Thursday, July 10, 2014

Letter to The Whitney Ranch Homeowners

Fellow Whitney Ranch Homeowners:

Tonight we made our voices heard loud and clear regarding the development at the corner of Sunset and Whitney Ranch.  Thanks to the efforts of some of our fellow, vigilant homeowners many of us have been made aware of the issue and have expressed our opinions clearly.  Based on our experience tonight, and common sense, it is clear that easily 80-90 percent of the homeowners share our opinion. The development will have a net negative impact on our community making it more dangerous and less accessible.

At this point the Whitney Ranch homeowners have only one guaranteed piece of leverage available to push back against the development—the easements on the monuments.  By refusing to allow the developer to make any changes to the monuments we will be protecting our identity and making it difficult for the developer to continue with his plans.  With the monuments in place as they are it will be difficult for the developer to place the desired signage for retail establishments and to make changes for the parking lot.

Currently there is some debate over who has the authority to make a decision regarding changes to the monuments.  Either the board can approve it or it must be approved by 67% of the homeowners.

Our discussion tonight should have been a collegial session with our board where we worked together to develop a strategy to protect our monuments and to fight back against the apparently illegal and unethical actions of the mayor and city council.  Unfortunately our board seems strangely disinclined to support our interests.  It is unclear to me why they would even consider surrendering our rights to the easements/monuments.  It is our sole remaining leverage point with the developer and the city and is clearly not in our interests.  We must ask the board and ourselves the following questions.

      What is driving their interest and why are they unwilling to jump on board with us? 
      Why would they consider giving up our right to control the monuments to the developer when it is clear that it is our only remaining guaranteed option of impacting the relations with developer?

Tonight our board president seemed inclined to dismiss the opinions of those homeowners who don’t usually attend meetings.  He repeatedly made reference to the fact that we are not the usual group that attends as though our opinions, therefore, matter less.  He seems not to understand that generally the homeowners trust the board to represent our interest on common, daily, and mundane issues.  It is normal and natural for more homeowners to become involved and vocal when the consequences of an issue at hand are this significant.

It is disturbing to me that our board president and other board members were unwilling to state clearly their position on the issue and to support our interests.  The talking points shared by the board president and the other member of the board indicated that they, for whatever reason, are unwilling to commit to protect our interests.  Again, with over 300 homeowners calling for protection of the monuments, as indicated by signatures gathered over a very short period of time, it is clear that the vast majority of our homeowners will disapprove of any move by the board to relinquish control of the easements or changes to the monuments.  Any assumption by the board to the contrary is disingenuous at best.

What can we do at this point?

1.     Follow up with our board to determine if they will take the actions we requested tonight
a.     To refuse to allow changes to the monuments
b.     To hire an attorney to file an injunction to stop the development while the actions of the city are explored by a competent attorney who is representing the interests of the homeowners.  Our board has a fiduciary responsibility to the homeowners of the association and should represent our interests to the best degree possible.  This fiduciary responsibility requires them to protect our financial interests as homeowners.  In this case our financial interest seems clear—to stop the development.
2.     Each day gather the signatures of more homeowners who are opposed to relinquishing our rights to the monuments to the developer.  Copies of those signatures should be presented to each of the board members each day leading up to the pending City Council meeting and beyond if necessary.
3.     Attend the City Council meeting on Tuesday, July 15th at 7pm.  We should attend to make clear that we do not approve with the development or the way it was approved by the City Council.

If our board refuses to act in accordance with the desires of the majority of homeowners and in our accordance with our best interest, then we may need to consider other options to keep our neighborhood safe and secure.

For more information, please go to  

- Jarad Van Wagoner

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Famine Diets: A Stupid Fad That Should Go Away

I am powerless to stop the madness, but perhaps I can make a difference for one or two people.  You see, at different times during human history our predecessors have faced famine.  During times of scarcity the human will to survive will push us to eat things that usually we would not eat.  Survival is a deep biological imperative that is nearly impossible to ignore. 

More than once I’ve heard someone say, “I would never eat that, even if I was starving!”

Obviously they have never starved.

The human race, however, has become confused.   Foods that once were considered nearly unpalatable and only acceptable in order to stave off death by slow starvation are now heralded as delicious and as delicacies.  People you have to stop living in a dream world where you think it’s okay to eat famine foods as part of your normal diet.

What?  You don’t know to which foods I am referring?  Well, let me walk you through the worst of them.

Underwater Insects/Bugs! 

It’s true.  People who would never consider making beetles, stink bugs, roaches, or grasshoppers a part of their normal diet are quick to eat the sea's equivalent of bugs.  Which ones, you ask!

-       Shrimp
-       Oysters
-       Clams
-       Crabs and Lobsters (Just because an insect tastes good doesn’t mean you should eat it.)

(Crustacean is Latin for aquatic insect.)

I’m certain the list is longer, but these are the primary offenders.  Do you really think that the first time a non-starving person looked at an oyster or a clam that they thought, “Oh, man that there looks tasty.  I think I’ll be the first ever human to put that in my mouth and chew?”  I don’t think so either.  My guess is that someone was near death before they tried it.  In fact my guess is that the scenario went down something like this.

A small, peaceful village a few miles inland from the ocean was in the throes of a five-year drought and famine.  What had once been a place of health and life was losing members to starvation and malnutrition everyday.  This famine was worse than any raids from the neighboring tribe of warriors. 

One day the chief’s wife said, “What kind of leader are you?  Your people are starving.  You must go and find them food.  We no longer have cattle to provide us milk and meat.  We no longer have water sufficient to grow our tasty vegetables and fruits.  You must go out to find us food.”

The chief accepted his wife’s words and his responsibility.  Gathering up his knife, a light blanket, and a small gourd filled with precious water, he left the village in search of food.  Within a short time he came to the shore of the sea.  His people had avoided the sea in order to be safe from other tribes in the area. 

No food was to be found along the shore.  All wild game had gone from the area and no nutritious vegetation was to be found.

Despair overtook him and he decided to drown himself in the depths of the sea.  He walked into the water feeling the sand between his toes.  His stomach throbbed and ached.  Thoughts of his starving family seared his mind.  Reaching into the water, he scooped up a handful of the sand and brackish water.  He felt something hard and rough.  He picked it up and pried it open.  Something living was inside, something grey and gooey and unhealthy looking.  He stared at it and wondered.

Reaching a decision he quickly reached into the water and sand again.  Within a few seconds he had found another and another.  With five or six of them in his bag he returned to the shore.  Sitting on the sand he stared at his catch. 

“Is it safe to eat them,” he wondered aloud.  Looking at the flesh he was unsure.  He figured it would either kill him or sustain him if he ate it.  Since death was imminent for him and his village, he elected to eat it.  To give himself the best chance of survival he built a small fire and roasted his six shells.

Sure that they were fully cooked, he pulled the meat out with his knife and stared at it as it hung there.  His mind battled with his stomach.  His stomach demanded that he eat it.  His mind refused, attempting to choke the stomach off into submission.  Having not real choice, he gave into survival and put the meat into his mouth, chewed, and swallowed.  The experience wasn’t pleasant.  When he was still alive after a few minutes, he ate another and then another.  It was more food than he had eaten in weeks.  Filled with sustenance, his body hungered now for sleep so he could digest the food.

The next morning he awoke.  Quickly he weaved a larger bag from branches and leaves so he could carry his catch back to the village.  For several hours he wondered up and down the coast, gather as many of the shells as he could.  With his bag full he headed back to the village.

Upon arrival he found the few remaining villagers gathered around the fire discussing how to give up and die.  They were shocked to see him, assuming he too had died.  Coming forward he spilled his bag on the ground, explaining what he had done.  His wife picked up a shell and pried it open.

Distraught at what she saw, she yelled at him, “What is this?  How can you expect us to eat this?  This will kill us as surely as no food at all.”

Another man, whose starvation must have been worse, rushed forward and grabbed the open shell from her.  He tore the top half off and scraped the meat into his mouth.  (And thus was born oyster on the half shell.)

All watched the man to see if he would die right away.  As the man reached for another it started a feeding frenzy and within minutes all of the flesh of the shells had been consumed.  None were impressed with the new food or its taste, but it did provide sustenance.  The next day they decided to move to the seaside to live off of the oysters until the famine ended and they could return to their normal food.

Skip ahead with me ten years.  The village chieftain has just returned from a trip to the site of their old village.  There he has found green grass and nutritious vegetation.  He asks the villagers to join him in a grand return where they can give up their reliance on the flesh of the shells.

Unfortunately, many of the villagers have forgotten the taste of good food and are now proud of their new diet.  In fact there is a faction that is preparing to take a shipment of shells inland to another tribe in hopes of trading for animal skins for clothing.  They pressure the chieftain into leading the trading party.

Upon arrival at the tribe’s village, they make an offer of the flesh of the shells in exchange for cow and deer hides.  The local chieftain steps forward to view the offering.  He pries open a shell to look inside.  With his discovery he assumes that the traders have come to poison his people in hopes of taking possession of their herds and gardens.  He orders the entire trading party killed.

While I don’t have proof that this is what happened, I’m sure it’s not far off from the truth.  Why else would someone eat something like seaweed, unless you were starving?

I am okay with eating such things when you are starving, but once you’re not starving, once the famine is over, please go back to normal foods.  Don’t try to convince others or me that such foods are normal.  They’re not.  Bugs and insects should be saved as a last resort.

(If I had time, I would discuss the consequences of losing the knowledge and ability to make fire.  Raw fish!  Really?  If you were dumb enough to lose the secret of fire, you should have been smart enough at least to pick it up again when someone else showed you.)

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Living on the Edge: Lost in the Bosporus and Robbed (Nearly) in Kazakhstan

This may be the last of my "Living on the Edge" series of posts for awhile, at least until I can get back overseas or hear some more good stories from friends.

Spontaneity is not my style, at least not in any type of grand gesture.  Planning for contingencies to ensure that I am where I am supposed to be when I am supposed to be there is a central to my modus operandi, especially when traveling overseas.  When I’m traveling alone, I build plenty of time into my schedule to be where I need to be.

So my own decision and actions shocked me that spring, but I’ll get to that in a moment.  I was in Istanbul for a quick overnight stay by myself.  I had just finished escorting a group of cadets through Vienna, Brataslava, Uzhgorod, Lviv (Lvov), Kiev, Simferopol, Yalta, and Sevastopol.  As the cadets traveled back I was heading to Almaty, Kazakhstan to explore the option of sending cadets there for language immersion or a study abroad program.

I flew from Kiev to Istanbul.  My arrival was memorable.  I speak no Turkish so I was hopeful I could communicate my needs sufficiently while in the country.  At the time my wife and I were huge fans of the television reality series Amazing Race.  The taxi scenes from the show played out in my mind as I walked out to find transportation to my hotel.  But, I was prepared.  I had the name and the address of my hotel printed with a basic map.  It was all in Turkish making it simple to communicate.  As I sat in the taxi I confidently handed the papers to the driver.

He looked at it for a few seconds.

“Do you know where this is,” I asked.

“Yes, yes, “ he answered nodding his head.

Quickly we pulled out from the airport.  Within five minutes he was on his cell phone with my directions in one hand asking someone for directions.  He obviously had no clue where we were going or how to get there, which was shocking since I had purposefully stayed in an area frequented by tourists so that it would be easy to find.

Eventually he found the general area and had some young boy run ahead of him to lead him directly to the hotel.

My hotel was in an amazing spot.  Within just a short walk I could see both the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
Hagia Sophia

Blue Mosque

My itinerary allowed me about 20 hours in Istanbul before my flight to Almaty.  With limited time I had planned two excursions near my hotel.  The afternoon I flew in I walked to the Grand Bazaar.  The place was amazing.  Somehow I made it out with some money left in my pocket.  That evening I had an amazing dinner in a small café not far from the Hagia Sophia. 

The next morning I had a delicious breakfast served buffet style at my hotel.  From there I went to the Spice Market.  After purchasing paprika, cardamom, saffron, Turkish delight, and other treats, I began to make the trek back to my hotel.  As I was walking along the waterfront I saw a boat ready to leave for a cruise of the Bosporus.  Looking at my watch, I realized that I had at least four hours before I would have to leave for the airport.  As part of my intel gathering the night before, and from speaking with friends, I had heard that some cruises last only a short time. 

Deciding to be spontaneous I purchased a ticket and got on the boat with my backpack and bags of spices.  It was an amazing trip as we headed out and made a few stops.  After about an hour I kept expecting us to turn back.  After an hour and a half of heading in the same direction, north toward the Black Sea, I began to lose all interest in the sites and the cruise.  As my anxiety increased I tried to find something in English that would tell me the course and schedule of the boat.  Unfortunately I couldn’t find anything.

Finally, I heard a female English accent coming from another part of the boat.  I drifted toward it hoping to ask some questions of a traveler with more experience in the city.  She mentioned to her friends that we were only one or two stops away from the last and the boat would turn around there.  Relief flooded over me, as it now appeared that I would make it to my hotel in time to get my luggage and go to the airport.  Then I heard say something to her friends about hiking to a nearby castle.

Unable to remain quiet any longer, I asked, “How long does the boat stay at the last stop before it starts the return trip?”

“Not long, “ she said.  “About three hours.  Just long enough for everyone to make the hike to the castle if they want.”

Panic hit.  I had no idea if I would make it back in time.  I walked around some more and heard someone mention that we would be stopping on the Asia side and that the taxis there would be few.  Listening I realized that I a few other travelers had made the same mistake as me.  They had got onto the wrong boat, the long cruise as it were instead of the short cruise.

As the boat approached the final stop, I was determined to be the first to any taxi that may be waiting.  I nudged my way to the edge of the boat with all of my bags in hand.  With the boat still a foot or two from the dock I jumped and ran up to the street.  There was one taxi ahead of me.  Looking back I saw a group of four or five people running for the same taxi.  It was too many to share a taxi so I didn’t wait for them. 

Out of breath I interrupted the lone taxi driver who was talking to some other locals.  Luckily I had a card with my hotels address and was able to communicate my need to hurry.  Now, I had years of watching movie and television scenes where the character offers the taxi driver more money to drive faster, but this first time that I did it and had results.  My driver flew down the highway, making detours here and there to void traffic snarls. 

We reached my hotel about thirty minutes after my planned departure time.  My driver agreed to wait while I ran in to check out and retrieve my luggage.  I’m sure the staff thought me rude as I ran past to my room and then ran back down, throwing my keys on the counter.

As fast as he could my driver navigated the streets to the airport.  Jumping out I paid him a prince’s ransom then dashed inside.

One more moment of panic hit as I watched the security personnel freeze on my suitcase after they had put it through the x-ray machine.  They began to speak briskly amongst themselves pointing at the bag and then at me.  At first I was unsure of the cause of the excitement, then I saw a sign indicating that travelers are required to announce if they have any type of knife in their luggage.  I hadn’t seen the sign and they had found my small pocketknife on the x-ray.

Finally one gentleman approached me, asking in broken English if I had a knife in my suitcase.  I answered affirmatively and tried my best to apologize, offering to leave the knife behind so I could make my flight.  He only nodded his head once, then turned away from me to confer once again with his colleagues.  Moments passed so slowly as I waited for some resolution, hoping I was headed to some Turkish holding cell.

In the end the same person approached me with a clipboard and asked me to sign my name.  Unsure what I was signing, I was a bit worried.  Maybe it was a confession to transporting something highly illegal.  I signed it anyway and waited for the consequence.  As soon as I had signed they grabbed me and pushed me forward, handing me my suitcase.

“Hurry, run, or you’ll miss your flight.”

Luckily I made it and jetted to Almaty for the second time in my life.
My flight landed in Almaty just before two in the morning.  I was sleepy and in a hurry to get to the Intercontinental Hotel as soon as possible.
Intercontinental Hotel - Almaty, Kazakhstan

Travel, especially overseas, demands an extra awareness of security.  Since I was traveling alone, I was extra sensitive to any threats or risks--arriving in the middle of the night only made the experience that much more exciting.  Security protocols in these countries encourages government travelers to take official, marked taxis and not take rides with individuals who are simply trying to make an extra buck with their own car.

Clearing customs and passport control with my luggage in hand, I stepped out into the public concourse to find several dozen individuals offering their services.  Looking around I found a young woman holding aloft the sign of the local taxi company.  She quickly made her way to me then led me outside to the waiting vehicles asking in English for my destination.

We stopped at a car that was full of four or five young men.  Security protocol, as well as common sense, dictates that riding with multiple unknown individuals may not be safe.  As I started to protest the selection of taxis, all of the young men except for the driver exited the car.  The driver, an ethnic Russian, came around to put my suitcase into the trunk.  I kept my backpack with me.

Crawling into the backseat, I hoped I could stay awake for the 20-30 minute drive into the city.  The lady communicated my destination to the driver and we pulled away.  Within 20 yards the car stopped, however, and a young Kazakh man in his early to mid-twenties got into the front seat.  I started to protest again when I heard the doors lock.  Looking at the car door I saw that the locks had been broken off so that I would be unable to unlock and open the doors on my own.

Immediately the adrenaline kicked in as I realized I might be in a dangerous situation.  The driver and his friend started to whisper to each other in Russian as we pulled away.  While I couldn’t make out what they were saying, I decided to make myself as undesirable a target as possible. 

I leaned forward, intruding on their conversation, and said in Russian, “Ah, the Intercontinental Hotel!  I’ve been there several times and can’t wait to get there again.  It’s only about 20 minutes away, right?”

My suspicions were rewarded, not in a delightful way, as they both looked shocked and concerned over my ability to speak Russian.  Glancing furtively at one another, they were trying to find another way to communicate.  I didn’t give them the opportunity.  I began to speak of my previous trip to Almaty and my familiarity with the area, although I may have made it sound like I had been there several times.

I was unsure if their plan was simply to shake me down for extra cash, rob me, or something worse.  As I spoke with them I wished that I had moved my pocketknife into my backpack.  The driver repeatedly put his hand between the seats grasping what I feared maybe a gun, but I wasn’t certain.

In an effort to reduce the impact of any robbery or shakedown I always travel with the bulk of my cash hidden, with just enough on my person to hopefully appease any would be criminal.  I decided to make it clear that I had only limited cash and that I hoped it would be enough to pay for the taxi ride.  I promised that if it wasn’t enough I could get it out at the ATM at the hotel, knowing that most other ATMs in the city would be closed at that time of night.

They didn’t tell me how much they needed right up front, but said that it needed to be exchanged for tenge, the Kazakh currency.  I offered to make the exchange for my US dollars at the Intercontinental.  Instead they said they had a local place that was still open to make the exchange. 

Once again the adrenaline kicked up another level.  The plan would be either to get me to reveal how much money I had so they could shake me down or to straight up rob me or worse.  As we made a detour to their local currency exchange, I rummaged through my backpack for anything that might be used as a weapon.  My only option was a pen that I quickly tucked into my jacket pocket.  I also tucked $100 into my pocket to make the exchange.

We stopped along a street in an unidentifiable part of town.  The door was unlocked so I could exit and both of them escorted me inside a building.  Inside we approached a closed window in a hallway.  With both of them standing close enough to me to touch both of my shoulders, one of them knocked on the window.  A young lady opened it and quickly exchanged my dollars for tenge while the two looked closely at the money in my hand. 

As we walked back to the car I ran through various escape scenarios, wondering if I could get away and if I did if I would be able to contact the police or find another ride to the hotel.  Helped back into the car we drove away.

My anxiety increased as I wondered if we were headed to the hotel or somewhere else.  Both the driver and his friend continued to look back and forth at each other, obviously unsure of what to do.  Finally the Intercontinental Hotel came into sight.  As we pulled into the circular driveway out front, they popped the trunk of the car but didn’t unlock my door.  The bellboy came out from the hotel and pulled my suitcase from the trunk, then waited for me to pay my driver and get out.

The driver and his friend turned to look at me.  I don’t remember the amount the asked for in tenge but it was about the equivalent of $200. 

“I don’t have that much,” I said.  “I only exchanged $100 and I don’t have much more in cash.  I can get more from inside the hotel.”

I gave the driver what I had.

“Give us the rest now.”

“I don’t have it.”

At this point the bellboy had come to my door and was reaching out to open it for me.  The driver hit gas, pulling ahead several feet out of the reach of the bellboy.  I looked around and saw the security guard from the hotel take notice of my situation.  He began to walk out of the hotel in case his services were needed.

“Give us the money now!”

“I only have another $40 in US.  Will that cover it?”

The bellboy had almost reached the car again prompting the driver to pull away again quickly.  Now the security guard was aware of the situation.  He pulled his handgun and started to run toward the car.  The driver pulled further ahead.

“Give me everything you’ve got now!”

I pulled out the two $20 bills in my pocket and put it in his hand.

The door unlocked.

“Get out now!  Get out now!”

Opening the door I released my grasp on my meager pen that I fully intended on using as a weapon.  I grabbed my backpack and rolled out of the car that was already starting to move forward.  Both the bellboy and the security guard arrived in time to help me up off of the ground and escort me into the hotel.

Sleep didn’t come easily that night as I played through the scenario and what else could have happened over an over again.

The next day, after completing my business, I was supposed to fly back to Kiev to stay there for a few more days.  I had had enough.  After two weeks of constantly being on the move and the excitement of the previous 24 hours, I was ready to be home.  As quickly as I could I changed my flight back home via Amsterdam and Minneapolis.

The Party of the Government: Abuses of Power by the IRS and the Expectation that We Believe and Accept

Let’s review what IRS Commissioner Koskinen is asking us to believe as he testifies cheerfully to Congress:

1.     It was pure coincidence and chance that Lois Lerner’s computer crashed and that emails were lost at a time that coincides with the focus of the investigation into the targeting of conservative groups.
2.     That the IRS tried desperately to recover her lost emails but decided not to recover them from a known source, the back up tapes that hold the information for six months; and that we shouldn’t have any suspicions about this fact.
3.     That in determining whether or not their had been a criminal violation connected with the loss of the emails, it is best to rely on the IRS leadership exercising common sense to make a determination rather than actually reviewing criminal code.
4.     That an agency that requires citizens to maintain 7 years of financial records in case of an audit, cannot put in place a system that can reliably maintain electronic records for any period of time.  Remember, this is an agency that has little forgiveness for citizens who legitimately lose records or make honest mistakes.  The price tag for a reliable system is $10-$30M which is too high.  Meanwhile the IRS spent over $80M in annual bonuses to its employees.

Other pieces of information that we should accept regarding this entire incident and chain of events:

1.     That Lois Lerner invoked the Fifth Amendment, yet there was no crime committed.  Rather, we should accept that this was an abuse of power by an aberrant few.
2.     That John Koskinen, a man who has donated over $100,000 to the Democratic Pary, Democratic candidates, and liberal causes as well as thousands of dollars directly to the campaign efforts of Barack Obama, is an unbiased, impartial, and disinterested administrator of the Internal Revenue Service and is best qualified to lead the agency through a time of controversy and to make sure that no crime was committed—a crime that limits the reach of conservative groups.

Here are a few questions Commissioner Koskinen and President Obama may be thinking:
1.     Why would any of us ever think that the IRS overstepped its bounds by attacking groups based on political ideology? 
2.     Why would any of us ever think that such blatant abuse of power was condoned and perhaps encouraged by the very head of the agency? 
3.     Why would we ever be suspicious that the President of the United States would indicate, explicitly or otherwise, to the leadership of the IRS that they should use their powers to fix what he felt was an incorrect decision by the US Supreme Court?
4.     Why would we suspect that Commissioner Lerner and the agency destroyed on purpose emails that may be central to the investigation, especially in light of her utilizing her Constitutional rights under the Fifth Amendment?  (By the way, can we get a list of other incidents of emails being lost over the past few years, or was it just these ones?)
5.     Why would we not trust a man who has donated $100,000 to the Democratic and liberal causes to clean up this mess?  If the president trusts him, then we should trust him.
6.     Why should we be concerned that the agency that can so easily lose emails at any time and target specific groups based on their political views will also be in charge of administering the Affordable Care Act?

Even if we were to accept, for the sake of argument, that we live in a galaxy where everything lined up so that the very emails needed were the ones that were lost accidentally through a hard drive crash and then were not recovered, perhaps the present IRS Commissioner, the President of the United States, and those one the left who are defending the indefensible could understand why the rest of us might be a little suspicious and untrusting. 

The issue of the IRS targeting any specific group unfairly should be a non-partisan issue.  It should be a national issue.  Once such an abuse of power, whatever the cause, is allowed to pass unpunished, it becomes easy for all sides of the political spectrum to engage in such behavior in the future.  A biased, partial, and interested IRS is not in the interest of any American.  It will undercut even further public trust in government giving rise to abuses of power and reactions to abuses that will pull at the very threads of the nation.

We cannot allow career politicians and corrupt bureaucrats to seek after power for the sake of power.  They must remain the servants of the people.  The government cannot become a political arm on its own.  We must avoid the scenario described by George Orwell in his book Nineteen Eighty-Four:

"In a way, the world-view of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it. They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening. By lack of understanding they remained sane. They simply swallowed everything, and what they swallowed did them no harm, because it left no residue behind, just as a grain of corn will pass undigested through the body of a bird." 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Living on the Edge: Brett, the Cultural Warrior, in China

Life for the past few years has been rather benign in terms of facing unexpected physical danger.  I haven’t had guns pulled on me or worried that the next moment could be last, although any moment could be my last…or yours.  After sharing a few of my somewhat frightening incidents from my overseas travel, I’d like to share a few stories about one of my friends who has had extensive experience overseas as well. 

For the sake of these stories, we’ll refer to him as Brett.  Brett and I worked together at the Air Force Academy.  He is a product of that great institution.  Two interesting facts about Brett: he is large and physically fit (he was a football player at the Academy) and he studied and speaks Chinese.  During his time on the faculty of the Academy he traveled extensively to China and a few other places.  Often he was leading groups of cadets or officers for language and cultural immersion programs.  The following stories are true and accurate, at least as far as I can recollect.  Not all of these stories involve danger to Brett.

Motorcyclists Beware
During one of his trips to China, I don’t remember the city; he and a group of officers were making their way across town on foot.  As they came up to a busy street, it was evident that crossing would be a bit tricky.  After watching for a bit they finally saw a break in traffic and took off running for the other side.  Immediately upon entering the roadway Brett noticed a small motorcycle, the kind that are common in China’s sprawling cities, barreling toward him.  He hadn’t seen it before he started to run.  With no way to avoid a collision, Brett reacted quickly to make it as painless as possible for both him and the motorcyclist. 

Maneuvering his large frame he managed to lift the now shocked person off of his motorcycle and spin so as to avoid missing the motorcycle.  As carefully as he could he set the smaller man down on his feet.  Both of them looked at each other and began to apologize profusely to the other. 

As far as I know Brett eventually made it across that road.  His new friend had an amazing story to tell his friends that evening about being swept off of his motorcycle by a large American, thereby narrowly avoiding death or a lengthy hospital stay.  I bet he still tells that story today.

Really, I just want a haircut!
Qindao, China

Once again in China, perhaps on the same trip mentioned above, Brett and his compatriots were at a large city away from Beijing at a beer festival.  Now, Brett doesn’t drink all the time, but when he starts drinking beer he can drink quite a few without much visible effect.  I’m not sure how much he had to drink that night, but I think it may have played into his decisions that give us this wonderful story.

Sometime around midnight, or just after, Brett decided it would be a good time to get a haircut.  He had noticed a barbershop in the hotel with the lights still on and apparently open.  Now China, like other places in the world, has places of business that offer more than one type of service.  After certain hours they are more likely to engage in their alternative (i.e., not explicitly stated) form of business.  In China a purple light by the door usually will indicate that they are presently engaging in the alternative form of business. 

As Brett walked toward the barbershop he confirmed that there was no purple light so he assumed he could get the needed haircut.

Walking into the shop, he looked at the young lady there and in his best Chinese said, “I need a haircut.”

She smiled at him, and then quickly reached out with her hand grabbing his crotch.  Rocking on his feet a bit, he looked down at her realizing what was happening.

“No, I really need just a haircut, nothing else.”

The young lady, probably a bit shocked and confused herself, led him to a chair and sat him down.  A young man came around and proceeded to cut his hair.

Again, I’m sure this incident led to some incredulous stories by the two Chinese people working in the “barbershop” that night.  In my imagination I picture the young man, who had cut Brett’s hair, arriving home to tell his family or close friend, “It turns out that I can cut hair.  I never tried it before, but I was good at it.  I may see if I can get on the day shift.”

Excuse me, I’m French!
Working at the Air Force Academy in the Office of International Programs and with the Department of Foreign Languages, Brett and I had the opportunity to work with instructors, cadets, and officers from all over the world.  Between the different instructors of different languages at the Academy, as there probably is on all faculties, there is a good deal of teasing and ribbing about language, history, and culture.  Unfortunately, speakers of French were often a common target for all the others.  Usually we managed to keep our teasing internal, but occasionally it slipped out to others.

During his many trips to China Brett and his traveling companions were obvious foreigners.  Often as they would negotiate to hire a taxi the driver would ask them if they were French.  At first he just responded in the negative and moved on with his day.  Finally one day his curiosity got the better of him. 

He asked their driver, “Why do you and other taxi drivers always ask if I’m French?  Do you have a lot of French tourists?”

“Well, not really a lot of French tourists, it’s just that we hate the French.”

“Really, why do you hate the French?”

“They’re arrogant and rude.  Don’t you know that?  I thought everyone knew that.”

A day or two later during the trip Brett was on the subway when he committed a social faux pas, nearly crushing some native Chinese citizens.  As he began to apologize a nefarious idea bubbled to the surface.

He looked at his victims and said with some disdain, as if it were their fault, “Excuse me, I’m French.”

At the time of the trip the World Cup was in full force resulting in an extra measure of international awareness and competition.  At a local market he bought a shirt with the flag or map of France.  Wearing it he began a social experiment.  He would commit some act of rudeness and then dismiss it by saying, “Excuse me, I’m French.”

His traveling companions would follow along to gauge the reaction of those he offended.  Usually their shock at such vulgar behavior quickly turned to understanding and acceptance with his phrase, “Excuse me, I’m French.”

I don’t remember all of the offenses he committed, but it’s always fun to hear him tell the story.  Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there.  A group of cadets that went over several months later for a semester abroad had heard of the experiment and decided to recreate it throughout their trip.

How is this a story of danger, you ask?  Well, let’s just say Brett didn’t exactly increase the love the Chinese have for the French people.