January 15, 2017

oh happy day

too long; didn't read
I built a moonboard with no prior construction experience. I love it, it was harder than I thought but still achievable. It cost $1,300 and took about 40 man hours.
Last August my membership at the local climbing gym was up for renewal and rather than renew it I decided to build a wall at home. I've had it up and running for about a month now and so far it's been one of the better decisions I've made. It's under an overhang adjacent to our garage, it's always shaded and never wet. There is no commute and no excuses to get in the way of a workout.
In addition to the moonboard holds, I bought about 40 small jugs from a local climbing gym for a pittance ($50!). I drilled an extra row of T-nuts between each row and column of the moon grid and placed them there. These holds have been great for easy warm-ups and longer circuits...highly recommended.
no behold related comment here.
With the help of two compadres, I dug out 5 holes which each held an upright 2x4 that was cemented in place. Each 2x4 was bolted with a single 3/4" bolt to a 12' length of 2x6. Next time, I would go to a dedicated lumber yard for all the wood rather than Home Depot or Lowe's (which often sell warped pieces). We sorted the best we could at Home Depot and still ended up with some crappy pieces which made things harder but not impossible.
The overhang joists were reinforced with 2x6s that added stability and an easy point of attachment for overhanging frame. Joist hangers were helpful. We measured the angle with a free app on a cell phone, fixed the board in place with rope and then screwed it all together with deck screws.
Once the frame was up I was pretty happy with how solid and rigid everything was already, once the plywood sheeting was on the frame it was sturdier still. When drilling and installing T-Nuts I applied two coats of Marine Spar the the plywood and frame to help add longevity the whole thing. I'm curious to see what the failure point will be...the delamination of the plywood, the rotting of the frame or the rusting of the bolts and T-Nuts. Time will tell but right now everything is lovely.

Here's a spreadsheet of the cost associated with the board:

December 17, 2016

real emotional trash, more very short stories

Welly well well. It looks like another dead sea scrolls post that I've found squirreld away. This one written sometime in 2011 or 2012. I don't remember any of the context that went into it, though judging by the cynicism toward international aid it probably came late in my service.

I'm sitting outside the parish right now thinking. It's cool, a rain is coming. I hear young boys yelling as they play football in front of the primary school. It's dusk. Mosquitoes nip at my feet and the parish cat is licking my arm. Somewhere a baby is crying. I can't write now...I don't know how to start.

International aid and charity artificially incentivize destitution while presupposing that impoverished countries cannot solve their own problems sans outside assistance. If you prefer a fine balance  between brevity and depth you can try this New Yorker article (about a 20 minute read). The long form of that argument can be found in several books like White Man's Burden by William Easterly or Michael Maren's polemic Road to Hell.

I live in a rural trading center. The main drag is a single road dotted with homemade brick buildings and tin roofs. The population is probably around 8,000. There is no electricity though several shops have solar panels hooked up to car batteries. There are three small generators in the center owned by businessmen to power two refrigerators, three televisions, and a twice weekly dance hall. As a "volunteer", I may be one of the wealthiest people in the township. The surrounding area is scattered with homesteads, clustered mud huts with grass thatch organized by extended-family units.

People that live in mud huts are usually referred to as "villagers" by my teaching colleagues and typically have one change of clothes and eat one meal a day. They plant and harvest their crops by hand. They don't wear shoes but they sometimes wear sandals made of re-purposed tires.

On the dusty ride home I saw a village woman with her face smashed in. She was bleeding and staggering down the road being led by another woman. We zipped by. One hundred meters down the road was an intoxicated uninjured man staggering in the opposite direction. What had happened in the just recent past crystallized in my mind. And we zipped by.

Ricky Rubio broke his ankle or tore his ACL or something like that. He's done for the season.

While walking to school today I cut through the primary school and came across one of my students from last year. She's a teacher at the school now, teaching math. She was proud and I was proud and it's because that's something to be proud of.

i am not tom ford sunglasses

Huh. I unearthed this old post from my time rambling around India after I left Peace Corps in 2012. Figured I'd post it up.

If I had to describe New Delhi in one word it would be "dirty".  In two words it would "dirty" and "uric."  Uric as in urea. Urea as in urine. Urine as in the whole city smells like urine. But that's neither here nor there at the moment. I didn't come for the aroma, I came for mountains and eye surgery.

I was interested in eye surgery for all the obvious reasons; basketball, surfing, and kissing someone are all done easier without the mechanical interference of glasses.  The price of the surgery, much like everything else in India, is significantly cheaper than in America.  Like a quarter of the cost cheaper. So here I am right now with freshly lasered corneas and I couldn't be happier with how it all worked out.

Naturally one of the first post-op stops was the sun glass store. I wanted a quality pair of shades, I had after all saved quite a bit of money, a pair that would last me for a long time. I was ready to make a sun glass investment. The hunt began in earnest and I made several laps around the store all the while honing in on that perfect pair. I didn't want any branding on the side of the frames, something I find tacky, and I wanted a gentle gradient from light to dark from the bottom to the top of the lens.

Finally settling on the perfect pair I checked the price tag: $450.  Four hundred and fifty dollars? Tom Ford, apparently, can get away with these sorts of things.

I sat there. I marinated. No.  I don't think I can bring myself to do that.  

But I did marinate. I congratulated myself on my impeccable taste, having blindly picked out the most expensive pair of sunglasses in the store. My second choice turned out to be a $300 of Paul Smiths. Which again was three times too much for my liking. It seems that if you don't want someone's name on the side of your frames you have to pay a bunch of money to make that happen. Which is kind of odd right? Spending a bunch of money to keep people from knowing how much you have spent? Well at least people, the majority I would assume, who don't keep up with the subtle branding of high end men's sunglasses.

And this frightens me. I'm frightened by my consideration to actually do something as stupid as pay four hundred and fifty dollars for a pair of sunglasses when I'm unemployed and wandering. I'm frightened that my taste was validated by the price, that I derived satisfaction in my "expensive taste." I'm frightened that I'm still thinking about those sunglasses even after I begrudgingly bought a $40 pair. I'm frightened to once again be a consumer.

Being free from the American consumer influence has been one of the quiet pleasures of my time in Uganda and carrying that experience forward is proving an uncomfortable challenge. I'm once again reminded that without Product This or Product That I am not good enough. Strangers will overlook me and women will find me boring, bland and undesirable. Changing cultures means changing parts of myself. Where once my white skin was adornment enough, now I'm weighed by my choices of clothes, watches, sunglasses and consumer electronics.  

How do you find the balance between style and substance? Appearance and essence?  

November 15, 2016

the bright flash

Early morning on the wrong ridge, Mt. Whitney. Shit.
Back in the country happy and secure but lost culturally who are my people and how do we fit together not sure.

I'm depressed I should probably get a job so I do and I start to work out how do get things done it's funny but having a goal is important but more important is to set the goal and forget it and get deep into the process of the small steps that lead to achievement.

Look back over the shoulder and see how far along the trail we've made it so far. So process over everthing. Got it.

I get rejected but that's alright, check in with our goals, make a new plan and execute and now here we are how did we get so far well now it's obvious how to proceed.

Somewhere in Colorado, photo by the Lt. 
That's the last four years since my last post I think. Becky says there are places that put you in your head and places that put you in your body and San Diego seems like the latter. I spend so much of my free time working in my body now, usually outside and in the mountains or among the rocks.

I've also pushed myself in school but it feels so easy now, hard work yes, but the work is mechanical. I'm ready to move on again, ready for another challenge.

I'm not sure if it's possible to live on top of self actualization mountain or if it's inevitable to cycle through life's peaks and valleys.

Somewhere in California.
The whole election thing got me pretty down but it also got me to think, to really think, about my worldview. Happily I found it to be lacking. Happy because it's become more whole now in a way it probably wouldn't have had things gone another way. A friend at work told me to understand the conservatives, to really understand them, and so I dug around and did a bunch of reading and thinking and now it makes a lot more sense to me. If you're interested this might be a good place to start.

October 22, 2012

The Not Evil Empire

I am back in America now and beginning to readjust.  I'm living with Natalie and Elizabeth, two fellow Uganda RPCVs.  I'm extremely fortunate in this regard as both have been incredible resources, confidants, and friends.  Readjustment isn't so bad and I feel good.  My financial situation is pretty ugly but that's because I spent half of my readjustment allowance traveling after leaving Uganda.  No regrets there.  Being in America without a job may be like being in Uganda without a mosquito net, uncomfortable in the near term and likely ruinous in the long term.  So I'm looking for a job and writing the occasional article for the Peace Corps San Diego newsletter because it makes me happy.  Here's October's.


It's the double vision of a people whose hearts don't like what their desires have created.”
-Jonathon Franzen

I found myself in a lovely pedestrian mall in Budapest on a sunny day last August. A Wednesday. I was holding a solitary pre-noon vigil at a bronze statue of Ronald Reagan. I was doing this because I was at a delightful place in life which found me both curious and unemployed. Delightful because this was still a novel thing. Unemployment and curiosity. Nothing says unemployment and curiosity quite like solitary Wednesday pre-noon vigils of bronze Ronald Reagan statues in Budapest. The route leading to this particular collision of time, person and place started with a cheap flight, a Russian Pricewaterhouse Cooper human resourcer, and a late night stroll for ice cream.

I had arrived in Budapest from, well it isn't important, via a cheap flight. That was how I was choosing the destinations for this trip. I was being put up in a gorgeous flat that was inhabited by a lovely young Russian who worked one of those jobs that requires conference calls, business casual, and the deft management of office politics. Her name was Ksenia and she was Russian. The previous nights had been filled with conversation, cold tomato soup and wine. One of those nights we had taken a stroll for ice cream and that late stroll led us eventually to the US embassy located in a busy pedestrian mall.

“I wanted you to see this,” she said to me. The embassy was quite similar to the last embassy I had been to back in Uganda. It had the same high fences, the same drab gray color scheme and the same perimeter of steel pylons. Unlike the embassy in Kampala, the steel pylons here cut through the adjacent pedestrian mall and children's park. It was a bunker surrounded by cheerful and old European architecture.

Near the embassy was a large bronze statue that was...really?...Ronald Reagan? There was an inscription that read, “A simple country boy against the evil empire.” I looked over at the evil empress that was letting me crash on her couch and feeding me cold tomato soup. “I think that means you,” I told her. But that wasn't true. Her parents had probably been a part of the evil empire, but that was probably before she was born. An eighties baby. She was just a Russian now.

The next day she went to work and I went back to the statue. I wanted to see it in the daylight. I didn't know any great Hungarians in history and was fairly certain that there were no bronze statues of them anywhere in America, busy pedestrian malls or otherwise. It seemed odd that Ronald Reagan was enshrined here and that he was accredited with the toppling of the soviet empire. I'm not sure what toppled the soviet empire. I don't think anyone really does. These things are explainable only after the fact. My feeling was that Ronald Reagan deserved a bronze statue in Budapest about as much as Barack Obama deserved the Nobel Peace prize.

If there are two competing empires and one empire is the Evil one than the other empire must be the Not Evil Empire. That would be us. But the Not Evil Empire is still an empire. An empire that needs a perimeter of steel pylons around its buildings. You see, you need a strong perimeter for all the people who don't realize that you're the Not Evil Empire. But evil or not, an empire is an empire. On the spectrum of Soviet Russia to Reagan America, it might be better to find yourself in Switzerland.

I was frustrated with the embassy in Budapest. It didn't seem to represent the America that I knew. The America that was optimistic, hopeful and open. The building was the representation of an America that was afraid, uncertain and closed. When did this happen? When did Ellis Island and Martin Luther King Jr. and the Bill of Rights turn into Guantanamo Bay, drone strikes, and Chinese debt?

I sat on that park bench in Budapest thinking these thoughts and working myself into a towering indignation. I decided to do something about all this! I decided to do something very American. I was going to write a letter and complain.

I quickly ran into a couple problems. Not the least of which was to whom does one address a letter about the troubling state of affairs in American embassies abroad? In the weeks that followed I wrote and rewrote my letter but never could think of a satisfactory recipient. Neither could I find the left-right-cross-hook-uppercut to the jaw conclusion for the letter. Without an address, or even really a point to make, the letter languished in my journal.

It wasn't until I got back to America after three years away that I realized that our embassies represent us as a country quite well. To paraphrase rapper Mos Def, sometimes it's easy to talk about our government like it's some giant living up in the hills. But we are the government. So when we ask: What is our government doing? Where is our government going? We should ask: How am I doing? Where am I going? The embassies are how they are because we are how we are.

America is a place where too many people don't know their neighbors let alone their farmers. It's a place where 24 hour cable news manages to turn debate into farce while the rest of the world grows and turns and sometimes burns. That's why I couldn't find anyone to address my letter to—there's no embassy czar in charge of all this. The embassy and it's high walls in Budapest is the sum total of the ambitions, triumphs and fears of the 300 million or so people that call America home. To change the embassy requires a change in us.

February 6, 2012

a handle bar mustache bandit rides into the sunset

Yes.  This is from THE DAY.
This is the speech I delivered to my fellow PCVs at our Close of Service conference, the last gathering attended by everyone.  During and since the conference I've felt that same feeling you feel in your stomach when you are young and in love or when something really awful happened to you or when someone has died.  A heavy, dull ache.  I'll write about that later.  Anyways, I lot of inside jokes here.  Don't worry about it.

I watched Lukas as he stepped away from the podium having delivered his Swearing In “MUZUNGU!” speech. He had something or other about our role as proverbial Boda Men (and Women) asking people where they're going and how we can help them get there.  I marinated on that for a minute and after several other event formalities we broke into fragments of small talk, photos, and hors d'ouvres.

It’s worth noting that this scenario now terrifies me.  Small talk.  I don’t know how to talk about much outside of literature, metaphysics, the doings and transpirings of The Group, and, well, poop. 

(It was pencil thin, though completely solid, and very lightly colored the other day.  First time in two years it’s looked like this.  It’s incredible!)

Anyways there I am in a linen suit peering through the fog of a hangover and out from a Beatle-ish mop top and over a handlebar mustache which I had carved the previous night.  There I am.  I saw the Ambassador schmoozing his way in my direction.  He paused, gave me a once over, extended his hand and said “When the going gets weird, the weird get going.”  Yes sir they do.  That is indeed what they do.  It did get weird and we did get going and now here we are.

 And we are weird.  Really weird.  Not unique, special, different or any other euphemism.  That would neuter the description.  We’re weird. 

Just agreeing to come here and do this whole thing is weird enough.  How many of your friends took this ever so scenic route after college or retirement?  Can you count them off on one hand?  We are a self selecting banditry of weirdness, as weird as a troop of monkeys.  More weird than a troop of monkeys.  We started out weird and for better or worse we’ve gotten weirder.

For the worse we’ve become painfully frugal.  I’ll just say flat out cheap.  If it’s free we’ll eat it or drink it or pack it home on the six hour bus ride.  We’ve developed questionable hygiene practices.  Like the opposite of immaculate…de-mamaculate if you will.  We’ve pooped (see there it is again: poop talk) on shoes, buses, river beds, caveras, and Lake Victorias.  We’ve pooped in so many places and so many circumstances that hovering over a hole in the ground seems normal rather than cause célèbre.   And after two years in the mosh pits that pass for lines here, we often confuse boorishness with assertiveness; long ago having determined dignity exchanged for “fairness” to be a reasonable bargain.

But our little band has become weirder for the better as well.  Perhaps you’ve become savvy to the complicated truths of the world.  Maybe you’ve become more disciplined in some regards and less uptight in others.  Or maybe you’ve learned to cook or garden or raise a dog.  You know your specifics better than me.  There isn’t much that’s universal about the Peace Corps experience.  It’s a fit custom tailored for you.

But here we are a clan of 29 goofballs, husbands, hippies, warlocks, pilgrims, poofs and gurus sharing 29 iterations of one common experience.  We’ve been away from all those influences from back home.  Away from the family and friends, the career, the culture, the comforts; we have been forced to muddle through this whole thing as best as we could. 

As only we could. 

The things you’ve said and done and thought these past two years are Who You Are.  It’s been two years.  Nobody can fake it that long.  I’ve never felt more true to myself than I do right now and that’s the Grand Universal Peace Corps Truth.  And while that authenticity shouldn’t be weird it certainly seems to be and that’s something we all share. 

So I hope we all hold on to what we’ve found in ourselves.  And I hope we don’t stop exploring just because we’re finishing with our service.  I’ve got the emotional sophistication of a 15 year old boy with a Victoria’s Secret catalogue but I hope that if you feel like crying you’re not doing it because this is the end and you’re going to miss pooping in a hole and talking to your friends about it.  Even if the end is hard, you don’t want to be in Peace Corps forever.  Of that I am certain.

Rather I hope that we can all cherish the past, accept the present and embrace the future.  We’ve got some heavy hitters in our group and I’m so excited to see where we all end up next.  I know we’ll still travel around…meet people…get into adventures…you know, wander the Earth.  Be thankful for the experience but don’t linger too long looking back.  Look forward to all the awesome things coming our way.  Keep going forward, straight on ‘till dawn.

In his swearing in speech, Lukas told us that we were Boda Men (and Women) and our job was to ask people where they were going and how we could help them get there.  I think that we’re spaceships.  Really weird spaceships.  Tearing through the heavens at the speed of light.  And space ships don’t come equipped with rearview mirrors.
These people.

December 3, 2011

and it all briefly comes together

Words words words.  I don't know how to start.  It's becoming the dry season now, daily rains giving way to long hot dusty days.  The school is deserted, the teachers and students moving back into the deep village for harvesting.  It's quiet.

I've found that my frustrations and cynicisms and despairs pile up over time.  Like shoots of tough savanna grass they grow green and fresh in isolation and a fertile disposition, before they turn brown dead and dry as time marches on.  Like an unkempt garden these frustrations grow into a prickly thicket, eventually obscuring even tomorrow's limitless promise and possibility.  The process is gradual but the effect is cumulative.

But the clearance happens suddenly like a flame front across the plains.  Instantaneous.  An experience, a good experience, sometimes only a moment, so powerfully good that it wipes out weeks of the thorny nagging underbrush leaving behind only fresh scorched earth.  Clean fertile earth to try it all over again.  The lows are powerfully low, but the highs are intoxicating in their intensity.  Cycles of despair and euphoria.

We finished up the term.  And it finished.  

Before we as a staff collectively broke huddle for the year we congregated for one last event, the end of year staff party.  The event started late and there were long speeches from bloviating politicians (or rather their junior emissaries) and blah blah blah.  That's not important.  We ate a tremendous spread of fried chicken, cassava, pasta, rice, goat, beef, fish, salad and then Got. It. On.

A sound system was hired and several crates of beer were ordered and we started doing togetherness.  In the past I've been hesitant to linger too long at these get togethers, perhaps equal parts sober concern for my reputation and a middle school boy's fear of the dance floor.  The music is a reggeton/afro/acholi quick beat that made me look exactly what you think a white guy dancing with a bunch of African's would look like.  Enough to shatter any delicate male ego.  

With a single beer's assistance I set sail on those turbulent seas, trying to find paths of rhythms and the crests of bass lines.  Mr. Okema saw me swimming (sinking) and came to my aid.  "Uh huh, good!" as he choreographed  "Now do like this."  And I started to get it kinda.  Either that or more likely I picked up another bottle of assistance.

(Digression: I don't know if there's a name for it but the night's weapon of choice was a big 500ml bottle of Senator beer spiked with a shot of Waragi gin.  For the home bartender: buy a bottle of the cheapest high octane beer you can find, leave it in the sun for a day or so and then, still warm, open it and add some vodka or gin (any kind that comes in a plastic bottle will do) and drink it.  Hooray!)

The tribal dance here is incredible.  The Acholi school children win the national dance competitions on the regular and for good reason.  Hips neck feet and drums in a flurry of coordinated contortions and culture.  It's a joy to live in this region and witness these things.  What would those bored screen addled American suburbanites give to have a culture like this, all they own?  

So there I was.  We were.  The syncopated bouncing mob.  Boozy, happy, dancing.  Gaining confidence and BAC I was beginning to surf the lines of music.  First was the school secretary Filda, maternal, unusually exuberant, though characteristically dignified as she approached and bounced and danced, circling around ululating.  She flipped off back into the mass of now sweating bodies but she had opened the floodgates.  Some recently graduated A level students, staffers, teachers, wives of teachers, children of teachers, students of children of wives of teachers (just kidding) all had a go at me.  

One young woman came at me gale force in a hurricane of confidence, hips and vitality.  A thick woman in an ankle length dress and covered shoulders who radiated a sexuality more fierce than her thin designer jean gym toned counterparts in college bars across America.  She was a force.  FORCE.  I've never felt anything like it.  As she trailed away she glanced back over her shoulder looking like "I just launched you into outer space, huh." Raised eyebrows and a noiseless whistle was my only reply.  Because I had already torn past the moon and Mars and was zipping by Neptune.  

At three thousand feet per second.

As I made the solitary walk home from the party, head still buzzing from cheap alcohol and the peculiar electricity that I imagine is only felt among the flirtatious youth, I realized that this had been the best party I had ever attended.  It wasn't the food, the dancing, the drinking though they all played their part.  It was the sense that I had finally found the people around me and that they had found me.  For one night we punted everything out the window and just became people.  People with faces and fingers and toes.  I didn't feel like a white guy, an American, a math teacher, any of that.  I felt together.

And just like that weeks of frustration were razed to the ground and I get to start fresh all over again.  Two days later and I'm still glowing.  I chased off three people who thought I was away and had come to rob my house.  I fished a dead rancid rotting lizard out of my sofa cushions when I noticed the horrible smell.  I ate beans and rice for three hundred and eightieth sixth time.  But I don't care.  I love it here.  The highs tower above the lows.

The next morning I woke up early and went to get a cup of milk tea and a plate of cassava.  I saw a co-reveler from the night before.  He politely inquired about the status of my hangover (incredibly non-existent) before, like a proud father, adding, "You learned a lot last night."

And I was like "yeah."