General

It’s Love, Actually

The international arrivals door is where magic happens daily throughout the world. Mothers greet fathers. Children return home. Refugees and asylum seekers are embraced by a new society. Soldiers return from war. Visitors are welcomed to a new land. Opportunities for meaningful exchange begin. Lovers reunite. It is one of my favorite places, wherever I am in the world.

Yesterday, the international arrivals door at DFW Airport Terminal D was a scene of a different sort. Families waited to greet their loved ones placed in limbo by the swift and callous winds of change. A student from SMU waited, as his Syrian parents were held unable to join him. A 40-ish woman, US green card holder from Iran was detained 8 hours before she could greet her husband who was a US citizen. Another Syrian man on a valid visa coming to see his sons studying at SMU was forced to sign a form he didn’t understand, under threat of arrest.

Then something miraculous happened…people gathered in solidarity with these families to scream into the wind against the rabid offspring of fear. The sound was deafening and relentless, hundreds turned into thousands. Hours of chants, “USA”, “SILENCE IS VIOLENCE”, “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE”, an Episcopalian priest led the crowd in Christian hymns and we sang together in Arabic, led by our Muslim brothers and sisters.

As the frosted white door between customs and the USA remained closed and the SWAT teams stood at attention, we heard reports that there were custom officials in tears on the other side. Unable to get answers from the DHS or the White House. Our mayor arrived to state his opposition to these executive actions and our U.S. House members and Dallas County judges were in the crowd, standing alongside us as we screamed for justice.

The crowd embraced when the stay was ordered and passed around pizza, fruit and well wishes. It was peaceful, respectful and powerful. The police had the slightest of smile and nodded their heads in our direction. When it was time for prayer, a Christian woman took the sign of a nearby Muslim woman and said, “you go pray, I will stay.”

I went to the international arrivals door at DFW Airport yesterday to speak to the families, learn their stories and link them to legal advocates, if needed. Turns out, many of my American brothers and sisters had the same idea. What I saw was exactly what makes America great.

It’s love, actually.

 

Jan 28, 2017

DFW Airport, Texas

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General

Sublime Vulnerability

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The day I met my first born marks a milestone in my life. A day after which, I was no longer the person I was before. An anniversary of my becoming conscious of complete and utter vulnerability. Upon meeting him, I would never again walk this Earth with the same sense of complete confidence. The physical scars have long since healed, but I remain tragically aware of how profoundly wounded I could be because of this most precious being.

My deep vulnerability is packaged neatly and poetically with laughter – sometimes a chuckle, sometimes absurd, full-on, side-splitting belly laughs. Belly laughs like when we discovered that I pee (just) a little bit when he double bounces me on the trampoline. That’s right, I pee, just enough to make me laugh out loud.

So double bounce away, little man, because the mixture of belly-filling laughter and slight humiliation is truly sublime.

Originally posted January 2010.

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Travel Essays

Granite and Chartreuse

Recently I ascended Mount Whitney, a relatively high chunk of granite in the Eastern Sierra Nevada. This I did with a friend of the truest kind.

Mount Whitney lies on the Sierra Crest, a long row of high peaks running north-south less than 100 miles from the Badwater Basin of Death Valley; the lowest point in North America. At 14,505 feet, she is the highest point in the Lower 48. That’s a pretty killer contrast if you ask me. Whereas not as striking a peak as the Jungfrau or Matterhorn, her eastern face is sheer and dreamlike, a steep fault scarp rising to the sky with a gradual descent to the west.

It should be noted that I have a thing for high and low places, which if you don’t already know, is part and parcel to my crazy.

Friends for over 15 years, Nicole and I have seen much of this world together. From the streets of London to above the tree line in the Alps to the savannah of Uganda, we have definitely clocked some miles. Both of us are of the Type A goal-driven sort and, although now wives and mothers, our thirst for the world has not and will not be diminished.

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Rather than the challenging, well-trodden 22-mile day hike on the Mount Whitney Trail, we chose instead to take the Mountaineering Route. A straight shot up the east side gaining and losing 6,100 feet in only 11 miles round trip and first ascended by John Muir in 1873.

Piece of cake, right? Wrong.

We trained long and hard. We packed as ultralight as we knew how. And, we hired an experienced guide, Tristan Sieleman from Sierra Mountaineering International, to help us be more successful up and back down on this challenging terrain. During the drive from Reno, we talked at length about what we thought our weak points might be. We discussed the need to push ourselves and each other beyond our comfort zones. Finally, and albeit a bit silly, we established a code word for the point at which the risk outweighed reward. The point at which we needed to let the other know – I will go no further.

Chartreuse.

There are friends with which you can uncover your weaknesses, take them out of the closet and look at them straight on and then from every angle. There are friends with which you can prepare for, endure and even thrive in Type 2 fun. And, there friends with which you cannot.

I prefer the former.

We arrive late to Lone Pine near the base of Mount Whitney, quickly consume large quantities of carbohydrates (happy dance) and then fall asleep early in order to rest up for the long day that lay ahead.

At morning light we had our first chance to see the significant prominence of Whitney. Her sheer eastern face and the uppermost point we sought to reach towered almost 11,000 feet above us.

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We drive up to Whitney Portal, begin to sort gear, parcel the shared loads and repack our packs. When I first lift my pack onto my back, I recognize immediately that I should have thrown in another dumbbell during those sea level training hikes.

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For the first 500 vertical feet, we travel the shared trail. At our first stop we fill up on fresh water from the creek (thank you wag bag), learn a few high altitude trekking tips from Tristan and turn up the hill to the steeper North Fork Lone Pine Creek Trail, which will connect us to the East Buttress and the Mountaineering Routes.

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After ascending 1,000 or so vertical feet on a somewhat steep trail, we cross a beautiful creek bed which is just brightening with autumn color. On the other side, we look up to the sheer granite wall. At this moment we are smiling on the outside, but that is about to quickly change.

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After a short and rather easy Class 3 scramble, we arrive at the base of the Ebersbacher Ledges, a challenging scramble up a steep wall to a narrow traverse with serious exposure and a sheer 300 foot drop. Turns out people have died on this, which I am glad I didn’t know at the time. Our experience up to this point has been more of the hiking than climbing kind, so this part really gets the ‘ole blood pumping.

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At the narrowest point on the ledges the trail is less than 12 inches wide. Luckily we lean into the wall to feel more secure across this short but ‘I may have just peed my pants’ section.

Now above the willows we trek on to Lower Boy Scout Lake where the trail gives way to an expansive talus field. This is the kind of stuff I love – up and down over secure talus makes for a fun puzzle to solve. Tristan reminds us to always follow the path of least resistance. In other words, be smart, use your head and plant your foot carefully each and every time.

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Next is about 500 vertical feet worth of talus scrambling at which point it begins to sleet. We take cover for a bit before starting out over the large, bare and very slippery granite slabs taking baby steps close together not so slip and diligently keeping our nose over our toes.

We end the day at Upper Boy Scout Lake at an elevation of 11,300 feet, setup camp, eat dinner and head straight to bed to recharge. Our summit bid will begin at 5am.

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The night is long, the weather is calm, the tent is confined and our anxiety levels are high. We were unsure of what lies ahead of us the next day and remarkably self doubt arrives just on cue. Can we do this?

Around 4am we hear the stove fire up and it is time to get started. Donning headlamps we head up the loose slope above Upper Boy Scout Lake. About an hour into our climb, the sun begins to rise and we are able to appreciate the full, otherworldly landscape of The Moraines.

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As the sun creeps higher above the horizon, we are immediately confronted by Whitney’s East Face and the adjacent needles. Here in this ancient debris field amongst the remnants of long-departed glaciers, I get a stark reminder of the degree of my own insignificance and within this awareness, I can garner tremendous strength. This is the very reason I love to climb.

Soon enough we arrive at Iceberg Lake, a poignant milestone on this climb and in the context of all my previous climbs. At 12,700 feet this is where the real adventure begins, on go the helmets and harnesses for this is the point at which we move from hiking to mountaineering.

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We load up on pretzels and refill on water from the lake knowing the last 2,000 feet to the summit will be challenging, to say the least. The East Couloir looms above us with a steep and nasty mixture of loose talus, scree, sand and a dusting of ice. When covered deep in snow, this section can be navigated with crampons and ice axe, but the mere dusting made the loose scree even more of an ass kicking.

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When we reach the top of the Couloir we are at 14,000 feet and look down upon Iceberg Lake and the creek trail below. We take a moment to rest and refuel at a spot known as The Notch and discuss which route to take to make our final ascent to the summit.

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The customary route is straight up the North Chute, 400 utter panic-inducing vertical feet of rock, a tough Class 3 with some Class 4/5 moves sprinkled in for added fun. Again, when covered in snow, there is a fixed line which helps with a stable ascent. And again, we weren’t so lucky. The other option is to traverse the north face on Class 3 terrain and come up the backside to the summit plateau, which is longer and can be tricky with the loose scree and sand giving way under your feet.

Nicole and I look at each other and, not being ones to take the easy route, opt for the straight up option. Tristan prepares the ropes to belay us as we creep up this slippery face and we quickly get started.

We are instructed to make all moves together. With belay on, Nicole hoists herself up about 8-10 feet and then pushes off to the side so that I might do the same move. As I start up, Nicole begins to slip on the icy surface of the rocks. As I make it up to her, she says to me quietly, “Chartreuse.” I look to her and reply, “Chartreuse. Chartreuse. Chartreuse.” We were absolutely in agreement.

We both could easily see that we were sliding slowly along the curve where individual risks outweigh the individual return. For many this route is acceptable, but in our assessment it just wasn’t worth it.

Chartreuse.

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So we climb off that steep course, not elegantly I might add, and opt for the traverse route to the summit. No easy task either, but a level of risk we could justify in our minds and hearts.

As we stood upon the summit of Mount Whitney it mattered not how we got there, but the view was absolutely worth every well planted step.

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As I stand there swimming in my dull headache, choking down a Kind bar and enjoying a moment of pride, I suddenly remember that we are only halfway there. The summit is never the finish line, it is merely the halfway point. My stomach begins to churn. I think to myself – if going up was tough, how am I going to get down that same terrible terrain . Every move had been so carefully considered, like a giant granite chess game.

I ask Tristan if there is an easier route down. He looks at me charmingly and says, “of course not my dear, just make sure you have 50% left in your gas tank and take the same path of least resistance in the opposite direction.”

It turns out that up is indeed the easier direction. On the up you can plot your steps more carefully. Down may be faster, but it is far less intentional. Plus, on the down your body is tired which makes an unintentional sloppy step more likely.

The descent is brutal, my feet are shredded, the scree unforgiving and my gas tank draining faster than expected. But as in life, it is always more mental than physical. So, I told myself to take it one step at a time. 30% left in the tank, 20%, 5%, I can see the tents way down there, 2%…one step at a time.

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Rest.

Wind.

Rest.

Wind.

Rest.

As I emerge from my tent once more, the wind is howling and the sun rises gracefully across the Owen Valley below.

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I tend to my tired, blistered feet and then it is down, down, down the remaining 3000 feet until we hit the trailhead once more. This was the real summit – reaching the top, making good decisions, planting each step carefully and then arriving safely back down again.

Upon that granite peak we achieved our shared goal; and, we did so with lots of laughter and by respecting our own limitations – both real and perceived. I guess this is the good stuff of getting older – you know yourself better, trust yourself more and have the confidence to shout “Chartreuse!” when the level of risk surpasses your perceived reward.

What else is good stuff?

Loving your body not for what it looks like, but for where it can take you in this life. Doing so with those who lift you up and fill your gas tank when it’s running low. Finally, celebrating the sublime beauty of accomplishing something you set your mind to, no matter what it might be.

Thank you Nicole.

Thank you Tristan.

Thank you Kurt.

And, thank you to Tristan’s German alter ego who guided me where to step.

 

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Opinion, Travel Essays

South Sudan, Invest in Lasting Peace

What comes to mind when you think of South Sudan? Crisis, refugees, casualties, corruption, and starvation likely top the list. You also probably think hopeless. You rarely think investment potential. But South Sudan represents an opportunity to move from aid to trade, and with the help of creative philanthropists and frontier market investors, this could happen over the coming decade. What is being proven elsewhere in Africa is that we must move beyond traditional aid models and increasingly focus on direct private capital flows into locally sustainable solutions.

The world’s youngest state is a chance to reimagine aid as a catalyst for innovation and partnerships. A vast country of 644,000 sq.km. – roughly the size of Texas – with possibilities for solar energy, health innovation and agribusiness development. Where some see only problems, others recognize untapped human potential in a country with over 11 million and at least 30 million hectares of arable land, less than 5 percent of which is currently cultivated.

Don’t get me wrong, South Sudan unquestionably needs a hand up right now, and those providing aid are bringing help that is desperately needed. Sixty years of war has left a devastated infrastructure and traumatized population with some of the worst health indicators on Earth. But, this new African nation can easily become yet another ill-fated example of reliance on foreign aid. In 2014, foreign aid totaled US$1.8B out of a total GDP of US$13.0B, with the U.S. being top donor at US$645MM. It’s no secret that long-term aid creates devastating dependencies and economic distortions that hinder the natural social, economic and human development of a nation. South Sudan can avoid the well-worn dependency trap and chart a path towards growth and prosperity, but the trick is that the work must start now. When it seems most impossible.

In his compelling 2012 New York Times op-ed, Bishop Elias Taban, a recognized national leader in South Sudan, called upon his people to turn sword to plough and for the American people to walk alongside his countrymen and women to ensure the world’s newest nation survives infancy. Three years later, however, the nation continues to struggle through cycles of conflict while the West, trying to help, repeats the failed approaches of the past.

Instead of sizeable, cumbersome block grants only accessible to international NGOs with huge operational infrastructures, we should instead focus on scaling systems that are locally owned and driven. Venture philanthropy is conducive to such an approach; based on venture capital principles and placing value on social return alongside economic return. It is a growing and compelling way to promote development in environments where large-scale commercial investment is limited.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) developed a small but groundbreaking program called Development Innovation Ventures, which pioneers venture philanthropy through foreign aid. It is an investment in potential – not aid – and is simply a smarter, more accountable way to support growth. By investing in Solar Sister, USAID will bring solar lighting and mobile phone charging technologies to people across South Sudan, where 50 percent of the population uses firewood or grass as the primary source of lighting and 27 percent have no lighting at all. An example of applying market-based principles that catalyzes nimble, creative, and sustainable solutions, instead of grant making from afar. Venture philanthropy amps up accountability, requiring rigorous due diligence, clear objectives, mentoring, technical expertise and well-defined performance measurements. Rather than directing funds toward dire problems, this approach directs funds toward the most effective, revolutionary solutions.

In addition, along a narrow red-soil road in Yei, South Sudan, is the EPC Clinic: a sustainable primary care clinic addressing preventable diseases affecting the surrounding community. This clinic sees 600 cases a month and operates with a local staff, independently of donor funds. Deep within a teak forest on the outskirts of Yei is the Nehemiah Secondary School: a top-notch secondary program educating the future leaders of South Sudan and funded by a local trucking company, not an international NGO or foreign government. These are examples of the future of South Sudan and are manifestations of the vision cast by Bishop Taban in 2012; scalable local innovations in the most difficult circumstances.

There are numerous other local solutions, which may not be as well known, but are working and need our attention and support. Well-structured, direct investments offer these ideas the potential to flourish. We should seek them out and align our skill sets and capital to their vision.

Investing in local solutions is an investment in lasting peace. It is the role the U.S. must play if we wish to chart a path towards healthier, more sustainable long-term development. Some will say that any investment in such a fragile context is unwise. It’s certainly no easy task, but it’s an investment worth making. For South Sudan, it requires leaders with the willingness to put nation before personal ambition and redirection of public spending into development rather than security. For the U.S., it requires patience, the willingness to reimagine aid and getting past the notion that we know best. We must walk toward the future alongside South Sudan with humility and have the courage to deploy strategies that ignite local innovation, foster independence and promote self-reliance. It isn’t going to be fast and it’s hardly simple, but it’s certainly not hopeless.

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Travel Essays

Suggestion Box

 

This shot was captured in an abandoned train station in Moshi, Tanzania. A weathered wooden box, which once collected anonymous input now swings uselessly from a rusty anchor. A small, thought-provoking relic of a bygone colonial era. When I saw it, I imagined the human faces of foreign powers who descended one-by-one in please take a number fashion upon this corner of the world. Continue reading

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Poetry

Permanence {01.03.16}

I am nomad.

Change is eternal, all is but for a moment in time.

Such is the nature of all things.

Sublime and heartbreaking temporality.

I am vessel.

Wish not to keep, crave not to possess.

Haunted vignettes one and them all.

Flows laying marks along the banks of my soul.

I am collector.

That which cannot be touched, only felt.

Vestiges burned upon mind and stored in flesh and bone.

Firmly in the present and loving fully the remnants.

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Travel Essays

Broken Wing

It’s 5am and I wake up in a hotel in San Diego. I meet up with my friend Candor and we set out while it’s still dark to reach the bottom of the cliffs. Our plans includes some running, a smidge of hiking and a beach at sunrise. Once at the bottom of the trail, we spend some time at Black’s Beach. Candor, the one of us who actually runs without complaining, takes off down the beach while I hang back just be.

I breath deeply to take in the sea air, look down and see kelp washed up on the beach. I look behind me and see knife-etched memories of love’s past on the rocks along the shore. I wonder, did Jan love Chris? Was it passionate, yet brief, unrequited or everlasting love?

Then I look out to sea. The surf is calm and the clouds cast a melancholy hue. I stand  silently and feel the breeze on my face, then look closer. That’s when I see him. He is an average-sized gull walking along the edge of the surf. At first, he is just coastal context for me, until I look a bit closer.

The gull’s right wing is broken and it drags in the sand and surf. I crouch down and watch him for several minutes. He walks to the surf, back toward the cliffs, then back again to the surf. Over and over he repeats this pattern. A man passes me on a morning jog and comments how the injured gull has been flightless for days and that the end should be near. This gull will never again soar over these turbid waters. His fate has been sealed.

I have always been transfixed by the hovering flight of gulls. They are, for me, a powerful symbol of freedom – from the faint childhood memories of Port Lavaca and Galveston to the courageous heart of Jonathan Seagull, who overcame and guided others to overcome limitations imposed by self and others.

“Come along then.” said Jonathan.“Climb with me away from the ground, and we’ll begin.” 

“You don’t understand, my wing. I can’t move my wing.”

“Maynard Gull, you have the freedom to be yourself, your true self, here and now, and nothing can stand in your way. It is the Law of the Great Gull, the law that is.”

“Are you saying I can fly?”

“I say you are free.”

– Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Jonathan knows that flight is a window – a window to discover what he can and can’t do in the air. Happy, hungry, learning – yes, and even dying to know his limitations. Not content to be just another one of the flock, he fights to uncover what he has the potential to become, with speed and courage there as teacher.

I wonder to myself, what is it like to soar high above these cliffs and waters? To escape earthly limitations and be free to dance on the wind. My wings aren’t broken, so why do I live like they are? Why don’t I shout into the wind?

I return to the hotel, but the gull is still on my mind, my mind restless and distracted. It’s two hours until my flight. Once again, I think about what would it be like to soar over that beach, like the gull before he was rendered flightless by a broken wing.

The gull is still there.

Why am I so distracted? I am blessed, I tackle interesting challenges each day, right here with my feet firmly planted on the ground. Then the beautiful faces of my family glide through my head.

Today, another side of me is calling and I am listening.

The gull is still there.

A decision is made. One pair of nude pumps goes in the bag. One pair of sandy sneakers goes on my feet.

I hop into a cab and five minutes later, I am dragging my roller bag up the hill through deep sand. This is the place where I will run, leap off a cliff and soar above the sea before catching the 4:50pm back to Texas.

I scrawl my initials and sign upwards of 75 places on over 10 pages of documents. Reading is optional because it isn’t going to change my mind. However, I do wonder how many lawyers were involved in this stack of liability-releasing madness.

The gull is still there. So, I will soar.

No thinking. Ready. Pull back. Lean. Walk forward. Run slowly. Silence. I hear only the wind now.

After a few moments, over my shoulder he asks if I want to really feel it now. Lean into it and feel the real power of this freedom.

Absolutely ready. We soar away from the cliff towards the water. Lean to the left. Now, lean to the right – HARD.

I feel it, I am soaring. Spiraling through the air, the force pulling me. I see fragments of water, fragments of canyon wall. I think of nothing but this moment. The bliss is without bounds and I scream into the wind.

Again.

This time, I release the death grip I have on my harness and once again scream into the sunlit silence. After a few moments, my feet with the sandy shoes are back on the ground firmly planted on the exact same spot where they started. Now I have seen what the gull with the broken wing has seen. Felt the joyful bliss of staring down a fear and overcoming self-imposed limitations.

I think once again of Jonathan Seagull…

“He was alive, trembling ever so slightly with delight, proud that his fear was under control…He swallowed, knowing that if his wings unfolded at that speed he’d be blown into a million tiny shreds of seagull. But the speed was power, and the speed was joy, and the speed was pure beauty.”

Why did I decide today was the day to strap myself into a harness with a Korean named Ki, jump off a cliff and soar out over the San Diego coast?

Because in the light of dawn, a gull with a broken wing whose fate is sealed, taught me that mine is not.

—–

A special thanks to Ki at Torrey Pines Glidersport for taking me to new heights. You made me laugh all along the way.

Author’s Note: This post originally appeared on lifeonespoonfulatatime.com in August 2011.

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