Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Running past

When I ask the man standing outside the McDonalds somewhere in Paris I'm breathing heavy as I say, "Bonsior monsieur, ou est Montemarte?" And he looks at me, pausing for a second trying to figure out what he's seeing and what he's hearing because not only is my French humorously atrocious, I'm wearing only my long sleeve Superman blue Under Armor shirt, running shorts, my iPhone strapped to my arm and the Nikes with laces so bright green that they're even blinding as the sun disappears over Paris. As he speaks quickly I focus on the steam of his breath and while I'm not sure what he's saying it's clear by the way he's speaking that I'm not even close. All I can do is run the direction he pointed and ask another person once I feel significantly disoriented which is why my five mile run today ended up being eight miles.

I've seen the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower but only at a pace of around 8.35 minutes/mile. I'm sure the men and women standing in line to see the sites as I run by would tell me "Hey, stop, this is what you come to Paris to see, take a minute, take a photo."But I just wind my way around the line and turn down the next block embracing the feeling that something is creeping up behind me. Headed straight for me and imminently about to run me over and it feels good because unlike going blind, getting old, losing a love or having cancer this thing is big and it's spewing black exhaust and just before the impact, as I feel the vibration, as it nears I feel the heat from it's engine and  slide on to the sidewalk and watch it grind it's way past me.

I run past everything beautiful and significant all the while having no idea what it is or where I am. Each run I become more lost than I already am in this city.  I stride past statues and fountains that  most likely have a plaque and a spot in a guidebook. I look at them for a moment and say, "wow, beautiful" or , "no idea what that is but sure looks cool." And I just keep running, winding my way down streets with no apparent direction in mind. Allowing the only thing that dictates where I turn is if I don't have to stop for traffic. My runs look like the movement of a pinball. I revel in running straight through the middle of the roundabout while the cars make circles and the statue of the man and the horse look down and say, "don't you want to know why we're here hanging out in the middle of this roundabout?" But I don't want to know. I want run right past all of the history and the present. I run in the street with scooters weaving around me bouce back to the sidewalk when it's clear for a moment bounce back to the road through the middle of stopped traffic at the Rue de-something-I-don't-know. I whisper, "Bonsior mademosoille" to the beautiful women in their scarves and their boots. I nod at the old ladies with their fur hats as they shuffle to the side of the crosswalk. 

Inevitabley somehow I find my way to the Seine. A mild wake sloshes in between the ancient walls. I'm not sure why I get there but the part of me that reads into things thinks it's something to do with finding my way back to the sea but the part of me that says the part of me that reads into things is an idiot knows that the reality is it's a big river and it's hard to miss. I run along each side crossing back and forth over the bridges. This is where I see the other few people in Paris who like to run. They're here  because you don't have to dodge the city, risk collision with motor vehicle or human being and it's relaxing. I watch the water that one day will make it's way to the ocean and one day even farther away will find it's way into another river or into a lake or ice. And while for the other runners it's relaxing for me it's more comfortable dodging the city. There is a comfort in running lost, there are no wrong turns because there isn't any destination. And here my mind can't even catch up with me, it can't direct me where to go or where to turn so I head back into the city and say to the Seine, "Au revoir."

On the way back I pass every cafe in Paris that looks positively Parisan and here the same young women sit at these cafes  and smoke skinny cigarettes and look at me as I pass. The guy with the oysters that smell like St. George Island watches me from his post selling "Fruits de Mer." The woman in one of the boulangeries stops rearranging shiny croissants for a moment and lifts an eyebrow. I sense that I'm lost and I keep running. The sun is going down but only my hands realize how cold I am. I can only stop from time to time to ask someone I don't understand to give me directions I won't understand. Eventually I find my way to the only street I know, Boulevard de Clichy, home of the Moulin Rouge, La Chat Noir and once home to Picasso and Edgar Degas. From here it's only two blocks and even though I know where I am I run right past my turn.

Monday, October 3, 2011

You know what I'm talking about if...

If you’ve ever imagined all of the moles on your skin coming together to form one giant mole.

if you've ever felt guilty for blaming the weather and in return let the weather use you as an excuse, like "I can't make it cooler, Jeff's bad." said the weather.

if you've ever told your kitchen utensils goodnight stories as you remove them from the dishwasher and tuck them into their drawer. "And you little spatula, sweet dreams."

if you've ever bought yourself a trophy in honor of your mistakes.

if you've ever challenged your conscience to an arm wrestling match.

if you've ever punished your shadow by avoiding light.

if you've ever smiled at someone who is yelling at you because you were thinking of midgets sleeping on shelves.

if you've ever sold your identity at a pawn a shop.

if you've ever felt an emotional attachment to dust.

if you've ever organized your memories using the dewey decimal system.

if you've ever replaced yourself with a stunt double.

if you've ever been frustrated by the absence of

if you've ever hired a scientist to study the community of really small penguins that lives in your freezer that survive off leftovers.

if you've ever imagined putting all of the things you never said into a paragraph to see if they'd still mean anything.

if you've ever been curious about what happened to all of the Soviet passports once it split up.

if you've ever taken the leash for a walk.

if you've ever sat inside convinced the images through your windows are just backdrops for a movie they were making about your twin brother.

if you've ever bitten your tongue and said "that was for all the times you said the wrong thing."

if you've ever reassured your spare tire that one day it'd get it's chance.

if you've ever lost an imaginary court case because of an imaginary crime.

if you've ever used the red CLASSIFIED stamp on the letter you sent to your grandmother to make her feel important again.

if you've ever confessed your sins inside of a photo booth.

if you've ever held a funeral service for your appetite.

if you've ever been bothered by a house that was turned into an office because houses are for living.

if you've ever replaced the milk jug labels at the grocery store with a sticker that says, "pig milk,"

if you've ever traveled the world in search of the dimmer switch that operates the sun so that you have the final say over sunsets.

well...then you might know what I'm talking about.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Mr. Wonderful

You are a bent wheel. 

I can't draw circles
they look like eggs
I can't make the ends connect

You are my cliché
on the windowsill of my mind
the microwave blinks with spare seconds 

You said the atom bomb should only be as a last resort 
I thought of resort as in pool-room service-fruit drinks 
Not resort as in no more options

and when the bomb goes off we die knowing we still haven’t invented a more sophisticated way of bobbing for apples. 

When my cousin asks me if the bracelet on my arm is a Lance Armstrong bracelet it doesn’t occur to me that I’m in Austin, Texas where Armstrong lives. It also doesn’t occur to me that I’m traveling from Austin to France, home to a bicycle race where Lance had a bit of success. I’m feeling unsettled that there is a connection. A clue I haven’t yet understood. I answer “no” to my cousin, an unintentional lie because I never associate the yellow bracelet on my arm with Lance Armstrong. I’m trying to put the clues together and for a moment I wonder if I’m thinking out loud and look at my cousin to see if he heard me when he asks “What kind of music are you listening to?” which is right when Robert Johnson says, "oooh baby"and I say "oooh baby, I hear you Robert." while thumbing the bracelet where LIVESTRONG is imprinted.

I always interpreted the LIVESTRONG as living boldly, living quickly and outrageously and I'm thinking Robert Johnson would have thought about it the same way, even would have had a LIVESTRONG bracelet of his own. Which makes me think maybe it's not just Lance, that Robert is part of the puzzle as well because he wrote a lot of blues for a guy who died when he was 27. And since you can't have blues without experiences, the kind of experiences that come with a LIVESTRONG way of life, the kind that make you say "oooh baby." But because his life was so poorly documented no one knows exactly what happened that made him sing to Willie Mae “All my loves in vain.” Which is why, dear reader, I'm writing to you to now to let you know I've been married, divorced, then engaged and then unengaged, the owner of a million and a half dollars of real estate, the loser of a million and a half in real estate. I've been in jail. I've been a teacher, a management consultant and a real pirate of the Caribbean all by age twenty-nine. So I'm being brief when I say to my cousin, “It’s LIVESTRONG-Bracelet-Music.”  

I was surprised when I became Mr. Wonderful because I’ve never liked the word checkup. It reminds me of the first time I ever heard it. It came out of the mouth of my fifty-year old Mormon baby sitter. She’d said something about going for a checkup and at the time, for whatever reason, I thought this had something to do with someone looking up her skirt. And the image of what a person would encounter looking up Mrs. Bigler's skirt still bothers me. 

And when I was sitting in a chair in the waiting room of the dentist office, filling out the new patient form which asks about your allergies and dental history but also does the job of asking introductory questions like “How Would You Like to Be Addressed?” In case you’re name is Robert and you go by Ert but without the form they might accidentally just call you Bob. Or if you’re like me and your name is Jeff Brainard and you suddenly decide it’d be nice to be called Mr. Wonderful which is what I wrote in the blank. I'm surprised at my playfulness while chewing on the pen thinking about the word "checkup." I realize it isn’t my pen but the dentists’ and I think it’s kind of funny to leave my impressions on it. For a moment I imagine becoming wealthy by selling promotional pens that look like they’ve been chewed and say something clever about dentistry.  Which is what I was thinking about when the receptions picked up her clipboard and said "Mr. Wonderful you can come on back." And the hygienist greeted me, "Have a seat Mr. Wonderful." And after she cleaned my teeth and the dentist came to inspect her work she said, "All set Mr. Wonderful." 

The name stuck for a while when Anna, who coached the Junior Varsity Volleyball team told her girls, "His name is Mr. Wonderful" so anytime one of them walked by they'd wave and say "Heyyyyy Mr. Wonderful."  A couple days later I even I found a baseball style t-shirt at a thrift store that said "Mr Wonderful" across the front. 

When we left Florida Anna stopped coaching volleyball and I never went back to that dentist. We got rid of everything when we left cars, houses, couches, everything except for bathing suits, few t-shirts and each other. And for a while I kept the name, Mr. Wonderful. “Good morning Mr. Wonderful,” Anna would say with one whale sized eye open.

At one point in our relationship the name faded and fell into the list of things we used to say to each other. And then, a few weeks ago we did with each other what we did with the rest of our stuff before we left.


The only luggage I'm carrying is a green duffel bag. The total of all I own is small enough to fit into the overhead storage compartment of an economy airline. Earlier the security agent at the airport in Panama sifted through my faded bathing suits. I always watch this process closely because I always wonder if they’re as uncomfortable looking through other peoples baggage as people are having their baggage looked through. I notice the Mr. Wonderful t-shirt as he stuffs my clothes back in the duffel and I suddenly realize why baggage also means the kind of things Robet Johnson says, “ooooooh baby about.”

I'm on way to Orlando, the first time I've returned to the U.S. in two years. It's a red eye flight and everyone is asleep. The plane is steady and it's dark outside so it's hard to determine if we're even moving or if it's just simulation, a virtual unreality and part of me wishes it was. The flight attendant wakes everyone up as she passes out immigration forms. The questions are basic but still I'm struggling.
Address? I don't know. I've lived on my sailboat for the last two years in different locations throughout the Caribbean. I decided to fill in the name of the boat S/V Desdemona.

Reason for your visit?
Why am I visiting? I don't know. I don't think seeing family is the most complete answer. I sit there chewing on the top of a stranger’s pen trying to come up with something satisfactory. And I look at the form trying to activate a zoom out function but all I can see are my teeth marks on the pen and where it says, “Address?” on the form and it reminds me of the dentist where I became Mr. Wonderful and for a moment I wonder if going back to the waiting room, to the place that it began would help me regain my title like Simba did in the Lion King. So I take a second to peer out the window but didn’t notice any clouds in the shape of a lion’s head or the voice of James Earl Jones ready to offer advice so I set the form down and just leave the question blank.

As I become accustomed to the new scenery. Life sans Anna sans sailing, sans ocean, here in Austin driving around I start to notice the details like the road signs that are hanging diagonally off the highways and the extremely wide bike lanes. I wonder if the bike lanes are an “everything is bigger in Texas” sort of thing or if it’s a result of having Lance Armstrong as a resident. It’s then that I remember an article I’d read about Lance’s heart being bigger than the normal person’s heart, not a "everything is bigger in Texas" sort of thing but one reason he is such a tremendous athlete. Even considered by many to be the greatest athlete of all time. I wonder if Lance’s girlfriend, also named Anna calls him Mr. Wonderful and I hope she does because a guy with an oversized heart and an Anna should never sing “oooh baby.” 

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Gravitational Force

I want to swim back to the earth because I am not an astronaut 
and while I fight the tide
the moon says no don't, ok, yes 
the moon doesn't know about the tide it just does 
things beyond what it understands because, well it's the moon and no one blames it

If the world whispered I am not your world I would hear it but I'd still keep swimming and the moon could say “go away, I'm not your moon I'd smile and say “You are my earth's moon.”

The thing that makes me want to mush chip bags 
Is the same thing that makes us climb Everest and run marathons
Like hating your name but loving who you are. 
the only thing on our resume we have no control over is our name
And so we mush chips 

I once saw a whole forest burn. Every thing was black and grey except for the highest of trees
My dad said it was supposed to
It's part of the cycle. 
They did it on purpose to make a new forest, a healthier one
But I see the burnt stalks of pine and wonder if they know it's gonna be okay
They don't. 
They looked like soldiers limping and bloody
Some day they'll be green and lime like again the scars will build up in the shape of knots,
The knot will be filled with sap 
A tree says to his friend, “Do you remember the fire back in 98?” 
“Yeah, look at my thigh, I think about it everyday.”
“But at least we're still here.” says the first tree
The other tree just sighs.
Perhaps the rangers will start another fire soon
or maybe it'll just happen like a wild fire that sings with destruction.

I remember hearing "We all have a certain amount of gravitational force.” Not a force we can control, a force like our name. And yours is wrapping its arms around me. 
It looks me in the eyes and says, “come with me, lets go back to earth, we don't belong here.”
It wants to pull me from across the atmosphere, over mountains across the sea up through the gulf from where I sit in Florida on the balcony staring at the moon thinking I am not an astronaut

Thursday, September 22, 2011


She had a habit of taking photos of the moon even though they never came out. Even though when she took them the moon was big and close and you could see it's dimples. But in the photo it only looked like a small light in the distance. He had a habit of saying things like, "It would be easier if we broke the animal kingdom down into two groups those that eat with their mouth and those that eat with their hands." 

I remember the day I saw the brown snake lying in the grass with a toad halfway hanging out of its mouth. The snake looked uncomfortable but the toad looked pretty relaxed. It's legs are limp but once and a while it will kick and the snake will say, "Where do you think you're going?" and wiggle the toad a little farther down the snakes throat. (Do snakes have throats? Could they be just one big long throat that ends in an asshole)? And each time the toad struggles to avoid the inevitable it moves a little closer to it. And still it looks like the one who is feeling the majority of the pain here is the snake. And like a parent says to their kid just before spanking them he whispers to the toad, "This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you." But the toad and the child think, "bullshit,  if that were true you'd have me giving you the spankings." 

Which is what I said to the cat I found dying on the side of the road when I was in high school. I saw it struggling to get off the street towards the shade of camphor tree. It's black and white fur was bloody and matted near it's head and pieces of bone were sticking out of it's left leg. It was crying when I approached. As I got closer it started to hiss at me  but shortly gave up in the idea that it could defend itself from anything. Initially I considered calling Animal Control. I assumed they'd put it to sleep immediately but I also wondered, would they show up in their truck and scamper around with a stethoscopes around their necks, quickly take the cat's vitals and wheel it on a gurney into the back of the truck. Would they nurse it back to health first? Put its broken cat bones back together, give it a bath and sew up the wounds. Then in a very systematic way schedule a date to put it to sleep.  Feed it a last meal, maybe salmon and milk, the cat would then ask to be forgiven for it's sins. "I'm sorry for eating the parakeet and blaming the dog." Then someone like Tom Hanks would walk it towards the electric chair and he'd be comforting and tell the cat it was going to a better place. And the cat would look back and smile, the kind of smile that says, "I don't really believe that but it's nice of you to say so." 
I couldn't decide which was worse so I asked the cat "Hey cat, do you want to get better before you get worse? Because you can die now or you can die later, which will it be?" The cat just lay there, it's eyes slowly blinking as if he was thinking about it. I looked around and noticed a group of cinder blocks that were used to keep a garbage can from sitting directly on the grass.  And just before I dropped the cinder block on the cat's head I whispered, "this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you." Afterwards it stopped breathing. I felt around on the cat to try and to check its pulse but I don't know where cat pulses are located. I put the block back under the can and put the cat inside. 

Today in the paper was a story about a woman who has her own robot. It all started when her heart fell asleep the same way your foot might after you've been sitting a while, that type of thing.  
"I can't feel anything." she explained.  
"How do you feel about that?" the doctor asked. 
"I don't know, I guess I don't mind, I don't feel anything so I don't know."
When her doctor placed the stethoscope against her chest he could hear her heart. It beat regularly.  
"It's numb and feels all pins and needles." she said as she made a worried smile.  
The doctor sighed the way doctors do when they have bad news. He told her he'd seen these kind of cases before, that the outlook was iffy. Then he wrote, clipboard in hand, a prescription for a personal robot.
"Can I name the robot?" she asked
"You can but I don't recommend it." 
"I think I'll call it Cheese."
"As long as your heart is asleep you won't be able to feel or express anything. That is why I've prescribed you the robot. The robot will objectively determine how you would be feeling. On his display board you will see an emoticon. It's very straight forward. If you are happy your robot will let you know that you are happy. If you are sad he will let you know that you are sad. Of course you won't feel any of this but at least you'll get a sense of would feel if you could feel."

"What if it's a feeling of sad-happy or happy-sad?"
"Don't worry we have an emoticon for that too."
In the article the woman explained what it's been like to take care of a robot "Rust is an issue, you must always think about rust but still I'd never go back to a life without my robot."
"What's it like not having any feeling?" asked the reporter
"It's like when it's been raining and it lightens up a bit and you go outside but it's raining so lightly you don't even feel the rain. And if someone we're to ask you "Is it still raining?" you'd answer no even though it is.
And when the reporter asked "So you're happier today than before you had this heart condition." 
The woman turned, looked at her personal robot, and the robot shuffled uncomfortably and it's display said,  : /


At least the snake memory I know is real, meaning I remember the toad twitching as well as when I got spanked for making my brother deaf that afternoon. By real I mean, not the kind of memory one thinks was real but only remembers a photo of it, not the actual event itself.  Like the memory I have of when I was around three and I'm wearing overalls (why do parents love to dress their kids in overalls when they themselves would never wear overalls?) sitting on green outdoor carpeting playing with a plastic ambulance, which is actually only a memory of the photo.

The day the snake ate the toad I was playing with my plastic stethoscope. It came with one of those doctor kits that are standard issue for all kids. The one with the knee tapping hammer and the look up your ear and nose thing. Aside from the stethoscope the rest of the kit was pretty worthless, how many times can you hit yourself with a plastic hammer until that gets old? The stethoscope was fun because it could be worn as a fashion accessory and it really worked. What I mean by saying that it worked was that if you put the part meant for listening  into your brother's ears and put the part meant to pick up the sound of a heart beating to your mouth and screamed "Can you hear my heart beat?" as loud as your eight year old voice could go then it works. You're brother may not hear your heart beat, he may not hear anything for a while after this, but it's a lot more amusing than tapping his knee with a plastic hammer. But not amusing to your mom who now has you over her knee and isn't tapping but beating you and whispering, ""This hurts me more than it hurts you."

When she said to him, "Why do you make that face when you look in the mirror?" he was embarrassed but thought it was funny because he knew exactly what she was talking about.
Still he said, "What face?"
"The one you make every time you look in the mirror, your mirror-face." she said and then made her face like his mirror-face and they both laughed.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Pass the MSG

As a kid I remember driving through a state park in West Florida with my father and seeing charred remains of forest. Behind the barb wire fence the earth was post-apocalyptic, mostly grey sand and ash. Small specks of green poked through the ground here and there, a stem with a leaf or two only. The pines displayed black scars along their trunks, evidence of what had happened, but their upper branches and green needles paid no attention and went on with life, for them, just another day hanging out in the woods.

"Was there a fire?" I asked my dad.

He told me it was called a controlled burn, the forest rangers start fires, they control them, when the brush and ground cover gets to thick they do it. It helps prevent wild fires that can start when lightening strikes and get out of control. It's good for the forest. Some of the trees even need it to help stimulate growth and so even though it seems like it destroys the forest it actually helps renew it. Soon everything will grow back new and green.

It seemed like a crazy idea, burning everything down to make everything better. I watched out the window as the burned area quickly transitioned to the thick unburned forest where the bright green palmettos surround the pines with their jazz-hand fronds and cover the forest floor making it nearly impenetrable except to the rodents and snakes that live beneath. The pine trunks are anorexic skinny, some trunks toppled, leaning at a thirty degree angle, supported only by the trunks of other survivors.

Two years ago when Anna and I performed a controlled burn on our lives and decided to leave the States to go sailing we sold our life on Craigslist. We thought we planned everything on the brown drawing pad Anna brought with her to the cafe where this all began with two stick figures representing us. Initially she'd written across the top "How to escape Tallahassee." After a few minutes we crossed through Tallahassee and replaced it with the USA. Buying a sailboat became the answer to the question. But when I left my job and she left her interior design business neither of us knew anything about umami or MSG. People asked us what are you going to do if you don't like it? "Do something else, we'd say." But the truth is we were George Bush in our thinking.

We did like it, for a while. We just wanted to have fun and be with each other and we did. We woke up on the ocean, speaking new languages, our life was infused with the beautiful flavors of doing whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted. The flavor of bird peppers, mahi, the Caribbean, curry and freedom. We had nothing to do, no responsibilities, no deadlines, conference calls, meetings, appointments or obligations. We didn't know the day of the week, the time or where we were going next.

At one point, about half way through a lifestyle that makes Charlie Sheen look wholesome Anna researched some yoga courses on what she'd need to get instructor certification. It sounded like a great idea but was soon forgotten. And more recently, she walked around Cartegena, just to walk and came back with a stack of interior design catalogs. But what neither of us fully put together was that this was all about the umami and that the palmettos had gotten too thick.

I never thought about MSG until a month ago when I was at dinner in Colombia with a guy we'd just met, Max. I knew nothing about it aside from a sign in the drive-thru of a Chinese restaurant we used to go to as a kid that read "MSG"  in a circle with a do-not-enter style line through it. I just assumed "MSG" was short for messages and for whatever reason their answering machine must be full. 

We'd gone to an Australian Fusion Cafe which sounds both repetitive (isn't all Australian food aside from bush meat fusion?) and an odd choice for Cartegena but the place was air-conditioned and just a block down the street. As we looked at the menu Anna mentioned the high abundance of cilantro on the menu, a concern because for Anna cilantro tastes like soap. In the beginning of our relationship I just thought Anna was being difficult about the cilantro but after some internet research discovered that her problem with cilantro had more to do with having an enhanced sense of taste. Scientists refer to people who have a heightened sense of taste as Supertasters. Supertasters often compare the flavor of cilantro to soap.

Anna was immediately in love with the idea that she had a superpower and I enjoyed transferring the idea to her reason for being with me and our relationship. She dealt with showering in the ocean because she was a Supertaster. She didn't need air-conditioning because she was a Supertaster. Because what we were experiencing had so much more flavor than a traditional American lifestyle and Anna was special because she could taste it with an intensity greater than the average individual where all the inconveniences of sailing weren't effecting her or us. But after two years on the boat, living what most people would call a dream we both still felt something missing.

As we waited for our meal Max revealed to us his in depth knowledge of all things related to taste. He knew about the amount and location of receptors on the tongue and why Heinz ketchup tastes so much better than regular ketchup. He didn't know why he knew so much about taste but he did. Most of all I remember what he said about MSG. Apparently MSG, which stands for Monosodiumumami. Umami is the hidden taste that we all want and love which is why foods with MSG taste so great. The Japanese word umami essentially translates as "meatiness." So add a little MSG to your vegetables, cereal, chocolate cake and it'll suddenly taste meaty. Add a little MSG to anything and it will be more meaty.

Once I got back to Florida and my sister is telling me about her new job which she doesn't really like but doesn't entirely hate. Being on an expressway is a sensory explosion after being at sea for two years. The stands of pine trees  near the overpass , the buildings of downtown Orlando appear to be zooming by even though were the ones zooming as we drive east along the expressway. She tells me about the unhappy millionaires she works for while I half listen and half think what went wrong with my relationship with my fiancee. As we drive east down Colonial towards Central where all the businesses are Asian owned and the restaurants are called Phun-Ho and Lin-Hun and have neon blue and red signs that hum against the window and read "Best Vietnamese" or "Real Chinese"  or just simply "Thai Cuisine."
Eventually, Emily says something like "It just isn't very gratifying I need to do something with a purpose." and I look at her and she can tell I'm looking at her and she'll laugh and say
"What?" and start laughing harder and say
"What is it Jeff?" and laugh even harder.
And even though I'm big brother and I'm supposed to be full of all types of advice the only thing I can suggest is grabbing some take-out.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

It is their customer, not my customer

When I have nothing to do or I'm avoiding something to do I like to crane my neck around like an owl, slide my shoulder forward and pull out my mutant hairs. I have mutant hairs. They may not be mutants. They might be super hairs, I don't know. Maybe they're regular hairs and all the rest of my hair is mutant. I know other men have them because I was standing in a 7-11 a block off Deerfield Beach, FL waiting in line to buy a Slurpee when I noticed the shirtless man in front of me also had mutant hairs. I considered asking "You pluck mine I'll pluck yours?" While imagining his potential response I let the opportunity slip away.

In fact I know very little about them. What I do know is that they are dark, they will not go blond in the sun as will the rest of my hair yet they prefer lots of sun as they'll only grown on my upper bank and shoulder area. Don't be confused these are not Siamese twin hairs where two hairs come out of one follicle. They're thicker than the rest of my hair and a bit more brittle. They're individualistic where as the rest of my hairs seem to work as a team.  They like to play hide and seek. Most amazing of all of their features is the aggressive speed at which they grow. They grow at one hundred times the speed of a normal hair. I can have zero within visible range today and tomorrow I could have a two inch mutant hair.

Okay, I admit it, I pluck them because I don't like the way they look. I hate them. I can't stand them. I'd rather smell or have bad breath than have these fucking hairs. The thing is I'll never win, they can relocate to parts of my body I can't even see. The problem is once I see them, I have to get rid of it immediately. Even if I'm in an elevator, at the doctor's office or eating sushi. Once one is identified it has to be eliminated. I know I should just accept them,  they're a part of me, I should just let them flourish. I should learn to love them but I just can't get to that level of enlightenment. Like this morning, I was making coffee and glanced to the side and saw one lurking around on my shoulder.  So I forget that I'm making coffee and run for the tweezers. While I'm sitting there for an hour trying to manipulate my arm in a way that will allow me to grab this mutant, I can't help but think of my friend David.

David is a Kuna guy, which means he's short, the Kuna's are the second shortest peoples after the pygmies. But if smiles were in proportion to our size David would be the tallest man in the world. He paddles up in his Ulu {a Kuna canoe} with his smile, his tan skin, indigenous face and before you realize it you're smiling back. David lives on an island called Isle Pinos. As I mentioned he's Kuna which means he is a member of the Kuna tribe, a tribe that has more autonomy than any other indigenous group in the world. Kuna's run their own show, though they're a part of Panama, they make their own laws, they have their own land, some of the most beautiful islands in the world as well as a good chunk of mainland on the east coast of Panama all the way down to the Colombian border. And since they make their own laws they've done a lot to preserve their culture. There isn't much electricity in Kuna Yala {also known as San Blas} which has done a lot to help. David's island has a couple of huts that have a solar panels but mostly they live as they have for hundreds of years. They survive off of a little fish that they get from the ocean around them, rice, plantains and a pineapple here and there.

David's island, Isle Pinos, is significant to Anna and I because it was the first island we came to in Kuna Yala. David and his family were also the first Kunas we met. Since we've been making trips with backpackers between Panama and Columbia we've made David's island one of our regular stops. Isle Pinos has about two hundred Kunas living in the village. In a region that gets little tourism David's village is probably one of the least visited of all. It isn't postcard beautiful like the others and it happens to be a bit out of the way.  It's muddy without the white sand beaches of the other islands. The water is murky as a result of the nearby rivers unlike the islands to the north. What makes it worth visiting is the people. Since it receives little tourism the Kunas here are very traditional. As you walk through the village they don't try to sell you anything, they just go about their living. And when you're there you're as much of a spectacle to them as they are to you. Then of course there is David whose personality is so wonderful, you can't help but love him, there is something special about David.

Since we've been returning to Pinos I pay him to make a traditional Kuna dinner for the backpackers It's prepared by his wife and mother and served in his hut. They don't have electricity and everything is cooked over a wood fire. We've had fish and a cold plantain soup, another time we bought octopus for $1.15 a pound which he said was very expensive. They cooked the octopus with coconut rice. Another time was a variety of salt pork, land crabs, lobster, rice, cold plantain soup, lentils, and a tomato and avocado salad. Isle Pinos is so remote, you never know what's going to be available. The first time we ate dinner in his hut I asked him about the wooden spirit dolls his wife was cleaning in preparation for a ceremony. David waved his hand and said, "It is customer, it is their customer, not my customer." {custom} "Yeah but what are they for?" I pressed. "They are for customer, but not my customer."

Whenever we've stop in Isle Pinos with our backpackers I've hired David to take everyone on a hike around the island. Unlike the other Kuna islands, Isle Pinos is mountainous. The tour guiding hasn't been perfect. Once because it was rainy and the trail was too muddy he took them to the garbage burn pit and then held them hostage for the three hours when they wanted to come back to the boat. Whenever I've tried to speak to David about what I'd like him to do it's a bit difficult. He speaks some English, language isn't the problem. The problem is he doesn't listen. He wants me to be happy so he says, "No problem, I take for hike, people for now. I know people. I know things for people like to see." But what he thinks they like to see is the cell phone tower at the top of the mountain. He likes to show them his cell phone and talk about all the people he knows from different countries. He tells them he wants his kids to speak English, French, Spanish and not Kuna. But what he doesn't like to talk about is anything that they're wondering about like, "Why are the women dressed like that?" and "Why do only women wear nose rings?, "What is the purpose of the make up that men and women wear?, "How do you make your Ulus?" and "How the hell do you live here?" The reason we go there is to share the Kuna culture with the travelers and yet our tour guide doesn't really like the Kuna culture himself.

On our second to last trip the island was closed for a religious ceremony David wasn't taking part in. When I asked David about the ceremony he said, "It is their customer, not my customer." They were mourning a chief that had died by closing off the islands and smoking and building fires around the island. When I asked him more about it he wasn't interested in explaining. Later on I tried again, all he said was "It is their customer, not my customer."

On this same trip David also asked if I'd invest in his restaurant. To understand the feasibility of his idea of a restaurant you need to understand this is a place with only two hundred people half of which are children, a place that may see thirty tourists a year aside from me and my backpackers. David felt like an influx of tourism was about to take place and the first thing that these people were going to need was a restaurant. Not one to kill a dream...

"Well David I don't think it's such a bad idea but it would need to be traditional or at least seem traditional Kuna, that is why people come here, that is why I come here."

"Yes we have traditional, we are traditional in our customers {he meant customs}. My wife and me we have can cook, you no worry. We make Italian we make Chinese cooking.

"David, no, it needs to be traditional Kuna food prepared in a style that is traditional. No one who comes here wants to eat Chinese or Italian."  

"Yes we have traditional food and we have Chinese and Italian. You no worry we cook all for restaurant. Maybe some Chinese. Maybe some Italian. If people want Kuna we make Kuna but for me Italian and Chinese.  Maybe you have money for me for restaurant. I can pay you each time come, each time pay you, each time.

"How much do you need?"

"I need maybe I don't know $5OO for building hut and roof and having people help for building roof."

"Okay let me ask Anna."
was where I left it which was a good place since in Kuna-land the women control the finances so I think he understood that and told him we would talk about it later.

This afternoon walking around Portobelo it all made sense as I was trying to buy gasoline as a large tour bus stopped in town. As they do once a month, the door folded open and fifty American tourists disembarked. They looked hot and uncomfortable the sweat building on their neck and on their lower back where their t-shirts tucked into their khakis, their white tube socks approaching their knees accompanied by white tennis shoes. They walked around looking confused as to why any tour company would bring them here to this destination, confusion that slowly turned to disgust when they saw the trash and the dogs. Eventually one stepped in dog shit and lifted his leg to examine it. He wore a camera and a shirt that said, "PANAMA!"  A group of local kids walked by laughing at the tourists and me, as I was surrounded by them. All I could do was nothing so I screamed, "It's their customer not my customer! Then I ran straight back to the boat and started plucking.