Age of Aquarist

We spent the afternoon at Fords Theatre, where the President’s Box still holds watch, as it has for 152 years since that fateful night when President Lincoln lost his life to…political hate.   fullsizerender-13The theatre is, coincidentally, a few blocks from the Trump International Hotel, where protestors massed today for yet another cause: the immigration ban.  Rebellion is suddenly the order of the day, and comes as a shock to many who don’t remember the era of large- scale protests in our country.  Many of us who believed in traditional institutions feel like we don’t know where to turn, what to do.  We have to make the difficult choice to stay connected to the world or hide out, although the latter seems impossible in the echo chambers of social media.  Still, there is good in this new reality.  We are being moved to action in ways big and small.  We realize that past squabbles pale in comparison to the feast of problems before us.  Maybe Republicans and Democrats will finally come together in a new coalition to do not what’s expedient, but what’s right.  And, we will always have the power to control our own little worlds and freely send  signals outside, hopeful that someone will listen.

On that final note,  I have begun fulfilling my dream of establishing a saltwater aquarium.  I’ve actually had it a while, stored in a box until our recent move.  Now, finally, it is up and running.  Sort of.  I lost my copy of Saltwater Aquariums for Dummies in the move, so went to the pet store for a refresher course with a very patient salesman named Tony.  (I see Tony and I establishing an intimate relationship over the years, not  a romantic sense, but through my constant visits, nagging questions, and large purchases.)

I was amused to see signs assuring customers that the fish were raised in captivity, in case we feel guilt from watching Finding Nemo.  Yes, these fish think the world is small and rectangular, just like the early explorers, and it is fine with them. Another customer, someone I probably would have never met, struck up a conversation on algae.  It felt oddly satisfying to connect with two strangers– not over work or politics– just common interest.

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Think twice before involving children in decorating.

aquarium

Fill ‘er up.

The bucket brigade and alchemy are complete, and we are now waiting for it to clear, or show some sign of settling down.  I know that an aquarium or other hobby isn’t the solution to the ills in our lives.  Yet, when the world

is spinning too fast, it can help keep us grounded and focused.  Here, I am mayor of my own peaceful little ecosystem that recalls good times spent scuba diving and snorkeling.   It is not a particularly good endeavor for an anxious personality, as I have already inventoried everything that can go wrong:  Will the living sand and rock, full of good bacteria like the stuff our parents let us play in when we were young, die?  Worse, will I not know it?  Will my heater explode because I didn’t submerge it far enough?  How do you maintain perfect salinity when your water is always evaporating?   Will the inhabitants get along or eat each other?  Most importantly, who can we bribe, I mean trust enough, to take care of it if we go on vacation?   I don’t know the answers, but so far, it is a great distraction from the larger questions nipping at my heels.

 

Lessons From a Red State

As womens’ marches filled the world’s streets on Inauguration weekend, my family and I took another form of protest: away from the unrest and gloom that had settled in over D.C. and into the woods of West Virginia, where the great forests once leveled in the westward expansion have once again filled out the stunning, rugged landscape.fullsizerender-10 If you look at a map, we were in the area just below the place where Maryland– the oddly gerrymandered and staunchly blue state– points down at its southern neighbor, a few hours from D.C. but seemingly much further away.  It felt good to breathe again, to not worry about offending or being offended, and think about other things besides politics.

The soaring vistas and towering trees belie a much bleaker picture of this majestic state: It has among the highest unemployment, disability, and opiate addiction rates in the country.  It also has one of the highest percentage of Trump voters.  Many people, especially in the coastal cities, express odd fascination and mock them as uneducated and uninformed.  They love yet hate West Virginia because they can’t understand it.  Yet, diving deep into one of the reddest states in the union– even for a couple of days– the mystery begins to unravel.

While my family skied, I headed out to rest my bones, enjoy a cup of coffee, and read awhile. I ended up in the northernmost of a string of small towns along the rushing Blackwater River, named after the British and Scottish settlers who put them on the map, and started walking around. The town hugs a cliff overlooking the river and the old railroad track, which has long since been converted into a trail. fullsizerender-7 fullsizerender-1I stopped to read a historical plaque that took me back a century and a half ago, when the railroad was the beating heart of this community, delivering goods and taking coal mined by a melting pot of nationalities who lived and worked side by side. In that place and time, people were too busy to hate. They worked, shopped, raised families, shared their cultures, and proudly contributed what they could. Immigrants were welcomed, not shunned; the only passport you needed was a willingness to work.  Many of their descendants still live there, bound by family and tradition.

Fast forward to today, and you get the sense that these towns suffocated along with the dwindling mountain coal industry. Yes, you can see revival in some places, but as something else entirely: Small shops, galleries, and restaurants drawing day trippers now dot the mostly vacant main street. Hopeful signs point to the economic revitalization on the way. But they may never again be the same downtowns, with grocery stores, butcher shops, hardware stores, and doctors offices.  These lifelines are gone, out to the anonymous highway, and often– like the nearest hospital– far away.  As you depart Main Street and drive this highway, there’s no avoiding the seemingly endless parade of giant wind turbines high atop the ridge line.  A coal mine is nestled in the narrow valley below.  The view is a stark contrast between the industries of then and now, and they couldn’t be more different: Coal mining, especially in the east, is difficult, dirty, backbreaking, dangerous work. It is increasingly costly and difficult to pull coal out of the ground here. fullsizerenderEnter the wind turbine–a clean and elegant engineering marvel that pretty much does the work itself, collecting an endless supply of wind and magically converting it into energy. One industry supported plentiful hard labor; its successor, educated engineers and machinists who design, build, and maintain the turbines.

In other words, an energy industry is still here, but it is no longer democratic or available for anyone who wants to work in it. This seems to be a common refrain as the world lurches into another age of e-commerce and globalization: jobs are increasingly specialized and require unique skills, yet many people without the ability or know-how to pursue them simply give up in despair.  Like the shift from the agricultural to the industrial age, the changes are bringing hope and fear to us all, but hit especially hafullsizerender-9rd in places like this.

Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by just watching.” I don’t pretend to know the answers or what other people feel, but I did leave this part of the world with more compassion than before, and a feeling that the answers lie beyond hate, border walls, tariffs, and isolationism.  I hope that we can find a way to heal our divisions, support honest hard work, and accept that a college education isn’t for everyone.  We all deserve alternatives that provide dignity, respect, recognition, and a real living wage– a truth that’s often forgotten as we charge toward the horizon.  A new highway now crisscrosses the state, easing commutes and making these mountain valleys more accessible.  Not a railroad of yesteryear, but a positive sign.

The Adventure Begins…

I am not, in most senses, an early adopter.  I am more like the Goldilocks of blog writing, testing the waters and drawing back my toe over and over.   Many years ago, inspired by the book Last Child in the Woods, I originally planned to be a nature writer specializing in getting kids out into nature.  I was fiercely determined that we wouldn’t be ‘that’ family locked away indoors, tapping on screens and interacting only enough for me to nag the kids to put down their devices, do their chores, and eat something that didn’t have a multi-year shelf life.  I envisioned weekly hikes, nature center trips, camping, etc., but there was one major problem.  The Outdoors is a big, often inconvenient and uncomfortable place that  doesn’t always capture the tykes’ attention as you would hope.  The relaxing beaches of my youth became landmines of sand in eyes and other places, jellyfish stings, and sunscreen slathered so heavily that the kids felt like greased piggies.  Hikes were a chorus of complaining and lack of facilities, punctuated by an epic ‘big kid’ underwear blowout in a National Park, miles from civilization or even toilet paper.  Backpacking?  Ha Ha!  Fuhgeddaboutit.   We kept trying, but I felt like a fraud, and collapsed from the logistical workload.    Heck, I didn’t even enjoy it some of the time.  The kids are now older (13 and 10) and not at as much risk of going overboard, disappearing under a wave, or melting down, so we are venturing out again; but time is limited.

I thought about writing on parenting but that ground is so well trod that I really had no new insights, and was afraid of the P.C. backlash from telling it like it really is, if only humorously (It goes back to the trauma of trying to set up a happy hour playdate where all of the moms refused a glass of wine, and a cookie exchange where they refused to bring cookies, lest they appear…humans who had fun and consumed a dubious calorie now and then.)  And, besides, Scary Mommy had cornered that market.

What, then?  I surprised my very kind and accepting husband by purchasing our long-awaited vacation home– actually a used RV– a couple of years ago and thought of writing about our RVing experiences.  Honestly, most RV blogs are deadly boring, so I thought there may be potential, especially in a venture so ripe for comedy, but feared I may never find my target audience of families (grandparents excluded)who RV.  (If you are out there, let’s get to know each other!)  So, I present this blog, a mishmash of random thoughts on all of the above and more.   Will you come along on the journey?