An open letter to myself…

As I’ve seen such things posted by many of my friends as well as a myriad of others on social media, I’ll preface what I am about to write by saying this is not personal to any one of you, but…

What do people mean when they say we need to come together and unite as one people?

I say this with the utmost respect, but unite behind what? Or who? If our division is rooted in an existential crisis about what it means to be an American and what fundamental ‘American values’ are, how can we be passive? (I admit, open letters online will do little other than remind sympathetic friends who are fearful and worry that they are not alone). I’ve seen many iterations of the Lincoln quote being thrown around that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” But what of the second part of that story? We need to remember that he said this in 1858, threes years before the Civil War, in a debate with Stephen Douglas, who was campaigning to maintain the unity of the United States through a policy of placating the South in regards to slavery (and allowing for its expansion).

Unity is important. Striving to heal wounds and mend bridges is an admirable one. But fixing one bridge while standing by as the dam controlling the river it crosses is dismantled seems to be a dangerous one…

This is because, in the end, unity is an abstraction, an ideal we are doomed (and perhaps blessed) to continually fight towards. That’s because at the end of the day we will never agree with everyone else. And that’s okay. That’s part of life. Conflict in one form or another is rooted deep into the fiber of human existence. And while things will probably get worse for a lot of us in the time to come, some day it’ll get better.

Sometimes I wish people I disagreed with on things I consider fundamental truths would keep quiet, but then I remember, how will any of us grow, how will any of us develop, how will any of us truly come together – in unity – if we are too afraid or beaten down to write and say what we think?

16179830_10155751686264129_1334223739265793041_o.jpgGifford Beal, Armistice Day

If only the trains ran on time

The following was written on June 6th, 2013 in Buenos Aires. I have made some stylistic and grammatical changes since then.

————————

The always broken escalator of my home station

The always broken escalator of the Castro Barros subte stop

Not long ago, I decided to take a little trip around Buenos Aires. I had been reading Paul Theroux’s railway epic The Old Patagonian Express and had gotten the idea that I could learn a little about the city and its people if I took a trip along the city’s subways lines with no real intention or destination in mind.

Theroux wrote in the aforementioned book that “travel is at its best a solitary enterprise: to see, to examine, to assess, you have to be alone and unencumbered.” Without the pleasures, comforts, and security that come with companionship, a person is best able – in his mind – to take in his or her surroundings without another’s subjectivity clouding their senses. He continues that in order to best see, hear, and feel the things that inspire us to write, “what is required is the lucidity of loneliness to capture that vision which, however banal, seems in my private mood to be special and worthy of interest.”

While waiting at the Humberto station of the H line for the train to my connection at Once (OHN-SAY), I had great deal of time to take in the sights, sounds, and unfortunately the smells of a bonaerense subway stop. As I left the tunnel that connects the Jujuy station of the E line to the perpendicularly running H line, I was surprised by the nature of this new stop. Unlike the quaint stations that line the city’s other five routes, this one was large and modern with right angles and glass dominating its large, open space. It gave off a vibe not unlike that of what one would imagine seeing in Washington or New York, rather than the crumbing pre-war Paris feel that much of this city gives off.

I therefore assumed, wrongly, that the line would run with a more North American sense of order and promptness. When I walked down to the platform, I was not all that surprised to see it filled with people. It was, after all, rush hour and the H line ends at the Once railway station at Plaza Miserere, where tens of thousands take trains and buses in order to commute between the city center and the outer reaches of Greater Buenos Aires.

On the other side of the tracks, there were only a few people. Most notable among them was a guy of about twenty in a Nirvana T-shirt air guitaring along to music that I could not hear. His fingers were pinched around an imaginary pick that he held between his thumb and pointer finger. I sat and watched him play, and in my ignorance of musical techniques began to debate with myself whether or not he was playing the guitar or in fact the bass. I concluded that as he was bearded, dressed in dark clothing, and lacking in the flair that I associate with a front man or guitarist he was playing the latter.

I turned away for a bit in order to let the man continue his ballad in solitude.

Not far from me was a girl standing at the edge of the platform peering into the dark tunnel, seeking a ray of light that would tell her that the train home was on its way. After she lingered there for a few seconds gazing into the black, she put her hands in her pockets and fell back onto her heels, backing away.

Above her head was a television showing images that are meant to entertain commuters. I saw her look up and smile. It was a pretty smile of bemusement that comes with resignation to things that otherwise would prompt disappointment or outrage.

Playing was a clip that as I saw did its job in entertaining, albeit not in the way the municipal government probably had envisioned.

It was a video of the opening of this very same station that had happened recently. There was some government official speaking about how the new and modern station would promote development in the historically underdeveloped southern neighborhoods of the city. The opening was a grand affair with music, tango demonstrations, and suited bureaucrats. All this elicited smiles and chuckles from the mainly working and middle class crowd around me.

As I continued to watch, a man of about 50 was walking in my direction with his arms outstretched and a large grin across his face. He gestured to the screen and called to his friend who was beside me. The men embraced in the traditional Argentine way, a kiss on the cheek and a hug. No masculinity was lost.

“How long have you been here?” the newcomer asked.

“At least a half hour,” he responded.

“Es un quilombo,” he remarked.

Quilombo, the African inspired word that is the Argentine equivalent of a shit show, is never what one wants to hear where he is trying to get home.

Only a few others were talking, though the tapping of feet and the checking of watches were rife. The impatience was infectious and I too grew antsy despite the fact that I had little right to complain. I had put myself in this situation and my curiosity to ride a line I’d only crossed had intrigued me. I had no real destination, besides home. This was, of course, just another day in B.A. What more could I expect.

———————

A train finally rolled in to break the silence and the people of the station awoke from their despondence and edged towards the track. Their hope and newfound cheer quickly eroded as it became apparent that the cars were full and there was only space for a few brave souls to fight their way inside.

I was not, however, in the mood to struggle and squeeze. Someone else in this crowd surely needed a spot more than I. There were meetings to catch, kids to pick up, mistresses to visit, and games to see. They could have it, there was always another train. And I was perfectly content to read my Theroux and catch a few glances at the pretty girl twirling her hair.

The Nirvana boy was still strumming along uninterrupted. He was really starting to get into the music now. His arms were outstretched and I could see his face was squeezed in an introspective look of determination.

I once again began debating the guitarist/bassist conundrum. Before I could make a definitive conclusion, a train pulled into the station. Remarkably, it was much more empty than the last and I was easily able to enter a nearby car. While the station itself was new and clean in both its design and appearance, this car was anything but. It was, I could only assume with its wooden fixtures, glass headlamps, and faux-laminate seats borrowed from the older E line.

It was, as with so much of Argentina, an anachronism in the modern time. Like the Marxist worldview still used by many academics here, the antiquated train was a relic from the revolutionary era of the 1960s and 70s that has all but disappeared from the States.

Argentines, though, like to hold onto their past. If the adulation given to the Perons is any indication, one needs only walk down any street and keep an eye out for one of the million little stickers and placards that remind you that Las Malvinas – or The Falklands – are, have been, and always will be Argentine.

After switching to the A line at Plaza Miserere, I exited the subterranean at Castro Barros, my final stop. As I climbed the steps to the pockmarked sidewalk as the escalator was in its third month of immobility, I was struck by how the seeming chaos of this wild city seemed somewhat subdued. The choked up traffic was still impenetrable and the masses of people still swarmed the sidewalks going in every direction. Yet, I can’t say this frustrated me has it had before. Rather, I came to see that without this chaos I would have been unmotivated to carry out this little anthropological study in the first place.

In essence, what I found most vexing about Argentina was, I suppose, what I found most alluring: its unadulterated madness.

14 January 2014

So they say

6 Nov. 2013
223AM
Bloomington, Indiana

"So They Say"


“God damn, I could go for a cigarette. Just one, it couldn’t really hurt.”

Before texting, or really cell phones in general, it was the ultimate
awkwardness breaker. Instead of looking like a complete prick tapping away
at your iPhone, you could light up your sleek Zippo and take a cool draw
from a Lucky Strike. 

Gone are the good ole days when a smoke didn’t cause cancer, the Chinese
were starving, and a bottle of soda cost a nickel. When the winters were
harsh and kids still walked to school through miles of snowdrifts. Before
the hippies and protests and rock and pot. When capitalism was in and
communism was not. And you couldn’t say no, oh no you could not. Because
if you did, they might just throw you in, shut the door, and turn that
darn lock. 

“Those were the good ole days.”

Or so they say.

When men were men, and women were their servants. When gay people didn’t
exist but were shut in their fabulous closets. When blacks couldn’t vote
and when we turned the Jews back in their boat. And lest we not forget
about when marrying someone from another race was more illegal than taking
a toke. 

But really, have things changed so much for the worse? Have we not just 
changed Luckies for iPhones, jukeboxes for Xboxes, and Liberia for Syria; 
Polio and electroshock for AIDS and LSD? 

And you, sure as shit, aren’t about to give back your Internet and cable
for a radio and a weekly dance in a stable.

It’s all the same commercialism. It’s all the same crap. Why are so many
so convinced that only if we could turn time back, we’d be back on the
right track?

"But, things were simpler."

Or so they say.



Green and Gray

View from the farm of my family in Atessa, Abruzzo.

View from my family’s farm in Atessa, Abruzzo.

11 August 2013 
Adriatic Coast, Abruzzo, Italy
Somewhere near the mouth of the Sangro River


The mountains, the valleys
so green and gray.
The hillsides covered
with groves of
olives and grapes.

The River Sangro runs dry
in the stifling, August sun.
To cool themselves
the mountain people
drink their cool, red wine.

Nearly seventy years ago
these very same mountains
these very same valleys
saw war on the hillsides
and death in the streets.

The Sangro flowed red
with that of those who wore 
the green,
and gray.

Crimea, the Somme, Ia Drang, and Korangal

I certainly have been in a poetry mood as of late. This one, unlike most
of my others, was written from a point of view that is not my own. So 
disclaimer, I am not – nor have I ever claimed to– have served in the 
military or any similar function. I was messing around with some word 
play, and well, this kind of wrote itself over the course of three or 
four minutes.

The choice may have been inspired by some a collection of poems I have 
been reading (El otro, el mismo by Jorge Luis Borges) which contains a
few poems of people from different places and different eras reflecting 
on their lives and experiences.

This might evolve into something a lot longer in the future, so I will
be sure to put a note later if I ever get around to it.



Buenos Aires, 7 July 2013


Who
What
Where
When
Why?

He
came
here
that day
to die

A
E
I
O
U

And
every man
I
ordered?
Underground.

Y.

Buenos Aires

Typical Buenos Aires architecture

Typical Buenos Aires architecture

Buenos Aires. July 7th, 2013. Mansard roofs along gilded towers Straddled between Le Corbusier-esque concrete and walls of glass. Like a row of mismatched flowers. Cobble roads that act as dikes holding up Porsche Cayennes and motorbikes held together by rubber bands. Much like the sole-less shoes that walk along leather platform boots of varied hues. Don’t forget about those that sue to remind all you of those the junta flew and dropped deep down into the ocean blue. Contradictions, contradictions. That is the rule that governs this mixed-up, motley crew. Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires. Who are you? Oh, Buenos Aires I wish I knew. Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires. Will we ever learn how to tame you?

That Strange Brew

25 June, 2013. Buenos Aires.

Oh, my elixir of life.

You quench my thirst
and give me warmth.

Oh, my elixir of life.

You make me young
and feel quite hung.

You chase away my fear
like the risk of death
or of theft.
Like a bird from a storm.

Oh, my elixir of life.

You can be found almost anywhere:
the store,
a shore,
even in my old college dorm.

Oh, my elixir of life.

Warm
Cold
Light
Dark

You come in all forms,
All styles
All shapes
All norms.

Oh, my dear elixir of life.

Where have you gone?
Will it be for long?
I hope I remember having you
at dawn.

Oh, my elixir of life.