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Category: Culture

Lava Falls
A million years or so before we got here, the cinder cone now known as Vulcan’s Throne reared up on the lip of the Grand Canyon and discharged enough magma to fill the gorge from rim to rim. When the flow hardened, it blocked the river, creating a lake that extended all the way back into present-day Utah.

Since then, the river has resolutely sought its original course through the basalt, so that now what is left of the dam — coupled with prodigious flash flood debris from nearby Prospect Canyon — has made the Class 10 rapid called Lava Falls. Class 10 is the maximum rating for rapids judged to be safely runnable in the Grand Canyon.

Our time in this place will be considerably shorter than that ancient lava flow. Fifteen seconds is the average clocking of a successful passage through the falls. An unsuccessful run, one in which our boat might flip and empty us into the churning chaos of the river, would take a little longer. We would need that time to be fished out and reunited with our boat.

Before our trip began, I suspect that most of us had some uneasy nights while contemplating this very moment — perhaps entertaining some vague notion of being swallowed alive by the river, then spattered across a field of boulders. But we have come ten days and 179 miles since then, and now those wild, unfocussed fears seem a little silly. For the most part, that is.

We had, after all, chosen one of the most exciting methods for experiencing the Colorado: by dory. The Grand Canyon dory, a boat that has evolved through the years under the hands of many boatmen, is a light, agile craft, one that will respond instantly to boatman and water alike. It is a bit over twenty feet long, with upturned bow and stern and a flat bottom that magnifies its maneuverability. Unlike an inflated raft, it does not float over the waves, but dives into them like a flying fish. When you ride in a dory, you are meeting the river on its own turbulent, unpredictable terms.

So there is still plenty of uncertainty in our minds. We have been seasoned by the one-two punch of the Sockdolager Rapid (Bam! from the left, Boom! from the right), the rollercoaster at Hance, and the mad washing machine at Upset. Lava, though, has always loomed as our biggest test. It holds the greatest potential that dark hydraulic forces and pure chance might conspire to make our worst fears come true.

That said, we are not completely at the mercy of the river. Even though passengers in a dory do not handle the oars in a rapid, they can play a critical role in their boat’s safe passage. To help prevent flipping, the beefiest sit up front, lightweights in the rear. Our biggest edge against disaster, however, is “high-siding.” When one gunwale or the other swings up, we rush to that side, even clambering over our seatmate to keep our dory on course. If a wave is bearing down on us, we move toward it, looking to take the hit straight on. The dory wants to stay upright, we are told, but she is a sensitive creature, and if she is to succeed, she will need our full, unconditional support.

We know what to do, then, but will it be enough? We’ll soon find out, since now the moment is upon us. Lava Falls roars just ahead. And here it comes…we head, as usual, onto the “tongue” of the rapid, the long, smooth continuation of the current that tapers into the seething heart of the whitewater. The Santa Ana picks up speed, skirting a wide circle of confused water that fronts a monstrous hole to our left. We zip by the monster, turn quickly left behind it, and Wham!... Bam!... Boom! Three big waves hit us.

I think it’s three, anyway; it’s hard to be sure when things are happening so fast. We lean into them, we high-side…and we’re through! A brief pause to spy the other dories, then it’s into Lower Lava, and we’re through again! We turn back to watch our sister boats, ready to pick up any swimmers.

The Dark Canyon comes through cleanly, then the Hidden Passage. Last comes the Lost Creek, and we can see right away that things have gotten dicey. Its bow has come up just as it is hit by a wave. Boom! The dory seems to do a little toe dance on top of the foam. It’s as if the flying fish now thinks it’s a bird, and it wants to take flight.

On board, Jennifer and Greg are up front, furiously high-siding. Ryan, their boatman, tucks his oars and hunches forward in his seat, as close as possible to the wave…and the bow comes down! They rock and roll down along the wave train and on through Lower Lava.

Our three support rafts follow us through without incident. We go seven-for-seven through Lava Falls — not a miracle, exactly, but it was never a sure thing, either. Sometimes, the river will have its way in spite of what you do. Roger, our boatman on the Santa Ana and a veteran of nearly two hundred trips down the river, had flipped here for only his second time just a month before. But that ghost has been banished now, along with whatever private demons the rest of us may have had. We are delivered.

It is true that our fifteen seconds on the falls don’t count for much when stacked up against Vulcan’s Throne and the slow march of geologic time. We are an infinitesimal tick within that enormous clockwork of events. But for our brief time here, let it be said that we were fully present, with no thought for past or future. Only the water, the dory, and our own split-second reactions mattered.

Our complete attention is all that the river had ever asked from us. For those few moments, at least, we were happy to comply.
I have never looked forward to the release of a movie more than Animal House. That was back in 1978, and I had long since left fraternity life behind for the much more structured world of adulthood. The fond memories of my three-year binge of nihilism, however, were still strong in me. I wanted to see how the Big Screen would present that dark culture to the movie-going public.

What made the event especially interesting was my familiarity with the script. Several of the episodes in the movie had appeared years before in the National Lampoon, and before that I had heard them as part of the rich oral tradition of the AD bar — or witnessed them myself. AD (for Alpha Delta Phi) was my fraternity at Dartmouth — and the model for Animal House.

Chris Miller ’63 (called Pinto by some) wrote those stories in the Lampoon and later became a co-screenwriter for the movie. (If you look online, that’s him, third from the right in the cast photo. He and his two fellow screenwriters also appeared as Delta Tau Chi brothers in the movie.) I think one of the reasons Animal House was never matched by any of the frat house comedies that followed it was its quasi-realism. The sickness, the black humor, the tales of creative repulsiveness were based on real events. For the most part, that is, relatively speaking, when adjusted for Hollywood input.

The scene from the movie that has become most associated with college debauchery, however, never happened. There were no toga parties at AD and never would have been, according to some of the older, grumpier keepers of the AD flame (myself included). What costumes there were tended to be impromptu affairs, and they were mostly meant to appall people, not as fun-loving hi jinx. But the toga metaphor persists, and it has spawned similar events all over the country, including at Dartmouth itself. Life imitating art, you might say. A lot of what actually happened at AD, I expect, might not find such favor in popular culture.

In many ways, what went on there was nothing special. Groups of young men have been abusing alcohol since the dawn of civilization, and they have been doing stupid, disgusting things that whole time. I have no doubt that many of those stories would easily trump anything done by a bunch of fine, young Ivy Leaguers with bright futures. Still, we had our fling at nihilism, and it was good.

I won’t apologize for our real-life cast of characters, either. There were some genuine wild men in AD. None exactly like John Belushi’s creation, but they had that same level of fertile, funny dementia. Chris once told me that he built his characters for the movie from pieces of the real brothers of AD. The personae we saw onscreen, then, were cut-and-pastes of the real thing, and to that degree they were real.

I visited Dartmouth a couple of weeks ago for the first time in forty-five years. I have nothing surprising to report; the house has changed, Dartmouth has changed, I have changed. All that is to be expected. There is some news from Hanover, though. While I was there, the Daily D broke the story that the College had hit AD with a suspension (read “double secret probation”). The house, it seems, had hosted an unpermitted party (I told you things had changed). The punishment: no booze of any kind in the house until next September. I am not sure that the current brothers are pursuing their own brand of nihilism, but if they are, this is a serious issue; alcohol, particularly beer, would play a central role in their quest.

I wish them well. As fine, young men with bright futures, they will need that experience as a bulwark against the stultifying tedium of the world they will soon enter.
Got Junk?
There was a time when I did not need a Junk file. I looked at every piece of email that came to me, if only for a moment. There was a little spam, but one click, and it was gone. In those heady early days of the internet, all I needed was an Inbox and a Trash file. Oh, brave new digital age!

That was a time of innocence, when there were no earnest Nigerian princes or nefarious scammers masquerading as members of my family. If I was concerned then that the World Wide Web might somehow become an annoyance, those fears were laid to rest by the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003. Thanks to this prompt action by my elected leaders —making junk mail illegal — I knew that I would be spam-free forever.

The world has changed in the ten years since then, and I have become more jaded. I see that the state (though all-seeing) is not necessarily all-powerful. I’m on my own now, it seems, against a rising tide of messages from every corner of the globe. Even though each of those messages claims to carry important news that could very easily change my life, I’m not really that interested. I’m pretty happy, you see, with the way my life is already.

Like most people, I have enlisted the help of filters, but that delegation of responsibility has left me uneasy. Those filters are brutal; if an email fails to meet their hard-eyed standards, it is banished to Junk, no matter how urgent it may be. I probably wouldn’t mind looking at some of them, but who has the time to sort through five hundred emails that have already been rejected by my gatekeepers? It is possible that I’ve been sent a message by on old friend, been remembered in someone’s will, or am finally ready to go for that enlargement. Heck, I may already be a winner, but since my email has been corrupted by commerce, I will never know.

I might even have wanted to respond to one of those cries for help from some prince in a pinch. His desperate pleas, however, have been shunted to my Junk file, like rusty old toasters. Since I no longer even look at my Junk file, its contents are destined to go next to Trash, where they will be commingled with my unrecyclable plastic and rotting meat, until finally being deleted for good.

I can’t help but feel a sadness about those lost dispatches…as if an opportunity to connect has been lost, consigned to oblivion by my robot guardians. The mission of those messages — to seek me out and engage with me — was doomed from the beginning, and now they rest, unfulfilled, in a graveyard of digital dead letters. Sure, most of them are intrusive offers of money or sex or “once-in-a-lifetime” deals by the truckload. But one, just one, could be the good news that would change my life for the good.

Let me reach out now to that lone sender with my own fervent communication: so write me a letter already!
Catching the Wave
There was a great action movie on TV last night, perhaps the best ever. I’m sorry if you missed it, because I’m pretty sure it will never be on again. It featured scene after scene of tense battles, sharp dialogue, and strong characters pitted against one another. I couldn’t tear my eyes from the screen, lest I miss something. I had seen all of these scenes before, many times, but never like this.

It begins with Kirstie Alley (as the fetching Vulcan, Lt. Saavik) ordering her ship into the Neutral Zone. Bad idea, as usual. The Klingons pounce, laying down a withering barrage of phaser fire. Work stations explode, Starfleet officers hurtle through the air, the end is near! Saavik’s misguided decision has destroyed her crew, her ship, her mission.

Suddenly, a viewscreen slides sideways, revealing …William Shatner, in full Admiral Kirk regalia, complete with luxurious toupee! It was all just a training exercise! Kirk, Spock, and McCoy launch into an extended dialogue designed to lay down a foundation for the plot, but I don’t have time for that.

So the scene changes. We’re on a bus filled with convicts, including Harrison Ford as the bearded (do they let you have a beard in prison?) and wrongly convicted Dr. Richard Kimble. Their guards end up falling for the old oh-help-I’m-really-really-sick trick. One bad thing leads to another, and in the end the doc manages to outrun a freight train and make his escape. Love that scene!

I wait long enough to hear Tommy Lee Jones’ order to search every “warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse, and doghouse” to find Harrison Ford. Then, the scene changes again…

Jason Bourne (our own Matt Damon) barely eludes his pursuers by ducking into the U.S. consulate in Zurich. After punching out everybody in the building, he escapes by doing his human fly routine down an outside wall. Great scene! He runs into his love interest in the street, and… sorry, I’ve got bigger fish to fry. Select four and nine, and I’m …

On a roll! Detective John McClane of the NYPD, better known as Bruce Willis, is in a bit of a fix down at the Nakatomi Plaza. Like Harrison and Matt, he’s got people chasing him, and they’re not looking for an autograph. He kills them, of course, then stuffs one in a Santa suit, sticks him in the elevator, and sends him down to tick off the head terrorist. Bruce, you irrepressible devil! But now it’s time to move on…

Back to the Syfy Network, where the Enterprise is suffering a serious whupping at the hands of Khan Noonien Singh (played with manly cleavage by Ricardo Montalban). Just when things look bleakest, Kirk pulls a fast one on Khan, wrecking his ship (exploding work stations, genetically-engineered supermen hurtling through the air). The Enterprise escapes, and so do I…

Back to SpikeTV, where Harrison Ford has dared to sneak back into his old hospital to do some research on The One-armed Man. But not before he saves the life of a young boy on a gurney (how did such a nice guy ever get convicted of murder?). The plot slows down here, but I’m in a surfing zone now!

Switching to Bravo, as it’s Bourne again, dispatching a trained hitman with a ballpoint while Franka Potente looks on, appalled (that was my pen, you know!)…

Then it’s a barefoot Bruce, escaping a gaggle of vicious terrorists on the roof of a skyscraper by swinging out on a fire hose and crashing through a window below (like he could actually do that — but I don’t care)…

I can’t believe my timing! I return to Syfy just in time to catch Ricardo Montalban leaving William Shatner stranded on an asteroid. Kirk bellows into his communicator as his tormentor flees, “KHA-A-A-N-N-N!” The cry echoes out into space (an impossibility, it should be noted). Truly one of the great moments in cinematic history…

And here’s Richard Kimble, middle-aged physician, leaping to certain death off a mile-high dam (except he lives!)…

Matt Damon deftly killing another trained assassin (Clive Owen, with a 12-guage)…

Bruce, still shoeless, still deadly, strangling Alexander Godunov with a chain…

Shatner floating around in the Mutara Nebula, tricking the superhuman (yet perpetually frustrated) Khan one last time. More exploding work stations, plus a dead Khan Jr.…

Harrison stealing into The One-armed Man’s house and calling Tommy Lee…

Matt/Jason plummeting down a stairwell astride a dead, fat assassin. Wham! And he just walks away…

Willis/McClane sending the evil Hans Gruber (played by the evil Alan Rickman) twenty stories to his (thuck!) death…

And finally, back on the Enterprise, where a dying Spock spiels out his “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” conundrum as Shatner wonders why, if he’s such a great actor, he can’t shed one tear for his so-called best friend.

Fade to black.

Exhausted, I put down the remote. No need to finish any of these plotlines; they were never the point of this exercise anyway. I leave plot, character development, and dramatic arcs to others. I had just had the greatest night of my channel-surfing career — squeezing the very best sequences from four movies into one, super action movie that was shorter than any of them. And better, if you don’t mind me saying so.
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Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon