Thursday, August 30, 2007

magazine coincidences

I went to the DeKalb Public Library Wednesday night to read the Chicago Tribune and check out a few magazines. I grabbed the April 2007 issue of Backpacker magazine and found an article about Scott Williamson, a hiker who made notoriety as the first (and still only) person to yo-yo hike the Pacific Crest Trail. By yo-yo, I mean he walked the PCT from Mexico to Canada AND THEN back to Mexico in one season.

Sisu and rode the bus to Campo with him in 2004, and he even retrieved the copy of Bruce Chatwins The Songlines that I'd left on the bus. He had a Go-Lite Breeze pack, just like mine, but with far less gear than I carried in mine. We talked with him for about 30 seconds before he continued on his way, and we didn't see him again until late August at Timberline Lodge, Mt. Hood, Oregon. The weather was horrible. Driving rain. No visibility. Cold as hell. We stayed at the lodge. Williamson moved on. Southbound back to Mexico.

After he finished his yo-yo in 2004, Williamson made national news headlines and had a long feature written about him (in second person) in Backpacker magazine. We talked for a long time around the fire at the AZDPCTKOP in April 2005 about the dubious nature of notoriety. He is a very humble, sensible man, who just happens to live for hiking and has an insatiable will to push himself. He's one of the most "famous" thru-hikers ever, but it doesn't seem like it went to his head.

It was good to catch up on him at the library, especially after getting an e-mail from another hiker friend, German Tourist, who wrote a post from a public library near the Continental Divide Trail she is hiking this summer. She also says hello from Lint, another CDT thru-hiker, whom Esther and I met doing volunteer work for the Ice Age Trail. The long-distance hiker community is small enough that coincidences like that happen ALL THE TIME.

But then I picked up the latest (Sept. 2007) issue of Arizona Highways and saw a full page spread about a guy in Bisbee, Arizona, a local oddity in a town full of artistic type oddities, who walks around town with a parrot on his shoulder and a cat perched on a dog's back. I took a picture of this fellow when I was in that town in early January this year.

It's a small world, I guess. Two magazines. Two connections to people I've met.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Great DeKalb Flood of 2007

The rains came and stayed awhile, and for the second time in the past six weeks my apartment got flooded. And just when I'd defeated the mildew smell. Others fared much worse. My living room carpet got soaked and the same papers, maps, and books that got wet the first time just got wet again. No big deal. I write this to the hum of an industrial size fan.

Here's a video I put together of the flood waters.

Interesting video about public education

Friday, August 24, 2007

'That tingle', Dr. Bronner, All One, Mindwalk, Mechanistic vs. Systems world view

I've used Dr. Bronner's soap for years and enjoy reading the bottle when I'm bored. The bottle contains a religious message in tiny type that sounds like the rantings of a crazy man. But the message is essentially benign, promoting world peace and universal understanding. No wonder this soap rose to popularity in the 1960s.

An excerpt: Absolute Cleanliness is Godliness! Who else but God gave man Love that can spark mere dust to life! Poetry, uniting All-One! All Brave! All life! Who else but God! "Listen Children Eternal Father Eternally One!"

Here is a link to an NPR radio piece about Dr. Bronner, including a link to a movie trailer of a documentary about the eccentric soapmaker.

Check out this clip from the 1991 movie, Mindwalk, based on the book, The Turning Point, by Fritjof Capra. Capra is more well-known for his book, The Tao of Physics. The movie was filmed at Mont Saint Michel. The characters discuss Descartes and how inadequate (and antiquated) a mechanistic world view is. What got this whole thread of thought rolling is my first week student teaching I did not learn much about the individual personalities of my students, but did know their IEPs (individual education plans) and Nelson Reading scores. Is comprehensive testing a product of a systematic or mechanistic world view?

Ugh! It's getting near midnight. Dr. Bronner and Descartes. Food for thought and tingly good soap. All one! Good night!

Be not pensive

From On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Sal Paradise and Dean are travelling to Denver with three strangers on a share-a-ride trip…
“…the point being that we know what IT is and we know TIME and we know that everything is really FINE.” Then he [Dean] whispered, clutching my sleeve, sweating, “Now you just dig them in front. They have worries, they’re counting the miles, they’re thinking about where to sleep tonight, how much money for gas, the weather, how they’ll get there – and all the time they’ll get there anyway, you see. But they need to worry and betray time with urgencies false and otherwise, purely anxious and whiny, their souls won’t be at peace unless they can latch on to an established and proven worry and having once found it they assume facial expressions to fit and go with it, which is, you see, unhappiness, and all the time it flies by them and they know it and that too worries them no end. Listen! Listen! ‘Well, now,’” he mimicked. “’I don’t know – maybe we shouldn’t get gas in that station. I read recently in National Petroffious News that this kind of gas has a great deal of O-Octane gook in it and someone once told me it even had semi-official high-frequency cock in it, and I don’t know, well I just don’t feel like it anyway…’ Man, you dig all this.” He was poking me furiously in the ribs to understand. I tried my wildest best. Bing, Bang, it was all Yes! Yes! Yes! in the back seat and the people up front were mopping their brows with fright and wishing they’d never picked us up at the travel bureau. It was only the beginning, too.”

I read On the Road for the first time half a lifetime ago, at age 17. I re-read it again this summer and it was like reading it for the first time. Kerouac's prose has a lyrical, rhythmic quality to it. Of course, the beatnik tone of voice has been parodied often since, like, yeah, man, can you dig it? but the energy and love for life is still there.

This quote reminds me of the trail life. The hippie hiker mantra is, "It's all good!" To go on a long-distance hike requires one to roll with whatever nature and humanity presents. And always, ever always, confidence in fate and circumstance pay off. True peace and serenity, to me, means giving myself over to the moment, to whatever will present itself, and rolling with it, like swimming with the current. I fight fight fight so much sometimes to shape reality to fit my ideals. It's better not to fight. Better to observe, take note, find the right moment, upbeat or down, and take whatever is freely given by the fates.

Can you dig that?

In On the Road, the grand sage is Dean Moriarty (based on the real life Neal Cassady), the mad man who ends of disappointing and failing in some severe, crucial way everyone who crosses into his mercurial orbit. He fathers children he'll never care for and cheats on three different women, leaves Sal Paradise (Kerouac) fevered and alone in Mexico City, and seems to have no sense of direction or depth of feeling. He's all about the latest new thing, the pre-serotonin reuptake inhibitor poster boy for ADD.

And yet he knows IT. He's in tune with some greater wisdom that eludes most.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007


Call this the postprandial post, after feasting on pi.

I am keeping my fingers crossed until Thursday, hoping I got a 72 or better on my trigonometry final, giving me a C or better in the course and fulfilling my math requirement for teacher certification.

I called this trig class The Dead Hand, because a 'D' in a trig class at Rock Valley College almost 14 years ago caused me to spend the $450 (tuition, calculator and book) to take this class. The Dead Hand is a literary convention popularized in Victorian fiction where a bad deed a long time ago comes back to haunt a character. The wife-selling scene at the opening of Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge is one example that comes to mind. There's even a chapter in Eliot's Middlemarch with that title.

The Dead Hand is a rather quaint concept in modern American society. Our culture, for all its neuroses and paranoid tendencies, believes in second acts. From the founding fathers to Brittany Spears, Americans praise those who rise above former ignomy to achieve great things. Former shame is humbling and makes present glory taste all the better. It also humanizes leaders. No one likes an unblemished soul. That's too damn righteous. Democratization prefers a mown field to a pinnacle.

In this, my summer of peace, simplicity, and (often depressed) contemplation, I realize how humbled I am by my own present weaknesses and past indiscretions. My friend Andy gave me a backhanded compliment the other day on the phone. He said (and, of course, I'm paraphrasing), "You're not as much of a stuck up asshole since your divorce." Thanks Andy.

Failure can be a good thing. I failed at my marriage, and it will dog me the rest of my days. And I was particularly bad about how I ended it because I lacked the moral and emotional courage to strike off into single life on my own. But I've found strength in the processes I've put myself through. I know I can make it on my own. I know I can be a loving father and friend. I know I will find love again. And I hope I'm more forgiving and understanding of other's frailties.

I'm no longer the boy genius thru-hiker poet of yore. I'm a single dad, student, a prospective middle school language arts teacher, indebted, shackled to an economic system I hate, but lacking nothing. My pursuits are more practical, to live within my means, maintain a simple lifestyle, and try, try, try (and try not to try) to find peace and sanctuary. I've retired from the ideological and emotional front lines. I'm too tired for that. Nobody listens or cares anyways. Better now to be an observer than a participant, even though every fiber of my nature wants to jump into the fray.

Luckily, I have teaching as an outlet for creative expression and ideas. It's an outlet for me to be a ham, but it's also a much-needed connection to fellow human beings. I learn so much from my students. They've influenced the way I talk and even the music I listen to. Their openness and honesty are inspiring.

Good teachers connect with students on their level. My natural curiosity, I've discovered, is my greatest tool to being a teacher. I use extant environmental clues, like t-shirts and ipods, to connect to them. But I don't, you know, "try to be down" with them. There is a certain journalistic detachment to my inquiries. But they still eat it up. I'm a popular teacher because I allow students to teach me.

As I've written in multiple drafts of my teaching philosophy, I think of myself as a facilitator of knowledge. I show students the path to knowledge, but then give them the space and freedom to walk that road themselves. Despite my blowhard tendencies, I force myself to limit lectures to less than 10 minutes and then get out of the way. Student-directed learning is de rigeur in the teacher certification program anyways.

I called this post unencumbered because, for the next 12 days, I am not tied down to a job or a class. Of course, I have a pile of binders and workbooks at the foot of my bed, and must brainstorm lesson plan ideas for the first few weeks of class. I've got a day of student-teacher meetings Aug. 20 and have to get a TB test in the meantime, but other than that I'm a free man!

I also feel emotionally unencumbered. As I've referred to in past posts, this summer has been a rough one for me emotionally. Dark clouds rolled in and stayed awhile. I've fought with anxiety and restlessness. I can't be out there on the mountainside, pushing my endurance and running away from the world. I've needed this time in the valley, though I'll always maintain the valley stinks. The valley sucks. It's a polluted watershed.

But for the past couple weeks I've enjoyed a grace, of sorts, that I hope stays awhile. I'm starting to feel like the old Greg, the happy, carefree soul I see reflected in my child's eyes. I feel forgiven, forgiving. Wary, yes, and maybe a little more cynical, but refreshed. I have SO MUCH to be thankful for.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

More "Wisdom of Crowds" stuff

Here's a couple videos related to this concept of crowd wisdom. The first features a couple goats and explains the James Surowiecki book quote better than I do. The second is a British TV feature that illustrates the point made in the book. Of course, this concept has been appropriated by business to validate their "flies in the marketplace" theologies.

Getting quotes straight is tough

Facebook has this status feature. Members post short quotes to let those on their "news" feed know what they're up to. Last night I wrote: "Greg is studying hard for his Trig final. To quote Talking Barbie: 'Math is tough.'" This morning, in an effort to verify my accuracy, I did a Google search of the quote and discovered that many various news sources quote Barbie differently.

The Atlanta Journal/Constitution (Nov. 20, 1995) and Akron Beacon Journal (Oct. 21, 1992): "Math class is tough!"

Chicago Sun Times: Jan. 1, 2006 -- "Math is hard." Oct. 25, 1992 -- "Math is tough!"

The general consensus from the Google search is that Teen Talk Barbie said: "Math class is tough." The publicity furor over this happened in October 1992. It is funny that a variety of quotes are attributed to Barbie because this is a talking doll. If a journalist wants to check Barbie's quote, all they have to do is grab her hand or push her belly (or whatever activated Teen Talk Barbie). Also, the quote is not that long. How hard can it be to get it right? Imagine how often people with complex ideas and language are misquoted by media types.

I am more forgiving of media foibles than most, having spent almost four years as a reporter at small to mid-market daily newspapers. The deadline crunch is incredible and fact-checking is a luxury left only to long feature stories. I made a simple, albeit time-consuming gesture of reading back quotes to my sources just to verify that I got it right. Only twice in over 1,000 articles did I have to print a correction related to a quote. One of them was my fault. I got a factual quote wrong. The other was from a bitter, mentally unstable control freak school board member who had disputed quotes from her in other articles.

In these days of corporate conglomeration (Rupert Murdoch owns the Wall Street Journal!), downsizing newsrooms, declining subscriptions, and an aging readership, modern American journalism is at a low point. It's easy to find fault with it, but misquoting a talking doll is plain ol' sloppy journalism. And it's this kind of journalism (in our supposedly enlightened "Age of Information") that is the norm.

At least the sheer numbers of bloggers brings about some kind of consensus of truth. And the YouTube community provides visual proof. News gathering is grassroots. It's raw and unfiltered, full of crap and unchecked, but consensus, I've discovered, is more accurate than not. Check out The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations by James Surowiecki. The opening chapter tells about how the guesses of people at a county fair, averaged out, accurately guessed the weight of a butchered ox.

Of course, crowds are not often wise. Mass hysteria can prevail. But that's not an issue online. The "crowd" here is not a mass of people together, but a bunch of individuals working alone. But now that I think about it, misinformation can be as viral as the truth.

I guess the bottom line is: Don't believe everything you read. Don't even trust your senses. There is no truth. Just perception, approximations. All is chaos. We're ghosts made of swirling particles. It's too complicated to fathom. Give up and go sit in the corner. "Reality is tough."

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

July Jonny

I cleared out the camera and stitched together a few more video clips of Jonny. Enjoy!