Friday, January 27, 2012

Seeing Behind Your Own Reflection: Planning & Purpose

Could you move, please? Trying to take a picture here.

People ask how our sabbatical was. It was great, I say. Then they say with their eyes, Thank you, Anderson Cooper, for that invaluable piece of investigative journalism. Seems they're looking for something more. But it's a small talk question with no good small talk answer. So I'll try to be specific with some answers, starting with…what we learned about planning and purpose.

Diana and I were overworked before our sabbatical, so I hope I can be forgiven for fantasies of lazing in a hammock in Ecuador, sipping fruity drinks with umbrellas, whilst the kids were being enriched in school all day. But you can stare at your toes only so long. So I had a list of things I'd enrich myself with. Learn to play guitar. Learn to draw. Read War and Peace (or was it Crime and Punishment?). Stuff like that. But it turns out that a goal without a plan is like a husband with a remote control but no channel guide.

Some people are naturally single-minded, purposeful, and focused. Di and I are, shall we say, susceptible to distraction, so we particularly need to plan our goals, objectives, and strategies or we veer off in large-scale Brownian motion—frantically busy, yet accomplishing nothing.
So even though we did some planning, we were fortunate enough to learn through our sabbatical that our planning can stand some improvement.

First thing we learned was that some of our goals were so nondescript as to be faits accomplis. Learn Spanish. OK. "Una otra cerveza, por favor." Done. Next?

So some sort of qualification helps. What would you like to be able to do with the Spanish you speak? Clearly ordering another beer tops the list but hopefully doesn't end it as well. How about be able to have a cocktail conversation in Spanish or be able to talk with our children's teachers?

Then, though we had goals and general ideas of what we wanted out of our sabbatical, we rather expected that once life as we knew it was out of our way we'd be achieving all sorts of things. But once all those typical distractions (jobs, council meetings, committee meetings, managing rental properties, kids' activities, etc., etc.) were gone, we still didn't achieve what we thought we would.

Once having stripped away all the trappings of modern life, then, what could possibly be keeping us from achieving what we believed we could? It was a bit like trying to see behind your own reflection. When everything else was stripped away, it turned out, the only thing left to blame failure on was…us.


So, for example, any shortcoming in our Spanish-speaking abilities was clearly not because we had to work overtime or deal with frozen pipes. It was our failure to plan exactly how we would learn Spanish, and how much time we'd dedicate to it, and how we'd measure our progress.

But once we got over feeling crappy and stupid, and came to accept our responsibility to create more structure for ourselves, and forgave those damn people who are naturally driven and organized for making it look so easy, it was an empowering moment. It never, ever was all those distractions of life that we believed monopolized our time; it was always, and shall ever be, how we decided to react (or not) to those things. It's all much more in our control than we thought.

So, self-discovery accomplished. We just need to plan. Right. Now, uhh…exactly how do you make a plan?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Behind white eyes

Actor's portrayal of the author
People often ask what it's like going back home. It's 21 degrees be-freakin-low zero is what it's like! Sweet Jesus, we really picked a great time to be pedestrians again. Bikers, even. I rode to the coffee shop at 7 this morning with nothing but my eyes exposed. I should have had goggles on. I had goosebumps on my eyeballs. I had to go to the mirror in the bathroom 'cause I swore I was bleeding from my eyes. Turns out it was just most of the water I drank last night, warmed in the furnace of my belly, shot out of my glands like windshield washer fluid to keep my eyeballs from cracking. But it's gotta go somewhere, so there I was in the cafe with ice on my lashes, looking like a sea anemone. I had to ask to stick my head over the grill so I could close my eyes. And when I finally settled into my spot at the cafe, I looked at the weather again and realized...I had forgotten to switch my readout from Celcius to fahrenheit. Heh.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The other side of the glass

Oh, I love this movie.
We aren't living in our home in Minturn, Colorado WW right now. We've got renters in our house for at least four more months, so we're living in a condo in nearby Avon. And even after their lease is up, we might let them stay longer, mostly because it costs us half as much to live in this 770 square-foot apartment than our 1700 square-foot house with a yard. But we're also kinda liking this high falootin' city livin'.

Friday, January 6, 2012

A Year in the Life or Two: How long should your sabbatical be?

This would be an easier decision if I had a train

When we had decided to do take a family sabbatical, we figured we'd go for one to two years. Then it got down to planning time. So…one year or two years? For many reasons, not the least of which is money, you pretty much have to plan that one, even if you are whatever, dude, life's a wave; ride it! kind of people like we can be. So we started talking about what a year vs. two years would be like.

Since our first, and really only legitimate, con to taking the sabbatical was tearing the children away from their beloved grandparents, any trip longer than a day was a downside to a longer stay. And despite many people misunderstanding this adventure by asking, "What's so wrong with where you live that you'd want to leave," we really do love where we live and a longer time away would be just more homesickness.

And if we were not going to be making money while there, every month was an added expense. Of course there are few places in the world that cost more to live than Vail, Colorado. Our cost of living in Ecuador was half that of Vail, and that was, in many ways, living better than we do at home (e.g. lots of travel, really nice apartments, eating out).

But we ultimately decided on just shy of two years. (The just shy part was timing to catch the end of Vail's summer, which is the best time of year, despite being a ski resort.) We picked the longer term because we kept reading accounts of others who had taken time off. Whether families, couples, or singles, we kept hearing over again from those who went 10-14 months that they were heading home right when they were getting "in the groove."

And besides, we thought, we could always shorten the trip for any reason--much harder to extend it. And shorten it we did.

So exactly what "the groove" was for people was expressed in different ways, but as we had a 14-month trip, we can now count ourselves among the regretful groovers. We really felt like we were just getting the hang of everything when we left. Things like...

The most obvious thing to get comfortable with is language. Would I already be belaboring a point to say once that so much of life depends upon being able to communicate? When learning a language it is both frustrating to to get your point across and exhausting to continually be pushing yourself to do so. We forget that the brain uses calories like any other organ, and the more it's working, the more it uses. Trying to learn and use a new language as an adult is the most intensive brain calisthenics I've ever experienced. Though the only difference in frustration between an adult learning and a child is we were just barely able to keep from throwing ourselves down on the floor in a tantrum. Most of the time.

But just before we left some friends had a going away dinner party in our honor. And we spoke Spanish the whole evening! And our brains didn't hurt afterwards. Granted they were speaking a bit more slowly and clearly than they might otherwise have, but it was a great feeling.

And you can talk all you want about the value of close friends and family, but until you have only several that you can actually communicate richly with, you will never appreciate them enough. Of course we made friends there, and many of them spoke English, but it was generally a struggle for them as well. So our very close friendships were limited to those who were very comfortable with English. But just at the end, as we were really communicating, we started to develop a closeness to many that was cut short by our departure.

Ethnocentrism, a fancy term I learned in college and am only now using in a legitimate way, will also frustrate even the well-edjumacated person who knows for a fact that just because you can't understand a cultural idiosyncrasy doesn't make it wrong, bad, illegitimate, or stupid (stupid, stupid, STUPID!!!). I know that...for a fact (it's me, it's me, it's me, it's not them). The "island time" trait of Ecuadorians I've discussed before to arrive late, not show up at all, never plan for anything, make (in our estimation) half-hearted efforts, was eternally frustrating to me. A gringo friend then told me, "It's because they live in the moment; today is the only day they'll ever live in." After that it was much easier for me to live with, even if I could never truly appreciate it, as my genes and my own culture developed under a regime of planning and time management. Poor me.

And so we had come to a place of acceptance for the way things are, without trying to figure them out. Fatalism can often serve one well; and sometimes it's the only thing that can.

No matter where you go in the world food will be a challenge. Sure Italy is safe with pastas, pizzas, vegetables, sauces, but did you know the eat things like maggot cheese (Sardinia), raw snails (Sicily), and pork blood cake (Tuscany)? Ecuador's got its share of exotics as well--cuy (guinea pig), corn drink fermented with spit (some jungle tribes' version of chicha)--but for the most part, the challenge in Ecuador is the general plainness of the food. I called it the Midwest of South America (apologies to both), as Ecuadorians play more to the blunt instrument that is the tongue (salt, sweet, sour, bitter) than the velvet glove that is the nose.

But again, even if we never developed a taste for cute, furry pets, we absolutely learned to appreciate some specialties, such as soups, mani de dulce (candied peanuts), chiflas (chips, but from banana, not potato), maiz tostado ("inside out" popcorn, where the fluffy, oily part is inside the large kernel--OK, I was the only one who liked them; as Teddy said, "I have to drink a glass of water for every kernel I eat."), pastel de tres leche (a wet cake made with sweetened condensed milk). I could go on, but I will finish by saying that food was satisfying without being too often tempting, and both Di and I both lost weight.

We don't even know enough in our own culture to be able to take for granted the importance of knowing how things work. It never occurs to us to realize that things don't have to work the way they do, and if they changed tomorrow we'd all be wandering around like a sheep without its flock. And because Ecuadorians are in the running for the worst mass communicators on the planet, learning how things work is not a quick or simple thing.

But we know which buses go where now (local and interprovincial); how much taxis and food and market textiles should cost; where to find street signs (when present); where to get newspapers, bus passes, mobile phone credit, good coffee and bread; how to get propane (only sold in tanks--no central gas distribution system); and how to street haggle for many of the things we needed.
Alas, our trip was cut shorter than we planned. That was mostly due to finances, but to be honest, I think homesickness weighed in there somewhere. Still, our advice to those considering a sabbatical: Two years! You can always cut it short, but remember that you can regret cutting it short, but you will never regret sticking it out.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Having named the last post after the famous Biblical parable, I have to confess that I had always believed it to mean something like nomadic and not responsible to one's origins or home. And it was with a sardonic spirit I titled the post that way anyway, as some might feel a sabbatical is irresponsible. But no matter; turns out I had it wrong all along anyway. So if you were like me and had it wrong, get it right here, then let's throw us under the sabbatical microscope.

So prodigal really means wastefully extravagant. I might agree that we weren't as frugal as we might have been in Ecuador. We did make the easy choice of more comfort and spent more per month than we'd planned. And though from a wealth perspective we lived better in Ecuador than we do at home, we still spent only three fifths of what we spend at home. And that's not even including some things such as health insurance, which we didn't need in Ecuador but spent nearly $1000 a month on at home. So we were getting much, much more for our money.

We used only cash, not credit. We would often catch ourselves arguing over 25 cents for a bag of tomatoes. The kids would always groan and plead to take a $2 taxi instead of a 25-cent bus. So we were still practicing frugality, even if not always in the right places. And so it is then a surreal experience to go shopping North American style.

Once home we dove into the deep end of the retail pool at Ikea. We needed some things for the apartment we'll live in until the renters are out of our own house, and Ikea beats even Target for Di's favorite retail therapy. The parking garage alone made me feel like we were going to a professional football game. I couldn't even find an entrance, so we just decided to park anywhere and hoped following other people would lead us there. It kind of had an apocalyptic aura there in the garage. I half expected zombies to start appearing from around pylons, moaning lifelessly as we felt trapped in a sea of concrete and cars.

That didn't happen...this time. So we were instead able to join the flow of dead-eyed mouth breathers shuffling through the thoughtfully constructed representations of a perfect living room, bathroom, bedroom, playroom...

And whatever drug they pipe through the vents certainly works on me. "Honey, look at these body scrubber thingies for the shower; they're super soft, yet firm...and only three dollars!" I did have a mild sense of zombie claustrophobia, though. How would we get out of here when the nice lady looking at curtains turns around with her white eyes and cracked, bloody lips and begs for my brains? Surely just following the arrows through the maze is a rookie video gamer's mistake? Aha, but I have the map that shows the shortcuts. Never go into an Ikea without a map and geo-location chips implanted in your children. They will use the children against you if you lose them, but don't fall for it; they're already one of them. It's too late.

I found it a little disheartening that the cheese at the end of the maze is the self-check cash registers. I think they should have a little piece of Swedish chocolate or one of those meatballs on a toothpick at least. And instead of cringing with every beep across the scanner representing a fresh shovel-full of debt on my credit card, the somehow programmed me to feel some sort of hunter-gatherer excitement that these things are now mine. Look what wonderful things I have brought home to my family. Ooga! And though shopping can already be intoxicating, I predict it's only a matter of time before retailers figure out what Vegas did a long time ago and start offering free drinks at the beginning of the maze.

So as we're hauling out our retail kill in a giant blue bag as big as one of the seven suitcases we lived out of for a year, I wonder just who's prodigal here, anyway? From a material standpoint, we consumed far, far less living in Ecuador. Choice is indeed a wonderful thing to have, but we forget that among our choices of soft, yet firm body scrubber thingies is...none. Washcloths work great. And you then have more money left to choose, say, a vacation with your family.

So though it initially seems like those leaving their home country for a period of time are prodigal (going away, spending money, returning having learned something), could it actually be the opposite? Is it those who leave who are prodigal, or is it what they are leaving?

Whenever we return to the States we kiss the ground (in our minds, anyway). We see, beyond just our home, one of the greatest places in the history of the world. And by traveling we can know not just that, but also why and how it is not the perfect place the myths we are raised with tell us it is. And we also return with the spirit and some idea of how to improve it. But the forces against change (against even the suggestion that our country needs to improve) are legion, and the politicians we choose are unlikely to change anything of substance.

And even if we fix systemic things, it's just a thumb in the dyke. We all wonder what will become of this great economic upheaval. If we fix the broken systemic pieces of our economy without addressing our underlying social and moral failings, will we be handing over our great experiment to the next ready contender. Batter up!