Monday, January 13, 2014

A tribute to BK

In memory of Brittney Kaelberer. 

I love this photo.  It was taken in the Tetons, at Phelps Lake, I think.  A group of us drove down from Mountain Sky Guest Ranch for a weekend camping trip.  We'd heard about this great cliff on a lake right in front of the majesty of the mountains, an easy place to get to, a wonderful place to hang out.  I had a waterproof camera, so I was the photographer that day.  It was an easy location to take good pictures.  I set my camera to action mode and clicked away as my friends hucked themselves off a 25 foot rock into the serene water below.  We messed around for an hour or so, then dried off, hiked to the car, and went back to camp.  It was a beautiful day, and this photo is a reminder of all that was right about our journey, so full of life, energy, beauty, exuberance, youth, and joy.  It's brightness somehow tugs at emotions in me that make me want to be the woman in the photo, to be jumping off that cliff again.  What's so wonderful about it, though, is that none of the attributes it has are a result of my skill as a photographer.  They aren't the result of luck, either.  Those virtues fill this photo because of the woman in it - BK.

I was not BK's closest friend.  We were acquaintances, co-workers, casual friends, but not close.  At the time of this photo, I had barely even had a conversation with her.  We saw each other around the ranch, though.  We talked now and then.  She worked waitstaff fairly frequently, so I saw her in the kitchen sometimes.  Little though we knew each other, I can unhesitatingly recall so much about her.  BK was a young woman admired by her peers, adored by her friends, and esteemed by all around her.  She seemed to live a perfect balance, dutiful to her work and guided by impeccable integrity, grounded in faith and family, lighthearted and kind, social and accepting of all the people in her sphere.  BK influenced other people through her joy, through her willingness to live life in moments, appreciating each one as it happened.  Any photo of BK shines with youth, life, energy, exuberance, beauty, and joy, because that's who BK was and she radiated it every moment of every day.  BK brought exuberance to the table with her in everything she did.  She walked with grace and beauty in a world where those things increasingly seem to be fading.  She met with the passion of youth a life that turned out to be all too fleeting.  She was an incredible young woman who touched the lives of all who knew her.  Indeed, she touched mine far more than I realized.  The sadness I felt at reading today of her passing came upon me in an unexpected way, from a place I haven't identified.  That someone who so little knew me and about whom I knew so little might inspire these words is a mystery only explained by her brilliance.

BK, you will live in our hearts and our memories for as long as we still walk this world, and when we too pass on, we will meet you with joy in the next.  Until then, may you rest in peace with God.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

On being normal (or successful)

I have tried so many times in the last 8 months to write a new blog post.  There are several beginnings saved in my Blogger drafts, a couple on my computer, and a couple more in my journal.  For whatever reason, every time I've tried to do it, I just haven't managed to find words to put on paper.  I think today will be different, though.

I was just going through my Facebook news feed and saw a photo of a college friend of mine (acquaintance, at this point) at the holiday party for the bank where she works.  She was in a beautiful dress and accompanied by a man in a handsome suit, both looking very professional.  As I looked at the photo, I found myself thinking how glad I was that it wasn't me in it.  I was suddenly thinking how miserable I would feel if I were the one in the handsome suit doing (what I perceive as) dissatisfying work.  This is not to say that I think my life is glorious, not by a long shot.  I spent last summer as a prep cook, which I think many people would consider cheerless or disgruntling and perhaps even demeaning, and I'm currently working at the guest services desk for a ski resort.  My life is not glamorous.  My life also doesn't fit in a neat little box, and I think that's one of the aspects I like most about it.

I've shied away from the picture-perfect lifestyle for quite a while now.  I didn't search for a "normal" job when I finished college, but rather went into a volunteer program to work with delinquent boys in upstate New York.  I didn't search for a normal job after that, either, but rather opted to move to South America to teach English as part of a social justice project called Utopía.  I still didn't search for a normal job when I got back from that journey, either.  I've told myself for some time that the reason I wasn't interested in the cookie-cutter life path was because I wanted to work in social justice, because I was too committed to guiding my path in that direction.  Don't get me wrong, I do want to work for social justice, I do want to go down that road.  What I think I began to realize as I looked at a picture of the bank holiday party, though, is that my avoidance of the "professional" world is not really about social justice, it's about my discomfort with the ordinary.

I've always perceived the ordinary life (which society also generally considers the successful life) as boring, and I don't want to be bored.  Sure, the stability of $35,000/year starting salary sounds nice, but I could never do it if it was just for the stability, or just so other people would say, "Oh yeah, Alex, he's doing really well.  He's a banker." Working just for stability sounds like a waste of life.  Working for the approval of others sounds like a waste of will.  I want my life to be interesting to me, and I think if it's interesting to me it will be interesting to the people who care about me, too.  What more could I ask?  I'm happy for my friends who are happy for themselves, but I know some of my friends are working for the sake of working, and I'm sad for them.  I wonder if they won't suddenly find themselves at 35 and wondering what they spent their 20s doing.  I wonder if they won't find themselves at 45 and wondering what they're doing with their lives.  I wonder if they won't find themselves at 60 and wish they had done it all differently.  In a world where we are blessed enough to define success for ourselves, we are also cursed with the constant questioning of whether 30 years from now we will feel like we achieved it.

I suppose these questions will haunt us no matter what life path we take, but for now, at least, I feel confident that the one I'm on is the only one I could be on and be happy.  I'm living this time for something besides what other people have defined.  I'm living this time with the hope of looking back years from now and saying, "I was clueless, but I did alright."


If you've wondered where I've been, well, you probably weren't alone in wondering.  I left Colombia at the beginning of May and made my way to southwest Montana, where I worked as a prep cook at Mountain Sky Guest Ranch until the end of our season.  I took a month to road trip through southern Utah and Arizona, then started work just this week at Whitefish Mountain Resort in northwest Montana for the winter.  I'll be here through April, and then, who knows?  I tried many times to write about the adventures I had over the last 8 months, but just never seemed able to put words on the screen.  I hope you can forgive my recalcitrance and accept this wee post as a kind of payment toward redemption.  I don't know when the next post will come, but I'll try not take another 8 months.

It being the holiday season, I wish you a Merry Christmas (or Happy Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, or Boxing Day, or, well, you get it ;-)

Until next time.


Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Upside of Quitting - Part 2

Work continues, and continues, and continues seemingly without end.  There are eight days until the end of the term.  I never did flip the 50/50 coin on, but I did finally take my own hints, swallow my pride, and quit.  I submitted my letter of resignation to Brother Carlos (University President) and Brother Gonzalo (Campus Director) a few weeks ago, and I will not be returning to Utopía after this semester.  There was simultaneously and oxymoronically a lot and almost nothing that went into the decision.  The “almost nothing” is that I’m not happy here anymore.  The “a lot” about that statement is why.

So, the why…

Number 1: work.  I feel like I’m working and working and working and working and working without getting anywhere.  I honestly don’t think I’m a very good teacher.  Maybe not a bad teacher, but definitely not a very good one.  That was a hard pill to swallow at first, but the empirical facts are hard-to-dispute evidence.  My first semester, 50% of my students didn’t pass.  This semester was going much better, but within the last 3 weeks my freshmen gave up.  Literally.  They en masse stopped coming to class or turning in homework, and 9 out of 20 in the level two group failed to show up for the final.  In total, 12/20 in that group failed the course.  In my other groups, the students who have done reasonably well all along are still OK, but they too are flagging so much in motivation that going to class is difficult for both of us.  With the students who were always on the edge, the last couple weeks have seen them slipping toward the brink.  In a place where my work is essentially all I have, feeling like I’m not any good at it is, with certitude, detrimental to my happiness.

Which brings me to number 2: work is all I have.  In other places, in other situations, work is something you do and the rest of your life is free from it.  It’s not necessary to take your job home at night (usually), and your friends outside of work give life a balance that makes the tough days with one easier to deal with because of the other.  Here, for me, that is not the case.  When I finish class at 6:00, I have dinner with the same students who are frustrating (or sometimes impressing) me.  If I play soccer at night, it’s with my students.  When they don’t turn in homework the next day, I have to ask myself how it is that they feel they have enough time to play soccer when they aren't finishing their academic work.  When I have a really hard day in class, when my students make me want to pull out my hair, who do I have to talk to? Only my students.  Some might ask, “What about the other professors?  Why can’t you talk to them?”  I have to admit that while one problem here is logistical, the other is personal.  Logistically, they work here, and that’s the only time I see them – when they’re working.  They all leave by about 4:00, and in the morning they’re teaching and I’m planning/grading etc.  There isn’t exactly a social hour.  The other issue, the personal one, is pride.  There was a French guy who came for about 3 weeks early on.  People have mostly already forgotten his name, but on the occasion they do talk about him, they still talk about how he couldn’t hack it.  I didn’t want to be that guy who, dropped into a foreign culture, left behind the idea that, he "couldn’t hack it.”  It’s a pride thing, honestly.  I admit it.  Does pride serve me in the long run? Obviously not. But the situation is what it is.

Number 2 part b: there is no escape.  People ask me all the time, “Do you have a girlfriend in Colombia?”  And really, I mean EVERYBODY asks me this.  My students, other professors, random people that I meet.  They all think I’m secretly having an affair with a beautiful Colombian woman who lives in Yopal.  I guess that’s flattering, but nobody seems to realize that I generally get to leave campus about twice a month, for one night.  Because of my schedule, there really is no opportunity to leave.  I have class 6 days a week – only my Sunday is free.  And on Saturday my class ends at six o’clock, by which time everybody going to Yopal has usually already left.  So how do I get there?  I don’t.  Getting off campus is not something I have the luxury of doing casually, and so even though I actually do know a couple people in Yopal, I almost never see them.  Frankly it’s a depressing state of affairs.

Number 3: I miss home.  This one was hard for me to admit.  I’ve been essentially transient since I left home for college when I was 18.  Every place I’ve moved, I’ve always gone knowing it was temporary.  For a long time, that hasn’t bothered me.  I’ve always known I would get back to Montana eventually, and the knowing made the rest of my adventures... adventurous.  I’m struggling lately, though, with the idea that I’m getting tired of not having a home.  I –and this feels crazy to say- want to be permanent, which makes feeling transient disheartening rather than adventurous.  Of course, even leaving Colombia doesn’t mean I'll suddenly be settling down.  There are still a lot of things I need to do that I know will keep me away from Montana, but I’m going back for six months, and that's something I feel really good about.  I was surfing the internet last week when I found myself wandering to the Montana tourism page, and I wound up on the town profile for Columbia Falls.  I got really emotional, unexpectedly, (I think partly due to chronic sleep deprivation that week – I was a little out of balance) and it surprised me but at the same time vindicated what I’ve been thinking about myself.  I need Montana. 

So, in a “nutshell,” that’s why I’m leaving Colombia.  From here I’m headed back to Montana, via New York and Minneapolis.  I want to see a few friends in NY and I need to take care of some banking issues.  My mom is in Minneapolis, so I’m going to visit her for a couple days.  My dad works in Afghanistan, but I might get to see him and my mom in Montana this summer.  He has some time off in July, and they’re planning on being out that way.

As long as I’ve started telling you all about everything that’s happening in my life, I guess I’ll mention grad school, too.  I’ve been looking at going back to school for economics, although recently I’ve been thinking about public policy, as well.  My goal is to do something that, afterward, will help me address broader social justice issues.  I personally believe that policy is most essentially run by economics, that monetary arguments drive the political engine and are at the heart of social justice issues in the US, which is why I want to go into economics.  At the same time, I’ve been talking to my academic adviser from college and I wonder if a knowledge of policy might not be more effective for what I’m hoping to do afterward.  It’s a pretty nebulous situation, for now, but we’ll see what happens.  I’ve been studying a bit for the GRE, which I figure I’ll take this coming fall, and looking around at schools.  I would like to stay in the Pacific Northwest, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of opportunity in that area, so I’m also considering the northeast.  I would like to avoid NYC, the southwest, and the south, but I don’t know, ultimately, how feasible that will be.  I have a lot of things to think about over the course of the next 6 months or so, and the decisions I make could well shape where I'm headed for the next several years, so I hope God gives me some help on this one.

I realize that I failed to outline my near future plans… I worked on a guest ranch in Montana for two summers during college, and they’ve taken me back for a third season.  I’m starting May 5, and I’ll work until the end of October.  At the beginning and end of the season I’ll be an all-around, which means I’ll work in the dining room, housekeeping, and possibly some child care (?).  During the main part of the season I’m going to be a prep cook.  It’s not really a step toward anything, but it gets me back in Montana and it gives me a chance to save a little money.  Room and board are covered during employment, so what I make in my paycheck won't be going to those most basic expenses.  Of course, life still costs money, but I'm trying to do it the most cost-effective way I can.  In the 6 months I’m working I’ll earn a little money, pay some taxes, and come out financially a much better off than I am right now.  Three years of volunteering has seriously depleted my savings (mostly because I’m paying loans while earning no money), so this will give me a little cushion while I figure out what I’m doing next...  But mostly, I’m just excited to be going back to Montana.

I hope all of you out there are well, and thank you for reading.  As always, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email.


Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Upside of Quitting




Quitting has been on my mind.  A lot.  So this was probably the worst time (but maybe the best?) to stumble on a podcast called, "The Upside of Quitting." I feel drawn to the edge, tempted to the precipice.  You see, "The upside of quitting" is not just any old podcast, it's an economics podcast.  One of the best ways to get my attention is to show that something makes economic sense.

In economics we talk about a few different kinds of costs.  Pertinent to this conversation: sunk costs and opportunity costs.  You've heard the old adage "No use crying over spilled milk."  Well, the spilled milk is a sunk cost.  It's the time/money/effort/emotion that you've already invested in something that you can't get back.  And opportunity costs?  Those are what you're giving up in other opportunities in order to take the opportunity you have.  That is to say, "you can't have your cake and eat it, too."  To put it another, more contextual way, I can't be in Colombia and the United States at the same time.  One opportunity is obtained only at the cost of the other.  But back to quitting.

The sunk costs of this experience are, well, sunk, and that makes them inherently unworthy of talking about.  I guess they weren't as pertinent to the conversation as I thought.  As for opportunity costs, though, that's a whole different story.  If I were to quit, say, at the end of this semester, I could be back in the United States for North America's summer.  It's a great time to be in the US, for several reasons.  One, I could probably find a seasonal job while I re-evaluate some things, which would look a lot like putting a little money in the bank and getting my sorry self out into the mountains for some R&R.  Two, summer in Montana (I think that's where I would go) is beautiful.  Three, the direct cost of being in Colombia is (potentially) my continuing emotional health.

On the other hand, quitting has an opportunity cost as well.  If I left Colombia, I'm not sure how I would feel about myself having quit.  Assiduousness and perseverance have become so ingrained in me that I'm not sure I'll feel any better about anything, having to live with the idea that I left something unfinished.  Next, my leaving early is a cost to a project that I think is really worthwhile.  I might not be the best EFL teacher ever, but I'm the only EFL teacher here.  What I'm giving these students is something they don't have otherwise, something that can drastically improve their professional futures, something they need.  Quitting doesn't just mean letting myself down.  It also means letting them down.  Another cost: I've looked at some graduate level programs in economics, and found one I think I might be interested in, especially because there is a fellowship available for it.  But, to be eligible for the fellowship you have to have served for a year in a developing country.  If I leave before my commitment is over here, I cost myself that future opportunity.

How does this all turn out?  Well, I've been thinking about quitting, and thinking about staying, and thinking about quitting, and thinking about staying, and at the moment, I just don't know.  The opportunity cost of staying is short term, the opportunity cost of leaving is long term.  The direct cost of staying is long term (potentially) and the direct cost of leaving is just a plane ticket.

There's an interesting website up right now, "" where the guys at Freakonomics (the authors of "the upside of quitting") will flip a coin for you.  If my indecision gets any worse, which is to say, if I get any closer to the quitting inclination, I may have to let them flip a coin on my future.  For now, though, I guess I'll just keep on keepin' on.

If you're interested in the podcast (I really recommend it), it's called Freakonomics Radio, and you can find it on iTunes and


Thursday, February 7, 2013

about moments...

There’s something comforting about how the daylight fades here.  It’s easy to notice those evenings when the sun burns out in flames of glory at the day’s end, but here, lately, there’s been no glory.  The sun gets lower, and lower, and casually sinks behind the clouds that hover along the mountains like my dad used to sink into his rocking chair while the History Channel droned on in the back of his mind.  From one horizon to another the light fades from orange to pale grey, blue and violet, and it would be hard to even say when the day has finally ended.  When is it really dark?  Does it happen at 5:45 when the orb of the sun no longer lingers in plain view?  Is it 6:20 when the heavens are the violet pastel of a Monet masterpiece and you can just make out the jungle on the far side of the pastures?  Is it 7:00 when the stars peek out and the lights come on around campus?  Does it even matter?  For me, the best part of day’s end is when I’m walking from my office to the cafeteria, when I’ve finished my classes (usually), and the world feels stuck between day and night, caught in a twilight that refuses to relinquish one to the other.  It’s a perpetual in-between moment, an in-between moment that isn’t actually in-between anything.  It exists without any other moments framing it.  It is a moment that denies its own moment-ness, even if only for the moment that it lasts. 

I love these sunsets for themselves, for just being what they are, but as I sit here writing about them, I wonder if there isn’t an interesting metaphor wrapped up in it all.  Isn’t it always the problem that our in-between moments in life are uncomfortable times of uncertainty, anxiety, even fear?  And doesn’t it always feel like those in-betweens will last forever?  But then you blink and magically, somehow, they’ve disappeared.  Just like the twilight, they feel as though they’ll never end, interminable moments separating one time from another.  Eventually, and only when you stop looking long enough to eat dinner from a plastic bowl while sitting at a plastic table, the twilight changes itself into a night sky powdered with brilliantly shining stars.  And now that I think about it, one of the strangest things about those in-between moments is that there’s nothing to mark their passage.  In the day we have the sun to remind us how time marches on, and at night the stars give their guiding light, but at dawn and dusk what is there?  Just the breeze, the smell of the jungle, and the promise that no moment can ever be anything more than what it is, instantaneous and immeasurable.  

Sunday, January 27, 2013

few scattered moments...

I didn't write what follows, and I won't tell you who did.  Just say that it's a close friend of mine who I've been thinking of lately.  I've discovered that this letter reads differently depending on where I am in my own life, maybe depending on where you are in yours.  Take a minute to think about it.  -Alex

I've thought long and hard about existence. 
Pondered on how cause and effect shape the world one lives and breathes in. 

Remembered smiling while listening to you talk all smart like at the table around 11 at night. 
The red apples not the green....... 
for some reason we just ran into each other....... 
Didn't really ever much have to look for you. 

I stopped caring about lots of things. Not by choice but by circumstance. A hard thing to explain, the brain can be present and then much farther elsewhere sometimes. I wish with all my heart it was something I could control.
I've always had to write down stories I wanted to remember.... take pictures to help my brain grasp something about the moment. 
This summer I still remember times....stories. 
And began to remember other times from past years. 
It is sad to know it will all slip away...... 

Hearing about your day and having someone to talk to was wonderful. Knowing that it actually mattered to someone. Having someone that I could actually rely on to ask a favor. 
That was the first time I began to trust someone in a long time. 

Cast aside from everything I've known for the last 6 months left me lost and alone..... surrounded by everything and places, I couldn't tell you where I am.....where I want to be...... just where I need to go. 

But the caring about someone is what I'm having a hard time with. Pain from rejection and being cast aside still lingers deep enough to take my conscious away from the social plane of people. Figuring on most levels why and how people deserve more than anything I can ever do or give. Convincing myself people will find better. 

Of what I use to be.....I'm becoming only a skeleton. Almost like what's left of a leaf when just the veins remain. 

I'm not asking you for any words in return...... 

thanks for just taking the moments to read this...... 
my mind wanders when I'm lost....... 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Visual weight

I'll add more to this post, about what some of these things mean, at a later date (probably this weekend),  but here's to getting started.