Travel Essays

Summer’s Winter in Paris

Paris is bewitching.

A thought which is far from original, but nonetheless, truer than the day is long. Throughout history, many a poet, artist, musician or otherwise have looked to and inhabited her for inspiration. The images and recollections are countless. I love to think about what life may have been like in the Paris of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce. A talented, young and “lost” lot living along her two banks and lingering within her cafes. They came to her seeking the mental freedom and imagination with which to carve their places in literary history.

Ernest Hemingway once said of her:

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

A moveable feast. A veritable trove that leaves a deep and lasting impression. One that be called upon whenever and from wherever when you need a dose of inspiration. That is solid gold.

I had been to Paris once before, over a decade ago. But when I arrived this past July, with a prepaid 5e address, plenty of time and impressionable offspring, it was an altogether different experience. This time it was Paris in the summer. This time I was thirstier. This time she affected me.

I pulled up to her table, watched carefully and became forever intoxicated by what I saw.

I saw her feast.

Strolling along the narrow streets of Montmartre

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Sunning in the Parc de la Tour Saint-Jacques in Le Marais

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Clowning across the Pont des Artes

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Performing in the Place de Tertre

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Reading at a café in the 5e arrondissement

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Mooning along the Rive Gauche

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Standing behind the Sacré Coeur de Montmartre

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And reclining in the Jardin du Luxembourg

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Sure she contains amazing buildings and more famous art than you can shake a stick at. And the food, well it makes a girl scream with ecstasy. But, for me, the real moveable feast lies in her stories. Those etched forever in her mortar and written upon the faces of her people – both native and immigrant.

Wait, who is that?  She’s not a Parisian. How’d she get in here?  My oh my, she has more lines around her eyes than I remember, especially when she smiles. Looks like the girl hiding behind that cotton candy became a woman while no one was looking. Then fell in love with Paris in the summer. She came looking for her own kind of mental freedom and was lucky enough to take the feast with her.

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Summer is long gone and it is now the dead of winter. Mental freedom has given way to something more akin to the Twilight Zone. One continuous abstraction with absurd twists, copious doses of reality and a touch of the macabre. It seems the girl with the newish laugh lines now finds herself standing in the mud out in the pouring rain. But perhaps the rain is not real, only imagined. Maybe it’s just a technically-sophisticated special effect in the new plot line being filmed on Soundstage 4. Maybe there is an escape hatch just under foot or a vintage Monte Carlo around the next corner, gassed up and ready to play the getaway car. Maybe, just maybe.

Weeks back, I wandered around the Dallas Museum of Art for a bit. The first work I laid my eyes upon was a print by the French artist, Félix Buhot, entitled Winter in Paris (1879). I studied it closely.

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Such a very different era than the one I inhabit. One with horse-drawn stagecoaches being pushed through deep snow. Life in a by-gone Paris in the dead of winter. I stood motionless before this timeless work and was struck by its intense melancholy. But mostly I stood transfixed by the woman in the elegant coat holding her young daughter’s hand, crossing the street and looking straight at me. She was and remains part of the feast.

Then I remembered the feast I took with me. The one that lives inside me, for all seasons. Which now serves as my summer’s winter in Paris.

Author’s Note: This post originally appeared on lifeonespoonfulatatime.com in December 2013.

 

 

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Travel Essays

Ebb and Flow

A while back I read a piece about the differences in the way Eastern cultures and Western cultures view life. It boils down like this. Eastern cultures tend to accept the ebb and flow – the natural process of destruction, cleansing and rebirth that often happens several times throughout the course of one’s life. Conversely, Western cultures (in this case, the US being the comparison) tend to see life as a linear process of sustained upward development. One in which we (those experiencing life) exert control over our position and outcomes. The first view is naturalistic or even perhaps fatalistic. The other, while vastly more egocentric, holds within it the promise of self-made progress, or Manifest Destiny. Also sometimes known as CONTROL. I suspect religion has a large influence here, but I won’t even go there.

It seems to me that we Western sorts have a rather dismal record of dealing with uncertainty. We have been conditioned to stand in judgement of ourselves (and others) when faced with setbacks or restarts. What I find perplexing is how we don’t see the silliness of it all. How we have been sold a bill of goods that keeps us weighed down rather than that life-affirming chance at a big flush of the toilet.  We have been trained to think up is the only way and down is a dirty secret. Rather than seeing setbacks or natural cycles as grand opportunities for cleansing and renewal, instead we let our internal jury convict with little to no evidence – leading to shame, depression and despair. Then, when we are unable to live in the constant upside, we seek solace in our consumption – whether alcohol, IKEA, drugs, sex or the Kardashians, the numbing ensues and the Technicolor of life in either direction grows dim. For there is no true joy without true sorrow and by buffering one we also buffer the other.

What we are left with is a watered down and backed up mess.

But, nature has in her toolbox an infinite number of devices for resetting the stage. She uses them all constantly. From the extreme such as earthquakes, hurricanes and forest fires, to the twice daily rise and fall of the ocean tides. Today, I had the opportunity (or perhaps they had the misfortune) of explaining the concept of high and low tide to my small children. Remember these are seriously land-locked offspring, so this is not a concept with which they are intimately familiar. My explanation would have probably made my sixth grade science teacher wonder why she wasted her time, but to illustrate my Neanderthal explanation, we visited the same beach in British Columbia twice in one day.

Once in the morning during low tide.

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And again in the afternoon during high tide.

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The tide went out leaving colonies of mussels exposed, huge driftwood timbers tossed about like tidily winks and the floor of the sea to air dry. Only hours later, it came rushing back in all its power and filled it all in again. Rinse and repeat. Twice daily. This experience and my infantile attempt to explain the magnificence of the natural world reminded me once again of the notable difference between the Eastern and Western way of thinking.

My take is that nature is a bad ass bitch that creates and destroys on cue. It seems only reasonable that the human experience should be the same. There are forces at work so vastly out of our control, yet our control-obsessed culture teaches us nothing of surrender. It seems this tool doesn’t fit neatly into the contemporary American toolbox.

So why can’t we just let go and ride the tide?

Being from Texas, I am all for making my own way in this life. Hell this is me down to the molecular level. I bet if you were to view my blood under a microscope, it might look something like Wiley Coyote whistling Dixie. Obviously I am no scientist and anyway, perhaps this is too personal, but I have found an ounce of peace in the surrender. Now, hey there, don’t go crazy and think I won’t fight when a fight is called for, but I no longer try to fight the natural course of things. For inevitably, the tide will go out and the tide will come in twice daily – ebb and flow. As it is in nature, it is in human life.

Author’s Note: This post originally appeared on lifeonespoonfulatatime.com in August 2013.

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Travel Essays

Crossing the White Nile

By some standards I was raised in humble circumstances, by others I was raised in stark privilege and opportunity. This duality is something I struggle to reconcile, but regardless of perspective, I’ve seen first-hand how education, a bit of ingenuity and shit-ton of hard work can take you to places you never dreamed possible. One odd job at a time, if that’s what it takes.

Places like riding shotgun on a questionably legal motorbike in the East Texas piney woods. Places like sleeping under a desk in architecture school to sleeping on a couch at the United Nations to putting my soul into hibernation while playing the advertising game. Places like the joyful vulnerability of motherhood and the immense sadness of losing a father too soon. Places like learning the art of negotiation in Geneva from a professor with wet, quivering lips to learning the art of traditional healing from a medicine man in a hut along Lake Bunyonyi. Places like atop 16,000 feet while looking into the eyes of my partner in this life, as a killer clot threatened to take him from us. Places like South Sudan in the midst of civil war to see something most say is impossible. Places like a twin-engine prop plane crossing the White Nile.

I spent only three short days on the ground in Yei, South Sudan, a spot of relative calm in a nascent nation taking two steps back. I had the unique opportunity to deposit a pint in a bankrupt blood bank, looked up at the stars from the floor of a teak forest, scrubbed in for hernia surgery on a teenage boy and sat under a mango tree with a ninety-three year old blind woman who has lived long enough to see peace in a land where most have only known war. There was black market fuel bought in recycled water bottles and dinner in an Ethiopian restaurant with no food. A mature male goat was exchanged in sincere appreciation for a well that now gives life-saving water, the sun rose over the Yei River and I held my ears as the man in the next guesthouse coughed up a lung for at least an hour each morning.

I did not, under any circumstances, eat termites.

I played sidekick to a dear friend who lives by “whatever it takes” and has drilled over 600 wells in his adopted land. He stops at nothing to embolden others and issued me a challenge, one I willingly accepted and I am undoubtedly stronger for.

A great man and his wife were my generous hosts. I saw how they uplift their community in the midst of desperate times and make the things happen that others say are impossible. They left me speechless.

When it was time to leave, we had to travel a few short miles on the “good side” of the road to Juba to get back to the airstrip. A few dozen miles ahead had recently become a path even the UN won’t travel, but we were still a fair distance away. Two uniformed soldiers motioned us over as we crossed the bridge on the outskirts of town. I held my breath as the truck edged to a stop. From the passenger seat, I looked briefly toward the soldiers out of the corner of my eye and saw a wild emptiness in the eyes of the taller one. This was the moment I had feared most. What did they want? I tried not to look directly at them as they uttered a few indecipherable words in Arabic. What they wanted I don’t truly understand, but after a few moments they let us pass. As we inched forward, I saw another soldier a few yards behind them with an automatic machine gun and full ammo belt aimed at the bridge.

Less than an hour later I was flying over the White Nile listening to a Western middle-aged-mother-of-two playlist on my tattered headphones. I asked myself the question, “How in the hell did I get here and what does it all mean?” How I got there was by invitation from a dear friend who told me to come see something miraculous for myself. So that’s what I did and I would do it again, for what I gained far outweighed one fearful moment.

The White Nile is one of the two rivers that come together form the main Nile, the longest waterway in the world. It is called the White Nile because of its milky waters created by the light-grey clay sediment it carries as it flows north. I now sit at a table in a guesthouse on the peaceful side of the White Nile, twenty-four hours after lifting off from a red-soil airstrip in South Sudan. I am swimming in the ex-pat bubble trying to separate and appreciate each and every experience I had on the ground there. I ask myself why I was given this place in the world and exactly what I’ve been put here to do. You see, I can simply lift off in a twin-engine prop plane and fly across the White Nile, because I won the latitude lottery. I have the privilege of spending a day across from a clay tennis court while drinking bottled water; pondering the places life takes me, making obscure references and posting pictures of a milky river in East Africa.

I wasn’t given the clarity of purpose many enjoy, but life is after all an iterative process. However, I do have clarity on one important fact – health, well being and prosperity are universal human rights worth fighting for. From this truth comes The Cassiopeia Project, a quest to uncover, invest in and bring forward innovative, locally-driven programs working to advance human potential.

Because…

We should be undeterred by things others consider impossible. We should be willing to wrestle with life instead of sitting on the bench. We should seek out and uplift great people and great ideas. We should make investments worth making. We should because we can fly over the White Nile.

I might just be crazy, but maybe, just maybe, I’m not.

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Short Stories

Quill

The girl stands upon the bluff and looks down to the wood of a million dreams. The red-orange light of fall holds close just before the darkness of night and the coming bleakness of winter. The wind blows and she shutters. She has a girl’s mind, a boy’s heart and legs slightly too long for her stature. Her soft black hair is kept tucked inside a cloth on her head and her back has become hunched. Her boots are those of a man, but her feminine hands are gentle and kind. The quills that have formed along her spine are becoming sharper and more pronounced as the years pass.

She once stood tall with skin smooth as the newest petals of spring, but the enormous weight upon her makes her look twenty older than her years and the mysterious quills have made her something altogether different. The heavy cloak she now wears helps keep them hidden from sight.

She listens intently as the remaining leaves rustle in last season’s place within the darkened wood where a small trail marks the entry. Once a place of childhood adventure and endless intrigue, she remembers the summer sun as it filtered through the canopy and the blanket of moss creating a gentle cushion for her bare feet. As she walked, she would sing whispers to herself and believed that with each footstep her narrow feet released the subtle scents of the wood. She spent days sitting on the banks of the slow moving creek which offered a place of solitary tranquility to conjure up images of all the places she would someday go and the people she would meet along the way. Even the shadowy places within the wood held in them no fear, only adventure and respite from the sun.

But now a dark and sinister sadness inhabits the wood of limitless possibility. Always a bit different, he had once been more like them and she his closest ally. He taught her more of him than any of the others along with how to survive and live peacefully within the wood. He is the one she should trust above all and like her, has legs that are slightly long for his stature. For the girl, he always stood taller than the rest. But nine years had passed since the great sadness overtook him and he left them to roam about the wood in solitude. He is now more beast than man and the wood of a million dreams holds her most pernicious fears. With each isolated breath he extracts more of its former joy and the wood becomes darker and more desolate. His insidious grasp casting a great shadow of fear and uncertainty over all those who live at its edge.

The sorrowful darkness is all the others know and they cower in his wake. The girl is the only one who remembers a time when her skin was soft as spring petals and she knew not the sharpness of the quills along her back. The time when he stood taller than the rest.

She hears her mother calling, “Come inside, it’s almost dark.”

She starts back from the bluff toward the simple, bare house along the edge of the wood. Although he’s been silent since that desperate night last summer, they have taken once again to spending the nights underground. She gathers a few things from above before heading down to join her mother in the small hole below the floor that serves as sanctuary.

Once within, she looks to her mother who is preparing a sparse, but ample meal for them. Her mother now inhabits the hole throughout most of the day, coming out only to gather food and wash clothes.

She removes her boots and cloak and her mother motions for her to sit.

With muffled voice she says, “Eat, please.”

After dinner, they lay down to rest. As the girl drifts off to sleep she thinks about how the fear in her mother’s heart now outdistances all of the joy she has seen in her lifetime.

The night is dangerously still and the frogs aren’t singing their repetitive throaty songs. The girl only sleeps for a few moments at a time and is sharply aware of the quills along her back.

In the dead silence, she hears the low, gravely howl — the sound they all fear most. The howl is a distance away, which gives her some comfort, but she knows the inevitable pattern of his wander. Within minutes, she hears him approaching the humble house. He circles the house for minutes that drag on like hours. She glances over to see that her mother is still sleeping. He is now right outside the door to their shabby home, breathing in their remaining joy and out his limitless sadness. He begins to push on the door — at first a slight budge, then a horrific jolt. He is in the house now, standing just above their sanctuary. Her mother awakens and the girl motions to her to stay still. She lies motionless except for the dreadful tingling of her waxing quills and watches him through the knotted floor — the immense thievery of his each and every breath.

She notices how grotesque he has become. How he no longer walks upright like a man, but on all fours — more canine than human. He puts his nose down to the floor and she knows he is aware they are only a few inches below him. Then, he turns and goes back through the door he destroyed minutes before.

The girl knows he won’t be back on this night. For tonight he simply seeks to bludgeon what is left of their joy so that he might better tolerate the great depths of his own misery. As she holds her mother tight, she thinks how his patterns are changing and wonders if his hunger for control is growing stronger.

At morning’s first light, the girl and her mother come out from below the floor. The girl notices that the quills have doubled in length through the night. She puts on her boots and cloak and begins the task of fixing the shattered door while her mother looks outside with an empty stare.

“Don’t despair, Mother, we can dig the hole deeper and reinforce the door.”

Her mother nods almost without notice.

“Today I will find his tracks so we can understand this new pattern.”

With that, her mother quietly returns to the hole beneath the floor.

With the door repaired, the girl sets out wearing her boots and cloak, the past night’s fear still surging through her veins. The clouds are low and the light changing from fall’s clarity to winter’s haze.

As she walks toward the bluff, she remembers for a moment the days before the sadness came. She approaches the top of the bluff ands stops to look down upon the wood below. She hears the sound of the eagle far above her. He descends toward her and lands on a nearby rock. She remembers how he would watch over her from up high throughout the days passed with happiness in the wood of a million dreams. But, she hasn’t seen him since the sadness came.

She notices that he now has a grayer wisdom about him.

She looks to him and says, “Why have you come now, after so much time has passed?”

The eagle is silent.

She continues, “I thought you had gone away, do you know about the great sadness that now lives in the wood?”

She wants to go on, but stops herself.

Then the eagle speaks in a way she can understand.

“I have come to warn you about what I have seen,” he says, “he is no longer anything that you can remember or even imagine.”

She becomes aware of her quills once more.

“He no longer walks or lives as a man and he is no longer content to wander with his sadness in solitude,” he says.

She listens and thinks of the night before and her mother sitting within the hole under the floor.

The eagle continues, “His sadness has turned into an incurable anger and I have seen the cruelty with which he now acts. You must take your mother, tell the others and leave the edge of the wood. It is no longer safe here.”

“But this is our home, why must we leave?” she asks.

“His cruelty is too great and I fear for you all now, you must go,” he replies.

The girl feels her quills lengthening once more. But this time, she feels herself flood with an anger she has never before felt and she begins to feel her memories fading.

The eagle says, “Now go, don’t wait.”

He looks at her kindly and returns to his place in the sky above the wood.

As the girl walks down from the bluff toward the edge of the wood, her feet feel heavier in her boots and her back drags lower — the anger and hatred growing with every step. She tries to remember the past, but can only feel fear and sadness now. The quills beneath her cloak beginning to hurt her more and more with each step. She returns home to find her mother still waiting in the hole beneath the floor.

“He wants more now, he has become angry and wants others to feel what he feels,” the girl explains, “we must leave this place.”

Her mother nods in silent agreement and says, “Rest now, we shall leave in the morning.”

They both secure their places in the hole beneath the floor for the night. On this night there is no moon and the mist from the day has changed to a drenching rain. She keeps her boots on to sleep, unsure of what the night might bring.

Then, she hears the howl in the distance. She remembers the words of the eagle upon the bluff, “he is no longer content to wander with his sadness in solitude…” She feels her anger growing and the painful quills starting to become her. She then opens the lock to the hole beneath the floor and stands in the room with her boots planted while her mother sleeps.

The girl hears nothing but her own breathing. As she stands in the room, her back is straight and the quills stand beneath her cloak are almost as long as she is tall. Then, the door crashes in sync with an enormous clap of thunder. She sees the rain outside blowing with an unearthly force and her anger grows stronger.

He is there, just outside the door, peering in at her. Each breath he takes a misty fog of sadness, anger and insufferable cruelty.

In an instant, she feels a force unseen cast itself upon her as she collapses to the floor. He is still outside the door and water begins to pour into the house. She looks up, but nothing is there. It feels like she is shrinking under the pressure and the roof of the house seems as tall as the forest. She is no longer herself, there is something else inhabiting her now.

With each breath, she retreats further into herself and the force takes over. In her retreat, she looks out the door once more to see him calmly watching with an insidious smile — a subtle welcome to join in his madness. She feels her body being pulled by something from beyond her toward the hole where her mother still sleeps. The force pulls her close to her mother as she tries to scream from her retreat, but her lips don’t move. She knows that the force wants to take her mother from her by her own hand. She draws closer and closer to her mother and the force places her hands upon her mother’s throat and her mouth just behind her mother’s ear. She tries once more to scream and wake her mother. At that moment, the girl feels herself rushing back from beyond.

“Mother! He’s here!”

Her mother wakes and the girl pushes her away into the safe shadow of the hole. She then rushes outside where he is waiting in the cold, pouring rain — the shadow of a cruel smile upon his twisted face. She stands up straight and throws her cloak onto the ground. She stands tall with the razor sharp quills standing straight upon her back.

She beckons him to challenge her.

“You want us to feel your sadness!”

She turns to the side and charges towards him. As she steps back, she sees that one of her quills has lodged in the side of his face. He winces and begins to step away. She charges again, this time lodging a dozen quills in his neck. He is now on the ground, the smile has gone.

She senses his fear.

She then places her heavy boot upon his neck as the rain pours down upon them, realizing that she has the power to kill him with one more blow. As she stands above him, she looks down into his eyes and sees for once his overwhelming fear and profound sadness. That he is broken, his cruelty merely a mask for his own weakness. In that instant, she realizes that mercy is her only salvation and that by standing tall she can turn the tide and cast her own fear away.

She whispers, “Who have you become?”

He looks up at her in agony and says nothing.

She removes her boot from his throat and he gets up slowly from the heaviness of the mud and tremendous weight of his own immense sadness. He turns to walk away, then looks back. They stand motionless in the pouring rain for what seems like an eternity. She sees tears forming in his eyes and, in them, her own reflection. She wishes to return to the time when the wood held within it such promise.

“I fear no more,” she says softly.

She sees a tiny glimpse of the the man he is beyond the beast. He reluctantly breaks their gaze and begins to walk slowly away from the edge of the wood. She remains standing upright in the pouring rain. The memories of the time when he once stood taller than the rest come rushing back. Just as he begins to fade from sight, the rain turns to snow and a soft blanket of winter’s first covers the wood of a million dreams. With her quills exposed, she stands by her mother’s side with peace in her eyes.

For many years to come, the girl inhabited the wood of a million dreams. She spent hours each day writing about who she may one day become — with her pain as her instrument and the forest her ink. She would daydream with her guardian eagle and used her quills to scribe thoughts and dreams upon the trees until no quills remained. She sometimes thought about the sadness of the past, but mostly the joy of the present and the promise of the future. When the final word was scribed from the last remaining quill, a light began to cast down through the canopy, creating shadows that danced more vibrantly than ever before.

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General

Brown-Eyed Girl

Dear Brown-Eyed Girl,

I lay there on the table with the bright lights shining overhead. There is a chill in my veins and the subtle beginnings of tears forming in my eyes. Your father stands silently beside me, his hand placed gently on my forehead. He is wearing a look of overwhelming joy with a faint dusting of fear.

Although my body is asleep, my mind is alive. I think to myself – who is this child?

Moments later I hear you and, by the grace of God, the sounds are strong. Images begin racing through me – a newborn baby, young girl, a teenager, a woman. A daughter we have in you. A daughter with a small, graceful neck and the frailest shoulders. Continue reading

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Poetry

She

Feet cast into blackened stone

Tide worn roots rise above dark still water

Gold threads sway on cerulean winds

Bones bend beneath faded kingdom

Braided onyx interlace with steel

Reptilian glare upon deep howling heart

Birds carry mimics in morning air

Pirate vines ensnare with accented tongue

Rivers of sweat drench sienna soil

Souls dense from ancient rains melt into song

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General

Iterating to the Moon

When we are young, we mistakenly believe that once an adult, we should and will have it all figured out. As if the grown-ups have known all along what they wanted to be when they grew up and they act upon this knowledge with grace and conviction.

Some do, I suppose, but turns out most don’t. In my case, it took 10 years and what feels like a trip to the moon and back to see what I believed should have been so clear all along. For a long time I lamented not having more clarity from the get go and resented the side tracks I made to get right tracked again. But not anymore, I now see it as case of simple iteration.

I recently made a trip to Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, to show my two kids where my childhood dreams were born and hopefully light a spark in them, like the one that was lit in me by my late grandfather. I hoped they would be as mesmerized by science holding hands with adventure and how together they do a dangerous dance beyond the boundaries of our atmosphere.

Mercury…Gemini…Apollo 7…10…11…13…Shuttles…Stations…Mars…all of these experiments designed to advance the greater mission. Each one proving some hypotheses and disproving others. Some were viewed as successes, some successful failures, but all tested boundaries and broke through barriers. Each and every one iterations on the next…innovation perfected.

It is likely the experience lit a spark or two for the kids, only time will tell how significant. But as an adult, I took away something different this time. Along with the coolness of science, engineering and adventuring our way to a new future, I hoped they walked away with one simple truth.

Clarity of mission is essential, perfect execution is optional. With that, you can iterate yourself all the way to the moon.

Today’s post was inspired by good friend, kindred spirit, and fellow seeker, Clark Kellogg.

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