The Power of Powerlessness

I have had a bad habit for most of my life… punching holes in walls or breaking things in anger.  Surprisingly, I don’t think I really have that much of a temper.  I am usually rather patient with people.  I haven’t been in a fight since I was a kid, and I can normally deal with most setbacks rather calmly, in my opinion…. as long as I still have some kind of control or power over the situation.

However, when I am powerless, and the situation is something that is deeply important to me, the frustration sometimes builds into a rage that, if I’m unable to calm myself, can occasionally erupt in a destructive manner.  Once, when trying to describe the feeling during these outbursts to a friend, I explained that it felt like I was like a caged animal with no hope of escape, a feeling of complete powerlessness.

It turns out that this description might be more true than I realized.  It is theorized that anger comes from our base “fight or flight” instinct that we share with almost all animals. 

The past couple of weeks, I found myself in a dark place mentally.  It came on rather suddenly, and there were a lot of factors involved.  It actually took me about a week or so to start to realize what some of those factors were.  There were a few different ones, but one I want to mention here is that feeling of powerlessness.

This was last week when I started to come to that realization, and part of the feeling was frustration with what I saw online and in the news: the conspiracy theories and protests against the stay-at-home orders and, what I felt, was a callous disregard for and outright hostility towards public servants who were trying to do their best in an almost impossible situation.  I became extremely agitated and angry at those people, and worse, I felt incredibly powerless.  I have no real platform, there is pretty much nothing I can do to reach these people and reason with them.  At one point, the futility of the situation boiled over and I threw my phone across the room. (The phone case was a wise investment…)

Not long after that moment, I came to another realization.  Many of those people are likely dealing with those same feelings of powerlessness.   One of the things that attracts people to conspiracy theories is that they offer the illusion of control in a chaotic world; and if you “broke” the secret code, you have an element of power now.  The feeling of anger and powerlessness at being told to stay home by politicians and having your normal life completely upended leads one to want to take back some of the control.  So you throw your AR-15 over your shoulder and force your way into the state capital as a demonstration of power.

However, just like my throwing my phone across the room, those actions do nothing to improve the situation, and instead just make things worse.

Ironically though, the same basic frustration with feeling powerless that led to my tantrum while reading about those conspiracy theories and armed demonstrations is likely the same frustration that lead those people to conspiracy theories and armed demonstrations in the first place.  When I realized that, it calmed me down and gave me a better perspective and understanding.

I was already thinking about doing a blog post on this, and linking it to the fact that May is Mental Health Month.  Then George Floyd was killed and the resulting protests and eventual riots occurred.

The feeling of powerlessness I feel when I lash out at inanimate objects or that the lock-down protesters feel is absolutely insignificant when compared to the level of powerlessness the black community feels in America.  The feeling that an entire society regards you and your kind as less important, as expendable.

I cannot even begin to imagine what it would be like to be black and face the culture and system that they face.  I’m not going to go into those details here, because that’s not the point of this post. This is about the powerful rage that comes out of feelings of powerlessness.

When I feel powerless and angry about the myriad of things in my life, I have nothing specific to direct my anger at so I hit walls.

When the lockdown protesters feel powerless and angry about the government responses to COVID-19, they direct their anger and rage at the government officials.

When an entire race of people have consistently had their power taken from them by a society throughout centuries of history, they are going to direct their anger and fury at that society as a whole.

Now to be clear, this is not to justify or condone any of these activities.  My punching walls is wrong and counterproductive.  Promoting conspiracy theories is wrong and counterproductive.  Armed demonstrations to intimidate lawmakers is wrong and counterproductive.  And rioting is wrong and counterproductive.  Those are simple facts.

It is easy to stand back and judge others for such actions, but that does little to help. We need to try to better understand each other and help each other so we can improve society and avoid the situations that eventually manifest in destructive actions.  Because these destructive actions come out of a basic feeling .… a frustrating sense of powerlessness.

Mental Health Side Note:

As I mentioned, this realization came out of a depressive state I’ve been in the past few weeks.  Recently, I started binge watching the Sopranos, as I hadn’t seen it before.  During one scene with a psychiatrist, there was a line that resonated well:

Depression is rage turned inward.

I found that extremely insightful.  It turns out there is some merit to that as well.  These feelings of rage and depression and powerlessness are all things that need to be addressed due to their impact on mental health.

May is mental health awareness month, and as I’ve written before, I’ve had my own struggles.  During this difficult time in our society, mental health issues are becoming even more pressing.  We need to find ways to cope and be willing to accept that such difficulties are normal.

It’s OK to have those feelings.  You just need to find constructive ways of dealing with them.  Including self-reflection, talking to people, therapy and medication if necessary, these are all OK.

Remember to help fight the stigma.

Mental Health Links:

https://www.mentalhealth.gov/

https://www.nami.org/Get-Involved/Awareness-Events/Mental-Health-Month

Planning a Trip Around the World – Part 2 – What to Bring

Here’s the second of my three anticipated posts on planning a trip around the world.  The first post was about the initial planning stages and the long-lead items you need to get ready.

These are the items that I think you should plan on bringing with you.  I spent the two months before my trip consistently ordering and returning things on Amazon, (as well including necessary items on my Christmas wish list)

Tech Items

Two Phones: One of the first items you’ll need to take care of is a phone with international service. Like the credit and ATM cards, I recommend having a spare phone in case your primary phone is lost or stolen.  In my case, I had a cheap dual SIM phone as my primary phone.  I had a KnowRoaming global sim card in one of the slots.  This was my regular and consistent phone number.  It would be the one I used when I was in a country for a short while, or when first arriving in a new country. This was the number I used for my WhatsApp account on that phone, and was therefore my regular contact info throughout my journey.  If I was in a country for a few weeks or more, I would usually get a local SIM card for the other slot.  Then I could use it to make calls if necessary, but more often it was more for data.  These rates would be much cheaper than KnowRoaming, but I would use the data for my WhatsApp with the KnowRoaming number.  In addition to this phone, I had my old US phone unlocked and had an additional KnowRoaming card in it.  This was for emergencies, which did happen, when I was pickpocketed in Bogota.  Having the spare phone made things much easier, especially since it happened the day before I was going to the coast for two weeks.

Currently, my primary phone is a Google Fi phone, which while there are some annoyances about the service, the cost and data plans are great, and it works in almost any country at almost the same cost as in the US.  After my world trip, when I went to Mexico, I had my Google Fi as my primary phone and the old dual-sim phone with the KnowRoaming card as my backup.

Important note: make sure you set up automatic cloud backup on your phone for pictures and video.  I started to set mine up one day and didn’t finish.  Then, when my phone was stolen, I lost many of the pictures from my first few months in Colombia as well as almost all of the pictures and video I had from my trip to Brazil for Carnival.

Hybrid Tablet/Laptop: For my trip I had a Microsoft Surface 3 (not the larger Pro model).  This was perfect.  It had enough power for me to do normal work with the type cover, was good for streaming movies, worked as an e-reader with the Kindle app., and it was small and light enough for me to bring on day trips occasionally. For long-term travel a regular tablet will likely be too small and not able to perform some tasks you need (especially if you’re trying to do any work) and a full laptop will likely be large and heavy when trying to travel.  A hybrid tablet/laptop is the Goldilocks.

Other tech items:

  • This Anker small power bank was great to have in my pocket when out on a day trip or out for the night in case my batter ran low. You don’t want to be out at 3 AM in a strange city with a dead phone.
  • I also brought a portable solar cell and a solar cell power bank. I used them a couple of times, mostly on long (>16 hour) bus rides where there was nowhere to plug in my phone.  So these types of items can be useful, but it really depends on your particular situation.  Now I would probably look at this combination instead.
  • This outlet adapter was extremely useful and light
  • Have two charging cables for your phone
  • Active noise cancelling ear buds. The over the ear variety are obviously much better but can be bulky.  Ear buds with noise cancelling technology do a good enough job on an airplane when you’re trying to watch a movie or listen to music or a podcast, and they take up much less space and weight.

Important apps:

  • Google translate (download any languages you might need in case you don’t have internet when you need it)
  • Google maps or maps.me so you can download local maps (again if you don’t have internet)
  • WhatsApp – the most common messaging app outside of the USA
  • FB/IG/SC – whatever social media you prefer
  • Party or social game apps – I’d often play games like “Heads Up” with fellow travelers on a bus

 

Non-tech Items

  • Hybrid backpack: A lot of travel blogs do not like hybrid backpacks (ones that can be used as rolling luggage) due to the added weight. I can not imagine my journey without this amazing hybrid backpack from Osprey.  Yes, a regular backpack of the same size would have been a little lighter and have a little more room.  However, I had done the standard backpack through Europe for a few weeks previously and it was such a pain to carry and get off and on.  Being able to just roll this behind me at the dozens of airports I travelled through and down city streets made life so much easier.   And similarly, a standard rolling suitcase would not have been feasible in certain situations.  Many hybrid backpacks are really just suitcases with some straps attached to them.  But the Osprey model I had was a true backpack with a supportive hip belt and solid construction.  It is a little expensive, but worth it.
  • Water filter – I actually had two filters, but I never used the LED UV one. Instead, this compact model was all I needed.
  • This collapsible water bottle can be a little bit of a pain to clean, and it can be punctured. But the fact that it can easily be folded and stored, as well as has a clip in its design made it a great asset.
  • This is one of those items that you likely won’t use but you’ll be glad if you have it: a thin sleeping bag liner for those times you find yourself in some bedding you’re just not too sure about
  • I forgot to bring my field glasses, and wish I had, especially when I was whale watching or on safari in Africa. A small pair would not have taken up much space and weight at all.
  • These detergent sheets are amazing. You can use them with regular laundry machines or if you have to do sink laundry.  Additionally, have some dryer sheets in a Ziploc bag.  They help to keep your bag from getting too funky.
  • A quick dry travel towel is also a great thing to have whether for the beach or when you’re staying in a hostel that doesn’t have towels available
  • Some other items that don’t need much explanation
    • Head lamp (better than just a regular flashlight)
    • Waterproof covers for your backpack
    • Thin rope or accessory cord (can be used for a variety of things)
    • Buckle strap wedding (multiple uses, even as a impromptu seatbelt if needed)
    • Travel first aid kit
    • Ear plugs
    • Day bag or smaller backpack
    • Travel duct tape
    • Travel sewing kit
    • Mesh laundry bag
    • Bandana(s)
    • Deck of card
    • Pens & notepad
    • Carabiners
    • Travel locks
    • Strap for your sunglasses
    • Your standard toiletries

Clothing

There are many theories on clothing.  Much of it depends on what you will be doing and how long you will be staying in an area.  In my case, since I was travelling to a variety of climates and doing a variety of activities, I needed to have a rather versatile wardrobe.  The key to this for me was layers.  This was my travel clothing list, it will obviously be different for your particular needs.  Also, function over fashion should be your priority here.

  • 5 each of underwear, socks, t-shirts. These were all travel material (merino wool, or bamboo, or synthetic) to help with quick and easy cleaning and also to avoid smelling bad if I had to repeat wear them a second time between laundry days
  • Convertible hiking/travel pants– Not very fashionable, but very useful.  Preferably a khaki color to avoid showing dirt
  • Swim shorts that can easily be used as regular walking around shorts
  • Light athletic shorts for sleeping, lounging, laundry day, etc
  • A second set of “nicer” travel pants (really only for going out or when the other pants are dirty.  Great if you can find wrinkle-free ones)
  • Button down travel shirt
  • A pullover or fleece
  • Base layers (long underwear) if you will be going to a colder climate. Tops and bottoms.  I had a thin layer and a thick layer.  They packed nicely, and then I even could double up when necessary.  The tops were also good enough to wear as regular shirts on occasion.
  • A compressible down jacket
  • A waterproof outer shell jacket (a parka is also a good added layer of protection)
  • Hat(s) – something for the sun and something for the cold
  • Thin base layer type gloves. (If you are in a truly winter environment, you can buy thicker gloves when you need them)
  • Trail shoes – I found these to be extremely versatile. They are light/athletic enough that I could use them for running.   They are sturdy enough for hiking.  They have are not obviously sporty, so you can wear them out.
  • Athletic sandals. While they are not stylish (shout out to Jen), athletic sandals like these Tevas are also versatile footwear.  They can be used as casual sandals; and are also good for light hikes and water activities like rafting.  Also, if you happen to ever be off the coast of Antarctica, you might happen to see a penguin using one as a surfboard after an unfortunate loss during a polar plunge….

 

That pretty much constitutes everything I carried with me.  I was able to get all of these items into my wheeled 45 Liter backpack and my 15 Liter day pack.  And (as long as weight wasn’t an issue) I would be able to carry them both on to flights.  I even had plenty of room to pick up mementos throughout the trip and carry them along the way.

My third installment will discuss some of what to expect during your journey, especially from a mental, physical, and emotional standpoint.

An Epidemic of Arrogance

Pride goes before disaster, and a haughty spirit before a fall. – Proverbs 16:18

Arrogance is habitual to the ignorant – Persian Proverb

The past few weeks have brought ever more into relief a concern I’ve had for a long while now: a general rise in arrogance among people.  I’m fortunate enough to have friends from different backgrounds and ideologies, so it is interesting to compare and contrast viewpoints.  An unfortunate common trait they all seem to share is an increasing air of superiority that seems to be even more on display via social media.

Something I hate to see on Facebook is when people share stories or articles that claim some advantage or benefit of liberal vs conservative; secular vs religious; urban vs rural; etc.  Some examples would be articles about how much better of a work ethic farm kids have or others about studies that show secular children are kinder than religious children.  I must point out that I am NOT discussing or advocating the validity of these or other similar stories.  To be fair, one is an obvious opinion piece and the study behind the other has been called into question.

Rather, what I want to point out is the underlying reason we share these types of stories.  Do you think that it is urban parents sharing the “work ethic in farm kids” stories to discuss how they can adapt their parenting to improve their children’s work ethic?  Are religious parents sharing the “secular kids are more generous” stories to ask themselves hard questions about what might be going wrong?

Of course not.

Farm parents are sharing the “better work ethic in farm kids” stories and secular parents are sharing the “more generosity in secular kids” stories.  And they are doing it for the exact same reason:

“We’re better than those other people and here’s the proof.”

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t have a sense of pride in yourself and your background.  I feel incredibly blessed to have grown up on a farm, and if I end up having children of my own, I want to pass along that experience.  I also feel both my personal and religious growth benefited by stepping away and taking a more secular view for a while.  However, while I love both of those aspects of my life, none of that makes me any better than anyone else.  I’m no better than someone that grew up in the city or someone that has always stayed with their childhood faith.   The only person I should worry about being better than is my past-self.

And my past-self was a prime example of arrogance.  Academically, I was the proverbial big fish in a small pond.  I thought I knew everything.  I promptly received a rude awakening upon arriving at college, and have continuously received those awakenings throughout my life.

I’ve been privileged to have met many incredibly talented and intelligent people over the years.  People that are true geniuses, without exaggeration.  And I’ve had my preconceived notions and self-importance humbled again and again.  The more I’ve learned, the less I know.

Last month, I read Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner.  What struck me, that we don’t learn in school, was how much George Washington failed in his early military career, long before the American Revolution.  A common theme in these early failures was a belief that he knew better than others with more experience and more perspective.  Luckily, he learned from those humbling experiences, and used them to his advantage during the Revolutionary War.

A couple of months ago, I wrote in a blog post that the wisdom of Socrates was not in his knowledge, but in his realization and acceptance of his ignorance.  I also mentioned the Dunning-Kruger effect, where people who often have little skill or knowledge in an area have an incredibly high level of confidence in that area.

Unfortunately, we are seeing so much of that effect now.  People are claiming to know more about subjects than actual experts.  The level of arrogance that entails is astounding.   Whatever your profession is, I assume that you are good at it and that you have dedicated many years and much of your life to it.  Now imagine someone comes along with no prior experience in your field and tells you that they have read up on it over the past few weeks and that you are wrong or corrupt.  What would you think of that person?

In a slightly flipped scenario, what about that typical mid-level manager or trainer that you might have had at some point in your life.  They know more than you did at the beginning, but it was obvious they didn’t know everything.  Yet they continued to lord their slight advantage in experience over you and act superior.  And you see them do it to other people.  What do you think of people like that?

This arrogance is all around us, and I freely admit that I fall into it myself on occasion.  No matter the subject area, we need to remember a little bit of humility.  Whether we are discussing a pandemic, or religion, or politics, or something at work, we need to operate under the assumption that we might be wrong.  Instead of actively seeking out information that confirms our preexisting views, we need to question our preexisting views and attempt to see what others see.

We should not try to prove ourselves right, we should try to move ourselves to what is right.

Planning a Trip Around the World – Part 1 – First Steps

I’ve been meaning to do this blog post for a year and a half now, and have finally gotten around to it.  With the world at a standstill right now, perhaps people are fantasizing about the day when they can travel once again.  Maybe you are thinking of taking an even bigger leap and taking an extended period of time to travel to different parts of the globe.

If you are considering such an adventure, this series of posts is meant to be an introduction and give some lessons I learned and that I wish I had known before I embarked upon my adventure.  It is by no means an all-inclusive guide.  It is simply some general ideas and tips.

Step 1: Start reading about trips around the world and similar long term travel. 

This is the learning and dreaming stage.  You’ll be taking this from abstract idea a bit closer to concrete reality.

The research can be in the form of books, articles, or online.  One book I read early in my thought process of this was By Men or By the Earth by Tyler Coulson.  It was about a young man who decided to walk across America.  I had come across a free electronic version of the book, and it was OK, but nothing special.  Yet it did help give me some insight into the emotional toll of such a journey.

About a year and a half before my trip as I began to get serious about it, I bought The Rough Guide to First Time Around the World.  This book was extremely helpful on a lot of the practical aspects of planning such a trip.

As I got closer to my journey, I found that www.nomadicmatt.com was a great resource.  The creator of the site, Matthew Kepnes, has been consistently travelling for about ten years.  It also has a much more inclusive guides and detailed articles on the subjects I just briefly touch upon here like finances and medical insurance among many others.

Maybe at some point, I’ll finally finish my own book on my journey, then you might be able to add that one to the list … you never know.  Or you can always go back and look at my past blog posts….

Step 2: Begin formulating some big picture ideas of your journey

This doesn’t have to be any detailed planning, just some slightly more specific idea of what you envision your specific journey being.

How long will you travel?  Will it be one long trip of a few months to a year or so?  Or will it be an open-ended lifestyle where you spend months on the road and then return home for a short while at a time?

What kind of a budget will you have on your trip?  Will you try to work as you go?  Will you work locally where you visit or will you be a digital nomad, working remotely or freelancing?

Will you not work at all and simply travel?  Or maybe you’ll study?  Or perhaps volunteer like I did?

It will likely be some mixture of all these possibilities that is unique to you.

Step 3:  Start looking for specific opportunities that fit into your idea and begin making arrangements

For me, this was the stage where I found the YMCA Prints of Hope program in Colombia (now called YMCA COLead3rs).  I knew I wanted something where I could work and earn a little bit of money, and I was in the process of my nonprofit management program through UCLA-Extension, so I wanted to work in the nonprofit sector. This program was the original building block for my trip.

From there, there were certain aspects of the journey that I also wanted to include.  I wanted to hit all seven continents; I wanted to do an ocean crossing on a sail boat; I wanted to volunteer in a variety of sectors; I wanted to take some unique classes, like Kung Fu at the Shaolin Temple in China.  These general ideas helped me to begin to formulate some ideas and plans regarding my plan of travel.

However, it is important not to over plan and have a tight and rigid schedule.  Because things will go wrong and change.  So being flexible is critical.  You might misread the visa requirements for your connecting flights through Venezuela, and be stuck in an airport trying to rearrange flights at the last minute.  (cough)  Or realize that your passport if filling up and you have to get a new one and then need to extend your stay in a country while it is getting processed (cough, cough).

As you travel, you’ll also learn about new activities that you want to try.  Or you’ll learn that as you plan your travels, you’ll be in a location around the time as a big festival, so you’ll want to arrange your travel to hit that.  Maybe you’ll already be in Europe in the fall, so why not hit Oktoberfest or something.  In my case, I realized my travels would have me in Asia in the January and February timeframe, so I arranged my travel so I would be in China for Chinese New Year and in India for Holi a few weeks later.

Here are some programs that can help you find different work and volunteer programs.  Going through a professional program can help with paperwork and visas, while going through a matching program like Workaway is cheaper.

International Exchange of North America

Workaway

International Volunteer HQ

BUNAC

GoAbroad

Step 3: Classes and Workshops for Needed Skills

This is something I really didn’t do, but I wish I had.  This might be done far in advance, or just in the last few weeks before you leave (or even during the course of your trip).  However, depending on the type of trip you want to take and what you want to do, it might be beneficial to start taking some classes or attending some workshops well in advance.

For example, if you are going to be spending a significant amount of time somewhere that speaks a language you aren’t fluent in, it would be good to at least take a beginner’s course.  In my case, the majority of my time was spent in South America.  Luckily, I’d already studied Spanish, but in the last few weeks before I left, I was watching Spanish-speaking shows, listening to music, and going thru Duolingo.

I wish I had done an introductory photography workshop prior to leaving.  I didn’t think at all about photography until my trip to Antarctica, halfway through my journey, when there were a couple of workshops on the ship.  That opened up my eyes, and I think there is a definite improvement in my photos and videos after that trip.  A simple one day workshop before I started my journey would have likely meant far better pictures and videos from my time in South America.

If you are considering blogging or travel writing or trying to get followers on Instagram, you really need to do some research and look into the details.  I had it in the back of my mind that I might try blogging for a wider audience, other than family & friends. But after meeting people during my trip that actually did do that kind of thing, I realized how involved it really is.  So if you’re considering it, make sure you do the front-end work and prepare yourself.

It also would be a good idea to look into a basic self-defense or personal safety class, especially if you can find one geared towards travelers.  If nothing else, at least research some tips and tactics online (which is what I did).  This is one of those skills you hope you never have to use, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

How early or late you do these classes and workshops will vary based on your specific needs and your starting point.  And some of them can wait until the trip itself.  I wanted to learn to SCUBA dive, but I decided it would be pretty awesome for my first time to be on the Great Barrier Reef.  Which it was!

Step 4: Begin making work and financial arrangements

Eventually you will need to figure out what you will do regarding work, assuming you already have a job.  Will you take a leave of absence or sabbatical?  Will you be able to work remote?  Or will you just quit?  (I quit mainly because they would only give me a three month leave of absence and I kind of wanted to be open-ended.)  However, I also delayed my trip by six months because I knew I had a promotion and raise coming soon, and I wanted to take advantage of that for both financial and career reasons.

Financially, there are a lot of arrangements that should be made well in advance.  I started about 2-3 months before I left, but I should have done so long before that.

One recommendation I would make is to get a travel credit card as soon as possible, if you don’t have one already.  I got the Chase Sapphire Reserve card and the bonus points for signing up as well as the general rewards points were an incredible help on my trip.  My flights from South America to Australia (with a layover in New Zealand), and then from Australia to Greece (with a layover in Dubai) were all paid for with those reward points.  Additionally, a card like that will also cover Global Entry and TSA Pre-Check, so if you’ll be coming in and out of the USA, that is a great perk to have.  An even better perk was the Priority Pass lounge access.  This gets you into thousands of airport lounges around the globe.  Over my year and a half of travel, the amount of food, drinks, and WIFI I received in these lounges likely covered the annual fee of the credit card.

Other rewards programs (like hotel and airlines) are something else to get set-up.  I parlayed my Marriott points into occasional “luxury” nights during layovers.  So look for ways to take advantage of travel programs. When considering travel credit cards and travel rewards programs, The Points Guy is a valuable resource.

Another financial consideration will be to open a checking account with an ATM card that has no foreign transaction fees and no ATM fees at all.  I use the Schwab Investor Checking Account.  Trust me, it is such a relaxing feeling when you don’t have to worry about insane fees.

One related financial/legal consideration that I did, and am extremely glad I did since I knew I wanted to be out of the country exclusively, was working out an arrangement with my dad to grant him Power of Attorney.  This is something that I don’t remember reading in any guide, and I don’t remember how exactly how we came up with the idea to do it, but assuming you have someone you trust almost completely, I think it is a wise decision.  If something bad would have happened to me, it would have granted my father more power in dealing with authorities and with my personal affairs than he would have simply as a parent.  He would have been able to file my taxes for me if I wasn’t able to.  The one aspect where we did utilize it was when I needed him to complete a significant financial transaction for me while I was in Peruvian village, with no way to submit legal paperwork.

As part of this deal, we also set-up a joint checking account.  This way, we could easily transfer money in and out of that account, and to each other without dealing with wire transfers and the like.

(Along with the power of attorney, if you want to be truly prepared, even if you don’t want to think about this, a last will and similar planning would be smart as well.)

A final note on the aspect of financial items, it is also critical to have spare cards and accounts to be safe.  This was one where I was extremely glad to have done this.  I was pick-pocketed in Bogota the day before I was supposed to go on a trip to the coast.  It was going to take a few days to get the replacements.  But luckily, I had spare cards.  So other than putting me in a bad mood for a couple of days, it didn’t really affect my trip to the coast.

Step 5: Other long-lead logistical items

Aside from work and finances, there are some other tasks you need to take care of long before your trip.

Get the 52-page passport.  Regular passports are 28 pages, and you can no longer order extra pages after the fact.  This oversight led to me not being able to go to Victoria Falls, and instead had to scramble to find a new project to stay in Kenya for four weeks instead of the originally planned two.

Similarly, make sure you check on any visa requirements for countries you want to visit.  The timing of these can be tricky.  Some visas you can only apply for in a certain window before your trip.  Other visas can only be applied for in your home country.  These can cause bureaucratic headaches, so you want to have a handle on this in advance.

Vaccinations are critical.  Some vaccinations are spread out over a period of months and if you don’t start early enough, you might end up trying to find your second Hepatitis booster in a country that doesn’t have it (cough). That being said, it can be cheaper to do some vaccinations in other countries.  I got my yellow fever and rabies vaccinations done in Colombia because they were significantly cheaper than doing them in the USA.

Similarly, medical insurance is another critical need.  There are many options for global health insurance for travelers and many resources to find out information.  A couple of important points though.  First, your credit card might have travel insurance, and it might cover some very specific medical expenses, but it is not the same as regular medical insurance.  Secondly, these travel medical plans are not as comprehensive as your standard medical insurance, with a large list of exemptions.  These are mostly geared to cover you for sudden sickness and/or accidents, not regular medical care.  Although the plan I had through IMG Global did include some preventative care, such as a routine physical, AFTER I had been covered for a full year.  But they only covered some of my tests.  So you need to be careful and read the fine print of these plans.  The process of getting insurance may take a while, as you might need to get approval and give them medical records.  Therefore, get started on this rather far in advance.

Next in Part 2: What to Bring

In the second part of this “guide”, I’ll go through a packing list.  This will be as your trip is getting closer, within the next couple of months, and you need to start gathering your gear for your adventure.

People May Be Dumb, but They’re Also Basically Good

With all of us on edge and frustrated about the coronavirus situation, I think it would be a good time for me to share one of the fundamental lessons I’ve learned throughout my life, and especially in my journey around the world.

People are basically good, and generally want to do the right thing. 

However, there are two major barriers for most people that can negate our good intentions: self-interest and ignorance (or incompetence). Maybe we want to give more to charity, but we also want to buy something we’ve had our eye on for a while.  Or perhaps we tried to help someone, but we ended up making it worse because we didn’t really know what we were doing.

These failings are OK. They are a part of being human.  But the important thing to remember is that other people are human as well. They have their own weak spots and failings just like I have my own and you have your own.  They usually don’t mean to hurt someone, it is just that they weren’t aware or were so interested in their own circumstances, that they didn’t consider how it might affect others.

(This doesn’t mean that there never is evil intent.  I am just saying that it isn’t common.  Often times, even when evil acts are done, it is because people have been manipulated into thinking that they are good.)

I want to introduce you to two “razors”.  Hanlon’s Razor and Occam’s Razor.  A philosophical razor is an argument that allows you to cut away unlikely explanations.  They aren’t absolute by any means, but they are based more on generally accepted likelihood.

Hanlon’s Razor is not to assume something is based on malice when it can easily be explained by ignorance or incompetence.  For example, do you really think your spouse was purposely trying to upset you when they didn’t do something you asked?  Or is it more likely that they just forgot, or did it wrong?

Hanlon’s Razor is based on Occam’s Razor, which (overly-simplified) stipulates that when comparing possible explanations, the simplest explanation is more likely.  Now, admittedly Occam’s Razor has major weaknesses, especially in scientific fields, when things can be counter-intuitive and more complex than they appear.  But when discussing regular normal cause-and-effect situations and human interaction, it holds more weight.  An example is would the average person rather just go and turn off a light switch, or would they build an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine to accomplish the task?  Or something I often joke about: Did I simply trip over my own giant clown feet or did the earth suddenly shift and the sidewalk jump up and trip me? Theoretically, the latter is possible, but it’s unlikely.

The reason I bring these concepts up is the recent protests against the restrictive measures to limit the spread of coronavirus.  It is important for all of us to remember, on all sides, whatever your position may be, that in general, the vast majority of people have good intentions during this time.  That doesn’t mean they are correct, but the reasons for their failings are mostly likely simple human fallibility rather than nefarious intent.

Our government leaders and public health officials are generally trying their best to face an unprecedented health crisis.  We need to keep the impossibility of their task in mind if and when we criticize them, and not suspect that they have dishonorable intentions.  Yes, perhaps they might go too far, and perhaps they should be more flexible depending on specific localities. Maybe they should put more consideration into the economic impact of their edicts. These are all legitimate concerns that can be shared, but in a responsible manner.  Which means, (1) complaints and protest actions should still be done while following guidelines to prevent spread of infection and (2) respectfully assuming good intentions rather than some kind of a power-grab.  (I’ll talk more about this second one later.)

Meanwhile, we have to also assume that those protesting are doing so out of genuine frustration and economic uncertainty.  Yes there are legitimate criticisms about their methods of protest and many of their sources of information, but again that goes to the point of assuming fallibility rather than questioning their motivation.  Instead of dismissing them their concerns and mocking them, these people need to be heard and responded to in a considerate and respectful manner. Otherwise, it just adds to the divisive nature of current society.

Now, having discussed Hanlon’s razor and assuming good intentions, I want to switch to Occam’s Razor. I would be remiss not to call out an irrational criticism in our specific situation: that these strict measures are encroachments of an authoritarian government. As Occam’s Razor would argue, the simpler solution that public health and government officials are being overly strict out of an overabundance of caution to contain the virus is much more likely than a coordinated effort by the elites across multiple local, state, and federal organizations of differing partisan leanings all for the goal of controlling the masses.

I could go into an extremely long post about this, but I want to keep this somewhat brief. I encourage you to do more reading into the concepts I’ll bring up for more detail.

  • The beauty of the federal system that the Framers set up was that it would be extremely difficult for an authoritarian regime to take complete control of all the different levels of government; not necessarily impossible, but extremely difficult.
  • The fact that these governments are run by Republicans and Democrats across the spectrum add to the unlikeliness that this is some coup attempt.
  • Most of these actions are on the recommendations of public health professionals. And these are individual experts at the local, state, and federal levels. The nice thing about the hard sciences (like medicine) as opposed to politics, or economics, or media punditry, is that there is objectivity. In STEM fields like medicine, you can’t bullshit your way to the top.  You generally can’t spin and deflect blame.  So the idea that somehow thousands of public health professionals got to the position they are in while harboring intent for eventual domination of the citizenry is simply ludicrous.  (Again, you can legitimately state that they are singularly focused on the medical/healthcare aspect and ignoring the economic impact, but that gets back to human fallibility as opposed to malicious intent.)

Those are my main points based on Occam’s Razor and the complexity of this all being an authoritative encroachment in the USA.  However, we should discuss the actual risks of authoritarianism.  If you are truly concerned about this, you should do some research.

First of all, this crisis can be and is being used by some regimes to increase control.  For example, look at what is happening in Hungary where Viktor Orban has been granted power to indefinitely rule by decree during the pandemic, adding to the powers he has gathered over the past decade.

In the modern USA, authoritarianism is extremely difficult, if not impossible, at the local and state levels.  Even in the days of Boss Tweed and Huey Long, it wasn’t so much about controlling the day-to-day lives of the masses as it was controlling the political and economic machinery of their state through corruption.

Which gets to the fundamental point about authoritarianism. I highly encourage you to actually research authoritarianism throughout history, not via political pundits, but actual researched history, especially modern history.  (I highly recommend How Democracies Die). Using the media and elites to completely control the media happens AFTER a totalitarian regime already has almost complete control.

When first attempting to gain control of a population and in the initial stages of power, aspiring authoritarians operate the OPPOSITE way. They actively appeal to the support of the masses against the elites (the independent media, the academics, the professionals.)  That way instead of turning to the “knowledge gatekeepers” who usually got to that position out of a pursuit for the knowledge and love for the field itself, the people instead turn to the regime and allow it to be the “knowledge gatekeeper” where the regime wants that position solely for the pursuit of power.

Again, look at what has happened throughout history. Once the Nazi’s came to power in Germany, many of the top academics and scientists fled (which actually helped us win WWII).  During Stalin’s Great Purge, academics and journalists were sent to gulags.  China’s Cultural Revolution closed schools and  later sent students to live and work on farms in rural villages. In the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution, much of the professional class fled to the USA.  In the Khmer Rouge, they murdered people that wore eyeglasses because they seemed intellectual.

In the how to guide for the power hungry, Machiavelli’s The Prince, he often discusses that having the support of the people is more critical than the support of the nobles.  The elite and nobles are a threat to the regime’s power while the people’s support helps to keep power.

So the idea that a bunch of local and state leaders are allying with the academic elite of public health officials to force draconian measures on the regular populace in a bid to gain more power is a little hard to swallow for anyone that has studied history and politics.

However, never say never. I guess anything is possible, and perhaps it all is an elaborate coup attempt.  However, if it is, it seems like the most elaborate, ineffective, historically-ignorant, and counter-productive coup attempt in the history of the world.

Matt’s Essential Reading List #6

It has been a long delay since my last post of recommended books, but here are the next five books on my eventual list of 50 essential books everyone should read.

With the current time we are now spending at home, maybe you have begun reading some more.  Or at least maybe you would like to start reading some more.  I think all of the books on this list might be good ones to read during this time.

A reminder of my guiding criteria:

  • Prestige of the author and/or book
  • Readability/Approachability
  • Subject Matter
  • Quality
  • Perspective

I also try to select the books from different categories: Self-Improvement/Philosophical; Fiction; Biography/Memoir; Academic/Expository/Analysis; and an Open category for extras

Another reminder: a * denotes that the book is also on Amazon’s “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime”


*Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transform the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead” by Brené BrownDaring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by [Brené Brown]

Self-Improvement /Philosophical

In my first list, I mentioned that if I could only recommend one book to people it would be Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl would almost definitely be the one.  However, this book is a close second, and it might actually be number one specifically for teachers and parents.

In fact, with this unprecedented, sudden, and stressful move towards remote and home learning, this might be a good book to read as you deal with some of the challenges that you and your children and students might be facing.

Brené Brown has a TED talk that is one of the most viewed ever.  This talk is a great introduction into what she writes about in Daring Greatly.  The general idea is simply to live life fully by willing to take risks and put yourself on the line.  The title is inspired by Teddy Roosevelt’s famous “Man in the Arena” quote from his Citizenship in a Republic speech.  This should also give you an idea of the theme of the book.


The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein 

Fiction

The film adaptation came out last summer, and while I haven’t seen it myself, I’ve heard that, unsurprisingly, it doesn’t come close to living up to the source material.

This is one of the few books that I literally could not put down.  I started reading it in bed one night and did not stop until finishing it at around 3 or 4 AM.  It was that good.

The story is told through the eyes of Enzo, the faithful dog to Denny a race-car driver just starting out, through an eventful life.  He discusses human life with a philosopher’s bend, hoping that in his next life, he just might become human himself.

And yes, this book will make you cry (my eyes are tearing up just thinking about it… damnit).


Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson   – Open 

Really this could be any one of the collections.  If you were a child of the 80s/90s, you better agree that this was the greatest comic strip ever, otherwise, we simply can’t be friends.  That may be harsh, but I just don’t think it would be safe to trust you.  You might not even be human; and in fact, you are probably really some Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goon!

Appropriately named after philosophers, Calvin & Hobbes provide the greatest imaginable philosophical commentary on childhood and life itself. Genius is too simple a word to describe the comic that gave this wonderfully cynical observation:

“Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us.”

Spend this time at home rediscovering the magic of Calvin & Hobbes; and introduce the next generation to this classic if it hasn’t happened yet.

Special Note: If you have Amazon Prime: you can download the Essential Calvin and Hobbes Collection for free onto a tablet.


Freakonomics by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt

Academic/Expository/Analysis 

This is one of those books that is truly eye-opening.  If for no other reason than the fact that after you read it, you think about common knowledge and situations in a completely different manner.  If you truly try to internalize the lessons from Freakonomics, or its sequel SuperFreakonomics, or the podcast that the authors started, you find yourself looking much deeper at social and scientific phenomena.


*Out of Africa by Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen)

Biography/Memoir Out of Africa by [Isak Dinesen]

This is a memoir by an upper-class European women about her time running a farm in colonial Kenya in the early part of the 20th century.  It also inspired an Oscar-winning movie of the same name.  Since this book was already on the Amazon list that I’m trying to make my way through, I already was planning on reading it, and I decided there was not better time than while I was in Kenya myself.

Blixen describes the beauty of Kenya far better than I ever could and serves as an inspiration to those that dream about seeing the vast African savanna.  She does a great job (considering the time that she lived in and wrote) of describing two of the local cultures she dealt with near her farm, the Kikuyu and the Masai.

The book reads like a wistful love letter to Africa and the experiences that Blixen had in her two decades there.  This is a book for those who are romantic, not necessarily in terms of relationships, but romantic about life and the world in general.

Perhaps this book will spark your spirit of adventure and wanderlust so you can start thinking about an exotic trip once we can begin travelling again!

Simple 4-Week Project While at Home

I was already wanting to do this post, but I was trying to figure out a good time.  And now that people are staying at home and all the news is focused on coronavirus, this seems like the perfect time.  I think, in this hyper-partisan environment, it would be beneficial for people to take a break from the news, especially the editorials, that reinforce our preconceptions and instead focus on some personal growth.

This is based on one of my favorite projects I would assign when I was teaching high school government.  Students had to research and defend both sides of a controversial issue.  They had to write a persuasive paper on one side of the issue and then do a presentation arguing the other side. The idea was to challenge their preconceived notions and learn more about opposing viewpoints

Using that as a baseline, I came up with this four-week project to foster some personal growth and, hopefully, better understanding of people with differing opinions.

I will readily admit that this might come off as condescending, and I apologize if so.  But I hope you’ll at least give me the benefit of the doubt in that I mean well and am trying to foster mutual understanding and a more productive level of discourse as opposed to the typical partisan bickering. With that being said, here’s my relatively simple project that you can do over the next few weeks.

Week 1:

Avoid most of the news.  Obviously, you should pay attention to critical information like announcements from your local health officials and the like.  But you can take a break from national and international news for some time.  More than likely, those items will be outside your sphere of influence and will serve little practical purpose for you in immediate future.  (This is just t a short break, I’m not saying to tune out for ever.)  And more importantly, absolutely avoid all opinion pieces and pundits.  Whatever your political leanings, avoid them all: Hannity, Maddow, Sharpton, Limbaugh, turn them all off.  Their main objective is not to inform you but to rile you up, which is the exact opposite of what you need to be a rational citizen.

Instead of that noise, read about or watch documentaries on something you are interested in.  It doesn’t really matter what as long as there is an intellectual curiosity.  IMPORTANT NOTE: Intellectual curiosity and morbid voyeurism are completely separate things.  Find something that will stimulate your mind, not something that just appeals to your base senses. To be crystal clear on this, even if it is a “documentary series” – I AM NOT TALKING ABOUT THAT DAMN “TIGER KING” GARBAGE!  Watch a real documentary on actual tigers instead.  Whatever your interests may be, watch or read something that can help you LEARN more about it.  Ideally, you’ll find a few books or articles or shows or films that will help ignite some sparks of intellectual curiosity.

There is a reason I specifically mention “intellectual curiosity” a couple of times.  A study found that curiosity fosters understanding and a willingness to accept new information far more than pure knowledge. We need to foster this curiosity in order to have progress.

Week 2:

This next part will be the first of two big steps, depending on your level of curiosity.  Beyond your personal topics of interest that you’ve been learning about, I am going to ask you to learn about something a bit more specific.  Start to read about or watch videos/lessons on basic psychology, or philosophy, or metacognition, or something similar.  Basically, try to learn a bit about how we think and what we hold to be important in our thought and decision-making processes.

The only truly specific aspect of this subject you need to study as a part of this is on logic and reasoning.  Learn what constitutes a logically sound position and, on the flip side, the variety of logical fallacies that people may fall into.

I’m not asking you to read the original writings of Plato, or Freud, or anything like that.  Just read some Wikipedia articles or something to introduce yourself to a bit of it.

I realize you might not be interested in these subjects.  However, if you are willing to spout your own opinions on a political issue and dismiss the opinions of others, you should also be willing to learn a bit about why people may think the way they do.  Including yourself….

Week 3:

… which leads me to the third step of this project, and what may be the most difficult for many.

Truly question yourself.  Why do you think what you think?  Why do you believe what you believe?  How can you be sure you are right?

I realize in the constant stimulation of the modern world, it might be difficult to do, especially if you have a family, but try and find some quiet time for reflection.  Maybe on a walk, or just sitting in a quiet place.  Maybe even just a few extra minutes in the shower.  Perhaps something you read or saw regarding some philosophical concept or a hypothetical ethical dilemma that was posed pushes you to do some deeper thinking than you have done in a long while.

But the fundamental purpose of this week is to question almost everything you have taken for granted to be true.

Week 4:

This is the final stage.  Ideally, you should already be mentally prepared from the previous two weeks.

It is basically the assignment I gave to my students.  Pick a controversial issue that you have a long-held strong belief about.  Now spend this week trying to make the best good-faith defense of the opposing viewpoint you can.  Pretend you are on a debate team or something similar, where you must promote and defend that opposing viewpoint.  You need to convince people to agree with that opposing viewpoint.

Make the absolute strongest argument you can for that opposing viewpoint, even if you don’t necessarily agree with it.  This is known as the “steel man” approach, as opposed to the “straw man” logical fallacy that is so often used.  I often told my students at the end of the assignment, if nothing else, they should at least have become better prepared to defend their own original position, as this is the point of steel man preparation.

However, the more important objective was for students to gain a better understanding of people that have differing viewpoints.  The vast majority of the time, the differing viewpoints have just as much validity as your own.  We need to avoid taking the easy and cowardly approach of simply demonizing those that have differing opinions.

At the end of this four weeks, it is my hope that you will have learned a little more about yourself and have become a little more attuned to people of different perspectives.  Ideally, this would lead you to be able to have constructive dialogue with such people rather than self-destructive demonization.  Because now more than ever, instead of blaming each other for problems, we need to come together and fix them.

An Appeal for Moderation

How are your New Year’s Resolutions going?  Statistics would suggest not well.  One of the main reasons these resolutions fail is because we make grand and vague resolutions, rather than small, realistic, incremental improvements that are more likely to succeed. 

So, if it is almost impossible for us as INDIVIDUALS to improve OURSELVES with drastic and radical change, why do so many people think that we would be able to successfully improve a country of 300 million different individuals with drastic and radical change?

As Super Tuesday is days away and the Illinois primary a couple weeks later, I’ve been drafting some different political posts.  I may post some of them later… we’ll see.  But I figure this would be a good one to start, as I don’t think it’s overly controversial; and I believe it’s also somewhat timely with the upcoming primaries.

A while back, during one of the many examples of hyper-partisanship, I asked that during the next primary season, people please vote for the candidates that seek consensus and unity, rather than those that demonize the other side and bring a war-like approach to politics.  Well, that time is now, and unfortunately, it seems that both sides, in primaries up and down the ticket, are competing to see who hates the other side more.

As I mentioned in one of those posts, about 30% of the country is Republican, about 30% are Democrats, and about 40% are Independents; which means that whatever your beliefs, THE MAJORITY OF THE COUNTRY DOES NOT AGREE WITH YOU.  Unfortunately, instead of accepting this reality and seeking to build consensus and compromise as the Founding Fathers intended, we have allowed the extremes of political parties to try and instill a tyranny of the minority upon the remainder of the country.

One can be principled and be respectful to opposing viewpoints at the same time.  It really isn’t that difficult. All it takes is acting in good faith and being willing to listen.   For example, I am a life-long Republican with conservative principles, but I don’t think Democrats are Un-American.  Meanwhile, I am also a “Never-Trump” Republican, but I don’t think his supporters are racists bigots.  In both cases, I understand that those with opposite viewpoints than mine are generally and fundamentally good people whose life experiences have simply led them to different conclusions than me.

We need to reject those voices that appeal to emotions such as anger and fear to drive division.  It is an unfortunate but fundamental part of our wiring that we allow emotions to overrun our decisions.  In fact, a study was done which found that people with brain damage to the areas that control emotions find it almost impossible to make decisions.  As much as we like to think of ourselves as logical, we mostly just use our logic to justify our emotional decisions.  Those that manipulate such emotions in their followers are well aware that doing so leads to power for themselves.

The ones that say “I alone can fix things” or “We need a revolution” are following the same dangerous paths of countless demagogues and dictators throughout history.  At best, they lead to failed promises and cynicism.  At worst, they lead to dystopian nightmares.

Yes, sometimes drastic measures are needed.  Just like a sudden healthier lifestyle might come about from a heart attack rather than a New Year’s Resolution, sometimes a country does need to make revolutionary changes after a war or a Great Depression or the like.  But even then, when those dire situations present themselves, it is incredibly rare, if not impossible, for one leader or group to force that change upon the country in a positive manner.  To be truly successful, those big changes still need to be done with the support of an entire nation, not just a passionate base.

Improvement is a slow, methodical, and incremental process.  It is true for self-improvement; and it is just as true for national improvement.  So as you prepare to vote in the coming weeks, please reject those that make easy promises to fix everything for you and save you from the evil “others”, appealing to your emotions and telling you what you want to hear; and instead vote for those candidates that realistically offer the hard work of consensus-building and gradual improvement that the Framers originally intended for this great Republic.

Short Story – Pleading with the Judge

Thanks fer seein’ me, Judge.  I know I don’t got any right askin’ fer this.  I’ve made a lotta mistakes in my life ‘n I don’t deserve any sympathy from you.  But I hope you’ll at least hear me out ‘n let me tell you my story ‘n how I wound up here…

My mom died when I was pretty young… eleven.  ‘n after that, the old man ‘n me both had a rough time a’ things.  He drowned his sorrows ‘n was drunk most every night.  ‘n I’ll admit I was never a great student, ‘n after that, I was even worse…. Then when I got into high school, I followed in my dad’s footsteps ‘n started drinkin’ a lot.  Me ‘n Dad never talked much, ‘n usually argued when we did.  Well, that came to a head my last year a’ school, when we found out I wasn’t gonna graduate on time.  I got home after drinkin’ with some buddies, ‘n he was waitin’ fer me, pissed off ‘n piss drunk. We wound up takin’ swings at each other, ‘n since I was 18, he told me to get the hell outta his house ‘n stay out.

Well, then I officially gave up on school ‘n started lookin’ fer a job.  ‘Ventually, I got on as a laborer, doin’ odds ‘n ends fer a contractor.  Turns out, I did a pretty good job, even when I was hung over, or even still drunk, ‘n learned a fair bit too.  ‘Casionally, I’d show up late cuz I’d been out drinkin’ late ‘n get chewed out, but since I did such a good job, I got away with a lot more than I should’ve.  Lookin’ back, that job was a blessin’ that I didn’t appreciate at the time.  I ended up doin’ it fer ‘bout 5 years.

‘Though one problem was that it gave me a fair amount a’ cash to keep drinkin’.  ‘n I kept doin’ more ‘n more of it.  One night, I really raised hell ‘n completely missed work the next day.  Well, that was it with the boss. He had enough ‘n fired me.  The next couple days, I went on a bender which ended up with me passed out in some random family’s backyard.  ‘n that’s one part I’m sure you already know all ‘bout, Judge, my gettin’ arrested fer trespassin’.

Well, luckily, that judge had mercy on me.  He gave me probation so long as I got another job ‘n I got sober.  I called ‘round to everyone I ever worked with, ‘n finally found someone that was desperate ‘n was willin’ to overlook my brush with the law.  I had to start going to AA meetings ‘n all that.  My first meeting was when I got my sponsor, Eddie.  (By the way, I talked with Eddie ‘n he’s cool with me tellin’ you all this.  I gotta respect the anonymity ‘n all that, y’know?)

Anyway, Eddie was great.  He kept me honest but wasn’t a stick about it or anything like that.  ‘n we’d usually meet fer coffee ‘bout once a week or so just to chat.  ‘n it turns out that’s how I first met Michelle.  I was at the coffee shop with Eddie one day ‘n she happened to come in, get a coffee ‘n then come over to say hi to ‘im.  I remember thinkin’ how pretty she was, but didn’t think too much on it, since I was dating another girl at the time.  Well, Eddie introduced me as a friend (respectin’ the anonymous part of AA) ‘n then told me how she was a friend a’ his sister’s.  I never coulda thought how that day was gonna lead me here now.

Well, Judge, overall, things were goin’ pretty good.  I had a decent job, was datin’ a girl, ‘n I was sober fer the first time in a long time.  I even kinda had a pet.  There was this stray cat that’d come by my balcony from time to time.  I started callin’ him Simba.  I’d put some food out fer him ‘n he’d let me pet ‘im fer a bit before takin’ off to the streets again.

Well, life went on like that fer ‘bout 8 or 9 months.  Then, one week, it all fell apart.  It started when the girl I was datin’ said she wanted to talk.  Basically, she met some other guy ‘n was done with me.  I wasn’t super serious about her, but still, she rejected me ‘n it hurt a bit.  But I stayed strong.  Then a couple days after that, my boss told me that things were slowin’ down for ‘im ‘n that after we finished the project we were workin’ on, only another week or so, that was gonna be it for ‘im.  So I basically just lost my job too.

Obviously, this was kinda rough.  Some a’ the other guys were gonna go out fer drinks ‘bout it, but I figured that’d be a bad idea fer me.  I was sitting at home alone ‘n I started to get depressed ‘n tried calling Eddie.  But he wasn’t around. I sat fer a bit on the balcony with Simba but that didn’t help, so I gave up ‘n went to the bar where the other guys were.  It was my first drink in almost a year.  I was handlin’ it pretty well ‘n only had a couple a’ beers, but deep down, I knew I wanted more.  The guys called it an early night, ‘n I left too.  But on the way home, I picked up a bottle a’ whiskey.

I had my first pull right when I walked in the door.  ‘n almost right then, I heard all hell breakin’ loose out on the balcony.  I went to see what was goin’ on ‘n Simba was out there fightin’ with a few other toms.  To this day, I have no idea what it was all about, but they completely tore into ‘im ‘n before it was all said ‘n done ‘n I chased ‘em all off, he was laying there in a bloody pile, cryin’ in pain.

I found an old box ‘n put ‘im in there ‘n started lookin’ online fer somewhere to take ‘im, ‘n found some 24-hour vet clinic not too far away.  Well, I got there ‘n explained everything ‘n the lady at the desk took Simba into the back.  A bit later, Michelle walked out the door. I didn’t recognize her at first but she recognized me ‘n said “Oh… you’re Eddie’s friend, right?” It took me a second, since I never knew she was a vet, ‘n it had been a rough week ‘n I had a few drinks in me fer the first time in a year like I said, but then it clicked who she was.  Anyways, she came out ‘n sat down next to me ‘n told me how old Simba really was ‘n how bad he was injured.  She said they did what they could to ease his pain, but it was almost his time, ‘n if I wanted to come in ‘n say goodbye.  Well, I said “Sure”, kinda in a daze, ‘n followed Michelle.

When it was all said ‘n done, I don’t know what came over me, but I just couldn’t hold it together anymore.  I didn’t realize that how much that damn stray cat meant to me, ‘n I started bawling like a damn baby.  I was crying about the cat ‘n then about everything.  I was sitting there ‘n didn’t even notice that Michelle’d sat down by me ‘n put her arm around my shoulder ‘til she asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee ‘n wanted to talk.  ‘n I just spilled my guts out to her fer God knows how long.

I don’t know why she did that, Judge.  Maybe she looked at me ‘n saw a broken thing just like all those animals.  ‘n what’s even stranger is that it wasn’t just that night.   Hell, no one woulda blamed her if she wrote me off as soon as I walked out the door, but not her.  If she had, I wouldn’t be here today, Judge.

She gave me her number ‘n said to call her if I wanted to talk.  ‘n then, after being a helluva great friend fer a couple a’ months, what was even crazier is that she said she’d go out on a real date with me.  ‘n over all that time, she made me better ‘n better.

I want to be better because of Michelle, Judge.  I got my GED ‘n started workin’ on my ‘pprenticeship.  I think I’ll be a contractor myself soon.  More important than that, she helped me reach out to my dad.  After all that me ‘n him been through, it ain’t easy but we’re at least talkin’, ‘n maybe one day I’ll get ‘im to sober up as well.

It’s strange, Judge.  All the worst things in my life led me to the best thing in my life.  If all those crappy things never happened to me over the years, I never woulda met your daughter.

Like I said, Judge, I have no right to ask you this.  I know I’m not the kinda guy any man would want fer his daughter.  But I don’t think any man can ever love her more than me.  ‘n she makes me a better man every day, ‘n I want to be better every day because she deserves the best.  ‘n I want to do that fer the rest a’ my life.

So, Judge, it’d mean so much if you could look past all the bad things ‘bout me ‘n try ‘n see the good that Michelle seems to see, ‘n maybe, could I please have your blessing to ask her to marry me?

My Life Philosophies

The current state of the world and my life in it is far different than I could have ever expected, and to be honest, not in a good way.  It is frustrating to look at my own lack of progress in life, and what to me seems like regression around the world in so many aspects of human interaction.  There are many times I am discouraged; mornings that I do not want to get out of bed; evenings that I just want to be alone and hide from the cruel world.

Yet, despite these struggles, in general I usually find a way to get outside of myself and struggle towards improvement, both of myself and the larger world.  In fact, in the face of all the negativity, I believe myself to actually be a rather positive person.  Do not get my wrong, I am still the same cynical smart-ass I’ve always been, and black humor is a major aspect of my personality that I will never abandon.  However, even deeper in me is a fundamental undying love of life and the world.

My outlook basically comes down to three main philosophical aspects:

  • Wisdom is being aware of how little I know.
  • My blessings at birth are a debt to those not as lucky
  • Don’t complain; even when it’s rough, life is still amazing

Wisdom is Being Aware of How Little I Know.

This is a lesson I think we all need in this hyper-partisan environment we find ourselves in.  One of my favorite stories from history is that of Socrates and the Oracle of Delphi.  A friend of Socrates asked the Oracle who the wisest man in Athens was, and the Oracle said it was Socrates.  When told of this, Socrates said it could not be true because there was so little he knew about the world, and there were many others in Athens that had much confidence in their wisdom.  Socrates then decided to try and prove the Oracle wrong by speaking with these learned men.  As we went to each man of renown, he asked them various questions and in each case, he found that while the men claimed wisdom and knowledge, when faced with difficult questions, they would prove to not be as smart and wise as they thought themselves to be.  Eventually Socrates became aware of what the Oracle meant.  He was in fact the wisest man in Athens.  Not because of his knowledge, but because he was aware of his own ignorance.

That was about 2500 years ago, and a more modern take on this situation of overly confident ignorant people is the Dunning-Kruger Effect.  A quick summary is that, in general, people vastly over estimate their abilities and knowledge when in fact they have very little.  Whereas true students and experts in certain fields are more cautious and humble in their self-evaluations.  A colleague once informed me that this peak of ignorant confidence is sometimes called Mount Stupid.

Unfortunately, our current society seems to award those at the peak of Mount Stupid.  Confident certainty is valued above wise and humble flexibility.  I saw a post awhile ago on Facebook about how women can be more “like a boss” to counteract the sexism that exists in the workplace.  Unfortunately, instead of being more “like a boss”, it read like how to be more “like a horrible boss”.  It had advice like not apologizing and don’t suggest doubt when offering suggestions.  As I read through the post, I thought about how I would absolutely hate to have this person as a supervisor regardless of their gender.  (As a related side note, I have had amazing women supervisors in my career and they never acted in such a manner.)

We need to have leaders in business and politics that realize they don’t know everything, and in fact, it is very likely that they could be wrong.  Changing one’s mind as they get more information should be recognized for the wisdom it is, not something to be criticized. 

When having political discussions with a friend, he once told me that he approached such conversations with an attitude that “I have an opinion about this, but I’m probably wrong and I want to find out why.”  That is exactly the mindset we need to promote because it facilitates respect and growth, regarding of the starting positions.

This is the spirit in which I approach difficult conversations in different scenarios: politics, work, religion, pretty much anything.  As such, it helps me to (usually) have pleasant and deep conversations with people from a variety of perspectives.  And that in turn has helped me to more greatly appreciate the amazing variety of life.

My Blessings at Birth are a Debt to Those Not as Lucky

I don’t remember when I came to this line of thinking, but it’s been awhile, and I’ve done the math a few different times.

I was born on a November day many years ago (I don’t feel like saying how many).  Based on an estimate of global birth rates, about 350,000 babies were born on that same day in the world (actually a bit less than that, but I want to use round numbers). Based on an estimate of infant mortality rates at that time, about 50,000 of those babies never made it to their first birthday. So that leaves us with about 300,000 people with my same date of birth living past one year of age.

I was born into a middle-class family in the United States.  If you look at general income comparisons, if your household is above the median income in the United States, you have more income than about 95% of the world population.  That brings the 300,000 of my cohort down to about 15,000 with similar or more income than my family.  (Note: obviously the lower income would also have a higher proportion of the aforementioned infant mortality, but this is a general illustration, not a true in-depth analysis).

Now this next point is not meant to brag or anything, but is simply an acknowledgment of my reality and privilege.  I was fortunate enough to have a fairly high academic aptitude.  According to most standardized tests throughout my school days, I’ve usually been around the 95th percentile.  This is not because I am a hard worker or a great student, it was simply a measure of the aptitude I happened to be born with.  This takes that 15,000 down further to 750 people.

Beyond that, I happened to have been born into a stable family.  My parents are still together and we’ve never had any major family drama beyond normal issues that everyone deals with, in my experience.  Based on the oft-cited 50% marriage failure rates, I’m going to drop that number again to 375, and for the sake of illustration, let’s round that down to 350 out of the original 350,000 babies born on the same day as me.  This means that, through no efforts of my own and purely by the accident of my birth and the ability I was born with, I was born into a better situation than 99.9% of all the babies born in the world that day.

Those fortunate circumstances have helped me to have a life that so many in the world could only imagine.  Because of this realization, I feel not only fortunate but indebted.  I feel that I owe something to those 349,650 other babies that never had the opportunities that I had simply because they weren’t as lucky in birth.

I was reminded of this while I was travelling the world and was once staying in a Masai village in Kenya.  Cattle are an integral part of the Masai life, and while out walking, I came across a young boy of about 11 or 12 years of age tending to a herd of cattle.  When I saw this, I was reminded that when I about the same age, I also would tend the cattle at my grandparents’ farm, especially at the county and state fairs.  So while I felt a kinship with this youth based on our similar responsibilities at a similar age, I also realized how unlikely it was that he would one day grow up and be able to travel around the world and see other youths on other continents tending livestock like I was able to do.

That is why I feel I need to do my best to make the world a little better and a little more just, so all those who aren’t as fortunate in birth have a little more opportunity than they otherwise would.

This isn’t too dismiss the extraordinary struggles that you or I may face.  However, at the same time, we have all been blessed in one way or another.  And it has been shown that volunteering and helping those less fortunate has a range of benefits on your mental health.  So instead of focusing on your own problems, how about changing your approach and seeing how you can help someone else with their problems?

Don’t Complain; Even When It’s Rough, Life is Still Amazing

Of all the people I’ve known in my life, the one I admire the most is my grandfather, John Hausman.  I, and anyone that knew him, could easily go on and on about his many virtues.  But while I don’t think I could ever live up to his humility and genuine kindness, the one trait of his that I think I can realistically emulate is that I never heard him complain.  (In full honesty, while I don’t remember personally hearing it, I know that he would occasionally complain about my grandmother’s cats, but I’m going to give him a pass on that.)

As I’ve gone through life, I’ve found that one of the traits that turns me off from people is consistent complaining.  That is not to say that I never complain, because I do, and far too often, and I hate it when I do.  Also, I’m not equating complaining with venting or discussing your problems, because I want to encourage people to be able to talk about it when they have problems.  I also don’t count it as true complaining when it is done in a humorous and tongue-in-cheek manner for the sake of light conversation.

Instead, I am talking about when people complain about others, places, events, the weather, or life in general purely for the sake of complaining.  It serves no purpose whatsoever.  I am currently reading The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and one of the passages discusses the worthlessness of fault-finding (Book 8, Paragraph 17).  My bad paraphrasing of this passage is that if something perturbs you, then you should attempt to remedy it.  If it is impossible to remedy, then you should just accept it and move on because dwelling upon it is wasted effort.

This really came into relief for me in the past couple of years during the course of my travels, both globally and locally.  Since I’ve returned to the US, I’ve often gotten the question as to which place was my favorite, and then which place I really didn’t like.  During the course of my travels, there were definitely a couple of places that I was miserable in for a time, and occasionally for the entire time I was there.  However, looking back on them, there were amazing aspects of those places that I truly did enjoy.    One example is Varanasi, India.  I’m not going to list all the different things that bothered me while I was there, but I will say that even while I was there I appreciated the amazing history and culture I was fortunate enough to witness, and while I have no real desire to ever go back, I greatly appreciate my time there, and would never speak ill of the city in total.

I was reminded of this last fall while visiting my brother and his family in Chicago.  Down here in central Illinois, I often hear people complain about Chicago for one reason or another, whether it be politics or general city life or crime or whatever.  However, as I was walking alone around downtown and the lake shore after watching a matinee performance of Hamilton, I thought about all wonderful things Chicago has to offer.  And while I understand many people may not be interested in the same offerings that I am, and I also realize Chicago has a myriad of problems, I still find it not worthy to complain about and write off a place.

And the same could be said about life in general.  It is easy to fall into the trap of complaining about life and the difficulties it entails.  But, in the end, life is full of so many incredible opportunities and so much beauty, and to complain about it and write off this miraculous adventure, to me, is a terrible waste.