Why Here?

There are so many ways in which all of our lives have been changed by Covid-19.  We struggled through a spring lockdown and a summer of social distancing.  Most of us have had at least one brush with someone who tested positive for the virus.  I missed our church summer campout when I had to quarantine.  And of course, 230,000 families have lost a loved one, a terrible reality that a sizeable minority of Americans find easier to deny than grieve.  Today, however, I am not writing about the big Covid-19 issues.  Today, I am focused on one little tiny matter related to the pandemic and the vagaries of human behavior.

I live in the last town in the foothills before a 21-mile stretch that rises 2500 feet to the main entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park.  There are two gas stations in my little town and a handful of restaurants.  It’s a cute village with a mountain vibe, the kind of place that often shows up on “Best Small Town” lists.  There are only a handful of neighborhoods north of the main highway.  I live in one of those neighborhoods, a canyon with a single development of 72 houses.

Before the development was built, a dirt road snaked its way from the highway up to the red rock quarries that dot the mountains to our north.  A short stretch of the dirt road remains, only about 100 yards long, just east of my house.  It is so seldom used that the surrounding vegetation has narrowed it to a single lane.  The road is paved for about 100 feet just south of my house, before the pavement ends.  When I am sitting on my back patio looking out at the mountains, the paved and unpaved portions of the road are just 50 feet away.  Which makes what has happened since the start of the pandemic especially interesting.

People turn up the canyon road that goes by my home.  Once they get to the dirt road turnoff just south of the house, they hesitate before slowly turning right and inching down the short paved portion of road.  Then they pull over where the pavement ends.  The picture above is looking back at my house and patio from the spot where they stop.

After they pull over, the most peculiar thing happens.  These weary travelers get out of their vehicles, and with little to no attempt to hide themselves, they deposit liquid on the prairie grass not 50 feet from where I sit on the patio.  Then they get back in their vehicles, turn around and head back toward the highway.  They never see me.  Apparently, the slight elevation of the patio (and it is slight, 10 feet at most) does not invite an upward gaze.

I need you to understand the frequency of this remarkable species behavior.  It never happened before Covid-19.  It is an adaptation specifically related to the pandemic.  I have not observed this behavior once or twice.  I have seen it five times.  No fewer than five times this summer, while I was sitting on my patio, people relieved themselves at the edge of the dirt road just south from where I was sitting.  And yes, it was people of all genders.  If it happened that often while I was sitting there, how often did it happen when I was not on the patio?  Yeah, I’m not gonna think about that.

I know what drives the behavior.  I just do not understand the choice of location.  Because of Covid-19, no one wants to use the restrooms at the gas stations or restaurants in town.  And they know they have a long stretch before they get to the national park, so they turn north from the main highway and start looking for an opportunity.  I mean, they could drive a few miles further up into the mountains, where they would find plenty of dirt roads and no houses or people, but no.  They choose the place where the pavement meets the dirt road, not 50 feet from my house, and in full view of, I dunno, about seven other houses.

I’ve been tempted to ask, “Excuse me, but could you help me understand why you’ve chosen this spot?”  But I’m afraid my question might affect their concentration.  I know our canyon is a wildlife corridor.  We have mountain lions all year and bears in the summer and fall.  They come through the canyon on their way to the river.  Is there some primal instinct deep in human DNA that makes people think, “This is the spot to respond to nature’s call.”  I mean, there was bear scat in my yard this September, and a red fox regularly leaves gifts in my yard that the dog I occasionally watch considers to be an olfactory joy.  Maybe that’s it.  In the deep recesses of our reptilian brains, there is a voice that whispers, “When in a pandemic, this is the place.”

They come in old cars, new cars, SUVs and motorcycles.  They come with singular purpose.  I haven’t noticed if it’s affecting the vegetation or not.  I don’t really want to look.  When I’m out running with the dog, she wants to go over and check it out.  I tug on her leash and say, “Not today, Finn; we have our standards.”

I imagine the behavior will end when the pandemic ends.  I mean, surely it will, right?  There is a lot of strangeness in our world right now.  Will these changes be permanent?  Is this the beginning of the devolution of the species? With everything else going on, I do not give myself too much time to ponder this odd behavior.  I just look forward to its cessation.

And so it goes.

This Is So 2020

My last trip on an airplane took place in early March when I flew to New York to speak at Rutgers University.  I should have known what was coming when our outbound flight was cancelled because a dog in the passenger section of the inbound flight had gotten sick and no matter how much they cleaned the airplane, the smell was unbearable.  That is the first time I have ever had a flight cancelled because of a “gift” left behind by a dog.

On the trip home our flight was almost cancelled because a flight attendant decided she didn’t agree with the captain’s decision to fly with one inoperative bathroom.  I sat  in the front row and watched as 15 employees came on to adjudicate the rather bitter disagreement.  The flight attendant left in a huff and we waited an hour for a new flight attendant.  That was also a first.  I had no idea how many more firsts 2020 was holding.

After I got home, the whole world shut down, so I just stayed at home and worked on my memoir.  The timing was good, but the work was tedious, with scores and scores of edits before getting my last draft to my editor at Simon & Schuster on October 5.  Just two weeks before that deadline I called my editor in tears, wanting to scrap the entire book.  It just was not as good as I wanted it to be.  She talked me off the ledge and I wrote between 10 and 12 hours  a day for the next 14 days and finally turned in a manuscript I think I feel okay about.  Writing the story of your own life is not easy.  I’ll leave it at that.

I’ll get copy edits back early next month and legal edits a week later.  Then I have until November 24 to get my final copy back to my editor.  The book won’t be released until next spring, but deadlines are deadlines.

Working on the book made the first wave of Covid-19 go relatively quickly.  But it is obvious the next phase of the pandemic is going to be no easier and no faster.  I was exposed to the virus once this summer, when a friend of a family member brought his sick child to a family gathering.  The required quarantine caused me to miss preaching one weekend and miss our church summer camping trip.  I try to remain vigilant, but pandemic fatigue is setting in for all of us. 

Then last Saturday I was hiking in southern Boulder County with a friend as we watched the Calwood fire blow up just south of where I live.  I took the picture above right before I realized just how close the fire was to my home.  We rushed home, only to be greeted by roadblocks.  We finally got home just as I received a reverse 911 call that we were in a pre-evacuation phase.  I began gathering photo albums, important papers, legal documents, clothes and such, as we waited for the order to evacuate.

 As darkness fell, we watched in horror as the fire came over a ridge along the mountain biking trail I ride, just four miles south of my house.  Later that night the danger abated enough that the call never came to evacuate, though we remained in warning mode for the next five days, with mandatory evacuations just one mile away.  The day the evacuation warning was finally lifted a much larger and more deadly fire developed in and around Rocky Mountain National Park, about 25 miles west of my home.  And oh yeah, I didn’t even mention the wildfire that’s been burning for two months 15 miles north of Lyons.  There are currently wildfires burning to my north, west, and south.  So there’s that.

Thursday evening looked like Armageddon had arrived.  The sky was red, ash was falling like snow, and evacuees from Estes Park were pouring through our town.  It’s been warm most of the week and will be 60 degrees tomorrow, but Sunday we are getting 15 inches of snow.  Monday’s temperature will not get out of the teens. Generally, I hate snow.  This time I don’t mind.  At least it will slow down the wildfires.

I’ve tried to stay lighthearted about it all, but it’s been a tough year.  My mother died 11 months ago.  My father died in May.  From August of last year to July of this year, a great trouble happened at church that rocked me to my core.  In December I stepped down as one of the co-pastors, remaining as a teaching pastor.  I am now serving again as a co-pastor and the church is doing quite well, but to say we went through the refiner’s fire is a bit of an understatement.  That, plus at the moment I am not crazy about fire metaphors.

I don’t mean to complain.  It has also been a good year.  I’ve been very busy this month speaking for corporations and conferences all over the world, including Global Care24, India’s FAIR Dialogue, Canada’s Conference for Women in Travel and Hospitality, the Marketing Research Event, Elanco’s worldwide employee conference, a national Joe Biden LGBTQ event, the annual women’s conference at Pinterest, an annual diversity conference at Mastercard, the KIN Meetup, and at least two podcasts a week.  And I’ve done it all from my living room, which has been wonderful.  In the next two weeks I will be doing events for TED Women, TEDxMileHigh, and three more companies, as well as preaching for Middle Collegiate Church in New York City.  And again, I don’t have to leave my living room.  I could get used to that.  Well, I could get use to it as long as there weren’t always wildfires and a worldwide pandemic  just outside my door.

I’m preaching at Left Hand Church twice a month, and our online audience continues to grow.  Our live audience often includes viewers from Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, Ireland, England, and across the United States.  A lot of those viewers have come to us via my first TEDxMileHigh talk which is rapidly approaching 4 million views on YouTube.  I’ve loved our online services, but I miss our people – a lot.  I can’t wait until we can meet in person again, which looks like it should happen sometime before the 2024 presidential election.  

It is a stressful time.  When you are speaking for an event that is paying you thousands of dollars and you lose your video connection exactly three minutes before your keynote is scheduled to begin, you don’t exactly calm down until, I dunno, about three days later.  It would be bad enough if that happened once.  It’s happened three times in the last two weeks.  It is so 2020.  But I’m older than dirt, and have lived long enough to know that life is good and ultimately redemptive, and this too shall pass.

And so it goes.


I’m Still Speaking

My granddaughter is writing a story about her guinea pig, Ellie, so I decided I would sit down and write with her.  Ava had Ellie for three years, but she passed away recently.  Ava is writing about the things Ellie might have said if she could have talked.  I like the things Ellie would have said.

I thought of all five of my granddaughters on Tuesday night, as I watched yet one more occasion in which a smug White man talked over and mansplained to a strong Black woman.  Other than the spectacularly boorish behavior of one of the participants in the debate a week earlier, it was the the rudest expression of male behavior I have seen in a debate.  

The evangelical world thinks Mike Pence is a wonderful example of what it means to be a Christian man.  With all due respect, the evangelical world might not be fully aware of its own patriarchal prejudices.  The lack of respect Pence showed to Senator Harris tells us just how far we have to go before we get anywhere near gender equity.

Since I’m hardly in a position to affect change in that male-dominated world, I don’t have high aspirations.  I would be thrilled if just two things could happen.  I speak about both in almost every speech I give to corporations and conferences.  Both would at least start moving us in the right direction.  I would like to leave a more equitable world  for my granddaughters than the one into which they were born.

These two changes are incredibly simple. First, men, if you would just assume that a woman knows what she is talking about, and treat her accordingly, that would be a good start.  Second, if you would stop interrupting women, and also stop others who interrupt women, then my joy would be complete.  Well, it might not be complete, but I’d feel better about the state of gender relations than I do now.

Ever since I transitioned I have noticed how often I am interrupted.  I began researching and discovered I was not imagining the change.  Men interrupt women twice as often as they interrupt other men.  And here is the thing.  I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I used to be one of the those who interrupted women.  It is very troubling.  Worse yet is the fact that I still do it.  I am much more aware of it now, and stop myself and apologize, but it is not an easy habit to break.  It is at the forefront of my mind in every meeting I attend.  It is not enough to catch myself and apologize.  I need to stop interrupting in the first place.  

From childhood through their college years, boys are encouraged to think out loud.  They are taught to be confident and sure of themselves and to speak up whenever they have a thought.  Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised when they bring that with them into their adult lives.  Girls are taught just the opposite.  Girls are taught that they have to be perfect, so when they grow up and enter the workforce, they bring that expectation with them.  They know that when they do speak up in a meeting, their words have to be impeccable and succinct, because they know they are going to be interrupted. 

When I was a man, I rarely had the patience to wait for a woman to collect her thoughts.  If she didn’t speak up in the time allotted by men for other people to speak – about seven nanoseconds – then I spoke instead because, well, what I had to say was important.

It is humbling to realize just how entitled I was.  I was painfully reminded of it all last Tuesday when I watched Mike Pence cut off Kamala Harris time and again.  I wanted to scream at him to shut up and let her finish.  Fortunately, Harris has learned how to handle rude men.  She knows a woman has to respond to male rudeness carefully, and she does it perfectly.  She knows if she is too strong in her response, well, there’s a word that is likely to be used to define her.  If she doesn’t respond strongly enough, then she will not be seen as a leader.  She has to ride the knife edge between responding too strongly and not strongly enough.  

Kamala Harris was masterful at handling Pence’s interruptions.  “I’m still speaking” merchandise has already made its way into the mart of competitive commerce.  But the frustration is that she even needed to be masterful at handling his interruptions.  It is quite a double standard we have created.  Men are allowed to be boorish.  Women are not even supposed to be annoyed, let alone boorish.  The senator’s ability to handle rude interrupting men has been honed over her career as a prosecutor and a politician.  I stand in awe.  I have not developed the skill at silencing interrupting men that Harris has developed.  I just get angry.  But that is another thing women are not allowed to be.  Anger is an acceptable emotion for men, but not women.  It is maddening.

I asked Ava if boys interrupt her at school.  She said, “Yeah, because boys are well, you know, kinda stupid.”  I did not challenge her conclusion.  All five of my granddaughters are strong girls.  I’m glad. They have mothers and fathers who are not teaching them to be perfect.  They are teaching them to be persistent.  They will create a better world than the one into which they arrived.

I asked Ava, “I used to be a boy.  Do you think I was stupid?”  She thought about it for a minute and said, “Probably not, Gramma Paula, because you were transgender.”  Oh, if she only knew…

And so it goes.