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.