Idiocracy

I had this subtle thought a few weeks back and I admit that I cannot for the life of me recall what happened to put these thoughts in my head but the gist of it was that I took the notion that people are definitely getting increasingly ignorant in this country. Scientific analysis actually confirms this theory, by the way, even more so than I’m comfortable admitting. It reminds me of the 2006 film “Idiocracy” where human evolution and natural selection had taken a seriously wrong turn and began to favor traits that weren’t necessarily the strongest, fittest, smartest or noblest. Evolution began to reward those who procreated at the highest rates and left the intelligent to become an endangered species.

To give you some idea of what to prepare for when you rent this movie on Netflix, here is some representative dialogue from the character Doctor and the movies’ Narrator: Doctor: “Don’t worry, scrote. There are plenty of ‘tards out there living really kick-ass lives. My first wife was ‘tarded. She’s a pilot now.” Narrator: “Unaware of what year it was, Joe wandered the streets desperate for help. But the English language had deteriorated into a hybrid of hillbilly, valleygirl, inner-city slang and various grunts. Joe was able to understand them, but when he spoke in an ordinary voice he sounded pompous and faggy to them.”

Oh yeah, now I remember why I had these thoughts. My friend Tony was telling me that he’d read a recent study explaining how a large percentage of PhD’s are choosing not to have children. The same study points to the fact that women of high intelligence tend to have fewer children than women of lower intelligence. The conversation surrounding that study talked of the doom and gloom associated with that type of decision and how stupid people never seem to concern themselves with the logical considerations of having children they cannot afford to support, they just keep having more. Thus, the conversation evolved, sufficient inspiration is galvanized, voila é blog.

Then, when I began doing research for this particular blog I found out all kinds of things that made me wish I’d just wrote about ISIS or politics or anything less controversial. It seems that one of America’s foremost testing agencies, the Educational Testing Service, released a report about ten months ago that was quite shocking for me to read to say the least. It demonstrates that adult Americans, regardless of educational achievement are, as a group, less literate with respect to both words and numbers, and less capable of solving problems, than their counterparts throughout the industrialized world. Despite all efforts and the trillions of dollars we’re throwing at education, if anything, the problem of low achievement has worsened over time despite the fact that formal levels of educational attainment across the board have risen.

America has a higher emphasis on education than it ever has before, but Americans are, relatively speaking, clueless about the most basic knowledge needed to communicate effectively and make decisions in an increasingly complex market economy. Moreover, the millennials (those born after 1980) know less than their elders. To be a bit harsh, in America, we’re led to believe that the dumb just keep getting dumber. States, including Tennessee (my home State) are proposing dramatic changes to higher education including our own Drive to 55 program which plans to bolster the number of Tennesseans with college degrees and professional certificates but will these Euro-styled free educations work here when they’ve been disastrous in Europe?

I say that because in every European country that Emily and I have traveled where free two-year colleges are provided by the government, the locals there repeatedly say that those 2-year higher-Ed degrees essentially become more akin to high school diploma’s – the expected bottom level of achievement – while the value of undergraduate degrees become deeply eroded due to the systematic down-escalator of achievement requirements. Students worldwide are getting educated but are learning less. Higher education in America has mirrored the trend of general education…increasingly inefficient per dollars spent and progressively less effective. The lesson here, if the government gives it to you for free, it’s worth exactly what you’re paying for it.

Whatever is going on, it is having a profound effect on not only the intelligence level of the American population but also its ability to learn, process, reason, and think for itself. Are Americans really getting dumber? Statistics say yes. In 2011, the average American IQ was measured at 88.54. (Average intelligence is estimated to be 89-100.) This means that a large percentage of the American population is now considered below average intelligence! Also in 2011, a benchmark occurrence happened. For the first time in American history our children were less educated than their parents. In other words, as generational families have little by little strived to ensure their children enter and graduate college at higher rates than themselves – throughout the entire history of modern America – for the first time in 2011 the generation entering college shrunk from that of their parents.

Looking at this problem more specifically, among 24 developed countries in comparison, the U.S. millennials ranked surprisingly last in numeracy (along with Italy and Spain) as well as in “problem-solving in technology-rich environments”. The youngest examined, those 16 to 24 years of age, ranked dead last in mathematical ability (along with Italy). Even our “best and brightest” fared poorly. Looking specifically at numeracy, the scores of Americans aged 16-to-34 years ranked in the top 10 percentile of U.S. students taking the test, the score of 323 was statistically below the average of 334, and even more below that of such industrial competitors as neighboring Canada (336) , Japan (342), or Sweden (346).

Worse are those in the bottom 10th percentile. The U.S. numeracy scores for that group for those 16 to 34 were the freakin lowest in the world – no one else was even close. As a consequence, the gap between high and lower performers was far greater in the U.S than in the group of developed countries as a whole, and bigger than in any other nation. Borrowing again from the movie Idiocracy: Private Joe Bowers“…and there was a time in this country, a long time ago, when reading wasn’t just for fags and neither was writing. People wrote books and movies, movies that had stories so you cared whose ass it was and why it was farting, and I believe that time can come again!”

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So, is it because we have this growing inner-city elementary and secondary school problem in America that is systematically denying our countries underprivileged of a decent education? No not really. Our problem is way bigger than that. Our suburban, rural and privileged students in America are doing poorly too. The American phenomenon is definitely not a lack of formal schooling – we are above the average in that regard, even with respect to higher education. The problem is we impart less learning per year of schooling than almost all other major nations in the world and colleges are far from immune to these charges. To quote the report verbatim, “U.S. millennials with a four-year bachelor’s degree scored higher than their counterparts in only two countries: Poland and Spain. Our most educated – those with a master’s or research degree – scored higher than their peers only in Ireland, Poland, and Spain.”

So the problem is not simply bankrupt inner-city elementary and secondary schools, where the educational care of students borders on the criminally negligent. The problem also persists in our colleges and universities, where master’s level students with years of collegiate training are far poorer than their industrial world counterparts in such core knowledge as basic numeracy. It’s not just the Degree-Mart’s of the world where you can get online degrees served hot or cold, it’s our state colleges and our ivy-league universities alike. Our children are bringing home 100’s on tests and our young adults are graduating with honors, just like all the others before them, it’s just that the high grade of today’s education system is irrelevant to whether the student is actually learning the things they need to learn.

My grandfather may have done better in chemistry than I did but perhaps it’s easier to memorize a periodic table with 11 elements than it is one with 118. Maybe he was smarter in the ways of science and math but he also thought it was perfectly acceptable for black people to drink out of different public water fountains whereas I do not. My grandfather lived in an era when we believed that Gay men were these unicorn like humanoids who would come out of their cocoons for a few years, marry Liza Minnelli, then disappear. I’m being ignorant, of course, but I’m trying to point out that there are plenty of areas where I believe Millennials are far and away smarter than the people we’ve coined “The Greatest Generation”. Yes we’re becoming more tolerant and that is a wonderful thing but what important data is being pushed out our ears as all this emotional intelligence is being added to the top.

We have to ask ourselves why America is doing so poorly. It is definitely NOT lack of money. Our spending-per-pupil levels compare favorably at the K-12 levels, and we blow the world away in per-student higher education spending. In part, the answer relates to a growing disdain for learning facts, basic concepts, historical references, etc. It is reflected at the collegiate level in a decline in the relative importance of general education, and of core liberal-arts type learning. The “self-esteem” movement and the idea that we should not say anything “hurtful” to students is a further manifestation that education is increasingly viewed as less about learning and more about “feelings.” Everyone is a winner in my school – not to say that you guys are losers or anything.

We suffer as a country for much of the same reasons. The same political correct movement that teaches us that all children should win every game and that self-esteem is what we give children – not what they give themselves – has become so powerful that we can no longer point out potentially socially divisive situations for fear of being ostracized as being insensitive or an ogre, a bigot, racist, homophobe, or anti-Muslim/Christian/Semitic. We’d rather put our citizens at risk of being a target of terrorism than admit that some Muslims might be taking Quran 2:191-193 just a little too serious.

Does this sentence make my Fatwa look too Mufti? Our government, in fear of ostracizing anyone entering our country from an Arab State, creates a system of torture for law abiding citizens at our airports. Background checks on immigrants might make us seem bigoted so please just remove your shoes and underwear for the gloved inspector.

Some studies indicate that the I.Q.’s of Westerners have dropped 14 I.Q. points on average since the Victorian Era. Other studies say that our I.Q.’s scores are rising at a remarkable rate. Could it be that it’s just our genetic potential that is changing or perhaps that we’re being judged today on antiquated standards? I mean seriously, smarts cannot simply be defined as just one thing. What makes a person clever on the African Savannah could be nearly useless in the financial centers of New York City. It’s not just a matter of intelligence going up or down, different parts of intelligence could be changing in lots of different ways.

A 1912 8th grade test from the State of Kentucky indicates that 8th graders once could tell us “through which waters would a vessel pass in going from England through the Suez Canal to Manila?”, or, “How does the liver compare in size with other glands in the human body?”, or, spelling words such as pennyweight and bequeath. But, wouldn’t 8th graders from 1912 be equally stumped if we asked them to explain a DNA sequence or Supercolliders? We’ve come a very long way from barnacles and botany to nanotechnology and wormholes and who uses the word pennyweight anymore?

Our everyday vocabulary alone is full of neologisms, expressing ideas that we wouldn’t have even imagined a few years ago (i.e., Have you Googled it yet?)(i.e., I’m blogging about neologisms.) Although the standards are a moving target for sure, one thing that can be certain is that we very quickly lose abilities when we no longer need them. A great example of that fact is that my own ability to recall telephone numbers in the 80’s was astonishing. Now that I have a robot in my pocket that remembers thousands of numbers and faces, I no longer have the ability to remember phone numbers.

Comparatively, most of us have lost much of what would have been considered to be common knowledge in the 1920’s but I believe our 1920’s counterparts would be equally lost in today’s world. One would have hoped that we would carry over all that previous knowledge into each next generation only adding and building onto base knowledge as we evolve further. But that is apparently not possible. Perhaps our brains are only capable of carrying around just so much information. The Victorians lost what was common of the Baroque Era and they had lost much of the Renaissance standards and the Middle Ages saw mass exoduses of the intelligence from Roman times and so on and so forth.

Now, neuro-scientists refer to our brain’s Amygdala as the reptilian brain only because we know it to hold all of these deep instinctive and intuitional survival mechanisms that we’ve completely lost all first-hand knowledge about. I.Q. is always going to be relative to the society that we live within. Average I.Q. is always going to be 100 no matter how advanced or devolved we become. It is more a measure of “how” you know, not “what” you know – Megahertz not Megabytes. Said differently, a caveman could have had an I.Q. of 180 simply by being the only one who could start a fire. Fire is of course not considered to be an advanced science today but it once was the 3D printer of the Neolithic Revolution.

All that said, it appears we have dug ourselves into this deep dark education hole that we’re going to have to learn more about then teach ourselves how not to teach. One has to wonder about whether all of the most modern educational benchmarks set on teachers by which we’re supposed to be able to measure their effectiveness has spawned educational programming that is designed to disguise the failures of children and teachers.

An example might be that children are no longer required to learn cursive writing. Another example is that we now teach our children to memorize words without actually teaching them what those words actually mean, their derivatives in foundation languages (Greek, Latin, Germanic, etc.) or how the word can be used alternatively. It seems the common denominator among students using Common Core is remedial studies. In my opinion, Common Core creates nothing but commonness.

Another aspect of this so far unexplored is this growing trend of anti-intellectualism, anti-elite, anti-reason and anti-science that has been infused into the modern political and social fabric of America. The greater emphasis we put on acceptance of everything and the stronger we push ourselves away from traditionally conservative value systems the more we feel compelled to join this cult of ignorance nurtured by the false notion that real democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge – my poor conditions are equally as valuable to society as your high standards – my failure to take life seriously has significance that pars your diligence and responsibility to yourself and your community.

We get all caught up in the fight for equality, not realizing that the focus we place on one group shades out the light to other groups. We’ve never seemed to learn exactly how to be kind and respectful to all cultures, groups, ideologies, and religions all at the same time. Today we’re focused on the issue of gay marriage and of course that is an important issue, but, its way more important to gay couples than it is to non-gay couples. That doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t learn and grow as a human being during the discussion. We need to be able to learn, fix things, and then move on without denigrating another’s belief systems in the process.

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Similarly, the issues of race seem to be explosive right now. How on earth, when most white people have no concept of racial inequality, can we be having these kinds of problems in America? I’ll tell you what I believe…education. The collapse of our education system has become the new Jim Crow, incubators of criminal behavior by means of failure and lack of self-esteem. They’re becoming conveyor belts into the nation’s prison system. The stigma attached to felony drug convictions eliminates employment opportunities for those who take this path then we and they are stuck into a life of crime.

So, if you’re black, perhaps you have a different perception of how great things are for black people in 2015. White people are running as fast as they can away from any conversations about race or equality because they’re woefully unprepared and mostly in denial. We just point to affirmative action and ask “what’s the problem?” But, the problem is bigger than that. If things are bad for white kids in suburban schools, imagine how bad it is for black kids in inner-city schools. They’re not the ones using the affirmative action programs. It’s the upper middle class and above black kids that are trying to get into ivy-league schools who are using the affirmative action benefits. Sadly, if you’re reading my blog, I doubt your kids are attending an Ivy-league school so what does it matter?

I’ll admit a bit of cynicism here but doesn’t this breakdown of consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good thing actually put this generation in a position to trust least the people who best know what they are talking about? In this new media age, everybody is an expert. Just Google it. There seems to be this universal suspicion of rights, privileges, knowledge and specialization. We don’t seem to be as concerned with educating people anymore. We just train them to get jobs.

Our teachers are skimming through the most basic elements of curricula without focusing on the one thing that turns aptitude into intelligence, a students’ mastery over the basics, before moving on to the next topic. Public schools are the biggest bureaucratic budget item in every city or county. They have little accountability to the general public, and their marching orders come from State and National think-tank’s, not local and regional stakeholders.

History textbooks are badly written and so politically correct that they’re more like comic books than school books. Minor characters that are currently fashionable are given considerable attention while people of major consequence like Thomas Edison are given very little space at all. Pop culture icons and minorities have their sensibilities massaged into the new history which is taught in categories like Women’s History, African American History, Environmental History, etc., so that many students have no sense of chronology, no idea what followed what.

If generations graduate high school not knowing our past, do not know who we are or what we have done as a people, how will they know and love America, rebut her enemies or lead her confidently? We’re more likely to accept the excuse that Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program overemphasized math and reading so that’s why our children are failing in history. We buy this kind of nonsense when of 31,000 students tested by the National Assessment of Education Progress, most fourth-graders could not identify a picture of Abraham Lincoln or a reason why he was important.

High school seniors given an excerpt from the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education – “We conclude that in the field of public education, separate but equal has no place, separate education facilities are inherently unequal” then asked what social problem the court was seeking to correct, only 2 percent of high school seniors answered “segregation” when the answer was right in front of them. We can no longer isolate education from politics because we’ve allowed one political party to take ownership in all things education. But, the issues we’re seeing in public education are the fault of everyone and the responsibility of everyone. It’s too big to blame on a party. We have to be bigger than that. We must de-politicize education before we can fix it.

Schools have also become incredibly inefficient with tax dollars, riddled with group-think ideology, and are perpetually searching for ways to spend more without any accountability in terms of success versus cost. What other group could survive these kinds of epic failures yet continually convince the general public that if they just had less portables and higher wages then they’d be able to show us real success? It has become so politically incorrect to chastise the school system so that local politicians have learned to just leave them alone for fear of the whole group banning together to oust them from office. We can’t criticize schools or else we’re pinned as being radical and uninformed.

It is exactly this kind of power that has shielded our education system from all accountability. Like some great big anti-trust violation, school boards have taken the path of big corporate monopolies – starving out ideas and innovation in favor of the status-quo. If you take nothing else from this blog, know that that teachers are not the problem here. Our problems lie in a quagmire of bureaucratic dogma pushed downward from modern idealists desperate to dazzle us with new theories on education when 1912 techniques will do us just fine until we catch up with our Great Grandparents. I won’t even attempt to say why or how because I’m one of those Americans who might be missing his 14 I.Q. points.

Since I’m nowhere near informed or educated enough to offer any solution for all these issues, I’ve decided to let “Doctor” from the movie Idiocracy wrap this blog up as I’m certain he can articulate my fears much clearer than I ever could and potentially entertain you at the same time. Doctor: “…Well, don’t want to sound like a dick or nothin’, but, ah… it says on your chart that you’re fu**ed up. Ah, you talk like a fag, and your shit’s all retarded. What I’d do, is just like… like… you know, you know what I mean, like…? Ditto!

 

 

Traveling Ecuador

Lying in bed, in a state of anxiety over a lack of restful sleep, and realizing that I’m about to spend a second sweaty night in little more than a screened-in porch without air conditioning, I’m thinking – this is vacation? Sweltering humidity and intense sun-exposure has caused me to be a slightly less-fun-self, and a lot more damp than normal.

I begin to reflect on our day at Anaconda Island, the balsa wood raft ride through the white-capping Napo river, and the hairy saucer-sized Tarantula that attempted to take a swim in the pool with me just before dinner. The details of my health-coverage being sketchy, I’m thinking yeah, Ecuador is to die for – literally. If it weren’t for the wild pack of jungle chickens moving through the hacienda eating ticks every evening, I’d think this might all be a dream.

Of course I’m just kidding, although there are probably many ways to die in this place, 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 this hokey little 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. I say this because mostly, the Ecuador I’ve been traveling through has been immensely beautiful. Yet, I’m still here whining about two, out of fourteen, uncomfortably hot nights.

The temperatures throughout much of Ecuador are actually surprisingly perfect. I’d venture to say, mostly due to its high elevations. Unfortunately for you, you’ve royally screwed up and found the blog of a spoiled rotten and highly sarcastic traveler. Please forgive me.

Honestly, if bucket lists are something you often think about checking off, traversing through the Amazon jungle has to be somewhere on most 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 at least a few permanent scars from all of the bug bites so I end up with some great conversation starters for my unborn grandchildren. The jungle, while it can be quite dangerous, it can also be uniquely entertaining.

On one outing, a grey-winged trumpeter sort of maternally imprinted on Emily while touring a jungle animal rescue center. This was located deep in the jungle, seemingly unserved by public roads. The personable big-bird proceeded to follow her everywhere she went, in the way a puppy follows it’s new mother. It was kinda like having a great big chicken for a buddy. Emily especially liked having it around cuz she was told that they kill snakes.

Rita, our new friend from Hong Kong, was wearing some sort of bug patch she purchased back home in China. She never got a single bug bite. I, on the other hand, took a sponge-bath in a mosquito and tick repellent.

This was a repellent advertised to be so strong, the warning label warned against applying it directly to the skin. The resilient 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 vacation 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 be patient and try to humor my Southern redneck sarcasm, because there really are a few valuable lessons strewn all about this blog. The real trick is to find them, so sit back, nibble on some barbecue guinea pig, and I’ll do my best to educate. While you’re doing that, I’ll hang out in the pool until bedtime, to lower my core body temperature.

One of my very 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 vastness of the U.S. – in order to find magnificent “old towns” and walk along 2000 year old cobblestone streets built by Roman armies, among fantastic examples of 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 traveling between the destination places is through and among a continuity of spectacular landscapes and ecological masterpieces. What you find at the end are 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 all 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 of the same age. Another fantastic hacienda we stayed in was sitting atop a steep mountain in full view of an active snow-capped volcano. It 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 the utter simplicity of life that draws us in and says, without words, that these are hard-working and decent people with a unique story to tell, worth every moment of our allotted fourteen days to better discover and explore.

Regardless of whether you’re visiting tribal villages and sitting cross-leg in straw and bamboo homes on stilts or in a modern concrete structure 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. There’s never a dull moment. Except for the occasional road-side pee-pee bandito – which, it seems, is fairly common.

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; theres a city for roses, and another one for jeans. A town for leather products, a place to buy alpaca wool products. There’s a chocolate city, a tobacco town, a Panama hat (see explanation below) village, 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 report that when spoken by a local it has a romantic sounding cadence (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. These clotheslines are always dressed in the most intimate of feminine Ecuadorian couture – framed between every porch post and elaborate perimeter wall. The walls, yet another interesting feature, are embellished atop by shards of colorful broken glass and broken Dr. Pepper bottles.

Rainbow’s of cotton and alpaca fabric are 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 perpetual 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. Especially 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 the backroads of 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.

Perhaps an 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 top 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 – as well as 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, sensitive, and spoiled-rotten followers. You’ll never find a better person to spend 14 days without air conditioning. He also free-lances as a private guide, so if anyone is convinced that Ecuador might be perfect for their next adventure, his contact information is as follows: 59-398-007-5760.

Living With Authenticity

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t been writing as prolifically as I seemed to be doing a few months ago…there’s a good reason for that. I’ve actually been writing quite a lot, it’s just that I’ve been working on a bigger writing project and you don’t get to see its progress on a weekly basis. My blog has just a fun way for me to be expressive and sort of think-out-loud from time to time. It helping me to live a more authentic life and introduce my friends and family to a side of my personality that was rarely expressed before I started writing.

What exactly is living authentically you say? Well, it generally means that we bring our actions closer in line with our actual thoughts and beliefs…quite simply to be ourselves. Living authentically requires us to identify what makes us feel alive, real, and vibrant and then have the courage to live and operate in that space while battling any fears that would inhibit us from doing so. My blog forces those thoughts to the surface so that I’m held accountable by those who read and care about the things and ideas I’m expressing.

Writing, for me, is the conduit that carries my most inner thoughts from the grey recesses of my mind into full-technicolor. Writing helps me to live more authentically because it exposes what is normally shaded and adds light and clarity to the way I think and feel about different subjects when my normal outward persona is perhaps less expressive or conservative.

It all sounds very simple, in theory, but it’s actually rather difficult for some of us to be outwardly authentic or at least sustain such a lifestyle for very long. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out a way to pry open our souls. Not everyone enjoys writing such as I do…we all have to find our own methods of free expression that work for us. Whether it’s societal, professional or familial norms and pressures or just our own inner monologues messing with our heads; finding and expressing one’s authentic self can for some be a monumental struggle.

Rooster

My sister Lisa is an artist. She expresses herself through a median which is perhaps less immediately identifiable than if you were allowed to just read her words from a page but they are her voice nonetheless. The amount of love and admiration she has for a particular subject is easily detected in blended brushstrokes, expressive painted eyes or a sculpted brow. The details of her life are forever etched into the fabric of each canvas, one needs only to look carefully before recognizing a bit of her own personality in every work.

Lisa is a person who authentically loves. She has chosen a path in life that allows her to express her love of humanity in a way that will last well beyond her own life. In a way, she’s been very authentic and un-pretentious her whole life. She’s always colored outside the lines. Most of us, however, take ourselves way too serious to be authentic. It takes a little time and a lot of soul searching to really understand the benefits of exposing what we consider to be a vulnerable underbelly.

In some ways I guess the idea of living with authenticity has become quite the “in” thing to do, or at least to strive for, though some ultra-conservative folks may still find some of what people do to be authentic a bit “TMI” (Too Much Information). When I was growing up, you rarely saw people, especially people on television, living authentically. Morality moguls and the FCC had a responsibility to protect “normal” folks from the evils of the real world. So of course women were supposed to look like Cheryl Tiegs, men were supposed to be like John Wayne and kids were supposed to behave like “the Beaver” and the “Brady Bunch”.
Deviations from those examples would have been, let’s say, outside the norm even though our society has always consisted of people who marched to the beat of different drums. I often wonder how my grandparents might have reacted to some of the television programming common to our generation.

I had certainly never heard the term “living authentically” until a short while ago so it wasn’t really a conscious goal of mine to be more authentic. Instead, it was more like an unrealized necessity brewing within an oyster shell. There was this imperfect pearl inside me which needed to be heard and I needed an impetus, the right impetus, to release the genie from its bottle. I wasn’t like my sister Lisa who had been perfecting her authenticity from an early age, instead I was like two people; one public persona and one private persona. Unless you really knew me well, you never got to know my thoughts and feelings or sadistic humor. My wife even said that I was “unapproachable”.

I remember distinctly when I was attending the Police Instructor Development Course (circa 1993). A very close friend of mine was attending the course with me at the police academy and had been called up to the board to give his mock presentation. In the very beginning he, very authentically, announced…”Uh, I can’t spell for shit so forgive me if I misspell something.” After the class, I warned him that in the real world, he might have lost his audience – off the bat, by exposing such a weakness to the audience. “Teachers aren’t supposed to have weaknesses.” I advised him that in a real classroom, he should just pick someone from the class and ask them to assist him at the board in order to conceal that weakness. I laugh about that today because I was essentially advising him to not be himself while today writing a blog about being authentic.

Living authentically doesn’t always equate to winning friends or making ourselves or other people feel comfortable. When we grow older, our need to be more authentic sort of trumps our desire to placate the whims and egos’ of family and friends. Sometimes our own children may feel neglected or un-loved as our desire to be real unravels the confidence of those we once praised unconditionally. When children move on to adulthood, a parents expectations of them evolve thus a once doting parent may seem unimpressed which forces our loved ones to uncomfortably reevaluate themselves.

Is that a bad thing or a good thing? I don’t know but adult children must realize that they will never benefit from anything fake. They’ve been taught as children to believe they can do everything…now, it’s time to move on and amend that statement to, “You could have done anything, now, your choices are limited by the decisions you’ve made.” Regardless, as adults, we need to move on and accept that everyone else does too. Adulthood is different from childhood and we all need to be comfortable with our parents evolving too.

I think age and maturity, more than anything else, compels us to evaluate our lives and how we’ve lived them. We grow to care more about others but we care less about what those people think about us. We expect our friends and family to be mature enough to recognize that faults and flaws are the norm – not the exception. Writing about my ideas on life brings me closer to living an authentic life because my thoughts are exposed and unfiltered.

I’m a firm believer in the concept of “wherever you go, there you are,” but sometimes starting a new hobby, career, or relationship can give you the perspective you need to shed old labels and notions you have of yourself and gradually get to know the real you a whole lot better — and not the “you” the people around you have told you that you are for your entire life, or who you’re “supposed” to be or the “you” that a parent “wants” you to be or even the “you” that you believe you “should” be.

And that is a big part of finding your authentic self: releasing the past and living in the present. Being mindful of every moment and of those who surround you can better ground our souls while simultaneously allowing us to be open to new experiences as living authentically is a moving target. Mindfulness can also lead you to become more empathetic to the struggles of others as you accept not only yourself as you are but also others’ authentic selves as well.

Welcome To The Hotel California

Here in Tennessee we are busily preparing for Christmas now that Thanksgiving and all those enigmatic shopping days are behind us like Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Small Business Saturday. So, of course one can’t really be inundated with all of those marketing schemes and family-friendly euphemism’s without thinking about your own family.

For me – I must say that I’m very lucky to have the family I was fortunate to be born into. Not only the one’s my parents gifted me but also the one’s I’ve had some level of responsibility to create or adopt as my own. This would of course include my wonderful wife Emily and my eximious son Jon.

Enough of the bombastic family descriptions, you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with my chosen title “Hotel California” aren’t you? You guys and gals already know that I like to use creative titles on my blogs and of course why would today be any different. Well, last week I was driving to work in my Jeep and that famous Eagle’s song came over my radio, just as it often does, but instead of just enjoying the song and lyrics as I normally would, I was somehow taken to a place I’d never been before. The lyrics subconsciously enunciated a metaphor that I’d never before noticed.

Now wait just a minute, I know what you’re thinking and it’s not true. At least as far as I know anyway. With the best of anyone’s ability to recognize these things, I don’t think I’m losing my mind and I don’t think that I’m hearing voices. At least not any voices that my own brain waves are producing anyway. The voices I heard were those of Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh, Don Henley and Don Felder talking about an ominous sounding hotel in California.

The song was first released in 1976 when I would have been twelve years old, right about the time most kids really start identifying with whatever the popular music of that day happens to be. And I was no different.

I still love to hear those old songs which kind of take me back to the time when I used to lay in bed with my headphones on, cranking up the volume, and escape all of the stresses of being a twelve year old – you know, like what you’re going to eat when you get home from school – are there any coco puffs left – when will I have the necessary funds to purchase the latest AC/DC album…

Anyway, that song used to evoke an ominous feeling when I listened to it back then. The lyrics artfully play around with phrases like “Heaven and Hell”, “Her mind is Tiffany twisted”, “We are all just prisoners here of our own device”, “just can’t kill the beast”, and of course the last famous line, “You can check out anytime you like but you can never leave.” What do those words mean anyway? They’re not quite as weird as “someone left my cake out in the rain” but they’re not as easily dissectible as “you ain’t nuthin but a hound dog” either.

As I got older I always just thought of these lyrics as a way of describing drug addiction. It makes sense right? Play the song right now and think about drug addiction and tell me what you think. But, alas there is more.

There is always more. What some of you know is that my eldest sibling Cindy lives in California. When the song played last week, and because these are holiday times with family-friendly euphemism’s flying about like blue-arsed flies (creative idiom – √), I started to think of these lyrics as a metaphor for moving to California.

Cindy, my wonderful and lovely sister who used to beat me up when I was a kid…just kidding, actually did not want to move to California when her husband first landed the great job opportunity that led them there. Kicking and screaming, she reluctantly moved there as any supportive spouse would do but I never really thought they would stay there long.

Why? Because we all knew she’d hate it and because her husband is so damn smart that he’s always getting these amazing offers to move – and they always do. Not this time. Nope, they “saw the shimmering light” and “stopped for the night” and now that her husband has achieved everything that he and his family could ever have hoped for, they could “check-out anytime they like” but for some reason they “can never leave”.

Hotel California cartoon

Now, my sister Cindy “is just a prisoner there of her own device.” How many places on Earth could you possibly live that trap you like a drug addiction. You heard it just a minute ago, you know the song is a metaphor for drug addiction right? What about the beautiful State of Tennessee? We got trees and grass and pie for God’s sake. I once was told that they don’t have pie in California. Sounds a lot like hell to me.

This year I’m sending my sister a subscription to “Garden & Gun” magazine and maybe a homemade pecan pie. Perhaps that will shake things up in a palatable way. Anyway, I was just thinking about my awesome sister and thought I’d write about her. I didn’t mean to drag a bunch of innocent people into it, just wanted to do the girl some justice.

Just for the heck of it, listen to the song again. One more time. Now think about the lyrics in the context of a person being drawn to the shimmering lights of a place and being trapped there by its beauty. A place where the weather is almost always perfect. A place where they have shoes. A place with a total absence of mosquitoes (tradeoff for not having pie). A place where you can come and go at-will but never really want to leave. Now what do you think? It’s a different song isn’t it?

Now, whenever I hear that song, I won’t be reminded of my secret heroin addiction, I’ll only think about Cindy and how that someone in that Godforsaken hippie commune of a State has probably brainwashed her from ever coming home to beautiful Tennessee. Just kidding. Merry Christmas Cindy, the magazine subscription is on the way but I might have eaten the pecan pie.