2012: Let’s do this thing.

In typical fashion, I’m more than a week late posting my end-of-year wrap up.

“This is no way to run a blog!” say the experts. I wholeheartedly disagree. This is in fact exactly the way 99% of bloggers run their blogs: posting sporadically for a while, and then falling off the face of the earth.

This is, however, no way to run a blog and have more than a Tebow’s chance of gaining more readers than Lis, Henry and my mom.

So where have I been? What the heck is going on? Beyond the self-fulfilling prophesy of my laziness, I’m late posting because I spent the better part of 2011 hiding. When people have asked me about my next move, I’ve told them that I’ve been taking care of some family business. That’s kinda true, but mostly bullshit. I’m certain I’ve spent more hours getting angry about American politics, getting angry about Hungarian politics, getting angry about baseball politics, and playing Angry Birds.

Oh….fine. I suppose I did do some things of redeeming value last year.

In a nod to my old, money-earning life, I took on a few freelance Web-product and editing gigs. In so doing I was reminded that I really am pretty effing good at it, and even enjoy it…at least in small doses.

And then there was my new, non-earning life.

After publishing a few stories on Matador Network, I represented them on a fantastic press trip to Papua New Guinea, sponsored by the PNG Tourism Board. In the process I met fellow travel media types the Scuba Diver Girls, “Gonzo” Robin Esrock, and Bronwen Dickey, all of whom I continue to admire.

I was ignored by countless editors.

I pitched, repitched, repitched, repitched, got an assignment for, and reported, wrote and edited a story for a major regional glossy mag…only to have it killed at the last second. The good news: I was paid in full for the story. The bad news: I earned about $0.02/hour, and (worse!) didn’t get the clip.

I pitched, repitched, clarified, reclarified, got an assignment…and had the assignment retracted for a different story in a national glossy mag.

Through all this, I’ve been trying to figure out what to do next. Which is scary. Thus the hiding.

Do I want to be a freelance writer? (I do.) Do I want to be able to pay the rent? (I do.) Do I know how to make both things happen at the same time? (Well…)

My night dreams take place on creaky buses and dusty roads. There is a biking trip through the ‘stans. There’s a string of Greyhound bus trip rides to San Diego, then continuing southward for a few years. There’s a return to familiar SE Asia to get my PADI instructor cert and settling down in Thailand.

In these dreams it’s easy to forget the isolation of life on the road. I’ve been back more than a year now, and I once again take for granted the ease of conversation with a friend who really knows me.

My day dreams are slightly different. Walking the streets of New York, my brain is full of, well, New York. My brain sparks and whirs. I’m in New York. I’m alive.

This is a very different reaction from when I first returned last September. At that time, I eyed New York – the physical manifestation of my old life – cagily, like a trap, like the strangely seductive nothingness of sweet nothings. Sweet nothings, I suspected, from an insincere lover.

But slowly, slowly, the city has eroded my defenses with glimpses of what was and what could be again. Yellowing autumn oaks vying for luminescence against blue skies. The purposeful stride of the sleekly dressed along Fifth Avenue. The woman in Penn Station singing (opera) for her dinner. The easy availability of a bagel with lox and scallion cream cheese.

It’s not just these physical things. It’s also the intellectual stimulation – of conversation beyond hostels and bus schedules and schemes and scams and cultural perplexities and the precise location of the new frogfish spotted at Artificial.

Slowly, insidiously, my latest affair with New York spread its roots. And then, sometime in early 2011, amidst the jackhammer of weekly snow storms, it sprouted new buds. Love, or deep affection, sprang from 10-foot snow banks. I was once again smitten. Stuck. Damn.

So what to do? Stay or go? Listen to my dreams or my daydreams? Or instead listen to the sucking sound coming from my savings account?

In these situations, some people pray. Others visit a life coach. Still others talk to their friends, family, bartender, or strangers on the bus. I write. And writing, like other types of therapy, requires time to produce understanding.

So far, just one thing has become clear. My next thing will finally recognize and make explicit the unheralded force behind my life so far: cultural anthropology. It’s why I couldn’t escape my generic suburban hometown fast enough. It’s why I moved to Hungary on (basically) a whim. It’s why I love cities (and why I fell particularly hard for New York). And most vitally, it’s why I need to explore new places and new cultures in order to feel sane.

I even have a new name for my blog: Taking the Fork. The name is inspired by one of many wise teachings from the great (despite his Yankee-hood) Yogi Berra: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

So. 2012. The year of taking the fork.

Floating at top speed

A few days ago I had a drink (or two…) with an old friend. “Let’s see,” she said. “What have you done since I last saw you?” It’s been a month.

The answer is that I flew halfway around the world to dive Papua New Guinea for Matador Network, courtesy of the Papua New Guinea Tourism Promotion Authority.

Then, after a few days back in New York, I quick-hit Orlando/Cape Canaveral to watch my friend Al get shot into space aboard Discovery. Back in New York, I was glued to NASA TV on Ustream, watching Al become to 200th human ever to perform a space walk (or EVA – extra-vehicular activity – in NASAspeak).

Fabulous, right?

Now I’m back to the mundane stoking of fires around various irons.

Over the past 6 months I’ve gone at one of two speeds: full tilt or brick wall. It’s a change of pace from my traveling life, which was more like a long trip on the highway: Most of the time you’re at a fast but steady pace, though occasionally you speed up to pass, or else pull over to eat or pee or just stretch your legs.

So. Is this a range life, or just life?

My dysfunctional relationship with books

A tale in three parts.

Back in November, when my coming-to-back-to America was still new, I went to the Swampscott Public Library with my mom. She was going to return some books, and I was going to borrow some – the disease of anti-accumulation, nomadic ways were still coursing through my blood. The American “buy, don’t borrow” ethic had not yet been reintroduced.

Here’s what happened:

From the bright, chilly November afternoon we step inside the fluorescent dimness of the library. Behind the desk, two middle-aged checkout managers (I’m sure they’re not actual librarians) sit, gossiping. My mom turns into the room on the right, where the pulp and other fiction lives. I go in the other direction, to nonfiction. I am looking for a reference book about travel in Mongolia, a “how to start a home business,” and…well, when I’m in a bookstore, I just like to browse around, to let books surprise and delight me.

Standing on the threshold of the reference room, I’m disoriented by wave of nostalgia, of musty stacks, of card catalogues. Worse, like a flashback to a fumbling, pre-adolescent first kiss, I recall that there’s a code-like numbering system at work here. The Dewey Decimal System, used by libraries to organize nonfiction books, represent what navigating the internet would be like using only IP addresses. Looking for a book at Amazon? Visit 159.34.122.1 (or 159.34.122.2, or 3, or…) Bob’s BBQ Shack? 221.54.342.6. Easy, right?

As I search in vain for the giant, well-lit sign that will show me to the business section, a spunky librarian approaches and chirps, “Can I help you find something?”

No! I don’t want to explain what I’m looking for. I want to browse, to engage in a leisurely stroll through the aisles, to happen upon the right book, plus a half-dozen others. I want to run my eyes along the crisp spines of the books, drinking in their titles, guessing their cover art from the font and spine design, scan for familiar names or compelling titles.

Around me, retirees are checking email on old Dells with flesh-colored CRT monitors. Another librarian plods behind a wooden cart of books to be re-shelved. When I was in the third grade, I volunteered as a re-shelver in my elementary school library. My skill at filing away words based on a system of numbers was a source of great pride at the time.

“I’m looking for the business books?” I sputter, so flummoxed that I add the question mark. Thirty years on, my brain is trying to dig up old Dewey. But he lies hidden beneath layers of real life. It’s been at least 15 years since I’ve even been in a library.

“Oh, those are downstairs,” she explains, leading me to what looked like a fire door tucked into a corner. I peek through the wire-mesh reinforced window. A sad little stairwell, the kind you would find in an elementary school in the 70’s, leads to the basement.

——
Two months later, I spent $43 on books at Amazon.com – mostly in the used/discounted section. At least one of my purchases was an impulse buy – my version of a candy bar (“Everything Bad is Good for You,” by Steven Johnson). The rest were in some way related to Papua New Guinea. I swear.
——————–
Just before I left for PNG, I spent part of the afternoon in one of my favorite places, the Barnes & Noble on Union Square in New York.

I went to do some research – to pull books off the shelf, sit in one of the reading chairs lined up by the floor-to-ceiling windows, and read. I did more than that, of course. I couldn’t resist pausing by the tables at the front of the store, browsing the latest fiction and non-fiction. I wandered the travel section – a terrible habit that has had life-changing consequences for me. I finally sat, with a stack of travel lit and diver porn (glossy, photo-heavy fish-ID books). As I worked my way through the pile, the sun dipped below the NYU buildings on Union Square West. At least three homeless people (who come in to get warm and sleep), were evicted by impatient but kind B&N staff. I’m lost in my world, in a sea of books, with my people around me – fellow NYers who are also using this place as their library. Not many leave with books they intend to buy, but a few do. I didn’t.

Along the deep window ledges, stacks of books left by the B&N readers sit, waiting to be re-shelved – alphabetically, within clearly labeled sections.

Metaphysical range life

Holy crap, what a week this has been.

It all started Tuesday. That’s when I embarked on my new part-time consulting gig with She Writes, an online network that helps writers connect with each other and gain access to professional services and guidance. So far it’s been terribly exciting and overwhelming. Another startup web company, full of ideas and promise, determined to get it right, collaborating with idea-a-minute founder Kamy Wicoff and our CTO consultant on how to get it all done, funding, design, social media, marketing….this scrambles my brain as well as any drug. It’s so nice to be back in a “let’s do it!” culture, instead of “that sounds good. but let’s check to hear what these 12 people think first.”

While I was getting buried under the nor’easter of She Writes on Tuesday, little did I know that another storm – let’s call this one a tropical monsoon – was sitting in my inbox (and on Facebook). Everyone I know at Matador Network was trying to get in touch with me. “URGENT! Do you want to go on a press trip to dive Papua New Guinea?” they asked. Um, WHAT? Is the pope Catholic? Does a bear shit in the woods? Does a manta ray eat plankton? Suddenly I had about a day to come up with a compelling story idea or two. Good thing I wasn’t busy or anything. (I’m not officially in yet – fingers crossed!)

And the editor of another publication wanted a revised story pitch. And another story of mine was published on Matador Trips. And I met a terrific fellow travel writer at a mediabistro networking event.

It’s as if just stepping onto the island of Manhattan makes things start to happen.

Last night I related all this craziness to my amazing friend Andrea DiCastro McGough (over lots of drinks and a little dinner). She quite astutely pointed out that all this chaos, my triple life as freelance writer and online product consultant and member of a family that requires lots of attention at the moment, not to mention my lack of fixed address, is simply a different face to my Range Life. Maybe it’s not so much about stamps in my passport, but about always trying something new, or at least different.

Is that a metaphysical range life? Or am I soothing my nerves at the prospect of staying put for a while?

Taking a risk

I just had lunch with a good friend who is in the middle of trying to raise money for her startup business. Her description of the fundraising process sounded exactly like a freelance writer trying to get published. In fact, she used the term “authorpreneur” in describing one aspect of her business. That’s me!

What both she and I are trying to do is to get someone else – in her case, an investor; in my case, an editor – to take a risk on our story.

Luckily, we both have connections and networks from our past lives that can help us get in front of the right people. But what then? In her case, her story doesn’t have the sexiness of a 19-year-old boy-genius geek with hot new technology that will change the world, man. (In fact, there are no boys at all in her story.) She’ll have to find a different hook.

We talked about how most people are followers, even if they imagine themselves to be leaders. In her case, she’s trying to get few *real* risk-takers on board, after which (she hopes!) it will become easier to get the ones who imagine themselves as risk-takers to follow. In short, she’s looking for her big break.

To be successful, both of us need to be very well prepared, create a measure of luck for ourselves, and above all, be tenacious as hell. It’s not easy to get a relative stranger to take a risk on you.

Writing, nostalgia and details

My article on diving Malaysian Borneo is up on Matador Networks. Enjoy.

Writing this piece was at once cathartic (the first draft exceeded 3000 words!) and nostalgic. I just celebrated my one-year anniversary of becoming a divemaster (Nov 30) and starting work at Scuba Junkie (December 10, I think). Last year at this time I was a newbie DM sharing a shitty little room with Rob, a sweet guy who helped me build up my confidence as a DM. Thanks, Rob!

Just a few weeks later I was a badass DM, guiding freshly-minted divers at Sipadan on Xmas day wearing a Santa hat.

Pulling together the info for this piece and the others I’ve been working on has only reinforced a lesson I learned from James Sturz during a travel writing course I took at MediaBistro a few years back: Great writing is about details. You must write travel pieces immediately, or you’ll forget all the important colorful stuff. You’ll lose immediacy. It’s better to know what story you will write *before* you go somewhere, so you know what details to take down. Etc. Etc.

I’ve discovered that I’m not delighted with what I write from my pitiful notes and memory. It isn’t bad, but it’s not as great as I want it to be.

All this makes me want to go back out into the world again.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to this weekend’s snowstorm. If it’s going to be freezing cold, we might as well have snow!

Unsettling in

I was away for 17 months, and I’ve been back in the US for about 2 1/2. My settling back in has been unsettled. I’ve had many moments of joy, mostly around seeing friends & family. I’ve caught myself being seduced by my old New York lifestyle, checking Craigslist for full-time jobs and the price of one-bedroom apartments. But these moments are mere punctuations in the stream of blandness that is the fixed life. I ache for hikes in Russia and Mongolia, or for diving in Malaysia and Indonesia.

I still feel like an alien in my own country. And not in a good way.

I spent 17 months backpacking, which by definition means I didn’t buy very much stuff. I worried over every purchase, assessing weight, multi-utility, absolute need and my ever-shrinking savings account.

Ten weeks into my return to the US, the holiday season is in full swing. This year’s storyline is a pitched battled between the continuing financial crisis and the sellers of iPads, Snuggies and (this still kills me) Lexuses. Incessant advertisements insist that we must buy these things – to prove our love, to show Christmas spirit, because everyone else is doing it. The heathen consumer-fest of the December holidays in America is a cliché, but for me this year it’s so much more stark and repulsive.

To combat the fixed-life, holiday blues, I’m trying to write more, send out more story pitches, and take every action I can to continue my range life.

Stay tuned.

The “f” word

My 8-year-old nephew Griffin failed at growing the biggest sweet potato in the world. Earlier this year, he dug a little garden in his back yard and planted an old potato that had started to sprout. A budding scientist, he explained his project to me when I visited him after my return from abroad. “I think I’m going to dig it up on October 3rd,” he said, with the furrowed brow and compulsive seriousness of an 8-year-old budding scientist. “I think that will be the right time.”

And so he did. On the cloudless autumn morning of October 3rd, his spade unearthed a potato that had become the nucleus of an impressively complex network of roots. It was not, however, by any stretch, the biggest sweet potato in the world. “I’m a failure,” he wailed. And he was right. Sort of.

Since I’ve been back I’ve been thinking a lot about failure. I suppose it’s just me wrestling with a way to sum up my recent Range Living, and with what to do next. Not to mention the fact that of the first three meals I tried to cook, all ended in disaster (think: flaming chicken).

In a strict constructionist view, I failed at what I set out to do when I left New York in April of 2009. The evidence is clear: I’m no longer away, and I’m not sure that I’ll be leaving again anytime soon. Yes, there are things I would have done differently. But to me, half the fun – of life, of travel – is having things not quite work out as planned. It’s how you learn…so you can do things differently next time. Or do different things.

I’ve always been kinda obsessed with hero-worship in American culture. In the public sphere, chance-takers are presented as rebel-heroes after they have leaped *and* landed, when they are confident and smiling. It’s only once they’ve sat down to sushi with an interviewer that we hear about their ramen-eating days. Or months. Or years. Looking back from the point of success, though, it all seems inevitable. A person’s personal story reads like a novel, preordained from page one. In hindsight, we can divine the future from the tea leaves quite easily.

But what about all the chance-takers who never succeed (so to speak)?

Griffin’s shoulders drooped. He kicked the treasonous soil, pouting. He carried the offending potato to the edge of the woods and hacked it up with a spade. “I’m a failure!” he repeated, wallowing in self-pity that bordered on the adolescent.

I tried to explain to him that many famous leaps in science came about as a result of a failure (or a screw-up). He didn’t want to hear about it at that moment, but I hope he was still listening.

So Griff, here it is again: It’s important to embrace failure – indeed, to view it as a success.

Neverending countdown

I arrived in Orlando, Florida, in a state.

I was stressed – about the cost of the trip, about what day the shuttle would launch and therefore what how to manage my hotel, car and flights. It was too much. I decided I would stay only until Wednesday; if the launch was delayed again, I wouldn’t be here to see it.

I was cranky – I had slept just 3 hours the night before and my taxi driver got lost on the way to the Westchester airport…at 6 am we were driving around the Bronx, or Yonkers, or *somewhere*, trying to find the way. We made it.

I was frazzled – When I went to pick up my rental car in Orlando, the $43/day rate that I had seen online the night before was suddenly $80/day. EIGHTY DOLLARS. I freaked out. The rental dude took pity on me and give me the car for $60/day. SIXTY DOLLARS. Good god.

I hopped in the car, my eyeballs like sandpaper, and drove towards Kennedy Space Center in order to pick up my passes and such for the launch.

I was a few miles away when I spotted it. In the distance, across the marsh flats, Space Shuttle Discovery was just sitting there on the launch pad. And that was it. I was an excited little kid. Any crazy idea about leaving before the launch flew right out of my head. I’m here for the long haul.

As you know by now, the launch has been delayed every day since Monday. First there were some mechanical problems. Now it’s the weather – rainy and windy. I’m going crazy with anticipation, getting psyched up every day only to be let down again. If I’m losing my mind, I can’t even imagine what the crew is going through!

In the meantime, I’m amusing myself by meeting Floridians here in Cocoa Beach. On Tuesday evening I went to The Surf for dinner. Like the Sea Aire Motel, where I’m staying, The Surf is a local institution. In its prime, before the Marriotts and resorts and their respective restaurants moved in, The Surf was the place where journalists covering shuttle launches ate their steak or seafood. “They all would come here,” said Alden, the Cocoa Beach native who befriended me at the bar. “Even Walter Cronkite!”

Alden, who works on the NASA shuttle contract for Boeing, is anticipating losing his job after the last launch. It being election night, we and others at the bar drank wine and discussed the horrific Florida economy, the coming NASA-related job losses, the Tea Party, and other depressing subjects. Everyone, however, remains upbeat and tirelessly friendly.

Indeed, since I arrived I’ve gotten sucked in to a number of 90-minute conversations that should have been 2 minutes of small talk. I’m doing more nodding and smiling than I did in SE Asia. There are a lot of old folks down here (many of them, as we all know, ex-New Yorkers), they’re all..friendly. They all seem to need someone to ramble to.

On the other hand, I’ve also met some nice fellow shuttle-launchers. There was a cute scene yesterday afternoon, when I met my neighbors in the motel. I ran into a few of them outside the room, and we started chatting about where we planned to watch the launch. I explained I have VIP tickets, and they were all suitably impressed. From then on, whenever anyone new would join the group, one woman would introduce me: “This is Christina. She has VIP tickets!”

So that’s me, the VIP in room 3.

Anyway, fingers crossed that the launch happens tomorrow. Florida is amusing, but if it’s too cold to go to the beach…get me outta here!