Why “Always Better”?

Why do I call my blog “Always Better”? Four reasons:

  1. It should be strictly better than some other activities. Eating popcorn or browsing Reddit, for example: this blog should Always be a Better use of time.
  2. I Always want to be a Better writer. Better than who? Better than I was yesterday. Better than I was this morning. Better than I’ve ever been.
  3. It’s a pun for what I wanted to be when I started the blog: Better in All Ways. [1]
  4. They say creative lives are a gamble.  That makes this blog is a bet, which means I’m Always Betting.[2]

[1]  I no longer want that. Instead, I’ve turned off improvement in some areas to focus more on the few I care strongly about.

[2] I haven’t fount my creative life particularly gamble-y, but that’s a topic for another time.

Even Meth Heads call their Mom…

… if only to ask for money.

“Can I borrow your phone? I need to call my mom. I’ll give you a dollar; don’t even need to touch it. “ This comes from Chris, the Chicago Bulls hat with misshapen teeth and meth sores.

I dial the number for him, put the phone on speaker. “It’s 3am in Ohio,” Chris’ mom tells him.

“I’m sorry,” Chris says. “I didn’t realize.”

“Did you get the hundred-dollar MoneyGram I sent you? Can you come home? I’m worried about you. Have you talked to your dad? Did he send you any money?”

“Not in a while.”

“Okay, here’s the code:”

Chris’ Mom gives Chris the number for the MoneyGram. Chris writes it on his palm using the pen I lent him.

“Thanks, Mom. I gotta work in the morning, but I’ll call you at lunch.”

Chris played online poker until the US government shut it down seven years ago. Now, he teaches tennis and plays poker in Vegas, but one-tabling live is not the same context or variance as twelve-tabling on the web.

I suggested he go international—like to Cali Colombia, where he can play online again and live like a king for $1k a month. As a bonus, I told him about two ¿cartel members? who lose $1k per day in the only non-profit casino I’ve ever heard of. (A money-laundering front for the cartel? Probably.)

Chris calls his friend Red. Red’s got something for Chris. Chris writes an address on his palm next to the MoneyGram code and the “HoHoHo” he doodled while chatting with his Mom. I don’t know what Chris is going to pick up, but my money’s on meth. When he asks me for $3, I don’t know why I give it to him. Maybe it’s pity. Maybe it’s hope.

I wish he would go to Cali. The cocaine cartel in one of the most dangerous cities in the world would probably be safer company.

The Anti-Hero Triumphs.

I don’t tolerate perceived bullshit and can be abrasive in the best of times. After a month of cold showers and a 2am night followed by a 6am wakeup for an 8-hour-long hike, when the gate agent tells me I can’t board the airplane home, I get pissed. When pissed, I get creative.
I can’t get on the plane because my bag is too big. It won’t fit in the overhead compartment, says fiery-haired young gate agent Miguel.
“Can you check it?” I ask.
“The bag-check counter closed an hour before departure.” I did arrive only 55 minutes before departure. This whole kerfuffle–all that follows–is my fault.
“I was here 5 minutes before the hour,” I say. “The counter was closed.”
“No you weren’t,” he says. “I was the one who closed it.”
Our relationship has begun on… rocky footing.
“Take a seat over there,” Miguel tells me. “We’ll reschedule you after this plane leaves.”
“When does the next flight land?” I ask him.
“Tomorrow.”
This is an implementation of what I call manaña culture:
“The willingness to put up with unsatisfactory solutions, especially ones that involve delays or wasting time.”
The first cultural difference I noticed in Colombia was the propensity of slow-moving lines. Fixing the bathroom door in my AirBnB apartment took a whole week. Purchasing an official SIM card required a 45-minute wait for the saleswoman. That’s like walking into Verizon and the phone seller being “out.” Here, “tomorrow” feels like never.
I try other tactics, beginning with bribery. “Is this a problem that can be solved by money? Because I’d be willing to pay any number of pesos.” An implicit bribe and plausible deniability: very proud of this move.
“No,” Miguel says. “Take a seat over there.”
Creativity: “Can I ship it? Mail it? Give it to a friend?”
No, no, and no. “Take a seat over there.”
Emotional appeal: I screw up my face and sob. Great move. Really proud. I didn’t even know I could.
“Don’t cry,” says Miguel. “Take a seat over there.”
I continue crying and not-moving-toward-the-seats-over-there. After a minute of crying, the tactic clearly won’t work. I cease the tears and take a seat over there.
The problem is my suitcase. What if I didn’t have it? I move the valuable items to my backpack and unpack the suitcase into a large gray trash bag. How to dispose of the suitcase? In the garbage, of course. I dump it beside the trash in the single-stall family restroom.
Returning to Miguel, I offer him my boarding pass. “Take a seat over there,” he says as though it’s his catchphrase.
“I don’t have the bag. I threw it away.”
“This is an international airport. You can’t just throw away your luggage.”
“What do you mean I can’t?”
“For security reasons.”
Still now, in my calmer mind, I find this absurd:
  1. It’s unenforceable. Someone could very easily trash a suitcase without being noticed. Not me, of course, because Miguel has an annoyingly normal memory.
  2. The suitcase itself has come through security. What’s the point of security if it doesn’t screen items?
  3. What constitutes luggage? If I carry in a bag of McDonalds, eat the food and trash the bag, that’s clearly allowed. What if I transport clothing in a shopping bag (as many people do)? If I move the clothing to my backpack, is the plastic bag un-disposable?
This whole situation makes no logical sense. It only exaggerates my belief that terroristic security measures are more dangerous than the actual threats.
I did, however, tear the name off my luggage when I left it in the bathroom. I was clearly aware someone might find this disposal suspect.
“Can I talk to your manager?” I should have played this card earlier.
“Yes, when the gate closes. Take a seat over there”
I begin crying again. “It’s my mother’s birthday tomorrow.” Another lie. Not proud of this. Also not very strategic. If emotional appeal didn’t work previously, it’s unlikely to now.
I try talking to the other gate attendant. She doesn’t speak English and pretends not to hear my broken Spanish. I don’t like her. I’m a customer and she literally ignores me. I can see why she does it. I just don’t respect the tactic from a customer-service perspective.
The fight pauses when I ask Miguel his name. He points to his badge. “Miguel,” I say. “You must have a hard job. You have to deal with passengers like me every day.”
“Not every day,” he says.
“Where are you from?”
“Here.”
“Where did you learn English?”
“Here.”
“Why do you speak with a British accent?”
He points to the flags on his badge. One is the Colombian flag, the other England. My question remains unanswered. Our ceasefire ends:
“Repack your suitcase and sit over there.”
I retrieve my suitcase from the single-stall restroom and insert the plastic garbage bag in it. The suitcase is thinner now that the bulk is in my backpack. There’s also an expander—I zipper it down. It might even fit now. I bring it to the gate. “Can we try?” I ask Miguel. “See if it will fit?”
Miguel eyes the bag and assents to the test. He scans my boarding pass and escorts me down the gangway. “If it doesn’t fit,” he says. “You can’t board the plane.” He obviously wants to be rid of me (or is just doing his job).
Lo and behold, the collapsed bag fits. I solved every problem before the one he actually named.
The man in the seat beside me, Juan Pablo of Mexico, asks what the problem was. He probably saw me crying. I tell him my stupidity and don my eyeshade. The anti-hero could clearly use a nap.

On the 7th day, God rested. He didn’t just not-work; He rested.

Is a veg day the necessary calm after a storm? After 13 hours work yesterday, today was pizza and soda and staying up past 3. At the end of these days, I typically feel sad. Nobody gains when a person lets their life spiral away. I didn’t even read much, which I really should do more.

You needn’t spend every second moving toward what you want, but you can be and should be if you have the right aims. Retreating is sometimes the best way to advance. I wonder if that was the point of today.

On the 7th day, God rested. If God needs rest, I must too. These days must be okay. I feel less bad now, less regret.

I assisted a friend with her ten-year-old student. I helped a high school boy plan for his future. He liked an essay I wrote enough to share it with his class. I didn’t work–so what? I’m following my natural rhythm: Fits & starts, sprints & walks.

I’ve been having all sorts of wonderful experiences–futbol and tennis, befriending locals, helping kids. Today was a slow heart rate, no-work relaxed day. I opened a new book and began my next writing project.

I learned about myself. This is who I was. I can be someone else tomorrow. “Was” doesn’t mean “am.”

Twice Now I’ve Danced at a Salsa Club That Isn’t There

On Sunday the carpenter fixing my bathroom door tells me, “You must go to this salsa club. Only tourists are allowed so you can dance without feeling self-conscious.”

“Sure,” I say and have the apartment manager write down the information: “Tuesday, 6-11pm, in front of La Clinica Tequendama.”

Tuesday, I arrive to La Clinica at 6:15pm. I can’t find the club, so I text my Airbnb host. “Thursday,” he responds. I call this the “Tuesday/Thursday Problem.” I wander the streets until I find a mariachi band playing Parcheesi.

IMG_6157.JPG

They teach me the game in a language I barely understand, start me at a disadvantage, neglect to teach me two rules that end up resetting my pieces, and I still kick their asses to the tune of $3000.

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From Left to Right: Julian, Alberto, [I wish I remembered his name], Nacho (Yes, that’s what he said his name was), [That asshole who said it was my fault that I didn’t know that capturing an opponent’s piece was a mandatory move], [The singer, whose name I also forget].

One man, the one in the back of this photo, asks if I have a girlfriend. I say no. “My daughter is 24,” he says and makes obscene gestures. The only one of these gestures repeatable in polite company is his repeated tugging down on his lower eyelid to signal a wink, coupled with the sultry words, “muy bonita.” He asks for my phone number. I give it to him. He asks for my father’s number. I politely decline. He doesn’t call me, so I suppose the match is off.

Tonight, Thursday, six Ubers cancel on me. I arrive to La Clinica at 7:10pm. The clinic receptionist points me in the wrong direction, or maybe I don’t speak Spanish. The druggists at the store across the street don’t know the club I seek, but they’re a bored, fun couple so we talk for a while. I ask whether they sell earplugs. They say, “for swimming?” and I say “For music.” They say, “You mean headphones?” and I say, “For when the music is too loud.” They think I’m French because my Rs are French. I don’t take offense because my Rs are French. They ask if I learned Spanish back in San Francisco.“Just here, this week,” I say, so they’re impressed. They don’t know I’ve already had this conversation six times.

I watch a futbol match while drizzling honey on a fried chicken wing.

IMG_6167.JPGNo kidding: they even give me gloves for the honey.

The religious man on my right asks me to buy him a coffee. The boy on my left asks whether I came to Colombia on a boat or a plane. The kid leaves. I buy the man coffee. He shows me his bible. I teach him to pronounce “Gideon.”

I walk to the far, far corner drugstore. I finally find earplugs. They’re expensive, but so is my hearing. They cost 13 marranitas (pork belly stuffed inside a ball of green plantain) or 31 empanadas. That’s not how the locals count money—just how I do.

I walk by my mariachi buddies. They aren’t playing Parcheesi so I only stop for a moment. Don’t want to get engaged too many times in one week. I order an Uber and eat a marranita while I wait. The vendor moved to Cali 6 months ago. In Venezuela, where he used to live, he didn’t have food for 4 days. His mother and brother moved here too, but his father’s still in Venezuela because he loves the land.

My Uber’s choice of music is the Latin version of alt-rock. I tell him I like his music taste. We get into a rhythm. He loves salsa dancing. I love salsa dancing. He loves marranillas. I love marranillas. He has a nine-month-old son. I use condoms. We exchange numbers to hit up a club together sometime.

Home, I realize the salsa club was inside me the whole time.

(Editor’s note: $ is also the symbol for Colombian Pesos. Total value of $3000 COP: approximately $0.94 US.)