Self

Three or four years into my tenure as an electrician at the Philly Folk Festival, we were sitting around in a rum circle. The rum circle is a fine tradition of Fest. It’s pretty simple: we sit in a circle and pass a bottle of rum—preferably clockwise and never widdershins. I like the rum circle. At this particular one, JG slided up next to me and draped an arm over my shoulder. She said something to the effect of:

At first I thought you were just one of those people [they] bring who comes for a year or two, does no real work, and flakes out. But you’ve really proved yourself. You’re crew.

After getting over my initial discomfort at the idea that I was “just another flake” (not denying I am a flake—I totally am), I found comfort in knowing I was (am) crew.

Being crew is like being in a family or a gang—it doesn’t matter how long you go without showing up, whatever else you do, you’re crew. There is a history, a lineage, you become a part of.

We are by no means close. As far as I am aware, there are few close relationships outside of the several weeks we spend relying on one another entirely. (I understand that everytime someone foots a poorly balanced ladder that holds me 25 feet off the ground, I am trusting them to keep me alive.) There are occasional e-mails and facebook posts. My experiences with these people are fairly isolated.

My relationship with the crew is the same as some of my other important ties. During the brief times we are together, things are as they always have been. In this particular case, our physical location reflects our psychic one. The site is isolated from the rest of the world, it’s own special place, and our home beneath the stage is separate and hidden, it’s own magical, safe realm. The space creates a static reminder of who we are and who we can be in relation to each other and that this is separate from everything else.

Not to say the rest of our lives don’t matter.

Place, geographic, has always been important in how I think of myself. People create a different kind of space. Without us, the area beneath the stage is stark, cold, quiet, and empty. With us, it’s home.

I was in Seattle two weeks ago. Seattle is a strange place I don’t know how to interact with. G visited once as an undergrad and fell in love with parts of it in a rush of lusty passions for something different and a great glass library. S and T moved there after graduation and I went out when they got married.

Seattle and I had a whirlwind reminiscent of Celine and Jesse’s in Before Sunrise. Our time together was marked by the Burke-Gilman, dumpsters, eating from trees, bikes, getting lost in the woods and bay, and feelings of desperation, love, and loneliness.
This recent trip was more subdued. Instead of our initial intensity, we had a much delayed day-after trying to figure out how we could interact with each other—or even if we should. I went to different parts of the city with different people: I was with people I like quite a bit and don’t know how to be around. People I don’t know who I am around; people I don’t know if I’m able to be who I am around.

And then there was S and suddenly I was home and me and everything in the world made sense. For the first time in months, possibly a year, I was m. again. I knew who I was because the strangeness of Seattle now had S, who turns a stark, cold, quiet, empty space into a place I belong to. S and I, the crew and I, have spent seven years building places together. In these places, there is nothing to be except for ourselves.*

*These statements reflect my feelings and interpretations of the world.

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Connection

Waiting in line at Heathrow customs, I looked around and saw that the man behind me was wearing a Steelers jersey. I considered for a moment before raising my hands up to a head level high five and said, in a stadium voice:

Let’s go Steelers!

He broke into a wide smile, took the same stance, and said in his own stadium voice:

Let’s go Steelers!

After this, he paused, eyed me up and down, considering. Then, more uncertain:

Let’s go Panthers?

I grinned wide.

Let’s go Panthers!

Maps

Ken Jennings claims that his success on Jeopardy is directly related to his love of geography.
http://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/xWPMjdvK2j4?rel=0
When you have a location to pin something to, you can picture the place and it can help remind you of a fact. To him, maps are a visual mnemonic.

I love maps. I do not love maps like Ken Jennings loves maps. I do not love maps like David Imus loves maps. But I love them none the less.

When I was a child, my father gave me his old copy of Doctor Dolittle. I still have it. It had a profound impact on my life, practically imperceptible to an outside observer.When Tommy Stubbins first appears with his injured squirrel and hears the Doctor talk to animals, he too wants to learn to talk to animals. Dr. Dolittle tells him that in order to learn to do this, one must be a good noticer. Much like Tommy, I decided to be a good noticer. I spent a lot of time trying to remember details from the world around me, trying to pick up little things that I saw. I am not <a href =”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Ekman”>Paul Ekman</a>, but I don’t want to be like Paul Ekman–I want to be like the Doctor.

Similarly, Dr. Dolittle is quite well traveled. He goes as far as to play a game called Blind Travel, where you take the big atlas, close your eyes, open it, and then point. You proceed to voyage to that place. I always wanted to play Blind Travel, and would pour over maps and globes, randomly pointing at places again and again and imaging what it would be like to go.

Out of this staring at maps, I began to have a shallow appreciation of their beauty.

I don’t pretend to play Blind Travel anymore. I haven’t had an atlas since I was seventeen and moved out of my parents’ house. When I was young, there was a potential–the hope–that one day I would have the resources to go to actually random places. As I got older, time became more scarce and my values changed. Rather than trying to placate my own desires to be a pawn of fate (or chance), I am trying to accomplish things I think will help others. I have responsibilities–financial and social–that keep me from running off to Pushkino, Kazakhstan. Besides, playing Blind Travel with google maps is much less satisfying than the atlas.

I still do use google maps to fantasize. When google earth first came out, AG and I would go on trips together. We’d sit in her room and pull up satellite views of Moscow, St. Petersburg, Havana, Mexico City. I still do this, tracing routes that I could take, looking for how the streets fit together, and trying to imagine what my feet would sound like as I walked.

Everything seems so small and close together on a map. One-thousand three-hundred ninety-four miles becomes inches. I tweak lines, back and forth, to maximize the right towns, national parks, dirt roads, or daylight hours. I follow the interstates, county routes, train tracks, and rivers. I go down the Blue Ridge through Roanoke and past Asheville. I-17 from Phoenix, the 89 to I-15, through Provo and Salt Lake. The two lone highways that go through Wyoming, which I had to take to get to Boise. But really, I just went through Wyoming so I could take the 287/30 through Medicine Bow over green spotted rock piles and lazy mountains. Route 101 and I-5, with through rainforests, impossibly tall trees, mountains, and deserts. With the ocean on one side. I-40 to Memphis and Nashville and I-65 up to Louisville all through green, green, green. That one point in Rhode Island where the hard bike path became a gravel and dirt road for five miles that I slowly slid down. I-10 runs through parts of the South I’ve never been to. When I look at the thousand mile path I want to ride around the UK, I can see the grey skies and the rolling hills. The fields of bright green grasses with flat buildings made of stone, or dub. The train rides I never had the chance to take across Korea. The train ride I did take across a continent. I remember the train stopping at Novosibirsk, getting a gold-foil wrapped ice cream bar with a picture of Lenin on it and wondering if it was the only time I’d ever be there.

Geography is tied to canonical fantasies or memories that make up who we are. The dreams we have, of places we want to go or things we want to do (often in a specific place) are just as important to us as individuals as what has actually happened. The places we have been shape us, by affording opportunity to exposure.

Borders

I’m bad at going through border control. Every time I pass across a national boundary, my passport is checked. I am asked questions. I try to be friendly and truthful. I am nervous. I stutter and stumble and do what I always do when I am nervous: keep talking.

At the border into Canada, the guard asked “Where do you live?” “Boston,” I told him happily. “Where do you live?” I asked back. I was trying to be friendly, assuming he was doing the same. He gave me A Look and said, sternly, “Canada.”

I realized he wasn’t just being friendly.

The first time I went to the UK, I told the lady I was going to Filey. She told me she’d never heard of Filey and wasn’t sure it was a real place. “It’s near Scarborough,” I said. She frowned and after a few moments put the first stamp into my nearly expired passport.

The second time I went to the UK, the man asked me why I was there.

“I’m going to see my boyfriend’s parents,” I said.

“Where’s he?”

“Er, already here.”

“Already here? Why’s he already here?”

“He lives here.”

“Were you a student here?” He paged through my passport, looking for evidence of a visa.

“No,” I said.

“Was he a student there?”

“He’s twenty-eight.” I felt as though this explained everything that needed to be explained.

“So his parents live in Cambridge?”

“No, they live in Cardiff.”

“But your card says Cambridge?”

“Well, uhh, we’re going to Cardiff later.”

“You’re only here until Monday.” It was Saturday morning.

“Yeah.”

“When are you going to go to Cambridge.”

“Today?” I said helplessly.

He smiled.

“Why’s your passport so beat up?” He tried to sound more friendly. I must have looked scared.

“I carry it with me.”

“No other ID?”

“I have a driver’s license too.”

“This is really beat up.”

“I’ve had it for a few years.”

“This much damage comes from carrying it around for a few years?”

“I guess.”

He pages through my passport some more.

“You lived in Korea?” He thumbs the page with my Korean visa on it.

“Yeah.”

“And Russia?” He looks at that Visa.

“No. I was just there visiting.”

“Why were you in Russia?”

“I’d been living in Mongolia. It was a good way to get home.”

He broke. “Mongolia? What were you doing in Mongolia? How was it?”

I told him.

“Do you speak Mongolian? Can you say something in it? Where did you live? Was it beautiful? Did you ride a horse?” His questions came quickly. While I talked he nodded and looked at the other stamps.

“What about Iceland? I hear Iceland is nice in the summer.”

“We went in the winter.”

“Did you see the aurora?”

“Yeah, once night.”

“Is it as great in person as it looks in pictures?”

“Yeah, it’s amazing.”

He looked up at me and smiled.

“I hope you find something amazing here too.” He stamped my passport with a heavy mechanical click and handed it back to me.

Planes

When people ask me where R lives, I truthfully answer “Cambridge.” This, however, is not the clearest answer I could give. If they’ve met him, they pause, slightly confused, and then nod and say “Oh! Okay.”

You see, in the Boston area there is a place called Cambridge.

There also happens to be another place most people call Cambridge and I call “the Other Cambridge.” This little bit of ambiguity either results in me clarifying that I, in fact, mean the Other Cambridge, or being grateful I don’t have to talk about my long distance relationship.

I don’t really enjoy talking about my long distance relationship and people keep asking me about it. This is natural and healthy behavior, of course, and it’s something I do. But, sometimes, I don’t enjoy dwelling on the nature of what that all means or how it happens to change our interactions–how they might be different if he lived in this Cambridge rather than the other one.

In truth, this has all had little effect on my daily life. Instead, moments stand out. In these moments, the impact the modern world has on my relationship are brought forward, pulled in so close I can’t ignore them, and force my attention.

One such moment is purchasing a plane ticket.

In the course of our time together it became quite clear to me that I could not simply expect R to continue to come visit me. At some point it would be -right-, if nothing else, for me to board a plane and hop across the Atlantic as he has now done four times. Frowning over my work calendar, we settled on Thanksgiving. With Thanksgiving, I could go from Wednesday through Sunday and not have to take extra time off. Plus, my mother told me not to visit them for Thanksgiving. She kept insisting, in fact, in spite of my trying to do it. She tried to get out of New Years too, but I’m not giving up.

I am miserly of my days off. I want to hoard them and use them so I can go on the grand trips I used to and dream of–two weeks in Iceland, three weeks biking and camping, a month with my family. However, these trips are far in the future, thanks to my full time employment and firm vacation policy.

Besides, there’s still that week between Christmas and New Years. If I ever run a company, that will be assumed off and you get a bonus if you come work during then.

Anyway.

For over a month now I’ve been getting e-mail alerts about the price fluctuations for tickets between Boston and the UK. I’d comment on them, muse over them, and consider them an odd sign, sigh when they were on sale and I couldn’t afford them, and grumble as prices jumped back up once I could. Finally, once the Job deposited my paycheck for August, I greedily sat down with my laptop, debit card in hand, prepared to buy myself time with my beloved.

(Did you notice that nice use of language there? I really like how that sentence flows.)

R was in town at the time. He watched as I kayaked. I tweaked numbers and times and tried to figure out the best way to get there and back. I pestered him with questions about arrivals and departures and what would work best. Having settled on a flight run through British Airways, I went to their site to book it.

A screenshot of a Kayak-US search for flights between BOS and LHR Thanksgiving weekend 2011.

M's Kayak-US search. Note the top four.

“Hey,” I said. “I could stay in the UK for an extra hour for a hundred dollars more.”

Somehow this lead to a distracted conversation. I went to, for reals this time, order my ticket. R, looking at the Kayak page (he uses their .co.uk page, said “so you’ll be leaving at seven.”

“No, six. It’s a hundred more to leave at seven.”

At this point he showed me the Kayak-UK page. There it was, the flight leaving at seven rather than six, for the same price. They were the same price as each other, not the Kayak-US listing. This is because A) the Kayak-UK price was in pounds and not dollars, and B) when converted, the Kayak-UK flight was actually two dollars US -more-.

A screen shot of a Kayak-UK search for flights between BOS and LHR for Thanksgiving Weekend 2011.

R's search on Kayak-UK. Note the top two.

“Hey, an hour with you is worth two dollars!” I said to R.

I don’t remember if he looked amused.

He suggested I just buy the flight from the UK page. I then had to explain that with international and conversion fees, it would just cost me more. He frowned.

“I’ll just buy it then.”

When I offered him a check, he realized it would be “entirely useless,” as there is nothing he–with his UK bank account–could do with a US check. Paypal keeps GBP and USD in separate accounts. I could give him a stack of cash, but no one really wants 700 USD in cash. Well, maybe they do, but not if the other option is to have it in their bank account. Or to have 434 GBP in their bank account.

In the end, I decided just to buy my own ticket, forsaking an extra hour with my beloved since we had just used about that trying to figure out how to spend an extra hour together. I filled out the information. We shared shock and disgust over the $567.79 of the total cost being attributed to surcharges, taxes, and fees. ($346 for fuel?).A screenshot of the taxes and fees for a British Airways flight.

I appropriately giggled at the ‘title’ list BA offers (‘Sir,’ ‘Dame,’ ‘Lord,’ ‘Lady,’ “Mstr,’ ‘Capt.’)

Finally, I put in my card information and a machine miles away talked to another machine miles away and tried to transfer digits from one machine to another.

But it didn’t work.

“Your card has been declined,” the BA screen told me.

Like all Americans, I have a healthy dislike of talking about money, even though I do it far too much to try and get over this dislike. (The especially hard part here being that R makes quite a bit more than me, and acknowledging that is a difficult point for me which I could easily go on about for a while. At least a five paragraph essay.) A declined card, traditionally meaning you don’t have enough, evokes an immediate sense of embarrassment quickly displaced by indignation once you realize that you can, or ought to be able to, afford it. I didn’t want to have to deal with this around anyone else. But, I had to.

I called my bank.

After a dance around their computerized system, I came to a living person.

“How much was your last deposit?” She asked me for identification purposes.

I glanced at R. “Uhh,” I mumbled my monthly, post-tax income.

“I see,” the lady said. “Well, you had this charge for $700 dollars that didn’t go through. Let me check it out. Oh, I see! It was for an international company. You can’t spend more than $250 with an international company.”

I paused. “How am I supposed to buy my plane ticket?”

“I don’t know.”

I hung up and stared at my phone for a minute. Then, I turned to R very seriously. “I can’t visit you. My bank won’t let me.”

Then I started laughing. At least, I think I started laughing. I hope I started laughing. In between my embarrassment and quickly forming rant at how external forces mitigate my relationship, laughing seems like the only thing one could have done.

Going back to the Kayak page, I looked for other options. Orbitz also had tickets. I bought one from them.

With my bank account looking significantly less happy, I was committed to going to England for Thanksgiving. I began to dreamily talk about baking pies and finding Thanksgiving story coloring books to bring with me, to teach R and his friends the real meaning of Thanksgiving. I decided to make them construction paper pilgrim hats and politically incorrect head bands. I piled on ridiculous plans to try and distract myself from the realization that this will be my first Thanksgiving, one of my favorite holidays, without any of my family.

“Er, can we have it on Friday?” R asked me.

“No! Thanksgiving is on Thursday! It’s always on Thursday! It’s very important that it’s on Thursday.”

“No one will come if it’s on Thursday. They all have work the next day.”

“Oh,” I said. “Well, I guess that’s okay. But we’re going to eat pie on Thursday. And I’m going to make everyone draw hand-turkeys.”