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Scouting the New World

Benjamin Malcolm

Old Octobers, New Life

The first scene of my “truth-is-stranger-than-fiction” three-act play occurs in the breakfast room of the Old Taos Guesthouse in New Mexico in October 2006. This is where my wife Tan and I have randomly met Tom.

Tom is an old friend of mine. We worked together at a weekly newspaper for several years in the Monadnock region of New Hampshire. I haven’t seen him since 1996, the year I had returned from Peace Corps Thailand. I lost touch with him, knowing only that he had moved back to Colorado.

So you can imagine my surprise at seeing Tom and his wife Colette during our one and only trip to New Mexico, a trip we had already postponed a couple of days because of an airline screw-up, at this specific guesthouse in this town on this particular Monday morning in 2006. What are the chances of this?

This takes us immediately into our second act, an October of 13 years ago.

I am in a busy, cluttered space, the main offices of the Monadnock Ledger in Peterborough, New Hampshire, typing away as an underpaid journalist in the sports pages of the local paper. I’m 28 years old. I feel a burning desire to get out of this small town atmosphere.

I have graduated into the tough economic climate of the late 80’s and have chosen journalism as something suitable until I can gravitate toward something I really love. Five years have passed, and I haven’t found anything better, and frankly, haven’t really looked all that hard. I’ve settled for life here, close to family and friends, and am having fun, but deep inside me I feel a need to move to something more challenging, something that speaks to me, before more years click past like the proverbial sand through the hour glass.

Physically, I’m not doing that well. I’m overweight, and have asthma, which kicks up now and again, and requires a steady stream of Albuterol and occasionally, steroid-laced preventative sprays. That’s not good, especially during the spring and fall when weather and allergens seem to combine to give me fits. I’m also struggling with what I see as the New England attitude, the perception of life being one long chore more than a lark, a nose-to-the-grindstone Sisyphean push of the rock. It is an attitude that I own to some degree, but I fight against, like I fight against the “curse” refrain of the Red Sox year after year. I was born in New England and have spent most of my life here, but have also spent a few childhood years in the sunny climes of suburban San Diego. I remember the warm days, and I wonder if that’s where I get my sense of optimism. I feel like a glass half-full in a region of half-empty.

Tom and I have a cranky, journalistically-jaded cynicism down pat. He’s the head editor. I make fun of him and he jokingly threatens to fire me and then follows with a familiar refrain, “Oh, wait a minute, that’s what you want. You’re not fired. You’re hired!”

I laugh, but there’s that gnawing feeling. I really do need a change.

Act Three: Chiang Rai, Thailand in October 2004.

I am sitting on my porch, working on my laptop, watching the rain come over the hills, over the dirt roads that I ride on with my mountain bike in the late afternoons when the weather is nicer. I am as happy as I’ve ever been, content with myself and the general state of things in my life.

I have spent six years in Thailand overall, with a few years of Washington DC between my initial Peace Corps service, and my return as a study abroad leader, and have felt myself transformed by this country both physically and spiritually.

As a volunteer, only two years removed from the newspaper, I lost 30 pounds, the thinnest I’d ever been in my life. The combination of daily basketball in constant humidity, chili peppers and rice, a month-long bout with sinusitis, and daily sweating have all done their work. My asthma, such a large factor day-to-day in New England, has disappeared over the years of living in Southeast Asia.

The surrounding cultural atmosphere is wholly different. On my laptop, I’m writing a piece about sarcasm and how it is nonexistent in Thailand, at least among the natives. One of the top cultural tendencies is to keep things light and joking, but without the edge and without confrontation. I have to adjust to this, and find it rather easy to do so. It feels more natural to me.

Most importantly, I have found Tan, and we have set up a life together. My writing has flourished, and I travel, teach, and enjoy winters where the temperature never gets below 50 degrees for a week at the most. I can’t imagine New England winters that dip below zero anymore.

Where is that sarcastic twenty-something who pined for a different world, and who pondered the curses of half-empty New England? Only this month, he sat in a bar in Bangkok and watched the Red Sox win the World Series. Miracles happen every day.

Epilogue: The breakfast table in New Mexico in October 2006.

We are sitting at a table looking at Taos guidebooks and eating eggs scrambled with green chilies, and fresh-baked muffins. Tan and I are enjoying our week in the southwest. It is bright and sunny, the polar opposite of weather back in Burlington, Vermont, where we have set up home for now.

Burlington is a more liberal town, but there’s still some of the New England I remember, the cynicism and definitely a moodiness I sense when the colder weather and flu season kicks in. Tan has noticed it a lot at the shelter, where frustrations usually run high. The 30 pounds I had lost ten years ago has crept back, unfortunately, but I can breathe deeply, and although I have the Albuterol, the asthma is for all intents and purposes, a dead issue. The falling of the leaves and the change of the seasons is so much better without the attendant medical issues.

A stranger walks up to our table and introduces himself. A couple of minutes, and I put the pieces together. It’s Tom.

He looks different. He has shaved his head for one thing, and his beard is gone. He seems happier, somehow different from the person I cynically joked with in that cluttered office of my memory. We update each other quickly on our life, and talk of other old friends from the newspaper office.

In my own mind, I can’t help but revisit that office, and the years that have fallen like dominos in between. It is like we have dropped a rock into the well of memory and listened for the sounds that reverberate back to us. I am in similar circumstances, really, in that I am living in New England, working my days in a job that I never intended to do. But I am not the same man; I feel wiser and less frustrated now, supported by a life partner, with eyes focused on a much bigger prize, an MFA program beginning next fall.

We say our goodbyes, still shaking our heads at this random turn of events. We take their new address, bid them well, and then head out into the bright sunshine.