Why Not Stop Giving Presents?

Why Not Stop Giving Presents?

“When I give, I give myself.”
 – Walt Whitman

The plane lands. It taxis to the terminal and the passengers disembark. She waits in line at Immigration, passes through Customs and follows the herds of fellow travelers to Baggage Claim. She grabs her luggage and, when she finally sees me, is engulfed in a lung-crushing bear hug. My mom is in Medellin, Colombia.

The central idea for this article, the same idea that shaped the plan that brought my mom to Colombia, is not my own. But if we are honest with ourselves, very few ideas actually are. No, the credit for this particular idea belongs entirely to my dear Uncle Bob. Starts with a B. Ends with a B. Bob.

One night in the fall of 2015, over a couple of Green Man Porters (when in Asheville, North Carolina please do check out the Green Man Brewery) my uncle told me of a present that he and his brothers had once given each other. They had given one another the present of not having to give each other presents anymore.

Not for birthdays. Not for Christmas. Not for any reason whatsoever. They realized that they had far too much “stuff.” The process of buying one another presents caused more stress for the purchaser than joy for the receiver. It was just easier to not have to think about it. They are self-sufficient adults. If they really needed something, they would go out and buy it. Why let someone else waste their money guessing at what you might want?

Gift cards are a picture perfect example of how difficult it can be to shop for others. We don’t know what to buy, and don’t want to waste too much time and energy thinking about it, so we pick a store and buy a gift card. This way we can pass along the hassle of actually making a decision right with the plastic little card.

If you think about this idea a little more, it makes complete sense. Why would you ever spend precious amounts of mental and physical energy buying something for someone that:

a. They do not REALLY need.
b. They may not want.
c. Often causes you more stress than it will pleasure for them.

As soon as I heard this idea, I was all in. I mean, have you ever tried to buy a piece of clothing for someone? I sweat when I enter department stores.

I quickly informed my immediate family members of my new present to them. They never had to buy me a present again. I work. I have money. I’m good. In turn, I would also not be buying them presents anymore.

Enter my mother. If there was ever a person who was NOT going to be on board with this idea, it is her. For my birthday, she avoided my deliberate wishes and wrote me a check. As Christmas approached, she continued to ask, “So, what do you want this year?” To which I would reply, “Nothing. No, really. I’m good.” Sure enough Christmas rolled around and there I was digging through an overstuffed stocking that my mom had prepared for me. Since I had not given her a list of specific items, I was not ripping through boxes of clothes like my sisters.

As I went through a stocking full of socks and gum and underwear and cigars, I pulled out what was for me a Christmas morning first. Cold. Hard. Cash.

I realized that it may take some time for my mother to adopt my minimalist ideals.

“This is what I would have spent on you, just keep it and buy something you like,” my mom said.

Now I wish I could say that this was my ‘ah-ha’ moment. It wasn’t. My family ate and drank our way through the next couple of days as most Americans do around the holidays. I spent the money. I’m pretty sure I bought a bottle of whiskey. Winters in Wisconsin are cold.

The idea that helped bring my mom to Colombia came to me a few months later, as I was contemplating what to buy my mother for Mother’s Day. I had to break my new gifting rule. She had put some effort into my Christmas presents. I may be a frugal minimalist but I’m not an asshole.

Around this same time, I was also planning my move to Medellin, Colombia. The next adventure. As I thought about what my mom might like, I thought about how happy she is when we all go to her house for dinner. How she loves to come to Milwaukee to have dinner or go out for a cocktail. How she hates when I move abroad and wishes that I lived closer.

That is when it hit me. For Mother’s Day, I decided to give my mother time. Time with me, to be specific.

I created a joint-checking account for the two of us and deposited the money I was planning to spend for Mother’s Day into the account. On Mother’s Day I presented her with her account card and told her that from now on she could put any money she was planning to spend on me for birthdays or holidays into this account. I would do the same. This was our money to be used on experiences together. I alluded to the fact that I wanted her to come to Medellin but was doubtful that it would ever happen.

And you know what happened? The more I put money into the account; the more that I committed myself to this idea; the more my mom bought in. I had often talked to her about coming to visit me, but had rarely done anything actionable to make it happen. As I put my money where my mouth was, my mom did the same. My commitment to want to spend time with her, nothing more and nothing less, inspired her to do something she might have never done previously.

One Mother’s Day, two birthdays and one Christmas later, here we are. Medellin, Colombia. The City of Eternal Spring.

My mother’s trip was a trip of firsts:

Her first time in South America.
Her first time riding in a tuk-tuk.
Her first trek through the jungle.
Her first time salsa dancing.
Her first time opening a bottle of beer with a lighter. (Sorry no photo. Some things must remain sacred.)

And you know what? I got to share and encourage and be a part of all of this. I got to sit in the middle of the Colombian coffee region and talk with my mom. I got to walk through some of the poorest neighborhoods in Medellin and watch her understanding and perspective of the world change before my eyes.

So, the question for this aritcle is…. Why not stop giving presents?

Everyone in unison now. Ready? 1,2,3… “Fuck Black Friday.” Forget the shoes and the phones and the TVs and the billion other pieces of commercial garbage that we are told we need but actually don’t need at all.

From 1947-1950 American author Jack Kerouac went on four spontaneous, aimless, cross-country road trips. He and his friends, inspired by a search for kicks (not shoes), women and jazz, criss-crossed the country from New York to Chicago to Denver to New Orleans to San Francisco and back again. These trips became the basis of Kerouac’s famous novel, On The Road.

During this same period of time, Tonka Trucks and Steel Pogo Sticks were two of the most popular Christmas presents. Most men wore fedoras. PEZ dispensers were all the rage. If you wanted to make a significant technological purchase, you bought a nice black and white television.

Now, if you were presented with the choice between Kerouac’s trip and the material possessions of the 1940’s, what would you choose? Yep, I’d hop in the car and cruise too. I mean, in hindsight, the choice seems so obvious.

Material possessions, when viewed in hindsight, always seem ridiculous. Memories with loved ones are like wine. They only get better with time.

I do not remember what I received for Christmas two years ago. I do not remember what I got for my 10th birthday.

I remember making fishing poles out of bamboo trees with my aforementioned uncle Bob and waking up at 4AM to go fishing. I remember spending two weeks on a houseboat with my dad in the Boundary Waters of Northern Minnesota. I remember going to New Orleans for the first time with my two of my best friends. I will never forget the two weeks I spent with my mom in Colombia.

Two years ago, right after I had returned from a long solo backpacking trip through Southeast Asia, I mentioned to my mom’s boyfriend how surprised I was at how quickly some of my memories from my trip had faded.

He said to me “The memories fade because you were by yourself. It’s different when you are with people.”

It is with this in mind that I propose a trade. Trade possessions for time. Invest your money in experiences with those that you love.

The single most important thing we have in life is time. Each day we are alive we only have less than we did the day before. The clock is literally ticking. There is no greater decision than how, and with whom, we decide to spend our time.

Stop with the presents. Start trading experiences. I guarantee you’ll never look back.

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Why Not Change It Up?

Why Not Change It Up?

“I went to the woods because I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. And not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
– Walt Whitman

I often think of a scene from the show “House of Cards” where Frank is talking with Remy. Frank reminds Remy of the famous Winston Churchill quote that:

“….to improve is to change. To perfect is to change often.”

I am a big fan of change. Personally, change has always been synonymous with growth. My biggest leaps forward have always come right after I stepped sideways. Heartbreak and the end of relationships made me emotionally stronger and more adept at what I want in a partner. My parents divorce, while crushing, forced me to become a man. My decision to move to Korea forever changed how I see the world.

Each and every one of the above mentioned situations, when they were happening, were hard. I did not think about how I was learning or growing or seeing the world in a completely different light. I longed for my ex. I wanted my family back together. I wanted to be home for the holidays. Change is hard.

It is only now, many years later, that I am able to see how these changes brought me from where I was to where I am now.

For me the recipe is simple. Change equals growth. The more we try and the more we explore – the more we learn.

As humans, there is a part of us that craves the familiar. Routine and structure give us purpose. But is what we find familiar what really what is best for us? How much of what we do is simply done because the alternative option is more difficult?

When is the last time that you made a change? A time when you purposely put yourself into an uncomfortable position to do something that you could feel you did not want to do?

I am giving it all up. This blog, my digital marketing business, my wine-filled life in Buenos Aires. For the next six weeks I will be backpacking, camping and trekking through Patagonia. I will leave my computer and most of my unessential possessions with friends in Buenos Aires and hit the road. I have no plan. Just my backpack, camping gear and cash. I am making a change.

To be clear, I will come back. Just like the homie Bing Crosby, I’ll Be Home for Christmas. This is not a permanent change in my way of living. More a temporary chance to challenge and refresh.

Practically speaking, this decision makes very little sense. I am just starting to turn a corner with my freelance digital marketing business. I will walk away from clients I enjoy working with and have already turned down numerous work opportunities. I have just launched this blog and I am receiving a lot of positive feedback. It is as motivated as I have been to write in some time. I am living in a city I love (Buenos Aires) and have been fortunate to meet an incredible group of friends. It is because of it’s impracticality that this decision appeals to me.

So why go?

One, because it will be fun. Two, because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t.

When I started this blog, I told myself I would attempt to write from a place of complete honesty. All editing and clever prose aside, it has always been a bit easier for me to find my voice from the comforts of a keyboard. My hope is that my rawness will allow people to listen to what I am saying and put their own guard down a bit. By peeling back my skin, hopefully others are able to become a little more comfortable in their own. We all have our shit. Nobody is perfect.

One of my biggest weaknesses in life is money. The fear of not having it or of not having enough has followed me most of my life. When I look to the root cause of my anxieties, more often than not, money will be at the core. I know that this is not the “sexiest” fear for a person to have. But money, like all true fears, is what causes me to be a lesser version of myself.

Anxieties over money have dictated plans and some important decisions in my life. They have caused petty conversations between myself and my friends. They have caused me to act in a shameful manner so that I can keep mine and others can spend theirs. These anxieties have prevented me from living in the moment and fully enjoying some of the truly incredible experiences I have had in my life. Money has, regrettably, been a source of discontent with women I have dated.

The crazy thing is that I have always had money. I grew up in a middle class family. I am a cookie-cutter image of white American privilege. I went to a private high school and graduated from a good university. There has never been a night in my life where I did not have a roof to sleep under or a day where I questioned whether I would have a meal.
In the grand scheme of life, I am one of the very lucky ones. I am a college-educated, American male. The opportunities I have been afforded are only available to a fraction of the world’s population. I know this. I know that when I return from my trip to Patagonia I will be able to re-build my digital marketing business and make money again.

I suppose our anxieties are like magic mushrooms. They grow best when you surround them with bullshit.

And you know what? There is still a part of me that has to force myself to go on this trip. There is still a part of me that has to book bus tickets and hostels and flights and buy outrageously overpriced camping gear in order to make the trip real. Because if I didn’t, there is a good chance that my absurd fear of not having money might allow me to make just enough excuses to justify me not doing something I know I will love.

As I type the “t” in type in this very fucking sentence, my mind is calculating a budget for what I should spend while I am down there. I just spent way too much money on a tent and it irks me.

So, besides the obvious belief that a backpacking trip through Patagonia is going to be SICK, I have a secondary motive.

I am going to purposely put myself in a uncomfortable situation. It bothers me when I am not making money. So, I will bother myself. Money is addicting. Work is addicting. The source of my discontent is from wanting more. The more I want, the less I realize how much I have.

If anything, I want to live so that my days are not dictated by doing whatever I can to make more money. I want to camp. I want to read. I want to write. I want to do nothing, for long periods of time. I want to expose myself to the baseless fears that limit my life so I can recognize just how silly they really are.

I want to remind myself that I can not work, not make money, not know where my next check will come from and you know what….

All will be well.

I want to force myself to remember THE most important goal to have in life.

Enjoying it.

Fear dictates so much of what we do. Why we stay, why we go, why we don’t try, why we say no. Why we don’t take actions to make a change in our lives.

As Mark Twain famously said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life. Most of which never happened.”

So I am off. While I am excited to travel again, I am anxious as well. I will travel alone. I do not know who I will meet or where I will go or how I will get from A to B to C. There is a strange beauty and excitement to this. But make no mistake, part of me is forcing myself to do this. The comfortable choice would be to stay. The practical thing to do would be to stay.

But that is the thing about fears. They are the peanut butter to familiarity’s jam.

If you want a change, you, in turn, must change. I am not sure what will happen on this trip or how I will change because of it. I only know that each time I have made the decision to change things up, good things have happened. I am literally batting 1.000.

So, I encourage you to make a change in your life. I understand that not everyone is allowed the luxury to take a six week backpacking trip. Some of you may chuckle at the fact that this is the most difficult decision I need to make. But changes can come in all shapes and sizes. Take a month of from drinking. Or eating meat. Or from watching TV. Or from social media.

Every time I have entered a situation uncertain and uncomfortable, I have come out stronger. I almost always learned something new. My fears dissipated and my confidence soared. I wish I had a game-plan for how you can recognize what you can change. I can’t.

My only advice would be this. Poke where it hurts.

When you start to do something that seems illogical or makes you feel unusual or uncomfortable, you are on the right track. Do that thing. Remember, feeling uncomfortable is the key. Change is hard. These feelings are a result of you grazing the atmosphere that is your own comfortable existence. The more uncomfortable you feel, the closer you are to progress.

Nos vemos a la vuelta.

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Why Not Listen To Hip-Hop?

Why Not Listen To Hip-Hop?

“Well, hip-hop is what makes the world go ’round.”
– Snoop Dogg

Hey Mom,

I should have started this letter in the 6th grade while wearing my gray and white Allen Iverson shoes. I don’t suppose the prose will be all that different; I will try to keep things brief and stick to something resembling a “main idea” or “thesis.” At times, though, I may get a bit distracted. There may be tangents. I might catch an image, a halfthought exiting my brain, and decide to hold it – to entertain it – awhile. I hope this happens. It would be appropriate, tonally and topically.

Because I’m writing to you about rap music.

You are, directly and indirectly, why I love rap music (henceforth “hip hop” – it’s the term I’ve always preferred). I hope you cringed slightly when you read that. You are why I’ve endured so many “n-words” (a word you don’t pronounce and, frankly, neither do I) and “bitches” (a term I, too, loathe) over the past two decades. You are why I kept CDs like Capital Punishment and Hits, Rarities, and Remixes – their bottoms scratched and sheered to obscurity – when I reduced my presence in your house to a single box.

Without you – and without Ryan, of course – I don’t think I’d have cared about hip hop for so long.

Let’s start at the Sam Goody in the Janesville, Wisconsin shopping mall. An unlikely place for a hip hop revolution, but the beginning of mine. At an indeterminant age, but certainly a teen age, I was forced to exchange one of my early hip hop infatuations, The Marshall Mathers LP by Eminem, for a clean “Parental Guidance” copy.

You made me swap it, of course, and now, having taught middle schoolers for a few years, I can hardly blame you. It’s probably because you overheard Eminem proclaim: “Hey, Slim, that’s my girlfriend screaming in the trunk, / But I didn’t slit her throat, I just tied her up,” or maybe you passed by the bathroom once and took in a different contemplation: “I just drank a fifth of vodka – dare me to drive?”

Your repulsion was toward the violence – of all sorts, a menagerie for the depraved – of his lyrics, I’m betting. Again, I’ve never felt more simpatico with your view than when I heard a 6th grader sing:

“Let a n—– try me, try me. / I’ma get his whole motherfuckin’ family, / And I ain’t playin’ with nobody. / Fuck around and I’ma catch a body.”

That’s from Dej Loaf, by the way.

I’ve always assumed you didn’t want to accept discord, even the symbolic kind, in my life. Your efforts were sheltering, and I will always love you for them. I imagine that, in many senses, hip hop felt like a rapturous discord to the life we were attempting.

Listening to Eminem is not synonymous with going to a church sermon on Sunday, or volunteering with your grandfather, or joining a YMCA youth sports team. You defined our family’s parameters beautifully, measuring meticulously and correcting for some unexpected variables, like the emotional and literal abandonment of an alcoholic father or a sudden career change.

Presented on these terms and in this rather calculated definition, hip hop would have seemed an unacceptable addition to our life, and I believe this is how you felt. My hope here, in this letter, is to prove it otherwise. My hope is to show you that my love for hip hop did not spawn from your hatred – rather, it descended from your love.

I would never try to convince you that misogyny, violence, or substance abuse are acceptable; you raised me too well to construct or even consider a defense of those things. And yes, hip hop is rife with those sins. I don’t think this letter is the place wherein I approach hip hop’s treatment of those topics individually, nor do I even feel especially qualified to do so. And my grandest hope is that by the end of this, I won’t have to.

I’ll now return us to what will always feel like the beginning of it all: that small rebellion in Janesville’s Sam Goody. The simplistic plot – acquiring something forbidden, testing boundaries, brashly, seeing what was acceptable – is a cliché so ingrained in our culture I would blame no person for overlooking it.

Hip hop was rebellion.

In my early teens, how could I resist? It struck me as entirely renegade: utterly Western and downright Eastwood. Though the hip hop album covers of the 90’s and 00’s developed their own neon-soaked gaudiness, vacuums of cash and women and cars and jewelry and excess, I’ve always felt that the artist or group plus a six shooter would, too, suffice.

No adult I knew listened to hip hop. No one’s parents put it on in the car, or while grilling out, or before 4th of July fireworks. Though MTV was popularizing it a bit, airwaves still overwhelmingly favored pop music. So sensible, of course, but no teenage rebellion seeks sense.

My early teens, like most, were my first measurement – crucially – of self. It’s a time to try, and to become. Though I’ve met – and adored – students who arrive at a proxy-of-parent definition of self, those young people who help calculate grocery bills and remember to turn off lights and close refrigerator doors, I opted for hip hop and skateboarding and always forgetting where I left my socks.

While the process itself is profound, and Great Works have explored it thoroughly, my rebellion with hip hop – my escapade – was anything but. It was unformed, amateurish. Sure, I heard Eminem croon about girls going “’round the outside” and Nelly pine for “dubs,” but of those things, I knew nothing.

I can now admit, in the uncomfortable self-actualization of my late 20’s, that I hardly spent my early days affixed on hip hop’s lyricism. That was what rock music was for. I reserved my school bus mumbles and whisper choruses for emo-rock-punk tracks from bands like Incubus, Linkin Park, and Taking Back Sunday.

I grew up in comforts – of economics, of race, of time and place – and those bands manufactured a type of understated melancholy I understood. Hip hop will never be that, because it cannot be. While at football practice or on the bus or in a friend’s basement playing video games, Linkin Park could remind me:

“Cover up your face.
You can’t run the race.
The pace is too fast.
You just won’t last.”

Desensitized and abstract, it was me; we understood each other.

The same year that Linkin Park sang those lyrics, Chicago-based rapper Common reminded the world:

“You not gon’ respect self, at least respect the heritage.
Affecting lives is where the wealth and the merit is.
I realize what I portray day to day, I gotta carry this,
And beats, rhymes, and life is where the marriage is.”

What did I know of heritage? Of merit? Of respect? Of even affect?

Nothing.

And the obvious depths of hip hop were only revealed later, and luckily, too, because my teenage self would have had no appreciation. Or context.

I didn’t deserve hip hop, then. Accordingly, like most teenagers, I wasted away on lesser works. Of course Eminem was my hip hop Bunker Hill. Of course I would have died for him, then. He was aggressive, and foul, and sexual, and I had to try it, all of it, from the distant immediacy of a speaker or headphones.

I was having none of it in real life, real time. I planted roses with Grampy at Rotary Gardens; I traveled on Caravan youth group trips; I ate the meals you prepared for me, in a home, with its electricity bill paid and its heating accounted for.

This is a distance that I am describing, and I know by now that you’ve noticed. My rebellion crossed a vast distance, one I hardly noticed in the year 2000 and one which I’ve not stopped considering since. You drove the 10 minutes from our home to the Sam Goody in the Janesville, Wisconsin mall, but neither of us knew that this distance could not be measured in gallons of gasoline, or tracked by an odometer. Where hip hop has taken me, guided me, can only be measured in time – and the knowledge of the self.

Of my teenage vestiges, of those brief moments when I pay to watch Girl’s “Yeah, Right!” skateboarding video on Youtube or when I listen to “Smile in Your Sleep” by Silverstein, hip hop is the only one from which I anticipate – or expect – omnipresence.

I cannot imagine my life without it.

Even now, at 12:43 AM, engrossed in an album titled “Clairvoyant” by a progressive metal band called The Contortionist, I cannot envision my life without hip hop. At times, you no doubt find its presence antithetical to the life I’m trying to build; one modeled on the life you gave me. I understand.

But as all rebellions end to make way for planning and construction, so, too, did my rebellious love of hip hop. And what I’ve since acquired and continue to build, what I’d describe as a desire of Otherness, a love of the Other, will always be your legacy. An amorphous legacy you passed – and I’ve forged it in hip hop.

I employ, and will continue to employ, “Other” in a way that is purposefully broad.

But an example may help illustrate.

We took to a trip to Marquette University’s campus in the Spring of 2008. It was chilly without snowfall – a perfect Wisconsin day. And, as failing to navigate Milwaukee’s highways and roads was well ingrained as a family tradition, we were a bit lost. And we were quite obviously going to be late to the campus tour. I flouted, my irritation – maybe even my fury – obvious; hatred of tardiness is another inheritance, though passed down from your father.

This predated smartphones and GPS devices, so you got off the highway and approached the first gas station you saw. It was a place of Other like I had never seen – except, of course, in hip hop music videos. Each person at the gas station was black. Clenching, I balked and recommended that you try somewhere else; I meant, but did not say, anywhere else. Leading, you laughed and left me the keys with a wry, knowing smile. You walked inside while I surveyed my surroundings, doubting if any of the pumps even worked. This was the first time I’d seen several cars with honest, sparkling rims.Then, because of the directions they gave you, we made it to Marquette’s campus on time.

It would be too reductive to say that this moment led me to attend that school; of course, it would be absurd to ignore that it was your open-minded approach to Otherness which gave me the confidence to try life in a city like Milwaukee.

A city which holds nearly 70% of the state’s African American population. A city for which segregation is both all-too-measurable but also immeasurable in the way its name is whispered, often hushed, by non-residents.

A city which our high school head football once described to me as a place he would not traverse “in broad daylight.”

While walking the hallways of Janesville Parker High School, I often bopped about to A Tribe Called Quest, learning that “as we start our travels, things they will unravel,” which contains a halfway prescience. I do believe college was the start of my personal travels – both emotional and intellectual – but the unraveling began years before, with you. It began at sometime around the Weird Al Yankovic concert you suffered with Ryan and me, continued at the library and later at Camp Manitowish, and is still continuing in Charlotte, North Carolina.

And no, before you ask (though it’s likely crossed your mind): the Other is not simply a grappling with or awareness of my racial identity. That would not wholly explain why I became a Marxist in college, or why I read the entire New Testament, or why I decided to join Teach For America.

You always preferred keeping the windows open during a hot summer day, never escaping to the comforts of man-manipulated air. That’s Otherness, to me, too. You have given much of yourself, and your life, to care for your father in his time beyond twilight. You let Ryan and I paint our bedrooms, and you took us to see “Jackass: The Movie.”

This is all Otherness, too – at least, it is to me. Some of it is profound, yes, and some of it is not. That sentence is hip hop.
You have had plenty of reasons to cloister, to live a life devoid of exploration. But you calculated more for yourself, and for Ryan and I. You must have known that I would notice; I hope you are proud that the manner in which you lived has determined many of my own mannerisms.

In middle school, I made a clay plate with Pablo Picasso’s Guernica crudely recreated in the center. Even then, I knew that Guernica is more than grotesque murder from a war I never waged; and I knew that because of you.

Hip hop, like any artform, is more than the Otherness it embodies.

Sampling, the underrated historicism by which artists scavenge the vibrant catacombs of jazz and funk and rock for new sound, keeps me coming back.

The poetry of its lyrics, the sheer Aristotelian rhetoric, keeps me coming back.

The heckle of Kendrick Lamar’s voice in “Mortal Man,” and the booming disgust in Run the Jewel’s “Lie, Cheat, Steal,” keep me coming back.

But these are not your legacies. I would love to explain them to you – I just felt it more urgent to expose your own reverberations, here. To walk you to the top and let you stare at your own Wonders awhile.

Although many of my friends have noted, at times in awe and often in confusion, my love of hip hop, so few ask: Why?

Why do you keep coming back to this music, even as 28-year-old white man, a person to whom this must mean so little?

It’s about the Other, of course. It’s why I’ve re-read Dubliners, though I’ve never been to Ireland. It’s why I’ve re-watched “Citizen Kane,” though I’ve never worked for a newspaper or ran for political office.

This is the purpose of any artistic endeavor: to convey through pain, through exploration of self, the Otherness of existence, and to help us better understand it. It’s one of the first things you taught me, Mom. It’s empathy. You instilled it, and so – here I am, switching from progressive metal to listen to The Notorious B.I.G. on a Thursday evening.

I am your son – Why wouldn’t I be listening to hip hop?

Love,

Travis

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Why Not Skip Church?

Why Not Skip Church?

Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.

Proverbs 3:27

This title is going to get me in hot water with my mother. I get this. Full disclosure: I am not religious. But I would like to put a question out for discussion.

Why not skip church? Or temple. Or mosque. Or wherever you may go to worship whatever God you choose to believe in. Just once every month. A Sunday, or Saturday, completely rededicated to something else.

What you ask?

Service.

This idea first came to me during the prayers. I grew up in a very religious family. I went to church almost every week. I went to Lutheran schools for more than six years. I was an usher at my church. I sang in my school’s choir. Needless to say, going to church every Sunday was a regular part of my family’s weekly schedule.

And every Sunday, our church would have weekly prayers. These prayers were lengthy and often included individual prayers for anyone ranging from members of the congregation to victims of a particular natural disaster to our national politicians:

Lord please be with Evelyn on her birthday. Please watch over the Petersen family as they mourn the passing of Edith Petersen. Lord please keep the victims and the families of the Sandy Hook shooting in your loving embrace. Please pass your healing hand over Russell as he recovers from hip replacement surgery.”

There was a time when I was a part of these prayers. Weekly. For more than two years. Now this is not to say that it is incredibly easy to make it into my church’s weekly prayers. Or that I was experiencing a rather difficult time in my life. My inclusion in the prayers is more of a testament to the fact that my mother was a little apprehensive about my decision to live abroad in Asia.

I would listen to these prayers specifically mentioning people who were experiencing a difficult time in their life. Some of these people required a miracle. Divine intervention, or just really, really good luck, was necessary for this person’s outlook to change. But often times our prayers centered around members of the congregation who were simply having a tough go of things. They were particularly ill. They were mourning the loss of a loved one. Recovering from surgery. Bed-ridden from a recent fall. Going through a divorce.

Which led me to think, “Wait. WE are the answers to these prayers.” These individuals that we were praying for did not need to have their water turned to wine. They needed someone to go sit and play cards with them.  Or come and help them with yard work.  They needed babysitter to help watch their kids for a couple hours. They needed a friend to visit them in the hospital.  An ear to bend.  A shoulder to cry on.

I want to make very clear that I am not encouraging anyone to abandon religion. I am also very aware of the fact that churches, parishes, temples and mosques are daily working to help improve their communities. I know that in many communities a church is the only outlet for this type of work. But I will not shy away from stating that I believe many devoutly religious individuals are doing more wishful thinking than productive acting.

The beauty of this idea is that you do not need to find time in your already busy week to make this happen. I, as much as anyone else, am guilty of finding one-hundred and fifty other things to do besides volunteer. Yet, if you are a religious person, you have already mentally reserved a majority of your Sunday for worship. The time is available. You simply need to pencil in an alternative activity.

Personally, I think that a Sunday away from the confines of a church or temple would not only be beneficial to the people you help. I think that it would also strengthen your individual faith. Here is an analogy that some of you might be able to relate to:

Weightlifting and strength-training programs are specifically designed to avoid what is referred to as “plateauing.” Plateauing is when your body no longer responds to your training program.  In its incredible ability to adapt, the body adjusts to the routine of a physical workout and muscle growth comes to a halt. In order to avoid a plateau, strength-training programs consistently implement change so as to keep the body continually guessing. Cross-Fit is a prime example of an exercise program designed specifically towards avoiding a plateau.

Is it impossible for faith to plateau? Is going to the same building, repeating the same mantras and singing the same songs really the best possible recipe for you to get the most from your religion?

I would argue that community outreach might come as a much-needed change of pace. You would put into action the principles so often talked about. You would see the pain and the joy and the struggle of those you pray for each week. By loving, you would experience love.

The reward of goodness is nothing but goodness.

Al Quran 55:61

And, if you are a weekly attendee, you already are a member of an organization that actively promotes goodwill AND has a large following of people who have the exact same period of time available on their calendars. Can you think of a better place to coordinate volunteering efforts?  I mean churches are to community service what Las Vegas is to gambling.

What you decide to do is up to you. You, better than anyone else, should know your own skill set. If you are handy, find someone who could use help around their house. If you like to cook, prepare a meal for a grieving family.  If you prefer to be social, go sit at a nursing home and play bridge.  Bring breakfast to someone in the hospital.  Go rake leaves for the single mother who could really use a hand or two around the house.

If you find yourself saying that you have no idea how you can help, you are either not thinking hard enough about the problem or not thinking highly enough about yourself. 

Here are some examples of what I have done with this thought in mind.

  • While living in Medellin, Colombia I volunteered in some of the poorer neighborhoods of the city working with kids. I like working with kids. I have worked as a teacher. Some people close to me would argue strongly that I am basically a big kid. We played with the kids, taught them some English and passed out snacks. The crazy part? I got to see parts of the city I might have never seen previously. Here are two pictures.. The first is a view of Medellin. After one class the students took us on a hike. The second photo is us teaching the kids.
  • Here is a video about the program.

  • I helped to work out/train a younger Colombian kid while living in Medellin. He was about to leave for the United States for a basketball camp. He was going to be playing in front of college scouts and was hoping to get a scholarship. I love to play ball, have played my whole life and am abnormally large. I was able to help provide him with experience playing against a bigger, stronger player. Twice a week, for about a month, we met at a court. I rebounded for him, went through ball handling drills and worked out with him. A friend and I bought him a container of protein for his weightlifting program. He was offered a scholarship to a private school in Missouri. No photos here. Hard to snap away when you are hard at work. 

Notice how my volunteering efforts aligned with things I liked to do? That was on purpose. There is no giant rule book that says when you help people it has to suck.

“If you light a lamp for somebody, it will also brighten your path.”

Siddhartha Gautama – The Buddha

Because here is the thing. Nice thoughts, while nice, are simply not enough.  I would be amazed if anyone reading this expected to make a living by simply closing their eyes and wishing really hard for money to appear in their bank account.

In almost every aspect of our society, if you wish for a situation to improve the answer is almost always found in some form of action. Want to lose weight? Eat less, exercise more. Interested in learning another language? Crack open that book and start studying. Want to learn to surf? Not likely to happen if you’re sunbathing on the beach.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

James 2: 14 – 17

Now I do not mean to diminish the power of prayer. Pray on. I am not religious and even I admit that prayer is a wonderfully reflective and contemplative exercise. Put all those positive vibes out into the cosmos. But why do prayer and action need to be mutually exclusive events? Why not pray AND take a little action? I am sure whatever God you believe in would appreciate a helping hand. Make some of your own luck.  Take the initiative.

I do not want to imply that I live my life any better than anyone else. Trust me, I don’t.  My goal with this blog is to always present ideas and facilitate conversations.

I would like to leave you with this thought. Among the major religions of the world, there are few ideals that are universally recognized by all of them. Service and goodwill to others is one.  Kindness does not favor one religion. Love does not belong to the worshipers of a single supreme being. Remember:

If you find yourself saying that you have no idea how you can help, you are either not thinking hard enough about the problem or not thinking highly enough about yourself. 

Thank you for reading and checking out the website! Like what you read? Fantastic.

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Why Not Begin?

Why Not Begin?

“Action breeds confidence. Inaction breeds doubt and fear.”

Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

“Gnarly tattoo,” I said. “Yea, mate. It’s me granddad,” he said. The tattoo was a black and white picture of an elderly man in full Navy uniform. The backdrop included a nautical map, a compass and a small quote written in cursive. We were on the rooftop of a small hostel in Lima, Peru.  Adam was a 32 year-old Brit who had recently quit his job at a digital marketing firm in London in order to travel.  It was my first week in what would turn out to be an amazing six-week trip through Peru. “What’s this?” I asked, pointing to the barely visible quote. “Ah mate, that’s my grandfather’s favorite quote,” he said. “What’s it say?” I asked.  “To begin, begin,” he said.

So here I am. Beginning. This is my first step. Everyone needs to start somewhere and I reckon here is as good a place as any. This blog is one of an uncountable number of ideas I have had throughout my life. From food trucks to HelmetFood to t-shirt companies to online tutoring services. Ideas have not been the problem. Execution has been a bit of an issue.

Of all my grand ideas, how many have I followed through on? Zero. Nada. None.

My failure to launch has stemmed from a vain concern in the opinions of others and my adept ability to convince myself I would fail. In my mind there will never be an ideal time for me to share my thoughts with the world. Regardless of when I launch this blog my mind will be consumed with fear and apprehension.

When beginning something new, the first step always seems to be the most difficult.  I am no exception to this.  I have sat and come up with a dozen reasons why I should wait to launch this blog. The articles need to be just right. I’ll start when I am back in Medellin, I’ll have more time then.  People will laugh at what I have to say. I have literally sat and visualized everyone from my friends back home to my family members to college friends to my former high school basketball coach reading what I have to say and laughing.

For whatever reason, as humans, we are fantastic at coming up with reasons why we will fail or why our ideas aren’t good enough. It is no coincidence that the wildly successful usually have either an unshakeable inner confidence or a complete lack of fear of the consequences that stem from “failure.” Some simply re-define their definitions of failure.  Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player of all time, THE Great One, once said “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

For Gretzky, his measure of success was not necessarily whether he made or missed the shot. It was whether he had the courage to take the shot to begin with. If we all were to evaluate our lives using this measure; successes are when you try, regardless of the outcome, and failures are when you don’t try; how would you measure up? I personally would be VERY much in the red.

For certain individuals, failure is simply a word. Seven letters, two syllables. They focus their concentration on how they can succeed, not the reasons why they might fail. The rest of us? We wait for a time when the conditions are just right. We plan and we talk and we dream. But we don’t leap. That first step. Man that first step can sure be a bitch.

This blog is as much about my first step as it is about sharing my thoughts with the world. In my almost thirty years on this planet, I have done very little to extend myself to others. I have traveled, sure.  I have opened myself to learn about, and from, other cultures.  Yet I have been reluctant to reciprocate the openness I have experienced. I have been quick to judge, to evaluate, quick to find the flaws within a plan or an idea.

I realize now that it is the insecure who find their solace in scrutiny.  It helps them to justify their own inaction. Criticism is the child of cowardice. Creativity the offspring of courage.

For anyone out there who is starting a business or holding an art exhibition or running for political office, I have three words. I feel you. It is not an easy thing to put yourself on display for critique.

There is a chance this blog is an absolute failure. That’s OK. Not ideal, but OK.  The important thing is that I started. That I gave it a crack. Regardless of the outcome, I will learn from this. I will grow.  At the very least, I will learn how to execute on an idea.

The inspiration for this blog came shortly after I moved to Medellin, Colombia.  In five months of living in Colombia I had absolutely fallen in love with the country, particularly the people. Colombians are incredible. Their warmth and general openness towards others is contagious. It is a rarity to walk down the street and not receive a smile and a “Buenas dias,” from someone that you pass on the street.  At any given time you are simply a “Hola, como estas?” away from connecting with a random stranger.

I have salsa danced in the middle of the street with Colombian people I had only met a few minutes prior. I have had an elderly Colombian woman walk six blocks with me just to make sure I got where I needed to go.  I have partied with, and stayed in the home of, a Colombian family whom my friends and I met while sitting and waiting for a bus.  Needless to say we missed the bus.

Ask anyone who has traveled to Colombia what stands out when they think about their time in the country and they will undoubtedly tell you it was the people.

Por que no, when translated into English, literally means “Why not?” It is an expression that is used quite often in Colombia. It can be used to laugh off a person’s ridiculous behavior. It is a child’s question to their parents about why they cannot pop a wheelie while going downhill.  It is THE answer to the question of whether you would like to dance.

“Quieres una mas cerveza?” Por que no? Want to go to Barranquilla for Carnaval? Por que no? Should I ask her to dance? Por que no? Want to move to Argentina this fall? Por que no?

Every time I have used the expression por que no in a conversation I have instantly been greeted with a wry smile and a chuckle. “Eh, por que no.” As I was telling my Colombian website developer about my idea for this blog, he asked what the name was going to be. When I told him, he simply smiled, chuckled softly and said “Nice.”

These three words create a world in which possibilities are limitless. Por que no is an expression that embodies openness.  Openness to change.  Openness to all that is new or different.  Openness to trying period.  Openness to meeting someone halfway. To stepping outside of the familiar, or what you had planned, and taking life as it comes your way.

To going for what you want from this brief stint on Earth we call life and not giving a good-god-damn what anyone else has to say.

With the theory behind this blog firmly in place, I pose the first of what will be many questions: Why Not Begin?

We all have plans. We all have dreams. Hope really does die last. Whatever it is that you have been talking about or planning or thinking about doing; why not start? What are you waiting for? Ignore your brain’s very creative disguises for fear (read: excuses) and NIKE.  Re-define your definition of failure. Take yourself a little less seriously.

Nope, you’re not too overweight to start exercising. Yep, the trip you’ve been planning is within your budget. Chyeeaahp, there are completely free websites and applications that you can use to start learning a language. Yes, you absolutely can find ten minutes within your day to start meditating. No, your local volunteer organizations have not met their annual quota for volunteers.

I’ll be your sponsor. Here I am, beginning; right in front of your eyes. I am scared and uncertain and pretty sure that most people won’t give one fuck from their pocketful of fucks about what I have to say. So what? I do not have ideas of grandeur.  If the goal is simply to begin, how can you fail?

Dale Carnegie, world-renowned lecturer on self-improvement and writer of the acclaimed book How to Win Friends and Influence People, once stated that “Action breeds confidence. Inaction breeds doubt and fear.” For Carnegie, the simple act of doing something, regardless of the situation, was far better than doing nothing. It is why self-help gurus encourage people to make their beds every morning (see: Ferriss, Timothy).  Just get things off and crackin’. You will be amazed at how much you will figure out along the way.

So again, I challenge you. Begin. Start your business plan. Begin searching the market for a new house. Go for a run. Sign up for a cooking class. Save for the trip to the exotic location of your dreams. Be the person that you want to be. Today. Right now.  It’s not too late. It’s not too early. The only certainty about time is that with each passing second, we only have less than we had before.

As I step off of my soapbox, I would like to share a quote my grandfather loved to share with my cousins and I. It is only ten words long. None of the words are longer than two letters

If it is to be, it is up to me.

So as you sit and read and contemplate your own beginnings, I really only have one question for you. Por que no?

Thank you for reading and checking out the website! Like what you read? Fantastic.

For more Why Not? articles, leave your name and e-mail address in the boxes below. No spam. Ever. 

Lastly, if you the time, and really did like what you read, please share this article. It all helps. Cheers!