stop trying to fix me

Dear America,

We’ve got to stop trying to fix each other. Somewhere along the line we all got this idea that we had to convince each other to think alike. Doesn’t that strike you as strange? I know we’re all frustrated with how things are going right now, but is the problem really that we don’t all see the world the same way? Do we need to spend all this time fretting about our different perspectives and worldviews? “The people in that part of the country, oh, man, they think differently than I do. They have different priorities than I do.” Well, yeah. We knew that when we got together. Why now do we take every disagreement so personally, chalk it up as proof of some grave defect that must be excised or eradicated? Always seeing the world in the same way isn’t exactly a realistic standard for a relationship.

I know I’m not splitting the atom here. People in partnership try to change each other all the time. They get caught up in a fantasy of perfection. A change here, a tweak here, an upgrade here and things will be perfect. And we have always had a utopian streak. But no union is perfect, and as long as we’re bent on perfection, we’re going to exhaust ourselves trying to turn each other into people we’re not.

Honestly, when was the last time you convinced someone to look at the world in a different way? And when was nagging the most effective way to do that? If I tell you that you’re thinking wrong, that your priorities are all out of whack, all I’m really doing is staking out an indefensible position: If I insist that you change the way you think, it’s pretty easy for you to keep getting my goat. And if we’re both insisting that the other think differently…. Shocking that we end up in these unending, deadlocked arguments.

I’m tired of wringing my hands about how hard it is to change the way you think. Fake news. Echo chambers. Confirmation biases. It all seems so disheartening. But it’s only disheartening if we need to change each other’s perspective. What if instead all we need to do is understand each other’s perspective—not agree with it or even like it, but just understand—and then figure out how to live together?

That’s ours if we want it.

We just need to accept that our union will never be perfect. Because, it’s true, if we stopped judging and ranking and fearing our differences, if we just accepted them, those differences would moderate each other. We would none of us get exactly what we wanted. We’d have to give up on some of our favorite things, the ones we just know would make our union perfect, because those are the things that would clash with someone else’s idea of perfection. But maybe we could embrace the fact that our relationship is strong and durable not because it’s seeking perfection, but because it’s seeking compromise. I know. That’s not sexy. But our union was never supposed to be perfect, remember? Just “more perfect.” And “more perfect” is another way of saying that sometimes I’m going to find you wildly annoying and I’m going to be completely certain that the way you think about some challenge or conflict is entirely backward—and that’s okay. It’s not a dealbreaker. It’s part of the deal.

Yours, Out of Many,

One

we need to talk

Dear America,

It’s our anniversary today. 241 years. Well, 241 if you count that awkward first decade when you were still sort of with England and then we jackassed around with the Articles of Confederation, too nervous to really form a union. And, I know we decided we were never officially broken up during the 1860s, but we weren’t exactly together. Anyway, however you count it, it’s been over 200 years. All that time together counts for something. I hope it does. I’m holding on tight right now to the idea that it counts for something. Because this century has been really hard. We fight all the time, and usually about things that don’t even matter. Every year we have the same pointless fight about what to say to each other at Christmastime. We fight about the stupid shit people say on Twitter and CNN as if it matters. This January we fought for three days about a rain shower. What is going on? Even when we’re fighting about stuff that matters—money or going to the doctor or how we accidentally changed the weather—all we do is yell and try to score cheap points.

I know you know all this. I know we talk about it all the time. I know that you’re sick of talking about it. I’m sick of talking about it. I know it’s impossible to spend as much time together as we do—especially given our different backgrounds—and not fight sometimes. We knew when we got together that there are things we fundamentally do not agree on and that we would be arguing about those things for the rest of our union. But the way that we talk to each other now isn’t healthy. It’s not healthy and it’s not helping. It’s like we’re moving backwards. The things about which we disagree, our different values—it feels like we’re not even trying to understand them anymore, like we’re getting less generous, less loving.

I know in fights in the past you’ve talked about seceding again and I’ve joked about running away and living with some other country, but this feels different. We said after the Civil War we’d never split up again—that we couldn’t, even—but a lot’s changed since then. We’ve changed. What if somewhere along the line our differences became irreconcilable? What if the reasons we formed a union in the first place don’t make sense anymore? What if our ideas about what it means to be a nation have drifted so far apart we can’t ever bring them back together again? I mean, how confident are you that we can agree on what this union should look like in a global, hyper-connected world? A nation, any relationship, is an idea as much as a place, and I don’t know if there’s an idea that we all believe in anymore.

I’m not saying I definitely think we should split up or that I want to split up. I don’t. But at this point, even if it’s scary and painful, I’d rather try to answer these questions like grown ups than have any more arguments about a Tweet. And if we sincerely try and truly can’t answer them—if it doesn’t make sense to be one nation anymore—then why are we expending all this energy arguing? If it’s really time to split up, we owe it to each other to be more thoughtful about it than this.

I honestly hope it doesn’t come to that. Despite all the difficult times and the nightmarish things we’ve done together and to each other, I’m grateful for the years we’ve had together and I want to spend another 200+ years challenging and supporting and surprising and helping each other. I will try my best to figure out how we can do that. It won’t be easy—but, then, that used to be when we were at our best. Hopefully, it still is. More soon.

Yours, Out of Many,

One

I have been traveling over the past few years, occasionally writing short dispatches, portraits of me and my experiences in places new and familiar. It’s not hard to dig them all up on Facebook or Twitter, but I’ve included some of my favorites here.

-JM

Postcard from Maine

I’ve traveled the lower reaches of the Kennebec River many times, but yesterday was the first in memory that I’ve made my way so far upriver, on axels this time instead of a keel. I stopped in towns from my childhood, towns from my family’s history, towns that caught my eye as I drove through. I subjected donuts up and down the river to a vigorous taste test. (A toasted coconut from Gardiner coasted to an impressive win.) I crossed the river a dozen times, exploring every footbridge I passed and switching from bank to bank to avoid the busy and bland main thoroughfare. The smaller roads ran closer to the river, through fields of corn stubble and past contented farmhouses. My ultimate destination was Skowhegan, a town on a crook of river that makes it easy to remember on a map and impossible to forget in person. As I came upriver, far above head of tide, the Kennebec had been getting wilder, switchier, and narrower. Just below Skowhegan my sleepy road hugged the river, which was running swift. The far bank was steep and close, a wall of pine trees that the water gave back as an inky green muddled with the current. I was not the only one who pulled over to watch in dumb wonder. Skowhegan itself is friendly and eclectic, Maine’s industrial past and its political history, its artistic heritage and foodie present converging there like tributaries. Somehow, the local granary is hip and contemporary. Bernard Langlais’s wooden sculptures prowl and haunt the streets. Maine’s shoemaking past hangs on here in a New Balance factory. At the heart of town, the river wraps around a rocky island and plunges through a rugged gorge. People have drawn life and power from the falls for centuries, and when I first came into town I couldn’t look away from the gorge, the twin dams on either side of the island, the ice caked on the dam walls like towering sheets of frosting. Immediately upriver from most of its dams the Kennebec, unsurprisingly, gets fat and tranquil. But above the dam at Skowhegan the river is not tamed for long. It is getting close now to its headwaters in Maine’s great wilderness and it comes around this wicked bend with rippling determination. Behind me, in town, a donut waits patiently for its chance at greatness.

Postcard from Iowa

This isn’t my coldest run ever, but it’s on the list. You can’t afford to get lost in this kind of weather, because you can’t afford to stop running in this kind of weather. Sweat is just too effective at four degrees. Fortunately, the prairie rolls all around me, and it’s hard to get lost when you can see for miles in every direction. There, back in the little town where I have a warm room, I can see the white bulb of the water tower, the nettle of church spires. If I had to, I could veer into the fields of corn stubble and make straight for them—even the tilled earth is frozen as solid as the road. So the goal is not simply survival. I can do better than that. But neither speed nor distance will make a fair measure of the day. The clear, dry cold somehow also has a wicked density that slogs and garbles my stride. It’s alright, there are other challenges to rise to. Can I warm enough of this frigid air to catch my breath? Is this balaclava going to freeze to my face? Can my exertion warm my legs from the inside before the cold works its way into my muscles and slows me to a shuffle? For a few miles there, the cold had the edge, and my metabolism is burning through fuel in a hurry, but for now my exertion is winning out. There’s one other race, however, that I hadn’t considered, though I should have. A rail line, a busy one, runs right through this stretch of prairie. The tracks lie between me and central heating. I can feel and then hear the now-familiar rumble of a train approaching. In this low, flat terrain, that rumble covers many miles, and it’s possible I can make it over the tracks in plenty of time. It’s possible, too, that I can’t. If I were warm enough to really stretch out… but if I were that warm it wouldn’t be any problem to stop and wait for a parade of box and tank cars to trundle past. As it is, if this train outruns me, I will have to turn at the tracks, a hundred yards from home, and set off in some other direction, any direction in which I can keep moving, running against the cold.

Postcard from Beirut – IV

It’s night and I’m walking home, from West Beirut to East. The wealthy and isolated developments in the center of town are always empty compared to the thrum of the rest of the city, but tonight they are especially still. I have a long way to go, but I bend my course far around downtown. The police cordon that always surrounds the central few blocks has been expanded, and I add my own buffer on top of that, essentially sticking to the dark highways that ring town. Earlier in the day, when I was moving east to west, there was no missing the police mobilization. There were more of the things one always sees—soldiers, guns, streets closed off with the familiar cocktail of concertina and concrete. And there were things I had not seen before—a light tank astride a commercial intersection; a unit of female soldiers, all in gray camo, bearing assault rifles and immaculate eyeliner. A protest was coming and the police had their part to play. Back along the highway, I can see, far up the hill, the serenely lit dome of the blue mosque and the floodlights bathing the gathered protesters, though the crowds themselves remain out of sight. Cheers—indistinguishable, really, from those at a sporting event—drift down to me, because I have passed out of the aural shadow of some building or because the crowd is newly asserting itself, I don’t know. At first I think the exhaust from the rushing cars has clotted my sinuses and stung my eyes, but there is tear gas in the breeze coming off the hill. I can see more of it—or the smoke of burning trash, maybe—hanging under the floodlights. In a moment, the wind shifts and my distant little brush with the police action floats away. In a few more blocks I am clear of the Green Line, the center of the city where conflict has settled for many years, and back in the neighborhood that is home. Narrow roads and dim streetlights that tonight are cozy and welcome. It’s Thursday and men and women sit on patios and in open air restaurants eating and laughing, smoking with casual relish, lining up to get into clubs, happy, as I am, to leave downtown to others.

Postcard from Tripoli

By nightfall, the center of Tripoli had shed much of the swirling business of noonday. Having explored for many miles, having laid in some of city’s famous sweets—phyllo and nuts and honey in a series of rich combinations—we needed to get back to Beirut. The big buses that brought us had left the square, and I wondered if we’d be able to find a ride, if Tripoli perhaps went to sleep much earlier than the capital. Certainly it wears its age with more grace. Not far from city center, earlier in the afternoon, the souks were packed with shoppers and vendors, tables and booths heaped with the world’s materiel, an impossible number of shoes and belts and backpacks and necklaces and toys. But behind the plastic and polyester, ancient limestone walls and arches held up the weight of many years. Underfoot, stately and worn cobbles. The narrow alleyways crisp, designed long ago to corral shade and store the cool evening in their stones. Closer to the port, another warren of old and winding passages housed pubs and food vendors and men smoking and enjoying the respite from the heat. Without the chaos and crowding of cars, narrow streets suddenly seem like the best possible response to the thick Mediterranean sun. Back in city center, my concerns about the trip home have been wildly misplaced. In its wild, piecemeal way, the market manages transit in Lebanon quite effectively. We were in the square only a few seconds before a hawker identified us as Beirut-bound and loaded us into a van. He filled the rest of the seats in a minute and then the 14 of us—driver and passengers—were headed south. From the dark highway, the Mediterranean was no longer visible, but earlier in the day, despite the commercial tumult along its shore, a palette of appetizing blues charted the sea’s topography and waves washed patiently over its gnarled shoals. Before we achieved cruising altitude, the van pulled into a brightly lit market perched between highway and cliff. I thought maybe we needed fuel, and I was half right. A teenaged boy ran to the van’s window and passed in a tiny cup of Turkish coffee. The driver paid and we were ready for the caffeinated drive back to Beirut.

Postcard from Byblos – I

Tourists of the world, Byblos is ready for you. The allure of ancient Byblos is itself ancient. There is a modern Lebanese city here, to be sure, and the luxury retail outlets you attract or which attract you (it’s hard to tell) but walk toward the sea and into the quiet, tasteful souks, along the walkways of small, tumbled sea stones. As if the roads were paved with ladyfingers. Find your way into a church. It’s a fine escape from the remorseless Mediterranean sun. In the dim stained-glass light, you can reckon at your own pace with this building’s 900 years. Maybe try staring dumbly at the vaulted ceiling. The design is so visible, the lines so clear, and yet the size and weight and age of the stones floating above your head is, really, its own divine mystery. There are a few modern touches—bound Bibles, for example, from a printing press invented when this church was already older than America is now—but you will not find it hard to feel the presence of an awesome God. Byblos has signs of a more vengeful God, too, if you prefer. Hike up the hill to the Citadel, built by the Crusaders, repurposed by successive militaries all the way into the 19th century. From the top you’ll have a commanding view of the ruins of ancient Byblos. Below you, there’s the amphitheater the Romans put in. That’s a temple influenced by the upstart Egyptians, and over there you can see the shafts where the Phoenicians buried their kings. Those, those are the bare limestone settlements left behind by Neolithic settlers who, presumably, like you felt the heat of midday and looked down to the shore to scout out a place to swim. It is not hard here to find a spot where the sea is clear of trash, where the water is hard-to-believe clear, where the reefs and shoals make a playground from which you can leap and dive through the azure waves. As you dry on the rocky shore, the souks will transform into a mosaic of restaurants and cafes. When you’re ready, when your skin is caked with salt and you feel as if you’ve slipped a bit from your own place in history, you can wander back into town and break bread, as people have been doing here every night for thousands and thousands of years.

Postcard from Beirut – VIII

Running here is, on balance, unwise. The problems are manifold. First, there is the sticky question of when to run. I try not to sit in the sun, let alone exercise, so I wait until the day is waning. Wait too long, though, and dusk sets in. Beirut’s sidewalks are ephemeral things and cars are parked tight and everywhere, so charting a course along a street often means running on the sidewalk, in the street, on the other side of the street, through a parking lot, in traffic, in a gutter, around a barricade, and between sign posts. Navigating all this in the dark is a fine way to collect bruises. Another conundrum: The places most likely to have navigable, clear sidewalks are the freeways, but along these routes there is a visible dip in the air quality. And this, really, is the reason running in the city is probably not good for you. Beirut is backed against the vertiginous and beautiful Lebanon range—the clouds over the city hardly move during the day and columns of cumulous taller than any I’ve ever seen pile up against the mountains. Lovely for clouds, less so for the wicked discharge from all those cars and trucks, all that construction, all those generators, all that aging infrastructure. Especially toward the end of the week, it all quite literally darkens the horizon, a low, brown haze obscuring the hills. Still, if you’re a creature of habit or a stubborn jackass, there are a few charming advantages to running here. The steep streets and staircases give all the opportunities for hill work you could want. The jumbled, winding neighborhoods present a kind of charming obstacle course, an urban trail run, good for your agility training. Yes, the traffic is unceasing and anarchic but, almost without exception, drivers are patient and accepting. They will accommodate you when you have to take to the street. Running becomes more like a team sport, the drivers your teammates, the collective goal to not run you over. And if it ever becomes impossible to go on, you’ll be grateful for all the taxis that try—with surprising frequency—to pick up every runner they see.

Postcard from Beirut – IX

The sea along the Corniche cuts a bit of freshness into the air. The shoals coarse but do not seethe with the tide. Men and boys climb over the rocks, some slabbed out for the sun, others fishing with mammoth rods on which they reel in comically small fish. A man in full diving gear flippers down to the sea floor, collecting his treasures in a basket floating on an inner tube. The old man sharing my bench, clacking his prayer beads, teaches me to say hello in Arabic. He wants to know why I’m working on my computer. This, or some version of it, is a common inquiry, although where the conversation goes from there is wildly unpredictable. (Did you know the first Arab man to build a Formula race car was Lebanese?) My friend today has lots of questions. In America, do we get paid once a week or once a month? How often do we have to pay rent? How much does rent cost? How much does a factory worker make? Which is better, America or Lebanon? (The Beirutis who talk to me are not exactly bullish on Lebanon.) He greets my answers with closed eyes, pursed lips, and a knowing nod; he punctuates much of what he says by looking out at the Mediterranean and saying, “I don’t know, man. I don’t know.” He is from Lebanon but at the outbreak of the civil war he moved to Australia, where he worked in a bakery for almost 40 years, returning only recently. The pre-war Lebanon of this man’s memory had uninterrupted electricity, potable water, and much less garbage. Australia, on the other hand, was, apparently, a paradise so rich that the people were (possible language barrier here) too happy. Now as a retiree on a fixed income, he’s returned with his savings to Lebanon to live out the remainder of his days. He’s managed to see something of the world and he shows me pictures of himself in Sydney, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Denmark. Denmark is a country without peer, apparently—like all the places he admires the most impressive thing is how clean it is. Having shared our skewed views of the world, we part ways warmly. I ask how one says goodbye. He thinks a moment and then says, “So long. See you later. Bye bye.” Everyone’s a comedian.

Postcard from Beirut – XI

The rains have come to Lebanon. I headed out to run yesterday aware of the gathering storm clouds, but it’s hard to believe how much water can fall from the sky here, and how quickly. By the time I was running along the freeway, the air was gauzy with water and the wind was shoving me back on my heels. Streams appeared on every street running down the hill. Lovely yellow rivulets cut through the clay of construction sites. This would be an out and back run; I had no interest in finding my footing in the city’s narrower, crowded streets. When I did turn around, finally putting my back to the wind, I could see hail bouncing off the sidewalk, but could feel nothing other than the pelting rain. By now the hill had funneled an incredible amount of water down to the freeway. I had to ford every street crossing, and when I stepped off the sidewalk to get around a parked car, the water in the gutter came up past my ankles. It would have been entirely playful if the pooling water weren’t pooling in Beirut. Even rains this torrential don’t cleanse the city so much as reanimate its dormant grime. Oil shimmered on the surface of the water, which was turning from a muddy brown to an ominous and gritty black. The storm drains were backing up, adding to the mix whatever flows beneath the streets. Still, I was getting rinsed clean every few steps, and running against traffic, I could see how ridiculous I looked in the faces of amused drivers. At first I thought the metal banging sound was a car dragging a parking meter through the street. But I heard it every few hundred feet until finally I spotted a manhole cover clattering in its fitting, the torrent below forcing water and air out around the sides. It looked as if it was getting up the courage to pop clear off, but the drivers either knew this was nonsense or didn’t see what I saw. They inched along, pausing just above the cover so that it tickled the underside of their cars. I stopped and stood in the pounding rain, already too wet to mind, and watched the heavy metal disk dance and sing in the middle of the street.

Postcard from Beirut – XII

There are a few more things I meant to tell you before I left. In almost every shop in Beirut, you can buy single eggs. And bars always serve drinks with snacks: breaded nuts are common but you can’t rule out pretzels, tortilla chips, olives, carrots in lime juice, fried corn, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, popcorn, or the occasional mystery fruit that tastes like the mealy love child of an olive and an apple. Next to hospitals, and only next to hospitals, streets can switch directions, so that you’re meant to be driving, just for a block or two, on the left—nearby signs only hint at this. Stonewashed jeans are huge here. There are handbills pasted all over the city that advertise a “Massage by Professional Man”—I imagine not a trained masseuse, but an accountant or engineer, tie thrown over his shoulder, rubbing down the citizenry. The bats that come out in the evening to hunt are among the most acrobatic I have ever seen. You never have to be embarrassed looking both ways on a one-way street—there are probably mopeds coming from that direction. The assault-rifle-bearing soldiers around town are unfazed when pedestrians have to squeeze cozily past, but they do not like, not one bit, loitering or anything that looks like loitering. The difference between the temperature in the sun and the temperature in the shade is hard to believe—the pounding of a hot anvil turned, suddenly, into a breezy idyll. No one uses street names. There is a robust population of cats around the city, but they are not exactly feral—they’re fed and befriended and loved—more like Beirut’s collective pet. I never saw anyone washing a car, but I saw several people dusting their cars with outsized ostrich-feather dusters. You do not have to go too far to find songbirds for sale on the street. Also, scrap metal trucks drive through the neighborhoods all day, one man at the wheel, another standing in the back with the day’s haul, calling out rhythmically to the city, without frenzy or salesmanship, and the best can make it almost musical, an alluring chant, the lullaby of a city on the make.

Postcard from Tinos – III

If I leave my room and climb stone stairs and make my way between whitewashed buildings, around a large Greek Orthodox church, and up a steep grade, in just a few minutes I can get a good vantage on the village of Pyrgos, a labyrinth of stacked white boxes, arranged along a relatively level plateau, though the rear of the village climbs the hill another thirty or forty meters. The hillsides are dotted with old quarries and Tinos’s famed marble has been sent all over the world. Here it is ubiquitous local rock. The floor of my room is marble. The walkways are marble. The steps are marble. Even the pepper-gray stone walls are all salted with chunks of marble. There is a school here still for sculpture students, who I see sometimes in the cemetery, studying the marble markers. During the summer hundreds of people live and visit Pyrgos. Right now—what the Greeks adorably call winter—I’d be surprised if we topped 100 souls. I pass many empty shops and shuttered houses as I make my winding way back into town. The road that runs along the island touches the village, but does not enter it. Moving through Pyrgos is a pedestrian exercise. Every route through the marble passageways is circuitous, but the alleys and tunnels always connect to the next walk or stairway and I can’t really get lost. There’s nothing desolate about the offseason here. The village in November reminds me of a theater company between shows. There’re repairs and adjustments to make, but the villagers are relaxed, intimate and tight-knit, enjoying the calm and the quiet. Their beautiful stage is, for now, all theirs. At the center of that stage is the main square, where an ancient and massive tree spreads its branches over several cafes, four of which remain serenely open despite being largely empty during the day. If I order a glass of ouzo, though, and wait for dark, a good percentage of the village population will accrete around me. Old men and women pulling up more and more chairs around their little table. The young and shaggy sculpture students along one wall, smoking and talking. A café owner and her family laughing uproariously as they work. Children hanging on their parents’ shoulders, watching the adults play backgammon. I’m backstage in the marble village and curtain is many months away.

Postcard from Tinos – IV

I am swimming in deep water and the clarity is now, to be honest, a little scary. Not only can I make out individual rocks on the seafloor 15 meters below, but I can see my shadow dancing down there in the deep. The afternoon has been an extended encounter with the sublime. I climbed down to this deep water along a dramatic ledge of sea-polished marble on the far side of Planitis Island. Planitis looks like an island that the Earth, for its own mysterious reasons, picked up and stuck back in the sea standing on end. Canted bluffs show off towering striations, train-sized layers of brown and white and gray rock as packed and level as wedding cake. Shoving all this stone above ground also cut into the ground massive wedges of cavern. The violent geology of this place is so visible that as I padded through the silt-fine dust in these dank and still vaults I couldn’t help but imagine one of them biting down, closing off the thin rim of blue sky above me. At the summit of this upended island, an ancient lighthouse is slowly giving way to the winds of time. Standing up there, I could see miles and miles of sea, but it was hard to look away from the spot 50 meters below, where Planitis dropped away so sudden and sheer that, again, it looked like I was suspended, dangling above the seething, coursing breakers. I could feel the plunge in my ears and my stomach and my knees. Planitis is nearly connected to Tinos by a long, not-quite isthmus of land that has been worn down by the sea in several places. The first time I scouted the passage, the wind was up and the sea was crashing through every available channel. The churning surf was a topaz-blue I have seen before only in candy. Today the channel was calm and wading across required only a little patience. In a few minutes I will climb out of this crystal water, scale up the brutal rock to level ground, and make my way back to the big island. In a few minutes. This place feels like edge of the world or, at least, the edge of life—ecstatic and terrifying and beautiful—and it’s hard to pull myself away.

Postcard from Tinos – V

My charming little room has a fridge and a sink but no stove. The cafés, bless them, sell cheese pies. The flaky feta pie has classic appeal, but the doughier gouda pie turns out to be markedly superior. There’s also a gyro joint, a hangout for local boys in sleeveless denim jackets that serves a mean souvlaki, wrapped in a thick pita, piled with tzatziki, veggies, a sprinkle of thyme, and—the blissful kicker—a pile of fries. Mostly, though, I dine in. The foundation of these meals is bread and I go daily to the village bakery, a decidedly utilitarian establishment. There’s nothing you could call a display case. Just bags of flour, a bank of ovens, some cooling racks. If my timing’s right, the loaf is still warm as I tuck it under my arm and head for the market. The market in Pyrgos is all-purpose. Shampoo, butane, or a shower curtain, this is your spot. I’m there for the food. Despite the legend of this country’s yogurt, I miss the Lebanese stuff, but still, I keep plenty on hand, mostly to mix with local honey and a strange bag of grains masquerading as cereal. Produce is cheap and delicious and I lay in whatever I can eat fresh. Tomatoes and cucumbers and apples and grapes and bananas and clementines. The last are local and sweet and I’m usually peeling a second as I’m finishing the first. A few other veggies work in pickled form, notably beets. This also seems a good time to experiment with tinned seafood. I alternate among squid, good old sardines, and something marketed (unwisely but honestly) as musky octopus. At the deli counter I get blocks of feta, sliced turkey, and scoop after scoop of kalamata olives, which have a wicked and satisfying tang. Once home, much of this can be assembled into sandwiches, of course, but it’s also satisfying to throw a little of everything on a plate, start ripping off hunks of bread, and build each bite a la carte. Finally, desert. After briefly kidding myself with a 200-gram container, I’ve bowed to reality and bought the one-kilo drum of Nutella. Even more dangerous, though, are the sleeves of Papadopoulos brand cookies. They are habit forming and, as the sun goes down, they will call to you, in Greek but with utter clarity, from clear across the village.

Postcard from Tinos – VIII

The best thing about Tarampados is not the dovecotes. The signs and maps lured me here with the dovecotes—though a few of them used the sturdier but less romantic translation “pigeon houses.” There is a dovecote near Pyrgos and I do enjoy watching the flock of doves burst from the roof, curl out over the valley and settle again, dynamic and predictable in the same instant, but it never occurred to me to get excited about their house. Dovecotes here are whitewashed cubes, ten or twelve feet high, perched on steep hillsides. The dovecotes at Tarampados, at least right now, have no explosive and serene doves. But they are on the hill opposite the village, which does help reveal their idiosyncrasy and charm. Dovecotes look out over their hills, so I typically see them from behind. On the front, though, the whitewashed cement gives way to grids of stonework, geometric patterns laid out with biscuits of rock. Herringbones and checks and crosses and diamonds. Even so, from the ledges of the village there are more interesting things to see than the intricate façades of the dovecotes. Behind me, the serrated summit of Mt. Exomvourgo is awash in alpenglow, its crags and crevices in high relief, painted salmon by the setting sun. Among the dovecotes, a farmer is burning brush, as people all over the island have been doing all day. It is a calm day, no sign of the winds that would make any fire hard to control, and even now smoke curls from many hillsides. But these are the first flames I’ve seen, huge orange wings flapping in the still evening air, stirring the rich, woody scent of autumnal warmth. Further up the hill, a weathered man wearing jeans, a gray tee shirt, and a gruff mustache is herding his sheep to high ground, perhaps toward the night’s shelter. He patiently circles them, waving his arms gently, making a noise like the absent wind, moving them forward without giving them any reason to spook. The lambs are remarkable mimics, trotting next to their mothers so closely, step for step, it looks as if someone’s darned them together. Perhaps there are pigeons already nestled down for the night in the dovecotes, but the farmer, the shepherd, and the sun all still have a little work to do, and I will stay and watch.

Postcard from Tinos – X

Years from now, ask me what I remember about November 2015 and I will say, “The sea.” The riverless, rocky-bottomed clarity of it—visibility that on foggy days is better below the surface than above. Warm enough to invite, cool enough to invigorate. In the main port, on arrival, dragging my luggage, I got in only up to my knees. I have made up for that almost every day since, letting the island’s beaches and coves chart my hikes and my runs. I swam frequently in Panormos Bay, ringed by a fishing village, boats bobbing on their moorings. I swam, too, where the surfers go, a beach town completely shuttered for the offseason. I swam in a bay noted for its protection from the north wind—on the day the wind blew from the west, the only time I found both rolling surf and sandy shores and could ride the waves in. I swam on a remote and romantic beach where, while I dried in the sun, a gecko startled us both by climbing into my lap. I swam at the bottom of long, switching roads that worked hard to get down to the sea and at the mouth of broad valleys, the ends of dormant but once powerful rivers. On beaches of near silt, from massive slabs of stone, and on all the grades of rock, gravel, and coffee grounds in between. In the north, across from hulking Andros Island; in sight of Syros to the west; to the south, facing Mykonos; and in the east, where Tinos fronts only open water. I swam looking up at great striated bluffs still warm with the afternoon sun, and within sight of man-made façades, the rectilinear precipices of harvested marble. Just offshore of old stone mills and abandoned pits and entirely active quarries. In coves crying out for a Hardy Boys mystery—all smuggler’s caves and hidden inlets and mysterious crags. I dived into the sea from crumbling piers abandoned decades ago and leapt off jutting cliffs carved millennia past. And I swam in a steep canyon where the currents collect all the flotsam within many kilometers. If someone drowned, the locals said, this is where they’d find the body. No bodies other than my warm one, but I did find a pair of still-inflated inner tubes. On that day, I floated as well as swam.

Postcard from Colorado

Moffat, Colorado, 7500 feet above sea level and just a few miles north of Colorado Gators Reptile Park, is zoned. A sign posted along Highway 17 told me so as I crossed into town. I assumed municipal ordinances directed the little town’s growth, so that one could not slap a home anywhere, anyway. Except that’s how Moffat had been settled, trailers scattered aimlessly along the highway. I stopped at a store—the store—that could not afford to be one thing, advertising coffee and jewelry and ice. On the store’s broad, frontier porch, a man with a collection of backpacks propped against a post rocked on his heels, talking happily into his ragged gray beard. Inside, among the vaguely Navajo knickknacks for sale throughout the Southwest, two women were hanging butterfly kites, either for sale or decoration, I couldn’t tell. (The decision was ultimately made that the kites looked best flying to the ceiling, not descending from it.) One of the women took a break to put a frozen burrito in a microwave for me. As I sat next to the microwave, waiting to retrieve my food, the women discussed the man on the porch, gliding now through a series of Tai Chi poses. They were trying to figure out how to get him to drift along down Highway 17, to the next town, the next porch with a big view of the high plateau. I shifted to sit in a way evocative of someone with a very full car. Lucky for me, the women had their eye on another possible ride, a man who emerged now on the quiet road, headed for the store. This character had also been hanging around all morning, but the women spoke of him not as another pest to be shooed away, but a troubling presence it was best not to agitate. And maybe, they said hopefully, when this Ill Wind blew out of town, he’d take Tai Chi with him. The microwave dinged and Ill Wind came inside, as shorn and tight as Tai Chi was shaggy and lose. He backed up to the wood stove in the middle of the store and, after a quiet moment, told all of us and none of us that his doctor’s appointment had gone well. Not much to say to that. And, really, no need for three stragglers in Moffat. The whole place is zoned.

Postcard from DC

The sky above the Supreme Court is wispy with cotton and shot with the sun, blue and slate and gold. Those waiting to get in hold books and coffee cups, smart phones and rosary beads. They flash a range of ages and postures and laughs, though nearly everyone is white. I overhear resigned complaints about regulation, nostalgic praise for the Boy Scouts, but the crowd does not seem especially doctrinaire or originalist. They are that special DC cocktail of out-of-towners in canvas coats muddled with dewy staffers in conservative suits. Everyone becomes slowly aware that our advance has stalled. The police raise metal barricades from the streets, park cruisers across lanes, walk sniffing Labradors among the parked cars. The President is coming, and for an hour we don’t move, though the line grows, folding back on itself, crossing the street, running out of sight past the Library of Congress. The sun sinks and it’s colder when we start moving again, but as we turn onto the Court’s marble proscenium something odd and giddy happens to our spirits. The police direct us around cameramen setting up their rigs. We recognize reporters who are, we agree, smaller than they appear on TV. A few men work the line, begging politely. A copse of pro-life activists with tape over their mouths is planted on the sidewalk. Finally inside, we snake our way into the Great Hall of the Supreme Court, where the justice’s casket lies wrapped like a package in the American flag. The ornate ceiling and the hushed acoustics, the matching wreathes sent by the House and the Senate, the massive columns and the Marines standing at attention are all magisterial and stately. The clerks, though, they are human and intimate. Four of them alongside the casket, a rotation of former aides who will stand vigil all day. Among the thousands of us streaming through, here are four who knew the man, who worked for him; his death real and unreal for them in a way it’s not for us. The clerk across from me, I can see on her composed face that my afternoon of tourism is for her tangible and bizarre. And then suddenly the line is ended. I’m back outside on the court’s massive steps. Across the street, to the west, the clouds behind the Capitol have gone orange and red, on fire with the massively indifferent sunset.