Last Day in Camp, Work Dreams, and Hostages

50829164.SunriseatRockCreekRock Creek, Montana    We had come to our last day in our Airstream fishing camp on Rock Creek. Our licenses had run out after catching our last couple of fish the day before. Over the years we had a checklist of a dozen things we had to do, some like disconnecting the solar system from the batteries, turning off the propane tanks, and the final floor mopping as we walk out the door, are last minute, but laying out our annual rodent protection, washing down the insides of the trailer, packing, breaking down the poles and the tackle, washing dishes, cleaning out the coolers, putting away the paper goods, are all things for today. Chaco was just sitting outside before our last dinner in camp looking at the sun start to go by the ridge. I yelled out, “Are you ok?” He nodded, and replied, “Just enjoying the silence.”

It’s a loud kind of silence where the least thing seems amplified. Three blue jays seemed as loud as a hawkers’ market yesterday morning jumping from trees to trailer to trees, establishing their territory. Flies are buzzing. Hummingbirds are whirring behind us. Chipmunks this season have been numerous and almost in attack mode. They chirp from the rocks sometimes more loudly than the birds. One drowned in a bucket of water near the camp table. One tried to jump through the front screen on the trailer, meaning that next year we will have to try and figure out a way to start replacing some of the old screen on the trailer windows. Add that to the list.

We had another good season in camp. We fished off and on for ten days. We hiked several trails. We cleared some brush and cutback some limbs for fire protection. We read. We talked. We ran errands. We drank coffee. We celebrated friends’ birthdays and weddings. We called home every couple of days. We kept busy. We kept calm.

My mind says I’m almost back on the grid, even if the calendar says I have another day or two. In my final dream before waking in the pre-dawn I was helping negotiate some kind of community benefit agreement. What in the world?

I’m going back and forth on the Kindle now between Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities about nationalism and nation building and Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s Merchants of Doubt, a book detailing the “tobacco strategy” of science denial including acid rain and climate change. For a break I picked up The New Yorker delivered before we left, which I thought would be a good diversion for an hour while my son slept. There was a long article about an I-phone meditation fad of sorts and its value for some. I figured this and similar experiences must be our version of mindfulness and deep breathing.

I made a mistake and read a long article by Lawrence Wright, a reporter I read closely whenever he appears in the magazine, and value deeply. The story was called “Five Hostages,” and introduced the reader one by one to these young people taken by combatants in Syria, their families, and the rich publisher of The Atlantic and the surprising efforts he organized privately to try and help the families save their children. This was ISIS-country at the margins of our cultural and intellectual understanding.

I’m reasonably well-informed when I’m on the grid. I’m a world traveler with the million miles on United to prove it and the ability to hold up my end of most conversations about distant lands and peoples’ struggles both at home and abroad, but my passport says USA and though mistaken, perhaps correctly, once or twice as being German, most everyone can see I’m an American from a mile away, and I don’t ever pretend differently. What would be the use? This was an American-story of American young men and women, who were also other Americans’ children who were either trying to do “good,” for whatever that is worth, or doing a job, even if risky. I knew this was not going to end well, but Wright somehow held me captive in the story, rooting against reality that somehow they would make it home. When I found myself having to fight back tears welling to get to the mostly unhappy ending, four lost and one returned, I got Wright’s point that policy had to change, but he had me from hello.

But, mainly, I knew it was time to get back home and back to work.


Please enjoy Dope is Dope by Hard Working Americans.

Thanks to KABF.

Unlearning to Face Facts and Find Truth

9780195117332Rock Creek, Montana    Off-the-grid is a mixed bag. The isolation and lack of interruption provides an inescapable opportunity for serious conversations with my son, which might not be his favorite part of these excursions for example. Sure, I still wake up at 4 AM in the morning processing the list of things that have to be done at work, sorting out problems, real and imagined, and processing deadlines and timelines, but I also get to read, and while the sun is shining, write a bit and do the tedious and endless editing on the book I’ve been working on for more than a decade, including several summers on Rock Creek. Many followers of the Chief Organizers’ Report on the blog, radio, or wherever, are probably ready for me to get back on-the-grid so that they aren’t burdened with too-much-information that is seeping through from my reading, but…what can I say, but I’m sorry, this is some powerful stuff to mull and ponder. Welcome aboard or get off at the next stop!

A book that seemed perfect for Rock Creek, running through Granite County on the Columbia River drainage on the west side of the continental divide powered by the giant Rocky Mountain uplift, was Naomi Oreskes’ The Rejection of Continental Drift: Theory and Method in American Earth Sciences. Heck, in my brief and frequently interrupted stint in higher education, the one science course I took, propelled by my Western roots, had been Geology, so this book I had figured for a pleasant diversion in the right place and with the time to study it fully. Well, it was all of that, and a whole lot more.

Here’s the upshot on the book: pretty much all of the British and European scientists understood that the configuration of the earth and the movement of the continents had been caused by drift caused by magmatic changes in the substrata of the earth’s crust, but the establishment of American earth science resisted for almost forty years. Heat rising, causing folds and uplifts at the rims of oceans, tectonic plates crashing, mountains rising, and you get the picture which all scientists accept as a given now based on the physics, their observations, magnets, and mountains of data. Her many questions were rooted in figuring out why it took the slow learners in the USA so long, when the science in many ways was so clear.

Oreskes is no liberal. She has read it all, admires the scientists, and believes in science like others believe in God. She also has little patience for rationalizations, crawfishing, or career saving for those she has found fiddling with the facts. She calls ‘em, like she sees ‘em, which is rare and refreshing.

But, as you might imagine with all of this, it is hard not to always wonder how often this kind of thing happens, not just in science, where there is at least the pretense of a process, but out in the world where the rest of us are trying to put one foot down after another every day. I know people who are still having folks print their emails because they are not so sure how to handle this internet thing. Are they ready to unlearn what they have done over and over again for years, if they are not even able to get comfy learning something new, or at this point, new-ish? Look at the declining ranks of the labor movement – can new voices and new methods break through, and how would that happen? I could go on, but you get my drift no doubt.

Oreskes draws the line on continental drift. Makes me kind of yearn for similar folks with similar chutzpah who could draw a line in some other areas of work. But, if they did, would we be able to get right and walk a new line? If the answer isn’t, “yes!” then we already know we have work to do, and the people that depend on us, deserve it

The President Goes to Prison – Hooray!

Obama-prison-meeting-w-prisoners-VICERock Creek, Montana     Barack Obama became the first United States President to go inside a federal prison.  No doubt the rightwing will feast on this for days, but for the rest of us his visit should be a feast of celebration because it takes another sturdy step forward towards a more explicit recognition of the tragedy that another lost war, the so-called “war on drugs” has wrought inequitably on African-Americans, their families, and communities bringing shame to our entire society.

The President had been signaling significant movement on this issue directly and through his former Attorney-General Eric Holder in recent years, especially as he has been more liberated in the last years of his tenure.  He had announced that he was taking steps to pardon thousands detained in the federal prison system for minor, nonviolent drug beefs who were being held there by mandatory sentencing rules.

Michelle Alexander whose book, The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, issued perhaps the most detailed and impassioned clarion call about the devastating price the US and our whole society was paying due to the political knee-jerking from Nixon to the Bushes with a hearty helping from Clinton in passing more and more stringent drug laws while ignoring the fact that police, the courts, and Congress were allowing this war-on-drugs to weaponize racism and disproportionately punish black and brown communities.  All of this despite every evidence that the vast majority of drug users, especially marijuana and cocaine, were white and often professionals as well.  Just the kind of people that did not have to worry about stop-and-frisk, random car searches despite constitutional protections that should be claimed against unlawful fishing expeditions in the name of searches, and other problems with the police.   Alexander has probably been moderately surprised to see the shift that Obama and Holder made on these issues.  Her book had expressed little hope for Obama in this area based on his statements in the 2008 campaign and his early appointments including his naming of Holder given his record as a prosecutor in the District of Columbia demanding tough drug sentencing during his tenure.

My fingers are crossed that we may see the kind of leadership now that President Obama is capable of bringing forward in this area.  Besides looking at incarceration and mandatory sentencing, there are some other matters that should be on the list.  There is no excuse for denying families access to federally funded public housing because someone in their family may have had a drug conviction.  There is no rhyme or reason for denying an eligible family federally funded welfare or food stamps for the same reason.  Such actions are vengeful and unjust, punishing without mercy the families for problems experience by the few.  How can it be justified or explained to anyone.  It’s just plain meanness.  Alexander was crystal clear that the only explanation for such behavior is racism.  The new Jim Crow is not the old Jim Crow, but that doesn’t mean it should be tolerated in the least.

Racism is racism, not matter how much we pretend colorblindness or hide behind the instruments of power that attempt to rationalize such activity.   Obama going to prison in Oklahoma is a good sign that we may be starting down the road to wiping this stain from our contemporary society, but just like the old Jim Crow, the new Jim Crow will take years to absolve.  If ever.

Those Little Critters are Amazing

DSCN0325Rock Creek, Montana     How many of us ever have good thoughts about most insects?  We keep busy swatting mosquitos, shooing flies, stepping on cockroaches, tiptoeing around caterpillars, and gingerly keeping an eye out for the whole host of little buggers.  Granted, we might let a ladybug crawl over us, remember spending hours playing with doodle bugs as kids, admire a butterfly as it passes by, or root for a dragonfly helicoptering in on a bug, but for most people that’s about the extent of it:  live or let die.

On the creek we’re outnumbered by nature’s life.  A deer will stand ten feet away, and if we’re quiet, eyeball us from time to time, while pulling at some high grass until one of us moves or another deer comes along and chases us away.  We drive by mountain goats on the road.  Sometimes we fish across from moose.  The chipmunks are bold this season, after having been almost invisible last year, and they are on the hunt.  We’ve roosted a couple of out the garbage can when the lid wasn’t on tightly enough.  One ran across Chaco’s lap while reading outside.  Another somehow got in the trailer, ran behind me, and gave us a chase for a minute until the broom encouraged her out the door.   A mother and her brood of baby mice were found in a child’s dollhouse in the shed.  They had moved in.  Another reminder that we’re just visitors here.

And, another reminder about how little we know about the millions of other species of animal life sharing the space with us.  I read an interesting obit in the New York Times several weeks ago about a naturalist named Howard Ensign Evans and a book he had written almost forty years ago called, Life on a Little-Known Planet, so I got the book and crammed it in my bag for a look on the creek.  Wow, did I learn a lot!

Lightning bugs, glowworms, or whatever you might call them are actually beetles.

Flies on short bursts can get close to forty miles per hour.

Having been stung by wasps twice before leaving home in one week, I read the chapter on wasps carefully.  Evans was a wasp expert, so he was partial to them, and he told story after story of parasitic wasps, almost smaller than the eye can see, and how they were ant-slayers or used ants to carry their eggs or virtually fill up some other larva with their eggs.  Or as Evans says,

“…without parasitic wasps and other insects that keep leaf feeders at moderate levels, the course of evolution might have been very different:  whole groups of plants might have become extinct, other poisonous plants might have flourished, and the vast hordes of herbivorous mammals and their predators might have never evolved.  In a sense we owe the miracle of humanity to the wasps.”

Like I said, he’s got a wasp-bias, but he makes a point about how little we know and how much we take for granted.

So I learned more than I’ll likely remember about cockroaches, locusts, and even bedbugs, but the tidbits I’ll retain were worth the read, like the information on coloring and mimicking by various insects.  Some species of butterflies have a white spot or distinctive marking in order to trick birds that might attack them into going for that spot where they can either sustain the injury or give them a bad taste.  Because some butterflies emit chemicals that deter birds from killing them, there are whole species of mimetic butterflies that have developed similar colors and patterns in hopes of fooling birds the same ways.  Sometimes it works.   Sometimes it doesn’t.

There may be a million stories in the naked city, but there are at least that many, if not more, in nature all around us, if we’re willing to look and learn.

Photography, Memory, and Work in Sally Man’s “Hold Still”


Sally Mann

Rock Creek, Montana    Sally Mann is a reasonably well-known photographer with a determined vision of her art, her family, her land, and the South itself, that is enthrallingly captured in a combination memoir, history, and defense in her recent Hold Still. She writes almost poetically in some parts and because and in spite of it all, you can’t help liking her and wishing her Suburban would pull up in front of a house nearby, so you could walk over and say, “hi!” If I were rating it for Amazon, I’d give it five stars.

But, that’s all here and there, when it comes to some of the points she makes that are worth serious thought. One of the more interesting, especially coming from a photographer, are accusations that photographs themselves are destroying and altering memory. She might have been expected to argue that photographs are supplementing memory or even that they are substituting for memory, neither of which would have triggered much thought or debate. Instead at several different points in her book, she approaches photographs, even her own, with an attitude that seems almost openly hostile to the pictures themselves, despite it being her passionate avocation.

Inarguably, she is correct that the photographer choosing to frame a scene in a certain way and using the unmitigated power of selection from their many choices of shots in the same scene and sequence can use the final photograph produced to warp reality in the split second of that moment apart from any other context. In some ways,  her point holds more weight for her photography as art and artifice, than it succeeds as a brief the danger of a photograph supplanting or subverting memory. The disruptive rise of the smartphone, the quality of the pictures, and the ubiquity of photographs has perhaps changed the vernacular of photography and memory more than Mann wants to credit, as immersed as she is in her own vision and art. The proliferation of photographs and the cameras that take them currently are laying their own claims to be seen as facts, reality, and truth, almost making memory and perspective passé. Who cares what the police claim might be their memory, when a cellphone captures the scene of a killing in South Charleston or an athlete’s spin on a beating in an elevator in Baltimore? Photographs are now public, and memories are private, regardless of the distortion.

Mann has a horse in this race. She clearly still feels embattled over the controversy of her art involving pictures of her three young children provoked years ago, giving her a bitter taste of fifteen minutes of fame, while undoubtedly making her career as well. Hold Still has some score settling, but it’s her memoir, her right. She had me convinced about her motivations and practice as an artist until she told a story of one of her daughters objecting to a dress she would wear in public being too revealing despite having appeared nude in Mann’s family pictures, essentially saying she was an actor in the photographs but a person on the stage. For Mann’s argument to work for me, I wanted her children to say the photographs were an expression of their natural selves and spirit, even knowing from Mann’s description the pain and plodding of her staging. As children, they could be pure. Uncomfortably, on reflection, I started to be troubled that as actors, they could be porn. I want to be all for Mann, but I’m troubled now, and perhaps more in loco parentis and not as modern as I would like to claim. There are certainly no pictures of her children as adults, and that absence midst the myriad other photos also speaks volumes. I’ll have to think about this for a good while longer.

On the other hand in Mann’s defense, her feet-on-the-ground view of herself as an artist is rooted in her ability to embrace herself as a worker, and I loved that, and it makes me unabashedly her fan. Hear her on “ordinary art.”

Ordinary art is what I am making. I am a regular person doggedly making ordinary art…”ordinary art” is the art that most of us, those of us not Proust or Mozart, actually make. If Proust-like genius were the prerequisite for art, then statistically speaking very little of it would exist. Art is seldom the result of true genius; rather, it is the product of hard work and skills learned and tenaciously practiced by regular people. In my case, I practice my skills despite repeated failures and self-doubt so profound it can masquerade outwardly as conceit. It’s not heroic in any way. To the contrary, it’s plodding, obdurate effort. I make bad picture after bad picture week after week until relief comes: the good new picture that offers benediction.

There’s hope for us all in our dogged labors. Maybe there’s even art there!

Could Trailer Design Make More of “Less” in Housing?

inside of an airstream

inside of an airstream

Rock Creek, Montana     When discussing the fascinating work done by the Advanced Studio of nine students from the Yale School of Architecture working with noted Italian architect, Pier Vittorio Aureli, on the question of how to squeeze 100,000 units of affordable housing into the overheated, expensive real estate market of San Francisco, I noted what I found to be an appropriate irony that I was reviewing their work while pecking away in an Airstream trailer, my son sleeping silently in another room nearby, so I wanted to flesh out that point.

The paper sent along to me by my comrade, Michael Robinson Cohen, one of the budding architects on the project was entitled, poignantly and astutely, “Is Less Enough.” Many of the proposed projects as well as their historical references harkened to the designs of monastic life, their cells, and cloisters. There were discussions of how to design these units from what they called a “standard” apartment size of 400 square feet to half or one-third the space, between 150 and 200 square feet. There were discussions of SRO, single room occupancy, hotels as a potential model for these new units. In fact, the heart of the overall argument underpinning the entire studio was a new vision of “the room” itself. It would seem to me to make these kinds of housing units or apartments feasible and even desirable in the future, some cross fertilization with the work that is probably less appreciated in addressing exactly these problems has been undertaken by house trailer, marine, and railway architects, who make a living out of making a whole lot more of the “less.”

Being off-the-grid, I can’t access the exact dimensions of the 1978 Airstream Land Yacht where I’m pecking away, but I would reckon the inside room dimensions, wall-to-wall, front-to-back at between 300 and 350 square feet, and likely way closer to 300 than 350. Unlike the Aureli Studio designs, trailers and houseboats, not only have designated areas for sleeping, toilets, and showers, but also kitchens and cooking, which the students’ designs were all putting into the “core” or shared spaces, which might or might not appeal. In a trailer like this one, and there are no doubt huge improvements unknown to me that trailer architects have devised in the last 37 years since the Silver Bullet came off the line in Elkhart, Indiana, there are bunks for two and a fold out couch in the living room for more. I’m not recommending this for permanent family living, but for the onesies and twosies of the urban precariat this is pretty good. One of the marvels of these contained spaces is that there is storage everywhere, largely absent in the designs I saw: under bunks, under couches, above bunks and above couches, along walls, under sinks, around the shower and sink, above the sink, and frankly in every nook and cranny. Making more out of less, remember.

A ceiling on a trailer is hardly 6 ½ feet tall. No housing code would allow less than 8 feet, giving a different concept of a “room,” even more space. Many of the designs seem to have foldout Murphy-type beds, which is nice, or bed lofts, taking advantage of more height in the room, which would seem like a gift for design as well. An Airstream has a rounded top, rather than a rectangular surface, meaning more usable cubic space for the taking in these proposed new units.

I don’t want to beat the point to a pulp, but perhaps the way to look at future use is not only some cooperative space for larger social utilization, laundry, and the like, but to imagine a unit design as less monastic and more on the order of self-contained. Low-and-moderate income families in large parts of the USA have already established that they will buy trailers, because they are affordable, and they will live in them, not as transients, but as permanent housing.

When architects talk about embracing the vernacular, when it comes to getting more out of less and making people line up and be happy getting it, it might be worth learning from these humble dwellings.


Inside of an airstream

Inside of an airstream