It wasn’t until Teri Anderson got to site a couple of weeks ago that I realized how much my enthusiasm has dropped off since my own arrival in Jalpan a year and six months ago. All of us in my group and those who remain from earlier classes know that we’ve traded some of our initial blind excitement for tempered experience. It happens with everything—the end of the honeymoon period with a new girlfriend, the fifth or sixth day visiting your parents as an adult and realizing that somebody’s going to go insane, or the moment when you realized Modern Family wasn’t cute so much as about three abusive couples who hate each other.

Boring people being awful to each other: The Show

Boring people being awful:  The Show


Service work is famous for enthusiasm burnout. Animal shelters (and hospitals) call it compassion fatigue, when you’ve seen so much puppy (or human, say) suffering that you just can’t feel bad about it anymore. Ditto for any part of the service field.


And for listening to Sarah McLachlan

Other types of work have tangible incentives—pay and pay raises, promotions, company cars—but service work relies of ‘fulfillment’ to make up for low ages, unlikely advancement and poor working conditions. More, it’s relatively rare that someone gets into service with a specific, achievable, realistic endgame in mind. You manage that aimlessness my setting your own goals, and Peace Corps is great at encouraging that, but the reality of virtually all service work is that you never get to win, never come to the end of it—there will always be more people in bad situations, always be more corporations and governments exploiting their populations, always be more work to do—and it’s hard to deal with that reality year in and year out.

Peace Corps is susceptible to fatigue and cynicism in part because of its open-ended structure. Once you get to site, you’re essentially on your own, and the work of rewarding, incentivizing, goal-setting, and progress-assessing falls to you alone. You hit the ground and you want to take on the world, and you’ve got carte blanche to try—we’re encouraged to think of our work day as twenty four hours long and our weeks as neverending.

Or as our stamp would lead you to believe

God we’re cool / have racist stamps

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I’m just in from five days on the road, here to Ciudad Guzmán by way of Guadalajara and back, so the post is going to be a bit of a medley.

The heat is here but fierce, and we’re up past forty centigrade in the daytime. It’s almost eight in the evening as I write and it’s easily ninety or so in Fahrenheit here in my open-to-the-outside-air-hallway.

Like this but minus two months and plus fifty thirty degrees

Like this but minus two months and plus  thirty degrees

From now until the start of June, life gets a little less bearable. The fería started this weekend, and first you wonder why they’d pick these of all days to hold it and afterwards you wonder why they didn’t plan to fall asleep drunk through all of May, too, and how you yourself will manage to do it without the help.


I picked up two books of poetry, Keats and Yeats, over Christmas. Collections, better said, and I haven’t made much progress. I’ve only had poetry once, from a great AP Lit teacher in high school—with guidance, I get the intellectual pleasure of picking the things apart, and I like the greatest hits as much as anyone, “Two Paths Diverged” and “Walking by Woods” and all that. But alone, I’ve had trouble taking the time to sit and read, so when I went on this trip, I brought only Yeats (and The Fall, but it’s short enough to finish in an hour or two and it’s thirteen from here to Ciudad Guzmán), and, well, I’ve been reading.

The thing is that I think I might be doing it wrong. I want to read poetry because I have a vague jealousy of Englishmen who can quote Wordsworth and Tennyson and Yeats and Keats à propos and off the cuff. So I’ve been reading-as-hunting, looking for whichever lines strike me and putting them down for later committal, rather than trying to parse or discern narrative flow or pay all that much attention to any stanzas that don’t grab me right off. Better or worse, that’s the only way I seem cut to do it, so here are two of Yeats’.

The Falling of the Leaves

Autumn is over the long leaves that love us,

And over the mice in the barley sheaves,

Yellow the leaves of the rowan above us,

And yellow the wet wild-strawberry leaves.


The hour of the waning of love has beset us,

And weary and worn are our sad souls now;

Let us part, ere the season of passion forget us,

With a kiss and a tear on thy drooping brow.

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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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I got a little liquored and sentimental awhile ago and scribbled all this out on printer paper at two in the morning. It’s more melodramatic than I’d like, but it’s not bad and I don’t mind it as a little giving-thanks, especially since we did our big dinner this past Sunday. I’ll see what I can do to make the pictures lighthearted.

Last Sunday

No reason for it. This is just our Thanksgiving

I’ve written about kids, but I’m not sure I’ve ever written about parents except to denigrate the idea of becoming one. There’s a lot of thought behind that. In the first place, not much is left of the American Dream except the notion that you ought to give better than you got. My folks came of age during the last great gasp of old-time Corporate America. From the golden age of Reagan’s military straight into the arms of General Motors they went, knowing that thirty years from the first day in the plant they’d be taken care of, that the Company’d care for their health, their kids, their retirement. And they did well for themselves. Smart, driven people navigating the world they’d been bred for.

I grew up in the most luxury you can have without being ruined as a human. I never had cause to want. I lived abroad, went to good mostly public schools, met decent people. Any desire on my part was not the result of privation but considered withholding on theirs, careful choices by my parents that kept me grounded. I was never aware of our wealth until late in high school; they’d shielded me from the tacky excess that seems to typify the upper ranks of the middle class now. They worked hard and long, maybe too much so. Much of our early care was given over to nannies and au pairs, but it’s a testament to my folks that I barely remember those caregivers’ names now, while my father reading us One Thousand and One Arabian Nights at bedtime is as fresh as what I ate for breakfast.

The Nights kind of created the bedtime story, if you think about it

The Nights kind of created the bedtime story, if you think about it

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Holly Golightly, Swede Levov, and Raoul Duke

I’ve mentioned that I’m reading all the time here, even though my tally is nowhere near as high as Danny’s when he was this far into service. I console myself by saying that I also read most of the longform journalism that makes it onto the web and that I’m going through a list of 20th Century Western canon that I never got to in high school or college (here’s the link, suggest me stuff if you think I’ve got glaring holes; I don’t know if Goodreads will tell you you’ve suggested something I’ve already read or if crowdsourcing works when your blog only has twelve regular readers, but well there it is), but really I think he’s just more dedicated to the endeavor.

I’ve got to find material for the blog, though, so I’m going to start reviewing some of the books I go through, either in fast little snippets like in this post or in longer, I-wish-it-were-like-NYRB-style-essays, which I’ll do for Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon maybe.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s — Truman Capote

Like most people (I think, in this particular case), I’d seen the movie before I read the book, and I don’t know if it’s just because you tend to like and believe the things that you see first, but I’d have to maintain that I enjoyed the film more (as opposed to the usual order of things). It’s hard not to hope for a happy ending where Hepburn is concerned, and once you’ve seen her as Holly Golightly, it’s hard to think of the character as anyone else.

I mean, right. Right?

I mean, right. Right?

Plus the Paul Varjak—George Peppard gigolo bit is fun and it doesn’t play in the novel.

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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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Courtesy of Incarnate Word Ministries

I walk to Lupe’s house at eight, happy that the weather’s cooled. Easter Vigil feels long enough playing American rules without worrying about pit stains. We start a half-hour late, but I don’t mind. Lupe has been talking about the procession and the Mass as if they’ve got no time limit, as though they only end when you give up and walk out. ¡A ver si nos aguanta! She screams at intervals.

We start the walk across town without our friend Elvia, who’s running even later than us. Women with canes and rebozos trundle alongside, candles at the ready. I ask Lupe if only women go to the procession. No, she tells me. It’s for everyone.

The fair starts tomorrow and half the town is already partying. The frantic one two one two polka sound of banda music pours out of trucks and houses. Stoops are full of young men drinking from forty-ounces and eyeing us in the wary way that young people have here.

We make it at eight forty for an eight thirty curtain, but the priest is nowhere to be seen and neither are most of the people. Don’t worry, Lupe says, they’ll be here. And see, guys come too, she adds, sweeping a hand at the few stooped and silent men. I nod and keep looking around when she taps me again. Esta vela se prenderá para la Pascua, she says, as if it were a secret.

I know, Lupe, I say. I’m Catholic, remember.

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Men Without Women

I’ve got pictures of my legs today. I went on a water-quality-monitoring expedition with some other volunteers and guys from the office this weekend. We checked on the quantity and physical characteristics of water salamanders, which over time give us a picture of how bad or good the water is. We did this in beautiful Pinal in a couple of spring-fed, barely-above freezing rivers, and as soon as I’ve got photos or video of me and Trey and Ulises jumping in and cussing our lungs out, I’ll put them up. What the river also had were black flies. The kind that bite people when they’re trying to measure salamanders.

Scratching is better than sex

The kind that bite you sixty or seventy times on each leg

They also carry, shit you not, parasites that cause river blindness. Trey and I have been scratching ourselves raw for days, but as long as we don’t end up with a disease you diagnose by spotting worms in your own eyes, we’ll be alright.

Getting to the point of the post, Hemingway’s got a collection of short stories called Men without Women. The book explores the titular condition and finds that we (and given the book, the premise of the post, and my own orientation, I’m gonna be talking about hetero men) are worse off. That the women in our lives fill some void, lend some balance, that without them, whether by virtue of something intrinsic to them or projected on them by us, our rougher edges, worse natures, insecurities and failings emerge.



It's a good book

I might be reading into things

I’d have to agree.

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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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Edward Said and Defining Mexico

The Mexican is lazy, is hardworking, is prone to violence, is hospitable. He is dirty, clean, like to other hispanics, unlike other latinos, shares racial strengths with the indians, has inherited cultural decadence from the Spanish. He lives in an old country with old values, he finds it hard to adapt to new ways of life, he is itinerant, moving to new locales to leech off other peoples. “The Mexican” and “Mexicans” are a lot of bullshit.

When I sit down and slam out a blog, beer in hand, I take on a responsibility. All Peace Corps volunteers and all the expats like us do the same. When we write about our host countries and peoples, we define them, to ourselves and to our audience.

There’s a book about it.

This book

This book

Said describes the way that “Orientalists,” scholars of the nearer and farther Easts, created a body of ideas, papers, art, and literature, that took on more reality than the physical East. When making policy or business decisions, Westerners responded to this constructed pseudo-Orient rather than the real. I’m simplifying. A lot. But I’ll use Mexico as an example of the same.

The parts of this country that I have seen—massive pine woods, cloud-forests, alpine streamlets and freezing waterfalls, the chic-as-fuck city of Querétaro and its eco-cafes and burgeoning urban-hippy scene—none of it has anything to do with the impression I had of Mexico before shipping out.

If you think of all these things when I say Mexico, you're Mexican and/or a liar

If you think of all these things when I say Mexico, you’re Mexican and/or a liar

Where did my previous impression of Mexico come from? From the great American collective unconscious. Flashes of Speedy Gonzales combine with lectures on the Mexican Revolution and vague images from a trip to the Alamo. Cormac McCarthy novels blend into the Man with No Name and The Magnificent Seven. It’s a powerful mental image of white linens and sombreros, now overlaid with narcos and beheadings.


We think of this

Almost none of that conception has anything to do with the “Real Mexico,” just like the way the rest of the world literally thinks we only eat hamburgers and hot dogs in the States has the tiniest bit of truth (we eat hamburgers sometimes) while missing everything else about us. “Mexicans eat tacos right?” “Well yea, but they’re different than ours and that’s not the point.”

The image, the pseudo-Mexico of The Three Amigos and shitty restaurants, it is the Mexico that we respond to, as voters, vacationers, businesspeople, and politicians. You have to go somewhere to start to know it. I don’t know Mexico. I don’t even know Querétaro, or Jalpan. But I’m a sight further along than I was beforehand, enough to know that what I thought I knew, I didn’t. What you have to realize is that the false American idea of Mexico is all the Mexico there is for the majority of Americans.

Perfect, right


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