I once met a Guatemalan woman who told me of her childhood when she was part of the armed resistance against the dictatorships before the 1996 Peace Accords. Rebels in the hills carrying guns, ducking through the forests as helicopters flew overhead. Sneaking into villages and acting out little morality plays to tell the villagers of the evils of the government and the gringos (me!) from the north. Being flown to Cuba for medical treatment. Being separated from her rebel parents and hidden safely in Nicaragua in a camp full of children with similarly revolutionary parents. Fascinating stories worthy of a memoir. In return I told her some stories of my childhood, my grandmother, my small-town upbringing – things that border on idyllic and enter the mundane – and apologized for their silly saccharine details. Good grief, how painfully ordinary and boring. But she was riveted and protested: “These are things I never had,” she said. “Please, tell me more.” Humbled and a little embarrassed, I did. But the lesson of perspective and context stuck with me.
When is ordinary no longer ordinary? At what point does thinking/living outside the box become the box? Think about it: if Lady Gaga DIDN’T wear a meat dress, that would be news. We come to expect absurdity from her the way we expect the sun to come up each day. Your life, no matter how extraordinary, becomes your personal form of “business as usual.” Hopping another flight around the world? Again?? It sounds glamorous to the ones who aren’t flying, and yet no matter how fortunate the traveler may seem, many of the sacrifices that come with it might be intolerable for the envious. And the traveler – me, in this case – can find oneself looking longingly at some of the bonuses of the life left behind.
Since 1997 my life has been in and out of “the box.” Teaching overseas and freelance/travel writing have kept me out of my home base for long periods of time (when I had a home base at all). I just became conscious of the fact that my nightstand back in Madison migrated out of the corner to another wall where it is now my de facto luggage rack, a suitcase yawning atop it, my personal items jumbled within like the junk drawer in the kitchen. I rarely am around long enough to store the suitcases on the top shelf of the closet. Being home and doing absolutely nothing but reading a book or grocery shopping is now a pleasing break from routine.
I returned from Thailand to Wisconsin this winter mostly to promote my latest Wisconsin’s Best Beer Guide, which as one might imagine, sells pretty good around Christmas in this frozen tundra of brewski. I swapped out the warm weather clothes, loaded the trunk and set off town to town doing signings at brewpubs. But when Mother Nature brought out a can of snowy whoop ass this weekend, I had to stop and catch my breath at my parents’ place in the heart of the storm.
Down with a cold, I dozed half of Saturday with the wind howling outside. When I got up, two shovels were propped up against the counter in the kitchen. Passive aggressive hints from my mother? I bundled up and headed out into the blizzard. The city had just finally plowed for the first time for the day and had left a bank as high as my waist at the end of the driveway and so I set to it with my mother.
I haven’t shoveled snow in years. Even in Madison I’m in a condo and the service is done for us. The exercise was welcome and made a blustery day seem warm in moments. It also made me feel like a pathetic old man. Is that my back? I feel a bit lightheaded. Chest pains or just gas??? Shall I dial 9-1 on the cell phone just to be prepared?
Then there’s the futility of it all. Snow was still coming down and 30-40 mph gusts were just replacing anything I tossed downwind. So much for the nostalgia of snow removal. Much like mowing a lawn – the sweet smell of fresh cut grass! – the just-like-old-times attraction wears off in about 5-10 minutes. But there was still a feeling of being home, a feeling that now more often comes to me when a Bangkok street food vendor recognizes me and starts cooking “the usual” before I even order.
I have plane ticket itineraries to sort out this week again already – Kenya, Turkey, half a dozen countries in Asia – but in the meantime, I will watch football at normal waking hours and throw a pizza in the oven, stop in at my local library, play some guitar, drive around doing errands, have a beer or six with friends, do trivia night at the pub, make some bread, maybe re-paint the bathroom. Maybe shovel some snow again. This is so amazing.