Basically A Time Machine

And with a light drizzle and 32 hours of travel, my fellowship came to an end. I’m currently sitting in the home I grew up in upon a blue recliner that we’ve had for as long as I can remember, steeped once again in the all-too-familiar coziness of Illinois and feeling really fucking far away from Kasiisi.

While packing up my belongings a week ago I came upon a letter that I had written to myself back in June 2017 at the Princeton in Africa orientation. In it, I address a series of questions, hopes and fears to my then-future, now-present self. Since the idea of penning a “conclusion” post on the whole year is so intimidating I wouldn’t even know where to start, I figured that putting down past-Zach’s musings and responding to them at present might be a more appropriate way to wrap up this chapter in my life. So that’s what you get, a conversation between past and present selves. Basically, a time machine.



Dear Future Zach,


If the last so-many-months have been rough, sorry about it. The thing is, I’m convinced that a vast majority of learning and development comes from trial and error, and because the willingness to try something we might fail at is something we generally avoid, I’m making the decision now to lock myself into a whole lot of discomfort and external pressure and unfamiliar footing which you have now dealt with for the past so-many-months. I am sure you will have grown and developed accordingly, and I hope the difference you see hearing from me now is satisfying.

Dear Past Zach,

No need to apologize. You will get to know discomfort and unfamiliar footing very well over this next year, but at no point will it push beyond what you can handle. I’ve spent much of the year weighing, measuring, and re-testing this philosophy you describe, the notion that progress comes from trial, error and uncertainty. It has proven itself not only to withstand severe testing and come out on the other side more validated than ever, but also to make for one hell of a way to live a life. Far from accepting an apology, I owe you my thanks.


I figure I might as well lay out some specific expectations so you can run down the list and see what has and hasn’t panned out.

Hoo, boy.


The work with Kasiisi obviously ought to be the primary focus, purpose, and constituent of the trip, but seeing as I’m still quite unclear what it will consist of, it’s hard to weight it appropriately in my mind. I really hope you feel you’re being useful, ideally in a way that only you specifically can be. The past internships I’ve done have taught me that having nothing to do is far worse than having too much to do, so I’m praying that there’s something about me that I can provide to the work being done.

Useful? Yes. Uniquely useful? Also yes. Uniquely useful because of the prior qualifications on my resume? Ehh…

Looking back, I’m overwhelmingly satisfied with my contributions to the Kibale Forest Schools Program and content to say that I was the right person for the job. But the credit goes not so much to my USC education as to the serendipity of my upbringing. The skills I learned from AYSO Soccer, greeting people at family functions, summer camp, and dicking around with computers in high school were the experiences that repeatedly cropped up with remarkable relevance, all combining to mean that I was able to fulfill my job functions while leaving a Zach-shaped stamp on them.


I hope you’ve gotten better at breaking the intercultural ice, and bet that there’s been some painful levels of discomfort in learning to do so.

Very astute.


I hope that you and your co-fellow have gotten to a place where you can let your walls down. A lot of the other fellows have to deal with being the only one for hundreds of miles, so the privilege of having a partner in all this should not go taken for granted. For whoever else is a main character in your life at this point, I hope that they challenge and yet care for you, and that you do the same.

I hope it suffices to say that the privilege was not taken for granted. The notion that the people in our lives should “challenge” us somehow sounds very collegiate and western from where I now stand, though I don’t disagree with it (said the western college student). I was challenged in Kasiisi, no doubt, but not because anyone was looking to do so deliberately. Overwhelmingly I was cared for instead, sometimes to such an extent that knowing what to do with it became challenging.


You better be reading as much as I intend to, writing too. If that’s fallen off you have plenty of time to get back on it.

Argh, sadly not. I undoubtedly wrote and read more than any other previous period in my life, but learned the hard way that in the age of abundant media the goalpoasts are infinitely moveable.


I’m putting a lot of hope and expectation into this amorphous website/podcast project, but balance that with knowing there might be a million reasons for it not working out. Still, the purpose underlying the plan is to become more confident in what I believe and able to defend it, so as long as that’s true we’re good.

The website has undoubtedly been worth its domain hosting fees several times over, though I don’t think it looks anything like you’re thinking it’s going to look. And while I admire your quest to become more confident in what you believe, know that getting to that point requires going through a whole lot of uncertainty and delirium. The kinds of beliefs that are worth having confidence in can only be born from the ashes of prior convictions.


I hope you’ve been living intentionally. The reset of setting is a tremendous opportunity to start fresh and consciously establish your habits. Being in [our hometown] the past 3 weeks has been quite the opposite of that, and it’s not fun watching myself being pushed and pulled by my old conditioning and still powerless to do anything about it.

It’s ironic to read this while finding myself back in our beloved hometown once again. While it’s wise to recognize our environmentally-instantiated conditioning, you’re wrong to think you’re powerless to do anything about it. I’ve learned to be careful with such resigned beliefs – they’re the first step towards making themselves true.

The renewed setting of Kasiisi was certainly refreshing from the beginning, although it came with its own set of entrenched behaviors and traditions that stood in the way of my hopes to live deliberately. True, I myself had never lived there before, but inertia came instead from the expectations of others – assumptions that I would fill the same behavior patterns of fellows before me and systems in place to compliment my behaving of such patterns. I’m not sure that a truly fresh start exists anywhere on this planet, but I don’t think I’d want to take part in such a daunting proposition to begin with.


I hope you’ve established and followed a fitness routine, as consistency is the cornerstone of progress.

Oh, gosh. It’s worrying to hear you say this – I weigh no more or less than you do and am projecting the same hopes for consistent progress upon my own future Zach!


I hope you’ve been producing things creatively, but worry that the expectations I have for the products of my mind are turning into brain crack. If the only shit you can make is shit, then have the balls to make shit.

Wow, such poetry. Yes, you will find that the brain crack problem is no slouch, but you are able to produce work in spite of him.


If you haven’t been sleeping enough each night, recommit to doing that.

Thanks, but we’re good. I think my fellowship saw the most consistently healthy sleep habits of the recent chapters of my life. It was poor nutrition instead that led to low-level exhaustion and compulsive behavior, so I couldn’t afford inadequate sleep on top of it.


If you haven’t been following the stars and planets at night, recommit to doing that.

I’ll give us a B+ on that one. The evenings of the rainy season left me with not much to look at, and the planets refused to make themselves seen for the first half of the year. Still, I was able to follow the emergence of the zodiac constellations and was rewarded in July with several clear evenings in which Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and Venus were visible simultaneously.


The gang of fellows here at PiAf orientation is a really, really good one. They all seem to be doing this for the right reasons and have a ton to offer to the places they’re going. Many have been living and working after school for a year or two now and have accordingly switched out the eagerness of a college grad for the grace of a professional about the world. You’ve probably got a bit of that about you, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Yeah, don’t.


The part that I’m most nervous about is the pressure to decide what I want to do with myself afterwards, which you’re probably feeling deep in the trenches of right about now. Grad school really seems to be a thing that’s made for someone like me, if I could only learn the patience to focus on one thing long enough to become a real expert. The three paths that are mentally on the table right now are occupational science, economics and law. How are those looking for you these days?



I hope you’ve stayed in touch. Maybe doing so comes at a risk of insulating yourself in a digital America bubble, but there’s a balance to be met. There are people from home/USC that it’s worth risking that for.

Quite the contrary, I found that the atmosphere of the community I accrued at USC was geographically bound enough to evade my best attempts at remaining a part of it. This realization will break your heart. I’ve gotten myself in a real jam now, what with three communities I once called “home” separated by several thousand miles. Not all of them can be our neighbors.


At the end of Cape Town you regretted not getting yourself out ther to get to know its people and stories better. There’s no other way to say it. I’m sure it will be harder to make that same mistake in Uganda, but don’t kid yourself if you’ve in fact been making it. I’m going to Uganda to be in Uganda, because anything else I can do anywhere else. If you’ve been retreating to the guest house, saunter on down to the village center tomorrow and force a conversation. Hopefully you don’t have to force it.

My young friend, it’s more complicated than that. I may not have been slapping backs down at the pool hall every Friday night, but I believe in good faith that I did about as good a job of building relationships as I could have hoped to. The one demographic I ought to have been more proactive about doing this with is the students. It took me until August to remember just how much delight I find in being a positive male role model.

And yes, many nights were spent “in retreat” at the volunteer house, but those hours were immensely rewarding in their own light. You’re on a mission to get to know Uganda, yes, but you’re forgetting that this is also a tremendous opportunity to develop your relationship with yourself. Whether or not you’re planning to, you will. I have. I still am.


Well, people are flooding back into the room now and it’s time for mad post-orientation surveys. I’m sure this letter sounds stupid because my old writing inevitably does, but that’s no reason not to write.

Hey, compared to the writings of past Zach’s I’ve looked back at before, you’re sounding pretty sharp. Ya done good kid, be sure to savor it.




Great to hear from you,

Also Zach


A colony of ants, like yours truly, moving nest.

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