Red Alerts

Telluride Daily Planet, Friday, October 5, 2018

 

I arrived in Telluride in late August 1984 during a summer that saw more than 45 days straight of afternoon thunderstorms. Looking out the eastern bunkroom window at the Oak Street Inn (a youth hostel at the time, and the reason I drove into town in the first place), it was all in-your-face Ajax Mountain and the big, fat silver ribbon of water running down Ingram Falls. Puffy clouds, pierced by late afternoon rays of light, signaled the end of every day before the moon’s rise in the valley; and then the morning would arrive, sparkly and sunny, at least for a little while.

In those first days (right before I actually took a job at that inn), assorted fungophiles were showing up in the early evening to cook their foraged specimens in the living room fireplace, a stand alone thing with a pull screen and rock rim. The brandy, butter and mushrooms mixed in with the smell of rain was more than good; it was intoxicating. And as I considered these cozy looking hobbits in raincoats, emitting their pheromones of mycological contentment, I wondered: What other world is this I’ve entered, with its rainbows, its deep shadows, its deer and bear padding around in the dark, forest-y background?

When fall came, I think it was probably spectacular enough, but then I hadn’t started comparing them yet. I’d never seen aspens before or big swaths of color doing their slow-mo stadium waves. I’d been back East, where the fall was much more about nine-inch maples leaves crunching underfoot at Central Park, and the eventual freezing of the duck and sailboat ponds.

The San Juans were something else. The vast mountains were alive and speaking. Entire geographies of scrub oak and aspens were transmutating. One of the first people I met in Telluride used the term “tunnels of fire” to describe the 22K gold envelope of aspens lining a trail as we walked up and through it.

In a sense, yes, on first glance, tunnels of fire, with visuals of orange and red and yellow licking flames. But the feeling was different. It was warm and interior and soft, a yellow that actually felt like it was being understood and absorbed by my body in a way I imagined the sun was understood and absorbed by plants. The gold light coming through the leaf? I could taste it, identify it landing on the back of my skull. Swallow it, sense it deep within and also right under my skin, as if my body, heart and soul needed a visible-spectrum vitamin to survive the coming cold.

When my mom passed away, almost 15 years ago now, I felt I needed to speak in part about aspens. It was that time of year in Colorado, they were on my mind, and we’d had a fall of extraordinary scope that just went on and on and on. But also, my mom, a fine and knowledgeable gardener, had been fascinated with this particular tree that she considered exotic simply because it didn’t thrive in the Northwest. I think I compared her passing to a tree having lost the last of its sun-drenched, living, breathing leaves.

Looking back, I think I was actually reaching at aspens to indicate, imperfectly and imprecisely, what fall does to the senses, to memory, to the heart, to our eroding notions of cycles, and time passing or standing still. To help me grasp big important things better, to help me grasp them at all. Every year since, I have tried to figure out my response to the slow-rising color in the turning aspens.

This year, with the drought and high heat, it’s the individual trees I’ve been observing and reacting to — the way it feels standing under one as the leaves quake and glint in the wind and sun. The quality of the micro-pockets of shade, the dark and the light all around, the dappling of the ground, that radiant yellow light streaming through the leaf portals to reach you, to infuse you with warmth before the yearly invasion of ice crystals, to call your attention to an aspen tree’s magnificence in the scheme of things.

When I try to recall the details of years of aspens turning, it really feels more like trying to slip back into a dream to gather it up, to secure the location, stand in it and attempt to feel it while looking around at whatever details I can glean. Like a traveler in time — and a tiny one, for sure — shooting through a wormhole of gold to get to a spot where the present moment can ring, briefly, but clarion-like and golden yellow.

 

 

Red Alerts

Telluride Daily Planet, Friday, September 7, 2018

 

In what I’ll call an idiot-savant moment, I recently realized that the reason my email calendars at work weren’t working was that I’d neglected somehow to switch on the obligatory alerts for tasks and events. So, no matter how things I’d entered into the system, the system would never do what it was meant to do — remind me of my responsibilities. I’d forgotten to remind it to remind me.

For some weeks, I’d been compensating by relying on my memory. Yikes. Small, sporadic alarm puffs were going off in my head instead of the more reliable digital screen pop-ups. Luckily, the whole digital calendar idea has not superseded the analog list I still take pleasure in making, which is basically square boxes on spiral bound lined paper to put x’s through. (It’s not just my generation, ok? See Bullet Journal, the analog system for the digital age.)

But it does seem like just moments ago that we were really relying on things like the note taped onto the fridge, the ballpoint-pen scrawl in the palm of the hand, the Day-timer, even relying on the other person whose job it was to remind you of something. All of which are basically in the bone yard of quotidian life at this point, bleached and turning to dust.

Instead, what we have today are smart phones (and smart phones linked to computers) reminding us literally — and virtually — about every part of every pie wedge of time. Everything you’ve both chosen and not chosen to subscribe to. Everything you might have ever glanced at, or, with a click, gotten on board with (into eternity). All the news you might think you do need, as well as the 99 percent of it you don’t. Plus, a whole host of other things, like when to drink water. (Done it.) When to meditate. (Check.) When to say happy birthday to someone and send them phone-fetti. (Done that a lot.) When to reorder checks (won’t do it no matter how many reminders; I’ll run out first). When to fit the shortest workout ever (one-minute) into your day (Yup.). When to pick up your food from that Costco guy (and how to change a reminder three times in one afternoon). (Done that, too.)

Rather than get too philosophical about the remindfulness of it all (which is actually already the name of an app that reminds you — oxymoronically — to be mindful), I just want to parse out my idea for a better today and a better world.

This idea is so simple: a cascade of digital reminders, alarms, and alerts of all that is right with the world. The sun rises and – ding – and here’s a recent poet laureate’s poem about it. Some smarty-pants kid just invented a microbe that eats plastic — ding — and here’s a link to get the details. News flash (ding): here’s how many people were released from prison last month after DNA tests proved them innocent, and a link to of one of them giving a TED Talk. How many livers (ding-ding) were received today in transplants all over the world. A photo of the Dachsund that saved an entire family from a house fire (dingaling). Moments of beauty (ding), inspiration (ding), invention (ding), intelligence, humor, compassion, creation, natural wonder, heroism (ding-ding-ding-ding-ding!).

My husband, prone to news alerts, these days especially, will sometimes read a little of the good news that gets swept into the high tide of daily churn like sparkly shells on the shore. The other day it was something so fine — so wondrous, even — that the forwarded link made me stop in my tracks and do the head-down phone thing right along with the rest of humanity. Here’s what had come in amid all the latest political fiasco, crime, violence, struggle, and cataclysm.

It was a Nat Geo alert about the discovery of what appeared to be a quadrillion tons of diamonds lurking 100 miles down in the cratonic roots of the planet’s mantle. The mother lode, discovered via sound wave and abnormal seismic activity. Can we even fathom what a quadrillion tons of diamonds looks like, especially in contrast to a relatively miniscule quantity spewed out of volcanoes and then cut, shined, and plopped onto our fingers and necks? There are immense reserves of the same precious substance, the hardest mineral known, embedded deep within the Earth and invisible to the eye. We, in Whoville, are standing upon it.

Now, that’s a red alert. The kind of sparkly red alert I want filling my phone and my head and my consciousness on a daily basis. Is that so much to ask?

 

 

Satisfied and tickled, too

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, October 16, 2016 (last essay for this paper!)

 

The only fan letter I ever wrote was to the novelist, Tom Robbins. No eye rolling, please. It’s important to note that I happened to be working for his publisher in New York City at the time (1982), and I happened to be selling cover art rights to his many foreign publishers. In essence, I was really working for him. So. It was a fan letter to my awesome boss.

The job itself is not at all glamorous; in fact, when I leave the position, my day-to-day boss, a tough woman VP for whom I type letters, asks me if I want to know why I will never amount to anything in the business. It does not help that the friend I make in that department becomes such a close friend (and is, still) that our desks have to be moved apart. Meanwhile, I gobble up the Tom Robbins novels, and on several occasions see him in the elevator looking adventuresome, approachable, and out of place; combined, these are enough to loosen New York City’s monopoly on my spirit.

I have blocked out whatever I might have tried to pull off in that fan letter. It had some history, probably. Having grown up in Seattle, I had already dragged the parents on a “tulip viewing” pilgrimage to the little town of La Conner, Washington, where the legendary creator of Sissy Hankshaw is known to live (and still lives, at 84).

I do know this: at the time of typing the letter on my old Royal, in the fabulous walk-up railroad flat I rent for more than two-thirds of my take home pay, I am thinking if I land a comment in this author’s ear, at least I will have done something in life. I probably gush out of every pore, because I am still in recovery from Catholic girls’ high school PTSD, for which gushing is not just the antidote but also the cure.

I drop it in the mailbox, thinking “There. Done. Did it. Now, move on.”

A few weeks later, despite the miniscule odds, I receive a letter postmarked La Conner. On the back of the envelope is an image of a duck and man with their heads down and submerged in water, along with the caption, “Does a duck have a Buddha nature, master?” Inside, is a photocopied anatomical diagram of head and alimentary canal with word bubbles coming out of various mouths. “Dear Michelle,” it says, “I would be satisfied (and tickled, too) if yours was the only fan letter I ever received. Bless your heart for that. Love & Luck. Tom Robbins.”

Sometimes, we do smile big, gaping smiles with our hearts. That I have fired off a letter to a winsome, frolicking, woman-loving, psychedelic-seeing, longhand-writing genius and gotten it answered is almost more than I can bear. It makes me float for a while and then it makes me wonder, Well, what keeps us afloat, though? Does a duck have a Buddha nature, master?

When I finally do drop out in search of something else, something imaginative and at the end of the road, there is no shortage of Robbins bubbling in my brain and fueling my fire. I take my father’s bequeathed computer and start tapping away, for hundreds and hundreds of hours at my first attempt at novel writing, which is — of course — about a roadside attraction. My prose is a far cry from Tom Robbins,’ but I like to think my characters might feel right at home reading his novels.

Fast forward 30 years.

A friend is over and is reading the famed, framed letter, as others have done, with a little smile. A diehard blues lover, he tells me he most appreciates the “satisfied and tickled, too” reference to the Mississippi John Hurt song. I have no idea what he’s talking about. I have never been aware of any allusion at all, which somehow utterly charms him because of this new layer, a layer that brings him right into the story.

Some time later but not so long ago, this same friend and his wife tell me they have a surprise for me, which is a present, a book. They’ve just been to Tom Robbins’ reading and book signing in NYC — of the memoir he said he would never write. And though they’ve all been told by the author, whose handwriting and eyesight are bad, that he cannot write personal notes, Barry and Christina, committed, stand in a long line in order to squeeze out my story in 12 seconds flat — the story of the only fan letter a girl has ever written, and the response she unexpectedly gets.

Below the shaky inscription to me and above his signature, he finds it in his heart to add: “Satisfied and tickled, too.” Which is a nice enough mantra in life, when you actually think about it.

Birken-stalkings

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, October 2, 2016

 

Years and years ago, within the secret-gardened privilege of a liberal arts education — back when, at this particular college, there are no requirements for any sort of mathematics but four years of requirements for cultural history from Greece and Rome to the modern day — I have a professor, one of many big-time characters who help liberate me from my parochial thinking while at the same time opening the door to a lifetime of head scratching. Thank you, all you professors, so much.

 

This particular man, like many of his fellow academics with bigger and more beautiful than average minds, wears the same outfit day after day and walks the same way to get to the same office to hold the same office hours to help students asking the same questions arrive at the same answers – always making sure, of course, that they are doing it themselves, or at least helping them think that they are.

 

Some of these ivory tower types wear tweeds and bow ties, some wear elbow-patched sweaters. Professor H, call him, is in the habit of wearing very loose fitting khakis, a nondescript short-sleeved shirt, and Birkenstocks.  The way he walks is hard to forget: a deliberate and primordial stepping down – as if permanently imprinting in mud the ground of our tiny spinning planet, which hangs here delicately in a balance of not only deep space but snips, snails, puppy dogs tails, floating Greek characters, and enough ancient philosophy to bend light. Birkenstocks seem like the perfect shoe for this man.

 

At any rate, the professor is a man with a mission, a mission centered on the entrainment of undergraduate minds to better know Greek philosophers — and, more specifically, one particular concept. If you get it, and your work reflects that you get it, you score well, and get A minuses. (A’s are not given, on principal, in his classes.) The concept is straightforward, and the only thing keeping us all from simply getting it and ticking it off and writing the papers parroting back our comprehension of what he is getting at… is rebellion. You will see why in a moment.

 

His idée fixe, (which, like everything else under the Sun, is not new) is that freedom is not necessarily contained in the notion of choices. That, on the contrary, choice can limit us, paralyze us, even. That the happy life, a life determined by measured goodness and good-thinking and proper and natural adherence to rules, can create a life far more “free” than a life rife with too much choice or rebellion. Of course, at nineteen, we find it impossible not to rebel against this. Most adults today cannot conceive of it, given our modern world, which is populated by skillions of choices, that get chopped up into skillions more.

 

Today, I am thinking of this man – whom I have thought of many times before  — as I tackle a mundane task: replacing a washing machine, a brand new one with far more choices on its dashboard than I want or need, one which is so efficient in the water department that it hardly uses any water at all, so little, in fact, that it barely gets the clothes wet, let alone clean. There are too many other washers to choose from out there and too many choices within each of them. I feel paralysis set in. My free will – the freedom to choose wisely – is corrupted, even at the inch-worm level of the washing machine!

 

In addition to this burden of choosing, we are then asked to process these choices quickly and all at once. Look at this screen and figure out where you are. Pick a game and play it instantly. Look at this coffee maker and program it. Look at this phone, and figure out this week’s operating system. Pick two things to do at once, now, or seven or however many you want, there are so many! Do it until you’re giddy and fried and there is only one thing left: the bathtub. The idea of fewer choices and greater freedom? It is revolutionary. Subversive. Possibly even brilliant.

 

Recently, I hear of the early passing of an acquaintance, a novelist and screenwriter, whose habit with any kind of writing, which he does longhand, is never – not ever –to begin with a blank page. He writes between the lines of other people’s work, on the backs and fronts of bills and envelopes, on whatever comes in the mail. What I love about this is that the freehand scrawls flows more easily this way. Standing out between the rows of printed text, it quietly, and seamlessly illustrates how limitation, constraint, and fewer choices can be the beginnings of something very fine indeed.