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 clichĂ©, 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 cafĂ© 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.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

La Vida Colorada

The rooftop is cold and inhospitable in the wind and stinging rain, but I grip my Titan and can't help but smile as I watch the storm front roll in off of the front range into the city.
"That's what I love about Colorado," Adam says, " it never forgets to remind you how wild it is."
Although Wash Park is now home to tens of thousands of hipsters, yuppies, and stay-at-home moms, this was once the land of the Arapaho. It was once the land of gold prospectors making the three day's journey to Central City and Black Hawk up Clear Creek Canyon - although I make this drive in 40 mintues flat every day and the mines have long since closed, ambitious (or perhaps delusional) gold "sluicers" still attempt to pull what's left of the dust from the creekbed today (one reported to me that a full day's sluicing is usually rewarded by about $50 in gold - thats about a paper clip's worth). Sure, every place in our country has it's history, but Colorado seems incapable of hiding its feral past.
I still find myself hesitantly looking over my shoulder when I hear a sound in the brush while fly fishing in the stream running through Lair of the Bear, pondering for a moment why it is that the place was given its name. The idea that I could be killed by a snake while walking barefoot in my mother-in-law's back yard sometimes gives me pause. A wrong move on Floyd Hill going to work in the morning could send me careening down a mountain ravine that would make Gabe Walker blush (go ahead and Google that one, don't be embarrased).
God did not intend for certain parts of His creation to be tamed by humans - and although we've done our best to tame Colorado, it's clear that we still haven't managed. This is a land that attracts people from all over the world - they come to live here not for the great job prospects, the vibrant city life, or the fantastic standards of living. No, they come because there is something about waking up under the Rocky Mountains that makes one feel that they are still living in the wild west.
Sometimes, tragic events around the world, or even right here in our city, challenge the idea that God is good, or even that He exists. Colorado is one of those places that with one look west, it's hard not to be convinced. As a great Colorado lover once said, " You can talk to God and listen to the casual reply." 
Yes John, I've seen it rainin' fire in the sky too.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Remembering 12

In memory of those 12 who died in Aurora early yesterday morning. Please pray for peace and for healing of the victims' friends and family, as well as those still in nearby hospitals.

Alex Sullivan
Micayla “Cayla” Medek 
Jessica Ghawi “Redfield
John Larimer
Veronica Moser
Matt McQuinn
Gordon Cowden
Jesse Childress
Rebecca Wingo
Alexander Teves
Alexander J. Boik 
Jonathan T. Blunt

Cayla Medek
Jessica Ghawi
Alex Sullivan

John Larimer

Veronica Moser-Sullivan
Matt McQuinn

Gordon Cowden

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Keepers of the Bridge

Ivanka was pleasant enough. She smiled a lot and made sure to explain the aging relics of the Ottoman Empire as the van rolled northwards into Bosnia and Herzegovina. The ride was long, and  I could not help as the van sat peacefully at the border crossing to think of the 600,000 Bosnians who for fear of their lives and in search of a new home had crossed in the opposite direction only 15 years before. What Ivanka did not explain were the burned out buildings which dotted the countryside, still standing as a reminder of the recent war. Our destination of Mostar derived it name from the phrase "keepers of the bridge", referring to the Stari Most, or "old bridge", which spans the Nerveta River in the city's center. The bridge was built in the 16th century, and survived long enough to support Panzers during the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia - only to be destroyed in 1993 by Bosnian Croat artillery fire.

As we walked though Mostar, I felt that there was some tension which pervaded the city that was very real, yet carefully hidden. Ivanka, herself a Bonsian Croat refugee, mentioned that she would not be surprised if there was war again here in the next decade - yet walking though the city, with its touristy shops and pleasant exterior, one would never guess. Looking closer, there was something different about this city than any other I had been to: the dust on a life and death struggle between two groups of people who still live there today has barely settled. Yes, every tourist shop had copper Turkish coffee pots of all sizes as our tour guide was sure to explain, but I couldn't help but notice that every shop also sold little trinkets - airplanes, belts, cars, jewelry - all made out of AK-47 shells. As if embracing the sad reality that war is what now makes Bosnia famous, locals who still bear the scars of bombshells and shrapnel try to sell what once made them afraid to go into the streets as knick-knacks for tourists to take home with them - the same tourists from countries whose governments did not have the courage to lift a finger as the Serbian army began to give meaning to the term ethnic-cleansing.

We crossed the Stari Most, the beautifully rebuilt replica of the bridge which now stands over the rubble of its older brother at the bottom of the Nerveta River, and came to a vantage point so that the group could take photos. Looming above the city was a ridge which served as the high ground from which the Croats  bombarded the bridge and the Muslim side of town. Our Croat tour guide paused and pointed in the direction of the ridge.

"Finally..." I thought, "He is going address the sad reality of what happened here."

I wondered how he was going to explain the shelling of the bridge, given that it was his people that were responsible for its destruction - for some reason I felt that would require a fair bit of tact.

Instead, he told a joke about the ridge and we moved on for lunch. You have to pay a little extra to get the whole story, I guess.

It's not surprising that, especially in front of tourists, those that lived here portray a sense of optimism, and a desire to move beyond the past. People do not take vacations to be reminded that humans, from time to time, pick up arms and do their best to kill their each other. I didn't expect to get a full history lesson on a war which only recently ended from a tour guide whose people were the aggressors, but it was chilling to hear Ivanka say, "yesterday, we were fighting in the streets.... today, we are fighting in the parliament.... tomorrow, who knows."

As I write, the trial of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb General who was tasked with ridding his country of Muslims and became infamous for directing the Srebrenica massacre, has just gotten underway. It's hard not to think that it's possible to be sub-human, or something of the sort, when one watches this man chuckle and beam with pride as he watches videos of himself congratulating his men after they have just murdered thousands of men and boys for the crime of being born the wrong race.

Walking out of  the city, we passed some graffiti which would have seemed normal if not for one thing: the language in which it was written. On the Bosniak side of the river, inconspicuously tucked behind a table of souvenirs, was a rock that read, "Don't Forget" in English. Written in the language not of the locals who assuredly do not need this reminder, but of the passersby and tourists, who see the blown out buildings and after their quick tour which pretended they weren't there wonder... "What happened here?" The grave yard at the corner of town in which nearly all the tombstones are marked with a burial date of 1995, and even less with a birthdate before 1975, stands as a reminder of what they don't want us to forget.

 My wife and I arrived back to our apartment in Dubrovnik before sundown - plenty of time to freshen up from the long day and find a nice seafood restaurant overlooking the Adriatic in time for dinner. The town which felt so foreign just a few days ago strangely felt like home after having been to Mostar. At dinner, we watched as the lights in the harbor began to come on and fisherman tied down their boats for the night.  I thought of the bullet holes, AK-47 shells, and cemetery of teenagers, but quickly found my mind wondering to wineries and the beaches on Korcula Island, tomorrow's destination. One cannot dwell on such horrors when they are on vacation.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Sweet Disposition

Bias. What a bitter word. I can remember I was introduced to it my by 9th grade biology teacher in the context of learning about how science should be taught in schools. We had a whole lesson plan, going through weeks of learning about how what we are taught in the classroom and read on the news is ultimately a formulation of some producer, reporter, or legislator's views. Following the lesson, we gave a class presentation, in which we were given the opportunity to "expose the bias" which we felt pervaded a particular area of science, politics or daily life. As a result of my recent interest I had taken to attending church, perhaps combined with a naivete of what a controversial topic I was undertaking, I decided to give a whole spiel in  front of class of how high schoolers were being brainwashed by the "biased" point of view which taught evolution as fact. At an age where most kids haven't begun to think seriously or care about such matters, my presentation was met with uninterested stares and a forced applause, even after closing my routine with holding a Bible in one hand, my science book in the other, and tossing the science book dramatically on the floor. It was met with disinterest with all but one person, that is: my science teacher. Ms. Willertz, a young,  former biker-gang riding blond who allowed her class to make up the rules and only assigned grades because the district made her, was appalled. I certainly learned a lesson in bias, however, when she marked on her evaluation of my project that basing my world-view on a book written by several men over the course of hundreds of years was "pretty shoddy."

I'm not relating this story to make myself appear some sort of Christian crusader. I was far from it in those days and indeed today as well. In fact, just the year before in English class, I can recall choosing the topic of abortion for our class debate, and pulling out several Bible verses to support my pro-choice point of view at the time. Needless to say, I wish I could meet that opinionated and silly 1999 version of Kurt and either explain or knock some sense into him.

Now that ten years have passed by from that first (formal and informal) lesson I had on the topic of "bias", I've gotten the opportunity to experience it first hand thousands and thousands of times. To be sure, even my final year in academics was largely a study of bias: in economic analysis, every assumption made can and usually will bias a study, your results, and any conclusion you may make.  I'm not sure any amount of formal education about  bias can actually prepare one for the kind of bias encountered on a day to day basis. All I know is that being informed starts with knowing it's there, why it's there, and why that often makes the majority of what enters your ears on a given day a load of garbage.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

On mammals and dairy

Journalists and bloggers love to be the first to break a story. They love to have history validate their predictions, and be able to have the satisfaction of citing a story they wrote months ago so that they can sit back in their spinney computer chair, and with a grin, type: “I’ve been saying this all along!” or “Told you so!” So naturally, if today we are seeing beginnings of the second recession in three years, I wanted to have a blog entry writing about it.  But rather than just sounding the alarms based on one day’s slide (which nonetheless quite significant, the DOW is down 300 as I write) it’s important to separate fact from fiction.
FACTS: The market’s reaction to the debt deal recently signed by President, which was predicted to bring calm to the recent choppy waters, has been: so what? The reason for this is probably that it simply postponed the debate in a not so inconspicuous manner. The “super-congress” which must reach an agreement by December faces much of the same challenges which congressional leaders and the president faced in formulating the current deal. While the deal was no doubt necessary to prevent even more catastrophic losses on Wall Street, and to the U.S. economy in general, the deal did nothing to halt the downtrend the markets have been seeing thus far in 2011.
Over the past several weeks, market gains have generally been an exception to the rule. They have come with occasional “better than expected” (usually weekly) reports on manufacturing, consumer spending, etc… but have not been frequent enough to categorize as a trend. The fact is, the trend of the markets in the first and second quarter of 2011 has been a downward one – the NBER classifies a recession as two consecutive quarterly contractions of economic growth; while GDP growth in the second quarter was not negative, it was certainly nothing to be happy about, at 1.3%, driven mainly by increased exports as a result of a weak dollar. For those of you keeping track, with the baby-makin’ capacity of the U.S., that’s not enough to sustain job-growth. In a nutshell: we are well on our way to the dreaded “double-dip”, and when we’re not talking ice-cream, this is cause for fear.
FICTION: The market is a reliable barometer for the state of the macroeconomy.  If the macroconomy is Mayberry, the market is Barney Fife; always entertaining, but often lacking in sound judgment and prone to overreaction and silly yet sitcom-worthy antics. It's good that he's there to keep us on our toes, but we'd never want him at the helm of the Mayberry County Sheriff's Department. It cannot be disputed, though, that long term market trends generally reflect GDP movements (not sure how that fits in the Mayberry metaphor, but worth noting).    
In conclusion, I’m not jumping on the “double-dip” bandwagon because I’m conservative. I’m not jumping on because the markets are sliding in similar proportions as they were when investment banks were collapsing left and right in 2008. I’m not even jumping on because I’m vain, and I want to be among the first to write about it (indeed, the ship has sailed there anyway, because many have been crying about a second recession the day we were reportedly out of the first). I am only becoming worried now because our economy has been in a state of contraction all year, and our government has proved unable to create growth, or pursue policies which give consumers confidence that there will be any growth in the future. The contraction hasn’t been as a result of unpredictable shocks, as many (myself included) believed with the disaster in Japan, and the unrest in the Middle-East; it has been the result of the fundamentals of our economy being weak, and Americans having no reason to believe a change for the better is on the way.
I’m not even writing this post to claim we are on the brink of a double dip recession, but I do believe we’re at the point where the economic data show that it’s rational to think so. At the end of the day, I don’t think it’s debatable that a huge number of Americans feel this way, and are at the very best going to stick their heads in the sand and sit on the their investments to weather this storm over the rest of the year – a scary proposition for the job market. What does this mean? Someone in the White House has some serious ‘splainin to do over the next several months, and dare-I-say, in November of 2012.