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 as much as I’ve always had a fascination with travel, I’ve also had a fascination with staying.

This duality was cemented in the bait-and-switch story of my growing up. I was a super awkward and nerdy kid, insecure about a bazillion and one things about myself. In high school, I glommed onto my gift for French as a way to get away – both in my imagination and eventually, as was the plan, for real. The whole thing came to a head when I crossed my fingers and sent in my application to my dream school, NYU. The wrong envelope came back, and in the crushing re-alignment of expectations that followed, I decided that the best actual second choice for me was U.C. Santa Cruz, right next door. Coming to the point where I could realize that required admitting that I had been enamored with the idea of running away for its own sake. I stumbled upon the fact that actually, the most fertile ground for our dreams is wherever we already have roots.

Sounds like a nice ending, but after one more life chapter in California, ta-da, here I am. Living everywhere around the globe and simultaneously nowhere. Did I forget my lesson?

Like I said, traveling all the time reduces a lot of you to reaction rather than action. So I think the core of the satisfaction I’m feeling at the end of this season is the fact 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 want 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 mostly listing what my job is on Facebook) have convinced my personal SEO shoulder 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 cannot write down in its entirety due to blood pressure concerns. (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.


1 04 2017

According to Aztec legend, a beautiful young princess once lived in the city of México. She was promised to marry a handsome warrior named Popoca. Before they could marry, however, her beloved was sent away to war in the distant kingdom of Oaxaca. While he was gone a jealous suitor hatched a plot: he went to the princess and told her that her beloved had perished in battle, but that he would gladly take her hand in marriage. Reluctantly, the princess accepted.

One day Popoca returned safely from war, and the princess realized that her new husband had tricked her. Consumed with grief, she took her own life. When Popoca found out that his love was dead, he died of heartbreak himself.

But that night, two mighty mountains rose above the Valley of Mexico. One had the shape of a woman’s body, pale with snow; so lovely that she could simply have been asleep. The other was a mighty volcano which spat fire and smoke, towering over the woman as if to protect her. They were the two lovers, whom the gods had immortalized as mountains to remind the Mexicans of their tragic tale.

This story teaches us a few things. One: star-crossed lovers dying for ridiculously angsty reasons is obviously not a trope of European folklore, but one that encircles the world. Two: in case you don’t believe in volcanic activity, this is a great explanation for the two mountains that stand guard over Mexico City. Iztaccíhuatl (in Nahuatl, the White Maiden) is the smaller of the two mountains. It peaks out at a staggering 17,160 feet – more than one thousand feet higher than the Mont-Blanc.

You can’t always see the twin peaks in the smog, although classical paintings of the pre-pollution Aztec city always show them huge on the horizon, like the Rockies towering above Denver. It was this exact smog which had been giving me the blues and convinced me that I needed some mountain therapy. When some friends mentioned to me that they had contracted a guide and were planning to summit Iztaccíhuatl, of course I immediately said yes.

Rarely have I stepped into such a wild adventure. Climbing Izta was, without a doubt, the hardest thing I have ever done with my body. As if the climb itself wasn’t enough, there’s the intense cold; the treacherous rocks and snow; and the fact that the trail just goes, on and on and on.

Our plan was to start climbing at midnight, after an afternoon (and obviously early-to-bed evening) hanging out at the little base camp, La Joyita. We played all-terrain bocce ball, sat around shooting the shit, and just gazed up at the white-cloaked summit, which rose sleepily from its golden sconce of grassy hills dotted with oyamel pines.

The point was just to relax and let our bodies acclimate to the altitude. Of our group of eight, seven of us lived in Mexico City, at six thousand feet of elevation – and one girl had come from Monterrey, which is practically at sea level. The difference (not to sound like a Buzzfeed article) was shocking. Poor Lina was already super sick within hours of us arriving at base camp – headache, vomiting, the whole shebang. But in the frigid, headlamp-lit shuffle as we woke up later that night, she said she was feeling a bit better, and she started off with us anyway.

The first hours passed in a trance. Only faint suggestions of angles and shadows served to remind us the size of the towering crags we were scaling. At one point, we looked across the Pass of Cortes to where the snowy cone of Popocatépetl was still exhaling its unending ribbon of smoke into the sky. In the nighttime darkness, we could see where the underside of the smoke was touched by a faint red light, emanating from inside the mountain.

Around 4 a.m. we reached the halfway point, a mountain refuge called the Refugio del Cien. We spent a few minutes warming up inside. The place was as spartan as can be: a multi-tiered snore barn of bunkbeds, at that hour filled with sleeping mountaineers. Poor guys, sleeping through the constant chorus of laughs, rustling, mutters and headlamps brought in by every single summiting party which stopped inside the refuge just like we did. From the front step of the refuge, we could look up, up, up to the top of a mountainside that seemed to tower to the sky. The headlamps of people already climbing traced a faint ribbon of lights, all the way to the top – like a nighttime ski run, only in reverse. That was where we were going.

We put on our crampons and started up, and from there on is where it got really gnarly. The cold was bitter and vicious, even through two layers of gloves. And the altitude started to really take its toll. If I fell behind a few steps, then hustled to catch up, the exertion would give me a sudden dizzy spell. I did exactly that a few times on purpose, just because the exertion was the only thing that would warm me up, before realizing what was going on. Dizziness if you walk fast, numbly throbbing fingers if you go slow– take your pick. That was also the altitude where I started to feel heavy – as if I had been transported to a planet with stronger gravity than our own, or into the body of myself fifty years in the future. I had to brace myself mentally for every step as we trudged higher and higher.

Dawn was starting to twinkle red on the horizon as we crested the top of the ridge, where the scattered debris of a ruined refuge offered us places to sit. The beauty of the dawn was almost negated by the horrifying sight of how far we had left to go. Iztaccíhuatl really is shaped like a sleeping woman, and to make the summit with nothing more complex than crampons, you have to trek alllllll the way along the ridge which is her silhouette. The gnarly tower of rock we had just climbed was none other than her gently bent knee. Before us was a procession of peaks: the Hip… the Elbow… and finally, hideously far away in the ragged distance, the summit itself. The Breast.

The morning sunlight was spectacular glowing creamy-gold on the snow. But as we trekked, I reflected on why I love the mountains. I think the answer is that I love the way perspective and scale mingle, twist and surprise you at that border between two worlds: the surprisingly small human world below, and the surprisingly big alpine world above. We were in the upper world now; a frigid, lifeless, and alien world. The mist-screened hills which were slowly lightening below were so far away that they had no perspective or scale whatsoever. They might as well have been a painted backdrop. And it’s not that I realized that alpine mountaineering isn’t for me. But I realized that though I consider myself a lifelong lover of the mountains, this adventure wasn’t scratching the itch I know so well. This was a new experience, and it had a different, frightening sort of enchantment. Not the one I knew.

The hardest part was crossing the Panza, or the Stomach. As you could imagine (if you’ve ever seen a sleeping woman before) it was a long, even saddleback, covered with a smooth coat of snow. It looked deceptively peaceful – it was even flat! – but as soon as we stepped onto the snow field, we were hammered sideways by a freezing, biting wind that screamed over the low point in the ridge and down into the Valley of Mexico. The snow was thick, and just icy enough that you never knew if you would sink or if you wouldn’t. What had appeared from above like a stroll about the length of my block suddenly seemed like the length of a football field. I put a bandanna over my nose, but my breath made the cloth moist, and after a minute the mask only made my face colder. Bent double against the wind, we struggled on.

The instant we hit uphill again, on the other side, the wind died down and went silent. Without a single tree, bush, or piece of flappable debris on the Stomach to give away how hard it was blowing, it was like it had never existed.

We were close now. We actually left our backpacks on a stone knob above the Stomach before making the final push to the summit. During that last climb, I felt the effects of the altitude redouble – not making me sick, but just making me weak. With every new step, my body didn’t want to obey my brain. I felt lightheaded, like I had drunk too much coffee on an empty stomach, and then quickly stood up.

When we finally limped bedraggled onto the snowy knob of the summit, we discovered that the biting wind passed across it, too. We took our pictures, stared in a daze at the icescape below, and within five minutes, we were on our way down again.

Honestly, I didn’t really feel pleased with myself until further down the mountain. It was like waking from a trippy dream which exists in its own calm logic, and only then  reacting to how trippy it was. Maybe the altitude had changed our brain chemistry slightly.

There’s not much to say about the way down, except that it was long. Even after the refuge, we were freaking out at every corner which revealed the trail ahead, wondering how the hell we had climbed all of this in the dark without noticing it. But the refuge was really a turning point, too – it was when our brain chemistry returned. Suddenly, instead of solemnly concentrating on our every footstep, we were chatting, cracking jokes, talking about how f***ed up that just was. And it was where the sunlight returned to normal strength, too. At one go, I shed a rain shell, a puffy down jacket, my gloves, my beanie, and my heavy snow pants (under which I had been wearing jeans). We were back in the human world again.

Lina, the girl from Monterrey, barely made it down in a dehydrated, half-sick haze. She sat at the refuge recovering for a while, and I think our guides were considering getting her some sort of rescue mission. But in the end someone took her pack, someone else mama-birded her a river of electrolyte fluid (OK, from the bottle), and we all made it the rest of the way down together.

My buddy Erik had it the second-worst, presumably because he smokes cigarettes. He was hilariously grumpy during the last exhausting leg, even once we got back to the base camp and celebrated with fresh tacos and quesadillas folded in thick tortillas of blue corn. (“You have to eat, man. Here, have one taco.” “I GUEEEEEE-eeesss.” And so on.)

In the end, good humor returned to all of us, and when we got back to the twinkling lights of the city, we stumbled into Ubers to go home and collapse. This was two weeks ago, and I’m still not convinced that my legs are back to normal. But I’m not convinced it’ll be my last flirt with alpine mountaineering, either. Expectations are everything, and you just can’t foresee all the ways the mountain challenged us. Now I can, though, for next time. It was the epitome of type-2 fun. And I couldn’t be happier I did it.

Here I am, back in the heart of the human world. Here the mountains are of steel, glass and stone; the bounty is picked from taco stands and hole-in-the-wall cafés; and the drama of predator and prey is played out between social classes; locals and foreigners; pickpockets and plutocrats. This is the urban jungle where I only have three weeks left.

Yeah, I’m pretty stoked to be going back to a world where the days are spent on bikes, out in nature, or in sleepy and lovely villages. A world where work doesn’t get in the way of life, bit where work is a way of life.

But dear sweet Virgencita, I’m going to miss this place SO. MUCH.

Once again it comes back to perspective. A mountain can be small and picturesque if you see it from the city; massive and daunting when you’re at its foot…. and strangely small again when you look down from the very top.

In the same way, three weeks can be the blink of an eye. Or they can be the time in which a whole life chapter goes down.

I’m sure these three weeks will be a little bit of both.

But as usual, I’m plotting the latter.

It’s All In the Way You Look at Things

1 03 2017

If I were to describe the details of daily life in my current city, I think you’d be hard-pressed to figure out where in the world I was talking about.

In this place, dogs live on the rooftops; sidewalks lined with trees form promenades between the lanes of major streets; and the corners are lined with old-fashioned businesses like locksmiths, tailors and cobblers. Little old ladies play ancient folk songs on the flute outside the liquor store. Every day the same vendors come down my street: the gas man yells “GAAAAS!” in case the propane tank in your apartment needs a refill; the sweet potato man pulls a mini wood-fired oven on a bicycle trailer, and a whistle attached to the oven toots mournfully as the steam from the roasting potatoes escapes.

In this place, there’s a song for everything: a song you play when you say goodbye; a song you play when it starts to rain. People low-key believe in magic, and they go to the open-air markets downtown to buy potions and amulets when they want luck or protection. And the metro is a whole underground world where you can find shoe-shine men, pharmacies, barbershops, Pizza Hut, and even internet cafés.

Oh, and I forgot to mention – I share this city with about 22 million other people.

Of course, if you’re reading this it’s probably not news to you that I’m living in Mexico City. I was determined to spend this winter the opposite of how I spend my summers with Backroads, and I’m pleased to announce that I’m doing just that. I fill my kitchen with my ingredients, watch Netflix shows, have friends over, go to the climbing gym, take out the trash. Every morning on the way to work, I help an older lady who has a shop on the corner of my street to lift up the grille as she opens. “May God be with you,” she says as I head off towards the Metro.

A friend of mine had a rant once about how Mexico City has this strange energy. “We are twenty-two million here,” he said, “but more people keep coming. People come here, and they stay. Because people feel comfortable here. I don’t know why.”

There is a humanity to the people here that constantly awes me. No matter how late people are; no matter how crowded the sidewalk or the subway station; people stroll slowly so they can chat with their friends. People stop to listen to a busker then give him a coin. They say “Buen provecho” to all the strangers at the taco stand, and listen to the taco lady tell some random story about her daughter. Humanity comes first here – before work, before practicality, before all else. It’s probably part of what makes the city run so poorly, but I have to conclude that the net advantage is greater than the net disadvantage. Life here is a shitshow, but it just glows somehow.

Hand in hand with this humanity goes a certain respect for sacred moments. For example, every public space has a Virgin – usually a statue in a glass case, sometimes with flowers or even neon lights. The Virgin of the parking lot, the Virgin of the open space preserve. My favorite is the mural of the Virgin painted on the emergency room entrance of the local hospital. That mural, with all its vibrant blues and golds, was paid for by either donated money, or state money, that could have gone to medical equipment. Here in Mexico it’s a given: X-ray machine, check… autoclaves, check… mural of the Virgin, check. Obviously the emergency room needs a Virgin to bless the patients with her protection, write it into the budget, please.

If you were too type A this place could literally make you lose your mind. But there’s a certain magic to it, isn’t there?

I have been thinking about politics a lot, though obviously not as much as my compatriots in the United States. One friend who visited me told me that the release in tension was palpable when he got off the plane in Mexico – that he suddenly felt like everyone was breathing.

Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but I couldn’t tell you. What I can tell you is that one question I’ve gotten a lot from concerned family members is whether there’s a lot of anti-American sentiment here.

The answer is, yes and no. There are small signs. Letters in the windows of independent shops saying “LIQUIDAMOS TODAS LAS MARCAS GRINGAS”. The guy I buy my fruit from, always with something to say about some video of police violence he saw on YouTube. And when Trump canceled his meeting with Peña Nieto, the newspapers had a field day. But for the most part, people here are even better about it than Europeans. Instead of pelting you with accusatory questions about why your country can’t manage this, or insists on doing that, they just pat you on the back, roll their eyes, and say “Welcome to the club of shitty corrupt governments.”

On Election Day, I returned to California from six months living in Europe. My first emotions besides shock were confusion and curiosity. How could so many of my countrymen have voted for this man? What were they thinking, how are they suffering, why do they feel so passionately that the Democrats have abandoned them? My main reaction was a sort of nausea: I felt perturbed that I knew so little about what was obviously rotten in the heart of my own country.

The only soap-boxy thing I’ll say in this post is, most of my friends and family didn’t seem to have this reaction. Instead, they were angry and disgusted that our populace is racist, homophobic and dumb enough to allow this to happen. That worries me.

Like it or not, democracy is compromise, and around half of the people that voted (let’s not quibble) wanted this. The only way out is to convince them that what we believe works, works. And as it stands they won’t listen, precisely because we slur them as stupid, poor, hateful hillbillies when really they’re just suffering. A circle of hate.

There we go, posting YouTube videos of those idiots with country accents who can’t find Afghanistan on a map, shouldn’t they be ashamed of themselves, shouldn’t we be ashamed of them. Shouting facts that are just skewed enough from the truth that, though they may address the spirit of the situation, can be written off as illegitimate. (No, it’s not a Muslim ban – it’s a ban of 7 politically-sensitive countries which are all Muslim. No, Bannon isn’t a Nazi – he was the editor-in-chief of a news outlet that allowed Nazi-like ideas to be published in editorials).

They sound like little quibbles, I know. In some way they even sound like moves in a game of Devil’s advocate, which in the liberal world is the ultimate act of assholery. But they’re not. Trump won. In the aftermath of that, little details about how the liberal community might not be holding itself to the highest standard; might not be engaging moderates and opponents…. they should be important. To change someone’s mind, you need to put yourself in their shoes with an open heart.

It all comes down to perspective. For example, I love Mexico, but I have a coworker who would disagree. I mean, I’m sure he loves it deep down if he’s still living here. But he always comes to work with new stories about how people in the street “harass” him, calling him “güero” (they call anyone pale “güero”, even old Mexican men); or how Mexicans are “touchy” about politics, always saying condescendingly “You’re not American! We’re also in America” (I mean, they’re not wrong).

The other day we were talking about the Mexican view of politics and he went so far as to say, “Hey – don’t say Mexican in public like that. Say….. how about…. Turkish. Just because, you know, these people get touchy if they hear us talking about them.” At which point I snapped in utter disgust, “You know what, let’s talk about something else then.”

It’s obvious to me that my coworker is somehow getting this vibe because of the expectation he puts out into the world. When I’m talking with him, I sometimes almost question my sanity, because people here are so nice to me. For example: before one of my English classes, while locking my bike in the parking garage, I once spied this super cool elevator thing used by the valets, which I can only describe as a dumbwaiter for people. You stand on a platform just big enough for your feet, hold on to the rope the platform is attached to, and then press a button to start a conveyor belt that makes you descend through a hole in the floor – then another hole in the next floor; until you reach your story and jump off.

A parking attendant saw me watching this with glee, and he offered to let me go on it– “Allllll the way down, seven floors,” he said, “then alllll the way back up.” He glanced around sketchily. “Just not today,” he said. “When we’re less busy.” Ever since then, every day that same guy greets me with, “Güero! Today after class you can take the conveyor belt!” And every day after class he looks around and says, “On Thursday, güero. On Thursday no one will see.” To which I reply, “No problem, don. Whenever it’s easiest for you, don.”

This story also represents the penchant for flaky optimism which Mexicans and Americans share, and which Europeans despise. But you know what, the other day Don Arturo did let me ride the conveyor belt, and it was awesome. And it’s moments like these that make me think of my long-suffering coworker like… I’m not sure we’re living in the same country.

This example is purely positive and negative, but it also makes you wonder about how people can see exactly the same evidence and come to different conclusions. That doesn’t mean they’re crazy. It doesn’t mean they’re shitty people. I’ve made my coworker sound like a shitty person, but in all probability, he would tell the story so I sound like an oblivious, spineless Pollyanna whom all the Mexicans are snickering about behind my back. That would make me sound like a shitty person.

But neither of us are shitty people. And neither are Trump voters. If they flout their firearms with macho bravado, or if Islam makes them uneasy, some facet of their nurture beyond their control made them that way. I know this sounds sort of apologist, but I’ve never felt that thinking this way was more urgent. People are saying “scream” and “resist”, but you don’t have to resist by screaming. The only way out is discourse. The only solution is to listen, and to invite in.

If you say you don’t have the patience for that; that you just want to make sure you’re supported and surrounded by good energy in these dark times – fine.

But don’t think for a moment that it’s anything other than an act of selfishness. An act of which the price may very well be our country.

Politics in Mexico, by the way, are not so rosy right now either. It’s a well-known fact that the current political party got people to vote for them by giving out free X-Boxes. Last year the governor of Veracruz literally fled the country and disappeared, leaving a massive hole in the city’s budget. He still hasn’t been found. And to top it all off, it’s an open secret that the national government has carved a similar hole in the funds of the state-owned petroleum company – leading to a huge national gas price hike at the beginning of this year, despite the fact that the price of oil has just gone down.

It’s easy to come out with a pretty bleak conclusion that this is where our country is headed. Or worse, that this is where our country already is; and with our fabulous red white ’n’ blue ego, we’ve just managed to ignore it.

But perspective is important. And at the end of the day, being here in Mexico has given me a fresh perspective to process all the horrible things that have happened. We hold democracy to a pretty high yardstick. Maybe it’s healthy to remember that though we’re part of a 200-year political experiment, which is going pretty damn well, the world is still the same brutal place it always was. In the end – just as it always has been – all we have is our own dumb luck and each others’ love.

Keep fighting, folks. And in the meantime, ask your taco lady how her kids are. It may not seem like a lot. But these things start from the ground up.


27 11 2016

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

This weekend, we celebrated an origin legend of the United States, which tells of one happy moment when the colonist Americans from whom many of us are descended managed to coexist with the native Americans, and share a meal together.

Like most legends, we don’t know if it’s true or not. Even if it is true, most of us know that it represents just one ray of light in a mostly tragic story. But we love it all the same.

I don’t think we take the tale of Native American history gravely enough. Our country is built on the largest successful genocide in human history. Before contact with Europeans, our continent was inhabited by over 50 million people who spoke over a thousand different languages. Their culture was not “primitive”, and it was not a sham. They practiced sustainable farming and irrigated agriculture. They had leisure sports, domestic animals, and gay rights. Some lived in tents, some lived in wooden houses, and some lived in cliffside cities carved from living rock. They were aware of the existence of other tribes, cultures and empires surrounding them; they traveled, traded, intermarried, and learned each others’ languages.

Today, there are 5 million Native Americans left in our country. They have lost many of their languages, but they still practice American religions and have a culture distinct from our generally European one. And they are still punished by this lack of assimilation. They can only live by their laws, and practice their non-European ways of life, on the same “reservations” whose borders have not changed since they were carved out in the 1800’s from whatever unwanted scraps of land were left lying around. They suffer the most suicides out of any ethnic group in our country.

And who can blame them? How would you feel, if you were, say, a Jew living in the alternate universe where Hitler managed world domination? In this alternate universe, though, a few generations later society decided to be “civilized” and passed laws that any remaining Jews should no longer be hunted, and should be allowed to go back to living in ghettos. Personally, I don’t know if I could find it in myself to faithfully salute the swastika, serve in my conquerors’ military, and become a quiet member of society (even though the only living I could eke out was by scraping my countrymens’ pockets in casinos). But that’s exactly what Native Americans have done in this country, adding a twisted element of Dickensian tragedy to an already-tragic story.

Whether the story of Thanksgiving is true or not, I have never been more disgusted or ashamed in my country than this Thanksgiving. On a holiday which pretends for one day out of the year that we have some shred of respect for these original Americans, the police force of our country is hurling percussion grenades at peaceful Native American protesters on their own land. They’re spraying these protesters with hoses in 30-degree weather, and worse, they’re spreading misinformation that the protesters are violent, despite many publicly-available videos which display the opposite.

If you live under a rock and don’t know, I’m referring to protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline, an oil pipeline which is under construction in North Dakota and set to cross the Missouri River just upstream of the last Sioux lands. No, the pipeline itself is not on Sioux land; and yeah, maybe it never will spill, though 75% shareholder Sunoco has one of the worst safety records in the oil industry.

But for me, this is not a question of conservation v. economics, but a question of Native rights. And it goes way beyond anything I have ever felt about politics before. Seeing this unfold has germinated in me a realization which makes me feel a hundred years older: we have not changed. How can we celebrate Thanksgiving when we are still taking part in the history that overshadows and contradicts its legend? As we sit around tables groaning with food and tell our children how the first Pilgrims and the first Indians learned to share, our government moves in with military-level reinforcements to finish the vendetta that our ancestors started. We are still them. We are vile. Many times in my life have I been less than stoked to be an American, but always chalked it up to the fact that every country has its dark side and that ours, like our presence on the world stage in general, is large and public. But never before have I been so deeply repulsed by my own country, never, never, never.

I feel powerless, but I don’t think that we’re powerless. I think that democracy is bureaucratic and cumbersome and hard to get rolling unless it’s a total emergency. I also think that the protesters will never stop. Why would they? They have nothing to lose. If it ends in violence, on our shoulders be it.

Many people have expressed the same thoughts I’ve expressed above more gracefully than I. But I can’t help to feel that my words, even borrowed and echoed ones, are worth more than my silent assent.

There’s a list of the concrete actions we can all take below. Many of them you’ve probably seen before, circulating the social media; this is just my attempt to compile the biggest, most recent and most relevant items in one place.

I am thankful for a lot of things, and I’m glad we have a time of the year when we’re supposed to remember them. But we have got some chutzpah, to celebrate our own prosperity at the altar of a fake story about how nice we were to the people who lost everything so we could have that prosperity.

To enjoy that same celebration, with the knowledge that those same people are still losing everything – that goes beyond chutzpah. That’s f$^%ed up.

Please, if you had food on your table this Thanksgiving, consider some of the actions below, especially monetary donations. Our actions are small, but each one chips away at this country’s shame.

And you know what? For that, I am thankful.

3. Express your support of the protesters to your state representatives
4. Call to express your support of the protesters to the White House at (202) 456-1111 or (202) 456-1414.
5. Call for the Army Corps of Engineers to rescind the building permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline: (202) 761-5903.
6. Call North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple to express your concern about the situation and your support for the protesters: (701) 328-2200
7. If one of the seventeen banks funding the Pipeline is yours, withdraw your money from there, close your accounts and do business elsewhere.
8. Call or email the executives of Energy Transfer Partners, L.P., and tell them to stop building the pipeline:
  • Lee Hanse, EVP (210) 403-6455
  • Glenn Emery, VP (210) 403-6762
  • Michael (Cliff) Waters, Lead Analyst (713) 989-2402
9. Call any of the sheriff departments that have deployed to Standing Rock and pressure them to remove support (the following list is taken from the site linked to in number 10):
  • Morton County Sheriff Department, Mandan ND 701-667-3330
  • Michigan City Police Department, Michigan City, IN (219) 874-3221
  • North Dakota Highway Patrol, offices across North Dakota, (701) 328-2455
  • Hammond Police Department, Hammond, IN 219-852-2900
  • Munster Police Department, Munster, IN (219) 836-6600
  • Griffith Police Department, Griffith, IN (219) 924-7503
  • Anoka County Sheriff’s Office, Andover, MN (763) 323-5000
  • Washington County Sheriff’s Office, Stillwater, MN 651-430-6000
  • Marathon County Sheriff’s Department, Wausau, WI (715) 261-1200
  • La Porte County Sheriff’s Office, La Porte, IN (219) 326-7700
  • Newton County Sheriff’s Office, Kentland, IN 219-474-3331
  • South Dakota Highway Patrol, Pierre, SD 605-773-3105
  • Jasper County Sheriff, Rensselaer, Indiana 219-866-7344
  • Lake County Sheriff Sheriff’s Department, Crown Point, IN 219-755-3333
  • Laramie County Sheriff’s Department, Cheyenne, WY 307-633-4700
  • Wyoming Highway Patrol, Cheyenne, WY 307-777-4301
  • Ohio State Highway Patrol, Columbus, Ohio 614-466-2660
  • Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, Lincoln, NE (402) 471-7421

10. Find a #NoDAPL event near you

Croatian Salvation

3 08 2016

For those few of you who are reading this and don’t get my life updates elsewhere, Update: I’ve been spending this summer living and working in Croatia!

Random? I can’t disagree. Croatia is the wild card that I snatched greedily from the deck, the surprise that came along to shake things up. Two months later, I’ve built up some street smarts as well as some soft spots for the place. But I still feel like a derpy foreigner here. This summer has been about embracing the randomness.

The title of this post is stolen from the title of my friend’s Spotify playlist for work, which is a must-have driving up and down these hilly islands where radio comes and goes with every hairpin of the road. On some islands, you get radio from the mainland on one side and radio from Italy, across the Adriatic Sea on the other. One island, Brač, has (weirdly) one of the best radio stations I’ve ever heard. They switch with ease between 90’s middle-school-dance pop, a Simon and Garfunkel song, something from Beyoncé’s new album, then a Croatian 70’s surf-rock song. I’ve been collecting the latter like mad (my own playlist is called “Yacht Rock”). The majority come from a band called Daleka Obala, or “Faraway Shore”. Ana, the one and only Croatian who works here with us, described them as the artists of “required minimum of songs that every Dalmatian must play on guitar for sitting on sea wall drinking”.

As you can imagine, this a dreamy place to spend a summer. Unfortunately, half the population of Europe feels that way as well. The last time I was here I wrote that Dubrovnik, the southernmost and 5th-largest city of Croatia, felt touristy and weird even in November, and that I couldn’t imagine what it must be like in high season. Lo and behold, now not only do I not have to imagine it… but I get the privilege of trying to keep groups of tourists together through the thronging shitshow of the Pile Gate. For some perspective, this small university city of 50,000 gets about 5 million visitors per year (the entire country of Brazil gets 1 million.)

Our staff house is in a village about 20 kilometers from Dubrovnik, meaning that when we want to go to the big city, that’s where we go. And it has been cool to discover what scant local underworld there is, helped by our landlords, an awesome family named the Brautovićes who run an agrotourism business on the property where we live. It was thanks to them that we found the one local bar in the Old City, frequented by the faculty at the university. The Brautovićes are also always cooking. It was from Mato, the dad, that I learned which woods are best for grilling: a mix of dried grapevine, olive wood, and dubrava, the holm oak from which Dubrovnik got its name.

We live in an odd corner of Croatia – the panhandle, as it were. With the Bosnian border just up the mountains, never more than 10 miles from the coast; and Montenegro about 15 miles south, it’s easy to feel a bit trapped. The cycling, while gorgeous, is definitely limited by the dead ends in every direction. So our lives when we’re not out working on trips generally involve a lot of either sitting on the balcony, or sitting at Luka Beach, our village beach (which is more of a rocky swimming hole with a bar).

Life in Dalmatia is hot. I mean like, 85 degrees at night, a hundred during the day. And mosquitoes are the bane of our lives. Especially because our house sits in a nice, wet, irrigated gully of agrotourism crops. How to deal with them is a hilarious point of contention. We Americans have become infamous among our European coworkers for sleeping with the AC on, provoking claims from “It gave me a cold” to “It feels like you could preserve dead bodies in there.” We, on the other hand, need only point out that we’d rather have the windows open, but you can’t let mosquitoes into the room. “Just put some lavender oil on before bed and they’ll leave you alone,” is a common reply, as they swing the windows open to take in the glorious afternoon. IN WHICH MORTAL DANGER LURKS. As we were told by the waiter at a local gelato place: “If you ever think you’re too small to make a difference, just try sleeping with one mosquito inside the room.”

But on the whole, I’m already dreading the moment when I’ll have to leave this special, special place. During my first week here I wrote in my journal, “There is beauty so great here that it doesn’t just please you cerebrally; it physically twists, like a pang of hunger in your stomach.” And it’s true. The sunsets are ridiculous, ribbons of water shining between a ragged procession of islands all turning different colors, lavender, mauve, pale rose, and fading at different speeds in the blinding sea haze. The sea itself is crystal clear and astonishingly blue. There aren’t enough shades of blue to do it justice either in the Crayola box or in the dictionary.

While at work, life involves hopping to island to island – which sounds glamorous. And it is. But consider that most of that hopping is done on the massive car ferry. I may as well pick up some change of address forms, because at this point I have basically moved in. The tipping point was today while I calmly spent 2 minutes brushing with my electric toothbrush while people jostled around me for a sink in the poo-scented bathroom. Or maybe it was when I started going below deck to grab my guitar from the van and play surrounded by parked trucks.

The glamorous part is the islands themselves, of which the most glamorous is Hvar, where the glitzy and ritzy of Europe come to frolic. Everyone you see on the street is gorgeous to the eye. Their tan, svelte silhouettes make them look like they all just stepped out of the gym; their crisp white clothes make them look like they all just stepped out of a Wes Anderson movie. The other highlight of Hvar besides the people-watching is, obviously, the Hvar puns. (Where do the boats dock? The Hvar-bor. What’s the official Red Hot Chili Peppers song? Hvar Tissue…. And so on.)

The official music of Dalmatia, by the way, is something called klappa: barbershop-style a capella singing, based musically on old church music, but with lyrics that are island-country (i.e. about girls and boats, not girls and trucks). On my first visit to Croatia, I’ll always remember how my hitchhikees in Podgora sang folk songs as they stumbled through the starry night. Little did I know that it’s a common hobby for groups of friends to sing klappa together, and it’s even considered manly.

I think my favorite town on our Backroads trip is Pučišća, a sleepy backwater on the island of Brač. The name comes from puteus, Latin for “well”, which was Roman slang for a harbor so steep and fortified that trying to attack it would be like trying to get at the water inside a well. Seeing the way the town rises around three sides of its little bay, the name makes sense. It’s also the home of one of the only three stonemasonry schools in Europe. Everything in the town from façades to streetlamps is made of exquisitely smooth, carved stone, because the masonry students make things for practice and then donate them to the public. To describe it, I have to quote the book I’m reading, “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon” by Rebecca West: “The houses were built in stone that were the color of edible things,” she says, “of pale honey, of pie-crust, of certain kinds of melon.”

While we’re on the subject, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It’s a travelogue of a journey through the then-Kingdom of Yugoslavia on the eve of World War II. This lady, Rebecca West, is both incredibly knowledgable about history and incredibly gossipy, and the combination is perfect. It’s amazing how she can take generations of Hapsburg rulers or Roman emperors and turn them into this sexy royal drama – who slept with who, who hated who, who just wanted the best for the people but was thwarted by jealous cousins or gnarly assassinations. There are a million quotes from the book that I could include here, but I want to end by quoting one mini-story which has stayed with me ever since I read it, it’s just so strangely haunting and enchanting. It describes the first time West laid eyes on an island called Korčula, at the town of the same name.

“I had been asleep on one of the benches on deck, and I woke suddenly to find that we were lying beside the quay of a little walled town which was the same creamy-fawn color as some mushrooms and some puppies. It covered a low, rounded peninsula and was surmounted by a church tower, rising from it like a pistil from a flower; and its walls girt it so massively they might have been thought natural cliffs if a specially beautiful lion of St. Mark had not certified them as works of art.

Standing on the quayside was a crowd whose faces were turned away from the steamer. They were all staring up a street that ran down the steepness of the town to the quay. Presently there was a hush, all the window-sashes of the quayside houses were thrown up, and and the crowd shuffled apart to make a clear avenue to the gangway. Then there came out of the street and along this alley four men carrying a stretcher on which there lay a girl of about sixteen. This must have been a notorious tragedy in the town, for the girl was extravagantly beautiful, as beautiful as Korčula itself, and she was very ill. The shadows on her face were blue. She was being taken, a sailor said, to a hospital at Dubrovnik, but I am sure not by her own consent. It was evident that she had wholly lost the will to live. Her hands lay lax and open on the magenta coverlet; and as they turned her stretcher round to manoeuvre it onto the gangway, she opened her eyes and looked up at the tall ship in hostility, because it was something and she wanted nothingness. Behind her the alley closed, the crowd formed into a single block and stared at us as if we were taking with us a sign and a wonder.

But the crowd divided again. Another four men hurried along, carrying this time a chair to which there was strapped an old woman, so immensely old that she had nothing to do with the substance of flesh; she seemed to be compounded of glittering intelligence and a substance more than bony. She looked at the steamer with an air of unconquerable appetite. It was something, and therefore better than nothingness, which was what she feared. When the stretcher-bearers halted in manoeuvering her up the gangway she rose up in her chair, a twisted hieroglyphic expressing the love of life.”

“Živjeli”, goes the Croatian cheers. May you live. Actually they say živjeli, ševeli, oduševeli – “may you live, may you get laid, may you impress”. Typical Balkan madness. But what better could you wish for anyone, honestly?

This summer is random, every mosquito-bitten minute of it. But it’s something. May you always crave something, because it’s better than nothingness. May you live.


Let’s Talk About Love For a While

28 04 2016

My grandmother, Marsha Lilly, passed away a week and a half ago.

At first I had taken it as a given that finding some catharsis through writing something would be a part of my grieving. But I tried to get just the right words together for quite some time, and ultimately gave up. Everything that I could write seemed crass and not quite enough.

But I CAN share with you a random story about a bit of catharsis I found last night, which is almost as good, because it allows me to reflect the colors of my vibe without actually telling the story I shouldn’t tell. The story of my grandma’s life, and of her death. The story of my family.

See, I feel somehow that this blog is only licensed for MY stories. Like a screenplay which has to keep rollicking forward at speed, no sub-plots. Step into my private life; come along; just don’t mind that ajar closet door – you wouldn’t want to look in there anyway. It’s full of schmaltzy stuff like old strings of beads and sweaters still smoked in someone’s perfume; family stories, and superlatives of “best” and “always”. The kind of stuff that would make a writer cringe.

Embarking on the adventure of saying goodbye has been so perfectly sandwiched in my 3-month pilgrimage home, it makes one rethink one’s notions of fate. As I stepped out onto the curb at LAX this January, and called up my parents to tell them my plane had arrived safely in California, that’s when they broke the news that my grandma had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. 3 to 6 months. This coming weekend we’ll bury her beside my grandpa at the military cemetery on Point Loma, overlooking the waters of the San Diego Bay. And from San Diego I’m getting on a plane straight back to Salt Lake City, where it’s time to get back on the tour-guiding carousel.

It’s a good carousel to be on, after the inertia of the past months. As I traveled and traveled this winter, my ambitions shrunk and shrunk: Bike tour Asia! Hmm, maybe just go work at a hostel or something in the Arab world… Or on second thought, maybe just work in a hostel in Europe. Or try to find a job in Mexico. Like close to the border. OK, or maybe I’ll just live in Santa Cruz or LA or… You get the picture. In the end, I was so burned out that I flopped down on my parents’ doorstep, knowing that they were happy to have me.

In hindsight, if I could do it all over again I might go for for the second-least ambitious option. But I try not to regret anything, and this time living in the house where I grew up is no exception. I built up extra energy, detoxed from partying, slept a ton, reread books, and thought about the way I am and the way I want to be. I reconnected with some of my best friends from elementary school, whom I’d grown apart from during my teenage years; and even grew really close to them again. I biked on steep mountain roads through the deep woods of bay laurel. I biked on long avenues through the suburbs that always change and always stay the same. Most importantly, I was here for my grandma.

But life is what happens when you’re busy with other things, and I’m ready to get busy again. My parents’ rhythm is not my rhythm, Silicon Valley is not my town, and in my heart of hearts I know that this life is not my life.

I drove with a group of friends to Davenport for a beach bonfire last night, which only confirmed this. God, how I miss the coast. On our way back we were listening to KPIG (the best radio station in Santa Cruz) and an ad came on for some live show happening soon. The announcer mentioned two names – then a little sound byte of music.

Which I recognized.

“OH MY GOD,” I said loudly. I jumped like I had been electrocuted, making our headlights jiggle in the long brambly tunnel of Highway 17.

“What? What?” my friend Michaela was exclaiming.

Rewind. Flashback. Senior year of college. I’m in Carlos, my car, listening to KPIG, the same radio station. I remember exactly where I was: the intersection at the base of campus, where the last hill-neighborhood tendrils of Santa Cruz end at a swath of green ranchland that sweeps up the campus, gleaming on the hilltop above. That song had been playing, and I remember concentrating intensely to remember the lyrics. I wrote down a good chunk:

“And oh,

The sweet caress of dawn,

The ruins of Babylon,

The smoke that rises like a lepress to the sky…”

Or was it “the tender light of dawn”? Oh well, I thought. Usually when I hear a song I like (this was in the pre-Shazam days), I only write down a single line of lyrics anyway. But this could be a hella indie song, and the lyrics were pretty generic:

“Let’s talk about love for a while,

Loooooovvve for a while,

Let’s talk about, let’s talk about…”

Which is why I had a whole damn verse. Should be safe, I figured.

Well, I snooped online later that night and… nowhere. Nothing. I tried every combination of the lyrics I could remember or invent, in every search engine. But it was like in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”: the mysterious song had disappeared. Except this wasn’t an indie book in the damn 90s, it was the Internet era. Which made it ten times weirder. It was like the song didn’t exist.

Ah well, I thought. Santa Cruz keeps its secrets. But still the refrain of that song, which I had heard only once in my life, would occasionally play in my head. I’d think of the obscure-ass local musician who must have played it, who never made it big enough to be seen by the SEO machines. Looking for a listener. And like a ship in the night, there was me: looking desperately for his song. It made me feel a sweet-sadness about how big and lonely and mysterious the world is. Eventually, though, I gave up hope of ever actually hearing the song again.

And there it was. Two full years later. I made Michaela write down the names of both guys mentioned in the radio ad (whose names were very hard to spell). And even with the names it took some snooping to find the song – the lyrics apparently aren’t online at all, which explains a lot. But I found it. Bought it using my dad’s iTunes money. (Sorry, Dad. It was only 99 cents.) And pressed play.

There it was. Holy $&!%. Just as I remembered it. That soulful blast of the organ. That slowly ticking blues rhythm, rocking you as perfectly as a porch swing in an evening wind.

And suddenly I started to cry.

I cried for the home I had in Santa Cruz, which I don’t have anymore. I cried for the friends who are now scattered across the earth. I cried for my grandma. I cried for her California, wild California of windswept fruit trees and abandoned beaches, which gets harder to recognize with each passing year.

And suddenly, in a flash, I had a vision of everything that had happened. I saw the ruined towers of the Ehrenfels, my grandmother and my twelve-year-old father asleep at their feet. I saw the strange constellations reflected in the river Rhine beside them. I saw the Santa Cruz bike path at sunset, with the sun shimmering gold on the grass, the town where I belonged enveloped in the arms of the bay below. I saw my old lover lying in a bed of wild poppies. The blinking lighthouse of Pigeon Point. A tent spread beneath an avocado tree. A fat squirrel. A blue guitar. A frail figure at the edge of Lake Tahoe, long black dress whipping her ankles in the wind. I cried because I knew it all must disappear. The song. My best friends from childhood. I cried because I knew it all comes back.

Today, I have a contribution to the world. I’m sure the SEO gods care just as little for me as they do for Keith Greeninger, blues musician and spokesperson for the Santa Cruz Guitar Company. But if anyone else should ever find and lose that same song that I did – “Love For a While” – maybe they’ll have an easier path back to it than I did. Because from now on, somewhere at least, the lyrics are on the Internet.

“Love For a While”

Keith Greeninger (from the album “Soul Connection”


Hey, what’d ya come here for?

Say you still want more, but you never care

Ain’t no way to live


The circle comes around

Every heartbeat makes a sound

And it has a place

It’s a life, it ain’t no race


And oh, the offering of the smile

It only takes a while

To think beyond ourselves every now and then


And oh, the sweet relief of pain

The dope that hits the vein

Oh, one man lays his anger down and then


We’ll talk about love for a while

Love for a while,

bout the time it takes to open up

let the spirit fill your cup


Love for a while,

love for a while,

about love for a while.


I hear you sing your song

I wanna sing along, but I don’t know the words

It’s a language I never heard


But I can feel the groove

Whatever makes ya move is a real good thing

You can dance, you can sing,


And oh, the shimmering light of dawn,

The ruins of Babylon,

the smoke that’s risin’ higher to the sky


Oh, the poems of all this time,

The broken heart’s crooked lines,

The last embrace before we say goodbye


Let’s talk about love for a while,

Love for a while,

‘Bout the time it takes to open up

Let the spirit fill your cup

Love for a while,

Love for a while,

About love for a while.


Alas, the song itself is nowhere to be found for free. Not on Youtube, not on some sketchy Pandora ripoff site, not anywhere. And WordPress is hopeless for embedding songs or videos these days. So after all that fuss, I can’t really show you the song itself.

But maybe you’ll find it.

And that – as my grandma would have said – is just another part of the adventure.