Forgotten Dreams

From the second row of the upper balcony, Pete and I were not afforded a view of the stage unless we stood up.  Fortunately, everyone was standing or leaning in close to the low rail beyond which opened the grand space of Peon Contreras.

The concert hall is one of the oldest in the Americas, built near the heart of the ancient city center of Merida.  The Mayas lived in this city long before the Spanish came and forced them to tear down their white limestone temples and reassemble the stones into cathedrals and palaces and theaters.

We first began attending the Merida Symphony thanks to our new expat-friend Deborah, who plays the violin with them.  We bought the cheap seats because we’re cheap, but as we kept climbing up the circling stone steps, my wonder rose in my chest.  How big was this place?  How grand?  When we opened the doors to our balcony chamber, I went dizzy.   The flying dome.  The floating crystal chandelier.  The heads of the audience on the floor like carefully-arranged pebbles. The space!

Deborah brought us in.  We joined her and the other musicians at the side-alley Italian cafe after the concert.  We went on dates for drinks and dancing.  One of the best was the night she met us after we saw Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams at the outdoor art cine and cafe, La68.  Our heads swirled with the revelations of the cave artists speaking to us from 30,000 years in the past.  We snuck in late to a government-sponsored free concert in Peon Contreras of the visiting Guanajuato Symphony culminating in the heart-skipping performance of an operatic soprano soloist.  Then we took the long warm walk to Blue Namu, the gay bar where we witnessed the most spectacular especatulo of our young lives.  We gather together and watch shadows dance.

Tonight we are here for Verdí.  The Symphony has assembled 150 people to string and blow and sing.  We can barely see the feet of the bass singers hiding in the back rafters of the stage.

I’ve always loved the moment of the tuning, when the prinicipal plays the A.  It’s when we can’t judge, we can’t weigh our expectations against reality.  It’s just this anticipation and sense of purpose.

What is that purpose?  Isn’t it strange that people gather together like we do to share our music?  We all want the waves to wash over us together.   This is what it seemed to me, as I stood behind the line of people crowding against the rail of the upper balcony, as the Symphony crescendoed and wailed.  I swore I felt the whole place shaking.  And I watched the faces watching the stage.  The light of the stage lights glowed upon them.  The curve of their bodies matched the scallop of the balcony.  I felt as though all we ever want is to be closer to the light and the sound of this thing we share.  I loved us, the symphony, the audience, the curved line that did not bother with formality, that did not stay rigidly in our seats.  We bent toward the center of it as though we were gathering around a fire surrounded by night.

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learning culture ten lat pulls at a time

Besides my lonely unemployed “intern” winter in Anchorage, and Pete’s lonely unemployed “intern” summer in Bowling Green, Kentucky, neither Pete nor I have been particularly into working out in the gym.  For one, let’s face it: neither of us have been dealt genetic hands for being body builders.  For two: why would you move your body inside a dark, dank concrete cell when you could move it outside, where there’s fresh air, forest paths, babbling brooks, butterflies, and all that’s good in the world?  For three: weight-lifting gyms, in my limited experience, are generally unfriendly, even angry, macho places.  They are proof, in all the wrong ways, of Einstein’s theories of relativity: certain gyms are gravitational wells into which fell the late 80s and early 90s.  Think Baby Jessica except instead of a baby, it was a decade and a half, and instead of a well, it was weight-lifting gyms.  And no one has ever attempted to rescue the 90s from these gyms, it is quite clear.  It’s a bunch of dudes whose hair is from the 90s and clothes are from the 90s, who are staring at posters of scantily clad body-building ladies from the 90s.  These dudes sit around and literally lift things, insignificant, arbitrarily heavy things, and then set them back down.  And then they do it again, ad nauseum, day after day.  Maybe there’s some Linkin Park blasting through the muffled speakers to get their steroids raging.  Or maybe these dudes are just sitting around listening to the sounds of each others’ grunts and the klunk of the heavy things that they have lifted and set back down for the blippinzillionth time.

Which is why I’m so excited to tell you this news that I’m not even going to make you work for it by reading the rest of this blog post: Pete and I are lifting heavy things! In a real, honest-to-god weight-lifting, body-building gym.  While looking at posters of scantily-clad body-building ladies from the 90s, on whose shirts broadcast “Body by Torture!” And we even grunt sometimes while lifting and setting back down the heavy things!  But, of course, that’s not really the story.

So a month and a half ago, Pete and I moved to the city of Mérida, Yucatan.  We didn’t have any plans beside finding an apartment, Pete going to language school, me writing.  After the first few days of apartment hunting and ambiguously unfortunate hat purchases, we found our home on the third floor of a hotel named Pilar del Carmen in the downtown neighborhood of Santiago.  I promptly caught the influenza, appropriately called la gripa here, and so I lost the second week to delirium and ever-downward spirals of self-despair.  The upswing to getting sick, however, is the upswing, and Pete humored me as I demanded us to “take control of our lives.”

My proposed Life Control Strategy included each of the following in order of most essential to least: 1) routine, 2) excercise, 3) productivity, 4) daily, weekly, and winter-long goals.  The day must be seized! I swore to Peter, my brain  still fever-adled as indicated by its simultaneous hyper-focus and passive tense.

Routine is always item one on my life wish list and always the first I scratch out after an extra hour of being alive post-list.  As Pete and I grappled with item #2, we already knew that us attempting to run regularly through the busy cracked concrete and rebar streets of el centro was a non-start.  No parks large enough for running were within walking distance.  We weren’t brave enough for biking.  No lap pools that we had access to.  And so Pete suggested Bosco, the gymnasio just two buildings down the street.  We’d peaked in each time we’d walk by and joked, but I never thought it would go past that.  Peaking and joking.  Then complaining about how it was impossible to exercise in the city.

So, one Monday morning, we woke with the sun, put on our scanty running shorts and shirts, walked to our gate, woke the front desk guy so he could open the gate, walked the thirty yards down the sidewalk, and then, skinny and tall, (Pete skinnier than me, I taller than Pete, both of us skinnier and taller than most everybody else) we entered Bosco.  I noticed the stale sweat smell first.  Check. Then the walls plastered with the various portraits of classically greased and bulging Modern Hercules contestants.  Yup, about what I expected. Then I heard the music.  It wasn’t death rock or angry rock.  It wasn’t even rock.  It was latin dance pop.  It had a beat.  And that beat was up!

Even so, the first few days I bobbled about like a clown, tripping over the various legs of the old, greasy metal machines.  I avoided eye-contact; in fact, I avoided most any looks in the directions of the other weight lifters.  I reverted to middle school survival mode roving through the four sprawling rooms of the place looking for the most hidden back corners.  I jockeyed between the scattered bikes all meant for shorter folks, on which I kicked my chest as I pedaled.  The treadmills, bikes, stair-steppers all built-from-scratch, with bicycle gears and chains, hand-bent piping. Nothing required a cord, nothing monitored my heartbeat, or calculated my calorie consumption, or gauged my landspeed.  I couldn’t even change the resistance.  And yet, they all worked, every single one.  They were all oiled, tuned.  The benches were stained by a thousand-heaving-backs worth of sweat, but they functioned just as well too, sturdy and shiny.  A few old men, the nominal upkeep staff, sat around near the entrance window, sparring amiably with each other and a few of regulars lifting things and setting them down.  Most everybody ignored Pete and me just as I was avoiding them.  And I liked it that way because it was easier.

The spanky shorts might have been what first caught my eye.  They were impossible to miss, as Pete agreed.  One of the regulars who was lifting things when we showed up each day and still lifting things when we left, wore the tightest, whitest, spankiest shorts I’d ever seen.  And they wouldn’t have been so noticeable if he didn’t possess such spectacularly sculptured glutes.  Yes, that’s weight-lifter talk for butt.  The fact that he had a truly incredible butt wasn’t what surprised me, however.  What surprised me was that he was showing it off.  The whole time.  Whether he was doing backward leg lifts, or squats, or ab twists, or hip thrusts, he was clearly showing off his show-stopping butt.  And even more surprising, after I finally began bothering to notice what was going on, most of the other guys seemed to like it.  Spanky Shorts, as Pete and I dubbed him, was indeed the center of attention, and near the center of the social network that slowly emerged from Pete and my mutual ever-increasingly detailed observations of Bosco‘s going-ons.  These included younger duos of subdued buds coming in off the street, going to the locker room, and coming out in tight-fitting muscle shirts, snug, neon shorts, bright shoes.  Other pairs of men moved about together, smiling and staring, teasingly seductive.  And yet, somehow, all of this wasn’t quite gay.

What I’m trying to say is that I still don’t know what a look means here.  There are different rules of conduct.  Different codes and translation processes.  Are some of these men sexually attracted to each other?  Clearly.  Maybe even most of them.  Do some of those same men who are clearly attracted to each other have wives and girlfriends?  I would hazard to venture yes.  Does it mean something different here to be a man?  A woman?  Straight? Gay? Absolutely.  Many Yucateco people here in Merida are descendents of the Maya, and in fact identify as Mayan today.  The Maya culture possessed all of its own mores and traditions, stories and understandings of what living ethically, morally, healthily meant.  Over the past six centuries, that culture has mixed with the Española culture of the conquerors, through enslavement, wars, and now peace.  And now, the new, uniquely Mayan culture, like all cultures in this modern world, is shaping itself and being shaped by the greater waves of popular, global cultures.  All in all, it’s quite a tapestry or labyrinth or circus, depending on your point of view.

If I’ve made the gym seem seedy, I’ve failed.  It is gritty, but it’s not dirty, or unfriendly, or unsafe.   One morning recently, Pete saw one of the older men who mills about with a broom and a rag and a sly quip walk up behind the spankiest of the men, wave to one of the macho guys at a bench, and offer some air hip thrusts in the direction of Spanky Shorts.  Then he did it again, after getting attention of another man.  While a little rude, it didn’t seem homophobic–far from it, in fact.  There are a few women too, and the whole second floor, well-lit and aired out by a line of windows, has been set aside for women.  The gym has even devoted a whole room for women-only pole-dancing classes.  Our friend Megan flew down to live with us for the last few weeks, and she has taken to the gym too (though not to the pole-dancing).  She gets to enjoy the light and the fresh air of the second floor, while we are destined to live among the men and the happy, smiley, up-beat dinge of the first floor.  Most everybody is friendly, and if not friendly, then just not particularly interested in us or maybe anybody besides their own bodies, and the more Pete and I have offered our own smiles and holas, we’ve received more welcomes in response.

In the meantime, I’ve gotten stronger.  I’ve learned which machines my body likes, and I’ve gone from 60K to 80K with my lat pulls.  40K benches.  I added inclined benches too.  Curls.  I’m up to 80 inclined sit ups, and it feels good, instead of just being torture.  Even if my body weren’t feeling stronger and leaner, I think I’d still enjoy Bosco these days, and not just because Pete is looking so good.  I’m learning things about how men can interact; what it can mean to be a man.  I still know next-to-nothing about how people construct gender and sexuality here, but I do know that it is complicated and different than anything I’ve known.  We humans have bodies, and we can shape them and change them and use them in any incredible number of ways.  I like proving my prejudices wrong.  Especially when it involves getting fit and witnessing the spankiest of spanky shorts.  And while doing crunches the other day, I looked up to the ceiling to find a fabulously-colored butterfly, neon green lines set against deep black wings, resting next to the light bulb.  Here’s to surprises around every corner and past every assumption.

A letter to my parents in regards to their upcoming arrival to Merida

Dear Mom and Dad,

The streets smell here.  They are living smells of raw meat and oil and salt.  Panaderias with their sweet breads and baguettes, and the street vendors with their sizzling pile of roasting Al Pastor, and their fried hot dogs and their tacos and marquesitas.  As a warning, all the bread’s a little bland, but good with coffee.  Get churros from the couple who set up their stand next to the Cathedral on Sundays.  The couple doesn’t also cook french fries with the oil, just the one thing, the churros.

Watch where you walk.  There are holes, curbs, and rushing buses at any given moment.  No one turns right on reds, but they will run the last few seconds of a red light if nobody is coming.  Pedestrians don’t push their luck.  Most people seem to avoid drinking the tap water if they can, which is why we buy the garafon of water from the corner store.  Put your used toilet paper in the trash can, not the toilet, folded, please.  Really, it makes more sense than our system, which leaves the job to the water treatment plant.

Everybody says the police are corrupt, so try to avoid them as best you can.  But the cops don’t bother the gueros, gringos, extranjeros (all of those are us) because cops work for the government, and the government wants tourists.  Expect to see men in front of banks and consulates and other governmental buildings with semi-automatics.  It’s safe here, not because of the guns, but because people are out on the streets most day and night.  Because locals pride themselves on this city being tranquilo, calm, safe, friendly, familiar.  You are not as strange as you feel.

Locals tend not to refer to this place as Mexico.  Instead, this place is Mérida, in the state of Yucatan, what still is el mundo Maya.  Cancun is not in Yucatan, it is in Quintana Roo, an entirely different state.  When people ask you where you are from, de donde eres, you can reply, Soy de Chicago, and then ask them where they are from, too.

Expect parades at any moment.  Or a protest with tents set up in Plaza Grande.  Or most likely, in the evenings, there will be dancing, in Parque Santiago, or Santa Lucia, or Plaza Grande.  The government pays for free outdoor concerts daily, salsa and cumbia and more traditional music from elsewhere, like marimba or mariachi, and old couples dance in the closed off street or in the park. The couples stand and chat between songs and don’t begin dancing right at the first beat of the new song, but wait a few breaths, as if needing to learn the beat all over again.  Fireworks are probable too. Not the big showy ones like on the 4th of July, but just the quick and loud ones.  Sunday morning? Fireworks!  Tuesday night? Fireworks!  A soccer match? Fireworks.  And lots of cheering.  We know when there’s a match on television when, in any given location in the city, we hear shouts and squeals every three minutes.  There could be singing too, loud, balladeer singing, coming from around one corner or another.

There are the ubiquitous making-out couples in any given plaza.  That’s okay.  It’s okay to sit on a bench and stare at everyone walking by too.  Pete called the early evening in Plaza Grande a meat market, and I think it’s mostly just us creatures allowing ourselves to be fascinated by each others’ presence.  Kids stay up late, and they are allowed to chase pigeons or walk up to a performer during a public concert as she’s singing and dancing.  Lots of people are allowed to stay up late, and most indoor concerts or shows start at 9PM.

You will not shiver here, unless you get the flu or dengue.  It’s warm, by my standards, all of the time, so people leave their doors and windows open most of the time too. Movie theaters still perform the function of being an air-conditioned relief from the heat. The city really is quite green, it’s just that except for the plazas, most of the life is inside the high walls of the city blocks.  The walls offer protection from the sun, too, so mid-day, like the locals, walk on the shady side of the street so you don’t sweat as much.

Men don’t wear shorts in the city.  Younger men wear well-fitting jeans or bright-colored denim, the older men wear jeans or slacks.  Lots of women are currently killing it in those high heels that are just one, thick, fluted sole, though flats are fine if you don’t want to show off.  People aren’t afraid of being bright here.  Men can wear pink or purple or anything.  And of course women do.  Some locals own sweaters, hoodies, and even puff jackets, which they pull out the second it drops below 74.  Pete saw mittens the other day.

We live in an apartment building that is also a hotel.  We have front-desk staff who seem to be all 20-year-old nephews and sons of the owners, a couple that lives in the attached building next door.  They close the gate every night, and in the morning when Pete and I go to the gym, which is a whole other story, in order to get out, we have to wake the unlucky guy who has to spend the night (every night?) in the front office.  Harmless little ants are always on the rove in our kitchen, especially when it is warm, so every crumb must be caught.  We have a gecko, too.  And the lizards in the courtyard are quick to hide beneath the large waxy leaves of the vines.

Gracias is thank you, but when you are turning someone down who is asking something of you in the street, which will happen often, you can say disculpa or perdon. Excuse me, or pardon.  Same thing if you do something awkward, and want to apologize.  No one says lo siento on the street, it is a deeper, more significant apology.  If you need to pass by, you can say con permiso, a request, with permission.  Here people more often than not say hasta luego, until later, which is friendly, a hope and a wish.

The trash in the streets and the flaky-paint walls and the rebar and cinder blocks might make the streets look dirty and poor to you, but look past those things, like the people here do.  The surface of things here don’t seem as important as the heart of them.  The spectacular concert hall and symphony, the Pacheco murals, the new exhibitions, the music, the dance, the fresh joy of creating and being and loving, the quiet courtyards, the conversations.

This is just the beginning.  The briefest sketches of life here in Mérida.  Living is always so much more than explaining.  I will say that I do love it here, which might be the continuation of a running joke between the two of you.  Oh, Alex, loving yet another home.  And it’s true, I have loved every place, sooner or later.  Some places at first appear easy, but then become quite difficult to love.  Other places have shut me out at first, but then let me eke in, day by day.  This place is one of those.  Everyday, I am dumbfounded and tossed back.  And everyday, if I choose to go out, I am rewarded by the smallest secret.  Like the lone couple framed by the doorway, laughing and dancing to no music last night.  Or the moth fluttering around the chandelier in the concert hall during Tchaikovsky.  Or the lone ukulele player in Plaza Grande, finishing his haunting song and walking off.  Or a new word.

Hasta luego,

Alex

What we demand in all our foolishness

Traveling, that is, striking camp and carrying it with you, searching for where you can set it down next, is the process of asking to be let in.  I first thought this city was all wall and broken concrete.  Exhaust and gutter.  Peter and I spent days walking the outlines of long, overlapping rectangles through the streets, under the earnest Yucateco sun and rain, burning and soaking, soaking and burning.  We peeked through iron grates, straining our eyes through the cracked timber rafts of doors.  We caught shady gardens, pools, refugios.  We knew there was a city on the other side of those walls, but we weren’t in that one yet.

Our plan was to strike our camp in California, and set it down here in Merida for a few months.  We just came, no more details than that.  As a traveler, you are certainly asking, even demanding something of the places in which you enter, (ie. Let me in.) and even more, you are asking something of their inhabitants.  And so, I’ve realized, there are things asked of you in return.  Of course there’s the money, but I’m thinking more about the other demands.  In whiskey, it’s called the angel’s share, the bit that evaporates out of the no-matter-how-tightly-sealed cask.  I’m not one for religion, but the belief in angels, the sense of them, came before the sense of God, so let’s let ’em be for now.

I’ve traveled over lots of this green, blue, brown, red and white earth, and I say that everywhere demands its angel’s share.  In wildery places, out away from people, you might have to share your fancy schmancy electro-diode gps mahuey that takes a drink in the rushing river and never wakes up.  Or you offer up all the peanut butter you have, all 10 lbs of it, to the ravens.  And in fact, just like whiskey (preferably Scotch), the greater your ambitions, the longer you age it, the richer the product, the more substantial the angel’s share.  If you, traveler, go out and attempt to cross the Bering Strait on foot, asking to be let in each day, each hour, then you might just have to give up all of yourself to the angels. (metaphorically speaking, of course.  With less religiousity: you risk your life!)

Now here brings up a question I’ve been having about this angel’s share: how much is enough?  When are you paying your fair share, and when are you just a plain ol’ fool who doesn’t know the rules?  If the peanut butter is our guide, then I suppose there’s an inherent need not to want to give up your share.  To actively protect your peanut butter from the ravens.  But alas, inevitably you will underestimate the world for its inventive ways to give and take.  And then you’ve got to cough it up.

These are the thoughts that sprung from a recent misadventure Pete and I had here in Merida.  In retrospect, I’m not sure whether we conducted ourselves with grace, or whether we were baboons (metaphorically speaking, of course.  Baboons, I’m sure you are intelligent and graceful in ways made clear from your own perspective.)

Peter and I bought two hats, sombreros, Jipi Japas.

The city streets stay busy late into the night, full of people just being outside, reveling in the special joy found in just being outside at night in a tropical climate (a joy which many of the locals probably don’t find special at all, but rather quite ubiquitous). As we walked down the street casually, with no particular destination in mind, a man engaged us.

Jose stood with purpose in front of the yawning door of a castle-like building in the city center, the University of Yucatan – Merida.  He was looking for dupes like us.  He wanted us to know about the Maya, his people.  His enthusiasm was sincere, I do believe, though the details–which were suspect in the first place because Pete and I were interpreting them with our stutter-step command of the Spanish language–were murky, if not downright lies at times.

There was a festival going on, he said in Spanish. He told us that we should visit the festival tomorrow, but if we were to visit, out of respect, we should be wearing traditional Mayan garb.  His enthusiasm was real, and so ours was too.  Yes, we do want to be respectful travelers.  He explained hammocks: Maya only slept (and made love (he said with a quick vulgar motion of his hands)) in hammocks.  He explained guayabera: the traditional maya shirts had four pockets, which the men would fill with guayaba fruit (which could only be found in the native villages, he said.  We had to go and taste them, he said) after climbing up the local trees. And he explained the Jipis, the hats: the best hats, the true Maya hats, were made out of Cayamo (best attempt at phonetic spelling), a fiber made from the henequin plant, a type of agave.  He also told us that we needed to hurry to the artisan shop, not the governmental one, but the local cooperative one, that it was closing and would be closed for the next month because of Mayan festivals.

We arrived at the cooperative, which did not appear to be closing within the next few minutes.  Immediately, a kind employee swept us in, explaining that five artisan families had come together to create the cooperative.  All the items were the highest quality: hammocks and guayaberas, belts and tapestries, and Jipis.  First we tried out the hammocks.  The finest quality.  We needed a bigger size, he told us, because I was so tall.  Cuanto cuesta, I asked.  Tres mil ochenta.  Nearly four thousand pesos.  Even with the strong dollar, that’s in the almost three hundred dollar range.  We politely refused, and then we moved on to Los Jipis.  He took us into a side room, for the air conditioning, he said.  He showed us many Jipis, explained how they were made from Cayamo.  The scent repelled mosquitoes, he said.  They also hold their shape, he demonstrated as he folded up the hat into a ball, thanks to the process in which they are formed, after being woven–inside a warm, wet cave to cure.  It was impossible to know what was true and what was false.  On the street, I’d believed it all.  But now, we were ducks waddling around through an impressionist’s garden.  Our friend was the painter himself. What did he want from us? How much were we worth?

Tres mil  sesenta, for the two.  Three hundred dollars.  I immediately balked, and expected Peter, the generally more-thrifty of us, to do the same.  But Peter looked at me with those let’s-get-the-puppy eyes.  Maybe he was having trouble with the conversion rate.  That’s ALOT, I said smiling, glancing at our collective friend.  I said, in halting Spanish, that we would have to wait for another day.  But you will have to wait a month, he said.  That’s okay I said.  But we need money for the festival now, not in a month, he said.  I’m sorry , I said.  Tres mil pesos, he said. No, you don´t need to lower the price, I said.  We just don’t want them.  He was no longer our friend.  Is it the quality? he asked.  No, I said.  The price? No, we  just don´t want to buy them now, I said.

Dos mil cinquenta, he said.  Peter, still with that let’s-get-the-puppy look.  That´s like a hundred dollars a hat, I said.  They will be with us for the rest of our lives, Pete said.  Okay, I said.

After the momentary thrill, Pete and I both began wondering if we’d been duped.  We went home and inspected our hats more closely in the privacy of our room.  Mine had a weak point, a soon-to-be tear.  We were embarrassed to show our friends we’d made at the hostal we’d been staying at, or to tell them how much we paid.  Our guidebook said people could spend between 200 and 5000 pesos on a Jipi, which told us nothing.   Days later, we went to the Sunday market, and found a display full of hats just like ours, for 200 pesos.  Arghhhhh! We blew our budget on a broken hat.  We walked home and grabbed our hats, put them back in the bags in which we had carried them home, and returned to the street vendor.  Identical.

And so we went back to the collective, asking for our share back.  Here was our dilemma: we were strangers, güeros, that really didn’t know anything about these hats, how they are made, or the people that make them.  We’d already accepted that we were destined to always climb our way out of the hole that is the legacy of ugly US imperialism (and corresponding tourism).  Had they given us a good deal?  Had we paid our angel’s share?  Or had we, like fools, paid too g-d much for our g-d Jipis.

We walked in and put on our best business faces.  We were doomed.  Good afternoon, we said in our best business Spanish.  We would like to return our hats.  This one has a hole, we said.  Oh, sorry, you can only return them one day after, he said.  We can still return them, Pete said. I don’t understand, he said.  You understand, I said. Awkward silence.   You can change the one with a hole, he said.  We want to return them, we said.  You can’t, he said.

We exchanged them, and took our sweet time finding the finest, best made hats in the place.  The poor guy who had greeted us at the door this time had passed us back off to the original sales-guy, who wasn’t quite our friend, but wasn’t wasn’t either.  After our neither friendly nor angry goood-byes, we took to the street.

As we walked past, a man pointed to our bags, which were apparently quite obviously Jipi bags, and said we needed Guayerabas with our hats.  Yes, we know, I said, but not today.

This man began in again on the Maya.  I accepted the fact that this was both a scam and an education.  But then I decided to ask him: if we were to still need hats, how much should we spend.  Oh, a good hat can be tres mil pesos, he said.   We pulled ours out of our bags.  Oh, yeah, those, those are the highest quality.  How much did you spend on them? he asked.

And so we still don’t know the truth of it all.  We’ve asked around some more about the hats.  Did we get ripped off? Maybe.  Did we give them a hard time, even after they gave us a good deal?  Maybe.  It doesn’t matter so much though, not only because they are just hats, but also because it has been a full exchange.  We asked to be let in.  And we thought we were being let in.  But we weren’t.  And so we asked again to be let in.  And we thought we weren’t.  But maybe we were.  Or weren’t.  And so we’ll ask again.  And again.

I know what love is.

June 19, 1937

Dear Cedric,

A strange thing happened to me today. I saw a big thundercloud move down over Half Dome, and it was so big and clear and brilliant that it made me see many things that were drifting around inside of me; things that related to those who are loved and those who are real friends.

For the first time I know what love is; what friends are; and what art should be.

Love is a seeking for a way of life; the way that cannot be followed alone; the resonance of all spiritual and physical things. Children are not only of flesh and blood — children may be ideas, thoughts, emotions. The person of the one who is loved is a form composed of a myriad mirrors reflecting and illuminating the powers and thoughts and the emotions that are within you, and flashing another kind of light from within. No words or deeds may encompass it.

Friendship is another form of love — more passive perhaps, but full of the transmitting and acceptance of things like thunderclouds and grass and the clean granite of reality.

Art is both love and friendship, and understanding; the desire to give. It is not charity, which is the giving of Things, it is more than kindness which is the giving of self. It is both the taking and giving of beauty, the turning out to the light the inner folds of the awareness of the spirit. It is the recreation on another plane of the realities of the world; the tragic and wonderful realities of earth and men, and of all the inter-relations of these.

I wish the thundercloud had moved up over Tahoe and let loose on you; I could wish you nothing finer.

Ansel

Read this and other fabulous correspondences at Letters of Note.

To read more about my wedding, where our dear friend Dor (aka Bacon Bit) read this letter, visit my Big Gay Fancy Camp page.

When the rains don’t come

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA sprightly woman 70-years-young walked into my office a year ago.  I’d grown used to the constant interruptions that came with working at a healthy conservation non-profit in a vibrant Colorado farm town on the edge of the wild Rockies.  People had their opinions, their questions, and above all, their unsolicited suggestions.  As the communications coordinator, my job was to listen to everybody who wanted to talk. To say, yes, you’re right, that is a good idea.  Or, yes, that is a reasonable concern.  Or, sure, I’ll have a cookie.

I had already pegged this particular community member as one of the isn’t-our-town-the-best-town-in-all-the-world contingent–but I hadn’t expected her to also be a part of the even more extreme shit’s-going-down-sometime-soon-so-we-better-prepare-for-it-here-and-now crew.  She’d brought in a flyer for an event she was organizing that week at the art center: an evening of community discussion about how we can prepare.  Just what she was thinking we needed to prepare for, I wasn’t sure.  Systematic collapse, I supposed.  I didn’t go to the event to find out.

I tend to scoff at apocalyptic talk.  It sounds a little too much like Revelations.  Besides the gay thing, that final book of the Bible was probably one of the larger contributing factors to my exodus from Christianity.  Blood and ash, really?  Burning skies?  The living dead?  Horsemen of death?! No thanks.

Last year, though, western Colorado, like much of the country, was being hit by a very severe drought.  Farmers had to harvest their hay early and sell their livestock.  The forests turned into tinder.  Driving the five-hours east to Denver, I felt as though I could have lit any hillside ablaze with a single match.  Anybody could start a maelstrom.  I heard reports of fires, big ones, and saw their smoke drift in from around the state.  Whole neighborhoods burned, whole mountainsides.  Many of the fires began from the most mundane sources: a chain bouncing along the road, a broken muffler, even somebody’s target-practice bullets.  Wildfire gets a lot more real when anything and everything could burn.

The reservoirs, which had been overly full from a big snow winter the year prior, were now running on empty.  Having grown up in the Midwest, going to school up on the Great Lakes, living as an adult in Alaska and Montana, for the first time in my life, I lived somewhere where the water was running out.  Fortunately, my small town has access to a few reliable springs that flow out from the base of the West Elk peaks that rise to an elevation of 12,000 feet just a few miles east of town.  Even if the river ran dry (which it did by August) with the little surface water diverted into the irrigation canals which were slowly forced to shut off one by one, the town still had its municipal supply of water.  And our valley, unlike more populated, lower-lying areas in the southwest United States, only needed one good snow year to top off our reservoirs once again.  Even so, it was a drought.  Not the end of the world.

Apocalyptic PlanetToward the end of the summer, I volunteered for a local writer’s book reading.  Craig Child’s book, titled Apocalyptic Planet, is “a field guide to the everending earth.”  In the book, as well as at the reading, Craig shared a series of natural history stories from around the world, places where Craig dug into the past of each respective place and gave the audience a deep and often disturbingly violent story of upheaval and change.  It turns out that the planet is dynamic.  It is constantly turning over, reshaping itself.  In the book, he points out that according to our current understanding of the globe, humans arose as a species, and our civilizations with us, during a particularly pleasant time to be on Earth.  Sure, there is still cataclysm, but there have been greater floods, bigger impacts, drier droughts than what humans have known in our short time on the planet. Instead of using these stories as justifications to continue our course of global change, however, Craig carefully constructs the feeling that the balance we’ve got right now is something we probably shouldn’t choose to throw to the wind.  We are living in a world finely balanced, but this particular global climate state is more of a rarity than we might have imagined, and more easily lost than we might guess.

Since reading his book and hearing Craig speak, I’ve heard other people talking about the long-time perspective as well–and not in the most cheery ways.  Particularly out west, there’s reason to be concerned about water.   My friend and fellow small-town resident, radio producer Julia Kumari-Drapkin, recently produced a piece for This American Lifes global warming episode.  The whole episode is spot-on, more about the dialogue of climate change than the current science of it.  Julia’s piece in particular is both captivating and a little bit heart-breaking.  The story delves into last year’s drought in Colorado and the struggle scientists have to give news they don’t think people want to hear.

The news, in our particular case, was about the droughts of the future, the droughts that the climate models are predicting, the droughts exacerbated by anthropogenic (human-made) climate change.  What the climatologists are beginning to tell the public is that the drought of 2012 could look like an average year within a decade or two.  These future droughts look eerily similar to the  sort of droughts that Craig chronicles in his book, the ones that have been marked in the recent geologic record across the western United States.  We’re not talking about the dust bowl.  We’re talking about droughts that last centuries.  Droughts when there are no good snow years–for three hundred years.  Reach even farther back in the geologic record, and we are talking about droughts that are very difficult to imagine: thousand-year-droughts, that then, aren’t really droughts, but instead a complete shift in climate regimes.  Think large dune complexes in Nebraska, dry grasslands in Minnesota, think a whole lot of desert everywhere west.

This NASA climate model video of projected rainfall changes particularly struck close-to-home.  I recently moved from Colorado to the central Sierras in California to work on a restoration crew in Yosemite National Park.  The long-term precipitation outlook for California and the southwest looks grim.  I get to spend my time out in the high alpine of the Sierras, restoring habitat for rare species like the Yosemite Toad and other sovereign creatures.  And yet, what will happen to them when the big drought hits?  What will happen to these entire ecosystems?  Then there are the people: what will happen to the cities of the Southwest?  To the agriculture of western Colorado?  To the springs at the base of the West Elks?

No one knows what will happen, but one thing for certain is that change is inevitable.  What sort of change, well, I suppose we still have some say in the matter.  I’m going to keep restoring habitat.  And I’m going to keep demanding my government to curb greenhouse gases.  As Bill McKibben is warning in his current Do The Math campaign, climate change is beyond each of our own individual control.  If we are going to curb carbon, it’s going to be a global effort.

We cannot stop change.  In fact, no “balance” on this planet will ever be permanent.  This dynamic world is constantly shifting from one form to another.  Rather than accelerating global change, toward any number of possible future conditions while preparing for collapse, but I’d rather fight hard to hold onto what we’ve got for as long as we can keep it.

The Sea Hold

Rebecca West’s collection of Carl Sandburg poetry found me while I was wandering through the shelves of the Wawona Library.  How do books wait for you, and then pounce like that?  His words spread out like the plains where he’s from: collections of so many small sights, settled in together among the low hills, until, after a long while, your eyes and ears recognize the lines of the much larger body, the grand, the beautiful, the sublime.

***

“The Sea Hold” – Carl Sandburg

The sea is large.

The Sea hold on a leg of land in the Chesapeake hugs an early sunset and a last morning star over the oyster beds and the late clam boats of lonely men.

Five white houses on a half-mile strip of land . . . five white dice rolled from a tube.

Not so long ago . . . the sea was large . . .And to-day the sea has lost nothing . . .  it keeps all.

I am a loon about the sea.
I make so many sea songs, I cry so many sea cries, I forget so many sea songs and sea cries.

I am a loon about the sea.
So are five men I had a fish fry with once in a tar-paper shack trembling in a sand storm.
The sea knows more about them than they know themselves.
They know only how the sea hugs and will not let go.

The sea is large.
The sea must know more than any of us.

***

The month of May found me, and so I have been writing, writing, writing, calling it my self-sponsored artist-in-residency, here in Yosemite National Park.  I just finished an essay I’ve been trying to write for the last two years.  It’s about Chicago, Sandburg’s Chicago.  I sent it off to a magazine.  We’ll see.  Pete’s job has begun, working as a Wilderness Ranger here in Wawona.  My job begins in a week, when I will join a restoration crew as we restore the Yosemite Wilderness.  I feel new.

***

The opening to “Potato Blossom Songs and Jigs” – Carl Sandburg

Rum tiddy um,
tiddy um,
tiddy um tum tum.
My knees are loose-like, my feet want to sling their selves . . .

***

One voice tells me to stop.  That I have nothing to share.  Another voice tells me I have stories.  And a third says that if you offer one well-composed sentence, that’s something.