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Spain is a country teeming with pleasure seeking.

Having become a democracy only 30 years ago, this country exudes a type of national adolescence that is hell-bent on vices and enjoying the party as long as it lasts.

You can see it when you walk down any street on any evening around midnight and witness an entire family eating a meal well beyond midnight, the parents sipping on wine and smoking cigarettes while the kids thumb away at a Game boy; Or going to any random cafeteria or bar on any given morning around 10 am and you’ll see some variety of men, young to old, all propped up on the bar, working a grit while sipping some form of a spirit; Or especially in Madrid, if your body and wallet are able to endure, you can start the night at 10 pm for dinner and walk out of a discotheque on the other end of town at 7 am. In fact, it’s possible, to go out on Friday evening and not come back home until early Monday morning, if you want. I’ve never done this but have seen the ghosts and their wild, ringed eyes floating around on the metro early Monday morning while everyone else stands in silent horror at the five days forthcoming. This doesn’t even include Ibiza, the land of unadulterated drug use, never-ending house music and dance-floor orgies.

This penchant for pleasure is understatedly impressive and particularly widespread during the
summer when most cities, towns and pueblos have their yearly festivals.

Few things demonstrated this more than visiting Pontevedra’s “Fiesta de la Peregrina”on Saturday, August 10th.

It was their local yearly celebration of the saint “La Divina Peregrina”, who this sanctuary was named after:

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I was visiting Faye, a good friend and fellow writer, who was visiting her father Colin, a permanent resident of Pontevedra.

Faye, Colin and I went into the old part of the city for a few drinks. We discussed the second paragraph of this phlog at length, this hedonism and how it related to their ability to shun any future worry.

To some extent, we wanted to be more like them, able to extract all the preciousness of time available to us while we are here. Yet we agreed that the side effect of it frustrates us sometimes: to truly live in the moment is to party like it’s Armageddon, but it’s also to walk down the street so lackadaisically and carefree, breathing it all in and unworried about where they are going, what time they should be there or who is right behind them trying to get through. And since we tend to walk quite fast in our rushed Anglo mindsets, we are unable to pass and are ultimately perturbed at their slowness.

Our cultures don’t normally have festivals quite like these, certainly nothing like the one that was raging all around us in the old part of Pontevedra.

This festival was largely centered around something I’d never seen before, Peñas.

Peñas are essentially drinking groups.

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Groups of people, seen at least in pairs and sometimes in groups of 10 or more, who wear the same colored shirt.

Each shirt has the creative name of their Peña along with the first name of every person in the Peña.

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The older groups get together to drink and see the bullfights.

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And the younger groups get together to just drink.

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As you can see in this picture above, these girls aren’t even close to being barely legally able to drink.

This festival was not only allowing underage drinking, it was encouraging and celebrating it, en masse.

The shopping cart you see there is most likely full of cheap box wine and cola, something they mix together to make a drink called Calimocho.

Calimocho, sometimes spelled Kalimotxo, is a drink that tastes like cheap wine and cola, mixed together.

When the night descended, we moved to see the fireworks in an area akin to an American county fair.

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Portable rides, a fun house, food stands, stuffed animal toss-a-ball games, squirt gun shoot-a-hole car races and plenty of portable stands selling cheap Chinese-manufactured goods.

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They had a french fry stand run by three men watching tennis, one of which was a grumpy fat old man with an eye patch covered by sunglasses and who actually denied us extra ketchup the first time we asked.

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There was a tubby younger man selling balloons…

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who looked like he had taken one too many hits from the tank.

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Such is life at the fair.

The oddest, by far, was the man selling legs of ham in a lottery in a stand.

He chanted and sang like an stilted auctioneer to a crowd of people frenzying for a leg.

Buy a ticket for a few euros and scratch it off.

You could win a delicious leg of Jamón Serrano, one of the most delicious meats on the planet.

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Or the biggest baguette in Spain.

But then again, in a country where pig legs are given as yearly Christmas bonuses or gifts and have museums dedicated to selling them, Museos de Jamón, it’s really not that surprising to see one of these at an annual festival.

Collin left for home and I challenged Faye to ride the Bomber.

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The bomber was twice the height of any other ride at the festival, something like a ferris wheel except it only had one massive steel column turning around instead of the wheel.

The steel column had two 360º revolving carriages on each end. Each carriage held only four people, maxing out the ride at a total of eight people at once, and making the line about 45 minutes long.

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She said she hadn’t ridden a ride like this in ages and that if we were going to ride it, I had to promise to hold her hand and not let go.

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I promised.

Honestly, I needed a hand to hold, too.

While we survived the bomber, it had shaken up every ounce of beer in our bellies and we marched back into the old quarter to see what was shaking with the Peñas insanity.

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In one of the main squares, havens of people were drinking in a near-bacchanalian reverie.

We stepped over, around and on the remains of the debauchery in progress.

Spaniards, old and young alike, were singing and speaking loudly, smoking and dancing and drinking and acting as if the end was near and this was a decent showing for them to go out on.

Two guys pushed a girl in a grocery cart.

They saw me snapping photos of the bedlam and gladly posed for a photo.

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A moment later, the girl leaned over the side of the grocery cart and vomited unrestrainedly.

People moved away, some covering their mouths, others merely shaking their heads and resuming party  stances while I was trying my damnedest to get a shot of this girl in mid-puke. (This is TNB after all.)

But she laid back into the cart within seconds, head down and feeling as blurry as this picture.

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Faye and I went to a bar and danced to some punk-funk and new wave for several hours.

Amidst the smoke and the smiles, the moment and the future that didn’t exist within that night, we joined in the hedonism of the Peñas and the Pontevedra festival that was named after a sacred saint.

The saint who no one in the bar even thought about, much less knew who she was.

Unless of course, she was a saint who enjoyed partaking in the drink and debauch.

Around 5 am, we decided to leave.

On our way I had to get some cash for the cab.

I saw a bank and withdrew some money out of it.

It was called “Holy Spirit Bank”.

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Somehow, pulling colorful European money out of a bank named after one-third of the Holy Trinity completed the picture for me, connecting whatever dots were missing in the Pontevedran Peñas odyssey.

Kip recently ended his 3.3 week sojourn in Vigo, Spain where he wrote for hours on end, got blocked twice, drank delicious Albariño white wine, did some Thai-Chi, ate the most succulent squid he’s ever tasted (Pulpo a la Gallega) and visited many beautiful places in northwest Spain before he was ready to go back home to the maddening Madrid capital.

SACRAMENTO, CA-

For the first time in my life I’m leaving without running away.

It’s making me a bit nervous actually.

Most of my traveling has been panic-driven.

“I hate my life. I have to get out of here,” I’d say.

Then I’d begin a frantic search for the cheapest flight to anywhere.

Failing that, I’d jump in my car and drive. Drive 12 hours to Vancouver for the weekend. Head north on Interstate 5, stopping only when the panic subsided.

For years I blamed my unhappiness on this city.

I’d tell myself it was all because I was stuck here in Sacramento. It gave me that small-town feeling. The there’s-nothing-to-do-in-this-town, I’m-going-nowhere-with-my-life, I-have-to-get-out-of-here feeling.

I was one of those people who thought escaping this town meant escaping my life.

What I learned is that I needed a better life before I could be anywhere without looking for my next escape route.

Sacramento wasn’t the problem. And I only know that now because for the last couple of years I’ve been really happy here.

How do I know?

Because now when it’s time to leave I ask, “Why do I have to leave? What made me decide to do this?”

I’m nervous about going now because I don’t have dreams about finding something bigger and better somewhere else. I’m not romanticizing my trip the way I would have before.

People keep saying, “Moving to France? Wow, aren’t you so excited?” And I want to say yes, but the truth is I’m really anxious. I feel like I’m making a big mistake. What if I’m leaving something really great and I end up being miserable there? I’ve never had these types of what-ifs before. It’s giving me a nervous stomach.

“I’m sure everything will be fine.” This is my new mantra.

The more I think about it, the more I think it will be great, really.

It will be. I know it. Because this time I’m going without the idea that Paris will save me from myself.

Besides, if Paris sucks I know Sacramento will be waiting right here where I left her.

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Rebecca Adler is moving to Paris this week. There she will continue to write while posing as an au pair. She can be reached on myspace or on the comment board.

One morning in Maine, two 30-something women and a hound-dog of a Rhodesian Ridgeback mix made their way along the circumference of Mackworth Island.

Carol is playing tour guide.

The morning is soupy, humid and warm, and we all know the mercury will climb quickly. A ride on a bus and an uphill walk, rubbing elbows with an army of spectators, and then I see the sun breaking over the roof of the club house. Shadows stretch across the golf course, a man-made jewel. The sky is infinite shades of pink and blue. I never get up this early. As far as I’m concerned, the day doesn’t begin until two hours after sunrise. Minimum. But I might as well capture this rare moment for digital review at some later time, so I reach into my pocket and retrieve my camera. Push the power button. Nothing happens. I push it again, but knowledge surges into me like guilt, and I see clearly the camera battery mounted in the charger. Which is plugged into the wall. At home. Today is the day I chose to take pictures–the Tuesday practice round–because tomorrow I’m working, and during the actual tournament, cameras are prohibited. Because of the bus system and the long walk, the round trip time between this spot and my house is probably an hour and a half. Maybe even longer. I stuff the camera back into my pocket. Through the trees I notice a group of golfers on the fourth green. One of them is Tiger Woods. I happen to be standing near the fifth tee, so I walk over and find a spot on the ropes, directly behind the tee. Two minutes later, here comes Bubba Watson and Tiger Woods, two of the biggest hitters on the PGA TOUR, about to tee off on one of the longest holes in major championship golf. A 653-yard par 5. And I have no camera. But wait! I smuggled my cell phone into the tournament! It has a 2 megapixel camera! Phones are definitely not allowed here at the PGA Championship, but I get it out anyway and snap a couple of shots. Even though I know they won’t turn out well.

You know what, though? It’s okay. It’s no secret that I’m into golf. I like to think that if I could quit my job and practice full-time, I could probably make a living at it. Either playing or instructing. But I don’t, because I already chose “writing novels” as my pipe dream career. It would probably be greedy to have two.

The PGA Championship two weeks ago was one of the most rewarding weeks I’ve had in a while. I volunteered as a marshal on one of the more famous holes in golf, I was able to watch the sport being played at its highest level, and I was there when Tiger Woods won his 13th major. That all this happened a couple of miles from my house made the experience that much more sublime. A lot of people asked me afterwards: Did you see Tiger? Did you see Tiger? Yeah, I did. Being inside the ropes, I was pretty close. Did you get his autograph? people asked. Get a picture with him? I am a big fan of Tiger Woods because he set his sights on one of the most hallowed records in sports and has steadily marched toward it for the past twelve years. I am a fan because he is about the same height and body type as me, and I can look at his swing as a model. Surprisingly, I hit the ball about as far as Tiger (though nowhere near as precisely). It’s fun to compare your skill level with the best in the world, to imagine what it would be like to play a round with Tiger or any of the best golfers. But what would I do with an autograph? His name hastily scribbled on a ball cap? A photograph might be interesting, but only if it were taken after I had a conversation with the guy.

Because who is Tiger Woods? I don’t know. Who is Stephen King or Jonathan Franzen or any well-known person I admire for their skills? I don’t know them. They don’t know me. Would I like to play golf with Tiger? Discuss fiction with Franzen? Of course I would. But I would do it as a peer, not a fan. To do so is to acknowledge some gap between us, some difference in what we bring to the world, and I’m not prepared to do that. I can understand children pining for an autograph. But I don’t really get it with adults…and yet I’ve happily signed many books. For readers I meet in bookstores, for friends. It seems very hypocritical, I know. Maybe the difference is that at a book signing, I have the chance to speak with readers. Or maybe I’m conceited. All I know is that I prefer to take pictures with the people I care about. The people I talk to every day. The people who I share my life with. But hey, Tiger: Let me know the next time you have an open spot in your foursome. I’m free. And this time I’ll have a battery in my camera.


My mother never trusted my brother and I in the bathtub alone for too long.

She knew our three-year-old, TV-watching brains were hotwired for action and violence.

If left alone for too long, she knew one of us could easily become the victim of drowning, suffocation by shower curtain, you name it.

Soon, mom would be coming through the bathroom door.

To make sure her boys hadn’t killed each other.

Before that moment, though, my brother and I had already safely gotten out of the tub, and were standing wet and naked, discussing that old cartoon, Underdog.

Specifically, Sweet Polly Purebred.

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“What’s that thing between her legs?” I said.

My brother shrugged.

This had become an on-going topic of conversation.

My brother and I were completely mesmerized by that strange upside down triangle-of-sorts we’d  spotted between Polly’s legs.

The triangle just below her belly button and slightly above the place where her thighs met.

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The triangle was nothing like anything we’d ever seen on TV superheroes like Superman.

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Or Batman and Robin.

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Those were guys with real crotch bulges.

Like they were packing rocks in their underwear.

But not Polly—and that understated triangle between her legs.

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To better improve our understanding of that triangle, my brother I figured we should try to recreate it.

“I’ll go first,” I said.

I bent slightly forward, tried tucking my tiny, soap-slippery penis between my thighs.

It sprang back out.

My brother laughed.

I laughed.

After a few more attempts, I finally achieved my goal.

“There’s that triangle,” said my brother. “Like Polly.”

“Now you try,” I said.

He imitated the pose.

“Look,” I said. “We’re Polly.”

In unison, we sang: “We’re Polly. We’re Polly.”

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That’s when our mother came through the bathroom door.

“What are you doing?” she screamed.

Since I didn’t fully understand that I’d just transformed myself into one of her new twin daughters, I was stunned by her reaction.

I snapped to attention. My brother snapped to attention.

Our tiny penises sprang out from between our legs.

“Don’t ever let me see you do that again,” said mom.

“But what did we do wrong?” I said.

Mom began crying.

My brother and I began crying.

Through my tears, I again asked that question: “What did we do wrong?”

All mom could say was: “Just don’t ever, ever do that again.”

Without another word, she dried us off, got us dressed and put us to bed.

Alone in our dark room, I whispered to my brother: “We did something bad.”

He agreed.

And so that night we made a pact.

We never watched Underdog again.

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We never, ever wanted to be Polly Purebred again.

Johnny Cash performed at San Quentin in 1969. The album was released later that year in June. In July we walked on the moon. My parents were sure the moon landing was fake, so they didn’t bother watching it on TV. In August the Manson Family went on a killing spree and Richie Havens opened Woodstock with the song “Freedom.” I was born that fall.

Steve, a friend of my mother’s, has been teaching a class on non-violent communication at San Quentin for the past five years. When my mother mentioned that I worked on a book called Surviving Justice: America’s Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated, Steve asked me if I’d like to come observe his class

 

Sanquentin

 

The town of San Quentin, which was, I assume, originally built as housing for the prison employees is surprisingly cute, very Cape Cod-ish, little Victorian cottages on the bay. I was expecting bleakness, not charm. The gift shop nestled near the east gate, which contains prison art and chotchkes, is unfortunately closed.

At the gate a huge banner proclaims in red letters: TOBACCO FREE ENVIRONMENT. The prisoners are not allowed to smoke anymore. After my security clearance is checked and my bag is searched, I sign in. I make my way to another gate, through a castle-like fortress with rounded turrets with crenellated tops and gothic windows. I sign in again, flash ID, show the contents of my bag, then proceed into the “sally port,” an iron-barred cage they lock you in before letting you out the other side.

I walk out into a courtyard that is surprisingly lovely. There are carefully tended rosebushes, green lawns and topiary, a couple dry fountains, a pair of metal sculptures in the fountains shaped like dandelions or fireworks. There are several chapels and a beautiful old brick building stamped with the word HOSPITAL at the top. Over one doorway it says in hand-painted calligraphic Old English letters: HOBBY SHOP. Another doorway reads in those same letters: ADJUSTMENT CENTER. It sounds like where you’d be sent for punishment in elementary school. Apparently this is where Death Row inmates, including the Night Stalker–boogeyman of my childhood–as well as Richard Allen Davis and Scott Peterson, are housed.

 

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I only see a couple men in blue in the courtyard. Mostly there are COs (correctional officers) in ill-fitting forest-green uniforms on their way to and fro. I was told before coming not to wear any blue or orange because that’s what the inmates wear, and if there’s a lockdown they need to be able to tell me apart from the prisoners. If the alarm sounds the prisoners must drop to the ground. I’m supposed to stay standing. The COs do not carry guns. It’s for their own safety. But there are guns trained on us that I can’t see. We are being watched constantly.

We walk down into the prison yard. It looks almost exactly like my high school. Except for the fenced-in pen topped with razor wire where men in shackles and orange jumpsuits wait to be assigned their prison blues. Men in blue are playing a lively game of basketball. Some hang out at picnic tables. There’s a tennis court, a baseball diamond, and a blacktop with a volleyball net. We walk among the prisoners unescorted. There are men I can’t see in watchtowers watching me. We walk over to a trailer, where there are four classrooms. Inside, inmates work in the office, making sure all the teachers have their papers and their rosters in order. It reminds me of being a high school teacher, the chaos of the first week of classes.

In the classroom I sit in a circle with the inmates. They are all lifers. One is reading Shakespeare and The New York Times. The fellow next to me is eating a peach. I ask him about it–can he get fresh fruit here? He tells me he traded for it, that they get fruit with their breakfast, usually a banana or an apple or, once in a blue moon, a peach. People hoard their fruit and use it as commerce. These are the economics of prison. Again it reminds me of public school, of trading my tuna salad sandwich for a chocolate pudding cup.

Some of the men have an issue with me being here–they are concerned that I will write about them unsympathetically. I tell them I have no intention of writing about them and what they say in class, that I just want to write about my impressions of San Quentin and about my own experience. I put my notebook and pen away.

We begin with a meditation. I am meditating at San Quentin. Meditating. At San Quentin.

The first activity we do is an active-listening exercise. I partner up with an inmate and he tells me what’s going on in his life, what he’s feeling, and then I repeat back to him what I heard him say. Then I tell him what’s going on with me. I talk about how I was a bit apprehensive about coming here, that I was worried I wouldn’t be able to let go of my judgment and my stereotypes about convicts. I don’t say: I worked with exonerees before, but the guys in this room are different. These guys are, as far as I know, guilty.

Then a sheet of questions is passed around and each inmate selects one question to ask the group and then others volunteer their answers. Sometimes they point at me, wanting me to answer. A poster on the wall says: IF YOU WANT TO BE TRUSTED BE HONEST. I want to be honest.

“Are you feeling trust at this moment?”

I say, I’m not usually a very trusting person, but in this circle (of convicts! at San Quentin!) I am feeling oddly trusting. But I don’t trust this feeling, I say, it makes me question and second-guess myself, so I guess I am struggling with trust after all.

There, that was honest, I hope.

“What do you wish for, and what fears does this bring up for you?”

I say that I wish for my health to improve, and that I fear it won’t. I fear I won’t be able to take care of myself.

They wish for freedom.

The two hour class goes by fast. At the end I thank the group for letting me participate. I tell them I am awed by their emotional intelligence. I am.

At the gate on the way out I check with the guard to see if I have security clearance for next week. I do, but it’s for the wrong time. This, it seems, is the real hell of prison–the endless red tape. I ask the CO stationed at the gate what if I come in before the approved time? He says, “Then we’ll have to shoot you.” Prison humor.


Click here to read Part Two>>

 

 

Sat in my apartment and cried.

Cried until the tears formed a single stream and pooled in the hollow indentation at the base of my throat, spilling.

If you had been watching you wouldn’t have heard a sound because the air conditioner was roaring so loud it muffled even the cracked sobs.

Thought about getting in the shower. Putting on a great outfit. Getting drunk with friends at the bar.

Remembered how that doesn’t work.

The heart can’t process pain like the liver filters alcohol. Undealt with pain sticks around. Denial lodges it deeper.

So the crying continued.

And continued.

And continued spasmodically.

Got tired of the crying. Changed. Drove to the Super Target NOW OPEN by my apartment and bought some really expensive eye drops, ones that cost more than $3, and did some damage control.

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(The fact a person can go to Target in any state of disarray and no one will comment or appear to notice makes me truly appreciate living in America)

Came home and sat on the stairs for a long time.

If you had been watching you would have thought the wall had some kind of hypnotic power but actually a slideshow of us was playing in my head.

Highlights and lowlights. The usual scenes.

Thought the crying was going to start again but it didn’t.

Told myself the worst was over.

Put on my sneakers.

Walked to the park.

In the narrow embrace of the trees started running.

Hard running, hard breathing.

Went all the way inside my head until there was no reason to be running and no running and no park and no me.

Got inside the culvert, took my shuffle off and yelled.

At my own weakness. At yours.

At the discrepancy between what love could be and what it ends up being.

Walked back to my apartment.

Booted up the computer and listened to that Sia song.

Wrote this.

Turned off the computer and waited for it to be Monday.