Confessions of a Screen Addict

Tongue River

Tongue River

I have this bad habit of leaving my smartphone on top of a pile of laundry. I did this the other day, and, well, you guessed it…it slid off, screen first, on to the hard tile floor. I said a silent prayer as I picked it up and turned it over…please don’t be cracked; please don’t be cracked.

The screen looked intact. I sighed in relief and then clicked on the button to turn it on. Nothing happened. I tried other buttons, and still, nothing happened. At the right angle, I saw a slight crack in the LCD screen. The glass was fine, but the LCD screen would not display any content. This would be an expensive repair.

That was a week ago, and while waiting for the parts to arrive, I’m forced to go sans phone. I hadn’t realized how much I used my phone, and being without it has me thinking about screen addiction and the outdoors.

When spending time camping or fishing, I don’t seem to miss my cell phone much unless I want to take pictures. And that’s Bassfishing22015all I use it for. I don’t even listen to music or books. I prefer to hear the wind in the trees, the birds singing, or the water lapping at the shore. When walking around town, I will listen to a book or music. This helps block out the street noises. Either way, when I’m outdoors, I don’t want to be bothered by technology.

The only time that this isn’t true is when I’m trying to organize a camping location with my husband or friends.

During the summer months, I have the flexibility of camping early in the week, unlike my family and friends who have to work 9-5 jobs 12 months out of the year. I’ll head up to the mountains a day or two early to beat the crowds and to scope out a secluded spot where my friends can meet me when they can leave work. This is a great plan until I’m in the mountains and suddenly find that I have no way of letting my camping partners know where to find me.

It seems that no matter what kind of plans we make ahead of time, there is always some confusion about where to find each other, and we’ll spend hours wandering roads and camping sites looking for each other, especially since we tend to avoid designated campgrounds.

Earlier this summer, I realized that not everyone understands that cell service is nearly impossible in the mountains. At a workshop within the Wyoming Writer’s Conference, I submitted a section of my novel about a woman stranded in the mountains. Several attendees (non-Wyomingites) asked, “Where is her cell phone? Why can’t she just call for help? Or even use a GPS to find out her location?” It seems that they had never been in the Wyoming mountains where there is no cell service or satellite access for GPS. I realized then that 1) I would have to explain this in my novel or show that her electronic devices were stolen; 2) there are few wild places left in this world where technology cannot interfere, and 3) I’m glad to be in Wyoming where I can access these wild places.

Moonrise2015I can say with certainty that I miss my phone. I miss checking Facebook when I wake up and reading my magazine apps before going to bed. But I am somewhat grateful for this forced break from that tiny screen. Although I don’t think I’m exactly addicted, it does provide the opportunity to set up more non-screen time and to spend it outdoors: just don’t expect any pictures.

~ Keri

Trails and Staircases: relearning to walk

Esker-Lakes-hiking-trail (2)

I always loved the outdoors. As a child, I lived where I could roam on my bike over dirt roads or wander in the woods behind my house. We camped as a family, and then later I camped and hiked with my husband and our children. I took my daughter and one of my sons backpacking, just the two of us. We, as a family, went to Yellowstone for week-long camping trips that sometimes included canoeing as well as hiking.

But things change. We get older and fatter and in less good shape. In the last year and half, I have had both of my knees replaced, and in looking back, I see that knee pain prevented me from doing much physical activity (except water exercise) for many years. My surgeon told me when I finally decided to replace the knees that I had needed to have them replaced for at least three years before I actually did it.

Knee replacement surgery requires a lot of rehab, not just the formal period of at least six weeks, but also careful use for months after the event. However, what I find interesting is not just the physical rehab work, but the conscious mental work that has to happen as well.

I have never been a particularly daring person. I have never, for example, rock climbed because I am sure that in the contest between flesh and rock, rock always wins in the end. When I learned to downhill ski, in my forties, I never skied anything harder than an intermediate trail, and never so fast that I would fall. But a solid hiking trail, where my feet were firmly on the ground was always a joy. However, what I am finding as I am becoming more mobile again, is that both the pain of unreplaced knees and the rehabbing of new ones has tested my physical self confidence in unexpected ways. For years, I would happily go on a day hike to a local fire lookout tower or walk to the local park. But now that I have new knees, I can see how I became increasingly less confident of what my body could do. I was made particularly aware of this when I visited my daughter last week. The stairway in her house is a little steeper than the one in my own house, and as I was descending it two days ago, I realized that in the eight years she has lived there, I had never walked down that staircase with normal alternating steps, but had always led with which ever leg was more painful. Two days ago, I stopped at the top of the stairs, and thought about it. I chose not to rely on the old habit but to descend “like a normal person.” It sounds so simple. Just walking downstairs. We learn it when we are two or three years old, but I have had to relearn it. In relearning, I have realized that there is a moment in the action of descending when we are putting all our weight on one leg and balancing for that instant. We totally take that action for granted until we cannot do it. Relearning it is hard. Our bodies, when they are in pain, do not trust that instant of on-legged balance.

What I see is that the confidence that goes with walking effortlessly, which is what most able-bodied people do, can be relearned, but it is a learning process. It does not come back without struggle, but in the end, I finally know that I can walk up and down stairs without thinking about each step, and I can walk an uneven trail without undue caution again as well.



Got Guns?

big elk and boysMy house is full of guns: Nerf guns, cardboard cutouts of handguns and double barreled rifles, wooden rubber band guns and water pistols. I walk on Nerf darts and fish Lego weapons out of the shower. Pretty typical boy stuff, but I live in Wyoming, so we have real guns too. We have a locked safe stocked with hunting rifles. The guns are not something I think about. I never open the safe. I don’t shoot small animals. I don’t even go to the shooting range. Several times a year I watch as my husband loads his guns in the truck for a hunt. As I’ve written before – hunting is part of our culture. So by default, guns are also part of our culture. I just don’t pay much attention to that part of our crazy western ethos.

I measure my days by the number of hours I can spend outside. I roam our hills everyday; I seek clear water and fresh snow whenever possible. And despite the fact that I’ve lived with hunters and guns all of my life, I hadn’t really considered hunting a worthwhile outdoor pursuit. It’s not really the dead animals – I grew up on a cattle ranch and I have a very real sense of where our food comes from. It’s not even the camouflage or the long walks.

It’s the guns. They are big and heavy and I admit it –kinda scary.

I associate guns not with my mild mannered husband slash hunter, but with violence and misplaced power. I picture automatic war weaponry instead of sleek rifles and lean, healthy meals. In reality hunting is mostly about walking and thinking and being quiet outside – all things I treasure. The gun part – while violent – is brief and necessary. But I still don’t like the guns, so I have opted out of countless mountain outings with my family.

This summer my boys called my bluff. Years ago I promised I would take hunter’s safety with them. In Wyoming in order to hunt legally, anyone born after 1966 must pass a Hunter Education class. The course was developed fifty years ago in an attempt to make hunting safer and the nationwide effort has lowered the rate of hunting accidents by about half.

We spent five evenings in the county’s National Guard Armory. We learned about hunting regulations, about game care and wildlife identification. We listened to a wizened game warden detail Game and Fish regulations. Our instructor talked about the ethics and responsibilities of good hunters. He stressed the importance of wildlife conservation and land owner rights.

And every day I stood next to a table covered with guns. The Game and Fish provides non-firing weapons for the Hunter Education courses. The bright orange guns look and feel real. I held the toy-like weapons, surprised each time by their weight and assumed power. I practiced holding the guns and waited to feel comfortable. But even after five days of thinking and talking about the guns, my hands still trembled when I had to demonstrate my skills for the course final.

Like most of the boys in the class, my kids loved the guns. They rushed to the front table at every opportunity working their way through the array of weapons. I watched as they held each gun up to their slight shoulders. They were excited while also respectful and thoughtful. But every evening on our drive home, their focus was on the plans they could make with their father and their grandfather once they were officially hunters. They loved the stories about hunting and fishing. They chattered about what they would put in their backpacks, about what they would eat, and what they would wear. The guns were a side note. boys and rafts

In the end the class was a coming of age ritual for all of us. I didn’t shake free of my gun fears completely, but I did learn something important: my boys have cultivated a love for the outdoors. I have hauled them across oceans, down ski hills, and through the woods. I rarely gave them a choice about being outside, and I certainly didn’t endorse hunting with my actions. I still wouldn’t choose to carry a gun through the wilderness, but I am learning to let my sons make their own way. They seemed to have learned that being outside is powerful and important. They will find freedom and space in the mountains. They will learn their limits and push their boundaries. These are some of the biggest lessons I want for them.

My boys crave time outside with the people they love – in their own way. I may never shoot a gun or apply for a hunting license, but I am grateful that I will be included in their outdoor lives.

~ S

Why Read Fiction?



St-MaloI had an interesting conversation with someone recently, a conversation I have actually had with this person several times before, about a novel she was reading. She remarked that she didn’t know how the author knew the things he has written. In this case, it was how some Germans had behaved in WWII. The author of the book in question was born in 1973, and would have not had personal experience in 1940’s Germany. In my side of the conversation, I tried to explain that fiction writers do research, but that they also depend on the power of their own imaginations. The person with whom I had this conversation did not, and had not ever really understood this.

I do not know how Anthony Doerr wrote All the Light We Cannot See, but I do know how I write, and how a number of other people write. I can imagine that Doerr “saw” an image or a scene before the whole story came to him, the grotto beneath the St. Malo wall and the snails that lived there, or the model of the cities that the father builds for his blind daughter. Once I have an image like that, the story unfolds around it, and it could well be that Doerr’s experience was similar.

I once heard Cormac McCarthy talking about how he came to write The Road where he said that he had seen a landscape with devastated smoke stacks and cinder covered ground, and that scene pushed him to write the story. What literalists do not understand is that the story spins out of our heads in ways that are both magical and hard work. Science fiction and fantasy writers know this well because they take us to places that are not “real” in the sense that my literalist friend would believe. Interestingly enough this person has never liked stories that are not “real.”

But what is “real” when it comes to stories? I am not sure writers need to answer this question, but I do think perhaps some readers do. While characters exist on a page and really only on a page, once we read the story, those characters live in our own heads, we carry them with us. When I was a child, I am told, a dear elderly neighbor read to me and she told me once that I used to say to her when she read Mary Poppins to me, “Is it believe? Let’s pretend it’s believe.” Already, although I didn’t know it at the time, with those words, I demonstrated that I had the heart of a fiction writer. Let’s pretend that this fictional world is the one that exists.

In a time when an angry young man shoots nine people in a church simply for the color of their skin, we desperately need stories that tell us that humans can behave honorably, stories where children can learn that bravery is admirable, that kindness is worthy. Reading fiction can introduce us to experience that is different, to the ideas, thoughts and cares of “the other.” There is good evidence that reading good fiction can teach empathy. Anthony Doerr’s book shows us both the worst and the best of humankind. Cormac McCarthy shows us love in unrelentingly awful situations. We need our fiction writers, we need to be teaching reading and writing, we desperately need to be teaching young people that it is possible to imagine a better world because the world in which we currently live is often so full of anger, of hate and ugliness. Fiction can teach us again and again how to human beings should and can behave.


Garbage In, Garbage Out

reading and rafting

One of my favorite reading spots.

In his book Mountains Beyond Mountains, writer Tracy Kidder reveals that his brilliant subject, Partners in Health founder Paul Farmer, reads People Magazine on airplanes. Farmer hid his magazines and referred to the rag as “The JPC” (The Journal of Popular Culture). Sometimes I’m proud of the books I’m reading – right now Hanya Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life looks impressive and heavy. I’ve spent hours with Homer and Lobachevsky. But I also love junk – The JPC and home decorating catalogs, summer beach reads and fashion blogs. I feel like I should hide my guilty pleasures. It also seems possible that my junk reading vice is harmful.

It is difficult to teach writing and to write at the same time. I whine about the time I don’t have, the energy I don’t have, the ideas I don’t have. I spend all of my time grading, I moan. I’m too tired during the semester. I use up all my good ideas on my students. I sound like a one woman pity party short on beer. But my favorite justification is a theory borrowed from the computer science world: garbage in, garbage out.

They call it GIGO (pronounced “guy-go”). The idea suggests that because computers use only “strict logic” that any “invalid input” will “produce unrecognizable output,” i.e.: complete garbage. Whiz-kid programmers know better than to open a binary file in a word processor (shout-out to my TX family!). They know what will happen if they enter “a string” when an “integer” is called for – it won’t compute.

I’ve been operating under a variation of this theory for a while; if I am reading beginning level compositions all of the time, it’s difficult to produce anything beyond my own beginnings. That’s not to say that my students’ work is garbage, but I do read a fair share of rough drafts. So I might conclude if I’m reading ‘bad’ writing, I will produce ‘bad’ writing. It seems like a good place to lay blame.

So the obvious antidote is to read good stuff too, right?

Easier said than done. I search every day for accessible but challenging readings for my students which means I read a lot of good, even great writing. I know the books and articles I teach inside and out, but I read with the mind of a teacher looking for a lesson. I don’t always have the time to sink deeply into every article or novel that I run across. I keep (both literal and virtual) stacks of articles in my office that I’ve skimmed while lesson planning. I always intend to spend more time with the essays and stories I collect on my literary hunts. But the fact of the matter is I do spend a ton of time grading freshman composition papers. I am tired by the end of the semester. I have used up a slew of good ideas in my classroom. Sometimes I feel like I need a break from analyzing words and ideas.

So I escape into the world of popular novels. I watch movies and formulaic TV shows. I read magazines and my facebook feed. I tell my students that I read everything – I love glossy, gossip magazines and Homer, Wendel Berry and Stieg Larsson. My one true skill is reading well. It is central to every part of my life – work, parenting, even my social life are all informed by reading.

In the end I’m not sure I buy the writing version of garbage in, garbage out. To write well my brain has to function well – it must be clear and creative. Writers cannot operate on “strict logic” like a computer or a statistical data set. We must pull from every part of our bookish research – from the trash and from the top shelf. Writing is not a linear equation, so our best preparation for writing well – reading – should not be linear either. We cannot experience both the ancient world and the modern paparazzi, so we have to read widely. And for fun.

When I whine about not writing well I am usually hiding from the harsh reality of the task – its hard work. Even to write poorly is difficult. I will always seek inspiration from practiced, literary powerhouses, but I also need the blank slate that comes with the pure escapism of popular fiction. I can justify my writing avoidance and procrastination, but in truth it comes down to that other acronym writers throw around so often: BICHOK. Butt In Chair, Hands on Keyboard.

~ Sarah