Aug 152016

Audrey Hepburn meanders down 5th Avenue, gazing into Tiffany’s display windows while casually nibbling a pastry. The most iconic flaneur of her – and perhaps any – generation, Hepburn may have made the little black dress famous in Breakfast at Tiffany’s opening scene, but what I remember most is her triumph of aimlessness. “Happiness is reading books and going on walks,” a Due West student told me last year. Or as I’ve already quoted J.G. Hamann elsewhere in The Wander Years, “When I rest my feet my mind also ceases to function.”

I don’t go on that many walks in Beijing. It’s a city built for bikes and taken over by cars, and though some of the canals offer decent promenades, I don’t know anyone who would call the pedestrian experience here particularly joyful. Biking, however, is a thrill a minute. I commute to work 15 minutes each way by bike, and the physical exertion is not the only thing responsible for my elevated heart rate – far from it. Which is to say, biking’s lot of fun.

So maybe it’s not surprising then that I found myself in 江水何村 (Jiang Shui He Cun – literally He River Village) this past weekend, simultaneously realizing I’d lost my joy of walking in its very rediscovery. I’d caravanned there on Saturday – nearly 150km from the city’s center but still within its limits – to hike 灵山, Spirit Mountain, the tallest in Beijing, on Sunday. After a dinner of fresh rabbit and goat (our B&B chef was a skilled butcher) with just enough baijiu to wash it down, and before s’mores, I stole away from our mid-2000s revival dance party to escape the neon and sodium glow of the village in search of the last remnants of Perseid’s annual light show.

I crossed a malnourished creek and headed uphill, past horses tied to their posts for the evening. For some reason, I always feel happier going uphill. Besides, up was where the street lights ended. And as the thump of the Bluetooth speaker faded away, I felt return, in a rush, the sensation of a traveler exploring an unknown town. Everything was novel, everything was ordinary, everything was important and nothing was. Through unshuttered windows I saw the soft blue glow of CCTV 5’s Olympics coverage, or the conclusion of a late dinner, cigarettes burning themselves out next to empty vessels. Four streetlights to go, then three, then none. The road turned to gravel, and the stars exerted themselves finally. After traversing all those light years, it’s a shame it’s the thinnest sheet of atmosphere that puts up the hardest fight. In front of me, just above the horizon, the Big Dipper drew an involuntary chuckle of recognition: it was the Big Dipper that greeted me every evening as I emerged from my tent, that summer I spent living in one in Vermont, now many summers ago. Their transportive quality may be the stars’ greatest gift to us.

The lights of He River Village well behind me, I found a low cement wall on the left side of the road, just wide enough to lie on. I focused on a point directly above me. A breeze I couldn’t feel rustled the leaves of a stunted tree to my left, and the music-box ringing of bells hung from restless necks drifted up from the field below. I had a million thoughts and none, was a part of the universal consciousness and utterly apart from it. And there, in the periphery of my vision, where the stars were brightest but unfocused, a flash. Then another. Faint like they weren’t real, but they couldn’t have been anything else: visitors from another world, tracing their lines of fire across our atmosphere.

Cloudy Stars

It was enough. I rose, brushed the dust off my back, and walked back down through the town. The hot coals and marshmallows were waiting where I’d left them.

 Posted by on August 15, 2016 at 8:14 am
May 102015

My friend Chris Farlekas died last week. He was 86.

I never knew either of my grandfathers, and my last living grandparent, Grammie, passed away when I was 9. So it’s always been convenient, when trying to explain the role that Chris has played in my life, to start by saying he’s sort of an adoptive grandfather. But that never seemed quite right to me.

I think it’s because grandfather-with-quotes implies a certain directionality of the relationship that just wasn’t there. Your “grandfather” is your old neighbor you got to know because he made lemonade for you in the summer, or the guy you met while volunteering at the nursing home that you called gramps for fun until it kind of stuck. In these cases, you’re the one doing the adopting. That wasn’t the case with Chris and me. Besides, he called me brother.

There’s also the problem of calling him “my” adoptive grandfather. Because it would be absurd for me to suggest I’m feeling uniquely devastated right now. But here’s where words fail me. Because I can’t figure out a way to convey the superhuman reach of this man’s life.

Korean War medic. Civil Rights marcher (and near martyr). Vietnam War correspondent. Community journalist. Community activist. Local arts patron. Domestic abuse counselor and interventionist. Literal saver of lives. Figurative saver of lives. Emergency shelter provider. Minister. Friend, son, brother, spiritual healer. In 46 years at our local paper, the Times Herald-Record, Chris had interviews ranging from Joe DiMaggio to Henry Kissinger to the Dalai Lama. There were books in his house signed to him by people who were famous when my parents were kids. When I got into Dartmouth he took me to meet Frank Gilroy ’50, Pulitzer and Tony Award winner, whose grandson Sam would also be in my class. I think he met the pope once. Jean Paul II, that is.

Our town was not big enough for this man’s love. And yet he never got too big for us. In semi-retirement from the Record, Chris took up the promotion of local high school and amateur theater. That’s how I met him. Or first became aware of him, I guess. I was in my high school auditorium watching a full dress rehearsal for Hello, Dolly! and I noticed an old man walking around stage taking pictures 3 feet in front of the actors’ faces. That’s just how Chris operated. He wasn’t shy about inserting himself into a scene.

It would be two years before Chris inserted himself into my life. That year we were doing Jesus Christ Superstar and one evening I went over to our Jesus – Pat Dunn’s – house. Chris was there, dropping off a pie, I think, which even if wrong is as reasonable a guess as any since Chris was also a prolific baker. I think after he left we were going to play poker, but I don’t really remember any of that. I remember that evening as the moment Chris decided he wanted to get to know me. We talked for a few minutes at a booth in the Dunns’ basement. All the while he studied my face. “You have a really big nose,” he said, finally. “It’s true, I do.” “What do you think is the greatest song ever written?”

For all the impact Chris had, for all that he gave to the community, when people talk or write about him I think they miss one of his most important qualities. Some people are really good at making you feel they’re interested in what you have to say, listening intently as you share, over time, stories that build an understanding of who you are. Chris, though, would know everything important about you after a 5-minute conversation. It happened with me, when a week after our first meeting he sent me a book via my school’s musical director that perfectly captured how I aspired to approach life. I saw it again with my mom, when he met my parents for the first time (at our house; he brought an apple pie). The conversation was meandering easily until he turned to my mom and asked her a question about her past so pointed and relevant it brought tears to her eyes.

How he would think to ask such a question has to this day been a mystery to me. I asked him about it once or twice, and he explained it by saying that in Korea, he had to decide very quickly whom he could trust with his life, and whom he couldn’t. So he learned to understand people’s character quickly. But I think there was more to it than that. I still don’t know how religious I am, but seeing Chris cut through all the barriers people put up between themselves and the rest of the world, minutes after meeting them, well, it felt like watching someone work a miracle every time.

I’ve been thinking a lot about all the times I saw Chris, and I wish I’d written things down as we’d gone along because it would make one heck of an eclectic list. There was the time we had dinner with the Bruderhof community in Walden; the time we watched a rehearsal of a play Sam Wright (Mufasa in The Lion King on Broadway; you’d also know him as Sebastian in The Little Mermaid; Chris knew him as a friend) was directing in…I want to say Fishkill; a bizarre but beautiful silent film we saw in Newburgh about Franciscan monks; lunches because some restaurant wanted to give him lunch and he wanted to talk; benefits at local communities and churches, including one to raise money to replace the stained glass at a church that had burned down… and at so many of these things, I got to meet some of the other people in Chris’s universe. It felt almost like being a member of a very special club; Friends of Chris is the foundation that will now carry on his work. But there was always this thing that passed between people introduced by Chris. You’d just know, as you extended your hand, this person was either exceptionally good, exceptionally interesting, exceptionally vulnerable, or some combination of these. Occasionally Chris would clue me in ahead of time. “We’re going to see a veteran with PTSD,” he’d say. Other times it was a young kid who’d gotten kicked out of his house and was living in one of Chris’s spare bedrooms.

So yes, it was an awfully big club. One time when I was at his house on Gardner Avenue in Middletown, I noticed a water stain spreading across his living room ceiling. The thing about giving away all your income is that you live on a razor thin margin, and I was concerned about how Chris was going to get this fixed. But all he wanted to talk about was the show he was producing the next week to raise money for the poor. We were heading out to Middletown’s Paramount Theater to confirm some details. As we hopped into his old red Pontiac convertible, I said, “Chris, you really need to get that ceiling taken care of.” I’m not even sure he heard me. But the next time I was at the house, the stain was gone, the plumbing repaired. When you touch thousands of hearts, at least a few are bound to belong to contractors and plumbers.

Even ten years ago, as I was preparing to graduate high school, Chris’s health was in jeopardy. Doctors at one point told him he was down to about 22% heart function, and gave him anywhere between months and a few years to live. So it was hard to leave him, when I went to college, not knowing how he’d be. But we spoke regularly. After all, he told me before I left that if I didn’t do something amazing with my life, “I’ll find you and kick your ass.” So I was pretty excited to tell him when I decided to sign up for Bike and Build, a bike trip across America to raise money and awareness for affordable housing. I remember intending to not even mention my fundraising requirement to him, as I knew he had other priorities back home. But he got around me. “Here’s what I’m going to do,” he said, on that very same phone call. “I’ve been saving money for a trip to London, but I want you to have it instead. It’s $1,000.” He wouldn’t take no for an answer. Not even with the knowledge that might have been his last chance to see London. For a man known for giving up entire paychecks to serve others, I’m not even sure this particular act of generosity stood out.

It’s hard, being here in China, trying to understand I’ll never see Chris again. But I think the hardest thing is this feeling that now no one else will get to discover him, to appreciate who he is. Reading the above I feel I’ve failed miserably in capturing what he meant to just me, one person. The whole world ought to know what we lost last week.

Chris did make it to London, by the way, with the support of another friend. In fact he lived for another 10 years after telling me his time was limited. And even after Bike and Build he wasn’t done giving. In December 2006 he sponsored a benefit concert I organized for my friend Marianna, again without a second’s hesitation, though this time I came asking for help. And from college until I left for China he served admirably in the role of chief girlfriend screener, though he never did tell me what he really thought until the relationships were over. So maybe he failed a little bit on that end. But I don’t really know how to deal with the fact I’ll never get to introduce him to anyone again. Maybe this piece can help, just a little bit.

I want to wrap this up nice and neatly, but to me that would imply closure and I don’t think I’m there yet. If you want to read a little more about Chris, I found this piece in the Record that is much better written than his obituary. And if you’re reading this from home, look out for a celebration of life ceremony in June. Chris always said for his funeral he’d want his friends to put on a show, and for the entry fee would be donations for the poor.

Chris will have his ashes interred at the Orange County Veterans Memorial Cemetery, with full military honors.

 Posted by on May 10, 2015 at 12:53 pm
Feb 182015

Erbil woke up this morning to news of a major Islamic State attack on the Peshmerga line defending the city, about 28 miles away, in villages along the road to Mosul. According to CNN, the attack began at 9pm last night, and the fighting was so close that coalition aircraft couldn’t bomb IS positions: the risk to Kurdish forces was too great. According to reports, had the thin defensive line broken there would be “little standing between ISIS and the Kurdish capital,” though it does seem the attack was less an offensive on Erbil and more of a diversionary provocation to draw the Peshmerga away from Mosul.

I came to Erbil more to get a sense of how a national identity coalesces after a period of trauma (basically the Kurds have been under attack for decades; they were famously gassed by Saddam Hussein amidst a genocidal eradication campaign after Operation Desert Storm, but also fought their own civil war in the 90’s and have been repeatedly persecuted by Turkey) than to learn about the effects of the emergence of the Islamic State. But the proximity of last night’s attack naturally made that more of an issue.

I couldn’t tell much from my hotel window, so I got online to see what the expats were talking about in an Erbil Facebook group I’d joined. Within 30 minutes of someone posting a link to the CNN article (CNN was ultimately the most authoritative source on the attack), there were more than 60 comments in the discussion. The mood was tense. First, there were several frantic requests for more information, and better sources. Then a plea to remain calm, mixed with some information via someone’s colleague who talked to a colonel on the front line basically confirming the CNN report. Then, I thought, the conversation took a strange turn. A few people started berating those who were posting information, saying that merely discussing the attack played into the IS propaganda machine; instead the narrative should be “the Peshmerga are attacking IS positions!” The conversation eventually reached a sort of equilibrium in which a few people shared false information (including one woman who claimed that planes couldn’t engage IS because the fighting was too close to Erbil – clearly untrue) and were quickly rebuked, most seemed to be more curious than concerned, and others continued to express general support for the Peshmerga and disapproval for sharing even objectively accurate news.

I’d had enough of that, so I went out and made for the center of Erbil, where the citadel – claimed to be the world’s “longest continuously inhabited urban area on earth [sic]” (Lonely Planet) – stands surrounded by Erbil’s bazaar, which yesterday was completely packed when I walked through just past noon. When I returned today just past noon, it was…packed. In fact, in no discernible way did today feel any different than before, somehow more disquieted, or subdued. Men sat together and drank tea, women browsed through book shops… at one point a couple of young kids walked by me and made it about 20 feet before they realized I was a foreigner and they could practice their English with me. “Hello!” they shouted. “How are you?” I turned and waved. As I continued around the citadel, I heard behind me perhaps the remaining extent of their English. “Thank you! I love you!”

So what is it like to be in a city 28 miles away from attackers the likes of IS? It’s hard to say, because it doesn’t seem to make sense to consider Erbil through that lens. Though it’s clear the Kurds in Erbil feel emotionally tied to their Peshmerga fighters (below, a picture of a Dodge Charger in a camo paint scheme and bearing the Kurdish flag, in honor, says the owner’s nephew, of Kurdistan’s militia), there’s no sense of hardship or of living under threat here. The normalcy is striking. I felt the same when I was in Sarajevo in 2010. Just 15 years after the city had been held under a choking siege while throughout the country Bosnian Serbs committed genocide against their Muslim neighbors, the dominant imagery of contemporary Sarajevo was that of young people hanging out in cafés, drinking coffee and watching soccer with friends, while others shopped for handbags in the city’s shiny new malls. I suppose the lesson here is: what else should you expect? I finished my walk thinking that Erbil today is yet another affirmation of the indomitable human spirit, a spirit that says “Thank you Peshmerga, fuck you ISIS,” and goes on about its day.

When I returned to the hotel I went back online to check the Facebook discussion. The attack had been definitively repulsed, but I was curious to see how things settled down, and if there was any new information. But when I logged on, the whole post was gone, erased in favor of a “Keep calm and support the Peshmerga” poster. On Facebook, just as on the street, it was as if the attack had never happened.

"Did you see my uncle's car?" Sarkawt asked as we munched popcorn in his small shop for men's clothes. "He painted it to honor the Peshmerga."

“Did you see my uncle’s car?” Sarkawt asked as we sat on plastic stools in his cramped men’s clothing shop, munching on freshly made popcorn. “He painted it to honor the Peshmerga.”


 Posted by on February 18, 2015 at 7:13 pm
Feb 182015

While road tripping in Oman, my friend Dan convinced me to finally join Tinder (aside: I’ve never joined any online dating sites, probably for the reasons mentioned in this great article from the editor of Modern Love). At the very least, I thought it might be a good way to meet people while traveling.

Turns out Erbil, Iraq, is not the global Tinder hotspot you might have expected. But after swiping right a few times my first afternoon here, I made my first Tinder match, a woman named Are. With her blond braided hair in her profile picture, I figured she was a Scandinavian expat.

We exchanged a few messages, and I thought we were heading for a meetup. That was until I mentioned I was American, and the conversation stopped. For two days. Then I tried messaging again.

Well, there goes my future security clearance

Well, there goes my future security clearance

Cool, thanks Dan. But I guess it’s like my dad always said: better the Islamic Republic than the Islamic State.

 Posted by on February 18, 2015 at 10:57 am
Feb 162015

Today we left Salalah at about 4pm and drove for 6 hours through the most barren desert I’ve ever seen, on our way back to Muscat. We set up camp in the middle of a sandfield, off a road off a road off the highway. I think this is the darkest place I’ve ever been, which means the stars are the brightest. While in Oman I’ve been thinking of the axiom that there are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on the Earth. That sounds fine and perfectly logical as an abstraction, but after spending my past five days driving through one of the world’s largest sandboxes and my nights staring up at half of everything we know to exist beyond our planet, it’s taken on a profoundly tangible significance. Still, my mind has been dominated less by a feeling of infinitesimal smallness, as I might have expected, and more by the romantic notion of how strange and wonderful it is to have formed bonds with other human beings among all the sand and stars.

And that is a little poetical to me because one of the few books I brought along on this trip is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Wind, Sand and Stars. He, of course, is the author of The Little Prince, my favorite book, which come to think of it takes place in a desert not unlike this one. It is there the prince meets a fox, who teaches him what it means to be tamed by someone. So maybe it’s natural that when my mind has wandered, occupying itself while traversing the vast stretches of tan, I’ve thought of you, and what we are, and what we are not: ribbons of black asphalt stretching to the horizon have a way of dividing the world with remarkable clarity.

But at night, the road disappears, and the halves fade away. We’re floating in space, and I look again to the horizon. There, where the sand meets the stars, exists only possibility.

Car, Tent and Stars

 Posted by on February 16, 2015 at 1:34 pm
Jun 182013

So I finally got around to processing my photos from Morocco. Taking it one country at a time I guess, and a little out of order. Some of these are pretty, I think. I wouldn’t mind going back to Morocco.

 Posted by on June 18, 2013 at 8:30 am
Jun 042013


Apart from my sister’s 30th birthday (I’m determined not to let her forget it), today marks the 24th anniversary of the crackdown on student protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. While hundreds of students were killed that June 4th, today the day is best known outside of China for Tank Man, and one of history’s most poignant photographs.

You’d be hard pressed to find that image floating around television stations or the Internet here in Beijing. Around this time every year, Big Brother kicks into high gear, sending police (and cameras) to Tiananmen and censoring the Internet, even blocking search terms as seemingly innocuous as “today,” on Sina Weibo, the Chinese Twitter (Twitter, of course, is blocked here year-round). Even searches of “5.35,” referring to May 35th, will yield no results. Meanwhile, a friend of mine snapped a picture (that got picked up by a NYTimes blog) of custodians casually collecting flyers someone had released in Tiananmen. Many riding in her bus, stalled in traffic while history was literally swept off the street in front of them, had no idea why their commute was being held up.

I was going to comment on how surreal it is to be inside the Security State on such a day, to see the flashing lights of police cars at a rate enough above normal to notice, but not enough to think it strange; to watch my Twitter feed fill with commentary about the anniversary and censorship (#Tiananmen is currently trending) but wonder how many people I saw on my way to work even knew the protests happened, to worry slightly about what I post myself because I am, after all, here at the whim of the politburo. But then I flipped through the dozen or so open tabs I have running in Chrome, bookmarks for articles I intend to read later. Here are a few of the headlines:

“Photos from Guantánamo’s Force-Feeding Facilities”

“Is Political Reporting Dying?”

“The Many Secrets of a Bloated National Security State”

“Leaks Inquiries Show How Wide a Net Is Cast”

“Letter from Loretto”

And now I feel I no longer have the moral authority to write about the lack of freedom here in China, the aggressive silencing of dissidents, the casual intimidation by the State against would-be protesters through government-issued ID cards and closed circuit television among other both more and less sophisticated tools.

I’ve written about this elsewhere (including my graduate school application essays), but it’s beyond obvious to me that, in the name of security, America has progressively given up so many of the values we as Americans continue to consider part of our identity, the values by which we compare ourselves with other nations. If as a country we wish to stand as an example for others to follow – or hell, even if we simply want to maintain our feelings of cultural/political superiority so that on June 4th we can say without irony or crippling cognitive dissonance, “Wow China, that’s messed up,” we must do better, and we must demand of our leaders that we do better.

 Posted by on June 4, 2013 at 11:47 am