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…

Littering misdemeanors and/or felonies

A “prairie mattress” north of Powell, Wyoming.

Littering is littering, but when it shows up in those sublime places, I believe the crime is more severe.

Not far from the Powell Municipal Airport, I can across this gem… this “Wyoming Reststop.” When I come across such overt littering/dumping like this, I always try to picture the person, and of course the first image that comes to mind is some toothless White Trash dude and his cousin. But then, I start considering a couple of college-age students who just need to get out of their apartment ASAP. Regardless, I suspect whoever is guilty of this probably is rationalizing that someone will come along and pick it up and dispose of it properly. Nevertheless, if caught in this crime, I’d like to see these people serve some jail time and booked as a felony rather than a slap-on-the-hands misdemeanor.

I might have to go up there and be the one who removes it knowing that whoever did this is likely from my home town—and God forbid I know them. So, shame on you, Powell, shame on you Wyoming for such ugliness to curse your sublime landscapes.

146,810.3 miles

The 1983 Honda in its final resting spot—Zier’s Auto Salvage near Deaver, Wyoming.

Deaver, Wyoming

We bought the ’83 Honda Accord in 1990. Considering the amount of rust on the body, it’s safe to say the car had spent most of its time on the salted roads of Northeast Ohio. I don’t remember the final price, but the monthly payments were $105 for three years.

When it came to reliability, the yellowish-tan import never let us down; however, like most used cars, many of its more dispensable features were just that—dispensed. The air conditioner never worked due to an electrical short somewhere between the control panel and the A/C itself. And the cruise control was extremely temperamental, sometimes staying on for hours as we cruised down the interstate; other times, it would disengage after a mile or two—never activating again for the remainder of the trip. I would guess that both defects were attributed to coffee spilled on or near the dashboard by its former owners.

In ’91 the car was towed behind our pick-up as we moved to Flagstaff, Arizona—never to see salt again, though the rust continued to spread like a cancer without a cure. While in Flag, we photographed the salt-free import the day it turned over 100,000 miles—as if it had graduated from some institute of higher mileage.

Before another year had passed, we were on the move to Northwestern Wyoming and the Honda was riding piggy-back again. From Wyoming, the Accord made two trips back to Ohio and a side excursion to Tennessee. By this time original parts were being replaced on a regular basis.

Zier’s Auto Salvage just outside of Deaver, Wyoming 20-plus-years after the Honda’s arrival.

We finally sold the car for $800 to our best friends’ daughter. Though I never expressed my true feelings, I felt reluctant to depart with the Accord. I pictured it as my second car and driving it into the next century. Two months after the sale, the Honda’s teenage owner lost control of it on a dirt road, causing the destruction of the entire front wheel drive and suspension. There was talk shortly after the accident of rebuilding and replacing the damaged parts; but in light of the vehicle’s age, a retired family mechanic suggested taking it off life support. Arrangements were made with a local junkyard to park the Honda one last time—in its final resting place—a junkyard outside of Deaver, Wyoming. There it has embarked on a journey toward extinction—a trip where tune-ups, oil changes or other maintenance-related work are no longer necessary. I wonder how long its identity will stay in tact as parts are stripped off and cannibalized for other ’83 Accords still in service? Perhaps one day it will be crushed like an aluminum can under a heavy foot, then shredded to bits, and finally used for re-bar soup.

Until it does meet the diabolical auto shredder, I’ll likely stop by for a visit on occasion to see how our old car is holding up to the turbulent Wyoming weather. And who knows, maybe Accords will someday be considered classics, like the early Mustangs, drawing me back to Deaver—to reclaim its tattered remains.

Church4Sale

The old Christian Science Society Church circa early 1990. Today it is a residence.

Powell, Wyoming

As I return home from a short run, the vacant Christian Science building catches my eye. Though the church has been a familiar and intriguing sight, I’ve never examined it closer. It’s nothing to marvel at architecturally, so why photograph it? The empty building resides in the middle of town, surrounded by a decent neighborhood, and is actually something of an eyesore in its state of dilapidation. But standing on the curb today, I sense a form of decay that supersedes the visible ruin of this building—decay attributed to the human element that often tarnishes the euphoric properties many of us find in houses of organized religion.

The “FOR SALE” sign on the door suggests a deeper meaning, similar to a “Beach Closed” sign that leaves the reader in suspense as to why it is closed: shark attack, oil spill, approaching hurricane? So on this particular day (in light of all the bad press religion is getting as of late) I take the liberty to make a loose translation/interpretation of the sign as “Religion for Sale.” 

The motivation behind the sale or abandonment of an item is often unclear or obscure to a spectator. A sale can be a simple profit-seeking activity; or perhaps interest in an item is lost if it has become run-down, used up, unfashionable, neglected or replaced by something more useful (or so it seems). I wonder if these explanations can apply to a church or even an entire religion? 

I look closely at the deteriorating structure and consider the current physical state of the building; though it is only one church, I’m astounded to think that its physical appearance is representative of the modern Christian church and other organized religions. The foundation still has integrity, but everything else is in desperate need of repair. And though the architecture is sound, it has become plagued with an endless barrage of abuse from the elements over the years.

What might the peeling paint, broken signage and neglected landscaping represent in this comparison? Perhaps they are symbolic of the Jimmy Swaggerts, Jim Bakkers, Ernest Angleys and other self-proclaimed apostles-turned-money-grubbing swindlers who have decreased the value of religion. Or do they represent the tireless and bitter disputes that have led to petty wars among fellow believers around the world—caught up in the mechanics of worship rather than faith itself.

The building’s cold and empty appearance may also represent the numerous unanswered questions that have been carried around for years by believers and non-believers alike. For example, why have there been (and continue to be) so many cultures sacrificed or lost as a result of accepting Christianity? Can the various Native American cultures survive in their entirety while embracing a religion that originates from another part of the world? Can Christianity tolerate and accept a race of people whose culture is based on, and continues to believe in, a creation story that has few semblances to the Book of Genesis?

With some ambivalence, I will be attending a church service less than an hour from now and will likely continue questioning my religion, my beliefs and quite possibly even my Lord. I’m hopeful that my questioning isn’t mistaken for irreverence or disrespect.