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.


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Bury the Lede

Things decay in the campo. They break down, fall apart, succumb to the entropic forces of heat and wet and hard use. Shoe soles crack, fray, come to pieces, holes wear into socks and shirts and packs, mud and road dust creep into everything. Even cuts turn to scars more often out here.

In spite of it, I’m taking better care than I ever have before, better care of everything. The easy (because they’re self-motivating) things, like obsessive flossing and overuse of gauze and antibiotics to keep teeth and limbs from falling out and off. But the smaller and more tedious things too, cleaning where before I would have let lie, repairing and restoring where custom would have me replace.

I have an orange Jansport backpack. Dad brought it home to the house in Michigan more than six years ago expecting (I imagine) to use it himself. I stole it that same night (I think), and my first act of possession was to shear off half of its straps with a pocket knife because I didn’t like the way they looked. I’ve used that pack in the intervening years for school and every trip I’ve made under seven days, and it’s held up. But my laptop’s heavy and seventeen inches large, just a bit wider than the Jansport, and last October the seams around the shoulders finally blew out. I’ve sewn them back together twice now, black and white thread reaching further and further from the original stitching to find purchase.

I'm a natural

I’m a natural

I tore out the bottom of my hiking pack transporting hardwoods for my amateur-but-really-professional-carpenter father, and the dual color thread stands out even more brightly against its olive drab.

I brought twelve pairs of socks back to Mexico from the US the first time I went home and tore the heels out of all of them in three months of sweaty summer use. Then I darned them.

I darned them all!

Darned and in need of re-darning

Now I’m looking for a wooden mushroom and I’ve started pre-patching all my new pairs against the creeping serrano deterioration.

The highway that fronts my office is the only artery of communication through the mountains and half the day we can’t hear anything for all the engine-braking. Every morning we come in to another millimeter of road dust on our desks, and I’ve become intimate with the insides of my laptop, prising it apart and cleaning it and piecing it together again. I brought a keg of Oxi-Clean home from that same first trip, and the TSA opened and upended it in my pack after check-in. I spent two days tweezing the white particles out of my motherboard, blowing the detergent from each individual connection.

My whites are whiter than ever

My whites are whiter than ever though

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I’m helping to copy edit the travel book of a friend of mine in Istanbul. He just turned in his second draft, and I’ve been looking at it for the last hour. It’s making me think that it’s finally time to talk about the ten days I spent in that city and all the thoughts his book brings up besides.

He is dog?

In all his glory

My best woman friend from college, Alex, her Peace Corps application languished a few months too long, so she applied to Teachers in Turkey and they snapped her up inside a week. I went out there and did nothing like I was supposed to. I spent one morning in Sultanahment and the bazaars and only because she had a lesson to teach that day. All the rest of my time passed in Kadikoy and the other parts of the Asian side, meeting her friends, attending dinner parties, drinking on the Bosporus.

But for the language, Istanbul would be my ideal city. Massive, the cultural and political heart of its entire country, cosmopolitan and polyglot, gleaming on the European side, dripping with history, and bohemian to the east, affordable and chockablock with cafés and hookahs and smart young expats who’ve escaped the work culture of the States and gone abroad to write and teach and make art and play music. A city torn by dissent, wracked by protests over the KDP and Kobane at the time and still possessed by the warmth and hospitality that make Mexico so endearing.

Alex and Ernie and Anna and Jari and Valentin and Sadaf and Maedeh are living the kind of life that I wish I were brave enough or unbeholden enough to my folks to lead.

As long as nobody's singing an impromptu Marseillaise

It’s better, on the whole, than it looks right here.

Unafraid to cut ties with the assembly line shuttling from high school into college into debt into work into the grave. Which is more or less the thesis of Ernie’s book.

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I can’t know for sure what the first thing any American notices about Mexico is, but inefficiency has to be in the top ten.

I’ve commented on Mexican life’s slowish pace, and the possible tradeoffs there might be between happiness and the tightest bottom line. I’m going to try to tie a few of those ideas together in this post.

When it comes to the bathroom, I’m a morning person. None of this showering at night business or running off to class or work with a head dunked in a sink. For better or worse, a trip to the facilities has been part of my start-up routine at every office job I’ve ever worked. There are the necessities to take care of, but it’s also a brief window to read, do the LA Times crossword, center myself after the commute and get ready for the day. A spiritual time.

And Snapchats to my high school buddies

This means home to me

So it’s jarring that every day when I arrive, the young woman who cleans our office is camped out in the men’s john. It serves as a janitorial closet, a dishwashing station, and general female hangout during the course of the morning. The women’s is too small to accommodate any of the things we store in there and we can’t switch sides because the men’s has a urinal. It’s doubly troubling, because as I’ve mentioned, my diet right now is 90% black beans and coffee.

Lola (her name is Lola, short for Lolita short for Dolores) opens the building in the morning, and depending on the day does maybe ¼ of her cleaning before the staff arrives. Sometime last February, Janessa and I were working on a project that seemed urgent at the time, and we got up four or five times in the course of a half-hour so Lola could wipe down our desks, sweep behind them, and then mop after sweeping.[1] Newly adapted to life here, we started to grumble around the fourth interruption—in the States, maintenance is before or after work, in the States, employees are left to be productive; you wouldn’t find a janitor strolling into a corner office at 10am and breaking up a conference call—on and on like that.

It’s true, Lola disrupts office work. Unavoidable fact. We’d all get more done if she cleaned while we aren’t here. If Janessa and I had left service way back when, I imagine that would have been our takeaway. But now it’s not, not even close.

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Christmas, Coca Cola, and Cultural Imperialism

The damp gloom outside tells me it’s getting to be Christmastime, and that makes this the moment to talk about cultural imperialism. Because without the Spanish Empire we wouldn’t have the holiday at all in Mexico and because of the way it’s so easy to see American cultural influence in this season.

First, the term. One of the consequences of globalization is the diffusion of dominant cultures. The colonial age imposed western socio-political forms on the rest of the world by force. Most every country on Earth now runs on a western model, be it socialism, communism, or some form of constitutional republic, because of colonial expansion.

Pretty good coverage

Pretty good coverage

Today, that diffusion continues through economic, rather (or largely rather) than physical, domination. The United States’ dominion over world markets allows its goods (and by extension, its culture) to penetrate every one of its trade partners. It’s no surprise that you can get Marlboro Reds and a Coke in the remotest corners of the globe. The result of our flooding of the world with our production is the seep of our culture into every other, often to the exclusion of the original.

Not such a bad thing, proud Americans might think. The foreigners could use a little of our gumption, et cetera. Problem being that we usually export the worst parts of us—soft drinks, fast food, discount beers, shitty consumer goods, the endless drivel of our network TV. It’s part of why much of the world has so low an opinion of our culture (“You don’t have a culture” crops up). And what we might take to be passive diffusion often aggressively displaces the traditions and practices of other countries. Which brings us back to this season in Mexico.

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Dulce et Decorum est

I’m always looking for practical applications of philosophy, and when an illegal war to prolong an illegal occupation broke out across the water a few weeks back, I started re-reading Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars so that I might have a better framework to back up words like “illegal” and “massacre” and “a pretty clear pattern here, folks.”

I’ll touch on the Balfour Declaration and everything that came after in a few weeks or whenever I get through the book, but for now I’ll be typing up stuff that strikes me as I read. Right now, I’ve got a bit of a policy suggestion.

Walzer’s book is about just war theory and the war convention, the ways in which we judge the initiation of and conduct within wars.

Who loved Political and Social Thought? This guy

Who loved Political and Social Thought? This guy

Walzer refers to existing international law at times, but he’s up front in pointing out that iLaw as it stands is an incomplete tapestry, one that lacks coherence and sovereign enforcement. His argument, he says, is about moral law, the kind worked out by philosophers for millennia.

All of this is to say that sometimes Walzer begins what seems like a tangent into philosophical wordplay in order to illustrate a point of ‘moral law’ or a moral imperative. It was during one of those apparent digressions that I started thinking about this post.

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Deck Chairs

I write a radio show. I write it once a week to be broadcast on Wednesday at three in the afternoon. Each week I write it on a different broad and unexciting environmental topic. Unexciting not because there’s nothing interesting to be said on, say, Earth Day or cloud forests or the Reserve in which I work. But because the vagueness of the topics and the format of the show mean that each script is a little history and a lot of basic explainer. We’re trying to make the show more about debates and contests and citizen participation, but in the meantime it is what it is. And Piedras Anchas being a government station means that I can’t spice it up in its current format.

Which is just this guy talking for an hour

Which is just this guy talking for an hour

I discovered our self-censorship during the Earth Day show. I was writing the first half, all the background, its popular roots and how the UN incorporated it into their year-round calendar of official unobserved holidays. I wrote something that even then I’d written a dozen times already: that the ’92 Rio Conference was an environmental watershed, one of the most important moments in who gives a shit. Looking at what I’d written, I decided to change tack. There are breaks in the show, and the script after half-time read something like this:

I said something before the corte: that Rio was fundamentally important. I’ve said it before and I will probably say it again. In the sense that it was a conference that garnered mass international participation and recognition, it was important. But in the sense of achieving significant advances, it wasn’t, and neither was any other UN environmental gathering.

We have known since the 1970s that manmade climate change represents an existential threat to communities worldwide. We have known that the myriad activities of our commerce and industry are destroying the environment not in an academic sense but immediately and with consequences that will affect us and cripple the generations that follow.

And what have we done? What have we really achieved now we’ve been armed with that knowledge? The answer is nothing or almost nothing—there have been small victories in other fields, like the discontinuation of CFCs, but only when those victories presented minute economic hurdles for our governments and corporations and only when they had other techniques and chemicals at hand.

I want this Earth Day not to be another day during which we congratulate ourselves for those hollow successes but one in which we think on every time we have known what was right and failed to follow through, every time we had the opportunity to improve our environment or protect it and stood by instead.

When your failures combine...they can be totally depressing

When your failures combine…they can be totally depressing

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The Siege Paranoid

In Danse Macabre, King brings up the idea that paranoia is the last refuge of sanity in a world that defies comprehension.

In such a world it is perfectly credible that a mental defective should sit on the upper floor of a little-used building, wearing a Hanes t-shirt, eating take-out chicken, and waiting to use his mail-order rifle to blow out the brains of an American president; perfectly possible that another mental defective should be able to stand around in a hotel kitchen a few years later waiting to do exactly the same thing to that defunct president’s younger brother; perfectly understandable that nice American boys from Iowa and California and Delaware should have spent their tours in Vietnam collecting ears, many of them extremely tiny; that the world should begin to move once more toward the brink of an apocalyptic war because of the preachings of an eighty-year-old Moslem holy man who is probably foggy on what he had for breakfast by the time sunset rolls around. All of these things are mentally acceptable if we accept the idea that God has abdicated for a long vacation, or has perchance really expired. They are mentally acceptable, but our emotions, our spirits, and most of all our passion for order—these powerful elements of our human makeup—all rebel. If we suggest…that it just happened and nobody was really responsible—things just got a little out of control here, ha-ha, so sorry—then the mind begins to totter.

It sounds a lot like something I began to think about a few years ago.

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Distressful Wishing

I’m in the Peace Corps. And without being all that proud of it, being a volunteer is about as youth chic as it gets. Along with working for Google and, if you’ve gone to Georgetown, getting ten grand at signing to whittle your soul away from Deloitte or Credit Suisse. But for all that, there are times when I’d rather be elsewhere. Not out of the Peace Corps (although I got that response from a staff member at a party during what I thought was a nice conversation). Out of Mexico. Not because there’s anything wrong with Mexico. Kind of the opposite.

I was talking to the famous-within-this-blog Alex Guyton the other day.

You remember Alex

You remember Alex

We just had our first in-service training last week, and we were updating ourselves on Ukraine the whole time, the more internet connected filling in the real rural volunteers and everyone getting updates between classes. I mentioned the Crimea or something to Alex and she more or less says ‘Sure that’s crazy but look at this.’ She hauls the laptop around and I’m staring at grainy, artifacted footage of Gezis building barricades and getting firehosed by riot police all in honor of Berkin Elvan. She turned the camera back around. “General Lamarque is dead!” I say. She laughs and says ‘Pretty much spot on.’ ‘That’s what I’m good for,’ I say, ‘Half-witty commentary from the other side of the world.’ It’s about all I’m good for. I want what Alex has.

Righteous social unrest

Righteous social unrest is what Alex has

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Let’s Talk about Third Goal

From the room again today, although very soon I’ll have a porch that’s every bit as hot as the one in DC, and come summer, much, much hotter.

For now, this

For now, this

I mentioned the Peace Corps’ second and third goals in passing in my last post, but I’d like to look at them in depth this time. They are strangely difficult to find on the Internet, considering how prominent they are in training and in PC culture in general (talking about something as 2nd or 3rd goal is readily understood even before our myriad acronyms become second nature). In any case, here they are:

2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of all Americans.

The number one reason we ought to pay attention to two and three is that we’ve really got them handled. They’re in our wheelhouse. Goal one, which concerns sending trained men and women to meet the needs of the developing world and to improve the quality of life of the people of hour host country, it’s important. Very much so. It consumes the vast majority of our two years on site, and when we’re evaluating our performance as volunteers against our country plan, it provides the tangible criteria that we use.

But you know and we know and everybody knows and nobody’s even pretending anymore that the best way to run an international development organization is with a bunch of two-year volunteers, the majority of whom come without a wealth of experience in the field. That’s not to say that everyone’s a history major like me (although some folks might argue, myself first, that having gone to the School of Foreign Service merits something). In fact, I’m the only non-scientist/statistician/engineer/professional educator here, and they only took me because my counterpart was looking specifically for somebody with my work history.

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