Tuesday, October 30, 2012


Finally! Updated my photo site. Let me know what you think.

Monday, October 29, 2012

United Against Hallow, Inc

 Students at Ebon Elementary School, Republic of the Marshall Islands, 2006

In 2006-2007, I lived and worked as a volunteer English teacher in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, a tiny, independent island nation in the Pacific comprised of 70 square miles of land spread out over 750,000 square miles of open ocean. Between 1946 and 1962, the United States of America detonated a staggering SIXTY SEVEN nuclear bombs in the Marshall Islands –- the equivalent of thousands of Hiroshimas. Nuclear fallout from the bombs, some of which were laced with plutonium, continues to affect Marshallese citizens today in the form of high cancer rates, birth defects, environmental degradation, displacement and poverty. To add insult to injury, the Marshallese people allege that the U.S. government then used them as guinea pigs to study the long-term effects of radiation through a covert initiative dubbed “Project 4.1.”

This Halloween, a company in Rockville, Maryland is using these tragic events as a source of profit and entertainment.

Hallow, Inc., “a team of five young, talented entrepreneurs” based in a wealthy D.C. suburb, recently launched an urban haunted house called “The Warehouse: Project 4.1” depicting deformed, zombified Marshallese citizens as radioactive monsters let loose in a medical lab.

The premise of the $30 haunted house (explained to visitors via an introductory video) is that “specimens” suffering from nuclear fallout in the Marshall Islands were sent to a medical lab in Maryland to scare the bejeezus out of middle-class suburbanites. According to one review, “The actors do an excellent job (especially the female zombie holding a baby) and the tension never lets up!”

It might seem entertaining – until you consider the image of a real-life Marshallese woman holding her deformed child, a sight all too common in the Marshall Islands.

From a distance, the Marshall Islands look a bit like paradise. Though they are dealing with many of the problems common to developing nations (clean water shortages, lack of medical care, poverty, trash), these issues are framed by stunning natural beauty and a warm and generous culture. Imagine glowing turquoise lagoons, vibrant coral reefs and white-sand beaches, combined with people that value family, love music and retain cultural traditions despite a host of external pressures. In Marshallese culture, birthday parties are celebrated not by bringing gifts to the host family, but by the host family giving away their belongings to guests. After a successful keemem (first birthday party), a Marshallese family might be left without a pot left to cook in – but they know they'll be cared for by the community.

The generosity of the Marshallese people is further exemplified by a letter written to supporters of Hallow, Inc by Sherwood Tibon, a Marshallese citizen living in Hawaii. “Do I want to burn the US Flag every time I'm reminded of the horrors of Project 4.1?” he asks. “You bet! But I'm not going to. I'm not going to because I truly believe that the American people are a great people. It shows in the multitude of friends we have ... who've poured their hearts out and show their support to our cause. It shows through their tireless efforts to bring change to Hallow Inc.'s theme.”

He continues: “I understand your position and I'm not going to judge you. However, if you have a heart, which I know you do, I ask you to please pray for our victims and their families … who were directly involved in Project 4.1. Pray that one-day they may see justice; pray that one-day our children and their children's children won't have to endure what our generation has endured. Living in a nuclear (free) world is and forever will be our goal.”

Thanks to a Facebook-driven protest 2,400 members strong and a persistent campaign of letter-writing, petitioning, online reviews and media outreach, Hallow, Inc's website now includes a disclaimer that the zombies in their attraction are not meant to actually represent Marshallese citizens, and that a “portion” of the profits will be donated to a women's group in the Marshall Islands. Still, Marshallese and American protesters (including myself) do not believe that an obscure disclaimer hidden on a website is adequate compensation for a grossly insensitive enterprise that seeks to trivialize and capitalize on the suffering of innocent people.

If the Maryland “haunted house” was to end in November, one might be inclined to let it go. But a recent interview with Hallow, Inc suggests that they plan to carry forth this successful business venture for years to come, spreading it to urban centers across the U.S. each October.

It's for this reason that we are respectfully asking Hallow, Inc to change the premise of their attraction to one that does not continue to remind the 20,000 Marshallese citizens living in the U.S. of the real-life horrors inflicted on their parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles and children. Keep the zombies. Keep the gore. Keep the money. Just change the background to a story that does not send the message that the people of the United States dismiss such atrocities as mere entertainment.

Until Hallow, Inc complies with this simple request, we will continue to make our voices heard. Please join us by signing this petition, telling your friends and, above all, boycotting Hallow, Inc's attractions until this is resolved. 

Thank you. Kommol tata. 

 Arriving by boat to a keemem on Ebon atoll, Marshall Islands

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


I am a terrible packer. Atrocious, really. Having done it so many times, you'd think I'd have it down to a science. I have packed up my apartments, friends' apartments, even entire houses. I've packed for weekends, weeks, and months-long journeys. I've packed for river trips and mountain trips, tropical temperatures and sub-Arctic zones, rainforests and deserts. I have more backpacks, duffels and suitcases than are even remotely necessary. And yet when the email hits my inbox informing me that I have 24 hours before my flight – the moment of truth – I still flounder, sitting helplessly atop a mountain of clothes.

Packing is better than unpacking, true. And to be sure, I've improved greatly since my first trip to Ireland back in college, when I brought something like four suitcases for a couple months of studying. But I'm still a hopeless overpacker. I'm envious of people like Jesse, who wore two pairs of board shorts and three shirts during our three-week trip to Central America and, for his efficiency, was rewarded with having to use his extra backpack space to carry my excess stuff. Despite having significantly less travel experience than me, he spent many hours patiently sitting and reading while I rearranged gear and dug out clothes and reluctantly demoted myself to a green-circle traveler (he is a black diamond).

My first problem is that I over-correct. If, on a previous trip, I was cold, I will stubbornly bring a fleece, a down jacket, a softshell and two hats even if the forecast doesn't call for temps below 50 degrees. If, on a previous trip, I brought more books than I actually read, I'll pack only two books and find myself forlorn and bookless in a middle-of-nowhere town with no bookstore or internet. It's a vicious cycle.

My second problem is that I was a girl scout, and the girl scout motto is not “be cute and sell cookies,” as some people believe, but rather “be prepared.” My mother was my girl scout leader and “be prepared” is also her personal motto, so it's been instilled in me from an early age that one does not dare venture into the woods without extra clothes, an enormous first aid kit and a flask full of gin and vermouth. Even if one is only going on a day hike.

If it were up to me, I would go about this transient life of mine permanently wearing a little harness (like the kind a monkey might wear) from which I'd tow a mini-U-Haul (like a rickshaw driver). In my U-Haul would be everything I could ever want. There would be my bicycle, kayak and snowboard all within easy reach, and all the accoutrements that go along with each sport: paddling gear, backpacking gear, snowboarding gear, climbing gear (I don't actually climb, but hey, why not?). Of course, I'd need a different helmet for each sport too, because Lord knows I don't want to look like a dweeb wearing a snowboarding helmet while riding my bike in 80-degree heat, and God forbid somebody design an all-in-one helmet.

I'd also bring my mask, snorkel and flippers in case I happened upon a nice reef; a tote full of kitchen stuff in case I decided to stay somewhere for a while (cast iron pans, a blender, a french press, spices, big wooden cutting boards); some high-heeled boots and nice clothes so when I visit cities I'll feel sophisticated instead of like a dirty hobo from the sticks; and of course my tote full of painstakingly collected costume pieces so I'll be ready whenever someone decides to throw an impromptu costume party. I'd also have my camera with enough lenses to capture every conceivable moment, my laptop and some external speakers, a reading lamp to plug in by my bed at night because I hate overhead lighting, some fluffy bath towels because really, what satisfaction is there in drying off with a pack towel?; and, finally, a box full of books. And a banjo. And a fiddle. And some tools and craft supplies... maybe a carboy for brewing, too? Some pictures to hang on the walls and some rugs to make the U-Haul feel homey?

Clearly, I am a nester. A restless nester, which is the worst kind. I want to travel and move, and I want to spread out and create a home. I want both of these things simultaneously. So when I try to whittle my imaginary U-Haul down to the TWO bags I am limiting myself to for my six months in New Zealand, I wind up completely overwhelmed. I pour myself a glass of wine, then two, then three, which is perhaps the point at which my packing strategy goes awry. It's how I've ended up packing the remote control on a camping trip and forgetting my paddle on a kayaking trip, and it's why I remain a green-circle traveler no matter how many stamps I rack up on my passport. 

 Packing-induced exhaustion (photo by Liza Mitchell)

Saturday, October 20, 2012


When I was ten years old, I was helping my Memere clean out her basement when I came across a 1942 hardcover copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, buried amid dusty boxes of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. It was inscribed by my great-great aunt Anna Fritz, who had bought it for a book club.

Over the next decade, that book become one of my most beloved possessions. I read it at least a dozen times, at first because I couldn’t always get to the library to stock up on new reading material, and later because it had become a kind of summertime ritual. I’d pass long, hot days with my feet up, caught in the story of Francie Nolan and her family in Brooklyn during the height of the industrial era. The book didn’t present me with a neatly wrapped plot or characters who did the right thing. There was prostitution, alcoholism and a gritty landscape of factories and tenements and sharp ethnic divisions. Like many of my favorite books, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was based on a deeply felt sense of place. But unlike many other books I read at that age, Francie Nolan’s place in the world wasn’t a pastoral farm or pristine wilderness but a dirty, crowded city exploding with humanity. 

My experience rereading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was as much about the physical book itself as about the story. My 1942 copy has a dark green embossed cover, yellowed pages and the unmistakable smell of an old book. I read it every year until the pages began to fall out. Someone has since bought me a new paperback version, but I haven’t opened it. It isn’t the same.

Greener grasses

Since I packed up my apartment in New Hampshire and quit my newspaper job seven months ago, I've been mostly transient, living off only what I can carry on my person. I've spent two months at a remote Alaskan wilderness lodge, two-and-a-half months living out of a (wet) canoe in the Tongass National Forest, at least two months schlepping around the western United States on couches, in tents and on floors; plus a few weeks backpacking in central America and a brief foray home in New England. I've rarely slept in the same place for more than a few nights in a row. And in less than a month I'll once again try to jam six months' worth of stuff into some bags and head across the world to New Zealand. At this moment, I feel more transient than I have at any point in my life.

When I'm traveling, my lifestyle doesn't seem abnormal. Nearly everyone I meet is on a five-month backpacking trip in the Americas or has just finished several months of kayaking in Patagonia or is working as a guide to support their climbing habit. But when I return home I am treated as if I'm the walking, breathing antithesis of anyone who feels trapped by paperwork, jobs or two weeks' vacation a year. They imagine they have been inadvertently sucked into a rut from which no escape is possible, while by some stroke of luck or fortune I am able to drift from one place to the next entirely free and unencumbered.

Except it's not like that. Friends who drink beer with me know that in fact the opposite is true: my freewheelin' lifestyle is often at odds with my natural tendency to want everything planned, organized and in control. I'm constantly agonizing over decisions and worrying about the future. I find myself missing people beyond all words. It can be excruciatingly lonely. Health insurance is a bitch, and things like voter registration, car insurance and taxes (not to mention relationships) become infinitely complicated when you don't have a permanent residence. But I take the sacrifices willingly. It's a choice I make.

The men at the bar where my father spends his afternoons don't believe this. They look at my pictures and reminisce over a fishing trip they once did on the Kenai River, blaming their mortgages, jobs or wives as the reason they never went back. They wish they were fishing guides in Alaska instead of electricians or contractors in Massachusetts. They wish they could do what I do, not recognizing that the only thing holding them back is themselves.

Later, at a wedding, I chat with an Indian-American engineer I knew in college. “She just lives her own life, goes wherever she wants to go,” he tells a friend about me, slightly drunk. “I wish I could do that.”

“You can,” I interrupt. He is unmarried, college-educated; doesn't even have a dog.

“You don't understand,” he says. “When you've been somewhere for a long time and you have obligations... “

“I have obligations,” I tell him. “Student loans, family. I'm not any different than you.”

“You are, though,” he says, convinced.

Sometimes I want to shake people. If you want to do something differently with your life, don't let obligations, mortgages, or kids stop you from making changes. Similarly, if you've chosen stability, a relationship, a family or a career, don't feel like you need to make excuses because your life isn't glamorous or exciting enough.

I have another friend from high school who has a steady job, a house, two young kids and a wife he's in love with. We come from similar backgrounds, but he has taken the traditional route and I have taken a non-traditional one. He is intrigued and perhaps somewhat envious of my lifestyle, and I feel the same about his, but neither of us would trade places. He is, as he should be, proud of what he's got going on.

What I do looks glamorous and exciting, but there are times when a steady relationship, a garden or kitchen and a bed to return to most nights seems exquisite beyond words. I want to tell anyone who looks at me starry-eyed: you make your own choices in this life. Don't apologize for what you've chosen. Embrace it, or choose differently.

I've spent the last three months with someone I love, and now I'm going halfway across the world for half a year and hoping that it's not too far, for too long. My engineer friend is marrying a beautiful girl at an 800-person traditional wedding in India and is scared shitless. My dad's friend goes to work and then drinks himself to sleep at night. And my friend from high school posts pictures of his family on Facebook, smiling, content. I sit on top of my backpack and scroll through them, happy for him and happy for me.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Returning to writing

I haven't written a blog post in nearly three months, but don't worry, I can explain.

I've been deep in the wilderness. Away from internet. Falling in love. Rafting rivers. Traveling to foreign countries. And, most recently, reacquainting myself with friends and family. It's been exhausting, though that's no excuse. But I plan to catch up here. Really, I do.

This week, I escaped into Vermont to read, write and get a healthy, much-needed dose of solitude and quiet. My friend Theo has very kindly lent me his one-room cabin in the woods (complete with internet and outdoor hot tub), and I find myself once again infatuated with this state. It feels more like home than anywhere else I've been.

After leaving Costa Rica on Oct. 5, I found myself dropped from the sky into another life: Massachusetts, a whirlwind of trying to see people, call people back, write them back, pay bills, run errands, check things off lists – pick up pieces I had left behind. Finally, I packed my car and drove north. I breathed a deep breath as I crossed the border, my car the only one on the highway, wind carrying sound, autumn light on the hills. Now I find myself where I needed to be: sitting in the last rays of sunlight on the front porch of a cabin, all alone. No sound but wind in leaves, a bird or two. Cold evening air creeping uphill. Sunlight horizontal through the last yellow beech leaves and the skeleton arms of maples. Tomorrow the sun will turn to rain, and I will wake up and start a fire in the woodstove and listen to water pelting the windows, and I will write. I will watch the brown stalks outside bend and shiver in the wind as the last leaves are pulled from the trees, and I will write.

Why I love Vermont, Part 2 (abbreviated):

  1. There are no billboards in the state of Vermont
  2. Montpelier is the only state capital without a McDonald's

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