Pandemic slice of life

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A friend who has to move on fairly short notice gave me four Western red cedars (one sapling and three seedlings) that she had in pots. They’re on my front steps right now. Eventually they’ll go out to the land for planting.
Friend is in Ballard, so I drove back to West Seattle through downtown because I’ve been north of Spokane St a handful of times this entire year, and downtown not at all.

It didn’t look apocalyptic, but it did look empty. Oddest of all was the building where Amazon’s offices were located in the late 1990s on 2nd Ave, upstairs from what was then the Art Bar and later the Noc Noc. Whole block is boarded up and, I’m guessing, slated for redevelopment.
Thinking about 20 years ago a lot lately, for some reason.

Story first. Facts later

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Many years ago, when I was first studying with my gung fu teacher, he recommended Gavin de Becker’s book The Gift of Fear to me. Though it’s been a long time since I’ve read it, and I suspect some parts of it haven’t aged well, there was a key point in it that I’ve never forgotten and found to be largely true: our intuition, among other things, can alert us to immediate dangers, and our intuition can be trained. The latter is part of what self-defense-oriented martial arts training does.

This point comes back to me from time to time in various interesting ways, such as when I’ve encountered research into the human instinct to treat the unknown as dangerous–because the bustle in the hedgerow might actually be a tiger, and treating all such bustles as tigers works out better in the long run, survival-wise–or when I read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which among other things describes how the interpretive part of our brain races ahead of the analytical one in assessing evidence, or when I read of another bit of research positing that humans developed reason not to make real sense of the world, but to bolster social cohesion.

Recently it came up again, this time in a class session on interpersonal relations and handling conflict. Because the overall program is one on nature connection and wilderness skills, navigating conflict was compared to wildlife tracking, in that in both cases you’re working with incomplete data, and your mind has tendency to create a story out of what seems to be there, rather than analyzing what is there. I’d say that confirmation bias comes into play in a big way, too, or maybe just plain old wishful thinking.

There’s a saying that I started disliking about five seconds after I first heard it, which is: you’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts. I mean, I guess it’s true as far as it goes, but it feels like–to quote another saying of limited utility–closing the barn door after the horse is gone. Because we have a tendency to interpret first and look at the facts afterward through the lens of our interpretation, we’ve arrived at a point now where, in America at least, we can’t even agree on what the facts are. I watched a guy on Twitter yesterday insisting that Trump’s lawyers were saving their best evidence for the Supreme Court, despite many, many lawyers explaining to him that American courts don’t work that way. (I’m still not sure he wasn’t trolling, which is my own wishful interpretation to keep me from sliding further into despair.)

I’m as given to letting my story race ahead of the data I have on hand as anyone else. The difference, if there is one, is that I’m increasingly suspicious of my own opinions about a lot of things, because there’s just no way to have all of the data. And even when you do, interpretations can vary wildly. I’m reminded of a tracking trip where another tracker and I were looking at the same data–the same animal tracks–and one of us thought the tracks had been left by a deer while the other thought the tracks had been left by a goose. Look up what those animals’ tracks look like in a field guide and you’ll wonder how we could possibly have arrived at such disparate conclusions.

And yet, that way lies paralysis. In fact, I’m famously indecisive, if you ask my husband or my friends. Not a great way to be if it actually is a tiger in the bushes.

I don’t know what the answer is, though in nature awareness as a practice there are techniques for gathering the necessary data before the tiger has a chance to eat you. This is, sort of, what de Becker is talking about–the ability to discern and analyze that bustle on an intuitive level, so you do know whether it’s a tiger or just a squirrel. A lot of formal education at its best is about the practice of slowing down and not letting your first interpretation of something be your last one. This is probably what people mean when they lament the lack of (other) people’s critical thinking skills. But acquiring those is a slow process, too, and requires more patience (and willingness to be wrong) than a lot of people seem to have.

Musings on an endless Tuesday

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When I was a kid, like a lot of kids I received copies of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Unlike (I later learned) a lot of kids, the thinly veiled Christianity of the books was obvious to me at the time, and I didn’t have the adult experience of making that discovery after the fact. (Thanks, Sunday School.) I still have my copies somewhere, though it’s been a long time since I read them. I used to have a print of Pauline Baynes’s map of Narnia hanging on my wall, and the fantasy world in which I’ve set some of my own fiction owes some of its geography to Narnia (and also to the Piedmont-Atlantic coastal plain, to be frank).

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot of an incident in The Last Battle, the final book in the series and the one in which Narnia is destroyed. Before this happens, a number of characters make their way inside a stable that in the course of events is transformed into a portal to paradise (I’m really summarizing the complexity of what happens here). But not everyone who enters the stable sees this: in particular, a group of Dwarfs who insist to the end that they are, in fact, in a stable, with all of what one usually finds in such a place.

Plenty of people with more theological and literary credibility have written extensively on what Lewis meant by this incident, by the Narnia series as a whole, and by the Dwarfs as a people. In the context of the story, these particular Dwarfs are seen to have lost their faith in Aslan, so completely that when presented with Heaven, they are unable to perceive it. But with the haziness of personal memory (and, to be frank, not having considered myself Christian for over 30 years) I have a tendency to generalize this incident and find it applicable to another, more secular phenomenon I’ve witnessed.

This phenomenon isn’t new with these past two weeks, or even in the past four years. In my more despairing moments I think that Kurt Andersen, the author of Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, is correct and it’s been built in since the country’s inception. (It’s not a bad book, though I think his argument reaches a little far here and there.) It is, in essence, the human propensity to double down when presented with information that conflicts with our perceptions. This is a very human tendency, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s an exception to it, myself included. It probably has something to do with an article I read recently positing that humanity didn’t evolve reason in order to better apprehend the truth, but because the ability to rationalize contributes to social cohesion within groups. When the Dwarfs in The Last Battle repeatedly insist, “The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs,” they’re essentially doing this.

In that book, the other characters pass the Dwarfs by; their belief, or lack thereof, has no effect on the rest of the story. But the social costs of, for example, continuing to insist that COVID-19 doesn’t exist even as one is in the hospital for it, or of continuing to insist that an election must be fraudulent because it didn’t lead to one’s desired outcome, or continuing to insist that systemic racism isn’t an ongoing powerful and pernicious force in this country, are obvious. And there’s a cost to the people engaging in these sunk-cost fallacies, too, though they may not realize it. The cost isn’t salvation, in this instance, but perhaps something as seemingly ephemeral. I’ve been saying for years that the role of denial in American social politics hasn’t been properly appreciated. Even if people don’t deny themselves to death, we can be so insistent on denying the possibility of being wrong that our greater social cohesion cracks under the strain.

In my more hopeful moments, I see the tumult of the last few years as perhaps finally overwhelming that collective denial. I won’t argue that it’s justified the cost in human lives, if so. And I’ve concluded that there are some people, in the words of the captain from the movie Cool Hand Luke, who you just can’t reach. But if we can get past this collective fear of being wrong, it would help.

Seattle: notes from a wildfire

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Sunset at the Dunes, before the smoke.

A week ago this past Monday, I was awakened sometime after midnight by the smell of smoke. I was camped near Eel Creek at the Oregon Dunes, taking a little bit of a break from hours in front of my computer and the last hustle of essential tasks before beginning a nine-month sabbatical from my job at the university. It felt like a very strange time to be doing that: as my colleagues on the faculty and staff prepared for a hybridized, partly-open, blended-learning campus, I was preparing to…do something else.

That something else is the Anake program at Wilderness Awareness School, which has also had to make adjustments in response to the pandemic. One of those adjustments was that the program would not take its tracking trip to the Oregon Dunes. I had been there before as part of WAS’s Tracking Intensive a few years ago, and decided to go on my own.

A tracking mystery.

As I made my way down I-5 and then through the Coast Range to the Oregon coast, my navigation app kept popping high-wind warnings at me. After some investigation I’d previously concluded that the range itself would shield me from the worst of the wind. This turned out to be true. What I hadn’t reckoned–what a lot of people hadn’t reckoned–was the effect the unseasonal easterly wind would have on the Pacific Northwest’s increasingly severe fire season.

Past the Dunes, the trail cuts through forest before reaching the sea.

I stayed at the Dunes until Wednesday morning, doing less tracking than I’d planned–the wind and increasing smoke made it difficult–but getting in a hike to the sea, which is about 2.5 miles from the campground I was staying in. I sat on the sand, ate my snack, and watched pelicans, shorebirds, and vultures going about their business as the sky above gradually smeared with yellowish smog. That night, at my campsite, ash fell on me like flurries of snow.

Smoke coming in across the sky as I sat on the beach.

At that moment I was over a hundred miles and a mountain range’s width away from the nearest fire. But, as the rest of the U.S. is discovering this week, smoke spreads. So does fire, and by Wednesday morning I was concerned about how close the fires were getting to major highways. Not only did I not want to be cut off from getting home, I didn’t want to get in the way of people evacuating from the small towns east of I-5, or the firefighters and relief workers coming to their aid.

Return trip on my hike, full of smoke and sand. I half expected Mad Max. Or maybe a sandworm.

The sky was dark orange as I drove through Salem. The pale blue over Portland, where the worst of the smoke hadn’t yet reached, seemed strange. I crossed the Columbia River with a sense of having escaped, and spent a socially distant afternoon in a friend’s yard in Centralia where the smoke was still mild.

Since then, back in Seattle and then out in Duvall to start the program, I’ve mostly been indoors. The air quality in Duvall is somewhat better than in Seattle–higher elevation, more trees, a few light rain showers have made a modest difference. But it’s been bad enough that the first week of an outdoor-oriented program has mostly been conducted online. Much as schools around the country are doing.

Between Salem and Portland, on I-5.

Since I came back I’ve run across commentary, mostly from people who don’t live in this part of the country, about the fire danger to Portland and Seattle. This is not the way to think about this problem. Portland and Seattle are at basically zero risk of being directly affected. It’s the smaller towns, the farms and remote homes situated in what’s called the wildland-urban interface, that are at risk, and these are the human-inhabited places that have burned.

Last year I had the opportunity to meet Washington’s commissioner of public lands, who gave a talk on wildfire in the state. West of the Cascade range we tend to think of fire as an eastside problem. But this, too, isn’t the way to think about it. Fire is less common on the western side, but it does happen. And because it’s less frequent, when it does occur, it’s worse.

Portland and Seattle aren’t in direct danger. Neither, by and large, are the areas to which the wildfire smoke has since spread–across most of the country, really. But this, too, isn’t the way to think about this problem. Waiting until something is literally in our faces, negatively impacting our lives in obvious and tangible ways, is waiting too long.

We’ve already waited too long.

The woods at Wilderness Awareness School, outside Duvall, WA.

Seattle: notes from a pandemic: 13

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I’ve been meaning to write something about masks. The difficulty is that the topic has become huge, taking on social and even cultural dimensions of surprising complexity. It’s hard to know where to start.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, one of my go-to resources for guidance has been UpToDate’s entry on COVID-19. UpToDate is a clinical information resource for people working in healthcare settings. Its purpose is to distill research, agency recommendations, and other sources into actionable information and guidelines. It’s a subscription resource (in fact, I purchased a subscription at the behest of the nursing program at my university, which is how I know about it) and normally quite expensive, but the entries on COVID-19 have been made publicly accessible. What it says about mask wearing highlights part of the issue: the medical case for it outside of healthcare settings is indirect.

Which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. The only times I leave the house without wearing a mask are when I’m going with my husband to our rural property (where there’s literally no one else around for half a mile in every direction) or when I go running–and in the latter case, it’s easy for me to avoid other people. Otherwise, when going to stores, socially-distanced visits with the handful of people I’ve seen in person since the pandemic began, or to pick up takeout, I put one on. I’ll freely admit they’re annoying to wear. But I find the evidence, while indirect, sufficiently convincing.

At the same time, I do know people who legitimately can’t wear them, for various reasons, and I try not to get into the business of policing other people’s behavior unless they’re being actively threatening or trying to make my life difficult. (Walking up to me and coughing in my face is fucking obnoxious whether you’re wearing a mask or not, you know?) Everything is difficult enough right now.

And admittedly, it’s mostly a non-issue in my neighborhood of Seattle. The only people I see not wearing masks when out and about are people who are vigorously exercising well away from others, much like me. Even when, a few weeks ago, I was in a part of Washington State where folks are, ahem, less convinced that there’s a real need for all these distancing and masking measures, almost everyone was doing them anyway. (The one exception was a woman about ten years my senior in a supermarket, standing just a little too close in line behind me like she was trying to get me, or someone, to start arguing with her. As I’ll elaborate shortly, if so, she wasn’t making the point she thought she was making.)

But then there are the kinds of encounters that, so far, I’ve only read about on the news, or from friends’ posts on social media–in the latter case, a friend who works at a grocery store in my area described a small horde of people showing up to their store en masse and insisting on doing their shopping without masks, despite the store’s policy. (Store management declined to enforce said policy, which doesn’t help matters.) Or incidents like the Walmart shopper in Alaska completely losing his shit over the store’s mask policy, or the Fred Meyer customer here in Washington who pulled a gun on a fellow customer who told him to put on a mask.

I mean, these are weirdly outsized reactions, regardless of whether you think masks help, hinder, or make no difference at all. It’d probably take a team of social scientists to get to the bottom of it all; I’ve seen theories ranging from attitudes towards masks as a signifier of the gaping political chasm in this country, to the reading of masks as villainous or deceptive in European-based cultures generally, but overall I think I agree with this thoughtful Twitter thread on the subject. Because these hostile and even violent reactions seem to be less about wearing a mask oneself, or not, and more about the reminder every time you leave the house that there’s an incredibly contagious pathogen in circulation that can kill you.

Early on in the pandemic I wondered whether there’s something uniquely American about this widespread, occasionally violent denial of what’s happening. It’s not that there aren’t people reacting similarly in other countries, because there are. And perhaps this seems like a mostly American phenomenon to me because, well, I live here, and most of the news I read is about the U.S. But as a country we do seem to have this propensity for believing that whatever we believe in hard enough is so.

And I suppose, if someone is really determined to believe that the pandemic isn’t really happening, or at the very least is overblown, a constant visual reminder otherwise would be upsetting.

It seems ludicrous to point out that that’s not a justification for pointing a gun in someone’s face, but here we are.

Seattle: notes from a pandemic: 12

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Some years ago, I made an offhand remark that the dystopia was here, it was just unevenly distributed. (This was a riff on a well-known William Gibson quote about the future.) A friend pointed out that uneven distribution is intrinsic to dystopias. He was right, of course.

As I write this, a few miles away another battle between protesters and Seattle police is unfolding. I’m old enough to remember a time when I wouldn’t have known that until tomorrow morning, unless I’d happened to turn on the evening’s broadcast news. I might be too old to get used to a time when we can know what’s happening as it’s happening, even at a distance.

Or think we can know, anyway. That people’s opinions about what’s happening are informed by their pre-existing beliefs on the one hand, and what they happen to see of events on the other, is more obvious to me than ever. Some of those opinions are astounding. Most troubling to me, though, is the decision to dismiss the question of what’s being protested out of hand based on the actions of the protesters. “Well, if they were peaceful…” this line of observation usually begins, as though that invalidates the entire reason behind the protest. Conversely, a protest turning violent doesn’t automatically validate whatever the protest is about, either–but it certainly gets people’s attention, and when they ask why the protest wasn’t peaceful, it never seems to occur to them that they haven’t noticed the peaceful protest that typically preceded the violence.

I had occasion to watch Fox News for awhile, some weeks back. Literally the entire broadcast was cities on fire. It was actually hard to remember that the Capitol Hill protest zone, which was just a few miles from where I’m sitting in an area that tonight is once again the epicenter of civic protest, was only a few city blocks in size. Friends who live nearby walked through it every day, unconcerned about the dangers that certain news channels and livestreamers insisted were commonplace.

Where was I? Oh yeah. The pandemic.

I’m not sure we’re in a dystopia, at least not yet, though as my earlier paragraph intimated, that depends on where you’re standing. My uncertainty is an indicator of my privilege. But we’re certainly in a long emergency, possibly even a slow apocalypse. We’re not really built for those. Sudden disasters are shocking, horrific, but humanity’s capacity for cohesive action in response to them is generally pretty good–inspiring, even. What we’re less good at is responding when the horrific becomes the everyday. While the boiling frog fable isn’t actually true, it’s not a bad metaphor for what happens to us when the emergency becomes normal. Case numbers are rising, and more importantly, so are hospitalizations and deaths. But everyone’s too exhausted to care.

People are putting their bodies on the line in protest of police abuse of power…and there’s a pandemic. The newest iteration of the civil rights movement shows signs of shifting the massive edifice of systemic racism…and there’s a pandemic. My primary ballot arrived in the mail…and there’s a pandemic. Last week a friend’s apartment building caught fire, has been condemned, and I spent five hours yesterday helping them move out…and there’s a pandemic. My husband and I are having a dispute with a neighbor…and there’s a pandemic. Fall semester is coming at all of us who work in education like an oncoming train…and there’s most definitely a pandemic, and the national strategy concerning the juxtaposition of these two things appears to be to leave everyone to work out what to do for themselves. The pandemic simultaneously recedes into the background, and makes everything else harder, sharper, more fraught.

When we get back to normal, I keep hearing.

Normal’s not something we’re going to get back to. Whatever normal is in the future, it’s going to look pretty different from last March.

New publication: Retellings of the Inland Seas

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I’ve mentioned this project a few times, and it’s now available: the anthology Retellings of the Inland Seas, including my short story “The Sea of Stars.”

Like a lot of folks reading this, I suspect, I read a lot of Greek mythology as a child; D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths initially, Bullfinch and Hamilton later on. (Percy Jackson is a bit after my time, though if I had kids I’d probably be reading more of those, too.) As an adult I’ve sustained an interest in ancient Greek myth, religion, and history, going so far as to read a fair bit of scholarly material, though I wouldn’t swear to understanding all of it. Despite a lot less attention (not to mention funding) in academia than it used to get, Classics as a field of study has seen something of a resurgence in the last twenty years. There’s some really interesting work out there–including the nascent field of Classical Receptions, the study of how we of later eras receive–understand, interpret, re-imagine–these ancient cultures.

So of course when the call for stories came out I was excited. I’d read the previous Feral Astrogators installments, and the opportunity to create a story drawing on an ancient culture that has profound meaning for me was too good to pass up. I also appreciated the depth and respect called for by the remit. Greek mythology in particular is often treated with a superficiality that tends to smooth over its complexity and cultural richness. I don’t claim to have approached this story from the deep knowledge of a scholar, or better still a person born in the Mediterranean in the present day. But I think, I hope, that I did a pretty decent job.

I also really enjoyed taking a science fictional approach specifically. I write a lot of fantasy, but most of the stories I’ve published have been science fiction, and “The Sea of Stars” is too. You’ll see. And while I didn’t consciously base it on the Odyssey, that story in particular was one of those formative-years readings that certainly influenced the final product. The story, after all, is about mariners and traveling, and getting lost and getting stranded, and the strange things that can happen while you’re trying to survive. I suspect Odysseus could relate.

Anyway, you can order the anthology here, and I hope you enjoy it.

cover art for Retellings of the Inland Seas

New publication: From the Bayou to the Abyss

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I first read Hellblazer back in college, which was longer ago than I care to admit. While I haven’t read absolutely everything in which John Constantine has appeared, I’m enough of a fan that I was absolutely delighted to have an opportunity to contribute to a new collection of essays: From Bayou to Abyss from Sequart. I’ve always had an interest in the esoteric and occult traditions that underlie much of the magic of Hellblazer, though there are lots of people out there with way more expertise than I (including the creator of John Constantine). Delving into some of that historical esotericism was a lot of fun, and you can read the results, along with a number of other great essays, in the book.

Cover art, by Leah Mangue

Seattle: notes from a pandemic: 11

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Oh yeah, we’re still having a pandemic.

It’s not quite in the headlines the way it was just a little over a week ago, pushed aside by another emergency, one arguably more dangerous, and certainly of longer duration. Many of those marching in the streets are newly aware of just how pervasive police brutality is. Many have known for a long time, but haven’t known what to do about it, or have been waiting for someone else to do it first. And many have been marching for years.

I was living in Seattle in 1999, and working downtown when people flooded the streets in protest of the WTO. There have been many street protests in Seattle since then. This city has a long history of them, though it’s a history many seemed to be unaware of when they posted jokes about how Seattle riots–by politely waiting for the crosswalk signal–after the last time the Seahawks won the Super Bowl.

Seattle doesn’t riot, not very often. But protest? Oh, yes. And while the murder of George Floyd was the spark that ignited this protest, Seattle has plenty of grievances of its own where the police are concerned. The police department has been under a consent decree from the Justice Department since 2012. Just last month, SPD filed a motion to terminate the decree. In light of the last week, and the over 14,000 complaints filed against the department, the motion has been withdrawn. Those complaints are about behaviors and tactics that aren’t new. I’m always hesitant to say that things will be different this time, mostly because the older I get, the less true that seems to be. And yet, it might. Not just because people in Seattle generally seem to be well disposed toward the protests and the reasons for them, whether they’re out marching in the streets or not. But because that same support is showing up across the country, and not just in major cities. I’ve seen accounts of Black Lives Matter protests in towns that I’d never have expected to.

And…we’re still in the middle of a pandemic. One of the many unknowns about COVID-19 is just how readily it spreads among people outdoors. Not much, evidence seems to indicate…but does that change when you have hundreds, maybe thousands of people all jammed close together? Even if they’re wearing masks? What if they get tear gassed?

We might very well find out. Several states eased restrictions around Memorial Day. Close to two weeks later, it looks like cases might be starting to spike in those areas.

I hope that we don’t have a spike in cases here. If we do, I hope it stays within levels that hospitals and healthcare providers can handle. Either way, I’m not criticizing the protesters, who are seeking to address an emergency that’s been going on a lot longer than COVID-19. I just wish they didn’t have to.