Tuesday, December 24, 2013

II: Barbarism at the Starbucks

Yuma. On the group's bicycle rides we frequently stop in at a Starbucks for a rest. I look forward to it.

I don't mean the coffee. How do you explain why these places are so popular? Is it just "affinity marketing?" They offer a pseudo-sophisticated and PC image to people who need it, and who feel good about being surrounded by strangers who presumably think the same way. Hence the shade-grown, bird-friendly, fair-trade coffee; the New York Times available inside (does anybody still read that?); and the smooth jazz (elevator jazz actually) drowning out the conversation.

Except that there isn't much conversation. Everybody is trying to look sophisticated and important by burying their nose in the Latest-and-Greatest electronic gadget. Look over by the couch -- a man is trying to look alpha-professional while staring at his little screen -- the latest sports scores, probably. He is thinking, "I wonder if that hot babe (a minivan-driving matron, actually) at the next table has noticed that my iRectangle17 has the roundest corners of any gadget on the market." My goodness, what if we had time machines, and we could transport the customers of coffee houses of London or Paris in the 1700s to one of today's Starbucks? How disappointed they would be!

Maybe not. They weren't all Boswells and Johnsons back then, you know. There were plenty of people who were conversational oafs, as is obvious from reading Swift's essay. (Which the reader has already done, of course.)
My spin on Swift's essay is that we should first eliminate the most common mistakes in conversation, because it is do-able, and makes for quick and noticeable improvement.  No matter how worthy a positive agenda might be, it would blur out into a long-term project. (Thus, let that be Step Two.)

I'll bet the reader recognizes every one of the mistakes that Swift cataloged. Perhaps because it was less obtrusive in his day, he overlooked a mistake that I frequently notice: fracturing into couples. 

The typical table has room for 4 customers. Most foursomes are lucky if they can pass the conversational volleyball around for more than 2 minutes before the conversation splits into two couples. And that's even true if the table has 4 men sitting at it! I grimace every time this happens.

Do we at least agree that this cupply-dupply fracturing is anti-social and uncivilized? Unless we agree on that, it would be a waste of time to try to explain the phenomenon.

In watching "costume" movies (about past eras) you see social behavior that seems highly formal and rigid to our own times. For instance, there were certain expectations about visiting and receiving people -- 15 minutes was typical. No doubt it was to occur only at certain times of the day, on certain days, and might involve tea or some other refreshment? At dinner parties, you could not sit next to your own wife. There were many topics that were not allowed in "mixed" company. 

Yes, such rules are a bit arbritrary -- but not entirely so. There was some common sense and practicality behind them too. I think that rules make social interaction easier and more beneficial, at least potentially. The cupply-dupply conversational barbarism of modern times is just one more manifestation of the social anarchy brought on by modern trends. 

There are more ways to improve conversation, and the reader is probably better than me at thinking them up. What really counts is that we stop believing the anarchistic mantra of the 1960s that you can just 'like, do your own thing, man.'

Monday, December 23, 2013

Barbarism at Starbucks, part I

Perhaps the reader is relieved that there aren't Google ads in this blog. Actually, as a reader, I really don't mind stationary ads in parallel with the reading material. But product-placement ads infuriate me. So this blog doesn't offer those, either. Perhaps the reader thought that this was too good to be true.

Well, it was. Today marks the beginning of a new policy on this blog. Not ads. But there will be homework assigned. Mandatory reading. I expect to double my hit-count because of this new policy. The only thing still to be decided is how to quiz the readers at the end of the post so I can see if they've been cheating.

Very well then, today's assignment is a short essay by Jonathan Swift on conversation.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Off-line Victory over Waste on the Hard Drive

Very well then, we are all agreed that in pursuing a winter lifestyle that enlarges our overall lifestyle we must move towards complementarities rather than outright reversals. For instance, the internet is a pretty big part of most people's lifestyle these days. But surely most people suspect that much of their online time is wasted on predictable repetition of absolute trivia. It's tempting to fantasize smashing the computer with a hammer and chucking the whole thing into a dumpster, and then dropping the expensive monthly charge of the cellphone carrier.

But wait. Where is the perpendicular move? It must make a youngster's eyes roll when an old timer tells them that that they used computers for several decades without being online. (Although they were hooked to a mainframe computer, usually.) In fact it even makes me wonder sometimes what I ever found to do with an offline computer at home.

But remember my sighs over the great charnel houses in the cloud, or for that matter, on our own hard drives? I mean the photographs and music that moulder in a heap that is so astronomically big, in part because the heap is so big, and because the "online" mindset habituates us into ignoring anything that isn't "breaking news" or "trending" on the stupid internet.

Lately I've taken to going through my own photographs and music on the hard drive. It has been enjoyable. If nothing else it is a great thing to do the last hour of the day, when the eyes are too tired to read, and when you need something else to do as you valiantly fight the Early Bedtime Syndrome. There is a sweet nostalgia when remembering where and when you took that photo. With the music, you can't help but appreciate how much wealth you have learned to overlook.

Of course reading a book (rather than some silly and predictable website) is another "offline" activity that we should probably emphasize more in winter. Last episode I mentioned Patrick O' Brian's "Master and Commander" novels. I had to grin at the incessant reminders of how concerned the sailors were, with wind and tide; they are even more so than roadies, aka, road bicyclists.

But think of this as a new pleasure that comes from seeing a commonality in two activities that seemed to have no connection: reading and bicycling.

In disinterring the photographs on the hard drive, there are many such opportunities; it's just that I was being too much of a blockhead to notice them. Photographs taken in different places and different years can appear like two manifestations of a general principle.

Maybe finding these commonalities is the point, and the pleasure, of photography, rather than just how purdy (or Dairy Queenish) the stupid thing is. And if we took photographs with relationships in mind, we could build entire webs out of the connections. So too could we build our music collections into better and better playlists.

As another example of perpendicular addition to your winter lifestyle, consider today's post by Charles Hugh Smith on buying non-mainstream books.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Winter Should Be 90 Degrees Out of Phase

I misspoke in my advertisements for doing something, in the winter, that is the "opposite" of the usual activities during the rest of the year. That became clear when I renewed my library card in Yuma. (And what a luxury it is for a traveler to have a library card!)

For instance, I read non-fiction most of the time. What am I to do? Start reading fiction? Old novels are full of nothing but love-intrigues. New novels are full of the same rot, but with bedroom scenes added. What a waste of time fiction is!

We all have reasons for our preferences. To reverse them suddenly is nihilistic. Who wants to become a different person? It makes more sense to use winter as an opportunity to become a larger person, not a different person.  This can best be achieved by adding complementarities, rather than negations.

Think of a vector, a line segment with an arrow on the end, representing velocity, position, force, etc. I see no reason to build a winter lifestyle that is graphically represented by an anti-parallel vector. Instead, let it be a vector perpendicular to the regular vector.

Or think of your 9-10 month lifestyle as a sine wave. Winter shouldn't be another sine wave that is 180 degrees out of phase with the 9-10 month sine wave. Rather, winter should be graphically represented by a sine wave that is 90 degrees out of phase. (That is, it should be a cosine.) This is another example of orthogonality or complementarity, rather than negation.

For the example above, a reader of history and essays could shift to biographies and historical novels. Indeed, in the Yuma library I bumbled onto Patrick O'Brian's "Master and Commander" novels. They are actually real novels rather than historical novels, but they are so tied to the sea and the navy during the Napoleonic era that they seem like historical novels.

Camping in the desert is really not the "opposite" of camping in the mountains. Nor is road cycling the opposite of mountain biking. Nor is hiking the opposite of walking. The only true opposite of physically-active RV dispersed-camping on high altitude land in the summer would be suburban couch-potato living, centered on television, shopping, and domestic trivia.

This fussing about 90 degrees being the right phase shift might seem like quibbling. But I don't think so, because it takes the handicap of self-abnegation out of the picture. We'll see if it keeps helping all winter long.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Forgot a Classic Quote about Evil Reinventing Itself

Normally it is pretty easy to insert a quote from a classic book when I write a post. But last time, I dropped the ball. It finished as:
Of course Gandhi-on-Wheels gets his compensation by visualizing Mobility as a consumer good and status symbol, and then by falling in love with the insatiability of mobility.  So it really is just a re-incarnation of the very thing he thinks he is rebelling against.
I forgot to pull in a quote from Edmund Burke, in his classic "Reflections on the Revolution in France": 
Seldom have two ages had the same pretexts and the same modes of mischief. Wickedness is a little more inventive...The very same vice assumes a new body. The spirit transmigrates; and, far from losing its principle of life from its change of appearance, it is renovated in its new organs with the fresh vigor of a juvenile activity.
By the way, somebody recently asked me, What is a classic book or movie? My answer was similar to what a Supreme Court justice said about pornography: 'He couldn't exactly define it, legally, but he could recognize it when he saw it.'

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Some Wise Men Versus the False Prophets of the RV Blogosphere

On one of the tabs at the top of the screen I take issue with the False Prophets of the RV blogosphere. (Must I take the time to point out that many bloggers, including myself, have flirted with asceticism; and it is the Idea, not somebody in particular, that I'm planning on having some tongue-in-cheek fun with.)

The world is divided into three camps on the issue of  'How much crap does a person need to own?' But most people close their minds to the topic. When they hear any criticism of Insatiable Consumption, as promoted in TV commercials, they probably take it as criticism aimed at them

But that makes no sense; they, as individuals, did not invent the consumer culture that we have. They, as individuals, were merely swept along in the rising trends, brought on by advertising and tax policies. So there's nothing personal in merely going along with the prevailing consumer culture.

But there could be something that dignifies the Individual when they rebel against this consumer culture. The question is what form that rebellion takes.

A rebel gets off on the wrong foot by thinking purely in terms of negation, downsizing, and pseudo-holiness. You aren't going to prove anything by trying to out-gandhi Gandhi. Nor is Margaret Bourke-White (looking like Candace Bergen in the movie version) going to come and take iconic photographs of you at your spinning wheel, for Life magazine. The copyright on this type of moral posturing has already been taken out. And yet the RV blogosphere is full of such poseurs.

The Buddha finally came to the conclusion that the 'middle way' was best. Aristotle preached the Golden Mean in his Nicomachean Ethics. St. Benedict replaced the ostentatious asceticism of the Desert Monks with his moderate and balanced Rule. Such men were wise, but vague, because they lived before the principle of Diminishing Marginal Utility was widespread. Thus we have an enormous potential advantage over the Wise Men of old, if only we would cash in on that potential. 

Charles Hugh Smith writes about this topic from time to time, and he did so again today. It fired me up.
To those with no shoes at all (a common enough occurrence in the 1930s Great Depression), the utility of one pair of shoes is extremely high: the utility (i.e. the benefits) resulting from owning that one pair of shoes is enormous.
The retailer attempting to persuade this consumer to buy a 25th pair of shoes must overcome the diminishing utility (i.e. marginal utility) of yet another pair of shoes. This is accomplished by offering a "deal you can't pass up" or appealing to the always pressing need to jettison last year's style in favor of this year's "new thing."
Here's the critical point of this dynamic: to the consumer who already owns so much stuff that he has to rent a storage facility to store all the surplus goods, the utility of any additional purchase is low. In practical terms, the utility has declined to the thrill of the initial purchase and the initial wearing/use of the new item. Beyond that, it's just another pair of shoes in the closet.
The $3,000 I could spend on a replacement bike for the perfectly serviceable bicycle I bought used 15 years ago for $150 is of marginal utility; the better-quality parts and lighter frame, etc.--all the benefits that would flow from spending $3,000 for a "better, more modern" bike are extremely marginal to me, even though I put well over 1,000 miles a year on my bike. All those improvements are too modest to matter.
Here is the real benefit of the RV Lifestyle: you have a chance to rebel against the Consumer Culture, but in a way that is constructive and rational, rather than ostentatious and sophomoric. Nobody is less helpful than those "documentary makers" who want to film people living in their vans, without toilets or showers, and brag them up as the new Gandhis. These frauds are just taking advantage of people's desire for '15 minutes of fame.'

Of course Gandhi-on-Wheels gets his compensation by visualizing Mobility as a consumer good and a status symbol, and then falling in love with the insatiability of mobility.  So it really is just a re-incarnation of the very thing he thinks he is rebelling against.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

How Can a Traveler Best "Lie Fallow" in Winter?

You've heard me advertise that a traveler should take a couple months off in the winter, and live differently that the rest of the year. Even if you don't agree, I ask you to pretend that you do, so that we can play ball and see where it goes.

We need a metaphor, lest we drown in petty details and verbosity. Consider the remarkable statement that the Wikipedia article on "Crop Rotation" starts off with:
Middle Eastern farmers practiced crop rotation in 6000 BC without understanding the chemistry, alternately planting legumes and cereals.
Then the three crop rotation became the tradition, by adding a fallow field as one of the three "crops." Wikipedia was vague on how a fallow field was actually helpful.  Did it just sit there, doing nothing?

Fallow fields were replaced later by growing turnips and clover (a legume) in a four crop rotation. Thus the amount of food increased. (See the Wikipedia article on the "British Agricultural Revolution.") Today alfalfa is a popular legume for that part of the rotation.

A traveler in winter doesn't just want to lie fallow. He wants to do something active and positive: a new toy he can pound the crap out of! He can't just multiply his normal activities of spring/summer/autumn by negative one, in winter. For instance, if you hike in the mountains for 9-10 months of the year, must you give it up in the winter? (There are a few high mountains in the Southwest, but who wants cold and snow in the winter? Isn't that what you came here to get away from?)

Rather than use direct negation, let's look for a third choice. It's easy to underestimate how different walking is from hiking, and how satisfying it is to walk with a purpose, such as buying groceries or hitting up a coffee shop or library. Why, you might get so fond of purposeful walking that your normal hiking in the mountains seems comparatively sterile and pointless. 

You will have to be pro-active and seek out such a place. Don't expect to just find it. Consider the efforts that a friend of mine goes to: he rents in RV parks by the month. He doesn't drag a "towed" along behind his motorhome, therefore he must put quite a bit of work into finding interesting walks that can be done right from his RV park. More times than not, he succeeds. It would work out better for the walker if he were downtown; but most RV parks are out on the edge of town, so you aren't likely to harvest six interesting places on your daily routine. (But I'm resisting putting in my standard advertisement for bicycling at this point.)

You could also walk (or "hike", if you insist) up arroyos in the Southwest. I've hardly ever been disappointed with a no-name arroyo. Exploring them involves a mindset completely different than your 9-10 month job of doing brand-name trails, bagging peaks and postcards. The arroyos will always take you back to where you started, so you can relax, and walk them without a destination. You never know what you are going to see around the next bend: a spring, a microclimate with plants that seem out of place, freakishly vertical walls, or interesting rocks. Sometimes you go around the bend and your friendly little arroyo becomes a scary slot canyon. And say, wouldn't the bank of the arroyo be a great place for a cougar to lie in wait for food that delivers itself!

It hardly needs mentioning that bringing a dog along on that arroyo walk is the ultimate in satisfaction -- for both of you.

Rupert, canine action hero, from Life's Little Adventures.

I've purposely avoided another advertisement for switching from solitary mountain biking to club road cycling.  Instead, we need to consider other types of "crop rotation": our habits with music, books, movies, food, and sleeping.  Later.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Are Blogs Part of the Solution or the Problem?

Call it a blessing or a curse as you wish, but it is certainly true that pontificating on the internet (even anonymously!) makes you feel obligated to practice what you preach. (How grim!)

For instance, I was extolling the general value of the Rockhound Principle recently. The perfect place to apply this principle is in the reading of books. Where else can you benefit more from infinite patience with "detritus?"  Instead of feeling disgusted, you can channel this into delight when you finally do find something precious. You can also work to ensure that the precious nuggets you find stay found, by actively assimilating them into your life.

Recall that I was reading "The Name of the Rose," by Umberto Eco. All in all, I don't recommend it. Still, there were a few precious nuggets on the way through the book. The leading character was a monk trying to solve some murders in a monastery in the early 1300s. One body was found in a vat filled with the blood of recently slaughtered pigs. When his sidekick concluded that the dead monk had drowned in the vat, the main character said, 'But have you ever seen the face of a drowned man. This isn't it.'

Perhaps the visual image of that made an impression on me -- an impression that stuck. It was a happy coincidence that I walked into a coffee shop in the Zion area, just after reading this. Reading, by itself, can be so tedious and dry. But if it is combined with something in the arena of active experience, the two become dance partners. 

National parks tend to attract a certain cultural stereotype, and there were plenty of them in the coffee shop. Most people were from the Big City. They imagined themselves to be hip, cool, and sophisticated. They were lost in their own little gadget worlds in the coffee shop. They seemed so engrossed in what they were looking at. Like it was so important!

In fact it was probably routine weather reports, emails, and cute photos of somebody's cat. Surely this amazing look of concentration and self-importance was the 'face of a drowning man' -- drowning in absolute trivia.

I don't mean to beat up on gadgets as the culprits in a busy lifestyle of drowning in trivia: television perfected this 50 years ago. (Watch the movie, "Network", if you haven't.) Going further back than that, writers in the 1800s ridiculed the daily habit of newspaper reading.

By another piece of fortuitous rockhounding I stumbled across a quote [*] from Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher/theologian of the first half of the 1800s:
On the whole the evil in the daily press consists in its being calculated to make, if possible, the passing moment a thousand or ten thousand times more inflated and important than it really is. But all moral elevation consists first and foremost in being weaned from the momentary.
That is a thought that a fellow can take off to the mountains and contemplate for awhile.

Gnarly details in the foreground of daily life can sometimes lead to the nebular development of more general thoughts.

And where does that leave us, sinful bloggers that we are? Do we really take advantage of the fresh perspectives that travel can sometimes foster, or do we settle for conventionality, mere description, and phony pragmatism?  We need to see concrete experiences and visual stimulation as a first step, and then move on to "What does it mean?"  Timeless meaning.

[*] from Malcolm Muggeridge, "Third Testament."

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Getting Your Butt Kicked by 70-year-olds

Yuma, AZ. Before I lose track of the theme of last post, I want to use a tangible -- and even life-and-death -- example to pound the nail home. Novelists and moral philosophers need to give more emphasis to distinguishing the Tactical and the Strategic in a person's life.

The world is more regulated than it used to be. Therefore, on a daily basis, a powerless individual must follow all the rules and be outwardly conventional. Rather than write off the modern world as a glorified prison, a non-defeatist must imagine how Strategic independence can thrive, like mushrooms, even when growing in the muck of conformity.

On the way back home on today's bicycle ride, the Old Boyz were kicking my butt pretty good. This is a good thing, all in all. Two miles from the end we had to turn left at a stoplight on a busy federal highway. Despite the advantages to road-cycling in a group, there are still pitfalls, such as handling an intersection based on how the other cyclists handled it.

The pitfall is in thinking that what was safe for them is automatically safe for you. It ain't necessarily so. I handled this intersection poorly. It wasn't terribly dangerous, but it could have been.  

I should have just told myself, "So you are going to be dropped at this light. The ride is almost over, anyway. Who cares?  I want to live to ride another day." But let's not just see this on the level of "practical" procedure. What is the principle involved?

The underlying mistake was that of not switching from the Battle (not letting those old buzzards get ahead of me) to the War (long term health, physical fitness, and fun).

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Serious Traveler in His Own Country

I used to believe it just wasn't practical or possible for me to be a real traveler (as opposed to a sightseeing tourist). By that I mean somebody who visits different cultures, notices everything, asks fundamental questions, learns a language, takes on a part-time job, and shops locally. Expense was the first limitation, but there are others such as personal safety, health, and having to leave my dog at home. Many of the most enriching experiences would require the traveler to have a gregarious personality that could instantly charm a stranger's socks off.

Therefore it was a pleasant surprise to accidentally stumble onto the practice of performing at least some of that in my own country. The USA is not just one country. There is a rural/metropolitan split that is huge. When a camper goes out and disperse-camps, he even becomes more separated from the mainstream metropolitan-suburban culture of the USA.

And that sets up quite an opportunity for the camper when he comes in to the Big City after a long period in the back-country.  Each time I do this, I try a little harder to milk the act. It is pleasurable and challenging.  The opportunity is even more precious because it is short-lived: in a few days the backwoodsman will start to become inured to the craziness of the Big City. At that point, the travel-experience is over.

There are so many questions that pop into your mind the first couple days. Why do they do this or that? Why all the rushing around? How do they tolerate the noise? It is a life almost completely surrendered to phony pragmatism -- a life of chasing around after toys and status symbols.

You are tempted to spout off, but you know you shouldn't. The questions that arise in the camper's mind would be seditious if spoken aloud.  And the issues are vast. Normally a person procrastinates on a project that is just too big.

In order to knock it down to size, it has helped me to focus on the baubles and trinkets in a Best Buy store. That is the epicenter of techno-narcissism, noise, commotion, and hype. While walking through the aisles you can recognize one phony necessity after another.

But soon the magic wears off, and the backwoodsman becomes just one more meaningless termite scurrying around the termite colony. Now what? Now you must follow along, playing by the same rules as everybody else, more or less. Is this defeat?

The good news is that conformity on a tactical level need not carry over into the strategic level. An outwardly quiet conformist can be radically independent on a strategic level. It is difficult, but of fundamental importance, to appreciate this split between the Tactical and the Strategic.

You want an example? Think of Rhett Butler, in "Gone With the Wind." He acted the part of being a good Confederate when it was necessary. He mouthed the conventional platitudes. He even became a "heroic" smuggler who broke through the Yankee blockade. But he did so for his own profit. He worked for long-term personal success, and let the fools around him go to the devil. But he usually wouldn't come right out and say so.

That is a good attitude to have when back in the Big City.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Rethinking the Tribal Dance

Normally I'm not as slow in finding some significance to an outdoor trip as in the last post. I did mention that it was the best group event in 16 years of full-time RVing, and that the little spring was the first gurgling of water that I had ever seen in the desert. But now I want to try harder.

There was a similarity between the ebullience of the dogs and gurgling of the water out of the side of the arroyo. Think of the 'irrepressibility of life.' I know, it sounds a little corny. But it's true. Perhaps it only seems like corny overstatement because we live in an age when we can take water, the stuff of life, for granted. The early explorers or settlers in the Southwest would not have needed convincing. They would have fallen to the muddy ground at the foot of the spring's trickle and prayed.

If we can't appreciate something as fundamental as water, isn't it likely that we are handicapped in general when it comes to experiencing anything authentic in nature? Maybe that is why we see Nature as a visual Dairy Queen, and nothing more.

There's something about seeing two apparently-dissimilar things, and then struggling to see a commonality. It certainly raises the impact on you. It is what thinking is all about. There are other ways to think, of course. One could see superficial details and nothing else. How empty and sterile that is! Or, in the opposite vein, one could start with generalities (platitudes, concepts) and then notice only those concrete things that confirmed one's a-priori prejudices.

A couple posts ago I was singing paeans to rockhounding as the proper metaphor for so many things in life. And then there is the little matter of actually putting the idea into practice! How hard it is for me to adopt the attitude of a rockhound when it comes to my reading. Everything that a rockhound does right, I do wrong when reading. The difficulty of sifting through the detritus of books gets me feeling discouraged and sour.

Ahh, but I have a success story to try to please you with. Somehow I stumbled onto a best-seller from the 1980s, "The Name of the Rose," by Umberto Eco. I don't understand the praise given to this book by over-zealous reviewers on Amazon. But a good literary rockhound can still find a few things of value in the book. It certainly was a clever idea to write a history book, of the Middle Ages!, as a detective story.

Consider this little speech of the main character:
"...solving a mystery is not the same as deducing from first principles. Nor does it amount simply to collecting a number of particular data from which to infer a general law. It means, rather, facing one or two or three particular data apparently with nothing in common, and trying to imagine whether they could represent so many instances of a general law you don't yet know, and which perhaps has never been pronounced."
Perhaps the reader thinks that this is a beautiful quote. Let's hope so. Still, that isn't good enough: talk is cheap. For 4 points of extra credit, let the reader describe what is in common between the pyramidal topographical entity on the left and the squared off entity on the right:

But we don't want to over-praise the imagining-of-commonality as a "positive" process, and then belittle the making-of-important-distinctions as a "negative" process. What counts is that we lean against what is too easy to think. The desired result is a set of parallel tiger stripes of clear thinking.

Monday, November 18, 2013

'Best in Show:' Wild Canids in the Canyon

The reader might be familiar with the semi-recent movie, "Best in Show." The spine of the plot is a dog show, but it is not really a 'dog movie.' Rather, it's a comedic mockumentary about their neurotic human owners.

Today's hike in Zion country (southwestern Utah) turned out the opposite: it was the humans who were acting sensibly, and the dogs who were nuts. We had five dogs in our party, eight humanoid-companion-units, and a neighborhood dawg, Blue, who tends to join any frolic taking place on her BLM land.

As we drove up, I thought my kelpie, Coffee Girl, was going to crash through the windshield with excitement when she saw all these playmates. All of the dogs, no two alike and weighing from 10 to 80 pounds, got along beautifully. I get really charged up by the frantic synergy of dogs. You could think of this walk as a linear-BLM-version of a dog park.

Vertical wall of a red sandstone arroyo. What could cause such a weird bend in the whitish layer?

Up we all went, up the arroyo towards one of the famous mesas of the area. I was surprised to see puddles and mud on the arroyo floor. After about a half mile, we saw a tiny spring fast-dripping water down into the arroyo. Upstream, the floor was completely dry. I've never actually caught a desert spring "in the act" before!

Ahh dear, if only we had had a geologist along. (And you know who you are.) We saw the remains of interesting and scary collapses of sedimentary rocks into the arroyo. How can you know how close you were to being a victim of one of these events?

Atherosclerosis (plaque buildup and fibrosis) on the walls of the red sandstone canyon?

Our little tribe of RV-outdoorsmen put a couple more clicks on the ratchet wrench today, as John and Susan (and Carli and Jake, their canine companions) joined in their first outdoor frolic with the rest of the tribe. I thought of Star Trek: the Next Generation. Remember the "Borgs", who were always trying to swallow up (assimilate) human populations? "Resistance is FYOO-tile."

Looking from the inside of a void (in a red sandstone canyon wall) to the outside.

Then the dogs started acting like aliens from outer space. Debbie's dog, Rupert (half miniature poodle/half wire-haired Jack Russell Terrier), tried serial suicide attempts. His best one was getting on top of a 20 foot high embankment that was too steep to come down, especially the last 6 feet of vertical drop. He slid down to John or my outstretched arms several times, but he just wouldn't trust us and come into our hands.

Just then, Blue, the neighborhood loaner dog, climbed up to Rupert from an easier direction. She went right to him, turned around, and made an easy descent back down to the floor, as Rupert followed her. Say what you want about goofy dog-people anthropomorphizing their dogs, Blue deliberately rescued Rupert.

I braced myself as we approached what looked like a raven resting on a wooden post, and studying all of us. We were no doubt putting on quite a show. We decided that it was a mostly black red-tailed hawk. Most unusual. My dog, Coffee Girl goes nuts over ravens and sometimes, hawks. The next time we looked in that direction, she was on top of a 15 foot high vertical bank. She leaped off, onto a steep lower bank. She made quite a kerplunk when she landed but she was not injured, probably for the same reason a ski jumper survives as he lands onto a steep slope. But my goodness, how does a dog practice a stunt like that? What gave her the idea to be so reckless. (Rupert, probably.)

Break in the morning clouds just catches the topographic curvature.

On the way out we found a weird slot canyon through some grey sedimentary layer. Mark is threatening to go back there and ride down the dry waterfall and then down the slot canyon. Once again, the Rupert-effect is twisting one of the tribal members.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Whose Voice Could Be Out There?

Is that who I think it is? I heard what I thought was Mark's voice. My dog, Coffee Girl, perked up her ears. She too caught it. But where were they?

We were resting at the high spot of a dirt road that our friends were taking from their RV park (blush) in Virgin, UT. We had biked from the other end of the road, where we were dispersed camping.

It was dead calm, so maybe a human voice really could carry through all that hum-drum Zion scenery.

You can see the road in the left semi-foreground of the photo. And here they come: Jim & Gayle, Bobbie, and Mark, raring to summit on this road. 

It was fun to watch the gang coming to us on the summit. Better yet, the "incompatibility" of boondockers (me) versus RV-parkers (them) has been turned into an advantage. 

I was promising to take them down a secret canyon, and back to the main road. It would be the first time for me, too. But I cheated a little the previous sunset, and had walked up the canyon from my dispersed campsite. When I found the ATV road out of the canyon, and up onto the mezzanine of the mesa, the sun was setting. We got back to camp at deep dusk.

There was something symbolic about the voices that I heard. They were the voices of camping/outdoorsmen friends, lost in a vast scenic area. Regardless of how scenic it was, it would have been empty without them, just as my 16 years of full time RVing was emptier than it should have been because I didn't have a tribe like this to share the good times with.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Fabian Lifestyle Improvement

Once again it is winter, daylight-wise. 

A precise solar calendar of cliff and grassland. Just walk to the same spot every day.

And that means that this camper is once again fighting the Early Bedtime Syndrome. This is no laughing matter, at least for some of us. Nothing degrades the quality of sleep like going to bed too early. What if I could make a lousy two minutes of improvement per day? Just think, an hour per month!

In working on this project, you can't help but appreciate how general this issue is. Once I was biking up Snow Canyon (St. George, UT) and passed a mother who was towing a baby trailer behind her bike. In it was a 25 pound youngster. I kidded her about persisting with this hill-climb over the next year, and getting stronger and stronger as the child gained weight. She smiled and referred to some folk tale (or fable) about carrying a calf when it was young, and continuing with this habit until it was a cow. Five points of extra credit to any reader who knows the name of this fable.

Indeed gradual daily improvement of just about any kind is capable of producing enormous improvements over time. This is an old idea which we all know. In "Rambler #2" (Quotidiana.org), Samuel Johnson said, "...it is not sufficiently considered that men more frequently require to be reminded than informed."

But even more than being reminded we need a way for our active Will to act on this principle. Why is it so difficult to move from Platitude to Practice?

A scenery tourist in the Southwest, where the topography is dominated by erosion, would be most admirable if they saw in these "sermons in stone" something more than just eye-candy. If they could see the result of slow, relentless erosive forces, and somehow get inspired enough to incorporate that principle into their daily lives.

Human-sized slot canyons near Socorro, NM.
Not great eye-candy, but there are metaphors here.

Although my battles with the Early Bedtime Syndrome might just be one trivial example from a wide world of examples, it is a near-perfect avatar. Because time is easier to measure than just about anything else, it is easy to detect small tick-tocks of progress; and that means steady encouragement.

Recall the quotes from William James about breaking bad habits: what matters is not the size of your improvements, but rather, the un-interruptibility of your progress. Take baby steps forward if you must; but never take a step backwards.

My title refers to the tactics of Fabius Maximus, the great Roman general. Those with a classical bent might enjoy reading the linked article on Wikipedia, and the classic chapter on Fabius in Plutarch's "Lives." (Gutenberg.org)

Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Seasonal Travel Style "Perfected"

Every traveler is prone to romanticism. Thus it is hard to admit that I have "arrived" as a full-time traveler, that is, reached a final "destination." I don't mean geographic location; I mean lifestyle arrangement. Nine months of travel -- emphasizing dispersed camping and mountain biking -- is complemented beautifully by three months of gravel-lot rental in Yuma. 

There are other types of complementarity: when traveling, I am alone, which is not the best lifestyle. During the winter sabbatical from travel, I get to enjoy my (road) cycling with as many as fifty friendly acquaintances. I also get to switch from mountain biking to road cycling -- these are really rather distinct, although you might not think so, if cycling isn't your thing.

After three months of non-traveling, the appetite comes back. This is both a positive attraction to travel and a repulsion from the downside of living in a boring suburb outside Yuma, the traffic, the train noise, etc.

It is not that you can't have a good time traveling in winter in the Southwest, but if you are ever going to take a break from traveling, winter is the time to do it. North America shrinks drastically in winter, so you are not giving up as much as you would to abstain from travel during the other seasons. Actually I think North America is largest during the shoulder seasons.

I am looking forward to reading history books and giving (classic) book reviews, while giving my blog a rest from travel topics.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Patience of Rockhounds

When we were camped in the wash near Moab recently, a half-dozen trucks drove by one morning. It took a few minutes before I could tell what they were up to. They were rockhounds.

How strange it seemed for somebody to be pursuing an inexpensive and, may I say, old-fashioned activity. The outdoor sports around Moab are usually more flamboyant. It's as if each tourist is locked in competition to out-glamor every other tourist, in a frenetic orgy of adrenaline and dollars. Since I feel drawn to just about anything that is out-of-step with modern times, these rockhounds started me thinking...

What fraction of the time does a rockhound come up with anything interesting? How can anyone be so patient?

Perhaps their patience isn't so unique. A dog sniffs for a rabbit, and chases across the field with all the hope in the world; and it usually comes away empty-jawed. How many times does a professional salesman hear, "Maybe. I'll think about it," before he actually closes a deal? What fraction of the time does a book or music hunter land something great?

Anybody doing anything difficult must fail most of the time. Only the trivial stuff can be routinely successful. What a great metaphor rockhounding is for so many things! And that includes the "piecemeal pilfering" theme that interests me these days.

When it seems difficult to be patiently hopeful, it would symptomatic of our times to get touchie-feelie and psychologize and emotionalize it. What interests me is how much of the problem is actually intellectual, that is, a mistaken idea, which as usual involves a misleading comparison.

I am prone to thinking in terms of "pie-charts." If some factor or component only shows up as a 2% sliver in the pie, I want to jump to the conclusion that it "isn't that important." That's just the opposite of the way that a rockhound thinks. Or take a walk through a pharmacy and note what percentage the active ingredient is!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Case of the Purloined (camping) Playmate

A couple posts ago I was celebrating having camping playmates who actually mountain bike. That's the first time I've been that lucky in 16 years of full time RVing. And they could even dispersed camp!

Sigh. The gods punish men who look too happy, lest they get cocky. My playmates have been lured over to the emoluments of an RV park. So goeth the Way of all Flesh. (Or at least married flesh.)

And what is the big attraction? Showers. Bottomless hot water tanks for taking a shower. At least I have the satisfaction on this pulpit of rejecting the extremism of both the False Prophets of the Desert (aka, the Ascetics), as well as the mainstream Sybarites. Few things are more sensible than a navy-style shower with hot water.  Effective and non-wasteful. One gallon is enough. It is helpful to visualize a simple graph of Benefits versus Gallons.

Remember that one of the quiet, but profound, satisfactions of RV camping is the daily discipline of looking at what you consume, and asking yourself whether you are at the point of Diminishing Returns. Don't think for a moment that a Man of Reason simply adds the vices of the Ascetics to those of the Sybarites, and then divides by 2.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Murphy and the Mesa

Following our fearless leader up and over a crumbly cliff near Moab, I nonchalantly grabbed onto a boulder, about 2 feet in diameter. When much of my own weight was transferred, the boulder pulled out of its matrix, missed my leg by a bit, and crashed down onto a jeep road. Some day a jeeper's adventure will be interrupted by this boulder in the middle of their thoroughfare, and they will be forced to get out of the vehicle and use muscles to move the boulder. (They will then use that as an excuse to go shopping for a new GPS system or smartphone with a new app that identifies boulders on jeep roads.)

This really wasn't such a close call, but it was the largest adjustment of the Earth's surface topography that I have ever been responsible for.

Later in the scramble I was forced to wedge between two larger boulders. As I transferred my weight to one of these large boulders, I wondered how evil Murphy really was. Imagine if that boulder pulled into the other one, with my poor little body in between!

Today our fearless quartet is between St. George UT and Zion national park, and accreting a few more members soon. Almost exactly at sunrise, I heard "thunder." Huh? The sky was blue. Where did the lightning and thunder come from? There was road construction a few miles away. Maybe they were doing some rock-blasting.

I stepped outside the trailer and saw what caused the "thunder."

The camera doesn't show the cloud of red dust quite as clearly as it really was. It is about a half mile from our dispersed campsite. Wow, I've always wondered how often a big chunk came down from these vertical cliff faces. This suggests that you might not want to camp right at the base of a cliff.

And where was fearless leader? I expected him to come running out of his motorhome with his camera. But it was too early for him. (Blush.) Geesh, didn't he ever hear about early birds and worms!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Piecemeal Pilfering Somebody Else's Good Life

It is hard to believe that only a month from now I will be in southern Arizona, paying rent (gasp!), and riding a road bicycle with a large club. How strange it is that some of my "fellow" cyclist-snowbirds have already been in that furnace since the first of October. How could doing the same five rides/routes for seven months of the year be the Good Life? Isn't Dry Heat something you'd wish on your worst enemy? But they enjoy the shoulder seasons there, somehow.  And they agree with me on the cycling, something that is rare amongst gasoline-besotted Americans.

It is probably common to expect less and less of other people as we grow older. But the situation is different when somebody, who you thought had something in common with you, shatters your comfortable expectations of compatibility. This might be the sharpest kind of loneliness.

Be it a sports club, a church, or a political cause, you can befriend each other easily when you appear to have a bit in common. Later, you are unpleasantly surprised to learn that the other person's motivation is different than yours, and that your commonality was only superficial or based on practical circumstances.

For instance, I've been involved with bicycling most of my adult life because the activity makes me feel better than anything else I do. That sounds like simple common sense, does it not? But in fact, it is rather uncommon. Many "fellow" cyclists are motivated by athletic ego, the bike as an expensive status symbol, losing weight, or even a wish to meet their other half.

We could all give many such examples. Let's restrict the discussion to other people's sense of the Good Life. I can see how people would gravitate to living on a boat, long-term backpacking over the Pacific Crest Trail, and long-distance bicycle touring. I haven't done any of this because there are aspects of each of these lifestyles that do not appeal to me, or that seem impractical or too expensive. But they seem good in principle.

Other types of the Good Life seem absurd in Theory and Practice. For instance, urban boondocking seems perverse to me as a model of the Good Life; so does playing Ten Questions with Fred and Mildred at potluck or happy hour, in a standard RV park; or consider Slabs City, BLM long-term-visitor-areas, and as the lowest possible step, Escapee Park living.

It is probably innocuous and obvious to argue for the principle of breaking-down other people's Good Life into its main components, and stealing what seems good -- regardless of your overall assessment of their Good Life. But how different it is when you actually apply this to a real person! You have the opportunity to do this when you camp in small groups. 

Actually it feels quite liberating and empowering to say, "In general, Charlie is a horse's ass. And his views about This-or-That suck to high heaven. But when it comes to X, he is surprisingly clever and effective."

For instance I have usually exercised 3-4 times per week, because that seemed to be the point of diminishing returns. The appetite for exercise came back, naturally, after a day of rest. That always seemed more desirable than using self-discipline alone. As a result I had little reason to expect to gain much in this department by borrowing ideas and habits from somebody else.

Shadow of a rising hot air balloon rises over camp.

My fellow campers have influenced me to exercise 5 times per week. This is only a part of their lifestyle, and the rest I am leaving to them, at least for now.  But I see a genuine improvement in something that was difficult to improve.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Appreciating Vastness

While mountain biking the other day we saw something strange ahead of us, as we headed downhill to the main dry wash -- the same one where I witnessed my first "flash flood," a couple posts ago.

And once again I was fluttering my eyelashes at the abrupt onset of a small "slot canyon" in plain ol' dirt. In the past I've tried to explain this fascination on the grounds (ahem) of it being easier to make a big impact on a human observer when processes take place on a human scale, regarding years and size. In contrast, the working out of geology and topography over millions of years can leave the human observer indifferent and unimpressed. In a sense, we need to anthropomorphize geology and physical geography in order to make them interesting.

Then I crawled down into the "slot canyon," and photographed the vertical walls.

It was easy to imagine this two-foot-high slot as being more dramatic than all the famous photo icons in the Moab area; these latter are universally praised as being 'breathtakingly beautiful', when in fact, they are merely freakishly large. And red, but so what?

I was delighted to find my own gem -- one that was not known to mass tourists; and if you showed it to them, they would not appreciate it. If you really backed the mass-tourist into a corner, and asked him if real beauty is perceived by the eyeballs or by the imagination, he would grudgingly admit that it was the imagination that really mattered. And then he would squirm away and pursue activities, choose destinations, and spend his hard earned money in a way that completely contradicts what he just admitted! I leave the explanation as an exercise to the reader.

Soon we were down into the dry wash where I had had my mighty adventure with the Alluvial Entity. Today the dry wash was dry and boring. How could it be the same place of a few days ago?
Some sick fascination pulled me into the dry wash. I started pushing the mountain bike "upstream," from whence the Alluvial Entity had come. Not only was it unride-able, but it was tedious and obnoxious just to push the bike through all that loose sand. But push I did, for about an hour. It was worth every miserable second of it. But first I must digress for a couple paragraphs before finally explaining what was so great about this miserable walk through the loose sand.
Once upon a time I was an aspiring sea kayaker. I signed up for a guided tour in Lac Superieur, offered by a Canadian sea kayaker. I imagined it as a chance to get in touch with my Viking roots, by raiding towns along the shoreline, burning monasteries, and then ravishing and carrying off the beautiful maidens of those villages. It was also supposed to be a small group expedition. But the business was just getting started, and I was the only customer. Rather than cancel the voyage, we decided to make the best of it.

The worst of it was that damn little dog the Canadian guide brought along. She hated me, and we all had to sleep in the same tent! At that point in my life I disliked dogs in general.

Still, it was a good time, sleeping on the sand-less cobble beaches, finding a surprisingly warm bay to take a bath in, eating the good food made by the guide, and sinking into the trough of head-high waves, where nothing could be seen around you, but water.

At one point the guide and I looked out onto Lac Superieur. He gave a little speech about the vastness of it all. I could tell he wanted me to appreciate it, as he did. But I couldn't, despite the uniqueness of North America's Inland Seas, and despite the 1000 foot depth of the lake. But I wanted to appreciate it. The memory of that failure has stayed with me for over twenty years, now.
Now we can return to the present: walking in that disgustingly loose sand. Why was I doing this?  Although I had seen the flash flood where the sandy creek bed was only 20-30 feet wide, most of it was wide enough for a four lane highway. 
The exasperation just kept getting worse. Finally I had to imagine knocking over a common bucket of water onto the dry sand. How big a puddle would it make? (Three feet, maybe.) How many seconds would it take for the water to sink in? (Ten seconds, tops.) How many times would it sink in before water ran off, on the top?

Now imagine how many buckets it would take to produce that 2-3 inch deep "wall" of water that had come at me? A person can look at an ocean, and feel nothing! And then that same person can look at a puny little flood and experience the exasperation of loose sand for an hour, and then, finally, it all sinks in.