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Ten Reasons Why Travel Won’t Make You Better

Top 10 Reasons

Ten Reasons Why Travel Won’t Make You Better

H. Bradford

6/18/18

With the death of Anthony Bourdain, there have been many well meaning articles which encourage people to travel so that they can become better people.  This is a common theme in travel writing- the transformative power of travel. However, I am uncomfortable with this framing- especially the claim that travel makes you better.  Sometimes this claim is qualified by saying that it will make a person more adventurous, more comfortable with strangers, smarter, more flexible, more self aware, etc. I think this is a dangerous narrative, and that believing that travel makes a person better can actually make a person worse.  At the very least, it is a hollow, self-congratulatory platitude for those who have had the privilege of traveling. So, to buck the trend of “travel makes you better” here is a top ten list of how travel doesn’t make you better.


1.Better is Comparative

What is better?  Better is a comparative adjective.  Thus, to argue that travel makes someone “better” means that there is an unnamed subject that the traveler is better than.   Perhaps travel makes a person better than the person they were before they traveled. The comparison is between the past and present self.  More darkly, the comparison could be between the traveler and those who have not traveled. This is problematic because travel is a privilege, which will be addressed later.  While it may seem benign to suppose that travel makes an individual better than they were before they traveled, this argument concedes that the worth of a human being has something to do with how much they have traveled.  Am I a better person because I have traveled? No, the quality of my humanity is no better. I may be more knowledgeable about certain subjects, have some fond memories, or feel proud of confronting my fears but my overall “betterness” is non-existent.  I am no better than the human I was before I traveled and no better than any human who has not traveled.  Really, this vague notion of “better” is inherently hierarchical, as it divides humans (even as individuals) into better and lesser. The danger of this is that, once again, travel is a privilege that not everyone has access to.  It also assumes that travel is intrinsically good.

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Bulawayo, Zimbabwe


 

2. Better is Subjective

Most people who argue that travel makes you better are probably not intending to divide the world between better and lesser people.  The sloppy comparison is not meant to be harmful. It is just an example of the taken for granted expressions of common speech. When travel blogs argue that travel makes you “better” it is meant to express that travel improves a set of specific characteristics of an individual traveler.  For instance, a travel blog might argue that travel makes a person better at problem solving or better at talking to strangers. Arguably, travel can make someone better at some things. For example, a person who travels frequently may be better at navigating public transportation systems or packing a suitcase (of course, these very specific applications of “better” are not typical of the “travel makes you better arguments” ).  It seems reasonable that a person who packs suitcases often may gain skills in fitting objects into a small space and deciding what not to pack as a matter of experience. Compared to someone who does not pack suitcases, this seems true. However, “better” must still be operationalized. How does one measure the quality of betterness at packing suitcases? The volume of objects that are fit inside? The amount of time it takes to pack said objects?  If these were deemed the measures of “betterness,” travel is not the only act that creates the improvement of these skills, but rather the act of frequent packing that is associated with travel. A person could develop this skill as a hobby, as a competitive sport (the made up sport of timed packing contests), frequent moving, because of work travel, or maybe even playing Tetris. The big idea is that most uses of the word “better” are subjective. “Better” is not an objective measure (as in the packing example, where it is based upon time and volume) but rather personal opinions, emotions, norms, or less measurable qualities.  A person who travels may indeed be “better” at talking to strangers by some objective measures, but this is unlikely to be universally true or true only on account of the travel experience. Finally, the improvement of this skill is only subjectively important. Image may contain: sky, tree, mountain, nature and outdoor

Travel probably has made me “better” at packing and camping… but only marginally.


3.Better is Fleeting

Years ago, I spent a semester in South Korea, I studied Korean history and language.  When I returned to the United States, I maintained my interest in the country for a short time by taking a another Korean history class and reading books.  For a time, it could be said that I was “better” at Korean language and “better” at history (as compared to my pre-travel self and the average American who had not studied these things).  But with time, this knowledge has faded. While I am still more knowledgeable about topics related to Korea than I would have been had I never studied or traveled there, there are still plenty of things I never learned, will never know, and have long forgotten.  The disciplined study of of another language or a country’s history, art, popular culture, music, etc. is a lifelong pursuit that cannot be accomplished simply with a visit, no matter the length. Even becoming an expert in a subject area related to a specific country or area is an ongoing struggle to stay abreast of the latest research.  Without ongoing effort to learn more, question what is known, build upon existing knowledge, and make connections to other areas of knowledge…”better” is subject to entropy. Thus, while travel may make someone “better” in the sense they are more knowledgeable, this kind of better declines with time unless effort is made to maintain or improve upon the original set of knowledge.

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So many forgotten experiences…so much lost knowledge…


Some travel blogs argue that travel makes someone better, not in the area of knowledge, but in personality traits such as flexibility, problem solving, interpersonal skills, etc.  I imagine that these areas are more variable in their decline. A person who learned to problem solve while traveling may have gained a lifelong skill, or, perhaps in other contexts, that same person could become rigid.  On the other hand, some of these traits might grow better with time, irrespective of travel. I imagine that the average person who must work and interact with people would over time improve their interpersonal skills simply as a matter of surviving in a society wherein some level of interpersonal skills are required for maintaining a job, maintaining friendships, and navigating social interactions to meet basic needs like food and shelter.  In any event, whatever “better” is, ultimately it is illusive, temporary, and contextual.


 

4. Better Rarely Matters

Suppose travel does make a person better in some ways.  I think that my geography skills are probably better than they might be had I never traveled (though my studious roommates who do not internationally travel are much better at geography than I am AND my comrade who has a P.h.d in GIS is infinitely better at geography than I am).  So what? Why does it matter? Why does it matter that I might be better than average at geography or alternatively worse than others at it? My worth as a human being is not dependent upon my geography skills. Knowing geography is useful in some contexts (such as teaching geography, current event literacy, or trivia), but the masses of the world do not live or die by my knowledge of geography.  The masses of the world live and die in poverty, by preventable disease, by the wars inflicted by my own country, and the legacies of colonization exasperated by the inequalities of global capitalism. My knowledge of geography is important only inasmuch as it can be used to understand and dismantle systems of power. Can travel offer insights that can work towards this end? Of course. It can connect people to others, be a tool of solidarity and collaboration, can mobilize others towards common causes, or be a source of education on injustices.  This matters, but only because I value the advancement of social struggle. Travel that makes a person a “better” activist in terms of their effectiveness in advancing struggle certainly has value. Travel that connects and fuels social movements has value. But, almost all of my travel is for pleasure, education, and self-fulfillment. Whatever I gain in the interest of these things, even if I personally become “better”- means little to the rest of the world…which traveling should teach is often entrenched in poverty. What does it matter if I become better at talking to strangers, packing a suitcase, navigating public transportation, or gain the sense I am a more whole person?  What does it matter if I become more knowledgeable about a country’s history or culture? What does better matter unless it is a means to an end? The end of self betterment is not globally liberating. The end of fond memories or confronting fear will not ensure a more just world. Becoming a “better” person simply doesn’t matter. We all die. So the goal of becoming a better person for its own sake is a dead end. Becoming a “better” person…in the interest of becoming a more useful and effective member of movements for social change expands the self beyond an individual life or needs. Of course, this is also draining, disappointing, and doesn’t make for great Instagram photos.  I am not selfless and tireless enough to only travel in the interest of building social change. So, what does my “better” matter, if not for those things? What does anyone’s “better” matter, if not for those things? And, since travel is not required to become better at the things that truly matter (as much as anything matters in the indifferent universe), does travel matter?

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Some of my knowledge from travel is useful when I play trivia with friends


5.Travel is a Privilege:

 

A major problem with the notion that travel makes you better is that not everyone can travel.   80% of the world lives on less than $10 a day. For most of the world, international travel is not an option because it is simply too expensive.  This means that travel is mostly a source of “betterment” to people from wealthier countries (i.e. often those with colonial histories which enabled earlier economic development at the expense of exploited colonies).  Within wealthier countries where more people may have the leisure time and resources to travel, race, class, gender, sexuality, age, ability, and other sources of social inequality limits who is able to travel and who is not.  I have certainly seen many Australians traveling in Europe, but I would be hard pressed to find an aboriginal Australian among them. This isn’t to argue that aboriginal Australians never travel, but since 19% of the population lived in poverty (in 2014), it would be harder for many of them to afford travel.  16% of Americans live in poverty, but 27% of African Americans live in poverty and 26% of Hispanics. Larger segments of racial minority populations simply cannot to travel on account of poverty, not to mention other barriers such as incarceration or safety issues. 12% of Americans have disabilities. While having a disability does not mean that a person cannot travel, depending on the disability, it could create barriers or restrictions to travel.  Travel safety is also an issue. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer, etc. travelers may be restricted in where they can visit to do fear of repression, hate crimes, incarceration, etc. Travel is far easier if you have money, are cisgender male, straight, white, healthy, young, and child free. Of course, there are plenty of people who are not these things and who travel. Still, 63% of Americans have never been outside the country. It is easy to think that Americans are ignorant, xenophobic bumpkins.  In a survey (conducted by a luggage company), 76% of respondents said they wanted to travel but it wasn’t financially possible and 25% said they lacked the time. Only 10% responded that they had no interest. The bottom line is that most people in the world cannot afford to travel or have social barriers to travel. It seems unfair to rate some people as “better” for doing something that is out of the reach of so many more.

https://nypost.com/2018/01/11/a-shocking-number-of-americans-never-leave-home/

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A street in Bridgetown, Barbados

 


 

 6.  Not Wanting to Travel is Okay

One of the myths behind travel is that it will open up the world, transforming the traveler into someone who is no longer closed minded, ignorant, prejudiced, provincial, etc.  This implies that people who do not travel are closed minded, ignorant, prejudiced, and so on. Now, I certainly want people to look at the world beyond borders. I want people to think against our foreign policy and national interests.  I agree that society would be better if there was less racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, ableism, and all the other “isms.” But, a person does not have to travel to be an open minded internationalist who wants to end social inequalities.  Travel is not the only means nor the best means to become open minded and globally aware. There are plenty of travelers who travel with their prejudices and ignorance. There are plenty of travelers who change very little after their experience. Travel is not the magic key to betterment.


Most of my friends do not travel.  Yet, all of my friends are aware of the world and committed to social justice.  Some of my friends do not travel due to income, lack of vacation time, health, criminal background, and other barriers.  I have one friend who adamantly says he does not want to travel. Is there anything wrong with this? Why would there be?  Not everyone wants to travel, just as not everyone wants to plant a garden, watch birds, go for long hikes, collect stamps, go to sporting events, attend concerts, scuba dive, or any number of other activities.  Not wanting to travel doesn’t make someone “bad” or stupid, or closed minded, or inferior. It is simply a matter of preference. A person can prefer not to travel, but still have a deep interest in learning about the world and still have a strong commitment to changing social injustices.  Just as a person can travel and be entirely indifferent to social injustice and blind to privilege. There are many ways to learn about the world. Formal education, self-education, employment, community engagement, volunteering, activism, hobbies, etc. can connect individuals to people who are different from themselves and broaden the mind to social justice issues.


7. Travel Can Be Unethical

There are many unethical aspects to travel.  Firstly, travel requires transportation- which generally means using more fossil fuels than one would use if they just stayed home.  Travel can also be a source of waste. For instance, the airline industry produces 5.2 million tons of waste each year in the form of such things as empty bottles, uneaten meals, packaging, etc.  https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/airlines-cabin-waste/index.html


Many countries lack waste management systems, so even if a person wants to recycle or compost, there is a lack of infrastructure to support this, much less the more basic service of garbage collection.  I have certainly littered when in other countries simply because proper trash disposal was nowhere to be found. Increased travel to natural areas can impact plant and animal populations and increased travel anywhere creates more demand for tourist supporting infrastructure such as roads, hotels, stores, and restaurants (which can result in loss of human neighborhoods or natural habitats depending upon where these are built). Travel does not make a person “better” in terms of their environmental impact. Image may contain: mountain, sky, outdoor, water and nature

An underground landfill fire in Grenada- indicating a waste management problem


Travel changes economies.  With the decline of industry in my own region, the economy has shifted more towards tourism.  The impact of this has been the expansion of lower paying, non-union, service industry jobs with higher turnover and greater sensitivity to economic downturn.  Of course, workers can always fight back for higher wages, better conditions, and unions- which has been happening in the service economy, but this takes time and organization.  On a global scale, catering to the tastes of tourists can mean a homogenization or Disneyfication of culture, shift in labor from subsistence to tourist economies or from production to service economies, marketization of culture and environments, privatization of resources, and dependency on tourism (which is a variable source of income), increased reliance on imports (as the economy shifts from producing things to services or to meet the needs of tourists) etc.


At the same time, economies change and tourism fills the gap of industries which once were (but are no longer profitable).  It is very hard for island countries to maintain a global, “competitive advantage” due to trade laws, transportation costs, lack of land, lack of money for capital investment, etc.  For instance, it would be very hard for many Pacific Island countries to be major exporters of produce, since the islands are far from each other, often small, and far away from global markets.  Because of colonization and globalization, subsistence ways of life have been disrupted. Tourism is a way to generate some income and create some jobs. Tourism isn’t necessarily evil and may have the positive impact of injecting money into these economies.  However, the plight of these countries is a complicated mix of colonization, current trade practices, climate change, and tourism. A well meaning tourist can attempt to patronize local businesses or engage in ecotourism, but the global economy is set-up to prohibit the development of some countries and continue the dependency of poorer countries on wealthier ones.  Travel is an aspect of this dependency and the consumption practices of a single traveler, no matter how well meaning, cannot alter the nature of global capitalism. Thus, travel does not make a person “better” in terms of their role in the global economy.


8. Travel is Made Possible by Imperialism

From a socialist perspective, imperialism is a stage of capitalism wherein due to declining profits, developed economies look to perpetuate capitalism and avoid crisis by expanding trade into global markets, integrating more workers into their economies, and by destroying economic competitors.  This is the motor behind globalization. As a U.S. citizen, I have found that ease of travel often correlates with degree of integration within the global economy and acceptance of the United States foreign policy. For instance, travel to North Korea is currently banned for most Americans (by our own government), Cuba was historically a place U.S. citizens were banned from traveling to due to our trade embargo, and American travel to Iran was briefly banned last year after the U.S. travel ban.  Ease of travel is a function of U.S. imperialism (but also imperialism in general). For instance, in countries like Belarus and Turkmenistan, I was unable to use my ATM card. This seems like a minor inconvenience, but generally, this also means that these countries are not well integrated into the global banking system. On the other hand, some countries literally use U.S. dollars. All U.S. “territories” (i.e. modern colonies) use US dollars, including Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.  Zimbabwe also uses U.S. dollars. For countries which don’t, I never have any issue converting my money, since it is widely accepted as a matter of our position in the global economy. The same cannot be said for someone carrying Albanian lek, who would be hard pressed to convert their money due to its obscurity and relative lack of value. In most countries I have traveled to, I have been able to find English speakers. Again, this is a matter of both American and British imperialism- which has spread the English language around the world and made it a language of economic and political importance.  Likewise, Spanish and French are also used due to the history of colonialism and imperialism. Infrastructure which today supports tourists, such as ports, airports, and roads, were often built by colonial powers in the interest of extracting resources from these countries or to support military interests (an extension of imperialism). For example, Kinshasa airport was first built by the Belgians, Cairo International airport was first used as an airfield by the U.S. during World War II, Ahmed Ben Bella airport in Algeria was first used by the French in WWII as an airfield, etc. This isn’t to argue that countries do not build their infrastructure on their own, independent of imperialism, but that imperialism has shaped the globe, making it far easier for me to travel than someone from a country that was never a world power.  Can I really argue that travel makes me “better” when my ability to travel has been lubricated by imperialism?

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(In North Korea in 2010)


9. Travel Has No Intrinsic Value

The nature of value is complicated, since the word value is used in a variety of ways.  In a Marxist sense, something has use value if it has “usefulness” or utility and exchange value if it can be expressed in price or traded as a commodity.  Travel is a set of experiences, but not a singular entity or commodity. It may be many commodities which are consumed in the process of travel. In this sense, to my best understanding, travel does not have use value or exchange value, though aspects of travel may possess these things.  Travel can be broken down into meals, hotel stays, flights, bus tickets, tours, and so on, which have exchange value. But, this is a very mechanistic view of what value means.


When most people talk about the value of travel, they are referring not to the economic value, but the value of memories and experiences.   Of course, on an individual level, these things have value. The problem is that some people idealize this value above other experiences. Is the value of travel greater than the value of other things?  It is tempting for some travelers to revel in the freedom of travel and to frame it as superior to such things as working 9-5, having children, settling down, staying in one place, forming routines, being tied down by responsibilities, and so on.  Does travel have more value than working? Well, travel is often a lot more fun than working. But, is the value of fun greater than the value of work? What is the value of work (not in the Marxist sense) but the everyday, more generic sense? I work at a domestic violence shelter, as a substitute teacher, and at a women’s health clinic.  Reproductive health is a heck of a lot more important than having fun! Access to abortion and other reproductive health care is fundamental to the equality of women (or anyone with the capacity of becoming pregnant). If everyone who worked in this field suddenly decided to take prolonged vacations, resulting in the shutdown of reproductive health services (this is an unrealistic scenario)  society would be worse off. My own work in this area is minimal and part time, so it is important not to overstate my own contribution to this area. The main point is that travel is often framed as better than work, but work has a lot of value. My full time job is at a domestic violence shelter- it is hard to imagine that travel, which is done for fun and selfish reasons, is of a higher importance or value.  Travel is important to me, but the social value of sheltering survivors/victims of domestic violence is greater than the value of travel. Leisure travel does not address a social problem or meet a social need. Image may contain: text


I don’t wish to overstate the importance of work, since work can be draining, stressful, exploitative, a source of struggle, and necessity for survival.  Because work is alienating and exploitative, escape from work through travel is idealized. But, escape from work does not improve labor conditions or improve the lot of working people.  It does not alter the conditions of work. Still, people SHOULD work less. There should be more vacation time and more time to pursue anything which broadens the human experience, including travel, hobbies, community engagement, relationship building, education, etc.  Yes, travel is one of the things that can enrich the human experience. But, so can having children, building meaningful relationships, connecting with a community, planting gardens, going for hikes, or any number of experiences. Work also has the potential to enrich the human experience, but to do so, it must be liberated from capitalist exploitation.


 

10. Travel Can Make You Worse

Finally, there is no rule that travel will make you better (whatever that is).  Travel can make a person worse. By worse, I mean, it can give a person a sense of inflated importance.  It can make someone believe that they are more knowledgeable or have lived a superior lifestyle. Like the character in Rocky and Bullwinkle, who prattled on about his marvelous adventurous, it can make a person a egotistical, elitist, and out of touch.  Look at me! I’ve been there! I’ve done that! I know all about that! I know the best place to stay! I know the best deals! Of course, I fall victim to this as well, since I often write about travel- pretending that I have some important knowledge or insight to pass on.  Well, I am doing that right now- passing on the insight that travel does not make you better! Image result for commander mcbragg


Travel can make you “worse” in other ways.  Travel can be tiring, stressful, socially exhausting, confusing, make people sick, costly, dangerous, frustrating, disappointing, etc.  The toll of the challenges of travel can bring out the worst characteristics in some travelers. I myself have become withdrawn, anxious, depressed, fatigued, frustrated, judgemental, etc. while traveling.  I can hardly say I am my best self when faced with challenges and new situations. I have certainly observed other travelers melt down or engage in maladaptive behaviors to combat or mute the stress of travel.  Excessive eating, drinking, and spending are some ways that others might cope with the hardships of travel. Drinking too much is especially common. While there might be some awesome, cool, well-adapted, roll-with-the punches travelers out there, there are probably many more than have yelled at hotel staff or looked at difference with disgust.


In a material sense, travel can make you worse.  When I spend money on travel, it means that I am not spending money on other things.  I am going to be far worse off in my retirement years because I spent money on travel rather than saving for old age.  I am not building my savings for a rainy day or unforeseen catastrophe. Travel is not the most prudent thing to spend money on.  However, I value the experiences so I continue to spend money on them.


Travel can make a person’s health worse.  I have been fortunate that I have never become majorly ill from travel, but travel does expose people to diseases that they might not otherwise encounter.  I have almost zero risk of contracting malaria or yellow fever if I just stay home…


 

Conclusion:

 

This may seem rather negative, but I really feel that travel does not make you “better” just as formal education does not make you “better”, having a professional career does not make you “better,” or any number of other things makes a person better.  I enjoy travel, but it does not make me better. In some ways, it makes me worse than others. I would love to travel more than I do. I encourage others to travel. I admire those who travel. However, I don’t know that it is the path to betterment or that such a pursuit is even a worthy goal.  What is betterment outside of comparison, hierarchy, or elitism? In what ways does “better” concede to an economy that makes money by making us believe that we need to be more than what we are? Of course, at some basic level I want to improve upon myself, grow, change, and experience new things.  But does accomplishing this make me better than others or better than my past self? At the core of these sorts of questions is the bigger question of what is meaningful in a world where everything dies or changes, where life is short and harsh for many, and never fully realized by the vast majority of us.  Through the prism of pain and dying, the “best” among us are those who work the hardest to make the suffering in the world less and work to build a world wherein more people can explore their full humanity. Travel can sometimes support this goal, but for me, it tends to be a diversion.

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This Beast

I have failed to write a poem for EVERY book I have read this year, but the most recent book that I read was The Democrats: A Critical History by Lance Selfa.   This book was well written and clearly identifies the long history of contradictions, empty promises, and duplicity of the Democratic Party.   The book is wonderfully enraging.    Here is a poem to express my revolutionary anger.

 

This Beast

2/12/18

Know this beast

Study it everyday

Like the features of a monster

With gnashing teeth to grind up the working class

Bludgeoning them like Hartley and Taft

The demon who ignores poor women

The Jekyll and the Hyde Amendment

The Jackal and the corporate cabal

Who broke bones with austerity?

Who championed NAFTA, WTO, World Bank, IMF, and the CIA?

These are not gladiators,

But emperors and vampires.

There is no lesser evil

There is only the evil of two faced capitalism,

Which devours children and shortens lives,

The time must come when people no longer bow before

Great and terrifying things

Yielding power to imagined behemoths

Their immortality is mythical

The immorality is real

We already possess the power to end this nightmare

To liberate the dispossessed

And dispose of every neo-liberal liberator

 

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2017: Year in Review

2017:  Year in Review

H. Bradford

1/26/18

It is hard to believe that another year has ended.  When I stop to think about it, this felt like a marathon of a year.  I feel tired.  I would say that it was generally a good year.   At the same time, I have the creeping sense that something in 2018 will go amiss.  I suppose it is simply the regression to the means.  I have had several good years, but nothing exceptionally good (or exceptionally bad) lasts forever.  So, while I have an ominous feeling about the future, I will take a moment to reflect upon the past!  And, I can only hope that 2018 continues the stretch of happy years.


 

154 Political Events:

I think that this year will mostly be remembered for the flurry of political events that I attended this year.  In the end, I attended 154 political events this year, including meetings, marches, protests, vigils, etc.   I basically did something related to activism every 2.37 days this year.  In 2016, I attended just under 90 political events.  Suffice to say, the presidency of Donald Trump has been the catalyst of a great deal of organizing, such as the Women’s March, March for Science, and Climate March, Immigrant Solidarity Marches, etc.   But, there have been plenty of local issues that have warranted attention as well, such the program cuts at UWS, Homeless Bill of Rights, Graham Garfield domestic violence case.  The largest expansion of social movement organizing was in the area of feminism this year.  Unfortunately, there is next to nothing in terms of anti-war activism.  I suppose war is just normal at this point, seeing as we have been in Afghanistan for 16 years.  I appeared on the news several times for organizing/participating in various events.  I was even interviewed by a British socialist newspaper.  I spoke out at a county board meeting and also did a radio interview about domestic violence.   So, I think that it was a big year of activism and I was in the spotlight far more than what is normal for me and this challenged me to be less quiet and introverted.  Looking back, I can be proud of this and I am sure in the years to come I will remember this as a time of dutiful activism.   For now, I am a little worn out and disappointed.  There are massive, startling, systemic problems.  Activists are rising up to challenge some of these- but so much more is needed.  Most importantly, we need a political program capable of energizing and emboldening social movements beyond the status quo of our dual capitalist political parties.

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A sign I made for the Climate March- one of the 154 events that I attended last year….


Central Asia Trip:

A major highlight of the year was that I spent most of June in Central Asia.  It was an extremely fascinating part of the world.  I saw astonishing things, like the Gas Crater in Turkmenistan, Ashgabat-Turkmenistan’s white marble capital, the remnants of the Aral Sea, Kiva, Samarkand, Bukhara, and Tashkent.  Honestly, this was one of my favorite trips in my lifetime, simply because of all of the surreal and strange things that I saw.  The world is always different and new, with many things to see and learn, but this part of the world is not heavily visited by tourists.  It felt unique and much more remote than other places I have been.  The trip also challenged me since it involved some bush camping and dry, hot conditions.

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Camping in the basin of the Aral Sea


Continue Birding:

I saw over 200 species of birds this past year.  I was very engaged in birding throughout the year.  Highlights of my birding include attending an International Migratory Bird Day bird count at Wild River State Park, attending Hawk Weekend at Hawk’s Ridge, birding at the Sax Zim Bog for the first time, various return trips to both Hawk’s Ridge and Sax Zim Bog, birding at Rice Lake Wildlife Refuge, and casually birding in the Caribbean and Central Asia.   I am impressed with the number and variety of birds that I have seen this year and that my birding skills are slowly growing.  There are a number of species that stand out, but I was most impressed with seeing a Northern Hawk Owl and Great Gray Owl at the Sax Zim Bog as well as a pair of Spectacled Owls in Costa Rica.  Interestingly, my very first bird of the year for 2018 was a Snowy Owl and the last for 2017 was also a Snowy Owl.  I guess it is a good year for owls!   Otherwise, Rosy Starlings, Red-billed streamertail hummingbirds, Yellow-crowned night heron, and Pied-Billed Grebes (since they are cute) are some of my other highlights for the year.

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New Job:

In December, I applied for and began a new part time job.   I already work full time at domestic violence shelter, but on a whim I decided to apply for an additional part time job as a Patient Educator in the field of reproductive health.   I will say that it is pretty exhausting working two jobs.  But, back in my late 20s I worked four jobs, so…I know I can handle this.   Really, I am pretty excited about this new position.  I often feel that I am stagnating or that I don’t do enough- so this is a great opportunity gain new knowledge and skills.  It is also a new way for me to learn more about reproductive health and an expansion of my feminist activism.   I enjoy learning new things and this really is a wonderful opportunity.   The job itself is unique.  I do not have any experience working in the health field, but I have enjoyed challenging myself to pick up new information.  Plus, I get to wear scrubs.  I have some awesome sloth scrubs…as well as Ninja turtle and dinosaur scrubs.  You know, because wearing fun scrubs is also important….


Raven Tattoo:

This is a pretty minor detail, but I got a new tattoo this year.  I decided that when I hit my 200th bird, I would get a new bird tattoo.  I chose a raven.  I really love the tattoo.  Now, I am just one bird away from my 300 th bird.  What will I choose for my next tattoo?  Perhaps a snowy owl?

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Blue Hair:

For many years I have kept my hair black.  This year, I decided to mix it up and dye my hair blue.  Thus, I have had blue and black hair all year.  This is another minor detail, but I have enjoyed the new color.  It has inspired me to wear more blue (rather than my typical red and black).  The only downside is that dying my hair black was far easier and took far less upkeep.  Nevertheless, I am getting the hang of it.


Try Two New Activities:

Every year, I try to attempt at least two new activities.  This year, I tried geocaching and snorkeling for the first time.  As far as geocaching goes, I think it is a fun distraction and something easy to do when I am hiking.  I began geocaching in March and by December I had already found 100 caches.  As for snorkeling, I am not a water person.   I don’t like swimming.  I don’t like being wet.  I am not a strong swimmer.  I get sea sick.  Water and me are not friends.  But, I don’t want to live my life entirely in fear (even if I am not always ready to dive right into water sports).  So, I went snorkeling for the first time.  It was sort of neat.  I was surprised by how many fish I could see from the surface of the water.  I was also astonished by how salty salt water actually tastes (when I accidentally dipped my head a little too low for a closer look at a fish).   I would go again.  I am not in love with the water, but it interested me enough to give it another go.  I saw some sort of parrot fish, which was a pretty sight.   My goal is to try snorkeling again when I (hopefully) visit Iceland in 2018 (as tourists can snorkel between the North American and Eurasian plates meet).  As for diving…hmm…well, baby steps.


Four New State Parks:

In recent years, I have tried to visit a new Minnesota state park each year.  This year, I visited four new state parks.  I visited St. Croix State Park, Wild River State Park, Savannah Portage State Park, and Mille Lacs State Park.   At least two of them I visited when I was a teenager, but since that was so long ago, I will count them as “new.”  They are new to my adult life anyway.  I also visited Copper Falls State Park in Wisconsin as well, bringing the actual total to five.  With the exception of Copper Falls, I visited all of these state parks by myself.  These solo adventures were a peaceful escape from work and activism.  I enjoyed Savannah Portage State Park the most, since I liked hiking around the lake, hiking the continental divide trail, and walking along the bog walk.

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Solo Camping Trips:

I went on several solo camping trips to the previously mentioned State Parks.  The first adventure brought me to Wild River State Park, where I hiked and birded for International Migratory Bird Day.  I later went on a trip to Mille Lacs State Park.  It rained during this camping trip, which I undertook shortly after my trip to Central Asia.  Oh, it was also plagued with flies.  I also went camping at Tettegouche State Park- where I went on a wildflower guided hike and hiked the second tallest peak in Minnesota (not that impressive, I know.)  Finally, I went camping at Savannah Portage State Park, where it also rained, but I still had a lovely time hiking and enjoying the autumn leaves.   My solo camping trips gave me a small dose of adventure and independence, offering escape and peace of mind.

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Bog Awareness Week:

I celebrated the heck out of Bog Awareness Week.  I did more for Bog Awareness Week than for…Christmas.  But, bogs are cool.  I went to Savannah Portage State Park’s bog walk, I participated in Sax-Zim Bog’s Bioblitz, and I convinced my friends to head to Cable, WI with me to check out a bog there.  I bogged myself down with bogs.  A highlight of bog week was realizing that Pitcher Plants produce flowers.  I had never noticed this before.

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A pitcher plant at Savannah Portage State Park


Color Run and Pride 5K:

This year I tried the Color Run for the first time.  I love it, since it is not timed.  Although it is crowded with enthusiastic runners and walkers and the que to begin is pretty long, it was a fun time.  Various parts of the run are marked by groups of people who douse the participants with colors.  There are also foam bubbles, unicorn mascots, group dancing, and medals for everyone.  I loved it.  I also ran the Pride 5k.  The race was rather hot.  It was timed.  But, I did it!  Even if I did it terribly, I ran it and hopefully next year I will do better!

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At the start of the Color Run!


 

Go to the Ballet and Continue Ballet Lessons:

Speaking of things that I am terrible at…I continued ballet lessons this fall.  Continuing ballet lessons was one of my New Year’s resolutions for 2017.  Another resolution was going to the ballet.  Well, I went and saw Stravisnky’s Firebird.  It was super.  I enjoy Russian folktales and liked how Koschei the deathless was portrayed.


Write Poetry:

Last year, I began writing poetry.  My goal was to write two poems, but I ended up writing at least two dozen poems.  It is a neat experience, since I never really cared for poetry when I was younger.   I often objected to it because it was too flowery and emotional. A lot of poetry takes itself too seriously.   I try to look at it differently now.  To me, poetry is just a short story.  A story about a moment, an emotion, a passing idea.  It expresses what narrative does with frugal words but ample meaning.


33 Books:

To many of my friends, 33 books is a light reading list for the year.  However, 30% of Americans do not read a single book in a year.  The average number of books read in a year is 12.   This average is skewed by some super readers, as the median number of books read each year is 4.   All of the books that I read this year were non-fiction, which is something that I hope to change in 2018.  The BEST books from this list include The KKK in Minnesota  by Elizabeth Dorsey Hatle, Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America by Mamie Till, An Environmental History of Russia by various authors, and Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation by Silvia Federici.  I read four books about witches, eight books about Central Asia in preparation for my trip there, four books about the Caribbean, including two about Puerto Rico, two few books about mycology, two books about birding, and several books on a variety of topics.  I will say that I came out of 2017 with greater knowledge of birds, mushrooms, Central Asia, the Caribbean, and witches.  I would love to read 50 books in a year, but with my work schedule, other hobbies, and activism schedule, it would be difficult.    

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Some graffiti on a bridge in Superior


Create Four Works of Art:

Another resolution for 2017 was to create at least four works of art.  I did this by dabbling with watercolor (the results weren’t awesome, but it was a start!).   I also painted four bird houses for the Solidarity House.  Beyond that, I framed some photos that I have taken.  I will say that I am not especially great at watercoloring or photography, but it is worthwhile to shamelessly create.  Through practice, I would like to improve my skills in these areas.

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This watercolor painting is still wet!  It depicts a magpie, mulberry tree, and fountain in Ashgabat.


Study Russian:

One of my goals was to continue studying Russian, or at the very least brush up on it from time to time.  Generally, I am not at all disciplined at studying languages.  There were a few times throughout the year wherein I tried to teach myself some new words or review some old ones.   Traveling through Central Asia helped me to brush off the cobwebs in my brain and try to remember how to speak some Russian.  I was able to communicate a few times, so knowing some Russian was certainly pretty helpful.  An elusive goal is to attend the Friday night Russian table at Sir Ben’s.  Alas, I lack the confidence to go!  I feel so foolish and incompetent when I try to string together what I remember.  Still…I sort of worked on this goal, at least by using Russian on my trip.


Attend Yoga Classes:

Attending yoga classes was on my resolution list for the year.  I squeezed in some yoga at the very end of the year.


Go Snowshoeing and Cross Country Skiing:

I did not go cross country skiing a single time in 2017.  As for snowshoeing, I only went twice.  But, the two times that I went snowshoeing were pretty awesome!  Back in February, I went for a full moon snowshoe hike organized by UWS.  I did not go again until Christmas Eve Day, when I went snowshoeing along a trail at the Sax Zim Bog.   Each year, I try to make a point of doing both of these activities so that I can better embrace winter.

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Snowshoeing over some icy, sand covered mounds at WI Point.


New Car:

A major event of the year was purchasing a car in March.   My car is a Volvo V70 and I love it!  It is the first time that I have purchased a car/financed a car loan all on my own.  I like my car.  I like having reliable transportation and my car took me on many adventures this year- such as the camping and birding trips.  I will say that the car is not great in the winter and since it is very low-set the passenger door bumps against the curb.  However, I am generally very happy with the car.  It has a moon roof and heated seats- which seem pretty luxurious compared to other vehicles that I have owned.

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Not my actual car- but similar model, year, and color.


50 Blog Posts:

I actually wrote 77 blog posts in 2017 and had between 350 and 1000 viewers each month.  My goal was to write 50.  The numbers don’t matter all that much.  However, I do like sharing my writing and opening up myself to others in this way.  I have had quite a bit of feedback that people enjoy reading my blog or at least find some of the posts interesting.


 

Texas/Caribbean Trip:

In November, I went on a cruise to the Panama canal, which also visited Jamaica, Aruba, Curacao, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Colombia.  I really wanted a vacation that felt like a vacation- where I could de-stress from the 150 political events I had attended/everyday stress of working with survivors/victims of domestic violence.  In other words, I wanted a super easy trip.  To that end, I went on a two week cruise.  It was really wonderful to relax and feel a true sense of easy escapism- even if cruises are consumerist monstrosities.  I saw many birds, especially in Aruba, which was an added bonus for the trip.  I have a lot of happy memories from the trip.  Once the trip was over, I spent a half a week visiting my brother in Texas.  We once again hiked at Government Canyon and visited the Botanical Gardens.  These are two of my favorite places to visit in San Antonio.  My brother will be moving to Minnesota in May, so this will probably be my last opportunity to visit him in Texas!

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Two spectacled owls in a public park in Costa Rica


Union Organizing:

Another highlight of the year, which also relates to my political events, was being more active in my union.  I have been a union steward since November 2016 and this year, went through contract negotiations in October.  I will say  honestly that contract negotiations was extremely stressful.  I worked night shifts, then would have to spend the morning to early afternoon in negotiations.   It was hard to fall asleep after negotiations, then return to work for another night shift.  Negotiations themselves were tense.  The whole thing felt very intense.  I was not overly fond of being on the negotiations team, but it is an honor to have the privilege of fighting for the interests of my fellow workers.  I feel that the negotiations went well and the contract was better because of our hard work.

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Loved Ones:

I often do not highlight this, but my year would not have been as great without my loved ones.  Yeah, I am not the gushy sort.   I am fortunate to have had some good times with Adam and Lucas.  We went to Copper Falls together as well as on an adventure to explore the bog near Cable, WI.  Of course, they also attend many political events with me.  Adam probably went to 200 political events last year- but unlike me, he does not keep a tally.  Another great friend is Jenny, who is my collaborator in feminist and bisexual activism.  She pushes me to show my emotional side-but being a rebel- I usually stubbornly resist this.  Dan is patient and supportive- sometimes even partaking in my adventures with some coaxing.  Lonnie always offers a fun time when I visit him in Texas.  I enjoy our long hikes together and that he humors my interest in birds and plants.  I have wonderful coworkers, some of whom I have attended fitness classes with, invited to trivia, and invited to political events.  They tolerate my eccentricities and listen to my newest ideas.  This year, I went to the State Fair with my mother.  I was crabby the whole time- as I was deprived of sleep.  But, she did not let my bad mood get in the way of a good time at the fair.  There are many others, like Chris, Angie, Amber, Carl, Jared, my grandma, Tiffany, Alexa, and many more.  I can be a real weirdo and anti-social turd.  I am fortunate to have people to enrich my life.

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Plants Remember

 Plants Remember

H. Bradford

12/16/17

 

Plants forget birthdays,

where the car is parked,

and the hierarchies of life

that put them below animals,

but above fungi and bacteria.

 

Plants forget Lysenko’s science

and spirituality.

They forget the stress of the dark and dry.

All the things we can do without.

 

Plants Remember…

winter so they can bloom,

their neighbors,

and an unkind touch.

They keep memories stored in their

roots and leaves,

like sugar,

water,

and pain.

 

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image from https://phys.org/news/2014-03-greenhouse-long-term-memory.html

Fear is a Eurypterid

I wanted to write a poem dedicated to Eurypterids, the prehistoric predator also known as sea scorpions. 

Fear is a Eurypterid

by H. Bradford

12/16/17

Fear is a eurypterid.

It is the horror of claws and spindly limbs, coded into our DNA

It is epigenetic trauma that crawled out of the sea on the fins of fearful fish.

They turned terrestrial to escape it.

So now we shiver at the sight of spiders and scorpions.

The archetype of arachnophobia is inborn.

Our phobias are Paleozoic.

Our maladies never truly vanished from Mesozoic seas.

Fear is a package, delivered through time in the bodies of fish, frogs, and apes.

Fear is the eurypterid who hunted long ago,

and we’ve been haunted ever since.

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A 1910 painting of eurypterids by Charles Knight

Bolshevik Girl

The longer I live in this world, the harder it is to dream and believe in things.  Life becomes a path of unanswerable questions, existential crisis, and the call to be stronger, less fearful, feel less, and forget more.   It is wearying.

Bolshevik Girl

H. Bradford

9/25/17

Be a Bolshevik,

Win the war

Push down the cold and hunger

Take the grain and fattest animals

But take no prisoners

Shed no tears

Be a Bolshevik, girl.

No complaints.

No fears.

Bury the bodies at the forest’s edge.

Hide the losses.

Clean the wounds.

Be a Bolshevik.

be stoic.

be cruel.

Hold on to something, an idea or a gun.

Darken your heart against faith in good things.

Toughen up or the world will roll over you.

Forget your dreams and how to dream them.

Or they will choke a century of dreamers

with your blood.

 

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This Old House

This Old House

H. Bradford

9/13/17

Paint blood on the door.

They’re coming for you,

and your soul,

and your sins.

Howling for more than you can possibly give.

Prepare your confessions for the crimes that were his.

Take the lashing,

bow low your thick head.

Hold down the old house,

its your will

and their wind.

Give them some fat, give them some skin.

If it all falls apart,

no one will win.

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“That Very Old House” art by Murphy Elliot

The Hollow Monument

The Hollow Monument

H. Badford

9/12/17

Every self is a hollow monument,

an ode to accomplishment, attachment, advancement, and the other virtues of civilization.

Behind each strong facade is fiber glass fillers and paper mache.

A hollow space to be filled with depression or distraction.

Together, we are a marble city,

made tidy by endless sweeping

and the tireless scouring of each surface,

until it all shines right and white.

Some sweepers and sculptors know it is all for show,

but without scripts and statues,

brooms and grooming,

What would we be?

What would we know?

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(A poem that I wrote while thinking about Turkmenistan, but also the social construction of the self/mechanisms of social control)

The Thinking Universe

The Thinking Universe

H. Bradford

9/12/17

I am the thinking universe.

I am its ego.

Its self doubt.

4.5 billion years of evolution to think the thoughts I thought today,

to write them down,

signalizing to life on earth another syllable in the tongue of infinity.

Words are electricity, pheromones, symbiosis, and erosion.

My joy and my pain,

expressed prettily on paper are the voices of

sharks and slime molds,

cycads and cyclones,

Every thing…

Every living and non-living thing-

exists in me and through me.

The wings of moths are my whisper

And the patter of cat’s feet are my cries.

Yet, everything vanishes

and everything dies.

The universe doesn’t even know it is speaking!

It doesn’t mourn its dead!

Its worth, words, and connections will die in my head.

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an image of slime molds from Wikipedia.

Josephine

Josephine

H. Bradford

9/11/17

He must have said something shocking

as they walked in the garden

or talked conspiracy over tea.

And what exactly was he?

That tsar?

Was he dashing and magnetic like her ex-husband?

Or was he a terror to behold?

She died suddenly after he left.

All of her lovers wept.

After all, she was still pretty in her old age.

Even I felt a little sad.

I can be as grandiose as a general or a tsar.

The tyrant in me mourns her beauty.

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