Call Me El Gid Old

Chapter 1: What the Hell is this Nonsense?

June 18, 2020
(c) 2020 Aardvarks Are Wee, LLC

Those who follow me on Facebook know that I have a few recurring themes for my posts.

There are the Arlington Nature Chronicles, which consists of my wry observations on nature, sly humor, pictures of animals, and whatever other random shit I want to blather on about.

Leadership is a passion of mine, so there is also the Leadership Quote of the Week, where I post, wait for it, leadership quotes. Most weeks, anyway. OK, some weeks. You seem to like them, and I thank you for that. As recent events have shown, leadership matters. I want us all to be better at it.

I have Tiny Art, where I post pictures of the artwork that I see in people’s yards while I am out and about in the neighborhood. Garden gnomes, statutes, glass, paintings, odd trinkets. People like to dismiss the arts, but here’s the conundrum: we sure like to have it around us. For me, it’s an excuse to keep my eyes open and my phone in my pocket while I walk my dogs. Until I see something I like, of course, and then I need the phone to take the photo. Conundrum number 2!

No one can forget the grotesque beauty of Mucous Haiku! Even with therapy.

And then I sometimes post photos and pretend they are in an art museum of some sort, with an art museum-like heading. It’s silly, and I crack myself up every time.

Today I turn 60. 60 damned years old! It seems like a huge milestone. Like something I should think about. On the one hand, I have lived a blessed life so far, sprinkled with great adventures, mischievous shenanigans, not too many arrests, the love of my family and friends, and dozens of warm memories. All of that makes me happy. I have more than a few stories I would like to share with you about that.

On the other hand, the pandemic is turning the world upside down, civil unrest is raging across the country, and the very foundations of our democracy appear to be crumbling to dust before our eyes. Those parts of our current world make me unbearably sad. That existential dread has made me ponder life as well.

All of this age and happiness and sadness has turned me introspective. What better way to process my thoughts than to start another thread to share my memories of this whacky, wonderful, worrisome life I have lived so far?

I am calling it “Call Me El Gid: Reflections of an Accidental Zoologist.” You just read chapter one.

Chapter 2: Call Me El Gid? What the Fuck Does That Mean?

June 19, 2020
(c) 2020 Aardvarks Are Wee, LLC

Names are funny things. Nicknames, even funnier. By funny, of course, I mean odd. Or disturbing. Nonsensical. Some of them are throwbacks to childhood humiliations or misadventures. They can be a weapon, used to taunt or bully or mock. There are those based, honestly or ironically, on some bodily feature.

They might be based on your job. True story, a group I was with once had a marshmallow roast with a branch of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang. One of whom was nicknamed “Digger,” because he dug graves for a living.

Some are just short forms or diminutive versions of someone’s “legal” name. I have never liked those. Or at least I have never liked the reason for those. If you want to call your kid Mike, name the little fucker Mike, not Michael. Mea culpa, my daughter Sadie’s legal name is not Sadie. We knew we would call her Sadie, which was based on my great-grandmother’s (great-great?) name. I wanted to just name her Sadie and be done with it. I was overruled.

My name is Jerry, which is okay, I guess. My legal name is Jerold. Sorry, Mom and Dad, but I have always hated Jerold. I like the unique spelling, but it’s just not me. I never used it – ever – until those pricks attacked us on 9/11. Before long, we had to put our legal names on airplane tickets and government emails and the like. Then Jerold, which I thought I had long since sealed forevermore into the Cupboard of Abandoned Names, slithered out and attached itself to me again, a malignant, unwanted, shadow.

Besides Jerry, I have had other nicknames. “Tiger,” when I was a kid, because I like tigers. I didn’t like that one much either. Over the years I have answered to “Jer,” “Jer Bear,” El Jefe, Lord Gidner. None of them stuck.

But then there is “El Gid.”

It was 1991. I had just escaped a hellish year-long stint at a corrupt law firm that was imploding in Annapolis, Maryland for a job at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC. I’ll tell that tale another time, but it involved a white-water rafting trip, an interview on crutches, and giving 18 hours’ notice before leaving the law firm.

My boss at the EPA was a man named Mike Walker. Now retired, Mike was a joy to work for. He was brilliant, whacky, frenetic, gleefully inappropriate. A performance artist with every breath he took. I learned a lot from Mike and have never laughed so much and so loud at work before or since.

To say Mike has a way with words is like saying the sun can be a mite toasty. A drastic understatement. I don’t remember exactly when it happened. One of the many times I sat on the couch in Mike’s office, I suppose, laughing until I nearly pissed myself as he riffed on random topics. One day, casually pointing at me, he called me “El Gid.” I don’t know where it came from. A corruption of “El Cid?” Random nonsense? Who the hell knows? It doesn’t matter, I guess. I liked it and it stuck.

Those days at the EPA were thirty years ago, and as I moved on to the Department of the Interior, fewer people knew the nickname or used it. But some still do, and other than “Dad,” it’s my favorite nickname of all time. As the title of this series requests, call me El Gid.

Chapter 3: What Kind of Dumb Fucker Accidentally Becomes a Zoologist?

June 20, 2020
(c) 2020 Aardvarks Are Wee, LLC

My dad spent his career in the aerospace industry. Wright Patterson Air Force base in Dayton, Boeing in Philly, Bell Helicopter in Ft. Worth, and finally Boeing again, in Seattle. I can’t say I know what he did all the time, but one year he spent most of the year on business in Australia! Overall, the airplane and helicopter business kept me fed and put me through college, and although a cyclical industry, it seemed like a decent career. Except for those occasional times when the cycle hit bottom.

Somewhere around 1982, I was working on a double major in Physiology and Fish and Wildlife Biology at Michigan State University. I was solidly on the 5-year plan and had just finished the fourth year. There were visions of vet school after that (spoiler alert – never applied). It was right about then that the aerospace industry took a nosedive (bad term?) and my dad was out of work for a time.

Which is to say I lost my gravy train and needed a job.

Fortunately, I had worked the Summer before as a Park Ranger at Fitzgerald Park in Grand Ledge, Michigan, maybe 15 miles west of East Lansing. “The Ledges” as the park was known, was the home of the Eaton County Parks and Recreation Department. Famous for sandstone cliffs, a fish ladder, and a lichen not usually found that far south. My job included cutting the grass, building fences, maintaining trails. I opened the park in the morning and closed it at night. One thing I learned: If you chatted up the groups that reserved the picnic pavilions, they invited you to eat with them, and you kept yourself pretty well fed. The usual stuff of parks.

About the time I realized I needed a job, the Parks Naturalist left. The Parks Director encouraged me to apply. It was no big surprise then when I was offered the permanent position.

But the offer came with a catch. The job required a bachelor’s degree, which I didn’t have. Fortunately, we were able to cut a deal. They gave me until December of 1982 to graduate. I talked to an advisor at MSU and we made an interesting discovery. Both Physiology and Fish and Wildlife Biology required a number of zoology classes. Although I had a year to go to finish the double major, I was one lone credit away from a Zoology degree. I took the job, switched my major to Zoology, took a forgettable night class that Fall, and that December, I became a zoologist. Accidently.

Chapter 4: There Will be Swearing.

June 21, 2020
(c) 2020 Aardvarks Are Wee, LLC

Around 1310 in jolly old Chester, England, court records mentioned a man named Roger Fuckebythenavale.1 The entry, believed by historians to reference a nickname, marked the first known written use of the greatest linguistic accomplishment known to humankind: The word fuck.

I consider that moment in time to be one of glorious liberation and great beginnings for those of us who swear. Those of you who don’t swear can just fuck off.

Today’s chapter is just a trigger warning of sorts. This series will be, I hope, funny, poignant, thoughtful, madcap, or at least entertaining. Most of all, I hope it is real and raw and a true representation of a life that I consider to be well lived to this point. It can’t be that unless my writing is honest.

And honestly, I swear. A lot. Routinely. Persistently. I hope creatively. My mind generates swear words like cows produce farts. In my febrile brain, there are few taboos around swear words. Given a bit of inspiration, I can produce new combinations of swear words, animals, and improbable sexual interactions at blinding speed. I swear like a dying sailor who just caught the clap from a dead sheep. Apparently, that zoology degree was a good investment after all.

What’s more, I like to swear. I like the way swear words sound. The way they feel when I say them. The emphasis they bring and the reactions they produce. My brain just simply feels better when I am cursing.

Swear words are versatile, colorful, have hundreds of uses, can be combined in infinite ways, and are usually present when you step on something sharp. Swear words are linguistic Legos!

This series will contain swearing.If that offends you, stop reading it, and go bugger a dying sheep. Or a walrus. Or something. If it doesn’t, come the fuck in and pull up a chair. We have stories to tell.


Chapter 5: Who is El Gid?

June 22, 2020
© Aardvarks Are Wee, LLC

Who am I, and why am I writing this? By day I am a mild-manner Federal Executive. By night, I am a . . . well, an old, tired 60-year-old guy, with body parts that hurt at odd times for no apparent reason, and an inability to pee straight. But it was not always thus.

Looking back over my life, I had some wonderful interesting times and outstanding adventures. I was 38-years-old when our oldest daughter was born. When our youngest came along, already 43. Do the math: I lived over half my life before my kids came along. They only know the slower, staider (yet still hilarious) Dad me of the past 20 years. There is a lot of invisible iceberg below that tip.

We are a family of introverts. By and large we are cynical and sarcastic loners. We are not big on dinner around the table, basking in family love and eager, bright-eyed cries of “tell me the time you slept in a storage room at the hotel at the bird sanctuary in India.” (true story). Or “tell us about the horse you owned who kept bucking you off.” (true story). Or, “what was it like when you went sky-diving?” (yes, true story. Twice.).

Some families live that way, and I get that. Family bliss. Lively, pertinent conversation. No elbows on the table. No farts. No burps. That’s not us.

Assuming we even eat together given our schedules, its likely to be on the couch, pets sprawled all around, and me dribbling food down my ubiquitous T-shirt. Sweatshirt, if its winter. Streaming whatever show we are binge watching that day, week, month, year. Right now its Gilmore Girls (When Rory and Dean will break up?)

It all doesn’t leave much time for spinning yarns about life in the olden days. But for me, those days were good ones.

This, then, is a record for my kids, if they ever want to know more about their dad. A chronicle for me, to organize my thoughts, before they drip from my brain in my dotage and disappear into the unknown history of the world. Perhaps a base to plan for whatever – hopefully long – future I have left.

If I can entertain some of you along the way, so much the better.

So, who is El Gid? Besides an accidental zoologist? I am a husband. A dad. A son. I try to be my best I can be at all of those often-competing roles. I hope I succeed at least as much as I fail.

A twitchy bastard of the first order. I have Tourette Syndrome.

Writing is one of the hardest things I have ever done. Yet still I do it (poems, kid’s books, sci-fi, shit like this post). To write, you have to read, and I do, avidly and unceasingly (murder mysteries, sci-fi and fantasy, history).

I am a fan of John Denver and renewable energy. That seems incongruous, but this is my story; you can tell your own.

Defining much of my life and my career, I am a citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

Traveling both excites and terrifies me. I have been fortunate enough, though, to visit 17 countries (wish it were more), 49 states (Hawaii, you bitch, I will see you someday), and nearly 100 Native American reservations. Each trip has taught me something about the world and myself. More recently those lessons include how good it feels to just be back home. My wander lust is ebbing, particularly in these virus times. I hope the world, and my desire to see it, return at some point.

My more adventurous activities include skydiving, scuba diving, rock-climbing, zip-lining, parasailing, hang gliding (one lesson, but still), white water rafting, mountain climbing, rappelling, jet skiing, and more.

Since I have a degree in zoology, I guess I am lucky to have encountered dozens of wild animals in their own worlds, including bats, moose, tarantulas, bears, sharks, howler monkeys, elk, crocodiles, and elephants. Chapter 7 will tell the story of one of those encounters.

The future and technology fascinate me. What comes next? And what comes after that? And after that? Is it good or bad? Skynet or penicillin?

I love archeology and the unfolding stories of the ancestors. I love history, which after all is just archeology that is not quite ripe, and the future of people long since dead. My favorite time period of history to study, relevant for the times we live in, is the European exploration, theft, and occupation of what is now the Americas. Sounds like a good topic for Chapter 6.

Chapter 6: Continental Grift

June 23, 2020
© Aardvarks Are Wee, LLC

Chaos. Transformational change. I love it. At work, I am not the guy to put in charge of a place and keep it running just the way it is. I would be nodding off in 5 minutes and waking up only to escape down the freight elevator in 10. Give me a place that needs to be turned upside-down and inside-out. That’s what makes my blood sing. I call it “shaking the snow globe.”

Maybe that is why my major interest in history starts about 500 years ago, when the Europeans made their way to what is now the Americas, taking the land from the Indigenous populations with the economic help of Black slaves stolen from Africa. Let me state it a different way: When the white, inbred, narcissistic, small-dicked, racist, fuckwad toddlers of Europe committed genocide for money.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t like this period of history. It was morally repugnant. It was theft and slaughter of monumental proportions. On a world scale, it left emotional and environmental and political scars that even centuries later, have not begun to heal. On a personal scale, the violence, violation, and devastation, for too many, was unimaginable.

As an amateur historian though, I come back to it time and time again. There are three reasons, really.

The first is the chaos and complexity. It was a clash of cultures and civilizations unlike any I can think of (I am an amateur historian – undoubtedly someone will claim a different example is more applicable). Ponder the scope of it: three races and four continents. Yes, I know, race is a social construct! But a construct with damning consequences, and therefore relevant to our shared history. But beyond that, neither Europe, nor Africa, nor the Americas were monolithic or homogenous. Each had its own profusion of cultures, languages, religions, political rivalries, germs, and dreams. Each its own heroes and villains. This spinning kaleidoscope makes understanding the whole malignant cluster fuck that much more daunting.

England, Spain, France, and the Netherland all had their own reasons for, and methods of, operating in the “New World.” Those differences are evident in the status of Indigenous populations across North and South America even today, half a millennium later.

The Europeans and the Indigenous tribes each exploited the political rivalries of the other for their own gains. Africans from different tribes and cultures were forcibly melded into one enslaved body, with impacts on language and culture still evident today. I could go on and on about the tangled threads of this story. The wheels within wheels within wheels. A living Rube Goldberg machine relentlessly spinning through space and time. I can’t change what happened in those hundreds of years. But despite the horror of the atrocities, the multifaceted nature of that 500 years of history draws me ever back to learn more.

The second reason is that the history has not ended. It is today’s story. It is the present. We live it today. The daily racist mistreatment of non-whites in the United States. The imposed poverty. The systemic barriers. The snubs, big and small. The murders by police officers. The lynchings! For fucks sake, it is 2020 and we have lynchings.

The same forces that drove the last 500 years of European entitlement is as alive and well today as when Christopher Columbus, the genocidal pedophile, first wet dreamed about sailing East. We cannot understand the United States today if we don’t understand the centuries that came before.

The third reason is this: I am indigenous (Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa). So are my children. And I am European (English, German, Norwegian, Irish, English, at least). So are my children. The exultation and agony of the last 500 years are built into my DNA. With my every breath a ship of racist attackers crashes ashore, guns pointed forward. With every beat of my heart, the blood of my ancestors stains the ground red.

And so, I return, over and over, to studying the history of my ancestors, to learn what I can about myself.

Whew! That was heavy, and not really a story about things I have done. But important information about where I come from. With writing, sometimes what has to come out is not what you thought when you started. So be it. Tomorrow, on a lighter note, watching bats.

Chapter 7: Millions of Bats

June 24, 2020
© Aardvarks Are Wee, LLC

No one wanted to fly in the weeks after 9/11. I sure as hell did not. But I was in a Senior Executive Service Candidate Development Program with the Federal Government. We had a previously scheduled week of training in San Antonio, Texas, a couple weeks after the attack. So, we went.

I can’t speak for others, but that flight was stressful. The plane was nowhere near full, and everyone was on edge. I eyed the other passengers warily, ready to go medieval on them if they dared to fart in the wrong flavor.

Fortunately, the flight was without incident, and the course went off as planned. I guess. I honestly don’t remember what we learned that week. Not a bit of the content. I remember the Riverwalk in San Antonio, dinner on a boat, a trip to the Alamo, and a resulting Junior Ranger badge that got passed around the class as a sarcastic prize. Most of all, though, I remember the bats.

One of our classmates had a friend or relative who worked at the Bracken Cave, a preserve about 20 miles from San Antonio. She arranged for us to go there one night to watch the bats leave the cave for their nightly hunt.

I had never heard of the place, which should probably be embarrassing to an accidental zoologist. But I was glad to learn about it. And more grateful yet to experience it. As their website says:

“Bracken Cave is the summer home of more than 15 million Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis), making it the world’s largest bat colony and one of the largest concentration of mammals on earth. The emergence of these millions of bats, as they spiral out of the cave at dusk for their nightly insect hunt, is an unforgettable sight.”

It truly was remarkable. I don’t remember how we got there, how far we had to walk from the entrance to where we sat, or much else about it. But I remember the bats.

We sat on stones ringing the depression that held the entrance to the cave. I think the bats can come out before dark, but I remember it as being evening. A pleasant September night in Texas. The sky was clear, the air was warm, the dusk descending like a gentle rain. The anticipation was high, as we peered caveward. Waiting.

At last they came. Just one or two at first, vague shadows flapping counterclockwise through the sky, leathery wings scraping the night. Then more. More again. Hundreds of the little fuckers. Thousands. Until they filled the sky and blocked the remaining light and all you could see was bats. Heading out to strip the Texas skies of millions of insects. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of the mosquito-eating buggers making their nightly rounds.

The massive bat exodus reminded me of the nights, only a few weeks before, in the immediate days following the attack, when flights were grounded. The skies were quiet by day. The nights, though, were filled with the high-pitched hum of fighter planes patrolling the skies over our nation’s capital. I could not ignore the comparison between small, nimble fighter planes, and these tiny, miraculous creatures, each launching themselves into the ink-black heavens. Each a predator. On the hunt.

There was something calm about it. Transcendent. Maybe there was peaceful strength in knowing the skies held allies. Maybe it was the realization that some things would continue as always. That in the midst of uncertain times, despite whatever atrocities humans imposed on themselves, these bats were constant. They scoured the world that night. As they had every night into the distant past. As they would every night into the distant future. Maybe it was just that momentary connection with the miracle of nature. Regardless, I left that place a different man.

The bats flew on and on and on, up and up and into the night, seemingly for hours. We didn’t stay until the end. At some point it was dark, and you could hear the wings, but could no longer see the bats themselves. Eventually we left and returned to the mundane world. All these years later, though, I can still feel the hard rocks digging into my ass, the slow creep from light to dark, the awe it inspired, and the unending whoosh of a million bat wings churning through the air. Into the future.

Chapter 8: Scuba Diving in Belize

June 25, 2020
© Aardvarks Are Wee, LLC

The best decision I ever made was to marry Amy Sosin. We had a small, intimate wedding in our townhouse on Saturday, October 19, 1991. And went back to work on Monday, October 21, two days later. The honeymoon waited several months, until Spring 1992, when we spent three weeks traveling around Belize. In hindsight, I can’t remember all the reasons that we picked Belize. But one was the possibility of scuba diving on the coral reefs.

In preparation, we took a scuba class in Arlington, VA. The classroom part was as one might expect. Important, but forgettable from the vantage point of 2020, 28 years later.

The water part was held at the pool at Yorktown High School. (Side note: Yorktown is in north Arlington. At the time we took this training, we lived in south Arlington and no idea where the school was. Nor did we have kids. The wheel of time rolled forward, as it does, and we ended up living a mile from the school and having two kids go there). The training was fun, but odd. Just something about taking that first breath underwater that makes you appreciate NOT breathing underwater. In any event, it took some doing, but we both passed the course and were ready to get certified with open water dives.

If you live in Arlington, the choices for certification dives are limited. You dive in what was described to us as some cold muddy quarry west of Arlington. Or you go somewhere else.

That’s where Belize came in. Originally the home of the Mayans, Belize is a hodgepodge of cultural influences. Indigenous. Spanish. Pirates. African slaves. Garifuna (descendants of Carib and Africans who had escaped slavery). Overlaid with the relentless bureaucracy of the eventual British colonizers, who called it British Honduras until Belize regained independence in 1981.

With ocean, islands, and coral reefs to the east, rainforest and wildlife blanketing the country, and Mayan ruins tucked away everywhere, like hidden eggs on Easter Sunday, it is a fascinating country with a lot to offer the curious.
We spent our first week there on the islands. If memory serves, we took our certification dives with Frenchie’s Diving Services on Caye Caulker (still there!

Certification consists of 4 dives and it was just Amy, some young, clueless guy whose name we can’t remember, the instructor, and me.

Our first dive was in about 20 feet of water, and we were going to start all the way on the bottom. The boat ride there was choppy though, and after we anchored, and were getting ready to dive, I was close to throwing up. The Dive Instructor saw my distress, and since I was suited up and ready to go, he told me to get in the water and meet them on the ocean floor.

I sat on the edge of the boat, held the regulator so it wouldn’t pop out of my mouth, and rolled backwards into the Caribbean Sea. It was like something I might have watched on Flipper as a kid. A few minutes later, I was kneeling on the underwater sand, marveling at the beauty around me, all seasickness long forgotten. It was silly, since it was our very first dive, but that whole experience of flipping of the boat and getting to the bottom by myself made me actually feel like I was a scuba diver.

What an amazing place to dive! The reefs were colorful, bountiful, and thriving with animals Over 500 species, and it seems like we saw most of them: Angel fish, triggerfish, nurse sharks, manta rays, turtles. The water was multiple shades of green and blue, beyond my ability to name them, each more stunning than the last. And so clear. On one of our dives, the water was about 120 feet deep, and we were diving 60 feet down. From there, we could see the sand on the bottom as if it was just below our feet. Looking up, we could clearly see gulls wheeling across the sky above the water.

We did the four dives over two days and became certified scuba divers. After that, one of us got sick – I think it was me – and we didn’t dive again. Or in all the years since, for that matter. Of all the adventure sports I have done, though, scuba diving is the one I would most like to do again. Maybe someday, if we get past this fucking virus.

We did snorkel a couple times that week, but between the scuba, the snorkeling, me being sick, and someone cutting the screen window of our hotel room and stealing my wallet off a table, WHILE WE WERE SLEEPING IN THE ROOM, we were ready for our week on the islands to be over. So, we headed to the mainland, for howler monkeys, tapirs, tarantulas, Tikal, a special sunrise, and committing an international crime. More about that in the next couple of days.

Chapter 9: “¿Tikal aqui?”

June 26, 2020
© Aardvarks Are Wee, LLC

The border crossing between Belize and Guatemala was not a substantial place. More of a concept, really. A plain, squat building on one side of the border; its companion on the other. Lots of men in green uniforms. The actual border was not well marked. More or less on a whim, we had decided to rent a truck in Belize City, so we could drive to Tikal, one of the more famous Mayan ruins in the world.

I remember that we parked the truck and went inside, to get our passports stamped. Back in the truck, at what appeared to be the border, a guard stopped us, glared at us suspiciously, and looked at our paperwork for a very long time. Finally, wordlessly, he nodded for us to drive through.

The road from the border to Tikal was lined with lush green hills, and small farms. It was a sweltering day and the air conditioning in the truck did not work. The only way to keep cool was to drive fast with the windows down. Sadly, for that plan, the road was dirt and lined with potholes the size of full-grown elk. Craters really. I had to steer around them when I could, or creep in and out of them when I couldn’t. In either case, it wasn’t fast enough to get a breeze. It was slow, it was 100 degrees, and the slow-motion surfing through the elk craters made me seasick.

It was hard to tell how far we went, or if we were on the right track, although truthfully, there were no other roads so we could hardly have taken a wrong turn. I did get worried though, so at one point, when I saw a farmer working in a field near the road, I got out and waved to get his attention. Some people have a real ear for languages and can pick them up easily. I am not one of those people. The amount I remembered from high school Spanish could have fit in a thimble, with room left over for one of those elk. And its entire family.

I was reduced to asking, “¿Tikal, aqui?” and pointing my arm down the road in the direction we were driving. I knew it was not the right word. Not eloquent. Or elegant. Three-year-old Spanish speakers would have laughed at me, called me pendejo, and probably kicked me in the balls in contempt. But after a few minutes of watching this idiotic tourist butchering his language, the farmer nodded and said, “Si.” So, we were back on the road.

A lot of the places we had stayed in Belize City were not right for us. They were either hostels, which catered to a younger, more care-free crowd and were woefully short on creature comforts. At those places, we were the oldest and richest people in residence. Or there were higher end places catering to a more sophisticated clientele. At those, we were the youngest, poorest people. But the Hotel Gringo Perdido was just right. Located on Lago del Peten Itza in El Remate, Guatemala, about 40 miles south of Tikal, it seemed like a great place to stop for the night. I am guessing it still is:

The owner served us dinner, with several other guests, on a patio by the lake. One big table seating maybe twelve of us. It was more dinner party than hotel dining room fare. I don’t remember what we ate or what we talked about particularly, but I do remember the other guests were in our general age range, and it was just about the only place we stayed on our whole trip where that was the case. I clearly remember sitting there for several pleasant hours, with the lake water lapping below us, and flickering candles casting shadows on a deep red cloth that covered the table from end to end.

According to the owner, he was, at the time, Guatemala’s only triathlete. Part of his training regime was to swim in the lake adjacent to the hotel. I don’t remember how it happened, but somehow, Amy and I helped with a training swim. The three of us putted across the lake in a small motorboat. On the way over, he told us about the crocodiles that lived in the lake. The freshwater crocodiles of that lake, according to him, were not carnivorous. Or didn’t attack humans. Or something. Which seems like something an accidental zoologist should know, but I didn’t. Maybe he was making it up.

In any event, when we reached the far side of the lake, crocodiles or no, he jumped overboard and swam back, with me steering the boat behind him.

Coming up next: Sunrise Surprise.

Chapter 10: Sunrise Surprise

June 27, 2020
© Aardvarks Are Wee, LLC

The Maya arrived in the area now known as Tikal, Guatemala, around 900 BC. Over the centuries, the area grew into a major cultural and business center, supporting nearly 100,000 people in the 8th century AD. The empire collapsed, for reasons not fully known, at the end of the 9th century AD.

Tikal is now a major tourist site, home to more than 3,000 buildings, many still buried, shrouded by rainforest, in the midst of the one million-hectare Maya Biosphere Reserve.

Amy and I headed to Tikal from the Gringo Perdido hotel. After torturing bemused entry guards with my bad Spanish, we made our way into the reserve, parking near the on-site campgrounds, early one morning, the sun just beginning to turn the dew to steam.

The place is magnificent. Ancient mossy stone temples poking above an unending canopy of trees. Dozens of species of birds singing from hidden perches, invisible amongst the thick foliage, their whistles echoing across the open ground of the Grand Plaza.

We poked around in the temples, exploring what nooks and crannies were open to public access. It was truly profound to be inside massive edifices, which were constructed millennia ago, by people without bulldozers, power tools, and cranes.

One thing I really wanted to do was to climb Temple II, the Temple of the Masks. It was built between 682 and 734 A.D., by the emperor of the time, Jasaw Chan K’awill I. He was also known as Ah Cacoa, which in competition with El Gid for cool names, apparently means Lord Chocolate. More importantly for our time there, at 125 feet high, Temple II juts above the trees, providing amazing views of the entire area.

We worked our way west across the Grand Plaza, the sun at our backs. From a distance, we could see that someone had already scaled the Temple that morning, and they were sitting on the temple summit, leaning against the wall of the building that topped it.

The climb was hard. The stairs of these temples are not the same height as modern stairs. Each one is considerably taller than what we were used to. Maybe they weren’t designed to be stairs at all, but stadium seating for games in the Grand Plaza below. In any event, climbing it was like vertical day at the Ministry of Silly Walks. Leaning sideways, to crane one leg upward to make the step, leaning forward and to the other side to lever the trailing leg to be level with the first. Sweaty hands praying desperately for purchase on the worn stone. Or flailing for balance like a puppet show gone bad. Anything to get enough leverage to pry yourself up the step. 125 feet of them.

Our chests and thighs were competing for which was burning the most by the time our heads popped over the lip of the temple summit. Those sensations were quickly forgotten, though, by what greeted us there.

We had lost track of our fellow tourist as we climbed. The angle of the stairs made it impossible to see her during the climb. As I had thought, she was on the temple summit, back resting against the building that is perched there. The shrine? I am not sure. In any event, her head was tipped back, eyes closed, sun illuminating the short blonde hair that framed her face. She wore a sun dress of some sort, and as her knees were bent and spread apart, the dress had ridden up her legs. She was, as we might say, going commando, so when we topped the lip of the summit, we were staring, from maybe ten feet away, directly at her naked pussy, which was also illuminated by the sun.

I don’t remember if we caught her eye, or talked to her, tourist-to-tourist, or if she knew she was exposing herself to anyone willing to make the arduous climb. I do know that as we walked past her and into the cool shade of the shrine, the pain in my chest was replaced by the pain from Amy’s elbow, as we nudged each other, trying to giggle under our breath.

Tomorrow: International Criminals

Chapter 11: International Criminals

June 28, 2020
© Aardvarks Are Wee, LLC

After our fellow tourist flashed us, it seemed we had plumbed the depths of the best that Tikal had to offer. It was time to head back to Belize City. The return trip was the same as the one that brought us to Guatemala, except in reverse: lonely dirt road, elk-sized potholes, sun beating down on gorgeous scenery.

Some miles from the border, we came across a guy hitchhiking. We stopped and picked him up. Bad idea, right? Two obvious tourists, not speaking the language, miles from anywhere, stranger hitchhiking. You couldn’t make up a better, find-their-bodies-in-shallow-graves scenario. Except later in the trip he may have kept us out of jail.

Everything was going great. The guy was pleasant, spoke English really well, which was helpful, and was a doctor headed from one place to another.
The problem started at the border.

First it turned out that our passport stamps were screwed up. On our way into Guatemala, we had somehow managed to be stamped OUT of Guatemala and INTO Belize before we had even, to our knowledge, stepped OUT of Belize and INTO Guatemala in the first place. This caused confusion on our way out. According to our passports, as reviewed by the Guatemalan border officials, we already were out. To this day, I don’t know how that happened. Fortunately, it didn’t seem to trouble them too much.

The second problem was worse, however. We had, apparently, taken the rental truck into Guatemala without a permit.

Keep in mind, we had showed up at the border with the truck. In the fucking truck. We had told the border officials we had a truck. The border guard had looked at our paperwork, and then looked at us, sitting in the motherfucking truck, and waved us across the border. No one, not nobody, not ever, not one single lousy son of a bitch, had mentioned a fucking word about us needing a permit for the truck.

Apparently, we did.

What followed next probably took 15 minutes tops but seemed like several tense hours of hostage negotiations to me. Our negotiator, of course, was the doctor we had given a lift.

I can still see him, a little bigger than most folks we saw, sitting at a folding table, across from two border officials, more or less scrawny and dressed in the ubiquitous jungle fatigues green, heads together, talking.

There was talk of confiscating the truck! I kept trying to wrap my head around that concept. How would we get back to Belize City? How would we pay the rental company for the damned thing? I didn’t have enough underwear in my bags to cover that scenario. It seemed that the penalty was far in excess of the crime.

Finally, the discussion turned to the matter of a simple penalty. Of course, we said yes. I assumed it would be exorbitant, since it was a substitution for taking the truck. But having no choice, we agreed. I waited anxiously for our savior to negotiate the fee, mentally counting up just how many pairs of boxers I could fill with shit and still have a clean pair for the flight home.

Finally, after being a walking flop sweat tornado for what seemed like forever, came the good news. I don’t know how many pesos it was, or what the exchange rate was, but the penalty, when finally levied, was 25 bucks American.

Holy shit! From taking the truck to 25 dollars. The wave of relief that flowed off my body was palpable, and strong enough that I am sure it knocked over trees in the jungle for miles around. We quickly paid the penalty, got in the truck, with our savior still along for the ride, as far as I remember, and accelerated into Belize, never looking back.

I have often wondered if it was a scam of some sort, and if so, was the hitchhiker in on the deal? When he was talking to the border guards, was he saying, “Officers, these are just stupid gringo tourists who made a mistake. Why don’t you just charge them a penalty and let them move on?”

Or was it, “Hey Jesus, Roberto. Got a couple more suckers for you. I’ll give them the line about taking the truck and they will be shitting so much out their shiny white gringo asses, that they will gladly pay a fine. We charged those backpackers last week ten bucks, but I think we can get 25 out of this pair. Good? Tell Aunt Rosita I’ll see her Sunday.”

I like to think it was the former. Just a bureaucratic misunderstanding, partly our fault for not knowing we needed a permit, with an intervention on our behalf by the Guatemalan Good Samaritan. But given how the world works, it could easily have been the latter. I don’t know which it was. I never will.

Chapter 12: Random Jungle Animals

June 29, 2020
© Aardvarks Are Wee, LLC

When we weren’t scuba diving or exploring the strange niches of Tikal, we were traveling around to different ruins and wildlife sanctuaries in Belize. Most of my memories of are various animal encounters. I couldn’t tell you what order we did these things if my life depended on it. But they were pretty cool, and all of them were firsts for me.

At the Cockscombe Basin Forest Reserve (jaguar sanctuary) north of Placencia, in the southern part of Belize, we stayed in a cabin that had more insects than your average college entomology lab. Except these were alive, and it felt like they were crawling all over us all night. To avoid the cabin as long as possible, we sat outside by a campfire. We had gone there to see jaguars, which we did not, but that night I saw something that I suspect is a once in a lifetime event.

The bug infested cabin was built on cinder blocks. For some reason, my attention was drawn to some bug – no idea what it was – hanging on the cinder blocks. All of a sudden, a tarantula jumped out of a hole in the cinder blocks, jumped onto the bug (tarantula mouths are kind of underneath their heads, in non-entomology terms), presumably gobbled it up, and retreated back into the hole. It was over in the blink of an eye.

Mexican red-rumped tarantulas are the most common tarantula in Belize (yes, I just googled that), so I will assume that is what I saw. It was the first time I had seen a wild tarantula, and certainly the first time I had seen one capture prey. I just happened to be looking at that spot when it happened.

We also visited the Chan Chich Lodge, which required flying in a one-propeller, three-seater airplane over the jungle. It was a lovely place – several cabins and a dining hall – and lots of wildlife viewing. The Lodge offered several day trips to view wildlife. We picked the Tapir trip. The Lodge’s bus dropped us off at a trailhead, with instructions of where to walk to get to a watering hole frequented by tapirs.

We didn’t see any. We saw hoofprints. We smelled them. We heard them. But we didn’t see a single one. We sat by a pond full of floating logs for several hours, trying to sit still so as not to tip off the tapirs to our presence, but having to constantly wave our hands to avoid having all our blood drained by the mosquitos. No tapirs. And it took us the full time we were there to realize that the logs were, in fact, crocodiles.

Howler monkeys are not large creatures. The largest ones are probably less than 25 pounds. They just sound like a cross between Sasquatch and a dragon ripping your grandmother to shreds. They are loud. They are fucking freaky sounding. They are cute little things. We saw them at the Community Baboon Sanctuary, in Bermudian Landing, where we slept in a bamboo hut. The hut did not keep the mosquitos out. And the mosquito coil that smelled like burning tires, with instructions written in Chinese, didn’t seem to help either.

Needless to say, it was not a restful night. Between the beasts outside the hut sounding like they wanted to feast on our blood, and the ones inside the hut that were doing just that, sleep was elusive. Still one of the coolest animal adventures I have ever had, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

I am not sure which sanctuary it was, but at one of them Amy and I went on a hike into the jungle and were sitting by stream, just resting. Enjoying the leafy stillness. The murmur of the stream. We heard rustling in the bushes, and the muffled thud of small hoofs on mud. A tiny deer popped out of the jungle, splashed through the stream and disappeared back into the jungle on the other side., as if it was running for its life. It was. A moment later, a small jungle cat, in hot pursuit, did the same. A moment after that quiet descended again.

I have no idea what they were, or who won that race, but it was the only time in my life I have seen a wild cat trying to catch its dinner, and I remember it like it was yesterday.

The other adventure we had on that trip involved visiting Chetumal, Mexico, at Belize’s northern border. It was Easter weekend, and everything was closed. Everything. I do not recommend.

Chapter 13: Skydiving

July 1, 2020
© Aardvarks Are Wee, LLC

The thing that surprised me the most about skydiving was the absolute silence of it.

When you are a young, foolish college student and one of your roommates asks, “Do you want to go skydiving?”, the only acceptable answer is “Yes.”

I was a freshman at Michigan State (the pre-Nassar years!) and sharing a room on the second floor of Holden Hall with two guys named Tom. Tom and Tom and Jerry. In a room about the size of my dining room. Yes, jokes were made. Incessantly. Constantly. Until the novelty wore off.

It must have been spring of that year, when someone else on our hallway suggested we go skydiving. So, of course we did. About 5 or 6 of us.

The nearest airfield where you could take lessons and go skydiving was 30 minutes away, in a town called Charlotte, Michigan. Ironically, it was the town where I had just graduated from high school several months prior. Let’s just say that I knew how to get there.

The day of the dive was a combination of training and terror. How to pack the chute. How to land and roll. How to pull the emergency chute if your main chute did not open. All the things that could go wrong. I remember that there were a lot of them!

The terror, of course, was the idea of jumping out of the fucking airplane. As it turned out, the jumping itself was not so scary. But the anticipation was.

After hours of training, it was time. We piled into a small plane, with the pilot and the jump master, and after trundling down a rough grass strip for an eternity it finally lumbered into the sky. I remember they told us horror stories of chutes opening in the plane, getting sucked out the door, and pulling the poor person wearing it through the wall of the plane, with messy results. I don’t remember what they said to do to avoid that, but I know I did it with great enthusiasm.

Some people do their first jumps tied to a jumpmaster. You go out of the plane together, and the beginner is shackled to someone who knows what the hell they are doing. That has to be the sensible way. That is not what we did.

We had the rip cord attached to our chutes, with the other end clipped to the leg of the pilot’s seat. When you hit the end of the cord, it pulled out a small puffy chute thingy (I am pretty confident that that is the proper technical term for it). The small puffy chute thingy catches the air and slows down, and as you drop away from it, it pulls out the big main puffy chute thingy, otherwise known as the parachute. The cord was maybe 12 feet long, so you hit the end of it in a nanosecond, and all the rest happens soon thereafter. What was probably a 10 second drop, at best, only seemed to last 100 days.

As we were getting into the plane, the jump master asked who wanted to jump first, so that person could get in last, and be nearer to the door. I raised my hand. I like to think I was being brave, but really, I just thought that however terrifying it would be to jump first, sitting there watching 5 other people go first, one after the other, would be worse.

The first plane I jumped out of was pretty simple. You sat in the door of the plane, legs dangling. When the jump master gave the command, you turned to face the front, basically resting on your left hamstring. When he said “jump,” you just dropped out, arching your back. When I went, the jump master got a little behind on his commands, and we were getting out of the zone I needed to jump from. I thought I would have a few seconds to get settled, but no sooner had I sat down than he yelled at me to turn and jump.

So, I did.

I thought that I would feel like I was falling. The ground, about 3,000 feet below, was so far away, however, that it was essentially hypothetical. At that height, there was no reference point to measure progress against.

When the chute fully deploys, you stop. Quickly. Gravity being what it is, the chute, which is itself falling, can’t pull you upward into the sky. But the stop is so sudden that it feels like you are jerked roughly back the way you had just come. You stop. And swing back and forth a little, until the weight of your body settles below the chute.

And then silence.

I thought I would hear the plane. I thought I would hear the air. Instead, it was preternaturally silent. Maybe a rustle of the parachute edge as it luffed in and out. But mostly nothing. No wind rushing. No airplane. Just gorgeous, delicious silence.

And then the ground.

The chute has toggle cords to steer it, and it was easy to find them and start angling toward the landing zone. I missed it by a mile, of course, landing in a field several hundred yards away. The ground came closer. I looked at the horizon, bent my knees, hit and rolled, and came to rest back on terra firma. Except my adrenaline kept me hovering 10 feet off the ground for the rest of the day. Somewhere I have a photo of me and one of my companions, jump suits partly unzipped, parachutes balled up in our arms, complete and total elation on our faces.

I did do it once again. A couple of weeks later. Just two of us that time. That day the process to get out of the plane was different. In that plane, the pilot locked the wheel. You stepped onto a little step on the wheel strut with your right foot. Then crossing your left foot over, you stepped onto the wheel. Then, working your hands out onto the strut that held up the wing, you let your right foot hang out into space. At that point, I was totally outside the airplane, all my weight on one foot, on the airplane wheel.

When the jump master said to jump, you simply let go and pushed back. Into the void.

Chapter 14: Black Bears and Northern Lights

July 2, 2020
© Aardvarks Are Wee, LLC

It must have been after my sophomore year at Michigan State that a bear ripped my tent to shreds in the Canadian Rockies.

I was well on my way to becoming an accidental zoologist when I saw a flyer for a several week summer course on natural history, held on site, while camping, in Banff, Jasper, and Kootenai National Parks in the Canadian Rockies. Of course, I enrolled.

Transportation was not provided; we had to get there on our own. I had a little white AMC Sportabout, and before I knew it, four of us were crammed into the thing for the 2,000-mile drive from East Lansing to Banff. My companions were Peter (my tentmate), a woman named Pam, and another woman who was a shy Michigan farm girl. I don’t recall her name, but I do remember that she turned beet red when the four of us went skinny dipping one evening. The trip was long, and crowded, and we slept one night under some farm equipment at a John Deere dealership in one of the big square states we passed through.

The Canadian Rockies were simply stunning. Our days consisted of trips to various natural wonders, followed by lectures around the campfire. We saw lots of wildlife, mostly Mountain Goats and Bighorn Sheep. I had a magical moment at one campsite, when I wandered off to delight in a sudden snowstorm and came face to face with a big bull elk. I was in a clearing, and he was peeking out of the trees at the edge of it. We stared at each for several minutes, from about 100 feet away, snow swirling around us, until he snorted, breath misting in the cold air, stamped his feet and crashed back into the forest.

And then there was the bear.

We had been away on a day trip, leaving the campground zipped up tight. We returned to find several tents knocked over by a bear. Most of them had a little damage. Mine was destroyed. Just flattened. The poles snapped in two. Rips in the tent. The little fucker had dragged my rainfly several feet away. The bear-paw-sized rips convinced me that the little fucker was actually a pretty big fucker, and we were damned lucky the bear hit the tent during the day, and not at night when we were sleeping in it.

It took Peter and I several creative hours making tent pole splints out of extra tent stakes and taping up the rips before we could sleep in it again. It was always misshapen after that. It lurched to one side, the zippers barely worked, and it looked like a giant had taken a big shit and then stepped in it. It was always, after that, my bear tent.

But it worked. It worked well enough for Peter to fuck Pam in it one night, while I lay next to them pretending to be asleep. It was always, after that, my bare tent.

On the way home, the same four of us piled back into the Sportabout. On the trip to Banff, we had driven through the United States. Coming back, we went across Canada, entering the U.S. at Sault Ste. Marie and heading straight south from there.

We all needed to get back to East Lansing pretty quickly, so we agreed to drive nonstop, each of us driving an 8-hour shift while the others slept. I took the midnight to 8 a.m. shift both nights. They were easily two of the most mystical nights of my life.

Both nights, I found Canadian folk music stations on the radio, so about every third song was Gordon Lightfoot, who I really like. Both nights, for hours on end, as I barreled east across the Canadian prairie, my passengers asleep around me, the sky was illuminated by the brilliant swirling dance of the Northern Lights. A celestial lightshow just for Gordon and me.

Chapter 15: Buckner Cave

July 3, 2020
© Aardvarks Are Wee, LLC

This is a story about spelunking. It is also a story about a failure in leadership. My failure. A failure that I have still, almost 35 years later, not come to terms with.

When I was in law school at the University of Michigan, I worked at the Outdoor Recreation Center. In addition to renting equipment for camping, rock climbing, and other adventure sports, we also led trips. Including spelunking trips near Bloomington, Indiana.

I had explored a lot of caves in that area when I was a Park Naturalist prior to law school (see Chapter 3) and had led teenagers on trips there. It was fun to be able to continue that while at U of M.

One of my favorite caves was Buckner Cave. It offered a lot of challenges, including narrow passages, crawling through low-ceilinged rooms, and if you could wriggle up a cork-screw shaped pipe into the bottom of a crater, you could travel in an interesting 3-D loop. Thus, the problem.

Anyone in the U of M community could sign up for our trips. At the pre-trip meeting of participants for a trip to Buckner Cave, one of the women who had signed up was considerably overweight. I can’t remember her name but for this story, I will call her Mary. In my day-to-day life, I could give a shit. But the trip was through a cave. It involved tight spaces. Mary was large. What to do?

In our presentation, we emphasized how small the passages were. The hard physical work it took to navigate the cavern. How small the passages were. The long day we were going to have. How small the passages were. Did I mention how small the passages were?

Our non-subtle ploy did not work. I had serious concerns about whether Mary was physically able to make it. Yes, I know, weight does not necessarily equate to out of shape, but she seemed out of shape as well. As a leader, what do you do in that situation? Let her go on the trip despite the risks? Have a private conversation and tell her the trip is not for her? I still don’t know.

In any event, she did not drop out.

The spelunking day started out okay. You enter the cave by walking down into a big hole in the side of cliff. You are immediately enveloped by cool air and a smell I have never smelled anywhere but in a cave. Somehow moist and dry and musty and muddy all at the same time. At the bottom of that initial cavern was a little tunnel, at ground level, on the left side. To enter the main cave system, you had to lay down on your belly and slither through and then crawl under a low ceiling for several feet before the roof opened up above you.

That part went all right. Very tight for Mary, but okay. In fact, most of it was okay. We made our way through the different rooms, crawled through mud, clambered over boulders, and slid down a wall, headlamps illuminating the misty gloom. Ultimately, after several hours in the cave, we arrived at the bottom of the corkscrew. It we could go up it, we would have completed the loop, and be relatively near the entrance.

We couldn’t do it. Mary couldn’t do it. We explored it from every angle, but she could not, would not, fit up the corkscrew. My co-leader and I discussed what to do. Should we split the group up, and send those who could fit up the corkscrew and out, while one of us backtracked with Mary? We decided it was too dangerous to separate the group. We all backtracked.

It was hard. That wall we slid down? We had to climb up it. I have memories of us making a human pyramid and essentially pushing Mary up it by sheer force of will. I have to give Mary credit though; she was exhausted and embarrassed, but she never uttered a single word of complaint. I thought she displayed a stunning amount of fortitude during the whole adventure.

Then came the exit tunnel. Crawling in was a little hard, because you had to dive in headfirst and bend under a rock. Going out, you had to crawl up a little, and that rock hung down like a dagger, partly blocking the tunnel. As a geometric matter, it was just more difficult. It required more leeway. Leeway that Mary did not have.

I had serious concerns about how we would get her out. To mitigate the risk, I had everyone else go out first, until just Mary and I were left in the cave. Regardless of what happened, I couldn’t abandon her in the cave, so I made her go first. That meant if she got stuck, I was trapped in the cave behind her.

She started crawling into the tunnel. We were all tired, but Mary was exhausted. Just flat out knackered. She edged into the cave an inch at a time, like a hundred-year-old sea turtle beaching itself to die. Another inch. Another. So tired she could hardly move. But slowly making progress.

Then her ass got stuck on that hanging rock. I can still see it. Mary filling that tunnel from side to side and from top to bottom. All I could see was Mary’s ass and that stone dagger digging into her left butt cheek, impeding all forward progress. The only thing to do, so to speak, was to take matters into my own hands. I had Mary rest for a few minutes, and then told her to give it one last push. As she dug her toes in and strained forward, I put my hand firmly on her left cheek, into her left cheek, really, until my palm hit bone. Then I summoned the strength of the ancestors and pushed with all my might. Her ass popped out from under the stone and our group pulled her the rest of the way out.

There is something about leaving a cave and smelling the sweet outside air after several hours underground. In all the years I went spelunking, no breath every tasted as sweet as the air that rushed in after Mary’s ass slid through. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, slithered my way out, and we slowly shuffled out of the cavern and into the late afternoon sun.

Chapter 16: New Delhi Fourth of July

July 4, 2020
© Aardvarks Are Wee, LLC

After seven months living in India researching my master’s thesis, I was tired of the place. It was grand and historic and majestic and welcoming and diverse and beautiful. I had adventures that were indescribably fantastic. The trip changed my life for the better. It was also crowded and hot and chaotic and cruel and bureaucratic and ugly. I was ready to head home.

I was attending the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources but residing in India on a program run by the University of California, Berkeley. There were maybe 8 of us graduate students in the program, scattered around the country. The Indian government had rejected my first research proposal, so I had to start over, joining the program a couple of months after it started, and missing all the orientation sessions. Most of the group had spent 6 weeks at a hill station, being tutored in Hindi, then a few more weeks in New Delhi having seminars. And then they moved in with families.

I arrived in New Delhi on a Friday night, stayed at a YMCA for the weekend, moved in with a family on Monday, met my academic advisor at the Indian Law Institute on Tuesday, and started my research on Wednesday. It was quite a culture shock, but I adjusted pretty well, overall.

I lived with a family in East of Kailash, a neighborhood in New Delhi, from December to early May, I suppose. They were pleasant enough, but not welcoming. The last couple months of the program I really felt like I no longer belonged. In the country, and in the family’s home. I had finished my research. I had traveled by myself. I was waiting for Amy to graduate from U of M and join me to travel for the summer. I was lonely, and horribly homesick.

That’s when I discovered the American Center Library associated with the U.S. embassy. In a world that was becoming more and more foreign to me, it was a haven. A lifeline. It was quiet. It was cool. I could read U.S. newspapers that were only a day or two out of date (this was before the public internet, laptops, and smart phones). I felt like the U.S flag waving above the building meant something. And if I remember correctly, the library was where I heard about the 4th of July picnic at the U.S. embassy.

Amy finally arrived. We visited a tiger sanctuary in the foothills, stayed on a houseboat in Srinigar in Jammu and Kashmir, tried to breath non-existent air in Leh in Ladakh, and toured the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar. I will tell about those stories in later chapters.

We were back in New Delhi, soon to leave the country for further travel in Thailand, South Korea, and Japan. I was tired, and homesick, and ready to go. But it was the 4th of July. Having nothing else to do and nowhere else to be, we went to the picnic at the U.S. embassy.

I think there was a band and speech by the Ambassador. I don’t remember fireworks. Lots of other Americans either living in India, or like us, just passing through. It was a little oasis, with people whose language I spoke and whose customs were baked into my bones. Usually when traveling in a foreign country, I stay a little bit on edge. It might be lovely, but it is not your home. For that
afternoon, though, I was home and I desperately needed to be.

Most of all, there was American food.

I had enjoyed the food in India. The curries, the nan, the paneer, Gulab Jamun – sweet balls of dough soaked in rosewater. You had to look for what you wanted, though. If you wanted beef, you had to go to a Muslim restaurant. If you wanted pork, a Hindu one. Once a month or so, my friends and I would go to the Marriott hotel for an American meal. Pricey, but satisfying. I also enjoyed the drinks. If memory serves, Pepsi and Coke were both banned from India at that time, so the market was full of local variants, like Thums Up (cola) and Mirinda (orange). They were good. But they were not Coke. No hotdogs. No Ruffles. Not much in the way of American style desserts.

It was all there at the embassy, though. Ballpark franks in soft buns. Grilled cheeseburgers dripping grease. American potato chips. And ice-cold Coke. Ice cream. I didn’t realize how much I had missed it. I would never have believed that food from home could be so satisfying. Until a few days later, when we landed in Bangkok, Thailand and I ate about 8 Dunkin Donuts in one sitting. That’s a story for another time.

Chapter 17: “To Strive, to Serve and not to Yield”

July 7, 2020
© Aardvarks Are Wee, LLC

When Annie fell, and a boulder three feet in diameter rolled onto the trail right in front of her, I thought it had crushed her legs.

It was the summer after I graduated from high school, so 1978. I worked part time my senior year and had saved up the money to go on a three-week Outward Bound course in the Sangre de Christo mountains in Colorado.

It was in many ways, a foundational experience for my life. I was traveling on my own for the first time and camping in the Rockies for three weeks. Simply put, it was heaven. There is a lot to tell about those three weeks – the pot dealers in Denver; the YMCA in Denver; the run across the desert into the mountains, antelope springing ahead of us; the three days we spent without eating, just thinking about life. The night we watched the stars from our camp at the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Maybe in later chapters.

Our instructor was a guy named Buck. He was probably in his early 30’s, square face baked ruddy by the mountain sun, and an earring in one ear before that was really mainstream for men. When it was a signal that the earring wearer was gay. This led to much speculation amongst our group. I didn’t sense that anyone cared, but you needed something to whisper about when you are camping for three weeks with a group of strangers. The debate bubbled into the open one evening toward the end of the trip, when the other leaders took turns roasting each other. To roast Buck, they performed a song that they had written, the most memorable lines of which were “something something something Dear Buck, does your earring mean that you don’t prefer cunt?” A memorable night for a relatively sheltered 18-years-old me.

In any event, Buck was a great leader, and guided us through rock climbing, rappelling, and high-altitude camping, with no one getting hurt. There was a close call though. On one particular day, we split into small groups and had to hike a specified route, hopefully finding our way back to the base camp. My group had four of us in it; me, two other guys, and a woman named Annie.

We were probably at the half-way point of our hike, traversing the face of a rocky slope high on a mountain face. There was a bit of a trail marked by cairns, but we were mostly finding our way across a field of boulders. The sky was a bright mountain blue. Annie was in front, picking out the path across the rocks. I was in the back. With no warning, a stone that Annie stepped on rolled out from under her and went crashing down the hill, making her fall onto her butt with her legs in front of her. That wasn’t the bad part.

The bad part was that there was a boulder above Annie; a boulder that had been held in place by the stone she stepped on. When the smaller stone fell, so did the bigger one. A big round boulder three feet in diameter crashed onto the trail right in front of Annie. Right where the rest of us supposed her legs to be.

I think all of us immediately started scenario planning in our heads. If her legs were crushed, how would we get her out? Could we even move the boulder? It was a big mother fucker of a rock. Would two of us go for help? One of us? Would she die there on that hill at 10,000 feet on a sunny Colorado day?

Fortunately for Annie, when she fell onto her butt, she fell with her legs bent up to her chin, and not stretched out in front of her. The boulder had missed her toes by an inch. She was fine. She was shaken, and I think all four of us had shit our pants, but she was fine.

The wheel of time turned, and the trip came to an end. My parents had moved while I was in Colorado. They had dropped me off at the airport in Michigan and picked me up at Dallas-Fort Worth. After a short visit at their new home, I made my way back to Michigan and started my freshman year at Michigan State (Side note: that was the year Magic Johnson led MSU to the NCAA basketball championship).

A couple of years later, I was in a Wilderness Survival class at MSU. In one of the first classes, the professor asked if anyone had been on an Outward Bound course. I raised my hand. Someone sitting behind me and on the other side of the room raised theirs as well. The professor was talking to me about it a little bit, so it was a few minutes before I got a chance to turn around and see the other Outward Bound alumni.

It was Annie.

We talked a little. I think we may have grabbed a coffee one day. We had little in common. I think she dropped the class and I never saw her again. But I will never forget that afternoon in the Rockies when I thought she lost her legs but didn’t.

Chapter 18: Out of India

July 12, 2020
© Aardvarks Are Wee, LLC

I was an ugly American the day we left India. I admit it. I am not proud about it. More than thirty years later, I still cringe at the memory, which has its own little shrine in my brain.

The research in India for my master’s thesis had lasted for eight months. Amy had been able to join me for the last several weeks. It had been a fabulous trip in a country full of remarkable history, vibrant culture, exotic wildlife, and friendly people who took care of me. It had also been a draining trip in an insular land weighted by poverty and bureaucracy, still darkened by shadows of the raj, where, some days, it was punishingly hard to get things done.

Our last day was one of those days. I don’t even remember most of what went wrong. Looking back, I suspect it was the heat, negotiating with a cab driver, a lengthy process of checking in, and another lengthy process to exchange money. There was something about not being able to take rupees out, but the airport shops not making change. I don’t recall the breadth of it. But I do know that by the time we were at the airport, waiting for our flight, I was out of patience, annoyed, and about to erupt.

It was a rupee note that set me off. In India, at that time, stacks of bills traveled around stapled together. Not banded. Stapled. To open the bundle so you could use the money required you to rip the bills off the staple, leaving a hole in the bill from its inaugural use. Was that official bank practice, or just how the local merchants operated? I don’t know. I do know that virtually every rupee note, of any denomination, that passed through my hands was branded by a tear where the staple once gripped it.

All well and good. Except that if the rip was too big, some vendors would not accept the money.

So, there we were, at the gate, needing something to eat. And, I had a few rupees left, which I was trying to spend. Easy solution to both problems. Buy a snack; use the rupees. It didn’t work out that way. The vendor examined the rupee notes I gave him and turned up his nose, handing it back.

‘Broken,” he said, referring to the too large staple hole in the note. “No good.”

That was it for me. I Hulked out. I ripped the rupee note into shreds, flinging it at him across the counter, telling him, in my most heinously arrogant American imperialist tone, “your fucking money’s not worth anything anyway.” In reply, he took an American dollar bill from the till, ripped it in pieces, and flung it at me. “YOUR fucking money isn’t worth anything.”

We glared daggers at each other, nostrils flaring, testosterone sluicing off our bodies and pooling in puddles on the floor.

I turned and stalked off, rage coming off me in waves, lobbing profanities over my shoulder if I know me.


Not my proudest moment. Not by a long shot.

I later apologized to the man and gave him my remaining rupees to make up for the American dollar he ripped up. Then somewhat, anticlimactically, we got on our plane for Bangkok.

In the realm of easy customer service, Thailand was everything that India was not. Within an hour of landing, we had collected our luggage, stored a bag at the airport, changed money, confirmed our ongoing flights, and were on a bus to the guest house we had booked. That’s when the reverse culture shock set in.

It had been hard going to India. There was little to no Western food or amenities there. Few, if any, American chains. It was, in many ways, undeveloped. Or at least un-Americanized. I thought it would be hard getting used to that, but it actually had not been. I missed things, of course. But I felt like I belonged there.

Still, I had been away from western food for eight long months, and I missed it. Pizza. Good burgers. Spaghetti. (In all fairness, though, the best chocolate cake I have had in my life was at a little wagon near Dharmsala). I didn’t realize how much of American life I missed until we got to Bangkok and it was available again.

I celebrated by going to Dunkin Donuts and eating nearly a dozen all by myself. Also, not my proudest moment.

What happened at a Swenson’s ice cream parlor a few weeks later was far better. That’s a story for tomorrow.

Chapter 19: Ice Cream Parlor Adventures

July 13, 2020
© Aardvarks Are Wee, LLC

We got engaged in a Swenson’s ice cream parlor in Bangkok, Thailand in the summer of 1989.

After arriving in Bangkok from New Delhi, we did some sightseeing in the city. We didn’t stay there long. It was a fascinating fusion of ancient and modern, but it was big and crowded with lots of traffic and too many donuts. We had heard about the beauty of Chiang Mai, farther north, so decided to head there.

We booked the bus tickets from our guest house. The day of our trip, a van showed up. The driver found us in the hotel and made sure we and our bags were safely on the shuttle. When we got to the bus station, he loaded the bags on the bus, and literally taking us by our hands, led us onto the bus, found our seats for us, and made sure we were sitting in them. That’s the kind of customer service you got in Thailand.

That was before the attendant on the bus gave us box lunches, drinks, and hot wash cloths. There was even a TV on the bus showing movies from the trip. They were in Thai, so we mostly watched the lush scenery roll by instead.

What I remember most about Chiang Mai was the street food. More than one night our entire dinner was grilled pork on sticks and pineapple. The street vendors started with a whole prickly-skinned pineapple, and in what seemed like three quick slashes with a machete, would have it skinned and diced and in a plastic bag. Which they would hand to us with a pair of wooden skewers to poke and eat the pineapple. Never have I had pineapple that fresh and sweet and juicy before or since.

After much debate, we went on an adventure trek with a local company. It involved some hiking and rafting on a raft the guides made with bamboo that they cut and strapped together. On one rapids, as we bumped up against a cliff, the front of the raft tipped under the water and so did I.

I clung for a moment to the rock face, fingers fiercely but futilely gripping small bumps. Then the water scraped me off like a reef ripping a barnacle off a boat. I was underwater for what seemed like a long time, but was probably a couple seconds, as the river washed me downstream. The rapids were short and the water below them was calm, and I soon popped up and took a much-needed breath.

I seem to remember that Amy was already on top of that cliff when I went through the rapids, and since we only had one raft, I am not sure how that happened or if I am remembering correctly. The panic of being under water and not knowing when I was going to emerge is something I have not and will not forget.

That trek also included a visit to a monk who had supposedly been sitting under a tree for the last decade or something. If I remember it right, Amy was not allowed to visit the monk, what with being female and all. But a couple guides and I did. It was supposed to be spiritual but was sadly not for me. Just a guy in a saffron robe under a tree. Nice guy, and we talked a bit, but I felt no closer to the spirit world afterwards.

(Side note, my daughter has also been to Chiang Mai, having spent 3 weeks there after her freshman year of college, volunteering with an elephant sanctuary there. If it were not for this cocksucking virus, she would be there as I speak, because the company who runs those trips hired her to be on-site staff in Chiang Mai for this summer).

In any event, after wringing all the experience and pineapple juice that we could out of Chiang Mai, we made our way back to Bangkok, and started to prepare for our next stop: South Korea. We had one last day in Bangkok though, so signed up for a bus tour of Buddhist temples in the city. The tour ended, as they do, in a government sponsored gem and jewelry store.

We decided to take the plunge. After quite a while of haggling, we left the shop with an engagement ring made of sapphire so deep blue that it was almost black. My wife likes lots of kinds of jewelry, but has never been a fan of diamonds, not even for her engagement ring. And of course, the sale included two golden wedding bands. I think all three rings cost about 400 bucks American.

After we finished the purchase, we went across the street to the aforementioned Swenson’s, had ice cream and got engaged. We wear those same wedding rings to this day, more than 30 years since that afternoon in Bangkok. Somewhere over the years, Amy lost the engagement ring. But she’ll always have my love.

Chapter 20: Movie Stars

July 27, 2020
© Aardvarks Are Wee, LLC

My daughters and I were extras in the HBO movie Game Change, about the 2008 Obama vs McCain election. We even made it into the trailer!

Back in the day, my oldest daughter Reiss, an actor, had a talent manager. Not too much came of it. She received some decent training, had some auditions, and was part of a crowd scene in a Nike commercial that aired in Europe.

But one day, while I was walking Bella, I got a call from the talent manager. She said HBO was looking for families to be extras for a scene in Game Change and wondered if Reiss and I would like to participate. I asked her if my youngest daughter, Sadie, could join us. She said yes, and that sealed the deal.

One early morning, Reiss and Sadie and I headed to the Six Flags amusement park, just outside of DC, in MD. When we got there, we were directed where to park and where to go from there. It was an interesting walk. Cameras and cables were laid out all over the place. Official looking people with headsets and clipboards running around. It was a little thrilling to be on an HBO movie set, even as an extra. We ended up in a room with about 100 others. There was not much to it, but there was a table with water and snacks.

After a little while the movie people came in to talk to us. They took six volunteers to be on a roller coaster all day. And they headed off. The rest of us lined up to get our positions.

We totally lucked out. They handed us a balloon and an empty soda cup and told us to head to the far back of the set. When they yelled action, we were supposed to walk toward the front of the set. They had a big elevated camera on a boom, high above the crowd, and we were just supposed to walk downhill toward it, and keep going past it, before we stopped.

This part of Six Flags had been set up to be the Alaska State Fair, with games and booths lining the path. So, as we walked, we were supposed to amble through the fair, browsing the booths. An Alaskan dad and kids out for a fun day.

They had us do a dry run 5 or 6 times. They yelled “Action.” We ambled. They yelled “Cut.” We returned to our position. Easy. A little boring, actually. Our agenda changed though, the first time they ran a take with the star, Julianne Moore.

As it turned out, she was playing Sarah Palin. Her position was at the downhill end of the set, right in front of the camera. Of course, being the star and all. The real action of the scene was a couple seconds long. Julianne’s cell phone rang, she answered it, and said, “This is Sarah.” Cut. End. That’s it.

But the plot thickened! As it turned out, as we ambled downhill, through our faux-Alaskan colleagues, browsing the fake booths, we ended up directly behind Julianne when she said her line. Like 15 feet behind her. As in, we-will-be-on-camera-if-we-are-here-when-she-answers-the-phone behind her.

The lights flickered on in our brains. Our plan was hatched. We resolved, come hell or high water, locusts or dragons, tornados or hurricanes, we would be in that spot when Julianne/Sarah answered her phone and uttered her now infamous line. And we were. Every take.

I think we did 5 or 6 takes with Julianne. One time, when I was walking back past her to get into position, she looked up and caught my eye. I said, “Good morning.” She said it back. I assumed we were not supposed to annoy the talent, so I left it at that. I have never been a big celebrity hound, and would not have known her if she walked into my kitchen and sat down for dinner, but it was cool, nonetheless, to be three feet from a movie star, exchanging pleasantries on a movie set on a beautiful blue-skied day.

That was it. We ran the scene a few times, they checked their film and called it a day, and we were home by early afternoon. A couple weeks later, we each got a check for about $50. It was $65 minus the talent manager’s take. I have, ever since, described myself as a professional actor. There is no offense meant to people who really ARE professional actors. Who have dedicated their life to their craft. I have the utmost respect for them. Actors are the bravest people I know. But I was on camera and I did get paid, so in the recesses of my brain, fermented my whole life in a brine of wry humor, I am, in fact, a professional actor.

We went home. We waited. We forgot about it. Months later, I was on the computer, checking the headlines, when an article from Politico came up. The trailer for Game Change had been released. I eagerly cued it up.

What we didn’t know, that day at Six Flags, was exactly what the scene was. Sarah Palin answers the phone. Big deal. What I learned watching the trailer was that that phone call was when John McCain (played by Ed Harris) called Sarah Palin to ask her to be his running mate in the 2008 election! It was a big scene. And we were in it.

I watched the trailer. At about 25 seconds in, Woody Harrelson, as John McCain’s campaign strategist Steve Schmidt, tells McCain – “If you are going to seriously consider the Governor of Alaska you have to call her now.” Screen cuts to black. Phone rings. Sarah Palin’s head fills the screen, surrounded by blue sky and the good state-fair-going people of Alaska. She says, “This is Sarah.”

Behind her, on the left side of the screen, a tall bearded man walks with two girls. One holds a balloon. They pass behind Sarah, moving left to right across the screen. They disappear behind her big head for a moment, and then emerge on the other side.

Yes, it was us. In our major motion picture debut.

Sadly, despite hours waiting by the phone, Hollywood producers have not called. But one time a friend of my called me to say she had watched Game Change on an airplane and had seen us in it. So that was pretty cool.

The trailer is below. Our starring roles begin about 25 seconds in.