Family Moab

Family Moab
In Arches National Park

Saturday, August 29, 2020

The Name (Blame) Game

My siblings took great joy in sending me texts about Hurricane Laura as the storm grew to monstrous proportions and then sent southern states like Louisiana to the hurt locker. My brother John, in particular, sent sympathetic messages to my husband (copying everyone) saying that Rob knew what the wrath of this particular hurricane felt like.  I was actually more relieved than usual when the storm caused less damage, a lower storm surge and a smaller death toll than was predicted. I don't know how Katrinas feel these days but it can't be pleasant to have your name tied to a horrific, record-breaking tragedy.  

Which brings me to our family angst over the "Karen" memes because - you guessed it - my younger sister's name is Karen. Our brother James loves to tease her with the latest accusations hurled at Karens, while purporting horror at the damage done to her name. My sister takes it all with a grain of salt, but again, it's not really cool to tie such a burden to the names of innocents.

Next on the list of names to be abused is the nickname of my beloved mother, who has thirteen grandchildren to her name - that's right, tropical storm Nana could be making it's way to a coastal area near you. As my mother said, "What are we coming to?" when forecasters could bestow a grandmotherly moniker on a potentially wrathful storm.

I don't know what we're coming to, but I wish I had the strength of a benevolent hurricane and could flatten obstacles in my path. I was strangely, oddly relieved when Marco was the storm to falter and fall apart while Laura was the storm to gain strength - I didn't want any people to suffer because of my namesake but I envied her power (which I would use for good, of course).  I would blow the coronavirus into space, clear out air pollution from the Western wildfires, dampen the fires themselves, and at least temporarily restore some cool temperatures to the states burning up in the dog days of summer.

We all look to the powerful people and movements that are attached to our names and sometimes wish we shared that power. That we could attach only good affect and energy to ourselves and separate ourselves from the bad. But that's not true in real life or in fantasy, and we'll try to accept both good and bad with self-deprecating charm and a little humor. And for now we'll just keep a weather eye on Nana.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

A Different Shared Reality

 "Shared reality is the experience of having in common with others inner states about the world. Inner states include the perceived relevance of something, as well as feelings, beliefs, or evaluations of something. The experience of having such inner states in common with others fosters the perceived truth of those inner states. Humans are profoundly motivated to create shared realities with others, and in doing so they fulfill their needs to have valid beliefs about the world and to connect with others."

- "Shared Reality: Construct and Mechanisms" Current Opinion in Psychology vol 23 October 2018 Elsevier

"One of the biggest lessons I've learned covering the daily information wars of the Trump era is that a meaningful percentage of Americans live in an alternate reality powered by a completely separate universe of news and information."

- Charlie Warzel, "Welcome to the R.N. C.'s Alternate Universe" August 27, 2020, New York Times

It's no surprise that we have a scientific theory about shared reality, or that the study of shared reality theory has heated up over the past decade. If you watched footage from the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention, you can see that the two parties and their followers are not inhabiting the same reality. Each group clings to their interpretation of facts - or even different subsets of facts - and creates shared interpretations and beliefs while diverging more and more from the reality of the other group.

For example, let's look at just a few diverging messages from the conventions:

DNC - President Trump has failed the American people with a disastrous coronavirus response and many thousands more will die because of his continued ineffective policies.

RNC - President Trump triumphed over the coronavirus and now the pandemic is in our rearview mirror.


DNC - Trump's racist and sexist policies denigrate millions of Americans and are eroding the constitutional rights of women, dark-skinned people, LGBTQ communities and others.

RNC - Trump loves women and all dark-skinned people and can demonstrate this love by having members of diverse groups speak at his convention.


DNC - Police departments need better training and hiring practices and more money should flow to social services than to policing.

RNC - The radical left wants to completely defund the police and allow minorities to bring anarchy to the suburbs.


Take as a given that I am biased toward facts used by the DNC, the evidence supports only those claims.  There are no facts (based on my daily reading of five different newspapers) that support any of the RNC's conclusions.  But sadly, that does not detract from the reality shared by people watching the RNC. They share their reality with other viewers of FOX News and proponents of conspiracy theories on social media. Warzel, from the NYT article, called this group a "meaningful percentage" of our population.

The realization that our country is split into different human tribes, making sense of the world in different shared realities, makes my stomach ache. The divide seems large when you realize that the person next to you sees what you see but interprets it in radically different ways. I can't bear to watch the RNC as it hurts me to see what I consider to be lies propagated on innocent people. For me, misinformation and misinterpretation of facts threatens not only my family and my country but our entire planet.  I don't know what to do about this, except to try my best to defeat Trump in the coming election.  Even if we start with that propitious beginning, our work to unite the country will have just begun.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

So Hope for a Great Sea-Change

 "History says

Don't hope on this side of the grave

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up

And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change

On the far side of revenge.

Believe that further shore

Is reachable from here.

Believe in miracle

And cures and healing wells."

- Seamus Heaney, "The Cure at Troy"

When I was a junior at Harvard, Seamus Heaney was my poetry professor. I had no idea then how influential Heaney was as a poet and how his far-reaching verses would echo through the years in the words of world leaders. Their emergence in Joe Biden's acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, as Biden finally accepted his party's nomination for president, took my breath away. The verse "and hope and history rhyme" put my own earlier words about escape plans to shame and prompted me to quickly re-evaluate both my current attitude and my prospective actions.

The seeds of a solution have been planted in the soil of America's discontent, and we pray for a light to penetrate the darkness even as we must be the hands that water and cultivate the soil. I signed up to write get-out-the-vote (GOTV) letters to voters in a swing state.  Urging the recipients only to vote and not whom to vote for, the stack of letters is piling up on the side of my desk, waiting until late October when I'm due to send them out.  

I've emailed the US Postal Service Board of Governors several times to demand a repeal of the removal of mailboxes and sorting machines, reached out to my congressional representatives to ensure a fair vote. We have donated to campaigns both national and local, pledged to write personal postcards to swing voters in Colorado. I will help people get to drop boxes at the November election, help at the polls if necessary, and continue writing letters to voters. 

The United States moves now like a heavily-freighted cargo ship through stormy seas. The ponderous forward motion belies a hefty momentum that will make it hard - but not impossible - for us to change course. Some of the containers we carry hold weighty mass like pride, grievances, anger, blame. We may have to off-load some of this cargo before we can slowly begin to turn our massive ship and avoid the obstacles that now line our path.

I owe a debt of thanks to Biden and Seamus Heaney for plugging me into a hopeful energy that will be necessary in the coming months. While I was too late to understand the greatness of my poetry professor in time to relish his physical presence, I won't be late to recognize the precious - and precarious - nature of our democracy and my role in preserving it.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Escape Plans

 "My fortune told me I'm on the wrong road

"Well life's a game, yeah I need the cheat codes

And I hate the snow

But I think I'll dye my hair and I'll move to Alaska.

Last couple of months kinda been a disaster

Tell all my friends I'm asleep if they ask ya

Sorry I had to move to Alaska."

- From lyrics to "Alaska" by Little Hurt

It's been faintly apocalyptic out here in Colorado over the past week in a state besieged by fires and the resulting smoky haze which renders sunrises and sunsets spectacular but prohibits comfortable outdoor breathing. Worries over the safety of firefighters and displaced people leads to worries about the coronavirus in crowded shelters. California has over 300 fires burning and I read their authorities have asked the entire population of the state to be ready to evacuate. The entire state? Where would they go?

Everywhere I look people are designing escape plans for themselves and their families. We made one with our college sophomore daughter, whose backup plan is our basement. She's now moved into her apartment in Boulder, meeting with friends and trying to navigate an impossible line between being social and being safe. She got her two free masks from CU and is planning a meeting with her two roommates to discuss their rules around visitors.

Can you hang out in a friend's open garage without a mask and still be allowed in your boyfriend's rental house the next day? How many unmasked friends do you allow in your own apartment? Somewhere between zero and five people, perhaps? If the answer is none, it's a lonely existence in the heat of summer or the cold of winter. But fear creeps in. CU Boulder has already had 11 positive tests for COVID-19 among the first-years moving in. Colorado College, down the road in Colorado Springs, has had to quarantine 155 young people due to the erratic actions of one individual who tested positive and exposed most of the dorm. It's been over 93 degrees here for ten days and next week holds more of the same; not a fun time to be quarantined in an apartment or dorm without air conditioning.

I heard Little Hurt's song, "Alaska," on the radio this week and grabbed on to it for a hot minute, formulating my own escape plan. "Yes," I thought, "let's move to Alaska."  Previously I had my hopes set on New Zealand, but they don't want us and are now fighting a new outbreak of the virus, so perhaps Alaska instead?  Shortly after fixing on my new and entirely unrealistic design (I have seasonal affectedness disorder and could never stand the dark of an Alaskan winter), I heard that our current administration plans to drill in the Arctic. There goes another paradise.

It didn't help my mood that William hung out with friends last Friday and found out the next day that one of his buddies had a 103-degree temperature. The friend's fever and aches lasted all weekend and while we waited for the results of his COVID test William quarantined to his room over the garage. It's a big room, so not a bad escape, except that it doesn't have its own bathroom. We got to see William only briefly as he stealth "shopped" in the kitchen with a mask on or dined with us on the porch at a healthy distance.  Thank goodness the test came back negative, and William got to go to his first day of senior year, but the worry takes a toll.

And yet, a few moments of joy highlighted the week. Daniel's first day of freshman year went smoothly, and he's already completed his algebra homework for the week. William got to swim in a small competition last night and did well - and I got called in as a volunteer so I watched him swim his 100 fly and 200 IM - a joy for me. The speeches at the Democratic Convention have been good, though sobering, and I finally have time to write some letters to get out the vote. I am grasping at one thread after another these days, feeling my way forward by the Braille of hope, moving not toward Alaska or New Zealand but to some future where we won't all need an escape plan.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Restoring Life Force in the Mountains

 "Now I'm thinkin' about her everyday,

On my mind atypical way

Are you a life force?

Thinking about her everyday

On my mind atypical way

Are you a life force?"

-Lyrics to "By & By" by Caamp

We had a wild few days in the Colorado mountains.. Between Friday and Sunday we camped with five families up at Burning Bear campground, sleeping, hiking and dining at 9600 feet. Lying in our tent in the early morning I could see the pine trees energetically thrusting their way skyward, reaching toward the blue heights remarkably unmarred by clouds. Chipmunks and squirrels chirped and scolded us throughout the day as they plotted to dive into our bread bags and garbage. The warm sunshine baked pine needles and released that irresistible scent which always moves me to go into the woods.

Evenings rendered spectacular starlit skies and low temperatures. Twenty or so people sat around the campfire, tended by one of our Eagle Scouts, and hung their heads back over the edge of camp chairs, looking for shooting stars and marveling at the Milky Way. As the mercury dropped, we lost a little of our social distance, edging our chairs ever-closer to the warmth of the fire and putting out embers that shot high and landed on our fleeces or long pants.  Old camping memories were re-told and new memories shaped in games of twilight corn hole and flashlight tag high up on the dark rocks of the mountain.

On Tuesday, having barely unpacked the car and restocked our hiking gear, Aden, William, Sean and I rose at 3:15am and drove back up past Burning Bear to the Mosquito Range, where we climbed four linked mountain peaks over 14,000 feet. We hit the top of Democrat as the sun rose, casting a bright light on rock surfaces and warming our bones a little in the 40 degree temps. We left that summit before 8am and pushed on to the next three, Cameron, Lincoln and Bross.  Finished with our top of the world roaming, we started descending on the sliding, shifting terrain of Bross by 10:15am. 

Our descent was highlighted by the appearance of two jet fighter planes which swung in a loop over Democrat, higher than the peak but so near to us that I crouched down and held onto the rocks where I stood to watch safely. The boom of the sound barrier's breaking roared immensely large in the open space we occupied, and we cast our eyes for miles in all directions, thrilling to the immensity and beauty of the Colorado mountains. 

Headlines and horror stories were far below us, covered by forest fire haze or just erased by the magic of mountains, the beauty of space mostly untouched by humanity.  I say mostly because Coloradans are a hardy bunch and even at 5:45 am there were many cars parked on the rutted dirt road at the base of the trail, and a steady supply of hikers mounted the rocks behind us as we hiked. William even ran into two former CCHS swim teammates as we all rested in the saddle below Democrat.

When I heard the song "By & By" on the radio yesterday, the line "are you a life force?" resonated with me, especially strong in the aftermath of our Rocky Mountain adventures. There's an aphrodisiac associated with physical effort and open spaces, the removal of technology and the presence of good friends. Being close to the life force present in mountains, trees, running water and social bonds - all so necessary now to fight back against the depression and exhaustion that goes with the ongoing pandemic - has fueled my tanks and buoyed my hope. Now we're ready for whatever new adventure comes our way.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Back on Campus

As August creeps along it feels more and more like living in a fan fiction rewrite of the movie Contagion. Anxiety builds and people focus on long-shot hopes of a vaccine even as children and teachers are sent back to school without one.  COVID-19 stats are positive enough in our county that my boys will go back to school two days a week starting August 17. I trust the superintendent's numbers and admire the thinking the district has done around safety measures and logistics, but I'm deeply worried. It's hard to know where to put my trust: in my children's behavior? face masks and improved air vents? God?

My youngest son is going to be a freshman. We haven't taken him to school to show him around the campus - we won't even have his schedule until August 12 so will have to wait until then to locate his classrooms. How will he meet people when everyone is wearing a mask? You can't see anyone smile under a mask, though I am all in favor of his wearing one 24/7. During his two days on campus he will have to negotiate lunch and his "off" periods (today's equivalent of study hall), and we are waiting for further instructions on how he should manage those. Choir is one of his electives, but we understand that they can't do choir this year, so what will replace it?

My senior wrestles with the idea of getting back into a schedule, managing deadlines and beginning his college applications. Hardly anything seems real; he even asked me if he should be stressed out or if he should just continue to go with the flow. Not knowing how to feel strikes me as perfectly normal, but from what I recall from my own senior year and from his older sister's, he should definitely be a little more stressed. Not that I want to add any pressure to his already strained life, but you still have to meet deadlines and apply to college on time.

In the face of the 2020 back to school quagmire, we are going camping this weekend. Higher altitude, lower temps, space and distance will all be required to calm our frayed nerves. Hopefully some campfires and toasted marshmallows will soothe our souls and put us in the adventurous mindset we'll need to get back on campus.