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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.”

Dreams Worth Having

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

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

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

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

Not the main road

Not the main road

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No billboards on this "highway"

No billboards on this “highway”

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

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

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

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

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

People always tell kids to “chase their dreams.”

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

Seemed like a dream at the time

Seemed like a dream at the time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where's Switzerland again?

Where’s Switzerland again?

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

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

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

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

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

I bet that person is pretty sweet.

Say hi for me.

 

 

A Month without Americans

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

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

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

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

Belgians, Finns, Limeys and Thais

Belgians, Finns, Limeys and Thais

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Parasailing in Langkawi

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

 

Pull your pants up around Princess Jasmine damnit!

Pull your pants up around Princess Jasmine damnit!

There weren’t however, any Americans.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The 4th in Foreign Lands

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

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

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The New Colossus

Happy Birthday America!

238 years old. Quite a respectable age.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happened to that America?

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

No. The answer is much more humiliating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday America.

We’ve got work to do tomorrow.

Weasel Shit Coffee and Waterfalls

The best thing about traveling alone is waking up. After a day fraught with a little altitude sickness, (Dalat is placed in the mountains roughly a mile above sea level which conspired with scuba to give me a godawful headache) I slept fitfully, waking up at 5AM. Realizing that I had absolutely nothing on the docket for the day, I figured I had to find something to do. I did a little research on the internet, then consulted my secondhand copy of Lonely Planet Vietnam, which strongly suggested taking a Dalat Easyrider trip to see the sites of the surrounding area.

Point to you Lonely Planet.

I went downstairs and He at the front desk called to schedule a driver within 5 minutes. I headed off to go have some breakfast around the corner (2 baguettes, 2 Vietnamese coffees and 3 pork meatballs in a broth. Grand total $1.65.)

Between eating and playing peek-a-boo with the owner’s toddler, I was inspired to sketch out some more of my next fiction project, jotting down my notes in my trusty pocket sized Moleskine (this gets important later.) After about a half hour, I wandered back to my hostel, where my trusty guide Hero Hung (I couldn’t make this up if I tried) was waiting at the front door for me.

We sat down for about 5 minutes, pouring over some maps and pictures, as well as his binder of handwritten recommendations in every language from Mandarin to Spanish. After agreeing upon a course of action and a price ($35 for the day.) We went and grabbed me another moped, this one being a manual…we’ll be generous and say 100CC Honda.

On a moped...again

On a moped…again

I was a little worried about getting up and down the surrounding mountains on this glorified gas powered rollerblade, but Hero assured me that it would move my “big American ass” just fine.

Thanks Hero, you’re a real gent!

Our first stop was a Buddhist temple on the way out of Dalat. Hero explained to me how poor people from all around the area will go without even basic necessities, while giving as much as humanly possible to the temple. His wife and mother were in this demographic, and I could hear the frustration in his voice as he spoke. He told me that Vietnam is about 70% Buddhist, 20% Catholic, and 10% atheist. Hero struck me as an atheist if anything, but he made it very obvious that atheism is quite frowned upon in Vietnam so he was a begrudging Buddhist in his own mind.

Incredibly ornate Buddhist Temple

Incredibly ornate Buddhist Temple

I thought about the massive cathedrals of both the US and Europe, mostly built from the tithes of the poor, especially St. Patrick’s in NYC. An awful lot of immigrants went without in order to build that house of worship as well.

Apparently that part of religion is quite universal, but as usual, the people with the least are the most likely to share.

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

Leaving the temple, we headed out of town and into the mountains. As usual traffic was a barely navigable, schizophrenic mess, but soon we found ourselves going down a muddy dirt road around the side of a mountain. The road was once paved, but it was being widened…largely by hand. There were teams of Vietnamese workers with pickaxes working next to Soviet era excavators on a mountain that would’ve easily been a black diamond in Colorado given some snow.

Well there USED to be a road here

Well there USED to be a road here

Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “I’d rather dig ditches.”

We made it through the sloppy mess that was and found ourselves at a flower farm.

Rarely have I seen anything more surreal than these acres and acres of roses and lillies. There were just stacks of long stemmed red roses everywhere, and lilies separated by color for as far as the eye could see. It was truly something to behold, and I’m far from a flower guy.

All these flowers and not a single girl to give them to

All these flowers and not a single girl to give them to

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

Jumping back on the bikes, we headed up and down a few mountains before finally being deposited at a beautiful coffee plantation overlooking the surrounding valley. Hero quickly explained to me that this was no ordinary coffee plantation, this one had weasel coffee.

I had no idea what he was talking about.

From this

From this

After he showed me the different coffee plants; Arabica, Robusta and Moka. Hero took me to see the weasels.

Into this

Into this

They were penned into large enclosures, usually 3-4 in a shed sized cage.

Their only job was to eat coffee beans.

And shit them back out.

Resulting in this

Resulting in this

Best job in the animal kingdom.

Apparently these weasels can only partially digest coffee beans, which gives them a remarkably different flavor and consistency than standard roasted beans. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kopi_Luwak

After defecation, the beans are triple washed and then roasted normally. Since “Weasel Shit Coffee” was available by the cup, I figured I owed it to the little buggers to try their handiwork, which the plantation was charging 4x compared to a normal cup (though still less than $3.)

And now I drink weasel shit coffee

And now I drink weasel shit coffee

I must say, it definitely has a different taste than standard coffee, with a sweet rotting fruit aroma to it. There was a strong aftertaste, and while I’d never normally put sugar in my coffee, I was forced to with this.

I’m glad I drank a glass for the novelty, but I certainly wouldn’t pay the $30 a glass that some places in the US and Japan charge.

It was solidly worth the $3, nothing more.

While I was enjoying my coffee, Hero and I talked about his family. A native of the Dalat area, he initially drove cabs before realizing 7 years ago that there was much better money in Easyrider guiding. Being from the South, he had no problems of any kinds with Americans, in fact his father had fought and was killed along American GIs in the Vietnam War. Hero never knew his father, but he believed the cause that he died for, because from 1975 to 1989, when the country was reopened to the world, most Vietnamese people were incredibly poor.

As I looked out over the plantations of coffee, flowers and vegetables that the Dalat area had to offer, I was shocked to hear that Vietnam was a net importer of rice from the end of the war until the mid 1990s. Now Vietnam is either #1 or #2 in net coffee exports and has run an agricultural surplus for nearly a generation.

Vietnamese agriculture

Vietnamese agriculture

Hero talked about the rapid explosion of wealth happening in his country, with mixed emotions. While he was glad that people were no longer living on the meager poverty rations that the Communist government provided before opening the country, he was concerned that capitalism would create an inverted pyramid of wealth, with the poor, huddled masses going hungry once again.

Today, things are better than they’ve ever been and there is work available for nearly anyone in Vietnam. It might be digging ditches by hand, but there is the option of paying work for anyone willing to take it.

I wished that I could’ve been a proper cheerleader for capitalism, but the American system has eliminated much of the lowest skilled work, leaving people without the dignity that an earned paycheck brings. There’s no reason to be hungry in America, but that doesn’t by any means sanctify our breed of capitalism as a perfect system.

Getting back on the bike, all jacked up on Weasel Shit Coffee, we headed over to Elephant Falls for a few pictures. At this point, Hero left me to my own devices to climb down while he chainsmoked Marlboro Reds.

I decided to get real cheeky, climbing over the wet, muddy rocks to get better a better short of the falls. Getting to the shot I wanted was fine…

Elephant Falls

Elephant Falls

It was getting back that was the problem.

Getting a little cocky

Getting a little cocky

With one foot on a muddy rock and the other gently probing to see how deep an eddy was, I fell in, all the way over my head.

Waterfall 1-Conquest 0

Waterfall 1-Conquest 0

Clothes, keys, notebook, cash and camera. Thankfully I’m a pretty strong swimmer, and managed to get myself back out of the water before I got into any real trouble, but there was a serious ding to my pride, and 6 weeks of jotted notes that I was quite concerned about. (Thank god Moleskine is made with good paper, an hour of drying in the sun, and it was more or less fine.)

Waterfalls 1, Conquest 0.

After I tried out, we grabbed some spring rolls, com ga (chicken and rice) and pho before getting back out on the road, next checking out a silk farm, which was fascinating to see. Still an awful lot of manual labor that goes into the manufacturing of silk goods as these ladies can attest.

Silk production

Silk production

Amazing how little the process has changed since Marco Polo reported on it some thousand years ago.

Our last stop of the day was, Chicken Village. Inhabited by a minority tribe that makes approximately no sense, Chicken Village was a place with strange customs and one giant stone cock.

Not a crude joke...well sorta

Not a crude joke…well sorta

Men are “bought” with a gift from the girl’s family of a cow and a water buffalo. The women then engage in backbreaking labor while the men do largely nothing. Children begin working with their mothers around the age of 7, until the boys turn 16 and get put on the auction block.

Like the weasels, great work if you can get it.

We headed back around the lake in Dalat and Hero dropped me off at home, all the while trying to convince me to let him guide me all the way to Saigon over the next 3 days. I’ve got to say, motorbiking around here is a ton of fun, and unequivocally the best way to see Vietnam, but I wanted to give my “big American ass” a shower and a few hours before I committed to anything.

As much fun as I had today though, 20 hours over 3 days on a moped is a long time.

I am seriously considering it. It would keep me off of another “sleeper bus.”

Sleeper bus of DOOM!

Sleeper bus of DOOM!