The one that was almost called “finding myself”

Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.

-Michelangelo

Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.

-George Bernard Shaw

I used to think of life like Michelangelo. Chipping away at the rough edges in search of freedom. At various times I have been in love with the romantic idea of “finding myself.” I think most of us are conditioned to think this way. In the movies, the reluctant hero always has a true calling, and eventually, he answers. The two friends come to realize that they were meant to be together the whole time. The pirates find the treasure and the girl finds Mr. Right. The Native Americans had their vision quest. The Amish have Rumspringa. That’s how one’s life is supposed to go, right? Go out, have your fun, figure out what you want to do, then settle down and do it. Find yourself a girl, a career, a small town, a direction… and then by 30, set the cruise control, the sails, get on the right track (choose your preferred method of transportation for this metaphor) and off you go.

Trouble along the way? Don’t worry, there are plenty of fish in the sea – you’ll catch a good one soon enough! You can search for a new job! You can hunt for a new house! Discover a new hobby! Find your passion! Find yourself!

Until recently, I was on one of these quests too. I’ve described myself as feeling a little “lost.” I’ve called this year my rumspringa. I was pretty sure I was supposed to be looking for something… although I never quite knew what it was.

But what if there is nothing to find?

What if, instead of finding ourselves, we create ourselves? What if life is neither a destination or a journey, but a construction project? What if we don’t find happiness, success, or our true selves but rather, build them.

You give four children a pile of Legos. One builds a perfectly symmetrical house. The second builds a spaceship with questionable aerodynamics. The third builds the tallest tower they can with random colors everywhere. The fourth doesn’t build anything recognizable, but spends their time putting a few blocks together, taking them back apart, and merrily enjoying the clinking of the plastic and the texture of the smooth sides, bumpy tops, and sharp corners. To none of these children do you say, “Why didn’t you follow the directions?” or “Are you sure you don’t want yours to look more like your friend’s?” Of course not, they’re Legos! They’re kids! If you’re any sort of a decent parent or teacher you say, “Wow, what are you making? … Oh, how creative! It’s beautiful, I love it! Are you having fun?”

Life isn’t a movie. There’s no script. Life isn’t a puzzle. There’s no picture to follow. Life is a pile of Legos! You can make whatever the hell you want!

I’m building a castle. It’s going to be misshapen and multicolored and unconventional. It will have flaws and weaknesses and holes in the walls. It’s also going to be exciting and welcoming and unique. It’s going to be expansive and powerful and resilient. Everything I do – every decision, every interaction, every triumph, and every mistake – is another piece added to my castle. I’m not searching for treasure; I’m building a kingdom.

It’s only in the last couple of weeks that I have come across this new line of thinking. Admittedly, the metaphors and allegories might still need some workshopping. But even in the short time since putting on these new glasses and looking at my life through the lens of “creating” rather than “finding,” I already feel… lighter. Less pressure. Less worry. If there truly were no right or wrong answers, what would there be to worry about?

Some illustrative examples of the shift towards the building paradigm (patent pending):

In the past year, I have been the butt of many jokes about being the “old guy” teaching abroad. Many of those I have made myself. They say every joke has a hint of truth, but when I really think about it, I’ve never actually felt like I shouldn’t be here. Living abroad has been something I’ve always wanted to do and I’m extremely happy, grateful, and proud that I was able to make this dream a reality. In fact, I believe that being here now as opposed to, say, 8-10 years ago allows me to understand and appreciate this experience in more meaningful ways. It doesn’t matter who finishes their Lego structure first.

In the past year, some good friends have asked me if I am worried that I’m setting myself back by being here – because, you know, my window of… prime mating years(?) isn’t going to stay open much longer. In the same vein, everyone from good friends to strangers is quick to ask, “How long do you think you’ll stay in Taiwan?” My answer is always the same: I don’t know. One year at a time. More often I’m taking it one day at a time. One piece at a time.

In the past year, I have spent a lot of time alone. I have also spent a lot of time “putting myself out there.” To be sure, I do think life might be more fun with a partner in crime. I am accepting applications. But if I were to be desperately looking for my wife, every date that didn’t work out would be a failure – a waste of time. I see dates as an opportunity for a new adventure. I get to meet a new person in a new country. If I’m lucky, she’ll speak Chinese, take me to a new place and help me read the menu. Even if we never talk again, I will always have tried that new food and that brick will always be a part of my castle, strengthening the walls. As for the time alone, I would argue that there might be nothing more valuable than spending time with yourself. You learn a lot about both your needs and wants when you stop finding ways to distract and ignore yourself. In my Lego kingdom, the bricks and the empty spaces are equally valuable.

If this is making any sense at all, then I thank you for sticking with me. In conclusion, I encourage you to start seeing the things you do everyday as adventures, learning experiences, and opportunities for growth. One of my favorite mantras is a quote by Annie Dillard that reads, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Stop spending your days searching for something that you might never find, or worse, waiting for it to come!

Life is a pile of Legos. What will you build today?

Trust the process

It’s a deceptively dramatic title. This isn’t the post about the lessons learned from a year abroad or musings from my month at home. I’ll write that one next. That deserves more time. This is a story about yesterday and the mind-twistingly intense process of getting into a country that would rather not have you.

This is also a return from an apparently noticeable hiatus. I have been amazed by the number of comments I’ve received on this blog – primarily people asking when I’m going to post again. Granted, it’s been about seven, but that’s still more than the number of people I thought cared about my writing at all. So if you are one of the (What should I call my blog followers? Evanatics? Angels? Let’s go with) Earthlings who has been craving more, I’m sorry. I’ve been busy, okay?! This tab has been open for about two months. Back then it started as a post about how the US was opening up and Taiwan was shutting down (with massive Covid outbreaks reaching upwards of *gasp* tens of cases each day!)… But like most world news lately, give it a month and you’ll find out that reports of America’s “success” have been greatly exaggerated. So now, in an Olympic-worthy double fakey McTwist of fate, the pendulum of optimism has already swung back in its original direction. Say what you will about me, but you must admit I have impeccable timing when it comes to mid-pandemic moves around the world.

So how is it that while fears of the Delta variant surge worldwide, Taiwan has recently loosened restrictions on gatherings, is sending kids back to school, and reported just 16 new cases yesterday? (As a reminder for scale, and for those of us who have bad news fatigue, the United States reported over 92,000 new cases yesterday.) The answer is by making it an impossibly huge pain in the ass for Covid to vacation here. If you’re a little coronavirus just trying to survive in the world, where are you going to go? A country where face shield hoodies have become fashionable, or a country where half the population is either stupid enough or brainwashed to believe that this evolutionarily advanced virus doesn’t necessitate a defensive strategy?

promo code: HOTSTUFF

So come with me on a journey unlike any other (hopefully).

Normal process for flying back to where you live:

  1. Book flight.
  2. Get on plane.
  3. Get off plane.
  4. Go home. Yay!

Process you need to go through if you want to fly to Taiwan right now:

  1. Book flights.
  2. Three days before flying home have one moron break home quarantine and spread Covid, thus causing the government to cancel the home quarantine option nationwide.
  3. Eventually get over your disappointment and book a quarantine hotel.
  4. Get a PCR test within three days before flight.
  5. Forget to fill out the online quarantine declaration requested by Taiwan’s government. Fill out at airport while carrying a heavy backpack.
  6. Show the nice worker lady your ~quarantine declaration certificate~, your negative PCR test results, and your hotel booking confirmation.
  7. Fly to San Francisco.
  8. Show a different set of workers your ~quarantine declaration certificate~, your negative test results, and your hotel booking confirmation. Get a red “OK” stamp. (More on this later.)
  9. Get on plane using facial recognition technology! This was wild to me. They didn’t scan my boarding pass. No one looked at my passport. I just looked into a robot’s eyes and it said I could get on. The future is crazy.
  10. Sit on tarmac for nearly two hours while they redistribute baggage weight? Fun and not concerning at all! (Other than that, flight was good. Had a whole row to myself and slept most of the time other than watching Idiocracy, which I did not realize was a documentary.)
  11. Okay, here’s where the real fun starts. Get off the plane and wait in line while you fill out what appears to be the same online form that you filled out before you left. A worker checks your second ~quarantine declaration certificate~ and sends you on to wait in another line so you can show it to a different worker.
  12. The second worker notices you didn’t type your middle name so you get out of line and fill out the form again because if you don’t write your middle name you might have Covid. Get back in line and wait to show them your correctly filled out ~quarantine declaration certificate~ for what you can only assume will be the final time. But you will be wrong.
  13. Walk past giant signs with some pictures and some Chinese that I’m pretty sure say bringing foreign beef jerky into Taiwan is punishable by death.
  14. Go to baggage claim and walk your bag past the cutest little beagle that will literally end your life if he smells any goddamn beef jerky in there.
  15. Go through customs to declare that you do not have any beef jerky with you. (Around this time, your mind will start asking you “Are we sure we didn’t accidentally pack any beef jerky in there somewhere?”) At customs a robot will take your picture and your fingerprints.
  16. At this point, you might think, “Phew, made it through.” You will be wrong. Go to a worker and get a cup.
  17. Go outside to a pop-up dressing room stall and spit as much as you can in that cup, even if you barely have any saliva because you have been standing in line with no water for an hour. Give your cup to a worker. Get a jazzy sticker on your arm that says “don’t touch me,” probably.
  18. Go back inside and stand in line to wait for a taxi. Show them your ~quarantine declaration certificate~. I told you we weren’t done with that! (Pro tip: The day before your flight, get your ~quarantine declaration certificate~ printed onto a t-shirt. Just make sure you fill it out correctly.)
  19. After you pay for your taxi, prepare yourself for a Summerfest mister level of disinfectant spray. (Holy shit, did this just give anyone else a great idea?!) Do not wear suede. They will spray you until you are almost saturated, including the bottoms of your shoes. If you are a plucky little coronavirus stowaway thinking the groove on a bottom of a shoe was a great place to hide, you have just been proven wrong and you are dead now. I even saw him lift up a woman’s backpack and spray in between the back and the pack. Even compound words are no match for this Seaworld splash zone amount of disinfectant!
  20. Be careful as you walk away. The floor is very slippery.
  21. Finally, get in your taxi.
  22. Arrive at your quarantine hotel which has plastic tunnels everywhere reminding you of the scene at the end of E.T.
  23. After about 26 total hours of travel, you have arrived in your room, where you will spend the next 15 days trying not to go crazy.

So how do you become one of the safest countries in the world? A powerful, yet caring and effective government, an abundance of surveillance, and an obedient population. Why have over 600,000 people died in the US? An ineffective, divided, and unevolved government, a psychotic and narcissistic cult leader, a culture of mistrust and misinformation, and a population that thinks being forced to wear a mask in the name of safety infringes on their “rights.” There are tradeoffs.

It’s been interesting to spend basically half of a generational pandemic on one side of the response spectrum and half on the other. I’ve spent most of my time in the States being dumbfounded and saddened by the general stupidity of humankind. Just wear a goddamn mask. It’s not that hard. On the other hand, I’ve spent the majority of my time in Taiwan being very grateful to be here and be able to go out and do things. But at times it’s been admittedly difficult to trust the process. I know it’s in the name of the greater good, but it’s hard not to be frustrated when you have to teach online and spend your own money to sit in a hotel room for 15 days when there are fewer than 20 cases in the country, they know everyone’s name, and they track your movements wherever you go. At some point it feels like overkill. The process of getting from Burlington to Taichung this week felt like the Soup Nazi was appointed Minister of Health. (Just rewatched that clip. It holds up.)

Beyond the obvious effects of this pandemic (illness, death, unemployment, deterioration of mental health, postponement of plans, etc.) I fear that the trauma it has caused to individuals will go unrecognized by most and then, as trauma does, rear its ugly head in often surprising and unrelated ways. So far, one of the biggest impacts this whole thing has had on me personally is that I now don’t believe anything until it happens. Remember when we thought it was unfathomable that stores could ever shut down for two weeks? Remember when we thought that getting vaccinated meant we beat covid for good? I approach all plans now with a “yeah, sure, we’ll see,” rather than a “sounds perfect, can’t wait!” Perhaps it’s healthy to temper expectations. But it’s also sad to not be able to get excited about anything anymore.

The moment I got excited about coming back to Taiwan was not when I resigned my contract. It wasn’t when I got my class list for next year, or checked in for my flight. It was when I got this stupid red “OK” stamp on my boarding pass. During all of my packing, planning, and preparation leading up to my flight I was girding my emotions for something to go wrong. I was about 20% sure that I was not going to get my test results back in time, or that I was going to test positive, or that a typo on my ~quarantine declaration certificate~ would result in a lifetime excommunication. I was even stressed up until the moment before he checked mine when it seemed for a second like the lady before me wasn’t going to be let on the plane because she got her PCR test five days before the flight instead of three. Luckily, the rule is that your test has to be within three business days, so the man eventually relented. Thank god Covid agreed to not work on weekends.

It wasn’t until he checked my papers, took my boarding pass, and gave it back with this super official, high tech, government approved RED STAMP, that I actually believed I was coming back. In that moment, I let out a little giggle. My heart started racing and I clenched all of my muscles to prevent myself from doing something noticeably outlandish in public. The most momentous “OK” of the year.

One of the most stressful stamps of approval I have ever worked for.

As Darwin (my friend, not the scientist) likes to say, in conclusion, I made it. I’m back for another year and I’m excited. It’s going to be a year of opportunities and growth. A year of continuing to seek peace and happiness and hopefully continuing to find both. A year of reminding myself and those around me, it’s okay to be “OK.”

Speak softly and carry a big serve

  • Editor’s note: This post was just about ready to go live when I found out that all schools in Taiwan are closing for two weeks and I was blessed with the rare distinction of getting to prepare for distance learning in back-to-back years in two different countries!! What a thrill this is about to be. More on this later in a post probably called “How the turntables…” For now, back to your regularly scheduled rambling.

My high school tennis coach once told me during a match, “Every once in a while, hit your serve as hard as you can, just to let ’em know you got it.” He continued, “It doesn’t even matter if it goes in or not. Just knowing in the back of their mind that you could blast one at them at any moment will make them take a step back. The fear of the big one will make all your other serves more effective.”

Thank you, Coach Kreutz. I have carried this advice with me to this day, both on and off the court. I recently shared it with some of the boys I coached. And when I play, I still try to crank a couple of serves early on in a match, just to let my opponent know what I’m capable of. After I spin a couple in, if I notice them starting to creep up and take advantage of the slower, more consistent serves, I’ll flatten one out as a reminder, just so they don’t get too comfortable.

But more importantly than tennis, I believe this is good advice to live by. Made famous by Teddy Roosevelt, of course, to “speak softly and carry a big stick” was how he characterized his approach to foreign diplomacy. Lead with kindness and justness, attempt to negotiate peacefully, but be prepared with a strong military should things ever go south. Unfortunately, the world today would benefit greatly if more people practiced the first two components of this philosophy. It seems everyone from world leaders down to insecure influencers does a lot of barking these days, which, without intervention from a more rational party (the existence of which seems to be rapidly deteriorating), inevitably leads to biting. I guess big stick energy is quite the opposite of the current rampant spread of the aforementioned little dick energy.

I’m the first to admit that my attempts to be a good person, friend, and teacher fall short of perfection, but I do try to live by this ideology as much as I can. When I was younger, I used to be a more arrogant and obnoxious competitor, assuming that everyone would benefit from verbal reminders of how great I was. Now, when playing sports or games, I try to mostly keep quiet, win and lose graciously, and let my play do the talking. A goal, a spike, or a victory is always more powerful than talking trash, whining to teammates, or complaining about the refs.

In my relationships with both women and friends, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve raised my voice or acted irrationally in a moment of anger. In a similar but different vein, when I was younger, I used to know no boundaries when it came to getting a girl’s attention or impressing a fellow dude-bro. Now, I realize that such peacocking is a product of insecurity and a need for validation. These days, I am much more content to just say, this is who I am, this is what I want, this is what I can offer – take it or leave it, I’m good either way.

Getting to the primary inspiration for this post, the most prominent area of my life in which my #bigstickenergy is deployed is in my teaching. Far and away the most frequent comment I receive from people who have been in my classroom is how calm I am and how peaceful the room is in general. This is not luck. I work hard to achieve this. I’ve learned over the years (11 in the classroom, wow!) that yelling almost never achieves positive results. And while every class surely has a couple of big personalities, a calm environment is one that works well for all students, both academically and developmentally. I have worked with children with all kinds of disabilities, trauma, and difficult behaviors. I’ve never met one that didn’t benefit from a calm, respectful relationship with a teacher who is steady, trustworthy, and predictable. In fact, I’ve had friends visit my class and ask if I was okay, perceiving my low energy to be a sign that something was off. Outside the classroom I guess I’m a bit more energetic and bubbly. My teaching persona, however, has a much more focused and deliberate nature, which I now understand can be a bit shocking for a first-timer to experience.

There are many different types of effective teachers and I have great respect for all of them. Many teachers dance and roll and play around all day in attempt to engage their students in the learning. That’s wonderful. That is not me. I wonder if that type of teaching is sustainable over a long career. For me, avoiding burnout is a big factor in how I conduct myself day to day and year to year, and conserving energy is an important part of that gameplan. Please don’t take this to mean that my class is boring or that my kids sit in rows and work silently all day. That is far from the case. We play games, sing songs, watch funny videos, and do arts and crafts all the time. My kids know that I love them and we have a good time. But I believe that my primary job is to create structures within which the kids can have their own fun. I’ve always kept in mind a line by Ron Clark that reads something to the effect of “A lot of young teachers think they need to be the students’ friend. I tell my students ‘I’m not here to be your friend. I’ve got enough friends. I’m here to be your teacher.'”

Which brings me to the second tenet of my teaching persona. I’ve covered the “speak softly” part. But what about the “big stick”? Well. Eeeeeevery once in awhile. I mean like, maybe 3-6 times per year, I bring out the big serve. If someone is doing something really foolish after repeated reminders, if someone isn’t showing improvements in behaviors after lots of practice, or, most especially of all, if someone is bullying, I give them a taste of something to be scared of. Sometimes, I will put on my best glare and tell them that they’ve made me angry, or that what they’re doing is not acceptable. Other times, it can be as simple as shouting “HEY” super loudly and then continuing in a normal voice. Whatever the situation, it’s letting them know they’ve crossed a line. I will usually even say directly, “I don’t get angry very often, and I don’t like to yell, but this is not okay.” I then make sure to get everyone else back on track. Later, I’ll check in with that kid, praise them if they’ve fixed what they needed to, and make sure they know I love them. I don’t believe much in punishments, as they are rarely related to the behavior. A stern conversation about boundaries and feelings is usually far more impactful. I believe that experiencing those moments of anger just once or twice teaches my students where I draw the line and makes them think twice about their choices moving forward. The best part is, even the students not on the receiving end have witnessed what’s possible and will hopefully keep this in mind when making decisions and developing habits. Kids don’t like to disappoint adults. With these boundaries in place, we can all settle in to our calm, peaceful rhythm.

At this point, I’m wondering if I should even post this on the internet. Why did I feel the need to write about it? Nobody asked me to write about my approach to classroom management, and even if they did, I’m certainly no expert (although I am well over my 10,000 hours) :). I don’t know. But here we are anyway. I guess I feel like lately I’ve been inundated with people, both in my immediate circle and in the world, who do a lot talking, grandstanding, and parading about with very little to back it up. At the root of it, as always, is insecurity. And possibly sometimes incompetence. And while I have plenty of insecurities and imperfections of my own, I’m trying hard to be better than that. Not better than others, just better than I was yesterday. Do my big mouth and lack of filter still get me into trouble sometimes? Yes. At least once a day I say something that makes Lindsay want to murder me. But we’re all working on ourselves. We’re all trying our best.

To know that you are powerful, but to not feel the need to display that power unless absolutely necessary…
To know that you are impressive, but to not give in to the desire to brag about your accomplishments…
To know that you’ve got things under control, but to not attempt to be controlling….
These, in my opinion, are the ultimate displays of strength, humility, wisdom, and inner peace.

Thank yew.

Life has peaks and valleys, but you’re never any closer to, or further from, the sky.

Sunshine people

Over 34 years, living in 10+ cities, and traveling a bit, I’ve met a fair amount of people. I think people, in general, are fascinating. I like observing and analyzing people, and I can usually find the good in them, or at the very least, figure out what they are trying to do. Most people are fine, some of them are great, some of them are weird. And then there are a few that stand out. You know the people I’m talking about – the ones with that glow, that energy, that… special something. I am calling these people sunshine people.

Sunshine people are not just nice, or funny, or generous. Lots of people are those things. Sunshine people are rare. I’ve known only a handful of them over the course of my life. I was with one last weekend, which is what inspired me to write this post. It’s not an exclusive list, but careful reflection on the criteria below has my count at 13. There are undoubtedly more I could squeeze in, and perhaps others who I have forgotten over the years, but this isn’t the Dean’s list, where anyone who puts in some effort gets in. This is an elite club, reserved for only the best of the best, so for now, let’s go with 13. I’m not going to name them, but I will share some of the general demographics. Of the 13 sunshine people I know, there are 8 women and 5 men. Many, but not all, I have considered one of my best friends at some point in life. Most are around my age, but they range from 24-65. Ten of them I have known for years, and three of them for mere months. I provide these stats to illustrate that this isn’t just a list of my best friends. It is a collection of people I’ve come across on my journey who are just… the best people. If you’re lucky, you get to have a few sunshine people in your life for a long time. But it’s possible that you might just share a single moment with one of them. If that’s the case, it’s likely that you will remember that moment for a long time.

In thinking about my 13, I’ve come up with a list of attributes that I believe all sunshine people share. This is not an exhaustive list, nor was it developed through thorough research. It’s simply a brief rundown of the salient characteristics that come to mind when I think of these people. I’m hoping that these descriptors will make it easy for you to identify the sunshine people you know and, perhaps, maybe even take some steps to become a little brighter yourself.

Above all, sunshine people are natural leaders. They can take charge of a moment, influence a group, and captivate an audience of any size. They need not be in any formal position of leadership. In fact, most of the time spent with these people is social, so there are no “roles,” but their natural leadership tendencies almost always shine through. They have a good sense of the people and the world around them and they make confident decisions. These people often put together social clubs, sports teams, or game nights. They might be the people who take the lead on picking a restaurant or planning a trip. Whether at work or out with friends, informal leadership always emerges. If a sunshine person is around, more often than not, they will be the ones stepping into that role.

Sunshine people are connectors. They are usually the hub of a group (probably many). They know lots of people and they love bringing people together. All of the people on my list have introduced me to someone from a different part of their life. They don’t just throw a party and invite people haphazardly. They understand social dynamics and are intentional about creating meaningful experiences and cultivating friendships between others. This of course comes in addition to their own personal connections. They seemingly always have time and energy for at least one more new friend. If it weren’t for my sunshine people, I wouldn’t have met half of the people or gone on half of the adventures I have in my life. I am thinking of the myriad opportunities that were opened up to me in Madison, Denver, Minneapolis, and Taiwan because of my sunshine people and I am very grateful to them.

Sunshine people make crazy good eye contact. This one is oddly specific, and I couldn’t decide if it deserved its own paragraph or not, but I think it’s important enough. It’s not just like, socially polite eye contact. When you are talking, sunshine people look at you in a way that makes you believe that what you are saying is the only thing in the world they care about at that moment. Without fail, their eyes, smile, and body language all have a natural beauty and grace. They say that the eyes are the windows to the soul but for sunshine people, they are open doors, inviting you to walk right in. They are good listeners and consistently show genuine empathy and true understanding. Aided by a look, a smile, a touch on the arm, a laugh, or a nod, they make you feel comfortable opening up to them. They make you feel really good about yourself and build you up rather than bring you down (a sadly uncommon characteristic).

Sunshine people share a hatred of dull moments. When you meet one of these people for the first time, they will ask you about your life. They will work to find a connection between the two of you. With that connection, they will ensure the conversation is engaging for both sides. If you are sitting in a room with nothing to do, a sunshine person will ask the group a question to get everyone involved, suggest playing a game, or offer to get everyone a drink. As mentioned, they are the ones likely to plan an adventure, a park day, a weekend getaway, or some other random reason to get together. They will be sure to invite the right people and host a well-executed event. It’s a great fortune to have one or more of these people in your life. Because of them, you will do more, see more, and have more fun than you would if all of the social planning was left in your hands.

Closing out the list for now is that sunshine people walk their talk. They don’t take a break from an unhealthy lifestyle to post inspirational quotes on social media. They don’t smile to your face and talk shit behind your back. The sun does not have an “off” switch. These people truly are who they are. They are as nice to the server as they are to their date. In a group, they will engage just as much with a newcomer as they will with an old friend. A former boss once told me “character is who you are when no one is watching.” I will venture to say that sunshine people don’t take many shortcuts at work or do anything sneaky to try to take advantage of others. They are legitimately just good. That’s not to say they’re perfect, of course. They can be crabby, tired, sad, and angry just like anyone else. But when they are, they are unlikely to take it out on others or let their own issues get in the way of treating others with respect.

Who are the people who have come to mind while reading through these traits? Do you agree with my list? Have I missed anything? My hopes for this post are two-fold. One is to acknowledge, thank, and honor my people. The other is to encourage you to identify your own sunshine people. First of all, tell them. Thank them. Remind them how wonderful and powerful they are. Secondly, reflect. How can you be more like them? What’s a small thing you could do to shine a little brighter each day?

To my sunshine people, I need you to know how powerful you are. You have the ability to influence many, many people over the course of your life and indeed you do, every single day. Thank you for letting me be a part of your world. Thank you for inspiring me to be more like you. Thank you for connecting me to others. Thank you for giving me opportunities, taking me on adventures, and creating lasting memories. Thank you for living a life that is continually making the world a better place. Don’t underestimate the influence you have over others. Don’t underestimate the impact that you’ve had on me.

Here’s how I feel when I’m around a sunshine person: on top of the world
And here’s a picture of Green Island for no reason other than that it’s pretty

A portrait of the Taiwanese

If you ever move to Taiwan I guarantee the thing you’ll hear the most before you come is how nice everyone is. In all of my interviews and with everyone I talked to who had been here, it was all they kept saying. “Everyone here is sooooo nice!” At some point it honestly started to get old. I believed them, but I also thought it was partly a sales tactic. Turns out, people here are really fucking nice. Like, culturally, across the board just kind-hearted, good-souled people everywhere you turn. It’s not just that people smile and make you feel welcome. People here will consistently go out of their way to help someone else or take time out of their day to make sure another person gets what they need. And it’s not just because we are white, either. It’s true that we experience some privilege and excitement because we are somewhat of a novelty and a lot of people here wanna be friends with Americans to practice their English (A country that isn’t xenophobic? Imagine that!) But even though I can’t understand them, I often see little interactions in stores or on the street of local people helping each other out. In the past couple of weeks in particular, there has been a string of several moments that typify what people are really like here. I want to share those with you here.

On a Thursday night, my friend Ashley (aka Teacher Ashley With The Shiny Hair, aka Trashley, aka The Young Phenom) and I were going to rent city bikes to go to dinner. The YouBike system here is really slick. Just tap your card, take the bike, and go. There are stations all over the place and they are free under 30 minutes, and like a dollar per hour after that! I had a card, but Ashley did not, so we went and bought one at the Family Mart. But when we went back to the bikes, it was saying we had to register the card. We were trying on the app, but it was all in Chinese so it was proving difficult. After a few minutes of struggling, a woman just about to take a bike of her own says “Do you guys need help?” Clearly we did.

Abigail (as we would later find out) took Ashley’s phone and helped her register on the app. Despite her effort, it was still not working for some reason, so she went with us back into the Family Mart to ask the clerk. They had a bit of a conversation in Chinese until she figured out what the problem was. (We were on the wrong app or typed something in wrong or it needed time to process… I never actually learned what the issue was.) Eventually, we got it squared away and went back out to the bikes. She waited with us to make sure it worked, and we thanked her profusely for taking the time to help us.

The whole process took about 10 minutes, during which she apologized several times for how long it was taking. I kept saying, “Are you kidding? We’re sorry that you got dragged into this saga!” At one point around minute 8 I asked, “What are you up to tonight?” and she responded, “I am late for English class.” Ashley erupted, “We’re making you late?! Oh my god, I’m so sorry!” To which Abigail stated plainly, “Oh it’s okay, this is pretty much the same thing.” We got to talking a bit more and it turns out that she lives in my building… on my floor… directly across the hall! I haven’t seen her since, but I’m hopeful for the potential friendship.

Inaugural bike crawl with our new easy cards!

The following Sunday, the other Ashley (aka Brown-Haired Teacher Ashley, aka Flash) and I went on a beautiful hike up a rocky river bed to some natural hot springs. For some non-skillful foreshadowing, let me say that this entire two-hour hike is on top of small, medium, and large rocks, you cross the river a dozen or so times, and it is very important to have good footwear, or at the very least, footwear. The hot springs come up through several little pools along the side of the river, so when we arrived, we found our own little spot and got in to relax. The sun was shining, the sky was clear, the air and water temperatures were both perfect, and I was feeling good! The only thing missing was a beer.

A few minutes later, I asked Ashley, “Is that your sandal floating down the river?” She jumped up and ran down a few feet to grab it. Close call. Unfortunately, when she got back, she realized that her other sandal had already floated away unnoticed. Crap. She looked among the rocks, hoping it got caught on one, but no such luck. She walked down the river a ways past all the other hot springs pools looking for the sandal and asking everyone if they had seen it. Still no luck. I was staying very calm, but I knew was going to be a problem and was kind of freaking out a bit inside. We sat there for a few minutes discussing how to engineer a makeshift shoe out of a chip bag and an extra t-shirt, but before we had any prototypes in the works, a man came out of nowhere with the missing sandal! She said he wasn’t one of the people that she had asked earlier, so I’m guessing he found it, asked around, and people pointed him in our direction. We were saved from a long, painful, dangerous hobble back to our scooters.

While we were riding high from our relief and gratitude towards this stranger, another man came over from another pool and offered me a beer! Totally random act of kindness. It was the best luke-warm, shaken-up-from-being-in-a-backpack-for-three-hours Heineken I’ve ever had. A wonderful day narrowly saved from the jaws of peril by the selfless efforts of a stranger.

Would have been difficult with one shoe.
Hope to someday find a woman to gaze at this lovingly… but for now, it’s just me and my beer.

The last story for now is about the service industry. On a Friday night, John and Lindsay and both Ashleys(!) and I went out for some drinks and were given a round of free shots at two different places! It’s not like we were spending a ton of money or getting the party started or having a long conversation with the bartender or anything. We were just sitting there quietly and given them as basically gifts of appreciation. The very next day, John and Scott and Sarah and Lu– I mean Rainbow Panties, Taupe on a Rope, Fiesty Forest Pig, Size Queen and I (This Long) were out at another bar after the Hash run (Hash appreciation blog coming soon) and we were given another free round of shots and a basket of truffle fries! Particularly at the more upscale types of cocktail bars, I feel like this level of generosity would be pretty rare in the US.

Lastly, on Wednesday we were out at the one good brewery in town for St. Patrick’s Day – a holiday celebrated in Taiwan by approximately 10 of us teachers and maybe like 5 other people. (Sidenote: I’m realizing that in addition to illustrating the kindness of the Taiwanese, these stories are also painting a pretty colorful picture of me just drinking a bunch. I’m fine, I swear.) I bought a hat because I really like their branding… and their beer. When I got home, I put it on and realized that it didn’t fit quite right and wasn’t really my style. I knew that they had another option, so when John and I were there again on Saturday (boy, you’re really not buying that I’m not an alcoholic, are you?) I brought it back to try to exchange it for the other style of hat. Instead of accepting my exchange, the server just gave me the second hat for free and insisted that I keep the first one as well. I couldn’t believe it. An extra bit of free advertising sure, but essentially another act of pure generosity.

Post-hash bonding with shots on the house!
I have so much fun with this crew. (peep my new hat)

So my interviewers were right: people really are nice here. It’s more than just general good-heartedness; it’s a cultural pillar. It’s a collective-minded society. People look out for each other. There is very little crime here. People don’t lock their bikes or scooter helmets. I accidentally leave my keys in my scooter at least once a month, but I never worry about anybody taking it. In fact, sometimes people will even take them out of the ignition and put them in the little compartment on the front so they are more hidden. We don’t lock our door. The girls I work with say they don’t worry about walking places alone at night. Some of this, of course, could be aided by the fact that there are cameras at every single intersection and on most buildings and the government is watching you at all times. So, you know, some pros and some cons. But people here are willing to sacrifice a bit of privacy for the benefit of a society that works. People here generally trust those in power. In exchange, they receive access to things like jobs, healthcare, and safety. What a concept! It’s societal Karma. Wonder if the west will ever adopt these ideals.

At least he never walked

It’s been a minute. Been busy. No time or need for apologies or explanations, let’s just get to it. We’re on Chinese New Year break! The Taiwanese work hard and get very little time off. There are far fewer government holidays here than in the states, and as a private school, even when the public schools get a day off, it may or may not mean that we do too. We got one day for Christmas, one day for New Years, and other than that, I have worked about 4 straight months with no other breaks. All of this is to say that I’ve been slowly running out of battery and am more than ready for a week to recharge.

CNY is a bit of a strange holiday. According to Lindsay, it’s more like Christmas or Thanksgiving than calendar New Year. Everyone hangs with their families and lots of businesses are closed. A lot of people, especially foreigners, travel during this time. For me, however, plans were being booked in the middle of the slog at school, so I decided that some down time would serve me better than travel. But if you know me at all, you can probably guess that down time does not mean doing nothing.

The title of this post comes from the book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami. In this memoir capturing his thoughts and experiences as a runner, he tells of an ultramarathon during which there were plenty of times he would stop, rest, stretch, eat, and change clothes, but no matter how tired his legs were, or how much his body would want to slow down, he refused to walk, saying “I came here to run.” At the end of the book, he leaves us with a wish that his headstone might someday read “Haruki Murakami: At least he never walked.”

I have been thinking about this philosophy a lot lately, and I think I am going to borrow it for myself. I am always telling people “I can’t sit still,” as if it’s a bad thing. I consistently fill my weeks with sports, hikes, dinners, game nights, dates, runs, and adventures. I hate ambiguous free time. I hate feeling like I’m wasting time. This reminds me of another quote from Annie Dillard that reads “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” For me, this is a great reminder that life doesn’t happen in the future, it’s happening right now. And so I constantly ask myself, “Do I want to spend my life walking or running? Do I want to look back and have watched all of the seasons of Love Island, or should I go out and actually try to find love on this island?” (Boom.)

We were playing a game the other night and I got asked the question “What is one thing that makes you so happy you don’t think you could live without?” I thought for a bit and responded, “adventure.” Above all, I think my biggest fear is dying having lived a boring life. I have very little respect for boring people. In my weaker moments, I still worry that I ended up in Taiwan at 34 because I did something wrong. But in my stronger moments, I remind myself that maybe there is no “right,” and that for better or for worse, this is the path that I’m on so I might as well run. To rest is okay and, of course, vital if one hopes to remain strong for the entirety of the race. That’s what I’m attempting to do with this week off. But to be lazy, complacent, and boring? Those are not traits with which I ever want to be associated. So yes to that race, yes to hiking, yes to soccer, yes to climbing, yes to a Tinder date, yes to another beer, yes to sprinting up this hill with someone much younger and faster than me to the point that I almost throw up because I refuse to walk.

Oh, and yes to another year in Taiwan.

yes to beer checks in the ocean
yes to running cult initiations; no to shirts
yes to narrow rope bridges
yes to rainforests
yes to half-marathons
yes to airsoft, I guess
yes to playing games and yes to unicorns (maybe to USA)
yes to tag
yes to whatever is happening here
yes to me!

New Year Vlog (on a Mountain)!

This video talks about how I am purposely not making new year’s resolutions in effort to be more present, spontaneous, and less addicted to productivity… but then on my way down from this hike I decided to also add “do 30 hikes” to my list of resolutions that definitely doesn’t exist. Old habits die hard.

Hope your 2021 is of to a whizzbang of a start and that whoever you kissed at midnight kept their mask on for it.

Balance

I hope you all had a smart and safe Thanksgiving and plan to do the same for Christmas and New Year’s. When I think about what it’s like back home, it still blows my mind and makes me incredibly sad. And while I of course want everyone to stay home, wear a mask, and social distance, it’s also hard to blame people for wanting to get out and see people. I don’t know how you’ve done this for almost a year now, but don’t give up hope yet. Though there is some promising news on the vaccine that may appear to be a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s still a really long tunnel so let’t not get overly excited just yet. We’ve still got a long way to go, but keep the faith and keep doing the smart thing. Plus, you know, the whole having an actual set of mentally stable humans in the White House should hopefully also help.

Meanwhile, I still can’t believe how lucky I am to have landed where I did. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating; getting a job on this tiny island about which I previously knew nothing, and the fact that they handled a pandemic that has devastated the rest of the world and that I get to spend half of the worst year ever in the best place on Earth – the odds are incomprehensibly small. I get to live in a place that has had perhaps the only Pride parade and music festivals in the world this year, and I’m running a half-marathon with 10,000 other people next weekend in Taipei! And all I had to do was mess up all my relationships for a decade and decide to teach abroad 10 years later than most people do! (Joke’s on you, suckas!)

This post, however, is not going to be braggy. This post is meant to provide some balance. To assure both you and myself that I am not posting a curated life on social media. While of course Instagram and this blog are mainly going to capture the highlights, I do try hard to be real with what I post and I assure you that this is not a case of showcasing the highs and concealing the lows. It really is quite incredible here and it’s true that my cup has felt more full lately than it has in a long time. Alas, nothing is perfect and I thought you might appreciate learning about some of the less-than-ideal parts of life in Taiwan, at least from this entitled gringo’s point of view.

Things I don’t love about Taiwan:

Paper products. Absolute shit. Basically everything is a tissue that is half the size and thickness of a standard Kleenex. You need some paper towels to clean up a spill? Here’s a tissue. Hands covered in grease after eating out at a fried chicken restaurant? 450 tissues. A roll of toilet paper? I don’t even know what that is. You’ll have to make it work with some tissues. When you’re done, don’t forget to wash your hands. Oh, you want to dry them? here is a plastic envelope filled with tissues that you have to dig around in to get just one but you’ll probably grab 10 on accident and the bag is all wet from other people also failing at the finger crane game, so your hands aren’t exactly clean anymore. If you’re feeling a little cooped up these days and that travel bug is itching, here is what you can do to create a cultural experience. Go to a nice restaurant with your partner and another couple (or better yet, get it delivered, please). Take a single 2-ply generic “facial tissue” with you. Peel the two layers away from one another. Now, cut each square in half and pass one-fourth of the original tissue to each member of the dinner party. Congratulations! You have just created a Taiwanese napkin. Eat carefully.

Cash only. Other than booking a hotel, 100% of the transactions I have completed here have been done in cash. This was shocking to me. I’m not exactly sure of the reasoning behind it. I was expecting a very technologically advanced society, which it is in many ways, but credit cards and phone pay are not one of them. My first day here I went to a grocery store. I saw that they had a credit card machine and I handed mine to her. She looked at it like it was an alien invention that she had never seen before. She tried it a few times, but it did not work. At rare places like this, you can use a local debit card, but it seems like very few people do. I’m used to carrying cash around now, but it’s not fun. I also have a bang load of 1 dollar coins (~$0.03) from getting change everywhere, but I don’t want to take them to the bank to exchange for bills because no one there speaks English. You wouldn’t think so, but everything any of the foreign teachers have ever tried to do at that bank is always surprisingly complicated, so I’m going to wait on that for as long as possible.

Sidewalks. There are none. Your choices are to walk along the edge of the road with a thousand scooters zipping by you at irresponsible speeds or, on some streets, there is this half-promenade half-storefront space that is safer than the road, but you also have to scootch around someone who is cooking at their food stall, walk between tables at a restaurant, and squeeze through scooters parked haphazardly literally everywhere. Again, such an impressive society in so many ways… except in the early days someone forgot to add “safe space for people to walk” to the infrastructure checklist.

Aggressive dating. The Taiwanese love themselves a relationship. People like to get married and have kids. I think there is some low-key shame in being single. (It’s crazy – I moved 7,000 miles away and it’s like I’ve never left the Midwest! Ha!) Relationships here move faster than the coronavirus at a Trump rally. My first first date was lunch, and then an impromptu one-hour drive to the ocean, and then dinner at a rest stop/mall on the way home. It was fun, but a bit much. Nice girl, but no future. The second girl I met was also wonderfully thoughtful, fun, and creative. But after our second date, she was planning full-day adventures, asked me to travel to Kaohsiung to meet her family and was sending links for Airbnb’s wanting to plan a weekend away. It’s intense, and I’ve been told this is not uncommon. So I’m cooling it on that for a bit. Just going to enjoy being single, exploring the country, going on adventures, meeting people, making friends, and see where it takes me.

No one drinks anything here. Not water, not coffee, not juice, not milk, not beer, not wine. My best guess is that people have adapted to be like air plants and they just get their moisture from the air?? People seem to like tea, but that’s about it. In line with the aforementioned napkin situation, do not expect to get water with your meal when you go to a restaurant. There is typically a water station, but a) the water is likely to be on the plus side of warm (they really hate cold things here) and b) the size of the cup will be somewhere between a shot glass and a thimble. Us new teachers typically remember to bring our water bottles when we go out, but if you look around, literally no one else will be drinking water with their meals. I do not understand. It will be 108°F and everyone will be eating a steaming hot bowl of beef noodles with not a molecule of H2O in site. It’s fascinating. As for alcohol, there are a handful of bars, breweries, and clubs, primarily in one part of town, but most people do not drink much. The good news about this is that since they don’t have a problem with drunk people doing stupid shit, you can bring beer anywhere you want. Every restaurant is B.Y.O.B., you can drink in Ubers, you can drink in parks, you can drink on sidewalks… or at least you could if they existed! It’s hard to find a decent beer, but you can get a Taiwan Beer for $1 USD at any convenience store and drink it anywhere you want. I’m a simple man, and this brings me great pleasure.

So as to stick to the theme and give this post some balance, a few other things that have brought me pleasure lately include, but are not limited to:

  • On my second attempt, I passed my scooter driver’s license test! The hardest part is that you have to drive really slow and straight on this skinny line. I tipped over the first time, which is an automatic fail. But we set up a practice course at school and I redeemed myself the second time around!
  • I joined a running group called the Taichung Hash House Harriers. You follow a chalk-marked trail through different parts of the city or mountains, you get to go places where few have gone before, and they drink a ton of beer! It’s been great.
  • As I mentioned, I will be running a half-marathon in Taipei on 12/20. I will fill very good if I can complete it without my knee hurting too badly. More than that, I’m excited to be part of the race, feel the energy, and watch full-marathon finishers!
  • I am going to be Santa and co-emcee for the school Christmas concert. (More accurately, I will be playing Santa’s brother-in-law Dan.) Also, tbd on if this will be a highlight or not.

Taiwan is a wonderful place, but perhaps nowhere is perfect… although I haven’t been everywhere yet, so standby. Thanks, as always, for reading and for your comments, thoughts, and good vibes! Peace and love to you all, Happy Holidays, wear a mask, wash your hands, don’t be a dick, defund the police, dismantle the patriarchy, and fuck Donald Trump.

Quick catch up? Yeah right.

This blog has become like papers I need to grade. Important, useful, but never a priority. Then, after a few days/weeks, the stack becomes too daunting to tackle, so I just go on avoiding it. Also like, there are way too many fun things to do here to spend too much time sitting at a computer. So I’m sorry to all my 12 loyal subscribers and the lady that my mom shared this with in her checkout line, but adventure calls.

So. A few highlights from the last few weeks. Let’s see….

Beer mile! I’m going to Tarantino this and start with the end and then go back to the beginning. I got last place! I’m going to be honest, I love putting on an event. I spent the preceding days gathering prizes, laminating certificates, and collaborating with John to determine the rules. We did a helluva job. We had those clapper things for the fans, opening ceremonies with the national anthems of all participants, and a beer mug crown for the winner. There were prizes for all runners and drinking spectators. It was a good time. As for the race, in case you’ve never run a beer mile, I’ll explain. Drink a beer, run a lap. Do this 4 times for a total of 4 beers and 1 mile. I can now advise you that the key to it is about 80% drinking ability and 20% running ability. And of that 80, most of that is weighted toward the last beer. That damn last beer. I was winning pretty much the whole time. I came into the final beer with a substantial lead and then… a wall. My body just said no. Too full and I couldn’t burp. All I needed was one good burp and I could have jogged to victory. But I couldn’t get it down. I did eventually, but it was too late. Both John and Fayo finished their last beer and had a pretty close finish. I came in about a minute later with a still respectable time of 15:30. The most miraculous part is, no one puked! John did have a mysterious few moments in the bushes, the events of which will never be known to anyone, but it was a remarkably professional performance from all three “athletes.” Well done by everyone, and thanks to the supporters. Let’s do it again next year, and this time, I’m gonna burp.

Laminated certificates for the top two and a post-it note for last place. I’m so glad I won that.

Halloween! Man, Cornel does it big. It’s my favorite holiday and even for me, it was a little much. The kids had been “practicing” the same 3 halloween songs for the entire month of October, and I had the honor of having a halloween party for each of my classes in addition to helping at the kindergarten party as well. Oh, and throw in that a haunted house was installed in the entirety of the library, which, incidentally, is the path to the office. So yes, we had the pleasure of walking through a tunnel of dark sheets several times a day for 2 weeks. Oh, and also at Cornel, when two kindergarteners get hand-foot-mouth disease, they send the whole class home for the week and then delay the halloween party for the whole school until the following Wednesday, so add an extra week to everything above. I was over Halloween before it even arrived. But the kids, of course, made it worth it. When I said they do it big, I wasn’t just talking about the school. Most of the families go all out on these costumes. there were working transformers, full make-up and nails, an insanely accurate (and seemingly structurally sound) Taipei 101, and a 6 foot tall pen inside of which I’m pretty sure was a miserable 4 year old. I felt pretty good about my own two costumes, and spent far too many hours putting them together, but the unicorn and the bubble milk tea were big hits, and definitely worth the sweat. For those worried about a holiday let-down, never fear, the kindergarten classes started practicing their songs for the Christmas performance the very next day….

Teacher Unicorn and Teacher… something. I never get any of her references.
Bubble milk tea outside of the shop… and those fuckers didn’t even give me a free drink.
Oh yeah, I totally forgot about my T. Patty costume. So yeah, I had three. And yet another Asian pop-culture reference that I didn’t know.
Not sure exactly why, but I really enjoy this picture. I was told it’s because “it exudes happiness.” Might be accurate.

New idea, I try to write less so the blog becomes less daunting, and I stop whenever it stops feeling joyful and starts feeling like work. I’m going to lay in bed and watch a movie now. I’ll write more soon. Topics may include, but may not be limited to:

– Taipei Pride (incredible)
– More hiking, always hiking (in love)
– Volleyball, finally! (sort of)
– Breweries (homey)
– The top of Taipei 101 (amazing)
– Hot springs (heavenly)
– Acupuncture (interesting)
– A new friend (or, Evan gets out of his own way and just tries to enjoy the nice things in life for once)
– Birthday week! (feeling young, except for the fact that my neck, hip, and knee all hurt)

This bird is flying high.