A Story About Possibility

Wheeler Peak, far right, highest point in Nevada's Great Basin National Park
Wheeler Peak, far right, highest point in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park

Once upon a time there was a woman of a certain age, gray-haired and a little thick through the middle who asked a much younger, positively lithe national park guide …well, she asked her a question she didn’t really want answered. At least not the way the guide answered. The park was, by the way, Great Basin National Park in far eastern Nevada, just over the Utah state line. It is located in a huge geographic basin–spanning from the Wasatch Mountains in Utah to the Sierra Nevada in California, which, according to the National Park Service,

…is a 200,000 square mile area that drains internally. All precipitation in the region evaporates, sinks underground or flows into lakes (mostly saline). Creeks, streams, or rivers find no outlet to either the Gulf of Mexico or the Pacific Ocean.

As an aside, the woman was nearly overwhelmed with the remarkably remote beauty of the region, and would like to encourage everyone to visit. Places to stay are few and far between but if you go check out the wonderful Hidden Canyon Ranch–where hummingbirds gathered around nectar feeders in greater numbers than the woman had ever before seen in her life.

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Anyway, the question the older woman asked of the younger woman was this: “Do you think I can do the Wheeler Peak hike?” And the answer she got was, without hesitation, “No.”

“is it technical? Is that why? Is it very long?” the older woman asked.

“No, it’s not technical or very long but but there’s the altitude. It’s 3,000 feet of elevation gained in 4 miles–most of the gain at the end. No, I just don’t think you could.”

Wheeler Peak summits at something over 13,000 feet. The only reason the older woman would even consider it possible is that she and her husband would drive up to the trailhead at 10,000 feet. “Did you tell her you bike 50-60 miles a week?” the husband asked, firmly in the wife’s camp. But by now the woman was miffed, feeling subject to ageism and determined to prove the guide wrong. The next morning, after picking up lunch and driving up to the start of the hike, she and her husband imagined coming back to the ranger station later in the day with tales of summiting the great Wheeler Peak.

The trail started out in a slight descent, which when you think of it is not a good thing. Then for two miles it climbed pretty gradually, through alpine meadows and past pristine lakes.

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Because her husband is a wonderful man, they followed a scheme for summiting success: ten minutes hike, five minutes rest, even when the hiking was easy. Good thinking! What couldn’t be accomplished with ten minutes of walking and five minutes of resting? Although when they rested flies buzzed about and their drone reminded the woman they forgot the epi-pen her husband uses for bee stings.

And the map.

As they approached tree line they encountered their first patch of rock trail–pretty big stones making up the whole pathway. “Scree!” the woman shouted with glee. By contrast, on the way down, when it seemed they’d never return to a trail that was not pure, continuous rock underfoot, they’d navigated yet another switchback corner when her husband, somewhat uncharacteristically, muttered, “More goddamn rocks.”

In fact, on several occasions on the way up the woman considered how this was all going to go coming down. The last time she descended such a steep, rocky trail she’d made good use of some hiking sticks. Which she hadn’t brought along. But they were still going up, right?

At one point the woman swore she heard a rattlesnake.

A few hikers passed them, coming down as they ascended–one before the trees disappeared telling them they’d completed just short of half of the hike, and another when the trail had turned entirely to rock and the summit was intermittently visible. “All you’ve got left is this bunch of rocks here–oh, and the next one too, but then there’s only one more hump to the top.”

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Hmm.

They went a couple more feet–in the woman’s case, literally on hands and knees, and now resting every five minutes because good Lord it was hard to breathe–before she came to a kind of epiphany. “I don’t think I can do it,” she said. It absolutely surprised her: at a certain point in time that day, she really thought she could. “Last fifteen minutes kind of rough?” her husband asked, more than kindly. In truth, he was breathing hard, too. “Try hour,” she said. An hour in which she more or less constantly imagined precipitous falls, sprained ankles, heart attacks. Emergency rescues. Pain. It was actually a variety of pure terror, overall.

“How about lunch?” said the fine man who was her husband. “Good idea,” she said. So they sat, and stared up for a while. But then, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, they looked down, and around.

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It’s not always necessary, is it, to reach the imagined goal? Doesn’t failure, in some respects, increase possibility?

After lunch the woman patted the rocks in acquiescent defeat and she and her husband started down. It took nearly as long to descend as ascend. When they got back to the ranch and looked over the map, the woman’s husband proclaimed they’d made it to within about a half-mile of the summit–only an eighth of the distance of the whole hike!–but a distance in which they’d have to have ascended perhaps a quarter of the mountain’s elevation gain.

And, no, they didn’t go back and tell the park guide she’d been correct. Instead they had dinner and sat in the hot tub, imagining a next time. A next time they were quite certain would never happen. A next time that, even so, was forever and irrefutably possible.

 

 

 

 

Facts and Statistics

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There is a thought-provoking political cartoon by Steve Sack in the Minneapolis Star Tribune today, reproduced here. It accompanies a front page with two momentous headlines: WE’LL GET HIM JUSTICE: Seeing racial bias, Dayton calls for federal inquiry into deadly police shooting, and Snipers ambush Dallas police, killing 4. The first headline refers, of course, to the police shooting of a black man named Philando Castile in a Twin Cities suburb near Minneapolis on Wednesday night, July 6. The second is a story unfolding just today (Friday, July 8). According to a CNN website, it is too soon to speculate on the sniper(s)’ motives. Certainly, we can imagine the worst. To me, “the worst” is that the shooting of police at a rally in Dallas, Texas was retaliation for the recent police shootings of black men Alton Sterling (in Louisiana) and Philando Castile here. To me, it’s “the worst” because it means anarchy and the supremacy of violence, although to others I suppose this feels like the status quo. In either case, it’s a horrible short cut to answers we need, terribly, and soon.

I’m writing this today in part because of a Facebook comment that Twin Cities white people weren’t weighing in on the Philando Castile shooting. I’m trying to weigh in. I have two more or less coherent thoughts that rise to the surface through a lot of anger, doubt and fear. One is a fact, and it’s about collecting facts. The sad truth, however unjust (Why do we allow police days to respond? How can that NOT look like they’re fabricating a cohesive narrative, favorable to them?) is that, like Steve Sack illustrates, we don’t have all the information yet. I didn’t watch Diamond Reynolds’ video, but I know enough about it that it starts after Castile has already been shot. We know what Reynolds says happened. We don’t know what the police say. I think it is reasonable to at least be informed of what they say happened. Due to their chronically delayed responses, I think we can reasonably be dissatisfied with their timeline as well.

The second thought is related to another item in the paper today: an editorial letter by attorney Ocher Kaylan of Minneapolis. It’s the last letter here. The writer looks at current events from the point of view of the second part of Steve Sack’s cartoon: statistics. Why are these police shootings of black men happening, and what is keeping police from being prosecuted? Regarding Minnesota, I can’t say it better than Ocher Kaylan:

Minnesota Statute 609.066 covers the use of deadly force by police officers. The statute says, in relevant part, “the use of deadly force by a peace officer in the line of duty is justified only when necessary to protect the peace officer or another from apparent death or great bodily harm.” The keyword here is “apparent.” While that term isn’t defined in the statute, it has been interpreted to mean that when the police officer believes that he is in danger, he can kill the person posing the “apparent” danger. The statute does not require that the police officer’s assessment of the danger be reasonable, or even rational. It only requires that the officer claim that he, himself, believed he was in danger. The reason for that belief can be anything, and is not limited by the statute. So if an officer believes he is in danger because of a person’s actions, or speech, or clothes, or skin color, as long as the officer himself is afraid, he can legally kill that person.

I can absolutely believe that the officer who shot Castile was afraid at the time. Why he was afraid, I can’t know. But as long as he claims that he was afraid, for whatever reason, he won’t be prosecuted under Minnesota law. There is no check or balance for reasonableness in Minnesota Statute 609.066. And until it’s changed to hold police officers accountable for killing people based on unreasonable or irrational fear, we will continue to see these police killings of black men go unchecked.

The only good thing about this is that it is something that can change. The wording of this statute must change. There must be checks and balances for what is reasonable behavior on the part of police.

I’m a white person. I’ve weighed in. But to imagine that skin color inevitably dictates our opinions is dehumanizing in its own way.

 

 

 

Twin Cities (Plus) Biking

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Sometimes when your writing life sucks it’s a good idea to get away.

Which is exactly what my hubby and I did this past July 4th weekend, when the weather was spectacular for a good, long bike ride. We’ve biked the ~30 miles to Stillwater before, but in the past the end of the trip was kind of a harrowing descent into busy Stillwater streets. Not so any longer, with the completion of the Brown’s Creek Trail and its convenient intersection with the Gateway Trail.

This is pedal biking I’m talking about, and when you take Brown’s Creek Trail it actually adds a couple of miles, but the new route is beautiful and wooded and best of all it is a 6-mile, dedicated pathway of every biker’s dreams: a slow grade down into the St. Croix River valley. You don’t end up on even one municipal street until you are delivered to the foot of the Water Street Inn, which is where we stayed for the night (since I am a wuss and 30 miles of biking in one day about does me in). Nonetheless, after a cocktail on the balcony overlooking the river, dinner, a good night’s sleep and brunch the next morning, we made the return trip without incident, exhaustion or injury. All in all, a wonderful ride.

You can see the route easily on the excellent Twin Cities bike maps by Doug Shidell. (I think the map online is a close-up of Minneapolis and St. Paul; on the flip side you can see how to get to Stillwater.) You can buy the paper map or it’s also available as an app for your phone. Basically, the breakdown to Stillwater is this: ~8 miles from downtown Minneapolis to the lakeside pavilion in St. Paul’s Como Park; ~5 miles along Wheelock Parkway to a very poorly signed entrance to the Gateway Trail (look for it after you go under the 35E bridge); ~9 miles on the Gateway until it intersects with the Brown’s Creek Trail (easy to find–marked with a colorful kiosk); and ~6 more miles (all gently downhill!) into Stillwater.

As for that cocktail on the balcony, my husband and I talked about my next book. When you’re physically exhausted, it’s often much easier (I think) to talk about difficult subjects. I tend to lose my most acute emotions (this time disappointment, but other times, and other bike rides, anger or irritation) under these circumstances, and of course a Manhattan makes everything easier to talk about. Even when your husband says, this is what you should do next time (and maybe I just will). The important thing: there will be a next time. Speaking of which, gotta go. There’s another novel out there (in here?) waiting for me to write it.

Oh, one last reason to do this trip: my app counted nearly 2500 calories spent over two days, and here’s what you’ll find a few miles into the Gateway, just about half-way from Minneapolis to Stillwater…Unknown-2

 

Call One Mrs. Badzin, and Don’t Call (or Text) the Other’s Kids After 10

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I’ve got some friends out there who are badass mothers. Good thing I’m a half- (OK, half- to full) generation removed from parenting kids concurrently with them, because they also happen to be excellent writers. Nuff said, right?

I knew I was going to like Nina Badzin’s recent (June 27, 2016) article in Motherwell, “Call me Mrs. Badzin,”  from the very first half of the very first sentence:

In one of our earliest parenting arguments…

So much, in seven words:
1. The assumption of parenting arguments;
2. The recognition that they came early;
3. The implication that they continue.

And we haven’t even gotten to the meat of her article yet! Which I also happen to like, which is that eventually Nina decided to agree with her husband and encourage (Nina’s general take) or demand (my understanding of her husband’s take) that the friends of their children address them as Mr. and Mrs. Badzin.

I believe the point at which I was called upon to make this decision was much like the one Nina describes:

The first time my opinion shifted was the day that Sam, four at the time, had a new friend over for a playdate who walked up to me and said, “Mrs. Badzin, may we please have a snack?” Call me Nina was on the tip of my tongue, but I realized that this little boy calling me Mrs. Badzin was not about me. It was about his parents’ wish for their child to demonstrate respect, and there was no question those parents had succeeded.

Unfortunately, most of my kids friends did call me Donna, so I think (hard to remember, now) I wasn’t moved sufficiently to act as Nina did. And I do think its unfortunate, if only because I feel there’s a trend toward societal infantilization of adults that is not doing our kids, or us, any good.

I’m not talking about parental authority run amok, but I am talking about the very tough parenting decision my friend Angela Johnson recently made regarding her teenaged boys and cell phone use into the wee hours of the morning. Regarding her June 14 “Words by Angela” blog entry, titled “Talking to Teens When Tragedy Happens. Oh, and Cell Phones…” , I think I cued in to the cell phone part because the rest I knew I would have handled the same way she did. The 10+ years’ difference between her two boys and my one wouldn’t really have changed the way I’d approach discussions about the Stanford rapist or the massacre in Orlando.

But I wasn’t as brave about restrictions on cell phone use. In my defense (and let’s just say right here it is always a sign of weakness, to use that phrase) Wikipedia says that in 1997, 0.4 text messages were sent per customer per month. My son was 10 in 1997; I think he got his first cell phone when he could drive, so maybe 2003. I don’t remember his taking his phone to bed at night with him (I suspect he will be happy to correct me on this), although I do remember my niece doing so just a few years later. “Sexting” became a dictionary entry in 2012.

All of which serves as preamble to these words by Angela:

Speaking of lights in the darkness. Let me finish with comments about those glowing blue screens. I should have done this before, when we first bestowed those tiny Pandora’s boxes into the palms of our children’s hands. I should have insisted they be phone free overnight.

And she did, Now she collects her two teenaged boys’ phones at 10pm, and returns them in the morning. They live somewhere east of St. Paul–I think I still hear them howling every night just as the summer sun sets. As Angela writes,

They are not pleased.

That’s where the badass part comes in, for Angela and Nina and, I hope, for me, in what few opportunities I continue to have to parent. What we do, say, how we conduct ourselves doesn’t always please our kids. Even when they’re young adults, out on their own, we can still make decisions that influence their behavior.

Let’s all try being grown-ups, for a change. It may, in the end, make our kids look more grown up, too.

 

 

If You Write Fiction, Pre-Order This: Ben Percy’s THRILL ME

61gdIUEfvaL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_How many of us who write were avid readers as children? I know I was, and still am, but there’s a difference now: as a child, I had no predetermined notion of what made a good book. If I liked it, it was good! As a result, my reading took me from this remarkably old-fashioned-looking series of children’s biographies…

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…to more classic stories like Charlotte’s Web to the perhaps less well-know (but dearly loved) From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. One of my earliest all-time favorites was The Boxcar Children (every last sequel to which I found heartbreakingly awful). My parents weren’t huge readers or even particularly interested in the books that my sisters and I chose on our regular library visits. They just wanted us to read, and so we read what we liked.

I thought about my childhood reading often when reading Ben Percy’s first non-fiction book, Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction. Ben establishes the premise of the book early on: Don’t forget the most basic reason we read: to discover what happens next. Just like kids, most adults don’t set out to read something for its excellent character development, nor for its lovely “rhyming action” (described originally by Charles Baxter in Burning Down the House and referenced by Percy in Thrill Me), and certainly not for the “feckless pondering” Percy (pretty comically, especially for those of us who have been known to indulge) eschews. What readers want–kids and adults–is a good story.

Clearly, what they’ll enjoy more is a story that is made better by the many topics Percy covers in this fast-paced book of fiction-writing craft, including how to create urgency and suspense, how to “make the ordinary extraordinary” and how to “activate setting.” You’ll read about his “suspense-o-meter,” his use of screenplay pacing, his general distaste for backstory. There are no writing exercises, but there are scores of references to good books, compelling stories, can’t-look-away movies. If all you did was collect Percy’s literary/film references and set out to read/view each, you’d be a better writer for having read Thrill Me.

But that’s not all this writer is going to do. I’m starting something new, and for the first time I’m going to try Percy’s “reverse engineering:” figuring out what my main character wants, placing her in the “worst case scenario” for getting/losing it, and making that the end of the story. That’s right–Percy is an unapologetic proponent of knowing the end of the story before you start. I’ve written two novels that have had difficulty finding homes. Percy says he’s written four failed novels, which is satisfying both in fact (obviously he’s gone on to success) and in bluntness (obviously I’m presently having trouble with the word “failed.”) Too often I’ve found myself fishing around for or belatedly inserting plot. Not this time. This time I’m working backwards. This time I’m writing a page-turner.

I also love and desperately want to use a suggestion he makes regarding “the balance between whimsy and logic.” “Try changing one thing,” he writes, if that’s where you want to go. “Just one. This is our world except for______.” How exciting is that? Just one thing–what will it be? A person with some kind of ESP? A ghost? A piece of music that bubbles up randomly–or not? And then there’s all the rest of my favorite Percy-isms: I’ve always loved (and since first hearing it, have consistently employed–so to speak) his advice in the “Get a Job” chapter, which is to have characters do meaningful work. I love to have characters make decisions after which there is truly no going back. I’m counting on my main character being able to say, “And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.”

His essay on “Revision as Renovation” makes the traditional advice about revision–“Kill your darlings”–seem like sweetness and light. I’m feeling a little beaten up right now, so it’s actually (although somewhat contrarily so) good for me to let Ben “tell [me] something: if you’ve got the angel in one ear, whispering kind things, and the devil in the other, hissing about how badly you stink, listen to the devil. The devil drives revision.” In my case, the “revision” is truly that–a new vision for how to write a novel. End first. Reverse engineer. And I’m hoping that anything that happens to me afterwards, I’ll never feel the same about again.

(I got an advance reader’s copy but you weren’t that lucky. Pre-order Ben Percy’s Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction at Indiebound or Amazon. Publication date is set for October 18, 2016.)