The Road Less Traveled By

The night of April 30, 2012 was a miserable night that I’ll never forget. Driving a 24 foot U-Haul through the crowded streets of Manhattan, I had the accumulated possessions of myself, Dane May and Ryan Moore as we headed from our first homes in the Village to our massive (by NYC standards) flat in TriBeCa. I was driving while Dane sat in the second seat. Ryan was crammed into the middle area without a proper seat complaining that he had been smashed in like a secondhand accordion. A few wrong turns due to some dodgy directions and we were forced across the Brooklyn Bridge with no alternative than to go to Brooklyn and turn around to head back to the island.

We arrived about 11:15PM to an absolute trash heap. The previous occupants had been bankers, and had spent the last week of their lease playing cocaine flip cup with strippers and had left mounds of trash stacked 5 feet high. We had a U-Haul full of our possessions that had to be returned that night otherwise we’d be paying a $250 ticket as well as an additional day on the truck.

Our friends, lovable bro-snakes that they were, were there waiting to help us move in our stuff in. They laughed, well more of a hearty grimace with sound, as they walked into our “new palace.” Shuffling through trash as we tried to pile it all into the living room, we got our possessions in and the truck returned about 3:00.

This was our 5 man pad, and it was an adventure in anthropological studies. More than one morning I awoke to a roommate with a club girl on the counter whom I had to move to make my morning coffee on the way to the exchange.

It wasn’t the cleanest or the most comfortable place but it was a place of massive maturation. A few weeks after we moved in, Dane came to the roommates and said that he had a proposition. An Aussie friend of a friend, Ben Harrison, was moving to NYC for the summer and was trying to avoid hiring his own apartment given the credit limitations of foreigners for a 4 month temp visa. He was offering to pay a chunk of rent to put a loft in our massive “activities” area, where we had a full sized basketball backboard and a ping pong table. Always the cheapass, I wholeheartedly said yes, and everyone else shrugged as they indifferently agreed.

Ben had been coordinating outdoor music festivals in Oz for years and was now looking to come over and scrap his way to the top of electronic music in NYC. His girlfriend was a dance captain for a Broadway show, and this was an opportunity to spend time with her personally while advancing himself professionally.

From almost no contacts save for a few club guys we knew, Ben managed to make himself invaluable to in the electronic music scene, finally being given a 5% ownership stake of a club for sweat equity.

This wasn’t his foremost achievement. That would be me.

I’d always had a desire to travel. My parents made the “interesting” decision to allow me and my slightly older friend Alex Barnes to go visit our friends ‘ family, the Stalls, who made an expat career move to London for a few years. At the time, it was a 12 year old and 15 year old navigating through an England with only our paper traveler’s cheques and a tube map with a 20 pence piece taped to it, the Stall’s phone number scrawled across the front.

We survived, as you do, after several hair raising adventures, discussion of which still brings tears of laughter to our eyes.

I also had the opportunity to travel heaps with my parents within the continental US. California, Colorado, Oregon, and large swaths of the midwest and east coast had been visited, either in family vacations or when I got to spend a school year travelling with my father as he hawked asphalt planers, stump grinders, and slot cutters across the US.

Internationally I was still a neophyte though, and Benny told me about his unbelievable travels over the past 7 years. He’d been to something like 35 countries at that point, backpacking through Europe and North Africa for nearly a year when he was 21. This was how he’d become a friend of a friend, but his travel network was unparalleled.

I was amazed that someone could do that. Vacations in the US were nearly always under 2 weeks, with the majority of one’s 15 days being spent on obligatory holidays, weddings and funerals. I never envisioned time during my career to go travel for long stretches like Ben had. It was interesting to talk about but this was the life of someone else. I was a trader, and traders had to be trading. A week here and there might be taken off, but there was no possibility of taking a massive hiatus and expecting a job when I returned.

Fast forward 3 years, and I have since traveled to all 6 continents and 16 countries. Ben and I as of 7PM local time on July 31, 2015 had joined the 5 continent club, having seen North America, Europe, Australia, Asia and South America together. Not bad considering we live on opposite sides of the world most of the time.

Ben taught me that there is no such thing as the “way.” There are goals and the motivation to achieve them, and every way one chooses leads somewhere. Those who end up in a place where they are unhappy have chosen ways, or lacked the motivation to achieve goals that would’ve been more fulfilling.

One day I decided the path I was on would only lead to a life that I was unhappy with, so I jumped off, emailed Ben and in fewer than 10 words told him that I wanted to try another way for a while.

That took me on the trip of a lifetime, and totally refocused my perspective from one driven by money and the status afforded it, to one where I wanted to do legitimate good in the world. After a nasty case of the post travel blues, that perspective allowed me to start my own company with my brother and one of our best friends. The idea is simple, that fruit and vegetable production worldwide is not able to satisfy the needs to the 7 billion humans currently milling about earth. We intend to change that with technology and hard work, and given the incredible technical skills of Erik and Jesse, I believe with every ounce of my being that we will.

It never would’ve happened had I not gone through a miserable night in a trash pile of an apartment, unloading a 3 beds, couches and everything else up a 1.5 floor walkup.

It wouldn’t have happened if I’d merely laughed when Ben told me that a lifestyle of travel was possible for anyone, not just the lucky lot in music.

It never would’ve happened if one day I looked in the mirror and said, “the money isn’t worth losing your soul. Do something different or you’ll never achieve a goal worth a tinker’s piss.”

Now we’re working on changing the world for the better, providing nutritious food to a population literally starving for it.

And I’m about a half of glass of red deep on my 6th continent in 3 years.

Here’s to two roads, and choosing the one less travelled by.
It has made all the difference. Thank you Ben Harrison, how about some champagne to celebrate?

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The Post Racial Wasteland

The current state of race relations in America has been boiled down to the recent outrage over police brutality in minority neighborhoods. While many barrels of ink and pixels of screen space have been used to decry the deplorable state of policing in at-risk minority neighborhoods, very little has been used to look at the root of the problem.

Self-selecting communities have been a little mentioned effect of the post civil rights era. As strict institutional barriers regarding mobility among races fell by the wayside, the less rigid barriers erected by the free market took their place. What we now face, is a prototypical South Africa drawn up on the lines of wealth as opposed to institutional racism.

I had the opportunity to see Johannesburg, South Africa through a variety of lenses typically unavailable to an American tourist. After 5 months of traveling through Australia and Southeast Asia, I landed in Johannesburg to take part in the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders showcase. Alongside the literally towering figures of Dikembe Mutumbo, Andrei Kirilenko and the first African born GM in NBA history, Masai Ujiri, I saw 50 of the most talented young athletes on the continent, while taking in sites from “the other half” or more accurately the other 90% in post-apartheid South Africa.

Our days were spent at the gleaming American school on the outskirts of Jo-Burg proper. A facility that would’ve made many prestigious American schools blush with inadequacy, the school was a shining beacon. It was also surrounded by the ubiquitous razorwire fences that had become as much a part of the South African landscape as the baobao and marula trees. Post-apartheid South Africa dealt with the institutional policies that made racism a part of the land, but in an economic climate that sees white South Africans bring home an annual income nearly on par with Americans, the black population sees on average 1/7th of that.

The first thing that I was told in Johannesburg was to exercise extreme caution. Expensive jewelry, phones and computers were to be kept in a bag, if not locked up away from your person. To be mugged in Jo-Burg is not a matter of “if” but “when.”

That crime was considered such a fact of life was a concept completely foreign to me. Besides a few minor dustups in Vietnam and Thailand, I had encountered no such crime in my travels up to this point in areas far poorer by per capita GDP measures.

As I wandered, Christopher Columbus style for the lack whites that I saw, through the Central Business district, I realized that the crime seen in South Africa was not a case of absolute poverty so much as the corrosive nature of relative poverty, a condition much more likely to yield violent and volatile results. White South Africans (and a growing black plutocrat class) live behind their razorwire fences in compounds more reminiscent a Westchester hamlet than the shantytowns of nearby Soweto, where I visited a primary school where an astounding 39% of students are HIV positive. This problem was defined far more by economics than race.

The America I inhabit looks more and more like that South African scene every day. While the rich suburb of Carmel, Indiana dickers over a new 27 million dollar youth sports facility, the potholes just 6 miles south are large enough to eat a VW Rabbit.

Indianapolis found itself budgetarily unable to plow side streets this winter, but the Monon Running/Biking Trail used primarily from the wealthy “Yuppie” class found itself plowed nearly on the hour. Our self selecting society and parochial local tax structure has combined to essentially create a tale of two cities in nearly all of our major metropolitan areas.

The ties that bind Americans together are more fragile than ever before. Whereas the post-war generation saw managers and laborers living in the same neighborhoods, sending their children to the same schools, and taking in the same entertainment, the Jim Crow of today has replaced the “Coloreds Not Served” sign with one that looks like $. Racism has been replaced by economic elitism; the color of money washing away the color of skin in the new segregation of the haves and have nots.

There’s no need for a sign on the door telling who isn’t welcome when the cocktail is $14.

A quick look around the rural portions of my state will reveal a growing ghetto, made up not of blacks but of a largely white economically disenfranchised population. The HIV outbreak in Southern Indiana caused by intravenous drug use has shown that social issues are also color blind. Their problems are a mirror onto those of the Great Society Generation that saw the lower class inner-city family unit fall victim to drugs, broken homes and a lack of economic opportunity.

Discretionary handouts do not replace economic opportunity on either a moral or results basis. The problems of drug use, teen pregnancy and violence have gotten progressively worse as opportunity has become more distant. These policies served only to excuse the thriving upper classes from economically disenfranchising their lower class brethren.

As multiple generations saw economic disenfranchisement become the only reality that they’d ever known, an economic evolution took place which threatens to separate the socioeconomic classes into entirely different species.

“Us vs. Them” rhetoric of has been used to great effect in politics and it has become a self-fulfilling policy. Simply glancing at a chart of obesity and birth rate by income will show that those making under $25,000 a year are more than twice as likely to be obese, and have a birth rate 80% higher than those making more than $75,000 a year. These differences are magnitudes larger in reproduction, habitat and size than those separating the distinct African and Asian elephants.

While wealthy urban elites wring their hands at the outbreaks of violence in NYC, Baltimore, and St. Louis, it is not of some deep seeded concern but instead because they are afraid that the invisible but present boundaries of privilege will not be sufficient when the feces and fan intermingle.

The only long term solution to the problems cleaving the American dream from an ever increasing portion of the populace is the economic revitalization of these depressed areas. The economists I studied in college maintained that overall economic growth was the only outcome that mattered, but if “on paper” GDP growth only goes to fund further militarization of the police force and additional social handout programs, what did we actually gain?

Urban or rural, the root of the myriad social problems seen today is not drawn along the oft-cited lines of race. To quote our famous Cajun sage:

“It’s the economy stupid.”

Same Same but Different

Throughout SE Asia, I probably heard the line a million times.

“Same same, but different.”

Whether it was someone trying to talk me into their restaurant or sell me “real” designer underwear at the market, the line became the English chorus in the teeming cacophony of mopeds, firecrackers and horns.

The most rewarding part of travel isn’t the places seen or the people met, it is the internal effect that it has on one’s viewpoints. It is looking at anything, old or new, and looking at it not as what you projected it to be, but as something closer to what it actually is.

I find that since getting home, I’m looking at many things that I took as routine parts of the landscape differently. The sound of walnuts and acorns rustling through limbs and dry leaves as they careen toward the ground had escaped my attention for 26 years, now it seems to be all I hear on my morning run. Perfectly spaced rows of drying corn suddenly possess a noble beauty that I had never appreciated.

Then there are the things that never bothered me, but now seem strangely absurd. Walking into a restaurant, and seeing the only healthy option to be a cheese, dressing and bacon covered “salad” is shocking after 6 months of eating little more than sliced tomatoes and cucumbers for a light meal.

The huge amount of trash that Americans generate on a daily basis, largely on the basis of overpacking everything, seems ludicrous. For instance, I bought a 2.5 inch long USB jump drive, and found myself bringing home an 8 inch by 12 inch plastic package, complete with a cardboard insert of nearly the same dimensions. All in the name of stopping shoplifters I suppose.

Also my relationship with the media has changed drastically. After a long hiatus from American news sources, I am continually shocked by the two pillars of American cable news.

Fear and consumption.

I challenge anyone to watch a news program with a discerning eye and find content that isn’t predicated on one (or both) of those pillars. From the comically fearmongering coverage of the Dallas Ebola patient, to the shamelessly consistent product placement (celebrities included) that passes as “news”, the American news media has largely ceased to serve any meaningful function within the democracy.

While traveling, I watched Anchorman 2. I loved Anchorman, but I thought that the sequel was merely a poor exercise in fill-in-the-blank jokes from the first film. However, I was intrigued by the satire of the cable news industry throughout, a point running behind the story line. Ron Burgundy becomes a late night news anchor on a 24 hour news station started by a fictional Richard Branson. After making an absurd bet that he’d beat the primetime ratings of a rival, he begins to run anything that people will watch from live police chases to cat specials, etc. His estranged wife Veronica has her once-in-a-career interview with Palestinian Yasser Arafat bumped off air by Ron’s coverage and commentary of a meaningless police chase.

In all of Ron’s blunders, he realized a fundamental truth. Viewers demand that their news be entertaining instead of informative. As I look at the state of our media now, nothing could be more obvious. Anyone able to string 6 misspelled inflammatory words together on a Twitter account can be a part of the broadcast.

We sacrificed insight for soundbites.

I decried in an earlier post the Donald Sterling debacle as being all about the wrong things, his team shouldn’t have been taken away for racist diatribes in a private phone call, it should’ve been taken away in 2003-2006 when he was being sued by tenants and the Justice Department alike for systemically racist leasing policies.

The difference was that generating outrage in the 2003-2006 period would’ve taken actual journalism, whereas a 10 second soundbite with that most dreaded of racial epithets generated more outrage than 100 well-researched articles would have.

There are countless things one learns during real travel, both about yourself and the world. The most impactful lesson will always be the learned ability to look at something for what it is, as opposed to through the societal glasses you’ve always worn.

 

Elevating My Ideals

Turns out the toughest part of traveling is coming home. I’ve been back in the States for just about a week now, and as wonderful as it has been to hug my mom, and hold some of my dearest friends’ baby, there is an unsettling feeling to being…settled.

I wanted to slip back even momentarily into my travels, so I sat down and watched Elevate, an ESPN documentary about SEED Academy. Having been a part of the organization for nearly 3 years, it was almost criminal that I hadn’t watched it yet. The documentary follows 4 of our alumni from the campus at Thies through their careers in prep school, before showing where they ended up going to college.

I had the opportunity to hang out with one of the 4 alums, Dethie Fall, when I was in Senegal. Dethie is a character in a half. Now a grad assistant for Grand Canyon State, he parlayed height and some limited basketball skills into a great education. He’s now pursuing his MBA and will be bringing a team entirely capable of beating IU to Bloomington in December.

I will be there, and I will almost definitely be the biggest Grand Canyon State fan in Assembly Hall.

Seeing Dethie as a quiet and shy 17 year old in the film had me laughing, because in the time I’ve spent with him, I wasn’t sure he had the physical ability to be quiet. He’s always cracking jokes, or teaching Noah and I the basics of picking up Senegalese women in their native Waloof.

Shy is the last adjective anyone would use to describe Dethie today, but he’s used his passion for people to be one of SEED’s greatest ambassadors.

Seeing that transformation in reverse has really re-energized me in my efforts with SEED. After gaining a first hand view of what we’re trying to accomplish in a gym that wouldn’t be the 15th nicest in my county of 40,000 people, I was shocked at how our organization has achieved so much with so little in the way of resources.

Seeing the founder, Amadou Fall, deliver heartfelt speeches to the kids about taking advantage of the opportunities in front of them was an emotional tug on this stoic. Amadou hit the proverbial lottery when some Peace Corps volunteers helped him get a scholarship to the University of DC, where he went on to graduate Magna Cum Laude in Biology, an achievement far outstripping any on the court.

He turned around and worked to ensure that the next generation of his countrymen would have opportunities to do the same, to create a program which allowed hard work to determine opportunity, not sheer luck.

The organization he founded has generated nearly 6 million dollars in scholarships for 95 alumni over the past 12 years, and with our current efforts and expansion, that number should increase exponentially over the next 5 years.

No longer merely an elite educational academy for a handpicked few, we are reaching nearly 200 boys and girls a year in our Thies programs, and we’ve expanded our total footprint to nearly 2000 with a partnership with USAID and the NBA’s Live, Learn and Play program.

I was blessed to get a random introduction to the Executive Directors of SEED, Noah Levine and Romola Ratnam, who put my inherent Indiana passion for basketball (at least I’ve got passion because God knows I never had a jumpshot)  to work for an organization that needs both funding and manpower to really reach the next level.

Positive change doesn’t happen in the world overnight. Turns out, magic wands are only in Harry Potter. It takes the dedication of men and women who believe that they can make a difference. It is setting up container shipments, chasing down sponsorships, pouring over stretched budgets, and coaching scared 16 year olds through visa interviews.

Then you’ve got to wake up and do it all again next week.

I sat on the sidelines for too long, content to think that if I took care of myself, that the rest of the world would fall into place. That’s not how it works. Communities thrive on the willing sacrifice of others, whether it means donating your time to an after-school program, or taking a world class education and working for peanuts for a cause that you truly believe in.

Community starts next door, but in a world of ever increasing connectedness, it spans oceans as well.

I’m glad that my worldview was shaken on this trip, and I’m glad that I’ve been re-energized to try to make a difference in the lives of people who truly deserve it.

If you can’t convince the man in the mirror to put forth the effort, why do you think that someone else will?

The End of the Beginning

There are some things in life that can’t be forced. Reflective writing and bowel movements find themselves at the top of that list for me, but that very well might be more a manifestation of my last week than anything.

I am home. The Conquest has returned to the States.

I’ve been trying to talk myself into writing some sort of a concluductory post since Monday. I had 27 hours in flight to think about it, but I avoided my computer the whole time. I had a bus ride, a few quiet hours here and there, and finally a 4 hour staring match with a blank sheet of paper.

I just never could figure out how to force it.

Then, as most great ideas do, it came to me in the midst of a hot shower (shower temperature and creative output have a correlation nearing 100% for me.)

This post wasn’t meant to be a conclusion or a hasty recap of the last 6 months, it was yet another jumping off point.

The Conquest hasn’t ended, it has merely entered a new phase. Every idea has a life cycle, whether a business, a diet, a relationship or evening plans. There is the exciting “eureka moment,” there is the planning stage, there is the long (sometimes arduous) process of execution, and then there is always the inevitable evolution.

That’s what the Conquest is going through now.

I struggled all week about “doing the end justice” and pressuring myself to make this the best piece that I’ve written the whole time. It has driven my digestive system into a dither, but absolutely nothing had appeared on a page.

I wanted there to be some great takeaway, something gained from the last 6 months that I could point to and convince myself (and others) that “see, I knew I’d find my million dollar idea out there somewhere.”

Truth is, I didn’t even find myself. If anything, I now have a more ambiguous sense of self than I ever have.

And then I realized it.

No greater treasure will man ever find.

**********

Surrounded by a sensory overload of smells, noise, colors and people, I found a life without distractions.

The difference between social interaction and social media regained a clarity lost in the digital din. Shared meals showed why nearly every society makes hospitality and “the breaking of bread” a cornerstone virtue. I got to experience the shared attributes of humanity, those which transcend language, culture, politics or any of the other “higher forms” of civilization, to reveal the most basic of human necessities.

I found in the midst of abject poverty, the existential truth in Mark Twain’s words, “Comparison IS the death of joy.”

I saw all the complications of life slip away, if even only briefly. We are born, we love and we die. The only difference is our reaction to these intractable truths.

That slavery will exist always in some iteration is an inviolable truth of the human condition. The absence of physical chains hasn’t ended slavery any more than a cloudy night ends the moon. Slavery to opinion, to possessions, and to expectations are chains more powerful than iron.

The cruelest forms of slavery will always be self-inflicted.

I found that there is much more that unites people than divides. I saw, that outside of our protected zones of comfort, people will seek to connect rather than exclude. However, when the status quo becomes its own self-evident good, divisions both natural and manmade will seek to separate each from their neighbor.

I found sustainable living in a place where my bank account dropped daily.

The world showed me to be a fool time and time again, but acknowledgement of my ignorance was a comfort in itself. I found that those who think they know the most are always the least likely to learn, and I impolitely recused myself from membership in that self-satisfied group.

I found that a fight between two friends willing to listen to one another is one of the greatest tools for growth that man will ever find. I also found that some friendships are less permanent than we would hope, but that an end does not define the whole.

I saw the human condition at its most vulnerable, and witnessed the strength that it takes to be weak. Death comes for us all, regardless of color, income or location.

Fear only diminishes each breath that remains.

Like Cassandra foreseeing the destruction of Troy, I stood in the midst of the jungles of Laos with tears in my eyes that this too would someday fall victim to the unstoppable force of consumerism, a natural treasure sold piecemeal as presswood Ikea TV stands and glossy paper advertisements.

The dangers of confusing technical expertise with wisdom became clearer and clearer. Just as a man with a hammer sees every problem as a nail, so too does technical expertise lack the vision to see the unintended consequences of a “solution.”

As the West encroaches further and further into societies which grew up Darwinistically different values to our own, we will find ourselves trying to repair and improve mechanisms that we truly do not understand. Just as we have moved further from the values of our forefathers, cocksure in our belief that newer, bigger, and faster are self-evident goods, so to will we unintentionally destroy that which has bound vibrant communities together for centuries.

The list of observations I made could go on for days, but they all lead to the same inexorable conclusion. For all the knowledge that my travels afforded me, they merely showed how woefully insufficient the framework I use to cobble it together truly is. Only by acknowledging our own stunning ignorance can any of us hope to truly learn, and only by questioning those “truths” we’ve held as absolute can we ever be sure of anything at all.

Even as the world becomes interconnected at an ever increasing pace, it appears to me that individuals are retreating further and further into our own rigid beliefs. This would seem, to a mildly logical man, to be two opposing forces eventually destined for direct conflict. Will people simply pop their heads out of the foxhole after the battle occurs and acknowledge the “truth” as told by the victors?

History doesn’t seem to think so, although through most of human history, we didn’t encourage our best thinkers to become “excellent sheep.”

I hope to have avoided that comfortable affliction.

**********

The Conquest gave me what all great conquests will, the confidence to chase a new horizon.

I didn’t come back with a multi-million dollar idea and I didn’t come back with a groundbreaking novel in the can. I didn’t bring home the woman of my dreams (even if I now know a few locations where she might be hiding.)

I made some of the best friends I could ask for. I saw a side of myself that I didn’t think existed. I freed myself from the endless barrage of manipulated messages, both commercial and from a fear-inducing media, and the world I found turned out to be a safer and more wonderful place than I could’ve possibly imagined.

I saw that there are really a million ways to die, and that to live in fear of any of them is a fool’s errand. I made peace with a few deaths that I hadn’t properly processed, and I realized through bitter tears on an empty Thai beach, that you can say a proper goodbye to a loved one without a body or a suit.

I found friendships can be deeper after 3 days than some can after 10 years, and I saw the power of the human spirit in overcoming adversity.

I saw the good in man that I thought that I’d forgotten, and I saw some of the forgotten faceless in places that won’t ever get talked about on the news.

The man in the mirror looks back at me differently today.

He smiles a lot more. He reminded me that he’s the only one in this life that will take every step with me, and that if I don’t make peace with him, what the hell chance to I have with the rest of it. He showed me that I can be as happy in a bunk bed as I can in a multi-million dollar house, and that sometimes the best look we’ve got has a few tears running down our face.

I missed many things while I was gone. I missed a parcel of babies being born, and the weddings of some of my dearest and oldest friends.

Nothing is without cost, yet another universal truth that I uncovered.

The former commodity trader found that there are only two commodities that really matter.

Love and time.

As I returned home and picked up the 2 month old daughter of two of my best friends, I realized that instantly. Even if that were the only thing the Conquest had taught me, it would’ve been enough.

Thankfully it taught me so much more.

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

Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to follow my blog. The support that I’ve gotten from friends, family and total strangers who happened accidentally wandered on has been stunning and humbling.

I hope you enjoyed reading about it a tenth as much as I enjoyed living it. As I re-integrate back into “reality”, there will be more posts of reflection about some of the things I’ve seen and done. There will also be some thoughts on life back in the Western world as I re-acclimate myself to a reality that was once the only one I’d ever known.

If I can offer any advice on travel, the first piece is “Do it.” Anything more specific, please reach out to chrismoorman13@gmail.com and I’d be more than happy to offer tips or advice on any of the places I’ve been, or backpacking in general. We were all blessed with a wide and wonderful world on which to live, and it is a true shame to relegate ourselves to only the small corners where we were born.

Life as a hastily planned adventure works. Just poke around my ramblings and musings on this page if you need proof.

Wayward Sheep

Much has been made recently of a book by William Deresiewicz entitled Excellent Sheep. By most accounts, it is a scathing review of the highest echelons of  the American university system.  His main point is simple, we’ve created a system where entry to the top levels of society is predicated upon high achieving hyper-conformity.

Mountains of eerily similar student profiles litter the desks of admissions agents. Perfect grades, high SAT scores, and a carefully cultivated list of extracurricular activities are stacked in homogenous piles, waiting for a harried admissions agent to pick out the proverbial “needle in the haystack.”

How do so many high achievers end up looking exactly the same on paper? In an age where “individualism” is disingenuously held up as a self-evident virtue (the 40 other people at the train stop staring at their (I)phones are unique little snowflakes, doing exactly the same thing), how are we producing so many uniformly similar students?

I’ve spoken in earlier posts about the danger of narrow thinking. To pull some of society’s highest achievers into a conformity trap at a young age is condemning them to a life with a golden ceiling.

It prevents many of our best and brightest from ever trying their top gears, and we wonder why we have such high levels of depression in our high achievers. Life is great for a natural test taker so long as there is a test put on the desk. When the scantron becomes a blue book though, well that changes things.

Deresiewicz’s moniker of sheep seems harsh, but his point is that our high achievers have become excellent at doing what they’re told.

What are the long term ramifications for a society that promises security and wealth to those who show the most unwavering adherence to the script? Is our current political structure symptomatic of this thinking, so far as we’ve made no haven for truly dynamic leaders, only those who stick rigidly to the party line?

What happens to a society when our leaders are merely managers instead of visionaries? Like the multitude of blinkered horses dragging carts here in Thies, so many people are blinded to the wider world by the next task at hand. It is impossible to build an integrated sense of self if you are constantly waiting for an external force to reveal your next task.

It isn’t those tasks that reveal character, it is the introspection that occurs during and after. 2500 years ago, Socrates revealed that existential truth that “an unexamined life is not worth living” and it rings no less true today.

Unfortunately, the linear obstacle course only requires eyes on the horizon. The hyperlogical approach would say that there is nothing to be gained by looking around.

As I near the end of my trip, I find myself thinking more and more about my “place” in the world upon returning. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, my development as a person has accelerated beyond my wildest dreams. I can feel it instinctively, and I can see it, plain as day through my writing.

Taking the blinkers off will do that.

Yet, there is an element of fear creeping in as my return gets closer and closer. That nagging doubt that says, “All this was fine as long as you kept running, but the downside is coming.”

It takes a certain amount of confidence to take off and start an adventure, but that can be faked if you start at a bit of a run. Ending an adventure requires a confidence that can’t be faked.

In every cell of my body, I know that this was the right decision. But now, I’ve got to return to the “real world” where the sum of a person is distilled to a resume and a cover letter. Excellent sheep make for excellent resumes.

I guess I’ll just have to see what wayward sheep make.

Hopefully not dog food.

Emotional Attachment

Good morning from hot, sticky Thies.

While the Western world might not have a cohesive strategy for ISIS, Noah and I had a detailed strategy session last night to develop a plan for dealing with the hardened West African terrorists known as mosquitoes. Having been eaten alive nightly for the last 10 days, we had to change something in our tactics.

A 3 step plan, bug bombing the room an hour before going to sleep, drenching ourselves in repellent, and changing our potentially infested mats and I woke up with…considerably fewer bites. The cost of freedom from mosquitoes is high, and requires constant vigilance.

No one will sleep while these terrorists are at large.

********

Having had a week in Thies to interact with the kids, I’m starting to become unfortunately attached. We’ve already had some setbacks, with the Embassy denying a visa to one of our Academy students, Ibrahima, who had been given a 50k/year scholarship to the elite Hyde School in CT. The fact that a mid-level bureaucrat, who probably got his job by virtue of the US political patronage system, would stand in the way of a deserving kid’s immense opportunity is both heartbreaking and intensely infuriating.  

The loss to Ibrahima is huge, but the loss to the kids at the Hyde School is really no less. Typically, 50k/year East Coast prep schools are not bastions of socioeconomic diversity. The benefit to those kids through both the cultural interaction, and the fact that they will have a face to associate with West Africa would be huge.

Ibrahima, to his credit, took the bad news stoically. I’m not a terribly emotional person, but I would’ve punted a basketball clear to Mali. He stood there, as Noah told him, and then walked over to his friends with a body language that hadn’t changed. We’ll keep looking for other options for him, and he’ll keep working hard in the gym, perhaps with no greater end in mind than being better than he was yesterday.

All this because a stuffed shirt bureaucrat was told to reject more student visas.

We keep trucking though, working with other students in the hope that this was a one-off problem. One of the captains of the Academy, Abdou Gaye, is applying to a prep school in upstate NY to further his English and gain exposure for college programs. A quiet leader whose English is good until he psyches himself into a stutter, Abdou is exactly the kind of kid that we try to develop at SEED. He’s been in the program 3 years, passed his Baccalaureate exam (only 31% of the few who take the test pass), and has been selected for both the Basketball Without Borders and the U20 National Team. He met Noah and I for lunch to work on his application, and then sent us a heartfelt message for the help after we left.

We met him at the gym to play some half court last night. I should mention that we only have one functioning light at the gym, so half court is more of a forced activity after 8PM. The other side of the court was still filled with kids dribbling in the darkness.

I grew up with some gym rats, especially some of the kids at the Boys Club. Let me assure you, I’ve never seen anyone with enough desire to go dribble in the dark until someone boots them out of the gym.

I drew the unenviable task of guarding Abdou, which was comical for anyone watching. I shouldn’t be allowed on a basketball court with well coached 12 year olds, let alone a bunch of freak athletes, the shortest being a mere 6’6’’. Abdou threw down a couple of 1 handed slams in the 3 games, including one where he almost ran his nose into the bottom of the rim.

I just tried to shuffle my slow, white and old feet in front of him as much as possible.

Noah and I tried to exploit some teachable moments, especially with respect to the physicality of the American game. These kids are all stringbeans, as Mactar found out when he challenged the “toubab” to wrestle.

Listen kid, you might have a full foot on me, but your 160 lbs is NOT going to be putting me on my back. Try again in 40 lbs.  

The games ended when Thies suffered one of its many blackouts. We shuffled to the exit, trying to locate phones and wallets before calling it a night. I think there were still 25 kids in the gym when we left. 17 of them working in lighting categorized as “semi-darkness” at best.

Noah and I headed down the dirt roads back to the apartment, crossing the railroad tracks/dump, and asking “Ca va?” to the many families huddled around radios in the darkness in the “streets.”

It is fun to see the talent and it is amazing to see the drive. It is also heartbreaking to know that all the work these kids put in, both on the court and in the classroom, can be derailed by a bureaucrat after an interview that lasts less than 3 minutes.

The ability to have hard work rewarded is a fundamental component of the American Dream.

It is not however, a universal truth.

Discomfort and Perspective

For the second time on the Conquest, I’m settling in for an extended period of time. Noah and I got back out to Thies, yesterday (pronounced “Chess”) and got down to the business of settling in.

We’re staying with Sara and Laura, two Peace Corp volunteers who are partnering with SEED for the first time this year. Both are “hardened” Peace Corp veterans, with Sara spending several years in West Africa already, and Laura having come from spending a few years in Western Ukraine.

We rolled up to the apartment, and Sara took us to go pick up the essentials for living here in Thies. We went down to the “toubab” market, (toubab being a catch-all West African phrase for white/foreigner) and picked up some food.

The vegetables were bought in a transaction marred by badly broken French, from three austere looking women in brightly colored traditional get-ups. They sit for 10-12 hours a day under a makeshift umbrella fashioned from sticks and doubled up black plastic wrap. The most ambitious vendors whip around the tail of something to keep the omnipresent flies at bay, but most know a losing battle when they see one. The stench from the market was bearable today because it is dry, but it could make a seasoned garbageman retch after a solid rain.

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Having been in SE Asia, where everything is so cheap that it is comical, it is almost painful to pay the prices in the market here. Food is, at a minimum, 200% more expensive here than in Asia, with some things outstripping the prices I would pay back home. The prices of manufactured goods are also very high, although that is less surprising given the lack of manufacturing seen in this part of the world.

As we darted in and out of some of the “boutiques” looking for a frying pan, I came upon 3 men watching the Senegal-Philipines game. They were watching on a 20 inch tube TV, but they were into every shot, and they quickly realized a fellow fan as I swore when Gorgui got hacked in the lane. While we couldn’t really make out much of what the other was saying, the identification of a mutual goal was near immediate, and we shared the smiles of success and the multi-lingual curses of failure for most of the second half of the game.

It put what I’m doing here back into perspective quickly. These guys, standing and sweating in a storefront that might bring in $200 on a good day, had something to be excited about and there we stood, toubab and locals, swearing at a TV which would’ve been thrown out of most US households 10 years ago. It brought me back to the memories of childhood, watching Purdue games on old TVs, never thinking for a second that we needed to see the sweat dripping off of a shooter’s nose more clearly, just glad that we got to see it at all.

The unifying aspect of sports is powerful. In that moment, we transcended a cultural and language gap to care about the same thing, at the same time. For a few minutes in that shop, I forgot how annoyed I was at the heat and the stench. I wasn’t particularly worried about where I’d find fresh meat for dinner or the fact that there would probably be a blanket of flies at the apartment when we returned.

I just cared about a game, and about how my efforts were going to help the next generation of that Senegalese national team. I thought about Ibrahima, and prayed that his visa interview went well so that a kid who grew up in conditions that make American poverty look laughable, will be able to take his full scholarship to a $50,000 a year prep school on the East Coast.

And we’ve just gotten started with the girls. SEED has the ability to move the needle on female education in this country, and produce some of the best women’s basketball players in the world. Nothing increases human capital faster than increasing the educational outcomes of women, and we’ll be sending these girls to US schools in droves in the next few years. 

Then I thought, “Shit, I’d better work on fundraising to keep this dream alive.”

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We grabbed some sheets and a fan, and went back to the apartment to set up our “beds” which consisted of two cushions on the floor. I took my first cold shower of the trip, which was…quite refreshing. The fact that I won’t be seeing AC or hot water for a month is a little disconcerting, but roughing it is part of the territory here.

After we got our limited creature comforts taken care of, we headed over to the gym to watch the last scrimmages of the night and work one on one with a few of the kids.

The gym was probably 95 degrees at 8PM, but the kids were still clamoring to get on the court. Noah and I worked with Mactar, a 6’9’’ 16 year old who MIGHT weigh 160 lbs. He was one of the kids who was invited to play in the NBA showcase in Jo-burg. For about an hour after he was done with practice, he responded to every pointer Noah and I gave him, smiling the entire time, until we made him do push-ups, which was reminiscent of two strands of cooked spaghetti trying to stand upright.

Little extra chicken and some coaching, and the guys in that shop will be watching him some day.

My temporary discomforts look pretty small by comparison.


For more information or to donate to SEED Project, please visit www.seedproject.org

SEEDS of Hope

Throughout the Conquest, I’ve gotten the chance to see poverty up close. The shacks and huts of SE Asia opened my eyes to the realities of the unequivocally poor. At the time, I remembered thinking (and writing) that poverty didn’t seem to be as stark as I had expected. Hunger appeared to be a remote issue, and nearly every family had at least one moped, many having a TV as well.

Senegal is poverty of a different vein.

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As I asked in an earlier post, what difference does a Mercedes make compared to a Ford in actual standard of living?

The answer then and now is none.

The difference between a donkey and a moped. That’s a big one.

Within Dakar, there is still a notable percentage of the population, maybe 5-10%, using animal power for transportation. As one gets about an hour east of the city, that number jumps to well over 50%. The difference in standard of living from Senegal’s $1072 per capita GDP to Vietnam’s $1911 is breathtaking.

That additional $839/person is the difference between a moped and a donkey, a television and none, and consistent access to clean water. It is the difference between a steady supply of electricity and one with regular blackouts.

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For less than what a daily Starbucks drinker spends annually, the gap in standard of living is endless.

Lack of information has done as much to exacerbate the spread of Ebola as anything. Distrustful residents of affected West African countries have stormed clinics, engaged in shootouts with health care workers offering testing or care, and actively avoided assistance due to misinformation. This has caused what should have been a very manageable outbreak to evolve into an international epidemic.

I lived in a small town long enough to know how word of mouth can distort a story. And we were never talking about a deadly disease with men dressed in space suits. Access to mass media eliminates that problem, but many on this continent don’t have it.

**********

In 2009, the per capita GDP numbers of Vietnam and Senegal were within $90 of one another.

Five years later, Vietnam is outstripping Senegal by nearly 80%.

Senegal is on the cusp of a breakthrough. The marginal standard of life improvements that come in the next few hundred dollars of GDP are the ones that raise output exponentially. Senegal is lucky to be one of a very few African countries blessed with that greatest of natural resources.

Political stability.

Outside of oil, there is no resource more valuable towards economic growth. Senegal is arguably the most successful successful representative democracy in the Muslim world. It is certainly a paragon of stability in the North Africa region, which gives it a vital foothold as multinational companies move to the continent to look at Africans as a consumer base, instead of just a natural resource hub.

That is what makes this trip so exciting. The SEED Project has the opportunity to truly move the needle on education. The education and experiences that our kids gain as they go abroad will help shape the fate of this country going forward.

Our kids have earned nearly 6 million dollars in educational scholarships since 2002, and that number is only set to climb. Our current focus on the girls’ program promises to be even more successful in facilitating female education, a key driver to growth in developing countries.

Our kids are competing in the Final Four (Gorgui Dieng of Louisville and Baye Moussa Keita of Syracuse 2013) and made up the two leading scorers in Senegal’s massive upset victory over Puerto Rico yesterday in the FIBA World Basketball Championship.

So many African charities use a message of guilt to encourage donations, but SEED Project gets the pleasure of using a positive message. We’re building something with an outstanding rate of return, and eventually, we truly believe that it will reach that highest goal of any African charity.

Self-sufficiency.

These kids have all the potential in the world, and basketball opens some awfully heavy doors.

To go from this

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To this

Big East Basketball Tournament - Syracuse v Louisville

 

That’s powerful.

I’ve got no jump shot and my dribbling skills are marginal at best, but I’m helping shape kids to be NBA players and national leaders.

It doesn’t get much better than that.

For more information or to donate to SEED Project, please visit www.seedproject.org

 

A Dickensian Quest

I was blessed with an unparalleled literary education as a child. Through happenstance and luck, Mary Barnes, the saintlike mother of one of my classmates, volunteered to take a group out of regular English and expose us to the sort of literature that reveals elements of the human condition, instead of being chopped apart for a 10 year old to be able to identify a protagonist and antagonist.

For years, she would come rescue about 6 of us from the monotony of textbook English and give us first the “Great Books” readers, then moved onto one offs with Gene Stratton Porter, Poe, and other authors of note. She taught us to consume literature as opposed to merely reading it. We’d debate and argue the motives of Poe’s villains, and contemplate in heartbreaking agony the plight of Porter’s immortal Limberlost orphans.

For all the thank yous I’ve meted out in this life, I’ve never properly thanked Mrs. Barnes for a piece of my education which has given me more than the rest put together.

On bended knee Mrs. Barnes, I thank you.

I thought of her on my 27 turned 30 hour train ride from Cape Town to Johannesburg. Most people would think that such a journey was a hellacious horror to be avoided at literally any cost. However, as an American, the novelty of train travel has not yet escaped me. Besides, there is a dining car and I still had a bottle of Pinot Noir from 2004 to keep me company. It couldn’t be that bad.

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Well had there been heat, I would have been correct. The Kalahari desert was getting down to about 15 degrees Farenheit, and that old steel box gets cold in the evening a helluva lot faster than it gets warm in the morning. I felt for a moment that my left asscheek and I were on the verge of ending our incredibly close 27 year attachment, but luckily that terrible fate was narrowly avoided.

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Given that you can’t really stare out the window at the fantastic beauty of the South African countryside for a day and a half, I got into my Kindle and found something to sink my teeth into. I decided to try my luck with that greatest of Victorian bards, Dickens.

Having failed to get interested in Oliver Twist once, I felt that it was my duty as a reader to find out what all the fuss was about.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the main gist is this. An orphan boy named Pip is mysteriously invited to the home of a wealthy recluse, Miss Havisham. Upon arrival, he falls inexorably in love with her coldhearted niece, Estella. One day he is informed by a lawyer that he has been anonymously bequeathed an allowance and estate in trust, which allows him to become the sort of gentleman whom he believes that Estella could love. His transformation and internal conflict from blacksmith apprentice to high society London gentleman causes most of the action in the tome.

Mrs. Barnes, why didn’t you tell me about this Dickens chap?

Having read more than my fair share of bildungsromans (new favorite word meaning book about one’s formative years) I was immediately drawn to the internal moral complexities of an old Pip looking back on this time in his life with both wonder and regret.

As he escapes his humble beginnings, he starts to find more and more shame in that which he came from. While I’m no Victorian orphan, I found a few parallels in my own life, as all good literature will show a determined reader.

I grew up in first wave of Midwestern economic decimation. The halcyon days of the major factory bringing prosperity to small communities across the Rust Belt were just coming to an end. My town had three major employers when I was growing up, a naval weapons base, a Ford factory, and a GM foundry.

These were places where solid middle-class lives could be built. Overtime paid the bills when times were tough, but the wages were quite high. People drove new cars because of the employee discounts, and it wasn’t rare at all to see a union guy on the line with a boat behind his truck on the weekends.

Then the party stopped. Globalization took hold, and the world realized that paying these wages wasn’t competitive against labor in the developing world who would happily do the same work for ¼ of the price.

The Ford plant shuttered its doors when I was about 13, and the GM plant started phasing out the legacy union contracts, hiring back replacements from my generation at half the rate that their fathers made.

So this was the economic reality that I grew up in. When people ask me if I grew up wealthy, I usually reply that I grew up about 2/3s of the way up an incredibly short totem pole.

My parents wanted to augment my education, poor Mrs. Barnes couldn’t be expected to teach me everything that I needed to know in the world, so they sent me during the summers to Northwestern University.

Boy did I feel like Pip then. I walked in having no idea what wealth or talent even looked like. I thought that owning a small town car dealership provided all the fantastic wealth that one could ever in his wildest dreams desire. Then I met a few kids from Lake Forest, on the famed North Shore of Chicago, and the world became a different place. The children of famed authors, doctors and CEOs were sitting next to me, wondering who let in the peasant with his one faded Abercrombie shirt.

I was again blessed with another great name from my educational past, Joan Miller, who taught me that rich kids have no inherent virtues impossible for the lower classes to attain. They are beatable, so long as you aren’t competing in the arena of consumption. It took me a decade or so to finally believe her, but it was one of the more valuable life lessons that I’ve been party to, and I’ll go to my grave thanking her for it.

And so from there I set out on my own Dickensian quest. To become one of those rich kids, while retaining the virtues of my humble beginnings.

In hindsight, I should’ve set off for the Holy Grail o

Much more easily attainable.

So I set forth, first to Purdue where I held my Bedfordian roots proudly for all to see. Perhaps too proudly, as a certain fur draped dame in Switzerland loves to remind me. I retained the twang that was so graciously beaten into me by my high school classmates and tried my best to retain those friends from home as we went down our diverging paths.

I watched as more and more of my friends from home found themselves recipients of all expenses paid trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, while my new friends at school wondered largely “just who in the hell was fighting these stupid wars?”

I got the distinct displeasure of burying a few of those former classmates of mine, as Bedford slipped from a thriving community into the throes of an unemployment/drug use death spiral.

Slowly my pride in being from Bedford was falling away. I knew that I could never go back, never again live in a place that harbored people who wouldn’t even help themselves. My love started to get callous, and my new line about my hometown was, “a great place to be FROM, not in.”

I saw this reflected on many others who got “out.” There was no intention to come back, and only a nostalgic pain that the place was going to hell in a handbasket.

From Purdue, I got into the rarified air of high finance. Now I was with people who really knew what wealth was. The kind who could buy my parents’ house 3 times over with a quarterly bonus check. They weren’t what you’d call “good people” but they seemed to like me and they loved the novelty of having someone from “the farm” around.

I think I inherently knew that I had, in Dickens’ words, “no hope of any personal participation in the treasure” but I felt like I almost owed it to everyone back home to find out what these “Masters of the Universe” were up to in their mansions and clubs.

So I buffed up my “talking points” about home and strapped it to my chest. Literally, I was IND in the oil and gold pits of NYC. I talked of the virtues of a small town life, like I was heading back there as soon as the closing bell rang. I spat with disdain at the nonsensical waste of money around me, at the slavish devotion to appearances, and the complete disconnect with what I considered to be “the real world.”

At first it was just an act; I loved it all. I loved the glitz and the glamour. Beautiful girls from all over the world flocked to NYC, and having Easter dinner with a federal district judge in a 20 million dollar home in Connecticut, drinking $500/bottle wine was a dream come true.

I had arrived.

Unfortunately, as any good actor will tell you, at some point the character will consume you if you play him long enough. It gets even trickier when the character you’re playing is an earlier iteration of the man in the mirror. At some point I was trapped, between putting up a false face of disdain (outwardly failing in my initial quest) and actually embracing the life that I had come to enjoy.

Oh but fate’s means of arranging roadside conversions are unparalleled.

There wasn’t a single “scales from the eyes” moment, but one day I woke up and knew that the character I had been playing was right. This was absurd and it was unhealthy.

My rich friends had drug problems of their own, they were just with the more socially acceptable cocaine instead of homecooked meth. The jobs they held were given to them for one reason or another by some backslap connection, and they felt no real sense of satisfaction from any of it.

Those who had grown up in more humble circumstances were no happier, as they’d let their Pip die years ago, content to drink and womanize instead of thinking about the bigger picture.

The whole “scene” that people were so desperate to integrate themselves into was just a flashy set of distractions from lives neither fulfilled nor examined.

Some of the only people I met in the whole ordeal who were actually happy were the two idealists I found running the SEED Project. They’d both grown up in the rarified air of the NYC elite, but they were running an engine for the betterment of their fellow man. You could see it on their faces.

Graduates of Princeton and NYU, they’d seen all that money and the “scene” had to offer, and they made a conscious decision to work for an amount of money which would be considered poverty by any of their well-heeled contemporaries in exchange for having the creative ability to change the fate of children (and eventually a country) halfway around the world.

I was drawn to this, at first for the basketball (I might be a Purdue fan, but it still fills my heart with pride that Damon and the 1990 Stars hold the record for most people ever at a high school basketball game) but eventually for the stunning opportunity to actually HELP someone.

My own cause from home, my beloved Thornton Memorial Boys Club, was gutted by a group of people slightly higher on that very short totem pole. One by one, the men who had taught me the value of service unto others, men like Jim and Jeff Jackson and Jimmy Gratzer were fired through the petty small town machinations of a cabal of people whose collective ego far outweighed both their talents and abilities.

I needed something towards which to redirect my efforts. Something bigger than myself or work, and something outside of my on-again, off-again love affair with my hometown.

Noah and Romola generously offered to let me come help, so now I’m on my way to Senegal.

The race hasn’t finished yet, but my quest was always two fold. I’ll worry about the money some other day, best to get back to those small town virtues before they’re lost for good.

Another wise woman from Bedford once told me, “what of a man who gains the whole world but loses his soul?”

Mickey, turns out I don’t really want to find out.

From Main Street to Wall Street to no streets, the quest continues.

But Bedford, I miss you more than you’ll ever know.