The Coming of the Bees

On a lighter note…


It is the spring of 1990 in Huerta Grande (which, in Argentina, means it’s somewhere between August and December). I’m sitting in my 7th-grade classroom, wearing my guardapolvo, one be-smocked hooligan among many, awaiting the teacher’s return from the main office and, if that day was like any other, paying more attention to my friends across the room than to the book in front of me. Just another school day at Escuela Bernardino Rivadavia.


The sleepy little town of Huerta Grande, in Valle de Punilla. The school is indicated by the red arrow; my classroom was at the far end of the building, across from the Catholic church. (Sidenote: I got into my first fistfight ever in the little plaza across from the church,,,)

By way of introduction, it’s important that I let you in on a little secret about Argentine public school classrooms. For the most part, they’re human zoos waiting to happen. I know that classrooms here in the United States are also prone to outbreaks of jinks comprising various altitudes–high, low, and in between–but chaos tended to be the rule rather than the exception in our school, at least when I was there in the late ’80s. (If that tendency dropped after I left, I can only say it must have been a complete coincidence.)

An illustration: My aunt and uncle visited us in Argentina during my 6th-grade year, and in the course of their stay they decided to come and see what a day in the life of a public schooler was like. Our teacher had a way of disappearing to the principal’s office or elsewhere and leaving the room unattended for ten, maybe twenty minutes at a stretch, and–being the mature young adults that we were–her exit from the room generally signalled our exits from our seats. On the day my relatives stopped by, she had left, and in the interim we had spotted a spider on the ceiling of the room, some fifteen feet up. My poor aunt and uncle chose that exact moment to enter and encountered a scene more akin to a monkey habitat than a schoolroom: fifteen or so boys in white smocks jumping from chair to chair, leering like idiots, hurling their little pink erasers into the air in an attempt to dislodge the unfortunate arachnid, who was beginning to have a very bad day indeed. Meanwhile, the rest of the class clapped their hands and cheered us on. (Did I say “us”? Of course I meant “them.”) The look of sheer bewilderment on my aunt’s face was beyond comical–she, a special-ed teacher herself, had clearly never seen anything like it in her life.

Anyway, the parameters having been established, back to our story: a spring day in 1990, twenty-odd not-so-studious sardines stuffed into a less-than-scholastic, whitewashed can. Everything normal, everything as it should be. No reason to suspect that, just two or three miles away, the hammer was about to fall.

Two blocks from my house, the main highway between Huerta Grande and the neighboring town of La Falda forked, one branch remaining a highway (a very steep, wind-ey highway–great for bike-riding) while the other branch took off through the center of town. As we students went calmly about our business, a truck hauling a load of very vigorous honey bees missed the split, overturned, and dumped its cargo all over the pavement. Elated at their unexpected freedom, the bees (some of which ended–literally–by taking up residence in our storage shed) promptly converged upon an innocent passerby and stung him mercilessly. The poor man, who happened to be allergic, of course became deathly ill and collapsed. Ambulances were called, the cops stopped by, crowds thronged–all in all, it was a fairly decent commotion, perhaps even a hullabaloo.

News of the unfolding drama spread quickly, making its way toward the schoolhouse, inexorably, like a twisted game of Gossip. As it went, curiosity became concern, concern morphed into fear, and fear turned into outright hysteria. By the time the tidings reached us, the convergence of trepidation, speculation, and imagination had conjured up a story to chill the heart: A swarm of killer bees was on the loose, and they were headed straight for us.

As you may recall, it was the spring of the year, and the outside world quite pleasant. Cool breezes abounded, and the nascent aroma of flowers was in the air. And our classroom was lined with three pairs of six-foot double windows, every one of which stood opened wide, welcoming the mild weather.

Señorita Sarita, one of our two teachers and vice-principal of the school, who had stepped out momentarily, reappeared dramatically in the doorway of the classroom, her expression and bearing a cross between Jessica Rabbit and Cruella DeVille. In Shakespearian tones, she exclaimed: “Killer bees are coming! Shut the windows!” Or something to that effect. All we heard was “You are all going to DIE!!!”

As she rushed to swing to and seal the first pair, a lone bumblebee floated lazily through the opening and into our midst. And all hell broke loose.

Suddenly that 7th-grade classroom presented an unfavorable comparison to a crowd of metalheads at a Megadeth concert or a department store parking lot on Black Friday. Girls screamed, boys screamed at a slightly lower octave, and everyone headed for the opposite wall. Quickly. We must have looked like a stampede of newly-sentient windmills rampaging through the countryside. The din was deafening; the bumblebee must have been scared half to death; the teacher tried desperately to retake the reins and arrest our terror before we did ourselves an injury. And in the midst of weeping and wailing and smashing of classmates, the poor beast, black hairs now decidedly gray, fled quietly back out the way it had come. I suppose. No one really knows. Perhaps it cowers still in a dark corner of the classroom, now a distinctly antisocial insect, telling other wayward creatures in hushed tones of that dark day it took a wrong turn and wandered into pandemonium.

I’ve often been told in the years since that I’m an unfeeling wretch, because in the face of impending disaster I just don’t seem to care. But it’s not that I don’t care. It’s that, every time someone screams about the sky falling, there’s this mental image that I cannot shake. Y2K, the bird flu, SARS, Valentine’s Day 2003 when the terrorism threat level went up and newscasters told me to Saran-Wrap my home and hold my breath–each time this happens, I find myself back in that 7th-grade classroom, and Señorita Sarita stands once again in the doorway, eyes wide, proclaiming our coming demise…

…and then I think of that poor bumblebee, shaking violently and mumbling to itself, oh so quietly, “What the hell was that?!?”

Memories of Fortunes Past

The automatic doors glided open with a faint hiss: mere mechanics, but to the small boy standing before them, magic, pure and simple, as surely as if he’d waved a wizard’s wand and uttered some secret spell. Beyond, the speckled-marble tiles, shiny clean, of Wal-Mart stretched limitless. He cared not for the clothing section, or automotive (he didn’t yet even know the meaning of that word), or home and garden; he had only eyes for that mythical fantasy land called the “toy aisle.” And he knew the path, like Dorothy knew the Yellow Brick Road. He could have found it with his eyes closed, before he could even make his own bed or pick his own wardrobe.

At his side, in fist clenched against the predations of imaginary bandits, he held treasure. A crumpled twenty-dollar bill–his ticket to the wonderful show hinted at in the pages of the latest catalog, the three-ring circus of playtime. He had already begun, in his young mind, to make the connections between holidays and the accumulation of wealth: on this day, the Rockefellers and Carnegies of the world stood meekly in his shadow. A fortune was at his fingertips.

Like a small flash he was off, careering wildly around corners, as close to flying as a child may come–what is the force of gravity to one so mightily endowed? And there it was, waiting, glistening almost. From one end of each corridor to the next he bounded, eager but indecisive, cautious, as one should be who is about to undertake such an important investment. Race cars, action figures, soccer balls and baseball gloves–his head fairly spun at the sheer possibility of it all.

The softer side kicked in: should he take the robot castle, bigger than anything he had ever seen, or should he rescue the sad-eyed puppy staring at him out of a pile of plush? Weighty decisions, these. Could he live with himself, would he be able to sleep at night, knowing those sad eyes had no home? Would the robots make up for the pangs of a guilty conscience? A quandary, indeed…

He glanced over his shoulder at Grandma, smiling quietly from several yards away. She, of course, was the source of all this, the leprechaun to his rainbow, the Midas to his touch. On impulse, he turned and sped past the mountains of toys and threw his arms around her legs, burying his face in her billowy skirts, and mumbling something barely audible but perfectly understood. Then he was off again, dancing from one option to the next, his life a glorious question mark. This, he thought, this is what it means to be rich!

Wrong Way Down the Highway of Life, pt. 1

Our faithful companion…

Such a peaceful, sunny day! Windows down, the green of the summer grass reflecting off the chrome of the car’s hood, a gentle breeze blowing slantwise across the cab, refreshing, invigorating. The low chirp of cheerful little birds wafting through the cool air. And in the rearview, a crowd of cursing, angry construction workers pursuing the automobile across the lawn at top speed…

In the summer of 2006, I finally was able to capture and hold a dream I had been chasing since the day I first cracked open a copy of A Tale of Two Cities. It was a project fifteen years in the making. I hopped across the pond. I visited the Jolly Old. I went to the UK.

But going, you see, was not enough. Although we’ve been back once since then, at the time I was fairly convinced the trip was a one-shot deal, and I wasn’t therefore content with seeing a part of the island. Instead, we decided to see all of it. In two and a half weeks. I also wasn’t content with letting others show it to me. Tours are stifling–look over here, look over there, die of repetitive stress injury to the neck. So, instead of package deals, instead of piling onto a lorry or a train with a bunch of hurried sightseers, we went for the car rental, and set out to conquer the British Isles.

It was at this point that I discovered MapQuest UK. The next step was clear: If driving in the Isles would be fun, then taking the scenic route would be AWESOME!! So, where’s that “Avoid Highways” button? British back roads, here we come!

Little tip for those of you who are adventurous enough to pull this sort of stunt but haven’t as of yet been able to. Consider jetlag. Suffice it to say, I did not. After crawling from a plane at 6:15 in the morning, following a nine-hour flight during which I did not sleep at all, and having waded through a two-hundred person pile-up in Immigration, I stood bleary-eyed in front of the counter of the airport Enterprise, regaled with stories of Yanks who thought driving in England would be a good idea and, upon trying it, decided very quickly that it was not. One lady, the clerk said, brought her vehicle back after having made it once around the Gatwick complex, slapped the keys down, and staggered from the establishment looking like she’d seen a ghost. Or at least the possibility of becoming one.

I am not one to be easily deterred from a challenge. Also, I am not one to kiss fifteen non-refundable hotel reservations goodbye, which is exactly what we’d have to do if we gave up the car. So, morality tales not withstanding, off we went.

The clerk’s stories began to come true about fifteen seconds after we pulled out of the rental lot. It was here, you understand, that we first encountered the circular devil, the whirling dervish of traffic management. It was here we came face to face with the roundabout. Now, you may snicker and raise your eyebrows at this. You may wonder how much of a threat a simple traffic circle could be. Bite your tongue and mind your manners. It will kill you if you let down your guard.

What those who have never experienced this particular level of hell fail to understand is that a brush with this type of monstrosity (which has brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins spread throughout the UK countryside) involves a suspension of the laws of physics. Observe the photo above. If I want to reach the South Terminal, for instance–which is to my immediate right–I must make a sharp left. Nothing is straight ahead–directions in the UK often require the inquirer to “go straight,” but I’m not entirely sure they’ve understood the concept. What they really mean is: “Go straight, once you’ve driven in circles for a nice good while.” “See that lovely pub right there across the way? Establish synchronous orbit, and you can’t miss it!”

Of course, when need of clear wits and brave heart arose, I went Neanderthal. Cro Magnon man took the wheel. And somehow, having evaded collision with on-circling traffic, we found ourselves safely out of the flow and headed gracefully away from averted disaster. Into a restricted area. With barbed wire and those little red revolving security lights you see in old episodes of MacGyver. Perfect. Two hours after setting foot on British soil, American idiot deported for trespassing. Oh, the headlines we will make.

“Flipped out” doesn’t quite cover it. I lost the capacity for non-profane speech. At that moment, I could have rivaled the saltiest dog on the Seven Seas (in everything but coherence). Back to the roundabout, post haste! If when you were a kid you ever tried to leap onto a moving merry-go-round without losing an arm or a tooth, you may actually know how I felt at this moment. Car after car flashing past, Tammy hoping for the best (and expecting the worst), and me in the driver’s seat, between bouts of Tourette, counting the intervals and attempting to establish some sort of rhythm, as if I was preparing to insert us, car and all, into a pick-up game of double dutch. This time was all or nothing–no mulligans. Either we made it out of the airport, or we took the car back and gave it up as a lost cause.

Another traveler’s tip: Pick an outlet before entering the stream. The key to roundabout survival is having an exit strategy. Also, discard etiquette. There’s plenty of time to be polite once you’ve stopped being afraid. The second time through, we knew where we were headed, and we didn’t so much care how we got there, so long as we did. Birds (and I do not mean the feathered kind) were flying as we scooted around the circle to our artery of choice, but somehow we did it. Not only were we headed away from circular chaos, we were also actually headed in the right direction.

But not to worry. The fun was far from over. This is the point at which I realized that back roads in the UK are not what they are in the US. Remember my brilliant idea of mapping out the scenic route through England? Turns out almost all routes (including some of the “major” highways) are scenic. And most of them are narrow enough to render the question of lanes a moot point. There aren’t lanes; there is simply a lane, and you share it with oncoming traffic as best you can (which in many cases means you aim, close your eyes tight, and pray). Now, this became second nature the longer I did it, but that first morning I was barely conscious, and driving in a straight line was more of a challenge than usual. Look at that cute little house with the quaint thatched roof! And the neat little hedgerow in front of it! And look how the side mirror is ripping its way through the neat little hedgerow as we go! How delightful!

Once again, panic ensued. The one thought in my mind was to slip out of these by-lanes into something a bit more comfortable. We soon discovered, however, that broader streets serve only to invite the parallel parker. Soon after this, we discovered why side mirrors are collapsible. As we sped down the street, accompanied by the steady staccato of fiberglass on fiberglass, envisioning another two weeks of rampant destruction, England seemed a less and less welcoming place. I thought wildly of ditching the car and disappearing quietly into the underbrush, leaving people to survey the damage, scratch their heads, and wonder aloud, “Who WAS that masked mangler?”

By now, the highways I had made such an effort to avoid were my sole reason for being. I couldn’t help thinking that the longer I wandered around wreaking havoc, the more likely I was to end up before a modern-day Star Chamber. So we stopped at a gas station to ask for directions to a fairly major thoroughfare which, according to our map, ran through the middle of the town we were in. Not unlike asking someone in Joplin, Mo., if they knew how to get to I-44, or someone from Waco where to find I-35. Or anyone, how to find their own front yard. And the attendant had no clue. Never heard of it. This is apparently a universal failing in the Isles. We learned quickly not to ask directions, as blundering would almost always get you where you wanted to be more efficiently than waiting for inquirees to call in a dozen more people who also had no clue.

Side note: rest stops. If you are one who carries the misfortune of a small bladder, pack a Ziploc. A big one. From time to time, you will stumble across the British equivalent of a truck stop. If you see one, for God’s sake take advantage of it. Because exiting the roadway is not the same proposition there as here. Consider the fact that all exits involve the dreaded roundabout, and few of them were designed for ease of interpretation. You may end up driving madly in circles forever, all the while in sight of where you’re trying to go, completely unable to get there. And if you do, you may never get back to the highway you were on–at least not without travelling miles in the wrong direction first. So, drink little and carry a big bucket. It may be your only hope.

Finally, we found ourselves on a four-lane, divided highway. The left side of the four-lane divided highway, of course, but counterintuitive beats cataleptic any day of the week. After that first day, instead of forcing its hand I let the scenic route reveal itself as we went. And by the middle of the second day, I felt I’d been driving British pavement my whole life. In retrospect, it is the most fun I have had in my life. I will never go back to the UK without renting a car and hitting the road (and perhaps a few hedgerows and sideview mirrors).

In any case, it wasn’t long after leaving behind the tiny village lanes that we arrived at the first stop of our tour. Naturally, this wasn’t before driving ten miles out of our way to find a roundabout to make up for missing a turn, but all our pain disappeared as we crested a hill oustide Amesbury and saw below us the ancient stone circle of Stonehenge. The Sundial of the Gods. In my life, I have never felt more like cheering, weeping, and donning a druidic robe, all at the same time. It is truly a breathtaking sight. Oddly, the closer you get, the less impressive it becomes, but from the overlooking hilltop, the sensation of glimpsing beyond the centuries is overwhelming. The historian in me could barely breathe. And the irritations of the day fell away. I knew, after fearing the nightmare, that my lifelong dream was coming true.

Trembling in My…Well, Pretty Much Everything

It’s a quiet night in El Bosque. The family gathers around the dinner table as the sun disappears behind the mountains ringing the city of San Jose. How was your day? What kind of fascinating, new language-related things did you learn today? And you, Vance? What kind of new chaos did you create at school today? Together, they tuck in to whatever delicious concoction Luisa the maid cooked up for them before heading home for the evening. And then things just get spooky…

In the distance, dogs begin to bark. At first, you can barely hear them, maybe several blocks away, but quickly it becomes clear that a wave is in motion. The noise grows louder: the end of the block joins the chorus, and steadily the din moves closer, closer, closer, until it sweeps past, and the animals on the other side of the house take up the song. It moves away into the darkness as quickly as it arrived, fading, receding, dying away completely at last, as if it had all been a figment of your imagination. And the tremor hits. Gently at first, then more adamantly, the house begins to vibrate, then shake. Glass rattles, the salt and pepper shakers perform a strange dance across the tabletop, and the family gathered around the table, unused to these events, casts fearful glances at one another, ready for the end to come, for the ceiling to come down and bury them all under a pile of crazed rubble. But before any of this even really registers, like the canine chorus before it the trembling has stopped, the earth is at rest again, and the seismic wave has moved on in the wake of its predecessor.

The first time this happened, it scared us all to death. By the last time, it had become old hat. I would say that during the year we spent in Costa Rica, we probably experienced a couple dozen minor temblores, probably no more than a 2.5 or so on the Richter. Frightened glances turned over time into raised eyebrows–here we go again. And every time, the animal choir offered up an eerie prelude. They could feel it coming, always.

One such experience stands out, though. The one time we broke 4.5 and things really got all shook up.

It happened in the middle of the morning, and all of us kids were at school. Sonlight Christian School, to be exact. The MK farm. While moms and dads spent their days studying Spanish at the Language Institute, we cooled our heels on math worksheets with little Bible verses in the top right hand corner, and pretended we, too, were language students. Not that it was a bad place. The teachers were quite nice, and they had a fairly decent library. But it was a strange place, unlike any other school I’d ever attended. It even ate summers. Instead of days of freedom, playing outside, watching cartoons, or reading books by the dozen, we continued the daily round, with slight curricular changes that made it feel not unlike a three-month long trip to Bible school. We did pottery, we made candles. There was even an ill-fated attempt to dissect a pre-cleaned fish (misunderstanding at the fish market) which amounted to an impromptu cooking lesson. Thus my Costa Rican “summer.” It wasn’t until years later that it occurred to me that Sonlight was really a daycare, and I a free radical in need of a supervisory electron.

On the day in question, sometime between ten and noon (I say this because I really don’t remember the time, and this suits me as well as any), we were gathered for kiddie worship in the main hall of the school. Before long, the older students would be transferred to a new building back across the highway toward the language school, but for now we were still all crammed together in the original location, so the assemblies usually required a tight squeeze. About halfway through the session, the howling kicked in. Not too long after this, the neighborhood dogs started up, as well. There were a few newbies among us, but most of us recognized the signs and knew what was coming. Except this one was stronger than usual, to the point that even some of us old hands were shaken (no pun intended).

So were the teachers. One in particular: Miss Caroline. Fairly large, blonde woman. Quite friendly; also, apparently, a bit high-strung. The past is a mosaic of singular moments, images frozen in time that stay with us throughout our lives. On that day, Miss Caroline became one of mine. It very quickly became obvious that the adults in the room were far higher up the freak-out scale than were the children. As the building turned into a bouncy castle, Miss Caroline bounded into the center of the juvenile sardines, lifted both hands over her head, and began to belt out a quavering rendition of “God Is So Good.” Absolutely surreal. Rumbling, vibrating walls, clattering glass, whimpering kids, and a portly, middle-aged woman in the middle of it all, singing to beat the band.

I can hear her voice; I can see her face. Like it was all happening right now. I still can’t sing or hear that song without suddenly becoming a faintly oscillating third-grader, sitting on the floor of that hall, surrounded by missonary kids, acutely aware even then of the weirdness of the situation. The impressions left by the quake-cito have long since fallen away, lost in the shadows of past experience, but Miss Caroline is with me still. It’s like my own version of David Copperfield’s vision: “one face, shining on me like a Heavenly light by which I see all other objects, is above them and beyond them all.” One face, belting its song, standing like a crazed beacon in the midst of minor chaos, “pointing upward!”

Of Beaches and Bloated Things (or, Gringos on Parade)

Costa Rica, 1987-88. Not my finest hour. In all honesty, I spent a good deal of my teenage years trying to forget we’d ever been there. Still, it had its moments, and the further removed that year becomes, the more I’m beginning to see adventure in what at the time seemed to be only disaster.

Take, for example, a little trip the Woodses and the Hoods took together to a place called Puntarenas, a beach system on the Pacific coast of the country. Its nickname, among others, is La Perla del Pacifico (the pearl of the Pacific)–God knows why. Apparently, it was discovered by none other than Sr. Ponce de Leon in 1519. After several days there, I kind of wish he’d left well enough alone…

This was my first experience with long-distance commercial bus travel. It’s actually only a two-hour ride from San Jose (the capital city) to the coast, but it felt more like several days. It was also my first experience (although, as with bus travel, far from my last) of sitting on a suitcase on the side of the highway, watching the bus’s tail-lights dwindling into the distance, wondering what my parents had gotten me into this time. Was it not bad enough that they made me leave friends and family behind and fly off to a place where we had no television, no family car, and no language skills at all (witness the ten-year-old me fleeing down a Central American sidewalk, chased by a mean-spirited dog, screaming “Help!!” over and over again to a street full of Spanish-speakers, who in all likelihood were more attuned to the entertainment value of the scene than to any danger I might have been in)? Now, here the children sat, Aaron and Dawn Hood, my sister Sara, and myself, thinking evil thoughts of present adult company. And then, it started to rain.

Anyone familiar with “rainy season” in Central America knows this name is an absolute joke. It should be called “Noah season.” It did not just rain–it poured. It was one of those storms that make you feel like there are fish out there drier than you. Through the clothes, through the skin, right down to the bone soaked. We couldn’t see anything, and I was beginning to wonder whether anyone actually knew where we were, or how to get where we were going.

To this day, I cannot really recall how it happened, but suddenly we were in the bed of a pick-up, barreling into the storm. We thumbed a ride. From a complete stranger. I still can’t quite believe it, and I was there. Dad, Uncle Charlie, Aaron and me, clinging for dear life to the back of the truck’s cab, staring into gale-force winds and a barrage of liquid birdshot. BirdSHOT, I said. Mom, Sara, Dawn, and Aunt Becky inside the vehicle, sitting with Ted Bundy for all we knew. Voices of teachers, policemen, and Officer McGruff echoed in my head: Never get into a car with strangers. Caveat: Unless you happen to be standing in the dark on the side of a Costa Rican highway in a hurricane…

Somehow, we arrived at our destination: the Chalet Bautista. Don’t get too excited. This place was a chalet like McDonalds is a gourmet patisserie. Perhaps, you say, it was the inclement weather or the darkness of night, or exhaustion from such an eventful trip that caused the C.B. to seem so bedraggled and uninviting. I think all of us would assure you, it was not. The place was just as bedraggled and uninviting by day as it was by night. I would include a picture of the place, but I couldn’t find one. It probably collapsed the day after we left.

Picture with me the following: very sparse bedroom furnishings; two stacks of bunks, one on each side; thin mattresses, no bedding; bare cinderblock walls. I took a top bunk, and the ceiling was about two inches from the tip of my nose. (I’d describe the bathroom facilities, but my brain seems to have blocked them out.) Now, in the years since then, I have left the spoiled little Yank behind. I’ve stayed in some extremely shady places, used more electric “widow-maker” showerheads than I can count (you don’t know fear–not to mention irony–until one of those explodes on you while you’re bathing), and trained roaches to guard against bedbugs. But the ten-year-old boy at Puntarenas had been out of the U.S. for four whole months (and was used to a mother who ironed couch cushions). To him, this was the back end of hell.

To illustrate, allow me to describe my experience upon waking the first morning. As you may recall, the ceiling was not far from my face. Imagine my surprise (and the infringement of my personal bubble) when I opened my eyes and looked into those of a very large, very neighborly iguana, hanging just above my head. It was close enough it could have offered me mouth to mouth following the consequent heart attack. Keep in mind that to this point the only animals I’d encountered upon waking had been stuffed and had names like Balloon and Patches. This beast responded to neither, and I’m pretty sure he wanted to stuff me.

The condition of the lodgings was so inescapably sad that I don’t really even remember that much about the beach, which was supposedly the whole reason for our trip. There is one thing, though, that we all remember. An image that is seared into my brain for all of time. I can close my eyes and see it now. An image that put, so to speak, the icing on a very unappealing cake.

I had never been to the beach before, at least not since I could remember. I was terribly excited. And I really wanted to know what that thing was, out there bobbing in the surf. A water bird, perhaps? A happy little fish leaping from the water to greet us? Or maybe, a dead, bloated dog, washed ashore just in time to scar four small children for life. Its name may not have been Balloon, but it sure looked like one. And smelled like one, too–that is, if you happened to stumble across one in a nice, ripe landfill. That one image is really the only thing that stands out clearly in my mind when I think of that trip, and it captures well the impression of it I have carried with me through the years: That dog don’t hunt.

Later on, there was an impromptu Sunday service (we were a couple of missionary families, after all) at a stone picnic table outside the Chalet. But it was for naught, at least as far as I was concerned. I only had eyes for the dog–and the large iguana now perched on the wall next to the table. Jesus loves me, this I know. Please convince my folks to go. Little ones to him belong. What’s the next thing to go wrong?

The crazy thing about this trip, though, is that after all these years it is to me a symbol of friendship. You come out of experiences like that either hating your comrades, or loving them, and with us it was the latter. The four of us kids are still friends today, almost thirty years later, and I honestly believe that this was where it all began. This adventure created a bond that cannot be broken, that still calls forth a shared sigh of disbelief when it comes into the conversation. And I wouldn’t change that for the world. So, don’t rush to judgment the next time your best laid plans gang agley. In twenty years, you may discover it was one of the best things that ever happened to you…

I Cry for You…

How do we explain a split existence? How do we make those closest to us understand that a part of us will always be out of reach, living in a past we can’t ever leave behind, in a place we can’t get back to but can’t ever really escape? My name is Vance; my name is Eduardo. I am American; I am Argentine. I am everything and I am no one. I sing a song of myselves.

It’s an odd feeling, knowing that, in eighteen years of life, I experienced more than many people do in eighty. This is not a boast; it is simply a fact. I have arrived at the midpoint of my life with so much baggage that my overhead compartment is about to burst, and the question constantly on my mind is: How do I follow that act? How do I make the latter half of my life live up to the expectations created by what went before? Did I really peak in high school? I am globetrotter; I am multicultural; I am (somewhat still) bilingual. I am a bit schizophrenic. And I am surrounded by walls, ironically erected by the freedom of years gone by.

Melodramatic? Yes. Also sadly true. Everything I have seen thus far in my life pushes me always to see more, to take in a wider view, while at the same time whispering in my ear that it’s never enough, that I’m wasting precious time. No matter how much I accomplish, I’m driven to achieve more, to justify the content of my heart and soul by adding more and more pages, chapters, books to the story of who I am. I wonder if it really meant anything. Was I put where I was for a reason, or did I just happen to wind up there? Was it meant to define my future, or simply to qualify my past? Whatever happened to the “wide-eyed wanderer” I used to see when I looked in the mirror, and how do I get away from the jaded visage that stares back at me now?

Never fear! I am still in the game, whether or not I completely understand the rules. For those of you who know what I mean, life is like a game of Mau. There are no rules, and the rules are always changing. We make them up as we go. Life is too short to let others do it for us. So we struggle, together but alone, to understand our reason for being, and to figure out how to hold on to the bits and pieces of our lives and assemble them into a coherent whole (or even an incoherent one–sometimes that is the best we can do).

In the back of my mind, an Argentine memory: pitch darkness, a long, steep hillside, a trail made for stumbling, and a curfew chasing me home. At the bottom of the hill, a creek forded by two ramshackle bridges barely worthy of the name, logs placed parallel with slats arranged crosswise at uncertain intervals. More than enough to offer the incautious a short fall and an unwanted bath. The first time I tried this little path I was absolutely terrified. I knew I was on a clock (in the Woods home, a curfew was a curfew, little as I might like it) and I could not see a bleeding thing (never mind the possibility that I might soon be a bleeding thing). I staggered downwards like a blind man, hands outstretched, prepared to feel my way with my face at the first wrong step. Somehow I made it all the way down, after several close calls and near falls. That was the first time. The longer I walked this way, the faster and more surefooted I became, and two years later I was taking it at a gallop.

Such is life. Limited visibility, treacherous inclines, and a short time to get from A to B. The difference between “straight” and “strait.” But it’s all about the practice. Somewhere along this path, the boy became (proyecto de) a man. The man moves faster and with greater confidence, maybe, but strangely from time to time he misses the mystery and wonder of the stumbling child. Uncertainty and immobility are not the same thing. Then there was but one path to take and a willingness to take it, no matter the consequences. Now, there are too many paths to take and a fear of choosing the wrong one, because of the consequences.

How to remove the straitjacket that comes with adulthood and disillusionment? How to rid myself of the imperfection reached with practice and find my way back to the kid who hated practice and still believed perfection was possible? How to divest myself of the fool’s wisdom that comes with experience, and focus again on the experience itself? I strive to recover the belief that everything is an experience, and remember that experience isn’t everything…