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Winter storm wish list

January 14, 2011

It’s been a week and a half around here. That is, the past four days have felt like ten. Among other things, I’ve been wishing my cross-country ski boots weren’t lost in the attic and that I’d thought to buy bacon and dishwasher detergent. There was also the constant worry that the electricity would go off or a pipe would burst, forcing evacuation and lopping billable hours off the week. The cat and I are both thrilled to have dodged those bullets one more time.

While our local TV news teams treat every measurable snowfall and every ice storm like the Weather Event of the Century, we actually get one or two a year and they are generally over within 72 hours or less. The result: we know what to do with snow and slush on the ground for a couple of days, and we’re completely gob smacked if it freezes solid and sticks around.

This week brought a hefty one-two-three punch. Instead of the typical sleet turning to snow, looking pretty for a while and melting away in a day or two, we got six inches and more of snow topped by several hours of sleet, followed by days of sub-freezing temperatures. Instead of reeling with delight at an unexpected long weekend, we were knocked flat, getting a real taste of what winter is like farther north.

The weather is finally warming up now and things will get back to normal, and a lot of people had fun along the way. But the whole thing was more inconvenient and more dangerous than it needed to be. Poor judgment abounds, as always, but in lots of cases people simply don’t know any better. Getting through sub-freezing weather in good shape calls for certain knowledge and skills that many folks around here understandably lack.  One of my wishes is for local TV stations to spend part of the time allocated to weather coverage providing information that’s actually useful. For example:

  • The  thawing/re-freezing cycle means road (and sidewalk) conditions will get worse before they get better. Anything that doesn’t melt away will re-freeze harder and slicker. If it doesn’t all go away by the third day, we Georgians need to be told what to do. Over and over.
  • There are many good reasons, aside from personal safety, for staying off the roads until they’ve been cleared by public works or Mother Nature. The fewer vehicles that are out there, the safer it is for those who must be. Obviously, some people will have compelling reasons for driving somewhere, but “we just had to get out of the house” (cited by a driver interviewed on a local newscast this week) doesn’t qualify. Every vehicle abandoned on or beside the road becomes a hazard to others and an obstacle to snow and ice removal. And the more vehicles that seem to be out there moving around, the more likely others will be to throw caution to the wind and join them, compounding the problems. These hazards cannot be repeated too clearly or too often.
  • You cannot see black ice and therefore you cannot avoid it – only experience teaches you where to anticipate it and what to do when you encounter it. Too many Southern drivers know only that it’s a scary, dangerous thing and so they try to drive fast to get away from it, or slam on brakes attempting to avoid it.
  • If you must drive, clear the snow from all of your vehicle windows and the roof, hood, trunk – wherever it accumulated. It will eventually loosen and tumble off, imperiling any driver in the vicinity (maybe even you — slam on brakes and that chunk of snow will slide right off your roof and explode on your windshield, completely obscuring your vision).
  • Clear the sidewalks in front of your house at the earliest opportunity, before the snow softens and re-freezes into solid ice. (In some places up north, failing to do so is a code violation.) If you don’t have a snow shovel, a straight-edged garden shovel will serve. Absent either one, knock on the door of a neighbor whose walks are cleared and ask to borrow whatever implement they used. If you’re able-bodied, look for a neighbor who isn’t and clear their walks, too. If your house is infested with children aged 10 and up, put them to work shoveling so they can practice community service or earn some pocket-money, or both. Fresh air and exercise for them, a little peace and quiet for you, clear sidewalks for the neighbors — everybody wins.

I also wish our local and state governments would share actual costs of snow and ice removal from streets and highways. With all the griping this week about our public works departments being unprepared for ice and snow, I have to wonder how many of the whiners choose to invest their personal resources in snow blowers, snow tires and the like, against the remote possibility of a week like this. The agencies are making cost-benefit decisions in a constantly changing environment and I would be interested to know how those decisions link to actual budget information, and see examples of things we would have to forfeit later if we reflexively throw money at what is actually a temporary situation.

I guess what I’m really wishing for is a little more effort, led by the local media and our public officials, to foster community spirit and encourage us all to cultivate patience and self-sufficiency in the face of the elements. I’ll keep wishing, but I won’t hold my breath. Meanwhile, I’ll keep searching for those ski boots, and add bacon to the standard winter storm shopping list.

Google, schmoogle

September 22, 2010

For two days I’ve searched high and low and everywhere in between, and can’t find the cool, Velcro-like hair rollers that I stopped using five years ago and stashed away at least two years ago. I want them now, and they’re nowhere to be found. My house is small and so is my attic, and I’m absolutely positive I didn’t get rid of them. (Now would be the time for a neighbor to pop up and remember seeing them in my last yard sale.)

Often, nowadays,  I reach for the radio remote so I can replay something particularly interesting or unintelligible (or both)—of course, no such thing exists, that useful device is reserved for TV. (Am I just spoiled by TiVo, or is my attention span dissolving?) Along the same lines, it’s increasingly frustrating that I can’t Google the inside of my house and find out where I put things. I’m convinced that it’s possible.

Intrusive, you say? Invasive, even? Oh, please. People I don’t even know I don’t know, have access to every boring factoid pertaining to my life: what I buy, where, when, and from whom, and how much I pay and where I have it shipped; every prescription I’ve filled since who-knows-when; everything any of my doctors recorded in my chart since time began; which websites I visit and how often; how much I owe to the mortgage company and anybody else I might be in hock to; when I had last had my car serviced; and even my cat’s private health records. And how am I benefiting from any of that meticulous record-keeping? In precious few ways, as far as I can tell.

I say, let’s bring Google inside the house where it can do all of us some good. Especially those of us with cats that consider anything that hits the floor to be a hockey puck. I really shouldn’t have to do extreme housecleaning, i.e., move the big sofa, to find my favorite gel pen or the knitting needle that disappeared last winter. (I still miss my dog. Sometimes she would tip me off by sniffing around the edges of the under-the-big-furniture black holes.) And what about that issue of The Atlantic that I hadn’t finished reading? And last year’s leftover Halloween candy? (I sealed it up really well, so it will be fine this year—if I can find it.) And my entire income tax folder for 2003—don’t ask me, all the other years are in the filing cabinet where they belong.

Yeah, yeah, I remember when a dial-up Internet connection was a magical thing….but when Google can tell me where I put the extra key to the back gate, that’s when I’ll be impressed.

The world is NOT your living room.

September 15, 2010

There is an interesting disconnect in the little city where I live: frequent and enthusiastic professions of devotion to community combined with chronic bad manners. Against a more or less constant buzz of admiration for our warm and welcoming neighborhoods, plenty of people don’t think twice about doing all manner of things that actually undermine community: letting their children run wild where others are trying to enjoy a meal or a concert; letting their dogs do you-know-what in neighbors’ yards; or using leaf blowers before 8am on weekend mornings. Particularly vexing to me is the widespread assumption that it’s appropriate to dictate personal taste. The idea of “If you don’t like it, don’t look at it” cuts no ice with these folks. At the same time, challenging the above-mentioned behaviors, even gently and indirectly, is likely to elicit shocked accusations of intolerance. My better angels counsel that these folks are not malicious; they truly yearn for genuine community and have simply lost their way. (My worse angels are less charitable, but they’ve been told to keep quiet right now so as not to undermine my case.) Still, it begs the question of how these neighbors ended up so confused about tolerance and courtesy.

The other night I happened to catch a fragment of a television commercial (for which product or service I honestly cannot remember), and the gist of the tag line was “the world is your living room.” I immediately shouted, “You know what? It’s NOT!” and repeated it, along with a few other words I won’t share here because I’m complaining about other people’s bad manners. It was a rich moment, both gratifying and aggravating. I don’t think TV commercials predict where we are headed so much as reflect where we are. And where we are is that too many people behave as if the world is their living room. The boundary between public and private space has eroded and as a result, public life is more irritating than it needs to be and private life is less restorative than it ought to be.

I have a theory that confusion about public and private spaces, and its impact on behavior, began when they started putting air conditioners and stereo systems in cars. Once everybody started keeping their windows rolled up all the time and choosing their own audio entertainment–as opposed to engaging with the outside world in the form of whichever radio station brought the least static–a paradigm shift occurred. Whereas traveling on public thoroughfares had been a cooperative venture that entailed awareness of one’s surroundings and a modicum of common courtesy underpinning traffic rules, drivers began focusing more on what went on inside their vehicles and less on the outside world, e.g., traffic and weather conditions. Add cell phones, CD players, DVD players and mobile Internet browsing, and it’s a wonder any of us get where we’re going without either having a wreck or dying of aggravation.

Anyhow, thanks to cable television and wireless Internet connectivity, we now have 24-hour access to a near-infinite array of information and entertainment from gazillions of sources via an ever-growing assortment of devices. We can be non-stop media consumers in the living room or in the car or on a public sidewalk or in the bathtub. Consequently, we’ve gotten turned around about public versus private space. Since our mental and physical spaces naturally reflect and influence each other—feng shui, anyone?–when we lose track of the distinction between public and private realms, it plays out both ways: how we think and how we act.

Once again, we aren’t keeping up culturally with where technology is taking us functionally. No longer tethered by telephone lines, television antennas or modem cables, it feels easy–and right, somehow–to carry our private spaces around with us. Being able to use your phone, watch a TV show or read the paper online when and where it’s convenient, is wonderful. But we’ve unintentionally let it subvert community by encouraging us to abandon good manners. In an authentic community, people with lots of different perspectives, tastes and priorities are continually rubbing up against each other. It’s rarely clear-cut where your rights end and my tolerance needs to begin, and good manners help us negotiate those gray areas. They muffle the sharpest corners and smooth the roughest edges, creating time and space to think before speaking or acting (or posting on the local blog). With the ability to retire to our own virtual space any time, though, it’s tough to remember that we aren’t really at home–we’re out in public (or possibly even in somebody else’s actual space)–and ought to behave accordingly.

There’s a flip side, too. Our own living rooms should be where we get to let our hair down and relax; where our best “company manners” can appropriately take a back seat to plain speaking and candor; and where we get to determine which and how much of the outside world (literal and metaphorical) to admit. But if we are carrying our living rooms around with us all day, how do we take refuge when we get home?

It’s no wonder some advertising people think “the world is your living room” is relevant and resonant. I’d rather it made us cringe a little and think very hard. In a real community, nobody treats the world like their living room; and everybody’s living room offers a retreat from the world. I say, let’s find a way to get right side up again about our private and public spaces, and reclaim the rewards and responsibilities of each.

The joys of un-knitting

September 6, 2010

If you spend enough time knitting, you learn a lot about making mistakes and finding ways to recover from them. I learned to knit when I was about eight and never stopped. Having created many beautiful and useful things over the years, I have also concocted my share of calamities. Consequently, I consider myself an authority on how to make a mess with yarn and how to clean it up. You can always change your mind about what you’re making, which magically turns the disaster into a work of art. If you decide to back up and correct the error, the most efficient thing to do might be to rip out your work to a point before the mistake and pick up from there. But if the pattern is complicated or the yarn and the needles are small, then it’s safer to un-knit.

Un-knitting is a do-over but unlike deleting text and starting again, it forces me to undo what I did before I can do it differently. That means looking at what I did from a completely different perspective–understanding it from the back instead of the front, from the bottom instead of the top, from the inside out. Sometimes I am stunned to learn I was doing something entirely different from what I thought I was doing, or meant to be doing. (Why this always comes as a big surprise, I’m not really sure.) Occasionally, I wind up inventing a better way—a way that I think is easier or prettier or more interesting. More often, I realize the urge to “improve” is actually the problem and I’m better off sticking to the pattern. Sometimes I knit, un-knit, re-knit and un-knit several times before I learn what I need to know to go forward. It drives certain friends of mine bananas to hear me talk about knitting this way, but I like the tension between goal and process. Staying focused on the objective keeps me moving, while tending to the process keeps me grounded in the moment.

My mama taught me to knit, but I had to learn to un-knit all by myself. She knew what she was doing because the fact is, you can’t teach un-knitting—everybody has to learn to do it their own way, in their own time. It’s less a skill than a state of mind–instead of giving up or bailing out, you muster the resolve to figure out where you went astray and find a way to get from where you are to where you want to go. There are no rules about how to do it, or even whether to do it. One thing I love about knitting is that you make up your own rules and change them whenever you want to. I recently finished a pair of “just keep going” socks—I never turned back, even when I saw a mistake. Unlike most of my sock creations they aren’t pretty, but they kept me occupied at odd moments during an aggravating summer which is the main reason I made them. And they’ll keep my feet warm. Meanwhile, I’ve been working off and on for a year and a half on a sleeveless sweater with a complicated pattern of twisted ribs, beaded ribs and cables. I started over from the beginning not once, but twice. By the time it’s finished, I will have knitted enough stitches to make two or three like it, and spent at least 25% of the total time and effort un-knitting. I’m having a wonderful time with it.

I also love that knitting offers an endless supply of metaphors for life lessons, which gives me plenty to think about when I’m untangling a mess I’ve made.

Daddy’s shotguns

September 3, 2010

Emptying my parents’ house was a big, hard job. My sisters and I dreaded it for months, years really, and it turned out to be a lot worse than we thought. In some ways we knew what to expect but still, some things took us by surprise. Mama and Daddy were both pack rats, but in different ways. Dismantling their holdings was both fascinating and appalling. More on that later.

Luckily for us they had moved once—from the house they built on the GI Bill in 1949 to their retirement dream home (astonishingly similar in plan to the old one) in 1989—although it turns out most of what they got rid of in that move was our stuff. Sadly, I’ll never see my Campus Queen lunchbox again (with its original thermos unbroken). Yet, last spring I found my mother’s entire collection of McCall’s magazines—fifteen or twenty years’ worth, from the 1950s and ‘60s—in the attic at the “new” house.

Anyhow, we finally worked our way around to the shotguns. An avid bird hunter all his life, both for sport and to put food on the table, Daddy cherished his shotguns most among his worldly goods. He didn’t wear his wedding band because it might scratch the finish. He always cleaned them immediately when he got home from hunting, and they shone more like jewelry than firearms. Of course, helping with the cleaning was the only time we got to handle them (except for a little skeet shooting when I was about twelve). No matter how fiercely we begged, he didn’t believe in taking girls hunting. It was unfair and unreasonable, but none of the other girls we knew got to go, either. (For some reason, fishing was an entirely different matter, but that’s a story for another day.)

We got the guns out earlier this year, thinking to divide them among ourselves. Of all the household belongings to be disposed of, it seemed inconceivable to part with the shotguns. They are too strongly associated with Daddy, at his best and happiest. Sure enough, the way they smelled and the way it felt to handle them didn’t just stir up memories, they conjured Daddy himself in a way that doesn’t happen very often. Although I never got to go with him, I think I understand a lot now about why he loved hunting—being outdoors, walking the countryside he’d known his whole life, working talented dogs, enjoying his own marksmanship, bringing home food for his family.

For several weeks, off and on, we discussed how we might divide them up. Finally, it occurred to us that maybe we didn’t need to keep these guns, after all. None of us hunts, or even goes to a shooting range more than every ten or twenty years. They’re really beautiful to look at, and hoarding them in locked closets for the next few decades seems like the wrong thing to do. At least two might be collectors’ items, but we’d like for them to be used, too, by people who appreciate fine guns and love hunting the way Daddy did, and will clean them as soon as they get home.

So we’re selling the shotguns. Mama could use the money, anyway. One has gone to a cousin, another to a family friend who in some ways was the son Daddy never had. The third, along with a gem of a .22 rifle, is back in the closet for the time being. (We got the house on the market and are taking a break.) We’ll find good homes for them before long, though. And we’re sure Daddy would approve.

One more time: we’re purple, people!

August 27, 2010

Honestly, the red state versus blue state thing has got to go. It popped up again recently, in a collection of suggested tag lines for my adopted hometown: blue dot in a red state.  It makes me gnash my teeth and snort like a grampus. Our town is not solid blue and our state is not solid red. Perpetuating those myths is divisive and sloppy.

“Red states vs. blue states” is and ever has been a false dichotomy. I didn’t figure this out–some people at the University of Michigan did, building on the work of Robert Vanderbei at Princeton University. Check out their maps, they’re very cool. The first part of the Michigan researchers’ Web site uses cartograms to illustrate how our uneven population distribution can make the election night map appear to contradict the returns. (A candidate can win lots of big, sparsely populated states and still lose the election.) To me, what comes next is even more interesting.

The margin of votes between the Republican and Democratic candidate is often slim, so designating an entire state–or even an entire county–pure red or pure blue does not accurately reflect how people voted. Using shades of purple to identify areas of close margins results in a very different picture, one that rings a lot truer, in my opinion. Plenty of red and plenty of blue, with significant areas of purple in nearly every state. That’s us, that’s who we are–complicated, and not that far apart in a lot of ways,.

Another way in which the red-blue dichotomy misleads is by encouraging us to think of individual votes as purely red or purely blue. Yes, when it comes down to it you have to jump one way or another. But plenty of data indicate that many or even most voters have more moderate viewpoints than the media’s maps reflect. (See Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, 3rd edition by Fiorina, Abrams and Pope) It’s the politicians, the pundits, and the media that are deeply divided and ideologically polarized–it’s not us. By following their lead, though, and buying into their one-liners and over-simplified visuals, we lose sight of the vast expanses of common ground that make up such a large part of our political landscape. Certainly, we face unimaginably dire problems and we naturally will differ about how to solve them. But only by beginning on our common ground can we move forward toward solutions. We do it every day in our neighborhoods and towns, but hardly ever see it in our state legislatures or in Washington. Bipartisan compromise used to happen, at least sometimes–think of Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill in 1983–but not any more.

I can’t think of a way to bring it back, except by declaring every election from now on a single-issue race: the will and ability to engage in bipartisan governing. No more win-at-any-cost campaigning and scorched-earth legislative antics. Voters resolve to ignore party ideology and focus on whichever candidate shows signs of thinking about how to solve problems. Of course, come November, this criterion may well leave us with a bunch of “none of the above” dilemmas. And I don’t have an answer for that. Meanwhile, though, I hope more Americans will stop and think before swallowing over-simplifications and myths, and supporting those who pitch them.

A reminder

August 11, 2010

I lived in Alaska for six years and left more than 20 years ago, and with rare exceptions I was not a fan of Ted Steven’s politics. Still, the news of the plane crash that took the lives of Stevens and four others on Monday night has stayed in my mind all morning. Alaskans, by necessity, use small aircraft the way we on the Outside use cars and taxicabs. Maybe, in a sense, this tragedy should feel like losing people in an automobile wreck–terribly shocking and yet not so much, considering all the things that could go wrong every time you start the machine.

My time in Alaska involved six summers of fieldwork and a couple of wintertime forays during which colleagues and I traveled in a wide assortment of small aircraft. We used helicopters a lot, which I preferred because a helicopter can stop and turn around if a mountain pass turns out to be weathered in. On the other hand, you can forget about gliding to safety–a helicopter with no engine has the aerodynamic properties of a rock. (Given enough altitude to start with, auto-rotation can put a chopper on the ground in one piece, but we typically flew too low for that to be an option.)

We logged plenty of hours in fixed-wing craft, too, usually when setting up temporary and seasonal camps. Float planes are especially fun. Taxiing for takeoff feels like a boat ride until suddenly, you’re flying. Coming in for a landing over water feels like a mistake until you touch down and find yourself in a boat again. And you wind up in beautiful, wild places no car or truck (or airliner) could take you.

Small aircraft still feel safer to me than commercial jetliners. In Alaska I learned to like being able to see what the pilot was seeing and  hear what he was saying (and what others were saying back). Even when we hitched rides to the Aleutians on Coast Guard C-130s, we could visit the flight deck sometimes. Strapped into a commercial 747, I can’t see or hear what’s really going on, and I don’t like it.

I don’t remember ever worrying or being reluctant to board a small aircraft. You can’t move around in Alaska unless you’re willing to travel by bush plane. Besides, I was in my 20s, single and childless–not about to turn down any chance for adventure, whether for an afternoon or a whole summer. Weather conditions were often scary–it was the arctic–and I remember a few close calls. Only once, though, do I recall being concerned about the aircraft–ironically, a de Havilland Otter flying out of Dillingham. (Stevens, et al crashed in an Otter north of Dillingham.) We chartered it to haul supplies and equipment to a new camp location and it was heavily loaded. The plane was noticeably old and faded, even for the time and place, and once we began to taxi, it felt pretty rickety. Years later, I happened to read that some pilots think the Otter is underpowered, which probably explains why that one felt like it might not be quite up to the job that day. It was, though.

Ted Stevens was a wartime pilot who became a public figure, and lived and traveled into his 80s; he must have logged hundreds or even thousands of hours in small aircraft over wilderness. Did the law of large numbers finally catch up with him? I don’t think so, because the crash that killed him claimed the lives of four others including a sixteen-year old on a fishing trip with her mother, who was also killed. I think it boils down to something much simpler: life is short and something terrible could happen to any of us at any time.

It doesn’t pay to dwell on it, but it doesn’t pay to forget it, either. I’ll take my reminders where and when they happen.

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