So, as the clock tics its final tocs to closeout another year, I always find myself getting a bit reflective (and I’m not talking about my pasty Wisconsin-bred winter skin tone.) Like most people, I like to reflect on the year that was, and imagine the year ahead that might be. It’s an inspiring time of year for many of us. Time to remember the good, leave the bad behind and embrace a fresh start. For me, I’ve gained the most inspiration in life from the people I’ve met around the world, listening to their stories and hearing about their dreams. I’d like to share an experience that I had a few years back, one that continues to inspire me daily.
A few years ago I was hiking in the Canadian Rockies, up in Yoho National Park. I had just completed the most challenging hike of my life and I was sitting in my wilderness hostel one night, all alone, just nursing a few blisters. It was a shared room with 4 beds. Several hours went by and no one else had checked into the room, so I assumed I would have the room to myself. Later that night, while I was preparing to go to bed, an old man walks into the room wearing a headlamp and heavy winter gear and kindly introduces himself. He was layered from head to toe with backpacking attire, a bit out of breath and had an adrenaline high on his face as if he had just escaped the jaws of a grizzly bear. At first I thought he was the owner of the hotel coming to greet me, as his guest. Turns out he was a 77-year-old backpacker who had just completed the full Iceline Trail, the one I had just completed a shortcut version of a few hours earlier. This is a serious hike (at serious altitude). My shins and knees were still throbbing like teenage girls’ hearts in the presence of The Beatles in the 60’s. My first thought was to ask the man if he could spare some BenGay. It was probably the most physically demanding thing I’ve ever done. A straight-up joint killer. This old man had hiked about 7 miles further than I did, the full loop, and he looked fresher then I had when I limped back off the trail several hours earlier (though he was 40 years older). As roommates for the night, we ended up chatting for quite a while. He was a very interesting person, one of the most interesting people I have ever met. He’s the type of guy who had done everything, been everywhere, and had interesting and adventurous story after story recounting memories that spanned every decade that I had been alive. He said he originally came from Hungary. As a child (from a Hungarian-Jewish family), he lived through the Nazi invasion and occupation during WWII. Lost some family members to the war and concentration camps. As a young adult, he joined the military and was involved in the Hungarian Revolution against the Soviets in 1956. He said he had traveled to over 80 countries in his lifetime. I figured he had been a nomad all of his life, getting an early start on his travels through immigration and the military, but he told me he didn’t start traveling until he was well into his 40’s, after a divorce and a fresh start in life after decades living under Soviet communist rule (and a dictator for a wife). He said he felt like he hadn’t lived until he started seeing the world and began carving out a new path in life. He told me that on his 75th birthday he made the biggest checkmark on his lifetime bucketlist, spending a week hiking through the Peruvian Andes and climbing up to Machu Picchu. He did this at 75. Two years later, as I would sit and speak with him, it was obvious that he was still going strong and chasing his next goal in life.
There’s no excuse why we all can’t have a fresh start in life. Health factors aside, time and age impose no limit to what we can achieve and when we decide to do it. The only obstacle is in our mind. Only our minds can create that illusion of expiration. I can only hope to have such fervor for life at the age of 75. To wake up and still feel that motivation, that drive, to do something you’ve always wanted to do…but just never did it. Why do we give up on our goals and dreams? When we ask ourselves why, the most common reason is fear…fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of an expiration date, fear of what people might think. Those are all just petty excuses for putting something off and avoiding change. If you think your “time has expired” to live a life that makes you happy or to pursue your next goal in life, you’re wrong. Some goals and dreams may not be attainable due to the timing of things, understandably, but if you’ve dreamed once in your life you can dream a million times more. Set new goals. Have something to get motivated for. (Like James Brown said: “You gotta have mooo-tivation!”) Who said we are only allowed to enjoy dreams while we’re asleep? We have every liberty and opportunity to enjoy and live out our dreams while we’re wide awake. And don’t let your mind conjure up an excuse for why you can’t start living the life you want today. Make a change if you’re unhappy. You owe it to the rest of your life. As the 77-year-old man with the backpack proved to me, any day is a great day for a fresh start.
Yesterday was Ansel Adams’ 112th birthday. Though I didn’t receive any notification on my Facebook feed, I would have surely posted a tribute photo along with a “Happy Birthday AA” message on his wall (had he been alive and kind-hearted enough to accept my friend request). Though I’ve never really “studied” his work per se (I was a bad student), I have always recognized, respected and admired his talent and vision, his contributions to the medium of photography and his true craftsmanship, which took place in the darkroom. Inspired by his love of the land, he brought images to life using primitive equipment, his vivid imagination and his mastery of techniques during the developing process. These days, the “darkroom” of a digital photographer doesn’t even have to be dark. My “digital darkroom” is right next to my dining room window, consists of a computer and a mouse, and the only chemical in sight is the screen cleaning solution (which never gets used). But the fundamentals of photography remain. The relationship between your subject and the light that falls upon it is paramount, and no one nurtured this relationship better than Ansel Adams. In his timeless nature photography, he understood that “the natural landscape is not fixed…but is as transient as the light that continually redefines it.” (Kind of like girls in the nightclub when the sound-activated strobes are in full effect.) His iconic black & white images which evoked a powerful sense of compositional balance and perspective helped to establish photography among the fine arts. For him, the most important approach to his art was “beauty comes first”. He pretty much nailed it folks.
Here are a few images that I’d like to share as a humble tribute to the legendary Ansel Adams. Of course, I had the benefit of digital technology, photoshop and a camera that didn’t weigh as much as a bowling ball when I snapped these. Though he probably stepped foot in several of these same spots at some point in his career, there is no doubt that he put a lot more work and “previsualization” into his images…and spent a whole lot more time watching them come to life.
Wow, is it time to cue up “Auld Lang Sine” already?? Yes it is! A New Year is upon us…2014! This is 1 year before the “future” that Doc and Marty visited in Back to the Future Part 2. Dude…the future is NOW! Though flying skateboards & cars haven’t yet reached the market, we have seen an incredible boom in amazing technology over the past few years, much of it which now dictates how most of us operate in our daily lives (as I type this from my new wrist watch…j/k). But there are many things that I feel deserve to be reflected upon and re-focused on as we swap a new 4th digit out on the yearly calendar. Real life issues and challenges (from long before the pre- smart phone era) will always exist and there isn’t a damn thing Siri can do about them (except for give you directions to the nearest pharmacy so you can load up on more Xanax). I’ve put together a list of a few things that I hope we, the people, could all focus on more (or less) and some of my personal wishes for 2014. The goal of the Gringo With A Green Bag isn’t just about going places and taking pretty pictures. It’s about life-changing experiences. It’s about understanding the world better, thus allowing us to co-exist in a more peaceful and harmonious fashion (channeling my inner Nelson Mandela here). So please allow me to share a few thoughts with you as we get ready to wrap up 2013 and wish everyone a Feliz Año Nuevo!
Here’s the Gringo With A Green Bag’s Wish List for 2014:
1. Keep Our Heads Up – It doesn’t matter where you are these days, the all-too-familiar scene of the collective head-down and thumbs massaging the screens of our mobile devices is now the norm. It’s become an obsession, a way of life, the human communication enabler (and suppresser). I’m guilty of it too, so I’m including myself in this one (as with the rest of these). How many of you looked across the table at Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner only to notice the bald spot on the top of one of your family member’s heads? Or someone at a ball game missing a touchdown because they were too busy taking selfies with their nachos and duck face? In 2014, I hope we can all keep our heads up just a little more and pay attention to the real world that surrounds us directly, make more eye contact, put the device down for a day or two and enjoy life how it was back in the old days (no, I don’t expect anyone to pop a quarter into a pay phone at 7-11 and flip through the yellow pages while munching on a Chick-O-Stick…you know what I’m sayin’). Let’s at least try to get through an occasional meal without obsessively looking to see who liked our “check-in” at Big Mama’s Rib Shack . I understand, we love to brag about what we’re eating. I do it all the time. Enjoy the meal and focus on the company you are enjoying it with. Tweet about how awesomely delicious it was when you’re done (after licking the bbq sauce off your fingers).
2. Change of Scenery – Whether it’s seeing new part of town, taking a new route to work, trying that new restaurant you pass by every day, visiting a different state or exploring another country…change in scenery is always a refreshing thing. For me, routine = boredom. A low-flowing or stagnant river produces higher levels of bacteria. Be a well-flowing river. If things become static in your life, change course and direction and refresh your senses often. Example: I got tired of seeing the same old faces on the same old machines at my local gym this past year and I began to dread going at a certain “routine” hour because of it. I found myself losing motivation at times to go to the gym and making excuses, so I decided to go to the gym across town a few times to break the monotony. It was a really refreshing change, and my max bench press went from 195 lbs -270 lbs overnight! Haha, of course I’m full of it…but I did feel a renewed motivation to work out longer and more often in my new surroundings, with new equipment and around fresh faces. For me, travel is the ultimate refresher. Travel stimulates the mind and enriches the soul. (It can enhance the body too if you’re motivated to get in shape to strut your stuff along that beach while on vacation.) You don’t necessarily have to go far from home though. Switch up your routine and you may find a surprising new motivation to get up and get things done.
3. Eat More Tomatoes, Avocados, Sweet Potatoes, Huevos (eggs), Pollo (chicken) (basically any food that ends in “o”…except Oreos and Cheetos) – Like I once told myself: “Never underestimate the power of V-8!” If we all ate more tomatoes and avocados we’d all have healthier hearts. Healthy hearts pump clean blood into the brain which produces healthy minds. I’m no doctor, I just like to promote a healthy lifestyle. We need to be good to our bodies and they will be good to us in return. You all know the health food pyramid from 5th grade, I don’t have to explain it. My favorite health foods are avocados, tomatoes, flax seeds, açai, and wheat grass…and plenty of good protein (fish, yogurt, etc.). I don’t plan on totally cutting out the beer, Red Vines or Thin Mints anytime soon, so I’m just gonna have to load up on more of the aforementioned health goodies to curb the guilt trip…and revert back to wish list item #2 to preserve that gym motivation.
4. Take Chances – Why not, right? Let’s quit saying “someday” or “I wish”. A life of regret is a life of opportunity wasted. Make a career move. Make a sacrifice to get better results. Try some brain tacos. Yes, they’re nasty. But I tried them recently and now I know from experience. While in Maui recently, I had about 10 people tell me not to go to the island of Molokai because it is “boring”. I ended up having the best time of the entire trip while in Molokai. Discover things for yourself and don’t be swayed by people’s opinions. Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t be afraid of the unknown. Like I always say, exploring the unfamiliar always leads to fresh ink in the diary of life.
5. Pause – While on that same trip to Hawaii in November, I found myself rushing through the first 2 days of the trip to cram in as much as I could see in the limited time I had on the island of Maui. I kept a frenetic pace without really taking the time to stop and appreciate the bounty of beauty that made up my surroundings. Maui’s famous “Road to Hana” does this to many travelers. It’s an all-day journey to an “Oz-like” destination (in the minds of many visitors) to a place called Hana. Many people speed through to get to Hana only to realize that the journey along the way was the real adventure, not the town of Hana itself. As in the movie, there’s no wizard there. Just a guy behind a counter selling fresh fruit and timeshare info. It’s the journey and everything you see along the way that makes this one of the most special parts of the world to visit. A few hours in, I decided to slow it down, pull over and just pause for a bit. I took a little walk through an unmarked part of the forest. It was the most beautiful hike I would do on the island. I smelled the flowers and tropical fruits, listened to the singing of a Red-crested Cardinal and enjoyed the calming sound of the crashing waves nearby. This was the Maui I had come to see (best to be seen on foot rather than through the window of a rental car). Truth is, it’s not how much you see, but how you look at and experience the things that you see. Another example was on a trip to Canada last year. I was on an all-day solo hike through the Canadian Rockies. It got a bit lonely after about 8 hours of hiking and no one to talk to and I found myself rushing to complete the hike before sundown and return to civilization. A little butterfly flew next to me and followed me along my path for about 20 seconds. It was the only company I had all day, and it felt like my best friend at the moment. A few moments of pause with this wonderful and curious creature was among the highlights of my trip. Made me smile. I say it’s best to experience one thing in a special way than to fly through many things and leave with no lasting memories.
6. Green Bay Packers win Super Bowl – Is that too much to ask?
7. Milwaukee Brewers finish above .500 – That’s definitely not too much to ask. Just give me an 82-80 season fellas. I’ll consider that a winning season.
8. Understanding Happiness – Yes, the Green Bay Packers winning the Super Bowl would bring me great “happiness”. But that is only a temporary happiness. I truly believe that happiness comes from within. You have to be happy with yourself if you ever plan on living a happy life, or making someone else happy. It starts with you. It shouldn’t take much. I think we overanalyze the meaning of it. I’ve been really fortunate to travel to parts of the world where I believe I’ve learned the true meaning of happiness. People who are happy just because they are alive. They have everything they need, in the form of family, food, shelter, health and minimal stress. It has nothing to do with wealth, cars, iphones, luxury homes, social status, popularity, etc. I see plenty of people with all that on a daily basis who are no where near achieving the level of happiness that I have seen with people I’ve met on my travels to many “3rd World” and underprivileged countries. If you’re not happy with your situation, do your best to improve it. If you can’t improve it, do your best to change it. We’re all responsible for our own happiness, and our expectations of what it means to be happy should come from within, not by comparison to others. That reminds me…while you’re at it, peep that new Pharrell Williams song “Happy”. That’s the jam right there!
9. Focus On Important and Positive Things – This goes out on a personal level, but also as a message to the Media. We are done keeping up with the Kardashians, seriously. Less coverage of the Dennis Rodman bromance with Kim Jong-Un would be super. Do we really care that Lindsay Lohan has suffered her 10th relapse in 9 days when we have soldiers fighting and dying for our freedom on a daily basis? Let’s focus on people who deserve to be talked about, like our military heroes and philanthropists from around the world. If you’re gonna obsess about celebrities, please cover celebrities who are humanitarians and do a great deed for charity, like the late Paul Walker. As for us on an individual level, I hope we can all maintain a habit of focusing on the positives more than the negatives. “I hate my job” or “my job is too stressful” can also be viewed as “I’m just happy to have a job” or “It’s only temporary until I find something better”. I don’t have a new car and I sit in traffic frequently, but I have a car and the freedom to drive wherever I want. It’s a luxury we take for granted, believe me. (I’m still gonna complain about that gas price though, grrr)
10. Kill The Political Drama – We’ve witnessed a full year of complete bi-partisan bullshit in politics. Holding the country hostage for the sake of political theatre and ego is deplorable. I don’t know how it works in other countries, but ours has not been a proud example of a functional democracy here in the U.S. in recent years. Both sides of government are to blame for this. Remember that song “We’re All In The Same Gang”? Time to record a 2014 version for our government. If it can work for gangsters, it can surely work for congressmen.
11. Don’t Text And Drive – Seriously…IT CAN WAIT. I’m sure an anti-texting-while-driving app is in the works. If not, I have some ideas and you may be seeing me on Shark Tank in the near future!