Wednesday, June 29, 2016

There Really Is an Exceptional Nation

Britain impressed the hell out of me a couple years ago when Parliament refused to go along with the Nobel-peace-prize-winning president in sending troops to Syria, to add it to the post-9/11 casualty list of destroyed countries.

But this recent move of theirs to withdraw from the European Union! It certainly made me appreciate Britain as the Exceptional Nation. As luck would have it, I had been reading books by Madame de StaĆ«l [*], written during the Napoleonic era. She too praised Britain as the exceptional nation, not that she used that exact phrase. 

The pre-Brexit polls showing the opposite result look a little fishy, to say the least. Oh, but we don't want to give into conspiracy theories!

How many Americans are feeling the irony and significance of these two recent moves by the Exceptional Nation of Britain? We were all by brainwashed by the government's schools that Americans were 10 feet tall, and that:
  • we had courageously broken away from the evil empire of the British king, George III; a president is better than a king,
  • democracies never start wars,
  • we were always the Good Guys in wars, and that we always won our wars,
  • Congress is the essence of self-government,
  • we were heroic, risk-taking pioneers and entrepreneurs.

How threadbare this myth has turned out to be!

[*] See her free books on and elsewhere. What a remarkable story is her life.

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Stubbornness of Some Myths

If a town like Coyote NM lacks up-scale glamor to a tourist, then this forest just made it worse:

Believe it or not, I sort of liked it. The altitude was over 8000 feet, so it was cool. It was flat enough to use more than one gear on my mountain bike. And there wasn't one Jeep Wrangler after another, as there soon will be in Colorado.

Getting all the damned trees out of the way just helps you admire the sky. It is the time of year when the sky gets more interesting every day, thanks to the swelling humidity. Although the onset of the summer monsoons is routine in some sense, nature is never totally predictable. So a peasant living close to nature always feels a certain amount of nervousness. The drama of the sky becomes interesting, once again. 

Besides, the trees' loss is the understory's gain. Think of it as as a French Revolution for the forest. But what were the humble verdancies that were bustin' out all over? Good eatin' for somebody?

It didn't take long to find out. We ran into the herd of young elk cows, again. This time they were agglomerated into one herd, between 50 and 100. We spooked them into the bowl beneath our trail. They raised holy hell with their bugling/squawking.

Then they ran uphill and crossed the trail 100 feet in front of us. My dog was as astonished as I was. She wouldn't even chase them! (Just to make sure, I snapped her back on the leash.) There were times when all those hooves in motion sounded like a cattle stampede in a Hollywood western.

The austerity and harshness of a burned forest adds to a sense of forlornness and loneliness.  This used to bother me more at the beginning of my career as a full-time RVer: my favorite sport was the least popular activity of "fellow" RVers. But I responded by getting a dog and taking it on every outing.

There has been another way to adapt. At the moment I am reading Owen Wister's "The Virginian," acknowledged to be the progenitor of the cowboy myth in America. The lone rider of the plains. Of course, America is not the "exceptional" nation that it thinks it is; South American countries have the gaucho mythology. And all Europe had the romance of the knight errant before that.

It may at first seem ego-centric or narcissistic to glamorize one's own sport as a re-invention of a myth. Actually though, I think it is the opposite of egocentricism to see yourself as just one more manifestation of a long-lasting or recurring archetype.

A mountain biker's claim to be today's "lone rider of the plains" is even better if he blogs anonymously and reinvents the "man with no name" of Wister's novel. When the forest service smacks him with more travel or camping restrictions, it pains him in a manner similar to the mythological cowboy who saw barbed wire fences going up.

There was a wisfulness in Wister's novel for a West that had disappeared in his time, 1902. But perhaps poignant nostalgia for a dead way of life is not the right attitude. Wister could not have predicted the invention of the mountain bike in the 1980s. 

More generally, the importance of a myth may depend less on its oldness or popularity than on its ability to survive obsolescence in an ever-changing world, by somehow reinventing itself in a newer world. Like the forest after a fire.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Evanescence of a Trail

It was hard to believe this forest road: it was an official road on the official map. But why weren't there any tire ruts in it? The grass and other vegetation had filled the road space in. But there was a noticeable road space: flat and smooth. 

Where were all the rocks? Credit the geology for that. 

It was strange to think that I had all this to myself, while just a few miles away in Abiquiu, the tourists were burning up in the heat to see the standard things. Perhaps a place like Coyote NM lacks the cachet they are looking for.

The topography was perfect for mountain biking, albeit backwards. When you camp at 9200 feet, you will usually have to start a ride going downhill -- not what is desirable. But in a heat wave, what else can you do? So smooth was this "road." It felt funny to have the grass tickling my bare leg.

I really hoped this road didn't crap off on me, because it would be a long push/walk back up the hill. It is the buggy season, June, if you think that the southwest ever gets buggy. But it is also the season for big yellow-and-black swallowtail (?) butterflies.

We came upon two herds of youngish elk cows. I thought elks were supposed to "bugle." Their sound was more indignant and higher-pitched. Can ungulates ululate?

Surely I wasn't still on an official road! And then, just like that, we popped out onto a main through-road. Now at least, I knew where I was. I felt relief for a couple minutes, but then felt that evil urge to try something that wasn't so straightforward, such as an unmarked dirt road that appeared to climb back to the high elevation of my campsite.

And then this new road started crapping off, as we climbed out of the ponderosa pines and into the hideously thick spruce and fir. It was a "sinking" feeling as I ascended. But then that perfect moment came, as it has, so often: the exquisite feeling of knowing that you are almost lost; of looking for signs of a continuing road, but feeling that these signs are only imaginary. The real world has left you.

For the benefit of new readers, there is a quote I like to whip out here, from "Five Stages of Greek Religion," by the classicist, Gilbert Murray.

The Uncharted surrounds us on every side and we must needs have some some relation towards it...

As far as knowledge and conscious reason will go, we should follow resolutely their austere guidance. When they cease, as cease they must, we must use as best we can those fainter powers of apprehension and surmise and sensitiveness by which, after all, most high truth has been reached as well as most high art and poetry; careful always really to seek for truth and not for our own emotional satisfaction, careful not to neglect the real needs of men and women through basing our life on dreams; and remembering above all else to walk gently in a world where the lights are dim and the very stars wander.

There is no better physical representation of these thoughts of Murray's than getting lost in a thick forest, on a waning trail.

I had to surrender and backtrack, and then take the straightforward road, up, up...

I had brought plenty of water, and my dog was doing her duty of sipping some. You can only get so hot when riding between 8000 and 9000 feet, in the morning, and mostly in the shade. But I thought of the heat wave that was baking the entire Southwest, and the news stories about hikers croaking in Arizona. 

Then we encountered what I have never encountered before:

If only I had been a newbie and gotten desperately thirsty before seeing this. Still, my dog, Coffee Girl, honored the occasion by wading into the water -- something she seldom does -- and having a good long drink.

It reminded me that soon I'll cross over into Colorado, with its over-rated mountains, traffic, and tourists. But every year it is worth it, just to experience the miracle of running water.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Classic Television

Chalk up another one for "all things are possible in this ol' world of ours." I am going to praise television in this post. Not all television, of course. Only classic television. I ask the reader not to quibble over what exactly is classic television, and why I should be the judge of it. 

Let it suffice to recall the proverbial supreme court justice, who, when asked to define pornography, could only reply, "Well, maybe I can't define it, exactly. But I can recognize it when I see it." What is true of porn is even more true of "classics."

How did this strange new appreciation even happen? More classic television shows are available on DVDs, these days. I wouldn't watch them with commercials.

Perhaps it was listening to (director) Sidney Lumet's commentary track on the DVD of "Network."  He reminisced about the early days of television, when shows were performed in front of live audiences, on stages in New York City. They had a deep reservoir of talented actors and writers to draw on. Then the TV industry moved to southern California, and the laugh track was invented.

Since I watch DVDs primarily to fall asleep, I decided that dialogue-intensive, low budget television was a better medium than eye-candy-intensive, high-production-value movies.

So then, which show do you choose first? Remember, 'classic' does not necessarily mean old, famous, or popular. I chose "The Rifleman," and was immediately pleased and impressed. It was one of the first shows to use a widowed father, with the obvious advantage of permitting plot possibilities. Chuck Connors had a rugged, athletic presence on the screen that exceeded most Hollywood western stars, who were usually un-tough 'pretty boys' with big hair. 

The son, played by Johnny Crawford, was still young enough to be a cute kid; he was also the best boy-actor I know of, and a great horsemen. They gave this 11-year-old squirt a full-sized horse to ride. He had to practically high jump up to the stirrup. He could dismount when the horse was still moving.

I was overwhelmed by the moral decency in these episodes of "The Rifleman." Modern television shows are pure trash, by comparison. The "center held" in America in 1958. The politics was not as polarized. There was a certain amount of consensus about basic values that you could agree to, whether you were Democrat or Republican.

Today it only takes a code-word or two from somebody's mouth before you decide you have nothing to say to them.

The guest starts were amazingly versatile: Peter Whitney, Dabs Greer, Whit Bissell, and Royal Dano. I never before appreciated how the television program format has an advantage that movies lack: movies give so much screen time to the star, and yet, I typically enjoy the performance of the supporting actors more than that of the star.

Television inverts that: the so-called star becomes a bit bland due to his over-exposure, and he soon recedes to the background. The real star of each episode is the 'guest star.'

And then there are the women guest stars:  Joanna Moore, Patricia Blair, Julie Adams, Patricia Barry, Christine White... all of them outrageously beautiful women in their thirties. Here again, television added 'value': such women would have been neglected by the movie industry, which is always trying to discover the next hot new starlet. But the female guest stars on television were better and more experienced actresses in their thirties. 

At first I was surprised by "The Rifleman" being in black-and-white. But of course color television was not yet mainstream in 1958. I vaguely remember the famous opening shot and theme song of this classic show. It actually occurred a couple years before 'my time.'  How ideal! Something that is only half-remembered is imbued with a glamor, romance, and nostalgia.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Orlando Tragedy Can Make a New Roosevelt

The leaders of the Democratic party are struggling with a dilemma: how can they avoid appearing too friendly or not friendly enough to Muslim immigrants? And will they appear unsympathetic to their LGBT block? Of course, the LGBT block has nowhere to go outside the Democratic party. Its votes are taken for granted.  

So the Democrats are spinning Orlando as a gun problem or as a homophobia problem, being careful to avoid mentioning Muslim immigrants, at all cost.

The very future of the Democratic party is at stake. The LGBT block is not a growing one. And the Hispanic block might betray the Democrats, if they act like the Italian immigrants of 1910. They will work hard, marry whites, and a generation from now there will be lots of Republican suburbs with residents that have Hispanic surnames, but don't otherwise seem too Hispanic.

Imagine what a Democratic leader feels when it/she/he sees the juicy promise of a Europe that is being invaded by Muslims? If only they could have a success that big in the USA! The trick is to incorporate the hordes of Muslim immigrants into the Democratic party.

The Stoopid party will try to make that easy for the Democrats. Because of the Republicans' doctrine of permanent war, Muslims can see the Republicans as the embodiment of Evil.  The Democrats will continue to position themselves as the Lite version of the warmonger cult.

Out of hatred of Republicans, and because they need SNAP, Obamacare subsidies, and affirmative action programs, Muslim immigrants will have an orientation toward the Democrats.

There is just one problem: the LGBT block is already firmly ensconced in the Democratic party. So that kills the deal, right? Before saying so, remember that Franklin Roosevelt somehow made a home for the "Solid South" of white voters as well as civil rights activists and Soviet "fellow travelers." Talk about an incongruous combination! But it worked until Nixon's Silent Majority was formed.

Thus we are left with some Democrat's opportunity to become the new FDR by reconciling the wave of the future, Muslim immigrants, and the already locked-up LGBT block. If they can do that, we will have a one-party system in this country. And the Democrats won't have to worry about being double-crossed by Muslims melting into the pot.

It has been a few years since I reread Machiavelli's "The Prince." Perhaps he would have thought that I didn't do too bad in this post, for an amateur.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

One of the Greatest Pleasures Outdoors

This May and June we have actually had clouds in the sky, and a bit of rain. There are no fire restrictions yet, despite being into the second week of June.

What the sky is supposed to be like, in May and June. Ghastly!
Sometimes I just sit out in a chair in the afternoon and marvel at how magnificent it is to have clouds and shade in mid-day. If the wind blows, it actually feels cool. Truly, this must be one of the greatest pleasures an outdoorsman ever experiences.

I'm so glad I started years ago at trying to appreciate the Agony of Dry Heat, and the Ecstasy of moderate humidity and the southwestern monsoons. It isn't the obvious tourist-like approach. Perhaps it was just snobbishness on my part.

At any rate, taking that approach has paid off. Last night, for the first time in a long time, I left the outer door open all night. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

A Decorated Grave in the Forest

So close to Memorial Day, it was strange to stumble onto a well-marked grave for a dog, in the forest. It had a large blue Christian cross with some nice words about the dog, "Jack". A plastic doggie water bowl was in front of the cross. Did the owners come out every year and replace the bowl, or symbolically pour water in the bowl? I found myself quite affected by this, especially considering how difficult it is to dig a grave a couple feet deep in rock.

I know one man who would not have been impressed: the fellow who camped nearby last winter. He once told me, with some disgust in his voice, "You treat her like a person!", referring to my dog of course. (In fairness, I try to repress baby talk and other behavior that is obnoxious to other people.) 
Treat her like a human, do I? This was the groomer's idea. She got her summer clip today and loves it.
That's one of those phrases you hear every now and then. There are several others.
  • Dogs offer unconditional love.
  • Dogs are loyal.
  • I like dogs better than people.
All of these phrases seem to miss the mark. I have only had two dogs, but neither one was the least bit loyal. Whatever human walked up to them was their new best friend.

Unconditional love? A dog would only put up with so much abuse from a human. Dogs also show noticeable preferences for some people over others. If there were no conditions, how could there be preferences?

Nor will I confess to liking dogs better than people. I will admit to preferring the behavior of the average dog to that of the average person. Dogs are friendlier and more enthusiastic than the average person. Why should that be so?

And then there is the cuteness factor. Adult dogs, let alone puppies, seem much cuter than little humans. How does evolution explain that?

Why is the behavior of the average dog so preferable to the average human? My best guess is that humans have more powerful imaginations than dogs, and yet our imaginations are so undisciplined that we would almost be better without any imagination.

I don't want to try to answer these questions. It would take too much mental effort, and I'm getting ready to lie down for a siesta, after a morning mountain bike ride with my dog. Now it is a warm summer mid-day. It would be so nice to feel a touch of breeze and get another drink of water. "Jack" would have understood. 

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Trying to Get Educated at a Repair Shop

I dared to hope. It almost worked.

I was laying on the ground, watching a mechanic install a new leaf spring on the unbroken side, so that I would have a matched pair of brand spanking new leaf springs on my single axle trailer. I was at the business from which we had ordered and shipped the first leaf spring. It was quite a large business actually, with a 'reputation' for being experts.

If I learned to repair a broken suspension part in the field, it might someday save me hundreds of dollars in towing, if the towing service balked at paying the tow truck to come to an inaccessible location. (Be aware that towing insurance is not a panacea. There are reasons why you don't want to camp in too backwoodsey a location.)

In fact I did learn a couple tricks of the trade before the manager came over to inform me that insurance regulations did not allow a customer in the work area. In fact, I had already thought of that, by laying down just outside the building. (My head wasn't underneath the trailer.) Nope, that wasn't good enough. He quickly shuffled me off to the customer's lounge, where there was the usual television playing daytime shows, and a variety of trashy glossy magazines.

Insurance regulations, eh? Well OK, but there are other reasons, too. Nothing is more irritating to the office types than a customer who wants to talk to the mechanic. In part, this is just marketing psychology. Any kind of repair facility, including a doctor's office, benefits from an aura and mystique when the customer drops off the problem, leaves a four word description of the symptom, the office-type (a glorified college-educated clerk) spends a half hour doing paperwork on a computer, and then at the end of day, the repaired item magically appears.

The more ignorant the customer stays, the more magical the whole process appears, and the easier it is to swallow the astronomical repair bill.

In my case, the first thing the mechanic did was jack the trailer up by the flimsy steel cross-piece. That is a classic no-no. One should always use the heavier frame that runs along the long axis of the vehicle. Seeing the mechanic make that mistake caused his aura to pop instantly.  This single observation means that they lost my business. Back at the small town where my original spring broke, the mechanic mentioned that he wouldn't use the flimsier steel cross-piece. He has won my business in the future.

But the disappointment at the big firm was more general than that. Rather than describe it in detail, let me insert a pertinent quote from Matthew Crawford's book, "The Case for Working with Your Hands."
Consider the case of a man who is told his car is not worth fixing. He is told so not by a mechanic but by a clipboard-wielding "service representative" at the dealership. Here is a layer of bureaucracy that makes impossible a conversation about the nitty-gritty of the situation. This man would gladly hover around the mechanic's bay and be educated about his car, but this is not allowed. The service representative represents not so much mechanical expertise as a position taken by an institution...

The example I have given shows that there is a certain rational self-interest on the part of the institution to separate the customer from the mechanic. But I don't like it anyway.