The whole story rests on those riders at the end. They're so specific--I can see them, against the horizon, at the end--but they could be anyone.

The most famous short-short of all, of course, is by Ernest Hemingway. He invented the genre, some claim. His is also the shortest successful story, in my opinion. Six words. Here it is:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
Allegedly, he called it his best work. But he was wrong about a lot of things.

Here's a more modern one, by Dave Eggers. With tongue suitably in cheek.

It was a great battle. You probably heard about it already, so why go on about it here?
Dylan uses all of 130 words, which is practically novelesque by comparison. I find myself thinking a lot about Dylan lately. As usual, I suppose. He gave an amazing interview about "Christmas in the Heart" on his web site. He's a true believer, and he never let anyone else tell him to play by their rules. He never even let anyone else choose the game for him. I want to be like him, but it's hard to be that strong. I feel like he must have a keg tapped straight into the Muse.

Sunday, May 02, 2010


Leaf on a log

I read this quote about romance novels the other day, on one of the blogs I wander around every so often: "It’s a 50-plus-year-old industry comprised mostly of women writers operating their own businesses and producing a genre about women’s self-actualization, pursuit of autonomy, and acquisition of sexual agency for an audience made mostly of women, who buy over $1.4 billion dollars worth of books a year."

Even though I'm not a huge fan, it's an interesting take on that world. It's a good example of how something that is looked down upon, derided, can take on another appearance when looked at from another angle.

I have been trying to look at my life from different angles. It’s so easy to get caught up in the slow, steady pace of one day into the next, one month to the next, one season to the next. And the next thing you know, you’re fifty. Or eighty. Or 110.

When I tell the story of my life, I tell it in these huge sweeping plotlines, with arcs and major decisions, inciting incidents. But I almost never knew what the turning points were when I made them. Strike that: I never knew what the turning points were when I made them. Could I be on the cusp of one right now? I have no earthly idea.

I used to think that any single day of any single person’s life could be used as the plot of a major Dostoevsky-type epic novel. You know, Bloomsday. The whole Joyce thing. What if that’s not true either? What if a lot days are just filled with boring television-show watching, procrastination, staving off time’s arrow and the slow process of decay for another 24 hours? Does each day really have enough heroic moments to form an epic plotline?

I’m less sure of that now. Maybe there really are singular days that are ends of eras. Fin. Curtain. How do we know when those days are when we’re living them? We absolutely don't.

Sailing past Bimini Island, I knew that the year before Hemingway’s bar, The Compleat Angler, had burned to the ground with all of its memorabilia. I couldn’t help but think of it as the end of the era. I was on the cusp of a new one. Everything was new: entering that blue water, crossing the Gulf Stream, embarking on a new and perilous adventure. But each change in angles, each end, though a beginning, also meant a terrifying break with the past. I’m scared to break with the past. Not so scared, perhaps, that I end up cradling my aging body in front of the television for the next twenty years. But sometimes I do that for days on end, afraid to push myself out of my current snake skin, into one that’s fresh, new, raw, painful, terrifying.