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!”

Advertisements

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

Snapshots

Stephen King’s book The Green Mile is told through the eyes of retired prison warden Paul Edgecombe. There is a point in the novel where he compares the writing of his memoir to a very old wind up car he used to own. On some mornings, he says, the car would have trouble starting, and he’d have to crank it again and again until the engine would finally ignite. On some particularly cold mornings it would feel as if the car was not going to start at all, no matter how many times Paul Edgecombe would crank it. In the end, however, the car would always start. In the same way, Paul Edgecombe would sit at his desk every day and begin writing, and the writing would always transport him back to his time at Cold Mountain Penitentiary. Some days it would take him longer to fall through that hole in the page than others, but he could always trust that he would fall through that hole eventually.
I totally understand Paul Edgecombe’s perspective. Writing is a very meditational exercise. Once I fall into that productive groove it feels as if my mind has shifted planes, but on some days it’s harder to find that groove than others. Some days I will sit at my laptop writing and deleting paragraph after paragraph for ages until I fall through the hole in the screen and start living my writing experience. It’s a process that can’t be rushed, but today I have set myself the challenge of writing a blog in one hour or less*.

You see, Dear Reader, my schedule has become dangerously full, to the point where I have no time in the week to do anything other than teach. I’ve not slept very much this week. My diet has gone out the window and I haven’t exercised at all. My mind is filled with lesson plans and and timetables and optimal bus routes. At the time of writing, I have 15 students that I see multiple times per week, and I suspect that in the time that I’ve been living in Chile, I have easily had over one hundred students. That’s a lot of people to get to know. I’ve forgotten most of their names and quite a number of their faces. Some linger in my memory more than most, for better or for worse. With some students, I remember moments rather than the people. There was the fellow who said “signify?” eight times in a row, straight-faced, because his pronunciation was off and he was trying to say it in such a way that I would understand him. There was the awkward moment when a rather fluent student said “hand job,” and I had to keep my composure while I told him the phrase he was looking for was “manual labour.” On more than one occasion, I have had students say the N-word in class because they did not understand its power.
So with all that in mind, I figured I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge some of the students** who have had a lasting effect on me.

I’ll never forget my first student. He was a squat man with square features who worked at a shampoo factory all the way out at the periphery of the city. I always thought that he looked like an Hispanic Joe Pesci. Joe’s enthusiasm for English was a few steps ahead of his ability, but he’d stumble ahead anyway in order to eagerly get his message across. From his office I could see the factory floor, with long conveyor belts, dormant for the day, where thousands of bottles of soap and shampoo would be bottled and packaged and sent off to suppliers all around the country. Joe seemed like a rough-and-tumble bloke. The type who might have had experience working on a factory floor, but he could expound on the science of soap for hours on end.

Shampoo
Short, angular, with “men” written all over it. That’s Joe to a T.

Montague’s company payed for his English classes on the condition that he follow a specific curriculum. This was a tragedy, because Montague and I connected instantly over movies and superheroes. I was happy to spend 90 minutes arguing over the virtues of Marvel Comics as opposed to DC, but company pressure meant that we had to curb our playful banter. I believe that in another life he and I could have been really good friends.

Rhododendron and Sylvére were a Spanish couple who were working towards doing their IELTS. It was the first time I had taught that course, and it was also my first class so late at night. What I remember most about teaching that couple is not only how cold I always felt while walking to their apartment in the dark, but also how they complemented each other perfectly. Sylvére was a strong and confident speaker, but he could never get his grammar quite right. Rhododendron, on the other hand, had the grammar down pat, but absolutely struggled to express herself. What haunts me about that class is Sylvére’s ringtone. It is a fairly common ringtone here, and I find it quite pleasant to listen to. But the first time I heard it was on those nights in their apartment, and I know that years from now the sound of that ringtone will transport me back there.

I have liked every student I’ve ever had, but part of me strongly suspects that Nathaniel was the bad guy. He was a stickler for procedure, and he’d often complain about the way his coworkers were far too relaxed about the rules and regulations of his company. He seemed to make enemies easily, and while I did my best to show sympathy, I couldn’t help but suspect that perhaps he was the one who might have been rubbing people the wrong way in the first place.

Groo
Don’t get me wrong: I really liked the guy.

Clarinet is the first student I had who started with no English whatsoever. Over time she has developed to the point of being conversational, and I am starting to think that if she and I could have a fluent conversation, I would laugh my head off. Her razor sharp wit is starting to come through in her English, and I wonder if she knows how funny she is. A few weeks ago, I told her that I had recently run a race and I had done quite well. She asked me what position I’d come, and I told her 9th. Her next question to me was, “And how many people ran in the race? Nine?”
Later on we were talking about superstition, and whether it was possible to predict the future. She said that she didn’t believe in such things, but that she did once go and consult a psychic. The word she used for psychic was “bruja,” which means witch, but I understood what she meant. She told me all the things her “witch” had told her, and then she looked off wistfully to the side and said in complete earnest, “But she’s dead now.”
Thinking I had misunderstood, I asked her to clarify. She said that she had tried to text the “witch” some time after their meeting, and the son texted back explaining that she had passed away.
“So now I don’t have a witch,” she said sadly.

However, I think the oddest student I’ve ever had the pleasure of teaching was a middle aged lawyer who worked for a prominent bank in Chile. This was a man who could not focus on anything for more than a few moments at a time. He was also a man with far more work piled onto him than was really fair. I would often sit in his office in silence while he worked on something else, textbook on my lap because his desk was overrun with piles upon piles of paperwork. He would sometimes be explaining something to me and then would stop mid-sentence to send an email. His phone would ring at least once per class, and those conversations would last for five minutes or more. He had a brusque manner, but I think he meant well. He would sometimes interrupt me and ask if I wanted a coffee, or at the end of a class we would fish an alfajor from his desk and say “You must eat this because my daughter brought it back from Argentina.”
On one particular day, during a class about illness and disease, he was busy speaking when suddenly he stood up. still talking, he walked to the back of his cluttered office and opened a filing cabinet, from which he extracted a small toiletry bag.
“I did a first aid course many years ago,” he was saying, “but I think I have forgotten everything from that course. My wife, on the other hand, is a nurse so if anything happens in the house I am going to brush my teeth.”
And then he left the office.

Toothbrush
To be fair, oral hygiene is extremely important.

*Okay, that first draft took like 80 minutes.
**have of course changed their names… Or have I? Chun chun chun!

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.

Cállate!

I’m not sure if I believe in magic, but after being shouted at by a homeless lady I came away believing in curses. I don’t completely understand what happened, but what I do know is that in the week that followed, nothing went right. I was constantly late for classes, I got on buses going the wrong way, and my perception of time became notably warped. I’d waste whole days with nothing to show for it. On other occasions, I’d sit in a class and be convinced that an hour had passed, only to find that I’d been there for ten minutes.
I don’t believe I had done anything to warrant the sudden and dramatic shift in my fortune. I hadn’t even wanted to be in the cafe in the first place, but when student protests caused a local university to shut down, my student, a lecturer, suggested that we have our class at the Starbucks across the road. The mornings were still cold, and we took a table close to the window in the hope that some early morning sunlight would grace us with its warmth.
I find this particular student quite interesting. He is young, athletic, and intelligent. He lectures philosophy in the Law Department, and he is deeply interested in social issues. He is vastly knowledgeable about the plight of the poor in Chile, and has written theses on causes and results of this condition. He is an advocate for positive change; he aims to uplift and improve the quality of life for all.

As it so happened, we were discussing the very subject of poverty when an example of the issue slouched in through the glass doors. I knew this woman. She was homeless and filthy, and an infamous feature of Santiago’s inner city. Her stench preceded her wherever she went, and persisted long after she was gone. There was an obnoxious arrogance to her pitiful state, as if her life were a savage protest against the world that had brought her this low. She knew full well of the discomfort she brought upon bystanders, and she reveled in it. She would stand close to people, and linger, a smug grin on her dark brown face. I’d seen her being chased out of posh restaurants, undress in public, and snatch cups of beer off outdoor pub tables, cackling as she did so.

When she walked into the Starbucks that morning, I did all I could to make myself as invisible as possible. This was difficult, as I was conducting an English class, and the sound of English in Chile tends to stand out like a ringing cellphone at a ballet performance.
I don’t presume to know what the woman’s vices are, but I do know that her mind has been pummeled until has become completely un-tethered from reality. This makes her entirely unpredictable and terrifying. She scurried past my student and me, and went straight to the back of the coffee shop, asking for money at the various tables in a pattern that made no sense at all. At one point she went and sat down in a booth directly next to another customer and completely ignored him. She was obviously playing a joke on him, using her repulsive presence to unsettle the man. Moments later, he and his date got up and left. This behaviour went on for a while longer, the hag hassling people who wanted nothing to do with her. I suspect she was doing it more for sport than for money.
Eventually a barista appeared – the unlucky candidate selected to deal with the nuisance- and held the door open and demanded that the homeless woman leave. She left when told, but she traipsed out of the door at an unhurried pace.

Ghostbusters
Pictured: Accurate re-enactment of the homeless woman being sent out of Starbucks.

Whenever I try to recall the type of clothing that the homeless woman wears, I can only conjure up images of brown rags hanging off of a hunched and rounded frame. But I have noted that on the occasions when I’ve seen her, she has always been wearing a different shirt. So somewhere she has a wardrobe of sorts, and she must have the presence of mind to change clothes once in a while. I suppose that when I see her I don’t see a person. I see terror and trouble and an aspect of humanity that I don’t want to believe could exist.

Pigeon Lady Home Alone
Or maybe I’m thinking of the Pigeon Lady from Home Alone.

When she left the Starbucks I tried to relax, but I was still a little bit wound up. My student and I passed a few good-natured comments about the unfortunate state of homeless people in Santiago, and then got back to the lesson. I couldn’t really focus, though, because I was haunted by the thought that the homeless woman was still in the area, and my chest tightened when I noticed her stumbling back into the coffee shop a few minutes later. This time, she was doing the rounds closer to our table, and inevitably she stopped beside us with her hand held out, cupped and waiting. My student politely told her that we didn’t have money for her, and we tried to go on with our discussion. The homeless woman remained immobile.
It is something I appreciate about beggars in Santiago – that they don’t pester. Once you say no, they wish you a good day and move on. In fact, the homeless lady had been doing that with the other patrons, but this time she would not move away. I suspect she was mesmerized by the sound of a foreign language being spoken, so after a few awkward sentences I turned back to her and said, peacefully, “No tenemos dinero.”
For someone as undernourished and addled as she was, she moved with lightning speed. She shot her face closer to mine, her bottom lip pulled back in such a snarl that I could see the tobacco-black bottom row of her teeth, and without even hauling breath she screamed long and loud into my face:

CÁLLATE!”

I was stunned. Without truly hearing what she had said, I had done exactly as she’d asked. I had shut up, as had everyone else in the cafe who had instantly turned to see the spectacle. The homeless woman straightened up and turned away, her frazzled hair looking like a slow motion fireworks display. She sauntered down along the tables and screamed again.

CÁLLATE!”

And then she took a swing. With all her might, her right palm arced upwards and collided with her face at full force. It wasn’t us who had to shut up, it was the voices in her own head. The woman continued to stomp past the tables, repeating the command like some sort of chant: “Cállate! Cállate! Cállate!” Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!
And with each outburst she would smack herself in the face as hard as she could. The ritual continued until she had made her way towards the door, but she only left when the barista reappeared and ushered her out. I watched her stalk off, continuing the ritual of berating and slugging herself. The glass walls weren’t fully soundproof, and the sound of her cries continued even after she had left my line of sight.

Black Pearl
From that moment, I was as cursed as the Black Pearl.

I reached for my coffee, and had to use both hands to steady the cup. “Are you okay?” I asked my student. He didn’t answer me right away. Instead he tilted his head down and to the side, the perfectly round lenses of his glasses catching a ray of mid-morning sun, turning his eyes into a pair of white discs.
“You know,” he said presently, “in a way, she is our fault. She is the product of a society that couldn’t help her.”
I tried to commiserate, but my head was still buzzing from the assault. I felt violated and humiliated, and I didn’t know how to get things back on track. Fortunately, after five minutes of staggered discussion, my student mumbled that he actually had to leave the class early in order to show his solidarity in the protests that were happening nearby.

It was no doubt an awful start to a bad week. As things continued to go wrong, I couldn’t help but to attribute all the unfortunate events to the woman who had shouted at me. Surely she had cursed me. Everything I believed about good luck and bad luck had become inverted, and I couldn’t turn things around. I felt as if her scent had gotten onto me and wouldn’t wash off. It was in my clothes and hair and skin. In a final act of defiance, I told myself that at least the whole thing had given me grounds for a good blog post. But she hadn’t given me that either. There was no narrative arc. There was no resolution to the curse. Things started going badly, and then they slowly stopped going badly, but without any perceivable switch. Nothing concrete had broken the spell, it just dissipated. However, I will say this: If anything, writing this article has given me some catharsis. So there’s that.

Buses and Abuses

Earlier this week, the cold resurfaced in one final last-ditch effort to make my life a misery, like a horror movie serial killer hamming up the final jump scare. This makes waiting for a bus decidedly distasteful, and if you know anything about me, you’ll know that waiting for buses is just about all I do. It was particularly unpleasant last Monday, when the city had virtually shut down over the threat of potential political protests. This meant that regular rides were few and far between, and I had to wait much longer than usual for my lift home.

By the time a bus eventually pulled up, huffing and scrapping like a colossal dying nematode, I was already in a bad mood. It was late at night, and I was cold. I also needed to go to the bathroom, but that was always a given. The cold weather has a way of making my bladder contract whenever I step outside.
The bus arrived in the usual fashion: break pads wailing, hydraulics wheezing, and the sound of something metal dragging along underneath. A lot of the buses in the city are the accordion type, with a spongy middle section that allows the twenty-meter-long behemoth to negotiate corners. Upon hearing its arrival, one always expects that it is on the verge of snapping in half, or breaking down entirely.

Bus
This is the typical Santiago bus, looking just like one of those sandworms from Dune.

After an extended chorus of hissing and screeching, the saloon-like doors jerked open, and I stepped off a deserted street that should have been humming with traffic,and into the madhouse that was a TranSantiago bus. I swiped my Bip! card over the scanner and mumbled a cursory “Hola” to the driver. He was middle-aged and male, with a large paunch and a clean-shaven face, passive and bespectacled, with deep-set wrinkles.
At least, I believe that’s what he looked like. In truth I hardly give a second glance to the person sitting in the glass booth, and this time was no different. His puffy black coat only served to make him fade further into the background. I was already annoyed that I’d had to wait so long, and I was transferring my frustration onto the fellow who was just doing his job.
Being on the bus didn’t do much to improve my mood. It was fractionally warmer, but a window was open somewhere, and no one moved to close it. People sat in silence, staring into their phones or huddling together for warmth. Everyone was dressed in black. Black jackets, black coats, black scarves, black beanies. Black mood. Sometimes people on the night bus are rowdy, or drunk. But mostly they just sit or stand, and hush and huddle.

By and large, the bus is never a pleasant place. It’s breezy when the weather’s cold, and sweltering when the weather’s warm. It’s loud in all the worst ways: things scrape and squeak, babies scream, teenagers cajole, lovers quarrel, people blast music. There’s graffiti everywhere. It’s dirty and often more crowded than you could ever think possible. Young people stomp onto the bus without paying, and the driver takes no action. The vehicle itself lurches along violently and unpredictably, leaving you in a constant state of imbalance. At times the bell doesn’t work, or the driver doesn’t hear it, and he’ll sail right past your intended stop, forcing you to walk a few extra blocks.

Get off my train
This guy told me to get off his train, even though it was a bus.

On this particular night, the bus stopped at the place I intended to get off, but before I could reach the exit, squeezing myself through the throng of somber ghosts, the driver had pulled the doors closed again with all the clanking and hissing he could muster, and so over the din I called “Señor! La puerta, por favor!”
I was certain that he must have heard me, and there were a few seconds of silence as everyone on board waited for the doors to reopen.
It’s embarrassing enough to have to start shouting in such a public place, and that embarrassment was compounded when the driver, ignoring my call, began to accelerate.
Now everyone on the bus knew that I had missed my stop. I felt like a fool, and there was nothing for it but to simply wait until the bus stopped again. The driver certainly didn’t care, and by now he had become my number one enemy.
A minute later, I got off the bus several blocks away from my stop, and I was in a fine fury. On top of being cold and requiring a bathroom, I had also been humiliated on the bus and had been taken far out of my way. I was angry at the driver for all of that. I wanted to demonstrate my displeasure at him, but kicking the back of a departing bus doesn’t help. All I could do was pull my jacket tighter around me, and stomp off home, cursing the man who had put me in this position. As I pounded the pavement I pondered the driver who was at that moment hurtling into the night, with many more miles to go. He was still stuck on that cold, clamorous hunk of metal, and would be until his shift ended, possibly hours from now. That thought gave me some satisfaction. I thought about how I would be able to relieve myself in only a few more minutes, while the driver didn’t have such liberty. I thought about how embarrassed I’d been to call to the bus driver, and I wondered how many people shouted at him on a daily basis. I imagined that some of the people who shouted at him probably didn’t use the word “Señor.”
I thought about his work environment. I had been on that bus for about fifteen minutes, and that was enough to lower my mood. Having to spend hours in that atmosphere must be awful. In my job, I talk to friendly people in calm, comfortable surroundings. Everyone the bus driver serves either treats him with aggression or doesn’t see him at all, just like I had. Most buses are riddled with vandalism. I could imagine that a driver wouldn’t dare take the risk of admonishing anyone who caused trouble. To do so would be to invite the threat of harm. Out of a sense of safety, bus drivers have no choice but to allow people to invade the bus without paying, and remain silent when they begin to tear it apart from the inside. Being a bus driver must be lonely, terrifying, and miserable.

By the time I reached my apartment, my anger had turned to sympathy and sadness. I suppose we all get mad at public transport from time to time. And maybe some bus drivers do revel in being unpleasant. But for the most part I cannot stay mad at them. It’s an awful job, and if anything I am grateful to them for doing it at all.

Bip! Card
This is a Bip! card, but that is not my hand.

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.