Monday, November 28, 2011

The November of my youth

In case it's not totally obvious from the previous post, today isn't exactly the cheeriest of days. Not depressing or anything, just grey. Boise has been grey for what seems like forever but is probably only a few days here and there. This must be what they call the inversion, when thin clouds settle over the valley and just hang out. Forever. Blue sky is visible in the distance, over the tops of the foothills somewhere, but the clouds hold it back just out of reach. Just enough to reassure us that the world hasn't ended and the entire planet isn't smothered. November in Chicago is cold and grey. It rains. It's windy. But at least it's doing something. Here, the temperature isn't too cold, and it's not particularly windy or rainy. Just grey. Sometimes the clouds thin out and the wan sunlight filters through, like looking at a lightbulb from beneath a bedsheet. It seems like everyone here skis, and now I know why. The ski resorts reside just above the cloud line, right where that unattainable blue sky hangs out. Up there, it's bright and sunny and the snow sparkles festively. Grey sky alone is one thing, but the looming mountains really make the valley feel closed-in, capped, sealed. As if we could climb up and poke a hole in the clouds and a whoosh of fresh air would come rushing in. Or better yet, sweep away the clouds with a broom like we do with the cobwebs in rooms that have gone stale.

Giving Thanks

A few days past the official Thanksgiving holiday, I am especially appreciative of what I am fortunate enough to have. Last night on 60 Minutes, the first story was about families in Florida who are now living out of their cars because they lost their homes when the jobs left and the economy crashed. There have been many stories like this in the media lately; for example, Diane Sawyer hosted a one-hour special last month on an American Indian tribe in North Dakota that is among the poorest communities in the country.  Poverty exists all over the world and is much more rampant in many places outside of the United States. It's one of the core reasons for violence in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and in other war-torn areas. From our comfy couches, it's easier to ignore them. Send some money to an international aid organization and hope it doesn't get accidentally used to pay off corrupt politicians or fund projects that are doomed from the start. Sponsor a child, Sally Struthers-style. Some people take up the cause and fly across the world to try to help people whose circumstances are mostly beyond the control of those who live outside that nation and have no political power. Sometimes it works - some microloans and education and infrastructure initiatives, for example - but without support of the government, it's much more difficult to raise a country as a whole out of poverty. So we throw up our hands and turn the heat up in our cozy homes.

But the United States is now on a slippery slope. Our people can't find work, which leads to tighter budgeting, which leads to feeding their families two meals a day instead of three, because they can't afford more food. Food pantries are struggling right now to provide enough food for the growing number of people who rely on them to put food on the table. This isn't just a problem of eating fast food because it's cheaper than fresh food. It's a problem of no food at all. One family in the 60 Minutes piece said that after cutting back from three meals to two meals a day, they still had no extra money, and they ended up living in their car until a woman who runs a local program helped get the family a hotel room to live in. But a family of five can't live in a hotel room forever. It's a temporary fix.

This is sad. We as a country are no longer taking care of our own. Our government is fighting about stupid stupid things, mostly about how to split the money. Raising taxes may or may not help. Cutting spending may or may not help. This problem isn't about just throwing money at people and hoping it doesn't get wasted. Government doesn't exist simply for its own good and it isn't about making rules for rules sake. It's about providing what our society needs to function and thrive. Private business is about providing goods and services for members of our society. During a time of increased need, not just from those in communities where poverty is perpetuated, but also in once-comfortable communities that looked just like ours, why are we fighting over words and ideas? Why are we not doing something, even if it's small, to help even one family move out of their car and into a real home? This isn't a bleeding-heart liberal thing. It's a human thing. Our country might be in debt for years to come, but our neighbors are faltering right now. It could happen to any of us. One medical emergency or a lost job, and we could be next.

On this day, I am especially thankful for all that I am fortunate enough to have. My furnace broke on Thanksgiving, and I had to rely on a space heater and a wood stove for warmth, although I was lucky enough to be able to stay with a friend for the weekend. What it must be like to have nothing but a wood stove for warmth all the time, or to have no one else to stay with in an emergency, or to have no home at all, I just can't imagine. My heart goes out to all of those people who need so much more. I wish that I could give it.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


I knew it would be different here. That was the point. I needed a reset. I needed to start over in a place where no one knows me, where they have no preconceived notions of who I am or where I came from, so I can be whatever I want. I needed a different view, to see things from another angle. But like my cat, I discovered that I long for freedom but am afraid of what's actually out there.

Life in the city is easy. Go to the same few bars and restaurants, shop in the few stores that have what you want, listen to your iPod as you go about your merry way. Keep up the same routines: go to the gym after work or during lunch. Run errands on the weekends. Meet up with friends in between. Meet new people. Cook dinner with the usual ingredients. Listen to the same radio shows, watch the same tv shows, read the same newspapers and magazines. These things are easily transferrable among lives.

It's life outside the city that's scary. Get up into the mountains, among the tall pines and gushing streams, and it's a different world. So quiet. No people around, no airplanes overhead, no birds chirping or leaves rustling. My attempts at hiking have been cut short as I was consumed with a fear of being eaten by a wolf. Or worse yet, partially eaten, with no cell service and no passers-by to help. Leisurely drives along roads in higher elevations feel like death traps, an icy patch or a sneeze all that's necessary to take one wrong turn off the road and plummet into the valley below. Venturing into the wild here is an exercise in stuffing fear into a compartment deep in the belly and trying to enjoy the incredible scenery instead. Coming from a land where people worry more about getting a flat tire on the highway than breaking an ankle while traversing a high mountain trail, this place feels utterly dangerous at times. Is this how other people feel when they move to the West after living in Mamby-Pamby Town for so long? Or are these fears totally unfounded, revealing themselves in this form but being rooted in some deeper, unconscious fear? This is the first time I've done something so different in my life, and being scared is an important part of the process. Maybe it's just that: it's new, and new is scary. Exciting too, but until you learn its secrets and crack its code, new means stumbling in the dark, the world only illuminated as far as your little flashlight beam can reach. Once you know what's just beyond the beam of light, you don't have to guess what's out there, and that's a more comforting place to be. Having someone to hold your hand helps too.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Urban Wildlife, Boise Style

One of the first few days I was here for good, I looked out my window and saw a doe and two young deer standing in my yard. It was opening day for deer hunting, and I wanted to shout at them, "RUN!!!" But no one here in the foothills would shoot at a deer among the houses, especially not with two young. Right? There have been numerous skunks as roadkill, and I've heard rumors of foxes or coyotes running off with the neighborhood cats at night. My sweet kitty doesn't get to go outside at night at all. Not that I have a reason to be worried - she snuck out the open door one evening and came running back a few minutes later. Yearning for freedom, afraid of what's actually out there.

There are also the usual suspects - red and gray squirrels, Canada geese, various song birds, a few small raptors in the open areas. They remind me that I have to get to know a whole new selection of birds out here, because many species don't live out east. My favorite are the California quail that hang out in packs among the bushes, shrubs, and dense clusters of conifers out here. They sound like guinea pigs, squeaking and grunting in the foliage. It's pretty rare to see them - they go running from any disturbance. This evening, I looked out my bedroom window to see maybe 30 quail picking through the fallen willow leaves and pine needles in my backyard, followed by a nosy squirrel whom they didn't seem to notice. Quail are so funny, with their colorful patches of feathers and their one curled feather on their forehead that quivers as they bob for seeds and berries and bugs. Even the females have a little tuft of feather on their heads. It's so regal.


"Stay in the North End," they said. "The North End is where everything is that you'll need. There's no reason to leave the North End." I've been fighting against this mindset that other educated, progressive Boiseans (Boiseites?) have regarding the old-home, kid-safe, coffee-shop-and-food-co-op neighborhood where apparently most of the liberals in Boise live. I grew up in a pretty diverse area in Chicago. My parents are working-middle class folks, and I always liked to think of myself as part of the proletariat in a way. I'm an educated professional, intellectually curious and well-rounded, but I never assumed badly of someone who works in retail or industry or who doesn't have a college degree. I worked in retail for many years with people who didn't go to college, and they mostly didn't seem like people I needed to avoid. Then again, I have always spent the majority of my time (outside of retail work) with people like me, by default, because after college, I have worked in all white-collar jobs. I never really noticed the difference between those who take a more nuanced approach to life and those who don't give much thought to intellectual pursuit until I moved to Washington, DC, a city rife with people ready to pick apart the world.

Anyway, this Boise Liberal attitude really left a bit of a distaste in my mouth. All of the other Boiseans I have run across have seemed really quite nice and normal, and we liberals can be a tad elitist at times.

Then I dived into the dating scene here, via a free online dating site. And now I understand why my cohorts here in Boise stick to the North End. There is a wider gulf here between those who are liberal and highly educated (often beyond a bachelor's degree) and those who are something else. Still lovely people all, but in a liberal-ish small city like Boise in a staunchly conservative state like Idaho, you just stick with what you know. Because it's easier than explaining yourself to those who don't get it, no matter what your political persuasion, level of education, religion, or job. It's live-and-let-live out here, and everyone stays on their side of the line.