Swimming Upstream

Photo by David F. Smith

The Torrent Duck (Merganetta armata) inhabits fast-moving, boulder-strewn rivers and streams high in the Andes of South America. To me, these churning, chilling, deafening waterscapes are frightening to behold. A Torrent Duck is the avian equivalent of a white-water kayak, and, as the master of its own craft, it far outperforms any human kayaker. When feeding, it swims upstream – yes, against the current – diving into standing waves, boofing over boulders, surfing wave holes, ferrying from eddy to eddy. Somehow it is not swept downstream as it treads water while plunging its head or entire body underwater to nibble benthic invertebrates on submerged rock faces. The duck makes these maneuvers look like a breeze. It is designed for torrents. Evolution is elegant, clever, and bold. It leaves no niche, even the most treacherous, unfilled.

Late in the afternoon on February 19, 2020, David and I were standing on a footbridge over the Río Papallacta, as it frothed and roared down the vertiginous eastern versant of the Andes in Ecuador: Torrent Duck territory. The river runs through Guango, an eco-lodge where we would spend the last two nights of our nearly month-long trip to Ecuador.

There was something indelible about the afternoon, the emerald green of the cloud forest, the swirling silvery mists of neblina, the gun-metal gray rapids, the beckoning bridge, the roar. Perhaps I was in a heightened state of not wanting the trip to be over.

I was not counting on seeing a Torrent Duck and seeing one was not requisite for my happiness. Daniel Yanacallo had told us about the bridge. He is on the staff at Guango, a tall tree of a man, smiling, and serene, it seemed to me, in fielding the incessant queries of birders. He had told us to walk downstream to the bridge and just maybe in the late afternoon, when the ducks make a last foray to feed, we might catch a glimpse, but because of recent heavy rains, he said, the Papallacta was running high and fast, a bit much even for a bird that is a kayak.

We stood on the bridge for the next 45 minutes and this is what happened. I was looking downstream where at a distance of perhaps 200 meters the river took a bend. On a boulder at the bend I saw a speck. I put my binoculars on it – a Torrent Duck, a male. Even though it was far away, I could not imagine our good fortune. It stood there nonchalant, preening a bit, looking one way then the other. We watched for perhaps five minutes then out of the blue or rather out of the churn a female popped up onto the boulder next to him. Even from this distance, we could see their ruby-red bills and exquisite plumage, he boldly black, white, and gray, she similarly patterned above but rich cinnamon on her breast and belly. I cannot remember how long we watched them. I think I recall one or both of them plunging off the boulder briefly than returning to perch side-by-side, looking one way, then the other, like a couple just home from work having a late-afternoon conversation about what was for dinner.

Then, by god, they hurled themselves off the boulder and began swimming upstream. Towards us, I was thinking, they are coming towards us. Now I really couldn’t believe our good fortune.

They advanced upstream as if pulling themselves up a ladder, one rung, a pause, then the next rung, and so forth. Each pause they perched atop a boulder or cluster of boulders. They kept to the boulder path along the bank overhung in some places by vegetation. They did not swim in the middle churn of the river. Sometimes they disappeared as if swallowed by the stream – this made me anxious – and then astoundingly they reappeared. It was like watching a magician do a card trick.

David was taking photographs and videos. I was glued to my binoculars. I said to him, but I am not sure he heard me over the roar of the river, “I hope we can come back here someday when they have young.” I added this to the list of reasons why we had to come back to Ecuador.

Maybe five or ten minutes passed. The pair kept advancing the aqueous ladder. Perhaps they were 100 meters downstream from the bridge. Suddenly a third duck materialized from the swirl, then a fourth. By god, a family of Torrent Ducks.

The young were slightly smaller than their parents. They had black bills. Their feet had pumpkin-orange webbing. Their plumage was an elaborate chevron-pattern of black, white, and gray. They seemed as adept in the water as the adults, although once I recall one of them had a bit of a struggle leaping out of the current onto a boulder. At times one or all of them, parents and young, were out of sight longer than I would have liked. I worry about a lot of things, but I particularly worry about birds raising young. In a world of ever-shrinking habitat, autocrats dismantling environmental regulations, global climate change, and a general ignorance or indifference about the natural world among overpopulating Homo sapiens, so much is going against them.

The family kept coming. Soon they were right beneath us. From our bridge vantage, for a brief while, we could look straight down on them. I remember, although it seems dreamlike, watching a few times as a parent or young grazed on imperceptible aquatic larvae on a submerged rock face, water pouring over the boulder and the duck like quicksilver. Their bills seemed flexible, as if made of rubber.

Before we knew it, the family swam under the bridge and continued upstream. They grew smaller. They were gone. The Papallacta roared. The light was fading. It was damp and chilly. We headed back to Guango where we knew a glowing wood stove awaited us.

Posted in Ecuador | 1 Comment

Broken glass falls in the forest

Broken glass falls in the forest
and from green dreams we wake to song.
Dark eyes unseen pierce our night
to watch us stumble out of nakedness
into day. Slowly,
we perceive their glances.

We shove off rough covers,
abrading the skin of our sleep,
and from our beds we step to feel
rhythm in these hewn floors.

Unclear echoes from dawn mirrors
meet us, pounding the shapes
of our congruities. And silent,
in reflection, we let down our hair,
each strand to notify our spines of flesh and light.

It is the 50th anniversary of a trip from July 4 to 13, 1970, I made with Edgar B. Kincaid, Jr., Nancy McGowan, Jim Pruitt, Fred and Marie Webster, and others to Rancho del Cielo cloud forest in Tamaulipas, Mexico. I first went to Mexico with my parents in 1960. But Rancho del Cielo was the first of many birding trips I have made to Mexico and other countries in the New World Tropics — with Edgar to Mexico until he died in 1985 — and with David and my other beloved birding friends. The trips continue, the most recent to Ecuador in February 2020. I wrote this poem shortly after the Tamaulipas trip. I first heard the cascading crystal song of the Brown-backed Solitaire singing at Rancho del Cielo. Fifty years later, I continue to hear it singing around Alamos, Sonora, and throughout Mexico.

Posted in Mexico, The Occasional Poem | Comments Off on Broken glass falls in the forest

Fix It

Update: On Monday, June 15, 2020, the Supreme Court declined to hear any of the qualified immunity cases pending before the court. On Wednesday, June 17, 2020, MinnPost published a version of this blog post in “Community Voices”:  Fix It

The federal Civil Rights Act of 1871, also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act, was passed to combat atrocities of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacy groups in the aftermath of the Civil War. It was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant on April 20, 1871. The act gave the president the power to suspend the writ of habeas corpus. Grant used this authority during his presidency. Because of the specific provisions in the Civil Rights Act, and Grant’s robust enforcement of them, the first-generation KKK was quashed and did not rise up again until the Jim Crow era of the early 20th century. The act remains largely unchanged but has been subject to much interpretation by the courts.

Perhaps the act’s single most important provision was codified into federal law as 42 U.S.C. §1983, Civil Action for Deprivation of Rights, which reads:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured….

In other words, if an agent of state government, such as a county sheriff or municipal police officer, acting in his or her official capacity (i.e., on duty, wearing a uniform, using agency equipment such as a gun) violates an individual’s constitutional rights that person can sue for redress and the offending person is liable to the injured party – or to the party’s family if he or she was killed, which seems to happen all too frequently.

The statute embodies a fundamental constitutional tenet: where there is a right, there must be a remedy. The statute is designed to prevent rogue behavior of state-level agents from violating an individual’s federal constitutional rights under the pretext of “doing their job.” It seems simple and just. Nothing is simple and a lot of things are unjust.

From the viewpoint of the defendant (the person who allegedly violated a person’s constitutional rights) as well as in certain cases the agency he or she represents, a great deal is at stake. One of these is the real possibility of fending off frivolous lawsuits. But two issues loom larger:

Number 1: A lot of money for legal fees and compensation. In 2019 the City of Minneapolis agreed to pay $20 million to the family of Justine Ruszczyk for her wrongful death by a police officer in 2017. However, defendants are largely indemnified by their agencies and agencies in turn have liability insurance. So, in reality, no person or governmental entity goes bankrupt in the course of paying legal fees or compensation. I assume we taxpayers foot the bill for the insurance premiums.

Number 2: Possible conviction of the defendant for his or her crime, which goes with, I believe, loss of perceived power and honor. Historically police officers have been held in high esteem in our culture, while a portion of the people they pursue – alleged drug dealers, members of the Mafia, people of color, especially African-American males – are not. That imbalance of power appears to be rapidly changing.

Over the years – in large measure to address the balance or imbalance of power between defendant and plaintiff – 42 U.S.C § 1983 has been altered through Supreme Court decisions.

The most significant change came in the 1967 Supreme Court case Pierson v. Ray with the introduction of qualified immunity as a defense in Section 1983 cases. The petitioners in the case were a group of white and black clergymen on a prayer pilgrimage to promote racial integration, who were attempting to use a segregated interstate bus terminal waiting room in Jackson, Mississippi in 1961. In an 8 to 1 vote, the justices argued that the officials – Mississippi police officers who arrested the clergy on grounds of breaching the peace – while committing constitutional violations were acting in “good faith” and therefore could raise a “qualified immunity” defense. Justice Earl Warren wrote the majority opinion. William O. Douglas cast the lone dissenting vote.

One might say that Justice Warren and his colleagues minus one hammered the first nail into the coffin of civil action for deprivation of rights.

Four decades later, the 2009 Supreme Court case Pearson v. Callahan continued to address the balance of powers between defendant and plaintiff. In this unanimous decision by the Roberts court, the justices wrote, “Qualified immunity balances two important interests – the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.” In this case, centering on Fourth Amendment protections of unreasonable search and seizure, an informant of Central Utah Narcotics Task Force, wearing a wire, entered the home of an alleged methamphetamine dealer to buy some meth. With completion of the purchase, his colleagues on the Task Force entered the home to conduct a search without a warrant. The case buffeted from the Utah Court of Appeals, to the U.S. District Court for Utah, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit and finally to the Supreme Court. A host of judges pondered whether or not an arcane consent-once-removed doctrine pertaining to searches protected the actions of the Task Force. The Supreme Court justices ultimately determined that at the time of the Task Force’s entry it was not clearly established that consent-once-removed violated the Fourth Amendment; therefore qualified immunity shielded the officers.

A group of white and black clergymen in a segregated bus station in midst of the Civil Rights Movement and a methamphetamine dealer plying his illicit trade during the height of the methamphetamine crisis have very little in common – except their constitutional rights, as guaranteed variously in the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments, were violated but not redressed because of the powerful cultural benefit-of-the-doubt embedded in qualified immunity that resonates loudly in courts of law with regard to public law enforcement officers.

And here we are. George Floyd is dead. As are recently Manuel Ellis (March 3, Tacoma, Washington), Breonna Taylor (March 13, Louisville, Kentucky), Mike Ramos (April 24, Austin, Texas), and Dreasjon “Sean” Reed (May 6, Indianapolis, Indiana). It is a deeply painful irony that a provision in the 1871 Civil Rights Act designed to protect African Americans from acts of violence perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan in the guise of local law enforcement has been subverted by court decisions to protect law enforcement officers in no guise at all from killing African Americans.

Of all the justified calls for change being made now as people continue to peacefully protest around the world, should not one of these pleas be to address the gross inequity of qualified immunity?

There are rumblings. In 2018, Evan Bernick, a member of the Federalist Society and currently a law clerk for Judge Diane S. Sykes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, wrote an article when he was a visiting lecturer at Georgetown University Law Center entitled “It’s Time to Limit Qualified Immunity.” https://www.law.georgetown.edu/public-policy-journal/blog/its-time-to-limit-qualified-immunity/

He clearly explains in a way that even a non-lawyer can understand how Section 1983 has been eviscerated by the Supreme Court, why a growing number of legal scholars question the Court’s logic in its decisions, and how the current perversity of qualified immunity could be remedied. Basically, there are two recourses. Either Congress, which has never passed legislation related to qualified immunity, could amend Section 1983 to, in his words, “take aim at the Court’s various departures from its original meaning.” Or the Supreme Court could, as he wrote, “retreat from its more sweeping statements concerning qualified immunity – disavowing, for instance, the proposition that officials must be ‘plainly incompetent or…knowingly violate the law’ before they are denied qualified immunity” [from 1986 Malley v. Briggs, a case involving the plaintiff’s alleged possession of marijuana]. “Plainly incompetent” is the bar set by the justices? That’s a punch in the gut.

At the time he wrote the article, Bernick was not particularly optimistic that change would come. “The political and doctrinal impediments to doing so are substantial, but that doesn’t make the constitutional problems that qualified immunity creates or the practical impact that qualified immunity has on a person’s rights any less severe.” However, in the last few years there seems to be a growing consensus across the political spectrum that qualified immunity decisions have gone too far.

Currently, and coincidentally to current events surrounding the killing of George Floyd, there are nine qualified immunity petitions pending before the Supreme Court. The cases are listed at the end of this article, but here is a sampling with the salient issues as summarized by scotus.blog:

In West v. Winfield, the issue, which goes to the heart of the case without further details, is “Whether an officer who has consent to ‘get inside’ a house but instead destroys it from the outside is entitled to qualified immunity…”

Baxter v. Bracey is a case involving a police office who unleashed a police dog to apprehend a suspect who had already surrendered. The issue in part is “…whether the judge-made doctrine of qualified immunity, which cannot be justified by reference to the text of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 or the relevant common law background, and which has been shown not to serve its intended policy goals, should be narrowed or abolished.” It is of note that 10 organizations that would ordinarily be disinclined to get in bed together have filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of the plaintiff entitled “Brief of Cross-ideological Groups Dedicated to Ensuring Official Accountability, Restoring the Public’s Trust in Law Enforcement, and Promoting the Rule of Law.”

Anderson v. the City of Minneapolis is a heartrending case that is close to home. It involves first responders who discovered a missing college student along the Mississippi River apparently frozen. They took his vitals and declared him dead at the scene instead of following protocol that calls for warming the body. (The medical rule is that a person in this state is not dead until he or she is warm and dead.) The issues here are 1) “Whether the burden of persuasion in qualified immunity cases should be, in part or entirely, on the plaintiff…or whether it should be placed on the defendant…”, 2) “…whether, under the state-created-danger doctrine, due process is violated when first responders fail to provide any treatment to a person suffering from severe hypothermia, and instead erroneously declare him dead…”, and 3) “…whether the 8th Circuit erred in dismissing this state-created-danger case on qualified immunity grounds.”

Assuming the Supreme Court agrees to hear some or all of the pending qualified immunity cases, we shall see how they rule.

In any case, now should be the golden moment for Senator Amy Klobuchar, Senator Tina Smith, and the Minnesota Congressional Delegation (at least the Democrats) to seize the opportunity to introduce legislation to repeal or revise the doctrine of qualified immunity. I know they have their hands full, but I would think Governor Tim Walz, Mayors Jacob Frey and Melvin Carter, and the Minnesota Mayors Association would be clamoring for changing the current power of qualified immunity.

Representative Justin Amash, Libertarian from Michigan, beat them to it. In early June he introduced H.R. 7085 Ending Qualified Immunity Act. To date, Representative Ilhan Omar is the only member of the Minnesota delegation to sign on as a co-sponsor. Perhaps Klobuchar et al. have something up their sleeve that a mere citizen like me is not privy to, but there is something oddly disquieting and sad to me that Minnesota’s political leaders are not owning this issue.

In the last week, this is what I have learned so far about the doctrine of qualified immunity, a legal term I had never heard of before. I twist like a flag in the wind between cautious optimism and despair that the Supreme Court or Congress will fix it.

Addendum: Here are the nine of the petitions pending before the Supreme Court: McDermott Will & Emery partner Paul Hughes (Zadeh v. Robinson; Corbitt v. Vickers), Scott Michelman of ACLU (Baxter v. Bracey); Tillman Breckenridge of Breckenridge (Brennan v. Dawson); Marcelyn Stepanski of Rosati Schultz Joppich & Amtsbuechler (Dawson v. Brennan); Erwin Chemerinsky, University of California Berkeley School of Law (Anderson v. City of Minneapolis); Robert McNamara, Institute of Justice (West v. Winfield); Jeffery Speer of Doucet Speer, Lafayette, Louisiana (Mason v. Faul); and James Jeffrey of Arlington, Texas (Hunter v. Cole).and subsequent peaceful protest But there are glimmers of hope.

Posted in Qualified Immunity | Comments Off on Fix It

Jacinto Corral Miranda, QEPD

Jacinto is gone.

He was here one day and then he was not.

This is my tribute to a man I scarcely knew. I hope I can explain what it means to me that he is gone without sounding patronizing and without romancing him.

I would never equate my sadness to the sorrow of his sister or daughter or the other people who knew and loved him and whose lives were entwined with his. My sadness is of a different sort.

It is the sadness of absence. For the last three years or so, Jacinto was part of our life in Alamos. In leaving, he left a rent in the fabric. He is not at the back gate as he often was in the morning when we were heading out. He is not sitting on the curb on our street as he did on many afternoons waving when we passed by. He is not doing odd jobs for Chemo, who owns the hardware store next door to us. On many evenings, Jacinto sat with Chemo in lawn chairs having cafecitos, chatting, and laughing. They sat in a little open-air shed where Chemo, a devout Catholic, keeps lit candles and a crucifix of Jesus.

Jacinto’s rural Sonoran Spanish largely escaped me. This did not stop us from exchanging the gestures and cordialities that define a day. “¿Cómo amaneció?” Literally, beautifully, “How did your day dawn?” Jacinto was always smiling.

Jacinto died in December as the year and decade were drawing to an end and when the outer world has become evermore discordant, tense, uncertain, and rude. Or so it seems. Perhaps the outer world is forever fraught and at times and places dangerous and now we have created the technologies to be constantly reminded of the menace. In leaving Jacinto whispered, “Anda aquí, no allá.” Go here, not there. That was his gift to me.

I am not trying to beatify Jacinto. I know virtually nothing about him or his life. Unlike his loved ones, I am spared of his imperfections. He died at 65 of congestive heart failure. He was a countryman, a campesino. He and Yobarda, his sister, talked about a place, Rancho Tlachuache, where I gathered they spent considerable time in the past. I doubt he had more than a few years of schooling. He often had his radio dialed to Radio Sonora, a station that plays wonderful Mexican music. We understood he had dos mujeres – two women – to whom he was unlikely married and neither currently present. His daughter, and only child, has a young boy and girl, and her husband, who is bilingual, works as a handyman somewhere on the outer fringes of metropolitan Phoenix. The family seems to be in a classic border limbo straightening out documents so they can all be together in the United States. We spoke with them briefly at the velación – vigil – for Jacinto.

We took an arrangement of flowers back to the compound where Jacinto lived with Yobarda and her husband Chapo. Family and friends were sitting solemn in folding chairs in a ring around an ornate coffin. Jacinto’s white cowboy hat was perched on top. A photo of Jacinto as a young man was propped on a table. There were flowers everywhere. David walked around the ring paying condolences to each person. I hugged Yobarda and sat down next to her. We did not stay long. All the cues of Jacinto’s absence were taxing my capacity to withhold tears and I was determined not to cry. This place was for their sorrow, not ours.

The next day we went to the funeral mass for Jacinto in the grand cathedral in Alamos, La Iglesia de Purísima Concepción. Chemo, who is ordained to perform sacramental functions, made the arrangements for this service. Jacinto’s granddaughter, who we met at the velación, sat next to me. The solemnity of the occasion was beyond her comprehension. She squirmed and giggled with a cousin her age and she and I smiled and made wide-eyed sideways glances at each other. She will know in due time what death is all about. The church was full. Only a few people took communion, evidence that while few Mexicans are baptized these days they turn to the church for rites of passage.  

The home where Jacinto lived is little more than a hut. It is part of the barrio directly behind us called Vergeles – el vergel is an orchard – inhabited by country people, ranch workers (current or retired) and ranch owners. When we drive through Vergeles, as we do almost daily, we slip back a century. This time warping is not unusual in Mexico. Most people cook outside on wood fires. They keep horses, chickens, cows, calves, goats, burros, every so often a pig. The sounds that drift up onto our portal from Vergeles are rural—cowbells, neighing, braying, mooing, cackling, and crowing. There are barking dogs, laughter, and music as well but these sounds are universal throughout Mexico. We are frequent beneficiaries of the thick nixtamal corn tortillas Yobarda makes every day on her wood fire. If I don’t see her, I often hear the rhythm of her hands patting out the tortillas. This is a sound that is dying out in Mexico. These days only countrywomen make tortillas like Yobarda’s.

On the day of the funeral mass Jacinto was buried at Rancho Tlacuache, the place of which he often spoke. A novena ensued, an ancient Christian ritual often associated with the death of a loved one involving nine days of devotion and prayer. Through the mist of my poor understanding of religious ritual and Spanish, I am not sure how this period played out for Yobarda and Jacinto’s family. Plus, it was Christmas and I was busy living my own swirling life.

I know there were people hovering at her house in the evenings for the next nine days. I learned it was customary to revisit the grave at the conclusion of a novena. In conversations with Chemo and Yobarda—over the fence, at the back gate—David and I came to understand we were invited to make this journey, we dearly wanted to go, and Don Angel Esquer, our friend and gardener who had become friends with Jacinto, was invited also.

On a clear blue morning, the last Sunday of the year, we headed out in two vehicles to Rancho Tlacuache. It was a perfect way to close the book on 2019. We were nine, four of Jacinto’s family and five of his friends. We took one of the numerous dirt roads that wind out of Alamos toward remote corners of neighboring Sinaloa and Chihuahua. On the way, listening to Yobarda and Angel talk, we came to understand just how important Rancho Tlacuache was to her and her brother, we learned more details about Jacinto, Angel told us he remembers visiting this ranch when he was ten years old (at some point during his 87 years Angel has been everywhere in this part of Sonora), and we learned that Tlacuache means possum. One of the great treasures of living in Mexico is riding around in the country with country people listening to them talk about their lives.

We came to a barbed-wire gate, entered, and arrived at the cemetery. Yobarda pointed to Rancho Tlacuache, a compound of buildings in the distance across a wide arroyo. The cemetery seemed like an incandescent oasis for the dead. The grave markers were tidy and painted bright colors. Clearly relatives had come for the Day of the Dead in November. Jacinto’s grave was a riot of flowers upon which we all placed more flowers while Yobarda and her daughter attended to lighting votive candles. Jacinto is buried next to their father. Their mother’s grave is several paces away as are two graves for sisters who died as youngsters. We stayed about an hour during which David and I noted a Northern Harrier, American Kestrel, Cooper’s Hawk, and Gray Hawk. Four raptors watching over Jacinto we take as a good omen.

Looking back, I realize that whether by design or happenstance the small clutch of people who went out into the vast and quiet Sonoran countryside to Jacinto’s grave were his quotidian family, the people he spent his days with in the last years of his life. Anda aquí, no allá.


Posted in Mexico | 1 Comment

The Curse of Google Maps

A globe has dimension. It puts places on Earth in context. It spins.

My Daddy was a mapmaker for Magnolia Petroleum Company in Texas back in the 1940s and 50s when cartographers plotted the locations of oil and gas wells on linen or paper maps by hand. He had wonderful penmanship and he taught his daughters to read and respect maps. He always insisted maps must be neatly folded in the exact way they had been unfolded, and I usually complied. He died in 1977 well before the GPS revolution and the digitizing and cloud storing of information.

I love maps, atlases, and globes of our world. Whenever friends return from a far-flung trip, we get out our old National Geographic Atlas and look to see where they have been. They do the same when we return from a journey. Most of our friends still have atlases. When we are planning an extended trip of our own, I first refer to the old atlas admittedly out of nostalgia and then I open Google Earth and plot our trip with digital pushpins. Google Earth is no replacement for an atlas but it is an example of a useful computer tool. It has lots of detail and contour and it lets me see the larger landscape of where I am planning to go and where I have been. Travel is a narrative. Travel has context. A trip, long or short, to Kathmandu or the grocery store, entails a great deal more than moving from point A to point B.

As a rule, we keep a Rand McNally Road Atlas tucked between the console and passenger seat in our car. When we were packing for our annual trip south to Mexico in September, I glanced in the slot and mistook our DeLorme Gazetteer of Minnesota (same size, shape) for the Rand McNally. I made a big mistake of which my husband bore the brunt. I complained daily, sometimes twice and thrice, for most of the 2,800 miles. The world-shrinking Garmin and Google Maps on the cellphone stuck on the dashboard sufficed for my driver-husband, but I could not track our passage on a map on my lap. I could not put us in our transitory context. Where were we exactly in relation to the other places and landmarks—cities, towns, counties, rivers, mountains, parks, historic sites—that define the landscapes, history, and cultures we were passing through? I was anxious and adrift and I wondered, “Am I the only person who feels this way in the Age of Google Maps?”

Manhattan, Kansas, on Google Maps. Small, flat, no context. Boring.

Manhattan, Kansas, on a Rand McNally map. You can see Topeka, the state capital and where the wonderful Brown v. The Board of Education National Historic Site is located. Just north of Manhattan is Pottawatomie # 2, a state fishing lake where David, the dogs, and I spent a loving evening on September 26, 2019, looking for dragonflies and having our end-of-the day beers. To the south is the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Flinthills, one of the most beautiful landscapes in North America. Details. Context. Narrative. Not boring.

It is difficult to find a Rand McNally anymore. I asked in numerous gas stations and truck stops. I got blank stares (“…a what?”) or eye rolling (“Where have you been, lady?”) Finally, somewhere toward the end of the trip, in West Texas or New Mexico, at a bustling truck stop, I found a 2020 Rand McNally. It was dirt-cheap, like $7.99. I would have paid $49.99. We had only about 24 hours remaining in the U.S., but I put the map on my lap and I calmed down.

I know it is a trait of elders to balk at change and innovation. My mother, bless her earnest heart, was troubled by evolving cultural values related to courtship, virginity, marriage, divorce, and gender. My father, heart-breaking for me, took his racial biases to his grave. They both were alarmed by rock and roll. The good thing is elders die—they are relieved of the burdens of change and we the living are relieved of their intransigence.

I am still shocked having advanced to elderhood. I think I am open-minded and I work to maintain flexibility in the headwinds of change. But certain things, particularly in the intersecting realms of media and technology, are not sitting so well with me.

One change I came to resist and abhor decades before I became an elder is television, which has made millions of people fat in body and lazy in mind. TV and social media are like boxing’s one-two punch. The former set up the first jab; the latter, the second blow. Even weather reporting, which has practical and at times life-saving value, has been ruined by the Weather Channel. I get my weather from Windy, a mobile-device application that maps high- and low-pressure systems around the world in real time and has other useful functions, such as radar, storm tracking, temperature, waves, air quality, and predictive forecasting for specific locations. It shows weather in all its swirling majesty. No hype needed from Jim Cantore and his Weather Channel cohorts. The fact that Windy is my preferred weather source also proves I am not a Luddite.

The hand-held device has brought about the most fundamental behavioral change among humans in my lifetime, and I think the case could be made that the gripping of these devices is the most radical development in tool use over the roughly 65 million years of primate evolution. It doesn’t matter whether I think this change is good or bad. I have a device and I grip it frequently.

I do take issue with the hypnotic power of certain device applications and how they reshape how we see and live in the world. I take note when an application is starting to hold me hostage. I make an escape. It is not always easy.

Google Maps is an example of the fine line between an application’s practicality and its power to capture and mind-bend its users. Last November we met friends in Mexico City for Thanksgiving. I hadn’t been there in years. On past trips, I made my way around the city just fine with travel guides and maps and the help of other human beings—taxi cab drivers, bellhops, storekeepers, waiters, and strangers on the street—encounters that enriched my experience. On this trip, we all had devices and, like device monkeys we have become, we immediately defaulted to Google Maps.

I can see us now. We looked ridiculous—a congregation of gray-hairs lurching down the streets of Mexico City gawking not at every wonderful thing around us but at the devices in our cupped palms. I recall a couple of preposterous occasions where we stood in a huddle disputing what our devices were telling us. My friends and I are pretty self-aware, not hopelessly device-addicted, and veterans of the old school of travel for whom a singular joy is watching people, spaces, places, landscape, nature. We got our bearings, put our devices in our pockets (mostly), and broke out of the tiny jail cell of Google Maps.

Google Maps takes the eye hostage and robs us of peripheral vision. Google Maps makes the world small and flat and simple. It puts up a wall, at once invisible and opaque, between the user and everyone else. People who use the application to the exclusion of traditional maps are denying themselves a richer life. I think my Daddy would agree with me. And someday I will be happy to join him wherever it is that intransigent elders go.


Posted in West Saari Road | 1 Comment