Sunday, September 24, 2017

A Scrimmage Too Far

Maybe, at last, this is what it takes for Trump's base to fire him.

There are two Donald Trumps.

When he's by himself, roaming around the residence, lounging in front of "Fox and Friends," tweeting nonsense on his phone, Trump is authentically being himself: a spoiled rich kid who is shattered at the thought of failure, frustrated in his ambition for the one thing his money can't buy (respect), furious that obtaining the most powerful office in the world is still not enough for him to be taken seriously by the smart people he most wants to impress, lashing out at them for not understanding what a great guy he is. By the time we reach middle age, most of us have known people like this. We may have one in our family. We may even have been in a relationship with one. (It didn't end well.) Of course, most of the Trump-types we've known haven't had access to nuclear codes that could turn one of those midnight tantrums into an act of genocide that puts even Hitler to shame.

Except I don't think that will happen. Because the insecure, tantruming, ranting Trump is not a man of action. Most tantrum throwers aren't: they're expressing something visceral that they can't explain, lashing out at perceived causes of their discomfort, but ultimately, they don't really want it to happen.

So I don't think the whiney child wandering around the White House residence is going to actually trigger anything more hurtful than disbanding advisory boards nobody wants to be on, or uninviting a basketball team from a photo op they'd just as soon skip, anyway.

What worries me is the other Trump, the one he learned to be as a lying, promise-breaking real estate villain, the one he used to play on TV, and now plays at campaign rallies. This is Trump getting what he wants: the adulation of millions of gullible suckers pouring out emotional capital that he believes he can channel into a political weapon to be used upon any who stand in the way of the greatness he so desires. When he's in front of a crowd of his followers, he feels free to warn, threaten, intimidate, giving voice to the nationalistic dreams of the ignorant masses. He's wielded this weapon against the news media since he began his campaign. He's warned his Congressional GOP partners that he'll campaign against them (and he actually has in a few races). While unorthodox, neither of these targets is unprecedented: every President has battled with the media to some extent, and Presidents have often taken to the campaign trail in behalf of candidates for Congress or a governorship--though by and large, they've done it to defend incumbents against challenges from the opposition, not to drive a wedge into the heart of their own party.

Over the last few days, though, Trump has attempted to use his MAGA masses against a new target, one that has been completely sacrosanct from Presidential invective: professional sports; and in particular, America's two most popular sports leagues, the NFL and the NBA. To be fair, Trump has been singling out individual players, rather than owners or teams, but this morning's tweets have proposed a full-on boycott of the NFL.

The reason for this new assault on American sports culture: some NFL players have been remaining seated or "taking the knee" during the national anthem as a protest against the many police killings of African-American citizens.

Trump's public persona remedy for these protesters is to call on team owners to use his favorite TV catch-phrase on them: "You're fired." Seeing him call for this--as well as calling for football to become more, not less, gorily violent--at his Friday campaign rally accomplished something rarely seen, bringing owners and players together in united opposition. Furious at such disrespect for himself and the flag he wraps himself in, Trump called on his followers to boycott games until players begin acting more patriotically. He also decided to beat the Golden State Warriors to the punch of their decision not to visit the White House for the traditional championship photo opportunity, uninviting them in another tweet.

You may be seeing some overlap here between insecure private Trump and blustery public Trump, and I will acknowledge that the two meet in one place: Trump's Twitter account. There's something cannily brilliant about this, though: while the world holds up Trump's tweets as proof of his incompetence and expressions of his late night dementia, the government has chosen not to implement them as policy until they've been fleshed out into an official directive.

Calling for millions of fans to boycott football, though, crosses a line that is more likely to be Trump's undoing than any act of the Cabinet or Congress: he's hitting those angry white men where they live. He's telling them to forgo their live for weekend gladiatorial contests, for lounging in their recliners and swilling beer in front of television screens where mostly black athletes wage symbolic war upon each other. 75% of NFL players are black, while 75% of their fans are white. There's a dynamic at work in the bloodsport of football that's reminiscent of Rome at its most decadent.

It's going to be very hard to pry these fans, however devoted to Trump they may be, from their remote controls and stadium seats. The NFL has spent many years building its brand as America's Game, and there are many in Trump's base who have enthusiastically bought into that notion. This isn't about eating only well done steaks, or avoiding taco trucks, in solidarity with the President. It's a matter of identity. Football fans are so passionate about their teams that they will run out into the streets to riot both wins and losses in playoff and championship games.

That's why I hope Donald Trump chooses this boycott as the hill he's willing to die on. He's had other such hills--repealing the Affordable Care Act, the wall, the travel ban--but in the end, he's always wimped out on those. Turns out his followers just weren't that into them, after all, and the GOP's futile attempts at legislating them found they were even less enthusiastic. But football--and, should he extend his boycott demand even further, to basketball--there's a cause that could quickly come back to bite him.

Americans love their sports. White, Southern Americans really love their sports. That's the MAGA base. Telling them to give up football should, I hope, be the beginning of the end for their unquestioning support of the wild-eyed, finger-pointing flimflam man they elected President. However decisively he turns his imperial thumb down on the protesting gladiators, however enthusiastic his followers may appear to be as he demands those protesters mute their objections and stand for the anthem, in the end, I believe they love football even more than they love him. He is going to lose his base over this.

And once he's lost them, there'll be nobody left to take the flimflam TV Trump seriously. Everyone will see him for what he is: an insecure, lonely monster living out the last act of his miserable, friendless life, holed up in a mansion, longing for the one thing he ever really loved, a tiny sled branded "Rosebud."

Sunday, September 17, 2017

56 and Counting (Down)

Image may contain: one or more people, sunglasses, beard and closeup
From Eclipse Day last month: this is not the forehead of a young man.

Old wounds are coming back to haunt me.

Sixteen years ago, when I was a young man of 40, I drove up to Mt. Hood Meadows for a day of cross country skiing. I went alone, as I did for most of my adventures in those days. It was a beautiful January day, the sky clear, the snow powdery and not too slippery, just the way I like it, and as I clipped on my skis, I knew this was going to be a fine day. I had decided to start my workout at a different location than usual: rather than the single-wide mobile home that served as the Nordic lodge, I was parked at the main Meadows lodge that the chairlift started from. The trail down from the lodge to the easy track I had chosen for my warmup was a short hill, but as I said, I was feeling confident.

Fifteen seconds into that run, I realized I was going much faster than I had expected. On top of that, I was going to have to execute a sharp turn at the bottom of the hill, and I had no idea how to do it. I braced myself to collide in the snowbank, and fell forward. As I hit the snow, I felt something crunch in my right shoulder. Suddenly I didn't feel so well.

I went into my crisis zone, focused on a step-by-step plan to get up off the snow, unclip my skis, and trudge back up to the lodge where I would ask for help. As I did, I was careful not to use my right arm anymore than I had to. At the lodge, I went to the information desk and told the person there that I'd had an accident and needed help. She called up to the main lodge, told me to have a seat, and get me a cup of hot chocolate.

The ski medic who came for me was a paragon of a powderhead. He was tall, lean, dressed in technical gear, and had on a red knit cap with a white cross. He asked me to take off my sweater so he could get a look at the shoulder. As I lifted my arms to comply, I felt my shoulder slip back into place. The nausea passed quickly; now I was just in pain. The medic concluded I should get an xray at the ski clinic, but he didn't want to call an ambulance. Instead, his plan was to take me up on the chair lift, put me in a sled, and pull me down to the main lodge. This was a very different adventure from what I'd expected, but I was game for it.

I took my first, and thus far only, ride on a chairlift unable to hold on with my right arm. Every jerk of the chair would make me flinch, resulting in more shoulder pain. Once we were at the top, and I was strapped into the sled for the ride down the other side of the hill, I experienced my first--and again, thus far my only--downhill ski run, all of it facing backward.

The ski doctors x-rayed my shoulder, confirmed that it had, in fact, been dislocated, and recommended I get someone else to drive my home to Portland. The logistics of that were complicated, but doable, and about two hours later, I was in the passenger seat of my Celica, my right arm in a sling, being driven back home by my housemate Steve, who chided me for not asking him along in the beginning.

I should've learned a lesson from that, but there were many more solo adventures awaiting me, including an 18-mile unequipped wilderness hike in the Sawtooth Mountains that was almost the end of me. I don't go to such lengths anymore, though I still take my bicycle on long solitary rides, and should I ever get myself back into anything approximating running shape, I still have hopes of training (mostly by myself) for distance races, perhaps even another marathon.

I'm acutely aware, though, that I need to be much careful than I used to be. Lately, that sixteen-year-old ski injury has been coming back to bite me. Small physical tasks I would normally take for granted are becoming difficult: is it really worth helping my principal put away chairs after Back to School Night, when the price is acute shoulder pain for the rest of the week? I'm having to rearrange my classroom, including a number of large instruments, using just my left hand. I push as much around with my foot as possible. Anything that involves reaching over my head has to be done intentionally, reminding myself to use my non-dominant left hand.

Yesterday, I'd had enough: I went to Kaiser urgent care, and was seen by a doctor who appeared to be several years older than me. I immediately found myself trusting him more than the younger doctors I've been seeing lately. Not to be ageist or anything, but this doctor had some experience of age-related aches that won't go away. When he said things like "at our age..." I knew he'd been through the same things I was experiencing. Younger doctors know protocols; this guy knew my pain. When he told me surgery was for young athletes, not mature men like myself, I felt both relief and resignation: the idea of doing without my right arm for as long as it takes to recover from shoulder surgery is extremely unappealing to a mostly ambidextrous musician and writer like myself. On the other hand, was I to be stuck with this pain--which sits right on the borderline between 4 and 5 on the scale that was posted in the examination room--for the rest of my life? How much would I have to medicate it?

Don't worry, the doctor said, and went out to get a large syringe filled with prednisone. The injection was no fun, and twenty-four hours later, the shoulder has been, if anything, more painful than before; but he did tell me it would take a few days for the swelling to go down, and the healing to begin.

So here I am, medicating the pain until the steroid does its work, teaching myself to be left-handed for as many over-the-head things as possible, wondering if this is just the first of many signs that my body is on the decline. I have, it must be admitted, fallen badly while running three times since June 2016, losing many months of exercise as a result; absent the exercise, I've gained about thirty pounds. Meanwhile, my hair continues to gray and thin. Getting out of bed is still easy, but I'm not waking up before my alarm like I used to.

Those last four words are significant: there are a lot of things in my life that I don't do like I used to. I'm not as wakeful, energetic, or alert as I used to be. Where for the last four years I've had no problem waking up at 5:15--in fact, I don't think my alarm had the chance to go off more than a handful of times in that period--I'm now needing it. Getting out of my car at the end of my afternoon commute is also a challenge: I find my energy so tapped out that I can't seem to get myself to open the door and walk up to the house. When I run, I have to take walking breaks every five minutes or so, and I worry often about falling. I feel much more guilty about spending mindless time on my phone: the clock is ticking, I've only got so many minutes left, and should I really be spending so many of them solving crosswords, playing Star Trek Timelines, and thumbing through Facebook?

Speaking of better things I could be doing: this was the week I finally got serious about retirement planning. We had a financial advisor over Wednesday night, and dumped statements for all our existing pension and IRA plans on him. He'll be back in two weeks to tell us what he discovered, and recommend things we could be doing to secure our future. This is something I've put off for a very long time. I've had excellent excuses--job instability, joblessness, high essential expenses--but none of those excuses applies anymore. Coupled with this decision to plan for retirement has been my first awareness that it may actually come--that I won't always be working for a living. I'm talking with colleagues who've recently retired or cut back to part-time, seeing how many of them continue to be available as substitute teachers, or to find ways to work with children that don't require as much planning or energy as full-time teaching does. The irony for me is that it feels like I've spent most of my teaching career trying to get to where I am, a full-time music teacher with a rewarding, challenging job I love that won't go away on an administrative whim--and I'm thinking retirement.

When I told Amy the title of this essay, her reaction was that it seemed depressing. In fact, though, I find I've finally found the zen approach modeled by teachers, pastors, and mentors I've long looked up to: human development doesn't just stop at 21. Human beings continue to grow and change through stages. Embracing the process, I don't have to dread it. Yes, aches and pains are unpleasant, but compared to the economic uncertainty and emotional upheaval I endured through my 20s, 30s, and most of my 40s, the thought of trading 56 for 26 is revolting. I'm in the best place I've ever been as a partner, parent, musician, educator, writer--really any of the things that matter to me except the one that my shoulder is involved in, physical fitness. With help from modern medicine, I can get that back in balance too, though I'll never again run as fast as I could at 40.

What I can do is appreciate every moment of life for what it is, and take none of it for granted, making sure that none of the gifts of maturity is wasted on this old man.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Gorge Grief

May 31, 2013: Amy at Tunnel Falls.

Looking through folder after folder of photos, trying to find just the right one to begin this essay, one thing lept out at me: if it weren't for hiking in the Columbia River Gorge, Amy and I might not be a couple.

Before we met, Amy had never been much of an outdoorswoman, but she'd always wanted to give it a try. I, on the other hand, had always aspired to outdoor feats, but had never had a fitting partner for my adventures. Almost all my hikes were solitary affairs, including one 18-mile one-day trek through the Sawtooth Wilderness in August, 2007, that could easily have been the end of me. That one began as an out-and-back, then turned, on a whim, into a loop that was far longer and more grueling than I imagined. I'd started too late, and at that altitude, it was really more than I could handle, but once I was invested in it, I really had no choice: all I had was a light windbreaker and a couple of Cliff bars. It was well after dark by the time I stumbled out of the woods, splashed into the frigid waters of Pettit Lake to rinse off some of the trail grime, then drove off in search of a campsite. Finally finding one, I curled up in my sleeping bag under the stars--then woke, shuddering, at sunrise, frost everywhere.

The pride I'd felt in my achievement evaporated. What if, when I was up there in the wilderness, my fatigued feet had tripped on a root, and I'd sprained or, worse, broken my ankle? What if I'd missed the fork in the trail that took me back to the parking lot? Could I have survived the night with just my windbreaker to cover me? I hadn't passed any other hikers during the second half of the loop. How long would it have been before someone came by to offer help? I hadn't even bothered to tell anyone where I was going. My recklessness could have cost me my life.

I'd never been with anyone who so embraced my love of the outdoors as Amy did. All through our first spring, summer, and fall together, we hiked. The Gorge was close by, no trail more than an hour's drive from my Portland apartment. Exploring together, sweating together, bagging peaks together, we crafted our relationship on the trail. We hiked other trails, of course, traveling up into the Coast Range, downstate to the Cascades, and, much closer to home, Forest Park. In 2010, we accomplished two signature hikes that are among my proudest achievements as an outdoor athlete: covering Forest Park's Wildwood Trail in its entirety in a single day; and summiting the South Sister.

Over the years, we found ourselves hiking less. Some of it was time: after two years of mostly freelance work, I was called back to Banks as a halftime band director. Two years later, following our summer of backpacking, I found fulltime work in Reynolds. More work meant less time to hike. There was another factor holding us back: Amy's knees, always problematic, could no longer handle sustained climbs and descents. These days, what walking we do is in the greenspace by our house.

Amy will be getting knee surgery this fall, and we have high hopes of being able to return to the trail, though it's unlikely we'll scale the same heights we did when first we laced up our boots. We have marvelous memories, of course, and hundreds of pictures documenting those memories. In those pictures, one or the other of us is smiling broadly, alive with the thrill of self-propulsion through a beautiful place, fully in the moment of discovery.

The occasion for this memoir of a marriage built on the trail is the Eagle Creek Fire. Sunday afternoon, as we drove home from visiting our first grandchild in Boise, we passed through the smoke of that fire. Within hours of arriving in Portland, I-84 was closed. The fire, triggered by the reckless behavior of a group of teenagers tossing fireworks into a stunningly lovely canyon, has raged for nearly a week now. It is burning up the heart of the Gorge, a place of lush forest, plentiful waterfalls, and majestic promontories. This National Scenic Area is laced with so many trails that, over the course of the dozens of hikes we took, we often felt like we had the trail to ourselves. There's no telling how many of those trails will be permanently closed by the fire, how many iconic views rendered inaccessible, how much greenery transformed to charcoal and ash. I'm grieving for the mystical place that formed the relationship it took me almost half a century to find, the place where we first declared our intention to spend the rest of our lives together, calling ourselves "mountain married" on a hike in 2012.

I wonder what will be left when the flames finally cool. Will Angel's Rest still beckon, the first landmark after Crown Point? Will the climb to the top of Multnomah Falls be closed? How about the extension all the way up to Larch Mountain? And what of Oneonta Gorge, Triple Falls, Horsetail Fails, Bridal Veil? What of Peter's Throne? And what will the view be like from across the river in Washington? Will the Oregon side be transformed from deep green to ashen gray?

I've seen the articles reminding me that fire is a natural part of every forest's life cycle, and remembering that the signs of previous cataclysms are readily visible on many of my favorite trails: the boulder fields that issued from prehistoric eruptions, and the far more recent burnt forest at Cooper Spur. I remember, too, the great Yellowstone Fire of 1985, and, coming back there to camp in 1993, feeling such awe at how quickly the forest seemed to be recovering. The heart of the Gorge will be green again in my lifetime, though it will be generations before the trees again reach their old growth height. And once the trails reopen, chances are good that the views will actually be much better: many of them had become overgrown in recent years, so that frequently we were blessed with just glimpses of the river far below.

The forest was living on marked time: climate change has been gifting us with drier, hotter summers which, while more conducive to an extended hiking season, brought with them increasingly hazardous conditions. It was just a matter of time until some inadequately doused campfire, carelessly dropped cigarette butt, or rare lightning strike touched off a conflagration. That's small comfort against the enormous sense of loss I'm feeling. Knowing it had to happen does not lessen my grief. I grieved when my father died, even though he was 88 years old and had suffered poor health for almost a decade by the time of his passing. I will grieve when my mother dies. Should I outlive Amy, I will grieve for her, however advanced in years we may be when she passes. That death comes to everyone and everything does nothing to ease the pain of loss.

I grieve, too, for the young people who started this fire. They did something reckless and ill-advised--though if I'm being honest with myself, I must acknowledge that my gonzo Sawtooth hike was a far more reckless endeavor. They didn't think what might happen as they tossed fireworks into a canyon. I didn't stop to think how dangerous it might be to turn a day hike into a trail marathon. I was lucky: my recklessness didn't end my life, and bring grief to my loved ones. These kids were less lucky: their stunt has destroyed a landscape that is precious to countless outdoor recreators. It's probably precious to them, as well. And now they'll have to live with the knowledge of what came of their momentary thoughtlessness.

I know there are people who want these kids to be punished for what they did, for them to serve jail time, have criminal records, be branded with a scarlet A (for Arson), and always be known as the jerks who torched the gorge. But they know what they did. I don't know what kind of remorse they're feeling, but recalling how mortified I was by the mistakes I made as an adolescent, I expect it will be the end of any innocence they might still have possessed, and will haunt them for the remainder of their lives.

So yes, I grieve for a place of majesty and magic. I grieve that I will not be able to revisit the places that brought my true love and me together. I grieve that I will not be able to share those places with my grandchildren. And most of all, I grieve that a generation of young people will not be growing up with this beauty next door, and will have to go elsewhere for their magic.