A reader writes: How much does it cost to travel the way you do?

That depends.

That depends on what you’re willing to eat. I have a gluten allergy and being obsessed with nutrition is sort of my second secret calling in life, so I work really hard to eat super hippy food even when I’m sleeping in a vacant lot or getting rained on on a freight train. That means I’ll usually bring along some pricey ($6 a loaf) gluten-free (GF) bread and when I run out of that I’ll eat my almond butter and the insides of dollar menu double cheeseburgers on stale corn tortillas, thank you very much. Oh, and I eat dollar menu double cheeseburgers, but only when I’m traveling, and the protein high really helps me power through. Other protein snacks include beans, beans, and more beans, cold from the can. Look for cold bean cans wherever food is sold. They range from around fifty cents a can on the low end (additives, much?) to your top-of-the-line two dollar organic bean cans, sold in the sorts of stores you best stay out of when you’re broke, unless you’re eating from the bulk bins or buying a fistful of carrots. (carrots are always cheap, even organic. always, always.)

Speaking of vegetables, lately I’ve taken to traveling with a purple cabbage and eating my beans off its glorious waxen leaves. Sounds kind of sick, until you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere and the only vegetable you’ve seen in a week is the iceberg lettuce at the truckstop buffet. And anyway, I’m sort of a general fan of brassicas, and I try to eat them every day, be it brussel sprouts, broccoli, mustard greens, cabbage or my steadfast friend Kale. And the only time I really got sick this year was after I was stuck on the train in the rain in North Dakota for a day in a half in late September (the rain on the plain falls mainly on the train), and I think I’m pretty lucky I didn’t get pneumonia, so it must be paying off. And it’s important to not only eat green leafy (or purple cabbagey, or shrunken brussel-sprouty) vegetables but to eat RAW vegetables most every day, because they have enzymes in them that you need to digest your food, although I’m not sure exactly how that works- I just know that raw foodists have this angelic, glowing skin and they never have to sleep. I also eat dried fruit. I love prunes especially. Prunes = delicious. Except sometimes I kind of space out and eat 27 of them and then it’s really windy and the train is going really fast and I don’t have any cardboard left…

But I’m supposed to be talking about how much stuff costs, not about that time I took a shit on the train and then pushed it on its little piece of paper down the crack between the freight container and the car but there was an updraft because I was (still) in North Dakota in like a hurricane or something and my shit went straight up into the air and then, thankful, out the side of the car, the paper stopping for a moment to catch on a metal ledge and flutter maddeningly at me, as if to say- See how close you came to having shit all over all your stuff and not a goddam thing you can do about it? Maybe you shouldn’t have packed prunes to eat when you’re already almost shitting yourself because you have a stomach bug you picked up when you were backpacking and decided to drink unfiltered stream water which was REALLY STUPID.

Prunes are cheap. Except for when they’re expensive. Dried fruit is mysterious, much like freight trains.

If you don’t care about eating hippy food you can maybe live off of dumpstered bagels, at least until you get tired of them or your youth fails you, whichever comes first. You’ll be really really skinny and get sick a lot, but dumpstered bagels are free. There are bagel dumpsters all over these great 48 states, you can proly look them up on google maps in advance.

I also travel with expensive supplements- filtered fish oil capsules (aka my anxiety meds), magnesium citrate, a probiotic I can’t afford.

How much it costs to be a scumbag also varies depending on what season you’re in. Cold weather travel can be more expensive, because you might want to get a really warm sleeping bag, unless you’re some sort of masochist. I have a medium-warm sleeping bag, it was really warm when it was knew, like six thousand geese warm, but now it’s sort of flat from sleeping in and less warm. Oh well. Warmth comes from this magic thing called “loft”, which you can make from all sorts of stuff. Wadded newspaper, dried leaves, cardboard… once you know about “loft”, you have the power of physics on your side. To keep your sleeping bag from getting flat before its time, take it out of its compression sack as soon as you’re home. Store it loose under your bed. Compression, quite literally, breaks down the loft. If you leave it in the compression sack for a year at the bottom of your closet, you’ve basically ruined a perfectly good bag.

My sleeping bag is a zero (yeah right, more like 30) degree down bag, and costs 200 dollars new. You can get them for less, I think. Just don’t EVER buy a used one, down or synthetic. It will be flat as a pancake, and NOT warm.

As far as sleeping mats, I use a ridgerest. They cost twenty dollars and you can’t break them. They’re big but they way absolutely nothing. Strap it to the side of your pack and let the whole world know that you’re a homeless scumbag, not just a yuppie backpacker or someone taking their dirty wash to the Laundromat.

When I travel I end up spending money. I’ll buy dumb foodstuffs to bring up moral, like ice cream or a gross granola bar, or a can of beef stew that tastes like cat food. Some people are better at saving money than me, like my friend Lark who rides the train with just a little baggie of peanuts and one of raisins, and practically counts then as she eats them. She just kind of shuts down her metabolism and eats body fat. She doesn’t even drink her water. Sometimes she gives it to me, after I drink all mine.

If you’re arranging craigslist rides you might want some cash so you can offer to split gas with people, or you can just tell them you’re broke and they’ll think you want to have sex with them, which would be a good way to draw out sexual predators if you were some kind of superhero that castrated creepy men to teach them a lesson. You could leave them tied up in a truck-stop bathroom and take off with their pickup-truck, too, if you wanted.

If you really want a solid sum for travel expenses I would say you could live off about ten dollars a day, for food and minutes on your overpriced prepaid cellphone, which you need to fish for sympathy texts from far-away friends. This is only my experience, however, and I welcome any comments from readers who have gone the scumbag travel route and have tips to share.

And if by asking me to explain my travel expenses, dear reader, your hope is that what I’ll really reveal is Whether or Not I Have a Job, then the answer is Yes. Yes I’ll answer that question. And the answer is No. Not right now. What I do is I work for part of the year, some sort of shit job, and then the rest of the time I don’t, sort of on and off. I like to have not-working times where I just live off my savings and write, which doesn’t make me any money, but makes me feel like I actually exist, which is a valid thing to want to feel. And it’s easier for me to live off of little than for some, because I don’t drive a car (Portland is the most bicycle commuter friendly city in the US), I don’t have any kids, and my teeth haven’t QUITE all fallen out of my mouth, not yet. I also share a rented house with friends, or I live for free somewhere, like last winter when I lived in a yurt on the Olympic peninsula of Washington, all by myself, caretaking a piece of land for some folks.

Does that answer your question?

And on another note, here are a few more pictures from cousin Gabo’s shack in Asheville that I just had to put up, because they’re so nice. Don’t you wish you had a little cabin like this? Yeah, me too. Gabo, by the way, lives off of odd housepainting jobs and doesn’t have any running water, but likes it that way so she can spend most of her time playing old music, which is her passion. And if you’re smart you’ll check out her band’s myspace page and buy a CD, because they’re incredible. Oh, and they’re all acrobats, too.

Here I go again

I’m leaving North Carolina tomorrow, TOMORROW, via hitch-hiking to Tennessee. Once I’m good and in Tennessee, there’s a freight train, apparently, that will take me all the way to LA. I just have to go to this train yard my friend told me about and hide my pack in the bushes and talk to the yard workers. And they’ll tell me what train and when it leaves and then I just have to wait for it and find a rideable car and climb on, after, of course, I find a store nearby where I can buy a few gallons of water and some cans of beans, and maybe a celebrity tabloid to pass the time. I’m not exactly excited about the trip back- not exactly excited about the cold, the solitude, the walking on windy shoulders, the cloying heat of gas-stations, the endless peanut-butter, the fast-food breakfast sandwiches on stale corn tortillas, the diesel grime in the cracks of my hands, the empty gallon jugs, the sore shoulders from pack-straps, the chance of rain. I’m not excited about the rocky ground, the dusty lungs, the lack of fresh vegetables, people who chain-smoke with the car-windows up. I’m not, after all, even excited about getting back to the west coast- the rain, rain, rain, the grey concrete, the lack of jobs, the sprawling city, the central heating that makes me itch and sneeze and cough.

I kind of wish I lived in a cabin in Vermont- I kind of wish I lived in a cabin in North Carolina- I kind of wish I had someplace to write my book. I kind of wish all of my stuff wasn’t in my car parked in front of my friend’s house on the west coast (everything I own fits in my car)- I wish it was only what was on my back- except maybe my bike, I wish that was here. I’ve been away from my “stuff” for two months now and I don’t even remember what I own. Two hundred flannels of various weights, seventeen thousand pairs of shiny men’s shoes, one cowl-neck sweater in pure virgin wool with a wooden button at the neck. A bolo tie of a jumping salmon, a leather belt tooled with freight trains, a bear bell from my backpacking trip in Alaska. A puffy vest with fake fur trim, a real fox-fur trapper hat from the goodwill, very old. Six-hundred suit-vests altered to fit my shoulders, a tin of brown shoe-polish, a pocket-square with my name embroidered on it. A stuffed carrot, a knitted bear, a brown cap with red silken lining, made myself. Nineteen million half-filled journals, a Silverton man’s love-letters circa 1918, one photo of my mother taken in my grandmother’s kitchen when I was three.

I need nothing. I need three things. I need fifteen things. I need everything.

I need nothing. Everything I have I could get anywhere. Why do I need to go anywhere? Why am I here? Why am I going back to the west coast? Where should I go?

I’m not exactly excited about the trip back, but maybe that’s how I always feel. Truth is, I’m tired of traveling, and everywhere I get I just feel like staying. It’s nice cold winter here in Asheville and there are queer people and even nature- even though it feels not so much like genuine goodness as it feels like a town full of white people clawing all over each other to get at the last bits of unspoiled earth and good clean air. Walking around with their hands over their ears going LALALALALALA pretending they’re not on a microscopic island of forested mountains in a vast ocean of shitty ugly polluted places where most of the people on earth have to live. Like it’s just a choice. Like you could just up and move to Asheville if you wanted, and people just live in gross toxic places because they like it. And if I moved here I’d just make it safer for white people with more money than me to come in and raise property values and push me out, because everyone knows that queers are just the second wave of gentrification, after the poor-as-dirt accordian-playing crusty-punk footsoldiers.

Ten years ago, the neighborhood my friend lives here was all black. Now it’s almost all white and there’s a raw food café down the street. I’m sure those people of color were real happy when white people decided they wanted to live here in the nice clean mountains where all the trees hadn’t been cut down and scruffy woodsquatters played old-time fiddle on every corner, and so they started “investing” in the area and property values went up and suddenly no-one who lived here could afford to pay their property taxes anymore. And I am part of it, I am almost always part of it, as a queer person, as a poor, young, artistic queer person- pushed along in the ebb and flow of gentrification, each of us in our own strata like lines of washed-up kelp at low tide. Tale as old as time.

Everything we touch turns to white.

Basically- the world I want to live in doesn’t exist anymore. No use moving someplace like an island and pretending that’s all there is. Only thing is, I am who I am and therefore I need good clean air and trees and walking and bike lanes and queer people to be happy. So it’s all about finding a balance between maintaining my personal health and not feeling like an asshole.

I don’t know where to go.

I wish I could put an ad on craigslist that said this-

Want to live in a cabin for free. For three months, anywhere in the whole world. Need only one cord dry wood and one electrical outlet for word processing. Walking/biking distance to something other than wilted conventional produce, coffee shop with gluten-free pumpkin muffins. Non-straight young people in the area a plus.

Just kidding about the muffins. I can make those myself.

So- tomorrow I’m off. West! West through the glorious southwest! To California and finally to Portland! I’ll be updating this along the way whenever I can, lonely, drenched, at a public library in a town near you. I’ll try to take lots of train pictures too, and post them. If four of five days go by without a post, be patient! Library time is short and sometimes there are more important things to do, like gather beans and wait for trains, or walk three miles in the wrong direction, lost. Wish me luck, and safe passage through Texas, the Bermuda Triangle of train-riding!

As if I’ve walked here

I roll into town and walk the windy road to your shack. The door swings open, thin and latchless, glass rippled with age. No-one is home, the woodstove is cold, but a single shaft of light warms the floor and the air is less cold than outside, away from the winds, still. Your shack is remarkably small and impossibly tall, with a loft tucked up under the roof like a bird’s nest. Nothing to stop the sun- you were generous with the windows when you built this place. No electricity but there are overturned jar-lids on every surface, rigged with taper-candles stuck in their own hardened wax. A few oil lamps wanting oil. A shelf of jars gathering light, each one half-full of oats, brown rice, quinoa. I pull open the door again, loose door-knob rattling, and drop my pack on the deck. I ponder the coming evening, the broken porch-swing, the wild, pitched yard. I wonder where you are. You don’t have a phone and so I come calling like it’s still that time long ago (not so long ago, after all)- when we didn’t have phones- I come calling like some cousin, returning after a long absence- I was a merchant marine, maybe, and now I’m making my way west. As if I’ve walked here, hitched rides on buggies laden with winter squash. It’s one hundred years ago- or maybe it’s tomorrow.

It’s both. There’s a case of dumpstered yogurt on the deck (cream-top!) and a tall mason jar on a wooden box, upended. The light on the blond wood is going, now, and I pull a square of yellow paper from a pad and put it against the wall to write you a note. I’ve come from Greensboro, stopping here for a few days on my way to Memphis. I wonder where you are. Barry said you went to play a gig in Knoxville. Can I sleep on your deck. I shove the note in the door and pull shut the jangling door-knob.

I come back after nine, and you’re still away. But the cold and dark are there for me, waiting. How cold is it? I wonder. Twenty-five? Twenty degrees? I’ve got a new bivy-sack from Sam- camo print and very large. Second-hand off the internet. I’m excited to use it, but as I’m unpacking I realize- I left my ridgerest in Greensboro. What the heck! Oh well. At least the deck is smooth, and I’m not sleeping someplace lumpy and damp.

Mr. Winter comes home for the night, and reads a magazine in front of the fire. Mr. Winter checks his voicemail. A cold draft mysteriously finds its way through my bivy sack, and suddenly it’s as if I’m lying exposed on the deck, my sleeping bag a piece of newspaper.

I find the ladder to your loft- it’s almost, but not quite, too short. You’re either a little dangerous, or a little lazy. It scares me, anyway, but the cold makes me brave so I gather my sleeping bag in my arms like a favorite cat and ascend its wooden rungs to the bird’s nest under the roof. There’s a little window up there, with a little latch, a futon and an impressive pile of blankets and quilts. A book is tucked under the edge of the futon- Horse-Keeping For Small Pastures. I slide my sleeping bag under all the blankets and then slide myself inside it, down far where Mr. Winter cannot find me. I put my face in the hood of my down bag and pull the hood-strings until the little hole for breathing is only nose-sized, and I am still, for a moment, cold. But then I am warm, and then I am asleep.

I wake up and the first thing I see (was up once to pee, from a bad dream, forgot to be afraid of the ladder) is the dusty window across the room glowing with light, four little panes too high to clean. The light dissolves and gathers on a dress you’ve hung on the wall, a shapeless frock, just lighter than the pine walls, with a large lace collar and pearl buttons. It looks very old, and I imagine you wear it to play your banjo at special occasions, or not at all.

The morning is late. I’ve slept long and deeply. I’m a little bit sick, a scratchy throat and a sore neck, but figure now that I’ve slept in this loft I’m as good as cured. Also, there’s bright sunshine and I’ve got lots of wool clothing. Winds. Good strong winter. I bundle up, wrap my scarf seventeen times around my face and prepare to plod out into the good green world. Western North Carolina is wonderful. Just cold enough. I pull my note from the door and write an addendum- Am currently squatting your shack. Wonder where you are?

I walk a long time looking for a ridgerest to buy and end up with a new hat- one of those structured ones with fake fur inside and ear-flaps that snap under your chin. It’s a bit too big and I quickly dub it my ‘bucket of warmth’. It’ll be wonderful for the train, or right now. Later I return to your shack and you’ve flipped over my note and written on the back- Just got back from Knoxville. Don’t go away yet! Let’s make dinner later. You can sleep in my loft. There’s room for two.

You finally find me at the coffeeshop, eating a day-old pumpkin muffin, gluten-free, and drinking nettle tea. We walk your bike to the store and buy a bunch of collards, a gorgeous purple cabbage, two apples, a dozen eggs. Back at your shack you light a half-dozen taper candles, pull sticks from the brush-pile and push them into the fire-box of the cookstove. I chop dumpstered tomatillas, pulling off their papery outsides in the half-light, and one small white onion. Soon we’ve got a pot of tomatilla soup going on the hot woodstove, a kettle of tea water. You add various jarred ingredients, yogurt from the porch, and some sugar. Green tomatilla skins float to the top. We make a pan of collards, with vinegar and soy sauce, and a skillet of turnip wedges, browned in coconut oil. We simmer some quinoa to add to the soup, round up a few clean bowls, and then it’s time to eat.

The soup is amazing. Thick and red and creamy with yogurt. Tomato soup is my favorite, you say. No-one gets excited about tomato soup like I do. It goes just right with the quinoa. The greens are perfectly soft and shrunken, tasting of salt and vinegar, edges crisped a bit where they waited in the warm oven to be eaten. The browned turnips are warm and glistening with coconut oil, delicious little wedges of joy.

“I think I really like tomato soup,” I say. “I never knew! And these turnips are so good!”

After dinner we talk, for the longest time, about gender- what else is there? And about queerness, and about boredom.

“I think I’m bored with queerness,” I say. “I think I’m bored with all of it. I’m bored with gender, I’m bored with dating. I think I don’t even want to have sex anymore. I think I don’t even care.”

You laugh. We talk about the remarkable fact that we’ve woken up and found ourselves in a time and place (and subculture) where it’s actually IDEAL to be queer- where non-queer friends find themselves almost apologizing for their straightness, kind of shrugging sheepishly, as if confessing an inexplicable aversion to puppies and spring sunshine. Indeed, the word straight, on my planet, has come to be synonymous with everything dull, uninspired, and without a sense of humor.

“I think ‘straight’ is a social construct.” I say. “I think it’s an impossible ideal to live up to. Since there’s no gender binary, how can there be straightness? No-one is purely feminine or purely masculine. So what is straightness?”

In the spring, you cut off your hair. You talk for a while about that. You were dating a guy at the time, a somewhat traditional fellow, played old-time fiddle. You’d had long hair for years, and you wanted a change, so you cut it off. But you’d forgotten that straight guys like feminine girls, and you’d been depending on your hair for that. You lived in a shack, you chopped wood, you wore the same old sweater every day. With the hair gone, you were suddenly butch. Dresses felt strange, straight guys paid you less attention.

“Hair!” you say, laughing. “It’s just hair!”

That night I read a page of Annie Dillard and then lie thinking, candle blown out- What is femininity? What does that even mean? Because once, not so long ago, men and women both worked outside, tended animals, planted crops, mended fences, got caught in the mud, patched worn clothing, wore no makeup- what was feminine back then? Long hair and a skirt stained with mud, as apposed to short hair and a wide-brimmed hat? Among the Inuit people of the arctic, before Europeans, there was virtually no difference in the dress and hair of the men and women. Everyone wore the same sorts of clothes, cut to fit them. What was femininity then?

A sort of image comes over me then, a glimmering thread in the great quilt of history. Heels, makeup, fragile, ornamental clothing- High femininity was born of the city. The modern femme aesthetic comes from a land, seemingly, without nature- without weather, true winter, or strong gusts of wind. A land where food comes from the shelves of a temperature-controlled buildings and transportation requires no walking. Life, indeed, in this land, requires little physical movement at all. So what you wear, then, can be a sort of art form- human beings, freed at last, from the forced practicality of clothing. I can’t help but wonder- is that where we’ve ended up? The city is feminine, while the country is masculine? Does that make nature, in the end, masculine? Are plants, animals, and dirt, all masculine? Is using your body masculine? Someone is, after all, still growing our food. Still baking in the sun, still plodding in the mud. Someone cuts our trees, someone gathers our chicken-eggs. Is that person masculine by default? Is masculinity the way of life we’ve lived for hundreds of thousands of years, whereas femininity is all things modern and abstract?

I can’t think about this anymore. None of it makes any sense to me.

I fall asleep in the warm loft, cookstove fire long dead, with these questions swimming lazily in my brain. I feel as if I’ve almost solved some sort of age-old puzzle, only to find an even more tangled puzzle underneath, or a sort of fun-house mirror that just reflects my own face back at me. And there in the mirror, twisted just beyond my reach, are the questions I ask myself again and again- the very questions, it seems, that define us as species- that started us hurtling down this path we find ourselves on- slamming old doors behind us as fast as our curiosity leads us to open new ones. And I, it seems, am no better than the worst of them. I cannot help but ask, again and again-

Where am I?


Who am I?

Making Injera

Thursday night I got a little drunk on Ethiopian honey wine. It doesn’t take much to get me drunk, because I never ever drink. I made Ethiopian food for my friends, which I’d never done. It all started with a little teff flour, this dark sort of heavy flour milled from the teff grain of Ethiopia, by Bob’s Red Mill, a big red mill outside of Portland that you pass on the freight train on your way to LA.

Anyway. I had this teff flour and I put it in a bowl with some water- and mixed it up with a fork. Enough water to make it runny and thin. I wanted to make injera, which if you’ve ever eaten at an Ethiopian restaurant is the spongy, sour bread you use instead of utensils to eat your little piles of strongly spiced stuff, lentils and cabbage and whatnot. I wanted to make injera, but I knew it would be different than the injera I had eaten before, because US restaurant injera is made with a mix of wheat flour and teff, not just teff alone, like the traditional stuff. Teff, by the way, is gluten free- and after I tell you how wonderful and simple this bread turned out to be, you’re going to want to make this shit all the time, keep a ceramic bowl of the batter bubbling on your kitchen counter under an old dishcloth.

So I had the flour and water on the counter, in my friends’ house, where I’m staying. They haven’t turned the heat on yet, and so even though I stirred the batter faithfully whenever I thought of it, after a few days it had but a few small bubbles. As the batter slowly soured I waded around on the internet, looking for injera recipes that might be authentic, but mostly I found recipes that included things like self-rising white flour and required giant teflon injera-cookers you could buy at target. Then, at long last, on the bob’s red mill website, I found this recipe-

Ethiopian Injera

1 cup Teff (Tef, T’ef) Flour
1-1/2 cups Warm Water
1/2 tsp. Sea Salt

Mix flour and water together in a large bowl.

Cover with paper towel for 24 to 48 hours at 75 to 80 degrees.

Pour off liquid that will rise to top.

Add 1/2 tsp. sea salt and stir.

Pour 1/2 cup batter onto a medium hot skillet and cook for approximately 2-3 minutes. Cook until holes appear on the surface of the bread. Once the surface is dry, remove the bread from the pan and let it cool.

Makes two Injeras.

SWEET, I thought. Nice and simple. Injera like you’d make on a rock, in the sun. A nice hot rock. You know, like you’re lost in the desert with only a little teff flour, and you know you don’t want to eat that shit plain. So you mix the teff with a little water and let it get nice and bubbly, and then cook it on a rock, until tiny holes form on the surface. And then you peel it off with a piece of flint, and when it cools it becomes magically spongy and deliciously sour, and you stuff it with some lentils with berbere you happen to have and eat it like a little taco. Delicious.

On the third day, the stuff on the counter finally took off. Bubbling up like no-one’s business, smelling nice and sour like rye bread. I showed it to the folks I’m staying with and they got super excited, because they’re food nerds like me. We couldn’t hardly stand the wait. It was like Christmas. I invited Lark, who’s in town, to the dinner, and Sam, because we’d hardly hung out in like forever, and I was leaving soon.

Finally Thursday afternoon came around, and I found myself at the store, cart littered with oversized carrots and a few red onions, staring at the glass jars of spices. According to the internet, I needed berbere spice mix, whatever that was. Apparently, Ethiopian food is just like the food I already eat- lentils and onions and carrots in a pot, cauliflower and cabbage and carrots sautéed in butter, cooked nice and soft. Just like the blur-fries of my vegan “wilted green bell-pepper from the trash” years, Only in Ethiopia they have this crazy spice mix they add to the business, and that is what makes it taste so special. The spice mix contains approximately twenty-five thousand different spices, including a heavy dose of dried red pepper, and its preparation involves lots of toasting and grinding and pulling seeds from pods and filling the kitchen with fragrant, spicy smoke, smoke which is a distant cousin of the pepper spray cops will use on you at protests.

The store did not, of course, have such a thing as berbere seasoning. Undaunted, I headed back to the house with my onions and carrots, to rifle through my friends’ spice collection and see if I could make it myself. I pulled open two drawers of small glass spice jars and started pulling things out, referencing the notes I’d taken off the internet. Allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, nutmeg, black pepper, turmeric, salt, red pepper- my friends just happened to have every spice I needed for the mix, except for fenugreek. What the fuck is fenugreek? I thought, sliding the drawer shut. And not only did they have all the spices, but they had many of them whole- cumin seeds, cardamom pods, whole cloves, cinnamon sticks, coriander seeds. I couldn’t believe my luck. I also couldn’t believe that somewhere in the world, people thought to mix the pumpkin-pie family of spices with the pot-of-black-beans family of spices, and that it had actually turned out tasting alright. Who knew?

I put Walter to work cracking cardamom pods and started toasting the seeds, tossing them around in the little cast-iron. After they were all toasted Walter ground them up with a mortar and pestle, mixed in the requisite dash of onions and fresh grated ginger, and poured some olive oil in the whole mess, to make a nice thick paste. There was more red pepper in the mix than anything, and I probably hadn’t gotten any of the proportions right, what with using whole seeds and not having any fenugreek.

The soaked yellow lentils were bubbling, now, with a spoonful of the new seasoning paste and a few chopped green peppers, and on another burner cauliflower sautéed in hella butter and some coconut oil, for good measure. It was time to start the injera.

Now, if the internet has taught me one thing, it’s that to make big, plate-sized injeras you need a big, plate-sized skillet, and all I had was a trusty cast-iron pan. So I decided to make little, pancake-sized injeras, thin and stretchy like some sort of sour Ethiopian crepe. A sort of injera for the american frontier, log-cabin style. And there was another major rule of injera that I had decided to break- I would flip my injera. Oh yes. You see, popular thought has it that injeras are just supposed to bubble a bit, and then you take them out of the pan, top side somehow miraculously cooked from below. But I did a little test run and mine would do no such thing- top side stayed gooey and raw. Maybe it’s the damp piedmont breezes, nothing like that good dry air of Africa. Either way, I decided to flip them. At which point they browned beautifully, and I had to wave Lark away with the spatula, because she kept eating them hot, and you’re supposed to eat them cold. When they’re hot, they’re sort of damp inside and stiff on the outside, like they’d break in two if you bent them. But as they cool they become magically strong and flexible, stretchy and resilient like a tortilla made of soft rubber.

As I flipped Injeras I also browned some mung-bean patties, assembled using a recipe I’d made up when I worked as a cook in the woods this summer. You just take whatever leftover beans you have, already seasoned, and mash them up with a potato masher, adding garbanzo bean flour until they stick together as patties when you cook them. I then put Sam to work flipping the patties in a hot steel pan, which he hated. The lentils bubbled some more. I added carrots, onions and some leftover cabbage soup that Walter had made to the cauliflower that was sautéing, along with a spoonful of the berbere spice paste. I tasted the lentils, to which I’d added a good three spoonfuls of the spice paste. My god, the lentils were hot. Turns out, the spice paste I’d made was really, really hot. Like, burn your throat and make you cough hot. But whatevs! We still had mung-bean patties seasoned with sage and vegetable stew, and of course the injera. The lentils could be a sort of garnish, if need be. A kind of legumey hot-sauce.

like a sort of sour Ethiopian crepe

While I was bent over the stove, fucking up injeras, Miriam made truffles in the food processor. Or at least, these things I’ve always called truffles. But maybe “truffle” is not the right word. And in fact, I’m not sure I know what a truffle even is, other than a mushroom. Some sort of chocolate? What Miriam was assembling in the food processor was a distant cousin of a creation a friend of mine once brought to a potluck in Portland- a dusty little ball of equal parts soaked cashews, pulverized goji berries and raw cacao, all blended together with some shredded coconut, coconut oil, and agave nectar, then rolled in the palm of one’s hand and tossed in a shallow bowl of more cocoa. These “nuggets”, as we’ll call them, were good, but then I changed the recipe- I used dried figs instead of goji berries (because goji berries are expensive, trendy, and besides- they come from the rain forest) and switched the raw cocoa for carob- carob has its own, special, sweetness, so you don’t even need to add the sickly-sweet agave and besides- raw cocoa gives me anxiety attacks. When Miriam made these nuggets for the Ethiopian dinner she used fresh figs, too, in addition to dried, because we had some laying around, and added a few spoonfuls of almond butter for good measure. She then scooped the black mess out of the food processor, rolled it into little balls and stuck them in the freezer to get firm.

The stack of injeras grew taller. The mung-bean patties browned. The spicy vegetable stew simmered in its earthenware crock, and incredibly piece of cookery brought back from Chile by Micah and Gigi. Finally, at around eight, it was time to eat.

Sometimes I spend a long time cooking a thing, and when I finally sit down to eat I can hardly taste it, because I’ve been smelling it for hours. Not with this meal. We crowded round the long table in my friends’ middle room and scooped stew and lentils onto our plates with a wooden ladle, gathered handfuls of cool injera to eat it with.

It was incredible.

Lark. Injera taco.

It was perfect. The injera was sour and hearty, the stew was salty and rich- with flavors of cardamom, cloves, and spicy red pepper. The face-burningly hot lentils were good, too- as a sort of garnish. We ate until we couldn’t eat one more bit, until all the injera was gone- and then out came the cold, dusty truffles, soft and sweet and rich, and a bottle of honey wine Gigi had made from some honey she’d helped harvest. A pot of mint tea, too- perfect with the truffles.

I don’t usually drink, but the honey wine was so fucking good, and I was so warm and happy from the food. I sipped my two inches of the stuff and for some reason we all started talking about eating insects. Lark & Sam told the story of the time they’d decided to eat some grubs they’d found, little wriggling white beetle larvae. So they’d put the grubs in the toaster oven and as they cooked, a terrible smell had filled the kitchen- Like burning plastic, said Lark, laughing. They’d eaten the grubs anyway, once they were nice and toasted, and of course they tasted just as bad as they had smelled- and were sort of soft and slimy on the inside to boot.

I told the story of how once I’d eaten a banana slug, a big black one I found last fall, on a leaf-ridden trail through the woods in western Washington. I was staying on a friend’s land at the time, and these slugs were everywhere. I took this one I found back to the cabin that held the collective kitchen, determined to cook it and eat it. I breaded it in some cornmeal and fried it in a little butter. It sort of sizzled and popped, shrinking in the pan. The cornmeal held the slug-shape, while the insides melted into black slime the consistency of snot. When the outside was nice and brown I pulled it open, and saw that what was once the slug had become but a puddle of flem, with one little piece of meat still intact- the “foot”, I found out later. The little muscle that moves the slug along. The foot was steaming, and smelled of butter. I ate it. It tasted like nothing. It was too small, I think, and too fried in butter, to taste like much of anything. My friends who owned the land, meanwhile, were disgusted.



The night went late- talked turned to the storefront Gigi and I want to open- with a clothing line we’d designed and a queer tailor and lots of nice newsboy caps with preppy coats of arms embroidered on them. One of us, of course, would apprentice with a tailor in order to become the queer tailor, (me), and the other one would be the sales clerk- being charming and guiding folks around the store (Gigi).

“Swimwear!” said a friend of Gigi’s, come late to the dinner.

“Swimwear?” we said.

“Yeah. Sports bras that dry fast and aren’t super heavy. That’s what I’d have. A swimwear line.”

“And cologne, too!” I said. “We can sell our own cologne!”

So we’d have swimwear and cologne, too. And lots of reclaimed clothing that could be altered to fit our clients, because there’s too much clothing in the world already to manufacture new stuff. We would hire our friends to pick at the bins, and pay them really well. All of our stuff would cost a lot of money, and the shop would have lots of dark wood, and mirrored stands where the cologne would sit. And I’d be in the back with my tape measure and grey wool cushion of straight-pins, waiting to take in the shoulders on someone’s favorite button-down.

Pretty much.

Then Lark, Sam and I biked to a craft night at a friends, where we talked, among other things, about knuckle tattoos, which Lark hates. On the bike ride home we tried to talk in knuckle tattoos as much as possible.

Cold wind.

Red light.

Fast cars.


An Ego of Steel, A Giant Hat

I’m sitting on the futon at my friend’s house, digesting a food-baby of roasted root vegetables. My feet are cold, but the computer is making my leg warm, in a creepy, futuristic sort of way. Speaking of the future, it’s been apocalyptically warm here in Greensboro- seventy degrees and sunny every day, if you can believe it. Today I played drums with my (on-again, off-again, depending on where in the world I’m at) radical samba marching band, Cakalak Thunder, in what turned out to be a particularly amazing march, at least for me. It was a ‘peace, justice and unity’ march, which sounds vague, but actually spoke to a lot of really amazing, concrete, community-based issues. The march started with a rally at an African-American church, complete with singing and some nice pep-talks about unity, and then wandered its way through downtown (with a police escort, of course- it was a permitted march.) Cakalak Thunder was up front, all thirteen of us, making an incredible sort of noise. Then the march rallied again in a park and various speakers talked on about various things- including the head member of a local Latino ‘gang’, whose members had come out for the march, in full color regalia, as part of calling a truce against their supposed ‘rivals’, and promoting black-brown unity with the African-American community. The head member of this ‘gang’ was a really great speaker, and talked at length about police violence in the area (8 people killed by the police in this area so far this year, if you can fucking believe it) and about police tactics for demonizing the group and making the community fear them, in order to justify their arrests, which drained their community of resources and kept them from organizing. The other speakers were great too, and I wish I remembered more, but I didn’t take notes. (I never take notes. Maybe I should.) One young man talked about the need for more youth to be involved in the local community center, so they could act as mentors to kids who had special needs, and weren’t getting much support at home or in the classroom. Just being around these kids, he said, and teaching by example, how to follow your dreams, how to apply yourself, how to be successful- that can be so powerful. And there were a couple women who sang another song, and many of the speakers brought up how even though Obama had been elected, which was, in the end, a sort of victory- the responsibility for change falls on us, and we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, and we need to start now. Everyone was surprisingly sober and realistic about Obama’s victory, or maybe it was a sort of post-election hangover- hearts sort of emptied out, waking up and realizing that nothing, in fact, had changed- putting on your oversized ‘Obama’s face’ t-shirt anyway, slipping on your unlaced nikes with the tongues pulled out, going out into the day.

And while I watched the speakers, while I listened to them talk about black-brown unity, about working with children, about justice for victims of police violence- I felt like I was watching history. More, even, than when I watched Obama’s acceptance speech on the TV a few nights ago. Because to see a community mobilized the way the community in Greensboro is, to see folks of different colors and backgrounds and ages and everything- the African-American preacher and the Latino gang-leader and the queer, wingnut, mostly white Samba marching band, in a sort of grassroots group hug- and to see them actually marching, all together, which, if you know anything about marches, you know that brown people marching, pretty much anywhere, is seen by the powers-that-be as a huge threat- it kind of blew my mind. And the truth is, that’s just the way it is here in Greensboro. It’s a small town, everyone’s all up in each other’s community organizing- much of the town is historically black, so a lot of organizing is done by black churches and community groups. And Cakalak Thunder (the marching band) has, over the years, presented a unique opportunity for us- the mostly white, mostly queer ‘radical’ community, to build a base of trust, a personal relationship, with other groups, and to be of use to them. In Portland, all my friends just hang out and talk about their mental health, or fashion, or gender- the holy trinity of conversation, a well that springs eternal. It’s an incredibly self-centered way of being, which I never, until a few short weeks ago, thought to question. What, I reasoned, is wrong with bettering oneself? How, in fact, can we imagine some sort of better world, when we’re too depressed or anxious to get out of bed in the morning? Let’s just take a break and work on some personal ‘healing’. And while we’re at it, why not just forget that the rest of the world even exists? I mean, it’s Portland! Do you see oppressed people anywhere? Certainly not those people wearing zip-off hiking pants! Let’s just make crazy clothes and think up fantastical new gender identities!

Which is, in its own way, incredible. Sure, Portland is great, if you want to live in a queer thinktank- and sometimes, I do. But every time I come to Greensboro, I can’t help but be blown away by how selfless my friends here are- they give up the chance to live enclosed in a bubble of their peers, doing lazy backstrokes in a sea of validation, and instead they work, day in and day out, with the same ten, maybe fifteen people- all the queer wingnuts this town has to offer. no glamor, no fame, not even, at least after a few good runs, anyone to date. And it’s all so they can feel useful to a group of people outside of themselves- a group of people with access to far less resources, a group of people facing much more day-to-day oppression than they are- my friends here take their privilege, and they chose to spread it around them, like a sort of wood-chip mulch for the depleted neighborhood soils. And at the end of the day, they’re just as humble as ever. Of course- they seem to be saying- why would you do anything but this? And it all comes down to this one thing- something that’s taken all my time here, coming and going, over the course of a few years, to really put my finger on-

They don’t care about being cool.

Wait. Let me say that again.

They don’t. Care. About being cool.

But I, apparently, do.

And it makes me feel like the biggest asshole in the world.

I was talking with a friend on the phone the other day, talking about how writing is more important to me than anything, that it’s my art, how making art is the only thing that makes me feel like I exist. When it comes down to it, writing is the only thing that seems worth doing, if you’re me. “But you have to be so self centered,” I was saying to him, to be an artist. “You have to think- what I have to say is so important- thousands of people just really need to hear it. And to even feel that way in the first place, you kind of have to have a giant ego. A giant, bulletproof ego. An ego of steel.”

In fact, just earlier this year, I was reading that very piece of advice in a wonderful book by Ariel Gore– “If you want to be a writer,” she says, “develop an ego of steel.” So cultivating my inner know-it-all is good, right? Thinking about the whole world in terms of me, talking about myself all the time, and not really giving a fuck what anyone else thinks about how I live my life or what I have to say will make me a better writer?

Definitely. But it will not, after all, win me any points as an activist. In Portland, it’s ok to talk about yourself all the time. Health is paramount. Therapy is encouraged. Processing is important. Creative projects are awesome. In Greensboro, when I tell people I want to be a writer, they look at my like I’m crazy. Stop being so self centered, they seem to be saying. Why do you talk about yourself so much? Anyway, I gotta go repaint the community center. Have fun, um, blogging, or whatever.

I should’ve taken the other piece of advice from Ariel Gore’s great book- Don’t talk about your writing. “When people ask me what I do for a living,” she says, “I tell them I sell T-shirts on the internet.” I suppose the real secret to success is to develop an ego of steel, and then hide it under a really big hat. Waving it around for the all world to see is just inviting them to try and stick safety pins in it, to see if it’s real. And then maybe you find out it isn’t made of steel after all, but a pastel-colored water-balloon. And so you have to walk around all day with a deflated ego trailing on the ground behind you, crushed. And suddenly, your life is meaningless.

I don’t know where I’m going with all this, folks. I guess when I’m in Greensboro I feel both inspired and humbled- and in the end, it feels like a lot of growth. Or at least, that’s how I’ll feel in a week, when I’m headed west on the train, towards Texas and eventually, California- and then I’ll promptly forget about everything, because all that will matter is keeping dry and figuring out how to take a shit on a piece of cardboard in a sixty-mile wind.

I can’t wait. Can you?

What Goes Up Must Come Down- An Imaginary Letter to No-One (Disclaimer- this post is fiction)

I was inspired by your compulsive book-ordering on my behalf, and did some compulsive shoplifting on your behalf. I got you this sweater- I like the color, and it’s very soft. I got myself a pin-stripe button-down with narrow bands of the same vivid blue, they’re both from the same cheap store so they might fade with time, but for now they seem perfect. I also got you this- can you believe they had a book of Victorian lesbian erotica at goddam B&N? I know you like Victorian lesbian erotica and wasn’t sure if you had this book already, but knew that if you didn’t, you would appreciate it. After my “shopping” I ate a cup of over-priced icecream and watched the cars glint in the sunshine, looked down at my wingtips, wanting polish, so scuffed they’re almost blue. I wasn’t impressed by the icecream or the cars and so I straddled my bike and rode to the lake, looking for something better, older, more nourishing. I felt a sort of anger at the bike-path, so covered in fall leaves it was like riding through a bowl of cornflakes. No one, it seems, outside of Portland, has much respect for bicycling as a valid form of transportation, and so they don’t bother to clear the bike paths.

At the lake all the foliage was on fire. I pushed my bike through the woods and dropped it, crackling, into the leaves, next to a large oak tree, the ground covered with moss. The sun, this late in the year, still warms me- for better or worse. I sat and watched the lake, a squirrel flicked its tail and made a sort of purring noise, a barred owl called out across the water. (Who cooks for you! Who! Who cooks for you!) I opened the book of Victorian lesbian erotica I got for you and wrapped a wool scarf around my neck, a sort of gray hounds-tooth cashmere- I would’ve liked it to be the same vivid blue as your sweater but I am leaving to travel west again, in ten days, and I needed a color that will match the train. I read a story in the book and found that I liked it- not because it was hot- it was more lukewarm than anything- but because it was such a curiosity. And the strange typos and obsolete language had me believing it was real- pulled from underground publications of the 19th century, like the introduction claimed.

I rode home under the half-moon (because it gets dark at 5:30 now) and got frustrated at a busy intersection- alone at the signal, the light would not detect my small bicycle. The light across from me, backed up with cars, changed green, red, green again, while mine stayed red. Meanwhile, the road in front of me was solid with rush-hour traffic, no way to cross against the light. And not even a metal pedestrian button to punch. Finally a few cars joined me in the lane and my light changed- and was so short I hadn’t even made it across the intersection when it turned red again, and it was only through the grace of waiting traffic that I didn’t get hit. The whole experience made me furious. So angry I wanted to scream at someone. And it’s not just biking, it’s not just the concrete- it’s also, in a way, a sort of emotional aftermath of the presidential election. For the first time in my life, the other day, I felt a sort of hope for my country- I felt for the first time, in fact, that I belonged to a country at all. It’s as if I’d been living in a sea of my own making, while a political storm blew itself out overhead; a storm as removed from me as the clouds, as untouchable as a hurricane- nothing to do but duck and wait it out, or leave. Friends have come and gone as activists, small boats riding the surface, edging closer to the storm, sucked into its eye and torn to wooden shreds. I have always chosen to stay below- it’s too big, it’s too powerful, it’s too out of control.

And then, it’s as if a piece of paper was dropped to me on a length of fishing line, way down deep where I was hiding, making my weird way like a black bear in the forest. A note, and the note said some of the things that I had never admitted to myself I wanted to hear- the note used words I could understand, it used language that made sense to me, as if it was coming from a real human being, of flesh and blood, a human being who cried salt tears and felt, for once, a sort of empathy. I knew where the note was coming from- it was coming from the storm above- still as distant, still as out of control- but somehow the note had reached me, and I couldn’t help but read it. Before I knew it a crack had opened in my heart, and seawater rushed in, and suddenly, it was me up there- exposed, on the surface, facing the full terrible weight of the storm- somehow, suddenly, it was me.

And when morning came, the world hadn’t, after all, changed. To the contrary, the election had brought the worst of the racist, fear-driven bigots out of the closet, and I suddenly felt exposed and oppressed and afraid in a way I’d never experienced. Not only were we still living under the same terrible time-bomb of a system, but now the wealthier and more close-minded half of the country was seething, roiling mad, whereas before (when gas was cheap and war was plentiful) they’d been quietly placated, almost hypnotized with content.

I was on the surface now. Shopping centers sprawled, lights stayed red for bicycles, television commercials sold horrible toxic shit. Everything, of course, was the same. I had been tricked. Somehow, for a moment, I had been tricked.

It made me seething, raging mad. It made me want to scream at cars, throw rocks for no reason. It made me want to set fire to shopping centers, burn them to the ground to see what sorts of weeds might grow up in the blackened rubble. It made me want to tear up concrete, freeing the animal trails below. It made me want to shout at families, just getting home from the day, with McCain signs still in their yards-


Oprah cried- and, in the end, so did I.

I voted. In Oregon, we vote by mail. I’m not in Oregon, but my old housemates sent me my ballot. Carrot- vote!

Ok, ok. Not that I wasn’t going to vote. I had actually been planning on it, for the first time in my life. This year, I was going to vote in the presidential election.

Today I was walking with Gigi in the rain. I had a new rainjacket, and a bright red scarf. “It screams scarf!” another friend had said. Today, as Gigi and I walked, we talked, a bit sheepishly, about how excited we were, after all, about the election. I mean, is that ok?

“I got an Obama lawn sign,” said Gigi. “And then I was pulling into the driveway, and I saw it, and I felt sort of embarrassed.” So she’d made another sign, a piece of white plastic on two sticks-

Don’t just vote- organize!

“But the thing is,” I said, as we walked, “I don’t think people are just voting. There’s something else going on- but what?” Are politics finally merging into mass media, becoming some sort of celebrity spectacle ala American Idol? Or is there something else going on, something I am completely ignorant of, because, at the end of the day, I know absolutely nothing about politics, because I don’t believe in capitalism, and because I prefer to keep my distance as much as possible, and invest my energy, instead, in what feels real? And so on days like this, walking in the rain, looking at the changing leaves, drinking tea with a friend, I just feel- confused. For me, reality has always been this- the people on one side, politics on the other. Politicians do not serve the people, politicians are not people, politics cannot be trusted, voting is just a distraction and cannot be trusted, the whole mess is best avoided altogether, it’s not real, the end. But then, these last few months, something has started to shift- and I can’t help but feel real, live emotions- that seem to be connected directly to who wins the presidential race. I feel, a little, as if my heart has betrayed me. And my second thought, is that when Obama wins, he may have a little trouble climbing up onto that pedestal we’ve built for him. The pedestal that stands on the cracked concrete that is this shaky system, held together only with the baling wire of denial. And when he falls off that pedestal entirely- what will that look like?

Update- we’re looking at the TV, Obama has won. It makes me want to cry. Dear god, I’m feeling strong emotion right now, and it’s the same emotion all the people in time’s square on TV are feeling, and I can’t really believe it. Just a moment ago Kimber and I, sitting in the living room here, heard a noise like someone knocking on the window- What is that noise? We asked. A few moments later a friend down the street called- gunshots! People, all over the neighborhood, firing off celebratory gunshots! Distant gunshots! That’s what the tapping noises were!

I’m happy? Confused? Choked up? Everything…

Once upon of time, in the Rift Valley of Kenya, some gutsy primates pulled themselves over the lip of the valley, and stood looking across the yellow grass plain, at the fig trees in the distance. Could they reach the fig trees before the lions found them? And at some point, those chimp-like primates decided that they could, in fact, reach the fig trees- and so they took off running on two awkward legs, opposing big-toes pounding the warm earth, muscular arms swinging uselessly. And so began the evolution of the species- early hominids, walking on two feet, shaping crude projectiles, taking down lumbering mega-fauna- spreading out across Africa and then, eventually, across the globe- reaching the American continent last, via the Siberian land bridge, finally ice-free after endless millennia covered in mile-thick glaciers.

The origin of the species- I’ve been learning about it from the book I’ve been reading, which is poetic and fantastical, yet entirely true- The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman. I’ve been learning about Africa, and about Kenya, and about our species’ sometimes symbiotic, sometimes not, relationship with the earth throughout time, and our incredible, destructive, unforgettable migration around the globe.

I was in the library yesterday, the library here in the piedmont of North Carolina, and I was sitting in the half-circle of comfortable chairs where there are outlets for computer plugging-in, trying to write- but instead, because this is North Carolina, not Portland, and strangers are friendly here, and curious, not hostile and aloof like on the west coast- what happened is that the two other people sitting in the half-circle of chairs immediately struck up a conversation with me. What was my name? How did I feel about the weather? One man, Thomas, charging his cell phone, Another man, on a laptop.

“The weather is fine,” I said, “it’s not even raining like in Portland where I’m from.”

“I don’t mind the rain,” said the man with the laptop, “I’m from the tropics.”

“Where in the tropics are your from?” I asked him.

“I’m from Kenya,” he said- “from the Rift Valley.”

I could not believe it.

“The Rift Valley!” I cried, in the library- “That’s where humans are from!”

“I know!” he said, excited. I told him I was reading all about Kenya, its epic human history and even its ecology, and I pulled The World Without Us from my backpack to show him. He flipped through the chapter I was reading, pronouncing town names and describing parks. We even pulled up google, so he could show me the birthplace of hominids.

He’d moved from Kenya to the US in 1998, he said, on a track and field scholarship at a texas university. After he graduated he’d moved to North Carolina, where he had a cousin. Now he was taking classes at the local community college down the street.

“I bet you miss Kenya,” I said. “I bet it’s beautiful there.”

“I do miss it,” he said, nodding his head. “oh, I do.”

The thing is, I know that Kenya is beautiful. I know this because there is a passage in the book I’m reading, a passage where the author is describing the Aberdares moors in central Kenya, and it is, just maybe, the most beautiful bit of nature writing I have recently read- made all the more fantastical because it describes a place I have never been, a place I can hardly imagine. I will reproduce it for you here-

“The high, cold Aberdares moors in central Kenya have discouraged human settlers, though people must have always made pilgrimages to this source. Four rivers are born here, heading in four directions to water Africa below, plunging along the way from basalt overhangs into deep ravines. One of these waterfalls, the Gura, arcs through nearly 1,000 feet of mountain air before being swallowed by mist and tree-sized ferns.

In a land of megafauna, this is an alpine moor of megaflora. Except for a few pockets of rosewood, it is above the treeline, occupying a long saddle between two 13,000 foot peaks that form part of the Rift Valley’s eastern wall, just below the equator. Treeless-yet giant heather rises 60 feet here, dripping curtains of lichen. Groundcover lobelia turns into columns eight feet high, and even groundsel, usually just a weed, mutates into 30-foot trunks with cabbage tops, growing amid massive grass tussocks.

Small wonder that the descendants of early Homo who climbed out of the Rift and eventually became Kenya’s highland Kikuyu tribe figured that this was where Ngai-God-lived. Beyond the wind in the sedges and the tweep of wagtails, it’s sacredly quiet. Rills lined with yellow asters flow soundlessly across spongy, hummocked meadows, so rain-logged that streams appear to float.”

As I thought of this man’s beautiful, distant country, the conversation moved away from the weather and turned, of course, to the presidential election.

“In Kenya,” said the man, “everyone is excited for Obama to win.”

And then I realized- Obama’s dad is Kenyan. Which set off an hour-long google expedition, in which I watched not one, but two slideshows of Obama’s family history, learning that not only is Obama’s dad from the Rift Valley of Kenya, but that he had six wives, and that Obama was actually raised in Hawaii by his grandmother, who of course, but a few hours before I was watching these slideshows, died, at 86.

Wow. And so, it’s late, and as I sit, watching the muted TV, where damp-eyed news broadcasters silently mouth the words historical moment, over and over, I cannot help but ponder the significance of a tall, lanky man, whose family hails from the seat of our very species, the Rift Valley of Kenya, becoming head-honcho of a good chunk of the last continent that humans, after untold millennia, finally managed to colonize- both as hunter-gatherers and later, as Europeans waving the future flag of western civilization- and that this very man will still be president in the year 2012, the year that the Mayan calendar, as a matter of fact, ends. A sort of full circle. They way I imagine Lewis and Clark must have felt, when they reached the Pacific Ocean. What, I can only ask, does it all mean.

And yet, watching the silent TV, where Oprah weeps in a throng of late-night Illinois supporters, I know how I feel- I feel as though I’ve moved to another country. I feel as though the orbit of the earth has tilted, and the US has somehow become a kinder, gentler sort of nation- like Canada, maybe. And maybe it’s all an illusion, and capitalism plods on to its death, and empires, in the end, fall- but now, along with everyone else, I’ll be watching.

Thank The Rift Valley

Friends- on the eve of the election, a Very Appropriate letter to Obama. Written by two friends, joined by a third- one word at a time, taking turns choosing each word, one after the other. A fantastical collaboration, shot through with intuited/accidental genius.

Dear Obama,

Zoey likes meekness. However, I think it’s just a ploy. When she barks usually there is a reason, like last week when she barked at a squirrel. I agree with her. Fuck squirrel! Fuck barking! I wish I could eat squirrel. Instead, I eat mung pie. Sometimes, everyone looks like your mung pie. Other times, the pie tastes like your squirrel’s insides. Yum. Zoey, why do you smell like squirrel? Or the poo of squirrel. Anywho, regardless, when do the people of the Metro Metro North Crashpad Industrial Complex collaborate on decisions? Every monday. Today, in fact. Just hours ago, in fact. This precluded sitting futon-style in the music room, going everywhere, because we can.

Next, we sleep soundly, until it’s time to vote! Who shall we name as our new big Bing-Bong? He’s going to ruin our ruined already state of being. Bring snacks and watch with relative zeal, because you don’t know what may come next. I don’t know about whether or not this whole thing is really a big hoo-ha. Or Anyway, I do plan on dreaming about better places, like the Rift Valley, Kenya, Resurrection Bay, Alaska, and Japan. In spite of everything, good people ache for good places. Thank the Rift Valley for Obama and Homonids in general.

——Ding-Dong McNightie enters the letter, and things get a little f a n t a s t i c a l——-

Ultimately, we are stranded in this netherworld vortex, between breaks in time. Suddenly, the mood has shifted. Zoey wonders where did we carve the beginnings of time and matrimony. Was this ever real? I never suspected this trouble. Frankly, when I become tired, I wish that everyone was stuck in a celebration station. Last night, we bounced above several layers of gossamer lasagna. Yikes! Delicious! Like a brilliant spider’s wet dream, it was. Wherever we frolic, sundry bunnies compensate for our lack of rhythm. Twinkling dew-drops glimmer endlessly throughout Metro Metro North Crashpad Industrial Complex. Perhaps our tepid old souls could use a bath. Can’t anybody follow our shining sense of purpose? Anyone? Release me from your clutches immediately following the election. Technically, one member of your sordid clan is nearly fast enough to become It. But sadly, it just doesn’t sink fast enough. For all of us to survive the crash.

In closing, fondly yours,

Zoey’s minions
Dixie Normous, Paulie and Ding-Dong McNightie

the INVISIBLE drum machine and the Selectric Piano

My friend Mark Dixon is a genius. For every genius you have heard about, there are a dozen geniuses hidden away in a quiet North Carolina town somewhere, and Mark Dixon is one of those.

Mark Dixon built a drum machine. For years, Mark Dixon built a drum machine. Months, decades, centuries passed, and the drum machine grew and grew. And by “drum machine”, I mean “robots”. Many, many robots, robots made of wooden clappers and dixie cups and recycled car parts and steel trash cans and, even, a typewriter, each robot built or hinged or nailed to a square of wood in a way that it could crack or ping or bong one part against the other and make a sort of percussion noise. There was not a thing, to Mark, that could not become a robot capable of making a sort of percussion noise. Even an old clothes dryer, with the right sort of wooden ball inside, became a sure and steady drum. And each robot; small, large, on its own special stand or suspended from the ceiling; each robot is connected with a long thin wire to the Great Turning Wheel, which is a name I have given it, for the sake of visualization.

The Great Turning Wheel, is, as you would imagine, a sort of disk- a great, flat, wooden disk, shot through with tiny-peg holes, into each one of which fits one small wooden peg. And through the center of the disk is a metal rod (I think), and on this metal rod (I think) the Great Turning Wheel does its sure turning, by way of small motor, slowly or fastly, depending on which way your flick the simple silver switches, which also dictate what robots react to the position of the pegs- if the high-sounding robots ping and tinkle, for example, or if the deep-sounding robots boom and fwap, or if all of the robots go, one after the other, in their places, which are set with the placing of the pegs. And Mark, meanwhile, is sitting, straight, on a stool, a white stool, in front of the Great Turning Wheel that surely turns, and from a small cup of wooden pegs in one hand, he is pulling with his other hand, and pushing pegs into position, quickly, making rhythms both complex and visual, like the sharp metal dots on the small metal wheel of the old ballerina music-box you had as a kid, which you used to open, and the tiny plastic girl in her rain-drop of tulle would leap up on a bronze spring and spin around, in front of a mirror the size of a teaspoon. Except Mark’s drum machine is large, and it fills a whole room.

When I first came to North Carolina a few years ago, Mark showed me this drum machine, in a cold warehouse- he brought it to life for me, and then turned it off, and it sat, silent, seemingly forever, at least to me. And Mark went about his business, this business of thinking, of creation, of being busy with bits of wood and saws and scraps of metal in his cold, cluttered warehouse. And I thought nothing of it, until last night.

Last night I saw a show. And Mark’s drum machine was in the show. It was a band, a band called INVISIBLE. And my friend Jonathan Henderson is in the band, Jonathan who is a steadfast and musical friend, and also another fellow that I haven’t yet met, named Bart Trotman.

It took Mark six hours to set up his drum machine. It took Jonathan five hours to set up everything else. It took the other fellow some unknown amount of time to set up, because I haven’t yet made his acquaintance, and so haven’t had the chance to ask him. Mark wore a red helmet and a red sweater and red pants. Jonathan wore a black shirt and a black tie and a black jacket and black pants. The other fellow wore all white, with old phone chargers wrapped around his arms and legs.

First, Mark placed the pegs. Then, he turned on the machine.

The wooden clapper clapped. The plastic tube drum boomed. The mallet hit the dixie cup. Something jingled, something crashed. A loud, deep, catchy rhythm rose from the pegs in Mark’s fingertips. Countless robots spread out before me, in a maze of wire and lights, as far as I could see. And adrift among the robots were the other band members, with keyboards and other things I don’t understand because I don’t play music that sort of music, using these things I don’t understand to make even more strange noises and sounds. And on four tall TV monitors played footage from two tiny cameras placed on the Great Turning Wheel, and on the typewriter- footage of pegs turning smoothly in space, and footage of words being typed on the typewriter, by Jonathan.

I don’t usually like experimental music. Not that I even listen to it live ever, but I feel like when I do, it is to me just a bunch of random sounds, that maybe shouldn’t even go together. But this, this was something else. I can’t even explain it in words. The human language fails me. Excuse me, as I defer to visual media for this one.

The band Invisible has another member, The Typist, who did not perform last night, but who you can see in this video. The typist is my friend Jodi, another steadfast piedmontan, (that’s a word I just made up that means living in the piedmont of North Carolina.) who plays, in the band, a typewriter- whose keys play the keys of a piano- aka Selectric Piano. Mark’s drum machine, unfortunately, is not present in this video, but Jodi’s instrument, which Mark invented, is. And also, some of the collective genius of the band shines through. And if you go to the band’s myspace page, you can see a trailer for a documentary someone is actually making, about the incredible, INVISIBLE drum machine.