Variations of Tiny Campers


Hey, haven’t seen your inbox or spam folder in a while, nice to be back!
Are you safe? Are your hands washed? My reaction to the virus has been writing silly jokes about it by day, and thinking this is the Franz Ferdinand of WWIII by night. It’s day now, so everything’s good! I thought I could send something to read to distract you from impending doom!

Lots have happened since December. Here are a couple of highlights for you.

Clouds in the Andes

As soon as I hug my brother we start plotting our break-in. Ever since I left Ecuador it has been a dream of mine to go back unannounced, to ring the bell at my parent’s (my) home and say “it’s me!” And at 1 am of a cold Tuesday in early January I’m in a car with Aut and my brother, who just picked us up from the airport, ready to fulfill some form of this fantasy. Our plan needs enough urgency to wake our parents up but not enough drama to scare them too much. So my brother walks in and wakes them up, telling them he needs help with two stray dogs he just found on the road. They reluctantly get out of bed, my dad saying “why can’t you do humane acts in a normal schedule?!”

The plan is perfect. I see their faces transform from resigned anger into disbelief once we meet under the entry light. I jump and they curse and we hug. It’s 1:30 am and the screams of my parents’ disbelief echoes through the dark and empty streets into the valley below us.

It just takes an instant to feel like I’m back into my Ecuador routine, to accept the normalcy of seeing my brother, having lunch with my mom, talking to my dad at midnight. Highlights of the trip include the long conversations with my mom and sharing a stage with my dad, who did stand up for the first time. Before this we’ve also spent a month in Michigan with Aut’s family, and it’s easy to call other places home besides our tiny camper. Ecuador is also a tiny camper, a small and warm home that doesn’t have much but everything I need is within reach.

Besides the obvious joy of seeing my family I love going back to the Andes. In the highlands of Quito the clouds come down from time to time and cover the streets with a white mist that turns all lights into cotton balls and all sounds into echoes. We take a hike to a near peak, one of the active volcanoes that dominates the landscape around the city. When we reach the top we can’t see its mouth as it’s covered by clouds breaking into its ream as a slo-mo version of a coastal cliff in a storm. It’s a strange thing, being on top of the Andes: the clouds move faster than usual but they still simulate a measured flow, like a gentle river. Time stands still up there, just like in my parents’ home, and it doesn’t feel like I’ll ever come down of that mountain, say goodbye to my family and friends, get on a plane, or drive back to my other tiny camper.


We’re in Texas, and the biggest issue I have writing about this state is the fear of not knowing if I’m inadvertently messing with it. I’ve been thoroughly warned I shouldn’t do that. “Don’t mess with Texas” is such a weird, violent motto. Other states have messages like “Enjoy Missouri” or “Drink Wisconsinbly,” or “Drive quickly through Indiana.” All positive slogans. But here a tourism board got together and was like “let’s open with a threat.”

We’re volunteers at for Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, a relatively small corner of protected federal land an hour south of Houston. We’re here until May to help with their visitor center, student field trips, their outreach to the Latino community, and to help raise butterflies. In exchange they provide us an RV spot at their volunteer village with electricity and water hook-ups. We really loved the idea of learning about butterflies and the bird watching opportunities, but there’s also a building here in the village that has a bathroom and a shower. Now I don’t know if you have access to electricity and a flushable toilet, but if you don’t I highly recommend it.

When we arrive we meet a long-term volunteer called Stan. He’s a tall, long-limbed, 60 year-old man who appears a bit crass and direct, and who’s giving us instructions on what to do and how to do it for a full week before we even meet our official supervisor. Stan moves slowly, not because of his age but from what seems to be a certain form of resignation, as if his limbs would be dancing to a band called Government Bureaucracy. He wears a cap he removes every two minutes to scratch his head. He has wild hair, and big eyes under small rectangular glasses. He uses the entirety of his huge, well-worn hands to push them back into place.

At first he strikes us as menacing but it only takes us a few days to see that his towering presence is not really a contrast but a complement to his affability. His kindness is revealed to us as he shows us how to raise monarch butterflies. He checks for eggs under the leaves of the milkweed, picks up these white balls the size of a pin head, feeds caterpillars a fresh handful of leaves, picks up butterflies from their wings into their food. These delicate jobs would seem absurd in the giant hands of a once organic farmer, but he handles them delicately, whispering “don’t do this to me, baby!” whenever one of them tries too hard to escape his soft grip.

Three Versions of Myself


I’ve been catching up with my past recently, remembering all those different people I used to be. I remembered, for example, a fragile little 8-year-old who cried too much and loved browsing through his “Mundo de los Niños” encyclopedia. Volume 3, called “The Natural World,” had a section on the Sequoia trees, giant towers that grew in a distant land called California. The pictures seemed to this kid as fantastic as the ones in Volume 7, called “Myths from Around the World.” The little boy, at that time, was able to distinguish fact from fiction, but in his mind the image of ant-size men around colossal trunks remained classified as something impossible.

I finally saw the monsters recently, and I pictured myself sitting down with the kid, trying to explain to him how light and soft their bark feels to the touch, how they seem both menacing and fragile, how magnificent they are in person, shining like copper, kingly among other trees, with the wisdom and nobility of centuries, hiding inside their 30-foot width the secrets of thousands of years. I looked up the trunk of the tree, extending to the sky like a golden brick highway, and I tell you, kid: There’s not much difference between you and me. This tree has barely changed in the last 30 years.

Now please stop hiding boogers under your bed.

I also reread, along with Aut, The Lord of the Rings, so I’ve been reaching out to the awkward teenager that stands between the kid and me. I used to be a massive Tolkien fan. My friends and I wore capes and brought swords to the first movie premiere. I wrote my crush’s name in Sindarin characters on my school desk. I used to listen to the Silmarillion-based album “Nightfall in Middle-Earth” by the number one German Power Metal band of all time: Blind Guardian (the album, I found out recently, still holds as a masterpiece!).  We belonged to the Ecuadorian Tolkien Association, whose Elvish tongue name translated to “The Middle of the World.” There were around 9 of us, fittingly. The group dissolved after a couple of members started fighting for the presidency of the club. I never noticed the irony of this until now. I guess power corrupts, even if it’s the power of a ring of nerds around a table in a coffee shop.

I didn’t expect to enjoy the book again as much as I did. I’ve felt distance from that teenager, and in principle I would’ve argued that I now find the plot of good vs evil too reductive. But I was so incredibly moved by the book, the world Tolkien created, and the fragility of that teenager who used to hide behind capes and swords. Tolkien placed an enormous importance on surroundings: characters in the book are linked to the natural world that surrounds them, and a threat to their realm is what moves them. Animals, plants, rocks, trees: all things are full of life, and the way characters interact with nature determines their fate. And while Autumn and I are on this journey, through all types of land, and while I live outside of home, so far away from the person I used to be, I can’t help but think about the places I come from, and how thankful I am not only of my origin, but my distance from them. It saddens me to be away from home, and it saddens me to leave a newly discovered place. But this kind of sadness is like fuel. It’s the kind of sadness that is indistinguishable from joy, the feeling that I find, for example, in a Kurt Vonnegut novel, or a Paul Simon song. The same feeling a good story is made of.

Around the time we were finishing the books, Aut and I drove through Route 66 in Arizona, back to the same places we went through 8 years ago, when we reluctantly decided to get married in Las Vegas. We stopped at Delgadillo’s Snow Cap, a fast food restaurant where, before the drive to the city, we stopped for a treat. A strange man dressed in black bought our ice cream for us, and as we discovered he was a poet and translator of 13th century poet Rumi, he decided to recite a poem for us and our journey. And that truly was our wedding ceremony: this strange man with a stutter, and the cashier as our witness. It felt emotional to be back at the place and find out things are still as good as an ice cream cone on a hot day.  

In The Lord of the Rings storytelling is a central motif. Each story feeds others, and people’s identity is built upon the stories they tell. The characters sing songs, and their oral tradition is passed around in stories shared by a fire. When Frodo finally destroys the ring, is rescued, and brought back to camp, all characters reunite and celebrate their victory by listening to the story of what just happened, as a bard starts singing:

“And he sang to them, now in the Elven tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.”

So there it is, my connection with this kid, this teenager, and the adult who didn’t want to get married. All three of them would be so incredibly moved by this quote. Pain, distance, and irrevocable change, but thankfulness and joy for life. Joy like a sword.

Esteban Writes from the Black Hills


Hyperboles and Empty Promises

Signs for “Wall Drug” started appearing in Minnesota, 500 or so miles before reaching it. As we approach the town of Wall, the insistence of these billboards reach the intensity of a hungry toddler. What is Wall Drug? The signs don’t exactly say. They offer “free ice water,” “5 cent coffee,” and “cowboy boots.” It’s a place that seems to be trying to capitalize on the emptiness of South Dakota. In the plains of its highways it feels reassuring to have signs to pass by, and to have some kind of destination.
Wall Drug is the entrance to the Badlands and to the Black Hills. Books, food, gear, clothes, memorabilia… Wall Drug doesn’t just sell these things, it also sells the idea of itself and what it represents. This eclectic shopping mall is an important destination because there are signs that tell you it is. The place is filled with self-congratulatory items and presents itself as a world-famous destination. Without that context, if you find yourself inside it and look around, you’ll see that Wall Drug is just a small shopping mall disguised as a tourist attraction.
Here’s a tip: if you want to be a tourist attraction, just put a sign that says you are a “world famous” tourist attraction. The world is not going to protest, because the world has no idea you exist.
Without context, without its signs, Wall Drug is the most boring place on Earth. All those billboards provide a sense of an empty promise. A falseness that reflects well the story of the region and the story of this country. In the United States, just like in Wall Drug, the idea is greater than the reality.

From a distance the shade of the trees of the Black Hills do look dark, as if the sky was torn down layers of wall paper. It’s easy to see why the natives called them “the heart of everything that is.” Its rolling mountains covered in pines are full of life, and sounds of animals echo all around the area. As the United States started moving west and reached the place, conflict with American Indians arose. However ever-lasting peace was achieved when in 1867 the US and leaders of some tribes of the area signed the Fort Laramie pact, where the US agreed to renounce this territory to Native Americans. In US legal terms, Ever-lasting, of course, is the period between signing an agreement and finding gold in the territory. Give or take a couple of years. The gold rush, the entire history of the West, was, like Wall Drug, a promise of something greater than reality. Just like the Homestead Act, which promised plentiful land for the taking, the possibility of individual wealth was pushed forward by a very calculative government that wanted to get into these territories with no regard of others.

It was here that the myth of the West was born. The sheriffs, the brothels, the duels. Walking through Deadwood South Dakota made me want to go into a saloon to drink and gamble. Sadly no one was playing UNO. The romanticized view of the West was pushed forward by Buffallo Bill, a man who turned these troubled times into entertainment. People like Calamity Jane, Wild Bill, and Buffallo Bill himself became famous not necessarily for what they did, but for how they presented themselves in these shows and what they claimed to have done. The myth of these characters was greater than their reality. 

The hyperbole is the essence, it seems, of Wall Drug, the West, and of course of this country, the greatest country on earth.

Reality, as Told by Kevin Costner
The day after hiking to the top of Black Elk peak we decided to take it easy, so we plan on taking the wildlife loop, several miles of roads where you can drive and see all of the park’s fauna. Before doing so we go into the small movie theater on the park’s welcome center, and we watch the video showing images of the landscape that’s sitting right behind the screen. The movie tells the story of an idyllic white family with empty smiles that goes wherever the father points to. In other circumstances I would laugh at the people who watch these videos. Instead of watching it on this screen, you could just take a couple of steps, go out, and see everything through your own cell phone screen! Idiots. But to be fair, these chairs are the nicest place we’ve sit in weeks. It’s also worth noting that reality, unlike this movie, doesn’t have cheesy orchestral music, transition visual effects, or happy families. Also, real life is not narrated by Kevin Costner. Okay, maybe that’s a good thing?

Kevin Costner has a celebrity monopoly in the area. Dances with Wolves is the only Kevin Costner movie where he didn’t play, watched or talked about baseball, I believe. I guess that’s why he might have felt like he had unfinished business in this region, where it was filmed, as in the 90s he decided to build a Bison park here, and commissioned large sculptures to adorn it. Did we go to Costnerland? No, because our friend KC backed out of the project, and the artist sued him in the early 2000s. Great. Another white man that doesn’t fulfill his side of a contract in the region.

After the movie we took the wildlife loop and saw a bunch of strange, magnificent creatures. A herd of bison, wild burros, prairie dogs, motorcyclists, and pronghorns. By the time we were done it was six in the afternoon and we still didn’t have a place to camp. We had started the day in the Forest Service, where we got a giant map of the area. It looked like it was 1/10th scale. The idea was to find forest roads where dispersed camping is allowed. We had done it before, and it can be a very cool experience. The problem was these particular roads are like this presidency: irregular, filled with cracks, and seems like we’re not going to make it.

We went onto one of these forest roads, but the problem was that we needed to make sure we could back out or turn around on the road, so I went ahead to scout it. We spent an hour or more switching between me walking ahead, finding a spot where we could maybe turn around, Aut driving there, and moving ahead, and we didn’t find a single place fit for boondocking. As we started to turn against each other in frustration we gave up, and took a long, scary time to figure out a way to turn around our 15 ft trailer plus 13 ft car on a tiny, rough road. We managed, but the mood seemed spoiled. However, as we dealt with our defeat in silence, we saw a magnificent elk on the side of a hill, his silhouette shining in front of the sunset. Epic orchestral music started playing. “Despite the difficult times,” we heard Kevin Costner say, “the splendor of the mighty elk stands as a symbol of hope in these hills…” Dramatic pause, “of South Dakota.”
This peaceful resolution to conflict has been a constant in the trip. It seems it would be difficult to be together all the time, and sometimes we do get annoyed with each other, but that only lasts for the minutes it takes until we see something that triggers that epic music and then we’re back to loving each other as much as Kevin Costner loves baseball.

How Cowboys survive Ponderosa Pinecone attacks
Before reaching our next destination, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, we spent 3 nights on a free campground called “Picnic Springs.” It’s in the middle of nowhere. Every campsite has mesas, cliffs, and rock formation, and ponderosa pine roots twisting and turning around rocks, hanging over the ledge. Our trailer and the campground clearance are surrounded by these pines, and behind it we have a small overhang, just for us.

I stand on top of the rocks looking at the other side of the cliffs and pretend it’s the late 19th Century and I’m a tough scout in search of gold. A brave, free-spirited man flirting with survival. Suddenly a pinecone drops behind me making a light sound and I suddenly get scared because what if it’s a dangerous rodent? It’s also not safe, being so close to this ten-foot edge. So I go back to my hammock and my puzzle book. Sure, these tough explorers were able to kill buffalos and survive in the wilderness but I’d like to see them fight through and defeat a crossword puzzle edited by Will Shortz. No cheating. Yeah, not to brag but I’ve done that a couple of times.

I think the term “cowboy” fits me really well. You can herd me like cattle and I cry like a child. Honestly, I can’t think of a least menacing name than “cowboy.” Wow. You are so tough you named yourself after the two most docile, innocent creatures around you? When they invented the term no one jumped in to suggest “bullman”? Did they try other ones first? “Don’t mess with me, kid, I’m a tough sheeptoddler.” Maybe they thought the hat may be enough. Maybe it is. Maybe I need a cowboy hat. 

Esteban Writes from the Dakotas


First Impressions of the Grasslands
As we head out of Minnesota we listen to some history podcasts and learn about the Dakota war. We drive through many historical marks that tell different versions. The way history is told changes, but the desolate plains of western Minnesota appear not to. In these markers old plaques conflict with new ones. Blunt ones glorify the men who fought, captured, and executed more than 30 natives, the largest mass execution in US history. Contemporary ones recognize the government’s deceit and abuse. One of them in New Ulm rises “in memory of all who suffered in the Dakota War,” which seems almost offensive in its neutrality. The metal plaques and concrete structures contrast harshly with their location in parks and prairies where no one stops, and the only noise is the wind.

As we try to drive away from the Mississippi time starts moving slower and signs of civilization are sparse. There’s nothing but grassland all around us, so the wind comes full force, as it’s also trying to move away from this emptiness. We cross the border into South Dakota. A lot of people don’t know this, but highways in this state are actually treadmills. Regardless of their 80 mph speed limit we don’t seem to move much. As soon as we cross the state line the only thing we can see are small concrete buildings with colorful signs that just say FIREWORKS. Nothing more, except a few secluded farms and a large number of anti-abortion signs. It’s so weird to me that areas of this country where freedom is valued so much would bombard the few people that drive through them with such heavy moral indoctrination. If life and freedom are respected so much why are you blindly ignoring the circumstances of the other lives involved?

I hope you forgive me these two lighthearted observations on a very serious topic:

1. “Every life is a little miracle,” some signs say. It may seem that way around here, as seeing any sign of life within 100 miles within any direction must be a joyous occasion. 2. It hurts the pro-choice movement to have its counterpart called “pro-life.” When I first came to the US if someone would’ve asked me if I’m pro-life I would’ve said yes, of course, I’m a fan of the mitochondria! 95% of the time I’m into life. The other 5% has been times I’ve heard “Despacito” on the radio.

We reach Watertown where we visit the county museum. I love these little places that are basically old stuff from grandmas attics from all over town, with some printed pieces of paper in comic sans. There’s always an old iron oven and a weird mannequin staring directly into your soul. Every guide in these museums is trained to start every explanation with “they didn’t have phones back then.”
We’re greeted there by a chirpy blond lady he seem to have been aiting to talk to someone since 1989. We ask for recommendations of things to do in the state and spend the next four days listening to a stream of consciousness that includes great ideas of places to visit, some history of the county, and a little bit of casual racism. Her remarks are just observations of places she has visited. She tells us, for example, to lock our car doors if we enter Native American territory. “But,” she adds, “you should probably be more scared of the white people, they all carry guns and can be violent.” Yeah, people in the reserve could probably attest to that.

Shelter from the Storm in Sheyenne National Grasslands
The sky in South Dakota seemed like an ocean, with its clouds slowly wading around above us. But in our campsite in North Dakota the sky seems like a river. Clouds flow down furiously, coming and going dramatically while the grasslands stand still, waving. We have two rainy days. Rain doesn’t fall, but explodes on top of us. We have our weather radio on, and suddenly an alarm starts beeping. Our phones start vibrating too.
“Tornado warning. Get to safety immediately.” I can tell Autumn grew with these experiences because she immediately jumps up and is ready to act. I’m scared and fascinated. If you’ve heard a weather ready you know the voice coming through the static: it’s calm, clear, and not from this planet. No one should sound so friendly when enumerating the counties that are in danger of being destroyed. The alert switches from the relaxed voice to alarm sounds.
When the alarm goes off there’s little rain and it doesn’t feel dangerous. As we get out of our camper and look up we see a giant black cloud moving towards us. We go to the outhouse, the only concrete building around. You can see the rain as a line, like a moving border that seems so impossible close but still not above us. Birds stop chirping and start flying away, and there’s an intense stillness. Just both of us, standing outside, listening to the radio calmly enumerating the counties and towns that immediately surround us. Wind picks up and it lla turns black. We watch it pass by hat seems to be a quarter of a mile from us. It’s a weird feeling to stand there, at the mercy of this massive dark monster that moves fast and responds to no logic, and just wait to see if we’re unlucky enough to have our things damaged, get hurt or killed by it, or worse, to be forced to stay for a long time in the outhouse. “It seems like a good place to wait for a tornado,” my dad said later when I told him what had happened. “I would shit my pants.” Ten minutes later the sky opens up like a curtain. The color blue suddenly appears, and it brings bird songs with it.
Not so long ago this was the human experience: just stand in awe in front of nature and take your chance. Seems easier to believe in a superior power if every day of your life is ruled by the random strength of natural forces. This primal helplessness may be scary but it also bridges my connection with those frightened, defenseless creatures that were all our ancestors, and that we still are. They must have had the same experience, right here, sans a concrete outhouse filled with single ply rolls of toilet paper. Lucky bastards.
Maybe I’m the scared one. The North Dakota natives were probably as fearless as the only other people in our campsite. When the alarm went off I went there, with the radio in my hand. “I don’t know if you heard,” I said with urgency, “but there’s a tornado warning!” In my mind I pictured Jim and Shannon dropping all their belongings and running to the outhouse, thanking me for their lives. Instead Jim just turned his back to me and said “fun!” and kept going with his business. After the emergency passed and the sky turned blue I went to their campground to see them just as relaxed as I left them. “You must be from around here,” I asked. They nodded with a condescending smile.

There’s Nothing in the Dakotas
After Jim and Shannon leave we have half a day of solitude. We have a tent that attaches to our camper, and completely seals us from mosquitoes. New neighbors come at evening to say hi, Craig and Katherine, and they are our first campground guests into the tent. He’s reflexive and quiet, she’s loud and extroverted. Our shared beliefs in traveling, conservation and politics makes the conversation easy, and we relate to them a lot until they mention their love for Indiana. “Just heading back home and seeing the fields of corn and the hot, humid air of summer brings me so much joy!” she says.
I regularly make fun of Indiana, and how could I not, it’s an easy target. Their motto is “the crossroads of America,” as if they knew people who go there are also on their way out. I’ve driven through it regularly on my drive from Madison to Michigan and if highway signs are to be believed the only thing there is in Indiana is accident lawyers, adult stores, and Jesus. Seems strange that someone who has lived there and traveled away several times can find it beautiful.
I don’t understand it until later, when, during a conversation about a particular park she sits up in her chair and says “that place is beautiful! So many places are beautiful! Every time I go to a new place, it’s so cool. Everywhere is beautiful.”
While Katherine may not be talking particularly about I90/I94, her words resonate with me. The Dakotas are another national punchline. But I can completely relate to Katherine here, in the uneventful grasslands of North Dakota, where nothing happens and everything is beautiful.

Well, well, well, Fargo
In its welcome center the city of Fargo proudly showcases its connection to the movie and TV show of the same name. Posters, t-shirts, a copy of the script, set memorabilia, the original woodchipper from the infamous scene of the film, signed by the directors, and a replica of the woodchipper, which is placed outdoors, in case you come after hours. You wouldn’t want to miss the woodchipper. Next to the woodchippers the welcoming center has brochures on what to do in Fargo, and going to the welcoming center to check the woodchippers is near the top of the list.
I find this incredibly amusing.
Foot note: if you haven’t seen Fargo you need to step it up. I don’t want to spoil the importance of the woodchipper, but imagine a creative way such a powerful tool could be use on a crime/dark comedy film by the Coen brothers and you’ll have a strong foothold on the plot. It’s a kick. End of foot note.
Fargo is a somewhat charming little city, very different from the vibe of the movie, with an interesting history and notable geological characteristics. It’s also somewhat hip and young. Hip cities are measured by the presence of cool murals and amount of craft breweries. However the city happily insists on their connection to a film that projects a dark image of the area and featured the city for less than two minutes. It’s a town built for and by railroad companies. Fargo was named after the same guy in Wells Fargo, who built part of that railroad. “Interesting fact,” I tell Autumn, “Wells Fargo was originally named ‘well, well, well, Fargo!’ but it was too long, so they shortened it.”
I find this incredibly amusing. Autumn doesn’t.
As we leave town we listen to some history podcast that talks about the absurd desire for territory and the federal impulse of pushing west at every cost. Railroad corporations were part of the problem. We hear about the shady deals and coordinated greed of these tycoons with the US government, which resulted in the repossession of lands, armed conflicts, and suffering of the native people. Well, well, well, Fargo. Maybe a dark crime film fits you just right.

Where we are: The Badlands, in South Dakota.
What’s next: The Black Hills, Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Esteban Writes from Minnesota


Duluth and Bob Dylan
We unexpectedly end up in Duluth.
I’m not sure I get this city. Is it an industrial town that moves on progress? Or a museum of old prosperity? Its streets run down from the hills, landing into the cold waters of Lake superior and the raised platforms of rusted metal, railroads and old industry. Lots of things are suspended here: bridges, walkways, time. But at the same time it’s a city of movement. Trains and ships disappearing in the horizon. Those hills pushing you down onto highway 61 as an invitation to leave. The entire city seems to be saying “let’s keep it moving.”
Duluth seems committed to its connection to Bob Dylan. He was born and spent the first years of his life here, so we decided to go check his childhood house. It was only six blocks away, but on the hills of Duluth the journey seemed endless. How many steps must a man walk up before reaching Bob Dylan’s house? The answer my friend is too many. Get an Uber or something.
In our way I think of Me and Bobby D. I have a weird relationship with him. I spent several years trying to understand why he was such a legend. But my English was never good enough to capture his lyrics while listening to him.
I slowly started absorbing the meaning of his songs through his music, his phrasing, and some words here or there. I felt like I understood something, even though things didn’t make much logical sense. I’m happy to report that, now that I’ve learned more of the language, and I’ve come to understand more and more of his music, he still makes no sense. I am as lost as I was before. And that’s what makes him special. He is a masterful writer, but he seems to be able to convey an emotion beyond the words. Something always hides in his music, as in his demeanor. Something mysterious that seems to make sense beyond logic. I don’t get what he’s saying, but I get it.
The house was a house in the same sense Bob Dylan is just a person. There’s nothing intrinsically especial about it. Nothing to get. Just another house in the block. Bob was also just another kid playing in the sidewalks of Duluth, looking below at the contrast between Lake Superior and the mysterious vastness of the engineered horizon of railroads and highways. The gravitational pull of that hill, the stillness of water, and the urgency of industry all below him, as some kind of metaphor for the United States. The kind of metaphor he doesn’t understand, but he gets it. We stand there for two minutes, looking at the plate. “First house of Bob Dylan. 1941-1947.” Autumn turns and sees down into the horizon. “Ok. Let’s keep it moving.”

Max, Holly, Clark, Soccer, and Minneapolis

We visit our dear friends Holly and Max. I’m excited to see them, not because they used to be our neighbors, but because I want to desperately see Clark. Whenever they left town, Holly and Max used to ask me to check on their cat, so I would go down the stairs to feed him. Clark and I have a love/hate relationship, as in I love him and he hates me. Those checking sessions where basically me leaving food on his plate and badly trying to get him to come out of his hiding spot to play with me.
They live in one of the cutest houses in Minneapolis. How is it possible for a house to be quaint, cozy, and small, and still have 5 bedrooms? As soon as we walk in they make us feel so welcome, even though Holly is leaving for a trip abroad the next day. We connect to their WiFi, eat their food, and use their shower. Not to brag, but I’ve showered four days in a row now. They have set up their guest room for us, with everything we could need (except for gummy bears, which they confess have left for guests before. I guess we’re not good enough for them?). We left them a decent review.
They take us out to dinner to a very busy and popular Ecuadorian restaurant. There’s a significant population of Ecuadorables here in Minneapolis, apparently. This is not the only thing that makes me nostalgic: Max’s knowledge and passion for soccer reminds me of my friends and family back home. I deeply admire Max’s ability to turn a casual conversation about a player into a clever reflection on world politics or history. I’m not particularly a sports person, but I learned to appreciate the sport in the same way I learned how to dance salsa, or be a Catholic: it was basically a requirement to graduate high school in Ecuador.
As I’ve moved from home I’ve learned to understand that watching sports is a way to connect with people from all over the planet. And the US is so isolated in this sense, unwilling to pay much attention to worldwide competitions but calling itself the greatest country on Earth. You got your own sports here, and that’s it. In Ecuador we do have some sports that are only played there, like Ecuavolley. Our version has three players on each team, is played with a heavier ball, and I think it’s a requirement to have a slightly heavier dude playing without a shirt. It’s badass.
In this country I consider watching soccer a political act. It’s a radically progressive political pastime. Liberals talk about the importance of appreciating and accepting the rest of the world but few are willing to sit down and try to understand the two things that all continents love: soccer and the metric system. You may very well think it’s boring (things you don’t understand are always boring; ask anyone who tries to watch football or baseball for the first time), but it’s the easiest way to connect with almost anyone in the planet. If you ever meet a Brazilian, an Italian, a South African, you can immediately start a conversation about how annoying Argentinians can be.
So you think you’re progressive? If you don’t start watching soccer you’re still kilometers away from being woke. After leaving Max and Holly’s house we drive down a park in the city. I see a volleyball court with three men on each side, two of them are not wearing a shirt. Holy shit. Ecuavolley has made its way here. It’s almost an illusion, as we quickly drive away, but in that moment I get a glimpse of a couple of gringo faces in the audience. This vision is currently the best hope for the US.
As for Clark, well, let’s just say I don’t think he’ll ever enjoy Ecuavolley.

Michelle, Mike, Fireworks, and Waterfalls
Minneapolis spreads beyond my understanding. Every street seems to form a part of a perfect grid and then it abruptly lands on a river, a lake, or a park with a river or lake. It’s also a city full of corners packed with multicultural independent businesses with some weird angle. A butcher shop that’s also a record store. A coffee place that accepts used books as payment. A honey bee farm that makes free-range bicycles. You can’t apply for a business permit if you don’t brew your own beer. It’s a really cool city. At least for like three weeks of the year. Here’s where we spend our 4th of July. We stayed in Michelle and Mike’s driveway that night. I barely knew Michelle, she’s Aut’s ex co-worker and friend, but I immediately learn to respect and admire her. She has an incredible ability (and need) to connect with people, and seems to be happiest when building connections in her community. Waving to strangers, saying hi to neighbors, or handing flyers to create a community dog park nearby. She shares her backyard coop eggs with the neighborhood. In front of their house they have built a small wooden box that reads:
Community Eggs
For her, being an extrovert is a moral and political responsibility. It seems to me the perfect person to spend this holiday with.
Regardless of the country or their meaning, patriotic holidays seem cartoonish to me. The imagined concept of what a country is sometimes seem even more plastic during those days. And the US is a ridiculous country. Not that there’s something wrong with that, every country is ridiculous. The concept of a country requires some level of ludicrous symbology. I’m not saying it’s silly to enjoy fireworks or holiday traditions, and I’m not passing moral judgement, just pointing out how absurd they sometimes seem. 4th of July especially. To be fair, it seems very proper to celebrate the US with explosives and rockets. This country surely is proud of being loud and blowing things up.
We ignore the whole thing and go to Minehaha Park. Its paths, stairs, and corners remind me of the parks in bigger cities like Central Park in New York, or Golden Gate park in San Francisco. But in this one the calm demeanor of carefully designed public spaces suddenly clashes with an impressive waterfall and the fast river flow that follows. The park seems to symbolize the spirit of the city: planned urban organization next to nature. The loudness of the waterfall as we walk masks the sounds of the fireworks. Feels like a good celebration to me.

What’s next:
The Dakotas! The Badlands!
Thanks for reading and thanks to those who have replied. Love hearing from you.


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Esteban Writes from San Francisco


Hang on tight, we got a long one here. I’m currently in Duluth, MN, after a couple of days of free camping, but this one will focus on my last week’s trip to San Francisco. Lots of thing to cover, so sorry for the length. I’ve already cut this in half, so thank me later.

Dear old lady, please don’t die

Halfway through the flight from Minneapolis to San Francisco a lady 3 rows in front of me is suddenly carried out of her seat, passed out. There’s noise and commotion, and the flight attendants come through the intercom to ask for a doctor. Two of them run to her and lay her down in the aisle. I can’t see anything but the attendants’ faces, who are running back and forth, bringing aid kits, blankets from the back of the plane. Suddenly someone is preparing a syringe, a passenger is instructed to hold an IV, and the doctor is reading the instructions on a defibrillator. I have no idea how serious the emergency is, but it feels like it prolongs for hours. It reminds me of that man that almost died during a comedy show I did once with Judd Apatow.
The rest of the plane was in complete silence. What are we to do? Are we to ignore the problem and go back to “Marley and Me” or whatever? Is it intrusive to ask the flight attendant how she is doing? Complicit in our inability and our incapacity to act, we just wait there, hoping for an opportunity to get some information, or to help in some way. Then, it happens. The flight attendant brings some sort of emergency communication headphones with double jacks that connect to two emergency input plugs that are right above my head. The passenger in the isle untangles the chord. I hold the input covers open, and the passenger in the middle seat plugs them in. Together we are “Row 27,” a perfectly efficient team of superheroes.
“Yeah, these headphones are not working here,” says the attendant. “I’ll use the plug in the back.”
By the time 24B proposes to plug them again she’s already near the 40s.
“It’s ok, 24B,” I tell him, with my hand on his shoulder, “It’s ok.” But deep down inside I know. Row 27 is no more.
We do an emergency landing in Denver and paramedics rush in and take her. I never see her face or understand her condition. All I know is she’s still alive, and based on the calm demeanor of the doctors, the paramedics, and her family I assume she’s ok.
All of them, along with the flight attendants and the four passengers around her that helped, get an applause. Row 27 does not, but that’s ok. “Good deeds must be done in the shadows,” I whisper to them, while we clap as if we were nothing but regular passengers…

San Francisco
Getting a city’s first impression from their subway always feels like a Christmas gift. You ascend the stairs in darkness and suddenly the city hits you in the face. You’re never sure what to expect. I got out of the BART system in the downtown area, and saw the Civic Center, which was closed and fenced for some kind of event. It was like that holiday I got a remote-control robot that didn’t include batteries. I just sat and stared at it. I hate private events in closed public spaces. It should not be allowed to have a few profiting from what’s supposedly for everyone. Oh, is that Clusterfest? The thing I’m profiting from? Oh, okay, carry on.
I feel a bit saddened by this city. It’s beautiful and I love how it shows the possibility of multi-cultural communities, but it’s also a city that seems to exemplify the wild contrast brought by late stage capitalism. The homeless population, the lack of attention to mental health, and the drug epidemic issues contrast with beautiful renovated Victorian spaces occupied by tech millennials who’s work websites probably describe ingenious apps that will save the world. The streets of Haight-Ashbury and the hippie movement sometime feels reduced to a business opportunity, and the ideals of those times seem a bit lost behind the superficial aesthetic of tie-dye t-shirts and the smell of weed and incense. Still, the powerful presence of the LGBTQ community and the openly progressive spirit of the city filled me with joy. I’ve never had so many people pronouncing my name right!
I got an Airbnb near Golden Gate park, in a quiet neighborhood that had amazing vegan food and a quiet vibe. In a coffee shop a Latina woman greeted me in Spanish. This is a really exciting event that happens from time to time, when two Spanish-speaking latinos just jump at it. Then two, three other clients came in, all “gringos.” Turns out, she just greets everyone in Spanish, and everyone who goes there tries to engage in Spanish. As a Spanish teacher who supports bilingualism, it was beautiful, but also it meant it wasn’t something particular about me. Damn, Norma, I thought we shared something.
I took a table outside, next to a pretty interesting group. I know this sounds like a joke, or the start of a riddle in a multi-cultural production of a Greek tragedy, but all of this happened, more or less. There were three people: a Latina woman, a Black woman, and a White woman. They were switching between languages: English, Spanish, and some French.  They had three dogs: a black, big dog, a brown fluffy one, and a small, white one. The dogs were named Tsuki, Coco, and Pearl. Dogs, languages, names, and people didn’t quite correlate to one another.
As they were leaving they passed by my table and I just had to say hi to the dogs. They immediately took this as an opportunity to settle some sort of long-held controversy as they all stood in front of me and immediately asked me which dog I liked the most. The dogs, as if trained, sat down expectantly. It was like Paris and the Golden Apple. I politely told them it was against my principles to show any kind of preference for any dog, as they were all beautiful creatures who…
“You MUST choose” They said, all six of them, interrupting me in unison.
“Oh, Ok. In that case I gotta go with Tsuki.”
Tsuki and his owner were incredibly excited about this. According to the myth they will live forever. All other 4 immediately became constellations.
What Pearl and Coco didn’t know is while shaking his leg Tsuki slipped me a $20.
He didn’t need to. He was truly a beautiful dog. Don’t tell Zeus.

I don’t know how I got to this festival, but there I was, mingling around green rooms with Amy Poehler, Fred Armisen, Adam Scott, Todd Barry, Chad Daniels, Rory Scovel, Tig Notaro…
On Saturday, perhaps too confident, I decided not to worry too much about my set. I walked through the city and got to the venue all sweaty. They took us all through make-up and hair, and we were invited to record a small interview for a podcast, and to do some promo stuff for Comedy Central’s Instagram page. I grabbed a drink backstage and waited for my set, feeling relaxed and excited, chatting with other comics and trying not to think much of it. I wasn’t nervous at all until my name got called and I jumped on stage.
I had two options on how to approach this set: I could memorize it word by word, hitting “play” in my mind, and having a precise, safe set, or I could go out there and feel the room a bit, being a bit loose, and take my chances. I felt confident enough to do the latter and regretted it the minute I walked on stage. The result was that I doubted my self for a second and made a couple of mistakes. I was a bit nervous to start, and at one point I blanked. “Great, I forgot my next joke,” I told the audience. “Seems like a good thing to do in a big show.” Got some laughs and kept going. At the end I felt disappointed. I had recorded my set but didn’t dare to listen to it. In my mind it was a bad set. Comics and producers around me congratulated me, but you can’t trust them! David Koechner was particularly supportive. It wasn’t until I headed out to the streets and heard strangers complimenting me that I started feeling better.
I listened to the recording on Tuesday, and it was way better than I expected. At least I won’t be ashamed of it when it comes out.

The Punchline and Pringles
On Sunday I did a set at a small theater downtown. After my set some comics invited me to The Punchline, a famous club that has a locals night on Sundays. In order to work at the club, locals need to come every Sunday for a year, and then at some point they get one shot to perform. They don’t know what week, they don’t know the line up. The booker feels the room out and approaches the comics, who are all lined up at the sides like wrestlers waiting for the tag, and says “you’re next.” And then you barely have time to put your thoughts together and perform 5 or so minutes after a year of waiting,
This booker seemed annoyed to meet me, and when I asked for the possibility of doing a set he dismissed me. “You are welcome to stay and watch,” he said. So I sat down in a table in the back and saw some great locals and other beginners who’s bad sets probably denied them the opportunity to do another one in a long while. The room’s energy switched from relaxed to tense depending on the stakes and ability of each of them. Then the booker tapped me on the shoulder. “You can go up next. You have 5 minutes, you get a light at 4.” I played it safe and had a great set. At the end of the night I hung out with the locals and heard about their efforts to save the club, which is closing its location soon. Hopefully they get to save it. But at least I was glad I got to do a set there before it happens.

I stayed in San Francisco two more days to film an ad for Pringles through Comedy Central. They put me up in a nice hotel. “Welcome, Esteban,” the woman at the desk told me when I checked in. “We have a King-Size bed waiting for you!” I responded that it was perfect as that is the bed size I relate with the most.
On Tuesday I got an early pick up at the hotel, and spent six hours riffing jokes about potato chips. In the corner of the set two guys handled cans of pringles like nuclear scientists handling plutonium. Blue rubber gloves and intense precision. They were stacking them perfectly and determining which ones were the best looking ones to be featured in the ad. After their decision they handed a beautiful, idyllic chip to one of the other comics, who, after a failed first take, instinctively ate it in one single bite. The sound of that chip crunching in his teeth made the Pringles scientists drop to the floor and scream “THE HUMANITY!” It was fun.
Most of the content we filmed was improvised, but in one of the takes I was to react to some jalapeño heat in the chips, so when I took a bite I reacted as I thought people who can’t handle heat react to hot chips. ¨
“Cut!” said the director. “Esteban, let’s try that again but this time pretend you’re eating a hot chip and not like you are struck by lighting while having a stroke.” So bad news, you won’t get to see my beautiful hot chip performance, which I expected would get me an Oscar. They do have an Oscar category for “Best performance in snack/beverage commercial” right?
I went back to the hotel and met with Sara, a friend from Madison, at a small sushi restaurant for dinner. She’s probably still there, waiting for her miso soup to arrive. Then back to my ride, to two planes, three airports, transported back to my reality. It was all really exciting and new and fresh, but nothing felt as exciting as seeing my entire house, all of my belongings, and my favorite celebrity, Autumn, pulling over the small, non-busy street around the Marquette airport.
I’m back to reality, and it feels good.

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The Competitive Sport of Wisconsin Small Talk


The worst thing about Wisconsin’s winter is not only that it sucks, it’s that you’re forced to talk about it.

As I leave behind the cold February wind and unwrap six layers of winter gear, I see Wendy from HR walking into the building. Our eyes meet. I’m terrified, but there’s nothing I can do. It’s on. I’m trapped. It’s time for small talk.

Am I scared? Of course. This is not any kind of small talk, but Wisconsin small talk. And I’m facing Wendy herself, the queen of chit chat. It’s the big leagues. She approaches with the warmest smile, her face slightly tilted. Oh, she’s good. People tremble when poised against her baby pictures. There are rumors of some defenseless souls who have been exposed to up to five of her crochet projects. This is not amateur hour.

“Esteban!” she shouts, opening her eyes wide. “I almost didn’t make it. I have no idea how I actually got out of bed!” she says, pointing at the whirlwind outside. This is why she’s a legend. Not even a “Hey,” no sign of a “how are you” – we’re going straight into the weather. The worst thing about Wisconsin’s winter is not only that it sucks, it’s that you’re forced to talk about it. But I don’t even flinch. I’ve been training. Big smile, hands on the waist, strong eye contact. “The only thing that got me out of bed,” I say, skipping a beat for maximum effect. “was coffee!” She bursts into laughter. Oh, how we chuckle and howl. I’m starting strong. Maybe Wendy from HR has finally met her match.

I’ve been training on my Wisconsin small talk since I arrived to Madison 6 years ago. Nothing prepared me for such professional chit-chat. Sure, everyone’s proud of the Packers, but nobody seems proud of Wisconsinites’ greatest pastime. And as an immigrant from South America I tried too long to avoid it: arriving late to all meetings, speaking Español to my Uber driver, or keeping my groceries under 12 items or less so I can use the self-check out machine at Woodman’s.

Every encounter between any living multicellular form involves a power struggle. Some animals show their teeth, some animals emit incoherent sounds, and others sniff butts. Small talk is nothing but an overly complicated version of the first two. And I felt terrified of playing this game of repartee with such pros. It felt like being tossed in to play basketball with Michael Jordan, or like trying to prove a point using outdated sports references because everything you know about American sports is the 1996 live action/animated classic film Space Jam.

Hi, I’m Michael, get ready to jam.

Wendy and I move slowly down the hall and I feel like I’m doing great. She talks about the unpredictability of March, I mention Al Gore, we share a moment of silence for the polar bears. I wonder why people here are so keen on these performances of social comfort. There’s no need for small talk where I’m from. Quito is a relatively big, cosmopolitan city, so that may be part of it. In South America we kiss hello with strangers, quickly compliment each other, and go on our way. There’s no need to establish a social connection when we’re already tightly linked by Salsa music, Catholicism, and all those germs from kissing strangers. Maybe the intensity of these things keeps us on the move. If I wanted to know any personal detail about my coworkers I could just ask my aunt Julia. Here in the US all CIA information is classified, but in Ecuador you can gain access to the Aunt Intelligence Network with a phone call and the promise of some herbal tea.

When Wendy and I reach the end of the hallway and notice we are clearly going in opposite directions, it’s evident neither of us wants to let it go. I refuse to lose. Too much is on the line for me. This is graduation day. I am not going to go gently into the “have a good day.” Defeating Wendy would mean I’m no longer scared of small talk. It means I can look Wisconsin’s weather in its ugly face and say “I understand you. I understand your people.” It means I can feel ok with wearing an orange Styrofoam wedge on my head. But also, I must confess: compared to the freezing gray outside, Wendy’s casual banter is making me feel warm inside. It makes me realize that small talk is the only logical reason why someone would ever settle on Wisconsin.

I couldn’t fathom the existence of early Wisconsin settlers who, after setting up and getting comfortable in the Wisconsin summer, witnessed their first Midwest winter weather. What stopped them from packing up and heading south? I can now guess someone made eye contact and said “Can you believe this weather?” And the extended chatter that followed lasted until the answer was yes, they could believe it now, and it was time to collect berries, and fish, and run from bears or whatever. Wendy helped me understand that. Sure, the weather sucks, but that’s a small price to pay for the ability to connect with your community about how much it sucks. Exactly how much did it suck for you this morning? How much does it suck compared to other years? How hard is it for you to believe in how bad the weather has sucked this season? You answer some of these questions and suddenly you warm up to the idea of a collective embrace.

This weather SUCKS!

As far as who won our small-talk competition, no one gave it up. So after 42 minutes and two follow-up emails later, we decided we are getting married. Maybe next May or June, when the weather gets better. We’ll choose a date as soon as we’re done talking about construction on the beltline, which I assume will take a couple more weeks.

Judd Apatow Takes a 5 Minute Break


Judd Apatow stands in a corner of the stage in silence while we wait for paramedics to arrive. The entire sold-out crowd of a Sunday early show is looking at the back table, where a man has passed out. 

There’s nothing to do but to wait anxiously for this new spectacle to be over, so we all stand in silence. It’s as awkward and quiet as a Prius. The entire room feels like a religious painting from one of Quito’s Catholic churches, those dark baroque oils (minus the impaling demons): hands covering mouths, eyes wide open in expectation, all looking into darkness. We don’t know if the man is ok.

Mike comes out of the booth and whispers in my ear. “Wow, he’s killing.”

I try not to laugh, but it’s true. Five minutes ago the entire room was bursting with laughter. The scene is surreal and unsettling. In the silence I look at Judd and I realize that after 48 hours of having a small glance at one of the most prolific comedic voices of our generation, and seeing him running around along with his small team -his assistant Scott, and his feature comic Wayne Federman – there’s something perhaps more surprising:  Judd Apatow has no choice but to take a 5 minute break, and this is the first time I’ve seen him not working.

48 hours earlier, as I jumped on stage to host our first Friday show I felt a sharp pain in my back, and I had the feeling I suddenly aged. It was a pain that felt like it would stay with me until I died. As I continued to work with Judd for 3 nights, a total of 6 shows, I lazily sat around while this man, fourteen years my senior, ran around, canvassing before the election, calling in interviews, coordinating a benefit show in Milwaukee for children. He even made some time to text the president of a major entertainment corporation, calling him out for a racist commercial that was running on a three-lettered channel. That was one day. What had I done that whole weekend, besides scheduled laundry? Not even laundry.

“I’m just stressed all day long trying to think of things. I’m sitting there thinking, Why aren’t you thinking of anything? You’re behind. You need to get going.

From Sick in the Head

I didn’t feel the need to ask him for advice, as I learned quickly what his answer might have been. There’s no easy way. No shortcuts. This unspoken answer was a disappointment for me, as I would very much appreciate a shortcut in my lazy comedy career (can I call 2 open mics and 30 minutes of writing a week a career?).  It was a disappointment too for one of Judd’s fans, an older lady who told me she had driven from far away just to see him, hopefully meet him, and hopefully give him, if possible and with my help, this very good script she wrote (she mischievously cracked her purse open to show it to me, like a contraband kitten).

I couldn’t believe someone could think that would be a possibility, but I also felt a connection to her: I would love if I could pull my talent out of a briefcase and just hand it to someone who could let the entire world know its worth. I wish I had the balls to have pitched Judd my spec script of “2 Funny 2 People,” my sequel in the “Funny People” Universe. But I didn’t.

The room is so quiet you can listen to the hum of the mic’s feedback. Everyone is looking at the back table, which is also surprisingly quiet. We’re all dying to know if the man is conscious, if his family and friends are ok, and if those paramedics are single (both of them ripped, hot humans. Very distracting). Judd just stands there, not used to being the person furthest away from attention.

As busy as he is Judd Apatow is a listener. His talent comes from an obsessive attention to what others are saying. When he was 14 years old he went to several comedians’ homes, including Jerry Seinfeld and Garry Shandling, in order to talk about comedy, and he’s been busy since. “He never stops,” his assistant Scott told me during one of his shows. He was glued to the monitor right outside the show room, briefly turning to me to respond to my questions. He’s expected to note how his latest jokes are doing, what could be done better, what didn’t work. He also needs to be ready in case Judd wanted to show the audience his slideshow, which includes a picture of him with Stormy Daniels (for six shows Scott was on hold, the slideshow was summoned once). “I’m expected to be available 24/7,” he tells me, and smiles. “It’s exhausting.” I can tell he works as hard as Judd does. I can tell he loves it too. He’s always on a great mood. He’s also on a break.

The hot paramedics confirm the man is conscious, and carry him outside on a stretcher. Judd thanks the audience for their patience. Is this the end of the show?  We all know the man and his family are OK. He takes a second to check the crowd. Measure the odds. “Good timing on him. The show was almost over anyway,” he says, and the silence bubble bursts in laughter. Apatow is back to work. Mike goes back to the booth. Scott glances back up to the monitor. Doors close, lights dim, glasses clink. And I just sit there, thinking about how this weekend has taught me the value of hard work. Maybe I’ll write about it, and finish a piece by tomorrow, November 5th. By next week, tops. For now I’m just waiting for Judd to hit his closer, so I can go back up and close the show, hopefully soon. I’m kind of jealous of that stretcher, to be perfectly honest. The pain in my back is killing me.

Mark’s Phone Wants to Break Up


Right after his phone broke up with him Mark recalled all the signs he had missed. He had felt it distant, lately, as if every notification came with a sigh, every calendar input with an extra turn of the little circle, every reaction to the ON button a little off. He had looked down for his magazine to check if it was time for bed, but all the phone had said was “It’s over between us.” And in his futile search for explanations he realized he should’ve seen it. He remembered that day when it had refused to be unlocked. Or the morning he woke up uncharged, completely disregarding its plugged battery. Oh he should’ve seen it.

Was there anything he could do to fix this? He acknowledged it. He had been distant. No surprise there. Roaming while camping, keeping it in his pocket while having dinner, reading a book in the bathroom -a fucking book! Always with the perfect excuse. Zero photos of the Steely Dan tribute concert: he had low battery. Zero emojis in a two-hour span: He was driving. He could’ve taken a couple snaps on airplane mode, he could’ve at least checked it for notifications during the boring stretches of the highway, but no, he chose to keep it in his back pocket like another cheap leather wallet. He was not going to blame this one on the manufacturer. It was not another LG 5S story. This one was on him.

“Please don’t do this to me…” he said, watching his own reflection on its dark screen. “I’m sorry!” Had he really changed that much since they first met at the Verizon store months ago? He was there looking for another LG, hell, even a Samsung, something casual he could use for a couple of months. He just wanted to have fun. But as he browsed, the clerk (his name was Dan, as he would learn later when they had returned weeks later to thank him again) pointed it out from the other corner of the store. “That one would be perfect for you.” The first thing Mark noticed was its cute silver-coated power button, curiously placed in its back, and not at the side like the ordinary 5S. He greeted it with a gentle swipe and with its first start screen animation he was taken. Oh it was so beautiful, with its perfect color display with popping reds and that graceful silver chrome finish at the bottom of the screen. He felt like a boy watching his prom date descending the stairs. The rest was a formality. Mark asked some follow-up questions, tried to keep casual when his heart was racing. He had it unpackaged and on in minutes. They didn’t even reach the car. Hell, they almost didn’t make it to the parking lot! He had thrown the packaging with the receipt in the ashtray, right outside the store, the ultimate promise of a serious commitment. They spent an hour just getting to know each other right there, in the parking lot of a Verizon store. Their first date.

Could he try to be that person again? He pleaded and cried, he tried to restart it, but it kept repeating and repeating the same black home screen with those words. No chance to argue. No chance to talk. At least tell me why, burn my pocket, give me the stuck-at-home-screen treatment, anything else but that horrible matrix-green Courier font bullshit of “It’s over between us.” Fuck you. Fuck! You! At least have the decency of lying to me. At least give me the “it’s not you it’s my operating system” shit. It would be at least something, a lie as a mantra he could have repeated to himself that night to try to get some sleep.

The darkness of his screenless night kept bringing back memories of their displays of intimacy. Like when he changed the PIN lock to a thumb recognition. The phone enjoyed that intensely, shaking mildly after the three seconds of contact, opening up its home screen like a flower, giving in to that same thumb now slowly exploring the pages of the apps menu, going back, fidgeting with its widgets until it would let him know with a gentle vibration exactly how far he could go. As the screen would gradually warm up he would slide down the notification panel, gently revealing its bare settings, and it would vigorously close its idle apps, and it would dim its brightness, and…

He didn’t sleep at all that night.

Early morning he got out of bed with a fake sense of hope and promised it he’d do anything. He started by asking his buddies in the customer support forum. At first he went into general discussion, easing back in, quoting the good old times. They greeted him kindly and posted fun memes. They knew he only came when there were problems in paradise, so their enthusiasm was a little hurtful. He described it carefully, quoted the words, noted the black screen, even gave them some intimate details of things they had done on their last day together. XxcrushbushxX asked for pictures, fucking creep.

“Have you tried a reset?” he had asked. Of course he had tried a reset. “I meant a hard reset”. Just like that, in italics. A hard reset, was he crazy? Erase what they had built these last eight months together? No. Replace the mother board?! No, he was not about to give it the digital equivalent of a lobotomy (also, it would cost like $280). None of them understood, they never did. He logged out without saying goodbye. He needed professional advice. The phone had no answers for him, and the forums didn’t either. But there was someone who may.

He called the place and set an appointment. They drove to the west side with the radio off, the phone on the passenger seat, its black screen weakened but persistent. He started crying. A few tears first, uncontrollable gasps of air shortly after. “Is this what you want?” he asked. “It’s over between us,” it insisted in a font as small as a whisper. He rolled slowly into the parking lot, trying to gain his composure, parking in the same spot. It had taken him a long time to get to Verizon. Had he prolonged the drive, taking extra turns knowing the chances were slim? Why was he been lost? Was it his sadness? His teary eyes? His lack of access to Google Maps? Probably the latter, but also the sadness.

Dan remembered them, and he was kind, and empathetic, and listened carefully. He listened to him first, and then took it to the back of the room, see what he could do. Mark stood by the door, with his back to all other phones, as if they were also somehow responsible for his pain. After several minutes Dan called him with a sad nod. He didn’t even need to hear it. Dan’s words came with the empathetic meaninglessness of a cancer doctor. “I’ve been trying to get a sense of its issue, and it seems clear to me that it’s best if you both move on.” He was right, and he knew it, and he just needed to hear it from him to realize it was over. Mark asked to see it one more time. “I just want to pick up my SIM and SD cards,” he said. Dan put it on the table and gave them a moment. The phone waited in silence while he carefully reached in and removed them. He held his battery in his hands, feeling its heat one last time. The phone was all dark now, no text. Just the resigned sadness of a mirror that reflects what could have been.

Mark knew what would happen next: they were going to reset it, clean it up, place it back on display. Someone would find it, and it would be good. As he exited the store he turned around one last time to see Dan starting the reset, the phone’s screen lighting up again, fading in his colorful light. He was thankful at their times together, and he smiled at the prospect of his phone’s future happiness.

He got on his car, wiped down his tears, and started the radio. Maybe he’d go home and take a bath. Call the boys, grab a beer. First he could take the long way back, eat at the Chinese place near the Apple store. “What is Apple up to?” he wondered. Maybe he would drop in to take a look. Maybe he could find something he could use for just a couple of months. Something casual, something fun.

Las sonrisas regaladas de mi vieja


Feliz cumpleaños Ampis!

Creo que te he dicho que mi primera memoria es abrir los ojos de una siesta en tus brazos, y verte sonriendo. Estamos en un barco, atravesando el océano Pacífico, viajando, parece, hacia el sol. Desde entonces me has regalado 30 años de sonrisas. Sonreíste con ternura en esa primera memoria, y mientras yo aprendía a crecer y me equivocaba tú sonreías con compasión. Sonreías con alivio cada vez que las sesiones de quimioterapia del Sebas terminaban, y sonreíste un sol entero después de la última. Sonreíste también años después cuando el Sebas te mostró entre las vísceras del Supermaxi un riñón y dijo: “Mami, me compras uno de estos?”


Sonreías al llegar a la casa después de un día largo de trabajo. Sonreíste también cuando la pubertad me convirtió en un signo de advertencia, y hasta en los momentos más preocupantes de mi juventud (un par con policía involucrada) sonreías después del castigo y la lección aprendida.

Con lágrimas en los ojos sonreíste también cuando me fui por primera vez, y le sonreíste a la gringita cuando le ayudaste en el hospital. Sonríes a la distancia y sonríes cada vez que nos abrazamos en las puertas de tantos aeropuertos. Entre llantos de felicidad sonríes cada primero de enero cuando después del cero la familia se abraza. Sonreíste cuando mi ñaña dijo “sí.” Sonreíste con la llegada de tus nietos, con el sueño cumplido de la casa perfecta. Sonríes cuando el tono de la llamada internacional se conecta. Cada vez que le llamas a la Lolita, cada llamada de mi ñaña, cada vez que le perdonas a mi papá por sus bellas ridiculeces (esas ridiculeces que tan a pesar de uno se heredan). Con cada sol, con cada día tibio, con cada café en la noche, con la luz del velador apagándose, sonrisas!

Te levantas todos los días lista para regalar sonrisas a quien se te cruce. Hacer sonreír a la gente es ahora tu profesión. En la distancia te imagino sonriendo a tus compañeros de clase, mientras estudias. Veo las sonrisas detrás de los documentos subrayados, de los cuadernos donde anotas las voces de tus pacientes, que poco a poco se van animando a sonreírte.

Gracias, vieja bella, por tanta sonrisa. No solo porque iluminan mis días y los días de tantos, sino porque son lecciones de vida. Con ellas nos has enseñado que la felicidad, la sonrisa propia, se mide por la cantidad de gente que sonríe a nuestro alrededor. Así viajo por la vida, Amparito, como en un barco atravesando un océano iluminado de sonrisas, tratando de asegurarme de que todos los pasajeros que me acompañan se bañen un poco de ese sol. Así que por tu cumpleaños quiero regalarte una sonrisa de vuelta, quiero que sepas que detrás de estas líneas estoy yo, a pesar de la distancia, pensando en ti. Te imagino leyendo estas líneas hoy, en tu cumpleaños. ¿Estás sonriendo? ¡Yo también! Ese es mi regalo de cumpleaños, la celebración de tu vida y la de nuestra hermosa familia: una sonrisa.