17 October 2012

Splurge on Socks: A Commencement Speech for Travelers

I was honored to be invited to give the keynote speech for last night's Meet Plan Go event in Minneapolis. Here's what I said: 

When I was asked to deliver a keynote speech here, I panicked. I kept imagining it like a commencement speech. In my mind, it was already snowing here in Minnesota, so you were all wearing stocking caps, and at the end, you tossed them in the air while my final platitudes faded and the opening notes of "Pomp and Circumstance" blared over the PA system.

Finally, I gave in and went with it. So here goes.

Ladies and gentlemen of the Meet, Plan, Go class of 2012 ...

Splurge on socks.

This is the single most important piece of advice you will learn this evening, so remember this and this alone. You must not skimp when it comes to socks. Blisters will Mess. You. Up. Universal truth.

Everything else is negotiable, everything else is subject to disagreement and debate. All of us who have ever set foot outside the house have an opinion, forming a cacophony of voices all too eager to spar about the one proper way to travel, the specific things you must see before you die, the singular manner in which you must behave when you travel.

Most of it, though offered with sincerity and good intentions, can be ignored. All of it is true and all of it is false. The key, of course, is figuring out which is which for you. Know what to dismiss, what advice to stare down with furrowed brow and knowing gaze and say, “Thanks, but no, I’ll do it my way.”

Also: buy bottled water. Always check the seal before you drink.

Squat toilets are tricky. Proceed with caution.

To travel is to ignore some fundamental part of your own instinct, some survival mechanism grafted to your DNA. Someone in your family tree, way back, was eaten by a bear or a tiger. It must have happened.

Stop worrying. It won’t happen to you. Probably. No matter how overwhelmed and scared you feel about the prospect of travel, about going to far-flung places, it’s almost certain that things will be weirder and more wonderful than you expected and will--for real--work out in the end.

And no matter how cocky and adventurous you’re feeling, you’ll still mess something up. You'll have moments of abject terror or paralyzing awkwardness. That I can guarantee.

You’re going to be the stupid tourist. You’re going to get into trouble. That’s okay. That’s the point. It's a necessary stop on all roads worth taking. It’s where the best stories come from.

Maybe you'll blog, maybe you won't. Either one is fine, no matter what your relatives say. 

Send postcards. Send one to me. I’ll write back.

About those socks: Don’t get white, don’t get cotton. I like Smartwool. They didn’t pay me to say that, but if they want to send me a lifetime supply, I won’t turn it down. Comfort is important in socks. If your feet aren’t happy, you’re not moving.

Every day on the road, do something uncomfortable and unfamiliar to rattle yourself.

Every day on the road, do something comfortable and familiar to ground yourself.

Go to an American restaurant in a foreign country just for the utterly perplexing sensation of seeing a familiar template twisted and skewed until you’re not even sure what it means to be American anymore.

Eurail passes are a hell of a deal. Switzerland, in general, is not.

Carry one and only one fortune-cookie platitude in your wallet at all times. Like this: find your own path.

Maybe you’ll single-handedly hack your way through the jungle to a quote-unquote "undiscovered" village in Borneo. Maybe you’ll dance the electric slide with your grandma outside the starboard snack bar on a Walt Disney cruise ship. Maybe you’ll do the R-T-W thing--’round the world, baby!--with your best friend from college. Maybe you’ll just hitchhike down the road a stretch, to that neighborhood where you’ve never been for one reason or another, and walk into the VFW for a pitcher of Miller and a round of darts with a Korean War vet named Tiny.

That’s all good. That all counts, no matter the destination, the budget, the amount of time, the company you keep. Manifest destiny comes in many flavors. Find yours; don’t worry about others. Realize that you can get lost and make new discoveries on the beaten path, just as you can be jaded and all too comfortable in the most exotic places. Whatever you’re doing, wherever you’re going, embrace it. Love it on your own terms. Take the opportunity to look below the surface. Of the sight, of the experience, of yourself.

Buy Tiny his beer. Buy other travelers drinks. Even if you’re not generally social--in fact, especially if you’re not usually social, because, well, carpe diem and all that--talk to the people you meet--the tourists, the locals, everyone. Sit at the bar. Bartenders are better than any guidebook.

Go to Venice once, to bask in the beauty. Only stay one day, though, because beauty is more fleeting than you think.

If you’re ever stranded at the Atlanta airport, your best food bet is the Atlanta Bread Company, by Gate 24.

Never fly through Atlanta.

Keep calm, carry on.

Pack light, carry on. Add your socks last. Stuff them into shoes, shove them into every nook of your packed suitcase. Wool compresses wonderfully.

There is so much information out there, so much scolding, so many proclamations. Seriously, ignore most of it. All that matters is your own inner voice. Learn to sift through the information overload in a way that is meaningful and useful to you.

Anyway. Don’t worry about it. You’re going somewhere. You’re following your dream, your passion, your folly--whatever that may be. You’re becoming a better person.

Be wary of anyone who tries to tell you that something will make you a better person. 

Be wary of anyone who says “I’m a traveler, not a tourist.” Never say that. I will hunt you down.

Get lost at least once each day.

Don’t panic.

And when you’ve figured out where you are, after all that walking, look down at your feet, all cozy and comfortable, and be glad that you splurged on those fancy socks.

And then put one foot in front of the other, propelled by your own curiosity. The world awaits.

NB: For those who were wondering, yes, I was more than a bit inspired by this

12 October 2012

Upcoming Events -- Stop By and Say Hi

I'll be here and there in the coming weeks and months. If you're in the area, stop by and say hi. Free haiku if you mention this blog post! 

October 13th: Twin Cities Book Festival (3pm, Local Lit Lounge) 

October 16th: Meet Plan Go Twin Cities (REI Bloomington, doors at 6pm) 
(Come learn about how to make your long-term travel daydreams become a reality. I'm giving the keynote speech, and lots of smarter, better-traveled panelists will be dispensing valuable wisdom.)

November 17th & 18th: Miami Book Fair International (exact day/location TBA) 

December 1st: Common Good Books, Saint Paul (2pm)

December 8th-January 2nd: Enrichment Voyage (South/Central America)
(Oh, and if you want to come along on this cruise, I can get you a deal. Seriously. Drop me a line. I'll buy you a drink and we'll play shuffleboard with Sandra Day O'Connor.)

02 October 2012

Major Scoop: Presidential Debate Rules

This just in: The Obama and Romney campaigns recently met to draft a few rules for the candidates' upcoming debates. These were supposed to be top-secret, but I've got the scoop for you thanks to a friend on the inside, who I'll give the code name Bo Jiden.

  1. Failure to say "God Bless America" in closing remarks results in automatic forfeit.
  2. If no clear winner identifiable after debate, candidates may use rock, paper, scissors (best two out of three) to decide outcome.
  3. Candidates allowed to put each other into "jinx" if both say same thing simultaneously.
  4. Excessive note-taking for sole purpose of inhaling Sharpie fumes is not allowed.
  5. Orange light will flash after each misuse or mispronunciation of words greater than four syllables, names of foreign leaders, or popular culture catch-phrases/memes.
  6. Candidates must remain fully clothed for the duration of the debate. They may not, for rhetorical or other purposes, tear off shirts, Hulk-style, or lower pants to show off religiously-affiliated undergarments or lucky Chicago Bears boxer briefs. 
  7. If candidates exceed time limit for response to question, red light flashes; if candidates stutter, pause or otherwise temporarily halt their response for more than five seconds, moderator allowed to squirt candidate with Super Soaker.
  8. Moderator barred from glaring, cursing, shaking head in disbelief, throwing glass of water, or otherwise reacting in any way to gross misstatements.
  9. Candidates may use voice-filtering devices to warp voices with robot, chipmunk, Darth Vader or professional wrestling announcer effects, but may not switch voice effects during debate.
  10. Cheerleaders will perform at halftime.
  11. Candidates may not question each other directly, but may taunt using terms “Booya!,” “Yeah, sucka!” and “Y’all trippin’.”
  12. Each candidate must do at least one impersonation, lasting at least thirty seconds, of either Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Angela Merkel, or, for domestic-policy debates, John Boehner or Nancy Pelosi. 
  13. Candidates may not poke, prod or hit other candidate directly, but may do so using giant foam "We're #1!" hand.
  14. Comeback zingers may not include fart jokes or "that's what she said." 
  15. Laugh track will be played after all jokes or attempted jokes; sound clip "Ooooh!" wil be played after all direct attacks on opponent's record.
  16. Discussion of Chumbawamba's recent break-up is off-limits, including but not limited to saying that "America got knocked down, but we'll get up again, you're never gonna keep us down." Discussion of LMFAO's rumored split is fair game.
  17. Paul Ryan allowed to substitute for Romney at halftime or any other stoppage of play.
  18. Use of sports metaphors limited to those sports in which candidate actually participates.
  19. Candidates not required to attend debate if assurance cannot be made that there will be cookies and punch afterward.
  20. Productive, reasonable discussion on genuinely important matters, with no gratuitous pandering, impossible-to-keep promises, or shameless distortions of reality, is forbidden.