Unlikely Friends

In the last 6 weeks on the road, I’ve made more than my fair share of friends. One friendship that I will truly treasure as highly as any will be with Man from Hoi An.

A university student, studying of all things, Banking and Finance, Man was our tour guide with Hoi An Kids, a group which puts Western tourists with local university students to develop student’s English and foster a positive tourism experience within Vietnam.

Man took us to a local island where we got to see and participate in a variety of traditional local activities, from rice noodle making, boat making, mat weaving and an understanding of a local family temple.



After spending 5 hours sweating and smiling along with us, Man suggested hitting up a bahn mi spot in Hoi An, which to my delighted surprise was once visited by Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dUMlwNHNXp0

The sandwich really was a symphony on a baguette, with beef, chili, fresh cucumber, fried egg, chili sauce and a host of other lightly pickled vegetables that almost made me cry knowing I’d probably never have another again. He dropped us into another local coffee shop where we talked about the economics of his family’s farm and his ambitions after finishing university.

I asked him if he had any suggestions on how best to get up to Hill 55, a place where my Uncle Denis had fought during the Vietnam War.

Normally, I would’ve been a touch nervous about bringing the war up, but Vietnam is a place that is largely at peace with its past. One of the youngest populations in the world, Vietnam doesn’t bother with the problem of trying to explain away its history. The Vietnamese ethos is firmly in the present, with a solid lean forward.

There is something to be learned from that, both as a nation and as an individual.


Man said that he’d be more than happy to take me up to Hill 55, and that he’d see me bright and early in the morning. 8 AM rolled around and he was at the gate, smiling as I choked through a cup of delicious Vietnamese coffee.

We took off on his moped, to go grab one for me. We pulled into an alley off the main drag, (ironically only a few doors down from Cafe 43, where we’ve been taking our cooking classes) and he smiled and said, ‘There’s yours.” I jumped on my bike and away we went, about 20 miles outside of Hoi An to the site.

For anyone who is unfamiliar with Vietnamese traffic, let me tell you, this was an adventure. I’m pretty well fearless where motor vehicles are concerned (thank you again Uncle Andrew) but this was just insane.

Imagine an Indianapolis 500 with 200 cars in the field, except with mopeds, cars, touring buses, and bikes. All vehicles go approximately the same speed, no two horns sound alike (though all are constantly being used) and no one has a rear view mirror.

The only rule is to not kill another driver.

I still have yet to see a stop sign since we left Hanoi, and I’ve only seen a handful of stop lights, all of which were treated as flippant suggestions more than the law. There is no such thing as a Vietnamese traffic cop, other than the guy with a scoop shovel who cleans up the inevitable accidents.

I was excited, but my ass still hurts from the constant clenching as I weaved in and out of mopeds carrying families, 16 foot long PVC pipes, 5 100 lb bags of rice, and a massive pile of rice sheaves reminiscent of a certain Monet series. http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/64818

Then there were the middle of the road cattle drives.

But we got there, and that’s what’s important.

Once we got there, Man showed me the still flattened remnants of the old American Marine Bases, while showing me the panoramic geography of the area. Even to a total military novice like myself, it was very obvious to see the military value of such a hill, which is why it has been fought over between the Vietnamese and their various foreign invaders for the past 1100 years.

To those fans of military history, this was the base of Carlos Hathcock, widely considered one of the greatest snipers in history.

Once we got to the top of the hill, Man and I talked about his thoughts on the wars. We talked about the long history of Vietnamese occupation. His reverence for “Uncle Ho” was obvious, but so too was his understanding that the past does not dictate the present.

Only in the past 39 years has Vietnam been a country allowed to operate on its own.

I want to be clear that I’m not about to embark on an American apology tour, a la President Obama 2008. Nor am I about to engage in re-fighting a war which cost both sides entirely too many fathers, brothers and sons.

There is a lesson to be learned from all things if one is willing to stop trying to justify the actions taken, and look at a situation holistically. Too often, we constantly try to paint history to put ourselves in a better light, at the cost of real growth.

The Vietnam War was an absolute tragedy. Americans have for 40 years tried their hardest to ignore it, and in doing so we have failed to learn the lessons it offered.

In 12 years of school, I never once was taught anything about the Vietnam War aside from the fact that it happened. A war that cost nearly 60,000 American lives wasn’t considered important enough to teach to our students from 1993-2005.

That is absolutely criminal. Having lived half of my life in a world shaped by the post 9/11 wars, I find it absolutely asinine that we aren’t teaching our students about a war that so brutally divided a country we still haven’t completely healed.

How can we ask the next generation of leaders to be better than the last if they aren’t expected to consider the historical situations that got us to where we are today?

The lessons offered by the Vietnam War were paid for with the blood of 58,220 men. It is a callous offense to their memories if we don’t learn from it.

Since landing in this country, I have tried to educate myself on the ins and outs of Vietnamese history. Desire for self governance remains the prevailing theme regardless of what I write.

An excerpt of this unanswered letter, from Ho Chi Minh to Harry Truman in 1946 was particularly powerful to me.

“These security and freedom can only be guaranteed by our independence from any colonial power, and our free cooperation with all other powers. It is with this firm conviction that we request of the United Sates (sic) as guardians and champions of World Justice to take a decisive step in support of our independence.
What we ask has been graciously granted to the Philippines. Like the Philippines our goal is full independence and full cooperation with the UNITED STATES. We will do our best to make this independence and cooperation profitable to the whole world.”

As Man and I stood on that hillside, opposing heirs to a legacy of bloodshed, he looked at me and said.

“I do not hate America, I don’t understand why they fought my people, but that is in the past. The duplicitous Chinese are the enemy of the future, and Vietnam must stand with America against them.”

As we spoke, there has been diplomatic saber rattling about China’s encroachment upon Vietnam’s maritime rights. I hope that America lives up to its once sterling reputation as “guardians and champions of world justice.”

For all of our diplomatic blunders, we are still the preeminent guarantors of freedom against those nations which would look to subjugate their neighbors.

I hope that we realize the responsibility of that preeminence. The world depends on it.

A Life Remembered

We laid to rest my 96 year old great grandmother last week. I was asked to give a eulogy, which to try to encapsulate 96 vibrant years in a few tear soaked minutes, is never easy to do. I always feel like we owe it to someone who has made an investment in us, whether with their time or love, to show them the returns on that investment. I hope that my eulogy fit that bill.


Much of this is lifted from previous letters to my grandmother. After funerals, I never thought that it was polite to articulate your heartfelt vision of who a person was when they were not around to hear it. As Nana had been the oldest person I’d known for over half of my life, she got her prospective eulogy twice, as I never wanted her to leave this earth without knowing what she meant to me.

I’m sure that frequently eulogies of 96-year-old women tell of sweet old women, who loved their families and had a few hobbies that bordered on passion. This will not be one of those.

My grandmother was a genuine character, not a living prop. She lived and died in order that she could shape the story, because the force of her personality would allow nothing less.

Nana was born in 1919 here in Indianapolis to a pair of Swedish immigrants. Her father came across to live with distant relatives when he was a mere 15 years old. After his arrival, he worked as a hotel bellboy, a mere teenager trying to find his role in the American dream. At 96, we sometimes forget that Nana was the bridge between immigrants who showed up in the belly of steamers, with only the benefit of scraps of printed documents about the land that they would soon call home.

Marrying another recent arrival from Sweden, Charlie moved to Indianapolis and built himself an empire the only way he knew how, with the sweat from his brow. One of the pictures displayed tonight was of my grandmother and her sister dressed in feed sack dresses sewn from the products of their father’s feed store. Nana talked occasionally of the family poultry business, and the rush around Thanksgiving and Christmas time as if it were a completely different world.

That immigrant dream flourished, and was subsequently built on by future generations. She assisted both her father and brother in the building of a family business whose revenues masked those humble beginnings.

Nana did not lead a fairy tale life, she lived a Jane Austen novel.  She got married young, to an alcoholic who eventually became emotionally abusive. Unlike most women of certain means in those times, she did not let it define her. She extricated herself from a bad situation, demanding more from life than any possibility those circumstances would allow.

Hers was a stoic treatment of death. She was a widow for almost 30 years, she was predeceased by her near Irish twin sister and baby brother. She lost her beloved stepdaughter and two of her nephews. In her last month, she stoically looked at death as a known entity, with a quiet dignity and grace rarely seen.

She remained single for many years, choosing a life defined by something other than motherhood.

I never asked whether she was actually looking when she met my great-grandfather DB. He was a man who had lost his wife after a brutal run of tuberculosis to raise his young daughter alone, only to date another woman for several years who died tragically. He said himself that he was very close to suicide in those dark days after it seemed that life constantly conspired to deny him the women that he loved.

Then there was Nana, and DB was transformed from a man on the brink to the loving companion that Nana had yet to find. He became the loving grandfather known by his grandchildren who sit amongst us. She transformed a nearly broken man into the love of her life.

And it was a love to aspire to.  Looking back through her carefully folded letters, I found this note that she sent from the Imperial Hotel in Japan back home in Anderson to DB, in 1977.

Tomorrow is our anniversary, and I am really enjoying the very thoughtful anniversary present you gave me. The years we have had mean so much to me and you are very dear to me, my sweet. Love, Helen.

This was a woman that saw in her future happiness, and relentlessly pursued it, even if it took her 40 years to find it. The rocky road that lead her into my life was the right one, and it was traveled with intention and the courage never settle.

My grandmother shaped stories.

She married into the Moorman/Burnett family as a grandmother. On her wedding day, her dowry was my 5-year-old father and his near Irish twin sister Melinda. Over subsequent years there would be Andrew and Suzanne, and suddenly a woman who had never been a mother became a de facto matriarch of a growing family.

She helped shape, from what can in its most polite terms, utter chaos, into a family where she could transmit her own noble values.

There was no DB by time my memories began, he was a pictured memory who gave in his final bequest, the greatest asset he had. A man whose reality to me is only the ink on a photo and the stories of my elders, gave me the thing he loved the most, and told me to call her Nana.

Very few people get 30 quality years with their great-grandmother, so in that respect I am very blessed. We are all very blessed, and she would want herself included in the counting, that she was given 96 years of health that allowed the contents of her mind to be a gift to us all.

Even though my family moved several hours south, nearly every trip back to Madison County that wasn’t in the winter months included a trip to Nana’s house.

For all her means, she lived in a modest two-bedroom condo when I was growing up. That small space, in my youth, was a castle full of worldly adventures.

I can remember her returning from trips all around the world. South Africa, Egypt, Sweden, Japan, and Russia were just a few that I remember.  Her trips inevitably resulted in the procurement of some treasures. Whether papyrus paintings from Egypt, or Russian nesting dolls kept in her marble entry cabinet. The sheepskin from her relative’s farm that she would throw over me with such love as we watched a documentary about a railroad she’d recently travelled, or a Japanese book made of incredibly fragile rice paper, full of markings that neither of us understood.

When I was small, I was always most excited to go to the pool where she swam almost daily until the age of 80. As I grew older, it was the ability to talk to a walking history

She travelled more than anyone I had ever met, and she transmitted in me a love of the world. There were endless stories over oatmeal at her table about the culture of this place or the things that they eat in that. More than any person in my life, she fostered a constant longing to know those things through your own eyes. Her sense of responsibility remains etched on that heart, as does the fluttering circuit of the heart when stepping onto a jetway bound for a faraway place.

She let me see the world through her eyes; eyes that had seen both the throne room of upper class society and the poverty of countless nations. She gave me her own generous spirit, best articulated by the Jansen maxim of: “Those who can help must.” My inheritance from her was bequeathed not through the happenstance of genetics, but the intentional imprinting of her ideals upon an impressionable young boy through the oft neglected methods of love and time spent.

My grandmother shaped   MY story.

She ended her time on this earth in the digital age, but hers was a world of the physical. Typewriters and postcards, film and leather bound photo albums, newspapers firmly creased and books on the shelf. Looking through her carefully categorized letters, I could see a life lived and shared intentionally, so unlike the Snapchat generation that I call my own.

Thumbing through 7 decades of passports, I could feel the inevitable chill that goes through any traveler’s spine while standing at Russian customs in the 70s, “Will I be allowed in?” The ink from those stamps yet another physical reminder of a feeling experienced. .

She travelled in a well-appointed fashion, but she traveled many places that were not “on the standard tour.”

My grandmother lived intentionally, right down to her penciled wishes for this service. She was the tall Swedish line that separated the Moorman’s from allowing decades of dysfunction to define following generations.

She leaves this world without hereditary issue, but she shaped a family in her own dignified way into a legacy.

I do not share my grandmother’s eyes or her smile and most certainly not her height, but she gave me her heart, and that I believe, is a legacy worth having.

I think she would agree, because the heart is what shapes the story.



The Risk of Indifference

Throughout the Conquest, I’ve written some blog posts in some pretty unique places. From hostels to airports, sleeper buses to open air riverside cafes, I’ve gotten the chance to interact with quite a large cross-section of life.

Today I’m writing from a high school cafeteria on a Sunday morning, but the smile on my face is at least equivalent to when I wrote from a bar overlooking the gorgeous Bali Barrels two years ago.

The high school is Bryan High in Omaha, NE. Named for the populist figure who seemed to pop up week after week in my post-Civil War US History Class, William Jennings Bryan, I’d like to think that that friend of the farmer would be proud of why we are here. Last week, Rubicon Agriculture delivered our first AgroBox, an L3 Unit (Living Learning Lab.)

Eight months ago, I jumped in the Impala and drove the 9.5 hours from my side of the Great Plains to nearly the other, in the hopes of convincing the administrators of Bryan High that Rubicon could build the STEAM education tool of their dreams. Armed with nothing but a rendering and my own tenuous dreams, I was met at the door by a tiny raspy voiced woman and her 13 year old daughter.

Toba Cohen-Dunning has had a career committed to serving others, both during her time in DC to coming back to run the Omaha Public Schools Foundation, the charitable wing committed to enriching the lives of the students of Omaha.  Having heard that I’d be coming out, she pulled her daughter out of school for the day so that she could hear about the AgroBox project. The excitement in her eyes was in no way obscured by her glasses, and poor Eleanor had no equal for her mother’s enthusiasm.

She then took me in to meet Mary Miller and Principal Robert Aranda. I have since talked to them just about as much as my own girlfriend trying to coordinate the funds, logistics and delivery of this AgroBox.

Principal Aranda is, unequivocally, a rare breed. One of 6 kids, he was an Mexican Army brat who grew up in a town of 1500 people in New Mexico. As he speaks of his hometown, he talks of the changing paths of the Rio Grande through history, and how this moving border was used to separate “the Mexicans” from the others. Even in a town this small, where everyone had some mix of Indian, Spanish, and resulting Mexican blood, he talked about the way that some made racial distinctions of “proper Spanish” from the mixed blood of those “other Mexicans.” Hearing his stories reminded me of the history of Bolivar and Latin American independence, and the way that race was used always as a means of separating neighbor from neighbor even in the universal dream of freedom.

He went to New Mexico State for education, and after he completed his degree, he took the unique path of teaching on an Indian reservation for his first two years. Hearing him talk about it nearly 25 years later, you can still hear the passion in his voice for his students, and the sadness for those whose paths were limited by the expectations of family instead of the limitless dreams of most. An outsider separated little by blood but leagues by upbringing, there is still pain in his voice for those high achieving students that were pulled out of “Anglo” school to be trained in the traditional ways. There was no moral judgement about this path or that, merely a frustration with students not being allowed to choose their own destinies.

Fast forwarding the subsequent years, Aranda was given his current principal position at 6:30 AM on a school day. Anyone who has ever worked in a school setting knows that this is the educational equivalent of being asked to jump on a grenade. As he took over, Bryan was beset with gangs, low test scores, and that most corrosive of all conditions, indifference.20160808_111530

Aranda never learned the meaning of indifference. Beneath his shiny bald scalp is the brain of a man who has found his vocation, and pursues it with a near limitless zeal. He speaks with true pride about the fact that there has not been gang-related graffiti on his school in years. He talks about the achievements of individual students, the ones who could have easily fallen onto a path of drugs, hopelessness and crime. He talks about his wrestlers, kids who he considered to be real problem children, being the politest you’ll ever meet when he brought them into his home before meets, all because someone cared.

Having been around town a bit with Aranda, he is looked at as a genial mayor emeritus. At the restaurant where we got lunch, he joked with the girl behind the counter about “Now where do you go to school?” She playfully glared at him before saying, “Mr. Aranda, you know that.” He jerked his head towards me and said, “Do you know who this guy is?” She obviously didn’t, and then he said, “This is Chris, and he brought the AgroBox.”

Over the past year, Jesse, Erik, Pat and myself have given countless hours, weekends and more than an insignificant portion of our sanity and hair to making the AgroBox a reality. In the moment when her brown eyes flashed with excitement, it all became worth it.

Aranda gives the greatest gift that an educator ever can, that of self-determination and the knowledge to accomplish it. I hope that his students realize the gift they’ve been given by a man who could have just as easily packed it in.

Jesse, Erik and I went to a school where enthusiasm of any kind was in short supply. Built in the shadow of a 70s energy crisis, BNL was a grim, near-windowless place, and the attitudes of the students and educators largely matched the decor. Education as we knew it was not about ideals and dreams, it was about begrudging endurance. The teachers saw a population of students that declined year over year both economically and emotionally. Rust Belt economics were an undeniable reality, and as parents lost good paying jobs at GM and Ford for those with little room for advancement at Wal-Mart and Lowes, the spirit of their children mirrored their own suffocating realities.

As time dragged on, more and more of our teachers saw themselves as porters shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic. This sad fact meant that hope was in short supply, and education without hope is merely an exercise in futility.

Education is supposed to be about the attainment of dreams. We do not learn calculus because we suppose that someday we will be forced to figure the shaded area under a curved tent, we learn it because it allows us to know that a methodical approach to a problem, regardless of complexity, has steps that allow it to be solved. We don’t learn about the Gettysburg Address to memorize a date, but to understand that the rhetoric of great men and women can soothe the horrors of war, can free entire populations to pursue their dreams, and to know that the scars of battle echo throughout the lives of those who participated, as well as those who never saw the field.

Education is about opportunity, empowerment and actualization, not test scores. As Aranda rubbed his eyes with the frustration of a system which tells him that a data-only look at Bryan puts it in the lower ranks of schools, I told him that Jesse looked longingly around at Bryan and said, “I wish we could’ve gone to a school this good.” I laughed and said that the world thinks that BNL was a better high school than this. He looked at me with the incredulity of a man whose ears have betrayed reality.

In terms of that all important scoreboard of education, standardized test scores, BNL is quantitatively “better” than Bryan. In the qualitative reality of those who have actually stepped foot into a school instead of judging on the basis of an Excel spreadsheet, there is no comparison.

I envy those students at Bryan having a team of educators that shows up every day ready to prepare students for the challenges of tomorrow. I just hope that our AgroBox can be a useful tool in that worthy endeavor.

As Days Go By

And no matter what the progress 
Or what may yet be proved
The simple facts of life are such
They cannot be removed. -As Days Go By

We’ve covered a lot of ground here at the Conquest. From alcoholism to child rearing, the ennui of returning home from an eye-opening trip to crushing systemic poverty in South Africa. We’ve talked about Vietnamese cooking and the death of loved ones, Argentinian wines, and Bobby Knight.

My first post while traveling was an essay about the classic movie Casablanca. In it, the protagonist Rick, flies off the handlebars as his piano man Sam plays a song that he hates. That song, As Time Goes By, is the basis for this particular essay.

Last night, I watched an emaciated Bill Clinton take the stage on behalf of his wife at the Democratic National Convention. (This is not meant to be a political essay at all. I’m well aware that there is no such thing as a civil debate in politics at the moment, and I don’t intend to engender a digital screaming match.)

As the nearly 70-year-old Clinton shuffled across the stage, I was shocked at his appearance. This was not the youthful governor running in 1992, this was an old man with a shock of white hair and only the faintest echoes of his famed charisma. The first part of his speech showed none of that charisma, but as he gained speed in his 40+ minutes, he finally found a little bit of that uniquely Clintonian charm and I found myself wishing for another time.

I have spent much of the past week in the hospital with my 96-year-old great grandmother, who is recovering from emergency gallbladder surgery. At 96, there are very few positive outcomes that result from invasive surgery, but she is recovering nicely, if a little out of sorts mentally, a condition that in her 96 years she has never had to struggle with. As I sat with her, trying to keep her entertained (a tough exercise for a woman who is legally blind and struggles with hearing) she seemed to retreat from the present, but talked with outstanding lucidity about her trips around the world with my grandfather and others. She walked about visiting Russia in the 70s, Spain during the reign of Franco, Thailand before it was at all Westernized, and the 35 other countries that she visited during her prodigious traveling career.

Watching a woman who has meant so much to me near the end of her life made me wish, as is I suppose only natural, for the 70-year-old woman I grew up with, the one who was planning the next trip, and going every morning to the pool at her condo complex. The one whose role as a matriarch in both her biological family as well as her family by marriage was never questioned. Sitting there beside her as she struggled to draw breath, as she confused me for my father, I would have given anything to have her back in the health to which she held so tightly to for over 9 decades.

Watching Bill Clinton on that stage, I wished for the same thing. I wished that America could rewind the past 3 decades, to the fall of our modern-Carthage, the Soviet Empire. Unfortunately, like so many other great nations before us, we fell victim to our own success and our own press clippings.

Having made ourselves the center of a unipolar world order, we squandered both our financial resources and our moral authority through an endless series of gaffes and infighting. After the tragic “Black Hawk Down” incident, we punted our role as the arbiter of justice in the face of a few lost American lives. A decade in a half into our “War on Terror” we have managed to make the world a less stable place through both our own hubris and a series of half-hearted “fixes.”

We lost our enemy without, and we created the enemy within. No longer was it us against the injustices of the world, it was us against them. And “they” lived next door.

We lost our conscience through a series of shortsighted political “wins.” In economics, both micro and macro, the uses of capital are either investment or consumption. Instead of investing the dividends of peace, we consumed them, one bureaucratic boondoggle after another. Our ruling class, so like the political class of Rome, fell to fighting amongst each other for the ears and votes of the citizenry, with no vision at all for a better tomorrow.

Reaction has taken the place of intellectual rigor in our political process. Anyone who thinks that issues such as civil rights, economics, and geopolitics can be distilled into 140 characters is certifiably insane in my own opinion. The age of constant mass media has created a citizenry more akin to Pavlov’s dog than the reasoned discussion of our forbearers. We have been trained in the age of instant reaction, to look not at the core of an incident or issue, but only the responses that it engenders. Vision is a large unchanging horizon; reaction, merely motion.

As my great-grandfather Ivan, a hardscrabble Depression era farmer who bought the first rubber tire wagon in Madison County, Indiana once told me, “The best thing about the good old days is that they are gone.” Coming from a man who grew up planting from a two-row horse driven corn planter to seeing the massive diesel planters and combines of the 21st century, he was correct.

We must not idealize the past, but strive for a future which marries progress and tradition. The 1950s are looked at as the pinnacle of the “American Dream.” This interpretation does not account for the fact that America’s economic prosperity was brought on by the enduring reality that we were the only major industrialized nation which had not seen our factories, fields, and citizens blown to bits in the Second World War. America had to be at work because we were the only nation able to do so.

We must not fall victim to the digital reactions of today, but recommit ourselves to actual vision of the individuals that we want to be, and the country that we want to live in. Looking at the two major candidates, I don’t want to live in the visions that either one espouses. Trump with his dystopian “law and order” themes, seeking to promote safety at a cost of liberty and the high-minded ideals of our founders. Hilary’s platform is a continuation of a corrupt and failing status quo.

I don’t want to be shackled to an unrealistic view of the past. I want to see a country that says sacrifice is necessary to achieve goals worth accomplishing. I want to see a country that says community, those neighbors who we live, work and play with, must be our primary focus if we are to tackle the issues of the day such as violence, poor public education, and a continuous erosion of economic opportunity.

The virtues taught across cultures, from Aesop to Confucius, Christ to Buddha, the gods of Rome to the philosophies of the enlightenment are as real as the nose on my face. Doing the right thing is not situational, nor is it constantly achievable, but the principles of hard work, humility, respect for fellow man are universal. It is only our intentional pursuit of those simple yet difficult principles that will ever produce the prosperity so often pined for.

Just as championship teams sometimes come back flat in the season following their triumph, so too has America. Without a unifying enemy without, we chose to fight one another over issues so comical as transgender bathroom rights while we have young men and women dying every day from violence and drugs in communities that have lost the ability to articulate and pursue a vision for a better tomorrow.

This is unacceptable. Full stop.

If we are to, in the words of Donald Trump, “Make America Great Again” it will be achieved by commitment to a goal, and that goal MUST be of a higher order than a political win. Game theory tells us that the optimal short term decision can eliminate the chance of an overall win. Like the little kid who plays checkers and tries valiantly to not lose any pieces, only to find himself in a dreaded double jump situation the next turn, we must look with a longer view than November if we are to truly achieve victory. The victories available are nearly countless, from reform of a student loan situation which effectively creates debt serfs, to an education system so obsessed with objective testing that we have lost the ability to impart in our students the ability to “think” about problems with options not marked A-D, to the distrust of communities towards the men and women asked to keep the peace. There is so much WINNING to be done, should we find it within ourselves to define a win as something greater than a snarky tweet.

Thinking about “As Time Goes By” I am brought back to the opening lines of that song:

This day and age we’re living in 
Gives cause for apprehension
With speed and new invention
And things like fourth dimension

These words are as true today as when Sam sang them back in 1942.

There is no need to be apprehensive about the future, so long as we collectively decide what that future should look like.

Here’s to starting a conversation that won’t end after 140 characters.

The General and Mary Jane

At the small Catholic school I attended from Grades 2-8, we had the same three teachers for grades 5-8. Year in and year out, Mrs. Fish taught English, Mrs. Kern taught Social Studies and Religion, and Mrs. McGill taught Science and Math. Mrs. Kern punched her ticket to heaven twice dealing with me for four years in subjects that I wanted to constantly argue. According to a radical catechist who ended up getting thrown out of the room by Mrs. Kern, I punched my ticket to Hell at least once.)  Mrs. Fish, more than any other person in my life, made me the writer I am today, and deserves a gold star for patience at least. Mrs. McGill took enough stitches out of my ass that she got hers over four years, but I still learned plenty.

Mrs. Fish was a slightly reformed 55-year-old hippie by time she was asked to teach me. She’d grown up barefoot on a small farm in Iowa with an alcoholic father, and became a hippie in response.  On her road in life, she became a phenomenal writing teacher as well as a devout Catholic. I remember vividly for some reason, that she went on a tear about ouija boards once, and how we should always stay away from such tools of the devil. I’d never heard of an ouija board before and immediately jumped onto our 28.8k dialup when I got home to figure out what she was talking about. Speaking to the dead sounded fun, but a 15 dollar piece of cardboard seemed like a questionable method of doing this at best.

After getting back from Seattle on July 4, I was still wired for west coast time, and I couldn’t sleep. I wandered over to my bookcase and found Season on the Brink, a famous book by John Feinstein about the 1985/86 IU men’s basketball team. Actually, it was a book all about Bobby Knight, told through the lens of one season in the locker room. In local Bedford lore, this was the book that put Damon Bailey into the national spotlight as an eighth-grade guard at Shawswick.

In Christianity, there is the Holy Trinity. In the very religious town of Bedford, there is the Holy Quadrarchy, God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and Damon Bailey. His 1990 state championship game still stands as the most people to ever watch a high school basketball game. His 3,134 career points still stand as the one untouchable record in Indiana high school basketball. Every day of my high school career, I walked past the shrine to Damon nestled between the two gyms at BNL.  As much as I would’ve given to be a great basketball player, I’ve often sympathized for Damon. No one should be asked to be a god at the age of 13. In my interactions with him, he deserves much praise for dealing with it with poise and grace.

Bobby Knight was a tyrant in the Roman sense of the word. His word was absolute law in Bloomington, and in that respect, he had no equal. A line in the book makes reference to this, when speaking about the Athletic Director at IU (nominally Knight’s boss) and how grateful he was that Bobby allowed him to keep his job for as long as he did.

Coach Knight was coming off a disappointing season, dramatically capped with his infamous chair toss during Purdue’s Steve Reid’s free throws. Feinstein somehow finagled unparalleled access to Knight in his element, the basketball court, and talked at length about the complex man that had so much success on the hardwood.

As I opened that book and read voraciously, I started thinking about the date. Two years ago, as I was sitting in Koh Lanta between Muay Thai sessions, I got an email from Dad saying to call home. I did, and the first words out of his mouth were, Mary Jane died last night.

Mary Jane was my great-aunt equivalent, wife of Uncle Bill, who may or may not be living a second life in Buenos Aires. Skinny as a rail with a voice that would cut through galvanized tin, she was my paternal grandmother’s best friend since grade school. The Moormans were Purdue people through and through, but Mary Jane was a Bobby Knight disciple to the max. I was looked at as an apostate growing up in the hometown of Damon being a Purdue fan, and it hardened my heart greatly towards IU. It was really the only method of survival.

Mary Jane and my grandmother were the quintessential “Hoosiers” in the sense that they lived and breathed college basketball. I don’t know if Meemaw’s husband Dr. Fred was what brought her over to the rabidity of Indiana’s state religion, but by time I could remember, she could talk about the deficiencies of a 2-3 Zone or the magic of a motion offense with any of them. Mary Jane would actually take her phone off the hook during IU games. Her family was far enough away that there was nothing she could do about an impending death that couldn’t be dealt with AFTER IU was finished.

As I read through Season on the Brink, I found myself laughing out loud about Bobby’s tactics. Today, Bobby would’ve been locked up for his near constant mind games (or verbal abuse) of his players. He believed in doing things the right way, and he graduated something like 95% of his players while at IU. His temper was matched only by his acts of kindness, and Feinstein has many examples of Bobby reaching out to the less fortunate and giving them VIP treatment at IU games. This was the Indiana equivalent of Thor inviting you to an all access tour of Valhalla.

Bobby believed in loyalty over all else, those who were loyal to him or the IU basketball program were given the opportunity to ask anything of the General. Those perceived as disloyal however, were treated as enemies to be crushed at all costs. Former players who made cameos in the book talked about how they did absolutely nothing right for 4 years playing for Bobby, but were immediately elevated to sainthood upon graduation.

Reading the book, I found myself wondering if this was Mary Jane, calling back from the hereafter, letting me know that she was still thinking about me. To pick up that particular book on a shelf with hundreds on the second anniversary of her death seemed like more than coincidence to me. Given my disbelief in the ouija board, I felt like I had finally found how the dead speak to us. It isn’t the shaky hands of those looking to engage with the occult, it is the echos of lives lived and how we find them every day.

In the words of JK Rowling through her incomparable character Albus Dumbledore: “You think the dead we loved truly ever leave us? You think that we don’t recall them more clearly in times of great trouble?”

Pulling that book off of the shelf at a time when I needed discipline and vision more than anything else, I find her words to be true. Thank you Mary Jane, for leading me to that bookcase for exactly what I needed.

If I can give one piece of advice to my readers, remember those who came before you, and live your lives as a testament to their example.

Mary Jane Kay was just another one of the fine examples I was given in this life, and I’ll never watch a Purdue/IU game without envisioning her shrieking at the television with her “Dammit IU” doll getting tossed on the floor after a poor play.

Few things can bring a smile to my face when Purdue is losing, but at least I’ll always have that.


Mrs. Miller and the Brexit

She stood at all of 5’1’’ at her peak, but her gravelly smoker’s voice could have stopped an elephant.  By the time I met her, the lines on her face were so deep that you could’ve lost a dime, but this tiny Jewish dynamo from Watertown, SD seemed to emanate a power that couldn’t accurately be described. Old enough that she didn’t subscribe to the politically correct notion of “treat all students equally”, she unabashedly picked favorites. Favorites were picked on the basis of talent first, and personality second. Her second career as an admissions officer at Northwestern University demanded that she size up talent accurately and quickly, and she did it in every aspect of her life.

Her favorites became an incredibly accomplished bunch, becoming New York Times bestselling authors, lawyers arguing monumental cases in front of the Supreme Court, CEOs, professors and more. She had a wide net in a rich intellectual pond, and she relished her ability to pick the best.

Joan Miller was probably 65 years old when a scrawny, bespectacled 13-year-old boy sat down before her in the front row of University Hall. Over the next three weeks, she taught me more than I would learn in the next four years. By the time I left her formal tutelage, Mrs. Miller had given me the most valuable of all gifts, the confidence to compete with anyone.

She was a debate coach first, foremost and always. Policy debate was her passion, and she trained generations of Highland Park high schoolers in the arts of persuasion and public speaking for decades. Later in life, she taught gifted high school students from across the globe, and they sought her out by name, wanting to come meet the Cicero of the North Shore.

I was fresh out of a small town in Indiana, where I’d been the smart kid for as long as I could remember. Getting to Northwestern, with kids who had already scored perfect SAT scores at the age of 13, I was in a whole different league now. Adolescence is full of self-doubt, but suddenly I was overcome with the palpable fear that I’d managed to fool everyone to this point; including myself.

Being from a small town herself, Mrs. Miller knew exactly what it was to be a doubt filled outsider from nowhere sitting down to their first class in University Hall. She’d done it herself 47 years earlier.

I can’t remember how long it took her to latch on to me, a few days at most, but she taught me the most valuable lesson that any child can be taught: “It doesn’t matter where you came from, only what you accomplish today.” Sitting next to the sons and daughters of CEO’s, published authors and the like, I didn’t need to be told that I was the peasant in the bunch. Sitting in my only faded Abercrombie shirt, anyone with eyes could see that. By Wednesday of that first week, she made me understand that it didn’t matter.

She gave us a crash course in policy debate, but more importantly she taught us how to be orators, able to communicate any message. From signposts to crescendo to speeding and spreading, she taught us how to logically trap opponents into forced agreement by framing an argument with simple proofs. It was all about framing your argument in Teflon, making sure that detracting arguments wouldn’t stick.

I got back from the Conquest and as I drove from Chicago towards Bedford, I called Mrs. Miller to tell her I’d gotten home safely. For all of the horrible stereotypes about Jews, the ones about Jewish mothers being unparalleled worriers are completely true from my experience, and Mrs. Miller had adopted me as her goyim grandson long ago.

The phone rang as I waited for that familiar croak or Don’s singsong voice shouting “Joanie, it’s Chris Moorman” up the stairs. When a different voice picked up, I think I knew before he said it.

I got to the side of the interstate and bawled. To this day I’m still not sure how long I sat there mourning a woman who gave me my only irreplaceable talent, a confident voice. 2 years later I’m sitting at the keyboard crying just as hard.

I didn’t mean to turn that into a written eulogy, but sometimes the dead deserve their due.


Turns out that I told you that story so that you’d understand this one.

I waited up until 2AM on Thursday night, waiting for the Brexit results to come in. For those readers who know me well, staying up until 2AM for me requires wine, women, song and stimulants in great amounts. Or volatility.

The trader within me, like a catastrophic ex-girlfriend addiction, welled up to the point of bursting as the Brexit drew nearer. I would’ve given three toes off my left foot to have a real spec portfolio and platform last week. (The right foot being reserved for footy kicks obviously.) I read the news, watched the polls, and tried to figure out why every market had implied a 0% possibility of a Brexit. The polls appeared to be 50/50 but the world, both financial and media, was convinced that the establishment would win again, just like the Scottish Referendum in 2014.

And they were wrong.

Aside from my fanatic addiction to trading, I am also a student of history. Without getting too far into the weeds, I believe that in the modern era that history is on roughly an 80 year cycle starting with the wars of Spanish Succession (~1700).

1780, American and French Revolutions (Modern Conception of Representative Government)

1860- American Civil War/End of Chattel Slavery as an economic model in Western Societies

1940- Great Depression/WW2/Beginning of American Hegemony


I truly believe that we are on the precipice of the next great sea change in history. Just as the world was a fundamentally different place before the revolutionary period surrounding 1780, so too were the rules of engagement fundamentally different from the beginning to the end of the next 2 sea changes.  

The Brexit is yet another signpost on the change that is coming. The postwar period in the Western World has been one of “peace at any cost.” I haven’t gotten the historiography up, but I am confident that you’d be hard pressed to find any 71 year period in European history with less bloodshed between the major powers.

This has all been accomplished through a consistent tightening of bonds between the major (and now minor) powers. Like a jerry rigged team building exercise, Europe has sought to tie a large rope around the herd. While this makes it tough to fight, it also makes it tough to get anywhere. The rope took the form of endless regulations, agreed to by appointed diplomats and administered by countless unelected bureaucrats. The rule of law acted as the large shield built by patchwork.

Going back to another era in European history, the Greek Phalanx was once the greatest fighting force ever seen. Its power was not that of nuclear weapons or superior firepower, it was in the uniformity of action among the men who filled its ranks. So long as everyone moved in lockstep, a gapless shield wall protected while a series of marching spears methodically marched down more freewheeling enemies.

Discipline was the secret sauce of the phalanx. The spears and shields used were no more advanced than the enemy, only the method of utilization. The phalanx depended on an implicit social contract however, and that was one of a mutually desired outcome. Shared goals are a great way to keep discipline; consequences and fear, much less so.  

Peace was the shared goal of the EU for many decades. Peace was seen as the desirable byproduct of free trade, a mutually beneficial tightening of bonds. Familiarity breeds contempt however, and soon peace was seen as a given instead of a goal. The resulting philosophical shuffle from peace to “prosperity” has had many ramifications, from the sovereign debt crisis to the ever widening inclusion of new members on the margin.

Goals are hard enough to agree initially, but changing goals midstream means that formerly happy bedfellows can begin staring down very different motivations. The EU started out as an economic free trade zone, now it was starting to look like a federal government run by unelected bureaucrats.

Looking around the world, unelected bureaucrats running supranational organizations don’t work tremendously well (see FIFA, IOC, FIA, IMF, UN…) Technology might have made information more readily available, but the human brain does not follow Moore’s Law, and to try to rule across cultures, mores, and continents from 100k feet does not allow anyone to see what happens on the ground. Fiascos like the upcoming Brazilian Olympics (or better yet, the Greek Olympics that set the whole EU sovereign debt fiasco in motion) occur because the separation between noble ideals and workable plans become yawning chasms made invisible from the heights of the ivory tower. Leadership in these organizations find themselves find themselves in a gilded cage of “high minded ideals” yet their proclamations have real effects on real, breathing people.  

My people. Not the sons and daughters of the 1% that I tried to fit in with so long ago at Northwestern, but the children of the working poor who grew up in those Lawrence County trailer parks, to whom the debate over minimum wage is more than an academic exercise in economic modeling. The children of meth addicts who came, dirty and underfed every August into my mother’s kindergarten classroom. To my high school friends, who left as green 18 year old kids, and returned glassy eyed veterans from a warzone that they should have never been asked to go to, looking for a pill or a needle or a bottle to take away the horrors of war. To the mothers of those same veterans, who intrinsically knew that her son was safer in Iraq than in the decaying small town where he was born.

In the words of Churchill, “Democracy is the worst government ever designed, except all the others.” While democracy has wrongly become framed a modern euphemism for “freedom”, as opposed to an inclusive yet neutral system for the allocation of governmental powers, the EU started to look like something different. The emergency monetary powers granted to the EU during the sovereign debt crisis became standard, and the mechanism for power allocation went further and further afield from classic representative democracy.

Democracy’s success is inexplicably intertwined with its trust in the people. All the people, not just those at the top. The woman looking in the mirror knows her struggles better than any technocrat in the capital ever will. If her vote displeases the bureaucratic establishment, then I challenge our rulers to come out of their ivory towers.

Because we’ve got a war going on down here. It is not a war of choice but of survival. It is a war against a never ending barrage of awful choices. This is not some political euphemism, like “the war on women” or a high school football coach telling his team to prepare for “48 mintues of war.” This is a real one, costing life and limb and opportunity, and the casualties stack up every day.

The EU referendum seemed like a low risk means of shoring up a mandate when David Cameron proposed it. Europe was on a path for more cohesiveness, not less, and Cameron calculated that he could ride that wave. Somewhere along the line however, he found that himself and his government pulled under by an unseen undertow.

Having made more than a few British friends during the Conquest, I found myself intrigued by their multiparty parliamentary democracy as opposed to the binary two party democracy of the US. It seemed to me that the views of individuals were better reflected by varying degrees of the UK political parties. Whereas the US is told to vote with whatever party better reflects 51% of their views, the UK had a variety of parties to choose from, from Conservative to Labour, UKIP to Green.

The British system engendered a belief in the voting population that 51% agreement should not be tolerated. Various parties aligned platforms that reflected much more of the views of the voter. When projecting this inherent belief against the technocracy ruling the EU, the population saw themselves being a party to a supranational system unlike their domestic one.

Once the Brexit passed, the blame began in earnest. Claims of xenophobia, isolationism and outright stupidity were leveled at the majority of Britons who voted in favor of leaving the EU.

Enter the lessons of Mrs. Miller.

Just as she taught me to frame an argument with simple, unassailable claims, so too did the Brexit debate seek to distill an immensely complex issue into a series of binary questions.

Britain will be fine in the long term. They are one of a few indispensable nations on earth, and whatever the short-term fallout from the Brexit, they will always find themselves with a seat at any table that matters. The specific economic and social arguments surrounding the Brexit are far less important than what they have accomplished in traditional English fashion.

When the scourge of Nazism seemed destined to overwhelm Europe, they were presented with a seemingly horrible offer from one of the greatest leaders in European history, Winston Churchill: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat”

In a courageous act, Britain looked at a system of power allocation and said, “No thanks” in opposition to the entire global establishment. To write off a majority vote as “that of the stupid and uneducated” should bring about a whole different kind of debate about the state of public education if nothing else. Again, in the vein of framing an argument, I can almost hear Mrs. Miller asking a set of leading cross-examination questions, “Are you opposed to immigration? Do you consider yourself a racist? Would you ignore the advice of a medical professional in matters of health? Would you consider a doctor to be an expert? Does an intelligent person ignore the advice of experts?”

As Mrs. Miller taught us to debate, it was all academic so she could afford to leave out that most important lesson about framing.

Any art collector can tell you, frames are meant to be hung.

As we frame the political opposition in increasingly stark terms, I fear we are edging closer to hanging ourselves. Let’s think about framing things in a different way.

The Conquistador’s Lament

I’ve put off writing the concluding post to the Latin America leg of the Conquest for long enough. It is time to try to put into words what the constantly smiling gringo felt so vividly for two weeks.



We went to Iguazu Falls for Ben and the girls’ last leg of the trip. After 36 hours, Ben would fly off to Ibiza and the girls would continue onto Brazil for the next leg of their trip. I was heading back to Buenos Aires, excited about the prospect of exploring on my own terms, but missing the companionship of more travel partners I might never see again.

I checked into a hostel called “The Pink House.” That is a play on the name of the presidential mansion in Buenos Aires, known as Casa Rosada. It was spartan but clean in the Recoleta neighborhood, which I wanted to explore from instead of our further west initial place in trendy Palermo.

Recoleta is not really setup for tourists outside of the few blocks around the famed cemetery that holds Evita’s remains along with the dearly departed phenomenal mausoleum builders, some of which are seen below. Past that, it is very much a nice but ungentrified neighborhood in Central BA, serving as a portal to the governmental and financial districts. It is also a Jewish district, bringing me back to my first international travels where the herd of the very Catholic Stall family stuck out like sore thumbs among the Abraham Lincoln-esque costumes in the Jewish Orthodox neighborhood of Westminster.



I found some fine restaurants around the area, as well as a very overrated hamburguesa. There were plenty of cafes to hole up in on a rainy day, reading Seneca and then the mindblowing Kierkegaard. My appreciation for comprehensible philosophy grew in an unbelievable way. It is one thing to try to tackle Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. It is something vastly different to read Seneca’s common language letter to his best friend.

My days were filled with walking through antique shops on the way to the next cafe, late nights at jazz clubs, and treating myself to phenomenal steaks and Malbecs. Vicky continued to show me around in BA in a way that I never could’ve seen as a tourist, and the experiences continued to be incredible.

On Sunday morning, I trudged through a persistent drizzle towards San Telmo, about 4 miles from my hostel. About ⅔ of the way there, I got tired of being rained on and decided to get a coffee and a sandwich in the next cafe I came across. Bar de Cao was a relic from another age. 115 years old, it had wine bottles all over the walls, important documents from the history of Buenos Aires that had been signed there, and a spiked coffee named after Hemingway to boot.

There were 4 waitresses, one older and the other three about my age. They took turns swooping in on the gringo, with the short one (though still wearing 3 inch multicolored foam platforms on the bottom of her black sneakers) taking the first turn.

As my coffee turned into a ham sandwich, which turned into a glass of Malbec, the girls all took their turn seeing what they could get the blue eyed gringo to say. I sat there writing about one of them, as I often do while people watching.

Describing a living breathing person in minute detail who is interacting with the world and only very rarely you, that is a powerful writing exercise. The way she buttered the toast that she kept munching on, and the rhythm of her fingernails clicking the bar. The things that her body language said as she interacted with other patrons and staff. The way her mole wiggled as she laughed at my broken Spanish, and the muted one heeled turn she employed when walking away. All of these things are what makes real characters in fiction, a keen look at behaviors without becoming a direct (and therefore contaminating) influence. I’d be willing to wager great money that more than a few famous characters were the result of people watching in a bar with a notebook.

I sat there, writing away, both a character description and the outline of a novel, as I continued to soak up all the sensory perceptions that I could in a place that I might never come to again. Suddenly the older waitress comes bombing over to my table and says “Bag! You bag!”

Pretty startled from my dreamlike character study, I patted my wallet and said “No bag. All good.” She quickly grabbed a bartender who then grabbed the man sitting with his back to me at the table behind me, tossing him into the street. Apparently the man was feeling my coat, which was full of $400 worth of pesos, as I had just exchanged money that morning. The waitresses, now clucking around hen-like, never gave me more than 5 minutes without a visit again.

This was great service.



As I paid my bill, a comical $13 for 2 glasses of wine, a sandwich and a spiked coffee, I used my newly acquired Spanish to ask my muse for directions to the San Telmo market. Her body language immediately changed into one I hadn’t yet recognized, one leaning slightly forward in a vulnerable position, made incredibly disconcerting to an American boy with a huge weakness for Latin American women. We stumbled through my request, plenty of looking down and laughing as we both butchered the other’s language. Finally I got my directions and put on my green rain shell, and as I walked away from her, she lightly brushed my shoulder with her outstretched hand, raising the hair down my spinal column like contact with light electricity.

Vowing in blood to teach myself Spanish upon return to the US. I set off to a bookstore to find a Spanish fairy tale book to read to the ever growing legion of kids that my friends continue to hand off to “dear Uncle Moorman.” I figure start small and work up. No way I’m going to get anything out of trying to read Borges in Spanish.



The next day, as I boarded the plane, I said goodbye to a country that found its way into my heart in the first 3 hours of my arrival, I wondered if I would get back. I tell myself I will, but then again there are a lot of places in that category at this point. International flights are the expensive part of travel, and that budget is shrinking rapidly as the business requires capital to grow.

Someday, when we get the business humming like it should, maybe I’ll go back. But it’ll be different, it always is. A few of the restaurants I grew to love will be out of business for one reason or another, the currency will have appreciated so that my beloved $12 steak is now $25. Vicky will be on assignment in Paraguay, or whatever far flung reaches of Latin America offer Deloitte the most billable hours, and the red wine won’t ever taste as sweet as that first Carmenere on the veranda of our AirBnB in Palermo.

Maybe that’s a pessimistic way to look at it, and I should adopt Ben’s travel thesis of, “every time in a place is different. It is the traveller’s job to separate them and don’t let the bad bleed into the magic of a first impression.”

Well that’s not quite how he says it, but it is the gist.

My time in Buenos Aires was incredibly magical. To kiss a gorgeous, intelligent and (really freaking tall) Argentinian girl in the midnight rain down a sidestreet lit up only by the neon of restaurants and bars, as you’ve just walked out of seeing a 17 piece jazz band that resolutely reconfirmed your love of live music. To walk back soaked to the bone, with a smile on your face because you stole a scene in life that is only real in the movies.

That’s magic.

That is undeniable, in your face, think about it on your deathbed with a smile on your face stuff.

Most of the time we let all of our moments bleed together, letting the bad stain the good with marks that won’t come off, but why? What do we gain by trying to compress our experience into a format where the greatest are marred by the average and the mundane?

So many moments of my life are compressed into a slurry that reminds me of the stuff inside of chicken nuggets. Sure, I think back on years of my life and I have some memory that will make me smile, but these are momentary placeholders in years of forgettable (and forgotten) experiences. A stolen chicken nugget tastes great, but eating the box of 20 at McDonald’s is a shit way to spend the 3 hours after a meal.

I am so glad that I’ve realized this early, and made it my goal in life to appreciate moments in real time. How few times do we realize how truly content we are in the moment itself? Most of the time it is the bitter memory of a time that was better than now, picked from the slurry of forgettable years.

Moments like that don’t just happen on travel. They happen every day. It is the “Eureka!” moment that comes in the business when you realize where the funding is coming from, or it is the moment when you take your highly technical designs to a Purdue professor, and have him stand up impressed.

These are moments that have to be savored in the moment to be properly remembered in the future. It is not a quantity race. It isn’t an Instagram picture from Greece with 200 likes in a moment that you don’t really remember because you were hammered. It can be the sunrise coming over a cornfield, or a moment of achievement after work well done. It can be the first time that baby grabs your hand, or the moment when your 6 year old finally starts turning his shoulders and hitting everything in sight in Coach’s Pitch.

It is about recognizing it, not has a hazy also ran picked from the lot, but as a vivid experience that gives you strength to think about.

As Seneca said in that letter to his friend, “Everyone hurries his life along and is troubled by a longing for the future and a weariness for the present.”

Don’t be that person. Don’t be caught in a trap of “tomorrow will be different.” Live a life as a collection of moments that you will think back on in the past and say, “Well if I made it out of a 14 mile mapless bicycle odyssey around Buenos Aires in the dark, surely I can make it through this.”

That navigation fiasco could’ve been a real game changer in my time in Argentina. I could’ve had a real go at Ben and ruined our dynamic for the rest of the trip. Instead, it ends up being one of the truly treasured experiences of my trip, one where I learned to just keep pedaling and figure it out.

When I got back and did tersely tell Ben that he left me without a map and I didn’t appreciate it, he incredulously looked at me and said, “Listen mate, you’re an independent guy and you figured it out, I don’t see the problem.” He didn’t, and after 2 glasses of red wine, I didn’t either.

Nothing was irreparably broken, so why not enjoy the next sip of wine and let it go?

That’s a life worth living, where our triumphs are learned from and remembered, and our failures are learned from and left to the slurry of unfocused memories.



I’m glad I figured that out now, I’ve still got quite a few years before the scales fell from my eyes to catch up on.

There is truly wisdom to be learned from men who wrote down how to not take life too seriously. I’m glad that I stumbled upon Seneca and his brand of no nonsense Stoicism. To read it, take it in and digest it was truly a gift to have been done in Buenos Aires. To look around and say that I am in this moment and there is no where else I’d rather be, because tomorrow this won’t be the same. That’s a truly magical experience, no matter where it is.
Look for a few more of those. You’ll thank me when you find them.

If Heaven Ain’t Like Buenos Aires, then I Don’t Want to Go.

Scrawled onto the folded backs of two large white placemats from Cafe Thibon was the sum of my afternoon writing yesterday.Starting slowly yesterday, I walked along Ave de Santa Fe towards the Recoleta neighborhood to meet Vicky for lunch. We met, (she was late, but the whole country is late so…there’s that) and I quickly ignored her recommendation to stay away from the mondongo, and piled right in.

Mondongo is something in Argentina that could be passably described as “cow stomach curry.” It is a mix of vegetables, lentils, blood sausages and chorizo, stewed together in a base yellow sauce, with two inch chunks of stomach thrown in for the main meat.

When in Rome right?

It was actually very good so long as I didn’t look directly at the piece of stomach as I lifted the spoon to my mouth. The ridges and seemingly jelly-fish like frills of stomach lining were a bit less than appetizing, but after the first bite, it wasn’t going to kill me.

While I tried my best blue eyed poor me act to get Vicky to get a carafe of wine and skip the rest of the dwindling afternoon of work, I failed, and so was left to my own devices.

I was going to go to the cathedral, but I was sidetracked along the way by a set of faces that made me quickly question where I was. I stopped into Cafe Thibon, to recollect my thoughts and get a cup of coffee to put me over the mid-afternoon drop nods.

Cafe Thibon is part liquor store, part cafe. The green granite bar prominently displays two vintage sets of Malbec, while a taciturn and portly old man dropped clean silverware into a worn wooden box between the espresso makers. My seat had me looking out into the street, but the wooden boxes of wine were stacked so high that I could only see a sliver through the open door. The occasional biker would flit by, only staying in my sight for a second, while the seemingly endless supply of grand old men with their ringed fingers and sweater covered walrusy midsections wandered by the displays of wines and liquors.

Behind me to my right was one of these old men, looking like he could’ve been the Argentinian brother of Bloomberg’s Tom Keene. He had a regal mane of white on the sides but very little on top, so to compensate, he combed his hair back, those wiry white strands, so that they connected, much like an electrical circuit that would fail if connections were breached. His forearms pressed flat on the table next to his newspaper, his left hand would go up like clockwork every 4-5th breath, pressing those hairs back towards their more numerous counterparts.

As I started to doodle on a placemat, I looked over the names of the wines in the glass cases beside me. Alamos, Angelica Zapata, Los Arboles, and Catena were a few of the more prominent names. The crackling of AM Spanish language radio could be heard faintly, with the tunes of jingles rolling together with the music to my untrained ear.

Cafe Thibon roasted their own coffee which they kept in massive glass cylinders on the back counter. Their gold domed tops seemed to be lacking only a crescent moon from the mosque tops I’d seen throughout the Middle East. An old fashioned balance, worn black with the grease of hands and the decades of coffee, is used to determine the amount of coffee sold. The curmudgeonly old man would gently place the cylindrical weight on one side and a bag on the other before tapping out a few beans into the bag, frowning, and repeating the process again and again until symmetry was achieved.

As he finished one bag, he reached his sausage fingers into a large dish of stuffed olives, selecting three, then rolling them around in his palm with a move from his thick thumb. Examination done, he clutched down on two and ejected one into his open mouth, before putting those two with some others that he’d soon serve me.

I asked the waitress for a glass of Malbec. Sure it was 3:00 in the afternoon, but I was on holiday for Chrissake. As I sipped the delightful house offering, I started to visualize the rhythm of Buenos Aires in a way that I had not before. Just as some people can pick up the beat of a song from just a handful of notes, so too can one feel the cadence of a city. The way that old men shuffle  down sidewalks and the rapidity that cabs take off from red lights, these are but a few small sample pulses from the beating heart of a city. The overheard intonation of a conversation and the movements of waitress, these too show la tiempo de vivre. In a place like Argentina, the home of one of the world’s most famous dances, the Tango, this rhythm takes on even more meaning. Plain as the smell of a place or the mountains and rivers that comprise its landscape, the rhythm is as real as the nose on your face once you have trained yourself to look.


Ever since I was a little boy, I loved to go wandering through the hustle and bustle of a city anonymously. My father used to drop me off in the Loop of Chicago with my cousin Brad, who usually still had a few hours of work left before going home. Brad would rip a sheet of stationary so that I had his address, and then tell me to go wander around until 5, and to ask for help if I got lost.

Nothing like free range cousin-ing right?

I always longed for the feeling of aimless anonymity walking past thousands of people where no one knows your name. This effect is only amplified when one does not understand the language as throngs of people are living lives truly parallel to my own, a graceful mystery save for a the few non-verbal cues that I can ascertain.

I find myself with odd sense of deja vu here in Buenos Aires. I’ve certainly never gone on a prolific enough bender to have gotten here and back in a timely fashion, so all of my experiences should be new ones. These senses are not that of interaction wtih place, but instead the briefest inclination that I have seen the face of one of my deceased loved ones.

Yesterday I was walking down a side street in Palermo, as an old man shuffled closer with his head down. As I got within arm’s length of him, he picked his cabbie hatted head up a little bit, and to my shock and surprise, the face of Uncle Bill Kay was smiling back at me. The crinkled skin around his very round eyes and the way his face was always reminiscent of a round faced white owl who had been turned into an eternally boyish old man, this was the face that peeked out from under that cap. For that briefest of seconds, I saw those blue eyes twinkle at me once more, just like they did for so many Christmases of my youth.

Just as quickly he was gone, like a warm blooded ghost who had disappeared into the wall. As I walked onward, this feeling of seeing someone I loved out of the corner of my eye only increased. As soon as I turned to look, they were always gone.

I started thinking about Buenos Aires as my heaven replacement. Maybe all of my loved ones are here, living lives that no longer diverge with my own, but still loving, living and breathing as they did when our lives intersected. Perhaps Uncle Bill gets up every morning about 9AM, dresses impeccably in his blazer, sweater vest and scarf, and heads over to Cafe Thibon for his morning coffee, where he banters with the waitress, and playfully argues with the similarly dressed man sitting next to him about tomorrow’s weather. Then he shuffles in his leather shoes over to the park, where he plays chess with the other old men and talks about the romantic conquests of his youth, before going home to the butcher and picking up a slice of meat to grill and eat with his evening wine.

I’ve read enough of the Bible to know, that the actual cardinal directions to “Heaven” were quite general. Who is to say that our loved ones don’t merely move on to this Paris of the Southern Hemisphere and continue living lives with hopes, fears, joys and pains? It seems equally comforting to me, that if I continue to travel the ends of the earth, that I might for the most instantaneous of seconds, get to see that loved one of mine in a moment that requires neither acknowledgement or discussion, only the feeling of a full heart and a sense of contentment that all is as it should be.

Even if it is just Uncle Bill’s doppelganger, I wouldn’t trade the brief blissful feeling of Resurrection for all the facts on Earth.

Some mysteries are better left in the ether.

Zen and the Art of Being Lost in Buenos Aires

There is a half read book on my nightstand at home called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In it, Robert Pirsig takes a trip across the American West on his motorcycle with his slightly autistic son and a couple of friends. Most people look at that title and wonder what kind of drugs someone had to be on to come up with something so inane. Having read a good half of it, before other books jumped up the ladder, I find that some of the most instructive tomes about life seem to be the most random.

I had my own moment of Zen on a pushbike yesterday. Fearing that the weather might turn rainy later in the week, we tried to get out and see as much as we could yesterday. A trip to the Recoleta Cemetery, a place that puts the greatest of New Orleans mausoleums to shame, and a lunch of empanadas and tortas had shown us two different neighborhoods, but we resolved to get some bikes and make our own tour.

No one moves very quickly in Argentina, and the nonchalance with respect to time has already infected us, so by time we actually got to the bike shop, it was nearly 4PM. Being winter in the Southern Hemisphere, we only had about two hours of daylight left to burn. We grabbed a couple of maps and headed off through a city seen as one of the most bikeable in the world.

Then things started to go a bit haywire. Ben and I lost the girls after about 10 minutes of riding, which was probably to be expected. We meandered along some bike trails, edging closer to the water, but only getting into the port district. Seemingly anywhere in the world, you’d never prefer to be by the docks as the sunsets, but there we were.

Also, as opposed to nearly EVERY map I’ve ever seen in this life, the map given to us by the bike shop was oriented not on a North/South axis, but instead on the city grid of Buenos Aires, which was laid with a datum relative to the river instead of cardinal directions. This meant that saying I want to go “up” on the map than I am now was a very trying experiment in map turning.

About 7 miles from home, my chain came off and became wedged between the sprocket and chain guard. Having no tools and not enough Spanish to figure out “wrench” we battled with the bike for about ten minutes before deciding that I should just throw it into a cab and head back before it got dark. Ben grabbed my map and headed back on his bike, because neither of us fancied a nocturnal bike ride around a city we’d known for only 24 hours.

I thought getting a cab would be easy, but no one wanted to let me put my greasy bike (and even greasier hands) in their tiny Peugeot cab. So I stood there slackjawed, wondering how in the world I was going to make it home without a map, Spanish skills and a bike a chain off the rails and no way to fix it. Finally a security guard finally took pity on me and brought me out a pair of pliers, and I quickly got the bike back in working order. Then a couple of Venezuelans came and took pity on me, giving me some very general directions toward the Palermo neighborhood where I’d started. At this point, I was nearly 6 miles away with a very quickly setting sun.

I took their advice to the best of my ability, taking a bike path to the end of the line (praying that I’d come out at the CORRECT end.) A quote from Pirsig started to hum in my ears as my mindset moved from annoyed to determined.

“You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge.”

Trying to isolate the pattern, both in my own life and in this particular bicycle marooning, was a trying exercise. I had left the docks, where I at least knew my general relative position to home, moving in a direction that the Venezuelans promised would take me home. Having no  geographic context  to draw from, I had to stay 100% true to their directions or I’d end up god knows where.

Looking back on my own life, I recognize the same pattern. So many people put their heads down and start charging off in a direction given to them by others, only to find that the slightest deviation in direction will leave them stranded with no idea how to get either back from whence they came or forward to an original destination.

That is why the need for context is sacrosanct. Knowing only a handful of street names, my context in this odyssey was very limited, so I was dependent on external forces to give me a direction. The more streets that one recognizes, the more able to self-help he becomes. He recognizes small mistakes before they lead so far off track that it loses all feasibility.

The same is true in life. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be rich and live in NYC. I grew up on a diet of Friends, Seinfeld and the Wall Street Journal, and I knew that at the Southern tip of an island at the center of the world, my dreams would all come true. (There is currently a gingery Semite, a sleeping Indian, an illiterate Italian, and a bald…well whatever Gar is, reading this and laughing hysterically that I thought that all my dreams would come true in our dingy corner of the financial world.)

I got to my destination, and for a while, I loved it. The stress, the money, the comical number of amazing women to be found in Manhattan…this is what I came for.

Then complacency snuck in. My whole life had been about getting to this place, covering the distance, both physical and cultural, that lay between the sleepy cornfield I’d grown up in and the screaming trading pits that I so desperately wanted to be a part of. Once I’d stopped “pedaling” as I arrived at my destination, I got nervous that the bike would fall over on top of me.

Back in Buenos Aires, the sun had set and the buildings weren’t getting any nicer. I followed Cordoba street until it Y’d off. Inevitably, I took the wrong side of the Y. Pedaling faster was motion, but it was not to be confused with progress by any means. I was merely going faster in the wrong direction for 20 blocks.

Finally I began asking anyone standing still how to get to Palermo. My original directions were now defunct, and the only way I’d get home was to find a new set. An older woman (hell this is South America, she could’ve been 35 or 55 and I wouldn’t know the difference) told me that I was at least 40 blocks from Palermo, but if I went up 3 streets and turned right, that I would get onto Serrano and as long as I kept pedaling, I’d get to somewhere I’d recognize.

Now I had a direction that would turn my motion into progress. This was the “eureka” moment that gave purpose to what was otherwise aimless wandering.

Sure enough, after hoofing it 14 miles around Buenos Aires, I came up to the Plaza de Armes and knew that the bike shop was just around the corner.

Eureka moments happen in all facets of life, not just with hopelessly lost Americans on pushbikes. Mine happened on that brutally cold February morning in Chicago, that moment when I knew that I was headed in the wrong direction. So I asked if I could follow someone else’s for a while, and much to my benefit, he said yes. Eventually Ben’s direction and mine diverged, but that was alright, because I had enough context to self-correct. My direction is rarely perfect, but knowing that a path is the wrong one is always worth something.

If I’ve got one lesson to teach anyone, let it be the danger of sheepishly following along. One has to find their own direction, otherwise we’re just eating and shitting until we die.

Also though, I’d still advise a map in Buenos Aires, but boy can you learn a few things without one.

“The truth knocks on the door and you say, “Go away, I’m looking for the truth,” and so it goes away. Puzzling.” Robert Pirsig

A Santiago Morning

As I awoke this morning I battled the in-line water heater for a minute before finally getting enough scalding hot water to wash. The temperature was about 40 degrees Fahrenheit outside, and the steam condensed on the window quickly as I shaved in my pre-caffeinated stupor.

Packing up my things, I headed down to Cafe Caribe for one more fine coffee con leche before loading up to head to Buenos Aries. Cafe Caribe is known as “coffee with legs” here in Santiago. The bright marble interior is lined with a nickel plated 4 foot tall bar and the waitresses are all wearing skin tight dresses cut as high as the least modest family friendly business could possibly allow.

The waitresses are by no means the most beautiful women one will find in Chile. Most are hardscrabble old dames more on the build of an aged cocktail waitress in an off-strip Las Vegas casino. There was one at the cafe this morning who was much younger than the others, an amply fleshed blonde with a round pretty face. She immediately took my coffee ticket, speaking rapidly in Spanish with a bashful look on her face. I merely smiled, having no idea what she was trying to say before muttering, “Si.”

Properly caffeinated, I took off for one more walk around the area. Plaza del Armas, the square reminiscent of the main one in Madrid, was a hotbed of commuting activity. The dark skies started to open up to a steely grey as the limestone edifices of 200 year old buildings gave way to the gleaming glass structures of more recent history. Shoe shine men seemed to have popped up everywhere, their polish smells wafting into a mix of bakery and coffee scents.
I smiled the whole time I walked. This is what I live for. The validation that “normal life” takes many forms throughout the world gives one confidence that an intrepid spirit will always find a way to survive.

The stray dogs playing in the street were barking as the cabrieros stood in parade on the north edge of the square. Horses and Belgian Malinois stood in their police “coats” as a discussion of daily tactics took place. Women sold everything from toilet paper to fresh squeezed orange juice from makeshift storefronts on shopping carts. The occasional old man would walk by in his professor like blazer with an alpaca scarf wrapped around his wrinkled neck, even less frequent but still present were the men who knew just enough “Ingles” to come and ask if I had a packet of cigarettes.

Those early morning moments where I let myself be bustled through an urban crowd, similar, but still so different from those that I was a part of, are the moments that I enjoy most on travel. All the restaurants and points of interest mean much less than the realization that life occurs in all forms all throughout the world.
It is why I travel, and now it is onto Argentina to see one more functioning civilization, and what it has to offer.