Saturday, November 28, 2015

Immortality in a Threatening Wind

What a nice morning it had been: moderately cool, calm, and sunny. Coffee Girl and I had just finished a mountain bike ride up an arroyo where, at the beginning of my travel career, I had stumbled onto a "cliff dwelling." Not an official one, of course. But it was possible to imagine turning it into a cliff dwelling or emergency shelter. Back then I took a chance in dragging my trailer upstream in the gravel arroyo, with only my rear wheel drive van. And I camped there that night, and made a fire in the little cliff dwelling, and amused myself with making shadows on the ceiling. (Plato would have been impressed.)

Alas, the cliff dwelling seemed less romantic today than it did way-back-when. This stung. Did it mean that my travel lifestyle had become too predictable and tame?

We laid down for the usual post-ride siesta, relaxing to a movie with a good musical score. But it became difficult to hear the movie because of the howling wind. What the hell was going on, out there!? Since I had already learned the hard way about opening 32" wide doors in the wind, I had a good cord attached to the side-door. Curiosity got the better of me. I opened the door no more than 6" before it almost exploded open into the wind. The finger holding the cord got a nasty rope-burn. 

But I was surprised and relieved that the door had not literally been blown off the hinges. The standard RV doors on cargo trailers are nothing more than aluminum-foil-clad styro-foam laminates, held on by thin aluminum trim that is glued to the door's perimeter. There is no tube frame!

I could not even re-close the door, let alone latch it. And all the time the wind was trying to rip it out of my hands. It was like being a sailor on deck during a storm, and grabbing ropes and ducking masts, all in a state of desperation.  I had to surrender by opening the door fully, which made it parallel to the wind, and therefore, stable.

Now what? Panic, that is what. I started trying to pound the door back into shape with a block of wood and a hammer. Eventually it did close, but it was so tight that it wouldn't re-open.

So I unlocked the ramp door in the back (aka, the stern) of the trailer. It opened by lowering directly into the wind. Thank goodness it wasn't the barn door geometry, like at the back of a van.

But now stuff was blowing out of my trailer, streaming across the mesa. I went chasing it. To a spectator, it must have looked like some slapstick comedy from the silent movie era.

A photo from the archives. It expresses the idea of this post.
But from my point of view, it was no joke. Objects seem to take on a life of their own in the wind. They balance and spin upright, like a spinning bicycle wheel. Sometimes your hand is a matter of inches away from grabbing the object, and then a gust removes it from your reach. These objects and the wind had become almost sentient and malevolent.

After a couple days, I have recovered full operation of the door and rebuilt the inner wood screen door, which had shattered. From the point of view of hindsight, this was a worthwhile experience, an authentic experience with nature.

Long-suffering readers are used to me advertising any experience with nature other than postcard idolatry, which I relegate to the tourist trade. Perhaps the reader has taken a sailing or windsurfing lesson, and experienced fear and panic from a strong wind. It is a primal force in nature.

But just think of humankind's relationship with the wind, through the ages. Most of all, think of what sailors went through in storms, when they were heeled over at 45 degrees, and sliding all over the decks. Most of them couldn't swim, and even if they could, hypothermia would have killed them anyway. At least my trailer and mesa stayed horizontal during this madness!

What courage and skill they had! And then look at me: I hadn't even noticed which corner of the trailer was making the most noise. If I had, it would have told me the wind direction.

While the fear and embarrassment were still fresh, I persisted in dwelling on the heroes of the past. Is it too swoony and moony to say that appreciating their courage and skill was an act of connecting with the eternal, the immortal?

Another photo from the archives, in this case, from my first blog post.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Dealing with a Difficult Writer

For the umpteenth time I have started some Dostoevsky novels and short stories, only to surrender 50 pages in. Yes I know, it seems like common sense to be a good sport about this, to shrug it off, and to move on to a different writer. But it is worth giving the benefit of the doubt to a writer who has a high reputation. On the other hand, I should dismiss the opinion of the "experts" if it doesn't agree with my own experience.

Perhaps the best reason for not giving up on Dostoevsky too soon is that something might be gained by trying to explain why reading him just doesn't work for me. I used to think that his books had too much religious guilt and physical suffering in them for my tastes. Russians are pretty good at suffering, but I am not.

The more I thought about it, this time around, the more the blame went to his unsympathetic characters. I simply don't care what happens to his characters, and therefore, have no interest in the story. Don't think that I am lobbying for perfect characters or goodie-two-shoes. Such characters would be pretty boring, actually. But they have to have something about them that makes you want to "stick" for them.

Perhaps Dostoevsky did think his characters were somewhat sympathetic. Read a biographical blurb on him sometime. It is amazing what he survived. Perhaps he lost track of how weak and spoiled his readers are compared to the hardships of his own life. (And that includes me.)

Well then, if this is the right explanation for my difficulty in reading Dostoevsky, what should he have done? I am not going to argue that he should have given up at being a serious writer, and devolved into a pulp writer, who follows all the easy formulas that make a book a commercial success.

But couldn't he have let the reader 'come up for air' now and then, with more action, some humor, or even a little romance, as silly as that sounds. But this doesn't sound very inspiring to a serious writer, does it? It sounds like I'm advocating watering his work down. It might backfire because of its obvious condescension to the readers.

Isn't there a way to admit and accept the readers' humanity, including their weaknesses, without being condescending? Is there some way to visualize adding things to his books, rather than merely diluting them?

If reading his books is an non-success story for me, we need to come up with success stories. Next time I will give examples of movies that talked about serious subjects in a non-serious way; and by doing so, they fit better with an audience that isn't superhuman, but merely human.

Here I am, trying to make an allowance for my readers' humanity by offering some eye-candy in a Nevada arroyo. But it has nothing to do with the post, so it backfires, because it treats the reader in a condescending way.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Belvedere Over Windy Badlands

I won't apologize for my long-standing fascination with desert arroyos, especially when they develop into small canyons. Of course, readers should be warned that you should begin by hiking 'upstream', with the main branch resembling a forearm, which then subdivides into fingers, which further split into sub-fingers. At some point, you turn around and return to your starting point. It is mathematically (topologically) impossible to get lost.

Ahh, but what if you are camped on a mesa that lords over eroded badlands? Then you start walking downstream. A mistake.

Normally I feel an urge to dismantle rock cairns. What gives people the right to rob a route of its mystique and aura? But in this case, I was happy to see two cairns, at the first important junction on my first downstream walk. After all, I was out of practice.

The technique that works for me is to renounce the mindset of a tourist. Stop calling things 'beautiful' just because they are freakishly large and vertical. Instead, focus on topography and geology as active processes that occur on the time scale of a human being. Try to visualize how a certain feature was carved out. Sometimes my favorite features aren't even as tall as a person.

A vertical arroyo-bank made of agglomerate.
Once you go in with an attitude like that, Mother Nature takes a perverse pleasure in dazzling you on the upside. 

How COULD it be so vertical?
It was cool and breezy on the mesa. Down in this hellhole, there was no wind, and I started getting warm as I always do. 

On the way back, I walked right by the two rock cairns that were trying to be helpful. By now I was suspicious of this canyon system. And yet, nature is more interesting as a dark-haired femme fatale -- named Natasha -- than as a dumb blonde pin-up girl, named Betty. Claustrophobia and heat, and now getting lost, were giving the canyon-maze a vague aura of malevolence.

In fact that is one way to relate to a canyon-maze: think of it as a type of film-noir. In Wikipedia's article on film noir, they say:
The low-key lighting schemes of many classic film noirs are associated with stark light/dark contrasts and dramatic shadow patterning—a style known as chiaroscuro (a term adopted from Renaissance painting).[c] The shadows of Venetian blinds or banister rods, cast upon an actor, a wall, or an entire set, are an iconic visual in noir and had already become a cliché well before the neo-noir era. Characters' faces may be partially or wholly obscured by darkness—a relative rarity in conventional Hollywood filmmaking. While black-and-white cinematography is considered by many to be one of the essential attributes of classic noir,
Well, there certainly is a lot of that in the canyon-maze at sunrise and sunset.

But let's let the imagination run. (Otherwise, why do this? Why not just go to the gym and work out on the Stair-master?) There is something about a canyon-maze that is lewd and feminine. Nature, here in this canyon-maze, wasn't just a femme fatale in a film-noir; she was a succubus, a woman who has had sexual intercourse with the Devil.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Will Post-Attack France Be as Unwise as America?

Will the French be as stupid after the Paris attacks on Friday the 13th as America was after 9-11? For their sakes I hope not. But there are always those who seize on terrorist attacks to implement their own agenda, an agenda decided-on long before any attacks.

The two best editorials I've run across on the recent Paris attacks are described now:  The first was by Andrew Bacevich. This isn't the first time I've been impressed by one of his editorials.

The second recommendation appealed, in part, because I am a sucker for analogies. Bret Weinstein wrote in Salon that:
But to the nation as a whole that level of damage [from the 9-11 attacks] was about as dangerous as a bee sting.You may find that analogy suspect because bee stings are deadly to those with an allergy. But what kills people is not the sting itself. It is their own massive overreaction to an otherwise tiny threat, that fatally disrupts the functional systems of the body. And that is exactly what terrorists hope to trigger...
Let's hope the War Party and NATO don't use the Paris attacks as an excuse to create an even bigger disaster in Syria, as they did in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Benefits of Enjoying a Not-So-Great Movie

Last episode I went boldly into the present by buying my first Blu-Ray disc. Disappointed as I was by the technology itself, I at least had the pleasure of seeing a pretty good movie, "Rio Bravo" (1959), directed by Howard Hawks, and starring Dean Martin, John Wayne, Walter Brennan, and Angie Dickinson.

As usual John Wayne did not interest me. The Dmitri Tiomkin score was a disappointment. But Dean Martin's acting was surprisingly good! Then of course, there was the wonderful Walter Brennan. I think he is my role model as a cranky tough old goat. Give me a couple more years.

Male sexist pigs will be able to tolerate Angie Dickinson, then in her twenties. Next to Brennan, she was my favorite character. Here is a photo as she appeared in character, at the end of the movie:

It was so refreshing to see a beautiful female character who doesn't take herself so seriously. She was no fool; she knew the effect she had on men. But she had a nonchalant sense of humor about it. Normally, everybody around such a woman seems obsessed with her, which causes me to dislike them and her. Here that didn't happen. She acted a bit like a girl who grew up with four brothers, and who knew how to talk back to them, and smack 'em around if they needed it. 

As I watched and enjoyed this movie, I realized I was no longer bothered by stories that didn't interest me, or by dialogue that was flat. It's as if I were decomposing the movie into its component parts, and shrugging off the components that were losers, while consciously dwelling on the good components. (Extra credit points to any reader who can supply the pertinent parable from Ben Franklin's Autobiography-- something about a good leg and a shriveled leg.)

This is an idea that everybody thinks about from time to time. For some people, decomposition is an entrenched habit. They derive great benefits from it. Do they even think about what they are doing, or do they just do it automatically, because of their temperament? Or maybe they are unconsciously imitating somebody else. 

But for some people like me, decomposition is not a really strong habit. On top of that, it is inherently difficult to decompose people, jobs and other important situations into good and bad components, and shrug off the bad if there isn't anything to do about it right away.  These big and important problems can seem like one gigantic monolithic block that impedes our way.  We get angry at the mighty Monolith, and charge into it, as if we can conquer it just by butting heads with it. Instead, we should have learned to sneak around it, or erode it with water and chemicals, or find a crack in the Monolith and tap at this crack until it easily breaks.

In contrast, it is pretty easy to decompose a movie. Sometimes an intellectual or philosophical idea, no matter how obvious it is or how much we agree with it, just doesn't alter our behavior. We benefit from a visual representation of the idea. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Retro-Grouch's Bold Leap Forward

Who says there is no drama in the life of a retro-grouch? Every now and then, the retro-grouch finally decides to give in on something that 99% of the population gave in on, years ago. There is a gravitas and honour to this ritual.

How many years has it been (?) since Sony tried suckering the world into more expensive Blu-Ray discs, rather than perfectly adequate DVD discs, which are excellent when played in an up-converting DVD player.

It was probably ye olde "Give 'em the razor -- sell 'em the blades" business model. Oddly enough, many of the customers resisted this trap. Why pay twice as much for a Blu-Ray disc, when up-converting DVD players and HDMI televisions produced excellent results?

But over the last decade, DVD players became cheap throw-aways. They are as noisy as a lawnmower, to the point of distracting the viewer from the movie. Also, Walmart started putting inexpensive Blu-Ray discs in a bin. I reasoned that Blue-Ray players must be built to better tolerances, and with better components. Thus I finally surrendered to 'progress.'

But what would be the first movie that I bought for this new Blu-Ray player? Only 1 out of 50 movies in Walmart's cheapie bin is worth getting. I always look for classics or at least semi-classics. Howard Hawks's "Rio Bravo" seemed the best I could do.

When I popped it into the Blu-Ray player, my retro-grouchery was immediately validated: I couldn't tell much difference between a Blu-Ray and an up-converted DVD disc. So I was wise to hold off for years and years.

But at least the movie pleased me. More on that later.

But say, this is the Nth time in my life that retro-grouchery has proven beneficial. Why doesn't everybody do it?

Monday, November 2, 2015

My Next Life as a World Traveler

Is it just procrastination, or is it a dislike that I'm not willing to face up to, that causes me to postpone bicycle touring to my next life? Perhaps the romance of this kind of travel wouldn't hold up to three days of reality.

Cycling on highways is no pleasure. But that might be gotten around by using dirt roads and mountain bikes, or by going to civilized countries outside North America that actually have bicycle paths. Of course, the dog would have to stay home (sniffle!).

But the biggest turn-off is looking for accommodations each night. In first-world countries, motels are outrageously expensive and sterile. In third world countries, you would be lucky to get a toilet that flushes or a shower that puts out any hot water. In any country, there is only a couple sheets of plywood or drywall between your space and the noisy clowns next door. Of course you could always tent-camp 50 feet from a highway.

The question of 'where to sleep' is handled best by sleeping in my own bed in an RV every night. 

Very well then, the next life it will be. Still, I do enjoy the vicarious experience of reading bicycle travel blogs on There is little to interest a general reader in the vast majority of these blogs, of course. It is the nearly universal syndrome of travel blogs, regardless of the means of conveyance.

But if you have the patience, you can get lucky. And it is nice to spread the word. The travel blogs by Leo Woodland have consistently been a cut above the rest. In the past I only wished that he didn't try so hard to be humorous. (Recall Mark Twain's advice in his essay, "How to Tell a Story.")

Leo's last blog does just that. I consider it his best. His wit still comes through. Good observations and thoughts. He integrates a little history into the story in a brief manner, without politics, and in his own words; they are not cut-and-paste jobs from Wikipedia or a travel brochure. Even the photographs are interesting, because he avoids photo clichés and standard postcards.

Keep up the good work, Leo. In my next life, I will catch up with you.