Friday, March 20, 2015

A boy and his mountains

When I was a boy, white Christmas was distant concept. Yet it was always close at hand.

I grew up in at the very northern peak of California’s Central Valley. My hometown of Redding is known by travellers far and wide as “that unbelievably hot place where we stopped for gas before driving to Oregon.”
Mount Lassen from Redding

That position at the tip of the valley means that hot air (of which California has no shortage) rises up the valley floor on summer days until it is trapped by a ring of Cascade Mountains. And there it stays. Mercury above 100-degrees at midnight is common in August.

That same fluke of geography gives Redding a ringside seat to a winter it doesn’t have to put up with. “Hot” in Redding may be a term from hell, but “cold” in Redding is Missouri shirtsleeve weather. It snows once in a long while, but seldom enough for a kid to make money with a shovel.

But the snow was always there – on those mountains that a hug Redding like a protective mom. Each morning when I slogged out to catch the bus, I looked east to see what Mount Lassen was wearing. She was usually dressed in her winter whites, but I hoped against hope that this morning she would switch into the mantle of fiery lava made her the center of a volcanic national park.

Shasta Bally, to the west, was shorter and less likely to be snowbound, but loomed close as the guardian of the Trinity Alps. If I could see between the hell-I-ain’t-giving-up-no-leaves live oak trees out back, the eerie specter of Mount Shasta stood out all alone on the northern horizon.

I didn’t realize how much this snowy huddle of mountains meant to me until, as an adult, I moved to Dallas. In that part of Texas, people get nose bleeds at the peak of freeway overpasses. It was so flat that we bundled up the kids and drove to Oklahoma just to see some hills that pretend to be mountains.

Oklahoma, for God’s sake. You don’t admit that in Texas even if you are a foreigner.

We don’t have mountains here in mid Missouri, but the crinkle of tall hills in Columbia so disturbs your sight line that it is easy to pretend there are real peaks out there somewhere. And when the snow is measured by the foot, you don’t wish aloud for mountain roads.

Still, the Redding kid in me still wants to look east in morning to greet my craggy protector. I was never a mountain man, but I will forever be the boy under the mountain.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Act your age

Each morning, I open my eyes, smile to myself and rejoice at being 18-years-old. Then I move.

My body has no shortage of devices to tell me that 18 was a long, long time ago. “In your dreams” is literally the last vestige of my physical youth. But my mental youth? That’s a more complicated story.

This week I turned 64, which is old enough to make me grateful that I actually made it to 64. I’m a card-carrying old man. Well, maybe not card-carrying, but my plastic SMTWTFS pill box is close enough.

The retort “It’s better than the alternative” takes the fun out of groaning that “I hate getting old” when my bones don’t want to leave an easy chair. Especially when I catch myself saying, “Oh, yea.”

But tucked inside my gray head is a handsome teenager with boundless energy to gambol though my dreams. I like that guy. And whenever I can, I invite him out into the daylight.

Act your age. The person who came up with that stupid phrase had to be a centenarian at birth. Why in the world would I want to act like a 64-year-old. I am a 64-year-old, for God’s sake. I don’t have to act to be one. Any day of the week, I can be a doddering old fool who can’t hear and who doesn’t get half the jokes of TV comics.

I’d prefer not, however. As a college professor, I swim in a fountain of youths every day. I watch gangly freshmen grow into strong men and beautiful women. I hear the current term for “good” (cool, bad, bomb, etc.) change each year. And I delight in using the newest technologies and stumping my students with references to pop culture (gleaned from the Web, of course).

I like being around young people. Sure, sometimes they seem as dumb as a post, but I’ve learned to forgive the lack of life experience as I collect more than I can use. Their smiles are still untainted by mortgages and bosses from hell. They shoot secret glances across the classroom like fishing lines of love. And they blush when they realize I saw them.

Most of all, they keep me young.

If I am young, but I am 64, then I have no appropriate age to act. So I don’t. I tell weird jokes that elicit more groans the guffaws. I listen to music from any era. I dance when there is no music at all.

And if it turn quickly, I catch glimpses of 18-year-old in the mirror. Acting the way he darned well pleases.

Monday, March 09, 2015

In praise of those different from me

I had dinner in Slovenia Wednesday. Well, not really in Slovenia, but in the warmth of Slovenian friendship.

Bella and Julija, 2012
Over a big plate of čevapičiči (elongated Slovenian meatballs), I rekindled my friendship with Martin Jelovsek. Martin and his parents were our hosts when Cecile and I took a 40th anniversary trip to their spectacular little country in 2012. He is also the sister of my co-worker and friend Ursa Lenart, who suggested the trip in the first place.

All of the above is a long way of saying my heart is sometimes not at my home. I have a longtime fascination with the world beyond our borders and a deep, deep appreciation of the people I’ve met there.

I should probably have a passport from the United Nations. I was born in Germany, but my mother was English while my father hailed from Idaho – although his mother and step-siblings were Canadian. I married into a family of with roots in California, China, Korea and the Philippines. Our reunions are worthy of a Food Network special.
I’m proud to be an American, but my mind has wandered abroad my whole life.

I learned at a very early age that all people are just people, but that they spice up the world with unique words, thoughts and actions. It’s a spice that I crave. My university job has taken me from Mongolia to Italy and filled the spaces between with students and journalists from Nepal to Norway. And I’m ready to go out there for more.
Martin, American cousin Olive, Bella and me

Which brings me back that dinner at Ursa’s house. Martin brought with him his cute-as-a-kitten daughter, Bella. When we were in Slovenia, Bella and I became friends in the most wonderful way – without words. She couldn’t speak English and I was generally stumped by Slovene. But 5-year-olds don’t need language. Bella could pleasantly pester me just as I could gently tease her with the sound we all recognize – laughter.

Bella has grown up a few years and didn’t really remember me until I pulled up a photo of her and cousin Julija on my phone. And then we were back to teasing each other and sharing wordless laughs.

The Great Truth of Internationalism is that nobody does life right, but we all live life well. The sin against that truth is looking at the world through OK-I-can-check-that-one-off lens of a places-not-people tourist. Better to travel with your heart, even if it means just welcoming a new friend from a foreign land.

One day, perhaps, my international friends will so enlighten my spirit that I’ll achieve my dream of getting a new driver’s license.

Place of residence: Earth.