Sunday, December 16, 2012

How Could This Happen?

I am a writer. I process things that happen by writing. After the recent tragic shooting in Connecticut and all the other horrific acts that happen around us every day, I feel the need to process the craziness of this world. Maybe my words will reflect how you feel. I often find it a comfort when I read something by another soul who expresses just what I was feeling. If this happens for you as you read my words, I am glad. If not, that's okay.

I know a lot of people will cry out for more gun control, and I totally agree with this sentiment. If any one of the shooters of the last year had not had access to guns, the death toll would be significantly reduced. Maybe to zero. Twenty children would still get to open their Christmas presents. I have been an advocate for gun control since I became politically conscious. Rachel Maddow, one of my favorite TV commentators, had a segment last night about how even members of the NRA believe in certain controls on guns. No one I know wants to take away our 2nd amendment, just keep guns out of the hands of people who will go around shooting into crowds. But just because we have a right, doesn't make it right. I think most of us don't own guns, and those who do own hunting rifles or hand guns. But why does anyone need to own a gun designed to rapid fire many rounds at a time? They don't. Plain and simple.

Still, this has bigger ramifications than merely gun control. No sane person grabs four  automatic guns and enters a school with the intent to kill people. We are a world of troubled souls and damaged minds. Yes, we need better mental health care, for sure. Good mental health care is essential. I have lived with depression for most of my life. It has not been fun. I have been on meds for some ten or twelve years now, and that has made my life so much better. I'm sure it has helped people around me be happier too. I know I was not my best self, not even close. And I have a supportive, loving husband. So if it took me decades to get the help I needed even with all the support I had, how many people who need mental health care don't have that support network?

A couple of decades ago, due to budget cuts, mental health patients got ousted onto the streets. Was it worth it, folks? Wouldn't you have rather paid more taxes in order to help these people rather than have a rising death count. Disclaimer: I am well aware that not all crazy shooters have even been in the health care system. Which brings me to my next point. People with mental health issues are all around us, seemingly functional. Hiding it well. We cannot, and should not, ignore them. When someone comes into your life who clearly needs help, help them. I work with teenagers, and many of them have lives that would make any of us cringe, and they need to know that someone in this world cares about them, loves them, will come when they ask for help. Be that to someone. It might not be a teen. It might be a co-worker, a spouse even. Our society does not make it easy to be a person who doesn't fit the mold. That hurts. Try to move out of your comfort zone and include someone different. It might save some lives, even if it's only the one life of that person.

People of my parents' generation, and indeed even my own generation, will lament that our world grows more evil all the time. I disagree. There was Hitler, Stalin, the Inquisition, Jack the Ripper. Even less infamous people throughout human existence have brought death and evil with them. No, the world is not worse than ever. I think we deceive ourselves if we think this way. Part of what is different, though, is the 24 hour media that has to report on every single second of our lives. Every day, the newspaper if filled with gruesome stories of man's inhumanity to man. It may seem worse than in past decades and centuries, but that's only because we are privy to the images, the words, the knowledge of all of it. A hundred years ago, Boise, where I live, was a relatively isolated place, far from most of civilization. I doubt people here ever heard news of much that happened elsewhere.

Here's the part I think disturbs us most: We allow it all. I remember as a kid I loved reading stories about brave people in the face of the Nazis. I wondered how the rest of the world could have let Hitler get away with killing six million people. The common response to that question was, "We didn't know." We don't have that excuse now, with our constant media circus. We know. All of it. And we do nothing. This is the society we have created. Not the president. Not the congress. Not the governors. Us.

And that is the scariest reality, because we know, deep down, that any one of us has the same capacity for evil acts as the next person. I'm not saying this from a preachy, we're-all-sinners, kind of view point. I'm saying we all have shadow sides, which we mostly like to keep hidden and not think about. We like to pretend that we would never do such horrible things. Yet we allow them to happen every day. We tut-tut and go about our business as if we are not complicit. But we are. Every act is part of us. All humanity is connected.

And that's the good thing, too. All humanity is connected. That means our grief is shared. We hold each other through tragedy. The shadow side lurks and ruins, but the side of light is miraculously evident, too. We are constantly amazing and wonderful, even as we are atrocious and horrible. Perhaps if we stopped running from the truth about ourselves, perhaps if we embraced all that is human in us, we might find our way to an answer. If we feared ourselves less, we might fear each other less. We might reach out in compassion more. We might be able to let go of us-them thinking and remember that we are we.

I wrote two poems this week. One I already posted on facebook, but here it is again. Followed by a poem version of this essay. I believe the only way to change our world is to change ourselves and how we interact with each other. Caring for those whom society deems outcasts. The poor, the disabled, the left out, the homeless, the crazy ones, the lesser-thans. The least of these.

The Only Thing

The only thing
I can do
in this madness
is to love
to create peace
where I can
to hold in my heart
the wounded
the poor
the sick
the sad
the only thing
I can do
is live
by the spirit within
and hope
to give enough
of myself
to make
some difference

When They Ask

When they ask
How did we let this happen?
Say to them
I did nothing to stop it.
Did you?
This is the culture
We have all perpetuated.
We all committed this act
Because we are a society
Of violence
Of intolerance
Of guns and killing
Of hatred
When did we sow seeds of love?
When did we help someone in pain
So bad that he might think the only way
Was to kill and then die?
When did we say
It is my responsibility?
As a citizen, I own up.
I did it.
Because of my inaction
Things happened.
Because I was too busy,
Lives ended.
How many times do we have to
Relive this
To realize we need to
Not with more guns
Not with more fear
Not with more anger.
Act now
With love
Care for those on the edge
The fringe
Do you even see them?
They feel invisible,
So is it any wonder they
Their actions aren’t important?
Reach out
To the weak
To the crazy
To the suffering in silence
To the odd one out
To the desperate
It’s easier to ignore
But that
Is how we let this happen.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Merry Christmas and Everything

So, hello there family and friends. It's the first Sunday of Advent, and I'm actually going to write you an update of our year for Christmas this year. Wow! When was the last time I did that? I'm feeling awfully conformist just now, but I hope to get over it.

Possibly you follow my blog or you read my facebook posts and you know much of what's contained in this post. If so, my apologies. I will try really hard not to repeat things I've said in the past, because, well, read my blog.

Life has been busy and interesting this year, to say the least. We've had the good fortune to have pretty much only good news to share.

David's dad finally moved out of his ginormous big house this year, and we started the year gathering with the rest of the Jensen clan to divide up as much of three generations of stuff as we could. I told David we had to keep the take to a minimum, and we did, relatively speaking. We acquired a mere 12 boxes of books about hiking/travel, for which we had to get a new bookcase. Thank goodness the girls have moved out, because their room is fast being filled with all books that enter our house. At various times, one or more of Les's four children were in Ashland during the first few months of the year, helping sort through a lifetime of stuff. In the end, three--yes, three--storage units were rented and Les moved into a condo. One of the nicest things we got was a lovely set of china that belonged to David's great grandmother. We've never had a set of china before, so this is a treat. The children were not enthralled by spending a week of their lives being dragged to Ashland to sit around and watch their elders negotiate family heirlooms, but they acted like troopers anyway. Melissa said that since she is the eldest of her generation, when we all die she plans to throw it all away. I told her to go for it. This whole thing has inspired me to begin massively paring down, especially the paper monster that occupies our lives. I say "inspired" because I have yet to actually take any action.

Boy Scouts on snowshoeing weekend in February. Peter is third from the left.
Peter at high adventure camp in the Tetons
Peter in Disneyland with friends from
Epworth Chorale, the church youth choir.
He's the one with the hat.
Peter spends a large number of hours of his life with boy scouts. His troop started a venturing crew in June, which is a branch of scouting for 14-21 year olds, and it is co-ed. He is the president of the crew, as well as senior patrol leader of the scout troop. Peter is working on his Eagle rank. As a sophomore in high school, this is his first year at Boise High. Yes, here in Boise, you are still in junior high your freshman year, even though your grades still count on your high school GPA. He spent the fall in marching band, many hours of practicing and marching. Like a lot of percussionists, Peter drums on anything--the shower wall, the table, his leg. Peter has succeeded in hooking Neysa, Melissa, and Emily on Doctor Who, and he is in heaven, because we actually know what he's talking about. He hopes to start a Doctor Who club at school. Peter's loves chemistry. He has always liked science, and last year he had physical science, which included a fair amount of chemistry. But now he has full-blown chemistry and just eats is up. This makes perfect sense because he's always loved fire and explosions (big fan of Mythbusters). He has thought of going into engineering, and now he's thinking more specifically chemical engineering, and more specific yet, nuclear engineering. He recently told me his goal is to help figure out how to tame cold fusion into a usable energy resource. (At least I think that's what he said. I don't understand a lot of what he says, because it's been way over my head for years now.) Speaking of over my head, Peter has now surpassed David in height, not by much just yet, but still, the tallest in the family.
Emily with her flight instructor, Rick, after she soloed

Emily's crazy cat, Luna
Emily loved seeing the Spruce Goose in Oregon
on a girls only trip with Neysa and Melissa
Our other science geek is Emily. I think you knew that. She's majoring in physics and hopes to go on to study astrophysics and become an astronaut. She's minoring in Chinese and computer science. And just recently, she announced she might as well double major in applied mathematics, since she has to take most of the courses for that in physics anyway. Yikes. She has kept up a great GPA and gets some scholarship money for this. Now she has a job in the physics department and will be assisting in some research starting next semester. And Boise State is going to send her to a physics conference in January. Wow. Can a person be too smart? She's only a sophomore! Well, technically, she's got enough credits to be a junior, but she's only in her second year. (I know.) All this PLUS she is working on her pilot's license and just soloed this fall. She was way excited. AND she is writing, always writing. Whew. Emily has the sweetest boyfriend, Isaac, whom we adore and who fits nicely into our family. He has a wry sense of humor, a positive outlook, and a non-conformist lifestyle. I've known his family since La Leche League days. (Emily says I know everyone in her generation from La Leche League, and it's kinda true.)

Melissa on the right with her friend Ashley, making cookies
Melissa's "favorite place in the world" at Cape Blanco, Oregon
Melissa is a senior. (I joke that she has been a senior for a long time now. But hey, no shame in going to school as long as you possibly can get away with it. She LOVES school.) So she'll graduate either next May or next December. (Place your bets now. Odds are about even--Ha, I just made a pun.) Major in history, minor in political science. Not surprisingly, if you know Melissa, her favorite historical subject is anything involving Britain in the medieval or early modern periods. You should see her get giddy over a Britain class. Crazy. She's been debating whether she wants to go to graduate school to become a history professor or apply to law school. (Yeah, I was hoping to get out of parenthood without adding lawyers to the world, so sorry folks.) At this point, last I heard--because she hasn't made any specific plans--she will graduate and get a job while deciding what to do next. I'm always in favor of gainful employment. It will be weird for her not to be in school. She continues writing as well, and I think both girls are more prolific than I am.
Melissa at the Oregon coast on our girls only trip

Spent an August afternoon here with my girls
However, I may have beat them this year. I have attended six, count 'em, six, writing conferences or workshops this year. And what do I have to show for it? Two completed-through-first-revision novels. I have spent a lot of time learning a deeper level of craft and I think it has made writing more fun, easier to get right the first time (or second), and definitely more empowering. So now, it's time to be submitting these while revising two other novels that I have new insights for, as well as getting started on my next new manuscript. I have it almost completely written in my head. The hard part is transferring that to the page. Could they please just invent a telepathic transcriber? My freelance work has been full of interesting topics. I edited books on the history of the Idaho Education Association, the history of falconry in America, a novel about Haiti, a medical thriller, and a quiet novel about a father trying to get it right. And I wrote web content about Idaho for a travel site .

I took one bagpipe lesson, have practiced bagpipes approximately twice, and do plan to keep at it. It's not the highest thing on my list of priorities, but I just decided about a year ago that it would be a fun instrument to learn. It's very hard, because many of the flute/recorder techniques are diametrically different on bagpipes--you don't tongue, your fingers must be straight, for example. I did learn alto recorder this year, thanks to weekly sessions with my friend Pam. Now we aim to learn bass recorder.

Neysa at Glen Falls High Sierra Camp in Yosemite.
How I do love a waterfall.
Of course, one of my biggest goals for this year was visiting Yosemite for my 50th birthday. You can read all about it on my blog. It was a huge deal for me on many levels. First, major birthday. Second, I was born there and we moved away when I was about two years old, so I remembered nothing. Third, my parents, brothers, and husband came with me. Fourth, I backpacked about 17 miles at elevations I rarely visit. It was a pilgrimage of a lifetime, and now I hope to return to that magical land as often as possible.

I find myself spending more and more time being happy and worrying less about what others think of me, whether I'm measuring up, or weather I'm getting it right. The older I get, the less I care about inconsequential stuff like that, and I care more about justice in the world, making a statement, having some sort of positive impact.

David in Yosemite
David and Neysa at the beginning of three days of backpacking in Yosemite
There is this man in our lives who is always working, always there, always caring for his family. He is the best guy to be married to. He has proven this year that his Fabulous Mr. Fix-it skills cannot be rivaled. He kept me going on the 8 miles up, up, up at over 9,000 feet. He is the scout master/crew advisor extraordinaire, my TV buddy for shows like Covert Affairs, Burn Notice, Leverage, The Good Wife, and a few others. He is like the quiet engine that keeps our family on track. He trained with me for our backpacking adventure, reads aloud to me every night, ponders the idiocies of some people's political stupidity with me, and manages to do all this with a sense of humor that defies all that is wrong in the world. David is the very best of what a husband and father should be, even if he does have a few bad habits. (Okay, maybe more than a few, but we shall leave those alone for now.)

The interesting lessons of this year for me have been how really strong I am physically, and how much I love hiking. No surprise really--I did spend most of my childhood scrambling around the hills at Wind Cave and at my parents' ranch. My travels around the western U.S. have affirmed to me that Boise is my true home. I could not ask for a better suited place to live. There are many beautiful spots in this amazing world, and this one is mine.
John Muir and I agree that God is in the mountaintops.
This is the view I woke up to on my 50th birthday. May Lake.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Can You Stand Some Actual, Personal Insights about (gah!) the Elections?

I've been contemplating writing this blog for a while. Most people who know me know how I stand on the issues and the candidates, but perhaps there are a few souls out there who still haven't decided and wish someone with some common sense and nothing to gain would step up and give some intelligent reasons for voting one way or another. Well, your prayers have been answered. Here I am. I am intelligent. I have thought through these issues. I don't listen to the spin. I understand the long term, and I tend to vote for reasons other than my pocketbook. I tend to vote for people and propositions that will make life better not just for me, but mostly for people who do not have the luck to be comfortable financially the way my family has. So here are the how's and why's of my vote on candidates and issues that I feel are important. Pass it on if you think it will help someone decide. Even if they decide to vote the opposite of me. (I'm used to that.)

I'm going to start with issues affecting Idaho first. If you don't live in Idaho but you love politics, you could read this. Otherwise, skip down. The Luna laws, as I call them, were passed last year and are currently in effect. (Notice any improvement? Me neither.) These laws are on the ballot to be repealed, otherwise known as Props 1, 2, and 3. Both sides of this issue have spent more campaigning about this than any other election in Idaho politics. It's obviously a hot button topic. Basically, Tom Luna, our superintendent of public schools, whose campaign was funded heavily by online curricula producers, came out with this batch of laws during the last legislative session. He called them students come first laws. I call them stupid.

The spin on this has been heavy from both sides. The supporters claim that it's just the union bosses (teachers' unions) that are against these laws. First, that's not true. I don't belong to any union, and I have protested in the freezing cold of January against these laws. Basically, they fall into a few categories. Here are the parts I know and understand: The law will require that all high school students take a certain number of credits online. (Hmmm, and who funded Luna's campaign?) While I am not against online education--in fact all of my children have taken several online classes in high school and college--I am not in favor of requiring it. Nor am I in favor of the state giving out laptops to all students. That's a recipe for all kinds of disasters. And expenses. Usually I'm all for putting as much money as possible into education, but this is just a waste of money. This week, we found out the state has signed a contract with HP for the laptops--arguably the worst laptops on the market. If this is their idea of smart investment of the wasted money, then that's reason enough in my book to vote against it. But the real issue is this: are all students going to learn best this way? Luna wouldn't know, as he never asked for input from teachers/parents/students, nor has he ever worked in the education field, so he's just taking a shot in the dark, and missing the target, which is to help students. He claims our schools need to enter the 21st century, but if he spent ANY time there, he would see they already are.

Another piece of the Luna laws has to do with merit pay for teachers. While the concept of merit pay sounds nice--I want all teachers who are doing great to be acknowledged and rewarded--this version of merit pay does not receive support even from the best teachers (especially the best teachers). Why? First, most teachers have experienced sharp cuts in pay over the last few years, because our legislature doesn't value education. (My own spin, but I think it's pretty accurate.) Now, they are told, they have to earn it back as a "bonus." And that's not all. It's not based on individual teachers and how good they are. It's based on how well a whole school full of students performs on tests. I'm not a fan of standardized testing (which will have to be a conversation reserved for another time), but even if I were, it's not a way to determine merit pay. Often, the best teachers are working in schools with low income/minority students, who traditionally perform the worst on standardized tests, and thus those teachers wouldn't get their merit pay. Stupid, if you ask me (which you did, remember, in your prayers?).

Another piece is very complicated and I probably won't do it justice here. But it has to do with collective bargaining. I had to have some teachers who have experience in negotiating teacher contracts explain this to me. Here's a summary: Every year, teachers have to negotiate the next year's contract with their school boards. This isn't a bad thing. It's a long process, but in most cases an amicable one. I mean, after all, the school board and the teachers should have the same goals. (Ideally.) Before the Luna laws, there were certain parts of the giant contracts (try reading one sometime!) that the school boards and the teachers could agree would just be collectively okayed, because it was stuff they knew would not be an issue. The Luna laws took that away, essentially forcing everyone to spend more time on working out contracts, rather than teaching students.

The ads I've heard in support of Props 1, 2, and 3 make it sound like a utopia in which happy teachers will be teaching happy students. But that's not what you'll find if you go into schools. You'll find demoralized teachers. Many of the best ones have left the profession since these laws passed. The online requirements? There won't even be a teacher in the room, just an aide to monitor the kids and help with technical issues. A babysitter.

The Boise School Board, which administers the best schools in the state, and includes several nationally ranked public high schools, is against these propositions. Because, as educators and parents, they understand these ideas are bad education policy.

One more thing about Luna. When he ran for office the first time, he had no experience in education, nor even a Bachelor's degree. He got a fly-by-night degree in order to run. When he ran for re-election, he never mentioned these laws, never suggested he had some "reform" in mind, which I think was unethical and dishonest to the voters of Idaho.

It's not just the union that doesn't want these laws. Almost everyone I talk to who understands the educational system is against Props 1, 2, and 3. I am an outspoken critic of the public education system, while at the same time I support and love the magnificent, difficult, and thankless work of the teachers who spend their lives working with our kids. They are awesome. And so I will vote NO on Prop 1, 2, 3.

Next, I'd like to address the congressional race between Mike Simpson, the long-time incumbent in my district, and Nichole LeFavour, who worked in the Idaho legislature for many years for my district 19. Many people tend to vote for the incumbent, just because it's a familiar name. And a lot of people don't think of Mike Simpson as a bad guy. Not even me. I don't like most of his positions and his votes, but I don't usually think of him as an outright liar and unethical person (as I do with Romney, but I digress). However, Nicole LeFavour is SO MUCH MORE than Mike Simpson. She works so hard to bring justice to those who have no other voice: the disabled, the uninsured, the minorities, the poor. She supports education, families, and a strong economy. She even says she will vote for ideas that she think are good, even if they come from the other party. How refreshing is that? Nicole has campaigned hard, and a lot of people think her chances in the  election are slim. But during debates, Mike Simpson was patronizing toward her, even rude. He acts as if he doesn't have to treat her with respect merely because he thinks he has the election wrapped up and delivered. I don't like it when people act that way. He's been a jerk, plain and simple. Nicole is a person of integrity, respect, and common sense. Even when she was ignored and voted against most of the time in the Idaho legislature, she did not lash out, become mean, or lose her temper. She treated her fellow representatives and senators with respect. That is something I think we need more of in politics today. It used to be there, but the polarization and deep rifts in political extremes have erased that. Nicole will help bring it back.

Before I move on to the presidential vote, I want to mention something I just heard was on the ballot this week. It's a constitutional amendment in Idaho that purports to protect the rights of hunters, fishermen, and other sportsmen in Idaho. I have nothing against these activities. However, I don't think they need constitutional protection in Idaho. I mean, it's Idaho, people. There will always be hunting, fishing, outdoor recreation. We should probably be more worried about the natural resources that allow for those activities being destroyed. So I'm going to vote NO on that. Not because I hate hunters. I don't.

Now onto the presidential election, which is pretty much a moot point by now. But I'll have my say anyhow. First of all, if you vote based on what the candidate promises to do and you actually expect him/her to get that all done, you're an idiot. Since when has a political candidate been able to achieve and give you everything they promised? A president especially. They have to wrangle with Congress over everything, so there will be some things that don't get finished. That said, you should look at the records of the candidates. Obama inherited the worst deficit ever, created entirely by the Bush administration. (We had a surplus under Clinton.) While he doesn't claim this as an excuse, I do. And we have come pretty far since then. The economy was tanking as Obama became president. And now it is recovering. So if you're going to vote based on the economy, you should vote for him. Romney likes to pretend he can fix the economy, but he hasn't offered any specifics, and even the state where he served as governor doesn't want him. But the economy is a useless measure when voting for the president, as far as I am concerned. There are so many other factors that impact the economy that he has no control over, it seems ridiculous to me that so many people use that as their primary measure of presidential success. Economies will do what economies do, and the way I understand it, the president can try to make policies that will help it, policies that will encourage job creation, but in the long run, the president does not control the economy.

So look at the voting records of the candidates. Look at the way they work. Look at the parties endorsing them. If I were a republican right now, I would be running so far away from them, I might exceed the speed of sound. It's a damaged party. There are too many fractions, too many extremists, and too many people who believe in legislating their religion onto others. And Romney spent the entire primary season trying to appease those nut jobs. Now that he won the primaries, he has reverted back to what he used to say. So what to believe? Who knows? Romney will look you in the eye and tell you that something he said yesterday he never said. Even if he looked you in the eye yesterday and said it to you. He will say anything that will get him elected. I find this terrifying. Regardless of his policies or party. Anyone who will say anything that will get them elected is scary. And unethical. (Sense a theme, here? I would love to see more ethical behavior in politics. Don't laugh. It can be done. We have the power of the vote, and we can vote for ethical people, so it's really on us.) Romney makes up things. Doesn't have specifics. Implemented Obamacare in his own state, and now claims it's horrible. I don't think he really knows what he's doing. And apparently none of his constituents from Mass do either, because nobody there wants him to be president. Hmmm. Curious.

The stories about Romney's incompetence abound, but here's one from the disaster of Sandy this week. Romney wanted to look good, so he was in Ohio (where the disaster didn't impact anyone) collecting food and emergency supplies. They didn't get enough donations, so his staff went out and bought some stuff. Good for them. But they didn't buy it just to fill the trucks. He's just not that nice. When people came to help, they were given some of the items to "donate" so Romney would look good to the media. It's all show with him. Not genuine caring.

What I'd really love to see is all those republicans in the house and senate, now that they have no more need to vote against Obama to make him a one-term president, actually spend the next four years trying to work with Obama and each other to actually accomplish stuff that will make life in the U.S. better for everyone, especially those who need it the most (meaning everyone but the 1%).

So that's how I plan to vote. I encourage everyone reading this to vote--according to your own beliefs and values. It is the most precious right we have. And you have no grounds to complain if you don't vote.

I also encourage commentary and discussion here, but I require that it be kept civil. And if you are going to spout an opinion, you better be able to back it up. Don't just repeat lies. Prove what you say, and have a nice discussion.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The BIG 50th Birthday Adventure, Part 2, Yosemite Valley

If I haven't mentioned it in your presence before, I was born in Yosemite Valley. I don't remember it, because we moved away when I was two years old. That was part of why I wanted to return for this momentous birthday, to see where my life began. And I had the best guides in the world: my parents and my two brothers. They filled me in on all the places they remembered.

First, though, we checked into the Ahwahnee Hotel so we could take showers and get pretty again. Three days of backpacking with no showers leaves one kind of stinky. It is a low water year in Yosemite, so even camps that normally had showers didn't allow any the week we went.

The Ahwahnee Hotel is every bit as wonderful as its reputation. It is stunningly magnificent and at the same time it blends with its surroundings so as not to claim too much notice. That's the way the architect wanted it, wisely. Here it is reflected in the pool out front.

When we got to our room, I was amazed at the views. We had a corner room on the fourth floor with windows on two sides and a balcony. Here's what we could see from our windows.

My dad had arranged for a birthday dinner in the Ahwahnee dining room, known for its fantastic high windows with views like the ones from our room. I was so in the moment, I didn't take any pictures of dinner. David, me, Wanda, Les, Mike, and Pat  were there, and we had a wonderful dinner. I told my parents that the best thing was raising us in the national parks, because I am such a nature girl, I love the outdoors so much, and I think growing up scrambling around in the mountains was the best childhood for me.

Then I got a big surprise.

Mmmmm. Yes, the six of us ate the whole thing. Well, almost. It was chocolate and raspberry with dark chocolate ribbons. Dad conspired with David to get just the right flavor. Well done.

Next Day: Where I Began

No one ever believes that someone can really be born in Yosemite. When we lived there, there was a hospital. Today it is a medical clinic, and I'm told that even without hospital accommodations, they delivered three babies there last year. You know, babies don't always arrive on schedule. But I did.

First stop on our itinerary was the hospital. Mom told me that they wouldn't let my brothers in to see me, so she held me up to the window and they came and looked at me. Dad told me he was in the coffee shop in the basement when the doctor came and told him I was a girl. Dad called up to him that my name was Neysa Carol. Doctor was a bit unsure about that at first. Aren't most people?

That's my mom, Wanda, and me outside the entrance. Up above, you'll notice the hospital nestled in the trees and a huge granite mountain behind. Normally, that's where Yosemite Falls splashes down, down, down. This year, as I mentioned, it is a dry year and the falls has stopped until more water fills the river. But this explains a lot of things about me: that I love waterfalls beyond any natural element, that I feel the rocks speak and live, and that I must have mountains. It all started right there. Wow.

Next was to visit my first house. The story has it that the family lived in a different house until I was born. While mom and I were in the hospital, the family moved into their new, larger house, with the help of my mom's Aunt Beth. (I think it was her aunt. My dad also had an Aunt Beth. Confusing.)

Again, within view, and certainly within earshot is Yosemite Falls. Most people don't realize this about national parks: the year round employees usually live in the park. The housing area in Yosemite Valley has about 40 homes, not including all the living quarters for the seasonal and DNC employees. There is a day care, a school, a post office, even a district court. My brothers went to elementary school just steps from our house. Mom told me every afternoon just as I went down for a nap, that was afternoon recess and the noise often woke me right up. My dad was the district ranger of Yosemite Valley, which meant whenever there was a crisis or a crime, he had to go. Mike, my oldest brother, tells me there were very few nights that dad got to sleep through the night.

Next on the list: Yosemite Chapel, where I was baptized. Again, looking right out at Yosemite Falls. Boy, I am one lucky girl.

The group is, from left to right: David, Pat McClanahan, Neysa, Mike McClanahan, Wanda and Les McClanahan. I had so much fun seeing all the sites with them in Yosemite Valley. They gave up their precious time to come celebrate with me.

At the chapel, a framed poem hung in the vestibule. I thought is was moving.(Not literally. Emotionally.)

Some of the falls did have a little water. We stopped by Bridalveil Fall for a look. Normally, you would get wet being this close to the falls. And all these rocks would be slippery. But they were bone dry.

Of course, we had to go see the visitor center and all the other interpretive stuff. They have a really cool exhibit there of the geological history of Yosemite. I love geology, so I ate that up. We went to the Ansel Adams Gallery. And the Museum.

Along the walkway, Dad decided to hug a tree. "That's one big ponderosa," he said.

We spent much of the rest of the day lounging around on the patio at the Ahwahnee, but not before being regular tourists and buying our fair share of souvenirs. I fell in love with this hotel, not only for its amazing setting, but also for the care and attention the builders and designers put into it. In order to make the concrete and steel look more natural, they set the concrete columns in molds of real timber and then painted it to look like wood. The interior design involves elements inspired by native American motifs. Below is the grand lounge (my apologies for the poor camera work. It is pretty dark.) We had tea here. Well, some of us had tea while others took a nap. (No, Melissa, I did not nap.)

 This tapestry was on the wall by the elevator
 Every room had a different medallion above the door.

These gorgeous stained glass ceiling tiles always made me look up when I was in the elevator.

The windows in the grand lounge each had a different stained glass design at the top.

 This mural was commissioned specifically for this position above the fireplace in the elevator alcove.

My dad told a story about when JFK (yes, THE JFK) came to Yosemite and stayed at the Ahwahnee. Dad was in charge of security that night at the hotel. They basically stayed up all night. There are many grand pianos at the hotel, and I guess one of JFK's staffers (dad will have to comment and remind me who it was) played the piano in the grand lounge all night. Cool.

For another perspective on our lovely room, here are some shots of it from outside. It was on the fourth floor, corner, with a balcony. Right up there by that giant cliff.

Here is a shot of El Capitan, like I need to tell anyone that. I couldn't get a good view of Half Dome from our hotel, because there were so many trees in the way. However, if you go back to Part 1 of my blog report, you can see Half Dome in the distance behind me as I stand on the ridge at May Lake. You've all seen hundreds of photos of it, anyway, so you don't need one from me.

For our final night in Yosemite, we ate dinner at the Mountain Room at Yosemite Falls Lodge. It was delicious. One of our waiters looked like Uncle Festus from the Adams Family. Really. The next day, it was time to leave Yosemite and start making our way home. We met up with the family again in the southern end of the park, at Wawona, for lunch. Here are Les and Wanda relaxing on the veranda.

Before we left, we needed to get a picture of the Queen on her throne.

It's hard to describe what this whole trip means to me. I am working on some poetry to try to express it. To see where I started my life is just incredible. What a wonderful way to enter this world, in the beauty of nature, massive mountains of granite, waterfalls everywhere you turn, the rush of biodiversity that appears down each path. To be with the people who were there at the start, to hear their stories and memories. To honor myself and feel connected to this place not just in abstract, but in reality. These were the things I hoped for as I planned this adventure. I challenged myself physically and did not collapse. I challenged myself emotionally by sharing with a family that has had its ups and downs. I challenged myself spiritually to find my roots and essence. It's always been with me, this place of glory. But I had never known it in person before. Now I have. And I feel fulfilled. I hope to return again and again. To explore deeper and further the trails and trees. To grow my mountain goat feet and not let that granite scare me. To see more waterfalls and dream of life as a drop of freefalling joy. This is awe.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The BIG 50th Birthday Adventure: Part 1, the High Sierra

For those of you who want to know all about my big adventure, read on. If you'd rather skim the photos, my feelings won't be hurt. If you couldn't care less, move on to another post.

So in case you don't follow me on Facebook, I have been planning this 50th birthday adventure most of this year. Actually, since I turned 40, but it became a reality this year. I was born in Yosemite National Park in 1962. My dad was district ranger for Yosemite Valley back then, and there was a hospital there where I was born. We moved away when I was two years old, and I've never been back. So I decided to make this my personal pilgrimage to the place of my birth and a celebration of my life.

Because part of the adventure I planned included three days of backpacking in the back country, I trained all year, doing longer and more frequent hikes in order to get ready for this physical challenge. So, here begins the adventure.

Our first day, last Sunday, Sept. 9, we left Boise and camped along the shore of Lake Tahoe. We arrived at around 10 p.m. and could hardly see what we were doing, but morning rewarded us with a beautiful view of the lake. Then we proceeded to spend two hours in a local coffee shop while David did some work. This is typical of our travels with David, which is partly the reason I chose to go to the back country--no internet.

Finally, we left Tahoe and drove to the Tioga Pass entrance to Yosemite. Where, as you can see, the elevation is close to 10,000 feet.

So we spent our first night at Tuolomne  Meadows, the sort of base camp for all the High Sierra Camps in Yosemite. We had fun sorting our stuff into the bear boxes, where you have to keep everything that might attract a bear, even toothpaste or shampoo, not to mention food, dish washing soap, etc. Then we got our packs ready for the hike, beginning the next day. We took a short hike on a portion of the John Muir trail, which is not the trail we would be hiking on, but which David wanted to be able to say he had been on. That's me on the rocks in the Tuolomne River.

Day One: Tuolomne Meadows to Glen Aulin

So, on day one, we started out fresh: First day's hike was 5.5 miles along mostly flat-ish trail. Lots of peaks and granite in sight. We lunched along the Tuolomne River.
A huge sheet of granite demonstrated the mighty power of former glaciers, leaving a few huge boulders in its wake.

We had to scramble over so much granite that I literally began to hope for a soft dirt trail. More on that later. We had to climb up over piles of this stuff. I commented that I had not been told I needed to be part mountain goat to do this hike. Here was the top:
After this point, the trail went steadily down for about two miles. Because this is where the river started falling down the canyon, creating one fabulous waterfall after another:

So, while I was thrilled with all this waterfalling--I LOVE waterfalls--I was so tired of climbing down, down, down, usually over large rocks, trying to stay upright and balanced, and my knees getting pounded on each step. Ouch. And then, we finally arrived at camp, and saw the lovely Glen Aulin Falls.

I loved this spot. We took off our socks and boots and soaked our feet. Some more adventurous hikers got in the water all the way. Then we ate dinner with the other 26 campers. We shared our tent that night with a nice couple from Prior Lake, MN. You meet a lot of people on "the loop," the big network of trails connecting the High Sierra Camps. You can compare notes on the trails, the tough spots, and share complaints about how much your knees hurt.

Day Two: Glen Aulin to May Lake

I had heard the hike on this day was a tough one. For starters it was 8.1 miles and it gained 1,500 feet in elevation from start to finish. As we started out, I tried to be positive. Going up was at least easier on the knees, for sure. So there was that. And much of the trail meandered through forests, with soft dirt and pine needle paths. Oh, dirt, I love you. That became my refrain. Nice, smooth, flat dirt, which didn't require too much effort--just one foot in front of the other. Trees roots and large rocky paths make a trail so much more difficult to navigate. Lots.

Then, it got hard. The ground turned mostly to sheets of granite interrupted by trails of rocks, climbing in constant switchbacks up the side of the mountain. I described it as a cliff. David claimed it was not a cliff. You decide:

Here's another portion:

I have to give David credit for keeping my spirits up during this really hard part of the hike. He cracked jokes. He lied about how we were almost there. He'd say things like, "You just have to get up to that ridge. Then the lake should be there."

Well, we got to the ridge, and then had to go down. Talk about depressing! I didn't want to go down after I'd done all that work to get up! But we had a brief reprieve at this sweet, small lake before our final ascent.

I said I wanted to just stay there. Of course, at night, in the cold, with no hot food or drink didn't sound very enticing. But we rested and I got myself psyched up for the final climb. I was so exhausted at this point I felt like I was on a survivor show. I didn't care that everything ached or that I didn't think I could make it. I didn't care that at 9,400 feet I had to stop about every 20 feet and catch my breath. I just wanted to get there. So after another two hours of shuffling along climbing higher and higher, we finally arrived at May Lake, just in time to eat dinner. I didn't care how long it had taken, we made it.

May Lake was beautiful. The lake was calm and quiet. The stars were brilliant. That night we shared a tent with some folks we ate dinner with the night before at Glen Aulin. They were from the San Diego area. Here's what the camp tents look like:
Here's what they look like on the inside. There are four beds like this:
The view of the lake from our tent was awesome. We were practically on the water.

Day Three: May Lake to Tioga Road, 2.7 miles

So on my birthday, Thursday, September 13, we woke bright and early to see the sunrise on the lake. I am not an early riser by nature, so this is a rare occurrence for me. I couldn't ask for a better way to start my birthday.
That's Mt. Hoffman on the other side of the lake, at above 10,000 feet. It's the geographical center of Yosemite National Park. I chose not to hike up there.

From the May Lake Camp, you could see down to Yosemite  Valley. I wished for a nice balloon to carry me down. I was not thrilled about hiking more after the previous day's agony.

But, hike I must. This day was so easy compared to the first two days. We had to go down the whole way, which is indeed hard on the knees, but breathing at this elevation is so much easier when you are going downhill. Our pace was faster than the first two days. I almost wished I didn't have to return to civilization, and as we neared the highway, I felt the bittersweet ache of having achieved my goal and it being over.

From here we caught the shuttle back to our car and prepared for our trip down to Yosemite Valley. That's part 2.

Let me just add here that the food prepared for us by the High Sierra Camps was so wonderful. We had huge breakfasts and dinners, freshly made and delicious as anything you could ever want. At Glen Aulin we had homemade ravioli, salad, soup, bread, and even dessert. They have "hot drinks" for half and hour before the meal so you can get warmed up and have time to chat with other campers. At May Lake, we hate tomato basil soup, fresh ocean salmon, salad, bread, rice, roasted vegetables, and spice cake. The breakfasts we equally lovely with hot cereal and condiments, eggs, sausages, pancakes, and lots of hot drinks. We got a sack lunch the first day, but it was almost too much food. We had prepared plenty of our own trail food, including Cave Bread from our Jewel Cave days, so we didn't request lunches for the other two days. They certainly make sure you don't suffer from lack of fuel!