Where do you want to live for the rest of your life?

 

I don’t feel old.  Nevertheless, if I was in States I’d probably start receiving mailers from AARP as of next year (I’m in my mid 50s).  Thanks to training in powerlifting for the past 7 years I’m fair stronger now than I was in my 20s or 30s.  I’m not a senior citizen nor will I be one in the near future.  I am, however, smack in the demographic that should be in the “end game” part of retirement planning.

The impact of technology on the work/life balance of modern corporate workers has been dramatic – and Covid-19 has accelerated the process.  There is effectively no barrier from you and your work – and no real or tacit “down time” is allowable.  Corporations obviously know that short term gains will be followed my mid-term burnouts and therefore pay a lot of lip-service to “disconnecting” and “wellness” but this belies their real productivity expectations.  For most corporate workers, the only realistic way to meet current expectations is to work long hours and on weekends.

For all of my career, including the present, I’ve always worked hard and never been hesitant to put in what ever hours are needed.  Recently, however, I reached the “wall” to use a runner’s term.  I cannot literally sustain or “increase” my current pace of work for another 10 or 11 years (if I was to program a traditional North American retirement age).  I’m literally living to work, with some short “family time” and powerlifting training (becoming harder to fit in as we work later and later) breaks thrown in.  Real vacations, where one could actually stop working, have become rare indeed.

I’ve reached an age where many people I knew growing up are passing away on a more regular basis.  Some of them were adults when I was young, but a number of them have been my age or younger.  Given that I started working full-time at age 18, by my calculations I’ve worked approximately 35 years so far.  This, of course, forces one to ask that existential question – what is the purpose of life?  I know the answer isn’t “work to live”.

My current situation:

  • Senior Manager in corporate setting.  Reducing hours or taking a more junior position is not possible.
  • In the country where I live, I’m at the age where employers start to find ways to “off-load” older employees quietly, so chances are I wouldn’t make till 65 even if I wanted to.
  • It goes without saying that employers here do not hire older people for the same reasons above (higher “social” costs than younger staff) so an “end of career” change is not likely.
  • I’ve two children – 1 in university and 1 in high school

Therefore my current goal is stay employed until my youngest is has finished his bachelor’s degree.  The country I have lived in for the past 23 years is a great place, I owe it almost everything.  One thing it is not, however, is cheap to live in.  Therefore, I’ve actively started looking for a country suitable for retirement.  My criteria are the following:

  • Reasonable cost of living (this includes real estate cost as well as reoccuring expenses).  The goal is to be able to live comfortably on a retirement income.
  • A decent infrastructure, political stability and in an area that will be hit less by global warming in the next 20 years (i.e. no beach front property in 3rd world nations).
  • Language – it should be one that I already speak fluently or speak to some degree.  Croatia is flat out great, but realistically I’ll never probably speak the language beyond a rudimentary level.  Ditto Thailand.  I know a lot of English-speaking expats don’t mind living in countries where they don’t speak the language, but that would quite frankly bother me.
  • Culture/Cuisine – Very important…is it a country that, as my kids would say, I “vibe” with?

The countries on my shortlist:

  • France:  this checks all the boxes (provided you avoid the more expensive parts) , I know it very well and it’s the language if I feel most at home in after English.
  • Spain:  Even cheaper than France, love the cuisine and culture.  Very cheap real estate and living costs (save utilities). My Spanish is both rusty and Latin American influenced, so there’d be a learning curve, but it’s almost a plus.  I’d look forward to improving my Spanish.
  • Portugal – As above, only my Portugese in non-existant.  Harder to learn than Spanish by all accounts.  Still, it’s such a cool place I’d consider it provided I spent the first year in intensive Portugese classes.
  • Mexico:  I know what you’re thinking, Mexico is corrupt and has almost entirely taken over by the Cartels.  Vast swathes of the country are flat out dangerous.  Still, there are still pockets (Merida, San Miguel de Allende, etc) that check the boxes above and remain relatively safe.  For how long, though?
  • Italy:  This should tick all of the boxes above and I feel that Italian would be easier to learn than Portugese.  Amazing country, but I’m not sure I want to live there.  However, given the right reasons, I would consider it.

I am currently planning trips to Spain, Portugal and France as soon as travel restrictions are relaxed a bit.  My first order of business if to find a house in good shape that I can buy cash and use a vacation rental to help cover expenses until I retire.  Realistically, this phase might take a least a year.  I don’t anticipate “jumping on a property” right away unless it absolutely meets all my criteria.

I guess it’s interesting that retiring to my “country of origin” is not even on the radar.  I don’t really have a compelling reason to go there.  It’s not particularly cheap unless I want to live in some areas 100s or thousands of miles away from the remaining family and friends I have there…there are a lot of great things about it, sure, but there are a lot downsides too – that are obvious to those of us living outside the country, but less apparent to some living in the country.  I wasn’t born there nor have I spent most of my life there.  If I had to go, so be it, it’s just not my first choice.

I think my situation is only unique in that it’s unusual even now for Americans or Canadians to expatriate or immigrate and even more so for retirees.  Most of the rest of world’s population, this option has always been on the table (if people were given half a chance).  Even now, as I vist Canada and the US and I explain that I live in Europe, I’m often asked “why??” by truly surprised or puzzled people.  I feel this is shifting and will continue to shift as we’ve seen a lot of recent US or Canadians immigrants going back to countries like China, India, Nigeria, Ghana and Mexico as opportunities in those countries grow and as the trade-offs of living the American or Canadian dream become less worth it on the whole.

Question to you my readers:  What country would you consider retiring to and why?  Please put your answer in the comment section below.  

Tulum – Douchebag mecca or victim of it’s own success?

If one were to magically procure Admin rights to Instagram and was able eliminate all post from Tulum, I’m fairly certain that’d reduce total content on the platform by at roughly 30 percent.  Why is that?  What makes makes Tulum the ideal backdrop for the willfuly self-obsessed narcissists weirdly expending a great deal of energy to convince strangers they are “living their best” lives?  Is it Tulum’s fault, or is this once sleepy beach town in Quintana Roo the victim of the creeping, malignant douchery that has infected global culture since the invention of social media?  Sit back and relax, dear reader, as your fearless correspondent attempts to “downward dog” in this particular minefield.

But first, full disclosure:  Your scribe is of a certain age, so what follows is a bit of the ol’ obligatory “things were much better in my day”.  Sure, but bear with me, there is a reason for it.  In any event, I’m not unfamiliar with Mexico, but let’s face it, I am still very much a gringo.  I claim no deep cultureal knowledge of Mexico and only a slightly better understanding of issues in the Yucatan and Quintana Roo states.  My Spanish, once half-way decent, has atrophied by many years in Europe.  Suffice it to say, however, that my first travels in that area were decades ago, roughly around the time (or perhaps before) most of the IG influencers in question were born.  I had just resigned from my  job and was taking an extended, hyper low budget backpacking trip with Guatemala, Belize and Mexico.  We had crossed the border from Belize into Chetumal and were looking for cool, but above all, cheap places to visit.  In those days internet technically existed but it was not the tool it is now.  There was no social media or forums where one could get travel tips.  There were, however, travel guides such as Lonely Planet and, of course, word of mouth.  Once you were “on the circuit” with other young backpackers, people exchange information and “humble brag” about the places they’ve visited.  The modus operandi of this form of travel involved taking cheap buses to whereever you wanted to go and then, once onsite, immediatly hitting cheap guest hostels that you had heard about to procure a room, bunk or hammock.  As an interesting cultural aside, in 7 weeks of travelling like this I ran into very, very few Americans or Canadians.  My fellow travellers were almost entirely European, Aussies, Kiwis and Israelis.   For one, Yanks and Canucks have very little vacation time in general so to take such a trip would be (as was my case) an exception.  “Gap years” is not a thing in North American culture.

In any event, as we made our way up the coast we made plans to stop in Tulum to see what sounded pretty cool – a pyramid on the beach!  At that time Tulum was a little bit out of the way and from what we heard, a bit of a gamble in regards to lodging.  We had heard there wasn’t much, so the concern was if we got there too late we wouldn’t find a cheap room, or whatever, and would be stuck because there weren’t lots of buses on a daily basis.  We made it, however, and were able to score lodging.  Tulum was really, really basic back then, what I remember most about it (away from the beach part) was the dust.  It was pretty hot but that’s to be expected in the Yucatan in August.  The pyramid was definitely worth the trip, though, for the setting as well as wildlife surrounding and/or in it.  There were some hippy dippy, cheap new agey backpacker type hostels and cafes that were a fixture of this whole “circuit” but they were relatively few.   Most of what you see now in Tulum, whether in the town itself or on the “fabulous” beach zone, didn’t exist yet.  There were no high end boutique hotels, no condos, and no real fanfare about the place.  I remember thinking, indeed, this place is cool but not really great for an extended stay unless you had a car (and could visit the surrounding area which as many interesting things) or was a hardcore beach lover.

Anyway, we eventually made our way to Playa del Carmen which back then was going through it’s “Tulum” moment, although much more under the radar as the whole “hype” machine was not as efficient back then.  It was the anti-Cancun.  Small, affordable, laid-back village that was still “identifiably” Mexican.  None of the silly adult Disneyland vibes.  It was just a big village on the coast with really, really nice beaches.  At that time there were these big palapas on the beach and you could rent hammocks for roughly 2 bucks US a night.  It was bigger than Tulum, for sure, but still very manageable.  There was no city vibe at all.  Yes, there were  the same hippy, new agey backpacker establishments that we’d seen in other places.  I don’t remember any high end hotels and certainly nothing over 2 or 3 stories.  It reminds of Progresso as it is now, only the town was less grubby and the beaches much, much nicer.  Kilometers/miles of unspoiled beaches and a really special vibe.  Mexico was and still is a pretty socially conservative culture yet, for some reason, a pretty permissive feeling reigned over Playa del Carmen.  At this time, topless sunbathing was still a norm in much of Europe and therefore, due to the high concentration of European backpackers, it was tolerated in PdC.  I thought I had died and gone to heaven.  Sleeping on a hammock on the beach, grabbing cheap beer and food from taquerias and surrounded by scads of attractive, scantily clad eurobabes.  I remember taking a long walk on the unbelievably beautiful beach ( no sargasso seaweed back then) one day and stumbling accross a nude photo shoot.  It wasn’t close to the action, sure, but it was not that far.  It was a professional affair with the requisite photography paraphenalia and 2 two breathtaking, butt nekkid models.  However, no gawkers or weirdos… people would might stop to look briefly but it would have been deeply uncool to sit there and drool.  Was this an example of cultural and economic imperialism?  Yep, it probably was.  Nonetheless, it was cool vibe without descending in some of the tackier and dodgy “druggy” vibes that you often encountered in backpacker “towns”.

Fast foward a few years, I was installed in Europe and had convinced some European and US friends to meet me in PdC for a 2 week holiday.  My first impression, not surprisingly, was that travelling to Mexico all the way from Europe is a big, long deal.  It’s perhaps even easier to go Asia from here than go to Mexico.  When I arrived in Playa, the town had grown to, I guess, a small city but it was still recognizable as the place I had seen before.  A few more hotels, cafes and bars, but still not Cancun-like by any means.  I remember looking for the palapa where I had rented the hammock, and I think it was gone.  The vibe was a little less “backpacker” counterculture than it was previously, but it was fine.  Restaurants, bars and clubs were cool but without the “exclusive”  vibe or preciousness that would later install itself in Tulum.  One day I rented a jeep so my friends and I could go Sian K’aan and check out Tulum on the way back.  However, when the day came my friends were all sleeping off hangovers.  I had one too, but since I had reserved the jeep I felt obligated to go.  It was a really cool trip, at one point I was on a single track road in the jungle near (but outside of) Sian K’aan and I was just surrounded by thousands upon thousands on butterflies.  On the way back I stopped in Tulum.  It had grown, but it still was still small-scale.  It reminded of PdC when I first visited.  In fact, I thought to myself that it’d be cooler to stay here now but we were locked-in hotel wise and besides some of my friends were not fans of the backpacker hostel on a jungle beach thing.  (Two of them fruitlessly searched for any place that served Champagne in PdC and couldn’t find any.  Oh, how things have changed…).

Years pass, I now have a family and am back in Mexico visiting some family and friends who live there.  They tell me how Playa del Carmen has exploded and indeed has become the fastest growing city in Mexico.  I couldn’t really conceive of this, but, I said to myself, I guess it was only a matter of time.  Even over multiple trips to Mexico during this period I didn’t make it to the “Mayan Riveria” right away.  I did land in Cancun each time though, and I’d note that the sign posting on the highway  for PdC and Tulum(!) which I noted with interest.  Anyway, roughly 7 years ago I went to a very secluded bunch of beach huts in Sian K’aan with some family and friends.  As the crow flies, the beach huts are not that far from the Tulum but given the state of the road it was good, bumpy 2 hour drive.  Anyway, on my way from Cancun airport I stopped at the PdC ADO bus station to pick up a friend…my brain was literally wrecked.  I could not equate the place I knew before with this big sprawling city.  As we continuted on, we inevitably arrived in Tulum.  Yes, it had grown, but not like Playa del Carmen.  To get access the Sian K’aan road you must past through the Tulum beach hotel zone.  It had changed, it was more upscale in design and no doubt pricewise, but it retained the jungle beach feel.  The clientele seemed to be mostly youngish, as before, but not of the backpacker sort.  There were lots of tanned, ripped Abs gay dudes cruisiing around (in both senses of the word) on fat-tired beachcruiser bikes, and lots of quite frankly really hot, bodied up yoga bunnies trailed inevitably by straight dudes who seemed to be feverishly dreaming of strategies of relieving said yoga bunnies of their Lululemons.  Man-buns, pork-pie hats, signs for yoga retreats and fucking pretentious locavore organic restaurants chef’d by gringos were everywhere.  Tulum was still cool and the natural setting still beautiful, certainly, but the vibe had become more”exclusive” and therefore douche-ier.

Nonetheless, it was fun to chuckle and play hipster bingo during our visits to Tulum every few days for supplies.  One day, I even went to Tulum with a friend in an attempt to “go out” for an evening.  We tried, we really did, to hit the beach hotel zone first to get a drink and then dinner.  And, yes, it’s very pretty and there is, to paraphrase 10,000 IG posts, a sort of special energy that is perhaps a product of the natural setting and, if you want to get more “woo-woo”, maybe even the pyramid a few kilometers away.  But holy shit, the clientele, that has changed.  Not everyone, but a significant minority, acts as if they are being trailed by invisible camera crew that are documenting the utter fabulousness of their lives.  There is energy, for sure, but some of it seems forced now.  Instagram, let’s be honest, is used for presenting an airbrushed, photoshopped versions of most people’s lives.  Hanging out in beach zone was like inhabiting a surreal IG live-feed.  And I get why so many people were and are posting almost obligatory pics from Tulum.  It’s cool, it’s hipster, it’s the anti-Cancun.  The subtext, which is not very subtle, is  that I’m not one of those obese, infantile lobster red masses wallowing in low brow massed tourism.  But there is now an strong undercurrent of “trying too hard” that would have frowned upon before.  We just couldn’t hack all of the fabulousness and forced smiles so we went into Tulum town for some beers and seafood – and had a grand old time.

Another reason Tulum is THE grand-daddy of all IG tourist spots is an absolutely brilliant marketing strategy which I think was discovered accidently but is now being overtly executed.  If you are easily trigged by non-PC truths, dear reader, please skip this paragraph.  In any event, because of it’s setting and probably also a well developed new agey scene in Mexico itself, Tulum slowly started to attract yogis, massage therapists and other sort of new agey types. Yoga, massages, organic food, crystal therapies, visits to cenotes to vibe with “positive energy” etc, is the sort of stuff that attracts straight women and a certain type of gay man.  A byproduct of all that yoga and well-being are a clientele that are relatively fit.  In short, Tulum became known as a destination filled with yoga MILFs and their gay equivalent hotties.  And that, my friends, attracted the dudes (straight, gay or whatever).  Which leads to more “peacocking” and and exclusiveness as said dudes feel the need to compete.  And, yes, also some of the women are shallow as well and require “cute, trendy cafes and shops”, etc.  Shallow, yes, simplistic, yep.  But true, yeah, it is.  Take a look a most of the leading establishments in Tulum.  The marketing strategies are exclusively targetting yoga yummy mummy and IG hottie demographic.  For real, read the promotional drivel and ask yourself if somewhere there is a straight 30something man going “wow, that sounds like exactly what I’m looking for”.  No, the establishments attract the women.  Some of these women are IG , ahem, influencers.  They post a few butt pics from the beach to score IG credibility points and/or because of a promotional deal with a hotel.  IG puts it out there that this place is filled eye candy.  The hotels and other establishments don’t need to market to guys.  If they attract the flowers, the bees will come.  Kudos and a golf clap to all those involved.

So, the final question, has Tulum jumped the shark?  I havent been there in 4 years or so but it seems to have achieved terminal saturation on IG.  Reports of Tulum’s demise have been heralded repeatedly for the last few years but it’s still a contender and still hasn’t gone “Playa del Carmen” although the reasons for that are both encouraging and discouraging (It’d take another post to explain).  At some point soon, people will move onto some place “less discovered” and therefore cooler in the IG-sphere.  And there are indeeds spots like those, a few hours drive from Tulum.  The saving grace is that represents, unlike Tulum, a longish trip by car or bus from Cancun airport.  But inevitably those spots will go the same route of Tulum.  If it brings much needed money and infrastructure to local (most Mayan) populace, then I’m all for it.

 

An ode to fringe activities…

OR THE LONELINESS OF THE POWERLIFTING WINE-CHUGGER.

OR HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE BY NOT BORING THEM TO TEARS WITH YOUR HOBBY/SPORT/LIFESTYLE CHOICE/DIET

Happy new year, everyone.

I made an early night of it last night so after a nice dinner with friends I went to bed shortly after midnight CET. As a consequence I was up early this morning which left ample time to reflect on last night’s dinner as well as my powerlifting training session later today. I was pretty excited about the wine choices for the dinner last night as well my upcoming training session but I knew, as everybody in a subculture eventually learns, to keep my enthusiasm to myself or be labelled a “bore”. Believe it or not, most people don’t want to discuss the need to reform French AOC rules or whether Sumo dead-lifting is cheating.

It got me to thinking when it’s appropriate, and not appropriate, to discuss one’s weird-ass fringey activities with the general populace. I’ve come up with the following observations.

  • Subcultures can be intimidating to people who don’t engage in that activity. In a weird way (we all do this) people think you’re judging them via a specific lense (powerlifter, wine enthusiast, martial artist, vegan, etc) when, unless you’re a real a-hole, you’re not. If an opportunity to discuss your interest comes up, let others ask you questions and when the questions dry up, move on.
  • It’s OK, in a very broad sense, to let people know about your interests and what you spend your time on. It’s not OK to give them constant updates and/or commentary about a subject that really doesn’t interest them. Anybody who has a beginning crossfitter or a vegan in their life knows what I’m talking about. People are generally happy you’ve found this awesome thing and, yes, it’s probably a good idea if everyone did it but ramming it down their throats doesn’t win any converts. We’ve all been guilty of this at one time or another.
  • If you want to share your passion with other people, set an example first. See above re: intimidation. So people know you do this thing, that’s great. Just keep doing your thing and, from time to time, somebody with a genuine interest might ask you about it. This is a green-light, now’s your time to share. To give you an example, as a powerlifter people sometimes tell me in conversation that they’ve started going to the gym and they have this great trainer who has them doing bosu-ball hula-hoop jump spins and the like. The old me used to say ” Cool, but why don’t you also ask them to show you proper squat form, that’d be really useful” and, in 100 percent of the cases, the person reacted as if I’d insulted their mother. The proper response is “That’s great – keep it up!”. Why? If they continue to train they will eventually learn about compound movements and might just ask you about them. Then, and only then, it’s OK to discuss in detail. A few years ago I started going to a globo gym with colleagues. I’d do my usual PL style training in the corner and they’d go all YOLO with machines and dumbbells. I often got a lot of comments and criticism (hey, man, you’re not going to failure with every set, why squats, etc) but I just continued to do my thing. After a while they began to ask me questions and eventually asked me to show them proper form, explain programming, etc. Even then they were resistant to many of the ideas so I’d just shrug and do my thing. Fast-forward to now, they are all training for powerlifting. I’m not a vegan but cook/consume vegan dishes roughly 85 percent of the time. I’m familiar with the milieu, shall we say. The strict vegans who always make an impression on me are those who I find out are vegan indirectly. It piques my interest and more often than not I’ll ask about it.
  • Find like-minded individuals/Let your freak flag fly: Let’s face it, the only time you’ll ever be able to fully express your enthusiasm for your passion is amongst like-minded people so you must search them out or forever have the feeling of not completely scratching an itch. Whether it’s wine-tasting, a serious powerlifting gym, a cool vegan cafe or whatever, this is your chance to geek out to your heart’s content. Not to mention learn new things and meet new people

Anyway, I’m off in a few minutes to engage in one of the aforementioned fringe activities. I wish you all happiness and health in the new year as well as the chance to engage in your geeky passion(s) to the fullest.

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.

 

Return of the prodigal Hamburger

People with German ancestry are the single largest ethnic group in US.  Yet, it’s a testament to their ubiquity that it’s often not understood by Americans themselves just how subtly German popular culture has influenced their own.  My mother’s family are typical German-Americans as they live in Midwest in a semi-rural setting. German-americans largely live in “fly over” country, not the coasts.  My great grand-parents immigrated to the US shortly before World War 1 and made a bee-line to Midwest and it’s promise of relatively cheap farm land.  My Grandmother spoke a dialect of German (similar to Luxembourgish or Blatt in Alsace) with her parents and 14 brothers and sisters.  While she continued to speak German with her sisters into old age it was very much a private, behind closed doors activity.  The last thing she would have ever considered was teaching her own children to speak German.  World War 2 comprehensively denatured a whole generation of Germanic Americans.

In the Americas (aka the New World), the word “European” is used almost as a snobby superlative.  There is common delusion, for example,  that all Frenchmen are chain-smoking philsophes with 3 mistresses and a fine wine cellar.  Germans are coldly efficient techocrats, and so forth.  OK, there is some truth to stereotypes, but most “culture” is low-brow, and Europeans are no exception.  I put forth to you that much of Midwestern US “redneck” culture is German popular culture, crudely grafted to a new location.

The most obvious vestige of this German heritage is food.  Much of what we think of as generic “American” food is German; Hamburgers, sausages (including the ubiquitous hot dog), inordinate fondness for bread, dill pickles, potato pancakes, fried fish and beer to name a few.  If you’ve eaten at a State fair in the US and then attended a similar event in Germany, the parallels are obvious.  Home style baking in the US is largely influenced by German, not British or French, tastes.  The German fondness for big portions arrived in America and immediately took steroids.  The apfel doesn’t fall from the tree, y’all.

In my last post I mentioned that I took part in a 2018 German Powerlifting Championships for my federation last weekend  https://wordpress.com/post/expatpowerlifter.com/1438.  The competition took place is a smallish town in a beautiful semi-rural setting to the north-east of Cologne.  In short, it was the German equivalent of the community that my mother’s family hails from in the US.  And, yes, it was a powerlifting meet, not post-doctorate symposium on String Theory.  It was a perfect setting to observe German popular culture in action.

First, however, a quick word about me and the German language.  I’ve never failed so completely to learn a language.  Experience has shown that give me a Romance or creole/pidgen language and I’m off to the races…so I’m not a language dunce.  It was therefore with quite a bit of hubris that I began my study of German…and failed spectacularly.  My kids speak (amongst other languages) German and my daughter has a special fondness for it, maybe because it confounds her parents.

Nevertheless, when I arrived in the parking lot of the facility that was hosting the competition, I couldn’t help but feel at home.  There was just a very familiar red-necky vibe…if I squinted a bit I might have been in Michigan or Wisconsin.  Literally,  as in some of them looked like cousins of mine, dark hair, stocky compact builds.  Beer, check, fried food, check, baked goods, check.  Talk about sports, check, talk about cars, check, crude jokes, check.  “Unique” grooming and vestimentary choices, check.  The attitudes, the facial expressions were uncannily like a backyard BBQ in Michigan.  Good people, for the most part, but with a pronounced insular streak, just like back home.  The event was only in German so good luck to the non-Germanophones.  I was the only non-European at the event and people couldn’t have cared less except for a few odd grumbles about my lack of German.   Again, just like you know where.  (The ironic part is that I am 1m80, fair-skinned with blond hair and blue eyes.  So I while look the part in a central casting sort of way, the reality is most Germans don’t seem to fit the blond hair/blue eyes mold.  In my experience, it’s much more common in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.)

I wish I could describe this feeling better.  I feel more comfortable in a similar situation in the UK or France, Belgium, etc because I speak the languages.  Yet, in spite of my profound ignorance of the language, this felt more “familiar”.  It felt like home.  Take that as you will.  Home is often far from perfect, but it undeniably informs who you are.

The Mythical Land of Oz

 

I was born in The Land Down Under.  While it wasn’t exactly an accident of birth (heck, I was even conceived in Oz) my birthplace is not one of my more salient facts.  If you met me today absolutely nothing about me screams, or even whispers, Australian.  I am relatively unsullied by and downright ignorant of things Oz-related.  The closest I’ve to Australia in the past few decades has been in travelling SE Asia and, culturally speaking, attending a Midnight Oil gig at the Paradise in Boston way back in the day.   (Oh, yeah, and I read The Fatal Shore  some years back)  You see, my parents were expatriates at the time and we left Oz when I was still a wee sprog.  Realistically, I’ve not really been there…and yet, in a rather important sense, I have.

It’s funny how seemingly insignificant facts can influence one’s life.  I feel like the Mariner in Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Australia is the Albatross around my neck. It’s a fact that I’m not allowed to forget and that I am required to explain the circumstances of ad infinitum.  This is no slight on Australia, by all accounts I hear it’s a lovely place and the Australians I’ve met, without exception, were good craic.  You’d be surprised how many official and professional documents require to list your birthplace.  Often these documents assume your birthplace=your nationality which always requires further explanation for people like me.  For some reason, this singles me out for extra questioning at Customs/passport control without fail in Anglophone countries.  “Let’s see, you were born in Australia, you are X nationality, you’ve traveled widely and you live in Y country”.  So you’re obliged to give the whole spiel about who you are.  Interestingly, Customs agents in non-English speaking countries don’t bat an eyelid – never question it.  I wonder, when I do eventually visit Australia,  if Australian Customs will even notice.  It’d be hysterical if they didn’t.

A few years back I found myself in a fairly stressful situation.  I was being interviewed by a committee and they had my dossier.  The forms in my dossier asked for my place of birth but not my nationality.  I should note that this interview was not in English so while I have a slight Anglophone accent, it’d be rather hard to judge my nationality.  Anyway, they lit up like Christmas trees when they saw the word Australia and people started to wax melodic about Sydney, the Outback, Barossa Valley, etc.  I just smiled and made non-commital comments, neither denying nor confirming my Aussie-tude.  The rest of interview went swimmingly, better than I can could have imagined.  Cheers, Australia.

Those of us of a certain age will remember things Australian were hugely trendy in the 80s – at least in North America.  This was largely due to a God-awful movie called Crocodile Dundee, a film that has not aged well at all.  Honestly, try watching it now, it’s painfully bad.  People at that time just couldn’t get enough of Australian accents – it was a veritable strine-mania.  I remember briefly thinking they were cool without giving it too much thought.  I do watch Australian TV shows (via Netflix and UK-based TV) these days and I can’t help wondering why Australian accents were considered cool.  They’re just as horrid as any other accent, but that’s not necessarily a pejorative.  It means they’ve got character.  I lived in Boston for 12 years and during that time I had a complicated relationship with the real Bawstin accent, theah.  It grated on me after a while.  Now, when I hear a real honest to goodness Boston accent, I can’t help but smile, I love it.  The Boston accent has character, it’s like no other US accent you’ll hear.  It’s also a reflection of the culture, it’s an unapologetic, unique mindset of its own.  People from Mass can be loud, brash, bordering on the obnoxious sometimes but also funny and really good-hearted.

So I am thinking of finally visiting Australia next year.  Mostly sticking to Sydney and Melbourne but I’m open to suggestions.  I will also probably visit, for the complete heck of it, the city of my birth as it’s between Sydney and Melbourne.   Also looking to visit the best powerlifting gyms I can find in those locations. If anybody has suggestions about what to do in Australia in general or powerlifting gyms in particular, I’d be much obliged.

 

Been down so long looks like up to me

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To those of you who started reading this post because you are fans of Richard Farina – my apologies.  This post will not discuss his seminal novel of the same name/title (see above).  For some reason when I sat down to ponder reverse culture shock this phrase/title literally popped into my head.  Score one for the subconscious, that industrious bastard is always cooking up something on the down low.  I think maybe the title came to me because (forgive me, it’s been maybe 30 years since I read the novel) on a broader sense the novel is about shifting paradigms, of examining the familiar from a different critical perspective.  Or maybe it’s just a really cool title.  Perhaps a little of both.

Anyway, I have been pondering this phenomenon of late.  Is it a real thing?  The short answer is “yes”.  Has technology muddied the waters?  Oh hell yes.  (“Muddied the waters”, man, the ol’ subconcious is working overtime today.  I just realized that the title of this post( and Richard Farina’s book) originally comes from an old Blues song.  Muddy Waters didn’t sing it, but you see where I’m going with this…)  Technology, and how it affects acculturation, is a subject fit for a book, not just a blog post.  Suffice it to say that when I was a kid, living outside of my “passport” country, my only real links to that culture were my parents and books.  Powerful forces, to be sure, but add satellite dishes and the internet and you have a very effective layer of insulation between you and the host culture.  This phenomenon is, of course, a very sharp double-edged sword.

Let’s assume, hopefully, that one has adapted in a healthy way to their new host country.  After living there for a number of years you should have learned the language and culture mores, made friends/social acquaintances of different nationalities and feel comfortable, “at home”,  in your host country.   Granted, you have increased ties to your “homeland” thanks to technology, but let’s not forget that those ties are “virtual” at best.  Let’s assume that distance (and maybe inclination) precludes you from visiting your home country often.  At what point does “reverse” culture shock kick in?  2 months, 1 year, 15 years?  And what is reverse culture shock anyway?  A sense of anomie in one’s own country?  This short article from Investopedia (of all sources) describes it fairly well: https://www.investopedia.com/terms/r/reverse-culture-shock.asp

To add some personal perspective to the issue, I will say that nothing is weirder than experiencing culture shock in your own culture.  By now, I have lived outside of my home culture country the majority of my life.  I do make it back there, albeit very infrequently.  The first few days are always a complete head-wrecker.  No joke, I sometimes lean on friends and family in certain situations to tell me what to do or add context, as if they’re cultural Sherpas or something.  It’s faintly ridiculous, of course, so it’s best to recognize the humor and roll with it.  To answer the question above, all the TV and YouTube videos in the world cannot (re)acclimate you sufficiently to a culture.  You need to live in that culture.  While reverse culture shock is indeed a thing, it’s not that big a deal.  You’ve got all the tools you need: family, friends, language, etc.  Reverse culture shock just means that your mastery of the culture has become a bit fuzzy and needs some fine-tuning, like trying to improve the focus of a local UHF TV channel back in the day.  (For you young’uns who don’t get that reference, look it up on the interwebs).

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

 

 

Most Embarrassing Gym Stories

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Gyms are a sub-culture unto their own.  The reason that some people find Gyms, and especially specialized Gyms/Training facilities, so daunting is the mini-“culture shock” of learning parameters of this subculture.   These are the “do’s and dont’s” that allow one to avoid “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, aka complete social humiliation.   Sometimes, however well-versed one is in gym culture, we all fall prey to the occasional faux pas.

A few years ago, when I first started getting interested in powerlifting, I trained exclusively at a big commercial “Globo” gym.  My enthusiasm for squats was matched by only by my complete, blissful ignorance of technique.  So there I was in a squat rack – completely raw – no knee sleeves, wristwraps, shoes or belt – but on the other hand the weight I was lifting probably didn’t warrant that.   In those days my benchpress was many kilos more than my squat.  To my credit, though, I was wearing Chuck Taylors, and not spongy running shoes.  I was also wearing those sort of thin nylon running trousers, the type you wear to go running when it might rain a bit.  They were the only non-shorts gym bottoms I owned and they had a drawstring that I could tighten to avoid the dreaded “carpenters’ crack” at the bottom of a squat.  They were not, however, very heavy-duty.  Anyway, I am at doing my 5×5 squats at 6:30PM on a Monday night, the height of gym rush-hour.  I am on the 4th rep of the last set, coming out of the “hole” when I hear an audible tearing noise, then a pop and, suddenly, a cool breeze invigorates my nether regions.   The trousers had split wide open from the waistband down to my knee.  The ‘back end” of the trousers had ceased to exist. You know how mothers always tell their kids to wear clean underwear in case they get into an accident?  Words to live by, y’all.

Not long after the “Flapping in the breeze” incident, another ignominious event took place at the same Globo gym.  The gym was packed and I had just completed a killer training session.  I was more than a little light-headed as I proceeded to the showers with my brand new towel, which I had literally just bought at a store just before going to the gym.  The showers in this gym have towel hooks to right of each shower stall (which are enclosed by doors).  So as I faced the shower I hung my towel on the hook to the right of my shower door and took a nice hot shower.  As I exited the shower with steam and water in my eyes, I reached to my right, grabbed the towel and vigorously dried every damp nook and cranny.  This towel went from dry and pristine to wet and befouled in roughly 20 seconds.  As I opened my eyes, I realized to my horror that I had just besmirched somebody else’s towel.  Just as this dawned on me, the owner of said towel exited his shower.  No, he was not pleased and no, he would not accept my brand new, never been used towel in exchange…nor my apology.  Some people apparently lack social graces as well as the common sense to take an unused new towel.  Oh well, lesson learned, always drape your towel of the shower stall door so it’s impossible to mistake.

Finally, in the embarrassing but unavoidable category, I once tore a hamstring muscle by freak accident during a powerlifting competition.  It was so painful that I could barely walk.  I thought this meant that I couldn’t deadlift and consequently would not finish the competition (meaning my other lifts (squat and benchpress) wouldn’t count) until another competitor pointed out that I could just lift the absolute minimum once.  So I went up to the organizers table and told the nice ladies that I wished to change my first deadlift attempt to 70kgs.  I had to say it 3 times as they thought they hadn’t heard me correctly.  I explained that I had hurt my leg but I sort of still got some side-eye.  Anyway, the message didn’t get to the team loading the plates so when my name was called they had to take plates off and leave, I believe, just 2 measly blues on the bar.  Most of the spectators didn’t I know was injured so the scene must have looked faintly ridiculous;  some burly dude walking out for a 70kg deadlift in a competition.  So I “hammed” it up a bit as I hobbled out to the bar, sort of did my deadlift set-up, and invented what might be a new deadlift form – the modified Bulgarian split deadlift.  I did the lift, got 3 white lights, and informed the nice ladies that I wouldn’t take my other lifts.

What are your most egregious gym gaffes?