Since 2009, each year I’ve done one of three things:
Gone on a cruise
Gone to Edinburgh for the Fringe
Gone to Burning Man
Let me begin with cruising because that’s what most people think they understand the best.
Decide for yourself if you want to go on a cruise
Going on a cruise is living like a sea turtle. First you check into a room that is only slightly bigger than you are. Then your new home and you lumber around the ocean looking for something to do as you forage for food.
Finally, by some mysterious mechanism, you manage to find your way back to exactly where you started so you can feel like your life is going nowhere.
In short, a cruise is a vacation from ambition and responsibility.
If you’ve seen an ad for a cruise and then go on one, I can guarantee nothing will surprise you (except the fact that only the cabin attendants and stage performers are as fit as the cruisers in the ads). Cruising can be very affordable if you can avoid the casino, the art auctions, the bars and all the other contrivances they have for separating you from your money.
Unlike cruising, you might not have heard of the Edinburgh Fringe unless you live in Great Britain. The Fringe promotes itself as “the world’s largest open access arts festival.”
“World’s largest” means that this year (2022) 49,827 artists from 58 nations will be performing in 3,478 shows across more than 300 venues citywide between the 5th and the 29th of August. If you click on this link while the Fringe is on, you can see a list of this year’s shows.
One nice thing is…
… what was I thinking? Hmmm…
… I know, I was thinking how wonderful it is that there can be thirty miles between one thought and the next. What are those? A herd of moose? Some farmer is raising moose? Those clouds seem ominous. I wonder if we’ll see a tornado this trip. I’ve really got to fart. That dog with his head out the window looks like he is having the time of his life. Davis and Zhenia are asleep; if I squeeze one out I don’t think they’ll notice. There goes a van covered in playa dust.
What is today? Saturday? If it’s Saturday then it’s been a week since the Man burned. If it’s Sunday then it’s been a week since the Temple burned, but we didn’t get to see that. I wonder if I ever will. It can’t be Friday; the traffic doesn’t seem right for a work day. Monday would be too long; it hasn’t been much more than a week since we snuck out of Black Rock City before dawn, ahead of the crowds.
This feels nice; really really nice. It feels like love; as snug as five hippies in a VW bug.
Except that we’re in our white 1996 Isuzu mini-van; three across in the bench seat in the middle. I’m on the right, wedged between my son in the middle and the door on the right. I have a pillow between the window and me to keep my head from rattling against the glass as I drift in and out.
It’s 2010 and my son, Davis, has just graduated from McGill in Montreal with a bachelor’s in physics. He’s fast asleep, head back, not snoring but making the occasional gurgling noises one does as your throat fills with saliva.
Wedged between Davis and the door on the left is Zhenia, a few years younger than Davis. She’s still in college. She’s the black adopted daughter of my best friend, Andy. He’s Ukrainian-American and was named André at birth and that is what he insists people call him now. But when we were housemates in college in the early 1970’s he wanted to be known as Andy. I think he wanted to fit in then. Now, I think he wants to stand out.
Andy’s driving. My wife, Eve, is riding shotgun. She’s my better-than-best best friend – a lover-of-life; my lover. I love our life together.
I feel a seismic disturbance. Davis is fast asleep but Zhenia is stirring and her motions are transmitted through my son’s body to me.
I lean forward to see past my son. Zhenia’s coming up out of slumber. She’s struggling to get her hand in her pocket.
Shit. She’s going for her phone. Please, God, no. We’ve been off-grid for two weeks and it’s been bliss.
It’s a mighty struggle to get her hand into her pocket without waking Davis. She sees that I’m watching her. Softly, she says, “Next time, let’s take our van. It has four captain’s seats in the back.”
I look at her pleadingly. I hope she can feel what I feel and know what I know. Has she learned how to read minds yet? I hope so.
She gives up on her quest. She looks at me for a minute or so. Then she says, “Actually, this is pretty good.” She slumps back, rearranges her pillow and goes silent. I hope it’s insight and not laziness.
I lean back against my pillow and let my mind wander in wonder. Why would a farmer in Iowa raise moose? Does he sell them for meat? Or, do people keep moose as pets. Google knows, I’m sure.
But, what motivates this particular farmer? I guess we could go back and ask.
I think back to the horse ranch near Provo that we found on the way out. Remember? We stopped and asked if we could ride their horses, and they said, “Sure.” Then we said we didn’t know how to ride and they said, “We’ll teach you.” Now, you remember, don’t you? Surely, you remember that a few years ago their daughter moved out of the house into an apartment she built in the barn just to be closer to her horses. How cool is that?
The InterContinental Hotel Group (NYSE Ticker: IHG) is the largest hotel group in the world with seven brands (Intercontinental Hotels, Crowne Plaza, Hotel Indigo, Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Staybridge, and Candlewood Suites). They claim more than 645,000 rooms in over 100 countries.
If I take the time to join their “Priority Club Rewards” program, I get exclusive benefits like a free newspaper once a week. After I accumulate 20,000 points I get additional goodies such as Priority Check-In and a special phone number so I can wait less time on hold. Points are easy to accumulate because many of their rooms cost more for one night than I spent for an entire semester’s college tuition.
As a Club member, they would begin collecting information about me and my preferences so they can tailor an experience just for me. They promise not to release that information to anyone – not even me.
I never bothered joining. Unlike many, I can afford their rooms without going into debt to the credit card company. The issue is time, not money – my life is too short, and I don’t want to spend my time with them.
Instead, I belong to a different club, one with more space than InterContinental in more than twice as many countries. And my club is adding 14,000 members and 4,000 rooms a week.
And every one of those rooms is free.
My club is run by the Couch Surfing Collective. Although membership is free, four years ago I chose to donate about $20 and they verified that I was who I said I was, and I lived where I said I lived.
Couch Surfing members don’t have membership cards but rather online profiles that can be seen by all 1.8 million members. Other members write references, which can be positive, neutral, or negative – and all references appear on your profile, whether you like it or not.
In 1980, my girlfriend and I were traveling on a rail pass. We left from Milan bound for Frankfurt only because that is where the train went.
A German businessman sat across from us and asked, “Where are you going?”
“Why? Frankfurt is so boring. You should go to Wiesbaden instead.”
We asked, “Why?”
“Because that is where we live and you will stay with us.”
His wife spoke English with a perfect British accent. It turned out her father had been in the Luftwaffe and had been shot down during the Battle of Britain. He became best friends with a prison guard, and after the war during the summers they would swap children. She grew up partially in England.
She said the difference between the treatment of prisoners by the British and the Germans was astonishing.
We all cried.
We were there having dinner with them because they had decided to make it a habit of being kind to strangers; which is not a bad policy even when the stranger had recently been trying to blow up your country.
Beautiful Women of the GDR
I won a British Airways contest based on my social entrepreneurship site, No Shortage of Work, and the prize was airfare to anywhere BA flies. I put a notice on my profile on Europe’s equivalent of LinkedIn called Xing. Dozens of people said they would love to meet me in person so I flew into Frankfurt, then Cologne, and flew out of Hamburg and for 11 days I spent my time meeting people in person I’d only corresponded with before on Xing.
Although my sample size is very small, I have the following observation:
The most interesting, dynamic, interesting, hard-working, fearless, and interesting people I met were:
3) From East Germany, but were now in the West.
4) Were born under Communism, but grew into adulthood after the fall of the Wall.
My sample size was small and I am partial to young beautiful women so perhaps that is why I find them more interesting than old male businessmen like me, but I still think there is something to this.
What do you think?
An Unemployed German
In 2004, in Nuremberg, I met Kai, a very talented 51-year-old programmer who had been unemployed for 2 years, so my wife and I took him to dinner. His attitudes were self-defeating and I attacked every one of his beliefs:
“The economy is terrible.” So, are you just going to wait for it to improve?
“The government is incompetent.” Are you going to run for office and fix it?
“I’ve only had 2 interviews and they both ended abruptly when they learned my age.” People are prejudiced. Do you have a plan for how you are going to change them, or are you going to take a different approach?
“I don’t have a college degree.” That hasn’t stopped you for 30 years.
“Nobody cares.” There is a whole community of programmers just like you. Are you going to continue ignoring them or are you going to start caring about them and see if they care back?
“There is no work.” There is never a shortage of work even when there is a shortage of jobs. Find some work and do it even if you aren’t paid.
“I’ve built some amazing software on my own, but can’t sell it.” Are you going to learn to sell, partner with someone who can, or give up on doing what you want and start doing what other people want?
“There are no jobs in Germany.” You’re in the EU now so you can go where there are jobs.
“My English isn’t good enough.” Sure it is; I understand you perfectly. If you don’t understand me it isn’t because of your language skills, it is because of how you are thinking.
My wife kept kicking me under the table and whispered, “He just wants your sympathy.”
I said, “Perhaps, but it isn’t what he needs.”
We were living in London at the time and he even flew over to spend a weekend with me to get more of my abuse.
Soon he got unstuck and landed a job in Copenhagen (good pay, company apartment, flight home every other weekend) and a year later he moved to England for another job.
Kai and I have become good friends and my wife and I stayed with him outside London in November 2010.
He says he hates going back to Germany because too many people there think the way he used to.
I was speaking to a group of programmers, many of whom were looking for work. I asked Kai to write a short essay explaining what he learned, and how he changed his approach to what some call “networking.” Here is what he produced:
So, in February of 1971 we decided to hitchhike from Terre Haute, Indiana to Toronto by way of Detroit. A kindly gentleman in a pick-up truck offered to take us over the bridge to Windsor, on the Canadian side of the border.
He said, “If you are dodging the draft, don’t tell me, but I’m willing to try to get you across.”
At the border, the guards asked him who we were. “Just friends.”
We would have made it had our backpacks not been spotted in the bed of the pick-up. The three of us were interrogated in separate rooms. It was clear our driver knew nothing about us. “I’m sorry, but we are going to deny you admission to Canada. You must return to Detroit.” The official sounded quite official.
I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. Then I felt guilty; I had just been treated as if I were a criminal. On top of this, I felt tremendous rejection.
Dennis seemed quite cheerful. “Great.” He said, “Would you write me a letter?”
“I just want you to write me a letter rejecting me from Canada.”
“We’ve never done that before. I don’t even know what you are asking for.”
“Well,” He paused, “Since Junior High, I’ve been writing short stories and submitting them to literary magazines. I have not yet had a story accepted, but I have quite a collection of rejection letters from some of the world’s finest publications. However, this is the first time I’ve ever been rejected from an entire country. Would you write me a letter?”
The fellow laughed. “Why not?”
“Great. I’ll tell you what to say.”
Dear Mr. ##########
Thank you so much for your submission to Canada. Unfortunately your offering does not meet our needs at this time.
We wish you the best in your endeavours.
P. S. God Save the Queen
That night we managed to hitch to Oberlin, Ohio and spend the night in a house full of young co-eds. That was fun.
The next day we attempted to enter Canada for a second time, from Buffalo. The border guard spotted us immediately. A telex had been sent from Windsor describing two whackos.
As he pulled us out of the car, the guard said, “I suppose you’ll want another rejection letter.”
If you are going to go far, you’ll need to deal with lots of rejection. Start a collection.
For this month’s Father’s Stories column I wrote a brief item about an incident in a park in Tokyo. I had wanted just one photograph of Arisugawa Park to illustrate my story but I could not find any.
So, I thought I’d write for help to some of the most wonderful people I know: members of http://www.couchsurfing.com (1.) I will tell you more about them in a future article, but for now just know that this is a group of people around the world (about 400,000 strong) who build profiles describing themselves, as you might find on Facebook or Myspace. However, these people are exceptional; they are not into making “virtual friends” but real ones. They will meet you when you come to visit, show you around, perhaps take you for coffee, even put you up and more likely than not, stay up into the wee hours talking about the meaning of life.
I selected some members who live in Tokyo and who clearly enjoy photography. I wrote to them late the other day asking if they had photos of the park or if they lived near enough to go take some. By the next morning, a few had responded affirmatively and over the next few days the pictures started coming in; more than we could possibly publish here.
So now I have everything I need to tell you about and show you Arisugawa Park and what it means to me and to so many others.
Let’s begin with an excerpt from the Ministry of Education’s goals for the Moral Education of Children in Grade’s 1 and 2. (2.) Under “Things Primarily Related to Relationships with Nature and the Sublime” it itemizes:
(1) Feeling intimate with the nature that’s near oneself; being kind-hearted in treatment of plants and animals.
(2) Having a heart that values life.
(3) Having contact with beautiful things and feeling ennobled by them.
And under “Things Primarily Related to Oneself” is:
(4) Leading a life that is relaxed and ingenious, not dishonest or deceptive.
Arisugawa Park is clearly designed to help with all of these things.
The first time I entered the park was from the top of the hill. The children in front of me took off their shoes immediately; they knew this park is best experienced barefoot.
A bridge crossed a small stream that mysteriously flowed freely on the right but was not to be found on the left. (3.) In a few short steps you were no longer in one of the busiest and most modern cities in the world. You felt like you’d come home to a time long ago.
There were birds to hear, trees to climb and hide behind, and flat open spaces for playing ball.
Then there was a playground. At first it looked like the playgrounds back home. But there was a difference. At home, the equipment was designed to avoid lawsuits; slides you can’t possibly fall out of, platforms with rails and all built on a rubberize pad.
It appears from the photos my Couch Surfing friends have sent that Arisugawa Park now has one of these too. This was probably inevitable given the number of Gaijin living in the neighborhood.
But I’m also glad to see all the old equipment is still there.
In 1990 the first thing I saw was a huge climbing frame with a tangle of children inside and on top. It is about 10 feet tall, and while you’d probably sprain an ankle jumping from it, your child would not. Kids are built to last.
You can watch children being ingenious and eventually you will learn that you need to relax.
The best place for a parent to park themselves is right in the middle on top. You can watch your child but you can not catch them when they jump. You can yell at them if you want but it will be purely for your own neurotic reasons since the other children will drown out your screeches. Soon you will discover that children are not idiots and they know what they are doing.
Then there are the swings. They look like swings in any other park in the world.
The difference between the swings here and the ones back home is evident only in the behavior of the adults. While tiny children can be strapped in to avoid injury, the bigger ones get a flat plank suspended between two chains that allow for some real fun.
On either side of the swings are some sort of painted metal pipes that seem to serve no purpose except to provide a hurdle to be cleared when a child jumps. Children soon learn that you can fly farthest from an upright position.
A path takes you down to a pond at the bottom of the hill.
Just looking at it is good enough for an adult but if you are a child you might want to go fishing. This is OK as long as you throw them back.
I wouldn’t try wading in if I were you. Nor would our sons; well – not twice.
Writing this story has been bittersweet for me.
Arisugawa Park, I miss you and I want to visit again soon.
I want to thank all the people from Couch Surfing who helped with photographs and suggestions for this piece: Niki, Yuval, Sarah, Aya, Mari, Alex, Jim, Takumi, Srini, Misaki, and Sylvie.
I grew up on “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best”.
Our home was more like “The Simpson”s or “Married With Children”.
That January I found myself on an airplane sitting next to a woman who is a psychologist and an expert on rearing children. I asked her for advice on how to be a better dad.
We talked for hours and she had many sensible suggestions. As we approached Kennedy Airport, she said, “Well, there really isn’t time left to get into much depth, so let me ask you a simple question.”
“Can you imagine you and your family in some idealized future setting?”
“Yes.” It wasn’t a hard question, “When I was in college I traveled around Europe on a rail pass by myself. On the one hand I wished that my parents had been with me as we explored things together. On the other hand, I couldn’t imagine that the experience would have actually been a pleasant one.”
“When we had our own children, it was my fantasy that we could be the kind of parents that our children would enjoy having with them on vacation. Right now the thought of spending time together is inconsistent with our concept of a vacation. I’m sure they find our company “no fun” as well. It seems like we spend our days making up rules and enforcing them. They resent all that we do for them. It seems likely I’ll have to give up on that fantasy.”
“That’s perfect,” said my traveling companion. “Imagine what the ideal rail trip would be like. Imagine all of you exploring new things together, sharing experiences, and enjoying each other’s company. Imagine what it would feel like.”
“Good. Have a concrete image in your mind of this trip and set it as a goal. Now don’t concentrate on where you will go, or what you will see, but rather on how you, and everyone else, will feel and how you will interact.”
“Now, as you go through your daily life, each time you are about to do something, think to yourself, ‘Is what I am about to do going to bring me closer to this goal?’ If it occurs to you that what you are about to do now might hurt your chances of reaching your goal, try something different instead.”
I took this to heart. Each time I was about to yell about homework, bath time, or bedtime, I thought again. We found better ways of motivating our children without the acrimony.
In the summer of 1998, less than three years after that plane trip, we planned a vacation in Europe. Other parents assumed we were going as a couple and offered to introduce us to the baby sitters they trusted with their children when they went away. Traveling with their children was inconsistent with their concept of a vacation.
But we wanted to see if we could make our vision a reality. We all remember that trip; we visited France, Italy, and Switzerland by rail pass. Eve and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute we spent with our children. They enjoyed their time with us.
I can attribute most of my disappointments as a parent to a failure to remember or apply the things I learned on that flight in 1996.
It is better to keep a goal in mind and make up rules along the way than to follow rules and lose sight of the goal.
As a young amateur radio operator (ham call sign: N2BA), one of the more interesting people I spoke with on short-wave was Father Moran (ham call sign: 9N1MM). He was born in Chicago in 1906. In 1929 he moved to India. In 1949 he made his first trip to Nepal, which had just opened its borders to foreigners. In 1951 he established a boy’s school a short distance outside of Katmandu and later he was instrumental in setting up additional schools for both boys and girls.
For many years he was the only licensed amateur radio operator in Nepal, and perhaps the most famous in the world (with the possible exception of the late King Hussein of Jordan, call: JY1). I had heard of him from my high school chemistry teacher even before I passed my first ham license exam in 1966. It wasn’t until the early 1970’s that I was finally able to crack the inevitable “pile-up” Father Moran would generate whenever he’d appear on the short-wave bands.
In 1979 a friend from work and I decided to take a week off and fly around the world. I decided that it would be my goal to meet Father Moran in person. My friend Jack, (ham call: K2BMI), had met Father Moran a few years earlier on a similar trek.
I asked Jack, “How do I find Father Moran?”
He said, “When you arrive in Katmandu stop anyone and ask, ‘Where is Father Moran?’ Everyone in Nepal knows Father Moran.”
On the other side of Immigration at the airport in Katmandu was a card table to which was taped a hand lettered sign. “Tourist Information.” Behind the table sat a young woman.
I asked, “Where is Father Moran?”
“Ah.” She nodded, and began to unfold a map. She inspected it carefully and then drew a small “X” alongside a road outside of the city.
“Is that where Father Moran has his school?”
“No. That is where you stand at two o’clock this afternoon. It’s Monday and Father Moran goes shopping on Mondays. He will come by this road at a little after two and you just wave him down. He will be driving a blue Volkswagen Beetle. He will take you home.”
“What?” I was flabbergasted. “I don’t want to see him right now. Could you tell me how to find his school on my own?”
“Well, how long will you be in Nepal?”
“OK. You will want to hire a taxi for your time here. It’s the best way. Just don’t pay more than $20 a day.” She smiled, “Ask your driver to take you to Father Moran. Everyone knows Father Moran.”
Our driver would arrive at the hotel at 5:00 AM and sleep in his taxi until we would wake him and ask to be shown around.
Wednesday morning I asked, “Do you know Father Moran?”
“Of course; everyone knows Father Moran.”
At his school in Godavari, I gave Father Moran the gift I’d brought from the States; a pair of 12JB6 final amplifier tubes for his Drake transmitter. They tend to burn out and they weren’t to be found anywhere in Nepal.
He let me operate his radio and then he invited me to join him for lunch with the other priests.
He asked me to sign his guest book. This was a standard hotel registry with space for perhaps 1,000 entries. I was to sign volume 6. It appeared that my trek was not unique. He had met Edmund Hillary who he helped in becoming oriented to the country before his climb of Everest. Queen Elizabeth II had visited along with King Juan Carlos of Spain (ham call: EA0JC). The entire crew of an Apollo mission visited to present him with a photo of Nepal taken from space. There were thousands of entries from people famous and unknown.
Father Moran died in 1992 after 40 years in Nepal. He seldom left the country that he loved.
If you meet someone from Nepal ask them if they know Father Moran. I know the answer. “Of course; everyone knows Father Moran.” If they are over the age of 30, they have probably met him in person.
You can travel the world to find worthy people, or you can be a worthy person and the world will travel to find you.
How to Leave a Legacy
In June of 2006 I was attending a hedge fund conference outside of London. I would have an entire Sunday, and two weeknights with little to do. I found a group of people on the Internet (www.hospitalityclub.org) who were dedicated to acting as hosts to travelers, providing everything from simple conversation to free accommodations.
I began writing to members with interesting profiles, asking if they might join me for a meal or a drink.
One member, Hem, was from Nepal so I wrote to ask him if he knew Father Moran.
Yes. I know Father Moran. I was a student there in St. Xavier’s School in Godavari, Kathmandu.
Let me know about the suitable time to meet up.
Even though he died 13 years earlier, everyone still remembers Father Moran. At lunch in London, Hem brought a photograph of his grammar school graduation. There, in the upper left corner stood Father Moran.
It was clear from our brief conversations that Hem was well educated and had good values and habits.
Father Moran’s legacy was fondly remembered for he had done something in common with many other great people.
If you want to be remembered by people, teach them something. If you are really ambitious, start a school.
 A “pile-up” is ham slang for a large number of people calling simultaneously.
 No, we weren’t rich. We both worked for an airline and we could fly at greatly reduced fares.
 You might argue that you’ve never even heard of Father Moran, but by now you have.