Bob and Jesse, 1992
Years ago I found myself standing amid a raging crowd, attempting to appreciate the finer points of car racing. It was an evening event, brightly lit, loud and confusing. It’s been too long to remember much more than the cloud of smoke that enveloped us, giving a supernatural quality to the lights. I recall struggling to get in the spirit of things, being overwhelmed by the noise, and feeling lost in the crowd.
Later at home, I looked in the mirror and noticed my face was covered with little black flecks which I guessed were either asphalt, or rubber, or a combination. I couldn’t help but wonder what all the fuss was about. Whatever had drawn the other people there that evening was eluding me, and that was the last time I ever ventured onto car-racing turf.
I never understood football either, but I can bring chips and dip and join in, cheering for whatever team my friends are rooting for. Ditto for other mystifying passions such as curling, pinterest, caviar, mountain climbing, organized religion, fishing and romance novels.
I find ways to pass the time during a football game. Often, pondering the similarities between gladiators and the grunting, heaving group of helmeted men scrambling on the field is enough to keep me entertained. I think about the cultural importance of ritual warfare, sometimes saying out loud, “This is a big deal! After all, our team is the only thing standing between them and our women.”
Once, during a televised match, I made a study of the advertising, discovering that 16% of the ads were for fast food, 25% about the television network and its programs, 9% for cell phones and so on. (Anatomy of a Ball Game January, 2006)
To be fair, most people don’t ‘get’ my obsession with horses, either. Every chance I get, I launch into a horse story, quickly losing my audience with terms like overcheck rein, navicular and grulla. It only takes about 15 seconds before my victim’s eyes begin to dart around the room, looking for escape exactly as I’ve seen many horses on the lunge line do.
I try to rope them in with the story about how Jesse liked to eat his corn across the cob, while Penny preferred to eat around the cob, but it’s too late. I can see they are already thinking about their new drapes or what their kid said on the way home from school.
Mahlon, Camille and Bob toast the kick-off of the Bronco’s first game of the season on September 10, 2006.
The whole horse thing is about so much more than just riding, or shoveling manure. It’s about the bond between human and animal, the freedom of flying effortlessly across green pastures and the secret world of dusk and dawn when hungry horses lure you outside.
I love the gentle swish of tails on quiet summer afternoons in the shade of a big tree. I have idled away countless hours watching an ultra-soft muzzle maneuver wisps of grass into a giant mouth with 2,000 psi grinding capacity. The footage of Rembrandt’s gold medal dressage performance in the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games will always put a lump in my throat and no matter which handsome actor is galloping across the movie screen, I only have eyes for his steed.
But to an outsider, horses seem expensive, smelly, dangerous and a lot of work. All this fuss for saddle sores, gnawed fence boards, vet bills, busted ribs and broken toes? No thank you.
At the end of the day, a passion can only be truly understood by those who share the same passion. The rest of us are sideliners. Today is Super Bowl Sunday, when more than 100 million people will watch the greatest football game of the year. The rest of us will bring the dip.
Well here we are again, poised to launch into a fresh new year, in a perfect position to evaluate 2014 and set goals for 2015. With a glance over my shoulder, these were my high points:
- I co-authored a book, Two Brauds Abroad with long time correspondent Stephanie De La Garza about our travels to Africa and Costa Rica to be released this month
- I assimilated Bob’s Swiss boarding school experience via five days in Lugano at the Seventies TASIS Reunion
- I reintegrated into our relaxed little community in rural North Carolina without hiccup or blemish
- I assumed the role of property manager at The Plant and accomplished what I set out to do
- I lost that five pounds I picked up in Morocco
Peering straight ahead, here are my 2015 goals:
- Support my father’s transition into his 89th year
- Promote and sell my first book
- Figure out where I am and what direction I’m headed in the woods behind our house with the help of compass and topographical map
- Attract equines back into my life
- Cook one new recipe a month
- Exercise my singing voice
Let’s hear about your 2014 high points, low points, triumphs or notables and your 2015 wishes, goals and expectations.
Most folks who stay in one place long enough already know what Bob and I are just now finding out. If you build social capital with a particular group of people, at some point you can expect dividends.
Wikipedia describes a dividend as a payment made by a corporation to its shareholders, usually as a distribution of profits.
As children we were taught to give freely of our time and energy and so we did. We were also taught to expect reciprocation and fair treatment from others. What we didn’t learn was what happens if you live long enough in one particular place.
Shortly after my sixteenth birthday my parents moved for the eighth time. We had lived in one place for seven years where I felt at home and accepted, even though I had arrived there as the new kid on the block when my peers were already nine years old.
It was a sad day when I said goodbye to my two best friends. We wrote letters but lost touch when I began moving around the country. This was long before cell phones and social media. I left home within a year and fled town the next year to drift west, catching rides with my thumb and sleeping on floors.
Bob also had a socially fragmented childhood. His family moved to West Africa when he was nine and he was packed off to boarding school in Switzerland a few years later. After graduation he picked a university with mountains and stayed put for twenty years. He was better than I at keeping his friendships intact and routinely talks on the phone to his school mates from Ghana, Lugano and Colorado.
After Bob and I met we started flying again, living for a year in one spot, six months in the next. We spent four years on Maui and then dove back into our travel spree.
Three years later we settled down in Pittsboro, North Carolina, a place so community-minded they created their own currency which they aptly dubbed The Plenty. We had found our people and decided to take the plunge. Making a commitment to our new community, we began proving ourselves in the same way we have done everywhere else. “Always take the high road” is our mantra and we strive to give without expectations. It’s sobering to realize how many social capital accounts we’ve started and left behind.
After four and a half years in our new idyllic paradise we came unstuck again and found ourselves abroad. But this time we decided to keep the house and return home. I type that tentatively because the concept of home still eludes us. When you’ve been homeless these many years, it’s hard to say the word with conviction.
We returned a year ago and were immediately struck with how easily we slid back into step with the people we’d left behind. I picked up my phone and had a rolodex of tried and true resources at my fingertips. Around town we encountered twice as many familiar faces as not. How humbling it was to realize these seemingly unearned profits were coming from social capital we’d invested more than a year before.
When I shared this with my sister-in-law Darla I discovered she was well aware of social capital dividends. She lives with my brother John in a small town where her parents, their parents, her children and grandchildren have forged an incredible legacy of respectability. How amazing it must be to talk with someone who knew your parents or do business with someone you played with as a child!
Now it’s our turn. After all these years of investing in community we have finally arrived at the pot of gold. Everything is so easy these days that we feel like we’re coasting when in reality we are just not starting from scratch, not having to prove ourselves to a fresh set of people, not investing energy and walking away from the rewards.
For the first time one of our social capital accounts is distributing dividends and that’s something to be thankful for. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
Camille, Kathryn, Grace and Deb – August, 2014
I’ve always thought of myself as the oldest child and only girl in a family of six, but if I reach back into my memory I recall that I had an older sister. By the time I was eleven, I had five younger brothers and so naturally I ran with it. We romped through the neighborhood, climbing trees, jumping off roofs, investigating construction sites, breaking into abandoned homes and playing Cowboys and Indians, Combat, Baseball, Football, Hide and Seek and Who Dies the Best.
Who Dies the Best was a uniquely East Coast version of Hide and Seek. The “Shooter” hid their eyes and counted while the rest of us scrambled for hiding places. One by one, the shooter would call out a name and that child would rush at him in ambush. Inevitably, the shooter would kill the ambusher and then rate their death based on believability and acrobatics. A back flip over a piece of lawn furniture, for example was sure to get you a high rating. After all of us lay strewn about the yard, the winner was named shooter for the next round.
The only time I got to be around a female family member in my age range was when Mom drove us from Jersey to Upstate New York to visit her older sister, Jeanette. Out of necessity, my cousin Barbara shared her bed with me. She was also an only daughter and my only female cousin and when we were together we generally put aside our boyish ways and behaved a bit more like little girls.
Darla and her youngest grandchild – May, 2014
When I was seventeen, my brother John fell in love with Darla and I did, too. She and John married a few years after that and has been my sister for more than forty years. Darla was followed by Deb, Bob’s wife and James’ wife Kathryn. Over the years the four of us have shared many conversations spanning a diverse range of topics, from recipe tips to the nebulous state of our family’s mental health.
I recently reconnected with Barbara who I had last seen in 1985. She goes by the name Grace now and our lively telephone conversations are as deeply nourishing as if we’d been talking every day for the past thirty years.
Grace and my other sisters fill a niche no one else can fill. They are as invested in my family as I am and we can talk for hours about matters which would probably bore anyone else
But back to my older sister. To this day, the phrase “Mind your sister,” conjures up a clear picture of Sister, my Nana’s dog, an amorphous black lab. With the help of a few photographs and stories, I learned that Sister, or Sissy as Nana sometimes called her was my babysitter when I was a wee baby.
The deal was Nana would set me down on a blanket under the big oak tree and put Sissy in charge. Her job was to make sure I didn’t crawl off of that blanket and from what I hear she did it well. This may explain why I was slow to talk, preferring instead to bark and scamper around on all fours.
So, despite being reared in a whorl of male energy, and for a time believing that I was a dog, I turned out pretty normal. It just goes to show you that nothing in life is set in stone and that eventually everything evens out. And that even if you think you’re the only girl/boy/dog/etc. – you’re not.
Tim Urban and Andrew Zinn, creators of Wait But Why
This week’s Wait But Why blog entry, How Religion Got in the Way is their latest triumph. It addresses every facet of my thoughts about faith, religion, spirituality and atheism.
I carry a secret with me every day. I don’t believe in god. In fact, I believe that the probability that god exists is extremely low. This makes me a bad person in the eyes of most despite the evidence to the contrary that I am socially concious, generous and good. While I respect the right of my family and friends to believe what they want, I fail to understand why their belief is so much more acceptable than mine.
Bob understands, thank god. He also doesn’t see how faith in a force beyond us would make us better people. We both know that our moral compass is socially ingrained, not divinely bestowed. Neither of us believes that there is a sacred force manifesting good or bad stuff for us any more than we believe in Santa Claus.
What we do believe is that we are a part of the earth and the universe in the same way as the stars, trees, dandelions and earthworms. We belong to nature as opposed to the other way around. We don’t subscribe to the notion that humans are the apex of evolution or god’s crowning glory. Neither do we imagine that after our bodies die, our soul will live on forever, flitting around on the clouds, burning in hell or perhaps haunting our enemies and loved ones.
Bob and I believe that when you die you are dead. To us, the afterlife looks like a composting project, wherein the nutrients in our bodies get broken down by microbes and used to fertilize plants. Yes, the quarks and leptons that once were Bob and Camille will live on beyond our deaths but we don’t refer to them as our souls.
As long as we keep all of this to ourselves, everything is fine. It’s when we share our secret that we risk offending others and ostracizing ourselves from polite society. To most people, atheists are evil. I’m not sure why my failure to believe is so alarming and have never thought to ask until now. So I ask our readers, “Why it is so important to believe in god?”
To be fair, many of our friends also shy away from the notion of a God. Their word for belief in the invisible powers that be is “spirituality.” If spirituality is another word to describe our connection with the earth and its beings, then I have it. If it means personal growth, then I’m also in. But more often than not the word spirituality goes beyond connection and growth to indicate belief in a guiding force. That’s where I draw the line.
My particular belief system, or perceived lack of it has put me in a lonely place. Imagine if nearly everyone in the world loved dogs, loved talking about their dogs and thought you were a bad person because you didn’t have a dog and weren’t that interested in having long conversations about them. Oh geez – bad example…
Which is why it was so refreshing to read How Religion Got in the Way.
The more I learned, the more I realized my whole country disagreed with me—I’d read that 96% of Americans believed in God, 90% believed in Heaven, 73% believed in Hell, almost half believed in the Bible literally—talking snake, Noah’s Ark, people living to like 200, etc.—and 61% believed that “a democracy cannot survive without a widespread belief in God or a Supreme Being.” I learned that the deeply religious even included a number of science-minded geniuses like Isaac Newton. Meanwhile, atheist was a bad thing to be, something derogatory, something to keep your mouth shut about, especially if you ever wanted to run for office.
There’s almost no word ickier than spirituality. It’s vague, amorphous, somehow very annoying, and it manages to turn off both the religious and the non-religious. And if you gather five people who all say they’re actually fond of spirituality, they’ll be defining the term in five different ways.
Tim Urban of Wait But Why is currently my favorite online writer. He is the first person to put into words what I am thinking since Joe Bageant passed away in 2011. Tim and Andrew Finn teamed up last year to create what I consider some of the most insightful articles on the Internets. Not only is Tim’s writing funny but his clear-headed observations and perspective align so completely with my values that I am tempted to seal Plastic Farm Animals with a link to Wait But Why and let them take it from here.
With spider season in full swing my new favorite place to walk is Jordan Lake Dam. The trails behind our house are off limits as far as I’m concerned. Even if I swing a stick in front of me, I end up with spiders in my hair and webbing on my arms and legs. So it was a nice surprise to discover this little gem of a park with its picnic tables, well groomed trails and expansive view of Jordan Lake.
I stumbled upon this spider free walk when I was looking for barbecue sauce. I had driven down to the Moncure Post Office and thought, heck, we’re out of thick and spicy Bone Suckin’ Sauce so I may as well head over to Ray’s Market. But I drove out towards the dam instead of driving the other way towards Ray’s.
Damn, I thought “No barbecue sauce today” and decided to make the best of my mistake, park the car and get a little fresh air. Across the dam I walked and was stopped in my tracks by the sight of open water fading off into inlets among the tree lined shores of the lake.
The breeze played with my hair and I breathed deeply of the negative ions. I was mesmerized by the sunlight glinting off the water and happy memories poured out of my head – of growing up on City Island and along the Atlantic coast and later, of living on Guam, Oahu, Maui and Little Corn Island.
On the other side of the dam I found that the road continued, on down through the trees, across the spillway and back around the base of the dam and then back over to my car. I had found a walkable loop without any spiders!
Bob joined me the next time and together we explored the overlook at the visitor center. We were delighted to find a viewing deck with free binoculars and big, comfy rocking chairs scattered around outside the visitor’s center. All is beautifully maintained by the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).
What a great place to bring a snack and a flask! (Alcoholic beverages are prohibited). There are even sparkling clean restrooms – heck this could be our second home!
Since then, Haruka and I have driven the five miles to the lake several times. Buffy and I walked the loop last week, enjoying the bird life and tasting the ground cherries that grow in weedy bunches atop the dam. And yesterday six of us walked and talked and then sat at a picnic table and shared stories.
When you drive into the park, it is obvious where North Carolina State Park maintenance ends and the USACE begins. The grass is clipped shorter and the infrastructure is in top form.
Unlike many other parts of the Jordan Lake State Recreation Center, there is no entrance fee. How refreshing in an era where State Parks are quickly becoming playgrounds for the elite. Despite the free admission, the park is underused. While there are always at least a few people with fishing rods below the dam, the picnic tables, playground and rocking chairs are surprisingly empty most of the time.
I wanted to think that the corps of engineers was a benign branch of the military solely concerned with local projects but soon found this is not the case. In addition to owning and operating a myriad of domestic navigation channels and inland harbors, including more than 600 dams providing 24% of U.S. hydro-power, and being involved in environmental research; USACE supports Army and Air Force installations both locally and overseas, provides technical and construction support to more than 100 countries and manages an Army military construction program.
Oh well. At least some of our tax dollars are going towards USACE parks and infrastructure in the U.S. As you can see on this snippet from Table 5.4—Discretionary Budget Authority by Agency that I found on the White House website, FY15 includes $4.561 billion for the Civil Works program of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A sum which unfortunately pales in comparison to the $575.050 billion set aside for the Department of Defense.
But I won’t let this spoil my fun. Anyone up for a walk?
Hoping to fit in – Tianjin 1998
“Duì bù qi! Duì bù qi!” Ann shouted imperiously, pointing to a row of taxis and staring at a group of drivers eating rice in the shade of a tree. It was a hot day and she had generously offered to take me shopping. I appreciated that she was showing me the ropes in my new home but found myself blushing with embarrassment as one of the men walked towards us.
Bob and I had just moved to Tianjin, a city of ten million in the People’s Republic of China where he would assume management for the manufacturing facility that Ann’s husband had set up. We had a few weeks of overlap to get the lay of the land before our contemporaries left China.
Ann and I soon found ourselves at the Friendship Store, surrounded by typical American type goods. I found something to buy and walked to the kiosk to pay the women behind the metal mesh. With Ann at my side, I negotiated my first purchase in Yuan. The clerk threw my change into the metal basin with such force I felt that I had been spat at.
On another occasion, Ann hired the company driver and we went to the famed Pearl Market in Beijing. When we were finished wandering the stalls laden with everything imaginable, we returned to our meeting point. Ann didn’t see our driver so she borrowed a cell phone from a pedestrian and rang him. “Mr. Wu! Mr. Wu! I’m waiting!” she said into the phone as I scanned the curb, catching his eye as he hurried up the sidewalk.
Again, I blushed. He was obviously embarrassed by the scene we white women had created, nodding apologetically towards the other pedestrians on our behalf. It occurred to me that had we simply stood there for a moment he would have appeared as he had obviously been watching for us.
I thought back to the taxi stand encounter. Had we waved and smiled at the men under the tree I’m sure a driver would have come forward just as quickly. But, I didn’t question her approach and thanked her for her time and kindness at showing me how to get around these two huge cities in my new host country.
After Ann and her husband left China I made another trip to the Friendship Store in search of a bread knife. I found what I was looking for and approached the kiosk with trepidation, smiling politely and respectfully handing over the Chinese currency with both hands as I had seen the locals do. To my amazement, the woman smiled and pushed my change gently into the steel basin.
I had learned a lesson in diplomacy. It is especially important to exhibit good manners when you are overseas. Bob and I were not just representing ourselves in Tianjin, we were representing all westerners. We were the laowài, or foreigner and everyone had their eyes on us.
We eagerly accepted the challenge of replacing the image of The Ugly American with something a little softer, a bit more mature and culturally sensitive. A kinder, gentler, not so ugly American as it were. Our wants and needs became secondary to our role as human beings on the global scene. We learned to take a moment and consider how our actions might affect our hosts.
The rewards were exponential! The more sensitive we were of others and the more we strove to fit in, the more comfortable everyone was with us, happily inviting us into their homes and welcoming us as friends.
These are the golden rules of travel. Treat everyone as you would like to be treated and goodwill will prevail. Represent your homeland and your race with pride. Remember, the true traveler acts as an ambassador, not as a self-serving tourist.