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 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
Apr 292013
 

I’m sitting on a plush red sofa that spans the long 3rd-floor window into the central atrium of Dartmouth’s newest academic building, the Black Family Visual Arts Center. Across the negative space and one floor below me, a student is hammering away at a final paper in a fishbowl, a trinity of glass walls surrounding the workspace I think belongs to the Film and Media Studies department. The brightness and hyper-visibility of the Black-Vac, as at least one student calls it, are new phenomena among the abundant brick and sheltering verdure of Dartmouth’s campus. But more than feeling foreign to Hanover, I’m struck by how alien the building feels to me personally. A few minutes ago, as I ducked in to see the new Lowe Auditorium, I found myself wondering how I’d answer if someone approached with a trite, “May I help you?” Certainly it wasn’t a problem to be there, but I realized I didn’t know how I’d identify myself. 6 months ago I’d say I was an admissions officer, just exploring the space. But a former admissions officer? That’d be weird. Yet answering only that I was an alum, back visiting, would completely ignore the 3 years I spent in the Upper Valley post-graduation, maybe the most important period in my life. In either case, I can’t escape the fact that I’m just a guest, a visitor in an unfamiliar building in the place that I still call home.

I’m standing behind the makeshift bar at Fox Run, tending to guests at our “Thriftshop” party, held half in honor of me being home, half in consequence of me-being-home-so-I-can-bartend, a practice which I claim with deliberate conceit “makes” parties, and the House as usual has gone along with it because here I am mixing “Purple Draanks” and “Cold-ass Honkeys” (repurposed White Russians) while people serve themselves from a bowl of “Your Grandpa’s Punch” and everyone seems to be generally having a good time. As was often the case at Fox Run parties, there are a few people here I haven’t met before. Now one thing that makes meeting people at Fox Run different is that instead of “who (among the people who live here) do you know?” being the default question, unknowns ask “So, do you (also) live here?” because, let’s face it, the odds are good that you do. But this particular evening, I’m not prepared for such a line of questioning. More specifically, I’m not prepared to refer to my living here in the past tense. “I, uh, well, this week I do!” But even to me that sounds a bit desperate. Gotta face the facts. “I didfortwoyears! but no, now I… all right, so this is still my legal address, because I haven’t had another home, and… well your drink’s ready, so here you go enjoy the party!”

I’ve collapsed into a chair, one of the few we haven’t moved to make space for the dance floor in the living room. Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You out of My Head” from 2001 is playing, but the nostalgia sweeping over me is from a more recent era. In a rare moment, everyone who’s at the party is dancing at the same time, and I’ve paused to commit the scene to memory. There’s Mackey, dancing on a couch, and Olivier, still wearing the ridiculous fez and earrings he picked up from the thrift store this morning; Pat’s in hot pink, inexplicably running around in circles, and as usual there’s Rory, in the middle of it all.

A few days ago, I found out I was admitted to the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) for a 2-year master’s program. When I’d applied back in January, I assumed I’d be in China when the decision arrived. I figured if I liked how things were going in Beijing, I’d defer school for a year; if not, I’d stay for a few months and travel a bit more before moving to D.C. Now I’m here, with a broken collarbone, about to begin a 4-week visa application process, and it feels as if this entire week has been conspiring to remind me of how much community I had here, and how much I miss it. Am I really prepared to make my way through a long bureaucratic process in order to move to the most polluted city in the world for a job I’m still not convinced is a great fit for me, and stay there just long enough to forge relationships that will hurt to leave? Because I could just wait a bit longer for my collarbone to heal, kick around South America for two months, cycle through France for the summer, move to D.C., and stay there for a while.

*   *   *

I’m at the post office, holding my diploma and a letter from Dartmouth’s HR in a poster tube, ready to go to Beijing and prove my status as a “foreign expert.” In the end, I realized my decision wasn’t between one thing and another, but rather one or both, and I can’t quite imagine yet a time in my life when I won’t choose both.

I’m at my desk at Taiyue Suites in Beijing, my first night here, about to hit ‘publish’ on something I wrote more a little more than a month ago. My deferral deposit is in. Tomorrow I’ll look at apartments. Work starts Thursday. Here goes…

 Posted by on April 29, 2013 at 11:33 am
Dec 222012
 

Before I left for this trip and many times since, every description of my planned itinerary has come with the caveat that things could very well change: I might hate one country, fall in love with another (or a someone), or geopolitical considerations could compel me toward or away from a region, or I’d get dengue and evacuate myself to Singapore (well I did go to Singapore, but no dengue yet, knock wood), etc. What I didn’t anticipate was writing an email that included the sentence, “Do you know (or can someone on your team find out) if I can apply for the [Chinese] Z visa from Europe, specifically Sofia?”

On Friday, I committed to taking a job with Due West Education, a startup education company based in Beijing. A couple of months ago, one of the co-founders sent an email about positions at Due West to a fellow Harvard Ed School grad, a former colleague of mine, who forwarded the message to me and suggested I reach out to him. I sat on the email for a few weeks before deciding it couldn’t hurt to find out more, and 3 phone interviews and about a dozen emails later I’m making plans to move to Beijing around mid-March, after I learn to ski in Bulgaria (didn’t want to give that up).

The education advising industry in China is fraught with unethical and downright fraudulent behavior, and this fact has been on the forefront of my mind as I’ve pursued this new venture. In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that independent consulting companies are a third rail for highly selective admissions officers. So why did I just take a job with Due West? What makes it different? Here are a few factors that led to my decision. If you have no interest in the ethical calculation, you can skip down to “Here are the details.”

1). In my first two phone calls, Due West management gave very thoughtful answers to questions I had about the ethical environment surrounding their work, and on my final call, with the second of the company’s co-founders, he brought up the issue himself. This may sound like a silly point, but I think it’s important. The founders know the market they’re operating in, and they’re trying to forge an identity of providing a needed service in an ethical manner, something that as an admissions officer I recognized the need for in places like China. That’s because…

2). …there is a significant gap between supply and demand for knowledgeable college counseling in China. Some schools do have “international” college counselors, but these counselors can reach only a small percentage of the students interested in attending western universities. Because of this gap, these students often seek advisement from either agents, who work on behalf of some U.S. colleges and universities to funnel full-pay students into their applicant pools, or independent counselors, many of whom will fabricate entire applications for their clients, from personal statements to forged transcripts and fake teachers’ recommendations. Due West provides an alternative to these options by connecting students with qualified individuals who will help them understand the values sought by American universities and also bridge the cultural gap that often inhibits Chinese students from communicating effectively about themselves on western college applications.

3). One of the co-founders has two Master of Education degrees, one from Harvard and one from Columbia, and a VP is a former admissions officer at Columbia. Generally speaking, you don’t go to the Harvard Ed School unless you’re legitimately interested in issues of access and equality, and the former Ivy admissions experience represented there is reassuring.

4). Finally, there’s the issue of my proposed assignment, which I’ll get to in the details below.

After all that, you still might think (as I have), “Ok, but you’re still contributing to an access/achievement gap by providing additional assistance to students who need it least (that is, the wealthy ones).” This is a fair point, and one that came up during my phone interviews. And honestly, of all the possible issues, it’s the one I’m most concerned about, especially given my interest (pre-occupation, some might say) with class issues. But here’s what I think: Almost by definition, the vast, vast majority of Chinese students who are going to be accepted to U.S. universities are wealthy. That’s because only a tiny minority of U.S. institutions are need blind for international students (that Dartmouth is was one of my greatest sources of institutional pride), and only a few more will meet full need for the international students they admit. So in all but a handful of cases, being wealthy is already a prerequisite for attending school in the U.S. This of course is terrible, but offering application assistance to some of those students does not contribute to the access gap in the same way that it does in America. In fact, Due West has committed to some pro bono work (which will increase with my addition, I’ve been told), but such work is difficult in China because even with the best counseling, students with financial need still have an extremely difficult time being admitted to American universities.

Imagine for a moment that in America, college counselors only work at elite private high schools (not that much of a stretch). Now imagine that for the public school kids without counselors, the college application process is a complete and utter mystery (again, not a stretch). Now imagine these kids are generally wealthy (ok now we need some serious imagination), and they regularly hire individuals to create entire college applications for them to circumvent that inaccessibility. Would we not prefer them to hire counselors who teach them about the process and work with them to help their voices and personalities come through in their applications? This is what I hope Due West does.

At this point, you may be wondering why I’ve written 750 words on the morality of my decision to work at Due West. If I sound at all defensive, it’s for a couple of reasons. One was that I had to satisfy my own apprehensions before committing to this job, and the above roughly outlines my own thought process. The other relates to what I said about admissions officers and independent counseling, and the fact that I value my relationships with former colleagues and others I met through my time in McNutt as much as anything else in life. While this may betray a deep insecurity, the integrity of those relationships is incredibly important to me. If I thought taking this job would be selling out, I wouldn’t take it (besides, I think it would have to pay a lot more for that to really be the case). And even with all the reasons I listed above, it helps that…

Here are the details

…so far, I’ve only committed to working with Due West for a 2-month probationary period, and the first project we’ve talked about is having me conduct a research study on the recruitment practices of tuition-driven U.S. universities in China and the Chinese students’ experiences on college campuses where they make up a major plurality of the international student population. This is something I’ve been interested in since reading last year’s brilliant piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education on the “tricky fit” between Chinese students and U.S. campuses, and the proposal went a long way in convincing me that Due West could be a good fit.

I am still applying to graduate programs in international security, though I’ve pared my list from 3 schools to 2. If I’m accepted and the finances are workable, at this point it’s still my intention to enroll next fall. But if I don’t get in, I’ll have a great backup plan. Or if I am accepted but Due West proves to be an amazing experience, I’ll likely request to defer for a year, during which time I’ll continue to work in Beijing (and study Chinese, obviously). Alternatively, if I decide Due West isn’t right for me, or I can’t imagine living in Beijing for a year, I’ll leave after probably 3 months and continue my travels before returning at the end of next summer for graduate school.

So that’s where I am. I’m both excited and incredibly nervous about relocating to Beijing, and although I obviously put a lot of thought into it, I still feel I made my decision somewhat beside myself. Since I’m more than 8,000 miles away from my entire support network, I guess that could be expected. Anyway, I’d appreciate any thoughts you have, especially from my admissions friends.

All the best from Luang Prabang,
John

 Posted by on December 22, 2012 at 6:40 am
Nov 202012
 

Early my junior winter, I received an email advertising a summer internship at the admissions office at Dartmouth. The job sounded interesting and I really needed something to do that summer, so I pulled together an application. A few weeks later I walked across the Green in the snow to an interview in McNutt.

Today, nearly five years later, I gave my last ever admissions information session to a group of 75 Nepalese high schoolers at the United States Educational Foundation office in Kathmandu.

It’s an understatement to say I could not have foreseen this finale when I made my first foray to the third floor of that Georgian office on the Hanover Green, and while it may seem unnecessarily dramatic to write a retrospective on a 3+ year career, it’s absolutely overwhelming to me to consider how many of the people in and events of my life over the past few years are directly attributable to that internship and the full-time job that followed. And for one brief moment today, all the joy and gratefulness, the disappointment and heartbreak of the first chapter of my adult life passed through my mind, on a small stage a room full of students, ten-and-three-quarters timezones away from where it began.

 Posted by on November 20, 2012 at 1:50 pm
Oct 292012
 

I’m learning that there are all sorts of different ways of being alone. There’s a spectrum, really, and I think we need more words to describe the various points one can be on it. Maybe these words already exist and I just haven’t learned them yet.

In Fes, I was mostly by myself but rarely ever alone. The night I arrived there, I walked through the streets to dinner with an Argentinean staying at the riad, despite myself, to be honest. Apparently three days in Tangier wasn’t enough to fully recharge me, because when Guido said he was going to dinner and asked if anyone wanted to join, the only thing that stopped me from saying no was my manners – I was just about to walk out the door myself. On the way to a restaurant he wanted to try but ultimately couldn’t find, we ran into Phil, an Australian I knew from Marrakech. Morocco is small like that. So is the world, for that matter. He was also going to dinner, and joined us.

Continue reading »

 Posted by on October 29, 2012 at 12:34 pm