La Perle des Antilles

This may sound maudlin, but sometimes hate does turn into love and sometimes, if you’re in the right frame of mind, a challenging situation is indeed an opportunity.  By the time I left home at 18, I had moved house 17 times in 3 continents, 4 countries, 3 US states and the District of Columbia.  One of those places, for better or worse, was to have a major influence on my life.  In the early 70s my family moved to Haiti for what was supposed be “a few years”.

If nature abhors a vacuum, it’s equally true that young children abhor uncertain, chaotic situations.  So let me reiterate what I just said in the paragraph above – it was the 1970s (an era, in retrospect, when everyone was seemingly flying by the seat of their pants) and I had just landed in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, a 3rd world country ruled by secret police and a “president for life” dictator.  Oh, and we didn’t speak the language (creole).  My parents spoke French and my sister and I had spoken French as younger children but at that point had forgotten it after a few years in inner-city DC.  (Haiti was\is considered a francophone country but the reality is that the vast majority of the population do not speak French.)

My father’s job allowed us to have a comfortable life of a higher standard than we’d just had in DC, complete with a pool and servants.    I was in a new school (again), and as per usual most of the kids had known each other since infancy.  While it was an “American” school, most of the kids flat-out spoke creole amongst themselves outside of class.  I was told we’d move again in a few years so it seemed sort of pointless to learn the language and otherwise get attached to this place that I wasn’t overly fond of.

It wasn’t all bad, of course, because in spite of extreme poverty and political corruption, Haiti was – and is – a country unlike no other.  There is natural beauty (including the best beaches I’ve ever seen anywhere), an extremely vibrant culture and great cuisine.  I might have been a moody little git, but it’s hard not to like pate, poulet creole and fresco gwenadin ak pistache griye (shaved ice with grenadine syrup and grilled peanuts – trust me).  However, what really burned Haiti into my memory, and not in a good way, was the final breakdown of my parents’ marriage and also a fairly scary health issue my mother encountered.  I had made friends and was doing OK in school but I really couldn’t wait to see the last of that country.

Leave we did, and for a few brief years my sister, my mother and I ping-ponged around the US Midwest and East Coast.  Somewhere along the line I made a fetish out of “normalcy”.  I longed to fit in, to be as vanilla as possible, to blend into the crowd.  Finally, we ended up in incredibly small-minded town in the metropolitan Boston area as my mother worked ridiculous hours, raised 2 kids and pursued her degrees in arguably the best university in the US.  My “normalcy” campaign was an abject failure.  Sure, I had made a few friends and had become reasonably proficient at baseball but I was far from what you’d call popular.  In fact, I received more than my share of shit, straight up bullying, at school because I was a shy, geeky, pimply new kid (entirely on me) but also because of my family situation (beyond my control).  At roughly the same time I discovered the martial arts and latched on with laser focus.  I trained 4 hours a day 5 times a week so after a year or 2 I began to get fairly proficient.  The better I got, the more local notoriety I received and, for the most part, the bullying stopped.  After a fight or 2, kids decided to pursue easier targets.

Nevertheless, I was miserable anywhere outside of a dojo, and school, especially, was the 9th circle of hell.  I began to skip obscene amounts of school.  Towards the end, I was skipping every Monday and Friday.  To this day, I’m not sure how I got away with it, but let’s just say that my middle school was a bit of a chaotic, Lord of the Flies situation for students and teachers alike.  Most kids probably would have fallen in with a bad element at this point but honestly, I was too geeky to be accepted by the “bad element”.  Skipping school was the limit of my rebellion.

All miserable things must come to an end so, eventually, the day came when my mother sat my sister and I down to announce that we’d be going back to Haiti for a brief period so she could finish her doctoral thesis.  Looking back, as the divorced parent of 2 children, I  appreciate the courage behind her decision.  As a self-involved young teenager, naturally, my first thought was “WTF, why me and why, of all the places in the world, there???”  And I didn’t want to leave my dojo, the one place that I fit in.  Soon thereafter, however, the school administration finally noticed my laughable attendance record and the dragnet began to close in.   Suddenly, a few months in the Caribbean didn’t seem like such a bad idea.

In no time at all, we were back in Port-au-Prince.  This time, though, the experience was going to be radically different.  My sister and I were older and there was less “family drama” to complicate things further.  On the other hand, we had very little money and were operating well and truly without a safety net.  Money equals power everywhere, but even more so in desperately poor countries.  The 3 of us lived in 1 rented room for the first few months.   In adult terms, we had only been gone for a few years, but as an early adolescent it seemed like decades.

It was like “The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao” in reverse, only I was painfully skinny (we all were back then) and incredibly “blan”.  Even  my Irish-American schoolmates in Boston used to give out to me for how pale I am…so while my school in PauP reflected all the colors in the rainbow, I selflessly anchored the far gringo end of the chromatic spectrum.  The similarities with the book, however, outweighed the differences: it was the very early 80s, I was on the island of Hispaniola and, oh yes indeedy, was very socially awkward.

My mother had managed, by dint of a level of hustle one rarely sees these days, to send us to our old school.  This was notable because it’s a private school and as I mentioned above, she had very limited funds at that point.  (In fact, I’m fairly certain her income was poverty level by US standards, but in Haiti in those days it was “middle-class”.  One didn’t often see an entire “blan” family with limited means (and, at the time, limited connections) so it’s accurate to say we were a rarity.)  My classmates were an interesting mix of Haitian elite (the 1 percent), embassy brats, some missionary kids and a few odd-ball cases like my sister and I.  It was a weird mix by anybody’s standards.  The 14 year old kid on my left might have a Patek Philippe on his wrist and had driven himself to school in his BMW while the kid on my right could be a snuff-dipping South Carolina redneck in training.  Every high school has cliques and subcultures, but this place added class and a wider range of socio-political issues to boot.  (We had, for example, Lebanese, Palestinians and Israelis in our school – which made for an interesting period after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982).

I also searched around for a new dojo – one that I could get to via public transportation (aka Tap-taps, camionettes and “publiques” (ancient communal taxis of a sort) and we could afford.  We eventually found one and I began training with my new dojo mates.  It was my first real re-introduction to unadulterated Haitian culture.  Nobody spoke English, just Creole (mostly) and French (sorta).  It was a real old school dojo, with the old-school “recitation of the credo” before every training session, all counting and technique names in Japanese and, distressingly (for me) they insisted on wearing a full gi at all times.  Wearing a full gi while performing intense physical exercise in a stifling, non-air-conditioned dojo in a tropical country was, shall we say, challenging at first.  I puked a few times and passed out at least once before my body adjusted.  That being said, my dojo mates and instructors where really cool guys and surprisingly accepting of the goofy “sans-ave” “blanmana” that was deposited in their midst.  Oh, and they were the most flexible bunch I had ever run into, capable of doing full splits with little or no warm-up.  Long after I finally gave up the martial arts, I’d often run into guys from the old dojo whilst out and about in PauP/Petionville and they were always extremely cool.

In spite of a very modest living situation, a certain amount of culture-shock, a high-school environment on steroids and being the new kid once again  I couldn’t honestly say that my level of adolescent angst and general miserableness was worse than it was in the States.  Still, I longed to return to Boston and continue training with my original dojo. This might seem strange but as I’ve said before, karate was the only thing in my life that was entirely mine in which I had achieved a certain level of success and notoriety.   However, as the months wore on, it became increasingly obvious that a “short stint” in Haiti was becoming a longer, more open-ended affair.

It’s fully to my mother’s credit that she allowed me to return to Boston and my old dojo.  Much credit also goes to first instructor and mentor, P, as he agreed to do the heavy lifting transportation wise, waiving the already cheap monthly fees, etc.  Be that as it may, I was essentially a young teenager living with very nice strangers back in the same damn town.   I realized 2 things very quickly: a) I missed my mother and sister a whole lot and b) man, did I ever hate that town.  I had always thought the fault was squarely on me but I realized the town sucked, too.  It seemed to dislike me, and I , it.  I remember a visceral feeling of suffocation and it dawned on me that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of its’ philosophy.  As much as I hated to leave my original dojo, I felt, surprisingly, a very strong desire to return to Haiti.

So, in very short order, I found myself back in funky ol’ PauP.  My living situation hadn’t changed, it was still as “challenging” as ever, but my attitude had.  I was still miserable, but I realized that non-stop moaning wasn’t solving anything.  I eventually learned creole, made a number of friends (many of them outside of school) and, hell yes, even met girls.  I returned back to my PauP dojo for a time, at least.  After a few years, we had a very small, old school traditional shotgun style house on a hill overlooking downtown PauP.  It was filled to the tin roof with books that we had brought and that various of my mother’s university colleagues had left which was key as we didn’t have a TV.   Hell, the phone didn’t even work half the time.  Those books saved my sanity and gave me a painless “by osmosis” education that saved my *ss in school.  Boredom is a very powerful motivator, one that is increasingly rare these days.  My sister eventually left for college, leaving just my mother and I.  My mother’s various jobs often took her into countryside for days at time which effectively left me, by this time an older teenager, alone.  I know what you’re thinking, and you wouldn’t be totally wrong (see above re: friends and girls).  I learned a number of valuable lessons, like it’s possible to get by on 2 gourdes worth of fritaille a day in a pinch and who I could sell my clothes to if my friends and I had prematurely blown the food budget on parties.

It’s worth noting that in some respects the Haiti I am referring to no longer exists.  At that time it was far safer than most US cities at the time.  While I did run into some issues whilst literally running in the streets, it was pretty tame.  I routinely cut through slums, on foot, at all hours of the day.  We’d do things like hop a tap-tap (or hitchhike) to Grand Goave (a town on the coast outside of Port-au-Prince) to watch a voudun ceremony, drink rum and return back home the next morning.  Crime and insecurity was not really a factor in those days, as crazy as that sounds now.  I often wonder if our ultra low-budget, no connection having re-introduction to Haiti as described above would do-able these days.  I’m not sure it would be.

Haiti is a complex place, one that you hate and love simultaneously.  It’s “The land of unlimited impossibilities” that’s always capable of breaking your heart.

 

The best books you’ve never read

 

 

The purpose of this post is share my all time best literary “finds”.  My definition of a “find” is a work that is not mainstream but undeniably brilliant.  These books are, in my opinion, masterpieces.  A masterpiece is, in my experience,  a book that is usually not very accessible at first but once you’ve entered it’s universe you feel your mind literally expanding.  It’s technically brilliant, it offers unique perspectives and tackles multiple universal themes simultaneously.  You can revisit/reread these works many times and you’ll learn something new.  Hamlet, Moby Dick, The Invisible Man and The Iliad are some of my favorite works and are undeniable masterpieces,  but they aren’t exactly finds. I’d like to start a dialogue in which we share our favorite, lesser known books.  In essence, I’m saying “Trust me, you might not have heard of this book, but it’s well worth your time”  So, without further ado, below a few of my best, unexpected finds.

  • “The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz:  This one almost qualifies as mainstream as it had much critical praise and won many literary awards when it was published.  There is a relatively small but fervent bad of “Oscar Wao”-heads and I count myself among them.  This book deserves a much wider audience, I think, now more than ever.  “Oscar Wao” is ostensibly about a sensitive, obese young Dominican nerd growing up between NJ and the Dominican Republic in the late 70s and into the 80s.  It explores so many themes so well that I actually had to put the book down a few times when I first read it – from sheer exhilaration.  My mind was blown.  I have reread this many, many times.  Some books will make you laugh and some will make you cry, but Oscar Wao is the only book I’ve read that will make you do both.  For real, don’t read this on the subway or you risk making a scene of yourself.  (Sidenote:  I grew up in the Caribbean (in a country veeerrry close to the DR – hint) during the time this book takes place and also spend a certain amount of amongst Caribbean communities on the US East Coast so the book resonates even with me, a quiche-eating gringo/blan.  The language, the descriptions of Caribbean history and culture, comic books, youth culture of the time, hip-hop, the outrageously debilitating “fineness” of Dominican women, it’s all there.)
  • The Tao of Physics” by Fritjof Capra:  The subtitle of this books is “An Explanation of the Parallels of Eastern Mysticism and Modern Physics” which sums it up pretty neatly.  I love this book for many reasons, not the least being that it’s a “period” piece.  This book could only have been written in California in the early 70s.  It fairly reeks of patchiouli oil and acid trips, but I mean that in a positive sense.  Fritjof Capra was a renowned Quantum physicists whose “aha” moment came, as one might imagine, whilst he was tripping balls at Big Sur.  If you’ve ever wondered why leading physicists such as Robert Oppenheimer and Niels Bohr were adepts of Eastern Mystical traditions long before they became trendy in the west, this book answers that question.  Granted, some of the physics is somewhat dated (at least in my old edition) but the basic premise remains valid.  Capra succeeds in describing the basics of each tradition and the underlying theories of Quantum physics and ties them neatly together.  I’ve read and reread this book many times and will often just revisit specific chapters.
  • The Zanzibar Chest” by Aidan Hartley:  This book is very much off the radar, I suspect.  It’s a nonfiction work that tells the story of the author’s work as a Nairobi based Reuters correspondent in the 90s.  It’s also part family history as Hartley frames his story in the wider context of his family who were British colonial expats par excellence.  As a correspondent, Hartley covered most of the well-known “micro” wars from the Balkans to Rwanda, Somalia and beyond.  This book was criticized when it was published for lacking politically correctness.  Hartley is both a product of British colonialism and a war correspondent.  He doesn’t try, however,  to whitewash his past or his some of his behavior, about which he himself is very conflicted.  Hartley’s own story, and stories he reports on, are very Joseph Conrad-ian in tenor.  In the age of the Oxfam scandal (in my “home” country no less, and no, not at all surprised – such behavior is the rule, not the exception.) this book is perhaps a bit less shocking.  As somebody who has lived and worked a fair bit in various parts of Africa, as student of history and as a human being I found this book to be riveting.  It’s book that stays with you long after you’ve read it and one that you will most probably read more than once.

3 lesser known books that are well worth your time.  What are your favorite finds?  Please comment down below.

Obstacle or opportunity?

challnge

This post has been ruminating for some time now and has been inspired by conversations with my kids, some great feedback I received a few weeks ago from a fellow blogger and, believe it or not, the latest Chris Rock special on Netflix.  Chris has this riff about how bullies provide an essential part of kids’ educational experience.   It’s funny, of course, and like all great humor it’s 1 part exaggeration to 1 part truth.  It’s an old idea that periodic bursts of stress promote the most growth.  It’s the major principle underlying strength training as well the inspiration for that famous Orson Welles quote in “The Third Man”:  “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Habitual readers of this blog know that I have been dealing with 2 injuries for the last few months.  As an athlete, the correct response to being injured are rehab, analyze how  you injured yourself and, finally, continue to train those movements that you can safely do.  In my case, I haven’t been able to do a low-bar squat for 3 months now, and have only been able to start dead-lifting again in the past few weeks.  So I have spent the last few weeks refining my competition bench technique and training to a level that would not have been possible if I had to also concentrate on heavy squats and deadlifts.  At the same time I’ve come to rely on, from sheer necessity, a number of accessory exercises (safety-bar squats, belt squats, glute ham raises, etc) that I should have used in my training previously but never did.  Now that I am, very carefully, dead-lifting again my training is focusing on technique, technique and more technique.  As I will only doing benchpress in the next competition, I can now afford focus more on improving my technique and strengthening the main-movers of the dead-lift.  I’m not so focused on pulling the most weight for the next competition.  Improved technique, more experience in important accessory exercises, an appreciation for prehab and mobility training and a stronger bench press – I’m not saying I want to get injured again, but it can (if you have the correct mindset) teach you some important lessons.

I’ve always said that boredom is an essential parenting tool.  Yes, allow your kids to get bored or create situations (camping weekends without cell phones) that force them to rely on their creativity and curiosity.  Boredom is a subliminal teacher that teaches you lessons on the sly.  The smarter a person is, the lower their threshold for boredom, and that’s a good thing.  If you are bored, you will be forced to provide stimulation to your brain.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with kids these days besides the fact that we, their parents, allow them non-stop access to smartphones, streaming video and video games.  Without a doubt, boredom is what saved my high school career and what allowed for my subsequent success in university.  I grew up, not rich, in a 3rd world country in somewhat special circumstances.  The phone didn’t work half the time, we didn’t have TV (even if we had, there were only 2 channels which only played a few hours) so my only forms of entertainment were sports, hanging out with friends and books.  And did we ever have books – of all kinds.  My mother got her doctorate at Harvard so we often her schoolmates/colleagues visiting us.  So many people left behind books – all of which I devoured.  History, social sciences, politics, physic, philosophy, etc.  So I was not only reading these books, but was able to discuss them with my mother and her friends.  It’s obvious when I describe it this way that I was learning, but it didn’t occur to me at the time.  I simply had nothing else to do.  Later in my high school career I shot myself in the foot scholastically with bad attitude/partying, etc – and the only thing that saved me was this base of knowledge I had accrued.  My classmates were often amazed that the “less than model student” often had the answers to difficult questions.  Once, I famously entered a school essay contest because the prizes were all expenses paid week-long trip to a student congress type deal in Washington, DC.  We had to write about government.  My essay won first prize and my buddy’s essay (which I wrote for him) won 2nd prize.  Predictably we had a good time in DC as well as a few minor disciplinary problems.

The country where I grew up was, and sadly remains, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.  It also has one of the strongest, most vibrant cultures I’ve ever encountered and, like Renaissance Italy, absolutely radiates creativity and “thinking outside of the box”.  People are poor but find a millions forms of expression and, hopefully, a way out of their situation.  I am not singing the praises of abject poverty, not by a long shot.  Too much stress with no periods of respite break a person.  Also, countries where poverty and boredom abound but intellectual curiosity and expression are discouraged are volatile and unstable.

Motivational speakers love to cite, to the extent that it’s become clichéd, that the Chinese word for “crisis” signifies both “danger” and “opportunity”.  Some things are too good to be true as this appears to be a poorly interpreted translation.  A closer translation is apparently “a point where things happen or change” which decidedly more neutral.  Which I think is more logical as, in my experience, how you react to stress or obstacles is like billiards, a game of angles.  If you get the angles right you in billiards, you will sink your balls while positioning yourself to sink the remainder.  If your shots are just a little bit off, good luck to you.  So stress or obstacles can serve stimulus for growth if managed correctly.  This increased strength will set you up for further success when opportunities arise, provided you play the angles correctly.

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_word_for_%22crisis%22

 

Coming to America…and then leaving.

In the mid-80s I was finishing my somewhat checkered high-school career in a 3rd, no, scratch that, 4th world country somewhere in Latin America.  I lived with my mother who is a highly educated, brilliant woman who, nevertheless, was not paid very much at that point in her career.  Anybody familiar with 3rd world countries knows that scratching out a living is a challenge.  If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere – forget NYC, which is a cakewalk in comparison.

Anyway, we had a standard of living that you might call middle-class for that country (whose middle-class was very small indeed) but would probably be considered poverty level in the US or Europe.  I should add that as blonde-haired, blue-eyed young man I rather stuck out in the neighborhood.  (NB:  I am American born to US parents, I just wasn’t born nor spent most of my formative years there).   Without straying too far into the minefield of political correctness, suffice it to say that without money in a place like this you are powerless.  I learned early on that many people of who have any sort of power love to see desperate people squirm.  I had a very hard time with that dynamic, it stuck in my throat.

It wasn’t all bad.  I wouldn’t have swapped growing up there, at the time that I did, in the way that I did, for anything.  It’s an amazing country, culturally vibrant, amazing beaches and blessed with a very funny, welcoming populace.  I was an overwhelming minority, and people brought it to my attention all the time, but it was usually not mean-spirited. It was so much fun that, upon discovering partying and girls, I pretty much kissed my high school career goodbye.  In spite of outstanding SAT scores and potential, I barely graduated from high school.  2 weeks later my long-suffering mother wished me well and put me on a plane for States.  I was 18 years old, I had a few hundred dollars in my pocket and vague plans of either living with my sister (who was going to college) or some high school buds who were in very similar situation.  I hadn’t bothered to apply to any colleges because my grades and financial situation meant it wasn’t an option.

Given my level of maturity and proclivity for partying, I lasted roughly 3 weeks with my sister before she gave me the heave-ho.  I didn’t have any hard feelings then, nor do I now.  It was best for everyone that I go.  So I took the train a few hundred miles up the East coast to join up with my aforementioned pals.  The five of us managed to score a small studio that was leased to one of the guys’ older brother.  We had 2 twin beds and 3 additional mattresses on the floor.  We had to be very careful about not drawing attention to ourselves given we’d have been thrown out if the landlord found out 5 guys were living in 1 studio.

Failure was not an option and that realization clarified my goals and game-plan almost immediately.  I knew I was in for a few years of hard-slogging so I resolved to make the best of it.  Crappy, minimum wage dead-end jobs weren’t going to cut it as they were a waste of time and potential.  I took the best-paying jobs a mere high school graduate could hope to score, but also ones that would hopefully allow me to progress to better jobs.  I started working in high-end restaurants, first as a dishwasher, then bus-boy, waiter, apprentice baker and eventually as a commis.  Restaurant work was exhausting, but it was an education.  There were periods when I held down 2 jobs.  All the while I lived in series of horrible apartments in crappy neighborhoods with, of course, room-mates who were in similar situations.

I eventually scored a mail-room gig in a bank in the financial district.  I mean, this was straight up old school – I don’t think mail rooms even exist any more.  Basically I delivered mail, and written memos (common use of email – and networked PCs – where still a year or 2 down the road) as well as performed a number of odd-jobs.  I busted my butt and hustled on every single task because I knew it was the only way to get noticed.  I eventually was promoted into “Data Processing” (the IT department as it’s generally known now) and I was off to the races.  I began to acquire valuable skills that enabled me to find better paying jobs, pursue my college degree (while working full-time) and, some years later, finally get an apartment all to myself.  This was the Holy Grail, a studio in a trendy downtown neighborhood.  It was also strangely lonely at first, after so many years of living with friends.

I finally had my own apartment, a college degree, a less than impressive used car and a decent job that employed both my IT and language skills.  I traveled often to Latin American, Africa and Europe for work.  I’m happy to say that all of my pals from the “5 guys in a studio” days had similar trajectories.  So there came a point when we were victims of our own success in the sense that people began to move away to follow their careers.  I had just turned 30 and I didn’t have a whole lot of reasons to stay.  Many of my friends were moving away and I had just ended a serious relationship.

This was at the height of the “internet boom” of the 90s.  I realized that I had been working very hard over the last 12 years, often taking, at best, a week of vacation per year.  I figured that I could probably find another job pretty easily.  So I quit my job to go backpacking for a few months through Guatemala, Belize and Mexico with these French girls I knew.  I have never, before or since, taken off that much time just to do my own thing.  For those of you who know Mexico, at the time Playa del Carmen was a village where we rented hammocks on the beach for 3 dollars a day (i.e. you slept in them) and there was virtually nothing in Tulum.  Hanging at the beach all day and sleeping under these huge palapas, surrounded by legions of hot euro-babes, I though I had died and gone to heaven.  Not to mention the cheap tacos, ceviche and beer.

When I got back to the US, I found out that I had scored a 2 year contract in Europe was welcome news as I was short of funds and I was itching to move.  So I did, and I’ve been here ever since.  I’ve only been back a few times given most of my family is living elsewhere.

I often wonder if my trajectory would be possible for a young guy starting out now.  I sincerely doubt it.  Firstly, I did not have to deal with globalization so I was competing for jobs on a national, not international level.  I was at the tail-end of the last generation when it possible to pull yourself out of the muck without impeccable academic credentials.  Also, by going to a very good state university (partially subsidized by my job) I graduated without crippling debt.  In my generation, having any college degree on your CV was good enough to get your foot in the door.   From what I hear and read in the US media, that is not the case any more.

As a father and somebody who interacts a fair amount with younger people, I always try to stress that excelling academically is actually the best way, to “hack” the system.   If you’re a young person blessed with the common sense to not go off the rails academically AND have a good idea of what you want to do in life, you have an enormous advantage.  I was able to find a reasonable level of success, but I worked extremely hard to do so.  Young people these day do not have the luxury my generation had of going to college to “find themselves” or earn less than practical degrees.  In the age of outsourcing, you best choose your academic path extremely wisely and pursue that career to the best of your ability.