Wedding + Striptease

It’s been almost 2 years since I’ve written a post here, so I figured it was time for a bit of an update. Or a summary, or at the least a few salient points. Or not: every time I’ve attempted to sit down to write, I’ve learned (and relearned) the impossibility of summarizing years of one’s life in a few short blurbs.

So I won’t even try. Suffice to say that I’m still in San Francisco, I’m still teaching (now at a really awesome school for recent immigrants – check it out at sfihs.com), and I recently got married to a pretty special guy (my abovementioned 菜).

However, I was inspired to write because I’m heading back to China for over a month this summer. In the past year, I’ve felt especially disconnected from the country; it’s been nearly two years since I last visited, and, with my slowly improving Spanish and the mysterious lack of Chinese newcomers at my school, I find myself speaking less Chinese and more Spanish in the classroom. This is good for my multilingualism but less good for my Chinese. It’s been hard to feel like my Chinese is slipping away, all while watching China continue to change and move (from my perspective, in both forwards and backwards directions).

And thus, once again, onwards to China, a land of appropriately chaotic excitement and motion, of ever-changing lights and sounds and tastes, of instability and upheaval strangely rooted in profound continuity. I’m hoping to get a better sense of what’s been happening while I’ve been gone, and hopefully some insight into what might happen in the next few years. I’m looking forward to reconnecting with old friends and students, and re-immersing myself in Chinese and Ti$etan languages and cultures. And I’m sad to leave my 菜 behind as I do.

I’ve always been afraid of stability. While I’ve always cherished having a home base, I’ve worried that being overly committed to one specific life – in one specific place, with one specific job, surrounded by a specific group of people – would be confining, restricting, suffocating; that settling down would limit my ability to take advantages of opportunities that came my way, would limit my freedom to make unusual or unpopular or unexpected choices – and thus make me feel normalized, mundane, uninspired – the Average American.

And so I got married. And both before and after our marriage, I’ve found that “stability” does not necessarily require stasis; that there is much beauty in commitment and connection; that there are many ways to nurture strong relationships and build community while still making the crazy choices that enable us to live our lives completely. I still don’t think I’ll ever find myself one hundred percent “settled” in one place, tethered to one small life, when there are so many experiences and people and places and communities in this surprisingly vast world. But I never wanted to go through this life of exploration and curiosity alone.

And thus, commitment. I could not ask to be surrounded by more loving families and communities of friends to support me through the coming years. But most of all, I’m grateful to my 菜 for committing to me – and to being willing to join me as we explore a beautiful, strange, and inspiring life together.



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The more things change…


I’ve been somewhat remiss from posting for…a year. My bad! Things are going very well (in short). This is from a recent trip to the plateau.

As soon as I arrived in Xining this June, I started a list of things I saw as “Major Changes” since my last visit:

  • New ring road highway around the city
  • New greenway and bikeshare along the river
  • University is moving
  • Public bathrooms are free!!

I did the same when I arrived in RG several days later:

  • Highway!?
  • School is moving
  • New ugly apartment buildings
  • Less poop on the wall outside of the apartment building

Over the next few days, I continued my list, noting changes and adjustments from the obvious to the minute. I found myself getting worked up, upset, mourning the changes that had arrived in a town I considered a second home and afraid of the as of yet unknown changes that might come in the future. The march of progress is inevitable, I felt; I can do nothing to stop, slow, or balance any of these changes. I have no agency here; I am helpless to enact my will as the place I love appears to be slowly, painstakingly, deliberately erased from the earth.

Gradually, though, I found myself falling into old, familiar routines. Waking up to the blaring trumpets of the early morning exercise routine. The old man scouring his esophagus, muscles of the throat fully engaged, then propelling gobs of spit deep into the courtyard shrubbery. Drums, horns, cymbals, chanting; sounds wafting from the monastery next door. The smells of yak butter (pungent) and slow-burning juniper (still pungent, but aromatically so) floating upwards on the breeze past my window. The friendly lady at the store across the street, selling me snacks and drinks filled with cocktails of natural and chemical ingredients; future effects unknown, immediate enjoyment likely. The constant sensation of faces swiveling towards you, pairs of eyes, excitement-rounded, fixed on your back, waiting with expectant curiosity and possibly a dose of fear. Buying tomatoes from a vendor who recognizes you after three years absence, hugging you, asking about your wife and kids, for you are getting a little old now, what are you doing without a family, your own family must be wondering! The familiar slow stroll up the main street, weaving around cars and motorcycles and vans and trucks, parked and moving and stalled, an ebb and flow of humanity, an endlessly continuous choreography of unceasing movement, a dance of unconscious, unthinking perfection. A long run following an animal trail high above the valley, mountainsides warmed and yellowed by a nearer sun, animals stunned out of placid contentment by my passage. The warm embrace of students, impossibly energetic and enthusiastic at the end of a grueling twelve-hour school day, ready to dive into differentiating present perfect and simple past tenses with an almost frighteningly lovable eagerness, the kind that transforms your apathy into energy. The sun setting softly over the mountains, dinner cooksmokes rising into gauzy clouds above ridgetop villages, a soft mist in the valley floor, mountainsides deepening to blues and purples, then to richly textured blacks, the first hesitant stars beginning to dance haltingly overhead, then gaining strength and confidence and finally vividly wheeling overhead to light our path home.

I went away for a few days and returned with an old friend with whom I’d lived and worked previously. As we drove in, she also began cataloging the differences she saw: the tall buildings, the new traffic lights, a bridge. Things were changing too fast, she felt. What had happened to this place? What had the town become?

I now found myself acting as a consoler. Things hadn’t really changed, I heard myself saying; these visible changes are shocking at first, but you’ll quickly find that life goes on as normal. When I first arrived, I said,  I saw the changes immediately – they jump out and smack you in the face, demanding to be seen and acknowledged – and ignored what was the same. But after a few days, I said, you’ll find that everything is as normal, as before.

We spent several more days together, and – aside from the occasional sight of tall buildings downvalley – everything did seem more as before. But then I began questioning: why did I value so highly the familiar ritual and routine? Why was I constantly afraid of changes; why did everything have to stay the same for me? Why was I holding this place, this community, these people in amber; why couldn’t I value them for who they are while accepting (if not always liking) the way they change?

The comfort of nostalgia seems to exist in everything: it is in the bakery downstairs, the grocery shop downtown, the trail on the mountainside, the decorations in the classroom, the old woman circling the monastery, the trash fires lighting the evening street; even the shit stains on the building wall. But while these images are tied to memories and emotions, the roots of and true power of nostalgia lie in the lasting values and truths which these emotional memories represent. I love this town’s natural beauty, cultural monuments, busy market streets, diverse inhabitants, delicious food. But beyond the physical elements which trigger the nostalgia lies the core of what has made this place important to me. The bakery downstairs, the grocery shop downtown: the community in which everyone looks out for each other. The decorations in the classroom, the old woman circling the monastery: the devotion and care which people show towards each other, towards the others, towards living a good life.

The trash fires and shit stains: ingenuity? randomness? Perhaps I’m also simply romanticizing my nostalgia. But regardless of what these memories represent, I do understand why people – such as myself – have such difficulty with change. For change forces us to confront and question the values and truths which we consider central to ourselves as people, and ask: were they truly there all along? Were they, in fact, ever there at all? Do they exist? Are our experiences genuine – or were they products of our imagination? Whether or not we exist, however we think of ourselves – with or without these values and truths and experiences – who are we as human beings?

Some things change; some things stay the same. Next time I go back, I will still be bemoaning the changes I see. But I’ll make equally sure to identify – and focus on – the more permanent values and ways of being that continue to make this part of the world, no matter how it changes, a special place for me.

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An Acknowledgement of Profound Ignorance

Sorry for recent silence! This has been a very busy spring. Also, I can’t get a picture up here…

“Stop talking about this.” Ms. Zhang abruptly turned towards me, her razor-sharp whisper a dramatic contrast from her previously cordial tone. “We can’t let the others hear.”

We were in a second-floor barbershop, an upper-crust establishment whose self-aware class consciousness was reflected in its decor: walls of black glass, punctuated by ‘living walls’ of fake mosses and flowers; ironically large teddy bears amidst seemingly random assortments of decorative items fastidiously arranged into a carefully choreographed disorder; mirrors, marbled floors, and the works. I was squatting next to Ms. Zhang as I talked; nearby, two men sat at a table, seemingly here more for the conversation than to get a haircut or shave. Nobody seemed to be paying any attention to us.

“I don’t want anyone to hear about this,” Ms. Zhang said again, more sharply. “We’ll talk later.”

Pleading a need to use the bathroom as an excuse for absence, I gave Ms. Zhang five minutes of time to cool off before I asked her to talk with me in a more private place – an alcove off the black-glass-lined stairwell. Nobody was in sight.

“I’m sorry that I made you uncomfortable,” I said. “In the United States, having head lice is quite normal – and people talk about it to each other so they can cooperate on taking preventative measures.”

“That must be a difference between us,” she said. “And honestly, I’m surprised that there are lice in America. I always thought that the United States had higher standards of sanitation and hygiene than China. Now, I don’t know what to think.”

“Lice are quite common in many places of the world,” I said.

“I’ve never heard of them happening here in Beijing,” she said. “My grandparents’ and parents’ generations, sure. They had them, but they lived in more difficult times. We don’t have them now.”

We had just visited the Beijing United Family Hospital, a spotless facility in northeastern Beijing staffed with foreign doctors and graduates of top Chinese medical schools. The spotless exam rooms, pastel-colored furniture, and sterile hallways seemed straight out of an American hospital to the point that I could barely tell I was in China. Posters advertising special “Birth + 4 Days Postpartum Care” packages and “See Our New Neurosurgeon: Special Price!” lined the hallways. Doctors and nurses bustled with a smooth, unrushed confidence around the buildings.

We were here because a student had gotten head lice. Upon learning this, the student’s Chinese host parents – one being the abovementioned Ms. Zhang – became extremely worried.

“We have four generations in our house,” she said. “I need to guarantee everyone’s safety. Who’s to say this parasite won’t spread around the house and prove to be too much for the grandparents?”

“And our child – when she goes to San Francisco – can’t stay in the American child’s house,” she continued. “I’m shocked that their house would be so unsanitary as to have such a major infection.”

Our local partner organization had a similar understanding of head lice. Upon my announcement to the 37-strong group of American students I’m with here in Beijing, the faculty and staff from the partner organization were visibly confused. Their subsequent online research revealed that head lice were dangerous and frequently carried deadly, very infectious diseases. After exhaustive explanations of how lice are viewed, are spread, and are dealt with in the States, the others remained convinced that lice were a major hazard to public health and welfare (not to mention life and limb). As such, we ended up taking the student to the hospital while the other family members – armed with hundreds of yuan-worth of cleaning supplies – thoroughly disinfected their apartment from top to bottom.

And so, on a Sunday afternoon which happened to be the family’s great-grandmother’s one-hundredth birthday, we found ourselves in a hospital of near-Western levels of sterility, facing a skin doctor whose expression indicated that she was unimpressed by us and the problems with which we could provide her. After a perfunctory inspection of samples taken from our student’s hair, she came back to tell us the results of her investigation.

“This isn’t a big deal,” she said in a flat, emotionless voice. “Kids get this all the time here. Most schools, especially those in less sanitary areas, have lice outbreaks three or four times a year. You just have to be careful: disinfect all sheets and any fabrics that have come in contact with her hair, and wash her hair extensively with a special shampoo – for which I’ll give you a prescription. The description of how to use the shampoo is on the bottle. That’s it.”

“Can you get any diseases from the lice?” asked Ms. Zhang.  Minutes earlier, she had been sobbing in a nearby consulting room, worried about the safety of her family and the student she was hosting.

“This is not a big issue,” said the doctor, evidently bored. “Just follow the treatment plan and you won’t have any issues. We can bring her back and take a look in a few days if you’d like.”

After picking up some lice-killing shampoo, we headed out of the hospital to the abovementioned hair salon for a cut. Cutting the student’s hair short seemed to help Ms. Zhang feel better about the idea of lice in her family’s house. As we exited the shop, she seemed more relaxed but still somewhat flustered.

“I’m shocked at America’s sanitary condition,” she said, continuing in the same vein as before. “I thought the United States was so clean. I can’t believe you live with this!”

“In fact, this is very common in the states, especially in schools,” I said. “Most kids get lice at some point – and in most schools, lice ‘alerts’ go out three, four, or five times each year.”

“So does every household have lice?” she asked.

I explained that lice come in waves which hit large numbers of students at one time. I explained that students’ families then communicate about the issues and take immediate measures to kill off the lice – and then, that everyone is lice-free until the next outbreak.

“Wow,” she said. “I can’t believe that this parasite is so common there. You are so developed and wealthy; I wouldn’t expect it. I wouldn’t have guessed that us Beijingers would be more advanced.”

An awkward, spastic flicker of a lighbulb began to flash a dim and inconsistent light into my brain, a moment somewhat less than an “Eureka!” but a realization of sorts nonetheless.

When I’d talked to the student’s mother in America about lice, she was shocked that the host family seemed unfamiliar with them. “Lice are common many places I’ve traveled,” she said. “I thought they’d be more prevalent in China too.”

When I mentioned this to Ms. Zhang, however, she was shocked. “We haven’t had lice for years,” she said. “They used to be common in our parents’ and grandparents’ times; not anymore. The student must have brought them over herself.

Here, I bumblingly made a politically incorrect suggestion: that, as the student in question had already been in China for two weeks, and that the lice had appeared no more than twenty-four hours earlier, the lice themselves might have originated from somewhere in China.

“Bu keneng!” she said forcefully, a new energy blazing in her eyes. “Impossible! We don’t have them in Beijing. There is no way that the student got them here.”

The issue, I realized, was not simply about the lice themselves. This was about social status, both real and perceived, in the new China. This was about the old idea of ‘face’ – between nations, cultures, and individuals – writ large across the modern social landscape.

Lice, as the doctor said, are common, especially in rural areas. As such, they are seen as symbols of poor sanitation, poverty, and backwardness. For it to be known that one has lice in one’s home is tantamount to being seen as a tu baozi (literally, “dirt dumpling”), an uncultured and unwashed country bumpkin. For people who have spent their entire lives working tirelessly to improve their families’ material well-being and social status – indeed, to escape the fate of being a tu baozi, whether real or perceived – this was a serious matter indeed.

Ms. Zhang’s family had already put themselves out on a limb by welcoming a foreign student into their house for three weeks. Now, the fact that the foreign student had brought the dirt and stench and emotional baggage of poverty and of the countryside (or at least the stigma of such) into their clean, modern Beijing apartment was too much. The lice and the idea of their presence needed to be fully eradicated – hence the haircut – and whatever happened, it was crucial that nobody could know that the episode had ever occurred.

My first trip to China was a decade ago, an epically-proportioned high school choir trip that opened my eyes to another side of the world – and to the possibilities of the earth’s diversity. Since that time, and especially over the past five years, I’ve invested considerable time and effort into gaining at least a rudimentary grasp of Chinese language and culture. And yet, I lack the cultural knowledge and competence to successfully handle one American student’s case of head lice.

The more you know, the less you know; the longer I spend learning about China, the more it becomes clear how much I have to learn.

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Adventures Continue!

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Cliches about having not updated the blog for ‘too long’ aside, I simply wanted to share recent adventures and happenings rather than delve into some deep sociocultural morass of ethics and behavior. We’ll see where that gets me.

The last few months have been quite busy. To wit: I haven’t updated since Halloween. Many things have happened:

  • A delightful backpacking trip to Iva Belle Hot Springs in the John Muir Wilderness.
  • A journey to the Philadelphia homestead for Thanksgiving. It was Mike’s first time visiting the city, and came away impressed by our teeth-clenchingly bitter defensiveness of the place and all its cranky, particular glory. He also came away feeling that no matter where he travels, it will not be as nice as the Wissahickon.
  • A short ski-hut trip to the eastern Sierra that saw us driving through a massive snowstorm (and breaking a chain on the way) and past encouragingly high drifts to get to an even higher-elevation area that was mysteriously low on snow. After skinning up below Bear Creek Spire, we had an interesting run down through a boulder field.
  • Immediately subsequent to the hut trip, we traveled to Salt Lake City to visit Mike’s family (in his grandmother’s house) for the Xmas – New Year’s week. It was an immensely relaxing vacation (for me) during which we were fortunate to be liberally snowed upon. I have rarely experienced the type of powder that we found in Grizzly Gulch near Alta; excessive face shots were had by all. We also went ice climbing with friends Nick and Peter; it was nice to get back on the ice after nearly five years! I had lots of beautiful snowy runs, explored the city, hung out with family, and spent a day teaching Mike to telemark ski. Most unusually, I celebrated my first Christmas ever and received all sorts of unusual and exciting gifts.
  • From Salt Lake, I flew to Kunming (transferring through San Francisco and Chengdu) to begin my scouting trip for this year’s international programs. Over nearly three weeks, I visited Kunming, Dali, Xi’an, XN, RG, and Chengdu, the vast majority of which time I was legitimately doing work. Really: this was my only opportunity to wrangle out the details of all of my school’s new programs for this year. At the same time, I had the opportunity to have fun and see a lot of friends. Most relaxing were my final three days in RG, where I was able to stay in my old apartment! Nothing quite feels like home without the ever-present aroma of yak-butter candles and bsang
  • While I was in China, there was serious trouble on the home front, with our landlord making frequent legal threats and preventing us from adding individuals to the lease. We have also been in constant roommate-switch-mode, with one roommate moving out and another temporarily decamping to Jackson Hole – leaving us with a series of (friendly) subletters. At least my room was intact upon returning!
  • And finally, I returned back to work at school to have my mother and a good friend from China arrive on the same day.

It’s certainly been an exciting run (I even forgot Mike’s lab group retreat in Yosemite last weekend!), and things won’t let up soon: I have three trips to China in my future, along with (more immediately) a trip to Oregon and – assuming the snowpack increases – a hut trip in Yosemite.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about the future: where to go, what to do, and how to do it. For the time being, however, I’m busy enough traveling and moving around to barely have any conception of what’s next. I’ve always been told by my parents to live in the moment – in their words, to ‘be here now’ – but I am sometimes so mentally in flux that I’m not quite sure where the ‘here’ is to be. Be where now? Be there then? Be where when? I’m never certain, but at the very least I’ve been lucky to experience a plenitude of amazing moments along the way.

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Updates! Chaos!

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Random stuff. Above pics are from a late September trip to Thousand Island Lake.

There has been so much work recently that I haven’t had time to even think about updating this blog! So, for now, I’ll do a quick-and-dirty overview of things that have been happening and things I’ve been thinking about. When I have a few minutes of breathing room later next month, I’ll return to drama-filled existential postings about nothing in particular.

The past month has also been filled with a variety of new experiences, each of which merits a short mention. With an immense amount of help from colleagues, I wrote my first federal grant to create a new high school study and travel program in Kunming. While the process was as procedure-bound as I expected, it was also exciting to be able to create something of nothing, to build program ideas and possibilities out of what seemed like thin air and to make ideas a reality. I’m particularly excited for this program as it would give me the opportunity to work once again with high school students – an age group that I miss and feel drawn to teaching in the future. With this older group of students, I can be less structure-bound and more experimental in creating programming, and can involve students more in decision-making processes. I can have students build their own independent projects and courses of study, and can give a fair bit of freedom when we are traveling or on field trips.

And yet this program (and the two other new programs this year), though exciting, leads to a challenge about which I’ve recently been thinking quite a bit. As it currently appears, job responsibilities require me to be in China for nearly three months this summer. On a basic level, I love China: I love the daily pace of life, the feeling of community, the sensation of having never-ending streams of experiences both familiar and blindingly new, the feeling of being in a state of perpetual revelation – of constantly absorbing and learning and understanding and becoming impossibly puzzled at the miraculous fact and experience of life that surrounds you. I similarly love travel, new experiences, new people, and new ideas – not to mention getting away from the eerily empty ghost town that is a school in the summertime.

And simultaneously, I feel drawn back by personal connections. Previously free as the wind to pursue random adventures at the blink of an eye, I now find myself – for perhaps the first time in my adult life – in a relationship which has become so important to me that it makes me question the value of my previous ‘freedom.’ I do not feel tied down, limited, or bound in any way; I just feel a different range of conflicting motivations than I did before. How do I balance the exigencies of my job – and my desire for adventure – with the desire to maintain this strong, loving relationship? How do I simultaneously lose and keep myself; or, in better terms, how do I work with my partner to build upon each others’ strengths and transform each other into better, more fulfilled, happier people (and all that associated crap)?

I’m not having any kind of crisis of confidence, or confusion about where I’m going – I’m just learning how to recalibrate my life balance in the wake of some important additions and changes – and doing so makes me feel like a toddler who just pooped his pants: not quite ready for prime time.

Additional updates of note: I ran my first marathon a few weeks ago, a beautiful course through the towering trees of Humboldt Redwoods State Park. The first half, during which time I was running alongside half-marathon competitors, felt like a jog; the second half, in which I was completely alone – four minutes behind the leader and fifteen minutes ahead of everyone else – was quite painful and provided a reminder of how much of running success is mental. While I was moderately happy with the result (having competed in only one race since college, I didn’t really know what to expect beforehand), I’m thinking about how I can train in a more focused, purposeful manner, and how I can better prepare mentally and physically before and on race day to run a better time. I welcome any and all marathon suggestions – especially scenic, fast courses!

And on the theme of running, my kids’ cross-country season is wrapping up, with the final race next Monday. It’s been fun working with the group this year; while a lot of excellent 8th grade runners left for high school last year, we’ve managed to build the team into a great group which has achieved a lot of success!

There’s too much other news to relate – much unimportant – and so I’ll allow the two people who still read this blog (thanks, Mom and Dad!) to finish whatever more important things they were working on before they were rudely interrupted. More stuff to come as soon as I can have another half-hour break!

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All Things Converging

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The past month has felt like a massive convergence of people, places, tasks, ideas, thoughts, and pretty much everything else. Each day, avalanchings of oldness and newness and all of the associated paperwork and logistics seem to come lashing down onto my head, with little time or space for breath, movement, air.

Maybe it’s been the start of a new school year, with all of the associated growing pains accentuated by the many new faculty and staff (who are, it should be said, absolutely awesome). Maybe it’s been seeing friends come back from Asia once again, and seeing my students go off to college all across China, hopes and dreams weightlessly, endlessly fluttering, direction and existence subject to even the mildest of gentle spring breezes. Maybe it’s been thinking about the next year or two on the daily walk to school – routines, in the simple fact of their existence, tend to bring out all the boundless unplumbed depths of curiosity and wanderlust and wonder within me – the apparent solidity of the present and the liquidity (or airiness) of the future and its possibilities and the adventurings and experiences, themselves currently more unknown than the darkest sides of the most distant moons, that time will bring.

Regardless, it’s been a busy month. I’ve been planning a number of new China trips for my school, coaching cross-country, running the outdoor education trips, and taking three classes at three different schools on the side. Additional commitments will be starting soon. I’ve also been trying to enjoy the weekends as much as possible: biking, backpacking, running, and generally getting outdoors as much as possible have kept me in as sane of a state as I’ve ever been privileged to experience. I’ve been lucky to have been on a backpacking trip to Kings Canyon, a bike tour in the Santa Cruz mountains, a camp(ing) trip in the Russian River woods (albeit with 6th graders) and too many long crazy runs to remember. It is these experiences where I am able to process what is going on around me at a pace I can manage: not the pressured I-need-to-find-something-intelligent-to-say-NOW pace of class discussion, or the somnolently inglorious waltz of life in the office, but a slow, steady cadence, unhurried but continuous and persistent – something that will get there in the end.

There’s also lots of excitement coming up: a trip to the Ansel Adams Wilderness is on the docket for this weekend, followed by more potential trips in October-November and Thanksgiving in Philadelphia. Cross-country season is in full swing, with teams having competed well at the first meet, and I will be running my first marathon in Humboldt next month. Trips to China are coming together – more of them than ever before. My mind, effectively, seems less adrift than spastically jumping from one thing to another. Just as everything has converged, my mind seems to have derailed, or at least jumps rails continuously, as if searching for the right gauge and track. And yet, the locomotive rushes on, September already nearing its end, and with no clear gauge or direction in sight.

But luckily, all the options look promising. I can only hope that time slows down just enough to permit some degree of appreciation, relaxation, reflection, calm.

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News About Town

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Also quite random – but more of an update. 

As stated in the previous post, it’s been a long, mostly office-based summer without much in the way of blog updates. However, when I say this, I start to think back over the past few months, and in doing so realize how many different things I was actually able to do this ‘vacation.’ While I’ve been frantically attempting to plan few ‘summer’ backcountry trips to the Sierras over upcoming weekends, I’ve been reminded that – although there were (sadly) few trips to the mountains – I was lucky to have been privy to a wide variety of different experiences. To wit:

  • My summer started in China. Yes, I was working for the first few weeks, but the fact of being in a foreign country makes both work and life more exhilarating, engaging, seductive, fascinating. Even if it’s a place I might think I understand or know well, foreignness and difference always have the capacity to surprise, to disturb, to trouble, and to make you constantly question everything you think you know about life and the world and human nature. It was fun to see many of the students come to China with low expectations, middle school cool-kid apathy palpable in their eyes and faces and speech, and to have these expressions of boredom transformed in an instant into wide-eyed wonderment at the simplest, smallest experiences: the richly chewiness of roast cumined mutton, the chaos of crossing the street, the beverages and snacks at the corner store, the daily small talk with the street vendor, the enclosed neighborhood of exercise machines and majiang and card games and elderly women snacking and chatting and men smoking and spitting sunflower seeds and mothers, babies wrapped onto backs, husking corn or peeling garlic into massive vats in which, hours later, they will wash their faces and perform their daily morning ablutions. The smoky hazy sunset over distant mountains, the simultaneous illumination of the streets below, where, in the cooling air, families and babies and restaurants and bars and beer gardens and kebab vendors and dentists and bicycle repairmen and nail-clipper saleswomen and all of the monstrously confusingly vast diversity of private and public life moves outside onto the sidewalk, where, under the aseptic glow of government-issued compact fluorescent bulbs, it unfolds in front of whichever audience members are interested enough to give it a passing glance. If nothing else, I hope that my students in China regained a passing tinge of that infantile and innately, intensely human sense of wonder, that curiosity about the world and its astonishing diversity that sparks us all to learn and strive and push ourselves ever-onward towards things amazing and unknown.
  • Immediately after the kids left, Mike and I were lucky to travel to QH for an unfortunately short period of time. It was great to see everyone and spend some time decompressing from the previous few weeks in one of my favorite places in the world. You know the drill: spreading grasslands,  distant mountains, and all that awesomeness.
  • Next up: due to a rapidly expiring visa, I embarked on my solo journey back to San Francisco, followed by two days of frantic work in the office (mostly wrap-up from the trip), then followed by another flight back east to the homeland (not QH – the real homeland, Philly). This I’ve covered previously: it was great to be home, visit family, see a friend get married, and get some of my thoughts about life and where I’m going in order.
  • Back to SF, where I worked for several weeks in an empty school. In mid-July, a small army of students arrived from Beijing Sanfan Middle School for two weeks of study and travel and cultural immersion here in San Francisco. In general, compared with the students from Taiwan, these kids were much better behaved and respectful (with a few notable exceptions!). While busy, I had a great time taking them around the area and organizing an academic program that seemed to go off quite well.
  • During this time, we took a short overnight to Castle Rock State Park. One of the highlights (for me) was an absolutely epic sunset over the Santa Cruz Mountains – not simply because it was finally starting to cool off after an intensely hot day, but also due to the shockingly fluorescent colors streaking the sky.
  • The students departed, and I continued to work normally for a little while. Soon, my parents arrived, and we took a family trip to Point Reyes to belatedly celebrate my father’s 60th birthday. Relaxing, calm, pleasant – in that Point-Reyes-civilized-wilderness-wine-and-cheese-on-the-remote-beach kind of way.
  • Another few days at school, and then – once again – off to Colorado for Mike’s brother’s wedding! In a beautiful rental lodge high on a plateau behind Pikes Peak, I met the whole family, participated in a dizzying array of wedding preparations, and subsequently sat back and enjoyed the festivities. In spare time, we went hiking on Pikes Peak and I had some fantastic runs on a spiderwebbing network of ATV trails that began right next to the lodge driveway.

And now, after a week of training and preparation, we’ve started school. With work continuing as always (if in a slightly more structured way than during the summer – midday runs are now nearly impossible!) and adventures planned in the next few weeks, not to mention the gradually warming temperatures as San Francisco approaches its real summer in September-October, it feels like my ‘summer vacation’ is just entering another phase. While I listed to friends’ adventures far and wide (climbing peaks in the Sierras and the Cascades, the usual panoply of Alaskan odysseys, trips all over Asia and beyond, and mishaps of all sorts), I do feel those tinges of jealousy creeping back into my thoughts. But I look back on this year and cannot feel anything but grateful. While I’ve often wanted to be elsewhere (or doing other things), I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to have the opportunities and experiences I’ve had, and to meet and surround myself with a great group of people. And now, having recently passed my year-in-the-US milestone and with Rosh Hashana approaching, I look ahead and see nothing but a wide, big-sky-country-vastness (not the boring Willa Catheresque plains variety – the cool, Montana-mountainous kind) of explorations and adventures to come, a distance of unimaginably endless possibility which – like the best of anything yet to come – is completely unknowable – and for its unfathomability, all the more worth looking forward to.

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