Overrated bravery: what looks courageous may not be at all

Since I was 27 and left home on my first solo backpacking trek across the United States, friends and acquaintances have been telling me I’m “brave.”  The volume of such comments increased enormously seven years ago, when I first decided to get on an airplane and visit Argentina by myself for 10 days.  I suppose it does take a bit of backbone for a lone woman to travel 5,500 miles, to a country where she knows no one and doesn’t have the greatest facility with the language even after decades of spotty Spanish study.

But this isn’t the big deal it used to be – international travel for women is so common now, I’m surprised to find entire websites dedicated to the topic.  Of course women traveling alone are subject to harassment and even rape, and we women and LGBTQ folks share information to keep ourselves secure and sane on the road.  My first solo journey to South America was lonely, although I never felt unsafe anywhere, and now when I visit Buenos Aires I feel like a regular at my favorite bed and breakfast and have travel buddies to hang out with, visiting the Sunday craft fairs and the traditional tango milongas.

The most recent compliments on my travel courage came from my wonderful upstairs neighbor friends and landlords, a married heterosexual couple.  They could not wrap their heads around why I was going to Easton Mountain, a Radical Faerie retreat for gay men, on Labor Day weekend.  Well, I was invited – along with any other person who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer – and it looked like a fun opportunity for growth and something I needed to do for myself.  (I’ll save the details for another blog post.)

Bravery is in the eye of the beholder.  I was raised in a pretty traditional white, North American nuclear family, with a mother who suffered from anxiety and depression and a father who had his own affective disorders, but did what was necessary to make a living that would support a wife and two kids.  Until I was in high school, my mom worked at home, raising my younger brother and me and keeping our house nearly spotless.  My dad’s career offered occasional travel in the United States, and our family took annual summer vacations to nearby cities and rural areas, never going farther from our home in the northeast than Washington, D.C. and Toronto, Ontario (in those days, U.S. citizens didn’t need a passport to travel to Canada, and crossing the border in Niagara Falls was a snap for white heteros with children).  My mother was afraid to go anywhere by herself, and seemed to feel protected in our lower-middle-class suburban milieu.  When my father left her after 25 years of courting and marriage, one of Mom’s brave acts was flying on a regional airline to visit my great-aunt on Long Island for a long weekend.

Granted, flying anywhere was less common three decades ago than it is now.  But after watching my mother tripped up and trapped by anxiety, seeing my father off to work each morning in his suit and tie, surrounded by nuclear families like ours in  poorly made tract houses in a neighborhood of cul-de-sacs, all I wanted was to escape.  My greatest dread in life was ending up like her.  In fact, it’s entirely possible that that fear fuels my travels as much as restlessness, curiosity, or a need for adventure does.  Although I must admit that visiting Buenos Aires six times in five years is my own version of the cul-de-sac.  We all have our safe harbors.

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A danger in tree hugging

Yesterday I hugged a tree and it bit back.

It was one of the tens of thousands of dead and dying hemlocks in our region, but I didn’t look up to see what species it was before I flung my arms around its trunk.  My tree embracing is always spontaneous, which usually isn’t a problem, but this particular specimen had some tiny, nasty spines on its bark.  One lodged itself in my index finger and irritated the skin all afternoon, reminding me of something I’ve been meaning to ask local government officials:  what are you going to do about all these dying hemlocks?

The hemlocks have been besieged by the woolly adelgid, a tiny insect similar to an aphid that literally sucks the life out of the trees and can kill a healthy hemlock in three years. As it has high shade tolerance and likes moist woodlands, creek sides, and canyons, the Eastern hemlock is the dominant tree along many popular trails in this area.  I love such spots, too, but I’ve begun to wonder whether my hiking buddies are in as much denial about the hemlock carnage as all of us seem to be about global climate change – thinking that if we keep our gaze down at the forest floor instead of looking up at the larger picture, we may be able to pretend for another year or two that the situation isn’t dire.

But even that tactic is failing now.  Yesterday as I paid attention to the ground so I wouldn’t trip on rocky stretches, I noticed that in spots the path was slick with brown, fallen hemlock needles.  The rotting ones cushioned our steps comfortingly, yet simultaneously made me mourn all those gorgeous lost trees.  I wondered what will happen when the dozens of fallen hemlocks turn into hundreds – with almost no other standing trees to stop them, will they slide from the steep ridge into the river, floating downstream and eventually into Long Island Sound?  With no roots to anchor the soil, will entire hillsides wash into our local brooks and rivers?  How long will it take successor species to establish themselves?

Perhaps in stabbing me, that dying tree was urging me to sound the alarm.  Yet another wake-up call from a wild world we’re losing so rapidly, I don’t know whether to spend all my free time in it, admiring and celebrating, or hide indoors to grieve.


Woolly adelgid information: http://www3.amherst.edu/~ccsp01/HemlockAdelgid.html

Posted in Health & wellness, New England, Spirituality, Travel, Uncategorized, United States | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

On being interested in too many things

When I was in high school, a friend of mine (I’ll call him Todd, because that was, and presumably still is, his name) would call me at least once a week and say, “What’s up? I’m bored.”

Even at that age, I could barely fathom that condition. In our classes, sure; on the school buses we had to ride from our dreary suburbs carved out of the cornfields to our ugly, sprawling, rural high school; at some event or other our parents or teachers forced us to attend. But in our free time, after homework was done? How could I be bored when I had so much to read? My mother had been taking my younger brother and me to the public libraries in our town and the one next door since we’d moved to that ’burb when I was nine and he was six, and I never failed to emerge with a stack of books so tall I could barely carry it. Contemporary young adult novels, word play and puzzles, biographies of rock musicians – I loved it all, and I kept so many books on the coffee table, I drove my mom crazy when she tried to clean house: “Can’t you keep those in your room, and leave one down here on the table?”

“But I’m reading all of them!”

Who had time to be bored? When I grew tired of reading, I had my stereo and handful of records. I’d discovered the Beatles in junior high and was hooked on their hooks and harmonies and innovations, on John Lennon’s bad-boy growl and Paul McCartney’s Liverpool dance hall croon. And in the evenings some or all of our nuclear family gathered around our only TV, a good-sized color set at the narrow end of the 9-by-12 family room, and watched the endless string of Norman Lear situation comedies or M*A*S*H, Mom not-so-secretly drooling over Alan Alda’s Hawkeye character, Dad identifying with him. And we could enjoy the outdoors – by the time I hit high school, I no longer played with other kids, climbing the huge maple trees between the disused farm pastures behind our house, but occasionally I still sat in a lawn chair beneath the giant birch to read my latest copy of Rolling Stone.

Because I couldn’t fathom his feeling, Todd’s and my conversations soon became ritualized: “Hi! What’re you doing? I’m bored.”

“How can you be bored? Go read a book!”

“I hate reading,” Todd inevitably replied. At the time I considered this laziness, even a moral failing; fairly recently I realized he probably had dyslexia or another learning disability. In the era before social networking, we lost touch, then hung out a few times when I was home from grad school working on a master’s in creative writing and he’d finished an associate’s degree in accounting at the local community college and was transitioning from waiter in an intimate, white-tablecloth restaurant to a bookkeeper day job.

We’ve lost touch again, probably permanently, but I think of Todd every time I contemplate how inundated I feel. I’m now middle-aged, and the only times I’m bored are when I drive and when I’ve elected to attend a poetry or prose reading in a small auditorium and discovered that the writer’s work isn’t my cup o’ tea and it’s impossible to leave the venue without looking like a mannerless ass. Outside the workplace, I very seldom have to deal with tedium, because so much interests me. Not only has this not changed since I was a child, it’s gotten worse (or better?). I thought I had a lot to read when I was a young teenager – I couldn’t have imagined what would be available decades later. The offerings have grown exponentially: the personal computer and the internet were invented; I attended college and 2½ years of graduate school in liberal arts; and as an adult, I returned to the Spanish studies I began in high school.

What’s available online, from captions on clickbait cat pictures to newspapers from all over the world to academic journals, feels nearly unlimited. And now that I can read decently in Spanish, I feel even more inundated. Despite my high school and college instructors’ best attempts to kill it, my interest in literature, history, anthropology, sociology, linguistics, architecture, spirituality, and especially Latin American studies has grown enormously over the decades, and it only recently dawned on me that I’ll never have enough years to read all I want to. My undergraduate studies in journalism were perhaps what turned me into a generalist – I have a layperson’s understanding of many subjects. At this point, it’s a chicken-and-egg question: Did studying journalism get me interested in a variety of topics, or did being interested in many things as a child make me want to learn newswriting so I could share information with others?

In any case, I try to see my myriad interests as a blessing instead of a curse; these days, friends who feel similarly and I have conversations like this:

“Well, better overwhelmed than bored, I guess.”

“Yeah, I’d hate to be one of those people who does nothing but lie on the couch watching TV!”

And then we return to our day jobs, our 4,477 personal email messages (yes, that’s a real figure, from only three email folders of mine), our several writing/ translation/ publishing projects, our lists of hundreds of ideas for other projects, our homes, partners, spouses, kids, pets… however cluttered and stuffed and messy our days, we keep moving. Years ago when one of my friends was married and she and her husband had a young daughter and were working full-time, she used to write in her emails, “Our lives are very full.” I always thought that was the best way to say it.

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Global climate change and the Dried-Up Waterfalls of the Berkshires Tour

On Labor Day weekend, a friend who lives up the road and I set off on a Berkshires adventure, fortified with old media – Joseph Bushee Jr.’s Waterfalls of Western Massachusetts guide, and an atlas of the same territory – and newer technology – 2 cell phones and a GPS. We were wandering with a purpose, to find a short- to medium-length hike leading to or past a decent-sized waterfall – but one neither had visited before, and outside our usual stomping grounds.

Normally this isn’t difficult in this part of the universe, but neither of us has the most spectacular sense of direction, and Bushee’s instructions weren’t always easy to follow, particularly in towns that tend to have several meandering country roads with similar or even identical names. A good chunk of our conversation for a couple of hours went along these lines: “This says Mill River Road, but the sign says River Road – well, it’s off Main Road, heading south, so this must be it…”

But getting lost and having to double back wasn’t the most distressing aspect of our meandering. After missing one of the book’s roadside cascades three times, we realized we were fine observers, but there was almost nothing to see: the waterfalls had all but ceased flowing after yet another drought-slammed season. Creeks had turned to a handful of puddles among the stones, pond levels had dropped, waterlilies were stuck in the muck.

I found it disheartening, but recalled all that I’d read this summer about the enormous wildfires raging in Washington, California, and parts of Mexico, and I felt guilty for fretting about a few dried-up brooks. Still, it’s all connected to what our species is doing to the planet, and that is truly, unbearably depressing. So, like typical humans, we hopped back into our car and drove to the closest city of any size to eat dinner and forget what we’d just been unable to see.

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Who makes your paper bags? Who knows?

About five years ago I became captivated by the names on the bottoms of brown paper bags and subsequently wrote a post in which I imagined the difficult lives of those who assembled them. (See: https://springbyker.wordpress.com/2011/03/04/who-makes-your-paper-bags/) To my surprise, it became my most popular post, and after a couple of years I began receiving posted comments from current and former employees of Duro Manufacturing, mostly at the Elizabeth, N.J. plant that supplied bags to merchants in the Northeast, where I live.

My imaginings about the manufacturing process and work conditions were inaccurate, as an employee with the screen name Bagguette commented a year ago: “The machines normally put out about 500 bags a minute, so that ‘gluing’ is from a nozzles [sic] steadily applying paste to the paper as it runs through the machine. […] The most work a bagmaker does is stack the pallets with the bags after they come out, and constantly make sure the machine is putting everything (ink, paste) in the right place.”

Bagguette and another reader, Whitfield, wrote that the bags are made by high-speed machines monitored by human operators, something that would’ve been obvious to me had I thought more about it – clearly there was no Santa’s Workshop with elves sitting at little benches, folding and applying glue to paper bags. Several Duro employees at one time or another agreed that the employees were hard-working and dedicated; as one, Alex, put it, “it takes a lot more effort and more people then you think to make your paper bag colection [sic]”.

Whitfield and Bagguette disagreed a bit on working conditions; Whitfield called them “unsafe and stressful,” while Bagguette harangued me:

“Oh please with the downtrodden worker bit. […] This isn’t a bad job for working class manufacturing. I make about the same or more than people who go into other jobs in factories or hospitals that require a lot more training and less of a chance of hiring, and especially more than restaurant servers and bartenders I’ve known who laughed at the description of being a paper bag maker. Meanwhile I watch people in shipbuilding and steel mills and chemical factories get laid off while I haven’t missed a paycheck in nine years. I can also go a whole workday without having a conversation with another person, and considering other jobs I’ve had before this and that I’m qualified for […], that is a very big advantage. It’s a no-nonsense job not trying to stick people on Facebook pages or have potluck Christmas parties or any of that stuff that just makes work really aggravating. I clock out and don’t have to think about work until I go back and clock in.

“Next time do some research. […] I’d much rather have my ‘dead-end’ machine operator job fighting a machine than your average middle management job where people get a fancy title, a ton of ridiculous responsibilities like supervising idiots or cleaning the coffeemaker, and still only make in the $20-30,000 range while I make well more than that for much less of a hassle.”

I felt a little embarrassed when I read her comments – she and I probably earned a comparable wage, and I thought once again about how much “nonsense” I’ve put up with in various white-collar jobs over the years (and yes, I do have to clean the coffeemaker in my current job. “Supervising idiots” still feels mean, though.)

However, Bagguette and her New Jersey co-workers may be under new management. According to Whitfield, “The plant manager was brought in from the closed Virginia plant to dismantle the Elizabeth [N.J.] plant. […] If you check Duro history, you’ll find upper management changes constantly and Elizabeth suffers.” According to the bag codes Whitfield wrote about, the factory is still open, but the brown bags reflect the latest change. The simple Duro logo has been updated with a stylized S shape surrounding the brand name; several logos tout the bag’s green credentials, from a tiny frog inside a Rainforest Alliance Certified badge to the chasing-arrows symbol; and the manufacturer is now identified as NOVOLEX/ Duro Bag. All that’s remained the same is the manufacturing code, and the machine operator’s name has vanished.

According to an online industry newsletter of the Association of International Metallizers, Coaters and Laminators, a multinational corporation is Bagguette’s new boss. As usual with international mergers and acquisitions, it’s hard for a layperson to even keep track of the management chain. Apparently NOVOLEX merged with Packaging Dynamics, which had purchased Duro in 2014 – no, wait; some entity called Wind Point Partners bought NOVOLEX, and the whole thing is worth nearly $2 billion.

“Packaging Dynamics, which is owned by funds managed by Kohlberg & Co., manufactures a broad portfolio of flexible, paper-based food packaging products including specialty bags, specialty sheets and wraps, interfolded tissue, pan liners, and freezer/ butcher paper products, as well as specialty laminated foil products.”

So the company that owns the company that owns Duro – I think – is owned by “funds managed by” another company. With a chain like that, good luck finding anyone who gives a damn about an individual worker in the industrial heart of New Jersey. So, Bagguette, even if I wasn’t quite accurate about your take-home pay, I still stand by the first sentence of my original blog post: “Sometimes I’m reminded of the anonymity of jobs on the bottom of the wage and respect scale.” Now we don’t even get to read your name to remind us that a human being helped create that bag that holds our bread.

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Lessons in just being

Many years ago when I lived in Boulder and my last girlfriend, D., and I began our relationship, I heard her tell the story to friends and relatives many times of how she came to move halfway across the country to enroll in the brand-new Environmental Leadership master’s program at Naropa Institute (now Naropa University). I sensed that the faculty and administration were desperate for recruits, because they apparently lied to her about what she’d learn and be able to do after she obtained the degree. It was really more of a liberal arts-with-outdoor-trips degree, and she wanted to become a certified wilderness guide and ended up dropping out of Naropa after a year.

But the detail I’ve been recalling lately is D. telling me about going camping in beautiful places with her women’s outdoor group before she enrolled at Naropa. She said she was happier in the wilderness than in any other place or time in her life, and that camping gave her the feeling that she didn’t have to do anything, that she could simply step out of her tent every morning and just be.

At the time I didn’t get it. I was still young, angry, an untreated depressive, a political activist, crusading journalist sort. How could anyone just be?, I shouted internally. You had to do something, because the world was so screwed up, and we all had an obligation to fix it! But now I live it. Every weekday evening after a mile-long bike ride on a road with loud, hyperactive traffic, I turn onto a short street with a handful of houses, hurtle down the decline at the end, ride under an ancient, defunct telephone wire wrapped in wild grapevine, turn into my landlords’ packed-sand driveway, and suddenly I’m in sacred territory. I lean my bike with its overburdened saddlebags against the house, and everything is perfect. I meander into the backyard and watch the birds and look at the tiny sprouting plants in the borderland between my landlord’s gardens and the city open space, the Meadows, and I don’t have to do anything – in fact, when I try to even walk gently in that area, every day I’m stepping on more and more infant plants. When I sit out on the lawn with my laptop, my busy brain brimming with stories and reports and complaints and worries and dreams, my mind is instantly rendered silent by the shriek of blue jays, the chipping of cardinals, the chirreeeee of redwing blackbirds. What is the point of going on about my petty concerns when more interesting and beautiful lives are taking wing all around me?

I was raised a cynic in a cynical era – my parents brought up my brother and me as agnostics, and I came to political consciousness in very early adolescence during the Watergate scandal, when it seemed the only heroes were investigative journalists. I’ve always been allergic to religious and spiritual ritual, and all my holidays have been secular and/or political. But living in the little paradise of my landlords’ backyard and the wetlands, fields, and woods beyond – and knowing that not only will the two of them not consider me a weirdo for lying on the lawn, but will probably enjoy seeing me enjoy the land – is leading me to create tiny new rituals for myself.

So far these consist of nothing more unusual than taking a break outside between work/ after-work activities (classes, board meetings, cultural events) and home, removing my shoes and socks on the last slightly chilly day of fall and the first warm day of spring and digging my freed toes into the New England earth, a fertile combination of dark, rich loam and glacial till. My prayers consist of little more than variations on “thank you,” but they acknowledge something greater than myself. Prayer still feels a little odd to me, remarkable because I was raised without it, an atheist throughout my adolescence and young adulthood. It seems presumptuous to call my daily backyard contemplation “meditation,” but disinterested parties have labeled it such. I suppose they’re right – the woods behind our house are certainly a far more spiritual space than the empty meditation rooms I visited at Naropa back in the 1990s.

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Adventures in decluttering: Keeping projects simple

As a creative person and someone whose entire nuclear family lies somewhere on the functional end of the clutterer-hoarder scale, I collect projects all too easily. Those of us in this category eventually realize that there are a couple of rules for getting these things done instead of leaving them sitting in our closets, basements, and attics:

1. Do the projects as soon as we acquire them, while we’re still inspired, and/or
2. Make sure the projects are small enough or easy enough to do in a day or two, preferably in a few hours.

My latest example: one of those ever-so-clever ideas that seemed brilliant last year, made me kick myself this year, and has turned out to be just fine, and in fact rather fun. It remains to be seen whether I’ll finish it in the way I’ve envisioned, though. It’s a piece of furniture: a Danish-made, teak-veneer, glass-doored wine cabinet I bought last summer at the thrift shop up the road right after I moved into my new apartment, which has precisely one kitchen cupboard.

Furniture projects can be dangerous because they tend to be large, and often bulky. It’s one thing to acquire some undertaking that can fit into a small crate or box — those can be stashed away and don’t take up much space. Mistakes with furniture often end up being a huge pain — witness the number of TV cabinets and “home entertainment centers” from the ’80s and ’90s now for sale on Craigslist, and the zillions of particle-board desk-and- hutch monstrosities abandoned on curbs everywhere.

I had grand plans for the cabinet. I drink wine only once or twice a year, usually when I visit Argentina. So naturally my friend who helped me lug the thing from the thrift shop, carefully maneuver it awkwardly into and out of her small car’s back seat, and carry it up the back steps into my kitchen, wanted to know what the heck I was going to do with it. I told her I envisioned sawing apart some of the wood supports for the wine bottles, removing them, and inserting shelving to hold my Fiestaware and other colorful dishes. I figured that once I’d settled in, this would be a great project for cold autumn days in my cozy new place.

My kitchen last summer, a few days after moving in. It looks much better now! Photo by Springbyker.

My kitchen last summer, a few days after moving in. It looks much better now that the beach towel and boxes are off the table!
Photo by Springbyker.

Cut from July to April: last weekend I was showing off to my landlady the like-new Ikea (mostly) solid wood buffet with top cabinet I’d just bought at a bargain price on Craigslist. She gushed over it, then looked at the piece of furniture it would replace and said, “But I don’t understand why you have a wine cabinet in your kitchen.”

I chuckled embarrassedly and said, “Welllll, I bought that for 25 bucks at the thrift shop after I moved in, and I was going to saw the shelves and install new ones, and you know how that goes — I’ll do it when hell freezes over!”

I felt like a fool for keeping a piece that for 10 months served only as a table for my collection of vintage chrome flour canisters and spice racks. In my defense, I must say that the cabinet and canisters looked great sitting next to the fridge, and on the rare occasions when I baked, the flour and spices were very handy. And this weekend I’ve redeemed myself: I moved the cabinet across the kitchen next to the laundry room and turned it into a sweater holder. Turns out those little supports for holding wine bottles are an ideal size for slotting bulky sweaters. (Old New England houses like ours have tiny closets and wet basements, so winter clothing storage is a challenge.) And the shiny ’50s Waring blender looks magnificent on top.

It remains to be seen how long it’ll take me to finish the project: I dug into my collection of vintage textiles and found a holey tablecloth I can cut in half to make curtains for the glass doors — I think it’ll look cute and keep the sweaters from fading in the sun. But this brings me to my third rule for keeping projects doable:

3. Never acquire anything that requires getting out the iron and ironing board.

It’s not that I hate ironing — like Tillie Olsen, I find it a meditative activity. But it’s often the extra step that keeps me from finishing something I’ve started. Oh well… at least I dusted and scrubbed the Ikea hutch, and today I’ll put the dishes into it!

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Journal: Attack of the creeping crud, Day 7

I finally feel closer to normal, although I probably could’ve slept another hour, had the Feline Marauder not burst into the bedroom demanding breakfast as soon as she heard me launch into my first coughing fit. Those tight doors shrink up like nipples in a New England winter; in the summer they’ll expand so that I won’t be able to open or close them, but right now my weakling cat can unlatch them with her paws.

I think a trip downtown is on the agenda. I haven’t left the house in more than a week except to go snowshoeing in the Manhan Meadows a few hundred meters from the backyard. It’s a gorgeous day — all but one or two this week have been blue-skyed and beautiful, if frigid. And I feel better, even given the copious amounts of crud still lodged in my respiratory tract. But we needn’t get into that gory detail.

I must admit, though, to a certain inertia. Having settled so well into the couch cushions, a big part of me is reluctant to leave them. I have everything I need here: movies from two pay-per-view services plus about a hundred DVDs, more reading material than you can find in a Hilltowns public library, pillows, comforters, food, cat. What’s pulling me toward the center of town is boredom — if I have to eat that chili one more time, I will have an illness of another sort. I am, to put it crudely, sick of my own stink. A hot shower will cure that, but then I want to take my fresh clean self out to mingle with other human beings. I’ve seen no one but my landlords in eight days. The two of them are among the kindest, most caring people I’ve met in my life, they’ve created the safest, coziest home in which I’ve ever lived, and this is the most relaxing, healing sick time I’ve passed since I was a child in the house with my mother, who was a registered nurse.

But I’m ready to leave the nest and join the other stir-crazy, I’ve-had-it-up-to-here-with-winter New Englanders in the center of town, standing in line waiting for a steaming latte, stamping snow off our boots and giving each other those “yeah, we know how to do this” looks. Raising our eyebrows, waiting for June.

Trees in the backyard after the first snowfall, when it all felt fresh and new. Photo by Springbyker.

Trees in the backyard after the first snowfall, when it all felt fresh and new. Photo by Springbyker.

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I love my countries, but I think we should start seeing other people

This morning as I sipped my coffee and read ProPublica journalist Sebastian Rotella’s comprehensive article (link below) about the latest democratic crisis in a place that’s now my second home, I was struck by his phrase “Argentina, a country for which I have great fondness.” My blog’s regular readers, and travelers who drop in from all over the world to read a post or two, know that I have similar feelings, to say the least.

In the past few years I’ve spent a total of three months — as much vacation time as a very good U.S. clerical job affords — exploring the nation that captured my attention many years ago in my grad school Spanish courses. I’ve wandered the country and its “sister nation,” Uruguay, a bit, made some friends, and bored my US friends silly with my stories. Sleeping and awake, I wear three or four silver-and-semi-precious-stone rings I’ve purchased at Buenos Aires’ weekly street fairs; some of these gems are hand-crafted, and all are constant, treasured reminders of my time there. I’ve spent four years reading about and studying the country’s history, sociology, language dialect, music and other popular culture; I’ve watched more than 200 Argentine films and own about 45 of them on DVD. I passed a summer translating into English a book by an Argentine journalist, and my vacation days last spring traveling to Chicago and Austin to meet the author and academics who might be interested in teaching the book, and I’ll spend this spring writing the book proposal.

This immersion has taught me a great deal, but my optimism about active grassroots social movements and the country’s return to democracy also made me far too loyal, causing me to set aside my natural anarchist skepticism about governments, politicians, leaders, and any organized group that gets too comfortable with power. For a long time I resisted difficult truths about Argentina, annoying friends who’d grown up there and fled, or stayed and dealt with the daily grind in Buenos Aires, Córdoba, tiny towns in the provinces. Finally last August, on my sixth visit in the past five years, reality struck. I’d spent last summer overwhelmed by packing and moving and unpacking my home in the U.S., and I was ready to enjoy my first real vacation in Buenos Aires, instead of an intensive university course or a fact-finding mission. The taxi driver dropped me at the door of my favorite bed and breakfast, where I’d stayed twice before and met many lovely travelers from all over the world; I moved into “my” room and began unpacking, then messaging friends to make plans. I was thrilled to be back in one of my favorite cities and countries.

My casual friends (or close acquaintances) with whom I had dinner the following night, however, had finally given up on the place: they announced that as soon as they could sell their apartment and family business, they were moving to Europe. This shocked me, although they’d complained in previous years about Argentina’s corruption, even spouting conspiracy theories that made me roll my eyes in private — my favorite was that la presidenta, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and her son had had their husband and father, former president Néstor Kirchner, shot in the head with a discreet, small-caliber bullet. (Kirchner suffered from angina and died of heart failure in 2010.) In August the wife of my couple-friends repeated the murder fable; to prevent myself from assuming that “yeah, right” look that would reveal me as maleducada, I quickly asked why Cristina and Maxi would do such a thing.

My friend gave me a grave look. “Poder.”

All conspiracy theories aside, my friends were fed up with the economics of Argentina. Extreme inflation is a recurring problem, and for reasons not even experts can fathom, the economy seems to nosedive every decade or so. My closest Argentine friends are economic exiles, those who were fortunate enough to have the brains and educational opportunities to try their luck in the United States when it was impossible to make a living in their native nation. The country has so many exiles, in recent years the romantic comedy film genre has consisted of stories of young couples breaking up and reuniting as they leave for and return from Spain, Canada, and the U.S.

My husband and wife buddies’ other complaints were so similar to those of my own extended family members back in the States, I could’ve made their speech myself, had I had a little English-to-Spanish translation prep time: “These kids today dress like slobs, have no respect for anyone or anything, cover everything on the streets with ugly, meaningless graffiti, have babies out of wedlock, and live on welfare payments, so they have no incentive to look for jobs. They think everything should be handed to them; they don’t want to work for it.” This is all the federal government’s fault, of course. The only Argentine twist I could discern was “Everything was better when Perón was president.” (Not something you’ll hear from all Argentines, by any means, but one of my friends grew up working-class and Juan Perón’s policies greatly increased her family’s quality of life — with no welfare payments involved.)

My friends’ business wasn’t doing well; they were broke and depressed and seemed to spend the bulk of their time surfing the web. Granted, it was the dead of winter in the Southern Hemisphere, so this wasn’t unusual behavior. But I felt a sort of pall when I was around them, as if they were simply holding on by their fingernails until they could get the hell out and begin life anew in Europe. Then one night the other shoe dropped: they received a phone call saying that her brother and other family members had been in an auto accident in her home province, and her mother had been killed. Her husband stayed in Buenos Aires to keep the business running while she took a bus all day to her brother and sister-in-law’s for the funeral, then immediately turned around and returned to the city (one thing Argentina does superbly is comfortable, affordable long-distance bus service).

I will skip the gory details about her meltdown later that week and ensuing awkwardness on my part. I considered a tourist trek to some other province(s) to give them some time alone, but I had the sense they wanted me and their other friends, who were staying in their apartment, to keep them company. (Patagonia is on my bucket list, but only in summer.) I took them out to one of their favorite restaurants on my last night in the country, and we had a nice time.

But I finally started to see Argentina through a resident’s eyes rather than a visitor’s, and they were right: it wasn’t pretty. A pettier example: my friends weren’t exaggerating the graffiti. In previous years I’d seen a lot of political tagging, which young people spray-painted mostly during marches to the Plaza de Mayo, the main square where the Casa Rosada, the equivalent of the U.S. White House, is located. Maintenance workers were sent out in the following days to clean most of the slogans off the buildings, if not the bus shelters and the small, 100-year-old, cast-iron billboards that dot the city center. This year, it looked as if no one had cleaned any spray paint off of anything for months; I’d never seen the tourist and business districts looking so shabby.

Friends from all over have enjoyed teasing me about being a vegetarian in the land of barbecued meat, although I’ve never had a problem finding plenty to eat in Buenos Aires. But last August, for the first time, I could taste the inflation rate: cafés whose food I’d savored in previous southern winters had a staff shortage and longer wait times, and the cooks were stir-frying aging cabbage instead of fresh vegetables and legumes. In a couple of places I was served moldy cheese on my veggie burgers. Rather than self-righteously sending these plates back to the kitchen, I just nibbled around the cheese and felt sad — for my friends, for other small-business owners, for everyone trying to survive and thrive in this country that feels very “Global North” in so many respects, yet isn’t. As a visiting lecturer in college Spanish classes, I had taught the history of the 2001 economic crisis, but it was another thing to see for myself what it meant when inflation increased and your paycheck didn’t, to see prices double at the supermarket and pharmacy. I’ve seen a zillion films about auto accidents en la ruta — it’s horrifyingly common, but it got up close and personal when my friend’s mother died that way.

And then there’s the never-ending corruption. Although I thought the “who killed Néstor” urban myth was idiotic, the more I read and viewed about his widow and her administration, the more I had to admit that their hands were by no means clean. I didn’t feel the need to improve my Spanish by getting into the gory details served up by her critics — until five weeks ago, when Alberto Nisman, the special prosecutor investigating the 1994 terrorist bombing that killed 85 people at Buenos Aires’ Jewish community center, the AMIA, was found dead in his apartment with a gunshot wound. Watching President Fernández bungle the situation makes me cringe, and has killed any remaining respect I had for her and her administration. I gave them a pass for years, saying things like, “Well, this is what happens in a country that’s had a functioning democracy for only 31 years.” Now I’m simply discouraged and baffled (although I strongly believe that Nisman did not commit suicide).

It hurts me when this country I’ve come to love goes through growing pains — or perhaps is simply revealed once again to be its same old violent, corrupt, agonizingly screwed-up self. As I write this, I picture my Argentine friends and acquaintances going on the defensive, gathering their anti-U.S. arguments — and they’re absolutely right. The United States of America is no better and no worse; the country of my birth is simply much wealthier, powerful, and better organized than so many of the smaller nations it exploits, beats to a pulp, steals resources from. The nation of my birth was and is built on genocide and slavery. I’ve had deep problems with my country since I was 12 or 13, old enough to begin to understand its history and form moral views. Anyone who follows the news knows all too well how the USA has treated people of color and the poor since the religious fanatics fled Europe and landed on these shores. And when Fernández mentions to the media that other countries have “clandestine prisons and people detained without trial,” she’s correct — the U.S. has no moral high ground on which to stand and point fingers at Argentina or any other nation.

Perhaps the struggles between government and judicial factions, political parties, “intelligence” agencies, police forces, and corporate-owned media are simply less clandestine in Argentina than in the United States, or perhaps it’s easier to understand the corruption and political filth in my country and language of origin, but I’m finally throwing in the towel and admitting that the more I study Argentina, the less I understand. A few years ago, after my second or third trip to that nation, an acquaintance said, “You must really like it there!” She was rather taken aback at my response: “Well, I just decided to have a love/hate relationship with two countries instead of one.”

This is the nature of travel, as opposed to tourism: if we are thinking, caring people who decide to go deep, to truly get to know another culture, it’s inevitable that we see and feel the flaws, the failures, and the pain of that place. It becomes part of us in a way that doesn’t happen when we breeze through on a quick tour and go home, never to return. (I also think this is much more the case for those of us who learn the native language — especially those of us who’ve been in love with that language for decades.)

I just recalled a tiny detail from my arrival six months ago: the song on the radio as my taxi sat stuck in evening rush-hour traffic between the ferry terminal and my B & B was Mercedes Sosa’s best rendition of “Gracias a la vida.” Chilean singer and composer Violeta Parra wrote it about a man and a people she loved, but it was one of Sosa’s emblematic songs of the era of Latin American military dictatorships, and I’ve always associated it with the long, vast tragedy that Argentina sometimes seems to be.

ProPublica journalist Sebastian Rotella explains the Nisman death and background:

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Just live, live, live

One of the conversation snippets I remember best from my graduate creative writing program days came from a classmate I didn’t know well and with whom I didn’t have much in common. It’s stayed in my head all these years because grad school was where I discovered activities I loved almost as much as writing. I went to school in the Rocky Mountain West, and it was a revelation to me, a child of Western New York state, that hiking in the snow could be a pleasant pastime instead of a numbing struggle for survival, and that biking on 100-degree summer days was enjoyable as long as one carried enough water.

My classmate was chatting with one of our professors about his writing output during our summer break, and he looked a bit shame-faced as he said he hadn’t finished as much as he’d hoped because he always struggled with whether to spend his time living life or writing about it. As someone who cannot not write, I understood his dilemma. Yet now that I’m middle-aged, I find the question of living smacking me in the face more and more, and the decision to defer the writing more and more appealing. For years I’ve watched distant relatives and acquaintances die, but death is slithering closer. Less than four months ago, someone I thought of as a dear acquaintance — a person I don’t see often, but was part of the local Left/ progressive community that’s my extended family — died of cancer at age 60. Yesterday I faced the choice of crossing the river to attend the memorial service for a 51-year-old acquaintance from the bicycling/ local and sustainable food/ hiking community or traveling two miles up the road for the memorial service for a 55-year-old closer acquaintance from the political lesbian feminist/ Women Outdoors hiking-bicycling community.

Obviously this isn’t the sort of choice I look forward to making. Given this month’s endless snow and the close timing that created a logistical impossibility, and my fear of emotional overload, I chose the latter service, and was grateful for my decision. At least 100 people attended my friend Klara’s beautiful memorial. What surprised me was not that a few tears slid down the side of my face, but how much I laughed as I listened to a number of people tell stories about her. Klara loved to travel and have adventures, and she’d chosen many of us to accompany her. It didn’t matter whether the journey was a quiet summer evening at Tanglewood listening to a master of classical piano, an August road trip from New England to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, camping on the tundra near Denali in Alaska, exploring beaches in Morocco, or flying to Israel with her Jewish chorus members for an international choral festival — Klara put out the call, found one or more friends to join her, and jumped in with both feet. After her ovarian cancer diagnosis seven or eight years ago, she didn’t stop, and the picture painted at her memorial service was of a woman who never ceased living, even in the face of chemo and a lousy prognosis.

Near my back yard. Photo by Springbyker

Near my back yard. Photo by Springbyker

This morning I went outside to shovel snow for what felt like the zillionth time this winter. I didn’t have to — my landlord/friend will do it, a couple of weeks ago I injured arm muscles chopping ice in our driveway, I was barely awake, I hadn’t yet had my coffee… But I pulled on my boots and all the layers of warm clothing once again and went outside to work — because my new household is a community and I wanted to share the chores, because I wanted to converse with one of my newest friends, because it’s deep winter in New England and I have no idea how many I have left. None of us do, ever. After I finished moving snow around again, I lingered outside and turned my face to the sky and smiled as the wet flakes hit my skin. I walked behind the house, stood and watched the crimson cardinals in the wild grapevine for 10, 15 more minutes even though my legs were growing cold beneath my corduroys. Because I don’t much believe in reincarnation or an afterlife, and I think this is all we have, here, today, on this earth.

Posted in BLGTQ, Feminism, Northampton/Connecticut River Valley, Spirituality, Uncategorized, Writing & language | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment