The absolute best thing in the world, on some mornings at least: Oatmeal. It’s warm, it’s tasty, it satisfies the hunger morning often brings. Pour in a little milk, add some raisins: Manna. Breakfast for the groggy of the world, it clarifies your worldview and gives you soluble fibers, which help stabilize blood sugar and (and, ladies and gentlemen, and)  lower cholesterol, according to some person on the Internet. Oatmeal gives you the kind of open, contemplative frame of mind that only a warming fire, a good book and a pliant cat can normally provide.

I ate oatmeal when I was six years old; I ate it when I was 60. Still good. Say, why not have a bowl right now? I’ll wait.

The last time I was thinking unhurried oatmeal thoughts was at the Bug. Our friend Tom told us about The Bug. We asked him about it. What, you may be wondering, was the question to which “the Bug” was the answer. Here it is: “What’s a good place to stay near Yosemite Valley?”

For Christmas, my fine wife gave me a trip to Yosemite, complete with three days residence at the Yosemite Bug, which is its formal name.   (The Bug is named after the Horned Pine Beetle, which is not the same as the mountain pine beetle — see below). We expected that we’d be walking through snow up trails to see frozen waterfalls and around meadows where the rising monoliths of granite appear mysteriously out of the fog. It would at least be relatively unpopulated; Yosemite is not known for its downhill skiing or wilderness ice rinks. But we reckoned without the miracle of global warming.

I’ll get to Yosemite in a moment. I wanted to show you fabulous photos, but Tracy was unhappy with how the photos came out. She wanted me not to use them at all, but I persuaded her by promising I would be very careful in my selection process. I think you’ll approve; Yosemite does not need to be gussied up.

Iconic Half Dome

But first, the Bug.  We had a private room with bath (or bath en suite, as the English say), which is top-of-the-line accommodations at the Bug. You could get a shared bathroom, or a hostel-type dorm room, or tent cabins — it’s that kind of place. You can eat at the large warm dining hall, which has excellent dinners (portions too large for me, but I’m not a big eater of meals after sundown) and very fine coffee and organic whatevers and, as I have mentioned, oatmeal. And a view of the pines and bays and lots of familiar California vegetation. In fact, the Bug is a familiar California kind of place, simultaneously laid back and alert. Think Zen, only without the incessant sitting.

The Bug is a 40 minute drive along the Merced River from the park entrance. It was February, so there was no line at the ranger’s kiosk. Indeed, there were no traffic jams anywhere in the Valley, despite the network of insanely complex, under-signed roads. It’s almost as though God didn’t want cars in Yosemite at all.

Temperatures hovered around 70; T-shirt weather. The waterfalls were flowing freely because the snows above them were melting. California had a wet winter in 2017, and everyone said “Phew. Long showers again!” Alas. But good news! Warm winter weather and mighty waterfalls are adding to the California lifestyle.  Kids splashed in Mirror Lake, which is now more like Mirror Creek.

At sundown, we found a deserted meadow with views of El Capitan and Cathedral peaks. We sat on a log and gazed at towering granite peaks,  the darkening sky, the peaceful meadow. I thought about the Indians who first saw the place 8000 years ago. Game and fish were plentiful, the meadows were fertile; the weather moderate even at its 4000 foot elevation. Imagine turning to others in your exploratory band and saying, “you know, guys, correct me if I’m wrong, but we could…” Untold generations later, John Muir arrived and, through no fault of his own, started the process of fucking up the place. Yet, it has survived all attempts to despoil it. So far.

West Oaklandtj_20100224_ Vermontsnow_0206
Majestic El Capitan

This is the way we live now, or at any rate the way I live. Searching for peace and natural splendor, I used up a tank of gas to drive to a famous valley hundreds of miles away so I can sit on a tree trunk and contemplate serenity in a partially paved natural wonderland, after lunch at a hotel that is mired in a naming dispute characterized by stupid greed on both sides. I have a damn backyard; I have a wilderness park a mile from my house, but no, I’m going to satisfy my urge for simplicity using all the tools destructive modern capitalism can give me.

At least I’m not putting holes in El Capitan so I can climb to the top and feel manly. You want to overcome obstacles and conquer fear? Go live in Aleppo.

But of course I’m raging against myself. It’s me that’s using the resources, taking the shortcuts, living the way nest-egg-adjacent white Americans have lived since Teddy Roosevelt. People need the system. Satirists write satire in order to eat; anarchists join organizations so they can afford the rent. Some retired liberals go to work for a year in Chad or Haiti, then come back and resume their lifestyle. It’s just something that happens; if I could change that, I’m not sure I would. Life is sweet when you can afford olive oil from Italy and saffron from Spain, which is really saffron from Iran.

New YorkNew York_DSC0094
Shimmering Bridalveil Falls

 In the forests I can see from the meadow, more than half the trees are dead because of an infestation of mountain pine beetles, often described as “about the size of a grain of rice.” The beetles are always there, but when it’s dry, the trees begin dying, and the beetles feed on the weakest. No one knows the number of dead trees in the west; all the National Park Service can say is “millions of acres.” Those dead trees are really great tinder for wildfires, which grow in size yearly.

The forests are weakened by drought, monoculture farming and the suppression of forest fires, all three caused or invented by human beings. Beetles don’t kill trees; human beings kill trees.

And so forth. I didn’t used to think dark thoughts when I was staring at glorious mountain vistas; on the other hand, the environment was in better shape back then. Man-made climate change is real, as are school shootings and endless wars and lunatic misogynistic politicians.

Apparently the redwood trees are doing fine and the red-tailed hawks are thriving. Also ravens and rats. We love the creatures endangered by climate change, but we dislike the adaptable survivors. Liberal guilt is not pleasant in person; it’s hypocrisy with just enough conscience to make you feel bad. But there it is.

After 10 minutes or so of self-trashing, I slid my butt down onto the moist earth and felt the wind on my face and watched the dying sun illuminate the west end of the valley. Might as well enjoy this before nightfall. Then we’ll drive back to the Bug and, who knows, order up  another bowl of oatmeal. Life is good, except for the stuff I just mentioned.

New YorkNew York_DSC0073
The Merced River (note lack of snow)


Photography by Tracy “Oh yeah? Prove it.” Johnston

Useful info from Michelle Mizera


Magical realism

“They don’t think it be like it is, but it do.”

                                                            — Oscar Gamble



My car clock says “11:35,” so I know it’s 10:50.

Clock broken? you ask.

No indeed. The clock runs like clockwork. My car is 19 years old, so my clock is a sturdy little thing. Then why the wrong time?

Well, see, just after Daylight Saving Time died a deserved death (it’ll come back zombie-like in March, but for the moment we are living in God’s Own Time Zone), I was at a stop light and decided to change the car clock. As was common in the previous century, the clock management device is two buttons that can only be operated by something small and pointy, like a ballpoint pen.

I had a ball-point pen. I inserted it into the appropriate portal, and began to change the clock. But I was distracted, and my pen slipped several times.

Then the light changed.

Three weeks later, I was taking my wife for a spin. “Your clock is wrong,” she noticed. “Yes it is. It’s 35 minutes fast,” I said. “I can fix it,” she said. “No” I said, “I like it the way it is.” “Why?”

That was a good question. I always knew what time it was, but it required a little bit of remembering and little bit of math. Why would I memorialize a mistake? I could fix it easily enough.

It’s often hard to know where to go


I like living in an imperfect world. A perfect world would drive me crazy, because I myself am imperfect. And I do like a little bit of confined chaos from time to time.  But that’s not why.

I have enjoyed mystery novels since childhood; the woman across the street had bookcases filled with them. She let me browse freely. I tried Agatha Christie, but the plots were over complicated and the writing humorless. Sure, she wrote early enough to claim all the really good plot devices (murder by a dead man, murder by an entire group, murder by the narrator), but it was still a slog.

Other, better writers followed: John Dickson Carr, Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin. And at some point I understood why mysteries were so satisfying: No matter how confusing the mystery, there was always a solution. A locked room? There are a dozens ways around that, some involving thread, glue and an accommodating keyhole. A shifty suspect has an airtight alibi? Witnesses could be mistaken or suborned. No obvious weapon? Have you considered a dagger made out of ice?

Whatever it was, there was a solution. The world could be appear to be turned upside down, but there was nothing to fear. The detective could puzzle it out and explain the solution to a roomful of suspects. “Grab him, Stanley!” Order restored.

I used to do treasure hunts for adults. I went on a few, but I was not that good at deciphering clues. (That was a huge disappointment). I more enjoyed writing the clues. I had my own rules about clue writing: They had to be hard, but not too hard. The answer had to be simple and, once decoded, easily acted upon. And they should be pleasing in their own right, funny or clever or vaguely philosophical.

I didn’t like disorder for its own sake; I liked disorder I could control. My clock has not stopped; it keeps excellent time. There’s a secret to figuring it out.  I had both the mystery and the solution.

So, to probe a little deeper, why did I only like mysteries if they were self-created? But I didn’t. I love stage magic, and I don’t really try to figure the tricks out. Given my liabilities, it is probable the magician is aware of my guess, and has devised the trick so my guess gets exploded when the mystery is finally revealed. I have a friend who does magic, and he routinely amazes me. I never ask how the trick works.

I don’t mind mysteries as long as someone knows how they’re done.

Is that a useful landmark? Or an insect?

I spend time outside a fair amount, although not as much as I used to. To be in nature is to be surrounded by mysteries. Plants thrive or they don’t. They take on strange shapes, snake along the ground or stand straight and tall. The insects are uncomfortably large or so small they are indistinguishable from dirt. And say, what made those holes? Harmless voles or poisonous snakes?

I don’t know, but I know that somebody knows.  I live in the Bay Area, so I believe I could stop the next available hiker and get a learned disquisition on the breeding habits and dietary preferences of marmots or hawks or the California black bear (Ursus americanus). I am so grateful to scientists and their dedicated inquiry into the multitude of mysteries in the universe.

I also like natural aphorisms. “Leaves of three; let it be” is almost a koan.

But there are mysteries beyond the ken of science. “What is gravity” has never been definitely answered, and people have been working on it forever. And “why are we here?” — definitely outside the remit of science.  “Where do we go when die?” undoubtedly has an answer, but only dead people know what it is. I’m old, but I ain’t dead yet.

There are two kinds of old people — those who think about death constantly and those who never think about it. The second group is much more evolved, much more able to live in the moment, much better at appreciating the wonders of life. Probably a lot of vegans in there. I am in the first group. I think about death every day. I am not, as they say, getting any younger. True of everyone, of course, but some of us are aware of  the actuarial tables.

Star clusters? Snow stains? Bullet holes?

I wonder if I get to ask the Grim Reaper a few questions. He owes me that, I feel. He could maybe sit in my living room for a few minutes. I could offer him some grapefruit juice — that sounds like Reaper-friendly beverage. Or we could go for a ride in the car. I could find out about gravity. We could have a discussion about the meaning of life; being Death, he probably has some insights into that.

We could go up into the East Bay hills, and find an overlook with a three-bridge view. I could ask him whether there was a Mrs. Reaper, and little Reapers running around the house. But I shouldn’t assume; perhaps he’s gay, or something of a lone wolf.  Being the incarnation of death might not go down well down a first date.

“What do you do for a living?” “I kill people.” “Who?””Everybody.”

So we could chat, and eventually he’d have to say, “I’m sorry, but time’s up.” And I’d say, “I hope you’re not going by that clock.”

He’d look embarrassed.

“Man, that clock is 35 minutes fast.”

“I thought your wife had fixed that.”

“Nope. I think you missed your chance. You’ll have to wait until my name comes up again.”

And then he’d grimace and disappear is a miasma of purple smoke.  Had I cheated death? No, although I did mislead him. Just me and my car clock. There’s a reason for everything.


Turtle or rock? Living or dead?



Photography by Tracy Johnston

Things that other people can’t do: Michelle Mizera