Thursday, December 29, 2011

Return of the Prodigal Family

And now that the prodigal family is returned, let's look at some of the basic whys of the return—the things we already find to appreciate.

We arrived in Miami to well-organized, polite, efficient processing through Passport Control, Customs, and baggage-claim. Sure, we occasionally had to walk around a fresh pool of someone's purged motion sickness (feel better now?), but that was considerately cordoned off with orange cones. Now it's not fair to compare this experience to entering Ecuador, because residents are always treated better than foreigners, but it is refreshing to have at least a sense of order.

We stayed in Miami for a day with our friends, who are also magnificent hosts. I say this because Mike treated us first to beer. To say it was great beer is to first diminish the fact that it was not Pilsner or Club, the two ubiquitous Ecuadorian brews. Choice. Remarkable. And Mike offered us a choice for dinner, which included steak or lobster, or steak and lobster. Or maybe it was just the illusion of choice, but included with the illusion was delicious wine and salad—actual salad, with various greens, chopped vegetables, and dressing.

Awe inspiring

Betsy and Mike asked Piper what she thought of returning to this country. "Good," she said, and then coyly walked over to me and whispered in my ear, "But it doesn't feel like another country." Miami is indeed a soft re-entry, which Mike calls North Havana. In the airport, the unique and attention-grabbing Latin fashion (painted-on spandex, precipitous high heels, determined breasts, and copius bling) abounds as it does in Ecuador. And I realized, after the fact, that the whole conversation I had with the clerk at the snack stand in order to get change to make a phone call was in Spanish, which she initiated.

The beach was trash free and beautiful, but there were no guys pedaling ceviche carts (selling mussels they simply go in the water to replenish, once they've run out). The driving was like buttah, with smooth and orderly infrastructure and drivers actually using the lines that the government went to all the trouble of having painted on the roads (we wondered why they bothered to spend the money in Ecuador).

We ate a delicious Asian lunch. One of the peculiar things in Ecuador was that, though there are Chinese restaurants (as there are in all parts of the world), we never found one that actually tasted like the Chinese food found in all other parts of the world. But, though the green curry was very good, the actual chicken in it had more the consistency of packing peanuts, without any of their flavor. I still miss EcuaChicken. And there's a price for good food: we paid $50 for food that is no better (though more diverse) than an Ecuadorian almuerzo, which would have cost us about $8.

After lunch we went to a playground where Piper again appreciated being home, as we noted that we were about the only English speakers there. But we don't stand out so much in a crown here. As Piper said, "At least nobody's gonna stare at us here."

I initially appreciated hot showers available at all times that don't turn cold when anyone in the building turns on their tap. But then I realized I was spending less time in the shower in Ecuador, and therefore out living my life. But, I still manage to appreciate hot showers, even if it means sacrificing a few minutes of my life a day to hedonism.

I searched in vain for a knife sharpener in Ecuador. I just mean the one you usually have in your knife collection that is actually just a de-burring stone. I could only ever find real knife sharpening services that are overkill for your everyday kitchen needs. And so even with a sharp knife it wasn't much time before I was squishing tomatoes while trying to cut them. Yeah, OK, I won't try to explain to you the little things in my life that really float my boat, but sharp knives is one of them.

There is only one fruit in the States that we found is better than Ecuador. Oranges are more tart and not as sweet in Ecuador. So now I can appreciate oranges and orange juice here.

Snow! Any fears that the kids or we would have a tough time re-entering during the coldest winter months after a year and a half of spring were put to the test our first day in Denver. Ten inches of snow dropped on the city, and we had to scramble to put together some winter protection before the kids bounced themselves right out the door in excitement.

I know the newspaper's here somewhere

Christmas in Cuenca is something people from all over Ecuador come to see. It is beautiful, with its own traditions mingled with some of the more popular ones from around the world (Papa Noel). But for us, of course, it lacks some essential Christmas ingredients: cold, if not snow; real Christmas trees, carols we recognize; and family. We had great friends in Ecuador and met amazing people. Sometimes we'd get frustrated with things in Ecuador, because we didn't have the cultural experience to understand them. And we'd privately wonder how some people, having lived part of their lives in the States, would prefer to live in Ecuador. And the most simple and basic reason is, of course, because it is home. Our home is not better, but we see it differently because it is our home.

So what we most appreciate about coming back, is just being home.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What we'll miss in Ecuador

We're on a flight back to the U.S. from Ecuador right now, and it already feels like we're fleeing the country to escape the Aw Thaura Tees. I've got $3,000 in cash in my pocket and half our lives in five suitcases, four carry-ons, and four personal items (capable of fitting under the seat in front of us); I was called to the gate at the airport and escorted past drug dogs for a personal checked baggage inspection; my seven-year-old daughter was also called to the gate for a "random" (perhaps a little too cute and innocent) terrorist scanning with the explosive residue attractant little pieces of paper thingys that they feed into the machine thingy to see if she was making explosives with her Sleeper Cell Terrorist Barbie play set; and I realized after boarding that I got through security with a 12-oz bottle of water sticking out of the outside pocket of my backpack. So I thought I should get out the Things We'll Miss About Ecuador post before we're caught.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Self Improvement

Given that we are leaving Cuenca in just three days and Ecuador in four, I've got loads of other super duper important posts to do. But my last post being essentially about self improvement, there is just too much karmic vibe to ignore this post that came out the same day. It's from Leo Babauta's wildly popular "Zen Habits" blog that essentially parried my self improvement thrust. And so…my riposte.

Let's first sum up the post: self improvement is a contradiction. As a tiger chasing its tail, the thing we pursue (contentment) is forever pulled from us by our deliberate search for it. Leo asks in the post where does this self improvement end? When is anyone ever content with who they are?

And perhaps he implicitly answers that question with his advice to realize that we are already perfect and to quash the urge to improve. So the act of improvement seems a contradiction.

But let's back up one step. Explicit delivery of a truth in most mystic traditions is forbidden (or impossible) because the truth imparted inevitably will not be the one received anyhow. If you want someone to get somewhere, you can't tell them where it is; you must tell them how to get there.

So in this case, where's Leo? Well, perhaps if he were to have made this more explicit he would have underlined "urge" in his advice. Because, to realize we are perfect and to quash an urge, would not we believe ourselves to be improved by no longer having an urge to improve? Upon re-reading, then, he never explicitly says that improvement is bad. Following this logical path, he now seems to be implying that the urge to improve is what is suspect.

So to resist the urge to improve while still seeking to improve can remain noble (again, on this logical path). And if Leo's really a student of Buddhism this jives with the essential Buddhist tenant that desire is the source of all suffering.

And Buddhism is nothing if not comfortable with apparent contradictions, as it believes there are no true contradictions (only our own confusion or misunderstanding). Still, Leo seems to be reinforcing the apparent contradiction between self improvement and contentment rather than dissolving it. Bad, sensei, bad (am I confusing my Eastern arts now?).

Funny how I've spent a year of calm relaxation and reflection in a culture that is much more tranquilo, and still I can end up thinking to myself, can you just bottom line this for me, Leo?

So, touché, Leo, or no? I still stick by my self improvement foil, even if I have to reconsider fencing analogies when I end up only dueling with myself.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Still drinking out of a wine juice box

Not long after arriving in Ecuador Teddy and I were up late (after 9pm) talking. He related some bonehead thing he did that could just as easily have been anyone's bonehead move. Then he smiled and shook his head, saying "Typical Teddy." Then after a short pause and with the residue of the smile still left on his face and his eyes now looking off into some photo album in his brain, he says, "I gotta make typical Teddy mean something else."

Now, I only pick particularly on Teddy because typical Teddy is such a great line (and he's a pretty hard target to miss), because many of us could say the same thing (or should).

We all work to improve ourselves, I think. It's why I love getting old (besides hoping that one day I'll finally look my age, or at least old enough to drink); if you're honestly working to improve yourself, every year is better than the last. One of the greatest barriers to self improvement…no, wait, the only barrier…is ourselves. We tend to rationalize, deflect, and excuse our way out of taking responsibility for ourselves and our failures. There are many things in life we can blame our little failures on: work got in the way; the kid got sick; it's really cold outside; the dog ate my homework.

But most of those things we shift blame to are just the thing of everyday life. And if we don't take life into account, our lives will ultimately be only stories of why not.

Or so we have found out on this sabbatical. We have stripped away not just our regular jobs, but many other commitments, responsibilities, and time-consuming opportunities. We no longer serve on boards and committees in our community. We don't have many social functions to attend. We don't have lots of friends or family nearby whom we haven't seen in a while and need to spend time with. We have, in short, nothing but ourselves and the day in front of us. Awesome, right?

Well, I don't know about you, but I'm afraid I look better with clothes on. And it's kinda like that. Without all those obligations and opportunities that create the structure of our lives and tell us and others who we are, we are stripped down to the raw us, and some of what we find ain't all that pretty. But unless you honestly know where you're starting, it will take longer to get where you want to go.

Still, unless you are looking at your naked self and seeing what you want to be rather what you don't like, you'll end up trying to fix what's wrong, rather than trying to create what's right. And that may be the greatest lesson we've learned here; be ready to look in the mirror, but don't waste time lamenting what you see. Get busy making typical Teddy mean something else.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A simple life

Just checked the weather in Denver and Vail. Flip flops may not cut it for friggin' 15 below zero! Good thing we gave them one last dip in the sand. I won't tempt you with too much of this beach trip, except for the cool fishing we got to witness.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Living In a Bubble: Fending Off Conformity

On one of my "in between" periods of unemployment in my life I traveled Australia and New Zealand for a bit. At the time it was the longest period of travel I'd ever had, long enough that when I returned I had…an event.

I had recently returned to Up Over (from Down Under) and was driving down a busy, major street in Denver. I had a peculiar sensation of moving slowly through all the pulsing energy of a morning commute, isolated and safe, like a Disneyland ride. I was mentally removed—and felt physically removed, as in a bubble—from what seemed surging and insistent purposelessness. This is how it will feel to the first enlightened ants, I think.

But I was on my way to a job interview or some other responsible thing. And I knew I was going to get back into it. So I did a Vulcan mind meld on myself at that moment—rememberrrrr.

And I have remembered, but recalling that memory now and again has only nudged me gradually toward a life more permanently in that bubble of isolation. I recall it now because we are about to leave Ecuador and our sabbatical, and return home But part of that experience on Colfax Avenue years ago was realizing that I was not walking into this experience; it was not a rip in the space/time/responsibility continuum. It was a state of mind.

And was it a state of mind only, or an early and necessary mental step to achieving a state of being? I choose door number 2, Monty.

And so, as we are returning home, we are thinking about how we incorporate what we have learned on our sabbatical into our lives, no matter where we are or what's happening. Some of those things are merely logistical: how we think about and achieve education for ourselves and the kids; how we continue to learn and use this new language; how we achieve the financial independence to allow a more flexible lifestyle.

But we will lose focus even on those logistical things if we don't also make the state of mind influence our planning and everyday decisions so that ultimately we have a different sensibility and confidence in our own shoulds. For us, and I think most people, what keeps us in the most common denominator and our own personal mediocrity is our natural tendency to measure ourselves against others and feel pressure to conform to social expectations. The phenomenon of, as I've heard it put before, being should on.

That social influence is usually implicit and subtle. When we'd tell people that we were quitting our jobs and living in Ecuador for a year the response was usually, "That's bold." But half the time the emphasis was on bold, implying excited approval, and the other half on that's, being a polite way to say stupid. And what we worried about was not the actual sabbatical itself or coming home poor and unemployed, but what others would think of that.

Would people judge like that? I don't think so. And why should we care if they do? But that's how your mind turns doubt into fear and fear into conformity. Now that we have done the sabbatical and are returning home there will be both real and imagined pressure to get back into the rat race. So we are working on strategies to maintain our current state of mind and make it a state of being, despite pressures to "normalize."

One of the best ways we can think of to maintain that state of mind is make it our business. We're working on a website and "inbox magazine" to encourage and help other families to take sabbaticals. The business itself, if successful, would untether us geographically, provide more flexible income, and help keeping us from stepping in hot, steamy piles of should.

We'll announce that soon, but in the meantime, watch your step.