Lost in (Geographic) Translation


Times like these I find myself feeling a strange kinship with Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim: habitually disoriented, but at peace with a peculiar penchant for finding himself unstuck in time. Unlike Billy, my dislocation is only ever in place. But I have enormous sympathy for his struggle to catch up with wherever life has taken him and his resignation to being whoever it is that he was at that time and place, whether it’s Dresden or Tralfamadore.

Last week I was up on the farm, happily clearing fallen trees with a chainsaw (chainsaws are awesome – I’ve got to tell you about chainsaws some day). And it was as natural as if I’d lived there my whole life. This week was Palo Alto: dad, husband, coffeehouse writer – being the guy who I really have spent most of life being.

And some time this evening, five airports and 30 hours of transit later, I’ll pop out at the other end of the western hemisphere, in Patagonia, and resume being that guy who lives on an icebreaker, fixes computers for a living and blogs about penguins. And I know, once I get into the groove of that, it too will feel as natural as if I’d been doing it all my life, and these other lives I live will seem small and far away.

I’ve never known what to make of this habit, of this ability (if that’s what it is), to so completely take off and put on these separate lives as easily as a raincoat. It’s never seemed like an entirely appropriate thing to discuss: people, it turns out, like to think that they stay close in your heart and in your thoughts when you’re away.

But our close friends understand that this ability to disconnect was one of the reasons Devon and I even got together in the first place. Back in grad school, I’d drive down to Oregon one or two weekends per month; she’d drive up to Seattle with about the same frequency. We’d have a few days together and then, as Sunday evening loomed, disappear down I-5 and resume our separate lives, losing ourselves into our microscopes, statistical analyses and respective dissertations for another couple of weeks. Recall that we didn’t even get to live in the same state until we’d been married for a year and a half.

So this slipping between worlds has been a constant for both of us. I don’t even get to tease her for that time this past year when she headed off to the Galapagos for a couple of weeks and left me zero (no, null, nada) contact information: no tour company, no itinerary, no dates, nothing. It’s just what we seem to do.

But lately the transitions have been harder for me. Things are sticking, like the gearshift of an old car when you’ve been sloppy on the clutch for too long, and now it’s hard to get into second. Somehow, sitting here in Santiago on a six hour layover (ugh!), it feels like I’m struggling a little, dragging pieces of my other lives along with me. It’s like that memory you have from a dream, when everything was just a little blurred, when something was dragging on you, making everything just a little slower, just a little harder. And when you tried to jump, but never quite left the ground, because in retrospect, all you really managed to do was stand up slowly.

I’m sure it’ll be great once I’m settled in on the ship. I’m already running into folks folks from the AMLR science team on the way down: Christian, Tony, Jen. And Captain John, from the WHOI cruise. We’ll have our few crazy, hectic days of preparation once we get to Punta Arenas (best hot cocoa on the freakin planet), and then be off for a month of Science, with a capital “S”. The sea ice is out, and there’s rumor that we’ll even try to hit some new grid points way down in the Gerlache Strait, off Anvers Island. Yeah, it’s going to be great. I know this, and I know I’ll feel it once I’m properly settled into my new, Antarctic life. It’s just right now, still unstuck in place, between two places, two ways of being, it all feels a little lost in translation.


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