Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Treasure Hunting

Last week Mr. Thel and I were given a gift certificate to REI from a group of amazing people that I work with. (The calm, helpful staff on Bloody Thursday are all completely real, and some of the nicest people I've ever known.) We were really excited, but decided to wait until after the wedding before deciding what to buy with the gift certificate.

Yeah, that determination lasted about 36 hours. Saturday morning Mr. Thel said, "Wanna go to REI?" and off we went.

We bought a couple of useful things, things we actually needed for our upcoming trip to Glacier National Park. New jacket, sunglasses. And then we drifted into the more frivolous sections of the store, looking at stuff we totally didn't need. Stuff we never would have looked at twice if it weren't for this nice little gift certificate burning a hole in our pocket...

We probably would have held out, you know, if it weren't for the week-long sale they've got going on. As it was, the sale price on one little Global Positioning System unit was too tempting to resist. For almost a year Mr. Thel has been looking at them online, gazing longingly into the GPS case every time we went to any sporting or camping goods store. So we got one on sale on Saturday, thanks to the generosity of my work friends.

And then we went geocaching. Do you know about geocaching? Neither did I. It's just treasure hunting for grownups, apparently. As geocaching.com puts it, "The basic idea is to have individuals and organizations set up caches all over the world and share the locations of these caches on the internet. GPS users can then use the location coordinates to find the caches."

It sounds deceptively easy. We had found a couple of caches last year without a GPS unit, by looking at the maps available at the geocaching website. But we took our new toy to Discovery Park on Sunday and found out just how challenging it can be. Having been to Discovery Park countless times, we had picked two caches within the park to find. (Oh yes, there is a geocache hidden closer than you think. They are all around you.)

It was so much more fun than I had expected. After we entered the coordinates of the cache, the GPS displayed the distance and direction to it. I got ridiculously excited to watch the distance diminish as we neared the cache, especially when the display flashed "You are within 100 feet of landmark!" 60 feet...45 feet...30 feet...whoops, 50 feet, turn south... We got lucky on the first one, finding it wasn't far from my very favorite spot in the park. Still, it was down a little side trail I'd never trod before, and we were tickled to find two small metal bug sculptures in a secluded spot back in the woods near the cache.

Alas, our beginners' luck was not to hold. We headed down the trail that we estimated would lead toward the next cache. It looked like it would be down at the North Beach, and sure enough, the GPS did its cheerful countdown as we strode down the beach--right up until the "go this way" arrow swung around and pointed straight into the cliff. Sixty feet that way, but a hundred feet above us. We climbed back up the trail and headed back in the right direction, determined to find this cache too. We found the right trail to the bluff's edge easily enough. Unfortunately, just as we got within 100 feet of it again, a wedding party streamed out of the cultural center next to the bluff, heading straight at us to pose for pictures in front of the view. We figured they probably didn't want two sweaty hikers poking around in the background of their wedding pictures and slunk away, defeated.

It was so much fun, though, for someone like me who used to make up her own elaborate treasure maps, or sketch actual maps of our property. When Mr. Thel first described this hobby I thought it was a kind of race, that someone would hide a cool prize and post its location, and the first people to find it would get to keep it. I pictured people hovering in front of their computers, waiting eagerly for a new prize location to be posted, then rushing out to try to claim it.

But of course, the point wasn't the cheesy little prizes in the box at the end. It's all about paying attention to the direction your trail is heading. It's about looking hard at the scenery around you and adjusting your route when you find you're off course. It's about chuckling over the mystery with other seekers, and getting that little bubble of glee when you know you're on the right track.

It's all about the journey. And that, I like.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Childhood detritus

I naturally tend to be a bit of a packrat. When I was a little girl my closet had a built-in dresser, and the bottom drawer was left empty because it didn't have a handle and was difficult to open. I discovered this empty space and squirreled away the weirdest things in there. I brought home flannel-board figures from Sunday School, pretty rocks and shells from the beach, and sheets of paper I'd carefully covered in scribbles and drawings, tucking them all carefully into my "hidden" drawer.

The weirdest thing I kept in the drawer? Well, my mom had really long hair, and after she brushed it she would clean out her hairbrush, roll the hair up into a neat ball between her palms, and throw it away. I was fascinated by these hairballs. Obsessed with all kinds of miniature things, soon I discovered that I could shape the hairballs into tiny hair nests. I imagined that a delicate bird had shaped a hollow for her eggs inside them. And, yes, I kept a couple of these pretty little nests of hair in a corner of the drawer.

After I left home, however, I ended up moving at least once a year for five or six years. This made me get a lot better about throwing things out. No more secret stashes of hairballs for me! I stopped keeping every little note and letter, mercilessly recycled clothing and shoes, and even frequently culled my bookshelves (by far the most painful part). Things with sentimental value stuck around longer, but after packing and unpacking something three or four times without using it for anything in between, I became ruthless. Yes, I know I got this from a dear friend, but our friendship won't suffer if I pass on this candle holder/necklace/picture frame.

Journals are a different story. I've been an obsessive journal-keeper since sixth grade, and I won't throw out a single one of the twenty journals I've filled. It's a little pathetic, but I justify that collection by pointing to the fact that my memory is atrocious.

But there's one thing I've kept through all those moves, and it's never going away. My sister and I had a small collection of dress-up clothes--mostly castoffs from our aunt and grandma, ridiculous dresses they hadn't worn in twenty years that we would bunch up over our t-shirts and jeans and sashay around feeling glamorous and grown-up. At some point our collection gained two fringed shawls: a black one and a glimmering silver one. My sister took the black one, but I fell in love with that silver shawl. I told myself stories about how it was woven from starlight and spun by moonlight, sprinkled with fairy dust and shimmering with magic. I was very strict about letting myself play with it, reserving it for extra-special storylines in which I needed a flash of mystery draped over my shoulders. Every time I whirled it around me, I thrilled to the cool secrets I imagined woven within it.

When I left home, I quietly dug the silver shawl out of the closet where all our stuffed animals, Barbies, and dress-up clothes had been banished over the years, and took away with me. It usually stayed in a drawer or a hatbox in a closet, always out of sight. I never wore it, but I never quite tossed it out in any of my anti-hoarding fits, either.

And then a few years ago I ran out of magic. I stopped looking up at the stars and couldn't bear to keep a journal. It was a very long stretch of drab monotony. God died, love lied, and I never wanted to get up in the morning.

I remember three things that happened around the same time a little color started to creep back into my world. I had utterly neglected my only houseplant. It was completely dead, I thought--nothing but dirt left in its container. I started hopefully watering it anyway, and after several weeks I was delighted to see tiny green leaves emerging from the soil.

I had a favorite bracelet with a broken clasp that had languished in my jewelry box through those months. One day I sat down and carefully fixed the clasp so I could wear the bracelet again.

And I pulled the shawl out of the drawer and draped it around a lampshade. Of course I knew it wasn't actually a magic shawl. It hadn't been able to make me invisible, or let me tame unicorns, or transform me into a stunning princess. But all the playful storylines had woven themselves into it over the years, and something of its fantasy still seemed to twinkle at me through its silvery threads.

I've moved a couple more times since then, always keeping the shawl draped somewhere prominent in my bedroom. For a while I had it arranged high in a corner, hanging so the light from my lamp sent lacy patterns onto the ceiling and walls. Usually it's just hung awkwardly around a lampshade, fringe swaying below the light.

If a fire broke out in our apartment, I would first scramble to grab as many journals as I could sensibly carry. I would rush to pull clothes from the closet and the box of important documents.

And then I honestly think I would snatch that shawl.

Friday, June 11, 2004

A Niece is Nice

Reason Numero Uno (and, so far, Numero Solo) why I want to be a Cool Aunt:

"Cool Aunt Thel" reads Winnie-the-Pooh with her niece.

Yeah, I want to be a Cool Aunt. I want to be the Cool Aunt who always picks out the perfect gift--I think I made a good start on that, as apparently every night at bedtime she insists on reading the book and listening to the cassette recording of Abiyoyo that I gave her for Christmas. (Yes, I did start my covert campaign to help make her a voracious reader before she turned two--why?) I want to be the Cool Aunt she can vent to if she feels the need when she hits adolescence and her parents (who are much cooler, in reality, than I could ever hope to be) seem unbearably dorky and embarrassing. You know--the Cool Aunt who won't freak out if she lets fly with a "damn" or a "shit."

Anyway, she's adorable. Hey, I'm not a parent, so I had to bust out a cool picture of my beautiful niece to brag about. ("Yeah, she's brilliant! Already loves books, and she's not quite two!")

Just one more reason to move to Alaska, really.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Granddad and the Gipper

(Well, now, I can't skulk through this week without some sort of reference to Reagan's death, can I?)

The first President whose tenure I can recall, Ronald Reagan was President of the U.S. from my earliest awareness through the middle of elementary school. Not that I had more than a fuzzy idea of U.S. government; I suppose I'd learned the basics of U.S. government by fourth grade (President, not King; elections, not tyranny) but I don't think I'd been taught much more than that during the Reagan years.

I do remember spending long summer days at Grandma and Granddad's house in 1987. I collected rocks from the dry creek bed, ate blackberries by the fistful, and watched the horses graze. I ran around tossing my head and pretending I was a horse, coaxing my younger sister and brother into pretending they were horses too. I didn't know beans from Contras.

But I remember Grandma making us come inside for lunch, fixing us snack trays and letting us sit in the living room to eat while Granddad watched the TV--a real treat for us, not having TV at home. I ate my bologna-and-cheese rolled on a toothpick and half-watched the man in the uniform who was on the TV all summer. Granddad always watched the same channel, totally engrossed in the things the uniformed man was saying to the other stern men. The uniformed man had a name like Popeye's girlfriend. Ollie, ollie, oxen free.

Granddad grumbled at the TV a lot that summer. I knew Granddad had been in the Navy in WWII, though I didn't know yet what Iwo Jima meant, or what a kamikaze did. I knew Granddad had worn a uniform and assumed the man on TV, wearing a uniform, must be on the same side as my granddad. So I guessed that Granddad was unhappy with the way the stern men kept asking Ollie all those questions. Learning that Ollie worked for President Reagan clinched it in my eight-year-old head: President Reagan kind of looked like my Granddad--leathery, dark-haired old white men--so of course they must be on the same team.

Well, I know a little more about those Reagan years now than I knew while getting my fingers muddy and wearing out my sneakers. I found out about a few of the things that went on in Central America while I was in elementary school. I learned who the Sandinistas were, and the Contras. I read about Oscar Romero. I found out about the young men sent to Central America by Reagan and his underlings, and I've seen a few scars of which they will not speak.

Still, I knew my parents were Republicans, so I figured everyone else in our family must also be Republicans, as a kid. And since politics and religion were the twin no-nos at family gatherings, I never had any reason to think differently. Granddad died five years ago, and we'd never had any reason to talk politics.

Then one day last year my Grandma mentioned a recent speech by Al Gore. "Wasn't it brilliant?" she said.

"Yeah!" I said, surprised. "Uh...I thought you and Granddad were Republicans?" Maybe the present administration had changed her mind, I thought.

She recoiled as if I'd questioned the legitimacy of her birth. "Land sakes, no!" she exclaimed. "We were Democrats even before FDR. You know, growing up in Arizona, I remember knowing miners who were beaten and even killed by 'company men' just for trying to form a union. No, we've always been Democrats. Your mom switched her registration when she married your dad, but not your granddad and me."

Delighted, but still a little confused, I asked, "Didn't Granddad like Reagan, though? I thought he was pretty defensive of Ollie North during the Iran-Contra hearings..."

"Your granddad couldn't stand Reagan," Grandma said. Turns out all that grumbling at the TV was aimed at Ollie his own self, not at his questioners. I guess their vague resemblance, to an eight year old, just wasn't enough to endear the President and his policies to my grandfather.

So RIP to Ronnie. Not my favorite President, he'll still always be the first one I remember, the one whose existence as President had nothing to do with politics in my mind, but seemed synonymous with the USA.

And every mention of Reagan will forever remind me of my Granddad, and of one misunderstood summer TV drama. RIP, Granddad. Wish we could've talked politics, after all.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Change it? Engage it? Get a bigger box to encage it?

In 1998, while defining their vision for the 21st century, the Christian university I attended was proud to announce their slogan: "Engaging the culture, changing the world." Their comprehensive plan proclaims, "Separation, detachment, or self-indulgence can never be our path... We exist to serve."

While there are plenty of places where my ideas diverge from those officially advanced by the institution of my dear ol' alma mater, I can't argue with their stated passion to help students "understand what gives shape to our world...to appreciate the fruits of culture: music, art, theater, poetry, film, literature." It's an idealistic slogan, and sounds ridiculously hokey after you hear it eight hundred times in four years, but (after some years of not hearing it every day) I appreciate its brand of idealism. It's borne of a thoughtful, appreciative approach that often seems lacking in some Christian circles.

I was just reminded of that slogan when I visited Slacktivist. Today he links to a transcript at Christianity Today of a little chat George W. Bush had last week with some supportive religion writers and editors. He has a different idea about what Christians should do with "culture." The headline of the article, and a main point of Bush's statements? "Bush calls for 'Culture Change.'" He said, "At home, the job of a president is to help cultures change. The culture needs to be changed."

"Engaging the culture..." I was lucky enough to participate in a volunteer trip to Ireland, arranged by my university, just after I graduated. A church in Ireland asked for volunteers to help staff their summer youth camps, where they brought together adolescents from Ireland and Northern Ireland for week-long summer camps. The first thing the camp director did when the six of us volunteers arrived that summer was to take us up to Belfast for a week-long course on the history and culture of Northern Ireland, to give us a more nuanced understanding of the background to the conflict there. It was, among other things, a reminder that we weren't sent there to change their culture. We were sent to understand it, to engage it, even, and to lend our services to those local people with what they sought to accomplish in the cause of peace and reconciliation in their communities. They were seeking change, no doubt about it. But they sought the change that would come through increased understanding and engagement across community lines (as well as increased opportunity for the impoverished residents of West Belfast in particular...but that's another rant), and not necessarily through artificially imposed changes.

"Changing the culture..." Sadly, there's an ever-growing strain of Christians in the U.S. who are leery of that sort of engagement. For them, culture change is the important part, not the engagement and respect that precedes it. That connection and mutuality are suspect to them--a potential source of corruption. My teenaged brother said to me in a heated moment last year, "If you aren't a Christian, I don't know if I should talk to you anymore." His reason? If I'm not a Christian, my opinions are of course groundless and absurd, but they might nevertheless coil their godless tentacles around him, whisper their sweet siren song in his ears and tempt him, lead him astray, make his feet stumble and eventually hurl him into the pit of everlasting fire and torment.

Okay, he wasn't that dramatic about it. But his point was the same: other people's beliefs are not a valid part of his culture to be listened to and understood even if he continues to disagree with them. They are a threat, a challenge, an affront to the stark purity of his own beliefs. Life, for him, isn't "glorious, fascinating, rapidly changing...at times terrifying," as my alma mater's comprehensive plan says. It's just a constant war between cultures, a war he believes must be won and can only be won by force. There's nothing glorious about other cultures; they are a challenge to be withstood and overcome. They are there in order to be defeated and changed.

"Engaging the culture, changing the world..." I watched Priscilla, Queen of the Desert on Sunday, and I loved it. I watched those Australian drag queens make their way across the outback and loved it, loved my glimpse into a completely different world. Maybe that's the thing--how much I enjoy that "engagement," on screen or in a book or (best of all) in reality. I thrived on the time I was privileged to spend in Honduras, in Ireland, in the classrooms with struggling readers in Seattle. It has never felt like something ponderous enough to describe as "engaging the culture," and I don't know that I changed anything except myself.

But I've made some new, unexpected friends. I've learned and grown and been stretched tremendously. I guess I have engaged me some culture. Maybe I've even changed the world a little. I'll probably never know, one way or the other. Still, I'd like to think it was a more productive process, both for myself and for the people I met, than it would have been if I'd gone in swinging a club of self-righteousness and duty, asking indignantly why these silly people couldn't just shape up and learn to get along. More fun, too.

So, see what I've learned: I like the slogan more than I thought I did. I think I might just go on doing this subtle "culture-engagement" for a bit longer. George can let me know how his method works out.