Sin raíces: a rambling post that doesn’t quite know what it’s about

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Keillor on location

Words, words, words

My favorite word in Spanish is enraizado (followed closely by ojalá). I like words; I guess it comes with liking to read and write. Somewhere (I lost it) there is a long (and ever-growing) list of my favorite English words. In Russian, my favorite word is actually a phrase: Я с удовольствием (ya s udovol’stviyem), which means something like, “my pleasure.” In Mandarin I’m still searching for a favorite, but in the meantime I like the way 週末 (zhōumò — weekend) sounds.

Enraizado means rooted. I learned it by reading a commentary on Pablo Neruda’s poetry in Spanish. (I found the commentary in Capitol Books in D.C., in the bathroom, which is their foreign language section).  Looking it up, it appears that arraigado is the more common way to say rooted, and so I already like enraizado for being a less common word. I like also that raíz, the Spanish word for root, shares the same root (see what I did there?) as the English word radicle, which reminds me of organismal biology, one of my favorite classes in college. And, less esoterically, mainly I just like the way it sounds, the way it feels to say it (if only I could describe how it feels to say a word so evocatively as Nabokov does).

But its meaning doesn’t gain much traction in my life. And that’s something I often think about.

Impersonal geographies

Feb. ’14 (the brain article is worthy of a lengthy discussion of its own)

Garrison Keillor wrote an article for last month’s issue of National Geographic that he dubbed, “a personal geography.” If I didn’t have so much I wanted to say regarding the article, I would post it without comment as “Better writing than mine.” It’s very easily one of my favorite pieces of short non-fiction.

More memoir than reportage, the piece tells about a place — Mineappolis-St. Paul — by telling about one person’s experience of that place. Keillor was born in the Twin Cities. He’s lived, loved, and lost there. And, now that he’s growing old there, he honored the place with a wonderful essay. His, and the city’s, is a story with roots.

Geography, according to Apple’s pre-installed dictionary, is:

the study of the physical features of the earth and its atmosphere, and of human activity as it affects and is affected by these, including the distribution of populations and resources, land use, and industries.

As an delineation of the province of National Geographic, that definition goes a long way.

National Geographic writers and photographers are reporters essentially. Adventurers, if you want to speak romantically. They go places and give overviews of the goings-on there. Their articles are full of snippets of interviews, summaries of research, brief histories of locations and peoples. They are tourists: in places, in controversies, in conflicts, in lives; so that we can learn something of the “physical features of the earth and its atmosphere, and of. . .” etc.

Science and philosophy

Dorion Sagan (yeah, his son) writes:

The difference between science and philosophy is that the scientist learns more and more about less and less until she knows everything about nothing, whereas a philosopher learns less and less about more and more until he knows nothing about everything.

National Geographic’s typical approach is, by this tongue-in-cheek definition, a scientific one.

You can’t learn all there is to know about a place or a subject from a National Geographic article. That’s not the way it works. You can get the basics. You can learn enough to investigate on your own. But you won’t be an expert. And with such wide-ranging, ambitious subject matter, it’s no wonder that the coverage only just breaks the surface. Even then it only breaks a small area of the surface.*

Keillor’s article hits home closer to the philosophy end of Sagan’s satirical spectrum; we learn a whole lot about not a whole lot. If I hadn’t read the article, I wouldn’t believe that Minneapolis-St. Paul could be an interesting place, a place worthy of National Geographic’s pages. From my perspective, from the outside, I would have thought that it is everything that’s worst in America, especially the Midwest. But I was proven wrong by a writer who has both the ability and the wherewithal to communicate the quintessence and import of an otherwise unexceptional place.

What any of this has to do with me (as you are, of course, dying to know)

I’ve moved a few times in my life, not a lot, but a few, and the trend seems to be that the rate of my peregrinations is increasing — that I can expect to call any new place “home” for less time than I did the last. And every time I leave somewhere that has become home, I am always confronted with the question: why?

When a place is your home, as you spend time there, you integrate yourself into the networks of its reality, its commerce, its society, not unlike Conan Doyle’s image of a man as a spider in the center of a web of which he feels every vibration. You forge an identity relative to the place and its people, as you have come into contact with them. These connections grow stronger with time, and deeper. You put down roots. You gain nourishment from them.

Uprootings are traumatic. Things are lost, irrevocably. Small pieces that may not be vital, but even so formed a part of the whole. A hole is left behind, but it fills. You won’t fit back into it again, not exactly. The deeper the roots, the stronger the organism, but also the more delicate the transplant.

When I leave one home for a new one, I am forced to ask if perhaps I wouldn’t be happier growing deeper into one place, if maybe I couldn’t gain more fulfillment that way. And I am torn. My life goes one way, but sometimes my heart another.

Thoreau, in defending his decidedly sessile stint at Walden pond, calls into question the idea that seeing the world is a good thing in itself. “It is not worth the while,” he says, with characteristic wile, “to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.” If you’re incapable of self-improvement at home, I take him to be saying, then you’re going to be incapable of self-improvement abroad.

I’m addicted to reinventing myself, I think — to learning to live in a new place, as a slightly new person. I cherish the freedoms these errantries provide me. But I also sometimes lament the costs I pay, especially in relationships with friends and family.

Is a life made fuller by growing deeper, or more broad? Is the scientist or the philosopher the better person? Would I rather have the life of a typical NatGeo writer, or that of a Keillor or a Thoreau? Is it pretentious for me to title this post in Spanish? Whenever questions like these keep me up at night, count on me to write about them until I end up more unsure than when I started.

Words, though amusing to curate and hear and speak and write, can sometimes seem insignificant — full, as it were, of sound and fury; here’s to hoping this tale’s teller isn’t quite a complete idiot.**

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* Richard Feynman once said that there is “an expanding frontier of ignorance.” I can’t for the life of me remember where I read or heard it, but I’m aware of someone explaining the acquisition of knowledge in terms that go something like this: think of the knowledge you have as a circle. The circumference of the circle is where your knowledge meets all the knowledge that exists, everything you don’t know; the circumference is the “frontier of ignorance.” As you learn more, the radius of your knowledge circle grows, but as the radius increases, so too, proportionally, does the circumference. The circle is bigger, but it also comes into contact with more of the unknown — the more you know, the more you know you don’t know (read it again; it makes sense). Your awareness of your own ignorance grows as your knowledge grows. Sagan’s scientist then, would have a lopsided “circle” that spikes out extremely far in one direction, but wanes in other areas; the philosopher would have an even circle, but one that doesn’t reach as far in any particular direction. This doesn’t have a whole lot to do with anything, but I’ve always found that illustration wonderfully instructive. I wish I could remember where I first came across it.

** Yes, I’m well aware that if foreign language titles are pretentious, then unattributed Shakespeare references are the absolute height of arrogance.

I used to be scared of lizards

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One of the many new roomies

The first night on Corn Island, I was cold after my shower, so I turned my fan off before going to bed. I hadn’t been lying down long before I heard a telltale whine in my ear. Realizing that moving air can serve as more than just climate control, I decided my comfort was secondary to my not having malaria, and turned on the fan.

The fan stays on. (Except of course when the power goes out, which happens often. Then I’m comforted by the fact that the last death in Nicaragua from malaria was in 2006.)

Living here is a lesson in relative luxury and an exercise in shifting perspectives. Were the house we are renting here — with its water-stained ceilings, its non-potable tap water, its drafty doors, its low water pressure, its broken air conditioner — were it magically disapparated to Anytown, U.S.A., it would, to put it delicately, not be considered a “nice house.”

But we’re not in Illinois anymore (and we were never in Kansas). Having seen what I take to be standard middle-class living in Managua, and having seen the houses in which many people native to this island live, this house becomes uncomfortably luxurious, unnecessary in its sheer size and embarrassing in its bounty of amenities. We have hot water, a refrigerator, stonework showers, a washing machine, three air conditioning units, and more square footage than we can possibly utilize.

Remember that day in high school physics when you learned about how frame of reference can affect calculations? It’s like that, minus the mustachioed teacher.

Take, for instance, our itinerant roommates, the flies and mosquitos, the lizards, the spiders. We share this house with them much of the time. The flies get free reign because the upstairs air conditioner is broken and we have to open the screen-less windows to keep from broiling to death, and at night they are attracted to the lights. A spider has webbed itself into an upper corner of my shower, and another one I’m pretty sure lives in my drain; whenever I shower it comes out and waits on the wall for me to finish. There is at least one gecko who likes our kitchen walls (and occasionally the large window over the stairwell where he poses for nice silhouettes).

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This one lives at the top of the stairs

Back home, I would have freaked out about almost any one of these things (OK, not the flies, but they would’ve been very annoying). Critters and creepy-crawlies belong outside, not in our sanitized homes.

Here, though, I don’t care so much. If there are flies, fine, the spiders and lizards probably eat them; just keep them off my food. The lizards don’t bother anything, they just watch me cook from time to time.

Boundaries here seem blurred, relaxed: the house is ours but also theirs, and that’s fine. Things are more indeterminate, less fixed. And I no longer jump every time I see a lizard (sorry, Jill).

Concerning gringos and other Nica hearsay

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I was informed yesterday that I should get used to being referred to as a gringo. This declaration was promptly followed by the story of where the word gringo comes from.

Allegedly, during the war (which war wasn’t specified — being as I am in Nicaragua, I took any mention of “the war” to refer to the Banana Wars, or possibly to the Nicaraguan Revolution), some unspecified group of Latin Americans encountered some unspecified branch of the U.S. military and didn’t much care for them. The U.S. troops wore mostly green, and the Spanish speaking invadees picked up the word ‘green’ and the word ‘go’ from English, and they combined them to express how they felt about the soldiers. Who knows if that’s true.

My day in Managua has been chock-full of other such stories that are usually entertaining and sometimes compelling despite their questionable provenance.

The trees are also on Ortega's ubiquitous billboards

The trees are also on Ortega’s ubiquitous billboards

Like, for instance, the one about (perpetual) President Daniel Ortega’s wife being into some sort of African witchcraft, and him erecting these giant yellow metal trees around the city for her, which trees are apparently occult symbols.

Don’t worry, I was confused, too.

I’m writing this from yesterday

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soon to be home sweet home

And so by the time you read it I’ll already be on my way. You see, in the morning I fly from D.C. to Miami, and then from Miami to Managua. I’ll be in Nicaragua until June. I’m effectively moving there for the foreseeable future.

If you ever find yourself leaving the country for an extended period of time, and if you’re anything like me,  your last day before you leave will be a hectic one. It won’t be long enough.

You will have awoken at 10 am with the thought that you now have less than 24 hours until your flight. You will continue to procrastinate. You will eat breakfast at noon and shower at 2. Somewhere in between you will make reservations for dinner. You will run to the post office on a last minute errand, and you will stop by CVS on the way back for those toiletries you didn’t buy last week. You will think about packing but won’t do it. Somewhere around 5 o’clock you will feel as if the day is slipping through your fingers like smoke, leaving only a foul smell in its wake.

You will spend much of the day on the phone with those you care about most, and much of the day wishing there was more time to talk. You will talk to them in apartment lobbies, on walks to and from errands, in the metro, in the kitchen. You will feel guilty each time for saying goodbye so soon.

You’ll put your phone away and have a wonderful dinner with your wonderful girlfriend who is much nicer to you than you deserve.

Afterwards, you will feel grateful for the friends and family all over the country — in Chicago, North Carolina, Pinckneyville, Dallas — who’ve taken the time and made the effort to let you know they care and that they will miss you. You will regret that it will be so long before you will see them again.

You will write a sentimental, melodramatic blog post at 2 in the morning  to make yourself feel less sad and less scared, and you will set it to publish automatically the next day.

You will have just finished packing your bags.

The Freezing Point of an iPhone

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I can be artsy

So it snowed in D.C. on Tuesday. GW cancelled school and Chloe and I made a grocery run while the weather was still reasonable. The snow started around 10 a.m., while we were on our way back from Trader Joe’s, and pretty much kept at it all day. Outside the window, the wind drove the snow horizontally (the Saudi Arabian embassy is across the street, and I’m sure it’s a rare sight to see a Saudi flag flapping in a snowstorm) and periodically you could hear the snowplows rumble by on the highway below.

Concern for fashion drops in conjunction with the temperature

Concern for fashion is directly proportionate to the temperature

Somewhere around 11 that night Chloe had finished studying for the day and we naturally decided that it was time to go play in the snow. Our plan was to make a snowman (cue Disney reference). I had a perfect carrot nose, an ironic trucker hat, and a pair of mirrored Walmart aviators in my pockets. I was also wearing a pair of neoprene scuba gloves, but that’s beside the point (it’s all I have, OK!). Our snowman would have been the coolest on the block (pun not intended, but also not begrudged).

I told her that people generally make snow angels with their face not in the snow

I told her that people generally make snow angels with their face *not* in the snow

Except the snow was too dry and powdery to pack effectively, and our snowman would have taken way too much effort to make. Plus my fingers would have frozen solid in the process. Instead we decided to walk to the National Mall to see the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument in all their dazzling, midnight, snow-laden glory.  Except the walk seems longer when the weather is arctic. By the time we got there we had slipped at least 5 times and as many extremities were threatening frostbite.

I brought along Flat Stanley (for those who don’t know) for what was sure to be an excellent photo op. That is, unless your camera lives in an iPhone like mine does. Because, fun fact, iPhones don’t like the cold. I snapped 7 pictures before mine went into hibernation. I think Chloe got 2. Our photo op ruined and our respective butts and toes frozen, we headed back soon after.

Flat Stanley didn't want to cooperate

Stanley didn’t want to cooperate, nor was he dressed for the occasion

Back in the apartment I googled why my phone died (aside from the obvious). Turns out some Finnish technogeeks (who else?) did a little research on this phenomenon. Phones freezing isn’t something I’ve been overly concerned with in the past, because: (A) I only recently got a smartphone; and (B) I make it a point to live well south of the Arctic Circle. But I imagine it’s a real problem for, like, the Inuit, or, you know, Finns. Anyway, Apple apparently won’t cover damages outside of the 32-95 degrees Fahrenheit range, and our Finnish friends found that the phone broke down at 14 degrees, making it the biggest sissy of all the phones they tested. They tested the 4s, though, and I can tell you that my 5 made it a little longer than Chloe’s 4, but not by much. The temperature was above 14, but the wind chill was below, so I guess phones feel wind chill, too. No harm, no foul, though: they perked right up when we connected them to their chargers.

The fruits of our Finnish friends’ labor

Anyway, moral of the story is don’t take your iPhone out in the snow. That was our arctic adventure and my public service announcement, and I can safely say that I’ve since had enough of the cold. I did manage to get at least one decent picture of Stanley, and a picture without him to prove we were there. We found out afterward that we were either too late or too far away to see the people kite-skiing around the monument (yeah, and yeah), which is, illegality aside, pretty cool.

Look, proof!

Midnight Monument, no kite-skiers in sight