Haircuts and Politics

Last weekend, for the first time in three months, I got my hair cut.  I did so under direct threat from my wife, who’d months ago given up suggesting in favor of taunting.

“How does it feel to have a mullet?” she’d tease.  “Mullet boy!”

“How does it feel to be married to a man with a mullet?  What does that say about you?” Not my wittiest.

Whether or not I actually had a mullet is up for debate.  Like most men who play fast and loose with socially acceptable time periods away from the barber, I was somewhere on the bad-hair continuum.  Did I look like I could have played lead guitar in Spinal Tap?  Or second base on the Grafton County men’s softball team, circa 1987?  It wasn’t that bad.  But wasn’t I starting to enjoy songs with twangy guitars and lyrics about God, working moms who somehow do it all, and relationships consecrated in pick-up trucks?  Actually, no, not at all.

The thing is, I’m a man of principle.  And several bedrock, core principles stand in the way of my sitting in the barber’s chair at regular intervals.  For one thing,  I’m cheap — but only when it’s something that doesn’t cost much in the first place.  Show me an expensive hobby and I’m flying airplanes four days a week.  But a ten dollar haircut?  Let’s make that a special treat.  For another thing, I value my weekend time.  There are lots of studies that show, conclusively, that people who save their chores for the weekend are generally kind of bitter while they do them, but way more organized and focused for the rest of the week.  I can’t risk that bitterness.  I’ve got way better things to do on Saturday morning than sitting in the barbershop reading American Wolf Hunter while waiting for a couple of fossils named Fred and Larry are getting their seven strands of hair a weekly rearranging.  Like engaging in expensive hobbies, such as actually hunting wolves.

And while we’re on the subject, here’s a burning question: why do their haircuts — guys who’ve been bald as billiard balls since the early ’80s — take the exact same amount of time in the chair as everyone else?  Is the barber just pushing things around up there so they’ll think they need to keep paying him.  “Whew, sure looks a lot better, Larry!” the barber will say, then wink at the rest of us.  Couldn’t Larry just check in every time it’s a leap year and get roughly the same results?

Come to think of it, why do my haircuts take the same amount of time as everyone else’s?  Usually I get in there and all the other guys either have spotty coverage like Larry, or military flattops, or at least highly-regulated, disciplined operations (the kind you see on school principals).  Me?  I usually slink in there looking like a cross between Billy Ray Cyrus and Martin Sheen in “Apocalypse Now” after six months in the jungle.  My directions to the barber usually boil down to, “Please sheer me like a sheep.” By the time we’re done, the floor looks like hell and the poor guy needs new scissors.  Now how does that haircut take exactly the same length of time as Larry the Comb Over’s?  

And come to think of it, how come we’re both charged the same rate?  Shouldn’t Larry’s bill be like $2.00 — and shouldn’t mine be like $80?  Shouldn’t it be like property taxes: a variable fee based on acreage?

As you can probably tell, I do not get my haircut at one of those fancy salons.  I get my haircut at the barbershop: one of those old-school ones with a barber’s pole outside.  While my thirties have seen me evolve to the point where I can no longer set foot in a MacDonald’s, have a visceral loathing for Walmart (novelist Howard Frank Mosher wrote that his mission as a teacher in a northern Vermont mill town was “Keep kids out of the mill”; “Keep kids out of the Walmart” often feels like mine), still I have yet to feel the rumblings of a need for any haircut that requires making an appointment.

Besides, even if I don’t always like the reality of waiting in line for what are often objectively haphazard results, I like the idea of barbershops, which are ingrained in popular culture as places where we gather to chew the fat, philosophize, and talk politics.  Vermont author Garret Keizer, in his 1991 A Dresser of Sycamore Trees, wrote of his fondness for, “a barbershop full of regulars — each one a third part customer, a fifth part helper, and the remaining part permanent fixture.” As I made my way down to the barbershop last Saturday morning — a time slot I’m usually careful to avoid because of the crowds — I imagined I’d walk into a bustling waiting room lined with colorful regulars busily engaged in talking shop about the upcoming election.  In fact, because my barbershop is right on Main Street in an important swing state — a state and a street much visited by national candidates — forget political talk.  I wondered if we might be receiving a visit from a Hassan or an Ayotte — or even a Clinton or Trump.

That’s why I was so surprised when I swung open the door at 9:30 am on a rainy Saturday morning and found the place empty.  No regulars with their pants hitched up and their fingers in their suspenders.  No old-timers in “Hillary for Prison” shirts shooting me skeptical looks.  Nobody drinking coffee and railing on the local school system.  I was so dumbfounded as I was whisked into the barber’s chair that I believe I mumbled something like, “Um, the Sinead O’Connor look, please . . .” Where was everyone?

The first thing to know about my barber is that he carries a pistol at all times.  Not in his hand, but in a holster on his hip.  Now I have a few rules in life:  Don’t clog up the left lane.  Don’t tailgate — especially one of those trucks that’s carrying 12 loosely chained cars on top.  Don’t get drawn into an argument with an eighth grader.  And never, ever bring up politics with a man carrying a gun and holding a razor inches from your throat.  

But rules are made to be broken, right?

What can I say?  Per my previous column, I’ve become obsessed with “polling” everyone I meet.  And right then it occurred to me why I’d really wandered into the barbershop that morning: I hadn’t had a single face-to-face conversation with a real, live Trump supporter (one who wasn’t 16 years old) all year.  I’d come down here for some good political talk, and damned if I was going to let fear of bodily injury get in the way.

I’d brought a book with me, which I’d put down on the windowsill as I got inside.  This book too was election-themed:  J.D. Vance’s topical but rather ho-hum Hillbilly Elegy.

“What’cha reading?” my barber asked me by way of introduction, and we were off on what I quickly realized was, for me, a strange balancing act.  At first he was surprisingly coy about politics.  I baited a few increasingly tasty hooks — “Have you been getting all these crazy mail ads from Hassan and Ayotte?” — and came up empty.  Perhaps he had no interest.  Or perhaps he had too much interest — and enough self-control to realize it.  Whatever it was, I started to feel bad, and quit asking about politics.  We settled into a groove.

Bu then — right as I’d said something blithely non-political (“Geez, we need some rain, bad”) — “Zzzzzrrrrrrtttttttt!” The electric razor veered wildly off course.  

“I tell you what we need bad!” he roared, holding the razor up.  “For that woman to be behind bars!”

I simultaneously cowered and also craned toward the mirror to see if I’d be wearing a strange Z-pattern on my head for the next two months.

From that point on, it became hard to talk to him.  I’m not good in these situations.  I’m never sure how to handle volatile adults.  I’ve never been comfortable around yellers.  I feel the need to placate, but also a childish urge to push back.  It’s a balancing act: say the wrong thing and this guy is going to blow a blood vessel in his cornea and he’s also holding a razor four inches from your carotid artery.  But back away and suddenly you’re listening to offensive rants for the next ten minutes, and there’s nothing you can do but sit there and take it.  It’s a delicate balance — one I’ve never been good at.

I tried my best to hit the middle ground.  

“The Republicans screwed this up,” I said, shaking my head sadly.  “This was their chance, and they nominated a guy who’s barely going to win Utah.”

“That wasn’t the Republicans!” he thundered.  “It was the American people!  That’s what they wanted!”

I felt confused.  What was I supposed to say?  What I would have wanted to say — or what I might have said on the Internet — would come across as rude to his face.  And it didn’t seem worth it to try to argue: what would be the use?  This guy had his mind made up.

“I’m a big Second Amendment guy,” he was saying.

“Yeah, so is Kelly Ayotte,” I said — our New Hampshire senator locked into a tough reelection race — “and Trump’s taking her down with him.  He’s scaring the hell out of decent people.”

“I think the American people are too chicken to vote for a guy like Trump,” he growled.  “If someone comes in here and insults me” — and in perfect timing, just then a Mike Pence lookalike happened to walk in the door — “I’m going to insult him right back!” Pence looked back at us, terrified.  His face asked, “What the heck have I walked into?”  

“And that’s the kind of guy Trump is too!” he finished.

Perhaps it was the addition of a potential witness in the shop, but I started to feel less tense.  I also started to realize something: I was sort of enjoying hearing what my barber had to say.  It’s one thing to hear Trump voters interviewed on television, or to read their posts on Facebook.  But it’s another to hear it in person.  And this wasn’t some sociological experiment.  Though I joke about polling my friends, I’m not some Brooklynite reporter wandering through Iowa or Ohio; this guy lives in my town.  He cuts my hair.  I found myself wanting to know where he was coming from.  If he didn’t wish to hear what I had to say, so be it, but I’d keep listening.

“All those women coming out of the woodwork right now,” he continued, “Why do you think they didn’t come out before?  Because they’re lying!”

Over in the corner, Pence was leafing through a copy of American Bait Fisherman and pretending that he couldn’t hear us.  

“No,” I responded, “Trump’s handing the election away.  He needed white women and then he started feuding with Ms. Universe.  He’s a terrible politician.”

“He’s not a politician!  That’s the guy we need!”

As our conversation finished and I got out of the chair, I found myself wondering something: If we Americans had had more conversations like this over the last four years, wouldn’t we be less polarized now?  On this day, our conversation was awkward, tense, unfulfilling for me, and — I’d bet — unfulfilling for him too.  But we’d listened to each other.  I hadn’t talked to anyone remotely like him in a long time.  And despite the fact that I never told him I was supporting Clinton, my guess is that he hadn’t talked to a lot of poll-wielding, William Buckley-quoting, mullet-wearing Independents in the last few years himself.  We hadn’t torn into each other the way we might have on the Web.  And we hadn’t sidestepped the conversation, either — the way our increasingly segmented society makes it all too easy to do.

After all, that barbershop was empty.

In my early twenties, I lived in a Washington, D.C. neighborhood that was remarkably self-contained.  It was nearly an island, surrounded on two sides by small creeks and on a third by the Potomac River.  Every morning two black SUVs arrived to ferry Andrew Card, George Bush’s Chief of Staff, to the White House.  Three doors down lived a top American kayak racer who’d once written “F.W.” in duct tape on his Olympic boat — a not-so subtle reference to his personal feelings about our esteemed president.  What our neighborhood was missing, I always thought, was a neighborhood pub — the kind of place where my friend the kayak racer and perhaps men like Andrew Card might’ve gathered for an after-work beer to hash out their differences.  We were a neighborhood full of people who didn’t know their neighbors.  We needed some place to bring us all together.  I think every American neighborhood should have a pub.  Few do.

Much has been written about the lack of front-porch discussions in our culture.  Revealingly, in Vermont one of the most popular digital meeting places for town residents is a site called Front Porch Forum.  As I walked home from the barbershop last weekend, I passed the spot on the pedestrian bridge where weeks before someone had written “White Power” on the wall beneath a hand-drawn Nazi swastika.  The message had since been painted over, but I can’t walk by without thinking of it.  Perhaps this election itself is just the kind of national conversation we might have at the bar or the barbershop — one in which previously unacceptable ideas that have long festered in places like Ohio or New Hampshire can suddenly come rushing to the surface, to be cleansed by the light of day?

I am skeptical.  First of all, the words “national conversation” are tossed around loosely.  A conversation implies listening.  If your conversation is conducted entirely over mass media, how much listening can really be done?  How much give and take can there really be?  If you don’t personally know anyone from the other side, how much do you really care to listen?  And how often, really, are we even in the same place — the same virtual bar or virtual barbershop — as people who think differently from us?  What I think everyone needs is a barbershop — a place to gather with people who think differently — that we can use to a put a name and a face to the other side.  

That’s why, as I slid out of the barber chair and admired my new haircut, I reached out and shook my barber’s hand. 

“I’m Alden,” I said.  He told me his name.  

Walking home, I thought to myself, “This is good.  I need to do more of this.” And I think it’s true.  

Especially if it means I get my haircut more often.

News Junkie

There’s a change that’s come over me in the last ten months, and it’s fairly subtle: I’ve become a raving lunatic.  Ten months ago I was a sensitive, compassionate guy who ate dinner while making eye contact with his wife, and basically had a decent grasp on reality. Then I started watching the news.

Ten months later — and just the other night I was making witty, intelligent conversation with my wife when I started developing signs of a condition that I call “the Election Shakes.” It’s a biological reaction to the overwhelming fear that at some point since the last time I checked, Donald Trump might have said something stupid.   It can be any news, not just Trump.  The fear is the same: I might have missed something.  I might be missing something right now.  That’s what hit me the other night.  At some point maybe twenty minutes later I looked up and realized that conversation had trailed off, probably right around the time I’d made a mad grab for my smartphone to check Politico, and that I’d likely spent the last twenty minutes muttering to myself about the newest Rasmussen poll, or about a senate race in a state I’d never been to.  When I came to and realized what I’d done, my wife was already muttering something like, “Maybe you should worry about your own ‘unfavorables’ with white women . . .”

You know who’s fault this is?  It’s Lester Holt’s.

You see, I used to come home every night, have dinner, curl up with a book, and then fall asleep — blissfully unaware of all the stupidity in the world.  The only times I watched TV, Steph Curry and Lebron James were involved.  The only “debates” I cared about were about rebounds, or Pete Carroll’s playcalling, or whether Kevin Love’s teammates actually invited him to the championship parade.

But then came the presidential primaries.  And because I wanted to do my civic duty of staying informed — and also because I’m a sucker for a good old-fashioned train wreck, followed by an explosion, followed by a nuclear meltdown, followed by a Cleveland Browns game — I started watching the NBC national news every night.  And once I started watching the dapper and unflappable Lester Holt every evening, I found it hard to stop.

I knew the risks.  I knew that to hook viewers, the networks have been known to perhaps, very slightly — sensationalize things.  Okay, so you might as well knock back a case of Red Bull and snort enough cocaine to get Rick James interested as tune into the nightly news.  Most news shows — unless you’re watching PBS or something, which is sort of like eating bran flakes when you could be snorting cocaine — should basically all go by the same name as that old show on FOX: “Fear Factor.” That was the show on which people were dared to eat live millipedes, or lie in bathtubs full of scorpions.  But “Fear Factor” would be a good name for the news.  And while yes it’s true that the other evening I refused to go outside after dark to take the trash out because there could be scary clowns in the neighborhood, what can I say?  It’s hard to stop watching.  The news is exciting.  They don’t hold back.  It’s all war metaphors and hyperbole.  Everything’s a “meltdown” or a “campaign,” or “wreaking havoc.” It’s all drama, high stakes.  It’s hard to turn away.

And during the primaries, it was even better.  Donald Trump bragged about the size of his “polls,” Marco Rubio repeated the same line over and over like he was in Milli Vanilli , and John Kasich made the, “Who the f**k are these idiots?” face every time anyone opened their mouths.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the evening news, here are the main components of your average broadcast.

The Lead:  They always start with the day’s biggest story, which is never something like,”wave of racial harmony overtakes American cities.” No.  It’s almost always about something truly horrific and ghastly, like a major terrorist attack happening inside a nursery school that is inside a church that is on a pony farm owned by armless orphans — all reported with the kind of appreciation for nuance and subtlety that makes you want to start stocking up on canned goods and ammunition.

The Second Biggest Story:  This is also typically about someone getting shot, or blown up, or eaten by terrorists.  This is usually when I start drinking.

Politics:  Expect stories such as, “Putin decides to revoke his endorsement because Trump allegedly groped him on an airplane.” Then a leaked tape of Trump saying, “What can I do?  When I see a beautiful dictator, it’s like a magnet; sometimes I just start kissing him on the lips.  Maybe Paul Ryan’s just jealous?  I don’t know.”

Sometimes while watching the news, I take out my passport and gaze at it fondly.

The Household Scare:  If a quick look at American politics doesn’t have you halfway out the door, headed for the Canadian border, here’s the part where they really start boring holes into your skull and draining the sanity out.  Now you learn that a familiar household item, such as your fabric softener, or your couch cushions, or possibly the oxygen in your house, could be plotting to kill you.

The Ridiculous Health Story:  Here’s the part where they present some new health study that sounds like it was conducted by teenage researchers who just learned about things like “science”: “New study shows that eating whole wheels of cheese may lead to constipation.”

Now, if it stopped there — if the only news I was consuming was once a night, for thirty minutes (which is to say, ten minutes of news and twenty minutes of Viagra commercials) — I’d probably still be able to mimic a normal human being.  But, oh, that’s not where I stopped.  Not by a long-shot.  The other day when I decided to pull over on my commute home from work to because I just had to check The Washington Post on my phone because I was starting to get the shakes, I realized something: I’ve become a full-blown news junkie.

Here a few signs of what has happened to me:

–For one thing, I’ve stopped watching sports.  I’ve barely watched any football.  There are stories going around right now (which I of course know about, because I’m a news junkie) that the NFL is really, really worried because ratings are way down and they’re concerned about long-term viewership.  But that’s ridiculous.  Everyone’s getting their fill of exciting and possibly brain-impaired competition from our presidential candidates.  Yesterday instead of cuing up my usual NFL podcast on the way home from work, I thought, “Nah, that’s boring,” and pulled up a political podcast instead (“Keepin’ It 1600”).  Just in case, you know, there was some new angle on anything, anywhere.  But we’ll be back after November 8th.  Don’t worry, Rog.

–Then there’s the fact that I’m so desperate to know who’s going to win the election that I’ve become obsessed with getting the real story.  I’m haunted by the notion that I’m getting biased coverage, so I’ve dealt with that like a true obsessive: by checking all news sites.  Sure, I check Politico, but I also peruse Breitbart (Breitbart!) to keep in touch with the latest perfectly reasonable speculation from the Alt Right — such as Hillary Clinton’s alien love child who has Parkinson’s, wasn’t born in the US, and once groped O.J. Simpson on an airplane.  Sometimes I not only check what local papers are saying in swing states, but I check the comments sections to see how voters are reacting.  Comments sections!  See?  I’m insane.

–I’m obsessed with polls.  I check RealClearPolitics.com constantly.  The other day I believe I said something to my wife such as, “That new lawnmower we got is about as reliable as the LA Times/USC poll.”*

And we laughed and laughed.  Because we both knew what that was.  

*(A national poll that always shows Donald Trump winning.  As though you care.)

–I’m also obsessed, like a lot of political junkies, with Fivethirtyeight.com’s electoral map.  Quiz me on it right now.  Go ahead.  Try!  The other day I was walking through the high school where I work.  On the wall in the atrium, I saw a giant poster of Fivethirtyeight’s election map and it was WRONG!  I turned to the nearest person, who was, I believe, some four-foot tall seventh grader, and started ranting about how Pennsylvania really hadn’t been purple for months because of the Philadelphia suburbs.  Right around the time the kid was running in the opposite direction, I realized that this was a giant map showing the location of US colleges.  Pennsylvania was purple because — well, who knows?  It was just purple.  But I have conversations with my wife all the time that begin, “Can you believe that Utah might go blue for the first time since Johnson?” I love the map.  I might as well start wearing a suit and change my name to Josh Lyman.

–If I go too long without checking the Washington Post or the New York Times, I start to get the shakes.

–I need new stories to break.  Finding breaking news is like probably a lot like what winning at gambling feels like.  Finding some crazy new story about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton is like finding $100 in your pants pocket.  I don’t know why it’s so addictive.  I just know that I need more of it.

–When I talk politics with anyone, I try to suss out not only who they’re voting for, but who their friends are voting for.  Without, you know, being rude.  I consider this “taking my own personal polls.”

Me:  “Sounds like white, college educated women are turning on Trump.”

My Wife:  “Stop interrogating our guests.”

–I can name more journalists, commentators, and politicians than I can NBA and NFL players.  I watch so much Meet the Press and NBC news that I’ve developed whole long lists of favorite media prognosticators.  Here are some of my favorites: Joy-Ann Reid, David Brooks, Katy Tur, Robert Costa, Andrew Sullivan, Chuck Todd, and Kelly Ann Conway (just because I like to imagine her curling up with a bottle of scotch right after the interview).

–I speculate about who everyone I know is voting for.

–Sometimes I pretend I’m having political discussions with my students, but I’m secretly polling them to see who they think won the debate.

–I’ve started checking Twitter.  ‘Nuff said.

Now, let’s get this election over with, so I can return to being a normal human being.  Unless the post-election coverage is interesting.

Chariots of Dire

The last few months has been a weird time.  Here in New England, we’re having our worst drought in 30 years.  In presidential politics, the great orange snapping turtle is closing in on the Oval Office by tapping into perfectly legitimate feelings of total insanity in some of the less affluent and more brain-dead parts of the country.

Strangest of all, I have finally taken up jogging.

Yes, jogging.  The very word calls up images of pain and suffering and the sort of “purposeful living” and “taking care of yourself” that have frankly never been part of my playbook.  During grad school, my diet basically consisted of everything I would have eaten when I was nine if I’d had a credit card and no legal guardian.  Weekends were spent on the couch disappearing whole tins of day-glo orange cheese balls, and downing large amounts of low quality beer.  But the key thing was: I was watching sports on TV.  Dammit, I was watching people exercise.

It’s not that I’m averse to exercise.  It’s just that I’ve always turned up my nose at jogging.  If I’m going to be leaning hard on the important ventricles, I’m going to need better scenery than the shoulder of Route 302 between the gas station and Applebees.  I want to be kayaking a river, or hiking a mountain, or kayaking down a mountain after downing large amounts of low quality beer.  Why jog when there are far more sublime ways to make sure your pants fit?

I love sports, but running isn’t a sport; it’s a necessary evil.  I loved lacrosse.  It’s fun to score goals, to make passes, or to punch guys in the crotch when the ref isn’t looking.  But if you can’t run for four minutes without staggering around like Ryan Lochte trying to find a gas station wall to urinate on, you probably won’t score any goals, or make any passes, or outrun any guys whose groins you just violated.  To keep us in shape, my lacrosse coach had us run “San Diegos” — sprints that were so long, you felt like you were running to San Diego.  (In California, they call them “Lakeville, Connecticuts.”) Sometimes, slumped on the ground in a semi-conscious state after running San Diegos, we’d happen to notice the varsity baseball team down the hill.  Their practices definitely did not consist of running.  They mainly involved chewing gum, adjusting their crotches, and making sure their pants were fully tucked into their socks at all times.  We’d look down at them having a grand old time and definitely not doing San Diegos, and you know what we’d think?  We’d think, “Boy, their uniforms look stupid.”

So why did I start jogging?  Because marriage is a compromise.  My wife is one of those people who actually enjoys jogging.  She likes jogging so much that doing it for 26 miles — a marathon — was not enough jogging for her.  She once ran a 50K.  That’s 50 kilometers — which translated into miles equals “you don’t want to know.” It’s one of those races that when you finish, they give you free water, free food, and mandatory psychiatric testing.  Let’s just say I’ve become fatigued while driving shorter distances.

Here are a few random quotes my wife and others have said to me over the last few weeks that we’ve been jogging, with some commentary afterward.

1.  “Come on, it’ll be fun!

Never a good sign.  My wife says this to me before we go jogging.  Think about it: have you ever gotten home from something truly amazing and said to yourself, “Gee, there’s no way I ever would’ve agreed to go fly out to the Super Bowl with my buddies on a private jet and throw things at Jerry Jones from our luxury box — if I hadn’t been told ‘It’ll be fun.'” No.  That’s something your mom tells you to get you excited about running errands, or about going to Aunt Judith’s house for Passover.

2. “You’re doing great.  I’m really impressed.”

I start my runs at a torrid pace.  World-class pace.  A tremendous pace.  From the first thirty seconds, I’m Mo Farah.  It has to do with my superb conditioning, mental toughness, and the fact that the first quarter-mile is downhill.  After we hit flat ground, my wife is usually a speck on the horizon, yelling comments like the one above back at me.  At that point, I settle into a more realistic pace: definitely not a run, but not quite a walk either.  Dignified.  Or like a guy who once voted for Harry Truman shuffling off to his bingo game in Del Boca Vista between hits from the respirator.

3.  “So . . . how was your day?  Mine was great.  Um, are you still breathing?”

I look at going jogging the way a sled dog driver looks at going out when it’s -50: I’m just happy to make it home.  My wife on the other hand looks at it as a perfect time for us to catch up and talk about how our days were.  “So you can’t believe what happened today on my commute,” she’ll begin as we’re starting up a steep hill, and then proceed to continue talking non-stop for several minutes without gasping for air.  Then she’ll turn to me and say, “You haven’t said anything in awhile.” I’ll respond with what sounds in my head like, “Not trying to be rude, just focused on keeping oxygen flowing into my lungs,” but which actually comes out as, “Umuhuhuh . . .  Ughhhhh.”

4.  “There’s no way you could do that.”

On the morning after our first jogging trip, I woke up to find that I was hurting in places I was not aware I had feeling, such as inside my capillaries.  I looked like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his last season, when he was 87.  Dick Cheney was more mobile that morning than I was.  I swore I’d never jog again.

That evening we happened to run into a friend at the Coop who’d just run his second ever 5K.  I asked him his time.  On the way home, my wife seemed impressed.  “That’s not that fast,” I said.  She gave me an incredibly skeptical look that said either “You could never do that,” or “Did  you really just wear sweatpants to the Coop?” That did it!  That’s like questioning Donald Trump’s wealth.  Records were going to be shattered!

That night, I went to work.  I mapped out a 5K route for my wife and me that was perfect in every respect, except that I’d be jogging it.  The next day we started the stopwatch.  After my usual blistering first thirty seconds, I fell completely behind the pace, only making up for it by taking the last mile or two at a dead sprint and collapsing on the front lawn, fully expecting to wake up weeks later hooked up to machines.  But I had beaten the time!  I couldn’t have been more proud if I’d been able to actually stand up during the next few days.

5.  “Yeah, that’s . . .  not bad, I guess.”

Don’t make the mistake I did.  Don’t go into school the next day beaming with pride and tell one of your students, who happens to be captain of the state championship-winning cross country team, about your pathetic old-man exploits.  Because a small smile will cross his face.  Not a wide one — he’s not that crass.  And frankly, you’re not even worth it.  But a small smile.  Then he’ll be as diplomatic as possible.  “”Yeah, that’s . . .  not bad, I guess.”

“Say, how fast do you usually run it in?” you’ll ask foolishly.

Now it’s not important how much faster he is than I am.  It’s not important that on his slowest days, when he has just consumed a box of donuts and is wearing snowboots he would have time to finish the race, shower, and do his AP Physics homework before I’d cross the line.  What is important is that I beat his time now.

So if you need me, I’ll be in my altitude tent.

Waiting on Inspiration from Hillary

I’ve been thinking a lot about young voters during this election cycle.  As a high school teacher with many of my students turning 18, or already 18, I often talk politics these days with the youngest part of the electorate.  What have I found?  The short answer is this: most (though certainly not all) think Trump is crazy.  But I haven’t found a single one of them who is excited about Hillary Clinton.  None of my male students, none of my female students.  The majority of them wanted Bernie.

While this is hardly surprising at a Vermont high school, my students’ opinions echo a broader trend: young voters — the so-called “Millennials” who helped sweep Barack Obama into office — are not excited about either major candidate.  Trump is nuts, but Hillary is the old guard.  She’s out of touch.  A lot of them have “trust issues.”

As David Brooks points out in the New York Times this week, they’re not inspired.

“There is no uplift in this race,” writes Brooks.  “That poetic, aspirational quality is entirely absent from what has become the Clinton campaign.” Clinton, says Brooks, not only fails to connect with voters, but fails to inspire them.

I get it: Hillary Clinton is about as inspiring as your high school principal.  She’s a policy wonk.  She’s not a “natural” politician, and admits as much herself.  She’s more comfortable ticking off programs and agencies.  Her speech is stilted, her interactions robotic.  Ronald Reagan she is not.  Barack Obama she is not.  Her husband, the famously gregarious rope line-worker, she is also not.

And I understand that all voters — not just the young, but the young in particular — look to our leaders for inspiration.  We want to feel hopeful about our lives.  We want to believe that our country will improve.  We want to feel part of something — a movement, a revolution, a march toward progress.  Something.  All of us want to look at the candidate on the screen and get that warm feeling inside and say to ourselves, “That’s who we need.” We want to pull the level for a woman who excites us, not for the lesser of two evils.

I’m a “young” voter too.  In fact, I’m a Millennial — albeit an old one.  The first time I could have voted, I didn’t.  It was November of 2004 and I’d just graduated from college and was living in Washington, D.C.  “What are you doing?” my African American coworker asked me when I told her I didn’t vote.  “You don’t want Bush to win, do you?” What could I say?  I’d watched the debates.  John Kerry didn’t move me.  He didn’t connect.  George Bush won the election.

Four years later, I stood with tears in my eyes beneath the Washington Monument with more than a million of my countrymen watching as our first black president was sworn to office.  That morning I’d biked the ten miles into the city, and all the bridges over the Potomac River — Key Bridge, Chain Bridge — were closed to cars, but full of pedestrians.  They’d come from across America to make the last mile of their journey, this journey that our country had made together since its founding, on foot.  Months before, my students celebrated the outcome down at the White House, chanting at George Bush inside: “Yes we did!  Yes we did!” Never before or since have I felt so distinctly like I was part of something.

I was lucky.  I had my guy.  At 26 years old I got to pull the lever for a once-a-generation politician: not only our first black president, but a gifted orator, a public-minded man of immense dignity whose entire life embodied the American Dream.  I got my inspiring candidate.

Now I’m 34 and I no longer require politicians be inspiring.  I want them to get the job done.  Give me a worker bee.  Give me a policy wonk.  I want someone competent, someone qualified.  I look for stability.  I’m not an ideologue.  I’m not even a Democrat.  I’ll cross the aisle for someone reasonable, capable.  If inspiration’s not part of the package, fine.  I like some who can lift our spirits, but I like someone who can govern a whole lot more.

It’s not that I’ve been disillusioned with Mr. Obama.  Instead it’s that I know I’ve been spoiled.  You don’t get someone truly inspiring and capable and visionary and practical (sorry, I wasn’t “feeling the Bern”) like Barack Obama — every four years.  You don’t even get one every twenty.  My parents’ generation had one Kennedy, and almost had a second one.  I had Obama.  You don’t get a chance to vote for a historic candidate every election.

Except that we do.

I liked Hillary a lot from the get-go precisely because she wasn’t inspiring.  But over the past six months of watching what she’s had to go through, and watching the incredible double standards and the incredible criticism she’s gotten that no man would ever face, I’ve come to one conclusion: she’s incredibly inspiring.

The Onion summed it up well in an article called “Female Presidential Candidate Who Was United States Senator, Secretary Of State Told To Be More Inspiring.  Wait a second, the article says.  Isn’t Hillary Clinton’s life story — a story about breaking every conceivable glass ceiling — professor, lawyer, senator, Secretary of State — pretty darn inspiring?  The woman was the first female senator from New York.  What does it say about us that we’re not inspired by that?

Up until a few months ago, I wasn’t either.  Then I started watching her closely.

You know what my favorite Hillary Clinton moment has been so far?  That ludicrous “Commander in Chief” forum on TV a few weeks ago.  The idea was: Hillary and Trump each come out on stage, separately, to be interviewed by the loathsome Matt Lauer and to take questions from voters on national security.  Sounds fair, right?  Except it wasn’t.  In fact, that forum was the epitome of everything the first female candidate has had to fight through.  Let’s take a closer look.  First of all, the audience was small and packed with military vets, most of them white males — hardly surprising given that the event was taking place on an aircraft carrier.  Not exactly Democratic territory!

But more importantly: definitely not woman territory.  That evening was the glass ceiling: the mostly-male audience, the aircraft carrier, the military-industrial trappings.  And of course the fact that the male host, Matt Lauer, basically treated Clinton like she was some 24 year-old self-help guru hawking a new all-hemp weight loss diet on The Today Show.  “Secretary Clinton,” he’d say in a soothing, patronizing voice, “we really have to move on.”

But you know what was great?  Hillary gave it back to him!  From the moment she walked out, she had a look on her face that could’ve cut steel.  A look that said, “I know you’ve got all lawn signs — those of you who own lawns — saying I should be in prison.  But I’m Hillary Rodham Clinton and I was Secretary of State and don’t you talk down to me.” She knew that Lauer is a daytime TV lightweight.  Not only did she bull through his interruptions, but — this was my favorite part — whenever an audience member asked a question, she pulled the same alpha-dog power move that she used on Obama back in 2008: she stood up to answer.  It’s a way of asserting power because it makes the person sitting look small.  And I swear she purposely stood right in front of Lauer, blocking him from the cameras and making him feel like a little kid while the adults are talking.  I loved it.

What struck me most about this night was the optics: here was a woman in a man’s world.  The first to do this, the first to get this far, the first woman to have to make her case to the whole country on aircraft carriers.  It reminded me a lot of Barack Obama back in 2008.  You’d see him — a black man going into those all-white diners in Ohio, in Iowa, and you’d think to yourself: that can’t be easy.  In those places, you’re The Other.  It goes beyond political party for him and for Clinton, of course.  It’s about race, it’s about gender.  Clinton was, in that moment, a woman in a place where women don’t usually go.  And while she was criticized for not smiling once during the evening, she didn’t take one bit of crap from any of them either.

That, to me, is inspiring.

Now I realize that everyone views all of this differently, and I’m not seeking to influence anyone into voting for Clinton.  Goodness knows everyone’s mind is probably made up already.  And David Brooks does have a  point: Hillary Clinton is no Barack Obama.  Her vision, her oratory — is not inspiring.  But now I’m thinking about that young Millennial voter — me twelve years ago — who loathes Trump, but still might not vote because he does not feel either candidate connects with him.  To that young man, I say this:  grow up and take a look at the big picture.  History is going to look back on this election as a much bigger moment than most of us can even realize.  Hillary Clinton is a historic candidate.  Say that she’s the wrong candidate, that she’s not trustworthy, that she’s not right for the job, or that her vision is not inspiring — that’s fine.  Heck, say that you’re not voting for anyone.  But don’t say that you’re not voting for her because Hillary Clinton isn’t inspiring enough.  Because when you really step back and look at it, it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense.

Gonna Fly Now (Legally)

This past summer, just before school started back up, I got my Private Pilot License.  Basically this means that, according to the Federal Aviation Administration — a bunch of guys in suits who only laugh according to official regulations and who are tasked with regulating everything that goes up into the sky that doesn’t migrate south for the winter — I am now legally able to take passengers!  Now I can subject normal people — not just professional flight instructors who’ve never been so happy to get back on solid ground — to a ride with me at the controls.

Learning to fly in my early 30s has been a lot harder than learning to drive when I was 17.  You see, when most of us learn to drive, we’ve already ridden in a car for thousands and thousands of hours, many of them spent having a say in the process, or at least trying to.  We tried to influence speed (“Can’t we go any faster?”), length of the trip (“Are we there yet?”), and even navigation (“Do we have to go to church?  Can’t we go to Dunkin’ Donuts instead?”) If we were really  precocious, we might even have snuck in some actual practice.  When he was a kid, my uncle used to wait until my grandparents went out for the evening and then take the family car for a spin.  He’d dress up in my grandfather’s coat and hat too, to avoid suspicion.  By the time he took his driver’s test, you have to imagine my uncle was really well prepared — partly because of all the practice, and partly because he was grounded for so long that he was 27 years old by then.

The point is that, for most of us, by the time we’ve reached that sweet spot of raging hormones, lack of respect for authority, and inability to reflect on our actions that the U.S. government has declared is the perfect time to give us control of a two-ton speeding object — we’ve already spent half of our waking lives in a car.  Or, if both sets of grandparents live within striking distance, more than half.  We’re ready to drive.

Learning to fly, on the other hand, was much stranger.  I’d flown on commercial jets as much as the next person.  I’d done some fantastic loops around the U.S. just to get to places I probably could’ve hitchhiked to more easily, and with more legroom.  I once had a pleasant flight from Boise, Idaho back home to Baltimore, except that I believe I was routed through somewhere like Burma.  I’d spent my fair share of time in planes.

But I wasn’t gaining relevant flying experience.  I was just sort of sitting there back in coach like everyone else:  trying to keep snoring weirdos from drooling on my shoulder, eating nondigestible food, and pondering “Cat Fancy” or whatever was in the seat pocket.  I wasn’t watching the pilots do their thing.  The only people I’d ever watched fly an airplane were named “Goose” and “Maverick.” My first flying lesson, when I was 31, was my first time in the cockpit.

So if being given the wheel of a car felt like a long-overdue promotion, being given the control stick of an airplane felt like being handed a scalpel and shoved into a room marked “gall bladder surgery.” I was just completely at a loss.  My instructors would bark things at me like, “Do a slip turn with dive breaks fully engaged!” and I’d just start grabbing stuff.  The only relevant prior knowledge that I had was two years of hang gliding, which counts for about as much with professional pilots as being in a folk band.  If you ever want to make your FAA-employed, buzz cut instructor cringe, tell him you were a hang glider pilot.  It’s like telling your employer you went to a high school whose name included the words “juvenile center.”  Basically I came to the table with nothing.

I think people sometimes look at me and think, “If he can do it, it can’t be that hard.” Sometimes people ask me, “How long does it take to learn how to fly?” Really it depends on how often you can practice, which in turn depends on several critical factors, such as whether anyone in your club actually has a job, or whether you are independently wealthy.  Here’s a flying joke:

How do you make a small fortune in aviation?

Start with a large one!

But you’re probably still wondering: how long does it take to get your pilot’s license?  The answer is: just over two years for me.  That’s about average.  We have a couple of maddeningly coordinated teenagers in our club who received their pilot’s licenses in approximately 15 minutes.  I console myself by imagining that their moms probably still have some kind of a say in their wardrobes.  But some of these kids have actually gotten their pilot’s licenses before they’ve gotten their driver’s licenses.  You have to imagine that the driving test is somewhat anti-climactic.  Imagine the conversations in the DMV waiting room:

Teen 1:  “Oh man, parallel parking is so hard.”

Teen 2:  “Um, I’ve landed an airplane.”

Now I know what you’re wondering: “Your wife doesn’t even allow you to go shopping alone.  Apparently you go “off-script” and instead of eggs and milk you come home with Fruit Roll-Ups shaped like animals.  How the hell did you ever get to the point where you can fly an airplane alone?”

The answer is that professional pilots can be rather desperate people.  I don’t mean “desperate” like they’ll trade flying lessons for Oxycontin money (this isn’t Rutland Airport).  I mean that there aren’t many sports in which you can belong to a small glider club in the White Mountains with a flight shack that looks like the bunkhouse at a summer camp that’s going out of business and a runway that is basically some guy’s yard and still attract professional airline pilots, Air Force pilots, and FAA types to be your instructors.  Why do such accomplished experts spend their weekends turning their hair gray while flying with duffers like me?  The reason is simple: want to guess what professional pilots do in their spare time?  Did you guess “flying”?  Because it’s “flying.” And, by extension, for many of them, teaching flying.

These guys who I’ve been lucky enough to have as my instructors  genuinely love to fly on the weekends, even if that’s their job all during the week.  Part of it is that we’re flying gliders at my club, which is sort of like flying a 737 passenger jet at work in the same way that riding a motorcycle is sort of like driving a city bus.  Still, it’s always kind of amazing to me how much they love what they do.  After all, I’m a teacher: when I get to the weekends there’s really nothing I’d rather do less than teach anybody anything.  I want everyone to figure stuff out on their own.  Everyone can open up their damn textbooks whenever the hell they feel like it.  If no one wants to pay any attention to the person talking, be my guest.  If you want to incessantly text your “bff” (or let’s face it, your mom), knock yourself out.  By Friday night, all I want to do is set a bad example.  (Though I don’t of course.  I come home and water the flowers.) But maybe I’d feel differently if my job was flying through the sky.  The fact is: I’ve been really, really lucky to have great instructors.  That’s a large part of why I made it across the finish line at all.

Of course, I know there’s one more question I know you’re all dying to ask: “Now that you’ve got your license, who’s going to be your first passenger?”

The answer is that I’ve been cannily working on my wife for about a year.  I’ve been using lines such as, “much safer than riding in a car” and “definitely nothing like that ‘Sully’ movie that I stupidly took you to see.” We’ll see whether she’s game this year, or whether this might have to wait until I’ve accrued more marital capital.  Either way, she did come to the airport on the day of my big test, when the whole club broke out the champagne for two of us who’d passed on the same day.  One of my instructors snapped a photo of me shaking hands with my flight examiner.  In the background is the plane I flew.  Appropriately enough, it was one of the last days of summer before school started again: after months of studying, I’d finally passed.

private-pilot

 

An Accidental First House

This summer, my wife and I bought our first house.  It was a great moment for us.  But really, it was an accident.  

I don’t mean that it was an accident in the sense that we’d gone down to Bed Bath and Beyond to pick up some new bath towels and came home with a three bedroom cape and some land.  I mean that we hadn’t planned to buy our first house this summer.

I most certainly had planned to ask my wife to marry me back in December, and we knew we wanted to get married within the year.  We didn’t want to be one of those couples who drag out their engagement for four or five years while haggling over every detail of the wedding, such as what color the groomsmen’s boxer shorts should be (light blue, obviously — why do couples fight over this stuff?) only to, like a glider with the wind suddenly gone, crash to earth and divorce once we no longer had wedding haggling to support us.  We’d marry in late June, hold the reception at our rental home, honeymoon for two weeks, then spend the rest of the summer — for me — trying to get used to saying “my wife” instead of “my fiancee” (or “my girlfriend,” which I still hadn’t broken myself of).  Buying our first house — something we’d taken a number of serious steps toward doing, such as discussing it, would have to wait.

It’s not like we didn’t want to buy a house.  It’s just that we didn’t want to buy a house in a town whose daylight features, even after almost three years, were basically unfamiliar to us.  Since we both worked more than an hour from home — in opposite directions — we’d hoped to wait out closer job offers before ultimately splitting a more reasonable difference and purchasing our first home wherever that might be.  Buying a house was about much more than doing yardwork or roof repair — it was about making the kind of adult compromise that you have to live with.  Sort of like voting in the current election.  And just like voting for Jill Stein, renting seemed like a way that we could shirk that responsibility, while not feeling too guilty.  We just weren’t ready, we told ourselves.

But sometimes what it takes to finally force a decision is good, old-fashioned terror — or at least a deadline.  I’m not talking about serious duress — like when you’re flying a plane with 155 people on board and suddenly both engines blow out and you’ve got about twelve seconds to either set it down in the Hudson and hope everything stays buoyant, or try to make it back to LaGuardia and risk turning Teaneck into a smoking crater if you come up short.  I’m not talking about facing duress like Tom Hanks in that new movie “Sully.”  Which by the way was my first visit to the movies since two years ago when — speaking of duress — I saw that sappy John Green film in the hopes of finding out what my students were into and realized I was the only person in the theater who a) did not have a crush on the main actor, b) could legally drive, and c) was not weeping uncontrollably by the end of the opening credits.  Why did I go see that?  Having to buy a house on short notice was nothing like that.

What it was like was unexpected.  One minute I was busying myself with pre-wedding planning (that’s a lie — my wife did the heavy lifting; I was sitting around on the couch trying to remember the lyrics to “Regulators”).  The next minute I was staring open-mouthed at an email from my realtor saying that, basically, due to a slight breakdown in communication, nope, we could not renew our lease.  He wanted us out of the house on June 1st, just a few weeks before our wedding.  What happened was that when I’d suggested to him, back in January in a fit of optimism, that we might be interested in looking at houses to buy, I’d meant “not really, but humor me and throw me a few leads.” He’d read, “Go ahead, sell our rental and buy yourself that yacht.”

After a few rounds of begging and pleading and what I call “playing the wedding card,” our realtor agreed to let us stay through mid-summer — enough time to hold the wedding at home, but not much more than that.  That’s when we realized: we didn’t want to lug our belongings into another rental, only to be shewed out again in twelve months.  It was time to buy our first home.

While it technically wasn’t the biggest, most life-altering decision a human being has ever faced (that would be deciding what to wear every morning during middle school), it was still daunting.  We didn’t want to become one of those hapless couples who blunder into buying a house they can’t afford and end up evicted and living in a Camaro behind the Try ‘N’ Save.  We didn’t want our sheepish faces turning up on commercials for shady real estate lawyers who “helped us get back some of what we lost, so stupidly.” We wanted to be smart.

Besides, one major life milestone per summer was enough.  Most years, I hadn’t had any.  My biggest achievement last summer was biking from my house to Cannon ski area and back with only one stop for ice cream.  This summer was going to be big enough already without a For Sale sign.

And the commitment of buying!  I wasn’t ready.  One minute we’d be carefree renters — phoning up our landlord to come over and hose off a squashed bug on our deck; the next minute we’d be grizzled home owners, like Clint Eastwood in “Gran Torino,” shaking our bony fists at the neighborhood kids: “Get off my lawn!” and trying to save money by rewiring our own electrical outlets.  Or worse: we’d start making everyone take their shoes off.  We could NOT become those people.

But life — and surprise emails from your realtor — have a way of forcing your hand.  And if there’s one thing I learned in more than a decade as a whitewater kayaker, it’s that when things get rough, you just have to go with the flow.  If there’s another thing I learned as a kayaker, it’s that if nobody will ride in your car, it’s not because they don’t like you, but because your car smells like the Potomac River.  So go with the flow we did.  But we made sure to keep our wet gear in the trunk.

It took us a few weeks to start going with the flow.  During Week One I did everything I could to walk upstream.  But soon it was Time to Move Forward: find a new house, or start scouting bank ATMs with soft carpeting.  We had to move quickly.  Suddenly there was no time to waste with the airy wish-list items for a first home that we’d idly tossed back and forth during car trips (hot tub and sauna, retractable roof like the old Texas Stadium, drawbridge and moat with alligators).  Very quickly we had to clarify exactly what we could live without (the moat, but not the alligators).

So we got practical.  Having grown up in a house that predated the U.S. Constitution, and strongly advised by my parents *not* to buy a fixer-upper unless I was entirely clear-eyed about the process, or entirely insane, I knew better than to take on some latter-day Tara with the idea of restoring it to past glory.  My wife and I — both educators by day, inclined to see the latent potential in all young people — became cold-eyed realists around houses.  Our realtor would chirp on about the beauty of some new home we were visiting.  “Sure, sure,” we’d say dismissively, “lovely trim and all that.  Let’s talk about the septic system.” The sight of some newly-repurposed building housing a new charity to feed homeless war orphans merited no more than a head shake from us: “That roof’s got two years.  Tops.” Or some beautiful, rolling pasture for sale: “Twelve acres in Bethlehem?  Good luck with those property taxes.” At one point I became so fixated on the details of our negotiation that I found myself wondering, “Now what would Donald Trump do here?” That was when I knew: if we didn’t work this out soon, forget buying a house — I might actually live out my days in a padded cell.

But I’m not committed.  Nor am I typing this from a cot at the St. Johnsbury YMCA.  We found a house.  Not only that, we found a beautiful house in far better shape and for less money than we imagined.  Would the process have gone better if we’d had the five or six months to prepare, as we’d planned?  I can’t imagine that it would.

There’s one last story I want to tell.  Right as we were moving in — the moving van was still in the driveway — a door on the second floor of the garage that we’d opened to pass items straight into storage heaved and buckled and then ripped right out of the wall.  We hadn’t unloaded our bed yet and I already had my first home repair project.  I looked at the broken mess — the ancient hinges, the rotting wood — and asked myself: Am I really ready for this?  Then I went into the garage and opened up the tools my father had given me back when I was still renting, when I never thought I’d need them.  I opened them up, took out the old hammer, and went to work.  After a few trips to the hardware store, a few trips up and down my new step ladder, and an hour in the sun cursing under my breath as I worked — and I had the door reattached.  It was different than being a renter: this time I was somehow working toward our future.  Until then I hadn’t been sure I was ready for home ownership.  Turns out I was — and all it took was an accidental home purchase.

Hilarious Stupidity on Mt. Washington

“Is the summit on top?”

“How come I can still breathe this high up?”

“This is my first time up Mt. Washington. What am I supposed to do now?”

 

We teachers tell students, “There are no silly questions.” But rangers on top of New England’s highest peak might begin to wonder.

Four years ago, Mike Pelchat, manager of Mt. Washington State Park, posted a list of actual questions asked by tourists at the summit information desk of Mt. Washington.  The list is absolutely phenomenal.

“Are those clouds on a time schedule?”

“How often do you fire the fog horn?”

“Does the altitude make kids crazy?”

Continue reading “Hilarious Stupidity on Mt. Washington”

Why You Should Go Slow in the Mountains

The Voice

You know how sometimes you can hear people on the summit before you actually get there, so you know that you’re close?  This was like that — except much worse.  We heard the guy from way up above:

 

“Ridge of the Caps is THE route up Jefferson!  Trust me.”

 

“Oh my god, there are SO many idiots in the Whites these days!”

 

I’ve been hiking all my life, actually . . .”

 

It was the loud bro-speak that reminded me of the obnoxious preppy who lived on my hall freshman year of college.  Except instead of pontificating about how to score with women or pass Poly Sci without trying, this guy was the self-appointed blowhard of New Hampshire hiking.

 

“ . . . but it wasn’t until I started my first 48 that I got serious.”

 

To me, the summit of a mountain has always felt holy, or at least a place that you want to enjoy in peace.  And on a summit like Mt. Jefferson in the White Mountains of New Hampshire — about as wide at the top as the roof of an SUV — it’s basic trail etiquette — not to mention basic politeness — not to noise pollute.

 

“Yeah, I’m working on my 48 for the third time.  No big deal, you know?”

 

Working on my 48.  When I first moved to New Hampshire two years ago, I started hearing that phrase almost every time I talked to other hikers.  While the singular Vermont hiking accomplishment is arguably the completion of the Long Trail, in New Hampshire it’s completion of the state’s 48 four thousand foot peaks.  When I was a kayak racer, old-timers — who’d been in the sport before its Olympic inclusion — used to joke that any teenager in a kayak nowadays was no longer a “kayak bum,” but a “future Olympian.” In New Hampshire, you’re never just hiking, you’re working on your 48.  But there are problems with this.

 

The List

Now, its loudmouthed practitioners aside, I have nothing against the New Hampshire 48 list.  After all, lists are fun.  They’re motivating.  Why?  Because they’re goals.  I keep lots of lists: books I’d love to teach in my high school classes (The Prince, How to Win Friends and Influence People), foods I’d like to cook (bacon wrapped scallops), basic tasks most adults can do that I’d love to be able to do without adult supervision (cook), and of course mountains I’d like to hike (Khatadin, the Matterhorn [if I’m ever given a terminal diagnosis]).  I love lists.

 

And I love the New Hampshire 48.  I’m working on it myself.  Why else would I ever slog out to Owl’s Head, except to get away from my creditors?  Just a few days ago, two days after our wedding, my wife and I finished cleaning the house, laced up our boots, and took our second whack at Mt. Isolation, a barren bump on the ridge barely worthy of being called a “summit,” seven hours of suffering and spectacular views that’d we’d have never done if it weren’t on The List.  The List is a good thing — provided that you go about it in the right spirit.  

 

For some that truly means “bagging” the peaks.  At its worst that can mean rushing, getting in and out quickly just to check off items on your list.  But it doesn’t have to.  These people — like our obnoxious friend on top of Jefferson (who was finally revealed to be a rather smallish and pasty man drowning in his own cargo shorts) — hike 4,000 footers exclusively.  Each weekend they simply head to the next mountain on their 48 list, with all the straighforwardness of a child following the rules.  Are there those so literal that they hike through the list in the height order in which it’s printed?  I’m sure there are.

 

There’s nothing wrong with this.  Sometimes what you need in life to straighten yourself out is a fixed pursuit.  It may be that racing up and down Interstate 93 every weekend in order to race up and down the tallest peaks of New Hampshire with tunnel vision is just what you need to ride out a rough stretch.  Anything less than laser focus is an invitation to depression to waft back in.  It’s best to keep moving, eyes on the next goal, the next summit.  Having a list is having a plan, and sometimes that’s what keeps you going.  It’s an extension of what’s always been great about hiking in the first place — the escape to nature, the purifying simplicity of putting one foot in front of the other, the simple endurance of carrying on that hiking teaches you.  Putting one summit in front of the other is a natural outgrowth only enhances the effect.  Forty-eight is a good number too: not so large that it’s unattainable, but large enough to be therapeutic: even if you’re ripping through mountains because your wife cheated and you can’t talk to your teenage daughter, it’s still going to take a good chunk of ruminative time to finish hiking those mountains.  Which after all is just what you need in the first place.

 

#FearlessLiving

Some people don’t even need time, they just need a goal.  You see evidence of this online.  Sometimes in the summer you’ll see a Facebook post on the hiking forums by a woman who has decided to turn her life around — not just by taking up hiking, but by hiking the New Hampshire 48.  She and her best friend / Zumba partner (or fully supportive / medicated boyfriend) have struggled up Mt. Tecumseh (“#Fearlessliving, #Nevergiveup!!”) They always post the obligatory selfie from the top, looking absolutely demolished.  In the photo they are holding up their fingers in a #1 sign, along with a handmade sign that reads “#1 Tecumseh.” This sign is supposed to show that they have climbed peak #1 out of 48.  I used to only see these signs in photos when they said “#48” — as a way that hikers used to document finishing the list, typically on Mount Carrigain.  But last summer I started seeing them all the time, almost like a New Hampshire hiking meme.  I’m guessing that most of these quests die out before they attain double digits, but if it gets them out enjoying the White Mountains for even a few afternoons, and if they don’t need a helicopter rescue, who’s to complain?

 

Savoring the Mountains

So you can race through the list, you can use the list as a goal to settle your life (even if you don’t finish), or you can take a third approach — the one I like to take.  It’s quite simple: you can take your time.  Instead of bagging the peaks, I try to savor them.

 

What does that mean?  It means that from time to time I dip back into the list and hike another 4,000 foot peak, but I don’t hike 4,000 footers exclusively.  It means that one day I hike Jefferson, but the next day I hike Welch and Dickey.  Sometimes I hike North Kinsman twice before I do a new peak.  I don’t dive straight for the plumb 4,000 footers, I surround them by hiking the foothills first.  Sure, I’m lucky.  I live within an hour of almost all the trailheads.  And I’m not knocking people who race through the 48.  I just want to savor the journey.  Because unlike our friend on the top of Mount Jefferson, I have no intention of doing the list three times in a row.  I want to make the first time last.  

 

Here are a few of my own hiking mantras for eliciting maximum enjoyment from the pursuit.

 

Hike the Interesting, Smaller Mountains

Just because a mountain is tall does not mean it’s more interesting.  Some of New Hampshire’s 4,000 footers are flat-out boring hikes, such as the mind-numbingly ordinary Mt. Hale.   Others, like the notorious Owl’s Head, a nine mile slog to a viewless summit, are trips no reasonable person would do if they weren’t on the coveted list of 48.

 

On the other hand, New Hampshire is covered with far more interesting, lower summits.  Mt. Chocoura, the Baldfaces, and the Moats are all shorter than 4,000 feet, but each have rocky, open summits with spectacular, 360 degree views.  Why pass up a chance to hike these great mountains just to do taller, less memorable ones?

The Baldfaces in New Hampshire (Peakery.com)

 

Hike Small, Then Hike Big

I like building up to things.  Don’t go straight for Mt. Washington.  Hike the smaller Presidentials first.  Don’t go straight for Franconia Ridge.  Spend some time on Liberty and Cannon and gaze upward and imagine what the taller peaks will be like.  I’m not talking about building your fitness level.  I’m talking about savoring the experience.  I had done the “small” hike of Bald Peak in Easton, New Hampshire four or five times, each time looking up at the massive North Kinsman above before I finally made my first hike all the way to the ridge.  That made it all the more sweet when I finally got there.  You don’t have to wait as long as I did.  But some waiting really does increase the anticipation.

 

Avoid “One and Done”

I think it’s really, really motivating to have a hiking goal, but be careful of the “one and done” mindset.  This is when you tell yourself that because you’ve hiked a mountain once, you’re done with it forever.  This mindset robs you of a certain fullness.  I have a feeling there are people like this: once they’re done with the New Hampshire 48, they don’t see a point to hiking anymore.  It turns mountains into boxes to check.  You miss the beauty of hiking a familiar peak in an unfamiliar season — when it’s covered in snow, or when the colors are bright red and orange.  I know that the time is short and new mountains are fun, but beware the “one and done” mentality.

 

Be Careful of Starting on the 4,000 Footers

If you haven’t done much hiking, the 4,000 footers aren’t always the best place to start.  You’re more likely to enjoy hiking if you start small.  If you start big — and even some of the easier 4,000 footers, like Tecumseh and Osceola, are “big” — you’re more likely to become tired and frustrated and turn yourself or your companions off to hiking.  Think of it like anything: take your time and build your skills and conditioning.  Stop and enjoy the view along the way.  Once you’re sure that you enjoy hiking, then commit yourself to hiking the 4,000 footers — and you’ll probably find that you’re experienced enough to really enjoy them.

 

Slow Down and See More

I think the New Hampshire 48 is a great list and a great goal for hikers.  Speaking for myself though, I think I’d feel a little sad if I’d hiked through all of New Hampshire’s highest peaks in some speed-record time.  I’d have nothing to look forward to.  It’s better to leave yourself some mystery, to enter into a longer, slower relationship with the mountains, rather than to rush through them.  You see more, paradoxically, if you go slow.

Lupine Season

The One Flower I’ll Drive to See

I never thought I would be one to appreciate flowers.

There was a time — not long ago — when I didn’t know a daisy from a petunia, and didn’t care.  And the truth is, I still don’t — with one exception.  Two years ago, I happened to move to the exact corner of the White Mountains at the exact time when something irresistible occurs each June: the profusion of color that is lupine season.

I remember when I first saw lupine.  My fiancee had been reading somewhere that the lupine were supposed to be spectacular in a nearby town called Sugar Hill.  “Flowers?” I thought.  “Who cares?” Sure, spring is really pretty when things start to bloom — I get it.  But driving around to look at flowers?  I’d rather be climbing a mountain, or kayaking a river.  Nevertheless, we drove up Route 117 into Sugar Hill for a look.

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A Local’s “Must Do” New Hampshire Hikes

The other day as I was happily cruising down a deserted side street, bypassing the tourist-clogged main artery of North Conway, New Hampshire, it occurred to me that I might have finally earned the right to call myself a local here in the White Mountains.  And it’s not just traffic short cuts that I’ve discovered; over the past two years I’ve stumbled on the best places to eat, the best places to drink, the best place to get cider donuts, and most importantly, the best places to hike.

The White Mountains have some of the top hiking in New England.  I’m fortunate to have much of it right outside my front door.  Remember that SNL skit when Tina Fey did a dead-on impression of a loopy Sarah Palin?  She explained her foreign policy “credentials” like this: “I can see Russia from my house.” Well, on a clear day, I can see the East Coast’s finest hike from mine.

What are New Hampshire’s best hikes?  Allow a local to answer.

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