Thoughts from Half a World Away

Words. I’m trying to find them. Everything is jumbled. Scrambled. I’m sad. Upset. Angry. Confused. I’m sitting in my office half a world away. Why do I think I’m going to walk to the Metro and see all the people standing at Republique? The people who feel the same way I feel. I’m not there though. I’m in the suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa, trying to understand why this shooting in Paris is affecting me so much. I wasn’t attacked. I don’t know anyone who was. But that was my home. It feels like someone is attacking my memories of it.

Canal Saint Martin. If you ask me to think about Paris, that’s the first place that pops in my head. Probably not the typical response, but for me, that was my home. I lived a block away. On gorgeous weekend days, it was impossible to find a place to sit. Everyone was gathered there to eat, drink, converse, and most importantly, people watch. It wasn’t just weekends for me though. I spent every day on the canal. That’s where I took stock every morning. No matter how late my night was. No matter how many cigarettes and drinks at Chez Prune or Comptoir General. Every morning the canal was my cleanse. Canal Saint Martin was where I ran.

Take a right at Chez Prune from my old street and soon after you turn, you’ll notice that instead of a canal in the middle of a split street, there’s a park. From here until shortly after the Bastille, the canal goes underground, giving way to park-style areas with gorgeous trees that flower in the spring and summer. Eventually, the underground canal curves to the south, heading towards the Bastille before flowing into the Seine. The road that follows it to the Bastille is Boulevard Richard Lenoir.

You’ve all probably seen that road today. It’s the road that was apparently used by extremists to escape after murdering innocent people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a left-wing satirical magazine easily found throughout the city, as a possible retaliation to the publishing of cartoons depicting Muhammad. I ran on that road every day. No matter what craziness had ensued, that road was my place of peace and reflection. Twice a week, I’d have to cut my run short. Not due to massive hangovers, but because one of the best outdoor markets in the city is located on that street. The best day was Sunday, even though it was the most crowded. It was all part of the experience. Couples, both young and old, some with families in tow, strolled the market in search of fresh fruits, veggies, or other goods. Most times, I’d walk through the crowd alone, the music flowing through my headphones coloring the experience. Sometimes, I’d go shopping with friends, getting fresh food for meals to be cooked later that afternoon. I don’t know how to fully comprehend how that could be the same street.

It feels selfish to even talk about how this is affecting me. I lived there for months. There are people who have called that area home for their entire lives. Families, friends, and co-workers have been taken away from people and I sit in a quiet office, staring at a frozen landscape, scribbling down thoughts on an old yellow legal pad. As I’m writing this, I’m looking at pictures and videos of the massive crowd standing in Republique, just a couple blocks from what used to be home. I feel like I need to be there. Not to stand in mourning of the Charlie Hebdo victims. Or to support freedom of speech. Or to stand up against any extremist who thinks killing over an idea or belief is just. I would gladly and proudly stand in that square for all of those reasons, but that’s not what the need is. I feel helpless. Confused. Alone. Maybe there’s some people there feeling the same way? And we could just stand there. Together.

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The Best Wedding

Yes, we really took a selfie during the ceremony...

Yes, we really took a selfie during the ceremony…

Yesterday, I had the extreme honor of marrying two of my great friends, Robert and Jacki Best. I really appreciated all the compliments on the ceremony. Many people asked about the script so I decided to post it. What follows is simply the script I wrote. It is not meant to be grammatically correct, rather structured how I wanted it to sound:

Who gives this woman to be wedded to this man?

Please be seated.

Welcome everyone. Thank you so much for coming to this celebration. Today we join together two families, two hearts, and two beautiful people as they enter the next chapter of their lives together. Soon, you’ll all be able to drink, laugh, and… Looking around the room today, I’ve decided to amend my previous statement… Soon you’ll all be able to CONTINUE to drink, laugh, and wish Robert and Jacki all the happiness in the world. But first, I’d like to talk to you a little bit about faith.

Faith is an intriguing concept. What is faith? How does one acquire faith? How do we know what to have faith in? How does Faith Hill continue to look so young? These are questions that have boggled mankind for millennia. Some people are lucky. Some people are just born with it. They have this unflappable confidence in who they are and where they are going in life. Nothing can affect their happiness and positive outlook on the world. To those of you who have this faith, from those of us who were not born quite so lucky, I’d like to extend you all a big, old, hearty… good for you.

Another group of us finds faith through the words of others. Voltaire once wrote: “Faith consists in believing when it is beyond the power of reason to believe.” Another quote, this time from Mahatma Gandhi, “Faith is not something to grasp, it is a state to grow into.” Or, “The Ultimate Answer to Life, The Universe, and Everything is… 42.” From Douglas Adams.

We can all lose our faith. It is one of the great ironies of life that all of us feel doubt and fear, and yet even though we all experience these feelings, they make us feel alone. We live in a world full of joy, but also of fear, and doubt. There’s a great, old, tale about a father and son walking through the forest together. The son was questioning how he wanted his life to play out. Should he travel early or settle down right away? What type of work should he go into? And on and on and on… The father quietly picks up a stick and hands it to his son. “If you throw this stick,” he says. “Where will it go?” “Whichever way I want it to,” replied the confused son. “No, I want you to tell me exactly what will happen to the stick when you throw it. What trees will you hit? How will it bounce? Where will it land?” The son, still slightly confused, predicts he will hit one tree, bounce into another, and land softly in a pile of leaves nearby. “Ok,” the father says. “Throw the stick.” The son throws it, misses both trees and it lands on the ground, tumbling end over end before coming to rest next to a third tree. The son slumps his shoulders and looks down before looking up at his father. The father says simply, “The important thing, is to throw the stick.”

We search for meaning and strength through all the chaos and seeming disorder around us. That search inevitably leads us to one thing. Love. Love is the eternal force of life. Love is the force that allows us to face that fear and doubt and throw the stick with courage and strength, knowing that no matter the result, joy awaits in the outcome. There is no right or wrong thing to have faith in. The important thing is that we desperately hang on to those around us who inspire us to have faith. There are no two more generous souls on the planet than Robert and Jacki. And no one more deserving of the love and faith they have found in and with each other.

Jacki. Robert. I’m going to ask you to please take each other’s hands.

Feel the warmth and love running through those hands and have faith that no matter what may come, that love you feel, will be in those hands for you. The hands that when they touched you for the first time, sparked the feelings flowing through you now. The hands that will hold you close during times of fear and doubt, wiping away your tears and bringing you the comfort of knowing that everything will be ok. These are the hands that will eventually be joined by much tinier hands when you start your new family together in the future. And perhaps most importantly, these are the hands of your best friend, and even when both of your hands are wrinkled and aged, they will still be reaching for yours, providing you that same unspoken love and strength with just a simple touch.

May we please have the bride’s ring?

Robert, please place the ring on Jacki’s finger.

Jacki, please repeat after me.

I, Jacki.

Am proud to take you Robert.

To be my husband.

I promise to nurture your goals and ambitions

To support you through your misfortunes

And celebrate your triumphs

I promise to show you every day

That I know

Exactly how lucky I am

To have you in my life

Because we are a team

For now, and always.

May we please have the groom’s ring?

Jacki, please place the ring on Robert’s finger.

Robert, please repeat after me.

I, Robert.

Am proud to take you Jacki.

To be my wife.

I promise to nurture your goals and ambitions

To support you through your misfortunes

And celebrate your triumphs

I promise to show you every day

That I know

Exactly how lucky I am

To have you in my life

Because we are a team

For now, and always.

I now pronounce you husband and wife.

Robert, you may kiss the bride.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am about to introduce you to the happy new couple… but first… lemme take a selfie!

Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. and Mrs. Robert Best!!

Remembering Why I Watch

As though an excuse was needed to drink wine in Paris, but sure... tennis!

As though an excuse was needed to drink wine in Paris, but sure… tennis!

It’s a cool Sunday morning, the type that lends itself towards coffee and nostaligia. I suppose the fact that I’m starting to pack my stuff into boxes isn’t helping the nostalgic side of me. You’d think I’d be used to that by now, but my mind still gets loud from time to time. Is Des Moines really the spot for me? Is it going to be just a larger version of Cedar Rapids? I have lots of tricks to quiet my mind like all of us. Some of my favorites are music, running, reading, and even watching sports.

The French Open is on this morning and I’m instantly transported back to Paris. Sports, just like any other type of entertainment at its best, can do that. They can take us to other places and times. Last year I was watching this same match, Djokovic vs. Nadal, this time in the finals instead of the semi-finals. This year watching alone with a cup of coffee on my couch in Iowa instead of in the courtyard of Hotel de Ville, drinking wine surrounded by thousands of people.

Hotel de Ville’s courtyard was a constantly changing landscape that holds memories from my first days in Paris to my last. It was an outdoor ice skating rink the first time I happened upon it, an essential part of my first great story in the city. It was a makeshift nature preserve my last time, where I spent time reflecting after my last great story there had its conclusion. For a few weeks in late May and early June, the courtyard transformed into a mini-Roland Garros, complete with a clay tennis court and a sixty foot long Jumbotron with plenty of seats around to catch all the action. Gorgeous weather brought out gorgeous people to enjoy the food, wine, and scenery. Tennis wasn’t secondary or even tertiary, it was the background noise; the excuse to be there.

Sports at their worst can be hard to admit you enjoy. Fan is quite literally short for fanatic, and sometimes it feels like you either have to be completely involved or not at all when it comes to sports. The amount of vitriol that gets spewed on a daily basis, both by the general media and social media, is enough to turn off anyone. Tonight, The Miami Heat will play a basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs. The ten players on the court will all do things we could not possibly fathom doing for three hours. After the game is over, win or lose, LeBron James will be called a traitor, a pussy, and all other variety of names you can imagine. This need of others to tear down people in some sort of effort to validate their own shortcomings makes me ashamed to enjoy sports.

The whole reason I started liking sports was to have more to talk about with my dad. My weird memory combined with the propensity towards numbers and statistics in sports made it easy for me to pick up quickly. It’s entertaining to me to watch people compete at the highest level of almost anything. I remember sitting with friends talking about all manner of subjects last year in that square. Hours went by and it appeared Nadal would handle Djokovic as expected. Then Djokovic started to rally, and you could feel the entire energy in that courtyard change. The side conversations stopped as everyone started watching intently and discussing only the match. People walking by on their way home from work, to see Notre Dame, or just out for a casual stroll, stopped to watch; filling the courtyard. By the middle of the fifth set, you could not find a place to stand. People were climbing trees and lamposts to get a better view of the Jumbotron. Here we all were, in the middle of one of the most beautiful and romantic cities on the planet, and people had stopped everything they were doing to watch two grown men hit a fuzzy yellow ball back and forth. Five hours had gone by before Nadal finally claimed one of his hardest fought victories at the championship he has made his career on. People smiled and chatted with complete strangers about the match before slowly dissipating into the Parisian evening. Nadal claimed this year’s title as well, with a significantly easier victory than last year. Even if it could never live up to what I experienced last year, I was thrilled to sit with the windows open on an overcast Sunday with a cup of coffee in hand, remembering why I still watch sports.

Thank You, Christopher Columbus

No, not this Christopher Columbus... though Gremlins, The Goonies, and Home Alone? Maybe we should have a holiday for him...

No, not this Christopher Columbus… although Gremlins, The Goonies, and Home Alone? Maybe we should have a holiday for him…

It’s Columbus Day here in the states and I actually have the day off… paid! The advantages to working for a giant, multinational financial institution are starting to pay off. I’ve decided to celebrate this most worthless of holidays by planting Spanish flags in random objects possessed by strangers, yelling at them to show me where their gold is, and spreading diseases to them that I brought over from Europe. Before I head out though, I feel like I need to sit on my balcony, have some coffee, and take a moment to remember all that Christopher Columbus has done for me.

Here’s a little known historical fact: Columbus came to America because he hated how close everything was. (Warning: historical facts may not be facts… or historical.) Can you blame him? I mean who would honestly want to live close by everything you could possibly want or need? Columbus set sail because honestly, he just needed some fucking space! This attitude has thankfully been implemented into suburban American culture. After having to endure walking to any of the small shops dotting the Parisian landscape and having a relaxing dinner outside with friends, now I get to drive through traffic to a chain restaurant and sit inside while deciding which one of the fifteen televisions I want to watch. Plus, there’s the obvious advantage of already knowing what’s on the menu. Now instead of wasting all that time exploring the menu for new food options, I can spend that time on my phone while waiting for my bloomin’ onion to come.

Another historical fact: Columbus hated water, fresh air, and non-processed food. Since he was born in Genoa, Columbus had grown up with a cool breeze blowing off the Mediterranean every morning, the smells of freshly baked bread he had purchased from the local bakery, and the taste of that bread paired with a locally-produced olive oil and a bottle of red wine from the vineyards nearby. He hated that life so much that he said, “Fuck this shit! I don’t care where I go, but I can’t deal this anymore. I’m just going to sail in the opposite direction until I run into any sort of landmass.” Unfortunately for Columbus, he died long before he could have discovered Cedar Rapids, where I currently reside. Thankfully, I can honor his memory by enjoying the genetically enhanced food at and endless number of supermarkets, all conveniently located outside of walking distance. Instead of the smells of that god-forsaken, award-winning local bakery, I get to enjoy the smells of a massive cereal processing plant that actually set off my carbon monoxide detector last week because my windows were open.

Columbus is having a really tough time of it lately. Some people would say that Columbus didn’t discover America, or that he was a miserable human being who should never be celebrated. However, I just really I just wanted to thank you, Christopher Columbus. If it wasn’t for you, my family might have never traveled to this country. I could have been born in some dump like London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Prague, Barcelona, Stockholm, Florence, or Vienna. I really dodged a bullet there!

The Five Stages of Coming Home

Iowa: it's not just corn... though there is a lot of it...

Iowa: it’s not just corn… though there is a lot of it…

They say you can’t go home again. They are wrong. You absolutely can go home again… it’s just really, really weird. After spending the majority of the last five months in Paris, I’ve come back to Iowa. Not only that, but I’ve picked up plenty of new followers recently. I’ve been trying to come up with an amazing follow-up to my “Freshly Pressed” debut that will appeal to my newfound fan base. Obviously, my first thought was to just write a series of dick jokes and end it with a statement about how Obama is going to take our guns and force us to eat government-assisted euthanasia candidates. (That’s right. You just got a double dose of Charlton Heston. You’re now ready to defend your property from miscreants or part the Red Sea.) However, I decided to use my experience to help guide others through the grieving process of coming home.

Denial

That moment the voice in the back of your head says, “Hey, so our visa is expired and we’re almost out of money… maybe we should think about going home…” followed by you drowning that voice with enough wine to make it sound like this. Yep, you’re in denial. Enjoy it! Ignorance truly is bliss, but eventually all that drinking will lead to the next stage. No, not that…

Anger

You start cursing the universe. Why wasn’t I born with an unlimited amount of funds and diplomatic immunity? You curse your middle-class, midwestern heritage. If only your parents had been hardened spies or criminals. Maybe you could murder a rich guy and take over his life? Now you’ve entered the third stage.

Bargaining

You start to realize that you probably don’t have the huevos to kill someone. Then you start to realize that you could happen upon an already dead rich man and find his safety deposit box key. The only problem is you have to perform a voodoo ceremony on his corpse in order for it to lead you to the box, which you screw up, limiting his corpse’s ability to walk only when it hears reggae music, only you don’t have enough money to spring for underwater headphones and your ability to handle a spear gun is sub-par at best. (That was the single greatest sentence I have ever penned.) This realization leads you to the fourth stage.

Depression

You now know your fate. You walk around the place you’ve come to love that you will now be forced to leave with a look on your face that’s so heart-wrenching Sarah McLachlan is following you around, filming her next commercial. No one has ever had it more difficult than you. You have to leave this first-world major metropolis for a first-world rural area. No one can possibly understand the depths of your sorrow.

Acceptance

You start to realize the things that you truly missed. Obviously you’re excited to see friends and family, but also the little things you forgot about as well. Like spreadable butter (Seriously France? Even your butter is high maintenance.), some spice to your food (I get it France. Your palates are so sophisticated that my uneducated American tongue could not possibly grasp the levels of your culinary superiority. Would it have honestly killed you to have a bottle of Sriracha somewhere in your country though?), and getting to wear T-shirts and shorts out in public. (Sorry to break this to you France, but not all of you are models.) More importantly you figure out that the grass isn’t necessarily greener, just a different shade. Sure, there are plenty of differences, but your happiness is defined by you, not where you are.

Walk Like an American

stewart-colbert-patriotic

I’m currently laid over in the Philly airport for around five hours and after demolishing a cheesesteak it dawned on me that I was probably supposed to have some sort of epiphany about this experience. Unfortunately, I think I’m all out of those, possibly due to that same cheesesteak. Instead, I’m going to give my American brethren the second greatest gift they’ll receive this week. (The first of course being the fact that I have gloriously returned after five months away.) So here’s my guide to being a better American while abroad. Make sure you click on the links… it makes me a better writer when I can distract you with pictures and videos.

1. Flags (If you watch the last minute of that… I promise the link makes sense)

A big mistake most Americans make when overseas is trying to blend in with the local crowd. This is dumb. You are an American! Show off that star spangled awesomeness!

2. Regional Flavor

Now that you’ve let everyone know that you’re from America, it’s time to let them know where exactly. This can be easily accomplished by wearing shirts or hats from your local university or your favorite sports team. I, for instance, wore a Chicago Cubs shirt every time I went for a run in Paris. This insured the locals knew that not only did I enjoy a cold beer and delicious tube-shaped meat while sitting on aluminum benches, but also that I have a staggering amount of self-hatred. (What’s that you say Skeptical American? The French don’t watch baseball and would have no concept about what being a Cubs fan entails? Sorry, I can’t hear your facts over this song…)

3. Speak English

Everyone speaks English anyway, why should you inconvenience yourself attempting to learn the basic formalities of the native language? That’s valuable time you’d waste researching other important topics. If they’re having difficulty understanding you, it’s probably because you’re not speaking loud enough. Americans are known around the world for being understated. If they’re still struggling to understand you… well, you know what to say.

4. Ask about Wi-Fi everywhere

Just because you left the comfort of your cellular network doesn’t mean you should deprive yourself of all the wonder provided by mobile social networking. After all, what would you do if you couldn’t check into a café on Facebook, tweet about how the server totally checked you out, and instagram a photo of what you ordered? Converse with friends? Please…

Follow these four steps and you’ll be on your way to a more American way of traveling. When you come back, be sure to tell all your friends and family how the place you visited was not like America. I’m sure where you went was really dirty, or old and in need of renovating, or the food was weird. Lastly, if you’ve taken offense to this post, feel free to ignore all of the advice given. You are already prepared to travel like an American.

Finishing Last

To start this post I’m going to have to ask you to agree to one basic premise: I am a nice guy. I am one hundred percent confident there will be countless people lined up to fight me on this claim, but for the purposes of this post, please indulge me. We can have the debate about whether I’m a nice guy or not another day.

The old saying “nice guys finish last” comes from an old baseball manager, Leo Durocher, who was talking about his Brooklyn Dodgers team that year. He was talking about how angry players would do more, sometimes playing dirty, to win than nice players. Whether or not you agree with his philosophy is one thing, but what you can’t debate is that there’s more than one way to play the game. Similarly, there’s more than one way to get what you want out of life. That’s where the split between nice guys and other men lie.

There is one question you can ask yourself to determine whether you are a nice guy or not. Would you rather win and achieve your desired goal but give up some of your core values in the process, or would you rather lose everything you wanted but hold onto those tenets? There is no black and white answer to that question, just shades of gray. No person besides fictional villains would give up their morals without batting an eye (hopefully) just as no person besides fictional heroes are truly incorruptible.

The biggest mistake people make is confusing being nice with being naïve. True nice guys know exactly when they’re being taken advantage of. The misconception that nice guys are often insecure and unsure how to articulate how they feel is constantly perpetuated in movies, television, and literature. These “nice guys” are typically chasing after some unrequited love and they often are rewarded for their overtly creepy behavior with the “girl of their dreams.” That’s not what being a nice guy is about. It’s simply about putting the needs or wants of someone else before your own. There is no sense of entitlement that comes from this behavior. I don’t expect anything back in return for my actions, which is what differentiates me from the “nice guys” of fiction who feel their deeds should earn them their desired muse. I act the way I act and do the things I do because I feel like it is right.

There’s a great quote from The Wire, “A man must have a code.” Men may make mistakes, but they will not break their code. They know that no matter what happens, win or lose, that code is the definition of who they are. It defines their character. Men are not defined by whether or not they win battles, but rather how they fight the war. They know there will always be more battles to come. Boys are immature and will do anything they can to win whatever shiny object caught their eye that day. They don’t have a code other than winning at all costs. Losing causes boys to break down or throw tantrums because they have nothing to fall back on. I know that it’s ok to lose to a boy because I don’t want to win something that a boy even stands a chance of winning.

A good test for being a true nice guy is often how adversity is handled. Taking the high road is not supposed to be easy, but rather about doing what you know to be right no matter the consequences. There is only one prize that comes from taking that road, but in my mind it far outweighs any reward that comes from winning, self-respect. I haven’t always felt this way, but luckily I had a great role model for a father. He’s had every opportunity to complain about the adversity he’s faced, but instead he’s stood up to it with his code intact and is winning the war, even if he lost a few battles along the way. The biggest compliment I receive is when people tell me how much like him I am. I want him to be proud of who I am and who I will become, so to me there is no choice about whether or not I should be a nice guy. We all start out as boys; some of us just grow into men.