An Argument in Six Parts: The Case Against Social Media.

An Argument in Six Parts: The Case Against Social Media.

I want to preface what I write by first taking a moment to address an important point. 

This article is not about the elimination of social media. I think we can all, in some way, acknowledge the obvious benefits that social media has. Online social platforms have enabled us to do things that previously were impossible. Government-changing revolutions have begun on Facebook. I recently connected a friend from Switzerland who was traveling in South Korea with friends I have that are living in Seoul. I met some of my best friends in Colombia through a Facebook group that organized pick-up basketball games for ex-pats in Medellin. FaceTime, WhatsApp and Facebook’s Messenger allow billions of people to communicate with family and friends all over the world. For free. In real time.

These are amazing things.

No, the central matter here is not the elimination of social media. That argument would be pointless. We have come too far. My argument instead focuses on why people need to spend less time on social media. My point is simple. I believe the more time you spend on social media, the more unhappy you become.

Finally, I think it is important to remember just how new social media is. The social revolution we are experiencing now is still in it’s absolute infancy. It took more than 100 years for people to figure out cigarettes were bad for us. To assume any of us, myself included, know the full impact that social platforms will have on society would be foolish. 

PART ONE: A Question.

I have a question to ask you.

I would like for you to think back on the past three months of your life. Specifically, try to think back and identify some of your ‘human’ moments from these three months.

Now, when I say ‘human’ moments, I am referring to the times you may have said something you regretted or embarrassed yourself or when you perhaps made a stupid mistake. For example, as a child I once, unprovoked by anyone, took a running start and leapt into a bush garden. The other day, while visiting the Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti in Rome, I saw a woman fall down several stairs for no apparent reason other than the fact that she missed a step.

We all have these moments. We all have times of jealousy and rage and utter stupidity. To put it romantically: these are gentle reminders that we are human.

Now, on to my question.

Thinking back on your ‘human’ moments from the past three months, how many of these did you happen to share on social media? Do you post videos of the time when you finally run out of patience and scream at your kids? Did you post about the time you ate too fast at a fancy restaurant and got balsamic salad dressing on your new white shirt? This last one was me, in case you were wondering.

Spoiler alert: When it comes to social media, nobody else is sharing these moments either. But more on that later.

PART TWO: Same Story, Different Platform.

There is an expression I once heard that has always stuck in my mind.

“Good stories don’t happen to bad storytellers.”

Boasting is no new trick. We all do it. Stories grow in size and change in form over time. My friends who always seem to have the most interesting lives coincidentally also happened to be the best storytellers. This is neither good nor bad. To be honest, people who see life in a positive light and whose stories reflect this positivity are more likely to be happy. But that is a different conversation.

My point is this: while how we interact with one another may change, our patterns of behavior will not. We have all exaggerated the truth and bent stories to fit the narrative that we wanted to hear. You do it, I do it, everyone does it. Part of this is a survival instinct. Life can be hard. So we tell ourselves, and sometimes others, the stories we want, and need, to hear.

It is only inevitable that this pattern in behavior continues as social continues to transform how people interact with one another. From caves to the fireplace to the pub to the internet – humans will adapt their behavior to whatever social outlets are available. The locations may change, but the patterns will remain the same. People will tend to portray themselves, and their life, in the best light possible.

Social media is perhaps the greatest tool for storytelling that we have ever seen. It is no surprise that seemingly ordinary people have become YouTube sensations or Insta-famous. What is interesting about social media is the ability that ordinary people have to edit their lives before sharing them.

We get to pick what we share. We can share a photo from the top of a mountain and completely disregard the four hours of climbing it took to get to the top. We are able to edit posts before posting them. This young Finnish blogger has done a fantastic job of highlighting how slight changes can make a huge visual difference with photos on Instagram.

Now, editing itself is not new. TV networks and film companies have told us carefully edited stories for dozens of years. Even ‘reality’ TV was never reality. And why do these companies edit? Because real life; the life that is always happening and does not allow for re-takes; can be boring. And sometimes sad. And sometimes lonely.

We are all storytellers. Our lives are the greatest story we will ever tell. And as storytellers, who would want to tell a story that was boring? Or sad? Or uninteresting?

PART THREE: We Boast on Social Media, We Live on Google.

I shared an article recently, and would like for you to read it. If you have a moment, please read this short, but fantastic, op-ed from the New York Times.

(On a personal note, I would recommend bookmarking this URL. If you ever are having a bad day and want to be reminded that we all struggle, this article is just the trick.)

In this article, the author examines the very hilarious differences between what people post on social media and what they search for on Google. To paraphrase:

‘On social media, the top descriptors to complete the phrase “My husband is …” are: “the best,” “my best friend,” “amazing,” “the greatest” and “so cute.”

On Google, one of the top five ways to complete the same phrase is also “amazing.” So that checks out. The other four: “a jerk,” “annoying,” “gay” and “mean.”

Irritable bowel syndrome and migraines are similarly prevalent, each affecting around 10 percent of the American population. But migraine sufferers have built Facebook awareness and support groups two and a half times larger than I.B.S. sufferers have.

The point? What we present on social media is often a reflection of the lives we wished we had and not the lives we actually have. A majority of what people present on social media sites is not an accurate reflection of reality.

Think I am wrong? OK.

How many times have you seen someone post that they had an ‘OK’ vacation? How many times have you seen an anniversary post saying ‘Well, we’ve stopped having sex as much and we’ve been fighting a bit more and the kids threw a kink in our groove, but I love you and I am here to make this work.’ Has anyone’s wedding ever been at least a little stressful or chaotic? Have the drunken uncles and inevitable family dramas miraculously disappeared from family get-togethers?

PART FOUR: Highlights, Not The Whole Game.

The perfect analogy for the contrast between real life and what we see on social media is an NFL football broadcast.

This is a study that was done analyze the time breakdown of an NFL broadcast.

The average live NFL broadcast is about three and a half hours long. Of that time, there are a total of eleven minutes of actual in-game action. Eleven.

To quote the report:

“67 minutes of the broadcast are shots of players standing around. 63 minutes of the broadcast are commercials. 35 minutes of the broadcast are shots of the crowd, the coach, cheerleaders and announcers.”

In my opinion, watching a live NFL game is boring. There are lengthy play reviews, long pauses in-between plays and an absurd amount of commercials. This is sort of like life. Our lives are long periods of monotony interspersed with moments of action. Vacations, family get-togethers, new business ventures, weekend trips. These times are the in-game action. It is what we wished our lives were like all the time. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the majority of our lives are routines and sitting in traffic and grocery shopping and work and quiet time at home.

A lot of what we see on social media is the highlight reel of life, not the whole game. The monotony of life and our innumerable ‘human’ moments don’t make the cut.

I travel often. I have been fortunate to go to some really cool places and have some incredible experiences. If you were to perceive my life only through the photos I shared online, it might seem like I lived a dream life. Beaches and Patagonia and worldwide jet-setting.

The only problem is that these photos wouldn’t tell the entire story. You wouldn’t see the loneliness I feel. You wouldn’t see the stress that can come from moving from one place to the next. The missed flights and hotel check-ins and constant searches for a new apartment. You wouldn’t see the Tuesday nights when I am alone in a small Albanian apartment eating pizza and watching Netflix because I am homesick and that is the closest to home I can get.

Don’t let the highlights fool you.

The next time you are online, try to remember, that what you see is not reality. It is a snapshot of reality. If for example, you see a picture of someone in front of an awesome natural landscape, like the one below:

Remember that this person spent three days hiking with a 45 pound backpack on his back, sleeping in the cold and eating instant soup. Not so much fun. Also, a good portion of his time walking was spent asking himself: “Do I like walking? Do I really like walking this much? Nope, I’m pretty sure I am sick of walking at this point.”

PART FIVE: Proof.

Facebook recently made some significant changes to their NewsFeed algorithim. These changes are a direct result of their recent acknowledgement that passive consumption of information on social platforms is bad for you. Yes, that is a link to Facebook’s actual newsroom page. Yes, this is the world’s largest social media company telling you that randomly scrolling through your Newsfeed is likely to make you depressed. They believe productive conversations and connecting with others is great, but your popping in and scrolling around – not so much.

There are also psychological questions that need to be addressed. Do we really want to know what everyone else is doing? There are close to 7.5 billion people on the planet. Is it in our best interest to be exposed to the highlight reels of everyone else’s life? Wouldn’t consistently viewing how great everyone else has it just put us in a state of perpetually feeling as if our lives are not enough?

A study by SCOPE, a UK-based charity, found that more than than 60% of Facebook users felt inadequate compared to other users online. This study by the University of Pittsburgh has linked large amounts of time on social media with depression.

And if social media doesn’t depress us, it at the very least distracts us. Social platforms are designed to be addictive. Think it is a coincidence that you wake up and immediately grab your phone. Or that when you have several new notifications you feel excited? This is by design. The more time we all spend on a specific platform, the more valuable that platform becomes. Your attention a commodity, like sugar or oil. And just like major cigarette companies, it is in the interest of these publicly-traded companies to fight for that attention in order to make their product as desirable as possible.

PART SIX: Closing Statements – A Lesson from Charlie Munger.

Charlie Munger is considered by many to be one of the smartest people on the planet. He has been affectionately referred to as the “walking book.” His book, Poor Charlie’s Almanack comes recommended from some of the biggest and brightest minds on the planet. He is business partners with Warren Buffett and the vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, the conglomerate that Buffet manages.

A former teaching friend of mine once told me a story about Mr. Munger. I would like to share it with you.

Every year, Berkshire Hathaway holds an annual meeting for their shareholders. At this meeting, Munger and Buffet set aside time for an open forum, where they field questions from shareholders. My friend is a shareholder in Berkshire Hathaway and attends the annual meeting each year.

Several years ago, during the open-forum portion of the meeting, a woman asked Mr. Munger what he thought the key to happiness was. Mr. Munger replied that he could not tell her what the key to happiness was. What gave him pleasure might be different from what gave her pleasure. “But,” he said, “I do know the keys to being unhappy. Envy and self-pity. If you envy what others have and feel sorry for yourself, you will be much closer to unhappiness than happiness.”

Social media platforms have one fundamental flaw. They don’t present reality. They present fractions of our lives, carefully edited. And if you continuously scroll through the highlight reels of other people’s lives, it is only a matter of time before you envy what you see and feel as if what you are doing is not enough.

I was recently in Albania. I was alone. I was without many social outlets. I was coming off of an amazing trip with friends in Greece and I missed their companionship. To be frank, I was as depressed as I have been in quite awhile. I had a lot; perhaps too much; of free time. Naturally, I started to spend more time on social media. When I had down time, which was often, I would pop in to Facebook or Instagram.

And you know what, this did not make me feel better. It did not fill my social void. I did not feel more connected. Actually, the opposite happened. The more I logged in, the more envious I became of my friends and family. They were all seemingly having such a great time. I began to stop recognizing the blessings I had; the ability to swim in the Mediterranean Sea, lots of time to read and write, amazing seafood for less than $5; and began to focus on all the things I was missing out on.

After about a week, I noticed that the less I logged in, the better I felt. I began to swim more. I started journaling and sorting through my thoughts. I went on long walks. I made more of an effort to connect with friends and family back home. These things made me much happier than social media ever did.

I cannot tell you what will make you happy. You just gotta go out in the world and do you boo-boo. But I can tell you what I think will make you more unhappy.

More time on social media.

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Why Not Look Silly?

Why Not Look Silly?

“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.”
Epictetus

Over the past year and a half, I have successfully learned to speak Spanish. I am in no way fluent, but I can hold my own. Aside from living in Spanish-speaking countries, I have succeeded in learning a new language in large part to:

The fact that I am not afraid to look like an idiot.

I will ask questions and repeat expressions and roll my r’s until I get whatever it is I need to get right. I have sat in traffic with taxi drivers in Colombia as they patiently taught me how to count by tens. I will ask complete strangers to repeat the pronunciation of a new word for me. Often, I will ask them to repeat it more than once.

I have had young children sit at a restaurant and talk and laugh at me as I bumbled through my sentences. They loved it. Here was a six-foot-five gringo asking them for help. A woman I dated in Peru once explained the difference between “had” and “have” in Spanish for more than thirty minutes. I have no fear approaching people and starting conversations in Spanish, even when I know I will make mistake after mistake.

Social scientists have basically proven that young children are able to learn new languages much faster than adults. A large part of this is due to the fact that the brains of young children are like sponges when is comes to absorbing information.

But I would argue there is a social element to this as well. Young children are more open. They look silly and don’t really care. In fact, they don’t really have a reference point for “silly” and “not-silly.” They live openly and without a filter. They haven’t built the emotional registry that makes “looking silly” seem horrible.

My inauguration into this way of thinking came when I was a kindergarten teacher in Korea. I never knew the word “parents” could sound so much like “penis.” I can still clearly remember five year-old Korean kids yelling “shit” at me because they struggled with the pronunciation differences between a “p” and a “t.” I had students put together sentences like “Mom like dad no when dad walk all the night.”

While these moments were somewhat funny to me, my students were mostly oblivious to the fact that they had said something inappropriate or perhaps funny. Their obliviousness was their savior. They never missed a beat. They kept trying and were not deterred. My little homie Ian went from “shit” to “ship” in no time.

My experience teaching, and learning, foreign languages has shown me the importance of being comfortable looking foolish. My biggest asset while learning Spanish has been that I am not afraid to look dumb. I have met friends much smarter than I am who speak less Spanish simply because they are easily embarrassed. They are preoccupied with putting together the perfect sentence. They are quick to shut up once they make a mistake. They laugh or freeze or simply just say “fuck it” and give up.

As we become older, social experiences teach us that looking dumb is a very bad thing. It brings on ridicule and shame and paints us in a bad light. As we grow older, social pressures continue to increase. The culmination of these pressures is likely in our teens. Nobody wants to draw the attention of teenage ridicule. The more you stand out, the easier a target you become. As we transition into adulthood, we become conditioned to “look cool.”

But if you are learning something new, this conditioning hurts you. If you are learning, it should be an accepted fact that you are ignorant, at least in some respect, to what you are learning. If you weren’t, what would you be learning?

You see, it was my students naivety that helped them learn the most. They had not yet been conditioned to save face and look cool. Everything was new to them. They embraced all aspects of life, not just English, openly and curiously.

To this day, one of the best pieces of advice I ever received is something a girl I dated once said to me:

“Don’t take yourself too seriously.”

Take a look at the world around you. Think of all the people sharing this planet with us. It might help to view a much broader version of our planet as a whole. This video does a fantastic job of putting into context just how brief human existence has been relative to the entire history of you know… everything.

Now take into account the fact that our individual lives are almost equally as small when taken in the context of modern human history. Civilized human existence has been around for 6,000 years. If the average lifespan is 79 years, we will be around for about 0.013% of the entire existence of civilization.

Think of all of the people who have come before you. Think of all the people currently sharing the planet with us. Think of all the blunders and mistakes and slip-ups and embarrassing moments. Need some help?

  • 12 book publishers rejected the Harry Potter series.
  • Russia sold Alaska to the US for two cents per acre because they thought it was useless. Alaska is now one of the United States largest natural resource assets. 
  • In 1788 the Austrian army accidentally attacked themselves, resulting in the loss of more than 10,000 soldiers.
  • It took 177 years to build a beautiful tower in Pisa, Italy. The structure started to lean after only ten years.
  • In 1961, Decca Records, a music label in the UK, rejected a band because they were not “sellable.” That band? The Beatles.
  • Former US President George W. Bush once said this in a speech: “There’s an old saying in Tennessee—I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee—that says, ‘Fool me once, shame on…shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again’ “

Any feeling you have, any mistake you have made, any embarrassing situation you have been a part of…. Guess what? You’re not the first person to experience this. While your day-to-day fuck-ups and slip-ups may seem like a huge deal to you, in the grand scheme of things, they’re really not.

Even people who are considered important currently; our presidents and actors and actresses and sports stars; their mistakes will be forgotten as well. For example, did you know that Abraham Lincoln lost two US Senatorial elections and one Vice Presidential race before being elected president? Or how about that current US President Donald Trump has filed for corporate bankruptcy six times. Six.

Think back 80 years. Who was the singer to see in England during the 1920’s? Who is the most famous actor from the 1960’s? Who was the world’s premier athlete in the 1950’s?

As Katt Williams would say:

If you don’t know the answer to these questions, no worries. You are the norm, not the exception.

Why?

Because life moves on, always and without fail. Your accomplishments, your failures, your embarrassing mistakes – these will all eventually be forgotten.

The fear of what other people think can be socially crippling. If you can find a way to become comfortable looking foolish and knowingly making mistakes, imagine how much easier almost all social interactions become.

My comfortability playing the fool has not just helped me learn Spanish. It has helped me meet women. It has helped improve my public speaking skills. It has helped me professionally with clients. It has helped me learn to dance salsa.

I used to be afraid of rejection. Now, if a woman doesn’t want to talk to me, no te preocupes.  I’ll smile and go talk to someone else. If a client mentions something I am not familiar with, I do not hold my tongue and pretend I know what they are talking about. I ask them to explain what they are referring to. Often, they appreciate my questions and my candidness. I never shied away from dancing salsa with my Colombian girlfriend, even though it was obvious I had no place on the same dance floor as her. And you know what? Nobody in the bar cared. They were all too busy enjoying themselves. Nobody remembers how bad that tall gringo danced one random Saturday night last year. Remember, life moves on. People are way too concerned with their own lives to focus on your mistakes.

So don’t take yourself too seriously. Regardless of what you do in life, the less you focus on how you look, the more enjoyable your journey will be. Enjoy the ride. Laugh at yourself. Allow yourself to be a little vulnerable. Do not be afraid to look silly or play the fool.

And when you do, just smile and keep carryin’ on.

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Why Not Stop Using “Why Not?”

Why Not Stop Using “Why Not?”

“Sometimes, the advice you tell other people is the advice you need to follow.”

First off, if you have never visited this site before, what I am about to say might make zero sense to you. Feel free to stick along for the ride, but if not, that’s cool too.

Since launching PorQueNo?, one of the questions I have consistently asked myself is:

“So, just how full of shit are you?”

I do not mean to imply that my stories are made up or that my posts aren’t genuine. All of my stories are real and I believe very strongly in the ideas I share. My question focuses more on how often I actually follow the advice that I share. I write about volunteering but just went to volunteer for the first time in months. I wrote about the importance of beginning but still find myself hesitant to launch numerous projects.

I suppose the root of my question is: “Are you practicing what you preach?”

The entire premise of this website is to encourage people to adapt, change or approach their lives from a different angle. If I am unwilling to do the same, then just how full of shit am I?

Shouldn’t I be the first one to change? The first one to show anyone who reads my site that I am actually implementing what I write about?

To be honest, while I am very happy with the articles I have written and the content on the PorQueNo? site, using “Why Not” in the title of each post is a bit limiting. I have plenty of ideas for articles I would like to write but sometimes find it hard to incorporate that concept into a “Why Not?” headline.

Generally speaking, I hate rules. I think the majority of rules, when taken into the grand scheme of life, are silly. This is magnified even more when it comes to writing. I feel that writing something so that it fits within a pre-determined theme is silly. It is contrary to the very ideas that I share on the site.

And if I am being really honest, I think that the titles sometimes actually turn people away from reading my articles. They are vague and sometimes confusing. They do not hit many emotional triggers and present little intrigue. I am learning that a title is often the most important element to a blog post. It is what generates interest initially and gets people to click on the link. My Why Not Stop Giving Presents? piece might generate a lot more traffic to my site if the title was “Why I Stopped Giving Presents (And How It Brought My Mom to Medellin, Colombia).

I would be lying if I said that I did not want a lot of people to visit my site and read my articles. I do. And if changing the titles for my posts can do that, then giddy-up cowboy.

So, going forward, I am going to begin releasing articles outside of the “Why Not?” format. The name of the site will stay the same and I will still write “Why Not?” articles from time to time, but I am also going to write some other stuff. I want to expand my writing chops and write about whatever I want, whenever I want.

I am aware that most of you reading this could really give a damn about what I write and the titles I choose to use. I get that. Thanks for sticking with me this long. I wouldn’t really care either if I were you. But there is a point to this all.

My primary reason for writing this particular post is to show that I, as much as anybody, can always find ways to improve. We all struggle. We can all do better and we all can do more to get more out of this life. The more open we are to change, the more likely we are to succeed.

Take a look at your life. What is something you could change but that you are resistant to changing? Why are you resistant to changing this? What is holding you back? Is it possible changing this thing would improve your life in some way? You may not like the answers to some of these questions, but they are the questions you need to be asking.

Big thanks to Troy Erstling for reminding me of this. If anyone reading this has the time, you should definitely check out Troy’s website – www.troyerstling.com. He is a freestylin’, writing, entrepreneurial whirling dirvish. I guarantee that his site will both educate and entertain you.

I want to close with a quote by Mark Twain, as I think it is the most appropriate encapsulation of what I am writing about.

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Nathan

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Why Not Get Lost?

Why Not Get Lost?

“Not all those who wander are lost.”
J.R.R. Tolkien

If you are looking for a way to spice up your next date night, I have a great suggestion. It is fun. It is an exercise that helps to eliminate expectations and is fantastic practice for letting go of control. You can do this with almost zero effort or planning. In fact, not planning is one of the basic requirements in order for this to work.

So what is it?

Getting lost.

Go through your own personal rolodex of memories. Which ones stick out to you? What stories do you find yourself telling time and again? Is it the story about the Friday night when you researched a restaurant online, made a reservation, showed up on time, had a pleasant meal and then went home?

Doubtful.

Some of my favorite memories, and almost all of my go-to traveling stories, stem from times when things went to absolute shit. When I was lost, or a bus broke down or a boat ride was cancelled or I was stranded with friends in a small town in the middle of nowhere.

I do not tell people the story about my overnight bus ride from Chiang-Mai to Bangkok that left on time, met all of it’s scheduled stops and arrived at it’s destination.

Who would?

No I would prefer to tell the story of my bus ride from Cusco, Peru to Lima, Peru. The bus broke down several times. There was one running start where we had to catch up to the bus and hop on. After the bus broke down for the fifth time, we had to pile in the back of a closed semi-trailer for almost 90 minutes:

One visit to the national police office, two buses and fifteen hours later we arrived in Lima. The trip took more than 36 hours in total. It was the worst bus ride of my life. But it is also the most memorable. I will always remember being packed in the back of a semi-truck in complete darkness for two hours. I can still remember looking up at the Andes as myself and two French travelers sat sharing cigarettes and coffee while fourteen Peruvian men argued about how to fix our bus. I finally got to ride in the back of a semi-trailer.

The average person’s life, on the whole, tends to be rather regulated. It is routines and work and pre-arranged get-togethers. Most of the time, we organize our life to avoid surprises. Which is why stories about random encounters or getting lost or having things go hilariously wrong stand out. They are a break from the mundane.

So why not get lost?

Why not purposefully put yourself into a situation where you do not know where you are or what you will do next? If you are on vacation in a new place, this is easy.

Traveling, essentially, is getting lost.

On your next trip, do yourself a favor and ditch the guide. Ask around about neighborhoods that are safe and pleasant to walk in and go wander. Do not research restaurants or things to do. Just go and see what you find.

You can get lost close to home as well. Pick a neighborhood you know nothing about and go for a walk. Or go ride bikes. For all my homies in Wisconsin who are thinking that it is often too cold for either of those activities, I say this. Bundle up. Or drive. Or wait until spring. If you know your hometown too well and cannot think of a neighborhood that would surprise you, go for a drive. Get on the open road and start taking random turns as often as you would like.

I feel compelled to say that getting lost has to be done with reason. Do not do this on a night when you do not want to walk a lot. Do not do this is in neighborhoods that are known to be dangerous. If you start to wander into a neighborhood that may not be a bad neighborhood but has the familiar trappings of a bad neighborhood; gun store, liquor store, gun store, bail bondsmen; turn around.

I am suggesting you get lost for a few hours, not forever.

All disclaimers aside, here is why getting lost on purpose is a good idea:

1) Firstly, and most importantly, you will learn to roll with things.

Getting lost is kind of fun. Hilariously strange stories come from it. I once got lost in Parque Arvi, a national park outside of Medellin, Colombia. You have to ride a cable car over the city to get to the park. The cable cars stop at 6:00PM. We got back to the station at 7PM. A misinterpreted message to two Colombian friends put us on the radar of the National Police, who thought we were still lost in the park. While drinking beers at a tienda, waiting for the next bus, we noticed an increase in police activity. We were the cause of the activity.

A short explanation of the mistake…

Led us to befriending a local Colombian family, who invited us to their home for a bonfire….

And then allowed us to spend the night. A sunrise shot…

Give it a solid two hours and see what happens. Trust yourself, you are smart. You, better than anyone, know what you like. Look for that. You might be amazed at how well things turn out. At the very least, you be reminded that at the end of the day, regardless of your plan, things tend to usually turn out all right.

2) All expectations are out the window.

There is a famous saying, “Plans are invitation to disappointment.”

If you are lost, everything becomes a weird, pleasant surprise.

If you go to someplace you don’t like, just leave. You’ll likely laugh about it later. I do not mean to say to purposely search for a bad time. If you find someplace you love, it is an even better story. But by starting with no plan or expectations, you are immediately eliminating the opportunity for any expectations. You have absolutely zero chance to be disappointed because you have zero idea where you are or what you will do.

In college, my friends and I were consistently amused at how our random nights out seemed to turn out better than our planned get-togethers. The interesting thing was that we often went to similar places with similar groups of people. So what was the difference? On the random nights out, we had no expectations. Things would sort of just happen. By having no plan, and no expectations, we became more open. This openness did not create more opportunities for us. It simply made us more aware of them.

3) It pushes you outside of your comfort zone.

Getting lost is like one big trust fall. Feeling lost is not a natural feeling. We like knowing where we are. We like knowing where we are going. The unknown, as much as anything, scares us.

If you really try to get lost, phones should not be used. You are not lost if you are looking at your GPS location on your iPhone with a series of Yelp reviews alongside. You will have to ask people for directions or recommendations. You will have to use your intuition a bit.

4) It is good training for L-I-F-E.

While we all would like to think that we are in control, in reality we are not. The world operates largely at random. Our lives and the worlds that we create for ourselves are thin pieces of glass that can shatter at any point in time. One thing happens and BAM, the whole picture changes. Practicing letting go of control and learning to adapt to life as it comes to you is fantastic practice for when things do go wrong and we are left to pick up the pieces.

5) You will wake the fuck up.

Apologies for the language, but it adds a certain level of effect. I try to limit my indulgences.

I am as guilty of the zombie walk as anyone. No phone means no GPS means you will actually have to look at street signs and remember landmarks.

No online reviews means that you will need to pop your head in somewhere and follow your gut. You will have to talk to other people. Most likely ones you don’t know. You will be forced to actually look at random strangers and assess who seems like a good person to ask for recommendations. Learn to smile and trust people. Most people are kind and willing to help.

Life is not always meant to be structured. The world we live in is random. Who we meet, how we meet them, where we end up.

While plans may be comforting, and even helpful, they almost always end up changing. Try wingin’ it. Take life as it comes at you, on it’s terms, not yours.

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Why Not Die Content?

“A winner in life, not a loser in death.”
– Russell French

“The truth is, once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.”
– Morrie Schwartz, from the New York Times best-selling book Tuesdays With Morrie

My grandfather died.

I do not say this for sympathy. It is simply a statement. To be honest, I am happy that he was able to move on. Death is what he had wanted for quite some time.

His death was not ceremonial or dramatic in any way. He was here and then he wasn’t. He started sleeping about three days before he actually died and he never really woke up. The terminology the nursing home used was “actively dying.” I found that expression to be quite ironic.

I was fortunate enough to sit with my grandfather during his final days. We did not talk. We did not sit and have a final heart to heart. He slept and I sat. Every three to four hours the nursing staff would come into the room to turn him onto his other side. This he did not like. At times he would stop breathing for twenty, even thirty seconds at a time. Twice I went to sit and put my hand under his nose to see if he was still alive. Twice he started breathing again and startled me.

As I sat there, part of me couldn’t help but think to myself, this is it. This, a small nursing room and a grandson on a recliner next to you? A woman across the hall who cannot sleep and who continually barks for help from the nursing staff. The bustling of a nursing home and the slow passage of time while your body prepares to die. This was it?

My grandfather was a mensch. There are no two ways about this. I understand how this may read. I understand that each of our relatives are important to us in ways that only those close to these relatives can understand. But seriously, this guy was a fucking stud.

From a young age, he was a global citizen. He was born in New York and raised in Singapore. As a child, he dined alongside the likes of General Douglas MacArthur. This, however meant nothing to him. He was a Huckleberry Finn type. You know, swimming and camping and jumping out of trees and breaking bones.

During World War II, he was commissioned by the U.S. Navy and became a member of Scouts and Raiders, a precursor to the U.S. Navy Seals. The Scouts and Raiders did things like train dolphins to place sticky bombs on the bottom of enemy boats. He and his team went on daily five-mile swims, sometimes hitching a ride with the occasional dolphin.

He was a family man. He helped to raise three beautiful children while also caring for a wife who consistently battled numerous medical conditions. He bought a big old house with a barn and horses and ensured his children had a childhood that we all would be envious of. Later in life, he became the grandpa who bought us huge LEGO sets and took us on tractor rides as we made our way down to cruise on his pontoon boat.

He was rich. He was never afraid to make money and never afraid to share it. He was content with what he had, which made personal success easy for him. People seem to like you more when you aren’t playing an angle.

He achieved tremendous success professionally. He worked in the promotional products industry and was elected into the PPAI Hall of Fame in 1994. He took the entrepreneurial leap in 1979 and started his own promotional products company, which he ran until he sold it in 1997. Money never dictated how he lived or prevented him from doing the things he wanted. He made it and he spent it and he gave it away. He used it as we all should, as a tool to make his life, and the lives of those around him, better.

He was a good man. He was a lifelong Rotarian. He volunteered whenever possible and worked to teach his children and grandchildren the beauty of sacrifice for others. His volunteering efforts were recognized on multiple occasions. He rang bells for the Salvation Army every Christmas. Throughout his life, he donated more than twenty gallons of blood. GALLONS. To him, volunteering did not need to be a gruesome event. It could be a fun way to connect with, and learn from, other people. As a result of his commitment to community service, in 2000 the Janesville United Way honored him with the Geraldine Hedberg Alexis Tocqueville Society Award, it’s most prestigious volunteer award.

He was generous. He gave often and openly. As his grandchildren, our Christmas presents often involved gifts that were not for us. He would make a donation in our name to a certain charity or buy a heifer (yes an actual damn cow) for a small family in Africa. Each Christmas was an opportunity for him to tell us a story and to continually show, by example, how important it is for those who have to share with those who do not.

He traveled the world. He visited five of the seven continents. His time in the Navy took him to remote islands in Southeast Asia. As a father, he often packed up the family for cross-country road trips. For his 70th birthday, he summitted Mt. Kilamanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. Later in life, he cruised the Atlantic with his second wife so they could take in the sights of Europe.

He was a man of faith. He attended his local church regularly and was deeply religious. It was his faith in God, as much as anything, that comforted him as he left this world.

I mention this not to brag. I do not the need external validation to know that my grandfather lived a full life. I mention this for context.

This was it for my grampy? Here is a man whose life deserved a parade. He deserved to have the horns blown, the bells rang, the primitive drums sounded.

This was it?

If his life did not merit some form of grand recognition, whose did?

He died in the middle of the night, with my dad sleeping in the recliner at his bedside. My aunt, my dad and myself spent some time with him during the early morning hours while we waited for the funeral home to come and take his body away. There were no horns or drums. We played several songs on my computer; quietly, so as not to disturb the insomniac across the hall.

And then, he was gone. The funeral director came, last goodbyes were said and his body was wheeled out into the parking lot. Off to the University of Wisconsin Medical Center. My grandfather’s final donation. Always wanting to be an organ donor, and realizing as he aged that his organs would be of no vital use to anyone, he decided to donate his body to science. His hope was that some medical student would be able to use his body to learn.

I am writing this in part to pay tribute to my grandfather and in part to share the most important lesson my grandfather ever shared with me. A friend once told me that people die twice. First when they physically die and second when everyone who ever knew their name died. Call this my fighting stand to preserve the legacy of one Russell Burchard French.

In November of last year, shortly before I left for an extended trip to South America, I went to visit my grandfather. He had been declining for the past year and it was very likely that I may never see him again. As we were saying goodbye, I could see that he had a very earnest look in his eye. He wanted to say something and be sure that he was understood. This was not always so easy for him at this point in his life.

As I bent over to hug him and stumble through a goodbye that implicitly hinted at the fact that this might be our last goodbye, my grandfather stopped me.

Clear eyed and straight-faced, he said to me:

“I want you to know that I am ready to die. I know what the next step is and I am prepared for it. I do not want anyone to be sad when I am gone, because I know what is next. I am ready to die.”

This one moment, my grandfather’s complete acceptance of death, showed me everything l needed to know about how to live.

He did not die kicking and screaming, grasping for all that might of been. He was content with the life he had lived. He was ready for the next step, whatever that may be. There were no stones left for him to turn.

I realize now what my grandfather likely recognized long ago. There was never going to be any grand procession into the after-life.

This was, and always is, going to be it.

Once we are gone, the world will continue to spin. Whatever it is that you want to do, or become, or try to become, you had better do it now.

To understand that nothing in life is ours, that even our time is borrowed and will one day expire, should provide an incredible clarity to how we live. Our decisions in life, and our interactions with others, should be based on one simple maxim:

“When it is my time to die, how will I look back on this?”

I encourage anyone who reads this to take a lesson from my grandfather. Live now, while you can. This is always going to be it. Remember that your life, while meaningful, will never matter more to anyone else than it does to you.  So whatever it is you want to do, just go on and do it.

And at the end of it all, when our time comes, we will all have to ask ourselves one question, a question only we can really answer.

“So, was it all enough for me?”

Hopefully, we will all smile and ride that final wave as peacefully as my grandfather did.

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Why Not Play The Photo Game?

Why Not Play The Photo Game?

“A selfie has more face and fewer feelings.” – Amit Kalantri

That photo. Yea, the one you just scrolled past… I took that picture in Patagonia. That’s the homie Rufus checking out Mt. Fitz Roy in Argentina. It’s my favorite picture from my trip. I can look at it and almost immediately remember just how blue the sky was that morning. And the crazy part… I’m not in it.

Let’s get right out and say it. Staged photos are lame. Selfies, miraculously, have become cool.

Both selfies and staged photos are orchestrated, a bit un-authentic and in no way an accurate reflection of what is actually happening during a given situation. To be honest, they are a reflection of what people want to appear is happening. A group of people standing next to each other holding their best smile is not what people actually do when they get together.

Now, when I say that staged photos are lame, I am strictly speaking creatively. Of course your wedding pictures and family Christmas photos are important. They are memories. I, as much as anyone, like to look through old photos. I simply think there are better moments to be captured. Here is an example.

Below is a photo of a group of friends that I took while I was living in Argentina. They were not expecting it or posing in any way. Compared with the standard, “stand-in-a-line, hand-on-the-hip, head-cocked-to-the-side” pose, I would choose this photo every time. To be fair, it does help to have a dog sitting on a table, but you get the idea. This photo is natural. None of these women are forcing a fake smile. Their smiles are real. Their reactions to this dog’s aggressive begging are in a small way a reflection of their true personality.

Wedding photographers are hired for exactly this reason. To catch people in natural moments. The best pictures happen when we are not planning them. Except we don’t necessarily need professional photographers all the time. Most of us walk around with high resolution cameras in our pockets all day, every day. See: X, iPhone.

So…. why not play The Photo Game?

What is the Photo Game you ask? The Photo Game is very simple. The next time you are on a trip or are out with a group of people, each person in the group has to take pictures of other people in the group. There are three rules:

1) Photos cannot be staged. Absolutely no selfies. The goal is to catch people in an authentic moment.

2) The photos need to try to capture a person or persons in a natural setting or during a time when the “photographer” thinks they can catch them in a cool picture. No rules on when you can or cannot take a photo. Just try not to get caught. 

3) At the end of the night or the day or the trip, the group goes through the pictures and determines a “best photo.” It helps if there is a wager. People step up if they have a little skin in the game. Rounds of drinks or dinner tabs are usually a great wager. When I have played, whoever takes the best photo has been treated to a dinner by the other members of the group. 

If everyone participates actively, you will be amazed at the amount of incredible photos that each person walks away with. On top of that, you will be surprised at how much enjoyment you will get from capturing moments for other people. Socially speaking, it is interesting what the end results reflect about the people in your group. Spoiler alert: good listeners often make good photographers.

The idea for this game came to me during a trip to Barranquilla, Colombia for Carnaval. I was fortunate to go with two professional photographers. Besides being people who enjoy photography, they were also competing in a “Best of Carnaval” photography competition that is held each year.

Naturally, as we danced and partied along the parade route, these two photographers would snap shots of our group of friends as well. I was blown away by some of the photos. I think they are both very talented and will shamelessly plug them.

Joel Duncan is a truly talented real estate photographer in Medellin, Colombia. He has a passion for taking pictures and it shows. He specializes in real estate photography. If you are interested in buying some of his fantastic prints, you can do so here. He took the picture on the right.

 

 

 

 

Gloria Villa is a Colombian photographer living in Paris, France. From engagement photos to boudoir, she pulls it off with style. She also gave me one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received when she told me, “Remember, nothing in life is ours. So what do you actually have to lose?” She caught our Carnaval crew, post-partying, for the picture to the left.

Once I saw how much better the un-staged photos looked, I wondered why we all don’t take more pictures of others. I mean, it’s not like we can’t. Again, we have the technology. Once you get over the creep-factor – you WILL feel a little creepy at times – it is such an easy thing to do. See photo opportunity, take picture, done.

Since my Carnaval trip, I have tried off and on to recruit others to play this game with me. Almost all of my favorite photos from this past year involve the Photo Game. Late last year, while I was on a backpacking trip in Patagonia, I got two British companions to play along. Some of my favorite photos from that trip came as a result of this game. Below are three:


The aforementioned Mt. Fitz Roy. 

This photo is a reminder of just how hilariously easy it was to cross the border between Argentina and Chile.

The last photo is of the most bad-ass 50 year old I have met. It is also a small reminder of how far into nowhere we went.

These are three of my favorite photos from my trip. I am in none of them. You do not need to be in a photo for it to become a memory. In their own way, each of these photos brings back a vivid picture. They are a reminder of the people I met and how they positively impacted my trip.

Besides getting killer photos, this game is also an great way to step outside of your own head. If you find it difficult to stop and look for photo-worthy moments of other people, to be honest, you are probably a little too self-involved.

Even if you think this game sounds stupid, which would be a fair play, try it on a smaller scale. No competition, no game. Just snap some photos of your homies. Try doing something for someone else, such as taking their picture, just cuz, and see what effect it has.

Just as actively listening requires you to set aside your own thoughts and actually pay attention, this game requires you to forget about how you look and take a few moments to check in on everyone else.

If you choose to play this game, the pictures you take will bring you closer to the people you photograph. At the very least, you will have something to talk about. Something the people you are with are guaranteed to be interested in.

Themselves.

And who knows, the photos just may help you recognize how many incredible moments in life pass us by while we are stuck inside our own heads.

That’s it. Stop taking so many photos of yourself. Everyone likes to have great pictures. Take some of your friends. And if the philosophical stuff doesn’t pull at your heartstrings, there is always the possibility of free dinner and drinks to consider.

If you do decide to play this game, please share your favorite photos on Instagram @por_que_no_vida. I would love to see the pictures you take. #photogame 

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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 be sure to 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 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 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 make 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. We 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 brought my mom to Colombia came to me a few months later, as I was contemplating what to buy her 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 to 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 something everyone needs more of. Time.

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.

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? I 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.

Rededicated to 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 photo of Medellin. After one class the students took us on a hike. This is where they took us. 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 ball my whole life and am abnormally large. I was able to provide him with experience playing against a bigger, stronger opponent. Twice a week, for about a month, we would meet 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. 

 

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