Colorado Notes – II: The Kindness Of Strangers

Before my recent trip to Colorado, I had not hitchiked in many years. There was no need to. And it seemed like a bad idea in most cases. (As in anywhere in New York City.) But over the past week or so, I racked up an impressive number of hitched rides. All thanks to the kindness of strangers who rescued me from inconvenience of varying degrees. One stranger did not give me a ride, but a roof for the night. Yet another provided a home in Denver. Those strangers are friends now.

On 9th August, my partner and I hiked up to Cottonwood Pass planning to make a short resupply run to the town of Buena Vista. At the pass, we met several day-trippers out to ogle the Collegiate Peaks, Cottonwood Lake, and other attractions. We struck up a conversation with a pair of women who turned out to be a retired school-teacher and her former student taking their vacation together, and who offered to drive us the eighteen miles into town. After resupplying, we needed a ride back to the trail. On asking a local jeep service, it seemed like we would get a ride much later in the evening. I asked around a bit more. Hearing me ask for referrals to jeep services, a young man at a kayaking store offered us a ride, refusing payment as he did so. We finally persuaded him to accept some gas money. Bad weather forced us off the trail that night, so incredibly enough, we needed a third ride, this time back to Buena Vista again. A Texan couple whom we asked for a ride said they were only going to a campground along the way, where they could drop us. We accepted and hopped in; a short while later, our conversation was flourishing to such an extent that our hosts kept on driving right till Buena Vista.

A day or so later, I made a trip to Salida for the day. I was dropped off by my new host, ‘L,’ the same young man who had given us a ride to Cottonwood Pass. He had also offered to pick me up in the evening and drive me back to Buena Vista after he was done with his river running work for the day. On arriving in Salida I found myself facing a longish walk of sixteen long blocks. No matter; by now, I knew the routine. I stuck out my thumb. A few minutes later, I had my ride. When I returned to the city center, I hitched another ride. My hitchhiking instincts, long made dormant in urban settings, had been reawakened by the kindness of Colorado’s drivers.

The best, obviously, was reserved for last. This past Sunday, I decided to hike from Cottonwood Pass  to Tincup Pass Road. I wanted to start hiking at 6AM, and would need ride. Needless to say ‘L’ was on the case. He offered to pick me up at 530AM in the morning from my accommodations, and to pick me up late in the evening from my hike’s endpoint. (My accommodations deserve a special mention. The night before I had rented an AirBNB room on a discount from a very generous host, ‘E,’ a prominent local figure in town known for his involvement in civic affairs after a career in a successful river running business. As  I checked out, I told my host I did not have anywhere to stay for the night. On hearing this, he offered me crash space; his seven-year old son was away on vacation, and I could have his room. ‘E’ even offered to drive me to the trailhead if my morning ride did not materialize.)

On completing my hike, I found myself at Tincup Pass Road trailhead, and quickly realized I had made a mistake and faced a severe problem. I had asked ‘L’ to pick me up at Tincup Pass itself, which was several miles away. He would not be arriving till 830PM; I had finished my hike by 330PM. I would not only have to wait five hours for his arrival, I would also have to hope he would realize my mistaken directions and drive to the trailhead instead. My phone had no service, so there was little chance I could contact him and correct the miscommunication. I was facing a long, cold, confusing and anxiety provoking wait, and possibly a very long walk back down a dark 4WD road back to the main highway. My best bet was to, you guessed it, hitch a ride. I saw an elderly gentleman with a young woman emerging from a trail close by and walked over to ask for help. I was told that I could count on a ride because ‘my son has done this sort of thing in the past many times and people have always helped him with a ride.’ I was to be the grateful recipient of an act of paying forward. Sure enough, his son, who had climbed fifty-three of Colorado’s fifty-four fourteeners, and offered me a beer as a well-earned reward for my hike, was willing to drive me into town. An hour later, I was safely back in my  cabin. That night, my new friend ‘L’ spent the night at my motel so that he could rise early in the morning and drive me to the Buena Vista bus station for my bus back to Denver. On reaching Denver, I knew I could count on the hospitality of my host, my hiking partner’s friend, who had also put us up on our arrival in Denver a week ago.

The most straightforward expression of my feelings on leaving Colorado was that I was overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of all those I had met: the folks I met on the trail, and the ones who helped me off it. The acts I encountered were among the simplest and most complex of all–extensions of help and caring and hospitality. But they were rescues from inconvenience and danger too. They were reminders that the human bonds so necessary for the sustenance and flourishing of our most important relationships can be made visible by these sorts of gestures. If only we would try.

Colorado Notes – I: The People You Meet On The Trail

It’s almost a cliche, I suppose: hiker returns from a trip from to vale, glen, mountain, and stream, with tales of folks met on the trail, their idiosyncratic characters, their inspirational accounts, their quirky characteristics, their reminder that the world is full of interesting and distinctive people, that, strangely and ironically enough you can leave a bustling city full of strangers standing cheek to jowl with you, and on entering a stark wilderness, meet people who in the space of a few brief hours can become companions and something approaching friends too. But cliches become so because of the hint of truth they contain. And so, because stories of how interesting people can be should occasionally turn out to be true–on pain of this being too tedious a world otherwise–I can report to you with some relief on my return from travels on some trails in Colorado that these kinds of stories are indeed genuine glimpses of the pleasurable varieties that mankind can provide for us.

Last week, during a brief jaunt on the Colorado Trail‘s Collegiate West section, I met: a retired couple from San Francisco thru-hiking to Durango from Denver who breezed past us effortlessly on the way to the top of a high pass, pointed us to a very good campsite, and dispensed some useful advice on how to pack lighter the next time; a young woman who had hiked the Appalachian Trail whose Army husband in Colorado Springs periodically–and perhaps redundantly–exhorted her to not give up as she moved solo, with her dog, on this new trail; a young woman who had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail; a pair of women hikers from Arkansas (one had done the John Muir Trail); a Christian architect from Mississippi (we talked theology, Heidegger, existentialism on several ridge-tops); experienced trail runners of all sexes, shapes, and sizes. They were all inspirational in their own way: from them I gleaned much wisdom.

There were tales of how to ‘keep at it’ on the trail; the importance of riding out the first seventy-two hours; camping tips and tricks; stories of survival and fear and joy but much more importantly, I learned a bit about just how many different kinds of strivings and motivations there are out there. The trail is a good place to remind us that the world of people and the world of the wild is endlessly varied with its very own onion-peel characteristics; the trail and its accompanying wilderness can do a good job of peeling off our own layers. Hikers go on the trail for many reasons; no two will furnish exactly the same set when asked why they set themselves to walking in the wild. Sometimes they do it to see distant things; sometimes they do it to look much closer, at themselves. The people we meet on the trail don’t just inform us about themselves when they talk with us in the wild; they hold a mirror up to us as well. As we look at them, we see a bit of ourselves, and thus come to know ourselves a bit better too.

Next: A post on the many acts of kindness that sustained me on my travels.

Donald Trump Looks A Gift Horse In The Mouth

A smarter politician than Donald Trump would have realized the windfall Khizr Khan had granted him, one with which he could have pulled off a miraculous triangulation of his own. To do this Trump could have done the following:

  1. Welcomed Khizr Khan’s remarks, acknowledged his family’s sacrifice, and then said, “This is the kind of Muslim we want living in this country. This is the kind of Muslim we need; we want them to be patriots, loyal Americans, to show themselves to be the kind of people who are willing to put their lives on the line for the United States, who are willing to die for the United States, standing shoulder to shoulder with other Americans. I welcome Mr. Khan, and all other Muslims like him, who have shown by their actions and their deeds, that they are loyal Americans, committed to the principles and morals of this country and its peoples. They have shown the radical Islamists that their first commitment and their primary loyalty is to America, not to their hateful ideology. They are not going to curse America or hate it; they are going to fight for it! These kinds of Americans, they don’t ask for handouts or favors, they just get to work, they stand on their own two feet!”
  2. Having said this, Trump could have then returned to one of his primary talking points, the mistaken vote that Hillary Clinton cast for the Iraq war. He could have gone on to say “I want to make sure that we as a nation do not continue to fight the wars that took the lives of American soldiers like Mr. Khan. I want to bring jobs back to this nation, so that young men and women can find meaningful employment here, and not go off to foreign lands, fighting a bunch of wars for ungrateful spongers and hangers-on. We are going to make them pay their due; to put their own men and women on the line! Americans are not going to die for foreigners any more!”

As I said, a smarter politician than Trump.

Orange Is The New Black And The Privatization of Prisons

Spoilers Ahead. 

Orange is The New Black has attracted–not unjustifiedly–some flak for its powerful and painful fourth season: it has been accused of being ‘trauma porn for white people,’ and of having ‘failed the Dominican community.’ Still, the show has provided some powerful drama in those thirteen episodes, largely by throwing off any pretensions that were hoisted on it of being a ‘funny’ or ‘comedic’ look at what happens behind the walls of a modern prison, and by concentrating on those issues that are too often the stuff of contemporary headlines pertaining to mass incarceration: the privatized prison-industrial complex, the brutality of poorly trained prison guards and correctional officers, racism, violence, sexual abuse and assault, criminal activity behind bars, drug abuse, the complicated social dynamics of prisoner groups, prison protests, deaths in custody, and so on. (Orange is the New Black is set in a women’s prison, so these issues receive an interestingly different treatment because of its inclusion–even if incompletely, and often crudely–of the perspectives of lesbians and women of color. Despite its increasingly serious tone. the show retains its witty edge because of its sharp writing and because of the comedic talent of many of its actors.)

In the many indictments the show levels at our society, one stands out pretty clearly: the privatization of prisons, the transformation of incarceration into industrial endeavor. The show’s narrative and rhetorical arc in the third season was radically altered by its choice to concentrate on the privatization of Litchfield, and not coincidentally, that is precisely when the show took on its darker tone. The predominance of the economic bottom line, and the casual cruelty and indifference to human interests it brought in its wake ensured that change pretty quickly. Interestingly enough insofar as any sort of alliance between the various warring factions among the inmates ever emerges, it is in reaction to the lowering of the corporate boom on their heads: if prison administration was uncaring and callous before, then the new dollars-and-cents mentality is even more grim, ever more removed from the realities of their lives, one that demands, finally, even if only temporarily, the putting aside of differences.

As Orange is the New Black makes quite clear in its treatment of the death of Poussey–the show’s most traumatic moment thus far, the one that finally pushed it over the edge, and made clear the it was not in Kansas anymore–an innocent human being died as a result of the decisions made by those, and there were many, who chose to imprison her and her fellow inmates in the way they did. The overcrowding at Litchfield, the use of untrained guards, the tolerance of their brutality, the systematic, cruel, ignorance and indifference of corporate managers; they all applied that fatal pressure to Poussey’s windpipe; she died because a system’s weaknesses became too much for her to bear. As they have for all too many in real life. If Orange is the New Black can help us pay more attention to their fates, and to the actions that are required to ensure they are not repeated, it will have, despite some well-deserved criticism, done its part.

Dan Savage Should Run For Dogcatcher

Dan Savage thinks the Greens should walk before they try to run:

I have a problem with the Greens…. I have a problem with these fake, attention seeking, grandstanding Green…party candidates who pop up every four years, like mushrooms in shit, saying that they’re building a third party. And those of us who don’t have a home in the Republican Party, don’t have a home in the Democratic Party, can’t get behind every Democratic position or Republican position, should gravitate toward these third parties. And help build a third party movement by every four fucking years voting for one of these assholes like Jill fucking Stein, who I’m sure is a lovely person, she’s only an asshole in this aspect.

Where are the Green Party candidates for city councils? For county councils? For state legislatures? For state assessor? For state insurance commissioner? For governor? For fucking dogcatcher? I would be SO willing to vote for Green Party candidates who are starting at the bottom, grassroots, bottom up, building a third party, a viable third party.

Rather predictably, this ‘epic rant’ was lapped up eagerly by Hillary Clinton supporters, sundry folks resigned to ‘pragmatic politics,’ and those still haunted by the ghost of Ralph Nader. (Savage knows how to play a crowd; he always has. Back in the day when he used to be an advice columnist for the New York Press, he used to specialize in abusing–in similar, profanity-ridden language–those who wrote to him, thus providing himself and his many readers loads of chuckles. This rant was also provoked by a query from a listener on a podcast show. Old tricks die hard.)

The problem with Savage’s seemingly grounded-in-reality perspective–which is also evident in his snappy reply to the Green Party’s pointing out that they do in fact run candidates at the local level–is that Savage himself seems clueless about the nature of electoral politics in the US. To wit, part of building a viable third-party movement is getting a national soapbox to talk about the issues it cares about, and that soapbox only becomes available–for a sustained period–during the presidential campaign.

Consider for instance that Savage has only bothered to launch his rant at the Greens during a presidential election season, and that it has received as much attention as it has because American voters are lapping up election news–of all and any kind–this year. The intense attention paid to electoral politics during what has undoubtedly been one of the weirdest campaign years of all has benefited the Greens; confronted with the choices offered to them by the two mainstream political parties many longing looks have been sent their way by many progressives of all hues.  This has forced–on a national level–a reckoning with the platform the Greens offer, which might in turn help a local Green Party candidate in another election down the line who can then count on his or her manifesto not being utterly unfamiliar to the electorate. Contrary to Savage’s assertions, the Greens aren’t queue jumpers; they just happen to realize that in order to beat the two-party system, every trick in the book has to be utilized. One them happens to be running a Presidential candidate.

It would be idiotic for the Greens to sit out a presidential election, especially in these times when traditional media outlets have ceded so much of their authority to newer forms. (Something Savage, of all people, should know.) It would be especially idiotic, if not irresponsible, for the Greens to sit out a presidential election when they know that the demographic of the future, the millennials, are happiest utilizing those very same forms of media to get their news and political commentary. Savage doesn’t realize it, but running a presidential candidate this year is building for the future. Stein knows she won’t win the election; but she does know that many younger voters have now become aware of the Green Party’s offerings as a result of her candidacy.

Dan  Savage’s ‘epic rant’ is not a call to pragmatism; it’s merely an attention-seeking juvenile grandstanding show. Perhaps he should stick to dishing out advice on human sexuality. Or go run for the post of local dogcatcher.

Note: Al Gore lost the presidential election in 2000 because a) many Democrats voted for Bush and b) the Supreme Court handed the election to George W. Bush. The canard that Nader cost Gore the election will not die, of course.

Dishwashing: The King Of Procrastination Strategies

Washing the dishes has long held a honorable position in the arsenal of strategies adopted by those who procrastinate. (Sometime in the near future I anticipate Facebook and Twitter conducting some sophisticated data analysis to indicate how many of their users announce it as such.) Indeed, we should elevate this claim to be one of those truths universally acknowledged: if an anxiety-inducing piece of work awaits, well then, so does a pile of dirty dishes in your sink which demand immediate attention. The reasons for why dishwashing has risen to the top of the heap of alternative occupations of time instead of our work are not hard to find.

First, washing the dishes is a virtuous act. Dirt is banished from the kitchen and household; cleanliness is welcomed; salmonella are vanquished; disease and pestilence are expelled. Order is imposed; entropy is resisted, vainly, for just a little while longer. Cleanliness is next to godliness, n’est ce pas?

Second, dishwashing is a physically immersive and thus intensely absorbing act, all the better to dispel paralyzing anxiety with. Faucet flow and water temperature must be adjusted; sponge and soap make contact with dish surfaces; dirt dissolves underneath our fingertips; our hands feel the flow of soapy water over them. Dishes that call for extra scrubbing require intense concentration on the task at hand. Clean dishes must be stacked and arranged carefully; memories of wine glasses broken during this phase especially help concentrate the mind here. These considerations do not apply to those who use a mechanized dishwasher; those poor saps, slaves to technology and automation, have no idea what they are missing out on. (My wife often wonders why I resist buying a dishwasher; besides not trusting their ability to actually clean our dishes, I sense a grave loss would ensue. I would be denied a central strategy for procrastination.)

Third, dishwashing lets us feel we have helped out with house work, sometimes foolishly considered an ignoble calling. We sense our roommates–whether college buddies, fellow city workers, or significant others–will delight in the sight of a sink free of dishes. (These considerations do not apply to those who live alone, of course, but then, they have greater worries on their minds.) We anticipate our partners’ reactions of gratitude and appreciation with some pleasure, which make an excellent contrast with the imagined scorn of those who would read, or otherwise experience, the execrable work we would be engaged in otherwise. The payoffs here are greater; immediate pursuit of this venture seems an eminently sensible move. In this regard, some men might regard their washing the dishes as part of their movement toward a new sort of manhood, one more in tune with the demands of housework, a kind of personal growth which our newly acquired feminist sensibilities would appreciate.

Note: I’m writing this post in an anxiety-induced state, unable to finalize my syllabus for the fall, finish a long-in-the-works essay, resume working on a draft manuscript, pack for a soon-to-be undertaken hike, or do the laundry. I’ve already done the dishes.

Melville On ‘The Most Dangerous Sort’: The Outwardly Rational Madman

In Billy Budd, Sailor (Barnes and Noble Classic Edition, New York, p. 40) Herman Melville writes:

[T]he thing which in eminent instances signalizes so exceptional a nature is this: though the man’s even temper and discreet bearing would seem to intimate a mind peculiarly subject to the law of reason, not the less in his heart he would seem to riot in complete exemption from that law, having apparently little to do with reason further than to employ it as an ambidexter implement for effecting the irrational. That is to say: Toward the accomplishment of an aim which in wantonness of malignity would seem to partake of the insane, he will direct a cool judgement sagacious and sound. These men are true madmen, and of the most dangerous sort, for their lunacy is not continuous but occasional, evoked by some special object; it is probably secretive, which is as much to say it is self-contained, so that when moreover, most active, it is to the average mind not distinguishable from sanity, and for the reason above suggested that whatever its aims may be–and the aim is never declared–the method and the outward proceeding are always perfectly rational.

This is an acute observation by Melville, for the personality type he describes here is indeed ‘the most dangerous sort.’ Its tokens conform outwardly to social and moral expectations at all times even as they reserve their malignancy for occasional and pointed demonstrations, which continue to don the cover of ostensibly reasonable behavior. (Indeed, their general conformance to normative standards earns them the indulgence of others, who are then ready to forgive what may come to seem like only an occasional aberration; the pattern in these aberrations may not be visible unless it is too late. ) These agents know how to commit unpardonable acts under the cover of legality; they are adept at picking and choosing among the offerings of the reasonable and civilized, looking for those rhetorical and argumentative maneuvers that will give their actions the best veneer of respectability. (Perhaps they should remind us–via an inexact analogy–of Nietzsche’s ‘educated philistines;’ outwardly sophisticated but lacking in inner culture.)

Unfortunately for this world, Melville’s ‘most dangerous sort’ is a little too common. Its most devastating and dangerous exemplars are found in the political sphere–like those who commit war crimes while proceeding according to some impeccable logic of statescraft–but the skepticism of their opponents may ensure that their cover is easily blown. Matters are far harder in the domain of personal relationships, especially abusive ones. There, in the private sphere, away from prying eyes, the abuser can concentrate on his ‘special object,’ the abused. Their ‘sanity’ may bring the abused to the edge of insanity; their weapon of choice is very often the questioning of the mental competence of their partner. Their long and intimate relationship with their target has granted them access to weaknesses, secrets, chinks in the armor; these are now mercilessly and ruthlessly exploited by language and action which is artfully cloaked by reason and respectability.

Beware the superficial moral and intellectual education; for its most dangerous effect is to produce precisely the type Melville warns us against.