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 lee.hanse@energytransfer.com
  • Glenn Emery, VP (210) 403-6762 glenn.emery@energytransfer.com
  • 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 actionnetwork.org 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 on alcohol, 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 I saw it all in a flash, everything that had happened: I saw the ruined towers of the Ehrenfels; I saw my grandmother, and beside her 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.


Strange Addictions (or: On Smartphones and Sanders)

20 03 2016

To my friends’ chagrin and, secretly, to my own slight amusement, I have always been something of a tech ignoramus. I was late getting a cell phone. I was late getting an iPhone. And nowadays, a little dream of mine is to have my next phone be a dumbphone.

I get that willfully going dumbphone is an absurdly drastic step. The world has changed since I could force my high school friends to call my house and ask my parents if I was home. It almost feels kind of… suicidal. But that’s exactly why I realized I had to do it.

You can be addicted to technology. About three years after getting my iPhone 4, I am (was?) addicted to it. I felt its weight as I carried it around the house, knowing I daren’t miss a text; and I forgot what my hand felt like without it. I would try to squeeze checks of this and that app in every tiny mote of between-time: at red lights; while my computer was loading; during movies that weren’t quite grabbing me.

Call it this Jew’s little Lent-speriment. I am now the owner of a Pantech keyboard phone, and have been for about two weeks. And in this blog post, it’s time for me to address the myths surrounding the sepia-toned yesteryear of the dumbphone. Let’s see if they stand or flop.

1) A dumbphone is so simple that you can do what you want – type texts and make calls – without constant worrying about troubleshooting.

Nope, nope and nope. I remember now that once upon a time, a phone worth its salt was worth its weight in gold. It seems that in my recent Craigslist purchase I neither got screwed nor got lucky, which makes my purple Pantech the perfect subject for this experiment. The touchscreen doesn’t always lock when you want it to, meaning that I’ve sent countless blank texts or ones filled with ertyhunmmmm%^&&%$6566%%%%%. Most annoyingly, since I’ve changed the clock for daylight savings my phone insists on not translating the data it receives from other texts. As a result, all of my text conversations appear in one-hour blocks, since all of my messages were sent an hour forward.

Classic dumbphone crap, right? But I think I sort of expected this. So…

2) Ok, fine. But the bar is so much lower because you’re not immersed in a gorgeous digital world, and so you have a higher tolerance for just saying “oh well” and getting on with your life.

Actually, the real answer is even more critical of Apple: common iPhone problems like freezing, touchscreen malfunctions, and battery life actually stop you from using the damn device. With my dumbphone, it’s just not the end of the world, and so I keep using it. And so we can add a honeyed grain of truth back to myth #1. In a way, even a janky dumbphone is somehow more durable than a smartphone.

3) The battery life of a dumbphone is way better than that of a smartphone, so you don’t have to constantly worry about plugging it in.

Yes and no. Again, I’m sure this is phone-specific, but my phone now lasts for 2 days or so without a charge. It’s infinitely better than my old iPhone, which would last a matter of hours; and having that classic 3 blinking bars in the little battery, instead of a percentage notice, makes it much less stressful to play helicopter-parent. But still. I admit it: without a doubt, the romance of the tale has grown in the telling.

4) Without a dumbphone, I can simplify my life of apps.

Again, yes and no. The thing is, since it isn’t unlocked, I thought that as soon as my iPhone lost the patronage of a bona fide AT&T chip, it would become a useless brick. Not the case. I still have all the same apps, but they now only work with the WiFi in my house – surprisingly, even ones like WhatsApp that are linked to a telephone number. For me, honestly, this is actually an ideal solution. I’ve been able to continue using them when necessary; but without them waiting in my pocket all the time, I check them 1000% less often. (We’re talking a switch from every 20 minutes to every 2 days). The bad news, of course, is that the availability of the apps sort of taints my experiment.

My life with my phone, meanwhile, feels simplified in a way beyond the lack of apps. Without the ability to send emojis, GIFs, or quickly-snapped photos, I find myself narrowing my contact with my friends to slightly more pragmatic reasons. And though I wish the design for checking texts was a little quicker, and the display for things like group texts a little savvier – in those departments, it’s true, the iPhone has narrowed it down to perfection – I’m perfectly happy to text less, and think less about sending a picture of every little moment to the person with whom it’s an inside joke. That is one part that I’m actually enjoying a lot.

5) It’ll be hard to navigate the world without the Internet all the time, but it’ll force me to engage and think more.

This is true, but I think I romanticized the value of this engagement and thinking. The most obvious manifestation of this (now is when you get to say “I told you so”) is maps. Since going dumbphone, I have been spectacularly late to meet a friend; and have spent some tense moments in the car running errands which definitely could have been quicker. I’ve enjoyed strengthening my knowledge of unfamiliar neighborhoods in my city. But outside of my hometown, this story would be vastly different.

And then there’s your ability with a smartphone to look up a number and immediately call it – one of their greatest powers, if you ask me. Because I lacked it, finding a medical office I’d never been to involved traipsing through the halls of a large public health building, where most of the offices were closed and no one knew where anything was, finally to be helped by a nice lady who was on her lunch break. “I just started working in administration here,” she said, “so it’s actually good for me to know if you didn’t find what you’re looking for.” Was it nice to make a tiny connection with that lady? Well, sure. And I guess it helped her with her job, in some tiny way. But sweet blue Jesus, it took almost a half hour to do what could have taken seconds. That’s impossible to ignore.

My dumbphone life also involves a lot of quick Google Maps searches on a PC before I leave, which really just requires me to allot my time a fraction differently. And leads to another epiphany, one that I don’t think an analysis of tech addiction in 2010, or in 2013, could quite have reached: the way you use technology is an amalgam of ALL the devices you have, and how they interact.

6) I’ll be happier and I won’t want another iPhone.

Since the iPhone has fared much better than I thought in this experiment, I am as shocked by the answer as I type this as you probably will be when you read it: yes, I am happier. I literally don’t know why, except for this vague sense that my days are more interesting and less… sort of… masturbatory.

But here’s the really weird part: the answer to the other part of this myth is no. No, I will eventually want another iPhone. I realized early on in the experiment that this was the inevitable conclusion. The future goes forward, not backwards; and above all else I aspire to go with it. I admit how clutch it is to have a camera with you on the run. I’m intrigued by apps like Strava that could be really useful and awesome. And the idea of tackling a Backroads trip without a mapping system is just absurd. Besides, with its supreme lack of space for more than a few apps, my iPhone 4 hadn’t really been an iPhone for a while.

So what on earth to make of this? I guess technology addiction is just one of those ones you learn to live with, like coffee addiction. I’ll have to take a moderate stance: this detox is great fun so far; but it’ll just have to be a learning experience to look back on when I have my next smartphone. Until I forget what life is like without one. Then it’s time for the next detox.

While writing this post I saw, more and more clearly, a link to politics. Allow me to explain. Like so many liberals, I live in a divided household: the older generation is with Hill, while I intend to give my ballot the Bern. Both my parents, of course, have very good reasons for whom they support. My dad has mentioned that Bernie’s wish to eschew free trade will just selfishly hurt the poor countries to which we outsource. My mom has mentioned that Hillary seems more well-rounded on things like foreign policy, while Bernie keeps yelling about his one issue.

Can’t disagree with that, certainly. But it led to an interesting conversation. I told her what I’ve heard, and basically believe: that yeah, Bernie certainly has less foreign policy experience; but what with the breadth of what the President must deal with – and what with the massive army of advisors he or she chooses – at the end of the day, I really just want someone who is intelligent enough to parse the advice given to him or her by military personnel, and sympathetic enough to my values to do what I would wish with that advice.

Mom grimaced, and said that it still wasn’t quite enough for her. She would feel safer with a President who’s able to inspire respect for power in other world leaders; and basically she fears that with a sad-sack like Bernie as figurehead, other world powers like Iran and China might grow greater than us and start threatening us and our world hegemony.

I was taken aback both by this and by the ordinary answer that rose to my lips: “Oh well.”

I’ve never brought the logic this far, but I suddenly realized something. Voting for Bernie inspires wishful thinking hedged by fear and regret in voters: the same emotions inspired by the thought of shaking an addiction. Because the possibility of a Bernie presidency is the possibility of an end to our addiction. Our addiction to being the world police, and the world’s greatest power.

A close friend of mine once summed it up this way: “Hillary is the best leader for the current system; Bernie is the best leader for a new system.” We liberals have been talking about what a different U.S. would look like ever since I’ve been alive. Now that we’re close, we realize what we’ll have to give up, and we’re getting cold feet.

I think my generation is so pro-Bernie precisely because we’re uniquely prepared to face this. Our parents were raised by a generation smug in the knowledge that their country had smitten ultimate evil in WWII; and when they tried their hand at being peaceniks, it was smug in the knowledge that they were against the ultimate negligence in Vietnam. But my generation was raised in the shadow of 9/11, and all the shades of gray that became visible in that shadow. How sometimes we try to help other countries, and only end up causing more harm years later. How sometimes horrible things happen, but there’s no one you can reasonably blame. Most of all, I think the overreaching fear from 9/11 caused us to grow up with an awareness of something important: that all our meddling and military action, though regrettable and remonstrable, is very much a guilty pleasure. It’s not just a disgusting cancer to let go of joyously. It has a good side. It makes us feel safe.

People in the liberal hotbed where I was raised talk about an America where gun violence is not rampant; where good education and healthcare are basic rights. But I think most of them haven’t realized that in their imagination, this new America is still subject to certain assumptions they grew up with: that we still be the top dogs of world trade; able to influence worldwide policy with sanctions passed at the lift of a finger; always with more and bigger nukes than those who want to destroy us; always there to shove the dysfunctional faux-democracies in Iran, China, wherever, back in line.

If we really want to be like Iceland or Norway or Switzerland, or even Canada or Germany, the picture might not look like that. Liberal frustration stems from the fact that America the modern civilized democracy and America the empire cannot coexist. If we really want to focus on fixing America first, then we will have the weird and scary experience of watching the world map shift around the vacuum we leave. But to change the way things are, we have to make a choice.

If you’re dreaming of Bernie but you feel doubts come gnawing, this is for you. We as a country are at that moment when we throw away the last empty cigarette box and think, wait, hold on, crap – this isn’t gonna be all roses and dew drops. What can I say? We’re right, of course. It’s never as easy as we think, to quit our strange addictions.

But that’s no reason not to try.

Little People

9 03 2016

One day last year, during my job training, a favorite topic of conversation became “What was the weirdest job you had before Backroads?”.

The answers included: rowing a gondola in the canals of the touristy Venice-replica in Long Beach; guiding nerdy Indian elementary schoolers on team-building activities in China; swabbing the decks on a Farallon Islands shark research boat; and, my favorite, distracting the octopus at the San Francisco Academy of Sciences while his tank was being cleaned. Take a sec to enjoy it. This girl’s job was distracting the octopus.

So you’ll understand how with this type of environment, I don’t think I have the wildest resume out there. But nonetheless, I never thought I’d spend the off-season of Backroads working as a French-immersion preschool teacher. For the moment, I have left the guests behind, and have entered instead into the mysterious lives of little people.

Or have I? For I would state – and I know this makes me sound like an ass, but I would state that dealing with preschoolers is less similar to dealing with people than it is to dealing with pets. Think about it. Sometimes you call their name 6 times in a row to get their attention, and they stare into space the first 5 times with their tongue out then turn to you the sixth time as attentive as can be. What did you say differently? You may never know. In the same vein, whether they like you or not seems to be decided viscerally, based on smell or face shape or something. If they like you, they’re all over you. If they don’t, they’ll stare at you ’till you make a sudden movement, then run.

To understand what it’s like to teach immersion French to preschoolers, you first have to realize that preschoolers can’t talk. Not really. They talk, but they say things that don’t make any sense. Even the ones who are very verbal are still not quite all the way there. Oftentimes, these confused budding bilinguals simply open their mouths and say something that they obviously believe is either French or English, but in fact is neither.

Sometimes I repeat, just to see if I hear method to the madness in my own echo. “Javu baruddi?” I repeat, a mix of concern and skepticism stretching my face into a grimace.

“Barudi! Javu ba!” the student will repeat in a plaintive cry, simply begging me to understand. And those are the moments when I really feel like I’m dealing with a desperate pet. Because I can tell they need something, but it’s like… sorry, pal. I’m gettin nothing.

So this job involves not so much teaching French as teaching eating with a spoon, sitting, colors, proper use of scissors, and slide etiquette, via a combination of French and pantomime. Outside of schoolwork, I can report that other popular pastimes among the toddler population include:

-Writhing like the girl from the Exorcist during naptime

-Putting an arm over their eyes, elbow-first, when somebody is asking them to do something and they don’t want to

-Not eating lunch.

-Saying “Moi fais pipi! Moi fais pipi!”

By far, “moi fais pi-pi” is the most commonly uttered phrase within the walls of the preschool. By the students, at least. The most commonly uttered phrase by us teachers is “Oh là là,” which, in case you didn’t know, isn’t actually a sexy acclamation, but more a translation of “Oh my!”. “Oh là là” is pretty much the only way you can react to anything preschoolers do. Someone trips and falls? Oh, là. Drew a nice picture? Oh là là! Got tangled up trying to tie their shoes? Oh, là là. Food everywhere from not eating with a spoon? Oh lala lala.

The French education style is different from the American one, which is one of the defining factors of how the preschool is run. “We explain to all of the parents that we use French discipline here,” my boss explained on my first day. “Remember, they are all OK with that.” That doesn’t mean some horrible corporal punishment; but it is different than the way I would be inclined to treat toddlers. It means showing them when you’re angry or disappointed with them – no Jedi mind-tricks of sweetness – and expecting certain adult-like behavior of them, like sitting properly at the table with their legs forward. I can’t help but feel sometimes, when I remind them of this for the umpteenth time, that it’s a fruitless exercise. But then I think of how different young French people are from young Americans. And I realize there are many different ways to raise children, with unfathomable results.

Another thing I’ve noticed (though I don’t have any American preschool experience to compare it to) is that the French preschool teachers don’t mind being overheard. They comment to each other freely about how difficult the kids are today, and they don’t hold back on small quips when talking to the kids – “Sophie, eat with your spoon, oh là là, remember the last time you spread food everywhere it was like a bomb went off.” While we all were celebrating my birthday, my boss was telling me to enjoy my youth – she’d change some things, if she could go back. “Oh, yeah,” snorted another teacher, “I’d change the father of my children.”

I was taken aback, and realized there were two ways to interpret this. On the one hand, failing to hide this dark snark surely helps instill that typical Gallic cynicism which the French complain about constantly. If the teachers think the kids aren’t absorbing their energy, they’re wrong. But on the other hand, maybe they don’t care. Unlike in an American school, the teachers don’t censor and infantilize everything that surrounds the kids. Of course they’re not cussing and talking about sex – French kids must be polite, after all! – but they are allowing themselves to talk like adults in a certain way that I wouldn’t. And I have to wonder if that attitude is already helping to build some of the things that Americans so admire in the French: a sharp and critical psyche; a subtle understanding of irony, social cues and secrets.

Let me say, if being gay hadn’t already made me challenge my previously-assumed desire to have kids, working at a preschool sure as hell would. I don’t mean that as a diss of toddlers. But the idea that these parents have to teach these kids everything – from potty training and use of cutlery to study skills, sharing, and the difference between right and wrong – is utterly harrowing to me. At school, we just have to usher the stampede of kids onward through the hoops, making sure they don’t trample each other and hoping they learn something in the process. Can’t sleep during naptime? We just “shhh” until the hour is up. Made a pi-pi in your pants? Grab their change of clothes, bundle up the old ones and send them home in a plastic bag. We watch as they slowly progress; while the parents’ 24/7, pee-soaked, insomniac nightmare of constant life coaching chugs forward behind the scenes.

My parents and I have been hooked on a TV show called “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”. The wonderful writing on the show parades an endless line of complex villains, all of whom you realize, in some climactic moment, just has something broken inside of them – some slight flaw which made them think incorrectly that murdering someone was the best way forward. Not to make this get super dark, but honestly I feel like the murderers just didn’t quite get the education they needed in preschool.

That’s what I mean by a harrowing task, teaching these kids everything about everything. Try to help a bunch of 2-to-5’s go through their day like a normal society, and you’ll realize just how horrifyingly complex our society really is. It doesn’t just make you daunted by the idea of raising a child; it gives you existential dread. Everything we take for granted has to be constantly retaught to each generation – by the people who were the victims of the last botched teaching attempt. You get the feeling that the whole thing is about as stable as a teetering pile of pancakes being moved from plate to plate by a spatula inserted at the bottom.

But what’s more, most of us don’t understand our society completely either. At work, I look down from above with face-palming comprehension as a whole drama plays out: someone grabs someone else’s toy; the original owner says “Mine!”; the thief says “Want!”; the original owner starts to cry; and the thief stares in downcast horror at his friend’s tears, wondering how it came to this. For me, it’s so obvious. But what about when I reunite with an ex-lover whom I’d like to be friends with, but up until this particular meeting we’ve been unable to avoid a flirty vibe – how to avoid disaster then? What about when you live with your parents and they’re doing something that annoys you, and you have to confront the issue politely as an adult roommate, despite the fact that they still see you as their baby, and with the additional challenge of staying sensitive to the fact that they work long days and can’t handle stress or criticism? What about when you’re drifting apart from your best friend, and he says he can’t make it to your birthday? What about when you like one set of grandparents more than the other? What about when you need to say “sorry” to a client or boss sincerely, but without groveling so low that you sell yourself short? I can’t help but think there’s an answer to each one of these situations – one that, if we knew it, would be as simple and obvious as not saying “mine” and snatching people’s stuff. But I can report that 24 years isn’t enough to have cracked any of the above conundrums. I am still on the same journey of socialization as the preschool students. And tomorrow they might learn how to share, but damn, they’ve still got a loooooong way to go.

The raw facts of humanity are on display in preschool. I think neither John Locke nor Thomas Hobbes was correct – Locke with his belief that humans are naturally good, and evil is learned; Hobbes with his crotchety opinion that humans are naturally selfish and wicked, and must cede their freedom to a social contract to live in peace. If anarchy is anything like preschool – and I think it would be – it would be a mix of fiercely random tribal alliances, governed by that uniquely human blend of calculation tempered by the the whims of love. And the whole thing would be shot through equally with acts of monstrous selfishness, and of gorgeous altruism.

I guess what I’ve realized is, insanity is constantly at bay behind human culture… so what is there to do but try and solve the riddle for ourselves, then stop worrying? Sometimes I sneeze and make phlegm fly everywhere, or spill bright red spaghetti sauce on a shirt that is meant to be worn on formal occasions. And at those moments, I think, Oh, God. I’m just like one of the kids right now. If there was a titanic preschool teacher watching over me, he or she would survey the scene with a groan, and say “Ohhhh la la la la la la….” while cleaning me up. But there isn’t. So I just grab a Kleenex, wipe my nose, and remember that when push comes to shove, those kids are going to do just fine.