Recent Work By Kip Tobin

In my left hand is a partially full cup of coffee that was purchased from self-service coffee machine at one of the Franklin County Department of Jobs and Family Services offices.

It reads:

AVI’s pursuit of the world’s best tasting cup of coffee took us to South America’s premier coffee plantations where the world’s highest quality Arabica coffee beans are grown in sunbathed splendor and nurtured by gentle tropical rains.

Today this treasure is yours, as our Arabica coffee beans are roasted to excellence, bursting with flavour, then freshly ground and brewed for each cup of coffee.

There isn’t a fresher, richer, more robust, full-bodied and better-tasting cup of coffee anywhere.

José de Sousa Saramago, Nobel-winning Portuguese author of the novel “Blindness”, et al., died today at the age of 87 in Las Palmas, Spain.

After inviting a good friend of 15 years to accompany me to a summer music festival in Chicago, he said he would think about it and get back to me.

Several days had passed when I saw him again. I completely forgot to ask him about whether he had decided to go.

So I texted him simply: “I 4got 2 ax u lst nite, whts ur vrdct on the fstval?”.

Two full days pass; there is no reply.

I text again: “Hv u made decision on ths [the festival] yet?”

Several more days pass, and there’s still no reply.

I finally decide to use the good old-fashioned way of communicating and straight-up stone call his ass.

“Hey,” he picks up and says curtly, “Can I call you back?”

“Sure,” I say.

He does not call back.

The next day I text him: “I take it by ur not 1st, not 2nd, but 3rd non-reply tht u simply dnt wnt 2 talk abt it [the festival]. Thts cool. I am prbly going 4 th whle thng & wil assume u r not coming.”

Again, he does not reply.

All four attempts to communicate with this friend of mine has resulted in no reply at all.

It’s the first time I’ve encountered such an cold, one-sided interaction, as if my long-standing friend of 15 years simply did not exist when it came to the subject of festivals and his possible attendance with me to it.

With each successive message sent, a corresponding anger grew in the fragile part of my psyche, imagining scenarios as to why on the other side of my text messages, each one more perturbed and distorted than the one before.

We’ve since seen one another numerous times, and not once have we mentioned this. It’s as if I never asked him nor sent him these text messages. This part of our friendship has been completely erased from our collective memory.

Another example: I recently went on a date with a girl.

The date seemed to go well, and we kissed at the end of the night, vaguely making plans for sometime in the future when we both weren’t busy.

A whole week passed (I went to another music festival and moved houses), I emailed her, and after five or six days without a reply, I began to think the whole experience an aberration, a figment of my imagination in which no stock should be placed.

Surprisingly, the next day she replied, saying that she had had a really busy week but was happy to be back in town after a conference all last week out of town. She finally suggested that we get together soon.

I replied via text two days later during midweek, deferring the potential reunion time to her.

She did not reply.

Two days later, on Friday, I sent her another text asking her to describe her week in three adjectives.

No reply.

All of this forcefully brings about the realization that there is a standard, tacit protocol to messaging (both text and email), and when it is not met, a sender feels snubbed, slighted and generally pissed on.

(Or at least I do.)

Below are a few cursory observations regarding this standard protocol that I culled from these experiences.

Feel free to add.

If a person answers your text message immediately, they are either really bored, not busy or overly eager, none of these a particularly positive way to be viewed by the receiver of your message.

In the case of a romantic interest, immediately answering can be a positive or negative action, depending on which party you are and whether or not you want replied to quickly. So, if you like someone, you text them and they reply within five minutes — this can be a great sign, or, if the tables are turned, it can be undesirable, possibly disastrous because over-eagerness is unbecoming and many times viewed as tantamount to desperation.

If a person answers hours later, it means they were either busy or want to come off busy, but it also means your message was not placed on some sort of immediate priority, and therefore, neither are you. It’s best to back off, cool your jets, let the ball linger in their court for a while, see what the next possible moves that can be made are and act accordingly.

When a person does not reply at all, it means they do want to communicate with you anymore, period.

F off, A hole.

These two instances illuminate yet another aspect of the ultra-fragmented nature of contemporary life: an unfinished conversation, hacked off into oblivion; an expectant response never retrieved; an expectation lowered; a disrespectful-yet-ever-increasing way to treat fellow persons; an absent goodbye lost forever in the indifference of technology.

*Love-nine was our moniker for 2009, partially because synonyms for zero were dwindling down to, well, zero, e.g. Oh-one, Naught-two, Nary-three, Nix-four, Aught-five, Null-six, Ought-seven, Nil-eight. (“Nadir-nine” was a very close second, but given that DFW erased his own map in 2008, that he was former junior tennis player, that tennis was such a huge part of Infinite Jest, and that it largely occurred in the year 2009, we opted for the more positive sounding, slightly obscure tennis reference as our zero in ’09.)

A good friend once said that if he only had a day left to live, he would spend half of it saying goodbye and the other half making one last mix tape. At the time (back in college) I thought it rather wasteful to spend half of one’s remaining consciousness comprising a mixture of songs. Wouldn’t it be better to take a reflective walk down a familiar path? Or cook a delectable meal? Of, what about buying one last pack of cigarettes and pounding out the pure ephemeral pleasure locked inside those little bastards? What about coitus, at least once? If not that, how about rolling one off? I mean, if (somehow) you know not only days are numbered but also your hours and how many, wouldn’t it make sense to jam pack them with meaningful, pleasurable activities, with sublime sensorial and/or spiritual activities to make your last terrestrial memories positive or pleasurable, or, as the cliché goes, to make them count? Such was my reaction to this declaration then.

The atheist and the believer walked together on the path that followed the highway, looking for light.

Everything visible was dampened gray, as if some colossal waterlogged blanket was thrown on top of their sky and hung there, dripping. Incessant raindrops had been pricking their faces for over two hours, and the cutting wind foretold the road ahead without visible end. The others had gone ahead, and they couldn’t see anything except for the highway to their right, the miry path directly in front and the snow-quilted fields to the left that were melting reluctantly in the cold rain.

The panorama was muddy, leaden, soppy.

“That’s the thing,” the believer explained, whose face was hidden behind his poncho, “Of all the religions in the world, even though they say different things, you know, in the details, the principal belief –what everyone believes– it’s the same.”

“Really?” the atheist questioned. “Didya know that of the twelve official world religions currently in the world, one doesn’t agree.”

“Which one?”

“Jainism.” The atheist looked at the believer, who kept looking ahead. “From India,” he continued, “it’s the only religion that’s completely atheistic,” he detailed. “They don’t believe a God exists, nor do they believe in life after death. And in order to obtain salvation, instead of amassing wealth to guarantee a comfortable ending, they give up all their worldly possessions and go on ascetic pilgrimages. They wear surgical masks over their mouths and towels are their only clothes. They hold a little broom and carry a bowl to beg with. They sweep, walk and beg. The surgical mask is so they don’t swallow insects when they breathe and they use the broom to keep their paths clear of insects so they don’t step on ‘em as they walk. They have complete respect for all sentient life, as if it were a part ‘uh their own redemption. In fact, they believe that every soul’s the architect of his own salvation.

A long silence passed. The only sound heard was their plastic ponchos crinkling in the cold wind, constant and indifferent. The wide face of the atheist fully protruded from the hood. His white skin foregrounded the wrinkles that had been ridging around his eyes and his constantly contorted brow, as if he were perpetually aghast of everything around him. His enormous round head almost buried his moist face, and his unkempt beard gave him an air of indifference. He raised his walking stick and, looking at the believer, asked, “Whaddya think?”

The believer, whose friends called him B, did not meet his look and kept walking.

Interesting,” he responded, looking straight ahead.

Together they walked on without more words. The wind intensified. Suddenly a monotonic whistle resonated.

The atheist, whose friends called him A, tensed his brow and focused on B.

B looked at A; A extended his hand and tugged on B’s poncho softly.

The whistling stopped.

“You know,” B spoke, “ever since we got out here and started walkin’, I’ve spent a lot of time alone. And when I’m walkin’ through all this nature –even when it’s rainin’ like this— and I hear nothing but my own footsteps, and the breeze, and the birds chirpin’, or cows mooin’, and I’m surrounded by all this incredible beauty, all I can think of’s how much everything—even the silence—is God. There’s nothing in any of this experience that isn’t.”

B looked at the A and added, “God is everywhere.”

The atheist just walked, his head cocked upward.

After a long pause J asked, “What do you think?”

B looked a little to his left and caught A a few yards behind him in his periphery.


Further down the path A had to stop to readjust his boots, and before he bent down to do so he told B that he didn’t have to wait for him.

“No, man,” B replied.

From time to time they drew a waft of pollution from the cars; apart from that, they only breathed  the cold, the absence of scent. They kept walking together at a labored pace.

B asked A when the rain was going to stop, and B said he had no idea.

A asked B how far they were to final town for the day’s walk, and A said he really had no idea but would guess around 8 kilometers, which meant 2 or 3 more hours depending on the stops.

Without realizing they arrived upon a simple, lonely village adorned with a only few houses that was completely deserted.

The rain had diminished to a drizzle. B said he had to stop to attend to something.

“You can go on, if you want,” he offered.

“Naw, man,” A declined, shaking his head and reaching into his pocket, “I’ll wait for you.” A pulled out a pouch, grabbed some tobacco and rolled it into a piece of paper.

Both stopped in front of the only bench in the village. J removed his poncho, unhooked the straps of his backpack and threw it on the bench. Standing without the mass of gear and adornments he looked like a pallid cartoon rabbit. He took out a black kit, undid the zipper and, with a machine inside, pricked himself on his index finger and squeezed quickly with his other hand’s index finger and thumb. He sucked the blood dot that formed. He lowered his eyes on the apparatus and squinted.

To A, B always seemed like he was on the verge of smiling even when he wasn’t. Around his mouth, with the twenty-few years he had, wrinkles were setting in early from too much near-smiling. Concrete lines of happiness at which A looked with distant curiosity.

A scruffy dog emerged from behind the opened slit of a barn door and slowly approached the pair. A lit his cigarette, reached into his pocket, pulled out a plastic sack and dropped down to his knees like a catcher. “C’mere boy,” he said smiling, the cigarette perched unlit between his lips.

The dog approached A, sniffed the dried fruits that were proffered and turned away trotting down the path from where the travelers came from. A threw the nuts toward the dog, who looked back in feigned interest and then kept moving on.

Suddenly the rain picked up again. B put away the kit, strapped on the backpack and, with the help of A, the green poncho. He pulled out a candy bar from his pocket and unwrapped it.

The backpacks under the ponchos gave them hunchback appearances, like a pair of erect human-sized turtles.

They returned to their heavy pace, still looking for light.


Summer ‘08

“Sleep yourself tight.” –Alice Tobin

“Hey Jim, this headstone says W. A. Goner. That’s funny.” –AT, to Jim Tobin while walking through a cemetery. The headstone actually read “WAGONER”.

“I deserve a paper plate that’s as strong as I am.” Paper plate commercial

August 30, 2029


In those days, I was finishing up a degree in the Spanish language in Guadalajara, Mexico, riding the wave of what was left of my mid-life postponement, wedged between two countries, two languages, girlfriends, professions, et al. I remember I turned 36 there, straddling the fence between youth and middle-age, having just moved from Madrid where I had lived for almost six years, and the six weeks in Mexico was an understated adjustment, preceded by the initial shock that Mexico was not even second but third world.

Thanks to a particularly media-hyped influenza virus outbreak called the H1, la gripe porcina or swine flu, it was the first time I noticed a budding prevalence of hand sanitizers located at the thresholds of buildings and doorways. These containers came in various sizes and modes of bringing you a smattering of transparent gel that -as advertised on the label- purported to kill 99.9% of all bacteria. As we now know the action of trying to kill off 99.9% of all the bacteria on our hands only resulted in some vicious mutations that, in turn, killed a healthy percentage of of our own. Even when the US government declared the official “War on Bacteria”, no one really believed it would work based on the other unending, unrealistic wars they had waged and lost at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries. In fact, it’s obvious that the bacteria are winning the war because they’re so hard to see and, in comparison, we’re such big targets (which was basically the same problem we had with those pesky terrorists).

Coincidentally or not, these signs of those times occurred around the same rise in popularity as the current standard handshake alternative we now call the knuckle knock (a.k.a. fist bump). It was the obvious choice since no one bites their knuckles, picks their nose or rubs their eyes with their knuckles, allowing us to bump away at our leisure without worrying about any germ-addled palms or bacteria-infected fingernails.

That was, of course, after shaking hands became outlawed and heftily fined (except for political photo-ops), the inter-touching of citizens was largely avoided and fully a part of our national ethos. We became the paradox that we now are: self-isolated from each other, humans in need of touch, but unable to get it.

Guadalajara, the huge chunk of sprawling gaud that it was, shocked me awake every morning to the sounds outside my window: a broom sweeping long assiduous strokes starting at 6:30 am by calloused hands whose owner I never once saw; a particular bird that endlessly repeated two sounds similar to a doorbell during the day; and a train a few blocks from the house where I slept would lay on its horn as it entered the city for about 30 seconds. Every morning for six weeks I entered third world modernity with a brutal aural shock that, only near the end of my stay, became commonplace enough to be an afterthought, part of the background and, as I recall it now, something to which I yearn to return.

That, and the storms. The rainy season brought at least one storm a day that hinted Armageddon. About 30 minutes before, the wind would pick up, thunder echoed its cacophony throughout the city and finally the sky could come down in inexorable sheets of sopping anger. I sometimes found myself staring at the storms, into their chaotic spit, rooting for them.

Every morning I walked about 30 minutes to the school, which had a route of a massive L from my house to there linking two major streets. In the six weeks throughout the course  of my commute, I learned to weave through the street grids in patterns that equated to many different smaller Ls, sometimes in order to find the most efficient path to the destination, sometimes with the route serving to just avoid large puddles.

Over the course of my six weeks there, I fell in love with the plentiful and varied trees that densely dotted every street, flanked buildings and shaded parks. But what most struck me about them was their open discontent they had with the city itself: All large trees grew quietly but never complacently. Many of the upper root systems were above ground, and many of those grew rampantly through the sidewalks, cracking the cement, sometimes shooting through it, sometimes even breaking the sidewalk into shards. Occasionally large slabs of concrete were upturned on their sides. These broken shards of cement and rippled slabs of concrete sometimes caused the sidewalkers to trip. After my first near fall, I walked with vigilance toward the ground, their anchorage, their veins exposed and ripping through dense human progress. Occasionally I glanced upward at them, a little fearful.

What was the government’s response? Apathy. The Department of Parks and Recreation seemed to be nonexistent. Only when a particularly harsh storm would knock down too many branches would they eventually –several days later– come around to pick them up.

But the roots, the trunks, the discontentment, was fully ignored.

The trees were constantly in their own process of becoming, an act that I never consciously witnessed yet knew was always happening right before my eyes.

Then, I wished I had been an arborist as I would’ve known what all the species were. As it was, I could barely distinguish the Ficus from the Laurel, nor did I know then what I know now: the thousands of Guadalajaran trees included many Orange, Ash, Poplars and Jacaranda trees, to name a few.

One day while I ambled my way through a series of Ls, I stumbled upon the following image, which inspired these words.

Elephantine fountains of air.

Green soldiers with gangly, tangled


surfacing, in protest of

civilization’s progress and Mexican

indifference, manifested in their belligerent machines

spewing soot and distorted ranchero brass.

Sidewalks cracking, separating


like glaciers,

in distances too minute to be measured,

in time to slow to be counted,

by us: the ones who planted them,

who falter above their discontent,

who have no time to watch them grow,

who are outgrown by their patient, massive loom

and their inconspicuous revolution.

I stand here






You can view some of these militant trees and their root uprisings here.

“Passport?” At 3 am I jolt upright in bed. “Where’s my passport?” In 12 hours I’m to get on a plane on an international flight back to the US–to move back after living her for six years–and at that instant a something massive and visceral smacks me awake. I hadn’t seen my passport in a few days. Inés wakes up, asks what’s wrong, says she’ll always lucky at finding things and that she’ll help me look for it. From 3 to 4 am we search all three pieces of luggage and every corner, shelf and nook throughout the apartment. Nowhere. It’s gone. A numbness covers me, because as I think about when I last saw it and where it should be, I can only deduce that I most likely threw it away, inadvertently. Because this final move consisted of giving away, disposing of or recycling all the surplus, I conclude that I either tossed it in the trash, gave it to a friend in some heap of a donation, or it went in the paper recycling bin along with hundreds of other papers that didn’t make the cut.

That’s right, I threw away my passport and realize it 13 hours before my flight.

Inés falls asleep around 4:30 while I pine away with my eyes open in the dark until 6:30, futilely trying to locate my damned passport.

9:30 comes, which brings alarms and open eyes after only three hours of sleep. I call Lena, the assistant director at the school where I studied here; she tells me to call the American embassy. I do and the man says I should wait until Monday to get another passport. As soon as I hang up the phone, Lena calls me back and says that normally they don’t allow people to fly without a passport but if I have a direct flight to the US and no stopover elsewhere in Europe, then there’s a chance they might let me on. She says go for it.

I print out a copy of my passport (which was scanned and saved in my laptop earlier in the year), take my driver’s license and my Spanish student ID card and off the airport go Inés and I.

We get to Iberia’s customer service desk and, after explaining to the smiling lady that my contact told me to go and see the Intermediario de inmigración y aduenas, she tells me to go to La Policia. Inés and I walk over to the young police officer and, after explaining that I have no passport, he responds (paraphrased and translated), “We’re you from? The States? And you want to go back? Well then we really don’t care about you. We’re concerned about people coming into our country, not leaving it.” So back at the Iberia check-in line, which seems languid and excessively long, the clock reads that my flight leaves in two hours.

One hour later we approach the counter and a young brunette asks to see my passport. I explain the situation with Inés sometimes joining in to aid in the communication. The lady is extremely helpful: she talks to her supervisor, she calls security to notify them that an American without a passport is coming their way. Then she hands over a printed boarding pass, explains that the flight is overbooked but since I’m the first one on the list, she’s pretty sure I’ll get on the flight.

“Phew,” I say,  incredulous, and thank her effusively.

Inés and I walk over to the smoking point. It’ll be the last time I see her for a long time, maybe ever. We don’t say this out loud, but we know it. I roll a cigarette and she pulls out a Nobel and we light up in unison. She puts on her sunglasses, and it’s not the least bit bright or squint-inducing, at least not for me with my highly sensitive eyes. It’s a quick cigarette, with few words to accompany. We crash them out and start walking, holding each others’ hands. I look over and think I see moist eyes. Her face is being pulled down by lack of sleep and the weight of the present moment. I can’t imagine what I look like at this point.

When we reach the entry point to go through security, we begin to kiss rather madly. I wrap my arms around her, hug her tightly and whisper something into her ear which causes me almost to choke with emotion. I say it on the verge of tears; she is too. We let go, I walk into the turnstiles. She’s smiling widely and waving each time I look back to see her with her sunglasses on. Behind them there are tears, I know, and I’m fighting to hold back my own. But there is hardly time for them, because my flight leaves the ground in 40 minutes and I’m 20 minutes away from the gate. I am supposed to be boarding at the present moment.

Once passed security I turn around for one last wave and a hand-to-the-mouth kiss throw and off I go to catch the plane without a passport. The train takes seven minutes to get to the satellite terminal.

After the train there is another passport control checkpoint.

“Uhm, yes, I don’t have a passport, but I have a copy of it as well as a driver’s license and some other form of–”
“Yes yes we know, they called us. Did you bring the report?” he asks me.
“Report? What report?”
“From the police?”
“No, they didn’t give me a report.”
“You have to get a report.”
“Well they didn’t offer to give me one. They said that if I was leaving the country it didn’t matter to them who the hell I was.”
“Okay, go on.”

That’s how impervious the passport control checkpoints are in Spain.

I run to gate U67. The gate looks like this (but populated with people):

On the left sign reads BOSTON2 pmFinal boarding call.

The right one reads New York CityDelayed.

There’s a short line waiting to board. Since I’m quitting smoking for good for the 20th time since I moved to Spain, I decide that there’s time to choke down one last grit. I do and return to a now line-less gate with a small group of people gathered around the adjacent desk. All of these people are on standby, I assume. We huddle around it while a fat Spaniard sitting down calls out a bunch of names, and finally mine. I raise my hand, hand him the boarding pass, he takes it and writes down a seat number. To his immediate right and directly in front of me is a female employee who’s head is cocked up and trying to speak with a someone on the second floor above who is behind a wall of glass. She says (in Spanish), “Huh? What are you saying?” then says to everyone of us in the immediate area, “I can’t hear her. I don’t think she speaks Spanish”.

(All apologies for the stick figures inserted into the picture, but I really thought they would help to visualize this crucial element to the electrifying conclusion, as well as my confusion.)

Since the woman is directly in front of me and obstructing my entrance into the door behind the sign marked Boston, I decide to back out, double around and go through the door straight on. As soon as I take one step back, someone says, Dejalo pasar (”let him through”), which she does. I walk through the door to Boston, begin an ascent up a wheelchair-enabled walkway. It’s a smooth, gradual incline and I’m following a group of  about 50 people who are staggered and strolling. Along the way, I notice there’s a woman talking to a security guard walking in the opposite direction. We pass each other. At the time I don’t recognize it but it is the woman on the second floor who was trying to communicate with the female employee who was obstructing my path in the above picture.

I keep walking and texting a somewhat poetic, emotive final text message to Inés. As I get to the second floor, I begin to wonder where I’m going, because usually you descend into a plane and not ascend onto a horizontal escalator that looks like it goes on for about a mile. Before I get on the first one, I ask a woman in front of me if this is the plane to Boston. She pauses, nods her head and says, . I keep walking and walking and about halfway I wonder where the hell this airplane is, and why I’m backtracking through the airport. I ask another guy if this plane’s for Boston and, again, I get a pause and a nod.

Eventually I start jogging. Following the crowd I see the passport control that is re-entering the country.

I then realize that I’ve walked about half a kilometer following dimwitted and haggard passengers who just got off the plane from Boston. Their answers were true, they were on the plane from Boston, but not to it.

I am the jackass who hadn’t the cognizance to stop and say, “Wait a minute, maybe I walked through the wrong door.”

And sure enough, I did. I walked through the door marked Boston — which was supposed to be my flight — instead of the door under the sign that read New York City/Delayed, which is actually where the Boston flight was boarding from.

The door behind the Boston sign should have been closed, or the signs should have been switched, or some sort of obstacle should have been placed in front of it.

Or someone should have said, “Sir, that’s the wrong door.”

I should’ve realized that the woman who was confused on the second floor and trying to communicate with the employee below did the same thing I was doing, and that when I passed her walking in the opposite direction, that should’ve triggered a realization that would’ve saved me about 450€ and the most surreal subsequent 24 hours I’ve had in my adult life.

But, I didn’t. I ran back to the gate and the fat Spaniard just looked at me in disbelief and said that the plane was already gone, that the door was closed. I was huffing and sweating and explaining that that was my plane, that I was misguided, that I walked through the door marked Boston, not NYC and before I realized it, I was de-embarking. I show him the boarding pass and he shakes his head and points me to customer service.

Everything was perfectly and tenuously held together just enough for me to get on that plane. Without a passport, I got through about four security points where said documentation is required. I had the impassioned and teary goodbye with Inés. I smoked the final cigarette. They put my luggage on that plane as the very last passenger and, as I was fully ready to turn a rather symbolic and important page in my life and finally leave Madrid once and for all, I walked through the wrong door.

Sunday June 1st, 2009 was the most absent day of my life.

My mind and spirit were on a plane headed to Boston while my body lingered around a quiet neighborhood where I had just finished a large chunk of my thirties.

I was there, and I wasn’t.

Numb, vacuous and bitter.

Some people since have said, “Well, everything happens for a reason, and there must be a reason you didn’t get on that plane.”

Some have said that it means that it’s my destiny to stay in Spain and not move back to the states.

It could also just as easily mean, “Nice work, deadbeat. Lost your passport and somehow get through the airport, catch the plane in time but walk through the wrong door. I’d say that Madrid was giving you a swift kick in the sweetbreads on your way out, just so you’ll never forget her.  Maybe she’s saying: HIT THE ROAD JACK.”

I tend to think that everything just happens, and then we ascribe a reason to it.

I’ve been back in the USA for two weeks now, and I still have yet to be able to apply one to this aberration other than I was highly stressed, emotionally brimming and not thinking fluidly.  Also, arriving late, not having a passport, not seeing people board through the gate door and their lack of proper signs to point me in the right direction were certainly reasons that aided in helping me walk through the wrong door.

Regardless of the meaning or non-meaning central to the metaphysics behind my failure to get on that plane, I will never forget the day that my luggage boarded a plane and my body stayed behind, that my mind left for America and my self remained in Spain, that I somehow existed in two places at once, that I became my own ghost while alive, that I stayed in Madrid one day too long…

Dear I-

In the several week run up to my exit here from your beautiful country, many people, including yourself, have asked me what I will miss about Spain. The main reaction of those who find out I’m leaving resembles this: “You been here how long – six years? Shit man. That’s a long time. Damn.” Most follow with “Why are you leaving?”.

These reactions naturally force you to consider the reality of your exit. These final days have been flashing before me like a movie reel, unable to to see one frame and appreciate it. As I type these words, I can already feel the credits starting to roll.

Before I know it, I’ll be gone, and a huge chunk of this time I’m invested in this country will seem like a distant dream. I hope to never be one of those people that lived abroad for a time and then constantly boasts about it at any given unsolicited opportunity, as if it would make me seem more worldly or cultured than I am.

To help avoid this potential pitfall and to not repeat myself, I’ve comprised this rather long list of what I will and won’t miss from this country I called home for quite a while. It is not a complete list and in no order of importance, but a representation of a few of the frames I’ve been able to catch, grasp and remember as I’m mounting one of the sloppier international moves in recent history.

1. I will go through Jamón Ibérico withdrawl within days of leaving. I will hunger for the general high quality food and the societal attitude towards eating it. They honor the privilege of eating. In contrast, back in the US where meat is usually formed into cute geometric shapes that resemble juicy brown play doe, here it is in its raw, naturally cured form. I am not ashamed to admit that I will direly miss seeing walls lined with cured legs. Other favorite foods: Tortilla, Pulpo a la Gallega, Gazpacho, Albondigas, Cocido, Chorizo/Salchichón, Pan tomáca, Calzots.

Oh yeah, I will miss all the inexpensive and excellent wines.

2. I will yearn dearly for the relentless dose of culture that seeps from pretty much every corner of this capital city. Sculptures on the street, book fairs, art weeks, film festivals, theater and dance month, architecture week, parties on the streets until the A.M., etc. Every month in Madrid is simply too much to choose from, and while I regret not taking full advantage of even 20% of what it has offered, I’m better off for knowing it exists and having lived surrounded by it.

3. I will miss the national pastime of dando un paseo, or taking the leisurely stroll that Spaniards take at any hour of the day, inching their way to their destinations or simply having no destination at all, completely oblivious to any one around them. It is a testament to their natural ability to appreciate the moments as they pass.

4. I will not miss the way Spaniards are completely oblivious to any one around them when they take their leisurely strolls, mostly because I’ve been trying to walk around them and they’ve been blocking or hindering my own North American beeline for the past six years.

5.I already miss my beautiful little feral bastard of a feline companion for three years, El Lío.

He now lives on a farm in Avila and from reported accounts is contentísimo. Letting him go was one of the harder decisions I’ve had to make in a long time, but I think it was probably the best for him. (I hate Sting.)

6. At some point, after I will have lived for some time back in a land where apathy is (or at least was) contentment, I will damn-near ache to see a protest. Spaniards will get off their asses to raise a sign and yell in unison for just about anything. The March 11th attacks brought about 10 million people to the streets country wide, 1/4 of the population. Gay marriage brought the right out en masse (which was either 2 million according to their protest organizers or 200,000 according to the police). The perpetual Israel-Palestine conflict brings about one protest every two months. When gas hit 4$/gallon last summer, the truckers blocked highway lanes; the lack of affordable housing brought about 500 out to protest against it; anti-capitalism protests…nude protesters for animals rights…nude bike riders in Madrid balking against Madrid’s lack of bicycle lanes…anti-fascists protests…anti-ETI protests…anti-bullfighting protests…dogs and their owners group together decrying the unfair fines of 300€ they get when they let their dogs go free in parts of Retiro’s park where signs specifically state they should always be on a leash…angry Spanish youth protesting against the restrictive laws not permitting them to drink (illegally) on the streets that provoked a riot two years ago here in Madrid. I once saw a group of 10 people condemning the newly installed car meters in their neighborhood, signs and all.

The list abounds, and I hope they never stop fighting, even if it’s by a small group of mothers who think they should be allowed to breastfeed in the Prado. They protested by bringing their hungry babies to the Prado and letting them feed for all to see.

7. I will not miss the way you guys smoke here. Around 40% of the adult population light up on a daily basis in any restaurant or bar. You tried outlawing it back in 2006 but the smoking lobby fought it hard enough (read: deeply fingered the government’s pockets) and now you have the equivalent of the US in the 50s. As much as I’ve smoked and tried to quit here, you make it nearly impossible for certain kinds of people to quit, as well as an intolerable hell for nonsmokers. One very good thing about the US is the fascism-level control over the public air secondhand smoke.

a rare sign in a Madrileño bar

8. I will long for your benches. At any given point in the city of Madrid, you are no more than a few hundred feet away from a bench. Most other cities and pueblos in Spain seem to adhere to this bench culture. Due in equal parts to the brutal heat and effusive sociability of Spaniards, this ample placement of benches throughout Spain make it one of the best countries to sit down and do whatever you do when you do so (read, people watch, smoke, drink maté or beer, swap pleasantries, etc).

9. After all this time of hanging clothes out to dry and washing dishes by hand, I will miss the former and not the latter. Washing dishes by hand sucks. Hanging clothes out to dry is a rather peaceful process, especially when the professional violin player in building across the patio practices with his or her door open and fills the space with some calming classical solos. I will also miss hanging clothes out to dry in July or August and having them dry in less than 30 minutes.

10. I will miss Enrique, my doorman. His job is simple: come in the morning around 10 am, sweep all six floors, attend to any tenants’ needs, leave for lunch around 2 pm, come back at 5 with glassy eyes, an alcohol-laden grin and a suit. When he stands at the threshold of the building to the street and a pretty girl walks by, he whispers something that I’m pretty sure would be unadulterated harassment in the US. If I am near, he looks at me and raises his eyebrows. I raise mine back and nod my head at an angle. I don’t condone this behavior, but find it very macho doorman-ish of him, and he certainly wouldn’t be him if he didn’t do it.

11. While I certainly don’t think the US is without its both blatant and latent racial issues, I will not miss the viscous undercurrent of racism that flows deep through this country’s ethos. Whether it’s the Spanish basketball team posing for a picture in the Olympics in China with each player making “slit-eyed gestures”, or Spanish Formula 1 fans yelling out “puto negro” or “negro de mierda” at Lewis Hamilton in Barcelona last year, or the “monkey chants” during a British football match in 2006, or, especially, when I’ve pointed this out to some of my Spanish friends, they are unable to see what’s offensive about it. In this way, Spain has tendencies towards the US in the 50s.

12.  I will miss the sex and violence that adorns the media in all its forms. The day after the March 11th train bombings in Madrid, El Mundo ran a picture on the front page of one of the wagon’s carnage with two body-less heads mangled in the aftermath; in Fallujah when those four American civilian contractors were killed and one was burnt alive in 2004, his charred body being dragged down the street as people cheered around him/it, that was the front page on El País. The news often shows car accidents with dead bodies covered in sheets and blood spilled everywhere. It is very common to open a newspaper, turn on the TV or see a billboard with a woman’s breast bared. It never seems like something we need to be protected from, nor something unnatural or impure. This month’s Vanity Fair boasted a rather controversial cover with two female models naked, buttocks and one nipple exposed. It was billboarded across Madrid like a movie poster.

I will miss these sometimes shocking, sometimes sexed-up images because they seem much realer the American depiction of reality as represented through the media. America’s supposed puritanical nature seems much more sheltered and ultimately damaging psychologically. If we are unable to even see the caskets of dead American soldiers coming back from a war we started, then what the hell does that say about us? It says we can’t stick our heads far enough into holes in the ground.

13. I will miss the concept of a Spanish house. Casa for most means the equivalent of condo in American or British. They live on top of, underneath and next to each other here, like ants. One positive effect of this is a very social society that isn’t afraid to touch you or stand clearly in violation of the standard American personal space of two feet. It can be welcoming once you’re used to it.

14. I will not miss being lived on top of, especially by the guy in the flat above who tends to urinate at 1 am and, just as I’m about doze off, get the aural sensation that someone is peeing all over me. And what follows is, expectantly, that I get flushed on.

15. I will probably cry around mid-March next year, wondering what happened to the excessive vacations that Spain experiences. Including weekends, the average Spaniard does not working 1/3 of the year. Most everyone is given three weeks of vacation up front, with about 15 days of national holidays throughout the year.

16. I will ache to see the two-toothed smiling 80-year-old lady in my neighborhood who sets her chair out on the sidewalk whenever the weather is warm and just watches the world approach and leave her.

She makes the sidewalk her porch and nobody protests about it. When I walk passed her, without fail she smiles at me and whistles a grumbled but well-intentioned “Buenas tardes”. Her smile is so wide, inviting and sincere that I feel like I should stop and talk to her, maybe give her a big Midwestern hug. But I don’t.

17. At some point — as soon as the US has another lunatic decides to take out his own family or coworkers before offing himself — I will pine for being back a society that does not have the general populace carrying guns. This is by far one of the most peaceful societies I have known. That being said, they kill each other here either the old fashioned way: stabbing — a much closer and therefore difficult way to end someone’s life. If you’re going to kill someone, sticking a sharp object in them repeatedly is much more difficult than pulling a trigger a couple of times. (At least I think that would be the case.) Guns are for pussies. Also, I will miss the smiling policemen who do carry guns but never seem threatening or filled with an arrogant sense of power. Here, whenever I see a cop, I never have the fleeting thought: “What am I doing that is illegal right now?”

18. I will miss the sheer devaluing of all vulgarity that the vast majority of Spaniards partake in on a daily basis without being aware of it. Joder, Mierda, Coño– “fuck”, “shit” and “cunt” respectively — are so pervasive that, to an outsider’s point of view, they seem more like “damn”, “shoot” and “hell”. Me cago en Dios (”I shit on God”) — probably equivalent in its essence to “Motherfucker” — is thankfully still reserved for special situations.

19. I will miss having no car. I haven’t driven regularly in almost six years and I feel better off for not having done so. As Robert Persig once said, driving a car is just more boring television, and I’m about to go back to a lot more television. I hope to relocate to a smaller town like Austin or Portland that has smaller Euro-style shops and walking neighborhoods.

20. I will miss the Sunday magazine El País Seminal (EPS) and the literary supplement Babelia on Saturday. One notable distinction from the states is that writers and novelists almost always double as columnists in newspapers, probably because it’s the only way to make a consistent living between books. As the newspaper dies its languid death, this too may change. But I’ve learned a lot of Spanish from following excellent writers like Javier Marías, Carlos Fuentes (Mexican but writes for El País), Mario Vargas Llosa (Peruvian but write for El País), Javier Cercas, Manuel Vincente, Manual Rivas, Rosa Montero, Ray Loriega, Antonio Moliz Molina and my favorite Spanish (er, Catalán) writer Quím Monzó. The absence of my easy access to them will be long and profound. I will also miss being able to walk down the block and buy a newspaper from a kiosk.

21. I will not miss the inverted Spanish standard of printing titles on book spines. It’s the opposite to the rest of the world, so…what gives?

Yes I, I will undoubtedly yearn for many aspects of this unique and fascinating country, its mad, deafening capital and, of course, you. I’m very lucky to have met you and many other sweet souls and peaceful pilgrims in my extended sojourn as an expat. You’ve been wonderful to me, and I will remember you with nothing but fondness, and sunshine, and joy. I may some day move back here, but for the foreseeable future, I am going back to watch the mighty superpower bumbling , see if I can’t help it in some way, see if I can’t help be a part of the change that it needs, see if it can’t help me be a part of a change that I need.

Spain– with all its flaws and setbacks, its feeble economy slipping into almost 5 million unemployed, its Mediterranean coast polluted beyond life-sustaining levels, it’s expanding desert and droughts, water distribution issues and rampant political corruption, among many other problems — is still one of the best countries on the planet.

When I look back at the blurry frames of my six years here and think about the multitude of reasons I came and the many for which I am going, I can only answer the question planted above of “Why are you going?” with this simple and succinct answer:

It’s time.

Con mucho amor,



I awake at 7 am, mostly from unwieldy nervousness. Before I have time to pause and consider what is to come, I strap on my 20 pound backpack, leave the pilgrim’s shelter in Sarría and ascend a firm incline for about 45 minutes into a Tolkien dream sequence.

Once inside, the misty mountain top has no visible exit; white pulpy air hangs still upon all scenery within a 100-foot diameter.

The path levels out, my head soaking in frosty sweat; I feel like am in the heart of a chilly other world, alone.

You have to do this alone. It’s part of the allure of el Camino. It also offers you a chance to forget about the maddening urban life that is Madrid, or Berlin, or Oslo, or Paris, or Los Angeles or wherever it is that you came from in order to do this.

Going hiking usually necessitates the presence of friends, but this modern pilgrimage is essentially a journey into self, regardless of whether you believe in God, believe positively that God does not exist or simply don’t care. To do it with a group of others is just another way of having a good time and cracking jokes or philosophizing while taking an slightly arduous, unending stroll.

An hour passes, the fog clears and the sun blesses every inch of the surrounding farmlands and endless green with its idyllic royal luster: the divine yellow ignites smiles on all the determined pilgrims and brings an easy contentment to northwestern Spain on this early April day.

Three hours in, my bottle is long since drunk and the only thing my dry mouth cares about is where can it find be sated with fresh water. As this thought becomes an ever-increasing concern, one of the many dilapidated walls that offer the ubiquitous yellow arrow that points all pilgrims toward the proper path–the path toward Santiago de Compostela–offers a distinct green arrow that says fuente.

My mouth salivates; I quicken my steps.


Walking, such a simple action that is taken for granted until it is compromised in some way.

It is the only mode of transportation on this pilgrimage besides the option to ride a bicycle or a horse.

If you walk the entire Camino Francés from Ronces Valles on the border of Spain and France at the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela near the Atlantic, you will walk 800 km (500 miles). Most pilgrims do it within one month. Some of the extremists take three weeks, clocking an average of 40 km (25 miles) per day; others take five or six weeks, averaging 20-25 km (12.5-15 miles) per day.

Your backpack should weigh no more than 10 % of your body weight. You should carry no more than three changes of clothes and the essential items, which vary from pilgrim to pilgrim. For me, the essentials include a flashlight, earplugs, basic toiletries, toilet paper, a swiss army knife, nail clippers, a notepad and pencil, etc. All else is superfluous.

I am here on my own volition even though I was required to walk for two days as part of the class by the same name in which we studied most of the aspects regarding this historic pilgrimage.

Something’s been nagging me since I started studying the phenomenon: the translation of the name. El Camino de Santiago is normally called “The Way of St. James” or sometimes “The High Road to St. James”. The word camino in Spanish is bunch of different things, but it’s normally NOT “the way”: road, journey, path are the usual equivalents. Yet on this massive hike, people commonly say to the pilgrims ¡Buen camino!, which I’m certain would not get translated as “Have a good way!”. Probably the most accurate expression would be “Have a good journey/trip”. But what nags me about it is that neither of these truly capture the essence of the Spanish.

I suppose this simple example illuminates  the trappings of translation quite compactly.

At its most basic, my motivation is to find out what it means to be a modern pilgrim and to try and get a glimpse into what it meant to be one 1000 years ago.

The medieval pilgrim did it for different reasons: penitence, infirmary or punishment. Many pilgrims did the journey because they were lepers, diabetics or mysteriously stricken with some unknown disease. Cancer and lunacy were unknown then, as were weak hearts and pretty much every other currently known disease. To go on the pilgrimage was to seek the divine, helpful hand of God via his Jesus’s trusted confidant and apostle, St. James, the patron saint of Spain.

The history of the pilgrimage is rather long and unfitting for a space such as this, but it’s worth mentioning the crux of the story.

St. James was decapitated in the year 44 by Herod in Israel. His body was placed on a small one-body vessel that made it through the Mediterranean and up the Atlantic until it reached the Galician shore.  About 750 years later his body was discovered where the city’s cathedral now stands. Throughout the following 1000 years, the pilgrimage acted as a sort of political/religious coagulant for a broken, post-Roman Europe, one that the Catholic church used–along with the pilgrimages to Rome and Jerusalem–to unify Catholics and countries which in that era were inextricably linked.

It worked, making el Camino de Santiago the most popular of all the western pilgrimages in the past millennium. The cities of Burgos, León and Santiago de Compostela actually grew into their modern metropolises thanks only to the existence of the Camino and the infrastructure built around it to help the pilgrims make it to Santiago.

The kicker–for me at least–is this: the body in the cathedral has a head attached to it. It’s never been decapitated. It has scientifically been proven that the body in the sepulcher of St. James is either not St. James or he somehow gained a head after death. This latter story is the official Catholic one, the one the preaches miracles abound. One of the main impetuses for medieval pilgrims was to be able to touch the reliquaries that held supposed relics from saints in hopes that they themselves would receive some of the divine magic and cure themselves. And St. James the headless-headed enigma buried beneath the massive Cathedral is one of the biggest relics of them all, with the exception of wood from Christ’s cross. (Interestingly enough, if you took all the supposed splinters of wood that people have claimed was from the original cross, you would have need a large boat to support its weight, or it would take 300 men to hold it up.)

For the modern pilgrim, blisters, chaffing and inclement weather are the biggest enemies; the pilgrim who embarked on this journey that started around 800 AD and reached full peak around 11th-13th centuries, had death looming over most of the time. Their average life span was 35-40 years, the majority of babies were stillborn, a dry spell in the weather meant starvation for at least a year and the bubonic plague was as much of a concern as the bandits who often pursued and killed pilgrims just for being on the road. Not to mention the imminent fear of the Moors, who had come to reign in about 80% of Hispania in part of this middle ages.

To the medieval pilgrim, traveling alone was unthinkable.

To boot, if they made it to Santiago de Compostela, they had to go back–on foot–which is the mother of all understated anticlimaxes. The modern pilgrim grabs a bus, plane or train and is back sleeping in their climate-controlled queen-sized bedroom while listening to their Ipod and cooking a frozen pizza.


The first day ends after six hours of walking. I arrive to Portomarin…

and pay 3 euros in the community shelter. I get the top bunk in a room with 40 other bunks.

I eat, scribble some words on a notepad, snap a few photos, climb the ladder to bed around 8-9 pm and put in the ear plugs in order to mute the cacophonous snoring that pilgrims naturally emit while resting.

As I lay my head down, I realize that day one really doesn’t count.

It doesn’t count because your fresh and amazed by the newness of it all.

Blisters are a few days away, as are charlie horses and strained muscles.

For the same reason, the second and third day don’t really count either.

Day four is when you’re almost almost accustomed to walking 25 km a day that you go an extra two or three or four, on to the next pueblo or two to gain some ground.

And then — inevitably — it rains a steady, windy drizzle, sometimes pouring down.

I put on the poncho on day four and get so figuratively lost in my thoughts — which are mostly centered around the miserable nature of the day — that I literally get lost. I miss a crucial arrow and before long, I’m on the highway walking alongside coches and camiñones that spray water on me.

My cheap poncho starts ripping down in the chest area, making my inner shirts wet — another preoccupation of the modern pilgrim. Wet clothes and shoes make for an unpleasant journey.

I would give you a full play-by-play of the events, but I realize now as I type this, what, really, is there to tell?

I walked, I ate, I rested, I walked on, I rested, I ate, I slept.

I took pictures.

I sometimes called on the help of others when I needed it; I sometimes helped others who needed it.

I was exhausted and, by the time I reached the cathedral, exhilarated.

In total, I walked about 120 km in five days, enough to obtain the official pilgrim’s credential that logged me as another number for the year. In 2006, 100,377 pilgrims did at least this same distance that I did; in 2007, 114,026 walked it; in 2008, 125,141. (These stats come from the Archbishop’s office of Compostela itself.)

The volume of books that have been written about the Camino in the past 15-20 years is astonishing. It seems like if you can string together a sentence and snap some photos, you too can write about what it means to be a pilgrim (myself not excluded). Paulo Coehlo did it, as did Shirley McClaine. I’ve read the Coehlo one and excerpts from others and, honestly, I wouldn’t recommend a single one in terms for literary merit. (But if you ever decide to do it, they certainly are helpful to know what to expect.)

That said, it seems to be a slippery task to be able to write about this and not fall into the abyss of cliché. El Camino, the road, the journey not the destination, do it, push yourself beyond your limits, persevere/ struggle through the hardships, never lose site of the goal, be patient, give 100%, etc.

In the end, over a month after having done it, I still wonder what it was that I learned. I never got what I expected: no revelation, realization or epiphany. Maybe this is was part of it: don’t expect anything. It will be different than whatever you do expect, so keep them minimal. The only thing El Camino de Santiago really offers you is some time alone and with strangers, some silence, some nature, some beauty, some exercise, some challenge.

Now that I think about, that’s quite a lot.


Two months ago over a hundred cows were set up one night in Spain capital. Just like that. One day the corners are simple, everyday Spanish-capital corners and the next, every other one is adorned with a myriad  of fiberglass cows painted every sort of design and color imaginable.


Dear L:

Before I left Madrid this past June, you had sent me a correspondence which had this as its final paragraph:

Please write. Write sometime and tell me things about your crazy country, full of enormous highways, tall cities, weird people, strange drinks (like Dr.Pepper, the most disgusting drink ever made after cicuta, I guess), blonde girls, cute dogs, creepy perfect neighbourhoods [sic], great writers, great musicians, great…and a long etcetera of lights and shadows of that hard to understand country you come from.

That’s quite poetic L, right there at the end with the lights and shadows etceterrata. You must be something of a writer yourself and-being Spanish-you write quite well in English. I know because I try to write in Spanish and it is widely considered to be the final and most difficult faculty to master in any second language.

Tomorrow I return to your country.

I’ve kept a numbered list of things that have caught my attention over the past 10 weeks.

Many of these things have occurred over the past five years since I’ve been gone so what I’m observing are not necessarily changes that have occurred overnight.

I hope this suffices to recap my summer sojourn back in Freedomland**.

1. Flags.

This country is so jam-packed full of flags, it’s alarming.

I relate this because your country is virtually flag free compared to the US.

Many other countries I’ve visited don’t seem to have this flag fetish.

What gives?

After 911, the flag industry raked in so much cash over the course of several years that even the steady descent into widespread unpopularity that the president has experienced hasn’t even really affected their presence.

I offer a personal example: My mom spent around 1000 dollars erecting a flagpole replete with a brand new red-white-and-blue flag atop and the accompanying lights.

Not actually my parents' house

Some say freedom isn’t free; I agree, it–or at least the symbol of it–appears to cost about a grand.

I took pictures whenever I could over a 10 week period.

Without even really trying, I took over 50 photos.

My assumption is this: Many US citizens feel that the USA is–without question–the best goddamn country on earth, and in order to announce their pride to every other citizen they see, they pump flags like fists at rock concerts.

I read once that given your country’s history of dictators and royal tyrants, Spanish people inherently despise and distrust any institution that governs their lives.

So showing national pride isn’t something you want to do that readily.

Maybe in a few decades (if we’re all still collectively kicking), when America’s self-asserted world dominance in the world has been weakened, its citizens won’t be so quick to sport flags that to many in the world mean the complete opposite to what they mean to US citizens.

(If you don’t understand what the above statement means L–and I assume you probably already do– read a little bit of Noam Chomsky, peruse or even just listen to any Rage Against the Machine song.)

2. Automatically foaming soap.

(I call it autofoap or even just foap.) All over this land in both the public and private spaces I visited, autofoap has taken the US by storm (por huevos).

Somewhere in the course of the past five years (most acutely in the past two or three) regular liquid hand soap was replaced with autofoap. Apparently, it removes the burden caused by non-foaming soap.

It’s lather-free.

I wonder what this means, if anything.

It could mean we’ve reached new levels of laziness or that the general public was extremely jaded on the old liquid hand soap, so much so that this subtle and clever move has us entranced. Will the US ever go back to non-foaming hand soap or is this foap here to stay?

A good question.

Answer: probably.

What’s next, L?

Sustainable energy?

Self-driving cars?

Water bottles that automatically unscrew their lids, crawl up your arm and pour their contents down your throat for you?

3. Coca Cola with vitamins. This is actually somewhat of a spin off caused by Red Bull’s steam-rolling of the energy drink market. When I was here a few years ago, I remember there being the normal variety of soft drinks along with Pepsi and Coca-cola drinking waters. Now there is virtually no end to what’s on offer.

Actually, that’s not true: There are two kinds offered. One offers vitamins and minerals and one offers only antioxidants. Of course the vitamins are rather sparse (only 25% of the daily recommended value of B6 and B12 and niacin – what the hell is niacin anyway?). The other one is mixed with green tea. Now if they could only find a way to fit a burrito in these cans, I’d consume them like Spaniards do olive oil and cigarettes.

4. Pharmacies have overtaken the corners of many cities throughout the Midwest (and presumably the rest of the nation).

Farmacias in Spain are everywhere as well, but they seem to only sell drugs that are purport to improving health or allaying pain.

Pharmacies in the US have a small back corner section where you can fill your prescriptions and a capacious mini-supermarket design of row after row of generally useless shit…

OR shit you can buy at any general store or supermarket.

When I left five years ago, these pharmacies were in existence, now they are taking over street corners all over this great land.

It’s good to know that when you’re getting low on your anti-depressants you can also pick up some stationary, cigarettes and any other last-minute school supplies.

5. On July 5th, 2008, the temperature was oppressively hellish around the mid 90s with heavy humidity.

Every public place I entered today – the library, supermarket, pharmacy and a restaurant – were all frigid.

In the restaurant, I actually looked down to find my nipples hard.

I should have brought a sweater with me in the dead of summer.

So, L, why is the temperature of American air conditioning so high, you ask? I used to think it was so people would eat or shop as quickly as possible and then get the hell out so someone else could do the same thing quickly. Maybe not. Maybe an obese population requires unusually high temperatures indoor.

This temperature extremity is alarming for a reason I wrote in my first TNB piece and which I don’t think I can restate any more clearly:

The largest source of greenhouse gases is electric power generation.

Air conditioners use around 1/6th of the electricity in the US and on doggishly hot summer days, they can use up to 43% of the peak power load.

So as the environment gets hotter, we’re going to need a lot more air conditioners to keep the indoors cool.

This will, in turn, make the outdoors even hotter.

If you love air conditioning, this is definitely the place for you.

6. 99% of Americans constantly confuse Spanish culture with Mexican culture. Stephen Colbert, famed American satirist for his hilarious fake news show The Colbert Report, devastatingly revealed his own ignorance one night (but was safe because only 1% of the country knows about this) by putting Spain on the new terror list watch.

Since Iraq and North Korea are no longer on the Axis of Evil, he said, we’re going to have to pick another country to put on it. He started reading some headlines, found that Spain extended legal rights to Apes. (This is a true story.) After lashing into the mere idea of it, he blurted out, “Taco Shells? Freedom Shells!” The crowd roared with laughter.

I mentioned this to some friends who watch him and they immediately said that he knew what he was saying and that the joke was kind of double joke, referring to US backlash against France’s rejection of supporting the US’s invasion of Iraq. It was also, they pointed out, a joke making fun of people who think taco shells come from Spain.

There is no doubt in my mind that Colbert is one smart guy. Satire at this level is rare and very welcomed. But he really didn’t seem to be making fun of people who think tacos come from Spain AND people who supported banning the word french with fries. It felt like–at least in the moment–he really thought tacos came from Spain.

And this is unsettling because it has been my experience with pretty much every other American who hasn’t been to Spain.

Currently, in pretty much every way minus the language, Spanish culture is very distinct from all countries in Latin America. This means that your people don’t eat Burritos every day because it is not Spanish cuisine; it means that you, L, or your countryfolk don’t wear Pepé Gonzalez sombreros or play mariachi music, that “Oh, no I haven’t been to Spain but I have been to Cozumel” means nothing; Tortillas are not made of flour or corn but eggs and potatoes and Jennifer Lopez only speaks Spanish, is not Spanish.

I’m not positive about this L but I think this is a cumulative effect of American’s general ignorance of world geography largely caused by their own bloated and unjustified sense of self-importance, Mexico’s adjacent placement and that the language spoken throughout all Hispanic America (i.e. all countries south of the USA minus Brazil and the French colonies) is the same language spoken in Spain. Oh yeah, it’ also used as an adjective for anything that comes from Spain, as in Spanish wine. This trifecta of reasons has even America’s foremost satirist confused.

7. American politics = Hollywood spectacle.

It’s unfortunate but true. It’s less about what you say or what you mean and mostly about image and perception.

I’m afraid we are doomed for the rest of our lives to have to endure corruption on such a widespread level.

I am very willing to lay down my keyboard, get grassroots and take up arms in front of the white house, demanding the power be given back to us, the American people.

But only if many other people are.

Do you think anyone is with me, L?

No, me either.

Let’s hurry up and wrap up this correspondence so I can get back to checking my email and sharpening my cynicism.

8.** Why I call the USA Freedomland? I call the USA Freedomland because it’s virtually impossible to listen to any of its politicians speak without overusing the word freedom. In fact, they speak in vast excesses of loaded terminology like democracy, freedom, terrorism, etc. If you check out Publicrhetoric.US, you’ll see an analysis one of Bush’s last speeches on Veterans Day. Freedom outnumbered the second most common word, security, by more than 2:1.

Freedom was used 21 times while security only reached 10.

It has become such a loaded word in the USA that it has essentially become meaningless. If all I did was listen to its political speeches, I would have to draw the conclusion that the USA invented freedom.

Not only did they invent it, but they are coveting it like Tokein’s ring.

They will let other countries have it, but only if those countries allow Starbucks and McDonalds in.

These companies are icons of freedom, or free or open (American-friendly) markets.

When I visit the USA, I don’t see freedom so much as excessiveness and apathy.

Compared to most European societies, it seems like a immature and jovial population that is dedicated firmly to its football (or sports in general), driving, working, gas, fast food, being the best, buying in bulk, celebrity worship, reality television and its disposable and iconic to-go coffee cups.

Every one has these.

Recycling is optional.

We are hellbent on freedom at all costs.

Whatever that means.

And we want to make sure that you and everyone you know is aware of this.

America, with all its faults, is at once the best and worst this world has to offer.

I highly recommend you visit someday.

All the best.


Se puede

By Kip Tobin



Aquí hay dos historias: una que ya sabes y otra que no.

La que ya sabes cuenta lo que pasó primero, anoche, en un bar que se llama Dos Hermanos. Ya sabes la historia porque es muy posible que la hayas vivido una experiencia parecida, o si no, la hayas visto u oído alguna vez:

Empieza con una cerveza y termina con demasiadas. El protagonista se llama Raúl y la noche previa fue su cumpleaños. De hecho, él, como yo, entre otros, estuvimos en la historia que no te he contado haciendo lo que ya sabes.

El final, siempre medio borroso, confluye en la que no sabes, la que te voy a contar ahora, la de la mañana y el día después.

A las 8:30 por la mañana siguiente nos quedamos en frente del edificio Ross con las mochilas puestas, crema de sol aplicada y repelente de mosquitos rociado. Algunos de nosotros, especialmente Raúl, parece como una sombra de su perfil normal. Me dice que llegó a su habitación a las 4 de la mañana y que no  durmió hasta las 5.

-Solo he dormido tres horas- me dice- Me siento fatal.

Su aspecto corrobora esta información.

Una hora más tarde, llegamos al pie de la montaña de La Jaroba del Camello.

20 minutes después los senderos habían separado en tres grupos distintos: los que no estuvieron en la primera historia la noche antes eran como conejos saltando; el segundo grupo era compuesto de las en la primera historia, como tortugas, y el tercer grupo, Raul, quien estaba subiendo al paso de un caracol. Subir esta montaña era como si estuviéramos subiendo escaleras durante más de dos horas sin pausa.

Llegamos a la cima.

Las vistas son sublimes y el viento lo hace fresquito.

Estamos en el tercer punto más alto en todo Vermont.

Por todos lados hay más montes, nubes y casas casi invisibles debido a la distancia.

Comemos, sacamos fotos, nos tumbamos.

Raúl llega, su camiseta totalmente empapada con sudor.

Le pregunto -¿Como te ha ido la subida?

Me niega con la cabeza. -Luego -susurre, sin respiración.

Se sienta en la piedra y se tumba, cerrando los ojos.

15 minutos después, cuando ya había comido y podía respirar, le pregunto la pregunta del cumpleaños, la que siempre pregunto a cualquier persona al día de su cumpleaños y la que se me había olvidado la noche de que ya sabes.

-Raúl, -le pregunto. -Si tuvieras que dar un consejo a otra persona, una lección que has aprendido a lo largo de tu vida ¿cuál sería?

Él abre un ojo y me mira. -Buena pregunta.- sin demorar más, responde -Se puede.

-¿Se puede qué?- le pregunto.

-Sí, se puede.

-¿Se puede sí qué?

La brisa corría por la cima de la montaña.

-Que sí -me explica-. Uno puede hacerlo.

-¿Hacer qué? -le pregunto.

-Llegar al pico de la montaña, como yo, aquí, -contesta brusco. -Había momentos en la súbita cuando pensaba que no, que quería volver al pie de la montaña. Pero estoy acá, la prueba que sí, se puede.

De repente llega a mi mente una escena de la clase de análisis literario. El profesor está profundizando un texto de Miguel de Unamuno en la que una montaña es el símbolo de la fe: es enorme, inalterable, inmóvil y es mayor que toda la humanidad. También me acuerdo de que en la interpretación de los sueños, la montaña puede simbolizar otras cosas, como un obstáculo en la vida o una gran reflexión sobre ella.

No pienso mucho en las montañas porque no suelo subirlas ni tomar clases de clase literaria pero en ese momento, encima de una, me enta una sensación de logro profundo. Y just después, escalofríos.

Me doy cuenta que estamos encima de la montaña, que hemos conseguido algo muy importante–y a la vez desconocido–en nuestras vidas y nunca nos olvidaremos de estos momentos encima de ella.

Me entra una sensación de logro profundo y justo después, escalofríos.

-Lección dos -añade Raúl-. El peor de todos los temores es el temor a vivir.

Todo el grupo nos miramos y nos asentimos con la cabeza.

Los dos parecen buenos consejos.

-Lección tres -añade Raúl -Lleva siempre tu camino y no mires nunca el de tu vecino.

-Venga ya, Raúl -digo yo, -Quería un consejo, no una lista de clichés.

-Lección cuatro -dice Raúl, con todos riéndose -Un pájaro en la mano vale más que cien volando.

Raúl continua y le comento otra vez que la pregunta implica una o dos cosas que ha aprendido en su vida. Le clarifico que no se puede contestar la pregunta con ocho respuestas.

Raúl me mira, asiente con la cabeza, cierre los ojos y dice con una sonrisa:

-Sí, se puede.

There are two kinds of people in my world:

Those who think Tom Waits is some sort of musical demigod and those who erronesouly think he’s black.

This is not to imply they (or I) might be racist, just uninformed, or unacquired.

Maybe they are afraid of his voice?

He does sound a little like Louis Armstrong’s nightmarish great grandfather might’ve sounded after a lifetime of pounding coffin nails and guzzling sour mash.

Waits is one of those polarizing figures.