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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Smaller Is Better

Trey and I each have a favorite beer. His is the Hexagenia IPA from Fall River Brewing, a small-batcher made with water from the same and you can only get your hands on it in Redding, California or thereabouts. My favorite, shit you not, is the DC Brau spring seasonal Yonder Cities, which is only around DC from Marchish to Junish (and may, I’m now discovering, have been discontinued). I have a hard time believing that, were both of them available everywhere, they’d still be our favorites.


Look at it though

Look at it though

First, because there’s a value we find in novelty, whether through regionality or seasonality. A quantifiable value and a big one, if you look at Starbucks pumpkin spice sales figures. Two, because I don’t think they’d be as good when they’d gone from small-batch to major distribution. Both halves of that thought are important, but I’m dealing with the latter.

Trey and I advanced the idea between ourselves, mostly in terms of craft beer, that it might be honorable to keep a company small. I don’t know if I can say ‘good’ out of hand, because by some metrics, it isn’t—you’ll make less money, for sure, and definitely fewer profits. More, there are some things you can’t do as a small firm—huge infrastructure projects, the really big machines; most of the stuff, in short, that Boeing and GE do. But in general, we thought, the more and smaller are the businesses that make up your economy, the better.

The brain trust

The brain trust

Let’s start big because that’s easiest. Semi and regional monopolies plague the US, many or most of them created by merger, buy-out, and Congressional award. The newly merged American Airlines Group is now the world’s largest carrier, and by some accounts second only to United in awfulness. Their combine with US Airways resulted in increased delays and cancellations, heralded the demise of free domestic checked baggage and the installation of ever more cramped seating (as well as massive reneging on agreements with their five unions).

Comcast and Time Warner are in many places the only options for internet service, and anyone who’s ever dealt with them knows that the connections they provide are shoddy, their tech support bad and overwhelmed, and the personnel doing home visits so overbooked as to be entirely unreliable.

Electronic Arts is the biggest name in video game publishing, and it got there by buying, cannibalizing, and closing smaller independent studios. Those who’ve been through or followed one of their disastrous recent launches, the out-and-out theft they’ve perpetrated through their digital distribution platform Origin, or was a fan of Westwood or Maxis or a myriad of other companies knows that quality always declined following the takeovers.

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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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Yo No Sé Qué

I went to visit Ben Weiss a couple of weekends ago.[1] It’s not the first time I’ve gotten the feeling I like another volunteer’s digs more than my own.

Case in picture

Case in picture

Ben lives in San José de Gracia outside of Aguascalientes, home of the (very, it turns out) locally famous Cristo Roto, a Statue of the Crucifixion they dropped during construction. Apparently it came alive to tell the townsfolk not to fix it. It’s now a strobe-lit tourist-trap.

The ride from the city skirts past the benighted Pabellón (sorry Kyle) and then climbs up into the foothills of the Sierra Fría until it arrives at a small plateau on which is a pueblo very much like the one in which I live. It’s not as old and it has wide avenues instead of Jalpan’s cramped colonial streets and alleys, but it’s close enough the same.

Ben pays less than me for a house that’s three times as large on the first floor and comes with a second and a yard. Housing prices have skyrocketed since Jalpan got provisional approval as a Pueblo Mágico.[2]. Ni modo, but there’s thing one. Thing two is that Ben has a family. Not the host family—I’ve seen his now, and as nice as his abuelos are, I’d take my own. No, Ben has made a family.

After a kind of trial period, he’s settled down into a comfortable domesticity with his Mexican girlfriend Mara, a biologist who does freelance work from her own small consultoría. A family up the road from him has eight kids and money for not quite that many, so the youngest two sell donuts around town every morning. I found this out when they rang the bell at seven and peeked in to see me pretending to sleep on the couch. He sent them whispering off, and when I was up to see them on their return at nine, I wished he hadn’t.

Karla, who’s nine, and Jonathan, who looks like he’s around there, are the two cutest kids I’ve ever seen. Here, there, anywhere, these are them.

Seriously they're real cute

These kids man, the photos don’t do them justice

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And in Mexico, We’re Merely Players

Awhile ago, I wrote about the drudgery of Peace Corps life and how it does little to improve you. That might have been less than true. Not here, but elsewhere.

The thing is that Mexico has a reputation as a post, a deserved one, as the ‘Posh Corps.’ It has to do with the way the organization set up the program. Mexico began with Tech Transfer, a program that exists only here and owes its conception to the circumstances in which the Peace Corps came to this country.

My city host family's courtyard, for example

My city host family’s courtyard, for example

A particular director of the organization wanted to expand to Mexico. Peace Corps requires that the host country sign a Bilateral Agreement which leaves us more or less free reign to involve ourselves wherever the regional desk and the country office see need. In whichever village or community best suits the methodology defined by the Peace Corps Act and developed by the organization over the last fifty-odd years.

In Mexico, we never signed the Bilateral Agreement. Instead, we formed partnerships with particular organs of the Mexican federal government. The first of which was CONACYT, the National Council for Science and Technology, whose purview is the research and development of technology, whether for academic or corporate application. TT, and by extension the Mexico program, took the well trained and educated, ten years’ worth of volunteer classes of doctors of this or that, middle-aged or older, nothing like what you might imagine of a body of Peace Corps recruits.

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A (Very) Late Review of Inequality for All


I just watched Inequality for All, and it’s great. Crystallizes everything we all should have been angry about since 2008 if not, like Secretary Reich, since the Reagan Administration. Rising income inequality in the US has poisoned our democracy which has in turn poisoned our economy (etc.), and the two effects have waltzed hand in hand for decades now, dropping us dozens of places in world rankings of every indicator of prosperity.

But there are two points the filmmakers either missed (or, more likely) chose to ignore, at least in terms of a holistic picture of the post-crash situation in the States. Reich mentions polarized politics and correlates them with inequality. Somewhat fair. But while the rest of the film draws on parallels between our own time and the period between the Gilded Age and the Great Depression, politics at that time were nowhere near as polarized (contentious, maybe, but not along ideological party lines).

While he brings up both Occupy and the Tea Party as exemplars of dissatisfaction with wealth inequality, he equates them erroneously, failing to mention the (pretty critical) differences. Both were ostensibly set off by big money interfering with government (TARP and Citizens United, for example). But while Occupy advocated polices that were at least oriented towards amelioration of the situation, the Tea Party (partially and significantly funded by the Koch Brothers) pretty much lobbied for the rich and against themselves.

Which illustrates the problem that Inequality ignores—politics in the States has become a matter of faith, and a good chunk of Americans, if not 50% of the country, takes on faith the line that continuing the trickle-down policies of increasing inequality begun under the Reagan Administration will somehow solve the same crisis they precipitated.

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Drudgery Distilled

As a rule, you come to the Peace Corps with illusions. Bad ones, some of them, the White Man’s Burden type. Harmless ones, others, about what country they might send you to, the kind of place you might end up, wild and exotic dreams. And a third kind, the necessary.

Joining Peace Corps is a leap of faith. The application’s been changed now, but for decades, you accepted placement with a minimum of information and put two years of your life into hands you’d never met. Two years is a long time, longer for the younger volunteers like me, to check out of the world. Years otherwise filled by budding careers and romances and the first steps of real adulthood. To sign them over is no small thing even if, like me, there weren’t many other positions waiting for you.

At this fine establishment with this upstanding citizen

Other than at this fine establishment with this upstanding citizen

The illusions, the preconceptions, they’re what let you do it, what convince you the trade might be worth making. Once you’re here there are a thousand reasons to stay, most of them different from what you’d imagined back in the States. Before you get here, though, all you’ve got is your imagination, ideas about how service will make you better, how you’ll help people. Whether or not you end up completing substantive work is entirely up to you, and that might not strike you beforehand—you come to think of your upcoming training as somehow transformative, that it’ll teach you, all of a sudden, how to Ghandi, to Florence Nightingale, take you from a college layabout to a God-given savior in the space of ten weeks. They give you the tools, sure, but if you were worthless before, you’ll be worthless after.

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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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On Its Head

It’s a Peace Corps cliche, but we have to remember that everyone comes to site with pre-existing norms and expectations, ‘filters’ back in training. It’s stuff that they encourage us to strip away, so that we can see deeper and more clearly. The cliche of the cliche here is to talk about Mexican perceptions of time and punctuality. We’re supposed to stop being mad about people showing up late and to start examining why that’s the norm here (and in most of the world never colonized by a northern European). I’m not going to go into it because I already have and because it’s not the point of the post. The point is that everybody everywhere shows up to site expecting tardiness and expecting people to have different views on washing produce or on refrigerating eggs or on the acceptability of hiking your shirt up in public and rubbing your keg-stomach to aid your digestion. But there are things there that will blindside you, that you never would have thought of until they smack you head on.

Pic courtesy of "Hobo Eats"

Like ‘Dori-lokos’

First is the stuff that you probably could have figured out on your own if you’d set yourself to it. Our volunteer leader stressed the other day how careful we have to be out in the country, because if we get hurt on the road, that’s more or less that. There might be an ambulance somewhere, but it will not be rapid response. If you’re lucky enough to be in a place that’s got a sightline on a cell tower, which is rare enough here in the mountains, you’re still going to be in for a helluva wait. Which means that while back in the States you might rubberneck response workers at a scene, here you either hope out and start triage or drive by knowing that the guys leaking onto the asphalt are probably going to die.

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