Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Typically, at least eight people come to play Wallyball, but tonight there were just six. After two quick games of three-on-three, one had to leave. The next game was three on two. Even though the court is small, it is much more difficult for two people to defend than three, considering how fast the game is and how a good portion of hits are executed purely by reflex. I played on the team of two with my friend Brijesh. Man, on every volley we had a lot of ground to cover. It wasn't easy, but we won 15 to 6, a large margin by Wallyball standards. With just two people, your alertness rises and you're ready to pounce the moment the ball is hit. When you get to the ball you know you have only two choices: hit it to your teammate or hit it over the net. Thus, you become a more focused and a more decisive player than if you were part of a larger team where you constantly rely on and miscommunicate with your teammates. In this case, the group mentality seems to cripple larger Wallyball teams. "I don't need to get that volley -- Joe's got it."
Coincidentally, the group mentality came up again after the game in a different form. The racquetball court we reserved this evening was one of the special "viewing" courts with a glass wall that spectators can watch through. Thinking it was an open doorway, a girl walked into the glass and bashed her nose - she wasn't wearing her glasses. She dripped red blood all over the white tile floor. Brijesh and I saw what happened and quickly guided the injured girl to a Rec center employee at the card-swiping entrance down the hallway. "Excuse me, do you have a tissue or a paper towel or something? This girl's nose is bleeding." The employee stood there contemplating what I said, then got up and paced in a circle fondling his fanny pack, searching for something. Meanwhile, Brijesh knew there was a bathroom up past the daily-use lockers with a paper towel dispenser for drying hands. Rather than fumbling for a walkie talkie or looking to depend on someone else, Brijesh fetched the towels and the girl's bloody nose was plugged. He did not succumb to the group mentality that someone else will do it. Turns out, the Rec center employee decided to call the goddam ambulance to stop the bloody nose. Now this poor girl is going to have to pay ambulance dispatch charges and endure more complications. If it were me, well, I don't have the health insurance to pay for ambulances, but that's another story...
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Firstly, while working through my second semester (spring 2010) as an Environmental Science Master's Student at Indiana University, I went on many hikes. On one of these hikes, I met a nice girl in my grad program named Joanna. We've been dating since February. Through the spring, I learned the ins and outs of the Clean Water Act in my Environmental Law class, how to use predictive regression models to make policy decisions in my Data Analysis & Modeling class, learned and relearned a suite of calculus techniques in my Applied Math class, and reinforced my understanding watershed dynamics and best management practices in my Lake & Watershed Management class.
Highlights within the semester included a trip to Indianapolis to watch the Olympic hockey final between the USA and Canada (the Canucks won in OT) and then catching an Avett Brothers show at the Egyptian Room downtown. Another highlight was the Maple Sugar festival about an hour south of Bloomington, where friends and I enjoyed axe throwing, tapping the sap from the maples, and warming up with tea steeped in some halfway-boiled syrup water. I also saw Henry Rollins speak at the Buskirk-Chumley theater and our IU basketball team get crushed by Iowa. The state of Indiana grieved both the Colts' loss to the Saints in the Super Bowl and Butler's loss to Duke in the NCAA final. Over spring break, I cruised down to Austin, TX with a couple friends for the South by Southwest festival. For free, we got t-shirts, beers, and saw some great bands such as Minus the Bear. Down there we had some wonderful hosts show us a real Texas dinner including 24-hr smoked beef brisket. On our way out of town, I picked up some authentic cowboy boots, which I wore to my grad program's Gala & Auction fundraiser in April. Then I went to the Little 500 bike race with Joanna, where the "Cutters" team won for like the third year in a row (see the film "Breaking Away" to truly understand what this is).
After final exams, I drove back to New Jersey for a summer internship with the Delaware River Basin Commission. From May to August, I sampled water from the river and its tributaries from the Delaware Water Gap down to Trenton and also took flow measurements in order to estimate nutrient and bacteria loadings. These loading estimates calculated from the data we collected this summer will be used to set nutrient criteria in order to preserve the Delaware River's current "anti-degradation" designation. Our data will also capture a baseline for future comparison after gas drillers up north penetrate the Marcellus Shale and discharge "frack" (hydraulic fracturing) wastewater into the river. I also did some independent research to measure the sediment oxygen demand (SOD) of the fine sediments in the river. In June, I strangely appeared on the front page of a local newspaper and then in the American Roundup section of Stars & Stripes in July. On the side, I watched World Cup matches whenever I could. I also went to Rob's beach house a couple times, fished for fluke (Rob caught one 24 inches long, the biggest on the boat, and won $80!), visited Joanna at a PA state park north of Pittsburgh, and went on a couple hikes with old AmeriCorps friends including a backpacking trip up to the Adirondacks to climb Mt. Marcy, the highest point in NY state. On July 12th, I turned 25 years old, making me eligible for a quarter life crisis. I spent most of August doing bioassessments at Delaware River sites, staying overnight in NY State for a week, specifically Pike County. There I learned exactly why the river has an anti-degradation designation and why we were working to preserve it-- it was gorgeous. Before summer's end, I squeezed in a trip to America's first zoo, the Philadelphia Zoo. I best remember the sloths and hippos. Finally, Joanna flew out to meet me in New York City - we wandered the city, looked out from a castle in Central Park, saw the tunnel from "Home Alone 2," explored Chinatown, and walked on the Brooklyn bridge at night. We took the train back down to Jersey where I showed her Princeton, Lambertville, and New Hope, PA before cruising back out to Indiana for the fall semester.
I spent a lot of my free time in the fall with Joanna. We made scrumptious fresh salsa using Larry's Jersey-grown cherry bomb hot peppers. We went to an IU men's soccer game vs highly ranked UCLA and watched Hoosiers pull away for a 5-1 win. We found and explored the quarries made famous in the "Breaking Away" movie mentioned earlier. They had eerie graffiti and little Christ crosses and flowers for the kids who did not survive the 60 foot jump into the water. We took a dip in a shallower quarry which was very blue and loaded with calcium carbonate from the limestone. We also swam in Lake Monroe, from which the city of Bloomington draws water to be treated for drinking. One weekend, Joanna's friends from Chicago drove down to Bloomington to go camping in Deam Wilderness in Hoosier National Forest. We climbed a fire tower and broke open geodes in the creek beds and made a makeshift shelter with a rope and tarp. In October, me, Joanna, and some friends went to the IU vs. Michigan football game, which was close and had an exciting finish, but of course IU lost, 42-35. Throughout the semester we went to a number of potlucks and brought things like hummus, spanish meatballs (tapas or finger food theme), and pasta salad. We did a lot of cooking in general, out of necessity, but it was enjoyable to try out new spices, techniques, and recipes.
A Dylanesque troubadour named Joe Pug came to town and played at The Bishop down on Walnut Street. I had seen him play outdoors in Austin, TX at the SXSW music festival in March, and I was delighted to see him again, meet him after the show, and buy his album called "Messenger". One weekend Joanna and I drove up to Anderson Orchard, not far from Indianapolis, to do some apple picking. It was a little late in the season so most of the apple trees had been picked clean or the apples had fallen and rotted on the ground, but we managed to fill a peck-size bag with ripe golden delicious. We also gathered, opened, and ate sweet chestnuts that had fallen, Joanna picked a pumpkin, and I bought butternut and acorn squashes. All through the fall, whether I wanted to or not, I watched or heard about the Indianapolis Colts football team. The town of Cream & Crimson turns blue on Sundays. In mid-November, one of my favorite musical artists, Gene Ween, who comes from New Hope, PA, played at The Bluebird. He wandered out on stage, sat on the stool in front of the microphone, and told the audience how he had driven out from New Jersey. And when he started to play Bruce Springsteen's "The River," I just about lost it --for me it doesn't get better than that.
Academically, I learned how to perform spatial analysis with ArcGIS and Idrisi software in my Geographic Information Systems class and I learned the basics of drinking water treatment, wastewater treatment, desalination technology, and removal of water contaminants in my Environmental Engineering class. Additionally, I conducted a research project investigating the fate and transport of pharmaceutical compounds and personal care products in wastewater effluent in the nearby town of Ellettsville. So far, the results of the experiment do not indicate any clear trends. The highlight of the fall semester, however, was serving as a teaching assistant for a Limnology class which covered the physical, chemical, and biological processes of inland waters. I truly enjoyed the opportunity to guide my peers on multiple field trips, teach water sampling techniques, and demonstrate analysis methods in the laboratory. It was just a joy to share knowledge and bring clarity to a convoluted subject. The energy and attitudes of the students fed my enthusiasm, and in return my enthusiasm boosted their energy and attitudes.
Along with my positive experience as a teaching assistant, I simultaneously had a very negative experience in my Environmental Engineering class. The professor was the worst teacher I've had in my many years of school. The professor was tenured and thus immune to the threat of losing his job and he was much more research-oriented than teaching-oriented and thus uninterested in seeing his students succeed in learning new material. Of the duties expected of a teacher, he barely did the minimum. He came to class, wrote problems on the board without much explanation, and recited word-for-word what was on his handouts without much additional explanation. Being in his class was no better than if I tried to learn on my own with a textbook. What's worse is that he didn't know the material in a deep detailed way and he would not admit his mistakes when he was wrong -- being "right" was more important to him than communicating the truth of science. Consequently, this professor lost my trust and respect. He also constructed his exams in such a way that no matter how much someone studied they would get most of the answers wrong, which made the exams more like roulette, a game of luck, instead of an assessment commensurate to the amount of preparation by the students. Since the class's average exam score was an F, he would steeply curve the exams based on the overall distribution of the scores. So instead of Student vs. Exam as it ought to be, it was Student vs. Student. This curving method pitted students against each other, discouraging collaboration in a class where the teacher had left his students for dead and collaboration was perhaps the only avenue for real learning. The bottom line is, this professor was the perfect example of how to be an awful teacher.
At the start of the school year, Mr. Welsh, my former high school social studies teacher/soccer coach died tragically. He had taught/coached for 30 years. Assuming he taught and coached about 100 students per year, that means he reached about 3000 young people during a crucial, formative time in their lives -- the study habits and associations developed in high school can affect the entire trajectory of a person's life. Welsh's influence was undeniably evident based on the deluge of affection and fond memories shared by past students through Facebook and the way his passing shook the community. One former student skillfully summed up the essence of Welsh:
To the Editor: Brian Welsh’s Gifts
In the outpouring of remembrance and thoughts present across the last few days in the connections between alumni of West Windsor-Plainsboro High School, it’s immediately possible to spot the nature of the impact left on our lives by the gifts of Brian Welsh. His personal energy in the classroom was unmatched; he taught with passion, unapologetic bombast, and vibrancy...
In the times in my adult life in which I’ve been lucky enough to teach, I’ve thought often of Mr. Welsh and the other teachers in my life like him. I think often about my own methods, and how there’s an occasional temptation towards teaching by rote, of opening up a standard lesson plan and releasing myself from the responsibility of individual connection.
It’s easy to get discouraged by disengaged students, or perceptions of an apathetic administration, or a thousand other hurdles that can mar the unique and rare talents and joys of being an educator. It’s much harder to tap into the parts of yourself that are more than just the purveyor of textbook knowledge and to continually use those parts to engage and unlock the gifts of your students. It’s much harder to tap into something that can be both grounded and inspirational, and yet still operate successfully within the confines of a classroom.
Mr. Welsh was one of the sterling examples at WW-P of a teacher who could do just that. His lessons echo within me and within the enormous number of other students he reached...
The image of him — voice raised, quick to laugh, face bright red, riling up a room-full of students — remains vivid and clear in my head. That’s the thing about the best teachers we encounter in our lives; we see them for their strengths, and what they can impart to us, and the parts of being human that are epic, and sturdy, and renewable, year after year, giving us wisdom one classroom period at a time. And that is noble and true, but it is not the whole story. And it is easy to forget that.There’s more to all of us, as people, and sometimes that becomes easy to forget, even as memories and lessons learned from our teachers become indelible parts of who we are. And when something like this happens, it’s both a horrific shock and a reminder that the people we idolize and encapsulate aren’t ever that far off from us.
I feel lucky to have known you, Mr. Welsh. Thank you for everything.
WW-P High School Class of 2000
The combination of my appointment as a teaching assistant, experiencing just how bad a teacher can be, and remembering one of my best teachers has opened my eyes to the potential rewards of a career devoted to teaching others. Though my resume is primed for a government position, I may seriously consider teaching as an alternative.
In the new year, I resolve to complete my Master's degree and work hard to find a job. Exciting and frightening to have no clue where I'll be in one year...
Sunday, January 10, 2010
Work List (for those who have not worked in retail)
During the week, with few customers present: restock shelves, pull products to front of shelves, turn products facing forward, move products to new locations, put away returned products, replace missing/faded price tags, sweep floors, dust displays, take out trash, put cardboard in bailer, etc.
During the weekend, with many customers present: greet customers, direct them to a product, help them get a product down with a ladder or help them lift a heavy product, answer departmental phone calls, check a price, make recommendations, etc.
And when all these tasks were complete, the managers would invent some more for no other purpose than to keep us busy.
The seasonal department was half indoors and half outdoors, and I mostly worked indoors. Some of the products I sold were: lawn mowers, chain saws, axes, rakes, tarps, grills, fire pits, space heaters, fans, air conditioners, patio furniture, hoses, pesticides, fertilizers, potting soil, plants, grass seed, bird feeders, etc. My favorite part of the department was the back wall, where we kept the bird seed. Several birds had flown in through the automatic glass doors, and
made themselves at home up in the warehouse rafters and around the bird seed. Seeing these birds living in Lowe's each day would make me smile, but they made it difficult to sell, for instance, a soiled patio set.
One evening, while loading a shiny new grill into a man's vehicle, I learned that birds live right outside Lowe's, too. When the man's head turned away for just a moment, a bird dropped a wet one on the metal cover--Splat! A second later, the man, who wore glasses that magnified the size of his eyes, turned his head back. But, luckily, I had already wiped the astonishment from my face and the shit splatter from the metal using the assembly sheet (Lowe's assembles grills for free) that had been taped to the front. Phew.
Most customers have the misconception that, just because someone wears a red vest with Lowe's printed on it, they not only know where every product is in the entire warehouse, they also have owned each product before and know exactly how well it works. Since, of course, I had never owned the products I sold, I simply had to pretend. In the beginning, I tried honesty, and would kindly tell the customer, "I don't know." Then they would reply, "OK, then get me someone who DOES know." And it sure didn't help that I was probably the youngest-looking person working at the store. For example, a muscular man with gelled hair asked me if we had the "smoking coals" that his grill manual recommended. Thinking about the things we had on the shelves and what past customers had said, I replied sort of shakily "I think they mean woodchips." The man waved me away with his hand and found an older associate who said, "Oh, they're talking about woodchips." And the man was happy.
My youth, which could not be changed, and lack of brash confidence set me back. So, I had no choice but to learn to be a confident pretender, because more customers preferred confident misinformation over meek honesty. But most of the time answers were written directly on the box or in the manual inside the box. And, over time, you remember a lot of these answers. Also, some customers were glad to offer some feedback, good and bad, about products they had already bought and owned. One strange man even whispered in my ear about the possibility of a massive potato famine in New England, like the one that conquered the Irish some years back, and declared that the fungicide held in his hand would save all the potatoes from extinction. On the other hand, a woman railed me personally (not Lowe's) for selling "poisons!" that would contaminate community well water.
It's more important than confidence. I think the majority of adults appreciate manners and politeness more than any other aspect of customer service, speed and product knowledge included. Once I cheerfully greeted an elderly man who was looking at some garden gloves. We talked for about a minute, then he asked if we carried a specific item--we didn't. Then the old man asked me, "Can I shake your hand?" So I shook his hand. I didn't really help him all that much, so the only thing I can think of is that the handshake was simply about kindness.
Another time an overweight man was browsing patio furniture. I greeted him, asked if I could help with anything. After a few words (he was a retired Rutgers University professor who lived in my neighborhood), he shyly asked if we sold any chairs that could support over 300 lbs. Together, we examined the chairs out on display, and found one that listed the proper weight capacity. The man was very appreciative and said he'd call the store later after he spoke with his wife. He called that night and ordered the patio chairs. Again, kindness trumps all.
(During my tenure at Lowe's, I was able to pantomime to a man who could not speak, read a label to a blind man, and lift an air conditioner for a man with one arm. None of them asked for my help until I offered kindly.)
Lowe's plays music to enhance its shoppers' experience, but more importantly, to put them in the mood to buy more things. A while back, I learned from a friend studying social psychology and economics that when people are sad, they tend to spend more money. Consequently, the Lowe's music selection consists of polished poppy downers. And the worst part is that there are only about 25 of them that stay on repeat. And a few, like Tom Petty's Freefallin' or R.E.M.'s Imitation of Life, are not the Tom Petty or R.E.M versions! Instead, it's a mellow, slowed down cover sung by a poor pop singer. Not every song is completely terrible though, since Lowe's must also target new homeowners, the young crowd. So, here and there, you get a surprise tune by Wilco or the Fleet Foxes, but it is rare.
Also, Lowe's might be ignoring the fact that their employees also hear the store music, and sad songs may not exactly help their productivity.
An axiom in the US is that The Customer is Always Right. Customers know this truth and often abuse it to get their way. For example, a man bought a $600+ snow thrower before the recent pre-Xmas snow storm, only to return it the next week in perfect condition to get his money back. His excuse was that the snow chute wouldn't turn, but we checked and it turned perfectly fine. But Lowe's took the snow thrower back anyway. That's Lowe's policy. It's about maintaining a positive long-term relationship with its customers instead of winning a short-term battle and permanently losing a customer(to Home Depot).
Besides the customer being in the position of power, helping customers was also difficult due to poor communication. Customers often would not know the name of, or would be unable to describe, the item they were seeking. Some would come unprepared without a model number or the old part they were replacing. And the worst part is that customers would accuse us, the service associates, of providing poor service based on the communication breakdowns that they created. Since this particular Lowe's is located in a diverse section of New Jersey, english was the second language for a lot of customers. For example, an asian man asked if the engine covering of a certain lawn mower was "marrow." He meant metal. This type of communication lapse was hard to overcome as well.
Some customers don't think before they ask. My favorite: "Do you keep your indoor plants indoors?"
Rich and Poor
Something I like about Lowe's is that it caters to the whole range of incomes. Even though some people have more money or less money than others, they all have home improvement projects, which puts them on even ground. Two recent examples: 1) After the big snow storm before Xmas, there was a rain storm that melted the snow and subsequently flooded everyone's basement. As a result, we sold a lot of sump pumps that day. Anyway, a former Republican gubernatorial candidate (I recognized him because he lives in our town and I used to be friends with his son) came in asking for a sump pump. For some reason, it pleased me to know that a potential governor's basement floods, too, just like everyone else, and that he sought out a sump pump himself at his local Lowe's. 2) I worked Xmas eve, and a very young couple was interested in a low-end grill. The urgency with which they scoped the best grill deals indicated to me that this would be the centerpiece of their Christmas. Once they picked out a grill, I found it for them on the shelf in a box. The lady was on the brink of tears because she wanted the grill assembled for her family to see on Christmas morning. At their request, I rummaged around the grill assembly room looking for an extra, already assembled grill of the model they wanted. I found one, a little banged up, but good enough, and wheeled it down to them. Not caring that the grill was not in mint condition, they cried joyful tears and wished me the happiest holiday. Bottom line is, Lowe's is for everyone.
Yes, working at Lowe's was not the most intellectually stimulating job, but I still learned a lot of things that I would not have learned otherwise. And you can't really complain about the lax dress code (jeans and a shirt with a red vest over the top), the interesting interactions with a range of different people, the physical exercise of being on your feet all day lifting things, and working outdoors (occasionally).
No one is "above" any job, no matter how educated you are. And, especially in these poor economic times, I am damn grateful I had the opportunity to work at Lowe's.
Saturday, November 7, 2009
There are several components to self-governance. Firstly, no one is going to buy the groceries, pack the lunches, cook the dinners, clean the clothes except you. These things should come before school. Without hearty meals and non-grimy clothing, you will surely wither into a greasy, malnourished loser. These necessities form a foundation. If they crumble, then the whole building crumbles. So, health comes first.
If it appears that you have a free afternoon, then you are mistaken. There is always something that needs to be done, whether it is for school, a potential job opportunity, or just a nagging errand. Every minute matters. Simultaneously, one must consider their sanity. No one can just work and run errands every waking moment. But if you want a break to enjoy the outdoors, exercise, nap, or socialize, then you must plan it in to your schedule. Simultaneously, again, one must accept that the schedule never unfolds as initially planned. Every day morphs, and you have to adapt.
Thus, the goal is a kind of flexible rigidity--a kind of balance.
That's a glimpse of the overarching picture of self-governance. On the psychological side, I think the goal is also a kind of balance. I see it as two parts: Confidence and Substance. By Confidence, I am referring to the courage and belief that one can and will succeed (Whether you think you can or you can't, you're usually right. -Henry Ford). By Substance, I am referring to the base of knowledge accrued through earnest study habits.
Since the apparent goal of professors is to assign more work than is possible to finish and to challenge grad students beyond their capabilities, the mean level of student Confidence is often below the detection limit. Some colleagues think they can build Confidence through hard work and long periods of study, through Substance. This is true, but the resulting Confidence boost is small and temporary, only until the next big hard assignment. Other colleagues think they can build Substance through unjustified levels of Confidence. Remarkably, this is also true, but tenuous. The best balance is to develop a strong belief in yourself, even if there is not much backing to hold that strong belief, and then to study like mad to justify that strong belief, accepting the fact it will never be completely justified.
Substance builds Confidence, Confidence builds Substance. You need both.
Revisiting how professors assign more work than is possible to finish, new grad students are forced to make a mental transition. They must switch from their self-imposed standard of work quality (which is probably what got them admitted to grad school) to a new standard of quantity. Yes, this is terrible for those of us who would rather turn one perfect assignment than twenty good assignments. But when you think about it, the latter achievement is more impressive, and more efficient.
The best way for me to explain is to reflect about a ceramics course I took as an undergrad. Our assignment was, given a fixed amount of clay and twenty minutes, to build the tallest sculpture we could using the coiling technique. Everyone worked with haste, and everyone made a respectable piece. Critiquing our accomplishments afterwards, the consensus was that imperfect-yet-perfectly-adequate work could be achieved in a short time. It's a lesson that's reinforced in graduate school.
One last point about self-governance. Planning ahead takes time and energy. So if you happen to have time, energy, and a completeable task in front of you, then do it right away instead of using that time and energy to make a plan to do it later.
To sum up:
-Health comes first
-Every minute matters
-Keep a structured schedule but be willing to deviate from it
-Plan in time for fun stuff
-Be confident, build substance
-Realize that good work can be completed in a short time
-If you have something to get done, do it right away
To govern oneself, to employ these lessons, that's what you learn in grad school.
Sunday, September 27, 2009
Bloomington has poor stormwater drainage, but it is still a good city. Most days are sunny. There are lots of happy families--spouse, child, & dog--everywhere all the time. There's a farmer's market each Saturday with local everything for sale, and I haven't missed one yet. There are competitive pick up soccer games daily. The downtown area is chock full of little shoppes and eclectic restaurants. A number of sports bars show the Bears and Colts games. The town is bike and pedestrian friendly. There are several nice parks in town and nice hiking/camping places just outside of town. This part of Indiana has trees, hills, and lakes.
From my apartment I hear the tweet of birds, the chug of cargo trains, the whiz of cars going down College Avenue, and the rev of pickup trucks pulling out of the porn shop. I live next to a porn shop.
Because I cook with it a lot, my apartment often smells like garlic. I've been cooking for myself a few times each week. It's therapeutic and delicious. I do not like washing dishes, though.
I bought a cheap dirty pink couch at a yardsale for my living room. I've covered it with a navy blue down blanket. My NY Giants pillow rests in the corner. I have a National Geographic World Map from 1988 on one wall and a road map of New Jersey from 2007 on another wall, next to a picture of The Boss posing on Sunset Strip in 1975.
This semester I'm taking Environmental Chemistry, Statistics, Public Management Economics, and Limnology. I also work 10 hours a week as a graduate assistant for an aquatic chemistry professor. And I'm the campus-wide environmental science masters student representative for the Graduate and Professional Student Organization (GPSO). I go to a meeting once a month.
The other students in my program are kind, interesting, and intelligent. It is a privilege to be here learning with them. If you fall down, they pick you up.
At this point, four weeks in, the simple introductory material is ending, and the great workpile is rising. It's time to work hard or, at least, work harder than I have been. Whatever work comes, surely it won't suck as bad as walking a lonely wet mile in the Indiana rain.
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
"What's the matter with his ears? I don't see nothin' wrong with 'em. I think they're cute."
"Hot diggety! You're flying! You're flying!"
-Timothy Q. Mouse in Dumbo
A shuttle van met us in front of Jollyboys at 6 AM. I was drowsy from aggregate sleep deprivation and mild deet intoxication. As we left Livingstone, the roads quickly became narrow and bumpy. My head bobbled between the seat and the window as the sun rose, and my Pixar "Cars" kids sunglasses shaded my eyes to aid rest. A few middle-aged American women shared the shuttle with us. They were on some kind of business trip, and rather chatty. The driver braked, let us out, while the chatty women continued onto something called "Lion Encounter." I had an underlying hope that the result of their encounter would somehow mute them permanently.
Rob, Karen, Nick and I walked over to some chairs and a table set in dewy green grass beside the Zambezi river. We signed in, sat, sipped coffee as the main guide went through the safety protocols. After a quick bathroom call, it was time. In a shady dirt clearing beside a 15 ft high wooden staircase, we waited for a long quiet minute. Then, mounted by men, out from the Zambian wilds, ten beasts came forth-- African Elephants, grey and mighty, pressing the earth with heavy steps. The lead guide halted the parade. The elephants formed a semi-circle around us, then the guide asked us to point to which one we wanted to ride. Rob and I, of course, picked out the largest in the herd. His name was Danny. Danny was comparatively reddish in color, and kind of tatty. Examining his rough skin I observed sporadic patches of hair and some wedges removed from his floppy ears. He had a few warts on his skin that looked like cantaloupe halves. Rob and I climbed the staircase to mount Danny. My legs spread across the padded saddle stretching my groin beyond its comfort zone. A kind Zimbabwean man joined us atop Danny, helped us find some balance and get our feet in the metal stirrups. Soon Nick and Karen were perched on their elephant, Matinda, and the beasts walked single file into the wild.
We led the way since Danny was the biggest. He stood about eleven feet tall. Add my three foot torso and we were 14 feet above the ground, cruising right through the treetops. Overall, Danny's stride was quite smooth, but since I was sitting in a split position, even the slightest jerk was magnified. It was easy to ignore the discomfort though, because goddam we were riding the grandest land animal on the planet! The whole time I found it difficult to fathom the fact we were riding a living creature with an independent brain. The best reminder that Danny was an animal just like us was his insatiable appetite. Danny was always hungry. Without breaking stride, his trunk would, without warning, shoot out to the side, curl around a thick branch, snap, rip it, bring it to his mouth. Then he would chew for the next 50 meters, or until he'd swallowed all his piece of tree. Trees and vegetation are mostly fiber, which goes right through the elephant digestive system, so they must compensate by eating an obscene amount each day--300 to 600 lbs! This also means that elephants probably poop about 300 to 600 lbs each day. Yes, we saw some big droppings.
As we rode, I touched Danny's skin. It felt like there was a one-inch callous all over. When I pushed with my finger, the whole section around my finger went inward instead of just where my finger was. Sometimes Danny would rest his moistened trunk on top of his head, probably with the hope the Zimbabwean man would feed him. When Danny did this, the opening of his trunk pointed right at me, so I received periodic blasts of stinky air in the face. I didn't mind it too much. Danny was easy to forgive since we was a well-behaved, smart, and peaceful elephant. His personality reminded me of the tall weirdo on the playground in middle school that no one got too close to, but everyone respected, whether they cared to admit it or not. Danny was an easy-going, independent thinker--kind of like Napolean Dynamite.
In a sunny clearing Danny cast a massive shadow with three humps on his back (the Zimbabwean, me, and Rob). Ahead we saw a herd of Springbok. They scrammed into the brush when our parade came through. Soon the path went alongside the muddy Zambezi riverbanks, leaving behind frisbee-sized footprints with toe contours. Rob and I watched Nick and Karen's elephant go in for a drink followed by a few baby elephants. Across the river we could see Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean riding Danny with us mentioned how he comes over to Zambia to work, and then goes back home to Zimbabwe where his family lives. The line of elephants tore through the woods toward the wooden staircase from whence we came, Rob and I ducking tree branches along the way.
When we returned, we dismounted via the staircase, then had a few minutes to take pictures, interact with, and feed our respective elephants. Danny sat down and put out his trunk, a lot like a kid holds out their trick-or-treat bag. Rob and I took turns grabbing handfuls of wheatmeal pellets from a burlap bag and put them in Danny's trunk. When I did this, I looked at Danny in the eye. He seemed old, wise, and thankful. If Danny wanted to, he could've mauled us with his hard white tusks or squashed us like watermelons, but he did not. The guide told us they rarely have to resort to rifles, just one or two times per year, to tame the grey giants. After the feeding, we waved goodbye to Danny and the others and watched them march, tails swinging freely, back into the jungle. They had earned some "wild time" after a good hard hour of porting humans around.
We sat at a long table for a nice hearty breakfast: Eggs, bacon, and toast, with a choice of juice. The tourists we sat with were mostly Americans on business or vacation. I spoke with a man from Colorado working in the mining industry. Said he loved how his job allowed him to travel. After breakfast, we watched the video of our elephant ride with Toto's "Africa" as the music. The video was nice, but we had already captured the moment just as well with our own cameras, so we did not make the purchase. We waited for the shuttle van to come pick us up. Meantime, Nick and I chased a little white monkey into a slanted tree along the river bank. In the distance, just above the treeline, we watched a rising cloud-swirl ascend to the heavens. The holy torrents of Victoria Falls were stirring a mere eight kilometers away.
The shuttle van, void of those chatty women (maybe a lion was fed?), pulled up. The driver agreed to drop us off at Victoria Falls instead of Jollyboys, sparing us valuable time. He let us out at a paved lot full of vendors. A wild "marimba man" provided a clangy soundtrack while we roamed the premises. Decorative cloths and jewelry hung from the makeshift roofs while an assortment of carved statues rose up from the ground. It was like entering a cave with stalactites and stalagmites. A second, more sedate marimba man called out to us as he played, asking us to buy a marimba. We walked over, Nick gestured, and the man handed him the mallets. He played a wicked smooth rain dance tune that won the ears of many. When we continued on our way, the man called out to us, "Hey, you come back soon, you remember my name is Stephen!"
We went to a small booth to pay an entry cost to see the all-powerful falls. When we saw a rack of shoddy ponchos for rent along the stone walkway we decided to take a moment to shift around our H2O-vulnerable items. We also went to a restroom to change into swimsuits before moving on. At the edge of a stone cliffside stairwell, there was a gap in the canopy. Behold! Mighty Victoria! A dangerous, unrestrained, uncontained, raging ocean of fury. We peered over the iron bannister and posed for pictures which were conveniently cropped by some hanging branches. Then we carefully bagged our cameras and started down the stairwell, into the vapor hurricane. Since it was the wet season, the total water accumulation was to the max--Vic falls flowed full force. And this hydroforce would spray gallons upon gallons of water back up into the air, creating some crazy acute weather changes. One minute it would be calm and pleasant. The next minute you'd get slapped in the mouth with a bucket of water. In no time we were drenched. I plodded along the puddly path, hunched over my bag of belongings trying keep them dry, but it was futile. Soon we came to small bridge, positioned in the thick of the storm, connecting two bare cliffs. We breathed deep, then walked the plank. The cold hard splashes, swimmer's ear, and bouts of perceived drowning were small sacrifices; we were getting closer to God.
Suddenly, standing soaked in the center of the bridge, came a fleeting moment of peace. The roar of the falls seemed to fade to the background. I lifted my head out of my hunch to see white cream pouring over black chocolate in a jungle of green lettuce. Looking down off the bridge glowing color stripes appeared, and my eyes followed it until I had spun in a full pirouette. This wasn't a rainbow. This was a rainhalo. And just as my lips bent into a cheshire smile, a gust of chubby water pellets brought me back to awareness. But, man, no amount of wind or water could wash off this grin. It was like I had just looked up Victoria's dress.
We retreated from the bridge to the next cliff and then ducked into the forest for some cover. The paths were mostly vacant, but occasionally we saw other folks. For example, we saw a pair of pale, male, shirtless, beer-gutted (you guessed it) Americans. We saw a few retired European couples, moving all slow and casual, checking off one of the "one thousand places to see before you die." We also saw some native Zambians visiting their backyard natural wonder of the world. One Zambian teenager asked to have his picture taken with us. Having a picture with four young white tourists was way cool. It undoubtedly made his day, perhaps his week.
We stopped at a lookout point a good distance from Victoria's vapor. We recuperated there. I removed my supersaturated shirt to get warm, and wrung it out. Meanwhile, we watched people jump from the great Victoria Falls bridge, the third highest jump in the world. From afar, it looked terrifying. I thought those bungee stunt people were insane. I wanted nothing to do with it. But Nick, Karen, and Rob thought it looked fun. They wanted the adventure, they wanted the rush. So, without further delay, we gathered our bags, and retraced our steps along the forest path, over the rainhalo bridge, back up the stone stairwell. In the vendor lot, a young black man approached us. He said he was from Zimbabwe. He wanted to sell us some hand-carved hippo and rhino statues. When we told him we weren't interested, he still lingered, so we mentioned the bungee jump to him, and he was delighted (just like the boy who led us to Jollyboys) to show us the way. We waved to Stephen, the marimba vendor, when we passed him and ambled down a broken road toward Victoria Falls bridge.
It happened so fast. Before I could mull it over, I had already handed over my money (and my life) to the Zambezi Adrenaline Company (ZAC). I blame peer pressure for this. I also blame ZAC's three for the price of one deal. Bungee jump, gorge swing, zip line. All for one irresistable price. The ZAC workers weighed us and scribbled our respective weights in kilos on our inner forearms with a red marker. My nerves hummed from deep within as our stunt quartet neared the bridge platform. The bridge was alive with a crowd of onlookers, pulleys, and dangling ZAC workers supported by ropes, harnesses, and carabiners. ZAC was in a hurry. They wanted to get our jumps in before their lunch break at 1:00pm. It was high noon. 111 meters high, to be exact.
The jump order was chosen arbitrarily by ZAC. Nick was first. He was shirtless. ZAC dressed him with a harness. They wrapped his ankles with towels, for comfort, then tied on a thick rubber cord. Nick stood up. He bunny-hopped to to the edge. Unsympathetically, without pause, the ZAC workers shouted: FIVE! FOUR! THREE! TWO! ONE! BUNGEE! And Nick was gone. Karen was videotaping, watching her beau bounce n' bop like a rag doll beneath the bridge. Meanwhile, ZAC held me captive in a jewel-constricting harness. I was on deck.
On the platform, a young ZAC worker coached me as he wrapped layers of towels around my ankles. He said to just relax, hold my arms out, and most importantly, don't look down. After riding the largest land creature, and skirting the largest water feature, I was feeling quite insignificant. "I'm nothing. I don't matter. See this big animal. See this big waterfall. I don't matter." This realization, along with ZAC's advertised "100% safety!" rating, made it slightly easier for me to toss my body into the gorge. I jumped somewhere between "ONE" and "BUNGEE." I was, in the words of Tom Petty,
"F r e e e e e! . . . f r e e f a a a l l i n!"
Soaring headfirst into the gorge, I did not scream. The closer I got to the rushing water, the wider my grin became. The four full seconds of freefall were windy and long, then I sensed the stretch, which gradually slowed my fall to a halt. At the bottom there was a moment of trememdous tension between Isaac Newton and the Bungee and the discomfort concentrated in the tip of my head. The halt was short-lived. And I was slingshotted back out of the gorge 30 stories into the air. I lost all bearings. My body floppity flopped. Up and down became the same dizzying direction. After a good many bounces, I leveled out and hung. I felt my ankles start to slip through the towels so I flexed my feet and did an inverted sit-up to grab the bungee. I was hanging for so goddam long and I was so goddam disoriented. Then a ZAC worker slid down a rope to the rescue, and clipped me in. Together we maneuvered to the underbelly of the bridge, and he let me off on a steel-clad walkway with a railing. I climbed some stairs, opened a hatch, and was back up on the bridge.
And I was mobbed by a group of sellers. I thought to myself, "these guys know I just jumped, they know I'm disoriented, they know my judgement is out of whack--Andy, you mustn't buy a thing." Though one macho guy in the group impressed me by rhythmically reciting the names of all 44 presidents in order. When he finished, he kept saying "Obama!" over and over. Obama, the first African American president, had been inaugurated 18 days earlier. I ignored the sellers and got to the jumping platform just in time for Karen's jump. I snatched up the digital camera and started a movie. Karen made a mistake. She looked down. She stood on the edge trembling with fear, and I shouted that it would all be OK. When ZAC counted down, she didn't jump. So ZAC counted down again, and Karen, instead of jumping, leaned slowly forward until gravity took her. She screamed the whole way down and all through the first bounce.
It was time for my gorge swing. I put on a new harness and walked onto the small metal gorge swinging platform. The gorge swing is the same height as the bungee jump. The main difference is that you fall feet first, not head first, and enter an arcing swing, not a chaotic bouncing frenzy. On the platform, a ZAC worker told me to grab the rope and NOT to jump out or I would snap my neck. Instead of jumping out, he said I should "step off," and while he was saying this, shit shit shit! It was too late. I had looked down. After a lot of hesitation, the ZAC worker, while lending me a steady nudge, told me to "STEP OFF". The first half of the fall my feet were doing some kind of manic air pedal, then my groin straps tightened. The pain was bearable, and the pleasure of flying through Victoria Falls gorge, a sweet sweet miracle. Being right-side-up, I could see it all. Letting out a joyous "whoop!" I pumped my right arm above my head like twirling a lasso. ZAC retrieved me in time to see Rob's gorge swing. Rob let out a loud chesty howl, his legs flailing searching for solid ground. Rob may have had a tad too much hop in his "step off." When ZAC pulled him out of the gorge, he had two purple spots on his neck. Some blood vessels had burst. Rob was OK. When we convened on the bridge afterwards we saw that Karen, too, had some red spots on her cheeks from ruptured capillaries. We done some extreme shit, man.
Meanwhile the sellers on the bridge persisted. We were Americans with money of value. They were Zimbabweans with money of no value. But, for souvenirsake, we made the trade. I bought a set of $100 million, $10 billion, $20 billion, and $50 billion dollar bills. Only after the transaction did I realize my seller had omitted the grand $50 trillion dollar bill. But no matter since Karen, Nick, and Rob got a few. (Zimbabwe's currency was featured on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart shortly after we got back. He joked how Zimbabwe's economy was so bad that the conversion rate was $50 trillion ZIM dollars for about 33 US cents.) Nick also picked up four necklaces each with a pointy black spirally medallion. The medallion represents the spirit and God of Victoria Falls. We walked back to the Zambian side of the bridge to the ZAC headquarters escaping the sellers and the hot afternoon sun. We drank bottled water and sat at a wooden table. The ZAC men enjoyed lunch.
During the break I found a couch positioned in front of a movie screen. ZAC had filmed our jumps! The main camera angle was from the edge of the gorge, zoomed all the way in on the bridge. When they played the footage of our jumps in sequence, we were sold. While they edited the videos for us, we got ready for part three of the ZAC trifecta: the zipline. The zip from Zam to Zim. I went first. I dangled from the line in my harness for a minute, was given a go, shouted "I'M GOIN TO ZIMBABWE!!" My voice trailed and I was off like a shot. Hanging halfway, high above the green gorge with the brown river running below, the wind cooling my face, time and the zipline seemed to slow down. I was in love with the world.
A ZAC worker caught me, brought me to the bridge, then I had no choice but to step briefly into Zimbabwe. After the others made their peace with the world along the zipline, we took some pictures with the "You Are Now Entering Zimbabwe" sign. Back at the ZAC headquarters, we bought our completed bungee videos. Our original friend who had first led us to ZAC lingered still. Rob bought his hand-carved hippos and rhinos. As we tried to leave, a Zim boy approached me attempting to sell some carved wooden masks. Earlier, I accidentally broke my plastic Pixar "Cars" kids sunglasses, so I offered them to him, perhaps in exchange for a mask. The boy put the sunglasses in his breast pocket. When I said I'd buy a mask he explained that they must be bought in a set of two. I didn't want a set of two. I didn't even want the one mask. When I moved to put my money away, he threw me the one mask and snatched the paper bills from my hand. He didn't take all that much. I see it as a donation to his destitute village. Today I honestly can't look at the wooden mask without thinking of the desperation on that poor kid's face.
We haggled for a cheap taxi back to Jollyboys. Tired and high from the morning adventures, we immediately put in orders at the bar. I ordered an eggs & toast budget breakfast with my beer and we sat around the pool. Another beer. Soon Karen brought an important point to our attention. How are we gonna get out of here tomorrow? When's the next bus leave? Where do we catch it? Soon the four of us were out roaming the crowded streets of Livingstone searching for some kind of bus stop. Old women were selling fresh (and rotten) fruit along the sidewalks. We came upon a dirt field crowded with busy people and blue vans. I was damn nervous and made it my duty to adhere to my friends. Nick and Karen talked to people, gradually piecing together some information. After an hour or so, we arrived at a family-run bus kiosk. There we learned that buses left something like once every 12 hours. The next departure was at 3 AM. Waiting for a bus in the middle of the night in the middle of the city is dangerous. We really had no other options. That would be our bus.
We lounged at Jollyboys until dinnertime when we opted to go out and find a joint called "Fezbar". We had a hell of a time finding it. The creeping darkness of the night didn't help either. The tiny, misproportioned Jollyboys map we were using led us into an eerily quiet neighborhood, so we backtracked, made some more wrong turns and asked a couple schoolkids for directions. They never said a word. Just nodded and led the way. We trusted them. In the dark they took us between buildings, through yards, around fences. After a long minute or two, we stood in the lights of the Fezbar restaurant. Nick tipped the schoolkids kindly and they scurried off into the darkness. The Fezbar was empty. There were cushioned benches all around the edge of the high ceiling room. It had some party potential, but no party tonight. The four of us sat alone at a bar table in the middle of the floor. We ordered Sprites, Cokes, and Fantas to drink. To eat, Rob, Karen, and Nick all ordered cranberry, brie, and bacon sandwiches. I ordered a ham & cheese. From our table we sat patiently, tracking the progress of the two clowns in the kitchen. When the sandwiches finally came, we were disappointed. The sandwich bread was stale. And the four sandwiches were all the same. Four ham & cheeses.
Back at Jollyboys Nick and Karen reminded Rob and I to set our alarms to catch the 3 AM bus. Nick announced that he wasn't going to bother sleeping and invited Rob and I for a swim. We respectfully declined. Rob and I shared our eight person dorm room with two very attractive blond Swedish girls and a merry man who called himself "Broo". Against the wall next to Broo was a little old guitar. I asked if he played. He said he didn't know how, just liked having one, and asked if I played. When I said yes, he extended the instrument across the room to me. It was out of tune. While I was tuning it Broo asked me if I knew any Bob Dylan. So I played "Blowin' in the Wind." Then I played Springsteen's "Growin' Up." Then my own song, "Alice Lenanyokie." Broo and the girls loved it! Finally I played my most popular original, "The Coffee Song". Turns out Broo owns a coffeeshop in Zanzibar. Afterwards, we exchanged emails and he asked if I could send him a recording. I put the guitar down and asked the girls what they were doing in Zambia. They each said they've completed their Master's Degrees in Ecology and were spending some time in Zanzibar with Broo doing a ton of scuba diving. Now they were travelling around the continent. Rob and I told them we were from New Jersey in the United States and that we both graduated from college majoring in Biology. We talked a little about the Green Movement and agreed that we would each do our part to rescue the planet. We wished them well, said goodnight, shut out the light. Our bus was scheduled to leave Livingstone in just three hours.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
I want to rewind a bit. After returning from Namibia in mid-February, I spent a week recalibrating to New Jersey, USA. Then, before April, I made grad school visits to both the University of Illinois and Indiana University (in two long separate drives). I also visited friends in East Berlin, PA and Durham, CT. The time in between these visits was mostly squandered, but notable hours were put towards the open mic nights at my town's coffeeshop, Grover's Mill Coffee. My friend, Sam, accompanied me in March, for a cover of the Beatles's "I've Just Seen A Face." In April, a violinist, also named Sam, joined Sam and I for a few numbers including Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" and the traditional tune "Goodnight Irene." We rocked 'em good. Also in April, I played a short set at something called "Singers in the Round" where a half dozen local artists were summoned to entertain, bring a crowd in on a Thursday night. I played some of my songs: "The Coffee Song", "I'm So Glad to Know", "I Won't Let You Down", and "Part Time Life." I also played Springsteen's "Badlands," but it was Dylan's "Blowin in the Wind" that made the performance. The song was dedicated to the late Gettysburg College student and Roosevelt, New Jersey resident: Emily Silverstein.
I didn't know Emily, but her friends had told reporters she listened to Bob Dylan. The song segued into a simple two-chord finger-picked strum over which I recited the following words:
Loved to dance, smiled all the time
She wore a crown of flowers in her hair
She took her camera everywhere
She never judged anyone
She hugged everyone
She had a messy room
She ate healthy food
She was a writer
She was a swimmer
She was a daughter
She was a sister
After the performance, the shop was somber. Franc, the owner, came up to me red-eyed and said, "Hey Andy, that song you wrote for that girl, that's good stuff." I thanked him for the compliment and then he thanked me for giving his business a shout before ripping into The Coffee Song. Then we started chatting about an apparent shared interest: Bruce Springsteen. I discovered soon that Franc and I could talk for days about Springsteen.
Once the other Singers in the Round had played their sets, I went over to chat with them and Franc, too. I was telling someone I was having trouble landing summer employment, but finally got an interview with the store manager at Lowe's scheduled for tomorrow morning. Franc overheard this and said, "Really? I'm the store manager at Lowe's."
And, so, now I have a job. I sell lawn mowers.
I feel better with a job. There's a constant rhythm to my life, less room for unruliness. I'm busy, I'm useful, I'm making money. But, I will tell you, after the first day of work, there were some amazing stress chemicals coursing through my arms, and I was not at peace. It's taken a week to adjust back to a normal level of stress. Now I am OK, and I welcome the prospect of work.
Before I go on, I want to revisit Studs Terkel's "WORKING" which I cited in my last post. Yeah, like I said, he sure does run the gamut with insightful interviews within the broad spectrum of professions. But I think Terkel overlooked a very important interview. He did not interview someone without a job. If "WORKING" is a science experiment, then Terkel conducted studies on plenty of experimental groups (each different occupation) and omitted the control group (no occupation). Surely my streak of joblessness (now broken!) helped me make this observation. To act as a former representative of the unemployed, I'll share some answers. What did I do all day? I did whatever I wanted, but options were limited because I had no money to spend. How did I feel about it? Initially, fantastic, but that wore off after consecutive weeks of stagnation in the same place. Also, over time my self esteem went down and my sloth/boredom went up. Perhaps the most ideal situation would be to work hard for a few months, then take a few months off, work, take off, and so on.
Each morning, I drive to Lowe's in a red '95 Honda Civic. It has a manual transmission. At first I hated shifting gears, but now it comes naturally, automatically. But the joy of shifting gears to accelerate ("ya haven't really driven till you've driven stick!") is balanced by the anguish of stalling the engine in rush hour traffic (I did it on Tuesday). So there's upside and downside. Additionally, there are a few things about this vehicle that set it apart from other vehicles. First, there is no functioning clock; I never know the time. Second, the spedometer is out of service; I never know my speed. Third, the radio is broken; I never play music. Fourth, it is very difficult to lock; I rarely lock it. As a result, I am not troubled about being on time, obeying a speed limit, changing the radio station, or worrying whether the car will get stolen. When I drive this car, I do nothing but DRIVE, man. It's a spiritual thing. Lately I've taken a liking to Buddhism, but I'll save that for another time.
I promise the Chronicles of Namibia-Parts 5-7 will be posted before I leave for Indiana in August.