Power and priorities

Walking composition

Text from me: “I keep feeling like I’m forgetting how to drive while I’m driving.”
Text from friend: “That’s a good metaphor.”
. . .
<<No really, like I was backing out of a driveway and suddenly thought, “I don’t remember how to do this.”>>

One of the more absurd regular reminders I have of the insanity of our pandemic situation is a weekly email from my son’s swim team. He hasn’t been to practice or the pool in nearly a year, and when I get these updates I glance at them to see what’s going on. Every single time I read one of the cheery “Here’s what you need to qualify for state!” or “Here’s how many people we have space for at next week’s meet!” missives, my immediate response is, “Why the f— are we still having sports practice and competitions?” Especially swimming, steamy and crowded and indoors and absolutely saturated with aerosols and poor ventilation. People yell up close and constantly, especially parents. If you’ve ever been to a kids’ swimming competition you’d know how insane this is.

And then I remember that the roles of society, government, and the economy are completely inside-out and in that context of course it makes sense that kids are still training for and traveling to swimming competitions. Among all the other things that shouldn’t be happening because our priorities are all wrong.

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I started and abandoned three books this week. I don’t mind abandoning books but was disappointed because I need something good to read in the evening, something I’m not annotating with Post-It notes.

One of them was actually a semi-interesting travel book by a Scottish guy who walked across Afghanistan in 2002. It was weird to realize that I can no longer warm to that kind of writing. I spent a long time in the early 2000s reading piles of travel literature and submitting travel essays to various magazines, and spent four years writing for a literary travel website. I love travel writing. Or have loved it. And especially love nonfiction placed in the Middle East because I have a weird longing for the place (which I’ve never been to). I used to dream about walking to Damascus—literally dream not daydream.

I kept forging ahead with the book because it’s a perfectly decent book, but finally took friendly advice and gave myself permission to stop. Somewhere early in its pages, I was struck with how weird it is to be reading interpretations of a war-torn country from the privileged position of a relatively well-to-do outsider popping in and walking around because they feel like it. It’s part of why most national journalism is unsatisfying or irritating: someone from outside a culture trying to interpret it for others.

There’s a lot for me to think about here. I haven’t read much travel writing in many years except for Kate Harris’s lovely book Lands of Lost Borders, so I’m not sure what’s going on in my own head. But I think the basic issue is that I want to hear people’s stories from themselves if they’re willing to share. Where’s the book by the person born and raised in Afghanistan who walked across their own country in the last twenty years? I want to read that.

This isn’t an absolute. I still love Paul Salopek’s walking journey across the world. But I think that very early on he managed to set that tone for his dispatches: the experience of walking and the world was his, but interpretations of the places he landed in belonged to other people. It’s not totally consistent but it feels less “otherizing.”

I’m a little sad at the thought of opening the travel literature I still have on my shelves and finding much of it disappointing or too dated, but also curious to see what kinds of stories we’ll get in a world that is becoming more open to a diversity of experience and perspective.

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During a walk last week, I talked with a friend and we shared our frustrations with the Montana legislature and the obvious contempt with which those in power treat dissenting voices. Another friend said that her industry’s state lobbyist has told them that if he’s wearing a mask in the Capitol building, the people in power—the Republican Party legislators—won’t even listen to him.

It’s infuriating and dehumanizing. But this is not about party, it’s about power. When I lived in New York, the party in charge was always the Democratic Party, and while I agreed with many of their policies, I was appalled at the constant corruption and the ways in which they also shut out dissenting voices.

When power becomes a driving force, especially when combined with the lure of ideology, that’s when systems that are meant to serve us fall apart (they always seem to be falling apart). It can’t be answered by different people with different ideologies wielding the same kinds of power. You just end up with similar problems. But I do think that people like Stacy Abrams provide tremendous examples of the kinds of interconnected power that can start to erode the dominant structures—healthy power based on kinship and care rather than domination.

There are networks like that everywhere, including here in Montana (like Forward Montana, whose weekly What the Helena? legislative dispatches have been a lifeline for years). We just need to find the tributaries that connect us and work to keep them clean, healthy, and connected.

There’s a metaphor here, about free-running, unpolluted rivers and streams versus highly treated and enclosed swimming pools full of loud parents and Covid aerosols, but I’m not quite pulling it together. Maybe it’s not a metaphor. Maybe it’s just the life we’re living.

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Some stuff to read or watch:

  • One of my favorite things last week was a blog post from my friend Sarah Boon, who’s a former Arctic researcher and current science writer, looking into the question of whether or not the recent weather situation was a polar vortex. She’s got a clear scientific explanation of exactly what a polar vortex is, and why last week’s weather was more likely a sudden stratospheric warming event.

  • Indian Country Today is publishing a series of stories about lives affected by pipelines—both those who try to protect water from them, and those whose livelihoods depend on them. Its first article is about the replacement of Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline in Minnesota, a strong start to necessary reporting.

  • I feel like I could spent all day watching this 79-year-old Russian woman skating around Lake Baikal looking for her cows.

  • Another incredible piece from Chris La Tray via Culture Study: an in-depth essay about, among related stories, tribal sovereignty and how the issue of who is considered Native American/Indian is tangled up with colonialism (but it’s really about more than that and everyone should just read it).

  • In Sapiens by archaeologist Stephen Nash, something I never thought about: a so-far fruitless search for tree stumps around Mesa Verde to answer the question, “Where did Ancestral Puebloans get trees for their buildings?”

  • One of the other books I gave up on this week was Camilla Pang’s The Outsider’s Guide to Humans. I like her concept of trying to explain human behavior through science, like talking about algorithms and machine learning and then explaining how she tries to construct less-rigid decision trees for herself that allow her to function in the “normal human world” (her words) as a person with autism spectrum disorder and ADHD. I personally couldn’t engage with the book, but I think a lot of people will find it either interesting or helpful.