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Vacation, pt.1: Wide Open Spaces

Here's a scene and song from one of the many great Disney/Pixar movies: "Cars."

I wrote this two nights ago, but I did not have any internet access until I arrived home today.

Our family typically goes on two types of vacations. First, there is the type where we travel to one location, stay there for several days, and mix rest and relaxation with some local attractions and activities. Then, there is the more ambitious undertaking that we are currently enjoying and will soon be ending. As I start writing this post, we are at the Grand Canyon Lodge right on the north rim of the canyon. (If it were not pitch black outside right now, I would be staring out the window at an amazing view of the canyon.) This stop was preceded by a couple of days in Las Vegas, a quick trip through Zion Canyon, and then a night and half day at Bryce Canyon.

After a day of hikes, sightseeing, and ranger presentations, I am hiding away at the lodge to get in a little late night writing. (I couldn’t sleep last night anyway.) It’s been a fun trip, but I have reached the point where I am about ready to get home. I’m missing some of my normal routine, particularly racquetball and my standard internet activities. Staying in motels is also getting me a little stir crazy. You don’t realize how dependent you have become on the world wide web and on physical space until you spend a few days “cut off” from civilization, living in a single room. The phrase “comforts of home” takes on a deeper meaning after days of travel.

Driving around through parts of four states in six days can get a bit exhausting and monotonous, particularly when exposed to a steady dose of Hannah Montana and The Jonas Brothers. One cool thing about this kind of a trip, however, is that you get a better feel for the layout of this amazing country in which I live. The American Southwest so often conjures up images of nothing but deserts and barren landscapes. And while we have seen plenty of shrubs and cacti, we have also gone through forests; seen some amazing canyons, mountains and cliffs - and I’m not just talking about the national parks; and driven through green plains and meadows.

The most distinctive quality of the land, however, and something that I always notice while taking these kinds of trips, is emptiness. The overwhelming majority of the landscapes we have seen are basically devoid of people. It’s amazing how quickly your idea of what constitutes a city can change when driving through mile after mile of nothingness. Suddenly, if you see a few houses and businesses, you feel like you have once again rejoined civilization. In Southern California, there is no way in hell that one of these little conglomerations of buildings would even register as being remotely urban. But when out on the open road, a town of 500 is a major population center. And if a town has a real supermarket, a Starbucks, or a Wal-Mart, then it is clearly a thriving metropolis.

Rural environments and general emptiness are still pretty common in the United States. Amazingly, even through our population has increased tremendously over the last one hundred years, there is almost as much empty space today as there was in the early twentieth century. This is because we Americans, like people in all industrialized societies, have a habit of packing into huge cities. As people have become increasingly dependent on commerce to survive, they have been compelled to live in cities. After all, if you rely on trade, then you are forced to live near other people with whom you need to trade.

When the United States was first developing in the nineteenth century, people saw the “empty” lands on the western frontier as a great blessing for our nation. If problems like overcrowding, unemployment, homelessness, or shortages of land and resources developed, then people could look to the west for new opportunities. This was why some Americans were nervous at the end of the 1800’s when it seemed that the frontier was gone. Without this “safety valve” to ease tensions in the more settled, urbanized areas, our country would lose its uniqueness. We would no longer truly be the land of opportunity, and we would develop the kinds of problems seen in the more developed parts of Europe.

Clearly, these fears were largely unfounded. The idea that struggling Americans living in urban areas needed the frontier is clearly a myth. People are not leaving the cities to flock to the frontier. If anything, the opposite has been happening for decades. Southern California, in spite of all of its problems, continues to snowball in population. Meanwhile, states like Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Idaho, Wyoming and several others are filled with cheap land and wide-open spaces. Some of this can be attributed to geography. Southern California has access to the ocean and nice weather. Montana, of course, is landlocked and gets freaking cold. But this is also part of a general American and global trend in which most human beings are compelled to cluster into urban areas.

So in a sense, the American frontier never actually disappeared. It is still out there. I’ve seen quite a bit of it in my travels over the years. But most Americans, from what I can gather, are not itching to move there. Maybe the increasing importance of the internet will play some role in reversing this trend. If people can sell goods and services on-line rather than in person, then they can theoretically live anywhere. A certain amount of human concentration, however, seems inevitable. Certain business transactions must still happen face-to-face, and goods and materials will continue to flow through urban centers that thrive due to their location. Plus, large cities are like a magnet, sucking people in to do business with those who are already there.

I always tell my students that they should get the heck out of California when they graduate from college and get some cheap land out in North Dakota. I then assure them that I will keep an eye on things for them out here in Orange County. The frontier is a nice place to visit from time to time, but I don’t know if I could live there. I’m spoiled by Southern California weather, and a teaching job in a “town” of 150 might not pay very well. So I better get off to bed. For tomorrow, we will leave this iconic symbol of the American frontier and head back toward Southern California, iconic symbol of the modern age.

NBA Championships and Buddhist Philosophy

This is my favorite song from the album "All That You Can't Leave Behind" by U2.

So the Los Angeles Lakers won another championship after one of the roughest, hardest played, most intense games that I have ever seen. I felt like I was watching something in between a football game and a wrestling match (with some basketball thrown in). This game, along with the entire season, seemed so important when it was taking place, with the stakes particularly high because the Lakers were facing their ultimate rival, the Boston Celtics. This was a competition over future bragging rights as the greatest NBA franchise in history. Even Kobe Bryant, a guy known for being calm under pressure, would later admit that this game made him nervous. (He sure looked it; although it is hard to score when guys are constantly hanging all over you.)

You would think, therefore, that when the buzzer finally sounded, I would feel a sense of jubilation. After sweating through another wild season, and seeing those hated Celtics finally go down, I should have been overjoyed. Experiencing this moment was what it was all about, right? Strangely, what I felt was mostly a sense of relief. Some joy did begin to appear as the championship sunk in, but the thrill of ultimate victory was nowhere near as intense as some of the emotions experienced during the course of the season. So what is my problem? Have I been spoiled by the many previous Lakers championships over the years? Are negative emotions, particularly the fear of defeat, more powerful than the positive feelings of victory?

Like another recent post that mentioned basketball, this is not merely a self-analysis of Paul Swendson: psychotic sports fan. Believe it or not, there is a life lesson here. At many times in the past, when I have looked forward with great anticipation toward getting some object or having some experience, it turned out that finally possessing that item or achieving that goal was not quite as gratifying as I had expected. When I was a kid, there were times where I just had to have a certain toy, video game, electronic device, or some other thing. If I could just get my hands on it, then I would be forever satisfied. Then, if I finally got that special item, it was awesome (for a while). Of course, eventually it would be clear that possessing that ultimate object did not make life perfect. Therefore, only one logical course of action remained: get that next perfect thing. Then, as you have already figured out, the cycle of desiring and ultimate disappointment would continue.

I have also had similar experiences when traveling to different places, watching the latest blockbuster movie, or even getting married. Now I am not saying that these have been negative experiences. (So don’t go running to my wife to tell on me.) Like NBA championships and cool toys for Christmas, these are all parts of a long list of great memories. Still, no single acquisition or experience has ever been completely fulfilling, in itself, for any extended period of time. Somehow, I always fall back into day-to-day life, and I continue to be the same guy with all of his typical flaws and desires. I can guarantee you that when the next NBA season rolls around, even though the Lakers have won back-to-back championships (again), I will get pissed off every time that they lose a game. “What has anyone or anything done for me lately?” This could probably be written as an epitaph for the entire human race.

I do not remotely pretend to be an expert on Buddhism. My understanding, however, is that its original founder taught that all suffering ultimately comes from human desire. Human beings want things, and in some cases they do not get what they want, creating pain and suffering. The big problem, however, is that even when we get what we want, we will still be unsatisfied. Buddhism, like Hinduism, teaches that the world we experience is essentially an illusion, so the things that we become attached to in this illusory world can never satisfy us. The only thing that we can do, therefore, is to work toward eliminating desire. “The Eightfold Path” is the original self-help program, laying out a clear process toward the promotion of self-discipline with the ultimate goal of eliminating all desire.

Buddhism in its original form, however, is very hard, and most of us don’t have the time or the temperament to detach ourselves from the world and become a monk. What we can do, however, is grow a bit wiser as we age and stop looking for that amazing object, event, or person that is going to make everything just right. In other words, we have to stop behaving like children who are looking for that next perfect toy. Real joy comes from finding moments of fulfillment in everyday existence; from not being too attached or expecting too much from people, objects, and events; from looking beyond our selfish desires; and from realizing that life is about the journey, not just the destination. As I know from learning and re-learning these lessons hundreds of times, it is easier said than done.

Las Vegas: Shining Symbol of the U.S.A

Here's on old song by Ray Charles about a typical victim of Las Vegas.

We have decided on the destinations for our summer vacation this year. We are going to spend a couple of days in Las Vegas, then go up to Bryce Canyon for a day, and last but not least, stay for a couple of nights at a lodge right on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. The kids are excited because it will be the first time that they will travel outside of the state of California. What they find most exciting, however, will be the chance to get free ice cream on the way to Vegas at the Dairy Queen owned by their uncle. One of the great things about kids is their ability to get excited about the little things.

I am ready to go out and hit the open road as well. The only problem, however, is that I am feeling a little guilty about the Vegas part of the trip. This is not because I am planning on indulging in all of the sins for which the city is well known. Gambling has never been my thing anyway, and this is a family trip, after all. The plan is to hang out at a fancy resort and show our kids a little bit of the ridiculous spectacle of the city with all of its bright lights and gigantic buildings. My guilt instead comes from knowing the historical origins, economic foundation, and environmental impact of this crazy place sitting out in the middle of nowhere.

At a used book sale a few weeks ago, I found some good history books, one of which was called, “The Money and the Power: The Making of Las Vegas and its Hold on America.” In honor of our upcoming trip, I decided that I should read this book first. I have read about 1/3 of it so far, and I already have a good understanding of the author’s basic thesis. Ever since Las Vegas started to build up in a significant way during the 1930’s and 1940’s, it has been financed, owned, and operated by organized crime networks. Nevada, a state that was going nowhere, turned to legalized vice in the early 1930’s as a means of developing its economy. Gambling was illegal in other states at the time, and the end of prohibition dried up bootlegging activities, so Nevada became a Mecca for people looking to make money from “sin.” In a sense, the state of Nevada sold its soul to the devil, and Las Vegas evolved into a national capital not only for gambling but also for laundering the money earned throughout the nation from selling drugs and conducting other illicit activities.

The connection of Las Vegas to organized crime is one of the best-known “secrets” in the United States. What this book seeks to emphasize, however, is the degree to which Las Vegas is the central place in organized crime networks that permeate life throughout the entire country (and world), with public officials being complicit in all of these activities. Meyer Lansky, the man who ran much of the national crime “syndicate” in the early 20th century and who helped finance the build up of Vegas, learned two things early in life: public officials can be bought, and the only people who make consistent money in gambling are the ones who control the game.

While many people are aware on some level of the “dark history” of this city, I get the feeling that few are really bothered by it. This may be partly because they either fail to realize or refuse to believe how powerful organized crime figures really are. I would also argue, however, that Vegas’ connection to organized crime is part of its appeal. The city sells itself, after all, as a fantasyland where anything goes: “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” It’s a place where you can be bad, and we all know that bad is fun. The fact that the “baddest” people in the land built it adds to the mystique.

Now while some may be able to ignore or deny the dark forces behind the city of Vegas, it is impossible to be unaware of its environmental impact. Here is a city in the middle of a desert wasteland that is filled with huge, air-conditioned casino hotels; giant water fountains; perfectly manicured golf courses; and the brightest glowing lights on planet earth. So where does all of this energy and water come from? How is the environment of the areas that supply Vegas impacted by this mass diversion of water and electric power? Is this an efficient use of resources, particularly in a God-forsaken environment like this?

Las Vegas, from what I can gather, makes no economic and environmental sense. Once again, however, this may be part of the appeal. It is the ultimate example of a magic oasis in the desert, a place where you can escape reality and indulge yourself a little (or a lot). This city produces no tangible commodity. It does little - if anything - to benefit the nation, and it probably does many things that harm us all. Las Vegas’ main commodity is an image of itself, and its primary goal is to suck us into that image and separate us from our money. It’s a business model that is all about taking and leaving nothing tangible in return. (It’s even worse than Wall Street.)

I know all of this, and yet off we go. So how do I justify this behavior? Ultimately, I recognize that dark forces are out there no matter where you go. At least in Vegas, this reality is somewhat out in the open. Also, Las Vegas may be the ultimate symbol of my flawed, fascinating, frustrating, fun loving, “f_ _ _ ed up,” freedom loving country. The United States is a land of excess, and Las Vegas – not New York City, Hollywood, or Washington DC – may be the best place to find out what makes Americans tick.  It’s educational, and hopefully, I can score a good buffet or two. Of course, in order to maintain my integrity, I will read my anti-Vegas book a little at the resort. I’ll have to keep an eye out, however, in order to make sure that “The Mafia” is not watching.

Losing Myself in a Novel Once Again

This video relates to the novel that my daughter chose for me.

I was getting a little jealous of my wife and kids a few weeks ago. Both of our daughters have really taken off in their reading lately. They are able to read pretty easily junior novels and story books that are significantly above their grade level. It is common for my older daughter to read a fairly long book in a single day. My wife has also been into reading classic literature again, and she joined a women’s book club a few months ago. Their latest book has been “Catcher in the Rye,” one of my old favorites. (Like many adolescents, I went through a Holden Caulfield phase, but that is another story.)

There was a time in my life when I was a pretty avid reader of novels and of other forms of classic literature. Some of this was a requirement of courses that I took, but most of it was by choice. I decided during my college years that I should read as many of the classics as I could, and I was surprised the other day when browsing a “Barnes & Nobles” book shelf by the number that I have actually read. Today, that phase seems like a distant memory. These days, I do not read as much as I would like. Work, parenting, exercise, and this recent writing addiction have gotten somewhat in the way. And when I do read, I try to make it as “productive” as I can. In my case, this usually means current events or history, material that I hope will make me a better teacher.

As I watched my wife and kids reading stories for enjoyment, it reminded me of how much I miss the experience of losing myself in a novel. Reading fiction is a whole different experience from the kind of expository writing that I typically peruse. I remember when I used to get so immersed in a book that I no longer noticed myself physically reading the text. Instead, the words were instantly translated into visual images in my mind. It became more like watching a movie. And when I would watch the actual film versions of some of these books, the movie never looked right. After all, I had already visualized the characters and settings perfectly, and the movie images could never be as rich and detailed as those produced by the book.

So I decided to go wild and start reading some good literature for fun again. When I shared this plan, my older daughter became really excited and started running off ideas in her head for books that I “had to read.” Then, it suddenly struck her. She ran to the closet and pulled out “Where the Red Fern Grows.” Now I had heard of this book, not realizing that it was a popular children’s novel. So it somewhat fit the “classics” category, but it wasn’t quite at the level that I had in mind. But she was so excited, and it seemed like it might be a good light read to get me going again. Then, the reason that I “had to read” this book suddenly struck me. This could be both fun and “productive.” We could have a great time discussing and maybe even analyzing this book that she clearly loves. I could also be, for a change, a role model for the book lover that she has already become.

Today, after just a few short weeks, I finished the book. I actually found myself finishing the last part in a reading frenzy before taking off for class, and I must admit that the book has some great storytelling. The best parts are the suspense-filled, action scenes involving the hunting of raccoons and the near death – and eventual death – sequences that are described in excellent detail. I’m sure that this is why my daughter loved it. It’s just a damn entertaining read. But is there more to the story than a kid going on hunting adventures with his two loyal dogs?

To a certain degree, this is a simple story about basic, primal things: growing up, hunting, survival, and being in touch with nature. In addition, however, a couple of deeper themes come up throughout the story. The first has to do with the love and devotion that people feel from their pets (especially dogs). In this story, the characters are continually amazed by the behavior of the narrator’s dogs. Part of this comes from their amazing skill as hunters, but even more striking are the loyalty and devotion these dogs show to both the boy and to one another. When the boy speaks, the dogs seem to understand him. If the boy is threatened in any way, then the dogs will risk their lives for him without any hesitation. The dogs always look out for one another, and they refuse to do anything if the other is not present. They seem to epitomize the phrase that “a dog is a man’s best friend.” So do dogs feel real love and devotion to their owners and to one another? Or, as some might say, are they simply pack-animals that instinctively latch on to the “alpha male” as a means of survival? Some would say that when a dog stares at you with those big brown eyes, he or she is expressing devotion. Others would see this as an instinctive, manipulative technique designed to get some food out of you. Unless some of us get the chance to be reincarnated as dogs, we may never know.

The book also talks a lot about divine providence. On multiple occasions, events occur in which the boy is convinced that God is looking out for him. He prayed for dogs, and one day he came upon a classified ad describing where he could buy them. When he could not cut down a tree to capture his first “treed coon,” the wind suddenly picked up and blew it down. When he struggled to find the right names for his new dogs, he suddenly saw two perfect names carved on a tree. And the list could go on. Many people will swear to their dying day that they have had experiences which prove that God was watching over them or had a plan for their lives. I can think of key decisions or circumstances in my own life that seem to be part of a plan that I did not recognize at the time they occurred. Is there something to this? We may have to wait for the afterlife, if there is one, to get the answer to that one as well.

I do not claim to know if animals are capable of love or if there is such a thing as divine providence. I suspect, however, that the human mind may be wired to see both of these phenomena. When dogs seem to do remarkable things, these actions stick in our mind. But when they do standard stuff like beg for food or sniff each others’ butts, it tends to get filtered out. Are we merely seeing and locking away in our memories the actions that confirm what we want to believe? The same question, of course, could be asked about divine providence. Indications of some sort of a plan may be the circumstances that stand out while the day-to-day, random, uneventful, pointless occurrences fade away. As I have written before in this blog and will probably write again, the older that I get the more convinced I am that core human beliefs are not generally based on evidence. Instead, we (often unconsciously) seek out evidence to keep our core beliefs intact. Our minds do not respond well to a radical shake-up of the fundamental views that help us make sense of things. (Just think back to most of the religious and political discussions that you have ever had.)

So now I am excited about talking to my daughter about the book. I’ll stay away from the heavy philosophic topics and do what teachers like me are supposedly trained to do: ask questions. It will be interesting to see if she saw this as more than just a fun story. Then I will need to find a new book to read for fun as a break from the “productive” non-fiction. Does anyone have any ideas?

Why Should We Care About a Bat Disease?

This is one of several great songs from Midnight Oil's environmentalist-oriented album "Earth and Sun and Moon." (I wanted to post the title track, but I couldn't find it online.)

I am going to take a little risk in this post. I, a history teacher, am going to talk a bit about science. And not only that, I am going to discuss a topic that I knew virtually nothing about until yesterday: bats. Last night, we went with the kids on a “bat walk.” It turns out that the sister of one of our friends is a well-known local bat expert, and she was putting on a presentation at a nature preserve down in Irvine. After her slide show that contained remarkable pictures showing the huge variety of bats in the world, we went on a walk carrying little sensors that could pick up the sound waves being put out by the bats as they were hunting for insects. You would hear this rapid clicking noise, and then, sure enough, a bat would quickly shoot by. It was pretty cool, and the kids had fun carrying little counters and clicking them in order to keep track of the number of bats that they saw.

There was one part of the slide show, however, that was disturbing. (Those who have disaster fatigue beware.) As we speak, an ecological disaster is taking place that is decimating the bat populations of the eastern United States and parts of Canada. A mysterious disease named “White Nose Syndrome” is killing bats at an alarming rate, virtually wiping out entire colonies and threatening the continued existence of certain species. I found four facts particularly disturbing: we do not currently understand what causes the disease; the disease is spreading rapidly, with a case recently turning up in Oklahoma; most Americans – like myself until yesterday - have ever heard of this disaster; and few resources are being spent on attempting to understand and contain this plague.

Here is a (somewhat out-of-date) video describing the disease. You can find other, longer videos on “YouTube.” (Just type in “White Nose Syndrome Bats.”)

If you are not a bat enthusiast or devoted environmentalist, then you might be wondering why you should care. It’s pretty simple really. Bats, like bees – another creature suffering from a mysterious drop in population – perform some very important functions. Bats that eat insects play a vital rule in keeping bug populations down. And when you consider the fact that some bat colonies number in the millions – there is a colony in Texas of 20 million - and that bats can eat more than their body weight in a single day, it is difficult to comprehend the jump in insect populations that will occur if bats nationwide are wiped out. This jump will represent more than a nuisance. Farmers in some regions are going to be facing a pest infestation nightmare, and all of us may be suffering someday in the form of higher food prices and an environment laced with even more potentially dangerous pesticides. We might also suffer if mosquitoes, one of the most effective spreaders of disease, get out of control as well.

Some bats, however, are not insect-eaters. There are many species of fruit-eating bats, and there are others that are mammalian versions of hummingbirds, sucking pollen out of flowers. And in the course of flying around and eating fruit and pollen, these bats play a vital role in either fertilizing flowers – like big bees – or pooping out the seeds of the fruits that they have consumed. Without bats, naturally growing species of numerous plants will also be decimated. This is why it is vital to try and stop the potential spread of this plague into the American southwest and the South American rainforests, areas heavily populated by bats that consume pollen and/or fruit.

Often, many Americans see the goals of economic growth and environmental protection as contradictory. You have to choose one or the other, and industrial development, by its nature, will sometimes have negative environmental effects. Others are starting to realize that “going green” may be more than just vital for survival. It can also be profitable. There is no direct evidence at this moment that humans have played any part in creating “White Nose Syndrome.” This disaster clearly shows, however, the connection between environmental degradation and potential economic catastrophe. At first glance, a bunch of dead bats seems like no big deal. But when you start to see the interconnections between different aspects of our ecosystem, you see how events in the natural world can come back to bite us (like a vampire bat, the mammalian version of a mosquito).

In the modern world, there is a tendency to think that we have conquered nature. Modern developments in transportation, housing, energy production, communication, agriculture, and medicine often make it seem like we are masters of our universe. Many of us have little or no personal connection to the natural world on a daily basis because we are shielded by our technology. Every now and then, however, Mother Nature reminds us that she can kick our ass. Usually this realization comes in the form of something big like a hurricane, earthquake, flood, or tsunami. Out of necessity, we then pour in resources to deal with the catastrophe. But what happens when a disaster is hidden from view and creeps up on us more gradually? Unfortunately, when we don’t experience a big shock to the system, there is a tendency to blow problems off. After spending paltry sums over the past few years trying to understand and possibly contain this bat plague, Congress has currently set aside nothing for this coming year. If this problem concerns you, it may not be a bad idea to do some research and contact your local Congressperson.

Like it or not, we humans are not masters of the ecosystem. We are part of it. And if we just stand by and watch nature go to hell, we may someday face some serious (and possibly unforeseen) consequences. Of course, some might see the rapid extinction of bats as just one more development in the process of evolution. Species rise and fall, and life goes on. Of course, if the natural world that we have grown accustomed to rapidly changes, we might also go down with the ship. We will then be just one more species swept aside in the evolutionary process of “survival of the fittest.”