Ski the East, Forget the Dreams

Version 2
East
Kapes powder
Dreams

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I moved to Boston for a once-in-a-lifetime job. It was my first winter in almost twenty years that I wouldn’t be living in the Rockies. The first snow came to New England and it went to waste, melting on wet, black streets. The ski life I’d left in Montana suddenly felt like an ex I regretted dumping. I tried making new friends, took up yoga, joined a gym. I was still hurting. I missed my powder skis. Skiing here was never going to work.

My new friend, Amy, a New Hampshire Native and self-proclaimed skier, suggested we visit a ski-making demo at Parlor Skis, a custom ski builder in an industrial corner of East Boston. Their factory is next to the tiny Constitution Beach—a beach so small it’s more a parking lot than a vacation, like east coast ski areas I presumed. Inside they were drinking beer. At least I’d have one thing in common with these people. We went in.

The first thing I noticed, above the ski press machine was a sticker. Ski the East. I pointed and laughed.

“It’s like saying Forget the Dreams.” I said to her. Slogans are supposed to inspire us, like Save Ferris or Believe in Yourself. Ski the East? C’mon. Icy moguls, tiny hills, big crowds? Still laughing, I looked at Amy who glared at me like I’d said the moon had better skiing.

“Why not go back to Montana with that attitude.”

“Hold on,” I said. The east has half the snow, half the vertical, a quarter the acreage, twice the crowds. “It’s not a ski destination, it’s a necessity.” No one would ski the east if they could ski the west. Funny that someone wanted to celebrate it instead.

She didn’t quite stomp her foot, but close. “I’ve skied here my whole life, my parents skied here, my grandmothah skied here while my grandfathah fought in World War 2.”

I felt like I’d insulted her whole family. I tried defending myself but she cut me off.

“There ahh more ski areas in New England than all of your precious Rockies.”*

She had a point, even though she’d have to stack a few on top of each other to equal a Big Sky.

“And there ahh powdah days.” She said. I imagined day-long lift lines and denim skiers double ejecting everywhere. She didn’t call me a jerk, but kind of. “Don’t come ‘round here with all your powdah snobbery.”

Wait. A snob?

In my defense, before Boston, skiing was everything. I walked to the lifts from my home, bagged first chairs and knew lifties by name. I’d skied the Super C Couloir in Chile, snowmobiled into the Canadian backcountry, skinned thousands of vertical feet in New Zealand. Chasing powder was my life, and the east coast had none of it. Skiing here was a joke.

Amy quit talking and just looked mad. A part of me thought she was too sensitive. Another part of me realized I wasn’t doing a good job making friends. No boasting of powder, no dogging man-made snow. She was right, I was a snob.

I turned toward to the ski builder who continued spreading glue, sandwiching wood and laminate before inserting into the press. He was making a mid-fat, 105 in the waist, aspen core, carbon fiber. He explained how they made every type of ski, even fully rockered fatties. These guys understood powder.

“Um, so what makes eastern skiers different than western skiers?” I asked. Maybe he’d save me.

He didn’t hesitate. “Hardah spirit, hardah snow.”

Amy nodded.

The eastern skiers’ lives are indeed hard. They endure blue ice, bone-soaking cold, and elitist westerns’ judgments. That toughness is precisely what makes east coasters so proud. They want to celebrate that no matter how bad the conditions are, the skiing, must go on. Even for the snobs.

Forgetting the Franchise

Version 2

My dad took his staff to Hawaii for an office getaway. We’re from a small town in Pennsylvania where no one eats oysters or believes in palm trees. I’d since moved away, but visited after everyone returned home. Hawaii would have been the most exotic place they’d ever gone. Even I was excited to hear stories of a paradise they’d only seen in movies.

“How was Hawaii?” I asked the receptionist.

She perked up behind her desk. “Well,” she pursed her lips like you’re-not-gonna-believe-what-I-have-to-tell-you. Then she laid it on me.

“We went to the Cheesecake Factory.”

I wasn’t sure if I should have hugged her or cried.

Food is indeed a relevant experience when traveling. To taste a place is how we live a place. Pizza in Rome, calamari sandwiches in Madrid, Goulash wherever they eat that. But there’s something about franchise eating that drains the authenticity of a local experience. Mickey D’s may serve a flat white in Berlin, but inexplicably it tastes better from a tattooed, uniformed barista who can’t speak English. Wendy’s in Columbus, sure. Brazil, not so much.

I rack up 100,000 flyer miles a year. I eat octopus in Portugal, drink Pisco Sours in Chile, smoke pot in Amsterdam. To experience the highs of these places, I must taste these local places. This may make me a snot, but never would I patron an American franchise while away.

So I went to Spain.

I took Spanish lessons. I volunteered on a farm staffed by non-English speakers. I studied the buses in Madrid, mapped the Barcelona subway, ordered all my meals in the native tongue. On a train to the coast, I even watched the Disney film Moana, all in Spanish, sans subtitles. Didn’t understand a word.

In my three weeks there, I was indeed living it, even if I was trying too hard.

Being an American already comes with its burdens when traveling in Spain. Everything seems uncomfortably small—coffee cups, dinner plates, men’s swimsuits. Ice cubes are hit or miss. Free refills, forget it. Credit card transactions take longer than paying in pennies. It’s like their satellites are on siesta. And the language barrier, while often manageable in the EU, is still embarrassing when a server switches to English because your Spanish is crap. Happened all the time.

While my time abroad was fulfilling and I’ll do again, it was, for this American, work.

On my final weekend, I wanted to celebrate this hard work with a classic beach getaway in the coastal town of San Sebastian. It’s no Hawaii, but it’s Europe, and somehow that counts.

It wasn’t off to a good start. Rained the whole time. When I went back to the hotel for my raincoat, I interrupted the housekeeper who was still cleaning. I tried to explain I’d be out in a second, but she didn’t understand.

“No entiendo, no entiendo,” she said, hugging her cleaning supplies and running out the door.

My apologies meant nothing to her, so I headed back outside and caught a bus into town. The driver bickered at me because I didn’t have the right pass. Once back in the rain, I realized I’d spent all my cash so I’d have to find a restaurant that didn’t mind wasting half the day for a credit card transaction.

The burdens were piling ups. I’d been carrying a backpack the size of another person. I was hungry without a single Euro. I’d given up on my Spanish because I was apparently unintelligible. I’d aggravated enough Spaniards that day. I needed something easy, and something fast because it was still raining on me. And then I saw it, under those familiar green umbrellas.

Starbucks.

Accepts credit cards? Has obnoxiously massive coffee cups? Free Wifi? Yes, yes, yes! I may have come to the Mediterranean a sophisticated traveler, but right then, I was a Yankee from Pennsylvania running on hunger and defeat. I walked in faster than slamming espresso.

In front of me in the queue, an elderly American couple managed to frazzle the cashier who apologized repeatedly for her poor English. This confused me. Shouldn’t the couple have apologized instead? Last time I checked, the official language in Spain was Spanish and we were still in that country. I was suddenly blazing with embarrassment for my own nation.

I’d show this coffee shop gal that not all Americans expect the world to accommodate their ignorance, even if patroning an American place. I practiced my order over and over again before my turn.

“Hola,” she said. “Hola,” I said.

This was off to a good start.

I ordered a ham and cheese croissant with a large Americano. I wasn’t sure if my Spanish made sense but she reached for the croissant. She said something back to me that I didn’t understand, except the word calliente.

“Sí, sí,” I said. “Calliente por favor.”  She shoved it in the microwave. While she made my drink I googled the translation for “password.”

“Que es la contraseña de wifi?”

She wrote it down and handed it to me. Before she took my credit card I saw an irresistible dessert by the counter, but didn’t have time to google the translation. I was doing so well I didn’t even care I sounded bluntly American.

I pointed at a cheesecake in the glass case. “May I have that too?”

Soy Beans in the Hood

Someone else's hood
Someone else’s hood
Because it's Tuesday
Because it’s Tuesday
And just because
And just because

 

 

 

 

 

When I told people I lived in Brooklyn, they often replied with pep. “Ooh, I hear it’s up and coming!” They’d say it as if the entire place had been featured on Extreme Home Makeover—installed a bidet, hardwood floors, and steel kitchen appliances. Men primped their mustaches and Afros outside barbershops playing Biggie. Hipsters built coffee shops and painted murals near brownstoned streets. This may be true of some neighborhoods in Brooklyn, but these places were somewhere else, and certainly not in my hood.

I lived next to Newkirk Plaza, a 4-track subway stop from 1903 with surface-only trains every 7 minutes. It was on the dirtier side of Ditmas Park, a neighborhood split between freestanding mansions and uniform brick apartment boxes. The latter, my home, was indeed in Brooklyn, albeit farther from Manhattan than New Jersey.

My local grocery store was no Whole Foods. Nothing whole about the neighborhood C-Town Market. Just food. Call it more of a Wonder Bread kind of place, with nicotine tinted lights, narrow aisles, and steel posts in front so carts weren’t stolen.

Edamame, the delightful, curvy bean cooked al dente, would be the final touch to my Yaki Soba Asian Fusion that would thrill my well-dressed dinner guests. While I guessed it was a bit too hipster for C-Town, I was obligated to ask. I needed it like a man’s hair needed gel. Go without it, catastrophe.

I found a slender Haitian man stocking the freezer with the inferior podded vegetable, peas.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Do you have edamame?”

“Eduhhh…,” he wrinkled his brow and stuck out his lower lip. I repeated. He looked toward the ceiling and replayed the word in his mind the way others would count in their heads. He looked back at me again, then waved to follow him to another guy with dreadlocks in a similar blue uniform.

“We got eduhhh…,” he said to the man, turning toward me to restate this mysterious item.

“Edamame,” I said to him. The man looked even more confused. “Soy beans.” I said, thinking the simplicity would help.

He brightened up, as it must have sounded familiar. These were two things that he knew. Soy, yes. Beans, of course. But he still looked perplexed. As if putting together these two familiar words, they became something wildly different, like fruitcake.

At this point, I started to feel like a nuisance, like a guy requesting his groceries be bagged in paper and plastic. But still, the polite clerk, on a mission to understand this peculiar word assembly, motioned to follow him toward the checkout girl. The stocker, equally intrigued, followed us too. Go Team Edamame.

“Hey Cherise,” he hollered over the Pepsi cooler. “We got edamame?”

Cherise snapped her head back as if we’d interrupted something and instantly looked annoyed. She squinted like we were hard to see. First she glared at the dready guy who looked away. Then to the stocker who held up his hands like he was just there for the Pepsi. Then they all looked at me—their leader in this quest—like I’d made a wrong turn. Her eyes narrowed even more.

Right then I wanted to say forget it and I’m sorry. Frozen peas would do just fine.

But I felt loyal to this mission and my trusty, blue-uniformed clan who kept their eyes on me. My guys needed answers, and so did I. So I pushed on. “Um, soy beans?” I asked again, but this time, said it like I’d never heard of them before and was buying for someone else.

I didn’t think her face could get more wrinkled, until it did, and she glared back at me like What the hell did you just call me boy?

At this point, I wanted to run. Edamame may be a mandatory ingredient in other Brooklyn households, but here, it was apparently a four-letter word.

“We ain’t got no eda-whatevuh,” she said, and threw back her arm like saying Now get the hell out of here kid.

So I ran in shame, and I ran fast. I had to catch a train to another Brooklyn neighborhood before dinner.

My train
My train
C-Town1
My town
My hood
My hood

 

 

 

 

The First Dance

Version 2

My long-time friend Adam and I visited Virginia Beach in the shoulder season. Visitors were scarce, stores closed, and hotels on sale. We went to surf but found no waves. Our planned adventure turned into something more like fishermen waiting on the storm. We found the nearest watering hole.

It was a Saturday, and that first fishermen’s pub was the catalyst to another bar in stumbling distance, then another, and another, until we settled into a dead dance club after midnight. I’d drunk so much it felt like spring break again and I would have entertained Jell-O shots. My inebriation also convinced me that I was a young, hot dancer. I rushed the empty floor alone, flashing my best moves to the few ladies on the perimeter.

No one joined.

So Adam and I, losing our hair and white as Bahamas sand, ended up walking to our hotel after last call, alone, and not getting invited to whatshername’s place for an afterhours party. No surf and no dance parties, Virginia Beach in September was a bust.

We reached the walkway to our hotel and I found the door. I turned to hold it for Adam but he wasn’t there. I had no idea how I’d lost him. I lurched back to the corner, and indeed found him, deep in conversation with three unaccompanied ladies, nodding his head as if agreeing to a plan, laughing like he knew them from before.

This must be the ways of the south, I thought. Everyone is trustworthy in off-season beach towns, particularly those who linger by a vacant Courtyard Marriott at 2 am.

I turned on my best swagger as soberly as possible, and moseyed closer. But seconds before I could blurt Hellooo Ladies, a van-cab pulled up like a getaway car. They all hopped in, including Adam. He didn’t even invite me along.

“What’s yo’ friends name?” One of them asked, and he answered.

“C’mon Victuh,” she said. “You comin’ wit’ us.”

“Where we going?” I asked, not necessarily objecting, but the planner in me needed to know although it had to be better than an empty hotel. I climbed in before they answered.

I don’t do these things. I don’t climb into cars with strangers, nor travel without a plan. But I was drunk, and women have special powers that make men abide. And something was especially different here, something that desperately intrigued me. Never had I gone anywhere with three black women.

The slender one ran the show in her thick secretary glasses, with a smile so big it could captivate audiences. She talked fast with charisma and thrill. Her hair was short like a boy’s. She wore an unbuttoned flannel over a stark white tank top. Her name was Jacquita.

“We goin to da club,” she said. “This MiShonda, this Leann.”

The other two wore gold jewelry and lipstick like they were on a date. Their southern drawl from Atlanta felt warm and sweet, particularly for us two Yankees. Turned out we were staying at the same hotel. How could I not trust them? We were already neighbors.

Jacquita, commanding with her salesman smile, told us all about her life and the others. “I’m a cop, a lesbian, I’m married, and I luhhh my woman.” She was so proud. “But these two, they into boys, and they trouble.”

They laughed. “Mmmhmm.”

But Adam and I were still in the spotlight. They pounded us with questions. “Where you from? Whatchyou do? What a couple nice white boys doin out this late?” Seemed like this was a first for them too, and our mutual, virgin interest fueled a lively conversation.

But 25 minutes had gone by and we were still driving farther from the neighborhood that bonded us. No ocean anymore, just a highway cutting through desolate suburbia. I had no idea where we were. The southern girls were getting flirty. Were we going to a sex show? A house party? Why’d they choose us?

Oh right. Marriott. Neighbors. They probably sensed my hot dance moves.

We exited the highway and followed another empty 4-lane strip until we slowed by a used car lot with burned-out show lights. We crossed the lanes and stopped in front of a dark, flat-roofed building with a pawnshop sign. Cars parked aimlessly in the grass around it. It didn’t look like a club, but something inside was making a scene.

We got out and headed toward what looked like the main entrance. But before we got there, Jacquita stopped and turned toward us with a scowl.

“We a team.” She pointed at the four of us like a cop. “We came together, we gonna leave together.” Her giant smile was crinkled up. “Got it?” She looked mainly at Adam and me. “No one leaves here without the team, ah-ight?”

Ah-ight.

The bouncer gave me a second look like my ID didn’t match my face. He glanced at my crew, lowered his brow, then passed it back. The exchange seemed awkward, but whatever, I was in. My new team had my back.

Patrons could still smoke inside and it showed with its yellow-stained drop ceiling, poor lighting, and dusty air. The long bar turned the corner past four pool tables, a dance floor, cocktail tables, benches, and a hundred other seats. It was so packed, the bathroom line meshed into the crowd. The dance floor was empty while music bumped, but every other spot on the floor had feet on it. This place wasn’t on Google Maps, but was as popular as the BET Awards.

Then I realized this experience was another first for me. I scanned the entire venue in a flash and noticed it instantly.

Adam and I were the only two white people in the whole place.

I have never in my life been a minority. My high school was all white. I once lived in Montana where the black population was less than 2%. I had just moved to a culturally rich neighborhood in Brooklyn, but things moved so fast there, no one has time to notice anyone’s color. This night, locked in a rural place that Uber wouldn’t find, I felt out of place for the first time in my life, because of the color of my skin.

I thought about that lackluster club from earlier. Did I then look old to those young ladies? Was my style cool? Did my dance moves impress? But those common insecurities didn’t cross my mind inside this busy place. Instead, I had only one thought. What do these people think of my whiteness?

Anytime we must question our sense of belonging, racially, has to be the heaviest of uncertainties. Worried about our looks or our dance moves seems superficial. But being uncomfortable over something we cannot change seems far more complicated. I couldn’t articulate it then, but at that moment, I felt like I was naked in a dream and everyone was looking. But this was real. I was out of place, feeling unexplainably vulnerable, and nothing I did would cover it up.

I wasn’t sure if I should have been embarrassed like a 40-year-old virgin, or ashamed like I’d failed a test I should have passed. Would they snub me? Call me a cracker? I was especially embarrassed that I was even making a thing about it. There was really nothing to worry about. Black people had to do this all the time, like the 2% in Montana, that one Ghostbuster, even Obama. Being a minority is part of life, no reason this night should be any different.

I played it cool, cool like Outkast, Ice Cold, Ice Cold… I bought a round for the team and we started a game of pool. I leaned against the wall, stood guard with a cue stick, and waited for my turn. MiShonda cozied up beside me.

“You ever slept with a black girl,” she asked. Her bluntness didn’t surprise me. She and Leann hadn’t stopped flirting since the cab. It was a constant source of harmless fun, so I amused her too.

“You ever been with a white boy?” I asked. And I tried to say white boy the way she would, but it came out like “whaat boy” which sounded like I was trying too hard.

She said she hadn’t. We were more alike than I’d thought.

It was my shot so I headed toward the table. I passed Leann who turned to Adam. “Is it true what they say about white boys?” She asked him. I was intrigued so I leaned in to hear his answer.

“What,” he asked with a smirk, “that they’re hung like pornstars?” We all busted out laughing. I naturally started to relax. We were simply friends that night, out for a good time, curiously enjoying what made us different and alike.

As I worked my way around the table, I was no longer worried if people were looking at me. We were the guests of these sincere black girls and they were our friends. If you had a problem with it, talk to them. We cool.

I thought about it afterward, as if the roles had been reversed. If we’d invited the girls to one of our all-white parties, my friends would have wanted to know their stories like they wanted to know ours.

The pool game ended. I don’t remember who won. The dance floor was still surprisingly empty, and the DJ was playing Dr. Dre, my high school favorite. I thought all black people liked to dance, but it turned out, they were all just as shy to step up. Unlike my dance appearance in the last club, this time, I had a partner. And I was ready for redemption.

I poked Jacquita. “Let’s dance.”

She looked back at me as if I was joking. “You fer real?”

“Yep.”

So there we were, dancing on display, just the two of us, bumping hips and fronts and backs like we were made for each other. She kept smiling like she was about to laugh, shaking her head at me like, you crazy Victor, you crazy. I wasn’t sure if my moves were that bad or she thought I was funny for dancing with a lesbian. Or maybe, it was her first dance with a lone white guy. I didn’t care why, and that smile of hers continued to shine. More dancers joined. And then I was an Oreo Cookie, sandwiched between MiShonda and Leann. Before Dre sang his last line, the dance floor was full.

I wanted a drink so I headed to the bar, but really, I was out of steam and ready for the Marriott. It was close to 5 am. Before I ordered, a muscled dude with cornrows leaned into me.

“Where you from?” he asked.

“Brooklyn,” I said, not mentioning that I was new there and actually from small town America. I couldn’t tell if he was friendly. He wasn’t smiling.

“Yo,” he said. “Way to represent.”

I looked at him puzzled. Did he mean my killer dance moves, or being the token white guy? I must have looked confused like I needed clarification.

“For the white people,” he said, then immediately put his fist to his mouth like he said something he wasn’t supposed to—like he said something racist and didn’t know how to take it back.

But it was true and I wasn’t offended. I was a white boy where white boys don’t go. It was new to both of us, and we weren’t exactly sure how to say the right things.

“Aww man,” he said, still looking embarrassed. “You know what I mean.” He stuck out his fist. I bumped it. Then he disappeared back into the crowd.

Seconds later, the girls and Adam were beside me. Everyone knew it was time to go. We all nodded, and walked out just as we’d planned. Like a team.

Paying Dues in New York

IMG_4852 (1)

The other day, I cheated subway fare by slipping through the emergency exit as someone left the door ajar. I’d done it before. In a city that overcharges for everything, it’s a small win—a win over the same empire that practically taxes oxygen. That day, I marched through the gate, in my suit coat and wingtips, like a righteous gentleman.

IMG_4878“Sir, you did not pay your fare,” I heard a gravelly woman behind me. I kept walking. Could have been for anyone.

“You in the jacket, you just passed through the door!” I looked left and right. No one matched that description. She sounded angry with me, insulted even, like she wanted a fight. “You must pay your fare!”

I don’t know anyone who likes a scolding, whether they are wrong or right. I’d done my time in Catholic school and this voice—part nun, part trucker—was made for lashing. Exact moments like these are when the British like to say Oh piss off.  Yesterday, I was incorrectly charged twice when I transferred busses. Last week, the Q train from this same stop—my only train to Manhattan—broke down. Today the ride would be crowded and loud. This voice didn’t know my hardship, and I was ready to speak my mind.

Like all New Yorkers, I pay my dues everyday. Noisy neighbors, heavy taxes, smelly streets. When we see a break, we take it. Someone else’s cab? Thank you. Time left on the meter? Yes please. $2.75 subway ride? Piss off.

I kept walking toward the stairs.

IMG_4850A week before this encounter, I watched some grandpa with a cane try crossing a four lane street by my apartment. The pedestrian signal said Don’t Walk, and he hobbled into traffic moving slower than a DMV queue. No way he was going to make it. The 3rd lane roared with cars. This ancient man made it to the double yellow line when an oncoming car held on the horn for the same length of time it would have taken to yell, “get-out-of-the-way-you-crazy-old-man-can’t-you-see-the-pedestrian-signal-says-do-not-cross-I-will-run-you-over-now-get-out-of-my-way!”

And still, the horn continued for so long after passing, it sounded almost rude. Manslaughter was on the line, I couldn’t object.

“Yeah, I see ya,” the old man yelled back, and waved his cane overhead. “You get out of MY way!” He must have exhausted every drop of energy he had, I was surprised he didn’t fall over. Somehow entitlement finds us new strength.

Version 2“You sir, walking down the steps,” The nagging voice continued. “You must pay your fare!” It reminded me of that horn. I was ready to raise a fist, as the more rude she got, the more I was sure the City of New York would be paying my fare.

I turned, and stomped back toward the toll booth window like a boxer approaching the ring. Behind smudged glass, an old woman with wiry hair and big spectacles scowled at me. Still inside the checkpoint, I removed my hand from my pocket. Oh I have something for you, Lady. I pinched my metrocard between my middle finger and thumb, reached around the gate and swiped it, slapping over the turnstile as if letting through a ghost. You’re welcome.

She did not thank me. I guess I wasn’t entitled to that either.

Free Albie and Powder Snow

Credit Alan Woldarski.
Credit Alan Wlodarski.

When my friend Albie was skiing everyday, he’d have told you life ruled. It ruled so much that when he illegally skied a closed run at Big Sky Resort and ski patrol revoked his beloved ski pass, he thought it was funny. When he gave up that free and easy life of a skier to become a helicopter pilot, he’d have said everything was peachy then too. After all, he was still able to walk back then. When Lou Gehrig’s Disease started to wreck his body, I imagine it would have been harder to say life was good.

When Albie Bullock was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s, or rather Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), I really didn’t know what it was until I watched what it did to him. What I learned is that ALS is a heartless, son-of-a-bitch of illnesses that devastates all the things a man would associate with the good life. Over the course of a few years, it begins to shut down a man’s body, taking away use of his hands, arms, and legs, until one day, breathing and swallowing become too difficult. It’s like the opposite of Alzheimer’s. It takes the body and leaves the mind; its victims coherently and helplessly watch themselves fall apart. Science knows no cure, and for the most part, does not know the cause either. The only truth about ALS is that once it takes hold, there is no escaping its destruction. It’s like being struck by a fatal, stray bullet.

Credit Dean Chandler
Credit Dean Chandler

Without warning, one day Albie’s hands started to lose their strength. He couldn’t grip his chef knife anymore, let alone a helicopter cyclic. He had to quit working. Something was wrong, seriously wrong. When he could no longer lift his arms or stand on his own feet, the tormenting story of ALS began to unfold.

But this is not Albie’s story. His story, and the years I’d shared with him, is a story about powder snow.

When Albie lived at the base of Big Sky Resort, he biked to work, even in winter. He scoffed at his neighbors who drove the same distance he biked, but he wasn’t self-righteous about it. Rather, he saw it as a violation of the greater good. Driving contributed to global warming. Global warming threatened snowfall. “Why,” he’d ask me with great anguish, “do these people want to take away my powder?”

Albie saw the world differently.

“37 more sleeps!” He’d holler randomly in the restaurant where we both worked. The next day he’d yell, “36 sleeps!” He seemed like a madman, running around a kitchen, slapping the grill with a spatula, hollering these numeric phrases. “35 sleeps!” It was fall then, ski season was coming, and Albie was counting down to opening day. Most people counted days. But since Albie’s other job was working the graveyard shift, making snow for the ski slopes, his days weren’t defined by the traditional sunrise and sunset. Then, his calendar was counted by how many times he’d sleep. And when no more sleeps were to be counted, Albie would rise, put on ski boots, and ride his first chair lift of the season.

albie sledHe may have been a skier above all things, but this man always prided himself on his sled-riding prowess, his ability to plunge, head-first, down the steepest of slopes. His sled was not a pricey snowmobile or big toboggan. He’d tell you it was a Ziffy Whomper, a half-body sized sliver of plastic that streaked as fast as rocks skipping over a pond.

On one of his prouder moments, Albie illegally sledded Big Sky Resort’s double black diamond—Big Rock Tongue—a run that most skiers fear. Albie center-punched it, goggles first, arms and legs his only rudder and only brake. That time, he boasted, he didn’t get busted.

Albie talked about sledding and winter with such thrill and excitement, you’d think his heart could make it snow.

Shortly after his diagnosis, Albie was in town for a party. He sat in the middle of a crowd of friends while we told stories and joked. Suddenly, he spoke up, and things got serious.

“I’m selling my skis,” he said. His voice was growing more horse, so we leaned in closer to hear. “All six pairs.”

From a wheelchair, he had no use for them anymore. We were all skiers, and the thought of giving up our favorite toys prompted a moment of silence. It became more clear that this disease was taking everything.

Credit Dean Chandler
Credit Dean Chandler

“That sucks,” someone said.

Then Albie raised his head. “At least I am alive,” he said. He could still count his sleeps. He would still rise the next day. Life was good, simply, because life was there.

On that day when Albie skied under the closure rope and doomed his ski pass, he claimed it was an accident. This particular black diamond run—The Wave Wall—was closed specifically to preserve the powder for a media shoot by Warren Miller. Locals were already in an uproar. No local from any ski hill approves of being locked out of his favorite run, particularly for lavish film crews and their pampered movie-star skiers. To ski this run would be revolt. A violator would be standing up for locals, reclaiming their mountain, and flipping the bird to any media company who gets between a man and his snow. Albie would have never admitted to that motive. It was an accident. He swore by it, even though he struggled to suppress a smile when he said it. I couldn’t help but hear his words echo, “why do they want to take away my powder?”

Credit Tara Tafi
Credit Tara Tafi

Ski patrol didn’t care about any of that. They revoked his skiing privileges immediately.

Big Sky locals were proud. In fact, they were so proud, a sticker campaign followed that stated, “Free Albie.” It was a demand his many friends were making, slapping the sticker resort-wide as a renegade petition to have his ski pass reinstated. We wanted to ski with our friend again. He could have been called a hero, standing up for all skiers. Or maybe, he just wanted the powder.

New New Yorker

Brooklyn Bridge
Brooklyn Bridge
Manhattan Bridge
Manhattan Bridge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

People are lost in the city all the time. In my first month living here, I’d been asked several times if this street went here or there. They’d ask because someone out there knew these answers. Those people were called New Yorkers. Not me, I was a New New Yorker which is like saying I’m visiting from Kentucky.

Ask me for directions and I was worthless. I couldn’t tell you how to reach the subway entrance, let alone what line or direction to take.  Constantly, I’d be reminded that if I didn’t have a map, even to get home, I’d probably have to hunker down with the homeless.

I was so naive that when I moved to New York City I stopped a guy for directions to a bar on the Hudson River. “Which way is the river?” I asked.

As Manhattan is an island between the Hudson and East Rivers, naturally, he looked skeptical like I was joking. “Umm, which one?” He replied.

In my defense, months later, I learned the East River that borders Manhattan’s right side is actually not a river despite its name. Marine scientists know it’s really a tidal strait. So now who’s the fool?

Sometime after this misunderstanding, coincidentally, I went running across the Manhattan Bridge which crosses the East River. This is perfect for someone who doesn’t know his way around. The bridge is a single path for about a mile, and as it has no turns, there is no way to get lost.

I reached the end and was about to turn back when another runner approached me.

“Excuse me,” he said.

If he wanted money, I didn’t have any. If he wanted me to sign a petition, I wasn’t a resident yet. If he wanted directions, forget it. I removed my headphones, to be courteous, but knew I’d be no help.

“Is this the Manhattan Bridge?” He asked.

Anyone who lives in the city knows the two most prominent passageways between Manhattan and Brooklyn are the Manhattan Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge. The distinctions between the two are obvious. Brooklyn Bridge is iconic stone, Manhattan Bridge is all metal. Yes, they both cross the East River, but their entrances are a mile apart. Confusing the two would be like confusing Superman for Wonder Woman.

I squinted back at him like he was playing a joke. Instead, he returned an equally confused gaze.

And then I knew he was serious.

“Yes!” I said in a thunderous voice. “This,” I hollered even louder, and turned, raising both my arms toward the bridge like Jesus blessing bread. “This is the Manhattan Bridge!”

And for that brief moment, I could have been mistaken for a real New Yorker.

Reason to Celebrate

All images ©Kene Sperry 2008

I threw a party in my apartment for a close friend. We all need reasons to throw parties and this was a good one. I had enough beer and liquor to inebriate an army. Girls danced, guys gambled, I even had matching cocktail napkins that said “Let’s Party!” Beforehand, I warned all the neighbors: three beside, two below, two across the hall and four more nearby. The unit below was a vacation rental so I didn’t go there. I thought it was vacant.

Guests outnumbered seats 4 to 1. The music was so loud we hollered to talk. Half the keg was empty. I was raising my glass upstairs to the guest of honor, Adam, when another friend, wide-eyed, interrupted.

“There’s a guy downstairs who wants to talk to the guy who lives here.” He pointed at me and shook his head. “He’s mad.”

In the kitchen, I could see in this stranger’s eyes that he did not come to party. He was a short stocky man, unshaven, and scowling.

I extended my hand. “I’m Victor, this is my place.”

He didn’t want to shake my hand so he did it quickly. “This has been going on all day!” He yelled and made a fist. “The loud music, stomping feet…non-stop!” His voice grew louder after every word. Veins popped in his forehead.

So someone was staying below me. He and his wife were visiting for the weekend.

I don’t handle conflict well, particularly when I’m drunk. I want everyone to be happy. But in this instant, I found newfound sobriety and diplomacy. I kindly escorted him outside.

“I’m really sorry,” I said emphatically. I was as surprised as he was. “I thought I warned everyone, I didn’t know anyone was downstairs.” I repeatedly apologized.

“It has to stop!” He insisted. He came to my mountain town for a peaceful getaway. He couldn’t even hear his TV. I was ruining his vacation. But behind my front door were 40 people, spilling beer and being loud. And yet, in all their obnoxiousness, there was no way I would to shut it down.

Adam safe in the mountains.
Adam safe in the mountains.

I lowered my head and fixed my eyes on him. “This party…” I pointed toward the door. “Is for my best friend Adam.”

I took a long, hard swallow.

“He joined the Army and ships off to basic training next week.” I was drunk, so I wanted to help this guy and make peace but knew I couldn’t. “I’m sorry again,” I continued, then clasped my hands as in prayer, and shook them toward his chin with every word that followed. “But…this…party…will…continue.”

A man earns honor in many ways. Helping an old lady across the street. Moving home to care for a dying father. Risking life to save another. I’ve always admired military personnel. I’ve never enlisted because I’m selfish, or a wimp, or have aversions to authority. But while I’ve never had that instinct, I can see why others do. Could be a family tradition, or how a man establishes his self worth. I like thinking that we all need to earn our space on this globe. But even more simply, perhaps we’re all just cogs among humanity, and finding our place is how we keep that mechanism operating properly. Some pursuits are more honorable than others, and some, warrant celebration that neighbors shouldn’t dare interrupt.

He never lightened his scowl. “I want to meet this guy,” he insisted. He probably thought I was lying.

No joke, Buddy. “Follow me,” I said, and showed him back inside. The party continued, but all eyes were on this stranger as we crossed the room.

I found Adam. “This guy wanted to meet you,” I told him, not mentioning our scuffle. “See!” I wanted to say, then get in his face. “He does exist!”

The stranger reached for Adam’s hand and held it for an awkwardly long moment.

“Thank you for your service,” he said, and bowed his head. Then he raised his voice again and addressed the crowd. “Y’all have a good night, party as long as you like.” He walked out the door and we never heard from him again.

Welcome home celebration after he returned from Afghanistan.  (Adam second from right).
Welcome home celebration after he returned from Afghanistan. (Adam second from right).

Shame on Zoo

san diego zoo entrance

Nothing may be cuter than koala bears licking eucalyptus, or giraffes hugging.  The zoo has all this cuteness and more.  See a hippo swim, a rhino skip, an elephant spout water from his trunk.  My girlfriend and I were vacationing in San Diego, and the zoo was calling to us like the wild does for Tarzan.  Not even the loin-clothed vine swinger gets to see this many animals in one day.

koalaBut controversy often follows these animal amusement parks.  We’re keeping animals in cages.  We’re drastically manipulating their ecosystems.  It could be argued that humans are an arrogant race that interrupt nature’s course for their own gains.  We already farm milk and eggs, hunt meat and hides, kill to test hair gels and toothpaste.  While altering the lives of animals may be justified for sustenance and safety, it becomes something rather different when done for mere entertainment.  No surprise, some would say zoos are crossing the line.

For example, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) have a big problem with it.  They say that animals make up this world too, and it’s our responsibility to make sure that we share it responsibly.

elephant.editBut when am I ever going to see a camel, a panda, and a lion in one day along a pathway called Easy Street?  Never.  Unless, of course, I pay someone who cages them and puts them on display.  Well then…Hellooo Zooo!

So I was standing in line with my sweetheart.  She stood in front, wielding our tickets, so I could lean away, as if to say to any naysayers, Hey buddy, I’m only doing it for the lady.  Which is a great cover.  Blame the girl.

We entered the gate, passing the lively band and headed to the “Skylift,” an open gondola car that carried us above all of the zoo.  From its peak, we watched the sun fade from a pacific yonder.  While a comforting, lazy warmth came over us we still had to move fast before losing all the sunlight.  So we rushed, and during those dusky hours, I learned a few things about the zoo.

HippoAn anteater is the strangest looking creature with a pulse.  I want to hug an elephant and saddle a hippo.  A polar bear could knock me over with his pinky.  A rhino is the coolest animal to walk this earth.  More than the animals though, the zoo manages trails that meander through manicured forests of lush greenery, old-growth trees, and gushing streams.  Darkness eventually did take over, but lights glowed along Fern Canyon Trail like a candlelit dinner, making our evening stroll a romantic thrill.  We even dipped into the dark corners to make out.

polar bearThe San Diego Zoo has a dozen places to eat and shop, live music shows and educational skits.  Of course there’s a magician.  It is so large that we got lost twice until a uniformed guide pointed us this way and that, up the second escalator between Asian Passage and Elephant Odyssey, past the Ice-Age 4D Theater to reach The Northern Frontier where Kalluk, the 1200lb Polar Bear lounged on his back, legs agape and boasting his genitalia, proving that he has not a worry in the world.

 

After hours of rushing to see all of the zoo, we ended disappointed though.  I bet we only saw half.

zooMap

Every inch of this place was well-orchestrated—the powerful lights, the way-finding signage, the espresso huts.  Seeing hundreds of animals from diverse ecosystems, I understood the tremendous effort required to keep them alive.  While the zoo is a production of Disney-caliber, its attractions are living and breathing, which requires far more maintenance than a ferris wheel or roller coaster.  The San Diego Zoo is not only handling these basic humanitarian requirements, they also claim to have saved orphaned animals and kept species from extinction.  But this doesn’t mean PETA will be buying the cotton candy and skipping down Orangutang Trail any time soon.

“In general, zoos and wildlife parks preclude or severely restrict natural behavior, such as flying, swimming, running, hunting, climbing, scavenging, foraging, digging, exploring, and selecting a partner.” ¹

ZooExitThis makes sense to me.  While I believe that some animals would give up scavenging and digging any day, none of them would give up flying or finding a partner, AKA getting laid.  While nature may have cursed the young ugly duckling’s chances for action, I don’t think man should interfere any further.  It’s like zoos are  manufacturing chastity belts, and those who visit encourage celibacy.

So shame on you zoo goer.  You are like the anti-Chuck Woolery and a Match.com virus to the animal kingdom.  You are keeping animals from getting some loving, and I have a big problem with that.  Now I’m going to feel extra guilty when I return to San Diego and see all those other animals I missed.

iPhone Fall

apple-iphone5-25blackberry-pearl-flip-8220

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 2012, Blackberry was on the brink of bankruptcy. You could buy 5 Blackberrys for the price of one iPhone 5. My trusty Blackberry flip phone was feeling the decline too.  Software updates were no longer available, the battery barely held a charge, and reboot time took longer than waiting in line at Verizon.

It became clear that if my phone was in a classroom of smart phones, it was flunking.

For years, I used to say it loud, “I’m Blackberry and I’m proud.” While iPhoners were Facebooking, I was dropping my phone just to prove it wouldn’t break. We, the Blackberry people, were a tough bunch after all, killing our eyeballs from that microscopic keyboard, enduring the sneers from iPhone judgers. There’s no “i” in Blackberry for a reason. We had to stick together to survive the i-i-iPhone takover.

All business, no flash. That’s us. Let iPhoners immerse themselves in cute games, I’d reserve fun for something else. Run outside, laugh at magazines, write this story about iPhones vs Blackberries.

But around me, my Blackberry brethren were dying too. Stocks went from triple digits a share to less than ten bucks. And then, like the Gangnam Style dance, my beloved Blackberry died. At the time, I had just read Seth Godin’s The Dip, warning me when to quit a dying project. What I did next, probably made my old phone flip in its grave.

I bought an iPhone.

Maybe it was peer pressure, or the camera, or my urge to not be ridiculed for flipping open my old phone. And I didn’t just get an iPhone, I got a 5. I figured that by the time it would take me to upgrade again, Apple would probably be making an iTelepathy. Phones would no longer be for talking, and that extra inch of screen would really pay off watching Youtube.

Sure, the phone makes me faster. The GPS means I don’t waste time being lost because, as a man, I certainly won’t ask for directions. I’ve also become a multi-tasker: I pay bills from my toilet, email in the checkout line, check stocks while eating cereal.

Sometimes, though, it doesn’t make me faster. I may go to check the weather, see I have an email from Backcountry.com offering swim shorts which is appropriate since summer is here. I need sunglasses too, and since I’ll be outside, I’ll need sunblock too so I’ll check Amazon.com since they can ship it to my door easier than driving to get it.  Wait, it’s free shipping if I order over $50?  I’ll get shampoo, socks, and charcoal briskets. Oh, and don’t forget those sunglasses and shorts. All that shopping would be exhausting, so I’d need to do something fun like play Candy Crush, or check those FB pictures of my niece at the prom. Wait, why did I look at my phone? Oh yeah, the sunglasses, I mean, shorts, err, was it the weather…

No denying it. While the iPhone has made me faster at most things, it has also made me a professional time-waster. But with the right amount of self-discipline, it may not get the best of me. And if that doesn’t work, I’m sure there’s an app that can help.