Friday, November 25, 2011

TCK Employment Part 2.) ‘Destiny in Space’.

When I graduated college the first time in 1996, the World was in the middle of a serious change in employment outlook. Across the board, people were losing their jobs, good jobs. Companies were entering wave after wave of downsizing, and managers got the sack after 10, 20, or 30 years with their companies. From a purely corporate perspective it made sense of course. Why keep expensive executives around if they could be made redundant or outsourced? From a human point though, it was pretty shitty. It became obvious that this trend was here to stay, and would probably get much worse. I didn’t see a long-term corporate career track as a viable future, and I made up my mind that in the long run, I would be self-employed. Working for someone else had lost its sex appeal. However, there were to be some distractions along the way. The first of these distractions came in the form of an ‘event’ that had taken place back in 1992. I was still in high school then, and didn’t become aware until I read about it during my last year of college. The event in question was STS-45.

On March 24, 1992 at 8:13am, space shuttle Atlantis departed the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on mission STS-45, carrying the first Belgian astronaut, Dirk Frimout. I found out about this over Christmas in Singapore in 1995. Paul, a good friend of the family gave me a signed copy of Frimout’s book ‘In Search of the Blue Planet’ (original title: ‘Op Zoek Naar De Blauwe Planeet’), which he co-wrote with journalist Suzy Hendrickx. This book came at the right moment in time. Academically things were going really well, and I felt on top of the World. I was having a blast building flight time. The first module of the International Space Station ISS was under construction, and John Glenn was contemplating going for another ride up. And now a Belgian had earned his astronaut wings. Could this possibly be something I could do? After all, what boy hasn’t dreamt of being an astronaut?

I wrote to NASA asking for an application, and for information on what the requirements were for selection. It came in the mail about three weeks later, and I have to say getting anything in the mail with NASA written on it is pretty exciting. They were looking for two types of astronaut, ‘pilot astronauts’, and ‘mission specialists’. Not too many guesses as to which one I wanted to go for. There was however, a problem… They were looking for people with at least 1000 hours of ‘pilot in command’ time on jet aircraft. I was nearing 200hrs, a lot of it with an instructor in command, and on aircraft with a piston engine and a propeller instead of an afterburner. Most of the Shuttle pilots had come from the Air Force and Navy, flying jet fighters. How could I get around this problem? Being a total eccentric, and sometimes hopelessly impractical individual, I asked myself the following question: “How much would a small jet cost to buy, fly it 1000 hours, and how would this compare to the cost of getting all my ratings as an airline pilot”?. Total cost of training at OATS in Oxford, including a Boeing 737 type rating was around US$120,000. So that would have to be my ‘hypothetical budget’. Next time I was at the airport, I would pick up a copy of Trade-A-Plane, and see what was available. I was in need of a ‘Budget Jet Fighter’…

I bought the periodical and I went directly to the ‘Warbird-Jet’ category. To my delight, quite a lot of aircraft were for sale. The first thing I saw was a picture of a stunning F-100 Super Sabre. Fabulous machine, but the owner was asking $650,000 which was ever-so-slightly over budget. Next was a Lockheed T-33 trainer. Docile handling with freshly serviced ejection seats, but at $230,000 still a ‘bit’ expensive. A Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker! Alas, the owners wanted $1Million… The first aircraft I actually made a phone call about was a Fouga Magister, priced at $85,000. It was based in California. However, the first thing the rep asked was how much flight time I had. When I gave him the honest answer he remained polite, but informed me that they wouldn’t sell a jet to anyone with less than 500 hours ‘In Command’ time. Next on the list was a former Singapore Armed Forces Hawker Hunter, $35,000. For this one, I had to make a call to Australia. Again, one of the first things the broker asked me was how much flight experience I had. He didn’t outright refuse to sell, but he strongly recommended against it, the Hunter being a very complex aircraft to fly. Annoying as this was for an eager trainee pilot to hear, it should be noted that these were some very honest sellers. They were genuinely concerned with the continued welfare of their merchandise, and anyone that might be flying it or watching it fly from the ground.

Thus far the ‘non-dodgy’ stuff. Next on the list, a MiG-21 UM, $18,000 with spare engine, located in Ontario, Canada. This was starting to sound more promising. The UM was a two-seater, so it would mean I could theoretically take people for rides. I called up the broker, a friendly chap named Mike with a very thick Russian accent. It turns out he was also the broker for the million dollar ‘Flanker’. He promised to fax me a spec sheet with shipping costs later that afternoon, and so he did. The pictures and schematic of the MiG looked awesome. The numbers however, were a bit worrisome.

The first thing that struck me was the fuel capacity, which with drop tanks was over 1100 gallons. Jet fuel in those days cost around $1,40/gallon at the local airfield, which meant that fillin’ her up would cost over $1500! The top speed of Mach 2.05 was a bit daunting as well. The ‘never exceed’ speed on the Cessna 152 I flew was 149 knots, above which any control inputs could tear the wings off. Getting up to cruise speed would require a gas-guzzling full afterburner takeoff, reducing my range to a miserable few hundred miles. And that was just the fuel… I also needed to factor maintenance into the equation. A licensed Aircraft and Powerplant mechanic cost $85/hr. This particular plane required more than 24 hours of maintenance for every hour flown. In the end, by my calculations (fuel, maintenance, machine gun permits, taxes, and insurance!) the total cost per flight hour came to almost $5000 which would mean one hell of an expensive Big Mac! (see ‘Why McDonald’s Deserves a Michelin Star’). Also, going supersonic in US airspace requires a nearly impossible to get FAA permit. The ‘Budget Jet Fighter’ was a bit farfetched, and in hindsight reminds me of an episode of Top Gear where Jeremy Clarkson famously said: ‘Yes, you can buy a supercar for under £10,000, but for the love of God, don’t!’

Not being interested in an expensive lawn ornament, the idea of ‘Mission Specialist’ suddenly became a lot more appealing. Part of doing my ‘homework’, was contacting some current and past ones, and asking about their work experience. I corresponded with Janice Voss, who offered some interesting insights. I also met Kathy Sullivan the following summer at Denison, when she gave a lecture to kids at a summer camp. She flew with Frimout on STS-45 and I was very excited to meet her. Just for fun, I made an attempt at contacting some of the original ‘Mercury 7’ astronauts, the pioneers. My strongest lead was for Gordon Cooper, pilot of Mercury-Atlas 9 in 1963, and Gemini 5 (along with Pete Conrad) in 1965. He was portrayed brilliantly by actor Dennis Quaid in the 1983 movie The Right Stuff, and is still one of my biggest all-time heroes. Browsing through Who’s Who in America, I found out he was the president of Galaxy Group, a company in Van Nuys, California. The company’s address and phone number were listed. One late afternoon, I picked up my dorm room phone and dialed the number. Expecting a secretary to pick up, I was surprised to hear a male voice with an Oklahoma drawl answer with: “Afternoon, Galaxy…”. I explained that I was interested in becoming an astronaut and was curious about Mr. Cooper’s experiences. There was a pause on the other end, and then the words came that very nearly made me crap my pants: “Well, this is Gordon Cooper you’re speaking to right now. What do you want to know?”. For a moment I was speechless, and this is without a shred of doubt the most nervous I have ever been on the phone with anyone. It was a very enjoyable chat, and I’ll forever be thankful for having the opportunity to have a personal conversation with one of my heroes, a true American legend.

Meeting the requirements for selection as a Mission Specialist was going to be a lengthy undertaking, as it pretty much required a PhD in science or engineering. This was my motivation for re-enrolling at Denison for another degree. By then, Denison’s undergraduate Physics & Astronomy department had established itself as one of the best in the country, and I felt I was in good hands. I continued my flying on the weekends, and it certainly took on the flavors of the moment. The flight school in Newark had just obtained use of a gorgeous blue Piper Cherokee 180 which became my new toy (I very nearly crashed it a year later, one dark and fuel-starved night over Ft Wayne, Indiana… but that’s another story). One aspect of astronaut training which had always fascinated me, were the zero gravity flights. Until 2004, NASA trained astronauts on a KC-135 Stratotanker (a military variant of the Boeing 707). When flown in a parabolic flight path, it provided up to 25 seconds of weightlessness for those aboard. The plane was affectionately known as the Vomit Comet. I was eager to try this out for myself, and had my instructor demonstrate the maneuver in the Piper, which then became known as the Vomit Comet Jr. It is not a particularly difficult or dangerous maneuver, but it is way too much fun! You start at a safe altitude and go into a moderate dive. As you accelerate to about 110 knots, you pull back on the controls and climb steeply until the airspeed bleeds off to about 75, which is when you push the nose down. If you do it right, you can get around 3-4 seconds where everything in the cockpit that wasn’t tied down will be floating past your eyeballs. I took several of my friends up in the Piper, and only one (a German exchange student) lost her lunch, luckily well after we were back on the ground. The most memorable of these flights was when I took my friend Jason up. Jason at the time was a huge ‘Trekkie’ and had a large model of the Star Trek Voyager on his desk, and he was very eager to see it float in midair, which it did, three times, for about four seconds each. We both had a mile wide grin on our face on the ride back to campus.

As we all know, I never did make it into space. Physics is a subject which fascinated me, but the mathematical skill required to bring it to a successful conclusion, I must admit just wasn’t there. I switched over to geology, which for me was a lot more ‘user-friendly’. With a professor I was able to do some research on the Neptune-Triton system which was intense, but enjoyable. By the time graduation came, I had lost my drive and was burnt out. The trend in science was that my Doctoral Thesis would involve roughly 100,000 words about some minuscule aspect of an even tinier detail of my field of study. ‘Big picture’-research was gone. Even though I enjoy reading an occasional peer-reviewed article in Nature or Icarus, as a general rule I find National Geographic and Harry Potter to be far more gratifying.

One thing is for sure though. I will never have that lingering guilt swimming around in the back of my mind asking: “Could I have done this?” Because I gave it all I had, and the honest answer is no. And I truly am ok with that. My basic life philosophy is that when a good opportunity presents itself, you should go for it and try. Chances are brutally good that it won’t work out, but what you get out of the experience is often amazing, and teaches you a lot about life and about yourself. For me, the most important lesson so far, is to not be afraid of failure. That’s where you find out what your strengths and your limits are, and where your ego gets in line with your abilities. The second most important lesson is that after a failure, you get up off your ass, figure out what you want to do next, and try again and again until eventually you do succeed. Where this process will ultimately lead me I don’t know, but it certainly has a habit of leaving me with an inexhaustible supply of great stories to write about.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

TCK Employment Part 1.) 'Let’s Get Another Degree'.

I was reading an article on tckworld.com* the other week. It was written by the late Dr. Ruth Hill Useem, whose research led to the term ‘Third Culture Kid’. The article was the result of a study of adult TCKs and how their experiences abroad shaped their adult lives. It was, to say the least a rather revealing article! The third part dealt with the phenomenon of ‘Prolonged Adolescence’, and (like it or not), it described my experience with a scary degree of accuracy. Two things really popped out. Firstly, it turns out over 80% of us go on to get Bachelor’s degrees. Secondly, it can take us an utterly ridiculous amount of time to make up our minds about what we want to do with our lives, when it comes to work and careers. Take me for example. I’m 37 and still not exactly sure what I’m doing…

In case you are new to this blog, let me back up a little. My name is Wout Wynants, and I am a Third Culture Kid. This means that I spent most of my youth in foreign countries, blending my home culture with foreign cultures to form a type of ‘third’ culture. We are also known as ‘Global Nomads’. I was born in Belgium, lived in the Netherlands until I was 12, moved to Singapore at 13, and the USA at 18. This is where I lived continuously (except for my ‘Nokia year’ when I lived in the Netherlands, Germany, and the UK) until moving back to Belgium two years ago… you get my point ;-). I’m writing a book about my adventures growing up in South East Asia. I started blogging as a way to keep motivated, and to elaborate on my more recent experiences as a Belgian who is living in his ‘passport’ country for the first time!

I first started thinking about the concept of ‘work’ when I was in high school. I was getting reports from friends back home, who in fits of amazing teenage responsibility were getting their first summer jobs. It sounded like fun, earning your own money and getting to buy things with it. Hearing them talk about it, I started to feel slightly inferior. I was after all, still relying on my parents for an allowance. Why couldn’t I get a job over the summer? The answer was very simple: There was a law against it. When you live in a foreign country (this was in the early 90s and rules may have changed since then), and your parents are under a contract it is rare that your host country will allow dependents to work, and Singapore was no exception. Not even my mom could work if she wanted to, and this is a frustration still shared by many expat spouses. The advice I got across the board, was to focus on my studies. There’d be plenty of time for work when I got older…

So over the summers, I filled my time with reading and hanging out with other expat kids. I also volunteered at the reptile house of the Singapore Zoo, which is probably THE coolest thing I have ever done in my life, period. I didn’t watch a whole lot of TV as Singapore in the early 1990s only had two television channels that were in English. The few shows that were relatively bearable were on in the evening. After watching yet another episode of Who’s the Boss, and seeing Macho Man Randy Savage (rest his soul) get bit by a king cobra for the tenth time, I’d inevitably pick up a biology or chemistry book, or do something else that was educational. During weekends it was much of the same. Perhaps this helps explain why so many of us go on to get Bachelor’s degrees… We’re not necessarily smarter than any other demographic group (not by a long shot), but for lack of something better to do, we sure got used to doing a lot of studying. It is what we do best.

After graduating high school, I moved to the USA, where my ‘F1’ Student visa allowed me a certain amount of paid work on campus. For the first year however, it was still a no-go. Virtually all of the on-campus jobs were (and quite rightfully so, I should add) reserved for students who were on a work-study program. They needed the work to help pay for their education. I’ll be the first one to admit I’ve had a supremely privileged upbringing, and have no right to complain. Still, there were practical matters to consider. At some point, I would have to learn to make my own money.

The opportunity finally came over summer break, when I got my first ever part-time job, taking care of a professor’s lab rats in the psychology department. This involved feeding and general husbandry, but mostly cleaning up vast amounts of poop, extra poop, and then yet more poop. But it was good fun (reminiscent of volunteering at the zoo) and the hours were very flexible. Extra fun was to be had cleaning the cages, which was done using a walk-in dishwasher that looked like it came straight out of Back to the Future. It didn’t matter when during the day it got done, as long as it got done. I was issued my own key to the building for after-hours access. I loved that flexibility.

During my junior year, after getting top grades in a photography course, I was invited to become a lab teaching assistant. This was one of the few jobs I could do as a non-financial-aid student because professors usually picked their assistants purely on merit. This was, as far as working for somebody else goes, the most enjoyable job I have ever had. Mr. Yong, the photography professor, was a transplanted Malaysian and I got along with him very well.

It was 1995, and rather than mouse clicks and megapixels, photography still involved working with nasty chemicals. And my name wouldn’t be Wout Wynants, if I didn't cause the occasional ‘minor mishap’. One evening when I was tired and not paying attention, I accidentally slipped a photograph straight from the ‘stop bath’ into selenium toner without rinsing it in water first. Mixing these two goodies produces extremely toxic hydrogen selenide gas. Fortunately, the ‘adrenaline fix’ that followed when I realized my mistake meant I was able to open all the doors and windows before the coroner would have been needed. It was great fun working with beginning photography students on their printing techniques. I did this work for the rest of my time as a student during my ‘first’ degree.

In May of 1996 graduation time came. I had earned a Bachelor’s degree in music by way of the Liberal Arts, and was supposed to be ready for the big wide World that lay beyond the campus of my ‘Alma Mater’. That was the theory at least. Academically, my last year was intense. We did a big concert with trumpet player Marvin Stamm, improvised in front of Wynton Marsalis (just a tiny bit of pressure there!), and to top it off, my mentor and saxophone teacher Al Goelz died of heart failure that past Christmas. I was completely burnt out on music, and in any case did not think my saxophone playing was good enough to be making a living with it. I had work experience as a rat poop scooper (not much opportunity for career advancement), and as a photo-lab assistant (which qualified me to be a starving artist). The hard reality was, that even with a degree in hand, I was now qualified for little more than an entry level position in the fast food industry. So I re-enrolled at Denison, and pursued another degree, this time in physics. It will be the subject of next week’s article:

TCKs and Employment Part 2.) ‘Destiny in Space’.

(*Article referred to: http://www.tckworld.com/useem/art1.html)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

TCK Food Cravings Part 1: ‘Why McDonalds Deserves a Michelin Star’

Lately, I’ve started to think McDonald’s deserves a Michelin star. Now before you think I’ve gone bonkers, let me explain my reasoning. Anyone who has ever had a McDonald’s burger knows that there’s better out there, and even Ray Croc, when addressing business students, famously said that most people can make a better burger than McDonalds. Gordon Ramsay would undoubtedly describe it as reconstituted donkey vomit, and its infamous ‘Dollar Menu’ strongly contributed to my weight ballooning up to 265lbs during my hyper-stressful final year in the United States.

As a once rather frequent customer of the ‘golden arches’, I have ingested Big Macs in 11 countries on 3 continents. And after a while I started to notice something. Whether you eat a Big Mac in Eindhoven, New York City, San Diego, Singapore, Newcastle, Amsterdam, or Atlanta, the damn thing always, always! tastes exactly the same. One way in which ‘Micky D’s’ qualifies for a Michelin star, is its almost superhuman level of consistency.

Earlier this year, I started reading about the special relationship that Third Culture Kids have with fast food. It’s something that we, as a group tend to gravitate toward, and when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. A really long time ago, a famous Greek chap called Heraclitus said: ‘Change is the only constant’. When living abroad, this also holds true. It just happens to occur at a much accelerated pace. Friends in your International school leave as their parents get new assignments. Teachers come and go. Eventually it’s your own time to move on to new cultures and places. Changes, changes, and more changes. In order to find some semblance of stability and things you were used to in your previous country, you tend to go looking for common denominators. The consistency of fast food provides a good one.

Having said that, I have to mention that not all fast food is as consistent as McDonalds... In 1991, during my second visit to India, we had an overnight stop in Delhi. One ‘bright spark’ had mentioned there was a ‘Wimpy Bar’ close to the hotel. The next time I find myself hungry in Delhi, I’m going to stick to butter chicken and other local curries, because that Wimpy meal gave me the second biggest case of the runs in my life. (Incidentally, the first biggest case of the runs in my life, to which I’m devoting a chapter in my book, was the infamous ‘Dhunche apple pie incident’, which happened the following year. It resulted in a helicopter evacuation from Yala Peak base camp, and my inability to tolerate vinegar for the next eighteen years). When in exotic places, if in doubt, stick to local food from reputable sources, which is much tastier and far less likely to kill you!

Having found your ‘common denominator’, sometimes you get desperate for a Big Mac. Very desperate indeed… After finishing up my IB at UWCSEA in 1993, I moved to central Ohio to start college. Along with continuing my education, another lifelong dream was fulfilled. I learned to fly, and got my pilot’s license in 1995. Two years later I also got my driver’s license. I was considering becoming an airline pilot at the time, and eager to build ‘hours’, just about anything became a valid excuse to go flying. This included a good burger. My instructor had mentioned to me that there was a McDonald’s across the road from the executive ramp at Columbus International Airport. One late afternoon when I was studying with my friend Jim (not his real name) who was also a pilot, we got hungry. ‘Do you want to fly to McDonald’s?’ It was a 20 minute flight to Port Columbus, during which we enjoyed a fabulous airborne sunset. After landing, we taxied past several Boeing jets, cast in a copper red evening glow, as they were lining up for departure. It was after nightfall when we took off back to Newark. It was one of those ‘perfect’ moments of eccentricity where you have to look back in complete wonder and gratitude to all the truly amazing things life has granted you so far. I will never forget that evening. The Big Mac tasted extra special that night, with the added aroma of freshly burnt jet fuel. We ended up doing this two or three more times before we graduated. We took various friends along for the ride, both for their pleasant company and to help split the fuel cost!

Every time I eat at McDonald’s now, I think back to those amazing nights. And that’s where my other reasoning for that Michelin star comes in. According to the Michelin guide, (as quoted from Wikipedia) a restaurant with three stars offers: ‘exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey’. The cuisine may not be terribly exceptional, but throughout my years as a Third Culture Kid, the journeys in getting there have, with few exceptions, been very special indeed.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Global Nomad, a Pipe Dream, and a Persimmon Tree

I was planning on writing a blog post about International food cravings this week, but as I was writing, my thoughts got drawn more and more to the period of my life where I lived in Los Angeles (May to December of 2000). A recent Facebook post by my friend Tess, about the incredible scent of fresh rain in LA, and hiking the trails overlooking the city, really got me thinking about that time, and what I took away from it.

In May of 2000, about six months after finishing my geology degree at Denison University, I did one of the daftest things I had done in a while. I moved to Los Angeles with the intent of trying to make it as an actor… Driving my rusted-through 1982 VW Rabbit from Ohio to California, I became part of the cliché. One of the countless young people who try to fulfill that hare brained ambition every year… Let’s get a few facts straight. I can play a mean bit of flute, and occasionally write something funny, but when it comes to acting I am completely useless! By the miraculous grace of the Gods, and a very kind voice-over artist named Julie, I found a place to stay during my time there.

As Michael Douglas said in his 1994 interview for the program ‘Inside the Actor’s Studio’, you should only go to LA if you have work. Being there with no prospect of an income, is one of the most depressing experiences you can have, and that pretty much summed it up for mine. It didn’t help that my US visa was set to expire and had the added pressure of needing to either get a new one, or leave the country. I got my ass handed to me on a plate, and I completely failed… You could say I was a fool for even trying, but I figured it was quite possibly the last chance I had to have a hare brained adventure, so I took it.

Despite it being a complete professional disaster, it was one of the most memorable times for having my context expanded. During the eight months that I spent in Studio City, I met my share of famous people, including George Clooney, Mena Suvari, Sarah Jessica Parker, Brooke Burke, and soap actor Quinn Redeker, who over the course of those eight months, bought me to many, many cups of coffee. My long chats with Quinn and with my good friend Stacey were effectively what kept me sane. Those two people gave me the wisdom and sense of mind to realize that continuing my pipe dream was a bad idea. I left for Europe in January of 2001.

One of the more pleasant experiences, and the one that Tess’ post reminded me of, was my unexpected introduction to a new exotic fruit. One afternoon, I noticed Julie’s neighbor on the roof of the apartment complex. Using garden shears, he was cutting branches off a tree in his garden. The branches were full of a strange fruit I had never seen before. After joining him on the roof I asked what kind they were, and he told me they were persimmons. He also told me he hated the things. All they did was fall down into his patio area and make a huge sticky mess that he’d then have to clean up. Supposedly they were an expensive delicacy, though he had never tried any.

Being curious, I picked a large one and took it downstairs into the kitchen. I peeled some of the skin off, and a milky sap oozed from the hard flesh. I cut (more like hacked) out a small piece and stuck it in my mouth. Almost instantly I gagged on the bitter taste, and my tongue became covered in a vile, waxy grime that left an aftertaste for days. Okay! If this was supposed to be a delicacy, it would be reserved only for those with the most ravenous appetite for tannins! Why anyone would fork over $4 a piece for these at the grocery store was beyond me.

About a week later when unclogging the rain gutters on the roof, I noticed an elderly Hispanic lady plucking persimmons off the tree with her granddaughter. Curious again, I climbed to the roof once more, and asked her how you’re supposed to eat them. I mentioned my initial experience and the less than agreeable taste. She laughed (quite hard actually) and said that they are only edible when they are really, really ripe. Ripe to the point that they appear almost rotten and would start attracting fruit flies. She handed me a piece of one that she had picked, which to be fair really did look rotten and extremely gooey. Reluctantly I tasted it, and to my surprise it was unbelievably delicious. Sweet, with just that little ‘something’ that you can never quite pinpoint, and ridiculously good! She told me I should pick the ones that were starting to soften a bit, and let them ripen together in a brown paper bag.

For the next month or two, that steady supply of persimmons was my little secret. By that time I was practically out of money, and could barely afford ramen, let alone tropical fruit. Along with the copy of ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’, which Julie had bought me as a present, those persimmons provided me with an escape from the brutal reality of life as an unprepared, wannabe actor in Tinseltown. It was one of the most difficult periods of my life, but I will always look back in gratitude for the wealth of life experience that my LA experience gave me. And for the kindness of a total stranger I bumped into in front of a sushi bar, one balmy evening in West Hollywood.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Social Networking, and Why Mark Zuckerberg is Not a Supervillain.

People complain about the ‘evils’ of social networking all the time. Not a week goes by where some television reporter talks about yet another way in which Facebook is invading your privacy, and why nobody needs to know about the fact that you’re eating 100 year old eggs, that your kid puked into your fish tank, or that your dinner tasted off, and you are heading to bed.

Twenty years ago, you had to be a super geek to have access to a primitive form of what we now know as email. If mere mortals wanted to communicate with people, you had two options. Write a letter, mail it, and wait a few years until you got a reply, or you picked up the phone and waited for your astronomical phone bill to arrive in the mail.

As a global nomad, one of the few certainties in life is saying goodbye to people, often for a very, very, long time, and possibly forever. People’s lives change. They move onto other things, other countries, marry and have kids. Some fade into oblivion, others become famous. Occasionally, someone ends up in jail.

Finding old friends became practical in the mid-1990s. You could do an Alta Vista search (the Google Guys were still getting their PhDs), and occasionally you’d have success. Along came ‘chat platforms’, which really shrank the Earth and made real-time ‘chatting’ from Granville, Ohio with your colleagues on Antarctica a reality. It was some time in 2007 when I started hearing the name ‘Facebook’ mentioned. I created my account in 2008 if my memory serves me right, and it pretty much took off from there.

At the time of writing, I have 464 Facebook friends and counting. Some people like to nag about that, and say that it’s a waste of time, and things like: ‘you only need about one or two good friends in your life’, and having online friends takes away from the face-to-face experience, and how much time I must be wasting keeping in touch with all these ‘friends’ of mine. Whoa! Time out here people! And before you ask, yes I do consider all of them friends to varying degrees. The vast majority, I have met in person. Those who I yet have to have a cup of coffee with are mostly friends of relatives, or ‘friends of friends’. Using this networking, I’ve gotten to know some truly astonishingly interesting people.

One of the first things I do in the morning when de-zombifying over a cup of coffee, is read over the previous night’s Facebook updates. Reading people’s updates is like reading the morning paper, with the big exception that every single ‘article’ is about people that you’re actually interested in. And since I have friends in virtually every time zone, my feed is getting updated 24/7. Even if it’s as simple as ‘I just bought such & such’, ‘twisted my ankle :- (’, or ‘is having coffee’, I enjoy reading it.

Some people find this stupid, but for the instant that I read that little update, I think of that person, and more often than not, some little memory of that person comes flooding back, and therein really lies the magic. These people are hundreds, or even thousands of miles away, and you don’t know when, if ever you’ll see them again, but in that instant, for those brief moments, they are a part of your life again. And I think that’s pretty damned cool.

One of the more intriguing aspects of my Facebook experience has been coming across people I didn’t get on with so well in school. The bullies and other dodgy characters that used to make my school life hell from time to time, also entered the information age... Out of curiosity I started ‘adding’ some of them. This is where it gets interesting. In many cases, individuals that were less than nice, have ended up becoming some pretty cool people. It is an eye opener to the fact that people do change, and everyone has their individual life path to lead. They had their own challenges and insecurities to deal with, and it led to growth.

I recently got back in touch with a girl (you know who you are) from high school, who was and still is one of my best friends, even though the last time I saw her in person was at graduation in 1993. We’re both rather eccentric individuals with a wide range of interests. We both volunteered in the Singapore Zoo on Sundays. Her passion was the big cats, and I was a reptile man through and through. About a week ago I had a long chat with her, and we discussed this teasing issue. Being yourself can come at a heavy price during those image-conscious high school days. As it turns out she ended up coming to the same conclusions, and her ‘friends’ list contains some former tormentors.

This is a fine example of how social networking breaks down barriers. Twenty years ago we would have been left with grudges and bad memories. Now, we can strip away layer after layer of assumptions and wrong conclusions. For me it has really helped letting go of issues from the past. You process the past, cherish the good experiences, work through the BS, and move forward.

People can complain about you and your company Mr. Zuckerberg. Or they can moan about other social networking sites like MySpace, Google +, and Twitter, but I will always appreciate what you and your peers have done and continue to do. Even if Facebook decides to start charging a nominal fee in the future, you’ll still be cool with me and I will gladly pay it. Thanks to you and your colleagues, I am able to reconnect with long lost friends and strengthen those bonds further. And that, to me is priceless.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Too Bad Peanut Butter, and Dodging Mad Cyclists in Amsterdam

Friday last week, I drove up and down to Amsterdam with my sister, to help her move her stuff to our parents’. She is moving to Helsinki, Finland next month after 13 years in Amsterdam. To be totally honest, I merely provided transportation and she’s the one that did all the carrying. Other than simply being a lazy sod, I had a hernia repaired in my back a few months ago, and have pinky-sworn to my physical therapist that until she gives me the green light, the heaviest object I shall be lugging around is my laptop.

I left Belgium at 5:30 in the morning, armed with my new Tomtom GPS, and several cans of Red Bull in an effort to make the most of my day, hoping to beat the infamous traffic at the Kennedy Tunnel in Antwerp. I was looking forward to driving in Holland. I often complain about the homicidal driving habits of fat Belgians in Mercedes-Benzes and other German ‘prestige-metal’, and was looking for a repeat of the downright pleasant and polite Dutch driving I encountered around Eindhoven this past July. As it turns out though, Amsterdam is not Eindhoven...

I encountered my first ‘Amsterdammer’ on the freeway, as he was making a valiant attempt at driving his blue Audi up my rear. He then (predictably) started blinking his high-beams at me, which is Audi-ish for: ‘move over you silly slow person’. My first thought was that he must be Belgian… But the yellow and black license plate that was tickling the hairs on my bum was most certainly Dutch. Then I spotted the driver, and had thoughts similar to those of Arthur Dent as he first spotted the Vogon Constructor Fleet. He… or rather ‘it’ had a filthy gray beard that would have given Roald Dahl’s ‘Mr. Twit’ a run for his money. In fact, I may have briefly spotted fragments of old cheese in his moustache and, quite possibly, the putrid skeleton of a long-deceased sardine swimming in his nose hairs. Then I noticed the maniacal blue eyes and did the sensible thing to do. I cut in front of the 20 ton lorry I had been attempting to overtake, let ‘Mr. Twit’ through, and drank another can of Red Bull.

Here is where I have to give thanks to the wits of my new best friend forever, Mr. Tomtom, also a Dutchman. The device is simply astonishingly accurate and incredibly easy to read. I like the fact that all the telemetry readouts are very similar to those you find on the seat-back entertainment system on commercial airplanes. The only thing that could make the navigation in my car any sexier would be to install a Garmin 1000 unit on my dashboard with a HUD just for fun, but then the wise words of a former girlfriend pop into my head: “It’s a car! Wout, not an airplane!!”. Sigh…

After observing a Boeing 767 crossing the freeway bridge, dodging countless blind cyclists, and driving with half the car on the raised tram tracks because a van was parked on the road (which, my sister assures me is perfectly normal in Amsterdam), we reached the center more or less in one piece. At this point in time, the title of Bill Cosby’s famous book for graduates entered my mind: “Congratulations! Now what?”. We were in the less than envious position of needing a place to park. The Dutch phrase ‘helaas pindakaas’, which roughly translates into ‘too bad, peanut butter’, also entered my mind. No wonder there’s so many bicycles in this city!

Eventually we did manage to find a spot along the posh Herengracht, which used to be a bustling center for banking, back in the days of horse drawn carriages. Now, the buildings are mostly vacant, and that’s hardly surprising. At 5 Euros an hour, not even the bankers could afford to park here! I was told it is theoretically possible to get a ‘proper’ parking permit for central Amsterdam, but the waiting period’s a whopping 7 years…

Amsterdam is a fantastic place for a day on the town, especially as a global nomad. I had my first Starbucks Macchiato since leaving California and my first BK double cheeseburger with twisty fries in…well, a very long time. For the resident expats there’s the amazing Eichholtz Deli, who stock anything from Vegemite to Jolly Ranchers. To give an idea of exactly how amazing these guys are, they can actually do the impossible. They carry the holy grail of candy bars. The empress of sugary confections, which has delighted the palate of anyone (without a coconut allergy) who has ever visited Australia properly, the mighty Cherry Ripe! A secret like this however, doesn’t stay hidden for long among those initiated. It so happened that earlier that day, the manager of a certain ‘Mrs. Kidman’, in transit to New York, had come in and bought the lot…
Too bad, peanut butter!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

On the blog again!

Blimey, I have seriously neglected this blog! My one and only post was back in October of 2009, and very little of that posting is still relevant. The what, how, and why is too complicated to describe in a blog post. It is however a damned good story, and I might one of these days write a book about it.
In a nutshell, I have been living in Belgium for nearly two years now, after living on and off in the USA for the previous 16 years. My profession is still, officially a classical flute player. The practical reality however is, that I'm still on the prowl for meaningful work...

A few months ago I started writing down my thoughts, as I was looking back on my youth spent in South East Asia, and started reliving adventures with poisonous snakes, Himalayan mountains, strange foods, and tropical sunsets. It made me realize pretty quickly that all in all, I've been having a pretty amazing life. There have been some epic ups and downs, but it's rarely been boring.

I came to the conclusion that these adventures in 'book' form would make a good read, and provide a look at how a Third Culture Kid adapted to life in the tropics, and had a bloody fantastic time in the process.

For the next year or so, I'm going to be blogging about life as an adult TCK, the process of finding a literary agent, and hopefully getting the thing published. The last thing I published was an adaptation of a book of flute exercises for saxophone, and was a such complete commercial disaster that I don't think total revenues were sufficient to even cover the price of an ISBN number...

Better luck this time around!