When I was in first grade, I found myself falling in love with Annie Freestone. As a six year-old, it was new territory. I knew that I didn’t feel towards her like I did my parents or siblings. I was excited to see her and hear her voice and watch her. It was better than playing with the boys or eating ice cream. So it must’ve been love.
In the midst of my admiration for Annie, I learned to love watching her. I watched her in class and on the playground. She was a goddess to me. One afternoon at recess, I was solicited by a friend of hers to join in a clandestine game of kissing tag, beyond the view of the watchful eyes of any adults. I feared the idea of being kissed by anyone but Annie. But the prospect of her kiss was too enticing to not play the odds.
I soon found myself being hotly pursued by the girl of my dreams. She smiled and beamed with joy. She laughed and gave me chase. Driven in part by a competitive desire to win, and in part by fear of actually sharing the intimacy of a kiss with Annie, I ran until she gave up. I never played coy and feigned being the captor, so as to allow a kiss.
It would seem that this pattern of running from intimacy has repeated well into my adult life. And while I’ve had satisfying dating experiences, and others still that have taught me a great deal, the story of running from love has been played out repeatedly by one side or the other in my relationships.
But this year has been different. I’ve found moments where I’ve felt the same discomfort at being intimate that I felt as a six year-old and could never articulate until recently. But in dating Kate, I have found a proverbial Annie Freestone whom I have begun to allow moments of catching me in our ongoing game of kissing tag.
It had been my intent during the month of December to slowly put together an episode using clips from conversations with a few homeless men to address the issue of homelessness. However, the vision for that episode was quickly changed as I joined many of you in witnessing through media the events going on in Syria. Now, I know the video below has caused some partisan arguments, but when my sister and I were hanging out in December and came across this, the human element of it struck me to the core.
After seeing that and reflecting on the dark side of humanity a bit with my sister and with myself, I felt it was important to extend the subject of this episode to address the idea of remembering the downtrodden among us and in distant places.
As you listen to the podcast, I spend time quoting from news stories about the war in Syria and refugee camps. There are also a few thoughts from a first hand observer who spent time in Greece this last year, working with refugees. The latter part of the episode transitions to hearing from a few homeless men in the U.S. and hearing about how they got to where they are, what life looks like as a homeless person and what they want in life.
You can listen to the embedded media below for the podcast, or find it on iTunes or SoundCloud, just look for episode 12.
I truly hope that when ever we individually and collectively confront human tragedy in our own countries or through media that we spend time reflecting on why those people are in a position of being downtrodden. I hope that reflection brings compassion and in that compassion, I hope we find ourselves moved to action.
The letter written to the BBC about conditions in Aleppo that was read in the podcast can be found here.
The Nick Miller article in the Sydney Morning Herald, also read in the podcast can be found here.
The episode image includes an image taken from the below tweet in addition to photos I personally took.
In this episode we talk about what happened recently in Eastern Aleppo, Syria and the human effects of war. We also talk about refugees and contemplate the issue of remembering the downtrodden after their difficulties leave the headlines. We also bring the idea of remembering the downtrodden home to the United States as we hear clips of conversations with three homeless men.
Music from this episode included:
The song Fanfarl by Titus 12. Music by the artist can be found at the below site
While I was in Montana, I had one of my favorite experiences of my travels. Dave from a previous episode connected me with a few friends of his in Montana that were setting up their river camp for hosting a few students that they would be teaching some primitive skills to. A man named Barnes was who I got in contact with and as we exchanged texts and a couple brief phone calls, he determined they were comfortable with having me come and spend a night or two with them.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I camp, but I’m no mountain man, like what these folks sounded like to me. Barnes indicated that he wouldn’t be around when I arrived, but the others in camp were aware of me coming, so I could just settle in when I got there. Figuring I’d be out of cell phone service, I had written down a few directions to get me to the location. I got there without issue and pulled into the property. A great earth lodge was near the entrance. Driving down the dirt road a bit, there were two men out in a pasture, kicking a soccer ball at a makeshift wooden goal. I got out of my car and they looked at me and without a word kicked the ball in my direction. We made introductions and I got comfortable with Neil and Chris as we kicked a soccer ball around.
After a while, Neil decided throwing a frisbee around might be a little more low-key than soccer. So he ran and got his frisbee while I went to my car and changed into some shorts. We converged at the other end of the pasture that had been our playing field. A brown mound that had been at a distance earlier was now close enough for me to notice it was a rotting dear carcass. It seemed quite natural to them. The circle of life happening around them.
We tossed the frisbee a bit and then Neil joked that we ought to throw dried cow and horse manure at the frisbee as it glided through the air, to test our accuracy. Then somehow, we found ourselves actually throwing dried manure at the frisbee. The real challenge ended up being the task of catching the frisbee while dodging the flying manure. I joked that this seemed like a natural alternative to using meth, as there were a multitude of anti-meth billboards throughout Montana.
Soon Barnes arrived with another friend and we all converged, along with Chris’s partner, Bartle, on their hangout hut/kitchen. We ate and gathered around their wood burning stove, and started to chat. Often I find there can be some reluctance on the part of those that I record. But these good folks just carried on as usual. They talked about themselves, some for my benefit, but we joked and laughed and just enjoyed each other.
As we chatted, Barnes opened up and I was struck by how profoundly authentic he is. There is nothing contrived about who he is. He lives as he wants to. He is educated and chooses to live a somewhat isolated life in Montana and understands that life is a process and he’s learning just like everyone else. The beautiful thing in the whole experience was that he didn’t take himself too seriously. None of them did.
Here’s the clipisode with Barnes. You can also find it on iTunes and SoundCloud. Be sure to scroll down, because there’s a bonus clipisode.
The bonus below is the group chatting about dumpster diving. I was interested to get onto the subject, because when we first converged in their hangout hut, Neil went to a corner and walked back with a handful of unwrapped chocolate and handed it to me while he sucked on a bit of chocolate himself. I happily partook, being a man with an ever-present sweet-tooth. As I savored this delightful chocolate, the discussion illuminated the fact that the chocolate had been found in a dumpster, during a dumpstering adventure. I would’ve felt sick, but for the fact that I felt like the chocolate was vetted, as they were eating it too. Neil proudly displayed the large sack of reject chocolate after the revelation it was from a dumpster.
My time with these wild folks was sublime. Seldom have I felt like I was in the presence of such authentic people. And that authenticity made it feel so natural that it barely seemed weird to throw manure and eat chocolate from a dumpster.
This is a sort of bonus clipisode to go with the previous one—Episode 10 Barnes Clips. In this clipisode, some of the folks at River Camp with Barnes talk about strategies and experiences in dumpster diving. The subject got readdressed after the host, Kyle Wheeler, had been given some chocolate they found during one of their dumpster diving ventures.
In this episode Barnes starts off by demonstrating a 6 out of 10 burp. He gives a few thoughts on his life going from growing up in North Carolina to being a man dedicated to living a simpler life in Montana. He shows a flare for being passionate about his feelings, but shows a humor for life. He expresses a love for connecting to people that enjoy the lifestyle he does and an aliveness that he finds in living out in the open, all while being able to jokingly uphold Dale Earnhardt Jr. as an example of success without education.
A little confession here: this project is hard. I set out at the beginning of October hoping to get a bunch of interviews with people, talking about their lives and the stories that make them who they are. It’s incredibly fulfilling to hear about people’s lives. However, I quickly discovered that finding the right circumstances to talk to someone about their life is hard. Finding someone willing to talk about their life can be hard. Finding someone willing to let me record that conversation is even more difficult. And probably the most difficult thing is finding the courage to face all of the above and just do it. It truly is a courage first AND circumstances type of endeavor. And to be honest, mostly I get lucky that someone connects me with someone to talk to, or someone just needed to talk so badly and I happened to be there. But when the stars don’t align, or the courage isn’t quite there, I don’t get audio to share with you, and then I tend to get frustrated.
When I get frustrated I find myself counting the number of people I’ve recorded. I find myself counting the number of people that I’ve talked to and not recorded. I think about the moments that I got scared of asking someone that I was eyeing as an approachable person, and beat myself up for not asking. I start to feel guilty that I’m having fun when I haven’t done as much as I tell myself I should have.
This whole thing is exemplified by how things have been as I’ve gotten to the Eastern part of the US. I had some good conversations in Chicago. I met great people and loved my time there. I went to Western Michigan where I spent some time with an old friend and just basked in her energy and familiarity and kindness. I found myself, in Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. In each of those places I was there only briefly but tried to place myself in positions and locations that have allowed me to get recorded conversations. I went to public libraries, beautiful parks, and I couch surfed. Weather, people being focused on election day, and shy people made it so I didn’t ever get to record.
Next I found myself in New York City. I was positive that I’d get multiple chats with people that I could record. So I did a few things for my own enjoyment. I went to The Strand bookstore when I got to town and took in the smell of the beautiful books. I felt the energy of people there browsing for the next volume that would take their minds to a different world. I went and checked in to my hostel in Queens. Then I found a local corner diner and chowed down on some greasy food and topped it off with a slice of chocolate layer cake. I headed to Brooklyn to watch a lineup of small time bands in a tiny indie venue. The people were weird, the music even weirder. We danced, we sang along, and hugged. There was talk of sadness about Trump. There was hope expressed that we’d unify in our humanity. All in all, I had an absolutely Kyle kind of day. And I felt good about it, because I had a blast and the next day would be spent in Central Park collecting stories.
Central park did not go as expected. I got caught in crowds that made me nervous about asking people to chat with me. I asked people that were about to get up and leave. I asked people that weren’t interested. A few people turned away as I sat close to them—body language seeming to tell me not to bother them. I chickened out from asking others. I had walked 8 miles by the time the sun was fading and I had nothing on my recorder. This would be frustrating normally, but this is the point in the trip that should be my climax. I’m trying to wind down. I’m ready to spend time with family over a few more stops, but I’m also ready to just get back to Arizona and rest for a while. So I wasn’t just frustrated, I felt like I was failing at this whole thing of trying to collect stories and share them with others.
May I just say, I have so much more respect for what Humans of New York is. I’ve always thought it was a well-executed piece of media, but what Brandon Stanton must do behind the scenes to make it happen must be incredible.
Anyhow, feeling as I did, I looked up Cambodian restaurants. Having spent two years of my life in Cambodia, I always want to find Cambodian restaurants when I’m in a city that has them, eat familiar food, and go chat in Khmer for a few minutes. So I hopped on the subway and made my way to one a little further downtown. I walked in and was greeted. I spoke Khmer to the host and she smiled and giggled a little at hearing the tall, bearded, white guy that I am speak to her in her native tongue. She said I spoke so clearly and then seated me at my table.
I ordered a familiar dish and asked for some tea. She came back from the kitchen with my tea and asked curiously about my background that brought me to being able to speak Khmer. We chatted and exchanged back stories. She left and then came back with my food and left me alone to eat the delightful fare. As I wrapped up my meal, she reappeared to ask how it was. I told her it was good, but we mused that it wasn’t quite like being back in Cambodia.
After the check had been brought, another Cambodian waitress appeared and probed to see how good my Khmer was. We chatted for a bit about her journey to America and the education she has received and the continued studies she’s engaged in that brought her to New York. We talked about how amazing an opportunity it is for her to get an education in the States and how she wants to go back and help her small country. She too was amazed at my ability to speak, noting most Westerners lose their ability to speak when they get to their home countries. We wished each other luck and I headed back out into the concrete jungle, leaving behind that momentary safe haven. But I left feeling grounded. Moments like that are why I’m doing this.
This all may sound like me finding something like my ability to speak a somewhat rare language to prop myself up in the face of failure. And maybe it is. But as I walked towards the closest subway station, I realized that more than anything what I’m doing is between me and the people I meet. Ideally, I want to be able to get material to share with others, so that more can feel like there’s purpose and substance in our lives and experiences. I hope for all of us to feel a need to connect more with others and that we can see ourselves in the stories of other people of all walks of life. But when it comes down to it, the most valuable thing is what has been happening pretty much every day between me and the people that chat with me, whether recorded or not. And often times, just being around other people, seeing them, smiling at them, listening to them talk to others is such a boon. It’s all a great gift. I love being a part of humanity.
In that light, re-counting the unrecorded chats becomes a lot more meaningful. I didn’t record the guy at the beach in San Diego, the disc golfer in La Mirada, the Cambodians in Long Beach or New York, my hosts in Ukiah, the Germans at the cheap motel in Crescent City, the couple that hosted me in Portland, the drunk Filipino in Portland, the girl at the laundromat in Butte, the girl that gave me extra breadsticks in Bismarck, the park walker in Minneapolis, the studier in Toledo, the couple that hosted me in Cleveland, the guy that hosted me and his friends in Pittsburgh, the woman that hosted me in Princeton. There have been the intimate conversations with my friend in Eugene, my sister and her husband in Ames, my mission friend in Iowa City, my friend in Holland. Yet each of those conversations happened. Each of those people touched my life either for just a moment, or as part of an ongoing influence that they have and continue to have on my life.
Truthfully, my endeavor at collecting stories to share with others is an amateur one. But it is teaching me so much. I’m glad there are moments that ground me in that reality and remind me that I’m so blessed to be experiencing beautiful people every day. Frustration is momentary, but the beauty of humanity is before me every day.