Sunday
Jan232011

Act Like a Weirdo, You're Going to Lose Your Seat

“I'm taking this, OK?"

Yeah, that’s fine, I said.

The guy tried to remove the stool next to me from the crowded bar. It was lunch, and he sought to sit with his friends who were gathered on the other side of my buddy and I. We could have moved down, and went to offer to do so, but he gave up his attempt to obtain the seat.

Upon returning to his friends, they queried him on what happened. He erupted in a fit of frustration. He went back over to the stool, tried quickly again and then quit. The front legs were caught behind a foot rail he could not perceive. I tried to point this out, but he wouldn’t have it.

He tried once more, failed, and before a fourth attempt could be made—while the peculiar young man returned to his friends to express despair—another fellow walked right up to the stool, sat down and ordered.

My friend and I looked at each other and completed a thought. I said: “Act like a weirdo…” He replied: “…you’re gonna lose your seat.”

The next day, I was parking in a small lot to go for a hike. One spot left. A car ahead of me snatched it up, but for some reason, they balked—drove in, backed out, parked again, pulled out, then fully pulled out and waited. I gave them ten seconds, drove up and took the spot. They were clearly pained. Sorry, there’s no room for indecisiveness when you’re headed into the wilderness.

In subsequent days I’ve seen this again and again. Whether it is a job, a chair, a parking spot, a relationship—whatever: Act like a weirdo, you’re going to lose your seat. It is behavior rooted in entitlement, believing you’re owed something and that you have a right to squander your seat at the table or take it for granted. It is the same as when someone says they deserve something. I deplore this expression. The only things people truly deserve are justice and a swift kick in the ass. Everything else must be earned.

And this is not a call for conformity. Eccentricity helps distinguish the diligent. This is a note to say that eager people await; I quote Ferris Bueller: “Only the meek get pinched. The bold survive.”

Thursday
Jan202011

Shake Down: Garbage Men in the Morning

The three gentlemen who take time twice weekly to remove the refuse I place in front of my house insinuated to me the other morning that I neglected to consider how valuable their service is.

Upon descending the front steps and placing a bag on the curb, I noticed the garbage truck pull up. The driver shouted to me: “Is that a house?” I was confused. At 8 a.m., I am going over in my head the details of the first projects of the day. For me, talking to people while I shift into work mode is like being suddenly woken out of REM sleep.

The gentleman in the truck called again. And two jumpsuit-attired fellows strode up beside me, one in front, one to the side. The one in front—in an entirely friendly tone—echoed his driver’s charge:

“Is this a house?”

Of course it is a house; I just exited it, I thought. What about it does not seem residential? So I said: Yes, yes it is.

“Are you sure?”

Yes, definitely. I live there, I said.

“Ohh, you do.”

Yes, I do—being very polite, despite my uncertainty about the inquiry.

“Gosh,” the gentleman said. “We are the guys who remove your trash in the morning.” He said this with humility. It seemed to me he took pride in his work. It is a tough job, sure. But he gets to be outside all day. Georgetown is a lovely neighborhood and pleasing to travel about. All I could say is, Thank you.

“I must ask you, sir.” Again said in friendly tones. “How has our service been over the year?”

This is odd, but I actually felt delighted to be asked for professional feedback. So I contemplated the question for a moment, thinking they deserved a fair assessment.

Quickly I came to the conclusion that no matter what constructive commentary I could offer—such as, perhaps also look out for sidewalk litter, or maybe see if you can fix the leak in the truck that dispenses foul-smelling garbage juices down the street—it was probably best to leave matters alone. They pick up trash. A compliment would be sufficient.

“Quite good. Your service has been excellent. The trash gets taken out.”

“Oh, good,” he said with what seemed to be genuine relief. “We were not sure. We had come to ask you about this at Christmastime, but you were not around.”

No, I wasn’t around, I said—not getting it, but instead thinking back to the Patagonia trip.

“We figured you must have had been traveling.” At this point his tone changed from humble to possessing a good level of confidence. He and his friend stepped closer. 

Then it all added up, just as the words poured from my mouth…each with increasing understanding: Yes, I was. I was in Chile. Far, far away…in Chile. Not hear. Far. Away.

Without missing a beat: “We come twice a week—Tuesdays and Fridays. We’ll be back around here on Friday. You seem like a nice guy. We hope to run into you then.”

I said: About this time?”

“Yep, about this time."

Twenty bucks apiece. And next time I am offering constructive feedback.

Monday
Jan172011

Video: Llamas in Patagonia

Monday
Jan032011

The Ice Axe Cometh

Purchasing an ice axe has made me realize that the next trip is not going to be like any of the previous trips. I bought it "for snow climbing"—which sounds nice, but when you have to carry a mountaineering axe, it means you're going to be on snow, ice and rock. Mixed terrain. Steep, mixed terrain. In this case, my buddy NW and I will be climbing Mt. Whitney—the highest peak in the lower-48, at about 14,505 ft.—in late winter. Although I committed to this endeavor a few months ago, and it is still a few months away, my attention is just now attuned to what we will be doing, what it will lead to, and what it all means.

Our ascent—or attempt to ascend, rather—will be a turning point in a pursuit that has been going on for almost two decades. It began when we were kids using clothesline chord to rappel waterfalls. It continued in college when we acquired proper rock climbing skills, and for the last several years while our technical proficiency...and gear...mounted. It moved in a new direction this past summer when we summitted Mt. Kilimanjaro. And now we will be tackling a full-blown mountaineering route. The progression is significant not on the physical level, but on the philosophical. Whereas once daylight and daring made up the boundaries of our adventures, we will now be contending with avalanches, crevasses and many other concealed obstacles. The ice axe will enable this transition.

In its most basic function, an ice axe is used as a walking stick, held in the uphill hand. It can also be used as an anchor with a rope tied around the shaft—either to aid a following climber, when buried pick-end down, or as a stomp belay, when buried vertically. The axe head can be used to cut footsteps or scoop seats in a hillside, saving energy and time. And when not climbing but falling, an ice axe allows for self-arrest. Without one, you will not get far on a mountain. With one, you can walk among giants.

And so now I see that while we began climbing to make us feel like adults, with all the responsibility and contrivances that accompany perceived dangers, we have reached a point where we climb now to feel like kids again—possessing all the fear and wonder that comes with the unknown. Thanks to the simplicity of the ice axe, the next trip won't be a trip. It will be an adventure.

Monday
Jan032011

Americans Abroad

"You speak English?" she said to me with a pained expression. The woman didn't want to attempt Spanish. From the moment her corn-fed body and disheveled husband-in-tow alighted the plane, I pegged them as American. They banged down the aisle, frantic from not wanting to miss a connection deep within a foreign country. They were also desperate to sit together, and conspired in stage whisper. While she spied the two open seats next to me, she did not identify me as a fellow countryman. The bright green and blue skateboarding sneakers, black corduroys, gray prep school hoody and iPad didn't tip her off.

I'm obviously American. I can't hide it. During foreign travel I've tried, if just to blend in. But to anyone whose eyes are open, there really isn't another country I could be from. The brands I wear. My haircut. The way I carry myself. Even to other Americans, I'm clearly regional. A recent acquaintance within minutes of meeting me for the first time determined correctly I'm from the Northeast. "You're very direct," he said. "Blunt, in fact. And a little cold." (Thanks, JAG.) I had never considered it, but New Englanders are about as discernible as Texans or Californians.

The same cannot be said for my current traveling companion, EJ, who is a born Frenchman but a naturalized American since age 16. He's tough to place. I'll spare him a description. But in the airport he enjoyed helping me with a little American spotting. He has a keen eye for nationalities. In addition to his background, his job in apparel entails regular worldwide travel. So he's well-versed sizing people up from a distance. It's a fun game.

As we observed, Americans abroad are distinct in both obvious and subtle ways. Our volume is higher. We are jovial. We generally have broad shoulders and an athletic figure. And we possess an overt sense of confidence that brushes up against obnoxiousness. Taken altogether, our very posture betrays us in a crowd. We appear driven, almost to the point of aggressiveness: hand on hip, head high, determined and usually desiring service. (That actually sums up EJ as well.)

Canadiens are similar. They are at times difficult to distinguish. However, their speaking voice is softer and their stance lacks our confidence. This is not a slight. While Americans flirt with arrogance, Canadiens do not. Australians are also similar to Americans. They carry all the same characteristics, including the confident demeanor, but Australians can be gruff the way Americans were when the west was wild and free. 

After that, there are few comparisons. Europeans are strictly different. Mostly they can be spotted by their sporty shoes and frumpy clothing. They generally don't have the musculature Americans do. They are fit, but meager by comparison. They also wear boxy eyewear and have bad haircuts, including women who often lack a sense of femininity. Further, they're organized and when in groups can be directed calmly and easily. Americans are a cacophony of insistence.

I didn't say anything in response to the woman who wanted to plant herself and her husband next to me, taking up my precious free space and legroom. I just nodded and gave her a quizzical look. Her, loudly: "My husband and I are going to sit here." I shook my head. "But these seats are open, right?" I tormented her by pretending not to understand. "We want to sit together." She again looked pained, as if trapped. I exhaled a breathe audibly.

Then I spoke up in clear American-English: "I want to sit by the window and I want maintain an open middle seat for comfort. You are free to have the end seat, but that's it. Besides, there are two open seats right there." I pointed across the aisle, one row up. In the row of three sat a European woman, likely Scandinavian. She had on a terrible beige jumpsuit, square metallic glasses and short, shocked hair. "You can sit with her."

The American woman looked surprised at my clear instructions, and also relieved. She grabbed her husband and they crushed into the polite, accommodating European, who said nothing but looked uncomfortable, crammed against the window. I, on the other hand, stretched out, taking in all those around me of every nationality, beautiful and ugly alike.

For a moment I wondered what any of them might think of me. But then I hit the call button, ordered tea, grabbed my iPad, put on my headphones and stared out the window—off into the cloudy mountainous landscape beyond. What was out there seemed far more interesting to contemplate.

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