Sunday, June 26, 2016

Book Review: And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts

And the Band Played On book cover
And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, by Randy Shilts, details the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the US. Shilts focuses on a number of different groups and highlights their negligence in providing the funding to research the disease and their shameless indifference and lack of urgency in alerting people to the dangers of the disease. Specifically, Shilts looks at politicians, the media, the scientific community, the blood industry and the people who were affected most by AIDS (gay men, intravenous drug users, and haemophiliacs and other blood transfusion recipients).

This book is written in the reportage style (appropriate, as Shilts was a reporter) that results in, what I believe, is the type of non-fiction book that most people find the most entertaining and readable. In other words, real-life characters are developed, situations and dialogue are recreated, and tension is built up, despite the fact that the majority of readers know, in general, how things play out in the tragic saga of the AIDS epidemic. Shilts made no attempt to be objective. He editorializes heavily, or as some like to call it, offers up the "muckraking" style of reportage. His blunt assessments and judgmental asides are quite enjoyable most of the time. And the method gains credibility by the fact that he lambastes everyone with (almost) equal vigour.

Shilts was a gay man and lived and worked in San Francisco as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. But, in And the Band Played On, he does not hesitate to go after many in the gay community for their stubborn refusal to alter their behaviour as details of how AIDS was spread came to light. As Shilts states a number of times, many gay men literally "fucked themselves to death." He also heaps hammer-blows of well-deserved criticism on owners of gay bath houses, which Shilts refers to as "biological cesspools," and provides the kind of stomach-churning details that may be too much for some readers (think Crisco and limbs disappearing up...well, you get the picture).

As a result, Shilts was vilified by many in various gay communities throughout the US. Still, I can't help but feel that in some ways, he didn't go far enough in his criticism. For example, as the book moves into the early 1980s and the first instances of blood transfusion AIDS cases surface, Shilts rightly rips the arrogant executives of the blood industry for failing to take action to properly screen donors.

Yet, Shilts indicates that, for whatever reason, gay men donate disproportionately more blood than most other demographics in the US. They apparently continued to donate heavily as questions about blood safety were raised, and Shilts even mentions a phenomenon that he claims to have existed among some gay men: that they continued to donate blood as if the very act was a way of convincing themselves that they couldn't possibly contract AIDS.

So surely the question will rise up in the minds of many readers: does the gay community, or at the very least those infected men who donated blood, not bear some culpability in the horrible deaths of the many innocent people who died as a result of tainted blood transfusions? But Shilts never really goes near this angle and instead reserves the majority of his wrath regarding tainted blood for the money-grubbing scumbags in the blood industry who were apparently more concerned about the costs of implementing new screening procedures than the possibility of heading off the impending disaster.

Similarly, while Shilts despises the rationalizations and self-serving excuse-making of many in the gay community and other politically correct enablers in society (he calls their mealy-mouthed bullshit "AIDS-speak"), at times he seems to veer into that same territory himself.

Also, Shilts cannot resist the urge felt by so many non-fiction writers and engages in some myth-making. This is with regards to an early AIDS patient named Gaetan Dugas who was labelled "patient zero" for the apparent fact that he infected so many other men through his reckless sexual activity. This notion of a patient who caused the disease to spread faster than it otherwise would have has largely been debunked.

The storyline of Dugas features quite significantly in the early part of the book, replete with apocryphal anecdotes of Dugas happily informing other gay men that he has just infected them with AIDS. Also, Shilts builds Dugas up as being attractive in some kind of otherworldly way. But a Google image search turns up photos of a relatively average-looking dolt. I believe that Shilts knew how such a narrative would appeal to so many people's sense of the sinister and so he ran with it. However, to be fair, some researchers at the time also floated this idea of "patient zero" and gave some credence to it.

Shilts and the characters in the book rail against and righteously bash various levels of government, with the federal government under Ronald Reagan coming in for the most well-deserved and complete pasting. It's hard to believe how short-sighted and petty the Republicans were and how many lives were lost (e.g., limited funds for research and nation-wide information campaigns) due to foot-dragging and sometimes outright hostility. Reagan did not utter the word “AIDS” publicly until about 1986 or 87.

The book is prescient in many ways, especially in debunking the early propaganda that heterosexuals in North America should fear AIDS in the same way that homosexual men eventually did. And the Band Played On was first published way back in 1987 but Shilts already saw that kind of talk (i.e., that non-drug-using heterosexuals were at risk to the same degree as intravenous drug users and gay men) as fear-mongering and an attempt to get more people concerned about the disease and thus increase government funding. This was a number of years before the one-man North American heterosexual male epidemic hit in the form of Magic Johnson and before such shrill proclamations by the likes of Oprah Winfrey that heterosexuals in the US would be devastated by the disease in the same way that gay men had been. Of course, that has never happened.

Finally, I don't believe what Shilts says regarding those who died of AIDS; that they were heroic in the way they died. People beset by tragedy cope in any way they can because there is no other choice. Just as the word "hero" is tossed around casually in war, the reality is that, just as with millions who have already perished from AIDS, a much better description is “tragic waste.” However, I agree that people who had AIDS and spent their remaining days risking arrest during protests and did everything in their power to increase awareness and funding deserve a great deal of praise.

Despite some of the criticisms mentioned above, And the Band Played On is an informative and epic chronicling of the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the US and other parts of the world. While many people may have a general idea of how things transpired, they will undoubtedly learn a great deal about the disease and the numerous obstacles faced by scientists, activists and the people who were infected. Sadly, Shilts was diagnosed with AIDS and died in 1994. He leaves an impressive legacy with And the Band Played On.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Lasting Influence of On the Road by Jack Kerouac

On the Road by Jack Kerouac
A petrol station somewhere on the road to Zaragoza, Spain. We trudged into the shop where motorists could pay for their petrol and purchase the usual selection of packaged food and drinks. Lost in the mists of time is the "how" of ending up there. I presume someone who had given us a lift dropped us off and wished us luck. The sun was already low in the sky, and we had long figured out that hitchhiking could be difficult at the best of times, but when the sun went down it was nearly impossible. With night coming on, we shamelessly badgered people getting in or out of their cars for a ride. We had had pretty good luck getting rides in Spain up to that point: as easily as anywhere else since we had first stuck our thumbs out on the outskirts of Amsterdam. But no one was willing to give us a lift at that bleak petrol station outside of Barcelona.

We decided to walk some more. Maybe we would find a better location for begging a ride, or maybe we would stumble on a cheap hotel where we could stay for the night. As we shuffled back to the road a car came to a halt next to us in the petrol station parking lot. We leaned in the open window and told the driver we were going to Zaragoza. Or, more accurately, we just said "Zaragoza." He motioned us to get in. We did, despite the strong odour of alcohol, and within minutes, we were out on the superhighway blasting towards our destination.

But the euphoria of a free ride quickly vanished as we realized how inebriated our driver was. He hammered the gas pedal to the floor and the speedometer flew past the 200 km/hour mark. He slashed by other cars as if they were standing still. His head started nodding to one side. We jolted him back to the present with loud warnings and exhortations to slow down. He was completely uncommunicative, though even if he had been speaking, we wouldn't have understood a word he said. He seemed to feed on our obvious fear. I started mentally saying goodbye to family members. I truly believed a deadly crash was imminent. Yet despite the impending horror, neither Hank nor I made any move to wrestle the steering wheel from the driver. It likely would have been futile and may have even had the opposite effect, sending us careening off the side of the road or into another car. And yet, as the nightmare played out, we stopped momentarily at a toll gate. Both Hank and I were experiencing the same emotions, but neither of us took that opportunity to get out of the car. The ordeal continued, but somehow we survived unscathed. It was the last time we hitchhiked together.

We spent some time in Zaragoza and then continued south by bus. We landed in the seaside resort town of Alicante. In our desperate attempts to save money and extend our travels, we slept on the beach for a few nights. A week or so earlier we had visited a bookshop in Barcelona and Hank had bought On the Road by Jack Kerouac. He had finished the book and now passed it on to me. I was blown away by what I read. It was as if all our experiences, emotions and observations of the time we had been travelling had been transposed onto the pages in front of me. The incredible highs and lows, the bizarre characters, the hitchhiking, the unhinged sense of freedom to go wherever we wanted, to leave any location in the rear-view mirror when the notion struck, to be the most irresponsible, out-of-control sons-of-bitches imaginable.

But after three months of travelling together, we were beginning to grate on each other's nerves. For the past couple of weeks I had been talking about striking off on my own, but Kerouac's words really solidified my desire to carve out a new travel experience. Would we have eventually gone our separate ways if I hadn't read On the Road? No doubt, but the lift-off from that incredible book lasted for months and probably contributed to the hell-bent mentality that gripped me as I said goodbye to Hank.

More than 20 years later—most of that time spent travelling or living in foreign countries—I decided it was time to revisit Kerouac's classic to see if it has stood the test of time. Would I still see On the Road the way I had years ago? Would Kerouac's words ring as true to me as they had more than two decades earlier?

On the Road opens in 1946. The war is over and Sal Paradise (Kerouac) is itching to hit the road and explore America. Letters from friends in Denver and San Francisco paint a picture of wild times and spiritual awakenings. Or at the very least, booze and women. The lure of adventure is strong for Sal, but almost as strong a motivating factor is Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady), a legend among Sal's friends who have met him or heard of his growing reputation. Sal first meets Dean in New York, and their friendship and Dean's manic, unrelenting approach to life comprise a big part of the rest of the book.

Moriarty had a hard-scrabble upbringing, did time in reform school and is an inveterate car thief. But he is also a budding intellectual who thrives among his better-educated middle class companions. He looks to them for advice on writing, philosophy, music and mysticism. Moriarty is alternately described as a two-bit hood who has somehow tapped into the zeitgeist and convinced many around him that he is some kind of mystic.

Moriarty's manic personality, his real-time, stream-of-consciousness observations, his lack of any regulating influences (like, say, consideration for others), his capacity for hammering booze and drugs down his throat and his desire to go, go, go, make him a perfect hero for the writers, deadbeats, and wanderers who populate On the Road. The insatiable desire to see new locations, meet new, gone characters and experience life to its fullest regardless of consequences tie in perfectly with the sense of freedom and movement that make On the Road so memorable. With the spectre of Moriarty looming large in his mind, Sal begins his journey: He hops a few buses which take him as far as Joliet, Illinois, and then he keeps moving any way he can—usually by hitchhiking.

I wondered if my memories of On the Road had been coloured by where and when I had first read it, and then polished to a nostalgic sheen in the intervening 20 years. But it wasn't long after I started re-reading the book that I realized its solid reputation is built on Kerouac's stark, evocative writing that so beautifully straddles the line between joyous freedom and profound loneliness. In this passage, Paradise is in a hotel room in Des Moine shortly after his first cross-country trip begins. It so perfectly captures the feelings that were permanently carved into my memories during all those years of travel:
I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn't know who I was—I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I'd never seen hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn't know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn't scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future, and maybe that's why it happened right there and then, that strange red afternoon.
Paradise's first destination is Denver, where he hooks up with numerous friends and once again seeks out the elusive and mysterious Dean Moriarty. But their time together is fleeting and Paradise continues on to California. He briefly works as a security guard in an army barracks, which, not surprisingly, doesn't turn out too well. And then Paradise is on the move again. Kerouac is often at his poetic best during arrivals and departures or when he's blazing down the road and enjoying the moment:
The sun goes down long and red. All the magic names of the valley unrolled—Manteca, Madera, all the rest. Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries. I stuck my head out the window and took deep breaths of the fragrant air. It was the most beautiful of all moments.
He continues down into southern California where he hooks up with a young Mexican woman. More antics, adventures, the occasional bout of paranoia, all in service of new tales to tell, new experiences, new emotions. And then, as it always does in every locale, it all falls apart. Paradise takes buses and rides from strangers and heads back east to the comfort of his aunt's house in New Jersey. Together with the stretches of sweet, aching desolation distilled into its purest essence, there is also plenty of humour:
I might have gotten a ride with an affluent fatman who'd say "Let's stop at this restaurant and have some pork chops and beans." No, I had to get a ride that morning with a maniac who believed in controlled starvation for the sake of health.
A year later Moriarty hooks up with Paradise again, this time at the home of Sal's brother in Virginia. Moriarty has a car now and they head to New York, then to Chicago, down to New Orleans, where they stay with Old Bull Lee (William Burroughs), through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona and finally again to San Francisco. Inevitably, things go haywire again and Sal heads back east alone. But through it all, Sal and Dean have formed some kind of close bond, and Paradise often refers to Dean as his brother. You wouldn't have to stretch too far to infer an even more intimate relationship between the two (those inferences made much easier with the amount written by various observers and others who were part of the mix at the time).

As the novel winds down, Paradise and Moriarty reconnect a few years later and make their long-talked-about journey to a foreign country. Not to Europe as they had long planned, but south to Mexico. This final journey together has a more world-weary, slightly darker tone, although the appetite for hedonistic abandon is still there. The alcohol, drugs and prostitutes leave Sal laid out with a fever, writhing in pain, and Dean chooses that moment to say goodbye:
"All that again, good buddy. Gotta get back to my life. Wish I could stay with you. Pray I can come back." I grabbed the cramps in my belly and groaned. When I looked up again bold noble Dean was standing with his old broken trunk and looking down at me. I didn't know who he was any more, and he knew this and sympathized, and pulled the blanket over my shoulders. "Yes, yes, yes, I've got to go now.
Old fever Sal, good-by." And he was gone. Twelve hours later in my sorrowful fever I finally came to understand that he was gone. By that time he was driving back alone through those banana mountains, this time at night.
I enjoyed reading On the Road as much or more this time around. During the intervening 20 years, I spent more time travelling and living abroad. I also read other novels by Kerouac—though in my opinion, nothing else he wrote comes close to On the Road (probably a non-hipster opinion there—How could the most widely read novel of a gee-nee-us like Kerouac be his best? Say it ain't so...). However, some things jumped out at me that I didn't pay much attention to the first time.

First, the sheer number of people fucked over by the antics of Paradise, Moriarty and the other stand-up individuals who appear throughout the book. Child abandonment, thieving, the odd explosion of violence, and numerous other crimes and misdemeanors. It's basically an orgy of non-stop self-serving behaviour. Sadly, it rings true to many of my experiences while travelling. Something about knowing you are leaving a country next week spurs you on to more shameless acts of selfishness. This is not to suggest that bad behaviour is only perpetrated by feckless travellers. But there is a certain kind of glee that anything done in pursuit of the next high, natural or otherwise, trumps any kind of consideration for quaint, old-fashioned notions like common decency. The fact that Kerouac includes so many references to people cast aside in the pursuit of pleasure is one sign of authenticity, though I'm betting he was less truthful about his own bad behaviour than that of others he describes in the book.

Something else I noticed during my second reading: some of Kerouac's observations are mind-blowingly naïve. Perhaps the notion was new at the time that only the marginalized, the outcasts, or the minorities are genuine and should engender a kind of religious awe, but now it's a sad cliché. Maybe the desperate need to break away from establishment beliefs and morals was part of that kind of thinking. And maybe those first, fresh-eyed interactions with people and places that were previously off limits do result in a sort of joyous naïveté and accompanying observations. Come to think of it, I did all those things too, and had a kind of simplistic take on those experiences that to me seemed so original and daring at the time. And sweet mother of fuck, I've just talked myself out of the initial criticism. Still, anyone who has lived in a third-world country will cringe as they read some of Kerouac's musings on the poor people of Mexico. Of course, Kerouac was still very young at the time of those observations, and anyway, a more nuanced, sneering nihilism would likely have spoiled the effect.

Although On the Road may be classified as a novel, it's no secret that it's really a thinly disguised autobiography, as are most of Kerouac's books. Which means that there are not the same opportunities for presenting conflict as in purely fictional tales. But there's still plenty of conflict in On the Road. Often it comes in the form of the previously mentioned instances when people are parting company and disputes remain unresolved (or the disputes sparked the departures, cloaked in the guise of "time to move on"). Also, within Kerouac's narration, there is more than a little internal conflict. Regardless of how many new experiences you have, that kind of lifestyle over an extended period of time, together with sacrificing a more stable situation, can take its toll.

Is the lifestyle worth it? For Kerouac and other artists who lived at that time, the excesses apparently helped them achieve a state of mind that allowed them to create art. But many of them, including both Kerouac and Cassady, would pay the ultimate price. Cassady died at 41 after a lifetime of drug abuse topped off with one final epic, monumental session of ingesting all manner of substances, before striding out into the night, never to be seen alive again. It was somehow symbolic and appropriate that he was found dead next to a railroad line, on the move and seeking out new experiences until the very end. Kerouac died of health problems brought on by alcoholism at the age of 47, and by all accounts his last years were not happy ones.

I often reminisce about my own long-ago days of travel and adventure, and while I might never get the chance to relive them, they will be a life-long source of inspiration and comfort. In a similar way, On the Road will always be an important book to me—for the memory of reading it the first time and how it affected me, and for the writing itself, which so perfectly captures the emotions and mindset of that particular kind of carefree, come-what-may travel experience.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

7-Eleven Thailand: A Home Away from Home

When I think of 7-Elevens in Canada, a few different images rise up in my mind. A grubby shop with over-priced chocolate bars, Wonder Bread, a large drinks cooler with glass doors, a few Slurpee machines, and a magazine rack. A decade or 15 years ago, you might have seen a few video games stuck in the corner. Funny, "video game" doesn't instantly paint the picture it used to. By video games, I mean the big stand-up ones in the cabinets that had the joysticks and buttons.

Years ago when I was about 13, a friend and I spent an afternoon hammering nickels into the approximate size of quarters. Of course, the next step was to see if the slugs worked on video games and vending machines. A 7-Eleven down the road from where I lived had a couple of those video games and we spent one afternoon feeding those bashed nickels into the coin slots while furtively looking around to make sure that no one had caught on to our little scam. They worked like a charm. When the first bashed-smooth slug dropped in with a satisfyingly appropriate sound and triggered a credit on the machine, we looked at each other with sneering pride.

Besides the most common goods on offer, most 7-Elevens in Canada at that time had a turbaned proprietor behind the counter and maybe one other employee working at any given time. Wait, that's not fair. The owner didn’t always have a turban although almost inevitably he was from the Indian subcontinent. It's impossible to make a blanket statement about the disposition of those enterprising individuals. Some of them were the nicest people you could meet while others were sullen or borderline hostile. And that's not really surprising.

Because 7-Elevens in Canada are also known for a couple of other things. First, armed hold-ups. Open 24 hours a day, with cash on the premises, few employees present, and almost always well situated for a quick getaway by car, they are obvious targets. Second, they present a perfect location for young punks to loiter and raise havoc. Many 7-Elevens in Canada are stand-alone establishments, often located in the corner of a parking lot of a shopping mall. Plenty of parking spaces, with four walls to lean against, spray graffiti onto, and generally take over as a place to meet, plan mayhem, and load up on junk food and cigarettes. So, yes, owners and employees of 7-Elevens in Canada do put up with their fair share of crap.

In short, Canadian 7-Eleven can be found in numerous locations throughout some of the country's biggest cities. It offers a convenient place to pick up overpriced junk-food, lottery tickets, and cigarettes. Walking into a 7-Eleven and conducting your transaction can often be a seedy, unpleasant experience during which you may come into contact with assorted scumbags purchasing goods or casing the joint with the intention of pulling off an armed robbery at a later time.

The 7-Eleven experience in Thailand is vastly different.

7-Elevens in Thailand are ubiquitous to the point of absurdity. Near my current home in Bangkok, there are seven 7-Elevens within walking distance. I once worked at a university in Thailand that had no fewer than 10 7-Elevens on its campus. Yes, 10. This is not an exaggeration. Ten individual 7-Eleven stores on the same university campus. There might not be that many in an entire medium-sized city in Canada.

Most 7-Elevens in Thailand are not of the stand-alone variety though there are many of those as well. Most of are located on the ground floor of large office buildings or in long one, two, or three-storey shop-houses. Many of them are tiny: one that I occasionally frequent does not have enough space for more than four people to stand inside at the same time without being cramped. Others are extremely large and have their own pharmacies and post offices and 20 or more staff working in them at a time.

Thai 7-Elevens offer many products and services. I can top up my mobile phone at any 7-Eleven. I simply tell the clerk which service I want and for what amount and then I type in my number into a small terminal, pay the fee and within seconds the transaction is complete. Similarly, I can pay all my household bills, such as internet and electricity, at any 7-Eleven. I can pay for airline tickets for one of the largest internal airline companies in Thailand. I make the booking online, take a booking number to my local 7-Eleven, and with a small fee included (about the equivalent of 80 cents), pay for the ticket. I'm then provided with a printout that suffices for checking in at the airport.

7-Eleven sign
The usual products are available: a wide range of salted snacks including many US brand potato chips, chocolate bars, cakes, bread, canned goods, milk, cold drinks, and ice cream. Unlike in Canada, where alcohol can only be bought in government-run liquor stores or authorized beer vendors, 7-Elevens in Thailand offer a wide range of alcoholic beverages: beer and alco-pops in the fridges, and hard liquor behind the cashier—Thai and imported, with Smirnoff and Baccardi the most popular foreign brands—and wine (Jacob's Creek seems quite popular). The iconic Slurpees and Big Gulps are there too.

Pre-packaged sandwiches and other 7-Eleven-brand food provide a consistent and surprisingly good-tasting choice for when you are strapped for time or don't want to risk having your guts shredded at a local restaurant. The croissant ham and cheese sandwiches are a personal favourite, and new entries in recent months have included the pizza croissant sandwich and the sausage and cheese sandwich (in reality, "hot dog" better describes what Thais consider sausages).

Speaking of hot dogs, you can get a reasonably good one at 7-Eleven, though you should take a close look at the ones on display on those heated rollers before ordering. Better to get them to nuke a fresh one and then put it in a preheated bun. Update: unfortunately, hotdog buns are no longer available at 7-Elevens in Thailand, likely due to the fact that most Thais prefer their hot dogs sliced into small pieces and placed in a bag, from which they can skewer each piece with a sharpened wooden stick. Other options in the packaged but perishable range include fried chicken, sushi and pork burgers. Many of these I don’t buy, but turnover is such that you can usually find something reasonably fresh or at least with an expiry date that is still a few days away.

A related line of food is the frozen range, again 7-Eleven brand and with many varieties. The best thing about these meals is that you know you will get the same thing every time. The taste ranges from surprisingly good to bland, with portion sizes somewhat disappointing on occasion.

Many 7-Elevens now have their own little coffee bars that provide reasonably priced, freshly brewed cups. Some of the bigger locations also have their own line of pastries (usually baked elsewhere and trucked in, though some now have their own small bakeries onsite) that are available self-serve style with a pair of tongs and a tray.

The price (often the cheapest available for numerous items), locations (i.e., everywhere), selection, relative freshness and consistency make 7-Elevens quite appealing for the expat in Thailand. They are always a good place to break a 1000-baht note as well. I often slip in and buy a 12-baht KitKat just so that I can get a fistful of hundred-baht notes. A 7-Eleven clerk will never balk at this. The entire chain probably pulls in a couple million baht a day just on the small purchases made by people who want to break 1000-baht notes.

Besides all those benefits, there are other reasons for heading down to the local 7-Eleven. It's a nice air-conditioned respite from the brutal heat of the midday sun in Bangkok. And once you are in there, you will not be slyly watched by employees. At a good-sized 7-Eleven, there could be as many as 20 employees wandering around. Add in a dozen or more security cameras, and you really are free to wander unmolested. But more than that, there is simply a pleasant disconnect that you are afforded by employees at 7-Elevens in Thailand. In fact, I often spend a good 10 or 15 minutes pacing up and down the aisles at the local branch. I may not have even purchased something. I've been a pacer for many years. It's kind of like an active form of meditation. I've never been bothered or even given a second look while doing this at a 7-Eleven in Thailand. You would be physically thrown out, or a staff member might even call the police to intervene if you tried this in Canada.

OK, to be fair, I generally engage in my pacing routine at 7-Elevens where I am already known. But I have on occasion chanced on a previously unknown 7-Eleven in Thailand and just had a good relaxing pace for 10 minutes or so before leaving. Once in a rare while I stop and start juggling three or four dry-food items for kicks.

But probably the best aspect of 7-Elevens in Thailand is the people who work there. They are extremely friendly and are perfect for practicing your Thai with. Many young female university students work part-time at 7-Eleven and they are always willing to speak Thai with a foreigner. Even after I have finished paying for my items, I will often linger around the front counter and discuss various topics with the staff.

This love letter to 7-Elevens in Thailand likely won't sit well with those wanting to go native. It just doesn't seem right to praise a western franchise in a developing country, especially one that, to date, has more than 8000 locations in Thailand, half of them in Bangkok. But after more than a decade in Thailand, I don't give a good freak-damn whether other foreigners deem my opinions on my adopted country appropriate or not. Sure, there are plenty of enjoyable, non-corporate, traditional experiences to be had, but more often than not, I'll stride by the street restaurant pitched up outside a major 7-Eleven and carry on into the air-conditioned comfort where I can have an ice-cold drink, pace the aisles for 10 minutes and then have an impromptu Thai lesson with the staff.

Friday, May 6, 2016

How to Move a Table in Microsoft Word

Tefl Spin Tutorials
This tutorial demonstrates how to move a table within a Microsoft Word 2007 document (these instructions likely work in later versions of MS Word as well).

These instructions are for computers with Windows operating systems.

To move a table in Microsoft Word:

1. Hover your cursor over the upper left corner of the table you want to move
Hover upper left corner of table

2. When the small square appears at the upper left corner of your table, move your cursor directly over the small square until a four-pointed, black symbol appears with the usual white-arrow cursor super-imposed over it
Four-pointed black cursor table
3. Click and hold your left mouse button so that the entire table is highlighted in blue

MS Word table highlighted in blue
Note: The white-arrow cursor disappears at this point
4. With the left mouse button still held down, move the table to your desired location within the document

Move table in MS Word
Note: When you are moving the table, the blue highlighting disappears and a dashed outline of the table remains attached to the four-pointed, black cursor
5. Release mouse button
Result: Your table now appears in the new location
Note: To more precisely move a table, after you begin moving the table, press and hold the Shift button on your keyboard. If you began moving your table horizontally, holding the Shift button will lock the movement to the same horizontal plane. If you began moving your table vertically, holding the Shift button will lock the movement to the same vertical plane. 

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Book Review: Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

Travels with Charley
In 1960, John Steinbeck set off in his modified pickup truck with his poodle, Charley, and spent the next two and a half months travelling across America. The journey occurred in the twilight of Steinbeck's life, and appropriately, he departed just after summer had rolled away to die. His ostensible reason for making the trip was to rediscover something about America, its people, and its character. In Travels with Charley: In Search of America, Steinbeck chronicles his journey.

I've read a number of Steinbeck's classic novels over the years and felt certain that his talents as a memoirist would be just as rewarding. I wasn't disappointed. A kind of double appeal existed when picking up the book—no doubt Steinbeck's spare, concise writing style would be in evidence, but I also felt a voyeuristic attraction in reading about the exploits of one of America's most successful novelists of the 20th century as he wandered the highways and back roads searching for interesting stories to tell. But Steinbeck wisely decided to remain as anonymous as possible during his months on the road. It's impossible to avoid making any references to oneself when writing a memoir, but he at least removed an angle that could have resulted in some fawning and disingenuous interactions with people he met along the way.

When Steinbeck departed with his dog in the fall of 1960, he only had eight years left to live. Of course, he didn't know that at the time, though he did know the mortal bell was tolling not too far off in the distance. At the beginning of the book, he mentions his recent bout of ill health:
During the previous winter I had become rather seriously ill with one of those carefully named difficulties which are the whispers of approaching age. When I came out of it I received the usual lecture about slowing up, losing weight, limiting the cholesterol intake.
This marks the beginning of one of many extended passages that are interspersed throughout the book and which focus on various subjects. In this particular passage, he goes on to discuss the fact that he does not want to become dependent on others as he gets older. Like most people who have lived to a reasonable age, Steinbeck had already acquired a lifetime of wisdom when he set out on his journey. But unlike most people, he was able to distill that wisdom into engaging and entertaining prose. As with many of his musings on the world and the ways of human beings, his piece about refusing to regress into an infantile state as old age looms, had me nodding in agreement.

It would be his last lap around the country he loved so much and which provided him with the inspiration for the books he wrote. And yet, he never seems quite at ease with what he finds, and he regularly questions the direction in which he sees society heading. He is never bitter, only philosophical, and the tone often reminds me of a theme that is so common in many old western movies. Everyone reaches a stage in life when the world has moved on, and the only thing left to do is settle accounts and say goodbye. Those tales usually strike a chord with anyone who has ever yearned for something better, learned about loss, or faced down their own mortality. Like those movies, Steinbeck's words are often graceful and poetic as they simultaneously celebrate and lament the human condition.

The nostalgia that comes through in a book written more than 50 years ago is palpably different than in one whose author looks back in time and tries to recapture the past. A certain turn of phrase that no longer exists, the world frozen at that particular place and time, and the knowledge that the author too has long since passed away, all add a special kind of wistfulness to the reading experience.  Also, with the intervening years, you can judge just how prescient Steinbeck was with his analyses and predictions. Indeed, he was very accurate in much of what he wrote. Of course, it was hardly rocket science to foresee that cities would keep growing, the local flavour of many regions would start to disappear, and the reckless, predatory approach to the environment would take its toll.

Steinbeck travels through the northern states until he hits the west coast and then drives down through California, across Arizona and New Mexico and into Texas. Finally, he enters the troubled southern states on his final stretch before returning home. Along the way, he reflects on many subjects—both those specific to whichever state he is in at the time and those universal ideas that all people can relate to. And many of his observations are naturally related to travelling, and specifically travelling alone. Anyone who has done any solo travelling will understand the roller coaster of emotions, the loneliness, and the litany of serendipitous encounters that can hammer a person into a magical, otherworldly state. In this passage, Steinbeck echoes the truism that most travellers internalize after an extended and unscheduled period of wandering: no matter what you think you know beforehand, you can never start to understand what a place is about until you are there:
It is possible, even probable, to be told a truth about a place, to accept it, to know it and at the same time not know anything about it. I'd never been to Wisconsin, but all my life I had heard about it, had eaten its cheeses, some of them as good as any in the world. And I must have seen pictures.Everyone must have. Why then was I unprepared for the beauty of this region, for its variety of field and hill, forest, lake?
...I don't know how it is in other seasons, the summers may reek and rock with the heat, the winters may groan with dismal cold, but when I saw it for the first and only time in early October, the air was rich with butter-colored sunlight, not fuzzy but crisp and clear, so that every frost-gay tree was set off, the rising hills were not compounded, but alone and separate.
In a somewhat related vein, he describes the notion that dictates many people's decisions when they are travelling: the need to experience things in a scripted way that will be appreciated by friends and family back home:
I could hear them say, "You mean you were that near to Yellowstone and didn't go? You must be crazy." Again it might have been the American tendency in travel. One goes, not so much to see, but to tell afterwards.
Many of Steinbeck's observations are not specifically related to travelling, but still ring true. For example, in this section, he talks about the disappointment of trying to turn someone else on to an experience that has given you pleasure:
I felt the rage and hatred one has toward non-appreciators, toward those who through ignorance destroy a treasured plan.
Now, in the above sentence, Steinbeck is referring to his dog Charley not appreciating the majestic splendour of a redwood tree, but still, the sentiment is a good one. And speaking of Charley; as the only other main character in the book besides Steinbeck, he gets a fair amount of ink. Steinbeck clearly loves his dog and any pet lover will enjoy those comments about his furry travel companion.

As an accomplished novelist, Steinbeck understood the importance of relaying the interactions he had with people he met along the way. Those passages in which the writing shifts from narrative summary to specific scenes have a timeless immediacy and are some of the best parts of the book. In the following scene, Steinbeck describes the Badlands in North Dakota and a taciturn character he meets at the side of a road:
Presently I saw a man leaning on a two-strand barbed-wired fence, the wires fixed not to posts but to crooked tree limbs stuck in the ground. The man wore a dark hat, and jeans and long jacket washed palest blue with lighter places at knees and elbows. His pale eyes were frosted with sun glare and his lips scaly as snakeskin.
...I pulled up to speak to him, saw his eyes wash over Rocinante, sweep up the details, and then retire into their sockets. And I found I had nothing to say to him.
All books, not just novels, thrive on conflict and drama, and there are many pages that will keep readers following along in excited anticipation. The direction of Steinbeck's trip meant that he visited the South just before he returned home (or maybe he had an inkling that events in that part of the country might provide some good drama and planned his journey with that in mind). Regardless, the descriptions of racial tensions in New Orleans and other locations, and the deft character sketches of people he meets in the South provide some of the most compelling reading in the book. For the most part, Steinbeck makes the racists he encounters look like scared buffoons, though he also meets a number of people sickened by the civil rights' abuses that were going on in their midst at the time.

Travels with Charley has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity recently, somewhat in part because of questions regarding the authenticity of both the timeline involved and Steinbeck's interactions with various people along the way. This writer (a former journalist) in particular has devoted a lot of time to researching Steinbeck's book with the goal of demonstrating that things just couldn't have happened exactly the way Steinbeck claimed they did. Some of the information on his website is interesting (and he has written a book about his research), but the whole underlying premise of trying to prove that Steinbeck took liberties, created some composite characters and even cooked up some dialogue, just seems rather pointless. Although I suppose piggy-backing a book on the legacy of one of the most famous writers of the past hundred years has potential for generating publicity.

In my experience, all non-fiction writers play with the truth to varying degrees. Especially in travel writing, where an obvious narrative doesn't always present itself, I have often found myself wondering how things happened to fit so nicely in certain travel memoirs. Of course, readers expect that things happen basically how they are presented in non-fiction books. But most people would not be outraged to learn that the dialogue they read in a travelogue is not exactly how it was spoken. If writers presented conversations verbatim, they would be unreadable. The idea, repeated by the writer linked to above, as well as others, including Steinbeck's son (who is on record with a few nasty digs at his deceased father—not sure what the story is there) that because Steinbeck was a novelist, it should be expected that he created large swaths of Travels with Charley out of whole cloth. I disagree. I think the only expectation is that whatever changes another writer would have inevitably made wouldn't have resulted in a book that was as well written or entertaining as Travels with Charley. No doubt some of the claims about authenticity go beyond manufactured dialogue. But if Steinbeck put in the time on the road, visited the places he says he visited, and maintained the spirit of conversations he had with the people he met, I don't have much problem with a few embellishments.

However, after saying all that, I still feel there are some rather clichéd passages in Travels with Charley. For example, as Steinbeck sits in a hotel room vacated by another guest but not yet cleaned by hotel staff, he tries to imagine the recently departed guest based on the state of the room and some scraps of paper he left behind. It comes across as rather unbelievable. But then, life often is unbelievable. Wouldn't it be interesting if those sections of the book that seem to lack realism were in fact fully authentic, while others that attracted no scrutiny were invented? Yet, even though the hotel scene feels a bit forced, the stark loneliness of the passage combined with the prurient interest it elicits makes it effective and memorable on another level.

Travels with Charley was released in 1962 and was Steinbeck's last major, original work published while he was still alive, and fittingly, it spent some time as the New York Times number one bestseller. More than fifty years later, Steinbeck's observations, wisdom and simple eloquence make Travels with Charley a book well worth reading.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Mark of Ignorance

CBC dunce intern
It's not an exaggeration to say that the level of spoken and written English has declined in recent years. That's probably a claim that has been made every decade for the last two hundred years. But I truly believe that skewed syntax, bad grammar and malapropisms are more widespread now than in the past. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that those people are more likely to be heard or read (think of the proliferation of online media outlets and the need to staff them) and are more clueless (or shameless) about their language ignorance.

Grammar mistakes in mainstream media are extremely common nowadays, especially online. The most common errors that have for years been an indication of uneducated people now clutter the pages of even the most well-known newspapers. These errors jump out at anyone with even a basic understanding of grammar and language usage. The editors of newspapers regularly seek refuge behind the excuse that the 24-hour news cycle means it's harder than ever to ensure error-free copy. I'll accept that even people who know the difference between "there," "their" and "they're" will sometimes type the incorrect word when bashing out an article. So that excuse may have some merit, but for the most part, there are just more people today who never learned how to write or speak correctly.

Many of the mistakes that appear online are an indication that the people doing the writing (and the editing) do not possess the necessary skills to do their job. Why is this so? I would say that the education system is largely to blame. When I was going to school in Canada in the 1970s and 80s, grammar was not taught. The idea was that students would absorb the rules through activities and practice (inductive learning as opposed to deductive learning). Lo and behold, a few generations of semi-literates after moving away from more traditional teaching methods, and not only do many people not know how poorly they speak and write English, but there is no one to tell them when they make mistakes. Thankfully, because there are always some people around who possess critical thinking skills, and because some people in decision-making positions recognize the importance of language skills, deductive grammar learning is making  a partial comeback.

Beyond the claim of the frenetic pace of reporting and filing stories, there are other excuses for the legions of professionally employed language morons to hide behind. Any human weakness can become a virtue. When enough people possess that weakness, there is no further need to defend. What used to be an excuse becomes accepted wisdom. When the borderline incompetence of many reporters and others who are paid to write is highlighted, the person doing the highlighting is likely to be dismissed or ridiculed. The tut-tutting and supposed arrogance of anyone who points out the mistakes are more worthy of discussion than the mistakes themselves. The tools of the trade are words and grammar, but somehow, expert usage is not considered a requirement. Of course, moralizers of any kind are necessarily self-righteous. The two are inexorably intertwined. You cannot be one without the other, and I'm guilty as charged.

The funny part about this focus on the people complaining about bad grammar is that many of the so-called grammar Nazis are being played for all they're worth. All newspapers now encourage anyone who sees mistakes in their online rags to dutifully report them. How thrilling! I am a more skilled editor that the ones employed by big newspapers! And look! I reported a mistake, it was promptly corrected, and I even got a personal email thanking me!

You bloody fools! Why on earth would you provide your services for free when you could otherwise let the mistake stand, thus highlighting the sloppiness and perhaps increasing the likelihood that the buffoons in charge might take steps to improve the quality of their product?

But I want the focus of this post to be about speaking, not writing. There is one extremely common mistake that many people currently make when speaking. It's not a careless error made while the speaker is passionately arguing a point. It's not a one-off blunder made when tired or annoyed. It's a fundamental gap in the speaking ability of the people in question.

This obvious blunder is committed not just by people from lower socio-economic classes. I have heard doctors, lawyers and newsreaders speak in this fashion. It makes me cringe every time I hear it. My mother claims that a friend of hers who is a principal in a school in Canada makes this mistake whenever she speaks.

And what is this most shockingly bizarre lapse in fundamental language skills? One that what would have, years ago, been a mistake worthy of a solid cuff to the side of the head?

The inability to use the past participle when using participle verb tenses. People who suffer this affliction speak in sentences like the following:

I haven't went to the movies in a long time.

Have you ever ate spicy food?

It is hard to fathom that people who speak like this are not aware of it. And it is also hard to believe that no one has ever pointed out to them how ignorant they sound. My guess is that they know full well that this major gap exists in their ability to speak the English language. But they just don't care. It likely warms their hearts when they are in the company of other semi-literate mules who were also never taught how to speak correctly.

And that is the modern-day mark of ignorance among native English speakers.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Tefl Classroom Activities: Compound Sentences—And, But

This is a simple classroom activity for students to practice using "and" and "but." You can easily modify it to suit any topic, and you can use it to focus on writing or speaking.

Create Worksheet

Create a worksheet with pairs of questions that students can ask each other regarding whichever topic you want to focus on. I encourage you not to put complete questions on the worksheet. This is so your students can complete the questions themselves. The following examples demonstrate this:

Again, notice that the questions are in pairs so that in the second half of the activity, the answers to the questions lend themselves to using "and" and "but." I created this particular worksheet for a business English class about shopping and new products.

Put Students in Groups

Once you have prepared your worksheets and have met your class on the appointed day, divide them into groups (for this activity, I've found that groups of four work very well). If you have a prepared spiel about the topic in question and any relevant vocabulary, give it to them now.

Then, tell the students that there are two parts to the activity. Hand out the worksheet and tell students to ask and answer yes/no questions in the necessary verb tenses with one or more group members. Let the students know that you will fill them in on the second half of the activity after they have finished interviewing each other. Telling students about both parts of the activity at this point would overload them with too much information.

Second Part of Activity

After the students have finished interviewing each other, tell them that they are now going to take turns telling the rest of their group about the responses of one or both of the individuals they have interviewed. In other words, each group member takes a turn to speak to their entire group about the answers of other group members. Before they proceed, point out to them that all the questions are in pairs.

Next, highlight the possibilities for formulating different sentences with "and" or "but." I usually write the following on the whiteboard:
Explanation on whiteboard
This part of the activity also requires students to conjugate verbs for third person singular. The examples I used here are quite varied, though for lower level students, you could ensure that the structure for all questions is the same. Also, instead of only practicing compound sentences with "and" and "but," you could also practice complex sentences with subordinating conjunctions such as "however," and "despite."

And that's all there is to it. A simple activity that is adaptable, easy to prepare, easy to explain, and which allows students to practice a number of different skills and to focus on using "and" and "but."

Friday, April 8, 2016

How to Tally Points and Calculate Grades in Microsoft Excel

Tefl Spin Tutorials
Many schools now use grading software to make life as easy as possible for teachers. However, other schools have online grading systems, but the teachers are still responsible for tallying points and calculating grades based on an approved grade range. Many luddites exist in the world of teaching who believe there is some virtue in spending hours with a calculator and pencil adding up rows of figures. Despite how proud they remain about doing it the good old fashioned way, their calculations remain susceptible to errors.

Why spend all those hours tallying points and calculating grades when you can do it in minutes with Microsoft Excel?

This tutorial aims to make tallying points and calculating grades as simple as possible for teachers. I have created this tutorial with no assumptions about the skill level of the people using it. In other words, if you follow this tutorial step by step, I guarantee that you will be able to use Excel to tally points and calculate grades for your students and as a result, you will save hours of time.

This tutorial is intended for Microsoft Windows 7 operating system and Microsoft Excel 2007. However, the instructions well may work with other Windows operating systems and other versions of Excel.

The tutorial is divided into five parts:

—To import student information into Excel
—To format and save your Excel document
—To tally points in Excel
—To round up and round down point totals in Excel
—To calculate final grades in Excel

To import student information into Excel

1. Open the Microsoft Word document which contains the points for the relevant course

Note: If you do not wish to use Microsoft Word, and instead want to keep all the points for your course in Excel, you can skip to subsequent parts of this tutorial. I maintain a Microsoft Word document throughout the semester for aesthetic reasons—I think a printed version looks better. Plus, as you will see, it's so simple to import a Word document into Excel, that it is really not much added work.

2. Click on the Show paragraph mark button

Click paragraph mark button

3. If any extra paragraph breaks exist in the document (indicated by a paragraph mark), delete them (to delete, position cursor before paragraph mark and press delete on your keyboard)

Delete paragraph mark

Note: When you import the Microsoft Word document into Excel, extra paragraph breaks can cause unwanted formatting in Excel

4. Hover your cursor near the upper left corner of the table until a small square appears and your cursor turns into a black, four-pointed symbol

Hover cursor over upper left of table

5. Click on the square so all the contents of the table are highlighted, right-click and click Copy

Copy Microsoft Word table

Copy Word table

To format and save your Excel document

1. Open a new Microsoft Excel document

2. Click in the cell in the upper left hand corner, and press Alt + V on your keyboard (shortcut for Paste)

Click in first cell in Excel document

Result: The contents of the Microsoft Word table should now appear in Excel

3. Hover over the line separating two columns until your cursor turns into a black cross (the horizontal line will have an arrow on both ends)

Change Excel column width

4. Click and drag to the right or left to format the columns as you desire

5. Click the Microsoft Office button in the upper left of the document and click Save As

Save Excel document

6. Choose an appropriate name for your Excel document and save it in your desired location

To tally points in Excel

1. Place your cursor in the upper left-most cell which contains points

Click in cell with points

2. Click and drag, and highlight all the cells which contain points. Also highlight the entire column to the right of the final column of numbers

Highlight all columns with points

Note:  In the Microsoft Word document I imported into Excel, I already had an empty column labeled Grades. If your document did not have an available empty column, place your cursor in the right-most column, right click, click Insert and enable Entire column.

3. In the Home ribbon, click the AutoSum button

Click AutoSum button

Result: The total points for each student should appear in the new column

4. Click in the last column of the Excel table, right click, click Insert and then enable Entire column. Label the new column "Divide by 2"

Create new column in Excel

5. Place your cursor in the formula bar at the top of the Excel document and type in the following formula: =(M5/2)

Divide formula

Note 1: Take careful note of your particular Excel document. The "M" in the formula I used above indicates the column letter of the column which contains the figures I previously tallied, not the column where I want the next column of calculations to appear. The column of tallied figures likely appears in a different column letter in your document.
Note 2: This step is done to divide the points total for each student in half because, for this particular course, the points total is out of 200. Obviously, omit this step if necessary or alter accordingly.
Caution: Be careful not to confuse the row number of the Excel document with the number next the first student's name in the list.

6. In the first relevant cell of the new column, hover your cursor in the lower right corner until a black cross appears.

Drag black cross down

7. Click and drag down to include the entire column. Release your mouse button

Drag down webbed outline

Result: The new row of figures, divided by two, should appear in the new column.

Completed column divided by two

To round up and round down point totals in Excel

1. Click in the last column and create another new column (see step 4 in the previous set of instructions), and label the new column "Round Up/Down"

2. In the formula bar, type in the formula =ROUND(N5,0)

3. Drag the black-cross cursor down the entire column (see steps 7 and 8 in the previous set of instructions)
Result: The new set of figures have no decimal numbers. All figures which previously had a .49 or lower decimal have been rounded down and all figures which previously had a .5 or higher decimal have been rounded up.

To calculate final grades in Excel

1. In the formula bar, type in the following formula:


Enter grading formula in Excel

Note 1: As with previous formulas discussed above, note the relevant column letter in your own document. You are using the column letter that corresponds to the column with the most recent calculations (in our case, the Round Up/Down column). Also, of course, enter the relevant details for the grade range you are applying.
Note 2: For future use, I recommend you copy and paste the formula into a Notepad file and keep it in a folder with any other documents you may have related to calculating and entering grades.
Note 3: This formula, of course, needs to be entered precisely. Notice in the screenshot the colour-coding of the closing brackets, which correspond in colour to the opening brackets. There should be one closing bracket for each "IF" statement.

2. Drag the black cross cursor down the entire column (similar to steps 7 and 8 in previous set of instructions)

Drag down black cross final grades

Result: The final grades should appear in the relevant column.

Final grades entered

3. Reformat the Excel document as you desire (for example, left align all number columns)

Final format Excel

There you have it. An easy way to tally points and calculate grades. The great thing about the final Excel document is that if you change any of the point totals for any of the categories, all the calculations will automatically update accordingly. For example, when the worst case scenario happens and a student fails a course, I go back through all assignments and exams in the hopes that I may have missed a point here or there. If I find a few missing points, I simply update the relevant cell in Excel and see if the final grade has changed as a result. One final qualifier: as with all software programs, in Microsoft Excel, there are numerous ways to perform the same function. I have found the above methods the most effective and straightforward. If you have any shortcuts to recommend, or any other methods you feel are more useful, please include them in a comment.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Strange World of Travel Blogging

What the hell happened in the world of travel blogging?

I remember reading some pretty good travel blogs 10 years ago or so. Well-written, fairly regularly updated blogs by people who lived as expats or otherwise managed to spend a good chunk of time travelling every year. They weren't always the slickest-looking sites. But the bloggers were usually thoughtful, well-read, intelligent individuals who made an effort to present their own unique take on various destinations.

Travel Blogs

I was so impressed with all those blogs I apparently read, that I can't remember the name of a single one. I'm probably engaging in some revisionist history when I talk about those long-lost travel blogs. But I believe that I enjoyed reading much of the early travel writing that appeared online. For example, I remember a long-term traveller who posted numerous essays on his blog and after a while started putting them together and offering them as ebooks. I believe he even gave many of them away free of charge. They were simply written, interesting thought pieces set in various locations.

I recall that many travellers at the time had a certain anti-establishment attitude and were always exploring various philosophical questions as they spent time in some of the most impoverished countries on the planet. Sure, we're all hypocrites to some degree and are inexorably tied into a world of corporations and profit. But at least those phantom travel writers made an effort to temporarily leave some of the worst excesses behind instead of seeing their journey as an opportunity to hook into the system more completely than ever before.

It was travel writing with a gonzo journalism sensibility and was reminiscent of independent publications produced by people who, not too long ago, would get together a few times a year and print a couple hundred magazines on the cheapest paper possible in whatever third-world hellhole they were temporarily calling home. Some of the earliest travel blogs had the same nose for the quirky angle, the out-of-the-way destination, and the interesting locals you would never encounter if you were on a two-week whirlwind tour.

Today there's a certain sameness to many of the most popular travel blogs. They're all professional-looking, multi-media sites with plenty of stunning photos and breathless headlines. A nice-looking website certainly isn't a bad thing. But aside from the banner, not a lot distinguishes the design of most of these top-end travel blogs. In fact, the cookie-cutter look emphasizes exactly what most of them have become: one big advertisement. Most are in the business of peddling all manner of travel-related products: hotels, adventure-tour companies, clothes, sunglasses, food, their own advice on how to become just like them. The self-congratulatory, smug, listy-ness of some of the writing can be very off-putting. Most of the time, the writing simply isn't engaging.

And what about those stunning photos that appear on every last one of the most popular travel blogs? When did the world start looking like that? Of course, the world doesn't look like that. Many of the photos I see on those blogs are lifelessly impressive. I find that very few of those photos demand an extended viewing or multiple viewings the way good photos, drawings or other artwork does.They remind me of young women who flaunt their sexuality in a crass, this-must-be-what-being-provocative-and-alluring-is-all-about way. You can almost hear their thoughts: "How can I not dress like this when it brings me so much attention?" How can you not post those breath-taking, panorama shots with the crisp delineation of every last molecule that appears in the frame? What are you going to do, tweak the settings on the camera that was gifted to you on the condition that you mention its make and model every week in the captions of those very same stunning photos? Tweak it so the photos don't look quite as good? So that when you just keep mashing the "take the fucking picture" button with your thick, peasant fingers, the results are not as impressive as they otherwise could be? No, of course not. The thing is, you can overdose rather quickly on those amazing pictures that span the width of the webpage. I find them oddly distracting especially when I am reading. I want my online reading space a bit cozier and more word-focused than those hotshot, faux-world photos allow.

What else do most of the high-flying, top travel bloggers of today have in common? They all devote a certain amount of their content to advising their readers how they can also "quit your job, sell everything and get paid to travel the world." Of course, anyone who operates a blog can easily track their most popular posts, and doubtless those how-to articles are their top draws. Fair enough. But sweet mother of f***, wading through the carnival huckster, revivalist tone of those pieces has no doubt turned off more that a few potential readers.

And while we're speaking of all the thinly-veiled advertising that is necessary to allow someone to travel full-time, let's drill down a bit deeper. Very few, if any, of the elite travel bloggers address the issue of how they can write honestly about products and destinations when the companies which sell those products and benefit financially from having those destinations hyped are also paying those people who are writing about them. It seems a handful of travel bloggers who survive on the tainted benevolence of free trips are content to stick with the flippant, hipster approach to any questions of their ethics. It's kind of the "Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, we all know this is the way the world works and you would do it too if you were in my position. Besides, I'm never influenced one way or the other when I take free accommodation, flights or products from companies who expect, nay, spell it out plainly when they make their offers, that this is a quid-pro-quo and they want something in return."

Many industries are built on the premise of handing out billions of dollars in trinkets, free dinners and all manner of other tangible benefits every year in exchange for less-than transparent shilling by those who slurp up all the goodies. People who operate businesses give things to people because they expect something in return. There is no other reason for it. Regardless, writing about something which you have been paid to cast in a positive light cannot be done in an objective way. That's not to suggest that many of the hotels or locations highlighted by travel bloggers are not fantastic, exciting places worthy of paid visits. But situations could arise that bloggers might describe differently or not at all if they have previously benefited financially from various owners or operators. Just maybe those owners or operators wouldn't always appreciate a truthful account of everything related to their product or service. The point is, if your interests are the same as those who are paying you, your interests aren't always the same as your readers, regardless of how many times you claim that you "always tell it like it is."

Why not be up front and tell people when travel freebies are offered in exchange for publicity? And also, tell us exactly what happens—a real-time, unfiltered, behind-the-scenes look at the (likely) shamelessness of  it all. It would be refreshing and would add some real authenticity to many blogs whose writing has taken on a tired, brittle, advertorial sound. I'm not suggesting that most travel bloggers are constantly showered with all expenses paid trips, nor that any of them don't simply work traditional jobs in various locations to finance their travels. But I have no doubt that many bloggers aim for and achieve a situation in which they are basically being paid to advertise under the guise of writing about their adventures on the road.

On the other hand, provide me the names of some travel blogs that don't all look the same, sound the same, or have the same collection of "you can do it too" articles and I'll quit complaining. Please point me to some well-written, non-professional blogs that are updated more than a few times a month. I can't seem to find many of those. Every time I type some likely search terms into Google, I get countless results that point to other blogs and websites which have Top 10 or Top 25 or Top 50 lists full of the top travel blogs. And all those blogs being ranked in the lists are inevitably the type that I have described above. If the most popular slick, hip, travel bloggers are the big leagues, then the legions of other bloggers who make the lists are desperate wannabes on farm teams hoping that their sycophantic praise will get them some attention from their heroes. I mean, you've really got to go pages' deep into the results of an online search before you start finding travel blogs that don't include numerous mentions of "affiliate marketing," or "travel hacks."

Of course, travel books are still an option.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Wandering Goy: A Travel Memoir

This past November marked the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv. I clearly remember the night he was killed because I was living and working in Tel Aviv at the time. I had nearly attended the rally where Rabin was murdered, but because I hadn't been able to find any fellow travellers to accompany me, I spent most of the evening pouring beer down my neck instead. When I stumbled back to the hostel where I was staying later that night, a group of friends and I heard the news from a radio at the front desk.

The Wandering Goy
It was interesting to watch Israelis react to the news in the coming days and weeks. About a month later, I left Israel, but I had already made plans to return after I finished working for the winter at a ski resort in Switzerland. I returned on schedule, albeit on crutches, and stayed in Israel for another year.

Israel fascinated me more than any of the other countries I had visited in the previous year of backpacking around Europe. The weather, the history and the beautiful women were aspects that made it a popular destination for backpackers. But part of the appeal was also the fact that backpackers could stay for relatively long stretches and could easily find work.

I kept a fairly regular travel journal at the time, and I intended to write a book about my experiences in Israel as soon as I had the time. Twenty years later, I've finally put in the necessary hours. The result is The Wandering Goy: A Travel Memoir.

Combining the observations I wrote down 20 years ago with the two-decade-old memories that are still knocking around in my head and a much different way of looking at the world resulted in some interesting writing sessions. Just how accurate are my memories after 20 years? Hard to say. But after scanning the notes, mini-essays and page-long rants from all those years ago, I found that many of the tales that I had remembered and re-told numerous times matched up fairly accurately with what I had written down.

Although I wrote the beginnings of what would become The Wandering Goy while I was in Israel and kept the notes for years (I transferred them to digital form about ten years ago), I don't have a single photograph from that time. That was just before inexpensive digital cameras became ubiquitous. I bought a handful of disposable cameras while I was there, but I have no idea if the photos I took survived, or if they did, where they are. Of course, the fact that I never got it together to photograph some of the amazing sights in Israel really had nothing to do with the availability of cameras. It's a testament to my feckless, come-what-may lifestyle at the time. So it's kind of appropriate that the only lasting memories of those wild, out-of-control days I spent in Israel are contained between the covers of The Wandering Goy.