On tribes



I recently visited a woman in an assisted living home in Texas, near Fort Worth. I remembered how, as a child, I visited my great-grandmother and her twin sister at their shared home in Fort Worth, how I tentatively touched the folded skin of her ancient hands and throat and how small, even then, their house seemed to me.

The assisted living place was nicer. Clean and replete with coffee on demand, nice chairs to sit in. But surrounded by miles of freeway and urban loneliness. The woman talked about how much she missed Fairbanks, her home of many decades — a place where the winters sink to -60 degrees, but where she had her circle of friends and her activities.

Now, currently, has got to be about the most lonely time of human history. We take care of people by putting them in nice places like this — whereas in so many other cultures, in our own country once in other places still — the old people stay as mobile as they can and participate with family life as one enclave, part of a tribe, part of something.

Tribes have all but disappeared now, although we still hunger for them. We join cults because we hunger for tribes. We collect friends on Facebook because this is the closest thing we have: the clamor of superficial support for a selfie or some musing about a bad day. Of course, we could not stand tribal living: we have adapted to being lonely, solitary, independent, having everything just-our-way, dishes loaded thusly, everything under our control. Some large families come close, maintaining their ties over the years through sibling loyalty and shared holidays. My own family comes pretty close. My parents bought a house next to my sister and her four daughters, and my youngest brother lives there; the remaining three siblings visit frequently. We all watch the girls so my sister can do things, maybe go on a date with her husband, maybe run to the grocery store. We all teach the girls things, like how to be strong in the woods. We have a running group text we post videos to, because we live over a hundred miles apart: my other two brothers are in Denver and Minneapolis. When we are together, we make fires and sing songs that my dad wrote for us as children. We cook food. We remember things. Growing up homeschooled in a rural area with no TV, no internet, we were a tribe. We invented our own tribal structures, rules, language. Not all that many of them, but we still had them. We had tribal conflicts — lots and lots of fights, shifting loyalties and alliances. We protected the younger ones, but they were always the younger ones until they proved themselves strong. There were rules from above, from outside us, that we had to follow, but these did not affect us nearly as much as our own codes did. And none of us could force any of the others to do anything: pragmatically we were anarchists, and our egalitarian democracy lead to many compromises and yes, more fights. Our play clothing was often unisex, passed down from sister to brother and worn full of holes. We learned to climb trees quickly to evade attacks, walked over gravel to make our feet tough. We tried fishing; my brother hunted birds in the woods and we cooked them. But more than this, we knew we were blood, that we would take care of each other and band together against outside danger — I was a scrawny child, but as the oldest, if anyone did anything to my younger brothers, even yelled at them, I confronted them. The first boy I ever liked — an eight-year-old who gave me a tape to listen to and who was almost-my-boyfriend for a whole day — said something disparaging about my sister and I instantly dumped him in my mind.

I am very grateful that I have this tribe, that I have essentially the closest modern equivalent available to the urban whitey, short of some kind of unhealthy situation where group conformity is the price for group acceptance.

Of course, it’s normal on some level to want to band together with people who “get” you. The jocks, the preppies, the cowboys. The metalheads, the potheads, the skinheads. These are artificial tribes people pick in order to belong. A particular church can be an artificial tribe, and the more conformity is demanded, ironically, the closer the circle draws; like any artificial tribe, if you’re a little persecuted or misunderstood by an outside group, to the inside group it means you’re not “just a poseur.” You’ve earned your admittance. You belong. If you have to give up certain ornamentation, wear a limited array of clothing, do a limited number of things with your hair, that sets you apart as a member of the tribe.

The rules themselves remind me of when I ordered my brother not to part his hair down the middle because I deemed it stupid and overly trendy. And our family was not stupid and overly trendy; despite the holes, we were classy. He ignored me because, as I mentioned, we were anarchists for all practical purposes: I couldn’t actually order him how to wear his hair. The same went for when I told him he should not wear shoes that looked like toilets, or wear bent staples around his ear. I made rules, and he didn’t obey them, because they were abstract and dictatorial despite all my best intentions to just tell him the best possible way to live. I mean, I was older and wiser in every possible way, but he grew up and pierced both his ears anyway, and they looked good and I was wrong. And I didn’t kick him out of my tribe.

In Biblical times, as in the Middle East currently, hospitality to those outside your tribe was a big deal. And it meant that people could survive in strange places. If people attacked outsiders, outsiders died; if they welcomed them as guests and recognized them as being part of some other also-established way of life, different and perhaps without all the same cultural mores, then the outsiders would live. They would not starve, or suffer from lack of water, or be forced to seek shelter in a cave inhabited by a she-bear and a dozen snakes.

I remembered this as I listened yesterday to a story of how a boy moved in sixth grade to a new state in the south, to a new school where everyone, and especially the self-professed Christians, dressed in 501 jeans and polo shirts, where the boy’s clothes set him apart as an outsider. Where his accent set him apart as an outsider. Where his innocence and inexperience set him apart as an outsider. Where every instance of being an outsider meant a threat of physical violence from the insiders. Where the only way of surviving was to join the tribe of other outsiders: those with the weird hair and the piercings. To grow tough and challenge the bullies, make them think twice about hitting him; laugh when they struck, scare them away with his skull t-shirts. To find somewhere to belong, even if it came with suffering. To find psychological resilience rather than succumb to being bullied.

There’s a well-known Bible verse that says Let your adornment not be braided hair and gold jewelry and fine apparel. These were not the signs of an outsider in the ancient middle east; they were the status symbols of the wealthy insider. If you will, the polo shirt and the 501 jeans of the 1980s; the pencil skirt and tastefully trendy bird jewelry or chaste pearls of the current conservative Christian. Do not be defined by the status symbols of your day; do not let them define the edges of your tribe. All are welcome into the tribe; beware of yourselves and your own conceits, not tribal outlines you do not understand and that are foreign to you.


Tamar, 1% temptress



Dear friends,

This is Jonadab, Prince Amnon’s confidant. I am happy to report that Amnon is repentant and has accepted the gospel. Ammon really nailed himself over this stuff to me, so please accept him back into the fold and remember: I’m still a great guy even though I’m friends with men like Ammon. Why? Because I’m only friends with them to make sure they confess their sins, no matter how abrasive or “victim-blaming” I might sound to the feminists and the uninitiated. In case you missed it, here’s a transcript of Ammon’s public confession just to prove how much he’s seen the error of his ways:


Hi, I’m Amnon, and I’m a pretty average guy with average guy struggles. Sure, I struggle with lust sometimes. Doesn’t everyone?

People get a little weird because the lust thing was for my own sister Tamar. But remember, everyone: she was my half-sister. Our forefather Abraham married his half-sister and our entire lineage was blessed by God from the union. No big deal, really, having a crush on your half-sister. We need to remember that God’s ways are not always our ways.

From my understanding of biblical modesty requirements, in fact, it stands to reason that I would have a crush on Tamar. I can see a lot of her. She’s not always super-modest with herself in the confines of her own home. Sure, she wears courtly robes like the rest of my sisters most of the time, but she doesn’t veil herself like girls do for strangers. Occasionally I spot her in her nightgown, down the hallway, looking all supple and nubile. I’m pretty sure she does this on purpose, and if she doesn’t, it’s stupid of her to let herself be seen like that. Almost like she’s asking for it. I mean, I would never say she was asking for it, because I’m a gentleman and a prince, but let’s be honest: a girl can get raped and also be at fault. Maybe she was only at fault 5% or even 1%, but in God’s eyes a little sin, like immodesty, is just as damning to your soul as a big sin.

Technically, her dad is also at fault for telling her to hang out with me alone in my bedroom. What did he expect would happen if he left a young man and woman without fatherly supervision? Everyone, even his devoted servants, left us alone and allowed it to transpire, so they’re maybe 10% at fault each. Our house has over ten inhabitants, though, so that makes the math tricky. Basically, what you should conclude from this is that I’m a really upstanding guy for taking the blame at all. I even shed a few tears to our dad about how sorry I am, and I recited a lot of scripture to extra-prove it.

You guys, I’m so very, deeply, gosh-darn sorry about hurting my little sister’s delicate little sisterly feelings.

I must confess another thing, too. My buddy Jonadab is a real alpha, almost as much of an alpha as my dad when it comes to women. One afternoon Jonadab said to me: I can see you’re sick over the fact that you can’t get any from this fine chica Tamar who keeps playing hard to get. So listen, bro, all you gotta do is make up an excuse to get her alone, and if she plays along, you know she wants it too, even if she says “no.” No means yes, and it’s just the natural order of things that men colonize women. Every woman dreams of being raped if she’s not getting taken in hand by her proper covenant head, because total submission is an erotic necessity. And if she sits in your bedchamber and feeds you by hand as you recline in bed alone with her — low and lilting voice, fingers brushing your lips, “accidentally” flashing a little cleavage or elbow as she leans over you — you know what that means.

It means she’s tacitly agreeing on the propriety of getting raped. What else could she possibly expect would happen in that situation?

Obviously, I’m only quoting here. You guys, I am so very sorry that I listened to the counsel of a master ladykiller.

You guys, take my repentance to heart and please don’t fall into the same trap as me. If we’re looking at this from a proper gender and family perspective, it could have happened to anyone. It all started out with a normal desire to be closer to my family. You know that sisters are supposed to take care of their brothers. That’s just how it is, how God designed it. Especially when your father is off starting wars all the time and expanding his kingdom, amusing himself with new wives. God gave men sisters to fulfill the need for feminine companionship so you don’t have to do things like take lots of wives. Someone should tell that to my dad.

And you know that sisters are supposed to forgive their brothers if their brothers do anything to hurt them. Especially when it’s partly the sister’s fault the brothers hurt them. And especially when the brothers have a good reason to get a little confused telling right from wrong because their dads are so heavily into ministry and taking dominion of the region.

Here’s the deal: I already got in trouble with my dad about it. My dad was mad. So I don’t know why it’s anyone’s business anymore now that I’ve repented and you’ve all witnessed it. My dad gave me a real talking-to. We even met more than once about it. I confessed my sins to him and my dad called my sister in and asked her to forgive me. She’s a good sister so she said yes. We were immediately restored to fellowship, although she was still sulky and would only hang out with our bro Absalom, not me.

According to the law, I’m supposed to marry her because I raped her, but she’s so sanctimonious about it that it really turns me off. Sort of kills the vibe when she acts all dutiful and wounded. Wives are supposed to be way more pleasant about submission. Smile and act complimentary. You can’t blame me for not wanting to be married to someone who just grins and bears it. Or who cries and peppers her hair with ashes, God forbid. Our dad should teach her more about maintaining a sweet, forgiving, feminine demeanor.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean much if the person forgiving you doesn’t immediately act exactly how you want. And I want her to act supple and nubile and innocent and nightgown-y all the time. If she can’t do that, it’s her own darn fault I don’t want to marry her.

Blessings on my sister Tamar. Let’s all pray that she learns how to act more feminine, shall we?


Jonadab’s note:

Amnon isn’t quite accurate in how he portrays me in this account, but I think we can forgive him that. Let it be known that all of my counsel to Ammon was purely theoretical, a commentary on the nature of gender. And yes, let’s all pray for poor Tamar.

However, I’d like to point out that Amnon is being a little too hard on himself. The law states that if a woman is in a city and claimed rape, and nobody heard her scream, she should not be treated as if she was raped. Nobody heard Tamar scream for help — she seemed to turn “willing” pretty quick. In fact, Ammon himself had to eject her from his quarters for being too clingy. Do real rape victims immediately insist on marrying the man who just raped them? Or is this so-called “rape” merely a seduction technique? It all sounds very suspicious, wouldn’t you say?

There are two sides to every story, and women can’t be expected to be believed just because they say they’re victims.

This is why I have developed my patent-pending five-point technique for determining if women are lying about sexual harassment, or if it’s actually the men who allegedly “hurt” them who are lying. Compare and contrast:

  1. Who is more open to hearing my wisdom? A contrite heart will be teachable.
  2. Who confesses their sin the most, without passing blame to the other party or getting hysterical?
  3. Who is the most joyful? A truly repentant soul, when presented with the good news of the gospel, will be initially sorrowful over their sin, however “small” it is, and then overjoyed upon hearing they are forgiven.
  4. Who (or whose parent) has already donated the most money and/or time to my Ministry of Truth?
  5. Who uses the most amount of telling catchphrases revealing the unresolved sins of envy, bitterness, and pride, such as “my older brother” (instead of merely “my brother”) or “my heart hurts” (instead of “my heart is desperately wicked”)?

Depressing diatribe on date-rape


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Maybe it’s the mid-January slump where people are most likely statistically to commit suicide, but in the past six days, I’ve learned that five of my friends have been date-raped and that a sixth friend, whom I already knew was raped years ago, had been raped again recently. Nobody reported any of it. Additional women voiced that they felt shades of this in their marriages; Christian marriages to Christian husbands. Marriages they have been encouraged to stay in by the pastors of their church.

I doubt the pastors themselves have experienced anything close to sexual coercion sanctioned by their larger culture and microculture. Of course these men, and many more like them, say that rape is wrong; they also may refuse to call anything rape unless the woman is pretty much dead from fighting back so hard the man was obliged to beat her up first. A couple of bruises don’t count. “No” doesn’t count either unless someone else heard you yell it.

Oddly, the absence of a screaming tantrum is not considered a sexual invitation in any other situation. As a guy, you would probably never feel obliged to tell the stranger next to you in a dark theater: “by the way, just in case you feel like groping me while this movie is playing, please don’t, and anyway I have installed razor blades in my jock strap.” But in more private man-on-woman situations? No provable screaming tantrum, no rape.

All of this perpetuates an attitude that allows for rape with literally zero consequence. Secret, serial rapists are entitled assholes who operate in the shades of gray created by the idea that women should be polite and “submissive” to what men want, even if men are not polite or “submissive” to what women want. And the more your culture believes this, the more date-rape tends to get spun as something other than a violation and more like an inevitability of the woman doing something less than perfectly.

Even if patriarchal types do acknowledge that something happened, it’s usually accompanied by annoyance that it hasn’t already been resolved. It happened last week, or last year, or a decade ago. For those who did it, it’s in the past. But for those it happened to, it’s now. Every single day may bring flashbacks. Injuries never heal if you continuously demand things from the broken limb, and even if an injury is cared for in the most healthy way possible, there’s often a scar; a spot on the skin that doesn’t stretch the same way uninjured skin does.

If my friends are any indication, date-rape is not a rarity; it is a reoccurring problem. And if you don’t understand it, try to step inside a compiled average of the internal and external struggle my friends went through. Or don’t, if you’re adverse.


In the skin

You don’t know how confused you’ll be when you say no

When you move his hands ten times, twenty times,

And he laughs it off, contradicts you, tells you how much you’ll like it,

So you laugh a little too, break the tension nervously

Try to stop the slow creep forward as he gets further and further inside your clothes

With every trick that occurs to you: with a joke, with a wriggle, with more words.

Then silence so he doesn’t get angry.

You can’t scream; that would be ridiculous. You share too many friends, he bought you dinner, you kissed him too when your lips first touched.

Your screams are mute; tense muscles clamped together, the liquid waves of your hands breaking against his solid and insisting shore.


You don’t know how hard you’ll fight

Or not fight

What a hostile private thing will feel like in your fist when you try to push it away

Hands around your throat and crowded into your jaw

Women want dominance, women want a real man who takes what he wants

You don’t know when you’ll give up and decide it’s your fault

You got yourself in this situation, why were you so stupid

Maybe if you tell yourself it’s Ok it won’t feel like this

How is this happening

It isn’t happening


You don’t know how he’ll laugh when you claw his smug face

And call you a feisty little kitten

Tell you it builds character that you bleed

I’m sorry that I hurt you, he says, with a smile

But you’re tough, you’ll get over it

You want him to die, and you want to die too.

You have never hated anyone like this. Anything like this.

You go into the bathroom and vomit because the smell of his raw fluid inside you is like poison.

You are so tired, so…



Two tracks play in your head, competing for airtime. One: You got yourself into this, you accepted his invitation, you kissed him, you should just lie down and try to sleep. You told him he was handsome. You told him you were interested. He was so kind. He listened so well. He heard you, you felt seen by him. Did you really disappear, that he stopped listening so completely?

Two, slamming into the other and settling over you like a lead sarcophagus: You are a piece of human trash, diseased from his seed, diseased from your own inability to stop him. Shame on you for not stopping him. No one will date you now. You can’t tell your mom, your best friend. It would kill them. They would look at you differently. What to do? What to do?

The next day, you go to the hospital. It’s too late for a rape kit. You’ve showered, you’ve brushed your teeth, you’ve gotten him off you. They ask you if you’re Ok, and you’re not Ok. You can’t handle their questions, the bright lights, the exam, so you leave. He was inside your skin and you don’t want anyone inside your skin again, not even a doctor.

Why are you so stupid? Why do you always do the wrong thing? What the hell is wrong with you?

Well: it’s Ok, you’ll get over it. Something good will come of it. Don’t be upset. Think positive thoughts. Too much pain if you do anything else.

Too much pain. Cover it up with something else. A smile, that’s what.

Everyone likes smiles.

How (not) to bribe a Mexican cop


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Tulum is uneventful, unless you consider shopping, yoga, food and beach time eventful. I try not to voice my opinion that I feel like I’m stuck in some alternate reality created for tourists, although I frequently fail. We leave for home at 3:45 am on Christmas Eve, filling up the gas tank on the way back. The gas attendants tell us it’s cash only, after we’ve filled the tank. We scramble to ply together the last of our pesos to pay for it, and then roll on. Half an hour later, we get pulled over by a Mexican cop, who tells us we were speeding. I don’t doubt it, and he seems reasonable, almost like he’s about to let us off with a warning. Surely, I think, in the middle of this super-touristy upkept resort strip, he’s not going to do anything weird.

However, the second he gets Collin’s driver’s license, he tells us (specifically me, since nobody else understands him) that we will have to pay the ticket at the police office 20 kilometers away, and it doesn’t open until Monday, and he needs to keep Collin’s license to make sure he pays the fine. We can’t, I tell him, because we’re on the way to the airport and won’t be here on Monday. Well, says the police officer, then maybe just one of you can stay behind to pay the ticket? I shake my finger at him. “No está possible,” I inform him.

At this point, the police officer asks Collin to get out of the car and come back to his car with him. I get out my wallet and survey the pesos we have left: maybe $10 worth, mostly coins, and I’m not sure how much bribing a Mexican police officer runs these days, especially on the resort strip with their gargantuan edifices. Collin opens my door and hisses: “he wants $150 US. And of course nobody carries any cash but me!” Ben hands us a US $20 he has, and Collin takes the wad of small bills. I dump my coin purse into my hands and go to help negotiate; Collin is notoriously shy about any type of haggling, and I have a feeling the cop can sense it. I gesture to the money we have and say, “está todo, está todo,” and Collin shows his empty wallet just to prove it. The cop asks when our flight leaves. “Ahora, ahora,” I say. The cop shrugs reluctantly and says Ok, he’ll take it. I pretend to give him all the coins, although really I only give him some and palm the rest. Meanwhile, he tells me sternly not to speed. “Si,” I say, and jump into the car. “He wouldn’t even write the amount on a piece of paper,” Collin says as we inch away. “He wrote it on his hand, with the peso amount next to it.”

We make it to the airport on time; our flight has been delayed 15 minutes. We make it back to snowy Idaho within 12 hours, and play a certain track from N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton on the way home.

Meanwhile, over the internet, our friends give us advice on how to handle this situation, lots of information, none of it useful unless we decide to revisit a place where bribing police is a thing. Specifically: don’t act like you’re in a hurry. Make small talk. Don’t give them any important documents they can hold hostage; bring photocopies and give them the photocopies. Say “well, how can we fix this?” and offer them the equivalent of $5. Next time I have to bribe a public official, I’ll be sure to keep this in mind.



Leaving Cuba


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We’re in the Havana airport catching our plane to Mexico, but it’s three minutes until the plane leaves and the airport hasn’t posted which gate to go to, or any other information whatsoever. But this seems to be normal. I wander around the airport asking at various (also unmarked) gates where people are headed. At one point, an American pilot advises a crowd of people headed to Atlanta: “I think the gate is actually over there, because that’s where the plane is. That’s where I’m going.”

I find the correct gate, and apparently we’re delayed, just because there’s nobody boarding. We don’t board for another hour, and then, suddenly, the doors open and the attendants begin scanning tickets, no first class, no pre-boarding, no warning at all.

We arrive to Cancun hours later than we expected, and meet up with Ailsa, whose flight from Boston was also delayed. Once we’re in Mexico, we can get our backlog of messages, including the one that Liathan, Collin’s youngest daughter, is also delayed, and will be arriving around midnight. We pick up our rental car and drive towards Cancun to find some dinner. Both Collin and I remark upon how weird it is that all the cars are new, that the roads are new and totally straight, that the strip of box stores and shining lights and gleaming chrome looks as if it’s been transplanted from California. Cancun, I think, is LA for douches; a colony of US amenities washed up on foreign shores to capitalize on the tourists who flock to gaudy resorts with night watchmen.

“I miss Cuba,” Collin says.

We eat dinner and wait for Liathan to land, accompanied by Ailsa’s boyfriend Ben, whom Ailsa has convinced everyone else to allow on the family vacation. As it turns out, it’s a good move, because we discover after dinner that their flight has been postponed yet again. After boarding they were un-boarded, which means now they’re supposed to get in at 4 or 5 am. They’re not sure precisely when because their plane is being fixed. By this time it’s nearly midnight, and we decide to check in to the Cancun airport Marriott in order to be close by; the night watchman at the gate, however, speaks no English, and keeps asking for our reservation. I repeat a couple of words I’ve seen advertised on the casas in Cuba: habitación, disponible: nosotros no tenemos un reservacion pero, uhhh, uhh, un habitación por la noche? Esta disponible? The night watchman nods and writes down our license and we drive through. We then attempt to sleep in between getting tearful phone calls from Liathan and more stoic messages from Ben, who is apparently passing the time by Facebooking minute-by-minute updates to one of Ailsa’s friends from school:

1:15 am — I just got on a second broken plane so that’s how my day is going.

1:20 — I bought pizza and then an hour later they gave it to the rest of the people on my flight for free.

1:23 — Aila’s sister is currently sleeping next to me.

1:28 — I scored blankets from first class.

1:33 — Liathan wakes from her slumber after being roused by a rude elderly woman.

1:36 — I’m now exiting the plane because we can’t get the flight done in a “legal” amount of time so peace out and bye world. If you need me I’ll be in the Minneapolis airport slowly rotting in a corner.

The second time they’re de-boarded, and subsequently told that the flight is cancelled, Ben makes a beeline for the help desk and tells Liathan they are not moving until they get the first flight out. They manage to get the first flight out, and arrive, after staying for a few more hours in the airport, at noon the next day. We drive to Tulum, check into our Air BnB, and take some serious naps.

To Trinidad


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We’re taking a taxi collectivo to Trinidad. We start out eight passengers crammed into a three-row taxi, me squashed in the back next to a large man at the driver’s request. The driver keeps texting someone as we hurtle down the mostly-empty highway, and I study the sticker he has plastered above his rearview mirror: A Calvin-knockoff comic-book boy flashing the bird and grabbing a tall girl wearing nothing but a thong, with the caption ALANTE NO MONTO VIEJAS. I fake-translate this in my head as “No old women allowed on board,” although I discover later after looking the words up that it would be more accurately “No old women allowed to ride in the front seat.” Either way, it’s charming. I suppose this is why Castro hated pop culture.

We ride two hours and then get shuffled into another “taxi” with eight more people. The driver tries to tell me to get into the back row with four other women because I’m skinny, but I refuse. I’m tired of being squeezed into corners. I take a super-plush hard plastic seat next to the equally small hard plastic seat my boyfriend is sitting in. We quickly discover that the van has no suspension, no vent system, no insulation: $40 per person to rattle down the highway with baggage stuffed underfoot, for the remaining four-plus hours of the trip. Halfway there, we stop for a break and a German girl decides she’s also tired of being squeezed into corners. She takes a French guy’s seat, which offends the French guy. He and his wife begin discussing this highly abnormal and horrific turn of events, in French, while the German girl berates the driver in English: “Everybody needs a seat! There’s not enough seats for everyone! You must arrange something else!” A Portuguese girl translates this into Spanish for the driver, and then translates back his response: “He says it was arranged by the guys in Viñales, and he can’t do anything. He’s just the middle man.”

The German girl hunkers down into her book and her insisted-upon seat. “Assholes,” she mutters in response. Her boyfriend saves the day by making a seat out of a backpack and sitting on it himself.

Six hours into the ride, teeth clattering, Collin announces: “I’m dirty, I’m hot, I’m sweaty, I’m tired, I’m starving, and I have no shoes,” and I laugh, because the fact that he’s devoid of all footwear is really the icing on the cake of this misadventure.

When we arrive at our casa, it’s too late to buy shoes in Trinidad. I tell our host, an endearing old woman who chatters at me in Spanish like I can understand her, of Collin’s predicament. I have researched and memorized a couple of phrases for this occasion. The woman, who thinks Collin’s name is hilarious just to begin with, finds this wildly amusing, and enlists several neighbors to find a pair of flip-flops that he can borrow. Collin is fastidious about most things, but he has apparently come to terms with the realities of being barefoot in Cuba and is genuinely ecstatic to have a pair of too-big, well-worn secondhand sandals. We go to find dinner. We pass one place that I say looks nice, and Collin says it looks too fancy. But I convince him. It is not too fancy, it’s Trinidad, where everything is fancy, in stark opposition to the day’s ordeals. We sit on a rooftop terrace, just the two of us, with the full moon overhead, and eat three courses and drink pina coladas and some local honey-infused cocktail, all for less than $30. “This town is awesome,” we toast, standing up, because the hard plastic seats imprinted on us and there’s no way we can sit down more than is absolutely necessary.

The hiking tour


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We decide to take the National Forest tour someone told us about, and tell our host. Specifically, I tell our host a bunch of strung-together words and he calls a taxi, which drops us off in a field with a sad and mangy horse surrounded by three men in cowboy hats and rubber mud boots. This is unexpected but not entirely out of character for Cuba, so we roll with it and say we want the walking tour, not the riding tour. One of the men slaps the fattest among them on the stomach and grins. The rotund guide grunts despondently and sets out, the two of us following in our sporty Earth Runner sandals. I ask if he can speak English, since our host assured us the tour would be in English. “A leetle,” he says, and then immediately switches back to Spanish. I decide that this is OK and it just means we get some language lessons in-context.

Our guide says his name is Joel, and begins pointing out plants and views, all in Spanish; mango, sugarcane, sweet potato, guava, avacado. He leads us to a tobacco farm, to a coffee-rum-and-honey farm, and to a cave. This takes three or four hours. I had been under the impression that this tour of the National Park meant we’d be hiking in some kind of jungle, but apparently no. Apparently, instead, I smoke a hand-rolled cigar dipped in honey, chew some sugar cane, and try to learn a bunch of new Spanish words, most of which I immediately forget. Collin’s Earth Runners break in the mud on the way back. “Dang,” he says “that’s my only pair of shoes.” He walks through the mud barefoot the rest of the way, rides in the taxi back barefoot with his broken sandals tucked into his waistband. I tell our guide that it’s fine and that at home, he hikes barefoot all the time.

We try to find him another pair of shoes in Viñales, to no avail. It’s Sunday, which means the shops that exist are closed, and even the open-air tourist markets aren’t selling shoes. So tonight, Collin will have to dine barefoot, and tomorrow, he will have to travel cross-country barefoot. “First world problems,” I say. “but actually, it’s more of a third-world problem, I guess.”



We take a two-hour taxi to Viñales with a couple from New Zealand. We talk about politics nearly the whole time. Not necessarily by choice, but because when you’re an American traveling abroad and your country has just elected a guy that the rest of the world considers to be a dangerous lunatic, specifically the kind of dangerous lunatic that might plunge them into war with China, they want answers. We compare our tax rates and they demand why ours are so high given that we get so much less from what we pay. For what we pay, they get health care and a host of other social services. “But oh, yeah, war,” they remember “war is expensive.”

We get to Viñales and wander the streets, taking photos of farmers with teams of horses and oxen, and later, the view of the valley. It is a good place for photos if you’re into that kind of thing.

Arrival in Havana



We arrive in Havana slowly, lines moving through the exit metal detectors at a humid pace, lines at the currency exchange languid as well. We go to find a taxi to take us to the casa particulare Collin has managed to book in advance using Paypal and Air BnB. I brandish the address I’ve written on a scrap of paper. The lady at the information desk does not speak English, but she does know a guy who can take us to our destination — specifically that guy right there. That guy right there is muy simpatico, and we roll out of the airport in his vintage Russian car with an agreed-upon price between us, past a billboard with photos of Castro through the ages, blazoned with the slogan Fidel Entre Nosotros. I wonder if this has been put up in the two weeks since his death, or if it’s older than that.

The streets are full of vintage cars and diesel fumes, windows rolled down for breeze, me leaning forward to try to communicate with the driver. My pretend-Spanish is only about as good as the French and English cognates he says, which means that I say “si” every few seconds to the things he helpfully points out, like the Plaza de la Revolución, the statue of Che, a photo of his daughter on his phone, the fact that Donald Trump is horrible. I pretend-translate between the driver and Collin when Collin realizes he can’t see any street signs. “No existo de nombres de … via?” and I point out the window. “Si, si,” the driver agrees, “Es Cuba!” and he waves the need for them away. He yells out the window to a random guy: “oy, chico!” and gets directions. We continue down an alleyway teeming with people, bicycles, construction, trim and beautiful girls in pristine school uniforms.

I’ve never seen Collin look so much like a child: eyes as round as saucers, somewhere between terror and delight. We come to a pile of construction rubble in the narrow alley and the driver stops, turns, speaks to me. “What’d he say?” Collin asks, and I say, authoritatively, although I’m not remotely convinced it’s true: “He said he’d leave the car and walk with us to the address.” As it turns out, I guessed accurately. The driver locks up his taxi, shoulders my bag, and marches us through la Plaza Vieja a few blocks to our destination. He rings the bell for us. No answer, or at least none that we can hear, because a quad of youth on the balcony of a nearby crumbling building are blasting Iggy Azalea and reggaeton so loud that nobody can hear anything. The driver yells upwards to the casa’s cleaning lady until she buzzes us in; he doesn’t leave until he’s sure we’re going inside. We tip him well.

The nephew of our host greets us wearing a Bluetooth earpiece and a bike-shorts-and-spandex-top ensemble that’s just loose enough to indicate that it’s a fashion statement. He speaks no English. We wait for our host, sipping water and listening to the deafening syncopation of Iggy Azalea.

Collin, still a bit dazed, says he is nervous about getting around Cuba given that neither of us speaks Spanish. “Nah,” I say “we got here fine. I do this all the time. It’s easier in Spanish than in Thai or Japanese. Way easier. Aren’t you impressed with my fake Spanish?”

Our host arrives, and he speaks English. He tells us where we can find dinner, and says not to worry, the streets may be loud, and dark at night, but they are safe, safer than anywhere else in South America. He yells out the window for the youth to turn the music down.

We explore Havana for the next day and a half, mostly just walking and taking pictures. We quickly get the lay of Old Havana, where there are street signs after all. We drink agua con gas, listening to tour guides tell us about buried Spanish treasure and pirates. Havana is beautiful, and frenetic, and also laid-back; ruined and restored; underrated and yet full of tourists and people wanting us to tip them, from the unwanted table magician to the postal worker.

How liberals lost the working class


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“Uneducated white males.” That’s a phrase I heard from pundits leading up to the election and after it; that’s the base that elected Trump more than any other demographic.

The phrase itself illustrates the main reason Trump won.

It’s true that Trump drew racists and alt-right supporters; that he drew people afraid of what would happen if Hillary became president — including people who believed and re-tweeted the fake stories accusing her and her staff of literal witchcraft. But he also drew a significant segment of the regular-guy population sick of being labeled “uneducated” by politicians; he galvanized the working class by promising to shake up an establishment that treated them with contempt. He promised to bring their jobs back. He promised to resist the tide of globalization sending work overseas. Regardless of the fact that he’d sent his own manufacturing overseas; regardless of rising economics favoring microchips over human workers, they took a chance that he, a big businessman, could help their own bottom line.

This in spite of the fact that worker’s rights have traditionally been championed by the left — the hard-core left and the progressive movement, which plucked turn-of-the-century manufacturing out of the hands of children and instituted the 40-hour workweek, sick leave, child labor laws. The move towards worker’s rights ran contrary to monopolies and top-down capitalism. It was not an easy fight — and in some cases resulted in actual bloodshed.

This in spite of the fact that even in recent years, Republicans have voted against workers’ rights. According to a New York Times breakdown on labor policies, “conservative Republicans supported the right of employers to take money [in this case, tips] that workers had earned. This disregard for the earnings of workers is only an extreme manifestation of a more common phenomenon among Republican legislators: their indifference to the problem of wage theft.”

The left lost the votes of the working class when it began patronizing them, becoming, as many working-class people accused them of, “the liberal elite.” The pontificating college professor, the yuppie stay-at-home mom with nothing better to do than manufacture outrage about a “culturally appropriated” textile pattern or two. The left got out of touch with the working class because it saw “uneducated white males” as the problem, the root of racial tensions, sexual “micro-aggressions” and climate change denial. It tried to educate the “uneducated” with graphs and pats on the head — with accusations and not-so-patient sighs. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t work well. And along came a guy who appealed to the visceral rather than the intellectual, along came a guy who spoke in short sentences and said he was on their side. That he would make their country great again. That he’d mop the floor with the people who looked down on them. And they voted for him.

If the left wants the working class back — and they should, for the sake of the working class itself — they’ve got to stop playing it so safe and calculated and intellectual. They’ve got to stop being patronizing. They’ve got to stand for something rather than merely against something.

They’ve got to find their heart and soul again, and they’ve got to be comfortable with callouses on their hands and dirt under their fingernails.