Category Archives: Essays

I’m in a magazine!

article_inset_hobbs_514No, like a magazine-magazine. People will be reading me during takeoff and landing and in dental offices for days, son

So I’m getting AIDS tested the other day in Berlin. I’m sitting in the waiting room and feeling like a Bad Gay, because I’ve lived here for three years and this is my first time getting tested. I’m surrounded by all these scared-straight brochures about HIV and AIDS in Germany. Prevalence rates, treatment options, prevention methods, names and addresses of support groups. “Since the start of the epidemic,” one of them says, “more than 27,000 people have died of AIDS in Germany.”

Wait, that sounds triumphantly low for a country of 80 million people. I pull out my phone and check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, which tells me that, in the United States, 636,000 people have died since the epidemic began. That’s 23 times higher than Germany, for a country with four times the population.

This makes no sense. Germany has big cities, it has gay men and sex workers and drug users, it has all the same temptations for them to be uncareful that the United States does. How could so many fewer people have died?

Maybe it’s a fluke. I visit the Public Health England website and it says 21,000 people have died of AIDS there in total. If the rates were the same as the United States, it would be 128,000.

The further down the Google-hole I go, the more mind-boggling the numbers get. Since the beginning of the epidemic, AIDS has claimed more people in New York City than in Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, and Switzerland combined.

The next day I start asking epidemiologists about this divergence. The first thing they tell me is that it is real, even accounting for differences in methodology. Scan the columns on the stats sheets—incidence, prevalence, deaths—and you find the United States with a two-digit lead going right back to the start of the epidemic. Still now, no matter how much we’ve learned about how to prevent and treat AIDS, the United States loses more than 15,000 people to it each year. Germany and the United Kingdom lose fewer than 800.

The second thing they tell me is why.

My editor at TNR was great—cool about the fact that I’ve never done this before, patient with my rank amateurishness and constant ‘you can’t cut that no please don’t!’ tantrums. I only know one way to write a sentence (Refer to self, item list. Refer to self, item list.), and he taught me at least like two new ones. The fact-checker was super nice, too. I got a lot of stuff wrong (C. Everett Koop is with a K?), and she had a way of pointing that out that didn’t make me feel like I was an idiot. Even though I sort of am. So thanks guys!

Before I even sent it to TNR, I got comments on it from friends and family. So Ian, Nathan, Lane, Alison, Mom, Dad: Thanks for being the people who told me that it wasn’t ready for the rest of the world yet.

And most importantly, I need to thank all of the epidemiologists and researchers and authors I talked to for the story. I interviewed about 18 people, some of them for more than an hour, and everyone was, without exception, patient and gracious and charming and fascinating, and I hope I’ve done justice to the great work they put into producing the information I’m stealing and paraphrasing.

I don’t do this for a living, so being published anywhere, anyhow, is really special for me. That someone would take the time to put something I wrote on actual pages, to ensure that I get my facts and my words right, to help and hope that I get better at this, it’s  just, wow.

I’ll be posting some outtakes and further thoughts on the process and the article in the next few days. But for now, I’m going to take like six minutes to just sit here and feel super lucky that I got to do this. Then I’m going to start working on the next one.

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My Parents Fled From Iran During the Revolution and All I Got Was This Stupid Slate Article

My folks!

I have an essay in Slate today about how my parents moved to Iran in 1978 to be Christian missionaries, then had to flee when the Revolution happened.

The bus to the airport took 30 minutes. As they passed a gas station, Dave saw a man being pulled from his car by soldiers and struck in the face with a rifle butt. The bus turned before he could see if it was a foreigner or an Iranian.

The airport terminal was closed, so they ran around the building, across the tarmac and onto the plane. They got on, sat down, looked at each other. Martin’s wife and four daughters were there, buckled in, but Martin had stayed behind. The flight would take them to Bahrain, drop them off, and then come back for another batch of employees.

The doors closed and the engines started up. The plane taxied, accelerated, took off. As soon as the wheels left the ground, the passengers erupted in cheers and applause. When the plane leveled off, the stewardesses opened champagne.

The date was January 3, 1979. Dave and Lynne had moved to Iran to be Christian missionaries, but it had become gradually, then suddenly, clear that they had chosen the wrong country, the wrong time, the wrong reason to be there. Soon, the country spiraling and shrinking below them would be an Islamic Republic, the Shah going into exile, the Ayatollah Khomeini coming out of it.

“Welcome on board.” Dave looked up to see a stewardess looking down. “So would you like to buy a ticket for this flight?”

Some stuff got cut from the story, so here’s some bonus anecdotes:

  • Lynne and Dave’s letters barely mention politics at all. They’re mostly focused on the cultural differences. Dave had never before had to ask a female patient to remove her chador to look at her teeth, and he was not used to having his patients’ male relatives observe their treatments. Lynne had never seen so much male-on-male hand-holding and cheek kissing (‘but there is apparently very little homosexuality’ she writes in one of her letters—ah, the ‘70s). They invited an Iranian couple over for dinner and the first thing they said was “What a nice apartment! … How much is your rent?”
  • Bit by bit, Lynne and Dave were cut off from the politics of the country where they lived. Letters from home went missing. The media, controlled by the government, was a reliable source of weather forecasts but little else. Even Lynne’s Farsi workbooks were mostly stories about the Shah, Iran’s bright future, the triumphs of 2,500-years of the Pahlavi dynasty.
  • Helen tells them about a German woman here, a housewife married to an Iranian. In November she was walking home from school with her children and found her house being ransacked by a mob. Somehow they had discovered that her landlords were Bahais. She drove to the compound, left her children with Helen and borrowed a chador. With the chador on, she went back to her own house to join the mob, to salvage whatever she could of her belongings. That night, she and her husband returned to the compound to stay a few nights until they found a new home. That was the last time Helen saw them.
  • One day last month Martin and Helen’s daughters left for school in the morning, got on the school bus the same as always. A few hours later, one of her daughters came home early and told Helen that the school was closed. Too many demonstrations, too much noise. Now the demonstrators were blocking the roads, and the school buses couldn’t get home. Helen had no way of getting ahold of her daughters, she could do nothing except wait. So she did, for hours, until they finally returned.

I want to thank my parents for spending so much time walking me through these episodes, and especially their friends Martin and Helen, who gave me a really vivid picture of their lives in Iran. It’s not always easy to have some random guy poking around in your past stripping it for anecdotes, and everyone I spoke to was patient with my questions and forgiving of my mistakes.

To get a better understanding of the political context and the experience of the Christian community in Iran before and during the Revolution, Martin and Helen recommended that I read Paul Hunt’s Inside Iran, and I did, and I recommend you do too!

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Filed under Essays, Personal, Serious

Zimbabwe: The Director’s Cut

I have an essay in The New Republic about my trip to Zimbabwe last year, and my weird obsession with how expensive everything was there.

One of the things they tell nonfiction writers is ‘employ holy shit details’, and in Zimbabwe there is almost no other kind. A lot of insane statistics ended up in the piece, but even more ended up on the cutting room floor. Here are some of them:

  • In 2003, Zimbabwe was out of foreign reserves to import paper and ink to print more money, and had to switch to ‘bearer checks’, thin pieces of paper in increasingly outlandish denominations. Banks limited withdrawals, and anti-riot police had to be dispatched to prevent bank run.
  • Fleeing the cratering economy, Zimbabweans almost singlehandedly raised retail sales in South Africa by 10 percent between 2006 and 2007. Emigrants in South Africa paid bus drivers 20 percent commission  to take envelopes of cash, sacks of groceries, back home.
  • In 2007 a government order required shops to reduce the prices on basic goods by 50 percent. Instead of stabilizing the economy, it simply reversed the direction of the arbitrage. People bought milk in Mutare for 33,000 Zimbabwe dollars, drove it across the border to Mozambique and sold it for the equivalent of 350,000 Zimbabwe dollars.
  • All this time, the government maintained an ‘official’ exchange rate that was orders of magnitude lower than the black market rate. If you wanted to do anything legally—import goods, change money at the banks—you had to use the government rates. ‘I know a guy who worked at a luxury car dealership,’ my friend Colin told me. ‘These generals would come in and say “I’ll buy this car” and he would have to give it to them for the official exchange rate. He was selling cars for $8, $9.’
  • Between 2006 and 2009, the government slashed 25  zeroes off the currency. I ask Zimbabweans the prices they last remember at the supermarket and they tell me that a loaf of bread was 22 billion dollars. Which doesn’t actually matter, because you had to be connected to secure one anyway.
  • Bank teller wages rose with inflation, and they were partly paid in fuel coupons.  They could also ‘burn money’—buy US dollars at the official exchange rate, then sell them at the black market rates. Bank employees were flying to Dubai, buying electronics and coming back to Zimbabwe to sell them on.
  • These days, Zimbabwean banks are the opposite of too big to fail, they’re too small to succeed. As of January 2013, the entire banking sector held just $3.8 billion  in assets, more than half of which were short-term deposits. While the banks are lending out more than they used to, the loans are riskier, since no one has quite figured out how to run a business profitably here. In March 2010, 2 percent of bank loans didn’t get paid back. By December 2012, it was 14 percent .
  •  A 2013 survey of 150 store owners in a suburb of Harare found that 47 percent of them were using their own savings to raise capital and 13 percent were using their relatives and friends. Only 3 percent were using the banking system.
  • What Zimbabwe has gone through in the last 14 years is maybe the greatest loss of productive capacity and personal wealth in modern history. Per capita GDP fell from $644 in 1990 to $376 in 2011. South Africa’s GDP was 17 times larger than Zimbabwe’s in 1996. It was 58 times larger in 2012.
  • Almost 70 percent of Zimbabwe’s government budget goes to government salaries alone.
  • In 2009 Zimbabwe still had the highest 15-24-year-old literacy rates in Africa, but the aftershocks of the crisis are set to drag that down. As of 2012, only 67 percent of kids finished school, and only 50 percent made it from primary to secondary school.
  • The Zimbabwe stock exchange fell 20 percent after Mugabe’s victory was announced , and some estimates say $800 million in investment has left the country since then.

If you want to get a more full view of what Zimbabwe went through during hyperinflation and the challenges it faces now, here’s some publications that give a fuller picture than I was able to, written by people who know more about economics, about Zimbabwe, than me.

  • Here’s the Consultancy Africa Intelligence report, written by Tapiwa Mhute, who I spoke to a few times, on the causes and consequences of Zimbabwe’s dollarization.
  • Here’s a terrific overview of the path to hyperinflation written, rather randomly, by a graduate student in Japan.
  • Here’s a pretty devastating World Bank report on the problems with Zimbabwe’s infrastructure.
  • Here’s the report on remittance strategies by families in one neighborhood in Harare.
  • Here’s an anthology of articles about the hyperinflation. ‘Negotiating the Zimbabwe–Mozambique Border’ is a complete fucking stunner
  • The debate about what ‘really’ saved the Zimbabwean economy is ongoing and, like everything else in Zimbabwe, is totally politicised. Here’s an overview of some of the arguments.
  • Here’s an African Development Bank report from 2009, telling Zimbabwe how to fix the crisis. Most of it’s boring technocratic stuff but, like most of these reports, the ‘context’ section gives a great overview of the challenges.
  • Here’s the same sort of thing from the IMF and from the World Bank four years later, in 2013. They’re basically giving the same overview I am, only with less Grindr.
  • Here’s a Cato Institute (I know, I know) report from 2013: Why Is One of the World’s Least-Free Economies Growing So Fast?
  • Here’s Tapiwa Chagonda’s fascinating survey of bank tellers and teachers during hyperinflation.
  • Here’s Beyond the Enclave, Godfrey Kanyenze’s searing account of the political factors behind hyperinflation and dollarization.
  • And here’s Vince Musewe’s angry, moving columns for The Zimbabwean, giving a more up to date picture of the conditions in Zimbabwe

I mostly worked on the piece in August and September, and I’m sure more reports and statistics have come out since then, so apologies if anything in the story is outdated.

I’m not a journalist, I’m a human rights guy. One thing I’ve realized over the last 18 months, as I’ve spent more and more of my weekday mornings and Sunday nights working on these little longforms, is how dependent journalists are on the generosity and patience of their sources. For this story, I basically cold-called a dozen or so Zimbabwean economists, told them I didn’t know anything about their country or their field and asked if they could, slowly and monosyllabically, walk me through everything they knew.

Amazingly, all of them obliged, and they were super patient with all of my follow ups and hang-on-explain-that-agains. Colin and Lovemore took a risk telling a foreigner about their economic tribulations the last five years, and trusted that I would represent them honestly and wouldn’t publish any details that identified them. Everyone I interviewed, I have nothing to offer them for their time and their trust except my sincere gratitude—and my crushing anxiety that I may have misunderstood or misrepresented them.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be good at this whole journalism thing, or feel like I have the right to be doing it. I tried really hard to fact-check this story, to avoid giving the impression that my experience was definitive. I arrived in Zimbabwe as an outsider, a tourist. No matter how many people I met, no matter how many reports I read or statistics I double-checked, I departed as one. There is a lot of complicated information out there about Zimbabwe, a lot of conflicting narratives. Mine is just one of them.

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Filed under Essays, Journalism, Personal, Serious, Work

What Happens When One of Your Coworkers Dies

Originally posted on The Billfold

 

The first thing that happens is someone tells you.

It’s Tuesday, it’s February, it’s my first day back at work after a week on vacation. I notice the candle in the foyer just as the whoosh of the door blows it out. They never did that for my birthday, I think as I walk past reception.

This is my job. It’s a publisher, we make coffee table books about movies, architecture, political issues that lend themselves to stock photography. Most of us think of ourselves as writers, though that is not really what we do anymore.

Dominic is the one who tells me. He and Naomi are here already, sitting at opposite desks, leaning in like they’re playing Battleship. Dominic bikes here from some distant suburb I’ve never heard of, then showers and changes into the same thing every day: pressed white shirt, pastel v-neck, khakis, loafers. I’ve never been here early enough to see what he’s wearing when he arrives.

“Hey there Mike,” he says. His Dutch accent sharpens the th’s into d’s. Hey der. He turns off his monitor and swivels toward me.

Naomi looks up, holding a mug dangling two teabag strings. She moved here three months ago from Australia, she still has that new-hire enthusiasm, the “let’s make great books!” gusto we’re all waiting to wear off.

“Well hello, Mike!” she says as I de-layer at my desk—hat, scarf, gloves—and turn my computer on.

She’s about to say something else, but Dominic gives a little traffic-cop hand wave and she stops.

“Mike don’t open your e-mails,” he says.

That’s when I notice that our office has a candle in it too.

“You need to know,” he says, trails off, starts again, “that Colin has passed away.”

“Colin in marketing?”

“Correct.”

Colin Schwartz. The guy at the back of the external-relations office, a sliver between two big iMac screens.

“Oh fuck,” I say. “How?”

Last Monday, Dominic says, Colin didn’t show up to work and didn’t call or e-mail to explain where he was. On Tuesday his boss told HR. On Thursday the office manager went to his apartment to see if he was home. No one answered her knock. She called the police. They forced open the door and found his body.

“Oh fuck,” I say again. “Was it like a heart attack or something?”

“Well, as you may know, Colin was depressed,” Dominic says. “He had some emotional problems. So it looks like…”

“Oh fuck,” I say. “Are you saying he killed himself?”

“Nothing’s clear right now.”

“They had a meeting yesterday and the MD told us,” Naomi says. “Everyone in marketing went home.”

I stare at my keyboard for a second, type in my password, open Outlook. There’s the official announcement from our president, the meeting cancellations, the invite from comms to record memories of Colin.

“OK Mike,” Dominic says, and swivels back to his desk.

“So, um,” Naomi says, “how was your vacation?”

The next thing that happens is we are terrible.

“I don’t want to say I saw it coming or anything, but it’s not exactly out of the blue,” says Bill, who runs our Twitter feed.

The roof of our building is the size of a soccer field, but we’re bunched together by the door, hoods up, facing away from the wind. Bill is the only one smoking out here, the rest of us are just listening.

“They were working him too hard,” says Will, one of the copy editors. “Marketing’s way understaffed.”

I barely knew Colin. He sat two offices down from me, but we never worked on anything together, never laid eyes on each other after 5 p.m. Our relationship consisted, in its entirety, of work-related small talk in the break room, his lunch rotating behind us in the microwave. Ding, stir, have a good rest of your day.

After Dominic told me, I spent an hour thinking things like, Was it something I did? Could I have reached out to him? Then I spent at least twice that long thinking, Of course not, asshole.

“I was on a conference call with Colin two weeks ago. He stopped talking in the middle of a sentence and just started breathing really loud,” Bill says.

I’ve been having conversations like this all over the building. It’s Wednesday, it’s right after lunch, it’s been two days since they announced Colin died. And this is how we’ve spent it: Bunched up in corners, whispering things to see if they are true.

Sarah from finance wonders if Colin’s death has anything to do with the department restructuring. Mark in HR heard Colin didn’t take a vacation for the last two years. Tina from photos heard Colin moved here to study at the London School of Economics, but dropped out.

None of these people knew Colin any better than I did. We’re just magnifying what we know, zooming in on the crumbs as if it will reveal where they lead.

“You know they changed his job title without consulting him.” Bill says, and the rest of us nod solemnly.

I wish I could say I was the grown-up here, the one who pointed out that none of us really knew Colin, that his death was none of our business, that we should all get back to work. But I wasn’t.

“He was gay,” I say. I only found this out yesterday, when Dominic mentioned Colin’s boyfriend had been notified. “Do you think that has anything to do with it?”

“The weird thing is, Colin never struck me as the unhappiest person here,” says Jessica, the receptionist. “I would have put Colin way down the list. Like, look at Chris in Online. That guy puts in earbuds when he walks to the bathroom.”

“I saw Lucy talking to the external relations director yesterday,” Will says. “I think she’s applying for his job.”

“Oh shit I hope it’s not her,” Bill says. “Remember that presentation she gave at the annual meeting last year?” I smirk along with everyone else. Bill lights another cigarette, giving us all permission to stay out here at least five more minutes.

The next thing that happens is we mourn.

It’s Thursday, it’s 10 a.m., it’s our weekly staff meeting. Colin’s picture is projected on the wall. The senior management team is sitting in suits at the big conference table, each with their own box of tissues.

I’m leaning against the wall. There’s only room in here for about 50 chairs, most of us are standing. Naomi is in sitting down next to me, she’s already crying.

The managing director starts talking, the only voice in the room. He tells us how this is going to work. For the last two days, comms has been recording employees talking about Colin, how they want to remember him. Today we’re going to watch the video.

“The speculation has to stop,” he says. “Colin died of natural causes.”

He nods over to the comms director, who hits play. The video begins with Colin’s work—excerpts of promos he made, books he launched, conference presentations he gave—then the rest is testimonials from his colleagues. They’re edited together in reverse hierarchical order.

Interns, then assistants, then peers, describe working with Colin. The time they bumped into him at the printer, the time his soup exploded in the microwave, the time they sat together on a bus from the airport to a conference, each with their headphones on.

Story after story, they’re all like this, proximity aspiring to intimacy, and it’s clear that no one here knew him, not the people in his department, not his managers, not the people he had lunch with and traveled with. They talk about his cluttered desk, his e-mail forwards, his cocktails at the Christmas party. They try to pull a person out of the time he spent here and they can’t.

“I always said hi to Colin when I passed him in the hall,” says someone on the video.

Naomi stops crying. She makes a little sound like she’s surprised, like she’s discovered the exact borders of her compassion. She takes a shallow breath, puts her purse on her lap, starts looking through it for tissues.

Colin’s boss is on vacation this week. He recorded a message by webcam. He’s lying on his side on a hotel bed. He talks about the clarity of Colin’s press releases as palm trees shudder in the wind behind him.

“I wish I had gotten to know him better,” he says. “He seemed nice.”

That comment, those three words, and I jerk my head away from the screen. I look out the window and there is a huge piece of bird shit on the windowsill. People on the screen keep talking, managers and directors now, but their memories of him are all the same hellos and bump-intos and chit-chats, and I realize this is it, this is what he left behind, his lunch and his e-mails and the clever thing he wrote on his boss’s birthday card. I close my eyes and the video goes on and on and then I open them and everyone around me is crying.

The last clip is the MD, chest heaving. He’s telling the camera, us, how Colin prepped him for his first TV interview.

“Don’t gesture so much,” Colin told him, “Gesturing looks awkward on TV. Emphasize with your words, not your hands.”

The MD did his interview, a whole hour, with his hands in his lap, as instructed. And afterwards he asked Colin, “how did I do?” and Colin said “You were like a statue up there! Why didn’t you use your hands?!”

And we all laugh, and the camera stays pointed at the MD, and his smile fades, his eyes go wet, he lets out a sob and the camera turns off and the screen shows Colin’s picture again.

The next thing that happens is it makes us close.

After the staff meeting, we shut the door to our office and Naomi asks me if I knew anyone else who died. I tell her about my godmother who got brain cancer when I was 12.

“Did you know her well?” she asks.

“In whatever way kids know adults, I guess. We spent a lot of time together when I was little. I mostly remember her mac and cheese.”

Then I ask Naomi and she tells me about the principal of her Catholic school who died in a car accident when she was seven. It was her first funeral, and she raised his hand in the middle of the eulogy to ask a question. As she’s telling it she lets herself smile a little, and I realize I never knew she went to Catholic school.

It’s like this the rest of the week. Maybe it’s because the MD asked us to stop speculating, or maybe everyone else saw the video like I did, felt the same urgency to populate this place, but we stop talking about Colin and we start talking about us.

On the roof, Bill tells me that his parents died when he was 22. He had just finished his first triathlon, and was so tired he fell asleep on the note his roommate had left on his bed. He woke up, pulled it out from under the covers and read it, still in his little running shorts.

In the break room, Jessica is hanging up a picture of Colin. She tells me that when she was 10 years old she accidentally took a big handful of children’s Tylenol because it was flavored and she thought it was candy.

“For years, my parents thought it was a suicide attempt,” she says, yanking out a strip of scotch tape.

On Friday Dominic and I walk to the train station together and he tells me about the cat he buried in his backyard when he was seven.

“I dug him up two years ago,’ he says, “and he was just a box of bones.’ He makes two fists, huge in his mittens, to show me his size.

The next thing that happens is it’s all over.

Monday morning, in the corridor past reception, I walk past marketing and hear someone say. “Did you see Jessica crying at the staff meeting? She barely even knew him.”

Dominic is already here, and I wonder if his khakis, his pianist posture, are the things I would say about him if he died.

“Did Naomi send the invite last week for the meeting with research?” he says.

“I don’t think so,” I say. “With everything happening last week, she must have forgotten.”

“Well if people are going to be here,” he says, “they might as well be working.”

It’s not that we forget, it’s just that we’re done remembering together. As the memorial fades from memory, as the tasks pile up and dwindle, as we all settle back into our boxes on the org chart, our dead colleague becomes just another thing we think about but don’t say.

The last time we talk about Colin at work is in a budget meeting. It’s March, it’s six weeks since Colin died, it’s me and Dominic in a conference room with Marketing, getting an overview of our spending before the quarterly board meeting.

“What’s this 40,000 that appeared in the budget in February?” Dominic asks.

“That’s Colin,” says Bill. Dead people don’t get salaries, so Colin’s appears as a surplus.

“OK,” Dominic says. “And why has this travel spending figure been adjusted?”

And that’s it, we just move through the rest of the budget. I think about looking up, making eye contact across the table, sharing an acknowledgement of the moment that just passed. Instead, I just keep my eyes on the Excel sheet, keep following the numbers with my pencil.

The last thing that happens is Naomi quits.

“I’m going back to my old job in Adelaide,” she says. It’s April, it’s Friday, it’s two months since Colin died. We’re sitting on the stoop of a church near work, holding paper coffee cups with two hands, watching rain drip from the awning.

“Why?” I ask.

“Do you remember Colin?” she says.

I tell her I barely knew him.

“Neither did I,” she says. “But do you remember the week after he died?”

We talk about the memorial, everyone crying, how we were with each other afterwards, how we’re not anymore.

“I keep making these pledges to get to know people here,” she says, “and then in the very next second I know that I’m not going to, that it’s too hard. At least back in Australia I have family waiting for me at the end of the day.”

I feel like we should hug now but we don’t. I stand up, take the empty coffee cup out of Naomi’s hand, throw it in the trash.

It’s later, it’s after Naomi left, it’s me and Dominic in the break room, his lunch rotating in the microwave. He’s looking at the picture of Colin posted on the wall.

“It’s too close to the microwave,” he says. “The steam is going to make it come down.”

As if agreeing, the microwave dings.

“Here,” he says.

He leans in, grabs it from the wall, moves it higher, sticks it back to the wall. “That’s better.”

He grabs his soup from the microwave, stirs it.

“OK Mike,” he says. “Have a good rest of your day.”

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Filed under Essays, London, Personal, Work

Why Is Zambia So Poor?

IMG_1678 - Version 3

I have a piece in Pacific Standard Magazine (well, the website, not like the magazine-magazine) about my trip to Zambia:

Like Tolstoy’s unhappy family, every poor country is poor in its own way, and everyone I meet has a narrative, a creation myth, for how it got this way and why it remains so.

I will spend the next 10 days meeting NGO activists, government officials, and business representatives. They will tell me that Zambia is terrible, that Zambia is fine, and that Zambia is getting better, respectively.

I’m not here to determine which of those statements is true. I’m here for the numbers, the information I can’t get back home. Somewhere between the handshakes, the spreadsheets, the PowerPoints, the annual reports, a story will emerge about Zambia, a story of a country watching its mineral wealth disappear, a country making everyone rich but itself.

I can tell we’re getting close to Kitwe because the number of people crossing the highway increases. The highway has no streetlights, the only light is from the cars, and about halfway there we start to see silhouettes of people in twos and threes running across the road. Our driver never slows down, even as the groups increase to six, seven people, crossing our headlights, stopping in the road to let a car whiz by, running again. I could ask him to slow down, but instead I just look.

There are people there who know a lot more about Zambia’s poverty than I do. If you’re interested in making a donation to any of the organisations I profile in the essay, get in touch and I’ll give you their info.

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Letting Stress Win: A Commencement Speech

IMG_0645

Originally posted at The Billfold 

The best advice and the worst advice I’ve ever gotten were three words long.

The best advice was ‘avoid the treadmill’. It was 2003. I was coming to the end of a master’s degree in a subject (political philosophy) and a city (London) I was ready to leave. I was 22 years old.

Rebecca was the advisor at the community college student newspaper where I worked between and after classes three years earlier, and we had—pre-Facebook!—stayed in touch through undergrad and now grad school.  She was visiting London and invited me to dinner.

I had two months left until I completed my master’s and my visa expired. I had no idea what I was going to do, or even what I wanted to. There was the prudent thing, moving back to the States, getting a job, starting a career, buying a house, leasing a Camry, nothing wrong with that.

There was also, however, something I had come across two weeks earlier while drinking wine and Googling Nordic underwear models: Universities in Scandinavia are free.

I told Rebecca all this (minus the Googling), and that I had found a program in Aarhus, Denmark—a master’s degree that as soon as I said it out loud I realized sounded even vaguer and more destitution-promoting than the master’s I already had.

‘European studies!’ I said.

Rebecca asked if I had ever been to Denmark, and what was my logic for considering this an option. I admitted I had none, it just sounded cool and I wanted to try it.

‘So I have to decide,’ I said. ‘Prudent, or Denmark.’

‘Mike,’ she said. ‘This is an easy one: Avoid the treadmill.’

I knew what she meant, but I asked her to elaborate anyway.

‘You have a whole life of working ahead of you. Going home is easy. Getting a job is easy. Going to, whatever country this is, Denmark, making an impulsive decision and living with it for two whole years, that’s hard. This is what your twenties are for. As you get older, the hard stuff only gets harder.’

‘And the easy stuff gets easier?’ I said.

‘No,’ she said. ‘That gets harder too.’

The way stress works is, when you’re presented with a threat, your body produces adrenaline, a kind of internal crystal meth, that gives you the energy to escape or fight or defend yourself or pull an all-nighter or whatever you need to do to neutralize the threat. While the adrenaline is pumping, other functions—sleep, appetite, afternoon horniness—shut down while your body gives you enough energy to deal with the crisis at hand.

This makes sense, right? If you’re living in an environment where every once in awhile you need to run away from a lion, chase a gazelle, defend your village from the next tribe over, you need a system that takes precedence over everything else. You can’t be stalking a mammoth and suddenly be overcome with the urge to pee.

The problem, of course, is that stress isn’t something that only gets activated by extreme, once-a-month stressors. It’s something you activate yourself, something that reacts not to the objective threat level but to what you perceive as a threat.

These days, we don’t get hunted by lions all that often, but we do get hunted by bosses, partners, deadlines, bills, kids, early closing hours, late public transport, insomnia, status, proliferating Netflix queues. Since our bodies can’t differentiate between a lion and an overdue car payment, adrenaline becomes a kind of routine. We coast on it 9-to-5, deadline to deadline, and squeeze the tube even more over the weekend to get us through the neighborhood barbecue, the water park outing with the kids, the difficult conversation with the wife.

Like everything else that’s good for you once a month, adrenaline when you use it every day is a kind of poison. They do autopsies on people who were constantly stressed out and their pituitary gland is the size of a turkey baster. Constantly suppressing your immune system, ignoring your appetite, boosting your heart rate, these things are like fast-forwarding the aging process. People who are constantly stressed out are more likely to get cancer and strokes. Stressed out kids end up shorter as adults. When you turn off everything but your emergency generator, the normal stuff rusts and brittles.

Robert Sapolsky, the guy who I’m basically stealing all these insights from, studies stress in baboons in the wild. He says he can tell the difference between short-lifespan baboons and long-lifespan baboons by one thing: How do they act when they see a lion 200 feet away?

Short-lifespan baboons, the ones that that use adrenaline the way we use drip coffee, see the lion in the distance and immediately activate their stress response. A lion! Shit! What am I going to do?!

The un-stressed baboons—the ones eating fresh berries and complaining about the morals of the next generation of baboons into their twilight years—they see the same lion and go ‘meh, he’s 200 feet away. He’s yawning, grooming, he doesn’t seem all that interested in me’ and they stay calm. No adrenaline, no panic. They keep an eye on the lion—they’re baboons, they’re not stupid—but they don’t get all adrenaliney until there’s a genuine threat.

We all know that refrigerator-magnet phrase, ‘Give me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,’ or however it goes. For me, it’s never been the courage that’s hard, it’s the serenity.

In 2004, I applied to the master’s program in Denmark. I filled out the application, photocopied my old diplomas, wrote my admissions essay, mailed them off. Two months later, a letter came saying I was accepted. And then I started freaking out.

I don’t speak Danish. I don’t know anyone in the whole country. Where am I going to live? What am I going to do for living expenses? All of a sudden, the treadmill started looking pretty good.

It was five months since my conversation with Rebecca, and three months since my U.K. visa expired and I had moved back home to Seattle. I was working (OK, temping) at Microsoft as a copy editor, and living with my parents.

Steve was my boss at Microsoft. Former journalist, weekend kickball player, suburban dad, never missed a day of work or a misspelled word or a subordinate’s birthday. Totally a long-lifespan baboon.

And he gave me the worst advice I’ve ever gotten: ‘Trust your gut.’

He said it after I went into his office and told him everything I just told you: I was accepted to this program in Denmark and I had no criteria by which to judge whether this was a good idea.

‘You don’t need criteria for these sorts of decisions,’ he said. ‘It’s all about doing what feels right.’

It may not have been obvious to Steve, but I am firmly the first baboon. I see a lion—an unpaid bill, an unread e-mail, an uncalled acquaintance—not even 200 feet away, a mile away, on the horizon, barely visible to the naked eye, and my adrenaline spikes. The year I was living in London, I couldn’t get to sleep one night because I suddenly remembered I had forgotten to book a flight home for Christmas. It was May.

Like every American, I heard this stock advice—’Trust your gut’, ‘Be true to yourself’, ‘follow your instincts’—all the time growing up, variations on the same Hollywood catechism, the pledge of allegiance to individuality we get installed on first bootup.

And the thing is, this advice isn’t necessarily bullshit. There are probably people out there whose instincts are all kindness and extroversion, whispering directives of generosity and serenity into their ear. Some people, I imagine, search their innermost desires and find the charm of a CEO, the selflessness of a Mormon.

I search mine and find the pessimism of an amputee, the selfishness of a viking. I am constantly at war with my instincts, trying to project-manage away the anxiety, the me-firstism, the adrenaline they send me. Trusting my gut, really doing what I felt, would mean curling up into a ball until all my obligations—jobs, friends, family, personal hygiene—gave up and disappeared.

For Steve, trusting his gut would have meant doing the right thing. For me, it would have meant doing nothing at all.

After my meeting with Steve, I came home and I made a list: Stuff to Sort Out Before You Move To Denmark. Spend one hour every morning before work studying Danish. Post concerns on university message boards. Find potential friends in Aarhus on social media (OK, gay personals sites), talk to them on IM. Find out what ‘European studies’ means.

It was work, but it worked. Six months later, I moved to Demark and started my program. Two years later, I graduated and got a job in Copenhagen. Four years after that, I moved to Berlin. Two years after that, I’m still here.

And yes, I’m still anxious. I still have to remind myself that my gut is cruel and manipulative, and should not be trusted with any decisions that affect us both. But just as amazingly, I still feel like I’m avoiding the treadmill. I work at an NGO that sends me to weird conferences and exotic countries. Back home, I rent, I bike, and don’t own anything I need to insure.

Moving to Denmark is the best thing I ever did. Not because I loved everything about it, or because it made me a less anxious person, or because I assimilated into it like a mermaid to a fairy tale. I didn’t.

It’s the best thing I ever did because for me, it was more awesome than staying in my hometown, moving commas around for a living, commuting in that Camry.

And that’s it, that’s my own three-word advice: Do awesome stuff.

Maybe it’s not moving to Europe, maybe it’s learning to play the piano, speaking Esperanto, writing a novel, becoming a professional wrestler, who cares. Find things you will someday want to brag about, things that would impress you if someone else did them, and do them.

If you’re like me, the furrowed-brow baboon worrying about his pension in his early 20s, find out what your awesome is and make a plan for doing it. Rules, lists, indicators, push notifications, whatever helps you pull rank on the lies your gut tells you.

If you’re not like me, if you’re the baboon polishing an apple and smoking a cigarette while the lion in the distance walks steadily you-ward, ignore me. I have no idea how your brain works. Just stop telling the rest of us to listen to ours.

Maybe I’m supposed to say that it’s really about being able to tell how far away the lion is, shrinking your pituitary gland through meditation or Pilates or multivitamins or whatever. But nothing I’ve done has made me any less anxious, no achievement has led me to that serenity I read on the bumper stickers. With stress inevitable, anxiety unavoidable and awesomeness finite, all I can do is work on tapping the one I might be running out of.

And if I’m in the middle of doing so and someone tells me to be myself, trust my gut, follow my heart, I have a built-in answer: ‘I can do better than that.’

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Filed under America, Berlin, Denmark, Essays, Personal

An Open Letter to the Girl I Pretended To Have a Crush On in Eighth Grade

Dear Tracy Dolan,

Every gay teenager has a different strategy for surviving adolescence. Some join the choir, some write or paint, some play sports, some try to make themselves invisible. And some, like me, make themselves as visible as possible.

You were the first girl I pretended to have a crush on so no one would know I was gay. I didn’t intend for it to happen, for it to be you, for it to be so easy. But it did, and it was.

I want to tell you how it happened. In another world we could have been friends. In this one, you’re the girl who told me, on the last day of school, to go fuck myself. And I’m the guy that deserved it.

She had red cheeks, a cheerleader’s skirt and a big triangle smile. Her arms and legs were spread out like she was making a letter in the air, though she wasn’t moving. She had three spindly fingers on each hand, no toes, no shoes and a weak, crooked neck.

‘What are you drawing?’ Trevor Schmidt said from behind me. I had my notebook open to the inside cover. I had given her a sun-blonde ponytail, and was drawing wavy yellow lines around it.

We were sitting in staggered rows, in those cagelike middle school desks. Trevor often made comments like this, what are you writing, what page are you on, etc., because this arrangement gave him a perfect diagonal view of my desk and because he was an asshole.

We were three years into middle school, two months into our eighth grade year, and 30 seconds until Mr. Farina started his lecture.

‘Huh? Nothing,’ I said. My forearm wasn’t big enough to cover up the entire sketch, so I moved it over her skirt.

Trevor leaned forward over his desk to get a better look. His hair, long and parted down the middle like the boys on ‘Home Improvement’, hung in his face. This was Seattle in 1995, so he was probably wearing a flannel shirt, maybe a No Fear T-shirt underneath, and saggy Kris Kross jeans.

But I had never really noticed what Trevor wore. Mostly what I noticed about him was that sometimes, when standing, he would lift his shirt a little and rub the tuft of hair just above his belt buckle. I found this utterly captivating, and for nearly two years told myself I was jealous of his flat, soccer-toned stomach. Between seventh and eighth grade, I realized that I was jealous of the hand rubbing it.

‘Is that Tracy Dolan?’ he said, craning. I remember a silver cross dangling from his neck, but I may have edited that into this memory, to give him some external totem of the bully he was inside. Two years earlier, he tripped me—actually fucking tripped me!—as I was running to class. I got a bloody nose and became a school-wide comedy event for the rest of the week. I never forgot that, and I’m certain he did instantly.

‘It’s just a doodle,’ I lied. I had spent hours on it, cross-legged, colored pencils in a pile next to me. Not that I was good at drawing, or even enjoyed it, but hunching over your notebook is a trick introverts have passed down through the generations for disappearing when you’re supposed to be socializing.

Mr. Farina held up his spread left hand and started counting the fingers down, his way of telling us he was about to start talking.

‘Why are you drawing Tracy Dolan on your notebook?’ Trevor said.

Who the hell, I thought as Mr. Farina started talking, is Tracy Dolan?

You were from Montana, that much I knew, and you had the blondest hair I had ever seen. You wore it the same every day, long bangs and a ponytail, and from the back it practically threw off sparks.

I don’t actually remember meeting you, sorry about that. As boys had slowly, then suddenly, rearranged themselves under the stage lights of my attention, girls had receded into the backdrop. You were just there one day, and it only occurred to me later that you hadn’t been before.

At the time I only knew your hair and your smile. Well, not the smile really, more its limits. You never smiled to be polite, or to be liked, or because you didn’t know what to say. You smiled when you meant it, and stopped immediately when you didn’t.

But the most amazing thing about you wasn’t your hair or your smile. It was your twin brother Mark, who was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life.

I noticed him for the first time in history, on the first day of class. The teacher had arranged the desks in a U, facing inward. ‘It’s a Socratic seminar’, she told us as she Sharpied her name on the overhead. I had taken a seat at the front.

At the back, in the bend of the U, was your brother, who I had never seen before. He was as blonde as you, but skinnier, more restless. He reminded me of the poplars we had in our backyard, which lost their leaves in November and rattled in the wind until March. Every time I looked at him he was moving: bouncing his leg, spinning his pencil, flicking his eyes between ceiling tiles. Later I would learn that this this was a symptom of being a born athlete, one of those people who instantly, effortlessly masters every sport they’ve ever tried.

He was sitting as far from the front of the class as possible. This meant that staring at him—which I wanted to do for the entire class period, followed by the rest of my life—meant I had to face away from the teacher.

‘The 20th century,’ Ms. Dalton was telling 29 faces and the back of my head, ‘has seen a growing recognition of freedom and liberty all over the … Yes?’

He had his hand up.

‘What’s your name?’ Ms. Dalton asked.

‘Mark,’ he said. It’s perfect! I thought meaninglessly. ‘What do you mean “liberty”?’

‘That’s an interesting question, Mark,’ Ms. Dalton said. She had written ‘Miss D’ on the overhead. We called her ‘Misty’ all semester, and were seldom corrected. ‘What does it mean to you?’

Mark looked confused. ‘No,’ he said, bouncing his pencil eraser on his desk like a drumroll. ‘Like, what does the actual word mean?’

‘Oh,’ Ms. Dalton said, visibly deflating as a philosophical question was rendered a logistical one. ‘It means freedom, basically.’

‘Thanks!’ Mark said.

‘Yeah, it’s a technical term meaning “fucking retard”,’ my friend Tom murmured next to me.

‘Shhh, he seems nice!’ I said, lost somewhere in that trembling sparkle of blond hair.

I could have taken the sketch off my notebook, but I didn’t. A week later in Mr. Farina’s class, I deliberately left it open to the cover page, and was slightly disappointed that Trevor, tired or possibly hung over under a baseball cap, failed to notice it.

I had known I was gay for at least a year. There were signs before middle school—I’m standing contraposto in every family photo from 1988 onwards—but I didn’t admit it to myself until I read Jean M. Auel’s ‘Plain of Passage’ in the summer between sixth and seventh grade.

I started reading Auel’s ‘Clan of the Cave Bear’ series when I was 11, and still not ready to admit the blatant fact of my homosexuality. Yes, I had been transfixed by the German men’s swim team in the 1992 Olympics. Yes, I had asked for a Barbie Dream House for Christmas for the last three years—and had locked myself in the bathroom a la Diana Ross upon not receiving it.

But these were just quirks, I told myself. Hadn’t I also purchased the (mostly female) Marvel Comics swimsuit edition? Hadn’t I traced the swimsuited bodies of Jean Grey and Psylocke with a pencil and put them on my wall? No gay kid would do that.

Jondalar first appears in the second book of the ‘Clan of the Cave Bear’ series. He is Early Man, loincloth and everything, and he takes the heroine, Ayla, as his mate.

‘Plains of Passage’ is book three. I had started it when I was 12. I remember lying on my stomach, reading a scene in which Jondalar cuts wood for the evening fire. His ropy arms lifting the axe, his hips putting power into his swing, the sweat dripping from his brow.

Why do I have a boner? I thought.

And then, in that actual instant, I knew I was gay. I don’t know why that did it, but it did. Whenever I recall it, I hear an actual ding! In the room, like the microwave telling me my Hot Pocket is ready. Ding! You’re gay!

… Now what?

In the week since Trevor noticed the sketch, I had discovered that you and I had two classes together.

‘Tracy Dolan?’ Tom said. ‘She’s the girl who always has her hand up in the back of Mr. Fisher’s class.’

‘Oh her?’ I said.

‘She’s from Montana. Her brother is that halfwit Mark kid in Misty’s class.’

Jondalar! I tried not to noticeably react.

‘Who? … Oh right, the twitchy dude.’ With hair like the sun, was how I wanted to finish the sentence, but I stopped.

‘They’re twins,’ Tom said.

Being openly gay at Nathan Eckstein Middle School in 1995 was not an option. The closest thing we ever had to a homosexual was Gaylord Crestbotham, and he wasn’t even gay, just unfortunately named. He tried to go by William, his middle name, when he came to Eckstein in sixth grade, but barely a month went by before someone saw his real name on a permission slip and started telling everyone.

They bullied him so severe he snapped one day in the lunch line. Someone cut in front of him with a shove and a ‘move, faggot’, and he took his tennis racquet out of his gym bag, wailed on the guy for a few minutes and got expelled.

I had seen this from my lunch table, eating by myself. A month later I asked Ms. Stone, the only teacher I had seen in the lunchroom that day, if she knew what had happened to him. ‘What, to Gaylord?’ she said.

‘William,’ I said. ‘Did he go to a private school or something?’

‘There’s no private school where it’s OK to assault someone for no reason,’ she said.

I was going to need a survival strategy.

‘So what’s the deal with you and Mark Dolan?’ Tom asked me as we played Super Mario World at my house.

It was two Fridays since the sketch incident and, like every Friday, Tom was staying over.

Also like every Friday, we had bought $20 worth of weed from my brother (representing a street value of about $3.50), smoked it out of an apple in my garage and settled 18 inches in front of the TV in my basement until sunrise.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.

In the two months since the first day of school, Mark had gone from ‘new kid’ to ‘cool kid’ in record time, and my increasingly elaborate attempts to bump into him were thwarted by a growing throng of admirers.

‘You’re always talking to him after class,’ Tom said. ‘And you keep inviting him to stuff, and he never comes. Why are you so obsessed with him?’

Tom was my only friend. I had spent 6th grade bullied (long hair, sweatpants, headgear), 7th grade invisible (introvert, straight A’s, Steven King novels at lunch) and 8th grade, so far, with Tom.

I met him through our neighborhood soccer team over the summer, and when school started in the fall, I suddenly had a companion for period breaks, lunches and bus rides home. Tom was the difference between staring at my shoes when I walked to class and seeing where I was going.

‘Mark just moved here, I just thought he might want to make some friends,’ I said.

‘New friends? Dude, he’s at Sarah Tanaka’s party in Laurelhurst right now,’ Tom said.

We were taking turns on Super Mario World, and I looked at Tom as he played. He had bony hands and a kind of clench in his face, concentrating on the screen. After we saw ‘Desperado’, he had decided to grow his hair long like Antonio Banderas, but he was only about halfway there.

Nine years later, when I told Tom I was gay and had kept this from him for nearly a decade, he didn’t say anything, he just gave me a hug. He’s still the only straight guy who ever did that.

But then was not now. Then was 1995, and we were 14, and our school was a great big battleship ferrying 1,400 souls to maturity, a journey our principal would later tell us, in our miniature graduation gowns, was ‘the hardest three years of your life.’ Hugs, understanding, save that shit for after the storm. Right now, you need to keep from capsizing.

‘So what’s the deal, dude?’ Tom asked, looking at me now.

‘I’m really into his sister,’ I said.

It was the Monday after Thanksgiving. Ms. Hughes, our math teacher, stood at the front of the class and read out our seating assignments. The class huddled by the door.

‘Table 3,’ she was saying. ‘Frank Robbins and Diane Gregg.’

A week after my conversation with Tom, a girl in biology class saw me looking out the window. ‘Are you looking for Tracy Dolan out there?’ she giggled. The rest of her table leaned in for backstory. Tom had told people, and people had told people.

It was working. I tried to look mortified.

A week after that, Trevor Schmidt slapped my shoulder from behind. ‘I fucking knew it!’

I pretended not to know what he was talking about, knowing that each ‘nuh uh!’ just kindled more accusations.

‘I’m with you, dude,’ Trevor said. ‘You don’t see her because she’s all quiet and shit. But get her out from under all that polarfleece, and she’s got a body like Sharon Stone.’

I had never been more proud of myself. I decided to notice you so no one would notice me, and now I was not only assumed straight, but assumed worthy of conversation. I just had to keep broadcasting straightness loud enough to drown out the gay humming underneath.

Despite having two classes together, I had still barely met you. Ms. Hughes’s class was divided into fifteen tables, each with two students. She had already changed the seating arrangement twice. We couldn’t tell if this was a deliberate strategy on her part—obedience through churn—or if she just couldn’t decide how she’d like us arranged. Each time, you and I had ended up at different ends of the class.

‘Table six,’ she was saying as we waited near the door, ‘Michael Hobbes and Tracy Dolan.’

The class, as one, made a kind of awwwww sound, like the studio audience on ‘Full House’.

Fuck. I looked down at the floor.

‘Quiet!’ Ms. Hughes said as we walked to our desk. Even she probably knew about my fake crush on you by then.

We sat down. Ms. Hughes was assigning the rest of the desks. My cheeks were as red as yours were in the sketches I had made of you. I kept my notebook closed and my hand on top of it.

‘You’re Mike, right?’ you said.
‘Yeah,’ I said. I’m a monster.
‘You’re a TA for jazz band, right?’
‘…’
‘Were you at the concert at Roosevelt last week? It was amazing,’ you said.

I looked at you and you were holding out a pack of M&Ms. Was it possible no one had told you?

‘Want some?’
‘Sure, thanks’. I took one.
‘Are you from here?’
‘Yeah, born and raised.’
‘I’m from Montana, we don’t have M&Ms there.’
‘Really?’
‘No, idiot.’ You smiled, and I smiled back.

‘So,’ Mark Dolan said. ‘What are we doing tomorrow?’

It was spring outside, not that we could tell from Mark’s basement. He was holding a ping-pong paddle, swaying back and forth, looking at me, the room, the table, his shoes, the table again. Sometimes between points he balanced the paddle on this finger like a sword. Other times he rubbed his stomach and I could see a little of it. After long rallies, he lifted it to wipe his brow. We played ping-pong a lot.

Pretending to like girls—specific girls—specific girls I had classes with—had been more successful than I had expected. From who’s that guy? I had risen in rank to the guy who has a crush on Tracy Dolan and onward to the guy who has a crush on everyone. 

Talking about girls, it turns out, is a great way to make friends with guys. It’s an opening line, a time-killer, a narrative, a joke factory. Like all great conversation topics, it’s a way of talking about yourself while pretending not to. I started watching mafia movies on weekends for research.

‘Damn, Sara Kreshki looks good cleaned up’ I would tell Tom Monday morning.

‘Her and Teresa Singer are at the top of my list,’ Trevor Schmidt would say as Farina counted down. ‘The filling-out list.’

As the drawings on my notebook went from stick figure to realistic, from Dr. Seuss to Maxim, I found myself with less time alone between classes to draw them.

‘One more game,’ I told Mark.

The social epicenter of Nathan Eckstein Middle School was the foyer just inside the main entrance. During classes, silent, it was a blank crescent of tiles with curved stairways on each side, lit by Seattle’s meager daylight.

Before and after school, though, it was a ballroom, heaving with the din of students forming and unforming in clusters, backpacks in piles, snippets of music playing from unseen speakers.

Before the sketch, before you, I moved through the foyer mornings and afternoons like a virus without a host, following the wall, reaching for the exit. I arrived in an empty classroom, opened my textbook, wrote my name and the date at the top of a sheet of paper, put down my pencil and waited for class to begin. Why did we need 30 minutes between the buses arriving and classes starting?

Time goes by faster as a participant than a spectator, and since the sketch, since you, 30 minutes wasn’t enough. Now my walk to class zigzagged, clustered and unclustered, paused to test and tweak observations I had rehearsed.

Suddenly, one day Mark was there. I was telling Trevor and two other guys about ‘The Last Seduction’, which I had seen over the weekend and had decided would provide me with conversation material through at least Wednesday.

‘That sounds awesome,’ Mark said.

‘I was gonna see it again this weekend,’ I said. ‘We should go.’

I meant me and Mark, but Trevor thought I meant us. ‘Yeah we should,’ he said.

Over the next three months, my school persona began to colonize my evenings and weekends. The clusters that formed in the foyer now formed over coffee, strip-mall teriyaki, Saturday matinees, Sunday capture-the-flag.

‘I live pretty close,’ Mark said after school one day in March. ‘We should go to my house.’

All winter I had watched Mark, looking for any sign that he carried a secret like mine. I watched him listen, I watched him talk, I watched him watch me and watch others. So far my four-month investigation had turned up no evidence whatsoever.

But now he was inviting me over. Just me! You had joined jazz band, so you weren’t home, and your parents worked til at least six.

I made my face appear to deliberate. ‘What, today?’ I said.

‘Yeah, let’s go,’ Mark said.

Like Ayla gathering her stone tools into her oxskin tunic, I shoved my textbooks into my backpack, slammed my locker and set out with Mark down the hill from Eckstein, across 35th St. and up the hill to his house.

That was March, now it was May, and Mark and I did this two or three times a week, sometimes with Trevor, sometimes with other clustermates. Once I brought Tom, who went through the afternoon like a tourist participating in a bizarre indigenous ceremony.

Every afternoon, the routine was the same as the first time. We walked up the hill to Mark’s house and let ourselves in the back door. I turned on MTV and threw the remote on the couch, then stood across the kitchen island as Mark got food out of the cupboards.

My parents had allergies and read health magazines, so Mark’s house was the only place I was allowed to eat frozen pizza. Mark took them out of the box and put them onto little silver trays for the microwave. While they rotated, he took out the blender, a quart of ice cream, a gallon of milk and whichever bottle in his parents’ liquor cabinet was fullest.

Like Ayla and Jondalar, we took whatever we could forage. Some days it was strawberry ice cream and Kahlua, others cookie dough and scotch. They were all equally terrible, but to us, they tasted like adulthood, rebellion. We drank them out of martini glasses.

Then, feeling full and disinfected, we drifted downstairs to play ping-pong until Mark’s parents came home, when I left, breathing downwards.

On that day in May, we had found a zip-lock bag of Oreos and three-quarters of a bottle of champagne in the fridge. Mark aimed the cork at me and popped it, but the bottle must have been at least a week old, and the cork fell flaccidly to the floor.

‘Don’t worry, Mark, it happens to everyone,’ I said, a premature-ejaculation joke I had heard on a sitcom that neither Mark nor I understood. He smiled anyway, poured half the bottle of champagne and the Oreos into the blender. He scraped a huge chunk of mocha chip, your favorite, on top.

I had daydreamed that on one of these tipsy afternoons Mark would make the milkshake a little too strong, look at me over the ping-pong table, lean forward a little.

‘Mike?’ he would say.

‘Mark,’ I would reply, putting down my paddle, knowing where this was going.

‘Do you ever feel… different?’ His eyes would be moist now, pleading.

I wouldn’t say anything, just walk to the other side of the table and embrace him. He would tell me everything, the desires inside him he couldn’t control, how he had tied them up, chained them down, vaulted them in, how they were too strong, he couldn’t control them anymore. In my arms he would finally be still.

Today was the nineteenth or twentieth time this hadn’t happened, and I was beginning to lose hope. As far as I could tell, the only desires animating Mark were winning at ping-pong, shouting Chris Farley quotes at me from across the table and speculating about which girls liked him.

‘What are we doing tomorrow?’ I asked.

‘Lara Farquhar is going to some high school kegger,’ Mark said. Lara rode my bus, and Mark had been bugging me to talk to her about him. I was, not surprisingly, reluctant to do so.

‘She has tits like the balloons over the Datsun dealership on Aurora,’ I said, timing the joke right as I hit the ball to his backhand. He laughed and hit the ball too hard, and it ricocheted off the ceiling.

‘That’s game, bitch,’ I said, glad for the opportunity to end this conversation before it began. I put the paddle down. ‘Your folks are gonna be home in like five minutes ago’—a joke I had stolen from MadTV—‘I’d better bounce.’

‘You gotta admit, she’s hot, man,’ he said as we walked up the concrete steps. He ducked to avoid the low ceiling. I didn’t have to.

‘You haven’t seen her on the bus, dude,’ I said. ‘When she sits at the back it takes two of the Vietnamese kids just to hold her tits down.’ Jesus Christ, this was me in action.

As we rounded the corner at the top of the stairs, I could see that the TV had been switched to CNN. You were sitting on the couch, eating the rest of the Oreos, the bag on your lap.

It had been eight months since I came out as a crush-on-you haver. Mark must have known, but he never asked me about it and I never said anything. Sometimes I dreamed that his lack of interest was premeditated, deliberate. He wasn’t like me, sure, but maybe he knew my secret, could hear the hum of what I was underneath the megaphone of what I wanted to be. ‘He understands me,’ I told myself, ‘we’re connected.’

Either that or he just didn’t want to hear one of his buddies talk about nailing his sister.

From the living room, you looked over toward the noise. Your eyes didn’t meet mine, didn’t even see me. I was used to this.

‘Oh, hey Tracy!’ Your brother said from behind me.

‘Did you and this asshole eat all the mocha chip?’ you said.

We sat together from Thanksgiving until winter break. We shared homework and M&Ms, the two highest grades in the class right next to each other. We were both the kind of good at math that didn’t have to work very hard. Hughes told us the concept, we got it, we filled in the worksheets. Neither of us understood why the other students had so many questions, or why it took a whole period to explain imaginary numbers or negative square roots. We were done with our worksheets by the time everyone else started.

Sometimes you read your novel under the table as everyone else worked, Tom Clancy or Dean Koontz, a different one each week. You wanted to be a doctor, and you were already ranking medical schools on their proximity to mountains so you could keep skiing on weekends. For undergrad you would go to an all-girls school, you had decided, probably Vassar.

‘How come?’ I asked.
‘I want to work,’ you said. ‘Not deal with boy-nonsense all day.’
‘Good thing there’s no such thing as girl-nonsense,’ I said.
You smiled. ‘Whatever, just because you think everyone should go to public school.’

One period later, in Mr. Farina’s class, I told Trevor, ‘You know what Tracy told me today dude?’
‘What?’ he said, not looking up.
‘She’s trying to go to an all-girls school.’
‘For high school?’ His head was up now, I could see his eyes under his baseball hat.
‘Yeah, high school,’ I lied. Clarification on the particulars would only be a distraction. ‘She said she liked the way the uniforms fit.’
‘She did not say that,’ Trevor said.
‘Yes she did, she just told me in Hughes’s class,’ I said.
‘She is a slut, guy,’ Trevor said.

And that was how it was. You and I killed time in Ms. Hughes’s class with books and music, hobbies and plans for the future. Then, between second and third period, I retroactively trolled our conversations for material I could refine and distort, bulletins for my new friends. I even told them we went to see ‘While You Were Sleeping’ together.

‘She asked me to go, I was powerless to resist.’ Telling lies was as easy as math worksheets, just learn the rule, find the blanks and fill them in.

And then it was over. The first day back from winter break, huddled by the door in Ms. Hughes’s class again, I wished you a happy new year.

‘OK,’ you said, cold as Yellowstone, and moved to the other side of the huddle.

She knows.

I was assigned to sit with Ben Neill, one of my morning and afternoon clustermates.

‘Not next to Tracy anymore, huh?’ he asked. ‘I bet that would hurt if you weren’t such a homo.’

‘You’re just saying that because your mom likes it from the back,’ I said reflexively. Someone told her, I thought, But who, and how much?

That was January. Before your brother invited me over, before I made up crushes on Nicole Grant and Gina Lasky, before a late-spring faux fixation on Laura Gilchrist was, mortifyingly, reciprocated and I had to fake mono to get out of it.

The day after we saw you in your living room, I asked your brother why you hated me so much.

‘She thinks you’re a pervert,’ Mark said, balancing the ping-pong paddle on his finger. ‘Everyone kind of thinks that.’

At the time, appallingly, I considered this a triumph. Perverts are not gaylords. I was safe.

‘What did I ever do to her though?’ I asked.

‘Apparently you said you wanted her to wrap her thighs around you like a python. Because she has big thighs from skiing, I guess? I don’t really get it.’

Had I said that? Shit, it sounded like me.

‘Who told her?’

‘Trevor,’ he said. ‘He thinks it’s hilarious how she won’t talk to you anymore.’

This should not have surprised me. Trevor had revealed himself to be as much of a bully as a friend than as an enemy. Two years ago he had tormented me to impress eighth graders, and now he tormented sixth graders to impress me.

Once, in the cafeteria, Trevor pulled down Alec Pentieff’s pants while he was carrying his lunch tray, and he had to shuffle 20 feet with his pants at his ankles before he could pull them up again. I made a show of laughing—Christ, did we high-five?—but I felt sick to my stomach the rest of the day.

Everywhere I looked, the consequences of my survival strategy were piling up. After I canceled our smoke-and-Super Mario Fridays three times in a row, Tom stopped assuming them, and now we walked past each other like strangers. Girls I had liked—actually liked, like, as people—stopped talking to me because I had publicly appreciated their breasts, their asses or, in one case, their ‘haunches’. Alec Pentioff, who rode my bus and whose parents knew mine from church, never looked at me again.

Every time, it came as a surprise. Don’t you know this isn’t really me? I wanted to shout. Just because I’m doing this doesn’t mean I’m the kind of person who does.

I wish I could tell you, ‘I learned my lesson, the very next day I came out of the closet, I never lied again.’ But I didn’t. I kept it up this façade all through high school.

When I finally came out, on the night of high school graduation, in the Denny’s on Lake City Way, my friends told me ‘I never would have guessed’ and I received it as a compliment. Only later did I realize that there’s no such thing as hiding who you are, there’s only becoming someone else.

I remember you because you were the fork in the road. I could have sat next to you, just sat, just listened and spoken, just kept our conversations in that little rectangle where they began. I could have thrown away that sketch.

But I didn’t. The last time I saw you was the final day of eighth grade, an afternoon so bright it steamed the rain on the pavement. We ran into each other between the cluster of portables and the school building. I was heading in, you were coming out.

‘Hey Tracy,’ I said. You nodded and kept walking.

‘Hey,’ I said again. ‘Tracy? Hey, Tracy!’

‘What, Mike?’ You stopped. ‘What is it?’

It was the first time I had seen you without an audience since December. Even then, I wanted to tell you that I was sorry, that it wasn’t me who said that about you but someone else, someone mean.

I wanted to tell you that you had beaten me on Ms. Hughes’s final by one point and I was proud of you. That your brother turned out to be a nice guy, maybe even a friend. That the University of Colorado has a great medical school. That every time I saw you hunched over your notebook during breaks, I wanted to come over to see what you were writing. That I had read two Tom Clancy books this year and they both sucked.

I could have said something decent, kind, something to make you remember who I was and forget what I’d become, could have asked you what you were doing this summer, if you were reading anything good lately.

But I didn’t. Instead, what I said was, ‘You look great in those shorts’.

Your brother and I were friends until junior year of high school, when we simultaneously decided to stop calling each other. I had discovered other boys, girls had discovered him, our nows replaced our thens.

Last month, he added me on Facebook. He sells high-end SUVs at a dealership in Kansas City. In nearly all of his pictures he’s somewhere sunny, and smiling. His girlfriend appears in at least three-quarters of them, one arm around him, smiling just as wide. And in some of them there’s you.

That’s how I found out that you went to Swarthmore, that you live in New York City, that you’re a veterinarian with a daughter and a husband and a Subaru Outback and a Netflix subscription. You’re grown up, lived in, but it’s definitely you. Your daughter has a ponytail, blonde as the sun.

On that afternoon on the last day of school, you turned away from me and walked across the concrete. You didn’t even look back, you just said, almost to yourself, ‘go fuck yourself’ as I stood there at the door.

I didn’t realize it then, and I wouldn’t for a long time, but I already had.

Hope you’re still smiling, and hope you still mean it,

Mike

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Filed under America, Essays, Gay, Personal

Homies: What Happened to Everyone I Went to Middle School With?

‘It’s your fault,’ Tim says.
‘Ha! … What?’ I say.
‘The weed. You made me smoke weed, that’s how it all started.’
I’m smiling too hard. ‘OK, but if that’s the logic, then it’s really my brother’s fault, because he got me smoking weed.’
‘That’ll work,’ Tim says.

I’m in Bangkok on an extended stopover on the way from Denmark to Sydney. I booked the tickets six months ago and just found out Tim lives here last week. I’ve been sleeping on his couch for three days.

Tim Park and I were friends for the last year of middle school and the first two years of high school. Most of the time we spent together was in groups, competing for the title of The Funny One.

I haven’t seen Tim for nearly five years, and not regularly for ten. I remember him as low-maintenance, outgoing, engaged, and I’m pleased to discover he still is.

He even talks like he used to. Though he’s ethnically Korean and culturally American, he’s linguistically Ebonic, and he speaks with the gold-mouthed drawl of a rapper.

Tim on Bangkok: ‘It’s hella garbagey and shit, guy.’
Tim on work: ‘Shit, my boss be workin’ us like chattel.’
Tim on Las Vegas: ‘You knew them shits was legit when the Italians gave it to Celine Dion and a bunch of magicians.’

With anyone else, it would seem like shtick, but with Tim you get the feeling that his inner monologue sounds like this too.

Tim left Seattle after college. Being fluent in Korean and English made it easy to find a job in Seoul. After two years he got headhunted by a European consumer-products company and installed in their Asian headquarters in Bangkok. He lives in a right-angled, wood-trimmed condo in a tower block, and sells high-end auto parts to retailers all over Asia. He had to get extra pages for his passport because of all the business travel.

In the years since we stopped hanging out, I haven’t actually thought about Tim that much. Though we spent a significant amount of time together in eighth and ninth grade, we didn’t go to the same high school, and we’ve ended up in non-intersecting social orbits. He moved to Asia, I moved to Europe. He spent college partying in fraternity houses, I spent it gradually coming out of the closet. He talks about his high school experience like it’s D-Day. I talk about mine like it’s Stalingrad.

Tim helped me stay awake through my jetlag after I landed in Bangkok. Even without an audience, we joust rather than converse, and over banana pratas we debated Thailand vs. Denmark, noodles vs. pastries, Asian girls vs. European boys. By the time we finish our tea, most of my sentences end with ‘bro’ and my adjectives have been replaced with swear words. Talking like this, describing my life in teenager voice, makes it feel like I’m talking about the future.

For the next two days, I wandered around Bangkok during the day and met Tim when he got off work. Tonight we drank beer at a cocktail bar on top of a hotel tower.

‘Let’s get some cigars,’ Tim said.
‘Aren’t we leaving?’
‘To go, son,’ he said.

Tim’s condo has a sort of courtyard with a kiddie-pool and a half-submerged jungle gym. We’re sitting on the side, dangling our feet. It’s still 85 degrees, though it’s been dark for hours. Tim lights the cigars. I figure this is as good a time as any.

‘Hey Tim: What happened to Adrian?’

Adrian Maeda was a squat, round-faced classmate of Tim’s. Every time I try to picture him, I think of the kid from ‘Up’. He used to walk with his legs far apart, and the last time I saw him I stood there with my hand out as he sort of swayed toward me. I remember that he was both a small-time drug dealer and a genuinely nice guy.

I knew Adrian had died, but only in the ‘I heard’ sense. I wasn’t in contact with anyone who was close to him, and I didn’t know anything about the circumstances. Tim was a pallbearer at Adrian’s funeral.

‘Overdose,’ Tim says.

Adrian grew up in Medina, one of the richest neighborhoods in Seattle. His father was some sort of businessman, and Tim tells me that years where he earned less than $1 million were considered weak (‘You know how them Japanese is’). Adrian started selling pot in high school, just small amounts, just to other kids at Grant.

Tim keeps talking. Adrian was pure business. He used to wait outside of pawn shops for junkies coming in to sell DVDs. ‘Whatever they’re paying you, I’ll pay more,’ Adrian told them, and by the time he was in college he had a whole supply chain of dudes sprinting out of Target with shopping carts full of movies, calling Adrian for a few bucks a pop. Adrian sold them on to friends and acquaintances at a markup, but still below retail.

‘That motherfucker had everything,’ Tim says. ‘No, everything. He for real had stacks of like, The Golden Girls Collection in his basement.’

The dealing evolved from weed to cocaine to prescription drugs. Tim saw packages of OxyContin and Vicodin at Adrian’s place ‘straight out the ambulance, bro’. Adrian’s father apparently knew that his son was dealing, but told him simply ‘be careful’ and didn’t ask specifics.

As I’m taking this all in, I keep asking how Adrian managed to keep increasing the selection and amounts of drugs he sold (‘diversify’, if you want to get businessey about it) without getting caught or even coming close. He apparently had a few handguns, but they were just for show. He hated guns, and wouldn’t even shoot them at the firing range. He did a brief stint in jail, but that was for getting pulled over with weed in his car. Bad luck more than a close call. Adrian, who according to Tim was earning $20,000-$30,000 per month, was completely under the radar.

I brace myself for the beginning of where I know this story is going to end. For Adrian, it’s the day he discovered OxyContin. ‘Never get high on your own supply’ is a drug-dealer rule so widely known that even I know about it, but Adrian had been sampling his retail selection of marijuana since he had first started dealing at 15. No biggie. OxyContin, however, was something totally different.

I have to ask Tim what OxyContin even is. I’ve heard of it, I guess, but in the same way you hear about ketamine or crystal meth. The local news, or a coworker, or maybe Oprah tells you about the powder pillaging some arid elsewhere and you go ‘damn I’m glad I don’t know anybody who’s into whatever the fuck that is.’

Turns out OxyContin is an opium derivative. It has roughly the same effects as heroin—on your body, and on your social life.

‘You start taking it only on the weekends,’ Tim says. ‘And pretty soon you’re thinking “Yeah, Thursday’s part of the weekend…”’

‘So Adrian was a using a lot?’ I ask.
‘We all were,’ Tim says.

I’m a little surprised by the ‘we’. In spite of Tim’s verbal swagger, I’ve never seen him show any aptitude for actual, real-world mischief. When we were 14, he was always the first one to back out whenever we devised an egging or toilet-papering campaign. The light banditry we were involved in at that age—shoplifting, minor vandalism—were always spectator sports for Tim, something we told him about afterward.

‘So the thing you said about the weekend…’
‘That’s me talkin’, yeah.’ Tim says.

He and Adrian, often accompanied by a supporting cast of Grant alumni and University of Washington students, started taking OxyContin every weekend. My head fills with visions of strippers, joyrides, trips to Vegas.

‘Naw dude, it wasn’t like that. All we ever did was watch TV at Adrian’s place,’ Tim says. He describes the least decadent bender imaginable: A group of fratboys in a basement, awake for 48 hours, eating pizza and watching entire seasons of ‘The Sopranos’.

‘That sounds fucking gay,bro,’ I say.
‘The weird thing is, that was the year I finally started to get good grades,’ he says. ‘I could work all week, thinking I wanted to get all the stress done before the weekend.’

Tim finished his senior year with a 3.8 GPA, but he could see the expanding-weekend problem beginning to appear. Adrian, too, was using more and dealing (i.e. earning money) less.

‘That’s why I moved to Seoul,’ Tim says.

Every time Tim visited from Seoul, Adrian was worse. He started using cocaine, then crack. On a visit for Christmas, Tim found Adrian half his former size.

‘He was kind of a scrawny fucker. I never realized how short he was before that, because he was so wide. But when I saw him, I was tipping him over, like “You on Atkins, guy?”’

Two months later, back in Korea, Tim got a call from Adrian’s dad, telling him the family was staging an intervention—‘like on TV and shit’. Tim dialed in from Seoul, telling Adrian from a speakerphone on the living room table that he had to quit it all, everything. Adrian went to rehab and got clean.

A lot of addicts apparently die from overdoses not in the midst of their addiction but after a recovery. The problem is a mismatch between your mind and your body. Your mind remembers how much you needed to get a buzz, but your body doesn’t have the tolerance anymore. It’s like a runner, after 10 years on the couch, getting up and trying to run a marathon.

That’s what happened to Adrian. Two weeks after he came back from rehab, Adrian’s father found his body in the basement.

‘Adrian was realizing that everyone he knew went to college and he didn’t. He was at home, at his parents’ house, being a fucking drug dealer. He was like, I can’t do anything,’ Tim says. ‘The only thing he was good at was selling dope and running schemes and shit.’

‘You think that triggered the relapse?’ I ask.
‘Fuck if I know.’

I ask Tim if he blames anyone. I’m sitting here, knee-deep in a kiddie pool in Bangkok, trying to find some systemic explanation, some loose bolt in the system that should be tightened. Did the rehab institution fail Adrian? Did the education system? Law enforcement? My mind is looking for an ‘if only’ that will turn Adrian, and this whole stupid, routine story, into an example of something larger. If only he was given a job once he was clean. If only he had been prescribed methadone. If only he had been given support to leave Seattle.

‘Ain’t nobody’s fault, man,’ Tim says. ‘It’s just Adrian.’

One of the main reasons Tim and I stopped hanging out was the culture clash between his friends and mine. Grant was nominally public, but was situated in a six-figure neighborhood of detached homes with yards out front and those little sprinklers that pop up out of the ground to keep them green. From up north, we regarded it as prep school, training ground for the future defenders of the status quo, and we mocked them for taking the whole jock-cheerleader thing seriously.

My high school, Lincoln, was like the store-brand version of Grant. We had cliques too, but with more overlaps and lighter penalties for failing to line up single-file underneath a social category. It was segregated by class, like all American high schools, but it wasn’t rare to see a football player doing a Friday-night kegstand with a radio nerd and a pink-haired goth holding his legs.

Tim keeps naming mutual acquaintances, and they keep having the same dire fates. There’s Pete Stanton, who in seventh grade had a mustache and was the biggest 13-year-old on the planet. When he was a sophomore at Grant, Pete stabbed a homeless guy under a bridge in a Seattle park, and is serving a life sentence.

‘I guess he said in court that the homeless guy owed him money,’ Tim says. ‘Even at 15, we were like, damn, this fool needs to rethink his business plan.’

Then there’s Chaewon. I don’t know his last name and I don’t even know if that’s the right way to spell his first name. He had a face that looked like he was being hung from the ceiling by his hair, and he was always smiling a gummy smile, even when he was slamming his chest up against yours or calling you a faggot. He was always surrounded by five or six other kids our age who looked so similar to each other they can only be called henchmen.

Chaewon’s in jail now too. After they both went to Grant, he and Tim were actually pretty good friends for awhile there, and I suspect Tim’s thug-life method acting comes at least partly from his prolonged exposure to Chaewon.

When I ask why Chaewon’s in jail now, Tim says, as if it’s obvious, ‘He was a gangster. Like, an actual gangster.’

I swear I remember him wearing only blue, but I can’t remember if that was real or just me projecting white-boy stereotypes onto someone who terrified the shit out of me.

‘Let me repeat myself: He was in a fucking gang,’ Tim says. ‘They used to rob houses at lunchtime. He was coming to fourth period with, like, pearl necklaces around his wrist, talkin’ bout “sorry I’m late, I had to run an errand.”’

Tim was there when Chaewon went to a party with a crescent wrench at the end of a twisted plastic bag and started hitting people over some high school beef. Tim was there the time cops showed up at Chaewon’s condo and found a duffel bag full of weed under the coffee table. They took Tim and another Grant student into the hallway and told them ‘You don’t belong here. Get your asses back to college.’

Tim was Chaewon’s only friend who ever met his mom. ‘I think he was tired of all that gangster shit sometimes,’ Tim says. ‘He said he couldn’t let other fools meet his moms because he never knew what might go down later.’

I don’t even know what that means, but I gasp knowingly.

Chaewon’s doing ‘like seven years or some shit’ somewhere in Washington state. Possession with intent, Tim thinks. ‘We’re not exactly in touch anymore, dude. Chaewon’s not the kind of guy to be like updating his Facebook, all checking in from prison and shit. Feed my fish!’

As grotesque as it is to say, Adrian, Peter and Chaewon were predictable. We’ve all been told a million times that drugs and gangs lead to death and prison. Theirs are the fates I would have predicted for them as the judgmental 14-year-old I was when I first met them. I’m not expecting, however, this tour through the ruins of our middle school graduating class to suddenly involve Daniel Browning.

‘Oh shit, you didn’t hear about Daniel?’ Tim says.

We hung out with Daniel Browning off and on during the three years me and Tim were friends. Daniel was kind of a social orphan. He was too freckled and shy to fit in with the cool kids, but he didn’t have the offbeat interests or book smarts to make it as one of the nerds. That, somehow, left him with us. I remember him as a shy, polite guy who mostly wanted to play ‘Tekken 3’ and be left alone until adulthood.

Daniel’s currently living in a halfway house in Seattle. He derailed late and hard. He was fine through high school: a little weed, a little drinking, nothing serious. He went to college at the University of Idaho and majored in business. He looked for work in Chicago but couldn’t make anything stick. He moved back to Seattle and ended up parking cars. And, eventually, taking OxyContin.

‘Dude, this was fucking after Adrian died. I have no idea how that shit happened,’ Tim says.

Here’s where it gets predictable. Daniel gets hooked and spends months locked in his room at his parents’ house. He doesn’t have Adrian’s money (or hookups, and therefore discounts), and pretty soon he maxes out his credit cards buying PlayStations and selling them on Craigslist for cash. Intervention, rehab, halfway house.

Of all of Tim’s friends, Daniel was probably the most similar to me. We were both classified as awkward not because we were actually antisocial but because we didn’t hang on any particular rung of the high school social ladder.

‘Jesus Christ, if Daniel hadn’t gone to Grant, he might not have gotten into all that shit,’ I say. I’m doing it again, searching these stories for some sort of theme that’s going to make them all about the same thing.

‘That’s bullshit,’ Tim says. ‘Daniel, Adrian, they didn’t get fucked up because they went to some preppy high school. It’s the drugs, man, it all started with weed. And you’re the one that got us doing that shit.’

Tim’s right. I smoked him out in my basement when we were 13 years old. We loaded my brother’s asthma inhaler with tin foil, then weed, then smoked, then played ‘Street Fighter II’ until we fell asleep. I was playing the expert—‘Naw guy, you gotta poke smaller holes in the foil’—but it was only my second time smoking. One week earlier, my brother had given me a green pea-sized nugget of weed in exchange for doing his paper route.

Tim and I smoked weed regularly through our eighth grade year and, yes, smoked out Daniel Browning for the first time. For me, the novelty wore off quickly. I spent that year almost catatonically depressed, and realized as I started high school that the depression and the weed had started at the same time. I quit, the clouds lifted, I never smoked again.

Tim smoked a few times a week for another ten years. He taught Adrian how to smoke like I taught him. He only quit when he started using OxyContin: ‘Weed just didn’t occur to me anymore.’

‘So it’s the weed?’ I ask.

‘Weed fucking is a gateway drug,’ Tim says.

Tim’s full of shit, obviously. If I hadn’t smoked him out in my basement on that particular Saturday, it would have been someone else smoking him out, in another basement, on another Saturday.

As I’m about to say this, I realize that my own explanation is just as full of shit. There was no dark magic in the halls of Grant that made its students take drugs or stab homeless people or wait outside Target for junkies and their DVDs. Like Tim, I’m just trying to explain the unexplainable by telling myself something I already know.

‘I’m sorry,’ I say. ‘About Adrian, I mean.’

‘It’s all good,’ Tim says.

My cigar is a nub, and my fingers are getting burnt. We get up from the table almost in unison.

‘Hey, did I ever tell you about Mikhael?’ Tim says.

‘Who?’ I say.

‘Russian exchange student at Grant, I don’t think you ever met him. Anyway, he got yelled at one day by our teacher—total flamer, no offense—in front of the whole class for getting an answer wrong. The next day, he steals a Buick from one of the houses next to the football field, drives it into the faculty parking lot and rams the teacher’s car. He didn’t even run away. He straight up got out of the car, closed the door all gentle and went to his next class. I saw the whole thing with Adrian and he goes, “That’s hella how they solve problems in Russia.”’

Tim holds the door open for me as we walk into the building. I’m laughing so hard it fills up the lobby.

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Filed under America, Essays, Personal

How to Become a Gay Prostitute in Denmark

Originally posted at The Billfold

Henrik was in debt.

Not crushing or ruinous or inescapable debt, the kind that makes you ignore letters in your mailbox and private incomings on your mobile. Just irritating debt. In June he had taken a five-week trip to New York, where he had spent money like a 33-year-old gay man who hadn’t bought new clothes in two years—which he was. He left his home in Copenhagen with one suitcase and came back with two.

‘I needed an auxiliary,’ he told his friends, ‘just for the shoes.’

A month before the trip, he had remodelled his kitchen. This decision was about as prudent as a suitcase full of shoes, but whatever. At least he could finally cook properly.

Six weeks after returning from New York, he took a look at his spreadsheets. He has one for his band rehearsals, one for his freelance piano-playing gigs, one for his internet hook-ups, one for his photo collection. Those are just the ones he’s told me about.

He fills each spreadsheet not only with quantitative whats and wheres, but expository whys and hows. That’s how he can tell you not only the time and location of a wedding he played in 2004, but that he played ‘The Greatest Love of All’, got paid 1,500 kroner ($260) and cycled home in the rain.

On the night when he first began his transition from IT administrator to freelance prostitute, Henrik opened the Excel file called ‘personal economy’. He had taken out a loan of 50,000 kroner ($8,500) to pay for the kitchen remodel, and had overdrafted his credit cards in New York. He was paying them off, but not fast enough. He was still 40,000 kroner ($7,000) in debt.

Ordinarily this wouldn’t have been a big deal. Henrik had lived through self-imposed lean times before, scheduling extra wedding gigs, quitting alcohol, spending weekends in sweatpants and Blockbuster. But this time he couldn’t inch his way back into solvency. He was going to be a father in six months.

He and his ex-wife had been trying to have a baby for two years. The divorce had been literally as amicable as humanly possible, and they still slept over at each other’s apartments once or twice a month. They had divorced when they were both 25 and now, eight years later, she was a partnered lesbian and he was a single gay man.

‘What, did you guys just look at each other one day, say “let’s have a baby” and high-five?’ I asked him when he told me they were pregnant.

‘Basically,’ he said.

Henrik didn’t want to be in debt when the baby was born. ‘The way I figured it, I had six months to get into the black,’ he says.

Prostitution only occurred to him after he pursued other options. Bartending, nightclub work, baristing, these are not only poorly paid, but require regular shifts, which his day job wouldn’t accommodate. He looked into freelance work—translations, proofreading, various musical transcription stuff I don’t really understand—but those come from contacts and networking, something he didn’t have time for.

‘I needed work that was part-time, well paid, required little preparation and no professional skills,’ he says. ‘What else is there?’

Over the next six months, Henrik earned more than $4,000 having sex with men for money. He reported all of this to the tax authorities, and even deducted expenses for things like his SIM card and classified ads. In total he had 32 clients, some of whom now, between daycare pickups and vaccine appointments, he still meets, fucks and charges.

Because Henrik is Henrik, he entered every transaction into an Excel spreadsheet. Even before that, when he first started to seriously consider prostitution, he sat down and wrote a to-do list. The following is what he wrote, and what he did.

 

1. Call Tax Authorities

The first thing on Henrik’s list was to make sure he wasn’t breaking the law.

Denmark has a complicated relationship with taxes. According to the OECD, it is the world’s 4th most taxed country. The top tax rate, which applies to whatever you earn above 389,900 kroner ($70,000), is 56.1 percent. The word for taxes (‘skat’) is also the word for ‘honey,’ as in ‘honey, I’m a socialist.’

In Denmark, you can call up the tax authorities, tell them your problem and they’ll give you on-the-spot advice to help you solve it. The concept of paying a private company to do your taxes is as foreign to Danes as students getting a salary to attend college is to Americans.

So in keeping with his nationality, Henrik called up Skat and told them he was going to be earning a ‘B-income’ giving piano lessons, and what did he need to do, paperwork-wise, to make sure he was following the law?

No problem, Skat told him, just keep track of all your income and your expenditures. At the end of the year, let us know both numbers, we’ll calculate your tax and send you a bill.

‘That’s it?’ I said when he told me this. ‘They told you to track everything? It’s like telling a dog it’s legally obligated to chase a tennis ball.’

‘I know right!’ Henrik said.

Henrik needn’t have been coy on the phone. Prostitution is legal in Denmark. You just have to report your income, stay under 50,000 kroner ($8,500) per year and only sell your own body (selling other people’s is technically pimping, and prohibited). As far as the authorities are concerned, you might as well be having a bake sale.

2. Get New Bank Account and Mobile Phone

‘I need to stress how not that major of a transition this was for me,’ Henrik says. ‘The only real difference between prostitution and what I was already doing was the logistics.’

Henrik’s only slightly exaggerating. Even before he was a prostitute, he had been conducting semi-anonymous hookups for years. He had profiles on all the major, and some of the minor, promiscu-net apps and websites. Grindr, Gaydar, GayRomeo, Adam4Adam, ManHunt: Henrik had a bouquet of identities and marketing pitches tailored to each one.

‘I took a long time having sex—I was 26 or 27,’ Henrik says. ‘But since then I went straight into a sort of belated teenage thing, making up for all the sex I’d missed.’

Somewhere around 30, Henrik realized that one of the most efficient ways to hook up a few times a month was to deliberately seek out business travellers who were only in Copenhagen for a night or two.

‘One, it’s an untapped market,’ he says. ‘All the Danes are pecking each others’ eyes out over the same, like, 200 eligible gay men. Two, travellers are uncomplicated. The sex is honest. You both know it’s not leading to anything. And you get to have hotel breakfast the next day.’

I met Henrik in 2008, when he was doing these hotel-room one night stands once or twice a month, and I was always amazed at how he talked about them like miniature friendships rather than anonymous transactions. He never dove right into bed with these guys. He insisted on chitchat before the sex and cuddles—‘which is what these guys really want anyway’—afterward, marvelling at the things they told him.

‘It actually made me feel really good,’ he says about them now. ‘I liked that bubble of instant intimacy with these guys. It felt unique every time. Anyway, I had a good time and I like to think they did too.’

These encounters were basically an invoice away from prostitution anyway, and were the primary reason Henrik knew not only that he could be a prostitute, but that he’d be good at it.

Still, he wanted to make sure his new hobby wouldn’t bleed into his old. He opened a new bank account and got a new mobile number he would only give to potential clients.

He also didn’t want his clients to know his real name. This is easy when you’re visiting hotel rooms, but in Denmark, apartment buildings list the name of every resident on the door. Visitors don’t buzz your apartment number, they buzz your full name, in black and white.

‘This was going to be an issue,’ Henrik says. ‘I came up with this system where I put a piece of red tape over my name on the door.  I told them I had just moved in, and hadn’t put the nameplate up yet. My apartment’s so messy, no one ever questioned it.’

He then, obviously, began a new spreadsheet.

 

3. Place Advertisement

You’re not officially a gay prostitute until you let the rest of the world know. In Denmark, the primary gay dating website, boyfriend.dk, doesn’t allow escort ads. GayRomeo, the most popular site in the rest of Europe, allows escorts, but it’s barely used in Denmark.

Henrik used to volunteer for an AIDS charity, and he remembered a master’s dissertation about gay prostitution in Denmark that had made the NGO rounds a few years previous. He pulled it out of the hard-drive equivalent of his sock drawer and read it cover to cover. Buried in the methodology was the name of the website where the researcher had gathered her contacts: Homospot.dk.

‘It’s just the absolute shittiest website on the planet,’ he says. ‘But for some reason, that’s the only place where you can feasibly sell gay sex in Copenhagen.’

Even by the standards of gay hookup websites, Homospot.dk is pretty dire. There are no private profiles or direct communication between users. All of the interaction is simply spit out into a common chatroom. If Match.com is a 747 and Grindr is an F-16, Homospot.dk is strapping feathers to your arms and flapping.

‘The worst thing about this whole experiment wasn’t the lonely old men, or the people who didn’t answer their buzzer after I biked to their place in the rain,’ Henrik says. ‘It’s that goddamn chatroom. It only shows 25 lines of text and then it disappears forever. You have to sit there and watch it like it’s a pet.’

Henrik had a friend take some pictures of him in various stages of undress and engorgement (‘Always with a big, empty room behind me. Nobody wants to commission a prostitute who looks like he needs to be doing this’), and chose a username that gave a fair representation of who he was: SellingCopenhagen33.

‘I wasn’t going to pretend I was some 18-year-old gymnast, or hung like the Empire State Building,’ he says. ‘I wanted to lower tricks’ expectations of me before we met, not raise them.’

4. Decide a Price

By scanning the profiles of both buyers and sellers on Homospot, Henrik found that there were essentially two tiers of gay prostitutes: Young and expensive (up to 5000 kroner, or $850, per hookup), and old and cheap (around 600 kroner, or $105, per hookup). For buyers, it’s like being given the option of a Honda Civic, a Bentley, or nothing.

By the standards of gay Danish prostitutes, Henrik was firmly a Honda. He’s good-looking, but more like a cool math teacher than a stalking sex god. He stays in shape (‘swimmer’s build’ is how a few of his customers would later describe him), but more like a floppy, flustered Hugh Grant than a dense, strutting Tom Hardy.

‘The first time I started talking price with guys online, I was amazed at how much haggling goes on,’ he says. ‘Everyone wants to fucking haggle, it’s infuriating. Some dudes were asking if they could get, like, a 10-blowjob clipcard.’

Henrik decided to charge his first client 700 kroner ($120). They exchanged pictures in the chatroom, then negotiated price and activities by mobile. An hour and 20 minutes later, a 49-year-old man from Malmo, Sweden, arrived at Henrik’s apartment. Then they had sex, then he gave Henrik a fresh-from-the-ATM stack of 100 kroner notes and then he left.

‘It was really mundane,’ Henrik says. ‘It was sex with an old guy. It only felt different afterwards. I think I tried to kiss him, and he said, “I don’t think that’s so hot after sex.” He just wanted to get the hell out.’

So how is sex different when the two people having it aren’t lovers, partners, friends or even strangers, but customer and merchant?

‘I actually thought about this a lot before I started,’ Henrik says. ‘No matter how much I was fucking around, I always had this little motto that I reserve the right to be lousy in bed. That’s kind of problematic when they pay you money.’

I assumed that Henrik’s clients would take a kind of ‘customer is always right’ approach, acting entitled to get exactly what they wanted and complain if they didn’t.

‘If anything, it was the opposite,’ Henrik says. ‘You both sort of forget about the money as soon as you start fooling around. It’s more common for them to confuse it with real intimacy than to confuse it with, like, a haircut.’

Henrik’s spreadsheet lists what he did and what he earned for each of his clients. In six months of freelance prostitution, Henrik charged an average of 624 kroner, or $110, per encounter, with a maximum of 1,066 kroner, or $185 (‘I slept over at his hotel and he paid in euros’), and a minimum of 400 kroner, or $70 (‘this fucking guy and his fucking clipcard’).

Some of them he slept with more than once, but most were one-timers. In all, he earned just over 24,000 kroner, or $4,150.

Henrik only paid 6,300 kroner ($1,090) in taxes, or 24.2 percent, because he was able to deduct 11,000 kroner ($1,900) for expenses, including his Macbook. He had sex with a client in Croatia when he was there on vacation, and when he returned, he called the tax authorities to ask if he could deduct the cost of the holiday. Flights yes, came the answer, hotel no.

I asked Henrik why his spreadsheet listed the distance he cycled to each client.

‘Bike rides,’ he says, ‘are reimbursed half a kroner per kilometer.’

5. Make Policy Regarding Customers

In his to-do list, Henrik wrote ‘Is there anyone I wouldn’t sleep with? Do I need to validate their identity? What information should I get from them beforehand?

And, right at the end:  ‘… Viagra?

‘Already back then I felt pretty sure that the world of paid-for sex isn’t filled with weirdos,’ Henrik says. ‘It’s filled with overweight old guys. And pretty much, that’s what happened.’

Henrik kept notes on each client in his spreadsheet. It reads like some kind of gay Xanadu as imagined by an Alabama talk radio host: ‘Porn playing on TV in bedroom…. Blindfolded, wanted dirty talk… Ends in doggy … Loves nipples … Chat while he sits on a buttplug … Wasn’t expecting second prostitute… Way too old, impotent … Met in the park…’

‘But what were they like?I keep asking whenever I see him now.

‘Honestly? The only thing they have in common is that they’re unattractive,’ Henrik says. ‘There’s a guy I still see once a month, he’s like 100-kilo plus. He works at PWC. There’s nothing wrong with him on the inside, just nobody wants to fuck a fat guy.

‘The funniest thing is that the sex is phenomenal. There’s this great big fat guy and I feel like I’m the only one who knows he’s great in bed.’

On a few occasions, Henrik texted his client’s address to a friend before they met, in case something went wrong. In the end, he never had to turn anyone down. He never used Viagra.

‘I did fake a lot of the orgasms though,’ he says.

‘Shut the fuck up,’ I say.

‘Seriously. Nobody ever notices unless it’s a facial situation.’

Like any other professional experience, though, Henrik remembers the people more than the tasks.

‘It’s really obvious that they just want conversation,’ he says. ‘They want a whiff of romance.’

It became a kind of competitive advantage. When potential clients asked Henrik what was included in the price, he said ‘we’ll have enough time’ to signal that some spooning, some conversation, some channel-surfing wasn’t out of the question. One guy invited him to a family gathering as his date, clock running the whole time. Another, a married guy in Norway, recommended Henrik to a friend.

Between the prostitution, his day job and extra piano gigs, Henrik got himself out of debt just before his son was born. He still sees some of his old clients, but doesn’t log on to Homospot anymore. He’s told only a handful of friends. Henrik, obviously, isn’t his real name.

‘My reason for paying taxes wasn’t because I’m a socialist, or a philanthropist,’ he says. ‘When someone confronts me with this, I want to be able to say, in so many words, “It was work, nothing else. I worked, I paid taxes. What do you care?”’

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How To Reduce Corruption — And Lose an Election

Imagine it’s 2003, and you’ve just been elected the president of a failed state. Its name is Georgia, a little wedge of forest nestled between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains. It has spent the last 900 years as a trinket passed back and forth between Russia, Turkey and Iran. If it ever comes up in conversation, which is rarely, people are likely to think you’re talking about the land of peachtrees and Ted Turner, not eggplants and Joseph Stalin.

Nevertheless, it’s 2003, and you’ve got a job to do. Your country has 4.5 million people, an unemployment rate of 50 percent, a median income of about $10 a month and, in its most fortunate cities and regions, two hours of electricity per day.

This was the situation Mikheil Saakashvili found himself in nine years ago. His country had declared independence from Russia in 1991, and the ensuing 12 years had been a countrywide game of Hungry Hungry Hippo. The police force was neither police nor a force, but a mobile fraternity of bribe-extractors. Politicians and civil servants performed the routine functions of governance—issuing licenses, allotting budgets, delivering services—with reluctance so severe the World Bank referred to them as ‘criminalized’. Getting a business license required approval from 29 government agencies. Who even knows how many bribes you had to pay.

Saakashvili studied at Columbia and George Washington University. He had a fellowship at the US State Department in the early ‘90s, and studied human rights in France. It’s sort of surprising he hasn’t given a Ted talk. He was pulled away, his political biography tells us, from a gig at a US law firm and general international awesomeness in 1995, and convinced to come back to his humble homeland, stand for elections and rescue his wedge of Caucasan forest from Russia, Turkey, international donors and, possibly, itself.

Tbilisi, the capital, from above.

Saakashvili got 95 percent of the vote in something called the Rose Revolution, something we all skimmed articles about in the New York Times in 2003 and then immediately began confusing for all the other ones (velvet, orange, etc) we mix up at pub quizzes.

As the spotlight of the world’s attention dimmed, Saakashvili began the impossible, invisible task of making a country work. The way he did this was by giving the entire country the Alec Baldwin speech from Glengarry Glen Ross:

First prize is, your salary goes up by a factor of 20. Second prize is, you get to keep your job. Third prize is, you’re fired.

First up: The cops. Overnight, he fired all 16,000 of them. He replaced them with applicants trained in community policing, crime reduction and citizen services. Salaries increased 23-fold between 2004 and 2011.

‘Wasn’t there a period when no one was policing the country at all?’ I asked my friend who works at an NGO here. ‘Wasn’t it just chaos in the streets?’
‘You’re assuming there was policing going on at all,’ he said. ‘Georgia was basically Somalia in 2003. Crime went down after all the cops were fired.’

It didn’t stop there. Police officers were given new uniforms, glass-fronted police stations (transparent, get it?) and—without their knowledge—squad cars equipped with listening devices. The first cops found to be taking bribes, plotting against their superiors or otherwise fucking with their new mandate to protect and serve were accused of such on national television, and sent to prison for up to 10 years. No, seriously, these measures said, we mean this.

One of Georgia’s new police stations.

Next, politicians and civil servants. Saakashvili made sure every single one got the same message: I don’t care what you did yesterday, I don’t care what you do today, But starting tomorrow, you’re going to hep this country run smoothly, or you’re gone.

He fired 40,000 of them the first year. The rest were watched by cameras, tracked by spreadsheets and evaluated by superiors and customers alike. The better services worked, the more he raised their salaries.

Tbilisi’s Public Service Hall

And finally, everybody else. In 2003, tax revenue was only 12 percent of GDP (in the US, it’s 24 percent. In the UK, 39 percent.). Most retailers kept ‘official’ and ‘actual’ books to avoid reporting income.

The first thing Saakashvili did was ban informal vendors—those dudes who sell fruit while you wait at red lights, for example—from city streets. This is too harsh, they protested. Fine, came his response, but at least it’s consistent.

For the formal vendors—corner stores, restaurants, hair salons—It was Alec Baldwin again: You’re all going to install special cash registers that tell the government, in real time, what you’re selling and what you’re earning. If you don’t like it, you don’t stay in business. Oh, and you have to buy the cash registers yourselves. That’s too onerous, they protested. Fine, came his response, but it’s not unfair.

Within months, everything bought and sold was now tracked and reported. The new, policing-focused police force sent undercover officers to stores all over the country to check if vendors were using the cash registers. Saakashvili also worked on the demand side. The special cash registers spit out receipts that had built-in lottery tickets. Each had a barcode that, for a lucky few, could be redeemed for cash. All of a sudden, ‘where’s my receipt?’ became as common in Georgia as ‘have a nice day’ was in America.

Georgian receipt with ‘lottery barcode’

Next, he went after the bigwigs. For months after he came to power, the news was animated with raids on Georgia’s biggest businessmen, mafia, oligarchs and political fixers. He gave them all the same deal:  You’ve got two options: Go to jail for all the warlord-ass shit you’ve pulled over the last decade, or pay restitution and get a full amnesty. The restitution for some of them was as much as $14 million. There was no special receipt.

The bigwigs didn’t even protest. They knew the response before it came.

At the same time he made everyone pay their taxes, he made sure everyone knew what they owed. He threw out most of the old tax code and installed a flat tax: 12 percent on your income, 20 percent sales tax and 10 percent on any interest you earn. The rates were crazy-low, but everyone was paying them. Tax revenue went from $300 million to $3 billion between 2003 and 2008.

These reforms built a fence and fertilized the soil. All Saakashvili needed now was for the private sector to come and plant the seeds. And came they did: Between 2003 and 2007, foreign direct investment in Georgia rose from $330 million to $1.7 billion. In 2010, two years after the financial crisis, it was $810 million. Two new oil pipelines link Georgia with Asia and Europe. I hear the lines at Carrefour on Saturdays are brutal.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s rank on the Economic Freedom Index went from 93rd in 2005 to 34th in 2012. The World Bank says Georgia is the 16th easiest country in which to do business.

There was other stuff too. The education system got pegged to a nationwide standardized test, ending its reliance on the former ‘pay your teachers for grades’ model. Healthcare was privatized (I know, I know), which reduced corruption among doctors. Border guards and customs agents got their own version of the ‘you’re all fired; the new guys get new uniforms!’ program.The government posts all of its tenders and procurement contracts online.

Georgia doesn’t require a visa for most foreigners to work or start a business. Georgia doesn’t want your tired, your poor. It wants your rich and energetic.

Nine years ago, Georgia was basically Deadwood on the Black Sea. Nowadays it’s not exactly Blade Runner, but it’s not Mad Max either. The lights are on, trains and buses work, construction cranes provide shade for clinking outdoor cafes. Nearly 80 percent of the population reports that they’ve personally experienced a drop in corruption. Violent crime was cut in half, and the homicide rate is the same as the United States. Per capita GDP is $5,400. OK, that’s the same as Angola, but when you consider that a decade ago it was $400, you have to give a little whistle.

Georgia’s remaining challenges include updating its infrastructure

Last Monday, Saakashvili was voted out. If it all goes smoothly from here (Saakashvili has to voluntarily hand over power to the James Bond villain who defeated him, a mysterious billionaire named Bidzina Ivanishvili), it will be Georgia’s first democratic transition.

Saakashvili’s zeal for reform, for tearing down existing structures and installing new ones, left some holes in the plaster that he filled with his own power. Saakashvili’s towering achievement is that the state is no longer a vehicle for politicians, civil servants and police officers to enrich themselves. The problem is, it may have become a vehicle for Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement, to do so instead.

Crackdowns on journalists, political firings, restriction of free speech, and various backroom sketchiness have increased in recent years, and some of the post-revolution reforms (restitution and amnesty for organized-crime lords, seriously?) have left a bad taste in people’s mouths.

There’s also the prison rape video.

Over the last decade, all those no-tolerance sentences for petty criminals, crooked cops and corrupt bureaucrats swelled Georgia’s incarceration rate to the 4th highest in the world, above even Russia. In September, a video hit the news showing prison guards sodomizing prisoners with broomsticks. The media went to the citizens, citizens went to the streets, politicians went to the media. Saaksashvili’s party got 40 percent of the vote. The opposition, 55 percent.

I want to use the cliché that Georgia is a shadow of its former self. But more accurately, its former self is a shadow that refuses to disappear. Everything Saakashvili has done is fragile. The minute you turn off those cop-car microphones, delete those civil servant spreadsheets, hide those procurement documents, the cost-benefit analysis goes back to where it was, and behavior will adjust to fit.

I don’t know if Saakashvili deserved to lose the election. In a world full of leaders who get elected promising to reduce corruption, he’s one of the only ones who actually did. Georgia, for better or for worse, is a country where someone demonstrably wanted the government to work better, and wasn’t afraid to slap a few hands reaching for the cookie jar.

Mikheil Saakashvili made his country work. He made citizens safer, government more effective and businesses more profitable. And then he paid the cost.

Imagine yourself in his shoes again, this time in 2012. As you look down from the hills above Tbilisi, maybe you’re thinking that in the end, nothing is free, not even the market.

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