Bird by Bird

I am a big believer in learning about something before I jump in with both feet — or at least while I am jumping in.

I did it when I used to work for a company that made navigation maps, which is why I can sound a whole lot more proficient than you’d imagine while discussing links, nodes and APIs.

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I did it when I learned to surf, which is why I own three books on surfing (my favorite being Surf Diva: A Girls’ Guide to Getting Good Waves) and watched countless hours of Point Break, Endless Summer, Blue Crush, and the like.

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I did it when I decided I wanted to open an import business for my favorite purses from Argentina (which is why I quickly realized I should not open an import business for my favorite purses from Argentina).

So, it should come as no surprise that when I decided I seriously want to be an author (beyond just my junior high wish list of jobs), I started doing my homework.  I researched the industry and the craft.  I joined associations like SCBWI, I took classes (with Mediabistro), I continue to attend numerous workshops and conferences, and I am (go figure if you know me at all by now) reading books.

A book that just blew me away is Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott.  It is informative, funny, well-written, enjoyable and inspiring.

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“Bird by Bird” refers to advice Lamott’s father gave to her brother, who was overwhelmed with a report on birds he needed to write for school…

“He was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said. ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’ ”

Lamott offers this kind of simple advice related in a compelling, emotional, accessible way throughout the book.  She does not get into the nuts and bolts of style the way Strunck & White do in The Elements of Style (another favorite of mine from college that I recently reread).

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Instead, she focuses on how to be a writer, and the actual process of writing.  Her direct honesty is offset by her effusive humor, so I found myself laughing aloud at her stories, even as I was wincing inside at her warnings.

Starting something new, like being an author, is exciting.  But it is also scary.  Having Lamott to look up to as a woman ahead of me on the trail, and not only surviving, but thriving, is reassuring.

Time Warp

Guest Post by Terri Lydon (http://redfacedmama.blogspot.com)

As anyone who has traveled with young kids can attest to, it’s all in the planning.  You need to be sure you thought through and predicted all possible outcomes, and planned accordingly.  If you did not pack medicine, it is guaranteed your child will get sick at 2am.  If you packed for winter in Chicago, I promise you will come across the only heated pool complete with built-in slides and a slushy bar and you will need a swim suit.  And if your plan was to order room service for dinner, there is a 85% chance the hotel’s kitchen will be closed at that hour.

This weekend, my kiddos and I headed to Michigan for a family wedding.  The ceremony was at 4pm MI time, which is 1 hour later than Chicago time (I was prepared for this hour change).  I decided we were going to drive out the day of the wedding to enable naps to take place…if we drove out the day before, there is no way my kids would nap which would result in them turning into sloppy puddles around 7pm.

Here was the plan:

– 7:30am: Auntie was sleeping over, so she was going to take the kids to Dunkin’ Donuts.  I would shower and get myself ready.

– 8:00am: Eat breakfast.

– 8:30am: Pack the car.

– 9:00am: Get the kids ready.

– 9:30am: Leave for MI.

– 11:30am: Get lunch.

– 12pm (which would be 1pm MI time): Arrive at hotel.

– 1pm-2pm: Relax in room, unpack, etc.

– 2pm: Get ready for the wedding.

– 3pm: Leave for the ceremony which was about 30 minutes away.

Here’s the reality:

– 7:30am: Auntie has the kids buckled in the car, and calls me to tell me the car dashboard is lighting up like a slot machine and the car has locked itself in “park” and will not budge.  We are not mechanics, so we press buttons and start and stop and car, turn it on and off (like a phone, right?).  Crap.

– 7:45am: New plan.  Auntie is going to get breakfast sans kids while mama just says “CRAPCRAPCRAPCRAP” silently to herself and makes coffee.

– 8am: Auntie texts that she can’t park at Dunkin’ Donuts (apparently everyone in the area decided it was donut day.  Bastards.)

– 8:30am: Auntie is back with food.  Coffee is ready.  Breakfast is consumed.

– 9am: Auntie takes the kiddos for a walk while mama starts the process of moving the car seats to her Camry.  Now, being a very safety-minded mother, I of course bought the super-safe seats that lock into place in multiple places.  Straps.  Clips.  Belts.  Needless to say 1 hour later with Auntie’s help both car seats were finally secured.  Car is packed.

10am: Mama showers.  Gets ready.

10:30am: Kids are ready.

10:45am: Off we go.  As we head toward the freeway, I explain to John and Annie what it means to be “rolling with the punches” which they think is just the best thing ever!  OK, so at least I am still in an happy-ish mindset…

We stopped for a very fast lunch at some point…but this is where the time-warp happens.  We find the hotel, and have to bring in all of our bags (kids + bags + parking lot + no “check in” parking = insanity).  We check in and get to our floor and see another wedding guest…dressed and heading out to the ceremony…it’s 3pm.  WTF?????

We get in the room and I announce “TAKE OFF YOUR CLOTHES AND GET DRESSED!”  Everyone’s confused.  OK.  That made no sense.  (1) Take off your clothes.  (2) Put on your wedding clothes.  FAST.  FAST.  FAST!!!!!!!!!!  And then of course my dress was cut too low and I had a plan to safety pin it.  However, attaching a safety pin to your own clothes when you are stressed and rushed does not work well.  For eff sake.

Took 1 picture of the kids to prove they were quaffed:

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We raced to the ceremony in full NASCAR style, parked in the chapel’s driveway (completely illegally) and walked down the aisle 3 minutes before the procession.  I’ve heard it’s all about your entrance 😉

The kids were all wound up, and were having a hard time sitting still.  I was too.  At one point, the priest said if anyone couldn’t hear him to raise their hand.  If you could hear him but didn’t want to, raise 2 hands.  Well, I’ll let you guess what John did.  Twice.

So much for thinking and planning.  Rolling with the punches.

Paddington Bear

As I wrote in one of my first blog entries, my childhood was full of travel.  It was also full of books.  It’s only recently that I’ve realized that most of my childhood heroes were adventurers…

…Paddington Bear, Curious George, Mary from The Secret Garden, Milo from The Phantom Tollbooth, Max from Where the Wild Things Are, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Madeline, The Little House, Make Way for Ducklings, Miss Rumphius, Babar, Frog and Toad, George and Martha, Jackie Piper and Puff, Ping…

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I had some heroes who didn’t travel, but even their stories were travel-related.  The Box Car Children lived on a train, even though it never moved.  And Mr. Popper may not have traveled, but his penguins did.  And, I don’t remember the story clearly enough, but I have a distinct sense that Jo from Little Women was a traveler, even if only in her heart.

My first big international trip was to England with my mom, sister and aunt.  I wasn’t necessarily reminded of any books I’d read until we were on the London Underground, and I set eyes on Paddington Station.  Suddenly all the Paddington Bear stories I had read as a kid came back to me, as if I was sprinkled with magical fairy dust, gifted with all the images from the books.

The Queen's 80th Birthday - Paddington Arrives

From that moment on, I advocated for afternoon tea and marmalade each and every day of our trip, a tradition I continue to relish and associate with Paddington and that trip, to this day.

Boats, Trains and Automobiles

I love road trips.  And boat trips.  And train trips.  And, not coincidentally, some of my favorite books involve those very trips…

Around the World in 80 Days

This book has trains and boats (and an elephant and sledge to boot!).  I will never forget the first time I picked up this book, and realized for the very first time that people like to travel to new places just for the rush and adventure of travel, itself, and not necessarily only to get somewhere specific.

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The Black Stallion

In this book, the significance of the boat trip isn’t about the journey.  The boat is a catalyst.  It is onboard a boat that Alec meets Black, and befriends the feisty stallion with kindness.  When the boat sinks after an explosion, Black and Alec fight for their lives.

I remember being riveted as a kid, and grasping immediately that the reason Black is drawn to Alec is his kindheartedness.  And I remember staying up way past my bedtime, feverishly turning page after page to see how Alec and Black survive the open seas.

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The Odyssey

Of course, the oldest and most famous story of a boat trip is Homer’s epic.  This was assigned reading in high school, and at the time, I didn’t think of it as a travel story.  It was mythology, and history, and classic literature.

But, on my first voyage to Greece, during spring break of my senior year of university, it all came back to me.  Having devoured the story of Odysseus’ journey home from Troy to Ithaca, that trip (and later trips, to Greece and Turkey) totally resonated.  The funny thing about books is, when I read them, the story becomes personal; it becomes mine.  I hear my voice in my head telling the story to me.  So, it was my voice that I remember relaying Odysseus’ trials and tribulations, and it was intoxicating to feel personally connected with Greece (and Turkey), even though I had never physically set foot there before.  I had been there in my head.

This was especially true during the two trips in the region that involved boats – I imagined that I was sailing in the same waters as Odysseus, strolling the same shores, exploring the same cities.  And, I imagined I was doing it for the second time, because the first time I had accompanied him (at least in my head).

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The Old Man and The Sea

Hemingway’s classic about an old Cuban fisherman was a simple, yet deceiving story.  Similar to Black Beauty, the boat is important because of a journey, but it sets the required tension for the story.  In this case, it is a story about man’s powerlessness.

The Old Man and The Sea

Moby Dick

Wow, lots of books on my high school reading list took place on boats, now that I think about it!  I haven’t even touched on Tom Sawyer or The Tempest.  But, Moby Dick definitely makes my list.  What a remarkable story about passion to the point of madness and determination to the point of obsession, all set on a whaling ship.

Every time I’ve gone whale watching, whether its off Nantucket like Ahab, or Hawaii, or somewhere abroad from America’s coast, I think back to the adventures of the Pequod.

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Murder on the Orient Express

This is the first book, (and subsequently all the Hercule Poirot and Agatha Crisitie novels), that my mom and I read together as adults.  As such, more than being inspired by the romance of the train adventure, I realized books can be connections to family and friends as we each journey together (and separately) through the chapters of a story.

The idea of an epic train adventure stayed with me, and was the impetus for my (real-life!) journey with my sister on the Trans Siberian Railway.

When my friend Dawn and I were in Istanbul a couple years ago, we visited the hotel, The Pera, where Agatha Christie stayed while she penned this murder mystery.  And, we saw the railroad station where Hercule Poirot boarded the Orient Express in (then) Constantinople.  This is the book that just keeps on giving in my life!

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On the Road 

I had never read Kerouac’s classic novel of angst, freedom and the Beat Generation until a boyfriend and I took a couple road trips across the country.  There was something addictive about being on the open road, seeing the country mile by mile, and entering and leaving state after state, and city after city.  I was hooked.

When I told people about my love of the crossings, they universally recommended Kerouc’s book.  I dove in and immediately related to his intangible search for himself, and for finding a way to truly experience life.

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Motorcycle Diaries 

I was drawn to Che Guevara’s memoir of his motorcycle (steamship, raft, horse, bus and hitchhiking) journey from Argentina to Peru, solely to relish his magnificent descriptions of South American people and landscapes.

By the end of the book, Che and I were both changed forever.  I had fallen in love with South America, and Che had thrown off his upper-middle-class identity for a dedication to the plight of the poor, and to the cause of a united Latin America.

In the diary, I saw Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama (and Florida).  And since reading it, I have been lucky enough to visit Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, (and Florida).  But, like all “firsts”, my first time “visiting” those places, with Che, has colored all subsequent times.  I am glad my first time was with him.

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Internal Migrations

In February 2013, I attended the annual Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ Conference in NYC.  This was my second time participating, and I have also attended their last two annual summer conferences in Los Angeles.

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One of the striking things about these conferences is the caliber of the speakers.  They have giants in the industry, on both the business (publishers and agents) and artistic (writers and illustrators) sides.

The conference in February was no exception: Mallory Kass, Heather Alexander, Tara Weikum, Kate Sullivan, Tina Wexler, Edward Necarsulmer, Ginger Clark, Jenny Bent, Michelle Nagler, Lin Oliver, Stephen Mooser, Meg Rosoff, Mary Brown, Robert Brown, Jon Fine, Peter Glassman, Alexander Penfold, Nancy Siscoe, Shaun Tan, Tomie dePaoloa, Jane Yolen, Margaret Peterson Haddix, Julie Andrews, Emma Walton Hamilton, and Mo Williams.  And these are just the people I heard speak!

I was spoon-fed a wealth of useful information, and inspired to raise the level of my craft, and, all-in-all, reminded why I decided to write to children’s books to begin with.  All these speakers contributed to my bountiful takeaway.

But, Shaun Tan’s talk really stuck with me, which is a little surprising, considering he is more of an illustrator than an author (although he may disagree with that categorization, as he really is clearly both).  But, he is a more visual storyteller than I am, to be sure.

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However, his discussion of “Internal Migrations” and “The Journey Within” resonated incredibly strongly with me.   And it helped me understand how writing fits into my exploration of place.

It is obvious how reading and traveling do.  But, the third leg of my stool, the third thing I am passionate about, is writing (picture books, novels, blog entries) based on my travels and readings.  And, until I heard Shaun speak, I didn’t fully appreciate how closely linked that was to the other two.

Now I get it: writing is the exploration of place INSIDE my head.  It is traveling in my thoughts, without leaving my desk.  It is an internal migration, where take all the material I have gathered, through my travels and readings, and create characters and stories that I can share with others, and enable them to explore those same places.

Writing is a way I explore place, just like reading and traveling are.

So, thank you, Shaun (and SCBWI).  Now I understand what I have been up to!

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Ants On The Tracks

A focal part of my relationship with my niece and nephew is reading.

Sure, we do a lot of tickling, and kissing, and hugging, and chasing, and shoulder rides, and laughing.  There are water slide parks, and cheeseburgers, and train museums…and other things, too.

But, every time I visit them, I bring them each a book.  And, every time I put them to bed, we read.

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So, it is no surprise that traveling with them involves books, too.

First, there is deciding which books they will bring on any given trip (they are allowed three each).

Then, at each gift store we visit for each train museum (our trips usually involve train museums), there is deciding if they will buy a book or a toy, and which one.  I love that they are completely torn by the decision: to them, a book is just as tempting as a toy.  It is so gratifying to see them struggle over whether they want a new book or a something that beeps and lights up and moves.  They fully understand the magic of books:  books are magic carpets that can take you to new and exiting lands where you’ll join new friends on an adventure of sorts.

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Finally, there is the joy of reading the new books when we get back home, and, in a very real way, reliving the vacation a little bit.  The book becomes a special kind of magic carpet, that no only transports us to the places within its pages, but ALSO has the power to transport us back to our vacation.  It becomes a secret ticket that only has that power for us, the people who were on the original trip when the book was procured.

Last summer we went to the Wisconsin Dells, and visited two train museums.  We got the book, “Ants on the Tracks”.  Every time we read it, we of course visit the ants on the tracks.  But, we also get to remember the whole vacation: water slides, fudge, trains, pools, duck boats.  Go figure — all that in a book about ants on a track.

I am incredibly passionate about books.  And travel.  And spending time with my niece and nephew.  When all three of these activities marry, I am absolutely giddy with joy.

Ethiopia Part IV: Today’s Situation

As I become more and more enamored with the people, history and culture of Ethiopia, it is heartbreaking to learn that the current outlook isn’t so rosy.  The major issues that stuck out for me were the political situation, the social issues (education, women’s rights), clean water, and the famine and resulting border tensions with Kenya.

First, the political situation is stable, but not ideal.  There isn’t freedom of the press.  It will be interesting to see if the death of the Prime Minister in August (2012) will lead to more or less freedoms.  And although there are elections, I was told they are basically just for show since 85% of the population lives in the countryside and all the land belongs to the government.  They need to vote with the government to keep their homes.  I also learned that in 2010 international observers said the elections didn’t meet international standards since government funds were used to campaign for the ruling party, which won 545 of the 546 seats in the parliament.  Looking back a bit further, the 2005 elections resulted in 200 people dying in election related violence, and dozens of imprisonments of demonstrators and opposition leaders.

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Second, there are major social issues, especially concerning women and education.  The key problem for women is forced marriage at a young age, at times, as young as 12 years old; marriage, and womens’ rights, in general.

Age at First Marriage or Union for 20-to-24-Year-Old Females by Region

Age at First Marriage or Union for 20-to-24-Year-Old Females by Region

In one village, Dereje was hoping to show me a cow jumping ceremony, a formality prior to marriage where a man has to prove he is worthy to marry by jumping over a cow.  That day, there wasn’t one.  And at first, I was disappointed because he had told me how entertaining the music and dancing are.  But then I realized I was fortunate, because he also said the bride to be is whipped by her mother in law to be so she is bloody — it is “willing scarification”.

I don’t think I could have watched that.  Dereje said that first wives in a lot of these tribes are basically slaves because the husband pays such a large dowry to her family.  For example, after they serve their husband dinner, they have to sit facing the wall, waiting for him to finish.

In general, it seems hard to be a woman in this area.  Female circumcision is common in some tribes.  And while a growing percentage, still fewer girls than boys are sent to school.

In these conditions, it is hard to be a first wife; you are a virtual slave.  But, families rejoice when they have girls because it means they will be able to get bride prices for them — especially if they are first wives.  If you are a first wife, your family does very well by you.  But, if you are a second wife, your life seems easier, but your family doesn’t do as well. The same story goes even more for a third wife, and onward.

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It’s hard to imagine having to think about these things.  What do I pray for: would I want to enable my family to be significantly better off but have an unpleasant life, or screw my family and live more easily?

I learned about the education problems anecdotally when I was trying to give pens I brought with me away to the kids.  We had very limited success handing them out the last couple of days, as we only wanted to give pens to kids who attended school, and it seemed that not a lot of kids were doing that.  Sad.

One day we gave pens to five boys who were walking back from school.  We found out that they walked all the way there to find out that, as usual, there wasn’t a teacher.  I was impressed that they kept making the (laborious) effort to get themselves there every day.  I wished I could have given them a teacher to go with the pens.

Clean water is another huge problem in Ethiopia.  Every time we passed a well, there were people lined up with their yellow or blue plastic containers.  And at every stream, people were filling up their containers — the problem was that they were collecting the water directly next to other people bathing or doing their laundry.

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People want containers for water.  When we drove past kids (children who seem to be as young as 5 in charge of herds of animals) on the roads, they asked for our empty water bottles to reuse them.  Some of the kids were really inventive with dances to try to differentiate themselves from everyone else, doing froggy jumps, or looking like Greeks, or doing the funky chicken with their legs.

ethiopia drought

As we got closer and closer to the Kenyan and Sudan borders, we started to see more guns.  I guess these tribesmen can have hundreds of cows to protect, and they trade cows for guns with the Kenyans.  Plus, there was growing animosity due to the worsening famine in the area of Kenya that is across the border from Ethiopia.

In rereading everything I just wrote, I realize I haven’t painted a very rosy picture of Ethiopia.  So, let me clarify a couple of things.

First, I was awed by my visit there.  The people, the food, the culture, the sights.  I loved every minute of my trip (ok, there were a few minutes I could have skipped, but, you get the point).  Second, because of its history and the role it played in the history of civilization, it has endured many worse moments in time, and come back strong again.  Third, a lot of things are improving there on a day by day, and decade by decade basis.  They have a new prime minister, and the IMF raised the economic growth rate from 5.5% to 7%.

As a travel destination, I was blown away.  I just want its people to have the same sense of awe about their future as I have about their history and culture.

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Hawaii Deserves Better From Me

I have been lucky enough to visit Hawaii four times so far.  And, I can say without reservation that I loved it each time.  I’ve rented open-air jeeps and driven around volcanoes and found deserted beaches.  I learned to surf.  I danced the hula, ate roasted pig and plates of fresh pineapple, and drank piña coladas.  I visited Pearl Harbor, watched whales dive, and experienced magical sunsets.

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I know this paragraph will sound snobbish and off-putting, but here I go: everyone speaks English so it’s comfortable and easy.  And it’s American, so it’s clean and modern.  There aren’t any bugs or snakes.  Or exotic diseases.  You can drink the water.

As a tourist, it is hard to imagine a more potent example of paradise.

But, taking off my tourist hat and looking at Hawaiians as fellow Americans, I start to feel a little more uncomfortable.  They have a long and tortured relationship with the mainland U.S., and their rich culture, I feel, has been Disneyized for easy consumption.

After my last trip there I was determined to learn more about it and be a more responsible tourist.  So, I read Sarah Vowell’s “Unfamiliar Fishes”.

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Anyone familiar with Vowell (I wasn’t) will immediately see the error of my ways.  Her book is very entertaining.  But, even in the course of criticizing the patronizing way the missionaries and U.S. government treated the nation of Hawaii, her easy-breezy, overly-chatty tone manages to patronize its history.

I was enjoying the book so much as I read it, that it wasn’t until almost the end that I realized how cringe-worthy this irony really is.  And how much I felt like the book was my fifth visit to Hawaii, where I thoroughly enjoyed myself but didn’t give the island or its people the respect they deserve.

In fairness, I did learn a lot.  From the death of Captain Cook, to the influx of missionaries, whalers and sugar cane prospectors, I do have a much more nuanced understanding of the plight of the Native Hawaiians as their population was decimated from 300,000 to a mere 40,000.

But, as much as Vowell educated me that Hawaiians are sensitive to this day about their annexation into the U.S., I was left feeling uneasy with her flippant tone and the shallowness of her descriptions.

Annexation ceremony in 1898 in Honolulu.

Annexation ceremony in 1898 in Honolulu.

The truth is, I have been spoiled by all the effort that Ryszard Kapuściński, and other authors I’ve been reading, make to remove the “Us and Them” mentality, and explain history, places and cultures with sensitivity and depth.  And, that’s just not the charter Vowell embraces.  She is purely an entertainer.

I ate up her book, but it left me hungry, with the all too familiar guilt of a junk food binge.

Live There, Or Travel There?

Guest post by Alexander Goodman (www.bigfishsquad.com)

Whether you travel somewhere or live there, I don’t think it makes the experience any more valuable, one way or the other.  It is just different.

For me, it is a “calling” of sorts to experience new parts of world, and acquire appreciation for diversity; it gives meaning to my life.  You could even say it’s my religion, as trite as that sounds, I realize.

While you walk away from travel with both positive and negative impressions of the place you visited, it is that greater understanding of the place that makes it so rewarding.  Every place is good and bad for different reasons, but you respect that, because these people are simply different from you.

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Travel also forces you to experience various levels of adversity, so that when you return home to your “comfort zone”, you are, in my opinion, better equipped to handle the stresses of everyday life.

I live in France, and living abroad here has involved much of the aforementioned definition of travel, but in a much deeper, more multi-layered, and, at times, confusing way.

For instance, when you’re visiting Paris, you’re curious about the cultural differences.  But when you live here, those cultural differences arise in every relationship you have, both personal and professional, and it’s easy to question whether you chalk something up to the person, or the fact that they’re French.

That said, I can’t sit here and decree something like, “If you haven’t spent xx amount of time in a place, you haven’t really experienced it.”  That’s bullshit.  And you’re talking to someone who has done a lot of both.

Really, you’ve just experienced it differently visiting there than if you had lived there.  The point is to experience it somehow.

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But one thing is certain: I believe everyone who has the means should make an effort to get out of their comfort zone, and see the world, whether it be by traveling or living abroad.  Millions of people cannot afford to do either one of these; it is an untouchable luxury.

So to all those who have the means and the flexibility to do it, I urge you trade in that Caribbean beach vacay, and go somewhere truly exotic, truly different from what you know.  And once you travel there, who knows, maybe you’ll live there one day.  But in either case, the reward is precious and, unequivocally, invaluable.

Red Light, Green Light

Have you ever been to one of those Brazilian steakhouses, a “churrascaria”?  The ones with the roving waiters proffering skewers of meat?  Where you are armed with a cardboard card, which has one side that is red, indicating that you don’t want any more meat at the moment, and one side which is green, which means you are interested in more?

I was thinking the other day that airplanes should give those to passengers.  We can use the red side to signal, politely, to our seat mates that we aren’t open to talking at the moment.  And the green side can signal that, yes, if you want to tell me about your grandson’s clarinet recital, now would be an okay time.

red light, green light

What do you think?