Returning

Last week, in The Atlantic, Ellen Cushing wrote that “…the only thing better than being a genius in a pandemic is being intellectually unencumbered by mass grief.”   This has become the cliche du jour, that (essentially) after a year of official pandemichood in the US, we have all been changed in ways that we are only just becoming able to understand.  I have certainly found this to be the case; as I reread last week’s post I couldn’t help but notice the unusual (even for me!) number of typos and instances in which my brain, separate entity that it often is these days, decided to switch track mid-clause.   As I wrote last week, we’ve gotten this far in the pandemic relatively unscathed.  I’ve actually learned quite a lot, and am confident I’ll look back on the past year with trepidation and fondness, once a bit more comfort of distance is mine.  I am also confident that the fog of anxiety, which was so all-consuming a year ago, when we were figuring out how this was going to work, and this past autumn, when we were waiting to see just how bad things would get, has altered my thinking and functioning in ways that will never be fully fixable.

Friday, March 13th, was the last normal day of school for us.  It had been a good week, a busy week, full of purpose.  A sunny week, until Friday, when it snowed.  I went skiing with a client during the 6th grade field trip, excited that this young lady, whose life had in the past month revealed itself to me as marked by islands on hope amidst a grey ocean of trauma, was moving towards being able to build herself, towards giving herself convincing and sustaining evidence that she would be in control of her life and herself.  After lunch, we rode the big lift to the summit of the mountain and she fought her doubt back down.  Another client would, a month later and over Zoom, reveal his arm in a cast, a fracture sustained on that ski trip which had gone undiagnosed for weeks.   I will always remember leaving school that Friday, jovially wrapped in the ignorance I had pulled ever more tightly around myself in the month before, as the Europe showed the western hemisphere what it was in for, and M filled our freezer with food and our closet with yes, toilet paper.

Here in our middle schools we just squeaked in under the 1 year mark, returning to a somewhat normal schedule this week.   Middle schoolers have not had an easy time of it the past year, perhaps, as a class, they have been the worst off.  This years sixth graders got all of the academic demands, and more, of the move to middle school with almost none of the structural support, and none of the social inducements.  Seventh graders, and especially, eighth graders, are all to aware of what they are missing, and have been deep in mourning for some time.  I have deep theoretical and policy objections to middle schools as such, but putting that aside leaves the pragmatic fact of this deeply awkward developmental period being, insofar as our public schools are primary agents of socialization, predicated upon peers and socialization driving the process.  Middle schoolers struggle to find school relevant absent social exposure, and not just because lunch and social time is the sugar on the medicine of math and writing and sex ed.

On the other hand, 12 year olds are blessed with both a more plastic sense of the world, and being not yet inured to bullshit in the ways adulthood demands.  They are both more capable of moving on with change, and less likely to pass poor reality into the background as something to accept by ignoring.  I’ve been busy this school year, and have now refined using unspecified anxiety and depression as COVID-specific, insurance approved diagnosis.  Many of my clients, especially the newer ones, do best with understanding just how and why their lives are not ok right now, and that they will find it simplest to figure out how to accept, for the moment, the unacceptable.

Acceptance is not the same as forgetting, nor is it a passive process.  I’ve learned this year that streaming Fortnite or Minecraft is a perfectly adequate substitute for in person socialization, if done intentionally.  The same games, and especially the less inherently social ones, can just as or even more easily be numbing.  Regression to the bliss of elementary school, and pruning down ones life to the basics, are in the pandemic entirely healthy, so long as self-awareness becomes involved at some point.  So too increased sleep, though the line here between self-care and avoidance is pencil-line thin.

Big people would do well to remember these lessons.  There will be lots of reasons to be tentative about our exit from the pandemic, and fear and failure and fear of change are, especially after a year spent swimming in ambiguity, just as reasonable as concern that lax behavior will bring about a resurgence in infections.

The B&P mentoring program

Donald Trump has shown, more starkly than almost anything else one could imagine, how deeply structural racial bias and discrimination has been and is, and how it remains in many or even most cases the pivot point for social power in the United States. After the past four years we know more about this, which is to say more about ourselves, than we would under any other circumstances.  Structural bias will in many cases erode away in the face of history, but very slowly, and with the potential for retrograde progress.  It is our responsibility to bend the curve of history, to help social justice along, in consistency and speed.

I’ve been guilty, for a long time, of thinking about wilderness ahistorically, as something which is a precondition for social justice.  I still think this is true, but all too often my assumptions have jumped from wilderness and wild pursuits being physically democratic, insofar as accessibility is concerned, to that accessibility being literally effective.  I grew up spending time outside with my family, going hiking and boating from a very early age.  It wasn’t until I started rock climbing at 12 that I felt ownership over my own learning in the outdoors, and that experience, supported by my family background (read; privilege) allowed me to move on and teach myself canyoneering, mountain biking, hunting, skiing, packrafting, and so forth.  Making the venue and information of and for a given wilderness pursuit accessible is one thing.  Making the self-certainty necessary to teach oneself out there in the wild is another.

That matter is something I would like to help address.

So I’m looking for mentees in 2021, for a small handful of people with aspirations for the backcountry whose background and situation will make achieving those goals more complicated than would be the case for someone like me.  I’m not placing definitive restrictions on the race, orientation, class, or ethnicity who I hope to work with here, but white men are not it.  Yes there has been a lot of attention given to minorities in the outdoors and to social justice within the industry, and a lot of that verbiage has been monolithic and cliched, but the broader point about social justice, that we are neither the agent or architects of the more profound influences on our lives, stands intact.  My hope and intention is to use my experience, something both created and expedited by the circumstances of my birth, to provide an analogous bit of assistance for folks whose place in history would not do the same.

What will this look like?  I don’t know, but am eager to go on a journey with a few folks and find out.  I envision folks having significant and extensive access to my time, over the phone or via Zoom, regarding their hopes, goals, and the personal and skill development they’ll need to get there.  If someone wants to climb the Grand Teton, for example, or packraft the Middle Fork of the Flathead, it is easy to write up a list of hard skills they’ll need to master.  It is less simple to even define the mental aspects and less tangible skills that will be equally essential.  Things like dealing with loneliness and fear; managing layers and bedding during a 48 hour rainstorm; finding a layering system that works to your tastes and physiology.  I envision my roll as having more to do with helping people figure out the most important questions, rather than the more basic process of defining answers.  Perhaps, schedules and COVID concerns allowing, some combination of us might be able to go on a trip, or a few.  If you are based in the vicinity of Helena, Montana, that convenience would allow for more instructional options.

So, if you fit the above criteria and have some adventure goals you think might dovetail well with my knowledge base, send an email to dave at bedrockandparadox dawt com, with Mentorship Application in the subject line, and tell me what your hopes are and how you think I would be effective in assisting you.  This last part is important.  Any reader who has been around a while should be quite familiar with my style, and I think I can assure everyone that my writing does a decent job of representing who I am as a person.  Like any teaching relationship, the person to person dynamic is as important as any more direct factor, and neither of us should waste each others time if it doesn’t seem like we would be a good fit.  That said, in applying I ask for no commitment save to me reading and you writing your words, each with care.

I have no basis for evaluating the interest, but I don’t envision the application period being open for long.  I will update in this post, and notify everyone via email.

The best thing

A new packraft is the most exciting piece of gear.  As of two days ago we have four in the gear room, and have owned six in total.  Skis have an outer purity of purpose, but in practice this is circumscribed to a startling extent by how sucky traction devices are, and how contextual proper snowpack has become in the 21st century.  Bikes are similarly boxed in by needing prepared surfaces, most of whom (for either practical or juridical reasons) are shaped by human imagination.  Waterways, by definition, are not; and a boat that can easily travel on foot from one body of water to the next allows for the ideal blend of human agency and immersing us in how thoroughly environment creates us.

The new boat is an Explorer 42 from Alpacka, its place in the quiver a larger, more whitewater capable, and cargo fly equipped version of the Double Duck we purchased (also in the holiday sale) 5 years ago, when we were only preparing for a family life on the water, rather than today, figuring out just how much we can do with two young kids.  Based on a 30 minute evening test paddle, it is big, stable, and carries two kids and one adult with ease.  I’m very excited to push it in all matters of challenging water this year.

The only thing more exciting is having a president that isn’t a thug and a narcissist.  Cheers everyone.

Things I loved this year

Add.; Not long after publishing this yesterday evening I received a text, and then an email, stating that extra vaccine doses would be available to direct care workers outside hospitals and clinics, in other words, me. So I woke up in the dark and waited in line at the fairgrounds and got Moderna stuck into my arm. That medicine went into clinical trials the first day our schools went virtual back in the spring, and is both a great story and a reminder that for all the navel gazing, flatearth mugwumpitude of 2020, contemporary science is quite amazing. Can’t really leave that off such a list as this.

DMR Deathgrips

For over a decade I’ve struggled to see the point of any mountain bike grips which are not either Oury or Ergon. When buying parts for the Marin I wanted to try something new, and ordered a pair of Deathgrips in thin and flangeless. The tactile experience, along with the ease of removal while futzing with components, have been very nice indeed. Nice enough that I recently put another set, thick and flangeless, of my fatbike. I don’t have enormous hands (generally right between medium and large gloves) and the thin versions are both a bit low on cushion and a bit too little to hold well in the rough. These are emphatically a gravity oriented grip, without much squish. But the ribbed thumb section is super comfy with or without gloves, and encourages body english and three dimensional steering. Not necessarily the most versatile bike grip, but a very fun option.

Bialetti Moka pot

Under ordinary circumstances I don’t do much to restrain my coffee consumption, provided I drink it black. Caffeine being after all an almost universal performance enhancer with no socially consequent downsides, and precious few downsides at all. The chemical and psychological benefits have been even more important this year, and the Moka pot quickly makes just the kind of coffee I prefer. This fall especially it has been rare that I don’t fire it up at least twice a day.

My chair

When we moved in 3.5 years ago the little garage out back was in sad shape, and half full of odd junk. The door had long since ceased to work, and the dirt floor became vital that spring, as a record snowpack melted through the walls and flooded down under the door. Boxes stored in there were frozen to the floor for over a month. That summer I built a stone wall between the opening and the alley, demolished the door, and built a wall cutting the interior in half. The dirt floor of the bike room is handy when I spill oil, or don’t want to go back inside to piss, but a nuisance when I drop a bolt. I also dug out the three feet of wooden wall decades of erosion had placed underground, and installed layers of flashing. So now our garage keeps snowmelt out.

Among the items moved out to make way for bikes and the car was an old wooden bakers chair, which rolls, swivels and tilts on an iron base. I didn’t really look at it for another few years, until this February when I restored the base with grease, screws, and wood glue, and the seat and back with pints of linseed oil. I had intended to move it to my office at school, and finished it the weekend before the stay at home order took effect in Montana. Instead it went into the new home office, and I found that the unpadded seat was more comfortable than the succession of old and modern plush chairs I’ve used over the years. It was a happy day when I moved it into school at the end of August, and in October, when things finally got cold enough for the baseboard heater to run hot, the scent of linseed oil reemerged and lingered for days. For practical and now, nostalgic reasons, I can’t imagine ever getting rid of it.

Fire lookouts

Through both planning and luck spent more nights in lookout towers this year than any other to date. Some, like Christmas Eve in a tower just north of town, required advanced planning. Others were vacancies that popped up days in advance, and seizing them just required awareness and being flexible. Picking a favorite is not possible, as every trip was important and unique. Like this one, and this one.

In this case scarcity has always been somewhat the driver of interest, and this year more than most, the silence of the wind and a long view were especially welcome. If a lot of my internal conversation at the beginning of the summer concerned what I would do when the pandemic had passed, my looking back at these photos and memories now has me struggling to think of trips I’d find of more interest or value, and has me psyched to plan more, close to home, for 2021.

The bakery

One of the sadder days of the stay at home order was when our local shut down for several weeks. They had stayed open with much of their usual range for the first few weeks, and taking the usual walk downtown in the afternoon only to find a note saying they’d be shut for at least a while did more than most things, I am sad to admit, to bring home what we had lost. Ever since they reopened I’ve been less likely than usual to shy away from an anise biscotti or slice of lemon sake, and less likely in general to take our little city for granted.

OR Feedback flannel

This is a nice shirt. You would not know it was polyester until it dries much faster (and stinks more) than wool. Fit and build are ideal. Durability is decent. My 14 month old one has developed a few picks at seemingly random times, none of which have impacted presentability from a distance or not been easily sorted with scissors. That shirt still qualifies as Montana formal, and is the rare thing I can both wear to the office and on a hunting trip. Neither wicking nor insulation are quite at the level of true performance clothing, but is ideal for bike commuting, winter walks that turn cold, resort skiing, and everything in the category of lifestyle. At least around here, it counts as a Zoom shirt too.

Patagonia Slopestyle hoody

There are a lot of sweatshirts very similar to this (discontinued) piece, but as is often the case, Patagonia does the details better. The hard faced, brushed interior polyester is both more weather resistant and more cuddly than similar pieces from other companies, and the big three panel hood, roomy but not excessive cut, and pockets (there are zippered, mesh lined pockets inside each hand pocket) make it infinitely practical. I had one years ago, sold it, regretted doing so, and picked up another this summer on Worn Wear (which is a very fun place to browse). Until things get really cold around here, it is my coat every day.

Part of the system

I’m using Andew’s post from the other week to call myself out; since returning from the Salmon to a world newly convulsed by protest and riots I have checked out and tried to go about business as usual, at least to the greatest extent possible.  Normalcy has been a fleeting ideal for some time, since Friday March 13th, the last day we had on-site school in Montana.  As a school-based psychotherapist, I’ve been chasing flat certitude ever since.  How to use Zoom, or do therapy over the phone (that is, once our Governor changes the rules and allowed state-based insurance to cover virtual sessions, and after most private insurance companies moved to do the same).  How to track down clients now at home all the time, without internet or a working mobile phone.  As April moved closer to May those questions were mostly answered, replaced with things like how I could work virtually with 12 year olds just being able to name their childhood trauma; and then as May turned to June and Montana reopened and I started seeing clients face-to-face again, questions pivoted yet again: How do teens just working into adulthood make sense of a social landscape that will be tinged, perhaps for years, with suspicion?

My baseline this whole time has been uncertainty, which quickly tried to fill its emptiness with anger.  Anger at the world for such a curveball.  Anger at our government for its ineffectual response.  Anger at our educational officials and institutions, for the failure to make a point of all how minor a part academics play in the grand theatre of US public education.  I’ve seen my clients flail at adapting to online platforms and a world in which they must pull an assignment from one platform, turn it in on another, and tune in to ask or guidance on a third.  I’ve seen those without internet give up, and then vanish.  I’ve seen them turn nocturnal, not leave their certain chair for weeks on end save to eat and visit the toilet, seeking the socialization their unconscience requires in the chat of Fortnite and Star Stables.  Public school has been revealed as the compulsory, dark constant in their lives; middle school as the rough tool for society to take them into adulthood when and where their guardians cannot.

Never before has my role as mediator between Socialization and reality been so naked.

Essential reading for this moment in history is Coates’ The Case for Reparations, in which among many things he makes the pragmatic case for paying the ancestors of slaves.  In his essay the coherent and pervasive impacts of slavery and racism are historical trauma, and the generalized psychological, familial, social, educational, and economic impacts which are the inevitable accompaniment.  As Coates’ puts it  “It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”  I don’t think it is too controversial to say that the current Black Lives Matter protests are only in the minority about police violence and racism.  The largest part of that alternative majority is anger at Trumpism, at this last grasp of uncomplicated white hegemony trying to retain its influence, at those who out of generational necessity and the structural racism their daily habits create would virulently prefer that the world not change.  The smaller part of that majority is for me the crux of the issue, that American meritocracy remains in denial about both the historical dimensions of social change and how addressing these entrenched biases will benefit our country as a whole.

To whit; a remarkable conversation with one of my now-9th grade clients, someone whose anxiety and avoidance saw him hiding in bathrooms on a daily basis back when the school building was available.  Online schooling was his future savior, just as online socialization had been his (safe, and palatable) entree into teenagehood.  Running that experiment has given him a newfound appreciation for both traditional school and seeing peers face to face, and in our first in person session in months his newly hatched motivation for high school was quickly followed with a revelation which brought the past 8 months and more than 4000 minutes in my office into focus, a lake of confusion frozen into clarity by crisis.  No one in his nuclear or extended family had graduated high school.  20 minutes of genealogy could not turn up a single example, even amongst tertiary and quaternary uncles and cousins.  In that moment the weight of history, what we might dramatically call fate, was as obvious as my own privilege and bias, which over all those many potent minutes had never thought to ask if his making it through school had any personal precedent.

The reasons an extended family could make it through to the third decade of the 21st century without a diploma amongst them has more to do with ineffable, sticky factors than it does with more encapsulatable things like teen pregnancy, substance use, and poverty.  In the case mentioned above, poor anxiety management is as much a pointless chicken/egg nature/nurture question when it comes to treatment as when it comes to policy.  The concern is that mental illness is both inherited and taught, and without remarkable efforts and circumstances is as likely to torpedo my clients aspirations as it is those of his children and then, grandchildren.  It is in the interest of society to have my client graduate high school for reasons of economic potential, and because of what being able to achieve that mark entails on the level of life skills.  Both skills and money being heritable, this is the kind of change which pays interest over generations, and this in turn explains why the 20-21 school year is the question, beyond even the November election, which disturbs my sleep most.

Drones in Wilderness

You can’t fly drones in federal Wilderness.  Not much debate on that, either from the legal side, or I would contend the philosophical one.  If the essential spirit of the Wilderness Act is the tightrope of permitting/encouraging human access on the landscape while using restrictions on technology to reduce impact, aircraft restrictions are fitting.  Though drones won’t (yet) allow humans to land on a gravel bar, they do very much in the moment massively expedite the reach of the human mind.  The Wilderness consists in wildness, which in turn consists in the unknown, or human finitude.

That being said, I think it is appropriate to make a public issue of the frequent, often egregious violations of this rule.  Like when one of the best living adventure filmers does it, or even just these guys (Warning: Bro factor 1000).  Like with commercial filming permits, on first examination violations can seem innocuous.  And just like with commercial film permits, especially in Wilderness, anything beyond a cursory examination reveals the spiritual impact of commercial exposure to be considerable.

The problem in the modern area is defining commercial.  Elsewhere in the 50 Project Cody Townsend answers a reader question about film permits in Wilderness being notoriously difficult/impossible to get by saying that (paraphrase) his ski trips and youtube series are personal projects, and thus not subject to the permit requirement.  Companies like Salomon, whose logos appear in the video intro, sponsor him personally, not the project specifically.  This rational is both credible and absurd, and highlights the slippery nature of the commercial use question.  Bjarne Salen’s time does not I assume come cheap, and if isn’t being paid outright to film each ski trip, he surely enjoys a share of the youtube and sponsor revenues.  Professional cinematographers produce slicker, “better”, more accessible and evocative content, and thus their impact is greater, potentially of another category, and if so should be required to hold to commercial regulations when filming in Wilderness.

One of my favorite passsages of the Wilderness Act concerns the “increasing population” and “expanding settlement and growing mechanization” being cause to avoid “leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition.”  It seems fitting that in the information age the impact of knowledge be placed within the broader scope of mechanization, and thus legislated away for those big wild places we’ve chosen to set aside as reservoirs of the unknown.  So no drones in Wilderness, and let others know why they ought to do the same.

Marriage beyond Maslow

A fashionable consensus has formed in the past half-decade, amongst mental health professionals, sociologist and the like, that marriage in the United States has in my lifetime changed in a way which reinforces social stratification. The potent statistic is that between 1975 and 1979, an American with a high school education was 10% more likely to get married and then divorced than someone with a college degree. For the 1990-1994 cohort, that difference had increased to 30% (46 and 16 percent, respectively).

Eli Finkel, a psychology professor, has been one of the more prominent theorists here, with his simple and clear comparison between the purpose of marriage in American society since 1800 and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs making him a compelling and digestible voice. In summary, the primarily agrarian US which predominated until the late 19th century created, drove, and sustained a type and view of marriage primarily concerned with the bottom two layers of Maslow’s pyramid. Namely, to providing basic material needs and physical safety. People tended to have many children, and often to keep their families near where they were born. The overwhelming majority of Americans were farmers, and the overwhelming majority of those who were not worked in some kind of intergenerational direct service business (general store, bar/pub/restaurant). As industrialization became the default in the early 20th century (America became majority urban right around the end of World War I), marriage shifted to what Finkel calls companionate marrriage. People had somewhat fewer children, often in an urban center apart from their parents. With less urgent and concrete economic imperatives places on family labor, marriage transitioned to being primarily about what Maslow calls love and belonging.

Perhaps counterintuitively, Americans seeking companionate marriage married on average several years younger than their farmer grandparents. At least, men did. This trend sustained itself through to the 1950s, when age of (first) marriage for both US men and women bottomed out.  This age has steadily increased since, from 22 to 30 for men, and 20 to 28 for women.  Extending Finkel’s comparison, this has been evidence of the ascendance of the self-expressive marriage, in which Maslow’s needs for esteem and self-actualization is paramount.

Maslow famously predicted that around 2% of the general population would ever reach the top of his pyramid, which is not to say that these people would achieve self-actualization (which he did not conceptualize as a static state), but that few people would ever have the resources and wherewithall, in other words the luxury, of meeting their basic and secondary needs so thoroughly and consistently that self actualization would be an option.  And when speaking about marriage this is exactly the point; lower order needs are both contingent on cultural context, and something profoundly outside the sphere of the individual to influence.  And this in turn has been the subject of much recent intellectual hand-wringing (1); concerning the ways in which social expectations for marriage (reified in the media, among other places) has combined with the steady erosion of social supports since the 1950s to make the self-expressive, self-actualizing marriage something only frequently accessible to those whose upbringing has provided them, not necessarily with abundant financial resources, but with the trappings generally associated with them.

My generation is now, it is clear, destined to fall short of the previous couple in all significant financial markers: savings, earnings, home ownership.  What is not yet clear is how this will in turn influence the second order social effects of affluence and privilege.  Psychology is only just beginning to understand well enough to express how deep and long family history reaches into the present.  Not just trauma, but plain stress and unrest on the part of ones grandparents seems to have potentially compelling influence on a range of health outcomes and predispositions.  The growing class split in divorce rates is not simply attributable to less financial and family resources available to the generation in question, it is perhaps definitively influenced by how the cloudy confluence of upbringing and genetics has predisposed one to be able to (for instance) weather the various family crises which life makes inevitable, and which in turn fewer financial options make more common.  All of which thus, in turn, shows how the recent ark of history has reinforced and exaggerated social stratification.

Can the more ephemeral aspects of family and relational resilience be decoupled from economic destiny?  And can self-actualization, which can be rephrased as a less materially contingent form of happiness, be expanded and reimagined as something equally durable but less explicitly white and bourgeois?  It is easy for me, as someone rather close in life type and situation to Maslow himself, to read his description of self-actualization and find the overall idea rather friendly.  Assuming the same of too many others, in a 21st century America in the process of firmly moving beyond the melting pot, seems problematic at best.

Brooks argues, in the article cited below, that federal policy which has attempted to reinforce and prop up marriage has failed.  His critique of both political poles is scathing (2), and the answers, which Brooks largely punts on, are for an America still stuck in the last vestige of Reaganism profoundly uncomfortable: universal child care, obligatory and incentivized parental/caregiver leave, wealth taxation, a broad shift from moralistic to instrumentalist social policy, accompanied (paradoxically) by a broad moral shift in how individual worth is externally accounted for.  If as Maslow wrote in one of his late works the goal of identity is to transcend and thus erase itself, it is no wonder that American culture, still after 250 years grounded in the pioneer practical, will find such a thing hard to assimilate.

 

1: David Brooks’ recent tsunami of statistics in The Atlantic may not support all his conclusions, but is an admirable amalgamation of data:  “In 1970, the family structures of the rich and poor did not differ that greatly. Now there is a chasm between them. As of 2005, 85 percent of children born to upper-middle-class families were living with both biological parents when the mom was 40. Among working-class families, only 30 percent were…..if you are born into poverty and raised by your married parents, you have an 80 percent chance of climbing out of it. If you are born into poverty and raised by an unmarried mother, you have a 50 percent chance of remaining stuck.”

2:  Brooks; “…while social conservatives have a philosophy of family life they can’t operationalize, because it no longer is relevant, progressives have no philosophy of family life at all, because they don’t want to seem judgmental.”

Guns and schools in the era of Trump

Today something entirely unexpected happened.

Since last spring I’ve been a therapist in a local elementary school, something that is harder to explain than it should be.  For one, I don’t work for the school district, I work for a non-profit which contracts with the school district to place myself and a partner in the school.  The school provides a room, furniture, colleagues, and clients, while my actual employer is able to bill for what I do because of their license as a community mental health center.  My real-fake boss, the principal, provides marching orders daily and is with me when we’re triaging crises and trying to avoid being spit on by angry 5 year olds.  My fake-real boss sees me once or twice a week and provides quality guidance, while recommending that HR keep paying me.  This convoluted employment structure embodies in miniature the societal situation which created this job in the first place; while asking more and broader of our public schools, as Americans we are funding them less and less, and then inquiring as to why there is such a shortfall.

The fallacy here has been rooted since the very beginning of public education in America.  Public education became widespread as a response to European immigration in the 19th century, and was set up to make sure that acculturation was universal and consistent, something which quickly morphed into a more pervasive mission of socialization.  When John Dewey wrote that “…to prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself” he was speaking about the archetypal (male) student having enough self-mastery to be not only employable, but not criminal.  Dewey most frequently spoke about this social mission in more lofty terms, of making children ready to be citizens in the Madisonian sense.  This optimism, this idea that the proliteriat will be in a position such that their first daily concern could be civic, and not more primal, has misguided American education ever since.

In the days after the second world war American society grew, both in affluence and in shear numbers.  The result has been (to skip over several chapters of history) school districts and often whole towns which are as a rule rather than as an exception heavily biased towards certain ends of various class and ethnic spectra.  People in modern America tend to find and be near other people like them, for reason both sinister and not, deliberate and quite unconscious.  We, for instance, do not live in the school district where I work, because many little things about our background led us to desire a historic house in a certain part of town, and the totality of the many people who ended up near us has led our neighborhood school to not think a position like mine necessary.  M and mine’s secure background, in other words, made us confident enough to buy a potentially problematic house, and there are enough of those houses in the area that our neighborhood school has ended up as one of the “nice” ones.

The school I work in is not “nice” insofar as that word is traditionally regarded.  The houses nearby are smaller, the school district itself is large and largely rural and heterogenous, with more (to stereotype in the name of brevity) trailer parks hidden on side streets and around hills than one would think.  My clients generally live there, and as befits one of the silent assumptions of 21st century America these inhabitants generally have less education, more legal trouble, and more children when they are younger than the people up on the hill around our house.   Their progeny, for reasons that are as nuanced as they are obvious, tend to come into school with more behavior problems.  There are many exceptions, but those many exceptions just tend to prove the rule.

Which brings us back to my moment of astonishment this morning.  Our administration is nothing if not phlegmatic.  Old school would be a term neither uncharitable nor inaccurate.  This is Montana, and thus our district does not really have snow days.  My principal can’t recall any, just school closing once due to flooding, and another time to a railroad spill which led to a toxic chemical fire.  So I was surprised last week when their collective eyes went wide with terror when I mentioned that a certain student might be returning from a residential placement.  Said students continued funding had been denied by the state, against the objections of the therapist there, and in the absence of other programs care would default to the school district, and to me.  Our school felt so strongly about this not happening that circumlocutions beyond my wildest dreams took place to secure the cost of a few months more treatment, a figure roughly equal to a nice new pickup truck.  I wish I could be more specific, but I can’t, which is why I write about my day job so infrequently.  Confidentially and the discretion of our little big town makes all the best stories untellable.

What does this have to do with guns?  Nothing more than that the calls (hollow and earnest) for more mental health intervention in schools, to prevent shootings and to generally make the country a better place, can’t really be expected to encapsulate both the historical and pragmatic complexities of doing so.  People tend to parent, and live their lives, within a narrow range beyond the window of possibilities show to their parents.  And by middle school most people are fixed enough, in terms of behavior and neurology, that any further intervention and services is mainly in the service of whomever their future kids may be.  Mental health services are for adolescents and adults largely band aids and damage control, insofar as societal effects are concerned.  Envision for instance the child who comes to school dirty, boots shot through with holes, stuck with below average emotion management, because their parents often yelled at each other, and poor attention and impulse control, because they usually watched Youtube rather than read books or played with toys, things that require perseverance and delayed gratification.  Neglect can go very far indeed before the state will remove that child, and rightfully so, as often the only living situation worse than those parents is anyone else.  The number of skilled and even keeled foster families is small, and as for grandmother or uncle, well, who did those problem parents learn from in the first place?

It is not a coincidence that so many shooters return to schools, if not necessarily their school, to express their rage and discontent.  This should not be read as any kind of simplification of the individual psychoses involved in any particular case, but it should be read as a recognition of the central, and symbolic, role schools have in our society.  They are primary agents of socialization, in the full range of justice and injustice, and where those from a “different” background are generally first exposed to the full range of what they were born into.  Good and ill both.  A few years ago Malcolm Gladwell wrote a typically Gladwellian piece on school shooting, which was fraught with typically Gladwellian misreadings and overgeneralizations of social science research.  What he got dead right was the totemic, symbolic weight schools have long had in American culture, which explains why school shootings have become a cultural epidemic.   Like any cultural epidemic, such as poverty or transgenerational sexual abuse, contemplating a cure requires a timeline measured in generations.

This idea is particularly relevant, and comes full circle, in the era of Trump.  Perhaps the most tribal president in US history, or at least behind only the elections of 1800 and 1828 in this respect, Trump has solidified class and racial divisions as a means of building and maintaining support, using and then consolidated existing cultural schisms.  If one way of improving public schools on a social level would be to make them less fraught tools of socialization, it seems safe to say that Trump has made this more difficult.  How pragmatic the call to arm teachers may be is largely irrelevant, as it is a request designed to polarize and inflame.  People on one side of the gun question often lack the personal experience to see firearms as anything other than scary phallic symbols, and the other side too often defaults to the 2nd amendment as a cultural shorthand for a litany of far more complex objections against the state of the county and American society in general.  School shootings are more worrisome because they are more deadly, just like gun owners are far more likely to succeed during a suicide attempt than non-gun owners.  But school shootings are also worrisome because all too often the guns involved are symbols in addition to tools.  By acquiring and then using them the shooters are making a very purposive statement against a select and significant cultural institution, with an instrument whose weight is not just grounded in it’s utility.

I’d like to see actually substantive discussions of mental health care taking place today, ones which decoupled mental health from the medical institutions and financial restrictions under which it has grown up in America.  Programs like mine, made more universal and more embedded in school districts, would be a good step.  So would a change in teacher education standards that better admitted the on-the-ground reality new teachers will generally find.  I surveyed the 20 teachers at my school earlier this year, and during undergrad work not one of them had been required to take anything in the mental health realm beyond basic developmental psychology.  This does these folks the injustice of making a huge part of their daily job something they’ll learn trial by fire on the job, and also paints an inaccurate picture of what their professional lives will look like, which increased burn out.  It would also be nice if as a society we finally, consciously, threw off the stereotype of primary education as woman’s work only worthy to be paid as such.  Most of my current colleagues are truly exceptional, and of necessity none of them get too fired up about their salaries, but if as a country we want education to actually be as important as we claim it to be, it should be staffed as such, and those professionals should be compensated accordingly.

None of these things are complicated, or in federal terms enormously expensive.  They just require some uncomfortable admissions of what we’ve been as a country, and why we haven’t done what we haven’t done.

The Big question

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Where to live?  A question of massive importance that for obvious reasons we’ve been pondering a lot lately.  With a kid and a lot of stuff future moves will ideally trend toward the number of digits needed to eat chicken nuggets.  We also did the van life thing before hashtags were invented, and it lacks the romance and depth the net would have it possess.  There is a lot to be said for human life and attention and understanding only having the resources to get to know a few places well, and I’ve spent plenty of time in recent weeks pondering whether I care to add another to our list.

If you’re a regular reader here regular access to the outdoors is a priority.  It has been a driving force for M and I since 2003, and we’ve yet to have cause for regret.  Location is a factor, but it is not the factor.  Along with van life I’ve spent enough time as a car-dwelling outdoor bum to realize that there is more to life and purpose, a conviction that last six months has only served to reinforce.  So while for example back in 2007 we didn’t consider my going to graduate school in a place like Missouri or Michigan that would have looked good on the resume, we’ve also never considered (too seriously) places where the income to cost of living balance is so systemically out of whack that just maintaining a permanent residence would have required major and ongoing sacrifice.  In this matter one should be a persistent dreamer, but not an ideologue.

At this point circumstance merits an interlude on the importance of timing.  I was fortunate that I applied and was accepted to grad school just as 43s negligence tanked the economy, and we were smart to have not invested in real estate when we moved to Arizona in 2006.  When I went on the market post grad school in 2010, the impact of history was still deeply felt, especially (in retrospect) in the human services sector and most importantly in the state budgets allocated too them.  I was fortunate then, in a way I can only now appreciate, that one of the few calls I got back from the many applications I sent out was from a place which both did good work and was a good place to work.  The contrast to the last month has been enormous.  My resume is a bit fatter, but the larger difference has been broadly the economy and more exactly, the ACA.  Medicaid expansion has put what I do in high demand, enough that we’ve been put in the enviable position of having many nice offers from many nice places.

So then, how to make a decision?  Professional imponderables are too specific for any meaningful comment (unless any readers are contemplating moving west for a job in the non-profit children’s mental health sector, in which case drop me a line and I’ll do all I can), so I’ll restrict the following to location and the associated benefits.

Making a choice based on activity and climate preference is obvious.  If you’re a serious, obsessive mountain biker for example I don’t see many good reasons to live anywhere other than somewhere in the four corners state.  Aside from the central mountains and far west vestiges of midwestern sprawl (aka the front range) circumstance and weather generally allows for quality riding 10-11 months a year, and in the desert the riding itself is simply the best mountain biking on earth, several orders of magnitude better than anything else in both quality and quantity.  Truly obsessive, ski-every-month folks have a more complicated decision.  Colorado makes a lot of sense for these folks, especially with an eye to the future, where models suggest high altitude will protect the dying resource which is skiable snowpack.  The cost is of course crowds both in the hills and on the way to them.  There are exceptions and workarounds to this and any other similar situation, but the trend holds true across the west: there is a price to be paid for having many desirable things close (both natural and otherwise), which is generally having to be around lots of other people.

Screen Shot 2017-04-18 at 9.47.30 PMFor some, or indeed many, this isn’t a big deal.  It can even be a bonus, the wealth of cultural and culinary resources available most places in Arizona or Colorado vastly exceeds even the most cosmopolitan places in Montana.  For me, getting away from people is a very big deal, and not only because my standards for backcountry crowds are far too exacting.  (4 dayhikers, 8 backpackers, and one packrafter in ~50 miles of the Escalante certainly counts as crowded.)  As I suspected of New Zealand a lower population density can be directly responsible for a more congenial populace and a daily ethos which I find to my liking.

I’ve attempted to capture this dynamic in the above chart*.  The population of a given town or area (~100,000 in the larger Flathead Valley, for example) or even the population density of the county in question, doesn’t tell the whole story.  The number of people within a 250 mile radius (striking distance for a weekend, for the motivated) is more demonstrative.  It explains why the Grand Junction area, or Flagstaff, or Moab, or even the Escalante can be as crowded as they often are even in the absence of much local population and especially local involvement in the activity du jour.

Elevation, and especially the change in vertical relief within a 20 mile radius, is also for me a huge factor in outdoor quality of life.  Higher elevation is almost always better.  It makes cool nights colder, sunny days warmer in winter and cooler in summer, and turns winter rain into snow.  When the weather doesn’t quite cooperate, on when you just want a change from the status quo, a change in elevation can provide that.  In this matter type is as important as quantity.  Grand Junction has such a large figure due to Grand Mesa, were that feature taken out the figure would be less than half of 5900 feet.  Grand Mesa is a somewhat homogenous feature, whose slopes are due to vegetation and land ownership not especially accessible.  The canyons south and north of town do provide quality terrain and close to 3000 feet of relief, but to say that the Grand Valley has a diversity of good terrain on par with Flagstaff, Escalante, Moab, or even Whitefish would be false.

It is worth noting that were the radius extended to 30 miles Flagstaff would have a truly extraordinary 9000+ feet of relief.  It had been almost a decade since we had visited, and driving south a few weeks ago and up into the world’s largest ponderosa forest, draped around the volcanic feet of the San Francisco peaks, was a beautiful reminder of just how extraordinary that location is.  Flag is a big and, due to geography, crowded and bustling town, but isn’t yet built up to the extent of a Los Angeles, Phoenix, and even Banff where the scale of human presence has all but obliterated what was once one of the most beautiful places on earth.  I have a rule to not live anywhere with less than 4000 feet of relief within 20 miles, but it is profitable to remember that by following that rule one is almost certainly participating in the continued trend of urbanifying the unique.

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A final point worth discussing, which is a bit more difficult to capture, is where a town gets its money and the extent to which it is a resort and vacation destination.  Escalante is becoming that, against all expectations, while Whitefish is emphatically a 2nd home destination.  Which is why weren’t not moving back there, and why any home with 2 bathrooms is 350,000 or more, no matter the size (I exaggerate, barely).  Beyond COL issues, the 2nd home phenomenon tends to create a never-neverland atmosphere which long term I do not find pleasant.  Whitefish, and towns like Crested Butte, Durango, and Jackson, have their livelihood tied up in appearances.  They pull tourists, retirees, and the wealthy in because they look the picture of a western ideal made real.  Which they are, but they are made not grown, and that artificiality comes home to roost when the folks who live their can’t afford to live there, and therefore the substance of the place becomes hollow and imbalanced.

Nothing comes for free, but this question and everything I’ve written here reeks of privilege.  It’s a choice and a problem I’m grateful to have.

*Numbers from statsamerica.org, which is a fantastic use of leisure time, but necessarily doesn’t tell the whole story.  For example, I draw % of 2nd homes from the “Percent of Total Units Vacant for Seasonal or Recreational Use” which is not an exact equivocation.

Moving on

Today will be my last day, for quite a while or perhaps ever, as a professional social worker.  I’ll go in to the office to tie up a shockingly small number of loose ends, make one final home visit to hand off one last case, and be back home this evening unemployed for the two weeks it will take to finish packing, move to Colorado, and set up house.  Just like the past two mornings I’m up early, though today I just gave in and got out of bed, in hopes that doing this would put order to my thoughts and the ensuing peace earned would do more good than a bit more sleep.  And just like the past two mornings I’ll leave the house and go through the day with a subtle, burning anxiety riding in my stomach, because one of the following must be true:

-Russian hackers tampered with voter returns.

-Millions of Americans want Donald Trump as their president.

I must assume it is the later, because as appalling as that is the other option is even worse.  And I’m not talking about the disaffected folks who as Michael Moore explained so well voted for Trump out of alienation or unthinking hereditary misogyny or simple malaise, but those far smaller number who made a more deliberate choice.  Those people who thought and think that Trump isn’t the least worst option, but a genuinely good one.  I can respect the structural reasons why a populist would be appealing in 2016, understand why any Democrat would have an uphill road in the shadow of Obama, and have no problem blaming Hillary Clinton for a campaign at once timid and arrogant, but can’t make the leap to Trump being an acceptable choice.  As president I hope he disrupts American political culture in an enduring fashion, uses his unpredictability as an asset to make progress on the thorny international problems in which we are currently swimming, and is ideologically pragmatic in a way his pre-campaign actions would suggest, but I can’t let go of how bad a role model he has been, nationally and globally, for the last year.

I was, in hindsight, extraordinarily lucky to have been in Egypt in early 2010, not quite a year into the Obama presidency and right after his speech in Cairo.  The reception we got as Americans was extraordinary, and had everything to do with our president.  Being hailed on the street and harangued by shopkeepers became routine, and I could not help but be proud that the fame usually given the US by virtue of simple economics was finally being earned much better.  That Trump enthuses people like Marine Le Pen only enforces my pessimism.

The last eight years have, inevitably, made me more of a lefty.  Today you don’t find many Republicans in social work, and the few which come easily to mind are only conspicuous as bad practitioners, folks whose work suffered due to both laziness and myopia.  Graduate school set me well on the road to seeing how structural poverty is, how transgenerational mental illness and social maladaption are what make social and economic mobility so intransigent, and by extension so expensive to facilitate.  JD Vance chose a good year to publish, and as a result has gotten lots of time on TV news this fall.  I think his explanation of Trump’s appeal in unimpeachable, but the press has given almost no attention to his thesis that economic factors and the structure of government programs have conspired to create learned helplessness, which is as significant a factor as any in promulgating poverty.  And by extension, the disaffection which made Donald Trump president.

Early in my six year tenure I gave up writing here about the job I’ll soon leave.  The daily grind of social work is a tough thing to put into words, in no small part because the job simultaneously requires intense emotional investment and profound personal detachment.  This paradox is clearly embodied in all the good meta-analyses of mental health treatment outcomes, which universally show that the best predictor of positive outcomes is the consistent perception, by the client, that the therapist/doctor/worker has genuine empathy and emotional regard.  Different studies of the same data show that exploitation of the worker-client relationship, often in the form of sexual relationships, is a disconcertingly widespread problem.  I’ve had more you-can’t-make-this-shit-up moments in the last six years than I can hope to easily remember, a significant minority of them involving fellow social workers, but have always held back from telling those stories due to concerns over confidentiality.  I want to let myself go from that, at least a little, before I forget too much.

It is easy and simple, as a social worker, to blame and be hostile towards your clients.  I’ve had plenty of cases for which society currently has no good solution.  Violent or suicidal 10 year olds, for example, are generally not served in most group homes, residential treatment centers, or even hospitals.  The police are also generally flummoxed by the mother of an 4th grader who calls for help because she can’t control her son and is afraid he might follow through on his threat to cut off his own hand with a kitchen knife.  There are, thankfully, not enough of these cases for specific services to have evolved for them, at least in Montana.

Most of my cases have not been like that.  Most of them have had solutions which both had a decent chance of working and were, for a professional conveniently removed from the daily chaos, obvious.  The difficulty is in herding someone towards the obvious, ideally having them embrace the ideas as their own, and sustaining that commitment through the year or two or three it takes for changing habits to show rewards.  I don’t have too many questions left, in a broad sense, about what works, about what can get a family to break the hereditary pattern of high school dropouts, teen pregnancy, absent fathers, and intrafamily emotional abuse.  The big question I have left is where do we, as a society, draw the line.  How many years of therapy, billed to the government at 65 dollars an hour and with parental non-involvement, should be allowed before  the family is cut off?  Talk therapy is great for some kids, especially girls, even if the family isn’t bought in and the weekly dropoff just serves to check mom’s mental box of parental responsibility, but in the end it is no substitute for doing something.  How many weeks and years of case management, for children currently billed to the state of Montana (and through to the feds) at over 72 dollars per hour, is justified absent progress or at least investment?  How many times does a family get to ignore a recommendation, if the service in question is paid for by the state?

As Vance points out in the aforementioned interview, questions like this are an almost invisible tightrope, stretched between learned helplessness, which social services without question reinforcement, and economic privilege.  If historical factors and the circumstances into which they are born are largely responsible for folks being unable to extract themselves from poverty, who are college educated professionals to arbitrate what they should or should not do?

My concern with Donald Trump is at base that he has been nothing more than a spectacular fraud.  While he has implicitly held himself up as the embodiment of the American Dream (of bootstrapping social mobility), his personal history proves that dream to be the fiction it almost certainly always has been.  And unlike past presidents (two prominent examples are both named Roosevelt) there is little evidence that he’ll transcend his background and act out of anything other than his own view of the world.  In this I sincerely hope I am mistaken.