Learning Spanish

A decade ago, I decided to learn Spanish. In the summer of 2011, I sought out a Spanish tutor in the Portland area and chanced to meet a Peruvian woman named Aly. For the next eighteen months or so, Aly and I met three times a week for 90 minute sessions. It was a ton of fun.

My progress was slow at first, of course. There was so much to learn! But gradually I discovered ways to make learning Spanish more fun for me.

I dove deep into Spanish-language pop music, for instance. At the time, Portland had a great radio station that played contemporary Spanish-language pop. (Most Portland Spanish-language stations are either religious or play traditional Mexican music. I had not — and still have not — acquired a taste for traditional Mexican music.) I’d listen to the songs while driving around, make a point to note my favorites.

I’d download these favorite songs to my phone and I’d print out the lyrics. Then, I’d take these lyrics to my sessions of Aly. She’d help me work through the process of translating them.

Again, at first this was difficult. It’s one thing to learn the “rules” of a language. It’s another thing to learn how the language is actually used (especially when usage varies from country to country). The start of many tutoring sessions was spent translating song lyrics. In time, Aly started bringing some of her favorite songs for me to learn.

On top of this, I began watching movies and TV shows with the Spanish audio track (and English subtitles). I was also reading Spanish-language books. I started with children’s books, but gradually worked my way up to full-fledged novels. By the time Aly and I stopped working together, we had worked through The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Spanish plus one or two other books that I don’t recall at the moment.

All of this study paid off.

After less than six months, I took my first trip to a Spanish-speaking country. I traveled to Peru and Bolivia to hike through the Andes. I was by no means fluent, but I knew enough Spanish to get by.

Three months later, I traveled to Argentina and Chile. My Spanish was even better by this time. I could read anything I encountered in daily life. I could engage in simple conversations. People complimented my accent.

And in 2013, I spent a couple of weeks in Ecuador. This time, I ended up being the de facto translator for the group I was traveling with. I couldn’t understand everything that was said to me, and I sometimes had trouble formulating thoughts, but I could speak well enough to do whatever I wanted. (One funny exception: In rural Ecuador, I had to help a companion purchase hair conditioner. I had no idea what the word was. The owner of the small shop couldn’t understand what I was trying to tell her. Everyone became frustrated. But, in the end, I learned the word acondicionador.)

As I traveled, I bought more books. And, especially, I bought Spanish-language graphic novels. I loved Spanish. I loved comic books. Naturally, Spanish comic books appealed to me. These too helped me learn.

At my Spanish peak, I was actually volunteering in a bilingual second-grade classroom, helping kids learn to read for a few hours per week. This was challenging but fun.

Aly and I stopped working together sometime in late 2012. At the time, she told me that I had learned enough that I could easily test into late intermediate (or early advanced) Spanish at a college level. This boggled my mind!

But once we stopped working together, my Spanish skills froze. Then, with time, they began to erode.

That said, my Spanish hasn’t faded completely. Not even close.

It helps that I’ve returned to Ecuador several times since. Plus, I exercise my Spanish when I travel to Italy or Portugal. (Italian and Portuguese are close enough to Spanish that my brain engages in the same way.) Every once in a while, I grab a Spanish children’s book from my shelf. (I like reading Harry Potter in Spanish.)

I’ve found that my ability to read Spanish seems to have remained. Yes, I’ve forgotten certain words, but words are easy to look up. I can parse a book fairly easily, pausing only to use a dictionary when needed.

That said, my ability to hear and speak Spanish is pretty low right now. I haven’t tried to write anything, but I think that would be rough too.

I bring all of this up because I’m currently on my second trip to Mexico in the past month. The first trip was spent in an English bubble. This trip, I’m with a Mexican friend and we’re doing Mexican things. I am surrounded by Spanish. Yes, most of the people we encounter can (and do) speak English, but much of the time, I’m afloat in a sea of Spanish.

We’ve been here nearly 48 hours now, and even in this short time, I’ve found my comprehension has made huge strides. When we landed, I could only pick out a few words of spoken Spanish here and there. I was especially flustered that whenever a person spoke, it pretty much sounded like a wall of noise. But as time goes on, I’ve gained the ability to delineate individual words when they’re spoken. That’s super helpful!

Last night at dinner, as the group of Mexican friends grew drunker and drunker (and I grew drunker and drunker), I was generally able to follow the flow of conversation. I could get the gist of what was being said most of the time. I couldn’t tell you what any given sentence was, but I understood many of the stories. On our way home, I told my friend that I felt like I might have been able to understand almost everything if the speed of the conversation could have been slowed by 50%.

I’ve noticed some things, though.

  • First, it takes a lot of focus and mental energy to attend to a conversation. As a result, I get tired. And when I get tired, I tune out. The moment I tune out, I lose any thread of what’s being said. (If I tune out of an English conversation, I still subconsciously pick up the thread.)
  • Second, some speakers are much easier to understand than others.
  • Third, some of the rules I’ve learned and followed don’t seem to apply. I’m not sure if they’ve never applied or whether they simply don’t apply to this part of Mexico. (Example: I was taught that each letter in Spanish is always pronounced and always pronounced the same way. This isn’t true. “Muelle” isn’t pronounced the way it’s spelled, for instance.)
  • Fourth, I really struggle with the little “extra” bits in Spanish. This has always been true, but it’s especially true now. The personal a. The se in a phrase like se me olvidó. I understand them when I see them and/or hear them, but I never remember to include them when I speak. Never.
  • Fifth, the Spanish you learn in the classroom doesn’t overlap completely with the Spanish you see in the real world. I learned llanta (tire) when working with Aly, for example, but never had occasion to use the word. But you see llanta all over the place — more than you’d think! — when out and about in a city.

There’s lots of other stuff like this that makes actually spending time in a Spanish-speaking country (or area) wholly different than learning Spanish in a classroom. It’s fun.

My friend tells me that he thinks I could become fluent if I were to spend three months here. He recognizes that I’m struggling, especially when it comes to speech. But he says that I seem to understand more than he expected me to. (I understand more than I expected me to, also.)

We’ll be here another three days before flying home to Portland. I’m curious to see if my ability to parse speech (and to speak myself) continues to improve during this time. It almost has to.

On past trips like this, I’ve tended to bury my head in books, magazines, and newspapers. I’ve paid more attention to print Spanish. This time, I’m not doing any of that. None. Instead, it’s all conversational. It’s a different experience, but I think it’ll be more profitable in the long run.

And you know what? All of this is thinking that it might be smart for me to find a Spanish tutor again this year. I wouldn’t dive as deep as I did before, but it might be fun to meet somebody every week or two (even if it’s with Zoom and not in person). I would love to bring my Spanish skills back to where they once were.

Speaking another language changes the way you view the world. It’s fun!

Tearing Down the Trailer

Alas, it is a sad, sad day in Rothland. But a joyous one as well. After forty years, the trailer house is no more.

As you’ll recall, I grew up in this lovely mobile home:

Our trailer house

I wasn’t born here, but I have few memories of anywhere else. We moved here when I was two, so all of my childhood, all of my adolescence, and much of my adult was spent in this building. After serving as our family’s home, it eventually became the offices of Custom Box Service.

Many of you have visited this trailer house, which has been, well, dilapidated for some time. You’ve played games here. Spent the night here when we were kids. Worked here. And so on.

Well, after more than a decade of talking about building a new office, Nick and Jeff have finally taken action. Earlier this month, they brought in a temporary office:

The temporary office

And today…well, today this happened:

Demolitioning the trailer

Demolitioning the trailer

Demolitioning the trailer

Demolitioning the trailer

As I say, it’s a sad day, but a joyous one. There were a lot of memories tied to that building. But there’s no question it was an eyesore and a hazard and all of the other nasty things you can think of. We were embarrassed to bring customers out to the shop because the place was so rinky-dink.

I hope that in a few weeks, I’ll be able to post photos of a brand new office building!

Where I’m Starting From

I’ve lived my entire life within a 25-mile radius of my hometown, Canby, Oregon. When I left for college, I didn’t go far: I spent six years in Salem before returning to Canby. I now live closer to Portland, but I’m still only 20 miles from the place where I was raised.

The trailer house where I grew up
The trailer where I grew up. It’s now the office for the family business.

It’s not just me. My father’s family has deep roots in the Willamette Valley. For the fifty short years of his life, Dad barely budged a mile from the home where he grew up. And his father was born and raised less than ten miles from that spot. The Roth family settled the area in 1889 and has never left.

When I was a boy, a big trip was a weekend at the Oregon Coast. Maybe once a year, the family would pile into the car and we’d make the two-hour drive to Lincoln City, where we’d stay at a cheap motel. One time, when I was seven or eight, we drove to Salt Lake City to visit my mother’s family. And once, around the same time, we spent a weekend in Vanderhoof, British Columbia (to which my father had decided he wanted to move). But other than that, we never strayed far from home.

Note: To be fair, my family couldn’t afford to travel. Much of the time, my parents struggled to scrape by. Their priority was to put food on the table for three boys, not to see the country or the world.

For most of my adult life, I’ve remained a homebody. I’ve liked the idea of travel, but lacked the money and the motivation to actually do it. Instead, I’ve explored the world through the eyes of other people. I watch travel shows. (Yay, Rick Steves!) I read books about Europe, Asia, and Africa. I watch foreign films to get a feel for other cultures. Whenever possible, I dine out for Thai or Moroccan or Ethiopian food.

These are small things, I know, but until recently, that’s how I’ve managed to glimpse the wider world.

The Travel Bug

In the summer of 2004, my wife’s parents paid for a family vacation. They took us on a cruise through the Inside Passage, finishing with a couple of days in Anchorage, Alaska.

The cruise itself was largely forgettable — I’m not a cruise kind of guy — but I was enthralled by the various excursions we took at each port of call. At the time, it was tough to rationalize spending so much money to go crabbing or to watch whales or to bike down the Klondike Highway from the U.S.-Canadian border (descending about 850 meters in 33 kilometers). In hindsight, however, it’s these experiences that made the trip worthwhile. Seven years later, I remember each vividly. It was from them that I became infected with the travel bug.

A ten-minute video of our stop in Ketchikan, Alaska.

Over the next few years, my in-laws took the family on other vacations. We spent a week in San Francisco. We traveled to England, Ireland, and New York. I loved each trip. I loved learning about the cities and countries we visited, loved meeting new people, and loved eating the food. Dim sum in San Francisco! Bangers and mash in Bath! Curry in Cork! What I loved most about each trip, though, was finding time to walk alone through the city or countryside.

With each trip, I wanted to travel more, but I couldn’t afford it. Eventually, I paid off my debt and began to channel my savings toward travel. Kris and I took some trips on our own. We spent:

  • A week on the San Juan Islands in northwest Washington.
  • A week exploring the jungles of Belize (with a brief foray into Guatemala).
  • Ten days in Italy followed by two weeks in France.
  • Three weeks in southern Africa, including Johannesburg, Cape Town, Botswana, and Zimbabwe.

But rather than quench my thirst for travel, each trip has made me want more. And they’ve made we want to see the world in a different way.

In general, Kris and I have traveled with groups on organized tours. These trips have their merits, and they’re great for some travelers. But they make me feel insulated. It’s as if I’m in a bubble, set off from the cultures I’m supposed to be experiencing. I don’t want that. I want to meet people. I want to move slowly through a country, allowing time for the unexpected. I don’t want to be slave to a schedule.

I want to travel on my own terms.

Going It Alone

I’m fortunate. I’ve worked hard over the past five years to not only pay off my debt but to build substantial savings. As long as I cut back on other indulgences, I can afford to travel (especially if I do it cheaply).

I’ve also constructed a lifestyle that allows me to work from anywhere. As long as I have an internet connection, I can write and get paid for it. As a result, it’s possible for me to work from the road — even if the road leads through Quito or Kathmandu or Cape Town.

This flexibility is awesome, of course, but it’s also unique. Like most folks, Kris has a regular job, one that ties her to a specific location. Plus, she’s not as keen as I am to try budget travel. My friends and family are in similar positions. They can’t travel as often as I’d like, and they probably wouldn’t want to travel in the same way.

So, I’ve decided to travel alone.

Starting next month, I’ll experiment with extended solo journeys. I’ll travel lightly, carrying only the things I truly need. (I’ve been paring down my travel kit with each trip; it’s still big by the standards of veteran travelers, but it’s shrinking.) I’ll stay in hostels and dive hotels, the sorts of places Kris is wary of. I’ll do a lot of walking, a lot of talking, and a lot of eating.

Where will I go? That’s the toughest question. I want to go everywhere, and it’s difficult to decide what to see first. For the past month, I’ve been vacillating. First, I wanted to hike Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. Then, I wanted to explore Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Next, I had my heart set on Guatemala. And Ecuador. Plus, what about Thailand? And I have invitations to Rwanda and Nepal, as well. So many options!

But this morning, as I wrote this background, I made a decision. Ever since I visited England in 2007, I’ve wanted to return. I want to see the country at my pace. I want to see Avebury without being rushed. I want to stroll through the Lake Country. I want to visit Wales, to see Huw Morgan’s green valley (or what remains of it). I want to see an Everton football match. And, most of all, I want to walk Hadrian’s Wall.

England isn’t very exotic, I know. That’s okay. There’s plenty of time to see the far corners of the globe. For me, for now, I simply need to make a decision. Which I’ve done. On August 4th, I’ll fly to Indianapolis to spend time with Adam and Courtney. On August 8th, I’ll fly to London. What happens after that? You’ll have to check back here to find out!

Lost and Found

Because I have a lot of gadgets, I have a lot of little fiddly bits to go with the gadgets. I have cords and adapters and attachments galore. In general, I know where all these fiddly bits belong. I wouldn’t say I’m organized really, but I do try to keep all of this Stuff collected in a handful of spots.

In general, for instance, the docking stations for my iPod Shuffles live in the desk drawer. (Yes, I have two iPod Shuffles. I love them.) The camera connector kit for the iPad lives with my travel gear. And my portable hard drives tend to stay in one of a number of spots, including our safe.

When we returned from Africa, however, a lot of these fiddly bits got dumped on the dining room table, where they hung around for a week or more. I was using the hard drives to back up all of our television shows and music, and I recharged the iPod Shuffles a couple of times.

Then a couple of weeks ago, I realized I couldn’t find either of my iPod Shuffle docking stations. They were just gone. And last week when Kris wanted some old Amazing Race episodes to watch, I couldn’t find the portable drive with our media archives. Finally, last night Rhonda asked to borrow our camera connector kit for the iPad. When I looked for it today, I couldn’t find it.

I’ve spent the past two hours scouring our home and office for these fiddly bits, but I can’t find them anywhere. I’ve checked every drawer. I’ve checked every closet. I’ve searched through my travel gear. I’ve searched through my computer cables. I’ve even looked in Kris’ kitchen stuff. I can’t find these things anywhere. It’s exasperating.

Where could they be? Did Kris or I accidentally throw them out? That seems unlikely. Could they have fallen out of my bag at a restaurant or meeting? I often carry these items with me, so this isn’t impossible, but it seems improbable that I’d lose all of this stuff an not notice. And if I cleaned these things up, where’d I clean them to? It’s baffling.

In a last-ditch effort to locate these fiddly bits, I just went out to the workshop, which has become a vast sea of Stuff I need to purge. For two years, Kris and I have been stacking things out there instead of just getting rid of them, like we ought to. (Anyone want a TV?)

I sorted through the old records and role-playing manuals and computer magazines and photographs and books and t-shirts and comic books and notebooks and board games and boxes. I couldn’t find the missing fiddly bits. They’re nowhere to be found.

However, I did solve another mystery. For the past six months or so, I’ve been frustrated because somehow most of my camera lenses had disappeared. My two main lenses are where they ought to be, but I can’t find my wide-angle lens or my macro lens or any of the junky lenses. I thought maybe I’d loaned them to somebody. Or maybe I’d left them somewhere.

Nope. As it turns out, the lenses were stowed in a box in the workshop, a box hidden beneath several other boxes of Stuff. It’s a relief to have found them. But what I’d really like to find are my missing pieces of computer gear. I suppose they’re going to turn up six months from now while I’m hunting for a missing comic book…

Note: Dear friends, if you happen to have seen my fiddly bits, please let me know. It’s very possible that I left the hard drive and cables and connectors at somebody’s house. Thanks.

Shamrock Run 2011

I want to be a runner, but reality keeps getting in the way.

In 2008, I tried to go from couch potato to marathon runner, but I got injured along the way. In 2009, the same thing happened. I didn’t train for the marathon during 2010, but instead chose to focus on weight loss and general fitness. I lost forty pounds and built strength through Crossfit.

I didn’t run at all last year — I rode my bike instead — until the final day of our stay in Venice. That morning, I got up early so that I could run through cobblestone streets (and over the canals) in the dark. It was awesome — the best run of my life.

When we returned from Europe, I started running regularly. At first, I kept things easy. I just ran a few miles a few times a week. But you know how I am. I couldn’t keep things quiet. I had to ramp up the volume.

So, I started running intervals. And then I started doing hill runs. I boosted my weekly volume. I tried to be cautious about my running, but in retrospect, I again tried too much too quickly. November and December were great — but then I started to have a nagging problem with my left heel. My Achilles tendon was inflamed. It was painful.

After running a fast mile on January 1st (6:24), I hung up the running shoes for a couple of months. I decided to rest, to see if the injury would go away. (I’m still not sure what cause the injury. Was it the hill runs? Was it the five-finger shoes? Was it just over-training? It could have been all three!)

The injury didn’t really go away, though. The entire time we were in Africa, my heel bugged me. We had a free day in Cape Town, during which I had really hoped to hike to the top of Table Mountain, but I had to give up the dream. I woke that morning to a tight ankle. My Achilles was sore, and I was hobbling around. No Table Mountain for me.

When we returned, though, things improved. In fact, they improved so much that I decided to take part in Portland’s Shamrock Run. Instead of a longer distance, though, I opted to do a 5k (which is just over three miles).

The Race
On a cool (but not cold) Sunday morning, I got out of bed early and headed downtown. So did thousands of other Portlanders. My goal was to meet the team from Crossfit Excellence so that we could warm up together.

Fortunately, our team was wearing distinctive shirts. They were green — not such a good thing, it turns out, since everyone else was wearing green — and emblazoned with a lame double-entendre: Caution! Contents are HOT!

The team from Crossfit Excellence
Our team. Or most of it. Eddie and I never could find them.

Right away, I found Eddie, one of my compatriots from the 6:30am class. But, try as we might, we couldn’t find anyone else from our group. No matter. Eddie and I joined the throng for our run through the streets of Portland.

The first mile was frustrating. Because thousands of us were starting at once, there was no room to run. We basically had to plod along next to each other, waiting for the crowd to thin. Eddie and I tried running on the sidewalks and in the other lanes of traffic, but that presented hazards of its own.

The crowd thinned by about a mile into the race, but I was still dodging people even at the end of the run. Also at about a mile in, the course began to climb a gradual hill. We turned from Burnside onto Broadway and followed it up toward the south end of the city. Though the climb wasn’t steep, it was constant and taxing, especially while trying to weave in and out of traffic.

Rant: In theory, we were supposed to line up at the start based on how fast we thought we were going to complete the run. Obviously, people didn’t do that. I was passing walkers and joggers of all sorts. They sometimes got cranky at me for trying to cut through a crowd of them. Give me a break! If they had started with the slow people, they would have made life easier for everyone. This frustrated me.

In the end, I completed my first-ever official 5k race in 24:07. That’s not a stellar time, but it’s not bad either. In fact, I’m very happy with 24:07. For where I am at my age, it’s perfect. I finished 24th (out of 437) for men aged 40-44. I was 305th place out of more than 6400 runners overall.

I’m confident that I could do this run in 23 minutes or less given no obstructions. In fact, that very afternoon, I signed up for another 5k: the Race for the Roses on April 3rd.

Update: I didn’t do the Race for the Roses. For two weeks, my shins have been giving me all kinds of woe. I suspect it’s from doing too much jump rope at the gym. In any event, I took the first four days of April off from exercise completely — and that includes my scheduled 5k. I’m sad now, but recognize this is best for the long term…

The Flirt
After the race, Eddie and I made our way to the beer garden, where we tried to find anyone else in our group. We had no luck.

As we were standing there, drinking our beer (Eddie was actually the only one drinking beer — I gave him mine and drank a diet soda instead), I noticed three attractive women standing nearby. They were giggling and pointing at us. I wondered if I had snot on my chin or something.

But then one of the women walked over to us and smiled. “I have a question for you,” she said. She leaned toward us and said, “How hot are they?”

At first, I didn’t know what she meant, but then I remembered our shirts: Caution! Contents are HOT! Eddie took a sip of his beer. I think he was trying not to laugh. Me? I was shivering, so I said the first thing that came to mind: “They’re pretty cold right now.”

And as I said it, I realized I’d done the wrong thing. I’ve been married for twenty years now, and I’ve forgotten how these things work. When I was younger, I knew how to flirt, and I enjoyed it. But I’m woefully out of practice. So, I completely missed the cues here, and said, “They’re pretty cold right now.”

The woman’s face fell. Her smile vanished. I think she knew she was attractive, and wasn’t used to talking to men who didn’t play along. She furrowed her brow. “Never mind,” she said, and slipped back to her friends. She whispered something to them. They looked back at me and Eddie and they laughed.

When I got home, I told this story to Kris. She loves it. Nothing makes a woman feel more secure than a husband who is too clueless to flirt.

African Vacation 2011, Part Seven: The Amazing Race

Even after several days in Cape Town, our vacation wasn’t over. Kris and I could look forward to 36 hours of travel before we were snug in our beds in Portland. Maybe more. And since I had a hare-brained scheme to make the Portland auditions for The Amazing Race on Saturday morning, we were eager not to miss any connections.

Security Theater
We left the hotel for the Cape Town airport at 10am local time — or 1am back home. Our flight to Johannesburg was uneventful, but once there, we had a couple of small adventures.

First, Kris and I got cranky with each other. Really cranky. I know some folks like to pretend they never get cranky with their partners, but Kris and I do sometimes — especially when she’s hungry. And especially while traveling. (We have different travel styles, which creates some conflict.)

Second, security to board the plane back to Dulles was ridiculous. How ridiculous? I took notes.

  1. We had to show our passports to pick up our boarding passes. (This is normal and expected.)
  2. We had to show our boarding passes to pass through the security scanners. (This is normal and expected.)
  3. Before we could enter the boarding gate, we had to submit to a pat-down search, take off our shoes, let our bags be searched, and show our boarding pass. During the pat-down, the security officer didn’t notice (or didn’t care) about my “body bug” that I wear on my arm, which seems to me like it might feel like a concealed explosive device. But he did remark on how much chocolate I was carrying home in my bag.
  4. Immediately upon entering the boarding gate (and just after the pat-down), we had to show our passport and boarding pass (again).
  5. When they actually began loading the plane, we had to show our boarding pass again.
  6. A few feet later — and for no apparent reason — we had to show our boarding pass again to pick up a numbered chit.
  7. Half-way down the ramp, we had to show the numbered chit and the boarding pass.
  8. At the door to the plane, we handed over our numbered chit.
  9. Once aboard the plane, we had to show our boarding pass one final time.

I’ll leave it for you to decide whether this security is worth anyone’s while. But suffice it to say that nobody standing in line thought it mattered. It was a hassle, and yet it seemed ineffectual at the same time.

The Amazing Race
Our flight to Washington D.C. landed on schedule at about 6am Eastern. From there, we caught an 8:34am flight to Denver, and then made a tight connection from Denver to Portland. After 36 hours of travel, we reached Portland just after one in the afternoon.

But the fun wasn’t over yet!

Thanks to some co-ordination from Tiffany, she and Paul helped Kris grab our luggage and head for home. I, on the other hand, met up with my pal Chris Guillebeau, hopped in the Mini, and zoomed to Lake Oswego. We had a date with destiny!

As most of you know, for the past year, Kris and I have been obsessed with The Amazing Race, a television reality/game show in which teams of two race around the world for a one-million-dollar prize. Over the past twelve months, we’ve watched all seventeen seasons. Kris has watched most of them two or three times.

Because of my new-found love for travel, the idea of running The Amazing Race is very appealing. But as much as I’d love to do the race with my wife, it’s probably not a good idea. Remember the start of this post? Remember how I said she and I bicker, especially when traveling? And especially when she hasn’t eaten? Well, we’re both certain that doing The Amazing Race together would be a recipe for disaster.

Instead, I asked Chris Guillebeau if he’d like to do it. He’s — reluctantly, I think — agreed to audition with me.

Note: Chris is a natural fit for this. One of his goals is to visit every country in the world by the time he’s 35. With just two years left, he’s almost there. His experience traveling and my knowledge of the race could make us a formidable team. Plus, it’s be fun to see us billed on the screen: “Chris and J.D., professional bloggers”. On the other hand, I’m fairly certain he has no clue what he’s getting himself in for. He might hate it! (That’s why I have back-up partners in my mind: Michael H. and Andrew C.)

The auditions were scheduled to run from 10am until 2pm. It seemed unlikely that we’d make it in time to be seen, but we figured it was worth a try. And it was. When we arrived at the restaurant where auditions were being held, there was still a long line, and the audition time had been extended until 4pm.

It was bitter cold outside (a shocking change from the warm summer Cape Town days we’d just left), but Tiffany had brought my jacket and gloves to the airport. (Thanks, Tiff!) Chris and I took our place at the end of the line.

Almost immediately, Mr. Unconventional began looking for ways to get us near the front of the line. And he found one. Those who’d been in line longest had been issued tickets. As people gave up and left, one fellow was collecting (or buying) the unused tickets. He then resold the tickets to people further back. Chris found this fellow and brought him to me. I paid $50 to move to the middle of the pack.

And then we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

In line to audition for The Amazing Race

It was cold. The line moved slowly. We made idle conversation with our neighbors in line. And we waited. Eventually we received some bad news: The process was taking too long and the line was going to be cut here, far far ahead of us, and everyone else should go home.

“We can’t give up now,” Chris said, and others around him agreed. He prodded me to go speak to the fellow who had made the announcement. I did. And then I learned the terrible truth.

You see, The Amazing Race has a normal audition process that goes something like this:

  1. Fill out an application.
  2. Film a two-minute video.
  3. Sign a waiver.
  4. Mail this stuff in.

It’s an open-ended application process, and anyone can apply at any time.

Well, this audition for which we spent hours standing in the bitter cold was nothing more than the normal application process, but handled by the local television affiliate. There was no advantage to applying this way. In fact, if anything, I believe there was a dis-advantage to doing so. When you film yourself, you can try again and again until your audition is just how you want it. There was no chance to do that with the audition at the restaurant. This was just a publicity ploy.


Chris and I packed it up and headed for home. I’m grateful that he took several hours from his busy schedule to stand in line with me, especially since The Amazing Race is not his dream — it’s mine. But we’ll have to send in our application through normal channels. (And if Chris doesn’t really want to do it, I’ll try to recruit one Michael Hampton to join me.)

Final Thoughts
Kris and I loved our African vacation. We’ve been back for a month, and we think (and talk) about it constantly.

When I first started to travel, everyone told me, “Oh, travel is amazing. It changes you.” I thought this was mostly bunk. Our trip to Belize was interesting, and it’s stuck with me, and our trips to Europe have been fun. But change me? Venice didn’t change me. Paris didn’t change me. So, going into this trip, I was skeptical that Africa would change me.

I was wrong. Africa did change me. It opened my eyes and my mind. I now know what people mean when they say that travel can change you. If it was practical, I would pack today and return to southern Africa. I’ve spent many hours over the past month talking with people and reading websites, learning everything I can about volunteer tourism. I’m trying to find organizations that do good without a religious or political agenda.

Though it cost a lot of money, I’m richer for having gone to Africa.

And speaking of richer, here’s a final bit from our trip. We spent several days in Zimbabwe, which is a beautiful country with beautiful people. It’s also a country ravaged by political and economic turmoil. In fact, a few years ago, Zimbabwe was hit by hyper-inflation — the rampant de-valuing of its currency. As a result, the government had to print more and more money in higher and higher denominations.

As we were crossing the border into Zambia, our tour bus was besieged by hawkers. “Please don’t buy from them,” our tour guide told us. “It only makes them bolder.” Our group was fairly good at first, but then one by one, we succumbed. Kris was drawn by a chance to pick up trillions of dollars. Literally:

50 million dollars

50 million dollars

50 trillion dollars

50 trillion dollars

These are scans of Zimbabwean currency issued during the period of hyper-inflation. How much are they worth today? I think Kris paid a buck (maybe two) for each banknote, and even that was probably too much. That’s okay, though, because the memories are priceless.

African Vacation 2011, Part One: Packing for Africa

Hello, friends! We’re not in Africa yet, but we soon will be. We flew to Washington, D.C., on Monday morning, and here we sit with a 24-hour layover before the flight to Johannesburg.

Last night, we joined Todd Landis (an old college classmate who now lives in D.C.) for dinner at Georgia Brown’s, which bills itself as “authentic, Southern low-country cuisine”. Having just eaten fried chicken at Portland’s Screen Door the night before, I had to compare the dishes. You know what? Portland’s fried chicken kicks ass on D.C.’s fried chicken. It’s true! But it was great to spend a couple of hours getting re-acquainted with Todd.

Note: To meet up with Todd, we took the free shuttle from the hotel back to the airport, then caught an express bus from the airport to Rosslyn Metro station and rode the Orange Line Metro a few stops east to get off near the White House. The public transportation was painless but slow; the roundtrip including dinner took us almost 6 hours!

We slept in this morning. Neither of us has been sleeping well, so it felt good to get nine hours under our belts. I had intended to exercise in the hotel’s gym, but I spent just five minutes doing some pull-ups, thrusters, and inclined push-ups. I spent most of my morning editing a video about what I packed for the trip.

Packing Light
As Kris and I travel more, we’re learning the wisdom of traveling light. Since our 2007 trip to England and Ireland, we’ve lived by the “carry-on only” rule. We never check bags.

Note: Okay, sometimes we check bags if the airline says overhead bins are full, but we never plan to check bags.

Each trip, we pack a little lighter. This time, for example, I only brought a couple of books. It may seem silly to bring any books at all, but you have to understand that I used to bring a small library. Now I’m just bringing what I think I’ll actually read. That’s progress. (Not enough progress, if you ask Kris!)

Our trip to Italy and France last fall taught me another handy trick for packing light: When possible, wear wool clothing. Wool doesn’t retain odors. You can wear a wool shirt for days on end and it won’t stink. It’s awesome. So, this trip, I have six wool undershirts. (That’s probably two too many, to be honest.)

Anyhow, here’s the video I put together documenting my packing list for Africa:

Some things to note:

  • As I mentioned, I pack wool clothing whenever possible. This includes wool undershirts and wool socks. If I had a sweater, it would be wool, too. I prefer Merino wool for its flexibility. (That is, it’s not too hot.) Though some folks prefer Smartwool, I’m a fan of Icebreaker. Much of the wool in this video was bought at an Icebreaker warehouse sale. (Meaning the shirts were $10 each instead of $60.)
  • I’m taking three Filson bags. Filson gear is expensive, but it’s durable and well-designed.
  • The Rick Steves travel pack is awesome. It’s been discontinued, unfortunately, because it was very reasonably priced. (It’s the Veloce travel bag, if you’re interested, and you can get it in colors other than orange.) Kris and I both have one of these packs, and find them versatile and convenient. They’re full of pockets and compartments, which makes it easy to organize your stuff. We use them primarily for actual travel: These bags live at our feet on the plane, and are on our backs in the airports.
  • I take way too many gadgets. I need to break the habit. For example, I even added my laptop for this trip, so that I could blog about Africa as we go. We’ll see if this is a mistake.

When I get back from Africa, I’ll go through my packing list (and re-watch this video) to see which items did and did not get used. I did this after Europe, too, which is why I’m not taking the voice recorder. (I’m glad I had it in Belize, but really, it’s more trouble than it’s worth.)

Conscious Spending
If you watch the video, you’ll see that I’m packing things like a pair of $60 compression socks and five pairs of $20 travel underwear. Plus, my carry-on bag cost a small fortune.

Some of my gear is expensive; I’m okay with that. After several big trips, Kris and I are learning that we’re willing to pay for gear that matches our travel style. $20 travel underwear that dries quickly after being washed in the sink is awesome. My collapsible chopsticks may seem frivolous, but I find them handy.

A cheap bag that makes life difficult is no bargain, but an expensive bag that makes travel a pleasure is worth every penny. (I consider this an example of conscious spending — we’ve tried several bags each now, and have rejected some cheap gear that got in our way.)

Now, though, it’s time to close up shop and head to the airport. Our flight to Johannesburg awaits!

Toto Gates: 01 May 1994 – 05 February 2011

On 01 May 1994, Colors — the Custom Box Service shop cat — gave birth to a litter of kittens. I found them tucked in a corner of the paint room when they were just a few hours old. Because Colors seemed to consider me her “boyfriend”, she allowed me to touch the tiny, fragile babies.

Toto and her cat family
Toto is the little black ball in the bottom of this photo

Over the next few weeks, the kittens grew into explosive bundles of fur. One of the kittens, the black one, we named Shredder because he was always attacking things and trying to tear them apart.

About this time, Kris and I bought our first house. We made an offer, had it accepted, and prepared to close on 23 June 1994. On June 21st, on a whim, I brought the entire litter of kittens to spend the night in our apartment. Kris’ cat, Tintin, was taken aback by the little balls of fur; the kittens just ran and played. Well, except for Shredder. Shredder was more fascinated by the baked potato Kris was eating for dinner. When Kris’ back was turned, Shredder grabbed the peel and tried to run off with it.

“I want to keep one of the kittens,” I told Kris. “I want to keep Shredder.”

Toto was originally named Shredder
For a long time, Toto lived up to her original name, Shredder

Kris was reluctant, but agreed. So, when we moved into our new home a couple of days later, Shredder came to live with us. And about this time, we figured out Shredder was a she. She and Tintin spent the entire first day hiding in the back of the cupboard under the bathroom sink.

We decided we didn’t like the name Shredder, but couldn’t come up with anything better. It was Kris’ sister, Tiffany, who hit upon the name Toto, and it stuck.

Toto in the Grass

For the next seven years, the four of us — Tintin, Toto, Kris, and J.D. — lived happily in the Canby house. Tintin and Toto got along great. They never really snuggled, as some cats will, but they hung out together, and they played together. Toto loved curling up in a bowl on the kitchen table. She also loved Outside. She was a fearsome hunter, often bringing in birds for us to see.

Toto has a goldfinch; Satchel is jealous
Toto used to be hell on goldfinches

Once, while we were watching the Summer Olympics (in 1996?), Toto brought a live bird into the living room and released it. It scared the hell out of me. I was eating a bowl of brothy soup, which I promptly spilled all over my lap. The poor, bloody bird kept trying to fly up through the ceiling. It left a series of red marks on the paint before we were able to capture and release it. Toto was very, very proud.

Though she was fond of birds, Toto loved nothing more than a delicious complex carbohydrate. Especially if she could share it with Kris. She was always begging for baked potatoes, bagels with cream cheese, and — her favorite — corn on the cob. She also loved tuna fish. She and Kris were a dangerous pair. Kris would often leave half-full glasses of water sitting around; Toto would tip them over and drink the spill. (This continued Toto’s entire life.) If you’ve ever wondered why our dining-room table looks so distressed, it’s because of Kris and Toto and their glasses of water.

Toto Wants Pizza
Toto on Christmas Eve 2010, begging for Aunt Steph’s pizza

Toto was scared of few things in life. She was the Boss. But she had an irrational fear of bananas. No joke. If you held a banana to her, she would cower from it and hiss. I have no idea why.

In 2001, Toto’s best friend died. Tintin faded from diabetes and had to be put down in the fall. Toto never understood this, and she seemed to lose a part of herself once Tintin was gone. Though we acquired new cats — Satchel, Simon, Nemo, and Max — she never befriended them. (She hated Satchel and Nemo, had an uneasy truce with Simon, and tolerated Max, that lovable lug.) She always seemed to pine for Tintin.

Tintin was a beautiful cat
I don’t have a photo of Toto and Tintin handy, so here’s a photo of Tintin alone

When we moved to our new house in 2004, Toto didn’t adjust well. Whereas she used to love Outside, she now spent most of her time indoors. After just a few weeks here, we went on a cruise to Alaska with Kris’ parents. My cousin Nick acted as housesitter and cat caretaker. While we were gone, Toto had a veterinary crisis. She suffered from heat stroke, or something like it, and almost died.

After that, she was never quite the same. She had always been a bit of a grouch, but now her attitude was that of a constant crank. She growled and hissed and wasn’t very social. But I loved her anyhow.

Toto, enjoying the sun
Toto, enjoying the sun

In fact, I loved Toto more than I’ve ever loved an animal. I knew her from the day she was born. She and I had a sort of bond that I haven’t even experienced with another human, not even Kris. We seemed to understand each other. For much of the past seventeen years, she was my constant companion. When I was working from home, she was always by my side. When I ate dinner, she sat next to me, waiting for her turn at the plate. She may not have been friendly to others — especially Aunt Pam — but she loved me, and I loved her.

Toto and Max, helping me write about money

Last summer, Toto started showing signs that she was getting old. She had trouble getting around. She couldn’t jump as well as she used to. She started missing the litterbox — she couldn’t squat when she peed. So, we banished her Outside. She complained at first, but gradually learned to love it. In fact, it was like she had forgotten about Outside when we moved, but was now remembering all of its many charms.

Toto, racing across the lawn
Toto used to be an active cat

When the cold set in, she was less content to be Outside, though. But we couldn’t have her inside all the time, because she was peeing outside the litterbox. We compromised. She could be inside while we were home, but had to stay Outside when we were away (or asleep). We rigged up a box with a heating pad, which she seemed to like, though she preferred to sit on Kris’ computer…

Toto would often sit on Kris’ keyboard

What Toto loved, though, was the wicker basket that Kris gave her. We put a heating pad on the bottom of that, too, and set it on the kitchen floor. That’s where Toto lived from the time we returned from France in late October until just this morning.

Toto on the porch with her raccoon friends

Last night, I notice that Toto was lethargic. Also, she wouldn’t purr, even when I petted her in the sure-fire spots (like her chest — she loved to have her chest stroked). She didn’t want to lay down. She simply sat upright in her basket, staring ahead. She looked like she felt sick. Though I’d spent months trying to deny the inevitable, even I had to admit: Her time had come.

Toto on the Porch
Toto, remembering she loves Outside

This morning, I let Toto in from the front porch. She meowed and begged for food, just like always. I gave her some fresh water, some dry food, and her favorite flavor of wet food (Ocean Whitefish and Tuna). I sat at the dining-room table to do some work while she ate. When she finished, she hopped up on a chair, and then onto the table. But she grunted and growled as she did so. It hurt her. She came up to me by the computer and rubbed her head against me. I petted her, and she purred. But only for a little bit. Then she just sat there, letting me rub her, but not purring. Then she hopped down and curled up in her basket.

Toto's Final Night
Toto’s final night

It hurt me more than I can express, but I unplugged the heating pad and curled the cord next to her, picked up the basket, and carried it to the car. I drove her to the vet. Toto didn’t put up her usual fuss, though at one point she looked at the car ceiling and let out a yowl. At 9:10am, I sat with her and cried (oh, how I cried) as the vet put her to sleep.

And then I came home and buried my baby girl.

My favorite photo of Toto
Toto Gates, 01 May 1994 – 05 February 2011

Footnote: As choked up as I am by this, here’s a hilarious postscript. Just 30 minutes after they’d put her to sleep, the automated update system from the vet sent me a reminder to schedule Toto’s “senior comprehensive wellness exam”.

Geeks in Love

On February January 24th, Kris and I will have been together for 22 years. Here’s a photo from right around our one-year anniversary:

Black Tie Affair 1990

This was taken on approximately 14 February 1990 (my guess is the 10th 3rd) at Willamette‘s “Black Tie Affair”, a formal dance held in Portland. Man, we’re a couple of geeks.

What I Did This Year

Allow me to be immodest for a moment.

I’ve worked pretty hard this year to get fit, and I’m finally starting to see the result. I like it. By chance, I’ve posed for three photographers in 2010, about four months apart. That means I have visual documentation of my progress, which I’m proudly sharing below.

January 1st – 213 pounds (35% body fat, 30% muscle)
photo by J.D. Roth

At the start of the year, I weighed more than I ever had in my life. And I felt awful. I couldn’t sleep. Walking uphill to my office was taxing. I was stressed, and I ate to cope with it. It wasn’t good. I resolved to make 2010 the Year of Fitness, but I was slow to start. Here’s how I looked on our jungle vacation in late February:

Me in a Hammock in Belize
Here I am, lounging in a hammock in Belize. I am fat.

April 1st – 207 pounds (33% body fat, 31% muscle)
photos by Gabby Francis

My first photo session this year was with Gabby Francis, a Get Rich Slowly reader who e-mailed offering to take my photo. Gabby works as a production assistant in television, but wants to branch out into photography. She was very patient with me, and it was fun to chat with her while we worked. But I was more than a little uncomfortable. I hated how I looked and felt. In three months of trying, I’d lost only four pounds.

photo by Gabby Francis
I’ve been using this as my primary publicity photo.

photo by Gabby Francis
Let’s be very clear: I hate how heavy I am in these photos.

photo by Gabby Francis
This is me trying to be happy. It was tough.

July 23rd – 187 pounds (27% body fat, 34% muscle)
photos by David Hobby

You’ll remember David Hobby from my tale of win-win conflict resolution: I stole one of his photos from the web; he suggested a creative solution for restitution, and ever since we’ve been supporting each other. He’s a good guy. He’s also a pro, running Strobist, a giant among photo blogs.

When David told me he was going to be in Portland and wondered if he could shoot some photos of me, I was happy to agree. I’d lost 20 pounds since the photo shoot with Gabby, which allowed me to feel more relaxed in front of the camera.

photo by David Hobby
David’s a pro. I like that he specifically told me not to smile.

photo by David Hobby
“How about something at the table with you rolling pennies?” David asked. “Like a LOT of ’em.”

photo by David Hobby
“Would it be too much trouble to have you take a photo of both of us?” Kris asked.

Aside from the fact that I chose to wear the same shirts for David as I did for Gabby (what was I thinking?), I like how these turned out. I was still heavy, but the weight loss was starting to become apparent.

November 18th – 175 pounds (24% body fat, 36% muscle)
photos by Amy Jo Woodruff

My friend Amy Jo is an editor — but she wants to be a photographer when she grows up. After seeing her photos of Lisa, I agreed to pose for her too. This was my favorite photo shoot so far. I haven’t yet lost all of the weight I want to lose, but I’ve shed most of it. I no longer have those chubby cheeks or the bags under my eyes!

photo by Amy Jo Woodruff
“You can’t sit there,” said Amy Jo. “There’s a weird light across your eyes.” Psycho-killer!

photo by Amy Jo Woodruff
Now officially my favorite photo of myself. I can retire the one I’ve been using since 1999.

Amy Jo asked me to list fourteen words that I feel best describe me. I gave her this list:

  • Adventurous – I love to try new things.
  • Creative – I love to make new things.
  • Curious – I love to learn new things.
  • Evolving – I’m a different man today than I was yesterday.
  • Independent – I make and act on my own decisions.
  • Intelligent – I am smart.
  • Playful – I like to joke and jest.
  • Positive – I look on the bright side.
  • Resourceful – I search for ways to get things done.
  • Sociable – I enjoy the company of others.
  • Tenacious – I pursue my goals with vigor
  • Unguarded – I share myself freely, and I accept the word of others.
  • Versatile – I am good at many things.
  • Zealous – I’m passionate about my friends and hobbies.

“It’s funny,” she said as we were walking to the park. “Whenever adults do this exercise, all of their words are positive.”

I laughed. “Yeah,” I said. “Kris told me that she could think of some other words to describe me. Like ‘obsessed’. I told her that’s why ‘zealous’ is on the list.”

I have negative attributes, just like everyone else. I’m sure you all could name them. But I don’t think it’s productive to dwell on them. Instead, I like to focus on my strengths, and let those guide my life. Dwelling on the negative is a sure path to misery. I don’t want to be miserable.

photo by Amy Jo Woodruff
Welcome to middle age, my friend.

photo by Amy Jo Woodruff
I love in-jokes. This one’s for all of those who’ve read Foldedspace since the beginning.

So, to summarize: Since the start of the year:

  • I’ve lost 40 pounds.
  • I’ve dropped from 35% body fat to 24% body fat.
  • I’ve increased my muscle mass from 30% to 36%.
  • I no longer use my C-PAP machine.
  • I can run faster and farther than I ever have in my life.
  • I can lift more weight, too.
  • And most of the time, I don’t crave ice cream. (Just don’t look at my work area right now, though!)

My physical transformation hasn’t happened by chance. It’s taken hard work and dedication. But I’m starting to believe I really have made a lifestyle change. I want to exercise more now, not less. It sucks when I don’t get a workout in. (And somedays, like I hope to do tomorrow, I actually work out twice.)

So, do I think Crossfit works? Hell, yeah!

Before   After

Maybe if I keep it up, when I’m 91 I can be like Olga Kotelko.