Thursday, February 4, 2016

#2 of 20 something. Spain.

"I have long believed that any man interested in either mystic or romantic aspects of life must sooner or later define his attitude concerning Spain." James Michener, Iberia. 

Among all of the countries of the world, Spain stands for me altogether separate. The affections and thoughts stirred in me when I think of Spain are bigger than just travel: they are about the beginnings of relationships, questions of politics and good government, adventures worth remembering.  A country that was the spark of conversations that found common interests with a young lady and courtship that eventually led to my marriage.... It was where I first left the streets of America without my family; the setting of classic stories of romance and adventure of which I often daydream when life at home seems dull: the land of Matadors, flamenco, Cervantes.

I now have an impossible task: what can I say about Spain in a few paragraphs? 

It's a good steak seared on a hot stone and very decent Rioja, taken at an outdoor table on Plaza de la Laguna in the unassuming town of Ayamonte on a weekday night - the plaza crowded with school kids, their parents looking on as several impromptu soccer games filled the square. Even as the street lamps came on and dinner ended, these kids were still at it late into the evening. Laughing, arguing, subtly taking notice of whether the groups of mujeres gathered on the outside of the plaza were admiring their athleticism. We walked around Ayamonte's lit up streets in search of a nightcap, but instead found the town itself to be enough: the laughter, the chatter in the cafes, the quiet and serene alleyways. This is Spain. 

Maybe I'm drawn to Spain in part because of the stamp that it's left my home, the American west. The whitewashed Spanish missions now so linked in Americas memory to the Wild West and the high desert of Arizona and New Mexico are but shadows of the empire which planted them: the great cathedrals of Toledo, Seville, Madrid.  The same cathedrals today that tourists shuffle through disinterested in their tour groups were the ones where 450 years before men like Coronado, Cortes and Pizarro knelt before the altar and beseeched Gods blessing before setting out on their famous journeys across the ocean to the Americas. This is Spain.

When I think of Spain, so many places, people and things come to mind: San Sebastián, the fishing village of the northern Pyrenees turned vacation spot by the kings and queens of centuries ago for its crescent white sand beaches and incredible mountain vistas. Barcelona, with its gothic old town of meandering stone alleyways and mountaintop fortresses that even today fly the Catalonian flag and challenge the authority of the crown. And of the verdant countryside, passing quickly through a train window, it's rolling hills, the seemingly endless olive groves and windmills of La Mancha.

For thousands of years Spain has been the frontier of Europe. Once literally: home of the farthest western expanse of the Roman Empire; in more modern times the point where Christendom shared its borders with the moorish emirate of Granada.  And now, for its customs and culture... a little too uncivilized for an Englishman, it's people just slightly too racy for a proper German. Such is the romance of Spain.  As Michener put it, Spain is a place where when one has penetrated its borders, you must be fully aware that you run the risk of being made prisoner. Just... Go. 

Saturday, January 30, 2016

#1 of 20 something. The Dominican Republic.

In search of Cipangu and a western route to Asia for the Spanish crown, Espanola was among the first strange islands where Christopher Columbus made landfall in 1492.  Many Europeans believed at the time that Eden itself laid in the far eastern reaches of the Earth, and to get there one could sail west. Columbus was in search of paradise.  And after having seen myself the clear blue waters of this island and watching and hearing the breeze blow in from the Caribbean Sea through the coconut palms, I cant help but think that Columbus must have believed when he reached these islands that he'd found it. 

My experience in DR was not one rich in culture, or with really any local cuisine, music, art or experiences. That's right, in my first venture outside of the borders of the USA I was cloistered in the bubble of an all inclusive resort. The perfect and ingenious answer to the tourist desire of sipping margaritas and eating Japanese food in the Caribbean tropics without having to worry about icky things like poverty, crime and the weird customs of the local people who were no doubt taking care of our turn down service. I'm not trying to be dramatic or on some moral high horse here.... I mean there's a time and a place for simply kicking it in a beautiful place with all of the comforts of the west.... But let's just call it for what it is here. 

As a young boy on my first international trip, I imagine I must have arrived at this tropical paradise with some of the same questions as the good Admiral did: "Where the hell am I??", "Why can't we have this kind of weather back home?", and "Are those local savages not wearing CLOTHES?!" (Except in my day the savages were Caucasian women from New Zealand and the U.K.) I definitely got your typical tourist experience in Punta Cana: Mai tais, pina coladas, fake Cuban cigars and plenty of beach time: a veritable yet inoffensive introduction to what life outside the USA's borders can be like. 

Reflecting back on my trip, I can't say that I know how Dominicans live, what they eat, or what their culture is like at all.  What I did learn: ordering a double doesn't mean one drink for you and a friend, a White Russian is a poor choice for 100 degree weather, and if a guy sells you a box of Cuban cigars on the beach for 3 dollars, they probably aren't the real ones.  A shame that I know this place has so much more to offer, but since it was my first trip and I was being squired about by my parents...I'll give myself a pass on this one for not seeing it. And God bless my crazy parents for taking 6 high school boys on a trip like this. Luckily no one ended up in a Dominican jail.

So back to the US I went. In just a few short months, I'd be overseas again, but this time across the big pond. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Bucket List Decoded

This project is a product of my love of two things: travel and lists. What began as a simple list of a few countries in excel that I used to keep tabs of potential vacation spots slowly got more and more complex. "What if I ranked the counties?" I thought. "What if I assigned attributes and weights to them?" "What is the price of a restaurant in Vietnam compared to India?" "How should this affect where I'd like to go?" With this quest for knowledge and love of lists and traveling, I set out on what has now been a few years' journey, and my first dashboard published on Tableau Public.

Is it really possible to rank every country in the world? Rank based on what? Isn't that all a matter of personal opinions? When I travel, for example, I love to be surrounded by history, culture and a vibrant city scene.... but my wife loves relaxing, good food and stunning scenery.... maybe that means we should head to the island of Malta? Not enough money for that? Vietnam could be a good option to do this on the cheap. Enter: The Bucket List Generator. (if you missed that... that's a link you can click).

The Generator will have to be subjective on some evidenced by the mere fact that there are many interpretations of "what makes a country beautiful?" or " what is good architecture?" or even "what is 'quality' culture?" Here is where I had to take some liberties which I will only defend insomuch as saying I tried my best to be objective, and if you disagree with my tastes, then go blog about it or make your own dashboard.

Other things, however, are objective and can be proxied: Restaurant price indices (affordability), crime rates (safety), urbanization (city life). Any time that I could remove myself from inserting my own opinion into the model, I did so. In the end, I chose ten factors by which to evaluate each country, allowing the user to assign weights to each factor to determine their own personal 'bucket list.'

Hopefully it will be as informative and fun for you as it was to create.

Below is a quick run down of the ten 'factors', and how I went about judging each:

Culture: This is maybe the most ambiguous metric. Culture is really more of an amalgamation of food, art, architecture, music, customs, etc.... every place has its own culture... this metric meant to be whether you really feel that when you are there; how much you really feel immersed and not feel like a visitor.

Gastronomy: Based on a survey of 1,400 Americans by polling extraordinaire Nate Silver and his fivethirtyeight blog team. The survey gauged opinion of the food quality of all of the countries in the 2014 FIFA World Cup (as well as a few key extras). Where data was not available for a country, the score was assigned based on a neighboring country in the same region.

Safety: As proxied by a crime index. This index is based on crime statistics as well as survey data (where available) of how users feel about things like crime, drugs, violence, etc in a given country.

Affordability. As proxied a restaurant price index. Similar to CPI but specifically for restaurant prices.... since this is what you spend a large share of your money on while traveling.

Relaxing: Totally subjective... but... is there a beach? Lot of resorts? Just picture that Zac Brown song about your toes being in the water.... that should remind you of a place that gets a 10 on this scale.

Nature/natural beauty: We do live in a beautiful world, and it's very hard to say one place offers "more" than another in the way of natural beauty. Part of this is accessibility to nature as well (parks, trails, ecotourism, infrastructure, etc).

City Life: Here we use % of the population that is urban. Is debatable whether this is a good measure for how vibrant a country's city life is... but it at least gives a perspective of how important cities are in the lives of a country's people.

Outdoor Adventure: What is there to do outdoors in this place and how easy is it to do? There may be a way to proxy this... but I've yet to find it. In the meantime.... i'll just have to go off of what i read in national geographic.

History: Ok. Every country has "history".... or more precisely, every piece of land on earth has a past. Wars, famines, despotic rulers, revolutions, golden eras. I geek out about all of it. But how can one objectively evaluate a country's 'history quality'? Well.... you can't. But I did. Admittedly this a function of how much I know about a place's history, and how much it interests me. Because, hey: this is my dashboard after all.

Architecture: One of my favorite parts of seeing the world's cities is being surrounded by awesome architecture. I called on my friend and architecture guru Joe Ebert to help me on this one in hopes to come as close as possible to objectively define 'good' architecture. Maybe Potter Stewart would be helpful here: you can't really define it, but you know it when you see it.

The Bucket List Generator

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The World's Top Thirteen

With all of those websites getting popular these days with their top 10 click thru lists to drive traffic and viewership, I figured it was time to jump on board since everyone (myself included) loves lists. What better way to do so than a top 13 list (for a nice round number) of the most beautiful things and places I have ever laid eyes on? (This of course excludes obvious things such as my wife and a perfectly cooked bone-in rib-eye.) As is the case with any Kodak…. err…. Fuji Film…  moment in one’s memory, I cannot separate these from the personal experience I have had with the vision: laughs, stomach grumblings, exhaustion and the like. Enjoying a baguette atop the Eiffel Tower at sunrise with my middle school ex-girlfriend and a bad case of the runs, albeit a beautiful setting perhaps, would not likely make the cut. These are in no particular order, as I think it may be bad practice to force rank things of this nature which are near the top of God and/or humankind’s most amazing creations. Best part about this list is, because I am not tech savvy, there will be no clicking through multiple screens as is traditional with articles like these. It’s all right below you! Yay!

1. Mount Fitz Roy Mountain Range, Patagonia

Yvon Chouinard picked this very group of mountains to be the logo of his small alpine climbing company “Patagonia” in 1973. The man was obsessed with these mountains…. and rightly so. These peaks of solid granite jut up from the earth in a way that instills a fear of God in you. They are almost other-worldly in the way that they completely break out of the Patagonian plains to the east and seem to protrude straight up at 90 degrees from the earth for miles. Drinking the melted glacier water from the lake at its base was a memory I will not soon forget. 

2. Caracol, Belize

Caracol is overshadowed by its better excavated and frequented cousins Tikkal and Chichen Itza in nearby Guatemala and Mexico. The Belizean jungle has swallowed most of this ancient Mayan city of over 100,000 people for most of the last several hundred years, and archeologists have only begun to bring some of its beauty to light. Atop a massive pyramid rising from the jungle you can see for miles over a land which is still completely untouched by humans. Our guide pointed out several huge tree covered hills in the jungle around the area, indicating that they were themselves temples which have yet to be uncovered. What has managed to escape the choking vines of the jungle truly shows that this is nothing less than wonder of the New World. 
3. Saint Peters at Sunset, Rome

On my first and only trip to Rome a group of friends and I were acclimated by participating in an all-day scavenger hunt around the city. The Coliseum, Roman Forum, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain: this city does not lack sites which reek of postcard worthy-ness. But by some strike of fortune, our last stop was this one, and we arrived at sunset. We crossed the Tiber River and began down the Villa della Concilatzione into the colonnade designed by Bernini to give the impression of walking into the outstretched arms of God… the view before us: St Peter’s Cathedral. The stones of plaza shone of pink and red with the reflection of the sunset and the usual daytime crowd had for the most part dispersed for the evening. I am not sure if it was God’s arms that were around us that night, but we were certainly in the presence of something amazing.   

4. The Grand Canyon, Arizona

I last saw the Grand Canyon in the summer of 2001, but I doubt it has changed much since then. I will leave in that caveat in case they have got a new chef or the offerings are different. This is one of those places shrouded in myth and almost fairy tale status since my childhood: my mom always spoke of it as a place that she and my father had one of their grandest adventures: a trek to the bottom and back. It was, more than any other place, the ultimate “bucket list” sight to see in my life – and I was lucky enough to see it at the grand old age of 14. Standing at the edge of Grand Canyon is like being born - as if all your underdeveloped fetus eyes had seen before this was a muck of amniotic fluid and the inside of a placenta, and now you finally can see what the world is like in all of its glory…. Okay, maybe I took that too far, but I am not sure that the beauty of this place is matched anywhere else on Earth. Maybe that makes this my number one… but I’m not numbering, remember?

5. Night Time on Central Park

Have you ever had a time in your life that you felt just truly didn’t belong to you? Like you were living the life of royalty or a celebrity or Justin Beiber? That is what I had in the spring of 2009 in New York City. The director of the singing group I was in at college at the time was selling his 15 bagillion dollar flat (I think that number’s right, and it may be more now) on Central Park and hosted a small soiree with us to celebrate. The condo, occupying the top two floors of an apartment building on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park, was a place I felt was just too luxurious for a piddly mid-western guy like me to 
be… and if I ever could afford a place such as this I would hope I would spend it on eradicating cancer or world hunger or something like that instead. But the view. Oh my goodness the view. I love mother nature… from the mountains to the valleys and all… but damn can humans create some magnificent things. Looking at New York City from a rooftop near Central Park is nothing short of spectacular. It is oddly serene being dozens of stories above the always busy New York streets, but watching it all go by as a spectator and just taking it all in.

6. Playa de la Concha, San Sebastian Spain

My allure with San Sebastian is at least partly due to it being very much of a “stumbled upon” find which turned out incredible. I circled a few places on a Spain map not knowing anything about any of them and had my step-brother pick which one to visit. One trans-Atlantic flight and Eurail night-train pass later and we woke up in San Sebastian. This old Spanish fishing town lies on a small inlet where the Pyrenees meet the Bay of Biscay and seems to be in a world all on its own. Picture the most popular and beautiful beach you know, but only you and a few friends are there and it has not been touched by commercialism or the outside world since 1850… ok, minus a McDonald’s, but what would any city be without just one McDonald's? Yes, San Sebastian is quite popular among Spaniards, but it’s far enough from an airport that most western travelers find it too difficult to make the trip. The result: brush up on your Spanish, or spend a few days in confused bliss away from your traditional European tourist crowd. Oh, there was also an international beach volleyball tournament going on during our stay… that didn’t hurt either. Go Canada! (America wasn’t playing).

7. Night Sky, Patagonia

The extent of my astronomy knowledge is being able to pick out the Big Dipper on a clear night. Other than that, I am pretty much lost without my star app. Even so, knowing that the sky in the southern hemisphere is completely different than what I have seen for my whole life is mysterious and fascinating. Luckily a friend on this trip was an astronomy nut, and was able to guide my eyes to some of the wonders the Patagonian sky has to offer. When this far away from civilization, you can see entire GALAXIES with your naked eye. I am not kidding. The Magellanic Clouds. GTS. Notwithstanding the freezing Patagonian wind biting at my face, the closest experience I’ve ever had to the brilliance of this night sky was a planetarium, and something about being in a small dome surrounded by whiney kids doesn’t quite live up to this.

  8. Cape May Point State Park, New Jersey

OK, this one gets a few extra points because of my childhood being so wrapped up here. I think by the age 2 I had already been on these boardwalks a dozen times. There’s no brilliant natural phenomena going on or any modern made marvel to see… it is just a large swamp hidden behind the dunes of the South Jersey shore. The Boardwalks allow you to walk amongst all of the birds and creatures that call this place home, of which you are certain to see plenty while you’re here. The salty air, abundance of life, and white-washed Cape May point lighthouse on the horizon make this place indescribably beautiful to me. Well, indescribable beyond what I just described.

 9. Sunrise in Berchtesgaden, Germany.

So, if you were the person in the world with the most absolute and unchecked power in your hands than perhaps any other man or woman in all of history, and you could at the drop of a hat pick anywhere to move into and build your dream house, you would think that would be a pretty awesome place, right? Unfortunately this person was Hitler, but man, did he know where to build a stinkin’ house. In Berchtesgaden, you find yourself at the eastern most extend of the Bavarian Alps, and in a town that is quaint, picturesque, and full of good sausage and beer. Yes, please. Maybe it was divine intervention that I woke up at  5:30 AM in spite of having a stein or two of strong German beer the previous night in time to watch the sun rise on the mountains of Berchtesgaden National Park from the balcony of our hotel room. It was as if God said, “Hey dude, wake up, I need to show you something cool” and then drug me out to the balcony and just completely showed off. (Keep in mind God is cool, so that’s why he talks like that). Then I went back to bed.
10. Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

This one falls in a category all of its own because is completely different than anything I’ve ever seen. In fact, GSDNP reminds me more of Africa than… Africa to me. At the risk of sounding cliché, I can only imagine that the gigantic rolling dunes of the Sahara look something like this park in Southern Colorado. I’ve never been there, but perhaps one day Lord willing I will be able to test this theory. Arriving here at night, I was able to have one of the jaw dropping moments of getting out of my tent and having my first sight of the day being these incredible mountains of sand. The only thing more difficult than leaving this place was trying to climb them with 12 pounds of sand in my boots.  

11. Machu Picchu – Santa Teresa River Valley

Fair warning: I’m going sentimental on this one. My trip to Machu Picchu was just as much for me as it was for my dad, who passed away in 1993 and always wanted to make it here but never did. I’d like to think that the dirt from the Inca Trail that I brought back to his grave means that he in some small way accomplished this goal through me. Beyond the mushy gushy-ness of this story though, Machu Picchu and the Santa Teresa Valley are incredible in their own right. The hike in and remoteness of the area adds to the awe you experience when you arrive, and watching the sun rise at the Intiwatana or “hitching post of the sun” single-handedly makes the entire trip to Peru worth it. Apparently, archaeologists and historians cannot agree on why exactly Machu Picchu is here other than the big wigs of the Incan Empire made it their home…. I think the views speak for themselves... come on archaeologists.  

12. Dubrovnik, Croatia

I look back on this place as if it were a dream – watching sailboats go by on the Adriatic sea with a glass of chardonnay in a café that clings to the wall of this old Medieval City (and to end this like a Jack Handey deep thought: “…and also, you’re drunk”). White buildings, red tile roofs, grumpy old fisherman; this is all I had ever hoped an old Mediterranean town would be. Subtract the daily dose of 2,000 cruise ship day-trippers, and I would even say it was serene. We were sure glad to have discovered this town which is known as “the Pearl of the Adriatic”… all’s I can say is, watch out Venice, there’s a new kid in town. A very old, curmudgeony, yet beautiful new kid.

13. Bretzville, Indiana

Despite every place I’ve been or seen around the world, to me the 40 acres of cornfield on the family farm in Bretzville, Indiana are more beautiful than the remaining 36,794,239,960 acres of solid ground on planet Earth (thanks Wikipedia). As I warned in the introduction of this post, my list is tied with experiences, memories, people and many other intangible things – and Bretzville more than any other place is where all of these intersect for me. Life always seems a little more simple here. Coffee, conversation, and a hike in the woods make for a vacation that is both cheap and better than any other I know. But it’s not just the memories - and this is something that maybe only a mid-westerner would understand or admit to – but there is beauty in a freshly plowed field, in an overgrown barn yard, and in an old farmhouse. ‘Merica! 

In the interest of maintaining complete journalistic integrity, the following are links to the photos above which are not mine. Thanks for these super photos, unknown photographers!


Wednesday, March 13, 2013


I often wish that I painted more. I am not very good at it, but since I have some semblance of an idea as to how, I believe I should at least try. Through my recently completed painting, I have learned that I am a person who likes to take his time: I began the piece in the summer of 2011 and just finished last week. You would think that this implies that I have a masterpiece of sorts on my hands… unfortunately what I've really got is a hodgepodge of sloppy brush strokes which was a process of both learning and relearning the basic fundamentals of how to paint the entire time. Several whiskies, Johnny Cash albums, and hours passed in the basement later, I finally finished this beast of a project. By my math, at this rate Ive got about 30 more in me until I kick it, and I am shooting for perhaps my 15th or 20th to begin to resemble something like a work of a person who truly knows what they are doing.
A gold plated ornate frame makes all the difference.
I stole a Renoir to get this one.
Churchill (whose book I have also been reading for 2 years) reflected once that he wished he could have been a painter, if only to have left the world something tangible upon his passing - I think we are all better off that Churchill did not choose painting as his vocation and that others whose place he may have taken (Dali perhaps?) were not at the helm of the British Empire's war machine during WWII, but I can’t help but admit I share the same thoughts sometimes as Winnie. My dad was a painter, and left behind dozens of paintings which I feel to this day serve as one of the most meaningful links we have. I feel like I can glimpse his personality in them. I feel like in some small way I know how he was feeling when he was working on them. 

Should I feel the same way? Will I one day have a son that only knows me through the paint that I have smeared on a canvas? It is doubtful, but nonetheless, makes me feel a bit of an underachiever at having made so little of an effort.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Should We Tax the Rich?

The central tenet of Obama's economic platform is to raise marginal rates on the wealthiest 2% of Americans. There are many reasons why this may or may not be a good idea, or a "fair" one.... but let's just assume that it is, and it was implemented. Below is a thought experiment that examines whether this idea even holds water as a plan to reduce the national debt under current spending levels.

The exercise is a basic one... and relies on easily provable demographic facts about our country, as well as well documented phenomena about tax avoidance under given tax regimes. The conclusion: this is not enough. Even if we could somehow take every single penny from the top 2% (while preventing them from moving to the Barbados) we would not have even covered half of the deficit.

Americans deserve a better plan than this - they deserve to be offered a plan which actually presents a solution to our debt crisis. It stands to reason why the Obama camp has offered this plan, though. Why? This is an easy sell. 312 million people in this country would see no tax change if this plan were implemented. In the meantime, we've provided an incentive for the most innovative and resourceful men and women of our country to be less so, as they will not be rewarded as much for the efforts. It is debatable whether this is a reasonable price to pay if this in fact fixed our problems..... but it clearly doesn't. As a recent article in the Wall Street Journal pointed out, which gave similar estimates as to its implications, the $72 billion that this plan proposes to save is "a rounding error" in the grand scheme of the deficits that we are currently facing.

It's not the class warfare or the populism that bothers me when I hear in every Obama campaign commercial or stump speech that "we just want the wealthiest to pay a little more," it's the undeniable fact that the "arithmetic," as Bill Clinton would like to say, just proves that it doesn't come close to addressing the issue.