The Ghosts Who Wave at Trains

From 2003 to 2007, I regularly rode the Amtrak commuter train, the Pacific Surfliner, from Santa Barbara to San Diego.  It did it so often that I knew all the landmarks along the way, from the graffiti in the drainage wash near Union Station in Los Angeles to the bizarre alien spaceship facade of a Fry’s Electronics south of LA.  From the railroad tracks, one can see the backside of America.  While stores, apartment buildings, and even warehouses try to present their best image to the roads and the freeways, the view from the train windows is not so pretty.  Rust, mold, broken windows, and other unsightly artifacts of aging are all visible from the rear.  Graffiti always seems to collect near railroad tracks, as do scrap yards with piles of rusted metal, and repossession lots crammed full of beat-up cars that will clearly never drive again.  It almost seems like nobody cares about trains.

Most people, it seems, prefer to drive even moderate distances rather than take the train, in part because it’s easier to get to their final destinations when they can drive straight into the garage rather than doing a bus transfer or walking the remaining stretch between the train station and home.  Certainly I preferred it.  It took over an hour and a half longer to take the Surfliner between Santa Barbara and San Diego than it did to drive.  Time is precious in Western culture, and I am an impatient person.  Furthermore, it costs more to take Amtrak from San Diego to Florida than it does to fly the same route.  The only benefit to taking the train in that case is that you get a better view.  As far as land transportation goes, it would be better to drive, because it’s possible to stop when I want to and where I want to, in a (preferably nice) motel where I can sleep on a real bed.  The food is better too, fast food though it may be.

Taking the train in America is unpopular for a reason.  It’s slow, expensive, and inconvenient, especially when plane tickets are relatively cheap and driving allows more options.  It’s no wonder the railroad tracks get a rear view of the country, and it’s no wonder that I see many abandoned tracks when I ride.  After all, it can easily be assumed that nobody takes the train in this country.

But there is an interesting phenomenon I noticed on my regular rides through urban Southern California:  People wave at trains whenever they go by.  They make a greeting, a nearly personal connection, to a passing vehicle that it seems nobody cares about.  I had seen people waving before I ever rode Amtrak, but it only occurred to me once I took the train just how strange the action of waving at a train is.  It isn’t the same as the childhood practice of trying to get trucks to honk their horns as the kids ride by–inevitably surprising their parents.  The train blows its horn anyway.  It’s required by law in many places.  I saw children making the “blow the horn!” hand signal from time to time (a downward fist pump, signifying pulling the cord for the whistle).  However, it wasn’t as common as the simple wave.

And I wondered:  Why are they waving?  Why would people wave at a passing train when nobody they know is on board?  Why would they offer a greeting to people they can’t see and will almost certainly never meet?  What is the purpose in communicating across such a distance, even in such a shallow way?

It was difficult for me to understand at the time, and in some ways it still is.  The train windows are blank.  They’re tinted, so unless it’s night and the train is lit from inside, it’s impossible to see in.  And at night, when they can see in, the riders can’t see out.  There’s no possible way to even make eye contact.  It’s not even possible to judge a person’s appearance.  From the outside, the riders are invisible.  And from the inside, everyone is too  busy reading or on their laptops or chatting to pay attention to the people waving outside.  So what does the hand motion hope to accomplish?  It’s not even akin to graffiti, a message that screams “I exist and own this place!” to whoever manages to decipher the muddle of letters.

What I realized, personally, as I watched the people wave at my train every time I rode it, is that those people weren’t even real to me.  As I said, they were people who I would never see or meet, who I couldn’t make eye contact with, whose features I couldn’t recognize, and who I quite possibly wouldn’t be interested in talking to even if I had the opportunity to get off the train and interview them about their weird habit of waving at the vehicle I was in.  Were they waving at me, or the idea of me?  Were they waving at the engineer?  Why did I care?

I cared because people intrigue me.  I often reach out over great distances to touch minds and hearts, through personal conversation, which enriches both my life and the lives of the people I meet, and through writing.  My writing can be read by people I will never meet.  Essentially, I too am waving at passing trains.  And as I said, the people waving at me were not real to me.  They were ghosts, really, ghosts waving at trains.  In some ways, the only difference between waving at my train and reading my writing is that writing communicates some of who I am.  I once wrote for a web magazine, and there really was no good way for my readers to contact me if they had questions for me.  There was a picture of me on the website, but it didn’t mean much.  Essentially, I was writing to ghosts, people I had no intention of communicating with.  I didn’t really even care about the subject I was writing on, and I was very cynical about its followers.  In short, I had no interest in meeting my readers.

My current writing is less directed at ghosts because I actually care about it.  The effect, however, is still the same.  Anyone can read my writing online, where I post it, and I would never know the difference.  My writing matters to me, and I welcome people to read it.  It makes me feel validated.  I’m sharing a piece of myself and my art, and I get approval for it.  In a way, I’m not waving at a passing train, where I couldn’t hope to gain anything, but it’s nearly the same.  The vast majority of my readers will never write a comment on my blog, and those whom I email my writings to rarely reply with comments.  I’m not offended.  It’s the life of a writer.

But my readers are still fake, to some extent.  When I saw people waving at my train, I wondered if they actually existed.  I don’t mean that in a solipsistic way, as if to say that those people I fail to interact with are not actual people.  I simply mean that they might as well not exist to me, because they’ll never be a part of my reality.  It’s hard for me to grasp statistics like the death toll of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia that killed 200,000 people around the Indian Ocean, or Cyclone Nargis, which also killed about 200,000 people in Myanmar.  I failed to comprehend the scope of the 9/11 attacks, which “only” killed roughly 3,000 people.  For that matter, the death of a famous celebrity means very little to me.  I’m ashamed to say that when my Great Grandma died, I barely even cried.  And it’s not just death that I do not feel.  I can’t comprehend the daily birthrate worldwide, or the sheer number of people living in the People’s Republic of China.  The numbers are too big, and more importantly, I may never meet any of them.

Is it selfish to deny reality to people I will never meet?  I actually think it may be the only possible and sane option.  I don’t mean to deny them the right to a good life.  All I mean is that I can’t handle the concept of six billion people carrying out their lives without ever crossing my path.  I can barely take on the smaller fraction of people I consider friends, much less the strangers I meet on a day-to-day basis.  The people who wave at trains are aliens to me, and always will be.

Would the people keep waving even if they knew the train was full of people like me who were only bemused or even didn’t care?  I expect they would.  Waving at trains is partly reflex, and partly politeness.  It’s appropriate to acknowledge that other people exist, as indeed I have here in this bit of writing.  I have acknowledged both my readers and the six billion people I share this planet with.  They exist, and they matter.  They just don’t exist to me.

People deserve a hello and a smile when I pass by them.  A wave is a bit different, because it demands attention.  If I waved at a passing car, the driver would wonder what I was trying to communicate.  Did he leave his coffee mug on the roof of his car when he left for work?  Did he know me?  Who knows–keep driving, and forget very quickly that I waved.  But the hello and the smile at passing strangers function much like waving at a passing train.  It tells us that we are human.

Why wave at trains?  I’m not completely sure, and I doubt the people who do it know why either.  But it reminds me that there are people out there who I don’t know.  They may not exist to me, but they matter anyway, and so through that brief and fleeting act of communication, I learn that though they don’t exist, they matter.  They breathe, they move, they think, love, hate, have children, grow up, get old, stay young, live and die … they have being, and they’re worth it.  They’re still in my mind, years after I saw them, serving, though unintentionally, as a reminder that the world is big and I am not.

Why wave at trains?  Because there are people on them, invisible people, but still people.  Go ahead and try it.  There’s nothing to lose in the action.  Throwing a greeting out into the void to never be returned is simply part of being human.  Put up an open hand and see if anyone notices.  Prove that you care about trains and the people who ride them.

Say hello.  The ghosts are waiting.

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Quiet America: Impressions of Small Towns

I didn’t move to small-town Ohio entirely on my own volition.  I doubt I would have moved to such a place if I hadn’t been accepted to MiamiUniversity, a school that is much older than the Florida city of the same name and half the country away from Florida, in a small town just north of Cincinnati.  My plan was to pursue a master’s degree in technical writing.  It was a stopgap due to the fact that I hadn’t been accepted into the immunology programs that were my first choice for grad school.  I was wandering far afield from my biology beginnings and farther from the suburban paradises (or circles of hell, take your pick) that had been my home for most of my life.

While I’m not really from anywhere, having grown up in cities all around the world, I can safely say that I’m from the archetypal Suburb.  Aside from a few months of my childhood spent living in rural California, I’ve never lived out in the country or in what you could call “downtown.”  I’ve lived on the outskirts of cities in the United States and Indonesia, never too far from a supermarket or too close to crowds and tall buildings.

Oxford, Ohio would offer me a different experience.  The town has a population of around 22,000, most of which is made up of university students.  It becomes nearly a ghost town in the summer, and it was nearing the end of that season when I arrived in town.  I didn’t know a single person there; even my roommate was a stranger to me.  My plan was to get plugged in quickly and make friends quickly, in all the ways I could.  I thrive on personal interaction.  Statistics, or at least clichés, were on my side.  Everyone says that everyone knows everyone in small towns, and college students seem fairly personable, though I didn’t know if grad students would be any different.

For the moment, though, the town was empty and I was friendless.  All the things I knew had been removed—family and friends, of course, as well as the modes of entertainment I preferred (parks, zoos, and such), and the suburban staple, the strip mall.  There was a supermarket within walking distance of my small apartment building, and a Super Wal-Mart outside of town.  And that was pretty much all there was.  The public library was so small that I never bothered to visit it.  The town’s only park took up about a quarter of a block.  There was a state park about 20 minutes’ drive away, but my research made it out to be fairly bland.  To me, the only immediately refreshing thing about the town was its local independent coffee shop, called Kofenya.  I immediately took a liking to it, though their tea was never quite hot enough for me.

I occupied myself with two things once I got the logistics of packing out of the way:  I explored, and I took pictures.  The two are related, and were inseparable while I lived in Oxford.  While I didn’t take my camera along to Hueston Woods (the state park, which turned out to be as insipid as I expected), I carried it with me around town and made myself busy seeing the sights, which were few but rewarding.

Oxford has one main street.  Ironically, it isn’t Main Street, which is residential, but High Street.  High Street is home of Oxford’s uptown, which is actually its downtown, and is one of the main streets leading through Miami University, which is actually not in Florida.  The town is full of small ironies.  I took pictures of High Street.

Aside from the university and High Street, Oxford is entirely residential.  The Tollgate Mall, which, not surprisingly, is nowhere near any tollgate and is not a mall, lies right next to an apartment complex.  Most of the houses in Oxford proper are named.  The names range from the clever to the mundane, but nearly all are either alcohol- or sex-related.  What else would you expect from college students?  I took pictures of the houses—Absolut Angels, Ace-ingCollege (so named because it was across the street from Ace Hardware), the Drunken Clam, and so on.  I opted not to take a picture of the Panty Shanty, and sadly missed my eventual favorite, the Slippery Slope (featuring a yellow warning sign whose generic man was holding a beer stein.)  I was told that the previous year a house was told to change its name because it was so obscene (Dicken Cider Box, and please don’t think about that too much.)  I would have avoided that house if I had known where it was.  I try to only take pictures of things worth remembering.

The best of my pictures were those of the university.  Some of its buildings were built in the 1800s, and very few are new.  I know this because the university, in celebration of its bicentennial, had posted years of completion next to all the major buildings.  Buildings of such venerable academic tradition are always made of red brick and are most picturesque in afternoon light.  I took pictures of whatever structures caught my eye, plus many that weren’t actually that interesting.  I have an eye for photography, but my own pictures can only go so far.  My camera is a $200 Nikon digital that fits in my pocket.  It’s suitable for documenting my life, but not for inspiring awe.

Not that that stopped me from exploring.  My growing-up years were not generally spent in temperate climates, so I took great pleasure in watching the trees change colors in the fall.  I had already explored the three sides of town (High Street, residential, and campus), but I discovered that adventures present themselves in familiar territory if you let time pass.  I let time pass.  The trees changed.  Voila!  Adventure!

Adventures always require a bit of travel, but often they can be found within walking distance of home.  MiamiUniversity’s campus is quite beautiful, thanks partly to its tree-filled quads, and the red brick buildings matched the red leaves quite nicely.  My photo adventure filled a lazy afternoon.  (It could have been less lazy if I had been doing my homework, but I’m an adept procrastinator.)  The highlight of my time with my camera that day was a rack of bicycles surrounded by purplish-red bushes.  I vowed to return in a later season to watch the bicycles change.  I wasn’t disappointed.

Winter brought a snowstorm after Christmas that covered the town in eight inches of white.  The school was closed for the day and the students spent their time sledding, throwing snowballs, and generally being children.  I had never stopped being a kid, so I joined in where I could.  I took pictures early in the morning, after I realized I wouldn’t need to report in for research.  The bicycles were quite beautiful that day.

I’ve heard many complain about the slippery roads, the cold, the inconvenience that winter brings.  I couldn’t join in.  While I had many other things to worry about while I lived in Ohio (some of which drove me to quit school after a semester and a half), I found the coming of winter to be quite therapeutic.  I loved the cold, reveled in wearing my thick pea coat and the warm jacket that REI sold me for cheap, and found a great thrill in packing a perfectly spherical snowball that I never threw at anyone because it was too perfect.  I learned to handle my car in the snow as well as could be expected from a boy who learned to drive in San Diego.  By February, I was hooked on winter … and then I left Ohio, just as winter was also leaving.

It’s clear to me that I couldn’t have enjoyed Ohio very much if I hadn’t lived in a small town.  If I had lived in a suburban hell similar to all those I grew up in, Ohio would have been much the same as any other place I had ever lived.  It just would have been colder, and the trees, where there would have been trees, would have been red for a week or so before dropping their leaves and becoming dead-looking spindly saplings.  The roads would still be covered in ice, but the ground would only be covered in snow for a brief moment before someone or some machine would remove it.  Late summer would have been less boring, perhaps, but I wouldn’t have had an independent coffee shop (let us not have any talk about Starbucks’ superiority) to enjoy.  Small towns are special, this I have learned.

I wouldn’t want to live in a university town forever, nor even a small town.  In university towns, there’s too much population turnover, too many drunken fools, and too many hormones in the air.  And even though they taught me that adventures are always within walking distance, small towns have too little to offer for me.  Call me a product of my generation, a glutton for the new and the different, neither of which are likely to be found in anything smaller than a city.  I will admit that you are right, but I will also show you the soft spot my heart holds for quiet towns, and maybe that will change your mind.

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Freefalling into Alaska: Written in the Aleutians, 2010

When I arrived in Anchorage, Alaska, in August of 2010, I was under the impression that Alaska primarily attracts adventurers and weirdos.  This assumption was based primarily on hearsay, from the few people I knew who wanted to go there, the books and articles I had read about it, and the general place of the state in the collective consciousness of America.  Alaska was home to a gold rush that left quite a few people victims of the spirit of adventure, dirt poor and often dead in the end.  Alaska is home to Sarah Palin, who believes that Russia is a lot closer to home than it actually is.  The state harbors towns with attractive names like Barrow and Deadhorse.  It features in books like Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer’s report on a young man who was equal parts adventurer and weirdo and who managed to get himself killed because he failed to prepare for the months he meant to spend in the wilderness.  Alaska also is home to the tallest mountain in North America and thousands if not millions of moose and bears, some of which roam the streets of the states few major cities.  As far as I could tell before I arrived, Alaska is majestic, mesmerizing, and potentially lethal, like some sort of natural Siren.

            My understanding of America’s largest state has matured somewhat over the time I’ve spent in it.  Though as I write this, it has been less than three months since I arrived, I have already spent a month in its largest city and a few weeks each in its largest fishing port and the village that holds its largest fish processing plant.  I am here as a fisheries observer, meaning I help the government to keep track of the country’s most important fishery.  My hundreds of coworkers and I take data on the catches and fishing practices of Alaskan fishing boats to ensure that just the right amount and the right types of fish are being caught.  The job is the reason I’ve seen more of Alaska than your average tourist, and indeed the reason I came to Alaska in the first place.  I haven’t been here long enough or seen enough to write down a truly educated impression of the state and state of being that is Alaska.  However, I can say that if Alaska is a home for the brave and the strange, either those Alaskans have more personal nuances than I expected upon arriving, or there are additional categories of Alaskan that I haven’t taken into account.  I suspect that both possibilities are true.

It cannot be denied that the Last Frontier still has a strong supply of frontiersmen, some of whom are weird and all of whom are adventurous.  Oil workers, bear hunters and mountain climbers live on the Frontier, but as it turns out, so do fashion designers and the hundreds of homeless people living on the streets of Anchorage.  I was surprised to see so many vagabond alcoholics living in such an unforgiving environment—where do they go in the winter?—but it probably is a testament to Alaska’s allure that they come here and stay.  Did they get chewed up and spit out by life before or after they came north?  Maybe it doesn’t matter.  In Alaska, I get the feeling you’re always in the fight, regardless of whether you’re dangerously alive or barely breathing.  And they all seemed happy so long as they had smokes, whether they were trying to bum cigarettes off of me as I walked by (sorry, I don’t smoke) or looking for half-finished ones in ash trays.  These and all the frontiersmen of Alaska seem to have an unusually strong will to survive.  They live off what they can, even if that means their cigarettes have to be pre-smoked.

A man or woman of the Frontier need not be a burly bare-handed bear killer.   The average Alaskans I’ve seen all have the spirit of adventure within them, but that applies even to the taxi drivers.  During my carless time in Anchorage, I met quite a few taxi drivers, all of whom were foreigners, spoke excellent English, and had worked what seemed like a hundred jobs during their time in the state.  They were resourceful, to say the least.  Immigrants became fishermen became oil workers became taxi drivers.  They’re just trying to make a living, and just confirming to me that everyone has a story, but especially Alaskans.

Take the fashion designer I met in Los Angeles while waiting for my flight to Anchorage:  I’m not sure if I started talking to her because I thought she was cute or because our flight was delayed or because I suspected that Alaska keeps its own and that a present Alaskan would be interested in talking to a future Alaskan; whatever the case, I found out that she had come to Alaska not knowing anyone within a thousand miles of the place, as had I.  She also confirmed to me that nearly everyone in Alaska has something in them that brings them there or keeps them there.  She didn’t put it in those terms, but I understood her to be saying that.  I didn’t get her full story, since for some reason it’s difficult to extract life stories from total strangers, but it was clear that she had one.  And it made me wonder:  What brought her to Alaska in the first place?  What is it about Alaska that draws people from all over the world and brings them to a place that at first glance is an infinite emptiness?

Numbers have no meaning when trying to describe Alaska’s size.  When the number of zeroes brings a number from the hundreds of thousands into the millions, the human brain ceases to understand the scale of the number.  I’m sure there’s a science behind it.  All I mean to say is that nobody really understands the difference between a million and a billion, except that one starts with M and one with B, simply because nobody has ever been able to count that high.  And so it is with Alaska.  Maps of the United States always draw Alaska in a different scale than the rest of the country because Alaska wouldn’t fit on the map without such editing.  Perhaps the best way to make Alaska’s infinite size more finite is to reference a T-shirt I saw at the Alaska state fair.  It places Texas to scale inside an outline of Alaska and reads “Alaska:  Pissin’ off Texas since 1959.”  I can attest from multiple cross-country trips that Texas takes two full days of driving to cross.  Alaska is at least twice as big.  Spaces as large as this are frightening, especially when they are empty.  And Alaska, with a population smaller than that of Rhode Island, is almost entirely blank.

Roderick Nash wrote a thick book entitled Wilderness and the American Mind, about the role of empty land in the history of American thought.  Alaska is perhaps the essence of wilderness, being huge and unpeopled.  Yes, there are maps of Alaska, but they cover places in Alaska that no human may have ever visited, and I therefore doubt their accuracy somewhat.  Alaska has very few roads.  One mostly gets from place to place by airplane, and in coastal areas by boat.  As I write this, I’m staying on an island I traveled to on a flying boat built in the 1930s.  The plane is so old that it’s a wonder it flies anymore.  But that is the essence of Alaska—the people are resourceful, even to the point of religiously maintaining old airplanes so they can keep up regular travel between islands.

Alaska is a state of being.  Alaska is alive, and it lives in the people who live in it.  The place makes its residents resourceful.  They don’t necessarily live off the land like the natives or early frontiersmen did, but they have learned to fend for themselves in other ways.  I met a man in DutchHarbor who had bought an old, closed-down bar and had at least ten potential new business plans for the place, Laundromat and adventure tours headquarters being two of them.  And then there’s the fishermen, who make on-deck coffee tables out of old reels of line and slippers out of old Xtra-Tuf boots.

Xtra-Tufs are part of the Alaskan state of being, incidentally.  I have never seen them elsewhere, whereas everyone wears them here.  I’m required by insurance to wear that particular brand of boot for my job.  They are calf-high neoprene boots that only come in brown with tan trim.  They are completely waterproof and skid-proof, essential for the wet Alaskan summers and icy Alaskan winters.  I read a book recently that was written by a woman who married into Alaska, and I joked that it was clear she was a true Alaskan because she was wearing Xtra-Tuf boots in the photo on the back of the book.  This isn’t an advertisement, but rather a proof of concept—if you want to survive in Alaska, you must do it the Alaskan way, and that means buying a completely utilitarian pair of boots.

The Alaskan mindset seems to me to be similar to that of the military.  In Alaska, you adapt or fail.  If you can’t survive in Alaska, you weren’t cut out for it anyway, and you shouldn’t have come here in the first place.  So whether that means you buy the ugly Alaskan boots or you suck in your stomach and stop being seasick or you bundle up to brave a walk through the freezing wind and rain day in and day out, you do it, because that’s Alaska.

This is where I admit that I am not Alaskan.  Though I currently live in the state, I won’t be here long, and the spirit of the state does not live in me.  Not yet, at least.  I’m willing to give it time, but as I’m writing this I’m seriously wondering if I’m cut out for the Alaskan winter.  It’s already dark and cold here, and it’s only late October.  It’s only going to get darker and colder, the weather nastier and the waves bigger.  My job is unpredictable, and I could be on a boat in the middle of the Bering Sea in 30 foot seas for days on end, for all I know.  That’s Alaska.  Can I handle it?  It’s a good question to consider, as I work through these observations.  The above considerations are what I’ve learned in a short period of time here; Alaska makes for quick learners, part of its sink-or-swim attitude.  There’s only one way to find out whether I can handle Alaska year-round, and that’s to try it.  The problem is that I’m afraid.

I think anyone sane must approach Alaska with a healthy fear.  Much like any harsh environment, it’s one that can quickly become lethal if one does not come prepared.  That’s less the case when sticking to civilization, it’s true.  I’ve been out fishing in the western Bering Sea, which is about as far from the United States as one can get while still being in American-claimed waters, but that presents itself as a mixed case because I took a slice of civilization with me.  On the one hand, I was on a very large fishing boat with a crew of over 100.  On the other hand, I was fishing in the western Bering Sea.  There are few things more terrifying than a storm at sea, I think, and being the only boat within 100 miles can be fatal in certain less than ideal situations.  So I came prepared, with a cold water immersion suit and government-issued personal locator beacon should I need it, as well as the healthy fear I mentioned.

Alaska is in some ways a terrifying mystery to me.  Here there are the world’s largest land predators (bears, and lots of them).  Here there is the opportunity to drown or starve or freeze to death if I take a wrong turn.  Here is the infinite embodied:  Vast, empty expanses of land, and a similarly vast and empty sea.  The infinite, like the wilderness, is an object of fear, but for me it’s a respectful fear.  I, like any sane man, am afraid of dying a horrible death.  And I, like any sane man, intend to be careful that a horrible death does not befall me.  That isn’t to say that I see Alaska as a deathtrap.  Alaska is marvelous and beautiful, too, but it is completely beyond my control, and I like control.  It’s rather strange, really, because after all some things are always beyond my control.  But I’d rather not psychoanalyze myself trying to find the source of this problem.  I’ll just say that Alaska somehow manages to be more out of my control than most uncontrollable things, possibly because there’s more of it to be uncontrollable.

Alaska is terrifying, and Alaska is a mystery by nature of its being out of my control.  I will never see all of Alaska—nobody could—and I will never understand the ins and outs of it.  I don’t think I want to.  That would take too much time and struggle, and I suspect I would have had to start much younger.  I’ve been told that natives who grow up in the small backwater, backwoods villages of Alaska usually end up coming home after leaving.  They like it where they came from, though it’s dark and cold and there aren’t entertainment opportunities like those of the big cities of the continental United States, or even Anchorage.  Maybe it’s a matter of scale.  The same emptiness that fills me with fear and awe fills them with life, perhaps.  It could very well be that they prefer the smallness of community nestled within the immensity of the Alaskan wilderness to the bigness of community wedged into the cramped confines of suburbia.  I fall somewhere in between.

But maybe that’s what attracted me to Alaska and to the line of work I’m in now.  Where I am, with what I’m doing, I get a taste of Alaska, but I can also leave at any time.  While I despise suburban “paradise,” I also can’t handle wilderness for long, though I love it.  I’m no John Muir.  I think I’m one of his many modern children, in love with the wilderness and afraid of it at the same time.  My presence in Alaska is much like a bungee jumping excursion—I get the exhilaration of a freefall into infinity with the comfort of knowing that I have a lifeline ready to yank me out at just the right moment.  I’m freefalling into Alaska right now.  I’m in an unnatural place, pretending to be a part of the world around me and ready to snap out of it when it gets too dangerous.

Throughout this essay I’ve been musing about what might attract people to Alaska.  People like me.  I think I’ve found the answer:  It’s the adrenaline rush of the infinite, the thrill of the majesty, the vastness, the aliveness, and the danger of it all.  It’s the knowledge that we’re experiencing something that few tourists are willing to try.  We don’t just come on cruises here to see the glaciers and a few moose.  We come here to stay, hoping for an experience of glory and undoubtedly finding it in the presence of the state of being that is Alaska.  But I only came to stay for a while.  As I said, I am not Alaskan.  I’m not even sure if I want to be, though I must admit that I’m awed by Alaska in every way possible.  I may change, it’s true.  Maybe it’s something I’m lacking right now.  I like the outdoors, but I’m no wilderness adventurer.  I have a rather offbeat personality, but I’m no weirdo.  And though Alaskans are far more than just adventurers and weirdos, I think without being a little of both, it’s hard to be Alaskan.

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Impressions of Expression: An Essay on Writing

We like to divide the world into pieces.  This half can sing, while that half cannot.  One portion can dance, while another portion (in which I include myself) cannot.  I’m not sure what this accomplishes, but I know that it’s worth saying that while a certain slice of the pie can express themselves, many are mute.  I am not one of the mute ones.  Though I’m not eloquent in speech, though I am unable to play an instrument and though I can’t sing very well, I can write, and I can write to make men weep.

Well, maybe that’s overstating things.  But I’m a better writer than I usually give myself credit for (I will say, in a rare moment of false arrogance), and it’s a gift that I used to take lightly.  However, since I’ve come to the realization that a large portion of the world is mute, I’ve decided that the literacy and voice I wield should be used with purpose and not simply to mutter meandering tales that only I would enjoy.  That’s not to say that I must cater to the whims of the reading public; no, I mean that I must write to be read, because art is meant to be enjoyed.  And before my words are misinterpreted and I am shot for my foolishness, what I mean by “art should be enjoyed” is not that art should cause bright and happy feelings.  I mean, rather, that art should evoke emotion and not be bland, banal, and boring.  Enjoyment is broader than you realize—you might not exit the tragic theater feeling uplifted, but you will have had your emotions wrenched, and you will have been reminded that you are alive, just as a roller coaster will terrify and invigorate you.

If my writing does not play with your emotions, my art is dead.  And since I end each day of writing praying that my writing will glorify God, I strive to ensure that my art will be enjoyed, both by God and by others.  And here I’m not saying that I hope to engage in an overstated vaudeville to make you laugh or a soap opera to make you cry.  Emotions, contrary to popular belief, are not baser than the things of the mind.  The two engage to make perfect art.  Someone once accused me, when I was in despair, of trusting my emotions and not my thoughts, as if my thoughts were right and good and my emotions were untrustworthy and evil.  I am here to tell you that emotion and thought are functions of the same body, no more separable than the brain and the heart, and no one more or less corrupt than the other.  They are both corrupt.  They are both sanctified.

My writing will engage your heart and your mind.  It might not make you weep, and it might not give you epiphanies, but if it does not make you feel and think, I will have failed as a writer.  Are you steadfast, stalwart, and strong?  I will make you afraid.  Are you terrified?  I will calm your fears.  I come bearing paradoxes, the truths that even the ugly can be beautiful, that God can be three and one, that light can be a particle and a wave.  And I swear on my honor that I will always tell the truth—it might not be the whole truth, because some things need to remain hidden, but it will be the truth.

And I say the truth because truth is immutable and each truth is the only truth in the universe.  Truth is not agreed upon or settled into.  God truly exists and I truly existed from the moment I began.  I don’t have a monopoly on truth, but if you don’t believe what is real, then you are sorely mistaken.  I will tell the truth; it won’t be what is true for me—it will simply be the truth.

What is the truth?  Here is one:  The world is full of stories.  Some are lies and some are not, and some appear to be lies but are in fact truths, and vice versa.  Even novels can tell the truth, and even biographies can lie.  I’m interested in telling the true stories, those which have some bearing on reality and are not simply pointless adventures in wonderlands far from home, though I have enjoyed those stories too.  You might not think you have a story (I never did), but you have one all the same.  Maybe someday you’ll tell it to me.  If you are mute, you can recount it to me in your equivalent of sign language, be it stumbling words or crudely scribbled text, and I will distill the beauty from it.  I will not make your story a falsehood by making it beautiful.  Every story is beautiful, because God makes good things out of even the darkest stories.  After all, even in his own story the main character died.  It was beautiful because he didn’t stay dead, and more so because he brought himself back to life, not dependent on necromancers or mediums or even some power he had left behind to draw himself back into life on the third day.  The drowning man became his own life raft—beaten beyond recognition and crucified so thoroughly that his strength was gone, he still rolled back the stone.  I love twist endings.

Now, some stories are fairly straightforward, and some have many twists, but even the “boring” stories are actually quite thrilling, once you realize that there’s a plot and a purpose.  Even a “day in the life” vignette reveals some theme of death and damnation or grace and redemption, or maybe both.  The themes are there, the framework holding up all the special effects and window dressing (the thrill, the violence and sex, the waking up and lying down and birth and death and fear and hope and even the teeth brushing and menial tasks that make up the average day.)  I learned to sense the value in stories during class, and on my free time I learned to draw out value in the stories I tell.  I’m still learning now, even as I write this piece.  It might not be a story per se, but if it tells who I am as a writer, then it tells a story of sorts.  This ink-on-a-page describes who I want to be when I grow up.  Isn’t that a story any child could tell?  When I grow up, I intend to write, and to write well.

Greg Kull ended a prose-poem on writing with the line “Someday I will be a writer,” an ironic statement that I’ve adopted as my motto when I wear my writing hat.  Is promising myself in writing that I will someday be a writer modesty?  Mere irony?  Or is it modesty of a falser variety?  After all, what defines a writer?  The word denotes one who writes, but we wouldn’t call the high school dreamer a writer.  So is a writer one who makes a living off of writing?  I refuse to believe that, because some great writers never made a living off their work, and some people who make a living off of writing are not writers.  I suppose a writer is one who writes with great skill, but that makes the term so slippery that it’s unusable.  What defines greatness?  But terms like “art” are equally slippery and yet they function, and after all, are all artists required to have skill in what they create?  I’d like to think so, popular music (and most Christian “art”) notwithstanding.

On the other hand, I’ve been told (and I like to think) that I already do write with great skill.  I’ve already said as much in this bit of writing that you now hold in your hands (or on your computer screen, or what you will.)  My sentences tend to be too long, and I tend to overuse the parenthetical statement, the dash, and the ellipsis … but what of that?  I can write!  So I ask again, is it false or misplaced modesty to say “someday I will be a writer”?  Yes, as long as I can escape using words like “insofar,” “aforementioned,” and “notwithstanding” and simply be honest with my writing and, well, write!  There’s a difference between being pretentious and being aware that I’m good at what I do.  And perhaps it’s an inverted kind of pride to deny my own skill and be who I’m not.

I am a writer.  I write because I want to, and I’m not afraid to let people read it.  That alone doesn’t differentiate me from the millions of bloggers (and many published authors) in this world, but then there’s the question of skill … and I write well.  So I will write, and I won’t let anyone stop me.  Not even I can stop me.

And someday, someday I may finish something I write—my magnum opus, maybe—and then I will put down my figurative pen, and content with a job well done, write something else.  And I will enjoy every moment of it, because I am a writer, and that’s what writers do.

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Seeds

Seeds are amazing things.  Little bundles of potential (though I’m no Aristotelian), seeds have a world of options ahead of them, much like, well, everything really, and they can plan to live or to die, but chances are they’ll live and grow.  Some will be trees, some will be humans, and some will be metaphors—metaphors for the new, the possible, the fantastic.  Some seeds are crystals dropped in saturated solutions, well prepared to grow a brilliant new possibility, a fantastic work of God’s own art, a crystal bigger and better than the one that started it all.  Some seeds are ideas dropped in a saturated mind, creating trees, humans, and metaphors, forming new ideas from the endless possibilities and weaving them together to form the bright and the fantastic.  A seed can be a single word, maybe an adjective.  A seed could be an awkward construction.  A seed could be a repetition.  It could be a break in the repetition.  A seed could be a phrase, maybe “catching lightning” or “nightmare collector.”  Or it could be a person.

A seed could be you.  A seed could be me.

I am a seed.  Seeds have a story to tell, a story of a trip, no, a journey, between the small and the large, the huge, the gigantic.  Between the boy and the man, the mess I make and the pills I take.  Between the fragment and the sentence.  I have a story to tell, like any person, like any seed.  That story is not to be told now, but later, when I am done telling you the poetry of my beginnings and the themes I carry.  The themes are the vessels running through the body of my work and my life.  They carry ink to and from my heart, between it and the page.  And the page is a vessel too, carrying my heart to and from your own.  You will read my heart, because I put it on the page always, and you will see who I am and I will not be ashamed, because I have not really told you who I am.  That heart is in my journals, and you may not read them.

But the heart that beats on the page is part of my truest heart (a part, a ventricle, perhaps), and you can catch a glimpse of Me as I donate my life blood to you and you can live and bleed Me.  Just a little.  What I am trying to say is, I am telling the truth.

Do seeds always tell the truth?  I think lies grow from spores.

But if you can see my heart and circulate my blood, then perhaps I will carry a pint of yours back into my veins, and then you will be a seed whose story I will read and live.

And tell.  Because I am a storyteller.

I am a storyteller in training, I suppose, because I made most of them from scratch and only finished a few.  Your story, if I told it, would be one of the first.  I told my own story once (a slice, really), and called it “Gives Me Life” after a mistranslation I once gathered of a French song title, because after all there is one who gives me life, and I knew the story should be a tribute to Him.  My story is easy to tell.  I’ve lived it for long enough to see the themes, the veins in the leaves of the tree that grows from the seeds, for even trees have veins, though they’re called xylem and phloem and they carry water and sugar instead of blood.  Maybe I’m a tree.  Maybe I’m still a seed.  Or an egg.

But the emerging theme to my story is that it is a story, and that I am a storyteller, one who tells my own story and those of others.  I grow stories from seeds.  A seed could be me.  A seed could be you.

The growth of seeds, the growth of stories, is a miracle, something science will never be able to replicate.  Some engineers dream of making machines that can make more of themselves (the machines, not the engineers), but it’s far out of their reach, and always will be, unless crude imitations can pass for success.  And nobody likes their creations to be cheap.  Seeds, you must understand, are tiny, and yet have more potential to grow and to replicate than any robot ever will have.  Stories are living.  Robots are not.  And perhaps we could say that some people are robots (I think I had one for a roommate once), but probably even they have stories.  They’re just not that interesting.

But they could be.

See, stories are everywhere, just like seeds, and stories can be boring or thrilling depending on the whims and skill of the author.  They tell me I can write.  But really I strive to be a mirror.  I strive to be an accurate mirror, not a fun house one that makes people look strange or one that makes people look thinner and more handsome (or pretty, if you prefer), unless those people are already funny-looking or thin or handsome (or pretty, if you prefer.)  I strive to be a mirror so that I can say only what is true.

Because seeds should grow true, not as poison ivy or choking kudzu, not as diseased trees or briars.  Seeds should grow into magnificent sequoias that can survive fires and never be cut down because they are too large and strong to ever be destroyed.  Seeds should grow true, not as spores grow into fungus to feed on rot, but as cones grow into tall, straight, and sky-reaching pines.  And when seeds grow true and magnificent, people can climb them or picnic in their shade or perhaps build a fort high up in the branches for children to enjoy.

Or perhaps seeds and eggs (both of great potential) will join together to form humans, who more than metaphors form stories worth telling and will be told, if only I could be their mirror.  I will reflect your heart if only you would allow me to bleed your blood, and soon I will tell your story, and others, with your permission, will share your experiences and learn from you just as I have and will.

Because I am a storyteller, and stories must be told just as seeds must grow and become what they were meant to be.

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Finding Peace

It’s coming up on a month since I boarded a plane in the United States and moved to Peace.  I’m calling this city by that name because its name, literally translated, means “Western Peace.”  The name also is appropriately ironic, in my estimation–it’s never quiet here.  People set off fireworks throughout the day and night.  Cars use their horns early, often, and effectively.  And with multiple millions of inhabitants, the chatter of voices is always in the air in the city of Peace.  I intend to spend four months in Peace, and that means I’m nearly a quarter of the way through my time here.  It’s therefore time for my first major essay about this city and the country of which it was once the capital.

But where could I even begin?  A month is long enough to be meaningful and nearly long enough to be meaningless, much like a thousand dollars is a lot of money, yet at the same time is a number large enough to be inconceivable.  How long does it take to count to a thousand?  Long enough.  How long is a month?  Normally, it’s long enough to make me go stir crazy.  Normally.  In the month before I moved to Peace, I thought the month would never pass.  The month that I have lived in Peace, though, has been an eternal frenzy of action compressed into one tick of the second hand.  In other words, Peace is an ironic state of rest for my state of mind.  Peace is a strangely-dubbed home for my turbulent life.  Granted, the name is partially my own creation, but the word is in the Chinese name, and thus the irony is partly my own and partly fate’s.

If you must ask why my time in Peace has not been peaceful, you have never lived in a foreign country.  Life is shocking here.  Cars can both drive and park anywhere, including on sidewalks and on pedestrians, if the pedestrians aren’t careful.  Children are given the right to have open bottoms on their trousers and can poop wherever they please, including and especially on sidewalks.  Buses are nearly seat-less to allow more people to be crammed into them, in standing-room-only style.  Trash can and will be deposited wherever it’s convenient.  The easiest cultural adaptation for me was learning to eat with chopsticks, something I refused to do in my home country because I was so unskilled at it.  I still have to wonder who thought it would be more ideal and convenient to pick food up with a pair of sticks than with silverware–even if the latter was invented later, why weren’t chopsticks abandoned when silverware came along?

But that’s me being culturally insensitive.  Chopsticks are a dainty and elegant way to dine, and this country has a sense of elegance that can’t be crushed either by the outside world or by changes within.  Not incidentally, destructive factors have come from both of those sources.  Developers at home here are working to wipe out classic, well-built structures in favor of modern, poorly-constructed high rises.  China’s government is routinely accused by the outside world of systematically diluting, dissolving, and deleting minority cultures here.  But that same outside world has been trying to change China for years, at different times by infiltration, intimidation, and invasion.  I’m learning to appreciate China for what it is and for what it isn’t.  It helps that I’m not here alone, but am working with people who love the country and only want to change it for the better.  There’s nothing wrong with changing things for the better, contrary to preservationist anthropologists’ assertions.  Some might argue that no culture should alter another–see, for example, conflicts over the fate of remote Amazonian tribes, or for a more pop culture example, Star Trek’s Prime Directive–but that’s foolishness.  Cultures have mixed together and molded each other throughout history.  China can’t remain unchanged, and (but?) no other major country or culture will be left untouched by China when this century is over.

And I hardly even need to mention that I can, will, and have already been changed by China and by the city of Peace.  I haven’t even explored much of the city, and far less the countryside around it, but that doesn’t matter.  I’m living in an apartment where the toilet doesn’t really work, and I’m working in a 22nd floor office where the internet is borrowed from friends on the 16th floor via a 50 meter ethernet cable.  I’ve come to expect those kinds of things.  I’ve found peace, at least, with the small irritants of living in China, and I expect, or at least suspect, that I’ll find peace with Peace by the time I’m done here.  Living in a country like China is far different than living in any Western country, and that’s even the case for me, who grew up in Southeast Asia.  I knew such things coming here, and I knew it would be harder to live here than I could have expected.  But expecting the unexpected is of course a contradiction and a paradox, and I didn’t expect just how unexpected the unexpected would be.  That is, when I knew that my four months in Peace would be difficult ones, I didn’t realize just how difficult they would be.

Today I am not at peace with Peace because its air has given me bronchitis.  The smog here is unbelievable, a permanent brown haze that makes the ground invisible until your plane lands on the runway, and which makes the tops of the highest landmarks, like the TV tower next to my office, nearly disappear when viewed from the ground.  Even Los Angelites would hate to live here.  I’ve woken up at 4:00 am every day this week coughing up gunk and have had to spend the rest of my night sleeping in a sitting position.  The one comfort in all of this is that antibiotics are both cheap and easily acquirable here.  They haven’t helped me yet, except to keep the bacterial infection out of my ears.  My hearing is already bad from childhood infections, and it’s causing me trouble when I try to hear the tones in the Chinese language.  Temporary deafness is my worst enemy, and so I’ll take the antibiotics until I become allergic to them.

The Chinese language is the central enemy in my battle to survive here in Western Peace.  Simply put, a Westerner cannot easily find peace with a language that includes consonant blends like “dz,” “dj,” “tcsh,” and “sch.”  Never mind that nobody can explain to me whether the language has four tones or five.  I’ve concluded it has four and a half: the high tone, the questioning tone, the drunken tone, the angry tone, and the null tone that makes the vowel disappear.  Those aren’t cynical statements so much as descriptions that help me remember what each tone sounds like.  Third tone, the drunken tone, starts high, droops in the middle, and picks up again at the end, making the voice waver.  And here, if you ask a question like you would in English, you’ll be using second tone.  To imagine this, say “Is this the right classroom?” and listen to how your voice rises.  You have to stick a “ma” at the end of a sentence as a verbal question mark, but make sure to pronounce it right or someone will think you’re saying “horse.”

I find myself in an awkward state right now where I know just enough Chinese to feel very inadequate and horribly challenged, and not enough Chinese to feel proud of myself for being able to get around.  It doesn’t help that I’ve missed three tutoring sessions now thanks to the bronchitis, and that my voice has been throttled enough by the illness that I can’t make tones well.  No doubt I’ll get things right eventually, but right now I’m having a lot of trouble finding peace with the language.

This makes me wish I knew more about the history of language and how a language so different from English might have developed.  I’m a not-just-self-proclaimed master of the English language.  One of my many careers has been that of English teacher.  It’s actually part of my current job description here.  That fact probably makes it even harder to adapt to a language so different from my master tongue.  I’ve been told my Chinese pronunciation is terrific, but I can’t hear the difference between a bad and good pronunciation.  I love English because I could speak like a robot or in a high falsetto and people would still be able to understand me.  I have no idea how I’d make myself understood in Chinese if I got angry and started speaking higher and more loudly.  And odds are, I’ll get angry while I’m here.  I just hope I don’t make a bad impression.

As I said, I’m joining people hoping to make an impact on China for the better, whether that’s by teaching English or setting up ecotours or doing any number of other things that would build relationships between China and the West.  We believe in cultural exchange for cultural edification.  We have no political motives and bear no ill-will toward anyone.  Neither do we intend to exploit anyone–indeed, we hope to reverse that, hence our focus on low-impact tourism.  So I wouldn’t want to make a bad impression, because I really hope to join in the positive change movement.  I also hope that I come away with a good impression of China, and especially of Peace.  I came here hoping that when I was done, I’d want to come back.  I can’t draw any conclusions after a month here.  Maybe I won’t be able to do anything more than I can now, after four months here.

This essay is entitled “Finding Peace” because I haven’t yet found it, in any way, punned or otherwise.  I haven’t found out the true nature of the city of Peace, and I haven’t found peace with the city or the country.  But I still have three months to go, plus the potential of years thereafter to spend in this country, if I so choose.  That’s a lot of time to find what I’m looking for.  And if I don’t find it, I’ll have at least seen, learned, gained, and written, and in that I will find peace.

 

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