What Are You Reading These Days?; or, How Albert Camus Can Get You Through the Next Four Years

Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, many Americans did two things: First, they googled what it would take to move to Canada or New Zealand and second, they stumbled into their local bookstores searching for books to help them figure how their fellow Americans could have turned against all of our best interests.

I imagine what it must have looked like at any given independent book store in any given American city during those dark days following the election: A sea of tear-stained faces gathering in front of the “Politics” and “American History” sections, mournfully gazing at the book spines and looking for titles to answer their most pressing question: What the hell just happened?

In the ensuing weeks, apocalyptic fiction that we read in college and that had suddenly turned prophetic–Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, George Orwell’s 1984, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon–started flying off the shelves.

Later, a panoply of books attempting to explain the origins of American and European populism as well as the nature of the American citizens who voted for #45 (who were these people?) emerged, and progressive Democrats snapped up books with titles like Hillbilly Elegy, White Trash, Strangers in their Own Land, On Tyranny, What is Populism? and The Populist Explosion.

Perhaps you have perused all these books and you have come to a position of understanding and acceptance regarding the state of our republic. If you haven’t, though, I suggest you set aside Hillbilly Elegy, White Trash and (god help you) The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Because if you really want to find literary and political succor in these dark days of the republic, Albert Camus is your man.

Camus was an Algerian Frenchman, a pied noir, who was born in Algeria in 1913 and died in a tragic car accident in France in 1960. Camus wrote novels, short stories, plays, nonfiction and political and philosophical essays. No matter what genre he was working in, though, Camus focused on two central questions that are relevant to many of us in America today. The first was how we as individuals can create meaning in our lives in the face of an absurd, violent and irrational world. The second central concern for Camus was related to our obligation to others: given the absurdity and violence of the world, how can we create just and fair political systems that protect the vulnerable, the poor and the oppressed.

Living in France during the second world war, Camus had a first-hand look at violence and absurdity. He spent the better part of his life trying to figure out how to live in the midst of a furious, irrational world and, more importantly, how to make it more just and equitable. He did some of his best writing in the early 1940s as the dark cloud of Nazism was descending across Europe. Camus finished the manuscript of his most famous novel, The Stranger, in May of 1940 while he was also busy writing for Combat, a French magazine with an aim to defeat fascism and inspire ordinary French men and women to stand up against the dark forces that were sweeping across the continent.

When the Nazis smashed through the Maginot in June of 1940 and as their war machine sped toward Paris, Camus, along with the editorial staff of Combat and thousands of other Parisians, fled the City of Lights for the French countryside. Before he left the city, Camus threw the manuscript of The Stranger into the boot of the car and didn’t stop until he reached Clermon-Ferrang where he promptly restarted his work with Combat. After the war, Camus became deeply involved in the Algerian war for independence, taking controversial and provocative positions that managed to infuriate both the French and Algerian nationals (it was the final nail in the coffin of his tenuous friendship with Sartre) but that were always about extending the rights of French citizenship to Algerians, especially the politically disadvantaged Berbers.

I first came across Camus during my sophomore year of college in a general education class called “World Views.” Camus was presented as an existentialist, one of a loosely knit group of European thinkers who argued that humans were on their own, that there was no god to save us and that it was up to us, not a transcendental order, to create fulfilling lives and an equitable world. Nineteenth and twentieth century European existentialists from Kierkegaard to Nietzsche to Heidegger held a wide range of views, but it’s probably safe to say that all of them were committed to maximizing human freedom and amplifying human agency. Although he chaffed at being called an existentialist, Camus, felt strongly that it was our duty as human beings to find ways to be free from the shackles of church, state and popular opinion, and he forged a deep and abiding faith that human beings had the power and the ability to create a better world.

Sign me up.

I came from a fundamentalist Christian home and I attended a fundamentalist Christian college, so there was no talk of existentialist thought around our dinner table and there were no worn copies of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche or Heidegger stacked up on our bookshelves. At the college I attended, Camus was presented in a fair but pitying manner: I think the professors at my college admired his attention to social justice, but they disapproved of his atheism.

That said, when Camus was pushed under my nose at 19, I was shocked, surprised and attentive.

Over the years, I’ve continued to read Camus, like a tonic. Every few years I’ll re-read The Plague, a novel that uses a plague that descends on an Algerian town as a symbol for the rise of fascism in Europe, and when I’m feeling especially bad about the state of the world, I’ll turn to Camus’ essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus.”

So, it makes sense that shortly after the 2016 American election, I returned to Camus. One cold and cloudy January morning, I cast aside the latest edition of The Nation, threw The New York Times in the recycling bin, slammed shut the open copy of The Origins of Totalitarianism, and opened a copy of Camus’ essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus.”

Sisyphus was a Greek king and, in the eyes of the Greek gods, he was a little too cheeky for his own good so the gods condemned him to carry a boulder to the top of a mountain, over and over, for the rest of his life.

Before Camus, nearly every reader saw Sisyphus as a victim of the gods’ ill and capricious will and nearly everyone read the Sisyphus story, to varying degrees, as nothing short of a tragedy.

And, it’s no wonder that most readers interpreted Sisyphus as a helpless victim of the gods. On its surface, the conventional interpretation of the Sisyphus story conveniently maps onto traditional Christian thinking: Sisyphus, a mortal, is punished by the gods for his transgressions and condemned to a life of meaningless and hard toil. So, to someone coming out of the Judeo-Christian tradition, Sisyphus looks a lot like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Camus, an atheist who believed that humans are obligated to solve their own problems, was having none of the notion that Sisyphus went gently into the good night of his punishment. To put it another way, had Camus rewritten the Adam and Eve story, it would have concluded with the guilty lovers flipping off god, plotting to capture the serpent and figuring out how they could kill all those damn weeds in the garden.

By the same token, where Sisyphus distinguished himself, at least according to Camus’ interpretation, was in the manner that he refused to allow his sentence to define him. In Camus’ interpretation, Sisyphus revolted against his sentence. It’s not that Sisyphus refused to push the rock up the mountain. He had no choice except to obey the will of the gods. At the same time, though, according to Camus, Sisyphus never bends to the will of the gods. They took his body but Sisyphus refused to give them his mind.

Re-reading this on that cold January morning after the election, I found more inspiration and hope in this idea than I would have in, say, listening to “Give Peace a Chance.”

At the early stages of his sentence, I imagine Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill, over and over, and ruminating for a long time about his fate. He’s vacillating wildly between despair, anger, resentment and fear—feelings that many of us in the sane, rational, anti-fascist world feel every day. But you have to remember that Sisyphus was clever, so at some point he must have realized that while he was condemned to push the rock, revolt was still possible. In fact, I imagine he came around to thinking that revolt against the absurd position the gods had put him in was the only possible response.

Maybe it was days, maybe it was years of pushing that rock up the hill and watching it violently and mercilessly roll back to the bottom, but at some point, I imagine Sisyphus getting to the top of the mountain, standing erect, lifting his head high and regarding the gods above him. I see Sisyphus point his finger to his head and shout with all his passion and intelligence, “You don’t define me!” and bouncing his finger off his head now, screaming, “And you aren’t allowed in here! I will do your bidding because I must, but I refuse to abide!”

And that brings me back to America because if there’s anything we need right now, it’s the will and the controlled revolt of Sisyphus who refused to be defined nor cowed by his sentence and who labored on, against everything.

It’s hard to pick up a newspaper, turn on the television or just walk down the street in many American cities and not be confronted by waves of absurdity. A sitting president with a weak grasp or reality and an even weaker moral drive leading an administration that routinely trots out alternative facts. Neo-Nazis demonstrating in American cities. Elected officials who refuse to govern. Underneath it all are the rest of us, ordinary people helplessly watching the dizzying loss of cultural, political and economic capital. And, like Sisyphus, we go on almost in spite of ourselves.

Camus ends “The Myth of Sisyphus” with a powerful statement that might resonate with you in these dark days of the American republic.

 I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Camus speaks to us today because, like us, he lived and worked during anxious and violent times and through his writing Camus found ways to understand, resist and make sense of a world that seemed like it was coming apart at the seams.

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In Which We Go Antipodal

At the close of every election cycle you can hear people on the losing side lamenting, “I’m going to move to Canada.” Hardly anyone ever does, though. In any given year since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, no more than 11,000 Americans left the United States for Canada for political reasons. Since George H.W. Bush’s presidency, the numbers of Americans moving to Canada has remained relatively stable except after Republican presidents are elected when the number of people leaving for the north spikes and after Democrats are elected, those numbers drop. Go figure.

I like Canada well enough, but I always told myself that if I ever expatriated after an election, it would be for somewhere warm and wild. So when things went south in American life after the 2016 presidential elections, we decided to move to New Zealand, about as far from American as you could possibly get.

Many of my friends in America, when they found out that I was going to New Zealand for the year and subsequently learned that I would not be teaching, let alone working at all, would ask me with grave concern, “What are you going to do?” The first couple of times I was asked this, I was a bit taken aback. “What am I going to do?” I’d ask myself, “Wander along the beach all day with one of those metal detectors and then retire to the pub to watch rugby with the lads?”

Behind their queries, of course, is a deep-seated American fear of being idle, of having nothing to do, of being unproductive and useless. Don’t get me wrong . . . this part of America is deeply seared into my conscious as well, hence, my initial fears about being unmoored from my profession for a year. Over time, though, I’ve become increasingly comfortable with the prospect of having nothing to do for the year and I suspect that if I am blessed to live deep into old age then this year off will have something to do with my longevity. And in the space of the week that I’ve been here in New Zealand, I’m actually feeling really, really great about not working for the year. So, friends, don’t worry about me. I am fine. There’s plenty here to keep me busy for a lifetime.

New Zealand is about as far as you can get away from the US and still be in the known world. We are in the New Zealand Time Zone (NZST) which is 12 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time and 18 hours ahead of Denver.  That means that when you travel here you lose an entire day. We left San Francisco airport at 10 pm on 31 July and we landed in Auckland at 5 am on 2 August, so we never saw 1 August. In fact, it’s nearly antipodal (on the direct opposite side of the world) to our home in Denver. If you tunneled from our home in northwest Denver you would pop out on in the middle of the Indian Ocean halfway between Durban, South Africa and Perth, Australia. Our home in Ohope Beach, New Zealand is antipodal to a spot somewhere between Madrid and Granada.

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We live on the North Island between Coromandel and Hicks Bay in a place called Whakatane/Ohope Beach

I never sleep on planes so on the flight to Auckland I watched movies—Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider (it is still so good!), a surfing movie about a 30-something American woman who solo surfs the south island of New Zealand in winter, a documentary about the Fjordlands region of the south island, another about an active volcano just 30 miles from our home in Ohope and some animated renditions of the life of the Maori gods.

My favorite Maori story is the Maori creation story, which seems like a combination of the Oedipus myth and Plato’s myth of the Cave. Papatuanuku is the earth goddess and Ranginui is the sky father. They are locked in a centuries-long love embrace that balances the world. Conflict arises, though, when the 70 sons of the couple, who are harbored in Papatuanuku’s womb, become restless. The sons are all strong and capable. In fact, they are all gods whose talents, more or less, are going to waste inside their mother’s womb. Still, they are warm and safe in their mother’s womb, but a few of them manage to get out for a brief time. Outside in the world, they are cold and vulnerable, but they are enchanted by the beauty of the world so they return to Papatuanuku’s womb and relate their experiences in the world to their brothers. This creates a kind of civil war amongst the brothers. Some wish to stay in Papatuanuk’s womb and others wish to leave and take their talents into the world. A few of the sons suggest killing their parents in order to separate them but they finally, happily, settle on pushing them apart. This proves to be no small task but, finally, Tane, the god of forests and trees, manages to get between his parents and use his strong legs to push the lovers apart. Ranguini floats skyward where he commands the heavens and Papatuanuku holds the domain of the earth. It’s a bittersweet story—lovers violently separated by their offspring, no less, but then the emergence of the earth and humans role in it.

I walked off the plane in Auckland, images of the Maori gods thundering in my head, and we trundled to baggage claim where we collected our bags—six oversized duffle bags and four backpacks—which amounted to over 300 pounds of luggage. We heaved the bags off the baggage carousel, piled them onto two trolley carts and trudged over to Customs where we stood in a long, sleepy line.

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All bags and family members accounted for at SFO

After we passed through Customs (Sujata was pulled aside because the agents saw her stethoscope and mistook her for a veterinarian), we secured our rental car, SIM cards for our phones a delicious hot cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, threw all the luggage into the rental car and started the four-hour journey to Ohope. I was so tired I could hardly talk, but Sujata, who can sleep on planes, was able to hold it together long enough to get us to Ohope safely.

The north and south islands of New Zealand are about a quarter the size of the state of California although 40 million people live in California and only 4 million people inhabit New Zealand. On any other day the four-hour drive from Auckland would be pleasant. Auckland, a vibrant harbor town on the northwest coast of the north island, is home to nearly half of New Zealand’s four million inhabitants. Heading southeast out of Auckland, the country opens up into wide valley floors, low-slung mountain ranges and every so often, a solitary mountain, the Maori term is puke. The mountain ranges of the American West are imperious and demanding compared to the gentle, inviting mountain ranges of New Zealand’s north island. In the American West, it seems like the gods had a massive war and, in a fit, scattered rocks and boulders all over the countryside. The mountain ranges of New Zealand, by contrast, are gentle and inviting. It appears to me as if Tane, the Maori god of trees and forests, arranged sundry items in long lines across the islands and then laid a blanket of grass and forests over the top to cover them up.

As we drove across the wide valley floors and over the mountain ranges, making our way to the Bay of Plenty, I began to realize that there are at least thirty shades of green in New Zealand—there’s the sharp, bright, almost chartreuse fern leaves, the shady, green-black conifers at the top of the mountain ranges, the olive green Powhutukawa trees along the coasts and just about every other shade of green in between.

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Vista view of Ohope Beach

When I first got to our house in Ohope Beach, I stood on the deck and looked out across the Pacific Ocean. Off to my left at about eleven o’clock is White Island, an active volcano, that sits about 30 miles off the Ohope shore. Off to my right is the eastern peninsula of the Bay of Plenty and at the tip of that peninsula is the wonderfully-named, Cape Runaway. If I look back over to my left I’m looking at one of the most important spots in Maori history on this island. It’s the pa where the Maori leader, Toi, established a Maori stronghold in the late nineteenth century and from our house you can walk up the mountainside and then down into drop-dead gorgeous protected beaches on your way to the neighboring town of Whakatane (where Sujata’s hospital and Atticus’ school are).

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The just outside our house

Some of my favorite shore birds, Oyster catchers, are beloved denizens of Ohope Beach. I love to watch them in the morning and the evening, pecking the sand after the ebb tide, and I love the sounds the oyster catchers make in the morning and in the evening when they are collecting their dinners. They are skittish birds so when they see a human, they put down their beaks and run together down the shore line, screeching and squeaking all along the way.

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Ohope Bay sunset

The residents of Whakatane and Ohope are complaining vociferously about the weather, but I’m sitting comfortably on our deck before sunrise and I’m just wearing a hat and a hoodie. If this is winter, I’m all right with it.

I’d say that our first week here went swimmingly. In the space of week, we managed to:

  1. Enroll the kids in school

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2. Buy a car

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3. Rent a house

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4. Find Colorado beer (although it’s 12 Kiwi dollars a can!)

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We’ve got surfing lessons tomorrow and then, (gasp!) Sujata goes back to work on Monday after a year of leisure. More on that as it transpires.

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Working for the Man in America

We’ve lived in other people’s houses for the past year so I haven’t had to worry about home maintenance, but that all changed when we got back to Denver at the end of June.

Before we left for our year abroad we put our house on the short-term rental market. We live in a nice part of Denver so the bookings filled up quickly and over the course of the year, the house was occupied about 80 percent of the time. That’s good in terms of paying the mortgage but as we made our way back to Denver I wondered what the house would look like after all those people lugged their suitcases up and down the stairs, cooked in our kitchen and partied in the basement.  Would the furniture be trashed? Holes in the walls? Broken windows and lighting fixtures? After I walked in the door and surveyed the place I was pleasantly surprised. Aside from a leaky faucet, hail damage to the roof, a dead aspen tree in the backyard and louver doors at the bottom of the basement stairs that had (again!) come off the tracks, everything seemed pretty good.

I come from a family or real estate agents, contractors and people who do stuff with their hands and who know how stuff works so I try, as much as I can, to fix things on my own.

Not that I’m very good at it.

I worked for a builder for a spell after I finished college and I enjoyed the labor and being outside, but I’m not really good with my hands and I don’t have a mechanical mind so I never excelled in that area even after I put some effort into it. As I struggled setting the miter box properly or setting a door header, the guys I worked with–good, solid, industrious people who spent their lives building things and solving problems in the world of “things”–would look at me with pity, roll their eyes and come over to give me a helping hand. This isn’t something I’m proud of. I’m envious of my friends and family members who know how to dig foundations, repair cars, hang doors and build decks and I guess it’s just a good thing for me that graduate school worked out.

Oftentimes, when I do try to repair something around the house I just break it even more, precipitating a call to a general contractor anyway.  Shortly after we bought the house we live in now, I tried to fix the sprinkler system in the backyard but ended up breaking a water line so I had to call in a plumber and ended up paying double what it would have cost had I just called the plumber straight away.  I don’t fail every time, though. Last year before we left I built a new gate for our back yard, I’ve replaced locks and doors and I’m pretty good at making shelves.

Infuriatingly, Sujata is much better at fixing things than I am. We sort of play this game that I’m marginally competent at doing projects around the house, but when I get stuck or can’t figure out how something works, she usually saunters in, spots the problem and fixes it herself.  I guess that makes her the handywoman of the house.

Last week when I set out to replace the leaky faucet, I couldn’t get the old faucet out of the housing so I went to the hardware store and bought a basin wrench proudly crowing to Sujata as I walked out the door, “I just watched a YouTube video and realized I need a basin wrench to get this job done! Be back in a bit.”  I got home, crawled under the sink, stuck the basin wrench up into the slot and started to use the wrench to turn the hard-to-get-to nut.  It wasn’t working and when she heard me cursing, Sujata came over, asked what the problem was, grabbed a wrench and twisted off the old faucet from the top of the sink.

Show off.

For as bad, though, as I am at home maintenance, I’m even worse at dealing with contractors who have the tools and knowledge to fix the things that I can’t.  I’m too trusting and I don’t have enough technical knowledge to know if what I’m being told is honest or a load of crap. I tend to believe people and think that they have my, as well as their own, best interests at heart. In a weirdly condescending way I can’t imagine that anyone would be dishonest to me because (I dishonestly tell myself) I am so honest with everyone else.

Last week, I opened our garage door and pushed the garage door button–the door opened about halfway and then reversed directions and closed again. I pushed the button repeatedly and the door kept doing the same thing, opening half way, then closing. This garage door has, over the years, given me plenty of headaches. Oftentimes, we’ll open the door, pull the car out of the garage, hit the garage door button and watch the door close halfway before it pops open again. We used to drive away before the door was fully closed and then we’d come home to a wide-open garage. It’s a wonder our bikes were never stolen and there are, obviously, not enough tools in the garage to tempt a thief. It’s a ritual now in our family to patiently wait in the car and watch the door fully close before we put the car in drive and head out. That said, I’ve watched enough YouTube videos to know how to adjust the garage door when it acts up. There are little tension adjusters on the motor that hangs from the rafters and that works the chain the lifts and sets down the door.  When the door refuses to close I usually get on a ladder, mess around with the adjustments and voila! the door either opens or closes without incident and I don’t end up having to call a garage door company to fix it.

That was not the case, last week, though. I couldn’t get the adjustments right and after watching way too many YouTube videos, pricing new garage door openers online and even visiting Home Depot to examine their selection of new garage door openers, I gave in and called a couple of garage door companies to come over and look at the problem.

In hindsight, I should have just called the guys who have fixed the door over the course of the past 10 years. They are, as Sujata reminded me at the denouement of this incident, honest, trustworthy and reliable. Plus, she hastened to add, they live in the neighborhood: “Why would you go calling people from god-knows-where when you can just work with people who are local?” Well, I was actually bit miffed that the damn door kept acting up and wondered if those neighborhood guys were just putting it into a periodic fail mode (so much for being too trusting!), so I looked around for another company.

I came across what I thought was a great online deal: a Denver company was offering $125 off a new opener and $50 off for new customers. I figured the whole thing would cost $350 with parts and labor so with the $175 off that I was, or so I thought, getting a great deal. I called the dudes and they held to their promise to come out later that day.

The Irish, who have mastered the art of the insult, will slight a rude, incompetent or obnoxious man by referring to him as “your man,” except that the Irish pronounce it as yerman. As in, “Yerman over there tried to charge me six euros for a pint of Guinness when it’s still happy hour.” Halfway through our stay in Ireland earlier this year, we gleefully discovered that there’s even an Irish way of referring to a rude, incompetent or obnoxious woman. You just call her yerone. Now, I know some Irish person is going to read this and say, “No, that’s not right at all, yerman just means any dude and yerone just refers to any given woman,” but I have to say that in the five months I lived there I never once heard any Irish speaker use yerman or yerone without rolling their eyes and performatively casting aspersions at the person they were referring to.

So, yerman, the garage door guy, pulls up to our garage, hops out of the car, shakes my hand and begins to assess the situation. “The motor’s fine,” he opines, “but it’s the springs, man, they are shot and you really need to replace them.” “Look,” he says, “See how the door crashes to the ground when it’s halfway closed? Not supposed to do that. The door is supposed to gently glide to the ground. What that means when the door is crashing down is that the springs are all messed up and the motor can’t handle the weight of the door.” “Oh,” I said, “Can I just adjust the springs myself?” “You don’t want to do that, brother,” he replied, “I’ve seen people nearly decapitated themselves trying to do that. You let that screw out just a little too much and the whole spring unravels–sounds like a gunshot. My brother lost his finger and I’d say he was lucky.”

This was all news to me.

I was figuring I’d just need a new motor and that with labor would be about $350. I wasn’t anticipating bad springs and just the mention of possible decapitation made me more than willing to hand over the job to yerman.  He gave me a quote. I asked if he could knock off 50 bucks to which he readily agreed and then I, feeling good about the deal I was getting said, “Great, good luck and watch your head.”

I walked in the house to find Sujata standing in the kitchen, arms akimbo and brows furrowed. Had someone else been in the room she would have nodded her head my way and declared in her Irish brogue, “Yerman is a right edjit.”

You will not be surprised to learn that Sujata was correct. In my desire to get the best price from the garage door guy, I looked over a number of things: 1) the fact that he readily dropped the original price more than 50% of the original quote; 2) the fact that the springs had just been replaced five years ago and 3) the fact that this company, Sujata haughtily informed me as she lifted her smart phone to my eyes, had the very worst Yelp! ratings that a garage door company could have! No! I thought to myself, this can’t be! I looked at the Yelp! reviews and they were all good. I was dismayed and embarrassed, of course, to see, quite clearly, a host of one star reviews and short, direct, pissed off comments about the bad service unsuspecting customers had from this company.

I took 20 bucks from my wallet, walked back to the garage, thanked yerman for coming out, placed the money in his hand and informed him we were going to look for another company. He didn’t seem surprised. I suspect this sort of thing happens all the time and, honestly, I didn’t blame him at all. He was just an ordinary guy working for a dishonest company and I was sure that he was getting all kinds of pressure to make sales at any cost.

It’s easy to get mad at dudes like yerman, but I know that behind him, poking him, putting pressure on him, taking his health insurance and other benefits away are unscrupulous people who care even less about him than they do about me.

When I walked into the garage to give him the 20 bucks he handed me his phone. On the other end was some guy with a Jersey accent and a slightly aggressive tone in his voice asking what price I was expecting for the repair and why was I wasting their time? I didn’t say anything, I just handed the phone back to yerman and tried to convey in my expression that I was sorry he had to work for people like that.

The fun never ends, either. This morning, I took our kids and the Shea boys up to the playground and when we came back to the house we were all alarmed to see a squirrel running across the kitchen counters. The kids ran out of the room and came back with their homemade boys and arrows trained on the frightened squirrel. “Don’t shoot!” I shouted, worried they’d hit their mark and I’d have to clean up squirrel remains from the kitchen sink. The squirrel jumped up on the top of the kitchen cabinets and then . . . it just disappeared. We spent a full hour looking all over the house, but no sign of the squirrel. I suspect that someone will wake up tonight staring back at two beady black eyes. I put a call into a squirrel exterminator (good Yelp! reviews and a local company) just in case.

My point here, though, is that in America, my quarrel is with the guys in the suits, not the guys in the work boots.  I’d like to see an America where guys like yerman enjoy the same entitlements that I have: good, affordable health insurance, a 401k plan and a 529 account to send my kids to college. Let’s face it: It’s not easy working for The Man in America.

And maybe that’s why I have such a difficult time with contractors. I’ve been in their shoes and I know how hard they work and how much they have to hustle to get by. I admire their skills and abilities and I generally enjoy talking to them. Guys who work with their hands are generally more informal and much less pretentious and easy going than the people I rub shoulders with in my profession. They are good-humored, use colorful language and, as far as I can tell, they don’t treat me any differently than they’d treat any other client.

As for me, I’ve got about two more weeks of home improvement projects to get to before go to New Zealand where we are, happily, renting a house for the year.

 

From Paris to Reykjavik: Final Post from Europe

We left Paris and landed in Reykjavik for a three-day layover before our return to the States. As Sujata said shortly after we took off from Charles DeGaulle airport, even though returning to the political and cultural gruel of America is unappetizing, it feels good to be traveling westward again.

Stopping over in Iceland for three days before we headed back to the States was Sujata’s idea and until we arrived in Reykjavik I was lukewarm on the whole thing.  The run up to getting home has been starting to feel like the last act of a Eugene O’Neill play (tedious and never ending) and after Paris I was frankly tired of being a tourist. I was just looking forward to a day where I didn’t have to fight for space on the streets, herd children and spend an inordinate amount of time figuring out where and what to eat.

If Paris and Reykjavik were drinks, Paris would be a 1995 Chateau Rayas–rich, complex and very expensive. Reykjavik, on the other hand, would be a fresh, cold lager from a local brew pub.

Paris is incomparable. Paris is Paris. Other cities copy Paris, but Paris copies no one. Paris is its own mold, its own masterpiece. It’s thick with history, culture, haute couture and cuisine and it relishes its rich patina of fine taste.

Paris, in other words, has a nose for things. It lays out its riches, one by one, street by street. It’s like the arch angel of culture and history unfolding itself in front of you, declaring, “I am Paris, admire me. Or else!” Parisians as well as visitors like us are willing to obey. Everywhere you go, the denizens as well as the tourists, seem to be constantly aware of where they are: “We are in Paris!” everyone declares in subtle and not so subtle ways.

All that said, after a week, I was ready to get out of there.

Paris, for all its charms, is a quick and crowded city and after a few days there, you begin to feel visually, culturally and gastronomically overwhelmed. Everything in Paris calls out to you to stop and pay attention to it. “Look at me!” cry the pastries in the patisseries, the gargoyles staring down at you from their medieval perches, the winding romantic streets that take you by quaint cafes, boutiques and specialty shops, the panoramas along the Seine and the ornate, stylized public gardens. I remember walking down some rue in the La Marais on our last day and thinking to myself, “I just can’t see one more beautiful thing!”

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Just another stunning view along the Seine

 

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The lofty and ‘weightless’ vaulted ceiling of the Sainte-Chapelle cathedral

It’s no wonder that history means something different in Paris and Iceland. The Parisians have it in spades and the Icelanders, in contrast, are the newcomers of Europe. Humans were wandering along the banks of the Seine as early as 250 BC. Socrates wasn’t even long dead at that time. By the time Reykjavik was founded in 874 AD, the venerable Abbey of Saint-Germain was already 300 years in the making. Paris is proud to be bound by history and why not? It’s history, culture and language that have made Paris what it is and what it will continue to be.

Yet, with so much history that you need to sweep it off the floor every morning, mature, established Paris seems, in some ways, like a city with its best days behind it. The Eiffel Tower (1889) is a wonder, but it doesn’t compare to Notre Dame (1345) and contemporary architectural manifestations like the George Pompidou Centre (1977) with its nod to Postmodernism and British Brutalism, is, for me at least, an eyesore.

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Plaza in front of Georges Pompidou Centre

That’s not to say, however, that all post-medieval Parisian architecture is a flop. Frank Gehry’s Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris’ Bois de Boulogne park is an artistic and architectural wonder and we spent a delightful afternoon wandering through its galleries and admiring its unencumbered beauty.

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The approach to Gehry’s LVF
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The ‘sails’ of the LVF

Still, Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city, is more my style. Downtown Reykjavik feels to me like a kind of working man’s Aspen, Colorado. Reykjavik is slouchy without being sloppy, funky without being precious and unique without being arrogant.

I didn’t run into Bjork, but as I was walking around the streets of Reykjavik and driving through the subarctic tundra of southern Iceland, Bjork’s music (I’m a casual listener) made more sense to me. Iceland, like Bjork, is austere, stark, uncommonly beautiful and, by turns, harmonious and dissonant. If you get in a car and drive outside of Reykjavik you quickly find yourself winding your way over volcanic mountain passes that drop you down into green valleys of fresh water lakes and streams. Steam from geothermal pools rise close and far away and fields of extrusive igneous rock (hardened molten lava) covered in a fuzzy, lime green moss spread out across the landscape.

Sujata, as usual, was correct: finishing our trip in Iceland made a lot of sense. On a practical level, a three-day stopover on Reykjavik was relaxing and it gave us chances to breath fresh air and get out into big nature. On a more literary level, there’s a nice unity to finishing the first part of our adventure here. Much of our time abroad has been spent on islands–New Zealand was our first stop, we were three weeks in Japan and then we lived in Ireland for five months. And Iceland isn’t even the end of our island hopping. After our five-week stay in the States, we’ll get back on a plane and travel back to New Zealand, where we’ll spend the next year.

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Assembling cairns in a hot river outside of Reykjavik

 

 

 

 

 

Late-night accounting

The day after tomorrow, we’ll fly from Reykjavik to NYC, returning to the States after 11 months abroad. I couldn’t sleep last night so I lay awake in our Reykjavik guesthouse trying to account for and remember the things we’ve done, the places we’ve visited and the experiences we’ve had. Here’s what I came up with:

3          Continents visited (Oceana, Asia, Europe)

5          Countries in which we’ve watched Homeland

4          Countries we’ve visited ruled by authoritarian regimes

4          Post-communist countries

7          Bicycle trips

17        Countries visited

12        Countries visited with universal health care (not America)

8          Pairs of shoes worn through (Me: 2; Sujata: 2; Boy: 2; Girl:2)

74        Blog posts posted (that’s just mine–Sujata not included)

10        Visitors from the States

10        Countries where I swam laps

5          Boxes sent back to America

4          Birthdays celebrated

6          Islands visited

11        Months out of America

16        UNESCO World Heritage sites visited

1          Pubs that serve Bereta beer–Viniloteca!

6          Rental cars

5          Countries we drove on the right side of the road

4          Countries we drove on the left side of the road

91 flight hours

Denver-LA

LA-Auckland

Auckland-Sydney

Sydney-Cairns

Cairns-Alice Springs

Alice Springs-Darwin

Darwin-Bali

Bali-Cambodia

Cambodia-Vietnam (Saigon)

Vietnam-Tokyo

Osaka-Budapest

Timisoara-Milan

Timisoara-Valencia

Lisbon-Dublin

Dublin-London

Dublin-Edinburgh

Dublin-Paris

Paris-Reykjavic

Reykjavic-NYC

NYC-Denver

 

French men make khaki look cool

I probably think slightly more about fashion than the average middle-aged American male.

That said, I feel like a slob in Paris.

When I met Sujata in 2000, I looked like a holdover from the late 80s with my pegged jeans, baggy shirts and weird, faux-mullet haircut.

There are a number of critical junctures that can make or break any romantic relationship. There’s the first kiss, the meeting of the parents, the first argument and, at least for us, the first time Sujata critiqued my sartorial choices.

It doesn’t matter how well or how poorly you dress, the shirts and pants and sweaters and ties and blazers and whatever else that you choose to cloak yourself in everyday say something about who you are or who you think you are and pretty much no one wants to be told, in blunt or even gentle terms, that the clothes they are wearing look stupid, or out of date or, worse, ugly. In other words, even if you profess to not care what people think of your sartorial choices, you actually do, and you will be (even slightly) offended should someone/anyone raise an objection to anything that you might choose to wear.

That’s partly why fashion as a topic of discussion (or critique) rarely comes up in normal adult conversation and that would especially be the case with dudes. Imagine strolling down the sidewalk with your best friend and offering, “You know, you look like you are on your way to Applebee’s, man, why don’t you change that shirt before we head to the pub?” Because unless you sleep next to the person who is leveling critiques at your sartorial choices, you should really just not go there, unless you are trying to derail the relationship/friendship in the first place.

That said, one of the critical junctures in our relationship was the first time Sujata verbally turned her nose up at my fashion sense. I think her first shot across my couture bow was directed at my jeans, which she declared to be too tight and high-waisted. This was in the early to mid 2000s as low rise jeans were coming into fashion. I, stuck in the mid-80s, still thought that the jeans Springsteen wore on the Born in the USA tour were in fashion and I wasn’t aware of the low-rise craze. Next, came derision cast at the houndstooth blazer that I’d been wearing for upwards of 10 years and then from there, there was a protracted assault on my denim shirts.

I grudgingly took her advice and, over the years, acquired at least a modicum of fashion sense. It’s not like I have a fashion coach, subscribe to GQ, or read the Style section of The Times, but I will go out of my way to find a stylish shirt, a nice pair of dark wash denim jeans, a pair of smart shoes and a few nicely-fitted blazers.

At my age and given my subject position (white, male, middle aged) the object is, at minimum, to not look like a denizen of the American suburbs, which, as it turns out, isn’t that hard to do. You just have to stay away from baseball caps, cargo pants (or shorts!) or t-shirts emblazoned with “Just Do It,” “No Pain No Gain,” or “Go Hard or Go Home.”

And I have to say that as you get older, it’s a lot easier to look older simply based on your fashion choices. A baggy pair of jeans or khakis, a schlumpy collared shirt (or worse, a polo shirt!) and suddenly 50 looks like 60. And I’m not ashamed of admitting that I’m slightly vain enough to care.

We’ve been living in Europe for nearly nine months now and, over time, I’ve figured out European fashion. I bought some beautiful wool sport coats and fashionable European-cut slacks in Italy and a pair of Campers in Spain. In Saigon, I found a tailor who made me three beautiful shirts and, of course, I have the classic sweater that Sujata made me in Ireland.  I’ve purchased a scarf in just about every country we’ve visited. So, I felt pretty fashion forward throughout most of our European journey. Well, at least I didn’t feel particularly fashion backward.

European men favor slim-fitted slacks with an inseam just above the ankle, a style choice which allows them to show off their shoes as well as their socks. Most men over 30 wear a European-cut blazer (fitted, shorter in the sleeves than most American blazers and shorter at the waist as well) with an open-collared shirt. You rarely see ties. Soft leather or suede chukkas or (better) pointed, high-top, wing-tip leather boots (very cool!) are popular as well.

If you had to characterize European men’s style you’d say it’s quite minimal and close-fitting. The lines in the shirts, blazers and pants are straight and smooth and there is no taste for baggy or oversized fits. Colors are, by and large, muted, earth toned. There’s no room for loud plaids or paisleys and forget about wearing plaid on plaid or plaid with stripes.

French men, though, are at the top of the pile of European fashion. In Dublin, for instance, dudes walk around with skin-tight spandex jeans–they look like they just got off the boat from Queens. Romanians dress like guys on the Atlantic City boardwalk, Spaniards dress like San Franciscans and the English dress like they just woke up and couldn’t remember if they were going to the rugby match or the office. The only European men who can compete in a fashion sense with the French are the Italians, whose taste for fine wool blazers and trousers is impeccable.

French men, though, can make khaki look cool.

The other day, as we were walking through the Luxembourg Gardens, a very fashionable young man walked by us. Dressed in his spring fashion blazer, open-collared cotton print shirt, perfectly creased trousers and pointed wing tip boots, he appeared to have leapt from a catwalk. “Look, children, a flaneur,” I whispered, to which Atticus quipped, “He seems like the kind of guy who should have a television crew following him.” Well played, young man!

All this is probably making you wonder, “How can I look dress more Parisian?” Or, “How can I get my partner to dress more Parisian?”

Well, if that’s the case, then read on. As I’ve been admiring French architecture, the Seine and French Impressionist paintings, I’ve also had my eye on French fashion so here are a few tips on how to look as cool and fashionable as any Parisian man nonchalantly waking through La Marais:

  1. Get a scarf. I started wearing scarves when we were in Cambodia last summer. The Cambodians (perhaps because they were colonized by the French) love their scarves and Cambodian scarves are made of a light cotton that you can wear throughout the summer. I bought about 10 of them when we were in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and hardly a day has gone by since then when I didn’t have one wrapped around my neck, even in warm weather. In Paris, though, a scarf is simply required.
  2. Get a pair of high-top, wing-tip leather shoes. If you are in the States you may need to special order these because I don’t think they sell them at Cole Haan, but, it’d be worth the extra postage and, anyway, get a pair of French boots so you are at least supporting the French (who voted the right way in the last election) and get them before #45 levies import taxes on European goods because after that happens, everyone will want them.
  3. Keep at least two buttons of your collared shirts open. I know, this is hard for American men, but, you know what, you just have to do it and then, eventually, you’ll get used to it and you’ll feel free. In the week that I’ve been in Paris, I’ve not seen one Parisian man wearing a collared shirt that wasn’t opened at least from the last two buttons. Since we’ve arrived, it’s been getting progressively warmer and I’ve noticed that at the temperature rises, fewer buttons get clasped. You just have to try it and then it starts to feel normal. Today, for instance, I left the flat with three of my top buttons undone while kept looking around to see if anyone was staring at me on the walk to the Metro, by the time we got to the Musee D’Orsay, I completely forgot about it and just melded in with all the other Parisian men.
  4. Wear v-neck tshirts. You will never, ever see a Parisian man walking around with a crew neck tshirt. C’est horrible! V-necks are way cooler and fashionable and if you are really freaked out about keeping the first two buttons of your collared shirt open, the v-neck will make you feel safer and more secure.

If you are feeling fashion adrift, I hope this little bit of Parisian advice will get you through the spring and summer fashion season.

 

 

 

 

Paris and the Unexpected

After five months in Ireland, it was time to move on. The semester at Maynooth University came to an end, the Regis students all dispersed across Europe and back to the States, the children finished their school work and our Irish visas were about to expire.

Paris seemed like as good as any of a place to end the first part of two-year hiatus from 45’s reign, so we boarded a flight early this morning and landed in the city of lights before noon.

It’s a miracle we got here at all.

A few days before our departure, I walked into our living room in Maynooth only to find Sujata staring at the computer with a look of complete horror on her face. “Um . . . I think I made a big mistake,” she declared and then informed me that the Aer Lingus flight from Dublin to Paris that she thought she purchased never really got submitted and we didn’t have a flight. After a frantic search, she found us reasonably-priced seats on Air Transavia (it’s not that bad!) and the crisis averted.

I wasn’t actually that excited about visiting Paris. I really like beaches and although we have been traveling for a year, we have spent probably about two days at the beach so I really wanted to finish up this European part of our adventure in Cadiz or some quiet Grecian island. Plus, it’s been so cold in Ireland–I felt like I needed to bake a bit in the sun to get all the cold and dampness out of me.

Those dreams were roundly outweighed by a nine-year old’s dream to climb the Eiffel Tower and Sujata’s dream to spend her fortieth wandering through Parisian arrondissements, munching on croissants and sipping wine. Besides, they blithely informed me, we’re on our way to spending a year on the beach in New Zealand and you don’t even have to work! So I set aside my ocean dreams for at least two months.

But, I have to say, after Emmanuel Macron’s white-knuckle handshake of 45, I was ready to come here and support the man, and the country, that is willing to fight to make the planet great again.

Plus, it didn’t take long for me to fall for Paris. We usually take public transportation from the airport to our hotel or Airbnb, but we left Dublin with more luggage than we would have liked so we took a cab to our flat in La Marais. I was glad for the ride, though, not just because I didn’t have to lug a 15kg duffle bag as well as my backpack (although that was nice), but because I got to see the city as we sped along the surface streets.

In some ways, Paris’ cathedrals, haute couture shops and outdoor cafes reminded me of Vienna and Rome, and I even saw a little of Barcelona in the way the sunlight glinted off the white stoned buildings along the Seine and among Paris’ many lovely plazas.

We left our flat with a clear set of objectives: 1) find a creperie, 2) stop by the Notre Dame cathedral, 3) walk over to Shakespeare and Company and 4) find a nice outdoor cafe to relax and watch passersby.

Objectives 1 and 2 went swimmingly.

We wended our way from La Marais, across the Seine and over to Isle Saint Louis where we stumbled upon a quant creperie.

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Ice cream apres crepes
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On the Saint Louis Bridge

Afterwards, we found our way to Notre Dame and admired the flying buttresses, the ancient stained glass and the absolute grandeur of the place.

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It really is a marvel

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Everyone was excited for Shakespeare and Company, but for different reasons. For her part, Sujata wanted to get a book by an American expat to Paris (she was thinking James Baldwin or Richard Wright), get a classy Shakespeare and Company stamp on the inside cover and then retire to a cafe (preferably by the Seine), order a glass of wine and begin reading. The children just wanted another book to read and I just wanted to walk around the bookstore that published Ulysses and served as a lending library to the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos and other members of the Lost Generation who made their way to Paris following the first World War.

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Water fountain outside Shakespeare and Co.

It was at Shakespeare and Company, though, that things went a bit awry and we found ourselves caught up in that very thing you think will never happen to you, namely, a terror attack.

I was standing in the middle of the store reading Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers (they have like five copies–try finding any Cohen book in any US bookstore), Sujata was at the register with an armful of books (she chose Wright’s Native Son) and the kids were somewhere in the store, I wasn’t exactly sure where.

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The Shakespeare and Co stamp inside Sujata’s copy of Native Son

I was really enjoying the first few pages of Beautiful Losers and even contemplating getting my own copy when Sujata sidled up to me and asked, “Did you hear that?” No. I didn’t hear anything. “Gunshots.” Oh. I carefully put the book back on the shelf and looked around the front of store where an employee was calmly shutting the front door. He turned around and in a voice as calm as the Seine, he announced that there was a shooting at Notre Dame and could everyone please stay in the store?

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The scene after the doors were closed

No one said a word.

There was some scuffling of feet and of course everyone whipped out their cell phones. We didn’t get SIM cards at the airport so we had no data and of course there was no wifi in the store so we just kind of moved to the back of the store, looking for the kids. We found them in the back, quietly reading in the kid’s section, so we sat down with them and waited it out.  I, bizarrely, picked up a copy of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution (don’t ask!) so to take my mind off whatever the hell was happening outside, cracked the spine and tried to read.

You could hear sirens in the distance, but the people in the store, just stood in groups, chatting quietly and flipping through books.

Some people in the store started quietly narrating events: a man with a hammer attacked a police officer in the plaza in front of the cathedral. Later, we learned that the assailant was “neutralized” (dead? handcuffed?”) but the area was sealed off and folks were under no circumstances to go near the cathedral.

I’m not really sure what I was thinking. I wasn’t scared and I certainly wasn’t thinking that the store would be stormed or anything like that. I figured that we’d be okay, but I do remember worrying for the people who were at Notre Dame (we were just there!) and hoping no one was hurt.

Then I just got disgusted.

Here we were, holed up in a store, listening to sirens pass by, following the news on phones and wondering what exactly was going on. Plus, we have been wandering around the world for the past year. I have seen exponentially more acts of kindness and grace then I’ve seen or been a party to acts of stupid bullshit like attacking someone with a hammer and I just became internally furious to think that in my country a semi-elected cretin (not Cretan!) is holding us (and the rest of the world) hostage and now here, in Paris, we’re held hostage by idiocy on a whole other level.

After a time (it felt like around 30 minutes), the back door swung open and an employee told us that we were free to leave the store, if we wished.

Minutes before we were allowed to go, the skies opened up, delivering a tremendous Parisian thunderstorm. It rained earlier in the day, in fact, on our walk from Notre Dame to Shakespeare and Company and as we stood under oak trees, watching the rain bounce off the sidewalks, I remarked to Sujata that these are the things they used to write songs about. Despite the rain, we walked out of Shakespeare and Company, away from the cathedral and on a roundabout way back to our flat. I opened our umbrella and Sujata noted that that probably wasn’t the best time to leave the store (on account of the rain), but I just wanted to get out of there at that point.

The mood on the streets was cautious. Mothers were still out there pushing prams, but they were walking with a purpose, heads down, home on their minds. Couples sat at the outdoor cafes, sipping wine and smoking cigarettes, but the sips seemed like gulps and the inhales seemed like long drags. We walked quickly and quietly, looking back over our shoulders periodically.

Later that evening, as we ate dinner in our flat, the children said they were nervous, but definitely not scared.

Our friends from Denver came to visit us in Ireland last week. After they left us, they flew to London so they were in the environs when the terror attack happened on the London Bridge.

I guess this is the new normal. As we were walking back to our flat from Shakespeare and Company, I watched the kids as they walked ahead of me, arm and arm with Sujata. What will this world look like when they are my age, I wondered? Will they even be able to bring their children to Europe and retrace our steps?

I hope so. It’s just so damn beautiful here.

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Walking home, across the Seine, on streets wet with rain