Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Opening Up to the Charm of Other People

Learning to appreciate a variety of things is important for what I call an independent lifestyle, that is, one in which sheer busyness, phony pragmatism, and chasing after toys and status symbols is not the 'meaning of life.'

I had a couple examples of appreciation that were new to me, recently. My dog and I were returning on a mountain bike ride. Therefore we were cruising downhill. Another dirt road 'teed' into ours. Coming down this road were a half dozen large beautiful horses, with riders. I guessed that the horsewoman who led the troupe was the employee of a nearby (dude) guest ranch. 

I asked and she confirmed it, in four or five words.  That's all it took for me to bike away, cooing, and fluttering my eyelashes at the sheer prettiness of her voice. This effect was so exaggerated that I had to wonder about it.

Was it just the usual joy juice in my blood that comes from mountain biking? This has happened so many times. Sometimes it almost scares me. Certainly, that is some of the explanation.

And yes, some women really do have lovely voices. Their voices can be amazingly clear on the telephone when the man's voice sounds like mere mumbling. I thought I was only knocked over by the hit-arias sung by the soprano in Puccini operas.

But maybe I was just being a dirty old man, and was imagining that woman in tight blue jeans, riding her horse away from me? Or maybe it was seeing people enjoy a traditional western experience?
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It is rare to find a town in America that has any individual character. For the most part, they are all the same. It fits in with the massen-mensch mindset of democracy. And the consumption of mass media. And besides, there is barely enough freedom in modern America to display individuality.

Despite all that, Mayberry-for-Hippies, AZ, allows dogs in their public library. One day a reader came through with their miniature schnauzer in tow. He was grey and older, and so sedate. His whole personality reminded me of a little old man who runs an antique book store in London: you know the image, a cardigan sweater, nerdy eyeglasses, and maybe a little mustache.

I simply cannot forget that little dog. It's like he was born to work in that library. Of all the times I have been charmed by dogs, that experience is still my favorite.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Retro-grouch Gets His First Smartphone

Just in case I haven't said it often enough: late adopters rule, and early adopters drool. That is how I am feeling after finally finding a telephone/internet plan that I liked. Walmart was offering a pre-paid Verizon plan that can serve as my internet and phone plan, after I bought an inexpensive Android smartphone to serve as a hotspot for the laptop computer.

My goodness, I have held off for years! Because some people think a retrogrouch is either afraid of new things or is just a chronic curmudgeon who aims his curmudgeon-ness at technology, allow me to say a word in their defense. The problem was always the high price of the plans, not the smartphone itself. 

Actually it was fun and easy to learn how to use the Android smartphone. (Must I add that I wasn't even tempted to debauch myself with an overpriced iPhone?)  

Better yet, there was a certain vindication in being a cranky preacher against excessive motor vehicle usage. Look at how everything on the smartphone is aimed at tracking your location, and tailoring advertisements and maps towards getting you into the next fast food joint or Starbucks. It confirms what I have always said: that the car keys are the enabling technology for setting off a chain of unnecessary spending.

Because the 'medium is the message,' smartphones exacerbate bad habits, besides driving around in a city and squandering money. They bend your communications into one-liners and quips. They encourage you into an addiction to trivial, bite-sized 'news' and distraction: "Dude, how R U? Howzit hangin?" Eventually it will be deemed too slow or inconvenient to say, "Howzit hangin?" so it will be replaced with an emoticon-hieroglyphic. We can only imagine what that will look like.

Actually you can do just about everything better on an "old-fashioned" laptop. 

The smartphone is so synergistic with driving a car that one wonders how long it will be before old-fashioned key fobs are no longer needed to unlock and drive off in your car, and instead, there is an app on your smartphone to do it.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Fire and Ice

Now and then, I catch myself bragging about setting a 'personal best' when camping. Last week the temperature inside the camper hit 27 F. 

Of course I have a heater, but refuse to use it. Usually I try to joke my way out of it. A better explanation would be to point at the movie, "The Red Violin." 

Chilly dry air, in contrast with sunlight at sunrise, seems like perfection to me. With a Platonic and pseudo-religious attitude, I pop my trailer door open to the east, and let the glorious sun come into the trailer. It feels warmer instantly, and irresistibly cheerful. If there is a better way to start a day, let me know what it is.


Nevertheless, consider this an exception to the rule. You will not have to read many advertisements for 'the ideal' or 'perfection' on this blog. Experience has taught me that the enemy of the Good is not the Bad, as you would expect. The enemy of the Good is the Ideal.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Natasha Dances for the American Deep State

How nice that I have managed to appreciate art in 'this lifetime.' Although music and comedy were two forms of art that were easy to appreciate, the visual arts left me yawning, in the past.

I refer to "art" in the Tolstoyan sense. This is quite different from Beauty, which most people confuse with "art."  Tolstoy thought that art was anything that transferred emotional experiences from the artist to the viewer/reader/listener, by means of words, pictures, sounds, or stories. Beauty is a another matter, according to Tolstoy.

Movies should be good at providing "artful" experiences in this sense of the word, and, one would think, the Russian movie version of "War and Peace" should be good at it, too.

I watched the first third of the three-disc movie, and couldn't make up my mind if I liked it. The star of the second third of the movie was "Natasha," the young Russian noble-girl who came of age during the lead-up to Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia.

It became easier to notice how graceful her movements. Well of course! Look at her: she has "ballet dancer" written all over her. And thank heavens they chose a young actress to play this role, instead of taking the BBC approach of using a 30-year-old actress to portray an adolescent.

Tolstoy uses the behavior of Natasha's family at a wolf hunt to foreshadow the upcoming big-battle-scene. Gone are the genteel French manners. Natasha's family starts acting like Russians. But what exactly does that mean? Napoleon is about to find out.

I wasn't prepared for what came just after the wolf hunt, at the evening meal at her bachelor-uncle's hunting lodge. Natasha hears some Russian folk music being played on a balalaika, a traditional instrument. They tell her to dance, although she doesn't quite know how to dance to uncivilized Russian folk music.

But she plays along, and improvises, haltingly, almost reluctantly. Somehow she connects with something, and finally cuts loose, while the voice-over and subtitle repeats Tolstoy's words:
Where...how...when had this young countess absorbed the spirit of this dance from the Russian air she breathed? Dressed in silk and velvet, educated by a French emigrée governess, how had she acquired these movements; yet these movements were the very ones, inimitable, unteachable, Russian, which her uncle expected of her. How well she understood all that was in...

Let's be playful with an anachronism, and imagine ol' Bonie in the slow lane on St. Helena. Since he has lots of time on his hands, he pops the movie into the machine one night. What would he really think of the wolf hunt and Natasha's dance? "Art" or merde.

Perhaps modern neo-cons, Democrats, and Deep-Staters might get something out of Natasha's dance, as well, before they try to force Russia to surrender Crimea.

Monday, February 20, 2017

How Someone Should Write History

I should probably offer an excuse for talking about a book about the French Revolution, lest somebody say, "Yea but how is that, like, relevant, man?"  The answer is that much of what we call political news and "current events" is really just fighting the French Revolution all over again.

Details. Do I ever hate details in history books. Consider a book on the causes of the French Revolution: the author could grind through the legal system, economic conditions, etc. All very important of course. But what a tedious bore!

Consider the rather different approach used by Simon Schama, in "Citizens," A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Old-regime France had been no stranger to public ceremonies and spectacles. But your place near the viewing stand was controlled by the aristocratic pecking order.

Then, in the 1780s, public spectacles saw a radical change. Balloons became the high-tech rage. Once they were in the air, it all viewers had the same view.
In other words, [the balloonists] succeeded in establishing a direct and unmediated relationship of comradeship with enormous multitudes of people.
...As a spectacle it was unpredictable; its crowds were incoherent, spontaneous and viscerally roused...
The sense that they were witnessing a liberating event--and augury of a free-floating future--gave them a kind of temporary fellowship in the open air...

...it exemplified the philosopher's vision of a festival of freedom: uplifting glimpses of the Sublime in which the experience, not the audience, was noble.
What a gorgeous metaphor! I will always think of it first when reading about any kind of revolution.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Connecting With the Cosmos

Well, here I am again after a hiatus of a couple years -- back in a favorite camping area. The special attraction here is the 'alignment of the stars.' Just kidding.

'Sleeping under the stars' is both romantic and phony. How many times have you done it, literally? I did it once, as a lad, above tree-line in Colorado -- quite an adventure for a lad from the flatlands. But I was too uncomfortable to sleep much.

A camper could sleep out under the stars anytime he saw fit: a nice cot, air mattress, and sleeping bag should do the trick. A tent would ruin it. So why don't I do it? There are unpleasant practicalities, of course. Perhaps I don't really think the stars are all that interesting to look at. Maybe the shallowness of mere looking is the problem.

But let's return to the nightly spectacle of 'alignment' here. I love the alignment of the setting sun with a certain topographic feature, near the equinox. Currently it is about a month away from the equinox, so the alignment is not as good as the last time I was here.


The mountain peak on the right is Mt. Baboquivari, the noblest peak in this area. 


As you approach the equinox you can watch the setting sun approach the peak. You can hold up a couple fingers at arm's length, and measure the progress of the season. Or you could walk a certain distance along a transverse road to adjust the alignment a certain amount.

Day by day you look forward to perfect alignment. The immensity of the earth and solar system no longer seem so vast that they bore you. You have anthropomorphized them, and made them interesting.

Mt. "Babo" was supposed to be 'sacred to the native Americans.' That cliché usually makes me roll my eyes. But camping here, living here, and wrestling with it every night makes it quite plausible to see the mountain as a moody and mysterious god.

Friday, February 10, 2017

A Great Chapter of Life Ends

A title like that sounds like a traveler who is announcing that they are going to hang up the keys, or at least, close their blog. Nothing quite so drastic. 

I came back from the bicycle shop sniffling and whimpering, like a puppy with an ouchie stuck in his paw. But my friend in Mayberry-for-Hippies just laughed at my silliness. I was halfway serious though. A big chapter in my life has been closed: I sold my road bicycle. Now I am down to one bike, a mountain bike. Earlier in my career I traveled with four and a half bikes in my van.

It has been a wonderful part of life: road cycling, that is. I built my annual travel schedule around it. Most of my friends were bicyclists. I felt happier road cycling than at any other time. 

With an advertisement like that, why give it up? Primarily because of safety and better agreement between backwoods camping and mountain biking. You need to camp in town to be a road biker. 

As a help for anyone taking up road bicycling, note that there are more off-street recreational trails than before. That is the good news. But there are more cars, and half the drivers are more concerned with playing with their electronic gadgets than looking out the windshield.  So if you must ride on roads, do yourself a big favor and ride with a club or at least a small group of riders. I always did; perhaps that is why I have never been seriously injured on a bike, despite doing it most of my adult life.

When readying the road bicycle for sale, I was reminded of all the silly fads that bicyclists have been suckers for. Don't worry: I will spare the reader any standard stump speeches. Suffice it to say that this was the last time I will be bothered by hard-to-mount skinny tires and those damned Presta valves.

Thinking back, I have known so many other bicyclists who were admirable on at least some level. But they weren't perfect either. In any group of voluntary association, one always comes away feeling, "I can't live with 'em, and I can't live without 'em." That sounds bittersweet on paper, but tonight it feels more sweet than bitter.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

When Is It Time to Renounce Folly?

I've had thousands of chances to drive off, after a bicycle ride, and forget something -- like a front wheel. And yet I never did so until recently. Although I knew the spot where I left the front wheel, it wasn't lying there when I returned two days later. Infuriating!

Add this wheel to other casualties over the years, such as the $120 hiking poles I left behind, once.

After this incident I have started to put the front wheel in the van first, since forgetting the rest of bike is less likely. How much thinking was required to make this trivial improvement? And yet, it takes a surprising amount of persistence to form a new habit.

So why didn't I think of this 40 years ago? When my grandfather was in his seventies, he once told me, 'A young man just lets things happen to him. He doesn't think about the consequences of what he does.'

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I own several pricey cylindrical flashlights. They were purchased after a great deal of 'deep thought' about the best flashlight to buy.  Apparently I was impressed by the advertising slogan of "aerospace grade aluminum" or something. 

Duh. Why does that matter? Have you ever owned a flashlight whose aluminum failed? They fail because of a cheapie plastic switch or spring.

Recently I saw a selection of flashlights in an outdoor equipment store. It's a wonder that it doesn't take a license to buy one of these things! They are dangerous. But they can't wait to tell you how many lumens of retina-blasting power they have. One of them has the batteries installed, and a little sign invites you to "try me."

Of course they repress how quickly the two or three AAA batteries wear down. 

Now really, does it take deep thinking to realize that cylindrical flashlights are a nuisance? Forty years of being a middle class consumer should be good for something, shouldn't it? They roll around as you try to use them.  So you end up running out of hands, by carrying it. Or you stick it in your mouth and chip a tooth on the "high grade aerospace aluminum."

Duh. Wouldn't the ideal shape of a flashlight be rectangular and roll-free? After all these years I have finally switched to $5 rectangular flashlights, as opposed to the $25 roll-around-the-trailer jobs.

Perhaps all flashlight marketing is done by Sigmund Freud.
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It is so easy to mouth platitudes about 'living like it is the last day in your life.' But it is difficult to put an end to incompetent shopping habits that have been allowed to endure far too long.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

What If I Were a Car Camper?

Every day I travel by a solitary car camper. Sometimes I feel like walking up and introducing myself. But I never have.

Is this just bourgeois prejudice, looking at somebody who appears to be a low-life? It could be, but it could also be reasonable caution. How am I supposed to know which topic lights the guy up like a firecracker? And how will I escape his rant, gracefully?

Another motive is self-protection. His situation seems sad, and I don't really want to wallow in it. The other day was a big day for him. I saw him walking around his car a little bit. At one point, he bent down and tied his shoes. That is the most action he has had in a week. The rest of the day, he just sits in his car and looks out the windshield.

There could be some genuine drama happening in that car. But who would know? Who could be affected by it vicariously, if everybody is afraid of him?

I always feel ashamed of myself when I go by him. Are he and I in the same category -- desert rat boondockers?
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In contrast, walking by a female car-camper makes me feel rather good. She is a talented musician and a dog lover -- she might have four or five of them in her tent and jeep.  She is always doing something. I have talked to her a couple times when her dogs came out to say hello to mine, as we biked by.

Perhaps the contrast comes from the vibrations she gives off that seem to say she only does this seasonally, and it makes no practical sense to buy a regular RV for a short stint in the desert.

At first, I rolled my eyes and thought, "Four dogs. What do they use for common sense?" But the more accustomed to her I became, the more it seemed like she was offering an authentic, anthropological performance that befits the human female. I like to think of people as a type of wildlife. 

Previously I had complained that I couldn't see any positive role for female campers. Most of them seem not only useless, but to be outright liabilities. In contrast, this woman was doing what they have always done: staying busy with three things at once, providing existence, survival, comfort, security, and pleasure to the other creatures in her life.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Thoughts for a Rainy Day in Arizona

The woman at the bakery was quite serious when she complained about Quartzsite business being down this year. Well, I was certainly doing my part to help, considering how many times I have been into the bakery. Perhaps she should stay open more than four days per week? And really, being closed on Saturday! But what do I know about running a successful business?

Still, perhaps we should all do our part, and try to come up with fresh business ideas to bring the crowds back to Quartzsite. The only sure winner I can think of is ... drum roll... clip-on dreadlocks. Why should millennial hitchhikers from California get all the babes? Old guys need a chance, too.
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A hard rain last night. How strange that I felt so resentful. There is supposed to be a secondary rainy season in the Sonoran Desert in mid-winter. And after all, I appreciate green ocotillo stalks and spring wildflowers. Since I prudently stayed camped on desert pavement, there was little chance of getting stuck in the mud.

So I should have enjoyed the rain. Perhaps I am no better than the tourists (from cities) who I usually poke fun at, as nature-frauds. Or I could take the easy way out and blame it on "genes." White people have usually lived in dismal climates of cold, clouds, and mud. It is hard for us to believe that we can get too much sunlight.

Still, it is strange how difficult it is to follow along with what makes sense.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Benefits of Classic Books

At the beginning of World War II, George Orwell started an essay off, as German bombs fell in his neighborhood. It was a scary time for the Brits. His essay was full of a determined optimism. He concluded with a prophecy of how the war would go:
...but England will still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.
That sentence knocked me over, when I first read it. Looking back at it later, I wondered why it made such an impression. After all, it essentially says what the old proverb does: 'the more things change, the more they stay the same.'

Although there is some historical glamor to discovering some "new" truth, this experience reminds an individual how exciting (and more frequent) it can be to rediscover an old truth. Old truths become uninspiring as they devolve into bumper sticker slogans and one-liners. They become stale clichés.

An individual must stretch to see their own particular experiences as a thinly-disguised reprise of something larger and more universal. For instance I play with that idea when mountain biking in the western states, by seeing the mountain biker as the reincarnation of the cowboy-era archetype of the 'lone rider of the plains', who in turn was just a reincarnation of the European knight-errant of the Middle Ages.

I doubt that motor-sport people appreciate that connection. They probably think that a mountain biker is just a health nut/exercise puritan.

Do you think that they see their sport as the reinvention of something noble and timeless? Perhaps they do, but I can't imagine what it would be.

More generally, creative re-invention is the purpose of reading classic books, quite unlike many people's notion that one reads them just for the snob appeal, or as a form of literary ancestor worship.