Who are these wanderers?

“For all its material advantages, the sedentary life has left us edgy, unfulfilled. Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we haven’t forgotten. The open road still softly calls, like nearly forgotten song of childhood. We invest far-off places with certain romance. This appeal, I suspect, has been meticulously crafted by natural selection as an essential element in our survival. Long summers, mild winters, rich harvests, plentiful game – none of them lasts forever. It is beyond our powers to predict the future. Catastrophic events have a way of sneaking up on us, of catching us unaware. Your own life, or your band’s, or even your species’ might be owed to a restless few – drawn, by a craving they can hardly articulate or understand, to undiscovered lands and new worlds.” – Carl Sagan, from Pale Blue Dot

 

What's missing?

Recently an idea, or rather a sensation has been sloshing around my skull, lacing its way through my thoughts. The phrase “what am I doing?” has inched its way in there and has on a couple of occasions, with my higher-level students, sneaked into our English-learning tutoring sessions. I was caught unready this week for one student’s (a high school teacher) question: “Which do you like better?”, in reference to the United States versus Spain.

Happily I’ve been reading a bit of Pale Blue Dot and the light of my answer to these questions has begun to burn them away. What I’ve only thus far acknowledged as “wanderlust” I’ve blamed on what I saw as an Indiana-shaped cage where I lived out the early chapters of my life. Moving from north to south and in between traveling east to west all around the state evolved into navigating about the northwest quadrant of the globe, from San Diego to the District of Columbia, and down to the Caribbean, where the sun feels benevolent only above a certain social strata. What was I doing then?

Everywhere I went I saw things I had never seen before. I had never seen the way the sun so regularly shines in Denver. I had never seen how black the green highway signs are in Los Angeles, or the flatness of Kansas, for example. Now I know what -25°F feels like, and that the thighs freeze before the fingers in a stiff, frozen wind. I understand well the repercussions of eating anything from Varsity drive-in in Atlanta, and that the heaps of trash you see in the doorways of skyscrapers in the United States’ capitol contain people.  Okay, you may say; “so what?” Did I set out to have my heart wrenched by the dramatic things of the world? I think so, yes, is my answer. I set out to seek the frontiers of my own understanding of these images.

In these early voyages, I was stretching my wings. In my home country I saw many signs; “Mechanicsville” and “Leaving Mechanicsville” in the space of a highway minute, “The People of Iowa Welcome You”, and “Watch Your Step”. These small courtesies spoke to me in two languages; the first being beneficent and concerned for my well-being, calling me to attention, and an octave lower in concert with this a stiff warning: “YOU HAVE REACHED A BOUNDARY”. Thank you, signs, firstly, and now you have me puzzling over borders and questioning your tone.

A border, to me, cannot exist only in reality or only in my imagination; it must claim a plot in both spheres in order to function as per its designers’ intention. While to receive only the superficial, easily graspable information as borne by any environmental input represents the absolute frontier of most of the population’s will toward effort, I have come to regard impression, or implication as input’s primary payload.

The value of what is offered in the right hand is moderated by what is concealed in the left, and is too often, in my opinion, castrated outright by that latter substance.

Borders…where was I…oh yes, borders as limits. City limits, Austin, real music, intro and outro, stanza-stanza-feint-half-stanza-chorus-stanza-chorus-breakdown-chorus-chorus, intro and outro…

Subtle or not there is no denying the concussive nature of endings. The limit of an author’s patience with a story is not always found on the last page (nor a reader’s) but the limit of the medium is. The medium I have chosen to talk about today is the Earth and for my purposes, the human race is ink and its endless signs are chapters within books, which for my purposes are shaped like continents. In the United States there exists the illusion that once you pass the invisible lines which separate cities from the country your life is in your own hands, since you have elected to throw your lot with the hicks and mountain people. From where this notion derived I haven’t the energy or resources to research, but I can tell you from experience the sentiment is alive in US media of all stripes and therefore alive in the minds of the citizenry. City-bred Americans begin to hear banjos the moment they squeeze past that familiar membrane from busy toward calm. This sentiment is generally applicable to the borderline-agoraphobes reared in the sticks, as well; too noisy, too many people, they agree in their comfortable groups.

What I see in this case is a mutual respect of a limit, or a border. Impending change, the host element of anxiety’s active constituent, fear. (I see now that I’ve landed too early at the door of the monster I cannot slay for anyone save myself, and well, sit tight because shortly we’ll be coming to that great enemy of man.)

Likewise, the signs which demarcate places of transition aren’t in any way subtle in their delivery method. They are set at eye-level, or perched at some remove from the herd and don’t mumble. I challenge you to mark all of the announcements you see which ring in change and record for me the ones which don’t bellow like a Baptist preacher the day before Armageddon. Further, please scroll back up now and click on the picture of the Earth and moon, and let it load in your browser. When it has loaded, scan the picture for borders and consider those which don’t appear from this third-person perspective.

What have you seen? Some borders were missing, weren’t they? List them for yourself now, if you have a pen and paper. For my purposes, let’s call all of those missing borders “immaterial” (as they are, from space) and proceed with this mindset.

Poor, misunderstood Galactus.

 

The Earth as it is seen from 200 miles or more away can be a useful image for our coming comparison. What happens when any of us have a traumatic personal problem? What do our friends and family tell us? In many cases, they offer that we hurt ones ought to take a step back, survey the situation from a distance so to properly order all the jagged pieces in our heads. For the sake of my argument let’s designate the Earth as a stage of more or less constant infighting since life first crawled out of the steaming muck and saw that someone was about to cut it off in traffic. This steady, everlasting tumult would have its combatants ensnared at ground-level with each other, gaining and giving inches in a grand, survival-themed fugue. Often we as individuals are dragged into conflicts of multifarious shades and likewise, families, towns, countries, and continents at times harry each other with hostile technology and words.

We should all be married for we act like quibbling spouses too alike for a common home. That, or we’d benefit as a race from a departure to a vantage more suited for learning, which action in a roundabout way captures the thrust of my argument: at some remove, be it intellectual or physical, an individual may begin to see the strings of the marionettes, so to speak, or as from an airplane window the patterns cutting across the land. Said individual may then begin to appreciate that what he sees is the firmament upon which is mounted all the signage and warnings of doom. His intercourse at this remove is that of satellites the universe through; a cousin strange enough to kiss but devastating at point-blank range, for both parties.

I have learned that what I am doing is climbing up out of myself to stand upon my own head and survey life from this higher place. There can be no knowing the rhythm of someone else’s heart without reaching out to them and waiting for a beat, and thus there can be no fully local understanding of matters foreign. Ambassadors who have burned the borders in their mind have effectively kicked holes in the borders of their towns, their countries, and their lives.

“…a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam…”

Blah, blah, blah is what you may be hearing as I gush all of these words that have been sung and shouted by others before me. You’ve heard it all before, and so have I. Observations, reflections; whatever shrapnel that lodges in you may dissolve in the static of your day but there’s more. I feel as though it is my duty to help free those of my countrymen and women who would seek to share this high branch for a time, for their own benefit. Of course, the major obstacle for all is will; will to move, will to empower oneself, will to endure the hardship of flux, or whatever. This will must be present for one to access the tools of his or her own liberation. Very often, the well is bone-dry.

I will henceforth, in the year 2011, dedicate future posts here to ways in which residents of the United States might procure citizenship in other countries and thus, passports that would grant them a greater degree of freedom than they would otherwise enjoy. Per post I will focus on one country or another, and in that way illuminate and centralize esoteric, decentralized information. Let’s call it a New Year’s resolution.

In any case, it’s a project.

Tempranillo and Roasted Bananas

I heard E and N outside on the street from our open balcony window. I greeted them and called down that we’d be there momentarily. S and I gathered our coats and descended out and traded besos with our friends. N was poorly outfitted for the cold and shivered on the way to E’s home. This was our first social call to the house of a local since we’d landed in Spain, and we were excited that night to try and forge a bond. We moved past the great old stone church and through the narrow streets and when we drew close to our destination, E spoke up.

“It’s easy to tell which is mine,” she said.

She was right; of all the shoulder-to-shoulder houses on this street, the terrazza of only one was overflowing with flowering tendrils, hanging so low as to obscure the high-street side of her door.

“It’s beautiful,” S said, fingering a woody vine on the way in.

The house interior remains one of the more well-produced I’ve encountered. We shed our jackets onto an old plush, wood-frame couch in the fireplace room. Then through the dining room and its upholstered, high-backed chairs (no two the same) into the dim kitchen, with its bin of potatoes and hanging garlic, its fruit bowls and field of spice bottles atop  a florid, Spanish-tiled counter top. Five people were a crowd in that room, but we nonetheless watch D, N’s man, spill large mushroom caps onto a cutting board and begin preparing them. In a moment a liter of Cruzcampo vanished into us and the second was opened as the Irish couple vinegared the caps of one species and sauteed the others in butter.

A spliff was passed around and we poured experiences into the evening’s intercambio. E had been in Zafra for better than twenty years, and now she’d been estranged from her husband. She called her son, B, down from his video games and introduced us; I was to be his English tutor. The boy’s father was American and at the time, I understood only that he and E no longer shared time. In her 50’s, E was ornamented with crows feet and a few frizzy gray hairs. Clearly, she had smoked for the better part of her life. We got the impression that she was kind enough, and perhaps laden with stories.

N was from a town near Belfast and was a touch younger than myself, but the young of us were interchangeable twenty-somethings. Her defining feature was a protuberant mole upon her eyelid, which I imagined to affect its function. She and D had come for a her year-long contract in the institute and had left back to Ireland, only to return after a year away to remain another two years.

“Life in Zafra is easy, and mellow,” she explained.

“I do odd jobs,” said D when his turn came. “Build houses, or whatever the day’s calling is. I’ve got a dome now-”

“A geodesic dome,” I asked.

“No, just a dome,” he said, and went on to talk about the ease of life in Extremadura.

The mushrooms soon were ready. One strain in a large bowl, yellow with vinegar and salt, and the larger, meatier strain in another, shallower bowl, warm and buttery. Between the bite of winter and the final sighs of fall, a window for these huge fungus opens, and not unlike morel hunters in the US, each local hunter has his or her “spot”. Both bowls depleted rapidly and conversation, fueled by continual spliffs and standing  a little shakily on four empty liters of beer, turned naturally to the political opera in the US.

“…and this missile which was launched off the shore of California, nobody knows who’s done it,” D said, his voice raising as the question drew on. This after a few examples of our government’s loosening grasp on their traditional reins and then, handing me a new joint, he asked what we thought of 9/11.

“I watched it happen, man,” I said, behind a lungful. “I can see it now; I was in an anthropology discussion section and it was a beautiful day. We started at 9:05 and I walked in on time and there was the projector screen pulled down. The smoke and fire and helicopters had me wondering why the hell we were screening a Die Hard movie in anthro. Then the second plane came in from off-frame and slammed into the second building and that’s when my blood went cold.”

“It’s kind of weird,” he replied, “the whole thing. The sound recordings of the explosions after the impacts, and have you seen the schematics?”

On cue, E produced from a drawer or shelf in the other room some material for our parusal: some DVDs, a book, and an envelope of color photographs. The unifying theme of these materials was “conspiracy”; the government has lied to the people, and recalling its fiscal success post-WWII has sought to generate war profits artificially. In the US, these people are called “9/11 Truthers”, and are ubiquitously understood to be conspiracy theorists and thus, worth skepticism. S and I turned the DVDs over in our hands and read the book jacket. I spent a good deal of time shuffling through the photographs while someone was talking.

The first was a shot of a steel support, rising vertically behind a fireman and sheared at a sick 70-degree angle. The message was that the cut was too clean to be a mistake. The fireman was gritty, and dramatic. Next, a shot of the building plan, with red lines and circles indicating breaking points. A shot of a firetruck reduced to molten metal. A shot of an empty stroller covered in stone dust. Near the end of the stack came a shot of a bald eagle, drawn and quartered seemingly by hand, its body strewn about the floor of an airplane’s cockpit.

“This shit is shopped,” I breathed to S. “All of these are shopped.” I flipped back through the stack and began to notice tell-tale signs of photo editing: cleanliness, for one, of line definition, and lighting abnormalities which suggested long work at a keyboard gone long enough to draw a “this will suffice” from the editor. The work was good; nay, excellent, but once revealed as a product I felt as though my hands held the loose rubber of an airless balloon. There was nothing here. Not a damn thing.

With the introduction of the materials the conversation’s tone had begun eroding and then, after twenty or so minutes of listening to the Europeans speculate over my government’s niggardly kindnesses weighed against the cost in lives of its transgressions against the race, the fire began choking on all the jingo gasoline. I was not ashamed; rather, pity flooded through me when I considered the weight these thoughts must press upon these people, these new friends of ours. The anger I understood, because what right does a foreign country have to rove about the world inciting conflict with intent to profit by it? Really, it’s not a question of understanding their feelings but a question of understanding the environment within which nights like these, with discussions flavored thusly, emerge.

A small voice cried within me: “Rehearsed!” It could have been the preparation I discovered in the photos coupled with the image of rich old white men scheming against their WTC countrymen, but the arguments were coming too readily to the lips of these people, and I could sense that they smelled my skepticism, and S’s. Without beer and ganja, the conversation gave way to tired eyes and covering our departure with warm smiles and a rain of gracious words, we left E’s just ahead of the Irelanders. I remember only vaguely our volleying remarks of disbelief as S and I made our way home through the cold.

***

The next week I tutored B, entertaining fantasies that his mother would pay me in marijuana rather than Euros. Nothing strange; I used a Spanish real-time strategy (RTS) computer game as a theme through which to teach vocabulary meaning and pronunciation (metal, wood, campaign, warrior, and others of the like) and after, was handed cash and bid good day. The following week, I met B’s father.

The end of our lesson had nearly come when he stomped up the old wooden stair treads and entered the room. Like B, he was short. In his face I saw a waste, like that brought on by a development soaked in liquor or psychedelic drugs. Beady eyes and hard lines, if you know what I mean.

“Got these new boots, B, new boots, man, for eight dollars, or, Euro or whatever,” he said. He showed off his boots and sat down in a heavy armchair at the head of the table.

I greeted him and we shook hands.

“And what are you doing in Zafra,” he said.

The following conversation was awkward. He was probing me subtly, or at least as subtly as he could. In return I’d asked about his role in this tiny Spanish city, so far from his homeland.

“Been here twenty years,” he told me. “Came here twenty years ago.”

He looked at me. I looked at him.

“You have chickens, right?” I said, remembering something D had told me weeks ago about someone uncharacteristically slaughtering five chickens in a day. I had made a leap.

“Yeah, yeah I have a campo,” he said, and he dropped the phrase “Food Forest” and the word “dome” while telling me about his little plot. Everyone here has a place in town and a “campo”, which translates to “country”, which in complete English translates to “country home”. He wouldn’t elaborate on “Food Forest” and I played delighted to hear about a dome. I knew who D worked for, and I had a good idea of where he got his weed.

“Gotta spend your money somehow,” he said.

I don’t know what he does for a living, but he doesn’t till a foot of land on that campo.

His arrival had all but killed the lesson. At the old man’s prompting, B recited a phrase: “9/11 was an inside job.” Many things were illuminated for me at that moment. This was an 11-year old kid who spoke only simple sentences.

“I know it’s wrong,” the old man said, “but it’s great, I mean, I tell him something and then test him, test whether he understands.”

***

I handed B some homework and descended the steps with father and son. The old man stopped me before I could leave; he produced a skateboard-type device which is popular now in Europe. He set it down, stepped up and began swiveling his hips to make it go. Up and down the house he went, dodging around corners and always narrowly missing his son on his Wave skateboard. What’s a Wave? Here:

Anyway, when I left the place B’s dad walked downtown with me, remarking that he hadn’t spoken to an American in a long time. As we meandered up the Calle de Sevilla, he acted distracted and was largely silent.

“See some weird stuff, man?” I asked him.

“That pizza place back there,” he motioned, “it’s new.”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “People have said it’s been around for awhile.”

“No, it’s new. I don’t know. I don’t come into town very often,” he said.

“No? Why not?”

He leaned in as if the Spaniards understood English. “I don’t come into town anymore because of all the willing ignorance in these, these people,” he said.

I told him I knew what he meant. In fact, I think I understand now something about the whole situation. The recluse, the old man, he’s seen CoIntelPro and was scarred, and taught E to feel scarred. He left the US twenty years ago, left a Californian life. All the ideas we’d heard that night at the dinner table were his, regurgitated from the two heads that lately, at least, had spent the most time with him. He was conditioning the boy, who can’t express simple thoughts but says 9/11 was a sham job. Ignorance isn’t what frightened this guy; he had developed a degree of agoraphobia due to his lifestyle of voluntary exile.

Next weekend we’re headed to someone else’s campo to see D and N off. They’re finally leaving Zafra, and I might be receiving calls from some of her students. It’ll be interesting.