Tuesday, December 28, 2010


We're having some sideways rain here at the moment. It's less traumatic here than in Southern California, mostly because Northern California is actually meant for human habitation. (We get more rain naturally, and we don't build cities on steep hillsides made out of dust that turns into structurally-unsound mud when wet.) I'll happily take the above-average rainfall, though; our water situation isn't going to get less precarious with time.

I'm adjusting more. I finally powered on my MacBook Pro, which was good because my trusty netbook's Linux installation stopped working when I tried to upgrade it, and it's probably not salvageable. After using Windows and Linux for 9 months, I'd forgotten how aesthetically pleasing computers can actually be if a company makes that a priority. The quality of the graphics on the Mac is pretty stunning: I just want to stare and drool at all the smooth details in the Alt-Tab icons. This is a pretty old and worn-down machine, too, so my eventual new one will be extra shiny.

School is on winter vacation, so we're seeing a lot more of J than usual this couple of weeks. It's nice to have some family time, and for him and me to get a little more used to each other. He's an incredibly sweet and affectionate human being. Sample dialogues:
"Hmm, if you would like to play, why don't you ask me?"
"Mama said you'd be tired."
"Well, that's sort of true, since I just got home from being away. But Mama and I are also different people, and I play differently than Mama, so you and I need to figure out ways to play together that work for both of us."
In his drawn-out syllables: "Weeeell, that's good, I've been wanting to find some new ways to play."
Or, out of the blue at dinner:
"Chris, it's great that you're back."
Or, 10 minutes after I told him I was glad to be home and it was nice to see him:
"It's good you're not on the other side of the world any more."
Or the time Anna and I were meditating and he came out for the morning snuggle, and failing that, went and plopped down a blanket and pillow and started sitting with us, which was just cute beyond words. You get the picture. He's pretty awesome.

He's also 6, he eats about five different foods, and he's a total drama queen about things like his difficulty with writing. Also, we live in a one-bedroom apartment: it's too small for Anna, who spent years and years living in tiny campers full-time, so that's really validating for me. (I'm highly motivated to get a job and move us to a bigger place.)

I think it's a standard family life, despite the somewhat non-standard kid: cuteness, affection, moments of frustration and anger (he has a lot of stress from an inconsistent schedule and his social difficulties, and he's got a lot of rudeness going on right now). I still have no idea how I fit into J's world. He's created a category called "Chris," which also contains his grandfather and seems to involve "gentle men in my family." Anna redirects him when I need time to myself, and there's also random playtime, including my favorite game, Let's Sit Next To Each Other On The Bed And Quietly Read Our Own Books. I try to do the behavioral stuff, too: I got annoyed with his rudeness last week, and boy howdy, did he notice. That's when we also had the "But Mama gives the time-outs!" conversation, which Mama helpfully clarified soon afterward.

(I made him sit on the bed and breathe with me to try and let go of our frustration, which either made him more frustrated, or helped him see his frustration more clearly, but either way he decided to clomp off to spend a few minutes in his room with the door closed, which is a fine outcome.)

I have frustration and sadness floating around: I need a job, the apartment is too small for 2.5 people, and I have flashes of resentment at losing my nice quiet sanctuary that I worked so hard on, to these barbarian invaders, with their noise and their endless piles of Legos.

But as you might guess, the truth is that I like the boy, and I'm quite fond of my intelligent, cute girl, and it's an excellent life we're all building together.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


In 2008 I did the 3-week Summer Intensive program at San Francisco Zen Center. Zen Center is a mysterious place: started by Shunryu Suzuki more or less in 1962--nearly 50 years ago--it has a deep and dramatic history, as one of the epicenters of the transmission of Buddhist teaching to the West, and the setting for a spectacular organizational meltdown in 1984. There's a lot of history and old wounds there; as if it's grown old and wise, but there's a heartache that hasn't quite been let go.

There was a guy there who was usually hanging out in the tiny lounge kitchen, dressed in blue-jean overalls. Normally he'd be reading a newspaper, or if he was about to go out, he'd have a thermos and a big straw hat. He had a huge frame, and in aspect, sort reminded me of Lennie from Of Mice and Men.

Curious, I introduced myself, and the guy's name was Jerome. He didn't seem really keen on interacting, and the last guy I knew who looked like that had a diagnosis of major depression with psychosis, and it was just better all around to leave him alone.

Not getting much from Jerome himself, I asked around, and I still didn't get much information, except that he was a priest, now obviously retired, who had been there essentially forever.

Sometime after my time there, I stopped in at Forest Books, an excellent San Francisco bookstore whose selection I don't like very much. The owner turned out to be a student of ex-abbott Richard Baker Roshi (see link above--he was the meltdown), and we had an awkward conversation about Jerome.
"Did you ask him a question?"
"Nah, I just said hello. He didn't seem like he wanted to talk."
"Oh, you should ask him a really good question."
"Oh. I, erm, try to avoid asking people Zen questions."
"Well, if you ask him a good question, and really bring your whole self to it, you'll get a good answer."
And that's all I know about Jerome, except that he died a couple weeks ago. Maybe someday I'll find out more about his long history.

Maybe someday someone will be interested in finding out about mine.

Friday, December 24, 2010

bring da funk

I've been a bit down and disconnected the past few days. It will help if I reduce my computer and coffee intakes, so that's helpful. It's also a natural cycle that will swing back with time.

Years and years ago, one way I tried to make sense of the world was through simulation: imagining, in detail, what an experience would be like. The sensory details were obviously incomplete or wrong, but the goal was more to create the experience for myself and see how I reacted, to gauge how I would react if it actually happened. While I would never recommend this as anything more than a guide, I am surprisingly good at this--I have a good imagination and I know myself well. I've found I'm pretty good at predicting my emotional response to events.

(If you're wondering how this works, it's simple: we have emotional reactions to stuff in our imaginations all the time. Just think back to something that made you really angry, however long ago. Really bite down on it. Remember how angry you felt and why. Your heart beats faster, your blood pressure rises--but nothing real is actually happening. You're getting angry at a memory.)

One thing that came up, as a boy watching boy-type movies, was: "What happens if I ever need to shoot somebody?". This is something I don't want to do, I'm very much against me or anyone else doing it, and yet, there are circumstances where that's the appropriate thing to do. In thinking about it, I realized that we can set our feelings aside sometimes in order to do what's necessary. That's what courage is: for some reason I'm afraid to do this thing, but it needs doing, so I'm going to set my fear aside and do it. We can do that with anything in our minds: thoughts, emotions, beliefs, morals. It's not uncommon to do it unconsciously; doing it on purpose is rarer.

The further thing I noticed is that there's a price to pay when we do that. We have to engage and process all our feelings eventually, in some form or another, and if we don't do it in the moment, we'll end up doing it later, and it'll probably be harder. One of the many functions of Zen practice is to understand the dynamics of those moments and their consequences, so we can make a better decision about what to do in the moment, and hopefully process the aftermath a bit more smoothly.

As you probably noticed from reading the blog, teaching in Chile brought up a lot of emotions for me: memories of my own bad school experiences, anxieties about managing a classroom for the first time (in the chaos of the Chilean system, no less). There was also a lot of basic friction over doing something so contrary to my temperament, which, if you didn't know, absolutely does not involve my primary responsibility being to talk to people all day.

I set all that aside, though, because I went there to teach, and however I felt about it, holy crap, it's 10:03 and here comes a class full of students who need me to be a teacher. And then outside of teaching, I didn't really have a safe space to process those reactions: without someone like Anna there to really listen and provide that space, everything was negotiation, a mediated and careful interaction. Without aikido, and without being able to choose my food, my body awareness diminished, I got steadily less healthy, I couldn't maintain the kind of integrated self that I'm used to. I lost, to one degree or another, all the tools I use to experience and accept my emotions as they happen.

Now, though, I'm home, in my safe space, with all my tools, and this is what the processing looks like. The awesome hippie chiropractor helps me get my body back into alignment, which releases all sorts of muscles, which allows emotions to filter up. They're not tied to anything in particular: here's some sadness, here's some anger, here's some joy. They're left over, like when you eat too much food too fast, so everything isn't completely digested, and you get the flavors of the food when you burp later.

They'll pass. Everything does.

Monday, December 20, 2010

jumble of thoughts

I had a phone screen today! It went poorly, but apparently that's not unusual with experienced candidates at that company. There are some...internal discussions happening there, so we'll see if I'm actually out or not.

I get occasional little flashes of anger when things aren't quite right. Anna has done a stellar job of clearing out space for me in the apartment, which is why the flashes are only occasional and little. On Friday I went to make challah for a party; cooking, and especially baking, is a really grounding thing for me. I went to get my measuring cups, and of course, they're not quite there: some in the dishwasher, some adventuring elsewhere in the kitchen. There were a couple of Anna's measuring cups, but of course I wanted my measuring cups. RAR!

But only for a second. Anna is very patient about helping me find things, and in reality most stuff is still near where I left it, because she merged our kitchen stuff, rather than box mine up. (Partly due to time, partly because I often have nice stuff.)

I've got clean clothes in my space in the closet, and I've brought up some books, so I'm feeling a lot more at home in the apartment. It's still too small for 2.5 people, but we're going to be here a few more months, so we'll make it work.

It's very strange to just...be here, with Anna. In the same space. Like, we leave, we go do stuff, and we get home, and there's the other person! Like magic. I have a bit of a clingy urge to always be in contact somehow, always involved or communicating or something, with her; but that's not helpful for either of us, not what we need or want. We rely on sharing space quietly, leaving each other alone for stretches. It's just a little harder when we've been apart for 9 months and we live in a tiny apartment.

I guess more generally, it's hard to relax and unwind. I saw the hippie chiropractor again today, and enough of my body released that I'm starting to get some perspective on what a tight, curled-up little ball I've been for 9 months. My body remembers feelings of being relaxed and open and flowing, but my mind forgot.

Periodically in books and essays I see someone quoting their grandmother as saying, "You can get used to anything, even a turd in your hat." We adjust our habits of mind to our circumstances, and with time we can lose track of what's possible. Feeling relaxed is something I've been carrying around only as an intellectual memory--"oh, I'll work back to that when I get home"--and now that I'm finally putting it back into practice, it's just as awesome as I told myself to remember it was.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


Pretty remarkable for a Sunday.
  • Got family Christmas presents done.
  • Ordered new innards for the home server (which should be here by Thursday, weirdly).
  • Temporarily set the Squeezebox running off my laptop until the home server is alive again.
  • Switched the wireless to WPA so it's actually secure now.
  • Discovered that while an AT&T pre-paid chip will let an iPhone make phone calls, you're not supposed to do that, because if the iPhone hits the Internet at all, it will run your balance down right quick. Basically, there's no such thing as a no-data chip.
  • Went grocery shopping.
  • Made chicken simmered in tomato sauce that is at least the equal of anything I made before I left.
  • Retrieved some geek books from the garage.
Slightly upsetting is that the current setup of the dryer vents, at least when combined with rain, leads to the garage being incredibly humid. The garage, which has all my books. Mostly stored in cardboard boxes. Some of which are now damp. So I have a project before we run the dryer again.

Mostly it's been a lovely day of lounging, reading, and watching Carnivàle, the latest entry in the collection of TV Shows That Died Too Young.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


We had a lovely small welcome-home party tonight. I'll get around to seeing everyone, but it was good to start with a small group. I think for the next phase I'll try an outing to La Fiesta, since they do a guajillo-sour cream sauce that's on my list of things I've missed.

It was nice to see people, including my friends' daughter A, who, like J, is now huge and looking very grown-up at 7 years old. We cracked open a bottle of 1996 port they gave me a while back, and had delicious spicy food--Ann brought a Burmese curry, and William made a spicy Thai soup. I made some challah, which came out very well. I'm looking forward to buying a good-size stand mixer to help with baking: I'd like to make bigger batches, but I'm not really interested in mixing up 6 cups of flour by hand.

My hip is misaligned and bugging me badly enough to keep me off the mat. My Oakland chiropractor, Elizabeth, has shuttered her practice (personal reasons, not economic), and some research found me a guy in San Mateo in the same modality. It's called "bio-geometric integration," and on a gross level it deals with the fact that our bodies are tensegrity structures, where (for example) you push down on a shoulder and a hip moves. There's a whole deep system to it that I don't understand, involving energy connections and such, and lots of BGI practices are called things like "Awaken Chiropractic" and "Radiant Life Chiropractic" and such. It's a very California thing, and yet it's a very gentle way of physically adjusting the body, and the energy work isn't crap, either. I have no idea what Paul was doing, but eventually he snapped the air in front of my chest and there was a chunk of emotional release. I think it's a bit more apparent with him than with Elizabeth because I haven't had an adjustment in 9 months, and a lot of physical and emotional cruft accumulated during a long, stressful experience. That's true even as other stuff cleared up during that same experience; complicated, no?

I have 2 phone interviews next week! It feels very sudden, but then I'd like to start a job in January, so it's time. I'm actually surprised anyone's doing anything this close to Christmas. It sounds like tech hiring is binging again, so my timing is good for once, and I shouldn't have any trouble picking up something. At the very least I'm pretty sure a friend's company will hire me, since they need someone with precisely my skillset and experience; but they're in Santa Clara and not near the train, and while I enjoy writing code in Perl, I'd like to branch out into other languages.

This has been a child-enabled couple of days, so the re-entry is focused on family time, time with the boy both alone and with Anna, and finding ways for me to be in the house but not completely enveloped by the chaotic noisy kid-space. Life here continues to not feel strange, except as I'd expect from my poor sleeping. This is where I'm supposed to be.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

English around the world

I don't usually read BoingBoing any more, but some pals shared this link about a billboard in Pakistan. I also don't usually read comments on anything, but these raised the interesting question of why a billboard in Pakistan is in English, as well as some more complex discussion about women and sexuality in Pakistan, and perception vs. reality. I know almost nothing about Pakistan, really, so this is kind of cool.

I do know one guy from Pakistan, a longtime friend of my friends here, though I've never met him in person (and probably won't for a while, unless I go to Pakistan). I've often wondered why he speaks native-level English, or why all his Facebook posts and their comments from other Pakistanis are all in English. If a big chunk of the country reads English and even more of them speak it, that pretty much explains it, and in fact English is Pakistan's official language, along with Urdu.

This reminded me of an old link about why Chinese will not become the next world language (short version: as a language, it's too hard, and there are few native speakers of Standard Mandarin), and I started to think about why I'm surprised that much of Pakistan would speak English. I realized that my time overseas has been spent partly in Europe, where it seems that people have always been habitually multilingual by necessity, and then in Mexico and Chile, where very few people speak English. While I know intellectually that English has just grown and grown as the world's lingua franca, my experiences outside the U.S. have nonetheless left me surprised to discover people in other countries speaking English.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


I made it back without incident or delay, from Santiago through Miami to San Francisco, arriving yesterday morning.

The ride to the airport was a little weird. I was riding in a car with two tourists, looking out the window and wondering. "Did I just spend nine months in another country? That actually happened?". And beginning to realize that my response to coming back is vastly different than for all the people around me who have only been gone a week or two.

If you're coming from a Spanish-speaking country, Miami International is not exactly a shocking return to an Anglophone world, since everyone is still speaking Spanish (passengers and airport employees). In fact, at 5 AM, after customs, as I got off the inter-terminal light rail, I heard one employee tell a couple in Spanish that they could go get a cafecito, which is the diminutive of café "coffee," and Chileans are forever using the diminutive of everything (besides "coffee," I heard it used for "excuse me," "tea," "bread," "beer," "wine," "water," "towel," and "shower"). Curious, I went over to him.
"Hey, are you Chilean? I just heard you say cafecito."
"Well, it's kind of early, but there's a place over by gate 36 where you can get coffee."
"No, I just heard you say cafecito. Are you Chilean?"
"Yeah, there's one or two 24-7 places to get coffee here."
I thought, "Wow, you must be Chilean, you're not listening to me at all."

U.S. Customs, at least at that pre-dawn hour, really makes you feel at home. I always forget that they have separate lines for visitors and for U.S. residents, so I didn't have to compete for space with the 80 Québécois students and chaparones. The guy was maybe a little bored, but not unfriendly.
"What'd you go there for?"
"I was a volunteer English teacher for nine months."
"What's this $100 of stuff?" (I'd written $80 and then crossed it out.)
"Oh, I have a small bottle of liquor, a gourd for tea, a little carved wooden penguin..."
"Okay. Welcome back."
Anna left J with his dad for a few hours so she could come get me alone, which was a good choice. We went back to the apartment for a bit before she went and got the little chaos machine, and we had some nice family time before he went to bed.

Since then it's been dumping out my suitcases and pulling some useful things out of storage (not my cell phone yet, sadly). Anna and I are settling back in: we seem to still like each other, which is convenient because I have no income and nowhere else to live. I had a burrito for lunch yesterday, and today we went to Naomi Sushi and I had the multi-course omakase--fresh fish or no, sushi in Chile does not cut it.

In Trader Joe's this afternoon, I walked in and savored all the smells, of fruit and vegetables and other foods and the smell of mulled pear-cinnamon cider.
"It's a whole store, full of flavors! And that smell--it's spices! In the air!"
An old woman nearby chuckled.
"Sorry, I just spent nine months in Chile, where the food is really boring."
Suddenly another woman turned around.
"It is!"
She had just spent 3 days there with her husband and they were shocked by the blandness of the food, especially after being in Argentina, which, while it has its flaws, has pretty good food. She was glad to hear it wasn't just her.

Except for my urge to talk to restaurant staff in Spanish, what most strikes me about being home is that...it's really home. Except for the brutal months of non-rain, I love my life here. I already knew that I've chosen and constructed my life to be something I enjoy and that supports me and helps me learn, and that was one reason I went to Chile; now I see very clearly how much I've chosen, and chosen well. I love my girlfriend, my friends, my dojo, my apartment (technically our apartment, but we're working on the integration), my neighborhood, my town, my car. Stepping outside I get the smell of wet leaves, common enough in my homeland of the Northeast, but a precious treat here in California. Outside my second-story window is the giant morning-glory vine engulfing half of a very large tree; both dormant, waiting for April to bring the sun back. Down the street is the fantastic taqueria, and farther is Peet's and the indie coffee shop. The mist and clouds crash over the hills from the coast like giant gray waves.

Some of my habits of thought have changed, and I'm accustomed to some different things, and a few things are not as important as I thought. But this is where I belong.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

in sight of land

My plane leaves in 36 hours, which is sort of mind-bogglingly close. On Tuesday I get to see Anna, but then also on Wednesday and Thursday, the week after that, and then, so far as we know, the weeks and months after that. After so much time apart, it doesn't seem real; but it's true. My being away has been educational for both of us, but we haven't liked it. Our lives are better together.

Now, too, since we have an unbounded time to talk things out, we can start some longer-running conversations without worrying that we won't get it settled before we're on different continents again.

(Confidential to AF: I'm happy to talk about the bunny suit, but I think that thing with the goldfish crosses a few of my boundaries. Sorry.)

Then there's also the kid, who will be very happy to see me. I'll be happy to see him, too, though I find him, and our relationship, perplexing. He's known me for quite a while now, and he's decided I'm a very important person in his family--at some point I developed into my own category, so when we were Skyping earlier this year while Anna's father was visiting, he told me, "Me and Chris went to the park," when he was talking about his grandfather (who is not named Chris). I haven't done much caretaking with him, and he's usually playing with Anna when he's with us (and we only lived together a month), but I guess it's enough that I treat him like a person and he sees me and Anna in action.

Did I mention I get to be with Anna again?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Santiago, one last time

I went back to the house in Valparaiso to pack up my stuff. In classic Chile-experience fashion, Oscar was burning the weeds underneath the bedroom windows, so my room especially (with a window that doesn't quite seal) was filled with smoke. Opening the window helped a bit, except when it meant more smoke as well as ash instead.

I slept okay and got my stuff roughly packed, but I decided to come to Santiago a night early.

Leaving Valparaiso was nice. Its familiarity mostly means I've been away from home a long time, and it was good to leave with all my stuff, to finally be on the move again.

So here I am, at La Casa Roja, the gigantic colonial mansion with its nice dorm rooms, wireless, and swimming pool(!). I have to re-pack, because one of my suitcases is about 80lbs, but other than that I don't have to do anything for the 3 days I'm here.

Hard to believe I'm almost home, after all this.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Puerto Varas rundown

Puerto Varas is a resort-y town on Lake Llanquihue. It appears to be full of French people, both tourists and expats (both hostels I stayed at are owned and/or mostly staffed with French people). It's heavily touristed, and from the way everything is called "[thing] Patagonia," it looks like it's a jumping-off point for trips to Patagonia. The lake is beautiful, and when the clouds clear (1 day of my 5 here) there are a couple lovely volcanoes standing watch.

The Lonely Planet book contains many lies: most of the listed restaurants are gone, specifically Sirocco, Govinda, Imperial 605, and Sushi Varas.

  • Hostel Melmac - Nice place, clean, comfy beds, CH$8000 for the dorm; no breakfast. It's across the street from a nightclub, which wasn't awful but could be quieter. Big kitchen, but there's only one inaccessible power outlet in the dorm, and not really any couch-enabled common space, just the office and the dining area.
  • Casa Margouya - I was here for one night. It's CH$9500, which includes a nice breakfast. The space is smaller, but there's a comfy common area with chairs (although one chair is usually taken up by Nutria the dog).

  • Café El Barrista - I spent at least half of each day here. It's a North American-style coffee shop with excellent espresso, desserts, and lunches, with wireless and plenty of power outlets. I didn't bother trying the other café in town, because really, why bother?
  • Cafe Dane's - This has a great reputation, and it's quite good, but it's a standard Chilean salon de té, serving the same stuff as every other such place in Chile. Depends on whether you want to eat typical Chilean food or not.
  • El Gordito - It's Chilean, but outstanding. I had the garlic salmon (salmon al pilpil), which, ignoring the warnings not to eat salmon in Chile (farmed, antibiotics, etc.), was delicious and garlicky. The congrio andaluza, conger eel with crab sauce, was possibly even better.
  • Pim's Express - Good, proper pizza! The full Pim's is an appealing pub on the water, carrying two of the local beers: the lager isn't very good, and the Marzen is good if you like Marzen (I don't). If you try the two local beers, don't like them, and order a Kunstmann Torobayo instead, be prepared for the disdain of the waitress.
  • Parentesis - I only had a bite of someone else's pizza, but it was conspicuously better than Pim's (which makes it very, very good by food-snob standards).
  • Mediterraneo - The service was slow and annoying--the clientele was gringo tourists, so I can appreciate where the staff would hate their life--but the vegetarian lasagna was top-notch. They served it in a bowl so it could be properly soaked in its tomato-cream sauce.
  • Vicki Johnson Chocolates - Excellent truffles. Nothing's cheap, but I'd wager it's all worthwhile.
Doing Stuff:
  • Honestly? I didn't do anything. Not exaggerating at all. I was here for 5 days and didn't leave Puerto Varas. I broke up my stretches hanging out at Café El Barrista and the hostel with visits to restaurants and short walks around downtown. If you want, though, there's volcanoes, waterfalls somewhere, kayaking, trekking, etc.
Overall? I'm glad to hang out someplace with good coffee and chocolate, but eating non-Chilean here is a bit more expensive than Chiloé, and the surroundings are not as pretty or interesting. I'm glad to have stopped here, but on a future trip I'll probably plan more time in Chiloé.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

making music

I've been singing this week, as I walk down the street. I get occasional compliments from passers-by. I sometimes forget there was a long stretch where I was performing regularly as a singer. By "long", I mean about 10 years.
  • 1992-1995: Concert Choir and Chamber Singers
  • 1993-1995: A Cappelicans (still active, it seems)
  • 1995-1999: Skidmore Dynamics
  • 2000-2002?: The Irrationals (Berkeley, CA)
  • 2005?: Peninsula Cantare (Woodside, CA)
And, of course, along with almost every other singer at my college, I joined the choir for the semester we performed the complete Carmina Burana by Carl Orff. (I think the chorus was double its normal size that term--it's a challenging piece and a rare opportunity.)

This is interesting not only because it's mostly in the past and a lot of people don't know that about me--it does get me the chicks at parties--but also because somehow I never quite got around to seeing myself as a musician, even though I helped found the Dynamics and led the organizational stuff for the first few years. It's mostly just insecurity: I have a very good voice, but it's not generally a soloist's voice, and most of the people I sang with during the intense years were much more talented than me.

At my school, the Concert Choir was a course that anyone could take, while the Chamber Singers were a subset of the Concert Choir, taken by audition. Everyone auditioned, whether for the Chamber Singers or not, so Mr. Gottschalk could hear every individual and know what voices he had for the term: an artist inventorying the materials he was required to work with.

It gets harder to imagine the more recently you've met me, but I was shy. This is what happens with many inexperienced singers.
"Okay, Chris. Please sing 'Happy Birthday' with the piano."
I did.
"All right. Please sing it again, as loud as you can."
I did.
"Never sing any quieter than that."
Singing is a curious thing. It's very personal: our voice is how it is. We can always learn to use it better, but you can't switch it out like you can with a man-made instrument. When I bought a nicer guitar, my guitar playing instantly sounded better, because the instrument made a vastly better sound and was easier to play. Your voice is your body; it's you. Using our voice well is a physical way of being, breathing properly and supporting the sound and figuring out how to configure our mouth and throat. Most of us can't manipulate those things directly, so voice teachers have an array of mind tricks for us, like "open up the space between your back teeth." That's not actually possible, but it does relax and open our throat. Mr. Gottschalk was getting me to stop being shy, to put some strength behind my voice.

The Chamber Singers were regularly recruited for school events, alumni fundraisers and the like. We performed almost entirely from memory; we were extremely well-rehearsed by a demanding and competent semi-tyrant, we performed often, and we loved singing. When we went to Europe in 1993, we had a 6-hour wait in JFK, some of which we spent singing for other waiting passengers. Just because we could. Because sitting around with a group of people you mostly like, when all of you together can create something beautiful just by opening your mouths, why wouldn't you?

When we went again in 1995, I was one of the seniors, so this was a capping experience as we careened steadily toward graduation. We visited Neuschwanstein, one of mad King Ludwig's many fairy-tale projects (and the model for Disneyland's Magic Castle), based on the mythology of Wagner's operas. Among other things, there's a room near the top that's built as a theater for opera, though I don't know if it was ever actually used as one.

When we entered, we did what most a cappella singers do in a performance space: started snapping our fingers to check the acoustics.
"Can we sing in here?"
"I can't imagine they'd care, it's not like it'll hurt the artwork."
"We should ask, so we don't get kicked out of the castle."
The tour guide was a little perplexed, and once we got the idea across, I think a little skeptical. Rightly so: if a bunch of American high school students told me they were going to sing something in a random room in my castle, I'd probably give them the same look. You certainly don't expect a polished semi-professional performance.

But that's what they got. We picked a starting pitch, someone conducted, and we sang "Hark! I Hear the Harps Eternal," an exuberant, resonant arrangement of an American spiritual. (The group Anonymous 4 has a version on their American Angels album, with very different harmonies; check out the audio sample.) Lots of powerful open fourths and fifths, and all the parts are sitting right in the meat of their ranges, where we can control our volume and tonality.

The guide was a little surprised. The sound filled up the hall and spread down the stone staircases on either side. Tourists and guides started to filter in. Singing a cappella in public is like Improv Everywhere: suddenly, a mysterious order perturbs the ordinary flow of chaos. Everyone applauded at the end.

Performing is complicated. It's important to do it for yourself, but as soon as you have an audience, you have to do it for them, too. It's like sharing something beautiful with someone you love: look at this really cool stone I found! Look at that deer over there!

Neuschwanstein doesn't get much music these days: you trundle through on the tours, echoing through the stone hallways and stairwells, but it's a museum, a relic, a stunning monument to one monarch's madness and obsession, at the tail end of the age of autocracy.

For a brief few minutes, we made it alive again.

Monday, December 6, 2010



Bruce Schneier says that rather than put airport-style security on the Washington Monument, we should close it. I agree.

An empty Washington Monument would serve as a constant reminder to those on Capitol Hill that they are afraid of the terrorists and what they could do. They're afraid that by speaking honestly about the impossibility of attaining absolute security or the inevitability of terrorism -- or that some American ideals are worth maintaining even in the face of adversity -- they will be branded as "soft on terror." And they're afraid that Americans would vote them out of office if another attack occurred. Perhaps they're right, but what has happened to leaders who aren't afraid? What has happened to "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself"?

An empty Washington Monument would symbolize our lawmakers' inability to take that kind of stand -- and their inability to truly lead.


We can reopen the Washington Monument when we've defeated our fears, when we've come to accept that placing safety above all other virtues cedes too much power to government and that liberty is worth the risks, and that the price of freedom is accepting the possibility of crime.

Remember integral calculus, which most of us learned in high school or college (sometimes both), concerned with finding the area under curves? A medical researcher not only "discovered" it, but published a paper on it, and the paper has 75 citations. The blog post author is a bit kinder than I would be.

Roger Ebert has a rant about how religion views women, especially in the Catholic Church.

If you're curious about the kind of subtleties that go into computer user-interface (UI) design, here's a short piece about why Google Maps labels are so much more readable than other sites. It's good to remember that our experience of computers is determined just like our experiences of chairs and cars and amusement parks: some human designed it that way. Often, they didn't do the best possible job.

Finally, the President of SUNY-Albany apparently decided to cut the French, Italian, Russian, Classics, and Theater Arts programs, and did so without a great deal of courage. Biochemist Gregory Petsko wrote an excellent open letter.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

8 days

Technically, I fly out of Santiago a week from tomorrow, and get home on the 14th. And it's only the 5th, but it's essentially over, except for sleeping.

Volunteering in Chile has been a very long process. I started lining this up in March of last year, and I think by May I had decided I would quit my job in December to do it. Then I got laid off in June or July, and spent a few months learning to bake bread and doing other strange Chris-like things to keep busy. July was my jukai, and December was my aikido black belt test. I didn't leave until March, following some last-minute drama about whether the program was canceled due to the earthquake.

We'd already planned for Anna and J to take over my apartment, but then a shift in J's schedule meant that I wasn't going to see Anna very much, so in January I said they should move in early. That turned out to be completely awesome, because then we got to see each other every day. Finally, someone else to do the dishes!

We've been on different continents for about half our relationship, not counting a year or so of knowing each other before that. It's been surprisingly easy, relatively speaking, especially since she visited 3 times, and the Internet has kept us in pretty constant touch.

It's time to go home.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Chiloé: Ancud rundown

It's a small town, but we'll see what we can do.

You might want to avoid using Buses Queilen: they use their own terminal about 1.5km from the town center, and I didn't enjoy the walk with all my stuff. Plenty of other companies use the municipal terminal, a warehouse that's not in the middle of nowhere, or take Cruz del Sur. Or there are taxis, probably for about US$2.

I'm staying at Hostal Lluhay, which is a low-cost place for grown-ups: every day they come clean your room, make the bed, and leave you new towels (some days scratchier than others). Breakfast is fine, but the "kuchen," at least this week, has a top layer of Jell-O. (Kuchen is normally a German-originated fruit crumble dessert.) But here's the view from the common/dining room:


It's also a couple blocks from the town center, and the dining room has a very nice fireplace that eventually gives off heat.

Curanto is pitched as the culinary awesomeness of Chiloé. I've had curanto and its slightly smaller sibling pulmay (back at Sacho in Castro), and while I don't want to be jaded and negative, it's basically a clambake, but not as good. The shellfish, especially the clams, are full of sand, which I guess means they don't clean them (by leaving them alive in clean, sand-free water for a while). The sausage, chicken, and pork end up steamed, which gives them a weird texture and flavor. The broth was mediocre-to-tasty. Feel free to try it as a cultural experiment; I think it's vastly over-hyped, but I'm a food snob with a lot of seafood experience.

  • Retro's Pub - Probably the winner, given I'm avoiding Chilean food. Excellent service, good-enough nachos (made with Doritos, so don't expect them to satisfy a purist)`, excellent burgers (if slightly awkward at 6-7 inches wide).
  • Kuranton - Where I had the curanto. Meh.
  • La Botica de Café - Chilean-style sad espresso and no wifi, but it's smoke-free and pleasant, with excellent desserts. Ordering a ristretto gets you good espresso.
  • El Embrujo de Chiloé - I asked them to run the espresso machine for 30 seconds and they still failed. Ordering a ristretto was much better. Wireless, and nice people.
  • DH Pub - Hiding up Pudeto a few blocks from the center. They have Chilote beer, which isn't good (at least the lager/blonde), but they made a mighty whiskey sour and it came with some kind of fried-dough snackies with spicy cheese.

Stuff To Do:
  • Pingüinera Puñihuil - Penguins! Humboldt and Magellanic. Pictures here. It's a 3-4-hour jaunt unless you take the Mar Brava bus from their garage on Calle Anibal Pinto, which will leave you waiting on the beach for a couple hours. (I hitched a ride back with a private group.) If you've got an extra US$15 it might be worth a tour group, which will include other stuff; otherwise, take the bus or a taxi to the beach yourself and arrange with one of the two of three companies that actually take you out on the boat. Penguin verdict: cute and worthwhile, in beautiful secluded scenery.
It's a nice little town. I'm skipping the trip to Quemchi, which I'm fine with, since I was only going to a Chilote restaurant there. Ancud is an adorable little town, and for Chiloé in general, I could easily spend another week or more traveling around to different towns and islands.

Friday, December 3, 2010

beginning re-entry

I had a dream last night about completos, those nasty heavily-dressed hot dogs they serve here. In my dream, they sold them at an American school, like they sell them in schools here, but it was Americanized and looked like it was chicken curry in a hot dog bun. And a student slipped one in her pocket.

I'm starting to line up phone screens, and I'm nervous because:
  1. My head's not exactly in the space of solving computer problems, and
  2. I speak very slow and simple English, as if I'm speaking to second-language learners.
I catch myself thinking in Spanish, and I'm really good at catching myself, but once I'm yammering about software problems, who knows.

Also, even though I hate the food here and will be happy to be rid of various other things, I'm used to them.

This is gonna sting a bit.


Answers you might not expect.
  • Chilean food is overwhelmingly boring. I know, we think of Latin America and we think "Spicy!", for both the people and the food. Most of our experience of Latin food is Mexican food, or maybe Central American. You'll be even more confused if you've had Peruvian food, which is flavorful. And it's true, Peru is right there on the northern border (albeit a couple thousand miles from where I am in Chile right now). However, Peru and Chile hate each other. And in Chile, the word for "spicy," picante, also means "low-class" and "tacky." Anthropologist Jim Stuart explains why.
  • The best thing about Chile was an empanada shop. Everyone expects something deep about this question. But my mind doesn't really work on linear-scale absolutes. Empanadas Las Tablas (Calle Ecuador in Vina del Mar) really is that good, and I talked a lot with the owner, Juan Pablo, who used to be a cop and went on a government-funded junket all up and down the American East Coast. The empanadas are so good that I pretty much got at least one every time I was in town, which was at least 3 times a week for aikido.
  • I don't like Dr. Bronner's liquid soap. My friends all love it, but I've traveled with it quite a bit now, and I hate it. It's difficult to lather up, and it leaves my hair brittle and my skin dry, and I don't really feel clean. Fine for washing clothes, but ugh.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Ancud, Chiloé

Pictures are uploading: the internet here doesn't reach into my room, and I've been busy out and about. There's also a lack of internet-capable places in town, which is charmingly small-town. Especially funny since there appears to be municipal wi-fi, which I think confuses my computer because of how many networks there are.

Yesterday I had lunch with Corrie and her parents in Castro, then meandered over to Ancud. I'd thought about a trip back to Castro, but it's kind of a crappy road, so...no. Onward!

Ancud is a cute little town. I saw penguins today! Cute ones, hanging out on rocks, doing penguin things, off a secluded beach.

I spent a chunk of today chewing on an email from an old friend, who is sort of an old acquaintance at this point, since they don't respond to any of my attempts to keep in touch. That touches some unpleasant patterns in our history together, so I've been sorting out what I need in order for a friendship to feel alive and vital, and how reasonable I'm being in finally reaching a breaking point. It's a lot more fun to daydream about going home, but since it's here, I have to engage with it and feel my way forward.

Tomorrow will be 11 days until I'm back home with the girl and the kid. Hard to believe I'm traveling another week. I think I've been working too hard, and tomorrow maybe I won't do much of anything.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Chiloé: Castro rundown

I'm staying at Hospedaje Mirador, which is run by very nice people, has clean and comfy rooms and bathrooms (the rooms are tight, but whatever), and a solid breakfast. (Meat! And cheese! And whole wheat bread! What a concept.) It will have been 3 very nice nights, at $8000 (I think) for a room with two single beds.

I've basically been following tips from the Lonely Planet book. My main goal in my traveling is to avoid normal Chilean food: if I have to eat an empanada, charquican, carbonada, mashed potatoes with a fried egg on top, or any of the standard sandwiches, I'm doing it wrong. If I were to plan so poorly that I had to eat a completo (boiled hot dog with 5mm layers each of tomato, avocado, and mayonnaise), I should just give up and go home early. Probably I would rather go hungry.

The restaurant Años Luz listed in the book closed down a couple years ago.

  • La Brújula del Cuerpo - Perilously close to normal Chilean food. I had a pizza, which was a big white bread with pizza stuff on top and a sauce that looked but did not taste suspiciously ketchup-y. Nothing else was open on Sunday night.
  • Sacho - An excellent Chilote place. I had the pulmay, which was delicious, although the clams were sandy and the giant mussels turn out to be a food I'm reluctant to try, so I stuck to the regular mussels and was very happy.
  • Restaurant Mar y Velas - This is actually out in Achao. I had a most excellent grilled conger eel with butter, simple and awesome.
  • Don Octavio - Oh man. The "Octavio" style is your choice of fish smothered in onions/tomato/bell pepper/little bit of sausage, covered in a pile of mostly-crisp fried potatoes. It's Chilean, but...delicious? and flavorful? I'm confused. Go eat here.
  • Kaweshkar - Actually a low-budget but stylish nightclub, they're open starting at noon serving drinks and food. I had a wonderful, deliciously non-Chilean real crepe with lightly sauteed vegetables and a light béchamel sauce, served with a little dish of ground smoked hot pepper (merkén) so I could season it to taste.
  • Ristretto Caffe - On Blanco near the plaza, this may be the only coffee shop per se in town. Comfy tables, wifi, no power outlets. It's smoky when it's full, but the coffee doesn't suck.
Overall, it's been a solid food trip. Downtown Castro is cute and located on a small peninsula, so you can just walk 10 minutes in any of 3 directions to get a different view of the water.

Stuff To Do:
  • Dalcahue - Pronounced "dal-KAH-way," this is a cute little town. I went for the artisans' market, which is smaller on a non-Sunday; I basically went, bought some naturally-dyed yarn for a friend (which I probably could have bought in Castro), took a bunch of pictures, and came back. But that was nice to do.
  • Achao - Past Dalcahue on Isla Quinchao, this place is cute and has Restaurant Mar y Velas. Pictures here.
That's...actually all I did. I'm on vacation, and it's a nice place to be. Tomorrow I'm off to Ancud, where I have more ambitious plans involving penguins and a restaurant 90 minutes away.

best quote from a head of state this month

The ending context for Ecuador offering residency to Wikileaks mastermind Julian Assange:

Ecuador expelled two U.S. diplomats in early 2009, accusing one of directing CIA operations in Ecuador and another of interferring in police affairs.

The government continues close counternarcotics cooperation with the United States, but a year ago President Rafael Correa, a U.S.-educated economist, refused to renew the lease on what had been Washington's only base for counternarcotics flights in South America, the Manta airfield.

He said that if Washington would grant Ecuador an air base in Florida, he'd be happy to host U.S. flight operations.
Well played.

field trip to Achao

Today I'm theoretically going to go eat lunch at a restaurant in Quemchi, but it's almost 10:30 and I haven't even showered yet. Instead, I'll show you pictures of Achao, on the nearby island of Quinchao. (Chilote names are great. I'm going to Ancud tomorrow, and then back here to Castro [not a Chilote name] so I can visit Dalcahue and possibly Isla Mechuque.)

I'm not the world's best photographer, but there were some really nice shots around town. This one in particular gives the illusion I know what I'm doing.

boats at the pier

the pier at Achao

In the most un-Chilean thing I've seen since Anna and I had chicken korma in Valparaiso, Achao has a working and quite beautiful little public library.

the Achao public library(!)

I'm sure there's a great story behind why this dinky village in southern Chile has a working library and Valparaiso, seat of the Chilean Congress, doesn't. (Technically it has one, the Biblioteca Santiago Severin, but it's been closed since the earthquake and shows no sign of reopening.)

The kids' section:

the Achao public library(!)

This is just from the bus ride back to Castro. This kind of scene just crops up everywhere. This is what Chiloe looks like.

bus back to Castro

Click on any of the photos to get to Flickr, or see them all in the Chiloe set.

Like Valdivia and La Serena, Chiloe is also very clean, which makes me think that Region V, and Valparaiso in particular, just doesn't care. In other words, I used to think that sidewalks covered in dog crap represented Chilean culture not valuing clean sidewalks. After a bit of traveling, I now think that in Valparaiso there's a cultural value on having the place look charmingly run-down, and disgustingly filthy.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Castro, Chiloé

Whew! It's been a whirlwind week: 7 days ago I was still in La Serena. Then a few days in Santiago for WorldTeach and English Opens Doors end-of-service stuff, and now I'm in Chiloé, an archipelago in Region X. It's pretty far south, and yet there's probably still about a third of the country left before you hit Antarctica. Chile is cartoonishly long for how skinny it is.

To save myself 15 hours one-way on the bus, I flew from Santiago to Puerto Montt before going 4.5 hours on the bus to Castro, the main city on Chiloé. The flight was completely worth it, because hours on a bus, or even worse on a plane, screw my body up for days afterward. Much nicer this way.

Chiloé is pretty amazing. You could put a picture in the dictionary next to "idyllic." The traditional houses look like this, with various shapes of shingles on the side:

the parish house

Chiloé is known for having maintained its distinct culture over the centuries. It's still Chile, though, as I was greeted by the surreal spectacle of the local fire company scrubbing the facade of the church:
firemen washing the church

Today I went out to the town of Achao on Isla Quinchao, a long island right next to Castro. Photos aren't up yet, but they'll be here with the rest of them.

15 days until I'm home!

Friday, November 26, 2010

that's a wrap.

This morning we had the English Opens Doors closing ceremony over at the UN building on the far, far, far eastern edge of Santiago. It's down the street from the U.S. Embassy, located in the middle of nowhere because that's where they could find 5-10 acres. There were several speakers; it would have been nice if the Chileans spoke to us as though Spanish were our second language, instead of full-speed Chilean. (The room had about 9 Chileans and 100 native English speakers, so they weren't exactly responding to their audience.) A couple of volunteers spoke, which is totally fine, except that the Ministry of Education was filming the whole thing, "to motivate future volunteers," and the volunteers' stories were...not exactly motivating. The guy's was, more or less, though he also talked about the exhaustion; the girl's was almost harrowing, since she went through 3 host families, one of which included a father who was sending her inappropriate text messages late at night. (It's bound to happen to someone, with dozens of attractive 20-something American girls living with host families in a macho country.)

I understand that she had a rough year and it's possible she couldn't keep herself from talking about it. She was trying to put the best face on it she could, but in fact she was down in Punta Arenas or something, at the end of the Earth, in a failed school system, with bad host families. There's only so much you can do to spin it.

Listening to many of us, it can seem like the frustrations of our time in Chile have outshined the good stuff. I don't know that it has: it's just that it's easier to rant about frustrating things, and those are the things that have taken our energy and left us ready to move on. And let's face it: we want to be interesting and engaging when we talk, and that's a lot easier when talking about the negatives. Positive things are easy: my host family loved me, the people are kind and generous, I learned (more) Spanish! There's not much mystery there.

The negatives, though, are ripe for discussion. They frustrate us, they wear us down. Why don't Chileans listen and respond to the actual words you're saying? Why is the food so bad in a country awash in cheap, high-quality ingredients? Why does your host family yell at you for not wearing shoes, because that's how you get pneumonia? (Alternately, it's the change of temperature, or you haven't been wearing a scarf, even though it's almost summer. The idea that disease is caused by germs rarely comes up, though they'll allow it when pressed.)

These things are interesting because from our point of view, they're absurd and strange and inexplicable. They're implacable obstacles to the smooth functioning of our lives in this culture. Incredulous that this was for real, we probably bashed our head against the wall trying to change it--"No, I really genuinely honestly do not want fried hot dog slices in my rice"--before developing the necessary mix of acceptance and resignation. We never quite like it, though: like a stone in our shoe, eventually it causes some bruising or blisters. Even if we look back and tell the stories with humor and love, that comes from perspective on an unpleasant experience. In addition to making it easier to be funny and interesting--this is why film or theater critics can get carried away writing bad reviews--talking about the negative stuff lets us process it more thoroughly. It's cathartic, and gives us some distance on it. We can start to associate those things with laughter instead of self-control and forced patience.

I'll try to keep the stories balanced as I unwind over the coming months. Just remember, I'm not the sunshine-and-roses type. It was an excellent experience, and it was the thing for me to do and it was amazing. But: I've done a number of very difficult things in my life, and this was the hardest. I think a lot of volunteers would probably say that, so keep it in mind as we rant about the difficult things.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

La Serena rundown

Similar feel to Valdivia despite the completely different geography; besides what I said in yesterday's post, it's similarly clean, of both litter and dog feces. I wonder if dog crap covering the sidewalks is just a Region V problem? I'm confused.
  • Hostal El Punto - Run by a lovely multilingual German couple. Beds are squishy, but everything is cute and clean. In a shocking display of un-Chilean-ness, breakfast comes with slices of salami and turkey, and you can have them bring you brewed coffee in an individual French press. I paid US$60 for 3 nights, 2 in the dorm and 1 in a private room.
  • Coffee Express - The second place in Chile that makes espresso correctly without instructions.
  • Cafe Colonial - Pancakes, falafel, burgers: a prime stop for different food. The caesar salad has homemade mayonnaise, cheese that is not Parmesan, and the bacon is actually ham (possibly Canadian bacon), but it's tasty and non-Chilean all the same.
  • Daniela II - Sure, it's Chilean food, but it's good. I ordered Garlic Scallops with lots of garlic, and miracle of miracles, that's what I got.
  • Rincon Oriental - I braved Chinese food because the Lonely Planet book listed it. It...could have been worse? I ordered Garlic Chicken with "less salt and more garlic," so I got an enormous pile of chicken with about the right amount of salt and some garlic flavor. Skip it.
Overall, it's a pleasant place to be. There are lots of cool day trips I didn't take, to Valle del Elqui and the Humboldt Penguin Reserve and so on. If I'd stayed a third day I probably would have gotten restless with downtown and gone on an excursion.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

La Serena

I've been soaking up La Serena, by which I mean "wandering about drinking coffee and eating non-Chilean food while I take pictures of churches with weird aspect ratios." I find myself comparing it to Chillán and Valdivia, which reminds me of what Tyler Cowen said:
If you set off to a mid-sized city in South America -- especially in the Southern Cone -- your chance of finding an idyllic spot are high. There may be, in a way, nothing to do there, at least not in the sense that your guidebook can report. But it will feel so fresh, so undiscovered, so representative of the vitality of everyday life, that you will at times think you have stumbled upon paradise. Everyone there will seem so apart from the world you know and there is a sudden (and quite silly) shock at seeing how seriously they take the world they know.
I wouldn't say that people down here seem apart from the world I know, at least at first, but there are some things--their mental distance from World War II, the fact that Christmas is in the summer, that the school year doesn't cross the calendar year, that the sun is in the north in the winter instead of the south--that remind me that they're completely accustomed to completely different things.

At any rate, Chillán is not someplace you'd normally visit, but my brief pass through left the impression of a low-rent, industrial, un-scenic Valdivia or La Serena.


This is Fanny. I thought she was using a pedal-driven sewing machine, which she is, but it's got an electric motor retrofitted onto it. I asked if I could take a picture, and she started to get up.
"Oh, can I take the picture with you?"
"Of course! I thought you wanted a picture of the machine."
"What good is a machine without the person who uses it?"
Which she happily told her colleagues as I left. I think that modern technology does so much to change our lives so quickly, and so much of it is incomprehensible without special training, that we feel like Technology is something inhuman. But the word "technology" comes from the Greek téchnē, which means "art," "skill," or "craft." Setting aside non-human tool-using (which is significant, but not our problem), Technology is the stuff we make, as humans, and it has no meaning or purpose apart from human beings. We're in charge, and if it doesn't seem like it, it's because we're looking at things all wrong. We forget how important we are, because it's scary.

For the past two nights, I've had the World's Worst-Designed Bunk Bed:

obnoxiously tall bunk bed

Notice that I can neither see nor manipulate things on the bed, so in the room I have nowhere to organize my stuff. Note also that the ceiling is like 11 feet tall. Who the hell needs 5ft of clearance in the bottom bunk? Luckily, tonight I'm moving to a private single room, since that's what was available. That works better with my "Cocaine and Hookers" evening plan, anyway.

For some reason, La Serena has a Japanese garden! It's small, but in a country that could give two shits about Japan, it's pretty amazing that it's here at all. This picture just screams CHILE at me:


Yes, that's a Japanese garden pond and bridge. And someone's random dog wandering around.

The ever-increasing set of La Serena photos is here at Flickr.

Monday, November 22, 2010

decompression in 3...2...1...

I'm in La Serena, a coastal-ish town (about 2km up the Rio Elqui from where it hits the ocean) 7 hours north of Valparaiso. It's desert up here, which somehow slipped my mind. I don't really care for the desert. Some people love it; I only visit when I need sensory deprivation. It's not super-interesting. The desert here looks more or less like the desert in California, Baja California, and Mexico. It seems to lack the dramatic geology of the deserts in Utah, Arizona, and Nevada, but there's still that theme of rocks, cactus, tumbleweed, brutal sunlight, and not much else. I'm not a visually-stimulated person and I hate sunlight, so, yeah. Not a desert rat.

I'd thought about going to Valle del Elqui, which is the vineyard-laden center of pisco production. Then I thought about what exactly I came here to do, which is roughly "nothing" in the form of "eat food, drink coffee, and read books and the Internet," and discovered that in fact I don't care about seeing Valle del Elqui very much. I saw some pictures. It looks like a moonscape with vineyards. Not really my thing.

Having reminded myself that I don't actually want to do anything, I'm...relaxing. Decompressing, starting gently to understand what's happened the past 8 months. I think the time spent teaching was forging and quenching: you apply heat and pressure to your work, shape it with your hammer, then suddenly you sink in it water, cooling it so quickly that the crystal structure changes suddenly, leaving the steel extremely hard, but brittle.

After quenching, you temper the work, which is actually making it less hard and brittle, giving it some flexible toughness so it can absorb shocks. Heat the steel slowly so the parts you want to soften heat up first, to a certain temperature (in blacksmithing, judged by color), and then quench it again. Done by experienced hands, it's an intuitive but fairly precise process.

Anyway, to get out of geek mode: I've done the forging and quenching. Now I'm relaxing and starting the tempering.

Shouldn't take more than a couple decades, I'd think.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

a really big boat

This monster has been moored in the harbor for the past couple weeks. It's huge, but I just now measured it on my screen, and as far as I can tell, it's far huger than I thought. Check my math! (Click through to Flickr for big sizes you can measure on your screen like I did.)
enormous boat

Okay, so, that tiny little upright sliver next to the flag on the stern? That's a person. On the "Large" size on Flickr, the person measures 4mm. Assuming they're 5'8" (about 172cm), the boat is 140ft long; if they're 6', it's 150ft. I didn't do all the 5'8" calculations. The tender is somewhere in the 20ft range, and the mast is around 200ft, which is why you can see it from so far inland.

Anyone else come up with a different answer?

so tiny!

A big welcome to Planet Earth to my newest niece, born this week. She appears to be adorable, if understandably confused and tired. Being born is a rough transition, to a big cold world presumably less comfortable than the womb.

That leaves me as the only one of us who hasn't spawned. I already acquired a 6-year old the easy way, though--I skipped the diapers-and-colic phase! but missed him learning how to talk--so I'm not in a hurry.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

the end of teaching

I haven't been writing as much, at least compared to a month ago. Fewer things are happening, as my time here winds down. I'm cleaning things up at school and trying to force myself to plan my traveling.
  • Tomorrow is my last day at school, with a good-bye party at a teacher's house at 6:30.
  • Saturday I go to aikido one last time.
  • Saturday night is a barbecue at Heather's in Quilpue.
  • Sunday I go north to La Serena and Valle de Elqui.
  • Wednesday the 25th is the WorldTeach End-of-Service, which is a 4-hour meeting followed by a party.
  • Thursday the 26th is the English Opens Doors closing ceremony, which will probably be boring.
  • Then I go south to Castro, Chiloe, and putz around Chiloe for a while.
  • Then I go to Puerto Varas.
  • Then I go to Santiago for a couple days, then home.
I have no bus tickets or reservations yet. Need to make some calls tonight.

Meantime, I'm saying good-byes to my students.

Elizabeth with her present

This is Elizabeth. Every time we worked with the weather cards, she'd get really excited and say she wanted "Pablo Neruda!", the Chilean Nobel Laureate who wore hats and berets like what I drew (which I copied from one of last year's volunteer's lesson plans). Following my custom of giving things to people who want them more than me, I gave her the card.

Only 1-C and 1-J have thrown me parties, which correlates with how well-organized and studious those classes are, and how well we got along. A "party" at school might involve soda, but definitely involves chips and cookies and other snack foods on plastic plates. 1-J also gave me little presents: a pencil case and little box that say "Valparaiso," and a framed print of a Valparaiso scene. They were working really hard to keep me out of the classroom while they got the plates ready: their stall tactic was to insist we needed more photos, so we have lots and lots of photos.


This is my main souvenir from this adventure: it's a sign for the 702, the bus that runs past the house. It turns out the same guy has been making bus signs for Region V for 27 years, he's really nice, and his shop is a shack about a mile from here, downtown. It was about US$22 to get it done, with both sides painted. It's huge and I don't know where it will go in a small apartment, but I'll figure it out.

I really am just mentally exhausted, and I don't know that that's interesting to read about. I'm not sad yet, because with me that comes later. Right now I'm just...done. It's interesting to watch how I am when I have no resources left: less patient with students being obnoxious, but still listening and letting them know I care. The cold a couple weeks ago really knocked me down, and it feels like I'm not physically well enough to bounce back from it.

Tomorrow's my last day at school. 26 days until I'm home.

Monday, November 15, 2010

a recursive conversation

Today I had a few minutes alone with a student before or after class, and he asked why I wasn't coming back next year. I explained how I have all my communities and friends back home; sort of futile, since, as far as I can tell, the students do not know what "community" means. (Literally: I was there when my co-teacher Marcela was explaining it at some point earlier in the year, and of course their retention averages about zero since they divert their attention elsewhere as soon as a teacher starts talking.)

Then I was talking about how Chile is a high-context culture, so people don't listen to the specific words that are said, since it's not necessary. Unfortunately, if you're a foreigner and you don't have that context, it means that no one listens to what you're saying.

His responses had very little to do with what I was saying. He wasn't listening to me.

teaching in Chile: an outside perspective

Anna has visited me 3 times here in Chile, and the first two times, in May and August, she got to see my Friday class. (The third time, various classes had barricaded themselves in their classrooms to protest some school decision or other, and the administration sent everyone home so they could deal with it.) I try to describe the teaching environment here, and while I know it's insane, this is also the only place I've ever taught. She has a lot of teaching experience, so I asked her to describe what she sees in a Chilean classroom, and how it differs from, erm, an effective learning environment.

To add some background: my students are high school freshmen, age 14-15, and they have English twice a week, once with me and once with their Chilean teacher. After sophomore year, they only have it once a week. Also, the entire curso of 45 students has every class together: there is no grouping by level, so the few students who actually understand some English are in the same class with kids who understand nothing. None of them, no matter their level of comprehension, can converse.
Chris asked me to write something about the Chilean classroom, as I have observed it on my visits. I am an experienced ESL teacher, and I would be hard-pressed to accomplish anything under the conditions Chris has been teaching in. I'll say more about that, but first a snapshot of the classroom.

The kids come in talking, moving, shoving, yelling at each other and at Chris. The noise level is very high. Six or seven want Chris's individual attention RIGHT NOW, and the other 15 don't allow his presence to disrupt their personal lives at all.

They take their seats in the little chairs with the desks attached, along 3 walls of the room in a big U. They're still talking to each other, texting, eating, writing, and putting on makeup. Did I mention the noise level?

Chris moves in to the center of the room, gets their attention, and the lesson begins.

Doesn't sound too bad, does it? But not that much really changes when the lesson starts.
The kids' conversations with each other are quieter, except when they are shouted across the U, which is not uncommon. They complain intensely if he wants them to get up and do anything, but they leap up on their own to climb on their desks and look out the window, or go to the door or the trash can or anywhere else they feel like going.

Some of them are pretty cooperative, some are totally resistant and sullen. Many of the girls have crushes on Chris and flirt with him, shouting for his attention and wilting if they don't get it. Many of the boys are "too cool" to participate, but Chris manages to make them learn things anyway.

Did I mention the complaining?

Also, they are total drama queens and very competitive. They compete for Chris's attention, for his regard, for his disregard, for each other's attention, and for the prize of being invisible in the room. When they play physical movement games, they bump and kick each other (kind of gently, mostly, except when it's not) and I have seen them body check each other more than once.

For an American teacher, their freedom with movement and noise and interruption is mind-boggling. And I'm a pretty relaxed teacher by U.S. standards. Chilean kids have their own agenda, and they allow the class to disrupt their agenda only marginally, or minimally.

So the room itself is a challenge. But when you plug the classroom into the larger framework, the challenge becomes nearly insurmountable.

Chris sees his kids for 45-60 minutes once a week--at best. Randomly cancelled classes, holidays, and other events mean that it averages out to more like once every other week. _I_ couldn't learn anything as a student with that frequency. Or did I forget to mention that they don't do homework? Teachers often don't even assign it because they just won't do it.

The classes (cursos) are dominant over the teachers. They own the classroom (with the exception of Chris's room), and when teachers come in they are on the kids' territory. Kids have gotten teachers fired this year, and taken over the school to protest something or other.

Chilean pedagogy seems to involve standing in front of the kids and telling them things about the subject, explaining English in Spanish, for example. Only remember that part about the noise level and free movement and whatnot? Guess what--the kids don't listen! Not only don't they listen, but they actually tune out when a teacher starts making mouth noises. Chris is a strange exception to their experience because he asks them to actually do stuff, repeat words, play games, and so on. But they still ignore him; even when they look like they're listening, they're not really taking much in.

To add insult to injury, their curriculum in their regular English class is WAY above their level, and getting further away from them with every lesson.

So, Chris is in a situation where his kids are being demoralized and overwhelmed in their regular English class, what he's teaching doesn't connect to what they're supposedly learning there, they're habituated to ignoring teachers, they don't do homework, he only sees them once a week at most, they resist all new activities (especially anything involving moving around) but they don't learn from him talking, they're used to not learning anything in English class, the kids are constantly talking and yelling and getting up on their own, and they feel they have the power in the relationship. I would find that extremely challenging, and I've had enough time in the classroom to get over all the initial angst and classroom management stuff.
That actually sounds grimmer than the experience usually felt, but I think that (a) I quickly became desensitized as a matter of maintaining my sanity, and (b) the students learned to continue their accustomed behavior only when I wasn't looking, so I only saw one facet of the classroom, which showed me a reasonable fascimile of classroom flow.

The classroom videos Anna took on her second visit, in August, are on YouTube and below.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

snail cream

The little stalls that sell various herbal concoctions and natural beauty care stuff also sell crema de caracol. This means, literally, "snail cream," and it's got a picture of a snail on it. Everyone says it works wonders on scars and stuff. But why "snail cream"? Is it made out of snails? Strange, gross, but hey, who knows. There's a snail motif in Chilean culture that crops up occasionally: Hostal Caracol, where we've stayed a few times, and a couple of galerias with "caracol" in the name, since they're winding, spiraling ramps up the inside of a building (filled exclusively with hair salons and video game parlors).

I finally asked a vendor, who was very friendly and happy to help. It's not the snails themselves: it's snail slime.

I guess that's better.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

back on the beat

Having stayed home resting yesterday, I went in to teach my three classes today. I'm definitely feeling stronger, and the day off was a good idea. Those three classes are so different.

1-C - These guys are just so unbelievably nice. They're calm, patient, smart, sweet-tempered kids. I had a pretty half-assed lesson plan, but it never matters because we just like each other, so it's no problem to just hang out for however long. And we had fun even with the lame directions game I made up.

1-G - I figured this group would be a harder sell, and they sort of were. They're a lot calmer now that Samuel and Marcelo got kicked out of school for fighting each other. (I asked what happened. Apparently Samuel spelled guerra ["war"] as gerra in some context, and Marcelo started making fun of him for it, including asking the teacher what gerra meant, and some other kind of mockery I didn't understand. Samuel clocked him, and the rest is history.)

I told them to stand up, and about half the class stayed seated; I tried for about 10 seconds, then shrugged, said "Okay," and sat down at my table and started peacefully reading my book. This confused them.
"Are you angry?"
"Nope. I was really sick all last week and I still don't feel great. I have 9 days left here. If you guys don't want to do the thing, I'm not going to fight you."
A couple of kids asked me to keep teaching, but I decided to continue on with the chosen course. I had some nice conversations with smaller groups of kids, and I spent a lot of the time making them laugh (which also amuses me), with all sorts of strange behaviors they've never seen before, certainly not from a teacher.

I explained cognates and false cognates to one group I was talking to. They got a kick out of a couple of the best false cognates: embarasada is "pregnant," preñada is "pregnant" but only used for animals, and perhaps best of all--and let me tell you, embarasada is hard to beat--is excitado, which one might think is "excited" but actually means "horny." (You probably want emocionado.)

1-H - These guys. I did the review for their test next week. They weren't terribly interested. I tried to make sure they knew that they have to actually understand the words they learn, in order to pass the test. Instead of writing stuff in their notebooks, most of them took pictures of the whiteboard with their cell phones. We finished in a half hour and then it was herding cats inside the classroom for 30 minutes. Nice to reconnect with them, though. Well, sort of. They don't sit still long enough for much connecting.

To be clear, I have no teaching energy left. I realize that many times in our lives we strive and work and we discover our limits and we surpass them--see Outward Bound, my black belt test, various other things--and I passed that point a few months ago. So now I'm navigating the experience of being utterly mentally exhausted.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

the new normal

A few weeks ago I finished reading Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, which is an excellent book (if a little meandering). Among other things, its detailed description of growing up in the 60s and 70s gives me flashbacks to being a kid in the 80s.

I'd hate to oversimplify that time. Our memory lies, and nostalgia lurks in dark corners like a dormant virus, waiting to corrupt our experience of the present. I do think it was a less chaotic, freewheeling time, though, at least in retrospect. (Our view was just limited for how far things could go, sort of like we thought conservatism had reached its apogee of evil stupidity under Bush II, until we saw what came after.) We had reference points; not healthy or productive ones, but we knew where we stood, or thought we did, which made us feel almost as good. Our enemies and adversaries were easily-identified nation-states (remember when Libya mattered?). The order of the old world hadn't yet completely disintegrated. The nation was still arguing about Vietnam, a festival of recrimination we would continue until President Obama's election in 2008.

(Finally, no one cared what a candidate had done during the war, because mostly he was being a little kid in Indonesia.)

We had structure, we had defined roles and categories. Those are reassuring things; much like what we provide for/force upon children. The structure of the world limited and blinkered us as much as it supported. Like any culture, if you didn't fit the provided roles and categories, you were going to have trouble.

When I was a kid, if you had an earring in your right ear instead of your left, it meant you were gay. As for the kind of bizarre feminization implied at the time by having earrings in both ears...better not to speak of it. But that was it, that was the signal. I don't know if it was real or not, but in our childhood culture, it's not something anyone wanted to risk. (It could well have been real. Gay men have had to use such covert signals for centuries, to survive.) When I pierced my (left) ear in 1991, it wasn't exactly cutting edge, but it was also not universally accepted. Piercing the right ear in 1996 or so felt slightly edgy, probably the closest I've ever come to that hip state of social rebellion.

Can you imagine that kind of coded distinction from today's 10-year olds, born in 2000? They're far more likely to say "you're gay if you primarily like dating the same gender as you." It's not a thing for them. And it's not just us over-educated latte-sipping poofs in the coastal cities. This Slate article about Constance McMillen, the Mississippi high school senior who filed suit to be able to bring her girlfriend to the prom, contains this gem of a paragraph:
And Constance herself is the kind of young woman a state entirely mired in bigotry can't produce. Though she doesn't belong to a church, McMillen describes herself as an "open-minded Christian" and a strong believer in monogamy, which she expresses in a distinctly evangelical way. "Actually, I have a promise ring from my girlfriend, and I'm pretty sure that within the next year she's going to propose. Of course, we wouldn't get married until she's 18." One male student once asked McMillen's girlfriend, "How can you be redneck and gay at the same time?" which seems tantamount to proof that the woman in front of him had that figured out. McMillen would like to live in Los Angeles when she gets older, but that is due in part to many, many hours spent watching The L Word. Her girlfriend says she doesn't want to come because she can't hunt there.
Between that and a black President, no wonder the American right has completely lost its mind. Every month brings more evidence that the old world is passing away, the world of obvious enemies, and women and minorities who "knew their place." By 2050 if not before, we'll technically all be minorities. (Though probably not women. Not even in San Francisco.)

Ever since I was a kid, I have listened incredulously to my mom's stories of "dorm mothers" at all-female Smith College in the 60s, older women who watched over the students and enforced curfews and behavior. Decades before going to college, I absorbed that such a thing was absurd and impossible in my time. It only seemed more absurd when I went to college and visited Smith several times. In the 90s, at least, Smith had a circle-the-wagons mentality about men, a protectiveness of women for each other, as if the culture was dominated by 1500 of your ex-girlfriends, but only the ones who were still mad at you. Who needs dorm mothers when every girl has a posse of bodyguards (many of whom were bigger than me)?

Just as dorm mothers sound impossibly quaint to me, so must the earring-as-gay-identifier sound quaint to today's young people. It sounds quaint to me. The numbers agree: here's a breakdown of approval of gay marriage by state and age (click image for original website).
The red dots are people aged 18-29, and the blue dots are people over 65. It's a perfect correlation, with no exceptions: the older you are, the less likely you are to approve of gay marriage. So, it's a done deal: as my subculture started saying as America considered choosing its first post-Vietnam President, we're waiting for some people to die so life can move on. It's a harsh way to put it, but it's true. And yes, we'll still say that when we're old, even if we're the ones in the way.

There's no guarantee we won't backslide. We often think of history as inevitable, because we look at what happened, and we think. "Look! The past only happened in one way! And here's why! It had to have been that way." We're fantastically wrong: just like we don't know what will happen in the coming year or two, neither did anybody 50 or 100 or 3000 years ago. History is full of unrealized paths. Just because conservatives have eased up on hating gays in favor of hating immigrants and Muslims doesn't mean it won't come around again.

But the demographics look pretty awesome.

Monday, November 8, 2010

crawling toward the finish line

I'm down to about 2 weeks left here in Valparaiso, now having lost a week to being sick. I'm feeling about 85-90% since yesterday, but on Saturday I still wasn't up to doing aikido in the heat.

I haven't been sitting this past week, but I started again because first, that's what discipline means, but second because I have a lot of thoughts and emotions going on right now and there's a lot of things worth watching.
  • impatience - I have spent all these months not looking forward to being home, but now it's a bit over 5 weeks left, and I'm mentally very tired. It's called "get-home-itis": when Kelly and I did our epic road trip in 2006, we'd planned to hit the coast at San Luis Obispo or Monterey and then head north over a day or two. Dinnertime conversation revealed that after 2800 miles of curvy back roads, we were both done, so we plowed through and got home that night. I don't mind being impatient, as long as I don't neglect what's really happening right now.
  • frustration - Really? I'm sick again? Really?
  • sadness - I like Chile, and I don't know if or when I'll ever see these people again. Especially my kids: even keeping up with some of them on Facebook, I'll never know what effect I had. Right now, I think they don't know either.
  • satisfaction - I made it. I learned a lot. I changed in ways I wanted to change and in ways I still don't understand. I did a useful thing. I learned that working with hordes of people all day is, indeed, probably not what I should do for a living. Certainly not in a Chilean school.
  • eagerness - I'm studying to turn myself into a better, shinier software engineer. I love learning new stuff.
  • fear - It's daunting to imagine going back to U.S. culture, where the money is all green and prices are familiar and I understand all the conversation around me and holy crap what? Living in a foreign culture leaves you spending a lot of time inside your own head, isolated from the lack of information. It's just shy of overwhelming to think of having all that information again.
  • understanding - There's a self-indulgent reassurance in having people miss you when you leave, but it's also scary to realize how much I miss everyone else. The support of our relationships isn't just a matter of what we're used to, although certainly we're all inter-habituated (I like that word). Looking over the gallery of friends, lovers, teachers, my Zen sangha, my aikido dojo, the tutoring kids at the library, they're all communities I'm in because I fit, because I find them nourishing and interesting and (mostly) relaxing. We listen and share and help each other according to what's needed, to what's happening now. I have...almost none of that here.
This round of being sick has knocked me pretty well on my ass, and I'm only getting back up slowly, because I'm not what I consider "healthy" at this point. It's been 8 months of crappy food (the family cooks almost exclusively with soup mix, for example) and minimal exercise. I have a whole constellation of things at home that give me energy and support and it's all been missing here. Today I did two classes' worth of testing, then I taught a simple review class, and while I did that I realized that I'm not so much "running on empty" as I am "coming to a stop as the engine sputters on the last of the fumes." I already drew on my deep reserves, and I don't have any energy left that I can put into teaching. I'm done.

11 more days until the end of school.