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

Continue reading


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.

Continue reading


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.

Continue reading


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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading


I’ve eaten almost nothing but beans since the start of the month. An egg here and there, some cheese earlier along, tortillas to scoop them up with. But every meal, black beans. Hot beans, cold beans, mashed and refried beans. It’s been a long three weeks.


I keep a pretty Spartan larder in the best of times—with a small fridge and no storage space, it’s easier to pick up whatever I’m eating at the corner grocery on the way home.  And while my settling-in allowance served to furnish my unfurnished apartment (and mine came with neither sink nor toilet seat), it wasn’t large enough to buy an oven or a countertop or a decent knife once I’d gotten a bed and a fridge and a stove and all that. I made a kind of cupboard from old planks and crates from the market and I cut my vegetables on top of my refrigerator, but it’s not the same. I’d like to be baking the kind of fresh bread you can’t get here, but that’s out of my price range.

And tin cups without holes in them

As are mirrors

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

The Good Shit’s at the End

So I’m sitting in my house again without any beautiful view to show you folks because I only manage to get down to this on weekdays when I get home from the office after dark. There’s just always stuff to do on the weekends and when there isn’t I tend to take naps and generally fart around or sometimes even get up to Peace Corps work, but in any case I just don’t sit down to write. And that’s a shame, because as Alex Guyton reminds me, the only cure for not writing is to write. That’ll come up again in a second.

I’m generally feeling pretty good nowadays that I’ve met some folks in town but especially because I’ve taken on a project. Everything you do for Peace Corps is a ‘project,’ somewhy, and unlike the Ecochavos, which irrevocably belong to Chava, this one is mine. Trey, the other guy volunteer in my site, and I are putting together an event for World Wetlands Day (it was the 2nd of February). I didn’t know there was one until a month ago, and we’re doing it for the Presa, the dam-created reservoir in town,  which doesn’t fall under what my understanding of what wetlands were, but it’s a Ramsar site, so it counts, and we’re providing the impetus for the event.

Here's a picture of a mural from the event because of course it's already happened

Here’s a picture of a mural from the event because of course it’s already happened

The first meeting we had was with the local juventud guy, the representative for the bit of the municipal government oriented at the youth. What he proposed, and what was the going plan for all of four days, was to have a rap contest. Hear me out. There are, apparently, in this town of ten-to-twelve thousand, four or five high school age rap groups, and we were thinking of inviting them and some others from the surrounding Sierra to come down and write songs about the Presa. For us to judge. As far as the juventud guy was concerned, this plan was not only plausible but easy.

These are the kids. They're who I do it for.

These are the kids. They’re who I do it for.

Chava wasn’t as enthused, and when I walked into the office the day after, the local turismo delegate was there with him coming up with an alternative plan. I was hesitant to bail on what already sounded like the Peace Corps’ most hilarious project, but they both started by yelling about how we’d put some more traditional bands on a floating platform in the lake and that just about sold me right off. I’m typing from the john now because, well, if you’re been following along you already know I spend a lot of time here. I always said that reading through these situations is what helped me kill my history syllabi in college, and I figure there’s no reason that shouldn’t apply to writing too.

So now we’ve got a floating concert, the expected participation of the municipal president, a mural series and a cleanup campaign all going on one day ahead of schedule so we can throw a Superbowl party with my host aunt the Sunday that’s the actual Wetlands Day.

And have this guy throw a traditional tamale party because he ate a bunch of babies on the day of kings but you know priorities

And have this guy throw a traditional tamale party because he ate a bunch of babies on the day of kings but you know priorities

Continue reading