Yep, that’s the sad truth… I’m going to put Mental Cigaretttes on hiatus for a bit.

Short version: I have a new job in NYC and it’s an actual writing gig. The upshot is I’m going to be working in something I’m passionate about, where I’ll be paid to pick up women, to be my boss’ wingman, and to write! It’s a wonderful opportunity, and that segues nicely into why I’m not going to be posting here for  a bit – I’m under a pretty bulletproof NDA to not write about, talk about, or otherwise spread nasty rumors about the project I’m a part of.

Considering that the last time I was doing something I absolutely adored I fucked it all up by writing about it without permission, I’d be a grand idiot to make that mistake twice. For that, and for other reasons, I won’t be writing here for a while.

Don’t fret – when I come back there will be a wonderful story to be had, I promise!

 

Now enjoy some gibberish ûsíñg my sick new spañish keyboard! ßð↓µðn“” ßðđ ĸ ¢ßæ½ł{ →€nł @€ĸjjħÆı‘Ħ®Jı¢⅝±⅞ª©>ĦJ au revoir!

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Dear friends,

 

Happy New Year, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and holidays to you! I hope you are in good health, warm company, and fine spirits as this letter reaches you – if so, you’ve beaten the odds; and if not, I hope this helps.

 

I am well enough; certainly in good health and in the loving company of my family, though as for spirits, I must confess those dive and soar as the waves of life roll past. I know that I haven’t written you in quite some time – I can say this safely because I haven’t written anyone in quite some time: it just hasn’t been a part of my life lately. Nonetheless, there is a certain tradition to the end of each year; a sense of finality and closure, and I’d like to do my bit to convey some of the fading wonder of my 2010 to you.

 

This time last year, I was in Nicaragua – a lovely country with wonderful, but far from home and family. I spent my Christmas with a handful of travelers and expatriates on a remote beach on the Pacific shore, throwing rocks into the ocean out of cell phone range, as far from the modern world as I could manage. For New Years I got disgustingly drunk with people I barely knew, making a complete ass of myself in front of a girl I had been trying to impress, and ended up burning a long list of everything I wished to remove from my life in a bonfire – I distinctly remember both “my ties to the country I was born in” and “the baggage of my past” being on that sheet of paper. Judging from my present position, that worked out amazingly well, and I’ve had no further problems in that area.

 

After the New Year, I hitched rides down to the capital of Nicaragua, rode buses to Panama City, and spent entirely too much time at border crossings in an attempt to meet up with a good friend and ride the same plane as him down to Colombia. Being as he had all the details on where we were going, it was only fitting I never saw him. Instead, I got into a late-night argument with a fabulous girl from New York, and we ended up traveling together and dating. (Let that be a lesson to everyone – if she opens the conversation with “Oh my God, are you still on your fucking phone?!” she is a keeper.)

 

Anyway, Natalie and I had a wonderful time, and after I convinced her to blow off her trip to Peru, we did a tour of some of the more beautiful parts of one of the more ridiculously beautiful countries on the planet. Seriously – find someone who has been to Colombia who will dispute the awesomeness of this country, and you’ve found a complete curmudgeon – congrats. America has Natalie largely to thank for rehabilitating her image in my mind: I guess I figured that if someone as great as her could come out of the country, then it couldn’t be all terrible. She and I spent about 3, 3 ½ weeks together, and then out of nowhere she was gone and I was alone again. Following a terribly overwrought airport goodbye scene and a crazy cokehead-driven bus ride north, what else was there for me to do except check into a mountaintop paragliding school for the next month?

 

I almost died there – not a joke at all – I’m a bad paraglider. I ended up in the bushes a few times, draped a glider over some power lines, and on my very last flight crashed into a tree and fell 40-50 feet to the ground. It’s no small miracle that I’m still here to tell this story. Still, it was a legendary experience, and nothing I’ve ever done before or since can directly compare. At the end of February, I said my goodbyes, packed my bags, and the very next morning took off to the airport. There I undertook one of the weirdest transitions in my life – torrential rain delay, 12 or 15 hours of flights (Colombian Airlines are great by-the-by) and then straight into “Snowpocalypse” – a huge blizzard with sub-zero temperatures. Did I mention I flew to NYC to visit Natalie in lieu of coming home? Yeah, that happened.

 

So there I am; torn jeans, pack of smelly clothes, t-shirt with volcanoes on it, and I’ve invited myself to come live with a girl I’ve known for less time than you’ve known the guy at your local gas station. Crazy, right? Definitely – crazy is a good descriptive word for the life I was leading. I got a cab to Natalie’s apartment, showed up extremely nervous she would just see me and slam the door, and instead was treated to a fabulous time with a lovely lady. She’d even “borrowed” a coat from some guy who had left it at a bar – good thing too, or I would have died of cold for sure! As it was, I invaded her life, she took me in with striking hospitality, and we made the best of the cold and poverty. It was a great time, made better by that strange sense of transience that comes from knowing one of you is going to bail out of town at a moment’s notice – As it was, I left just before her birthday. What can I say? I am a classy man.

 

What ended up happening is that I had placed a posting on Craigslist asking if someone was headed in the general direction of Los Angeles, and would they be so kind as to take a total stranger along with them? It worked better than I could have hoped: five hours after I sent my message, I received one from a man named Matt, who just so happened to be moving to LA. I called him, he sounded exactly like I didn’t expect a serial killer to sound, and that was good enough – the only drawback was leaving Natalie earlier than I wanted to. We had this fabulous goodbye; just like a romance novel really, and then she went off to school, and I went back into to the coffee shop to wait for my ride. Here’s how good this goodbye was – a little old lady came up to me as Natalie faded into the distance and told me that she only saw people part ways like that in the movies!

 

Then Matt called to postpone our departure – he’d found another rider who wanted to pay for gas. I went back to Natalie’s place, killed some time, and managed to delay leaving just long enough to see her coming home from the subway as I went down to the subway to head into the city. It was… the opposite of a romance novel goodbye. We made out on the cold sidewalk for a bit and then I – stupidly! – headed into Manhattan and let her get away again. As it turned out, Matt was running even later, and I was too broke to do most anything. I hung out with my cousin for a bit, and spent a couple more hours casually hiding inside the Apple store drinking cough syrup to keep from freezing and reflecting on how much better my life would be if I’d just stayed at Natalie’s place. Nonetheless, as a legitimate homeless person, I felt that a certain image had to be maintained – I’m sure the real patrons appreciated it.

 

Sometime after midnight Matt and I finally met up and began driving. The other guy – forget his name – and Matt rode up front, and I passed out almost immediately among the strewn books and bags and detrius of a man’s life uprooted. By the time I woke up, we were in Ohio. Illinois? Ohio. With 3 people you can swap drivers from here til next week, and nobody really gets tired of it, so it only took us 16 or 20 hours to get to Nashville, even after detouring to drop off Adam or Steve or Jesus at his family’s home and eat their peanut butter sandwiches. I took a few pictures – the best being a “Florence Y’all” water tower in Florence, and a street sign with Church going one way and Gay the other. Also, Matt pointed out the eye of Sauron on a local high rise. Finally, we found the Music City hostel, and made ourselves at home.

 

Nashville was a treat – country music Mecca, busking musicians everywhere, country dancing, swing bands, and we happened to pull into town right as the biggest college basketball conference tournament I’ve ever personally seen rolled into the city. Every night it was dance parties, every day strange adventures and surprisingly awesome Mexican food. With the foreign travelers and artists and drifters, I felt right at home. Matt and I enjoyed it all so much that we barely made it out of town with money enough for gas!

 

Lacking funds, food, and with my randomly-imposed March 17th deadline fast approaching, we booked it across the country. If you consider the 12 or so hours we spent at the home of the always-hospitable Becky and Seth in Durant as “on pause”, then it took us just under 48 hours to drive from Nashville to Venice Beach, where Matt and I parted ways forever friends. Speaking of friends, one of my best buddies Rad drove wayyy out of his daily life to come pick me up and buy me dinner that first night, and the gratitude I felt I still feel now. A friend will give you ride, but only a true best friend will come pick you up, tell you that you stink so badly that he’s not allowing you to go to a restaurant, and then buy you pizza! I spent the night with Chad and Rad, their respective girlfriends, and the infamous Jake motherfuckin’ Wood, who I’m sure you’ve heard of. If not, you really need to get out there. They took a lovely shot of me passed out about 3-4 hours after my arrival – It was a bit of an adventure!

 

However, all adventures end, and this one came to a pretty abrupt close just as soon as I made it back home. Little aside here – by this point, I have had a quite respectable epic adventure. I’ve crossed nations, I’ve changed continents, I’ve flown, I’ve crash-landed, I’ve met a girl, fallen in love, and moved in with her, I’ve made a handful of lifetime friends, I’ve been threatened with arrest and thrown out of very nice establishments. These first 3 months of 2010 have set an incredibly high bar for the rest of the year, no? Well, as it turns out, this is where the whole mood changes, and 2010 becomes the hardest year of my life.

 

If you didn’t already know, my younger brother is Schizophrenic. He’s not only schizophrenic – it isn’t a definition – but it’s certainly something you ought to know about the guy before you meet him, because once you do meet him, you’re going to want that sort of an explanation! Otherwise, depending on his mood and medication level, he’s going to strike you as anything from “slightly eccentric” to “Holy shit.”

 

When I first saw Ken after nearly 15 months away, I wasn’t prepared. At the time, he wasn’t diagnosed, wasn’t medicated, and while my mother had sent me many emails about his declining condition and her worries about him, there just isn’t any way to prepare for something like seeing your brother after his descent into madness. He was a wreck – not at first, when he came to pick me up and drive me home, but 3 hours later, when he began vividly arguing and gesticulating with someone imaginary in the hallway, it became very clear that something was horribly wrong.

 

The whole time I was gone, I had this snapshot of my family just as I had left them. In in, we’re all happy, smiling; I’m trying to shove the dog’s head in my mouth – we’re a normal, happy, family even if Dad takes blood pressure pills and Kyle had seizures as a kid. All of a sudden, we weren’t normal. That snapshot was bullshit. I had just been fooling myself all along. I walked into my family home and it was like a whole other family had inhabited the bodies of my parents and brothers. They were automatons going through the motions and each individually seeking to escape the terrible situation thrust upon them, and to come into that as I did, hopeful, ecstatic, energized to take on the world and beat it – well, it took the life right out of me.

 

To be fair, I was forewarned – my entire homecoming had been orchestrated in response to a series of emails received from Ken, mom, and a trusted friend while I was still in Panama. Actually, that moment I met Natalie – “Are you still on your fucking phone?!” – I was reading a lengthy email from Ken about how the parents didn’t understand him and were conspiring to lock him up in prison. It’s not so much I didn’t know, but really that I couldn’t see the situation accurately from afar – I didn’t want to, I wasn’t able to, I didn’t.

 

I abandoned pretty much all my plans upon coming home – Becky has warned me as we left her house that family problems tend to suck everyone in, and I’d sworn up and down that I would never, ever, for any reason, let that happen to me – driving across Arizona I’d sworn it to myself a dozen times. Yet within 48 hours of coming home I surrendered to the task at hand and started rebuilding. I put away all my photos – I’ve never shown traveling pictures to anyone, ever. Most of them never made it out of my camera except to be copied to my hard drives. My pack is still mostly packed, sitting in a corner of my closet, full of memories and trinkets. I swallowed my stories, let the fire in my eyes ember, and went into damage control – and what damage there was.

 

Mostly, I went into a tailspin. Transitioning from travel to home is difficult in the best circumstances, but going from full-on transience to sedentary life, trading hitchhiking for a desk job, and giving up writing, music, singing, and dancing all at once? That’s just a recipe for disaster. I fell apart, got a data-entry job for the Census, and the next few months are a blur of a job I hated, a home life I hated, and brief gems of home – letters from friends out in the world, free rock climbing with an old friend, and occasional escape to my sanctuary with Chad-Rad-Jake at the new “Boy’s House.”

 

I don’t mean to sound as if I wasn’t happy to see my family – I’m sure that comes across, but isn’t true – I was perfectly ecstatic to see them again, but to see them like this hurt like a sword through the chest. You never want to see your loved ones doubting their own existence, blaming themselves for genetics, or squirreling themselves away to hide from the failing family dynamic. Nobody who hasn’t been through a complete family meltdown can quite grasp how it undermines everything else in your life – we were all spending our days just trying to get up, work, eat, and get back to sleep again, and any day where all that happened without something else breaking was a good day. Looking back from right now, in a slightly brighter but still grim present, I have no clue how everyone pulled through that.

 

Slowly, it did get better. Ken got a diagnosis, new medication, birthdays passed, I got a job waiting tables, Dad graduated the police academy (3rd time through, those fucking bastards) and on the whole, things looked like they might be recovering. Also, some long-time friends got married, and celebration always helps to bring up the spirits. I mean, Ken did cold-cock me in the eye at one of the weddings after going cold turkey off his pills, and I started my new job with a fantastically swollen black eye, but we got through all that, and it’s been a gradual upslope ever since.

 

Yes, except for Dad losing his job, and my hours being cut so that I had to take a job washing dishes at minimum wage, and Ken’s recovery hitting a plateau, and Kyle’s grades, and Mom’s mental health, and the stolen trailer, and the broken pool motor, and the money trouble, and the arguments, and the silent malaise overshadowing every instant of our lives, it’s been a steady rise to the present. One might even say we’re quite lucky really – most people can’t take another crisis, whereas we’re so used to them that it’s all taken in stride. “Oh look,” one of us will yawn, “While we weren’t home tonight, the peaceful dottering old dog we all love and cherish fell into the icy pool and drown because she was too blind and weak to get out. How perfectly appropriate.” Don’t you wish I was making that up.

 

I think we’ve been cursed perhaps, or maybe pissed off Apollo or some of those Norse gods – not enough sacrificing, or insufficient lamentation. Perhaps life on the shit end of the stick was just too good for us, so we’ve been downgraded to the shit itself. I don’t really know the answer, but I can tell you that ever since I came home, it has been a struggle simply to wake up each morning and not sob myself back to sleep. What kind of person abandons his family to run off and have fabulous, unbelievable adventures while the people he adores fall apart? Who does that, and then, when it’s his turn to suffer along with them, spends every spare moment dreaming of running away again? Pray you don’t have to wrestle those demons.

 

And yet… I can’t bring myself to really believe that leaving wasn’t the best thing that could have happened to me. When I came back home, I was a strong enough person to deal with all the hardship and misery that this year has thrown my way, and still have inner strength to support my family. The old me, the one who never had to live on coffee for a week, the one who never had to fight parasites or crash paragliders or hitch rides from drunk drivers would never have been able to do what I have. Further, if I hadn’t been out of the picture, what’s to say I wouldn’t have just sunk down into the muck with everything else? As it turned out, my re-entry forced a lot of jolting and adjustment within the family – If I had been around the whole time, that unfamiliarity, that different view, would never have been what small help it was to swing things around for the better. Vagabonding forged me to survive, and it has been a welcome source of strength in these trying times.

 

Now, as the year and this letter come to a close, let me share a few future hopes and plans with you, so that we can perhaps end upon a much happier note. The holidays have been fabulous for us – we took a family ski trip in lieu of material gifts, and the change of scenery certainly helped to level out our mood swings. Tahoe is a very gorgeous area, we managed to visit between the massive storms, and the snowboarding, sledding, and horseplay were all therapy to us. Afterward we drove down to Grandpa’s house, did the family Christmas celebration, and managed to get home before family togetherness got the better of anyone. From there, I headed up to Santa Barbara to visit friends, wear a suit, and ring in the new year like a classy individual. It kind of worked – I spent the entire 31st sick in (someone else’s) bed, but managed to rally before midnight, got dressed, and between surprise visitors and good company, it was a great time.

 

My next step (which I’ve actually started already, since I’ve been slacking on writing this letter) is to take a leave from my job, fly to New York City to see Natalie again, then hitchhike to Oklahoma to live with Becky and Seth and write a book of my adventures. I’m looking forward to the coming year – with the family slowly recovering, I feel comfortable enough to leave again, and I’m looking at a job teaching English abroad. Travel and adventure seem to be my calling, so I’ll be doing as much of that as I can while I’m still able. I will have to work hard – I don’t have much money – but I’m confident that I can find what I’m looking for if I keep searching. For now it is enough to be back on the road, living out of a bag, and unsure of what tomorrow will bring. I hope that you all are living the lives you desire, surrounded by loving people, and happy with your present. If not, it is never too late to change your reality, and I hope that you do not settle for a life that does not fulfill your dreams.

 

I would love to hear from you, so if you ever have the chance, call me, email me, write me, skype me, facebook me, instant message me, (that’s still a thing, right?) send me a carrier pigeon, or send me a smoke signal. We live in the future – it has never been easier to contact each other!

 

Until next we cross paths, -k

Homecoming

March 30, 2010

Isn’t it funny how as the world gets more mechanised there is less and less room for people, for life, for real things? Here I sit at the train station burning to let the writing hands fly, and I’ve forgotten to charge the laptop. No problem – I carry a notebook everywhere I go… oh wait that’s not right – left it behind at home, wanted more space for clothes, a toothbrush, razor, the “basics” of human life I forgot to use because I’m not comfortable having them. Apparently leaving the laptop wasn’t even considered a possibility. I’m left with this rapidly disintegrating notepad, primary purposes; band, book, movie recommendations, poetry, ripping pages out for impromptu business cards. Not exactly the best medium for my epic-length stories nobody actually reads. Nonetheless here goes:

I write for I’s eyes now, because the instant I think about book, publish, author, anything at all about marketing, networking, audience, sales, money I clam up hard and get writing constipation. I’ve been pretty much disabled since I got home – someone turned the creativity machine off – in this environment everything comes back to survival skills. I see this place as a much harder, colder, less human atmosphere now; as if the structures, machines, and televisions have taken over and trapped humanity inside. When NYC is so cold yet so bustling and anonymously alive, it is a shock to see Orange county, San Diego, Santa Barbara – so passive, indoors, climate controlled and isolated. Sitting at a train station is like dreaming – how could public transport be so expensive and yet so terrible? Nobody, 10 people, at a transit hub in a city this size? Where are the vendors, the running children, the pickpockets? My threat sensitive areas work double-time in this sort of place, because it has to be a trap, right? Fuck – pinch me – I’m making this all up. Must be. How can everyone stand to be encased in their private space bubbles to and from cacoons of work, home, fueled by fast food and pushed into ever faster forward?

The barriers we all put up, the public-private divide has grown, grows still, is now too wide for me to leap with these strangers – not for lack of trying. So many people, and I haven’t had a decent conversation with a complete stranger since Nashville and that was cheating – most of them were travelers or musicians. They’re in the eccentric circles, unfortunately don’t represent the world they wander. I’d call it a terrifying realization except that just in coming to this conclusion I also found a worse one – this capsulization, compartmentalization, wasn’t unnoticed or unintended by those around me: most everyone is full aware that they’ve isolated themselves – it’s a conscious decision based on unconscious fear and aversion to risk – America is scared shitless of the unknown, the new, the different, the weird. How can a nation, how can a people, a species survive if they all refuse to adapt to a shifting world?

It all comes back to fear – every story I tell to my traveler friends, to the wild web of dharma bums ends with affirmations, exhaltations of approval, happiness at my accomplishing new and wonderful – whatever it is! Everyone else, the stationary person, asks why and doesn’t understand how “why not?” is the only answer. Tapeworms and parasites scare and disgust, the different are mistrusted, it is the sort of gap as will always exist between those who have lived to the utmost in a moment and those who are afraid to struggle hard enough. Coming from my side, looks like a terrible and cruel fate living so, but they seem to be happy, content, and they’re utterly the same people when we’re together. It is I who have changed, grown wild.

Yet, I’m so happy to be around them, with my dysfunctional family and grown-up-without-me friends because when we’re together it works. We all still get along, interact like people who care about each other. When we reunite like my far-flung friends do whenever we can, like we just did, all is right, ridiculous, and familiar. I’ve been told they call this “stability” – been long enough that I don’t trust the feeling altogether. Comfort in chaos, tranquil when still, I can’t find anything but terror in this constant movement for the sake of movement. I’m wired backwards or everyone else is.

I wonder how people will be in 5 or 8 years when I’m still actively trying not to live their lives – I mean, they find my way of life unattractive too, right? Their desires for good jobs, good TV laughs, cars, clothes, full fridges – those all outweigh desire for the nomadic life I lead; otherwise they wouldn’t be living their way but mine instead! I mean, that’s why I live as I do – the perceived benefits beat out sacrifices for me, I feel contented – not complicated; this is just me acting in my own self-interest like anyone else. These rough crashes into the broke joke yoke are a sacrifice I choose to make so as to live this life. In that regard I imagine my friends have the same “glad I’m not in his shoes” thoughts I do when I try to picture myself as a hard-working, successful not-quite-young individual – car payments, 9 to 5, new possessions – it makes me shiver with aversion, so much greater is my pleasure in my chosen life. Surely they feel the same, right? It is all I can imagine – to have their lot is almost diametrically opposed to what I want, but they’re happy, and we’re all still friends – that’s all that matters, we’re still friends.

Never-random encounters with like minds tell me what I need: I’m not alone. At the train station, the few lingering souls help each other how we can. An older gentleman and his granddaughter come by, playfight, laugh unrestrained. The girl, 3 maybe 4, a miniature African princess in purple and pigtails approaches a woman sitting alone on the next bench, starts a cute kid conversation while hugging her leg. A heartwarming innocent’s smile. Kids don’t fear strangers, have no need. It’s not until later we’re taught distrust, fear, hate – kids do anything, everything until we tell them they’ll die, that the unknown is perilous, the new obscene. Why pretend the children are the only ones who need teaching? If we’re not careful, our myths and beliefs blind us to the world around.

Ten minutes later, a ready-made example of what’s going on in my head walks up and asks a favor. “Please tell me that wasn’t the train to San Diego that just left!” I assure her it isn’t before even looking up – truth is I’m pretty focused here and that train was probably going in the wrong direction, but – no, I’m right. And she’s pretty gorgeous in that way people are when the woman I still think about is so far away she might as well not exist. Desperation gorgeous. Lonely soul gorgeous. First attractive stranger in weeks who starts up a conversation with me gorgeous. “No, we need to be on the other platform,” I point it out with my lower lip, “I was just sitting here and too lazy to move yet.” I’m standing up now, shouldering the bag. “We’ll just walk around to the street, or you can take the tunnel behind you.” “Which one are you taking?” She asks uncertain. “The street – it’s not how we’re supposed to go, and I try to do that as much as possible.” Not much response to that. We walk around the black metal fence separating two platforms – her on the platform, me on the tracks.

“I don’t know when I last walked on train tracks,” outloud to myself, “it seems ludicrous I haven’t.” I get a disapproving stare – “I’m in heels.” she points out. “Too true – not great footwear for this.” and from there I’m playing balance games on the rails and she’s walking her businesslike clip to the benches. The couple I saw from across the way turns out on closer inspection to be a pair of homeless people – their shared shopping car of clothes, blankets, and whatever they deem necessary sits behind the seats, the man charges a cell phone while using it to play country rock songs while the woman sits on a bench reading a battered paperback. I dump my bag, toss jacket and shoes on the end bench and go over to sit with them both – say what you will about transients, but they rarely fail to be good conversationalists. My foil, the businesswoman, sits right next to my things on the end of the bench – she’d be sitting all the way at the corner except that I put things there first and so I grin inward watch the inner battle rage – repressed desire to be as far from horrible disgusting HOMELESS people on the one had, and the impotent ability to ask me to move my precious possessions – as if I gave a fuck about them. Here I am, holey garb and a bag of crap, and her purse outvalues everything I own. She purses her lips and slips in her earbuds – inaction and ignoring reality wins again. The rest of us have a hell of a talk as any humans ought – the overlaps between our lives outweigh the differences, a non-surprise to everyone except those who like to pretend they’re not human and play something, anything – better than facing one’s own unhappy reality.

Jerry and Dona, the two I met, are pretty interesting – Jerry has a cell phone, works when he has to, drifts when he doesn’t. “I’m taking it easy,” he tells me, “Probation ends soon, and I’ve only been out for eight months – nothing serious don’t worry! – and I have to keep it easy, you know? I’m just building things up at my own pace.” At my own pace – by my own standards, my rules – isn’t that what so many of us want, crave after, try to live through? It certainly seems to underly my life. Dona wants to know about me, what I’m doing, but first feels the need to warn me about the cops – “They watch from the other side of the tracks there, by the park. They’ll let us sit here a while, no problem, but if they see you do anything wrong, even walk on the tracks like you just did, that’s excuse to come pick you up. If you’re us, there’s always something – unpaid tickets, little things – that let them pull us off the streets, get us hidden away somewhere. Be careful.” There it is again, my privledge and curse – I can go anywhere in the civilized world, have the right slips of paper and know how to smile and hold myself and dress the right way – I can pass undetected in the world that disdains and tries to bury these people but I can never see how they live. I can never be in their shoes, and I will never be down and out, optionless, on the level they are, have been. I’m fortunate in the sense that it’s easier for me to live and blend in, I’ll never work so hard, but who is to say that their way is so bad? I’m cursed in that I’ll never see it, too busy will I be paying off debts of this other world – I actually can’t afford to be a bum! – what a crazy world.

Both smile, laugh, kid each other back and forth gently. Both tell me they’re living at their pace, are fortunate, live the lives they choose. Jerry and I share a glum look talking about the plight of those driven homeless in worse situations – East Coast bums have it harder than those in sunny Orange. They’re not glue-sniffing hopeless messes, but clean enough, presentable enough, to look innocuous – Suburban camoflage in a decidedly one-sided war. Who are the really fortunate? The businesswoman is showing frown lines and the officeworker complexion that never ought to be found in California, while the other three of us have good-natured grins etching themselves into sun-tanned faces. We’re aging happy, she’s going to work herself old and ugly. We talk about weather patterns and the joys of lying on the beach, and she’s wearing high heels and a short skirt – think it’ll get her promoted? Think the promotion will fill that empty space? Perhaps I’m just projecting my biases onto the world and seeing what I want. One thing is for sure – I melded minds with two saints of the slow life at the train station today, and the woman next to me saw a ratty crazy-haired kid holding powwow with urban savages. The trick is realizing and challenging your own biases – it’s comfortable and easy to pretend one set of rose-tinted glasses show the whole truth.

The train comes, I say goodbyes, lift my bag, we exchange friendly wishes. They both wave at me as I grab my bag and head for the door and somehow despite knowing each other for under half an hour, I feel like they’re friends – they get me anyway. The conductor greets me with a warm “Business class passengers only! You have to go to the other door down there.” – and so businesswoman and I take a walk. “Really know how to make people feel wanted,” I quip. “Just wait until I get in that train and they find out I AM business class!” she replies – haughty indignance. I laugh, settle in to the nearly empty coach on the beach side. Wouldn’t trade places with her either.

Writing with Letters

March 9, 2010

All of this was written over the course of 22 February, 2010 – 9 March, 2010, the vast majority on 23 Feb while I was sitting in airports all day.  Most of it is true.  Some of it is hyperbole.  I’m unrepentant on that last bit.  Enjoy!

I almost died today – came within a few feet of high voltage lines, crashed into a tree, fell 30-45 feet at high-speed, and crashed unceremoniously to the ground in a tangle of paraglider and branches.  It wasn’t the first time, either.  Today’s collision marks my 4th tree landing in 2 weeks of paragliding school, and while it wasn’t my worst, it was my last flight of the program, and the reason I won’t be getting certified to fly solo from this school.

It got me thinking as I climbed trees, machete in hand, to cut my wing down once again – about all sorts of things, but really how there are so many things I need to communicate to people in my life, and how I’m absolute shit at doing that unless really hard-pressed.  I mean, if I die now, there’s a solid forty percent, sixty, ALL of the story that won’t ever be told, a lot of hard-earned lessons and truths wrestled free for no real purpose except my own erudition.  I’ve been ok with that for a while, but… Well, today also marks the final day of a year-long traveling circus, and that I suppose means that it is now time to process a bit of this madness, chew it up and spit it out and suck it up again until the whole mess is somehow more digestible.  Since I dodged that oh-so-tragic-but-woefully-appropriate death on the final day of a grand adventure, I can’t think of any better way to tell another bit of the story than to write out a series of letters to those who have touched my life these past weeks and months, some short, some long, some meaningful, some silly, and to try to tell the story that way.  Now just isn’t the sort of time for traditional narrative, though I must ask – was there ever one?

Vish – this starts and ends with you, my friend.  Your crazy idea, crashing my party in Guatemala to spread ideas of flying as eagles is what spurred my rush south, turned plans of hitchhiking Mexico on their head, inspired me to dream bigger, wilder, more recklessly than before.  Of course, since neither of us had flown before it wasn’t like we could have known that without having come down here and tried it! On the one hand, I must thank you for setting this all into motion, while on the other I want to crack you upside the head for being so damn similar to me!  Running off, chasing beautiful women, doing what makes you happy and fulfills you – it sounds so pleasant, and from where I’m sitting it definitely is.  I’m sorry we never got to meet back up after Salvador really – those one and three night stops in the same hostels just weren’t enough, not even close!  We’ll have to cross paths again soon, just as surely as I’ll have to come back to writing you.  First though, here are a lot of letters to everyone else!

Natalie – Remember first meeting?  There I am, wild hair, 40 or 50 hours into a wild travel marathon across 3 countries, stinking of road, bone-weary, patience worn too weak to be fucked with.  Finally, a wifi connection, I can find out about the declining homefront situation, say the goodbyes I dodged in leaving Leon so quickly, catch up on life.  Just then, a voice – “Oh my God, are you still on your fucking phone?” – it was so brash, annoyed without reason, confident crossed with familiarity, served up by a redhead with sexy librarian glasses and red hair pulled back.  You sounded American, and I wrote you off then, telling myself that you weren’t worth it, that I was too tired to be bothered talking to another dumb judgmental hostel girl.  And a gringa, to boot…  Quite a strange first introduction, which we smoothly turned into a very friendly bitter argument over psychiatry, politics, mental services, healthcare… my image of you as dumb bimbo dropped, to be replaced grudgingly with admiration – your story, your battle, is the sort that deserves respect.  I don’t know how, but by the end of the night we were promising to share a plane to Colombia, friends of some sort.

The world’s worst pancakes, rings in freezers, and we’re just way too comfortable – Why did we ever let each other so close, so quickly, so fully?  It worked out well, but it might well have been disaster the way we threw everything to the universe.  Speaking of disasters, the story almost ended itself right away, when my “don’t bother with reservations, just walk onto the plane” strategy left me watching helpless as you walked away – it wasn’t as bad as the second time in Bogota, but something about the way I felt told me that to let you walk away would be one of the bigger mistakes in a life full of them.  I bummed and cajoled my way through the ranks of ticket sellers, baggage handlers, and computer jockeys and found a flight a few hours later to Cartagena, one way, cash, just me and my bag of machete, lighter fluid, knives, and the like.  I needed it all, so I just shoved everything controversial into my backpack, had it wrapped in about 2000 layers of green plastic, and checked the lot with crossed fingers.

Security didn’t know how to deal with me – the guy about had a stroke when I emptied my pockets!  “What is this?” he hissed at me, holding up a new blue ballpoint.  “A pen” I told him, trying not to laugh.  “You can’t have this – it’s a weapon,” and there went my writing utensil.  Well, one of them anyway, since the carry-on bag has twelve or twenty more.  Belt, shoes, and that special little wand led detective dipshit to my heinous crime – a dollar’s worth of change in my hip pocket – and I was off the hook.  Considering I’d been in Central America for a year, the airport felt like commercialism’s bastard assbaby, and after a couple hours uncomfortable wandering, I made it into the plane and almost airborne before passing out.  I almost missed seeing Cartagena from the air!  As it was, I changed money, freaked at how expensive everything was, took a taxi to the hostel you said you would be at and didn’t find you, and just bummed around the rest of the afternoon feeling foolish.  What if I was wasting my time trying to find you?  Wouldn’t you just find me excessively creepy and stalkertastic?  I gave up trying to find you before long, and just crashed out at the Hostel Holiday, in those glory days before the staff didn’t actively dislike us.

I shouldn’t have worried – we went together like really big people and tiny coats, sex and chocolate, rain and dancing outside, rich kid parties and poor college students – fantastically.  It still amuses me how quickly we became an item, became inseparable, and broke all of our plans and promises in order to spend more time traveling together.  Equador probably would have been great, but you couldn’t be bothered to leave, and paragliding never even crossed my mind for a few weeks.  Instead, we bounced around, lived like our lives depended on it, and had exactly one pissed-off flip-out say things you don’t mean argument.  That aside, it was so wonderful, so real, genuine, and fun that I couldn’t believe when it ended.

Another airport, another city, not our primary language, the same scene – we’re late, you’re leaving, and I don’t have a ticket.  Once more I had to stand there and feel helpless hopeless as you walked through the gate and out of sight.  I’ve been developing a strong dislike for airports, I might mention at this point, and not only because here I still sit in one, six hours after arriving, three weeks after we split ways, and still a few thousand miles away from ever seeing you again.  These concrete duty free jungles – they’re enough to kill a guy’s soul without him even realizing it, like the hole in my pocket that eats change quietly over the course of the day, it’s a cancer.  At least it lets me play Socrates a bit more, wandering the market and taking solace in all that I don’t need.

Oh, and I’ll just write it here – I’m broke in a way that rarely exists outside of bad car accidents or political systems in Banana Republics, and that’s what makes my idea of coming to visit you in New York City, the belly of the beast, the gaping maw of Global Capitalism (for another few years, perhaps) all the funnier, right?  What could be a better decision than to run out of money and then come to one of the most expensive places on Earth?  Perhaps doing the same thing, except in the middle of winter, without bringing anything warmer than jeans full of holes, a ratty leather jacket, and gloves I cut the fingers off of.   Shit, I must be some sort of genius.

Distraction – there seems to be a theme here in the airport today of running quickly past with a worried look on your face – so far I’ve seen a couple stewardesses, a heap of passengers, a couple assorted uniformed peoples, and just now a guy in full military dress with a xbox gripped tightly under one arm.  Weird stuff, right?  I guess so long as it isn’t everyone running in the same direction at once I’ll be ok.

Anyway, it took me about 40 seconds after kissing you goodbye to realize that was a mistake, but another week to do something to remedy it.  I’m basically making my life as hard as possible (recurring theme?) in order to prolong the magic, if I may steal an album title.  I’m reasonably sure NYC is further from home than Colombia, a fact I’ve asserted into existence without anything, not even a casual glance at a map, to back me up.  Let’s pretend it’s true anyway.  Point is simple – you’re worth it, even if this blows up in my face, it’ll be worth the scar tissue just to see your face again, to kiss your lips and hear you telling me to cut the drama.  Scar tissue?  Fuck, it’s not working!  I really can’t wait to see you again, even if this airport, the weather, this universe, my meager finances, and the entire Harlem Globetrotters are set  up against me!  I must go now, though I’ve much more to say, because there are more letters to write.  I’ll talk to you in person soon.

Aside – This is going to be ugly, slapdash, pegged together, and double disjointed like all you freaks! (Hi Alex) I keep moving around, different waiting areas, hallways, tile floors, these godawful divided benches you can’t sleep on, stinking carpet chairs, all the threadbare faux class of air travel – a million people, a thousand bad perfumes, a gorgeous Colombian woman every twenty-eight seconds – this stuff distracts, confuses, draws the mind and hands and eyes away from their careful collusion, and I’m starting to dislike the letter-writing limitations I’ve placed arbitrarily upon myself.  Even scarier – the Internet works mockingly slowly, so I’ve nothing else to do  but pump the music and let the fingers do their magic tricks.  Besides, we’re pages in already, and I’m hardly one to back out of commitment because it’s going down brutally in flames.

Becky & Seth (Seth & Becky) – I feel like now, six or so months after we split ways in a flash on a  San Salvador street corner, I finally understand where you were then – what you were feeling, the doubts and fears, the sense of nothing worthwhile accomplished, the glee and guilt and gut-rocking uncertainty.  It’s not easy being here on the razor’s edge between lives, arms windmilling and body arched, trying desperately to hold onto one reality yet unable to resist looking back, down, over your shoulder at the What Might Be below.  Becky – I still have something you wrote, the Day after Thanksgiving in Honduras piece you gave me a copy of.  I read it still, share it with friends when I want to give them a little mouthful of another life.  Your words are so vivid, sharp yet warm, and they take me back to a time before I spent my time crash landing into and out of everyone else’ lives.  Not a bad time, not my sort of time, but that doesn’t mean I can’t miss it, right?

Seth, I’m sorry we never got a business off the ground in Honduras – I’m pretty rubbish at the business angle of anything, but your ideas weren’t bad.  When I get back home I have a couple things I want to run past you, import/export sort of ideas, bringing in goods that are too scarce to places like Colombia, Guatemala, Panama, where there is still a big markup on gadgets but not a huge competition in tech luxury goods.  We probably could have made it work in Santa Rosa, but you’ve far more important things going on, and I just couldn’t sit still long enough, patiently enough, to build up the market and customer base and oh god just writing those words brings me back, drags me into this place – this drab, gunky airport, it’s Panama now, but it could be anywhere.  Where do you think airports get their carpet?  Who decided “art deco kitsch” and all the classical muzak you’d ever have nightmares about was going to be the go-to mode of every international terminal?  If we hypothetically found that person, who’d be down to give him a good old-fashioned chain-gang beating with me?

I never thought I could get so OVER Western culture, but I did – that happened somewhere, sometime, and now it’s too far gone for my own good.  Four minutes off the plane, I’m getting pushed by fat, stupid, rude Americans in their rush to go into Subway and insult some locals.  Fuck, I hate these people – it’s not everyone – there are a lot of good, normal, smart Americans in the world, and you meet them all the time while traveling.  The problem is that the greasy porkfuckers that the entire world (really, the entire world!) associates with Americans are so obnoxious, toxic, caustic, so easily hateable that they act as a sort of force-multiplier effect unto themselves.  One of them quickly becomes the loudest, most obvious, mostly cellulose, cultural and genetic embarrassment in the entire time zone, and from then on there’s no way to avoid or ignore their presence!

“Hey, girl!” one gargles at the overworked fast food slave, “Gimme oneuh dem sammiches, whatchacallit, polo.  No, no, not that one, jesus, lissename!  Polo, you know, chikkin!” Cue arm flapping.

No joke – this happened.  I saw it.  Everyone saw it.  Some thirty people stopped and watched the American doing the chicken dance and butchering Spanish while she muttered about how incompetent the poor Panamanian girl on the other side of the counter is.  What in the fuck is that!?  Who comes to Central America with no Spanish, then openly starts insulting everyone who can’t communicate with them?  Why does nearly everyone I see doing this sort of shit have to be from the same place as me?  I’m sick of telling people where I come from and getting reactions from “oh.” to “ugh, I’m sorry,” to my favorite, the abrupt turn around and walk away.  I didn’t choose to be from the place that rapes the world’s poor!

Anyway, I was going somewhere else with this, and it was mainly in the direction of not realizing just how heavy, all-consuming, terrifying yet liberating it is to be on the very cusp of going back home.  I know it won’t be easy, that I’ll do a spiral dive into the ground most likely, that adjusting and accepting and compromising will suck the life out, but I also know that you both have done it, gone there and come back, and I think you’re still yourselves, holding out for what you love, doing what you think is important.  Right guys?  Right?!  Please let me be right…  It’s a pretty fairy tale I use to keep myself sane, so even if it isn’t, don’t tell me Santa Claus doesn’t exist just yet – I couldn’t take it just now.

What I want to tell you both is that I love you so much, you were my friends when very few people were, you played a huge part of my safety net through the hard times, let me tag along as I was finding my feet, and when it came time to stumble off and survive on my own in these strange lands, you were there to cheer and make every day we had together the more beautiful.  I treasure our times together, living in your funky house, cooking, climbing that crazy mountain, hitching all over the West, the way you just smiled when Sjoerd and I took off for months and left you holding all of our things.  Talks over tea, pastels, crepes, TS Elliot, the way you let me drag you down into sin and crazy stupid games and never stopped laughing, Seth’s crazy-genius inventions, Becky’s paintings, that hammock-slinging game where you hit your body on the wall on purpose, yoga, and sleeping sick as a dog on your Ninja Turtle sheets – you two have been some of the best friends I could ever ask for.  I never meant to drift so far out of touch, still don’t want to, and I guess this is partly my way of reaching back out to you both.  Perhaps it’ll be easier to communicate once I’m back home, probably it won’t, but I’ll make the effort if you’ll do the same!  Much love, and I’m sure we’ll meet again soon.

Sjoerd – Hatford Doma (Godverdomme) buddy!  Where have you been all my life?  I think as long as I’m handing out blame for the situation I’m in, you have to get a lot of the credit.  It was you, after all, who said “Hey, lets hitchhike to San Jose, Costa Rica” when we were blind drunk after the Rivera wedding, and overnight changed our path from Guatemala, Belize, Mexico to 180* south and the best times of my life.  Without that one crazy night who knows where we would be?  Well, you would probably be right back where you are now, to be fair, but I might be dead in a ditch in Mexico, long-since home, or still living in Honduras, or… well it doesn’t matter where I might be, because right now I’m here, that airport thing I keep talking about, surrounded by well-dressed travelers with scowls and too many bags, and I can’t stop laughing inside and smiling outside as I think of how well things worked out.

I will say this one thing – you should have brought the trumpet!  That two-day trip, dance party and wedding, turned into one of the best adventures of my entire life, and without you I could never have done it.  We have this great personality overlap, where one of us says something godawful stupid, like “hey, let’s go see if we can live on an abandoned prison island” and then the other says “yeah, that sounds great,” and then we’re stuck in a creepy building that smells like batshit and ghosts and oh-dear-jesus-why-is-that-doll-nailed-over-the-doorway?!  We made a fabulous traveling team, just as we made a great kitchen-bar-drinking team.  I still wish Dan had come with us for some of the fun bits – poor guy only got the hard work and missed out on most of the really great stuff!  Still, three is a crowd for hitching, so perhaps it worked out for the best – I don’t know, never do, but what I am sure of is that you helped set me onto this crazy path of adventurous wild living and I owe you the world for it!

We really need to stop chasing the same women though, especially if we end up traveling together again, which we definitely ought to.  The drive-across-Africa plan was a good one, even if we dreamt it up over rum and karaoke in Leon – oh man, I wish you’d been in Leon some of the later times I stayed there!  There were such good crowds, entire schools of Norwegians that somehow we didn’t meet the first times, Dutch people everywhere, a live music scene, dancing and parties and friendships we barely scratched the surface of.  Come back sometime, and tell me when you do, so we can get out there and live wild again.  I didn’t think I could make such a lifetime friend in so little time, over such awful jobs and such poverty as we chose to live in!  The Casa Kiwi – I’ll have to work hard to find a worse job than that – remember the day we both quit and Chaz started chasing cows and hitting them with sticks because she was so angry at us?  That’s a whole other crazy saga I need to write up, and perhaps now that I’m not living an adventure a day I’ll have time to do just that.  Until we next meet, this Black Label is for you my friend!

X – Yeah, I guess I’ve stuck with the single letter motif too long to use any of your seventeen given names, but I think you like it better this way.  When I think about it, you were my first friend after I left – thought Randy was, but the whole trying to punch me in the face thing cured me of that – and I owe you a lot from our short time together.  I wasn’t prepared for life in Honduras, didn’t have the language, nearly none of the skills, and I came into that program with nothing comparable – no international travel, no exposure to other cultures, nothing at all – straight from spoiled US life (and to think, I used to believe I had it rough!) right into the Cerrato family homestead.  I would have freaked out a good deal more if I hadn’t had you to give the whole thing a sheen of relative normalcy.  Seven people in three-ish rooms?  Tortillas with mantequilla for breakfast? Bucket baths?  Nothing too difficult when I’ve a friend who seems to be better than me at absolutely everything, and not only that, enjoys it too.

Small wonder I was so enamored of you in the early months, and even smaller wonder you weren’t exactly about to return the same feelings.  I only feel bad that things got weird after I was thrown out and had to fend for myself.  I never asked you to interject yourself between the WatSan team’s politics and my own situation, but like a true friend you did anyway, even as it hurt you.  Thank you for trying, even if there wasn’t much hope of my salvation or return to the cool kids’ club!  When did it begin to feel like you were taking care of me?  Probably well before it began to show through – you’re strong, moreso every time I see you, which, incidentally might not be for a while, considering my current airborne status, an hour out from NYC and freezing to death.

A hundred thank yous, X, for the small kindnesses, home cooked meals, letting me sleep on your floor, the open arms and doors, for allowing me to help out with small projects and make a fool of myself from time to time.  You’ve really a knack for governance and management, which simultaneously makes me jealous and want to run far away to places where there isn’t much of either… Ah well, I wouldn’t be me without it.  I love your stories, our dancing, even the completely arrogant domineering part of your personality started to grow on me by the end!  I’ll never forget that when the entire Peace Corps took a shit on my head, you risked your status within the program, your career and reputation and all those supposedly valuable things, just to sit with me and grieve a bit.  Thanks friend – I owe you a dozen.  I’ll be seeing you around, I expect, since our worlds do overlap just a tiny bit, and for all the dumbshit things I do, losing track of true friends isn’t one of them!  Take care of yourself down there, and let’s keep in better touch.

Alex – You’re the new kid on this list, and perhaps the only reason I kept at paragliding after a straight disaster of a first week – I nearly killed myself battling high voltage lines that first morning when you showed up, and was just sick of it all, from the technically unforgiving fly site to the people to damn near everything, and then all out of nowhere you’re there, excited and ready to learn.  I couldn’t stomach the thought of quitting and complaining about danger and possible death right in front of someone who hadn’t had a fair shake at it yet, and as it turned out those next 48 hours or so were when the whole thing clicked for me and I finally felt more like a pilot than a guy on the verge of falling out of the sky.  Lucky break too, because unless I’ve sorely misread you, I’m pretty sure we made real friends real fast – something about being stuck in bunk beds and having the same lame sense of humor?

That might be part of it, but we both know it isn’t the real reason – we came together at a time when we were at the same point, the final days of year-long trips, and together forced ourselves through the “freak out and dread it” part of going home by reminiscing, telling stories, talking about our lives, and just reminding each other that life does go on, that we are more than the situations we’re in, the places we live.  We want similar things, to do something we find value in, to control our own path, to surround ourselves with the sort of people we relate to, and have the freedom to pursue what we love.  At least, that’s my read, but since you put up with my shit for as long as you did, I don’t think I’m far off!  I think you’ve a good shot at it too – you have your passions pretty well sorted, know the people you need to break into the industry you want to work in, and you seem pretty well motivated – add in some pretty ridiculous dance moves and rockstar hair and you might well be writing your own paychecks.

Here’s where I’m scared though, for you and me both but I’ll write it to you.  It’s really easy to get trapped by the way you live your life, from the job you work to the company you keep, and while I haven’t any indicators that you hang out with the wrong sort of folks (I’ll excuse you paling around with me since you were forced to) but you’ve been working primarily in exactly the sort of industry that grabs you by the ears, slaps you around, and eventually bends you over and makes you its bitch.  Maybe you’re into that, but I’m pretty sure no, since escaping your job and the reality surrounding it was a big motive in leaving.  It wasn’t healthy, the work consumes every aspect of your self, and in the end you’re basically tarnishing your soul bit by bit in order to feed yourself – it’s no way to live, and if you aren’t careful it is the sort of work that will turn living into surviving, into dying day by day until you look into the mirror one morning and can’t remember the last time you felt truly alive.

You made the right decision once, in getting out and living for yourself a bit, but it seems as if you’re poised to go right back into the same under a different guise – closer to what you want in terms of proximity, perhaps, but I just don’t see how working in finance, even if it is finance for the industry you love, is going to get you even one step closer to doing the real work that you want, helping people and not entities.  It’s a dangerous game, because as you know better than I, once you’re in that job is your life, just like everyone else who gets in.  You work and everything else comes secondary – something that this last year ought have shown you the futility of, if nothing else!  I’m worried for you, because I see how truly happy you are now – I called you a beautiful person because that’s the best way I can put it – and I can’t bear the thought of seeing you lose that spark and get muddied up in the gears of unfeeling corporatism again.

Ask yourself, perhaps – what best serves your goals, the ones you spoke with me about?  How can you most directly help the people who you care about, the artists and bands as opposed to the industry that holds them back and profits from their art?  Surely there’s a better way to do that than finance!  If your goal is to get more profit to the bands, why not use your same skills to help bands negotiate better contracts, or find sponsorship for events, or organize indy labels to work together and get the big dinosaurs out of the picture altogether?  If that isn’t what you’re looking for, there are a thousand ways to help bands promote, organize, and share their talents that don’t require big labels, and if you’re serious about giving power back to the musicians, that power is going to have to be wrestled away from the labels.  You can’t make that sort of difference working from the inside, because the entire thing, the structure of the modern music industry is built around the necessity of big corporate labels – reality doesn’t require them, but they’ve made a nice niche that sure does!  If you want to make positive difference, that probably means doing something big, something authentically yours, and something radical – that won’t happen from inside the finance department at Universal.

That’s all I’ll say there, perhaps too much already, but I’m writing as much to me as to you.  We’re in similar ships, and I hope that neither of us is forced to compromise our loves, or lives, or our values for mere survival once we get back into the fake world.  I’ll be rooting for you, and waiting for that book too!  Maybe if I keep bugging you for updates it will motivate me to do something myself…  Don’t hold your breath.  Again – fantastic meeting you, we had a ridiculous time, and seriously – practice the PLF.  That is not a beginner’s paragliding site, not even close, and it just might save your life someday.  Trust yourself and you’ll go anywhere you desire.

Russell – Here’s the thing man – you’re serious all the time, like 99.999% pure business, pure business time, and I’m out to make everything into a big jumble of bad jokes and chaos.  We get along like styrofoam and gasoline, to be honest, in that when we’re together we stick to everything and burn.  That’s an awful analogy, please wipe it from your memory.  What I mean is that we’ve personalities that don’t mesh all that well, and that came out especially during paragliding training.

It’s a hard sport, and people might die if they don’t pay attention and learn quickly, but much as you drill that into us, there are some gaps in your program that pretty directly affect us, the hapless students who wander up to the flying school based off friends’ recommendations and Lonely Planet.  It’s great that you get us doing practical training within minutes, that we’re kiting and flying the wings, practicing takeoffs on the very first day.  I much enjoy getting into the grit of the sport early, learning by doing (badly), and making my mistakes – it makes me feel much more involved than I would otherwise, gives me a real show of where I need to improve.  That said, your program has a couple bits where I think you need to change, or you’re likely to lose a student sooner or later.

I’ll start with the most direct – you need to learn how to constructively criticize, because from your instructor position you are very much the person we most depend on in the early days and weeks, and if you’re not someone we can trust, respect, listen to, then you’re going to end up with students who don’t take you seriously, who don’t want to listen because they’re sick of hearing your voice!  I’m serious – it gets to the point where you can actually shut your students down – not just me mind you, but all of us – because you’re relentless in your critiques, and you get pissed off at people who have been Paragliding for a matter of hours.  It shows in your voice when we don’t get the takeoff routine perfectly down after maybe 15 attempts, when we set the wing down too hard, when we’re not correcting quickly enough.  I know it’s frustrating to see the same mistakes over and over out of hundreds of people, but you must remember that while these things are second nature to you, we are still thinking the entire process out – center, lines, accelerate, push up, keep running, head out, long strides, arms back, superman, correct, pendulum, keep running, check lines, forward, correct… It’s a lot to process, and when the guy yelling commands over the radio can’t keep the frustration out of his voice, it’s about the most demoralizing thing in the world.

We react to it in different way – some of the students outwardly shut down, get frustrated themselves, start to make mistakes, and eventually have to take a break.  Me, I found myself wrestling with my own brain to just listen to you!  That’s dangerous man, really dangerous – I would just start to tune you out whenever you started lecturing, not because you were wrong, but because you deliver these scathing critiques in a tone of voice that says “you’re worthless, you’re an idiot, you’re wasting my time.”  Never mind the words, your tone and body language are those of the expert pilot but of the frustrated teacher who doesn’t want to be doing this.  Don’t think I don’t understand the dangers of the sport – as your most infamous treehugging pilot I know them better than most, but I found myself on your shit-list early on, and by the day it because harder and harder to listen to your words.  How could I, when you’re basically telling me to fuck off in your commands?

I’ll never forget that last flight, with me heading into power lines and fighting not to hit Richie’s house, and your dripping, contemptuous “what the fuck are you doing?” over the radio.  Not helpful, not professional.  If I hadn’t cleared those lines by half a meter, that could have been the last thing anyone ever said to me.  The same theme played out a few other times, when I wasn’t doing what you asked – first contempt, then abandonment.  I know you think that you know what is best for me, but really, if a pilot isn’t obeying you despite obviously hearing what you have to say, is it possible that you don’t have the whole picture?  Ordering me through the landing routine when I’m 40 or more meters up, then groaning that I never listen isn’t helpful or necessary.  A lot of times we only have seconds to react out there, and small mistakes can lead to death or serious injury – at no point should you, the professional, be letting you, the angry person, take control.  We depend on you to keep us alive up there, and excess radio chatter doesn’t help, especially when it’s insulting.

In a similar vein, I don’t think you should be training beginners to fly at Ritoque, period.  I don’t see it as any surprise that every student seems to hit the ground too hard a few times there, because as any pilot who comes there will tell you, it’s a very technically challenging site.  Why did whatserface break an arm?  Why did people end up in the hospital daily my first 3 days in town?  Why do all the visiting pilots have close calls in their first few flights?  It could be all chalked to pilot error, and to be honest, every single incident can be charted to that as a direct cause, but that just brings the question one level higher – why are there so many pilot errors?  Ask the pilots, and really, think about it yourself – that is a very dynamic, very technical site, and there are a huge amount of variables – from ground moisture to wind direction to cloud formation – that utterly transform the whole area.  It’s the equivalent of punk ethos – the only rule it conforms to is constant nonconformity.  When the conditions change so much, so rapidly, it forces pilots to adapt quickly and correctly, which isn’t so bad except that many of us have never, outside of the book we read at your school and the brief videos, seen, heard of, or experienced anything quite like what we now have to deal with!  It makes better pilots of us to learn this way, but it also puts people in a huge amount of danger with only their wits and a radio line to you guys on the ground to help us.

If I knew before I started what I know now having completed the course, there is not a chance that I would have come to Ritoque to learn, not as a beginner.  That is an intermediate-advanced site, and you’re sending complete novices off into the air and hoping that conditions don’t get too hairy.  When nothing changes too rapidly, we usually end up ok, but what happens when we’re landing in a 45 degree crosswind on our third flight, or sinking out rapidly into that awesome ditch before the landing zone?  People without experience in the air are being asked to make decisions and judgments that we don’t have any business making, and worse, are doing so without proper warning.

I dug my own grave – before I headed up to fly with you guys, I was thoroughly warned.  Vish told me it was a P3 site, I saw Steve in the hospital, translated for him even!  The guys told me a few stories, and I was still dumb, young, and brash enough to head up there to see for myself.  What about the others?  I warned Alex a bit, but the new students?  Why aren’t you teaching the PLF, making us practice deploying reserve chutes, talking about uncollapsing wings, getting out of stalls and spirals, making us focus on safety and our own health before throwing us into the sky?  How about an honest lecture on the dangers before we start flying?  Are you worried that students will get scared and leave?  You owe everyone who comes up there the truth – you need to tell them about the accidents and mistakes and dangerous spots before we make them ourselves.  Not doing so conveys a sink or swim attitude, which is great except when things literally translate to die or fly.  If you’re not more careful, if you don’t teach us the basic survival skills, then some student is going to be me but a bit less lucky, and is going to end up in the power lines or crashing to earth and not getting back up.  You’re going to have a student die if you don’t teach emergency skills.

All of that aside I had a fantastic time, which sounds ludicrous after all this but is the absolute truth.  I’m glad I did the course, near-deaths and all.  I just wish I could have had some advance warning on the terrain, on the dangers, on the possibilities and problems.  I’m a better pilot than the people who learned on the bunny slope, I wager.  I’ve had more experience in more conditions, better flights, and had to think and react on the fly much more than anyone who just had to fly down the bunny slope a couple of dozen times.  I only worry that someone else will come down a bit differently, fly a bit lower over the power lines, hit the ground a tiny bit harder.  We’re very fragile, human beings, and while a certain level of risk is inherent to this sport, your students deserve a little more warning before being thrown off the cliff, as it were.  Thanks for putting up with me, I guess – it seemed like you really didn’t want to after a while.  I’m not bitter, but you really know how to make a guy feel unwelcome.  That’s ok though, because I’m gone, and you won’t have to deal with me again.  Take care of yourself man, don’t believe everything on Prison Planet, and smile once or twice.  Life is good!

Sofia – When I first met you all I really knew was that you were the Swedish girl, blonde and blue, who had made friends of all the local paragliders in Bucaramanga.  You spoke a whole lot of Spanish with a Colombia accent, knew just about everyone in that community, and had a level of confidence I found simultaneously intimidating, alluring, and confusing – combined with the fact that we never quite spoke beyond trading jokes for days in passing, it left me quite ready to write you off as another pretty face I’d never meet again, honestly.  I’ve never been one to go to ridiculous distances to meet people unless I know it’s worthwhile, but as it turned out we had a great intermediary in the Jake the crazy Alaskan.  Without him, I don’t think I’d have anything to write you about, or to thank you for.

Remember Jake?  How could you not?  The guy is a one-man party, a dancing machine, the sort of fool who could drink and dance and be the life of the whole party until dawn if only you let him, then do it again the next night, and the next…  Once he was medically forbidden to fly, (possibly due to the effects of eating a two-pound hamburger in a matter of minutes, but that is a story for another day) Jake quickly tired of life on a mountainside, and started going to more and wilder lengths to amuse himself.  He found you and your friends, got accepted into the paragliding cool kids club, and eventually dragged me in as well.

It was my great fortune, because you guys really know how to have a good time.  Your birthday party was ridiculous – from the little tienda where everyone comes together and drink, to Club Tiger, to the shenanigans at that $5 all-you-can-drink nightclub, it was a wild time.  Who knew that losing all my money playing drinking games and getting molested by drunk fifteen year olds could be so fun?  I mean, it certainly didn’t help my paragliding career, but I can’t complain – fun times and good memories are worth so much more than sound health in old age.  Tapadas, Tapados? – that game was so good at parting me from all my money – lowest number buys the round seemed to translate to “K buys every round he plays, unless Sofia is there to pick even worse” and it seems like the hands-down best way to make friends with the locals.

Actually, that’s what I need to write about here – you’ve gotten in so well with the community, become a part of their lives, that I was both jealous and inspired.  You speak like them, use the same expressions and gestures, live with them and cross lives with everyone.  You’ve become part of the family because you don’t hold back, don’t hide from the new and foreign, and open yourself up to the world.  I admire that so much in you – it has been one of the hardest things for me to learn this past year, how to leave myself vulnerable and open to strangers – but you seem to have done so completely with this group.

You were honest with me as well, even when that meant you weren’t making friends – even when that meant a disdainful comment on my lack of flying savvy or a goofy face when you caught me staring.  I appreciate it precisely because I know how difficult it is to be truthful with others, and have struggled to do the same for so long.  I’ve gotten better at it, but you’re leaps and bounds ahead of me.  Thank you for that.

Still, I don’t know if you realize it, but there is something you’re hiding from yourself.  I’ve seen only the outlines of it, the smallest glimpse, but I think there’s something I ought tell you – you’ve lost the magic of paragliding, the love is replaced by fear and bad memories, and it might never come back.  Not that I blame you – had I taken the same fall that you did, come so close to the face of death, I don’t think I would have ever stepped foot onto that launch site again.  Still, you’re so caught into the paraglider family, with all of your friends being pilots or girlfriends/boyfriends of pilots, that I worry somewhat you might get pulled back into it without really wanting to take part.  There’s no shame in staying far away from a sport once the fun of it is gone, no matter how much everyone around you wants to you back in the fold.  I don’t know if they’re pressuring you now, but I imagine they will be before long – it’s in the nature of boys, bold pilots, and Latin men, and when they’re all three… Well, you’ll see it soon enough, if you haven’t already.  I guess I’m just encouraging you to do what you want, not what makes your friends happy.  Peer pressure is a wicked thing sometimes, especially when it comes to throwing yourself into an activity that demands such concentration and precision of you.

Aside all that, it was a pleasure and an honor making friends with you.  That one night, when Alex and you were inventing sex positions on all the bunkbeds, was priceless, really ridiculously fun, and without you I couldn’t have gotten into the same group of friends as I did.  Sorry for not coming out to play futbol or volleyball, and for not supporting the “lets do things that don’t involve binge drinking” movement – frankly I would have, if not for it being my last night!  If you ever come up to the US, you’re welcome wherever I am.  I owe you a place to stay at the very least, after being my link to such good people and good times!  Here’s hoping we cross paths again someday.

Dale – This one is for you, crazy Canadian!  Don’t fret that sometimes you’re wrong – we all are, just let it slide.  You’re a great guy, but I felt like half the time we were tip-toeing around you to avoid pointless arguments, and the other half stringing you along to get a cheap laugh.  There’s no shame in just smiling and taking a seat when the whole world is against you and seems to be right!

That said, you did say something that stuck with me – “the first thing,” as you put it, “the first decision you must make, is whether or not you’re going to take off.  From that decision come all of the other choices.”  That stuck with me, especially after I took a wicked crash on a flight I didn’t want to take in the first place!  At least you warned me…

My family – Sitting here in a chilly Brooklyn cafe, with this fantastic trip winding now to a close, I’m staring reality in the face and preparing myself to re-enter the once-familiar and now terrifying life back home.  Most likely I’m going to be miserable, just down in the gutter, when I first get home, and I want you to know that isn’t your fault.  It never was, never will be, but you’re going to have to deal with my unhappiness most directly, and for that I am sorry.  It isn’t fair to you, in the face of such love and support, but honestly I mean you no harm, and wish you didn’t have to see that side of me.  For what it’s worth, I’ll hide the worst from you, keep it to myself because to show you, to see the hurt in your faces, is more painful than any of the regrets and frustrations I might vent.

The reality is that I really don’t like living in the US, and not just because I found life so much more enjoyable, challenging, authentic, REAL in Central America.  Things are just so much more convoluted, unnecessarily complicated and frustrating at home.  It runs from the mundane – expensive living, ID checks, security cameras, rules, to the really fundamental – I can’t stomach my actions, efforts, brainpower, and labor going to support a nation that does such terrible things around the world.  When I left I swore that I wouldn’t ever again aid a terror state or benefit from my status as an American, and yet here I am retreating tail between my legs, coming right back home, crashing into my old life, old room, my own past.  I’m doing exactly what I don’t want to in coming home, but believe it or not that has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with you guys.  It’s the sense of failure, of betraying my values that I hate so much, not you guys, not my flesh and blood!

And yet…  Regardless of what I do, I know there is no way I can convince you not to live in the US, or to internalize the feelings I’m going to have to vent from time to time.  I can’t hide my disdain for this system, not so long as it keeps crossing my path, keeps popping up into my life.  I’m probably going to be a negative, angry piece of shit for a while, at least until I can start planning to get out, run away again.  I just wish I could get you guys to come with me, to leave this failing empire and live somewhere that isn’t trying to start wars or rule the world.  Still, mom and dad, I know we’ve had this argument and I can’t win – there isn’t any way I’m going to convince you I’m not some sort of liberal or terrorist lover because I don’t love the nation, and there’s no way you’re going to convince me that the US is where I ought to spend my life, so perhaps we ought drop it entirely – the arguments lead nowhere except tears, and when it comes down to it, I’m absolutely ecstatic to see you all again.

I’m amazed that it has been a year since I saw you all, that I’ve missed an entire round of birthdays, holidays, and family gatherings.  It slipped by unnoticed!  I never thought I could get so disconnected, so easily, from all of your lives – the guilt tastes bitter, leaves me feeling unsatisfied whenever I’ve thought of it, and so for the most part I’ve hidden it deep inside.  Isn’t that terrible?  Burying thoughts of family, or those people I love most, feeling guilty because I keep hiding from them, and allowing that guilt to bury things still further.  I’ve been a miserable son lately, hiding out in far-off lands while you’re all having such a hard time at home, but just knowing that has driven me further into seclusion, made me hide further and deeper in my own life, in the day-to-day mundanities.  I owe you all an apology, because you’ve been nothing buy good to me, and I’ve been so disconnected and ungrateful.

It will be a great day when I can finally see you all again.  There will be tears and laughter and dad will probably give himself a hernia trying to pick up the whole family – I love you guys so much that just thinking about it brings a smile to my face.  It will be a great reunion, moreso because I keep delaying, keep pushing it back with side trips and detours and road trips with strangers.  I’m sorry for being the son who can’t stay put, can’t stop moving, can’t keep close to the family.  I know it hurts every day we’re all apart, because it hurts me too, but I just can’t sit still!  There’s this wild bug in me that cries out “do more crazy things, have more fun, get out there and give it your all, because this is all you have, this one life, these few brief moments alive.”  I can’t deny myself any more than you can, and so I know that as I laugh into the wind with sheer extasy of living, you’re all sitting patiently and waiting for me to come home.  I’m a selfish bum, but I swear I’ll make it up to you when I get back home.  I love you all so much, and I’ll see you soon.

Natalie again – Thank you again for NYC, for Colombia, for stealing me that jacket from Steve, for the laughs and the criticism and the doubts and for being real – thank you for everything.  You’re a beautiful person, and I’ll write you a worthy story as soon as I’m able.  Keep in touch, keep in touch, for fuck’s sake don’t drop off the face of the planet!  You know everything I want to tell you already, I think, so I’ll leave it here.   Until the next time, friend, there is a scavenger hunt in your room – I got bored.

Vish again – Here we are again friend, back at you, reaching the end.  I hope there’s some sort of narrative appearing here, in all of the letters, in all of the stories half-written, sketched out.  I owe you a dozen letters by now, and miss our long drawn-out conversations every time I’m sitting down alone – which, these days, is a whole hell of a lot.  I’m in NYC now, Brooklyn usually, Manhattan when I feel like taking the subway, and I’m too poor to spend much time outside.  Instead, when I’ve done enough walking around and people-watching and sitting in parks, once the fingers start going numb and the teeth chatter, I head back to the 2nd Stop Cafe, this legit little worn out coffee shop, and write until my eyes hurt or the endless cups of strong brew get to me.  It’s a life, I guess, but it doesn’t compare too favorably to what we were doing in Central America, what you might still be doing, and what I wish I was doing today.  It’s just so unfriendly, so isolated in the crowds that I want to start doing handstands in the street, and might except I can’t do handstands too well, and I’d get run over by a taxi.

I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining too much – I’ve had some great times here with Natalie, with this crazy Aussie pair named Steve and Steve, with my cousin as well.  It’s just that life can’t be the same here as it was there, and I truly like life there better.  I know you’re thinking about heading back home, and I think you probably ought to go see your family and new nephew, but I encourage you to take the same advice I gave to Alex above – don’t forget what you know now, don’t let this life fade and pale in the London fogs and life at home.  I’m fighting it now, right now, today, because I can already see that I won’t be able to live as I did on the road once I get home, settle, and replant myself there.  I’m scared, no terrified, of the prospect.  Part of me thinks that is just silly – how could I possibly forget what I’ve learned, felt, experienced?  Yet at the same time I can feel myself losing the language, losing the memories – it all has gone so damn fuzzy, so heartbreakingly vague, and it might as well just be a dream.  Without my torn clothes, scars, and care lines, I could so easily discount it.  How easy it would be to lose it all!

We spoke about not tying ourselves to the past or defining ourselves but what we have done, been, or seen, and I have tried to live as we counseled each other, not letting my ties to this present moment be overwhelmed by what has already been.  However, I wonder now what to do when the past was so good, so positive, so formative.  Is it possible, do you think, to keep the lessons and experiences without letting them guide me into some specific future?  I want to keep it all, but I know that if I do it will become impossible to approach the present openly – in essence, I would be trading a future of limitless possibilities for one narrowed by my actions.  It might not be bad, but what am I losing?  There’s that great unknown that comes with facing the world innocently, and I fear giving it up willingly.  No matter how good I feel about this adventurous life, it seems quite possible that I’m missing something far better and won’t even recognize it if I’m not careful.  The present challenge as I transition into a new life is to keep the values and lessons, friendships, loves, adventures, and memories from disappearing while also keeping them from completely dominating my present and thus future.

I wager that you are going to be facing the same soon, if you aren’t already – all good things must end in due time, and you seemed ready at our last meeting to cut your travels for a bit and see how the settled life suits you.  I admire that courage – I’m going in kicking and screaming now, with reality essentially dragging me by the toes into a sedentary life.  I wish you only the best my friend, and never forget that we still have a book to write!  We should talk soon, or at least keep an email exchange going.  I have to much to ask you – about Katarina, about your travels since we last parted, about your family and ideas and  paragliding, and other topics that will spring naturally out of our conversations.  I apologize for taking so long to write – it has been a busy month, in a busy life, but that is no excuse for going so long without conversing!  I hope you are well, and I’m sure that we will speak soon.  Take care friend, and keep your beautiful spirit alive!

It comes now to this – a coffee shop, an adventure ending, lovers parting, and the world spinning serenely onward.  I’m not sure what the future holds, or even where I’ll be tomorrow, but I am sure that it will be fantastic, wonderful, spendid, adjective-ful – how could it not, when the world is such a wild and magical place?  The transition back to the USA hasn’t killed me, and tonight I leave on a cross-country drive with someone, or someones, that I haven’t yet met.  I need to pack, I need to shave, I have no money, my hair is sticking up like a lunatic’s.  I probably stink, but that won’t stop me either.  I’m a sucker for this life – I’m mad about it, head over heels, and there is nothing I have ever seen or done or loved or touched upon that could make me give it up.  I’ll figure out how to keep going, how to keep drinking the ambrosia, until the day I die.  How I know this I don’t know, but that not knowing hasn’t stopped me before, won’t stop me this time either.  It’s just a feeling I guess, one that permeates my soul and body, mind and spirit.  This is perhaps the only truth I know – I am happy when I live the way I do.  I don’t regret what I’ve done, and just hope I can share some small bit of it with you all before I go.  Go where?  No where – it’s the action that is important, not the destination.  Until the next time! -k

Little Bubbles

March 9, 2010

There are a million little things I wish I could tell you, that only blip up in my mind for a moment.  Capturing them would be like trapping champagne bubbles or snowflakes or sneezes – they’re just too ephemeral and real for words, for expressing.  I’m sitting here in the box as you call it – your room – for what might be the last time.  I’m not sure how to handle it, how to face the writing on the wall, so I wrote a little note on your wall that says “I miss you already.”

It’s woefully inadequate, a travesty really, but it’s all I can think of.  I miss you so much that it feels like my lungs have stopped working – combined with this beautiful cough/chest cold combination, it’s about the worst feeling in the world.  Tonight I set out for the other coast – a guy named Matt and I are going to blitz it to LA, doing who knows what along the way.  I’ve never even met the guy, know damn near nothing about him, and yet we’re about to drive 3000-some miles together from your house, where I’d gladly stay, to my part of the world, where you can’t follow.

It feels like I’m leaving part of myself here, and in a way I am.  Memories, thoughts, smells, moments, bits of writing hidden around your room – it’s not enough, it’s not good enough, it’s a bunch of bullshit!  Yet, it’s all I have, all we have left.  It’s all I can do not to break down and lie on the floor.  Why couldn’t we have lived closer?  If I ever see you again, we’ll have to make sure shit like this doesn’t happen again, because it’s too real, too painful, too much for words.  I’m sorry for dragging it out, it’s just that all the little bubbles keep popping up, and if I don’t let them out I’ll explode.  I know you understand.

The Fight

March 7, 2010

You look at me

as if I’m weak

because I run instead

of fight.

The truth is that

instead of hurt us both

I choose to take

the blame

the hit, the hurt,
Absorb it all, roll with

the punch.

Just wish you knew

how much I care

and die, so that you won’t.

Alone in the Crowd

March 3, 2010

What is it about these cities that makes them so similar, leave me feeling so nearly identical despite their unique identities? Each maintains its own culture, own customs, traditions, and architecture – so many places, so many different interactions, such a wide range of experiences. Every city is its own world. Yet every city I’ve ever been in makes me feel the same. I’ve been in San Jose or Bogota, Guatemala City, Bucaramanga, or Tegucigalpa, and had the same thoughts and feelings as in Los Angeles, New York, or San Francisco.

People in cities act the same – not all of them, but enough so that I notice. They’re busy, driven, motivated to do things I can only guess at, moving through life from point A to point F, and they can’t be bother to acknowledge the existence of any points B through ZZ in between. I dimly remember a psychological study from a few years ago, where people would be asked to walk between various places, under different levels of distraction, and somewhere in the middle a clown in full makeup would ride a unicycle across their path while juggling. Most people didn’t notice it even happen, especially those on their cell phones or told to hurry. People are so focused and busy that they can’t be bothered with or distracted by anyone around them. I feel like I’m the clown in most cities – holey clothes, a big bag, this goofy grin and that stupid curly mop on my head. Nobody even bats an eye. Perhaps if I did handstands…

It’s relieving sometimes, I won’t lie. There are times when I just want to be hidden in plain view, and I won’t pretend to be alone in that. Other times though, I want to be noticed, acknowledged, seen, grinned back at. Rarely do I get that here, rarely in any city. It’s taboo to break into the worlds of others, verboten to interact with them unless in response to some mistaken contact, shove, bump. Try sitting on the subway sometime and just looking at someone else for too long – the ugly faces I’ve gotten back shouldn’t shock me, but they do anyway. “Fuck you,” the look says, “did I give you permission to look at me?” So cold, so troublesome. What if I just liked your hair, or thought you looked relaxed leaning as you were? It’s such a big deal to break into peoples’ bubbles that most everyone doesn’t bother – I can feel myself disengaging, putting my own shell up already, and it scares me so deeply. What if I become so hard I can’t let others in either?

I guess I understand the rationale – there are a million jillion people around, there isn’t any hope of a lasting relationship with most of them, so why bother, why interact at all with those you don’t have to? I just don’t like it. I think it’s a cop-out, a way to justify one’s own callousness and treat one’s fellow humans as undeserving of simple kindnesses. I think it’s a sign of illness, frankly – a deficiency of spirit, of love, a worrisome trend away from connection with one’s species. On some level it’s an abdication of reality. If you wouldn’t glare at your friend for glancing your direction and smiling, why would you insult a stranger so? So many of us, stuck in such a small area, yet instead of allowing this proximity to aid us in knowing one another better, we instead take it the opposite direction, take offense at our neighbors, segregate ourselves out from the mass of humanity. A tragedy, and yet by the numbers, a far more common, far more “natural” reaction.

Is it self-protection? Are we worried that those around us will hurt us, will sap us of something, energy, a resource, that we hold in short supply and must thus ration out? Perhaps if we smiled at, said hello to every person we passed in a given day here it would be exhausting… except that in other places, the small towns of the world, in Central American pueblitos where everyone knows one another, they really do that, really smile at, greet, talk to everyone they cross paths with! Sure, there are fewer people, but the interactions are far deeper, more open, and require a far more intense amount of oneself. Besides, I’m not advocating that – we don’t have to be Hondurans, but we probably ought to know our neighbors by name, return smiles given to us, say hello to people in elevators and when our eyes meet on street corners. That isn’t much, just the barest level of humanity, to treat others as more than part of the scenery. At least, I see it like that. Perhaps I’m the crazy one.

The second thing I notice in cities is that everything has a purpose. Everything around me, from the trees planted in lines to the cobblestones to the power lines, brick buildings, cars, fences, traffic signals… every single thing in this world was built, created, constructed with some purpose in mind, by someone with a mind and a plan. It changes how you think, subtly yet completely, to exist in this sort of place. It makes intelligent design seem possible, probable, irresistably true when nothing around came about naturally, when evolution has been replaced by creationism, when the egg came before the chicken but not until after they were both analysed in subcommittee, voted on, had funding approved, and were built by the mayor’s nephew’s construction company. It must rewire your brain somehow, to have such a lined out, rule-driven, purposeful world. There’s no imagination necessary!

It takes about a week before I start craving open spaces, sky, grass, a tree to climb. I want to see a horse, or a cow, or a man riding a horse with a machete and a woven hat. I start dreaming of dirt roads full of potholes, open highways, hitchhiking in the backs of trucks past the horizon toward… whatever is there. Who cares? Traveling and cities aren’t compatible – the former being a state of existence where destination isn’t important and purpose doesn’t factor in, the latter being a destination whose very existence demands purpose. It feels like my dreams don’t exist in cities, can’t survive the bright lights and movement, aren’t able to sprout up through the asphalt. Instead that life, fragile and real, shakes itself and slinks off defeated to parts unknown – nobody here wanted it around in the first place.

The third thing I notice in the cities is actually something I don’t see – emotions. People are more guarded, treat their true feelings, reactions, thoughts as if they are something to be saved and protected from harsh reality. I don’t see many smiles, I haven’t heard more than a few people laughing outside, don’t see many hugs or kisses, and when someone is outwardly affectionate it’s weird and awkward. My grinning draws suspicious looks. The loud woman laughing on the phone gets pitying glances, my cousin and I get eyes rolled at us when we embrace on the subway. There are so many masks in cities. Is it so hard to be honest, emotional, raw? There must be penalties I’m not aware of, surely. What else explains how hard everyone is, how brittle armor covers their emotional flesh? It protects them from harm, but at the price of deflecting kindnesses and small loves – the emotional barrier isn’t sensitive enough to differentiate between good and bad attention, and so it all is kept out.

It’s a choice, but I don’t know how many people are aware they are making it – how many actually think “today I’m going to be aloof and cold toward everyone so that nobody hurts or bothers me.” I imagine that the number of those making conscious choices is so much smaller than those who do it without thinking, if only because it’s such an easy rut to fall into – even if you did make the choice, you’d only have to make it once or twice. After that routine is powerful, and if you’re not accustomed to having regular interactions with strangers, how would you even know that they were missing? I admit that if not for my life being so different lately I would probably slide through the world as they do, sidestepping past the cold activists on the street corner, dodging the homeless bumming cigarettes, sliding or hopefully moonwalking past the woman struggling to carry a stroller up three flights of stairs. The problem wouldn’t be a problem if I could ignore it too… right?

The romantic drifter in me says “yes, it would still be an issue.” The difference is just that I wouldn’t think about it and therefore wouldn’t be bothered by something that never entered my mind. Still, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect me – it’s just like that dicho, that saying about how there are things we know, those we know we don’t know and those things we aren’t even aware we don’t know – those who put up their shields and glide through the world aren’t even aware of what they’re missing! They roar through their days like a knife through soft cheese, and I take a grater to the whole block. It takes a lot more effort, gives you a whole lot of small bits, but if you don’t take the effort to see it you’re blind to a whole universe right around you, and that’s just not healthy even if you aren’t aware of it.

I really do worry to think about it – how many people do you know that just blow right through life with the blinders on, rushing from home-work-appointments-reunions-meetings-car-cafe-home again without daring to stop on a street corner and chat with a stranger? How much are they missing without meeting Clayton from Alabama, sharing a lumpy cigarette and hearing how he is stuck living on the streets of NYC because his girlfriend threw him out again? He’s never been in a big city before! I told him how to get free meals at the Whole Foods salad bar – hope it comes in handy. What could be more important than these brief, bare moments with others? Then there’s Tim, sitting at the bus stop drumming on the bench and singing his heart out. How is it that out of everyone passing by or waiting for the bus, I was the only one to join in? It’s crazy! Almost as crazy as the looks people give me when I start up conversations in the elevator – though to be fair, I was way underdressed for that place… The point still stands though, that all of the best things in life are free, unplanned, and completely unexpected, and those who don’t leave themselves open to it are going to miss life dancing, laughing, spinning around them. When it comes down to your final breaths, will you really be proud of the time you spent at work, of your schedule, or the things you did to survive?

There’s a scene I remember in a movie I don’t, where one of the main characters in caught in hell as punishment for committing suicide. She’s unable to see anything outside of her own world, shuts herself off from the beauty of the existence, is too busy and self-involved to realize that everything, everwhere, is heaven, and if we only open our eyes to it, everything wonderful lies spread before us, open and inviting. We’re in danger of doing the same here, focusing so tightly on the finish line that we miss the beautiful vista all around. “It’s all in your head,” I want to scream to the pedestrians chasing laser-beam paths, to the blank stares on the subway, to the crowds of emotionless strangers. How much more wonderful it could be if we all just let the world in, accepted the small hurts in order to take in the song-worthy and beautiful as well. Of course, if I did scream that to them, all I’d get in response is rolled eyes and uncomfortable looks. Rocking the boat is strictly prohibited.

Still, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m in the minority here – that most people are content to live the life solitary, ignore the connections we all share, because it is safe and easy to just cut ties and live alone. Or at least, it feels that way. It isn’t bad until the cold night – when your boyfriend hasn’t been returning your calls, when you’ve been fighting with the roommate and your brother and parents are on the other side of the continent and all you want is human connection– that you get that sinking feeling inside, start to feel just the outlines of what you are missing. By then the armor is strong, the defenses protecting you impermeable, and the detachment you relied on to keep the cruel world away now do their job so well that you can’t make the connections you need… I wonder how one deals with that but I imagine one side effect is an alcohol industry that does just fine. I don’t know, don’t want to find out, because to me the true value of small gestures, smiles and winks, shared jokes and smokes, is visible and omnipresent. I can’t be closed any more now that I’ve seen what a joy it is to be open – I can’t relate to those sailing past, faces set. We’re drifting apart, and I’m hesitant to even try to interact…

Wait a second! Perhaps this is how it starts – no conscious decision, just a group feeling of isolation in the face of many unknown faces, so many strangers, and it’s all moving so fast. I can feel the allure of just shutting up, setting my face, and turning up my coat. It tugs at my sleeve like a little kid trying to get my attention would. As the cities grow bigger, the buildings taller, and the faces start to blur, what can I relate to, why bother to try?

Half of all humans live in cities now, some three and a half billion people, living in slums, high-rises, apartments, grouped closer together yet further apart than ever before. We’re so close now we could hug, but how many of us would dare hug our next door neighbor? What is her name anyway? I wonder what happens when this city existence is all we know, whether we will even look at each other at all, or if our lens-implanted-facebook-connected virtual wireless internet-enabled devices of the future will allow us to stay entertained, connected, hooked up, jacked in, completely and utterly isolated a full 100% of the time. Every man an island, with more friends and social connections than ever before, and fewer friendships, less human connection than anyone would have thought possible. Like, unlike, tag, comment, buzz, tweet, connect, network, share, mesh – how did we ever meet anyone before all of these helpful technological advances? Surely we’ve come so far that nobody would ever need to stoop to actually talking to a stranger… right?

Heaven forbid. Not in my future!

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