• johnschengber

Dear 2020

NOTE: this is an unedited, stream of consciousness reflection that is more intended for personal record keeping than for readers’ pleasure. It is long and unorganized, especially compared to my 2018 reflection.

If you read it in full, you might be crazy, you might be seeking a distraction from work, or you might be my mom. Nevertheless, I hope you enjoy.

In 2019

I went to Mexico for the second time.

I am convinced I’ll move there once I am absolutely rocking shit.

I went with 8 of my best friends and a wonderful girl, Fiona.

On the first night, everyone wore blue jean jackets and assured onlookers that we were gringoes.

(not pictured but present: TJ and Caleigh)

On the last night, my friends asked aloud if Fiona and I were dating, which is a sure way to force the conversation. We started dating soon thereafter. She's wonderful.

Since then I have tried to figure out friendship.

There should be a new word for friendship in adulthood, especially late 20s adulthood, because it’s entirely different.

Joey moved to San Francisco.

Oeuyown moved to Seattle.

Paul moved to London, and moved back.

Will moved to Grenada, and moved back.

I didn’t visit my friends in New York all year.

I discovered that getting breakfast at a diner alone on my birthday is what I have wanted all along, especially if there’s newspaper involved.

The paper told of increased investment in high-speed rail between DC and Richmond which made me smile. Oddly it did not mention the fact that taking cars off the highways would be help to mitigate climate change, especially since emissions from the car-heavy transportation sector are the #1 source of carbon pollution in Virginia. So let me.

Make 1-95 A High Speed Rail from Maine to Miami. For the climate and every other reason on earth.

Can you imagine a road-rager dozing gently on a train?

This year I learned how to turn Skinny Dipper Magazine into a business, and then we promptly deflated and whirled around like a balloon with great sad noise before falling flat and lifeless to the floor.

This year the red balloon also became my favorite emoji on Instagram.

(It is worth noting that balloons can be inflated again no problem, if there’s no hole.)

But for now I will save my breath and dedicate my life to the environment. To water and trees. We need a new American nature of relating to nature.

I went to Cuba.

I went with Fiona.

We went for 13 days.

My Spanish was good but not good enough to avoid a lashing in socio-political vocabulary, since I couldn’t stop asking questions about Castro, Trump, and everything in between.

The answer: Cubans, remarkably, don’t hate Americans. They do hate Donald Trump. From those I spoke to, they are generally proud of their country, especially its free healthcare and education, and its lack of violent crime and drug activity. They lament the lack of resources and the overwhelming level of poverty, but for this they chiefly blame the trade embargo that the US and its allies have imposed for the past 60 years. On one hand, I was inclined to empathize with that perspective once I considered how challenging it would be for a small island nation, that can only grow or produce a certain range of supplies, to survive without trade.

Returning to the states induced a good deal of reverse culture shock. For at least two weeks I walked around America and observed our extremely limited capacity for neighborly love, our intense competition for status and material gain, and our nationalistic arrogance. I came back to the honking and flashing realization that I live in the most violent and selfish country of the 19 countries I have visited in my life, which particularly include several with State Department travel advisories. I felt less safe in Richmond than I did in the greatly feared land of Castro.

Speaking with Cubans in America paints a different picture, of course.

But in terms of Cuba, go.

On the southern coast of the country, very close to the Bay of Pigs, I dove down and touched the hull of a sunken ship. I jumped off some rocks so sharp they’re called dogs teeth (dientes de perro) and found myself in the sharkiest and most blue water of my life. Unfurling gradually into the deep was an unorganized but lush patchwork of coral and vegetation. Alone, I kept looking around for sharks, as well as Ariel and Ursula, and everything else vibrant and living in the world whose abundance and diversity is never so complete as on the coral reef.

I will get Fiona to loving diving, too, just as she is getting me to love rock climbing. Right now, with respect to climbing, I’m at the “like” stage.

This year was the second year in a row that I lost my phone in a foreign country. Both in countries with oppressive regimes, it turns out! The kind of country where it’s very clear that the lost item was lost by a tourist.

I was a tourist in Virginia a lot this year as well.

I discovered that Virginia’s highest peak, Mt. Rogers, is not an alpine, snow capped kind of peak, but a forested, is-this-really-the-peak kind of peak. It is nevertheless magnificent. Yes, the highest place in Virginia is a fir and spruce forest — that only grows at that altitude. I found that very fitting for a state that has everything you could ever want — beaches, cities, mountains, universities — except never in the highest or biggest or most renowned degree.

To get to Mt. Rogers from Richmond, normally a 5 hour drive, Fiona and I took our friends’ 1984 VW Van, making it more like an 8 hour journey, not including the 2-day breakdown and towing fiasco.

We got towed to a mechanic that happened to be right next to a brewery, so we slept outside the brewery with plenty of beer and pizza. In the brewery, we met a Mexican violinist who played a sampling of his favorite Bach for us. Certain Americans of high society in attendance then requested that the classically trained musician play the Game of Thrones theme song.

The next day we were taken to a VW specialty shop run by a man named Mad Dog. He was the real deal. Mad Dog is famous amongst the VW community, which is apparently large and thriving with greasy hands and peace signs. If the bomb were coming, I’d scramble to find a roving pack of these people. They are models of self-sufficiency and fun.

The mailwoman just brought a letter to the mailbox. She always seems very at peace. Next time she comes by I intend to ask about her job.

What else happened this year?

I participated in a racial reconciliation and conflict resolution fellowship. It was a transformative experience. We went on a weekend retreat once a month for 6 months, overnighting in an old monastery on a hill overlooking Richmond. I walked around the monastery grounds barefoot except when I would go out into the gardens. I dared not venture past the walls. They rang the bell for mandatory prayer or silence 3 times a day starting at 6:30am. For a bit there, I was compelled to go the monk route.

During that experience, I learned how to be a better ally, especially as a white male, especially in the racial context of Richmond and Virginia. I learned that one of the best things I can do is talk to other white people, because 55% of white people don’t believe in racism (or they believe racism against white people is just as prevalent as racism against black people, which undermines the definition of systemic racism).

On the 4th weekend retreat of the fellowship, our cohort became a microcosm of the larger racial justice arena when a Jewish man who looked white refused to acknowledge the privilege afforded to him by looking white. When he was confronted, chiefly by a Black woman, he became verbally violent and shut down. We returned a month later, at the 5th retreat, to learn that he dropped out of the program and filed a harassment grievance against the organization and the Black woman.

Not coincidentally, the woman was fired from her job which was associated with the program organization, and also had to drop out.

This exemplifies two patterns observable in the real world:

1) White men or other folks from dominant social groups have the privilege of avoiding hard, truth-bearing interpersonal conflict and instead rely on back-channel power structures (e.g. lawsuits, talking to the board, etc) for self-preservation

2) If I or other white folks in the room had been more vocal in calling out the man, instead of deferring to the Black woman to bear the burden, it’s likely that the man’s recourse would have been less violent and vengeful, and it’s unlikely that his recourse would have been executed — white power structures are less likely to take down other white people.

Instead, a Black woman and mother to several children lost her income and social capital. (Although not attempting to minimize, I have stayed in touch with her and can report that she is still a badass and seems to well positioned to rock 2020.)

¿Qué más? ¿Qué más?

I went to Branson, Missouri for a little family reunion and vacation. It was an exercise in appreciating family regardless of the situation or activity. While Bud Light and pontoon boats and a town dubbed “The Las Vegas of the Midwest” is not my go-to travel experience, that’s not what family is about.

It's about being together, and goofy whenever possible.

And learning to water ski.

I’m starting an environmental book club.

My younger sister, Patty Woodle, graduated JMU and then shipped off to Wyoming to be a badassranchhandandskibum. She will be henceforth known as Wyoming Woodle.

We did an early Thanksgiving in Baltimore where my older sister, Courtney, and her husband, Tucker, recently moved. They’re both rocking their jobs, although they too report that friendship is a question mark. It was wonderful to all be together for Thanksgiving and have oysters instead of turkey.

I spent the first half of the year living happily ever after with my happily married friends, Sarah and Stephen. They lovingly kicked me out in August and were pregnant by Fall. I am thrilled to be a weird Uncle John come May.

I moved to a new house across the river, which means I get to cross the river every morning on my ride into town. I still bike as if I have no car.

I still can’t play piano, but my roommate, Evan, who goes by they, is a classically trained pianist and one time we did an impropmtu duet and they said I was good at “scatting,” which is another word for what I have always called “noodling.” We have become fast friends.

I still rarely watch television or movies because I hate chairs and despise sofas. In the golden age of television, I predict that my detachment is creating a gaping hole in my cultural awareness, but I am completely okay with it. Once movie theaters feature completely flat beds and project movies onto the ceiling, I will watch so many movies that I will become a scathing and widely loathed film critic.

Just a note to my future physical therapist: my neck started hurting this year. (We’ve already talked about my lumbar spine, my dumb lumbering lumbar … )

I went hunting for the first time since my dad let me pull the trigger when I was ten. I shot two geese in one shot, learned how to de-feather and filet them, and then ate and appreciated them immensely.

I went door-knocking to get out the vote for state elections in Virginia. It was my first time canvassing. In most instances, no one was home or they didn’t answer. Most other times, I felt like I was going to get shot off the porch, bitten by the dog, or spat on. There were a few times I had a decent conversation with someone who didn’t seem bothered that a stranger had knocked on the door. And then there were a couple times that I had to speak with the homeowner through one of those fancy new doorbells that record you with a camera. Lovely, meaningful human interactions those were.

I went surfing only a handful of times in 2019 but somehow it still feels exactly right. I went in early December and, shivering, came to the realization that I need a new wetsuit. They’re not made to last 15 years. Cheers to trying, though.

In my 2018 reflection, I “finally admitted that water is my favorite thing on earth and I prefer it to the mountains.”

This year, that was not even a debate.

I made a new water friend: mangroves.

I went to Puerto Rico with a rag-tag crew of 3 lads that you might cautiously call filmmakers. Our goal was to document environmental change in Puerto Rico’s southwestern region that thrives with mangrove, coral, and seagrass habitats but is rapidly being overdeveloped. I’ve met coral and seagrass before, but mangroves were unfamiliar to me.

The mangrove “forests” were little islands of green that rose from the clear blue sea. Pulling up a boat in the shallows nearby, we jumped in the water with cameras and swam, or floated, through the channels and tunnels that wove in and out of the tangled mangrove roots. These tangled roots provide irresistible and irreplaceable breeding ground and nursery habitat for countless species of fish, so much so that the roots become a sort of underwater jungle with loads of critters scampering in and out of the crannies and crooks.

If you keep swimming past the underwater mangrove jungle, you reach a wide open seagrass savannah. The unending plain of seagrass, which does not grow very long, looks somewhat desolate and uninhabited at first glance. But upon closer inspection, bonefish and barracuda and other species abound. You’ll miss them unless you’re under the water and sitting relatively still. They are nearly translucent.

Keep swimming even more and the seagrass starts to sprout occasional pimples of coral: a gorgonian sea fan here, a brain coral there. Soon these corals start to build on one another, and you arrive at a full-blown reef. There’s so much activity that you’re surprised you couldn’t hear it buzzing from far away. How can something so beautiful and powerful also be soft-spoken and unseen?

Past the reef, everything drops into the deep dark green and blue that you’d have to be a dolphin to enter without fear.

There were few deaths, births, and marriages in my close personal network this year. I don’t think that will last long.

Three of my best friends got engaged this year, all to hometown girls that I have known since childhood. That now makes 4 of my hometown friends who married a Yorktown lady. I find this to be a remarkable testament to the safety, love, and privilege of the community we grew up in.

We went Smith Mountain Lake.

We discovered that you can get kissed by carp if you put peanut butter on your nose.

I abstained.

In 2019, millions around the world rallied to the cry of Greta Thunberg and other young, often female activists calling for action on climate change. Meanwhile, Virginia’s Governor Northam led the state towards more carbon emissions by greenlighting new or ongoing natural gas development that will criss-cross the state and disrupt historic African American communities, as well as the Appalachian Trail.

This same governor proudly adorned blackface in his college yearbook, it was revealed. He subsequently refused overwhelming calls to step down.

2019 was the year that our president was impeached, an event that has only occurred three times in American history, and yet many of us barely skipped a beat. We are asleep under a new normal.

I’ve been thinking about the concept of ‘new normal’ from a biodiversity standpoint, especially.

Every day, more and more Americans are born into a world where forests consist of deer, squirrels, and the same 4 species of songbirds; where the seashore is pelicans, seagulls, seaweed, and the occasional pod of dolphins chased by dolphin-watching boats; where the mountains are bear spray and bears if you’re lucky; where coral reefs are bleached white and 200 snorkelers wearing bright orange life vests swim above, having never seen the reef in color.

If I had never seen a reef in color, I probably wouldn’t care to protect it, either.

In Virginia woods, rare or nonexistent are the elk, wolves, or bobcats that should be there in abundance. Many hikers who traverse the woods don’t even know they’re missing.

It’s somewhat easy to grasp this decline of mammalian fauna, once you’re told, but it’s much harder to grasp the decline of less sexy or less sean creatures, especially fishes, insects, and birds. I listened to an older naturalist from England recount his childhood summers. He said driving at night through the English countryside was like driving through a snowstorm — so many species of moths and nocturnal insects would be visible through the headlights. Now, he said, it’s mostly mosquitoes and flies, which unfortunately look nothing like snow.

And don’t get me started on plants. I realized this year that the majority of plants that I know from my hometown backyard are invasive or non-native species: boxwood, ivy, crepe myrtle.

Planting non-native plants is bad because:

1) they don’t support native birds or insects

2) they can outcompete native plants and become invasive, as english ivy has become

I helped an ecologist remove english ivy from the James River park system the other day. She said her team could theoretically remove every ivy plant from the park and it would still come back, because it creeps in from the surrounding suburban yards. So even if you don’t consider your backyard an important habitat, what you plant there matters for nearby habitats and species.

The ecologist lamented that the majority of plants found at places like Lowe’s garden center are non-native, though things are starting to change as buyers come in asking for native species.

I learned how to cross-country ski in Vermont.

I’m running low on things to share. Looking back briefly on what I’ve shared thus far, it’s clear to me that time spent out of doors or in new places consistently sticks in my memory with fondness and meaning. No surprises there.

What is surprising from 2019, compared to years past, is that many of my favorite memories were solitary or partnered experiences. Very little of my 2019 was spent in large social groups.

I have to wonder if that comes with the territory of being in your late 20s. But I shouldn’t abdicate responsibility so easily. It was a relatively lonely and isolated year for me, in which I increasingly relied on myself or my girlfriend for time well spent, and it’s important that I confront that trend.

Friends were the hardest part of 2019.

Dear 2020,

I trust you.



PS: I have photos and writings from a good number of these experiences. Let me know which you want to see more of.


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© 2020 by John Schengber

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