Bill on September 13th, 2014

Hi,

I’m now sending these missives to a few more than three hundred people, about the same number as when I began nearly ten years ago. A few of you regularly share your own thoughts on the topic of the day; a number of you comment every now and again, and every once in awhile a new correspondent crops up. What you’ve written over the years is sometimes revealing and often touching. Not infrequently what you have to say opens the way to some new insight for me. Frequently what you write is amusing. (That, my friends, may be the single characteristic that all 300+ of you share: you’re pretty funny.)

I often regret that I’m the only one who benefits from your emailed replies.

Over the years I’ve posted every single one of my original missives to the El Otro WA blog, where I suppose that they still sporadically please some plucky person drifting the backwater of the Internets. Perhaps you’ve never looked at the blog site: www.elotrowa.com, but you too can wax publicly profound in the comments section for every missive therein…

Recently, my posts introducing Nuris and touching on the issue of race in the United States prompted some doozy replies–the first before I ever mentioned the word “race.”

A friend, a white woman, wrote back to note that I had twice referred to Nuris as “brown,” observing that the first use of the term was information, but that she found the second reference a little off-putting. Upon due reflection (and re-reflection) I think she’s right. And so the version of the story now on the El Otro WA blog refers to her color once, which is more than enough, really. Probably many of you had a similar reaction upon reading the original. I know that I did, when writing it. So thanks to my pal who stood up and addressed the point, reminding me of that which I know so well: words are important.

Another very prompt and direct response to my musing about race came from a bridge-painting friend (white, male). He directly said that I was reading too much into it, pointing out that it’s now 2014; I like Nuris, she likes me and, oh yeah–fuck what other people think. He went on to suggest that I get over myself and get on with it. This is why I love bridge painters. By and large, they’re decisive, direct, and prepared to live with the consequences of their actions.

Many of the replies that I received were written by persons of color, most of whom are women and many of whom shared something of their experience surviving and thriving despite the penumbra of racism through which we move in America. Their stories were illuminative, ranging from being forced to lodge in segregated hotels in the nation’s capital when traveling with a white dude in the 1950’s to being ignored at the counter at Macy’s just last week. To a person, these replies were supportive of Nuris and each one assured me she’ll do just fine when visiting the United States. Thank-you. I’m sure you’re right.

Anyway, I’m now back in the Nearly Paradise that is Las Galeras and am focussed on practical matters: where can I find #6 2+G UF cable, what does it take to successfully apply for a US Visitors Visa from the RD, and what is a really good recipe for curried chivo? (Damned chivo–into the yucca again.)

Hope that you all are enjoying the bounty that autumn provides in much of the US, and that you’re generally impervious to the incessant and sensationalist yammering that passes for journalism these days.

Best,

Bill

Bill on July 25th, 2014

Well, it turns out that I come from a racist place. I don’t mean the Dominican Republic; I’m not entirely sure if I’m referring here to the United States, or just to what’s inside my own head. But either way: definitely racist.

I suppose the possibility that our nation is racist should not be news to Americans, at least those Americans who have attained the age of reason. It would be difficult to deny the implicit racist quality in our culture, never mind overt expressions of racism that we all encounter with more than passing frequency. Most thinking whites are at least vaguely aware of this implicit racism, beginning nearly from the time when we realize that there are a variety of cultures in this country. I suppose that citizens of color inevitably tumble to this fact much sooner.

My own awareness of racism has stemmed exclusively from the advantageous position of being white. Because of my color, my awareness of racism is mostly an intellectual awareness. In my life I haven’t frequently been the target of overt racism. I haven’t been chased or stoned when returning to my neighborhood very often. Generally, racism in America has been pretty easy for me to overlook. Any racial pain I’ve experienced has been cerebral or sympathetic or sometimes both–and always mitigated by my color. This bears repeating: my knowledge of racism is a rational and not a visceral knowledge. Accordingly the awareness is surprisingly easy for me to ignore. I suppose that I am not alone in this.

On the rare occasion when the subject of institutional or societal racism comes up in conversation with my American white friends, one of two things generally happens: they either agree that cultural racism exists and think that I’m a Sensitive-New-Age-Kind-of-Guy for recognizing the fact, or they disagree, say that I’m full of shit and a Sensitive-New-Age-Kind-of-Guy for thinking that way. Either way, the conversation generally doesn’t go much further, and in either case I find myself pigeon-holed in Sensitive-New-Age-Kind-of-Guy Hell, perhaps for life.

I usually don’t talk about racism with my friends who are black. Maybe we’re working our collective way out of our respective holes. Possibly we’re timid; I dunno.

We’d probably be a bit better off as a nation if we spent more time as individuals discussing the issues of racism–institutional and otherwise, or at least actually listening to the discussions of others for a change.

But that observation is really not what prompts me to write this particular note.

When I first thought to write this little missive, I’d been back in the US for ten or twelve weeks and on the road for a couple of months before doubling back and revisiting my mom and step-mother–this summer being an extended version of my regular semi-annual “old lady circuit.” This year the trip will again conclude with my reunion with my friend Nuris in the village of Las Galeras. You will recall that Nuris is the new and younger (but not crazy-young) woman in my life. While I’ve known her for more than eight years, this note is my way of introducing her to you. May she forgive me.

Originally, we’d hoped that Nuris would join me on my cross-country, blue-highway, driving-and-tenting odyssey. But the US Embassy in Santo Domingo apparently didn’t think that was a swell idea. The Interviewing Consular Officers rejected her application for a tourist visa on three separate occasions last winter, despite her compiling a raft of documentation confirming her deep roots in Las Galeras and indicating the strong likelihood that she will return home at the end of her travel. For now I’ll leave you to speculate on your own as to why she has been denied thus far…

Of course we will try for a visitor’s visa for the fourth time. I do want to eventually be able to show her some of what is wonderful about our nation.

And so it came to pass this summer that I once again traveled the old primary highways through the mid- and small-sized towns of Middle America, passing from the mid-Atlantic through New England, across the upper mid-west, around the Pacific Northwest, and back again across the Great Plains, omitting on this go-around California, the Southwest and the South. Though I was alone in the car and in the campgrounds, and was sometimes lonely even when with friends I did have pretty good company in my own head, occupied as I was by imagining how Nuris would see the people and things that I saw, how she might experience the things and people that I experienced.

Of course, this country is BIG. Really, really, unbelievably BIG. And a lot of it is empty, really, really, incredibly empty. It was fun to imagine this vastness registering with Nuris. Surely her experience will eventually result in my mastery of several new Spanish words.

Once you grasp the basic fact set: vast, mostly empty, there is the bafflingly broad and seemingly random cultural diversity of Americans. We display our culture individually and, perhaps confusingly, differently when in different groups. Like most of you, I’m American, reasonably smart and experienced in my own culture(s). Mostly I can follow the cultural cues presented by my compatriots. But how might things seem to a woman from rural small-town Republica Dominicana?

Nuris would surely recognize the pre-teen kid from Montana offering to help me set up my tent, as fearless and open and helpful as any Dominican kid. But I cringe with embarrassment at the thought of Nuris walking into a a group of whites outside of Bismarck or Pittsburgh or Bakersfield and feeling the atmosphere suddenly flash three degrees more tense simply because of her arrival and before she had the opportunity to offer a simple “buenos días.” Lord only knows what might follow. I’m sure that the experience would often pass for normal; not infrequently it would be wonderful; and–face it, sometimes not so much. Regardless of what scenarios I might imagine, the flat fact is that she hasn’t internalized anything about being black in America. I assume that this could occasionally pose a problem.

Probably, the Consular Officers know this, even if I’m just figuring it out and Nuris is still bidding for the crash course.

Anyway, these sorts of thoughts are not be entirely new for me, but the frequency and the degree to which I’ve been pondering such things on this trip is.

I imagine that this sort of awareness is in no way a new experience for my adult friends who are black. I’m further realizing that there must exist individual and cultural black coping stratagems that function in ways similar to to the operation of my white mechanisms for largely ignoring our culturally racist society. Life otherwise would simply be too exhausting.

Traveling in a foreign land is difficult enough when one can anticipate most of the cultural rules. Misapprehend, or overlook altogether the ways in which patterns of race or class operate in the United States and one would run the risk of being more than merely exhausted. Bewildered, perhaps; but possibly dazed, hurt, and confused.

As a nation and a partner we’ve much better to offer Nuris, and to our compatriots of color.

That I know of, Nuris has no individual strategies for coping with racism. I’m pretty sure she has no culturally developed coping mechanisms either. This is not only or even mostly because she in a member of the numerically dominant racial class in the RD. Rather, it is because the Dominican Republic is notably and palpably not predominantly a racist society. (Although television, and the values expressed by US television may be changing this as we speak.)

The implicit racism in our culture, heretofore mostly only intellectual for me, will certainly be more explicit and visceral for her. I hope that I can help her prepare adequately for this experience, which will be absolutely alien. More importantly, I hope that our cultural deficiencies don’t prevent her from appreciating what is wonderful and generous and good about America and Americans.

Come what may, Nuris is a big girl and no doubt she can survive a visit to the United States. Maybe she can even mostly sort through the miasma of our history and present times to discover culturally appropriate and racially effective responses to the unwarranted bias that she will surely encounter during her visit. Have I mentioned that Nuris is very, very bright? Come what may, I’m confident that she will proceed with grace and with humor.

But first, there’s that small matter of permission from the Department of State…

Wish her luck.

Bill on July 17th, 2014

Are you familiar with bottle trees?

In parts of the American South–places like Mississippi, Alabama, and Takoma Park, Maryland, there is a tradition of stringing empty glass bottles from the branches of trees, or inverting them over twig ends on the trees. The result can be quite lovely and, seemingly, effective.

The tradition holds that in addition to being lovely the bottles pose a certain attraction to malevolent spirits who are then moved to enter the bottles, becoming entrapped. A variant of the tradition has the spirits dying in the rays of the rising sun. This is a pretty satisfying tradition, worthy of adoption and one that fits right in with the environment in which I live in Las Galeras.

And so I have a bottle tree–two in fact, one of which is over six meters tall and made of reinforced concrete. The other is more natural and a bit closer to home. Call that second one the penultimate layer of defense against any evil spirits who happen to make it past the towering structure erected near to where my lane diverts from the two-track road on our little hill. This “tree” is guarded by an alarming-looking baby doll wielding a reflective shard of broken mirror. (I break from the bottle tree tradition at the ultimate layer of defense…but that’s another story.) In keeping with tradition, I choose to believe that blue bottles are best for this purpose, although red ones are also quite effective.

Those of you who have traveled in the Dominican Republic know why green bottles are the RD default whenever bottles are called for in any quantity. I have lots of green bottles on my trees, and a few brown in addition to the blue ones. I’m looking without letup in the RD for blue bottles and in the US also. When traveling from the United States to the Dominican my luggage is something of a marvel for the TSA crew in Washington and for the Dominican customs inspectors when I arrive in the RD. A raft of blue bottles in the suitcase is certainly in keeping with the typical contents of my checked luggage.

In both countries friends have begun to save the occasional blue bottle for me. You, too, can play along, if you wish. Recently I’ve planned a trip to Switzerland to visit dear friends and to take custody of a particularly unusual and elegant blue bottle lovingly retrieved from atop a recycling bin in Herzogenbuchsee. My mom has contributed a couple of bottles from Wisconsin a few years ago, and I just the other day negotiated the purchase of a couple of giant German wine bottles from a St. Vincent de Paul thrift store in Seattle (2 for $5.) A couple of weeks ago some friends on the Long Beach Peninsula offered up a couple of wine bottles from the Yakima valley, which bottles were decorated with an illustration of a blond in a swirling white dress. Seemingly Yakima’s version of Marilyn Monroe posing over a ventilation grate and selling wine.

Coincidentally, the very next stop on this particular odyssey across the United States was to spend a couple of days with some artist friends on Vashon Island. Some of their work is in glass and they have a kiln. So it seemed a natural for me to melt one of the painted bottles flat and slowly anneal it over the many hours necessary to solidify without cracking. This resulted in Flat Marilyn.

Soon she’ll find a home in the bottle tree, but until then her image is to be found at: www.elotrowa.com

Bill on July 13th, 2014


Hi,

I hope that you could completely and frankly give a flying whoop about the details of my recent love life, and yet I persist. That first installment was pretty funny though, wasn’t it?

By way of recap: A couple of years ago Denise had already been gone for two and a half years, and I’d concluded, however reluctantly, that letting a woman into my life would be a good thing. As it turns out this was easier to to decide than implement. After a reasonable amount of angst–the recounting of which I spared you, we were mostly agreed that such a woman must posses a few more than 23 years, whatever her cultural and linguistic heritage…

In Las Galeras any women I meet are likely to be Dominican, or European. There are very few Americans in Las Galeras. I recognize this and am OK with it but in the interest of thoroughness decide that I must take to the Internets in search of a partner before my upcoming visits to the United States in 2012. Perhaps you know someone who has employed the Internets as a dating strategy, or maybe you have succumbed yourself. If so, you’ll find the following familiar. If not: it’s like taking a drink from a fire hose. Accordingly, your results may vary.

I corresponded over several months and at greater or lesser length with 10 or 12 women. (Come to think of it, those exchanges correspond pretty directly with my hiatus from pestering you with these missives, but that’s mostly immaterial to this story.) Upon my return to Maryland that year in the month of May I made arrangements to have coffee or lunch or time on a park bench with a half dozen different women. I’ve gotta say, this was an honor. Without exception, these people were bright, funny, interesting and they were all-around good company, just not for me. Maybe I just wasn’t truly ready–I sure did think about Denise alot, and do still every day.

Inexorably, the day of my return to Las Galeras approached and I had still to connect with one particular woman. She has a pretty busy life, which I took as a good sign. Finally, we met for dinner and, honestly, it wasn’t a great date. The food was so-so, the restaurant noisy and crowded, and the staff was seemingly more interested in turning the table than anything else. But my companion was interesting and seemed interested also, and so we agreed to a second effort, with unfortunately similar results.

Inevitably time was running out. I moved the agenda by noting that I have a guest bungalow on my property in Las Galeras and suggesting that, if she wished, we might enjoy a short visit together in the Caribbean. I was pleased and only a little surprised when she agreed to this proposition. (She is probably the sort of woman who hitch-hiked home from college in her youth.)

Four days. A perfect length of time for a couple of virtual strangers getting to know a bit about each other. We discovered that we enjoyed each other’s company and spent nearly every moment together; it was quite nice. Except that she reminded me of Denise. Over and over and over again. I am not making this up when I say that thirty or forty times over the several days my friend would say or do something that rocked me back on my heels, it was SO reminiscent of something that my wife might have said or done in the same situation. It was disconcerting, to say the least.

It also was not fun. I didn’t like looking at this woman through the lens of my memories of Denise. It was abundantly unfair to my friend and quite uncomfortable for me to be reminded of Denise 10 or 12 times more frequently each day more than usual. Yet I was seemingly powerless to prevent it.

Finally, in the evening of the day prior to her departure as we were visiting on the porch, the subject of birthdays came up. It turns out that hers was the following month, November…

You see where this is going, don’t you?

“What day?” I asked. And, yes, as you’ve guessed, her birthday was the same day as Denise’s. I persisted. “What YEAR?” And, yes, however improbable it may seem: same month, same day and same year as Denise! What do you suppose are the incredible odds?

Nevertheless the two of us carried on for more or less a year, in one country and another, until I eventually came to the resolute feeling of loyalty to another. And we so parted amicably, as I turned in a direction Dominican.

About which more in the upcoming and final installment of this inexplicable–but mercifully brief–discursion into the subject of women.

Bill on July 6th, 2014

I like women, don’t you?

I’ve always liked women.

I like the way women look, I like the way they feel, and I particularly like the way that women work. I admire and on occasion try to emulate the more fulsome perspective that many women normally will bring to their particular view of the world. The fulsomeness, not the view. I like the ways in which women are smart. These are often, but not only, the very same ways in which we men are smart.

Perhaps you already realize that I’ve never had trouble following a smart leader, whether man or woman, black or brown or white, educated or uneducated–just as long as that person has a good idea and a sound plan and possesses the confidence to allow me to do my own work. And so I found myself inclined to be receptive a couple of years ago when one day a very intelligent uneducated and beautiful brown friend of mine said to me, in Spanish “Bill, it’s been more than two years since Denise died. Are you about ready to meet a good dominican woman?”

Actually, I was not.

But a familiar voice, issuing from somewhere over my shoulder, a voice more quiet than before but as clear as ever whispered “If not now, when?” And so I said that I was receptive to the idea, even if I wasn’t. In fact, a couple of years ago, I was really NOT ready to meet a good woman of any stripe.

But I had (and still have) a full load of respect for this woman, my friend and for her thoughts. My friend is independent, she is strong and resourceful. She has a terrific sense of humor. Like me, she’s a worker. And she knows how to work and how to play. She’s also got all of that beautiful, nurturing, and supportive freight that is often loaded by an American onto the terms “Dominican” and “Woman.” Further, I had been informed that this woman had TEN SISTERS. Surely, I assumed, her sisters and friends must be something like her? And so, with a fair measure of optimism, I said “Yes.” “Fine,” my friend said. “Come for lunch next Sunday. She will be here.”

Now I can tell you that it was Denise’s clearly articulated wish before she died that I find a partner after she was gone. Of course this makes perfect rational sense, and made sense even at the time. But the associated feelings are much more complex. I considered some of these feelings and something of this complexity as I stood in my friend’s kitchen while she waited for my answer.

As I’ve said, I have a great deal of respect for my friend. I value her humor and insight on any number of things. Nevertheless I had only a bit of confidence and a whole lot of hesitation in deciding to follow this particular lead. I suppose that it helped that she and Denise were becoming good friends in the years before Denise’s death.

Inevitably, Sunday arrived and in accordance with dominican custom I materialized at more or less the appointed time only to find no dominicana in evidence. (This is also customary.) So, in Spanish because my friend has no English, I asked where the rumored dominican woman might be. “Patience,” I was counseled. “She is working today, but she will be here. She has to return to work at three.” Of course I thought that was just about perfect, and so settled in to wait.

Not so very long after, I looked up to see a young woman coming down the garden path, walking towards the two of in the kitchen. I mean to say this was a very YOUNG woman. It turns out that this woman was not a contemporary of my friend, nor was she a young sister. This particular young woman was my friend’s daughter.

I’ll pause here for a moment so that we can all reflect and consider just a few of the implications of this turn of events. I’m sure that we can agree that this particular union was fraught with all manner of potential–some good, some bad, but all interesting. You with me on this? Good.

So, in my best Spanish, I introduced myself and thanked the young woman for agreeing to meet with me.

She had obviously gone to considerable effort to prepare for this meeting and accordingly I was quite complimentary. I went on to say that I had some questions for her and that I hoped she had some questions for me, to which she readily agreed. I confessed the obvious: that my Spanish was not very strong and so, with her permission, I proposed to be very direct. To which she also agreed. I asked if she would prefer to take a walk in the garden while we spoke, or if it was OK for me to ask my questions in the kitchen, in the presence of her mother. Again, she agreed.

So I leaned forward and while holding her gaze said in my best and most earnest Spanish “Tell me, exactly how old ARE you?” to which she happily replied “I’m twenty-three.” “Perfect,” I replied. “You’re an adult.” I thought that perhaps my next question might give her pause as I asked her how old she thought I was. But it didn’t. She considered her options carefully but didn’t take too long before responding with a hesitant “Fifty-four,” at which point I briefly but happily considered the possibility of a relationship founded on such an attractive delusion. Mercifully, I quickly came to my senses.

And so we continued: “Are you married? Do you have children? Do you have a boyfriend? Do you want children?” And because I didn’t want our contrived, but mostly pleasant conversation to turn into an utter interrogation–and because she was shy for myriad reasons, I went on to ask a few questions of myself on her behalf: “You may wonder why I do not have a woman in my life at this moment.” “Maybe you wonder where I am from.” “Perhaps you would like to know why I live in Las Galeras,” and so on.

During the course of our conversation I learned that she was employed as the nanny of an acquaintance of mine. It seems that not only was I dating my friend’s daughter, I was dating the baby-sitter.

Ah, the twists and turns that life can take!

Clearly this was an untenable position. But it was also one that I couldn’t unilaterally draw to a close. There was plenty of vulnerability to go around in that kitchen on that Sunday afternoon: Mom, who had optimistically introduced the fruit of her loins, the lovely young woman who had gathered up her hope and courage to put herself forward, and me, who, moving forward, had to live both with myself and with all of my neighbors. I had to find a way for my date to reject me, rather than the reverse–and it had to be a way credible to all and to which we could all agree.

And so my questions continued: “What is important for you in your life? How do you spend your time? Who are your friends? Where do you imagine you will be in ten years? In twenty?” Eventually this went all the way to: “Do you realize that I am old enough to legitimately be your GRANDFATHER? And so we began to laugh. At the same time, I was privately considering the prospect of a consummated relationship twenty years down the road. I think, thankfully, that her thinking may have proceeded along a similar line.

It took the two of us several days, or maybe it was a couple of weeks to gently and finally and with mutual respect lay the whole idea to rest in such a way that our collective and individual reputations were intact, maybe even enhanced a bit. I’m sure, gentle reader, that you can see that this was no easy feat and that it was at the same time a particularly important accomplishment, especially given that we all live in the same small village, one replete with numerous aunts, uncles, cousins and other lifelong friends.

And there, a couple of years ago, my local relationships with women more or less rested for awhile. I was off the metaphorical bench, if not entirely in the literal game: “poco y poco,” as we say in the RD–little by little.

Six months later, the husband of my friend–who was also a friend of mine–unexpectedly died; and a year after I began to keep company with my widowed friend–which is pretty much where I am now in the women department.

But before I introduce Nuris to you–and eventually I will, and it will be worth the wait, I’ll draft and pass along a short and maybe startling accounting the interregnum between daughter and mother. Hint: it entails using the Internets!

Just so you have something to look forward to.