Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The solace of empty voices

"What did you think of Alaska?"

What people don't seem to realize is that Alaska cannot be described adequately.  Mother kept calling it "big," but seeing the places we saw, the word choice is unsatisfying.  When you see the finest of movies, don't you feel a little disappointed when you call it "really good"?

Alaska is a state of mind.  It blows you away the second you see it, and constantly surprises you by just how much of it there is.  It took me four days to see a McDonald's.  I never knew such a world existed.  Believe me, it's a better one.

Alaska prides its remoteness.  The cities look carcinogenic.  Anchorage feels like an overgrown wart about to disappear.  Seward clings to the mountainside like a pimple fearing the college years.  The perfect symbol of Alaska is the Homer Spit, a narrow strip of land with tourist traps galore seemingly sinking into the waters.  Just ask anyone there what they think of the place.  My favorite response:  "Well, we only need one more earthquake."

Mom asked me what my favorite memory of the trip will be.  She might as well have asked me who my favorite niece is.  The question is unanswerable.  I told a friend today:  "The sum is better than its parts."  Alaska is an experience.  Sure, there are distinct places, activities, and people.  Together, though, it's an epic.  Each chapter serves a greater purpose.

The trip had themes.  It was nearly always overcast, with light rain falling seemingly every other minute.  Blue sky was an event.  Sadly, this persistent gray blanket made most of my photos embarrassingly unrepresentative of what is there.  (A conclusion drawn during the vacation was the need to purchase a better camera.  It's time to feed this recent obsession.)  However, it also provided some character to the scenery.  I remember very fondly the low clouds clinging to the mountains of Hatcher Pass -- a stunningly beautiful backdrop to the decrepit Independence Mine.  I remember the boat guide in Kenai Fjords calling it the "Seward drizzle" as a wave of low clouds passed over Fox Island.  Seeing the clouds form and move off Denali -- well, there's just nothing like it.

Another theme was the predictability of wildlife.  On the bus ride to Denali, caribou and bears were everywhere.  On the ride back, the same caribou and bears were seen.  A humpback whale breached the Gulf every thirty seconds for over ten minutes.  A mountain goat followed me down Crow Pass for nearly a half hour.  Two bald eagles shared a fish on a beach in Homer, splitting their time equally.  Puffins tiptoed on the water like bunheads at a recital.

The people were just as wild.  Consider the clerk at a store in Seward noting not the sadness of a Mount Marathoner gone missing from the annual race, but the courage he had to try it in the first place.  Or the unforgettable Whittier resident June, who owns the top two floors of the Begich Towers.  She reserves them for guests to the town, and fondly describes her experiences waiting for the train to Anchorage during a blizzard to each of them.  Or the waitress in Talkeetna who innocently describes the mid-60s as a heat wave.  Or the hotel driver in Anchorage who describes what he does in his off time:  "cleaning the fish or the boats".

As I reached snow-covered Crystal Lake on my first full day in Alaska, the aforementioned mountain goat crept up behind me.  He was interested in me, but soon looked more interested in the snow.  The animal was about twenty feet away from me.  It seemed that I was in awe of the living, and he was in awe of the setting.  He soon exhaled, and moved on.  I did, about twenty minutes later.

That is what I thought of Alaska.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Guilty pleasures

Did you ever look both ways in an empty room before turning on Revenge?  Have you ever lowered your voice to say you actually like ABBA?  We all have guilty pleasures.  I am certain they are made all that much more fulfilling because of the guilt we feel.

With food, guilt is almost a requirement for liking it.  There are some brave (mostly naive) souls who feel no guilt for eating a vegan diet.  But for the omnivores among us, there is at least one meal deserving of the pigeon-holed classification of sinful pleasure.

For me, it goes no further than fried chicken.  All I need is a Popeye's within walking distance, and I'll find the line in a crave-ridden daze.  I want, no, I must have.  I am a man of simple needs.  Popeye's satisfies these needs, in its artery-clogging, cholesterol-injecting, grease-lathering goodness.

For me, the chicken has got to be dark.  I mean, if you're going to sin, you might as well say a dozen Hail Mary's, right?  Two pieces?  What, for an appetizer?  It has to be four.  Drown your sorrows in your cardio workout tomorrow.  Today's workout is waddling your way to the exit, in glorious shame.

Today, I was stuck in the New Orleans airport during a strong thunderstorm, and I was searching through mediocre after mediocre restaurant.  Then, suddenly, the lights of the heavens shined bright, the invisible choir crescendo'd to soaring heights.  Actually, it was a lightning strike and a couple of scared teenagers, which I suppose is more symbolic of the scenario.  Nevertheless, the Fates aligned in wonderful albeit completely random bliss.

Oh, the chicken.  The very dead, very good-smelling chicken.  They did not die in vain, my friends.  I enjoyed every sweet morsel, knowing full well that their deaths were on my shoulders.  "Nature is a cruel mistress," Anthony Bourdain frequently laments sarcastically.  So it is, but sin can be so tasty.

I look at the other patrons, uniformly staring down at the floor in gleeful shame.  Eye contact is avoided at all costs.  If I don't see anyone else, I'm not guilty of anything.  Silent judgment is hypocritical.  We all share this embarrassment of protein and fats.  Oh, the sweet symphony of grease, skin, frictionless meat, and crunchy cartilage.  My napkin is no longer a substance.  I can hear only the sounds of my happiness.

I ate all of that chicken, my friends.  It probably cost me a year of living, but what a great year that few minutes was.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Preposterous Notion of "Taking Our Country Back"

If there's one cliche to count on in today's bipolar America, it is the claim that we must "take our country back" from those seemingly "against us".

Perhaps everybody should consider how absurd this notion is.  Exactly whom should we take it back from?

The President?  Didn't we vote for him?  Congress?  Didn't we vote for them?  The Supreme Court?  Didn't we elect those who are constitutionally permitted to appoint and confirm them?

Every election for every single position in government -- let's "take back" X.  Let's take back Washington!  Let's take back Montgomery!  Let's take back Mobile!

I have always found this phrase to be unnecessarily incendiary.  Civilians "taking back" something governmental strikes me as a not-so-subtle reference to revolution.  In our bloodlust for everything exaggerated and black-and-white, the romantic dreams of an impassioned takeover so that things are the way we want them is hopelessly flawed in the grim realities of violence.  "He/she should be in our crosshairs!"  "I don't mean that literally!" everyone says.  Well, then how do you mean it?

To me, "taking back X" is similar rhetoric.  The metaphor is of war -- occupation from the enemy.  Those firmly embedded in the trenches of Republican or Democrat mentality (how's that for a war metaphor?) see the other side as the enemy.  If you're not with us, you're against us.  Each political "battle" is a victory for some and defeat for the rest.

Everyone wants to change government, it seems.  Each election we vote for change (or not), yet the political song has remained the same for our country for a long time.  Everyone blames the politicians, but we vote for them -- typically the same ones again and again and again.

Change comes with ourselves.  I think the biggest change that we can make is through our political mentality.  Why do we keep battling each other?  Why do we keep using these stupid war metaphors to illustrate who's "advancing" and who's "retreating"?  Must it be, at all times, "us against them" and a hostile no-man's-land in between?

Reality has indeed entrenched us in this war metaphor.  We the People are acting in terms of survival rather than selfless preservation.  You want change?  Perhaps you should consider the notion that most people you meet and know are not against you.  Even your "enemy" conservative or liberal buddy couldn't care less about your political wishes and desires over a dinner table or a football game.

The world of politics, history has told us time after time, shines when people come together.  When did compromise become a four-letter word?  Why does everybody hide behind social media (or blogs!) and spout their political beliefs onto the generally unappreciative crowd through the cruelty of a keyboard?  What happened to good old-fashioned teamwork?  Why does everyone seem to think that if someone disagrees with you, they're against your well-being?

Why?  Because, in many ways, you believe it.  Why else would you want to "take back" Washington, or Montgomery, or Mobile, or wherever matters to you?  Even as you sit in the same restaurant and chat about your families, or cheer on America during the Olympics in the same sports bar, or roast the same steak on a grill in your backyard?

Everyone wants the political landscape to change.  Perhaps first it is time to look at yourself in the mirror.

Friday, June 15, 2012

I Never Sang for My Father

My father has always been a man of simple needs.  Like many in my family, Dad always seems happiest with a glass of wine and an open sky.  I think of many sunsets on his back porch overlooking Table Rock, the throes of light burning the dusky horizon, and I always see a smile on his face.

I have always been a "mama's boy", a fact I have never been ashamed to admit.  There is no one I admire or aspire to be more than my mother, for various reasons.  Often, though, I see a lot of my father in me.

My relationship with both of my parents has been tumultuous, mostly because of me.  This is a fact that I only recently have come to realize.  Call me a slow learner.  With Ma, it came during my high school years.  With Pa, it was a slower burn.  Fortunately, I have grown up.  Thirty years young, I can see now that I have the interests of my father and the personality of my mother. 

I can see and admire Dad's love for the simple things.  I feel my face transform into his when I skip a rock on a lake or roll the windows down in my car.  I hear my father's laugh in mine, all the more similar when reminiscing our distant childhoods.  I can taste the joy out of a simple farmer's meal of steak and potatoes.

I've pondered a lot, recently in particular, about my aging dreams.  I have refocused my goals on life outside of work, and have devoted much time (perhaps too much time) to attaining them.  I jokingly have referred to my past couple of years as my Thoreau period.  I have appreciated my long jaunts into natural solitude, more than just about anything else.  My gratitude for the natural wonders of this ridiculous little world has increased immensely.  Part of me has known these things all along.  I remember fondly my transcendental moments, always alone, always staring at things so simple that words are too complicated to describe them appropriately.

I wonder why it is now that I am understanding this appreciation for simplicity.  During discussions with some friends here and everywhere, a theme has emerged.  I finally have grown up.

With my focus so sternly on reaching my occupational goal(s), I often stubbornly avoided my personal ones.  Previous desires to take an extra day to take in the glimpses outside of everyday cacophony were rejected with strict impunity.  Today, I am filled with regret at such youthful one-dimensionality.

Life is short, and it can be simple.  My father tried to teach me, perhaps with the same youthful stubbornness that envelops me still.  When I see him smiling at a fish jumping in the lake, or a motorcycle roaring by on the lonely highway, his lifelong lecture finally makes sense.  I am born and bred from people of simple needs.  A friend of mine recently remembered something her father told her.  "The young seek complexity.  The old seek simplicity."  Maybe calling my father an "old man" was not such an insult after all.

Earlier this evening, I saw a father with his two young children walking out from a movie.  One of the children said, "Can we see it again?"  The father said:  "Sure.  In a few years."  I think I know what he meant.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Things I Would Do for Oklahoma Joe's

I would...

--Crawl naked over broken glass.
--Marry a Kardashian for ten minutes.
--Consider voting Republican.
--Smooch Betty White right on the mouth.  (Hell, I probably would anyway.)
--Wear high heels in a Harley store.
--Refer to George W. Bush as "NOT the worst President ever".
--Abstain from chocolate for a whole day.
--Go to Atlanta voluntarily.
--Watch the Seinfeld series finale again.
--Forgive George Lucas for existing for the past two decades.
--Watch the NBA without making snide comments every five seconds.
--Perform karaoke without the typical requirement of a loaded gun to my head.
--Capitalize texas.
--Cheer for the New England Patriots for a preseason game.
--Go to New Orleans and not have a beignet.
--Ask a waiter explicitly if I could tip like Rachael Ray.
--Go to any show in Branson, MO.
--Refer to the Red Wings as "the Red Wings".
--Clean the bathrooms at Applebee's after a children's birthday party.
--Watch one episode of Whitney.
--Use a microscope to find evidence of Steve Doocy's brain.
--Enter a Wal-Mart.
--Listen to Gwyneth Paltrow without injections of morphine.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A few thoughts on my latest excursion

My first of two big vacations this summer is drawing to a close.  As always (it seems), the trip turns out being better than expected.  I'm a sucker for national parks, and the Utah entries are spectacular.

I've been to many places on this trip:  Norman, Colorado Springs, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Monument Valley, Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell, Marble Canyon, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Red Canyon in Dixie National Forest, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Capitol Reef National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park, Mesa Verde National Park, the San Juan Skyway, Telluride, Ouray, Silverton, Glenwood Springs, Hanging Lake, and Denver (among many, many others).

This was a trip of discovery.  One that included a lot of solitude (and welcome solitude, at that) and many reunions.  I met with friends I hadn't seen in a year or more (some up to ten years).  This was easily the hardest trip I've ever planned.  I went on a total of 17 hikes, including the astonishing Hanging Lake, the off-the-radar gem of Hickman Bridge in Capitol Reef, the lungbusting Observation Point hike in Zion, and the stun-a-minute Queen's Garden/Navajo Loop trail in Bryce.  Unfortunately, the hike I was most looking forward to I had to call off owing to severe wind gusts in the high country of the San Juans on the day I was to attempt it.  More unfinished business with Colorado hiking...I'll be back.

I have learned much about myself on this trip, including my ability to sunburn in dramatic fashion, my unadulterated joy of hiking alone, my fear of four-wheeling (particularly downhill), my increasing sense of being a fish out of water in Norman (a good thing, I think), my appreciation for the friends I have made and the friends I have not lost to time, and my continued passion for any Mexican food, authentic or not.  I think the most important lesson of this trip is that doing stuff on my own during travel is an opportunity not to be shunted.  I have quickly learned that some of the best moments of travel come privately.  Travel should challenge, should encourage attempts at new, sometimes difficult things.  The rewards are enormous -- some might say life-affirming.

I have learned that happiness is more important to me than success.  Obviously, there is a correlation, but all vacations -- and in particular this one -- have made me realize gradually that my priorities in life as a student were in error.  As I've entered #RealLife, my philosophy regarding personal progress has changed dramatically.  My career, wherever it takes me, is but a small portion of the complete picture.  I have begun to refocus my hopes and dreams outside of what initially nearly completely defined me.  Happiness, for me, is a sunset in Arches, or a successful snack at Observation Point in Zion, or a stalled Jeep in Monarch Pass with a friend for the ages, or a moment of reflection staring at an otherworldly lake in the middle of barren land, or a glimpse at the enormity of Waterpocket Fold during alpenglow.  Depriving myself of this happiness to attain success will result in neither.

How important is travel?  To me, it is the quintessential means of defining yourself -- and maybe more importantly -- giving one the chance to see what that definition is.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Traveling Within


I wonder how many words have been used to describe travel.  How many of the same road trip movies have been made?  Is there an angle of the Eiffel Tower that hasn't been photographed?  Have you seen that latest travel show in which the host insists furiously that he or she will be doing what a traveler, rather than what a tourist, does?

Travel as an art form is dangerous territory.  What you wish to express someone has already thought of.  The ten-word sound bite used to describe how beautiful country X or National Park Y is -- well, it is far less profound than its creator's intent.  In the digital age, great photographs are ubiquitous, and YouTube has become any destination's advertisement.

So why write...on the topic of traveling?  Especially my travels?  I do not think it is the metaphorical itch waiting to be scratched.  I hope it is not a pretentious attention-grabbing gesture.  I do not believe that people need to hear what I have to say, or should care.  I have thought of the obvious.  I like traveling.  I like talking about my travels.  I like writing about my travels.  I like taking photographs of my travels.  In spite of these facts, I think my reasons are more complex.

When I discuss where I have traveled or where I plan to go, a subset of my friends tell me something I hear as the worst kind of dissonance.  Maybe you've heard it, too.  "I couldn't go there."  "I don't really like planes."  "I can't afford to go anywhere."  "I'll watch it on the History Channel."

I have no doubt that these listeners are being genuine.  I imagine some are not interested in hiking the Rockies or perusing the next art gallery.  I have claustrophobia, so it is certainly not surprising that some people are fraidy-cat of a plane, train, or automobile.  I loathe the fact that some people can barely afford to make ends meet, much less take a few days to explore some place they have never been.

Then again, I also absorb this with an instinctual sense of skepticism.  Travel, someone said, is a chance to conquer one's fears.  If you don't travel, you don't confront your weaknesses.  People do not like being out of their comfort zones.  I have a friend who will not travel to any country in which English is not the primary language.  When I asked him why he did not just learn a new one, he said:  "Too much work.  I'd rather buy a sports car."  Like scratching a chalkboard.

I also sense from some a (insert-religious-adjective-here)-derived guilt.  Like countries that proudly embrace mediocre food, some people seem to think that embellishing on a week of leisure somehow leads to "bad character".  Maybe it is more complex (and admirable).  I wonder if some travel to countries rife with poverty and come to believe that their appearance is perhaps an insult to the indigenous less-well-offs.  Is it the same instinct that leads us to look away from a vagrant asking for some change?

I would not call myself old, but I certainly am not young anymore.  With age comes wisdom, whether I wish for it or not.  And I have learned, perhaps incorrectly, that this is all that there is.  From the ugly routines of daily life come redundant experiences and a complacent sense of satisfaction in the figurative cubicle or office space you occupy.  Maybe that is enough for some people.  Then again, in my travels, I have discovered that this should not be enough for anybody.

Travel, for me, is recuperation.  Rehabilitation.  A time for learning, about the world, others, and most importantly, myself.  It is transcendental, the closest I come to feeling spiritual.  It is the most important thing I do, and will ever do.  Whatever my successes or failures in everyday life, personally or professionally, these will not compare to the sheer ecstasy of my successes and failures in traveling.  Why?  I do not know, but I would like to find out.

And so I write...about my travels.