For me, this year began in Russia, standing outside of Red Square amongst throngs of people. After three or four the-clock-has-struck-twelve explosions of cheer (not any of which I’m sure were correct), Emma and I turned to find that all exits were blocked, so we began walking in a direction we’d never been, knowing at some point it would all work out. Eventually, we were able to board the Metro at Pushkin Station, some ways down the road. About an hour later, when we emerged from underground, the whole world had changed, turned white with a sudden snow flurry, and the empty streets we’d left early that evening had filled with kids, families, dogs, sleds, and noise.
At that point, I’d submitted two pieces of travel writing, both of which got favorable responses but, ultimately, weren’t accepted for publication. Whatever the case, the two submissions, on Dec 17 and Dec 20 of 2011, marked the beginning of what has turned into the most successful year of writing in my life. That said, it has been much the same as that walk to Pushkin Station, setting off with little certainty of where I was going, only that it was time to get home and this was where to start. Somehow I would arrive where I needed to be.
That January, I began to write and read insatiably about travel, built a personal website, started a themed twice-weekly blog, and submitted work at a rate none of my years as a grad school student or aspiring fiction author ever saw me do. In those first months, it was as I’d always been taught: Getting published only came at the end of a mountain of rejections. It wasn’t until April, nearly a third of year and some twenty-five rejections, that I finally tasted my first toast to being a paid writer: A small online magazine, On a Junket, purchased an article for $55 about a snobbish backpacker I met in Malaysia. At last, there was some verification that someone would buy my work.
The success fueled me, and in the month of April, I sold another, a guide to starting an EFL career, to a respected and long-standing travel site called Transitions Abroad. Then, another about great websites to use in and out of the classroom (also to Transitions) a week later and from there, I was off, both with the writing and from Russia. Months of sitting amongst steaming radiators, frosty windows, and fold out sofas came to close, and in May, Emma and I moved back to Guatemala, where I would sit amongst hungry travelers, avocado trees, and swaying hammocks.
The morning after we’d arrived, despite having stayed up and imbibed far too many IPAs, falling down the stairs on the precarious walk to our cabin, waking up with tender ribs and scraped toes, I got up early to do what I’d been doing the entire year. I climbed up to an empty hotel lodge (well before any guests would be awake), flicked on the coffee machine, found a comfy chair tucked in the corner, and kept trying. In June, I sold more EFL-themed pieces to Transitions and an article about New Year’s in Moscow to Go World Travel. In July, I published more, BootsnAll, settling for an author’s note and links to my site and blog as payment, an effort to beef-up my credits and further establish myself in the industry.
It was slow and steady, but more and more pieces were accepted. In turn, I began to accept that this had become more than experiment, much more than the previous novel-in-a-month or writing group attempts I’d made in the past. Though I hadn’t become rich or wildly successful, I’d managed to shake the “aspiring” that had so long adorned the front of who I wanted to be: a writer. Maybe I wasn’t earning a living, but I was finally earning my chops.
By year’s end, I’ve sold and/or published eighteen different pieces of writing with online magazines, written nearly sixty blog entries on my own website, assisted with half a dozen NGO newsletters for Unfinished Picture Project and Las Manos de Christine, and began something that I’ve been dreaming about since, as a twelve-year-old boy, I penned my first poem.
Still, I am but a sapling stretching for sunshine in the shadows of mountains like Rolf Potts, Pico Iyer, and the other titans of travel. I’m miles away from being commissioned to write things, from the New Yorker or book tours as opposed to volcano tours. I’ve never pitched an idea in a query letter or seen my name in an actual print publication, which for many—those of us who attended university more than a decade ago—is the only true marker for being a published writer. In short, there is still so much work to be done, so much to learn about writing stuff I expect people to buy and how to get it into those people’s hands.
I’m doing things I never saw myself doing, things I never considered part of writing: posting and promoting shamelessly on Facebook, leaving my secure place in the age of paper and emails to begin tweeting, Link(ing)In, and joining every damn social media outfit that might advance my “art”. The nuts-and-bolts of selling my writing has destroyed any of the mystic, mythic visions of composition Jim Morrison and Jack Kerouac instilled in my brain. And, in some part, I suppose that return to earth is what makes me feel like it has begun for me. It is no longer a dream, but something of which I’m in the thick of, scratching and struggling and plotting my way up.
In the coming year, I will grow and strive to outdo this year’s success. I’ve enrolled in an online travel writing course and am once again subjecting myself to the type of workshop setting that, in graduate school, destroyed my will. It’s the next step I have to make, a full embrace of the community I’ve joined: travel writing, like, for real money rather than a byline in a literary magazine. I’ve planned a new blog format to diversify, organized new ways to expand my readership, and brainstormed those writing projects on which I will begin the next leg of this endeavor. My vision has grown something akin to reaching the end of a tunnel, seeing a whole new landscape to explore before you.
As for being a writer, I don’t know if I’ve emerged to find that same world of white winter, the magic that happened between Pushkin Station and home last New Year’s night, but I know I’m at least headed in the right direction. Sincere thanks to all those who have supported me for the last year, who’ve waded through my articles and blogs, Liked them, tweeted them, commented, and reassured me in times of doubt and despair, when the next step still felt so far to go. I hope you’ve enjoyed the adventure as much as me and, even more so, that my riding partners continue to saddle up, follow those links, and find out where this takes us.
The day of my last blog entry, a swing into politics, the world was hit with two tragedies that were strikingly similar: Brutal attacks on children in elementary schools, one with a gun and one with a knife. My middle brother, a gun enthusiast, having read the blog and undoubtedly moved by the incident, asked me to write some thoughts on guns, though he was well aware that our opinions were strongly opposed. I considered not doing it because of the timing, because I’m not an expert on this either (as I wasn’t on politics), but after some consideration, I concluded that it’s become very difficult to time a piece like this these days and, even more so, to not have an opinion. In some sense, I want to rediscover my own.
Mass murders like the one in Connecticut have become so commonplace that there is rarely breath enough between gunmen to process what has happened, what is happening, or why I have become so nonchalant about these attacks, adding them to a list that for me began with Columbine in 1999. There have been so many incidents like this in the last decade and a half that I can’t remember them all. What’s more is that they are clearly increasing in frequency and the United States accounts for the bulk of them. Like US politics these days, the differing outlooks on this situation seems to continually widen, my Facebook feed filling with anti-gun ads and bold statements of how more guns would have prevented this. So, I’m going to probe into my own opinion, seek to support the idea that, in general, guns are bad.
I don’t imagine I’ll say anything new or even anything that hasn’t appeared in 101 articles in the last week, but perhaps it all needs to be said again, by as many people, bloggers, and reporters as it takes to see the trend change. Maybe, by some stroke of luck, my thoughts will help shed a different light on the subject for someone, for my brother. Then again, perhaps he’ll never ask me to blog about anything else. In the end, I’m doing this out of a sense of responsibility to my beliefs, knowing that, regardless of how annoying they may be to some, if I never express them, if I never stop to stand up every now and again, then I’ve betrayed myself and all of those whom I would seek to protect, be it from exploitation, discrimination, or guns.
My rootin’, tootin’ ex-writing buddy C.D. Mitchell, Arkansas to the ugly bone and man who has had his grip on a few stocks and triggers in his day, posted this about an hour ago:
Although I have never been one for gun-control, I have one question for the gun crazies: Why with all of these mass killings--15 this year alone--has there never once been a person with a concealed pistol jump up and kill the shooter?
On Christmas Day in 2010, I led a group of tourists on a hike to a nearby look-out point, say maybe a half-hour from the hotel where I’m sitting now. The day was sunny and clear as most December days are in Guatemala, so we’d waited for Emma, my wife, to get off work because she wanted to come along. All in all, there were six of us, three women, two men, and a four-year-old boy. On our hike back to the hotel, we were held up by two masked gunmen, most likely local farmers using their rodent rifles.
It was fairly quick, maybe five minutes in total. They had us all lay on our stomachs in the dirt while one man emptied our pockets and bags, the other one keeping his gun in the ready over us. Having some Spanish skills and perhaps manly courage, I had stepped in front of my wife and the others, putting me first in the line of fire. I probably outweighed either guy by fifty pounds or more and clearly the possibility of what could happen put them even more on edge. The man with the gun kept signaling for me to stay calm and down.
Truthfully, Guatemala is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, and I wasn’t sure we’d all live until the man emptying pockets got to me, found only my wedding ring to take, but left it, not wanting to go that far with the theft. They disappeared up the mountain, and Christmas was both ruined and saved in the same departure.
Time and again, I’ve been presented with the argument that criminals don’t get guns legally anyway, so what good are gun laws going to do? First of all, in the case of mass murders, this assumption couldn’t be more wrong. In the case of gang violence, maybe this illegality is true, but where did the illegal guns come from in the first place? These, of course, are arguments we’ve all had or heard since the dawning of our political awareness; however, it’s another point that I wish to address here, a point I believe C.D. started for me with his insight: Would we have been safer if I’d had a gun to protect us?
There are at least two elements to our situation that I feel are common to incidents like this: 1.We never saw these men coming, and by the time we did, the guns were already pointed at us; 2. The stick-up guys were jumpy, nervous, tensely bordering on irrational. I feel like if I’d had a gun, even if I hadn’t tried to use it, my chances of being killed (and those with me), simply by the threat it would represent, would have gone up exponentially. There would have been no chance for me to do anything had I been armed, as I’d guess there rarely is. With all the claims of “for protection”, how often does having it legal to carry a gun do any good? (Refer back to C.D.’s statement.) It seems to be the same logic of avoiding a fight by flexing your muscles.
In my brother’s request, he cited violence on TV and video games, noting that it’s the mentality and not guns that are doing the killing. I remember Marilyn Manson getting some of the blame with Columbine, and how many times have I heard the phrase “off his meds” with regards to the latest heavily armed mass murderer? I do believe there are some unfortunate influences that instigate tragedies; however, the argument that this is what causes such excess o gun-related deaths in America falls way short. Every country has the same games and movies. This is the 21st century. Moreover, violence has been in entertainment since Homer, Shakespeare and so on.
Murder rates are higher in the US because it’s easier to murder people. We can question the motives of the murders, and of course, it is important to understand the individual whys of what criminals do; nevertheless, it’s simply impossible to get around the fact that where guns are more killings occur. When a pissed off psychopath has access to an armory, he or she is more likely to do serious damage, right? The Aurora, Colorado incident saw a man coolly acquiring all the tools necessary, legally, to open fire in a theater. In countries where one can’t do this, the percentages of such things happening go down astronomically.
I feel like these distractions—the films and games and leather-clad singers—are political tactics, finger-snapping to make us look away from the obvious. I’m not saying to put your children in a room with 24-hours of violent footage playing silently as Ice-T’s “Cop Killa” thunders on the sound system, but let’s not be naïve enough to think that a video game—no matter how violent it is—is more likely to kill a person than a gun is. We are constantly being fed more fodder for debate because the answers to why all these murders occur are inconvenient for those who want to own guns, especially of the hand-, concealed, and automatic variety.
One of the largest crutches those who wish to own weapons use is the “Right to Bear Arms”, the second amendment to a Constitution written over 225 years ago. What gets omitted from the right is the intention: For the USA to be protected by its citizenry rather than risking an oppressive military like the one the British had used. It was to protect ourselves from warmonger nations. We now have the largest military in the world, more or less nullifying our need to bear arms. Some would say citizen’s owning guns provides the opportunity to resist our own government should it get out of hand, and for me, those same gun-wielders seem too out of touch to be allowed to stockpile guns. How is a hodgepodge militia going to do anything to dissuade the US military, which annually saws through the trained regiments of entire countries?
Regardless of where one stands on the amendment, the fact that guns threaten the people of the United States is irrefutable. We have the statistics to show it. If we were given the right to drink and drive (I guess it would have been wagons back then) in the Constitution, would we be arguing that the last two centuries of change have warranted some reconsideration? Guns, like cars, have become faster, fancier, and much more efficient, and as a result, the Right to Bear Arms should be adjusted accordingly, shouldn’t it? It’s not as if the Constitution is infallible and has never been changed. While there is concern over the domino effect of changing the amendment—what’s next? Free speech. What are the other eight Bills of Right?—in the end, we’ve survived book bans, witch hunts, and sodomy (still illegal in some states) and come out okay.
Shouldn’t we give up some rights for the greater good? When parents have children, they lose certain freedoms, legally and just by being decent, so that they are responsible for the child who can’t very well fend for itself. When we buy and build houses, there are modern building codes to ensure safety (and aesthetics in some cases). When we drive, there are speed limits and laws to prevent as many dangerous situations as possible. We can’t just dump garbage anywhere we please or allow our sewage to seep into the ground. These things are for the good of everyone. So, why do we knowingly endanger our population by maintaining something that is obviously in need of serious revision?
In the two elementary school incidents on December 14, the man in the US had a gun and killed 20 children, while the man in China had a knife and didn’t manage to kill any of the twenty-two children he stabbed. Both men had the same intent, but the results are quite different simply by weapon used. What’s there to argue to refute that? Video games and amendments?
Ultimately, the laws as they stand are in favor of gun owners but with that comes the onus to justify the danger. If it is within our rights to have 200 firearms in the basement, does it mean it’s wise, no matter how responsible of a gun owner you are? If it is a proven liability within our country, if all the statistics point to significantly more deaths by gun being present in those cultures that legally have them, it seems the need for me to explain that guns are a problem is superfluous. Moreover, my experience with this argument is much like I’ve had with other political debates: Those in favor of having guns are unwavering regardless of any evidence presented. There terms of what’s right has long fallen to the wayside of what’s already decided.
After all the smoke has cleared, I’ve heard lots of justifications for shooting: Hunting, collecting, protecting, monitoring the government, and simply enjoying one’s rights. Some of these are legitimate reasons. A hunter is greatly helped by having a rifle or shotgun. However, ultimately there is a large loophole in the need for guns: There is no call for certain guns being in the hands of everyday people. The multitude of automatics and pistols aren’t necessary for hunting, collecting, protecting, or enjoying one’s right, and as for monitoring the government, 1000 machine guns in someone’s house is scarcely going to stop anything from happening. Still, there seems to be a tooth-and-nail battle to be fought over having guns that are obviously beyond the requirements and pose much more serious threats.
Perhaps there are better choices for gun enthusiasts. Why not collect antique guns? Aren’t they more interesting, models of finer craftsmanship, and less deadly? Why not keep a twelve gauge in the closet if you believe it’s safer? Isn’t a big gun, like those we hunt with, more intimidating than a .22 caliber handgun? Why not just use hunting rifles to hunt with? Doesn’t an assault rifle take a little of the sport out of it? Why not shoot targets with a pellet or bow and arrow? Why not monitor the government via activism, protest, boycott, voting, and peaceful objection? Would this be any less effective than one family and an arsenal? If guns are must, why not find ways to make mass murdering more difficult? Is it possible these options could fulfill the gun lover’s jollies or is the argument about something else?
I’ve never been under any illusion about abolishing guns in the US; however, I have hope that, at some point, people with the inclination to have guns will step up and at least acknowledge that bad things happen because guns are around, and it doesn’t matter how responsible any one possessor is. Undoubtedly, most gun owners aren’t criminals, aren’t malicious with their weapons, and are as appalled by the recent rise in mass murders as I am. Unfortunately, my general impression is that many believe the solution to gun violence is to have more guns around to act as a deterrent. To me, this seems contrary and only moves me further from sympathizing with the movement. It seems a very important fact is too often neglected: The effect of having guns is bigger than one person’s home, hobby, interest, or right. Less guns won’t prevent all tragedies that may occur, but more will and has certainly increased them.
I must warn you that the following ramblings continue the political discontent so rampantly running through November. I write this blog in hopes of solidifying and finishing thoughts begun, interrupted, and left like dangling modifiers in my most recent visit home. In general, I’ve come to feel that political debate is like shouting into a void, opinions disappearing into a cacophony of similar statements or falling on the deaf ears of those resoundingly conflicting. Most of all, I continually prove to myself that I’m no expert on the subject and shouldn’t put myself in the position to act as one, both because it leaves me wanting for an answer and I’m often left needing to fire a parting shot such as this one. For that, I apologize.
I should have prepared myself better. I’d packed my bags carefully, double-checked the passport was in tow, and even had a few USD in my pocket. My father and step-mother had been summoned to pick us up from the airport, the flight details sent there way nearly a month in advance. We were to arrive on the sixth of November 2012, what I would later learn most likely marked the final downfall of the US of A: Election Day.
I expected my father to be tuned in, as he has been for some years, to the up-to-the-minute politic slough, that deep bog of spiked opinions and keyword repetition known as Fox News. To my surprise, he seemed none too concerned, either avoiding the inevitable clash of beliefs to come or, I would later find out, confident in some polling system. Whatever it was, we stayed largely off of politics and simply enjoyed seeing each other for the first time in a year and a half.
Before we went to bed, we saw Obama was the projected victor, the electoral votes swinging way left of the popular votes, and we adjourned to our respective rooms, either to celebrate or confound. In the morning, he congratulated me. My brother called later and did the same. It would be him, my former mentor to the world, who would inspire this blog entry: If Dad had settled his mind on peace, Chris was coming with full artillery. The election over, Chris coming down for a visit, the post-election debates were set to begin.
Obamacare has sent the conservative side of the nation into a complete tizzy, and some of them believe that the poster land of capitalism, home of the nuclear family and Wall Street and Bill O’Reilly, the country formally known as America the Beautiful, has turned into a sinking cesspit of “socialism”, half of the populace simply sitting around living off of food stamps and waiting to get sick to use tax dollars on medicine, x-rays, and doctor bills. The spirit of McCarthyism has returned so vehemently, some so convinced that non-Conservatism equates to outright communism, that I’ve repeatedly found myself squealing “that isn’t socialism/communism”, more in frustration with false –ism dropping than disdain for any particular policy. Let me explain:
Communism is a political and economic system based on publicly-owned, government-run companies producing and distributing profits and products based on a person’s needs. In other words, all the money comes in, all the bread is baked, and theoretically, the family of five gets more than a bachelor by simple fact of more mouths to feed, cloth, and so on. All things belong to all people, but decisions are made by a controlling government (elected) rather than its citizens. No country that has claimed communism—N. Korea, USSR, Vietnam, China, Cuba—has ever executed the theory as intended—uncorrupted, democratically—which is why strains such as Maoism, Marxism, and Stalinism have been coined, because they’re not exactly the same communism. Opinions and systems vary, but the basics are that government controls economics with the intention to keep all people equal and destroy the classes.
Democratic socialism, solely an economic system, on the other hand, uses a similar idea of distributing wealth amongst its populace; however, the system is run by the people. As with communism, production lines are controlled by a ruling force, but with democratic socialism as put into actual practice, the people who produce are the deciding factor—democratically—on what to do with the results of their labor. The theory is intended to dole out profits more evenly and fairly than privatized industry, though the intent isn’t to demolish all traces of capitalism as with communist strains. The crux of democratic socialism seeks to disallow exploitation. Money is distributed amongst the productive with strong programs to help those in need, and everyone receives free healthcare, education, etc, paid for by equal taxation. Sweden is often cited as a model for a democratic socialist government.
The U.S. is neither of these, despite projections about how Obamacare and the social programs changed the status quo of America. Socialized medicine is not socialism, but rather is a feature of socialism, just like government maintained highways, schools, and military forces are, all of which the U.S. has utilized for some time without setting off commie-red alarms. My major point is that the U.S. is not, nor anywhere close to being, communist or socialist—not now, not in four years from now—but rather has shrewdly sought to take some of the better parts of the theory. If the economy fails, it’s due to capitalistic values, the same greed and credit-based scams that caused the financial collapse in the first place. It’s not bleeding-heart social programs that are bankrupting America. Look at the amount misplaced funds in the military, $100 hammers—just normal hammers—and contracted equipment being built. Examine the amount we pay congress members beyond their modest base salaries, their personal staffs, transportation costs, food/shelter costs, and the congressional committees). With the sort of legitimate, longstanding social service the US gets, free medicine and community centers are hardly the things about which citizens should be outraged and debating. We are being distracted!
Forty-seven is not a nice round number. However, it is a fairly rare number in that it is prime, i.e. divisible by only one and itself, a detail which keeps it largely out of most math tests and the like, as there is simply not a lot more a student can do with the number. There are no square roots, no common denominators, no factors of, and it doesn’t show up on any multiplication tables. Up until recently, the number forty-seven had never particularly stood out to me in anyway. Suddenly, it’s all the rage.
The theory seems to be that Barrack Obama automatically received 47% of the vote based on a statistic that Mitt Romney used: the amount of Americans who live off the government. The people of the 47 percent, whom conservatives claim were 100% in the pocket for Obama, is in fact a real statistic; however, it has been presented a little askew and the 100% complete off. Romney identified these people as those “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it…And they will vote for this president no matter what.” In actuality, the number only denotes the people who lawfully didn’t pay federal income tax in 2011, many of whom are not Obama supporters. (Incidentally, we should note how far away from socialism this would make the U.S.)
Of the group, over 40% is composed of people making between $16000 and $50000 a year, the working poor.
44% of the 38 million nontaxable units went to people over sixty-five, who most likely are not working but have probably paid enough taxes during their lifetime. As well, a majority percentage of this group did not support Obama—there goes the 100% of the 47% theory.
More than 100,000 people earning $211,000 a year or more didn’t pay federal income tax.
That’s a lot of people not sitting on their ass waiting for handouts. Also:
Not paying federal income tax doesn’t mean that people are completely tax exempt (property, state, sales, etc.), are living off of welfare in government housing, or have preemptively sent in their ballot. That said, it would make sense that the majority of people would vote for what was in their best interest.
53% of the country is not paying for 47%--this is a rather ridiculously simple way of looking at this statistic, and one would think that members of this elite collection of financiers would have a bit better grasp of money intake, distribution, and community programs.
Romney even eventually acknowledged the “off the cuff” inaccuracy of the infamous (or famous, depending on your leanings) comment.
One of the difficult aspects of arguing with my brother, my family at times, is that my opinion is assumed. I don’t agree that capitalism is the best financial model, so my beliefs are denoted as the complete opposite, which has to be communism/socialism. I’m part of the 47% (as an ex-pat earning pathetic wages), have spent some time volunteering on behalf of impoverished people, and boycott a hefty amount of companies, so I am anti-profit and anti-production. I think about the environment, don’t like guns, and am a vegetarian . . . no one knows exactly what that means, but it’s wrong. I lived in the Middle East for a while, by choice and without association to oil or military, and, as a result, still don’t acknowledge Barrack Obama’s hidden radical Islamic beliefs (a very interesting mix with his support of Soviet communism). In a nutshell, I am an opponent.
I’ve time and again explained a disbelief in socialism with a healthy respect for some of the ideas, a belief in teaching (being a teacher) skills rather than handing out funding for nothing, that I don’t think global warming is solely or even mostly the result of people’s ill-treatment of nature (not to say we should try to keep stuff clean), that I truly respect someone who hunts/raises their own meat rather than buying it pre-packaged and de-animalized, and the existence of radical Muslims with respect to the fact that home-grown radical Christians have attacked the U.S. much more often (neither group representing a large percentage of either religion). I continually have to reiterate these beliefs, which is just politics, I suppose, but this last trip most of my time was spent describing socialism and discussing 47% of the population.
Truthfully, I don’t mind those who don’t support Barrack Obama, who are disappointed by his re-election, and who believe it’s the wrong route for America. However, there are better, more legitimate reasons than socialism and the 47% to dislike his policies. The problem I’ve most encountered in discussing Obama with conservatives (admittedly, using my family and their friends, Fox news, and various conservative radio shows to pigeon-hole a broader political group)—The problem in discussing Obama is that the conversation always strays into propaganda-like repetition that has little to do with actual government policy.
If it isn’t socialism but socialized medicine—if he isn’t Muslim (I’m sad to have to include this –if) or if church and state were separate—if more than 85% of the 47% who didn’t pay federal income tax aren’t all lazily awaiting welfare vouchers—if he didn’t simply win the election via this 47% of whom polls show a normal percentage did not vote Obama—if each time the discussion at hand didn’t require a series of hypothetical statements to attempt to prevent diversion into whatever all these claims equate--justifiable hatred?. . .I suppose it’s all just politics, thick with the dilution of what’s relevant and complicated, always has been. Who knows what would happen if we didn’t succumb to discussing the irrelevant, inaccurate stuff.
I’m no one to pass judgment. In my seven football seasons abroad, I’ve only missed a few LSU games, either due to traveling on the day or monumental internet collapses. More or less, I visit ESPN.com daily, and I read at least one piece a tabloid fluff a week, either pulled in by the promise of juicy shots of a hot celebrity or news about an upcoming film. When I’m feeling socially responsible, I delve into a few political articles. I keep up with my Words with Friends games, check Facebook’s latest, and post weekly blogs (as you already know). I’m constantly on travel websites, reading and researching for articles, and on good weeks, I spend around 20 hours in front of the screen writing.
So, I’ll do my best to simply make observations. The first one I’ll make is that this hotel is my fucking house, and if I’m going to subject myself to this obsessive online opulence, there is nowhere else for me to do it. I’m not on vacation here, not on a weekend or year away, and most of the time, I’m not playing a damned game. As a writer, one might even defend Words with Friends, an admitted weakness, as a skill-builder. Most of the time, however, I’m doing some sort of work, or at least distracted myself from doing it. Perhaps that’s why I give myself a little bit longer leash, or perhaps it’s simply because I want to stay online, too.
When I began this blog entry, there were six hotel guests that I could see, and five of them were on some sort of portable device, only two of them were speaking, and the one person not using their own laptop, iProduct, or WiFi wizardry was looking at someone else’s. Earth Lodge has one of the best views I’ve ever seen. People come here specifically to enjoy it. Sure, there are a few hiking trails, a decent restaurant (great dinner chef), a well-stocked bar, and a set of cornhole boards out front, but these are all, one assumes, a result of people coming primarily to see, to sit and enjoy a one of the country’s great vistas. It’s weird that no one is looking.
Daily, I fight the internet here, a system run off of cellular service, impossibly slow for today’s standards and constantly on the fritz, in need of rebooting, unplugging, and always a reliable source for that circle of death in the middle of the screen signifying the computer is “working” but getting nothing done. In the middle of this small village in the Guatemalan mountains, amongst 400 avocado trees, and with a volcano spitting out smoke not forty kilometers away, one of the five most frequent questions I’m asked is if the WiFi is working. Hell, there is even a TV with a thousand or so films and shows for us to choose from, but I rarely see anyone boob-tubing it anymore. We—the staff, the guests—all know it’s shit, but we keep trying.
In past blogs, I’ve admitted my own dependence on www-world—both at work and at home. I can readily acknowledge so much good, the more regular long distance contact for much less cost, the ability to keep abreast of local and world news from Thailand to Timbuktu, the chance to enhance the world to the wonders of Tiger football via pirated live streaming. My new career choice, travel writing, is on the endangered list save the online publications. I’m even happy to report that the computer-bound guest next to me is actually a travel writer as well, which gives him a viable excuse, and that one of the aforementioned devices is a Kindle, what once would have been a perfectly acceptable book. But, Jesus Christ, this is depressing.
It’s one thing for a teenager to spend hours searching for porn, for gamers to lock themselves in dark, dingy apartments for hours and days at a time, wiling away all their free time like techno-vampires. It’s one thing to nine-to-five it and get home ready for a little mindlessness, flip on the computer the way we used to TVs, and settle in for a few waning hours with DrawSomething, social networking, or YouTube! entertainment. It’s one thing to check your personal email a couple times a day…maybe. It’s an atrocity that we, the travelers of the world, the people of Earth Lodge, the former jugglers and card sharks of the backpacker trail, have turned away from one another to turn on our portable distractions, detractions to what we’ve set out to do: experience a place.
I wish I could conceive of a happy ending to leave you with. Maybe we all should just get off the computer and have a conversation with someone, get out of touch with who we are.
Sheelagh Gallagher, aka Emma’s mum, arrived in the first week of August, carrying with her a replenishment of hooks and yarn and enthusiasm. She had a pattern for her favorite flower to teach to the crochet circle. (Oh, the image is just divine: Twelve sixth graders sitting around gossiping as they twist their hooks a couple of afternoons a week.) Throughout August, Sheelagh has joined the group and reports back in astonishment at how some of the kids can now simply look at a picture in a book and recreate, not even needing a pattern.
Maggie Bingham, aka my mom, got here on the fifteenth, bringing hooks and yarn and a friend, again another bump of energy for the final push. So, for a couple of sessions, there were five gringas in the group, the Mum and the Mom blending in and sharing tips, Debbie (the friend) more or less getting lessons from the group, our Earth Lodge regular Jess, and Emma as the head maestro. Everybody was making flowers, stockpiling for a fabric floral display something equivalent to the collection of throw-rugs in a 1950s nursing home.
Elfa Bingham, aka my grandmother, who passed away some years ago, finally received her honorable mention as motivation for Las Mano’s/El Hato school’s English classroom (2011), which now also functions as GUPP’s crochet locale. On the night my mother arrived, we had an appropriately humble dedication, revealing a beautifully painted wooden plaque (Emma’s artistic prowess) to hang in the classroom. For dinner that night, the Lodge served grilled cheese and tomato soup, Elfa’s favorite meal. In addition, we also created a keepsake for our two moms (this was their first meeting) with the names of each of our grandmothers and mothers on it.
So, the last couple of weeks of the project have, especially to my mother’s delight, been an ode to moms and matronly love. Perhaps, for me, the highlight was the collaborative yarnbomb our mothers created to add to Earth Lodge’s corner of colorful yarn displays. It was a mad rush of crocheting until the last moment of my mother’s stay, Wednesday morning, but in the end, she got to see it in all its glory, wrapped around a hammock post and bringing a smile to all involved. All in all the piece is about six feet high, and Debbie would insist that I mention her contribution of tassels, which she informed would blow out in the wind for added effect.
So, I must say that, as they did a couple of years ago, when we were here on behalf of Las Manos, Mum and Mom came through for us like champs: yarn, hooks, international support, personal visits, time contributions, and genuine interest in the project. We are lucky to have two lovely women willing to engage in the lives of their wandering children and the lives of the children we are working with and for. Sentimentally speaking, it does say quite a lot for the love that our mothers bestow. Thanks to both of them for wanting to be a part of this and us.
We’ve been back for two and a half months now. I’d like to say we eased back into our roles, barely made a ripple in the calm façade we like to pretend exists here: the chill, the hammocks slung lazily between post and tree, rainy day fireplace crackling for guests to cuddle round. The view: There is always the inclination to just sit and look, to lose yourself in the stare and forget two-three-four hours of life. I think, I’m fairly sure, that’s the point. Whatever it is, I still love it here. Emma still loves it here. Though, easing has been pretty far from the truth.
My hands. I don’t know what the fuck have happened to my hands, but for much of the last couple of months, they’ve been perpetually sore. My fingers feel thick and tight, and I fear they might be in the beginning stages of turning into sausages, something akin to what old working men have. Other than that, they are permanently busted up, ripped by errant screwdrivers, smashed by a misdirected hammer, sliced, nicked and nattered. They have slowly, steadily moved away from the keyboard and come to feel slightly out of place dancing atop it. It wasn’t what I envisioned but isn’t all that surprising.
Regardless, f-ed up hands haven’t stopped me from tilting the bottle a little more than I should, from finding last night’s tab got into the double digits, discovering that somehow half a pack of smokes has singed my lungs and filled me with renewed vows to cut back, to go at it less. It hasn’t stopped me from pulling off bar chords, playing for two or three hours in a night, once I get going, find someone, a few folks sitting around ready to a hear a tune or two. It hasn’t stopped my from stumbling home too often too late, Emma a little fumed at me having stayed up longer than promised, another round, another cigarette or three.
Last night, as last nights go, Sophie and Becca, part of the reception team who have become what I proudly heard Emma calling groupies, listened to me leaning drunkenly over the guitar, waiting for “Going Out West”. They anticipate certain lines: “I got hair on my chest! I look good without a shirt!” and “My friends say I’m ugly! I got a masculine face!” The group built up then waned then settled into about eight of us. It—that song—always seems to be the crest of the evening, and almost suggests that nothing else good can happen for the night. After it, people start trickling off to bed. After it, I should probably just stop. I generally don’t.
I often make mock statements of change in the morning, swearing off the booze and cigarettes for good this time, turning to a life of the straight and narrow, until the afternoon hits, my hands with a lingering ache in them that seems only comforted when wrapped around something cool, say a bottle or two or I forget. And, overall, it’s a different ease than easing going, an ease that I don’t all together reject but one that keeps the surface ever-rippling, something like rolling gusts of wind that blow things just askew enough to keep it interesting. One thing for sure is that it is easy to stay and put off worlds elsewhere.
One measure of success, of progress, in the crochet game is seeing the spools disappear, and last week saw the class finish their second 55-gallon bag of yarn, which must mean things are going pretty well. The kids have finished their individual projects, beautiful branches covered in yarn and accented with leaves and flowers that they created. They’ve just finished their group projects, what they are calling scarves for trees. The next step is their collective piece.
In the nick of time, courting a suitcase of “wool” (i.e. yarn), Emma’s mum, Sheelagh arrived this past Saturday bearing gifts a-plenty, including the aforementioned yarn, a stable of hooks, and our first international flower chains, one crocheted by Sheelagh herself and another by Emma’s fleet-fingered friend Jo. They are beautiful and full of new flower designs for our budding hook-smiths to see. Additional thanks should be sent to Helen, Tracey, and Rosalyn for their contributions to the cause.
Other news is the introduction of Kerry’s replacement, Jess the Yogi, who has been going to the sessions regularly since last I wrote. Established and comfortable with the group, she’ll be leading the class later today. Emma, Sheelagh, and I are headed off for a three-day holiday to Lake Atitlan, but because of Jess, the children will be able to continue with their bobbing-and-weaving uninterrupted. Thus, yet again, and gladly given, thanks are in order.
As a final thought, we’d like to remind everyone that it isn’t too late to join the project by creating your own flower chain. We are on the last leg now, month three, so time is tight. Nevertheless, we’d love to have some more outside contributions. For details, you can visit earlier blogs or shoot either Emma or me an email and we’ll set you up. For now, that’s all folks. We’ll be blogging to you again soon.
For those of you who don’t know, I’m the dinner chef here at Earth Lodge, six nights a week left with the task of feeding a house full of guests, a staff that has tasted most of the tricks I know, and the occasional whims of a wife, a saucy French foodie, and a pregnant boss. It’s a job I love, take on with relish (yes, I pun with relish, too), but one that, from time to time, has me scratching my head for new ideas, new recipes, new twists on old favorites: vegetarian jambalaya, BBQ spaghetti a la Memphis, soya kofte, curry pasta, whole wheat bread pudding with lemon rum sauce, etc. These days I’m wrestling with something else: avocadoes.
For those of you who don’t know, Earth Lodge is half hotel, half avocado farm, complete with 400 trees that line the mountain below the cabins, the pathway leading down to our little paradise. The trees yield crops twice a year, around July-August and December-January. This, of course, means we are now in the thick of it, the restaurant, the food bodega, the tool shed stacked with baskets of avocadoes, all of which have that precarious expiration date nature puts on natural things. The first harvest is hitting waves of ripeness, sending me 50…80…100 fruits, all to be used today, whatever day that might be.
I’m going to assume that most of you know what guacamole is, how the main ingredient is the fabled avocado, usually a little side of tortilla chips to scoop it up or spicy burrito to spread it on. Some of you may have even ventured to try the au naturel avocado, maybe a sprinkle of salt, a squirt of lime to jazz it up. It’s not all that uncommon to toss them onto salads or slice’em up for sandwiches, and in all the world’s fantastic food fusion, a sliver of avocado has become a regular in the sushi show. These are all great choices, but they have one thing in common: The avocado, more or less, is left as is, uncooked, the same basics—lime, salt, jalapeño—to accent it.
However, on the old avocado farm, the boundaries have to be pushed, the EL bread and butter mutated beyond expectation. Sure, people are game for the standard hits, but undoubtedly, during this time of year, the goal is to shove as many avocadoes down the mouths of our customers as possible. Luckily, they are usually quite willing participants in this. Which brings us to this morning: I got to spend a few hours in the kitchen experimenting with a pretty endless supply of avocadoes, stealing ideas from the internet to come up with my own weirdly delicious uses for our crop. It was definitely a few hours of knowing I was where I should be.
So far, there have been avocado-chocolate truffles, avocado-mint ice pops, baked avocadoes stuffed with pico de gallo and topped with cheese. We already had avocado pesto sauce and a couple of versions of avocado ice cream. Avocado bread, similar to banana bread, has long since excited customers looking for a little ‘cado-quirkiness. I’m currently working out the details of a creamy black bean soup in which the avocadoes are cooked into the soup rather than added as chunky afterthoughts. It’s making me popular around here, and consequently, I’m proposing avocado recipe trades for any of you out there who have stumbled across something fun.
This blog occurs once a week, the entries being thematically mixed between expat life in Guatemala and life as an NGO groupie. The photos for this blog, website, and my life are all provided by my beautiful wife Emma.