Dreams Worth Having

When I left on the Conquest, there was a nagging voice in the back of my head.

“Be serious. Act your age. You’re just running away from your responsibilities. Everyone else is getting married and having babies, and you’re going to burn through your savings to chase what?”

Expectations and societal pressures have a way of doing that, creeping into one’s psyche so deeply that we can’t differentiate the desires of our own heart from our (insert years here) of intense training.

It doesn’t matter if you’re 5 or 15 or 50. Society has a set of expectations for you, and acting outside of that framework is considered risky behavior. Why not stick on the main road? It is safe there.

Not the main road

Not the main road

 

“It worked for Larry and Suzy and Paige. Hell it even worked for Bob, and we all know that he’s not playing with a full deck of cards.”

Societal norms end up being codified “best practices.” People wonder why pork isn’t eaten by in Kosher (Jewish) or Halal (Islam) traditions. Have a nice case of trichinosis and get back to me. The origins of both of those religions were in the desert nomad way of life. Pork goes bad…fast. It doesn’t take too many people keeling over from food poisoning or trichinosis before someone says, “hold on, maybe God doesn’t like this.”

After a few thousand years, that social more becomes ingrained well past it’s “consume by” date. Modern refrigeration makes the consumption of pork no more dangerous than any other meat, but the taboo continues.

Modern society is no different. “Get a job, find a nice girl, buy a house and pay down your mortgage. And STAY MARRIED.” This path was a road to success for generations. People lifted themselves from squalor and into situations that their parents only dreamed about.

Then in America we started bumping up against a dazzling diamond ceiling. The dream ceased to be “become a homeowner” and began to be about owning a BIGGER house or a MORE EXPENSIVE car. We substituted aspirations for a better life for a desire for the meaningless and ephemeral “MORE.”

That house is a bit less than 4000 sq ft, but everyone there seems happy.

That house is a bit less than 4000 sq ft, but everyone there seems happy.

As far as standard of living goes, there is no reason that a family of four in a 4000 sq ft house is better off than a family of four in a 2000 sq ft house. Unless playing hide and go seek from our family members is considered a material good (which in some families it might be) we’re accomplishing nothing besides paying to heat and cool unused space.

Driving a 10 year old Chevy Impala and driving a brand new Mercedes SLK has absolutely 0 difference on one’s quality of life. If both cars function properly, both cars will get you from here to there without walking.

I'd take a bamboo platform, 2 railroad axles and a gas engine over an SLK any day...

I’d take a bamboo platform, 2 railroad axles and a gas engine over an SLK any day…

That iPhone 5 in your pocket? There is only the barest of marginal difference between that and an iPhone from 4 years ago. If someone says, “but it is faster” I want them to ask themselves what they actually accomplished with that half second saved. Did you get a half second closer to learning Spanish? Or maybe you used those cumulative half seconds to cook a healthy dinner. If so, fantastic, the new iPhone has made your life better.

If you played Candy Crush for 45 minutes today, your life didn’t get better because your phone was faster.

Technology has gone from making our lives markedly better, to making us notably more distracted. We call ourselves busy, yet no one in America (or the rest of the First World for that matter) has ever been forced to carry their drinking water from a well, chop wood to heat a home, or butcher an animal to have dinner.

We’ve started to concentrate on the margins. Utility is ubiquitous, so instead we concern ourselves with unnecessary luxury. There will be people lined up around the block to pay $500 for the next iPhone. Between the time they spent waiting and the money they paid to replace the perfectly good phone in their pocket, what could be accomplished?

Get on kayak.com and check out the Explorer function then get back to me. $500 can almost assuredly get anyone in America a round trip plane ticket out of the country.

Our society doesn’t look at this as a sickness, but it really is. We’ve been so conditioned to believe that “new” must be “better” that we no longer look at whether there were any material benefits.

According to 2007 New York Times article, Americans see more than 5000 commercial advertisements today. That is just shy of 1 every 10 waking seconds. Can we really act like this has no effect on our internal thought processes?

No billboards on this "highway"

No billboards on this “highway”

If society can delude itself into mass hysteria about something as simple as a smartphone, why don’t we examine those other mores that society tells us? Do we look with an objective eye at the “why” of those “best practices”?

We blindly push more and more kids into college without any serious consideration of alternatives. Nothing screams “blind tradition” like sending a kid to learn about the internal rate of return in business school but never asking him to run that calculation on his own college debt and future earnings potential.

In the same vein, nothing screams crazy like America training our future “world leaders” while never sending them outside of the country.

For all my initial fears that I was “running away” or “keeping my Peter Pan tights on a little too long,” I finally came to the realization that the safe, conventional road wasn’t right for me.

I also realized that some of those moderating voices in my conscience aren’t actually “me.” They are an echo of everyone else.

People always tell kids to “chase their dreams.”

Almost no one says, “first, make sure your dreams are worth having.”

Seemed like a dream at the time

Seemed like a dream at the time

Is having a big house and an expensive car a dream worth having?

Well…maybe for someone? I think most people just do it because they listen to the voice in the back of their head saying, “Let’s be “better” than our parents. Let’s be “better” than our friends.”

That’s all well and good, but we’ve got to remember to look at what actually makes something “better.” To the kid from the wrong side of the tracks in Speedway, Indiana, the Chicago suburbs seem like heaven on earth. Everyone has a college degree, drives a nice car, vacations in expensive places, and there are more culinary choices than Gene’s Root Beer and Applebees.

You can wear argyle socks and sweater vests without being laughed at, and leather shoes are encouraged instead of scorned.

At the end of the day, he can look in a mirror and say “I’m better off than everyone back home.”

But did he ever look in that mirror and ask, “Is this really the life of my dreams? Or was I so concentrated on being better than someone else, that I forgot to figure out what I actually wanted?”

I thought that I wanted that life, I really did. Then I got a real taste of it and said, “Christ this is too sweet, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t leave a bitter aftertaste. And to top it all off I’m still hungry.”

So I shoved off. I said to the man in the mirror, “This didn’t work, not sure if the next thing will either but if we keep swinging we’ll find something that makes us whole.”

By ignoring that voice in the back of my head, I realized that there are an awful lot of ways to live a life.

You can be the Swede who leaves his home and trains to be a Muay Thai boxer. He has his jaw broken in his 4th fight and has to sip all his meals through a straw for 2 months, then gets right back in the ring to fight the BIGGEST Thai guy they could find.

You can be the vagabond oil rig worker from Ohio, who saved his money and leases/runs a guesthouse in Laos, complete with a pet monkey.

You can be the Swiss woman who comes to Laos on vacation, falls in love with the place and starts a school, with no intention to ever leave.

Where's Switzerland again?

Where’s Switzerland again?

You can be the engineer from America’s frozen northland, Minnesota (I just shivered typing that) who gets sent to Vietnam for work, realizes that there is a satellite package for the NHL, decides to rent a boat, fill it with booze and attempt to start a business. 7 years later he owns 5 bars and 2 apartment buildings with his beloved Vietnamese wife.

Or you can do what everyone else does, trudge off down that old familiar road and hope that it works better for you than it did for the countless unhappy people who did it before you.

I’m not sure I’ve found the one that is right for me yet, but at least I’m looking for what I ACTUALLY want, not just what I’ve been conditioned by society and the media to desire.

Take a little time for introspection today. You might be amazed at what you find.

You’re in there, somewhere. There’s an awful lot of vestigial nonsense and carefully calculated advertising muddying up the water, but with enough effort, you’ll find some pure, unadulterated YOU.

I bet that person is pretty sweet.

Say hi for me.

 

 

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A Month without Americans

“It is a big and beautiful world we live in. Most of us live and die in the same corner where we were born and never get to see any of it. I don’t want to be most of us.” Prince Oberyn Game of Thrones

Last night I broke a streak of over a month in the form of the lovely Ariana Garcia.

No, not a streak like that, get your minds out of the gutter, my mother reads this blog.

I hadn’t seen another American in 31 days, since I’d left Ariana after the USA/Germany game on June 26th in Chiang Mai. Since then, I’d been hanging out with Englishmen, Swedes, Belgians, Congolese, Finns and of course a bunch of drunken Muay Thai trainers.

Belgians, Finns, Limeys and Thais

Belgians, Finns, Limeys and Thais

A few Germans and Australians slipped into the mix in Northern Malaysia, as well as two of the most ruthlessly mirthless girls I’ve ever met from the German part of Switzerland. (Why anyone would live in a place filled with such people is beyond even my wildest comprehension, but I suppose inertia is a powerful force.)

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Parasailing in Langkawi

There were debates on health care with French Canadians (I like debating with Canadians, they don’t get nasty, they just get this bemused and incredulous look on their face that anyone would believe something different than themselves), knives pulled by scam artist Thais, and the occasional need for chivalry when a man exposed himself with a bawdy proposition to a girl I was traveling with.

 

Pull your pants up around Princess Jasmine damnit!

Pull your pants up around Princess Jasmine damnit!

There weren’t however, any Americans.

Homesickness comes in many forms. One of the worst is knowing that your crack about the Cubs is going to fall on deaf ears.

But then lo and behold, the Facebook machine told me that there was an American in Kuala Lumpur.

More importantly, there was an airport to get me the hell out of Malaysia.

It was great to have someone from back home to spend some time with. While we didn’t know each other before a hastily slurped pad thai street stall in Chiang Mai, it turns out that she was one of my bartenders for the company Christmas party this year. She decided, much like I did, that she didn’t want to live and die in the same small corner of the world where she grew up, so she bought a one way plane ticket and got out of there. Now she’s cooking up plans to spend a year in Australia, and maybe get a stopover in Europe in the meantime.

9000 miles away from home, we sat next to a street stall and talked about all we’d seen. Elephants in Laos, Bun Cha in Vietnam, fake Ray-Bans in Thailand, and obnoxiously drunken/drugged young British travelers. Then we walked through stalls looking for a Blackhawks jersey, made jokes about White Sox fans being white trash, and talked about just how badly we could use a homemade tamale. (I’m looking at you Mrs. Wojocinski)

It was great to have that, even for a few days. Just having a seamless connection with “real life” and the travel life. To know that no, in this whole world traveling bit, I’m not the only crazy one.

I was giving Ariana a hard time about how her dad must’ve done something really terrible to deserve having 3 beautiful daughters. (Somehow she thinks that 3 beautiful daughters is the most desirable outcome a man could have. I nearly choked on my Bok Choy as I thought of another poor soul who got 3 before returning to the well and getting 2 more for his trouble.)

In talking about why I wanted sons, I said, “well my dad is going to sleep like a baby tonight, yours has to worry about his little girl in a faraway land with some seriously aggressive locals.”

She looked back and laughed. “Honey, my parents are immigrants. They don’t have any idea where I am. Malaysia might as well be Mars. They just know that I’m not home.”

For as out of left field as long term travel is for me, it really put it in perspective when she said it like that. I was blessed with a Swedish great grandmother who has traveled here, there, and everywhere. Egypt in the 70s, Russia while it was still Communist. Europe more times than I can count, China, Scandanavia, you name it.

Even if I hadn’t really seen a lot of people travel extensively, I knew it could be done.

Ariana’s parents went on one very big trip. She had to blaze her own trail.

Cheers for having that courage. So many people with an easier path never do.

 

12 Steps to Freedom

“What has been America’s most nurturing contribution to the culture of this planet so far? Many would say Jazz. I, who love jazz, will say this instead: Alcoholics Anonymous.”

-Kurt Vonnegut

As I’ve touched on in previous posts, a huge part of travel is the people you interact with in the most random of circumstances. Those interactions can be as fleeting as a shared tuk-tuk ride where you get some advice on the next place you’re headed, but they can also reveal something about the human condition in a conversation just as limited.

One interaction which has taught me as much as any I’ve ever had has been the last two weeks with my Muay Thai training partner Glenn.

Glenn is an addict in recovery. He’ll be four years sober in a few weeks, he is still adamant that he is IN RECOVERY. He makes no illusions that his sobriety is permanent, any more than someone between bouts of Crone’s disease would say that he is cured.

Even the language that he uses to speak about his addiction is an important part of his sobriety. We’ve talked extensively about the 12 steps of abstinence based recovery.

1. We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

4. We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

8. We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10.   We continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

11.   We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

12.   Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

I met Glenn as I was breaking my training regimen, having a few beer Leos with the trainers at an impromptu BBQ in the “break room”, a hand built shack a few meters from the gym. We were all laughing and joking, the English getting a little more broken as the Sangsum was poured and the jokes becoming a little more bawdy and physical with every drink.

Glenn walked up to ask about training at Lanta Gym, and since the best English speaker in the bunch wasn’t present, they sent him to the newly minted VP of Marketing, yours truly.

I quickly offered him a beer, as that is the polite thing that I’ve always been conditioned to do. He politely declined, saying he doesn’t drink. In their inebriated state, the trainers didn’t exactly understand this, and thought that he just felt bad about drinking our beer. He firmly declined again, explaining to me that he was in recovery and nearly 4 years sober. I called off the dogs, and convinced him that I really enjoyed training at the facility, so he signed up for a week.

It was nice to have another native English speaker in the bunch, as the only other one in the gym previously was Christian, a gigantic Swede who had been in serious Muay Thai training for nearly two years. While he is a spectacularly nice guy, he is Swedish, and from personal experience, I can attest that they are a funny bunch with outsiders.

Glenn and I became fast friends, taking most of our meals together as we were training at the same times. During our meals and through our conversations, he enlightened me about the nature of addiction in general and his specifically. He spoke with remarkable candor and confidence about his life both before and after sobriety. Those conversations quickly became among the most meaningful I’ve ever had.

I remembered reading the quote above in one of my many readings of Vonnegut, but the 12 steps had never really had an impact in my life. Aside from one family friend who broke the bonds of addiction through abstinence based recovery, my experience with them was incredibly limited.

One of the first things we talked about was the spiritual nature of the 12 steps. Growing up where I did, Christianity was the only game in town besides the handful of Hindu families that called Bedford home. I’ve often joked that I thought that Jews were like unicorns until I was 18; something you read about in books but never actually saw.

10 minutes after I arrived in NYC, I realized how comical that notion was.

The spiritual portion of the 12 steps is an integral part of the process. There has to be a submission to something beyond yourself, whether Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity or New Age Spirituality. The steps don’t discriminate, they merely require an acknowledgement of a higher power.

This is important, because the nature of addiction causes there to be an all-consuming focus on the individual at the cost of any relationship, job or connection to the outside world. The balance between ego and self-esteem becomes a inverted pyramid, perilously hanging like the sword of Damocles over loved ones all around.

Glenn spoke candidly about his life leading up to sobriety. From putting friends and relatives at risk by stashing drugs in their homes, to the absolute tunnel vision that addiction can bring about. At the time he decided to get clean, he was consuming a gram or more of cocaine every day, in addition to crack, heroin and downers to come back down from an amount of blow that could probably kill a quarter-horse.

I know that many of my readers have no concept of how much that is, (obviously anyone reading from the COMEX floor knows exactly how much that is, and are probably making bets on the over/under of the amount currently on certain individuals on the floor. REDZ put me in on the over, I’m good for $20.)

Glenn’s addiction led him into countless hospital beds, whether the result of overdosing, injuries from brawls, or the total destruction of his stomach lining from the amount of corrosive substances he was consuming. He said at one point, he was lying in a hospital bed. As he came to, his mother was at the side of his bed bawling. She told him, that every mother’s worst fear is receiving that knock at the door from a uniformed policeman asking if they are the mother of so and so.

Through her tears, she told him that he had made that fear a reality time and time again, and it was physically and emotionally destroying her. Yet, his addiction was so all-consuming that even this couldn’t assuage his need for the next fix.

Eventually he saw the light, and saw that the road he was on was leading either to death or prison. Forced to sell drugs in order to fund his own addiction, the numbers, amount and risk leapt exponentially higher and higher. He knew that at any moment he could receive a knock on the door that would be the police or worse, an armed intruder coming to steal his cash and drugs.

He was lucky, and as he said, addiction is a down elevator but you don’t have to go all the way to the basement in order to get off. He attended a meeting and never looked back.

Even at this stage, nearly four years after he smoked, drank or consumed any pill with a narcotic effect, he is still working through the steps daily. Several times, I’ve knocked on his door to see if he is ready to go to dinner and he is standing there with his 12 steps workbook in hand, still working daily to beat an addiction which at any point could overcome his will to control it.

He spoke about the different individuals who have helped him. There have been sponsors who have held him from the abyss in moments of weakness as well as those who have bravely shared stories at meetings that continually affirmed the fact that he was stronger than his disease.

He’s spoken about the meetings he’s attended while on travel, from Thailand to Cambodia, with men and women who have been IN RECOVERY for up to 25 years, but still attend the meetings religiously as they believe that it is both necessary and to re-commit themselves to helping others looking to take control of their condition.

My hometown has a drug problem to rival any in the nation. One of my best friend’s father has been our county sheriff for years, and he has been on the front lines of a battle that has morphed from alcohol, to CAT to that most insidious of proletariat drugs, meth.

Sisyphus himself pities that endless struggle, but God bless that man for suiting up every day and trying to push the rock up that hill.

I can’t open the website of my local newspaper without seeing the skeletal faces of those addicts who have not made the decision to confront the disease. Former Boys Club kids of mine, who I remember as 3rd and 4th graders playing dodgeball and pranking me behind the counter, looking older than me by a decade as the drugs have destroyed their youth. One of my best childhood friends is currently behind bars for heroin, a good man whose personal life spiraled out of control while he found temporary solace in a drug that sought only to destroy him.

I can’t even count the number of dead that attended high school with me, both from prescription drugs and street.

Glenn has also talked at length about the additional reading he’s done outside the meetings, trying to understand the true nature of addiction. He’s found some interesting things, both about addicts and the human condition in general.

One thing that I’ve found interesting is the various ways that addiction manifests itself. Addiction is more than a drug or alcohol problem. It can show up in gambling, shopping, eating, or even seemingly positive things such as working out.

Glenn spoke about the fact that after he got sober, that his addiction manifested itself in a manic devotion to the gym. While most people would be ecstatic to have the drive to be at the gym for three hours a day, Glenn eventually realized that it was just a substitution effect. His relationships were still suffering because his addiction was stealing away the time that he needed to nurture them.  This was still the disease driving his behavior, whether the outlet was “healthy” or not.

Many Americans have found themselves with hall passes for addiction. Somehow a scribbled note on a piece of paper reading Rx allows people to believe that they don’t have a problem.

As the friend of several men cut down long before their time due to prescription drugs, please let me disabuse you of that notion.

That nightly ritual of a half bottle of white wine and a Zanax is no less an addiction than the man injecting heroin on a street corner. The fact that a “respected doctor” sanctions it does nothing to change that fact.

Addiction is without question a disease, but it is one that most people are terrified to talk about.

My family has had more than our fair share of struggles with alcohol. My father has spoken often about the familial carnage that an alcoholic leaves in their wake. He found respite in Al-Anon as a young man and he credits that with helping break a cycle which sees so many children of addicts struggle with the same issues that ruined their own childhoods. There is a cycle of co-dependence and childhood trauma which can run destroy generations of otherwise loving families.

I thank God that my father had the bravery to confront the painful issues of his childhood before they came to affect my brother and me. I’ve seen others in my family who never did deal with those issues, and even when the cork was in the bottle or the fork was in the drawer the effects of addiction were never fixed.

Glenn’s own father put the cork in the bottle some 20 years ago. He did it the hard way, through sheer piss and vinegar, steps and God be damned. While he’s been stone sober for the past 20 years, his addiction is no less a problem today than it was when he was drinking. He merely let his addiction manifest itself in work instead of the bottle. The problems, while fewer, were never truly gone.

There was never the submission to a higher power, never the rebalancing of ego and self-esteem, and never the painful but necessary amends made to those who fell victim to the addiction.

That’s what the 12 steps are about, a full and continuous recovery from a disease that can strike anyone, regardless of circumstance or social standing.

There should be no more shame in addiction than cancer. Addiction is not a moral failing, it is a disease that affects those from all walks of life. An addict is neither good nor bad, merely one who suffers from a disease.

The only shameful thing is to not acknowledge it for what it is; a disease to be battled, every single day.

Oh the Places You’ll Go

Sorry for slowing the pace of the blog but I’ve been working on some fiction projects the last few days. In a futile attempt to outwit the all pervasive soreness I’ve had since starting training, I’ve also been rubbing on a number of ointments that would make Eddie Harris from Major League blush.

I called my parents last night, and they had some of their oldest friends down to “The Babin,” as their future home in retirement is known. After talking to Mom for a minute, I made her put Holder on the phone, as I have loved giving him grief (mostly for his wildly inappropriate shoe selections) since I was a kid.

We spoke for a few minutes about this and that from the trip, some of the things I’ve seen and some of the travelers I’ve met. Then he asked how I was received by the locals. I laughed as I thought back, from “Mama” on the Castaway cruise in Halong Bay, to Man in Hoi An, to Snow and the rest of the absolute sweethearts running the hostel in Nha Trang. I told him about Nam, the novice monk in Luang Prabang and about my powerful jealousy of the 4 generation daily dinner picnics on An Bang beach in Vietnam.

He-yen for instance, our cooking teaching in Hoi An, only 3 weeks older than me, but mature and wise in a way that words can’t really describe.

It hasn’t all been roses. Just yesterday I was party to an incident where a minivan tried to run me over on my moped, then strong arm me into paying him for “damage” to his van. I know just enough Thai to know that when he was calling “the police” he was just saying foreigner and money over and over again. Everything was fine until he reached into his glove box and pulled out either a knife or something that he wanted me to believe was a knife and shoved it into his waistband.

Its low season in Thailand. People are hungry, and you’ll get that kind of thing occasionally, but I stood my ground, and cocked those “HELL-bows” that Zac has been training me to throw.

Then I told Dave about BBQ-ing with Koh, Zac and the rest of the trainers here at Lanta Gym.

I’ve drank a lot of beers in a lot of places. My mother would probably say too many. From $10 Budweisers on a rooftop full of the dregs of B&T society in Manhattan, to my first illicit Bud Lights with Al Spreen and co in a cabin in Williams. Sitting out in that handmade shack laughing with a bunch of people, total strangers mere days ago, who have lived lives so incredibly different than my own was really a powerful experience.

Koh is a madman with a…colorful past but a heart of gold. After a few shots of Sangsam, he gets to waxing “eloquent” about how we are all from different places, but all friends. Sitting there that night I saw the truth in what he said. Along with the 6 Thai trainers, there sat Glen, a 4 year sober recovering addict from England, Maiyo, a Finnish girl who could probably hammer toss me clear to Malaysia on a good day, and Oliver, a Belgian of Congolese extraction who speaks 4 languages fluently and is working on Mandarin now.

Here we were, sitting together swapping stories, laughing hysterically at the antics of the trainers, and discussing everything from politics to ill-fated moped rides.

I was reminded of that greatest call to adventure, “Oh the Places You’ll Go” by Dr. Seuss.

The town I grew up in was 99% White in the 2010 census. Those who could speak a foreign language were pretty much relegated to the women who comprised the foreign language department at the high school, and from my experiences with the French teacher, even that is a stretch.

I haven’t seen another American in 2 weeks. When Dave asked if I thought that the things I’ve seen would have an effect on me. He answered his own question before it was all the way out of his mouth.

For travel like this to NOT have an effect is impossible.

One of my favorite documentaries, 180 Degrees South, has a great quote by Yvon Chouinard, founder of the clothing company Patagonia.

Speaking about those who climb Everest in the most luxurious fashions possible:

“Climbing Everest is the ultimate and the opposite of that. Because you get these high powered plastic surgeons and CEO’s, they pay $80,000 and have sherpas put the ladders in place and 8000 feet of fixed ropes and you get to the camp and you don’t even have to lay out your sleeping bag. It’s already laid out with a chocolate mint on the top. The whole purpose of planning something like Everest is to effect some sort of spiritual and physical gain and if you compromise the process, you’re an asshole when you start out and you’re an asshole when you get back.”

You see the truth of these words when traveling like this. There are any number of ways to travel in this part of the world. You can have every luxury known to man: 5 star resorts, drivers with SUVs, and daily spa treatments. You could be sheltered from the heartbreaking poverty that afflicts many locals here in some of the most beautiful places on earth.

Sip Mai Tais on the beach, eat Australian beef hamburgers for dinner, and snap selfies as the sun sinks majestically into the water.

But you were an asshole when you started out and you’ll be an asshole when you get back. You were merely the exploitative tourist. The one who came and effectively said to the locals, “Oh your homeland looks nice. Now take this money and leave me alone.”

You didn’t interact, you didn’t experience any culture other than talking to the posh English girl on the beach chair next to you. You just sat on a beach with a cellphone, thinking about the best way to post something pithy copy with your Instagram picture to create maximum jealousy among your peers back home.

A part of me feels bad for these kinds of people, but another part wants me to give them an “HELL-bow” to the head to see if I can knock some introspective sense into them.

There is a massive gulf between “travel” and “going places.” I didn’t really realize it before, but now I can see it retrospectively  in some of the travel I’ve done in the US.

One of my best friends managed a “lodge/long-term hostel/guesthouse/den of iniquity” known as the Park Meadow Lodge, in Vail, Colorado for a ski season. Just about everyone living there was working somewhere on Vail Mountain for almost no money, merely the opportunity to ski as much as possible.

Scotty B, the de facto mayor of the Vail ski bum community, had been at Park Meadow Lodge for nearly 10 years. His disdain for “gapers” as jackass tourists are known in mountain lingo, was unrivaled. He managed a ski rental shop on the mountain, and would constantly come back with a story about some rich idiot who just didn’t get it, who thought that money would fix any problem, and who treated Scotty and every other worker like some sort of second class servant.

I stayed out with Craig for a powder filled couple weeks before moving to NYC in 2010, and I got to “live like a local.” I took part in the non-monetary “favor” based economy that the locals have. Someone runs a ski shop, and they get your friends free rentals when they come visit, someone else works at the pizza shop, and they throw a messed up pie your way now and again. Others work at the spa, and will look the other way when you want to go have a little Presidential workout in the hot tub and steam room after a hard day’s skiing.

In reality, the locals are living even better than the rich tourists spending countless dollars. What they lack in loot, they make up for in the social skills that so many people try to compensate for with greenbacks.

The rich look down on them as minimum wage monkeys, who in turn look back with scorn on the rich as cake eating jackalopes for substituting cash for substance.

Whether Vail, Colorado, Hoi An, Vietnam, or Koh Lanta, Thailand, travel is about more than a place. It is about interacting with people and letting the stories of the people you meet move or change you.

Don’t tell me where you’ve been. Tell me who you’ve met, and how their story affected you.

I’ve sat with Glen for countless hours now, talking about abstenince based recovery, his life as an addict and some of the things he’s seen on the other side. He’s graciously opened up in a way which few of even my friends back home ever would. He’s got a story that has something to teach anyone willing to listen to it, so long as they can do so with an open mind.

That’s what life is about. Just a bunch of souls bouncing about at random, creating unexpected reactions when the universe flings them into one another.

If we’d all just take time to put down the selfie stick, we might actually learn something. Hell, I bet that fella over there would be willing to take a picture for you if you’d just smile as you walk up and ask.

It is the people, infinitely more than the places that make travel an enriching experience. We’d all do well to remember that.

 

A Two Holed Time Machine

As I strapped on the pink “farang” gloves this morning in the gym, I took a quick glance around the scene.

Si-Nook, the resident gym mutt was lounging ringside while two cats that weren’t quite stray but weren’t exactly owned lay near the fans.

Zack was standing in his preposterous rubber sweat suit, occasionally opening the elastic arm cuff to let loose a deluge of sweat. I’m “glistening” standing bare chested in shorts short enough to make the most even the most risque teen girl think twice.

In reality, I’m sweating harder than the ne’er-do-well boy hiding under said risque teen’s bed after her parents came home early.

Zack’s covered from ankle to neck in a rubber suit.

I’m about to faint from heat stroke just thinking about it.

Koh is running around like the magnanimous maniac he is, shouting this and that in Thai, occasionally peppering it with a little “well chewed” English, throwing a few shadow punches and kicks as I wrap my hands.

Khan, the 17 year old (easily mistaken for a 12 year old) Thai “pride of the gym” is laughing at me while laying in the middle of the ring with one of the stray cats, making crude hand gestures back and forth with Zack. Finally he jumps up, and starts miming a hide and go seek around one of the punching bags. I have no idea what is so funny, but he and Zack are splitting their sides laughing.

The only other “farang” in the gym, an Englishman named Glenn, is warming up by jumping up and down on old truck tires, the old “Thai trampoline.” He quickly moves on from this to grab a “jump rope”, a pinky width length of hard, clear tubing with two hand carved wooden grips on the end, held together by a bolt and washer.

As I finish wrapping my hands, I move over to one of the punching bags. This one consists of 2 SUV tires bolted together, swinging from a heavy chain. What it lacks in sleek looks, it makes up for in utility. I’d rather be punching this than either of the “professional” punching bags swinging to its right and left. The give from the tires keeps it from swinging as violently, while still giving enough weight to really feel it in the shoulders.

The smell of “gym” is omnipresent. Every time I slip my sandals off and take that first deep breath, I am immediately transported 9200 miles and 10 years in the past, to a long ago August in a hot, old, poorly painted locker room on the south end of the BNL Fieldhouse.

If I close my eyes, I can hear Zac Gary’s voice, always an octave higher than normal when he was excited, shouting what he planned to do to someone poor soul as soon as “stations” were done and “Oklahoma” started.

Every time he really gets going though, the even higher voice of DJ Horton drowns him out, “Gary you chucklehead why don’t you shut your mouth and show me something on Friday instead of telling Flick what you’re going to do to him after practice.”

I swear if I look left, I’ll see the big head of Paul Spreen bouncing slowly as he emits his famous “hut hut hup” laugh.

Amazing how a smell can bring a decade old memory back with clarity that makes HD seem like an RCA box TV with bunny ears.

For all the gifts God gave us, that protruding two holed time machine is among the greatest.

After I’ve been appropriately slathered down with Tiger Balm and boxing liniment, the real training begins. 4 minutes of shadow boxing, 1 minute rest. 4 minutes combo work with a trainer shouting commands and holding the pads, 1 minute rest.

After the 4th round of combo work, I’m trying to drown myself in water which 20 minutes ago was straight from the fridge. Now it is room temperature and climbing, sitting in a pool of sweat which rivals my own.

The shirt I’m using to wipe my face is completely drenched, my hips feel like I just gave birth to a hippopotamus from the continuous strain of high kicks on my brutally inflexible hip flexors.

As I look in the mirror, I look like a 2 legged contestant in a greased pig contest.

As I told my parents in an email after day 1, “You know the flames that jump up from the grill as the fat from a nice ribeye slowly drips down? Thank God I’m not training on a grill, or my doughy American ass would be CHAR-BROILT!”

Oh by the way, it is only 8:25AM. Not even halfway through session 1 of 2 for the day.

For all the memories of high school football that flood my mind, none of them seem to be able to remind my sorry 27 year old carcass of what it once was.

Real shame, because that 17 year old body would really be handy right about now.

I guess the aches and pains of my current form are a small price to pay for a ride in that two holed time machine. A quick trip back to a place where our problems were laughably small and our guts were even smaller.

We were all still invincible back, because Life had graciously saved those lessons in mortality for a later day.

To spend even a moment back in that long gone time and place. That’s worth every ounce of sweat. Every ache and bruise.

In fond remembrance of Zac Gary.

The 4th in Foreign Lands

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The New Colossus

Happy Birthday America!

238 years old. Quite a respectable age.

You’ve managed to stay intact through a Civil War which nearly ripped you in half.

You fought on behalf of liberty in two World Wars which enveloped you from across the globe, and even in victory, you magnanimously invited the vanquished back into the global community with open arms.

You’ve welcomed, albeit occasionally with gritted teeth, the “huddled masses” and “wretched refuse” of immigrants unwanted in their native lands and assimilated them into a society which has grown to be the richest in the world.

You faced down the threat of nuclear annihilation and the dehumanizing spectre of Communism largely with soft power instead of the destruction that total war brings.

For nearly two and a half centuries, you’ve held true to those most sacrosanct of ideals espoused by your Founding Fathers, “who brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” and in doing so have been a source of hope for freedom loving people everywhere.

This isn’t to say that you’ve been blameless. No institution, no matter how grand its codified ideals can stay blameless forever. The stain of slavery, the dehumanization of those we found on this continent prior to European discovery, and the wars of choice fought over the past 60 years have fallen short of your commitment to those high minded ideals in favor of “realpolitik.”

***********

I should quit saying “you.” This isn’t a professional sports team I’ll never play for, this is America. This is the institution which has from my first breath, blessed me with the freedom, safety and mobility to be whomever I choose to be.

I cannot pick those attributes of America with which I agree a la carte, leaving the less desirable remainders for others to choke down. I cannot look at my neighbor and say, “Oh no, this is YOUR President. I didn’t vote for him.”

Men and women who came before me gave their blood, sweat, tears and lives to vouchsafe my ability to make this MY America, one where each voice, no matter its wealth, social status, or color of skin has an equal part to play in maintaining the greatest engine of human freedom and prosperity that the world has ever seen.

But today, another 4th of July abroad, I find myself tired.

I am tired of trying to explaining away the past 14 years of leadership so comically unenlightened that our political system has devolved into a shouting match incapable of legislating.

I’m tired of trying to explain to the Europeans, Vietnamese and everyone else who doesn’t share my passport cover that the policies of my government do not reflect Americans as individuals.

I’m tired of seeing my government encroaching further and further into the lives of its citizenry, of spying on even our allies, and systematically limiting the rights of the individual.

I’m tired of being called “brainwashed” because I believe in the fundamental American right to bear arms, even as another mass shooting occurs.

I’m tired of seeing my fellow Americans try to pass themselves off as Canadians to attempt to shirk a history that while imperfect, is still as proud or prouder than any nation the world has ever seen.

For all the chest beating talk of “American Exceptionalism” I hear at home, I am tired of being in a room of foreigners and seen as the idiot because I am not “properly embarrassed” of my homeland.

I am an American, and God help me if even for a fleeting moment that I deny that enviable truth.

I stand here today embracing the fact that the problems of the nation which has given me so much are inseparable from my own.

************

I look to the members of the so called “Greatest Generation,” who sacrificed lives by the millions against a tyrannical force as twisted and corrupt as any seen in the course of human history, for guidance.

They fought with a single mind against an enemy armed with weapons engineered to make the slaughter of innocents magnitudes more efficient than ever before. They had the same right to vote that I do.

They did not shirk from their duty, or try to hide behind their broken political system. They stood and took the mantle of liberty upon their own shoulders and said, “Liberty will prevail, and America will ensure it.”

What happened to that America?

Why is my generation different from that of my grandparents? Has our democratic right to vote been taken away? Has our voice been silenced by statute or dictat? Do we find men with guns at our doors waiting to silence opposition?

No. The answer is much more humiliating.

We’ve merely disengaged. We’ve taken the spoils that our forebears won for us and squandered our inheritance on iPhones and TVs. On houses that would’ve made even the richest in generations past blush with the embarrassment.

We’ve taken “conspicuous consumption,” once a behavior to be avoided at all costs, and made it into a virtue.

We excoriate politicians for the slightest misspoken word, while giving our hours and eyeballs to such enlightened television as “Teen Mom,” “Honey Boo-Boo,” and the brand Kardashian.

We’ve taken capitalism, an engine of growth designed to reward the hardest working and most creative among us, and corrupted it into a rigged game of three card monte through cronyism and financialization.

Americans have inherited a system which requires constant maintenance, and we’ve left it on autopilot. The adverse results were completely predictable.

Our education system, once envied as the best in the world, now languishes along side such countries as Lithuania, the Slovak Republic, and Russian.

Our middle class has been systematically gutted, our rural communities left to wither on the vine both economically and socially, and our political class has partitioned themselves away from the people whom they are elected to represent, happy to bicker from their DC perches rather than associate with the lower classes in anything more meaningful than a photo-op.

The America that we live in and the freedoms we enjoy are not ours by divine right. It is, and will continue to be an ever evolving experiment, the results of which are determined daily by the diligent effort of those citizens who continue to maintain it through their individual efforts.

It is the sacred duty of each of us to ensure that that inheritance is worth receiving.

America I haven’t given up on you. Your struggles have galvanized my belief in that responsibility George Washington entrusted to Americans 227 years ago.

Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair

Generations of great men and women have both raised and maintained that standard, handing it to their sons and daughters in turn. It is the hallowed responsibility of mine to repair it to its former glory.

Happy Birthday America.

We’ve got work to do tomorrow.

Coups, Kicks and Settling Down

Settling down. A phrase most commonly preceded by “find a nice girl and…”

Not that there haven’t been more than a few nice girls to be found on this trip, but I still don’t reckon I’m there yet.

Well the Conquest has “settled down” for a least the foreseeable future. I’ve taken a gorgeous apartment at Lanta Gym to “settle down,” do some serious writing, get in shape while learning some Muay Thai, and do a little detoxing after the thousand or so cheap beers I’ve consumed since entering SE Asia.

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I was ready for a place to call my own for a while, to completely unpack my bag, leave all of my things laying around without the concern that someone might make off with one.

Deflating my Ziplock clothes bags

Deflating my Ziplock clothes bags

I was ready to be in 1 bed for more than 3 consecutive nights, to slow the pace which has put me in 53 beds in the past 100 nights.

So far, I’ve:

Flown 88% of the way around the world (21,829 miles over 45 hours)

Bussed 3300 miles (roughly 146 hours)

Trained 400 miles (12 hours)

Spent 3 days on the Mekong River on a boat from Saigon to Phnom Penh

I’ll risk a little moss growth. This stone is tired of rolling at the moment.

**************

But boy oh boy, what a detox it will be.

I got dropped off after a 3 hour van ride from Krabi, which included 2 ferry rides to finally get to Koh Lanta, a largely undeveloped island in the Andaman Sea. I accidentally left my flip-flops in Bangkok, so I’d been barefooting it exclusively for 3 days.

I’m sure there are a fair few people who would’ve paid good money to see Chris Moorman, former buttoned up, Young Republican Wall Streeter, standing on the side of a Thai island road barefoot wearing a Buddha ring, singlet/tanktop, “hippy pants,” and ankle bracelet. All of my worldly possessions strapped to my back like some “goddamned dope smoking hippy.”

Life is a strange thing. Some days tuxedos, some shoeless weeks.

I stepped into a roadside stand, where I grabbed a sandwich and some free WiFi to get my bearings. I walked down the gravel road to Lanta Gym, where I met the crew and signed up.

They showed me the gym, the luxurious accommodations and the pool. I looked at them and said, “Sign me up.”

View from my front door

For 3 weeks of private Muay Thai training, an all marble 1 BR apartment (cable, AC, dual shower heads, all cleaned daily) 3 steps from an Olympic swimming pool, daily made to order breakfast, motorbike rental, and access to their full Western style gym with steam room and unlimited yoga classes I was charged the grand total of…

 

 

$800 USD.

By comparison, for a flex 1 BR (one bedroom split in half by a fake wall) in Manhattan, I was paying $1575 a month. That didn’t even include utilities, which ran another $150 a month.

Good to be in Thailand for low season.

I got my bearings, found the nearest 7/11 (of which there are approximately 1 for every 4 human being in Thailand) and put on my preposterous looking Muay Thai shorts. I walked the 30 yards down to the open air gym, with a few stray dogs and cats following behind me like I was the Pied Piper.

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Then the sweating started.

My instructor, Anglicized name Zac, was great. He put me in the ring with Ko, one of the other instructors for an “IQ test.”

I probably have 35 lbs and 3 inches of arm reach on Ko, but I’ll be damned if I landed more than 3 punches in the 3 minutes that he danced around and laughed at me. He caught me with a couple sharp jabs to the jaw, laughing merrily as he did.

“Han UP! Han UP!”

Smack!

“Han UP me say!”

Smack!

He yells something in Thai as everyone laughs, then puts both gloves over his ears.

“Falang no HEE me!”

At this point, I thought I saw my opening to finally get him with one in the guts.

I “almost” got him.

SMACK!

“HA HA. Falang IQ no GOO.”

Zac finally ended the mild humiliation, putting his arm around my shoulders and saying “One WEE, we’ll make you good. And you hab twee WEE.”

He then proceeded to work me like a borrowed mule for the next 75 minutes. He patted the finely marbled American flesh that I hold around my midsection and laughed.

“You hab vewy nice one pack. Vewy nice. No wowwy. We make 6 pack in no time.”

I will chalk that up to good news.

I got through it and walked across the road to catch one of the fabled Thai island sunsets. I was far from disappointed.

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I jumped on the motorbike to find a roadside stand for some food. Found one where I got a huge pile of sticky rice, a couple chicken breasts, and a few skewers of some very chewy “beef” for $1.50.

I’m going to keep telling myself it is really beef. Not exactly the ribeye a la Johnny Zarse that I’ve become accustomed to, but yeah, “beef.”

I came home and checked out Thai cable, where I found a station with a very mournful music video going on. There were English subtitles, so as I chewed through my “beef” I continued to watch. The whole thing was basically a promotional video from the National Committee for Peace and Order (NCPO), which is the proper name of the military coup which is ongoing in Thailand.

The videography was completely professional, mostly scenes of positive interactions between uniformed soldiers and civilians and the subtitles in English read things like “Trust in us, we will restore your country. For the people. Order and peace will come. It will take some time, but the Army is on your side.”

I’ve been trying to read as much as I can in the English language press here, mostly picking up newspapers like the Bangkok Post and The Nation. I can’t really tell the level of censorship going on, but the people I’ve spoken to are generally in favor of the coup from what I can tell.

Military coups are largely a way of life here in Thailand. Since the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932, there has been a military man in power for 54 of the subsequent 82 years.

This is the 12th coup the 62 year reign of King Bhumibol Aduljadej.

It is a concept that an American could no more wrap his head around than the possibility of a talking dog.

Other than the military presence in the big cities that I’ve encountered, I can’t really tell that anything is going on. Even that “military presence” seems to be nothing compared to some days when I’ve walked down North End Avenue or into Penn or Grand Central Station in NYC and seen 50 police cars or 35 National Guardsmen with M-16s patrolling the area. (My negative thoughts on the militarization of the American police force could fill volumes.)

It is pretty funny to see music video propaganda though, and I’m very glad that they were kind enough to put English subtitles up for me. Really made me feel like part of the team.

Well I’d love to write more, but I’ve got to find some bananas to recharge before my 4PM session.