We Ken Drive the Alcan–No Problem

If life is a journey, our road trip down the Alaska-Canadian (Alcan) highway was a mere excursion—except it didn’t feel that way.  My husband and I drove 2700 miles over four days averaging nearly 700 miles per day to get back home from Alaska to the lower 48.  We motored over mountain passes, steep grades, teeth-rattling frost heaves, and sharp curves with no guard rails and 700 foot drops over the side of the road.

The really remarkable thing though, is we did it all in our little Prius hatchback, our noble steed of a car. 

The Alcan is very near mythic.  I heard about this road in the early 70’s when a friend of ours, Ernie, attempted to drive it on a motorcycle.  The Alcan at that time was mostly a gravel road.  Ernie might have made it up to Alaska if not for the relentless rains sweeping through Canada that turned the gravel into rock soup.  Opened for public travel during World War II, the Alcan which connects the contiguous U.S. to Alaska, was not fully paved until the 1980’s.  Even today there are some rough patches where the pavement’s given way to broken asphalt and gravel.

For the most part, and despite the pace we’d set, I enjoyed our drive coming home from Alaska on the Alcan.  Passing through the Yukon and upper British Columbia we saw bear, buffalo, wolf, deer, and moose.  It was almost like driving through a wildlife park.  The mountain valleys were narrow and the peaks sheer.  At the bottom ran streams, turquoise in color, likely due to “glacial flour” (rock ground fine from glacier movement) lining the stream bed.  When I wasn’t sight-seeing out the window I was peacefully daydreaming.  Existential questions like “who am I” and “what is my purpose” were momentarily forgotten.  Usurped by more immediate concerns: where’s the next quiki mart and gas station?

Though our Prius hybrid takes little gas we still needed to be mindful of stations along the way.

I got worried when the gas meter dipped to two bars on the three hour stretch between Watson Lake and Northern Rockies Lodge.

We passed one boarded-up gas stop after another, closed for the winter.  Seeing the Northern Rockies Lodge open was a big relief.  I hopped out of the car to get coffee while Dale pumped gas.  A young man with a long ponytail stood behind the lobby desk talking to a chubby woman wearing a floppy hat, evidently a guest at the lodge.  I overheard their conversation, curious about the desk clerk’s brogue accent.

“Scottish,” I said when he turned to help me.

“That’s a very good guess,” he smiled.

I shrugged, the picture of modesty.  “I’m good with accents. I don’t know why, but I can usually pick out where someone’s from.”

“Ken you now?” he looked at me speculatively.  Of course I “ken.”  I’d just told him that.

“Actually, I’m not Scottish, I’m British.”

“Oh,” my eyes slid from his face then, to the lobby counter, “Well… anyhow… could you please tell me where I could buy a couple cups of coffee?”

On our trip we ran into several international people.  Canada, along with 52 other countries including Australia and India are part of the British Commonwealth, former colonies of Great Britain.  One of the fringe benefits of that exalted status is more lax immigration laws between Commonwealth countries.

We officially left the Alcan behind at Dawson Creek, British Columbia.  Next door to our motel in Dawson Creek was a casino surprisingly named: Chances.  The casino was all flashing neon lights and ringing slot machines.  I stood at our motel window gazing thoughtfully over at Chances.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to civilization.  It was so quiet on the Alcan.  So peaceful, and so natural.

 

 

 

All images:  Diana Hooley

Big is Beautiful

The tall guard at the Canadian-Alaskan border crossing asked me to take off my sunglasses so he could compare my physical appearance to the picture on my passport.

“Oh, that picture was taken on an ‘off’ day,” I joked, pointing to my passport photo.

He just looked at me.  “Do you have any firearms or hazardous material in your car, mam?”

I shook my head humbly.

“Okay then.  You’re good to go.”  I reached down to put my car in drive, but he bent his head forward, closer to the open car window.  “Good thing you’re not from Texas,” he said.

“How’s that?” I was beginning to get nervous.

“Well if you were from Texas, I’d have to say how sorry I am about your puny, little state.  Then I’d welcome you to Alaska—America’s biggest state.”

I grumbled to myself as I drove away, men and their egos.  But this past week in Alaska, I’ve learned just how true his statement was.  Alaska is large—and in more ways than one.  Let’s talk about geography first.  To get from Juneau, Alaska to Tok, Alaska you have to drive two days and spend the night in the Yukon Territory of Canada.  Oh these mountain ranges, they are such a bother to get around.  The mountains I’m referring to are in the Wrangell-St. Alias National Park, the most remote and largest (of course) national park in the U.S.  But even minus the mountains, as the crow flies, from Homer to Barrow, Alaska it’s nearly 1000 miles.

Then there are the Alaskan people themselves.  I heard Bill Maher, HBO’s political satirist, said that fat-shaming needed to make a comeback.  He was making a point about the adverse effects of obesity.  It isn’t that Alaskans are obese exactly.  My mother would say (kindly) they’re built “solid.”  I’ve never seen so many big people in one place in my life.  I feel petite.  And that’s saying something.

I think it must be from all the hearty food Alaskans eat: giant bread bowels of creamy clam chowder, sourdough pancakes, and reindeer sausage rolls the size of my fist.

Vegetables and fruit are available here, but why bother? 

The lettuce is wilted and sad-looking.  Salad won’t stick to your ribs standing in a fishing boat out on breezy Cook Inlet.  I can’t complain though.  Finally I’ve found clothing stores with my style sense:  Carhartt long-sleeved T’s, size 2X.

Speaking of fashion sense, suspenders are au couture for males, and bunny boots (not to be confused with the infamous Playboy bunny attire) serve as vogue foot wear.  In fact, I happened upon a new bride in Homer decked out in high, white bunny boots.  I asked to take her picture and her charming groom said, “Well, I guess so.”

Big though Alaska is, it’s not big enough to manage the effects of climate change.  Up here on both sides of the political spectrum, everyone is concerned about Alaska’s warming climate.

According to Alan, a commercial fisherman in Kachemak Bay, the ocean temperature has risen to an-unheard-of 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Alan said forty years ago when he started out in the business, the ocean was never above 48 degrees.  The cod fishing industry has completely collapsed due to, among other problems, the warming environment.  Halibut still seems to be plentiful though.  And like everything in this state, the halibut are huge.  I watched fascinated, as a man on the dock casually filleted a 70-pound halibut that had just been caught by another fisherman.

One of the slogans you see on bumper stickers and T shirts around southeast Alaska is, “Stay wild, my friends.”  Alaskans should be proud of their wild, big state.  I’m sad though, that they’re losing the cold, the ice, and the deep freeze.  It’s a tragedy for them—and for us.

 

Image Credit:  All images Diana Hooley

Going Wild in Alaska

Out the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry window is a bank of white fog that lines the shores of British Columbia.  I know beyond that is hundreds of miles of dark green forest, taiga.  It’s such a big land up here.  Miles of nothing, miles of everything plant, tree, and animal-wise. How would I do living in such wilderness?  I’ve marveled at all those eccentric homesteaders in Alaska watching that reality TV show, Alaskan Bush People.  Could I go without my Starbucks coffee—room for cream please?  What about my allergy medication?  I guess I could sneeze and cough my way through bear country.

Suddenly I’m keenly aware of how much it takes to keep me operative.

“Where’s your sense of adventure?” my husband chides me.

Dale’s ready to go native, but I’m hesitant to leave life as I know it behind. And is it really an adventure to not reserve a room in Talkeetna?  To end up sleeping in the back of the Prius huddled under some hoody jackets?  To my thinking, that’s not adventure, that’s dumb.

“All I’m saying is we don’t have to plan this trip to-the-teeth.  Let’s live a little dangerously,” Dale tells me.

I think about a documentary I saw once about a young man, Timothy Treadwell, who lived his life very dangerously.  He was so fascinated by grizzly bears he decided to live among them in Alaska.  He even made friends with a few bears—or tried to.  One, he affectionately named “Brownie.”  Then, he drug his girlfriend up to his campsite to experience the wild and sadly, they both were attacked and killed by bears.  It’s a tragic tale—yet still worth mentioning under present circumstances.

My compromise on the “adventure” part of our trip to Alaska was to not book a motel for three nights of our two-week vacation.

I know, I know, it seems risky to me too, but I’m big enough to let fate decide where I lay my head and find my sustenance in the Alaskan outback.

“You know, they do have stores in Alaska,” our friend Ed told me when I voiced my concerns about roughing it.

Thinking about having an adventure in Alaska made me remember “the law of contrasts.”  I made this “law” up a long time ago when I noticed my days seemed to be blurring one into another, dependent on the same routes and routines.  I felt a little numb driving to work, picking up groceries, and doing laundry on the weekends.  It didn’t feel like madness to me.  The problem was, it didn’t feel like anything.  I was stuck beyond feeling—until I began to jog.

What I needed in my life was some contrast.

Jogging is nothing like climbing Denali, but you have to admit there is something torturous about both tasks.  I began jogging to lose weight.  Before work early in the morning when it was dark and cold outside, I’d dutifully put on my sneakers and ran down our gravel road, a mile and back.

What I discovered beyond all the jogging pain—was true gain.  For the rest of the day I usually felt good, happy even.  It could have been the mythic endorphin “rush” runners get.  But I’ve read you actually have to run the length of an Iditarod (or portion thereof) to get a real runner’s high.  I think the suffering of my morning jog elevated my mood somehow and made me notice, in contrast, how pleasant the rest of the day was.

I could remind Dale about my law of contrasts, but I don’t want to give him more ammunition for arguments against preplanning our motels in Alaska.  Instead, I’ll take my philosophizing another direction and talk about how difficult life can be, and why make it more so?  It’s so easy to just pick up the cell phone and make a reservation. They do have cell service in Alaska, don’t they?

 

Image CreditAlaskan Bush People      Image Credit:  Alaska (Diana Hooley)    Image Credit:  Dale and Diana (Diana Hooley)

Fired Up and Ready to Go to Alaska

Who wants to go to Alaska?  Not me, I’m not a fan of cold, dark, and dreary.  Everyone else I know though is: my daughter, my in-laws, my friends.  Keith worked as a nurse on various cruise ships and of the many places he’d traveled to in in the world, Alaska, he said, was the most beautiful.  Good thing because that is where my husband and I are headed to this week, obviously his idea more than mine.  The weather is supposed to be good in September—except for the fires.  And smoke.  Forget I ever said anything about cold, dark, and dreary.

Alaska has been hit by global warming.

Still, there’s a question as to whether Alaskans think that’s the problem.  My daughter commented that on her family’s visit to the Great Alone, they stopped at various natural and scenic areas along the way, listening to park rangers and guides address questions about melting glaciers.  She asked one guide what was behind the glacial melt but couldn’t get a straight answer.  The guide didn’t want to discuss the human causes behind climate change: our fossil fuel and carbon consumption.

I was surprised to hear this.  Public employees, with presumably some kind of science and naturalist understanding, were shying away from a full-bodied explanation of the topic.

Maybe Alaskans aren’t really in denial.  Maybe the tourist industry asks their guides and interpreters to limit commentary on melting glaciers.

It’s not only too political (whoever turned climate change into a political issue should be forced to fight fire on the Kenai Peninsula), but also, consider their audience:  gas-guzzling tourists flying, boating, and driving to the remote northern reaches of our continent for entertainment and pleasure.

My hand is up, of course.  We’re guilty, my husband and I—or going to be this week.  But wait.  It’s not simply that I’m a carbon hypocrite and wedded to the leisure lifestyle of the retired.  It’s that I’ve read the science and know that though I nobly recycle, support green energy, and fly sparingly—our climate is still expected to heat up regardless.

Richard Rood, professor of climate and space science at University of Michigan says we’re feeling the effects of a warming climate already, with an average temperature just one centigrade higher than normal (online at The Conversation, July 2017).  Rood says we can expect it to get a lot hotter, at least 4-5 degrees hotter.,   According to Rood it will take hundreds of years to rid us of all of the atmospheric carbon accumulated since the Industrial Revolution.  He also says though, whatever efforts we make to go green will help slow down global warming.

The important thing is to limit the threat to plant, animal, and even human life.  To limit extinction.  As I write this last sentence I’m reminded of a young woman I taught years ago at Boise State University.  We were talking about ways teachers can get junior high students to read their science textbook, when this young lady raised her hand.

“I don’t get what the big deal is with all this global warming stuff,” she said.

I didn’t want to mention the “extinction” word then.  At the time, it seemed like overkill.  So I talked about rising seas and coastal flooding instead.  I never dreamed of suggesting fires in frigid, wet Alaska. 

Climate change is a complex subject, no doubt, and even more importantly, we don’t really have a solution to the problem.  But we can vote.  We can vote in support of candidates who are at least willing to confront the issue.  Having said that, a gentle reminder folks:  there’s an election next year!

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mage Credit: Map of Alaskan fires         Image Credit:   Glaciers melting

Battling the Bruneau Beast

I am not a competitive person.  Maybe most people say that who really are competitive.  My daughter challenged me on this subject when she brought the grandkids down to the farm for a wienie roast.  Holding her hot dog in one hand she looked at me archly.

“Oh mom, you are so competitive.  You know that right?”

I shrugged.  She sounded like the mature adult next to my adolescent resistance.  I realized our roles were reversing again, and I hated when that happened.

Being competitive was a non-issue for me—at least that’s what I thought until I hiked the Bruneau Beast.

Every summer I climb what I call the Bruneau Beast, at 470 feet the largest free standing sand dune in North America. The Bruneau Beast is also a fun run sponsored by the Bruneau Sand Dunes State Park near Bruneau, Idaho.  There are no footholds or gradual switchbacks to the top of this dune.  Something to keep in mind if you ever decide to try it.  It’s all slippery sand.

This year I climbed the Beast with a dear, old friend, Sue.  Sue is usually game for anything, and like me, she enjoys playing outside and finding activities that gets her heart pumping.

“Just so you know,” I told Sue as we walked to the base of the dune, “my knee’s been acting up, so I might go a little slower than usual.”

“Oh, me too!  I’ve got something wrong with my left knee. I’ll probably need surgery soon.”

Good, I thought.  We’ll both be a couple of hobblers on the hill.

“So, you climb this dune every summer?” Sue asked.

“Yep, at least once a summer (as if I’d ever go up the Beast twice in a year even).”

“Wow,” Sue said, suitably impressed.  I picked up my pace and tried to suppress the ensuing breathlessness.

Soon though, I fell behind Sue.  How could she be so fast, I wondered.  I was over six inches taller than her, which meant her legs were a lot shorter than mine.  

The Beast hike seemed more grueling than usual.  I bent over angled against the incline, and watched frustrated, as each step I took slid back halfway in the feckless sand. When I looked up heaving and panting, Sue was well ahead of me, pausing to look at the scenery.  Or was she waiting for me to catch up?  “Where’s the fire, Sue?” I muttered grouchily as I slung my tired legs forward.  When I finally got within talking distance, I gasped out, “Sue!  How old are you?”

She smiled quizzically, but I was determined to establish she was three years (THREE YEARS!) younger than me.  Not only that, she and I both knew she was dozens of pounds lighter (not something I wanted to dwell on).  These were significant differences that needed to be noted when hiking with a partner.

“Well,” I bent at the waist and placed my hands on my knees to catch my breath better, “Just wait till you’re my age and stage (Sue was apparently hiking with her grandmother).  Then we’ll see how you feel climbing the Bruneau Beast.”

“Oh Di,” Sue tried to assure me, “This is really a tough climb.  I’m too tired to fight the sand anymore.  I think I’ll crawl the rest of the way up.”

“Crawl?  Really?  That’s a great idea!”  Then we both happily dropped to all fours and stink-bugged our way to the dune ridge.

Sometimes you don’t know how competitive you are until you find yourself in a competitive situation.

To Sue’s credit, she didn’t seem to notice or mind her friend’s weird behavior.  Going down the dune we laughed and sand-surfed on our backsides.  At the bottom, I heaved one more deep breath, a sigh of relief, because this year’s hike up the largest sand dune in North America—was done.

 

Image Credit: Bruneau Beast 

Image Credit:  Dale Hooley (Diana Hooley climbing)

Image Credit:  Dale Hooley (Diana Hooley at the top of the Bruneau Beast)

 

 

 

 

The Job of My Dreams

I was offered a job teaching kindergarten two mornings a week in the little village of Hammett, Idaho.  I considered taking the job even though I’ve spent my career teaching older students, adults and teens.  It was a thrill.  It was a challenge.  It was a nightmare.  No, not a nightmare—it was a dream.  My head nestled deep in a pillow, I’d dreamt about the Hammett job offer.  It wasn’t real.  I know some people still dream about their jobs, their careers, long past retirement:  waiting on tables, writing reports in an office, dealing with co-workers.  My farmer-husband woke up one morning this past summer and when I asked him over coffee how he’d slept, he said, “I worked all night.”

“No you didn’t,” I took a sip of my hot coffee.  “You snored all night.”

“That wasn’t a snore.  That was me grunting, trying to keep up with the farm (bailing hay, moving irrigation pipe, fixing the tractor).  There was too much pressure.  I had to wake up just to get some rest.”

Even though leaving our work identities behind after retirement can be both freeing and frightening, our careers, our work leaves marks on our psyche as deep and wide as Big Foot’s tracks on the forest floor.

This is why retirement for many people is such a dramatic sea change. It’s not just changing our behaviors, it’s changing how we think.  In light of such a big transition, some of us choose to hang on to our jobs. I hiked with a friend in the foothills north of Boise, Idaho the other day, and she told me her brother, at 76, plans to keep his career as a communications professor at Portland State University, as long as he can.  Sitting on a restaurant patio last week, I ran into another old friend, Fred, who’s been a practicing mental health therapist for at least thirty years.  Fred told me he’d probably work until the day he dies.  And like the great therapist he is, Fred didn’t want to talk about himself, he wanted to talk about me.

“So Diana,” he said, “I hear you’re doing a lot of writing these days…”

My husband and I have another friend, Bob, who has a decidedly different take on retirement.  Bob said, “It takes guts to retire.”  He went on to talk about the courage it took for him to sit with feelings of boredom and aimlessness—a perspective I found interesting.  Some people say they’re busier than ever in retirement.

Still, Bob had a point.  Retirement is often a process:  binge-watching Netflix shows until you feel ready to move on to something else.

Ironically now, I remember what a drag having a job was when I was a teenager in the 60’s and 70’s.  Maynard G. Krebs, the deadbeat beatnik on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis show expressed the sentiment of me and my peers on the topic of work.  Whenever Maynard heard the word, “work,” he repeated it with a shout, like he had Tourettes and work was a dirty word.  Then there’s the Civil War era poet, Walt Whitman, for whom having a job was—a distraction.  Whitman’s family lamented his “laziness,” but Whitman didn’t want regular employment with its “usual rewards.”  He preferred instead, to wander the beaches of Long Island and create great masterpieces of poetry like his collection, Leaves of Grass.

For many years, my job meant a lot to me.  I liked the routine, the money, and the title: Dr. Hooley. 

But when I retired, the veneer of self-importance fell away, and I was left with just me.  Not the professor, or coach, or director, or committee member.  Just me.  And for most of us, that’s not such a bad thing.  Retirement means we finally have the time to consider what we want to do, instead of what we have to do.  And honestly, being a kindergarten teacher in Hammett, Idaho was never high on my list.

 

 

Image Credit:  Hammett sign    Image Credit: The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis        Image Credit:  Walt Whitman

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Harsh Reality of Life on the Farm

Life gets real on the farm—meaning sometimes cruel.  Those of us who live more urbanely, shopping for hermetically sealed dairy, meat, and produce in the supermarket can easily forget this fact.  But your grandparents or great-grandparents, and if not them, your pioneer forebears knew all about the farm’s morbid facts of life.

Having lived on a farm myself for nearly a lifetime, I’ve been largely desensitized to the prey-predator drama enacted on many farms every day.  For example, I often tap the fence around our livestock pen with a stick when I walk by to roust Shirley, our pig.  She’s a curious creature, always ready to shove her wet snout through the fence slats to get a sniff of my pants.  I smile until I remember Shirley, at nearly 300 pounds, is almost butcher weight.  Honestly, if I thought about this much, I would turn vegan—or Muslim—but sadly, one of these options in America today might predispose me to being the one butchered (at least metaphorically-speaking).

This past summer I watched a charming movie, The Biggest Little Farm, about a city couple, a husband and wife from Los Angeles, who loved animals and wanted to try their hand at sustainable farming in California’s Central Valley.  It’s always fun to watch city people “do” farm life.  I think of that silly early 2000’s reality show, The Simple Life, about a spoiled heiress, Paris Hilton, and her manicured best friend, Nicole Ritchie, slogging through cow dung in waders.

But John and Molly of The Biggest Little Farm were much more serious about going “full hayseed.”  They wanted to be a model, an example, that food, both plants and animals, could be produced in humane and sustainable ways. 

Pesticides, chemicals, and fertilizers were a no-go.  They wanted to prove that a bio-diverse environment, with a variety of plants, animals, and other creatures, would find a rhythm and harmony that was not only natural, but profitable.  I was cheering for them every step of the way in my movie theater seat.  If they could do it, maybe bigger farms like the one my husband and I operate, could too.

To their credit, John and Molly created a relatively honest film.  Which means—the way they controlled pests like aphids, snails, gophers, and coyotes—was by letting nature take its course.  It other words, allowing animals to eat each other, i.e. prey-predator cycle.  Of course, there was savagery in this, and not all of it was planned.

Oopsies happened, like when the coyotes broke through the fence and ripped the throats of baby lambs.  One of the trusted guard dogs even ravaged the beloved pet rooster, Greasy, Greasy’s entrails scattered across the barn yard.

As animal-lovers themselves, the way life and death played out on the farm became an unavoidable nightmare for John and Molly.  Yet, they were determined.  They acclimated.  They watched stoically as the sweet, little piglets they helped birth, were hauled off to sale and slaughter.

By the end of the movie the before/after pictures of John and Molly’s farm were not quite as dramatic as a 600-pound woman post stomach stapling surgery, but it was impressive. Where once the southern California dust skittered over alkaline patches, fruit trees bloomed and herds of sheep roamed through grass meadows.  John and Molly though, looked older, more haggard, and less enthusiastic.

It took seven years to realize their sustainable farm—and it came at a cost.  The price appeared to be their idealism.

And did they make a profit?  That was less clear.  Something my businessman-husband picked up on immediately.  For despite the Garden of Eden John and Molly had managed to nurture in the California desert, my husband’s one comment at the film’s end was:  “I want to see their spreadsheet.”

 

Image credits:  The Biggest Little Farm        Image credit:  The Simple Life        Image credit:   Diana Hooley, Hooley’s commercial, desert farm

The Trip to Sun Valley

 

There’s a book I read years ago about the American West, a work of fiction by the author Wallace Stegner: Angle of Repose.  Stegner’s book has a long and colorful history, including a Pulitzer Prize, but what I want to talk about is its title.  I’ve always been fascinated by the title.  Angle of repose is a geological term meaning the place where rocks tumbling down a hill finally come to rest.  The title is a metaphor for the story: a young pioneering couple from the east, move west, and go through both physical and emotional upheaval before they finally find together, an angle of repose.

Maybe my fondness for this book’s title has to do with the fact that I once was an easterner.  Like many transplants, I lived other places, experiencing different landscapes and cultures before I settled in the West.

I thought about this the past weekend when I took my elderly mother and two of her friends for a little get-away to Idaho’s beautiful Sun Valley resort.  Mom said she always wanted to see Switzerland (who doesn’t?), and I thought, since international travel isn’t viable for her anymore, Sun Valley might be the next best thing.

On the trip, I told the ladies packed in the backseat of the Subaru that I first heard about Sun Valley years ago, when I was in high school back east.  I think I must have been rifling through a magazine at the school library, likely having skipped lunch, when I came upon a glitzy advertisement for the resort. The ad read: “Winter playground of the rich and famous!”  I remember the picture of people happily skiing down snow-covered mountain peaks and thinking, “Wow.  Isn’t that pretty.  Too bad I’ll never go there.”  I couldn’t imagine visiting a place like Sun Valley because, a) my family was too poor for resorts; we scrapped by on my dad’s trucker salary, and b) Sun Valley, Idaho was about 2,000 miles and several feet of elevation away from the Indiana plain where I lived.

Now that I think of it, neither my mother nor I would visit Sun Valley until we’d found our angle of repose.  We both had journeys to take, alternately exciting and challenging, before we could reach a stopping place in the inter-mountain West.

Mom had to travel to the Philippines where she worked several years as a missionary nurse.  Then, when she came back to the States, nostalgic for old friends and old places, she moved to where she’d grown up, near Bluefield, West Virginia.  She finally landed in the West when she turned eighty.

After high school, I left Indiana, spending time first in the big city of Philadelphia, and then on an Indian reservation, before going to college in the bucolic Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.  I managed to make my way west when I met an Idaho farmer.  I’d never been to Idaho before, and the only thing I really knew about the state (like most non-Idahoans) was that they grew potatoes.  It wasn’t until I found myself teaching school and trying to raise four children that someone suggested I needed to take a few days away, all by myself.  I should go to a mountain resort just a few hours north of our farm.  Sun Valley is glorious, they said, alpine meadows and fine dining.  Lots of history.  Ernest Hemingway lived there.

I told mom and her girlfriends how over the years I’ve come to Sun Valley dozens of times, drawn mostly by its natural beauty, the sagebrush hills with the rugged Pioneer and Boulder Mountains rising behind them.

Sometimes I think about my eastern-living days:  the humidity, the always unseeable sky—blocked by either trees or buildings.

There were no mountains to scale or climb down from in northern Indiana.  No place to stop on the trail, to sit awhile, or just shut my eyes, peaceful in my repose.

 

 

Image Credit: Angle of Repose   Image Credit: Diana Hooley   Image Credit: Sun Valley poster

Electing an honest man . . .

About once a week, I wake up in the morning, drink a cup of coffee, and read a poem or two.  I like poetry:  wit and emotion condensed into a few words.  This morning I read Sheenagh Pugh’s poem, Sometimes and it made me think about our country and its presidents.  Pugh wrote:

“Sometimes things don’t go, after all,

from bad to worse . . .

A people will sometimes step back from war;

elect an honest man, decide they care …”

I cannot tell a lie.

Pugh seems wistful about electing an honest man—and well she might be.  Honesty in politics is almost as scarce as thrift in politics.  I realize our country was founded on wonderful myths about integrity and honesty like the one in which George Washington disobeyed his father and chopped down a cherry tree.  He confesses his deed by saying: “I cannot tell a lie.”

George Washington is ancient news though, and the new normal seems like an abnormal:  lie—and get by.  Sadly, presidential lying has a long and depressing history.  Some rationalize that we set the bar too high, characterize-wise, for our presidents.  Others say that politicians would never get anything done if they didn’t occasionally tell a white one (or red, or blue one).  FDR and JFK both hid and lied about infidelities in their marriages.  Nixon lied about Watergate.  Ronald Reagan lied about the Iran-Contra affair (though some historians give him a pass due to his “forgetfulness”).  George W. Bush exaggerated the Iraq threat and promoted the lie about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction.  The list goes on.

It is refreshing though, when someone somewhere in politics steps up, and tells a painful truth.  I felt this way during the recent presidential debates, when candidate Pete Buttigieg told Rachel Maddow, “I couldn’t get it done…”  referring to being the mayor of a city that needed more Black police officers, especially in light of a recent officer-involved shooting of a black man there.  I’m not sure why Buttigieg’s confession struck me as an act of courage, whereas former president Jimmy Carter’s admission that he was responsible for the 1980 failed hostage rescue in Iran simply seemed like ineptitude.

Actually, I don’t expect more from my president than I expect from myself, and according to research, some inadvertent or harmless lying happens daily for most humans.  I think it becomes an issue when there’s too much intentional lying, or there is a risk related to a specific lie.  In this regard, we have a problem with our current president.

There’s been numerous polls tracking the number of lies President Trump tells on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis.  At some point, presidential lying crosses the line from benign political misdirection to charlatanism—a con man playing the American people.  In fact, it was a president, Abraham Lincoln, who reminded us: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time—but you can’t fool ALL the people ALL of the time.”

Honest Abe

Then there’s the all-important issue of the lie’s importance.  Lies that divide us as a nation, or get us into foreign wars, two problems George Washington foresaw as threatening our democracy, can be especially harmful.  Trump this past week lied when he questioned whether four U.S. congresswomen were really “American.”  Washington would say this increases our divisiveness.  Trump also twisted the truth and set the stage for a foreign war with Iran.  Another George Washington no-no. Trump accused Iran yesterday of violating a nuclear deal that his administration withdrew from last year.  Even though Iran was faithful to the deal up until that point.  If George Washington is our founding father, Donald Trump is the confounding one.

The policies of my president are important to me, but so is his or her person.  I want to trust and be proud of the president of our country.  I want someone in office who not only has moral courage, but is moral.  Am I asking for too much?  Maybe.  And the sad reality is, I only have one vote to make things better.  In this, I again find comfort reading Sheenagh Pugh’s poem:

“Sometimes our best efforts do not go

amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.

The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow

that seemed hard frozen:  may it happen for you.”

A lesson from my husband . . .

What’s so great about mindfulness?

It seems like almost every day I see an article online or in my news feed that has something to do with mindfulness.  I’ve read so much media hype about the idea, it may as well be called McMindfulness, and sold to the public with the slogan: you deserve a break today.  For a long time I didn’t even know what mindfulness was, guessing it had something to do with Buddhism or meditation.  Several years ago though, I experienced a very potent object lesson on mindfulness.

I was a high school debate coach at the time, and much more interested in Western competition than Eastern thoughtfulness.

Late one afternoon long after school was over and my teaching duties finished, I found myself still working, supervising about 30 of my debaters as they practiced for an upcoming tournament. 

I can still hear the metal scraping along the floor tiles as students shoved desks together to arrange their debate stage.  In the back of my classroom, Robert, a 17-year-old policy debater, stood over his partner’s desk and started yelling at her.

“This is not Lincoln-Douglas debate! Its’ called Policy, Chrissie, and that counterplan won’t work!” Robert stabbed an index finger into the paper Christina was holding in front of him.

Izak, my top debater, rushed over to make peace between the two, and stop Robert from bullying Chrissie (who happened to be Izak’s girlfriend).  That problem taken care of, I walked away to check on other debaters working in the hallway.  Ally was out there kneeling on the floor rifling through her big plastic tub of debate evidence.  Apparently, she couldn’t find what she was looking for so she began dumping papers by the handful on the hallway floor.  The janitor passed by with his wide-headed broom and just shook his head as if to say, “Don’t ask me to clean that mess up.”

Just then the take-out pizza arrived and everyone took a much-needed break, but I was too stressed to eat.  I began picking up some of Ally’s scattered papers when I glanced up and saw my husband, Dale, standing just outside the glass exit doors of the school.  It looked like he had a bag of hamburgers in his hand.  I opened the door and told him I couldn’t stop yet, there was still work to do.

But he took one look at my disheveled appearance and grabbed my hand, pulling me outside with him. That’s when I got my object lesson on mindfulness.

After setting the bag of burgers down on the cement steps next to us, Dale took my shoulders and pivoted me to face him.  He said, “Close your eyes.”

“What?  I can’t close my eyes.  I’ve got to get back inside!”

“Your students will be okay.  Just close your eyes.”  So I did.  I decided to humor him, hoping we could get this little game of his over—quick.

“What do you hear?” he asked me.  What do I hear?  Debaters debating of course.  But no.  I was outside the school now.  What I actually heard was a car engine down the street, and the wind blowing the tree branches above the sidewalk.  So I told him this and opened my eyes.

“No.  No!  Keep your eyes close.  What do you smell?”  I took a moment.  Someone had just cut the grass around the school and it was so pungent.  I inhaled a big breath, and surprisingly, smelled a color:  green.

When he asked me what I felt, I’d fully given myself over to the game by then, and told him I felt the coolness of the coming night.  I could feel humidity against my skin.

Then Dale asked me to open my eyes.  He surveyed my face and lightly tapped my chest, “Now.  What do you feel there?”

That’s when I discovered mindfulness—awareness—and how it can take you away, take you out of the chaos of whatever situation you’re in, and into the moment.

“Better—I feel better,” I smiled back at him.  After that we walked back into the high school and sat down, munching our hamburgers as my students finished up debate practice.

 

Image Credit:  Students debating, Image Credit:  Debate coach, Image Credit:  Mindfulness