California Coming Home (pt. 2)

Something about going home allows you to reset. Living miles away–thousands of miles away, even–from home isn’t particularly new to me, but I always end up experiencing a sort of friction with my home environment upon coming back to visit. I don’t mean in a bad way. I always end up thinking, this feels different from the last time I was here, and I think the difference is me. In a sense, the friction I experience is evidence that I’ve changed since the last time I left, evidence that I’ve grown.

Being in Boston has taught me a few things, one of which is to be harder around the edges. While I love the people I work with and the friends that I’ve made, the general populace that you interface with in urban spaces (as a whole) is much less friendly and approachable than what I grew up with back home. Customer service is not that much of a thing here, and as if the lack of daylight hours wasn’t enough, black is the color theme of everyone’s wardrobe. How fascinating it was, then, to experience sunshine again and to notice every speck of color in my surroundings when I came back home. I went on hikes (Outside! During the winter!), drank smoothies made with fresh fruit, saw the ocean, rode a roller coaster, did road runs, took selfies, walked dogs, slept in, bought and delivered gifts, wrote letters, tried skin products–stuff that I never really give myself time to do here in Boston.

But why not? That’s precisely the question. I realized that my excuses are probably the biggest barrier to my peace of mind. The stories that I tell myself are always the same. I’m too busy. I’m too tired. I’m too overwhelmed. I saw Garrison Keillor speak for the first time a couple months ago. He’s one of my favorite radio personalities, Cole Porter fans, poets, and more. Quoting his grandmother, who grew up during the Depression, he advised the crowd, “Happiness is a choice.” And that’s precisely what the secret is. You will always resent and relent something about life. But you can choose to spit and shout or hold it in until you implode. Or you can smile and get on with it. In the end, the choice is always yours.

That said, my resolutions for the new year are simple, but they resonate very deeply.

1. Love myself. So much easier said than done. If 2013 revealed one thing to me, it’s that I’m carrying around a lot of baggage that I don’t need to, and that baggage has become a barrier to loving myself and, in at least one very specific case, loving others. Though the battle against insecurity seems like one that should have ended with my prepubescent years, I’ve accepted that it may be a lifelong war for me. (I’m hoping to win.)

2. Push myself. Harder, faster, stronger. I’ve reflected on the person I am today versus the person I used to be a year ago. In some respects, I’ve grown in very positive ways and learned new things. On the other hand, I do feel like I’ve lost touch with very important parts of myself. I’m less extroverted,  less musical, less driven than I know I can be. So I’d like to dedicate 2014 to finding that average of who I am, who I’ve been, and who I’d like to be.

When I came back to Boston, the temperatures were dipping toward zero degrees Fahrenheit and below, and a blizzard warning was in effect. Despite all this, I still felt like smiling–not because I had any particular reason to but because I chose to despite not having a reason. You can take a girl out of California, but you can’t take the California out of the girl.

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Desert Deviation

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“Madness plants mirrors in the desert.”
― Floriano Martins

Quiet. That’s what I miss the most about the desert. There’s no Boston banter, no city litany, no traffic tumult. Just open space and skies deeper than your eyes can reach. Desert protagonists and antiheroes alike will tell you that once you spend enough time there, eventually, there’s nowhere to look but inward. That’s when you end up running into yourself.

Buried in northern Arizona is a place that almost prides itself in being a little out of the way. Highway 89 stretches across it, inviting views of purple mountains during sunset and star-studded skies at twilight. In the distance, you can catch a glimpse of Thumb Butte (facetiously dubbed “thumb butt” by the younger population). This is Prescott Valley. And you can believe the rumors–it’s just as small as they say.

Joe and I touched down here after spending a weekend in Vegas. (Prescott Valley is home for Joe.) One couldn’t imagine a more stark contrast between the two cities–from casinos and yard-long drinks to dust devils and ghost towns. Here, your best friends are the same kids you grew up with, and your kids become friends with theirs. You’re on a first-name basis with the post office staff, and buying anything other than groceries requires “going into town.” For an urbanite’s idea of fun, you could drive to the modest array of bars at Whiskey Row, but inviting some friends over for drinks and conversation is more the status quo. Here, you live on stories.

I’m a firm believer that a good story is the shortest distance between two people. This is helpful to keep in mind when you’re meeting someone for the first time–especially your boyfriend’s family. Lucky for me, Joe’s mom had plenty of stories to tell off the bat, and we found ourselves laughing over homemade meatballs and wine in no time. I had forgotten how good it feels to give up control and let the conversation run its course.

Through meeting his friends and observing relics of his past firsthand, I was also able to confirm the stories he had long told me about his Prescott Valley years. (I may or may not have snagged pictures from old photo albums for safekeeping. I mean, blackmail.)

I have big things to say about this small town, but most of it is logged elsewhere for my own records. Among the manifold memories made were a stargazing date off the highway, a four-wheel adventure in Sedona, a wedding by Watson Lake, a birthday road trip to California, an exponentially hilarious excremental situation, and so on.

You know you’ve had a good trip when the stories from it cover the broad spectrum–good to bad. Sometimes, we’re too eagerly inclined to scrap the bad and only remember the good, forgetting in the process that we need both in order to grow. An escapist by habit, I was convinced at the beginning of this trip that leaving the city would somehow mitigate my stressors. However, I re-learned that places don’t carry problems; people do.

Now, upon returning to Boston, I feel refreshed and equipped with an arsenal of travel tales–but also with a commitment to looking inward, not wayward, to let go of heavier loads.

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Herald to the Hirsute, Ode to the Beard

How the mustache made it to the mainstream, I’ll never know.
Let’s face it. Mustaches are creepy. They belong to jewel thieves, child molesters, pirates, and fascist dictators. Also, this.
 
Beards, however, are different. Beards are for poets, professors, inventors, and revolutionaries.
Heck, Ben Affleck’s beard won him an Oscar. (Okay, not really. His stellar script and direction for Argo did, but the correlation is there!)
My point is–beards are erudite, pedagogic, and pensive.
Beards are virile, wild, and versatile.
Some are untamed and unruly, inviting you to a life in the backwoods.
Others are prim and pruned for civilized table talk.
What woman doesn’t love rubbing her face into a good beard? Because c’mon. Beards are sexy.
Save the scruff. We just can’t get enough.

The Maine Idea

I’ve been in Boston for roughly 10 months. Little did I realize that, during this time period, I had incrementally lost faith in humanity. Perhaps it was the angry driver who honked and yelled, “Get a move on it, you f@#king cow!” to the geriatric pedestrian at the crosswalk. Or maybe it was the drunk, belligerent Southie couple with no sense of volume or filter on the T. Then again, it could just have been the winter blizzards or manifold “summer” thunderstorms.

But I digress.

I realized all this–that I was living in a Boston bubble–as soon as I arrived in Portland, Maine. After we parked the car, out of habit, my boyfriend and I jaywalked across the street to get to the harbor. Whereas in Boston, oncoming traffic would have accelerated in our direction at the sight of this attempt, Maine drivers slowed down, obstructed traffic, and smiled as they waited for us to cross. (What?!)

That’s not all. Curious about local brews, we stopped by Allagash Brewery in hopes of catching a tour. According to a chipper voice on the phone, all tours were booked for the day, but we were more than welcome to stop by for a drink at the bar. We followed suit. Both of us ordered a flight, which includes four samples of their current favorites. The best part? It was free!

I’m no anthropologist, but I’ll boldly assert that any society that offers you free beer is not just hospitable but enlightened in ways that only Buddhist monks and 17th century European intellectuals would understand.

At the risk of sounding like I’m writing a Yelp review, I have to mention the food! To eat, we chose lobster rolls and oysters at J’s Oyster Bar. Then poutine and French fries made with duck fat at, well, a place called Duckfat. All delicious, no surprise. (Admittedly, I still find myself peering longingly at the photos I took of the meals we had.)

On top of all this, there were rolling hills that overlooked the Atlantic, winding roads that induce your own unwinding, and even a desert in the middle of this New England territory. If Boston has diminished my faith in humanity, then Maine is one of the places in America that can replenish it.

Geborgenheit

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At the beginning of this month, I moved in with my boyfriend.

A few years ago, if you had asked me how I felt about moving in with a partner, I would have adamantly told you that it was out of the question. However, this past version of myself has quickly been foiled by a boyfriend whom I trust, see a future with, and cannot get enough of. (Also, he’s cute.) [Disclaimer: This is not, by any means, an endorsement for moving in with simply anyone. We made this decision after much discussion, mutual consent, and establishing what both of us want in the future.]

The funny thing about moving in together is that you quickly become a master of your own inventory, reducing your belongings to lists and numbers. For example, I learned that I had 2 large suitcases full of winter clothes, 15 pairs of shoes, and (for some reason) 6 bottles of contact lens solution. The next challenge was learning to consolidate. Between us, my boyfriend and I had 5 flashlights, 4 screwdrivers, and 3 sets of towels. (We ended up either throwing out or giving away what we didn’t need.) Despite the cumbersome task of moving, we knew we’d be reducing the commute between both our places to zero miles and would, in the long run, be saving on rent.

Then, after we settled in, something started to happen. It slowly became obvious that the most valuable things were those that could never be catalogued, archived, or quantified. Like, the butterflies I get when he refers to things as “ours.” The relief I feel knowing that I’ll always have someone to rescue me from disproportionately large bugs. How giddy I get when I see our both our names on the mailbox. Sharing breakfast together with the radio on. Learning to make decisions together–big and small. Picking up on each others’ habits (like how I never fully finish sodas and how he tends to bite his nails). Falling asleep on the couch during X-Files marathons. And just how plain happy we are being near one another.

I realize now: the things that quantify a home don’t necessarily qualify one. The latter is up to us. Furthermore, akin to building a home is fostering a successful partnership, a process that is ongoing and–if you’re lucky–well worth it. For now, I’m fortunate to have found an equally invested partner in crime for this venture.

There’s a German word, Geborgenheit, for which there is no English counterpart. It’s used to describe “the sum of security, warmth, protection, trust, and love.” I’m inclined to say that it’s also the sum of what the first month living with my counterpart has felt like. To many, many more ahead.

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Dome Diving on Cape Cod

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There’s nothing like breaking and entering.

Before you cast any judgment, hear me out. Imagine discovering a place seemingly untouched by other human beings for an indeterminate length of time. You spot it from the road, overgrown by the trees around it. An allure lingers despite its abandon.  Normal people might see it and think, “Cool,” then drive on. Then again, Joe and I are as far removed from ‘normal’ as possible.

The locale in question is a geodesic dome built in the early 1950s by Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller—-architect, designer, futurist. From the road, it doesn’t look like much. Guarded by a motel and a wall of trees,  it dwells in stolid silence. How could we resist getting a closer look?

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We tried the obvious ingresses first. Doors, windows, side entrances—-all locked. Joe pointed out that someone had cut through a screen that led into the basement storage area of the building. Next to a pile of discarded wood was a low window that led into the basement. The opening was just large enough for a person to squeeze through. So we slid in.

If you’ve ever snuck into an abandoned building, you’re familiar with the initial rush. It’s a colloidal mixture of adrenaline, fear, and wonder. There were objects old and new laying around. Kitchen stoves, ladders, a lawnmower, a restaurant sign, lamps—-artifacts from a past era. Eerie and fascinating at the same time.

On our way out, we left a couple entrances open for future explorers. Although we did our fair share of looking around, we left everything as it was. Well, almost:

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Lesson learned: If you want an adventure, you have to go look for it. Clandestine domes don’t go exploring themselves, you know. And if you’re lucky enough (like I am), you have a partner in crime to do it with you.

My friend and former colleague Katie Klocksin previously came across this dome and produced a stellar radio story about it. Give it a listen. I highly recommend it for a historical perspective on the dome itself.

Keep Austin Weird

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Now, there’s a slogan I can get behind. I like to think of Austin as the black sheep in the Texas family. Ironically, it’s where weirdos (like me) feel like they can fit right in. Heralded for its progressive, neo-hippie, counter-culture vibe, Austin is a good place to be yourself–or just about anybody else.

Last week, I flew to Austin for the beginning of SXSW. I was only in the city for two days in order to attend the Integrated Media Association Conference (iMA 2013). Fortunately, I was able to wander around a bit to explore the city.

First, let’s hash through what Austin is known for:

  • Being the live music capitol of the world
  • Its diverse assortment of Tex-Mex food
  • Loosen-your-belt, lick-your-fingers BBQ

I will confirm that Austin is all of those things and more. You will never be found wanting for live music with venues left and right. Whether your musical cravings are for lo-fi acoustic performances or bare-your-soul rock n’ roll, there’s a space for that in Austin. (Heck, even the airport books live music for the listening pleasure of departing and arriving passengers!) As for Tex Mex, you not only can have tacos for lunch and dinner but also for breakfast. Gems like Arturo’s will provide your taco fix as soon as you wake up in case you can’t wait until lunchtime. For belly-bursting BBQ, you might want to avoid the two-hour line at Franklin‘s and head to Lambert’s instead. No doubt about it–Austin is a great place to be a carnivore. (For more recommendations, check out Foursquare’s Best of Austin list.)

Given my short stay, I don’t have as comprehensive of a view of Austin as I’d like. Then again, it’s simply another excuse to go back.

Things I’d like to do next time:

Creative Ebb, Creative Flow

A few years ago, a good friend of mine gifted me my first Moleskine notebook on New Year’s Eve. Since then, I’ve always kept one close at hand, no matter where I go. As someone who constantly consumes information, my brain is oftentimes an unreliable palette on which to store information. These tiny notebooks have come to the rescue many times over, helping me preserve otherwise ethereal ideas.

That first year, I found myself constantly jotting down song lyrics in my notebook. (In fact, almost all of Daydream at Midnight was borne of my first Moleskine’s pages!) At the time, I’d jumped headfirst into the world of poetry, so the words of Dickens, Auden, Frost, and Whitman looped in my head as if they were songs themselves. My own song lyrics flowed as freely on paper as these authors’ lines of poetry did in my head. It’s times like these, when the flow has been reduced to a sputter, that I look back on that first year with considerable envy. My notebooks, once a diving board from which I leapt into my most creative projects, now feel more like a wade pool of scribbles, sketches, quotations, excerpts, tallies, and trivia.

Within the course of any creative life, one confronts (perhaps multiple times) the paranoia of having run dry. My habit of notebook toting persists, yet I’m not producing at the same rate that I used to. Ideas for songs, radio stories, letters, and blog posts lay in dormant lackadaisy. It’s enough to drive me into creative hypochondria–checking my creative pulse every so often to see if it’s still ticking. And if it is, I ask, where’s the creative beef, yo? (Or eggplants, for creative vegetarians.) In large part, I think this blog survives because when all other outlets are blocked, I can always, always, always write.

I have to remind myself, however, that I’ve gone through these motions before. My creative atmosphere always conjures the inverse of the proverbial “calm before the storm.” For me, I’m first disoriented by a whirlwind of ideas and information before inspiration comes to parts the clouds. Only time will tell when or whether I’ll find my answers. Meanwhile, these are two TED Talks that never fail to reassure me that another burst of inspiration is always within reach.

David Kelley on Creative Confidence:

“[Dr. Albert Bandura] called that confidence ‘self-efficacy,’ the sense that you can change the world and that you can attain what you set out to do.”

Elizabeth Gilbert on the Creative Process:

“Don’t be afraid. Don’t be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be. If your job is to dance, do your dance. If the divine, cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed,…then “Ole!” And if not, do your dance anyhow and “Ole!” to you, nonetheless. I believe this and I feel that we must teach it. “Ole!” to you… just for having the sheer…stubbornness to keep showing up.”

Perhaps creative frustration is a sign that you’re on the right track. Sometimes, the simple desire — the need, even — to create is the initial state of being one needs to achieve before something great happens. Why else would Monet continue to paint despite being practically blind? Perhaps the same reason why Beethoven never stopped composing despite his loss of hearing and Proust never stopped writing even when tragically ill. They simply couldn’t help it. The need to express the inner self is inherent in any conscious being, a kind of twitch that can’t even be mitigated by physical handicap or a life-threatening malady. In a very dark yet essential way, that’s comforting.

I have to remind myself that my best work still lies ahead of me and that creativity will ebb and flow. For now, it’s a matter of showing up. “Ole!” There’s still work to be done yet.

Tigueraje

When I think of the island, I think of coconut oil. Not the cheap, processed kind that you can buy on the mainland, no. Raw, viscous, caramelized-by-the-sun coconut oil. The kind you can sip to stimulate digestion, cook with your dinner, and slather onto your skin before a good tanning session. The kind that crystallizes and melts at temperatures inconveniently close to each other. In a way, this mercurial, multi-purpose commodity is an appropriate analogy for the Dominican Republic itself. The island comes in many forms: foamy ocean surf that cuddles your ankles, glasses clinking in garrulity, feet shuffling on a dance floor, a murky puddle after a torrential storm, or sometimes even a bitter spoonful of perspective.

On the one hand, it’s got everything you would want out of a vacation spot. There are pristine beaches where sunburned tourists can willfully lose track of time. You can go on an exotic excursion to “authentic” Dominican hermitages, where local families eagerly greet you (in English, Russian, Spanish, and French) and parade handmade goods in front of you like a live infomercial (“Special discount especially for you, only today!”). Presidente beer and Mama Juana (a fermented mixture of red wine, honey, Dominican rum, and local herbs) flow freely and limitlessly like the Caribbean Sea. Spas, zip lines, hover boats, year-round golf courses, snorkeling, and many, many other forms of…man-made paradise.

By no means is this place flawless—at least no more than any other place in the world. It all depends on how you choose to see it, as long as you allow yourself to really see it. Drive two miles outside of any hotel, and you’ll find unpaved streets, roofless houses, and too many homeless kids. Since access to electricity is controlled by the government, and the government so often drops the ball, some houses resort to car batteries for regular power. Immigration within the island and emigration out of the island are both huge problems. (The Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, its western neighbor, which, last I heard, wasn’t doing so great.)

It’s the third world, after all. Hotel resort-villes make it easy to forget that sometimes.

You can’t help but feel at least a little conflicted. These days, the country’s economy depends on services for its main gross income—services like tourism. So you buy the hand-made jewels, the homemade coconut oil, the locally-grown-and-churned chocolate in hopes that maybe you’re helping. Or, perhaps that’s the just First World citizen’s delusion. (I hope it’s not.)

An American kid raises his hand and asks our tour guide, “Excuse me, sir, who is the president of the Dominican Republic?” This otherwise innocuous question wouldn’t connote so many things back in the States, but it triggers so many follow-up questions in my head. Just because there’s a president, it doesn’t mean that there’s an effective government. Even if there’s a government, it doesn’t mean it ensures fairness or justice, the former international studies major in me whispers. Elections are rigged; promises are broken; taxes are raised; money is laundered.

The amiable tour guide answers, “Danilo Medina, senor,” and quickly changes the topic to baseball.

And that’s another thing: Dominicans love—I mean, love—their baseball. The only thing they love more than baseball are their baseball players, who are demigods in the eyes of their people. No one questions the fact that some of the best American baseball players come from the D.R. Once you cross over to the major leagues, everyone back home claims to have grown up with you and played catch with you in grade school. The Albert Pujol’s and David Ortiz’s of the world aren’t just players on a team; they’re mascots for a country looking for something to be proud of, something to help them forget how hard life can get. The same reason why we tourists come to tan on the beach.

Detroit Rock Lost City

If you’ve ever seen post-apocalyptic movies like Resident Evil or I Am Legend, you can picture exactly what downtown Detroit looks like, without ever having been there.

Windowless, abandoned buildings spy on you as you make your way across empty streets. Trash peppers the sidewalks, and there is barely a living soul in sight. It’s quiet. Too quiet. The one resounding question in your head is, “What the hell happened here?”



Unlike in science fiction stories, there were no zombies, epidemics, or nuclear explosions responsible for the city’s undoing—simply an outdated economy. Detroit was once an industrial hub, a Midwest confluence of rail lines that made it possible for trains to transport goods across the country. The automobile industry thrived—that is, until more and more manufacturing jobs went overseas. Americans fell for European and Japanese cars, soon after abandoning Detroit’s Motor City like a pathetic part-time lover.

It’s hard to believe that Motown (an abbreviation of “Motor Town” that eventually became synonymous with the musical genre) could have ever been born in such a dejected environment. These days, silence permeates the air. In a way, the correlation between zombies and Detroit isn’t so inaccurate; the city’s not quite dead, but it’s not exactly alive either.

I’m riding a bike that I rented for $10 a day from my hostel. At this point, I haven’t heard anything about Detroit’s crime rates or economic drought. All I know is that it’s sunny outside and I want to see whether I can bike to Canada, which is located miles across the water. The only car on the street stops next to me while I’m snapping a photo, and a guy wearing a sideways Tigers cap in the passenger seat yells his phone number at me repeatedly, telling me to call him. I’m neither flattered nor amused.

Sadly, I can’t bike to Canada. I realize that I don’t have my passport with me and give up my dreams of integrating myself into the Canadian public health system (a girl can dream!). Instead, I opt to stake out in front of the water to look longingly across the river. If I can’t go to Canada, I can at least stare at it until it feels uncomfortable.

While I’m trying to enjoy the view, a police car pulls up next to me. Two eyes, a nose, and then an entire face appear above the slowly descending tinted window. “You be careful out here,” the officer says, with ominous cadence. The window rolls back up with a laggard hum, and pebbles crunch beneath the rubber tires as the car rolls away. Odd, I think to myself.

Slightly disturbed by the encounter, I decide to bike back to the hostel, where I’m then warned about the crime rate. Suddenly, the empty streets, fenced-off buildings, and barred windows make perfect sense. Thankfully, nothing had happened to me while I was out. Paranoia successfully peaked.

On my day of departure, I wait for the double-decker bus that will eventually ship me back to Chicago and out of these post-apocalyptic ruins. I’m at the Rosa Parks Bus Terminal, newly constructed and surprisingly vacant. My phone is about to die, so I search for an outlet to charge it. After finding one, I sit down on the floor next to my backpack and charging phone. A security guard is standing five feet to my left, so I figure that I’m in a (somewhat) strategically safe position. A woman looks over, approaches me, and iterates (with much sass), “You better put yo’ shit away, girl. They gon’ rob you.” The security guard, who overhears the woman talking to me, glances over at me and gives a conciliatory nod. I stuff everything into my backpack and clutch it against my chest until my bus arrives.

Despite its abandon and otherwise uninspired cityscapes, the poetry of Detroit lies in the optimism of its remaining inhabitants. While most people have opted out of downtown and chased jobs into the suburbs, some hardliners remain true to their city. They hope that Detroit can revive, redevelop and repurpose its downtown area to emulate its heyday. Others stick around because they have nowhere else to go. One wonders, is this level of commitment semblance of sanctimony or proof of parsimony?

Admittedly, my habit of hyperbole might get me into some trouble with Detroit’s tourism department. In Detroit’s defense, I’ve heard that it’s a great place to live if you know where to go and what to do (though, apparently, I neither found these places nor did those things). The optimist in me hopes that Detroit gets back on its feet (or wheels) somehow. Until then, I simply don’t see myself frequenting a town that so quickly triggers the most primal of my survival instincts.