Keep Each Other Here

I want to share a song with you that I have really liked ever since first hearing it six weeks ago on The Bob Edwards Show. Edwards was interviewing Boston musician-poet (and former subway busker) Meg Hutchinson about her song “Gatekeeper.” It’s inspired by a man named Kevin Briggs, whom Hutchinson had read about in a 2003 New Yorker article called “Jumpers: the Fatal Grandeur of the Golden Gate Bridge” (cf. The Bridge). The full interview is available for downloading, but here’s the transcript of the relevant portion:

So, I’ve never met Kevin. I read a New Yorker article maybe five years ago about suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge. And he was featured in the article — he’s been a patrolman there for many years; I don’t know if he still works on the Golden Gate bridge. But it was his job to ride up and down and look for jumpers, and figure out who was at risk and have a conversation that would save them. I thought, you know, he must do something very dramatic in order to keep people from jumping at that moment when there’s nothing left for them. And I was so struck in the article by the fact that he very humbly said, “I just ask them two questions. I ask them, ‘how are you feeling,’ and ‘what are your plans for tomorrow?'” And that seems so bold, because we know the answer — we know that people are standing there with no plan, and feeling terrible, or not feeling at all. Maybe so low that they’re not even feeling. But it seemed to me that if he’s willing to ask that ordinary question, rather than high emotion — which might frighten people even more — to just approach them like it’s a normal day… that that’s the thing that saves people. And in 200 interventions he had never lost anyone.

So I called the song “Gatekeeper” and I think of him as this gatekeeper to this other world, you know, where we might have lost many people. So I would really like to meet this man. I don’t know how to find him, but if anyone does, I would love to meet him. I was very struck by the work he does.

And I think every seventeen minutes someone in this country kills themselves. And if anything else, we’re destroying people of that demographic especially — affluent, educated people — if anything else was taking them down, there would be such alarm. That would be headline news. I mean, we even think about the death toll from the Swine Flu, and how much fuss there’s been about that. Now, you know, the numbers are very similar. And how can we not still talk about that? Or if we talk about it, why is it such an abstract concept still to us? And military deaths… we talk about casualties from the actual war, but the casualties when soldiers come home are devastating, and that’s still something that we shy away from. So to think of this man who’s doing this work, even in this very small way in his life, that story is something that I think about often and think, how can we do more of that? How can we all be gatekeepers even in the way that we ask questions of each other and can we not be so busy.

Meg Hutchinson – “Gatekeeper” – from The Living Side (2010)

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For B.W.

Square Foot Gardening for Dummies

I decided to do some gardening this Spring and was inspired by Frugal Dad to make a “square foot garden.” These are gardens “invented” by Mel Bartholomew, whose website is so unusable that I can only assume it was designed for Windows ’95 and Netscape Navigator. But basically S.F.G. is for people who can’t be arsed to do real gardening, or for those without space to do one. I dragged the Mottas into this since we meet both requirements.

So last week we built a “tabletop” version of a SFG. I used Frugal Dad’s plans, sort of, only I modified them so as to ensure maximum disaster. But our version is also 4×2, only we nailed legs to the bottom of the plywood to create a 3.5′ tall box that’s just tall enough that the Motta’s balcony wall won’t block what little sunlight will be coming our way.


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Yanks in Yangon

Last week my father & I made a quick two-day jaunt to Myanmar to visit some local pastors and see their seminary in Yangon. It was a bit of a shock going from Bangkok to Yangon, a city which feels about 30 years behind the times (LCD TV stores notwithstanding). I couldn’t shake the feeling that TinTin would show up soon and reveal the mysteries hidden in the pagodas and markets.

We did most our sightseeing on the day we arrived; most notable was a trip to the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, which is just one part of an enormous Buddhist temple complex. It felt like 50% of the entire country’s wealth was contained there. It cost us $6 each to get in, but I think locals go free so there were a lot of people just sitting around, napping, eating lunch, etc.

I should’ve expected this, but I was still surprised at how much Yangon is influenced by India. We celebrated this fact on the last night by eating at a massive hotel buffet that featured Indian cuisine. Plus I snuck in a bit of sushi and an eclair. Otherwise, Indian.

Photos of the trip (mostly featuring Shwedagon) can be found on Flickr.

There was a lot of downtime between engagements with the pastors & students so I spent a lot of hours tearing through Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. I really dig Johnson’s manic style: I read Jesus’ Son in one sitting a year ago and only took 3 days to devour this 614-page epic. It’s a very remarkable novel, and I think sitting in Thailand & Myanmar reading a novel set in Vietnam & the Philippines really added to the experience. Very different countries, sure, but all Southeast Asia — the grime & sticky heat of Yangon provided a better context than, say, a winter cabin in Vermont.

Koko Wa Doko Desuka?

We’re in Japan! Konbanwa! A week ago I realized that my Thai visa would expire the very next day so I made a 12-hour round-trip journey to Poipet, Cambodia to get a new stamp on my passport. Since I only spent all of 10 minutes actually in Cambodia, the obvious choice was to scratch my travelers itch by immediately jetting off to Japan. Well actually, on Sunday my brother decided to fly me out to visit him on Okinawa Island and within 24 hours I was all, like, konichiwa Nippon, yo. Mike is celebrating his last week stationed here and we both fly out on Tuesday; him to America, me to Thailand.

Right now I’m in Ginowan City, but we spent the first part of this week up north in Hentona on the US Air Force’s Okuma resort facility. It’s a very beautiful place and had me spellbound, even with less-than-perfect weather. Yesterday we mostly lounged around in/near the ocean, but did get off our butts long enough for some sick jet ski action. Wave Race 64 fans will be disappointed to know that no, in fact, dolphins do not always magically appear to loyally follow around jet skiers.

Today’s highlight was the Ocean Expo Park — a ridiculously nice waterfront extravaganza that features Churaumi Aquarium, the 2nd-largest aquarium in the world. Churaumi is obviously a main attraction, but the whole park is really brilliant. Hopefully soon we’ll be able to go snorkeling and see some of those cooped up fish in a more natural environment.

Photos will be forthcoming later. I have to leave now to figure out a way to keep Japanese curry from destroying my bowels.

I’m Like a Nok

Last weekend my parents, their boss, and I took a whirlwind four-day trip to the southern & northern ends of Thailand to see family friends and colleagues.

Down south we visited the Phang Nga province, an area that was totally devastated by the tsunami of December, 2004. This is a famous patrol boat that was washed up about a mile inland.

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Home Stretch Drag

Sorry for the lack of updates — I was in bed all weekend, knocked out by flu-like symptoms that appear to be a mild version of Swine ’09. Things were looking up a little yesterday, but today I’m feeling awful again. Unfortunately I have to keep lesson planning and keep on teaching. Tonight I’m working with “high intermediate” students, so it’ll be very different than what I’ve had so far. We’re discussing prostitution and various attitudes about the profession and the legalization of brothels. I’ve heard this class loves to talk since they’re basically fluent, so hopefully they’ll carry the hour and I can give my vocal chords a rest.

I should also mention that there’s been a major change in plans. My goal coming to Argentina was to get my TEFL Certificate and then teach ESL in South America. I was shooting for a $12k+ salary to cover living, food, and student debt repayment. Unfortunately I’ve discovered that teaching here is basically break-even, with a good salary being $700/mo… which is just not workable for me because of my loans.

So now I’m moving to Asia. The plan is to leave BsAs on Wednesday the 16th and arrive in Bangkok on Friday where I’ll stay with my parents until I can find my feet. Hopefully from that base in Thailand I can devote my efforts to finding a job in South Korea, where they’ll pay $2k/mo + benefits (like free housing). I’m disappointed that my grand South American adventure has to halt prematurely, but doing my teacher training here in Argentina has been a very valuable experience. Now that I have a plane ticket, however, it’s hard to focus on my remaining work here. I think really everyone in my class is dragging however. We’ve got three more classes to teach and one more lesson plan to do, and I think we’re all really looking forward to being done with this.

This City is Controlled by Pigeons

Buenos Aires is incredible. I arrived on schedule at 10.20am on Saturday, but have been unable to blog because I lacked a 110-220v outlet adapter… which — GREAT SUCCESS — I have finally managed to miraculously procure at seemingly the only electronics store open on Sunday. Tomorrow is the St. Martin’s holiday so I’m relieved to have this errand accomplished now. As you can tell, reaching minor goals has become a Genuine Big Deal in my culture-shock-addled state.

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Last Post from North America

My great South American adventure starts in 8 hours. For the curious, here’s my itinerary:

Drive from Ft. Wayne to Detroit, fly American Airlines to La Guardia.

Then I transfer via shuttle from La Guardia to J.F.K. where I have an 8-hour layover before heading straight from J.F.K. to Ministro Pistarini International, Buenos Aires on LAN Airlines — about a 13.5 hour flight.

I arrive at ~10.35am local time and will have (supposedly) a taxi waiting to take me to my “student residence” (ie dorm). I’m using a laptop graciously passed down from my brother Mike, so hopefully I’ll be able to write once I arrive and keep you all posted. Wish me luck.

Cole-Lee Wedding

My brother got married this past Friday! The wedding was at Benham’s Grove in Centerville, and they’re now on their honeymoon somewhere in Mexico. This whole past week has been a blur, but a lot of fun.

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Photos courtesy of Katie & Ken Cole.

Decluttering Blues

In the midst of packing I’m also making an effort to throw out the piles upon piles of junk I’ve collected. I was/am something of a packrat, but I’ve decided that it might not be a bad idea to finally throw out broken knickknacks and receipts from 1994.  Hard to believe some of the ridiculous shit I’ve kept for years and years. That I saved Spanish homework from a decade ago is even dumber when you realize that in that timespan I’ve lived in 2 countries, 2 states, 4 cities, and 12+ different houses.

Among my discoveries:

– $21.30 in cash & $38.82 in gift cards

– two cards/notes from the late Lisa Herman

– a billion overwrought cards/notes from (and sometimes to) dozens of once-loved women

– my temporary AND real Filipino driver’s license + a half-dozen Faith Academy ID cards

– my rejection letter from the National Honor Society where I am praised for my leadership, cooperation, and upright moral character… but chided for my inability to accept criticism and impersonable demeanor. I seem to have had particular problems with “maintaining a loyal school attitude… rendering any requested service to the school… and complying with school regulations…” It might reflect poorly on my high school that one of its all-time most straight-laced nits still found it difficult to tow the party line.

– poems & proverbs written as a child, including this gem that probably dates to the first Gulf War:

My daddy went to war today,
he left us all alone.
Today he went to fight for us,
in places I don’t know.
Today he went to kill our foes,
and why I do not know.
Where right seems wrong,
and wrong seems right,
Why can’t we stop this war?
and now I’m in this crazy daze,
just because,
My daddy went to war today.

Heart-wrenching stuff, huh? I should’ve been America’s first 8-year-old poet laureate. Please note: my father has never be in the military, let alone fought a war. Odd, too, that it took me another 15 years to re-discover the pacifism I apparently knew as a child.

Goodbye PokerStars

So I’ve quit poker for good in anticipation of my impending move to Argentina. It was extremely bittersweet for me to cash out my entire PokerStars account today; happy for the money, sad to leave it all behind, disappointed I didn’t win more. But poker has enabled me to have a life that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise, and the game has bailed me out of more than a few financial crunches. My trip to Buenos Aires, in fact, is largely funded from these poker winnings.

Pasted below are my results for 2009. It’s true that a lot of people have played more hands than me, spent more time studying the game, and have made much more money than I have — but I’ve done better at this game than 90% of people ever will, and so I take a little bit of pride in that.

Sort of a pretty graph, eh? So that’s a tad over 200,000 hands in 6 months versus 16,585 different opponents. It’s hella hard to get money onto PokerStars these days, so I hope this teaching gig works out in South America otherwise I am S.O.L. as far as career options go. At least I have another Stars t-shirt coming my way.

National City Bank Sucks

I’ve had a lot of problems with National City in the past month. In one case, I’d done a lot transactions recently and needed an electronic copy of my bank statement — but was informed by two “specialists” that this was impossible and that hard copies sent via snail mail were the only option. It would real neat if someone were to invent a portable document format that could be “attached” to electronic mail (that would appear in a virtual “inbox”), but in the meantime I settled for an ol’ fashioned paper version. This is what NatCity sent me:

[ ] correct address
[ ] correct balance
[ ] correct activity
[x] correct name
[x] correct account number

Hey, 2/5 ain’t bad. Well-played National City, you done good. A blank, data-less piece of paper is extremely helpful and informative.