Cookes Peak Hike(Not to be confused with Cox)

                Cookes Peak stands out in southern New Mexico. It has a bare rock peak shaped like a tiger shark tooth. I was surprised when I saw that the hike was listed as moderate in most of my guides. Still, with the distance given as nine miles, I thought it was something that needed to wait until my son was a lot older and we were experienced with overnight camping. But after we tackled Cox Peak in April, I realized that he had become a strong hiker. So, I revisited the idea and found that the actual hike to the peak is several miles shorter if you have four-wheel-drive, which I have.

                This time the drive was much easier, or at least the initial approach was. We drove out I-10 west and got off at Deming. A sound like a minor artillery barrage on my windshield made me think it was hailing until a quick glance at the sky revealed zero cloud cover. Grasshoppers were exploding like little bloody firecrackers as we drove into what must have been a swarm. I hope I spared some village from being eaten alive.

                The turnoff for the trailhead was across 26 from a derelict pile of farm equipment that must have been used as a Breaking Bad location. In other words, it was a perfect site for making New Mexico look depopulated and borderline post-apocalyptic. There were two miles of reasonable gravel road before All Trails suggested that I pull over and walk. Instead, we pushed on through a series of rolling dips into dried out creek beds. I watched as the tenths of miles ticked off, doubling each one and subtracting from how far we would have to walk. I know hiking is the whole point of these adventures, but I don’t relish the trudge along a dirt road to get to the good part. Before I knew it, we had cut the hike down to a completely manageable five miles.

                I missed the trailhead on the first pass and had to double back. The “trail” here was a rocky rut. With a jeep it still might have been passable, but I thought we had done well enough and could walk it. As we were unloading and strapping on camel packs, a rickety VW bus came the other way, jouncing its aging hippie drivers as they came down from somewhere farther into the outback. I couldn’t imagine how they were making it, and that gave me a boost of confidence about my own wisdom in driving this far.

                It was hot but manageable as we trudged along the rocky ravine. Cookes Peak still towered over us in intimidating fashion. I always have trouble judging mountains from below, but it looked like there was no way we could climb it in one day. Still, the pedometer doesn’t lie. We were two and a half miles from the summit, so we went for it. Spring flowers dotted the sides of the trail which clung to the north rim of what began to grow into a fairly deep canyon. It narrowed, and the trail began to have trouble making up its mind which rim it should follow. We splashed across pools and carefully leapt over mossy, flat boulders of granite. These crossings were fun, but we did get a little wet.

                On one particularly steep portion of the ravine, both my son and I heard a scrambling through the rocks on the opposite rim and just caught the flash of a striped, furry tail as a ringtail scurried away from us. We watched for a while hoping he would come back out, but there must have been a hole dug into the bushes where he disappeared. That’s certainly the first time I’ve seen a ringtail, and it was exciting.

                Further on, despite my care in watching out for snakes on point, my son let out a yelp as a gopher snake slithered out in front of him. It took me a second to make sure it wasn’t a rattler. He let out a little hiss to make it harder to tell and I think that’s defensive mimicry. The snake was aggressive, moving quickly right at me when I came back to help my son get by without hurting it. Sometimes the smallest creatures show a bravery that’s breathtaking. I can’t imagine a creature that would outweigh me to that extent that I outweigh a small gopher snake, but if it existed, I sure as hell wouldn’t run at it. (Actually, I just did the math and that would be about 18 tons. So, bigger than any living land animal, bigger than a T-Rex, and somewhere around the size of a modest sauropod. Yeah, I don’t think charging would be my first response if I met one.)

                We gave the gopher snake a wide berth and continued on. With less than a mile to the peak according to our steps, the trail finally began to switchback, climbing up and to the south of the summit. The elevation was deceptively low, and as we climbed the flatter eastern ridges, the trail was still was flanked by thick stands of juniper and mesquite. We never did see the trees transition to pine. Instead, the vegetation gave out completely for the last quarter mile of the approach. We wound around the first outcrop of bare rock and saw the dramatic rise of the shark tooth-shaped peak from up close. It reminded me somehow of the Scottish Highlands, just a stark tower of granite jutting like the spines on a Stegosaurus.

                The last hundred feet were a true climb, nothing difficult, but needing the use of hands and feet to move upward. I hung close to my son as he went and I was impressed when he managed the whole thing on his own. The top of the mountain was all bare rock, not because we were anywhere near the timberline, but because of what I think must be severe winds. The peak stands out as the tallest thing for a hundred miles in either direction. In fact, we saw a few straggling monarch butterflies. I don’t know if this is true, but I imagine them choosing Cookes as a landmark as they fly south.

                We found a hiking log in a pile of broken rocks and signed it with our usual note about hiking in the time of Covid. My favorite things on the mountain top though were two plaques left by the United States Geological Survey. They dated back to the thirties and listed an address in DC where we could write with questions. Just the mention of Washington made my nostalgic and a bit homesick. I thought of the Smithsonian and Nationals Park sitting empty. The plaques were worn, but still clearly legible after nearly a century. I imagined someone placing them like a time capsule and someone else climbing up here in the twenty-third century and finding them looking not much different. Will that person call themselves an American?

We poked around the summit for a few minutes, pounded some Snickers, sucked down half our water, and then started back down. We had a few hours left before sundown, but I had to think about the drive too. I didn’t want to negotiate those arroyos in the dark. We didn’t have any trouble though. Aside from the first climbing bit, which we did have to take carefully, the trail was much easier on the way down. That sounds obvious, but if a trail is too steep, I find that going down is just as hard on the knees as going up is on the quads. This was the perfect grade to make the return trip an unequivocal joy. We made it back to the car in just over an hour. Overall, I would highly recommend Cookes Peak. The views up top are well worth the effort, and if you don’t have high clearance, just leave yourself an extra two hours to hike the jeep road approach. Go for it!

Cox Peak April, 2020

                The idea for the expedition began with a family trip out into the desert to climb around Kilbourne Hole. I’d visited Kilbourne before, and this time we decided to do as the Romans do and bring a gun (bb that is) to shoot at targets on the crater rim. We did a little scrambling into the maar, followed animal tracks, and plinked at the remains of bottles left by other visitors (I would never bring my own garbage to litter such a cool site, but what’s the harm of using what others have left).

                I always get lost driving through this part of the desert. We have a recreational atlas, but it’s hard to tell which little red lines are roads, which are arroyos, and even if I can follow the road, it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint where I am. Lots of wrong turns and backtracks are unavoidable. Landmarks aren’t super helpful. On this trip, I drove around much of the rim of Hunts Hole before realizing that it wasn’t Kilbourne. Like I said, I’ve been there before, but one maar looks pretty much the same as the next.

                It was getting close to dusk as we headed home. I decided to take the shorter route to state road 9, the paved road that follows the Mexican border between Columbus and Sunland Park. That was when I noticed the three volcanic mounts that form a weird signpost between the East and West Potrillo Mountains. They really stand out in contrast to the flat landscape around. The two smaller mountains are Mount Riley and the prosaically named Point 5872. I feel bad for 5872 and would like to volunteer to name it after myself. The tallest of the trio is Cox Peak at 5936. As we drove between the north ridge of the East Potrillos and the three volcanoes, my son and I took one look and decided we would be back.

                We’re on lockdown, so we don’t have a whole lot of structure in our schedule. That left us able to come back just a bit more than a week later. I’m not good at leaving early for hikes, so we didn’t even leave the house until after noon. Sticking to the paved roads, we still took more than an hour to get to route 9. I had planned to follow our exact route from the earlier trip, but instead I thought it might be fun to get a good look at the East Potrillo mountains. So, we took a county road that follows their eastern slope. Aside from a few jeep trails that die at the foot of the ridge- probably remains of mining operations of varying degrees of success- there seemed to be no human presence at all in the mountains. On a whim, we took one of the trails and found just what I had expected, a pile of scree and a scar from some extraction. When we tried to explore a bit, we were immediately covered in aggressive flies and retreated quickly. I hoped the hike to Cox Peak would be more pleasant.

                Hopping back in the truck, we swung back through the mountain gap, then followed a packed earth road clockwise around the volcano base. I took a few wrong turns trying to find the trailhead. All I had was an odometer reading, and with our unplanned diversion to the Potrillos, I was left guessing. Both turns led to a place where it looked possible (just) to climb the mountain, but I kept going. The road we wanted led into the basin between the three mountains. It looked like the setting for an unimaginative painting of the Mesozoic.

We parked at the end of a bumpy track. The only way I could see where the “road” ended there was that other people had left circles of stones from old campfires. There was also a slightly higher concentration of spent shell casings. Looking up the slopes of Cox I could see no obvious way to climb up. I would have paid better attention to my topographical map, but there was absolutely no cell service, so we were on our own. I had googled the mountain and found another hiker’s description of climbing Cox. He talked about following a scree trail up the slope. As we hiked over the rolling foothills, we could see tongues of broken rock dipping down from the peak like lava in a child’s drawing, so we chose one and followed it upward. It was rough going. The rocks shifted treacherously under our feet, with a sound like stacking dinner plates. They were at least three or four deep, leaving caverns under our feet that seemed like perfect hiding places for snakes. I just had to tell myself that any rattlers napping in the rocks would be happy to let me pass over them peacefully and hope that was true. Aside from fence and tree lizards, we saw no living creatures as we climbed.

                Three quarters of the way up the slope, the climb got even steeper. I began to slip from time to time. I felt a bit woozy, either from a bit of fatigue, the altitude gain, or maybe from the sharp grade playing hell with my equilibrium. We slowed down a lot. I should mention at this point how impressed I was with my son’s performance. He followed behind me, moving only slightly slower than I was. I was impressed. At nine, if he’s keeping up with me, it won’t be many years before he’s the one leading the way.

                But today, I was the first to reach an outcropping of rocks that we had seen from the base. I climbed up to a flat, comfortable resting spot and watched him make his laborious way up after me. I ate a Snickers bar, nibbled on homemade trail mix, and wished I was a bit higher up. From the north side of the slope, I couldn’t quite see over the two mountains to the north. Our views would have to wait. When my son caught up, we hung out a bit longer. The late start had me watching the time carefully, but I figured as long we started heading down by 5:30, there would be plenty of time before sunset. I really don’t like being out in the desert after dark, especially off-trail.

After getting our breath, we made the final push to the summit, which turned out not to be the actual highest point of the mountain. So, we trudged along the ridge, following piles of deer scat and came to a large rock cairn with a metal pole sticking out like a flagpole. Inside the cairn we found a climbers’ log in a protective glass jar. I fished it out and took the helpfully provided pencil to write our names along with a comment about how the coronavirus couldn’t get us up here. Hardy har, I know, but I was tired.

                From the true summit, we really could see everywhere. To the west we could pick out both the Big and Little Florida Mountains. They’re still a bit of a mystery to me, but I know they have introduced Ibex climbing in their heights, so I plan to hike there sometime soon. Between us and the Floridas is the north south oriented field of the West Potrillo Mountains. Mountains are a bit of a misnomer for that range. Especially from high up, they look more like a scattered field of modest cinder cones. As far as I know, they are an active area of volcanic activity. We could conceivably have a lava bursting forth from the earth less than fifty miles from Las Cruces at any time. As far as I can tell, that would mostly be cool, not dangerous. Of course, if the magma beneath our feet boiled enough groundwater to create another maar like Kilbourne, that would be a lot more exciting.

                South of us, we could see far into Mexico, but I haven’t learned that landscape yet aside from being able to pick out the aptly named Tres Hermanas mountains south of Columbus. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of picking our way down the same broken slope we had just climbed, so I decided to get creative. From the summit, I could make out that the mountain had a much more gently sloping ridge down and to the west, so we walked that way. The way was still unfriendly to my middle-aged knees, but we had an easier time of it. I zigzagged down the talus and only had a few slips along the way. At one point, I took a little video of my climb and of course that was when I had my most dramatic stumble. I got a hilarious movie from the perspective of my phone as it tumbled down the rocks and into a hole. Otherwise, it wasn’t long before we were working our way across the gentle grade of the open desert. Of course, that was when the one blemish on our successful mission happened. My son had fallen behind me, and he suddenly became very distressed when he realized he had left his camera somewhere. The sun was headed down, time was short, and we weren’t following a trail. So, I had no idea where to start looking for it. I had to make a hard decision to leave it and that was hard on him. I felt like a terrible dad, but the fact is that he might as well have dropped it into the ocean. I’ve heard stories about people finding things like rifles just sitting against a tree a hundred years after someone misplaced them in the desert. It was crappy, but we had to leave it. Overall, it was a successful adventure, but it was unpleasant to leave it on such a note. Not only did the camera cost a little bit of money, but there were pictures of my recently deceased mother on it. I hated to leave the day on a down note, but there it was.

Does anyone else love the End Times?

I used to think that an obsession with post-apocalyptic and disaster fiction was weird. I thought it was a niche, slightly dirty fascination, something that should never be a topic of conversation among decent company. It was a bit like how I felt about liking Star Wars so much. I thought it was just me. Now every other dad I see at Cub Scouts is wearing a Rebel Alliance insignia on his tee shirt. Where were those guys in seventh grade?

                My first introduction to the genre was actually a bizarre relic, a coloring book from the 1979 movie Meteor. I don’t know where I came by such a strange thing, but it may have been a yard sale. The idea of the world being destroyed by meteors appealed to me, not in a nihilistic way, but just the idea that such a terrible thing could happen. I had a nascent death instinct I suppose. It didn’t hurt that one of the locations in the movie was clearly the DC metro, with its honeycomb concrete blocks prominently featured in one of the film stills in the coloring book. Come to think of it, I’ve never seen Meteor, and I think I’ll leave it that way. It was right in the midst of Sean Connery’s bizarre sci-fi phase along with Zardoz and Highlander. There were other hints of the apocalyptic in my childhood. Thundarr the Barbarian took place in a ruined world far into the future and I loved it, especially the opening sequence that showed the end times.

I really hit my stride with a slew of eighties nuclear holocaust movies. My parents let me see The Day After on primetime TV in 1983. Yeah, if you know I was born in 1977 you can do the math. I was six. It was terrifying and upsetting, but I was hooked. I can still picture the image of John Lithgow and friends watching the missiles take off from a football game. Somehow, I also managed to watch an airing of Threads, another nuclear war movie, similar in almost every way except that it takes place in the United Kingdom. I don’t remember which of the movies I watched first, but the impact was huge. Famously, Ronald Reagan was heavily moved by The Day After too. Apparently, it took a movie to get our Hollywood president to understand the threat and start working on disarmament. That seems a bit silly, but I’ve also heard that John F Kennedy’s forceful response to the Cuban Missile Crisis was heavily influenced by his recent reading of Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August. These are human beings. It’s scary to think how they can be nudged so randomly, but it’s reality.

                I saw Wargames and loved it. It dealt with the threat of nuclear war in a serious, but ultimately much cheerier way. I think my passion for these movies was rooted in the same impulse that makes people watch slasher movies, or supernatural thrillers like The Exorcist. I had no interest in those. When I was a young child, the jump scares, blood, and general terror were too much for me in those movies. Then when I got older, I found I had no capacity to be afraid of the supernatural. I didn’t believe in it at all, and what’s scary about that? What I did like was things like Jaws, which took a perfectly natural threat and made it terrifyingly real. Are great white sharks likely to hunt and kill large numbers of people? Of course not. But are they really out there? Yes, unlike the devil and Captain Howdy, yes, they are.

                Alien invasions may not be likely, but they do fit into a rational world view. I saw the fifties version of War of the Worlds, read the H.G. Wells book, and devoured the entire White Mountains series by John Christopher the instant I discovered the books. I can still smell or almost taste the vinyl of school bus seats when I picture those books, read over the course of a week in fifth grade. Having my fear button pushed must have been part of the fascination, but I think I just liked to imagine the effects on terrible events on my world. There was always a part of me yearning to actually see the tornado when we did drills in elementary school.

                In my pre-teen years, I started catching late night showings of Red Dawn and I was hooked there too. One of my friends, who shall remain nameless, criticized the film because he couldn’t see why if the Russians invaded we would only resist with one helicopter. What movie was that guy watching? There was a whole scenario fleshed out in the movie, with the cities that got hit with nukes, the map of the battle lines, and which allies the United States had in World War III described in detail. The deliciously tantalizing, nightmare scenario was exactly the kind of horror movie that appealed to me. And here we come to another thing about horror rooted in reality. I began thinking about my own plan for what I would do in such a scenario. My best friend and I had an idiotic scheme to hide out in the thick woods between the 495 cloverleaf and launch raids on Soviet troops. Many of these disaster porn movies lead a mind to the same question, what would I do?

                It wasn’t all so rational though. I repeatedly poured over the opening pages of the sourcebooks for roleplaying games like Shadowrun, Rifts, and After the Bomb. Palladium’s After the Bomb dealt with viruses run amok, nuclear war, and genetic mutation, which are at least science-adjacent concepts, so they fit my theory of being fascinated with horrific things rooted in science. But Shadowrun involved the reappearance of magic, dragons, elves and trolls. Rifts involved the tearing open of trans-dimensional space and the infestation of earth by a million different kinds of alien being. Neither is grounded in anything like reality. When I think about it deeper though, what I loved about those books was the aspects of their settings that dealt with the ramifications of catastrophe. How many people would die? What cities would survive? How would the political map of the world change? Yes, the cause of apocalypse was silly, but the authors had put some thought into the effects of their silliness. The question that most fascinated me after “what would I do” was simply “what would happen?”

                When I grew up, it began to dawn on me that I wasn’t the only one who loved post-apocalyptic scenarios. I loved Stephen King’s novel The Stand and was surprised to learn that according to him it was the most popular of his novels for fans. I started talking to more people who shared my weird obsession. It was a bit like learning that everyone had really liked Judge Reinhold. Anyone? It was really obvious by the time Walking Dead became such a huge hit. I think when other properties try to market the idea of zombies, they are totally missing the point. It’s the apocalypse that transfixes viewers, not the stupid monsters.

                This post started out as a lead-in to writing about living through a minor apocalypse we’re seeing now in 2020, and the reading I’m doing in response, but I think I’ll let that grow into a second article to post later this week. For now, I’ll let it suffice to write about how strange it is to learn that I’m not the only one. But isn’t that what this era is about in a lot of ways? I may be part of a larger phenomenon, and it feels like it, but maybe I can just find other weirdos because we’re all so connected. Anyway, I have to go, that Judge Reinhold message board isn’t going to post on itself.

A Proposal for Modest Revolution: A Proportional Electoral College

                The electoral college is an unpopular beast. After the 2016 election I had moments of frustration, wondering why we give such disproportionate voting influence to the worst among us. But the problems with the system are not that it helps one party win. Obviously only one half of the partisan divide would think that is a problem. The simplistic objection is that the electoral college produces a different result than the popular vote. That objection ignores the fact that no one ever said it was supposed to match the results of the popular vote. We don’t elect our presidents directly, we never have elected our presidents directly, and the founding fathers didn’t want us to.

                It is precisely the point of our federal system that we don’t just put things up to a popular vote. Particularly, the bicameral system of our legislative branch was created to make a compromise between the powerful, populous states, and the smaller ones. The fact that each state, per the compromise struck between the Virginia and New Jersey plans, gets two senators no matter its size, means that mathematically, the inhabitants of those states get more per capita power in government.

                That is no accident. It is a conscious feature of a system where sovereignty derives from the states. It is also designed to prevent presidential candidates from ignoring the populations of those smaller states. This is the motive for the electoral college. It has become fashionable to blame the motives of southern slaveholders for the system. The argument derives from the fact that southerners gained voting power by the apportionment system that multiplied the slave population by 3/5 when determining the population of states. In 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery, leaving this as an historical footnote. The argument seems to be aimed at creating guilt by association despite the lack of any logical connection between the two ideas. It is the kind of argument that only helps when one is preaching to the choir.

                Similarly, the mention (I won’t dignify it by calling it an argument) of the 1876 election brings no logical argument against the electoral college. An electoral tie was only broken when Rutherford B. Hayes agreed to remove federal troops from the south. This was a terrible result and it doomed the promise of Reconstruction to miserable failure, but it has no connection to the electoral college. It speaks of dreadful corruption in the latter years of the nineteenth century, and of the moral cowardice of the Republicans, but only damns the college by association. Only someone who hasn’t been paying close attention or is already convinced would agree that this bolsters arguments against the electoral college.

                So how does the college work? Each state gets a number of electoral votes that equals its number of congressmen. Basically, we hold a general election in the state and whoever wins that election is given all the votes in the state. The only exceptions to this are Maine and Nebraska. They use a modified system where the general determines who gets the two votes based on the senators. Then an election in each congressional district decides who gets the vote for that district. In theory this should break up the winner take all approach of the other 48 states, but in these two limited cases, the effect is more or less the same.

                The electoral college as it stands is a system where the votes of smaller states count for more than they otherwise would. That was the intent. It is a feature not a bug. Where I see the problem is in an entirely unintended effect. With even the slimmest margin giving all the votes to one candidate, the candidates have no incentive to campaign in states they are guaranteed to win or lose. Conservatives in California, and Liberals in Georgia have no incentive to vote in presidential elections. All of the campaigning is concentrated in a few battleground states. Since these states are all or nothing, and most of the states aren’t significantly in play, candidates focus on getting more turnout in contested states. They tack farther and farther to the extremes of their parties every year. Winner take all systems also discourage third party candidates who have no chance on garnering any electoral votes whatsoever. This is how you get Trump and Sanders. Do you want to get Trump and Sanders?

                So, what could we do to change this short of abandoning the electoral college and relegating the less populated states to irrelevance? Let’s consider two ideas. First, we could have all the states adopt the Maine/Nebraska model. This would produce a situation where even in large, purple states, candidates can earn partial credit for winning in at least some of the congressional districts. The only bonus for winning the overall by a slim margin would be the two votes for the senators.

As an example, let’s see how this would have changed the 2016 election in Florida. The actual result was that 49.0% went for Trump with 47.8% going for Clinton. The winner by 1.2% took all 29 votes for the state. What would happen under the Maine/Nebraska system? Unfortunately, voting results were tallied by counties, not by congressional districts, so I’ll have to use the results in the elections for representatives. I admit that could introduce problems if the personality of the candidate was an issue, but it should indicate how a district leans. There are 27 congressional districts in Florida. 18 of these went red and 11 blue. Thus, using the congressional elections as a proxy, Trump would get 2 for the overall win and 18 for the districts, leaving 11 electors for Clinton. Trump still wins, but the result is a lot more proportional. This already feels a lot fairer, but the problem is that it leaves us in a situation where there is very little incentive to campaign in the middle. Each candidate would be best left to play to a few battleground districts, and we have the same problem on a state scale that we had at the national level. There is also the problem that districts are gerrymandered to often quite unjust results.

Which leaves us with my second idea. What if we took the overall vote, then allocated the electors based on the percentages? Applying the 2016 results, we would now award 14 votes to both Trump and Clinton. Rounding would be necessary, but I can’t see any reason why that shouldn’t be done based on the standard rules we all learned in grade school. We round Trump down from 14.239 to 14 and Clinton up from 13.862 to 14. I also can’t see any reason why we should treat the two senator votes differently, but if a state so chose, they could certainly do so. One major difference in the Florida case would be that Gary Johnson would have garnered one electoral vote. I certainly didn’t think he was a strong candidate, but at least this system could open the door a crack to a candidate from a third party. I can’t see how that could be anything but healthy.

One of the healthiest results though would be to give an incentive for the major party candidates to campaign everywhere. For example, under the system I am proposing, Trump would have picked up 17 of California’s 55 districts. He did this despite the largest margin of defeat since 1936. How would his campaign have changed if he had seen even the possibility of picking up a few more of them? Would he have hammered away about a wall if he seen even a glimmer of catching a few more California voters? This system would have to force candidates to tack toward the middle, toward reasonable policies that appeal to a broad cross section, and away from the lunatic fringes that have become so loud in 2020.

Is it possible to have such a system? Of course. The primaries essentially function this way. A win in a state isn’t absolute. That is where the similarity ends though. The delegates aren’t awarded in the proportional way I propose and the process is more like the Maine/Nebraska system. It seems to produce candidates who skew toward the extremes. Still, the biggest problem for adopting such a system is that the state legislatures decide how to allocate electors. That is laid out directly in Article II of the constitution. So, any sweeping change would either have to be done by appealing directly and individually to the states, which would take forever, or through the amendment process. There are already proposals afoot to pass amendments abolishing the electoral college. Why not get the ball rolling on something that would produce a leveling effect and a widening of democracy instead of allowing the population centers to place a stranglehold on government?

I’m certainly in.

Congaree National Park in Winter: Probably Not a Great Idea.

First off, I want to apologize for not posting for a few weeks. As I mentioned in a few past articles, I was dealing with the last stages of my mother’s cancer. She passed at the beginning of February and I just couldn’t write, both psychologically and because of all the business I had to attend to. I’m back now though and I promise I’m up off the mat for good.

                For several of the early years of my legal career, I rode the circuit across the rural hinterlands of Virginia, hopping from court to court like an up and coming Abraham Lincoln. I had no choice but to resort extensively to Apple Maps to find some of the courthouses, jurisdictions that might have had a thousand people in the whole county. I used to discover strange, relic cabins, fossils of an older America and have the strange recurring thought that there was someone whose whole life was this forgotten corner of the country, yard strewn with plastic riding toys and old cars. Winding my way down the narrow country lanes of South Carolina, being led mysteriously and inscrutably toward Congaree National Park, I was reminded of those days. I also asked myself the old question after each seemingly quixotic turn: how could this possibly be the best way to get anywhere?

                It was raining steadily, and the other question I had to ask myself was whether there was any point in visiting Congaree in the winter, during a heavy rain. The park is no longer called Congaree Swamp; the area is technically a bottomland floodplain, but it’s still low-lying, wet, and untraversable when it floods. This was not an ideal time for a visit.

                We knew better. My son and I listen to Parklandia, a podcast about a couple who travel the country in an RV, trying to visit all the national parks. When I googled what the guys look like, I found a picture of them standing by the entry sign to Congaree National Park. My son and I got a picture at the same place. On a side note, as we were listening a few days ago, he asked me out of the blue whether the guys were brothers. I said no. Then he asked why, if they’re not brothers, do they hang out together all the time. I’m a lawyer, I know when I’m being led. I considered ways of phrasing it. He had gotten upset at the same-sex kiss in Star Wars. I don’t know why. Maybe it just upends his ordering of the world? But I couldn’t think of anything clever, so I just told him, “They’re gay, dude.” He quietly reflected on that. Anyway, the Parklandia guys told us not to go to Congaree in winter, but the fact is that this was the time we had to be there. After my mother’s funeral, my son, myself, and my brother were taking a long road trip back toward New Mexico. I have a lifelong goal of visiting every national park and have to take the opportunities I can get. Who knew when we’d be in South Carolina again?

                So, we arrived at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center in a constant, driving, chill rain. Apart from a departing bus full of kids on a field trip, we were the only ones there. In the center, we learned right off that most of the trails were flooded and inaccessible. Oddly enough, the Congaree River was actually below flood level. It was the smaller Cedar Creek that was inundating the park today. But the boardwalk was still above water, so we were happy to hike that. I love boardwalks. They allow you to move through a forest without disturbing anything, and especially to get close to wetlands, which are full of life. Back in Virginia, my favorite park to visit is Huntley Meadows, which has a several mile-long boardwalk that traverses a floodplain teeming with snakes, waterfowl, beavers, and turtles. Congaree is a very different environment. Huntley Meadows is an open waterway with no tree cover in the wetlands. This forest is completely covered in huge trees. In fact, Congaree has the largest concentration of record-breaking trees (called Champion Trees I learned) in the eastern United States. The highest loblolly pine, sweetgum, cherrybark oak, and lots of others are here. For centuries, it was just too difficult for loggers to get to the timber here because of the wet conditions. By the time the technology was developed to manage the terrain, the Sierra Club was in full force, stepping in to save the forest from destruction.

                What I really wanted to do in Congaree was rent a canoe and explore the forest up close. Unfortunately, the park hasn’t set up anything to allow rentals, so the only option would be to own a canoe, or to somehow rent in Columbia (about 20 miles away) and transport to the park. We didn’t have the time or means to do that, so we were stuck with only the portions of the park covered by trails. I would really like to put out a call for the park service to set up canoe rentals. This could be more manageable for people of modest means, and it’s really the only way to properly see the forest. (Cue the sound of me stepping off my very small soapbox).

                We settled for the trails. Even in the rain, which was heavy enough to obscure my vision as it dripped into my eyes, the forest was beautiful. Little stands of palmetto crept up heroically from the water. I was surprised not to see cypress knees, which are my mental image of a southern swamp. The rain shut down most of the wildlife. A few of the smaller birds braved the weather, as did a surprisingly large concentration of cardinals. The bright red stood out in the bluish grey that dominated the rainy forest. The little birds were active, hopping around the smaller trees. I think they’re less troubled by rain, as they can get protection under leaves. Sadly, we did poorly at identifying them. Aside from a few flashes of yellow, they seemed to be the ubiquitous LBJs (Little Brown Jobs) that I can never differentiate: warblers, creepers, wrens? Who knows?

                Our path came to an end at Weston Lake, which was supposedly the home of an adult alligator. We looked but saw no sign. His Mesozoic brain, more clever than our Cenozoic ones, had him denning up in the rain and cold. At the lake, there were two dead ends. One was a viewing platform at the edge of the clearing. We did spot a few mallards soldiering on in the rain, but nothing else. The other dead end was a continuance of the boardwalk. My son and I splashed on a bit into the forest, hopping over some shallow flooding, but found that the wooden path disappeared underwater. It looked like the unnatural boundary on a video game map. Or maybe we needed to find a magic item that allows underwater breathing, or a crank that opens a sluice gate. I considered equipping Dracula’s Rib then kneeling for thirty seconds, but instead we hurried back to the car. The rain was getting into our poorly waterproofed clothes, and it was getting colder. We’ll be back someday when I level up.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I’ve had an idea in my head for weeks that it would be fun to go see a movie by myself. When I was younger, that would have seemed incredibly depressing. I would have felt like a loser at the movies alone, and I suppose that might have been how it looked. But somehow as you get older, any time you get alone is so precious that it shifts. Going to the movies alone means you get to choose exactly what to watch, and why did I ever care who was with me? You don’t talk to the people you’re with at the movies (if you’re a civilized person that is, I’ve seen it done).

                But my friends have been incredible during this hard time. In the month that I’ve been home helping my mother in her last days, I’ve hardly had a single night go by without heroic efforts and invitations from my crew. So, the movie idea has gone by the wayside. Then, Monday night, I suddenly found myself alone. I decided to go down to the ancient, relic movie theater at University Mall across from George Mason. It’s amazing that it still exists, like a tuatara or a coelacanth clinging to a weird ecological niche after all the larger, more promising venues have gone extinct. I know the theater almost closed a few years back. I even donated a bit to keep it in business, which is not a thing I do. But here we are in 2020 and the theater that looked doomed in 1989 is still there, still holding Rocky Horror Picture Show nights every Saturday. (I’ve never been, which seems like an omission now).

                It’s a second run theater. So, my choices were limited. I had already seen Star Wars, so my first impulse was to see The Joker. A friend of mine counseled me that it might be too intense for someone dealing with the kind of issues of morbidity and fate that I have in my real life. So that left A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the Mr. Rogers movie. I walked out to the car and stopped. It’s only a mile to the movies, and the rain had finally lulled for the first time all day, so I ran to the mall. Now I had combined exercise with eating a bucket of popcorn by myself; virtue and vice in harmony.

                I was the only person in the theater, which isn’t surprising for a 9:40 showing of a second run movie. The movie opens with a sequence where Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks) runs through the usual opening of the show and right there I remembered why I had liked the show. There are a lot of deep psychological and emotional reasons to like Mr. Rogers, but the thing that captured my attention when I was little was the ritual aspect of the show. He walks in the door the same way, puts on his sweater the same way, and changes his shoes the same way every day. Maybe I had a particularly chaotic childhood, but I think all kids like that kind of routine. Life is a confusing babble of unpredictable input for little brains and I think they crave a bit of repetition. Why do you think kids always watch movies so many times?

                There was also something about Mr. Rogers’ routine that reminded me of my grandfather (who I lived with as a small child) coming home from work every day. They even looked a little alike. The movie plays on the expectation of routine by jarring the viewer with a photograph of a man with a black eye and a bloody nose. The photo pops out of a picture board that otherwise has Lady Aberlin and King Friday behind its doors. I could not understand the format of the movie at first. Was this a run through of the show? Was it a standard biopic and the opening would run into a flashback? It was unclear for the first thirty minutes how the story of Lloyd Vogel (played by Matthew Rhys from The Americans) would connect to Mr. Rogers at all. Soon though, it dawned on me that the movie wasn’t really about Mr. Rogers. At least not in the sense of a narrative about his life.

                Instead, the film follows the author who wrote a long form article about Mr. Rogers for Esquire magazine. The real author has been changed for the movie, but it’s closely based on reality. I hadn’t expected that. The movie is based on the effect that Rogers had on Vogel. I had expected something much closer to the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, which I had recently watched. Clearly that piece was a huge influence, emphasizing some of the same points, such as the intertwined, almost surrogate relationship that Rogers had with Daniel Tiger. This film also includes a sequence where Mr. Rogers ask Vogel to take a moment of silence to “remember the people who made you the way you are” that was taken directly from the documentary. In the background of the restaurant where this scene takes place, I recognized a cameo by Joanne Rogers, Fred’s wife, from just having seen her in Neighbor.

So, the filmmakers were influenced by the documentary, but the structure is nothing like I expected. I think the prominence and recency of Neighbor probably played into the choice not to make this a traditional biopic. That would have just been dramatizing and rehashing all the same material. It was a good documentary and the job didn’t need to be done a second time. Instead, the film was like a show within a show. For instance, Lloyd’s job is introduced through a sequence that shows how magazines are made, with actual footage form inside a factory, a scene that seemed like something right from the TV show. That was very meta.

I made a note to myself to look up how much of this story was true, mainly because I found the family aspects of the plot to be a bit maudlin. I was relieved to learn that much of the background matched the movie. You can’t help a story being maudlin if it’s real, right? The author really did have an estranged father (Chris Cooper) who had cancer. Of course, this brings up one of my main problems with choosing this movie. How bad could Joker possible have been? I literally left the house where I’m watching my mother go through the last stages of cancer to watch a movie where the protagonist loses first his mother, and then his father to cancer. Nice night out. I’m going to have a talk with my friend.

I left the movie in an odd mood, which I suppose was predictable. It had started raining again of course, but I decided to walk home instead of running. It was a light rain, the kind quiet enough to fall on leaves with a sound like crumpling paper. I didn’t listen to music or podcasts, and I didn’t hurry. I put my hood up and trudged along with a million thoughts going through my head. Yes, the story of the movie had been a bit sappy, but one line from the end stuck in my head. No one wanted to talk about the father’s death and grew really quiet until Mr. Rogers spoke up. He said no one wants to talk about death, but death is human. Nothing human is unmentionable, and anything that is mentionable is manageable. So, yeah, I’m talking about my mom a bit in this blog even though it’s uncomfortable. I just hope talking about it makes it a bit more manageable.

Pub Quiz Review: Murphy’s Alexandria, VA

Location: Murphy’s Pub on King Street, Old Town Alexandria, Virginia

Regular Time: 8:15 on Tuesdays

Date: 1/28/2020

This was not a new trivia night for me, far from it. I’ve been to Murphy’s about fifty times. It’s the first trivia night I ever went to in the DC area. At one point, my friends and I had a weekly routine of going to Murphy’s every Tuesday night. That was at a very different time in my life. I was recently out of law school. My wife was in residency and I was looking for a job while we lived in my mother’s basement. We only had one child then. So, I know Murphy’s has been doing trivia night for at least ten years. Come to think of it, I was at Murphy’s pub quiz the first time I used a smart phone to look up a baseball score, which seemed like magic. So, what would that have been, 2006? I was looking up the Orioles score so it might have been earlier. In the world of pub quiz, surviving that long is a rarity. These things pop up and wink out like particles in quantum foam.

We had a regular trivia team back then, five of us who showed up every week. Two were a couple who had just started dating. They’re married with a kid, living in Germany now. Number three had a nervous breakdown and left his cushy job to focus on a career playing those weird giant bells that you have to wear Mickey Mouse gloves to ring. Who am I to judge? So, when I decided to make a return to Murphy’s there was only one of the old crew left. I called him up and he was as excited to go back as I was. There were only two of us, but we weren’t in it to win.

I drove down and parked like I was defusing an IED. Each Alexandria signpost has at least four different signs, each of which seems to directly contradict the others. They make the complicated parking in DC seem like an Idiot’s Guide in comparison. I went to law school, practiced law for ten years, and still can’t decipher when and where I can park in Old Town. And do they enforce? Yes, I’ve gotten hefty tickets in the neighborhood before. It’s not Murphy’s fault, but watch out if you decide to go.

King Street is beautiful in winter, decked out in long strings of white lights, and not just for Christmas. The row houses and brick sidewalks are perfectly designed for the season. Actually, the Christmas carol O Little Town of Bethlehem was written when the author was inspired by Alexandria in the snow. I once worked in the neighborhood. My mother went to nursing school right down the street. Old Town has always been part of my life. It’s easily my favorite part of Northern Virginia. On a sad note, I noticed that Misha’s, the best coffeeshop in Old Town had gone out of business since I moved.

But nothing had changed at Murphy’s. Trivia is at the same time. It’s still held upstairs in the less popular overflow bar. It’s even the same DJ running the game who was there all those years ago. People always flock to the downstairs, traditional Irish bar, and the steady boom of a bodhram gave a little accompaniment to the night. It’s a fun bar, but upstairs you get a bit more space and quiet for conversation. That’s my scene. A few tips might be in order. Sit near the fire, it’s cold upstairs in winter. Also, if you order a burger (half price during trivia), do not get the actual “Murphy Burger”. It has mozzarella cheese (not necessarily a deal breaker) and a slab of ham. Someone needs to tell Murphy’s that a hamburger does not contain any ham because that slice of lunch meat has no business on a red-blooded American’s burger. Also, avoid the potatoes and ask for normal fries. The potatoes are almost as gross as the slab of ham. But the real thing to watch out for at Murphy’s is the men’s room. If you are male, do not go in last. The rightmost urinal is right next to the door in a very awkward position. If you are female, make sure to avert your gaze as you walk by. The ergonomics are a nightmare.

But enough advice, how did trivia go? Well, we struggled over our team name as usual. We considered something to do with the coronavirus, then decided against it. Of course, when the game began we learned that yet another team had called itself coronavirus and lime, making it the third time I have heard that team name in the last two weeks. We had the good taste to reject any Kobe Bryant-related names out of hand. That seems obvious you say? Who would have the gall to choose one? Well, hang on a minute, there’s one born every minute. We were stymied for a name, and finally went with The Attractive Nuisances. Yes, the name of my blog comes from our most frequent trivia team name.

I’ve complained about volume before in trivia nights, but Murphy’s nailed it with a loud PA, and frankly we were sitting too close. When the DJ spoke, we had to just shut up, but that was a small price to pay for clearly hearing all the questions. (I just realized how incredibly old that makes me sound.) The questions themselves are perfect. They don’t have any particularly specialized rounds, and most of the information is just general knowledge. The idea of themed rounds sounds much better than it is in reality. Give me a random selection anytime.

We played well through the first three rounds (out of a total of 7), and surprised ourselves by remaining in the running at least that far. Then we were suddenly a team of three when a woman plopped herself down and joined our team. Apparently, the team she had started with didn’t like her suggested name “Helicopter Justice”. Yeah…

I didn’t want to get into it, so I smiled and nodded politely when she talked about how much she hated Kobe Bryant because she was a rape counselor. I didn’t mention all the other people on the helicopter, including several children, and I certainly didn’t want to get into a discussion of Kobe’s guilt. The fact is, I think most people saw that for what it was. He’s a dick for cheating on his wife, but the woman who accused him is a gold digger who saw her opportunity and took it. He’s not a rapist.

It wasn’t the best introduction to the team for our new friend, whose name I have already forgotten. She went to Vanderbilt law school… Let’s call her Sara, that sounds about right. Immediately after impressing herself into the Nuisances though, she got a question right about Meryl Streep and the movie First Do No Harm which even in hindsight I have never heard of. So, all was forgiven. We needed the points. We had a team dispute about a question about a muscle that moves a limb inward toward the body. Apparently, that is an adductor. I thought we were saying abductor and I wrote that, then blurred the third letter in case there was a close call on the answer. The proctor called us over and made us choose one or the other. I have to say, he may look like he has read about smiles in books rather than having ever seen one, but that was a good catch. We chose… poorly, and got it wrong. “Sara” lost us a point later by being overconfident that a picture of Kim Novak was Lena Horne, but honestly, I would have never gotten that, so I’ll look the other way. I won’t ding her trivia team WAR for that one. My shining moment was when we were asked what Ron Blomberg did first in a major league game on April 6, 1973. We deliberated for a long time, considering answer like die, pinch hit, or wear a batting helmet until I realized he must have been the first designated hitter. Boom.

Amazingly, when all was said and done, we had calculated a score of 74 points, which seemed high, but not high enough to win. As the DJ announced the final scores, we thought they started too high, and began giving our concession speeches to one another. Then, by two points, we were announced as the winners. Here is the best thing about Murphy’s trivia night, and I hesitate to even tell anyone this. You aren’t playing for a bar tab, and you aren’t playing for just pride of places. At Murphy’s you actually get amazing prizes. (I really shouldn’t be telling you this). For years, my favorite prize they had was a row of tickets to the Orioles right behind the home dugout. I won them a few times and they are the best seats I’ve ever had at a baseball game, much less at Camden Yards. We were close enough that one time when Danny Valencia was checking out a girl in the stands, I yelled “Hey Danny, want me to get her number for you?” and he made a goofy affirmative shrug in response.

Tonight’s prize was arguably better. We got two tickets, center ice, to the Caps. This is no 2013 85-win Oriole team. This is the 2018 Stanley Cup winning Washington Capitals. Alex Ovechkin just scored his 694th goal to pass Mark Messier in all time goals. This is the first-place team in the Metropolitan Division playing the second place Penguins. The face value of the tickets was more than two hundred dollars each. That’s a real prize. Our walk on player even let us keep the two tickets to ourselves. So, she’s a hero in my book.

The awesome prizes and the genuinely good chance of winning make Murphy’s my favorite trivia night. A+ all around as usual.

Postscript: We went to the Caps game early on Super Bowl Sunday. They lost a great game 4-3 and we had to watch Penguins fans chanting on the steps of the portrait gallery after the game. Open question- why do some city’s fans behave like that? Can someone enlighten me?

Traveling to the Narcissistic Island Universe of Youth: Part II

As my writing improves in the narrative, a sense of the time period begins to come out of the dry facts. There are a few references to music that have the reek of ancient history. I made my modern self laugh out loud at a description of singing a parody of Sir Mix-A-Lot that went “I like big dogs and I cannot lie” and ended with the line “Lhasa Apso? Maybe if it’s dead”. One of my friends gets revenge on me by “taking back his Psychedelic Furs CD out of spite”. Even the mention of a CD is fossil. Streetfighter 2 probably gets more lines than my mother. I talk constantly about going to Blockbuster’s and watching MTV, both things that lingered on for a few more years and died around the turn of the millennium. It is only through reading my old journal that I can get a proper sense of how important those institutions were to us in 1992. The idea that they would die along with malls would have been difficult to comprehend. Anyone who lived in Northern Virginia in the nineties will remember the Multiplex Cinema in Merrifield. It was the most modern, most elaborate theater in the area. Today it has been bulldozed to make way for the Mosaic Shopping District, an entity I couldn’t have possibly imagined. When I went to Caboose Brewery a few weeks ago, I saw that they had salvaged some numbers from the old Multiplex marquis to make their address. A dominant cultural force of my youth has officially become archaeology. That’s sobering.

This writing is almost thirty years old so there is a bit of problematic language. I use the word “oriental” to refer to someone Asian at one point, but okay, that just wasn’t the rule then. As soon as someone pointed that one out to me, I made the change. I would have thought it was earlier in my life, but the historical record says otherwise. Much less defensibly, I use the F-word one time, and I don’t mean “Fuck”. I wasn’t calling anyone gay that word, I would never have done that, but well into the nineties that was just something people said. We didn’t examine the inherent homophobia of calling a friend that word when we didn’t approve of a friend’s behavior. Nor did we examine why we said something was “gay” when we thought it was lame. It wasn’t until college, when I first started having gay friends, that I realized what an asshole that kind of language made me.

                Some of the picture I unwittingly managed to draw is mirrored in the movie Donnie Darko. It may not be clear from the California footage, but the movie is set in Fairfax, Virginia, the town I grew up in. A few stray shots convey this if you are watching. Donnie wakes up on the golf course near Fairfax High School, there are Virginia plates, and when his father watches football, he watches Doug Williams and the Redskins. The funny way that memory works led me, when reading about watching the Redskins with my father, to picture the Darkos’ living room rather than my own.

                And memory really does work strangely. A painful episode where my mother forced me to go on a blind date with one of her friend’s younger cousin was burned into my memory as being in eighth grade, but there it was in my sophomore year of high school. Other events weren’t just warped, but completely deleted by my memory. One of the things I saw fit to memorialize was just what movies we were watching after those trips to Blockbuster. A few of them (Pure Luck, Permanent Record) left no impression whatsoever. I didn’t recognize the names as movies that exist, and furthermore, when I looked the movies up, even reading a full synopsis didn’t ring a bell. How is that possible? It calls to mind the fact that millions of people remember a Sinbad movie with a genie and swear that Berenstain is spelled with three e’s. Part of it must be the sheer fact of being inundated with TV and movies. It’s shocking how much down time I seem to have had, but I suppose a teenager who was a terrible student really did have a lot of time on his hands. I can’t believe how much school I missed. There isn’t a week that goes by where I’m not talking about staying home “sick”. It was so stupid, but until I met a girl who set me straight in eleventh grade, I would not only miss fifty school days a year but wouldn’t even do my homework when I was there. It’s infuriating to read. I really do think my life would have been completely different if they hadn’t insisted on starting school at 7:00am. To this day I ask myself what the hell they were trying to train me for, the army? No one’s job starts at 7:00. Still, I wish I had toughed it out a bit more.

                On a sadder note, it’s hard to read about the people who are gone: my grandfather, my stepdad, some of the friends I had in high school. It hurt to read my complaints about shopping on Christmas Eve with my stepfather. Yes, it was a drag, I remember that, but what I wouldn’t give to do it again just once. It reminds me of how I always felt when my kids were babies and I was having a hard time of it. I would ask myself how much I would pay twenty years from now to spend an afternoon with my kids as infants. The answer is a huge amount, but it never made it any easier to endure the actual moment. Life is tricky like that. You never enjoy the torture of being with the people love as much as you should. Then they’re gone.

                I couldn’t help but imagine my 1992 journal having a postscript like American Graffiti or some other nostalgic teen movie. This character ended up going to law school, that one died of a drug overdose, this one became a nudist in a gay republican commune in Vermont (true story). I know most of the stories of the characters who were in my life in the early nineties. The sad seems to dominate. Drugs ruined a few lives, laziness a few others. I can’t help but construct a postmortem on each friendship. Some friendships died from catastrophic fractures- a loose, stupid insult or argument- others due to the slow continental drift of life. A smile crosses my face though when I read about friends who I still know. At least three of them are people who I’ve seen in my most recent sojourn in Virginia. One of them introduced me to my wife.

                I’m going to keep going with this project as long as I’m here in Virginia. So, since I had fun writing this little reflection, I’ll probably write again when I finish 1993. Here’s to the dimly remembered, prosaic past.

Traveling to the Narcissistic Island Universe of Youth: Part I

                I’m in the middle of one of the strangest, most quixotic projects of a lifetime of strange quixotic projects. Since June of 1992, I have, with very few breaks in the routine, kept a daily journal chronicling my life. Up until the last decade, I did this in physical, longhand journals. Now they are safely ensconced in a plastic bin in my mother’s basement, protected from the floods and other soakings that have afflicted all the important documents of my life. I’ve had the idea of converting them into digital format for a long time. Now, with time on my hands and nothing much to do while I help my mother through the last stages of cancer, I decided to break ground on the project. It’s mindless, which is a plus in my circumstances, but also strangely escapist, which is an even bigger one.

                So, last week I dove right into 1992. For anyone who’s keeping track, that means I was 14 years old as the chronicle began. As I typed, I couldn’t help reading; processing the words as I wrote. It was strangely reminiscent of writing my master’s thesis. I spent days of that process reading the personal letters of George Washington, Ulysses S Grant, and then William Westmoreland. You delve pretty deeply into a life that way if the writer is prolific enough, and as teenager I was nothing if not prolific.

                Much as I did with the sometimes-insane, always inconsistent orthography of George Washington, I decided to replicate the errors of the original as I copied. My grammar and spellcheck programs revolted, screaming at me and leaving my paragraphs festooned with blue and red, but I kept to it. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been. My spelling was solid, with only a few glaring errors. The worst was a constant use of “cause” for because. Why did I do that? I think it was for the same reason that I insisted on using the construction “me and” with plural subjects. Now I had learned not to do that in formal writing as a small child. I clearly remember a stern lesson from my Aunt Hilda, a former elementary school teacher, when I was seven. I knew better, but I had some idea that you should write as you speak. I wouldn’t have phrased it as such, but I was trying to preserve the parole of my vernacular. Nice thought in a way, but it ends up making me sound like a halfwit; not the effect I was going for. One of the most annoying hallmarks of teenagers is a misplaced sense of integrity about things like that.

                Other things were genuine errors. I refused to underline the titles of movies and books. I tried and failed to consistently apply the Oxford comma. That flies in the face of everything I hold sacred to not fix as I type. Strunk and White set me straight in 12th grade. Amazingly, there is one perfectly wielded semicolon in an early passage. It crops up like some Antikythera Mechanism of punctuation. It defies belief that my antediluvian self could manage it, but there it is, deftly introducing an appropriately tangential subordinate clause.

                Overall, my style improves as the book goes on. I think this came from both a lack of experience with writing in general, and a learning curve about what I was trying to do by keeping a journal. I always objected to the term “diary” and with that in mind, I started out not wanting to delve too deeply into my feelings about things. I was going for a chronicle; a dry historical record of events. For some reason I was obsessed with managing episodes as if they were French scenes. I kept listing who was present and who was coming and going. I have no idea why I thought that was so important, but it probably had something to do with absolutely hating to be alone or bored. I took my historical duties too far and learned that you needed to do more than just write what happened. As I go on through that first year, I began to use foreshadowing. I started talking about the relations between the people around me, characterizing them as human beings. My first-person viewpoint starts to bleed into something broader, edging on an actual narrative.

                It isn’t just my writing that matured over the time of this first journal. I was 14 for god’s sake, I was growing and maturing as a human being too. Of course, this is mostly shown in the negative. There were many things I showed about myself as a callow young man that only time would heal. Oddly, the obsession with girls isn’t as obvious as I would have thought. There are a few references to thwarted infatuation, but maybe I was too embarrassed to talk about it much. Friends on the other loom larger than anything else in life. Everything else, school, family, the larger world, takes a distant backseat. My siblings seem to merit personalities, but my parents are handled at some times like forces of nature to be weathered and endured, and at others as instrumentalities fit only to give rides to the mall. They certainly don’t come across as living, breathing human beings. I mention a few actual historical events: the presidential election of 1992, the war in Somalia, but only as a description of what I watched on TV, as if that was the important thing about them. Changing the layout of my room gets multiple lines and more than one entry, while Bill Clinton doesn’t even merit a mention by name. Like all teenagers, I was a narcissistic island universe unto myself.

Go Ahead and Let the Fates Decide

                I’m obsessed with injecting randomness into my life. Life in the 21st century is too on-demand. You can choose exactly what to eat, exactly who to talk to, exactly what to listen to or watch. It’s a triumph of capitalism. The ability to do all these things is wonderful, don’t get me wrong, but the power it gives us is out of control. We’re like the kid in the Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life”, or the Krell in Forbidden Planet. We have powers we have no ability or inclination to control. It’s a great feeling to be ability to do exactly what you want, exactly when we want, but we ignore the corollary. We don’t ever have to do anything we don’t want to do.

                That seems great at first glance, but then think about what life was like before (if you’re old enough to remember that is). How many of the movies, books, music etc. that you loved would you have chosen in a world of perfect access to options? I would probably still be listening to Muppet records and watching Star Wars if I hadn’t been forced to try out other things. (Not that those things aren’t awesome of course.)

Does it matter? Personally, I would hate the idea of being in a cultural rut, rehashing the same old movies and music. As a middle-aged guy, some of the times I feel most alive are when I’m listening to new music, and I would hate to give that up. But I could. I could just listen to Pearl Jam and Nirvana all day and fossilize myself in the nineties if I wanted. Aside from the personal, psychological ramifications, there are broader problems with an on-demand culture. Think about the bubbles people live in online and the damage it causes. When we don’t force ourselves out of our comfort zones and only associate with media outlets and people who share our views, it isn’t just lazy, it’s dangerous.

It’s also completely understandable. A nearly infinite multiplicity of options is paralyzing. I don’t remember where I first read about the study (possibly from Daniel Kahnemann or the Freakonomics gang?) but the Journal of Consumer Psychology published a study in 2015 that showed just that effect. When customers were given more options to choose from in selected jam flavors, they actually bought less. It’s paradoxical, right? You would think that providing more options would make customers happier and make them spend more, but there seems to be a point where analysis fatigue sets in. It’s cognitively challenging to choose from large sets of choices, and humans always default to less cognitively challenging methods when they can. Do you like Trader Joe’s? One of the reasons the chain is so successful is that consumers get a broad, but artificially limited set of choices. The options are high quality and diverse, but purposefully limited. People like this and don’t even know it.

Clearly, we would be similarly paralyzed by trying to choose in this world, so what do we do? Don’t get in a rut. That’s the easy way out. I may be slightly insane, but what I have done is to institute little tricks for embracing randomness. Perhaps my comfort with this lies in years of letting the random charts in Dungeons and Dragons books determine the fate of games. For example, I have a small city library that I go to. It’s small, but there are still obviously more books than I could possibly read in a lifetime. I have a tendency, if un-shepherded, to wander time and again to the history or science books, reading about the same topics over and over again. So, what I did was plug the Dewey Decimal System into a (supposedly) random number generating app. Then I forced myself to choose a book from whatever shelf I rolled up. So, I ended up reading one book about the natural history of cactus, and another about the problems of educating boys and girls in the modern world. Maybe that sounds like hell to you, but it really forced me to branch out into something I would have never chosen otherwise. Anyone thinking it through a bit might notice that there is a big bias in this system. There isn’t an even distribution among books; not even close. There are far more books in the .900s for example, and equally weighting the books by simple number favors books in sections with fewer volumes. Fine, I’ll tweak it a bit. Maybe count the actual number of shelves or something. That would work, but I’d look nuts. Come to think of it, I’ll fit in at the public library then, so I’m good.

Or take this example, one I haven’t actually tried yet. Have you ever gotten together with friends and spent an hour arguing over where to go to dinner or for drinks? I know you have if you’ve ever been in a city like New York or DC with a galaxy of choices. Next time I do this, I’m going to suggest rolling randomly between the people there and letting whoever “wins” choose the night’s activities. I’ll even offer to recuse myself the first time. That way we all just go along with a leader who has been chosen in a way that will hopefully curb resentment. A bit of a veto might be necessary, but only for limited abuse of power situations, such as choosing a Brazilian steakhouse for vegetarians, a strip club for mixed company, or that restaurant from The Freshman where they eat endangered animals. Otherwise you have to stick to the leader’s choices, and I think it would defuse an obnoxious situation.

My other idea is to build an app that randomly selects restaurants for you. It could be pre-populated, or you could populate it yourself with favorites. How many times have I sat there trying to decide what I wanted like an idiot, and then ended up going to Dion’s for the twelfth time in two months? This is a genuine question to my readers? Is that something anyone else would be interested in?

Randomness can backfire though. Lately, my friend Andrew Park and I have instituted a system for karaoke nights. We use the number generator to come up with a random page in the artist-sorted book. Then whoever’s turn it is has to sing a song from that page. The penalty if you don’t sing is of course that you have to do a shot. It’s fun at first, but eventually you realize you aren’t singing anything you really enjoy because the pages have too few options. I think my breaking point was when I had to watch Andrew suffer through singing “Since You’ve Been Gone”. Good blackmail material, but not good for much else.

So, the days of passively receiving the media chosen for us by our betters are over. My kids will never have to watch the Muppet Show every night on the off chance that tonight’s rerun is the Star Wars episode. They will never drop everything they are doing at four o’clock because there is a Godzilla movie playing at the same time every day. They won’t see the one movie playing at a theater like my grandparents did, and they won’t listen to whatever is playing on the radio. That’s the reality, but an embrace of randomness can help us to manage it.