Tag Archives: culture

Experiencing a Different Way of Life

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Most of the time, when we travel, we are touring.  We are visiting places.  We are going to specific destinations.  We are seeing landmarks, or specific points of interest.  Or we are going somewhere to take part in a certain event or activity.

Sometimes, we will speculate as to what it is like to live in a specific area.  Maybe we will even interact with some locals, and ask some questions.  But, even then, in a way, we are still touring.  We are getting some amount of information regarding what day-to-day life is like, but we are really only getting a snapshot of a specific point in time, and some verbal information about what may make that point different from typical day-to-day experience.

Sometimes, when we travel specifically to visit people, people we know, we get a little more of a window into what life is like in a different place.  For me, a metropolitan person, who has always lived in a city or suburban area, most of these kinds of trips involve traveling to a different city, or a suburb of a different city.  While each city, metropolitan area, and region are unique from one another, there are still some basic similarities.  I have a clear understanding of the differences between life in New York, Houston, Denver etc.  But, I also understand that there are many similarities that make life in all those places distinct from life in a more sparsely populated area.

Nederland, Colorado is not too far from home for me.  Nor is it your typical small town U.S.A.  Positioned along the scenic Peak to Peak Highway, at 8200 feet elevation, and only about 40 minutes West of Boulder, it falls into the category of one of those quirky types of small towns.

This weekend turned out to be a unique experience for me.  Sometimes when we visit people, we don’t really experience their typical life.  There’s a specific event, or destination, and, in a way we all become tourists.  This weekend, that did not happen.  I ended up genuinely feeling as if I had spent some time in the day-to-day life those that live here!

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The first, and most obvious difference living here is how we get around.  To me, getting anywhere, whether it be between neighborhoods or to the center of town, involved what resembled a short hike to me.  There was no driving, Ubers, light rail, or busses, just walking along a series of trails that felt, and also typically smelled as if I were on a camping trip.

I also began to notice, and even feel, a difference in energy.  Things feel calmer, less urgent, less competitive.  This, of course, is both good and bad.  The good is the ability to relax, not feel like you are competing with everyone you see, and take time to enjoy some of the things around you.  The flip side is that lines move slower, people move slower, and most things take a little longer.  Even while enjoying the reprieve from the stress of everyday life, I recognized that, given that I wish Denver were faster moving than it is, I could never permanently move to a place like this.  I did however, fully immerse myself in the experience while I was here.

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The strangest thing that happened was finally getting a good understanding of a different perspective on a common conflict.  The center of town was packed with what many people refer to as “leafers”.  These are people who drive from the city to some nearby forested area to see fall colors.  Living in Denver, I am technically one of them, as I had been nearly every year.

Immersed in the Nederland experience, I experienced this from the other side.  Feeling the frustration of people dealing with things they don’t normally have to deal with, like waiting for a table at their favorite restaurant, traffic jammed up on all of the main roads, and a significant number of people in the lake, I began to understand why people who live in places like this don’t immediately calculate the benefits of tourism on their local economy on days like this.

This month, and for the remainder of 2016, one of my goals is to try harder to see things from the perspective of others.  I just feel like a lot of things in my life, whether it be putting together a presentation with specific audience in mind, or interactions with people, will go a lot more smoothly if I genuinely make an effort to understand them from the perspective of others.

Travel has, once again, taught me a valuable lesson.  To fully immerse myself in this experience, I had to, in a way, let go, of what I know, what I expect, and even what I want.  If more of us, both in our travels, and in our day-to-day lives were to approach people, experiences, and issues, with much of this pre-concpetion taken out of our minds, we would likely have a more positive impact on the lives of one another.  This doesn’t necessarily mean giving up on what we believe in, especially strongly held conviction.  It means taking them out of our mind, for at the very least a few minutes, to hear what others have to say, and feel what others feel.

A Visit to Albuquerque

People like to break things up into neat little groups.  It is a technique people use in order to try to simplify a world that, in reality, is quite complicated.  In the United States, we take our cities, and break them out into various groupings.  We place cities in groups based on their region, their size, and sometimes even by culture.  I am as guilty as anyone of doing this.  But, every once in a while, we find ourselves in a place that reminds us that we need to respect two basic tenants of humanity, which apply both to the Cities we visit, as an entity, as well as to each and every one of us individually.

Each City, just like every one of us, has a distinct and unique individual identity.  In this identity, we see reflections of factors such as its geographic location, its history, and some of its specific influences, such as specific personalities and prominent industries.  We also see some specific quirks that cannot be easily explained just by looking at what we observe elsewhere.  It is the same way with each and every one of us.  When we are being true to ourselves, our behavior patterns manifest in a similar unique manner, a manner that can only be described as attributed to our unique person.  I feel it every time any one of my friends responds to anything I do or say by simply saying “That’s so Steve”.

Also embedded in the character of any City I have ever visited are reflections of natural law, or the universal truths that bind us all together.

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Albuquerque reminded me of both of these two basic facts.  Albuquerque has a unique heritage.  It has similar beginnings as Santa Fe, and even has an Old Town Square that reflects these beginnings.

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However, much of the city was built in a much more sun-belt style car-centric manner.  It is one of the most storied towns along historic U.S. route 66.  Route 66 embodies multiple eras of U.S. history, including the mass migration to California during the Great Depression, and later the first decade after the second World War, when the American road trip first became accessible to a large swath of the American people; the middle class.

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Route 66 connected Chicago to Los Angeles from the late 1920s through the end of the 1970s.  While the route covers a large distance, traversing many different parts of the country, it is the Southwest, New Mexico and Arizona, that is often most commonly pictured when people imagine that classic road trip on route 66.  While the exact location of the route 66 town in Disney’s Cars is not disclosed, the imagery in the movie clearly points to a southwestern location.

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Albuquerque celebrates its pivotal position along route 66 by both preserving some of the places that were legendary stops for travelers along this highway.

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As well as creating restorations that recreate the experience of being at a travel stop along the old highway, much the same way old west towns recreate the American West during the 1800s.

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Route 66 is even the subject of a major controversy in town.  A proposed Bus Rapid Transit project, called Albuquerque Rapid Transit, would more or less follow the path of historic route 66 through town.  Residents of a hip area of town adjacent to the University of New Mexico called Nob Hill appear united in opposition to the project.  Some of the signs I saw opposing the Albuquerque Rapid Transit referenced protecting the heritage of route 66.  However, I wonder if this opposition is motivated by route 66 preservation, or the desire to avoid any changes to the neighborhood.

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Regardless of whether the people are motivated by the desire to preserve route 66 in its historic format, or preserve their neighborhood the way it currently is, on display here is one aspect of humanity that appears consistent across all cultures.  When people are enjoying their current situation, they generally do not desire change, and, in many cases, will fiercely oppose it.  This has been the case for me, personally, at various stages in my own life, and is also evident in a lot of the behaviors I observe in others when they react to changes in the workplace or their favorite social media outlet.

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It also appears to be basic human nature to seek out a broader view of the world from time to time.  It is the reason people go to the top of the world’s tallest building, hike Mount Rainier, or sit and gaze down at Los Angeles from the Hollywood sign.  Albuquerque’s answer to this is the Sandia Peak Tramway.

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This tramway takes passengers on a 15-minute ride from a base elevation of 6559 feet (already significantly higher than the center of town), to a peak of 10,378 feet. Here, visitors to the area can see unique rock formations.

 

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Learn about the unique biomes that can be found in the mountainous terrain (Breckenridge has a similar exhibit, but uses an actual garden).

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And, can get a view overlooking this city that actually covers a much broader area than just the Albuquerque city limits.  In fact, Sandia Peak is so high that it is quite difficult to make out individual buildings or even neighborhoods in town!

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The culture is unique as well, seeming to combine so many aspects of the West and Southwest.

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Along the Rio Grande River, which cuts through the center of town, a bike trail, as well as numerous parks provide the urban outdoor space that Westerners seem to value so much.  Whereas, in many other cities I have visited and lived in, living in close proximity to a park is desirable, but kind of a bonus, it feels as if people here in the West view being near a park as a prerequisite, a necessity of life itself!

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On this particular Sunday afternoon, a parade of classic cars rolled through Old Town Square, showing off their classic appeal, and the hard work each and every car owner put into maintaining their vehicle’s shine.

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That evening, on the West side of downtown, another group of people are gathered, also showing off their vehicles, and, almost downright partying.

When I think of all the cars revving their engines up at night, all I can say is, “That’s so Albuquerque”.  One could speculate what mix of cultural influences, old Spanish, sunbelt, Western, Hispanic, etc. lead to Albuquerque being the way it is today.  But it is more than that.  The same can be said about any other place one would visit.  That is why we travel, not just when we need to go somewhere for business, or when we wish to visit people that live in another place, but also when we desire an experience we simply cannot have in our respective hometowns.

Life in a Northern Town

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It’s 8 AM on a Thursday morning in Reykjavik, Iceland’s Capitol and largest City.  The sun has yet to come up, as this far north (64 degrees latitude) days are still quite short in the middle part of February.  A quiet dawn persists over the town for nearly two hours, from 8 to about 10.  A couple of local teenagers are hanging outside the grocery store.  A group of tourists can be seen hanging outside one of the few restaurants that are open.  Otherwise, the streets are quite empty, and the shops are mostly closed.

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It’s odd because, in many most major cities, 8:00 is the peak of what is often referred to as “rush hour”.  It is a time of people hurrying to and from train stations, and crowding highways trying to get to work.  Even in the more touristy sections of cities, which this most certainly is, a lot of motion can still be found at this hour.  At places like Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, and New York’s Time Square, which are utterly packed with tourists nearly every day, there are still plenty of people to be found at 8:00 on a weekday morning, mostly people headed into work.  Here, that culture just does not seem to exist.  Are all the office jobs elsewhere?  Do people have office jobs?  Do they work different hours?  Or is the economy so heavy on tourism and fishing that there is just no point in being awake at an hour when all the tourists are likely still asleep and the sun is not out?

By noon, things start to pick up.  On some days, the sun comes out and hits the harbor.  At this latitude, when it hits the harbor, it hits it in a way that seems to highlight every single feature, from the boats in the harbor to the snowy mountains on the other side.  From the perspective of someone that has always lived in the mid-latitudes, is feels neither like mid-day nor twilight.  It is a different feeling altogether, and those who take a pause from their tourist itinerary and truly soak up the moment are reminded as to why it is worthwhile to visit different places in the first place; to see something, experience something, do something that cannot be done at home.

The day progresses.  Tourists fill streets whose names are too intimidating to even try to pronounce, make their way into the bars, the restaurants, and the dozens of souvenir stores that feature a gigantic stuffed puffin in the window.

The weather inevitably changes- but, well it doesn’t.

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There is this saying, “if you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes, it will change.”  Anyone that travels on a regular basis to places outside the tropics has most likely heard the phrase too many times to count.  It is used here.  At souvenir shops, mugs and shirts about Iceland sport the phrase.  And, it is true to some extent.  At any moment, it can turn from sunny to cloudy, or suddenly get windy.  But, the temperature does not vary too much.  On a four day trip to Iceland, the temperature, including daytime and nighttime, seemed to only vary between a few degrees below freezing and a few degrees above freezing.

Regardless of these changes, winter in Iceland is consistently cold and damp.  For this reason, one of the most popular items made in all of Iceland are wool sweaters.  While any visitor to Reykjavik can find these sweaters for sale all over town, the best deals on them are found at the Kolaportid Flea Market.  Even at the Flea Market, though, they can be quite expensive, the equivalent of roughly $100.  Money talks, and it is easy to figure out what a certain culture values by seeing what they are willing to spend money on.  Coloradans are willing to spend thousands of dollars annually on ski equipment.  Icelanders are willing to spend money on a warm wool sweater.

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Reykjavik’s population is only just over 200,000 people.  In fact, the population of all of Iceland is 330,000- significantly less than every borough of New York City, even Staten Island.  Yet, it is a place that knows how to party!  The nightlife is surprisingly good- probably better than many towns 2-3 times its size!

Making up for the lack of action at 9 in the morning, festivals, shows, and clubs give locals and tourists alike plenty to do in the nighttime hours.  Iceland has been promoting tourism quite hard since the economic collapse of 2008, which hit Iceland particularly hard.  Iceland Air has been particularly active in promoting tourism, by adding direct flights to more places in both Europe and North America, possibly with the goal of becoming a preferred airport for making connections while traveling between Europe and North America.

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Looking at this map, it is hard not to imagine an executive with Iceland Air looking at at map, possibly even Risk the board game, and thinking of this grand plan to become a connecting point between the continents.

Well, it’s working.  Recently, more people talk about Reykjavik being their favorite place to make flight connections, and more and more people seem to have visited Iceland.  At this point, in Reykjavik, it is probably impossible for locals and tourists not to interact with one another in some way, especially at clubs and shows.

After hours of partying, all of a sudden it is 4 AM.  Many clubs still have lines to get in!

At 5 AM, on the streets, music can still be heard coming from multiple directions.  In fact, by this hour, it almost becomes easier to find a place to eat than it was at 9 AM on Thursday morning.

Sometime in the next few hours, the blurry memory of a fun filled night fades into the next morning, likely to be delayed through at least part of that lengthy twilight period.  In my particular case, it faded into the realization that it is now noon, and Millions of New Yorkers (where the local time is 7 A.M.), despite the time difference, have woken up before me on the other side of the Atlantic!

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I only spent four days in Iceland.  I do not know the full extent of life in this nearly arctic city of Reykjavik.  I only know what I experience in this short period of time, where I did the best I could to experience the local culture.  Regardless, it does appear quite different from any place I have ever been.

 

 

NYC- Sort of Home

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Few places have as high of a profile as New York City.  Few places inspire as much thought and discussion, and, in North America, there are few places that are portrayed as frequently in popular culture.  New York is one of those places that everybody has a reaction to.  Some are in awe of it, see it as some kind of magical place where excitement looms around every corner and dreams come true every day.  Some see it as intimidating.  Others resent the influence it has on our culture.

At 8.5 Million, New York is by far the largest City in the United States of America.  This is less than 3 percent of the National Population, but it’s influence expands far beyond its borders.  Every day, millions of Americans living nowhere near New York read two major New York publications, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.  Across the country people look to New York for the latest in business, music, fashion trends, musicals, and more.  And, one would be hard pressed to find anyone in North America that does not recognize Time Square at first glance.

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Countless shows and movies are set in New York.  At Washington Square Park, it is easy to imagine running into Billy on The Street, the cast of Impractical Jokers, or one of the many other shows that often uses this park as a backdrop for crazy antics.

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At Rockefeller Plaza, I imagine being in the cast of 30 Rock, or one of the shows that is actually filmed here.

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Yet, what I actually encounter here at Rockefeller Plaza is people in suits waiting in line for a salad, and tourists paying far too much money to skate on an ice rink that is far smaller than one would expect.

Day to day life here appears to be some kind of a tradeoff.  There are tons of fun places to go, and things to do!  I was only in New York for several days, and this was two weeks ago (I am behind on blogs- life gets in the way sometimes), but I am still thinking of all of the great food I had while here.

 

It must be amazing to have access to the best of pretty much everything the world has to offer right outside your door.

What intimidates me most about the idea of living in New York City (I say idea because I have no specific plans to move) is the work culture.  While the experience one has in any job is more related to the particular industry and particular organization in which they chose to work, geographic location does seem to play a part, and, from what I hear, employers in New York expect a lot from their employees.  I actually imagine working at a major corporation in New York City as all of the things I hate about the standard working environment; strict hierarchy, lack of caring, people stepping all over each other, feeling disconnected and like just a cog in a machine, dialed up to 11.

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Yet, as I walked around New York City, I realized the first thing I would miss is the friendliness.  I do not live in the Midwest or the South, the parts of the country known as being the friendliest of all.  But, in Colorado, I feel as if I can smile at strangers, and even strike up conversations with random people as I walk around my neighborhood, go to the store, or go about my life in any other normal way.  Here, not so much.

What would the average American feel if they were to move to New York City?  What would I feel?  Would I fall in love with the cultural institutions, concerts, shows, restaurants, and bars open until 6?  Or would I see a City full of people who appear to have had the life sucked out of them by their professions, hurrying from meeting to meeting, yet accomplishing nothing.

New York, despite being like no other palce on this continent, is a city of contrasts.  Here, in this City, at any given time, there are people having their lives made, and people having their lives ruined!  The City is congested.  Yet, one can get around the city quite quickly via subway.

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It makes every other system of public transit I have ever ridden (with the possible exception of Washington D.C.) seem slow and frustrating.

I walk down 14th Street.  The sidewalks are just as crowded as I remember them.  People are as eager to shove those who dare to walk slowly out of the way.  It is the fast paced, driven New York of every stereotype.

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For blocks, the only vegetation one can see is roped off to avoid overuse and destruction.  Yet, a few blocks away, one can find a quiet street, and almost find tranquility.

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In summary, in New York I feel both at home and in a foreign country at the same time.  With how similar it is to the rest of the county in some respects, and how different it is in other respects, I imagine many Americans would feel the same way.  I guess that is why some people would love to call this place home, while others would be frightened by the very idea of it.

Tea that Isn’t Really Tea

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Tea is not something I ever give any real thought to.  For me, it is one of those products that has always just been there.  As much as I claim to be a curious-minded person, I had never even sat and pondered who was the first person to come up with the idea to take a bunch of ground up leaves, put it in a tiny little bag and dip it into a cup of hot water.  In fact, if you think about almost every product we use on a regular basis from the standpoint of a culture that has never been introduced to that product, it probably sounds absurd.  As I write this, I am eating a bagel.  Imagine telling someone who has never heard of a bagel that you have an idea to take condensed bread, bake it into a cylindrical shape with a hole in the middle, and maybe put some random seeds on top.

You would have probably been told, by at least some portion of the people around you, that your idea was either absurd, or unnecessary.  If I could, I would communicate this point to an entire generation of aspiring entrepreneurs, as nearly all of them, will at some point receive a similar reaction from people they describe their idea to.  In fact, some will even be turned down and laughed at by potential customers and investors.

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One of the reasons I had never given tea too much thought is that in my mind I had always associated it with things that I do not find too exciting.  Our subconscious minds have this strange ways of synthesizing our experiences, the experiences we hear about, and even some of the media we consume into some general associations.  Whenever anyone mentions tea, the image that naturally pops into my head is a fancy table with fancy chairs on someone’s lawn, in front of a garden on a day with the most pleasant weather imaginable, and people wasting that pleasant afternoon, with so many possibilities to engage in activities and explore what the world has to offer, just sitting around drinking tea.

In fact, I did not even start drinking tea until I got my first job after Graduate School.  It was free at work.  I started drinking it to save both money and calories, particularly on chilly mornings.  The only variety of tea that was free at my job was “black” tea, which is perfect, because, as I learned at the Celestial Seasonings tour, it is one of the most heavily caffeinated teas out there (surpassed only by Oolong tea).  So, I conditioned my taste buds to the rather plain flavor of black tea and did not ponder other options.

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However, Celestial Seasonings is a place that has way more character than the stuffy images I think of when I think of the average “tea time”.  It was started by a bunch of hippies, which should not really surprise me given that it is in Boulder and was started in the late 1960s.  They would gather leaves in the Rocky Mountains outside of Boulder to make their beverages.

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However, the leaves that constitute “tea” come from plants that cannot be grown in this part of the world.  So, the beverages they put together were drinks that could not actually be considered “tea” by the technical definition.  They would have been considered “herbal infusions”.  The phrase “herbal infusion” had a clear association with the hippie movement.  So, to sell these products to the general public, which was (and still is) largely skeptical of the hippie movement, they labeled the beverages “herbal teas”.

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Now nearly a half a century has passed.  A lot has happened.  First, the hippies reached full-fledged adulthood (over 30, is that what they said?), got jobs, bought houses on cul-de-sacs, and, eventually SUVs and mini-vans.  A new generation emerged, powered by a rejuvenated economy, and became Yuppies.  They managed to both continuously enlarge the houses and vehicles in suburbia, while also turning formally blighted neighborhoods in city centers across the country into high-class urban playgrounds.  Many of the areas that were once focal points to the hippie sub-culture, including San Francisco, and even Boulder, are now firmly under the domain of this new urban culture.  Of course, this is all an over simplification, but hippie communes still exist, largely in the same way soda fountains and other relics still exist.  A family will randomly encounter one in an out of the way place on a road trip, and grandma and grandpa will explain to the children what they are/ were all about.

Yet, the label “herbal tea” is still there, both in this tasting room, and in their packaging.  It is still there despite the fact that so much has changed.  Not only does the general public have absolutely nothing to fear from the hippie sub-culture anymore, but, I would argue that many of their ideas have penetrated our mainstream thinking, both “right” and “left”.  We do not wear suits to baseball games anymore.  People aren’t mocked or reprimanded nearly as much when they explore their feelings, and try to find themselves.  There is no more stigma around going to seek therapy, and tons of people participate in yoga classes.  We may largely be in boring cubicles and offices, but it is not unheard of to openly defy the authority structures there.

Despite all of this, people are still drinking “herbal tea” instead of “herbal infusions”.  “Herbal teas” are Celestial Seasoning’s three top selling “teas”.  Is this simply the power of inertia?  Are there still a significant enough number of people that would shy away from drinking something if it was labeled an “herbal infusion”?  Or is something greater at work?  Our world is in a constant state of flux, and that flux includes language, definitions, and standards.  The hippie movement did not survive, but some of the ideas joined the mainstream.  Maybe, although, these “herbal infusions” were not considered “tea” in 1969, they are now.  Very few people, when they buy these products at the store, even ever realize that they are not actually drinking tea.  For all practical purposes, it is tea despite the technical definition.  After all, Colorado is already a major part of a movement that changed the standards for what is considered beer, why not another product?

Disconnect and Reconnect

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2015 is quite a strange time.  I wholeheartedly believe that one day we will look back upon this particular era of human history as one of major transition; for better or for worse.  It was around twenty years ago that households across America were suddenly all gaining access to the internet.  It was around ten years ago that social media started ramping up the roles it played in each of our lives, and a few years later, many people across the country started getting “smart phones” with data plans that provide us with nearly constant access to the internet.  Living in Colorado, it is easy for me to travel to places without an internet connection (although I am sure there are people working on that right now).  However, I imagine that many people in large metro areas, particularly on the East Coast, may go years without traveling to a place that is truly “disconnected”.

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It takes a while for society to really process changes as major as this one.  For the first few years, following the proliferation of social media and smart phones across the country, it genuinely felt as if I was the only person who was concerned about the potential downsides of this sudden cultural transformation.  It wasn’t until a few years later that people started sounding the alarm about topics such as cyberbullying, echo chambers, loss of depth in our conversations, the impact it could have on our friendships, phoniness, and the constant exposure to new information leading to a culture of constant distraction.  Having moved from Chicago to Colorado in 2012, I cannot pinpoint the exact time when we as a society actually started addressing this issue.  I recognize that I moved from a major city to a place that naturally attracts people that would share my views on this subject.

I am a firm believer is a concept known as “Natural Law“.  This philosophy states that there are certain universal truths that apply regardless of setting.  By contrast, Moral Relativists believe that what is right and wrong in always relative to the time, place, and circumstance.  Over the past couple of years, much has been written, in books, on the internet, about the importance of taking time to “disconnect”.  Most of these article remind us of the need to, from time to time, turn off our televisions, computers, smart phones, etc. and spend some time with ourselves.  But, this was true even before we had smart phones and social media.  Long before social media, Bill Gates would periodically go into complete seclusion for a week at a time.  He would refer to these excursions as “think week”s, and use them to develop key ideas.

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When I arrived at Turquoise Lake, a mere five miles outside of Leadville, Colorado, what I saw was a perfect place to put this advice into practice.  Simply put, it is quiet, but also very scenic.  I came to the lake not knowing what to expect.  I knew it was a Tuesday, and in the middle of October, and therefore would not likely be crowded.  But, with the exception of a storm headed into the area by later in the afternoon, the place was quite tranquil.  It is the kind of place people envision when they think about a quiet country mountain getaway.

I decided I would take five minutes, and force myself to do nothing- absolutely nothing!  I would not pick up a rock and start throwing it.  I would not walk down to the lake.  And I certainly would not even touch my iPhone, which was in my pocket at the time.  For five whole minutes, all I did was stare at the Lake, the trees, and the mountains in the backdrop.

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At the end of these five minutes, I picked up a rock, and wrote the following message.  Along with this overarching theme, a series of other ideas flew into my head.  For, in life, we all do things that makes us feel alive.  Unfortunately, we also have times in our lives when we simply don’t feel alive.  Choosing to live means something different for every person.  We all have our own individual passions and priorities.  But, one thing we all must do, in order to be true to ourselves, is overcome the fear of leaving our comfort zones.

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As I watched the storm roll in, I realized that, for many, the first step towards overcoming this fear, and expanding our comfort zones, is exactly what I just did.  In our current culture, with TVs in every house, iPhones with music and games, and distractions everywhere, being completely still, completely silent, and without some external stimulation to occupy our minds is well outside the comfort zone for most people.

I have a friend from High School who has A.D.D.  And, I do not mean it in that manner in which we over-diagnose A.D.D. in our modern society.  He was diagnosed long before they started diagnosing everyone, and seriously has nearly no attention span without medication.  One day, we thought it would be interesting to see how long he could do nothing for- absolutely nothing.  We all just sat in chairs doing nothing.  After a minute or so, we could obviously tell that this was a painful experience for him.

However, for those of us without this issue, when was the last time we actually did spend a whole minute (or five) doing absolutely nothing?  How often do we, while waiting in line, or waiting for a train, or waiting for our friend to show up at a bar, instinctively take out our smart phones, and distract ourselves with a game, an unnecessary email check, or social media?  Have we all gotten to the point where we cannot spend a minute inside our own brains?

For what I realized is that when we “disconnect”, we are not just disconnecting from the internet, and other distractions.  We are actually reconnecting- reconnecting with ourselves.  For most of our days, in 2015, for better or worse, we are fixated on an external stimulant.  Our minds dwell upon something someone else has chosen for us to think about.  It is only when we shut those outside distractions out that our minds are free to wander.  It is then that we form our own thoughts, on our own terms.  This is something I fear we may have lost in our modern culture.  At Turquoise Lake, I found it.

A Weekend in Texas

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In my last post, I describe my experiences visiting the City of Austin, Texas.  Some people describe Austin as being “not really Texas”.  And, while that may be a simplification, or exaggeration of the experience there, the general point is that the experience of being in Austin is different than the the experience of being in any other part of Texas.  So, while I spent some time in Austin last weekend, I also got the opportunity to experience other places in Texas, and actually get immersed into the culture here.

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One of the first places I went to, just 20 miles or so outside of Austin, was the Salt Lick, for some high quality Texas barbecue.  I was surprised to see such a large establishment.  I had gone to BBQ in places like Oklahoma City and Tulsa in the past, and those experiences usually involved smaller, more side-of-the road type establishments.  I had come to, in my head, assume that was the standard BBQ experience, but the Salt Lick is pretty gigantic.  And, the first thing I saw when I entered the restaurant was a gigantic barbecue pit.  The last time I had seen so much meat in one place was at the World’s Largest Brat Festival in Wisconsin.

Texas style barbecue, of course, includes brisket.  In order to experience the full range of barbecue experience, I ordered a combination plate that included brisket, ribs, and sausage.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the restaurant asks their patrons if they want their brisket “lean”, or “moist”.  Not being a fan of fatty meats, I chose “lean”, and really enjoyed the entire meal.

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In fact, I kind of felt like I spent the entire weekend eating brisket!  The other establishments I went to, like the Salt Lick, were sizable establishments.  Coopers, in New Braunfels, was big enough to accommodate a group of 16 people without really having to adjust anything from their normal operating experience.

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Whenever I was not eating barbecue food, I was eating Mexican food, which is plentiful in Texas due to it’s close proximity to, as well as history of being a part of, Mexico.  I visited several Mexican food establishments while in Texas, including a place many of us that live elsewhere should become familiar with: Torchy’s Tacos.  Later this year, they will expand beyond the borders of Texas, opening up a location in Denver, Colorado.  They may very well expand to some other areas as well.

In Bourne and New Braunfels (and places between), I got to experience a bit of the local culture.IMG_3949 IMG_3944

This area is often referred to as “Texas Hill Country”, as, well, unlike most of the Great Plains, it is kind of hilly.  Parts of it sort of remind me of the “Driftless Area” of Southwestern Wisconsin, with rolling hills one to several hundred feet tall.  Although, the geological history these regions is quite different.

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Here I attended a wedding, and took part in another local custom, floating the river.  At the wedding, the main thing I noticed about the culture here in Texas was the affinity for line dancing.  I had expected the country music line dancing.  But, what shocked me was how often people would just naturally form a line while dancing to other songs.  When YMCA, and Gangnam Style, came on, people here just naturally formed themselves into a line as if it were second nature.

In Texas, if is quite common for people to go on “floating”, or “tubing” trips.  It is basically an outdoorsy activity that is far more relaxing than the ones I usually take part in here in Colorado.  It mostly just involves laying in a tube, and gently floating down a river.  Many people here own their own tubes to float in, and bring floatable coolers, where they pack beer.  I have heard it is quite common for people to get quite intoxicated while taking part in a float trip.

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Texas hill country also contains a lot of natural features, some of which have become common family-type tourist destinations.  A few miles west of New Braunfels is a place called Natural Bridge Caverns, which, just as the name advertises, is a Natural Bridge above ground with a cavern below ground.

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Every time I visit a place like this, I always come away with mixed views regarding the commercialization of these natural features.  One one hand, I look at staircases, buildings, and all of these artificial looking features being present, and wonder if we are losing out on some of the experience.  But, I also see that having paved roads to get here, walkways through the area, and other comfort related conveniences opens up the experience of viewing these places to many people who otherwise would not have been able to see them.

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It was in San Antonio, however, where I learned about the history of Texas.  Downtown San Antonio kind of has an odd combination of historical significance.  On one end of downtown is The Alamo.  Originally a “mission“, the place later became a military post in the war for independence from Mexico, and now a museum, which is also considered a Shrine of Texas Liberty.  This place very much celebrates the people of Texas separating from Mexico, and, of course, later joining the United States.

On the other end of downtown is a place called Historic Market Square, a place that celebrates Mexican cultural heritage.  In the plaza, I saw T-Shirts for sale that exuded Mexican pride.  In fact, with authentic Mexican food and cultural items for sale everywhere, I almost felt like I could have actually been in Mexico.

It just makes me wonder.  Is this a City that is in conflict with itself?  How do those of Mexican decent here in San Antonio feel about Texas history?

The area between the Alamo and Historic Market Square was also kind of confusing.  On the surface, the city looked kind of dreary.  I kind of felt like I was in a bad part of Chicago, or any other big city that has a significant amount of blight.  But, underneath the surface was San Antonio’s Riverwalk, which is quite lively.

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In fact, San Antonio kind of pioneered the idea of riverwalks.  And, it appears other cities are trying to copy them.

After reading about Texas history, I kind of had a better understanding of the place.  Specifically, at the Alamo, they describe a struggle in Mexican politics.  On one side there was a group of people that strongly supported a Federalist type system of government based on a constitution that was modeled after the United States.  Under this system, some powers were devolved to the states, of which Texas (or Tejas) was one.  On the other side, was a group of centralizers that wanted more control in the hands of the central government in Mexico City.  Texans strongly supported the former over the latter, and when the latter won power, they felt their way of life threatened.  The successful defense of Texas, establishment of the Lone Star Republic, and later admission to a country whose values more closely resembled their own is viewed as a triumph.

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It is without a doubt that many Texans today see a lot of parallels (whether or not they are correct) to today’s political struggles in the United States.  Having this history, one in which many people in the state take pride, definitely explains why succession talk would be much more prevalent here than it would be in other states who strongly oppose some aspects of how our Federal government is operating.

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There was always some concern over whether I would fit in here in Texas.  Anyone that talks to me can clearly hear my Long Island accent.  I do not try to hide it.  Some people who have lived in Texas  told me that it would also be obvious that I am an outsider by the manner in which I conduct myself, and the types of topics I discuss on a regular basis.

But, I took a “leap of faith” of sorts, and just decided to be myself when interacting with people here.  And, I was actually received quite warmly here, by people who probably have a significantly different lifestyle and set of values than my own.  Everyone was friendly to me, and they were even receptive to the kinds of conversation topics I tend to engage people in.

As I thought through the acceptance I experienced here, as well as the history, the current succession talk and anger, I came to an important realization.  Maybe we are not nearly as divided as people make us out to be.  Maybe it is really only the most vocal (and angry) among us that display this division.  After all, if 1.4 Million people can live in a city which celebrates both it’s Mexican heritage and it’s struggle for independence from Mexico, maybe we can find a way to celebrate what makes everyone unique.