“How’s school?” That is one of the first questions that people ask me, because honestly, what else would they ask me? School is my life right now, it consumes my hours awake and is the subject of most of my dreams. If I am so steeped in something, it should be easy to talk about right? The only problem is, when I try and answer that question, I cannot explain the experience to people who aren’t also going through it. It’s like there is a barrier between myself and the people on the other side, I can’t explain it, and even if I could, they wouldn’t be able to understand it.
This year, I occasionally have thought back on some of my previous adventures, and everything is foggy in my mind. It is only when I re-read one of my old blog posts that my real thoughts and feelings from that time come back… And I haven’t been writing in my blog at all this year. My notebooks are crammed with notes on ways to improve retention rates at community colleges and of meeting minutes exhumed from the Harvard archives, but will I really ever look at them again? So here is an attempt to at least try and get something down before I lose the will to continue.
My Job at MIT:
In July, I applied to a bunch of different internships, two of which really appealed to me. One was being the research assistant for the Career Services Office, and one was being a research analyst at the Institutional Research Office at MIT. I spent the weekend going back and forth between the two. Do I want to stay at Harvard and continue improving my qualitative skills, or do I want to go far outside of my comfort zone at MIT? After talking to those closest to me, I decided that I wanted to take some risks this year, and so I took the job at MIT. My first few weeks were horrible. I have never felt so stupid in my entire life, including when I was trying to learn Turkish. My first assignment was to clean up some SPSS code from the previous year so that we could run the same report using 2013 data. I had no idea where to begin. I would sometimes spend 15 minutes just staring at the screen, hoping that if I stared hard enough everything would suddenly make sense. I felt like it was an obstacle I would never be able to overcome, and that I would be doing everyone a favor if I quit and went to another internship. When I finally completed that project, I was given a new one that involved writing a macro in order to split a data file into departmental level reports. Again, I had no idea what to do, and I felt like an idiot.
This cycle continued until one day it didn’t. Somehow, I had developed the ability to recognize issues in the code or in a data set, and most of the time I could solve it. When I couldn’t, I knew what the issue was, and I could ask someone how to solve it. I started doing projects with more people, and my turn around time rapidly increased, as did my confidence. Looking back on it now, what I do in this internship will most likely be the most important thing I do all year. Not because I am learning important new skills and developing a network, but because I have proven to myself that I am capable of more than I give myself credit for.
The office is also a great place to work. The work culture is both hard-working and relaxed simultaneously, and I don’t really know how they manage it. People can work from home if they need to, or leave early on a Friday, or come in late on a Tuesday… If they get their work done. And everyone does. One of the analysts works best during the hours of 3-7 PM, so she makes her own schedule work around that. We eat lunch at the conference table together most days, and the conversations are sometimes formal, and sometimes incredibly lewd… In the best possible way. It is a really fun group to be around, and the office environment is really enjoyable in general. The walls are all whiteboads, so they are covered in the scribbles of heated discussions of ways to organize data. The pillar next to the conference table, dubbed the “scuttlebuttress,” is the most common victim of graffiti, and is sometimes used in meetings with other departments as well. In addition to the writing on the walls, each cubicle is festooned with each person’s spirit animal, which is decided by the rest of the office. One day last week, I came to my desk and saw that someone had bought a stuffed capabera and left it prominently next to my computer. My first week at MIT, I was told that the intern’s spirit animal was always a rodent, and so I changed my desktop background to a capabera, explaining that I might as well “go big or go home.” I guess it stuck.
Every day, I am reminded how lucky I am to be here. In my advancement course, we read about an example of a controversy at a college, and then spoke to the president of the institution. My Higher Ed and the Law class is taught by the General Counsel of Harvard. My professional seminar course is co-taught by the President Emeritus of Tufts, who is also a member of the Harvard Corporation. My professors are truly leaders in their respective fields, and it still takes some getting used to when I sit down for a one on one conversation with someone who has an extensive wikipedia page.
In addition to access to amazing people, we also have access to amazing resources. For my History paper, I asked for special permission from the Dean of the school to gain access to protected documents, which was granted. The days I spent in the Harvard archives reading those files is something that I will remember for the rest of my life. I have worked in archives before, but there is a reason that people coming into the Harvard archive always tell people behind the desk “it is such an honor to be here.” Not only are the archives legendarily extensive, they are superbly maintained. To give you an example of how freakishly good the archives are, I gave an archivist a call number, and he knew off the top of his head whether there was a finding aid for those files. How is that even possible? They helped me get the resources I needed to write what might be the best research paper I have ever written, and that I am hoping to do more with…
My classes this semester are coming to a close, but I am already looking ahead to what comes next. By the end of this year, I will have taken more math courses than I did my entire time in high school. I am also diving headfirst into research methods courses, and wallowing in as much primary source material as I can. As much as I complain about the workload, or about how little sleep I am getting, this is what I enjoy doing above all else, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
How much of a cliché is it for a graduate student to talk about how much they enjoy spending time with their cohort? I can’t help it though, because it is true. One of our cohort members put it best when he said “you know you are in the right group when everyone thinks that everyone else is smarter than they are.” I get to spend my time with a group of bright, passionate, and ambitious people that care about all of the same things that I do. In addition to our studies, we make the time to socialize, and to go on adventures with each other. I have spent nights on rooftops telling stories and days in Salem at beer tastings. I have watched friends slowly sink into ridiculousness at the Harvard Yale game and slap the bag at Thanksgiving parties. Every now and then when we are all together, whether it is at a bar or in someone’s house, I just stop, and I wonder about all of the amazing things these people will accomplish. This is shaping up to be a fantastic year, and
I am writing this 30,000 feet over Milwaukee, heading westward at great speed towards California. Planes are usually the one place where I can completely unwind. I can wear comfy pants and read trashy novels without feeling guilty on a plane, and sometimes, I can even nap without scolding myself. There is something about flying in a metal tube that registers in my reptilian brain as miraculous enough to warrant a spontaneous sabbath… but I have been focused on another miracle on this journey: marriage. Two of my best friends in California are getting married, and for some mystifying reason, they asked me to officiate. I am honored, moved even, but I am completely stumped as to what to say. I decided to work off of the template provided on California’s Civil Union website, but besides fixing two passive sentences, deleting some fluff, and altering some truly painful phrases, I haven’t made any progress.
The truth is, I don’t even know if I CAN write anything without feeling like a fraud. Thad and Jess are wonderful, and they left it up to me to do as I see fit, but I don’t know the first thing about marriage. I have seen happy marriages and I have seen unhappy marriages, but I have never beenin one. I am further along in that direction than most of my peer group, but I still feel like I did when I tried to discuss politics when I was 15. I have opinions, but who the hell would want to hear them? One of the few things I have learned in the past 10 years is how to defer to people who know a hell of a lot better than I do, and so in this case, I asked my grandparents about marriage. They said “Marriage takes work, but its worth it.” Seven words of wisdom from a couple that has been together for 60 years. Take heed California, you can get this point across without using the word solemn FOUR TIMES IN THE SAME PARAGRAPH.
My uncertainty about what to say during the ceremony has only been compounded by my recent engagement. I am still working through my own thoughts and feelings on the subject, and I have been asking the question “what is marriage” in a different context for a few months now. So if you are still with me, and for some reason you want to know what a snotty 25 year old thinks about relationships, below are some thoughts on marriage that I have developed, acquired, or out and out stolen.
Marriage is a big fucking deal
I had a talk with Connor about marriage, and why everyone is nervous about it. He said that as humans, we look for stability in all things. We want to be able to plan, to know that we have a stable job, to be comfortable. Marriage, however, is the exception. Once you are settled into that particular stability, there is no going back. You can change where you live or where you work, but changing who you are with is a deeply painful process. Marriage is a commitment unlike any other that you will ever make. While this can be scary, it is also something that you can lean on when everything else is awful. Your spouse is with you no matter what, and even after everyone else is gone, you can count on them.
Marriage is not easy
When my friends ask me how to make a long term relationship work, I tell them two things. First, learn how to fight. Figure out why you are angry, and talk about it. Don’t bring things up from the past. Don’t call each other names. Go for a walk or read a book if you need a break from the argument, but tell the other person that you need some time. Respect the other person if they ask for some time. Second, don’t do everything together. Even if you are together all the time, you can find ways to have some time alone. Laura reads while I play video games. She calls this “parallel play.” It is even better if you can spend some time physically apart every once in a while. I climb when she sleeps in on Saturday and Sunday mornings. She is remarkably understanding when I disappear for a week to go to a jazz festival in New Orleans. Without a little time, we would resent one another. I imagine that both of these tenants get a lot harder to follow when your relationship stretches from five years to fifty years, but somehow, I think these will always be two of the most important ones for me.
Marriage is fun
I don’t know when it happened, but I became what I always said I wouldn’t. I prefer having people over for dinner and drinks to going out, even on weekends. Some Saturday nights, I just want to make something tasty and curl up on the couch. I have opinions on the best places to get brunch. I have become a cheap caricature of the steady decline into adulthood. I can practically feel myself dying. But here is the dirty little secret: I love it. I don’t think I would if I didn’t have someone to enjoy it with, but I do, and it is awesome.
Alright. So now all I have to do is find a way to turn those three thoughts into a ceremony that isn’t preachy, self-righteous, but that still conveys the seriousness and importance of marriage. Wish me luck!
A Man sits across from us at the table, the kind of dude that squeezes so much out of life that man has to be spelled with a capital M. We are unsure of why he is allowed to stay at the hostel, considering that he is clearly in his 60s, and that he has lived in New Orleans all his life. These are usually two big no-nos in the hostel world, and yet here he is, holding court in the backyard. The cigarette in his left hand is slowly burning down towards his yellow fingers, momentarily forgotten as he tells us about his night. “We ate everything, we drank everything, we danced with everyone’s mama, we didn’t insult their dads, we fought everyone, we bet on everything…” He trails off to answer his phone, raising his hand apologetically towards us. The person on the other end of the line speaks for a moment before he responds apologetically. “Naw his nose ain’t broke, but it was a close thing. We tried to take care of him, but you know how he is, sometimes he says things…” we can’t hear the rest as he walks off towards the kitchen.
I am 24, and if I had a night like he had, I would talk about it for years afterward, but for this ageless sage, it was Wednesday. The next five days I tried to keep up with the city of New Orleans, but it wasn’t long before I was struggling to stay awake, let alone to keep moving at the deceptively break-neck pace of NOLA. The city chewed me up and spat me out, and I left with the beginnings of a fever and a nasty cough… but I cannot wait to go back, even though I know I will leave wrung out and exhausted.
Everywhere we went in the city, we could always hear music. Whether it was a band that had played together for 36 years, or a middle school kid playing his trumpet for change after getting out of school, music was a part of people in a way I have never experienced before. In the city, a “second line” is when one musician starts playing on the street, waiting for someone walking by to join in. Eventually, a rag tag band forms, and they clog up the street until the police tell them they have to disperse. People would burst into song, or drum rhythms as they walked. I always have a song repeating in my head, but it is never my own song, and I would never feel comfortable sharing it with the rest of the world. It should be no surprise that with a populace this musical, the live music is unparalleled. In some places, the atmosphere is two parts blues and one part smoke, the smell of gin and cigarettes mixing in the dimly lit hall as the bassist grimaces to the beat. You can’t see or hear the person next to you, but it doesn’t matter because the oboe is taking you back to a completely different place, thousands of miles away. Other places are ruled by the playful sounds of the trombone and the sax, as the crowd frantically dances, holding their drinks in a talon-like grip in order to avoid spilling on their neighbors. In one of these places, the power went out, and the musicians kept playing in the complete darkness for hours, and so we kept dancing.
I have never eaten so well in my entire life. Since returning, I have been perpetually hungry, simply because my caloric intake must have doubled while I was in the South. There is a reason that they call it soul food. Gumbo, jambalaya, char-broiled oysters, shrimp and grits, po-boys, red beans and rice, beignets, fried chicken… Every meal was better than the one before, and our days were planned around what we would eat next. We walked through neighborhoods we had no business walking through in our quest for the best food, and it was always worth it.
Most important of all though, were the people that I went with. I am firmly convinced that you could lock us in a hotel room in Cleveland for five days and it would still be one of the best weeks of my life. Granted, if we had stayed in our hotel room we wouldn’t have seen a degenerate get beaten with a giant wooden cross that was stolen from a bar, but the trip would have been memorable for other reasons. I haven’t seen some of these guys for two years, but it was like we were picking up right where we left off. We played card games in a park. We ran in the rain. We talked about all of the things that it isn’t ok to talk about. We wrote stories together. We danced while a man dressed like big bird sang reggae songs. We laughed until it hurt.
I do not remember every conversation that we had, and as time goes on the details will smudge together, but I will hold on to the feeling that I left with. For the first time in too long, I felt like I was a part of something larger than myself. I belonged with these people, and if we wanted to, we could take on the world. Joe is at Columbia, getting his Master’s in writing. Matt is finishing up his Master’s in Italian literature at Indiana. Cass is happily married, and just finished writing his second novel. Josh just finished up his job at the White House, and is looking into jobs as a speech-writer. In ten years, this rag-tag gang of buffoons is going to be making an enormous impact on the world, and we all see it in each other, even if we don’t see it in ourselves. Hopefully, we will still be meeting semi-annually ten years from now, and we will still be talking about the things that we normally have to hold close. And laughing until it hurts.
Whenever I ride on a public bus in California, I have to fight the urge to floss. Let me explain. In California, there is a growing meth problem, and meth enthusiasts have notoriously bad teeth. Many of my fellow public transportation patrons enjoy partaking in some crystal therapy every now and again, which means that they have very few teeth left in their heads. Every time I glance at their gums, I can hear my dentist softly chastising me. She isn’t mad at me, she is just disappointed, and she knows that I can do better.
I feel a similar kind of guilt when I think about my journal. I know that I SHOULD write something, but it takes being confronted with an uncomfortable truth for me to do anything about it. I have four unfinished journal entries buried on my hard drive, and I know that they will never be added to this blog. When I travel, I write almost every day, but this past school year, I haven’t added a single entry. There are a few reasons for this, but it really comes down to how challenging this year has been, and I don’t write about these challenges because I am embarrassed by them. Unlike Trinity, Turkey, or Fiji, these challenges don’t come from my environment, they well up from within, and my doubts can be utterly paralyzing.
While everyone is plagued by self-doubt, I gave my inner demons far too much free reign this year. At first, I felt that this was beneficial. I was applying to graduate school, and my perfectionism helped me be the best applicant that I could be… but it also made me into a nervous wreck. No matter what I did, it was never enough, and every victory only lasted for an hour or an afternoon. If I was accepted somewhere, even with funding, I would have the same thought every time. “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that accepted people like me as a member.” I was actually becoming Groucho Marx. I keep telling myself “if only I can accomplish X, then I know that I will have made it, and then I will be happy,” and yet here I am, still wanting more than I already have, and there is no end in sight.
Another reason why I have not written is that this year seems so much less exciting in comparison to my recent past. I am a human perpetual motion machine, and this year I felt like I was being held in place. Forced to stand still. This is the first time in my life that I have returned to the same job for a second year, which was the perfect environment to apply to grad programs, but it still felt like I should be doing something more. I wasn’t challenged by my work, and I didn’t feel like I was growing, and most of my free time was sucked into the application process so I wasn’t nearly as social as I wanted (or maybe even needed) to be.
So what qualifies as noteworthy about this year? Laura and I have a tiny apartment in Santa Cruz in a really nice part of town. We are minutes from the beach, from town, and from our favorite places to eat. I spend more time with Laura than I have ever spent with another human being. I live with her, work with her, travel with her… and I still like spending time with her. We work really well together, and I am really lucky to be with someone as patient and as caring as she is. Brewing has moved to the back-burner (no pun intended) because I drink so much less now. I probably average a beer or two once every three or four days, and at that rate, it takes me quite a while to make it through five gallons of beer. So instead of brewing, I have been climbing three or four times a week, and I cannot imagine life without it. It is a sport that combines three of my favorite things: critical thinking, strenuous physical activity, and measurable goals. To be a great climber, you cannot just muscle your way through a route, you need to plan how your body will move before you ever leave the ground. That being said, you also cannot gain good rock sense and then expect your body to perform. In order to climb the routes I try and hit, I need to be strong enough to pull my body weight up with two fingers, and flexible enough to lift my leg over my head. The measured difficulty of the routes gives me benchmarks to strive for, and really help me see when and how I am improving.
I have made new friends this year, and I have gotten closer with those that I already knew in California. I have a better understanding of how the world works, and what I want my place to be within it. I have a much deeper appreciation of the natural world after teaching environmental ed to students. This year has been a transition year, and it may not be as exciting on paper, but I have done a lot of growing. I am proud of the person that I am becoming, and it should come as no surprise that I expect great things from myself. Maybe in the coming years I can learn how to have high expectations, but not to set impossibly high and ever changing standards for myself. My successes haven’t come from seeking perfection, they have come from being willing to fail, and I need to remember that as my perpetual motion machine is released back into the wild.
Before I am fully awake, I am painfully aware of my body. My legs ache, my stomach is turning in a slow cycle, and my hands smell like the cigarettes of strangers. It is 6 AM, and I have a mountain range to climb today. On my walk to the bathroom, everything feels off center, and my limbs are responding slowly to my intentions. It slowly dawns on me that I am still drunk. I ask myself, how did I get to be in this state in the first place?
Last night, after a day of philosophical discussion with a gaggle of Germans, I went out with people from the hostel. Among this group of misfits from a dozen countries, I felt at ease, and at home. Just with everything else, not all hostels are created equal. Some hostels feel big and impersonal, some promote an atmosphere of wanton debauchery, while others are militantly quiet. This one was perfect, and everyone knew it. There are people who stay there for years, and even those that leave to find apartments come back most nights to hang out. Within a few hours of arrival , more than half the hostel knew my name, and I had made plans for the next day. Over those five nights, I had conversations that had real teeth, only interrupted by good natured teasing. The second day I was there, I was offered a spot in a caravan crossing Australia, and the third day I was told that I was the kind of person they would want to keep at the hostel for a long time. In my other entries (which I haven’t posted) I wrote about making friends with travelers and locals along the way, but this was the first time that I was accepted into a group, and it felt completely different. Instead of joining forces with another person against the world, I belonged in one. It was a reminder of why I want to keep traveling: to meet new people, and to find that sense of belonging in other communities. I want to find common ground with people who have a completely different perspective on the way the world works. I also want these sharpie tattoos I acquired last night to wash off, and to eat a half kilo of salted peanuts.
I am writing this on a bus, which is significant for two reasons. First, this bus is heading from Auckland to Rotorua. Through the sheets of New Zealand rain, I can catch glimpses of some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. Gnarled trees stand guard over pastures so green that the emerald isle would be jealous. It feels like something out of Tolkien, except for the occasional signs of humanity. When I see fence posts marking where one person’s land begins and another’s ends, it all seems more real somehow. Someoneownsthis land. I wonder how often they stop and look over their dominion and think about how beautiful it is. How often does this happen, compared to the number of times that the dew soaks through their shoes and they wish that they were back inside? How hard would they laugh if they knew that I wish the bus could stop so I could take a picture of the fields they see every day? Or maybe, they feel like I do when I have friends visit me in California. A mix of guilt and gratitude for everything about my life I take for granted.
The second reason why my writing is significant is my ongoing struggle with car-sickness. When I was really young, even 30 minute drives were unbearable. If my five year old self were sitting next to me, he would probably try and glare at me… and then would get car sick from looking sideways and try really hard not to throw up. Sorry dude, it gets better I promise.
So I am out of Fiji after 9 weeks, and even after being finished for almost 48 hours, it still doesn’t feel real. I am responsible for no one but myself. The sense of relief that this instills in me makes me glad that I am not yet a father, because I doubt that sense of responsibility ever goes away… My last days went by quickly, as everything does when you want to savor it. My second to last night, the drivers, maintenance staff, and our builders took me down the hill for some kava. We sat and talked and told stories, while I had an inner struggle that was all too common this summer. There is an unspoken rule while drinking kava with a group of friends, you keep drinking until the kava runs out. If you fall asleep at the circle, fine. If you leave the circle to go to bed… That is just not done by anyone but westerners, the old, and the sick. I often struggled to keep up, counting down how many more rounds until the bowl was finished, but it often felt like the Fijians were like a fraternity of malevolent magicians, conspiring against me. As one of the giant bowls came to an end, someone would pull another bag of kava from an improbable place, and the process would start again. After this happened three times, I insisted that I go to bed. On my way back, I ran into one of the highlands staff, who wanted me to come drink kava with them as well. I couldn’t really refuse, and so the night went on. Somehow, after a few more hours, everyone was shirtless, and our candid conversations had slipped from English into Fijian, leaving me behind. I drifted pleasantly into the rarely visited recesses of my head, and fell asleep. It was a good way to say goodbye.
I haven’t really written about the western staff at all. This was, without question, the most mature group of people I have worked with. Summer programs are usually wrought with drama… Hell, most work environments are. We are all very different people, with vastly different experiences. A social worker from Utah, two science school teachers from Indiana, a jewelery designer from LA, a former Oscar Meyer weiner mobile driver, an RD, a NP who served in the Peace Corps, and me. Somehow, it all just clicked. Some of the best moments of my summer wouldn’t be worth sharing with anyone else, because they focused around stupid conversations and inside jokes. Our staff table when I was at the base was like an island of sanity, a safe haven surrounded by a sea of teenage hormones and idiocy. The day I left the base, we took some pictures, gave hugs, and said our goodbyes. As I get older, it gets harder to keep in touch, but this is a group of people worth staying in contact with.
This week I am near Nadi, so I have internet two days in a row! It’s like Christmas in July!
I do only have half an hour though, so let’s see if I can crank out another two stories.
No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service
At what point can you call someone a friend? Is it when you try to spend time together? When you are glad to see them when you weren’t expecting them? I used to think about it all the time. I have lived in enough new places that I keep having to make new friends, and I am somehow lucky enough to keep finding people that will put up with me. But how did I make the friends that I have? Until coming to Fiji, I wouldn’t have been able to answer that question, but now I have a hypothesis: you are friends with someone when both feel like being with the other person is a safe space. When you can let your guard down and talk about what you are really thinking and feeling, without having to worry about repercussions.
Fijians are very private people, especially when it comes to Westerners. When I first arrived, no one would complain about anything. It was eery how cheerful everyone was, and I started to wonder if everyone I had ever met was an undiagnosed manic depressive. I would ask the staff a question like “What was your favorite summer with Rustic?” They would reply “All of them are my favorite.” I was flabbergasted. I can name my five favorite brands of peanut butter in ascending order, but they can’t choose the summer that had some of their best memories?
I say a lot of stupid things, and people here pick up on that pretty quickly. At some point I pass through an idiocy threshold and they realize that I am too harmless to worry about. That first conversation when they really talk to me for the first time has been different with each person. With one it was a conversation about domestic abuse in Fiji. With another it was about the girls that he fancied and Fijian methods of birth control (this eventually devolved into him singing an obscene song about me, as he played triumphant chords on the guitar. These were all great conversations and even better nights, but the best was a late night story about a pair of shoes.
Some people exude leadership, and their presence demands respect. When they start speaking, everyone stops to listen. This staff member is one of those people, especially in the village. I was telling him about yet another social gaffe I had made that day when he patted my arm and stopped me. “When I was in America, things were hard sometimes. I would be very late, or would be turned away from buildings where I had meeting because I had forgotten my shoes. Things are different sometimes. Things are hard sometimes.” I asked him about his feelings about life in America compared to life in Fiji. “This one [me, Lucian] gets sick and I don’t, because I am closer to nature and closer to God. I think it is better to live like a Fijian, but in this world? Maybe better to live like an American.”
We talked about the different skills we had, and how they are both useful in our own lives, and how we both could benefit from combining what we know. I need to learn to let go, and to enjoy the moment more. He needs to operate on a stricter time schedule, especially when he is working for a Western company.
Fast forward two weeks, and he is introducing himself to my new group of students. “I am this one’s cousin… and Lucian’s friend.” That may be the best moment I have had in Fiji.
Jet Fuel, Overproof Rum, and Ether
"We would mix shoe polish with water and drink it. You get drunk very quickly." Just like most kava conversations, I am not entirely sure how we ended up here. Normally, I am the only one stopped short by these little revelations, but everyone else pauses and stares as well. One of the Indian guys cuts the silence with a question "What the fuck?" "Sure. Or you take some fuel for the planes from the airport and mix that with water. You will be drunk for three days. Last time, I got sick." He pauses to make a face. "So I won’t anymore." Silence from me and the city boys. "That can’t be good for you." I say, in my infinite wisdom. "No, but it is cheap. Why spend $400 on beer for you and your friends when we can drink for free." At this, everyone nods. Someone says "I cannot drink beer. I need the strong stuff, maybe 8 small glasses of Bounty (118 proof rum)." Someone adds. "We used to drink 100 percent alcohol from the hospital. Only $7 a bottle." Now everyone is sharing their cheapest way to have a good time. "Sneeze the glue and eat what is left." "Or use paint cans!" One of the youngest members of the circle adds helpfully. This bizarro Martha Stewart advice continues until we reach our first translation hiccup of the night. They are trying to figure out what a chemical is called that is kept in hospitals, and they need to pause in order to explain the symptoms of taking it. I eventually realize they are talking about ether, and say so, but now they are out of their rhythm. Everyone is looking at me expectantly. "In America, young students smoke marijuana." I say half-heartedly. The man who drinks jet fuel recoils at this and tells me "I would never. It is bad for you." The others nod their heads vigorously in agreement. "Let’s just drink kava tonight, I don’t think this vavilaqi (white person) can drink plane juice." I plead. They laugh, and we start another round.
I only have half an hour to type out some of the things that have happened to me in Fiji. Ready, go.
Gilette, The Best A Boil Can Get; or how Lucian performed minor surgery
I have spent most of my summer in a village of 500 people in rural Fiji. There are no sunny beaches, spas or snorkelling in the mountains. This is a place where people die from fever and from unfiltered water. This is a place that is served by the Peace Corps. There is almost no need for a monetary system in the Highlands, as almost everything that people need is grown or caught in the jungle.
I love it there. In the States, there is a choking sense of isolation, especially for adults, and even more so for adults with children. In Fiji, it is not uncommon for 40 people to talk together into the early hours of the morning, while their children sleep in the next room. Everything is shared (which is why so much of my clothing has gone missing), and everyone takes care of each other. It is no wonder that when I ask my students aout what they are taking away from this experience, most of them say that they will return with a changed perception of community. When they ask me what I am taking away from being here, I tell them the truth, but I don’t tell them this story.
When I am in the village, I am the most highly trained medical professional within a two hour drive in any direction. Just like everything else that happens in the village, everybody in the nearest 6 clans is aware of this. I was given explicit instructions not to use company supplies on villages, but I found an urdu pharmacy where I can find the highest quality Pakistani medicines that money can buy.
In the village, I get pulled aside frequently and asked for help. Some people I can do very little for, others need to get wounds cleaned and wrapped… and some are closer to death than they realize. One of the villagers came to the staff house looking very grave. He has some of the best English in the village, but he spoke to me slowly and softly, which Fijians only do when something is of the utmost importance. “Lucian. Can you come? There is a woman, my mother’s sister, you should see.” I go back to th staff house for my med kit and gloves making sure to enter the bure through the visitor’s entrance. Five pairs of eyes stare at my gloves, and then avoid my eyes. I never feel more like a white person than when I insist on proper health safety.
A woman is lying on her stomach, and I can immediately see and smell what the issue is. She has a boil the size of a fist on her back, which was recently, and haphazardly lanced. There are flies feasting on the wound, and the skin around the boil is a sickly smelly green. I know from funerals held in the village that people die from infection all the time. I also know that there is a very slim chance that this woman will see a doctor, no matter how much I beg. My med kit is woefully under-supplied, without even a pair of trauma shears, and I am all out of sterile dressing. Left with no other option, I had to improvise. I asked if anyone had a pair of scissors, and everyone shook their heads. I asked for a small knife, and somebody came back with a straight razor. After sterilizing the razor, I started cutting off the rotting skin. In some places it was stringy and wet, in others it was dry and brittle.
Towards the end, I asked a friend for help removing the skin as I applied a dressing I had made from a triangle bandage I had ripped into strips. I applied anti-septic to the outer edges of the wound and taped it in place, while I repeated three times that she needed to see a doctor, and that she must change the dressing every day. They said they understood, but I doubted that they would make the trip with her until it was two late. What am I leaving Fiji with? A new found appreciation for access to medical care. You can live a healthy, productive life without electricity and a hot shower, but no one should have to rely on the care of a 24 year old with 100 hours of medical training. I said 6 months ago that I would never get my EMT license, because why would I ever use it? Now I cannot help but feel like I owe it to the people around me to know as much about providing medical care as possible…
Americans Have No Bones
Josese and I have been drinking kava with a few of the elders for five hours now, and I cannot recall the last time I was able to feel my face, or when the world decided to start spinning. Jo looks at me through two red, heavy-lidded, kava-soaked eyes and proclaims “Americans have no bones.” In ancient Fiji, Fijians ate the hearts of their enemies to take their strength and add it to their own. Their bones would be added to the clan’s collection, making their sanctuary more sacred, and their clan more revered. They still do this today with boar tusks… But a person hasn’t been eaten in Fiji in 150 years. My kava addled mental math tells me that Jo believes that American bones are not worth keeping, because we have no strength to be taken. Killing an American would have no honor in it, like getting four of your friends to hold down an invalid while you gave them a thumping.
I am about to object to his comment when I think about some of the Americans Jo has to interact with. They certainly do not provide an accurate cross-section of American youth. I have had the children of 5 billionaires, a handful of actors and actresses, and at least 1 big name director. These are student who work out and flex in front of the mirror, only to scream in terror when a moth flies through an open window. I had a student who collapsed in the ocean and had to be rescued because he hadn’t had any water all day. As his legs spasmed I tried to give him water, but he wouldn’t drink it because it wasn’t bottledI have had students throw down their backpacks and refuse to go farther, students so self-centered that they insulted almost every Fijian they interacted with, and one student that threatened legal action when she was asked to pick up her own trash.
There are great kids in the mix as well. Students that are humble and who work hard to help others and to understand more about life in Fiji. They are good people, but even they are soft. They have to wear shoes and drink filtered water. They need sunscreen and larger portions of food than the Fijians. They often slow down construction because they are not conditioned for the work.
And then there is me. I am and always will be a pale imitation of my Fijian friends. I try hard, but I am like the 6 year old kid who tries to tag along with his cousins until they tie him to something. I suck at spear fishing, I had diarreah for a week and needed to get on an IV drip, and it takes me an embarrassingly long time to cut a path with a machete. Heck, I can barely walk barefoot in the jungle. But I am trying. I have eaten spiders, caught wild animals… and I am right there with them with a towel over my head muttering “its too hot” while my American students sun bathe.
This is what runs through my head as I try to make the two Joseses into just one. I tell him “Maybe you are right. Maybe you can teach me how to have bones. Maybe by the end of the summer I will have a few fingers, or a rib.” He laughs at me as he lifts the bowl to his lips. “Maybe. Maybe no.” A ringing endorsement if I have ever heard one.
There are countless articles that predict an Armageddon brought on by the internet. There are accounts of people who are on for so long that their families leave them, or who forget to eat and end up dying. These always sound ridiculous, but the truth is, I am addicted to the internet. Well not addicted exactly, but I am definitely uncomfortable when I do not have access to it. This past week, our internet at Camp has been down, and I feel cut off from the outside world. This is just one of many excuses I will give for not writing an entry in a while.
Shortly after coming back from the East coast, I left for San Francisco, where I was enrolled in a Wilderness First Responder course. As the name of the certification suggests, this is a course designed for people that are going to be the first on the scene of an accident. Needless to say, I was pooping proverbial bricks. I am good under pressure, but I have never been good with medical procedures. When I transferred into the Needham Public Schools, I found out I needed to get a round of shots. When I was confronted with the needle, I stood up and started circling the nurse like a knife fighter, making sure that she kept her distance. It took about fifteen minutes to get me to sit down, and another fifteen for her to administer the three shots. I have gotten better since then because I work with children, but I am still on the squeamish side. I never know what will set me off. I have been covered in blood, urine, vomit, and poop in my seven years working with youth, but seeing a dislocated knee makes me wobbly. I took the WFR course because I cover the Camp medic for four hours every week, but also because I wanted to get over my squeamishness as much as possible.
I arrived in SF with a full hiking backpack and a long road to the Wharf ahead of me. The hostel I had booked is around five miles from the train station, and my route took me over some of the city’s infamous hills. I was ready to pass out when I got to the hostel, but when I entered my room, I was confronted at the door by a man in his sixties. He was concerned about the pulses that lit up the city, and he claimed that he could hear the waves put off by all electronics. When I plugged in my phone to recharge that night, he left in a huff. I didn’t sleep well that night.
My days during the course fell into a pattern quickly. Our classes were nine hours each day, usually with about six hours of lecture, and three hours of practical exams outside. We learned how to treat testicular torsion, avulsions , and hemopnuemothorax. We learned how to maintain traction, take a full set of vital signs, and give injections (we practiced on each other). After we learned a skill, we were given a scenario with a patient or multiple patients. We then had to decide which patient received care first, find a mechanism of injury, treat the patient, get a full medical history, and then monitor the patients until more advanced care arrived. It was stressful, but I learned a whole lot about myself and about how the human body works.
I also met a lot of really cool people in the class. There were outdoor educators, aspiring climbing guides, and even a yacht captain. Despite the large variety in professions, we were all relatively like-minded. Some of the best conversations I have had in California happened after class each day. It helped me realize how much I missed being with people outside of camp. After a while, camp becomes an island, and I needed to leave it for a while. I got to talk about my feelings with people who weren’t on the island, and their perspectives really made me think about what comes next.
It also helped that many of these conversations happened over some of the best food I have ever had. Every night I went to a different restaurant, and I was never disappointed. The people of San Francisco are notorious for their gastronomical snobbery, and if a restaurant survives, you can bet its damn good. I often walked six miles just to get to some of the best spots in the city, and the Cajun, Mongolian, or American food at the end of the walk was always worth it. These walks also helped me get better acquainted with the city. Sure I got strange looks when I told people that I walked from the Marina to the Mission, but I like knowing how a city fits together, even if I have to walk through some unsavory neighborhoods. Sure some of the homeless on the street were armed like the lost boys in Hook, and I may have been solicited four or five times, but no one ever threatened me.
A lot has happened since my ten days in San Francisco, but I always have trouble writing about things as I live them. I want to figure out how I feel before I commit them to digital paper, and it may be a while before I know what that means. I do not know where I am going to be four months from now, let alone next year, and I need a little time to process that. No matter what happens, I know how lucky I am.
Did you miss me? I missed you. In the past few months, I have started and stopped about 6 blog entries. Their desiccated corpses still lie unwanted in a folder on my desktop, but I am too far removed from how I felt when I started writing them to pick them up again. My body count is far too high to leave this one unfinished, so I promise that this one will get posted.
Let’s do a brief re-cap of the past few months shall we? This summer I was the Assistant Resident Camp Director at Camp Campbell. I did a lot of the organizing and programming for the camp, and put out fires whenever I could. I made phone calls home, sat with kids who got caught doing stupid things, and talked through situations with counselors having problems. At the end of every day, I would pull off my radio and name tag and collapse into bed, but I was happy. I didn’t have time to think about anything except for camp. When you wake up at 7am and work until 12 am, you enter a rhythm that resonates within you on a primal level. Psychiatry only developed when people had enough time to sit and think themselves crazy. Before that, people worked until they fell asleep. Of course, people also only lived to be about 40 or 50 when they worked that many hours in a day, so I need to find a different solution, especially in my current job… but we will get to that.
After camp, I did a whirlwind tour of the East coast, sleeping in five states in the course of a week. I visited friends and family, went to a wedding, and came back even more tired than I was when I left. It also reminded me of what life on the East Coast is like, and what it means to be in the city. Since my trip East, I have a constant ache for home, in a way I didn’t have in Ireland, and that feels distinctly different from how I felt in Turkey.
I got back to camp to start work in the Outdoor Science School (CCOSS), and everything shifted again. I threw myself into my work, and into applications, which melded together to create a form of super-anxiety. There is a completely different culture in CCOSS, and I am still treated as an outsider by many. There is a lot of underlying tension in the program right now for many reasons, which I am sure is common to every workplace, but it is a set of tensions that is new to me. Having to navigate a new political environment while learning a new job is exhausting enough on its own, let alone when all free time is used to write and re-write the same few essays over and over again.
My new job has many difficulties, but I focused on learning the client side ones first. I had evening programming prepared and I was ready for the kids, but I was not ready for the classroom teachers who accompany their kids to the camp. That first week, the kids had a blast, but the teachers were livid. “THIS ISN’T THE WAY THINGS HAVE BEEN DONE IN THE PAST!” Was their rallying cry about every aspect of camp. They complained about the new dining hall, the new cabins, the new discipline system, the brooms… I mean everything. It was the first time I had a negative review from clients, and it hit me pretty hard. The next week was a little better, but was still miserable. After looking at what was done last year and modifying it so I wouldn’t hate myself for doing it week after week, I found a formula that worked. In summer camp, as long as the kids are having fun and learning, the week is a success. Now, I have to be conscious of adults as well.
That is just the first half of my job though. I am also doing marketing and grant writing for the program. I am running a Facebook page, tracking down funding, and leaping through hoops put in place by our Association office. This is the place where I have the most opportunity for growth, but it is also an area I am only now learning how to like. If I want to move up in the camping world, I am going to get farther and farther away from the kids, and sucked in to spreadsheets and data points. My other career prospects, namely in academia, would also pull me in a similar direction. I do not know how people do it. Formatting a newsletter or combing through tax code is an important part of my job, but it is entirely different from what I have done in the past. I am not good at it yet, and it will take some practice.
In addition to the stresses present in my life, there is also the strain that I put on myself. This year was supposed to be about rest, and focusing on this part of my life, but I cannot help but feel like I am spinning my wheels. Clearly I am growing and gaining life experience, but because there is no clear movement up, I feel like I should be doing more. But I can’t do more and still enjoy my life. I had to stop myself from applying to graduate schools in the United States with a sheer force of will, simply because if I had taken the GREs right now it would have broken me into tiny shaky pieces. It is hard to remind myself that I still have time, and that I am doing damn well for a 23 year old, regardless of the state of the economy. I want to make something of myself, but I am wondering what the cost of my ambition is. When will I be satisfied with what I have? Is it bad that I would always be striving for more? Can one strive for more in a less destructive way?
The past few years I have been striving to grow up, and now I need to grow out. What do I mean? I went to Trinity, graduated Phi Beta Kappa, became a Fulbright Scholar, and was the Assistant Director of a Y camp… but I am still not satisfied with my achievements. I need a solid foundation as a person before I keep building up. I need to work on the parts of me that I cannot put on a resume or talk about with people. I need to learn to breathe, relax, and enjoy the life that I am living. Easier said than done, but I am taking steps in that direction.
I am brewing my own beer now, and I am looking for new groups and clubs to join. I am making new friends, and getting back in touch with the old ones, and I am getting used to living with a significant other for the first time. Depending on how my scholarship applications go, I might even get a puppy. The rest of the year has a lot to offer, and hopefully with a little practice, I can learn to enjoy it.