The Open Door Policy

When feature comics pass through the Vermont Comedy club they need a place to stay, often times that place is my futon. When comics come up from Boston to perform at my Meadery show they also stay on my futon.  When long lost distant cousins are interviewing for medical residencies they can save money by staying on my futon.  When my friends come to Burlington for weddings or to go on epic beer quests they often pass out on the floor, but the futon is available.  Buying that futon off a friend who was moving for $20 was a good investment.

Growing up we didn’t have a ton of money and were constantly traveling.  While we occasionally stayed in hotels, both nice ones and roadside dumps, we mostly found ways to stay with people that we knew.  Road trips to visit family, co-opted vacations with people to visit their families, visiting my parent’s friends from college, and fun adventures to unglamorous places defined most of my childhood.  Part of relying on the generosity of others was the need for reciprocation, and my parents always had an open door and a makeshift guest room available for any friends and family who may be passing through.  Having this open door policy and knowing that we would always make room for people left a huge mark on me, and is a tradition that I try to carry on today.

If you have ever lived in a frat house you understand that it is loosely controlled chaos.  While this wasn’t Animal House it was fluid enough that it always seemed like there was someone on our couch.  The freshman who had too much to drink, the friend who was having a rough time with her boyfriend, the alum visiting from out of town, the grand president who was doing a chapter visit, the friend from home who was working a summer job, or the guy who lived with his parents but didn’t want to go home where always present themes the places that I lived during college.  It wasn’t an imposition, we had 3 houses on the same block and it wasn’t uncommon for me to show up at the other houses and crash on their couch if it was too loud or busy at my house.  Having this commune feel lead me to an understanding of the transient lifestyle and embrace the good feeling that comes with providing shelter.  For the 5 years that I lived in those type of houses I always enjoyed having people stay, and often looked forward to having others visit.

When I was in my final year of college I did internships all over the country and I relied heavily on the kindness of others.  Part of the time was spent staying for a few weeks at a time with my parent’s friends, the ones who used to stay in our guest room.  I also spent some time living in a government trailer on the Navajo reservation where one day I went from being by myself to coming home to find a med student had moved in unannounced and took it all in stride.  Driving home from Arizona I was able to spend time visiting friends and family in far off places like Utah, California, Texas, North Carolina, and Virginia.  Taking advantage of offers to visit friends and have them point me in the direction of the important places that only locals know was one of the highlights of my trip.  After returning to Albany I resumed living a low impact life of sleeping on a futon mattress on the floor of my friends’ pantry before spending a few months of the summer at my family’s camp.  That year was one of the most trying, eventful, and memorable times of my life, and I couldn’t have made it through if people weren’t generous enough to open their homes to me.

After graduation I strove to pay forward some of that hospitality.  I was always looking for 2 bedroom apartments in order to provide a place for others to stay.  For the first few years there wasn’t much opportunity.  My friends were scattered into the wind and were busy setting up their own lives so with the exception of a friend who stayed with me during an internship it was mostly me alone in my bigger than necessary and excessively empty apartment.  Then something changed and all of a sudden visiting Vermont became a priority for my friend group, a change that closely corresponds with the boom in the beer scene.  All of a sudden there were a ton of people clamoring to stay at my place, and my willingness to let anybody stay, even if they were only friends of friends who I have never met made my place a destination.  It was good to connect with people, both new acquaintances and old friends, and it made my apartment a much more welcoming place to be.

One night I got drunk and signed up for this newfangled website called AirBnB.  The minimum that you could list for was $60 and I though that there is no way someone would spend $60 bucks to stay on my futon in Middlebury.  I was wrong, and over the next 4 months I earned more than 2 grand by utilizing my empty guestroom.  This experience taught me the how to be a better host, and motivated me to keep my apartment clean, which was something that I have struggled with in the past.  I was also able to meet some interesting people, and some fucking assholes, and get a better understanding of how to be a good guest when I visit people.  It was a very eye opening experience and was worth way more than it’s monetary value.  Once I moved back to Burlington my new apartment complex forbids AirBnB, so I lost the income stream but still found ways to play host.

When comics come to town they are always impressed that I let them stay for free and are always grateful.  I suppose I see where they are coming from, friends and family are one thing, but people who I haven’t yet met is completely different.  But these aren’t strangers, they are people who I share mutual friends with, who are up here on a business trip.  For the most part it has been great, and with one exception I would let them all stay again.  I have had the chance to meet new and interesting people, network a good amount, and help my friends who own the club get talented performers on the stage.  It isn’t anything fancy, just a futon in a room that I rarely use, but for some visiting comics it makes a world of difference.

When people say anything about how generous it is to open up my guest room, I just brush it off with “I have the space” but in reality it is more of a benefit to me than it is a drawback.  I like having people stay because it keeps me from getting too comfortable in my own space.  It keeps me on my toes and allows me to reconnect with a long forgotten past when my life was much more random.  I have been able to meet dozens of new and interesting people, have great conversations, explore new opportunities, and make a few new friends.  All it takes is having an open door policy and a $20 futon.

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Brave New World

During the fall of 2009 I was living like a nomad and working my way through a series of 5 week internships.  I was accustomed to scrounging whatever sleeping arrangements that find for a few weeks before packing everything I owned into a few duffel bags in the back of my van and moving along.  That October I was ready to head out on my grand adventure, a two month, 11,000 mile road trip out to the Navajo reservation and wandering my way throughout the country on the way home.  This week one of my favorite people is setting out on a similar adventure, this is for her.  Here are the things that I wish I would have known and the celebration of the things that I did find.

Beware the Altitude:  The reservation is one of the highest places in the country, Chinle where I stayed was over 7,000 feet, combined with desert dryness.  For the first week I suffered terribly from dehydration and the thin air.  Headaches, being out of breath, nosebleeds, it wasn’t fun.  The key is to drink a lot of water and wait to adjust.  Water, not purple gatorade, it may have electrolytes but it isn’t as good as just plain water (plus as we all know only blue gatorade works).  Buy a humidifier and put some vasaline inside your nostrils and keep hydrated, this too will pass.  Also be aware that your visions of “It’s a dry heat” don’t apply in the high desert, it will be cold, during the 5 weeks I was out there we got more snow in Arizona than my parents got in New York.  Dress warm.

Red Rocks:  When you transition from the plains to Texas into the desert the most striking thing is the change in colors.  Gone are the verdant pastures, instead everything is red, even the trees have a red tinge.  After years of reading Tony Hillerman books I thought that I knew what it is going to be, but it is so much more.  It can take your breath away, especially watching how the light hits and changes the colors.  It is amazing to think about the time that it takes to grind for air or water to grind the stone and carve these amazing landscapes.  As a side effect red dust is everywhere.  It is in the tap water, it is in your eyes, it was still caked into the nooks and crannies of my car when I sold it 4 years after I left the reservation.  No beauty comes without its own cost.

Beware the tourist trap: Maybe I was more susceptible because I drove out alone along route 66, but tourist traps are everywhere.  Every rest area you stop at or place you want to hike there will be people trying to sell you garbage.  This is a common thing on the reservation because it is an easy way to generate cash from tourists, so don’t give in.  I do love doing touristy stuff, but it gets old really fast so space it out and talk to people so that they can point you to the legit events and the authentic places that you have to check out.  The stuff that people are selling off blankets isn’t all garbage, I got some amazing rock carvings and a bear stone necklace that I wore for years.  The key is to have an abundance mentality, because there will always be more chances, and if you find something haggle over it.  Sometime if you are feeling like having a weird adventure it is cool to pick a place off a billboard and explore, if you have no expectations then you can’t be disappointed.  If I didn’t do that then I couldn’t brag about going to a wolf sanctuary where George RR Martin later adopted a pack of wolves.

Hit the National Parks: Teddy Roosevelt did amazing things for this country by preserving so many of our national parks.  Growing up in the East we underestimate the size and scope of the country, but out West the world is so vast and the National Parks have some of the best vantages to see the world from.  It costs a few bucks to enter, but it is worth every cent.  I have amazing memories of hiking in Arches, and the Petrified forest, climbing the rocks of El Morro, and eating a burrito on the edge of the Grand Canyon.  There are dozens of other parks that I wanted to visit, but that just means that I need to go back.

Listen:  Navajo is one of the most amazing languages in the world.  It is a lovely sing song cadence that sounds amazing.  I spent a lot of time working through interpreters and was able to bask in the sound of my words crossing cultural barriers.  It is important to not get caught up in the cultural differences.  The Indian Health Services system is established on the 1870s ideals of the white man helping the poor despondent native.  Add this to the normal medical professional to patient distance it is hard to connect with these people.  It is important to remember that they are just people.  Also don’t use one person as a representative for all Navajo, especially if that person is an old lady hits you with her cane for not wanting to buy a rug.

Life of Poverty: One of the most striking things about living on the reservation is the poverty.  There is very little industry and a lot of federal handouts that are seemingly misspent.  I was often reminded of driving through the desolate small towns of upstate NY and seeing brand new trucks parked in front of run down trailers.  There was a big culture of panhandling and selling things in parking lots that took me by surprise.  Everywhere you look there are pawn shops because many Navajo traditionally use jewelry to store wealth rather than keeping it in banks, but when I first got out there I couldn’t shake the feeling of seediness.  Contrasting the economic depression of the towns are the federal facilities like the hospitals which are literally gleaming beacons in the desert which serve as a perfect exaple of federal waste.  It is enough to give you whiplash.

Addiction and Lack of Self Care:  As a medical processional, and as a human being, it is hard to watch people destroy themselves.  But you can’t live their lives for them.  The reservation is a dry territory, but booze still makes its way in.  The roads to and from the towns like Gallup, Moab, and Durango which are just outside the reservation borders are littered with beer cans.  Hitchhikers make their way into these towns every weekend to indulge their vices.  A lot of people just don’t take care of themselves despite free medical care.  Basically everybody had diabetes and heart disease from eating frybread with every meal, and the labs that I saw shocked my idealistic self.  It hurts, but you can’t live their lives for them.  We all have our own lives to live and our own bodies to take care of, and I am certainly not one to lecture on that.

Embrace the Silence:  I have never felt so alone when I was on the reservation.  I was not in a good place at that time, and the silence made it worse.  I was alone in a government trailer after driving out by myself.  I made no effort to connect with the people at work, one guy tried because of our fraternity connection, but I kind of pushed him off.  I traveled by myself every weekend, hiked by myself, and eventually became fine with it.  I embraced that silence and made peace with myself, which is the greatest gift that I have ever received.  To this day I am fine alone, I can fill my own head and heart, and have developed a self reliance that has served me well.  Once you leave the glow of the town streetlights you will be plunged into a complete darkness and silence.  Your mind will struggle to fathom it and invent stories that live in the darkness.  It isn’t hard to fathom how an ancient people were able to create such amazing stories and gods to fill that landscape.  It may be scary, but by knowing that darkness and that silence you will be able to know yourself and will come out the other side a better person.

I sat down to write a little list, but instead I have spewed 1500 words of stream of consciousness.  There are dozens more things that I can say.  Don’t drive fast at night or you might hit a horse.  Go to Antelope canyon and Bryce Canyon National Park, I always wanted to go there.  Flagstaff is the Burlington of Arizona, Durango is the Burlington of southern Colorado, I should stop comparing places to Burlington.  Know that big area on the Verizon map where there is no service, you will probably be right in the middle of that area.  Don’t do meth.  Watch out for snakes when hiking.  And a million more tips.

Go new places, do new things, meet new people, bring fresh eyes to ancient places.  Have an adventure.