On Charity…and two worthy of your attention

The more I stay involved with organizations that exist to serve others, the more I realize the wisdom we’ve all heard throughout our lives about the benefits of doing so.

I have a dear friend who, every week, serves at a church soup kitchen to feed the homeless. I know many men who offer their time to help those who struggle with addiction. Then this last week, we shared the updates of our school in Tanzania (which I’ll get to below) in our Change it Forward Tanzania Newsletter, while I offered on Facebook the updates of another moving charity I encountered in East Africa (also introduced below). Heck, I got so into the sharing spirit this last week, that I even offered my experience at a gym I attend to help promote the good work they do.

I realized the lightness about myself when engaged in these actions. I took the spotlight off of myself, put it on others for their benefit, and simply felt good.

We naturally consider the sake of others when helping others. But giving with an open heart reaps rewards for oneself well beyond the time or dollar amount you can contribute.

Charity expands one’s world. You connect with others: an organization, a cause, perhaps a whole other part of the world. You go about your day conscious of this thread sewn between you and those who you support.

With that, and if you’re interested, here are two great charities I was introduced to when I was in East Africa. Both are effectively improving the lives of young people in their respective regions and both are in need of support.


LAST FEBRUARY, I wrote about the slums of Uganda’s capital, Kampala. A few months earlier, I had had the chance to take a tour of Kampala’s largest slum, Bwaise, and yes, it was probably similar to how you imagine it. Lumpy, dirt paths strewn with litter knifing between wooden shacks and shoddy, mud-brick homes.

Life looked pretty bleak in this neighborhood.

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Adults went about their lives straight-faced. The kids offered a mixture of emotions–sadness to laughter.

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Children are who the proceeds of my slum tour went to help. The two men who operate Volunteers for Sustainable Development – VFSD Africa put my money directly into the school or orphanage they operate.

Salim, VFSD founder

Salim, VFSD founder

After speaking with these guys, I wished they had a way to receive money from abroad.

Now they do.

American Anita Gray, another individual moved by her tour through Bwaise, has taken the initiative to start VFSD-USA. Thanks to her efforts, anyone can now give via paypal to help the Bwaise children identified by VFSD as living most at risk.

Pictures of the children they help

Pictures of the children VFSD helps


To direct your funds to sponsor a specific child, go to this site.


Before traveling to Uganda, I had spent most of 2014 at Magulilwa Area Secondary School in central Tanzania.


Here, we’d crank on the generator each night for three hours, and I’d teach these adolescents learned how to turn on a computer, how to type, and eventually, how computers can be used to connect with others.


Secondary school in Tanzania (roughly the equivalent to US school grades 7-10) remains a rare luxury. Most students end their formal education at 11 years old. This fact inspired Evaristo Sanga, native of Magulilwa village, to do something.

Able to come to the US for college from the sponsorship of a Lutheran missionary, Evaristo graduated with a degree in computer science and now works as a software engineer. He started Change it Forward Tanzania (CIFT) in Minneapolis to raise money for a secondary school back in his village.

Students testing for high school acceptance

Students testing for high school acceptance


Eight years later, over 200 students currently attend Magulilwa school, and it operates largely on the donations from people in the US. If you’d like to be one of these people or just to learn more, visit this website.


And if you have any questions or want to talk about the school in Tanzania or the slums of Uganda, I’m always eager to chat. I can think of few things more worthy of conversation than how to offer children a chance at a good life.

I hope everyone reading this has a chance to experience the glow and growth of giving.

Fighting Sioux, Lake Calhoun, the Confederate Flag: Symbols Serving Symbolic Battles

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” -Juliet

A name is a word or term used for identification.

A name is arbitrary. Whether my parents called me Brandon or Brendan or Brayden or Romeo, I likely would be the same man I am today. But what if they named me Abdul?

Ah, then things change because of the meaning we attach to the word.

Abdul is symbolic of something — a darker skin tone, a certain religion, another geographic region.

Visual symbols themselves are also arbitrary, until they are not. If the Nazis used the “peace” symbol, then today that would be the mark of evil, according to many people.

There is a lot of talk and controversy in the US these days about names and symbols and the need to change them. (It shouldn’t be taken for granted that the call for these changes are representative of all or even most of the country. Rather, it is a vocal minority that determines what is socially acceptable. Nonetheless, the conversation is taking place — so I add to it.)

Let’s start with a couple of recent examples:

On August 30, the Federal Government ordered that Mt. McKinley’s name be changed to Denali. Denali is the term used by the Native Americans in that region. So what’s the big deal? Well, besides the cost to change all the place names on maps and souvenirs, and besides any claims that the process by which it was changed skirted the rules, to most in America tradition may be the biggest hurdle to their acceptance, as Mt. McKinley is how they’ve always known the mountain. Meanwhile some Ohioans are sore because the name held meaning — after their native hero, President William McKinley.

Closer to home, changing the name of the University of North Dakota’s college hockey team, the Fighting Sioux, has been an issue and battle for years. This name had meaning to the Grand Forks hockey fans who’ve been cheering the squad for generations. More significant, many of the local Sioux wanted to keep the name. But another Sioux tribe didn’t, and their desires won out with the added leverage of the NCAA.

Interestingly, the college is trying to find a replacement name, and the plurality of local fans don’t want a nickname at all, opting for “UND/North Dakota.” Perhaps this indicates the lack of importance in a name. Or maybe it’s indicative of how quickly people get used to a new name, as UND/North Dakota has been the mascot placeholder for the last few years.

In the end, of course, renaming the mountain or the hockey team isn’t that big of a deal. Humans have renamed cities and countries. Is it Myanmar or Burma? The Southeast Asian nation still goes by both names depending on who you ask. To the Burmese government, it’s Myanmar; to the ethnic Karenni minority from there, it’s Burma. To outsiders like myself, either word works because either sound refers to that chunk of land. Without symbolic meaning, the name is arbitrary.


It’s important to understand what a name truly conjures up in people’s minds, because inconsideration or inaccuracy in this regard can lead us to waste time and resources. If there’s an argument to be made to replace a mountain name with a Native word, and to remove a Native word from a college mascot, for the sake of respecting the desires of present day Native Americans, that seems reasonable. (Whether done out of respect or to show the world how righteous we are is another question.)

But then we have the lake in Minneapolis named after a man with racist ideas…

Lake Calhoun is that large, round, iconic body of water in Minneapolis around which people jog, bike, and play volleyball in the summer; and on which they ice fish in the winter. The idea that the word “Calhoun” in Minneapolis conjures up anything other than these and similar images/thoughts — that it is indeed named after a politician, let alone one who was racist — is held by practically no one. This truth is important in arguing for the significance of making a name change, because if no one knows the name’s origin, if no one holds this association, then changing the name changes nothing regarding symbolic matters of race relations, because “Calhoun” symbolizes only the lake it labels. To virtually everyone in Minneapolis, changing the name would serve only to confuse.

Removing the symbol of the Confederate flag makes more sense, because it has been used by people in conjunction with their racist beliefs. Yet even here, America has fallen susceptible to symbolic simplification.

It’s socially appropriate to equate the Confederate flag with racism just as most of America does with the swastika. But just a modest amount of global-cultural awareness reveals that the swastika is not defined by this one, Western-centric association.

Swastika Native American

Native American headdress


Temple in South Korea

Before the Nazis used the swastika, Native American peoples had—including the Sioux—as a symbol for the sun, the four directions, or the four seasons. And long before the Nazis, Asian peoples had used it in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism as a sacred symbol of future success. Hundreds of millions from India to Korea still do.

As demonstrated by the swastika, a symbol’s meaning can change. And a symbol can hold unique — even opposing — meanings concurrently.

Charleston church shooter, Dylan Roof, used the Confederate flag to symbolize his racist ideals. To country music band Alabama, the Confederate flag held no such connotation.

Cover for Alabama’s 1984 album, Roll On

Cover for Alabama’s 1984 album, Roll On

After the tragedy in Charleston, the response has approached zero tolerance for the Confederate flag, even to disallow historical video games about the Civil War. Similarly, there’s little room in America for Eastern interpretations of the swastika as evidenced by New York City ordering a Korean shopkeeper that he can’t sell his swastika-designed earrings.

Still, as symbols for hatred and death, it’s easy to understand why people want to stomp them out.


Somewhere in our species’ history, we evolved the ability to attach meaning to an object, picture, and eventually, a word. But more than the word “ball” identifies that bouncy sphere we play with, the ability to symbolize allows small things likes words and logos to encapsulate more meaning than meets the eye or ear. It’s efficient that one arbitrary design or sound can illicit so much. A symbol has the power to make us cheer, cry, or yell. It’s great to feel strongly. Philosopher Joseph Campbell argued this to be the purpose of life.

It’s also important, though, to not forget that symbols by themselves are nothing — and that our emotional placement into, and magnification from, them can lead us to dangerous places. Unconscious of a symbol’s effect leaves us susceptible to being led astray—from the benign (brand loyalty), to the severe (fueling our hate). And when used maliciously, words and symbols can help to destroy.

It’s tempting, then, to turn around and symbolize the Confederate flag and the swastika as convenient containers for racism. This way, if we get rid of them, we can watch racism follow. Symbols can serve as proxy (symbolic) battles of actual social problems.

For this, we need to find the middle ground.

There is good reason to want to see a reduction in the visibility of the Confederate flag, and I think it’s reasonable to suggest that those who use the flag or the swastika in unmalicious ways can temper their use in light of these cultural sensitivities.

But no one is hurting anyone in the name of Lake Calhoun.

In this trend to attack the titles and symbols that represent and cause social ills, we should be careful not to let these symbolic battles replace the ones that matter more and even have us see symbols that aren’t there. Otherwise, we miss taking action to help the ill we hope to improve.

The Jaw-Dropping Khmer Temples of Cambodia

Throughout earth’s history, there have existed mighty, regionally-isolated civilizations all over the world. These were beacons of organization, mathematics, and artistic expression. They were fated to fall, however, due to the peoples surrounding them, the members within them, and the state of warring and conquering they all stewed within.

One of these old kingdoms was located in South East Asia.

The Khmer Empire, whose descendants inhabit Cambodia today, had its flash-in-the-era-glass between 800-1300 AD. Before they resolved to the past, though, they created lasting impressions: incredible temples embodying their spirit which are now the proud symbols of a country and a people.

The Ancient Temples of Angkor are situated in north-central Cambodia, near the modern-day city of Siem Reap. My exploration and eye-opening time here brought about powerful themes of inevitability, permanence, nature, society, and religion. Off we go…

The Nature of the Temples:

In all, there are over 70 temples to visit, sprinkled throughout the former heart of this ancient civilization. Thirty or so are regularly visited and the most famous are clustered within 15km from Siem Reap, where I was staying. These include Angkor Wat (the biggest, most famous of all), Angkor Thom (the famed, walled city within ancient Angkor) and Ta Prohm (the temple with all the gnarly trees). $40 got me a three-day pass to visit all but the most far-out temples.

My first stop was Angkor Thom (sounds like “anchor tom”). From my hostel in Siam Reap, I rented an old, single-gear bicycle and pedaled the few kilometers to the temples. It was a warm day with clear skies. Exposed to this pleasantry, I made the correct choice to bike.

I approached the ancient city and was greeting with this:


The South Gate

1000 years ago it was just jungle and these giant faces looking down on the Khmer villagers. It’s a wonder to imagine being a peasant back then while approaching this gate. One would be inclined to believe in the divinity of their god-kings.

God-king's got his eye on you

God-king’s got his eye on you

Some of these faces could use a head, though.


I parked my bike on a nearby rack and walked through the gate. On the backside was the first sign of this comforting and fascinating blend that would be consistent throughout these temple explorations: nature’s interaction with the old man-made.

Earth and stone beneath your feet, providing a conductor to Mother Nature.

Earth and stone beneath your feet, providing a conductor to Mother Nature.

Indeed, rather than going straight into the temple city, I walked around it. A city wall half-swallowed by earth lined its border.


It was just me along these walls: jungle to one side, river to the other.

There was an immediate calm–a clear head and so the senses fully exposed to the “isness” around you in nature. And if the trees and water and earth didn’t arouse that sense of the natural, perhaps these creatures might:

Not afraid to stand up to me

Not afraid to stand up to me


The apes of the world truly add a link between us and the rest of the animals. Looking at them, handing them food, it’s an interaction that’s not human, but human-like.


I continued on my way…

Having started as the southern gate, I walked the length of the south wall, came to the western side, and then made it to the western gate.


Here, I entered Angkor Thom.

A thousand years will take it’s toll, and restoration is underway on some of the Khmer temples–this includes one here inside Angkor Thom. I came upon what is referred to as “the largest jigsaw puzzle in the world.”

Because of political tensions in the last century, one temple here was taken apart as part of a movement to remove historic artifacts. This destruction also included the records of this temple’s arrangement. So today, the architects are trying to put humpty-dumpty back together again–all 30,000 pieces.

Workers chipping away at the puzzle pieces

Workers chipping away at the puzzle pieces

On the backside of one of Angkor Thom’s temples, can you make out the giant Buddha?


A note on temple layout: They’re not big, domed buildings as you might expect, but more an arrangement of smaller temples-rooms with walkways connecting them. There’s a lot of open space. The largest temples (and some are enormous) have multiple levels, each a surface of walkways and temples-rooms. 

Within Angkor Thom are a few such temples, as well as other ancient buildings. But before I explored all those, I biked away from its north side to see another nearby temple, Ta Prohm.

Ta Prom hadn’t been taken apart like some structures of Angkor Thom. No, it had been maintained in a sense by nature–held in place by the growth of trees whose hold sometimes almost devoured the temples.

Its outer wall offered a good first example:


Somehow (who knows how many years ago) a tree seed sprouted atop this wall. And as it grew, its roots searched for more nutrients, travelling down the wall’s height. Anchored atop, the tree thrived.

Here’s a shot of Ta Prohm’s interior:


And here are more trees:



Whoa. Not like wood; more like muscle. Not like a tree, but like an animal.

Whoa. Not like wood; more like muscle. Not like a tree, but like an animal.



Nature is relentless. It’s not fast, but it’s relentless. To imagine Manhattan as a wilderness seems obscenely ridiculous, but it would happen if left alone. If not for prevention here, the wilderness here would have swallowed up much of these temples.

There’s an unsettling beauty to nature’s reclamation of these temples and the truth that it will take back everything that which we create from it. But there’s also a calm from the blending of nature and the man-made.

Both feelings are offered by the temples of ancient Khmer.

Dusk approached. So I biked back to my hostel. More temples awaited the following day.

Introducing Cambodia

Since I’m not currently traveling, I’m devoting the next several Sunday blogs to past treks. Today, I start a series about Cambodia. 

In February of 2011, during my Chinese New Year break from teaching English in Zhuhai, China, I flew south to this little–and little-known–country in Southeast Asia. Upon my return to China, I published a series of stories throughout that February and March about my ten jam-packed days in Cambodia.

This was my first piece, released February 23, 2011.


Introducing Cambodia


I hear ya, but this was part of the appeal–how little I knew about this country. And what I found out, and what you’re soon to see, is that Cambodia is a big little country. Between its north and south; ancient and modern; proud and tragic, it’s a rich offering.

It’s like that under-rated drama film that just didn’t capture wide public appeal: well-crafted, intriguing, a diamond-in-the-rough that has you leaving deeply affected. Cambodia’s big enough to offer a nice platter of experiences; it’s small enough to give you intimacy with its entirety. It’s a blend of subtle, treasured feelings: freshness and soul of its capital, history and spirit of the temples of Angkor, and the solitude and relaxation of its countryside.

Not surprisingly, I got a ton of great pics. Here are a few teaser shots for ya:







This nugget of a country is snuggled nicely between Vietnam and Thailand. Of course, the Khmer (the people who inhabit Cambodia) may not agree with the “snuggling” part as they’ve been beaten up by their larger, more powerful neighbors on and off for the last 1500 years.




People all over the world (in increasing numbers) come here mainly for two reasons: the ancient temples of Angkor in the north near Siem Reap and for the capital, Phnom Penh (sounds like “p’nom pen”), further south, which features the nightlife, market, and soul of the country–as well as souls of a recent past, those whose lives were lost during a nightmare-while-awake span of radical rule in the 1970′s.

My first leg on this journey ventured up north to the temples. I then slid southwest by boat down a river passing floating villages (yes, literally floating with floating schools, floating stores, floating churches). My destination at the end of this ride was the sleepy city of Battambang. After lounging there I finished up by heading back to where I started, the capital.

Along my journey there were caves, skulls, monks, crazy food, I crashed a wedding, pop-taught in a school, played with monkeys and crocodiles. And this is just light, surface stuff. By the time we’re through, you’ll have a nice grip on Cambodia. What’s more, you’ll walk away with the lessons that this land lends to those who pay a visit.

First thing I had to do when I landed was change into some shorts—it was warm! After doing so in the airport, I had to find a bus and get up to the city Siem Reap, where the Temples of Angkor have been patiently waiting for me for a cool 1000 years.

It was just me and another fella on the motorcycle taxi shuttle from the airport to the bus station. The stocky, tan young man was a Mexican-born resident of the US working for the World Bank. In trying to understand this country, my companion was a fitting one, for he could outline the economic/political realities for Cambodia today.

Just like you go to the bank to get a mortgage for a home, the World Bank is where Cambodia goes to get a loan for a highway project. It’s how the developing world develops. I wondered why there needs to be such an operation–was a lending institution needed for America and Europe when they developed? But the institution operates to help those behind and having a difficult time catching up.

Naturally, this big-bucks operation plays out in mixed ways: smaller countries have sometimes borrowed foolishly, larger countries have then leveraged this debt for political favors. (Read Confessions of an Economic Hitman for some of the grim realities.) But the World Bank provides a potential way out and seems to be the way things will continue to operate. Interesting stuff, and maybe something we should all spend more time thinking about.

Because he’s an employee for the World Bank, my new friend had himself a UN passport. I didn’t even know such a thing existed, and it comes with perks like lower visa fees.

After our talk, he was able to recommended a place to stay in Siem Reap. What a resource!

I got to the bus station, and up to the temples I went.


Flat-n-fieldy here in the south.



Looked like they could use another loan from the Bank.

We observe a land like Cambodia and note its poverty, but I also realized that they lived in conditions that my grandparents enjoyed and endured. My grandfather probably ran around barefoot and in humble clothes like the boy above. Two generations later, America is an entirely different country. So why not Cambodia in twenty years?


After a day on the bus, we pulled into Siem Reap, a touristy Cambodian city–which means main streets with no traffic lights, electric lines hanging thick overhead like decoration, motorbikes abundant on the roads, and cheap hostels and restaurants along the sides.

Siem Reap

Siem Reap

After finding a hostel, I walked the sidewalks of this warm-temperature, warm-peopled environment. Then I engaged in a cheap thrill along the sidewalk that I had read about and would probably only do while traveling.


You ever hear about those fish that eat the dead skin off your feet?

They congregate as you hover about the water.

Then they go to town when you submerge.


Intensely tickling. But you get used to it.

When I was done, my feet felt pretty darn soft, and that’s good ’cause I’d be covering a lot of ground the next two weeks:











I hope you can join me to learn the stories around these photos.

’til next week,


If you want to end abortion, here’s how to do it

“These rallies are meant to intimidate and harass our patients, who rely on our nonprofit health centers for basic, preventive health care. The people behind these protests have a clear political agenda: They want to ban abortion, and block women and men from accessing basic reproductive health care.” -Eric Ferrero, vice president of Planned Parenthood


On Saturday, August 22, around 1000 prolife demonstrators gathered outside the newly-built Planned Parenthood clinic in Midway Neighborhood, St. Paul. On the quiet street behind the clinic, the tightly-packed crowd stood under a fair sky, with some holding up colorful, large-lettered, graphic-pictured signs.

Making my way within the crowd, I saw men and women of all ages and races with their spouses and children listening to the speakers.


Near the entrance of the clinic, a group of half a dozen Catholics bowed their heads, held rosaries, and quietly recited the Lord’s Prayer. Nearby, a teenage girl drew with chalk upon the sidewalk a baby in utero. These sights were peaceful and powerful.


Yet the most consistent message from the legislators, religious leaders, and activists addressing the audience was a legal one: defund Planned Parenthood Minnesota. And I had to wonder if this was the best way to fulfill their goal of ending abortion.


If you want to end abortion, it helps to understand the abortion debate.

In one corner we have those who see it as murder—who will not stop until abortion is illegal. And in the other corner we have those who see it as a woman’s right—who will fight to keep this right legal. Stopping murder vs. preserving women’s rights—pretty hard to find two more impassioned positions than these. And it seems that today in the US, these two sides represent ever-widening gaps between reasonableness and unreasonableness; decency and indecency.

An acquaintance who worked as a surgical assistant for a Planned Parenthood clinic in the Midwest shared with me her story last year:

One day at work, a coworker excitedly called her over to the operating room to look at the results of a procedure, known plainly as “products of conception.” This day’s was a rare case—aborted twins—and one of the “products,” my acquaintance recalled, was a tiny arm.

Unborn humans are now “products of conception,” and the recent series of undercover Planned Parenthood videos reveal organization leaders speaking of harvesting miniature organs as nonchalantly as a farmer does his produce. A writer at Slate.com argues that these byproducts can benefit research, so abortion is “an act of altruism.” And the New England Journal of Medicine has recently come to the defense of using human fetal carcasses for research. It’s wise to not waste the material, they say.

Yet we “waste” seized ivory by burning it, because we don’t want to encourage the market. To rely on a product is to encourage its procurement. They don’t want to see elephants killed. Today in America, unborn humans aren’t so revered. Indeed, there’s a general malaise, a passive acceptance of current abortion practices, that abortion is somehow not ending a human life and that it is somehow no big deal to dismember a six month-old human fetus. The term used to describe prolife supporters by many media outlets—”anti-abortionist”—is used as a pejorative term, because somehow it has become a bad thing to be against ending preborn human life.

As a result of the inhumanity exhibited in the recent Planned Parenthood undercover videos, prolife supporters want more than ever to use the hammer of law to stomp out this life-ending practice.

But that’s like trying to put out a fire with gasoline.

The threat of law is what has enabled things to get this bad.

Fears of being controlled, of women’s rights being under attack, are the seeds for today’s inhumane behaviors and attitudes toward abortion. Attempts to use law plants these seeds.

For instance, the Ohio state government is currently discussing a bill to ban abortion when the sole reason for the procedure is that the fetus has been diagnosed with Down syndrome. The response from prochoice advocates—and much of the general public—has not been that these prolife politicians are heroes trying to save the lives of those with special needs. It’s that these lawmakers are “controlling women and denying them the ability to make the most important choice that they will ever face,” as one commenter writes.

These reactions occur every time a new abortion restriction is proposed not just because they literally do take away a freedom, but because while most prochoice supporters acknowledge the appropriateness of some restrictions on abortion, they also know that most prolife activists aim for a complete prohibition of the practice—necessitating such unsettling hypotheticals as arresting a desperate teenager who tried to end her pregnancy because she wasn’t ready to be a mother or didn’t want to face the stigma of being pregnant. Now she’s a murderer. As suddenly would be millions of other American women.

In a time when most of America is okay with the rights of abortion with limitations—including even 51% of Catholics—and where the majority of thought leaders and media figures are prochoice, abortion prohibition is impractical, perhaps even impossible. The idea of handcuffing that teenager is simply seen as a cultural back step.

Reacting to these threats, prochoice supporters don’t want to concede anything that could be used to benefit the anti-choice cause. And that leads them to dismiss the obvious: that abortion ends human life. Millions of abortions later, they need to justify their defense or apathy toward abortion by reclassifying preborn humans as subhuman, much like a soldier must do to his enemy combatants to justify his killing of them.

Besides the obvious moral issue of dehumanization, this is problematic because when people don’t see the fetus as human, it undermines the efforts to reduce abortions by taking the battle elsewhere, by appealing to the immorality of the procedure—and so, the benefit of supporting life. And this is exactly the method that ought to be used to get pregnant women to consider abortion alternatives. (And now is the time to adjust the strategy.)

As long as the battle for preborn life takes place in capital buildings and courtrooms, prochoice advocates will continue to believe that prolife advocates are backwards and anti-women, that Planned Parenthood fights for the rights of women; and as the quote at the top of the piece argues, that rallies such as the one in St. Paul are held to prevent basic health care.

We can decrease abortion by taking this argument away from them—by taking the battle elsewhere.


Just like not concerning oneself with the plight of millions overseas, much of the apathy toward abortion today is simply the result of a lack of exposure. (Google images of abortion aftermath, and it’s difficult to muster a defense for the practice.) And just like videotape today is putting the spotlight, and hopefully the brakes, on law enforcement abuse, so is footage and the internet allowing for the awareness of what normally happens behind the closed doors of abortion clinics.

On August 22, demonstrations similar to St. Paul’s were held at 320 Planned Parenthood locations across the country. This momentum should be used to try and put a dent in this purposeful ending of human life. But the effort has to be done right:

Leave current abortion laws where they stand, appeal to people’s hearts and minds, and reach out to help.

Show people the truth of abortion. (We don’t need law to recognize the immorality of killing our own offspring.) Showcase those whose mothers chose life when tempted by abortion—this life which would have been erased in a moment. And then, divest any resources used to try and make abortion illegal and invest them into services to help needy expecting mothers, to encourage them to see the life through to delivery. Look beyond law. Offer a hand, not handcuffs.

The evening of September 4, Pope Francis starred in an ABC 20/20 special. The Catholic leader greeted several American audiences via telecast. For an audience in Los Angeles, a single mother of two girls stood facing the screen showing the wide-eyed, expectant Pope Francis. She humbly and tearfully held her two daughters standing with her as she shared about their struggles in a homeless shelter.

After she spoke, the Pope responded at length, lauding her courage—and then the decision to raise her daughters.

“You could have killed them inside your womb, and you respected life,” he said. “You respected the life you were carrying inside you…”

The first move to sew the impasse of the abortion debate needs to be made by prolife supporters. And it needs to be made in similar spirit as the Pope: highlight the beauty of choosing life and offer support to help it come into the world.

This move is a hybrid stance of prolife and prochoice.

While I know this will make many prolife supporters bristle, allowing prochoice advocates room to breathe on this issue will allow them to be more open to admit the ugliness in those operating rooms. Grant women the freedom to choose, and see their choice increasingly made in favor of life. And watch more people in general become prolife, because now it’s not anti-choice, pro-religion, or anti-Planned Parenthood. It’s just common, moral sense.

Since 1973, the year of Roe vs. Wade went into effect, the number of human lives aborted in the US is fast approaching the total number killed worldwide in all of WWII (55 million to 60 million, respectively).

Refocus efforts on tactics that can effect change. This is how we end abortion.

Lessons from the Dance Floor


They say life is a dance. Funny that some lessons are learned on the dance floor…

When I go to a salsa dance class, the routine is for the men and women to make two large circles, one inside the other with pairs matched up. After working on a few steps, the instructor asks either the men or women to rotate to try with a new partner.

So for one minute I’ll work on the “cross body lead with inside turn” with a tall, athletic woman. A minute later the instructor yells “follows rotate!”, and a short, petite woman comes over. After her, it’s a spunky senior citizen.

Hearing the descriptions of these various partners, one might jump to conclude who they’d prefer to partner with. But I’ll tell you that for the most part, I have no clue with whom I’ll match well.

That 60+ year old lady in my class moves with me like she knows my thoughts. Dancing is smooth, in sync, and we attempt a new step with gusto. And that tall, athletic woman? She’s a great dancer. But not with me. Stuttered and awkward.

As the lead, I take the blame, but the truth is that there’s an element of chemistry that we aren’t in control of–whether dance or any other interaction. Dance is analogous to all our interpersonal relations. We like to have control–and we assume we do–and so blame ourselves when dancing or work or a date isn’t going well.

Without this realization that some people will click with us more than others, it’s easy to get down on ourselves when others don’t like us. This was made apparent in a comical way on Seinfeld. The obsessive, erratic, and insecure character George Costanza is talking with his girlfriend Karen about an acquaintance of his who he fears dislikes him for some unknown reason. He had just done her a favor to get her to like him, but he was upset because she didn’t offer him a thank you.

GEORGE: I wanna know what I did to this woman.

KAREN: What difference does it make? Who cares if she doesn’t like you? Does everybody in the world have to like you?


GEORGE: Yes! Yes! Everybody has to like me. I must be liked!

Lack of wisdom in this regard sprouts insecurity–as well as stress of wishing everyone does like you.

With some we’ll hit it off; with others we won’t. Until I learned this from dance, I thought someone not responding well to me meant I had a problem. The realization that that is not the case is a relief.

And how fun it is when we find that random person with whom we just “click”!

Travel Flashback: Studying Martial Arts in the Mountains of Central China

Four summers ago, I trekked central China following ten months of teaching English. My last week and a half was spent in the mountains of Hubei province. Here is one of the stories I wrote about the martial arts school. If you’d like to read more, see the link at the bottom.


I attended a music camp back in high school. We rehearsed with this involved, focused presence, only a few days to master our music for a performance at week’’s end. These rehearsals were different than regular band class during the school year. There, we were more likely to clock-watch and wish for the hour to end so we could get away. Once that bell rang, “”whew!, finally.”

I think we were mostly glad because rather than having to put forth our attention and energy into the music, we could drift off into the lazy daze of horse play and daydream.

The difference between that exciting, intense camp and the boring, drawn-out school year is a degree of time. Knowing that we had just a few days at camp made us present and allowed us to wring every moment out of each hour. The school year, by contract was, well, a year. So it seems the tidbits of time, the portions that are allotted, are often better used. Think about how focused and present you get when you go to a retreat, camp, or seminar.

But what then of the prospect of an open-ended amount of time, like say, the prospect of our life?! Well, shoot. Who hasn’t idled away an afternoon (or longer) awaiting the evening, weekend, or upcoming vacation? Who hasn’t measured their schedule in weeks and months and forgotten about the imminent hours? So in the spirit of wringing life out of each moment, I shook off my initial hesitation and got started with the tai chi training here on a mountaintop in Hubei province. My trainer led me outside:

This cement slab across the street was where much of the training took place.

And this is what I worked on again and again….and again:

If you watch, tai chi mimics actual fighting moves that are slowed way down. It’s a meditative challenge, and it’s said to be healthy. Here’s a link to the Wikipedia page if you’re intrigued: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tai_chi_chuan

After my solo lesson, it was group time. Here were some other students and teachers at my school:

Let me also introduce you to the scenery that added to the ambiance in ways only thought possible in movies or imagination:

This was the actual view doing tai chi from this spot.

I was amazed at the how “kinetic” they were. So with it…so conscious of their movement. We in the West exercise, but we like to do it with headphones and even conversation. These guys seemed to truly be one with their body.

Here’s me giving it a whirl:

This was one of our trainers

And here’s where we were on the map:

This was the environment.

Here were some interactions:

It turns out, that cement slab we practiced upon was actually the roof of a mountainside shelter for other trainers and students. One time I heard some commotion over the edge below:

Tai chi landscaping

I hadn’t shoveled dirt in a while and found a spare shovel so dug in. No biggie. But the trainer down there (the sword guy from the picture above) interrupted my work to show me how its done. He took the shovel and blurted, “Ha!”, the shovel prepared for battle, “hoo!”, it was thrust into the pile, and “hwa!” it removed with a load of Earth.

On one hand, seeing this devotion to their practice wasn’t all that surprising–I mean, it was a tai chi school. Just the same, it provided this striking example of taking this ordinary chore and perfecting it. He didn’t think about how to get it done faster or easier, but how to get it done better. Me? I started shoveling and daydreaming. Heck, if I had a relevant thought, it was “where’s the backhoe?” It seemed to be an illustration of a stereotyped, but nonetheless evident difference between classic East and West thought and action.

I took a walk into the valley forest with five others one afternoon to gather firewood and kindling. Bagging twigs and pine needles was a problem for one young woman because they cut her hands. She remedied the issue by taking two five-foot sticks and using them as giant chopsticks to pinch and lift the pile.

She wasn’t getting too far just as I don’t eating rice with chopsticks. But my fork-using, Western mind saw two rakes and used them to bundle together the pile like salad tongs. It was much quicker and they referred to me as being “so clever”. Well, I just eat different, I thought.

Then as we bundled the wood, we needed a tight packing to hold them together up the narrow and hilly path. Out-jutting branches had to be snapped, and one was proving to be difficult despite the kung-fu trained kicking the men were attacking it with. I saw a large rock and wedged it under the branch. Like a lever, the force of my undisciplined, less-effective kick was enough to snap it. They were grateful for my cleverness once again. I was elated that I could actually be helpful and contribute something.

It seemed they thought how to better use their body while I looked for alternatives to my body. These are generalizations, of course, but in the general we see trends, and in the individual people and individual examples, we see illustrations. I couldn’t help but wonder about the connections they played in the development of the East and the West. And best of all, it quaintly displayed the benefits in store when strengths are offered from different cultures. If even just gathering wood.

After work, we took a break:

Two young boys, the only ones at the school, were always together.

Meanwhile, the sword-shovel trainer stayed relentless:

You may wonder why his shirt is so dirty.

Here’s why:

He had another student stepping on his lower back, forcing those hips into the ground.

I’d regularly see him do handstands against a building with fists against the concrete. He was pretty intense.

In evenings, we’d go for a walk and take it easy. Less a participant than an observer, I watched the students and trainers socialize and sing while the head master entertained with music:

…well, tried to sing :)

From teamwork to culture to martial arts, these two days—though full of monotonous tai chi—were incredibly rich with lessons.

With all your heart, mind, and body, enjoy the moments you are living.


For more stories about my experiences on the mountaintop, as well as countless other, thought-provoking stories from all over China, pick up a copy of my multimedia eBook, which features around 50 videos of footage from these experiences–hosting a Chinese New Year celebration, teaching children English, visiting a fish/animal market, a protest, and many more.  


Meet Khu Oo Reh, Karenni Leader


Meet Khu Oo Reh.


Mr. Reh is the Vice President of a leading Karenni political group.

“Karenni?” you ask.

The Karenni (and their ethnic cousins the Karen) is an ethnic group from the country Burma (also known as Myanmar) in Southeast Asia.


They are distinguishable from from the Burmese in language, script, custom, and other attributes. And clashing with the Burmese government since the country’s independence from Britain in 1948, many Karenni fled to safety in Thailand–much like the Hmong have done from Laos in recent decades.

Also like the Hmong, the school I work for–Community School of Excellence in St. Paul–tailors a specific program for the Karenni. In fact, the institution boasts one of the only Karenni-language programs in Minnesota to go along with our significant Karenni student population.

While Mr. Reh’s main purpose coming to the US is to meet with the US State Department to update officials on the peace process between the Burmese and the Karenni, he’s also touring a few Karenni population centers in America. One of those is St. Paul.


He arrived to our school around 9:00am. It was still cool, and I noted his sweater. While yet outside for handshakes, he explained that “I got it for the weather here.”

He entered and greeted an assembly of all 130 Karenni students at our school.


He spoke about how proud he was to see Karenni students doing well in America. He asked questions and several students shared their thoughts and experiences. Many of these students–particularly the middle schoolers–were born in Thailand and have had to adjust to America as refugees.


After the assembly, Mr. Reh saw how these students were doing first hand by the classrooms.


Then, he joined school administration for lunch.

He updated us on the peace process he came to the US to report. Four years in, he says they are about to sign something with the regime in Burma.

“Do you hope for your own country?” I asked.

While many Karenni wish for their own state–which Mr. Reh explained they had until the Burmese military invaded following British’s exit–he answered that they will settle back within the borders of Burma.

Burma has the leverage. Military power, plus the fact that the refugee camps where many of the Karenni live are rough. For an idea of what a refugee camp might look like, here’s a photo of our Superintendent Mo Chang showing him hallway painting of Hmong refugee camp in Thailand.


“Where we come from in refugee camp, we have limited resources,” Mr. Reh said at our table. “Without getting in touch with outside world. It is exciting to see Karenni people in foreign countries.”

He continued, “My pleasure visiting St. Paul and my Karenni fellows. This morning is my great honor to visit this school. I welcome a number of Karenni children to learn English and have a good education here.”

Though life in the US has more opportunity, he said many Karenni “are nervous because of culture shock…they are unable to communicate with outsiders.”

He says the Karenni are “humble, simple, shy. They have to change such a nature to get along with others.”

Well, they at least have to overcome this to relate and collaborate with those of another culture. Mr. Reh himself had to overcome this, he said. He was 15 when starting to learn English at a school in Burma–which he eventually arrived to after finding his estranged father by walking the jungles, he said. Then he rose as leaders do, to become a spokesperson for the Karenni people still largely at the camps in Thailand, looking for a nation to call home.

Today, many are finding one here in the US.

Saturday was their annual Dee Ku festival also held at my school in St. Paul.


Mr. Reh was the special guest. There was traditional dress, dance, music, food, and all the highlights that make up a culture–and an identity for these “shy” people from Southeast Asia; (maybe this why so few people in America know about them.)




Just as I was blessed to get to know some adolescent Karenni whom I chaperoned during May’s Thailand trip, so am I fortunate to have met Mr. Khu Oo Reh, a man who can teach us about the blessings of a hot shower and who exemplifies leadership as a person helping his people find a home.


Life is a Moving Target

It’s not uncommon that when I have an idea for an article, the idea will take awhile to turn into a finished product. I may not always be as patient as I should to appreciate this process, but I nonetheless understand that sometimes things take time.

What does admittedly get to me is when I hold onto an idea for an unnecessary amount of time–waiting for the “right” time, some fabled perfect moment to pitch the idea or post the article to my website.

Held back by concerns of wasting the idea, I choke off my output. And sometimes that perfect time never comes–now that’s waste. And/or I’m sitting on ideas that plug up my pipeline of work.

We’ve all heard “strike while the iron’s hot.” I’m learning the reality that the iron is always hot. Action needs to be a constant. Even inaction can be a productive action: sometimes you need to save something for later. That’s calculation, not hesitancy.

To stop to wait because you’re afraid to act, to then assume life will maintain that open window for that article idea or the inspiration for that Facebook post; that the person you want to ask out will continue to be there or that the opportunity to travel or work or have a special experience “will be there next time” or that “there’ll always be next year” isn’t (always) the case.

Because life is a moving target.

This reality of “trying to keep up”–with inspiration, opportunities, etc.–may come across as unsettling, but the fact is: life is change and motion. If you’re not regularly cleaning your home, dust will accumulate. If you don’t flow with life, you’re not in the rhythm of its song. Different parts of the world do play at different tempos, mind you. So find yours. And the flip side to being off-tempo is that when you’re in sync, life can unfold like clockwork.

Jobs, experiences, relationships come and flow.

Here’s a recent example: I was at the Minnesota State Fair on Labor Day, September 7. I saw a band with a great saxophone player and I shared it on Facebook with my buddy Willie who’s also a great saxophonist.

Later that day at the fair, I was marveling at the sheer number of people who came out that day. They call the Minnesota State Fair the “Great Minnesota Get Together.”



And within all these people, who do I see walking toward me?

Yep. Willie.


“Willie!” I say, “I just tagged you in a Facebook post!”

“Yeah, I saw that!” he responded.

“I also went on your Facebook page,” I continued, “because I wanted to know when your next gig was.”

“Funny you should say that,” he replied and pulled out a card for an upcoming performance. He’ll be playing with Soul Beautiful on October 3rd, and the other band that night will be Latin band Alma Andina.

Now of course, this is a rather simple, easy-to-accept opportunity. The chance to travel to a foreign country or the inspiration to create a work of art requires more effort and adjustment.


But I could hesitate to go see Willie this night–if I don’t find a friend to join or I don’t want to pay the cover charge or if I choose to worry about any other number of “more important” things I should be doing instead that night. In short, I can tell myself that there’ll be a better time to see my friend play, who I’ve been wanting to see for months.

But I plan to go on October 3rd, to take advantage of life’s movement to offer me this chance.

Clockwork like this invigorates me–to know that life will unfold as it should without me having to arrange it all. I hope there’ll be dancing at the concert. And I hope you can dance to the beat of your life’s tempo.


Highlights from the Minnesota State Fair: Newspaper Museum and More Food, Animals, and Entertainment


I arrived to photograph my school’s involvement with a Hmong cultural event.

I stayed to see all the other spectacles at the Minnesota State Fair.

By 1:00, I had seen the fried fruit, the radio station “reporting live from the fairgrounds,” the United States Marines offering free pull-up tests (Free?! What a deal!), and of course, all the dancing, artwork, and egg rolls from Carousel Park, where Hmong MN Day at the Minnesota State Fair took place. I shared all this on Thursday’s post (the first half of this State Fair series) and wrapped it up with a look into the future…by putting on some goggles and going underwater. This was my experience with the State Fair’s virtual reality exhibit.

Once done marveling at the latest technology, I went looking for a little museum that offered a blast from the past–or rather, an imprint of it.


I hadn’t even gotten to the Minnesota State Fair when I learned of this attraction. A young woman with light complexion, thick glasses, and hair pulled back sat next to me on the city bus. She reminded me of the stereotypical school librarian if not for her casual dress.

Fittingly, she told me about the Minnesota Newspaper Museum where she volunteered, a one-room showing at the Fair that featured printing machines from before the days of photocopying, from when men wore fedoras, when the ingenuity of the analog gear, lever, spring, and piston animated huge machines of metal to roll out reams of newspapers announcing the assassination of William McKinley, the Stock Market Crash, and Germany’s invasion of Poland.

This museum revealed a drastically different era of newspapers and bookmaking, the craft of the printed word, of getting the word out. And it was right around the corner from those virtual reality headsets.

I entered to see the back of the wide room taken up by those huge Dr. Seuss/Rube Goldberg-like contraptions. Black and mighty, they clinked, clanked, and rolled out the news of the day with volunteers in blue aprons tending to them–including the young woman who introduced me to this attraction.




As she and the others worked and answered questions for us visitors, I looked at the what lay between us and the machines: displays of movable type, the lead-based “stamps” of words laid out in the mirror-image of a newspaper page.


The above “stamp” prints out the below page:


After examining this for a second, it dawned on me that newspapers aren’t books. By that I mean you didn’t just make a set of page stamps and use them indefinitely as you would have for a Dickens novel. Newspapers–the big ones at least–are printed daily. So the arranged words had to be remade everyday. And when I say “remade,” I don’t just mean rearranged. I mean they literally recreated each column line stamp with the recycled lead.

The machine they used to make these lead stamps was the machine shown at the top of the photos above. On it, the worker would type out the words on the machine’s keyboard:


And the machine would spit out a stamp that was about the size of a thick, half-sized credit card. Line dozens and dozens of these up, and you have the mold (three pictures above) from which to rub ink onto a blank page. Another machine rolls and stamps these blank sheets–the second machine shown above.

Finally, take those pages and put them into a folding machine–the third machine–and we have ourselves a newspaper.

Digital creation and photocopying sure makes things easier, cheaper, and cleaner. But such a drastic change in how a job gets done necessitates the replacement of an old, also beautiful, culture.

I appreciated the effort it took to spread the word in the decades past.

Here’s some footage of the machines in action:


After the Newspaper Museum, it was back to the usual at the State Fair.

First, a wild side:



Then some fun-n-games:




People lining up to buy lottery tickets


Finally, we had more food:


The cookies above have got to be the most popular food at the fair. People didn’t just stand in line; they stood in a calm, seemingly-unmovable mass that must have had some waiting for an hour or more.

This counter-culture restaurant had plenty of room, however:


At 2pm, there was the daily parade, featuring my school’s dance team as well as many other participants.



By this late afternoon Labor Day, I took one last walk through the fair. Making my way through the heart of the fairgrounds, I just had to stop and marvel at the amount of people.


They call it the “Great Minnesota Get-Together.”


I recommend you come see it yourself someday. It boasts the best aspects of Minnesota that can fit into a 30 acre plot.

Perhaps you’ll like to avoid the weekend and holiday crowds, however.

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