Category Archives: culture

20 Years Later

Okay, so I know this blog is a couple of weeks late. On September 11, 2021 I visited the International Quilt Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska to honor the 20 year anniversary of one of the most horrific events of my lifetime.

Sometimes, it is difficult to explain to those who were not yet alive or too young to remember how this event made a lot of us feel.

Many people describe the period of time between the end of the cold war (1989) and the September 11th attacks (2001) as a “break from history” of sorts. 12 years is not a long time when considering the overall course of history. However, 12 years is significant when it comes to the course of one’s own life. Many people, especially those who were quite young during that time period, got accustomed to a world that did not seem that dangerous.

It is why Trying to Make Sense of It is a very appropriate name for this exhibit. On that day, and for the weeks and months that followed, what most of us were trying to do is try to make sense of it. I recall it was the era of AOL Instant Messenger and when we were away we would put up away messages that would function as kind of an auto-reply to anyone that messaged us. That day mine was…

So we’re different colors and different breeds. And different people have different needs. It’s obvious you hate me though I’ve done nothing wrong. I never even met you so what could I have done? (Depeche Mode, 1985)

Yeah, I like to quote song lyrics.

The museum exhibit is a really good one. It contains some writing about how we all felt during the event.

There was also bunch of tables where people can use blocks to create their own art. I think it is mainly for children, but I made one anyways.

Typically, when I get a chance to do something creative, I try to do something off the wall. However, with the memories of growing up in pre-9/11 New York, all I really wanted to do was create two identical square shaped towers and remember how the skyline once looked.

The main part of the exhibit is a series of quilts that were made to honor those who died that day. There were a lot of them, some had names, some had flags and other designs. There were people from other countries that died that day, and those flags are represented here too.

Already emotional, the thing that got me into tears was actually seeing the faces of some of the victims. I guess that is how human emotions work.

That day I was generally fixated on the past, listening to a station called XM-FLY, which plays a lot of music from that time. However, I began to reflect on the event’s lasting legacy.

The first few months we seemed so united. For a little bit of time, a moment in history, all of our differences didn’t matter. All that mattered was that we were all American. We were all sad, mourning the deaths and pledging to be strong and continue living as free and prosperous people.

This would be the last time in American history anything would feel like that. It wouldn’t be long before we would first become divided over our response to the attacks and military interventions in Afghanistan and then Iraq. Then, a financial crash would cause us to lose faith in many institutions. Social media would further divide us. The economic stress and loneliness caused by these two developments would lead to all new divides, including the generational divide that created “those damn Millennials” and “OK Boomer.”

I wonder what the people who perished that day, especially those who heroically took down flight 93 before it could crash into the White House would think about where we are today. Maybe some of them would understand. Maybe some of these large scale trends are more powerful than any one event. Recently, after viewing some mean spirited content on Nextdoor, an app meant to connect neighbors, I came to the realization that any platform that facilitates asynchronous chat where people do not have to see people’s facial expressions will descend into nastiness, the same way Facebook, Reddit and Twitter have.

Part of me misses that world of national unity. However, it is important to be realistic. First, it was never going to last. The fact that another tragedy that has lead to far more deaths, COVID-19, has only made us more divided is evidence of these more powerful cultural forces. Second, times of national unity commonly revolve around a crisis; the War of 1812, the World Wars, terrorist attacks, etc. Maybe it is time to find some national unity around something positive. However, sadly, with where things are it feels like we could not be further from that moment. There’s too much fear around us.

Pittsburgh- a City That Feels Everywhere at Once

For people who love putting things into categories, Pittsburgh has to represent an absolute nightmare! Known as the “Steel City”, no regional map would not place it firmly in the rust belt. Like other rust belt cities, it fell on some hard times when many key industries collapsed in the final 30 years of the 20th century.

However, Pittsburgh is also known for having made a comeback. It’s considered a blueprint for other cities looking for a revival after suffering from the decline of their primary industries.

Pittsburgh’s revival is commonly attributed to versatility in embracing new industries like health care and technology. The education infrastructure and leadership with a more long-term focus is credited with creating the conditions needed for the city to once again thrive.

The story is reminiscent of countless personal stories of people who suffer major setbacks in life and later make a comeback. These stories often involve people who become complacent and stagnant. Typically their livelihoods get disrupted by external events they are unprepared for. Their personal revival stories typically revolve around a combination of adapting a new way of looking at things and tapping into core strengths they possessed all along.

For a long time, Pittsburgh was a place that valued science and education. It is home to several major universities.

Benefiting from it’s hilly terrain, it is also home to the Allegheny Observatory, an observatory over 150 years old where countless star distance calculations have been made.

The hilly terrain makes Pittsburgh unique in other ways.

One of the city’s top attractions in the Duqeuesne Incline, a reasonably priced and dog friendly tram one can ride to overlook the city.

It’s also a historic commuter train as walking up the side of a bluff is often treacherous.

In fact, the entire layout of the city is forced by these geographical features. The city’s downtown is situated where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers converge into the Ohio River.

Both the football and baseball stadiums are right downtown.

Along with your typical big office buildings and a square which surprisingly seems to attract a lot of loud cars and motorcycles.

To the east of downtown, sandwiched between the Allegheny River and a densely forested bluff is the strip district, which seems like a standard tourist destination.

Pittsburgh’s most unique quality has to be legitimate hiking within the city limits. Riverview Park, on the north end, is one of several places with a system of trails that have significant terrain and fairly dense forests.

It is also a place with plenty of other parks.

When many think of Pittsburgh, they may still think of it as a rust belt city with a rough exterior.

That, of course is only part of the truth, one aspect of the city’s culture. Many of the things Pittsburgh was about before the decline and subsequent revival are still there. There is still all the ketchup.

Pittsburgh’s history also involves a lot of food and traditions based on Eastern European culture.

However, the city has managed to incorporate the amenities demanded by talented urban professionals in the 2020s.

We all are, in a way, every chapter of our lives. A tour through Pittsburgh shows the city before the steel industry declined, during its dark days and in the current era. It’s a reminder of all of our personal stories and how even during the more prosperous times in our lives, the bumps we experienced along the road, as well as who we were before experiencing these setbacks are still a significant part of who we are. Battle scars don’t go away, they are just put into context.

Despite my sincere desire to avoid categorization or labelling, I could not help but want some kind of quick description of what Pittsburgh is. Do people think of it as on the up-and-up or in decline? Do people know how Pittsburgh is viewed by others? What region do they consider themselves to be in?

Pennsylvania has recently emerged as quite possibly the most important state in presidential politics. Walking around town, I could not help but wonder if people here were already starting to dread the inevitable onslaught of political ads that will be absolutely impossible to avoid in the run up to an election that is still over three years away.

When people try to make sense of this state, they will often say the state has a genuine east coast city in Philadelphia, aspects of rust belt and Appalachia and a midwestern city in Pittsburgh. But, some aspects of Pittsburgh felt downright eastern to me. There are the tunnels.

The bridges.

Some neighborhood have really tight roads, reminiscent of the Northeast.

As it is on the East Coast, the roads are often not in straight lines and the intersections are often not 90 degree angles.

In just over 24 hours, my long dormant east coast instincts regarding driving, walking pace, how to act and how to time things kicked back in.

What does the future hold for Pittsburgh? Based on what I have read and seen, it seems like the ability to adjust, long-term focus and unique spirit has not gone anywhere. So, most likely it will be a good one.

As long as people don’t get sick of cloudy days.

Ride the Rockies Day 4: Telluride to Ridgeway

It was after the challenging third day of the ride that my legs started to feel like bricks. On one hand, I felt somewhat relieved that the day 4 ride was only 40 miles with only one climb, up Dallas Divide. However, as I ate my breakfast, casually in Telluride (as the shorter ride meant I was in no hurry), my legs certainly felt like they would rather just sit.

It always feels strange to me to begin a day with a downhill. After the four mile spur out of Telluride, the highway turned downhill for nearly 20 miles.

A good portion of the ride traversed through areas with red rocks, something that always seems to appear and disappear somewhat haphazardly whenever traveling around western North America.

Turning up highway 62 meant, once again, pedaling uphill, exactly the opposite of what my body had been desiring to do.

As is typically the case on multi-day trips, after a few miles of pedaling, I felt way better than I thought I would. That heavy brick-like feeling in my legs kind of melted away as my body adjusted to the fact that it was once again being asked to pedal up a hill.

The ride to the top of Dallas Divide turned out to be more than worth it.

For some reason, it was on this day I also decided to become obsessed with the tradition of holding up my bicycle.

This also turned out to be one of the most scenic parts of the ride – a reward for the multi-day effort.

The instinct to give my body a rest when my legs felt like bricks could not have been more wrong! Luckily, I knew all along not to think about things from the narrow, or short-term, perspective of only considering the exhaustion I was feeling at the time. Sometimes what we think we want in the moment is not the path to get us to what we really want.

The instinct to pursue the momentary, fleeting desire seems to be heavily impacting some areas of our culture today. Many people at some point in their lives have had the unfortunate experiencing of feeling like part of an “out group”, whether it be not fitting in with the popular group in school or feeling like some part of their identity is rejected by mainstream societal standards. The answer to all of these situations is for each person to assert their individuality. Then, as a whole, we become more comfortable with what is different and more accepting of people who look, act, and orient their lives in a manner that is not what we are accustomed to seeing.

Like the instinct to stop riding after an exhausting day, feeling left out leads to the instinct to satisfy the immediate need to feel validation and belonging. This often leads people to look for a new group identity rather than assert their individual one. As would have been the case had I gave into my immediate instinct and skipped this ride, focusing on the immediate needs filled by establishing a new group identity does not lead to the most favorable outcome. It either leads to just switching who the “in” and “out” groups are (not getting to the root of the problem) or more mental energy spent lamenting about being in the “out” group.

For reasons I do not understand, this is the portion of the ride where things started to get emotional.

I arrived at the second, and final, aid station of the day, with pretty much the same mountain scenery in the background. A van was playing music, first Rocky Mountain High, then more recent songs like Party in the USA came on. These particular songs probably would not have made me emotional had it not been for the fact that I had not listened to too much music on the first few days of the ride.

The thoughts about the current state of the world and how to make the best choices for long-term satisfaction suddenly shifted to more spiritual thoughts. Phrases including “love in infinite” and “there is enough compassion for everyone” popped into my head and lingered. Descending 2,000 feet (600 m) from Dallas Divide to Ridgeway I felt prepared to embrace every other human being I encountered, regardless of their flaws.

It was the easiest day of the trip, but the consequence of a mostly downhill day is a return to the heat.

With the campgrounds in a hot dusty fairgrounds where some participants needed to go down to the river to get away from their overheated tents, I was more than happy to have opted to pay for the hotel package, even if it meant taking a shuttle to Ouray.

Ride the Rockies Day 2: Durango to Cortez

Day 2 would be a day of adjustments and surprises. The day started with a pretty significant hill climb.

Continuing the theme from day 1, much of this ride went through some very unpopulated areas. The only thing I remember about the towns of Breen and Klein were a fairly long descent and an aid station in a high school parking lot. This was followed by a gradual 17-mile climb on a dirt road.

I was somewhat confused as to why this ride incorporated some dirt road sections. Van supported rides tend to attract a lot of riders who like to ride fast. Apparently, cycling on dirt is a trend of some sorts. As someone who likes to determine for myself what to do, listen to and wear, trends have never interested me too much. However, I can see the appeal in some ways. On the transition from pavement to dirt, one cyclist announced that he was glad to finally be in a place where there would be little vehicular traffic and that he had become tired of riding on highways. I had felt the roads we were riding on were plenty quiet, but I have always lived in and around cities and know that experience is informing my perspective

Along this dirt road local ranchers came out to give us lemonade!

After talking briefly with the ranchers, I found myself wondering what life was like in a place like this. They are six miles from any paved road, ten miles from the nearest town, and thirty miles from Durango, the closest town of significant size. It must be so much different than anything I have ever known.

I feel bad because in the past I had cast judgement on life in rural areas as boring. Other metropolitan people can be harsher. While this is not likely the life I would prefer, we should all have the option to have the life we want. Being able to accept people having different preferences without feeling insecure about it is a sign of maturity.

Travel opens our minds to new perspectives. It makes us realize that the way we do things is not the only way. It gives us things to think about. Maybe these ranchers in the middle of nowhere have happier lives. Maybe they have better communities. Maybe, in a place like this, it is much easier to just enjoy activities like having a friendly conversation, reading a book or watching a movie without always worrying about what else is going on.

As the ride continued uphill on this dirt road, I found myself continuing to adjust to my surroundings. It grew hot and the next aid station had very little shade.

The people I was riding with represented a different type of crowd than the ones I typical find myself in. Mostly veterans of cycling trips of this type, many of them are accustomed to having better aid stations. I heard some grumbling.

Also, the crowd was significantly older than I had expected for a ride this intense. At this aid station, my first instinct was to joke that the aid station “throws as much shade as an episode of Mr. Rodgers.” I stopped as I suddenly realized that this joke would only appeal to a very narrow age range of people old enough to remember the children’s show that ended just after the turn of the century but young enough to appreciate the comparison between the literal and slang definition of the phrase “throwing shade”. The joke would not have landed.

After the dirt road segment, the route turned onto U.S. highway 160, an extremely busy road for a two mile intense climb to the top of Mancos Hill. This road was busy with both cyclists and cars!

Getting to the top was a little scary, as cyclists were commonly passing one another, requiring them to get closer to the vehicular traffic. Maybe the guy who was excited about the dirt road section had a point! He must have been less than thrilled on this part of the ride.

Somewhere on this climb, my body started hurting. Generally speaking, our lives in the early 21st century are quite sedentary. Most of our jobs involve sitting in front of a computer all day. In their spare time, many people chose to watch TV, read, or spend it in front of a different computer! Going from this to riding 70 miles a day on a bicycle is a transition for our bodies which is going to cause some pain. Whenever on a multi-day trip where the pain sets in I can’t help but lament how sedentary our lives are and how many people chose lives that are far more sedentary than mine.

We descended into Mancos, a town I had visited and stayed at years ago to visit Mesa Verde National Park.

I’d get a chance to visit the local bakery which had a message I could not help but get behind.

Mancos is the perfect kind of town for cycling trips to pass through. It’s big enough to have interesting places to stop but doesn’t slow the ride down too much.

While I was eating my sandwich, it got even hotter! We rode right by Mesa Verde National Park along highway 160.

The combination of prolonged physical exertion with hot, dry and windy conditions lead to salt slipping into my eyes. I was having some trouble seeing until luckily I was able to stop and get sprayed in the face with a hose.

By the time I arrived in Cortez it was 96°F (36°C).

The ride ended with burgers and music in a park where we all stayed in the shade.

The Great Divergence

When the first pandemic in over 100 years disrupted our lives, forcing many of us to stay home and stay apart from one another, I instantly became consumed with what life would be like when the pandemic comes to an end. Will this event cause us to re-think the way we are all living our lives? Or will we go back to our old ways once the danger of spreading a potentially deadly virus subsides? Will the changes associated with this once in a lifetime event be for the better or for the worse?

This summer, after a little over a year, we will finally get the opportunity to start seeing what this post-pandemic world will look like.

From observing how people behaved during the pandemic, and how people are acting as it comes to an end, there appears to be several points of divergence.

Back to what we had before or on to something new?

It would be hard to think of a more obvious area of post-pandemic divergence than this one. There is nothing I want more than to return to the activities many of us were denied for a little over a year. But, do we need to return to everything about the world in 2019? Some employers are already asking their employees to commute to the office five days a week once again. This, despite numerous studies showing people are actually more productive working from home.

The same can be said for many other aspects of how we live our lives. There is the instinct to return to “normal”. There is also the instinct to find a way to take the lessons learned from this experience and create something better. However, there also appears to be a current of fear, as many of us started living a different life during the pandemic. Now have to merge that version of ourselves and our “normal” lives.

A new power structure

Disruptive events stir the pot. They mix things up. There are winners and losers. An aspect of this appears to be luck. During the pandemic, people in “essential services” and in jobs that could be done remotely mostly did well while those in industries like travel and tourism got hurt pretty bad.

The post-pandemic world will come with a completely different set of changes that will stir the pot once again. Some people and groups will come out of it significantly more powerful and influential, while others will be significantly less so. A question for all of us is, are we ready to adjust the way we do things to fit into this new world?

A new found appreciation

The Best Views of New York’s Skyline

One of the first things I remember hearing about after the onset of the pandemic was the New York Times opinion piece where columnist Roger Cohen forgave the City of New York for everything that he had been annoyed about. It appeared as if the pandemic had given him a new found appreciation for the city, leading him to focus less on the petty annoyances covered in the article, from rats to traffic and bad odor, and more on what he loves about the city- it’s liveliness.

Can we say the same thing for the people and places that meant a lot to us in our lives? When the pandemic struck, did we contact the people we wish we could still see? Or did we yell at strangers for their views or behavior as we were all fearful?

While I wish to never return to wearing masks and social distancing, I hope to retain my appreciation for less active days, one-on-one experiences as opposed to large groups, and people who’s jobs are important but often under appreciated. There is the instinct to discard everything that happened in an effort to simply forget this horrible period of time. However, there is also the instinct to remember being without the people and places we love and continue to appreciate them.

Freedom or Avoiding Risk

I often hear people talk about the lack of a standard flu season this past winter, due to our mask wearing and social distancing. Some are even talking about adapting mask wearing every winter going forward.

The main question is, what risk avoidance methods are worth it. For the past 16 months, it feels as if Americans have abandoned our traditional concern for freedom and skepticism about mandates that curtail it. There is a divergence here between the desire to return to our orientation toward freedom, removing some of the extra layers of control adapted during the pandemic and fear of the virus or what is coming next after all the crazy events of 2020.

Do we know it all?

The pandemic was not the only event to rock the world in the last year. We live in a divisive time. There are the obvious divisions out there, between political parties, ideologies and priorities. However, if we dig deeper within these divisions, another one emerges. This perhaps even deeper division is between curiosity and believing we know it all already. I have observed this division in nearly every highly intellectual setting I have entered, from graduate school to TED talks.

Are we there to learn or advocate for a cause we’ve already adapted? With everything we recently experienced and the ongoing issues of loneliness, lack of fulfillment, high asset prices, etc. both instincts will still be there.

The battle within

As is the case with any historical event or set of historical events, some people will come out better for it and others will not. It is my belief that, based on these divergences, some people (those that worked on improving themselves, are curious and ready to adjust to a new reality) are in for a better decade than others.

However, that is also far too simplistic. The divergence in attitude described here is not just from person to person, but it is within each of us individually as well. Nobody is completely only on one side of each of the divergences described in this article. So, in the end, the way this decade will turn out is not about what people or groups of people adapt certain attitudes. It will probably be about which of these competing energies emerge more prevalently and where.

Do We Have Too Many Updates?

Elk Falls, in Stauton State Park, is a fairly lengthy hike. The round trip from the main parking lot (called the Meadow Parking Lot) is about 11 miles, depending on where you park. It begins with a mostly flat, 3.1 mile section called the Staunton Ranch Trail.

The trail passes by areas of interesting rocks where people climb.

And even crosses a county line.

As is the case with most State Parks, this trail is part of a network of trails that connect several important features. Elk Falls just happens to be the most commonly discussed feature, as it is the tallest waterfall within an hour drive of Denver.

Staunton State Park is one of the easiest trail networks to navigate. At each trail junction, there is a sign that not only identifies the trails, but also serves as a mile marker.

At this point, I had hiked 2.6 miles and had 1.6 miles to the Elk Falls Pond.

With an additional 1.2 miles from the pond to the waterfall, this sign was quite close to the halfway point of the hike.

The hike from the parking lot to the falls would take just over two hours (the return trip would be about the same length). Over the course of the trip, the signage would provide me with a total of about five mileage updates. I actually found this to be quite close to the frequency I desired.

However, I wondered, how many updates we really need and what impact it is having on our experience. I thought about the explorers of centuries past, who would travel great distances using maps that, while state of the art for the time, would be considered woefully insufficient today. Lewis and Clark, for example, famously underestimated the length of their journey by many months. Yet, today we demand mapping software that estimates our time of arrival to the minute. These software packages, available to anyone who has a smart phone, even adjusts expectations for the one aspect of travel that still lead to uncertainty at the turn of the century- traffic. Now, at any moment in time, we can say exactly how much distance and how much time we have left.

Has this detracted from the experience? Are we bombarding ourselves with too many updates? Does checking the map on our phone for updates too frequently cause us to focus too much on the destination, preventing us from enjoying the journey? Could it even be causing anxiety? Elk Falls is the destination and the highlight of the trip, but while still over an hour away from the Falls, it is certainly better to enjoy what is in front of me than to spend the entire time anxiously awaiting the Falls. The same can be said for the trip back to the parking lot.

It makes me think of everything else in life we excessively look for updates on. How much is too much? How often do we check…

  • The number of likes our photo received?
  • The current status of our investments?
  • Whatever device is tracking our fitness goals?
  • The news?

And, what impact does it have on…

  • The experience we have in the places where we took those photos
  • How we think about the investments we chose to make
  • Our feelings about our bodies
  • How we feel about the state of the world

It feels like we’ve reached a point where we are updating ourselves too frequently on too many things. Maybe it’s time to back off all of it and try to be more present in the moment. Maybe this will require some degree of acceptance, of things how they are as opposed to how we wish them to be.

Cycling up Mountains in a Storm

Loveland Pass on Sunday May 23, 2021

Colorado can be a pretty confusing and frustrating place in the Springtime. In most mid-latitude Northern Hemisphere places, Spring is a time of revival. It is the time of year where people who had mostly been indoors and inactive during the winter return to life. Here in Colorado, Springtime is a period of major weather fluctuations. In Denver, March and April are often the snowiest months. It can even snow in May. Sometimes it feels like we go from tracking the weather for snow to 90 degree heat with barely a week or two in-between.

Credit Channel 7 Denver

At higher elevations it snows quite a bit during springtime (Leadville is 10,200 feet (3.1km) above sea level), even as the snow melts into mud on most trails. It is probably the most inactive time of year in the mountains.

Image from Weather Atlas

Springtime in Colorado requires a combination of planning, adjustment and resiliency. The weekend of May 22nd and 23rd would test my resiliency because I kind of dropped the ball on planning.

On Saturday, I climbed Lookout Mountain, a ride in Golden, Colorado that climbs from 5500 feet (1675m) to 7300 feet (2200 m).

The day was somewhat stormy but also quite active. Paragliders took off from Lookout Mountain, flying over the town.

And the road was packed with cyclists. Only about 20 miles (32 km) from Denver, this is a very popular ride!

After noon, with even more paragliders taking off from the mountain, I encountered the storm.

Some cyclists chose to wait out the rain by finding a building to stand next to. I raced back home, into a fairly significant wind down the hill.

The next day, I went up to Loveland Pass to climb another mountain, this one at a much higher elevation. My ride began at the parking lot of Loveland Ski Area, which sits at around 10,600 feet (3230 m). I could already see that the storms had returned.

As is the case with going upwards in elevation, the weather was much colder, probably only around 45°F (7°C) at the start of the ride. From the very beginning, the ride felt like it was taking place in a different season.

Much of the ground was still covered with snow. Unlike on Lookout Mountain, I was the only one on a bicycle on the road up to Loveland Pass that day. The only other people I encountered were backcountry skiing. One joking asked me for a ride to the top of the pass on my handlebars.

Higher up the mountain, I suddenly found myself doing something I typically try to avoid, riding in the snow. It became scary as it was obvious that slippery conditions existed.

Near the top visibility continued to decline.

Finally, just to be true to the cycling community I belong to, I took a photo holding up my bike in front of the sign that indicated I had reached the top of the pass at just shy of 12,000 feet (3650 m).

There I stood, the only cyclist, almost out of place, like I was suddenly in the wrong season. It reminded me of how often we forget that different people in different places are often having quite different experiences. Two months ago, towards the end of March, while most places in North America were seeing people emerge from their winter dormancy and return to life, life in the Central Rockies was slowing down as the ski season was coming to an end. Now, there could not be more contrast all around me.

As the United States has mostly put the COVID-19 pandemic behind us, countries with slower vaccine rollouts are dealing with some pretty bad case numbers associated with newer, more rapidly spreading, variants of the disease. This sits in sharp contrast to last summer, when other more prepared countries had much greater success in containing the virus through behavioral measures than we had. Heck, even the period of time westerners refer to as the “dark ages“, were not a dark time for everybody. The Tang Dynasty was remembered as a golden age for China. It was also a time of great advancement in the Islamic world. Finding myself on my bike in the snow in the second half of May reminded of the benefit of understanding that not everyone and not every place is having the same experience.

The Musical Instrument Museum

Unique places like the Musical Instrument Museum are the essence of travel. The reason it becomes worthwhile for anyone to leave the place they live and travel to places beyond where they typically find themselves is to see something different, something unique, something they can’t see in their hometown. Often times they are places of natural beauty or specific cultural experiences. However, this museum, on the Northeast side of Phoenix is something few people have in their metropolitan areas. It is a museum dedicated to musical instruments and the musical experience around the world.

Upon entry into the museum the motivation behind building it is apparent and obvious.

For reasons that are hard to impossible to explain, music is and has always been a major part of the human experience. It is hard to imagine a world without it, and music historians speculate that music has been around longer than language. Music is an experience that cannot be accurately explained in words. The reasons different people have different reactions to music cannot be programmed into an algorithm or explained using science, language or any left-brained tactics.

The museum itself has a lot of exhibits. The downstairs has exhibits demonstrating the importance of specific musical instruments.

While the upstairs contains exhibits showing the musical traditions of every country around the world.

Each county’s exhibit contains videos of popular songs, performances or dance rituals in their country, as well as artifacts of instruments past and present.

Coming out of a very isolating year, with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is hard not to get emotional at some of these exhibits. While the venues vary, especially from poorer countries to richer countries, music seems to be a means by which people gather together and have fun. Many of the videos show people doing ritualistic dances together or performing in front of a large audience. It is exactly everything the world has been missing as many have been forced to “social distance” for a year or more. Seeing people gathered together and enjoying music is seeing exactly what the world needs and exactly what the world is craving.

It was also interesting to note that even the poorest of countries have musical traditions. Pure logic would dictate that in places where people live in extreme poverty, where their basic needs for food, water and shelter are not secure, people should spend every last bit of their time and resources trying to fill these needs. Even in these places, people are willing to use natural resources to build drums rather than secure their fragile homes or build weapons to hunt food. They are willing to expend energy that could be used to build, hunt, and prepare food, water and shelter dancing and even making costumes for some rituals.

It shows that no matter how much some people emphasize things like advancement, monetization and efficiency, there is an intrinsic value in things that don’t specifically correspond to money or material wealth. People in wealthy countries are willing to spend their money on concert tickets and streaming services. People in poorer countries are willing to use their resources to play music and dance in their communities. Both represent people using resources that could be used for personal advancement or obtaining something material on an experience that makes life joyous. The same could be said for all kinds of other experiences, from spiritual pursuits to sports and other activities with friends. Humanity shows, over and over again that joy, connection and fulfillment are valuable.

The United States and Canada section is quite diverse, honoring all of the musical traditions that graced this diverse continent, from the Native American traditions all the way up to rock and roll and hip hop.

It was great to see that all traditions were represented, seemingly without bias.

To view all of the videos and learn about all of the musical traditions around the world would probably warrant an entire day. However, it is possible to get a pretty in-depth experience in a couple of hours. By displaying the music traditions of all people all over the world, the Musical Instrument Museum gives the true respect music deserves for its role in shaping humanity.

The Best of Southeast Utah

Monument Valley from 2 miles south

Monument Valley is the quintessential image associated with The American West. Perhaps because of how frequently it has appeared in films, particularly westerns, it is quite difficult to look at this grouping of red rock formations without imagining cowboys riding horses across the landscape.

Despite the fact that the natural processes associated with its formation are culturally agnostic, and the fact that the monument sits on the Navajo Indian Reservation, these rocks have become forever associated with the culture of the American West. The fact that the first music video that pops into my head when I think of Monument Valley is by a German Band, the Scorpions, does not even seem to temper that association. Every American hard rock song feels like it fits in perfectly with this landscape.

Speaking of the landscape, Monument Valley is one of those places with a command of the landscape for miles away. Particularly approaching from the north (or northeast as that is where the highways are), it can be seen from some 50 miles away.

The interesting thing about Monument Valley is how different it can appear on either side of the monument. In the afternoon, the north (northeast) side has a much different appearance than the view from the south, which represents the standard iconic view of the feature, with the sun shining on it.

How this specific iconic set of rocks became associate with 19th century American pioneers on horseback, and the enduring culture and ethos of the Interior American West is probably a challenging question to answer. Yet, it is most certainly the repetition of this association throughout culture and media that makes people living some half a century or more after all of these films were produced continue to feel a certain feeling when they gaze upon this monument. It is hard to imagine a better example of how repetition creates and perpetuates and association than this one. I am truly curious about what the Navajo Nation thinks of it.

The strange thing is that this association has lead me to think of gold prospectors, cowboys on horseback, shootouts and such at other places with a similar feel. Like most naturally occurring features, Monument Valley is not the only place where the natural processes that created these features occured.

The rock formations about 160 miles to the Northeast, outside of Moab, Utah, take on a very similar feel. It almost feels as if any movie or music video filmed at Monument Valley could have just as easily been filmed here to the same effect.

It would be a huge missed opportunity to visit Monument Valley without also visiting Goosenecks State Park, only about 30 miles away.

This is another spot that is photographed quite frequently. Unlike Monument Valley, it seems to have a stronger association with that which is current about the American West; tourism, outdoor adventures, and, of course, the search for the perfect instagram photo.

Visitors to the park can also see Monument Valley from a distance.

I had previously visited Arches National Park, traveling to the most iconic of the arches.

On that trip, I had failed to realize that just a half an hour south on highway 191, it is possible to see one of these arches without ever leaving the highway.

Like any other place in the West, Southeast Utah has places that are underrated, not trying to be noticed.

And places trying to get people to stop that don’t make much sense.

It’s unique natural features connect the past to the present, activate the imagination and provide experiences that are indicative of Western North America as a whole, yet unique to the specific location.

What I Want From My Summer 2021

I am not sure how to describe the emotional feeling of coming out of one of the toughest winters we’ve ever experienced.

When the third wave of the coronavirus brought on new restrictions last November I knew this would be some sort of “winter of despair” as we waited for the vaccines to be produced and distributed. I managed to maintain some level of sanity by skiing and going all in on a new initiative.

Yet, hearing an Avicii song on Spotify a week ago made me emotional in a way I find hard to describe. The lyrics reminded me of the beauty life has the potential to be if only we were to stop wasting time on that which is meaningless, without soul, and all those unnecessary sources of distraction and stress.

Once upon a younger year
When all our shadows disappeared
The animals inside came out to play
Went face to face with all our fears
Learned our lessons through the tears
Made memories we knew would never fade

Almost instantly, likely due to the combination of the music and warmer weather, a different setting entered my mind. It was not of a real place, but of a place that is not completely out of the realm of possibilities.

It was a place with beautiful sandy beaches, DJs and dancing, where people were truly present. People laughed. They cried. They interacted with each other. It wasn’t without conflict, but it was without all of the conflicts that many of us have been so preoccupied by over the past several years.

Maybe this sudden burst of imagination is just the result of what people this year are referring to as “Zoom Fatigue“, or simply too much time spent alone, indoors in front of a screen. Maybe it’s just me idiotically longing for a younger year where I can make memories that will last a lifetime. Or maybe it is secretly what we are all longing for after a year of restrictions, fear and isolation.

As the weather continues to warm up and many of the activities we have been denied for a little over a year now return, what I want from this summer is close to the exact opposite of what most of the past year was.

I want to get out from behind a computer (or phone) screen and connect with the world.

I want to explore places, beautiful places, either with the windows down or on a bicycle, where I can smell the trees and feel the air flow.

I want to gather with people, both familiar and unfamiliar, listen, laugh, talk, be heard, smile, try new things and make memories.

I want to feel truly alive and witness others feeling truly alive.

I want to dance, not as if nobody is watching me, but like it doesn’t matter who is watching me. After all, it doesn’t. All that matters is that the people dancing poorly are enjoying themselves more than the people laughing at them.

I want to throw away all that made us distrust one another, socially distance and hide our true selves, both from others and from ourselves.

I want to silence the voices telling me I need to change or hide parts of who I am.

I want to stop holding back.

I want the feeling of smiling at a stranger and SEEING THEM SMILE BACK.

And, this time, after the events of 2020 exasperated the problems of distrust, division, isolation, excessive screen time and victimhood mentality that were already present in our culture, I want to appreciate what is in front of me. I want to take this extended year of excessive restrictions as a lesson for us all to live in the here and now and stop focusing so much on the negative sides of things.

One thing I feel a lot of us, myself included, failed to appreciate before it was gone, is community. I imagine today that nearly all people have experienced life both with and without community. School naturally becomes a community and we have all lived through this pandemic.

When we did have community:

Could we have perhaps spent a little too much time focused on that one person in our social circle that we don’t particularly vibe with?

Did we possibly lament, too often, the times when we had to compromise on what we wanted to do because most other people in the group had different preferences?

Could too much thought have gone into that one conversation topic we were sick of hearing?

Were we too focused on what makes us different from those around us, and how our unique perspective needed to be appreciated more?

I know I feel I had made those mistakes. The past year has certainly reminded me, and hopefully others that it is better to have a community with the above frustrations than none at all. It feels like enough people feel that loneliness has become a major problem that some form of community will be built in the aftermath of this year of isolation.

Hopefully our favorite activities and freedoms come back soon. Hopefully, we also improve our communities.

When we do so, and start having the moments that make life truly worthwhile, the ones we will never forget, let’s truly immerse ourselves in those experiences.

Here’s to a better summer and a post-pandemic life with more of what makes life worthwile.