Admit the feet

Hands

Observe the hand: A quick glance can tell you so much about the person it is attached to: Age, type of profession, marital status, even the time, if it’s wearing a watch. We ball our hands up when we are angry and gnaw at our nails when we are nervous. A trembling hand can give away fear or low blood sugar. Whether it is a wave, a handshake, a wai, or a high-five, the hands are the tools we use to signal peace; to say, “I am unarmed.” If eyes are the window to the soul, then the hand is certainly its listing on AirBnB.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the foot.

Painted Nails
Pictured: My feet on holiday

A foot is a lot like a hand: The average one is an oblong appendage which tapers into five fleshy digits. Like the hand, it is useful in fighting and picking stuff up off the floor, and people are always impressed when you can put a whole one in your mouth.
Most importantly of all, the foot is a good indicator of the true nature of the person to whom it is attached. Granted, feet don’t tremble like hands do. We do not wear wedding rings on our toes or watches on our ankles, and in many cultures greeting someone with your foot is not a signal of peace at all. But I argue that the feet contain many secrets, and if you want to know the true nature of a person, cast your eyes downward.
An obsession with feet is a recognised fetish, and I’ve known more than a few people who have had severe foot phobias. There is a lot of cultural significance to the foot as well: In many Asian countries, it is customary to remove your shoes when entering a house. In South Africa, it is quite normal for children to walk to school barefoot. In Chile, asking a person to remove their shoes is comparable to asking them to remove their pants.

While I enjoy flaunting my feet, a foot is still an intimate part of a person’s body. It’s rare to see a stranger’s naked foot in public. Sure, they might be visible through sandals or flip flops, but most of the time they are hidden away inside shoes and socks, blocked from roving eyes. When it comes to foot beauty, only so much can be done. We can wax our toes, paint our nails, and scrub our heels, but at the end of the day the foot is the part of the body that does the dirty work. It’s the part that is always in contact with the ground, and the section of our body that has to put up with our weight. Our feet are the secretaries of the body. They put up with a lot, but they also know all of our secrets. If the hands are the AirBnB listing of the soul, then the feet are the reviews on the AirBnB listing of the soul. They are the person laid bare, and the first thing I look at when I’m trying to drum up empathy for a fellow human being.

Improv Feet
So many feet. What secrets do they hide?

 

The world is full of beautiful people, and beautiful women catch my eye a lot. I see legs, and cleavage, and hair, and lips, and I find these things pleasant to look at. So much so, in fact, that I sometimes forget that there’s a person joining all of those attributes together. In order to remind myself that I’m looking at a living soul, and not a set of sensuous specifics, I look at their feet. This is where the person’s secrets are revealed. Of course, I’m often not really looking at their feet, but rather at their shoes. But the shoes can be just as telling. For the most part, shoes don’t get cleaned very often, or replaced very regularly. Oftentimes they have scuff marks, or their glimmer has become dulled. When I see tarnished shoes I see a person who works hard, but who prioritizes other necessities above footwear. Sullied shoes show me a person just trying to get by. When people are nervous or shy, they sometimes stand with their feet turned inwards. When shoes wear out asymmetrically they indicate a defect in a person’s stride, and our defects are where our humanity shines forth. Suddenly I don’t see just legs and cleavage and hair and lips. Now I see a person in a chair, stooped over, pulling their foot into a shoe. I see fingers hooping laces around each other, or fastening the buckle on a wedge, or pulling the back of a pump over a heel. I can visualize that person in a bedroom that contains an unmade bed, dirty clothes, and a few scattered pairs of footwear. I see a room that contains clutter and vulnerability. This is the space in which the person is their purest – before they put on the face that they show to the world. And when that image reveals itself to me, so does their humanity.

Scott Pilgrim
When you see Scott Pilgrim tying his shoes, it kind of makes you like him more.

I think that we all leave our houses wanting to look our bravest and best. With our clothes and our grooming and our smiles and our language, we present a mask to the world. But our feet are the part of us that reveals what is behind the mask. A banner waving to the world, shouting, “This is the real me!”

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All Children, Except One…

Where am I?

I am writing this blog post on a Wednesday – the day before I turn 30, and I will post it on a Friday – the day after I turn 30. Who knows when you might be reading this. Quite possibly, if you happen to read this blog post soon after it is published, I will be flying over the Andes mountains, painfully hungover and sleep deprived as a result of birthday celebrations from the night before. It is my intention to spend the weekend in Argentina, to get away from life as I know it, and pass into my thirties out of site of everyone.
Maybe I am 40 or 50, reading this blog and shaking my head at how young and naive I was. Wherever it is that I am, might be, or have been, the turn of a decade prompts me to look back over the past thirties years and assess.

Brad Pitt Inevitable
I can’t help but think that the full name of Brad Pitt’s fragrance is “Our Inevitable March Towards Death.”

I am not married, and I have no children of my own (that I know of). I have no tattoos, piercings, or property. Perhaps my most expensive possession is my refrigerator, which I plan on selling when I leave Chile. While I have been teaching English for about six years, I do not consider it a career path. I am not upwardly mobile in the world of English teaching. All in all, I’m pretty much in the same place I was when I left university.

But these are things that I do not regret. I have sacrificed the material for the spiritual, and during the course of my life I have learned a lot about myself. I have lived on four continents. I have learned to ride a scooter, to open a beer bottle with a lighter, and to speak Spanish. I have tried marijuana on several occasions and magic mushrooms on one. I have a university degree, for which I will be forever grateful to my Parents. I have grown my hair long enough to tie up (I’ll never do that again) and had my entire body painted (I will definitely do that again). I have been in relationships and learned that I do not like them. Over time I have discovered a fear of sneezes, loud noises, and commitment.

Long Hair
Still not sure if my long hair phase is a pro or a con.

I think, overall, I have been happy. That is to say, a life lived in constant optimism has occasionally been interrupted with deep valleys of sadness, which puts my overall level of happiness at about average.
Through all of this, I have picked up a few truths which seem to be universal. So here I dispense some of the wisdom which I have gained in my thirty years:

1.) No matter how old and wise you think you are, you will always look back on yourself as you are right now and marvel at how naive you were (Exhibit A: This list. I’m sure one day I’ll want to rewrite it).
2.) If you can and you should, then you must.
3.) No matter how strong and tough a person might be, they will always remember the kind things you say to them. So speak good things, even if you think they’ll fall on deaf ears.
4.) The truth will out, so don’t brag. Trust that others will do your bragging for you. I promise you they will. Similarly, don’t be an ass. People will find out.
5.) Don’t value celebrities higher than you value yourself. You won’t impress Saint Peter by telling him you once shook hands with Ryan Reynolds.
6.) Every horrible experience adds to your overall human experience. Take solace in that. If you can tell Saint Peter that you ran the full gamut of human experience, I suspect that he would be impressed.
7.) You can never say “I love you” enough. After someone is gone, you’ll always wish you had said it more often.
8.) Don’t stick your tongue out while yawning. It will mess up your head.
9.) Anger is a symptom of powerlessness, so always speak calmly. More often than not, people will take your side in an argument if you control your emotions.
10.) Don’t let your life be a show on the verge of getting cancelled. If a live studio audience were watching your life, would they be entertained?
11.) Sometimes the kindest thing you can do for someone is to let them be kind to you. If a poor person insists on buying you a meal, let them.
12.) Attraction is complicated. There are things like physical attraction, sexual attraction, spiritual attraction, and intellectual attraction. You might not find all of these in one person, or in only one gender.
13.) When a friend is mad at you for something you did wrong, apologize and admit your wrongdoing, but don’t tell them how bad you feel. Saying “I feel awful about this” is a way of asking for their sympathy and blocking the anger they need to feel.
14.) Bear in mind that for everything you think you believe, the opposite might be true. It might be brave to go to war. It might be brave to defy authority.
15.) If you develop a favourite movie, or song, or food, you will continue to believe it long after it has stopped being true.
16.) Labels are important, but should be discouraged. It’s nice to know that a chair is a chair, but if we label someone as gay, or Muslim, or disabled, we hinder that person from being anything else.

 

All children, except one, grow up” – J.M. Barrie
For as long as I can remember, I have always envied Peter Pan’s eternal youth. It frustrated me that he was the only exception to old age, and a part of me has always hoped that science would have found a way to halt the process of aging long before I reached adulthood. So far, this has not been the case. People tell me that thirty is a wonderful age, and I hope they’re right. Nothing is going to stop me from enjoying my life as much as I can, but as I move further and further away from that eternal child that I always wanted to be, I’ll always be left wondering if he would be happy to see what I have become.

Peter Pan and Wendy

How to raise a child

It amazes me how much children need to be taught. They can cry and flail when they are uncomfortable, but beyond that they need to be shown everything. Everything. They need to be told to close their mouths when they chew, to wash when they are dirty, to walk around puddles and not through them, and to clean up after themselves. They need to learn to step aside for other people, to look ahead when they run, and to moderate their volume. Where do you even start to explain all of those things? It seems like far too much effort.
That said, I do sometimes understand the desire to have a child of my own. When I see children screaming on the metro, or talking far louder than is necessary, or running around in crowded spaces without paying attention to their surroundings, I always think to myself, “I could raise a better child.” I often fantasize that I will one day have a child of my own – a boy, let’s say – and I will call him Erfurt. If I have a girl, I will call her Erfurt too.
Erfurt will have empathy. That’s the most important thing. Erfurt will also have spacial awareness. When walking down the street, Erfurt will know not to take up too much space on the sidewalk. When we’re in the shops, Erfurt will be mindful of the people around him. He won’t run around too much, he won’t stumble into shelves, he won’t scream. He’ll learn to respect other people, to be humble, and he’ll learn wit. He will learn about bigotry and discrimination only when he’s old enough to understand that those are bad things.
Now, considering I have spent most of my life avoiding children, and that I don’t know the first thing about how to raise children, you might think that all of this is easier said than done. However, I have devised a fool-proof method that will ensure that my child grows up to be a good person. So, Dear Reader, I present to you my essential list of things to expose your child to in order to turn them into perfect adults:

If – Rudyard Kipling

If
“…And so hold on when there is nothing in you except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’”


On the first night that I bring Erfurt home from the hospital (or foster home. Who knows?) I will lay him in his cot, pull a piece of paper from my pocket, and read out Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” in its entirety. I will continue to do this every night until the rhythm of the words has worked its way deep into Erfurt’s mind. And as he develops speech I will teach him to recite the poem himself until he knows it by heart. I’ll explain that the poem is a little bit dated, so when Kipling says “pitch-and-toss” he really means any endevour where the outcome is uncertain, and when he says “be a man,” what he really means is “be a good person.”
It will be the mantra he recites to himself in times of conflict, and with those verses he will grow up to be a well-rounded, mentally strong human being.

Oh, The Places You’ll Go! – Dr Seuss

Oh the Places
“Out there things can happen and frequently do to people as brainy and footsy as you”


By the time Erfurt is about ten years old, I expect that he will already have garnered a natural curiosity about the world. I will nurture this curiosity by reading him “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” at least once a week. This poem will give him the confidence to be independent and brave, the humility to accept loss, and the patience to withstand moments of stasis. Hopefully, as Erfurt starts reaching adulthood, this poem will develop in him a fiery curiosity about the world. It will encourage him to reach beyond his comfort zone and try to surpass his own expectations.

The Breakfast Club – John Hughes

Breakfast Club
“Do you think I’d speak for you? I don’t even know your language.”


Teenagers are a different race of human beings entirely, and I suspect that in his adolescence Erfurt might start feeling restless and anxious and unsure of his place in the world, despite what Mr Kipling and Dr Seuss might have already taught him. Therefore, as Erfurt enters puberty, I will see to it that he watches John Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club” at least once a month. I’ll want him to know that the way he is feeling is okay, and that he doesn’t have to make his home inside the box that adults put him in. I’ll want him to discover that if he feels lost, it doesn’t mean that he’s wrong. Hopefully The Breakfast Club will teach him that if I have difficulty understanding him, then that is my own shortcoming and not through any fault of his own. And hopefully when he goes off to forge his own life in adulthood, he won’t forget about me (Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!…)

 

And, always in the background…
Everybody’s Free (The Sunscreen Song) – Baz Luhrmann

Sunscreen
“Do one thing every day that scares you”

“Everybody’s Free”, also known as the “Sunscreen Song,” is often attributed to Baz Luhrmann but was actually written by columnist Mary Schmich. Nevertheless, Baz is the one who set it to music and made it the cult hit it is today. Now it is the message read out to graduating students as they begin their journey into adulthood. But I’ll see to it that little Erfurt understands the message of the Sunscreen Song while he’s still young enough to appreciate his youth. I want Erfurt to be a child who loves himself for who he is, has patience with those who offer advice, and who makes an effort to know his parents.

 

If children were dogs, I’d definitely know what to do with them. But as far as human puppies go, I’m kind of at a loss. At the very least, I hope that this list of popular influences will be enough to turn baby Erfurt into a fully grown adult that I can be proud of.

The Breathtaking Man

The first time I saw the Breathtaking Man, he did not leap into my awareness all at once, the way some people to do. Instead, he came to me in parts, surreptitiously, until his existence became undeniable.
At first, I didn’t pay him any mind at all. He was simply another gym-goer, wholly unremarkable in appearance. He was neither slight nor muscular, but I judged him to be in shape. Admittedly he was taller than average, and the headphones he wore while working out seemed large and cumbersome. He wore tank tops, and at times I spied a heavy golden chain hanging low around his neck. He was just like everyone else, and immediately after laying eyes on him I stopped noticing him altogether.
One idle day a few months ago, when I was halfway through a set of lateral pull-downs, something began to feel amiss. It began with a repetitive scraping noise that I didn’t hear so much as feel. It set my bones vibrating. I thought perhaps one of the machines must be needing oil. I tried to locate the source of the ruckus, but it was like trying to find the source of an echo. I just couldn’t get a lock on it. Maybe it was some kind of deep bass that was reverberating underneath the reggaeton music that was blasting over the sound system, but that didn’t feel quite right either. As I began to isolate the noise I noticed that it had the quality of a high-pitched gasp, and it was then that my quest turned inward. Did I have a hole in my eardrum? Or, worse, was I the one producing the sound?  Was air escaping from my person at high velocity?
Suddenly I had it. The Breathtaking Man was the cause. It was a loud, laboured wheeze and it was unmistakably coming from him. While the source was so obvious, it didn’t make any sense at all. He sounded like a man dying, like a messenger returned from battle, collapsing from exhaustion but with just enough breath to deliver fateful news: Persia has fallen.
I thought for a moment that he was in distress. Was he suffering an attack of some sort? But as I watched him rasp, he carried on doing his dead-lifts like a man with all the patience in the world. He simply continued to wheeze and wheeze, like an unattended teapot.
I suppose he had some sort of condition. Possibly he only had one lung. He certainly knew his way around the equipment, but I don’t believe I’d ever seen him on a treadmill. The problem, Dear Reader, is that I hated that noise. I’m phonophobic, you see. Sharp noises and loud sounds irritate me. I realise that this is my own shortcoming, but the sad result was that I could not help but despise the Breathtaking Man. After I became aware of his odd affliction, he became my foe. I could not continue exercising when he was in the room. His breathing cut through everything. It was louder that the clanking of the machinery, and the grunting and cajolery of the other gym members. I could hear him over the pounding of the sound system. Nothing could drown him out.
No one else seemed to notice. I began to feel like I was going mad. I would often stop what I was doing when he arrived, and I would go and busy myself on another floor of the gym. The moment I saw him ascend the stairs, my jaw would reflexively clench in frustration. It was terribly unfair to him, I know. But his very existence vexed me.

Lateral Pull Down
Lateral pull-downs are great for working the triceratops muscles or whatever.

Recently, the Breathtaking Man entered the gym accompanied by a rather attractive young lady. She is certainly not his girlfriend, I thought. How could a man as obnoxiously asthmatic as him possibly sustain the attention of a female for long enough to recruit her as a gym buddy? It was exceptionally unkind of me to think such a thing, but so deep had my enmity become.
I surmised that she was his sister. They were strikingly similar in appearance. They had similar complexions, and both of them possessed soft round noses, and oval-shaped faces. I also noticed the way he acted around here. He was friendly, but not forward. He was attentive, but not flirtatious. He kept his distance. When assisting her with barbell squats, he kept his hands folded into loose fists in order to avoid touching her inappropriately. The more I saw him interact with the woman, the more I grew to like him. I began to scold myself for criticising him.
The decisive moment came when I saw him trying to make a joke. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but for a brief moment I saw him wave his hands about in an elaborate way, elbows tucked firmly as his sides, and he ended the gesture with a beaming smile. The woman didn’t laugh, and that made the moment all the more endearing. A figure whom I had possessed animosity towards had started to become human in my eyes, and the negative feelings I had towards him began to dissolve. I still find the wheezing quite annoying, but the man making the noise is alright by me. Sure, he might have only one lung, but he seems to have a pretty big heart.

Weighted Squats
Weighted squats are great for working the trampoline muscles or whatever.

Archetypes

“How many people have you met?” I ask, vaguely.
Since acquiring Facebook, I have collected approximately 800 friends. Probably at least 150 of those are fake accounts, enterprises, duplicates, or strangers who have added me. But if I lean back on my faux leather couch, chin tilted to the ceiling, and really think about it, I’d have to say I’ve met perhaps… eight people. Eight people in total, give or take one or two. Hundreds of different human beings, to be sure, but probably only about eight archetypes that continuously circle in and out of my life, like Halley’s Comet. Maybe it’s different for you, Dear Reader, but at any given moment in my life, I find I am always surrounded by these eight people:

1.) The Health Guru
This is the person who is always knowledgeable about diet and exercise. They are the person I instinctively turn to when I want to find out how to stop feeling sluggish, or the fastest natural way to cure a cold, or the best way to increase the strength in my knees. These are the people who invite me to do outdoor activities, and who inspire me to take good care of myself.

Health Guru
Coach always took good health to an extreme in “New Girl”

 

2.) The Spiritual Guide
I don’t always know in which direction my life should be heading, but the spiritual guide is the person who will always listen to my concerns, offer me advice, and help me find the path that I was unable to find on my own. I would say that the Spiritual Guide is also the person who pushes me to be better, and to challenge myself. They are the ones who bring me out of the house and invite me to cultural events.

Spiritual Guid
Wilson was always Tim’s go-to advice man in “Home Improvement”

 

3.) The Moral Compass
Being an adult means sometimes not knowing the right thing to do. Luckily, when I find myself in such a quandary, I have a Moral Compass who will take me aside, and kindly explain to me the correct way to treat other human beings. When the paths of virtue and sin become convoluted, I can rely on my Moral Compass to set me on the right course.

Moral Compass
No matter the odds, Eddard Stark always tried to do the right thing in “Game of Thrones”

 

4.) The Drinking Companion
Alcohol need not be involved, but we all need that friend with whom we can just shoot the breeze. This is the easy friend; the one without pretense. My Drinking Companion is the person who allows me to step outside of the cyclone of my existence and observe the events of my life from a relaxed distance. Conversation is broad as opposed to deep, but sometimes those light conversations are exactly what I need.

American Maid
I always liked how American Maid would keep Arthur grounded in “The Tick”

 

5.) The Nuisance
When examining the archetypes in my life I cannot help but notice that there is almost always someone in it that has a tendency to get on my nerves. They’re not bad people, but they do have a tendency to try my patience a great deal more than the rest of my friends. It’s terrible to speak negatively of people, but at least acknowledging the nuisance in my life gives me the patience to enjoy their company.

Nuisance
Kramer is kind of annoying, but you can’t help but like him in “Seinfeld”

 

6.) The Love Interest
I am always in love. Or, at least, I always have a crush on someone. Often, nothing comes from this, and when the person I love passes out of my life, a new love interest will inevitably rear their gorgeous head and turn my world upside down.

Love Interest
The Waitress is the quintessential Love Interest in “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”

 

7.) The Bad Influence
A lot of people do drugs, I’ve realised. A lot of people drink a lot too. Most people have their vices, and sadly some people allow their vices to overcome them. I feel like I’ve done a good job so far of avoiding too many bad influences in my life, but I think it’s always good to have the Bad Influence around to draw you out of your shell and make you go a bit crazy once in a while.

Bad Influence
Your parents might not like him, but Barney from “How I Met Your Mother” definitely knows how to keep life interesting

 

8.) The Neophyte
Look around and you will always find someone who is slightly less experienced that you. Someone who is new on the job, or new in town. They won’t always ask for help, but you’ll sense that they need it. Getting your life on an even keel doesn’t count for much if you can’t pull others on board with you.

Neophyte
There’s a lot that Todd doesn’t understand about Hollywood, which is why he needs someone to guide him in “Bojack Horseman”

 

Now, it’s important to remember that people shouldn’t be put into boxes. Just because someone is an archetype to you doesn’t mean that they aren’t so much more as well. But it’s in our nature to find patterns, and this is just another pattern that I’ve observed.
I am also almost certain that there are many more archetypes than the ones I have listed here, but this is the general idea. Sometimes each archetype exists within a different human being. Sometimes several archetypes can be encompassed by one person. Sometimes, a person that you know might change from one archetype to another during the time that you know them. But it seems to me that, without fail, I always have these eight influences in my life.
I cannot overstate the value that many people have brought into my life. I have been blessed with the honour of crossing paths with some of the finest souls on the planet. But my lifestyle means that my social circle tends to renew itself every six months or so, with old friends leaving and new friends stepping into my world. In all of those cycles I have always observed the same recurring archetypes.

I am just about certain that this idea of the archetypes in our lives is not an original one. I’m sure you’ve noticed these pattern in your life too, Dear Reader. But in recent weeks I’ve been turning this idea over in my mind, and I began to look inward and ask myself which archetype I am. When I asked myself the question, the answer was immediately evident: I am the Main Character, of course!
But sadly I am the main character only in my universe. For everyone else, I am just a passing influence. The truth is, I don’t know what kind of archetype I am, but I think it is profoundly important to acknowledge that most people will see me as one thing or another. I would bet that I am a different archetype to different people. Perhaps some people see me as the Health Guru, or the Drinking Buddy. I’d hate to be someone’s Nuisance, but it’s possible. I’m fairly certain that I’m no one’s Bad Influence, but it would be nice to think that I am someone’s Love Interest.

The point is, when engaging with a friend, it might help to consider who that friend thinks they’re talking to. Do they want you to be their Spiritual Guide, or your Drinking Companion. Are they looking for health advice or moral guidance? Hopefully, once you figure out who you are to different people, then you would start to become a better human being. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want to be?

Fate Like Potatoes

Give a monkey a typewriter and an infinite amount of time, and it will eventually write the words of Shakespeare. Or, so it is said. On the other hand, give one bachelor his own apartment and a handful of months, and he will inevitably blow something up.
Of course, like any responsibility-denying adult, I cannot take full credit for what happened. I am simple one cog in a vastly complex machine, and it is impossible to know what the other cogs are doing until everything lines up in a way that blindsides your life and sets it off on a bit of a speed wobble.

Monkey Typewriter
Technology has come a long way. Who uses wooden chairs anymore?

When my kettle blew up, my first instinct was to blame the potato, but I believe the chain of causation goes back further than that. I could point my finger at my friend, who was going out of town for a month and had to give away her potatoes so that they wouldn’t be wasted in her absence. Or I could blame my stubborn pan which had become difficult to clean. But if I really give it some thought, I believe the chain of events truly got started when the light bulb in my kitchen burned out.

Light Bulb
I have since replaced the light bulb. There it shines, an angelic halo.

My kitchen is situated in a tiny nook that receives almost no ambient light, so when the bulb blew it was quite a task to get anything done in there. My immediate, lazy solution was to use my space heater as a substitute. The heater has three bars that cast a bright orange light when it is turned on, which was perfect for my temporary needs. The best place for it was on the tiny piece of kitchen counter next to the fridge, where my kettle usually sits. In order to free up an outlet so that I could plug the heater in, I unplugged the kettle and moved it next to the kitchen sink. And that’s where the kettle stayed.

Dark Kitchen
See? Tiny, dark kitchen nook

A few nights ago, I decided to roast a potato for dinner, having developed an affinity for them after my friend had given me some a few weeks previously. The only problem was that the pan I used to roast them had lost its non-stick properties a long time ago, and therefore required quite a scrub to get it clean. For this purpose, I had purchased some steel wool, and after scrubbing the pan clean I left the ball of wool by the sink, next to the kettle.

The next day I arose groggily and put the kettle on for coffee. Once the water had boiled, I lifted the kettle from its stand, poured water into a mug, and moved to replaced the kettle on its stand. As I completed this maneuver I noticed how an errant strand of wool had uncoiled itself until the tiny end of it was resting right on top of the connector that supplies electricity to the kettle. My reflexes were slow, but even as I put the kettle down I thought to myself, “That piece of steel there is probably not safe,” and then my apartment exploded.

Potato
This is partly your fault, Potato!

There was a loud popping noise followed by silence. My fridge had stopped humming. The annoyingly loud extractor fan in my bathroom had stopped buzzing. Even the recently-replaced kitchen light bulb had gone dark, and I smelled fire. I lifted the kettle back up and saw that the tip of the steel wool had caught fire like an environmentally unfriendly stick of incense. I stared at the flame quizzically until it died on its own, and then I careful set the kettle back down on the counter, far from the smoking steel wool, and went to check my fuse box. A few switches had tripped, so I flipped them back up. My apartment remained dark and silent. I felt like Bilbo in Gollum’s cave. In the distance, I could hear my neighbour’s music. Evidently they still had power.
By that point, the sun had come up sufficiently for me not to need light in the living room. Plus I already had my coffee, so for the time being I did not need electricity. I sat on my couch and stared at my laptop which was now no longer connected to the internet because the modem had no power. I ate my cereal, drank my coffee, brushed my teeth, and left for work.

As I went about my day, I considered my options:
1.) I could ignore the problem and live out the rest of my days here without electricity.
2.) I could blow my neighbour’s fusebox so that they would be forced to take the initiative to sort things out.
3.) I could ask my concierge to turn the power back on at the main switch.

Obviously, Option 3 was out of the question. I didn’t know the Spanish words for “switch” or “main switch” or “to switch something on.” It was an insurmountable obstacle.

I was sorely tempted to try Option 2. It had a Tom Sawyer-esque cleverness to it, but I didn’t really know how I would go about sabotaging my neighbour’s electricity. Perhaps I could try disrupting the whole building? But that might cause me to fatally damage myself, or even get into trouble with the police.

Option 1 seemed possible. My oven is gas powered, so I could still cook food. I could turn my phone into a WiFi hot spot so that I could use the internet on my laptop. That’s all I really needed. It would cost a fortune in data, though.

As my day progressed, the options circled around in my head, and I slowly came to the realization that I would have to eventually seek help from the concierge. So when I returned to my building, I greeted the concierge, went upstairs to my apartment, and waited the appropriate amount of time it would have taken for me to put my things down, get changed out of my work clothes, make a cup of tea, and then accidentally blow myself up. I put it at fourteen minutes, which is also about how long it took me to look up and memorise the Spanish words for “switch,” “main switch,” and “to switch something on.” Then I went back downstairs and threw myself dramatically onto the concierge’s desk.

“You would not believe the disaster that has just this very moment befallen me!” I wailed. “Not fourteen minutes ago, while attempting to make myself a cup of tea, a short circuit occurred and knocked out the power to my apartment! I tried switching the power back on but nothing happened. Would you please be so kind as to switch on the main switch?”

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Accurate re-enactment of me talking to the concierge.

Actually, what I said was more like, “No electricity. Accident. Switch main switch to switch something on please?” Thankfully, the plucky concierge was able to find meaning from context. He produced some keys marked “Luz” and bade me follow him back up to my floor and towards the electricity cupboard there. It was an awkward elevator ride. To break the silence I rolled my eyes and chummily said, “Main switch, eh?” The plucky concierge remained passive.

After that, my life improved swiftly and dramatically. The concierge found the electricity closet, flicked a few switches, went downstairs again, flicked some switches there, then returned and flicked one final switch which lit up my apartment once again. A problem that had stretched out for five hours had been solved in ten minutes.

I learned two things that day: The first thing is that you don’t need to be fluent in a language to be understood. Most people just need a few key words and a context.
The second thing I learned is that all the micro-actions in our lives are like pieces on an infinite chess board, or the keys of a typewriter being struck by an infinite monkey. Eventually the chaos will lead to macro-actions that will blow your mind.

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I also learned how much a new kettle costs.

 

The Old Man and the Snow

When the winter came to Santiago I knew I hated it. The cold is merciless and it creeps in through the poorly insulated windows of my apartment and weaves through my flimsy clothing and bites into my flesh deeply. The plants on my balcony wilt and die for lack of sunlight, and in the streets the denizens of Santiago pull their jackets tight over their hearts and bend their scarfed heads into the wind. The street dogs have mysteriously acquired little woolen coats but still they lie curled in corners dreaming of warmer days or death.

I first became aware of my contempt for cold weather when I returned to South Africa from Thailand. The thrilling shift from tropical humidity to the piercing midwinter chill caught me off guard and kicked the life out of me like a nighttime assailant. That was when my animosity towards bleak weather was first seeded profoundly within me, but it had lain relatively dormant until some weeks ago when I had gone out for the night with friends and found myself at a table outside in the dark, sharing revelry and ignoring the icy grip of my monstrous foe. By the time I returned to my drafty apartment the monster had sunk its claws deep into me and pressed my core temperature far below a healthy level. The next day I woke with ‘flu.

Despite my animosity and fear of ice I still listened when the old man Carlos spoke to me about snowboarding. He made a habit of going out of the city on weekends for hiking or camping or skiing so when he first broached the idea with me I did not flee nor change the subject. Carlos is short and broad and rounded at the shoulders like a scarab, and I had been into the wilderness with him before and I trusted that I would be well-led by him. He had many acquaintances in the field of winter sports and was able to negotiate a remarkably cheap deal. That is how I came to find myself swaddled in borrowed snow gear somewhere outside of Santiago in the lee of the Andes mountains. We had been fortunate with the weather and the sky was clear that day. There were about ten of us in total and while most of us could speak English the majority of the people were primarily Spanish speakers. As such hardly any English was spoken at all. I mostly just listened.

Our modest group had convened outside a wooden bungalow that gave way to a frosty courtyard. A narrow porch ran around the property and at intervals there were rooms filled with snow boots and snowboards. It was early still, and only one other couple sat on a wooden bench in the courtyard speaking in the stilled tones demanded by peaceful winter mornings. Puddles which had iced over in the night lay as yet uncracked by industrious footfalls and the exposed earth was sodden and scattered with damp leaves like autumnal sprinkles on an earthen cake.
We were designated our boots and the snowboards were loaded on to the top of a van and then our group clambered into the van. Our driver ignited the engine and put Guns N’ Roses on the radio at a high volume. It was a fine move and probably one he did on every tour. It excited the spirits of my companions and they began conversing in a restless way that was occasionally broken by nervous laughter.
We were driving into a place called San Jose de Maipo where the sky was as blue and as clear as a newborn’s eyes, and the mountainsides were thickly layered with snow like shaving cream on a pie destined for a clown’s painted face.
I am not accustomed to such copious amounts of snow and I found myself transfixed by it. The driver’s selection of popular music loosened my mind and put me in a meditative state.

The drive was pleasant and warm and lulling, and in truth I did not want it to end.
We arrived at an area where other vehicles had turned the ground into muddy slush. People milled around in puffy winter clothing, smoking cigarettes and selling snow gear from crude tables set up under small gazebos. I found a dry piece of exposed rock where I knelt down to remove my hiking boots and push my feet deep into the comfortable tightness of the snow shoes I had been given. An instructor helped me to negotiate the complex drawstrings that pulled the inner and outer layers of the boots snugly around my ankles. That done, I was given a hefty snowboard and fell in line as our party began trudging farther into the hills.

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At times the path was flat and at other times the path was steeped in snow.

I gauged the hike to be about one kilometer, but I had to carry a heavy snowboard and with each step I had to pull my cumbersome snow boots out of a clinging pocket of snow.
At length we drew up to a soft slope that ended in a flat expanse that had roughly the dimensions of a football field. The shadow cast by the surrounding peaks was slowly pulling away from the white terrain, reflecting sunlight off of millions of ice crystals and pitching it directly into my unshielded eyes. An instructor asked me if I had any sunglasses and when I answered in the negative he deftly plucked the sunglasses from his own face and placed them firmly into my palm. He had brought snow goggles with him and had no need for glasses.

We gathered in a loose semi circle around the lead instructor. He was a genial man who exuded the mighty confidence of one accustomed to life in the snow. In Spanish he explained many things about the art and science of snowboarding. He showed us the honed edges of the board which feigned sharpness like the base of an ice skate. The keen edge could be used to hack into the snow to give us stability and prevent the board from slipping away or to prevent ourselves from being carried down the mountain by the presence of gravity and the absence of friction. The instructor likewise demonstrated the way in which we were to strap ourselves into the snowboard using the corrugated straps that were attached to the board. This was a process that was easy enough in principle yet the effort of bending forward over copious layers of clothing to wrestle the strap into the catch required a startling amount of dexterity and energy.

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The straps of the snowboard were simultaneously my prison and my freedom.

The tutorial was swift and uncomplicated, and then the instructor left us alone to take on the slope at our own pace. After minutes of struggling to attach myself to my board I arose and positioned myself so that I was facing the soft decline. Following the guidance of the instructor I bent my legs slightly at the knees and placed my weight onto my foremost leg and allowed gravity to take over. I was unafraid of falling because I knew that the snow was soft and would yield under my weight and that I would be unharmed in a fall. I had momentum for the briefest of moments before I came unbalanced and pitched forward violently with my board cresting over my body and raining fresh ice all over me. I emerged unharmed save for a sharp sting in my hands which I had flung out before me to cushion my fall. I fished my gloves from my pockets and pulled them onto my hands as a form of protection rather than a shield against the cold. In order to bring myself once again to the top of the rise I had to unfasten myself from the snowboard with a simple flick of the straps. It was an elementary act but one that preceded the more laborious tasks of hiking back to the top of the rise with snowboard in hand and then reattaching myself to the board. For every ten minutes that was spent walking and fiddling with straps I was able to achieve perhaps ten seconds of actual snowboarding. I do not count this as a tragedy since the sensation of gliding down the hill was highly exciting and we had been given all day to play on the snow.

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A man must embrace adversity head-on when it arises, even when that adversity is a wall of ice rising to strike you squarely in the face.

With each new foray down the slope I was able to stay on the board for longer moments, and at times I was even able to reach level ground without tumbling over myself. I was also becoming more adept at fastening my boots onto the board. Yet after several attempts I began to tire and overheat, and I sought respite on the sidelines with some of my cohorts. One of them hailed from the United States, and their talk fluctuated between English and Spanish. I joined in with them at times, but mostly my attention was captured by the old man Carlos, who had proven to be more resilient than most of us. His squat figure was adorned in a thick orange snow jacket that made him easy to pick out among the rabble of beginners who were falling over themselves and kicking up ice across the frozen expanse on which we found ourselves. A week before, he had confided to me that he had damaged his knee on a hike, but he showed no sign of discomfort or energy loss as he tackled the slope time and again. What I observed was a man who was brave and true and who did not falter when the time came for him to test himself. I, on the other hand, favoured the tea and sandwich that the instructors had begun handing out. The sandwich was wrapped in foil and the bread was tough and hurt the inside of my mouth when I bit into it, but the salami and lettuce provided sustenance and the end result was that the sandwich was one of the best I’d ever had.

After that simple lunch I took to the slope a few more times until fatigue outdistance my desire for excitement. I was neither the best nor the worst snowboarder on the slope, and as I unbuckled my boots for the last time I was aware that others had done the same thing. We were surrounded by snow on all sides and yet the sun was shining brightly and I had become uncomfortably warm, to the point where I had to remove the sweater I had on underneath my snow jacket. I realised, too, that I had not applied sunscreen to my exposed skin and I could already feel my face becoming sensitive to the touch. Not too long after that most of the group stopped snowboarding altogether and the instructors suggested we head back before it got dark. The journey on foot back to the van was even more difficult upon the return because now we lacked the energy. We walked slowly, and up ahead I saw the old man Carlos soldiering on, leading the group with one end of his snowboard dragging in the snow.

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