14 January 2013

MB Abroad: The Domestic Edition

I left America on September 7th, 2010. I didn’t have butterflies and I wasn’t unsure. Abroad was the right decision and I knew it. I blew up my whole life shoved the shrapnel and ashes into a backpack and set my sights on South East Asia. I was remarkably Zen about it.
The details from that day have faded down to a few sharp memories. I remember seeing the departures sign approaching SFO and feeling my heart hammer. I remember the look on my mom’s face when I stepped into the security line and I remember thinking that she probably had the same look on her face my first day of kindergarten—pride mixed with full-blown mommy freak out. I remember the man in front of me. He was dressed in head-to-toe cowboy regalia. “Where are you off to Tex?” I wondered. Germany it turns out—because he was German. I heard him speaking. He came to America a tourist and returned a Marlboro man. You better get used to this, I thought. The world is about to turn upside down. Forget assumption. Forget normal and expected. Forget fair, rude and rational. Forget it all. You don’t know shit. Accept that and learn.

827 days later I closed the loop. I returned to SFO, the city of San Francisco, America. The loop took me to Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, The Philippines, Nepal, The Czech Republic, Slovakia and France. I wrote 65 blog entries on my way around. I filled memory cards. I updated. I tweeted. I documented well and yet all of it amounts to a single typed letter on a thousand pages of experience.

As I exited the plane and walked toward my waiting family I wondered if America would make sense to me. I wondered if I would make sense to America. 827 days and so much had happened.

My nephew Dylan was the first to greet me. He wrapped his little arms around my neck and squeezed. He is six years old. I have been gone half his life and yet when he squeezed he meant it. My dad asked me about the flight and my sister Jenny led us to the parking garage. A few steps in and America was weirdly unweird.

We stayed at my sister’s place that first night. My mom was there waiting. She hugged me tight and asked, “Are you real!?” She let go and hugged me again. Let go and hugged me again. She needed to make sure I wasn’t going to vanish, not yet anyway. Then she looked at me and with real disappointment said, “You look good. I thought you’d be skinnier.” My mom (like most moms I suspect) seems to think that away from her home cookin’ I am likely to Top Ramen and cold cereal my way straight to scurvy.

Christmas morning we went to my parent's new place in Georgetown, California. Georgetown is one of the original Gold Rush settlements. As far as the history of the American West goes it is downright ancient. The town was founded in 1849 and had the nickname “Growlersburg” because of the heavy gold-laden quartz rocks that “growled” in miners’ pants pockets as they walked around town. My parent's house sits on five acres of grass and woodlands. It is tucked away and beautiful and I think it suits them wonderfully.

My sister Sarah and her family met us there. My nephew Logan came in all sweet and sugary, “Hi Uncle Mike. I missed you!” Then the little dude shot me right in the eye. He got a  foam dart-gun for Christmas. We played a game where he took shots at me and I dodged the bullets from a safe distance. It was fun for both nephew and uncle. Then I said, “Okay, that’s enough.” Which I forgot in kid speak translates to, “CHAAARGE!!”

He let the gun drop to his side, rope-a-doping dumb old Uncle Mike. I leaned over to get a drink out of a nearby cooler and he raised and fired. I took a three-inch foam projectile to the eye. I yelped. He laughed. I couldn’t be mad. I started the game by saying, “I bet you can’t hit me.” He ended it emphatically by proving that he could. I got my drink and an ice cube as well. I held the ice to my eye, pretty sure that a shiner was coming. Sarah asked me what happened and I considered lying to protect my nephew. Then I heard him happily exclaim, “I shot him wight in his eye!!”

I spent the majority of my trip in Georgetown and got caught up on some much needed uncle time. My niece, Zoey is seven, pretty as can be and currently in love with all things Paris. She writes letters and leaves them in my parent’s mailbox—love letters to grandma and grandpa—silly cute.

My nephew Vinnie is three years old and doesn’t know me at all. He was a pink squirmy thing when I left and now he is a two-foot little dynamo with blonde hair and big blue eyes. He does his best to keep up with the other kids but sometimes he falls behind. I was worried about him getting lost so I told him to come and get me if he couldn’t find the others. Two minutes later he trotted toward me bundled up in a down-jacket and a black wool cap. He was holding a neon pink and green squirt gun. He waited for me to finish talking and said, “Uncle Mike. I can’t fin nem.” I melted completely.

And finally from the kids say the darnedest things department. Dylan slept in the same room as me. One morning he said, “Uncle Mike, I didn’t sleep AT ALL last night, cause you were snooorrring.”

“Oh yeah, well I farted on your pillow,” I replied.

“No you didn’t!”

“I did. You slept on my fart.”

He took a moment to ponder this disturbing revelation. His eyes grew big. He had a solution. “Wait!” he said. “Let me smell my head.” He sniffed the air around him and proclaimed, “Not-uh!” 

Being an uncle is fun.

When I was my niece and nephews age we lived in Southern Washington in a small logging town called Yacolt. I loved the years we spent there. I often refer to it as my Huck Finn childhood. It was a time when my favorite toys were a hatchet and a survival knife and me and my dad built glorious backyard fires. BURN PILES!!

In Georgetown, when my dad told me he needed help chopping up a fallen tree I didn’t see it as a chore, I saw it as a chance to play with an axe. My dad and I spent the whole morning whittling down the timber. He cut off wedges with a chainsaw and I attacked them with an axe, cracking and splintering them down to firewood size pieces. By the end I was blistered and beat-up. Exhausted. My dad thanked me for the helping hand and with a laugh I said, “Just because I’m an English teacher doesn’t mean I’m afraid of a little hard work.”

My dad didn’t take it as a joke. He shook his head—dazed by the thought working its way out. “No, you’re not,” he said. “None of you guys are.” He was a man awed by the simple goodness of hard work and by his children’s commitment to that goodness. To me this moment sums up what I love most about my parents. They have never had defined ideas of who or what we should become. They have never pressured or pushed. Be true. Be good. Be happy. That is all they have ever wanted for us. So, now as we chase after our futures full of individuality and blind to the concept of disappointment, they sit back and they watch. They watch as if they walked into a movie they knew nothing about and are delighted by every unexpected twist and turn. I think that is a very rare thing. And I love them for it.

Photo Credit: theimperfecttraveler.com
The start of my trip was about family and the end was about friends. On New Year’s Eve my sister (Jenny) and I headed to San Francisco. All of my travels have done nothing to diminish my opinion that San Fran is one of the great cities of the world. The weather was perfect as we drove in. Blue cloudless skies. Alcatraz. Coit Tower. The Transamerica building. And in the distance with wispy clouds clinging to its arches, the Golden Gate bridge. San Francisco is alive. Its streets are vibrant. And its artist soul is enduring and honest. My friend James whom I’ve known for 20+ years lives among the rolling hills between the Castro District and Noe Valley. His apartment looks out over the bay. By the time we arrived he had stocked his kitchen with every imaginable necessity for party shenanigans. We didn’t have a party. We had a gathering. Chris Kelly and Omar came; homeboys from way back. Joe and Amber came; friends from abroad, Cali kids too. We told old stories. We told new stories. We popped champagne and watched fireworks burst and sparkle over the bay. It was perfect.

The next morning Omar whipped up a gourmet breakfast and James mixed up margaritas. “Hair of the dog!” we lied to ourselves. It was the beginning of a session and we knew it. We sent a picture of our drinks to Shaun, another of the originals who was on his way up from Santa Barbara, inspiration to drive faster.

We hit the streets at 11:30am and didn’t stop until the State of California mandated it fifteen hours later. We went to many bars, the names of which I’ve forgotten, except for Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, because we went there twice and because how do you forget that? By the time Shaun arrived we were in deep. He caught up quick. What was said? Well…I talked too much as I always do. I spewed out equal parts shit talking and love. I listened too. But words were irrelevant. When the boys get together it is about presence. It is about the silent understanding that no matter what changes, weird or wonderful, great or terrible we will always be the same. To be fair, I do remember James and Shaun busting my balls about being drunk. It was way late. At least 7:30 or 8:00pm. And I remember thinking that they were wrong. I remember thinking, They must be drunk if they think I’m drunk. Given the evidence I was clearly in this special place:

The next day was my last day in America. It hurt. It felt like the whole of me had been scooped out and all that was left behind was a cardboard box normally inhabited by a homeless person. Smells made me sick. Car horns made me sick. The breeze made me sick. So, naturally Shaun and I drove all over suburbia visiting family; first his, then mine.

We ended the day/night back in San Fran. We sat around James’ dining room table listening to music and talking about where we would be in five years. James knows. Shaun has a good idea. I don’t have a clue.

Shaun dropped me off at the airport at 3am. The security line wasn’t due to open for another hour. I sat down in the most comfortable looking chair I could find and kicked my feet up on another chair. Giggling caught my attention and for a moment I watched a young Japanese couple flirt, oblivious to the bleakness of an airport lobby at 3am.

I opened a book, "Kafka on the Shore" by Murakami and read slowly, concentrating on the words to keep myself awake. My boarding pass was wedged in the book, twenty pages or so ahead. When I reached it I read every detail; the gate, the seat, the destination city. I burned it all to memory. I moved the boarding pass ahead, twenty pages or so just as before. I read words slowly knowing that when I reached the boarding pass again the destination would be different. This has been my way for going on a thousand days, pages turned, new destinations, a life spent wandering.

America did recognize me—more than I thought that she would. I thought I would need to explain my need to wander. I thought I would need to tell her that I loved her even while I was away. I didn't. She already knew. She followed my adventures and she taught me that they were an extension of herself. And when the time came she pushed me gently forward, toward turned pages and new destinations.

The wheels left the tarmac and grey fell away revealing a patchwork grid of green. The plane rose higher lost in the clouds. It strained against the speed and angle. I watched the ascent sleepy eyed. The clouds were everywhere and then they were gone, a snowy floor on a disappearing world. The morning sky was pink and blue and the sun shone dim and distant. I closed the plastic shade and light danced through the shrinking window not wanting to be ignored. I lowered my hat over my eyes and smiled as I drifted off to sleep.