Boonatevka

10 12 2018

Twilight is just gathering as I sit down to write this, meaning that Hannukah is not officially over yet. (The Jewish calendar measures things from sunset to sunset, not midnight to midnight; so the last day of Hannukah technically ends, anti-climactically, 24 hours after the last candle lighting.) This is the first white Hannukah I’ve had since 2012, and so it seems like a perfect time to discuss the latest adventure of my life in Boone: winter.

That Hannukah in 2012, I was living in Switzerland. People have been asking me “Have you ever lived in a place with snow before?” The answer is, “Yes…. BUT NOT WITH A CAR.” Putting everyone’s advice together, I’ve been offered the following rules:

  1. Put your windshield wipers up before a big storm so they don’t freeze to your windshield.
  2. If it’s below freezing, start your car a few minutes early so it can warm up.
  3. If you must drive on ice, drive slow but steadily, and start pumping the brakes yards before you need to stop.
  4. Get all the snow off the top of your car before you drive or you can get a ticket (because it can fly off the roof and break the person’s windshield behind you.)
  5. Buy anti-freeze windshield wiper fluid, or else not only will your wipers not work, your wiper fluid reservoir will freeze inside your car AND EXPLODE.
  6. Carry the following things in your trunk just in case… a brush to brush off snow, a scraper to scrape off ice, kitty litter and a SHOVEL in case you get stuck, and damn do you really need ALL this stuff?? Does everyone just have jumbo flipping trucks here or what? Oh wait… this is the South. Don’t answer that.

Having a car in the snow kind of seems like rocket science. But then again, Boone is great at freaking out because of weather. We’ve already missed three full days of class for Hurricane Florence, which were cancelled PREEMPTIVELY before the rain even started. So when the official admin e-mails started flying about the “severe weather event” we were supposed to get this weekend, at first it felt like the boy crying “wolf”… until the Snowpocalypse started turning up other places. When the letters on a church sign downtown changed overnight to read “WELCOME TO BOONE CHANNEL 4 NEWS STAY SAFE”, I decided to do what everyone else was doing: I prepped.

When Saturday rolled around, I had bought spinach, milk, bread, pasta sauce, and a jumbo bag of potatoes. I had been cooking soup in the crock pot since midmorning. I had picked up the novel Shutter Island. I was prepared to be stuck inside all day.

But when would it start? I stepped outside in the afternoon to check the weather, and the sky was mottled and ragged. Not the soft dense white which, I’ve learned, foretells impending snow.

By 9 p.m. I had finished reading Shutter Island and started re-watching the movie, and it was still not snowing. With the soup almost done, I went to Publix to grab some last-minute supplies (cheese). And something had changed. The air smelled like snow now: spicy and soft at the same time, like an ice crystal that almost prickles your tongue.

At 9:30, my housemate Rob got home. “Wanna go to Publix to get some stuff before the snow starts?”

I had just been, but I had nothing better to do. I shrugged. “Sure,” I said, and quickly changed to go back out.

It was starting. Gentle flurries stuck to Rob’s car like powdered sugar as we headed down the hill, and by the time we emerged from the store the ground had been coated. Late in the evening, a few inches had settled – but nothing we hadn’t already seen. The tipping point came, like a magic trick, while we slept.

It’s a cliché, but come morning the world had been transformed. Where landmarks had been in the yard – stairs, hedges – was now just undulating ground. Waking up after a snowfall must be like how a Roman would feel if he woke up tomorrow, finding the ground level all over his home city thirty feet higher than it was in his day. The same map, but a completely different shape.

I went for a walk, wading down the driveway through powder up to my thigh. We’d had a few snowfalls before, but not ones like this – ones where the snow stuck to the trunks of the trees, to the branches, down to the final and most delicate perch of each individual leaf. The whole forest was like a diorama sculpted from china. Blue shadows sparkled, surprisingly rich in color for a landscape of pure white.

While I walked, I noticed things I’d never seen before, even though I drive our road every day. Half-hidden in a thicket of waxy rhododendron leaves – a little woodshed assembled from river rock, like a cottage out of the Pyrenees. In the creek, by the second bridge – an eddy in the current that creates a gentle whirlpool. Today, a thin plate of ice on the pool’s surface rotated slowly, a broken record.

For days my other housemate, Jackson, had been scoffing at me and Rob’s doomsday prepping with a determined rumble of, “We’ll be able to get out.” The reason for that was his burly, souped-up convertible Jeep, equipped with a winch and emblazoned with a ferocious eagle. Its massive deep-treaded wheels could grind up any obstacle. Unfortunately, out of all the days in the year, Jackson had picked yesterday to accidentally leave its headlights on. Our escape vehicle was dead.

With nothing better to do, we launched a mission to get to town. At first the other two guys tried to push the car down the hill while I steered – no dice. Plan B was to mobilize Rob’s truck to jump-start the Jeep, which involved clearing about a 20-foot path between the lower driveway below our house and the upper one beside it. But all our cars were pretty stuck. Rob’s truck bed was so full of snow that it might not have been hollow at all, and Jackson’s Subaru was so covered that it literally had become a snow mound. We shoveled for a while, then our next-door neighbor Meredith arrived from further up the driveway, riding a whining little ATV plastered with “BOONE” stickers from the skate shop and armed with a snow plough. But even it threatened to get stuck, wheels spitting snow as it foundered in the thicker powder at the edge of the driveway.

“I see you got it moving a little,” she said, nodding at Rob’s car. Which was true.

“Yeah, but when we try to move it now, it’s just sliding closer and closer to the Subaru.”

“Sick,” she said.

We eventually abandoned Operation Leave the Cabin and made a few feeble tries at sledding on a rubber platform made for dirty shoes, which did not work. Then we went inside, got the woodstove going, and dined on such delicacies as mashed potatoes, Cheerwine milkshakes, Bud Light, homemade mini-pies, and hot toddies made with moonshine.

Here’s another thing I had never used before Boone: woodstoves. Turns out they have two levers, one that opens and closes the chimney to let air out, and one that controls how much air gets in. Once the fire s nice and big, you can close that second lever so just a trickle of oxygen feeds it, causing it to burn slowly as it heats the house. By the time night fell we were in T-shirts, and still had to open a window to cool the room.

In the morning, the snow had stopped. It had snowed for 24 hours, and about 20 inches fell by the end of it. When the sun came out the forest sparkled in a new way: gleaming, brilliant, the buttery white of a summer cloud. I decided I was going to town if it was the last thing I did. And I had worked out a slightly suicidal way to get there – my mountain bike.

The snow on the driveway had been packed down by the neighbor’s ATV, but it was still thick and crunchy, and my wheels sank into it. Until I got to the edge of the downhill, where I succeeded in picking up speed. Pedaling furiously, I pumped my brakes as I bump-bumped over mounds of snow, skiing one way, then the other, the bike just barely under control. Here and there in the forest, trees sloughed off waterfalls of slush, winking as they swayed back to stillness under the clear blue sky. One such mini-avalanche whooshed down onto the driveway, pattering me with snow as I skidded through it. It was one of the coolest descents ever.

When I got to the main road I found it packed, smooth and hopelessly slippery. So, going slow, I experimented with which surface was best to bike over. Compacted white snow: nope. Thicker snow, worked into ridges by car tires: also nope. Black asphalt: good, but riddled with patches of soap-slick ice, a definite nope. The best stuff was the thin gray slush which evaporated beneath my wheels, whose wetness was a thumbs-up that the patch of road beneath it was too melty to sustain ice.

I gave a huge whoop when I came around the last corner and into town, which felt like it was waking up from a hundred-year slumber. The roads were practically abandoned. The Bojangles drive-thru was still filled with snow higher than the speakers where you order. Walmart was closed, which is basically one step away from us being conquered by China. (I used this joke later on a friend, and she said, “Don’t worry, we’re not there yet. Cracker Barrel is still open.”)

Up the main street, past unfortunate cars who had been parallel parked next to the paths of snow ploughs, past houses where everyone was outside shoveling snow or sledding. I showed up at the house of a couple of friends and they were just about to leave for Indian food, which seemed like a good celebration for making it down into town. From the window of the Indian place, the silhouettes of the hills were intricate with pale, sparkling treetops. Afterwards we hung out at their house for a bit, then I read at the school library. It was a relaxing last day of Hannukah. And the holiday had gone so fast.

Hannukah in the big, bad, red South was really not so bad. The other day Jackson asked me if I feel like I don’t have a Jewish community in Boone, which was a pretty woke question – but the truth is, there kind of is a Jewish community in Boone. The reform synagogue is small, sure, and it’s lay-led except when the rabbi comes down from New York for holidays. But what do you expect for a town with 20,000 people? The few times I’ve gone to synagogue, I felt quite at home.

Jews always think a lot about being in the minority at this time of year. The omnipresence of Christmas is shoved down our throats, despite PC efforts to the contrary. But it still manages to be a time of the year that I love. Despite being away from synagogues, dreidls, Pico Street Judaica shops, and my family, the sight of my hannukiah framed in the window against the falling snow was unbelievably delicious to me. The crackle of latkes frying while freezing wind whistles outside? I never felt closer to my potato-guzzling Polish ancestors, who must must have felt the same sort of coziness back in the shtetl. Welcome to Boonatevka.

Hannukah is a fairly unimportant holiday in the Jewish canon, so as an American Jewish kid you get bewildered by the lack of Hannukah aesthetic. And you create your own. Being fairly integrated, I dreamt of a snowy Hannukah in old Europe, twinkling with lights suspiciously similar to the ones outlining a fake sleigh on the roof across the street. If I were sheltered at a private religious school, I probably would have envisioned grand menorahs cutting proud silhouettes in the balmy night air of Tel Aviv piazzas, surrounded by hot parents chatting at café tables. It doesn’t matter. Unimportant or not, Hannukah expands to fill the vacuum.

Several of my more liberal acquaintances have posted commentaries on social media (even online publications) about the commercialization of Hannukah. But you know what – on most counts, I would have to disagree. My mom’s Los Angeles family made the holiday their own, with a tinsel-covered “Hannukah star” and presents clustered beneath. I don’t care whether those traditions were born of materialism, or pressure to assimilate or consume or whatever. They’re still traditions. Besides, Hannukah when I was a kid meant no school + presents, and that shapes you viscerally. No matter what the sages advise.

In fact, I feel extra-lucky to have a dope winter celebration, plus the anticipation of more important (and different) Jewish holidays. My favorite is Passover, with its unique and wonderful pageantry of choreographed storytelling intertwined with a ceremonial meal. But I also love Purim, on which you dress in costumes and get trashed. Meanwhile, mainstream American culture more or less skims over Easter and Mardi Gras, the equivalent Christian holidays. So, what’s the problem? We just get double the celebration!

And I think we’re a little early sounding the alarm on Hannukah being commercialized. Our shtetl ancestors didn’t need Hannukah sweaters or decorations, but I find them fun. And whatever Hannukah swag Walmart is trying to sell you, it is nothing – I mean NOTHING – compared to the barrage that is Christmas. Christmas movies, egg nog lattes, sugary confections, pricey ornaments, model villages, thousands of acres of Christmas tree farms, an obligatory schlep to said Christmas tree farms, an entire GENRE of musical covers, and let’s not forget the army of average Joes called in as actors to convince kids that the character central to their favorite holiday is in EVERY. SINGLE. MALL. Commercialized? Call me when Netflix is nagging you to watch their original movies “The Big Latke Caper” or “Maccabee Princess 2: A Royal Engagement”, and then we’ll talk.

But ya know, there is one thing about the whole situation that annoys me, and I actually have it in common with the Tea Party goons: “happy holidays”. Because while people fail to wish me a happy Hannukah during the actual 8 days of Hannukah, weeks later, once we get close to Christmas, “Happy Holidays” is still festooned across every mall and office kitchen like a giant “F*** You, this is good enough.” If you know me well, it’d make me happy for you to include me by doing something for my holiday. But if I’m a stranger on the street and you have no idea that I’m a Jew? It’s fine – no need for a red-and-white, fir-garlanded “Happy Holidays” that mysteriously disappears on December 26th; I guess that’s when these euphemistic “holidays” end. I’m not trying to do Christmas… you don’t have to try to do Hannukah. Unless you’re actually gonna try to do Hannukah, you know?

This year, I had a whole bunch of goyish friends over for latkes and sufganiyot. There was a bit of educational stuff, chatting about our religions, but mostly we just ate, laughed and drank. And that’s what makes me feel included: the opportunity to share those iconic smells, tastes and feelings with friends who could enjoy it with me. Hannukah is a holiday about religious freedom, anyway. So y’all can keep your Christmas. I’ll keep my particular version of Hannukah. And even better, all the other Jews out there can keep their particular versions of theirs.

Happy Hannukah, Merry Christmas, and a safe and fun Snowpocalypse. I love the holidays. Now can someone come help me dig my car out?

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Assumptions and chocolate chips

29 10 2018

I once wrote that Americans are so obsessed with travel, genealogy and roots because we belong to a blank slate of a continent that we ourselves erased. During my travels of the past few years, at any moment when I’ve felt sooooo Swiss or sooooo Mexican, it’s come with that grain of salt that at the end of the day, every American has a fantasy of being sooooo _________ but they’re just not. (If you don’t believe me, spend a few minutes people-watching at a St. Patty’s day festival.)

Because of this, I approached my recent move to start grad school in Boone, North Carolina with two simultaneous narratives. The first one was part of a realization that had been brewing for a while: a Californian, I don’t really know America. Red, religious, meat-guzzling, flag-flying, lower-middle-class America. It sounds pretentious, but this narrative is based on patriotism. From the first time I studied abroad in Europe I’ve always been on America’s defense with foreigners, explaining our gun law leniency and our lack of public transport with lectures about how our infrastructure, our background, our context is just different. But that patriotism was really kinda like the feeling that I’M the only one who’s allowed to beat up on my little brother. At the end of the day, I saw eye-to-eye with liberal foreigners on most of these issues.

But as my walkabout dragged on and America kept evolving without me, my answer to “How the heck could your country let this happen?!?” was increasingly “Uhhhh, no clue.” And that bothered me. There’s a Mexican word, malinchista, which comes from the name of La Malinche, the Aztec princess who became Cortés’ lover and helped him conquer Mexico. A malinchista is anyone who betrays their own culture, like an Uncle Tom. And I started to think, man, how malinchista that I’ve been crisscrossing the globe with an unquenchable curiosity about jarocho music and Balkan ethnic rivalries, but I have no idea how my nation’s president got to office. Time to fix that. Time to study abroad in Red America.

The other, coexisting narrative is/was an internal voice that went something like this: “Man, get off your high horse, America is America. Pumpkin spice and parking lots, Netflix and fast food, this IS your cultural heritage – you’re just too pretentious to admit it. Once you settle back in, it’ll click and you’ll realize that you’re moving home.” Because every Californian will tell you that California is sooooo European, but really we just love being special snowflakes.

The truth, it turns out, is somewhere in the middle. WAY closer to the first narrative than I had expected.

On the surface, the South doesn’t look so different from home. But underneath, there’s a lot to unpack. How much of that is the “reverse culture shock” of returning to my country from abroad, and how much is actual difference between here and California, I’m not sure. But that three-way tension makes adjusting even more confusing.

And finally, layered over this is the totally location-blind transition of going from globetrotting to living full-time in a 20,000-person town. Put all that together and what do you get? Bibbity, bobbity, Boone, it doesn’t take a fairy godmother to predict that it’s gonna be a rude awakening. In less than a month, I went from peers who casually discuss plans to cycle across Jordan to peers who have never had a falafel. From shopping at a different spice-filled street stall for each meal to choosing between Publix, WalMart and Harris Teeter. Oftentimes I worry that I’m turning into Amy from “Gone Girl” – full of sassy thoughts about her lame new home, while really she’s the Williamsburg-zilla. Like, why must all the signs on campus be in Times New Roman? And how could the ONE ramen place in town go out of business, only to be replaced by another Southern fried chicken joint?

I got that last one served right back to me by a friend from Nashville, who pointed out that no, it’s not just “another” fried chicken joint, because Boone doesn’t have any good independent chicken shops – just Bojangles (fast food) and the Proper (an extremely fancy “southern bistro”). So, exhibit A: lessons abound, and I’ve been constantly trying to sort through my assumptions to get to them.

But I feel like that digestion process has finally started to happen. So, two months in, here it is: served up with a grain of salt, a summary of my discoveries so far about the South.

THE FOOD. First of all, the word “barbecue” here does not mean a cookout in your backyard. That’s called grilling, and BBQ specifically means the traditional way to slow-roast a whole animal on coals over several hours. Every part of the South seems to have its own type of BBQ, and the specialty in North Carolina is chopped pork with runny, spicy, vinegary sauce, not the thick and sweet kind you get on BBQ pizza. I am still on the hunt for the perfect Carolina BBQ, and I can sadly report that when it’s not done well, it’s a bit dry. But I’ve had some good ones too, and it’s tasty stuff.

Other random observations: I’ve fallen in love with fried green tomatoes, which are tangy and acidic under the crispy batter. I was already in love with biscuits, and couldn’t be happier when my housemate makes them from scratch in a cast-iron. I have developed a soft spot for okra, even though it can be slimy.

There’s one really good Mexican place in Boone but the rest are garbage, and I’m not mad about it. Even though I did eat a taco that literally tasted like an eraser. On the other hand, I was surprised to discover that the weird cheeze dip served with the chips was not actually fake cheeze, but actually a Southern thing called “pimento cheese”: a mixture of grated sharp cheddar, mayonnaise, and chopped pickled peppers.

Finally, I was initially perplexed by boiled peanuts (like whether they were a dessert or a snack; can you eat the shell; etc). But I’ve been converted, and I’ll offer a word to the wise: the Cajun ones are the only ones worth messing with. The regular ones (which, admittedly, I got at the gas station) are so salty that they made me wonder, in burning tongue pain, whether humans aren’t even a little bit part snail.

THE MUSIC. This is one of the things I was stoked on before coming here, and one which I actually found most lacking. Boone has a renowned musical tradition, sure. Famous bluegrass singer Doc Watson was from here. People tell me that the bluegrass scene becomes more pronounced in summer, when all the bluegrass festivals happen. But on the whole, Boone seems to be fully part of globalized music culture: people listen to Top 40 pop and hip-hop and rock. This entire time I’ve met one guy who plays bluegrass, and there’s only one music shop in town. It doesn’t feature a grizzled old luthier or a display of gorgeous banjos and mandolins. And stuck in a suburban strip mall, away from the higher rents of downtown, you get the feeling that it doesn’t even survive easily.

On the other hand, my country-playing housemate Rob introduced me to the genre of “southern rock”, which I now know I’ve always loved without knowing the word for it. There’s plenty of pop country on the radio, which while not my favorite, is definitely new to me. And the guiding white light is the NPR station in Asheville that plays amazing bluegrass, called WCQS. Though we’re just on the wrong side of the mountain to get it with good reception here in Boone, I’ve taken to listening to it at home via an app.

THE RELIGION. It was no shocker to me, and it should be no shocker to you, that this town is peppered with churches of every denomination. Nonetheless, Boone’s Christian bent seems to be a slight positive, if it has any effect at all. In my experience, the only common thread among religious people is that they are extremely kind and have great manners. The religious population of the school seems to mostly fit that mold. I have found no evidence of gay-bashing or Jew-hating linked to religion fervor, and only a few small signs that people whose faith runs contrary to science are out there. And I suppose I’ve been approached by more “Have you heard the Good News?” sort of people than average, but nothing out of the ordinary really.

THE REBEL FLAG & SOUTHERN HISTORY. When my housemate Rob moved in about a month after me and hung a Confederate flag in his room, he commented point-blank, “I hate that it’s been associated with all this racist stuff recently, ’cause that’s not what it means to me. And if you ever wanna ask me about the history of it, let me know.”

In one of the first Southern novels I read, “The Prince of Tides” by Pat Conroy, a character says that the difference between Southerners and the rest of Americans is their connection to their past. And while I totally get the Rebel flag thing, this is another way I’ve been sort of underwhelmed. I met a guy recently from New Bern, NC, who had a tattoo of the town’s symbol: a stylized bear. As soon as I saw it, I recognized it. “Oh! That’s just like the flag of Bern!” I said.

He looked at me blankly. “Where?”

I’m sorry, but could you not know what your hometown is named after WHEN IT LITERALLY HAS THE WORD “NEW” IN THE TITLE? Or is that actually a normal thing not to know, and I’m just being Amy??? I don’t know anymore. In the same vein as this total DGAFing about the past – not exactly the reverence described in “Prince of Tides” – but even weirder, is a lack of cohesive “Southernness” over a lot of the things I’ve listed. I thought liberal North Carolinians would be, if not more moderate, at least more understanding and tolerant of their neighbors’ views. But they can be heard saying the same derisive, dismissive things that I thought were products of the liberal bubble. I’ve heard comments about how “uneducated” and “wrong” Southern accents sound, coming from someone who grew up just one hour down the mountain. I’ve heard nonreligious people make flippant, button-pushing “Hail Satan” type of jokes. I’ve been driving through lovely woodland while the others in the car crack jokes about how “folks out here use college students for target practice”. And so on.

It’s made me realize that though I come from a particularly vast blue bubble, the polarization of “blue” and “red” America is so serious exactly because it doesn’t require geographical distance to persist and grow stronger. A hatred of the the Rebel flag doesn’t require you to come from a former Union state – it’s been imported throughout the country along with Hollywood movies, pop songs, and McDonald’s. Just like a hatred of “political correctness” has been imported along other channels, to certain other parts of the country, along with other Hollywood movies, pop-country songs, and McDonald’s.

So in some ways the South is more Southern than I expected, but in a lot of ways it’s disappointingly not. And I finally found the right metaphor for this globalization effect. In some places culture is the actual flavor and texture of everything you experience, from waking up to going to sleep. Like chocolate ice cream. And the South has a delicious culture, but you only get little nubbins of it – you have to seek out bluegrass events, to wait for your friend to cook their family’s traditional dish. In day-to-day life, it’s chain businesses and pop culture and just…. vanilla. Not chocolate ice cream, but vanilla with chocolate chips.

THE VALUES. Some of the juiciest stuff I’ve been exposed to is thanks to my housemate Rob, who is actively curious about what people are getting taught over there in California. “What do you guys generally think about the military?” he asked. My answer: “Not very highly, honestly.” We had a mild, agree-to-disagree exchange of explanations, in which, to his credit, I was pretty much as unable to come up with hard examples of the corrupt mayhem we wreak in other countries as he was to come up with hard examples of who wants to “destroy our freedom” and why.

The military conversation eventually led to more underlying assumptions: “You shouldn’t be proud of violence. Even if it’s for a good reason,” I said. “But sometimes you have to use violence,” Rob replied. “Like, didn’t you get in fights as a kid?” “Not really,” was my answer. Like excavators in Aswan, we had uncovered another difference: our philosophies about fighting and honor.

“You gotta fight someone if he insults your mom, or calls you a faggot,” Rob said simply. “You just can’t have people saying that about you. Besides, haven’t you ever heard those sayings about how much you learn from fights? Like if you’ve never lost a fight, you’ve never fought anyone strong enough.”

That was a tough one. “I guess,” I said at last, “we just frame it differently. Like if you never fail at anything, you’ve never tried anything hard enough. And as for getting called names, we’re pretty much taught to turn the other cheek, because fighting never solves anything.”

“But if you fight that guy who called you a faggot, he won’t call you a faggot anymore. Solved.”

“I just don’t think it works that way when you look at things in the long run,” I said thoughtfully, but once again I didn’t have as much reasoning behind my values as I thought I did.

SOCIETY AND POLITICAL CORRECTNESS. I have this theory that the South has a pretty rigid society, disguised as a casual one. Allow me to explain. Things like friendliness, toughness, and D.I.Y. values are revered here – not exactly what you learn at Cotillion – but there are unspoken rules… like… everywhere. Like the rule that you hold doors open for people anywhere within a 10-foot radius, even if it’s the door of the school library and people are constantly going every which way and you’ll be standing there forever. Or maybe I should say “expectations”. Like the expectation that everyone has seen classic movies which are part of mainstream culture, resulting in longer- and more-incredulous-than-average “WHAAAA?!?” conversations that ensue when I say I haven’t seen a movie like “Stepbrothers”. Or the expectation that you use proper porch furniture for your porch, which is not a couch, which led to lengthy argument with my classmate the other week. (I last had that argument in California with my circa 90-year-old landlord.)

It’s almost imperceptible, but I get the feeling that things which are out of the ordinary here are… “punishable” is too harsh a word, and “bizarre” is probably too colorful of one– but they don’t fit in.

In fact, the Southern hatred of political correctness is a perfect example. Because ironically, the South has its own sort of political correctness, which only takes aim at things which are out of the ordinary. Rob is livid when an American flag touches the ground or is hung the wrong way. And he told me once that he was taught by his dad that even if you disagree with elected officials, you have to respect them as our country’s leaders.

Meanwhile, I was biking the other week and some dudes leaned out the windows of a huge truck and yelled as they sped by, “FAGGOT!” So how come talking smack on the President is forbidden, but talking smack on someone right in front of you is considered just boys being boys? How come you have to hang the flag a certain way, but labeling bathrooms a certain way is intrusive “political correctness”?

Obviously people are massively different from each other, and at the end of the day you never know if someone hangs a flag backward because of where they’re from, who they are as a person, how old they are, what their major is, or just what they had for breakfast. But even without knowing their origins, I can definitely say I’ve been exposed to all kinds of alternate ways of thinking here. All kinds of challenges to things that I previously assumed.

And in light of that, in order to officially resurrect my blog, allow me to reintroduce myself and my assumptions. I’m Ben, I’m from California, and I’ve spent the past three years living various places in Europe and Mexico. I’m a casual Jew, but I believe in God and I believe religion is generally a force for good in the world. I am a proud American, and I believe that many of my country’s shortcomings are due to the unprecedented challenges of being both the first and the biggest to try to make democracy work. But I also think that our evil acts, namely of the military sort, have led to our problems, namely immigration crises and having enemies. I am not convinced that capitalism is the best or only way to organize the world. I believe politeness and chivalry are nice, but I assume they’re just substitutes for actual emotional intelligence. I assume that the scientific method and the principle of Occam’s razor are valid. I assume that the environment has a value of its own, and should be protected even at the cost of human gain. I assume that differences between ways of living and thinking are good, and should be preserved for future generations. And I assume that fighting is never the best answer.

Those are my assumptions. Only now that you know them – unless we already had shared assumptions, without even knowing it – can my thoughts properly make sense.

And this is my blog. I’m going to share with you the chocolate chips.





The “A Wrinkle In Time” movie: A Lament

22 03 2018

I want to write about “A Wrinkle In Time”, which I saw last night, just to mourn. It had so much potential, and I’m annoyed, fascinated and bewildered that they managed to mess it up so badly.

“A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’engle is my mom’s all-time favorite book, and for a while it was mine, too. I read the same old dog-eared copy that was hers as a kid – complete with graffiti from my later-to-be Auntie Sheri, who had taken it upon herself to fill in the blank of the book’s mysterious last line:

“We have to…” GO TO THE BATHROOM

But they never learned what Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which had to do, because there came a sudden gust of wind, and they were gone.

I saw it in theaters with my family and my friend Ted, who had apparently read it in fourth grade as part of a class. All he remembered was a random, one-page scene where the characters teleport briefly to a two-dimensional planet, and heroine Meg Murry describes the strange and horrible sensation of feeling steamrollered flat, until… “We can’t bring the children here! They’re humans, and this is a two-dimensional planet!”

The book is full of such weirdness as this – cerebral and clever, described brilliantly but with visuals taking a back seat, leaving one to wonder just how you could put this s**t on screen. But it’s definitely weird, so as I started reading early reviews of WiT that labeled it a mess of weirdness, I kept up hope, wondering if the critics just weren’t understanding or appreciating it.

I think I can sum up the reason why “A Wrinkle in Time” was bad with this simple contrast. “Wrinkle in Time” the book not only is about thinking, but demands you to think. “Wrinkle in Time”, the movie, glorifies the idea of smartness, while being dumb. Science – in the form of “Heck Yeah! Be a Girl who’s Good at Science!” – is just one zestless ingredient of many which are dropped into a bubbling slop of teenage empowerment.

Everything that is elegant and even-handed about the book is schmaltzy, in-your-face and over the top in the movie. In the book, clever and dense dialogue gives form to a plot that could easily be way too intangible. For example there’s the villain, IT (whom the movie decides to name an infinitesimally less confusing The It, refusing to have faith in the audience’s intelligence). In the book, IT’s power over people’s minds is explored in an extended sequence where Charles Wallace gets hypnotized by reciting multiplication tables. Meg tries all kinds of mantras, songs, and forms of meditation to keep IT out of her head, each time realizing that anything with a rhythm puts her in danger of falling into the overpowering, hypnotic heartbeat of IT. It would have been actor-centric and tough to film, but totally doable. Especially with awesome leading actors like Storm Reid and Derek McCabe. And I had thought that someone like Ava DuVernay, who’s previously worked on gritty movies like “Selma” where acting comes first, would have been up to finding the drama in such a sequence.

Instead, we get a chopped-up Transformers-like action spree, culminating with an explosive whirlwind in which Meg and Calvin must jump into a giant log to be flung a thousand feet. “Slingshot effect. It’s a physics thing,” Meg says. A PHYSICS THING? YOU JUST SURVIVED A 1,000 FOOT FALL! In an Indiana Jones movie, you know what, fine. But this is LITERALLY a story ABOUT PHYSICS, in which the plot hinges on nerdy kids realizing that their minds can save the day, and you just totally STEAMROLLERED the laws of physics in the very sequence which is supposed to add to the plot THE FACT THAT MEG IS GOOD AT PHYSICS. Ugh. Facepalm royale.

Basically, in the book, Meg learns to believe in herself because the nerdiest version of herself is what’s capable of learning to tesser, resisting IT, and outsmarting ITs spell on Charles Wallace. In the movie, she learns to believe in herself because Oprah whispers to her that she should believe in herself. And because Calvin makes smoldery eyes at her every time she mentions Science. It’s a freaking bummer, because a movie about the power of thinking for yourself could have been just as relevant and timely as a movie about loving yourself. It could have even contained the message to love yourself, in a subtle form. But either Ava DuVernay didn’t want to make that movie, or she didn’t read the book closely enough to realize it was in there.

So here’s the one thing. Charles Wallace was PERFECT. I would have thought that finding an actor to play a slightly psychic 6-year-old genius would have been harder than writing a coherent script based on a fast-paced YA novel full of crispy dialogue. But jeez, Disney sure pulled the ol’ bait and switch on that one. In fact, the casting is uniformly pretty awesome. I’m rereading the book now, and I have no problem at all imagining the three kids in the book as the three actors from the movie while the scenes play out in my head. Even Oprah was quite well-cast. She has that perfect, sonorous voice for Mrs. Which – “YYYOOUUU HAAVVE SSSOOMETTHHHIIINGG THAT IITT HAS NOTT!” – which would have been great, if she had gotten to say any of Mrs. Which’s iconic lines. Which she doesn’t. Reese Witherspoon is sort of miscast but does a great job anyway, and Mindy Kaling is straight up Mrs.-cast. While the other two are just upstaged by their ridiculously Bedazzled outfits, she seems distracted, immobilized and neutralized by hers.

And honestly, just the cut decisions. You cut all explanation of the science behind a tesseract, but you added a random exposition-requiring subplot where Charles Wallace is adopted? You took massive measures to make the film diverse, then went über-cliché and set it in Southern California instead of the nondescript small town of the book? You cut the twins, but added a completely irrelevant next-door-neighbor-slash-bully named Veronica?!? I’m sorry, but for a story about the struggle for the universe and the redeeming power of ultimate love, all this high school politics is just f***ing degrading. I get what they were trying to do – tangible example of how IT is the force of bad that can be fought with random acts of kindness, etc – but damn, it’s laid on with a shovel.

This has been a merciless roast, but I guess I justified writing it for two reasons. One, to champion the book, and how important it is for people to read it without associating it with this weirdness. Especially people of color who might have dug the movie for what it does, but will be forgetting it in a year because of its ultimate badness. The intellectual soul of L’engle’s tale, like academia in general, is worth reclaiming from an educated upper class in 2018.

Reason number two is an easy segue, and it’s to clearly state that AWiT does not suck because it’s diverse. It being so cool that two amazing actors like Storm Reid and Derek McCabe got to star in a genre that offers POC few opportunities is just another reason that I’m SO SAD that the movie turned out this bad. But you know what, we’ve had a big season for the growing diversity in movies, with Black Panther plus two gay love stories (“Love Simon” and “Call Me By Your Name”)… and the fact is, you can’t nail every shot.

I read the interviews with DuVernay and just glowed, hearing her talk about how wonderful it was to have this huge budget to “let her imagination run wild”. But you know what, I’ll go ahead and come out with the accusation – the one thing missing from “A Wrinkle in Time” was imagination. How do you realize onscreen a two-dimensional planet; a black shadow which is “horrible beyond description”; a creature which has a horse’s body and a woman’s face but is “not like a Greek centaur at all”; a “red miasma” which creeps into Meg’s vision as IT takes over? These are actual, meaty challenges for the imagination. And what DuVernay gives us is action sequences, couture dresses, and glitter everywhere. At one point Meg is tessering and glitter actually COMES OUT OF HER EYES. C’mon, girl, THAT’s the wildest extent of your imagination? Glitter coming out of her EYES?

At the end of the day, this story needed someone with a deeper and more thoughtful imagination than that. Regardless of the color of her or his skin. And whatever movie DuVernay ended up making, it’s like… Knock knock, I’m not sure who’s there, but “A Wrinkle in Time” definitely isn’t home.





Mexican Slang for the Californian Learner

5 03 2018

If you’ve ever met me outside of reading this blog, you’ve probably heard me rant about how much I love Mexico.

The reasons why are many, and largely idiosyncratic. Part of it, probably, is my original low expectation as an American, force-fed cautionary tales only to find the forbidden to be beyond my wildest dreams. Part of it is an urban aesthetic that plays to my weak points – a strange mix of the Spanish Old West, the Dickensian 1800’s, and mid-century Art Deco gleam. And part of it is just a personality match. You know – that one culture where you go “Oh yeah, I GET these people”. Like myself, Mexicans lack subtlety; are obsessed with food; are optimistic to a fault; do not tolerate FOMO; get big laughs from the little things; thrive on banter with strangers; and care immensely about what people think of them, except when people think they’re too loud or crazy, in which case they don’t care.

In fact, I would say that a lot of those things overlap not just with me, but with what Mexicans and Californians share in general. And it’s not just the culture. The longer I’ve spent in Mexico, the more I’ve started noticing something delightfully odd. Unlike when I’m speaking, for example, French, I rarely come across dud jokes, or untranslatable sayings, in casual conversation. In this post I am going to present my very weird discovery: Mexican slang’s huge amount of one-to-one correlation with Californian slang.

My theory is that if you’re a Californian learning Spanish, and you want to talk like a Mexican, you can express almost all of the most common 50 slang words you use with your friends without having to awkwardly deconstruct them, like describing something bougey as “too nice” or something lit as “a good party.” Hopefully aided by this guide, you’ll find that you can pretty much directly translate the laziest, most intimate version of the way you talk.

That’s the premise of this guide, but obviously it’s not perfect. For example, I couldn’t find a good translation for “cutty” – which to you non-Californians means sketchy in a good way, like a place where you won’t get caught. And there’s a host of Mexican wordplay which doesn’t have a Californian counterpart. (“Tengo hueva,” which equates to the extremely British “I can’t be bothered”, I couldn’t resist including.)

In addition, be forewarned that the (numerous) sayings which contain swear words do NOT necessarily correlate to the “badness level” of their translations. For example, “chorro” and “chingo” are much more PG than “shitload” or “fuckton”, with the latters’ compounding on 4-letter words. On the other hand, “naco” is much more spicy and negative than “ratchet”, and should probably only be used to describe impersonal things like situations – unless you really want to disparage someone. (The good news is that most of the words are dirtier in their English versions.)

This idea came from a funny correlation between the mega-Californian “dude” and the mega-Mexican “güey”, but really the English slang is 10% Californian and 90% just the language of American millennials. Whoever you are, I hope you’ll be entertained and educated by the list, which as far as I know is the only one of its kind. May it help you schlep your personality and sense of humor kicking and screaming into your second language!

Without further ado, I proudly present:

MEXICAN SLANG FOR THE CALIFORNIAN LEARNER

Asshole: cabrón

Bitchslap: un putazo

Bougey: fresa (also a noun for a bougey person; masc. also “fresa”)

Brewski: chela

To bring it (as in, be ready to party hard) / to kick it: echarlo

Bullshit: una mamada

Cool: chido / padre / chingón

To chat: charlar

To chill: cotorrear

Dope (adjective, not reaction): de huevos

Dope (reaction, not adjective): ahuevo

Dude: güey

Dumbass: pendejo

F yeah/hell yeah/yaaassss (jokey-emphatic way of saying yes) : Simón

For sure/go for it: dale / ándale

To fuck up / fuck over: chingar

Fucked up (as in, drunk) : pedo

Fucking / freaking / goddamn: pinche

Gimme a break: no me chingues

Good stuff / good sh*t: buen pedo

Good vibes: buena onda

Guy / chick: morro / morra

Hitch: ride (hitchiking: pedir ride / ir en ride)

Homie / buddy (much more than an acquaintance, but not necessarily a friend): cuate

Hustle: tranza (to hustle: tranzear / echar le tranza)

I can’t be bothered / can’t be fucked: tengo hueva / me dió hueva

It’s whatever: da igual

Janky: chafa (masc. also “chafa”)

Lame: mamón

Meh (as an adjective): equis

‘Murrica: el gabacho

No way / you’ve gotta be kidding me: no mames / no manches

Pain in the ass (person) : culero/culera

Ratchet: naco (careful with this one, it can be taken as a classist slur if used flippantly)

Screw-up (mistake) / act of screwing off or screwing around: una pendejada / hacer pendejadas

Seriously / for real: la neta

Seriously? / For real?: Neta?

Shitload: un chingo / un chorro

Shitshow: desmadre

Stoned: griffo / pacheco

Tough / gnarly (as a test, a ski run, etc): cabrón

Twist one up: forjar

What a pain (in the ass): qué hueva

What the hell / fuck: qué demonios / qué carajo

What’s Gucci? : que pachó?

What’s up / what’s the deal: qué pedo?

What’s up / the business (noun of dopeness, as in “That’s what’s up” or “This taco is the business”): la neta

Whipped (as in a servile boyfriend): mandilón

Whoa: híjole / órale

~~~~

P.S. A NOTE ON APPROPRIATION. This list comes from the perspective of a traveler who has spent a happy time immersed in another culture. I realize that in my homeland of California, where “Mexican” is viewed more as a race than a nationality, a different context and quite different baggage comes with a guide to anything Mexican written by a white guy. In the hopes that nobody will ultimately be bothered by this, I emphatically invite the many folks who have a better knowledge of this material than me to comment, suggest, or correct to their heart’s content. 🙂





This Autumn In Asia, I Hit A Cow

18 01 2018

This is the belated account of the number 1 story I got out of my first-ever visit to Asia. And it goes pretty much how it sounds.

We were all biking through rural Vietnam at the time – 399 other tour guides and me. It was the week of our yearly Staff Ride, a Tough Mudder-meets-booze cruise sort of company party, if you can imagine such a thing. Get yourself to the given year’s selected location, and an all-inclusive week of biking and raging with coworkers awaits. This year the ride was in Vietnam, a stunt for which there had been much anticipation. I was not alone in planning an ambitious, month-long First Trip to Asia around the dates, intending to milk the pricey airfare it would take to get there.

The majority of us had already arrived in Vietnam when the news came: there was a typhoon coming in, to hit exactly at the spot of coast where we were supposed to ride for four days. This being Backroads, of course we assumed that typhoon schmyphoon, we were riding rain or shine.

But the complications started the day before the trip, which would start in the city of Hue. Most of us were in Hanoi, and rumors started flying faster than the city’s famous motorbikes: Are planes still landing in Hue? Did you hear that the entire Scheduling team cancelled their flight to Da Nang because the pass is closed? We’re taking the night train, it’s 22 hours and it leaves at 3, if you want to come. And so on.

Luckily, the rumor mill went both ways, and assured us that one plane had landed successfully already at the time me and my buddy Uroš turned our phones on airplane mode and put our tray tables in their fully locked and upright position. It was not raining when we landed in Hue forty minutes later, but it was clear that it had been. As in, massive-sheets-of-water-surrounding-the-city-where-fields-should-be type of clear.

Our taxi to the center splooshed through fords up to the bumper, edged up onto sidewalks, and otherwise played hot-lava tag through the waterlogged streets that wound into the center. Once settled in our hotel, we set off to walk to the bar where we had heard we would find everyone.

The water got deeper and deeper, until we were holding our shorts above the knees with our fists, like Cinderella trudging away from the ball. The fluorescent lights of a movie theater twinkled in the water of a traffic circle. The theater steps sank into the depths like the stoop of a Venetian house. Two fellows in a canoe glided past us. When we hit the first cross street, stepping from the sidewalk to the deeper water of the road was like encountering the continental shelf. Then we stopped, mesmerized, as a bus trawled down the lane, its wheelless prow cutting through the water like something out of a Miyazaki movie. Only when the bus got close did we realize that it was stirring up a foot-high wake. “Run for the stoops!” I hollered, and we leapt up to cling to the higher ground of the shopfront.

When we finally got to the bar, it felt like we had traversed oceans to reunite with friends from Croatia, France, Israel, and all the others. We were welcomed with shrieks of happy surprise: “How did YOU make it??” The high excitement led the night to develop into what ended up being known as “Staff Ride, Night Zero,” possibly one of the most raucous of the week. And that was all very well, because there was no riding to be done the next day. It had started raining again, and we were flooded in.

Over the next four days, we biked through lakes that submerged our pedals for blocks at a time; through fords that overflowed onto the road from thundering waterfalls; and through every kind of rain “Forrest Gump” had ever warned us about. The ironic part is that the day I hit the cow was the first sunny day of riding. The sun was shining, and the fields shimmered in the thick humidity that rose in wave after wave from the drying mud. What had felt like a dreamscape in the past days was suddenly incredibly alive. Cars and motorbikes beeped, little kids cut in and out on bicycles, ladies balanced sacks of vegetables and merchandise on their backs, old men rode water buffalo. And there were animals everywhere. Chickens, ducks, dogs, pigs, and cows. They owned the road– everyone would just beep-beep and swerve around them.

The particular cow which is about to become the star of this story was walking up the road in the opposite direction as us, right in the middle. I was riding in a big peloton of people, and when I looked ahead all I could really see were other bikes – not the people four, five, six rows in front of me who with little “Whoa!”s each swerved around the surprise cow, making our pack eddy around it like water around a rock. All except for me. I looked down at my directions at the wrong moment, looked back up, and only had a second to see a mammal-shaped wall zooming towards me when… BOOM! According to eyewitness accounts I flew over my handlebars, but I don’t remember that. All I remember is landing in a thunderous full-arm hi 5 to the pavement: SMAK.

A lot of people have asked me how the cow took it. The answer is this: the cow reacted like you would react if you were an old lady in line at the supermarket, tranquilly reading about the side effects of grape-flavored Tums, and some toddlers playing tag sort of bumped into your legs and knocked you off balance. You’d go “Ahum!” and give the kids a dirty look, then brush off your skirt and go back to ignoring them. And the cow basically did that, except that the noise was more like “MOOOOO-UAUGH!” as it stumbled sideways.

When the adrenaline wore off, I found that I could still ride on the arm, albeit quite stiffly and without much squeezing of the brakes. So I trucked onwards to lunch, at which point I need to take a detour from the story of the cow to describe one of the most extravagant meals I have ever eaten in my life. For lunch, Backroads had reserved an entire traditional indoor food market, paying the vendors to churn out all-you-can-eat of their respective concoctions. I have never had such a culinary free-for-all. Giant pots bubbled of dark purple mushrooms, gleaming honey-colored fish and thick red calimari stew. A salad bar served up crispy piles of sea worms garnished with frizzy greens and clipped flowers. Ladies furiously rolled thin pancakes around bunches of mint leaf and white bean sprouts. My friend Jenna opened a coconut, and steam billowed out like a vision from Xanadu. She reached in with her chopsticks and pulled out a single plump shrimp, dripping sweet-smelling golden curry sauce.

The bad news is, my arm was getting worse. By the time I got home from the ride it seriously hurt, and by the time I got to the gates of the closing party, I could barely bend it and it was grossly swollen. Realizing there was a problem, I did what anyone would do. I went dancing through the club in search of the resident doctor. (Since a lady from the office was married to an E.R. surgeon, who had been invited to come along just in case, that was a thing). Eventually we arranged an impromptu exam in the corner of the dance floor, and he informed me it was probably a sprain and wrapped a cloth bandage tightly around my elbow so I didn’t have to work so hard to keep it still.

“Do you have any Ibuprofen?” he asked, to which I replied something like “I think so.” Without another word, he tucked a fistful of gel-blue pills into the pocket of my linen shirt, patting them as if to say, “You’ll want these later.”

I found the pills when I woke up the next morning, unbelievably hung over and with an elbow throbbing worse than ever. I was still wearing the linen shirt, and though the pills had become melty enough to get fuzzy with particles of linen, none of the gelly interior had escaped. “Thank God,” I said, popping two into my mouth. Or at least, I would have said it aloud if my voice hadn’t been reduced to a soundless croak.

On the breakfast terrace of the hotel, it was post-party madness. In the second large medical irony of the thing, the night at the club had messed people up far worse than any of the riding. Someone had slipped on the stairs in front of the club and sprained an ankle. Someone else had tried to power-slide on the dance floor, and mowed their legs over broken glass.

I sat with two friends from Croatia, Lexi and Amanda – the former who doesn’t drink and the latter who does. That’s why Lexi looked at us with deadpan, blinking eyes as she mouthed in a nonexistent croak, “I don’t know how it happened.”

“Yeah, how do you feel?” Amanda asked me, in a voice like a dying bullfrog.

All three of us started with unhealthy scrapes of laughter, and the pathetic sound only made us laugh harder, until we were crying into our breakfast.

My arm still hurt as I walked around town later, though, and I started to sink into a gloomy mood. The doctor had told me that in three days, if my arm hadn’t improved I would have to get it X-rayed in order to address the possibility that it might be broken. The agony of not knowing gnawed at me, and I started churning out what-if’s. What if I hadn’t looked down at that precise moment? What if I had landed differently? I was supposed to travel Asia for a month, and I was barely able to put on a backpack, let alone climb or surf. What if I had done something a tiny bit differently, and it hadn’t happened?

But then I thought of a paradox : if I hadn’t hit the cow, I would never have known I had almost hit a cow. Thus, the satisfaction of knowing that I was okay – the satisfaction that I so desperately craved; that I could imagine so clearly – would be just as inaccessible in the other world as it was in this one.

And then I realized that if you believe in multiverse theory, there must be countless versions of me in alternate, doomed timelines, and that they must crave the exact satisfaction that sprained-elbow me has, but cannot see. What if I had fallen a little differently, and broken my back? Or gotten trampled or gored? Then I would be desperately yearning to have just sprained my elbow. I saw something obvious, but colossal in its obviousness: how lucky I am to be here.

I suddenly felt horribly sad that we humans can’t feel the satisfaction of that. I’m not wondering if we can’t — I know we can’t. Not viscerally. Your parents can tell you to eat your veggies because there’s kids starving in Africa; you can even see the kids on TV, feel your stomach turn at the horror of someone else’s situation. But generally, all it’ll make you feel is a vague sense of guilt, and the conscious acknowledgement that yes, it’s remarkable that you have veggies on your plate. It still doesn’t make them taste any better. Our brains just aren’t wired that way.

On my last night in Hoi An, my buddy Evan played a gig. He had arranged it with typical Southeast Asian chutzpah: by approaching Mango Mango Bar with the promise that if he played, he could fill the place to the brim with our coworkers. That’s pretty much what happened. From the unofficial Night Zero in the flooded center of Hue, the concert was a perfect unofficial closing night. It was amazing seeing so many people whom I knew, and loved, from so many different contexts: a best friend from Normandy and a best friend from Croatia, chatting because they met in Spain. The joy of human connections, weaving together to form a net. A nest. A place where you feel at home.

Amanda, the friend who I’d laughed with that morning about our hoarse voices, called me over randomly. She was a bona fide adventurer who had been trapped until a year ago at (of all things) a tobacco advertising job. Nowadays she had a blog for female travelers and a couple Ironmans under her belt. “Hey!” she said. “I wanna tell you something.” I sidled up. “I just wanted to tell you,” she said, “that I was SO stoked that you messaged me about my blog. That was so sweet, and it totally brought a smile to my face. I just wanted you to know that.” Damn, I thought. Considering how seldom we Backroads leaders see each other, what an awesome thing to make a point to say to someone.

Fast forward to New Year’s Eve, 2017. It was our night off, and I had just encountered a series of technical difficulties with my grad school apps, which were due to the next day. This resulted in my afternoon off being spent having a miniature nervous breakdown in the computer lab of the Hacienda Sol y Luna in Urubamba, Perú. I met my co-leader Kelsey in the bar afterwards, I could tell something was wrong with her, too.

“I have some really gnarly news to tell you,” she said.

I sighed. “You go first,” I grumbled.

“A plane went down in Costa Rica. With guests. Everyone on board died.”

My head spun. “All guests? Wait… was there a leader?”

“Yeah. I don’t know if maybe you know her… Amanda Geissler?”

The whole thing is still 100 per cent surreal. It breaks me to say it, but this job makes one excellent at saying goodbye. There are plenty of reasons why I might never have seen Amanda again. She might have quit tour guiding and decided to go to school in Wisconsin or some place. We might have just spent the next year with our schedules dancing around each other, never in the same country. There would have been occasional birthday Facebook posts, and plenty of warm memories. Maybe not more.

But since I can’t see her again, the desire to is terrible. To hear her rich voice, always rising a bit at the end of the sentence, like she had said the punchline of a joke and was waiting to see if you’d notice. To hear her suggest that we go to the beach, or do a workout, or use the rest of this gross Konoba Toni wine to cook something. To hear her shut down an idea with matter-of-factness: “No, he is NOT cute enough for you.”

Somewhere in an alternate universe, an alternate Amanda is continuing into her thirty-third year. But unlike the rest of us – in this shitty universe, or in that one – the thought has probably crossed her mind that wow, god damn, how gorgeous it is to be alive and healthy and traveling the world.

18 days have passed of 2018, but its newness is still in the air. And with that in mind, my wish for 2018 – for me, and for everyone who reads this – is to try to feel for just one second the joy of all the horrible realities you’ve escaped. Don’t just get guilty about it. Let it run through your mind until, for an instant, you are electrified by the idea of the stoke you should be feeling.

It’s not human instinct to honest-to-God feel that stoke, but we can try. Because not only do we have no idea what’ll happen tomorrow… we have no idea what almost happened yesterday. Who knows – you could have been that close to not being here at all.

Or, I dunno. You might have just hit a cow.





Huzzah & Namaste from Pennsylvania

28 10 2017

Of all the dramatic arrivals in my traveling career, I think flopping out of a taxi in the backwoods of Amish country and heaving all of my bags through the front gates of the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire has to be one of the weirdest.

There were two differences between me and the crowd of people around me. One, they were all dressed in kooky historical outfits. Two, they were all flooding outward, towards the gates, while I was going in. They had already eaten their turkey legs, had their mini fencing bouts and bantered with their favorite cast members, and they were ready to start their long drives back to somewhere probably outside of Amish country. I felt for them, I did. But I had come three and a half thousand miles to see my best friend from high school perform at her favorite place in the world. And made it with two hours to spare. I was going to milk it.

I left my bags in the back room of a wine shop, then followed the ghost-town street of the fake English shire as it curved down, towards an echoing roar in the distance. When I reached the lawn at the bottom, people were crowded around an arena where a jousting show was going on, complete with some sort of plot involving a kidnapped queen and pyrotechnics. “Oh army off ze Black Fo-rest! Come out unt play-ay!” the apparent villain called out, and with a flash of smoke and a wicked cackle, a bunch of extras dressed like black-clad demons scampered out from under the wooden stage, adding extra tension to good King Henry’s plight.

I loved it. Though it was awkward with no immediate neighbors or companions, I shouted “Huzzah!” when the king raised his lance and “Boooo!” when the villainous German knight raised his.

Renaissance Faires the nation over share the same culture, even ones with a few telltale MAGA hats floating around. My friend Alison and I used to go to the Renaissance Faire with our friends every summer in high school, costumes and all; and now I felt pleasantly at home.

After the joust Alison found me with a squeal of excitement and, not wanting to break character, chirped to some faire-goers, “Perrdon me. That’s me best friend!” before scooting through the crowd for a huge hug. Even chatting in a half-hearted and cheesy Irish accent as we strolled to her next show didn’t feel like a pain in the butt after not seeing each other in 4 years. That’s true friendship.

In order to get to this familiar bubble, it had been a very weird journey through the unfamiliar. Allow me to rewind: believe it or not, the same day as I watched the jousting I had also laid eyes on the original Declaration of Independence.

Here’s a quick summary of my impressions of Washington, D.C., where I had arrived the night before. Our founding fathers, god bless ’em for creating a great system of government, lacked seriously in imagination when it came to creating a capital. They filled the whole thing with the same grayish-white stone and the same stern busts of themselves, making for a pretty drab city. I suppose architecture becomes more beautiful as it ages; but if the pillars and porticos of the faux-Greek façades look that incongruous to me now, I can only imagine how heinous they were in 1836. And don’t even get me started on the Washington Monument, our nation’s giant phallus. I think it’s actually a pretty decent metaphor for America: defined by its giant phallus, but self-assured of its own classiness because it was erected in the spirit of brotherhood and liberty, and also is a Greco-Roman phallus.

I know, I know… the museums; the gravitas. I won’t pretend I didn’t shiver when I laid eyes on the White House, peeping serenely through the trees of the North Lawn. But for the most part, I was glad to be on a Greyhound bus to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania that afternoon.

Pennsylvania is a cellar door. I mean, “Pennsylvania” is a cellar door: one of those words that sounds beautiful regardless of meaning. Pennsylvania is also extremely pleasant to drive through, although I don’t know if it would be equally pleasant to live in. As my taxi left Harrisburg and wound into the creaking hills, the autumn colors turned sharper. We passed through little towns straight from my childhood imaginings of eastern Gilmore Girls-esque Americana. Random observation, but this backwoods country was also hog heaven for signs, which I recently started an Instagram account about. It’s not the dorkiest thing I’ve ever done, but it may be in the top 15. (If you like signs it’s @signwatching, check it out I guess.) They flashed by now: “Homemade Root Beer”…. “Election Day bake sale”… “All-You-Can-Eat Pancakes”.

It turned out that Alison, to my amusement, lives in a pretty similar frat house-style bubble to me. There are a few differences of course, the main one being that they all work together on site each week; and so the cast of their little la-la-land isn’t constantly rotating. But the same dramas take up their lives: who would clean the kitchen at 6 a.m. the day after the big party, then complain that nobody cleans? Why must so-and-so monopolize the TV to watch all four Paranormal Activitys in a row? The same little joys take up their lives too: chatting about life with whoever’s brushing their teeth next to you; group viewing parties of movies; trips to monopolize 5 tables of the local diner. (Where you can discuss dirty things in an exuberantly loud voice and shriek with laughter, without getting the stink eye from everyone else in the restaurant. I don’t miss you, France.)

The day after the Faire was the first of the cast’s days off, and that night was the big Halloween party. I know this will come as a surprise to no one, but turns out that when it comes to Halloween costumes, Renaissance Faire actors are the most committed and formidable people in the world. Three of them dressed as Kronk, Yzma and Kuzco from “The Emperor’s New Groove” using only a single afternoon of snipping, sewing and taping the bounty of a thrift store trip. I cannot emphasize how perfect their costumes were, from Kuzco’s weird cylindrical golden hat, to Yzma’s two spindly eyelashes. BUT THAT’S NOT ALL. One cute couple dressed as Kim Possible and Ron Stoppable, complete with naked molerat (AND she’s a hot redhead who’s slightly taller than him – the true genius was their seeing it). Alison and two of her chick friends stole clothes from three of the guys and dressed as them. A girl walked in with a baggy Manning jersey, a sixpack of Bud, a pointed wizard’s hat and a long silver beard: Fantasy Football. A guy in a hipster outfit stared at you thoughtfully with his pen poised over a blank journal, then awkwardly shuffled sideways to stop you when you tried to walk around him: Writer’s Block. I was an extremely halfhearted Scrabble, trying to get people to tape Scrabble letters on me until Alison’s roommate lamented aloud that no one had worn her sexy corn costume. I quickly changed into the tight dress, then threw the board back over my head and spent several hours as Sexy Corn Scrabble.

The day after the party, Alison and I strolled through the empty Shire, with her chatting about who sings where and what shticks and bits take place at each village corner. We ended up at a giant AstroTurf chessboard where the live chess show happens, complete with choreographed battles to the death between the pieces. Since our three years without seeing each other, Alison had also gotten her yoga teacher certification. So we had decided to take advantage of the unseasonably fine fall day and do some yoga.

I have always been a bit bewildered by yoga. It requires you to be fully aware of your body, balance and muscles, which is exactly what I am not. Every sport I’ve become involved with, I’ve managed to scrabble my way into despite this. The other problem is that yoga instructors have a certain yoga-speak, which I honestly find hard to listen to without laughing. As a hippie from Northern California, I can’t shake the feeling that this makes me a horrible person. I love meditation, theories of energy, and other spiritual sh*t… but for some reason I can’t take yoga seriously.

The type we did on the chessboard was vinyasa, which entails flowy movements from one pose to another to another, a tai-chi-esque kind of dance. I thought I was doing pretty well, watching Alison and trying to guess what the parade of Sanskrit words meant (“Descend to shivasana”). The problem came when the movements picked up speed, which couldn’t be anything but funny in the unctuous, relaxing voice of the yoga video lady. “Let the stretch flow into the tips of your fingertips. Send energy towards the sky in a salute,” she started out, waxing poetic. Then I was caught off guard as her instructions started building up: “Let your left foot flow out in front of you. Plant the ball of your foot against the earth. Now raise your right hand to the sky… bring it beneath you, stretching towards your left ribcage. Place hand beside other hand. Left foot between hands. Hop back, right hand up – deeeeep bend.”

The other thing was that vague, anatomically imperfect instructions were mixed into sensible ones, catching you off guard with something like “Stretch your heart above your head” or “Plant your spine.” This became a problem when we had to lie on our backs, making the tiny yoga lady on the phone screen invisible. Her instructions were tough to visualize. “Feet knotted; right ankle behind. Rib cage yearns open. Arms salute the earth,” she declared. I glanced at Alison, who even in this ungainly position seemed to splay gracefully on the grass, like a maiden who had fallen asleep counting the stars in the sky. Looking made me lose my balance, and I wiggled my butt like a beached whale, then rolled over sideways onto my face.

But by the end, I “got” certain poses, feeling the intended stretch or the workout come out of a surprising position. Chatting afterwards, Alison agreed with me that there are always exercises you “get” and others you don’t. And the descriptions are sometimes good – sometimes really good; as something figurative like “Plant your spine” gives you an aha moment about what you’re missing to get the proper stretch, where a photographic description could not. I laughed through yoga, but at the end I was relaxed. So I got the desired effect.

My visit to Pennsylvania was too short, but I couldn’t help but be eager to reach the light at the end of the tunnel. Two days ago I finally rested my bags in my own room after six months away. I knew that this random mini-trip, tacked in right at the end, would be exhausting in some ways and refreshing in others. But I needed it. Relishing your parents’ shower and the familiar streets of the town where you grew up are important comforts, for sure. But with a job and life that burns through my people energy, there is nothing more comforting than to know that some friendships can last forever.





Running Away

22 10 2017

I’ve been wanting to write a post in this thingamajig all summer, but I’ve been unsure what to write about, largely because I want to keep this blog as a diary-style potpourri rather than a travel blog. The problem is that my life these days is travel. I find that my deeper thoughts and reflections are not left as long to simmer, and reach catharsis, when so many of the thoughts I think are reactions to new environments.

The changing season this year has been an exception, however, and the exception is just that: I am getting used to the lifestyle of travel. When I smell the peat smoke and watch the shining downtowns of the European cities where I work slow and darken, I know it is time for a change. Home for a few days or weeks – dinners with family, bars with friends, pilgrimages to the places where I grew up. And then preparations of a different style: packing cubes full of mosquito nets and tank tops; water purifiers and hidden moneybelts. I feel part of a rhythm. It is a completely absurd rhythm, and one that not many people follow; but it is still a rhythm.

When I was training for my job as a bike tour guide, two years ago, my friend Ted told me about something he had heard from other outdoor guides, called “flow state”. To get to flow state with any hobby means you’re good enough that you’re no longer bewildered or freaked out, but not so good that the challenge or the thrill is gone. We sat on the porch in Salt Lake City after training one night, listening to the wind hiss in the leaves of the aspens, and wondered when – if ever – we would reach flow state with this new, utterly bewildering job.

Well, after two years I think I’m finally getting close. I always knew (well… hoped) that one day I would be able to change a bike seat angle in a reasonably short time, or creep uphill in 2nd gear through narrow castle arches without dying of fear that I would scratch the van. What I didn’t realize was that I would get used to the traveling too: the simple act of living out of a bag, constantly going through airport security and switching SIM cards.

Maybe I’m a little bit jaded. Do I miss that feeling of overpowering adrenaline and manifest destiny, the first time I got on a plane to cross the ocean to Europe? Of course. But it’s worth it for this new ability to feel at home on the road.

Like I said, traveling all the time reduces a lot of you to reaction rather than action. I think the core of the satisfaction I’m feeling is that as I become more adept at the odds and ends of travel, I have more energy left over for action. I’m beginning to feel like there is a stable me at the heart of this whirlwind, driven by my actual personality and the things I choose to do.

Within my lifestyle of travel, I am starting to figure out how to capture the joys that are not essential to travel. For our Staff Ride in two weeks, yeah, I’m stoked to go to Asia – but what it really means to me is seeing old friends again in a wacky environment; celebrating the end of the season; having a bit of a vacation. After that, in December, I’m going to Peru: I’m excited to get out in the mountains; to work with a small group of people which will become tight-knit; to have the challenge of a different sort of project. Stuff that anyone could be excited about, anywhere.

I say I shy away from wanting to have a travel blog, and the reason why is bound up perfectly to this mundane bit of musing. I started thinking about it when I read this article which waxes cynical about the travel blogging industry. It’s an industry I never would have thought much about, if left to my own devices. But various Internet patterns of mine (probably just my job listed on Facebook) have convinced my personal SEO imps that I want to see a constant onslaught of ads for this industry. When I scroll through Facebook, little windows tell me to “Stop working and start traveling”, or the alternative “Work remotely from anywhere” (photo: cute netbook against bare toes and a sandy beach).

I won’t even begin on the inanity of personalized Web marketing, because I have a sophisticated rant about this which I am not getting into now. (Hint: What’s the point of telling me to stop working and start traveling, when my Web history suggests that in fact I have already stopped working and started traveling?) Besides, there’s something buried in these ads which is senseless in a deeper way. These travel blogs are trying to sell travel like a typical consumerist carrot. Sure, it’s not a physical thing, but it plays the same role. Work hard at your sh*tty desk job, so you can have enough money to run away from it all and escape your sh*tty desk job.

I won’t lie, I see this effect with my clients all the time. Places become just names on a list. You “do” Iceland; you “do” the Cinque Terre. The adventure travel industry has grown massively, but all it’s achieved is that now people can go on any adventure and remain blasé.

Now, I’ll say with some pride that people have a great time – sometimes transcendently so – on the trips we lead. What they don’t realize is that the place only plays so big a role in that. Places are backdrops; when the backdrop is beautiful or exciting, it only does its allotted part in setting the stage. People have a great time on our trips because they are totally taken care of; being constantly given tasty food, interesting information, miniature tasks, and situations in which to interact with new friends. They’re all things that you already knew make for a good time, and that you can easily get some other way. If most of our guests did the exact same trip alone, all they would find out is that Croatia or Iceland or wherever has badly-marked freeway exits, and stores that close right when you’re hungry, and gnarly beggars that make you uncomfortable with your privilege, and grumpy supermarket checkout people, just like home.

At some point last year I was talking to my sister on the phone, and unloading a bunch of the things that had given me a bad week. Demanding guests, the stress of doing routes I didn’t know, rude Italian locals, an oncoming cold… whatever else it was. After explaining all this I finished in despair how guilty I felt for even feeling like this. I was so lucky, I was in Italy for free. What right did I have to be focusing on the bad stuff? She replied with one of the wisest things I’ve every heard from anyone. “Who cares?” she said. “It’s still your life.”

I guess what I’m trying to say is, the grass isn’t greener on the other side, so don’t quit your job and run away. Do your job, go to happy hour afterwards, chat with people of different races and cultures in the little break room and learn about them, get involved in local politics, hang out with your family, cuddle your dog, go to midnight premieres of Marvel movies, exercise, make model trains. Do whatever makes you happy, just live your damn life. And if you can’t manage to keep in mind how rich and exciting that is, than slap yourself out of it. Which you can do with one of any number of things. Including travel.