Friday, June 27, 2008

Look to the North

If you would like a pleasant alternative to the toll roads of I-80, veer off at Gary, Indiana and drive into Michigan. For years I’ve been traveling between the Midwest and New England by driving through Michigan and Ontario instead of going south along Interstate 80. It is almost exactly the same distance from Chicago to Niagara Falls or Buffalo regardless of which way one goes.

There is such an obvious list of positives that make it clear why I drive via Canada as opposed to staying south of the Great Lakes. The first difference is economic: There are no highway tolls to pay by going north. The two $4 bridge tolls going into and out of Canada are less than paying to drive through Indiana, Ohio, and southern New York. I also noticed the stark difference in the stress levels depending on which way one goes. Staying on I-80 invites rising blood pressure levels due to high speeds, heavy truck traffic, and extremely unattractive roadside scenery. By contrast, driving through Michigan is akin to a trip through a very long, tree-lined park, and Ontario offers a serene countryside with relatively light traffic that moves at a leisurely pace. It wasn’t until about 100 miles into Ontario that I was struck by the most revealing difference: I had seen no billboards. This was in such stark contrast to U.S. roadsides that are littered with huge glaring rectangles whose messages unceasingly assault the traveler. Ontario thus is such a pleasurable experience for drivers: No ugly distractions, just mile after mile of pastoral splendor. Once I had made this observation, it came rather as a shock when I actually came across a gigantic billboard. In 220 miles of driving in Ontario I counted exactly three, which one would expect to find per mile in the States. The last ten miles into Niagara Falls didn’t count, as apparently, the urge to advertise the scenic wonder is just too hard to resist, even in Canada. For the most part, in the U.S., roadsides shout at you; in Canada, they whisper.

If you wonder what it would be like to escape the crass commercialism along the freeways, take a cruise through Ontario sometime on your way between upstate New York and Chicago. Besides the easy-going drive (vehicles are about a half mile apart on the highways) there are interesting sites to explore, such as Canada’s “Tomato Capital,” the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, and the Niagara Region wine country. If you are headed to northern New England, consider adding to the enjoyment by staying in Canada and traveling through Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City (Don't forget to take your passport or birth certificate). An added bonus: You just can’t beat the iced cappuccino at Tim Horton’s along the way.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Half Life Theory of Moving

One would think that since I have moved so many times that I would have it down by now. In February, I systematically detailed each month's list of things to do in order to be fully prepared to move this weekend. All seemed to be going well: Visa received in plenty of time, the pets safely moved to Bangkok two months ahead of time, furniture sold, things in storage (OK, that didn't work out so well), and with two weeks to go, the apartment looked emptier, but for some odd reason did not look like I was on the brink of completing the packing. Each time I performed a task that should have brought satisfaction of getting closer to my goal of an empty house, the place still had lots of STUFF everywhere.

After several days of frustration punctuated by long stretches of helplessness, it occurred to me that I was witnessing a rarely understood phenomenon, something I call the Half Life Theory of Moving. It is quite complicated with lots of mathematical equations that explain everything (Sure it is), but in short, the theory explains the strange lack of progress as one works faster to clear a home. It is similar to radioactive decay--The time it takes to complete half of the moving preparations is equal to clearing half of the remaining stuff. According to this theory, one should never completely finish clearing one's house for moving: There's always half left to do. That's why one always ends up either leaving stuff behind while speeding away to meet the deadline, or have someone else finish the job. In my case, it is my sister--bless her charitable heart--who unwittingly flew from Florida to help me and my daughter finish the task, and will also be the one who cleans out the refrigerator, sweeps the balcony, and turns the keys into the management after I leave.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Not the Best Way to Downsize

As the flood waters of the nearby Des Moines River tributary finally receded, I made my way to my storage unit, which, judging by the muddy water marks on the outside walls, had been under three feet of water. I hesitated as I pushed the key toward the lock, bracing myself for the scene within, yet holding out hope that somehow the invading waters had simply lifted the items inside as bobbing pingpong balls, then set everything down just as it had been neatly stacked. I was not prepared for what I saw when the door swung open and waterlogged boxes actually tumbled out. It was as though the building had been shaken by something monstrous and angry, with a liberal coating of brown slime applied for good measure. The disarray was complete, everything soggy and earth-colored. I sighed and began sorting through the mess, boxes crumbling in my hands and possessions landing on the muddy floor. A tailored Santa suit, favorite coat bought in the Himalayas, photos of our life stories, a seasoned, but prized jacket were but a few of the many possessions placed with sad reverence into the nearby dumpster.

Despite the impact, I know that it was nothing compared to so many who have been recently displaced from their homes, and who have lost everything. On the relatively positive side, I can now send what was salvaged to our storage unit in Maine (far from any potential flood source) by mail instead of by moving van. We can make new memories, the ones that really count, those that are not things.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Leaving is Bittersweet

Just under a week left of work at my current position. Despite my excitement about going to Thailand, I am going to miss the folks I work with here. They have been fantastic: Professional, knowledgeable, creative, and fun. As Kat and I often tell each other, it has been our best job (She also was a colleague here before taking a leave to go to Bangkok). My diet is shot: So many lunches and dinners to say goodbye. But I don't mind...the camaraderie is worth it. I'll need the final week just to go through all I've accumulated in the past four years. If nothing else, moving forces one to downsize. I've downsized so many times, it's a wonder I have anything left at all.

Monday, June 16, 2008

New Faculty

I will have more than 20 new colleagues from around the world who will also be arriving in Bangkok in late July. 
We have been communicating via email and wiki, getting to know each other as well as one can in an electronic mode, and asking questions about the unknowns of being expatriates in Thailand. Although it has been five years since I've been there for any length of time, I still remember much that has been helpful to relay to others who will be there for the first time: Tax information, cultural norms, language basics. The school--Human Resources, administrators and department heads--have been wonderfully helpful. There will be someone at the airport to meet us and take us to a hotel where new teachers may stay until they find a place to live. At least three of us, including myself, have found houses near the school already. The biology faculty members have been in communication, and have included me in the collaborative effort to revise the curriculum. What a great thing for a new faculty member to experience, even before arriving.

Our house is a nice 4-bedroom about a 20 minute commute to school for both of us--in
 opposite directions. The rent is less than half of what it would be in much of the States, and far less than in any major U.S. metropolitan area, and which my housing stipend will cover. It was somewhat serendipitous for Kat to find it while exploring potential housing. I will arrive in Thailand ten days before Kat, so I will move her things from her apartment, and get the animals acquainted with their new digs. They--and we--are going to love the shaded yard on a quiet street.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


So, here I am in June, trying to determine which things to take, which to store, which to throw away, and which to donate.
Nearly all of the furniture has been sold, and I am down to just a few boxes to sort through. The recent rains and subsequent floods here in Iowa have changed my plans a bit: Instead of storing things here, I now realize that flood threats are all too real, so I remove my stored boxes ahead of the rising floodwaters, but must leave some that I hope will be able to be dried and re-packed next week, and plan for shipment to Maine where we have land along the coast, site of our eventual home base in the States. The manager of the storage company near there says no worries—In that wonderful Downeast accent: “Theh’s always spots available heah. Just stop by.” So, moving companies are being contacted for estimates…what I have is far less than the minimum, but I have to move them out east. One more thing to worry about.

Meanwhile, my visa has arrived, I prepare the papers I need to take, and fret over the right amount of clothes and educational materials needed, which spill far over the two large bags I’m taking, or had planned to take. The dilemma: Send the extra by mail, or take a third bag and pay far less than postage for the excess? I decide on sending them, simply because I don’t want to struggle with the third bag. The good news: The school will reimburse me for most of the shipping. The bad news: Most of that allowance has been taken by sending our dog and cat ahead to Kat a month ago. They came through the ordeal fine, for which we are extremely grateful, and seem to be adjusting once again to living in a new place. This is their third trip overseas—amazingly resilient beings.

Friday, June 13, 2008

How to say Goodbye?

The most difficult thing I have to do is say goodbye to my kids. 
Although they are adults and becoming more independent, it nonetheless means I won't be able to see them as often, to visit their homes as frequently, to just be with them from time to time. This will be a growing experience for all of us, and at times painful, as we know from past moves. Between flights back to the States I will be depending a great deal on phones, email and live net conversations, more than ever before. Thank you, Skype! When is close just too close, and at what distance is far too far?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

An international educator

Down to a few weeks before heading to my next teaching position, this time in Thailand. Fortunately, I was in the right place (Bangkok) at the right time (late December), which provided me an opportunity to interview at several schools for a science teaching position.

The trip to Thailand in December was foremost a reunion with my wife, Kat, who had been in Thailand for five months teaching at an American school in the city. We were due for some decision-making: Does she return to the States after a year's leave, or do I, with both children now adults, join her in Thailand?

As soon as I arrived in Bangkok, I realized that my three previous years there had influenced me greatly: Everything seemed so familiar, from the wall of humidity that greeted me outside the terminal, to the jasmine garlands around the Buddha figurine on the taxi dashboard, to the dazzling sights and sounds of the city as we sped past the all-night markets.

It was exhilarating to be back. The aromas of spices and fried foods, lingering scents of flowers and incense, smiles from friendly people, the dizzying spectacle of traffic chaos, and the intense heat give the place an exotic flavor, and a continuously changing backdrop, one that delighted—and frustrated--me every day I was there. It was great to be in what Kat and I consider our second home. I knew before my visits to schools that I was going to return. If I needed any more convincing, the perfect lazy days spent at our favorite beach at Christmas sealed the deal.