RhineFahrt’n Is My Super Power

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What exactly is a RhineFahrt anyway? Well, Rhine refers to the name of a river in Europe and the German word/conjunction Fahrt is used in that language predominantly to refer to travel or traveling. If you’ve ever driven the autobahn then you’ve surely noticed the signage at the exit ramps – Ausfahrt. Emily and I recently visited Europe once again for a Rhine River cruise and my juvenile mind couldn’t resist but to pay more attention to the silly-looking words than the castles.

Despite all of the translation incompatibilities, it’s still lots of fun to make up humorous new phrases using the most vulnerable German words. This one was lowing hanging fruit as they say, and it’s healthy to keep people to snickering just a lil’ bit. I can’t help it; new languages always bring out the 9th grader in me.

I have to throw out a few kudos to Gate One Travel who arranged and guided us to safely fahrt along the Rhine from Amsterdam to Boppar then by coach to Lucerne. I’m always surprised and delighted to trust them with our travel itinerary as their attention to detail, accommodations, and problem solving efforts have repeatedly convinced me that they’re absolutely the best deal in international travel.

We had a rather surprising event on our trip this year. Mother Nature and her annoying friend Murphy called upon us and suddenly our wet fahrt up the Rhine River suddenly turned to shit. The Rhine had record low water levels due to a summer drought and we were eventually forced to abandon our comfortable river barge in exchange for a series of motor coach rides and hotel stays. Thankfully, we were at least able to fahrt more than half-way up river before holding our noses and abandoning our comfortable ship.

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I must say, however, that although this wasn’t necessarily the vacation we were hoping for, Gate One Travel did an amazing job of catering to our every whim and desire. They worked very hard to help turn a bad situation into a positive experience. Now, if we could only talk them into booking future vacations without Chinese guests, life while abroad would be especially nice.

“There are only two things I hate in this world: People who are intolerant of other people’s cultures and the Dutch.” – GoldMember

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no bigoted, belittling, bastard traveler.  It’s just that my experiences with foreign travel and the accompaniment of Chinese tourists has made me realize the Chinese people have no real sense of personal space – at least not like the typical rural residing American. It could be likely due to many of them living in extremely densely populated cities. Pushing and shoving their way through crowds and jockeying to always be first in line. It could be that their seemingly general disregard for group decorum may be a sort of Nuevo-Confucianism – it gets the job done in a very efficient way. Heck, what do I know – I’m just a dumb redneck.

I guess I’m probably being way too judgmental; Big city folks in every country are probably just like that…uhhh, nope I take that back. My New York and Boston traveling companions are nothing like that. That cements it, it’s just the Chinese.

To the guy like me who has a two-hundred acre back yard – the pushing and posturing just seems plain ole rude. If I happen to make it to a door first, all I’m going to do is to hold it open for a lady or two anyway. Trust me, I’m no threat to you going in the door first. Other than their fahrting style, Chinese people are great in every other way. We’ve met some terrific Chinese people in our travels and on an individual level they’ve been especially great conversationalists and overall decent people; I just think their way of fahrting really stinks.

Now, who fahrted anyway? Oh yea, it was me. And boy did I! Actually, Emily and I were fahrting together but who cares about the semantics of a blog? No one reads blogs anyway and I just lost all 5 of my Chinese subscribers. Now I’m down to my mom, my two sisters, and the 3 Dutch bicyclists who are planning my death after the last blog I wrote.

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Who’s counting anyway? Despite the travel challenges we sometimes face, Emily and I have grown to really love all this tag-team fahrting we’ve been doing lately. To be honest, her profession has made her quite the expert on the subject. No one fahrts quite like my wife and I’m so fortunate to be able to relax and trust that her frequent fahrting will always put us miles ahead. Hmm, maybe that’s why the Chinese don’t like being behind us … haven’t thought of it that way before.

Oh well, our vacation actually began in Amsterdam which was beautiful in its own unique way but quite different than I expected. If you love 17th century residential architecture and smoking weed in public then it’s a must see. The feel of this city is very much enhanced by all the canals and arch bridges in a quasi-Venice sort of way. Don’t be mistaken, however, it’s not Venice. Think about it, they did invent the Dutch Oven here.

I think what makes the city fun is the overall feeling of acceptable debauchery. The red-light district contributes to that “anything goes” expectation. But in reality, people suck down their mini-bong fumes all about town like it’s the newest bestest oxygen out there. No one ever quite feels like they’re not in some sort of red light district anyway – which is fun in its own way I guess. It’s a bit like a college panty-raid. It ain’t exactly illegal but it makes you feel dirty and excited all at the same time. The biggest difference being, you can’t take the bong home as a souvenir.

I can’t help but to mention, because I’ve seen this time after time, the McDonalds restaurants in Europe are nothing like we know in America. They are actually extremely nice, well-appointed with beautiful Chandelier lighting, super clean restrooms, and warm, friendly, professional employees. I don’t know what they pay McDonalds employees in Europe but it must be pretty good. Sometimes you pay to use the super awesome restrooms and sometimes you just get a code on your receipt and use the code to enter the vault like door. Either way, when you’re fahrting like crazy, and need a good place to rest your legs, you can never go wrong with a European McDonalds.

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The first leg of the Rhine River from Amsterdam, Holland to Cologne, Germany is quite industrial, flat and featureless. It leaves you ample opportunity to unwind a while to enjoy a good long relaxing fahrt. You’ll need to blow off some steam for Cologne as it is a busy place indeed.

As Emily and I fahrted along the quaint and ancient streets, hand-in-hand, experiencing the quaint old town of Cologne, we noticed several decent antique shops – a passion we both share. Maybe even equal to that of a great fahrt. As with most other European cities which were originally Roman outposts, there are unique sites both old and new to discover around every corner.

Cologne has a fantastic museum in the center of their old town. The story told to us was that Hitler was building a museum there and discovered a fantastic Roman villa about 30 feet below ground during the excavation. He decided to construct the museum entirely around the ancient site. Gee, and here I was thinking Hitler was an asshole.

The museum is located adjacent to the cathedral, a magnificent Gothic styled cathedral having as its architectural triumph, some of the tallest spires of any other Gothic cathedral in the world. The inside of the magnificent building is perhaps not as elaborate as many we’ve visited but it is said to hold the remains of the Three Wise Men inside its sequestered catacombs.

We were not able to access or figure out where the Wise Men may have been located as none of the signage offered an English translation, a rare thing in Europe and also ironic due to having the most famous wise men in the history of our world being in a place that denies its wisdom to non-German speakers.

Afterward, I noticed that Germany is pretty much like that everywhere. Few English translations anywhere. They have English signage in Slovenia and Croatia and Hungary and Czechia and Slovakia and Montenegro and Austria and Italy and France and Turkey and Ecuador and Spain and Greece and Bosnia and Japan and Colombia but not in Germany. This particular fahrt doesn’t pass the smell test.

Enough of my rant; aside from all that stuff, Cologne is amazingly home to what Emily and I would describe as some of the best pizza in the entire world. Forget Naples Italy, visit Cologne. Rob and Rachel would also agree. In fact, the four of us fahrted happily all the way back to the ship afterward – talking about the fantastic German pizza we enjoyed together.

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Leaving  Cologne, we sailed to Koblenz. The Rhine was becoming more scenic after leaving the big city of Cologne so the fahrting was much more intensified.  Koblenz is a small city which was once a very important place. It has both Roman and later royal German ancestry with an amazing Romanesque cathedral. It is also an important wine region of Alsace so if you are a wine connoisseur, Koblenz is a great place to visit for their annual wine festival. It’s also important to mention that the drought was very serious in this region (2018) so the wine produced here (Alsatian Riesling’s) are expected to be fantastic for this year.

Next, we traveled to the village cities of Spay and Boppar, then took a tour of the 12th century castle called Marksburg. It is the only hilltop castle along the Rhine that is completely original, never damaged by war or time. All of the other 40’ish or so hilltop castles along the Rhine have been destroyed and rebuilt over time. The castle is an amazing time-capsule of the medieval life of sovereigns.

Boppar was as far as our ship could travel before being forced to dock. As a result, the travel company decided to book a smaller boat to take us a couple hours further upstream to see another dozen or so hilltop castles along the Rhine – knowing we’d entirely miss them otherwise. Later we dined in the town and slept aboard our ship for the last time then in the morning boarded our new coach – the SMY Zardine Kan, and took a lengthy fahrt to the city of Koblenz, Germany.

The most memorable thing that happened in Boppar was our dinner conversation at a fine Italian restaurant. The tables were topped with fine white linens, the flatware was decent and the ambiance was sophisticated German/Italian with its dozen or so sophisticated patrons conversing quietly among themselves. Suddenly, when our group conversation inadvertently steered in the direction of Adolph Hitler, albeit humorous (to us), Rachel blurted out in an absurdly loud manner, “Did ya’ll know that Hitler is a very common name…blah, blah, blah……” (Rob silenced Rachel just quick enough that it triggered one of those “it would be really rude to laugh out loud right now so I can’t help but to laugh out loud for ten minutes” kind of situation).

The otherwise quiet room turned cold and sterile almost immediately. Then, after a long laugh, we had to gently explain to Rachel that German people don’t really like for people to talk openly about that terribly convincing and manipulative Austrian. It really makes them Fuhrer-ious (sorry).

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On to the city of Darmstadt, Germany and our hotel the Maritim – not the greatest in the world but very good considering they had to find a decent place for 150 guests on extremely short notice. Oh well, what’s to complain about – I’m in Germany touring castles and wineries instead of reviewing subdivision plats and writing zoning ordinances.

We left Darmstadt in the morning enroute to the city of Speyer which is one of the oldest cities in Germany with a Roman military camp established in 10 BC. In 150 AD the town first appears on the world map by Greek geographer Ptolemy as the city of Noviomagus. In the 7th century AD, a Frankish tribe called the Nemetes settled here and named it Spira. The impressive Speyer Cathedral, drenched in history itself, holds the tombs of eight (8) Holy Roman Emperors and German Kings. Leaving Speyer, we fahrted the entire way to Strasbourg, France.

Strasbourg is an absolutely gorgeous city. The combination of French and German culture/language/architecture/cuisine is a very fun thing to experience. We took a long group-fahrt through the old town until reaching the impressive Notre Dame cathedral. She is absolutely fantastic – the most impressive thing inside (to me) being the 16th century astronomical clock – reminiscent of the Prague astronomical clock (Prague Orloj). Also of note, the American monument men (see movie) were able to discover and rescue the original medieval stained glass windows of this cathedral after WWII, returning them back to their original positions. It’s definitely a must-see city along the Rhine.

While there, we enjoyed this typical Alsatian pizza thingee (not really a pizza) called “tarte flambée” or flammekueche in Alsatian. It’s an Alsatian flatbread topped with a layer of cheese (fromage blanc), onions and bacon and maybe some sour crème, baked in a brick oven. It looks like pizza so we were all jonesing for another Cologne type pizza experience and just ordered it like pros. We all ate it, and…liked it for the most part. But, it is definitely an unusual taste for our redneck palates. Oh well.

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We crossed back over into Germany to the beautiful city of Baden-Baden to spend the night at the Radison Blue hotel. Baden-Baden is a quaint but elegant German village with a very ritzy casino. The name basically translates to Spa-town, named by the Roman’s, but it really must have been a crazy terrific spa town because someone named it twice. I theorized that perhaps the Roman Governor spoke with a stutter and his subordinates were too afraid to correct him. It’s a good story anyway. We were pretty tired so fortunately there was no fahrting in the spa. Just some sushi for dinner and on to bed.

It was at this point of our trip where everyone was beginning to show signs of exhaustion. Two-week trips are great because you’re not turning around and flying home a few days after arrival but it can also be stressful if you load your itinerary up with excursions and side trips like we’re accustomed to do. The theory being, “I’m only here once in my life – maybe, so why not see as much as I can in one trip?”

First by ship, then by bus, we continued on our course by parting whatever waves and breaking glorious wind to take us to lands we’d scarcely, if at all, heard about. And just like that, we were in just such a place, Colmar, France by way of Brisach, Germany. Brisach is a 4000 year old city that is pronounced in English as Brysa. It’s very quaint, only having a couple thousand people. The ancient part of the once walled city sits atop a tall round hill with a large cathedral sitting atop – reminiscent of our visit to the Croatian city of Rovinj.

It was lunch time and we were not going to stop again until 3 PM so it was important that we grabbed some lunch in Brisach. We found a cutsie café on the old town called the Café Conditorei Bachtel and ordered some sandwiches. We discovered that the place is run by people who hate life, hurt babies and horde food. I say this because a few minutes after we sat and ordered sandwiches, Rachel returns red-faced from the inside of the café, mad as a wet hen, claiming the café staff were extremely rude to her. She had to walk it off while we awaited our orders – food that never arrived.

We think the staff were ticked off at Rachel so they stitched us on having lunch that day. Certainly not wanting to be impolite to the French, we left enough money on our table to pay for our full lunch, demonstrating to them an example of sophistication and class, and just left hungry. The waitress confronted me for leaving, saying “you should have told us you were in a hurry”. My response, 45 minutes after having ordered a sandwich, “if you had ever returned to our table, even once, perhaps I could have.” It was great timing to just fahrt along, not wanting to make a stink of things – so we did.

Crossing back into France to the picturesque city of Colmar was a pleasant retreat from the stench of tour-bus fahrting. It is a mostly medieval city with cobblestone streets lined by half-timbered early Renaissance homes and buildings with a Gothic 13th century church. Great shopping was to be had in this place, along with lots of interesting little food vendors and shops. Emily loaded up on her favorite French cooking salt Flour de Sel at the local grocer and I found a hot dog stand. After a quick snack, we loaded up the bus and fahrted all the way to Switzerland.

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Basel, Switzerland is yet another medieval city on the borders of Swizerland, France and Germany. In fact, the International airport there, although extremely poorly rated by its frequent flyers, offers the ability to exit the airport facility in either France or Switzerland. We again stayed at the Radisson Blu hotel, great in every one we’ve stayed in thus far, which was just around the corner from the 12th century Gothic cathedral that dominates the marketplatz and old town.

We didn’t really have an opportunity to spend any real time in Basel as we arrived late and left early the next morning headed for Lucerne, Switzerland. The hotel, however, was terrific. I may add that the fahrting toward Lucerne was extraordinary, in that it was beautiful. As one can imagine, the alpine vista’s and mostly agricultural scenery was quite picturesque.

Lucerne itself is amazing. The crown jewel, my opinion, of this entire flatulent affair. I asked Emily to pull-my-finger just to see if I might be dreaming. The significant old town is mostly intact with 16th century half-timbered homes and buildings and the Chapel Bridge, built in 1333, still spans the Reuss River as it flows from the gorgeous Lucerne Lake.

The Rosengart Art Museum was located across the street from our fantastic hotel, the Astoria Hotel, which boasts the largest private collection of Picasso artwork in the world. Emily and I were stunned by Mrs. Rosengart’s art collection which consisted of dozens of the famous Masters we all know as well as more than 150 pieces from Picasso. Our hotel boasted a Michelin Star Italian restaurant on premises, in which we indulged ourselves quite wonderfully.

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To completely sum up two weeks’ worth of fahrting in one paragraph, I would say that we spent considerably more money on this trip than any other European trip we’d thus far taken yet we enjoyed it less. The places were cool and quaint and charming but by-and-large not worthy of entire days of travel. The Danube River was our favorite river cruise so far and second to the Danube would be the Rhone, both of which were picturesque the entire way and took us to far more interesting cities and villages. Switzerland was the most amazing place we visited by far.

Overall, France rarely disappoints, when it comes to clean, well-planned and preserved old towns but during this trip France fell short in Brisach with the not-so-nice waitress. Germany, however, disappointed me from a town planner’s point of view. Historic sections of old villages are latticed with patchwork railway infrastructure and hilltop vistas are absolutely littered by gigantic steel windmills that ironically were designed to preserve nature. I guess if one gigantic mass of metal that captures clean, renewable wind-energy is good then 500 more must be great! Maybe we should put a few on the lawn of the Eifel Tower to help us light up all those flashing lights?

Aside from all my juvenile remarks, I love visiting Europe but I’m ready to go back home; all this fahrting is hurting my legs anyway.

 

Genesis 2.0

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Everyone benefits from an obsession with family history. Maybe too bold a statement…? I can only speak from my own experiences but if you will allow me to explain my reasoning I think you will agree.

Had I, like many others, not followed my genealogical paths backward, I could never have better understood the whole of who I am in the way that I do now. Knowing what I know about all of the astonishing things that had to occur and all of the remarkable people who were able to survive along the way – all contributing their own DNA along the way, it has helped me to realize just how unique we all are but also amazingly true is how similar we are.

Genealogical research has a way of reverse-engineering our souls. It breaks us down piece by piece, and reveals an honesty about our pasts which is sometimes flattering and newsworthy and just as often ugly or immoral. For some, it can reveal a surprising or hidden truth, blurred by time, exaggerations, or even lies. For the majority of us, what little information we do learn from our ancestors only represents a tiny fraction of the story of us.

I vividly remember my paternal grandfather, Papaw White, telling me that we were Scotch-Irish and that I was named after Capt. John White of early American colonist fame – Roanoke/Croatoan story. I never doubted the Scotch-Irish ancestry but somehow I never really bought the Capt. John Smith story. A couple things just didn’t add up; the Captain was English and, most importantly, after returning from England to discover that his colony was lost, he returned to England and never returned to American soil.

My grandmother, however, shared her family history with me which has turned out to be pretty accurate, albeit scant in detail. She told me her family immigrated to the United States from Germany. What I later discovered was that they immigrated from a tiny hamlet called Mitschdorf, Alsace which is actually in France. Situated on the Rhine River bordering France, Switzerland and Germany, Alsace has a complicated history as it sits just below the traditional French customs border of the Vosages Mountains although the French territories stopped at the Rhine River – just beyond the tiny town of Mitschdorf. The people who inhabited that region were principally of German descent.

The German language and customs of the inhabitants of these French outskirts continued for centuries through the 17th and 18th centuries – including the time when my Neese family immigrated to the United States. Thirty year old Hans Michael Nehs, infant son Michael and his twenty seven year old wife Dorothea along with 266 other Palatines arrived in the port of Philadelphia, PA on 21 September, 1731, sailing on the ship Britannia having sailed across the Atlantic from Rotterdam, Holland. Soon after immigration the Nehs family, either through ignorance of the language or by choice, Americanized the surname to Neese and/or Neece and other similar variations which have since scattered themselves to and fro across the entire country.

So, my grandmother was actually pretty close right? You could say that but only if her story began or stopped right there – but it doesnt. Michael’s father and mother Mathias and Maria had just been living in Rusovce, Bratislava, Slovakia prior to moving to the Alsace region of France.

Cognizant to most of us family tree-climbers is that just four generations up the tree gives me no less than sixteen great grandparents. Another generation beyond that gives me thirty-two grandparents – another gives me sixty-four… each grandparent having his or her own distinct ancestry, some of it quite fascinating. Unfortunately, some is also lost forever to time and insignificance. Perhaps we should expend more energy while we’re alive with the goal of not being so insignificant.

Most of us associate our general lineage and ancestry by our last names. The truth is that you have hundreds of last names, some you’ve never heard about. If I push my ancestry out just ten generations beyond myself, I can personally verify 128 different surnames. This does not include incidences where the same last name repeats from other ancestors marrying cousins which occurs nearly a dozen times in that same ten-generation time span. There are also familial lines where I can’t YET go back ten generations.

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I have found a wealth of new names, belonging to me, I’d never even heard before. Some of the oddest names in my lineage: Cazeneuve, Coggeshall and Erchtebrech. The Beaufort, Ragland, Marcell and Simpson are surname lines that I’ve researched heavily while the Pfeiffer, Koch, Emot and Lisbet lines are among the many still lying in wait for me to catch an interest. The gist of everything I’m writing here is that we are all so much more than the sum of two parts, even if you’ve not been formally introduced to the other parts.

While I grew up thinking I was just an average white guy with Scotch-Irish/German ancestry on my paternal side and maternal Welsh/English ancestry, I’ve since learned that I hail from Scandinavia, Spain, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, England, France, Italy, Turkey, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Greece, the Middle East, Hungary, Slovakia, Israel, and Belarus. My ancestors were Vikings, Jews, Knights Templar, Spanish conquistadors, American colonists, Native Americans, Revolutionary War soldiers and early American statesmen. They were Frankish kings and Welsh nobles and they were poor farmers, merchants, tin smiths and shoe cobblers.

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What my ancestors have most in common with your ancestors is that they were all survivors. They are the survivors of numerous plagues, copious wars, inquisitions, witch trials, battlefield forays, and voyages across unknown and uncharted waters. They survived attacks from neighboring warlords, tribes, and villages. They fought off zealous religious groups, parried political unrest, returned from great world wars, defeated the Nazis, found something to eat under communist regimes, lived through indentured servitude and found freedom after generations of slavery. Our ancestors avoided the horns of Jericho and the plagues of Egypt. Had they not, you and I would not be having this conversation.

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All of us are extremely lucky to even be here. There were far more opportunities for us to have never been born at all than for us to have ascended from whatever heaven and hell our people endured. If you look far enough and broad enough backward, sideways, and crossways, you’ll find a bit of both.

Since I know that I’m a Gaul, a Latin, an Etruscan, a Greek, a Celtic, a Briton, a Silurian, a Native American, a Jew, an Arab, a Spaniard, a Frank and a Viking, I can safely assume that other people living among me who are firm in their belief that I’m either a deplorable, infidel, heathen, left-winger or right-winger might also themselves be a great many things they never knew about.

Despite our differing features, sizes and shades of skin, we’re very much a homogeneous community of very blessed people of common origin and descent. Not the kind of homogeneity like Hitler envisioned but in the way that if you look deep enough, what you find is me. Hitler didn’t have the ability to know that he himself was a Jew – we, however, do. If we all choose to use our extremist obsessions to peel back the layers of our own ancestry instead of the flaws and faults of others who disagree with us, perhaps we could all realize that we are all many different things…things which would not qualify us to be the judge of all others. Said differently, if I’m an infidel, we’re all infidels; because I am you.

 

An Enigma, Wrapped in a Mystery, All Inside a Tasty Little Cookie

I was dining last week with Emily at a Japanese steak house nearby and discovered a fairly evocative fortune inside my cookie that I just had to write something about. It’s not often that I feel inspiration from a fortune cookie but this one immediately aroused a common theme in which I’m always a sucker for writing about – advice. Probably 75% of my blogs are related to life-advice. People close to me, pretty much my whole life, have told me that I’m a decent giver of advice, so I’ve become sort of a reluctant incompetently competent supplier of advice – of which I have no paying customers.

Although I’m comfortable to offer advice on some subjects, I’m also keenly aware that giving advice can be a dangerous thing to do. To presume that I should be telling people what to do with their own lives implies something very close to egomania, a condition in which I pray never takes me over. That said, I think that my inclination to write forces me to place what little intellect I have on the line whether I like it or not. Otherwise, what would I write about, ugh, maybe fortune cookies?

It’s actually kind of funny to me that while you can get these advice-wrapped fortune cookies pretty much anywhere in the developed world, you won’t find them at all in China or Japan – the places you’d expect to see them most. What does that say about America – or Asia? Is the Chinese Buffet some sort of hidden metaphor – maybe that we should be ‘getting our fair share in life’? The Chinese have discovered that Americans love getting unsolicited advice so much that they created a plain Jane cookie that draws us in like flies to their restaurants.

Regardless of any of that, we ‘Mericans’ love things to be simple, including our life paths. Just give me my high school diploma, a $50,000 a year job, and a cool house then leave me alone. Simple! But simple rarely gets us where we’d really like to be and life generally sucks a little while before you finally bite into to the piece of chocolate with the hazelnut on the inside. And, in many cases, success has as much to do with attitude as it does aptitude.

In the likely event that all four of you readers are wondering… my fortune cookie says, “Happiness lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort.” I don’t know who to attribute that quote to because the cookie didn’t provide a bibliography so I hope the blog police aren’t paying any attention. All jokes aside, just let that statement percolate for a minute or two. What statement could be truer than this one?

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I say this because no matter how great a job we have or how much money we’re able to bring home, nothing in my life thus far has ever trumped the joy I’ve experienced in meeting an important goal or achieving an important victory. That joy only amplified when my own creativity contributed to the success of the overall project.

A good example is this blog. No one is paying me to spend my free time writing my thoughts down; my pay comes from the personal satisfaction I experience of completing an endeavor I feel passionate about or that someone I love might benefit one day from my insanity. It’s just something I like doing – made sweeter with the idea that anyone else may find it entertaining or insightful.

In the scheme of things, it really doesn’t matter if anyone else finds that same value, although I love it when they do, it only matters that I entered into a personal creative process from which there derived something tangible and meaningful. When folks are solving big problems, the last thing they’re thinking about at the moment is how much they’re getting paid.

If all of the above is true, then our goal in life might be to play, play, play, work, work, work at something – anything, until such time as we are better able to figure out just what it may be that we most enjoy and that we’re naturally good at doing. Hopefully, a few years of toiling away at crappy jobs while making new acquaintances and conversing about life, one begins to start assessing where he/she is and where he/she may like to go or what job or career may better fit their personality or push certain peculiar buttons that need to be pushed.

Obviously, not everyone throws caution into the wind to see where things land before picking a career path. Some of us plan out our professional aspirations at dreadfully young ages. Some people are just natural born planners and organizers. I’m not really writing about those people because those kinds of people don’t really notice people like us, people who start off adulthood without plans. Those other smarter and more organized people suck.

Planner types don’t have time to worry about us because they, still, are too busy organizing their calendars for what’s happening this afternoon, tomorrow morning and next week. This particular blog/rant is really speaking to the folks out there who may be struggling emotionally because they’re stuck in a rut not knowing what they should do with the rest of their lives or even the right direction their ship should be oriented.

Obviously, we are not all alike. While some of us have no problem fixating on a goal then working to achieve it, others of us find it difficult to even pick a goal. I personally think it is an unspoken tragedy of life that we most often seek to understand the goal and not the self. We try to adjust ourselves to the demands of a theory when we might be better off adjusting ourselves to a congruence with our own personal identity. We should never strive necessarily to be a banker, a teacher, a pilot or a policeman. We should strive first to be ourselves.

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I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be a banker, pilot or policeman – what I am saying is that I think we are better off making our goals conform to our identity rather than mold our identity to conform to a goal. In each of us, DNA, environment, socio-economic forces, family values, etc., have all combined to produce a person with certain desires and aptitude, including a profound and deeply ingrained desire to have a life that is meaningful. We all find meaning and purpose in different ways. For some it’s children, or a great career. For others it may be shiny aluminum wheels or a mink coat.

So, as I see it, we need not dedicate our entire lives to achieving any pre-defined goal, but instead choose a life we know we will enjoy. Goals are absolutely secondary: it is our functioning toward the goal which is perhaps most important. Allowing another person to define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life – the definitive act of will which makes us all individuals.

In short, the formula is as follows: we must choose a path which will let us use our natural abilities, which lets us function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of our personal desires, and in so doing we fulfill a need for expressing our identity and avoid frustrating our potentiality and the fear of watching our goals disappear or gradually lose the charm they once held.

Because, after all, every single day we view those original goals from an entirely different angle. As we evolve, those once powerfully attractive goals may lose some of their glitter. If we’ve dedicated our entire lives to achieving a goal which no longer seems appropriate for us; then what? Once I thought about becoming an attorney. Then I met attorneys and realized that they work all day and do homework every night. My perspective changed by means of experience and insight.

Our perspective on life and goals will change. It is not the pilot or the banker that changes, it is us. Each of us are the sum total of our reactions to different experiences. As those experiences multiply, we change – we’re evolving into different men and women. Because we’re different, our perspective changes. Alternatively, if we wait long enough – if procrastination becomes the goal, then it will be circumstance that makes our decisions for us.

So, in essence, we shouldn’t just throw caution into the wind as I was saying earlier. Metamorphoses shouldn’t necessarily be completely organic. You can and should read and listen and expose yourself to as many different ideas as possible. Every nowhere job you’ll ever have will expose you to new ideas and new situations and new people, all of which provide lots of life-lessons. Those absurd and gross people you despise may offer you one little gem of genius that completely transforms the way you think about something unrelated but important to you. Wisdom is everywhere, even in assholes. Your greatest inspirations for obtaining the perfect ‘you-job’ will come from having lots of crappy jobs.

But, all the wisdom you’re accumulating while you are “doing” will give you the tools you need to eventually make big life decisions. Regardless of everything I’ve said about honoring the soul inside the worker, you still always have the goal of creating and achieving because that is something instinctive that must be nourished. We continually do that with information and knowledge that our experiences turn into wisdom. Wisdom of things and life and self.

Today, unlike the many generations before you, we live in a world overflowing with superfluous information. And yet, with such an abundance of information and data at our fingertips, what we seem to be experiencing is a growing scarcity of wisdom. I think it is very easy to confuse the two (very different) things.

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Many of us think that by having access to more information we can produce more knowledge, which automatically results in more wisdom. The reality is that the opposite is true. The reason I say this is because when a person inundates themselves with more and more data without the proper context, it only jumbles our understanding of the world rather than elevating it.

I see real life examples of this all the time at work. Someone is assigned to lead a task; the leader is naturally a person who lives and breathes those types of issues and thus is highly knowledgeable about the subject matter. Bureaucrats who are intelligent but not experienced in the subject matter quickly digest information from the task leader, along with information found by way of Google, as well as a few phone calls and all of the sudden they become experts themselves, regurgitating lines back to the leader that they learned from him/her not 10 days prior, no longer needing and many times rejecting the wisdom of the task leader because that wisdom and experience doesn’t align with Google’s version nor their own political agenda.

It happens all the time. What is lost is the deeper understanding of experience which can predict and help you avoid pitfalls that 40 hour experts will rarely ever see. Our society has become overly dependent and unconsciously confident because we all have a smart phone and Google to answer every question one could possible present. Oh, if I had just had access to Google when I was a teenager, instead of the 1964 Encyclopedia Britannica, I could have been overwhelmingly smarter than my parents (just kidding mom).

There is a stepladder of understanding that takes a logical path from gaining information to achieving wisdom. At the bottom is a piece of information which basically tells us some small fact about the world. Just above that step is knowledge. Knowledge is the understanding of how different little morsels of information all fit together to disclose some particular certainty about the world. Knowledge hinges on an act of association and clarification – it puts the information into its proper perspective.

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At the very top of this stepladder is finally wisdom. Wisdom is not just a deep knowledge (i.e., I read those crib assembly instructions ten freakin times and called two buddies about it), wisdom combines a moral component to knowledge. It is the application of information that is worth remembering and knowledge that matters to the understanding of not just how our world works, but also how it should work. Trump haters know all about this concept.

To have true wisdom, one requires a moral structure of what should and shouldn’t matter, as well as an idyllic vision of the world at its highest potentiality. And once you’ve achieved some wisdom, you must convince your ego that whatever wisdom you may have acquired, it is only wisdom about that one subject under that one set of circumstances. Throughout your life, there will be lots more work to do and many more subjects and circumstances to tackle.

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So while the fortune cookie, in its most basic form, can provide us with all the spiritual and motivational insights as our tummies and our appetite for Moo Goo Gai Pan can endure; the magical tickertape stuffed inside those cookies cannot by themselves offer us the true wisdom we all seek or need. It takes a lot of effort, a good heart, and the shedding of our narcissistic tendencies in order to recognize the depth of all that lie before us.

And sometimes, what we have before us are just ordinary people – people with unique experiences and information and failures and successes which are all different from our own. Yes, sometimes we are not allowed to have wisdom in certain areas because we can’t have experience in every area. In those cases, our wisdom comes from recognizing the value of other human beings around us.

Wisdom allows us the capacity to understand that mastery over any subject is outdated the very moment one achieves it. True wisdom is completely void of any independent identity. It is never about any one person or one group. It only exists in the collective because each of us contributes to the evolution of it every single day. Wisdom follows the doctrine of universal responsibility. It is akin to saying that every part of our body longs for our eyes, our lungs, our legs to be healthy; if one part suffers, we all suffer.

Work and living and parenting and every other important aspect of our lives are most positively affected by just being real. Being true to yourself in your profession, in your relationships, etc., allows you to function at your highest possible levels. Your wisdom will come from expending your energies and experiencing your world with a clear mind and an unambiguous path not littered by obstacles and chaos created by unrealistic expectations.

Lastly, I am no expert. I’m just a 53 year old husband and a hopelessly paternal dad, a placeholder of my job and a life-long old guy who loves to write about advice that I wish I could have ignored when I was young. My greatest achievement in life is that as my son gets older and more experienced, he is finally coming to realize that I may not have been as ignorant as I may have seemed. That means that I can be now be as crappy as I want and still exceed all expectations.

Bullying and Depression

One of the things I love about blogging is that the format is much more similar to a discussion than it is a story or news or whatever. It’s much more intimate and personal. We can address the things that are going on in our own lives or in the lives of people close to us and not necessarily have to wait for the next big national news event from which to launch our tirades or sweet-talks. Today I want to express my concerns about someone close to us about depression and bullying and offer a bit of advice.

 The biggest problem with being a young adult or adolescent is the fact that you’re, in many ways, an adult with adult brain power. You’re still in school which means you can still do long math, you can probably structure sentences better than most adults, and you can still recite State capitols and quote Shakespeare. All this mental flexibility makes us feel very bright and ready to take on the world. Our parents are the only adults we’re around enough to really compare our own intelligence to and what we see from them at home isn’t always the most representative of the whole person. So, we know we’re pretty smart like our adult parents but in many ways we’re still children, especially so when it comes to emotional intelligence. Your brain is literally wedged between a rock and a hard place.

 What your parents do have an abundance of (maybe…hopefully) that remains mostly unknown to you is the ability to cope with life’s up’s and down’s…a kind of emotional intelligence that we learn from surviving failure, betrayal, disappointments, infidelity, personal attacks, or the plethora of other lessons taught to us in high school and the work place, none of which that can be found in a textbook. Every single time we survive the next disaster, we sort of metamorphose into the next higher version of ourselves, shedding our thinner skins and growing a newer thicker one more capable than the last in defending ourselves or deflecting the danger away.  

 Without these skills, we’re left vulnerable and susceptible to all sorts of dehumanizing feelings that are sometimes strong enough to put us in a state of depression that can be so strong that it blinds us from finding a way out. It’s kinda like the dichotomy of needing a car to get a job and needing a job to get a car; we don’t always have the wherewithal to develop these coping skills when we need them most or when we’re most challenged by the pressures of growing up.

 When you’re gifted and smart, it’s way harder because you’re way more sensitive to right and wrong, you’re way more aware of how destructive the behavior is to you, and you’re way more perplexed at why you of all people cannot figure out how to solve the problem. Smart people have good ideas so you think you’re supposed to be able to solve these problems and yet you can’t. Not only is it emotionally damaging to be in the situation, but you’re simultaneously feeling insecure and unprepared to make it go away, maybe for the first time in your life. You begin to undermine your own intellect out of utter frustration at not being able to manage these feelings or solve your own problems.

 Depression is a humiliating human experience. Whether the result of bullying, stress, medical conditions or any number of other causes, the consequences are the same. Everyone experiences some form or degree of depression in their lives although some of us are better at shedding old skin than the rest.

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So, what we want to avoid is allowing a tumultuous situation to evolve into depression. If we allow it or if we don’t recognize the seriousness of our condition at a time when we can still think clearly, the ravages of clinical depression may creep into your life and take its toll on you and everyone around you. Whether you’re recognizing it or not (and some of us cannot), depression can turn intelligent, articulate and outgoing people into relative sleep-walkers and robots who can’t so much as wash a dish or change their socks.

 Depression can affect your ability to think clearly, to feel anything, to ascribe value to your own children, lifelong passions, and even your relative good fortune. On top of that, the usual medication for depression is usually some sort of psychotropic drug that helps your brain to quit feeling. So, not everyone does well with the drugs. There are both success and failure stories associated with the treatment of depression just like there are success and failure stories associated with the disease itself. I know people from both camps.

 Treated early enough, you can help to file the sharp edges of life away to help you focus on you and what is making you feel things so strongly. That doesn’t let you off the hook to solve your problems. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to reconcile your stress with medical intervention, take your medically induced lucidity serious and work to bring final resolution to the things or situations or people who are causing you problems, even if that means writing that person off completely and moving on.

 If allowed to continue, depression has the ability to scoop out your normal healthy ability to cope with bad days and bad news, and replaces it with an unrecognizable muck that finds no pleasure, no delight, and no point in anything outside of a couch. You may alienate your friends at school because you can’t comport yourself socially, your job may be at risk because you can’t concentrate, and you may live in moderate squalor because you have no energy to stand up, let alone take out the garbage. Sometimes, we’re just not quite ready to grow up and accept all that comes with being an adult and sometimes it’s the opposite, we just need to get the hell out of an environment that might be choking off our air supply. There is no one-size fits all solution when it comes to emotion and life. 

 My deceased brother suffered from depression. His depression was the result of a psychological disorder that limited his ability to cope in many ways but that never stopped him from feeling – just as you and I do. The world, as viewed from my brother’s eyes, was different than it is to me or to you but he was still a human being who felt and loved and innately understood that he was making the people around him uncomfortable. Although he lost the ability to recognize his own responsibility for how he made others feel, he nonetheless understood fully how everyone suddenly became afraid of him. While his empath began to fade, his overall sensitivities were elevated which made him acutely aware of the world, his family, and how he saw himself fitting-in among everyone and everything around him.

 It’s so sad to think about someone with a mental illness who once had full-competency. To live in a world that you perceive as dangerous, but in ways that you alone can solve if people will just give your ideas a chance. To want nothing more than to protect the one’s you love but to then feel the rejection of your ideas and the pain associated with the recognition that everyone thinks you’re crazy. Depression can be the catalyst that manifests itself into this type of mental illness, especially if you have other stressors that are working synergistically against you.

 Sadly, people with severe depression start to become pathetic and they know it. It’s one of the least appreciated parts of the condition. Depression, if untreated, can manifest itself into more serious conditions leaving its victims with little or no capacity to stop the downward plunge they see as inevitable. They begin to lose all perspective, all emotional reserves, and have no faith that things will ever get better. So they begin to feel guilty and ashamed of their inability to deal with life like any regular human, which exacerbates the depression and the isolation.

 Those of us around the depressed grow increasingly insensitive because we don’t understand the logic of it all (There is no logic). We only see how our loved one’s condition negatively impacts our own lives. Our loved one’s problems can be so overwhelming sometimes that we just want to run away to escape what we see as unnecessary chaos. We become desensitized to the whole affair and even duck and evade our troubled loved ones in order to find some normalcy and solace in our avoidance of them. I’m guilty of that myself. The guilt associated with that avoidance can also be overwhelming. You find yourself either victimized by psychotic drama or by self-guilt for not wanting to subject yourself or your family to psychotic drama. No one wins.

 If you’ve never been depressed, give thanks to your DNA providers and back off the folks who need to take a pill just so they can make eye contact with the grocery store cashier. No one on earth would choose the nightmare of depression over a typically turbulent normal life. That said, normal life is typically turbulent and we all take a few fastballs to the chest occasionally; it’s all part of stepping up to the plate of life.

 As I’ve written about previously, if the weight of certain things are dragging you down instead of lifting you up then you should move on to the next thing. Looking straight into the eyes of each person or situation; you must decide if this is going to a part of your history or a part of your destiny. Discovering that you have the courage to move on from destructive forces or people contributes to the cultivation of our super-powers, resilience being one of those. Depression cannot thrive among resilience.

 Recognize that we’re all perfectly flawed. Yes, you’re a kind and sensitive person and you need a pill right now to help you cope. But, alternatively, the bully has way more problems than do you. If you really think about it, what type of false-reality is that person living in right now? How much further toward adulthood or success or realizing your dreams are you right now compared to him/her? That person has a long hard road ahead and reality is going to suck way worse for him/her than it is for you right now. If anything, you should be feeling sorry for them.

 Stop judging yourself unnecessarily. The person bullying you is likely so selfish and full of themselves right now that they don’t even believe they’re a bully, much less able to recognize how destructive they are to those around them. While you’re reconciling the bully, don’t fail to recognize your own responsibility in how these situations evolve and encompass everyone and everything around them. Don’t be guilty of believing that the “high road” is somehow conveyed by your absence or refusal to stand up for yourself. If chaos is met by silence, chaos still exists because it creeps into new places you would have never expected. It’s also not anger or retaliation that defeats chaos, its wisdom and order – which, BTW, also defeats depression.

Depression is not just an incapacity to cope with day to day living in the modern world. It’s an incapacity to function. No one chooses it. No one deserves it. It can run in families and it can ruin families. Most of us cannot imagine what it takes to feign normalcy. But that is exactly what victims of depression do every day. My goal is two-fold; I want to scare you into facing whatever it is that is luring you into depression, and, I want to help you and others empathize with those who are suffering now.

 Bullying is real. Just because you’ve never suffered from it doesn’t make it imaginary. The way you survive it is to confront it and just proudly announce that what is happening to you is hurtful, whether they care about or want to take responsibility for it or not and that you’re done worrying about it. There’s something profoundly powerful about vocalizing your intentions that has a way of making your words come true. If you tell them you’re done…you’re done. 

 

Good Luck.

Traveling Ecuador

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Lying in bed in an utter state of anxiety over a lack of restful sleep, realizing that I’m about to spend two sweaty nights in little more than a screened-in porch without air conditioning. Sweltering humidity and intense sun-exposure has caused me to be slightly less-fun and a lot more damp than my normal self and I begin to reflect on our day at Anaconda Island, the balsa wood raft ride through the white-capping Napo river, and the hairy Tarantula that attempted to take a swim with me before dinner. The details of my health-coverage being sketchy, I’m thinking yeah, Ecuador is to die for – literally.

Of course I’m just kidding although there are probably many ways to die here, of which might possibly be the river Cayman, Piranha, Anaconda, the mysterious Tatura flower’s “sweet dreams” tea, and possibly choking on the fried “Iron Palm” pork served at the restaurant at the Center of the Earth Lat’ 000 marker. Truthfully, all I’ve accomplished thus far is to prove to everyone just how entitled I may be because mostly, the Ecuador I’ve visited has been found to be immensely beautiful but I’m still here whining about two hot nights. The temperatures throughout much of Ecuador are actually perfect due to high elevations. You’ve just royally screwed up and found the blog of a spoiled and sarcastic traveler.

Honestly, if bucket lists are something you often think about, traversing through the Amazon jungle has to be somewhere on everyone’s list. It was for me. And now I have the wounds and bug bites to prove it. I’m kinda hoping I end up with a few permanent scars from all of the bug bites so I end up with a few great conversation starters with my unborn grandchildren. The jungle can be dangerous but it can also be uniquely entertaining. On one outing, a grey-winged trumpeter sort of imprinted on Emily while touring an animal rescue center deep in the jungle and proceeded to follow her everywhere she went. It was kinda like having a big chicken for a buddy. She liked it cuz they kill snakes.

Rita, our new friend from Hong Kong, was wearing some sort of bug patch she purchased in Hong Kong. She never got a single bite. I, on the other hand, took a sponge-bath in a mosquito and tick repellent so strong that the warning label warned against applying it directly to your skin. The Amazonian jungle vermin simply laughed at me and my silly Yankee bug potion. Who says the Chinese are always borrowing American technology – I say “bug-bite mitigation technology” is clearly an area where we need to start stealing secrets from the Chinese. Who gives a shit about 3 stage rockets and advanced cell phone technology when you can repel every annoying bug known to mankind?

I’ll admit that Ecuador surprised even me: half of a globe-trotting duo hell-bent on visiting less-traveled destinations. To answer everyone who intimated that we might be crazy for traveling here, I’ve herein provided you with a list of great reasons to travel lovely Ecuador. Y’all know that “facetious is as facetious does” so please try to humor my Southern sarcasm because there really are a few valuable lessons strewn all about. The trick is to find them so sit back and I’ll do my best to educate.

One of my first observations was that traveling Ecuador just may be the polar opposite of traveling around Europe. In Europe, you travel over mostly uninteresting landscapes – forgeries of which you could find somewhere in the U.S. – in order to find magnificent “old towns” and walk among or study the ancient art and architecture. Many of these places are so inundated with the tourist trade that much of the intrinsic beauty of the culture, language, and the natural state of the site is lost. In Ecuador, the travel between places is through a continuity of spectacular landscapes and ecological masterpieces to find cities and villages that will mostly underwhelm the typical European traveler but are instead wrapped in an endearing naïveté. The tourist trade is so new that the destinations are mostly unspoiled and the people are unwitting subjects of our curiosities.

Of course there are architectural masterpieces to be found in Ecuador such as the Jesuit built Church of the Society of Jesus in Quito, but for the most part the masterpieces of interest for travelers to Ecuador are going to be the natural-wonders created by God. There are 84 volcanos in this tiny country, 24 of which are active. It seems that everywhere you travel is within a telephoto lens distance of one of these magnificent geological features. There are also a number of fantastic Haciendas scattered throughout the country. One of which we visited was built in 1680 and included its own beautifully appointed chapel built just 10 years later. Another sitting atop a steep mountain in full view of an active snow-capped volcano was 200 years old and once boasted 200,000 acres of land.

Driving through the country of Ecuador can at one moment mesmerize you with its deep river canyons, cascading waterfalls or the patchwork-quilt of agricultural art that canvas the mountainsides in unpredictable patterns at unexplainable elevations. At other times, it can be dizzying by an uninterrupted sea of unfinished or collapsing concrete homes, storefronts and brick walls that secure the perimeter of every palace and pig pen. It’s not what we’re used to but it is this simplicity of life that draws us in and says without words that these are simple and hard-working people worth every moment of our allotted eight days to better discover and explore.

Regardless of whether you’re seeing straw and bamboo homes on stilts or modern concrete structures accented by clay tile roofs, the homes and villages of Ecuador are almost always resting in the shadows of magnificent volcanoes or foreboding mountain vistas that can instantly turn your attention away from any lessor inspiring view such as the occasional road-side pee-pee bandito. The city of Baños, for instance, sits at the base of an active volcano with a lovely cascading waterfall in full view of its public square, completely nestled inside a circumference of steep mountainous terrain.

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Every city seems to have its own specialties of locally-produced products; a city for roses, one for jeans, leather products, alpaca wool products, chocolate, tobacco, Panama hats (see explanation below), seafood…, you name it. Ecuador also boasts several fruits, vegetables, plants and flowers that one can only find here. Whether you’re in the high elevations where the sweet tree-tomato grows or in the jungles of the Amazon eating lemon flavored ants, you’re always surprised by something new to try.

Ecuadorians are a complex homogeneous tribe of haves and have-nots just like the snobs we love at home. They’re a tall, short, skinny, chubby & lovable, dark or light skinned group of hard-working and honorable people who want all the same things we want. They just ask for them in a completely unintelligible language called Spanish. In case you’ve never heard of it, I can say that when spoken by a local it does sound somewhat romantic (pun intended).

One thing I couldn’t help but notice along our way is that there is seemingly an endless strand of aluminum clothesline wire stretching all the way from Quito to the Amazon Jungle dressed in the most intimate of Ecuadorian couture – framed between every porch post and elaborate perimeter wall – of which is dressed atop by shards of colorful broken glass and Dr. Pepper bottles. The rainbow of cotton and alpaca fabric is like a woven fanfare that welcomes visitors to every village and community. I’ve begun to believe that the common Ecuadorian architecture doesn’t include clothes storage and that everyone just uses these clotheslines as permanent open-air storage for their entire wardrobe. The Spanish totally got it wrong, El-Dorado lies at the end of the clothesline rainbow, not on the shores of Lake Parime.

I promise it doesn’t take long to grow a real appreciation for some of the local rituals as the people here are so genuinely kind and accepting of tourists and our own little tourist proclivities such as taking photographs of them in the marketplace like they’re circus animals. You soon grow to love the Ecuadorian people and all of their quirky roadside displays. One trip through West Virginia will remind us that the “other” America isn’t all that shiny on all its surfaces.

Be prepared, however, many of the public restrooms require a “tipping fee” in order to partake of the convenience of a porcelain solution to your biological travel-needs…but the “fee” only provides for three or four tiny little squares of toilet tissue, perhaps enough to remove only the coarsest of organics made from unfamiliar diets. The unintentional consequence of hoarding all that precious paper is that many locals can be found with their “plantains” in-hand urinating in public places or on the side of roadways as a way of national protest. It’s OK though, it helps you to feel like part of the family.

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If ornamental iron is your thing, Ecuadorians have lots and lots of it. That said, most of it is carefully shaped and sculpted from rebar. If you have lots of leftover rebar from a building project and have absolutely no idea of what you’re going to do with it, come to Ecuador for inspiration. You won’t be disappointed.

The Panama hat? You’ve heard of it? It’s really from Ecuador only there was a mix-up at the hospital and it went home with the wrong parents. It’s a very old story that ends in the collaboration of an indigenous Ecuadorian hat and a Spanish hat which resulted in the famous head cover known the world over by its alias because the hat was exported to Europe and North America through the port of Panama before the canal was built. Now, you know the rest of the story.

I cannot fail to mention that Ecuador is very travel-friendly for Americans. In fact, the U.S. Dollar is their official currency. They have a representative democracy, national healthcare and education, good roads, and all the colada morada you can drink. If exotic birds and animals get your blood boiling, they have way too many to mention individually. Individually speaking though, just for reference purposes – the Ecuadorian camel-toe can be found in vivid abundance – just sayin.

If you’ve dreamed of visiting an indigenous Quichua village; trading for shrunken heads; climbing an active volcano; eating BBQ Guinea Pig; floating on a balsa raft down an Amazon basin river; seeing the Galápagos Islands; or watching a monkey ride a chicken through a town square, Ecuador is definitely your next destination. When you make up your mind and decide to book your trip, there’s no doubt that some of your friends might say, “Why Ecuador”! There are many reasons for you to visit here, no doubt, but seriously…a monkey riding a chicken? Where else can you see that?

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I have to give kudos to our travel partner, Gate One Travel. This was our 4th Gate One trip and each one continues to surpass the former – and our expectations. Its just so easy. Also, our wonderful 13 fellow travel companions. We loved our entire gang and I know we will stay in touch with many of them. FYI, Duncan, someone found some damp underwear in your room, they’re waiting for you at the reception desk at Casa del Suizo. Last but not least, our local tour guide Javier Estrella was fantastic. He’s a wealth of knowledge, kind, with a mother-hen commitment to his flock of inquisitive followers. You’ll never find a better person to spend eight days without air conditioning. He also free-lances so if anyone is convinced that Ecuador might be perfect for their next adventure, his contact information is as follows: 59-398-007-5760.

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Does This Blog Make My Butt Look Big?

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(Warning: Almost 5000 words)

Lately, more than ever before, I’m finding it very difficult to digest some of the more popular dialogues being discussed in this country. Am I really all that disconnected from reality or so naïve that I can’t comprehend what’s supposedly happening before my eyes? Perhaps I’m subconsciously hiding from the truth as a result of guilt or maybe I’m just so caught up in my own life that I can’t see the forest for the trees. Whatever it is that is causing this denial, conscious or unconscious, has left me feeling like I’m on the outside looking in. Either I’m in denial, I’m being intentionally left out, or the whole damn world has gone crazy.

25 years ago I was attending this lecture at the University of North Florida Institute of Police Technology and Management as a part of a Drug Unit Commander school and the instructor was lecturing about crowds, riots, and mob violence. Apparently there is a whole psychology built around crowds. One of the few things my tiny brain remembers from that lecture was something called the Emergent Norm Theory. The Emergent Norm Theory is a predictor for how mob violence occurs, how it is instigated and how it is perpetuated through an event from a psychological/clinical perspective.

Obviously I’m not qualified to lecture about the science but in summary it essentially states that when a large group of people crowd together for a common cause or complaint, they initially may have very little if any real unity except of course for that original singular common theme or complaint. But during a period of milling and spouting about, the key members or alpha personalities start suggesting actions to be taken by the group. If there is a lack of negative response from within the crowd itself, then the whole group will typically stand together in agreement to the legitimacy of their (The alpha members) message no matter how inappropriate their suggested actions may be. We’ve seen that a lot lately haven’t we?

So to all of my readers, friends, family, acquaintances and haters who might be hating on me…if you find yourself in a group of protesters who are pissed off about…hmm – maybe something I might be labeled with… and someone in the crowd yell’s “lets stone him!”, then please speak up and do your part to be the voice of reason because scientists all agree that if you don’t then some fool standing on the hood of a car with a bull horn and a can of spray paint will direct the crowd to start throwing rocks at me.

I was born in 1964, the same year that our most recent civil rights act was passed by congress. That said, I and others my age are among the first generation of racially integrated American school children. I can’t say that there were huge numbers of black kids going to school with me back then, maybe 5% of the student body, but we certainly integrated much better than our parents probably expected we would. My son, born in 1989, grew up much differently. Integration to him was likely just some old-school historical reference used to describe the way African-Americans worked to overcome racial injustices back in the old days when uneducated white men wore powdered wigs, fought injuns, and dined on opossums.

The point I’m trying to make here is that for modern white American’s, racial injustice is mostly considered a thing of the past – something we’d like to forget – and scarcely even thought about. The biggest reason for that is because America is only about 2 generations in to equal opportunity law reform and our kids don’t have any experience with racial injustice. Another factor that plays a bigger role than you’d expect is that all of the people we baby boomers tend to closely associate with the days of widespread bigotry are now mostly dead and gone. Maybe third on that list is that we don’t like to believe that it was our loved ones who perpetuated those atrocities…it makes us feel bad. White people see this world through a different lens than black people. That doesn’t equate to racism, but it could be considered dismissive of the black experience. What it really goes back to is the tried and true theory that perception equals reality. The perception is that the world is fair now so we should all just put our big girl panties on and forget about all that negative stuff.

I didn’t grow up with parents and grandparents who warned me not to trust the government and who had horrific personal stories of tragedy, slavery, violence, rape, and an overall destruction of the family unit that were perpetrated by mostly everyone, sanctioned by the government, and substantiated by the church. I think – I don’t really know – that growing up black would be quite different from growing up white whether we feel comfortable recognizing that or not. The minds of black people are exactly like the minds of white people. They just have an alternate experience. Whether or not they have personally experienced racial injustices or not, they all carry the weight of it from birth which causes many of them to react differently to the same news stories papered on the rest of us. Their perceptions are different so their reality is different.

Just think for a second about the popular website and the corresponding television show, Ancestry.Com, and the interesting stories behind actors and other famous people as they work with historians and genealogists to uncover these compelling family stories that have been mostly forgotten by time. Have you ever thought about how black people respond to that show? For the most part, white people not only denied their African slaves of a present life, but they also denied them of a family history. To this day, black people do not have the simple luxury of going to visit a family cemetery or to research family genealogies because those graves don’t exist and their families were sold and traded like baseball cards. Few records exist for them at all.

When white people see an ignorant redneck on television who is obviously still fighting the civil war, we just see one lone racist with a mullet…we don’t think that much about it. When a black person see’s the same guy on TV, I can imagine that it is both evocative and personally felt. There is a real disconnect between our races that no one really discusses but it’s very important to recognize. In some ways, we have become the Divided States of America because we white people feel hamstrung by political correctness instead of just being real and thus black people are forced to digest that canned insincerity that modern political correctness forces white folks to use – which leaves them feeling manipulated. We are both left wanting for anything resembling something real.

Ferguson, MO 2014 is an perfect example of much of what we are discussing here because all the elements came together in one imperfect storm. They had the rioting and the mob violence perpetuated by a few people who completely distorted the facts of the case but somehow illogically managed to engage an entire nation including some National figures (ala Emergent Norm Theory); and, you had lots and lots of white people who were honestly trying to empathize with the black community but couldn’t really because they had no idea what the facts were and they have no idea what it really means to be black (ala Political Correctness meets Empathy); and, you have a nation of black people who now know the facts but really don’t care because their sense of identity as historical victims has been re-ignited even though there were no real reasons (In Ferguson) for that to have happened (ala News Media Fanning the Flames for Ratings). White folks are laying in the streets side-by-side with black folks but neither knows why.

There are literally black Americans out there who have grown up in a mostly color-blind country and whom are enjoying the fruits of their own successes without any racially inspired obstacles to education or employment who are now suddenly talking about 2015 like it’s 1965 when the only thing they have in common with the black folks in Selma, AL on Bloody Sunday is the color of their skin. That’s not happening because it’s real today…its happening because it once was real and the media has fueled the embers of a flame which may likely never go out. White people are appalled by it, black people are moved by it and our country is paralyzed by it.

I’m not saying that racism doesn’t exist in this country because clearly it does. We’ve also had dozens of police killings of black people since that Ferguson incident which have further fueled those flames and a few of them have surprised me too. The cop who shot the black man in the back nine times as he ran away was definitely an eye opener. But, as a white guy who spent 20 years wearing a badge, I see a rogue cop doing a terrible thing and trying to cover it up. It doesn’t look racist to me because a bad cop like that could just as easily have shot and killed a white person and reacted similarly. But, I can totally see how a black person could see this as evidence of racial injustice perpetrated by police.

Our country, like every country, is a combination of the haves and have not’s. It’s not only a symptom of a capitalistic society but a very natural and necessary one. God and nature have very systematically produced nearly equal numbers of men and women just as he/it/she has produced people with different skills, strengths and weaknesses in order that we all rely on one another for survival. We take all that for granted but if you stop for a second to think about how organized the human species really is then good luck trying to justify your atheism. Depending on the century you live in, different skill sets have demanded differing levels of income thus creating division among us. Have you noticed lately who is finally starting to earn a decent living? Yup – farmers. Farming is finally getting cool, just when there is a shortage of pork and beef. Who’d have thunk it? No matter your skill, we all have our time in history when our skill was or will be a highly sought after skill – be patient.

Tinkering with the natural balance of things usually results in failure. Carl Marx recognized the unfairness between the social classes of the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat’s and became the founder of a political system we now call socialism. Although his ideas are considered valuable in the overall understanding of the dynamics between social classes, we’ve learned through historical contexts that socialism doesn’t work because it eliminates the drive to produce and create. If you want the government to help people, somebody has to be earning enough to pay those taxes – as it turns out the top 5% are paying 90%. Those people don’t exist in socialistic societies. Thus, here we are with an incredibly wealthy society with some very poor people living among us and a disproportionately large percentage of those poor happen to be black.

Is that by chance? I think not. I think that black people have two things working against them which have kept them demographically among our poorest. The first element is that the institution of slavery itself and its common practices of selective breeding and denial of education has yet to be fully overcome. We are only a few generations beyond the days of slavery and even fewer ahead of equal rights and educational opportunities. That says nothing of the psychological weight and stigma it carries if you happen to be among those who’ve been born with the legacy of it. An inheritance of victimization creates two kinds of people in general, one who challenges the status quo with conviction and distrust and one who accepts his fate and believes that he must be flawed and imperfect. Animosity and apathy, a legacy born of victims – our victims.

The second element is the social welfare system itself. For those who are born into it, moving beyond it forces you to not only be different, which attracts negativity and sometimes violence, but it also forces you to peel away the arms of a protective mother only to jump off a cliff of uncertainty and competition. Competition that you’ve not been prepared for or exposed to. Most of us have no idea just how difficult it is for someone rise up from those circumstances. For the people who grow up in that environment, they have little that is precious to them nor do they have the same respect for laws and rules which have done more to protect white people from blacks rather than protect blacks from whites.

It’s really similar to what’s happening in the Middle East. If those Shiites and Sunni’s who hate each other but collectively hate Americans had a decent income, an Xbox and satellite television then why in the heck would they choose to strap a bomb on their chest and kill people they really don’t know anything about? In every country where Muslim’s are a minority and living in societies where they have opportunities, they are generally passive with the exception of either low-functioning individuals who’ve been radicalized or by those who’ve immigrated for the purpose of conducting terrorism. In every country where Muslim’s have a majority and where all of the wealth is centered on those in charge leaving the citizens destitute and poor…guess what you have? Yup, terrorism, despair, hunger, and an overall lack of humanity.

Not every Muslim country has a ruthless dictator who steals all the money for himself. In those countries who share the wealth with its citizens – a la the UAE, they have stability, a robust economy, and peaceful relationships with others. Personally, I think the religion itself promotes intolerance of other cultures and religions, that’s just me looking through my own lens of life, but you can certainly parallel how poverty and despair effect lifestyle, opportunity and political views even if the motivators are unique.

Similarly, in America, some of our social welfare systems, while good intentioned, have been allowed to manifest themselves into perpetual class makers whose unintentional outcomes have resulted in a separate society of the mostly self-disenfranchised. We’ve long since recognized the consequences of that system gone amuck but no one has stepped up to the very hot plate of political correctness to fix the broken system. Those who are stuck in that place between veritable impoverishment and a safety-net have little motivation to do anything other than what they’ve been schooled their whole life to fleece. Why would they – life without a net can be difficult. If you pull the rug out from under those who have grown up dependent on it, what would we do to prepare them to live without it? It’s very complicated.

White people get especially roused up when black people start talking about reparations for slavery but when you stop to hear the argument, it actually made sense back then. I’m not smart enough to know if it makes sense now, I’ll leave that one up to you but here me out. This country made it legal to enslave human beings, mostly Africans, from about 1619 until the conclusion of the civil war in 1865. That’s almost 250 years. During that time colonists, farmers, plantation owners and simple households alike were allowed to inflict any form of oppression over their slaves as they saw fit because those people were not considered, under our laws, to be human. Of significant importance was that they denied their slaves of all forms of education – social, scholastic, legal, or otherwise – to ten (10) successive generations of human beings. Those human beings are now our neighbors, friends, co-workers, preachers and soldiers.

It took another 100 years (4 more generations) for the US government to recognize that blacks deserved the same rights as any other American – with some white Americans kicking and screaming all the way. When blacks were finally set free, America just handed them a green card and said, “Here ya go”. No one offered to help educate them or assist them in their assimilation with the rest of the country or offer them any financial means of self-reliance to get started. These people were woefully unprepared to live autonomously anywhere but somehow they did. We put them in boats of isolation and poverty and yet we marvel at how each vessel has traveled in alternate paths, never really able to reach the same destination. Maybe we do owe them some penance to help them catch up. It’s difficult to rationalize the fairness of it 150 years after-the-fact but it’s also difficult to ignore the consequences of not having done it.

Last year, I re-connected with an old friend from middle and high school who happens to be black. It’s kind of funny because Emily was out-of-town for work and the TN Walking Horse National Celebration was going on in town so there were these food trucks situated all along Madison Street selling/grilling BBQ and since I was technically a bachelor that week I decided to visit one of them and get some take-out for dinner after work.

All of the sudden, this great big black guy comes up and gives me a huge hug. It was late August and he’d been grilling BBQ in the high heat which made him quite sweaty but he was so expressive and affectionate that it scarcely phased me…I just wanted to know who he was. “Chris White! Damn I sure have missed you, I think about you all the time.” All of the sudden I recognized Isaiah Kelly from school. We played drums together in Jr. High and played football together on a team my dad coached. I ended up hanging out with him for at least an hour or two catching up on him and his life since school then stopping in again the next afternoon to get more BBQ and another big sweaty hug. I had also dropped by the horse show grounds to get a box of Optimist Club doughnuts to give to him and his crew which was a big hit.

For Isaiah and I, there were no barriers of race or history or distrust, we were just two 12 year-old’s both turning 50 and happy to be doing so. Just two happy Guinea Pigs, one white and one black, from a 1960’s social experiment that seemed so very ordinary and normal to us. It’s funny that when you talk about race on a macro scale, it always controversial but when you bring it down to a personal level it’s always just about personality. Once you wipe off all of the dust that gets kicked up by people who don’t know or understand each other, it’s just you and I that remain. While Isaiah may have his doubts about white folks in general and while I might look over my shoulder in a bad part of Nashville, he and I have no doubts about each other and I have no doubt that time, honest conversation and a ban on political correctness could heal much of what plagues us in America today.

Going back to our conversation on reparations, what if black people would have been treated differently after emancipation? What if we would have offered educational opportunities, a place to live, and some spending money? What if white America would have embraced those terribly mistreated souls instead of segregating ourselves from our own shames and what if we would have admitted the horrible mistake of slavery instead of being indignant about it? Do you think that perhaps America would be different today? Do you think that a natural assimilation of the two cultures could have emerged, trust would have prevailed and we’d all be speaking, acting, living, working and praying similarly?

Looking through my own lens on the world, I seem to see a lot of that anyway. I see our country as mostly healed and I see lots of black success stories both on television and in our community. But, the one thing we all have to remember when we begin to put our judge robes on…we all don’t live in the same city, we all don’t have the same life experiences, we all don’t have the same familial and generational stories and backgrounds, we all don’t have the same political ideologies and none of us are privileged to see things from the same viewpoints, heights and angles.

I cannot help to think that America may be repeating the sins of our colonial cousins today, only with a new victim…homosexual people. Yes forgive me, I said it, gay people are being mistreated horribly, just like black people were back then. Of course no heterosexual male stereotype worth the weight of his own pot-belly wouldn’t first say up front that “I AM NOT GAY” when trying to write about a subject like this. I guess I might as well say “up-front” that I’m not black either. Anyway, with all the proper documentation now expressed, let’s now proceed and put this blog to bed.

Humans, no matter what generation we live in or what behavior we are trying to support or condemn, we can always find biblical references to support our beliefs. If you’re a supporter of capital punishment then you subscribe the biblical principle of “an eye for an eye” (Exodus 21:24). If you’re debating the legitimacy of capital punishment then you would cite Exodus 20:13 – “Thou shalt not kill”. During slavery times, it was just as easy to find supporting scripture to justify your behavior, i.e., Ephesians 6:5 and Titus 2:9, “They asked who should question the word of God when it is said, “slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling”, or “Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect”.

I’m not suggesting that the bible contradicts itself, what I’m saying is that there are contexts with which those scriptures are written and they are not to be used selfishly and without a thorough understanding of their meanings within the contexts and confines of the particular message being conveyed. It’s not hard to find all sorts of biblical references to all sorts of common behaviors or lifestyles especially homosexuality, but, when you choose to make a personal judgement are you not missing the forest for the trees? Opponents of gay marriage follow a very literal approach to the bible when they cite Old Testament passages that declare, “You shall not lie with a male as with a women; it is an abomination” (Leviticus 18:22)

There’s not a lot of ambiguity in that passage, however, shouldn’t Christians be citing passages from the New Testament instead of the Old Testament? Why did God put Christ on this earth anyway? John 3:17 clearly states, “For God sent not his only Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved.” John 12:47 says, “If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. 48 The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.”
You see, we as humans are not capable of understanding everything that God has put before us. There are some things that are beyond our abilities to fully comprehend. We, as humans, like to put things in neat little boxes so that we can be comfortable and safe in our little worlds. But God knows our fallacies and our accomplishments without explanations or YouTube tutorials. Clearly we should not be judging anyone as even Jesus Christ did not think it was his place to judge us, but God only.

I’m carrying a few extra pounds and that would be called gluttony in the bible and thus a sin. But God knows my troubles and my weaknesses and he forgives me. Some people might smoke. Some people might covet another’s wife or husband. Some of us, including me, have lied a few times and have used God’s name if vain. The bible says we are all sinners. Every stinking one of us. We cannot escape what God says we can’t escape. We are born to be sinners. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do better, it just means that one day we will all be judged for something.

Maybe your sin was small and mine was big but I made amends for mine and felt genuine guilt and empathy for my victim and yet you felt nothing and did nothing but try to conceal your tiny little sin. Maybe God gives me a pass for my big sin and fry’s your ass for your little one. Who knows? I don’t and neither do you. Again, just another reiteration for you… “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already…”(John 3:16 (17)(18).

What I’m saying is that we should stop looking for ways to condemn anyone for anything, whether we personally accept or approve of the behavior or not because we all have offensive behaviors and we are all sinners and none of us have the biblical authority to judge other human beings. If Jesus Christ said that he doesn’t have the biblical authority to judge or condemn people then I’m terribly sorry to inform you that you don’t either. If a gay couple gets married, it’s not taking a single thing from you. Why should you care? If you think that it offends your religion because marriage is a religious institution then stop personalizing Christianity as being yours. It’s not. It belongs to anyone who accepts ALL of what it teaches, including but not limited to homosexual people.

The New Testament values faithfulness, love, sacrifice and promise-based commitment. Those things can be just as prevalent in a gay marriage as in a heterosexual marriage. Your faith is a personal relationship you have with God through Jesus Christ (if you’re a Christian). Your sins are between you and God and He knows your heart, drives, weaknesses and sacrifices. The rest of us don’t know all those things about you and thus should not be doing the work of God without all of the personal inside information with which to conduct a fair assessment of just how great or terrible you really are.

All that said and 4892 words later…please stop all your judgement’s for just one minute and start to think about your faith and your influences on those around you. Are you perpetuating and teaching positive things or negative things? Black people deserve to be heard and their voices shouldn’t be silenced just because the dialogue makes us feel uncomfortable. I get that you’re a generation X’r and that you have no idea what racism is…that doesn’t negate the fact that racism still exists or that black people are naturally going to feel more threatened by the perception of it. There are messages inside those speeches and on those posters that we all need to digest so that we don’t dismiss the very things that are causing so much dissension and chaos among us.

Gay people deserve to be heard too. All they are asking for is to be treated equally. If you or I don’t understand why their brains are programmed the way they are then it’s ok, we will all survive. I don’t understand a lot of people’s brains but that doesn’t give me the right to decide whether or not they deserve to be treated equally and/or with some dignity. We need to stop thinking of homosexuality as a behavior and start to recognize it as simply an alternative way of thinking. It’s a brain thing not a penis thing. If you’re born with the instinctive attraction to the opposite sex then we like to consider you a heterosexual. If you’re born with an instinctive attraction to the same-sex then we like to call you a homosexual. They’re words not swords. At the end of the day, we’re talking about that which is instinctive, not that which is decided. Gender and Sexuality live in our brains, not our sexual organs, and they are not always going to be consistent with our genitalia because they reside in separate places in our brains.

God says I can’t be all-knowing because I’m human – SO, even though it pisses me off to say it – I hereby officially accept that I don’t know every f’ing thing. I get that not everyone will agree with me. It’s a controversial subject.

Living Outside The Box

Everyone knows I love movies. I have been intrigued with and entertained by movies since before I can remember. It is a passion born from mostly my mother who also loved movie going. I’m often quoted by my wife who likes to mimic me by saying that “I even love bad movies because at least they provide an escape from reality for two hours.” My background in law enforcement draws me to suspense and action movies but my overall nerd-ness loves all things technical too – so you can imagine what my favorite movie genres may be.  But since I turned 50 and my testosterone levels have plummeted to levels deeper than Raquel Welch did in the 1966 science fiction film Fantastic Voyage (look it up Jon), I’ve noticed that the increasingly sensitive side of me is starting to totally dig the chick flicks nowadays too.

I have this amazing memory of my mom taking me and my siblings to see a double-feature film at Harding Mall in South Nashville when I was 10 years old. It was Barbarella (Jane Fonda) and another movie called The Groove Tube which was Chevy Chase’s low budget film debut. I don’t know what my mom was thinking at the time but I think it must have been one of those duh moments because she only let us watch about 15 minutes of the second feature before jerking all of us up and getting us out of there. I distinctly remember the film sequence that instigated our hasty exit; a mock public service announcement for venereal disease that covertly used a real penis made-up with a face as its actor-spokesman. At ten, I didn’t fully understand all of the sexual innuendo but I knew we were watching something we weren’t supposed to be watching which is pretty damn cool if you ask me. I still laugh about that all the time because we had brought along my next door neighbor Wayne and I wonder today if he has the same memories I have.

One of my favorite movie scenes of all time is the testing scene in the beginning of the movie Men in Black. To refresh your memory, let me sum it up as follows:

Will Smith’s character (who later becomes Agent J) is in a room with other candidates so the MiB can supposedly find the proverbial best of the best candidate for the MiB job opening. The candidates are all men from either military academies or elite law enforcement and are squeezed into tiny egg-shaped chairs that barely contain their bodies. They are each given an exam booklet which is sealed in fragile paper that tears easily and a pencil. As they all scrunch up in their pods, twisting, wiggling, crossing and un-crossing legs to find comfortable positions for holding the booklet and writing at the same time, Agent J – after breaking his pencil while trying to open the envelope – stops, looks in front of him, and sees a more traditional looking table across the room.

SCREEEEEEECH! The otherwise silent and sterile room is filled with a deafening noise as Agent J drags the heavy metal table across the floor toward his egg chair. The other candidates shoot him some ugly eyes while trying their best to concentrate on the test while Agent J, oblivious to an unwritten decorum, makes himself comfortable to take the test. He repeats this type of abhorrence to all things status quo later when at the firing range.

At the firing range, these same best of the best candidates have no problem at all accurately shooting all the monsters on the targets but Agent J shoots the little girl instead. When Zed (Character played by Rip Torn) asks J “May I ask why you felt little Tiffany deserved to die?”, J responded with something like this: “When I saw little Tiffany, I’m thinking, y’know, eight-year-old white girl, middle of the ghetto, bunch of monsters, this time of the night with quantum physics books? She about to start some shit Zed.”
In that scene, Will Smith thought outside the proverbial box and instead of following what everyone else was doing. He was not afraid to literally make some noise, free himself from tradition or modesty, and do something bold that may help him achieve his goals. The situations he was placed in were structured to the point of absurdity, which is an exaggerated reflection of how complicated we tend to make life in general when we could just as effectively do things simply. In J’s view, being quiet and conforming to others’ tin-soldier mentality only hindered his ability to accomplish the goal of passing the tests. His ability to think asymmetrically turned out to be his strongest quality.
Now if you are rolling your eyes at the phrase “thinking outside the box,” I completely empathize. The phrase has become trite and jargony and has an honored place on the list of most overused clichés and axiom’s by teachers and professors, which includes but is not limited to (yes, there are others) “seeing the forest for the trees”, “learning to think like a businessman”, or “An ounce of prevention…”, you get the idea. Personally, I am more moved by axioms which make you think rather than one’s which tell a commonly known truth such as: “99 percent of lawyers give the rest a bad name”, or “Madness takes its toll – please have exact change.”, or “It was recently discovered that research causes cancer in rats.”.

But stripped down to its core, “thinking outside the box” says in four words what I believe to be the key to success in almost any venture as well as general happiness in life. To me, thinking outside the box means not blindly following conventional wisdom as well as challenging assumptions about yourself, others, and the world around you. It is a shift from conceptual frameworks and paradigms to free-flowing uninhibited thought that challenges all common perspective. It’s not to say that you shouldn’t educate yourself with all that old-school knowledge, it’s just a theory that examines and explores the things unsaid rather than the things said.

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We live in such a heavily controlled environment. The restrictions placed upon us do much to stymie our creativity and our ability to think freely. Perspective and perception are also powerful governors of our minds. We often view reality through narrow lenses sculpted, polished and honed by years of experience and education. But is my reality the same is your reality? In some cases yes. To you and I, red IS red and the number 4 IS the number 4. Those are constants nationally and worldwide. But what about the organic and obscure? Are we looking at the same things in the same way and coming up with the same conclusions? I doubt it.

If thinking beyond this proverbial box is so great then why do so many people encourage (or implore) you to color inside the lines, follow the rules, and stay inside the damn box? Well they are either inside the box themselves and not sure how to get out, are afraid to get out, or even worse — they are actually selling the box. People often disagree with me about these things, citing the importance of their specific life anomalies, and I am often prone to accept the reasons they espouse because I have the heart of a teacher not a preacher. But the reality is that most of these people are simply afraid. An example of this is that in my car, while alone, I believe I’m an accomplished singer…but I’m too afraid to demonstrate just how great I am in public. Is that a fear of performing or fear of revealing how much I suck at singing? I don’t know; ask Emily, she’s probably heard a few subtle a cappella moans and some interesting intonation going on in the car before. Fact of the matter, I will likely never sing to anyone in public – ever. It’s just not something I’m willing to let out of my box.

That “box”, for those whom are afraid, represents all that is stable and controllable and accepted. I get it. I really do. I understand that the box is rigid and sturdy and comfortable. But, it is still a stupid box and I know of no one who can truly spread their wings and fly inside a box. You can paint the box and decorate it and bedazzle the box with rhinestones or Harley Davidson stickers or whatever it is that you enjoy but at the end of your life, you will move from that one beautifully decorated box to another more simple and tasteful box. But will you have really lived? Ask Bruce Jenner what he thinks about living in boxes. For him, his life was always about making the rest of us comfortable. His box was covered in rustic leather and had spikes and beer stains and cigar burns all over it. But the inside of his box looked somewhat different I suspect.

I’m not suggesting the “box” is about gender or sexuality at all, but I’m neither saying it is not. I think the box is different for everyone and the same rules apply no matter what is in that enigmatic box. The box can contain a multitude of things that have the effect of holding you back in life or in situations. It’s just as important to recognize that your box might contain the elements of shyness as it is to recognize that thy neighbor’s box is full of Pollyanna. Both qualities can hold you back from achieving goals but for entirely opposite and unexpected reasons which are only relevant to that one person.

Look, I love plans of attack and guidelines and goals and milestones and all those things you have read about, and yes, in some areas of life there are definite paths that must be followed to reach a specific destination — i.e., you are not going to become a doctor without going to college, taking the exam, going to medical school, passing your boards, doing your residency, etc. But overall, never underestimate the value of thinking outside the box, figuring out your own way to get from point A to point B, and trusting your instincts along the way. Heck, maybe you don’t even have a point B in mind yet. No problem! Think of your current lack of a point B as already being outside the box. We can be sure that people like Michelangelo, da Vinci, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg never knew a box existed.

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And look, while thinking outside the box can certainly be about sitting down to solve or approach specific problems, it does not have to be. In fact, I like to think of it more as a way of life. Writing down your ideas or making a vision board is never a bad idea but there is something about saying it out loud that makes an idea sound really stupid or really profound. Don’t be afraid to bounce ideas off the chests of friends or parents but don’t be afraid to execute a really strongly held idea just because that trusted person doesn’t have the same vision as you. Just be honest with yourself enough to recognize when  you’re being stubborn and when you’re being driven.

Be forewarned, however; sometimes when you operate outside the box, people look at you funny, make not-so-nice comments about you and your actions, and maybe even tell you that you are crazy for doing what you are doing because, oh, I don’t know, you are not making any money at it; or, people won’t like it; or, you’re making people uncomfortable; or, you will never get anything out of it anyway; or, no one else cares but you; or, you are too old; or, you are too young; or, you are not being serious enough to really achieve anything… so what is the point?

Well that is just the thing and the most beautiful part of living outside the box, even if it’s just from time to time. Sometimes we do not immediately know the point when we venture outside our boxes. What is the point of doing as you feel? I don’t know, perhaps it is just because it makes you feel good, and what is the point not to do it? Sometimes a small spark of interest ends up turning into a passion and perhaps then into a new life or career. Or maybe your life becomes enriched with a lifelong love of a new author, subject, art, or activity. Or maybe you develop amazing new friendships that remain long after that particular dalliance outside the box is over. Or maybe your time out of the box is special just because it was time out of the box, and there really is no point besides that. You’re going to grow as a person regardless of the reason, the activity, or the point.

And besides that, there is nothing more stifling and frustrating than feeling boxed in, and that is because we are not honoring that part of ourselves that wants, that needs so desperately to get out. Last year I was feeling like I was in a box. A box of social and political correctness. The box grew more and more confining as the accepted conditions of my career held me back from engaging and being myself. So, after suffering as much as I could stand, I decided to leap outside that box of political correctness and even beyond my own normal social boundaries and resolve my situation in the only way my life has trained me to do. Was I right to do it or wrong? That is a matter of perception for others but for me there’s no question that I did the right thing?

So what this blog is really saying, I suppose, is that thinking or living outside the box is not about what others think and it’s not about what’s good or comfortable for everyone else. Living outside the box allows you to shed the layers of social acceptance and just be the person you need to be at the moment. Pablo Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist, the problem is staying an artist when you grow up.” Creativity comes from peeling away the things which quintessentially make us adults, and instead, looking at situations and life from pure naiveté. Living and thinking outside the box is just a cliché way of expressing that same thought. When we strip away those latticed layers of conformity, maturity, shame, rationality, power, ego, reciprocity, and emotional clutter, then we can harness those crumbs of ingenuity floating around in a sub-consciousness that is much less chaotic.

I’m stepping outside my box right now. When I express my inner thoughts about life, love, parenthood, or politics, I’m pushing my own self-imposed boundaries that characterized the first 50 years of my life. While I’m nowhere close to inventing an Alfred Hitchcock character like in the movie “Vertigo” nor could I possibly do justice to a character like Russell Crowe played in “A Beautiful Mind”, what I can do is articulate the things that keep my mind busy when put into a square room and asked to administrate black & white procedures all day. One little dalliance out of the box last year and now here I am carving out the next half of my life, only differently, more honestly, and more deliberately. Maybe the lyrics from “Carry on My Wayward Son” will never resonate beyond the confines of my Jeep but the lyrics of my life and my thoughts will resonate in words on some digital cloud somewhere forever and that is enough reward for me to keep writing, teaching, entertaining or whatever it is that I’m doing these days.

When is the last time you stepped outside of your box?