What I Didn’t Miss During a Long Walk in the Woods

NEW SLAUGHTERHere’s a list of things I didn’t miss during a week hiking down Isle Royale.

1:  Senate Republicans failing to come up with the 70 votes supposedly needed to give Speaker John Boehner “cover” to support immigration reform without the support of the majority of his neanderthal caucus. This was the presumption as we boated away from Grand Portage 12 days ago and nothing much changed, so what’s to miss?

There are only so many times I … you … paid pundits … the drunk on the next stool … can belabor the head-slapping destructive/self-destructiveness of this current crop of Republicans. And as much as road-blocking immigration reform is perhaps the single most damaging thing they could do to their election chances (in 2016, but very likely in 2014 as well) it just isn’t news anymore that these characters really are so … well, stupid is perfectly adequate word … that they will drive a stake through the heart of the one piece of legislation that might give them standing with the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country. A group big enough to turn … Texas for crissake … blue in another couple of election cycles.

It also isn’t worth mincing words about “why”. This isn’t another exercise in the hyper right-wing’s phony pursuit of Constitutional purity. It’s racism, pure and simple. The hillbilly sensibility of the Republican base has no time or sympathy for intruder factions unconnected by origin to new conservatives’ cockamamie mash-up of Hollywood westerns/xenophobia/Ronald Reagan hagiographies and snake oil punditry.

The fog that rolled up and over the Greenstone Ridge had the effect of blotting out a lot of toxic buffoonery.

2:  Even though I predicted it, I did not miss the minute-by-minute updates on where Edward Snowden was and might be going. Commercial media are incapable of engendering and sustaining a national conversation about anything of genuine importance … unless there’s a celebrity sex angle. The fact they’re treating Snowden the fugitive as “the story” and not the still-emerging details of the US’s multi-multi billion dollar cyber systems is too dismaying to “miss”. A hot shower after 50 miles of sweat, DEET and black flies, yes. A cold beer, yes. CNN, no.

3; Speaking of … I hadn’t been giving George Zimmerman a lot of thought, frankly. Although news of his trial start did make the crawl on a screen in the bar at the casino where we stayed the night before leaving. But upon return … I mean, WTF? Zimmerman is a bigger story than a military coup in Egypt? Even MSNBC has gone monomaniacal.

The Zimmerman trial is several rungs of significance up the ladder from the latest Jodi Arias/Casey Anthony sluts-who-slaughter convulsion, but round-the-clock?

Yes, I understand it’s far, far cheaper than sending crews to Cairo. And yes, I understand that certain key demographic groups will devote obsessional amounts of time watching a murder trial. But are we really at the point where we don’t even pretend “our viewers” have an interest in the meltdown of democracy in the anchor nation of the Middle East?

Don’t answer that question.

I get that CNN’s new boss, Mr. Early-Morning-TV-Works-in-All-Dayparts, Jeff Zucker sees an audience of attention-span deprived emotional adolescents, people who need a cooking segment and celebrity hype-chat to break the monotony of revolutions, car-bombings, cyber-warfare and legislative gridlock … but … passing mention? Imagine if another Carnival cruise ship flipped over in Miami harbor? You’d never hear of John Boehner again.

4:  Finally, I didn’t miss the story and intense local discussion about old Carl Pohlad’s tax troubles with the IRS … because they weren’t reported in the local press. Forbes magazine put out the story of the old man’s serious Mitt Romney-like gaming of the tax code … to the advantage of his heirs, a couple of whom at least have done some commendable things with the loot … they didn’t turn over to the common coffers.

Now that I’m back, after trying to cook my fabulous tuna schmeckler under a raggedy pine tree in a steady rain, would it be okay for someone in this town to get impertinent with one of the Pohlad boys and ask how exactly they justify the fantastical level of accounting magic that took their family off the hook for their “fair share” of taxes?

I understand every media outlet wants to be the Pohlads’ BFF. But now that this is “out there”, perhaps some tough-as-nails, take-no-prisoner reporter could “request” a first person comment from one of the boys.

I know, I know, it doesn’t have the reader interest of a list of “10 Great Places for Patriotic Dining”, but it is kind of like … news.

BTW … The beach at Siskiwit Bay was … idyllic. I’m already missing it.

A Tragedy Runs Through It, and Through Us All

My editor, when I was a young reporter, tells me to interview a mother whose son has just died in a fire in their apartment. I ask my editor why. My editor tells me to interview the family of a marine held hostage in Iran when the Desert One rescue mission crashes and burns, leaving the hostages still hostage. I ask why. What am I going to ask? How do you feel?

The crowd at the memorial service for the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters killed in Arizona cheered when a speaker asked the media to stay away from the lone survivor, the young man who’d been the lookout and barely escaped.

Why do those damn reporters want to interview the survivors of tragedy? Heartless bastards. Ghouls.

Reporters capture and transmit life. And tragedy is part of life. And feeling all of life keeps us human. That’s why. But still we bitch about the reporters. While we read their work, their heartbreaking work.

The New York Times today runs a story recounting the last text messages between a Granite Mountain firefighter and his wife. He tells her he’s going in to the fire: “I think I will be down there for awhile on this one.” He tells his wife he misses her and their kids already. After awhile he texts a photo of several firefighters heading for the smoke. She asks if he’ll be there all night. There is never a reply.

National Public Radio interviews young people at an informal grief-spattered remembrance for another Granite Mountain firefighter, from California. His sister, fighting back tears, remembers him in cowboy boots lassoing her when they were both kids. Never more, she says. The dead young man’s brother says his only regret is that he wasn’t with his brother when he died. With him.

Makes you think about life’s fragility, transience, beauty, holiness. Makes you feel love for your own folks. Maybe makes you think you’d better tell them you love them, go see them, because tomorrow might be too late.

On a plane a week or so ago I thought, looking at my iPhone, what would I text Lisa if the plane were going down? I decided I’d tell her that being with her is the best part of my life. The plane didn’t go down. I texted her that anyway. We should say that stuff.

Reading about, hearing about, how people deal with tragedy, with strain, with troubles you’ve not yet had, or with troubles you have, brings our humanity up wriggling and dripping from the bland tranquilized surface of every day. We need to see and hear that stuff. Much as we sometimes want to turn away, it’s hard to, and most often we look. At the accident. We listen to the survivor. Maybe it’s “there but for the grace of god…” But mostly we are attracted to tragedy because, I think, tragedy, like joy, makes us feel the depth and power of life. And we need to feel. Deeply.

Norman Maclean, who wrote, late in his life, A River Runs Through It, also wrote Young Men and Fire, a book about firefighters killed in 1949 in a hauntingly similar way to this week’s Arizona tragedy. If you want to get inside what happened to the Granite Mountain Hotshots, read this 1992 book.

Tell someone you love that you do. Tomorrow never knows.

— Bruce Benidt