lesson one: keep a close eye on your basket of eggs.

27 September 2011 § Leave a comment

We can all agree that Understanding is more or less a prime directive in human relations (and knowing yourself) – that is, unless you’re a fundamentalist, or in shady government dealings, or some other agency that employs deception and/or ignorance for profit. When I travel, I say that my goal is to learn about the cultures I’m visiting, to take the time to quit the snobby goal of filling up my passport, and to sit for a while in a place and get to know the language, the people, the culture.

In order to figure this out, I had to take a monthlong trip hitchhiking through Europe in wintertime. Sounds fun, right? It was. Except for the part where I had to deal with myself. With the exception of a wonderful co-exploration of Bavaria, I cityhopped, often not knowing where I was going to sleep until well past sunset. A new town every day. Trains when my thumb didn’t work. Snowstorms and sadness, interspersed with great acts of kindness from strangers. Places to stay. Coincidental travels. International moments of loveliness. All the while, I slowly made peace with the thought; “God damnit, I still brought Sean along with me.” Yeah, that tends to happen.

The day after I arrived back in Alaska, I realized that for all the thousands of miles I had just traveled, I hadn’t really gotten anywhere.

I think that I mentioned that all (not most, all) of the students in my study abroad group are from within an hour or two of somewhere I’ve lived in the US. The more people I meet, the more often I say “I’ve been there, it’s a _____ place.” Usually, I try to be kind and say it’s nice or something. Sometimes those are lies.

I’m near ten months along after the Europe trip. I’ve climbed and fallen many times (literally and metaphorically), and had one of the best summers of my life. Physically and mentally, I’m thousand of miles farther still, and wondering when am I going to get somewhere?

It’s never enough. never enough. neverenough, keep going keep writing keep going what am I looking for, and why are you telling me this? Why am I telling me this? Who am I doing this for?

If I keep going, will you, too?


I’m told that when you’re in the midst of a new culture, there are three steps to Understanding.


At the moment, I have the tools to Observe, but lack the context to interpret, let alone to evaluate. The old metaphor about a culture being an iceberg, remember that? That you only see the surface 10%? That goes with people, too. The problem is – when do I know I have enough tools to interpret, to make judgments and decisions, because all of this unfiled information about the police running red lights and the maids stealing money and about not walking alone at night and all the fucking gates and fences and barbed wire competitions people run around their houses? Maximum security prisons, twenty to a street! But I’m taking what I know from the US, from my lifetimes of Safety First mentality, and some arbitrary Trust the Police and Trust Your Neighbors and Everyone Can Take Care of Themselves. I’m from the First World, and I’m no longer there. I may be too tall and too white to ‘go native’ in Costa Rica, but the more cultures I peek into, the less I like my own.

Maybe I’m missing something.

The point I was getting at earlier was that those three steps apply as much to me as they do the giant world of the Unknown. Maybe I need to step back and Observe my actions, and how people react to them. If they’re missing something, perhaps filling them in, or somehowelse communicating my ideas would help. Leaving people in the dust without moving requires a thicker skin for confrontation than leaving them in the dust and looking down from an airplane, or watching the coast roll by from a fishing boat. That’s easy. Indirect.

I can’t do that anymore. And I have to deal with the times I have, and forgot something sitting on the table. Something important. Like a notebook on a curb, a pair of glasses on a chair, a hat under a table – these lost things add up. And if I feel that way about a lost notebook with only six pages of scribbles, imagine how a person feels. One whom I’ve loved, or said so. And when I’ve been left on the curb, what was that like? Think about these things, Sean, interpret them. Why? What were you in such a rush to find?

and evaulate the answer. was it worth it? can I count that in my chronicles? and when does the chapter end?

My life is divided into lifetimes, for little other reason than I see years and months as arbitrary, and places and movement are simpler frames.

But I only see lifetimes in retrospect, and the transitions are nearly always blurry. Incomprehensibly blurry, like yogurt smeared across binoculars.


excess makes you vulnerable

26 September 2011 § Leave a comment

So said the tico on the Universidad Veritas theater stage, powerpoint illuminating his forehead in the insulting way only Microsoft software can. He was discussing ways to remain safe on the streets of San José, among them to keep in mind the cultural differences between the US and Costa Rican cultures. “Just cross the street as fast as you can,” he said, after asking the crowd what they had noticed since being here. We pummeled him with observations about how no one stops at stop signs, even the policia, and about the cat calls toward gringas in booty shorts and halter tops. Even from policia.

He countered, noting an American study done regarding Mexican women in the US who suffer low self-esteem. They said they feel less attractive, even ugly, in American society, because American men on the street generally don’t whistle or mention what they’d do to them in the portapotty if they had two minutes and a little less self-respect. I thought of a certain Sex and the City episode in which Miranda confronts a construction worker about the comments he makes as she walks to work every day.

“Hey, calm down, lady, I’m married,” he replied.

There’s an exception to every rule.

A hundred or more students wandered the halls of the university this morning, looking for a cue, a clue, eventually writing their names on a slip of paper, and were eventually ushered upstairs to muggy offices where non-English speaking people administered interviews on them, to determine language proficiency.

The lady couldn’t pronounce my name, and we barely got past niceties. Which likely explains why I’m in Spanish 101, roughly the equivalent to the Spanish class I took in third grade in Ms. Kasperzak’s class, because neither Salvador nor Domingo spoke English. I wanted to be friends with them because I knew they couldn’t make fun of me in English, and otherwise, I wouldn’t understand them if they did in their native language.

My classes for the next two and a half months include third grade Español, Environmental and Sustainable Development, Intercultural Communication (which I demanded, politely, after orientation today, for the professor who teaches it is one and the same on stage earlier, and whom one of my classmates (who will remain unnamed) has a crush on, and I wanted to soak up some of his stage presence. There’s a school talent show in November, and if I cannot find any other poetry venue before then, it will be my platform for a couple of new pieces. Here we go.

eye contact.

24 September 2011 § 2 Comments

never look away. they’ll think you’re weak. you’re a novelty, a foreigner, a gringo. ‘exotic’ comes to mind. someone said that a few days ago. you didn’t believe it. the central market wit hthe rotten fish and the pickpockets made you a believer. did you see the way she looked at you? I checked your vitals, because you were busy basking in the sunlight. I don’t know how your heart stayed in your chest. calm down, for fuck’s sake. it’s only your first day.

Seth and I stood in the concrete park as darkness fell. it stopped about fifty feet above us. A kid lauched a spinning rainbow toy into the air. It’s a distraction, I suggested. The red-noseless clown was in on it.

The two americanos were the only ones looking up. He kept telling me “you’re right.” Everything I said. “You’re right. I never thought of it like that. You’re right.”

No, I’m not right. I just ask Why. I want to know. And when I can’t find out (or haven’t the courage or vocabulary), I watch the irony of the drug deal right behind the backs of the four policia, the metaphor, the wife-beatered butch girl with the cigarette butt, burning to her fingers – she glared at something above all of us, for entire minutes, fixed gaze – and the happiness of the girl with the dreadlocked teenager (he must have been growing those at ten years old!), and the third wheel. Her friend. Make her feel included. Skaters with two ice cream cones apiece. I bet, I said, on a roll with my observations and suggestions, if you were looking for weed, you might find it easily here. A group of metalheads passed around a cigarette. The clown skulked off. The kid kept launching the pink spinning thing into the air. “You’re right,” Seth said again.

I don’t want to be right. I want people to open their eyes. To look at the reasons why certain things happen. To watch people of another culture interact with one another. What’s going on between the couple on the bench, who are obviously together (they exchange words and knowing glances – or oblivious ones) but mostly ignore one another, far preferring the comfort of a cell phone screen to human eyes?

Get a new perspective. Yours isn’t the only one, I wanted to tell him. Don’t listen to me – I don’t know anything. Think for yourself, but think with intent to learn. You’ll never have another chance at this moment. Jump into it. Go back to that store, and talk to the girl who just ran out after you to see what you shoe size was.

He told me he would. I wondered if I’d do the same.

Tomorrow we’re headed to the top of a volcano. After that, I’ll meet my host family, of whose existence I’ve only a vague idea right now – names and ages, and even then, I only remember highlights.

School begins on Monday. I’m in a new country. Traveling with a purpose. Education. Learning a language, a culture. I’m done with the a-town-a-day travel, cityhopping. I don’t like who I am when I do that. I just like the events, and only in retrospect.
Be, Sean.
Here, I get to live life presently. Now, I feel like the me that’s been banging at my ribcage for a year and a half.

At least, that’s what Trader thinks.

on san jose and being far away

23 September 2011 § Leave a comment

I arrived by bus into San Jose this afternoon after a week of lazing about on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, saying mostly no to drugs, dancing, and making chocolate.

Yesterday I took my first ride on a motorcycle. Ever. With a Tico named Edgar, who speaks virtually no English, I raced up a dirt road throug hthe jungle to the top of a mountain which overlooked the coast from Cahuita to Puerto Limon.

Tonight, after I met the other students in my study abroad program, I walked down a street in the big city (after I’d taken a somewhat prper shower, my first in longer than I’m going to admit to you), and stopped near a bar. The Red Hot Chili Peppers blared out into the street. ‘Under the Bridge.’ I didn’t run away.

It was a momentous three minutes of my life. I haven’t listened to the song in nearly ten years, since that terrible cover band butchered it at my best friend’s funeral.

Are you far enough away yet, Sean?

San Jose’s orangeglow is ghetto and authentic. I think I’m going to like it here. A lot.

bodycrashing in the blue caribbean surf

20 September 2011 § Leave a comment

I don’t have much time, so I’ll keep this short. My whole livelong trip culminated in a sweaty bus ride to southern Costa Rica, where I’ve spent the last few days saying no to drugs (there have simply been too many to say yes to), dancing, and avoiding talking to people – which is a feat in itself, given how social everyone else is. But I’ve brought Sean along with me in my travels, and must succumb sometimes to his lonely whims. What a drag.

I stepped into the Caribbean proper yesterday, and dove under the cresting waves with the same enthusiasm I did at Huntington Beach fifteen years ago, the first time I felt salt water on my lips. There is little in this world like it that I’ve experienced, being completely taken of control and S-ing through the force of the elegant tide, emerging alive and well and closer to the oceandepths.

It’s time to step out of myself, I keep saying silently, passing chance after chance to do so. Always it will be soon, I say, and little smiles make all that go away.

remember rule number six:
don’t take yourself so goddamn seriously.

‘hey, you guys want to go to a strip club?’

15 September 2011 § Leave a comment

Las Vegas, Nevada, late Monday night: Jeff and I walked through a miniature New York City and watched a drunken woman scream and puke on the flat escalator-looking lazywalker thing. Three fights started in the ten minutes we walked down the strip, one of which occurred after a sharply-dressed bouncer asked a few burly Tapout-clad guys if they wanted to get into a strip club for no cover, and one of them was so offended that he told the guy to fuck off.

What the fuck. Over.

(that’s fisherman radiospeak)

I don’t even know what to make of this town. It’s ridiculous.

The ghetto near the presidential streets on the other side of the highway was more genuine than all of the tourist-infested Strip. At least the people were being themselves. And the Caddies with the 23″ rims were classy. Didn’t hear any rattling trunks, either. I wasn’t tan enough to fit in, but exploring the Las Vegas where middle aged women wear six-inch-diameter hoop earrings and pink and blue acrylic nails instead of blue fanny packs and scrunchies was by far more interesting, even if their looks looked more violent than welcoming. But hey. We can all get along in the next life, if not this one.

Tomorrow I fly to Costa Rica. Actually, I fly to Detroit, then to Fort Lauderdale, and then to Costa Rica. 22 hours of flights to go twenty seven hundred something miles. In a real world, it’s a five and a half hour flight.

What the fuck, over.

But hey. It was a two hundred dollar ticket. Maybe I’ll get some writing done on the plane. This glittery town leaves me lethargic and feeling kind of dead inside. I liked driving through the desert a lot more. Travel tip: if you’re ever driving through the Nevada desert, don’t miss Coaldale. It’s a hoppin’ little town.

I’m nervous. Costa Rica doesn’t feel real. It never does until I get on the plane. But I’m nervous because my whole world ends tomorrow, and I’m entering a new one that I can’t even fathom. Who did I forget to say goodbye to? Who am I avoiding?

Well, I only have to avoid them for another day, and then I have a better excuse. This has been a gradual process of dropping off the face of my planet earth, and finding myself on the alien surface of new worlds. It’s a trip. Here we go.

p.s. if i forgot something, i probably meant to. have a good day.

p.p.s. fuck off, america. i’m leaving you.

Ten years ago this morning, I was…

11 September 2011 § Leave a comment

unaware. untold. untelling. unseen.

not much has changed in those regards.

The beauty of movement, or the art of travel, as I once heard, is deviating from one’s plans. There’s truth enough in that to fill Death Valley to the brim, as we pass by at a hundred miles an hour, A Northern Chorus weaving in and out of the wind, giving the desert tire skids and melodies to last the length of our story.

We can never make proper goodbyes. It was your last ride in a Checker cab, and you had no warning. It was the last time you were going to have Lake Tung Ting shrimp in that entirely suspect Chinese restaurant, and you had no idea. If you had known, perhaps you would have stepped behind the counter and shaken everyone’s hand, pulled out the disposable camera and issued posing instructions. But you had no idea. There are unheralded tipping points, a certain number of times that we will unlock the front door of an apartment. At some point you were closer to the last time than you were to the first time, and you didn’t even know it. You didn’t know that each time you passed the threshold you were saying goodbye.

-Colson Whitehead, “The Way We Live Now,” 11 November 2001

Colson said that New York is yours from the moment you first say “This used to be…” From the moment the city has reinvented itself in some small way, having destroyed the city, the skyline that you built from a single brick as you stepped off the subway, that city, that place is yours forever, and you are home, even if Home is a backwoods village in the overlogged hills of central Washington, a quiet, smoke-filled valley in Alaska, or the blistering, noxious streets of North Miami.

If we live with our expectations and always fulfill them, what do we have but control over our lives? At what point can we see how other people live and fulfill their expectations? If one buys the house up on the hill, in a twice-gated community high above the city, what but solitude do they have, from the community that brings them their riches? If Control was the greatest part of the American dream, we’d read memoirs of men who reached the top of the corporate world, then tossed it all away for a dose of real happiness. We create the standard that financial and career success equals happiness, which besides love and perhaps freedom, stands as one of the paramount goals of conscious human beings, and then we hear that while fortune bought Stuff, it somehow could not sum to the price of happiness, regardless of what luxury yacht marketing might suggest.

Where am I going with all of this? I don’t know. I used to think I knew how to say goodbye, and now I’m tossing myself out into the world with no known expiration date, no foreseeable return, and I’m a bit scared of it. Not of what or whom I might find wherever I end up, Costa Rica or otherwise, but of this dream, this thing I’ve been wanting to do for as long as my memory has served me. I’ve never known what it would look like, how I would set out, if I’d be ready (and for what?), and it’s wonderful how none of that matters. What I’m scared of is now. here. back then. what I’ve left behind. I’m scared of growing past it, of not needing it anymore – whether it be an attachment to a person, to who I thought I was, to Travel, to Music, to some arbitrary goal, that doesn’t matter either. It’s of who I will become.

There are inevitable things, inevitable events, inevitable feelings, but I’ve often thought that because they’re inevitable, they must manifest in a certain way. How very wrong I’ve been.

I don’t even know who to say goodbye to – and of course, to not would be undeserved loyalty to the old me, the me that bounds off with no word to anyone, that old me who I so very recently was, and reveled in being. Before I started losing things – masks, bricks, notebooks, protection from the unmerciful earth – I saw that I must continue in my way, for any other way would be inauthentic, influenced and therefore tarnished, a game of maddening pretend. I’m holding onto that me and those loves and values and giving them space enough to breath – a favor they have neglected to give me. A favor that I have neglected to give me.

If only I could have recorded this summer on a seismograph. There would be peaks and valleys to rival those of Patagonia, Alaska, and the Karakoram. I’m quaked. Quaken. Not a quaker.

catalyst: noun; any substance which creates or increases the rate of a change without itself being affected.

I am that, sometimes. I am not made wholly of bricks, as it turns out: those I have not given away along this southward journey, or laid to create a thousand-square-foot patio on Whidbey island, serve as foundations for the castles in the sky I’ve shown you. Sometimes I drop the keys in hopes that you’ll find them: you’re welcome to visit anytime. Other times I’ve lost them because I haven’t felt deserving enough to see them again.

Stop it.

back to reality. out of the doldrums: they are not my home, and I am not one for long, sad goodbyes. tomorrow, we leave for las vegas, which is quite possibly the last city in the world I’d visit willingly. however, my flight is there as well as my lost notebook, thanks to a truly wonderful couple from California who, not able to find a garbage bin, kept the garbage from the gas station curb in their car long enough to discover a newly-inked email address inside AND wrote to it – me – earning my foreverthanks and hope for the kindness of human beings everywhere – particularly California. And though I’m no master at the tables or the races, I’m sure there is enough fear and loathing to go around.

the next ten post-tragedy years are going to be important. stay tuned.

Where Am I?

You are currently viewing the archives for September, 2011 at Structured Roots.