Saturday, December 22, 2012

Mark DeMarco - "Ode to Viceroy"

Among my favorite songs this year that won't make my top 10 albums was this slinky float trip of a tune. DeMarco ambles through a pleasantly simple (and simply pleasing!) verse-chorus at the pace of a Malkmus classic with drunken surf guitars and an anxious bassline. It makes me go all loose banana: limbs deboned, spine dangling forward, head faintly bobbing. I shake down to a puddle of goo at that guitar solo coda. What a world, what a world.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Kids in the Alley

There are some kids in my alley that play all the time.

It's great. I park my bike back there in the garage, so I see them several times a week. They are, I estimate, between 9 and 12 years old, unselfconscious and whimsical. I've ridden by them several times on my way out of the alley, but a couple days ago I was out working in the garage and got my first chance to talk to them. They were skate boarding and throwing a football around (sometimes both at once) when one of them spotted a board in the garage that he thought would be a perfect skate ramp. Upon further examination, it turned out to not be a board but a piece of drywall--bad ramp. Seizing the opportunity, I made some little friends.

Sergio seemed to be calling the shots for the boys, so I asked him first. "Sergio!" "And I'm Fernando!" said the one who's eaten the most in his life. "I'M ALEX!!" said one running from a couple garages down. The other I hadn't seen peeked around the tree line: "That's Juanito." "Nooo, it's JUAN!" he said in that "geeeez guys, cmooonnnn" whine that the runt of every group of boys has perfected.

I've seen them a few times since, and though I get the names mixed up a bit, I always talk to them for a few minutes before I go inside. They all speak perfect English with no accent whatsoever, so I've been intrigued about their home situation. Do they have bilingual parents? Do they have monolingual parents and have learned English so well through the school system? Today I found out...sorta. As I got home to put my bike away I heard Fernando running up behind me shouting a very obvious thing. "Hey, I know you!" He had a friend, an even runtier one named Frankie. They had just come from the store with Frankie's mom, and they were waiting while she loaded the groceries from the car into the house.

I saw my opportunity to meet some parents. I started talking with them as we walked down the alley to their parking area when a little girl (3 years?) danced forth in a pink Dora coat. It was Frankie's little sister. His older brother was helping carry groceries with the aid of his mother. She was an Anglo and carried a cellphone in one hand with a 12pk of CocaCola in the other. She hung up the phone as we approached, and motioned toward Frankie and me: "¿Qué haces hablando con gente que no conoces?" ("What are you thinking talking to people you don't know?").

I suddenly felt two-fold defensive: for me and for Frankie, who innocently had just made a new friend--not that his mom could have known that. I launched into: "Pero si nos conocemos de aquí detrás de las casas. Yo tengo mi bici ahí atrás y nos vemos muchos días, ellos jugando yo yéndome. Sí que nos conocemos" (But we do know each other from here in the alley. I keep my bicycle over there and we see each other a lot, them playing, me coming and going. We know each other).

It was a weird moment. She was confused (and white, remember). Fernando and Frankie were stunned. I had also just learned in that moment that Spanish was a part of their lives. It seemed like more than the five seconds that it probably was, but Fernando looked up at me, awed and corpulent. The words dripped out of his mouth like a leaky faucet: "You... you speak ...Spanish? You... speak Spanish.  ...?" "Yeah, I teach Spanish at the university. That's my job," I said loud enough for bilingual mom to hear. Fernando, still reeling, was doing the best he could. "Ok, so... what's 'FOUR' in Spanish!" I laughed. He sorta laughed, too, realizing the silliness of his question in the face of the anterior.

I decided I should probably not push it, and mom was ushering them away, so I turned to her and offered an introductions olive branch. Her name was Shannon. She didn't really change her attitude toward me, but it was probably a complex swirl of pride (at having been clearly understood in Spanish by me when she meant to communicate exclusively with her child) and utter confusion (at the prospect of meeting another white Spanish speaker right there in the alley talking with her kid). Her posture was distrustful, but her face was plain puzzled. She wasn't being a bad mom by any means--maybe a bit presumptive--but we'll get our chance to run into each other again. We'll see how it goes that time.

Until then, those kids can expect me to take even more interest in them now. See you in the alley!

Monday, July 23, 2012

No Land's Man

This article about Sudanese runner Guor Marial has been a small seed of thought planted in my mind for several days. It feels like it's germinating now, so I'm going to try to unearth it roots-n-all to get a look at just what I think it means. This most philosophical swing of the bat hinges on a small part in a book I recently picked up by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek entitled Living in the End Times, in which Žižek postulates that capitalism and the global order it maintains are nearing an endgame. From there he draws on the five stages of grief as a framework to analyze our world systems, social realities, and ideologies. It's been an engrossing read so far despite the excessive verbiage, but it is philosophy after all, I suppose.

The headline of the article above contains the story: "IOC allows runner without country to compete in London under Olympic flag". Well, the whole story is that this runner belongs to the infant nation of South Sudan, whose recent secession from Sudan is much too new to have established the proper Olympic body from which to authorize and send athletes. So, the IOC has determined that Guor Marial may participate in the Olympics without representing a country; he will instead run under the Olympic flag.

Because the IOC could have created South Sudan as a country recognized by the organization if it had wanted to, we can ask what reasons they may have for not doing so. I see a couple possible ways of reading this elision of South Sudan in favor of their own flag:

1.) Since Marial refused to where the flag of a Sudan that has seen dozens of his family members killed under its colors, the IOC could have denied his right to participate. They found a solution that maintained their established order (a country must have an Olympic body in order to participate) while allowing Marial to participate. This is one you might read in the news.

2.) "We at the IOC have resolved that the Olympics shall be your country, and the Olympic Village, your hometown. Your food, McDonald's and your flag, ours. You are the embodiment of a bodiless, faceless organization that has waited decades for such an opportunity to both humanize and commercialize the WeAreTheWorld-ness of the Olympic Games."

3.) It offers a sentimental story for the IOC to tout in the wake of their strange reticence regarding the 40 year anniversary of the 1972 Münich Games and its accompanying tragedy. The IOC has refused to acknowledge the tragedy in the opening ceremonies because they  fear backlash from extremists feel the need to "maintain political neutrality." Marial's story gift-wraps a sympathetic angle that will likely be covered in excess--certainly much more than the Münich massacre. Do you smell roses? That's the IOC.

As I see it Marial embodies a non-entity at the Games. Bearing the Olympic flag contains the statement that he is at once from everywhere and nowhere. He runs representing sport for all men and women, but he is also a neutral, neutered participant in the world's games--shackled and destined to represent only a void. Here, Žižek might cite the Lacanian moment when the "signifier falls into the signified," or, when the word becomes indistinguishable from the thing it names or even gains supremacy over the object. If these circumstances have never happened before, is it possible that Marial is the first person in history of whom the words "Olympic athlete" are true in their fullest sense?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Warning: Slow Everything

This is TicaBus. TicaBus is not a company I have ever used, but TicaBus would like you to think that they go super fast. Look at that deer leaping up mountains and into valleys. This is all an illusion, you see, because in Central America nothing is done quickly, and more often than not things are done with almost deliberate slowness.

Monday I began my journey home. I travelled from Bocas del Toro, Panamá to San José, Costa Rica in boat, taxi, and bus. I travelled from Bocas del Toro to Almirante by water taxi. Once there, I travelled a total of 296km  in 11.5 hours. That rounds out to an average speed of 26kph (16mph). For comparison, I just returned to Nebraska by plane over some thousands of kilometers in 9 hours.

Let's recap: eleven and a half hours at sixteen miles per hour.

I'd like this post to have a Adventure Excitement Against Time! tone as opposed to a #FWP Gringo Angst! tone, but the truth is I was one angsty gringo on Monday having rousted myself at 7:30am to finally arrive at the airport at 7pm. In those 11.5 hours of my life I changed in profound ways, by which I mean I devolved into a bitchy, angry, panicky American Tourist.

Interesting things were going on in Almirante, the gateway to Bocas del Toro. As soon as we docked, the tourist taxis began to usher us around saying they couldn't take us to Changuinola (the departure city to San José) because of a strike. All I remember hearing was the word huelga (strike) over and over and something about the streets being blockaded. We arrived at the blockade to Changuinola at about 8:30am to find dozens of school children standing in the street among fallen trees they had dragged across the road. It was a downpour. They were chanting, singing, and dancing in the streets.
Students chant as others watch from under the bus shelter

Our taxi driver took the time to explain the situation: the local school didn't have running water or electricity that day, and being this not an isolated occurrence, the children (ages 14-18, I would guess) decided to make their dire conditions everyone's problem by blockading the only major road through Almirante and practically bringing the tourist mecca of Bocas del Toro to a standstill for the morning. Busses were backed up behind the intersection for blocks in either direction. Our taxi driver got us through the blockade by his deft having of two taxis--one he drove up to the one side and the other he had driven to the water taxi dock. We sprinted through the blockade and downpour in order to arrive on time for our bus to San José.

Once aboard the bus, the next big hurdle was customs at the border. Going through the border upon entering Panamá was not unlike the early computer game Myst. The world is unknown to you, and you must rely on your insight along with tiny clues to find your way through a dream-labyrinth. No exaggeration. Panamá customs had four doors, two windows, and three buildings. You needed to go to one building, one window, and then one other door. You would think signage (or simply 1, 2, 3 ordering of buildings/doors/windows) would aid this process, but you would be lost, wrong, and probably crying. The only help we received was from our future taxi driver, who'd seen enough troubled gringos flounder up and down, flailing their passports at every open window and door. Somewhere, I thought, there must be a table with a bottle marked "DRINK ME" so that I would be able to shrink down small enough to fit through the real customs door at the foot of one of these windows. Then, the cake afterwards, saying "EAT ME". Normal size, giddyup!

I have digressed. We were returning through the same three-door circus we met on our way in, only this time with 30 needing to pass before we were allowed to move on. At the passport checking line things were moving extraordinary slowly. When I finally approached the window, I could see that the passport checker was being handed bundles of passports to stamp from drivers of private transportation. They pay a little money, they get ahead of the line. Ours were only checked once there was a break in the flow of these private drivers. This came after waiting in the line for 15 minutes only to find out we were in the line for the wrong window of the wrong buliding and we actually needed to be going in the door in the last building first. Imagine my joy when the men in this third building began to laugh at us for not knowing where to begin our process.

Back to window number one we went with the pay-as-you-go passport stamper. After getting stamped, one must walk across a bridge between Panamá and Costa Rica. This is that bridge:

It was a slippery 1/2km walk over the river. Finally, at the Costa Rican customs window (which seems to have about 33% more understanding of how to accommodate unfamiliar sheeple) we waited for the final stamp that would release us from the white rat race. There I found a defining moment of Central American life speed: with more than 30 people waiting in line behind me, the agent took my passport and declaration, scanned the passport, looked over the declaration, checked the boxes, stamped and signed my passport. He then handed me my pa--he then realized he was getting a text message on his iPhone, so of course he held my documents in one hand while typing with his thumb a two-paragraph reply. Misspellings? Just backspace and try again. Autocorrect error? Shuffle through the possibilities til you find it. After 30 seconds I offered, "Con las dos manos más rápido, no?" ("It'd be faster with both hands, right?"). He smiled and kept going. I was finally reunited with my documents a short time later.

The horn, the horn, the horn is so forlorn.

The trip moved swiftly through Caribbean towns Sixaola, Puerto Viejo, Limón, and then inland through Siquirres and Guápiles before our next major obstacle. A trucker pulled off to the side of the road yelled ¡Ehtá cerrao! ("It's closed!") as we approached the ascent of one of the most notoriously dangerous sections of Costa Rican highway that passes through the mountains of Braulio Carrillo National Park north of San José. Due to heavy rains and low visibility on tight corners, this heavily trafficked pass is often a pileup waiting to happen. So it was this afternoon, yet we ventured forth anyway rising about half way up before we joined the creep-n-stop rhythm of the rest of the semis, cars, and buses. Over the course of the next two hours some dozen ambulances went up and down the mountain. We had heard there was an overturned semi but never found evidence of this if there was one. My panic reached an all time high when I realized that without cellphone reception in the mountains I was handcuffed regarding the plans I had made to reunite with my luggage at the airport. The initial plan made early in the morning was that my generous maleta hosts would would meet me at 7:30pm at the airport for the handoff. I was two hours deep into a traffic jam that could potentially delay my arrival for much, much later. My travelling company, Sofi, made it easier to not fly into cursing rants about the former passengers of cars that began to populate the highway while they waited. She did well to stonewall my outrage at the growing claustrophobia of time.

All told, I arrived at the airport at 7:15pm. The descent to San José went much more quickly than I expected, and life returned to a manageable level of anxiety when my maleta bearers also brought gallo pinto and a thermos of coffee to send me off with one final, full Costa Rican meal. There were more hurdles on the way, like a 60 minute window in Denver to get to my next flight while also rechecking my bag and passing through customs and security again (they took my peanut butter! not a liquid!), but I now find myself among the comforts of home and no worse for the wear. Slowness has its advantages, but experiencing such a heavy dose of that reality in the 24 hours before I had to fly home made me miss the pace of life here (or at least the multiple lanes on highways).

I had a wonderful evening last night with my favorite friends in Omaha, Kim and Jeremy. I rode my bike to lunch with others today. High summer in Lincoln is upon me.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

La Colonia de Sarapiquí (La vuelta)

"How dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world"
- Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (current read)

Johancer (left) and family (not pictured: Macho)

Two years ago I was introduced via written word to a rural adolescent. He won the penpal lottery and got paired with the professor of a class he knew nothing about except that we were from the USA. To the son of a banana farm foreman this must have been quite a departure from normal activities in BananaLand, which included soccer on the floor with two distant countries' flags pushing a marble back and forth, playing bola in the plaza, and helping mom with the chickens.

Last year we met for the first time chest to chest. All in all, the six days I spent in La Colonia de Sarapiquí during a short service project have come to furnish a more complete world outlook. It moved me from B/W to Technicolor--still far from HD awareness. I still must suppress the powerful inclination to romanticize life in La Colonia (Chris and Tarah can rein me in here), but these are a couple things that stand out to me:

(1) Nebraska:USA::La Colonia:Costa Rica? In several ways I found myself comparing Nebraska's place in the USA to La Colonia's in Costa Rica. For one, the agrarian layout of most of the land is a constant reminder of what keeps food on the table. Take also the family-oriented HQ life and low cost of living. These people feel a connection to the land and to each other. Especially when I think about the question that I was asked by anyone who heard I was going to La Colonia (why?), I recall the great why-ness of Nebraska to most costal people in the USA.

(2) How many advertisements do you think we see in one day? I have no idea, but I do know that for one week of my life I saw exactly zero advertisements. No billboards, no popups, no TV--no one telling me what I needed in order to make my life better. Turns out if you aren't constantly being told how to upgrade your life, maybe you don't have those impulses. Maybe all the aural and visual violence of advertising I filter everyday conforms my life to a standard I am unfit to pursue.  I say the maybes because who knows, but I feel the maybes lean more toward yesbes. In La Colonia this pursuit appears to occupy very few.

(3) Success. This one hit our group the hardest last year. When a 10 year-old cannot pick their country out on a world map is this a failure of their education system? In a community where most are going to school because it keeps them busy before they are old enough to join the ranks of the banana farmers, how do you measure achievement or success? I come from a culture that values good, hard work but also disdains brute laborers as unsuccessful at best (undetermined at worst). The question is whether or not success exists on a sliding scale, whether education's quality also does, and how to EQ success with the various dials on the Soundboard of Life (family, education, community, work, etc.). Which is more indicative of success: a bank account or a happy family? Neither and both. Dials are tweaked very differently in La Colonia.

Johancer has a quick mind and a tender heart. He said, when responding to his mother's inquiries about why he is always telling girls how pretty they are but never dating any of them, "I just like to help their self-esteem." His heart is more than tender, though. It is weak. He has an as yet undiagnosed condition that leads to fainting spells and chest pains after the slightest physical exertion. Last year after throwing the frisbee for about 10 minutes he stumbled to me hand on heart. Chris guided us to the local clinic where we waited a short time to be seen by the physician. As he sat on the table in the room getting blood drawn, he looked up and asked nakedly ¿Viviré? (Will I live?). Words failed miserably to clothe such a question. The report this year is that he has not had any such spells for quite some time and will undergo tests this September to determine what can be done.

Johancer will leave La Colonia in a couple of years after school. He is one of the few who will overcome (read: "overcome") his educational environment; he says he wants to study science at the nearest university. This worries his parents, who are hoping to build a slightly bigger house next to their current, incredibly small house. "He's going to have to get some good scholarships," says dad ("Macho"). He will, I believe. There he will use the Internet for the first time--an incredible thing to say about a 16 year-old--and make use of the email addresses he has accumulated from the likes of Chris, Tarah, and myself. The Internet is our world now, though some still live in blissful ignorance.

I visited Johancer and his family last week for a day; I still carry three moments with me:

(1) There is a padded chair with armrests in the household. It is worn and in the corner of the 8x8 living room (which, by the way, is separated by a curtain from the 8x8 kitchen--no running water). The other seating is facilitated by a bench and two wooden stumps. As dinner was being served, I was made to sit in the large chair. Then, as my dinner was given to me (pork-skin and bean soup), the bench was set in front of me with a tablecloth (towel) laid across it. Two of four family members sat on the floor deaf to my protests. Their soup also contained no pork skins. All for me! he said, and chewed slimily.

From the kids' room (bunk bed behind me), you see the living room with said chair. Behind it, the blue curtain separates the kitchen. The house is four equal spaces (all roughly 8x8): living, kids' room, parents' room, kitchen.

(2) I bought Johancer a chess board. It was time, I thought, and it was also right in front of my head at the store. He seemed ready for chess and the stimulus it entails. The two brothers (Brainer is 9, I think) played and learned quickly following dinner. Later, with their enthusiasm still very much rising we were forced to play by candlelight since Macho gets up at 4am to go to the banana fields. Always catching me in the "one more" trap, we melted candles for several more hours. As I was leaving the next morning, Brainer was teaching the youngest, [name], what the diference between an alfil (bishop) and torre (rook) is. And on, surely on.

Playing chess on a team of two is near-impossible, we found

(3) Bedtime brought with it a surprise: bug nets. Houses are not sealed from the elements in this area (except from rain, duh). I remembered fondly last year's severe lack of bug nets as well as the raccoon we would hear rummaging in the kitchen at night (there was nothing to find but smells). Johancer carefully shrouded me in mine (before doubling up on the top bunk with Brainer), and then with the gentleness of the Virgin Mary proceeded to tuck a blanket around my body. He mummified me with maternal care--the bedding equivalent to the chair-and-table treatment I was given at dinner. The moment felt to be approaching holiness.

Duhv-course, there was also bike riding and coconut water drinking.

Brainer on the top tube
Guzzling agua de pipa

I returned to La Colonia a year later and left in 24 hours. It remains the most striking area of Costa Rica ahead of volcanoes, beaches, and cloud forests.

Friday, June 29, 2012


"His answer trickled through my head like water through a sieve." - Lewis Carroll, Haddocks' Eyes

This is a photo someone took in Chile. Doesn't that look fun? I think so. Look at all that lake and sky water coming together in wetted bliss!

Last year in Costa Rica I returned home with lots of thoughts. Most of them were the serious type that leads to questioning everything you've come to know in your society, the hemisphere you live in, and its familiarity (or lack-thereof) to you. This year, there are still plenty of Big Questions driving bumper cars around upstairs, but one tiny thought has kept me buzzing almost all four weeks. I suppose I owe it to having near-full reserves of knowledge about Costa Rican life that allow me to steer thoughts elsewhere, but the element that I've pulled into focus here is just that: elemental. It's water. It's omnipresence has been bewildering, and my headspace has played host to the idea of agua much like a sloth's meticulous, steady appraisal of its current home branch.

Firstly, not all water is created equal. Home-water comes in waves of storms; here-water marches to time. Home-water bowls through; here-water comes to roost. Home-water goes pitter-patter, saying "hell-o, a little rain?"; here-water goes rrraaaaaaAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH on the tin roof. Home-trees bow and clap their hands; here-trees stare straight up at it. Home-water is a phenomenon of forecasts and radar; here-water is an all-orienting fact of life, like gravity. Is it raining? I will stay in today. Is it not raining? I will go out today. 

Here are some ways that Costa Ricans in San Ramón live with water:

Every corner needs a drain or four. There is always a downhill in San Ramón, and the water knows where to go: to the other water. In fact, the great conclusion that I think I've reached regarding water is very obvious but also very new to me. It is that water is always looking for the rest of the water. Where does it go from this gutter? To the pipes below, to the stream, to the river, to the ocean. It's terminus is always the rest of the water unless something intervenes in that flow. The entire city is built around being its usher, its butler.

Were you planning to build a university here? I'm sorry, but you'd better get your water canopy figured out. Also, you'll need megadeep drains along the side to escort the water from the premises.

You'll also need a giant channel once it finds its way out of the campus area. This will ensure that the water finds the other water outside of campus, so that together they can find the creek.

Is that a staircase? Ok. Just make sure to have running shoots for water along the side of it. This water needs shepherding in its quest.

At the top of a volcano? Yes, even here. This is where the journey begins. A journey of 9300 meters to sea-level where the rest of its family waits saltily.

Got babies in a stroller or a wheel chair? You must choose your route appropriately as only about 10% of the intersections offer a bridge like this. Just look at how much room they've left for water there! When I came to San Ramón last year, I thought that street repair meant simply putting asphalt on top of asphalt since their streets were at curb level and about 8 inches thick. This year I realized its all part of the water-steering process.

For your car to reach the garage you'd better design a way to get it over the waterway. We can't have lakes appearing where our houses were supposed to be--get the water out of here!

This is life in rainy season: 80% clear in the AM; 80% rain in the PM starting promptly at 1. Rain varies from light to crippling and back again over a dozen hours. This year we've had less rain than last.

I'm sorry, but there's just not going to be room for shoulders on the highways because we must, must plan for the daily water migration. You will have to find a driveway for your broken car.

Be extra careful parking on the street or you could find your car in a hellish gutter 12" or more below street level.

Sometimes it's terribly dangerous to not watch your feet. Here are three local words for rain, written in order of magnitude: temporalaguacero, and baldazo.

The world is disfigured by water's perpetual search for itself. San Ramón's infrastructure for dealing with The Wetness has given pause to many innocuous walks home, and for this small thought I am grateful.

Tomorrow we leave San Ramón for five days in the Caribbean. Water is sure to make an appearance. I will attend to my friendships in Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí where our service project took place last year and then catch up with the rest of the crew in the other Puerto Viejo (en Limón) before my adventures turn further south to Panamá.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

"So, are you fluent in Spanish?"

Las palabras no tienen sentido en sí; lo tiene la gente.
Words do not have meaning themselves; people do.
- A chilean friend

This image supposedly represents the variety of communication styles among European languages. You can see that someone out there thinks they have quite radical diversions in efficacy. I can only speak to two of those, but I can't say I agree nor disagree. The heading reads "Stereotypes of European Languages," so we know right away that we're dealing with loosely-woven perceptions and soft realities. As far as efficacy, I've always felt Spanish had the upper hand on English in the sense that has fewer deviations from grammar rules, a more intuitive structure, and actual pronunciation norms.

I'll offer a simple example, which is the negative answer to the question: "Will it rain today?" In both languages, the simplest is the best route: "No." That works just fine. Normally, though, we're more colorful in English, perhaps saying, "I don't think so." When we break down "I don't think so," we find that it is analogous to saying "I do not think the affirmative answer to your question is correct." It's a rather inside out way of saying No, which could mean it's a holdover from the courtly days, but it's still rather odd. Spanish has a more direct way: "Creo que no." "Creo que no" is essentially "I think not," and is not negating an affirmative. It's more direct and less cumbersome to understand. Just as common in Spanish would be to hear "No creo" as an answer to this question. "No creo" cannot be translated into English grammar without losing its simplicity, but you're saying "I think not" with one less word.

Does English not have a strange way of negating verbs ("eat" for example, as in "I do not eat fish.")? Spanish is way, way simpler: "No como pescado". In fact, that's two whole words simpler and in a really simple sentence. To be sure, Spanish has it's hangups ("Me gusta" is one of the bigger headaches to teach every semester), but overall I would argue it comes through much cleaner when sifted out next to English.

This is mostly related to the main thing I meant to blog about tonight: my Spanish versus my English. English is fully my language. I possess it. My first cries were heard in English. I cook in English. My closest friendships exist in English (occasionally, Ludaspeak). My dreams, contrary to some bilinguals I know, are painted in English. To this end, I've noticed in the last year or so that when I'm given a chance to talk freely and deeply about a topic in my language (teaching Service Learning courses at UNL, for example) I meander through a disorganized mess of ideas often disrupted by pausing strategies and searches for the exact words.

I know too much English for my own good; I know there is a better way to say everything I say in the moment I am saying it, and that knowledge leaves me tongue-tied. In contrast, I've found that in Spanish I am efficient and effortless far beyond my abilities in English. That I speak English with greater proficiency is of no consequence when it comes to articulating myself clearly. Efficiency in language isn't necessarily a universal positive--look at that Turkish elephant!--but positive aspects of it like directness, coherence, and fluidity had never occurred to me before in leiu of exactness or eloquence (my standard aims).

In some ways, I am more fluent in Spanish than in English, if by "fluent" I mean "fluidity." In others I am better in English, if we mean "amount of language on hand to use." When people ask me if I'm fluent in Spanish (which, as an aside, is kind of a strange question to ask a teacher of the language, but I kind of get it), I often have a hard time saying both Yes and No at the same time, because both answers are true: I can probably talk to any Spanish speaker in the world about anything, but I would struggle with the wide range of vocabulary and slang across 20+ countries. Shrug.

Q: "Are you fluent in Spanish?"
A: "I do(n't) think so."

Monday, June 18, 2012


Come, let us make music together, music which transcends ages and delights centuries.

Le Corbusier, Bogotá

I am continually amazed at the kindness of the Ticos and the music we make together. Here are some stories from the last week:

1.) Adriana and Carlos hosted a student last year for the final two weeks of our studies after said student left an unpleasant situation at her initial host family. They had been wanting to host students for a while and were thus elated to give it a go for an abbreviated period. This year they have full hosting duties, and going to their house every week to deliver payment is my favorite stop on the route. Last weekend on Sunday, I was off in neighboring town Sarchí at an craft market when I bumped into them. Adriana practically made me let them give me a ride back to San Ramón as she crammed herself and three other family members into the back seat of their Saab, leaving me to stare at the empty passenger seat with nothing needing to be spelled out. "Let's go to San Ramón" quickly became, when it was determined that I hadn't met the local family members, "Let's go to grandma's house." A couple hours later I was full of wonderful food and drink and engrossed in a conversation about Carlos's new job, the education system, and how many family members were buried across the street in the cemetery. A day later I was at their house for dinner and found myself asserting my skills as the best tortilla maker in the room (aside from Adriana) in a whir of finely-oiled padding and spinning. Knowing all eyes were on me, I gorged myself to their hearts' content, and still they laughed at how little I had eaten (exactly twice as much as anyone at the table).

2.) Fernando and Mauro were sitting in Bocaditos having themselves a few evening drinks with the Costa Rica national team cruising past lowly Guyana. I went up to the bar for a drink with the thought of possibly distancing myself from the accumulating throng of gringos at our table. As I approached the bar, I found two men sitting alone at the end in front of a smaller TV. Waiting to order, I floated a knowledgeable question their way: "How many more do you think they'll be able to put in tonight?" Costa Rica has been thin on goals lately--especially due to the impotence of their best (read: healthiest) striker, Saborío, who had just tallied the first goal on the night minutes before. It was a question that let them know that I knew, and they bit. We waxed Coaching Geniuses on the formation for that evening's match, threw out some speculations for Costa Rica's World Cup Qualifying chances, and then Fernando made known his prediction for our match: ¡Tres más! It was bold. We bet a beer on it--a beer I never got to pay for after Costa Rica won exactly 0-4, because over the next 3.5 hours my new friends replaced my empties before I could think to order another. Of course, they also got away with paying the entire tab, deaf to my knowingly futile protests. Fernando pulled a fast one on me in the anxious five minutes before the Guatelama-USA match could be put on the TV: "Oh no! It's already 2-0!" I stared back at him as his face rounded into laughter realizing he'd ribbed me good. I punched him in the shoulder a little harder than I intended, but that only added to our jovial mood. They also bought me a lottery ticket that today won me the equivalent of $20. It could have been any two nice guys at the bar; it just happened to be Fernando and Mauro.

3.) The woman behind the window at the Museo de Oro in San José handed me a receipt for the group visit that I charged to my account with a smile and two questions: (1) Are you from Costa Rica? -- a question I've discussed at length here (2) Are you related to Gene Chambers? -- This is Gene Chambers. The answer to both was obviously "no," but I still ended up with her hand-written note underlining Gene Chambers and the title of her favorite song of his. I joked with her later, when I needed her to stamp my ticket so that I could reenter after stepping out to an ATM, that I was on my way to my brother's concert. She didn't catch it, but it dawned across her face a couple seconds later in an eruption of laughter that I'm sure rose to dangerous decible levels in her glass booth. People love laughing.

4.) Today I sent the students out on El Gran Reto, an Amazing Race style competition to find certain prices in stores and places of historical interest. The idea is to ask people on the street where certain things are and then to try to find those places with the clearest Tico directions guiding them.

Example Q: Where is the post office and when does it open on Mondays?
Example A: 300 meters east of the park and 100 meters south. 8am.

I occupied the park shortly after sending them off, sitting down at a bench with a fruit smoothy in hand to cool me from the walking-bath humidity on the day. There was a group of older men sitting around a circular set of benches amicably discussing current social issues. I knew I needed to talk to them. They seemed like they would love an ignorant audience to share their wisdom with. I was also aware that this was the spot in the park where many retired people gather to play dominoes most afternoons and I wanted an in. So I came up with what I thought would be the perfect question that is both sensible to ask someone on the street and also loaded enough to trigger several older men's bickering happily about the answer: Do you know where I can buy a paper around here? They also happened to have several papers out on the benches, so the intricacies of each paper's political leanings, yellow journalism, and fluff was soon the reason for heated finger pointing. Returning from the store they sent me to I heard them say, "Oh, here he is," as if they'd been talking about me for the previous five minutes. I was immediately met with five hands to shake and detailed backstories for all of the day's headlines while I waited for the Amazing Racers to arrive. When they did, the conversations only became more friendly as my students' developing Spanish entered the equation. We looked like some kind of mentoring program for local gringos--each man was explaining to a different group about different elements of the scavenger hunt. They were a bit overwhelmed to have so many eager old men jumping at them, but their anxious smiles soon gave way to actual conversations, hand shakes, and pats on the back. They were Marco, Raymond, José and others, and I've all but officially canceled class on Wednesday to instead play dominoes for three hours in the park.

I saw several of the students walking around town with local Ticos who weren't content with simply giving them directions to the place they were looking for but instead took it upon themselves to actually guide them there. One guy was even waiting outside the post office for two of them to return so he could continue helping them along the way. To be clear, this is just a man on the street that they asked for directions. What's more, every single group shared similar stories from this morning. Statement: the Ticos (at least San Ramonenses) are the kindest people I've ever found.

Meeting People Is (so, so, so) Easy (and fun here).

Monday, June 11, 2012

Food, pt. 1

I eat a lot here. I suppose walking a few miles every day contributes to this, but I still push away from the table with what feel like stretch marks forming on internal organs after every meal. Costa Rica's main staple is rice, which you will see a lot of below. A typical dish combining rice, some meat and some veggie or fruit is called a "casado".

Here is a casado with chickpeas, carrot, and chicken. Hard-boiled eggs with kidney beans for a side.

Here is the same casado five minutes later.

Here is Profesora Sofi eating a casado with shrimp.

A different lunch today with pasta with a mild, creamy sauce, accompanied by a beet salad.

Brown rice with eggs and ham.

Classic gallo pinto for breakfast, complete with a fried egg and toasted garlic bread.

For lunch, casado with pescado al ajillo, puréed potatoes and rice. Fresh salad. 

For desert, cinnamon custard with bananas.

More gallo pinto with fresh fruit. Breakfast matters.

We have a joke in the house that I live in the best restaurant in the city. My mom owns a catering business, so it stands to reason that her food would be above average. After some field testing, I would say it stacks up against every host family I've eaten with. I'm tired tonight. Long Monday of classes and errand-running, following a long weekend of waterfall swimming, beach bumming, and artisan shopping.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Joy and Normalcy

That thing there is my bike. I say "thing," but "icon" might be a truer expression. Costa Ricans continue to astound with their generosity:

Today I embarked on the formidable task of paying each host family individually. Now, going to 11 houses in San Ramón may not seem very challenging. In fact, if it weren't for the Tico him/herself this task would be a simple 2-hour walk. But I know much better than that. There will be drinks. There will be food. There will be long conversations about how my family back home is (followed by the obligatory, "And your family?"). There will be talks about this weekend, next weekend, next year, next decade and so forth. each and every house visit. Last year, with only 5 houses to visit this took about three hours.

As you can imagine, I spent most of the walk to the first house trying to think of culturally appropriate ways of excusing myself in order to continue my rounds. At the first house I visited today, Doña Aleida and I got to talking about all of the above. I asked her if she knew of a bicycle place nearby because I had planned to buy the cheapest one they had today in order to ease my journey, but before I could explain why I needed one she was already leading me down to the garage where her son kept his when he lived there. "Come with me," she said. "He's not going to need this for a long while. Take it! Bring it back when you leave! Sound ok?"

"Mi casa es su casa" is the most common phrase I've heard from the host families. At this rate I have 12 homes in San Ramón, Costa Rica. Now I have a bicycle. Who knows how many I could have had just by introducing the topic at the other houses. The tires are in dire condition, the pedals are clipless, and the full suspension is bouncy, but it's my bike. I rolled back 20 years climbing the hill from her house back into downtown. The air was crisp and I was on a bicycle again. All of a sudden, the impossible route for the day, framed now in the context of my two new wheels, became a possibility and a joy.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Of Mirrors and Motorcycles

How do you share a piece of art that you love as deeply as some people with another who is free to feel whatever they will about it? It's a conundrum I bet most have dealt with: do I choose to extend this precious thing from me with the possibility that it return empty, spilt, devalued? Or, safer but understandable, do I hold it as mine and mine alone thereby preserving it for myself and preserving my world from the possibility of it being tarnished and, by extension, others being tarnished to me for their opinions of it.

I go through this thought process every time I loan out a certain couple of books, as well as every time I show The Motorcycle Diaries. I will have little to say about Ernesto Guevara here. The movie is about him, but its significance reaches much farther, and its relevance to the Costa Rica program could not be more emphatic. The moment is simply too opportune for me to keep it to myself.

Here you have two travelers on an adventure that undeniably serves as an axis point for both of their lives. Here you have ten students on an equally thrilling adventure, which could easily have a similar effect. The question is, are they ready to catch it flying by in the blur of class, homework, night clubs, and Guaro

Like most ideas that are "beyond us and this moment in time," a tangible source by which to cut through the abstractness can help understanding greatly. For this movie and this situation, my metaphor par excellence is the shower drain or the air filter. Because of the reality of being in a new country and studying a second language, the rushing stimulus of all this newness can be quite overwhelming. Not unlike nearsightedness, there is a world out there that I interact with but cannot fully ascertain. To help manage this hugeness I like to think of us as semipermeable objects that allow any number of substances to flow through us. We trap the big things. We hold onto the interactions that meant something to us. "Walk through your days with open hands ready to grab what is there to grab, and to merely touch what you do not need to hold close," I say.

And then we watch our heroes Alberto Granado and Ernesto Guevara, one of them significantly skilled in this practice and on display for two or so hours. Writing this just now I've realized that debriefing the movie with this kind of discussion before hand lessens the weight of the "OMG PLZ LOVE THIS!!!" feeling that I would otherwise have if I simply popped it in the DVD player for movie night with some friends. 

Digression, but on topic: looking in the mirror. Is it a positive action? Do we go to the mirror expecting greatness? To me it more often functions within the "Oh-geez, I hope I look ok!" mindset. So (and I may be leaping here), not loving what we see in the mirror is very much a common part of the human experience, but I think as long as we see what there is to see and really take it in, love it or not, then we are probably as much ourselves as we could hope to be. They don't have to love The Motorcycle Diaries, because whether or not they do isn't the point. The point is that they are it, and that they see themselves fully in this mirror.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

"¿Es que Ud. es Tico?"

Q: Who am I?
A: Where are you?

A man actually asked me that today. The question in the title, that is, and it felt as if he'd carefully wrapped the moment of silence just before around my head and then yanked the string off, leaving it spinning on my shoulders.

I've thought and read before that place defines identity to a large extent, and that personality and cultural norms are also deeply shaped by place. Place-identity theory is pretty much the central theme of a recent read of mine, Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson, which is highly regarded for its dissection of Nationalism and the growth of the corporate self (or nation) as an imaginary body of like-selves. I will never meet all of the people that are considered my countrymen, and yet we are bound invisibly, invincibly. We are from a place that we share.

The person in question was Melvin, a biology instructor whom I was sent to meet by current Lincoln Tico, John Vargas, a PhD student in Chemistry and lifelong resident of San Ramón's neighbor town Palmares. John made sure I would stop by the Biology department and say hello to his good friend and work partner for the last few years. After talking to Melvin for a few minutes about how I knew John and what I was doing on campus, he dropped the bomb: "So, are you Costa Rican?"

It's difficult to know what Melvin was trying to ask, but there are a few possibilities: (1) Were you born in Costa Rica? (2) Do you live in Costa Rica? (less likely) (3) Are you Costa Rican? Now, the difference between one and three is quite subtle, but significant. It's probable that he recognized my foreign heritage. This is an unconscious leap for most Ticos meeting a red-beard. The second leap, though (that I may actually be a fellow countryman), is the one keeping the gyroscope spinning. To get past the first leap and actually consider the second means that one reality (assumed origin based on observation - visual) must have been trumped by another (our conversation - verbal) in his mind. I guess I've felt today that my fluency had come back after a month out of UNL, but not to the extent that a Tico would think I was one of his own--that he would think perhaps we are bound by the Costa Rican imaginary community.

This is for an entirely different post, but I do think one of the more pleasing aspects of fluency in Spanish (and for that matter being in another country) is that I get to start over with myself. I can be almost any "Aaron" that I like. It's taken years to feel that way about myself in Spanish, but I certainly wouldn't have had the conversation that I had today with a girl in the hallway if we were in English. It wouldn't have felt right. My tone was different than the me I think I am. My mannerisms felt alien to me. I felt Tico. This came just after conversing with Melvin, so there's no telling how much his question influenced the next couple hours of my day (or the next several weeks?), but it feels significant for the moment.

It wouldn't surprise me if language and place were the two most indicative factors of a person's identity. In that case (and now I'm getting into even more future posts), have I been living split in two as a Spanish-speaker in Lincoln? No, I don't think so, but it does make me consider why I get such a release when I roll into and out of conversation after conversation with Ticos knowing I didn't miss a beat. It feels like something I've been carrying around in a box (academic environment) has finally been set free (real world).

Tonight is ripe for reading books. I shall keep digesting this day and expect its nutrients will feed me for many to come.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Por El Otro Lado

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid.

Several moments of interest from today.

First, we had class in the jungle. There are some nice painted steps out in the jungle behind campus where we could all sit and have a little class this morning while the bugs scurried around us. There isn't really anything unusual about the place except that it's the jungle and no one holds class in the jungle. The juxtaposition was enough to startle their attention for the 1.5 hours that it was needed: "We thought we were just going for a hike!" "Yes. Yes, you did."

Second, I had my first two run-ins with drunk do-badders. They may be a thin group, but their gringo divining rods are refined, and with them they assail any and all fairer-skinned in their stumbling vicinity:

(1) This afternoon, three girls trailing the group were being hounded by a mostly gentle drunk who wanted to take our picture for us. This was clear because he kept sticking one arm up in the air for the flash while he ducked behind an invisible (except to him) cape to peer through the viewfinder."¡Púm! Yo les saco la foto. ¡Púm!" Written phonetically, it was a bit more like "¡Púm! Yer leh sagah leh fuhduh. ¡Púm!" The students went into the store behind us leaving me to dispense with the annoyance. Usually, my dealings with these people end quickly with a few Gracias, pero no. No queremos foto. Ya tenemos foto, señor. Vaya con Dios. Mucha suerte, señor. Que le vaya bien. Hasta luego. Et cetera. It tends to work quite well. You say goodbye as if you've been talking for hours, and they seem to think that's the case and leave politely. This caballero was much more persistent. My plan two is to start making them talk. Sometimes they forget what's even going on and just leave of their own accord. ¿Cómo se llama Ud.? ¿En dónde vive? ¿Ud. trae cámara? ¿Es fotógrafo Ud.? ¿Le gusta San Ramón? For the persistent, this apparently means a chance to have me share in the smell of his breath and hold his ID for proof of a name I never cared to know.  The employees of the store started to notice and were making passive-aggressive attempts at removing him from their door (like, slapping the cement wall right next to his head). After a couple whiffs of his breath and no progress from the workers, I had to change strategies again. So I told him to have a nice day and walked around the block. By the time I returned he must have been taken with clamoring after another pair of pinkish legs.

(2) The second happened immediately after leaving that store. Two men standing in the doorway of the bar ogled a couple of the girls with us, so I slid back through our group to make sure nothing was going to happen. One of them gave thumbs up, which is... unnerving but not exactly foul. The second stepped out and kind of bumped one of them, or at least made her step around him to keep walking. I would normally suggest ignoring his type, but I felt like this public rudeness needed calling out. I don't remember exactly what I said (something like, "this is not something men do to women, sir.") except that it was quite damning. After two or three shaming phrases, he appeared to lurch toward me. Figuring he was drunk enough to fight someone who pointed out his lowness, I caught up to the group.

Third, the kids in the barrio were out again, this time with a couple other friends I remembered well. Justin and I learned a street game called "Stop", pronounced "Eh-stope", in which you call out a name as you toss a ball in the air, and that person must catch the ball. If s/he drops the ball, s/he must collect it while all the other participants run and hide. Once s/he has it, s/he yells "STOP" and the rest of the players must freeze. Then, s/he gets three giant steps before s/he must try to hit another player with the ball. If s/he misses, s/he is out. If s/he hits someone, that person is out. We played for a half hour. We made plans to play Cops and Robbers next week in the barrio with as many of us as can come. Fútbol in the field down the hill is also in the works.

Fourth, laughter peeled the walls around the house today as I presented Yolanda (mom) with my gift from the USA, a Tingler Scalp Massager. There were escalofríos as giggles came unrestrained from the three sisters + mom as they each took their turn "melting". "The best gift we've ever gotten. Bring us a box of these and we will make you so much money," they said.

Maybe I've found my calling. Aaron Chambers (1982-20**): he tingled the Tico spine.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

¡Que Sí, Mae!

¿Qué es lo que se pierde al cruzar una frontera? Cada momento parece partido en dos, melancolía por lo que queda atrás, y por otro lado, todo el entusiasmo por entrar en tierras nuevas.
"What is lost when we cross a border? Each moment seems to split in two, melancholy for what is left behind, and on the other hand, great eagerness for entering new lands."
- The Motorcycle Diaries

These are the faces of borders crossed, of 8-hour layovers, and of unironic exuberance for the unknown. We touched down in San José 13 hours ago, and I can hardly believe today is the same set of 24 hours that saw us depart from the USA. As of this moment, I've tallied 4 legitimate attempts at sleep and 5 hours actually slept in the last 48, and I couldn't be more alive.

Sitting in bed right now, and miraculously more interested in getting this blog afloat than drifting off on another ship (sleep ship), I am wide-eyed before our world. Still, the most I can manage right now is a few sparse highlights. All of them are people, not surprisingly, because when you come to Costa Rica and only see the volcanoes, beaches, and nature reserves, you've missed its greatest treasure of all:

1. Julie, the hilariously self-aware woman with brain damage whom I sat with on the way to Denver. So excited about life in spite of all the half-finished sentences, instant amnesia, and fits of laughter. I can trace a clear line from her unapologetic, "This is me!" uniqueness to a reminder to be equally cheerful less serious about myself.

2. Seeing Eric, the two-fingered airport bag boy, who sat with us for three hours last summer while we waited for our ride to San Ramón. I always remembered him and the bits of insight he offered into the Tico lifestyle. He will always be the first Costa Rican I met, and seeing him standing there doing what he's done for 28 years with the same smile on his face was some kind of proclamation to me from the world that the good people keep smiling even when out of sight.

3. I've had the deepest pleasure of running into some 7-8 acquaintances from last summer that are now surely friends following screaming ("¡Qué alegría!"), hugging, and catching up when we saw each other again.

4. Luz, our old program director, honked like crazy, hollered out the window, pulled her car over on the side of the highway, jumped out and gave me the biggest hug. Or maybe it was I giving the biggest hug?

5. The 10-12 kids from the barrio remembered my name, called it out, and then gave me a giant group hug. I've been in group hugs before, but never when every person was trying to hug only me. Unforgettable.

The first thirteen hours are written. Sleep attempt 5 feels very promising. Pura dormida.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

On Leaving and Returning

There are many ways to speak of life. From the infinitesimal to the enormous, most every bit of existence can be taken as a cryptogram of the Great Mystery if properly approached and analyzed. Having travelled to Costa Rica last summer, and having seen any number of strange and new bits of existence, I happened upon a wee thought that I would like to develop further: that going out and returning is, as a twin action, one of the more pervasive and relevant occurrences of life. A meta-narrative? Perhaps. An often repeated phenomenon? Definitely.

It happens in small ways: I go to the store and I do not stay there. Rather, I return home. Large way: I left the US of A. Then, I came back. Metaphysical way: I go through any number of emotional states in a day. Leaving a fixed, rational me behind and becoming either sad, frustrated, glad, etc. Yet I always return to soberness. "Dust to dust," and so on.

It occurs to me that the leaving-to place is less significant than the leaving-from place. That is, the origin--or constant--contains more meaning than the destinations. The origin is home, it is family, it is native country, state and city. It is the self and the identity. Right? When I say "I am from _________." Does that imply that I return there?

I've always been fascinated by people who seem to be from no particular place or who don't appear to have roots in any country or city. To where do these people return? Perhaps they have stronger senses of self and personal identity and so do not need a physical place to go back to, but subsist on their own, internal retreats.

I better keep thinking this one through.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

2011 Music Lists (3)

Long time coming: 2011's #5-1

5. Tune-Yards – Whokill

“My Country,” the stunning opener of Whokill, is a barbaric yawp, a righteous tantrum and a declaration of independence. For 3.5 minutes, Merrill Garbus absolutely shreds my country with X-Acto jabs, and then defies genre-fication over the remaining nine tracks. This album bulges with Hard Rain pictures of life in America, and Garbus is raw, hopeful, seductive, ruthless and terrified in the face of her homeland experience. This album astonishes both lyrically and sonically, as each track builds into an agile sonic vessel for such diverse and powerful subject matter.

4. Miracle Fortress – Was I the Wave?

Over the last few years I’ve seen more of this “chill wave” creep into my discography. It isn’t an accident, it turns out. Was I the Wave? was immediately easy to love. Icy intro “Awe” seamlessly blurs into “Tracers,” setting an unaffected mood, but Miracle Fortress get more melodic and more sonically interesting on “Raw Spectacle.” The Drop comes about halfway in while maintaining its breathy melody and flitting synths. “Spectre” evolves further with bright melodies and harmonies riding a tide of 80s dance pop. Several songs hit the sweet spot of melodic and standoffish, dance-y grooves. I can’t help but shake my white self. “Everything Works” and “Miscalculations” continue in the same vein. You get the picture.

3. Davila 666 – Tan Bajo

“Menudo on drugs” can only partially describe Davila 666’s squalor-filled Puerto Rican punk. Cringe-inducing lyrics such as “no te gusta que te toquen, pues cabrona no provoques” abound as do tales of societal unrest (“Esa Nena Nunca Regresó”), frustrated relationships (“Yo Sería Otro”) and general angst (“¡Diablo!”). Aside from aligning themselves with punk’s thematic cannon, Davila 666 string plenty of hooks together to give extra thrust to their desperation. I like “Noche de Terror” in particular; it might be the strongest single song for its bouncing chorus that celebrates horror and pleasure. This blending of fear, anger and vulnerability make for a unique feel throughout and is one of the reasons that Davila 666 made the best album foreign album I heard all year.

2. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for My Halo

“I don’t wanna change, but I don’t wanna stay the same

I don’t wanna go but I’m runnin’

I don’t wanna work but I don’t wanna sit around

all day frownin.”

He’s a bit more depressed than the restless troubadours of On the Road, but Kurt Vile hangs his hat on a come-what-may ethos fleshed out in these acoustic musings. I’m mostly reminded of Tom Petty on songs “Jesus Fever” and “In My Time,” but other forefathers may surface elsewhere. Smoke Ring for My Halo: bed-ridden folk in a bottle that washed up on my shore. It might not have.

1. The Dodos – No Color

2008’s Visiter’s torrent of acoustic fury and chaotic percussion was just so damn unexpected. The following year’s Time to Die collapsed under its predecessor’s weight (for me). A sophomore slump? Perhaps. The Dodos experimented with more ornate arrangements (strings, etc.) in lieu of their earlier base formula: rabidly-strummed guitar and manic banging of sticks on drumlike things. 2011’s No Color was a cautious reach for me; I didn’t want The Dodos to end up a one-off in my memory when their sound was so unique and expressive. Happily, as you may discern from the ranking, to my ear No Color is everything Time to Die wanted to be so badly. Here, The Dodos careen through nine tracks of the same acoustic earnestness that made Visiter so exciting while also finding time to work in a decent amount of peripheral instruments. “Uhhhhhhhhhhh!!!” I’m listening to it now and that’s the only sound that expresses what it feels like to hear any of the first several tracks. They carry so much emotional intensity with just the instrumentation. Then, overlaid with sincere (and occasionally deeply profound) lyrics, sung in increasingly inviting melodies is just too. damn. good. for me to express. Loud live The Dodos.