Monday, December 16, 2013

Musics of 2013

Some singles that have been owning my ears this year:

Disclosure - "Latch"

I've done some of my most inexplicable dance moves this year--all of them elicited by this track. Keep the chiropractor on speed dial.

Caroline Smith - "Magazine"

It's tight and soulful; these are good things. Then at 1:50 it goes to the moon.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Numbers Always Lie

A few of days ago I was working with my dad stripping wallpaper. It's one of those manual jobs that allows your brain to traverse all kinds of mental terrain.

Like any two men at a loss for conversation we flipped on ESPN to accompany the mindlessness of this particular task. The show we heard was "Numbers Never Lie". It's a new show dedicated to the sports world's favorite athletes: the numbers 0-9. The show hunts down player or team statistics to prove whatever points they are trying to make on that particular episode. ESPN knows this business is a bit shaky. I suspect this is why Never carries an asterisk. That doesn't stop the hosts from exclaiming "The numbers never lie!" with deep conviction after each segment.

If you've paid attention to sports in the last couple of decades, you've likely noticed this increasing obsession with statistics. In (American) football, the defense now tallies statistics for tackling the quarterback, hitting the quarterback, hurrying the quarterback, blocking a pass from the quarterback, and possibly other quarterback related actions of which I am unaware. Sometimes announcers will hint at this growing interest by saying something like, "We've only been keeping track of QB hurries since 2004, but..."

Football is becoming more fixated on stats, but baseball is the crowned king of statistical gluttony. These are the Wikipedia categories for Baseball statistics: batting statistics, baserunning statistics, pitching statistics, fielding statistics, and general statistics. The pitching statistics category has 49 different calculations. Forty. Nine. Forty-nine! Just for pitching. They include something called "pNERD," which purports to tell you, the viewer, the rate of "expected aesthetic pleasure of watching an individual pitcher."

What does all this mean? I'd like to suggest a couple things.

1. I feel this fixation on numbers actively reduces aesthetic pleasure or at least distracts from it. If aesthetic pleasure can be calculated, what is the point of enjoying the grace of Federer's beautiful one-handed backhand? Joy and grief are tabulated now, too. So you don't actually choose to like his backhand--the numbers say you will. Did your team win? That elation you're feeling? Just neurons firing. Your pleasure--oh, we have a formula for that. Ugh, statisticians!

2. This leads to what I find most frustrating: the reduction of humanity to numbers. Instead of seeing any of the biographical information of a certain athlete, we see his statistics flash across the screen. Imagine if you and I walked around with our lifetime GPA and cholesterol count on our foreheads. Wouldn't that allow you to determine a person's "value" just a little too quickly? Wouldn't that keep you from knowing or wanting to know many who otherwise may be genuinely worth your time? What kind of pleasure can their be in meeting someone if we have preemptively reduced them to numbers?

3. I think this abstraction/reduction of the human element also contributes to our great scandal and/or pleasure at seeing that element ruined. Certainly, in favor of good taste we wouldn't replay a video over and over of a man having his leg shot apart by radicals in Middle East protests, but we don't seem to shy away from replaying and dissecting some very violent images of bodily destruction in sports. Of course, there are massive differences surrounding these two violent situations, but I feel that one of the reasons it's easier with athletes is that we strip them of some of their humanity. Pay attention next time a knee gets blown out or an ankle is snapped and you'll likely notice the commentators fetishizing the moment. They warn you to look away if you're squeamish, but those who aren't continue groaning over over several replays.

I'm stretching a bit to make a point, I would not dispute that scientists and statisticians have a lot of truth to contribute to the world--and definitely to the sports world. But so do poets. And the poets are dying. I'm afraid that we are exchanging poetry for science. We're choosing the easily digestible, testable, and reducible over the human element and ultimately over our deeper, personal selves.

The result of statistical gluttony as I see it is that the numbers obfuscate the human person. Thus, the numbers always lie.

p.s. I read very little sports journalism, but if there's one sportswriter poet--that is, a writer most interested in human narrative and not in #0-9--his name is Brian Phillips of Grantland and Run of Play. Read him. His piece on the Iditarod is beautiful. Not coincidentally, he likes to write about two sports less permeated with the statistical preoccupation (tennis and soccer).

Wednesday, June 26, 2013


When we arrived at the top I heard no words. I heard air rushing into lungs. I heard "hhhhhhhhhhhh!!" and "ohhhhhhhhhhhhh" and then--


Some stood for a time; others sat. Eventually, every one of us had settled into a place. And there we were silent for almost five minutes. Ten if you count the slow, individual ascents to the rock.

There is rarely silence among gathered people--especially in this raucous group.  We are not engineered to sit together and not speak. It felt like a miracle walking a tightrope. The slightest sway and *poof* into a cloud of dreams.

It started at the base of the climb through the forest: we could hear a congo or howler monkey up in the trees above us right about where the rock is. As we entered the woods and continued upward, it became clear to all that treading lightly might just keep him in range of sight once we got closer. As we neared the rock the howls grew in intensity until we were nearly directly under the ruckus. We quietly scaled the face that opens up to a massive view of San Ramón and the Central Valley. Once above, we seemed to have forgotten the congo and perhaps the beast itself recognized the delicateness of the moment.

We stood and sat gawking at the breadth of what lie before us. Five weeks of families, parties, Imperial, classes, friends, and what certainly had become our home was there down below in a living postcard. A melancholy, beauty, victory, saudade of place. It felt like a mini, unspoken goodbye. We were far enough removed to be able to look at it for what it was, a small place we had come to love and now must leave shortly, yet close enough to see it alive in the way we know it to be.

One of the students remarked: "The clouds move slowly up here." I would respond that they always move slowly if we're paying the right kind of attention. And that, in a whisper, is the deep truth of this place, of what coming here means, of what travel is and can show us, of what I really mean by "new air".

At home we don't often look closely at the clouds and we don't often breathe the air with intention. We live expecting that we will see only what we have always seen and nothing more. But, transported to a new environment we see the same world through new lenses. We don't merely see, we look. We don't only hear, we listen. We try to find what it is that makes this newness so palpable when it is, after all, just other faces with eyes-nose-mouth, other buildings of concrete, other smokey tail pipes. The clouds are moving the same speed they always do; it's us that have slowed down.

The reality behind it is that all the wonder of new air, new people, new ways of life is a fallacy. None of it is new in this place. Only we are. I like to think that some of this is what was dawning on us during those silent minutes.

Praise God for when words become unnecessary.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Two Lights

This is my journal for today. See how neatly I started on a little thought? You can tell by how messy it gets about halfway through that my pen was struggling to keep pace with my head.

This notebook is my all-purpose enabler of an obsessive compulsion for writing everything down. I write meetings, I write phone numbers, I write journal entries, prayers, poems, blog ideas, drawings, lesson plans, check lists. I bought it in late November 2010 and have amassed 2.5 years of everything I've done written in my frantic (but artful?) shorthand. If it lasts to the end of 2013 I will be pleased.

Today I had a thought, a very happy thought. I realized that I was able to do two things in the last week that revived my spirit in this far place: playing piano at the museum where we have afternoon class, and mincing several cloves of garlic during a student cooking session yesterday. Here is some of what I wrote as the thoughts poured in/out:

"These two things are very related because they are tangible things. They are creative things. They are things I miss badly. What is it about them that is so satisfying? I think it is the simple seeing of a thing (i.e. garlic cloves, piano keys) and then the changing of that thing to make something out of it through the transformative process of creation. Piano keys they are not anymore: they are music. Cloves, no longer: minced, flavor-giving garlic. I take them from where they are and together we arrive at their purpose. Potential to kinetic--I am Physics. I am a force of reason and spirit descending on them. Cooking is music, too. It is bringing disparate, sometimes dissonant elements into harmony by creative, intelligent incision. Taste is like music, too. A sorbet is Katy Perry's latest pop anthem. A fresh salad, a sprightly waltz. The orchestra is here--I conduct. I whip my arms into a fury drawing out the crescendo of spices. I fade down the blaring brass...or onion. I coax the life out of basil leaves, a flourish of strings."

When I sat down to the piano I played through Daniel Johnston's "Held the hand". One of the students was there with me, so I sang it for her. It's a devastating progression of chords (not to mention the words and melody) with the abrupt, whimsical mood shifts that are present even in his darkest songs. It wasn't the same as being in my apartment with my keyboard, but in the same abstract sense as above it was still a row of keys giving birth to song (with my help).

When I realized we would need garlic for the gallo pinto I volunteered loudly to cut it. A clove of garlic is a small thing already, and the activity of making that clove into tiny, tiny bits of itself is what I love. It's work with hands, it's simple concentration on a simple task, it's raise-and-cut, raise-and-cut. That there was a decent knife made it three minutes of long-needed therapy. I could have kept on cutting my whole way through the head, but six cloves was enough and so I had to hang up the knife for another couple of weeks.

I'll probably get minced garlic all over my keyboard and guitar the day I get home.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

China and Costa Rica

Reading on the way to Puerto Viejo

Since 2007 China has given Costa Rica hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid, autos, medical equipment and this sparkling national stadium. I thought many would be interested in this burgeoning odd-couple relationship between the two nations, and so I'm translating an opinion piece from the paper La Nación from Friday, June 13 about a recent agreement to let China build an oil refinery on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast. China's recent interest in Costa Rica is no doubt based on its growing need for resources and allies in new regions of the world. The article highlights the fears many Ticos share about what ultimate cost Costa Rica will be asked to pay for all of this kindness from the Chinese. The coercion of the little guy by the big guy hasn't changed much since 1492--it's just become more diplomatic.

"China: money Costa Rica pays for"

In this refinery project we are not talking about donations, aid, or concessions from China to Costa Rica. None of the above are necessary for international agreements, of course, but it should be clear from the start when they are or aren't involved. What we're dealing with is two associates making a business deal in which, as in any such deal, each party, if it is marginally intelligent, will try to gain the most it can. This current deal is nearing $1.5 billion or 3.5% of the national GDP. As a result of the project, a foreign power controlled by a dictatorship with global imperial ambitions will be, via his national businesses, co-owner of assets whose operation is part of a monopoly that will oversee a strategic area of national development.

But the truly absurd part of the refinery deal between Recope [Refinados Costarricenses de Petróleo--Costa Rican Refined Petroleum] and the China National Petroleum Corporation is that everything--absolutely everything--has been decided, controlled and executed by the foreign power. Subsidiaries of the CNPC have conducted the feasibility studies as well as overseeing the design, the size and other characteristics of the project--all without soliciting bids or approval of government accounting offices and with massive conflicts of interest in which the CNPC is judge, jury and executioner. All of this, remember, is at market cost. No gifts to Costa Rica this time.

On the 30th of May La Nación reported that Recope informed that a subsidiary of the CNPC would be in charge of construction. Just like that! Another conflict of interest. No bidding process like there should be when dealing with state institutions. That subsidiary is the China Petroleum Engineering and Construction Corporation (CPECC), the very company that, by means of one of its own arms (CEI), participated in the review of the feasibility studies and recommended the project be carried out!

And do you know, Costa Ricans, who may supervise the construction of the refinery? Personnel from another subsidiary of the CNPC. Amazingly, the CNPC will "supervise" itself as it builds! This in spite of the fact that dozens and dozens of world class businesses without links to the CNPC are available for the same services.

Also, we know that that the CPECC will need $1.3 billion to build the refinery. Experts believe that a refinery capable of processing 65,000 barrels is only profitable if its cost is less than $900 million. The fact that the CNPC itself will build it all explains the high price: the CNPC doesn't care about the excessive cost because one of its own subsidiaries will get the contract. What it overpays on one end it overcharges for on the other. For Recope, and by extension, all Costa Ricans, the equation is different: what we overpay for on one end is gone forever.

But here's the cherry on top: upon announcing that the subsidiary CPECC of the CNPC will charge $1.3 billion to build the refinery, the CEO of Recope, Jorge Villalobos, declared that "CPECC's offer is what we expected..." Essentially, the one man who ought to defend national interests declares that the price is fine for a project equaling 3.5% of the national GDP where no bidding process has occurred.

It is hard to find a worse business "strategy". With that statement any bargaining opportunity was lost. If this is how Villalobos manages his private enterprises--pay what they charge!--he is welcome to anger his descendants and inheritors, but Villalobos administers resources that are not his own but those of the whole country, and he should defend them with his life. Beyond that, this attitude underlines what we already know: in this unfortunate deal, China has decided everything, absolutely everything, and the Costa Rican government (just like during the Banana Republic days) obeys and pays what is charged them.

The fact that the president hasn't fired Villalobos still shows that there are reasons that this administration, just like the previous, has bent over backwards to accomodate all that China asks. In my mind, if China intends for Costa Rica to pay and repay the stadium and other donations with the refinery project, it is best that they share this intention with us. Then we will understand--even if we don't agree--the reasons that they so thoroughly trample our national interests. So don't expect that this project will continue on as planned with our silence.

The way this has played out is intriguing, educational and ironic. Who would have imagined that Communism could come up with such a classic Capitalist sleight of hand business deal! Who would have thought that the CNPC of Communist China, that studious observer of the United Fruit Company of Capitalist USA, would revive so perfectly the same practices that we hoped to see dead and buried.

The way in which China has surrounded and pulled in so many Recope executives, organizers, even the ambassadors and presidents of Costa Rica, is highly worrisome, but it also leads to a complete lack of faith in the project. What guarantees us that, one or two years after construction has started, the CNPC (with the approval of Recope) won't ask for more money than originally planned to complete the refinery, driving it closer to the $2 billion that some have speculated?

Distinguished analysts like Dr. Leiner Vargas and Dr. Manrique Jiménez Meza have found technical, financial and legal anomalies in the project. It is clear to me that this all began when our authorities allowed China to make all the decisions and to charge as they please.

What we must do is stop this project before more signatures further compromise the country. The warnings have been clear. The financial offices have been informed. Let no one claim that they didn't realize that this baby was born ill.

Monday, June 10, 2013

No Camera

I didn't bring my camera this year on purpose. The only one that I have is a grainy thing on my Nokia slowphone, and I only use it if I'm the only one in the group who can capture whatever it is that is happening.

One of the students said it a couple days ago: "I always wonder if I should even take pictures because I don't want to miss what's happening just to get a picture of it." She was standing in an aviary with birds careening around, over, under foliage and our heads. Many gringos could be seen trying to follow the erratic movements with cameras. Why?

A couple days before the aviary, another student arrived to the bottom of a long hike where a waterfall violently reached the pool below. The spray was huge, the whole pool constantly churning, the roar required raised voices. After walking out to a rock to pose with the group and back up, she exclaimed, "Wow, I haven't even really seen it yet!" while raising her camera to her eye. Her "really seen" meant "taken a picture of" and so she summarized my fear of what having a camera at all times can mean.

I think the fact that most of my traveling experiences haven't been for tourism--but school-related--has contributed to my aversion to cameras, but this is the first time I have actively deprived myself of the object. I do my best to wear Tico-appropriate clothing and to bronze as quickly as I can while down here to reduce light pollution on whichever block I find myself. As often as I can I try to leave my backpack at home. All of these things make me feel more like I'm a Ramonense and not a gringo.

I fear the assumption that goes with all gringos bearing cameras: another tourist. I can't control the assumptions, but if I want to be treated like a local (and I do!), it makes sense to actively reduce the potential tourist red flags--the camera being the mother of them all.

So, sorry, but I'm not posting many pictures this year. I've got them all in my head--don't worry.

Here's one from today, though:

Chilero sauce, by Tío Pelón. That means Bald Uncle. What.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013


That empty stool is where I sat tonight.

Bocaditos is a bar that, if this is to be said of any business establishment in San Ramón, is my home. On our first year of the program I spent many an evening with the group at Bocaditos having a drink or two and reflecting on the day of mind-altering interactions. It sort of became a haven that year: the bartenders knew us, the guys at the bar knew me, and it wasn't like it was some kind of Gringo bar. We just made it our place among the Ticos.

And so it has been. I went there tonight for the first time this year to watch the Jamaica/Mexico World Cup Qualifier. I was happy to find my old friend Arturo sitting in his usual place at the bar and drinking his usual scotch with water. Arturo's a man I like because he doesn't say much, and what he says he doesn't say well. He's terribly hard to understand. He's also terribly nice. I tapped him on the back, "¿Cómo le va amigo?" And I watched it slowly dawn across his face: "I know this Gringo? Oh! I know this Gringo!" "Hola, amigo", he said.

When I came back last summer, he stood up and gave me a big, happy hug. But now, it was like I had always been there. When you meet someone and have a good connection and tell them that you'll be back next year, you know that first meeting "next year" will be special because who believes promises a year in advance? Last year was a special surprise when I saw Arturo for the first time. We hugged like lost buddies, and I craned my ears to understand what he was trying to say. This time? Just "Hola, amigo" and a pat on the back. It's nice to have a place where people know you and feel your coming and going as simply a part of the rhythm of the place.

I didn't know the man in the stool next to me and was trying to figure out how to talk to him for the first 20 minuts of the match. Clearly, he'd come to watch it because he was peering up at the TV with a twisted neck. I enjoy the challenge of trying to find a reason to pull someone into conversation with me, especially since it's my second language. This guy happened to be drinking a Corona. There it was!

"So, are you rooting for Mexico tonight, or what? I think you've got the wrong beer." (I've yet to meet a Tico that supports Mexico)

"Oh no... I just like Corona I guess. We need them to lose tonight to stay third."

And then we were off on a discussion of the qualification table and who we wanted to go through to the World Cup. Of course, there was plenty to talk about after my trip to Denver in March for the WorldCupQualifier in which the USA defeated Costa Rica much to the Tico's anger. Costa Rica appealed to FIFA that the ref didn't call off the match after SO MUCH SNOW had fallen by half time. It was wild and a definite highlight of my year. Knowing football is always among the most useful knowledge sets when trying to talk to Latin Americans. It's as seamless and ubiquitous as the weather conversation we all have.

At one point when I excused myself to the bathroom I had a quintessential "where are you?" moment: 

I was peeing in the urinal.
I looked up from the urinal.
I saw a gecko one foot from my face on the wall.
I instantly thought: "plastic."
I remembered where I was.
I saw it lick its eye. 
I finished and returned to the bar.

It's a shame that this was my first visit to Bocaditos having been here now for 10 days, but it's good to be reminded that there I have some sort of a home.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Reflections on Immigration

Nicas waiting in line to return to Costa Rica for work after spending December back home

"Have you tried this sweet bread?"


"It's not very good. [pause] It's from Nicaragua."

About ten minutes after overhearing this conversation come from my host kitchen I was having an in depth discussion about the role of immigrants and other cultures in Costa Rica. The boyfriend of one of my host sisters and I covered many topics ranging from international economics and politics to the subtle shifts in ownership of San Ramón's corner stores over the last decade (they have largely been bought by Chinese immigrants as an outcome of the lengthening diplomatic relationship between China and Costa Rica and the resulting immigration policy that has been established).

Last year I met a woman at tourist mecca Manuel Antonio National Park who carried trinkets and earthen vases with painted toucans and monkeys to sell to white folk. We spoke for a while as she discussed with our group the various items that she had for sale. In between showings and price negotiations I came to find that she is a Nica--or Nicaraguan--and comes to Manuel Antonio for several months out of the year to sell these items in order to send money back to Nicaragua where her children live with her parents (her husband also works in Costa Rica). She is given a provisional work visa to be in the country but then must return home for several days for it to be renewed before she is allowed to enter and work again. In general, Nicas are poorer, darker skinned, and make up a large part of Costa Rican's migrant worker class. This particular woman lived in a small dorm with many other Nicas who worked around the park.

As you might imagine, Costa Ricans have a tendency to look down on Nicaraguans. I remember two years ago how the boys on the street would rile up one of the Nica boys by calling him and his little brother homeless and saying, "Your country didn't want you and neither do we!" The only thing I could think to do was to cross the circle of boys in order to very clearly and intentionally stand by them and talk with them in front of the group as a show of solidarity.

It seems like a lot of the people that discuss immigration issues will only talk about the United States's immigration realities. It makes sense because I live in the US and interact mostly there, but the story above of a migrant worker class of the dark skinned could switch out "Nica" for "Mexican" and "Manuel Antonio National Park" for "Tyson Foods, Lexington, NE" without missing a beat. In Europe, thousands of Africans attempt to sail across to Spain's mainland or to the Canary Islands in the hopes of finding work and a better life. Mexico is a corridor for many Central Americans trying to reach the United States, and when they inevitably fail as many of them will they remain in Mexico. Brazil is looking into building a 10,000 mile fence to keep out illegal immigrants and drugs from Bolivia and Paraguay.

Immigration is not a USA-centric phenomenon. It is a world phenomenon wherever the haves and the have-nots sit abreast. As I was listening to the conversation happen in the kitchen outside of my room, it made me think of Imagined Communities, a book I read on this trip last year about the ways we conceive of our nation, the ways be construct our identity around land and culture, and the ways that we remind ourselves of our nation's innateness. Wasn't the implication in the conversation that the sweet bread wasn't good--not due to a less skilled baker or an inferior recipe--simply because it wasn't Costa Rican?

I think the temptation when discussing immigration is to [not so] discretely boast about our nation's attractiveness or superiority in the mirror of the other's need for us. "Wow, look at all these immigrants! We are so attractive! Our country is so great!" We say this in more indirect ways, of course, like when we bring up the American Dream as if it were a concept that is ours to control and assign to others. It's vanity, and it ignores the real reason anyone would travel hundreds, thousands miles from home, family, and community: poverty. The dream of wealth and comfort may drive some to venture to the United States, but more often than not it is poverty that moves immigration--especially for the low-wage migrant worker. Otherwise, the Africans would be crossing the Atlantic and the Paraguayans a dozen countries.

I believe that today's immigrants (the tired, the poor, the huddled masses) are looking for food and not ideology. At one time there were many yearning to breathe free, and indeed still today refugees and asylum seekers need that woman and that beacon in NY harbor, but what about the impoverished? Do they need freedom or just an odd job doing construction so that they can send money back to the Mrs and kids? The point is that immigrants trying to escape poverty will go wherever the closest place is that may relieve that poverty. The Costa Ricas, Spains and United States' of the world will continue to be attractive not on the basis of ideology or inherent goodness but on the basis of the potential for the basic needs of life to be satisfied.

If we make it out to be more than that, we're just not going to enjoy the sweet bread for what it is.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

My Books

I've taken quite a few books to keep me company down here for the long, rainy nights and bright early mornings. There's a good mix of fiction and non, but at this point in life I'm inclining more to the non side of the room. Some I've read and some are brand new. Some bought for the trip and some are borrowed from friends.

Listed alphabetically, these are my papered companions:

Is this a novel? Haven't read it before.

Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth
I like words, and this book is an engrossing, labyrinthine history of them. So much fun. Words, you guys! I wish I could eat them. I have to stop myself from not reading this whole book in whatever sitting I am sitting down to read it for.

Godric by Frederick Buechner
A great, short novel of historical fiction about a 12th century hermit-saint who once went on a journey that changed his life. I haven't read this one in several years.

Harper's magazine two most recent issues. The newest does not have a Nebraska cover story, so make that only two of the last four.

Harvest of Empire by Juan Gonzalez
A history of Latinos in the United States as a result of the history of the United States in Latin America. A documentary of the same name will be screening this fall in Lincoln.

Listening to Your Life by Frederick Buechner
A daily reader with reflections on life, faith, and the mysteries of their union.

Memoria del fuego, 1. Los nacimientos by Eduardo Galeano
From the introduction (translated): "Latin America hasn't only suffered the plundering of gold and silver, saltpeter and rubber, copper and oil: it has also suffered the seizure of its memory. From early on it has been condemned to amnesia at the hands of those who have repressed its existence."

My Ántonia by Willa Cather
In keeping a promise to my dear friend Megan, who purchased this book for me on this very day two summers ago, I return to Willa. I hope it will keep me in touch with the prairie. (see bookmark above)

A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn
I've seen some of Zinn's videos but never picked up his classic. The first chapter about the arrival of the English to the "New World" had me floored. The idea is to recount History from the perspective of the losers, and it is fascinating.

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
Loaned to me by a neighbor, I've heard a lot of this book and hope it will alleviate the eventual headaches that some of the other academic books will give.

I often wonder why I keep books around at all. Once I'm finished with them, shouldn't they find other hands and eyes to give to? I've heard it said that old books are like old friends, and I suppose if I could shrink my friends and keep them in jars by my couch I would say that it would probably be enjoyable having that around as a piece of furniture.

For about two years I checked out books from the library, but I tired of it because I missed them when they were gone. I forgot about them more quickly than those I kept and could see over and over even though the years between us were many. I've forgotten mostly everything about Lolita and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, for example. Those were two from that time period.

I really like to make my books mine, though, and not being able to underline or write notes in the margins about my associations and reactions made reading library books a handcuffing experience by their very nature. I couldn't possess them or have any say about what they were saying.

Some people think that marking in books is some kind of betrayal, but if you ever borrow a book from me please-please-please mark in it all the livelong day. I want to see what parts you found interesting or inspiring and reread them for the interest and inspiration that I may have missed the first time. I love a book with several different pen(cil) colors with notes, circles, and underlines. In fact, when I look for an old used book, I look specifically on Amazon for the "acceptable" category of book (behind "very good" and "good") precisely because most of those books are marked up by someone else.

I guess when I mark a book I don't mean to make it my own: I mean to make it feel read. "There, there, book," I say, "I'm reading you! [underlines something] See?!"

Sunday, May 26, 2013

New Air

Thumbnail provided by

My house has a patio that I read on most days. In the rain it is my place to watch the rain not make me very wet. I look at the rain making everything else very wet, and I say "not me today, rain! I am not very wet! Keep trying!" in my head so loudly that the rain would get really mad if it had a brain and if telepathy worked.

I'm in San Ramón now--day one is over. We arrived last night in darkness and drove through a dark that hinted at the deep greens that lie behind it. The students could tell in spite of the few lights along the highway that what lurked in darkness was quietly verdant. In other years we've arrived at sunrise when the greenscapes are as open to the world as our eyes.

I told one of the students to pay attention to the air when we landed, to that first whiff of Costa Rica. It's a moment that, even if you're expecting it, can really strike you by how unexpectedly new it smells. There is no smell, though. That word deceives in this case. Maybe "how unexpectedly new it breathes" is better. Yes, let's go with that. It doesn't smell new, maybe different, but it breathes new simply because you are breathing it and you are new in this place.

It's not just the air, of course. It's the palms, the Spanish flung skyward by so many around, the unfamiliar pattern in the cement, the dense rain-heavy night. It all accumulates and is breathed in during those first few breaths.

"You're right--it does smell different," she said.

"What I mean is: think of it like a lung might, not just a nose."

"Oh, yeah! I see what you mean--it's all so new!"

Yes, it's all so new even down to this most basic thing of breathing air.

I remember stepping out in Spain on my first day several years ago. I was with a group of six other students making our dazed, half-lost way through the airport to the ground transportation area when we turned a corner and unexpectedly were thrust into Madrid. A road teemed with taxis, smokers, palms, and rushing people. I wasn't expecting it, but I remember clearly how with a boom the sun hit me. I stopped in my tracks to take a breath, to breathe in the smokers, the honking horns, even the summer heat through my nostrils and into myself. I looked with my eyes, smelled with my nose, felt with my skin, but those senses were informing a deeper part still: my lungs.


It was a new country, a new continent, a new climate, a new language, and a new way of life. Beneath all of that, though, it was a new air.

We're taking it in today.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

On Losing and Finding

I am leaving home for seven weeks four days from now.

Before any large trip that I've ever undertaken there is always a moment, sometimes in a hallway, other times in the car or munching on a donut, maybe a familiar song comes on that launches a familiar dream only this time the dream I see is myself leaving the place that I am. Wherever day dreams catch me away to on the other days is a far different place than the one I felt swept away to today as I stood in the offices of my temporary job saying goodbye to co-workers.

"I am leaving home for seven weeks four days from now." Earlier this morning, had I written that sentence, it wouldn't have contained nearly the weight that it does as I stare at it now. Its reality has dawned on my week. The rest will be lived in its shine.

When I went on my first real roller coaster, I remember the moment I felt the harness snap into place just after which the attendants ran up and down along side the cars to make sure they had in fact snapped in. Against my fears and worries, I did not call out for them to get me out of there. I simply accepted that there were decisions, moments, dozens of them that had lead me to this, and if I were going to back out at any point it had better not be right before the thing I'd been saying I wanted to do was to happen. Stringing along events and dumping them, like people, would be a terrible thing to do to oneself (and others).

I'm ready for Costa Rica again. If I weren't, the time to say so was December, not May.

What I felt in the office as I said goodbye was something like the sinking feeling of immediacy. Anticipation dies away and some sort of focused spirit saying "It is time" is born. I hadn't let myself feel it until then--there was much work to be done leading up to it. Anticipation makes big events like this feel like they will always be far off, always "next month" or "next summer," but one day you find yourself saying "next week" and your guts get kicked in by your own words.

Buechner talks of leaving home and the scrap of our heart that is left behind there. This scrap we know as homesickness when we are away from dear ones, familiar places, etc. This is why we say "I miss you" or "I miss that". It is literally missing. It is a missing piece of the person we are when we are with that person or in that place. There is also the scrap of our heart that is sent ahead waiting for us to arrive where we will soon be present. That is the scrap that I felt leave me today in the office as I said, "It will be a lot of fun." Future tense, but now much more immediately present. A piece of me left and now sits on the bench at the home of Doña Yolanda in San Ramón, Costa Rica. You can hope for the coming reunion if you prefer it to praying.

When people talk about finding themselves on journeys or travels, I am sure that they do not often mean it literally. I believe they literally do it, though, mostly without knowing.

If you see me before I go, you will only be seeing most of me. Whole me will be back in July. : )

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Neighborings pt. 2


He's got a shaved head, a muscular build and a tribal tattoo. I've got a bike helmet.

Instantly, I flashed back to my encounter with the Latino boys' mother from Kids in the Alley. How do I look in this moment? Guilty? Have I done something wrong by talking to these kids? Should I keep my distance like "good neighbors" do? Why do I somehow feel defensive like I've been caught red handed?

Maybe I should have slinked away to my apartment, but I don't believe in that. Instead I saw a chance to know another parent in spite of the again imperfect circumstances that prompted this meeting. I walked over to his yard with the kids as they were reprimanded for taking one step out of sight. As an explanation I offered, "They were just asking me about a bike that's behind my garage. I don't know whose it is, though."

He looked at me with plates of food in his hands, maybe not hearing, so I continued, "Do these kids have bikes? I could try to find some kid bikes at the Bike Kitchen if they need some."

Still not responding directly to me he seemed to soften and said, "Tommy, you need a bike don't you?"

I reexplained that they were asking me about a bike that's hanging out behind my garage and has apparently been there for a while. As he set down the food, still sort of evasive of my presence and his acknowledgement of it, I stepped forward and said, "I'm Aaron. I live up there on the second floor."

He told me his name and vice-gripped my hand. I mentally buckled my chin strap. That was the last we said as I left them to their dinner.

Two days later I found him alone outside and he called to me, "YO!" (again with the yelling!) "I hope it's OK but the kids took that bike yesterday since no one was using it." It was OK. I have no clue whose it is or why it was in my yard to begin with; it certainly doesn't belong to anyone in my house.

We talked for several minutes and I came to learn quite a bit about him. He was a railroad worker before his back gave out. He has an online business now and has mostly reinvented himself. Last year he took in a friend and accompanying children who were left homeless after domestic trouble elsewhere. He paid way too much money a week to rent a extended-stay room for them when his apartment got too cramped. He is back now but even moved himself out to give them enough space to live in his apartment when the extended-stay room became too costly. He said a hurried goodbye, feeling he might have bored me.

I guess what I needed to know, and probably part of the reason I wanted to meet this man, is because I knew deep down that he wasn't just a man that yelled at kids. He had to be more complex than that, but The Man Who Yells was all he was going to be in my eyes unless I took the initiative to meet him.

The world is full of people that are not black and white, I believe. We are grey people. We exist, as my pastor likes to say, "in the already and not quite yet." We are grey because we include darkness and lightness. We are not fully realized. Our histories are blurred with a swirl of dark and light times. They are not often in proportion either. My history is relatively light compared to many, so maybe I'm privileged to be able to feel this way about people. I'm not certain, but since I have the perspective I do I think it best to be proactive with it.

It's planting season. See you out there in the dirt.

Neighborings pt. 1

This is my house. Well, this is the house I live in. You see, I rent an apartment on the second floor just inside that door and up the stairs. It's a pretty great apartment even if it doesn't get many hours of sunlight.

Renting is limbo. It's a big plant in a too shallow pot. You put down some roots, but mostly you hover, you squat legally, you lick a finger for the changing winds.

This is my first apartment living solo. It felt like the right time, and the right place fell into my lap next to the apartment of a friend and renting from another. The houses I've lived in have been great, and the people I've lived with have made them so like good roommates should. One thing that's been lacking from those experiences may seem obvious, but now that I'm doing this solo renting thing I see its value: ownership. Maybe it's because I chose this place out of my sole volition and free of other opinions to consider. I imagine homeowners have a greater sense of this, but in my place I feel for the first time that this is my house and my neighborhood.

This all stirs up a most basic desire of mine: to know and be known to fellow humans. As I wrote back in October, I'm reaching out for the first time into the lives I see around me. This is my street now. That is my alley and those kids are still there. They skate, they shoot imagined guns, they run over and ask/say: "Hey! That's your bike!?" "Yes, it still is!" I say only the first part. A recent interaction with them occasioned a meeting of more adults.

"Do you have any boards to skate over?" said Sergio.

"You mean to ollie up onto?"

"No, we need to build a ramp!"

I didn't think I had anything sturdy enough for anything like that. Plus, these kids don't wear helmets, and so at the risk of being seen as too adult I chose to not have any boards that would work for them instead of tell them again that they need helmets.

"Is this your bike?" said a different kid, motioning to the alley.

I walked there and found a bike wedged between my garage and the fence behind it. It was about the right size for a kid of ten years, which I estimated this boy to be. As I was explaining that I didn't know where it came from I heard a familiar sound: a man hollering.

He yells a lot, this man. I hear it through my open windows that look out over his backyard. I heard it in winter sometimes through his closed windows as I walked to the garage.

(imagine growling at high volume)


Saturday, January 05, 2013

2012 Top Ten List

I usually write a lot about these, but there wasn't time this year.

10. Menomena - "Moms" (emotionally battering)
9. Dum Dum Girls - "End of Daze EP" (great variety of songs in this succinct, cohesive statement)
8. Daniel Rossen - "Silent Hour / Golden Mile EP" (still the best part of Grizzly Bear)
7. Hot Chip - "In Our Heads" (bring your heart to the dance floor)
6. Beach House - "Bloom" (moody goodness)
5. Japandroids - "Celebration Rock" (keep pressing the gas into your 30s)
4. Ana Tijoux - "La Bala" (stunning, powerful, great wordsmith)
3. Spiritualized - "Sweet Heart Sweet Light" (tuneful, soulful)
2. Frank Ocean - "Channel ORANGE" (hard to stop listening to)
1. Fiona Apple - "The Idler Wheel..." (Fiona Apple-y)

On to 2013!