Everyday Rabbit Holes

A FedEx Boeing 777 near Powell flying from Memphis to Seattle.

Most people would consider my hometown of Powell, Wyoming—whether they live here or are visiting—a pretty remote place in this world of eight billion humans. Certainly there are other places more remote, but in terms of averages in the United States, we’re pretty much in the boondocks, the sticks, the hinterlands… the middle of nowhere. Some locals call this part of Wyoming, “The Big Empty.”

Typical of remote locations, there is often a lack of diversity in the populations occupying them. And, Powell, Wyoming is no different. With the exception of a small body of international students at the local college, Powell is pretty much a  “white-bread” community.

Yet, nearly every clear day I’m reminded that perhaps we aren’t that remote and maybe we’re a little more diverse than I think.

Thanks to a little app on my phone called Plane Finder, I can learn about the planes that fly overhead on any given day which are relatively many given we are in the middle of nowhere. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like we are near a major airport, but I’m astounded in how many planes I see flying overhead on any given day—even if they are typically 25,000 feet or higher. And, thanks to Plane Finder, I know about any given plane’s origins, its destination, how high above me it is flying, how fast it is traveling, how long it has been in the air and how much more time remaining in its flight, its manufacturer and model, its flight number, and which airline it represents.

Real time image of FX17 in PlaneFinder.

Beyond the knowledge of these airplanes overhead, flying from all over the country (and world), it’s fun to think about the diversity of the passengers onboard those aircraft that are only about thirty-some thousand feet away as they transit the typical blue skies over Powell. They may look down and see an arid and sparsely populated land mass below—that is anything but inspirational—but I look up and think about the places where they are going to and coming from, and the variety of cultures on board, and suddenly my outlook on the day gets a little brighter. 

For example, just today I looked up to see a plane heading almost due south. It was flying from Calgary/YYC to Dallas-Fort Worth/DFW. Not long after, another plane flying due east from Portland/PDX to Chicago/ORD. Other days, I’ve looked up to discover a plane coming from Frankfurt/FRA and heading to Los Angeles/LAX or Las Vegas/LAS.

Visiting with one of my students today—who happens to be an international student from Timor-Leste—I said to her, “You must see all kinds of planes flying over your home town.” Strangely enough, she said airplanes are pretty rare. I was in disbelief, so we looked at the current air traffic over Timor-Leste via Plane Finder, and oddly enough, she was right. There’s all kinds of air traffic in that part of the world, but the routes seem to circumvent her island nation for whatever reason.

I was telling a couple of my colleagues in the art department about this and wondering how we could do some kind of collaborative art project about this local, overhead anomaly. (If something comes to mind as you’re reading this, feel free to leave a comment, or just run with this idea and do something about the planes that fly over your community—wherever it is. I’d love to hear about it too.)

In case you are wondering, yes Powell/POY does have an airport, but no major carriers service our lone landing strip where (mostly) single-engine puddle jumpers land and take-off. If you want to get on a major carrier airplane while in Powell, you’ll have to find your way to nearby Cody/COD or Billings, Montana/BIL about 90-miles away.

Of course, now that I know more about these planes that fly quietly overhead, more questions have found their way to me, leading to more rabbit holes to go down on the internet. For example, I noted that FedEx flies their planes over Powell on a regular basis from Memphis/MEM to Portland/PDX or Seattle/SEA and back.

FedEx’s Memphis hub map of flights.

That got me thinking, “What’s so significant about Memphis/MEM to Portland/PDX or Memphis/MEM to Seattle/SEA? It turns out that  Memphis/MEM is the main hub and the location of their headquarters. Everything that is FedEx seems to pass through Memphis/MEM. And, how did that come to be, I wondered? Because during FedEx’s infancy, they purposely chose Memphis/MEM because Memphis International Airport/MEM is near the mean population center of the country and inclement weather is relatively infrequent compared to other centrally located international airports.

Now I need to know how many planes they have…

Surrendering to Mediocrity

Call me a disgruntled worker—I’m OK with it. The unhappiness with my workplace hasn’t come about because I thought I was screwed over, or because I’m just plain old and nothing makes me happy any longer—neither is true, except that I am just plain old.

I’m disgruntled because I’ve finally grown tired of our institution’s determined march toward mediocrity. This includes a willingness to do nothing, or at least do nothing that has any imagination, nothing that is bold, nothing that is earth-shaking or nothing that even smacks of daring. And I’ll lay this banner of mediocrity and ineptitude almost entirely on our Board of Trustees and their milque-toast leadership.

Of course, what I’m specifically talking about is changing the name to Yellowstone College. As most folk know on campus (and beyond to some extent), I am the broken record that keeps on reminding people of the need for a name change whenever there is talk of how to promote the college and get it more exposure. I’ve sat through several meetings where such discussions come up, and everything under the sun is discussed at length except a name change.

Northwest College—a school in northwest Wyoming about 70 miles from the border of Yellowstone National Park (that’s the mandatory tagline that goes with our name so people know where the hell we are)—is a place where we love to tout how different we are from other junior colleges, yet when it comes down to planning (or lack of) we tend to defer to what everyone else is doing. We talk about being unique, but the only thing truly unique about Northwest College is its location—something we’ve never had any control over to begin with. If Northwest College were in Paducah, Iowa, it would be just another, average community college with some obscure, innocuous, generic, and sadly forgettable name. But, instead we are located at the doorstep of Yellowstone National Park with an obscure, innocuous, generic, and sadly forgettable name.

To my knowledge, the talk of a name change—from Northwest College to Yellowstone College—became serious in October of 2018 (four years ago) when former college president Stefani Hicswa sent me a brief email that simply and only said, “I heard a rumor you are promoting Yellowstone College. Tell me more…”

From that time on, the idea of a name change has been seriously kicked around, but mostly just kicked down the road for another time. Four years have passed and no decision has been made—to change the name or not change the name. As an old friend of mine once said, “They don’t know whether to shit or steal third.”

The name-change continues to be a no-brainer and yet the Board of Trustees continues to treat it like a complex problem—overthinking it and giving way to much consideration to the “old guard” who prefers mediocrity and the status quo of pounding a square peg into a round hole.

Over coffee a friend pointed out to me that placing all the blame on the Board of Trustees might not be warranted in saying, “A leader can not be successful without the support of a bold board, an open-minded community, a faculty willing to do things differently & students hungry to consume the product.” He went on to say that our failure to react is not unique to our local community either, that as a society we need to redefine today’s successes in saying, “We cannot re-create our past successes we need to create new ones based on the realities of today & tomorrow.”

Meanwhile the school’s enrollment is flat and remains way below its numbers from say, fifteen years ago. A couple resident halls remain closed and the faculty numbers and programs of study are significantly less. Further, the competition for prospective students in the future grows more intense.

After 31 years, I’m over it and it’s time to move on if I can. Again, call me a disgruntled worker. That said, NWC has paid me fairly and I have tried to rise up to my net worth. We are square, period. And when the time comes for me to go, no goodbye party, social, gathering, etc. is needed—nor wanted. I’ll leave as quietly as I arrived, insuring I don’t disturb this sleepy community of mediocrity.

Waste & Aesthetic of Energy Systems

Wind Farm, Iowa

Because I’ve been pretty outspoken against fossil fuels over the years, a few people I know like to remind me of the wind turbine blade landfill near Casper, Wyoming—pointing out to me that after the blades have been used up due to wind erosion and whatever else wears them down, they have a dedicated place for disposal in this supersized landfill. Currently there is no recycling options for them other than covering them with dirt (see link below).

 

Their reminder about this always strikes me as a little odd. They say it as if the fossil fuel industry has nothing in comparison, or almost as if they are unaware of any waste or discarded material when it comes to the fossil fuel industry. When in truth, much of the fossil fuel waste is simply laying around unused where it was last operational or it simply ends up in the everyday landfills. Further, harnessing the wind and sun have no significant residual by-products like that of the fossil fuel industry.

 

Just because the fossil fuel industry has no “dedicated” spaces for their trash, doesn’t mean there is none. I would even reason based on the wide variety of equipment you find in any oil or gas field that the amount of trash probably surpasses that which is generated by renewables—for the simple reason there are fewer moving parts when it comes to renewables, especially with solar. Further, whether the waste is renewable or not, I’ll bet my paycheck that the waste generated by renewables is far less toxic than the waste coming from fossil fuel operations.

 

Regardless, I’m not here to argue which industry generates more waste. The point is anything that is of this world generates waste—automobiles, appliances, construction, medical equipment, textiles, printing and publishing, shipbuilding, agriculture, hospitality, aviation, etc. Sooner or later, everything wears out, and waste is the result, period.

 

Then there is the aesthetic of it all. Granted, anything man-made in the wilderness is not great, because, well… it’s man made and doesn’t look natural. So, given the two offerings of a fossil fuel landscape or a renewable energy landscape, I’ll take the renewables every time. Not because they can’t be seen, but because the visual they offer includes simple lines and shapes along with various patterns, and a minimal amount of peripheral and chaotic related structures. (See photos).

 

Yes, a wind farm can be seen from far off, but it is anything but ugly. Keep in mind, power lines and their transmission towers are just as visible from far away whether they carry electricity from a coal-fired power plant or a wind farm, and are probably here for a long time to come.

 

Lastly, there is no odor associated with renewables—and certainly nothing that can make you dead before you hit the ground like hydrogen sulfide (H2S). 

 

I’ve witnessed many travelers stopping and just simply gazing at a wind farm for its grandness, quietness and simplicity. But, I don’t recall (ever) hearing someone say, “Let’s go out to the gas fields and look at the structures,” or “Let’s go watch the pumpjacks!” Not to say there are some exceptions to this twisted idea.

 

 

Which would you rather view?

Attack from Below

Shoshoni Punks.

Today I flew my drone several times on the way to Casper, Wyoming for a recruiting trip. One of my “sorties” was in the small town of Shoshoni, Wyoming. As I was driving through town, I saw that the old “downtown” area where they leveled the derelict buildings was mostly vacant, but the community appeared to have built a nice little basketball court with a fence around it—and their were some young males playing there. I didn’t get a good look, but if I had to guess, I’d say they were freshman or sophomores in high school.

I pulled over at the public restrooms located a little farther down the main drag and decided I would fly my drone over the railroad track until I reached the new basketball court and capture a couple images of the new recreation space.

The drone was about 60-70 feet high as it made its way toward the court—higher than any trees in town. I could see through the drone’s camera that the young men/boys must have heard the drone because they stopped suddenly and looked up as they started walking toward the other end of the court where the drone was. Although I wasn’t over the court, I must have been close enough that they heard the whirling props.

One of the youth took the basketball and threw it in the direction of the drone… not coming close at all. But then I could see that the other boys were squatting down on the side of the court and suddenly came running toward the drone with a throwing motion—no doubt, probably picked up some rocks and were heaving them in the drone’s direction.

Naturally, I flew away and found a couple other things to photograph before bringing it back to the rest stop and continuing my journey towards Casper.

But, that little incident stayed with me as I made my way down the road—considering the action from Shoshoni’s youths. I was reminded of the old movies about aliens visiting Earth and how humans are often portrayed as violent and militant in their first contact of those things that are a mystery to them.

I wondered, if I had walked down their with a camera around my neck, would they have thrown rocks at me too? Probably not, but something less familiar to them like a drone was immediately perceived as what… a threat, someone spying on them in their public basketball game? Maybe they just wanted to see it crash, but I found their vicious reaction a bit disheartening.

I thought of myself at the same age and wondered if I would have reacted the same way. I’d like to think I would have only stopped and observed—maybe even a little wave at the small aircraft suspended overhead.

Many people who are born and raised in Wyoming often display or express suspicion of those who aren’t the same. If I was given $100 for every time someone told me to “go back to Ohio, Arizona (or even California),” I’d be a rich man by now. Perhaps these youth in Shoshoni had simply illustrated that same, small-minded temperament.

Inocculation Observations

Today I received my first COVID-19 vaccine. It was fairly uneventful, yet here I am somehow writing about it. I filled out a one-page form and before I knew it, I was taking off my jacket and rolling up my sleeve for the curly-haired, red-headed nurse.

In our short visit, I found her sense of humor and bed-side manner a pleasant surprise given the gravity of a pandemic. She said sternly, “Morgan, take off your clothes,” and then chuckled. The only reply I could come up with at the moment was, “Gee, I haven’t heard that in a long time.” If I could do it all over again, I probably would have said something even more self-deprecating like, “Oh, you’ll be so disappointed.”

I knew a few people there for the same reason. I found it amusing how some of the men—older of course—felt the need to remove their shirt rather than roll up their sleeve to receive the vaccine. I don’t know, maybe it was a long-sleeve kind-of-thing, but I was reminded of my father. Even in his late years, he never had second thoughts about being shirtless. Maybe it’s a generational thing. Regardless, after I turned 40, I felt pretty certain that no one would see me shirtless in public even if it was Jay-Lo wagging her “come hither” finger at me from her hotel balcony.

My partner, Mish did her fair share of socializing with the medical staff as well—especially after her inocculation. We sat together afterwards and she told me of her moments with the nurse and needle—as we witnessed another shirtless, old-guy with man-boobs directly in front of us receiving his vaccine.

Looking around the cavernous room of others visiting at the fairgrounds I considered how normal mask-wearing was becoming in any given social setting. I wondered if this new norm might have some staying power long after the pandemic is behind us. If one needs any evidence to support such a possibility, look no further than  the Japanese culture and their practice of mask-wearing, long before any pandemic was on the horizon. It seems very possible that the rest of the world will now see the wisdom in that practice of social hygiene. 

The actual shot was pretty typical of any—like a bee sting that doesn’t last very long. Six hours after getting the shot, the only thing I have noticed unusual is that my arm is sore where I received the injection—reminiscent of the occasional charly-horses John Polinger administered back in junior high. I do feel a bit fatigued as well, but that’s more likely just attributed to another Thursday and knowing that the bulk of my class load is behind me for another week. Whatever aches or pains come with this vaccine, I’m thinking they’ll blend right in with the aches and pains that come with a 60-year-old body. 

Stay tuned for Part II.

Defining a Friendly Community

Some people around here say Powell is one of the friendliest small towns you’ll ever come across. “Everyone is so friendly,” they’ll say.

Today, as COVID-19 cases creeped up to a new all-time high in our state (Wyoming), I made a trip to our local supermarket for a weekly supply of provisions. Out of a store that probably had close to 100 shoppers in its aisles, myself and maybe five others were wearing masks as recommended by every health department in the country—that makes for five percent who were conscientious enough and felt the need to do our part in helping to prevent any further spread of the pandemic.

My question turned to the others—you know the 95% who weren’t wearing masks and how they reckoned with that moniker of  “one of the friendliest towns” one might ever encounter.

This wasn’t early March when the pandemic was just reaching our shores. This was a time when the virus had not only arrived, but was taking up residence and sipping lemonade in our country’s sparsist communities—with no real deterrent/silver bullet on the horizon.

With that in mind, I found myself wondering how am I still to view this community where a random 95% of them are without mask during the height of a pandemic? Should any outsider continue to consider them “friendly” as they have always been labeled? How can they been seen as friendly when they appear to be people that don’t seem to care about spreading a virus to their fellow citizens? Or, how can they be seen as friendly when all they seem to care about are their Constitutional rights being taken from them in the form of being forced to wear a mask? Or this: how can they appear to be friendly instead of just outright stupid when they don’t take the pandemic seriously, despite what the medical community has been telling them since March?

Surely this random 95% didn’t just happen to forget their masks as they headed for the supermarket on this ordinary day.

Pandemic Pondering

COVID-19 poster child.

It’s here. It’s in the country’s least populated state. That also means it’s everywhere else, and there’s nowhere to hide! The official word went out to the campus community via email during Spring Break that all face-to-face classes will be replaced with remote/on-line instruction “wherever possible for as long as needed.” So, like it or not, Northwest College is officially an on-line institution of higher education. I suspect every school across the country will be the same by week’s end.

With schools closing or moving to “on-line” delivery systems, we educators have another opportunity presented to us—becoming “YouTube talent” and adding to the glut of “self-titled experts.”

I know it all feels a bit over-reactionary, but the mortality rates attributed to COVID-19 are piling up and that’s difficult to dismiss. I’m certainly going to heed the words of the medical profession over anything that spills out of Trump’s lying face or the lineup of stooges on Fox News.

Lately I’ve been wondering which flu/virus would win in a smack-down—say between today’s COVID-19 and 1968’s Hong Kong Flu. The Hong Kong Flu of 1968 left its mark of mortality on the globe (one million perished) yet, I don’t recall the country coming to the stand-still that it is today. Is the Corona Virus that much worse, or is all of this just the result of better and more specific science supported by better and more immediate communications—thus resulting in our heightened sensitivity to all things pandemic?  

As long as I’m here, is there such a thing as a generic flu anymore? They all seem to have names, especially the new ones that take the stage every year. They rise up like featured Pantone Colors of the Year.

At this point in time, one has to wonder what will it be like next year or the year after when another version of the flu or another virus strain rolls around. Might our cycles of life become permanently altered given the annual flu season that arrives every late winter? Might schools in the near future only have one semester of face-to-face classes while the spring semester moves to a flu-free, on-line format?

“You are at your very best when things are at their worst.”

—Jeff Bridges in “Starman”

A person from Billings (reportedly) walked into Powell’s local market, Blairs, and purchased all the toilet paper in the store. The owner/manager in the store was apparently happy to sell it to her despite leaving the local and regular customers wanting while perched on their porcelain thrones. Thanks Blairs, you capitalist fucks. Where is your commitment to community in that deal? I’ll be second-guessing myself in the future when planning a trip to Blair’s. 

What would the America of World War II—uncertain of a war’s outcome and forced to live with rationed goods and supplies—think of the self-serving-hoarders of 2020 threatened by a seasonal virus? I thought America was a little better when it came to looking after our fellow citizens.

For now, I look forward to that breaking story—because you know it will be reported—of a toilet-paper-hoarder found dead in their home from Corona Virus surrounded by 400-plus rolls of toilet paper.

Here’s a sharp and well-written related piece.

NWC’s Trapper Village West as a Recruitment Tool

Northwest College’s Trapper Village West is one mile from the main campus.

I attended the Northwest College Board of Trustees meeting on March 9 and listened to some well-reasoned and passionate presentations on the future of the college. The College’s plan to sell Trapper Village West (TVW) housing was indeed compelling, both from the standpoint of the presenters’ comments and the Board’s lack of response—probably not the most productive forum for a good two-way back-and-forth. That said, in defense of the facility, I have a few observations to add to the fray in this local hot topic.

I think a re-orientation approach to TVW would be well worth entertaining. Rather than looking at it from the view point of what advantages a sale would bring, I think perhaps the advantages of keeping the housing would be a reasonable focus. Once upon a time, Northwest College experimented with themed-housing. The results were inconclusive. But, back in that day my son lived in a learning community called the Art House and remembers that experience as his best-spent time in college. He cited common interests and a stimulating environment as worthy supplements to his formal learning experiences in the classrooms. I don’t know why these themed houses went away, but I assume cost to the student was a factor, along with some vague and/or unnecessary qualifying criteria.

I did some looking around on the internet to see how this concept exists at other institutions and found some thought-provoking information. I know that Northwest is different from other colleges in many ways but the two commonalities our school has with the others are substantial residential housing and contemporary student interests and concerns. Perhaps we could expand our view of what types of existing subgroups on our campus might find theme houses attractive.

I know that the student athletes at Northwest would jump at the chance to live together, and that is surely a common theme. But consider some others: science majors, gender neutral, women’s studies, international students, or students from the same town or region, etc. A common interest might be enough to recruit students for this opportunity, especially if there are financial incentives included. I don’t know what price point would work but I think an empty housing unit by comparison is good enough to consider discounting the cost.

So, at a bare minimum this effort might serve to buffer the maintenance costs of Trapper Village, and on the upside, it just might lead to a new and powerful recruiting tool, especially if it were presented as another cost-saving option to potential students offered by a school that’s already known for its low attending price.

Taking a pass on a school packing heat

You know he carried a gun to school too.

I knew the day would come. I’d been dreading it ever since I read about it in the newspaper.

Back in 2018, the Cody, Wyoming School District passed a resolution allowing teachers and staff to possess firearms on school property—as a method of deterring potential mass shootings within the school district. I remember saying to myself back then, I’ll never set foot in their buildings if that’s the case.

I’ve never worked or wanted to work in an environment where employees are permitted to carry weapons. If my employer, Northwest College, were to adopt a similar policy as the Cody School District, my resignation would follow close behind the passing of such law, and without doubt many would rejoice. 

Some might say that I’ve already been in situations where someone was carrying a weapon and I didn’t know it. That’s an ugly truth I try not to think about, but if I see someone with a weapon or know they have a weapon—whether concealed or open carry—I clear out. If I’m in a supermarket with a trolly full of groceries and see someone carrying a weapon in the same location, I’m gone—leaving the cart and vacating the premises.

And, yes, I’m aware that I could be shot dead on the gun-free campus of Northwest College by a bad guy (or good guy) carrying a gun. Despite that, sooner or later we all find ourselves in a situations where we’ve reached a boundary that we’re not willing to cross over.

One could say that carrying a gun is a freedom, but isn’t it also a freedom in a person choosing to avoid—what they consider to be—a potentially dangerous situation?

Recently, an email went out to various faculty on campus asking for participation in the Cody Job Fair at the high school. I ignored it, hoping a  sufficient number of faculty would volunteer. However, my supervisor received a call asking if there were any from our area that would be interested in going. As a result, I was approached and ask if I could attend.

Perhaps I could have fabricated some innocuous excuse for not going, but I felt it was important to be honest in declining the offer to go. I’m unsure if my supervisor shared my explanation with anyone higher in the chain of command. It doesn’t really matter. I’m just thankful to have a job that allows me to decline off-campus events where fellow educators are packing heat. 

Thinking back on it now, I suppose I would have attended if one of my superiors ordered me to do so, but if that were the case, drafting a resignation letter probably would have followed—assuming I didn’t get hit by a stray bullet accidentally discharged from the gun of a poorly-trained staffer at the job fair.

There’s not much significance in my stand here. It’s certainly nowhere in the league of a Rosa Parks or Tiananmen Square moment, but it certainly was an opportunity to abide by my principles. And, in knowing that I spoke my conscience gives me a bit more confidence that I will do the same in the future—regardless of the stakes.

More reading on this…