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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The undesirability of heroism

Hearing Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) discuss fungal infections, abscess scars, and which diseases merit treatment was a trip in itself. But it took me a day or so to realize these are far from the hardest part about what they’re doing.

At the end of my last post I casually labelled PCVs “heroes.” But are they? If you ask them, the result in clear and resounding: not remotely. A couple minutes after posting I heard from one of my PCV friends.
I don't have photos of their daily living.
This is Georgetown on our flight back from the jungle.

I’m uncomfortable with labelling PCVs ‘heroes.’ We’re not.” But was it just modesty, or something more nuanced than that?

The assumption is that we have a positive impact and that’s just not necessarily true. Good intentions don’t automatically result in positive impact. The effect we have can be really mixed.

It’s unpleasant to admit, but I see at least two reasons this is true. First, the implicit conflict of trying to help a population become more self sufficient, sustainable, and not reliant on outside aid...via outside aid. How can you convince a population to not look to foreign wealth for help when your very presence shows how helpful (and immense) that wealthy help could be?

Second, a technique that works well in one area may be either useless or downright harmful in another. Culture is complex, powerful, and sometimes dangerously subtle (right up until the moment it eats you). And it’s one of humanity’s great tragedies that the advances we most need (like women’s rights) are often earned through the suffering of exactly the people you’re trying to help. Bring a women’s initiative to a place...then watch the patriarchy clamp down.
Bauxite refining in Linden, considered among
the most luxurious placements in Guyana.

Then there’s a more personal reason PCVs dislike the “hero” label.

There are actual heroes doing heroic things. We’re just trying to do what we can in 24 months. I just go to work like a regular person. The pressure of the term hero is...overwhelming.

PCVs have a shadow behind their eyes, if not outright in their words. They call it “Peace Corps Guilt” (click here for a short write-up that is well worth a couple minutes read). If you’ve traveled, physically or mentally, the feeling “Good lord, we throw away more than these people have, how can I be so selfish?” will be familiar. (Don’t worry, the article’s not that bleak!)

Valid concerns, true questions, serious doubts. But in the end, the same way a politician who speaks of “good and evil” is not to be trusted, we have to acknowledge that life is not a matter of dichotomies and dualities. Nearly everything exists in shades of gray. The Peace Corps is no exception.

Going to work for a paycheck is a perfectly acceptable motivation. Doing it for the good of others or society is a wonderful thing (salute to all the teachers, nurses, and social workers out there!) But leaving behind your life of developed privileges in order to hopefully help people who have never had them, even knowing it may well be a giant waste of time?
Seven hours racing down this mudswamp of a road,
two boat rides and a 4x4 had us still nowhere
near as remote as some of the placements.

I apologize to my Peace Corps Volunteer friends...but yes, to me, you are heroes. Imperfect, perhaps useless, maybe even harmful. But you’re trying. So: heroes.

Let me add one more note. The Peace Corps lists three goals in its Mission Statement. The first is the part about helping the people in the foreign country. The third is to fostering a better understanding of poverty and foreign countries among Americans. Nestled in the middle is something important.

At this moment when the US is being defiled by a president whose actions genuinely merit the term “evil” and who is tangibly damaging the standing of the United States on the world stage, your contribution to international harmony (and domestic sanity, at least mine) is crucial.

Thank you for everything you do.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The pig in me

If the woman is already naked when we begin our conversation, I never really know what to say. “So. How’s it going?” just doesn’t seem right. So it wasn’t that I really wanted to go there, it just seemed like a regionally appropriate suggestion.

The Thanksgiving holiday had been a great one, with most of my family and a wonderful cluster of friends in Portland, Oregon. Now it was Saturday night, many of us still in town, and we’d discussed meeting up. Where?

I have little interest in going to strip clubs anywhere on Earth...except Portland. Every year or two I find myself in one and find it a cross between a dive bar at its best and the ballet. Zero skeeziness, instead a blend of art, athleticism, and a respectful sincerity that approaches benevolence in our culture of sexual repression. To me (Portland) strip clubs aren’t sexual, they’re just honest.

Plus, I’d heard this particular landmark was “Woman (and family) owned and operated...very solid record of management protecting dancers and taking care of them when things happen in their lives” and I was curious to see it. Mostly I just wanted to have a beer with friends, and hey, this would be more interesting than just another friggin “dive bar” that manages to be pretentious as fudge-all anyway.

“Wait, it’s a strip club?” answered a beloved friend. “Hard pass. They’re squicky. Let’s go to a dive bar instead.” Yes there’s an eye-roll emoji, but I wasn’t even tempted to send it. The people were the point, not the venue. But so began one of those vague conversations with 30 minutes of radio silence between messages.

“Okay, I’ll meet you anywhere you want to go, just send me the address.”
“I dunno, let me look for one...”
“Want to Lyft across the entire city to hang out for maybe a few minutes, then turn around and go back?”

So that was good for an hour and a half of me wandering around downtown Portland in the cold, waiting for my friends to get their shit together. They never did, and I ended up walking home alone in the rain. I was tempted to feel aggrieved, embarrassed, and sorry for myself.

Then I realized that was just my pig.

You know that inner voice? The one that whispers that it’s all your fault, all about you, you should be ashamed, and nobody likes you anyway? The therapeutic philosophy that’s done me a world of good over the past few years calls it “pig.” As in the 1960s word for the avatar of oppressive culture, the abusive jerk cop. God I love hippies.

We all have that inner pig. In some it whispers that we have to earn our place on this planet since we’re inherently bad, in others it says we must be crazy, and at its worst it drives a damaged child to such depths of self-loathing and narcissism that they become president and crash the whole country.

In me, it said that my friends just didn’t want to hang out with me, and that I was some kind of pervert for suggesting we hang out in a bar where women take their clothes off. And oh, that I was a loser living a losing life. No way it was just that they were busy and tired, no, it had to be about me, and I had to be bad.

Luckily the leaves reminded me that was ridiculous.

Shining brilliant yellow and audacious red in the streetlamp glow, the autumn leaves giggled their quivering joy at what a beautiful night I was having. Dinner with my folks, already a win. Then walking around this interesting city, winter’s reflections in darkened windows, and conversations with the homeless who always feel like meeting my alternative lives.

“No, I don’t smoke, sorry. No, thanks, I don’t want to buy that umbrella. Nope, no bag of coke for me. Yes, I believe you it’s an incredibly good deal but I still don’t want the umbrella, have a good night my friend. Good luck.”

Portland is my kind of town
Now I was headed home to the incomprehensible blessing of a warm loving home, kissed on the cheeks by just the right amount of rain to make the air interesting and the streets shine like a dance floor. It wasn’t a horrible night at all. I’m not unwanted. And they were beautiful hours. I got home, typed this up, and now it’s time for a cup of tea with my folks. Then perhaps I’ll take a nice hot shower before getting in warm blankets with a good book.

Life is good. Go to sleep, pig.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Grumps don't win

The Venetians built a church specially-designed for Vivaldi. A pair of 14 year old twins can increase my hope for the future. And the reason cows wear bells is because their horns don’t work. Three of the many things I learned during this year of guiding tours of Europe for Rick Steves.
Not Vivaldi's church. This one's in Paris.

When I look back at the year I feel an overarching gratitude and admiration for the people I got to meet and share a trip with. The feeling glows and warms. And then snags. Because this year had something else too. For the first time in my (admittedly less-than-ancient) guide career, I had a tour member who...I don’t even know how to say it. I would not want them on another of my tours.

Rick Steves offers a tour experience far above the sort of shambling boredom I see on other buses and in clusters of clueless curmudgeons blocking the sidewalks and galleries of Europe. Largely, we just draw a fantastic clientele (thank you, PBS!) but part of the magic is our “No Grumps Policy.” The logic of it always made sense to me; negativity is contagious, and if someone’s not happy, they don’t need to be there bringing everyone else down.
In the Forum you can focus on the sun, or that you're standing in history. Your choice.

But it wasn’t until this year that I witnessed how subtle it can be. No overt tirades, nothing tangible enough to justify removal from the group, but as time went by nothing was ever good enough or worth appreciating, and I never once saw a smile. Several local guides recognized it immediately, but I just chalked it up to botox. But when the evaluations came in, I realized it was much worse than that. People who I know had a fantastic time were complaining about the size of the showers etc. It feels clear to me that if this person hadn’t been in there radiating negativity, those people would have brought home another positive memory instead of gripes about shower stalls.

Negative energy is problematically powerful. I sat with the person for one meal and was considering quitting my job by the time dessert came. At the very least, I was ready to sign off the tour as a loss.

Sure the view, whatever. Ugh, do there have to be so many people?

Then something happened. Perhaps inevitable and undoubtedly wonderful. I talked to other tour members. And was restored. I remember one lady in particular that night, enjoying the unexpected fireworks display the town put on, taking unmitigated pleasure in the light and sound and moment shared with the small beach community. The words are forgotten but I remember the healing power in hearing how much fun she was having, what the tour meant to her, and how grateful she was to be on it. I walked away from that chat ready to sign up for 100 tours on the spot.

It's all about how you....frame it.

Her positivity is reflected in the hundreds of tour members I’ve had, with just the one who bummed me out. That’s magnificent. And beyond that, it’s important. Because in a moment where the worst of us is degrading the Oval Office and contaminating the headlines, it’s good to remember that the vast majority of us are beautiful people. I can expand out to all the innumerable niches of Europe, rock climbing walls of San Francisco, classrooms of the IRC, streets of New Delhi and prayer-soaked hallways of Dharamshala, I can expand to embrace all the environments and moments I found this year and in the cast of thousands I see an incredible panoply of human goodness.

So, though the grumps are out there, the lovers and delighters outnumber them by a degree of magnitude that gives me hope. And I didn’t even tell you about the twins. Humanity is beautiful. And I can’t wait to go back to work.
I think that guy's going to need his own post...

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

I wasn't prepared for this

You love your friends and what matters to them matters to you, so of course you say yes when they invite you to come see their newborn baby. Of course. Over to the hospital you go. I am privileged to not be so familiar with these places but I recognize the elevator, the doors that open at the push of a button, the hallways that project medical ability, biological stability, hope’s reliability. Then into the room. Into her room.

And there she is. In her artificial womb of plexiglass and portals, wires and cables to monitors and screens, heartbeat over respiration over oxygen saturation and there is no normal but this one as you listen to the beep of alarm and watch it come back down to green before you breathe again.

Truth be told, promise not to tell? I generally think babies are kinda ugly. Amphibian creatures barely sapiens, born from a woman they promise but I’m tempted to look around for the spaceship retreating.

But this? This tiny person, swimming through the unfamiliar space of her newborn body, premature and perfect, this little girl is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. And I scorn the scorn that whispers at the cliche because bugger me but it’s true.

And I don’t know what to say. She’s magnificent.

I’ve felt this way before, witnessing the small ones of kith and kin. Stood abashed before the splendor of creation. And I well remember the transcendent majesty of looking at my lady love’s son and feeling the gods’ gift of realizing “Yes, yes, for this I would die to protect.” And he wasn’t even mine.

And suddenly, on a normal Saturday night I’m feeling it again, the awe, the sheer dumbfounded reverence for what it is to bring a child into this world. Tomorrow I’ll rage at the idiocy that brings violence to remove them, as everyone is a child in someone’s heart, but for now I exist in little besides awe.

I am accustomed to seeing the Divine in Nature, the pulse of the universe in ocean waves, sand dune shifts, and sunlight through the leaves, but here I am in a concrete cave made by men and everywhere I look I see godliness. In the purpose of the space, the quiet skill and sleepless devotion of the staff, the faceless researchers who devise the tests and cures, and above all else: her, and the indomitability of her will to continue. What is god if not this newest person? Why would it be anywhere else?

Outside it’s a normal night. Cars each going to their own someplace, sports fans ribbing at each others laundry, friends talking too loudly on the lamplit street with words about nothing that manifest their love anyway. And it is a normal night. Another in the endless line of nights where somewhere nearby a miracle is breathing. And the awe overtakes me. I was ready to meet their child, but I was not prepared for this.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

So long, blogspot. It's not you, it's we.

Updating another blog, especially while abroad, just doesn't seem to happen much anymore. But I still try to post regularly on or my medium page (which courteously informs me that my posts generally range from 2 to 3 minute reads).

Posting about India again tonight...

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Living the dream

I had a dream when I was a kid. A literal, “I’m asleep” kind of dream, that is. This isn’t an inspirational post. In it, I’m swimming along the bottom of the pool, my favorite place in all of Childhood’s Kingdom, when I realize I can breathe down there. Not fully, not well, but if I calm down and do it just right, modestly, I can breathe. I remember an infusion of calm and an understanding that everything could be fantastic. Could be better than I’d known to hope for. (It wasn’t until later that I suspected I’d just rolled over and was breathing through my pillow.)

Amsterdam welcomed me my first day
This morning I’m coming up for air. After 21 days of Best of Europe tour-guiding, I’m waking up to a day without appointments, no reservations to confirm or information to convey. Not even a city to depart.

The street is polite vespas and well-dressed Parisians, nothing on my plate but baguette crumbs and the promise of more good food to come, perhaps after a stroll by the Seine? And I remember that dream. Its epiphany that I can do something I really enjoy and get the air I need while doing it. And I realize that’s what I’ve been doing for 21 days.

Swiss Alpine calm
I’ve been swimming, diving into Amsterdam’s historic harbor before turning up the Rhine to reach Austrian Alpine passes, waterfalling down Roman roads to muse about Venetian canals before making my way through old Florence to reach older Rome, just to smile and drift up into Swiss glaciers, a liquid core of calm that persists when I slide down through the vineyards of Burgundy to wash up fully rational on Seine shores.

And I’ve been breathing.

Water was an element of my boyhood joy, and travel is essential for my adult satisfaction. Sharks and me, stop moving and we suffocate. But it’s not a compulsion, not addiction, neither distraction nor delusion. It’s adoration. Adulation. Celebration of our worldwide nation and the strokes that pull us all together.

Islam is supposed to be scary? Me and
the little girl don't buy it. You?
For years I traveled. Helpless before my vagabond urges. It was right for a time, but wrong in the end. Insufficient for the long term, serving nothing but my whims. Now there’s a purpose to my travel. In a world of multimedia capitalists who profit from our fear, who compete for the spectacles that widen our eyes and shrink our horizons, I find something more worthy than mere movement when I take others with me, show them these faces of beauty left here by centuries of human struggle and millennia of natural process.

For twenty one days spread across half a dozen countries we delight in the reality of the places, rooms in our global house, and I watch the tension of the first day dissolve into the ease of the last. Day One I see apprehension when I show them the train track that will reliably bring them home, Day Twenty I drop them off in Paris’s elegant metro maze and say “See you tomorrow” and they’re off without a pause.

And in the calm, when they don’t need me at all, I can imagine them going home, feeling merely tired, to be greeted by the anxious homebound with their pinched brows who desperately inquire “You were in Europe? But weren’t you worried? Didn’t you feel unsafe?”

And in my daydream I see their calm smile, perhaps wearing the appropriate regret for the incidents of the moment, but underneath is the deep understanding that the world is something other than the misconception made up by those make-up talking heads. And my traveling companions ease back to a full library of happy moments, warm welcomes, beautiful humanity and they can shrug off the constipated clench of petty terror. Stories they know better than to buy, now.

Think they wish they'd spent more time fearful and divided?
No, they didn’t feel unsafe. They felt free. If I did my job right. And the memory of every one of their smiles resonates within me, and I feel that dream’s sense of delighted astonishment, astonished delight, and can pull in deep lungfuls of fresh air.

Maybe it’s an inspiration post after all. For me, anyway.

Europe's normalcy and hospitality are waiting, on every boulevard and back street.

Thursday, May 4, 2017


Tall and dark, their food was spiced differently and they spoke of a place called Yugoslavia that sounded exotic and sad. But it was all just texture for the aunt, uncle, and two cousins I grew up with. And it didn’t matter at all that instead of a genetic link of ancestry, we shared a history of morning drives towards afternoon picnics before evening dinners and piling into the streetlit car worn out and over-ready for bed. I referred to them as my “parallel family.”

Castle Rock with friends
We’d been family since before I was born. Back when our moms were college roommates. So I showed up for university with eyes wide for the first glimpse of the people who would someday be uncles and aunts to my own kids. No pressure. But impossible expectation is a supplementary explanation for why I am not in touch with anyone from my college years.

Within weeks of school starting, I was in a relationship that devoured most of my hours. Waking and sleeping. I basically lived in her apartment. (Is 15 years too late to send an apologetic fruit basket?) They were seven good years, but when they were over, they were gone with the girlfriend.

That was always my way. My romantic relationship had absolute primacy. Where I spent my time. If my She was unavailable, then I’d call up a friend. Familiar story, tragic mistake, but comfortable in the meantime.

So as I entered this phase of my life (single for the first time since...elementary school?) I resolved to do it differently. I just didn’t know what that would look like.

My turn
It looks like Mondays on rock climbing walls with East Bay friends. Tuesday Lebanese burrito in Dolores Park with my brother and his crew. Wednesday climbing with an amplified set of San Franciscans, before Thursday with my old roommate and his fiance. Friday’s Happy Hour will be well named for the company of friends from middle school, and Saturday we’ll socialize in the farmer’s market sunshine.

And the weekends? Driving to Point Reyes for green hillsides and ocean vistas before watching the sun set into my beloved Pacific Ocean, whose eternal beauty complements mortal friendships, whatever their scale.

Or drive down to Castle Rock to rappel down a granite slab then climb back up, sticking fingers in arachnid crevices and unknowable mammalian dens.

Or up to Tahoe, maybe snowshoeing, or a social maelstrom of mullet wigs, karaoke, and the conviction that no matter how weird the conversation gets, that’s cool.
Tahoe. Made sense at the time.

None of this is a shocking revelation. That friends are good. But that doesn’t lessen their importance. In our Social Media Age, murky medium of social isolation, I want to shout my gratitude for real human contact out into this inhuman ether, knowing it will reach the eyes of friends I’ve never met (yet?), and maybe even stir an additional gathering of friends or two.

Because whether we share genes or not, met in college or on the wall, with smiles or fonts, our lives are made richer by our Parallel Family.