The Other Side

One of my primary goals in taking this trip was to meet people who were different than me. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the bubble of your own opinions, especially in a solidly blue city like Seattle. In my everyday life, conservatives are more of a concept than a real life group of people. I can try to go online or watch TV, but I know it’s no use. There’s no way to accurately judge the slant I’m getting, no way to verify the authenticity of the opinions. Not to mention we’re all inclined to click on things that interest us, so the internet will always point you to the places in which you will find like-minded friends. I figured as long as I stayed in Seattle I was guaranteed to get constant reinforcement of my own ideals. If I wanted to be challenged, I’d have to hit the road.

Capitol Building

Unfortunately, even when seeking out The Other I couldn’t help but constantly find The Same. I didn’t have any republican CouchSurfing hosts because nearly everyone on CouchSurfing is a variation on the hippie/liberal spectrum. When I stayed with family and friends I was often among liberals, because we are all inclined to grow up believing the same things as our family members and making friends with people who agree with us. I knew my own bias was getting in the way of my desire to meet my idealogical opposites, but I had no idea how to fix it.

When I expressed my dismay to my host in Wisconsin, she recommend I spend some time with her neighbor Tim. She’d had more than one political debate with him over the years, and assured me he was firmly in the Republican camp. I wasn’t sure how exactly to ask a complete stranger if he wouldn’t mind talking with me for several hours, but this problem solved itself when I went to return the bike we’d borrowed the day before, and he offered to take me on a tour of the local college campus.

Madison had been over-taken by the Ironman Triathlon that day, and Tim and I ended up in his car for most of the tour as we searched for campus roads that weren’t closed. While driving we talked about capitalism and economics and I related a few stories about international manufacturing that I’d recently learned from Planet Money. He told me he thought the people still singing in the capitol building were just whining because they lost the recall election, and I explained how in Seattle, photos of the Madison protestors were shown adjacent to the Arab Spring.

Tim told me about how he and his wife live in Florida for six months of the year. When they drive down they do so without stopping to sleep. It’s 27 hours to get from Madison to their home in Florida, and they do it with a dog and two cats. He said he and his wife prefer it this way; they don’t like to stop. Plus, it means they can time their drive to take advantage to low-traffic periods. They never get stuck in Atlanta traffic because they drive through the city at two o’clock in the morning.

After giving up on the college and finding all his preferred dining establishments closed on Sundays, Tim and I grabbed some pizza at a local chain restaurant. Back at the house his wife handed me some homemade cookies for the road, and Tim recommended I stop in La Crosse on my way to Minneapolis.

And that was my day with a conservative.

I was afraid that living in a bubble of my own values was going to force me to see opposing viewpoints as crazy, and the people who held them as monsters. I wanted to go out into the world and meet these people first hand, and remind myself that they are no different than the rest of us. I wanted to hear their views straight from their mouths and gain a better understanding of where the thinking was rooted.

What a moron I was.

If traveling around the United States has taught me nothing else, it taught me that we are all inclined to believe that the majority of people we encounter agree with us. It is universal. It happens during casual party conversation and at the fast food counter. We carry our bias with us everywhere, and we don’t notice it because it usually doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if I assume the woman making my hot chocolate at the coffee shop is a democrat, because it’s probably not going to come up. It doesn’t matter if I assume she recycles regularly and would also love to visit New Zealand. It doesn’t matter because it’s unlikely any of these things will come up. I can keep believing them, and she can believe the complete opposite, and there will be no evidence of either if all we talk about is hot chocolate. Believe it or not, Libertarians and Socialists are capable of having incredibly non-confrontational conversations regarding cocoa.

LakeThe real bias that I was guilty of and needing to fix was my belief that I wasn’t already surrounded by opposing views. I was afraid of turning the opposing side into a faceless other, when that’s exactly what I’d done. I didn’t need to drive 15,000 miles to meet conservatives, I meet them all the time. Most of the time I don’t notice because when not discussing politics, liberals and conservatives are (surprise) pretty much the same. I know plenty of ideologically conservative people. I just don’t talk about politics with them. Why? Because I don’t want every casual conversation to turn into a debate. And I understand that I probably won’t be able to change their mind, since I know they won’t change mine. So we don’t bring it up.

It’s polite.

During my travels I had so many polite conversations with so many people that probably didn’t know how different I was from them. We all assume other people are just like us. My conversation with Tim was very cordial, very polite. We spent most of it finding all the ways in which we agree. Because that’s what people do. When face to face we’d rather agree with each other, because it reinforces the notion that we were both right all along. All sides do it. It’s yet another way in which we are alike. And I suppose that’s the thing I drove around the country to learn.

I didn’t have to go to Wisconsin to meet a conservative. Of course, I didn’t know that until I got there.

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Training Begins Early

I drove up and down Highway 31 for almost an hour before picking a church. There were a lot to choose from, but none of them were jumping out at me. Eventually I turned down the road to Eden Bible Church because I’d never been to anything that called itself a Bible Church. Besides, something about the nearby Church of Christ building made me nervous.

I was greeted at the door of Eden by an older man, the kind of man whose jokes might be offensive if he wasn’t so damn charming. I took my place in a pew and couldn’t help but notice the family sitting behind me: One woman in her 40s or 50s and seven identically dressed boys. The age range of the boys was about six to thirteen, and all of them were wearing lavender dress shirts with dark purple ties.

Mother and Children

“Where are the girls?” I asked their mother.

“Didn’t have any,” she said with a shrug and a smile.

An usher handed me a crisp, 9×6 folder made of quality paper. It was their welcome packet, and it was full of information about the church and its activities. There’s an “Over 55” luncheon for seniors the forth Friday of every month, an evening service at 6PM on Sundays, and every Wednesday is Family Night. The back of the worship bulletin had a prayer request for their missionaries, and listed 13 people in 7 countries. My favorite was the L.A.D.I.E.S. F.E.L.L.O.W.S.H.I.P. of Eden Bible Church, which is easily the longest and most obnoxious backronym I’ve ever seen. It stands for: Learning And Doing Inspiring Embracing Supporting Friends Enjoying Love Laughter Of Women (who) Share Hearts In Prayer & praise. It sounds a bit like something I would have come up with during an improv game.

Then of course, there was the Sunday School Program.

“Children are important at Eden Bible Church and their training begins early.”

Reading that line in the welcome packet sent a shiver down my spine,. I’m a Sunday School teacher myself, and I just can’t bring myself to think of teaching as training. Training is what soldiers and athletes do. Education is what you get from teachers. Even so, reading their program guide made me jealous. Eden Bible Church has five Sunday School classes, plus two more for adult education. Their classes start at 9:15AM, almost two hours before the regular service. Kids are split up into groups with no more than a two year age range, just like you might have in a public school. When I was growing up, my church used the one room school house approach to pedagogy, and I consider it an accomplishment that my current congregation has the resources to separate the kids into two age groups. At our church the 12-year-olds aren’t sitting through the same lesson as the toddlers. At Eden, they aren’t even sitting through the same lesson as the 10-year-olds.

After church I met yet another woman with seven boys, though she informed me that six of hers were adopted. I couldn’t help but look for the fathers in both cases, and never managed to find them. Everyone at the church was very kind, very welcoming. After the service they wished me well on my trip, and I continued my drive up through Michigan.

The people of Eden Bible Church fit so neatly into so many stereotypes I would like so much to believe. I can tell myself that their church must offer a simplified, straight-forward message that keeps people coming back, unlike my own denomination whose primary features are the muddy mystery of the divine and a consistently declining population graph. I can pretend that even though they have a much stronger and more established education program, it’s probably more rigid and didactic than my own. I can imagine that my own inclination to remain childless is a much choice than the decision to have seven boys – adopted or not. I can be proud to live in the heart of a modern city, rather than in the pinky of the Michigan mitten.

And in thinking all those things, all I manage to be is the arrogant, liberal stereotype I assume they want me to be. And of course the assumption that they want me to be an arrogant liberal is just another stereotype I have of them. I suppose my training began early, too.

Such is the vicious cycle of The Other. Were I to stay in town for a few more Sundays, maybe catch an adult Sunday School session or crash the potluck lunch, I would probably change my tune. In traveling, I run the constant risk of learning just enough to make myself feel smart, while not discovering how much more there is to know. It makes me second-guess every conclusion I draw. I am constantly asking myself: Was my experience authentic? Do I know enough to draw a conclusion? Will others find my thoughts arrogant? The fear is always there. “You’re wrong,” they’ll say as they shove contradictory evidence back in my face. And I’ll sheepishly back away, because I know that I leaped before I looked. As one of my favorite novels once taught me, it’s easy to jump to the Island of Conclusions, but it’s a long, hard swim back.

Thinking about it now, I wish I would have known about Eden Bible Church’s extensive Sunday School program ahead of time. I could have asked to sit in on a class. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been so envious of the program if I had been there. Or maybe I would have coveted their personalized lessons even more. I sometimes wonder if jealousy isn’t at the heart of all pre-judgments. It’s not just about Eden’s philosophy or their language, it’s the fact that they’re doing so well with it. It’s the same with any group or interest. You want the things you love to be successful, because that means you were right to love them in the first place. Sometimes we have to admit that at least for now, what we love doesn’t appeal to everyone. We have to remind ourselves that the success of another doesn’t detract from our own interests and pleasures. It takes constant, conscious thought to cure ourselves of jealousy-based prejudice.

Or, I suppose, it just takes training.

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What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Detroit

“Don’t go to Detroit.”

That’s what people would say to me when they saw my route. Because Detroit is awful. Detroit is bad. It’s scary. It’s full of crime. It’s sad. It’s wasted away. Go to Ann Arbor instead. Don’t bother with Detroit. That’s what the Americans said.

The Canadians, however, seemed to have a different picture of Detroit. When I told the Canadians I met in Toronto that Detroit was my next stop, they expressed both joy and jealousy. “I love Detroit,” they would say to me. When I told them how Americans think of the city, the people in Toronto shrugged it off. “It just has a bad rap,” they said. “It’s a great city.”

After spending two very enjoyable days in Detroit with a couple of new friends, I started to wonder about the city’s reputation. Outside of the special excursions we made to the more deserted parts of town, Detroit felt like any other city I’d visited. There was of course one small difference.

When I first crossed the boarder into the city I pulled over at a McDonalds to use the internet and get a quick bite to eat. I sat there with my Chicken McNuggets and couldn’t help but notice something strange about the commercials playing on the TV in the corner. I recognized the brands and the premises, but they were slightly different than the commercials I’d seen before. The attractive, smiling white people had been switched out for attractive, smiling black people.

The patrons of the restaurant were also black. So were all of the employees. For forty minutes I watched people come and go and I remained the only non-black person in the building.

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Integration is a myth.

More specifically, it is a myth that 50 years ago our society became integrated and all racial segregation since then has just been the gradual end of a now extinct way of living. Yes, things were much worse then. Yes, we have come a long way. But the truth is, racial segregation is alive and well.

I know what you’re thinking, “Of course it is. We all know there is still racism in America. We know that there are still plenty of black neighborhoods and so-called Chinatowns.” That’s what I would have said, too. But the unspoken caveat to those words is always “But come on, at least it’s not that way everywhere.”

Stop One

First stop on the DC Metro. I am the only one in the car who isn’t black.

It is that way everywhere.

The problem with being a stranger in a strange town is that you don’t know where you’re not supposed to be. Sometimes during my travels I would get lost and end up driving a few blocks in the wrong direction. And when I say wrong direction, I do mean the black direction. It sounds awful because we like to think that as a society we’ve moved past that. After all, if we hadn’t, we would all feel pretty horrible for sitting around and letting it happen.

Right?

A few months ago a demographic researcher at the University of Virginia took the most recent U.S. census data and used it to create a racial map of the United States. There was a different color for each major racial group (red for Asian, yellow for Hispanics, etc), and a single dot for every citizen. Some images, such as the one for Detroit, caused a lot of discussion online. The map clearly showed how the city is broken up by racial districts, with black, white, and hispanic existing in completely separate spaces.

It’s not just Detroit. I see it in every place I visit. It doesn’t matter how big or small the town is. In Savannah the black/white divide is on Bull Street, at least until you get to the entirely white downtown (which is flanked by black neighborhoods on each side). The racial map of Tulsa spins out like a color wheel, with green dots to the north (black), yellow to the north east (Hispanic), and blue to the southeast (white). In Memphis we went to see Wild Bill’s (north of Jackson Avenue), and my host was so concerned about the neighborhood she told me to stay in the car while she went to ask the convenience store owner a question.  In San Francisco I went to Mission Town, which has trash on the streets and bars on the windows, unlike the houses just two blocks north of 16th street. New York City is so divided the map could have been drawn in crayon. In Roswell, NM the Hispanics have a concentrated area in the southeast, but it’s almost entirely white north of – I kid you not – Country Club Road. I could go on. Pick any spot on the map and you will see it.

And everywhere I went I found people that could easily identify the “bad part of town,” while being completely unaware that they were also talking about “the black part of town,” or “the Mexican part of town.”

Detroit has become America’s bad part of town. It is that little section of the country that most of us never need to drive through, that place that you know used to have a really beautiful movie theater and a great music scene. It’s the place you wouldn’t try to walk through at night. The place with the high crime statistics that make you look over your shoulder at the man walking behind you and wonder, “Is he a criminal too?”

My guess for why Detroit doesn’t have the same effect on Canadians is that they’re not from “this town.” They don’t hear what we hear on the news. They’re tourists who don’t realize that there are some parts of this country where you just don’t go at night.

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Detroit as a city is almost entirely black. The strict dividing line at 8 Mile Road (the city limits) is true. I drove past it on my way out of Detroit, and the city turns from black to white at that block. While I was in Detroit I mentioned the census map to my host Lizzie, who hadn’t seen it yet. I pulled it up and we took a look at her city.

Second Stop: Three white people get on the train.

Second Stop: Three white people get on the train.

Immediately we found that we were sitting in the most racial diverse part of town: Wayne State University. We started searching the map for other anomalies, and Lizzie would try to figure out the reasons behind them. One concentrated section of white people was near a well-known country club and golf course. Another collection was in the Sacred Heart Seminary. There was a small population of Asians around the hospital. For each deviation, we could determine a cause. I mentioned to Lizzie that the lines in Seattle were present but not as severe, and we turned the map towards my home city.

I showed her the various neighborhoods and gave my explanations. The strong patch of red indicated just how many Asian students attend the University of Washington. The sparse number of dots near Bill Gates’ house showed just how big the homes are in Medina. After a few minutes in Seattle, I pulled the map down to my real home town of Des Moines, about 40 minutes south of the city. I hadn’t looked at Des Moines yet, but I pointed out the streets I could recognize, showing her my childhood home, my school, the church I grew up in, etc.

“What’s right there?” she asked, pointing to a dense patch of yellow that indicated a Hispanic neighborhood.

“Huh,” I said, “I don’t know.”

The racial map doesn’t name every street, so I pulled up the Google map of the city to compare. Back and forth I went, over and over again, trying to find an explanation for this tiny concentration of Hispanic people.

“They’re apartment buildings,” I said. Looking closer at the Google map, I realized there were businesses back there as well, and a lot more houses than I ever realized. I tried to picture the area in my mind. “I guess I just never had any reason to go in there.”

“Oh,” Lizzie said.

“This is the road we took to get to church,” I told her. “I drove by this neighborhood twice a week for ten years.”

Third Stop: A few more white people get on board.

Third Stop: A few more white people get on board.

The Hispanic neighborhood has probably always been there. I just never knew. I needed a researcher from Virginia to tell me about the people who lived ten minutes away from me my entire life. This is how we’ve managed to keep up this beautiful lie of segregation ending in the 1960s. We don’t know it’s there because our lives are carefully crafted to avoid travel outside the racial lines. I never went into the Hispanic neighborhood near my house, why would I? Why would I go to those grocery stores and auto shops when there are all those other businesses on my way to school? You know, the businesses where all the other white people go. As far as schools in the greater Seattle area go, I would say that my high school was fairly diverse. There were black people and Koreans and Russians and Mexicans and Colombians. It was easy to pick out these group of course, because everyone clumped together. I had my white friends, the Koreans had their Korean friends. And there was no hostility. I knew plenty of non-white students. They were in all my classes and we worked together and laughed together and got along famously. We were friends. And then at lunch I went and sat with the other white girls because it’s high school and that’s what you do.

But it doesn’t change. I went to college and I had white friends. I met my white boyfriend. I got my first job out of college, working with all those white coworkers. Every step of the way, there I was, following the path that would lead me directly to people whose skin color matched my own.

Forth Stop: Black people begin to leave the train. More white people get on.

Forth Stop: Black people begin to leave the train. More white people get on.

I had the chance to move into a decent apartment with some friends of mine a few years back, but opted not to. Why? Well, my bedroom would have been a bit small and frankly, it was in a pretty sketchy part of town. Excuse me, I mean it was in the black part of town. I didn’t realize this consciously of course, I didn’t know the neighborhood well enough to understand its racial makeup. I just knew I’d heard bad things, and there were a few too many chain link fences for my taste. None of the streets or businesses felt familiar. I didn’t feel comfortable there, so I didn’t move there. Instead I moved into a tiny studio twelve blocks north in a very nice, very white part of town.

I was ignorant, and ignorance is our enemy. Ignorance breeds complacency, and we have all allowed ourselves to willingly engage in racial segregation through complacency. We give white people no reason to venture into non-white neighborhoods, so they don’t even know they’re there. We make sure that there are plenty of Asian-run businesses right next to where all the Asian people live, so they never have to bother with white people when going to the grocery store. And you probably hadn’t thought about it, but in less you live near an institute for higher education, you probably live in a segregated neighborhood.
So this is what I’m saying, very openly, very plainly, and with so much conviction I feel guilty about it: I am an active participant in racial segregation. And so are you.

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In high school they explained it to me like this: beer sales always go up at the same time as ice cream sales. So does eating ice cream make people want beer? No. There is another factor. A lurking variable. The beer sales have nothing to do with the ice cream sales. It’s just hot outside.

Correlation, not causation.

Final Stop: The racial majority on the train has swapped from black to white as we enter downtown. Had I stayed on the train, I would have seen it turn entirely white.

Final Stop: The racial majority on the train has swapped from black to white as we enter downtown. Had I stayed on the train, I would have seen it turn entirely white.

I don’t know how to end decades of self-segregation. I don’t know how to separate race from poverty from crime. There are a lot of black people in Detroit. And there is a lot of poverty. And there is a lot of crime. And these relationships show us correlation, not causation. Sometimes I feel like we have lots of data on the ice cream and beer sales, but we never think to check the temperature. We don’t notice it’s hot outside, I suppose, because it’s always been hot outside. There is no non-racist time in America to look back on for comparison. Beer and ice cream sales have never dropped.

The fact is, the only model most of us know for getting rid of racially segregated neighborhoods is gentrification. I heard this word tossed around a lot in my travels, and always with distain. People hate the idea of gentrification. People don’t like the white majority coming in and taking over. Yet they also don’t want to live in a racially segregated society where no one ever tries to live apart from their color-coded tribe. And knowing that racial segregation can lead to economic segregation, people also know it’s unfair and unrealistic to insist that the minorities move into white neighborhoods. Trying to “fix” the problem of segregation is a good way to lose an argument with yourself.

The best thing I can think to do is start looking for those lurking variables. Not just the Who and the What, but the Why and the How. And while I encourage you to read and research, I don’t think we’ll find our lurking variables in studies and statistics. I think we’ll find them when we personally make the effort to cross the lines. I think the answers are south of 16th Street, or on the other side of Madison. I think we could all stand to get a little bit lost in our own home towns. Take a look at the map, and purposely go towards a splash of color you didn’t know was there. You might be surprised by what you find on the other side of 8 Mile. It’s more than just a bunch of green dots.

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End Note: If you’re interested in some of the more proactive ways in which housing discrimination has been created and maintained, I recommend an episode of This American Life that aired last November call “House Rules.” The audio and transcript can be found here.

The Things That Move the Earth

BicyclesI was told they were currently featuring an exhibit from Ai Weiwei at the Art Gallery of Ontario. You’ve probably heard of Ai Weiwei even if you don’t think you have. He’s the Chinese dissident artist who was put under house arrest back in 2010 for his opposition to the communist government. The exhibit showcased a range of Ai Weiwei’s works, and I found it to be one of the most intereting and enjoyable art experiences I’ve ever had. Weiwei’s style is smart, but not esoteric. His pieces make you think but they don’t aim to confuse. And he has a sort of puppet master appeal, because he often doesn’t make the pieces himself. Rather, he explains his vision and ideas to other artists, who then create it and expand upon it. Some pieces were simple, like the 12 foot long log with an outline of China carved straight through the middle. Or the beautifully crafted wooden walls lined up line dominos, so that when you look through the holes in the center you see the phases of the moon. Or, I suppose, that’s what you’re supposed to see. More often than not you looked through and saw another patron staring back at you, usually holding a camera.

Woman in the MoonOne of my favorite pieces was a pile of plastic crabs. In 2010, the Chinese government ordered that Weiwei’s new studio had to be destroyed because of supposed planning permission infractions. Weiwei organized a party to celebrate the demolition, but was kept from attending the celebration himself. The party happened without him and the guests feasted on River Crabs. The plastic pile at the museum was an homage to the party, and the crabs themselves were a dig at the government. The term “River Crab” has become synonymous with Chinese censorship in many internet communities, because the Chinese word for River Crab sounds very similar to the Chinese word for Harmonious – as in the government’s drive towards a supposedly “Harmonious Socialist Society.”

The piece that really stuck in my mind was the wall of names. In 2008 a powerful earthquake hit the Sichuan province. Do you remember it? I didn’t. I asked my friends and family. Sometimes they said it sounded vaguely familiar, though they were’t sure that they weren’t confusing it with some other disaster. “Was it a big earthquake?” they would ask.

It killed 70,000 people.

Rebar and PeopleWhen I heard that figure quoted in the gallery documentary I couldn’t believe it. How did 70,000 people die in an earthquake and I can’t remember anything about it? The 2011 Japanese Tsunami only claimed around 18,000 lives, yet it’s burned into many of our minds.

One reason for this is that accurate death toll numbers were not easy to come by. According to Weiwei and other dissidents, the government obscured the numbers and kept many from learning the truth: over 5,000 of those deaths were children killed when their government-built schools collapsed. Weiwei participated in a citizen’s investigation, uncovering the names of 5,385 children. These names were listed alongside their birth dates and other information on the wall of the exhibit. The list consumed the entire gallery wall. Five thousand souls lost and nearly forgotten, all in an attempt to hide the sad and embarrassing truth the children had been living in.

Wall of NamesIf Ai Weiwei’s goal was to make me understand the power of a government in absolute control, he did it. We like to think that the limits of government control extend to all the taxes we don’t want to pay. We like to think that no great evil can hide forever, and that the truth will out eventually. We like to think that economic equals are societal equals. But it’s not always the case. When a government can lock up its artists, its dissidents, it can do anything. It can declare safe things dangerous. It can declare dangerous things safe. The earth can move, and they can make it disappear.

Canada Is So Nice

TowerI was sitting in the kitchen of a shared apartment in Toronto eating some homemade ribs. Across from me and feasting on his own plate of ribs was Kyle, a friend from college and my only connection to the city. Kyle had moved to Canada to follow a job with the Salvation Army. The ribs had been made by Heather, the girl who lived downstairs.

Alex lived in the shared apartment. She has almost the exact same job as me: operations management for a real estate office. In talking about work we found that we shared the same work-based joys and frustrations, and that real estate wasn’t all that different in Canada than it was in the U.S.

The final member of the group was the only boy roommate, Mike. My friend Kyle dosen’t actually live with these friends, but they didn’t mind opening their home to me when Kyle said I needed a place to stay. As we scarfed down some of Heather’s guacamole another friend came over and the whole group wasted the night away talking in the living room. The subject of what I would be doing the next day came up.

“So what kind of traveler are you?” Mike asked.

“I don’t know,” I told him, “I guess I don’t even know how a person is supposed to answer that.”

Mike explained that it’s the kind of thing I ought to know about myself, and if I could figure it out it might help him find me some interesting ways to spend the day. After a bit of prodding and speculation we determined that I was a people and knowledge traveler. I liked to learn and I liked to meet new people. Mike helped me plan out and google map the entire day. He even gave me his phone to use for navigation since I couldn’t use mine in Canada. One of the girls offered me a pass for the bus. Mike made arrangements with some friends to meet me at various points. Canada is so nice.

First on the agenda was breakfast at Tim Horton’s, a popular Canadian chain restaurant. Not the Tim Horton’s near Bathurst Street though, the Tim Horton’s on Spadina Road. I grabbed a muffin and smoothie and meandered through the University College campus, heading towards Kensington Market.

Garden CarI think there is one thing for every traveler in every city. There’s one place, one food, one experience that seems unique to that city. And when you ask a fellow traveler what you should do while you’re in town, they will tell you – you have to ______. In San Francisco, you have to ride a cable car. In Philadelphia you have to have a Philly Cheesesteak. For me, for Toronto, you have to visit Kensington Market. And may I suggest that like myself, you go there at the completely wrong time of day.

ShopsKensington Market is a residential neighborhood turned into a business district. Old houses sit together in a line, their living rooms turned into clothing shops and their front porches filled with handmade wind chimes. Artistic graffiti adorns almost every surface. There’s a old car that’s been turned into a garden. Hippie shops have signs in their windows advertising incense and soap and palm readings. I had arrived too early. The market wasn’t alive yet, it was merely waking up. The fruit and vegetable stands were open, but they had few customers. The clothing vendors were sweeping off stairs and setting out A-frame signs. I walked through Kensington and watched the day begin. I imagined what it would be like in just a few hours time: sidewalks full of tourists, cars honking to make it through the streets, vendors yelling out their wares or ringing up customers or picking up messes. There was a lot of life about to happen in Kensington, and I was honored to see the quiet beginnings.

I walked down to the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) to meet Mike’s friend Caitlin. She’s in her twenties and works in their web department, and as an employee she has keycard access to most of the building. We walked through a studio that was setting up for filming and overheard a professional chef as he was explaining the blocking for the show. “I’ll put the beef in the pan, then go over here to wash my hands…” It’s funny, but I never really thought before about cooking shows having blocking. From the point of view of a stage actor, the participants on a cooking show stay in basically the same place the whole time. But for the camera, the star of your show is the food. Everyone involved needs to know where the focus is and when. Caitlin got rather excited, explaining to me that the chef we walked past was a celebrity in Canada.

CBCAs we continued our tour, Caitlin explained that there are rules in Canada dictating a certain minimum of broadcast television that has to be produced domestically. “Which is good … and bad,” she said with a smile. It means that Canadians are blessed with an abundance of programming made by and for their own citizens, but that the abundance is not entirely based on quality.

“I don’t have a key for this room,” Caitlin told me as we approached a door, “But we can look in through the window.” I squeezed up next to her to look inside and saw a flash of monitors. Before I had a chance to ask what we were looking at, a man came up behind us.

“Did you want to come in and look around?” he asked, opening the door with his key. He let us inside to a sort of entry hallway / break area. We thanked the man and he walked off, not bothering to ask why we were there or what we were doing. Caitlin and I looked ahead at a large glass wall and the dozens of people and monitors behind it. There were blinking lights and TVs playing all different programs. It was like a set from a movie pretending to be a major broadcasting corporation. A man came out of the glass room and began to fix himself a snack from the break supplies. He told us about his job monitoring the programming, and how shift work can be hard, since they have to stay up until 2:30AM for the Vancouver feed.

We kept walking and I saw hallways lined with signed photos of Canadian celebrities. Mr. Dressup was clearly a big deal – a sort of Canadian Mr. Rogers. Sesame Street made a show in conjunction with the CBC called Sesame Park (they even kept the theme song: “Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Park?”). I recognized The Royal Canadian Air Farce as well as the likes of Colin Mochrie and David Rakoff. But most of the faces were unfamiliar to me. I am an American, and these were strictly Canadian Celebrities.

Caitlin brought me to a sound studio where they used to do radio dramas (the CBC began as a radio network). Once again we were let into the locked studio by a friendly man who seemed unconcerned with our intentions. Canada is so nice.

DistilleryI thanked Caitlin for taking time out of her day for the lovely tour, and start booking it across town. I had another Kaitlin to meet at the Mill Street Brew Pub. This Kaitlin, also a friend of Mike’s, works as the distiller. The distillery is a small room encased in glass that allows restaurant patrons to watch the process as it happens. The machines inside look like they belong in Wonka’s chocolate factory. Inside the glass box it was incredibly hot, and sweat started to form on my forehead from simply standing there. Kaitlin explained to me how they distill beer, which is a genuinely fascinating process.

Kaitlin said that they’re hoping to get air conditioning installed soon to make both her and her regular tour guests more comfortable. Unfortunately any construction project for the room comes with mountains of paperwork and safety regulations. The distillery is inside a restaurant and underneath a condo building, and alcohol vapor is highly flammable. Kaitlin can’t even bring her phone into the distillery when a batch is brewing because of the spark risk.

Distillery DistrictI thanked Kaitlin for the wonderful tour and headed across the street for some much needed and deserved chocolate. I puttered around the area for awhile. Mill Street Brew Pub is only one business in the Distillery Historic District. This maze of Victorian architecture was once the largest distillery in the world, and is now filled with restaurants, shops, condos, art, and street performers. It was getting late in the day and I was getting tired. Toronto is walkable, but it’s not exactly a walking city. I hopped on a series of street cars and buses and made my way back to the house.

Movie CrowdAfter meeting up with some of the girls back home, we took the subway down to Pecaut Square, a park in the middle of the city that’s surrounded by office high-rises. By the time we got there the park was already filling up. It was the final night of the summer outdoor movie festival and the grass was covered with groups of people on their blankets. The theme for the summer had been romance, and they were ending the series with The Notebook.

We took turns picking up food and an hour latter the sun was down and the movie was starting. It was a warm night and the lights of the tall buildings were beautiful against the sky. I suppose it’s because an outdoor movie feels so much like a drive-in that the juxtaposition of the huge, glistening buildings and the grass under my toes seemed so delightful. It was like someone had plopped the rural down in the middle of the urban.

The NotebookKyle joined us on our blanket and he and I made jokes to each other about how much we hoped things would work out between James Marsden and Rachel McAdams. After all, he really seemed like a better match for her than that Ryan Gosling fellow. The other girls kept poking at us to quit joking around. I suppose the movie meant more to them than it did to us, since neither Kyle nor I had ever seen it before. But honestly, who could turn down James Marsden?

After the film we headed over to the nearby Tim Horton’s. They had been passing out coupons for hot chocolate, and we had snagged enough for everyone in the group. Kyle picked up a box of 20 Timbits (i.e. doughnuts holes) for the group to share, insisting I had to have some while I was visiting Canada – they are a Tim Horton’s tradition. We cracked jokes and sang songs until they flashed the lights at midnight for closing. It was like being in college again.

Kensington ArtThere is a stereotype that Canadians are especially nice and especially polite. My experience confirmed this prejudice completely. In talking with Kyle and his Canadian friends I was told that there are a lot fewer social pressures for young Canadians. No one in the group felt especially pressured to get married or buy a house or have kids, despite all of them being the same age as me. Mike’s friends thought nothing of taking time out of their workdays to give tours to a complete stranger. Kyle’s friends thought nothing of letting one sleep in their house. In talking with my Canadian friends about this, they all agreed that the stereotype was true, and based in the fairly laid-back way Canada address concern and responsibility. I feel like the humor and kindness of Canada that I experienced was best described in a comment Mike made my first night in town. He was telling me how Canadians were less inclined towards fear mongering and worry. I asked for an example.

Mike shot me a charming smile, and said “Grizzly Bears: they’re great! Be cautious.”

A Little Flashy for Vermont

Farm StillAbout two weeks before I was supposed to land in Vermont I got in contact with Jake and Michelle. They were friends of Mark and Connie from New Orleans, who were friends of my parents. Jake said that they were about to set out on a long vacation, biking around New England with “no set itinerary.” Already I knew they were my kind of people. Jake told me I was welcome to stay at their house anyway, he’d just tell the house sitter when to expect me. About 24 hours before I was supposed to show up at their door to meet the sitter, Michelle emailed me with an idea. They were camping near Middlebury, what if I met them there instead? I thought it sounded like a terrific idea, and drove across New Hampshire and Vermont to end up in Branbury State Park.

When I arrived, Michelle had just hopped into the shower after a long bike ride the two of them had completed together. Jake and I began to set up dinner, including some veggies I had picked up at the local roadside produce stand at Jake’s request. Michelle got back from the shower and the three of us feasted on a wide array of chopped up fruits and veggies. She mourned over a handful of tomatoes she had left on the dashboard of their van in hopes that they’d ripen in the sun. Instead she ended up with mush under the skins. Each tomato squished in your hand like a water balloon.

This was the end of their camping trip – the three of us would be spending the following night at their apartment in Burlington. So it seemed like the perfect opportunity to add their leftovers to our veggie feast, including some extra Indian food and scraps of delicious cheese. Jake kept offering me things – drinks, extra food, utensils – and joking about how he wanted to make sure he got credit in my blog for being nice. “I just want it to be known that I offered her a paper towel when you were in the shower,” he told Michelle.

As we finished dinner, Michelle began throwing all the dishes together in a cooler, insisting that nothing really needed to be cleaned since this was their last night of camping. I set up my little tent and the three of us wasted the night away staring at the campfire. It was nice to finally share a fire with someone.

The next day Jake and Michelle planned out their bike route. The two of them are avid cyclists, and they couldn’t fathom getting through the final day of their trip without at least a few miles of riding. I helped them clean up the camp and they gave me tips on how to spend my day. Michelle scribbled her suggestions for me for Burlington on a small sheet of paper, and they were off on their bikes.

Church FlowersIt was only about an hour drive between Branbury and Burlington, so I had plenty of time to kill. I began with Jake and Michelle’s recommendation for breakfast – the Three Squares Cafe in the nearby town of Vergennes. I feasted on french toast covered in fresh fruit, cinnamon whipped cream, and a healthy serving of Vermont’s famous maple syrup. I walked down the three blocks of interesting town that made up Vergennes and began to realize how disgusting I felt. When every night is a new bed, it’s easy to lose track of how often you should shower. I had clearly gone too long, and there was enough grease in my hair to prove it. I started to wonder if I would be able to make it all the way to the evening, when I would have the chance to shower at Jake and Michelle’s apartment in Burlington.

Undaunted by my personal feelings of yuck, I continued with my list of recommendations. After a lengthy stop in one of the most interesting museums I’d ever seen (more on that in the next post), I had made it to Burlington. Michelle had listed off several places to visit and things to do. I drove down to the waterfront, hoping to find a public beach where I would be able to jump right into the lake. If I couldn’t take a shower, at least I could get soaking wet. But I couldn’t find a parking lot, much less a nice stretch of lake access. I took another look at my scrap of paper listing the fun ways to pass one’s time in Burlington. I flipped it over to the back and realized that Michelle had written the words “No. Beach for Swimming.” No beach? Numbered beach? I pulled out my phone and started searching the map of the city.

North Beach!

Town MuralI raced up to the north end of town with renewed enthusiasm and had no regrets about paying eight dollars for parking when I got there. I changed into my swimsuit and piled my belongings near someone else’s empty beach towels. I always try to leave my things near other people in the hopes that it will deter any potential thieves. I don’t know how well it works but I didn’t care at that point. It was hot and I was sweating. I practically ran to the shore and dunked my head into the cooling waters of Lake Champlain. It was wonderful.

I floated along, watching the other beach-goers and excited children. I scratched at my head to push the water between the individual hairs. It had been hours since I first realized how much I wanted to jump into a lake, and it was well worth the wait. After a few minutes of floating and soaking, I went back to the shore. I spread my towel out on the sand and laid in the sun, occasionally getting too hot and jumping back in the water. What a beautiful day it was, what a much needed rest. Being covered in lake water never felt so cleansing.

Church StreetAfter changing back into dry clothes I realized I was famished. I had been so focused on getting clean that I had skipped lunch. I still hadn’t heard from Jake and Michelle, who were planning on going paddle boarding after their ride. I figured we wouldn’t be getting together for dinner, and turned to my list for suggestions. The first choice was a burger joint called The Spot. When I arrived I found a sign on the door indicating that while they are normally open on Wednesdays, they would be closed early on this specific Wednesday. I didn’t think it was a big deal and I moved onto the second option, a pizza place called Bite Me. When I arrived I found out that they were only just starting their pizzas for dinner service, and weren’t officially open for another hour. My last possibility was El Cortijo, a Mexican restaurant just off of Church Street (the local pedestrian drag). I found a decent parking spot and walked towards El Cortijo with trepidation. It’s not often one must turn to their Plan C just to find a decent meal. Fortunately for me, they were open and happily taking customers.

Just after I had finished up my meal I got a call from Jake. They were at the apartment, showering and generally getting their act together. I ended up joining them and a friend of theirs for a second dinner to celebrate Michelle’s birthday. After dinner the four of us walked down to a place called The Skinny Pancake, known for its delicious crepes and live music. Jake was excited to see tonight’s act “Joshua Panda and the Hot Damned.” Joshua Panda is a young singer-songwriter with a nice smile and the sort of tousled hair that only attractive musicians can pull off. The Hot Damned appeared to be just one other guy, and both he and Joshua sat in chairs with their guitars on the outdoor patio of the restaurant. Jake is clearly a huge fan of Joshua Panda, and he stopped talking the moment we sat down so he could listen to the music. Michelle kept poking fun at him for being such a fanboy, and the best Jake could muster in response was an embarrassed blush.

Not long after we’d sat down an older woman handed each of us a flier for Joshua Panda. She wore a long, white, see-through lace dress over a hot pink tank top and matching shorts. On her finger was a large ring with a flashing light on it.

Joshua Panda

“Are you his mother?” Michelle asked, taking a flier from the woman.

The old woman laughed. “No, it’s funny, many people ask me that. I’m his devoted fan and . . . spiritual connection.”

I looked at the flier, which was a hand-drawn depiction of the singer that honestly didn’t look anything like him.

“This is how I see him,” the woman told Michelle, indicating she had drawn it herself.

She wandered off, passing fliers out to everyone in the restaurant and being sure to snag people as soon as they sat down. As I sat there enjoying the music, I casually examined the flier. I realized it contained no actual information other than his name. When the woman returned to our table later, we got to talking. I told her I was leaving for New York state the next day.

“Oh! Take me with you!” she said with a smile, placing both hands on my arm.

“You don’t like Vermont?” I asked.

“Look at me,” she said, stepping back and holding her lace dress out to one side, “I’m a little flashy for Vermont.”

Endangered HallwayMichelle and her friend opted to head out early to get some ice cream, leaving Jake and me to watch the rest of the show and split a crepe. Near the end of the night I got up to go to the bathroom, and as I was leaving Jake said, “Wait until you see the hallway.” The long and zigzagging hallway to the bathroom was decorated with the sights – and sounds – of endangered species. The whole thing was painted floor to ceiling with tigers and birds and rhinos, and the sounds of the jungle played over hidden speakers.

When the show ended, Jake told me he wanted to go up to talk to Joshua. Jake runs a nearby ski resort and was planning on putting together a partnership with The Skinny Pancake where musicians like Joshua would play a gig at the restaurant followed by a gig at the resort the next night. Of course Jake adored Joshua so much that he suddenly became shy and couldn’t work up the courage to talk to the man. We left and Jake assured me that he thought it was better for him to talk directly with Joshua’s management.

Limited BenchThat night at the apartment Jake and Michelle set up the futon couch for me and I got to take that much needed shower. I never got to see their house up near the resort, but I had much more fun hanging out with them than I would have were I left to my own devices. And it was nice to experience the people side of Vermont. The northeast has a way of being so liberal it’s conservative about it. There was public art on the streets, but it was very precise, very intentional – never chaotic. I came across a bench that instructed me not to sit for too long, since other people might want to use the bench. It was a piece of public service so concerned with serving the public that it was asking the public not to use it. I think I may head up to the area again someday to see the famous turning of the fall leaves and re-visit my new friends. Until then, it’s probably best that my time in Vermont was so short. I may be a little flashy for Vermont, too.

The Carpenter’s Boat Shop

By some miracle I did not get lost on my way to The Carpenter’s Boat Shop. The welcoming parishioners from the Second Congregational Church in Newcastle had recommended I stop for a visit, but I assumed it was a place I could easily look for on my phone – a place that would show up clearly on the map. I was wrong. I had listened to their driving directions too casually, and when I started down the route I was almost sure I’d get lost. I took the road down from the church towards the library that was “so small you’ll almost miss it.” I turned a few corners and finally found myself at the end of the pavement and in front of a weathered old row boat and hand-carved sign proclaiming I had arrived at “The Carpenter’s Boat Shop.”

Main SignThe Carpenter’s Boat Shop is a non-profit organization. Every year they take on a small number of apprentices to live and work for the nine-month winter season. The apprentices aren’t paid, but room and board are provided during their stay. They learn how to make small wooden boats, including skiffs, pea pods, dories, and dinghies. If only 1.5 of those terms sound familiar, then you are in the same figurative boat as me. I know nothing about boats or sailing or woodwork. Were I to apprentice at the Boat Shop, I would be starting from scratch.

But that’s the idea. The Carpenter’s Boat Shop is meant to be a place of transition. The people at the church told me the Shop tries to find apprentices who are a bit lost in life, and trying to find their way. Reasons for being lost can range from starting retirement to recovering from addiction. And everybody learns how to do the same thing: build a boat.

Because it was summertime, there were no apprentices in residence when I visited. In fact, there seemed to be no one there at all. Occasionally I heard a sound from one of the buildings, but I never saw a person. No one came out to suspiciously say hello or ask what I was doing. I just parked the car and started to look around. A few of the structures were identified with subtle signs, but I still felt like maybe I wasn’t supposed to be there. I wasn’t sure I ought to be looking around.

I peaked into the office and saw papers scattered about. This felt especially intrusive and I left quickly. I took a few pictures of the main sign and the boat below it. I walked across the lawn and ducked into the showroom – finally a place I knew outsiders could be. The showroom was dark and I didn’t know how to turn on the lights. Luckily the sun was shinning through the large windows on the opposite side of the room, and I left the door propped open for a bit more light. The room had that old, cold, musty smell of a barn. The walls were stacked up with tools. Scattered about the center of the room were dozens of boats and wooden furniture pieces on display. They were beautiful. Shinning. Some of the boats hung from the ceiling, others were suspended with ropes tied to poles coming up from the floor. There were smooth adirondack chairs, and rockers with hand-woven seats.

ShowroomEverything in the showroom was so new. Everything gave off the scent of freshly cut wood. There was nothing manufactured, only crafted. I walked along the boats, running my hands over the unblemished paint. I thought about the ways each one was a bit different than the last, and wondered how each apprentice chose the style they wanted to create. I speculated on which one I would purchase if I ever needed to buy a boat. I pondered which one I would make if I ever needed to build a boat.

I spent a quiet 20 minutes on the campus of The Carpenter’s Boat Shop. I mentally added it to the long list of things I could do with my life if I suddenly decided that what I had been doing was no longer acceptable. I could teach English in China. I could buy an RV and live as a campground host. And I could apply to be an apprentice at the Boat Shop.

It seems like a wonderful place to be found, provided you are lost.

Why Didn’t Anyone Tell Me About Provincetown, Massachusetts

In my entire life, I can recall hearing about Provincetown exactly once. It was three days before I got there, when my friend Marc in Washington D.C. told me I would like it. No other description, no other mention by anyone previously.

Well StrungSituated as it is on the very end of the Cape Cod peninsula, I assumed it would be something of a rich, white, tourist trap. Which in many ways it is. It has the same overpriced parking, the same quaint bed & breakfasts, the same pedestrian main street, the same fudge shops, the same busking musicians and human statues. What Provincetown also has, however, is hundreds and hundreds of vacationing gay couples. As such, it’s got advertisements for gay dating sites on the back of the pedicabs, rainbow flags hung between buildings, leather sex shops next to the fine art boutiques, and drag queens standing outside the theaters passing out flyers for their nightly review shows.

I had spent the day driving up the arm of Cape Cod and being generally unimpressed. I did see a pretty neat old house that dates back to the mid-1600s, but in general most of the local attractions seemed to appeal to people with much more time, disposable income and/or luggage space. Parking in Provincetown was clearly a problem, so I stopped at the first cute-looking inn with signs indicating both vacancy and parking. After setting my stuff down in my room, I walked the main tourist drag of the colloquially called P-Town looking for dinner. It was still on the early side, so I took my time wandering past the shops. It still amazes me how much seeing gay couples makes me happy. Any place that a gay couple can feel comfortable showing their affection for each other must be a place that will welcome me too – or so the thinking goes. It occurs to me that this will eventually go away as acceptance grows. Before you know it, the most bigoted and harsh neighborhoods in the country will have openly gay couples. Perhaps they’ll just have the harsh, bigoted ones? It’s funny to think that in some respects that’s exactly what we’re fighting for: to live in a world where gay people are so accepted that they are free to be intolerant.

ShotglassI was walking along the pedestrian drag when I saw a shot glass in a store window. I have been trying very hard to keep my shot glass collection in check during this trip, knowing that I have to carry whatever I buy around in my car. I don’t buy anything from places my friends and family are likely to visit (since they might pick up a shot glass for me as a souvenir), and I don’t buy anything too simple or ordinary. The shot glass I purchased in P-Town falls into both of these categories. It’s very possible people I know will visit this area, and it’s a very typical shot glass. Standard size, clear glass, with an attractive yet modest design. The reason I bought it was that it was being sold in a Human Rights Campaign store, and it occurred to me that I might live to see the day where such shops are completely unnecessary, at least in the United States. My little shot glass has one small square with an equals sign in it. I’ve got a lot of cool and interesting shot glasses in my collection of over 200, but this may be the first one that has the power to truly date itself. I certainly hope it does. I hope one day I have to explain what the equals sign means to some little child who doesn’t know of a time when who you love was cause for discrimination.

Woman the the SeaFor some reason the tourist atmosphere in Provincetown doesn’t bother me the way it does in some other places. There are still old people that walk too slow and families with kids that yell and scream. It’s still impossible to find a decent parking spot and there are shops full of things I don’t want to buy. But I enjoyed my evening strolling through Provincetown more than most. It’s calm and happy for no reason in particular. At one point I watched an older woman swim straight out into the ocean while wearing a hat. She kept her head above water the whole time. I watched for several minutes, but she showed no signs of turning back.

Katy PerryI bought a ticket to a drag show since it seemed to be the thing to do. The show was called Illusions, and we were encouraged by the emcee to get the dollar bills out of our wallets as the performers love accepting tips. “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap,” she told us. There were about five performers in all, each doing at least two changes. Occasionally the very entertaining emcee would come out to get the crowd laughing. Her performances were among my favorites, and it didn’t hurt that she did both Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, two of my aesthetic pop favorites. Other performers busted out the likes of Pink, Cher, and the unexpected Gretchen Wilson.

Afterwards I ducked into a fudge shop for a late night snack, and saw a pair of young Russian tourist girls wearing adorable fake mustaches and filling entire baskets with candy.

The next morning I walked downstairs to enjoy the continental breakfast. All of the other guests (as well as the hotel owners) were committed, middle-aged gay men. In my experience men in this category are among the most pleasant of conversationalists. I told them all about my trip, including my stop at the Westboro Baptist Church. They were fascinated and wished me well on my journey. I drove out of town, passing many a beach house on my way.

BoatsI think there is something unmistakably leisurely about Cape Cod in general and Provincetown specifically. Perhaps it’s from my years of hearing characters in books and movies talk about “going to Cape Cod for the weekend.” It conjures up a life of such ease. The kind of life where one can simply go places for the weekend. Where weekends aren’t filled with errands or obligations or catching up on your sleep. Instead, they are a chance to get away from the dullness of a worry-less life, the kind of life filled with weekday lunches and club memberships and Great Gatsbys. Yet the undeniable liberal culture in Provincetown takes the stuffy edge off what might otherwise be a vacation town for the One Percent. I feel certain I will find some excuse to return to Cape Cod, if for no other reason than to show one of my fellow West Coasters what the big deal is. Maybe we’ll rent a beach house, take in a drag show, or buy some name brand leather whips. And we’ll talk about how nice it is to get away from the heat of the city and into the fresh ocean air. We’ll talk about it like it’s something strange and unusual. I suppose we’ll talk like we’re from New York City.

The Boy Next Door

Marc was almost exactly the boy next door. He lived just down the street from me growing up. We went to the same elementary school, we waited at the same bus stop. We used to host Bus Stop Olympics with the other kids, where we would perform various athletic feats while waiting to go to school. Most feats involved jumping over the ditch behind the stop.

At school he was one of my best friends, and the other kids would taunt us. Elementary school boys and girls both have cooties, so it was strange for a boy and a girl to be so close, and to joke so often. Marc and I never understood their accusations. We were just friends.

The line separating school districts ran right next to our houses, and we ended up going to different junior high and high schools. But Marc still lived just down the street, and he would come visit me after school and during the summer. His visits were always an unplanned surprise. My family poked fun at us, because it seemed strange to have a young boy just show up asking about their daughter. Marc has always been a great piano player and a fantastic musical improvisor, and he would play my parents’ piano when he came to visit. My grandparents came up to stay with us every summer, and grandma loved listening to Marc play. For years, whenever I’d talk to my grandmother she’d ask about Marc. She always wanted us to get married.

Sometimes Marc and I would play games in which he would be improvising on the piano and I would strike a key in the middle of the piece at random. He would immediately pick up on it and adjust the tune to incorporate my arbitrary note. Sometimes I would make up a story and he would compose a soundtrack. Sometimes My mom would shout out a composer and and Marc would improvise a piece in that composer’s style.

And sometimes we wouldn’t do anything at all. Marc would just hang out while I worked on the computer. Marc loved to draw, and he would create detailed doodles of architectural designs. Sometimes he would draw pictures of me. At Halloween Marc and our friend Peter would be the only kids in the neighborhood willing to walk to the far end of our driveway to go Trick-or-Treating. My sister was sure he was in love with me. In college when I wrote a play featuring a complicated romantic relationship between a boy and a girl who were long-time friends, my mom was sure I was talking about Marc. I wasn’t, but that’s a different story.

Marc and I went to the same college but lived in different dorms. He was on the other side of campus and it was the farthest we’d ever lived from each other. We stayed close for awhile, but after some time we developed our own interests and our own friend groups. We still saw each other, but not as often. College ended and I knew Marc had moved away, but I wasn’t sure where or when.

And then one day, some ten months after I had last spoken to Marc and even longer since I’d seen him, I received the following message in my Facebook inbox:

Subject: oh hay

 Hi Katrina,
I miss you and hope all is well. Also, I am gay.

muah,
-Marc

My boyfriend was in the room when I read the message. He had heard many stories about Marc. He asked me how I felt about it.

“I’m surprised,” I said. “…but not shocked.”

What had been more shocking were the photos I saw of Marc popping up on my newsfeed. He was buff. Very buff. Marc had always been a very skinny guy. Suddenly he looked like a bodybuilder. And he was living and working in Washington D.C. It would take me another three years and a trip across the country, but eventually I managed to visit him.

DogI parked my car about a block away from Marc’s D.C. apartment, and ran into him on the street while he was out walking his roommate’s dog. “Sorry,” he told me, “but he had to go poop.” Marc looked at the dog, then at a bag in his hand. “Let me throw away the poop and we can go inside.”

Taking a dog out to poop may seem like a strange detail to include in this story, but you have to understand that I have never met anyone else who talks the way Marc talks. There’s something gently musical about it that I can’t quite explain. Which means no one pronounces the word poop like Marc does. And I knew as soon as I heard him say it that despite the years we’d spent apart, his huge physical transformation, and his coming out of the closet, he had not changed one bit.

Inside Marc cooked up some pasta, explaining that there were really no good restaurants in Washington D.C. We talked about his life and his job, about my trip and my travels. We talked about segregation and how when you take the train from his apartment into the city you can watch the passenger load change from black to white with each stop. Eventually the conversation moved to the unavoidable topic of his life changes. He told me that when he came out, it was easy to tell the people he casually knew, and he dreaded telling the people closest to him. Peter and I were the last people he told. “I think I was afraid that it would change how people viewed me,” he said.

Coming out paralleled his physical change. He told me that after being skinny his whole life, he realized that he just wanted to be big. He was tired of being a scrawny guy. He’d always wished he was bigger. And he always pretended he didn’t care, because having lots of muscles seemed like it was a shallow desire. “I told myself I was above all that,” he said, “because I thought people would think less of me if I paid too much attention to something so superficial.”

Eventually he realized that this was something he really wanted, and it was stupid for him to be something he didn’t want to be. So he changed. He worked hard. He still works hard. He has to spend a lot of time at the gym and pay close attention to his diet, but he’s finally happy in his own skin. “I get a lot more attention now,” he said with a sly and embarrassed smile.

“From men?” I asked.

“From everyone,” he told me with a grin.

It’s good to see Marc so happy.

Ted's Bulletin EditedI spent the next day on the National Mall and came back in time to get dinner with Marc. He took me to one of the few restaurants he finds worthwhile, explaining that he mostly liked it because they had “adult milkshakes,” a menu item that makes him giggle. I told him I still didn’t like alcohol, but that I’d give it a try. He said he didn’t like alcohol much either, but he liked these. The shake was among the best alcoholic drinks I’ve ever had, but it still took me all of dinner to finish it. Marc suggested that he and I might both be “super tasters.” He asked how I felt about coffee, grapefruit, and carbonated water. I hate all three.

“It’s the bitterness,” he said. “I don’t like any of those things either.”

Over dinner we talked about writing, about music, about everything. Marc is still one of my best friends, despite our years apart. And we picked up right where we had left off, despite all the things that had happened in those years. He’s still just the boy that lives down the street and comes over in the middle of the day because he’s bored. He’s still strange and sweet, and he’s still my friend. I never thought Marc’s sexuality would change how I see him, but I worried the time and distance might. It didn’t. We are the same as we always were and I miss having him around.

Even so, it’s probably best that we don’t tell my grandmother. I think she’s still holding out hope.

The Days I Spent with Sarah

I’ve known Josh since I was a little kid. My mom worked for the diocese, and Josh was a regular volunteer leader at youth and young adult conferences. And he’s my kind of nerd. After knowing him casually for many years, my first solid memory of my friendship with Josh was on the walk back from the Capitol building in Olympia. I was probably 14 at the time. We were in town for a conference just down the street and the whole group had walked over to sing in the rotunda and hear the echoes bounce off the walls. On the way back I was standing next to Josh, walking in silence. Then, without prompting, he turned to me and asked, “So what’s your opinion on the virgin birth of Anakin Skywalker?”

My high school years with Josh are dotted with long conversations about scifi, music, and pop culture. We once spontaneously sung the entire “I’ll Never Tell” duet from the Buffy musical episode while busing our lunch table at a conference.

But then Josh felt the call to ministry, and soon he, his wife Kristi, and their daughter Sarah were on the other side of the country while he made his way through seminary. I watched Sarah grow up via Josh’s Facebook, always interested to hear about the newest dilemma Josh and Kristi were having as they tried to raise a little girl in a world that doesn’t often do right by little girls. I was very excited to meet the young lady she was turning into, and even more excited to see Josh and Kristi after so many years.

I met Josh in the parking lot of his apartment after getting off a red-eye flight from Seattle and picking my car up at the local VW dealership. After a few long overdue hugs and a tour of the apartment he looked at me and said, “Do you need to take a nap?”

The thought had not occurred to me, but once he said it I knew it was a great idea. I have officially become too old and too tall to comfortably sleep on an airplane, and I had barely managed a handful of 30-60 minute naps on the flight back to Baltimore. I was exhausted, and fell into a deep and wonderful sleep on their couch while Josh quietly got some work done. When I woke up we went to the school to meet Kristi at her office, and the three of us grabbed lunch at the refectory.

After lunch Kristi needed to get back to work. We had a few hours before Sarah would need to be picked up from her summer program, so Josh took me on a quick tour around Alexandria. It’s a cute little town with a lot of history. We grabbed drinks at a cafe once frequented by George Washington, and sat at his pew in Christ Church. The volunteer guide at the church pointed to the placards on the wall of the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments. “Those have not been altered since the 18th Century,” she said with conviction. “You’re looking at the same words George Washington saw when he went to church on Sunday.”

Josh and SarahOn our way to pick up Sarah, Josh lamented about putting her in this particular summer program. Apparently there wasn’t much in it that appealed to her interests, but it was their only real option for child care this time of year. When we arrived and walked into the gym space, an adult sitting at a makeshift desk looked up at Josh and smiled. Without a word to us she turned around and called out, “Sarah!” The room was filled with noise and movement. The kids represented a large age range. Some were playing basketball while others colored. Some were in heated discussions while others were just running around. And then there was seven-year-old Sarah, blonde and blue-eyed, sitting on the floor against the wall with her nose in a book like some Disney heroine. When she heard her name she jumped up and ran to the door. I introduced myself, as this was the first time I had seen her since she was a baby. She seemed generally pleased with my presence and we drove home.

While her folks made dinner, Sarah gave me a tour of the apartment and her room. Young kids always give the most interesting tours. While she has a room full of books and toys, only a few were mentioned on the tour. There’s no telling why certain fairies are prized above others, or why some books are worth pointing out while others are not. But I suppose all homes are full of objects with vastly different levels of importance. Kids just lack the tack to pretend they like all their possessions equally.

Washingtons' TombI spent most of the next day at Mt. Vernon, the home of George Washington. I was there for several hours before realizing that I had actually been there before. I went as a teenager while I was on an east coast tour with my school. Who knows how I forgot about it so completely. But the memories flooded back during the house tour as the guide pointed to the bedroom. He told us that the bed we were looking at was the one Washington died in. Now that’s a fact that will stay with you, and it had. I remembered our tour guide saying the same thing ten years ago.

Back at home Sarah asked if I wanted to watch one of her favorite movies, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. It’s a fantastic Japanese animated film from 1984 by the man who made Spirited Away. However we had to stop midway into the movie. That evening there was a welcome eucharist for new students at the seminary. I happened to be in town right when the latest seminarians were arriving, and I got to experience my first Episcopal service in two months. For her part, Sarah sat silently, reading a book through the entire service. Josh and Kristi have a difficult time getting her to stop reading, and at times it becomes something of a parental challenge. Is it okay for her to read all through church? At what point do they insist she pay attention? How can you know when a kid is paying attention anyway? Can you really tell a little girl that she needs to stop reading so much?

Josh took the next day off of work and told Sarah she didn’t have to go to the summer program. This was her eighth birthday and she got to decide how she wanted to spend it. I was lucky enough to be invited along.

First order of business was to watch the rest of Nausicaa from the night before. Next, she wanted to go on the American Girl Tour at the American History Museum. Sarah got dressed in one of her favorite dresses, but when she began doing cartwheels Josh insisted that she needed to put some shorts on underneath if she was going to be doing gymnastics in a dress. It was a reasonable request, but Sarah ended up in a full meltdown over the shorts requirement. There was much whining, much crying, and eventually a timeout. Josh managed to keep his calm throughout, and after getting some time to cool down, Sarah put on the shorts and was ready to go. Within minutes all signs of the tantrum were gone, and neither the episode nor the shorts were mentioned again.

After a long saga involving parking, We found a spot for the car and got on the D.C. Metro. This was also a birthday request. Sarah really likes to ride the Metro. Unfortunately the walk from the station to the museum is a lengthy one, and Sarah seemed to be on her last legs by the time we got there. She wasn’t complaining much, but she was certainly dragging. This all changed once we stopped at the cafeteria for a much needed lunch, and we were on our way to the museum.

American Girl TourAt the front desk we picked up the American Girl Guide. It’s a sort of scavenger hunt, with short biographies on several of the girls and an object in the museum relating to the time and place in which each girl lived. Molly lived in Illinois in 1944, so we found a “How to Bake by the Ration Book” in an exhibit called “A House on the Home Front.” Addy was an escaped slave living in 1864 Philadelphia, and we found a Medal honoring colorer troops in the civil war area. There were seven girls in all, and the three of us managed to track down every item. However the real treat came when we we found the exhibit on early pumps, generators, and electrical inventions.

Sarah loves inventions. She showed me the book she keeps of her own ideas for inventions. When we turned the corner into the invention room her eyes lit up and she began running from one artifact to the next. “What’s this one?” she’d ask. “How does it work?” Josh and I would barely be able to get a few words out before another fabulous bit of technology caught her eye and she took off in the other direction. We had already been at the museum for some time and it was getting late. Josh assured her they would go back to the exhibit soon so she could take her time looking at everything. I’ve never seen an eight-year-old so excited about direct current.

When Kristi got home, her and Josh set up the laptop for a Skype call to the grandparents. Both sets of grandparents had sent presents for Sarah’s birthday, and Sarah had waited to open them until they could watch. Both calls went through the same timeline: The family would say hello to the grandparents. Sarah would open her presents and be very happy. Josh and Kristi would continue to talk while Sarah immediately opened one of the new books she had received and start to read. Josh and Kristi would nudge her, explaining that she should wait until the call was over to read. Sarah would look up at the screen for the next sentence or two of conversation, then back down at her book. Near the end Josh would call me over for a quick introduction and some well-wishing with regards to my travels. Sarah would get up and read somewhere else so as not to be disturbed. End of call.

It was delightful.

Sarah with the Engine

This may come as a surprise, especially to readers of this blog who see me as a literal or figurative daughter, but my time in Alexandria made it clear how much I don’t want kids. This is not to say anything bad about Sarah as a child, or Josh and Kristi as parents. Quite the opposite. If I started a family I’m pretty sure that is exactly how I’d want it to be. Josh and Kristi are both active and loving parents who have their own careers but still spend plenty of time with their child. They are just as concerned about Sarah eating her vegetables as they are about her developing a positive relationship with her body. And Sarah herself is fantastic. She is smart and capable. She gets along well with both kids and adults. She loves to read and ask questions. She is interested in science and inventions and comic books and does cartwheels in a dress. And for her birthday all she wanted to do was ride public transportation and visit the history museum. I love Sarah. And if I had a kid I think I’d want it to be just like her.

And that’s the thing. When I was with the three of them, I had a terrific time. But I never jealously pictured myself on the other half of the story. I was very happy with the half I was already occupying. I love being around children and talking to them and learning with them. I teach Sunday School and I volunteer to give tours of Pike Place Market to elementary school students. And each week after class or after a tour, I send them on their way. They go back to their parents and I never think, “I wish I could keep being a part of their story.” No. I like the part I’m playing already. And that’s how I felt in Alexandria. I don’t want to be Sarah’s mom. I want to be her friend.

I am aware of the arguments. I am told that I will change my mind or that I will regret not having kids when I’m older. And that may be true. I may look back on this post in ten years and laugh, unable to imagine how I could have lived a life without my darling little children. Or I may look back with regret that I never had them. But that is the way of life. Sometimes I laugh about the things I used to write in my journals. Sometimes I regret not pursuing a career in science. And for all I know my feelings towards having kids will be the same way. But for now, I can safely say that I have seen the best example I can imagine for exactly how I’d want to raise a child, and it’s still not right for me. And it’s not right for a lot of people. It’s hard to explain of course, because it comes off as a little arrogant and insulting. After all it’s the choice your parents made, are you too good for the life they chose? Are you better than the family path? Or do you just hate it because it’s the most common route? So the questions go. Or perhaps rather than questions you just get a condescending laugh and the insistence that you’ll change your mind. You clearly don’t know what you want in life.

Well, no one does. Except maybe Sarah. Sarah wants to read.