Socrates tells us that truth exists only in conversation, that once we’ve written it down, we’ve lost the thread of it. We only know he tells us because his student Plato wrote all that down, so there may be some value to the scribing, too. Even a society as small as Classical Greece or Classical Athens couldn’t preserve knowledge by oral tradition alone.

I’m a believer in the implied process of the Socrates-Plato duality—find the truth in conversation, in informed, exploratory, Socratic debate, and then write as much of it as you can honestly preserve. There’s a clarity to the Socratic dialogues that’s lacking in, say, the work of any given German philosopher. It exists because Plato preserved (or, maybe, recreated, or, maybe, invented) Socrates’ dialogic process in each conversation. If you look at the end result of The Republic, an authoritarian, communist, caste-delineated music-less society dreamed up in order to define ‘the good,’ it’s zany. If you were getting it from Kant, it’d also be impenetrable. But, through Plato, Socrates leads you there point by point. Revealed truth by talk.

Which is all to say that I think my brain is melting. Dying, frying, dribbling out my ears. For want of talk. Some of you might have noticed the blog’s been sparse for more than a month now. A symptom.

Let me roll it back. I don’t mean just any conversation. The summer after college, I worked as a waiter and lived with five guys a year my junior who I hadn’t met before I moved in. Five of the smartest guys I’d ever had the good fortune to know, as it turned. Once we’d warmed to each other, we discovered a mutual enjoyment of hookah and that one roommate had smuggled a quality pipe, coal, and tobacco back from the Orient. Two or three times a week after I got off work, we’d go out on the porch and breathe wreathes and talk.


Continue reading


And Then There Was One

I roll out of bed at three, having woken up hours earlier and given into my malaise, drifting in and out of sleep before the final plunge off the mattress. I eyeball my kettle, full of old grounds, and tiptoe through a week’s worth of webs and spider husks, wondering if I’ll get up the ganas to sweep. Typical Sunday. My phone rings and the number’s too long to be domestic, so I know it’s Trey, and that cheers me up as I wait for him to call again. I saw the guy just enough over Christmas to remember how much I’ve missed him since he took a job with the state of California.

Look at him

Look at him

It rings a second time and we go through our how do you dos before he tells me Janessa’s had an accident in Panama, that she’s in the hospital down there, gone into surgery, leg full of pins. I’m doing the math as he’s talking—we’ve got forty-five days out of country to recuperate on medical leave, and two bones in the leg spell more than that.

Two down...

Two down…

Another volunteer got medically separated for a fucked up ankle, did it stepping off a bus. I ask Trey what it is with us volunteers and getting down from stuff. He laughs and tells me to be careful and we hang up.

I call Ben and break the news just this one time, to get it out of me. I keep thinking I left them both in a rush in the city, that it was the only time I haven’t said “take care” to another volunteer as they left for a trip. I pull out a cigarette, me who never smokes in daylight, and my hands shake through a cup of cold coffee. The next month bears out all our hurried calculations, and Peace Corps in DC medically separates her before the forty five are up. Not sufficiently ambulatory. After fourteen months, I am alone in site.

Continue reading

All Happy Families

I’m not close to my folks, not the way other people seem to be.

I'm not heartless though

I’m not heartless though

We moved from Nashville to Shanghai when I was six, and I saw my extended family during home-leave, the month of summer General Motors gave us to tour the US. I’d see Mom’s people in New Braunfels in Texas for a week and then we’d visit one or another branch of Dad’s side, in Oregon or Washington or down in New Orleans.

My mother’s father died when she was seventeen, and her mother passed during my last summer in China. We didn’t go back to Texas much after that. My father’s parents started ailing soon after, and what I saw of his brothers and their kids depended on who was caretaking at the time. I’d go years between seeing a given set of cousins, and there’s a group of Texans I haven’t laid eyes on in a decade.

When I went away to college, I took a perverse pride in how emotionally independent I was from my folks. Other kids would call home daily or weekly for advice and support while I might go months between phone calls. My parents had helped me to grow up an independent kid, and I thought it was all advantage at the time, that I was making my way on my own and better for it. That was a fiction and an obvious one—I wasn’t paying my own way, and there are mistakes I made in college they could have helped me to head off.

Even now, my folks are in China and I have less contact with them than, I think, any other volunteer has with theirs. Schedules and time zones keep us from Skyping, but I try to write more and make sure they follow the blog so at least they’ll have that bare-minimum of information. All the same, I don’t see family in the way quite the same way as my friends and fellow-volunteers, can’t imagine planning my future based on their geography, tethering myself to Nashville where they’ll retire.

Continue reading


In-service trainings are the highlights of the year for a lot of us, I think. We get to spend a full week with the people we have often come to love in-country. People we trained with, got sick with, worried with, learned Spanish with. Your class gets tight. Ours is especially well-knit, or at least the office has told us so.

It might have something to do with our ages. Previous groups in Mexico have been more focused on Technology Transfer and Natural Resources Management, two programs that in this country that in this country recruit volunteers who are more experienced and well-trained than what you might imagine to be the standard. The Mexico office is changing direction, though, and our class fit the archetype—young, eager, not far out of college.


Maybe we were more willing to goof around, or maybe it’s that are lives are short enough that they still have room for eighteen more close friends, or maybe we just happened to be compatible. When we get together after the isolation of the countryside, it’s a thing apart. To go from a second language back to your first is like learning how to speak again. I have a few good Mexican friends, and I wouldn’t trade them for gringo replacements, but there is so much lost communication even in my more-than-passable Spanish, so many small exchanges, so many inside jokes and asides that refuse to translate or grow up right in a foreign tongue. It is maybe not so obvious among friends, but I tried dating here for a few months and it drove the point home. It might even be that I have so little else to go on. I’m no sportsman, have no great hobbies outside of words. So much of my identity is wrapped up in English that I almost find myself without one in Spanish.

Continue reading


I’m reading The Labyrinth of Solitude and I’m so wrapped up in holding the text steady that I don’t notice when the bus blows past El Lobo. We’re a half mile down the road by the time I stagger to the front and explain in panicked Spanish that I meant to get off, “You know, apenas,” just now. My permanent affect in Spanish is contrition, and I keep apologizing to the driver as I try to mime that he needs to stop the bus. I mumble disculpe and perdóname to sleeping Mexicans on my oh-so-long trip to the back to grab my pack. Off the bus, I huck my gear to the ground and try to take stock. I am immediately covered in ants. I curse and giggle and try to shimmy them down and out of my jeans. I sling all forty pounds of prep onto my back and start down the road towards Lobo.


I am a Peace Corps Volunteer working in the stubby mountains of Mexico’s eastern Sierra Madre, and I am about to celebrate Thanksgiving. I live in Jalpan, the de facto capital of the region, and I’m traveling up into the hills to stay with the two other volunteers that the Peace Corps placed out here. James is tall, gangly, and fiercely blonde. He’s Michigan Dutch, Cortez reincarnate in the way he enchants the dusty campo girls. Danielle is a small and perpetually hungry environmental educator out of New York State. They both live in the mero campo, the real country, in pueblos that Jalpan dwarfs, far away from the Internet and bus-lines that keep me pretty well in touch with the world outside.

As I walk up to the misty intersection that leaves the highway and climbs into the mountains, I realize that—God knows why—I’ve worn a cardigan. Between it and my camera, I’ll look like what the grizzled men in this leg of the Sierra refer to as a mano caída, a fallen hand, letting their wrists go limp as they say it. Transit from here to where my friends live goes by way of improvised taxis and converted pickups, and I try to look at home as I sidle up to the group of drivers.


“Who’s going to Río Verdito?” I ask. One of them raises his hand. “Cuanto?

Eighty pesos,” he says, about six-fifty US.

“No manches,” I reply, don’t mess around. He laughs. “I live here,” I say, and light a cigarette for effect.

“Not right here”

“Down the road.” He laughs again. “Quince,” I say. Fifteen, less than a dollar.

“Then you’ll have to wait.” I pass him a cigarette and we talk about where he’s worked in the States. He’s been to pick apples near where I used to live in Michigan, but we don’t know any of the same people. One of those things. When a critical mass of travelers builds up and gets into his truck, he waves me towards the cab, but I beg off and sling my stuff into the bed. The ride is gorgeous and I’d rather not have to navigate small talk.


We climb up into the hills while the fog lifts and peaks and pastures dance into view. It’s a cut-rate Bavaria without the more impressive Alps, long narrow valleys blending into terraced farmland spotted with goats and mongrel zebu cattle. We make it to James’ pueblo without incident, and I’m not sure if I’m excited or afraid. We’ve got a turkey, but it’s not, you know, dead yet. Peace Corps is full of this kind of experience—things you want to say you’ve done but which you’re not so sure you want to do. James’ cabin clings to the hillside far up the valley wall, and I poke around for telltale feathers as I hike the muddy cow-path to his door. His kitchen is always unlocked and when I push inside, he’s just taking a pot of water off for coffee.

We do the slap-and-a-fist bump that passes for a handshake out here. “So uh, where is she?” I ask.

“Penelope? I had to do her yesterday. Didn’t want to lead her on.”

“Was she a hassle?”

“No, sweet bird. Calmer than I thought she’d be when I carried her over in the corn sack.”

“I should’ve told you I was gonna write about it.”

“You want to see her? She’s outside.”

James is an engineer, but he spent most of his time between college and the Peace Corps on organic farms, and him also being from Michigan, it’s not his first time to a turkey shoot.


“You use that same handle-less abomination on her?” He only has one knife.

“Yea. Had it so sharp it almost scared me. She went quiet.” He nods over the edge of his porch and I look down to see bloodstains and a mass of feathers in the trees below. “There’d be more down there, but chickens are notorious cannibals,” he says, and indicates the crowd that’s turned out to bawk at us. I look into the pot, and she’s tiny, just enough for four, with little black hairs clinging to the gaping pores where feathers used to be.

“Gross, man,” I say, prodding the little craters.


“Yea. Butterballs, the commercially grown ones, they’re bred to be pluckable. Ugly, all bald and patchy.”

Night’s closing in, so we take the coffee and huddle into his living room to talk. James and I have the best non-native Spanish of our class of volunteers, but we both find it difficult to connect emotionally outside of English, so we talk about the Mitten State for hours when we’re together. It’s not long before we have to bundle up, shaking spiders out of blankets and knit ponchos. It’s as cold as it ever gets up here, not less than thirty five degrees. But Mexico is all poured concrete, and the walls welcome the cold in, making sure that if it’s chilly outside, it’s just as bad in here.

At daybreak, the clouds are gone and the temperature shoots up as we hitchhike to Agua Zarca, where our other volunteer Danielle lives. We catch a ride straight off, and for all that I rip the ashtray out of the car door trying to pull it closed, the guy seems happy for company. He drops us just outside of Danielle’s place, some thirty minutes down the road. When we step out, she calls down from her balcony that there’s no running water, hasn’t been all morning. James and I look at each other. Neither of us has showered much since the cold rolled in, and we’re both pouring sweat now. “Ni modo,” he says, something like ‘Nor a way,’ the national anthem of amiable resignation.

Danielle has to run out to pick up our fourth, Janessa, the other volunteer from down where I live. James visits the neighbors to see if they’ve got water while I unload pie supplies from my backpack. It turns out they have got some, in a rain cistern, and he begins the first of dozens of runs for water, carrying it back in six-liter plastic bottles and dumping it into tubs. Between his frame and the chore, he looks like a broomstick from the Sorceror’s Apprentice scene in Fantasia.

I busy myself with the pies. Danielle hasn’t got bowls, so I make dough in the massive 12-inch cake pans I’ve brought along. Closest I could find to pie tins. James is on a personal crusade against the Coca Cola that’s singlehandedly giving diabetes to rural Mexico, so I’m cutting all refined sugars from the recipes this year. Pecan is easy since honey subs in fine for Karo syrup, but I’m more dubious about the apple. The jar broke in my pack on the way, and I spend much of the time scooping honey out of the bag I wrapped it in.

“You think you’ll have enough water for me to wash anytime soon?” I ask James as he stumbles in puffing from the stairs.

“Screw you,” he laughs, putting his bottles down. I waggle sticky fingers at him. “How’re the pies going?”

“Fucked if I know. I’m going to have to shave some piloncillo for the topping.”

“Good luck with that,” he says, and heads for more water. Piloncillo is solid molasses, boiled and poured into diamond-hard cones. I picked up ten pounds of it on the corner for just under a dollar. I’m willing to do my Mom’s Dutch apple without the sugar, but I don’t feel like I can get away without crumb topping. When Janessa arrives I get her to promise to do me a favor and then leave her scraping a butter knife against the big brown lump.

Janessa’s a middle-height brunette, at turns mothering and full-on partier, and she’s liable to bite your shoulder in times of high excitement. Peace Corps was her dream, and her husband Trey gamely brought his southern Georgia charm down to Mexico along with her. This past October, though, he got the job he’d been waiting for, inspecting operations and developing best practices for California weed farming outfits, and she’s out here alone until he comes down for Christmas.

James and I head out back to consider Penelope. We’ve got a brining recipe written down, but it’s the container that’s holding us up. The pot we brought her over in is too shallow to submerge her, and Danielle’s plastic washtub is larger than her fridge. We’ve heard you’re supposed to keep the bird cool.

“I murdered her, I didn’t nick the bowel, and I’m sure she’s clean.”

“Been out in the sun for a while though.”


“Weather kind of let us down.”

“It’s a long way from Michigan.” He looks at Penelope. Turns her from side to side. “Wait,” he says, and runs into the house. He comes back with the crisper drawer from the fridge.

“No fucking way,” I say, but he waves me off, and when he lowers her into the plastic, it looks like she’s striking a pose for my camera. Perfect fit. “Maybe that’s what it’s always been for,” I say as we pour salt brine and a table of Danielle’s precious American molasses in with her.

“Guy who invented the refrigerator wondering all his life why we’re putting vegetables in the turkey drawer.”


The pies go into the oven and the girls start on dinner. Pastries aside, we’ve fallen further into gender roles out here, some kind of cultural osmosis. We take out the first bottle of wine. After the luxury of daily Safeway runs, it’s a sweet rarity, way outside of our normal price range for bottom shelf tequila. For this weekend, though, we’ve got four bottles and it feels like a bounty. We’ve got no corkscrew, and I paint most of my shirt a deep violet ramming the cork down.

“Hey, I think there’s eggs in the pasta,” says Janessa. Danielle walks over and looks into the pot.

“And weevils. Could have come in the water, too,” she offers. “You know they eat them here. Some kind of diet.” James nods.

“They say it forms some kind of colony inside of you. You know, in your stomach acid.”

“Protein is protein,” Janessa says, and we all gather round to fish the bugs out with a tiny colander.


Dinner goes well until music starts pouring in the front from the dingy cantina across the way. Banda is hard to listen to in the best of times. Its swaggering imitation of mid-nineties rap values is set to country guitar and a polka bass-line, and when the ridiculous tuba-plus-accordion begins to blare, we shut the door.

Part of Peace Corps, maybe the only part that matters, is opening yourself to your host country and sharing with it in return. But when we get together for American holidays, we guiltily close ourselves off, trying to create a warm little bubble of home. All weekend we’ll leave huapango and ranchero and even Vicente Fernandez to one side for Macklemore and The Shins, Patsy Cline and the Avett Brothers. I’ll try to start in with Christmas, She & Him and Bing Crosby and Vince Guaraldi playing Charlie Brown, but Danielle will nix it.

“Not until Thanksgiving, and that’s not until Thursday.”

Rules are rules, and as long as we’re pretending that this is the States, we’ve got to respect them. Mexico goes from Día de Muertos on the first of November straight into Christmas, and I walked past the fifty foot iron-and-plastic fir tree in my town square on the first of November with a mix of familiarity and deep confusion.

In the morning, we can’t remember how long we ought to roast a turkey, so we take the campo attitude and wing it, packing her sideways into a stew pot and deciding that three hours or so ought to do it. The dial eschews degrees for an inscrutable I to V range, and we figure that somewhere between II and III is a good bet. The bird safely in the oven, James and Janessa head to the terrace for yoga. We’ve all gotten more New Age since joining up, but Danielle and I draw the line at sugarless pies. She and I turn on Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” and sing along to ‘Eight-by-ten color glossy pictures with the circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one.’ We’re together but we’re not together, each of us lost remembering the mothers that first played it for us.

When the chorus comes around, we fall back into the kitchen and yell, ‘Can you imagine fifty people a day, I said fifty people a day walking in, singing a bar of “Alice’s Restaurant” and walking out? And friends they may think it’s a movement,’ before laughing to each other and sighing.

“Time for tequila?”


When the cooking gets into full swing, it becomes clear that we’ll have far too much food, each of us trying to make all the tastes of home. I’ve got the two pies and a pseudo-casserole of green beans, bacon, and slivered almonds. Slap Chops absent, only dull knives and patience get them thin enough. Janessa’s making cooked carrots and her grandmother’s Jell-O chutney, its myriad fruits replaced by three sad pears and a cup of dusty craisins. Danielle makes stuffing from Bimbo bread, two steps down in substance from Wonder. The most American ingredient is a family-size box of Kraft Mac & Cheese, scrounged at great cost from the Walmart down in the city. We pour it into a baking pan and crumble stuffing over top in lieu of breadcrumbs. It crisps up under Penelope. All of us have given up on the way we smell, and we pack the mashed potatoes with garlic, the white starches yellowing under the onslaught of cloves. For all that we’ve tried to make things as healthy as we preach, we’ve somehow gone through a good twenty sticks of butter before we’re done.

Dishwashing becomes laborious, one of us having to pour from our bottled reserves while another scrubs. Before long, the tub that collects from the basin is full and Danielle starts grilling us on the state of our bowels.

“Somebody take a dump already. We’ve got to flush with the dishwater so I can keep washing.” I go first, and James turns up the music. Danielle’s bathroom is separated from her kitchen by the thinnest plastic and tin—we’re lucky if only the sound makes it through. Shit-shy in the States, I’m not worried. I think it must be true in every country that the first vanity to die in the Peace Corps dies on the toilet. Training is an endless seminar on amoebas and food poisoning, and few meals went by without our speculating on how soon we’d be seeing what we were eating and how it would look when we did. Unwashed vegetables and home-slaughtered turkey long-eaten by time of publication, it looks like we got out scot free this time.

The weather’s still good once Penelope’s out, so we pull Danielle’s small kitchen table outside. The towns here hug the highways as they skirt round the mountains, and when you head to the back of the house, the ground falls away. It’s a five story drop from the edge of her terrace, pine trees rolling out into woodland and a valley that flows as far as you can see. She’s got the best view in all of Mexico, maybe all of Peace Corps, and we use it as the backdrop for a few Last Supper timer photos before we lose patience and fall on the food.


It’s an orgy and we make ourselves sick trying to eat our way back home. By the time we make it to the pies, we’re moaning and cussing with each bite. Only the firmest pain signals from our bellies induce us to quit. We have to stop, and when we do, not even the last three bottles of wine and a good deal of tequila can keep us from seeing what we’ve put off with mad cooking and manic conversation. There’s nothing left to hide that it’s Sunday afternoon and Janessa and I will have to be on the bus back to site at six in the morning. We fall into a melancholy silence, collapsing onto blankets in the last of the sunlight and trying to accommodate our swollen stomachs.


The hills lift the horizon high into the sky, and sunset always comes as a surprise in the Sierra. We were all nodding or napping, and the stars stole out before we knew it, Orion peeking over the hills to our east.

“Do you miss your family?” Janessa asks.

“I dunno. I mean, my folks are in China,” I reply, “So there’s not much of a home for me to go back to for things like this. Plus, you’re married and everything, but for me, every holiday away is a kind of growing-up. Every one a little more adult.”

“You want to be an adult?”

“I don’t feel like one,” I say, but I figure this must be what it’s like for everyone when they’re first out on their own, whether it’s in Mexico or Michigan. Trying to recapture bits of what they’ve left behind.

We stay out until we can’t keep our eyes open, pulling on sweaters and scarves as the wind turns. It rushes around the valley in waves, building to a waterfall roar as it comes to the house and tousles our hair. Dozens of shooting starts streak over us and we put off bedtime, wishing our private wishes.

In the morning, we blow on fingers and chafe our palms together. We pack stuffing and pies into shopping bags and snug them in the spare pockets of our backpacks. We turn and hug Danielle at the door.

“You’ll have to make that apple pie again for Christmas,” she says as we pull away from each other.

And she’s right. I will.

Fiat Lengua

Approaching fluency in a second language is magical. Not the Buzzfeed, Tumblr sense of the word, where learning to put an egg in ramen is ‘magical,’ but something extra-human, something out-of-the-ordinary, something that leaves you feeling powerful as you navigate what used to be an impenetrable country, people, culture. And it’s crushing to have that taken away from you.

I walked into a store the other day and rattled off the standard Buenos días, ¿cómo está usted? And was met with Merhaba and a string of nonsense syllables, and the shock was acute. I knew in some part of me that I was in Turkey, but after a year living in Mexico, the assumption that I could speak with foreigners was so integral to my day-to-day that losing it was like having an arm torn off.

Plus Turks look angrier than Mexicans when they're confused

Plus Turks look angrier than Mexicans when they’re confused

As a traveler and as a Volunteer, I can go anywhere and do anything in Mexico. Today I went down to the river and asked homeowners to let me paint murals on their walls and strolled into the offices of the National Teachers’ Union and of the Municipal Presidency to do the same—I’m not fluent and a I’ll probably never be able to breeze through Marquez, but I speak with fluency and I can understand anybody in this country without a serious speech impediment. Being unable to intuit that I couldn’t afford both juice and gum and being unable to tell the clerk that I’d just take the juice, that was crippling.

For a while, that feeling almost dominated my time in Istanbul. My deficit left me painfully reliant on Alex Guyton. Ever action, every simmit purchase, drink order, direction, metro ticket, whatever, I had to have her do it, and I got to be scared, petrified of going out without her.

Honestly I'm afraid every moment I'm not with Alex

Honestly I’m afraid every moment I’m not with Alex

Continue reading

Between a Cock and a Hard Place

Everyone thinks I’m gay. Here in town, that is. I’ve been told that before—most of the volunteer girls in our group thought so—and it doesn’t particularly bother me. My set of guys in the States wouldn’t mind, girls I’m interested in quickly find out it’s not true, and in any case I’m pretty comfortable with my sexuality and my 2.5 or so on the Kinsey Scale. The problem is that this is rural Mexico and the guys here do mind. A visit from a Jalpense girl who goes to college out of town confirmed that the gente definitely think I’m batting lefty and that it probably explains my paucity of straight male friends. As in, outside of coworkers and family, I have none.

The first glance thing isn’t the issue here—most young men dress way gayer than I do, and I know that sounds insensitive, but for the trendier Mexican set, gay or straight, spray-on jeans, tight-ass shirts and pastel colors are the uniform.

I couldn't find a picture of dudes wearing these after a ten second search. So yea these

I couldn’t find a picture of dudes wearing these after a ten second search. So yea these

A plaid palette and a relaxed leg-to-pant-width ratio put me in a more conservative sartorial cohort. The issue is that my best friend in town is gay. And since Jalpan is chockablock with ‘closeted’ young gay men, our association has branded me what seems like indelibly.

Mexico has a peculiar culture for gay people at the moment. Coming out hasn’t been, among friends, much of an issue for anyone I’ve known (with exceptions, given I went to a Catholic University) since the early years of high school. In parts of Mexico City, like the Zona Rosa, it’s weird to see anyone holding hands who isn’t gay, while Querétaro, the biggest city in my state and the place where Peace Corps Mexico is headquartered, is one of the more conservative urban areas in the country. It has a thriving urban hippy culture and what seems to be a healthy gay population (although without the handholding of the capital it’s harder to tell). At the same time, when I was headed to Mexico City and told my host mom I’d be staying in the same Zona Rosa, she opined about how beautiful it used to be. It’s still architecturally beautiful and full of municipal art and statuary…it’s just also full of gay folks.

This is pretty representative

This is pretty representative

Continue reading

Contact Hangover

A new desk can’t help that it’s gloomy here at home.

This is a crummy cell photo

The six o’clock rain has come on schedule and it’s starting to fill the hall.

Today is the seventh of July. Yesterday the last of the volunteers who showed up for Independence Day made their way to the bus station and back to site. The weather, true to Faulkner, has obliged to fit my mood. Of all the hardships and frustrations that Peace Corps manages to work into our cushy post, leaving volunteers has to be the worst.

We’re like a family here in country and not in the sense of the usual platitudes. If this were high school or college or any other normal stage of life, we would most of us not know each other, and if we did would not be friends. We’re disparate people, more so than anyone’s ideas of the Peace Corps would lead them to believe. We have teachers and organic farmers, but also marine biologists, computer scientists, graduates of psychology and criminal justice, writers failing to aspire. I don’t know the new kids that well, but as of May we can count on at least one fracking engineer.

We should not fit together, but training and service push us into an artificial closeness. For three months we share everything, every day, and then we lead the same lives for two years. Just like in families, that closeness breeds love and friendship. Along with annoyance, constant frustration, grudging tolerance and occasional enmity.

Continue reading


I thought that coming back from the States was going to be hard. Returning to site after Early in-Service Training (EIST) was a nightmare. For all of us, I think. A full week of depression, malaise. Couldn’t get work done, couldn’t write, couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to see people in town. But the States has been easy. Leaving friends and folks was tough. Both times, riding the metro out to Reagan from DC and letting my parents go and checking in at Detroit International, all the way through to getting on the bus in the city to come back here, like I was toting a sackful of rocks behind my navel. But once I hit my house, my stifling room, and my sopping bed, not a pang.

It might be that during EIST you’re with people who so well understand your situation, or that you’re still it Mexico when it happens, that it’s part of service and so more keenly felt when you’re back in site, in service. Being in the US was another world. Something apart enough that it couldn’t touch me here. Not in the sense of reverse culture shock. The Peace Corps and volunteers will go on about that, and maybe when I haven’t been back for more than a year it will hit me too. But Mexico is too developed, too unlike a regular site for service to present a totally different culture. What I felt there was something subtler.

Part of it was coming back to college for a little while. I stayed with my uncle and aunt in Virginia for a spell, like I did every weekend the summer before I shipped out, and I stayed with all the guys I lived with that summer too. The people I saw in DC were all college friends, from the year before, my year, and the one after. Because my buddy Eric’s dating a year younger, I ended up going to her awards ceremony and through their largesse (and that Brian Baum had a spare suit) I went to Senior Ball a second time.

They've gotten prettier since I left

They’ve gotten prettier since I left

So a real repeat of what should have been an uncapturable past.


Continue reading

Dance like there’s People Around

Well, inside today. The winter I mentioned a couple of posts ago has lasted through vacation and I can more than see my breath in my house, even after running the stove for 90 minutes making stew. When the sun’s out in Jalpan, it’s obnoxiously hot and when it’s cloudy it’s goddamned frigid. I haven’t seen the sun in three weeks. Like I think I’ve mentioned, there’s no indoor heating here, so it’s cold everywhere when it’s cold anywhere. Trey and I have taken to wearing our hobo cutoff gloves at work because it’s the only way we can keep our hands warm enough to type. Anyway, let’s keep catching up on Christmas.

This would be the view if I were outside and there was blessed warming light

This would be the view if I were outside and there was blessed warming light

The day itself here isn’t quite as important as back home; the general sense of festivity starts on the 12th, which is the anniversary of the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and it continues all the way to yesterday (at the time I wrote this), the 6th of January, the Day of Kings (specifically the three of the nativity story). Christmas Eve is the bigger date, at least in Jalpan, and it was definitely more eventful for us volunteers. I spent most of the day running around trying to get presents for Trey and Janessa (a bottle of Jack and a coffee-maker, respectively) and pecans to make pie with later in the week. Pecans are one of the few things in Mexico that would qualify as expensive in the United States, but both Trey and I felt like since we hadn’t made one for Thanksgiving, I’d have to put one together this time around.

After that was all done, I went to a rosary prayer service at Trey and Janessa’s Mom (Lupe)’s house for her more-or-less recently deceased mother. After that was mass and then we got down to the spiked ponche (pretty much like our punch with different fruit), spiked coffee, spiked fruit tea, and an asada, which is like any American cookout if you had it on the 24th of December.

Lupe introduced (and shoved me bodily into) her daughter Monica, back from college, earlier in the day, and we ended up getting tapped to rock the infant Jesus for awhile in a ritual I wasn’t curious enough to inquire after (when we did later, we got the answer we should have expected—’you rock him because he’s a baby, obviously‘).

Right, of course, why'd I even ask

Right, of course, why’d I even ask

After the meat and tortillas ran out, we headed for the plaza for what was supposed to be all night huapango.

I spent most of my time during this bit running around with Monica getting more punch and meeting her friends and just generally getting dragged by the wrist (in the friendliest of ways). She’s just as excited and energetic as her mom (although Lupe says ‘loca’ for them both), and I think it would be pretty fair to say that after two weeks, she’s one of my better friends here, for all that she’s back in Toluca in Mexico State now. Which I’m all the more happy about because she’s got virtually no English.


Top left. Moving on up.

Anyway, after a bit of running around, we abandoned the other Americans to go hang out on top of a hill with a few of her friends, and when it got too absolutely frigidly cold, we headed back to listen to Zeppelin and Macklemore in her older friend’s psychology consultorium. You know, how people do.

A few days later there was a town dance for the paisanos. Paisano can mean a few different things, but in Jalpan it refers to all the guys who work in the States and come back for the holidays. They all meet up at the border and they caravan down with a government escort through the rougher northern states, and when they get here, the town throws three different parties. The 28th is the Día del Paisano and there’s a parade where all the caravaners drive through town in their trucks and that night we have a big old dance.

These are the kinds of things that Northerners imagine they have in small town West Texas. Everybody shows up in cowboy hats and their best Levis and plaid with giant belt buckles and rodeo boots, and they all crowd into the giant basketball court outside the auditorium and dance and buy six-packs and carouse until four or five in the morning. As long as I’ve got some local friends to go with, I’m in love with these things. Huapango’s easy enough to fake, and banda and cumbia are simple enough to dance if you don’t get too ambitious with the spins, and either I’ve gotten to be a better dancer than I remember or folks are just happy to have a turn with the newer gringo in town, so I’ve no problem finding partners inside of our high-school-style dance circle or out.

So Monica and the friends and the other volunteers and I went over to her house and got the culturally appropriate amount of lit and then we headed for the dance, plaid and all. We danced, those of you who know me won’t believe, until five in the morning, turning and stepping and jigging and trading partners and spinning and even knocking down a square dance to the tune of Achey Breakey Heart that’s as obligatory as the Cupid Shuffle used to be.

Friends, these people are as warmhearted and welcoming as everyone in the South pretends to be, and I’m having one hell of a time.

Still sitting on this bucket though.