Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Lazy days and Merry Christmas

Since the last post about my Christmas in Mexico, not a whole lot has happened, but I figured I'd put in a few words to keep the fam updated on my status and whatnot.

Days have been lazy and slow. We drive or hike somewhere most days, check out a few new sights, and spend most of the day lazing around the hotel, reading, and swimming. I bought myself a mask and have been diving around the rocky areas looking at the fish. It is really pretty incredible. I probably saw more different kinds of fish (in the wild) in the first 30 seconds than all the rest of my life put together. It's like a huge aquarium. There are even some small blobs of coral in places. One challenge has been resisting the urge to go off swimming by myself more often.

There's an old Canadian couple in the room next to ours who just sold their house and are spending their time travelling around now. The guy, whose name is Art, gave me a book that he wrote with some of his own creative scientific theories in it about continental drift. I didn't really have the heart to tell him that the continental drift theory was replaced about 20 years ago. He and his wife are both obviously very lonely, and they are really friendly and helpful and want to visit as much as possible. They're also both pretty old and somewhat loopy, especially Barbara, the lady. It must be pretty sad and lonely travelling away from your home and friends like that in your declining years, trying to see as much of the world as possible while dealing with failing health and memories. I don't think I'd do it. Better to be among friends, even if it's in a retirement home or something. Interestingly, they live in the Bridge River valley in British Columbia, where I expect to be doing a fair amount of field work next summer. Art says they only leave BC in the wintertime when the cold is hard to deal with, so I have promised to come visit them next summer when I am up there.

We are going to be cooking some turkey (not a turkey, since we have to do this in two toaster ovens, but some turkey, i.e. two legs and a breast) for Christmas and some other veggies and stuff. Amber and I went to a supermarket in the large nearby town of Manzanillo the day before yesterday and brought back a ton of food, so we have plenty of gringo eats for Christmas. I bought Amber and Link some gifts in the states and brought them with me, but I don't have anything for Terry (Amber's mom) or Barbara (her grandma - yes, another Barbara). They both buy stuff from the shops constantly so I'm not sure what I could get them that they don't already have. Hopefully a thank you will do. Maybe a card. The opportunity to go on this trip was pretty awesome in and of itself.

Okay, rambling. Time to stop. Love to everybody; have a wonderful Christmas and a happy New Year. Sorry I'm not in Washington to be there with you.


Friday, December 19, 2008

Greetz from Melaque

Wow... sitting down to write a blog post after so much time brings back strange memories. Namely of typing these things up on sticky keyboards in the stifling heat of Choluteca, my backpack and several bags of groceries sitting next to me. It's strange that only traveling seems to motivate me to do this.

We had an epic journey getting here. When I left Bellingham on Wednesday afternoon, there was about an inch of new snow on the ground and it was piling up fast. Mount Vernon already had at least three to four new inches as I drove through. Amber, leaving Bellingham around 1:30, later reported to me that there were already four inches of new snow by the time she left.

Seattle was bizarrely clear; I spent the rest of Wednesday there visiting with Maya and Jake while waiting for the flight out at 5:00 a.m. on Thursday. The plan was to meet Amber & co. at the airport. She called me at about 9:00, however, to say that our flight to Phoenix had been cancelled and the next one didn't leave until Friday. We resolved to drive down to Portland and catch another flight leaving at 11:20; from there we could catch a later flight from Phoenix to Puerto Vallarta.

So that night, Maya dropped me off at a hotel in Sea-Tac where I got about four hours of sleep before we piled into the car again and continued on through the dark and lots more snow, four hours down to Portland. As we parked and walked to the bus stop to go to the airplane, it was snowing so hard that my bag was covered in seconds. Things looked grim, but it cleared up almost immediately afterwards and our plane was able to take off without incident.

Because the delay resulted in us arriving in Puerto Vallarta at 9:30 pm, we had to stay the night at a hotel there and finish the drive to Melaque, another 3.5 hours by car, this morning. We got settled into our hotel and have been relaxing and exploring our surroundings. In some ways this town reminds me of the Honduran beach town of Tela. It's about the same size and has a similarly laid-back atmosphere. The beach is stunningly beautiful though, better than any I have been on before, and the town is clean and quite full of gringos.

So much of this area reminds me of southern Honduras, and so much is different. Oddly, the trees are similar but the small plants are not. One of my favorite sights has been the plantations of light blue agave plants, hiding behind big front gates and elaborate wooden signs of the inevitable tequila distillery in the middle of the plantation.

Our hotel is beautiful and not the least bit ostentatious. Nuff said about that. The weather is absolutely frickin gorgeous. 80-85 in the daytime, cool at night, sunny.

Travelling with Amber's family is going to be an interesting experience, I can tell already. She is a rock and her grandma, the trip sponsor, is a travelling expert. Link and Amber's mom, however, are pretty green. They have enjoyed the heck out of themselves thus far though, which I'm especially glad is true for Link, since it's a bit hard for him to be outside his comfort zone.

I expected this all to be a big jolt (weather, culture, suddenly being back in Latin America), but it's almost ucanny how natural it feels to be here. The two weeks that stretch in front of us, which I first worried might be a bit long, now suddenly seem far, far too short.

Love to everybody,


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Totally jealous

OK, I'll admit it - I achingly wish I were as awesome as this guy:

On the other hand, it's very comforting to know that my generation is coming up with this kind of stuff.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Philosophy Schmilosophy

Got into a long and interesting discussion with mom today when I mentioned that I don't give a damn about contributing something to society, because I think that society is an abstraction that will never be convincingly or permanently impacted by my actions nor do I think that there is any way that one person can concretely improve upon it. People who make such claims are bullshit artists extraordinaire. If you change human beings' external circumstances but invest no time, friendship, or knowledge in those actual human beings you're pretty much just slapping a new coat of paint on the same rusted-out, busted-ass, rickety old ocean liner. Or so I said. This is one of those conclusions I came to via the Peace Corps. Furthermore, I said that trying to fix social problems on a large scale was a big waste of time and that social changes were simply a completely uncontrollable process. I also claimed that the events we mistakenly identify as having triggered social movements were in fact just the first convenient excuse to come along at time when social change had become inevitable given existing social conditions.

Mom cited some contrary examples, none of which I can recall right now but she made some excellent points. Ok wait, here's one - the interest other countries have recently taken in Columbia causing the Columbian government to get all embarrassed, get off its butt and deal with the FARC. If other nations hadn't intervened, would things in Columbia still be the same today? Maybe. Given the rudimentary understanding we had on this topic, both viewpoints were based mostly on speculation.

If I had to personally take my mom's side of this argument I'd probably want to mention outstanding leaders such as Ghandi, Hitler, Jesus Christ, etc. It's pretty hard to say that outstanding individuals haven't had real effects on human history. Was there some social necessity present that created these leaders? Some void into which someone inevitably had to step? If Hitler hadn't led Nazi Germany, would someone else simply have emerged and done the same things? Or was it the individual will of these people - their unique existence and their conscious choices that was the real driving force behind the social changes that surrounded them? I'm pretty sure this is a topic that has been hotly debated by the historians, and I'm no authority to present my views on the matter, but it sure is an interesting question to think about.

When it comes to my own life, however, I've found that it's most fulfilling and appropriate to concentrate on the small, concrete, and human. When I said I didn't give a damn about society, I was being entirely honest. Society certainly doesn't give a damn about me, so it'd be pretty meaningless to invest my mental or emotional energy in that particular one-sided relationship. It's just about as abstract as a devotion to God, which is another thing that many people find meaningful and I just can't get on board with. Nope, I don't think I owe allegiance to anything besides the people in my life that I have enough contact with to understand on a personal level and if I want to make a difference in the world, I'd do best to start with trying to make a difference in their lives. In fact, I don't believe I have the right to go even that far if it involves neglecting myself, because then I'll just end up contaminating them with my own problems. If you can't even keep your own shit in order, what business do you have presuming to improve other peoples' lives?

Footnote: This blog post was definitely made possible by Kurt Vonnegut. I know I'm under no academic requirement to cite my (unofficial) references here, but in this case it feels ungrateful not to.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


The other day I suddenly got all emo and uninstalled all my online multiplayer computer games
in one fell swoop. I have previously vacillated back and forth with how I feel about being a gaming geek; some days I feel like I've wasted colossal chunks of my time doing it and some days I scoff at that kind of silly crap and accept that for some reason or another, it's been an important part of my life. Both of these things are probably true. Computer gaming got me an internship in California with somebody I'd never met before who then became a great friend of mine, and gaming has, if anything, been immensely helpful to my social skills. As a hobby it's cheap, fun, and accessible. I love the imaginative voyage of single-player games and I love the competitive challenge of online games.

However, I guess I just decided I wanted to try and allocate my time in different ways. A large part of it had to do with my gradual disillusionment with the world of online gaming - its inability to advance beyond anything more than a hedonistic playground for foulmouthed teenagers. There is a vast, VAST untapped potential for this medium. And what do we get? Derivative, uninspiring, and often unfinished pieces of software, designed to be ever more efficient at shocking your senses and testing your reflexes. Overall, computer games have actually gotten noticeably LESS deep and mentally challenging in the last decade, and I think most older gamers would agree with my opinion in that matter.

I disapprove of "quitting" games because it rarely works - usually, just wanting to not do something anymore isn't a good enough motivation - you need something tangible that you'd RATHER be doing that takes you away from the other activity. This is why most people who say they are quitting are full of crap. The people that really quit just disappear from the online world, because they've found something that holds their attention more. I guess we'll see if that happens to me or not.

I won't say that I'm done with games because that would be silly - it's something I like to do, and I try not to say things that could make me a liar in the future. It's just that in the last couple of years, I had a chance to get used to not playing computer games very much, and these have been unquestionably some of the best years I can remember. My life was different in a lot of other ways in the Peace Corps so I can't be too sure that those two things are connected, but I'm going to try this idea for awhile and see how it goes. I feel like I'm doing it for the right reasons now finally - not out of shame or guilt for enjoying a "nerdy" or "childish" hobby, but because I want to move on to other things.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The school system

Well, I guess updating this blog every week was a big fat lie. We'll just have to see how often I can do it.

I've started working as an on-call emergency substitute teacher in the Burlington-Edison school district, and hopefully I will be employed by the Mount Vernon S.D. by next week as well (since
only having on-call jobs in one district is making it difficult to work often enough). Being back inside our public school system for the first time really since I left it upon graduating high school in June of 2000 (was it really 7.5 years ago? My God...) has given me an interesting new perspective on all kinds of things that I took for granted or didn't notice when I was a student.

As a substitute, your main challenges are to maintain order in a room full of 30 kids who are urged to make trouble by childish impulses or raging hormones , to understand and adapt to all the unique rules and standards in your various working environments, and if you manage the first two, to try and follow along with the absent teacher's necessities as closely as possible so that they don't lose a day with their kids doing nothing in the hands of an inept substitute teacher. I never imagined it as being a particularly stressful job, but it is somewhat, because managing other peoples' kids feels like a pretty big responsibility and once you find yourself in that role, it's hard not to worry about whether or not you're doing it as well as you possibly can. As with most things in my life, the biggest challenge is not taking myself too seriously.

Our public schools in and of themselves are really fascinating environments, and have a significance that most people probably don't think about. Our whole social order in miniature lives within every one of those buildings, complete with government, laws, criminals, and justice. In fact, it seems to me that the real purpose of public schools is less to educate children about the physical reality of the world than to imprint them so strongly with the norms and rules of our social system that when they emerge, they'll be able to function instinctively in our society.

Take for example the simple act of sending somebody to detention. A wrong of some kind is committed in the classroom and the teacher, acting as policeman, writes down the kid's crime on a piece of paper and removes him/her from the rest of the class, where he/she goes to sit in an office somewhere isolated from the rest of the group and watched by a school official. In order to get out, the student usually has to talk to the school official and provide some kind of justification as to why they know what they did was wrong. It's almost exactly like sending an adult to jail and releasing them through a parole hearing.

Another interesting thing is the way teachers are isolated from students both socially and physically. We don't use the same bathrooms, don't relax in the same spaces and don't discuss sensitive topics with them. The whole effect is to discourage kids from thinking of their teachers as normal, fallible human beings whose ideas can be called into question. A little more disturbing even is the way the school faculty extends their influence through willing "student leaders" who often act as representatives of the school among their colleagues.

Don't get me wrong, a functioning modern high school of 1200 kids is a miracle of social control. Given the parameters, I don't think the situation could be any other way. There aren't enough teachers, and the basis of the our education concentrates too much on the intellectual, and not enough on the human, development of children.

All this makes me think that the old feudalistic model of making society function through the more powerful controlling the less powerful hasn't really changed as much as we'd like to think. We've just gotten a lot more subtle about it; better at it. Is it possible to have schools, or a society in general, based on caring and human relationships rather than a controlling outside force? Does man's nature even allow it? I know one thing for sure; we're not going to find out anytime real soon. There's just too damn many human beings in the world.

Monday, December 31, 2007

I meant to post this a long time ago

Gabe’s Peace Corps Book Log
Now with ratings!
1 – Teh Suck
2 – Bad
3 – Decent/good
4 – Very good/excellent
5 – A++, would read again

Title – Author – Rating
(x2) = read twice

1. Wicked – Gregory McGuire – 3
2. Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon – 2.5 and a WTF
3. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson – 4
4. Siddartha – Herman Hesse – 3
5. Ishmael – Daniel Quinn – 3
6. A Blessing on the Moon – Joseph Skibell – 3.5
7. Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe – 4.5
8. The Handmaidens’s Tale – Margaret Atwood – 3.5
9. The Education of Little Tree – Forrest Carter – 4
10. (x2) On the Road – Jack Kerouac – 5
11. (x2) Tropic of Cancer – Henry Miller – 5
12. The Jungle – Upton Sinclair – 4
13. (x2) Slaughter-House Five – Kurt Vonnegut – 5
14. Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut – 5
15. (x2) Look Homeward, Angel – Thomas Wolfe – 5
16. Romeo and Juliet – Da Bard – 4
17. King Lear – Da Bard – 3
18. (x2) Timequake – Kurt Vonnegut – 3
19. (x2) One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez – 4.5
20. Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions – Richard Erdoes – 3
21. For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway – 3.5
22. The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene – 4
23. Angel of Darkness – Caleb Carr – 3
24. The Street Lawyer – John Grisham – 2
25/26. Wheel of Time 3 + 4 – Robert Jordan – 2.5
27. Victory – Joseph Conrad – 4
28. A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson – 4
29. The Aquitaine Progression – Robert Ludlum – 2
30. Valhalla Rising – Clive Cussler (Worst. Book. Evar.) – 0.5
31. A Brief History of Time – Steven Hawking – 4
32. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain – 4.5
33. The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho – 3
34. Naked Lunch – William Burroughs – 3
35. (x2) A Confederate General from Big Sur – Richard Brautigan – 3.5
36. (x2) True History of the Kelly Gang – Peter Carey – 5
37/38/39. Wheel of Time 5, 6, + 7 – 3
40. The Man with the Golden Arm – Nelson Algren – 4.5
41. (x2) La Sombra del Viento – Carlos Ruiz Zafón – 5
42. Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates – Tom Robbins – 5
43. The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown – 3
44. Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal – J.K. Rowling – 4
45. (x2) Zorro – Isabel Allende – 4.5
46. A Bend in the River – V.S. Naipaul – 3.5
47. Candide – Voltaire – 4
48. Plainsong – Kent Haruf – 4
49. Jayber Crow – Wendell Barry – 5
50. Ironweed – William Kennedy – 4
51. Ratking – Michael Dibdin – 3.5
52. On the Beach – Nevil Shute – 3.5
53. The Secret Agent – Joseph Conrad – 4
54. Nostromo – Joseph Conrad – 5
55. The Farthest Shore- Ursula K. LeGuin – 3
56. Moby Dick – Herman Melville – 5
57. Typee – Herman Melville – 3
58. Wheel of Time 9 – Robert Jordan – 3
59. (x2) As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner – WTF (tentatively rated 4)
60. The Beach – Alex Garland – 4
61. Lonesome Dove – Larry McMurty – 4
62. The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner – 4
63. The Portable Faulkner – 5
64. The Rocket Boys – Homer Hickman – 3.5
65. Cosmic Banditos – A.J. Weisenberg – 4.5
66. The Bonesetter’s Daughter – Amy Tan – 5
67. Guns, Germs, and Steel – Jarod Diamond – 4
68. Anthills of the Savannah – Chinua Achebe – 4
69. The Sparrow – Mary Doria Russell – 3
70. Lazarillo de Tormes – Anonymous – 3
71. The Ghost of (Canterbury?) – Oscar Wilde – 2.5
72. Franny and Zooey – JD Salinger – 4
73. Tristes Tropiques – Claude Levi-Strauss – 3.5
74. Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides – 4.5
75. Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison – 4
76. The Monkey-Wrench Gang – Edward Abbey – 5
77. Batman and Robin – Michael Jan Friedman – A TEN!!!!!
78. Sick Puppy – Carl Hiassen – 3.5
79. Angels and Demons – Dan Brown – 2.5
80. Fong and the Indians – Paul Theroux – 3.5
81. Herzog – Saul Bellow – 4
82. The Songlines – Bruce Chatwin – 3.5
83. Falling Off the Map – Pico Iyer – 3
84. A Stillness at Appomattox – Bruce Catton – 5
85. August 1944 – Robert A. Miller – 3.5
86. The Botany of Desire – Some Dude – 4.5
87. Cold Fire – Dean Koontz – 3
88. The Giver – Lois Lowry – 4
89. The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera – 4
90. Jack Maggs – Peter Carey – 5
91. The Kite Runner – Khalid Hosseini – 3.5
92. The River Why – David James Duncan – 3.5
93. Friday Night Lights – H.G. Bissinger – 4.5
94. Dharma Bums – Jack Kerouac – 4
95. The Mother Tongue – Bill Bryson – 3.5
96. The Eternal Game – David Shenk – 5
97. The Magician’s Assistant – Ann Patchett – 4.5
98. Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel García Márquez – 3.5
99. The Ordinary Seaman – Francisco Goldman – 4.5
100. Eats, Shoots, & Leaves – Lynne Truss – 4
101. Great Short Works of Edgar Allen Poe – Guess Who – 4
102. State of Fear – Michael Crichton – 3.5
103. His Dark Materials Trilogy – Phillip Pullman – 5
104. Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded – Simon Winchester – 3
105. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush – Eric Newby – 4
106. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley – 3
107. Green Hills of Africa – Ernest Hemingway – 2
108. The French Lieutenant’s Woman – John Fowles – 4.5
109. The Robber Bride – Margaret Atwood – 4.5
110. My Name is Asher Lev – Chaim Potok – 3
111. Skinny Legs and All – Tom Robbins - 4