Friday, September 24, 2010

On My Swallow Summer

Here's a long piece about the barn swallows that came to live on our porch this summer -- with pictures! It's about a month old, in case my mentions of time throughout don't make sense.

The day after our wedding, my husband and I picked up my dog from the kennel, packed up my old apartment, and set out for our first home in New Mexico. My bouquet hung above the back passenger door by a bundle of rubber bands, and the fish we bought together on a whim one afternoon swayed to and fro inside a used risotto container on my lap. Josh’s family and our friend Zach caravanned with us through the night and still gave us that first moment alone – the one when we opened our front door and saw where we would establish our first home as a family. The fact that it would be a temporary home, just for the duration of our MFA program, did not detract from this moment.

It’s been a year since our arrival to the Land of Enchantment. We have studied fiction and poetry. We have investigated the flora of our quiet neighborhood. We have met many people and made a few friends. And looking back on our first year of marriage, it’s safe to say that we’ve grown with each other, turning our compounded new beginnings into a memorable starting point for the rest of our lives together.

Still, if we could change things, we’d probably want more money, more friends, less mileage between ourselves and our family, and at least a hint of stability added to the future job and publishing markets. While we’ve fully fledged into our relationship, there’s always that undercurrent that reminds us this living situation is temporary and one day we won’t have the safety bubble of what is already a paycheck-to-paycheck survival plan as graduate students. We write about the world, but we have to take a financial risk every time we want to drive to visit our families, let alone take a short trip to escape the heat or find a little inspiration. It doesn’t help that employment opportunities for the summer are hard to come by, which people in far worse positions with far more responsibilities know all about. For us, it’s not a rough life by any stretch. We read a lot. We write. Josh started making our bread and pasta, perfecting his culinary skills with curiosity and great patience. Three weeks after posting grades for my spring composition class, I finished the novel I started writing before our move, which was such an overwhelming accomplishment I didn’t sleep that night. Yet, we’ve spent the summer in a transition period, a welcome break but a fairly uneventful one, and in some ways, while we are happy and proud to have a solid first year under our belt, it feels a little like a sneak peek at the next two years while we finish school – possibly longer after that. This isn’t our forever home. It’s the house we’ll try to show our children one day, just the way my father did when he moved us to Midland, driving aimlessly around a vaguely familiar neighborhood where things have changed and landmarks have been forgotten, promising over and over that it’s just a block away. By June, I was bored and desperate for something new in my life.

It’s funny how the universe sometimes gives you what you need. One night I let the dog out to the backyard and joined her on the porch to appreciate the cool night air, and when I looked up to the stars, I found two little birds perched on the rafter of our porch ceiling. With a surge of excitement, I yelled for Josh to come out, and that was when we found the mud nest directly above our porch door. The birds did not fly away. They didn’t flinch when we fetched the camera and took several pictures for fear they’d never stay still like that again or, worse, leave altogether.

When we went back inside, I set to work tracking the name of the birds down, comparing our uploaded pictures to hundreds of Google image search results and descriptions of regional birds on the Audubon website. I tried “gunmetal teal” and “russet” and “caramelized cream” to articulate the colors of their little stout bodies. I looked for birds with black eye masks and forked tails. Eventually, I came across an entry about barn swallows, and there they were! I didn’t have to send my photo to a bird expert on the internet after all.

The obsession started that night and didn’t stop for days. I listened to recordings of their various calls and twitters. I parsed out the differences between them and their relatives like cliff swallows and tree swallows. I watched YouTube clips of adults feeding their young, desperate to witness something so cool myself. While Josh kneaded dough in the kitchen, I called out, “They don’t have to stop flying to drink. They just skim the surface of lakes or bird baths.” I called out, “They might have lived here last year because they return to old nest sites.” I told him how many eggs they laid on average, how long the eggs took to hatch, how many days until those babies would fledge. I understood why they chose our porch – we have power lines perfect for diving from to catch insects (all they eat) and water not far away (though I sprayed down our dirt just in case they needed more mud for their nest), but I still felt special that they’d picked us. I was so excited to have a completely new topic of study and extensive resources available to me. I am a student through and through, and these two little birds nesting who attached their nest to our house gave me a reason to ask questions, take notes, and learn. Suddenly, the summer was wide open again.

My mother laughed when I named them – Penny and Clive – and she told me she’d never known me to be so interested in nature. I tried to explain that I’d never been the host of a nest before, I’d never been able to observe the routines of specific animals before. In the spring when a lizard squirmed into our bedroom through our broken screen and we put it back outside, there was no way to tell if it was the very same lizard that came through again the next afternoon. 

But these were our birds. Penny was plump with more white feathers and nervous while Clive had a spot of blue on his breast and hardly stirred at all when we came out to see them. She spent the most time in the nest, and he returned closer to evening to perch across from her for the night. They were like pets. When they began laying eggs, one a day for five days, which we fashioned a hand mirror to the end of the mop to be able to see, they became all the more important.

As I watched them fret about their nest and as I learned more and more about their migration patterns and mating habits and relational instincts, I couldn’t help but see them as material. I knew I wanted to write about them, even loosely plotted what turned out to be typical nest-as-family metaphor-laden stories, scrapping the ideas before putting a single word down. I began documenting them with photos and video, taking notes frequently to store up for later use. It’s rare that I know while I’m experiencing something like this that it is magical and profound, and even though I didn’t know how it was those things, I knew enough to save it.

When the five eggs reached the mark when they should have started hatching, Josh’s parents and sister came to stay with us for a week. They are a family of teachers and explorers. When they asked us what there was to do in town, we shrugged and offered the flowers around the neighborhood, the birds on the porch, the hundreds of books on our shelves – nothing more than a half-mile from our house. We ended up taking a half-day hike not far outside of town, everyone armed with cameras, and visited a cave where a hermit with possible healing powers once lived and was killed. The history of this cave alone would have made the whole trip worth it, but it was really fun day. In the evening, we filled the living room to watch each person’s photos and film footage on our TV, marveling at our different perspectives on some of the same subjects and the things we had missed while investigating other parts of the hiking path. Two days later, we visited White Sands, again taking hundreds of pictures as we explored a unique environment not far from our house, again gathering in the evening to see what we saw. It was exciting to discover these places we’d never bothered to check out before, and it was lovely having our family in our home.

The same day we visited White Sands, we came home to find two baby birds hatched in the nest, their tiny purple bodies curled in together, sprouting black hair all over, huge black patches instead of open eyes. The Bowens were leaving soon, so I was thrilled to be able to share with them what was a monumental moment to me – our birds creating new life, making these fragile babies, suspended in a simple mud and straw cup above our door! I felt proud. I was relieved, in fact, that they hadn’t missed it because I couldn’t bare the thought of missing it myself.

A couple nights before they left, Josh and his dad bar-be-qued in the backyard, and my sister-in-law and mother-in-law went about our kitchen creating a feast. At first, I didn’t notice this. I was struck with the need, suddenly, to find a letter my grandmother wrote me at least two years earlier – answers to a series of questions I’d asked her about her childhood, college, starting a family, and how the world had changed during her lifetime. I’d always meant to do something with these answers – write a story or maybe interview her further for a personal piece – but I had put the letter away and forgotten about it. By the time I found it and greedily re-read her cursive handwriting, dinner was ready, and it dawned on me that I hadn’t helped make a single item on the table. I felt embarrassed to have not offered. I felt even more embarrassed by the fact that, even if I had offered, I wouldn’t have known how to do even the simplest things like make the sweet tea or prepare the potatoes. At the table, I found myself bragging about my grandmother. I guess I wanted to establish some kind of connection to this family that I had become a part of and very much felt accepted into. I wanted to show them that I loved my grandmother, that she was an exceptional woman who paved the way for my aunts and uncles and cousins and me to be hard-working, compassionate, helpful people. 

When I stopped talking, I sat back and watched them fall into their usual family dinner talk, and while I liked to be at that table with them, I also felt a prick of self-pity – I had no real model for this growing up, just as I had missed the boat on culinary skills and had spent much of my childhood playing in my room instead of mingling with a large family and close community. I wasn’t hard-wired to be social for more than a day or two at a time, even with a small, familiar group. I wanted to help do things, but I didn’t know how. It began to press down on me that I was not like them. I had fine personality traits for my family of ambitious, liberal women, but I did not have the simplest traits that were instilled in my husband and his siblings from birth – to cook for others, to rally around new brides or families experiencing crises, to act on behalf of other people without hesitation and without the burden of obligation. Instead, I knew how to talk over coffee about education issues and books, how to take a car-load of cousins to a holiday movie, how to laugh and shout from the kids’ table at Thanksgiving and move the party to the living room for games afterward – all of these things on holidays, one fabulously fun, full day at a time.

After dinner, I was the last out of the kitchen, taking charge of the dishes and then pondering with a sense of acute panic whether it was okay to leave the dishes that didn’t fit in the washer to finish the next day. In my own home, my own kitchen, I was unsure. Naturally, this led to a melt-down when Josh and I went to bed. I cried over my lack of social skills. I defended my upbringing and the fact that I wasn’t a selfish person, only under-qualified. I grew up with a huge extended family that I loved spending time with on the rare occasions I was able to, but I was never a part of a community – of church members, of women, of anything. The more I talked, the emptier I felt. Since moving to New Mexico, I had not found the writing community I’d hoped for either. I had spent months writing in near isolation, had been timid to make new friends, had found conversations following class lacking my passion for writing and reading. I’d withdrawn from social events, sure I would not find the kinds of friends I’d had before – I preferred a few close friends over a whole group of surface-level ones; by then, I needed a soul-mate kind of friend to make me leave home. I’d found more to love in nature and the hugeness of our New Mexico sky than I’d found in people, becoming even more introspective, lonely, and reclusive than I’d ever been before.

In addition to my retreat from social situations, last year brought on my first real bout of writing trouble. Every single story I submitted for publication got rejected. My workshop experiences were less productive than previous ones. I made adjustments to what I wrote about and how I wrote, thinking I must be doing it all wrong to keep hitting walls, and this sent me into a long period of second-guessing myself and truly believing I’d made a mistake choosing this path of school and writing. It wasn’t until I returned to working on my novel in May that these woes settled some, and by the time I finished the draft of my manuscript, I was back to believing in my choices, but totally depleted in terms of inspiration and desire to write anything new.

Barn swallows, I learned, make their entire nests one pellet at a time, taking anywhere from one-thousand to fourteen-hundred individual trips to and from their mud source. They are monogamous but social birds. They hunt with other swallows, and their first brood, after fledging, tends to stick around to help feed the second brood of the season. They migrate and often return to same nesting location year after year, even the same nest, as long as it’s still viable.

One night while Josh and I were watching TV, after three of the eggs had hatched, we heard an urgent bird call. It sounded cannily close to an ambulance alarm. It had become a bit of a joke already that I was the bird protector – I’d read about offering baked eggshell pieces to replenish the mother’s calcium and about providing mud close by and extra dog or human hair – so when I sprang up and ran to the back door, I was partially joking. Often, when Clive returned, he and Penny would squawk noisily at each other, and I assumed this was a variation of that greeting. Still, I reached the door, followed excitedly by our confused dog, and when I looked out the dark window, there was a large orange cat, scaling the brick wall at chest height, slipping closer and closer to the nest. In a panic, I fumbled with the locks and flipped on the light just as I managed to throw the door open. Out ran the dog with no clue what was going on as the cat sprang away and disappeared. Poor Penny flew in circles, squawking, too agitated to perch and rest. I spent the next hour reading about cat deterrents and declared to my husband before bed that we needed to buy fox urine.

We left two days later to visit my family in Midland, Texas. Much of the time we were away, I worried that the cat would return and eat the chicks. I was also disappointed that I would miss seeing the three babies sprout feathers and that the other two eggs might hatch late while we were gone. When we returned home, I ran straight to the back door and found a chick that had fallen from the nest and died. It was twice the size the babies had been when we left with ragged brown and black down all over its body.

Over the next two days, we ascertained that there were just two babies that had made it; the other eggs hadn’t hatched. One was quite a bit larger than the other, and over the next week, the down on his topside was replaced with smooth black and blue feathers, and he sprouted puffy white-gold underside feathers. I named him Bruce. The smaller one was Little Sal, and he continued to grow about three or four days behind Bruce. Not much later than our return, Bruce took his first flight, landing on the perch in the rafters where we’d first spotted his parents, and he stayed there for most of the day, hunkered down low and tentatively sliding back and forth across its length.

From the first night we found two little birds on our back porch to the day both chicks left the backyard for a full day, I accumulated a couple hundred photos worth keeping and a few hours of edited video. (We set the camera to run for the length of its memory on a tripod several evenings to capture feedings and other cute behavior, like how the chicks stretch their wings, peck playfully at each other between feedings, and balance on the rim of the nest to relieve themselves over the edge.) I knew that I had to accept the fact that they would all leave one day, and from what I’d read, that day would be fairly soon. I was resigned to the idea that Penny and Clive would not have a second brood on our porch, that maybe they were too young for two, or maybe they’d already had one elsewhere and had come to us for a safer nesting place. Briefly one afternoon, I got my hopes up after seeing new mud pellets attached to their perch, but after extending the ledge about half an inch, they’d stopped construction. I guess they added on for the safety of the young ones, or they just needed a little more space. Progress stopped, and I went back to counting the days left.

That was about two weeks ago.

Since then, Josh and I have celebrated our first anniversary. We have purchased books for our fall classes. We have attended meetings on campus and prepared our syllabi for the classes we’re teaching. Summer is still hot as ever, but the feel of summer is waning, and I wonder where it went, when it stopped crawling forward ever so slowly. Not much has happened in these last few months, and yet, my world has turned magical. It’s a magic just for us – and even then, it feels as though it’s just for me. I’ve written two new stories in the past few weeks and, without delving intentionally into my barn swallow material, birds have turned up in both, each time in an attempt to create quiet, reflective, awe-full moments. While writing these scenes, I felt an ache to explain, to infuse some rare charm, some acute clarity into them.

I’m reminded of our first day in our new home about a year ago. During the walk through our back yard, I found two dead birds, which was unsettling at the time. I was more worried that the dog would try to eat them than anything else, but I also didn’t like the idea of death so close. When we found the nest this summer, I noticed for the first time that there were a few smudged areas where other nests had clearly been removed. Considering what I’ve learned about the federal protection of swallow nests, this bothered me. Now, though, I have another reason to be upset that the crew that readied our house last year likely removed the nests right before we moved in: in the past two weeks, our barn swallows have modified their nest with a higher rim and more materials, and for the past four days, they’ve laid four new eggs. This possibly means that the nest was removed during a couple’s nesting season last year, maybe even with babies or eggs in the nest. While I hate to think that this happened, I am impressed by what our birds have learned during this nesting period. For their second brood, they used more straw and fortified the height and base of their nest. On the left side, the side susceptible to cats, they stacked grass and straw and mud so high it nearly closes off their nest to a repeat attack. It’s a small thing, but they’ve learned and adapted immediately. And they’re just little birds!

I was waiting to write deliberately about our birds until they migrated away and left their nest behind for the year. I thought it would provide a logical shape to the piece. I also thought I would know more about how I’m profoundly altered by their short stint of family-making attached to our home. Then they started their second brood, and it was (and is) a pleasant surprise to have more time with them. I have had a lot of time to think about them and what it means that they’re here, and I have a list of possibilities. Generally, I think they came to us this summer to enchant my world when I most needed something new, personal, and creative. While I haven’t written a lot since completing my novel, the hours I’ve spent researching and watching and documenting our birds have been introspective ones – they have been moments to grow within, to witness life that happens all around without my notice. It’s one of the simplest things in the world, the creation of life – and it happens every day in some form or another. But it is also a miracle. It is unfathomable to me sometimes that two little birds constructed a home from mud, created little white speckled eggs which turned into breathing, eating, growing chicks, and that those babies grew up to be beautiful blue, black, and red-orange birds who can fly and hunt for themselves survive in the world and still return to be with their family to sleep. The protective instincts of the parents, too – the sheer courage of a half-ounce bird to protect her babies against the sure threat of a giant cat in the night – baffles but inspires.

I could draw parallels between the efforts of these little birds to the act of writing a novel or, more obviously, to starting a family. After all, eventually they will leave behind this home for the year or even for good if they find a better nesting site next June, just as we will eventually leave our home here in the Land of Enchantment. They have learned and grown and adapted to their environment and been brave in the face of danger, just as a human couple has to maintain a marriage and adapt together. I did see these birds as representatives of both my writing life and my married life, but I also see them, now, more simply as an example of the dangers and miracles of life in general, the way we sometimes find ourselves in trouble alone, desperate to fend off the threat with whatever we’ve got, and how we sometimes make such beautiful, impossible creations and send them out into the world and the world is better for it. While we are sometimes social, we are also individuals, and we need help from our mates, from our friends, even from helpful strangers sometimes, just as we need time to settle in and retreat from the world. This is why we attach ourselves to others, even if we also construct walls around ourselves.

I’m grateful to have a little more time with Penny and Clive and their new little family. I’ve prepared myself for their departure, joked about empty nest syndrome, but I’m not really ready for them to go. Maybe after this second round it will be a little easier. Maybe I myself will be ready then to go back into the world, refreshed and inspired and able to give the fragile pieces of myself once more after my summer of swallows, my retreat into a lovely little world of charm.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

On the Perfect Someone vs. Someone Perfect

I should preface this by saying it doesn't really have anything to do with our marriage; it is something I was thinking about while exercising yesterday without listening to my normal podcast/lectures because I let Melanie borrow my earbuds since she forgot hers somehow (A-so maybe I was thinking about how great a person I am a little; B-it's not that gross, they were very clean earbuds).

Essentially, I wanted to talk about how finding a mate who is perfect for you is not the same as finding a person who is perfect then trying to live with her/him. (It won't be long because most of my thoughts were in between ideas about cycles per minute and dripping sweat).

I first thought about making a list:

  • The perfect person knows how to fix all kinds of cars; the perfect mate does it before you ask.
  • The perfect person wins at everything and has an extremely short learning curve for the new stuff; the perfect mate has weaknesses and allows you to exploit them.
  • The perfect person comforts you when you have a sudden, inexplicable breakdown; the perfect mate has breakdowns too.
But then I thought that might become boring rather quickly--both for me and you--and moved on to what I think about each type of person.

Someone perfect: I can't say that I've met very many perfect people in my life, possibly a handful, but it seems like that is what we're often pushed to want. Movies and television try to tell us there are perfect people out there, and our friends and family encourage us not to settle for anything but the best. There probably are some people who are great in many different areas and who may not allow the evidence of their weaknesses to become visible. There are individuals I admire for their drive and talent, but the thought of living with them sits a little uneasy with me. I think perfect people, or those who come close to it, are best left for admiring at a distance. Even a mentor, someone who guides you through areas of life in which they were successful, should show some faults. Who wants to be around someone perfect everyday? They just constantly make you feel bad about yourself. Granted, it is often beneficial to have someone around who pushes you to be better. But when they do everything better than you? That's no fun.

The perfect someone: I also can't say that I've met very many perfect someone's in my life, and I think I married the first one who came along. (It's not a bad strategy). The perfect someone is about finding balance--and this applies to close friends as well as partners. Being with someone you admire does great things for your determination. Being with someone who admires you does even greater things for your confidence. I don't believe in there being a perfect mate, someone who compliments you entirely, in the way that or any of those other sites proposes. It's something that develops over time. At first, you find someone you enjoy spending time with, and eventually, you learn how to make that time productive for the both of you. You learn when you need to be strong and when it's okay to be weak. A perfect couple is something that probably takes a lifetime, or at least half of one, to build together.

I'm happy that I'm not perfect and that Melanie isn't either (sorry, Carol). Ultimately, finding the perfect person to spend the rest of your life with--or the perfect people to share it with--is all about filling in gaps. And perfect people don't have gaps.

In case anyone suspects I secretly believe I'm someone perfect, let me explain how horribly inept I felt yesterday when Melanie and I went swimming (for exercise, not fun). Or rather, let me share a piece of Kurt Vonnegut's preface to Welcome to the Monkey House which I believe she could use as a motto: "In the water I am beautiful."

Saturday, June 26, 2010

On Not Writing

Here’s a story about a twenty-six-year-old relatively newly-married girl, out of school for a summer and leaving her house only occasionally for air conditioning, workouts, and unnecessary coffee breaks.

Obviously, this isn’t a very interesting story.

As a student and semi-employed person during the regular school year, my current life doesn’t sound like a terrible way to pass a few months’ time, but as a writer, it’s kind of terrible. I mean that in the least whiny way possible. Because really, if you asked me what I want more than anything in, say, the first week of May or December, when I’m cramming in last-minute assignments and grading end-of-semester papers, I’d say that the one thing that would satisfy me, the only thing that would do, is free time. No obligations, nowhere to be, no deadlines. I would have a notebook full of fragments and half-ideas, and I’d be desperate to sit down with them. Now, I have all the time a person could need, and I have nothing. This is just the nature of the job.

So we’re over a month into the summer break, and I’ve accomplished something that I really did need the time to do – I finished a draft of a novel that I’ve been working on for over a year – but all I can seem to muster the creativity to do now is revise that draft and nothing more. There’s not enough magic in stasis. So I tried reading some books. Well, three books, the last of which I haven’t finished despite how great it is. And I tried listening to music. And watching movies. The problem is that I do these things, hoping to latch onto something new, and then nothing happens. For now, I just try to be content with revising the novel and not worrying about writing new stories or whether or not someone will decide to publish my work this time around. It’s not the easiest place for me to sit in for long.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking in place of all the writing I used to do. (Actually, I’ve been writing my thoughts in a journal just to make myself feel more productive.) I had plans, sort of. I mean, I understood the general path I should probably be on to succeed (i.e. get published, land a teaching job, etc.). But having a plan and having that plan actually work aren’t the same thing, and the more I sit with my thoughts, the more I question why I am doing things the way I have been. Why do I submit stories over and over? Why do I write new ones? Why do I go to school? There are some easy answers to these questions as well as some more complicated ones, but the main point is that these things I do are part of a plan that isn’t really working the way I hoped. Not yet anyway. Generally, the rule is this: be patient, grow a thick skin, and persist until a door opens. I know that. I just wonder sometimes, why this? Why not something else? Why do I have to publish short stories when I really want to be a novelist? Why not focus on the book and skip over the part of the process that’s hanging me up? Do people do this? Obviously some people do. I know of at least one person who has already. But it’s not the way of the MFA program or, as I understand it, the way to get an agent, and so on.

This has been a year of second-guessing for me. Even though this novel has been the one solid thing I’ve taken away from my first year in this program, which I had already been invested in and dedicated to before-hand, I spent a good several months hating everything I wrote and changing what I wrote and how, and for the first time in my life, I felt lost. Like I had lost my own voice. I believe this was a result of exposure to new books, new teachers, new voices, and that’s the way, I think, artists ultimately grow and mature in their craft, so it’s not such a bad thing, but there was this period of unsettling that was pretty scary. I’m only just starting to recover from it. And instead of inspiration for new stories, I’m left with more questions.

So, in my latest funk, this static period of no inspiration, I have latched onto this new idea: what if I shouldn’t be a writer, exactly? It’s not a crisis of identity, I don’t think. It’s just that I wrote this book with the inner concept of it as a movie to begin with – because that helped me to write it. And I’m a little embarrassed to admit that because, in many writing circles, film is thought of as a lesser art form, which I don’t actually believe is true. There are terrible movies, yes, but then there are also terrible books. I think that writers have a tendency to say it’s a cop-out of some kind, that it’s easier than creating and bringing to life a world in a book. But the more I imagine what my own story could be on a screen with movement and colors and music, the more I feel limited by words. I’m not saying that I don’t want to write my book, or that I don’t want to write more books after this one, just that I want to make something bigger than I’ve made so far. And I want people to experience it.

This could be a phase. I would be less agitated and confused if it is just a phase. But if it’s not, then what?

Anyway, I don’t know what this post adds to the world or why I’m putting it out there. I guess it’s a way to say, hey, I’m writing something, even if it’s really nothing.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

On American Landscapes and Other Discoveries

Before I became a quasi-adult and responsible for planning and funding my own vacations, I was spoiled with trips to places like Southern Mexico and The Bahamas. In high school, I lived in San Diego, CA, one of the prettiest cities in the U.S., and spent one summer back from college doing nothing but surfing and reading books every day. Travel, when you're in your twenties, in school, and living on a graduate assistant's stipend, is often more creative than glamorous and sometimes involves sleeping in bunk beds while a stranger with sleep apnea gasps below you. But I've taken some trips on the cheap that, despite the spoiling of my youth, turned out to be pretty great.

The summer before Josh and I got engaged, I finished up my MA thesis, purchased a digital SLR camera, and took my dog on the road from Huntsville, Texas, to Huntington Beach, CA. I used the opportunity to visit my dad in West Texas, where I stayed for free, and to eventually spend a couple weeks with my mother - also for free. Growing up, my friends spent their summers in camp or playing baseball or visiting the Grand Canyon, and I always felt left out of those "normal" kid things, so I made a point to swing north and check out a few of America's natural attractions for myself. While it sounds like a fairly typical summer vacation to visit the Grand Canyon, this trip was important to me in ways that I didn’t anticipate when I set out, and I was excited about taking my first long trip alone.

My route took me from Dad’s in Midland through Roswell, NM, stopping in Gallup the first day. The hotel I’d booked turned out to be a cement block with faulty locks, burned out lights, and shady guests, and for about twenty minutes, I felt woefully incapable of travelling alone. Then I found another place, bought a cheeseburger, and put the setback behind me. There was a fantastic rain shower, which made the air smell dusty and wonderful. Though it was mostly a full day of driving, the dog kept things interesting: apparently, without grass, she couldn't relieve herself, so we got to know a few different parking lot-adjacent beds of rocks while she sniffed and sniffed and sniffed.

Next stop was Window Rock, AZ, where I circled the monument, which sits in the midst of Navajo tribe government buildings. I circled and circled because everything there looked so official, and I wasn't totally sure visitors were welcomed. When I did eventually park, I took several pictures of the monument, which is basically a rock face in which wind has eroded a large hole. It was sort of startling up close, and the peace and quiet of the place - at least until my dog started barking from the car - was meditative. The quiet got inside me, if that makes sense. It felt good there.

I drove through Indian Territory all the way to Tuba, AZ, before taking the interstate to Cameron, which is nothing more than a trading post outside of the Grand Canyon. From Window Rock, I felt more and more introspective the whole way through Navajo and Apache territories. For long stretches, there was literally nothing but land and more land in sight. And even though it looked similar to other places I've driven through without taking notice, that much of it is hard not to be affected by. Around one bend, there were wild horses right by the shoulder of the road. I actually turned off the radio and just drove, which is probably the longest amount of time I've sat in relative silence without feeling edgy ever. I was small and lost in the world, but in a good way. There's something reaffirming at the same time that it's terrifying to know you could actually be lost like that.

My room in Cameron overlooked the Colorado River. I still had plenty of daylight left, so the dog and I headed up to the Grand Canyon. The drive ascends quickly there, and not knowing at all what to expect, I actually mistook the deep ravine made by the Colorado River for the Canyon. The Grand Canyon itself was both impressive and a little disappointing. I think I expected to feel something as soon as I peered over the edge and saw how far down and across it stretched. Truly, when you think about something like that being eroded little by little over time, it's impressive. But when you step up to that giant depression expecting to be moved, and all you can think is that you've gone your whole life without seeing this quintessential attraction, it's hard to immediately see the beauty. The noise of all the other people was jarring compared to my day of solitude. But I still drove around to the various lookout spots. Some were more exciting than others. Back in Cameron, I ate a meal alone in the restaurant there, took a nice long shower, and watched the sun set over the river.

I returned to the Grand Canyon the next morning, when it was much quieter and the sun had only just risen, and that was when I was able to see how huge and arresting it is. I hardly took any pictures that day because I just didn't think about it. I wished I'd had more time to sit around and look out at it all morning. Alas, I had to hit the road. The last leg to Huntington Beach was long, hot, and full of time-consuming construction. I didn't mind it so much until later in the evening when my back began to hurt and the dog starting drooling on my shoulder. Even with so many miles behind me, I could actually feel something changing or settling inside of me. It wasn't something that I can even put a finger on now. It had something to do with independence and becoming an adult, but it was also about quieting down and listening to the world. Sometimes I forget about the beauty in simple things. That trip was simple. And it was mine.

Vacations, Family and Otherwise

Melanie and I have been thinking about what to do to survive the summer in the desert since we won't have the money to do lots of travelling. Over Christmas break we drove all over the country visiting family to save money, and, even though it was a little taxing on the butt, I enjoyed the road trips. The last trip like that I remember was several years ago when my family drove to the east coast.

My dad's navy buddies were having a get together in Virginia, and he wanted all of us to come so we could meet their families. They had done the same thing a few years before in Kansas, but he went on a solo motorcycle ride because we all had conflicting schedules—or at least an aversion to Kansas. This time, though, six of us packed up two cars and headed east.

There wasn't anything spectacular about this trip, but I will probably always remember how we managed to pack so much distance and experience into so few days. We had sketchy seafood from a buffet in Louisiana. We drove through the French quarter briefly before deciding the narrow streets did not provide a quick getaway from the seediness we knew was ahead. We visited family in South Carolina where we marveled at their beautifully secluded house overlooking a pond and experienced the vibrant atmosphere of a minor league baseball game. I still wear my Capitol City Bombers cap because I enjoy answering questions about the interesting team logo. We visited the D-Day Memorial in Virginia and nearly all the important tourist attractions in Washington D.C. as well as checking out Monticello and seeing Jefferson's awesome clock and reading desk. And we drove a lot. And we walked a lot.

All the sites were great, but what sticks out the most was how much an experience like that bonds a group together. Granted, we were sick of each other well before the trip was over, and we all had plenty to complain about, but that's not usually what my mind turns to. Instead, I think about answering trivia questions on U.S. presidents or the hundreds of pictures we took of the Washington Monument. Paddling around the pond in a small row boat or trying to hit golf balls over it. How comfortable sleeping on the floor felt after walking what felt like fifty miles around the capitol.

To be honest, I was probably against the idea of the trip in the first place. I usually am. It's not that I don't enjoy spending time with my family, it's more that I resist change. I tend to obey Newton's law of motion about an object at rest staying at rest unless some external force is applied to it. I hope that I will grow out of that at some point. I hope I'll be the dad waking the family up early so they can see the sunrise over the Atlantic, the one who stops to read all the plaques at the museum because someone made the effort to gather all that information, the one who is willing to drive all day when everyone else is sleeping and doesn't even mind because his eyes appreciate the newness in something as simple as another state border. I'm excited about family vacations where I can force my loved ones to experience life against their will, hoping I can convey to them what I think my parents were always trying to show us: happiness comes from the people around you, not the things.

In short, I look forward to passing down all the good I gained from my family on those long, sometimes hot, sometimes boring, trips that just wouldn't have been the same if we had the money to fly. And ignoring the mumbling from the back seat.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

On Information Restriction: Two Cases

You might say that we live in an Information Era. With Wikipedia, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and the massive number of blogs on the Internet, there’s no shortage of user-generated information to dilute the all the credible information produced by legitimate news sources, journals, organizations, and other outlets whose content comes from experts and is reviewed for accuracy. Even respected news outfits like CNN and government representatives have turned to Twitter for reporting on or communicating agendas. However, the problem is not just that we have so much information available to us that we could literally never run out of it, or even that so much of that content is not credible or accurate; the problem is that, while we drown in information, there is still a lot more valuable information that gets restricted. Just today, I learned about two different cases that got me thinking about our relationship to information.

The first story is about Ai WeiWei, a Chinese artist and activist who appeared on Christiane Amanpour’s segment on CNN today. Through art, he comments on the Chinese government's oppression of free expression. One of his projects involves breaking urns from the Han dynasty or painting logos like Coca-Cola’s on them to demonstrate “the commercialization of an ancient culture” and bring into the national consciousness an awareness of the past while shattering old conceptions of it. Another was an installation made of children’s backpacks that criticized the local government for badly constructed schools and for officials’ weak response following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that killed thousands of children. Chinese police have beaten him for his activism, and the government has shut down three of his blogs. Ai uses Twitter and other social media outlets to spread his message and believes such sites are the future of activism.

Meanwhile, China has banned or restricted sites like Twitter and Facebook as well as other sources of information, enforcing censorship laws through a “Great Firewall” to filter and prevent accessibility of certain kinds of information to its people. Google, which until recently operated on a .cn domain, adhering to the government’s censorship measures, has redirected searches on that domain to one based in Hong Kong, where they do not have to self-censor.

Just imagine if, instead of having only to regularly wade through the overwhelming magnitude of “bad” information, we were so blatantly kept from learning about our own history, certain religions, etc. Censorship isn’t a new practice, and in the U.S. we’ve had bouts of information restriction through bans on films and books, but the Internet is a global network. It seems like it should be free of such censorship, doesn’t it? How odd that I can search topics like the Beijing Olympics or Tiananmen Square in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and find different information than someone living in Beijing.

Here’s another example of information restriction that falls closer to home:

While driving to Starbucks today, I was listening to NPR and caught a portion of an interview with a former priest, Patrick Wall, who left the Catholic Church after acting as a “fixer” for several years. I missed the beginning, but Wall was in the middle of explaining his role in the Church when I tuned in. He said that when allegations or rumors about the misconduct of priests were received by the higher-ups, those priests would often receive new assignments rather than face expulsion or punishment by the Church. By sending the priests to new parishes, it avoided legal conflicts and protected the reputations of the Church and the individual priest. Wall’s job was to go to parishes in an interim capacity to clean up or “fix” the problem. He wished to teach and live a balanced life of prayer and service. Instead, he found himself being sent out all over the place, year after year, to deal with other people’s mistakes. His life, he said, was dictated by other men who had screwed up, and they were the ones who got to return to the monastery and live the kind of life he wanted for himself. In 1998, at 33 years old, he left the Church. Now, he is an advocate for victims of abuse in the Church.

Having been on the inside, Wall knows how impossible it is for such victims to seek justice. He explained that, when a priest was reassigned, there would be documentation in archival files but that there was a separate “secret archive” that hid additional information which might tarnish the individual’s reputation. Wall explained, “If you don’t know what you’re asking for, they don’t have to produce it.” Wall and other “fixers” like him were instructed in how to deal with scandals. In fact, according to a December 2008 NPR piece, there was a document called the “Crimen Sollicitationis “(1962), kept under wraps until 2003, that mandates secretive pursuit of such abuse investigations and perpetual silence on their findings under penalty of excommunication.

The practice of hiding information and sending priests on new assignments rather than rehabilitating or punishing them exacerbates insufficient protection for victims, whose allegations must basically be proven with tangible evidence before Church officials will treat the matter seriously. It also allows for repeated offenses by the same individuals. I suspect that this has changed some since 2003 when the U.S. Church hierarchy implemented reforms to address cases of sexual abuse that got a lot of attention during the preceding two decades. Now, with the current sex scandal plaguing the Church in Europe, U.S. officials are urging the Vatican to adopt those reforms world-wide. U.S. news outlets, like The New York Times, have reported that Pope Benedict may have been involved in covering up such scandals when he oversaw investigations in his previous position as Cardinal, indicating that such behavior may reach the highest office in the Church.

I lament the saturation of inaccurate information and non-news that’s privileged by media outlets – celebrity gossip, Joe the Plumber types’ sound bites exalted as expert opinion, misinformed hate speech that masquerades as political rhetoric, etc. But I’d rather deal with that than be restricted from any kind of information. For the most part, Americans are free to seek information, and while I might feel passionately in the moment that a person who holds up a stuffed monkey and a sign telling Obama to go back to Kenya should be punished, I can honestly say that the freedoms, not only of speech, but also of access to speech and other sources of information are among the greatest liberties we enjoy.

Exercise your freedom of speech - what do you think about our Information Era?

On Information and Our Addiction to It

I realize this might push against NBC’s “The More You Know” public service announcements, but I often wonder how much is too much when it comes to information. It reminds me of that new commercial where the professional tennis players are overrun by a mob of wannabes. They suggest it’s tough to stand out when there’s so much commotion around you, even if you’re qualified for that 100K position. (FYI-I checked out their site but was unable to find “teaching or “education” or “writer” in the field selection.) Yes, it’s great to have access to valuable information, like it’s great to be able to watch Wimbledon—the majors are the only time I pay attention to tennis—but trying to filter through what’s valuable and what’s white noise grows more difficult with every new social networking site.

When I hear about the tweets running wild in Iran or some other country resisting an oppressive government, I realize it’s a good thing. But then I have to listen to half a dozen idiots letting some news anchor in on their perspectives about health care or bullying in America’s schools. And, yes, I understand this doesn’t carry much weight coming from a blog, but I can’t help wanting to shout at the TV, “I don’t care what you think.” Even when the updates are from politicians and celebrities, they rarely amount to more than a platitude, a talking point, or a reductive gut reaction. For full disclosure, I don’t yet have a Twitter account, so most of what I have to see is filtered through other forms of media. I suspect I will eventually give in when I see a practical use for my life.

Then there’s Facebook’s news feed, through which I am barraged by status updates ranging from “A long day ahead of me, let’s hope it goes well” to “What a great night! Luv yall girls!” These are not pointed at anyone in particular; they just came to mind. In fact, I don’t blame people updating their status twenty times a day because that’s what the feature is there for. And I’m certain a very small percentage of users think “I wonder what Josh will think about this” when they are making their pithy comments. It’s not like they’re sending me an email every hour updating how they feel about the current situation, but I can’t help feeling that way. I blame Facebook for trying to immerse me in my “friends” lives and for constantly suggesting people I should be friends with just because we attended the same school or know some of the same people. But maybe I should take some of the responsibility. There’s nothing in the site’s terms and conditions that says I have to accept every friend request I receive, or that I have to read every link or status update that’s shown on my news feed.

Clearly, someone is interested in this information. Facebook and Twitter don’t have a social or political agenda, and they’re not providing a public service for the betterment of society. They exist to make money (and they do an excellent job of it). If viewers weren’t sending in tweets to news programs, the anchors wouldn’t be reading them to me. The people who are creating and sustaining this information are those who start to feel nervous when they haven’t looked at their phone in half an hour. People who feel that constantly keeping up with their friends and the world is going to somehow make it more interesting. It’s this addiction to being in the know that worries me a little. I feel like people are so berated with information—most of it inane—they lose the ability to distinguish between what is fact and what is someone’s opinion.

Maybe this is why the Texas Board of Education is able to remove Thomas Jefferson from public history textbooks—because they think he’s ideas are dangerous. (And they are dangerous to people who resist change and radical ideas like equality.) Maybe access to all forms of information can prevent an Orwellian future for America. The fact that government officials in places like China are afraid of an uncensored Google and Twitter speaks volume to their power. Still, I can’t help but wonder if this impact is somewhat blunted by the cacophony created by so many people having the chance to share their voice.

I have to admit, however, that if I had the money, I’d have an iPhone and an iPad.

(This is just me. Let me know what you think.)