Monday, July 14, 2014

I Have No Skills

I am amazed at the lack of skills I have. To illustrate that point, let me tell you a story about a shirt.

Last September, I bought a new shirt from Marshalls. It was stylish, yet cheap. A week later I wore that stylish shirt to the Mt. Angel Oktoberfest, a small-town, beer-soaked and sausage-laden good time. When a slightly intoxicated female flung her arms around randomly, catching my shirt with her hand, to both our surprise a button popped off right in the middle.

I clutched my bosom protectively, made it home unmolested and took the shirt off. 

I didn't know how to sew a button on. So I didn't wear the shirt. For 9 months. Same goes for a nice pair of brown cargo shorts I bought. I didn't even know the manufacturers of these items sewed that extra button on in case this very thing happened! I thought it was just decorative.

Yesterday my mom taught me to sew on a button. It was surprisingly easy. Threading the needle, tying the knots, and sewing that button on way better than the manufacturer did gave me immense satisfaction. 

Maybe I'm an extreme case, but I doubt it. We don't make the things we use anymore, and as a result we don't know to fix them. When they break, we throw them away. A few weeks back a buddy of mine crashed on an air mattress, that happened to leak. "Throw it away" he said. Neither of us thought of patching it.

Part of the issue no doubt is that things are made so cheaply now. A $15 dollar shirt loses a button? Oh well, buy another. 

There are a few problems with that mindset. First and foremost, I have find I have very few skills when it comes to making or repairing things, greatly lessening my chance of surviving a zombie apocalypse. It also creates an inordinate amount of waste and junk.

So, I'm determined to learn more skills. Doing things yourself is very satisfying, and ultimately saves money. Being a homeowner on a budget has already forced me to learn a few, but I'm determined to learn more. With the DIY revolution, Pintrest and the Internet I have few excuses. The knowledge is out there. Here's what I want to learn in the next year:
  1. How to sew a button
  2. How to hem and tailor my clothes
  3. How to make cheese
  4. How to weld metal
  5. How to mill my own flour
  6. How to bake my own bread
  7. How to brew my own kombucha
That list will grow, but it's a good start for now.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Coming Home

Crazy how time flies. 10 days without a blog?

I leave for Panama City, Panama in ten days to start a new chapter in my life. I've spent the last week back home in little La Grande, in beautiful Easter Oregon with my parents and old high school buddies.

Coming home after seven years is always nice. Though its been eight years, a lot of the people and places haven't changed. Home remains home. It's nice to have that touchstone.

Some things I love about La Grande in no particular order are:

  1. The summery sage-y smell of petrichor.
    It literally is the essence of summer.
  2. The endless bounty of food in my parent's house.
    Growing up my parents always hosted my friends, and always had a giant store of food on hand. People still just stop by and open the fridge without asking. That would annoy the hell out of me, but they seem to love. In the fridge right now there is: steak and mashed potatoes from last night, bowl of raspberries just picked, tamales and handmade donuts from Farmer's Market just to highlight the edible goodies.
  3. Seeing random people I know.
    I really liked my high school self. High school me was extremely friendly, optimistic, and friends with everybody. While I still try to uphold those qualities, I've found sometimes in life you have to make decisions that upset people. Seemed different back then.
  4. Nell's In-and-Out
    They make these delicious drinks out of soda, cream and who knows what else. They have names like Winnie The Pooh (my favorite) and the Skywalker. While I don't drink pop usually, Nells is my exception. 

Ultimately though, my touchstones are family and friends. I've retained a core group of high school buddies with whom things never really seem to change.

One night we played Risk until the wee hours of the morning, like we used to back in high school. The only difference was we drank wine instead of pop and juice.

The next we went up to Indian Rock which overlooks the whole valley and watched the sun set while roasting marshmallows.

Those little moments are the threads that weave together the good life. I try to savor them every chance I get.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Sometimes Nothing is Like You Expect

Even normal seeming days can hold surprises.

Yesterday promised to be a little exciting, because I had scheduled my second ever flight lesson. I did one last summer as well, putting me on pace to get my license somewhere around age 70. 

Flight lessons are prohibitively expensive. Anywhere from $150-$200 for an hour, so I have to wrestle with the side of my brain that says "Don't spend that money!" and listen to the part that says "This is why you have money!" 

Flying is also amazing, aside from take off when I am certain my little plane will wobble itself off the runway into a heap of steel. You can see everything from up there. I counted 8 Cascade peaks. The Willamette Valley suddenly looks like the Willamette Valley does on a map. We scooted over to Silverton in about 10 minutes and even flew right over my house.

Tuesdays are the nights I usually do trivia with a bunch of my co-workers (I've come a long ways in 7 years). But last night my girlfriend had an event planned with her employer's family, and I was expected to come. So off we trekked in the heat, and I was already counting down the polite hour and a half we could spend before leaving to catch the end of trivia (thoughts I now feel guilty about).

When we knocked on the door, instead of being greeted by my girlfriend's employers, it was the parents of a student I taught the last four years.

Because I am slow, I didn't quite grasp what was happening until I saw about 20 of my 8th graders stream out of their garage. A surprise party! 

It was a perfect summer evening, one that reminded me of when I was a kid. We barbecued, had a water fight (I lost), played volleyball and basketball. They even set up one of my top three all time favorite Social Studies movies that I tell them to watch when they are old enough The 300.

I wish I could bond with all my classes like I did with the 8th graders. They will be a special group to me not how well they did in class, but for the kind of people they were. They started the Random Act of Kindness Club, planted the school garden, and turned a broken down bus disaster into the world's greatest kickball game.

As I soaked it all in, I remembered something that I told myself to remember long ago, but somehow always forget. You never know what you might mean to your students. Throughout high school, I had teachers that I absolutely idolized, though they probably never knew it because I was shy and quiet. They were role models in my life, and shaped me to be who I am today. As a teacher, that's part of what you're signing up for.

Teaching every day, there is so much to deal with. Lesson plans, grading, constant emails, and ever increasing focus on state testing. While the kids shuttle in and out of your classroom all day, it's easy to forget that they are people with their own issues and lives, not simply receptacles to shove information into and keep from talking too much. You never know what a kind word or gesture can mean.

Making a difference is not just limited to teachers. We all have people in our lives that look up to us. We can all change someone's day with a smile or genuine compliment. We can all inspire others to greater things. 

That's really an amazing power, if we chose to use it. You might not know what you did mattered. You might not ever know. But it does, and you matter too.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Local Bounty and Local Spending

Living in the Willamette Valley and teaching at a rural school have provided me access to a number of delicious goods. Why pay Safeway $4 for a dozen eggs trucked up from California, labelled and branded "organic," when I can spend $2.50 to get eggs (some laid that morning!) from a student.

But summer is the best. A student of mine has a very small organic blueberry plot. Last year I bought $100 worth. I forget how many pounds that was, but it lasted me literally until a week ago. Today I just picked up 15 pounds more. 

Driving in the countryside this time of year is like some modern Eden. Fields of wheat, perfectly arrayed vines, hops growing tall. During summer I almost cut grocery stores out entirely. There is local everything. And it is all cheaper than the imported stuff.

I'm a huge supporter of voting with my dollars. In fact, there are few things we do in our lives that cause a bigger impact than where we spend our money. Leaving all the politics aside, my choice is to put my money into the pockets of my students and local farmers over some big agri-business. I don't want Oregon to be like Nebraska or Iowa with endless fields of corn or soy.

What we pay for, we endorse.

If I want people around here to grow a variety of crops for local consumption, there needs to be some local consumers. 

If I want to save small farmers, I'd better buy from them. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Smaller is Better

My flight lesson got cancelled today due to rain. So I'm forced to stay indoors and blog while my dog look at me with accusing eyes, asking when we'll go play fetch.

The idea behind our American republic is awesome. We don't have a king who rules us just because his father did. We elect leaders to enact the laws and policies we want to see. And during the time known to historians as "the Good Old Days" we rubbed shoulders with our elected representatives regularly and shared our views in the market, at church, or even in the latrine. Colonial New England is most celebrated for having this remarkable familiarity between elected representatives and their constituents.

And their timeless fashion sense.

That whole mechanism of representative government gets a little distorted, especially at the Federal level. We only see our federal politicians on TV or in the news so its hard for them to really hear our voice. That's part of the reason why we so dislike our federal leaders most of the time.

But at the state and local level, you can still sometimes get a taste of how it used to be. The other day at a local festival I saw my state representative Vic Gilliam walking around. He is probably my favorite politician, though he has a different party registration than me. Not only does he respond to every letter my students ever wrote him, he shovels the poop after our town's annual pet parade.

I went up and said hello, and introduced him to my father who used to be involved in state politics. While I felt bad for taking his time, Vic Gilliam seemed to just want to chat (maybe that's why he is a politician). Best of all, I got to ask him what he thought of open primaries, which I would love to see happen here in Oregon. He told me what he thought, said he'd really been considering them, and thanked me for sharing my opinion.

It was a little thing, but it felt great to have a voice. So many of us feel so helpless and disenfranchised by what happens at the national level, but we have so much more access at the state and local level. More and more, I think that's where real change happens, and where the average citizen can make the biggest difference.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


In one month I'm moving to Panama City, Panama, and have to decide what to take, what to keep here, and what to sell and throw away. When I recently was unable to toss a queen-sized air mattress that leaks badly, Stuff reminded of the very powerful hold it has over my life.

We work hard to acquire Stuff.  We cherish it, guard it, care for it. We get mad if its broken, stolen or misused.  Sometimes we are so worried about Stuff we don't even use it for its intended purpose, lest it suffer some harm.

Here's an anecdote.  I know a well-to-do man, very wise with his money.  He bought a nice used car for $10,000 cash.  Not a Mercedes or Lexus, think Honda or Toyota.  He was telling me how nice it was, and how he got such a great deal on it.  I noticed it was in his garage.  So I asked him,

"Do you drive it to work?"

"No" he said, "I drive my old beater.  I don't want the wear and tear."

"Do you take it on trips?"

"Not during the winter, I don't want it to get chips."

"So you bought a $10,000 car only to drive it on long trips on the summer?"

The irony hit him, then he tried to hit me, but I skillfully dodged his blows. But I'm just as guilty of having the same mindset.

Why do we love our stuff so much?  I don't know. Perhaps our possessiveness of our possessions is some evolutionary vestige. Stuff was once very difficult to acquire because it all had to be made by hand. That's different now. Industrialization and globalization has made stuff so cheap and plentiful that 1 out every 10 families rent space to store their extra junk. It's a 22 billion dollar industry.

How we see all the crap we've collected.

How the world sees all the crap we've collected
The Woodburn Auction I've written about here and here and here provides a stark reminder on the true value of our possessions. Often you find all the worldly possessions of some deceased soul, divided out into little brown boxes for all the world to see and finger through. It can be a little haunting. All the trinkets, souvenirs, dishes, drawings, pictures that they cared enough about to keep all their life end up going for $2-$15 a box.  So there's your answer. Most of your stuff is worth about $2-$15 a box when it's all said and done.

All those things we own own some little part of us. If I can't throw away a leaky air mattress, that air mattress clearly has a hold on me. Just typing that made me feel stupid. An air mattress has a hold on me?!  All possessions should be judged on one thing only: their utility. 

If you have a car that can't be driven, or a carpet that can't be walked on, a bike to expensive to use... then why do you have it?

Paring down my life recently has brought a sense of freedom and clarity. I'll only be taking to Panama the things I really need, and only keeping here the things I really love (mostly my bike and snow shoes). If something has outlived its usefulness to you, sell it, give it or throw it away. Keep the things that are truly sentimental, but if you can buy it at a Wal-Mart, it's probably not that special.

Friday, June 20, 2014

You Aren't Special

In my pursuit of an examined, well lived life, I've set up ideas as guideposts and protective barriers for the choices I make every day. "Anything worth doing will be hard." "Your health is your best investment."  "Money is a tool, not a god." to name a few.

Good intentions aside, I often lack the self-discipline to follow my own advice. It's easier to watch an episode of Family Guy than work on the story I'm writing.  Sleeping in beats working out more often than it should.  Rather grinding to do something really well, I've dabbled in get-rick-quick ideas like real estate, the stock market, and even a run as a blackjack card counter that made everyone rich but me.

Ambition is good, it inspired us to do great things. Ambition without work ethic and discipline is fatal. Part of that is the society we live in. From the second we are born we are told how special we are. That we can do anything we can put our minds to, and on and on. So everyone grows up wanting to get famous, be rich, be known, and we expect it to happen quick and easy. That explains all the get-rich-quick schemes on TV. Or look at the pop culture starlets whose only claim to fame is a sex tape. But how many of us really have the talent, combined with the work ethic to produce something great? Very few.

I'm victim to that mentality as much as anyone else. I'm a victim to wanting greatness, wealth, and fame but not the work required to acquire those things. But a sobering fact has slowly dawned on me.  I am not special. At all. I am just a very ordinary guy. Most of us are in that boat.

Does that mean our lives are doomed to mediocrity and blah-ness forever? Not a chance  In fact, when we stop flitting around chasing superficial things like wealth, fame and recognition we can plow our efforts into pursuing passions, deepening relationships, and making a difference in the world.

A long time ago I heard a sermon that has applied to so much in life. The gist was, no matter how far away you've traveled the wrong path, you are always only one step from God. That's true for you and I living our best life. No matter what you've done wrong, or mistakes you've made, you can live your best life right now, starting today.

Start by pursuing your passion with all your heart. Sacrifice for it. Make time for it every day. Find those that are better than you at it and learn from them.

Stop idolizing, stop comparing, and stop misusing your money. Money is a tool to provide for your and your family, and help others. That's it. When you die, it does you no good. Get a budget, get out of debt, and start helping others. Incidentally, if you truly start chasing your passion, it's much more likely to turn into something that makes you money than anything else you do.

Instead of valuing money, value your relationships and the moments that happen each day. Every day I live there are moments that could not be any more enjoyable if I had a billion dollars. "Billionaire Moments" I call them.  Last night I went fishing with my girlfriend and dog. We didn't catch a thing. The whole time a bald eagle was soaring over head, and two ospreys were splashing down in the water again and again and pulling out trout. It was unbelievable.

And give. Giving is the greatest joy, and giving leaves a legacy greater than anything you'll ever do. Give until it hurts. Give your time, your talents, and your money until money breaks its hold on you.

When we stop assuming that we are special and focus on the things that really matter in life, maybe we'll become what we wanted to be all along.