It’s not that I didn’t know Alternate America existed. I knew it did. I knew people believed a whole host of things that, to me, didn’t reconcile with the evidence. Yet, I make of point of being willing to change my mind when presented with solid evidence for a different position, so I assumed, wrongly, that most people would reasonably do the same. Outside of a few hot-button issues where emotions override facts, I figured truth was inherently stronger than fiction, however convenient.
Now that idea seems naïve. Of course the truth is not stronger. Of course the evidence is not convincing to those who don’t want to be convinced. Why did I think it was? The clash between America and Alternate America has been seething beneath the surface, erupting in localized ways, for decades. And yes, Alternate America has been losing a lot of battles, but in response they’ve also been tightening their boundaries and reinforcing their narratives.
That was a smart choice for people who care more about protecting their beliefs than they care about correcting them. Ideology is stronger than truth. I thought it was stronger by a little bit; but it seems to be stronger by a great deal. Mix a potent ideology with a well-chosen narrative, and people will happily ignore their lying eyes.
I’ve been trying to understand how people could possibly believe that host of things that doesn’t match the evidence. But that was the wrong question; the question I should have been asking was “what are the narratives?”
Winter Solstice: the start of a season that came in early, as it so often has (though less often lately). The darkest day of the year, and in dark times. Yet also, halfway out of the darkness. From here, as the winter settles over the landscape, we are just waiting for the Spring and new growth.
Yet I love the contrasts of winter. The bitter winds and deep snow bury the landscape, making everything at once more dynamic and more still. The woods seem deeper, and yet more welcoming. The mountains seem higher, and yet more fulfilling. The cold is chilling, but invigorating.
I met a wonderful man from Iran the other day, and he told me that his family celebrates the new year in the Spring—when everything is new and reborn; when celebration is warranted and longed for. In this country, we celebrate the new year in the dark.
Yet, I think the dark times make everything more meaningful. Only that which is most firmly itself can carry through.
For those of us with the drive to explore, limits are fascinating and inexorably attractive things. For us, limits are always questions. Which limits are hard limits? Which are soft limits? Can you, through intentional flirtation with the boundary, turn the one into the other? Can you see and do things no one else realizes are possible?
Our societal experience of limits is similar. Yet, I think the drive of the explorer is not the only experience we have. Continue reading →
People have been going on forever about returning to the good old days, the days of their youth, and the days when America was great long before Donald Trump ever got hold of the idea. Longing for the days of yore is baked into our society, to the point where the very idea that something is old, to many people, gives it weight. So we trust in ancient remedies, recall days of chivalry and valor, and yearn for good old Nuclear Family America.
Unless we studied History. Those of us who studied History know that yearning for the good old days dooms you to an infinite wait at the lost luggage counter for imaginary bags.
Honesty is the most important thing—at least, that was a value I learned growing up. No criticism was left unspoken, nor was there any thought that it should be. I learned to value blunt, direct language. I learned to say what I thought. I learned to be brutally honest, and to believe it was the right thing to do.
What I learned was not unique. I see a lot of people who prefer to be direct and who find honesty refreshing. I know a lot of people who find subterfuge and subtext exhausting, and who are actively annoyed by people who weave and bob and refuse to say what they think. And I, like a lot of other people, am actively annoyed by the fact the public figures say whatever they think people want to hear with no regard for truth. Honesty, I think, is objectively valuable.
What I didn’t learn, at least for a while, is that brutality and honesty need not go together.
Spring in New England has always felt like a tug-of-war between winter and summer. Some years, April brings harsher winter weather than March, even harsher than we’ve had since December. Other years, it feels like summer arrives early and April is more like a June without shade. Most years, regardless, there is a cascade of clean snowmelt off the peaks and mountainsides, flushing the forests and brookbeds of winter’s accumulated detritus. Most years, the melting snow is a cue for us to wake, and stretch, and explore.
Perhaps I am too much a student of Tim O’Brien, but I believe that the purpose of stories, literal or otherwise, is to contain truth. In his magnificent opus, The Things They Carried, O’Brien gave us the truth of being a soldier during the Vietnam War. It did not much matter that many of the things in his book were not literal events, because they contained the rich truth of that experience. Stories shine when they convey a truth of experience too big for simple events.
Which is not to say events do not matter. There is another, related role for stories: to provide context for the world in which we live. They are foils for everything we see and experience, catalogues of sensation and emotion, especially and personally constructed to anchor us on deep, shifting sands. So we would like our stories to feel true, in Tim O’Brien’s sense, and also be true, in a more literal sense. And yet, we also conflate those two.
We all tell ourselves stories about the world—stories to help us reduce the component parts into things we can understand. Sometimes those stories describe the world, and sometimes they describe what we wish the world could be. Usually, I think, they are a little of both.
The edges are always fuzzy, and the connections can be tenuous, and sometimes there are gaps in the stories we want to tell ourselves. Sometimes we just leave those gaps there, unanswered and honest. But sometimes we flail in the fuzzy gaps, and sometimes we try to fill them in.
It’s almost a meme, outside of scientific circles, to use quantum physics for this; after all, quantum physics is pretty cool, pretty attention-grabbing, and pretty unintuitive. Can’t quantum effects be that little bit of magic we secretly hope for?
I am lying sideways in a crawlway barely large enough for my body, taking a breath before moving on. Beneath me, a cold, viscous mud is soaking into my right arm, which is becoming stiff under my weight. My neck is sore from tilting my head to see ahead of me. My kneepads, once protectors, have hung up enough times on protruding knobs of rock that they are probably around my ankles—I cannot look back to know for sure, but I can feel the gravel biting into my knees. A drop of cold water falls in my ear and I cringe, awkwardly pulling off my left glove and wiping the wetness away with moderately clean fingers. I take another breath, replace my glove, and continue on.
When I worked in the wilderness for days at a time, I had the dubious privilege of camping and living in some of the worst weather New England has to offer, and bad weather is something hardly lacking here. The Mt. Washington Observatory proudly proclaims itself home of “the worst weather in the world.”
Hyperbole or not, the elements in the White Mountains will not be disrespected. In the winter and the summer both, weather systems climbing up along the east coast meet cold air pouring down from the Arctic Circle. As the systems meet up with one another, their winds amplify each other. In the wake of storms major and minor, winds in the mountains climb comfortably to hurricane-force. When I noted that, I went to check and found that twenty-one of the preceding thirty days in the Whites were recorded, on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, as being at least class one—“very dangerous winds, will produce some damage.” Of those, eight passed into class two—“extremely dangerous winds, will cause extensive damage.” Three reached the level of a class three hurricane—“devastating damage will occur.”