Upon this Dharma I Will Build My Church

In ways I have not felt since family church attendance and teenage religiosity, I’ve undergone a bit of a spiritual awakening of late. This surprised me, to be honest. After a solid 20 years as a set in my thinking atheist/agnostic*, I wasn’t planning for or seeking a change of pace. I would have considered myself healthy, wealthy, and wise doing what I was doing. But here I am, keeping a daily practice; attending weekly group sessions and talks; setting aside time for deeper all-day devotionals and longer retreats; and reading a number of books introducing me to facets of my new practice (that’s right, you get some embedded book reviews too!).

*I couldn’t scientifically disprove the existence of a higher power but I certainly didn’t live or share a worldview in which any such higher power had any vaguely interventionist or personal role in the modern world.*

So what exactly am I talking about? I have been moved by Buddhist-inspired mindfulness and insight meditation practice — and related activities, words, and fellowship — as a new spiritual center to my life. For much of the past 18 months as meditating and virtual sessions began to proliferate, I wouldn’t have necessarily considered this awakening spiritual in nature. I’m not sure I do now completely either. But there are some key similarities that are worth acknowledging. Whether or not my rational mind is fully willing to admit it, it is indeed something that moves me deeply inside and affects my relationship with the fabric of reality around me in ways that are more than just business as normal. My worldview and my daily life are changing, growing, and improving as a consequence.

Like all mention of religion and spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof), what I write here will mean different things to each and everyone one of you reading. I’d love to receive any follow up if you feel so moved. There are lots of questions here. What is mindfulness? Is it Buddhism? If so, what kind? Isn’t meditation a practical practice that has nothing to do with religion and spirituality, so why call it mindfulness and include it here as such? You get the gist.

I can say that for me, so far, several things have emerged: 1) Meditation moved from a focused breathing and structured time out period to the foundation of a bigger set of ideas and practices; 2) Buddhism is generally the platform upon which much of this is based, and indeed most dharma talks and related books quote from early Pali Buddhist texts or later Buddhist practices of all schools; 3) Vipassanā insight meditation is the more specific practice I’m delving into at the moment, inspired by the Insight Meditation Society, the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, and practitioners like Sharon Salzberg, whose books (including how-to of meditation Real Happiness, rumination on trusting your own experience Faith, masterwork Lovingkindness, and recently published Real Change, which addresses what it means to be in this world) have been a guiding light this year, and Jonathan Foust, whose weekly guided meditations and dharma talks have meant so much and have us eagerly awaiting Monday nights “together”; 4) Making this practice part of my daily life has enriched my quality of life and sense of community.

As someone steeped in amateur comparative religion and science, I have also explored “secular” writers whom I trust who have experienced similar awakenings, namely Sam Harris, Robert Wright, and Stephen Batchelor. Reading some of their books this year, including Sam Harris’ Waking Up, Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True, and Stephen Batchelor’s Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, have helped set the stage for my journey. There are so many more people, traditions, and books out there. Advances in evolutionary psychology, cultural anthropology, and neuroscience have brought us new ways of thinking and feeling about this. It’s exciting. I look forward to a lifetime of exploration and deepening of what I know and practice, what I think I know and practice, what I don’t know and practice, and what it all means to me. The human mind is an enormously powerful, if uncontrolled, entity.

I was blessed with a solid religious foundation thanks to a mother who made Sunday church attendance a fact of childhood existence. I was also thankful to have an extended family of Roman Catholics who helped me feel this part of my cultural heritage deeply and led me to attend the College of the Holy Cross despite not being a practicing Catholic myself. I also fervidly went through a wonderful period of evangelical christianity in my late high school years. Heck, I considered making a profession out of it at one point. (My first declared major at Holy Cross was religious studies.) Across the board, the individual Christians who populated my upbringing were fantastic, moral, genuine people. If it weren’t for a logical, educated personal realization that it makes little sense to live as if there is a higher power in general or a Christian god in specific, I could have seen myself continuing along some version of that tried and true path. But for a solid 20 years, this is how I have lived — and very much still live.

But. (Insight) Meditation, which to me has become both internal with my own mind and also external with a mystical connection to everything else outside of me, has stepped into a role that I once associated with prayer. Guided group meditation and dharma talks have replaced church services, in terms of hearing from a learned spiritual leader and doing so alongside fellow practitioners (even virtually). Sangha groups — like-minded folks gathering regularly to discuss their practice — have stepped in to substitute the bible studies or fellowships I once partook in. Retreats, ranging from virtual one day sessions to longer, possibly even silent, weeklong versions, are now a part of my life or a part of what I hope to regularly participate in. This little essay itself was inspired by a powerful Saturday I spent this past weekend that allowed me the space to really feel how this all came together for me — and what it means.

To save the best for last, I have been most inspired throughout this journey by my wife, Cheryl. Her years of prior meditation practice and mindfulness introspection inform the true foundation that I now share thanks to her. Our journey together has meant the world to me. Our relationship has improved and continues to grow deeper as a direct consequence. And in fact, my first a-ha moment came thanks to her. Cheryl brought me to the Feathered Pipe Ranch in August 2019 for a seven-day yoga retreat. The meditation practices briefly touched on throughout that week by Judith Hanson Lasater and the spiritual energy that infuses that magical Montana place touched me deeply. The importance of that week and its shamanic location still resonates powerfully within me as a personal Rivendell. We hope to return this summer.

Mindfulness is as good a single word or concept as it gets to capture the essence of this all in a concise manner with some degree of mutual understanding. That is thanks to the burgeoning movement that has emerged over the past 50 years into a household and workplace norm. I am careful, however, at this point in my journey to specifically characterize how Buddhism intersects with all of this. It most certainly does inform much of this practice, and profoundly at that. I am also very aware that there is some version of cultural appropriation at play here in the United States, even if it is very much encouraged by Buddhist priests and scholars from the various schools and sects, as well as propagated by public practitioners at home in both the East and West. I look forward to learning and exploring more on this in particular. But even as a hybrid version of Buddhism/psychology barely understood by me, it already plays a role similar to that of the Christian beliefs and practices once important to me. And in that, this is as profound a church as I have yet experienced in this world. It feels amazing to come home to a community of like-minded, moral human beings.

Backpacking 2020: A Review

[What a year! Enjoy a little overview with links to snippets of adventure that wend through 2020 in backpacking trips with DC UL and also solo (and duo). Total mileage for me came out to about 387 trail miles, which is probably just about average for a year spent living in the DC area. I made up for the three dead months with some longer three-day trips in the second half of the year. Here’s to many more in 2021 and beyond!]

January. 30 miles. Backpacking in 2020 started with a project. Technically beginning in December 2019 with our Shenandoah National Park Alpha Trip, my DC UL “Alpha to Omega” series was designed to backpack Shenandoah National Park using Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) rustic cabins as Saturday evening refuges while pushing the miles and exploring some infrequently backpacked trails. Our January 2020 “Gamma” trip was a fantastic way to start the year. Mostly because Claudio showed up to surprise us with a feast at Jones Mountain Cabin. With such an auspicious start, how could backpacking in 2020 go wrong?

February. 0 miles. It went wrong almost from the get-go. For our “Delta” outing planned for February 21-23, COVID-19 was still a distant though looming threat and we were all set to head out. The DC UL crew did indeed explore Hazel Country in Shenandoah as planned. But I was knocked out with a high fever and a week of body aches. I attribute this to the flu and tested negative for COVID antibodies later, mind you. But still. I guess we’ll just chalk this up to dramatic sickness foreshadowing.

March. 0 miles. Right, March. Our “Epsilon” trip was planned for March 13-15. I booked Doyles River Cabin with the PATC. Things began to get weird from there. First, work pulled me into its COVID-19 response team. Our focus was on the worsening pandemic in Europe and I bailed on the trip to help the flood of emergency work coming in over the weekend. Second, Kylie and Karan — who agreed to take over leading the trip — canceled completely as the week descended quickly from normal to chaos. You remember it: the NBA went down first; President Trump declared a national emergency and banned most European travelers from entering the United States; we all realized that there was no escaping COVID-19.

April. 0 miles. My April was spent much like yours, I presume. Hunkered down and masked up. It was the strangest month of my life. Cheryl and I debated food security and toilet paper supplies. Work was a busy torrent but interestingly (and surprisingly) accomplished at home instead of the office. No backpacking, however.

May. 90 miles. Cooped up but excited as spring sprung around me in Alexandria, I planned a [somewhat] solo hike of my beloved 70-mile Massanutten Trail to preserve our spring “Death March” tradition. It was amazing, though unseasonably cold. I also slipped out for a quick Memorial Day weekend trip to Dolly Sods Wilderness, West Virginia (also solo). Though I’m quite the extrovert and count trail camaraderie as one of the main reasons I love backpacking, these solo trips really fulfilled me.

June. 80 miles. Though in hindsight taking a couple months off from group DC UL backpacking isn’t a big deal at all, at the time it certainly felt momentous. Under Jen’s great leadership, DC UL came up with a COVID-19 mitigation plan and started group outings again, albeit with some necessary changes: 1) strict adherence to any and all federal, state, local guidance; 2) no carpooling or car shuttling; everyone drives individually to the trail head and we do loops instead of end-to-end hikes; 3) staying home if there is any chance of prior exposure or symptoms. I led a West Virginia trip out to Trout Run Valley and another to hike a loop we crafted out of some favorite Pennsylvania trails.

July. 70 miles. Claudio and I banded together for an eventful hike of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail that I’ll never forget. This really hammered home that backpacking was absolutely a COVID-19 friendly activity with nominal adaptations. Our UL style always has us in individual shelters anyways — and it certainly is no bother to stay six feet or more from each other in the woods.

August. 2 miles. I ended up taking some time away from the trail to recuperate from some foot pain. Sadly, I had planned a DC UL outing to St. Mary’s Wilderness that I had to hand over to others to lead, though ended up stopping by with Cheryl to join the crew at camp. After a trip to the podiatrist, I was surprised to piece together that all the work from home with bare feet on a hardwood floor over six months had not been kind to my body. Luckily, the fix was supportive house shoes.

September. 75 miles. I ended up back it at as a solo adventurer for the month. This included the 60-mile Loyalsock Trail and the much shorter John P. Saylor Trail. Both memorable. I felt blessed for these trail experiences.

October. 50 miles. A triumphant return with the DC UL crew saw us up in Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon during peak foliage season for Columbus Day weekend. We feasted and hiked and danced.

November. 30 miles. Though I got my hopes up of a return to Pennsylvania to continue hiking the complete network of PA state forest trails, we submitted to COVID-19 inter-state travel restrictions and stayed put in Virginia for a lovely weekend traversing some of the region’s most scenic overlooks.

December. 30 miles. I kept to a buck hunting season tradition and stayed in the protected confines of Shenandoah National Park to end the 2020 backpacking season. In December, the woods rightfully belongs to hunters. We had a pretty terrific time, though our original route had to be tweaked to ensure enough parking spots and to avoid any car shuttles. It was worth it. Just like that, 2020 concluded. It was a long ass year on every level. Three months of zero backpacking was assuredly “rough” — though in no way comparably difficult juxtaposed with the myriad hardships and tragedies of the year. It all reminded me of how damn important this hobby is to my mental, physical, and social health. As an outdoors activity, though, it rebounded better than most to the COVID-19 reality of 2020. Happy trails!

A Year in Trees (And Tree Books)

2020 meant many things to me, not surprisingly or even remotely unique. But 2020 was, in the end, a year of trees; a year in trees. This has been a surprising, enriching tree awakening that began around January 1 and blossomed into a spring of discovery in the neighborhood and the mountain trails I frequent. It has also been a journey through books as I turned over this new leaf. This post is both an exploration of my year in trees and a review of several of the books that were important to my own growth. All puns intended.

We live surrounded by trees. Within a stone’s throw of our apartment building are parks, cemeteries, and streets lined with species both native and imported. Thanks to the Alexandria National Cemetery and surrounding landscaped areas, I can explore 200 year old trees planted by early Alexandrian developers. I can also enjoy the curated trees of the 20-year old Alexandria African-American Heritage Park and the Hoof’s Run banks. But it wasn’t until this year that I began to commune with these trees, identify them, and watch carefully as they go through their annual cycle of rebirth. As a particularly vivid memory, Cheryl and I paused a little after midnight on our walk home after celebrating New Year’s Eve by a regal white pine across the street from our building and declared it “the 2020 Tree” in a hopeful burst of declaration. (For me, my earliest tree memories are running around the white pine-dominated second-growth forests of central Massachusetts. They’re not common in the wild down here for the most part and the 2020 Tree is a human-planted tree in our park.)

Not the 2020 Tree — a colossal willow oak near Alexandria National Cemetery that we view daily from our apartment window.

Identification. With a combination of several terrific tree field guides and a useful app, it was a wondrous year of identification. Why does it mean something to name a tree in order to enhance appreciation of it? It doesn’t, of course. But like an ancient culture spirit or a fantasy novel mystical entity, the naming of an object denotes a power and a purpose with, or indeed, over it. It has been truly invigorating to greet the living world around me by their scientific and commonplace names. I do recommend a combination of books, apps, and internet resources when embarking on a similar journey. It has been this comprehensive and curious approach that has meant the most to me. After using many apps, PictureThis emerged as the hands down most accurate and user friendly. For books, the Sibley Guide to Trees is the most informative and useful, even though it relies on paintings rather than pictures. The National Audubon Society’s Eastern Region Field Guide to Trees is the most comprehensive. I appreciated the winter pictures and bark focus of A Beginner’s Guide to Recognizing Trees of the Northeast and the detailed photos of Identifying Trees of the East as other options. Cheryl and I would often spend our spring walks with a book or two in hand, wandering the neighborhood to identify and learn as fresh shoots and buds emerged, like all of us, from a cruel winter of sheltering in place. Despite it all this year, when I think back on 2020 this is one of the things I will most tenderly remember.

Identification Assistant

Books. This year was a year of reading. For me, tv and internet use was dramatically reduced in order to get me away from screens and holding a tangible, former tree in my hands (yes, ironic and potentially hypocritical). Among other categories, I read many books about trees. Richard Powers’ The Overstory and Annie Proulx’s Barkskins are both towering works of fiction that every single person should read and relish — whether or not you give a flying fig tree. For different reasons, these two decorated books by a pair of the finest living U.S. writers are worthy literary and historic fiction tomes that illuminate the human and family condition while also telling the story of trees and their exploitation. I am not the same person after reading these books.

With nonfiction, a foursome of books meant the world to me and helped me see the forest and the trees. Robert Moor’s On Trails is not a tree book per se, but a story of man and trails. This unique book is the type of intellectual rumination that will appeal to hikers and naturalists alike. David George Haskell’s The Forest Unseen is poetic and educational. Haskell journals about one year in the life of one square meter of old growth forest with remarkable insight. Eric Rutkow’s American Canopy is a very thorough historical work on trees in U.S. history. It is readable and an essential augmentation to the U.S. and natural history you thought you knew. Finally, I just finished reading Zach St. George’s The Journeys of Trees and found it to be such a joy. Also, I was surprised after reading so much about trees this year that this just-released book still found ways to fill in parts of the picture. It is essentially a two-hundred page “New Yorker” type article, with all the long form journalistic prowess that denotes, including a couple main “characters” that weave into and out of each chapter: the Florida torreya and the California sequoia.

As with any awakening (dear lord did 2020 offer more than a few for me personally), this one signified that the world around me would never again be the same. I have always felt pulled in an almost a spiritual sense to trees and forests since childhood. But this was an unlocking of those feelings and an actualization of what they meant to how I experienced the entire world. Yes, I ended up as a monthly supporting Sierra Club member this year but this was about so much more. I am able to hike and backpack with an informed sense of what — and why — the trees are the way they are, and a curiosity surge when I encounter something new. I’m haunted too. I’m no longer able to see cities and woods without noticing what isn’t there. American chestnut. American elm. Most native ash (the ongoing genocide of the 21st century). These add to the list of pines, hemlocks, and old growth from coast to coast that have vanished under the purge of human inflicted manifest destiny and now climate change. The story of our woods is a tale of sadness and murder.

Trees are everywhere: here are some gorgeous red (bald) cypress trees outside the State Department’s D St Entrance.

In what is probably the most 2020 moment of pertinence here, a summer storm led to the falling of a huge dead ash DIRECTLY ON TO THE 2020 TREE. Not only were half the branches ripped off my beloved white pine, but a young yellow (tulip) poplar and sycamore were struck as well. The 2020 Tree, like many but not all of us enduring 2020, will likely survive. But it weathered a close call that was entirely preventable, from the alien invader emerald ash borer beetles that snuck over on Chinese pallets to fell the ash to the lapse in city judgment or budget to fail to safely remove a dead tree that only had one direction to go.

As the holiday season approaches, I can’t help feeling there’s only way to end this, with John Denver and Alfie the Christmas Tree. Be well. Get to know the trees that are already part of your life. You do not know how long they will be here for you. It is very much in every one of us.

The 2020 Tree under attack

Are We Entering a New Progressive Era? (Reviewing Robert Putnam/Shaylyn Romney Garrett’s The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again)

I came across Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett’s The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again in David Brooks’ October 15 New York Times opinion column “How To Actually Make America Great Again.” It’s worth quoting at length. Here’s what David wrote:

The Upswing,” a remarkable new book by Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett, puts this situation in stark relief. A careful work of social science, the book looks at American life from about 1870 to today across a range of sectors that are usually analyzed in separate academic silos.

The first important finding is that between the 1870s and the late 1960s a broad range of American social trends improved: Community activism surged, cross party collaboration increased, income inequality fell, social mobility rose, church attendance rose, union membership rose, federal income taxes became more progressive and social spending on the poor rose.

Many of us think that the gains for African-Americans only happened after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but Putnam and Garrett show that the fastest improvements actually happened in the decades before. Black school attendance, income gains, homeownership rates, voter registration rates started rapidly improving in the 1940s and then started slowing in the 1970s and 1980s.

The American century was built during these decades of social progress. And then, around the late 1960s, it all turned south.

The frequency of the word “I” in American books, according to Putnam and Garrett, doubled between 1965 and 2008. The authors are careful not to put it into moralistic terms, but I’d say that, starting in the late 1960s, there was left wing self-centeredness in the social and lifestyle sphere and right wing self-centeredness in the economic sphere, with a lack of support for common-good public policies. But it was socially celebrated self-centeredness all the way across. It was based on a fallacy: If we all do our own thing, everything will work out well for everybody.

As I was reading the book, I was thinking of all the people who work at foundations, nonprofits and all the organizations that try to help people in need and do social repair. I’m sure all these good people at these good places have done good things over the past 50 years, but they have failed to bend these curves. Social conditions got inexorably worse.

That’s because many were operating at the wrong level. They were trying to build programs that would “scale,” but they were swimming against the tide of culture, the pervasive individualistic mentality, and all its social and political effects.

Over the past 50 years, the positive trends have reversed: membership in civic organizations has collapsed, political polarization has worsened, income inequality has widened, social trust has cratered, religious attendance is down, social mobility has decreased, deaths of despair have skyrocketed and on and on.

Putnam and Garrett take the data from diverse spheres and produce different versions of the same chart, which is an inverted U. Until the late 1960s, American life was improving across a range of measures. Since then, it’s a story of decay.

Why did all these different things happen in unison and then suddenly turn around all at once? Maybe economic change drove everything? But no, the timing is off. Economic inequality widened a bit later than most of the other trends. Maybe it was political dysfunction? Nope. That, too, happened a bit later.

The crucial change was in mind-set and culture. As Putnam and Garrett write: “The story of the American experiment in the twentieth century is one of a long upswing toward increasing solidarity, followed by a steep downturn into increasing individualism. From ‘I’ to ‘we’ and back again to ‘I’.”

The Good and the Nitpicking. There’s a lot in this book. In particular, if you love charts you’ll be in heaven. It’s not quite a chart per page but it’s close. Since the authors cover A LOT of ground in relatively few pages, however, those of you who are actual social scientists will probably pull your hair out as they move swiftly and concisely through an enormous amount of material. For everyone else, this gives a fantastic, easy to read college course like overview of 130 years of U.S. trends: economics, politics, society, culture, race, and gender.

Go Read the Upswing. The Upswing focuses on both analytics and also provides a built-in curriculum of reading in its meticulous endnotes and associated bibliography. Go wild if this is your thing. I can see myself coming back to several of the sources quoted. The book looks back more than it looks forward, which is good. It’s not that book. Those are out there. But it is impossible not see the modern context in the rise of the early 20th century Progressive Era, nor disagree with the arc that Putnam and Garrett postulate. Probably best to use their words — with a little help from a Progressive friend:

“Progressivism emerged on the heels of populism and in direct competition with socialism, both of which movements advocated many of the same causes, but fell short of their aims because, among other reasons, they failed to appeal to the full range of American values. By contrast, Progressives managed to fashion slow and steady reforms as an alternative to calls for revolution. Progressive reformers quickly learned that in order to succeed they would have to compromise — to find a way to put private property, personal liberty, and economic growth on more equal footing with communitarian ideals and the protection of the weak and vulnerable, and to work within existing systems to bring about change.” Page 336

“No one party, no one policy or platform, and no one charismatic leader was responsible for bringing about America’s upswing as we entered the twentieth century. It was, instead, the result of countless citizens engaging in their own spheres of influence and coming together to create a vast ferment of criticism and change — a genuine shift from ‘I’ to ‘We.’ For Americans living through the turbulent closing decades of the nineteenth century, such a turnaround was by no means inevitable or even expected. and yet it happened, clearly and steadily.” Page 338

“But as we look to an uncertain future we must keep in mind that what is perhaps the greatest lesson of America’s I-we-I century: as Theodore Roosevelt put it, ‘the fundamental rule of our national life — the rule which underlies all others — is that, on the whole, and in the long run, we shall go up or down together.'” Page 341

Together.

The Long and Short Of It (Reviewing Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree)

Note: This is a review of Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree. I avoid spoilers but touch on general themes, world build, and plot dynamics. You have been warned.

The Good. The Priory of the Orange Tree came to my attention via the best possible path: received as a meaningful gift picked out by an acclaimed author. I had read very little epic fantasy written by a non-white male (with the gargantuan exception of Robin Hobb, one of my all-time favorites and a must read for anyone who reads fantasy). Though I would go on to read one of N. K. Jemisin’s trilogies first, it gave me great joy to have a true female written dragons and sorcery-style fantasy waiting in the To Be Read wings. In her own genre-defying twist, my wife Cheryl who does NOT routinely prefer fantasy picked it up before I did. She noted upon finishing that she did not know what to think as someone new to the notable epic fantasy element of a meticulous, existence-threatening, multi-kingdom and era world build. (She liked it, mind you, but reserved detailed judgment for when I finished.) The Priory of the Orange Tree is unique in that it is a large tome that is also a complete single volume with no sequel necessitated. This is most pronounced in colossal hardback form. This means the story was designed to begin from scratch and end in one 800-page go. One of the most laudable aspects of Shannon’s writing is how it deftly pulls from real world history and religion, established fantasy and medieval fairy tale tropes, and recent genre-pacing norms. Fans of Le Morte d’Arthur and A Song of Ice and Fire alike will find much to appreciate.

The Priory does several things so well that it has me wondering why in the name of Galadriel they haven’t been done before. Of the four incredibly developed POV third person narrators, two are overtly homosexual with romances (past and present) central to the story and two are subtly asexual – or possibly also homosexual – with meaningful friendships at the core of their respective characters. Either way, there is little here by way of heteronormative relationships except on the margins of the story and complete with little twists themselves. Just as importantly, the three most consequential characters are all female. They are believable and every bit as genuinely realized and heroic as any male protagonist in the genre — though those are in there too. Racial diversity is also built into the world, both in terms of individual characters and also as it impacts the various kingdoms encountered. This is the fantasy novel that should have been written a generation ago but wasn’t. This means it reads as both overdue and quintessentially 2019. The other thing of note is a complex religious element that is intended to be turned on its head as a very important aspect to the world build (with some shade thrown toward Christendom). This is done in the same way that other great works of fantasy weave characters and plot elements from previous generations into momentous legacy impact to the present story line. It is welcome, a touch different from what I’ve read of late, and done by an author who commands her material but has her own things to say about.

The Nitpicking. Despite how long the single volume seems, The Priory of the Orange Tree is in my humble opinion way too short. This is easily a story that would have soared with three weighty trilogy volumes. The Priory starts with a solid introduction to characters, religion, kingdoms, historical context, magic, and dragons. Then, well, it kind of races through developing the plot. If you are a reader who welcomes this, it’s possible that the very thing that had me raising my eyebrow will have you clapping your hands. The story moves incredibly fast starting at the one-third mark. I felt this most acutely near the climactic end when moments that would have been more dramatic with slower builds came and went in a brisk manner. I can definitely see The Priory as a successful television series with minimal changes. Visual storytelling would assuredly do well with this pace. Heck, the characters leap across oceans and kingdoms with the jarring speed of a late-series Game of Thrones episode. (Cheryl felt it was too slow in the beginning, actually, so this is both a Your Mileage May Vary thing and maybe a specific genre norm that I hold in particular esteem.)

Go Read The Priory of the Orange Tree. My nitpicking aside, the gender and sexuality focus is extremely welcome and impeccably well done. We’ve read enough male focused works and will again. Go enjoy this for what it is. Let’s trust that this can become an integrated aspect of the genre. Though I prefer to bond with a multi-volume epic fantasy series, I get that a single, fast-paced volume will appeal to many people. It delivers dragons and sorcery in a world threatened by an existential evil. In short, it’s epic epic fantasy.

A Non-Partisan Take on Election Day In-Person Voting

I’m not here to say I’m non-partisan. That doesn’t seem technically possible when actually voting in a two-party political system, unless someone is committed to writing in unaffiliated candidates. I’m here to say how excited in a completely non-partisan manner I am to vote in-person on Election Day.

(Note: My political leanings have changed over the years and rarely felt partisan in nature. Maybe this is thanks in part to growing up in a household with parents who openly supported different parties in a matter-of-fact, unemotional, proud-to-be-unique manner. We’re talking late-80s through the mid-90s, the time when such an opinion had its biggest impression on me as a young person developing my own political identity.)

1988. Michael Dukakis and the brutal messaging campaign run against him and my home state of Massachusetts, ahem, “Taxachusetts” stands out in memory from the first presidential election I vaguely remember as an eight year old.

1992. I admit to an unhealthy obsession with Ross Perot because he was different. I’ve always liked different. Plus, he had charts.

“Chicken Feathers, Deep Voodoo, and the American Dream” 

This year was also my first Election Day voting experience. I was twelve. Hear me out. My dad took me with him into the voting booth and let me choose. It was very satisfying to pull the little lever and feel the vibe of the line, room, the whole experience. Not sure if this was legal but I hope the statute of limitations is up on this. You wouldn’t be surprised to know “I” voted for Ross Perot. This will be the last name I drop in relation to a vote I actually cast. Coincidently, it would also be my last in-person vote for two decades.

In 1996 I remember Norm MacDonald’s Bob Dole SNL skits. I don’t recall that election being too fraught but I do remember reading Bill Clinton’s campaign book, Between Hope and History, and appreciating his soaring rhetoric and seemingly bipartisan focus.

By 2000 I was actually eligible to vote. The primary campaign between Al Gore and Bill Bradley and George W. Bush and John McCain caught my eye and I followed for the first time with a glee I had previously associated with devouring the NFL playoffs. By the time the actual campaign got underway in earnest, however, I was off in St. Petersburg, Russia for the year. It being 2000, I didn’t really have much access to U.S. media other than a once-a-week 30 minute stop by an internet cafe. I experienced that Election Day through a very remote lens. Even the Florida vote counting fiasco was something that felt like it happened to another country in a different era. But I remember feeling disgruntled by not being able to vote in person and I remember missing out on that moment.

By the beginning of 2004 I was in Rhode Island, where my parents moved in 2003 and still counts as home for any holidays. I had concluded my undergraduate studies — including that year in Russia — then added another year overseas in Estonia on a Fulbright student research fellowship. I was more than ready to get into the U.S. politics of the moment again. I followed news in a roughly non-partisan manner and genuinely did not know whom I was going to vote for until very late in the process. By the time Election Day actually rolled around, I had joined the Foreign Service and was down in Washington, D.C. for training and had to rely on an absentee ballot back to Rhode Island. It was the first time I was able to vote in the United States for president but in-person was still denied for me.

2008. Guess what? Overseas again. This time in the desert of south-central Iraq living on an Iraqi army base. Absentee for me. I will say that my personal voting preferences swung hard from one party to the other over the course of the primary season. I’d prefer not to get into specifics but I actively gave money and even helped campaign a bit for not one but two candidates in one party before switching hard and completely for the other party’s candidate. I love that that was a thing. It wasn’t unthinkable for that sort of switch to go down and even be discussed openly amongst friends and strangers alike.

2012. Yup. Absentee. From Latvia. And a Washington, D.C.-registered voter to boot. This was all well and good for electoral college representation. But not for much else.

2016. Finally, I was home in the United States of America. Not only that, but I was living and registered in Virginia. It thrilled me to line up and vote in person that Election Day morning in my neighborhood. I will admit to not loving my choices. For a split second while staring at my ballot — and even being asked if I needed any help when I sat for longer than I should have — I thought that we Evan Mc‘s should stick together when it came to voting, but in the end I’m glad I made a choice to vote for a major party candidate. It was through that day-of experience that I realized by 9:00 a.m. that something might be in the cards for a strange night of returns. If someone like me was conflicted, how was this going to play out nationwide?

I’m excited to vote in person on November 3, 2020. I am back in Virginia. (Odd that Virginia isn’t even a battleground state anymore, but that’s for a different discussion.) If you’ve read down this far you know why I didn’t even consider voting early or absentee despite an overwhelming societal push to do so. My wife did. Virginia made it abundantly easy. She even gave me a little grief for not joining her in avoiding any election day variables, from a busy day at work to COVID-19 issues. I have no idea when I’ll next be in the United States on Election Day with president on the ballot. The first Tuesday of November every four years. I want to see and feel and experience and remember. It doesn’t matter how long I stand in line. It doesn’t even technically matter which party I vote for. I’m not conflicted at all this year, however.

Epilogue: It definitely seems identity trumps ideology for most voters, with the possible exception of those who consider politics their avocation or hobby. Identity can come from family, region, church, wherever. Thanks to the New England-style upbringing I mention above, my personal identity has really focused on being non-partisan in overall approach — even when I find that this no longer honestly represents the political ideology I actively support.

A Challenge and a Tone Poem (Reviewing Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste)

“Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin.”

Isabel Wilkerson’s Warmth of Other Suns moved me in ways few books have. Reading Caste, her second book, was a different but no less profound experience. While the former was about the past, albeit a past that is all too resonant, Caste is a challenge to the present and the future. She challenges all of us to find stark parallels between the racial caste of the United States with the grave injustice of India’s historical caste system and the systematized anti-semitism of Nazi Germany. While I originally raised an eyebrow from an amateur social science perspective at some of the parallels she draws and how she choose these two specific examples to pair with the United States, it didn’t take more than a couple chapters for me to go, “I get it.”

This is more than just a work of non-fiction and it’s more than a challenge. Wilkerson’s message is transcendent. Her writing is lyrical and it is penetrating. It has the force of music. It is a tone poem weaving the melody of fact with the harmony of analysis; with the chords of social imperatives and the syncopation of structural racism. The vivid notes of her own life strike the reader as profoundly as the resounding gong clash of the historical references she employs.

One such reference stands out with such profundity that I ended up slowly coming to my feet while reading it. Once I came to, I remember looking around the room with revulsion. With intimate, in-the-room detail she recounts Nazi Germany efforts to study and incorporate legalized Jim Crow racism into mid-30s anti-Semitic laws. Most harrowing were the pieces of American racism too extreme for Nazi Germany. This is a good example of historical record somewhat known and previously published that Wilkerson expertly wends into her overarching narrative with precision.

This is a necessary work at a necessary time. There is appropriate destiny in its release after the onslaught of racially cruel COVID-19 and the resounding call for equality and equity unleashed following the murder of George Floyd. She had already been researching and writing for several years, admittedly against the backdrop of the race-baiting, dog-whistle blowing recent U.S. politics. Her attention to detail and her power of the English language serves not just her but everyone who experiences her writing and thoughts well. This is a book that is far from a rehash of well-known anecdotes and critical race theory. It is fresh. It is grounded. And it is important.

If you are reading this and find your hackles raising in internal defensiveness, I suggest you examine that closely. I greatly appreciate that Wilkerson gives us new vocabulary to confront an old evil. She even deftly discusses the use of the word “racism” itself, noting that it does not serve society as a lobbed end to a conversation or career but rather the basis to start talking and delving deeper to actually effect change. I get all too well how awkward and daunting it is to read, confront, and discuss racism from any demographic perspective — personally as a white cis heterosexual eldest child middle class male. But I sure as hell also know it’s much worse for those who are defined by it against their will. This is on all of us. Reading is the least we can do.

The Great Dungeons and Dragons Revival

Cheryl Works on Her Elven Druid

Warning: This post requires some knowledge of Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying to understand its myriad references.

I can’t remember the exact year. Probably 1993. I do remember the basements, however. Plural. We were forced into multiple dark corners for this particular hobby, it being the time when some parents still worried that we were enacting satanic rituals. These were the places where epic fantasy came alive and we got to star in it. It probably goes without saying that we were all fantasy nerds back then. In those days it was a steady diet of J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen R. Donaldson, Tad Williams, David Eddings, and Robert Jordan. George R. R. Martin came along for us a little later. I distinctly remember trying to hide a copy of Game of Thrones under my jacket in the high school hallway so my junior prom date wouldn’t see it in passing as she walked past my locker. Lord, I wish I could tell 17 year old me that in 20 years it would be the coolest damn thing around.

Not Quite 1993, but Close Enough. Shoutout to the two Justins, Pete, and Jeff for inviting Chris, Brian, and I into the OG Aurora, Ohio roleplaying crew.

Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying brought the epic fantasy we read to life. Several of us dabbled in creative writing and being DM (Dungeon Master — the story architect and rules tsar who runs the game for their friends, a role that is both inspired and confrontational) but in those days it was our buddy Brian who had the mind to make it all work. We still remember those early player characters fondly. Heck, Brian revived them as ancient heroes in a current campaign he has run for over five years. I can say that the wild mage I played then, who had a penchant for using a Wand of Wonder to create elephants out of thin air ten feet above adversaries, still rankles him as a rule loop hole. (You should never have given me that wand, Brian.)

Part of the fun back then was that there were a couple rule books and maybe an adventure setting guide or two to build off of, that’s it. No internet to search and double check rule debates. No Reddit to get lost in the weeds. No Twitter to directly ask the game developer what they had in mind for a certain spell. We were left with our imaginations and the need to argue out any rule differences ourselves. 60 foot Fireballs and katanas that could attack six-times a round were a memorable result. As for those books, it turned out acquiring them was an adventure itself. In a memorable moment, Brian and I fell $1 short (taxes!) when buying our first Player’s Handbook and resorted to begging strangers for a buck in the mall. It worked, though I remember the benevolent donor following us back to Waldenbooks to make sure we really did intend to spend it on a book. (You can say we made our Persuasion check.)

Fast forward 20 years to 2015. The old crew was now in our mid-thirties. We had outgrown Dungeons and Dragons around the time Bill Clinton was reelected. But a new, fifth edition of D&D had just been developed and released by Wizards of the Coast. Fantasy, thanks to Hollywood, was cool in a mainstream way we had never seen before. All of a sudden, folks of our age cohort were playing again. Not just the nerds this time, either. Spouses, significant others of all stripes, and straight-laced acquaintances joined ad hoc groups of old school gamers. DMs were recruited or anointed. Recurring game nights became standard. And for those of you who don’t really comprehend what I’m talking about, this is a commitment. Most games last months if not years. Some are weekly game nights, others monthly or even less frequently — though usually hours long each time. All involve the unique backstory and particulars invented by the player of a character created who joins with others in a quest that sees them grow from a newbie adventurer to a world-conquering hero — or anti-hero, as murder hobos go. It is collective story telling and requires all the “authors” to do this together. The stakes are trivial and monumental at the same time. Characters face death; their players are often heartbroken to have to create a new one after calamity strikes the campaign.

I personally went from not playing in decades to 1) playing a Human Barbarian with a group of DC UL Backpackers and friends; 2) DMing a monthly wine-infused Friday night campaign with a few couples whose nerd men taught their ladies the roleplaying ropes (with Jay and Colin added to the mix for good measure); and 3) playing — I kid you not — a saucy female Halfling Pirate/Fighter in a weekly group of “Ambassadork” men with female player characters we nicknamed the Spicy Girls (Sergio put up with some crazy stuff from us as DM; and Marcus, god bless him, brought us into his lovely home each week to host these antics; and Gary, god bless his soul, played with us as one of the last joys of his life before passing unexpectedly).

Over the years other groups came and went, including a memorable crew of wife/work friends/backpacking friends/HS friend/and cousin who joined me on a year plus campaign using Roll20, an online platform, when I moved to Haiti. A group emerged in Haiti itself, appropriately nicknamed “Dungeons and Voodoo.” A later group, DMed by Jerome, even allowed me to recreate my childhood wild mage as a sorcerer in the last in-person crew I was part of . . .

Which leads me to the crescendo of this story: roleplaying in 2020 and the COVID-19 era. What was already a mainstay in my life — and many others too according to the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the USA Today — exploded as a virtual game night in households worldwide. I’ve never played more in my life, almost exclusively on Roll20. We couldn’t go out so we made the best of staying in.

My friend Jay leads a gallant weekly crew through the vampire horrors of the Curse of Strahd. He even got us up to 9th level already. My original crew of high school friends has joined up for not one but two regular weekly sessions. On Friday nights the OG early 90s crew gets together, Pete – a sharp witted lawyer – DMing, to take on a pirate-themed quest set amidst the Ghosts of Saltmarsh while we talk about wives, kids, work, and whatnot, and another midweek game night, Pete also DMing, involving a few extras, like my wife Cheryl, Pete’s sister Josie, and Justin’s friend Andrew. In one notable week both crews unrelatedly decided to take on — and lose dramatically — to two different dragons. We now know not to mess with Pete’s dragons.

Roleplaying is spontaneous. It’s challenging. It’s frustrating. It’s also acting and escapism. Most of all, it’s a great way to spend hours bonding with friends. What could be more necessary in 2020?

Hats off to the Fifth Edition of Dungeons and Dragons. None of this would have happened without a well-crafted and balanced set of rules and background to create vivid player characters set amidst fantastical worlds. And it wouldn’t have worked as well virtually without Roll20 (and Pete’s Zoom account). But it definitely wouldn’t even be possible in the first place without great friends with creative minds.

Back at it with DC UL — Adventures in the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania

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Photo: Karan

Cross Posted from http://www.dculbacking.com


You might ask how I accidentally ended up with a DC UL Backpacking crew. In this case, what started as a Purple Lizard map hike that I intended to do as yet another solo adventure in this time of socially distancing ended up being shared by email to a few backpacker pals just in case someone wanted to join me. The OG plan was to form a “pod” and car shuttle together for a point-to-point 50 mile trip along Pennsylvania’s Pine Creek gorge, the so-called Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania. Brian said, “Sure!” Sophie too. Michael and Jen were all of a sudden free for the weekend. Heck, Kylie and Karan decided to stop by to camp Friday night. Claudio planned to join for Saturday. Things went from solo to a pseudo-DC UL group outing in the blink of an eye. Turned out that Pine Creek Outfitters preferred to shuttle our cars for us — rather than physically transport us as hikers. This meant we could all ride up on our own, keep our distance in the woods, and not even risk proximity by cramming in a van together. We just needed to have faith our cars would magically be transported . . .

(Once I thought of “Accidentally DC UL” on the trail, I couldn’t get my Gen X ear worm of Counting Crows out of my head. You’re welcome.)

You might also ask what a Purple Lizard map hike is.  The amazing folks of Purple Lizard stepped into the information void of the Mid-Atlantic by producing detailed trail maps, mostly of Pennsylvania and West Virginia so far.  With exhaustive maps like this, it’s easier than ever to creatively link established trails and notable areas to form extended outings.  The first such trip by me was our June “Mid-Stone Loop.”  For this trip, I realized that the 10-mile Golden Eagle Trail could be connected to the 30-mile West Rim Trail by hiking 11 scenic miles of the Pine Creek Rail Trail.  Et voila, a Purple Lizard map hike. We joked about calling it the Eagle Pine Rim Trail. Trademark pending.

On Friday evening we made our way separately after work to a campsite Jen reserved near the Black Walnut Bottom camping area along Pine Creek. It was just a short drive from the Golden Eagle Trail parking area, where we would leave our cars for Pine Creek Outfitters to deliver north the next morning. Brian and I arrived late and randomly shared a beverage with a dad in the parking lot who happened to be biking past me as I offered a beer to Brian. (“I’ve had a few already but why not!” said Chris, our new friend.)

With the DC UL crew snoring already amongst the pines, Brian and I successfully roused Karan for a night cap before bedding down. Karan broke the news to us that he had recently suffered a freak shoulder injury and would not be able to do the whole trail with us, just the Golden Eagle loop in the morning.

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The whole gang, albeit briefly

We got up early and parked our cars with keys carefully left according to instructions negotiated with Pine Creek Outfitters. Claudio appeared after having driven overnight. In true Tarzan fashion, he had already made himself a full breakfast in the back of his pickup with a portable grill and shook off his two hours of sleep. He laughed when he saw me and realized I didn’t have any phone signal overnight. He had — now ironically — left me a stream of messages over whether or not he would make it. We all set off on the gorgeous Golden Eagle Trail, a ten mile loop known for being one of the best of its kind in Pennsylvania — thanks no doubt to views extending into the Pine Creek gorge. We met a day hiker who joined our group for the morning and encouraged her to become a DC UL regular. Sadly, after completing our ten miles it was time to say goodbye to Claudio, Kylie, Karan, and our new friend. But not after a beer together in the parking lot! Our cars had yet to be whisked off.

Golden Eagle Trail Photos by Karan

Jen, Michael, Sophie, Brian, and I started north on Pine Creek Rail Trail, a 62 mile former railroad along Pine Creek. Our 11 miles on it took us past lovely scenery, sandwiches at Wolfe’s General Store (where Kylie, Karan, and Claudio yet again stopped by for lunch), and the Cedar Run Inn. Bikers passed on with smiles every few minutes. Though 60 miles of flat terrain would be a bit much to backpack, sharing this short segment felt perfect. We like deep woods but we love Pennsylvania rustic hospitality. In the late afternoon we finished on the rail trail and hiked into the forest to camp for the evening and start the West Rim Trail the next morning. I grabbed some water from Pine Creek itself. Seemed appropriate to drink some of it if we were going to be either walking along it, staring at it from lofty heights, or otherwise experiencing its geological impact all weekend.

Our campsite was spacious beneath a thick grove of pines. Sophie had a bit of a shock, however, when she realized her tent poles had begun to snap. Jen and Brian helped her MacGyver a fix for the evening with some tape and a trekking pole. We got a little roaring fire going and enjoyed our whiskey supplies whilst catching up with each other. Come the morning, Sophie realized our fix had made things worse: her rain fly was now punctured. Expecting some rain for our final night on the trail (thanks to Cheryl, who relayed the weather report to me through my Garmin GPS satellite connection) we made notional plans for Sophie to sleep under Brian’s hammock tarp if we couldn’t patch her tent up.

The West Rim Trail, one of the jewels of Pennsylvania’s hiking crown, is a 30-mile point-to-point hike that follows the Pine Creek gorge. On a long holiday weekend in peak foliage season, we anticipated it would be crowded. It was. But by us starting it northbound on Sunday rather than Saturday with our unique itinerary, we both smiled at other southbound groups on the trail as we passed but otherwise still felt as if we had the place to ourselves. The only folks hiking our direction were a pair of day hikers who started at 7:00 a.m. with us and kept catching up with our crew when we took breaks. The five of us enjoyed grand vistas of autumn gold and orange. All of the red sugar maple leaves, unfortunately, had just fallen. I guess this is what was meant by “starting to fade.” The red forest floor was pleasant enough of a contrast.

The Eye Of Sauron (apparently)

At our mile 14 for the day, we regrouped at the Bradley Wales Picnic Area, a spot that promised a water pump and bathrooms. The two day hikers finished up behind us and were done for their day. When I walked up to the picnic area, Sophie was chatting with two other backpackers waiting for a ride. They had accidentally left their keys behind and needed a friend to come shuttle them. Despite their mistake, they were friendly and full of smiles as we hung out together and discussed living in Pennsylvania. Sophie informed me glumly that the water pump was locked. I was a little sad — even mad for a second. I thought it irresponsible for the forest service folks to lock a water pump during such a dry time of year in which water sources on the trail were few and far between. I walked over, noted the lock attached to a side pipe on the rusted pump, and then started to pump. Oh hey, it wasn’t actually locked after all! The pump itself, pulling water from 250 feet below (per the sign), was a doozy. My little arms weren’t quite up to the task on their own so I had to do a little jumping action to put my weight into it. The water was delicious.

Sophie decided to use the serendipitous meeting of the two backpackers waiting for keys to call an early end to her hike. She was worried about her shelter in the coming rain and would simply hail a ride and go back to her car to drive home. We said goodbye and the four of us finished out our final four miles for the day to camp at a high and dry vista site. I was now the only ground shelter of the group. I set up on a nice patch of moss. Michael, Jen, and Brian slung their hammocks in the trees. In no time, a fire was roaring again. Twilight fell in the lovely Pine Creek gorge. Sadly, our lengthy evening the night before had drained our whiskey reserves a little more than desired. Michael declared it “The Great Whiskey Shortage of 2020.” I felt personally responsible as the party member nicknamed Whiskey Fairy. Usually I bring a lot so folks can share. But in this time of social distancing I took half my normal amount and was unable to provide golden libations for our crew.

As Cheryl had accurately relayed through my Garmin, the rain started up in the middle of the night. Though threatened as Hurricane Delta remnants, all that reached northern Pennsylvania was a light drizzle. We packed up in a pleasant mist and enjoyed the clouds throughout our final 12 miles of the day. Near the end we had a little dance party at Barbara Rock.

We met a couple pairs of backpackers from DC on the final stretch. Turns out the DMV is well represented in the north woods! We finished out our hike with a road mile or so from the northern terminus of the West Rim Trail to Pine Creek Outfitters itself. We were relieved to see our cars right where they were supposed to be.

I would say that this was yet another Purple Lizard map hike for the win. I think all of us took turns perusing our maps during breaks and dreaming up other trail combinations in the area. The Mid State Trail, Black Forest Trail, and other notable day hikes are resplendent in greens and blues on the high quality map. We got a great lead from a local trail maintainer (hi Peter!) for a side trail to a little gem of a backcountry spot nicknamed “Little Italy” to inspire some future ideas. Next time, PA.

“Come on, come on
Hike a little faster
Come on, come on
The world will follow after
Come on, come on
‘Cause everybody’s after trails . . .”

-Accidentally DC UL