EXCERPT: Living through the coronavirus pandemic abroad

Read the full story here: https://themilsource.com/2020/03/16/an-american-in-madrid-living-through-the-coronavirus-pandemic-abroad/

I wrote this about the last week in Madrid as the COVID-19 pandemic spread and Spain imposed strict rules to fight the spread. This is just the first portion, follow the link to read the whole piece.


Thursday was a tipping point. It felt that way when I woke that morning. United States President Donald Trump spoke to the US on Wednesday from the Oval Office to explain the US government’s efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic. On the list of measures was a ban on travelers from Europe’s Schengen Area.

I learned of the travel ban a few hours later after waking up in my apartment in Madrid, Spain (inside the Schengen). In less than a month, my girlfriend, Helen, and I were set to travel to the US. It would be my first time in my home country since the summer of 2017, and her first time meeting most of my family. With the president’s announcement, though, plans were suddenly uncertain.

As an American citizen, I am permitted to travel to the US. Helen, however, is British and has lived in Spain for 11 years. There is no reason to hope she would be granted an exception.

It’s Thursday morning, and everything is up in the air.

Spain amidst COVID-19

Earlier in the week, the Spanish government designated three regions of the country – Madrid, La Rioja, and the Basque Country – as transmission hubs for COVID-19. Schools were required to close in those regions for two weeks, starting March 11.

In Madrid, that directly affected my friends who are part of the sizeable “expatriate,” or expat, community. They are teachers and auxiliaries. The program of “Auxiliares de Conversacion,” which literally means “conversation assistants,” places thousands of native English speakers in elementary and secondary classrooms around the country.

We are among the many Americans, Canadians, Britons and more who came to Spain to teach English as a second language. There is a considerable market here for English speakers, as Spanish people are eager to learn the language.

With concerns about COVID-19 intensifying, the expats in Madrid were adapting to their changing situations.

“It’s been very chaotic since no one really has a clear understanding about what’s going on,” explained James, a friend who works at an English academy. Shortly after the original announcement of school closures, he learned the language academies were not required to close, so his situation remained uncertain for days. Eventually, like most businesses in Madrid, his school closed.

My friends told me they’ve been in contact with people back home. Both Casey, originally from Minnesota, and Calla, from Kentucky, said they had spoken with family back home about the situation both here and in the US.

“I think we’re all at about the same level of concern,” Casey said of her and her parents. “I’d give that about a six out of 10. I feel much safer being in Spain than if I were back in the states because one, the healthcare system here is very good and two, with the amount of Americans that don’t have access to proper medical care and treatment, I believe things are going to be much worse in the United States than here.”

They all expressed a desire to keep living life as normally as possible, but acknowledged that might be easier said than done.

“I would prefer to be out as I normally would,” Calla explained, “than to complete self-quarantine until it’s totally necessary.”

In less than 48 hours, it would no longer be a choice.


Papel higienico

The World from a Chair

Today, I spoke to an Iraqi man about the lasting effects of the American intervention in his home country. A half hour before meeting him, I spoke with a Catholic priest from Brazil who was studying “Canon Law”. Every week, I spend hours talking with people from South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other nations.

Madrid is an international hub, but these interactions are all happening online from the semi-comfort of my office. Sitting in the fifth “bedroom” of my flat near Ventas, I speak via my laptop’s camera to people from all over the world while hints of sunlight slice through the wooden slats of the blinds behind me.

As an effort to augment my income, I signed up with an online English teaching website when I first landed in Spain. Now, using it a few hours every day, it has actually become my main source of income in any given month.

There are at least a dozen websites like the one I use – Cambly – where teachers can help students learn English (or another language) from their living room. Some are built for more structured lesson plans where each session is essentially no different than a literal classroom, while others are better suited to causal conversation where students can practice speaking and listening in a no-pressure environment.

Cambly is the latter, though I have certainly had plenty of opportunities to brush up on my Phrasal Verbs and Past Perfect verb tenses. Usually, when I get a call, it’s someone who needs to improve their spoken English for school or their career.

I start with a few basic questions (“What’s your name?” “Where are you from?” “Why are you learning English?”) and allow the conversation to develop from there. Sometimes this leads to weekly discussions with regulars about art, politics, and traveling, and other times I spend five to fifteen minutes pulling teeth out of a reticent partner. And then there are the kids just looking to mess with a foreign teacher. Not every call is a winner.

There are higher paying teaching gigs, certainly ones that provide more stability, and I’ve had my share of frustrations in the six months I’ve been on the site, but I also wouldn’t be paying my bills without it (so much as I am paying my bills…). If my career ambition were to be be a teacher, this gig wouldn’t fulfill that dream, but as a means of traveling to different cultures on a budget, it’s oddly effective.

When not offering gentile critique of my partner’s English, I’m helping people with their writing (like the Buddhist nun in South Korea who needed help with a US Visa application) or listening while someone practices a speech or school lesson they have to give. One woman was a tour guide who gave me a virtual tour of her Korean town so she could practice for a group that would be there the next day.

Then there are the times I’m just there to provide an ear for a broken heart. I vividly remember the Japanese boy the day after Christmas who called because his girlfriend had broken up with him and he just wanted to talk to someone.

I think almost every day of the Saudi woman who had walked in on her husband’s act of infidelity and, eight months later, was still utterly broken up about it. As she wept, she told me she couldn’t forgive the betrayal (no matter how much her friends and family told her to), but she also couldn’t leave. She had no recourse, no clear path forward. And all I could do was listen. 

Of course, I could have worked on Cambly in America. I have one regular student I tutor here in Madrid and a couple other inconsistent or potential teaching gigs, but most of my work is done remote and there’s no specific reason I had to be in Madrid. There’s no specific reason I had to be anywhere, and that’s the beauty of this arrangement. I can be anywhere, and thus I can go everywhere. Theoretically. (Still waiting on that call for the Mars shuttle.)

For anyone looking to make a little extra income or dealing with unwanted downtime, I’d recommend teaching online. Cambly is just one of the options, but it’s as good as any, and hey, if you follow this link and say I (Joseph NY) recommended you, we both get a bonus. You know, hint hint, or whatever.

I’ve got to go now, I’m about to do another hour of online teaching. Who knows who I’ll meet next?

“Lo siento”: Welcome to Madrid and starting over, again

The first thing you should know is that I do not speak Spanish. That is to say, I know how to ask for beers (“dos cervezas, por favor”) and I have the ability to read most signs and can even get the gist of more complex sentences, but when it comes to the actual act of holding a verbal conversation in Spanish, I’m (currently) hopelessly adrift.

I’ve meekly sputtered “No hablo español” a dozen or so times by now. One of my first evenings here in Madrid, a couple stopped me to ask directions, and as I had grown accustomed to saying I didn’t speak their language, I had already excused myself before I realized a) their accent wasn’t Spanish and b) they were asking me where the Domino’s Pizza was located. I couldn’t have helped them with that, anyway, but I still felt silly.

One simple phrase of my basic vocabulary is getting a work out: Lo siento. “Lo siento, no hablo español.” “Lo siento,” as I squeeze through a crowd; “Lo siento,” as I stare blank-faced at the cashier in the chino (convenience store); “Lo siento” as I act generally like a New Yorker in a decidedly un-New York city.

I know I could also use “perdon” in some situations, but I don’t feel it quite conveys all the information “lo siento” does: “I am sorry I am an American in your country and despite taking three years of Spanish in high school have retained almost none of my education.” Those two words pack in a lot.

Of course, the first thing anybody will tell you is that in the major cities of Spain, Madrid and Barcelona in particular, you don’t actually need to speak Spanish. Most people have rudimentary English skills, at minimum, and are unperturbed by being forced to use them. If I was a mere tourist here, like I was exactly one year ago, that would be fine, but that feels like a cop out for someone who intends to be here for an indeterminate amount of time.

I’ve met quite a few people in the less than two weeks that I’ve been here. The vast majority of them are involved in TtMadrid, a Spanish education/TEFL training course out here that is associated with the International TEFL Academy from whom I received my TEFL certification. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the couple different opportunities I’ve had to hang out with these large English-speaking groups, even as I recognized that among them, I am still an outsider. They’re sharing an experience that I am not.

One thing I’ve noticed immediately is that living three years in one place has dulled my social skills. The longer I lived in Brooklyn, the easier it was to feel comfortable staying in and avoiding crowds (as crowded as New York is, it’s actually quite easy to be alone). Every time I approach a new group, every time I enter a strange restaurant, my social anxiety flares up (even more so knowing that I’m unarmed with the language) and my mind starts swearing at me, “This is a stupid idea.”

And then it isn’t. It’s almost always a good time. Here, so far, I’ve wound up enjoying myself every time even if the first 20 minutes or so are radioactively awkward. Most of the English-speaking people here are in a similar boat to me, living in a new country, uncomfortable with their Spanish, and still getting their bearings. In that way, I have an advantage: I own this boat.

It’s also why I do this. I was always the last person on earth who seemed equipped for 10 Cities/10 Years, a decade in which my anxiety never lessened below a simmering heat. But I need to put myself out in uncomfortable situations so that I don’t become yet another hermit writing angry screeds online. I mean, I already am that person, but at least I still go outside sometimes.

If 10 Cities/10 Years was my master’s program, now I’m going for my doctorate. All the old challenges of starting over in a new city are here, but with additional cultural and language barriers. To overcome them, I’ll have to put myself out there and practice using my Spanish at every opportunity.

So I don’t know the language. And I don’t know the culture. And I don’t know the people. And I don’t know who I am in the midst of yet another rebirth, another reboot, another starting over. I’ll get there.

C’est la vie.

Wait, fuck.

Jack String and the Case of the Strange Influence

It’s been a busy couple of months for me. In addition to my two day jobs, I’ve been working weekends as a server and teaching an ESL class one night a week, all while trying to write (rare), study Spanish (rarer), and have a social life (so rare, it’s still mooing).

Of all those demands on my time, I’m finding teaching the most rewarding. For about three hours every Monday night, I volunteer at El Centro de Educación de Trabajadores in Hell’s Kitchen, an organization that provides a variety of services to help immigrants and those whose first language isn’t English. They provide a good community service, a necessary service, and I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to play a small part in it – as well as a little sad that next week will be the end of the quarter.

Partnered with a co-teacher, I help adult learners with first level English, teaching essential grammar and vocabulary. The students are at varying skill levels, and almost every week we’ve had a new student arrive, so there’s a lot of on-the-fly adaptation and rejiggering of lesson plans.

Every Monday morning, I leave my apartment at 8 to work a full 9-5 (5:30, really) and then immediately take the train a couple stops north to start teaching just after 6. The class ends at 9 and then I have roughly an hour ride home back to my apartment in Crown Heights. Then another six straight days of work. Sunday nights, I go to sleep exhausted just by the thought of the next day.

The strange thing – or not so strange, based on the admissions of my fellow volunteers – is that by the time class has started, I’m re-energized, excited to engage with the students, to hear about their weeks and learn more about them. They come from Venezuela, Brazil, Mexico, Iran, and other locales. Every week we talk about what life is like in their home countries, what they enjoy about New York, and what differences they experience in American culture. These are the conversations I live for.

When it’s my week to lead the lesson, there’s always a wee nervous stirring in my stomach, the weight of responsibility, a sense that there’s more at stake than whether a cheeseburger comes out at the right temperature. The glimmer of excitement in someone’s eye when they understand something that only minutes before they had not is the ultimate gratuity.

I’m sad that I won’t get a second chance to work with El Centro or my co-teachers. I hope to someday return to a similar type of program, either abroad or when (if) I return to the United States. Until then, I’m grateful for the opportunity. I don’t yet think of myself as a teacher, not really, but this was an important stop on that journey.


A Puzzle with No Solution

Ms. Drake turned out to be a surprisingly pivotal person in my life’s direction. I say surprising because, when she was my sixth grade teacher, I always found her teaching style to be a bit juvenile. She decorated her classroom with color paper cutouts that looked more appropriate for kindergarteners. We also had a midday break where she would read different books to us, some of them well below my reading level. I was mostly bored in her class.

Hell, I’m providing her the pseudonym of “Ms. Drake” not to protect her identity but because I genuinely don’t remember it. She only lasted at the school one year.

And yet, Ms. Drake, my Ms. Frizzle-esque sixth grade teacher absolutely changed the course of my life.

Up until sixth grade, when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said a “mathematician.” I didn’t really have a concept of what that meant or how exactly doing math could manifest as a career. I just knew that I liked math problems, any math problems.

When I was still in single digits, I used to borrow my sister, Debra’s, algebra textbook and solve problems from her homework. I enjoyed all math, but algebra appealed to me the most because each problem was like a little puzzle, and boy, I loved puzzles. One summer, I took a school math book home with me to do homework so that I could advance the next year. By the time I was in sixth grade, I had leapt ahead in my math course to be in the same class as my older brother, Daniel. He loved that.

So, every day, usually coinciding with Ms. Drake’s reading period, I and another student, a much brighter boy than me named Juno, would leave our sixth grade classroom and go upstairs to join the upper level math class (our school was a private Christian institution that housed K-9 grades all in one yellow, metal barn-shaped building).

I took great pride in my math proficiency, and was more than a little bit of a shithead about it with my older siblings. But since I was a mortally shy and uneasy kid, it’s all I had; it was my entire identity, other than being the youngest boy from a messed up family – which I also took a weird kind of pride in.

Having that one thing to hang my hat on was very important because sixth grade was also the year puberty body slammed my groin like a Republican congressman and I discovered the most magnificent of life’s horrors: falling in love.

Her name was Laura. She wasn’t the first girl I’d had a crush on. That was Melanie in kindergarten, and there’d been others. But Laura was the first girl for whom seeing her enter the room made me feel like I was dying and being born at the same time. My crush on her is probably the reason I can’t remember Ms. Drake’s real name or most other things going on in my life from sixth grade through much of junior high: she outshone everything else.

As a chunky 11-year-old, I was not a smooth talker, and I was not cute, at least not to sixth grade girls. I was confident that Laura – and every other girl for that matter – was in love with my best friend at the time, Aaron, an athletic, naturally popular kid. That’s how I envisioned him; I’m sure his memory is far less charitable, as no one remembers their pubescent years fondly.

I went through that entire year in complete devastation, certain that I was invisible to Laura, though I know for sure that she actually did notice me: I was the jerk who made up some stupid, rude nickname for her. That’s right, I was the cliché, the boy who didn’t know how to talk to his crush so he insulted her instead. This was the beginning of a phase where, when I couldn’t think of anything funny or witty to say, I would just be mean. I expect that phase to end any day now.

There I was, in love with this incomparable beauty (there are few comparison points for an 11-year-old, Christian boy), and completely unable to break through the barrier between us. I’d met the unsolvable puzzle.

This is where Ms. Drake comes in.

In addition to the reading period, Ms. Drake would also set aside a portion of the day for us to write in our journals. We could write whatever we wanted, and at the end, those who wished to could read what they’d written aloud to the class. I’d never really done any personal writing before, never had a diary or anything, but I took to this activity with gusto.

During one of these writing periods, I created my first character: Jack String, a bumbling idiot of a private eye who always managed to solve his cases by pure dumb luck. I’m not sure where the character came from, but like most everything else about me at that age, I’m sure I stole it from something I watched on TV.

Feeling confident one day, I volunteered to read my Jack String story to the class. That’s when it happened, the most perfect, most beautiful, purest life-sustaining moment of my paltry existence: I read the silly story and the class laughed. Nay, Laura laughed. That was it. Fuck math, I was a writer.

Writing was powerful, it was world changing. It made me funny. Once Jack String came to life on the page, he became all I wanted to write about, all I wanted to do. Entering his world offered the briefest of respites from my uncertain real life. (Years later, when I unearthed the original Jack String pages, I was shocked to find that these “short stories” where barely two paragraphs long.)

As I grew older, Jack String transformed into a more dour detective until I abandoned the character altogether. Though I had loved reading Encyclopedia Brown and other detective stories, it turned out I was lousy at manufacturing meaningful mysteries of my own. My fiction grew less plot heavy as I developed as a writer, more character based. The humor also changed, from pratfalls to sardonic quips that are really only funny to me. It turns out, my sixth grade self knew how to entertain an audience better than current me.

Laura and I became “friends” throughout high school but it was always a walled off kind of relationship. At 18, when I read my poetry for the first time in front of an older, rowdy audience at the Jazzhaus, I invited her as my guest, hoping not too subtly that my exquisite words would wow the audience and capture her heart.

We were the only under-agers allowed in (my brother, Steve, ran the show) and we drank Cherry Cokes together at our separate table. When it was my turn to read, I sheepishly worked my way through the narrow passages between the swiveling chairs and up onto the spotlighted stage.

There I stood, a stick figure child with the blondest of long blond hair, standing before a drunken crowd of adults. I cleared my throat in preparation of reading truly terrible poetry, but before I could get any words out, a disembodied voice from the darkness hollered, “Hey, Hanson!” The crowd exploded into hoots and guffaws. I turned beet red, and then grew redder. Apparently I could still get a laugh as a writer.

Dripping sweat, I managed to mumble out my angsty couplets before leaving the stage to polite clapping. I sat through the rest of the show, every few minutes looking at Laura with a twitchy smile, but there was nothing to be done, nothing to salvage. I’m pretty sure that was the last time I saw Laura.

In School (Album)

For all that humiliation, for all the social anxiety, I have Ms. Drake to thank. But, sincerely so. Getting up on that stage and being roundly embarrassed was a necessary experience. I went up almost every week for the next three years, and eventually grew more comfortable performing before an audience, even if the poetry didn’t improve. It was facing that fear that led the groundwork for other major leaps that I would make in my life, particularly 10 Cities/10 Years.

It’s a strange influence that a teacher can have on a student’s life (and a preposterous society that doesn’t revere and support its teachers). If you were to ask me which teachers I’ve learned the most from or who I had the most admiration for, Ms. Drake wouldn’t be the first to pop into my head, and yet, truly, no other teacher sparked such a fundamental and lasting passion in me.

It’s crazy to think, if not for Ms. Drake, I might be an engineer instead of a writer.

I hope she’s sorry.




…jack of all trades, master of none…

On most days of the week, I stare at a computer, a screen projecting a swath of information I don’t and couldn’t care about. For hours at a time, I figure out how to best formulate that information so someone else can make money. It is my job. For now.

If you are familiar with the term “factotum,” there is a good chance it is because of the author Charles Bukowski. It was the title of his second novel (and a 2005, Matt Dillon-starring film based on it), which tells of Henry Chinaski, an alcoholic ruffian who can’t hold onto a job, or won’t.

If you’re unfamiliar, a factotum is someone who holds many jobs, someone who doesn’t specialize in any one particular occupation but bounces from one gig to the next. Sometimes, factotums are easily bored, always looking for something new to hold their attention. On the hand, maybe they’re just bad at everything and stumble from one failure to the next. And then there are the wanderers.

I’m not sure which category I best fit into, but I am a factotum.

The jobs I have carried:
Stockroom supervisor
Sales associate (books, clothing, music and movies, porn)
Bookstore manager
Fry cook
Data entry clerk
Phone bank operator
Small scale construction (a bathroom; a basement)
Marketing associate

I’m likely forgetting some.

I’m currently in the process of embarking on a new, well, career might be too strong a word, but employment direction. For the last month, I’ve been volunteering as an ESL teacher for a program in Hell’s Kitchen. This is fulfilling my practicum hours so I can complete my certification with the International TEFL Academy, which will hopefully open up teaching opportunities globally.

It’s just the next step in an oeuvre that will likely never settle into one groove.

God Bless You

My First Job

Not counting cleaning my dad’s office, the first job I ever held was at a KOA campground on the outskirts of my hometown. The campground was owned by a family who attended the same church as mine. I was happy to avoid working at a fast food restaurant as my older brothers had for their first jobs (alas, fast food employment was still in my future). I was 16.

My responsibilities at the job were a little ill-defined, but mostly I was there to maintain the fields and long-term campsites. The campgrounds were split into three sections: The first consisted of open fields where overnight visitors could set up tents and cook around fire pits. Moving north across the property, there were three lanes of extended-stay parking where RVs and campers could be hooked up and stay for a few weeks.

Finally, there was the long-stay section, where families would often sit for months at a time. Essentially a trailer park, with all the negative associations that brings to mind, I dreaded going anywhere near that section. Of course, these were all just poorer families making do in a tough situation and providing a home for their children; no shame in that. But as a sullen teen responsible for cleaning around their “lawns,” I was unsympathetic to their plight.

On my first day, my boss, Bob, handed me a pair of gloves and directed me to the long-term sites to pick up trash. Thus, the first task of my illustrious and diverse working career involved picking discarded cigarette butts out of gravel like the bleakest claw machine ever (flashing neon: “Win cancer for a quarter!”). Every day of work since then has just been a variation of that.

There were aspects of working at KOA I liked (cruising around on a riding lawn mower) and aspects I loathed (cleaning out the dog walk trash bin with my hands), a dichotomy of activities that fell under the blanket theme of Just Obeying the Boss; you know, a job.

About halfway through the summer, a friend from church was hired, a guy named David, so I had someone to work alongside. We had a good time working together, but much of the gig was fairly solitary, which I didn’t mind. Mowing lawns, weed whacking, cleaning the public bathrooms, they invoked a kind of zen-like trance through the sheer repetition and simplicity of action. Sometimes, that trance was a little too deep.

One sunny day, I was out mowing the far south camping field, a long and thin rectangle of open grass bordered on each side by gravel roads. Other than a couple trees and a fire pit or two, the field was just open grass, which made it a perfect patch of land for accelerating the riding mower to its limits. Starting from the center, I rode that hog in outward concentric circles, gaining speed all the way.

The important thing to know about this field is that it was formed like a flat bowl, with its immediate edges curving up to meet the road.

I was able to pick up the most speed on the long stretches of the field which I would then use to whip across the short sides and back up the other long side. I had managed to pick up considerable momentum by the time I reached the outer edges. That’s where I met the 45-degree incline. I was fine along the long southern side, but as I took a left-hand turn onto the short eastern edge, I experienced a terrifying sensation: the mower tipping onto two wheels.

In that horrified moment, it wasn’t my life that flashed before my eyes, but a vision of the next ten seconds. I’d heard stories: The mower would flip, taking me with it, either crushing me underneath or, having flung me a few feet, rolling and landing wheels-down – blades-down – on my arms, legs, or neck. I wouldn’t be driving home that day.

As I hung at maybe 80 degrees, instinct took over and I kicked with all my strength to leap as far out of the path of the mower as I could. I hit the ground and rolled, looking up just in time to see my mighty steed right itself onto four wheels and drive off without me. For a moment, I stared in astonishment and relief. Then I pushed myself back onto my feet and ran after the riderless mower as it crested the edge of the field, crossed the gravel road, and descend into the next field.

I leapt back into the seat and took command of the mower. Looking around, I checked to see if anyone had seen my near-decapitation, but I was out in the field alone, no witnesses for my embarrassment. I spun the hefty piece of machinery around and sheepishly finished the rest of the field at half speed.

Most days lacked that sort of adrenaline rush. At worst, I’d weed whack some unidentifiable wire hanging from a camper in the extended parking lot and panic for a second, before shrugging it off and continuing with my day.

My worst days came with the arrival of Phish-heads who swarmed to the campground on a weekend in which their beloved jam band was playing a show nearby. The patchouli stench would have been enough, but when they decamped, they left behind piles of garbage, untended fire pits, and, no exaggeration, a centimeter of caked mud on the floor of the bathroom. These were no hippies.

My two young passions, NYC and puzzles. Ladies.

Despite those unpleasantries, I mostly enjoyed the job, albeit only as much as a 16-year-old can enjoy any job. For one, I liked the physical activity. I was a hefty – nay, fat – teen, so that summer spent working outside in the hot sun was the beginning of a period of dramatic weight loss.

Plus, in general, I like working. I’m happy to have an occupation by which I can pay my own way and occupy my body, if not always my mind. It’s why, during my ten years of relocating, periods of joblessness were so depressing. It wasn’t just that I was anxious about money, I hated feeling so listless and inactive.

I’ve never found a job that I wanted to keep forever, and I don’t imagine I ever will. I’ve had some great jobs, working with good people and completing rewarding tasks. I’ve also had my share of soul-crushing gigs. Every one’s had an expiration date. That’s the life of a factotum.

In my younger years when people asked me what I wanted to do for a career, I told them I wanted to be a novelist. As I got older and came to understand how unlikely it is to become successful enough writing fiction to pay the bills, I expanded my career ambitions to include other writing gigs, maybe working for a magazine, or writing travel pieces. Now, though, I’m no longer holding out for that writing dream. I’ll always be a writer; I may never make a dime from it. That’s okay.

I have two passions in life, writing and traveling, and as I age, it’s the latter one that brings me the most satisfaction. Seeing some place new for the first time is life sustaining for me. Money is the necessary evil that allows me to pursue that passion, so I will continue my factotum ways.

Monumento a Jacinto Benavente (Green)


Teaching English is just another means to an end. I enjoy it; like, a lot. I could see myself doing it for years, as long as it opens up avenues for new homes in new countries. But will it be the occupation that gets me to settle down somewhere permanently? Unlikely.

I hope you enjoy your job. I hope it fills you with a sense of purpose and satisfies you creatively, intellectually, or physically (ideally, some combination of all three). But if not? Well, nothing has to be forever.

One Hundred Days

One hundred days from now, if all goes as hoped, I will say my goodbyes to New York City, my home of three years, and board a flight to Spain.

There’s still so much unknown, so little figured out. A place to live, a means of income, even my exact day of arrival, it’s all still up in the air. If past moves are any indication, I’ll likely be working out the details up until the last minute. This is the circular motion by which I achieve momentum.

WjhMVAD - Imgur

I have no idea how long I’ll be gone. After living so long with a precise schedule and definitive goalposts, I’ll admit, it’s disorientating to have such a nebulous future ahead of me. It’s an altogether fresh challenge, to take a dive without knowing the depth of the water.

I am someone who likes structure. This might seem counterintuitive considering how tumultuous and unpredictable much of my life has been as a result of 10 Cities/10 Years. But that project, for all its winding roads and uncertainty, still provided me structure, a guide rail.

As I’ve said frequently, the project was created to push me out of my comfort zone. With my natural shyness, my social anxiety, pushing myself towards situations where I had to meet new people and acclimate to new social situations forced me to develop mechanisms for adaptation. Evolve or die, that sort of thing.

I remain fundamentally the same person as I was when I left Kansas: socially awkward, blithely misanthropic, and utterly devoid of charm. But when the situation requires it, I can muster enough energy to seem downright personable, and that’s what a decade of traveling has developed in me. That, and alcoholism.

(I do have a tendency of drawing out fellow misanthropes; we sense each other’s hatred, a kind of Hadar, if you will.)

If 10 Cities/10 Years was about pushing myself to face my social anxiety, then this next journey is about challenging my reliance on structure.

It’s the rare person who actually thrives on total uncertainty in their life, and I am not among their tribe. Even in new surroundings and in the midst of near constant disruption, I seek out patterns, familiar routines that can ground me. A little chaos can be exhilarating, to be sure, but living without any parameters, well, that’s frankly terrifying.

Kansas Welcomes You

I grew up in Kansas. If you mention that state name to almost anyone in the United States – hell, in the world – they’ll have one reaction: “You’re not in Kansas anymore.”

The Tin Man

Ask any random person to name five images they associate with Kansas, four of them will be Wizard of Oz related, and the fourth would either be a Bible or a basketball (in Lawrence, arguably the same thing).

At the core of the state’s association with flighty redheads and yippie dogs is perhaps the most feared singular image in all of nature, the tornado.

I’ve shook in California earthquakes, witnessed the immediate impact of a hurricane in New Orleans, and soldiered through my share of blizzards. Yet, whenever the subject gets broached among people from any region of the United States, they all agree: tornadoes are the scariest.

I was always confused when people who grew up in the paths of hurricanes claimed to be more afraid of tornadoes.

“You realize hurricanes are just massive tornadoes, right?” I’d counter.

“Yeah, but you don’t know where a tornado’s going to be.”

And that’s the crux of it. Although most natural disasters will cause far more death and destruction than the average tornado, the unpredictability of a twister, the inescapable chaos that it represents, is far more potent as a symbol of terror. We watch forecasts for hurricanes and blizzards, we know where fault lines exist. But tornadoes, well those sons of bitches just come and go as they please.

I get asked from time to time, usually with a faint glimmer of horror in the inquisitor’s eyes, “Have you ever seen a tornado in person?”

Yes, yes, I have. More than a couple of times. Although, in truth, most of the time when a tornado warning blared from the sirens, I was nowhere near it and only ever saw the resultant damage a day later if we intentionally drove by to view it. A tree was probably dislodged, a fence knocked down. If it were a particularly bad storm, we might see a branch thrust through the window of some stranger’s house. For most people, life went on as normal.

I’ve never lost anything or anyone to a tornado, which probably explains why I don’t fear them and, in fact, why I love cyclone weather. First, the sky turns a gnarly shade of green or purple. As the atmosphere begins to tingle, the air gets warmer, but steady cool breezes whip through neighborhoods, the narrow passageways between houses focusing the wind like rushing rivers. A mix of rain and hail usually – but not always – pours down as the sky turns black as midnight, the clouds swirling in acrobatic maneuvers fit for the Olympics.

Then, somewhere, maybe near, maybe far, something fearsome touches down, twirling wisps of air sharper than any knife. It’ll cut through your car or home, chop down a hundred-year old tree or fling a piece of flimsy paper into stone. Few things in life actually warrant being called “awesome.” This is one of them.

Pure, unbridled chaos is a thing of beauty, stunningly so. The way you felt when your sixth grade crush would talk to you, that’s approximately the same sensation as the shaken nerves that burble in your gut when you and your college roommates stand atop Mount Oread watching a tornado slide up 15th Avenue and raze an apartment complex you’d been at only the previous weekend.

Pray all you want, it’s never stopped a tornado. Is it any wonder it’s called Mother Nature? She’s in control.

Stormy Weather Pana

In a little over three months, I will begin the next major journey of my life, aimless, no control. No project, no guard rails, no final destination in mind (except, you know, for the big one they made all those documentaries about). Circumstances and chance will determine where I end up and how long I’ll be there.

What comes next will be the greatest challenge of my life. Major changes should always strain us. If I ever reach a place in my life at which I no longer feel any anxiety in my gut, I know I’ve grown too comfortable, too complacent. There could come a day when I’m ready to feel that sort of calm, but I’m not there yet. I’m still chasing storms.

Have you ever seen a tornado in real life? Keep reading, you will.

Wondering what 10 Cities/10 Years is all about? Read the full story.