Another (Very Belated) Anniversary: Two Years Smoke-Free

I keep missing this particular anniversary not only because I’m crap at remembering things like birthdays and anniversaries and such, but because Chantix made it such a non-event. But it occurs to me that I’ve now been an ex-smoker for two years.

Part of me will always be a smoker.

Image shows me sitting on a Mexican hotel balcony, in a black straw hat and black Peacemakers tank top with their logo in blue rhinestones. I'm gazing off into the distance and lifting a cigarette to my mouth. Jesus, I was skinny - so skinny my stepmom thought I had an eating disorder. Nope, that was the smokes.

Moi in Mexico with cigarette, October 2005.

I loved that person, I’ll be honest. Sometimes, I miss me. I’m still me, only… different. Cigarettes were a crutch that hid a lot of anxiety, and with that fix gone, the anxiety came roaring forward. Sometimes, I wonder if I should go back to it. But that’s a fleeting temptation, especially now.

Don’t congratulate me on having the courage and strength to quit. Thank Chantix. I’d been smoking since I was eighteen, with one break of three years where I quit for someone else (don’t do that – you lose them, you get the cigarettes back – not a fantastic trade). I’d promised myself I’d only smoke so long as I didn’t have a smoker’s hack. Once I developed that, it was time to stop. In 2012, I began hacking most mornings, so I decided the time had come. I hied me off to the help center, where our great physician’s assistant wrote me a scrip for Chantix. I was one of the lucky ones who didn’t have bad side effects. The most violent dream I had was one where I was Batman and punched the Joker in the stomach, which I figured was justified and therefore not bad violence. I took the pills for a few weeks. I kept smoking. I smoked a bit less. And then, one day, I had half a cigarette, saved the other half for the next day… and never smoked it. That was in the middle of our Mount St. Helens trip.

I’ve been tempted a fair few times since, but not overwhelmingly so. Something about Chantix just sort of shut those receptors in my brain down. They don’t crave nicotine except in moments of extremely high stress. And then, it’s just for a moment. I think the craving is habit, really, rather than the sheer chemical need of physical addiction.

That’s why I’m saying, don’t congratulate me like I did something hard. I decided to quit, took a few pills, and just quit. It’s not like the epic battles others have fought. It feels like cheating. Hey, I’m happy to cheat – I know how addictive this shit is.

At first, my lungs had no idea what the fuck was going on, and struggled mightily with this untainted air they were expected to breathe all the time. That got better with time. I can’t say my lung capacity has increased since I was a smoker – I’m one of those genetic freaks whose lungs stayed pretty clear no matter how much tar I dumped in them. But the hack is gone, which has definitely made mornings more pleasant. My voice hasn’t changed much, but I don’t get hoarse as often.

When I first quit, I was hungry ALL THE DAMNED TIME. Not even kidding. It was like all those years of suppressing my appetite decided I owed them food right now. I’ve gained an amount of weight I’m ashamed to admit to, because my frame hides it fairly well and people hate me. I was scary-skinny before and my main ambition in life (outside of writing) was to gain some weight, so I can’t count that as a bad thing at all. Just, if you’re quitting, be forewarned: that weight gain and appetite increase stuff is absolutely true for a lot of us. Watch out. (If you’re in the Seattle area and need an exercise partner, let me know. We’ll go burn calories. My new ambition is to turn my food into muscles. I haven’t got many yet.)

I can now stay still and focused for very long periods of time. Needing a smoke used to propel me outdoors hourly. Now, I am only dictated to by my bladder. This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I get a lot more stuff done. On the other, I don’t get as much exercise, and I don’t go outside as often, which means I miss things like meteors and animal antics. The fact I will now be able to fly cross-country without wanting to leap from the plane so I can slay the nicotine demon is a definite bonus, though. I’ll take it.

It’s only in the last few months I’ve been noticing some really odd changes. My sense of taste suddenly seems to have increased to an amazing degree. I mean, I could taste food and appreciate it before, but now it’s like a fireworks finale in my mouth. It’s like majoring in music, and hearing notes in symphonies I never suspected were there. I love it.

My sense of smell has also gotten way better. I’ve used the same dish soap for years, but couldn’t really smell it. All of a sudden, boom, there it is. It’s like, aha, that’s why people make a fuss about lavender. Okay. Alas, I’m more sensitive to all odors, including the ones left about the house by the elderly felid, but I’m coping.

I totally recommend quitting smoking just for the recovery of those two senses. They are marvelous.

On the whole, yeah, I’m glad I quit. I needed to quit. I can now funnel money into things like books and sewing projects (not to mention food), rather than burning it. I like the idea that quitting has increased my chances of not getting some terrible diseases.

I won’t go out preaching to the world that everyone should quit. You love your smoking? Fine by me. You want to quit? I’ve got pom-poms and will be in your cheering section. Do what you need for you.

But I’ll tell ya, if you want to quit and can tolerate Chantix, go for it. Easiest thing ever.

Image shows me sitting on water-smoothed slabs of granite, with the river rushing beside me.

Moi on the rocks in the Snoqualmie River. Look, Ma, no smokes!

Come Join Me For Happy Good News Times!

So, updates. I haz good news! I went in for a nerve conduction study on Friday, and it turns out I have not totally destroyed my nerves. Yay! It appears that the ligaments and tendons are just waay overstressed. So a long rest and some physical therapy have been prescribed. There’s also been some talk of rheumatoid arthritis, which I hope turns out to be as likely as the nerve damage. Of course, with Dragon, even that diagnosis isn’t as scary as it might’ve been otherwise. I mean, it’s not like I’ll have to stop writing or anything, and writing is really the most important thing to me (outside of you, my cat and geology), so that’s a little bit of all right. If necessary, I can get all y’all to bang on the rocks for me.

Physical therapy is going to be awesome. I’ve known for some time that I need to work on my hand strength. I also bought arthritis gloves, which even if I don’t have arthritis will go a long way towards helping my hands feel better. And now that I know the nerves aren’t damaged, I’m not so worried about their bellyaching.

Thank you all for supporting me through this time, which actually hasn’t been a very difficult time, but when you’re facing possible surgery it’s still a little intermittently nerve-racking. Surgery may still be in my future, but hopefully not for a very long time.

Meanwhile, for you Doctor Who fans, you’ll love the name of my neurologist: Dr. Song. Right?!

Speaking of Doctor Who, I’m getting a comfy chair. I’m even going to name it “Comfy Chair.” Those of you who know your Doctor Who might be rolling on the floor laughing. The rest of you are just looking at me in complete bafflement, and all I can say is, you really need to catch up with the best show in the universe.

Furniture is apparently a hot subject. Image courtesy writedragon. You should click this image to visit her page if you're one of those people who delights in Doctor Who references.

Furniture is apparently a hot subject. Image courtesy writedragon. You should click this image to visit her page if you’re one of those people who delights in Doctor Who references.

Now all I have to do is teach Dragon all of our ridiculous little words (and persuaded to recognize Doctor Who), and were set. For those of you using Dragon and having trouble teaching it an ambiguous phrase, it helps to train it with British pronunciation or some such different accent. That way, it knows the difference between Dr. who and Doctor Who. I feel very clever for having figured this out.

I’ll let you know if the kittteh approves of Comfy Chair. I’m hoping for a long and happy relationship.

Sunday Song: Out of the Dark

Now that I’ve gone and gotten treatment, I’ll tell you the story of the Dark.

I’ve always been subject to black moods. Getting raped at 18 didn’t help, I’m sure. But those moods were always transient, usually correlated to known issues like severe stress, and predictable. They didn’t affect my day-to-day functioning all that much, and I could always find my way out. I just joined up with the part of my brain that was laughing into the darkness and walked out on it. I’d change up my routine, do whatever altered my mood toward happy, and the Dark would go.

So I wasn’t overly concerned when I began to slide in January. Vaguely and pervasively sad in Seattle in the middle of winter, during a time of high stress at work and home? Whee, SAD! Yay, environmental triggers! Time to take a break, then, watch some Agatha Christie, do busy work, wait for the Dark to go away.

But it started getting darker. Day-to-day stuff got harder. Little obstacles I’d normally hop over became insurmountable. Nothing I did worked; I lost the ability to enjoy things I loved, including the ability to talk to people I love. Sometimes, if it was short and simple and didn’t require lots of emotional energy, I could handle a quick reply to their emails. But generally not. Friendships have an emotional component, and it’s hard to handle emotions when yours are trying to kill you.

I could go to work, and do good work. I regained my ability to blog. I could manage some research. By the time those things were done, however, I was spent. Nothing left for anything else.

When February came, and no change, I decided, “Fuck this shit.” If the Dark wouldn’t go away on its own, I’d get someone to escort it out. Only, it had me backed into a corner. I literally could not pick up the phone to make an appointment. It wasn’t that I didn’t want treatment. I did, desperately. But I didn’t have the stamina to handle the phone call to a doctor I’d never seen, explaining the situation to someone, figuring out a time I could make it, getting in the car and driving there… Maybe tomorrow I’d have it. Always tomorrow.

Nope.

Greta Christina wrote up a piece on her depression around then, and I recognized it. Standing in front of a mirror. That gave me courage, and a measure of peace. But still no strength. Maybe tomorrow.

Starspider and I talked about it. She monitored the situation, did exactly what I needed: gave me space until it became clear I couldn’t take care of my business, and then set a date to frog-march me into the doctor. Sometimes, you need a friend to do that, grab you and drag you out of the corner, run to get the bouncer so the Dark can be thrown out.

That week, things got bad at work. So bad I wanted to smoke. So bad I almost begged a cigarette. So bad that the craving, the sheer physical need, returned with a vengeance. And it was like an escape hatch had opened. What, other than Chantix, do they prescribe for smoking cessation down in our clinic? Wellbutrin! An anti-depressant. The Bouncer.

I could have my supervisor make an appointment for the clinic. So I did. Getting to a doctor’s office was a nearly-insurmountable obstacle, but downstairs I could do. So down the stairs I went. I kissed the prescription slip when I got it. Filled it that night, the instant I got off work. Waited for the drug to reach therapeutic levels.

The urge to smoke vanished first. Then, gradually, the Dark began backing off. The Bouncer now has it firmly by the scruff of the neck, and it’s on the way out the door, giving the occasional kick or scream. The insurmountable obstacles have shrunk to mountains; soon, they’ll be molehills. I’ll get to the proper doctor before this prescription runs out. I’ll have a professional monitoring the situation and ensuring a continuous supply of magic happy pills. (And these really are magic. I’m just two weeks in, not enough time for them to fully work, but I’ve got enormous energy and drive, like I haven’t had since November. And I’m writing fiction again for the first time in well over a year. Soon, probably, I’ll be able to handle all that and social obligations. Seriously amazing. That’s just a pill with no therapy. I bloody love science.)

Getting treatment for my SAD brain is no more bothersome than getting treatment for severe muscle spasms, say, or a chronic heart problem that didn’t require medication before, but does now. My mother saw herself as a failure when she was forced to go on medication. She’d been taught that mental illness was “all in her head.” We’re fortunate that she learned otherwise, because we learned together it’s okay to get help for a malfunctioning brain. I’m glad so many good people have shared their own stories, so that when it came time to get help getting rid of the Dark, I could do so without stigma.

There’s an answer to those who continue to insist it’s all in our heads. Sure is! My head is where I keep my brain, and it’s my brain that needs a medical assist to function properly. You know what else is “all in your head”? Brain tumors. I wouldn’t hesitate to treat one of those. I’m not hesitating to treat my brain disorder.

I want out of the dark. I’m getting there fast. (And so will Seattle, come spring, which is coming along with a quickness.)

I’m sharing this story so that there’s one more voice in the chorus saying that shit happens to the brain, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. You can’t control it any more than you can will away cancer. Sometimes, it’s just like a little cold, and passes on its own. But sometimes, it’s serious, and serious treatment is required.. So if you need help, go right ahead and get it. Even if it’s by slightly nefarious means. Even if you need help getting help. Do what you can to get yourself healthy, just like you would for any other ailment.

And you well folk? If you see a friend backed into a corner, help them out. Don’t nag them. Just ask what they need, and offer to help overcome some of those obstacles, and stand with them.

There’s absolutely no reason for anyone to stay in the Dark.

(Bonus video for those who prefer originals: the Falco version of “Out of the Dark.”)

Ode to a Caboose

My intrepid companion has a wee fascination for trains. This means that when we’re out adventuring, trains often factor in – even when we didn’t expect them to. I mean, honestly – last thing you expect to run in to high in the Cascades is a caboose. For one thing, trains don’t have ‘em anymore. For another, we’re on the side of a mountain with no tracks in sight.

So of course, when you see something like that and you have a train nut in the car, you make an unscheduled stop.

A very unexpected caboose.

A very unexpected caboose on Hightway 2 near Stevens Pass.

And we discovered a whole network of trails following the old railroad. Folks have put a lot of time and love into this. Also, there are train tunnels. Tunnels! We didn’t make it to the tunnels this trip, but most certainly will in the future. There’s also a spur trail that promises a fantastic vista over the mountains, which I’m dying to do. It’s really a fantastic little area, especially for a variety of day hikes that will keep botanists, geologists, and trainophiles happy for ages.

But if not for the caboose, we never would have known it was there.

The goat on the caboose is precious. Iron goat, indeed!

The goat on the caboose is precious. Iron goat, indeed!

I miss cabooses. They’d been part of my life since I was three, when we moved to a suburb outside of Flagstaff, Arizona. The Santa Fe Railroad ran along I-40; we had to cross the tracks to get home. This was usually just a quick set of fun bumps – brrt-bdum-bdum-brrt – as we hit the cattle guard-tracks-cattle guard combo. But occasionally, as we approached the tracks, bracing ourselves for the bumps, the signal would begin to clang. Red lights would flash. The arms would come down. And a Santa Fe locomotive would heave into sight.

Mind you, these were freight trains. Onna grade. So we were in for a long several minutes of watching the train go by. It seemed endless when all you really wanted was to get home, get on your bike, and collect your friends. There were only two things to look forward to now: discussing how awesome turbo boost would be, and keeping an eye peeled for the caboose.

Moi and Caboose. Image courtesy Cujo359.

Moi and Caboose. Image courtesy Cujo359.

I loved the caboose.

So you can imagine how upset I was when someone, somewhere, decided the caboose was now surplus to requirements, and trains just… ended. No more glad lifting of the heart as that little red car came into view. Just an anxious straining of the eyes for the final car. And you never knew, until it was past, whether that was really truly the end of the train or just one of those deceptive stretches empty of container cars.

Damn it. I want my caboose back.

So there’s something bittersweet in patting a grand old caboose, now reduced to an exhibit in a roadside park. I miss the days when they rode the rails. But it’s nice to at last get the chance to meet one of these grand old friends.

Moi and caboose on the Iron Goat Trail. Image courtesy Cujo359.

Moi and caboose on the Iron Goat Trail. Image courtesy Cujo359.

Soon To Be A Quitter

I love smoking. I don’t love the expense, or the health risks, or the stench, or being driven out into the buttass freezing cold, but I bloody love smoking otherwise. It gets me outside at random times, whereupon I see things that people who aren’t driven onto the porch in the wee hours o’ the morning by the nicotine demons don’t see. Like the badger that one night. The badger was awesome.

It’s been sixteen years (taking three off whilst living with a vegan. Note to smokers: yes, you can quit for other people, but you’ll know the relationship’s on the wane when you start sitting downwind of smokers and inhaling deeply). Sixteen years of snappy comebacks to random strangers who try to lecture me into not smoking (Random Lady: “You shouldn’t smoke! That’s going to kill you someday!” Me: “Yes, ma’am, I know – it’s called population control). Sixteen years of worried friends having The Conversation (Them: You shouldn’t smoke. That’s going to kill you.” Me: “I know. What a tragedy I’ll miss out on all the lovely Alzheimer’s at the end!”). Note to people who want to get people to stop smoking: choose targets whose families have a history of longevity without horrible degenerative diseases that hollow out the mind. You aren’t likely to convince us that dying of lung cancer a few years early is a terrible thing.

I’ve had doctors tell me I don’t need to quit smoking. That one time I pulled a muscle without realizing it and went in terrified the pain in my chest was early-onset lung cancer, the doc x-rayed me and said, “Your lungs look great! You might want to cut back, but you don’t need to quit yet. Better watch out for that arthritis developing in your back, though.” To which I said, “ZOMG WTF srsly?”

I bloody fucking love this habit. And I might miss it. But I’ve been hacking in the ay-em, after naps, and at other random times for two weeks now. And I promised myself, back when I first started smoking at the age of 18, if I ever developed a smoker’s hack, I’d quit.

So I bounced in to the clinic on Thursday to see if Dr. John was back from vacation. He was. He’s been after me for years to quit. And so I announced that the time had come, and he said, “Why?”

“I’ve developed a smoker’s hack,” I said.

“Are you sure it’s not allergies?” he said.

“ZOMG WTF srsly?” I said. “Maybe. But let’s call it a smoker’s hack so I’ll quit, m’kay?”

He was good with this. So on Friday, I made a really-real appointment, and we discussed things. The question was Zyban or Chantix.

“You might have crazy dreams on Chantix,” he said. “That’s what most people report as being the most disturbing side effect.”

“That would be awesome,” I said. “I haven’t written fiction in a while. My dreams have been utterly dull. Maybe this will wake the Muse!”

“You are the first person who’s been excited about the dreams,” he said, gazing upon me with wonder and bemusement. Then he wrote me a scrip for Chantix, because he says that’s the better drug for quitting.

I read the insert. There are amazing potential side effects, some of which involve life-threatening skin conditions. I’d be too afraid to try it if I hadn’t been reading science and medical blogs for a few years, and could reasonably assess the risk (minuscule). I might get very stabby. If that happens, we’ll stop Chantix and start Zyban instead, which is a happy-making drug. Yay, psychiatric drugs!

I’ll be starting Chantix when I get back from Quartzville, because taking a long trip with no alternate driver on a new mind-altering medication is a terrible idea. We’ll see how it goes. My stepmother didn’t even have to finish the whole course before she was done smoking. She said she just woke up one day and the urge was completely gone. She stopped early because the dreams weirded her out. As a person who’s spent the greater part of a lifetime writing SF, I think the dreams will be quite useful, even if bizarre. (Now watch me be amongst those who don’t have them. That would be disappointing.) And this is what I want: to wake up one day, and discover a complete lack of interest in cigarettes.

I don’t think I’ll miss my habit much. It’s like the relationship with the vegan: nice while it lasted, a little stressful, and probably should’ve ended it a while ago, because we’re not as good for each other as I think. Like the vegan, I’ll look back at this period of my life with a mix of fondness and exasperation. In my sillier moments, I might even miss those days.

And I’ll probably always think of myself as a smoker. I’ll just be one who doesn’t smoke.

The halcyon days of smoking and drinking in Mexico. Drinking and Mexico, happily, are still on the table.

Keep me honest, people. Even if my smoker’s hack turns out to have been allergies, it’s time to stop spending so much damned money on stuff I burn. And remind me, if I start making noises about not wanting to live through Alzheimer’s or any other horrid end-of-life disease my family’s prone to, that I happen to live in a state where doctors are allowed to assist me in cutting that shit short. Tell me I can drag my arse outside at random times without having to light up. Do not let me get away with stupid excuses. And if anyone wants to take this opportunity to quit with me, grab a scrip for the magic pills of your choice and let’s go.

Rhodies and Realities

I’m wrecked. I’ve only just now recovered the use of both nostrils after a mild but annoying cold, and then a certain manufacturer of a certain famous cell phone announced a change that has led to my day job getting busier by a factor of 10. I should be researching and writing. Instead, I’ve been spending time trying to coddle my poor brain.

This is good news for those of you who either like a flower challenge, or who like to listen to me ramble. We’re having both.

Rhododendron bud

It’s about rhododendron season. I remember reading one of those little filler snippets in a Reader’s Digest once, where a woman was talking about sending her husband home to clean the place up while she went to the grocery store after they’d invited their pastor for dinner on short notice. When she got back, the house was still a mess, but her husband was busy ensuring the leaves of their potted rhododendron were sparkling clean.

Dunno why, but that left me with the impression that rhodies were just boring houseplants with nothing but thick green leaves. I’d never knowingly seen one in bloom before. When I moved up here, I discovered that they grew up into great big bushy bushes used in landscaping seemingly everywhere, but not until after blooming season, which meant I now thought of them as boring indoor/outdoor plants with nothing but thick green leaves.

Then they bloomed.

Rhodies in bloom.

And then I understood why people plant these absolutely everywhere. They’re not only hardy, they riot with color every spring. For months, as the different varieties go off, the whole city seems like it’s exploding with tropical hues. Then they go back to being big boring bushes with thick green leaves, but one looks on them fondly, knowing what they’ve got in store.

I’m going somewhere with this. A bit of a metaphor. Because, you see, life as an atheist has been like this.

Back when I was religious, then “spiritual,” I thought life as an atheist was like rhododendrons: boring. Why would anyone want that life? How could anyone stand it? This uniform shade without even any interesting variations. Have you looked at rhodie leaves? They’re not exactly filled with intrigue. They’re sort of nice. I supposed atheists’ lives could be sort of nice. But I believed they must be pretty miserable folks, living a life where there weren’t any bursts of color, no mystery, no magic.

(Interrupt extended metaphor to provide first photo of the weirdest fucking rhododendron I’ve ever seen.)

Weird Possible Rhodie I

(I mean, honestly. I’m pretty sure it’s a rhodie, based on the leaves, but wtf is up with these flowers? I’m used to rhodie flowers being enormous bursts of yum. Even the varieties with smaller flowers have fairly large petals. I’ve never seen a rhodie with clusters of bell-shaped flowers. Is this a rhodie? Or is it just a bush that wants to be like a rhodie and only managed to mimic the leaves?)

After a brief flirtation with a fundamentalist church, I fell out of church-going Christianity because of the rampant idiocy, but clung to the idea of God a while longer. I believed there must be some sort of God, up there, and while his followers annoyed the fuck out of me, I figured he must be all right. Loving father and all that, right? And I didn’t want to piss him off by doing the wrong thing, like believing in false gods. I didn’t pray much. I didn’t go to church. But I listened to the squishy folks like Khalil Gibran and Karen Armstrong and got the warm fuzzies for a while. But there came a time when absence of evidence started looking an awful lot like evidence of absence. So many people all saying what God was and what he/she/it wanted, but they all had different answers while proclaiming they had The Truth. And none of it fit with this vague sense of what I thought so powerful thing as a god – the god – must be.

Weird Possible Rhodie II

For the most part, it didn’t matter, but I wanted the truth. And I wasn’t getting it in the monotheisms. So I decided I’d best go investigate these other religions, which had been presented as myths. Not just reading about them, filching some of their ideas for my stories, enjoying their philosophies, but taking them seriously as a possible path to the divine. I prayed my last prayer. I told God I was going to head down that path. All he had to do, if it was the wrong thing to do, was show me a sign, and I’d come skedaddling back.

Then I walked.

Weird Possible Rhodie III

I will admit that I had an immense amount of fun in those years. I played at being a Buddhist for a bit, and a Taoist. I dabbled in goddesses. Some of them were awesome, but it didn’t feel quite right: the divine wasn’t gendered, I was pretty certain, but I liked the more masculine manifestations. I didn’t much like being female back then. I’ve always been a tomboy, aside from occasional forays into total girl stuff, and I felt more drawn to the masculine gods. I fell in with Odin for a while. I ended up calling myself a Zen Buddhist/Taoist/Odinist for a while, and that felt so right. I could call on the girls when I felt like it. I could have whole pantheons, but those were my big three. Perhaps it’s a telling sign that two of them were more philosophy than religion (I never much liked the varieties of Buddhism filled with gods, nor the side of Taoism that is obsessed with magic powers and immortality. And Odin – dude, this is a god who sacrificed himself for knowledge. Way awesome). I didn’t worship. I didn’t pray, really. I did a desultory bit of divination, read the stories, absorbed the philosophies, and was quite happy living a life in which some patriarchal fuckwit wasn’t watching my every move, deeming me unworthy of love at every turn while still claiming to love me.

(Segue number two, in which I discover that the weirdest fucking rhodies ever have cousins with white flowers.)

Weird Possible Rhodie IV

But somewhere along the way, I lost all the gods and goddesses. I can’t pinpoint exactly where it happened. I just walked down the ramp that leads to agnosticism, and it sloped so gently I didn’t even know I was coming down from Valhalla. Everything I’d seen that seemed supernatural had a perfectly natural explanation. I’d never found really real magic. Science left no gaps big enough for something more than a microscopic god to fit in. I think I may have passed through Deism on the way, but eventually, I let go of all that. I’d grown the fuck up.

Weird Possible Rhodie V

Did the world become drab and boring? A bit. Yes, I regretted not being able to believe, for a while. Magic’s so sparkly. It’s just not real. And that made me vaguely sad. I was also stuck in Phoenix, Arizona in a shit job, with a shit-for-brains President, and there was no sweeping mythology that could make me feel that this had some magnificent purpose. But it’s not like life didn’t have its moments. There was the research and writing. There were concerts and other outings with friends. There were books. There were movies. There was my homicidal cat, and the pit bull puppy next door, and my wild and wonderful Mexican neighbors. There were orange blossoms in spring. You want magic? Go to Phoenix in March, when the orange trees bloom, and just for a while the city doesn’t smell like hot asphalt and diesel and pollution. Just for a while, it smells glorious.

There. There was magic. Ordinary, everyday, simple magic.

Weird Possible Rhodie VI

Then I got the hell out of Phoenix, and moved up here. The jobs didn’t really get any better. They’re still call centers, and call centers aren’t exactly the most enjoyable places to work, but it could be worse. It could be fast food. And there were new friends, and new adventures, and spectacular geology, and the Sound, and my homicidal cat still, and writing and research, and sun and rain, and a growing fascination with science that made the old myths seem rather dull by comparison.

And somewhere in there, I became an atheist without realizing it. I ran into atheists who were joyful in their atheism. I saw them bursting like rhodies, their lives full of spectacular color, and gloriously free of superstition. Perfect? No. What is? Magical? Yes. Real magic. The magic of the universe, and the world, and the remarkable fact that bipedal naked apes can figure out so damned much about it. True stuff, real stuff, stuff far stranger and more intriguing that what these made-up religions ever invented. Atheists, I discovered, could still appreciate the beauties of nature. They still loved art and poetry and music. They just didn’t have whole swaths of human accomplishment roped off because God Might Get Pissed and Condemn You to Hell.

Weird Possible Rhodie VII

But for some stupid reason, I didn’t realize I was an atheist until I scored so low on the God Delusion Index that a light went bing and I realized that, while I’d been calling myself an agnostic, I’d really been an atheist for quite a long time.

I was as wrong about atheism as I had been about rhodies. It wasn’t dull, it was gorgeous. All of those things I was afraid of – that the world wouldn’t seem so wonderful without the divine, that I’d be alone, that I’d fear death without the belief that death wasn’t the end, that without the possibility of the divine lurking around somewhere, life would be nothing but despair and ultimately empty – none of those things came to pass. Atheism actually helped me overcome my fear of death. No religion ever managed that. Atheism unlocked the universe. That takes care of all the rest. It’s hard to sit around being a sadsack and feeling all empty when you’ve got the whole of science to fill up on. It’s hard to be alone when you know every living thing is, in actual fact, related to you. And then you’ve got art and music and literature and culture to top things off.

Life isn’t perfect. Of course not. Nor was it when I believed. Nothing is perfect, but that doesn’t fuss me so much anymore. The thing about being an atheist is, you don’t expect things to be perfect. And you work to make them better rather than wondering why they aren’t already perfect. That’s outstanding, that is. It doesn’t do me many favors in corporate culture, because I can’t just meekly accept the things that suck, but I’m fortunate in having managers who don’t mind me getting righteously pissed off when we could be doing better and pushing to make sure we try. Same thing with life. It isn’t perfect. It has some features that suck leper donkey dick. And it’s infuriating. But instead of swallowing the anger, instead of meekly accepting that it’s all part of a greater plan, I can turn that anger into a positive force to change the world.

I love the world so much more now that I know it’s not the flawed creation of a rat bastard of a god. Its imperfections are no longer upsetting. They don’t throw me into doubt and despair. They’re just part of it, the way it is, and some bits of it can be changed because humans are good at that sort o’ thing, and some bits of it are just going to suck without it being anybody’s fault, but we have ways to compensate, so we’re okay.

And as for mystery, which I didn’t used to think I could live without: there are mysteries. There are always mysteries. For instance, I have no idea what’s up with that possible rhodie with the bell-shaped flowers. It surprised me. It’s a surprising mystery, and once it’s solved, there will always be another.

There will always be blossoms against a spring sky, shining in the sun.

Fruit tree blossoms against the sky

That’s how I see life as an atheist now: like the rhodies, unexpectedly and fantastically beautiful. And even when it’s not in full bloom, even when it looks dull and thick and rather boring, I know it’s just a matter of time before that beauty bursts out again.

I Can’t Show You This Picture, But You Must See It

I have this weird respect for copyright, so I didn’t want to embed this, but you really have to see it. Then come back and we’ll talk about it.

Yeah, that’s some kind of delicious, isn’t it just? More where that came from, at David Rankin’s website. So many sights there that reminded me of the not-so-halcyon days when I lived in Page. The only thing good about Page was the scenery. No complaints there, my friends – it’s truly dramatic. And David managed to capture an extra dollop of drama there. Fantastic.

I thought I recognized that old local icon, the Navajo Generating Station, but I wrote to him about it just to be sure. He advised, “The photo was taken with a telephoto lens from southern Utah just across the UT/AZ border looking at the Navajo Generating Station and LeChee Rock.” Four years I lived there, and I never knew that was LeChee Rock. We callow kids didn’t know the names of most of the mesas. We just kind of pointed at them and said “That one” when discussing them. I think the only reason we knew Page is built on Manson Mesa is because, hey, it’s Manson.

I used to go out at night up to the place on the edge of the mesa where it was rumored a whole settlement had blown sky-high one Halloween night back in the ’50s, and I’d stand there looking beyond the barely-lit airstrip out to the Navajo Generating Station. You wouldn’t normally think of a coal-fired plant as beautiful, but it was. Standing out there alone in the bare desert, the only light beyond Page for miles aside from the moon and stars, it looked like a ship in a sandy sea, sailing serenely among rocky icebergs. I mean, seriously. Go look at it again. Take your eyes off the lightning and really look at the plant. Doesn’t that look just like a grand old steamship, floating out there against the mesas? David captured it just as I remember it. Only he managed to capture so much more: the stark, dark cliffs standing against storm-torn skies.

This is what I was talking about when I told you about slickrock. Those mesas rose up from the desert floor, stark and still. The storms rolling in over them are bloody amazing to watch. Only you’ll want to do it from high ground. David’s shot what I’m talking about. It may not even be raining within a hundred miles of where you are, but suddenly, a sound, a roar, and water, swift and deep and treacherous. You can’t outrun it, and if you’re in a slot canyon, you can’t out-climb it, either. People have died because they didn’t understand this about the desert: even here, you can drown.

But to stand in a high place, to watch the lightning strike and the rain arrow down, to hear the wind roar through the barren rock – that you won’t trade for anything. To see the storm-light on the red rock, watch colors and hues change, dappled over ten or fifty or a hundred miles around you, painting an already painted desert – that’s a vision that will imprint itself indelibly. It stays.

I want to go back. I want to sit in the high places, and watch the sun explore ancient rocks. I want to hear a silence so profound it’s like a physical force. I want to lie back against that smooth, bare slickrock and stare into an endless sky. And I want to see the storms again, smell a petrichor so intense it tangles up and overwhelms the more prosaic scent of sand, feel that shock of chill air from a thunderstorm that washes over the skin like a mist and leaves you with goosebumps in a hundred degrees. I love and miss those things.

I’m glad I have such images to remind me.

Volcanic Venerations: Elden

Mount Elden from Route 66 (San Francisco Peaks in background). May 20th, 2005

I’ve run out of sediments to get sentimental about.  So, let’s stand on the Kaibab and gaze at one of the mountains that loomed over my childhood, by way of transition.  That, my friends, is a volcano.  And it was considered middling size, where I grew up, although considering it’s smack-dab in the midst of Flagstaff, it seems enormous.  My elementary school was right at the base of it.  We probably sat on its deposits.  We could walk to it, and did, and walked right up it.

Funny how you can spend so much time staring out the window at something less than a quarter mile away, not to mention climb it, and have no real idea what the hell it is.

The teachers mostly didn’t mention Mount Elden.  It was just there, this great big brown lump, unremarkable in every way aside from the fact it was a volcano in the midst of a city.  Once a year or so, they’d herd us all into the gym and roll out the film projector, and Mount Elden would get its fifteen minutes of fame in an old video showing us what happens when runaway kiddies light campfires in canyons on a mountain in dry country.  The results were probably a bit reminiscent of when it erupted: lots of smoke and sparks and a terrifying orange glow that seemed like it would consume the world.  They thought they’d lose the city before they got the fire out, and the scars are still there.  Trees don’t grow back well on steep lava slopes in dry country.  Erosion undoes what our precious little water tries to do.  The mountain may not recover until the climate changes.  So, children, look upon Mount Elden and know why you should never, ever light a match.

Somehow, some way, we learned it was a volcano, which led to a few nervous moments until we were told it’s not merely dormant, but extinct.  Extinct was good.  Except, of course, on those days when it was sunny and brilliant outside and it might have been nice to have a merely dormant volcano fast becoming active outside so they’d have to evacuate us.

One of our teachers pointed to it as a prime example of a shield volcano, and for years, I thought that’s what it was.  Big lump of near-solid lava, what else could it be?

2,300 feet worth of dacite dome, is what.  Five or six hundred thousand years ago, thick, sticky magma that occupies that space on the continuum between andesite and rhyolite squeezed up through the old sedimentary layers, overturned them, and extruded itself out in globs and lobes until it built a mountain.  As it erupted, bits cooled, fractured in the process, and peppered the slopes with boulders.  Lava flows on those steep slopes sometimes lost their hold and became chaotic avalanches of hot gas and chunks of dacite that fanned out around the base of the volcano.  The rest of it piled into mounds and cliffs, incredibly steep, where a few rare resident bald eagles live.

Elden’s Cliffs, where the bald eagles dwell.  June 10, 2009

The result was a gigantic lump of a lava dome.  A lot of Arizona’s volcanoes are fairly symmetrical: even though different angles give you a different perspective, they’re recognizably themselves.  Not so Elden.  It looks compact and rather small from some directions.  Depending on where you are, you might see it as an actual dome, or a peak with a hump, as in the photo above.  Then travel round the compass a few degrees, and all of a sudden, it presents a very long, strange profile.

Mount Elden, seen from Sunset Crater.  June 10, 2009

There’s a trail that winds up it, right to the very top where all the radio antennae are.  It climbs gently at first, lulling you into a false sense of security before taking off through hairpin switchbacks that don’t do much to cut back on all the straight up.  The overwhelming impression is tan.  The old dacite is tan, and it gives rise to tan dirt, and even the trees that grow where they weren’t burnt down have a tan undertone to their green.  Occasionally, there are splashes of bright reddish-pink sloshed over the big tan boulders.  The massive amounts of flame retardant dumped on that mountain in the 1970s left some garish streaks behind.  It was still there in the late 80s, when my class climbed to the top.  It might still be there.

The mountain has human stories to tell.  About a little girl lost who nearly fried the city, and a little boy, whose family homesteaded on the flanks of the mountain over a hundred years ago.  There was a spring there, and water was precious.  There wasn’t much of it.  And when the homesteaders had to make the choice between watering their herds and family and watering a passing stranger’s mules, they chose to refuse the gift of water.  There was, after all, another spring not far away, with more water more easily spared.  The stranger, not happy with this reply, fired at the family, and killed their young son.  Being a little girl myself, standing in that meadow where water trickled through an old pipe, looking at the site where a home used to stand and a family had been forced to bury their child, I felt the tragedy of it acutely.

You can still see his grave.  And the mountain carries his family name, so it, too, stands as something of a memorial.

Mount Elden stands as a reminder of acts that cannot be undone.  With the strike of a match, the firing of a gun, something can be taken away that can never be replaced.

And that, combined with the fascination of its geology – I mean, a young dacite dome far from a plate boundary? – transforms it from an odd lump of lava into something truly beautiful.

Mount Elden from Route 66, photographed by my Intrepid Companion.  June 11th, 2009.  The chewed-up pile of cinders in front of it is the remnant of a cinder cone, now a quarry.

Methods and Materials of a Sometime Geoblogger: A Case Study

Ha!  Like this post will be anywhere near as scholarly as the title suggests.  It’s just that Karen got me thinking again:

I want to know how geobloggers (and for that matter, bloggers in general) find the time and material to blog frequently! I exhaust my blog-dedicated time just reading five or six of my favorites every morning! 

I wonder the same thing meself, actually.  So I’ll be asking that question during ye olde Summer Interview Series.  Let’s begin with a willing subject: me.

Hullo, me.  How do you find the time?

The answer’s simple, really.  I haven’t got a life.

I’m not in school.  Job that requires no serious thought or overtime.  No significant other.  Not many local friends, certainly not many I go out with often.  No teevee shows I dedicate my time to (aside from Doctor Who, o’course).  Here I am, on a Sunday afternoon, me day off, pounding away at the keyboard, with no one but the cat for company.

I don’t go to the movies.  Don’t go shopping until lack of food or other vital items forces me from the house, and then it’s just a commando raid, in-and-out at top speed, often with my poor intrepid companion in tow since we’re in town for lunch anyway.  It’s only in the summer that I get out and adventure, and then only on the weekends.  I’ve just chosen writing at the one thing that must always come first, and shunted everything else off into the corners.  Not everyone can do that, but they manage just fine anyway – I’ve no idea how.

Mind you, I haven’t got much time for blogging.  I’m writing books (yes, plural), and that means the vast majority of my time is devoted to non-blogging activities.  I’ve carved out a four-hour chunk of time on Sunday afternoons to write the week’s posts, and I spend that week when Aunty Flow’s visiting to fill in any gaps, considering I’m no good for fiction writing then.

I’ve learned over the years that trying to do this on a day-to-day basis doesn’t work for me.  I can’t carve the day up into such tiny chunks and give everything the time and attention it deserves.

As far as blog reading, I’ve got some time in between calls at work, usually, and an hour or so a night while I’m scarfing dinner to catch up on whatever else I’ve missed.  Multitasking is key, people.

So that’s how I find the time.  As for subjects… that’s usually the easy part.  There’s you, my dear readers: you so often say something that gets me going.  Sometimes I’ll riff off of something I’ve read on another blog, or there’s a meme going round, or something I’ve read in a book recently catches my fancy.  Things come up when I’m worldbuilding that demand to be shared.  Important anniversaries, certain holidays, and other assorted special days are always good possibilities.  When I get maudlin and nostalgic, I’ll turn that into a post or several.  I’ve learned to just go with whatever shiny thing is glittering away in front of me, because I can’t guess what my readers will like.  Some of the posts I’ve published only because I’m a raging narcissist or too busy to write better have been the posts you lot like best, so I’ve learned to just throw it out there.  If it flops, ’tis not the end of the world.  There’s always tomorrow.

This present exercise in narcissism has gone on long enough.  I’m turning the floor over to you: care to answer Karen’s question?

Slickrock

I spent four years on top of a type section, and I never knew it.

Moi avec Page Sandstone, many years ago

I lived on Manson Mesa, in Page, AZ, where the type section for the Page Sandstone is located (pdf).  I knew it was sandstone.  I thought it had been laid down in a sandy sea during the dinosaur years, and there my geologic awareness ceased.

My geological knowledge back then suffered from, let’s be generous and call them deficiencies.  I wish I’d known then what I know now, because then I would’ve taken about ten trillion photographs of the place and gotten a lot more out of living there.  Still.  That landscape did settle into my soul.  Slickrock country settled into my soul.

It’s stark, sand-scoured, barren but beautiful.  I’d walk up the road from our house and along a dirt track, topping a rise on the mesa, and then partially descend the other side.  That’s when it would hit: the most profound silence I’d ever heard.  I’d stand there looking out over Lake Powell and just soak in the silence.  It couldn’t have been all that much quieter back in the Jurassic, when the Page Sandstone was nothing but coastal dunes marching along for miles.  They rested atop even older dunes, which are now the Navajo Sandstone.  Sandy then and sandy now.  You go to Page, you’ll become intimately acquainted with sand, both lithified and windblown.

Stand here, with me, on the sandy side of the hill.  Look over the lake.  Do you see that arm of the Colorado, meandering through the side canyons it’s carved into the ancient dunes?

The Colorado River, or at least parts thereof

You can play games with it, here, shift your perspective and spell things out.  Just there, from that vantage, it’s a J.  Move a few yards, and it’s a T.  Walking back in time.  Jurassic-Triassic.  There may even be some Triassic rocks around here – I’ll find out next time I go, now that I know more, now that I can love it for what it was and not just what it is.

Back then, I’d just stand and stare at the sapphire-blue lake incongruous in the pale red desert, and wonder how the fuck anyone could possibly call a rock surrounded by nothing but rock “Lone Rock.”

View of Lake Powell from Manson Mesa.  Lone Rock is that rock in the middle ground on the right.

On the other side of Manson Mesa, the wind has swept the stone clean, and you understand why it’s called slickrock.  It’s smooth, almost slippery, although the grains of windblown sand locked in their matrix do a pretty good job providing traction, if you know how to work it.  And I worked it.  In slick-soled boots, on dunes turned rock that weathered into rounded tops and tiny ledges on steep slopes before becoming sheer drops.  I’d run, flat-out, on ledges no more than a few inches wide, with nothing more than a few hundred feet of air on one side and high, rounded stone on the other, and I never once feared I’d fall.  The slickrock wasn’t so slick for me.  It gripped me, assured me it wouldn’t let me go.  I could trust it implicitly, even the crumbly bits where erosion was returning the stone to its original sand.  We understood each other, this sandstone and me.  We knew each others’ limits.

There was a place on the edge of the mesa where flash-floods had carved a gully between rock walls, and those stood high above the desert floor like castle turrets.  They were my citadel.  When I was up there, I was queen in my castle.  I could stand at the top of a turret and gaze over my treeless domain.

And it was treeless.  Sagebrush, a few straggling junipers, and some unidentified bushes growing along the washes were about the limit.  This is a stark, startling place, to someone who’d left an alpine paradise behind.  No mountains, no ponderosa pines reaching for the sky.  Just rock and sand with a desperate bit of biology barely clinging on, far as the eye could seen.

There used to be trees up there, legend says.  This is a landscape for legends.  You can believe nearly any wild tale you’re told, up there.  You can believe the trailer park built to house the folks building Glen Canyon Dam exploded at midnight on Halloween night in 1959.  You can believe skinwalkers stalk the darkness.  Just listen to the way the coyotes’ howls echo off those stone walls, refract and reflect and become something supernatural.  You know where those legends arise, now.  You know why, when people tell this story, you can believe it:

Back in the 1800s, a cowboy was passing near Manson Mesa on his way to Lee’s Ferry with a Navajo guide.  No lake there, then, and precious few ways to cross the Colorado, which had been cutting its way down into the Plateau for millions of years.  But there was this mesa, and the cowboy wanted to go up there and have a look.  The Navajo guiding him refused to take him up.  The cowboy demanded, the Navajo steadfastly refused.  The cowboy finally demanded to know why.

“The top of that mesa used to be covered with trees,” the guide said.  “There used to be a forest.  But something evil came to the mesa.  It scared the trees to death.”

The cowboy scoffed, went up alone, and never came back down.

Something so evil it scares trees to death.  Yes, sometimes, that’s what you feel up there.  But only close to the city.  On the side of the mesa, where it’s still wild, you may keep a weather eye out for skinwalkers, and you may feel like a very tiny thing lost in the vastness of the desert, but lean back against the slickrock and absorb the silence and you’re suddenly more at peace than you ever thought you could be. 

Besides, if you’re a geologist, you’d probably like to find that evil thing and thank it profusely for getting rid of all that pesky biology in the way of the rocks.

There’s another place, and another way, to see the rocks round there.  Down by Glen Canyon Dam, you can hop in a raft and run the river.  I never did, but my mother did, and thanks to her, we have some views that only a few people ever see.

My mother, with Glen Canyon and Glen Canyon Dam as her backdrop

I believe that canyon is cut from the older, far more extensive Navajo Sandstone, but you’d be doing me an unkindness by holding me to it.

Still.  Go up on the bridge over the dam.  There’s a walkway for pedestrians, and you can look down down down into a chasm where the Colorado flows, through sandstone walls painted dark with desert varnish.  You’ll get deliciously dizzy, standing there with a vertical drop and vertical walls.  If you’re very lucky, you’ll be there on one of those days when clouds are scudding across the sky, and you can watch sun and shadows play spectacularly artistic games on the ancient stone.  You can watch them release water from Lake Powell, keeping the Colorado flowing and the power generating, and see how wild the river can be.

The Colorado roaring down Glen Canyon

There are some places you have to leave to love.  For me, Page is that place.  All I ever wanted or needed while I lived there was to get the hell away.  Now, I’m older and wiser and miss it quite a lot.  My beautiful, barren, bewildering slickrock country, I’ll come home soon.  Just for a while. 

And I’ll come away with a piece of you, just so I can waggle it at visitors and say, “Ha!  Look at this, bitches – a piece of the type section of the Page Sandstone!”  Because there are few things in this world that a geology buff could love doing more.