Sunday, October 23, 2016

It's Not A Tuba

This is a lightly edited version of the piece I performed in The Encyclopedia Show's October 16th edition at Kieran's Irish Pub in downtown Minneapolis. This month's theme was "Marching Bands."

As I began 7th grade and moved up to middle school, which would prove to be the longest 2 years of my life, I transitioned from playing the cornet in the school band to playing the tuba. (For those of you wondering what a cornet is, it’s a slightly shorter, stockier trumpet.) This decision was made partly due to periodontal surgery, but mainly because I figured tuba parts were way easier than cornet parts. (I turned out to be right about that.) I wasn’t playing a musical instrument for enjoyment or to better myself. I was playing it to get my mom off my back while putting forth the least amount of effort.

She had tricked me into joining the band in 5th grade, promising that if I didn’t like it, I could quit at the end of the year. This charade played out over the next 5 years. At the end of each year, I’d beg to quit, and every time she’d force me to stick with it.

It’s not that I hated it. There were many times when I liked it, but it was work and, therefore, the enemy. As my hero, role model and personal savior Homer Simpson once said, “TV gives so much and asks so little. It’s a boy’s best friend.” After a thorough cost-benefit analysis, I realized I’d rather be watching TV than practicing. It was the only thing that banished the demons of loneliness and self-doubt that lurked in the shadows of our basement in the evening.

The tuba was a pretty good instrument for someone who didn’t want to stand out and shine, someone who preferred to blend into the background, someone who was scared to death of making a mistake in public. Sure, it was big and loud, but it was clearly a supporting instrument that was rarely exposed by the limelight.

There was a price to pay for such anonymity, of course. I consigned myself to nerd-ery. But I was already painfully insecure and in band; my fate had been sealed long before this choice. I would never get laid. I was in my early teens, though, so I probably shouldn’t have been worrying about that.

To put it bluntly, the tuba is not a chick magnet. It’s not like the guitar, the drums or, for some reason, the tambourine. The only role the tuba might play in your quest to get laid is that of an obstacle.

Adding to the degree of difficulty in my attempt to appear cool was the release of the film Kindergarten Cop, which I’m sure proved to be the bane of adolescent tuba players everywhere. My bandmates could not resist telling me, “It’s not a tuba.” Although the comic appeal of this joke was limited even in its first iteration, they would continue to employ it, driving its comic value into negative territory.

As someone who goes by the nickname “Mickey,” I’m well-acquainted with the phenomenon of people beating a bad joke into the ground. (I think it’s worth noting that the video for Toni Basil’s hit song from 1982, “Mickey,” features a cheerleading theme, rendering this digression germane to the subject of this show. So this is more than just self-indulgent bitterness.)

Since I could count on one hand the number of kids from middle school I ever wanted to see again, I decided to opt out of the public school system and into the nearby Catholic high school, where my mom was a guidance counselor. Her job meant that I, and later my sister, could go there for free.

If I’d gone to the public high school, I might’ve had a lot more to say about marching bands. Their band practiced (seemingly) every day over the summer. You could hear them from our house a mile away. All the Catholic school had was a puny pep band that didn’t march. As a tuba player, pep band allowed me the opportunity to play those cool sousaphones that wrap around your torso with the big bell on top, but eventually they dig into your shoulder and the novelty wears off.

The pep band songs were pretty cool: “Hang On, Sloopy,” “25 or 6 to 4” and other classics from the 60’s and 70’s, although they had all spent enough time in the mainstream to be stripped of their original cultural significance, thereby meeting the Establishment’s standard for appropriate levels of youthful exuberance. They were also performed in the stilted, lazy style of teenagers terrified of being ridiculed for displaying any kind of individuality. We sounded like a pack of insecure, acne-riddled zombies.

After 9th grade, my mom finally let me quit band. It was the end of an era. I was no longer a band nerd. I was now free to be some other kind of nerd. But never again would I know the heady rush of being told, “It’s not a tuba.”

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Wha' Happened in Oaxaca: Epilogue

From March 10th until the 20th, I was part of a delegation of Land Stewardship Project members, organized by Witness for Peace, who met with farmers and non-governmental organizations (NGO's) in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. The account of that trip begins here.

There was a presentation on the Oaxaca delegation at LSP’s Minneapolis office a month ago. Terry, Aaron, Charlie, Chris, Sylvia, Sue Ellen and I were there. Afterward, Sue Ellen asked me why I hadn’t blogged about the fact that we couldn’t flush our toilet paper in Mexico. It had to be thrown in a wastebasket next to the toilet, which lent our hostel bathroom a strong scent after a few days, what with all the diarrhea and people throwing up in there. (That’s a bit of an exaggeration.)

That wasn’t my only oversight, of course. I forgot that a bunch of us went out that first night (Day 0) to the zócalo for beers. I even ordered food. It’s strange to think how uncomfortable I was that night. I don’t know what I was afraid of.

In the village of Teotitlán del Valle, our host “mother” Petrona called me “Miguelito” and would periodically ask how I was doing. She was probably concerned by my quietude. I was moved; she was acting like a mom. I wish I’d shown them more warmth and affection. I guess I just wasn’t ready yet.

It’s been a not-that-long, not-that-strange trip to this point in life. I feel like Dante at the beginning of his Inferno:

“Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”

I’ve been wandering in the wilderness for too long. I need to retrace my steps and find my way back to civilization, to humanity, and reclaim my place in the human race. I need to get back to life, back to reality, back to the here and now, oh yeah. (That was for my fellow Soul II Soul fans.)

I have the capacity to do great things, but fear holds me back. Spring has brought a surplus of energy and, along with it, the annual anxiety. My springtime angst is a vestige of childhood and adolescence, when I didn’t have many friends. I dreaded the summers, because I didn’t have any structure or anyone to play with. This wasn’t due to a lack of kids my age; it was just my lack of confidence to ask the neighborhood kids if they wanted to play.

I was hoping the trip would help with my anxiety, and it did. But I didn’t have a safety net to catch me when I got back. I was floating along fine for the first week with my parents on vacation and the house to myself. But then I hit a wall; an anxiety attack really shook me on the first full Sunday after returning. I’d been too isolated, not going out much or getting much socialization. My internship kept getting cancelled because of illness in my boss’s family.

This afforded me a lot of time to work on the blog, but I kept procrastinating. I think I was afraid of finishing the travelogue because it would force me to say goodbye again: goodbye to Oaxaca, goodbye to my fellow travelers, goodbye to the experience. It also meant I couldn’t live vicariously through my memories anymore. I’d have to get back to the business of building a new life for myself.

I felt myself clinging to my memories of the trip. I have a love/hate relationship with them. When I was embroiled in the blog, I luxuriated in them, letting them wash away thoughts of my predicament. But the rest of the time I kept them at arm’s length. I didn’t want to be reminded of the possibilities they opened up to me, because my life is so disappointing and has been for a long time. I didn’t want to be reminded that I could always be as alive as I was in Oaxaca, that I could always be that happy, that engaged, that surrounded by kindred spirits, like-minded people who actually give a fuck.

But finishing the account doesn’t mean I have to leave the experience behind. I can still keep it alive in my head and heart. I’ll just have to live to the standards I set for myself on the trip. I’ll have to change. I can’t go back to my safe, old routine. I must finally have the courage of my convictions. I was reluctant to make the intention with the corn kernel, to live a life "devoted to service to those who need it," because I wasn’t sure if I could live up to it, and I’m still not sure if I can. But I don’t want it to be just another one of my empty promises, another grand scheme condemned to exist solely in the mind of a “champagne socialist.” (This was an epithet flung at Karl Marx and his wife due to their fondness for luxury.)

The truth is I don’t have much choice anymore except to “follow my bliss.” My options are dwindling. In video game parlance, I’m running out of lives. My body keeps telling me to help people and write and do comedy and act and sing (literally). But the world (and my parents) keeps telling me to play it safe, make money and save those dreams for my spare time. The problem is, when I worked those corporate jobs, it sucked all the energy and life and hope out of me, so I had nothing left to give to my passions and other people.

I’m trying to figure out what I can do. The corporate world no longer seems to be an option even as a fallback. I may have burned too many bridges there. Organic farming still holds plenty of allure, but my body doesn’t seem up to the challenge. My neck and back are often stiff with pain, although I think that’s a product of stress induced by anxiety over my situation. Farming would also hurl me into the countryside, where I’ve heard it’s lonely, and Lord knows I’ve had enough of loneliness.

That seems to leave me with just one option: to stay in the Twin Cities and get a desk job or a McJob, a food service/retail job. But I’m loath to work for a Big Box store or any chain, so I’ve applied to non-profits, including Salvation Army and Goodwill. One problem is I have no retail experience and my food service experience is limited to being a cook at Pizza Hut in high school, so I may not even be able to take that step down the socioeconomic ladder.

I’ve had some interviews for non-profit desk jobs, but so far those haven’t panned out. Tomorrow I have a phone interview for a job at a warehouse that accepts donated furniture and delivers it to people who can’t afford their own. It sounds intriguing; I just hope my back can hold out. My prospects in manual labor may have more to do with emotional health than physical.

I’ve been overwhelmed by my own pain, shame and guilt, leaving me no emotional bandwidth to feel the pain of others. I was paralyzed and afraid to allow myself to empathize with others for fear of being completely overcome by despair. But I’ve gradually learned that opening up to others gives me energy, hope and strength in much greater proportion than pain, fear or despair. I just had to take the risk of making new friends, without worrying that they would leave me high and dry, like my old friends did.

Now I can open up and hurl my innermost thoughts and feelings into the void of cyberspace again, because I feel that there are people out there reading this who understand. I feel I can make that essential emotional connection with people again, the one that gives (my) life meaning.

This morning I became an uncle. I’m more excited and happy about it than I thought I would be. It occurs to me now that kids can be a ray of hope, because they have that absolute faith in the future. They haven’t been let down yet. There are no memories of disappointment to haunt them. Their minds aren’t yet full of doubt and insecurity.

One of my favorite quotes comes from the poet Kenneth Patchen (whom I’ve otherwise never heard of): “Caring is the only daring.” It’s also the only choice. The other option is death, basically, preceded by a meaningless, selfish half-life. I no longer have the luxury of wallowing in adolescent self-pity, not if I care at all for anyone but myself.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

A Note to Future Scholars of My Work

Hello, and welcome to the wonderful world of Mickey Foley! You’re poised on the brink of a grand adventure. Count yourself lucky that you have the privilege of diving into my oeuvre. I can only imagine the boundless joy overflowing the banks of your soul as you embark on this quest! I hope it offers you, at the very least, a tiny fraction of the bliss I felt while I was being astounded by each brilliant, new idea as it burst into my brain. Prepare to be amazed!

It’s a good thing I started documenting my life and work at the tender age of five. You may wonder how I could’ve known from such an early age that, someday, the world would need the gift of my insight. I wish I could answer such an astute question, but, alas, not even my powers of perception are strong enough to plumb the depths of my own genius. Such is the tragedy of the outrageously gifted.

I’ve tried to make it easier for you to trace my intellectual journey. I didn’t want to lead future historians on a wild goose chase through boxes of randomly scattered notebooks, journals and Trapper Keepers. Therefore, I’ve organized and annotated my papers with meticulous precision. My autobiography fills more than a thousand pages, and there are hundreds of hours of interviews recorded for my self-produced autobiographical documentary. The truly dedicated Mickey Foley-philes will be relieved to know that I’ve preserved every second of those interviews on DVD’s, VHS, Betamax and Super 8 film. It took much self-restraint to keep the film’s running time under 6 hours, but I think the results speak for themselves.

While watching the interviews with my family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, critics, rivals, blood enemies and casual acquaintances, you’ll doubtless notice their confusion and incredulity that I went to such lengths to document my journey. It may be hard to understand how they remained oblivious to my brilliance, but this was commonplace. My genius was not fully appreciated in my own time; I would even go so far as to say it was criminally neglected. Indeed, in some quarters I was vilified for flouting the prevailing conventions of thought.

But don’t be too hard on my contemporaries in your analysis. They were blinded by the myopia, greed and ignorance of our historical period. It was my sad fate to be decades, centuries or perhaps millennia ahead of my time. Thank your lucky stars or whatever higher power you believe in (if such superstitions as religion are still practiced in your day) that you didn’t live during my era. It was a dark age utterly bereft of redeeming qualities.

You’ve surely noted how my areas of expertise are not limited to history, literature, theater and comedy. No doubt my thoughts on politics, science, philosophy, psychology, sociology and Dr. Who exegesis have led to earth-shattering breakthroughs in those fields. I imagine by now whole university departments have been set aside for the study of my work, given its Shakespearean scope, encompassing the whole of human experience and imagination. There is no nook or cranny of humanity I haven’t examined through the microscope of my own peerless perception.

Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if my work had inspired the establishment of a top-flight institution of higher learning devoted completely to the study of my papers, given the endless breadth and bottomless depth of my knowledge. I can only imagine what fanciful name you’ve given to this field of study. “Mickey Foley Studies” or “Mickey Foley-ology,” perhaps. Don’t feel as if you need to limit yourself to those options. They’re merely suggestions. You can probably come up with something better. I’m afraid my infinite gift of invention is failing me at the moment.

Now I bid you adieu from the Great Beyond with my signature signoff, anticipation of which has surely kept you on tenterhooks for the duration of this preface. And so, without further ado: toodle-oo.

(Editor’s Note: This piece originally came with copious footnotes, but they were lost in a fire at the U-Haul facility where they were being stored.)

Friday, April 29, 2016

Wha' Happened in Oaxaca: Day 10

From March 10th until the 20th, I was part of a delegation of Land Stewardship Project members, organized by Witness for Peace, who met with farmers and non-governmental organizations (NGO's) in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. I'll be posting a recap of each day on this blog.

I heard Nolan’s alarm go off at some ungodly hour and saw him get up. I, however, quickly went back to sleep. My alarm went off at 6:30 and I was in the lobby by 7. The taxi showed up a few minutes later.

I didn’t have enough Mexican currency for the ride, so he charged me $20 American, which was probably highway robbery in that context, but I didn’t care. It was still way less than I would’ve paid for a taxi in the Twin Cities.

I made a little Spanish small talk with the guy. He had a nice, middle-class kind of compact car. He was also dressed in a middle-class style.

The Bloodhound Gang’s 1999 hit, “The Bad Touch,” came on the radio, which I found amusing. For the uninitiated, The Bloodhound Gang was the U.S.'s preeminent novelty band of the late 90’s. I probably hadn’t heard the song in 15 years.

The drive to the airport only took 15-20 minutes, giving me 2 ½ hours to catch my flight. The United ticketing area was white and futuristic. I negotiated the digital self-check-in with a little help from an agent and went through security, which was much less of a hassle than in the U.S. I took off my shoes without needing to, which is ironic, since I usually forget to take ‘em off at the TSA checkpoints.

I walked down some long halls. Near my gate there was, basically, a fancy department store. It was much different from the previous 10 days. I wasn’t disoriented, just unimpressed and uninterested, not to mention a bit contemptuous and pitying of the done-up ladies hocking these wares.

I sat and journaled by the gate, wearing my “Never Forget” dinosaur T-shirt (classic), when a bunch of Kardashian kopykats sat down next to me. I was judging them pretty hard, but then I wrote in my diary, “I don’t know what’s inside her. I don’t know what she’s made of.” That was in reference to the one next to me, the group’s Kim. She may’ve been judging me hard too. I was lookin’ pretty schlubby.

On my plane’s ascent from Mexico City, I saw terraces that acted as elevation contours around the hills. There was also a strange sight that I took as an omen. “PROMESAS” (“PROMISES”) was spelled out in huge letters near the top of a mountain. That really struck me. It sounded like “Promises, promises,” like I wasn’t gonna keep my promise to turn my life around, to set a new course of working for good. It felt accusatory, like the land itself was talking to me, or the disgruntled common people who’ve been visited by many well-meaning Gringos and still have nothing to show for it.

At the Houston airport, I indulged in some over-priced Panda Express. It tasted good, actually. My palate hadn’t been completely transformed by 10 days on a Third-World diet. I was still susceptible to the temptations of sugar, salt, MSG and the million artificial chemical combinations thereof.

There was a March Madness game on a TV nearby. That used to be one of the highlights of my year, but in the last decade I’ve cut way back on my TV sports spectatorship. I was kind of interested, but when I went over to watch it took forever to get through the commercial break, so I left.

At MSP, I saw Ernie Hudson (who will forever be known as “the Black Ghostbuster”) striding purposefully through the terminal with ear buds in, apparently talking to someone on the phone. That was kinda surreal.

I was unable to use the Uber account I’d opened in Houston. The MSP wifi was suspiciously hostile to that app, so I took a regular taxi. The cabbie looked and sounded East African. I chatted him up, no longer comfortable with the First-World silences between strangers. He was going to school to be a medical lab technician. I told him about the trip, and he raved about what hard workers Mexicans are.

He dropped me off in downtown Minneapolis at Kieran’s Irish Pub. I was only 15 minutes late to “The Encyclopedia Show,” which was the reason I’d taken a cab instead of the light rail. I wasn’t performing until after intermission, so I had plenty of time to prepare mentally.

I felt very odd being there. The anxiety was giving me a strong sense of detachment and disorientation. I did well, not quite comfortable enough to be in "the zone," but I got a bunch of laughs. One of the other performers complimented me afterward on his way out the door.

I caught another taxi to get home. The cabbie (another East African, I’m guessing) told me he was buying a house. He was on the phone with his realtor near the end of the ride. I still tipped him generously, even though he seemed to be in a better economic situation than I. The cab rides totaled $90 with tips. Freeway robbery!

My parents had left for vacation in Spain just a few days before, so I was home alone. The freedom was nice, but I was also very anxious about it. Since quitting my last corporate job 2 years ago, I’ve developed a fear of being alone for long stretches, like the 2 weeks I was looking down the barrel of now.

That night I ate too much and stayed up too late, despite my fatigue.

Here ends the account of my trip, but I’ll be writing an Epilogue to try and sum up the experience.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Wha' Happened in Oaxaca: Day 9

From March 10th until the 20th, I was part of a delegation of Land Stewardship Project members, organized by Witness for Peace, who met with farmers and non-governmental organizations (NGO's) in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. I'll be posting a recap of each day on this blog.

Mexico City
I slept in, skipping breakfast and indulging in a bit of TV, catching some soccer highlights. There was a flat screen welded high on the wall and a remote control affixed firmly to the opposite wall between the headboards. It carried quite a few channels, all over-the-air, some grainy.

I took my sweet time getting to the group activities across the street. I could see them through the window as I shaved. They were meeting in a library on the 3rd floor of the Casa de los Amigos (“House of the Friends,” in case you weren’t raised on Sesame Street), a Quaker community center. It was directly across the street from my room. I emerged from the bathroom in a state of undress and thought it best to close the curtains to avoid getting too intimate with my fellow delegates, visually speaking.
My group works on our picture.

My fears proved to be unjustified. Upon joining the delegation, I saw the motel windows across the street reflecting and allowing no view inside, so I probably could’ve danced the hokey-pokey naked without anyone being the wiser.

I joined the group midway through Reflection as each person talked about their “rose, thorn and blossom” from the trip. The rose was something you enjoyed about the trip. The thorn was something you struggled with. The blossom was an effect the trip had on you. It got emotional; there were a few tears shed.

Then we split into groups and drew visual representations of the trip, trying to depict the themes artistically. Some of them were rendered semi-professionally, while others resembled kids’ art. Our picture had a rainbow in the corner, which I found hilarious.
Hannah explains our group's picture.

The afternoon (all 2 hours of it) was left to us. One group went to the Zócalo with the cathedral and Aztec ruins. I thought of joining them, but it’s just as well that I didn’t. Upon returning, they said most of their time was spent waiting for their food order.

I was still tired and in need of a shower after 3 shower-less days. It wasn’t as satisfying as Maggie had promised it would be, but the water was adequately heated, so it was good enough.

While channel-surfing, I stumbled across a dubbed version of Star Wars Episodio IV: Una Nueva Esperanza (“Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope” and, yes, I greatly enjoyed translating that). It was kinda funny, especially when Luke asks Obi-Wan about “La Fuerza” (“The Force”), and Obi-Wan replies, “Ah, la Fuerza,” in his sage tone.
Debra, Aaron, Alan and Sara work on their picture.

Obi-Wan’s voice sounded slightly off to me, probably due to my U.S.-bred bias against the Latin American intellect. It’s just hard to imagine Sir Alec Guinness in an all-white suit and a Panama hat, sitting outside a café in sub-tropical heat, sipping espresso and dispensing wisdom.

I tried to nap, but I’ve always been a terrible napper and failed miserably. Instead of sleeping, I worked up a comedy bit about the T-shirt I was wearing in case somebody asked about it. It’s a strange shirt. On the front are the international symbols for an elevator and stairs, under which it says, “Elevator? Stairs?”

Miraculously, when I joined the group in the lobby, Karissa almost immediately asked about the shirt. Thrilled by my luck, I launched into the freshly-minted routine. It didn’t get the reaction I was hoping for, but I’ve only recently emerged from a long period of comic dormancy. I’m still rusty.

Sara takes comments about their picture.
We went back to the Casa de los Amigos to talk about what we could and would do to support Witness for Peace and the people we met in Oaxaca. We talked about ways to spread the message through public presentations, articles, blogging (wink, wink) and lobbying.

Hannah led our closing ceremony, in which we passed a corn kernel around the circle and told the person to our right what we appreciated about them. Then we each took a kernel from a rug in the middle of the room and placed them back on the rug one at a time with an intention, spoken or not, for what we were going to do with this experience.

As one of the last to set my kernel back on the rug, I said, “I want to plant a new life for myself devoted to service to those who need it.” I was a bit choked up, but there were no tears. My voice only caught a bit on the emotion. I was on the verge of crying, but couldn’t quite tilt over into that abyss.
Andrew talks, and I'm amused for some reason.

As a fitting conclusion, we sang one more selection from Hannah's repertoire. This was followed by an orgy of hugging. Then we filled out evaluation forms for WFP and made a list of actions we would take to spread the message back home.

We weren’t hungry enough for dinner by then (7:30), so we went to an ice cream stand for some real Mexican ice cream. I had a cone with a double scoop. It was very good. The guy gave me samples of 2 flavors. But when I returned the small spoon from which I’d tasted the first, he stuck it right in the tub containing the second flavor and handed it back to me.

I’m not as squeamish as many Americans in our germophobic nation, but that gave me pause. It took a split second for my mind to say, “Well, when in Mexico…” I also threw gastrointestinal caution to the wind, not worrying about the consequences of this lactose-rich indulgence on my semi-tolerant GI tract.
Debi explains; Karissa holds.

Thence we repaired to the Revolution Monument, a huge tower that offered elevator rides to the top for a pittance (in U.S. terms). Only Liz, Alan and I took the ride up and gazed at the night city. One of the guides told us how it was originally meant to house the Mexican congress, but was abandoned when the money ran out during the revolution (1910-20). Construction was resumed in 1938 with a new, scaled-back design.

We came down after 20 minutes to find only Chris and Hannah waiting for us. Hannah wandered off while the rest of us went back to the hotel to meet up with the others. But, when we got there, they were nowhere to be found.
Unanswered questions on the floor

Chris and Alan turned in. Liz joined me as I tried to find a late dinner. Unfortunately, the only places open after 10pm were street vendors or half-street vendors, which were little diners with the front of the building removed and the grill where the front wall would’ve been, half on the street.

After the food poisoning, I wasn’t willing to risk street food or semi-street food. In response, Liz delivered a classic line: “Street food isn’t always safe, but it’s always good.” It felt like the ultimate wuss-out, but I ended up going to a 7-11 and buying a pre-packaged sandwich indistinguishable from what I could’ve gotten back home.

Next Steps
My emotional defenses were down by now, the lowest they’d been in years. I felt very open and close to the group. It’s too bad we got separated from the others, because I’d wanted to spend this time with them. Liz was a great companion though, and I wanted to share my secret shame with her, but I couldn’t quite get there in the short time afforded by our excursion.

Rick, Charlie and Sue were in the lobby when we returned. Charlie soon turned in, but Liz and I chatted with Rick and Sue for a while. Rick and I bonded over our village "mother," Petrona, whose struggles had touched us both deeply. He and Sue said I would always be welcome in their house in Ames, which might come in handy, since my mom grew up a half-hour from there.

Rug with kernels
After retiring to my room, I watched Mexican soccer in bed and slowly ate my sandwich. The bread was a bit damp, but otherwise OK. The match was between Cruz Azul and Atlas. I never knew Cruz Azul was a cement company. (I saw signs for Cruz Azul Cement on our travels.) I wasn’t into the game.

Nolan finally appeared to tell me what had happened to the lost tribe. They’d gone to a bar for tacos and ran into another group of delegates. From there, they all went to another place and listened to a band. It sounded like a good night.

Nolan had to get up at 4 to catch his flight. He turned in around midnight. I had the "luxury" of sleeping until 6:30, so I stayed up a little later and read some more of Bossypants.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Wha' Happened in Oaxaca: Day 8

From March 10th until the 20th, I was part of a delegation of Land Stewardship Project members, organized by Witness for Peace, who met with farmers and non-governmental organizations (NGO's) in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. I'll be posting a recap of each day on this blog.
Juan's sister holds up chocolate.

We awoke before dawn. (Another classic opener!) The stars were clearly visible, thanks to very little light pollution. Rick’s alarm went off at 4 or 4:30. I was awake maybe a half-hour before that, in my brain’s continuing quest to deprive me of sleep on days of early rising.

We rolled out of bed in stages until being invited to the kitchen for breakfast at 5:30. We had hot chocolate, a local specialty. They wrapped up a hunk of chocolate for each of us in maroon paper. It was hard to adequately express gratitude. There was the awkwardness of no-touch affection.

I read or heard something on the trip about Mexicans trying to be more affectionate with their kids. I didn’t know that was a problem. I just assumed all Latinos were affectionate.

We left the house at 6. There were already many bags piled up in the courtyard of the weaving cooperative when we arrived. Our 2 vans didn’t show up ‘til 7, but we loaded up pretty quickly and hit the road.
Leaving Teotitlán del Valle

I saw Petrona sitting alone as we hustled and bustled around her at the cooperative. She was smiling politely at the middle distance, without a part to play. But I couldn’t bring myself to say goodbye. I was afraid of crying or just getting “too” emotional.

We stopped at a gas station complete with convenience store and dining area, a strange, sudden return to the First World. There was a TV showing a Mexican morning show, one of those obnoxious “news” shows that annoy the fuck out of me, in which the hosts are absurdly, enragingly perky.
Mixteca region of Oaxaca

They were showing highlights of the basketball game between Real Madrid and Barcelona, 2 Spanish clubs that currently have the premier soccer rivalry in the world. Their meetings are called El Clásico in soccer and apparently in básquetbol too.

We picked up some food and water to replenish our ever-depleting snacks and water supplies. We all hit the restrooms too. Even in Mexico, ladies have to wait in line for the toilet while men can waltz right up to a urinal whenever it suits us.

I was sitting next to Aaron as we drove through the mountains, passing mouldering, abandoned cabins on the hillsides. To him, I unburdened myself of my secret shame: I’ve been living with my parents for 6 ½ years now, the last 2 mostly unemployed, having lost touch with my best friends and feeling horribly lonely for much of that time.

It’s not exactly a secret, since it’s in my blog profile, but I’m extremely reluctant to share those facts in the real world. I feel overwhelming shame about living with my parents at the age of 38, and being unemployed has magnified that feeling. I was hoping to share it with the whole delegation, but just telling one person was a good start.

We passed through an unidentified (as far as I recall) city. Then we headed up dirt roads into the mountains to visit a village that had been relocated after being destroyed by a natural disaster. It took about 90 minutes from the highway to get there.
Garden in mountain village

It was at the top of a mountain, just a few miles from the old village. Since moving there 3 years ago, they’d already built a school (complete with the requisite security fence and basketball court, which was sheltered). They showed us their gardens, including a large field of nopales. It was impressive how much they could grow in the thin, rocky soil.

We came back down from the mountains to the town of Nochixtlán and visited CEDICAM. As the delegation folder explains, “CEDICAM works primarily in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca state, one of the most eroded areas in the world ever since Spanish conquerors deforested the region over 400 years ago. CEDICAM’s projects include reforestation efforts, native seed use and the promotion of local markets, local food consumption and sustainable farming practices. One of their key models is farmer-to-farmer knowledge-sharing.”
Maggie with Jesús León Santos of CEDICAM

Our host was Jesús León Santos. Before beginning his presentation, he said he’d made a reservation for us at a local eatery. Maggie and many of the women in the group sounded very appreciative of and enthusiastic about his gesture.

At this point, I was pretty run-down and eager to hit the road for the 4 ½-to-6-hour drive (depending on your source) to Mexico City that still lay ahead of us that evening. (Also, I suck at sleeping in transit.)

To my deep relief and in a much friendlier tone than I could’ve mustered at that moment, Paul lodged a formal objection to delaying our departure. Maybe I was projecting, but this felt like a popular sentiment among the men.

It seemed that, under the strain of sleep deprivation, the long van ride, listening to lectures for hours every day, opening ourselves up to the plight of the downtrodden and all the other exhausting aspects of the trip, our camaraderie might be splintering along gender lines. (Drama! Tension! Suspense! Can you feel it?) I couldn’t help but think we were enacting a common gender stereotype about traveling: Women are in no hurry, while men just wanna get it over with.

Maggie delayed a decision on the matter until after the presentation. Rather than listen to the talk, I mostly stewed in the juices of my fatigue and resentment.

Señor León’s talk focused on CEDICAM’s new book, a thick, glossy coffee-table affair called ¡Milpa! As I mentioned in a previous post, milpa is the Mexican polyculture centered around the “Three Sisters” plant guild of corn, beans and squash. It includes edible plants that we would consider weeds, which they call quelites.

Most of us bought a copy of the book. I demurred, given my lack of agricultural experience and culinary daring to attempt the recipes included therein. Señor León signed everybody’s copy and then we headed to the local restaurant, as if Paul’s complaint had never been lodged. I went along with it, figuring acquiescence would yield a more pleasant outcome than resistance. (This is usually how my social calculus works out.)

Karissa eats shrimp in Nochixtlán.
The restaurant was a basic, no-frills sort of establishment with plastic table cloths and bargain-basement, yard-or-estate-sale chairs and tables. They had a long line of tables pushed together for us along the back wall. Many of us had beer, the Mexican brand of Victoria, as I recall. I opted for an orange soda to alleviate my sugar withdrawal.

Along with soup, there were appetizers served on plastic dishes with no garnish, including black beans and white rice. I dumped that into my soup. This was a DIY sort of place, displaying a punk aesthetic that I might’ve appreciated had I not been tired and cranky.

My entrée was the shrimp soup, which provided me with a new experience. I forked the many shrimp out of the unique crockery bowl and removed the heads, which still had the beady, black eyes attached.
Mairi enjoys the catch of the day!

The food was remarkably unremarkable. The only sauce was what you brought in your soul, and I had nothing left to season with, no spiritual condiments to speak of.

After finishing, Aaron, Nolan and I took a walk around the neighborhood. We got to a park and completed a circuit around the running track that encircled a dusty soccer field. There was a match going on. Most of one team had the same jersey; the other was a motley crew. A few dozen spectators watched from the stands.

Shortly after returning to the eatery, we hopped back in the vans and soon got stuck in a Catholic procession. It was the Friday before Holy Week. If I hadn’t “lapsed” in my Catholicism in high school, I might be able to tell you the significance of that day. (Unfortunately, Wikipedia was not up to the task.)
Lenten procession in Nochixtlán

There were a lot of plainly-dressed people walking and singing solemnly. We were only trapped in that mess for 5-10 minutes before we were finally able to escape Nochixtlán. (I don’t wanna give the town a bad name, but it had been a long day.) I noted the time that we got on the highway, so I’d know exactly how big a grudge to bear when we got to our hotel in Mexico City.

The light was dying by the time we got outta town. Maggie was sitting next to me in the back seat. It was a good time to hash it all out with her. I told her about my skepticism about Consensus and the Archdruid’s criticism. We talked politics. It was nice having a fellow Leftist to commiserate with.

But, as the shadows lengthened and the sun dipped below the horizon, the conversation died down and people started nodding off.
Lenten procession in Nochixtlán

This stretch of country was more like the U.S. with semi’s, rest stops and freeways. We passed through the expansive city of Puebla. There were fireworks over a couple of the smaller cities.

We stopped at 2 gas stations on the way. One had a guy selling stuffed animals off the top of his car.

Over the previous few days, Paul had built a spirited grassroots movement in the group in favor of stopping for ice cream on the way to Mexico City. It was rather remarkable how he could drum up such fervent enthusiasm over such an innocuous issue. His sociability and sense of humor give him a unique magnetism. He’d make a great cult leader.

Lenten procession in Nochixtlán
Unfortunately, the momentum for this insurgency had been blunted by delays and fatigue. The movement’s core (or “dead-enders,” if you will) settled for cheap ice cream treats at one of the rest stops.

‘Round about midnight, we got to the edge of the Valley of Mexico and gazed down into a sea of city lights. It took a while to descend into the capital. The clock in the hotel lobby said 12:30; Maggie would’ve won the bet on how long the drive was.

We’d finally arrived at El Gran Hotel Téxas (“The Grand Hotel Texas,” in case you were wondering), a much grander name than the accommodations warranted. Fate spared us from sharing beds again, a fact I wasn’t sure of until I opened the door to me and Nolan’s room and emitted a “Thank God” at the sight of separate beds.

I read Tina Fey’s memoir, Bossypants, for a while after Nolan turned off his light, until I was ready to hit the sack.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Wha' Happened in Oaxaca: Day 7

From March 10th until the 20th, I was part of a delegation of Land Stewardship Project members, organized by Witness for Peace, who met with farmers and non-governmental organizations (NGO's) in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. I'll be posting a recap of each day on this blog.

Market in Teotitlán del Valle
I woke up before Rick’s alarm went off, so I was conscious much earlier than I wanted to be. The morning dawned bright and clear (I couldn't resist the cliché.), but I was a bit too bleary-eyed to drink it all in.

We ambled over to the kitchen for breakfast. There was lemongrass tea and conversation. The whole scene actually looked a lot better to me after a decent night’s sleep. I guess I thought, “If I can sleep here, it must not be that bad.”

I also remembered that luxury is only necessary in the absence of love. I was only bothered by their poverty because I hadn’t yet felt their warmth. Once I was able to receive their hospitality and generosity, I was much more comfortable.
Church in Teotitlán del Valle

But I did notice the dirty tablecloth. I wondered if the housekeeping had suffered since Petrona went blind. I’m quite sensitive to cleanliness, especially in this setting, because I take after my mom. She grew up on a farm, my grandpa’s aforementioned beef cattle (and corn) farm in Iowa.

After breakfast we went to the market, which filled 2 large warehouses and an outdoor pavilion. It took up almost half a city block. The place was bustling. We crossed paths with fellow delegates who were also following their host families around.
Church interior

Rick handed me a tamarind and told me how to eat it. It was pretty good, if a bit sour for my taste. There were conventional, industrial products alongside the locally-grown food. I commented to Aaron how the mass-produced shit looked so cheap next to the artisanal goods.

In that setting, the consumer products looked out-of-place, almost obscene, like a virus. I lamented how the global neoliberal economy had made these people (and us) dependent on boxes of lactose-free milk. Who could be so morally bankrupt as to believe that’s an improvement over milking your own cows or getting it in glass bottles from the milkman? For what monster does this represent Progress?

Next, we checked out the Catholic church next door. It was built in 1753 and had an amazing interior, especially considering the town only had a few thousand residents. (There were conflicting reports about the population. I heard both 3,000 and 7,000.)

My first trip to continental Europe was 2 years ago, and we saw so many magnificent cathedrals that I began to suffer from “cathedral fatigue.” But there was something extremely affecting about this shrine, a church on a more human scale without as much glitz and glamor. There were even carved stones from indigenous ruins haphazardly set in the façade’s stucco.
Church altar

We returned home with Petrona and Juan’s purchases and chilled. Juan showed Aaron and I their loom and examples of his work. The room was large and mostly empty, except for a radio, which had been playing a kids’ show that morning. The radio accompanied his weaving. There was a pile of textile scraps against the wall.

In the afternoon we reconnoitered with the other groups at the weaving cooperative to hear about their work and buy some rugs. Eric, Debi and Chris were there, having just made the trip from Oaxaca City. Eric completed our quartet of men staying with Juan and Petrona. This foiled my hope of getting a bed to myself that night, but I couldn’t very well resent Eric for feeling better. (Or could I? Don’t underestimate the power of passive-aggressive thinking.)

Over lunch, I had Aaron translate the story of my grandpa for Juan and Petrona. I’d wanted to tell them the first night, but it felt too emotional. I just told them (via Aaron) about how he’d had beef cattle that weren’t nearly as chill as the ones we’d seen on the road the day before. It was nice sharing that with them, although I wish my Spanish vocabulary had been big enough to tell them directly.
Vida Nueva Women's Weaving Cooperative

But the wall I’d felt between me and the Mexican people was coming down. The return of my Spanish comprehension seemed to have something to do with that.

That evening there would be a visit to a nearby farm. We walked to the edge of town and waited for the other groups. Our arrival was unintentionally early due to miscommunication, and we waited a half-hour to an hour for the others to show. Thence, we piled into some pickups and went to a farm to check out their chickens, large turkeys, nopales and other crops.

It was one of those great evenings in the country when the dusk slowly settles over a large gathering outside. I had my first encounter with a cat on the porch of the rustic farmhouse. There were 2 kittens on top of an old Coke machine mewing and cowering from all the people and dogs in the yard. I reached my hand out to them and, predictably, got clawed, albeit lightly.

Farm outside Teotitlán del Valle
We piled back into the pickups and returned to town. At the hacienda, we had some more lemongrass tea and chatted. Eric knew some Spanish, so Aaron and Rick didn’t need to translate much of what was said. Petrona, Juan and his sister could also slip into the local Zapotec (indigenous) dialect if they didn’t want us to know what they were saying. This gave both groups a private language, ours being English.

We were supposed to depart at 6:30 the next morning, so we went to bed around 10. I switched beds, no longer wanting to be trapped between Rick and the wall. This time I was in the bed under the window, a much less stuffy location. I still had to share the bed, with Eric this time, but I was more comfortable in this spot and more acclimated to bed-sharing.

The courtyard light and radio were turned off earlier than the night before, and the long, slow slide into unconsciousness was more pleasant.