Monthly Archives: February 2012

The (bitter)Sweetness of Hindsight

The last time I needed to make about 1,200 copies for a project, it took me close to 4 hours. In a country that continues to develop its infrastructure, what can be considered a basic task can turn into the most complicated ordeal. In the last episode of printing, four hours were spent trudging from copy shop to copy shop when there was no electricity, or copy machines running out of toner, paper jams that resembled DC’s 495 at 8:00am, “out to lunch” signs or just closed doors, prices of 9 cents a copy for black and white (do the math for 1,200), and traditional copying woes like snail-like printing. Don’t even get me started on stapling . . .

Well, this time, 1,200 copies took about 15 min at six times less the cost.

Take a look at my man Martin. With his left hand he’s holding two sets of two sheets of paper together and with his right hand he’s delivering what can only be described as a stapling beat down. The rhythm of his attack is calculated, precise, and deadly; it’s a battle march that carries over the fields and mountains of stationery. The hills and valleys echo his triumphant firing and reloading, and stacks of fresh, 24lb, A4 paper sit in silence contemplating their imminent fate.

He’s a veteran and an active duty juggernaut, so when we proposed the idea of 300 double-sided stapled surveys, he smirked — along with mangu and eggs, he eats projects like this for breakfast. It’s a mere afterthought as he plows through the mess and makes order with four neatly stacked piles to carry out of his shop. He is a machine. In fact, he’s faster than the machine spitting out the copies. He’s outsmarted it and outfoxed it, and chuckles when I consider his work magic.

Like many things in life, and certainly relating to my experience here, I look to the heavens and ponder “Why all this pain, all this run-around, all this difficulty, when 3 minutes from my apartment, stands the solution, the “Martin,” the chief and ruler of the place called ‘Copy Master’ annihilating beasts of  tasks that plagued me.”

The question we may come to when we come out of a struggle could be a bittered, heavy-hearted lament:

“If only I had known, oh what pain I could have saved myself.”

I’m still trying to get rid of that, and indeed, I try  to consider most of my episodes like the copying fiasco as simply elements that help me arrive to the destination. I remember when I used to take two public cars back from Parque Enriquillo, now I take just one guagua. I remember when I paid transaction fees to withdraw money, then I got a Bank of America card and pay nothing to withdraw money from a ScotiaBank (bank friends). I remember being confused in Spanish in relation to what I asked, and then I paraphrased what I heard and asked for affirmation, a simple yes or a no. That changed my world.

We live and we learn, don’t we?

My goal is to make hindsight less bittersweet. And for that, I need to just take the bitter out of the ingredients, so that when I arrive at “Copy Master,” meet the valiant Martin, I can simply snap a picture, get my copies, and rejoice that I’ve finally found the solution.

Oh, how sweet it is.

A Cold Breath of Reality, the Death of a Soul?

Sierra does not enjoy the cold or the snow.

As I kid, my friends told me you couldn’t see the air. They lied. One day when the weather turned cold, a strange thing happened. I could see the air that I breathed. I was fascinated to realize that a thing not seen suddenly took form and became real.

Especially after living in a very hot and humid country, seeing your breath is a bit of a wonder, so stepping off the airplane onto the jet way in Milwaukee last week I was again surprised by seeing my own breath.

It’s a blatant reminder of the change in temperature, and for me, the cold snap of the reality of the passing of a loved one. First, it’s the shock of the chilly air, and the realization that I’m in Milwaukee because of the passing of my grandmother, and second, it again was that recognition of a breath of air manifested into a physical form that took me by surprise as a kid.

I was always confused by the idea of a soul as a child. How exactly could a thing exist that we can’t see, that I couldn’t touch with my hands, that I couldn’t stuff in my Dukes of Hazard lunchbox, or cram under my bunk bed? And if it did exist, was it in the heart, or was it in the mind?

I did know one thing though as kid. When our dog was killed running across the street in Iowa and my dad took my brother and I to a barn to see where he was laid to rest, something hurt deep inside. It wasn’t just my heart, it wasn’t just my mind, something ached for something lost.

I came across a poem by Robert Frost last week when I was home. It’s the same poem I read six years ago, and committed the last stanza to memory.

Robert Frost “Reluctance” written in 1915 (4th Stanza)

“Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?”

I encourage you to read “Reluctance” in its entirety.

To me, the biting cold of winter is like the pain of loss, a reminder of a warmth that has left us. But do we only ever see our breath when the temperature drops below 32 degrees? Is a thing unseen only manifested in the absence of warmth, only in pain or loss?

It is true, the soul is a mysterious thing, as is the nature of life, as is the reality of death, as is every element of the design of the Creator. There are two things that bring me closer to understanding the things of life and death and breath –  first, this video below:

And second, that the dead leaves scraping across the ground of winter came from the trees that proudly displayed their brilliant colors in the fall, leaves that matured during the summer from the heat and rains of summer, a delivery from the bloom and growth of spring.

If winter is the death of warmth, then why does spring come?

If a breath is only visible in the exhale, from where do we draw it in?

If a soul is extinguished in death, then where did it begin?

. . .

I believe less in beginnings and ends, and more in the simple movement of things. Maybe the soul in its journey of life and death is just a change in address.

Last week we passed by 415 Staver Street, but I don’t believe grandma and grandpa live there anymore.

Grandpa’s Handkerchief of a Thousand Miles

Albert always carried a handkerchief with him in his back pocket that he used to wipe his forehead when he worked doing construction. He didn’t understand why people didn’t carry handkerchiefs with them anymore. They were so useful he’d say, and I remember him wanting to give each of his grandchildren one of these practical gifts – new ones of course. He didn’t like how we would throw Kleenex tissues away so easily, it seemed like such a waste to him. He was a man of reason, a practical thinker, a “I can probably fix-it so don’t throw it away” kind of guy.

Six years ago after his funeral we spent some time cleaning out his old home office. To me, it was fascinating to see how he arranged his work, and his specific manner of workflow. There were folders for business, for school, for family, for woodworking projects, and for church. Everything had its proper place and purpose, and he had a daily routine that he kept to. I even remember the date had been updated in the morning on the last day he was alive.

Even until his last days he stuck to the discipline with all the matters and materials of daily life. One thing that sticks with me is that he never took anything with him when he passed on, all his possessions stayed there at the house. Keeping track of my own possessions the past two years has been mediated by baggage requirements: one carry one, and one checked baggage, and yet, I still realize, you can’t take anything with you traveling heavenwards.

I took a handkerchief from Grandpa’s desk six years ago, and I put it on my desk at home. Two years ago when I left the States, I put it in my backpack. It was a simple reminder of the practicality of my grandpa, and of my grandmother, both lived through the days of rationing during the Second World War. It was hot and humid in every single country I’ve visited, perfect for wiping the brow just like grandpa did in construction, but I know the reason I kept that handkerchief with me is that it reminded me of home, of a solid family, of grandparents that cared about me and loved to hear from me.

Next to grandpa’s desk were a few shoes neatly arranged and recently polished. Mom said, “You know when we were growing up, Albert used to have holes in his shoes because he spent the money on us. Over time, he could afford to have nicer shoes, leather, with sturdy soles that could be easily repaired and last a long time.” I tried on a pair to see if they fit. They did.

My parents packed the dress shoes I asked them to bring along for the funeral. I had kept the sturdy ones that fit well, and used them from time to time in the past six years. I had kept Grandpa’s handkerchief with me in my backpack and then at my desk in Santo Domingo. I stuck it back in the pocket of my backpack on the trip home. Arriving to the funeral, I had Albert’s shoes and handkerchief.

. . .

I remember carrying my grandfather as he carried me. I carried his handkerchief with me on all my travels, and I kept it in my pocket Monday morning.

I carried my grandmother as she carried me, one hand on the casket bar, the other holding the handkerchief grandpa gave me.

. . .

I don’t know why I do stuff like this. If you ask people that really know me, they’ll tell you that I’m a person who likes to carry out a movement or a tradition so that it in some ways connects to its origin. I’ve done it with the houses I’ve lived in, the campus of W&M, and the bridges of Richmond, VA and so on.

Helen was being laid to rest next to Albert, something she had wanted for six years, and as I stood on the edge of the grave, I realized, strangely, that it was like I was bringing Albert’s belongings back to him, as if to prove to him that I was a good and faithful servant. Thousands of miles I brought them back to the origin. Wouldn’t he be so proud?

But I know, and I know he would have told me, that he never wanted them returned, he just wanted to see how far they would travel.

I think that’s how Albert and Helen loved their grandchildren, never wanting a permanent deposit, but most certainly a visit, a meal, and stories to see how far they had traveled.

With tears stinging my face on a cold January Monday morning, I took out his handkerchief and wiped my eyes, and put it back in my pocket; I still had plenty more miles to travel . . .

International Lessons from My Grandparents

I was sitting on a guagua (see recent post for definition) coming through El Salvador when a Canadian asked me, “I think it’s so rare to find American traveling through Central America, what led you to make that move?” Before I jumped into all the ego-boosting reasons why it was so rare, cool and unusual for someone like me to be traveling around, I actually stopped to think about the question. Why did I want to travel?

Well that answer has been explored throughout this blog over the past two years, but I know for sure that there’s one experience, or set of experiences, that shaped me growing up.

Thanksgiving in Warren, IL

As a kid, I knew it took longer than 4 or 5 Sesame Street programs (this was my unit of time back then) to drive to Warren, IL from Waterloo, Iowa or from Elgin, IL, and I also thought that was a really long way to drive for food. I’m not sure why we had to go through all the hassle of loading everyone up in the mini-van for something I know mom could have made at home.

Clearly, Thanksgiving is, and always has been more than a meal, and certainly, going to Grandma & Grandpa’s house in Warren, was always an adventure and an international one as well. It was there I learned that not all Russians were communists (Sergei was tall and kind – pictured right) and not just vampires came from Transylvania (a husband and wife explained the difference between Hollywood and reality).

Now, a town of about 1,428 (2010 census) may not seem like a huge international tourist stop, but when we look at Wikipedia we see that Warren hosted many visitors in the past:

“Captain Alexander Burnett was the first known American settler in present-day Warren; he built a log cabin at the corner of what is now the corner of Main and Water Streets in 1843.In 1851 a stagecoach stop was erected on the Stagecoach Trail, the building still stands and is now serving as the Warren Community Building.The village was platted in 1853 along the proposed route for the Illinois Central Railroad tracks and later growth in Warren was heavily influenced by the presence of the railroad. (wikipedia:,_Illinois)

My grandfather, Albert, was a superintendent of schools and my grandmother, Helen, had gotten her masters in education, taught for a good many years and raised three boys and two girls. Education, raising children, and being involved in the local and international community were always important to them.

My guess is that when all those kids left the house, they had to fill it with new ones. Maybe they just missed the noise, but they always seemed to host guests from other countries, and it was always around Thanksgiving when I got to meet them (here’s me trying to learn a new board game – pictured left).

I asked my mom about three years ago how many international travelers my grandparents had hosted and how many countries they’d visited over the years. Here was her reply: (1/15/09)

“[Grandma] said there were 2 guys from Jordan-I remember one’s name was Zadie. She remembered Sergei from Russia, she said there was a couple from India. She couldn’t remember all the countries she and dad visited but I would ask her some names and she would say yes or no. We came up with 25!! They went to 8 elder-hostels in other countries. Here are the names of the countries:

Australia, Austria, Brussels, China , Costa Rica, Denmark, Ecuador, England, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Panama, Poland, Russia, Scotland, Spain, Thailand, Turkey

They went to Brussels to see their Foreign Exchange student Antonio and his wife. Previously they had gone to their wedding in the Netherlands and got to sit in a place of honor in the castle where they were married! They went to see Lyle in Germany when he studied there for a semester. Mom was in a teacher exchange program in Japan where the students brought their own typewriters to class everyday and then the students would clean the schools and then go to the bookstores and stand and read books for a couple hours.

Mom and dad had stuff in their home that different guests would have given them. You probably went with grandpa Tucker when he took the guests to the cheese plant and then to the dairy farm. And of course, they went with us to the Apple River Canyon area to help us “Shoot” a Christmas tree!

To me, the lesson as a young child was this:

The world is big and mysterious, so go explore!

That’s something that’s stuck with me all these years.

So yeah, that’s part of why I’m here, doing what I’m doing. That’s what I told the Canadian in El Salvador, and that’s what I tell the locals why a 6’3” white dude is walking around the community where they live. It started a long time ago, in a small town, over a big table, with tales from travelers from all over the world.

Thanks grandma and grandpa.