Monday, May 30, 2011

Lemonade Stands

I've always liked those "Life's Instruction Book" kind of books and one of my favorites was one written by a father to his son who was going away to college, a "Dad's messages to a son who is on his way to becoming a man and how he can become a decent one". My own father--and mother, too--certainly taught me so much of that stuff, although not in writing; their method was more by unwavering example. One piece of advice from that book that I remember having come from that book and that I have always followed was a rather cute one: "Always buy from kids selling lemonade at a lemonade stand."

Why would you want to do that? Well, this world runs on commerce and making money is essential. The sooner that kids get a positive taste of that, the more successful they will be in life; it is one of the more important lessons and your participation in that is a valuable investment in the future of our country. Besides, it is very fun to do it and your involvement in the transaction is not to be concerned about whether you actually want the lemonade, or whether you think that the price is a "good deal," or even that you think that lemonade was made by their mother so the whole thing is rather artificial...your part is to enjoy being put into the role of letting young entrepreneurs know that there IS a market for their efforts and that they CAN obtain customers for their products. I actually can't imagine how it would be possible to drive on past a group of enthusiastically waving children, smiling and so hopeful that somebody will stop and buy their lemonade. You'd have to be a special sort of callous individual to think "I'm too busy now," or "I'm not really thirsty," or "A DOLLAR for that tiny paper cup of lemonade, who do they think they are fooling?" Making those kids happy feeds and refreshes you way more than the lemonade does.

And, of course, all this goes for any other similar thing that kids are doing...selling Girl Scout cookies or candy bars for some charity drive or, my parents' favorite, Boy Scouts in our neighborhood selling lightbulbs! Those Boy Scouts were our family's main supplier of lightbulbs for decades, and then in another town when my father was too old to be able to hear the low battery warnings and my mother wouldn't let him climb ladders anymore, he depended upon a service provided by the Boy Scouts, checking all their smoke alarms.

I also find it impossible to drive past high school car washes, even though I realize that getting my car washed that way will end up taking some time. But for sure you will get a thorough cleaning of your car and you also will be treated to the show of attractive teenagers having a blast and getting more soaked and soaped up than even the cars are. But they will feel supported by the adults in their community and will find their school spirit strengthened...so that, too, helps education.

On an LA to Mexico Carnival Cruise I took with my sister and her two children, our first destination was Catalina Island, just right across the water from Long Beach where the cruise began, but somehow going there this way, it seemed more like Naples. One of the things we did was rent a golf cart (the only vehicles allowed in the Catalina city of Avalon) so that we could take the city self-tour. My sister said to me, "I'll pay for the golf cart if you will drive it!" Such a deal...I'd want to drive it anyway!

It was quite a great tour and it took us way up into the hills above the bay with views that were outstanding. We were also getting quite hot being exposed out there in the sun and we were genuinely getting thirsty. As luck would have it, as we were coming through a residential neighborhood up there, we saw kids on the sidewalk with a card table and a pitcher of lemonade....JUST what the doctor ordered! Of course I stopped and the kids were so excited to have four customers! I am sure that based on their location up in the hills of this small town with virtually no traffic, they hadn't seen many people come by, but they sure had us and we liked their lemonade so much that all four of us had second glasses of it.

And that is an important thing, by the way; when you do this, you have to take the product (and it helps if you actually do want it!). There was a brief period in my life when, if people were selling chocolate bars for charity, I would just give them the price of the candy bar as a donation but say that they could keep the candy. I thought I was doing something good (after all, they got the money), but after a few times of doing this, it became pretty obvious to me that THEY didn't like it. Who wants to attempt to sell something that somebody doesn't really want? Of course, "in real life," you won't stay in business very long if you don't have a product (or labor skills) that people genuinely want, but that's not what we are teaching here with children entrepreneurs (or at least, maybe I should say that that is not what WE are teaching here; they're learning it more than they need by all those people who pass them by). What we are teaching is just the basic concept that a child CAN have the thrill of setting up a flow of incoming money, and the details of what product is truly desirable can be worked out as they continue to get older. (As an aside, after I booked my airline tickets for my trip to Palau this summer, I checked out on the Internet to see what the planes I was going to go on looked like. I found an Airbus website that was designed for airline purchasing agents and I thought to myself, imagine someone actually being a commercial jetliner salesman! Of course there are those, but it isn't one of the things a person normally considers, I imagine. I wonder what kind of commissions THEY get? Well, while we are at it, who is it who sells ocean liners to cruise lines?)

A couple of weeks ago, I bought some lemonade from two enthusiastic boys and one little girl who were, again, selling in what I figured was not a heavily-trafficked neighborhood. They were like explosive Jack Russell Terriers as I drove by! Lemonade is NOT on my very low-carb diet. But I did sip some of it before I got back into my car just so that I could genuinely tell them how good it was. (I wished I could drink it, and they were cleverly also offering refills for half price, but I couldn't participate in that.) Once I got home, I privately threw it away. And just last week, in another neighborhood, there were two boys selling very large and beautiful grapefruits, three of them for a dollar. Grapefruits aren't on my diet any more than lemonade is, but I raved over how beautiful those grapefruits looked and I said that three for a dollar was a great deal (even though I had absolutely no idea at all). I wondered whether those grapefruits had been grown in their back yard (citrus does grow quite well here), which would have been a good selling point, but I didn't ask them as the details of where the product came from wasn't germane to my purpose, since they didn't offer this piece of information. I mean, maybe their mother had bought all the grapefruits at the local grocery store, but to lead the kids into revealing that would have been to deflate the power of the experience I was wanting them to have.

As it so happens, I needed to go to Ralph's (a major supermarket here) to buy some more yogurt, butter, and turkey sausages for my breakfast the next morning, so I did happen to check out the grapefruit prices. Ralph's was selling grapefruits that were navel-orange-size for 79 cents each, so these three LARGE grapefruits for a dollar WAS a great deal! And the three co-workers I gave them to the next morning at work were thrilled to get them, so I received emotional rewards not only from the kids selling them, but also from my co-workers in the office!

When I was vagabonding throughout Mexico some time in the early 80s, I ran into a British couple, Rod (a partner in an estate agency, what we here call a real estate brokerage) and Judith (a second grade teacher), who had taken a year off from their respective jobs to take a trip around the world. We three liked each other so much that we spent two weeks in Mexico traveling together, and then later I visited them several times in Hurworth, where they lived. When I was alone, and obviously traveling very much on the cheap--using cross-country busses or even walking from town to town--I was pretty much left alone in Mexico, but being with very well-dressed and beautiful Judith with her striking long blond hair, we were beset constantly by people begging for money or those who wanted to touch her hair. Judith was very generous in giving money to all these beggars (which, of course, simply made even more people run over to us), but whenever people came up to us selling things, she would wave them away.

One day we were enjoying lunch and a "cerveza" (Rod's favorite Spanish word) outdoors in a beautiful plaza in Guadalajara (one of my three favorite cities in Mexico), when a young girl came by selling what looked like cute little beetles made out of walnut shells. I was kind of fascinated by this and asked the girl about them (in Spanish), and she explained to me that she had this idea of making these and since they were unique, she thought that she could make some money selling them. In English, I said to Judith, "It's kind of funny how you are very generous giving money to the people who are begging, but those who are attempting to make a real living, you wave them on." I wasn't criticizing her, and she didn't take it as a criticism, but only an interesting observation that she, herself, hadn't thought of before. She said, "You are right, I end up supporting those who are doing nothing, and turning away those who are in some measure entrepreneurial." Being the smart person that she was, she realized that her energies were at cross-purposes with her beliefs, so she studied that girl's walnut beetles and selected one of them to buy. "I think this clever hand-made item from another country would be something cute to show my students when I come home," she explained, and from then on, instead of waving the sellers on, she would look to see what they actually were selling and if it were something she could use for "classroom show and tell," she would buy it. She ended up with bags full of cute hand-made objects that she shipped back to England. This didn't stop her from giving to beggers, too, but now she was more discriminatory, reserving her charity for those who seemed to have fewer options.

As for Rod, he was fascinated by the people who would set up card tables on street corners and lay out extremely variable merchandise to sell...which could be anything: gum, bottles of Coca Cola, playing cards, a paperback book or two, razor blades, condoms, grooming items, puzzles, stockings, apparently whatever the vendor felt that people might want to buy, or he had experienced a demand for in the past. Rod said that he understood that in Mexico the concept was that anybody should have the freedom to make a living however they could without the obstacles of special licenses and other regulations, and I think the Chinese must really be into this kind of thing, too. Here in the various border states, we have Mexican immigrants all gathered around in front of the U-Haul rental agencies or Home Depot stores, hoping to be hired for day labor, which is actually illegal here if they are undocumented (although a former husband of one of my sisters says that he uses people like this all the time and you couldn't find better workers, at least on a day labor basis). Many Americans are severely bothered by their presence, but I wonder if what the illegal aliens are doing is something that is ingrained in their culture and America is proving itself to be a less free place because one isn't supposed to be able to do it. I wonder if unemployment here continues to increase if we will start to see American citizens doing the same thing in order to earn some money. It kind of makes me think of Of Mice and Men, how if we had another Great Depression, would we have groups of men walking across the country to some hoped-for promised land and desiring work along the way, such as to help bring in the harvests. In this present-day era, all that kind of work would be done by the Mexicans and the American citizens would starve to death. That is, all except those who as kids had had lemonade stands.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Republic of Palau: Paradise or Adventure?


This year, I think I have spent more time studying, figuring out, and planning my vacation than I will actually spend on the vacation. What an amazing, difficult, frustrating task it has been; nearly impossible, really. But I guess that's the story if you want to go off the beaten path. Oh how I wished it was as easy as my last trip somewhere (TWO summers ago), which was to Kauai. Regarding Kauai, I knew that I wanted to see the Na Pali coast from the sea by zodiac boat, and everything just fell into place from there. One search on Travelocity got me a non-stop flight to the Lihui airport, the hotel I wanted at about half the normal price, and a nice rental car. One click travelling!

But, I don't know how many, millions, I guess, people go to Hawaii every year. The choice in flights, accommodations, anything you want, are legion.

But this year, I wanted to go to a place I hadn't been to before, and that apparently NOT all that many OTHERS (comparatively) have been to before, either. Micronesia.

I had read somewhere that even longed-for destinations like Fiji and Tahiti only have visitors that number in the thousands, so flights there really are just basically stop-overs on the long hauls back and forth between New Zealand or Australia, which are, themselves, pretty popular travel destinations. I have often wondered what it would take to make me ever go to Australia again, with its torturous 16-hour flight. I figured I have to be able to afford First Class, which I imagine I will NEVER be able to (or, when once faced with the difference in fares, I just never would spend the money). But, here, all of a sudden, I have booked myself on a flight (coach) that begins in Los Angeles at 12:40 PM on a Sunday and ends at 11:15 PM on a MONDAY. Well, that Monday is because of crossing the International Date line, so it's not really as bad as it sounds, but even so, from beginning to end, this flight consists of about 19 hours of travel time. I will be moving ahead across 16 different times zones!

Originally, as I mentioned in my previous blog entry, I wanted to go to Ponape (my main goal was see the ancient ruins of Nan Madol), but I gave up on that. THOSE flights were on the order of 36 hours due to all the flight changes and stop-overs. A typical flight to Ponape (now called Pohnpei, but the airlines still call it Ponape) involved Los Angeles to Honolulu to Guam (with about a 16-hour lay-over) and then on to Truk (now known as Chuuk) and then, finally Ponape. Another choice might be Los Angeles to Honolulu to Majuro to Kwajalein to Kosrae and THEN Ponape, depending upon which way you wanted to cycle around the circle of the Continental Airlines Island Hopper (Continental was basically the only affordable airline going to those destinations). Travel reviewers routinely described this travel as the most grueling they had ever done anywhere in the world. I felt that to stop at all of those places, it might make sense to GO to all of them, let's say spend a couple of days in Honolulu, and maybe another couple of days in Guam, and Truk with their fantastic lagoon sounded like a place I wanted to see, so let's spend a day or two there, as well. All this was just too complex for the on-line flight systems (Travelocity, Expedia, Orbitz, etc.) because which way the flights go is based on what day it is. For example, once I began to study travel books about Micronesia, I decided I wanted to add Yap to the picture, but flights to Yap (in and then back out again) were only once a week, so if you wanted to see Yap for more than an hour, you had to stay there a whole week, which I did not want to do.

I finally began to make some progress when I downloaded Continental's flight schedules and made a detailed spreadsheet of every place I wanted to go to (which by this time included yet another destination, Palau) and what days and times those destinations were served. But no on-line system could handle as many ins and outs as I wanted to do...Honolulu, Ponape, Truk, Yap, Palau, and Guam (Guam was essential for Yap and Palau, as Continental did not go to either of those two places except from Guam) and even Continental's own reservation system could only handle about half of them. So I fudged it a bit just to see what kind of cost was involved, cutting the various stop-overs in half, and that method revealed total ticket prices in the two, three, four, or five thousand dollar range, whereas the original LA to Ponape 36-hour "round trip" with all the stops cost about $1,800. Why the price became astronomical when one scheduled stop-overs at each of these places instead of booking a round-trip to one destination that involved the plane landing at all of them anyway, I can only explain as an idosyncracy of the on-line scheduling systems. Probably if I used a travel agent to schedule it all, or perhaps telephoned Continental airlines directly (instead of doing this on-line on their reservation system), I could get a reasonable deal. But by then I began to tire of the idea of all those different places and began to wonder if ANY of them were really worth it. I began to yearn to simply stay at home.

But I couldn't get the idea of going to Micronesia out of my mind. I began to read a Micronesian travel guide much more carefully, and also got a video on travel to Micronesia, and decided that only Palau was really the place to go to. While the ruins of Nan Madol might be fascinating, as the ONLY reason to go to Ponape, they don't measure up as all that much. Yap really was a lot of trouble...the main reason to go there was that of all these islands, it was the one that most kept its ancient ways (meaning, it is the most primitive), but that carries with it a nuisance to the modern-day traveler, and that is to go almost anywhere on Yap, to each different village, you have to get permission from each different village chief. Also, Yap does have the curiosity of having a treasury of huge stone "coins" that are were once used for money (some of these can be have diameters taller than a man), but where those stone coins were originally made was in Palau (and part of what made them valuable was that they somehow had to be taken across the sea in a wooden canoe from Palau to Yap, so the difficulties and dangers of that added to their preciousness) and some of them are still there (as is the quarry where the stones were cut out of).

Regarding Truk (Chuuk), the travel guide was forthright enough to say that except for those who come to Truk to dive in the deep lagoon to see the dozens of Japanese ships that were sunk by the Americans in World War II (which I was NOT going to go see), visitors don't like Truk, as it is somewhat an unsavory and possibly dangerous place. Apparently the people of "Chuuk", unlike most of Micronesia, are for some reason rather belligerent, which apparently has to do with all the bad economy and unemployment (which in Chuuk is close to 100%). Even in Palau, which maybe has the best economy of any place in Micronesia, most of the "economy" is charity from the United States (and the rest is whatever tourism they manage to have).

But Palau is unquestionably beautiful, especially with the Rock Islands (such as seen in the photo above) that are a wonder of the world. This kind of water is beautiful beyond belief:


And I would love to go on a boat trip (maybe even kayaking) and spend an afternoon at a beach like this:


And there are lush jungles:


And some interesting remains of their ancient civilization, such as these stone pathways from village to village:


There is a certain beauty to their ancient way of building:


And the level of their crafts is quite amazing, such as beautiful detailed carvings (story boards) that they used to record their myths and legends:


And while there is modernity, they still do have pockets of people who live more or less as they always have:


Of course, the MAIN reason most people go to Micronesia is to scuba dive; Palau is supposed to be one of the primo dive spots in the world. But I will not be scuba diving as I have realized that it causes me anxiety that is greater than the beauty of it is worth (this maybe comes from my near-death experience scuba-diving at the Great Barrier Reef, even though I DID "get back on the horse that threw me" and went scuba diving afterwards in Fiji, but I think I have "done it" enough to suit me and snorkeling, instead, will do just fine!). To even read words such as "Blue Hole" or "Drop Off" or "Underwater Caves" or "Wreck Diving" or "A Hundred Feet Down", while inciting lust in a dedicated diver, almost sets me up for heart palpatations. So, even though I am a certified scuba diver who has already been "a hundred feet down", and am going to a scuba diving place where most divers would give their life savings to get to go to, I will be enjoying the OTHER charms of the Republic of Palau.

I have been saying "Micronesia" as if it were a unified place, but just as Melanesia and Polynesia consist of several different independent countries and territories, so does Micronesia, which was one of the difficulties in just figuring out the airline fights (since different countries have different economies and politics and thus different needs for and frequency of use of airline travel). All of the main islands of Continental's Island Hopper, for example, were in one country, called the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the main islands of which are Kosrae, Pohnpei, Chuuk, and Yap, which are states within this federation. Palau is a separate republic as are the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, and Nauru. There is also the Commonwealth of the Marianas. And Guam is a territory of the United States. One thing that interests me about all of these islands is that they are more or less on the equator, and while I have CROSSED the equator before, I had never gone to anywhere ON the equator before. And, I believe, hurricanes do not occur on the equator, but they do START from there and cause their damage elsewhere. So, tropical islands that do not get periodically damaged by hurricanes (such as what happens to Hawaii) is a pretty interesting concept. However, these islands suffered greatly during the Japanese invasions prior to World War II and the American efforts to destroy Japanese naval bases, thus all the sunken wreckage everywhere. One of the islands (Bikini, in the Marshall Islands) is where the United States did atom bomb testing. But throughout it all, the people of these "micro" islands seem to have managed to keep their cultures and identity intact.

Now that I knew enough about flight schedules and the like, I was able to do a simple "round trip Los Angeles/Palau" search (which, by the way, is actually a Los Angles/KOROR" search, as Koror is the main island in Palau that people go to, whereas a "Palau" search gets confused with a location in Sardinia of all places!) and lo and behold a somewhat acceptable flight on DELTA was discovered by ORBITZ that cost (what looked by now as) a "reasonable" $1,600. Travelocity and Expedia had nothing even close, so Orbitz is this year's winner and I booked through them the flight they discovered.

The flight goes from Los Angeles to Tokyo, and then after a short layover, a plane goes from Tokyo to Koror. The return flight isn't QUITE as good, as there is a longer lay-over in Tokyo this time, not long enough to really do anything, but too long to just stay in the airport the whole time, so it looks like I might dare to venture out into Tokyo proper a little bit. Asia is a big hole in my travel experience, in that I have never been there, I've always considered it something rather difficult to deal with (although I guess it isn't really) due to Asia having languages that aren't easily deciphered in a phrase book. Just to be on the safe side, though, I think I will have to bring SOMETHING that deals with English/Japanese, which I may very well need even in Palau, as tourism there is heavily loaded for the Japanese, as well as the Chinese. Several of the hotels in Koror I have investigated on-line are described as "primarily for Chinese businessmen" (those would be the downtown, business district hotels), whereas several of the resorts cater to the Japanese and their websites are even IN Japanese, not English. One of the most beautiful resorts is owned by Japan Airlines. Despite their website being entirely in Japanese, based on their photos, that's the place I would have loved to have stayed, but it was the second most expensive resort in Palau and way beyond anything I would pay. The Japanese are apparently really into scuba-diving.

But now here I am with a booked and paid-for flight, but I have no idea where I will end up staying. That has been another frustrating experience. Things are quite a bit more expensive there than I would have expected, especially if the place is nice or has lots of amenities (and by that I mean "balcony", "swimming pool", and, preferably, a beach...this IS a vacation to a tropical paradise, after all). But $400 or $500 a night is not something I will do...even $250 a night is not something I will do, and that price is getting down to "mid-range". In the hundreds, say $150, generally means "just a room", not a pool, and certainly not a beach, and even that is, to me, "freak out expensive" when multiplied by nearly a week's worth of nights.

There ARE budget places, possibly most commonly frequented by these Chinese businessmen, so they really are just "hotels" and based on the photos I have seen, can be quite depressing. The guidebooks say that they "offer nothing of interest to the vacationer", but, interestingly, reviews on-line are more critical of the mid-range places than they are of the budget places. I guess if you are a tourist and you spend $150 a night, $250 a night, you really expect to get a LOT, whereas if it is a budget hotel, you expect nothing more than a bed to lie down on. Most of those people say they are there only to rest their head between dives and they appreciate having available the budget option. (Those with money spring for the live-aboard dive boats, on which a week of dives cost a few thousand dollars.)

Orbitz, that was so helpful in finding my flight, would only come up with two hotel possibilities, neither of which appealed to me, but after checking out several other hotel-booking sites, I realized that very few of the available hotels were even checked by any of them at all. The best source of hotels was Palau's travel board site, that was fantastic for providing information about nearly everything--tours, museums, shops, restaurants, and every level of hotel, guest cottage, bed and breakfast, resort, motel, and condo rental. So I am sure that I will come up with SOMETHING, although it may end up being a far cry from what I have been hoping for. Which may end up being a run-down Asian version of a Motel 6 (which would be positively luxurious in comparison). Oh, there IS one other possibility, kind of crappy, but maybe kind of cool too...kind of way far out on the end of one of the islands still connected by bridges or roads, but where the roads are dirt and the rental car companies won't let you rent a car if you are going there, but will rent you a jeep or four-wheel-drive, instead, are what are called "ocean-side bungalows" that are individual cabins costing somewhere between $40 a night and $100 a night. They're described as being several hour's drive away from everything anybody wants to do when they come to Palau (off the tourist track), and are "too poor" to have much of a presence on-line, but if they are on the beach and they put a roof over your head and have bathrooms, how bad can they be? This may be kind of like camping, but with rustic cabins. They may actually be a secret paradise if only one would be brave enough to take a chance (would anybody complain about staying at Curry Village in Yosemite, for example? No, I don't think they would, unless they wanted to spring hundreds and hundreds for the Ahwanee Hotel). I don't know though, I just wish I could get better information (or better photographs) about them. I am spending too much money just flying to Palau to have my trip ruined by horrible accommodations. But I guess I wanted to have an adventure and this might be it.

We'll just have to see how things shake out in the next few days.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Who Remembers Him?

Seems the older I get, the more pleased I am to reconnect with the feelings of my youth. You know, such as here, with this guy (here I am taking a break while helping my father do some work in the back yard):


I had to search pretty hard to find a picture of me that wasn't of me dressed in a tuxedo going off to the prom or something, the sort of normal, formal, reason for a parent to take a picture. This was just me having a moment with my Dad, which I think every boy appreciated having whenever he could.

By reconnecting with the feelings of youth, I primarily mean reconnecting with who we were and what our dreams were, a concept I'm not too sure that very many people in our society grasp. I tend to stress it every time I make a presentation to the kids at the school where I work, and I know they haven't the slightest idea of what I am talking about (which means that who they are hasn't been lost, yet), but I continue to stress it, anyway. For example, I encourage them to ask their parents to KEEP the things they write and bring home. "Do NOT let them throw these things away," I say. "Have them put them away in a file or someplace safe and then give them to you twenty, thirty, forty years later. Because believe me, you will get so caught up in the requirements of life that are imposed on you that you will FORGET who you are now and who you wanted to be. And who you are now will be of vital importance to reconnect with when you are much older."

I suppose not everybody forgets these things, not completely, anyway, but they do get put so far back on a back burner that they may as well not exist anymore at all, and they WON'T exist if they aren't brought back to the forefront, again.

It wasn't until about a year ago that I began to appreciate as one of my favorites the Stephen Sondheim song from Follies, "The Road You Didn't Take," some of the lyrics of which I have selected here:

"...
You take one road,
You try one door,
There isn't time for any more.
Ones life consists of either/or.
One has regrets,
Which one forgets,
As the years go on.
The road you didn't take
Hardly comes to mind,
Does it?
The door you didn't try,
Where could it have led?
The choice you didn't make
Never was defined.
Was it!
Dreams you didn't dare
Are dead.
Were they ever there?
Who said!
I don't remember,
I don't remember
At all.
...
You take your road,
The decades fly,
the yearnings fade, the longings die.
You learn to bid them all goodbye.
...
The Ben I'll never be,
Who remembers him?"

One really ought to hear this song sung (I couldn't find any version on YouTube that was worthy of linking to, here). Sung right, there is hardly a more tragic line in all of musical theater than that concluding one, "The Ben I'll never be, who remembers him?" If not you, then who...and the point is, it IS you (the most precious part of you). Which means that he is dead and unremembered and unmourned even while you are still alive, or pretending to be.

I myself have had the privilege of reconnecting with things that I had written in childhood (thank you letters to grandparents, and the like) and in my youth (things I wrote to parents and friends while I was in college), and all I can really say is that reading those things made me LOVE that guy who was me...but where is he? What can I do to bring him back and make him live, again?

One thing when I was young, I loved reading boys' adventure stories, and when I liked an author, I wanted to read every book he or she wrote. I would come home from the library with my arm filled with a tall stack of books, everything I could find written by a beloved author. It didn't matter if the adventures were in foreign lands, or in outer space, or at the bottom of the sea, or on other planets, or in lands that don't exist at all, I wanted to go there. And, true, as an adult, I have gone places, more than most, but there's still so much more that I could do. I just have to allow myself to do it, make myself do it. And then write about it, oh yes, especially that.

Lately, I have built my home library and a book (two books in one, actually) that I had come across on Amazon.com a couple of years ago and bought to read sometime soon and then had forgotten about, I pulled off the shelf to read last week. It was by an author I had never heard of before, Willard Price, who was Canadian, but who had in real life life travelled all over the world (to 77 different countries), lived a real life of adventure, and had written 14 adventure books for youth between the years of 1949 (one year after I was born) and 1980 (one decade after I graduated from college). He also wrote about as many adventure and travel books for adults, too.

The book that I had gotten was a recent republication of two of his books, South Sea Adventure and Volcano Adventure:


Most interesting to me, since I strongly believe in the meaning of "coincidence," I had been attempting to figure out where to go for my vacation this summer, and for some reason, the idea of going to Micronesia kept running through my head. I had been to, and thoroughly loved, Melanesia (the Yasawa Island Group of Fiji still remains the most beautiful place I have ever been) and Polynesia (if Moorea isn't a dream island come true, I don't know what is!), so I definitely wanted to experience less-known Micronesia and the island in Micronesia that most appealed to me was Ponape, which not only was a still-unspoiled tropical paradise, but also has on one of its satellite islands the mysterious lost stone city of Nan Madol that I thought would be fascinating to see (best toured by boat from Ponape):


So here I was trying to figure out how to arrange a trip to Ponape, when I discover that in this Willard Price book written in 1952, that the South Sea Adventure the boys go to takes place in Ponape! So, humm, yeah, maybe I really should go there! Well, and then after facing nearly every death-possibility available in the Pacific, the boys at the end finally reach safety in the lagoon of Truk, described so beautifully in the book that I now have to go there, as well, since Truk and Ponape are served by the same Continental Airlines "Melanesia Island Hopper" flight.

I truly enjoyed this book and couldn't wait for after work so that I could come home and read another few chapters. The plot is a boy's adventure come true. The two main characters are brothers, Hal (nineteen years old) and Roger (thirteen years old) Hunt (so their ages "bracket" the "teens"). Here is how Wikipedia describes them: "Hal is the typical hero: tall, handsome, muscular, possessing an almost limitless knowledge of natural history and a caring and trusting disposition. Roger, on the other hand, is an ardent practical-joker, often mischievous but just as resilient and resourceful as his older brother." But in this book, their father, who runs a global animal collecting enterprise from their farm on Long Island for zoos, circuses, and nature parks (sorry if all this sounds "politically incorrect" by today's standards), get this, sends the boys off to the South Pacific without him to charter a schooner and collect a series of amazing exotic sea creatures to be shipped back home, and while they are at it, they are given the responsibility by a professor to check up on an oyster pearl bed in a secret lagoon that the professor had seeded with oysters transferred from the famous pearl diving region of the Middle East (that I know to have been the main money-making enterprise of Dubai prior to Dubai's development from oil wealth).

That teenagers could actually run such an enterprise was not at all a surprising concept in the 1950s and earlier eras, and exemplar educator John Taylor Gatto is quite fond of pointing out how America's first great Admiral, Admiral Farragut, was eight years old when he captured a British warship and put its captain in irons in the hold of the ship which he commandeered into Baltimore Harbor, and that Thomas Edison had already earned a fortune writing, printing, and selling news about the Civil War on a cross-country train where he worked in the baggage compartment after he was thrown out of school for being "unable to learn" and that George Washington was earning the equivalent of a hundred thousand dollars a year as a teenager surveyor in Culpepper County, Virginia, and countless other examples of what youth could do and DID do in earlier eras. Now, instead, for most of them, they are locked up in the meaningless prison of high school with no greater future ahead of them than paper-pushing drudgery in "cubicle hell"...if they can be employed at all, nowadays.

I loved being with these two boys in this book, and while I loved Hal, my favorite was the mischievous Roger, who, while sometimes getting into trouble, also often made the most useful discoveries. It wasn't so much "older brother, younger brother", they were equal partners in this adventure, each one contributing different characteristics to the adventure's success. They were for sure the kind of boys I would have admired if I were their age, and would have wanted to be like. Both them were also very funny and I often laughed out loud while reading the book, which I thought was brilliantly written and also rather educational. I kept being surprised that the author had been born in 1887, he seemed to know more than I might have expected, but anyone who had lived in several foreign countries and had travelled to 77 of them couldn't fail to know a lot.

As soon as I finished South Sea Adventure, I wanted to read another book in the series, but it was clear that this adventure led right into Underwater Adventure:

whereas Volcano Adventure, the second book included in the volume that I owned, was really the fourth book in the series. And, I hadn't read the first one, Amazon Adventure, just one book prior to the one that I had read, so today, true to my childhood self, I ordered from Amazon.com ALL of the books, coming from various used bookstores all around the country. I got them only from American suppliers (the most frequent source was the UK, but I didn't want to have the longer-distance shipping) and I got them in the best condition I could unless they were charging huge amounts for them (some of the good-condition hard-bound copies, which I did not buy, were costing several ten dollar bills, and the cheapest edition of the author's autobiography, which I wanted, but could not afford, was being sold for over $300). My Amazon.com order looks very peculiar, with some books costing one cent, and others being as much as just under $10. I spent over a hundred dollars getting these books and feel that I got a real bargain, but half of that hundred dollars is just the shipping costs, since, coming from separate used book stores, I could not take advantage of Amazon.com's free shipping.

I also bought every adult travel book written by Willard Price that I could find following the above-described rules, but there were only very few available, so I was only able to get about four of them, I think it was.

Concerning my idea of reconnecting with the dreams of my youth, it's awesome to not only read the stories of boys whose value system matched my own, but to have the time described match the era of my own childhood. Even the covers of the used books I ordered "say" something to me and remind me of the era of my past, such as these awesome ones:







Seeing these lined up like this, I notice that there is a kind of "Tarzan" feel to them. So, I wonder, does it mean something that right now I am living in Tarzana, the area of Los Angeles were Edgar Rice Burroughs had his estate and is named after him? Every detail of life tells a personal story, I believe, and one must use every sense to "braille" the story that these details tell. In fact, our very survival as a unique person depends upon it.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Comment About Smoking

One of my favorite blogs "The Beauty Hunter" posted this photo that generated a bit of controversy:


This is a photo of one of my favorite male models, Paddy Mitchell, and the controversy was that he was shown smoking. "Aren't you not supposed to show that?" "Is the designer trying to promote smoking?" "This is a filthy habit." "This can cause cancer." "Is this, in fact, sexy...yes...no?"

Well, I doubt that the designer (or photographer) is trying to "promote" smoking, but he (or she) probably IS desiring to attract some attention, and controversy is one way to do it. Since I, myself, have never smoked a day in my life, and don't ever intend to, I am somewhat immune to any attempts to GET people to smoke (in fact, I didn't really even notice that he was smoking in this picture, its qualities have already been subsumed into the effect of the whole), although I do understand the techniques involved since once upon a time I worked as a research project director for the nation's largest market-testing firm and one of our major clients was the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company (their major brand was Kool, the largest-selling menthol cigarette), and the name of THAT game was to unseat Marlboro from the number one spot among all cigarette brands (which I think will remain impossible). None of the time-tested techniques are on display here, for the motivation here is not to cause an interest in smoking, but to generate an interest in being this particular model (however you perceive him) and wearing the style of whatever clothes he ends up wearing, when he does wear any (and in the case of this particular model, he sells better by NOT wearing many clothes, which is ironic, but then, fashion is subtle).

So in this photo, the cigarette is used as a fashion accessory and to tell us something about the persona that is being sold here, which is a kind of "devil may care", "rebel", "bad boy," which as all men and women know, is a very appealing image. I guess what I am saying is that people generally do not admire sheep. They want to be able to decide for themselves what they want to do, or at least, they admire others who make their own decisions and act upon them.

So yeah, the rebel sells and it has nothing to do with "health" or "non-health".

CAN smoking be sexy? Well, what do you think? I think it is not so much the smoking itself, but the style, skills, and rituals involved. There is a lot of communication going on, such as the brand that the guy smokes. "Marlboro" says one thing, "Camel" says another, "Benson & Hedges" says another (and, yuck, one of those antiseptic low-tar-and-nicotine brands says another, especially some generic plain-packaged brands picked up at a discount store if they still even MAKE those anymore). If I smoked, I would probably smoke some never-heard-of foreign brand (although I understand that they are all awful) to indicate that this was something I had picked up in an exotic foreign land I had visited (how plebian to simply smoke some typical American brand). My father, when he smoked (he quit when I was a little boy), liked to roll his own, having the tobacco in a little bag in one pocket and rolling cigarette papers in another; he prided himself on being able to roll his cigarettes with one hand while astride a horse, so I guess you could say he out-Marlboroed the Marlboro Man and then some. I was also impressed by the style of James Bond as described in Ian Fleming's novels, in which James had a gun-metal cigarette case (that saved his life at least once by deflecting a bullet aimed for his chest) that he would daily fill with fifty cigarettes, which were custom-made with a particular foreign tobacco blend and specially-selected papers. James Bond, by the way, for someone who was really a professional killer, had an amazing fashion-conscience, even down to the designs on his dishes and the brands of jam he would put on his crisp breakfast toast. His taste for life helped fill up the empty spaces in which he was aware that he could be horribly killed or tortured at any second. Also, he used smoking as a method of being quiet and to think and plan; as if smoking were the incense used to support meditation.

Think of all the various ways a person can hold a cigarette, tough guy holding it between his thumb and index finger or doing something weird such as holding it backwards and sucking the smoke with the hand twisted outward (this says "Watch out, I am very scary"), somebody effete holding it delicately between the first two fingers as if the cigarette were a porcelain teacup held with pinky finger extended. There are those guys who hold the cigarette inside their hand so that it looks like any second they will be burning the palm of their hand except for the fact that while they are immune to the fear of danger, they are also utterly in control and every second are aware of what is going on with their body and in their surroundings.

What about those guys who blow smoke rings or exhale forceful dragon-plumes from out of their nostrils, what are THEY saying (very skilled, practiced, their bodies are fine-tuned fearless machines, almost like circus-performers, I guess).

I was once very attracted to a guy who did shipping in the warehouse at a place where I worked. Here was a guy who had such masterful control of every movement of his body that I craved to have him be an actor on stage that I could direct, he was a one-man body-communication-machine. He could immediately BECOME whatever race or nationality group he was with at the moment. He nearly made me laugh when he played pool with a gang of black guys (who all were packing heat), white skin or no--he was actually a redhead, himself--he suddenly was perfectly black. Or when he got together with his Latino friends, he slouched and sauntered so that you could almost see a Zoot Suit and you wondered where the low-rider Chevy Impala was parked. But when he was with me, he was the earnest, artistic youth, all wide-eyed, poetic, and philosophical. He used all his tools like juggling instruments. If he did a tire rotation or a brake job, he made the wrenches spin the hubs like Waring blenders and even doing some routine task in the shipping warehouse such as stapling a label on a crate, he'd do it by grabbing the bottom end of the stapler and spinning it around with a slam so that in one singular quick motion he both opened up the stapler and nailed the staple home in the label. It was actually orgasmic to watch him work.

You can be sure that he was a master at handling a cigarette. I used to love to lean against the wall next to him when he was on a smoking break, just so I could see him dispose of the cigarette after he had sucked it dry. Without even seeming to move at all, he'd somehow do a subtle flick with his finger that would send the butt flying yards away like a bullet. It was like the physical version of an African click language, whereby periodically the speaker will make a click inside the hollow of their cheeks that could make your ears ring (this verbal sound is indicated as an exclamation point in their written language)--how do they DO that, instantly generating such force and power? Well, his flicking the cigarette technique was just like that and while for him it was merely just a practical method of getting rid of what was now trash, he knew I loved it, so during our conversation he would look up at me with a certain expression for a moment which would tell me to "watch for it" and then "FLICK!", that cigarette would go flying. Kind of reminded me of a girlfriend I had who loved to watch me masturbate and would give a little shriek when the cumshot came. This was somehow almost better than having it inside her, where the masculine force of it was buried and absorbed instead of being on fascinating display.

Speaking of women, there, too, cigarettes have their own sexuality. Just this morning while enjoying my fourth cup of breakfast coffee, I was thumbing through one of my favorite magazines that had arrived in the mail yesterday, Wallpaper, and came across this photo:


And if you don't understand that the photograph is heavily swimming in female sexuality, maybe the bowl of fruit in this picture from the same series will make it more clear (and if IT doesn't, just take my word for it):


That photo of the female cigarette case with the colored Vogue cigarettes very definitely reminded me of another girlfriend I had had when I was in college, who started out smoking black-papered, gold-rimmed cigarettes held in a long cigarette holder, but then moved over to hot pink, turquoise, and other beautifully-colored cigarettes about which I was quite frank in my admiration of. Maybe I was weird in the kind of stuff I liked about women...we could use Faye Dunaway in the original Thomas Crown Affair, one of the most stylish movies ever, as a model of what I liked:


Because of her in that movie, I made all my girlfriends wear hats. I, of course, was Steve McQueen, where even bank robbery was sexy:


I frankly never worried too much about why one of my favorite movies of all time had two main characters who were utterly amoral; this had nothing to do with my own sense of morality, but had more to do with an awareness that beauty, style, and sex can trump morality any time, but morality has to do with an inner character whereas beauty, style, and sex can exist in the realm of outer appearance, and so I see no conflict between my thinking that one probably ought to not smoke, yet I can still see it as sexy and communicative of a strength that is very appealing and maybe even admirable. And what is life, anyway, but conflict and contrast and mysteries that only manage to add up in arcane dimensions that one can spend a lifetime discovering and exploring. So yeah, please don't smoke, but I don't mind it if you do.