Who Dat?

Back in the 80s, long before the X-Games existed, Tom Haig traveled the world as an extreme athlete. He visited more than 50 countries as an international high diver, doing multiple somersault tricks from over 90 feet.

That life came crashing down one Sunday morning in 1996. While training on his mountain bike, he smashed into the grill of a truck and became paralyzed from the waist down. But less than a year later he completed a 100-mile ride on a hand-cycle and traveled by himself to Europe and the Middle East.

Since then he has continued to travel the world as a consultant, writer and video producer. He spent six months launching a Tibetan radio station in the Himalayas and shot documentary shorts on disability in Bangladesh, France, Albania, Ghana and most recently Nepal.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

'The Real' Africa Pt. 2

So to begin with this is post No. 100 on this on again, off again blog. I figured it's best to spare you all my ranting about job hunting so those months when I'm sitting for hours at a coffee shop sending out resumes I think it's best you spend your time reading something else. But while I'm on the road it's a good yuk, so I would really like to thank the 50 to 100 of you who read it nearly every time I publish. In total I'm up to 18,000 reads so I'll keep going as long as there's something out of the ordinary to report. 

After the busy day in Tamale I made contact with John Alo, the director of the Garu Community Based Rehabilitation Center (GCBR). Garu is a village of 15,000 people located ten kilometers south of Bakino-Faso and ten kilometers west of Togo. It's 135 miles north of Tamale but the drive is broken up into two parts. You can easily cover the first 100 miles in two hours. This takes you to the village of Sakogu which is located on a 400 ft tall escarpment looking out over the plains that eventually lead to the Sahara. Once we started descending the escarpment, the roads become nearly impassable at points with creeks, boulders and huge chunks of cracked pavement reducing progress to a crawl. The last 35 miles also take close to two hours - and there is virtually no traffic on these roads. Only the occasional supply truck and random cyclists.

Along the way the villages transform from cement brick buildings to complexes consisting of several circular red-clay huts with grass roofs. Colorful, nearly psychedelic, traditional African dress is the norm with women carrying goods in baskets on their heads. The main streets are lined with shops selling everything from TV remotes to truck parts; dresses to cell phones. Nearly all these stores can sell you a small bag of cold water and there is usually a table where you can sit down, relax and gossip.

When we finally arrived in Garu Mr. Alo took me to the guest house operated by GCBR. This being the most remote location I've ever been to, I assumed I would be relegated to a sweaty bunk room far from an accessible toilet. But the GCBR takes disability advocacy very seriously and they have painstakingly made their guest house 100 percent accessible. Everything from the ramp, to the bathroom to the shower proved no obstacle to me at all. On top of that they had a 50" flat screen hooked up to a satellite dish  with 40 channels including a 24-hour soccer channel (my guest house in Accra had only 4 channels of broadcast TV). My room had a huge raft of a bed encased in a mosquito net. Malaria is quite prevalent in the North and most of the bites come at night while people are asleep. Contrary to myth, Ghanian mosquitos are not gigantic aggressive winged demons with 8-inch long stingers. Rather they are small and soft and you barely feel them or their stingers - which, of course make them much more deadly. Also the stings last only a few hours so it's very possible that you are stung w/out ever knowing it. 

I had a bit of time to kill before going to the local chapter meeting of the Garu Society of Disabled Persons so I went out into the neighborhood to shoot some standups. A person in a wheelchair is not an oddity here, but a big white guy in a wheelchair talking to a camera will draw quite a big of attention. While I was shooting a standup against a thatched roof house I noticed a group of about 50 blue-uniformed 3rd graders had stopped in their tracks trying to figure out what had just invaded their village. I turned off my camera, looked at them with a big smile and yelled, "Hello!"

This apparently was the signal for them to rush over and assume control of my chair. In seconds I was being whisked away with the kids chanting anything I said. If I said, "One-Two-Three" they would in turn scream "One-Two-Three!" If I howled like a wolf, they would howl like a wolf. I got them into a nice round of Johnny B. Goode as well as Franklins Tower. Mr Alo and his assistant Isaac were returning from their morning rounds when they came across me being escorted back to the childrens school where they wanted to show me to their teacher. Mr. Alo pulled up to me in his truck, and with a big smile said, "Well I guess you found your way to the clinic." Unbeknownst to me the clinic was right across the main road from the school. He then said something in the local language to the kids who dispersed and went back to their classroom. Then he told me that I may be one of only 3 or 4 white people they see all year - and certainly the first white person they've ever seen in a wheelchair.

Later in the afternoon Mr. Alo took me to the meeting of the Garu Society of Disabled Persons meeting where I was invited to speak. I told them about my film, but I was much more interested in hearing about their issues. Of course equipment is a big problem but most of them had solved their issues with crutches and hand bikes. Most of them suffered from birth defects and not spinal cord injury. So they could manage the short distances on crutches, but used hand bikes for getting from place to place. Eventually I saw more than a dozen hand bikes in this small community - all thanks to the work of the GCBR.

They also wanted to introduce themselves to me and tell me what they did with the organization. Again the depth of the Ghanian Society of Persons w/Disabilities blew me away. This group, in the most remote part of the country, was directly tied in to the national organization and was receiving the two percent of the annual local govt. budged that the Ghanian Persons with Disabilities Act insures them. The money is spent on education and mobility giving most of these guys not only a job, but a way to get there and back. Their leader was a blind school teacher who has also won two terms in the local assembly Oddly they seemed to be even more proud of the fact that he has two wives, who they were quick to point out,  are not disabled!  Cultural changes come slow.  I'll take the disability advocacy for now and I'll leave the polygamy and women's rights issues up to some other group.

I had no more appointments left and a big long day in the morning so I watched some local football, had a beer at a local bar (actually got a great interview w/a male nurse at the bar!), then went back to the guest house to turn in early. Ghanians are very early risers. 5 a.m. is the norm and it is not unusual to schedule 7 a.m. events.

I woke up around 5 and rolled into the main room to watch the news only to discover the flat-screen was missing. I assumed one of the teachers needed it for a presentation, but that was not the case. It got pinched! In the middle of the night with a full house full of guests! So instead of meeting the GCBR staff, Mr. Alo and I were talking to local police. The house was locked and there was no forced entry so for sure it was an inside job - which made me quite paranoid about my camera equipment!

Eventually we made it to the GCBR center where the meeting started with a 30-minute prayer session. Ghana is HYPER Christian and everything starts with at least a prayer. After that I spoke to the staff about the film and how they could help me. We broke the meeting and I got to go on rounds with Isaac and two other staff members. For the next 3 hours they took me all over the region to interview disabled people who have been helped by the GCBR. I interviewed students, street sellers, farmers and garment workers, all with moderate to severe disabilities, all who now have a trade and earn a living.

But the most impressive was an elderly woman who even when she sat on her tiny useless legs was less than three-feet tall. Her daughter suffers from the same congenital condition and up until five years ago they only made enough money off their small farm to feed themselves. But with a micro-loan from the GCBR they bought sewing equipment and started making dresses. Neither of them are tall enough to take measurements, but all they need to do is size you up with their naked eye, cut fabric and start sewing. Their technique and quality are beyond reproach and now they both are making big profits and have more orders than they can fill. They too, have a hand bike so they can pack their finished goods in to a sack, climb onto the bike and take their wares to market.

The two-day stay in Garu was way too short. Oddly enough of all the places I've visited it was THE MOST accessible. Because everything was on the ground floor I could get into every house, business, school and government building. I was afraid before I left that I would need lots of help to get around, but in fact it was here where I was most independent.

Mr. Alo and I drove the 4 hours back to Tamale in the afternoon stopping off at his parents house for tea and sandwiches. Instead of taking the main road, Mr. Alo told me he had a short cut that avoided some of the big crowded villages during rush hour. We turned off on a dirt road and spent an hour driving through corn and melon fields. Occasionally we passed through tiny hamlets where young children locked eyes with me and often times screamed for their parents to take a look. Mr. Alo told me it was very possible I was the first white man they'd ever seen.

So from a land of no pavement and grass huts, I'm off to Beijing where the hyper-urbanization and caustic pollution will most likely take a chunk of my soul.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Going to 'The Real' Africa Pt. 1

(Again I apologize for the lack of photos and videos, but believe me, when I get home I'll make you all watch my vacation slides)

This is my third trip to Africa, but not until this week did I really get to see the way most Africans live. In 1989 I spent eight hours in Tangiers, got held up three times and went running back to Spain w/my tail between my legs. Then in 1997 I spent a week in Cairo, which was my first solo trip into a third world environment in a wheelchair. (btw - 'Third World' has been labeled a derogatory term by many and is supposed to be replaced by 'Developing Nation' or 'Low Resource Environment'. But here in Ghana they say, 'Third World')   I took an all-night bus from Tel Aviv and would have been totally screwed had it not been for the help of a German and a Cypriot who carried me up stairs to a guest house not far from Tahrir Square where the Arab Spring riots took place. Seeing the Pyramids was amazing, but I'll take a pass on the muggings.

This trip to Ghana, however is getting closer to what I'd envisioned all my life. First and most obviously EVERYONE here is black. And I'm not talking about a huge majority - I'm talking EVERYONE. In three weeks, aside from airports and hospitals I have seen exactly four white people. Two of them were French expats working an agriculture gig in Garu, and the other two were professional football players I saw yesterday at a charity football match at the Accra Sports Stadium (Michael Ballack and a Danish striker who's name I can't find) It's the most homogenous population I've ever experienced in my life. Even Denmark and Taipei have black communities. If there is a white community in Ghana, I missed it.

But even here in Accra, the capitol, everyone kept telling me I had to head north to see the real Africa. One thing I know about living in third world environments is that the cities are all pitts and the countryside can be magical. So it was with great pleasure that I booked a flight to the northern city of Tamale, about a four-hour drive from the Bakino-Faso border. But booking the flight was not as simple as going on-line and buying a seat. I had to go to the airport and find out which carrier would take someone in a wheel chair. Antrak, the first airline I spoke with flat-out refused because they didn't own an airplane lift. Starbow, the next company  in line also refused, but this is where we (my Ghanian contact Gifty, a physical therapist,  was with me) started pressing and telling them what they were doing was illegal. They asked me if I would be flying with a doctor (very common request for disabled persons at third world airports) to which I scoffed and Gifty stepped in assuring them I was quite healthy.

Eventually they allowed me to buy a ticket, but they told me I had to climb up the stairs of the plane by myself. When I showed up for the flight, I saw the lift that takes disabled passengers up to the big jumbo jets parked just outside the gate. When I asked why we didn't use it, I was told it was owned by the big airlines and it would cost $300 a flight to use. So instead I climbed up the stairs on my butt and slid along the floor of the plane to the first open seat in coach. Thank god I had good elastic in my sweat pants!

It was a short one hour flight, but the option of taking a bus would not have been very practical. It's a 30-hour trip that in recent years has been menaced by bandits who take everything  - including the bus - and leave the passengers stranded. Lately the police have been waiting for groups of 100 cars to cross through the jungle and they move them in one slow caravan. So instead of riding magically through the jungle you are in a 20-hour traffic jam.

Tamale has a dinky airport with a huge runway, so although it can take big planes (doubles as an airforce runway) the actual airport has virtually no services. There is one computer, one clock and one big scrren TV showing BBC. And of course, no handicap lifts. So once more on my arse, along the plane, down the stairs and into my chair.

My contact in Tamale was Dr. Dziffa Ahadzi, a resident at the Tamale teaching hospital. I grabbed a cab into town and met her while she was giving an exam to an elderly patient. As soon as she was finished she gave me an extensive tour of the 'old' hospital which was in it's last days as a brand new and very impressive 2000-bed hospital would be opening on Friday. Nearly everything in the huge hospital complex was accessible so I rolled around exploring, while Dr. Ahadzi attended to other patients and students.

Now this 'rolling around' was quite simple but only because I am now rolling on a relatively new wheelchair. The chair I brought with me from Portland experienced yet another melt down, but this time it was quite serious. My left front wheel was continually loosening and impeding the large wheel, as well as forcing me nearly out of the chair. Gifty and I were directed towards a welder who said he could do a spot weld and fix the problem. We took the chair to him, but I was unable to observe the process. When he came back several of the main pieces were snapped in half and he informed me he thought he had the wrong kind of torch (not one for aluminum). So I took the pieces back, bought a few washers and rigged up a solution that temporarily appears to be holding. But I did NOT want to travel deep into Africa on a gimpy chair. So Gifty found a reasonable substitute and I've been riding on a borrowed chair for about a week. It's quite wide making most bathrooms inaccessible, but it's really stable and I'm not afraid of falling out when I see a curb.

The new chair was also riding in a much more agreeable city. Tamale has very little traffic and the roads are well maintained and dry. For the first time since leaving France nearly a month earlier, I actually did a workout. If I ever come back for an extended stay it will certainly be in Tamale, not Accra.

Dr. Ahadzi found a guest house that was a bit pricey and not at all accessible, but for two nights it was fine. It also had an American TV channel on the cable so after dinner I planted myself in front of the tube and mindlessly watched NCIS and CSI.

In the morning, another doctor picked me up and took me to the lecture hall at the teaching hospital. I was on the morning lecture itinerary along with an ophthalmologist from New Jersey. The ophthalmologist opened up with some graphic slides of eye operations that although quite gruesome, drastically improved hundreds of lives. I was up next and spoke to the group of 70 medical students and ten doctors about the goal of the IRF and why Andy and I started it. I then went into a practical talk about what happens when you are the victim of a spinal cord injury. I've given this talk to medical students and physical therapists in the past. Oddly enough the PT's are well versed in SCI, but the med students know nothing more than the anatomy. The actual devastating effects to the patient including bowel, bladder and sexual function are all news to them. Usually I finish up with a couple of slides from India, Turkey or some difficult area for SCI patients. But seeing as I was in the most difficult country I'd ever been to, I decided to leave those slides out.

After lunch I got to speak to a very dedicated group of physical therapists then conducted a series of with  doctors and physical therapists. Eventually I got to go on the Internet for an hour before I had to say good by to Dr. Ahadzi and head back to the guest house. Although Tamale was quite different from Accra, it still was not the Africa I'd imagined. That would come in the morning.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Quick Note from Ghana

I have to apologize in advance because I am writing from an Internet cafe and don't have access to any of the amazing pictures and videos I've shot since arriving in Accra one week ago. Yes, I do have a thumb drive and no, I will not insert it into the machine I'm typing on now. Body parts and computer components should not be shared liberally.

First of all, flying over the Sahara is probably the closest thing to space travel I'll ever experience. It's so enormous and empty that you realize whatever is on the other side can't be anything like the place you just left.I was in the air for over an hour when I saw a small hamlet around an oil rig. It was another full two hours before I saw any other man-made structure. Sometimes I'd see a long dirt road that extended from one end of the horizon to another. At one point I flew over an intersection of two such dirt roads and wondered what would happen if you missed your turn off. Once in a while the desert grew into enormous mountains with stunning red cliffs - but again no trace of human life at all.

Eventually I arrived at Kotoka airport in Accra (how many of you have done that tired old Tirana to Accra flight?) and was surprised to be greeted by a brand new airport transfer chair. After passing through customs I was escorted to the waiting area where I hoped to find my friend, Gifty a physical therapy teacher whom I'd met twice while working with the International Rehabilitation Forum. Unfortunately Gifty mixed up the days so I ended up taking a cab to a hotel recommended to me by a Canadian NGO worker who was on her way home.

The hotel was surprisingly accessible and it even had air conditioning and wifi. Gifty found me in the morning and after apologizing profusely took me to the Monrose Guest House in the Adenta neighborhood North of Accra. The Monrose is a super-friendly place that has a big car ramp leading up to the front door. It was almost accessible except for the 10-inch step to my room. I told the manager I'd pay to have a carpenter build a ramp but he told me he'd already hired one. In less than an hour I was lying down on a huge raft of a bed in an air-conditioned room. The bathroom door was just a little tight so we just yanked it right out. As of last Tuesday the Monrose is now 100 accessible!

The first night we had an audience with the Rev. Michael Ntumy, the former head of the five-million member Church of the Pentecost. Rev. Ntumy had a severe case of cervical stenosis (shrinking of the spine in the neck area) and surgery to relieve the condition has left him a quadriplegic. He is currently the head of the German branch of the Church of the Pentecost and was luckily in Accra guest lecturing. But as happens in many areas of the world, the only time any action takes place on disability is when someone in a high position is affected. Since his surgery four years ago Rev. Ntumy has been very active in the disability community and is instrumental in the on-going process of turning one of the pastors residence in to a physical therapy and rehab ward.

A few days later we were invited to attend a meeting of the Ghanian Society of Disabled Persons' Accra chapter meeting. I sat in on a heated discussion of how they would be spending the 2% of the city's annual budget dedicated to disability programs. Having come from Albania where there is almost no governmental help for the disabled it was amazing to see how organized the Ghanian disability community has become. We got to interview the chapter president as well as their sporting director who also happens to be the African hand-cycle championship.

Sunday is Gifty's church day so she and her four kids escorted me to their church which is a fire-and-brimstone charismatic Christian church with a three hour long service. Gifty asked me if I thought I could play with the church band and I was thrilled. Three hours of church can be mighty long to an agnostic, but put a guitar in my hand and it was one big concert. I wasn't sure what to play all the time but I've learned along the road that one bad note can destroy all the good ones. So I kept my axe pretty quiet unless I knew where I was going. In the end, I passed the audition, we're going to rehearse this Saturday and do it up again Sunday morning. 

Monday was a national holiday so on Tuesday we were given a tour of the Medina Hospital of the Church of the Pentecost (If you haven't guessed it by now Ghana is VERY religious). The hospital sees about 300 patients a day and unbelievably enough all five of it's floors are accessible by ramps. But the big hit of the day was going over to see the nearly brand new pastor's mansion that is going to be turned into a PT and rehab ward. Built in 2007 shortly before Rev. Ntumy's surgery the 8-bedroom facility with a swimming pool, kitchen and huge meeting room will be a perfect rehab center serving many more people that its' original intention.

Yesterday I got to play teacher and give two presentations to Gifty's PT students. I was joined by a group of students and faculty from one of my sister Sue's alma maters, the University of North Dakota. These eight women were on the end of two-week tour and they were just beaming with spirit and pride. For some of the students it was their first trip out of the states and Ghana couldn't be a more different environment to the upper Midwest. These 8 women were also the first white people I'd seen since leaving the airport!

So with ten days left we'll be visiting some more hospitals then heading up north to Tamale to visit a Christian mission that caters to disabled people in rural areas. This is one of the most exciting places I've ever been to, but also the most difficult. It's rainy season now and the road to the Monrose is completely underwater. I actually had to take a cab 400 yards to get to the internet cafe. My chair is an a sad state of affairs as the front wheel wants to fall off - much like it did in India. My computer and camera are both having difficulty, but I've already shot enough to ensure a good video. Anything else I get is gravy.

It's just about dinner time so I'm going back to the Monrose which butts up against the local soccer pitch. I'm watching AMAZING players every night. You can see why they've risen to the top of the African competitions time and time again. I feel like I'm watching a country full of Zinedane Zidanes squaring off against each other on a nightly basis - and these are just the local guys!

So hang tight and Ill try to find a wifi so I can drop some pictures your way in the next coming days!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Albania Can't be Painted in One Picture

I would love to tell you Albania is nothing like what you think it is, but in fact, most of you have probably never thought of Albania at all. Globally there are two Albanian icons and the two are such polar opposites that you can guess from who they are just how diverse the population is.

You try to stereotype Albanians!!

So take your pick -> Think of Albanians as either people like John Belushi or Mother Teresa. I hope this leaves you with no clear stereotypes of what Albanians are like, because they represent as rich and diverse a population as we have on this planet. In the town of Shkoder where I am currently filming a report on rehabilitation medicine and disability awareness, the local mosque is the center piece of the downtown pedestrian mall, but it is just a 3-wood away from one of the largest catholic churches in the city. In between is a bustling outdoor café scene complete with beer gardens covered by Tirane Beer tents.

Beer gardens under Islamic minarets.

The center of town is undergoing a massive makeover with new cobblestone & tile streets and sidewalks being built complete with curb cuts and the occasional ramp. The mornings are congested and busy w/shops opening, students rushing off to school and businessmen hurrying to their offices. But now in the late afternoon the streets are quiet, waiting for everyone to get off work and fill up the cafes. 

This is quite different from the country isolated for decades by the dictator Enver Hoxha. Hoxha killed tens of thousands in his quest to make Albanian communism the most pure form of communism in the world. He broke off ties with the Soviet Union at one point because they weren't communist enough. So while the rest of the Balkans became Tito's Yugoslavia, Albania aligned itself temporarily with Mao and stayed an independent nation - although completely closed off from the rest of the world, much like North Korea is today.  

No ski resorts... Yet!

Behind Shkoder are the graceful peaks of the Thethi mountain range and in between are rugged rural roads used not only by late model German cars, but also tractors, horse-drawn carts and the occasional goat herd.
My job for the week is to try to capture the successes, obstacles and aspirations of the physically disabled in this challenging terrain. I have been guided here by Dr. Germano Pestelli, the Vice-President of the Italian Society of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine. Based in Fiorli, Italy, Dr. Pestelli comes to Albania several times a year to help steer the Madonnina Del Groppa clinic into the modern world of rehabilitation medicine.

No Mom, I did not try to jump this curb. 

So far we have filmed a quadriplegic judo champion operating a gym in a small rural town;  the mother of an autistic child struggling with little resources and an honor student struck down in the prime of his life with a spinal virus that has put him in a chair and keeps him sequestered in the second floor of his parents’ house.
We have also filmed the physical therapy ward at the local hospital and interviewed one of the two practicing physiatrists in all of Albania. 

The ramp to Anton Shkoza's judo studio. Try that one in a power chair!
Helping me is Linda Cenaj, a local student who started out as my translator but has now become an integral part of the operation as a camera-person, guide,  gear mule and even a chair pusher as my front wheel temporarily broke down this morning. The clinic director, Fabrizzio just left this morning, but not before he tirelessly worked to arrange my schedule and lift me up to the second floor of the Madonnina Del Groppa for twice daily Albanian-Italian feasts.

Dinner is served up this ramp! (and up a flight of stairs unfortunately) 

So many others are pitching in and it will be so sad to leave after such an inspirational and energetic week. But in the end we will tell a great story and shed light on a situation that will soon be a great tale of victory and overcoming long odds and great obstacles.

But now I’m hungry so I’m going back to the clinic for some pasta. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

That Good Old Lyon to Tirana Run.

For some reason Ataturk airport in Istanbul has a special fondness for me and seems to not want to let me go for periods of ten hours at a time. Four years ago after having traveled for more than 15 hours to get to Istanbul, the Turkish gods conspired to hold me at Ataturk for a gut wrenching 12 hours before letting me continue on to my final destination in Kayseri, a puddle jump flight away. Revisiting it HERE it seems comical, but at the time you can assure I was quite panicked.

My more recent ten-hour stay was self-inflicted and incurred no such panic, but it still didn't want for repeating.

The flight however, the first leg of a 6-week four continent roadie, was nothing short of magnificent. Having been forced out of the Schengen Area one day before my visa expired, I painfully said goodbye to Helene and nervously approached the customs desk at St. Exupery Airport in Lyon.Technically Americans are allowed two three-month stays in the Schengen Area every calendar year. But the stays are supposed to be separated by a three-month period in which you return to your home country.  In my case, I left the Schengen Area to travel to England two days before my first visa expired. I returned through the Geneva airport where a confused customs agent checked my passport, looked up at me and said, “Well I guess I’ll just stamp it.” Meaning instead of kicking me out of Europe and sending me home – which he had every right to do – he gave me three more months.

But I wasn’t going to press it as the penalty could be a several-year exclusion from the continent of Europe. And it was entirely feasible that the customs agent in Lyon could review my passport and still inflict a penalty. My on going joke with my French friends was that when I leave they’ll either get a text from Istanbul or a phone call asking them to find me a lawyer. Thankfully the customs agent simply looked for a blank page and stamped my passport. I have to admit at sometimes during my stay I was quite stressed out about being an illegal alien but with one vigorous pump of an exit stamp, all of that angst evaporated.

I was loaded onto the plane and in minutes took off on one of the most glorious flights I have ever been on. The Turkish Air A330 Airbus swung north out of Lyon then angled off to the East flying past every place I love in France. We floated over Les Avenieres where I spent four epic years and then continued directly over the mountain cliffs I used to stare at before launching 80 ft. high dives. On the other side of those cliffs lay Aix les Bains where I spent the last six months and the Lac du Bourget where I trained on my hand bike. I traced the bike paths back to my apartment but had to look away as it was a bit too painful to think that I no longer lived there.

Once past Aix the flight veered over the Savoyarde capitol of Chambery and headed directly to the French Alps, where I spotted my friend Vincent’s house just outside of the Olympic city of Albertville. Luckily I had a window seat facing North so I saw all the big Alpine peaks including Mt. Blanc, The Eiger and the Matterhorn.  The plane drifted south over Italy where I had a clear view of the Milan Cathedral and just a few minutes later the funky fish eye of Venice.

Before the sun set I caught reflections of the Adriatic along the Dalmatian Coast where in 1986 my brother Dan and I spent five chilling January nights incarcerated in a Ford Escort. An hour later we were circling the Bosphorus with a crescent moon, the symbol of Turkey, blazing in the distance.

That's when the romantic part ended and the grip of Ataturk took over. The only flights leaving for Tirana, Albania take off at 7:30 a.m. so I had the layover from hell. The boarding call of 6 a.m. was just early enough that it didn’t warrant getting a hotel room. I had a couple of Effes beers while watching former Trail Blazer Rudy Fernandez lose the European Championship game, then wolfed down a burger and found the disability lounge. Four years ago there was no such lounge, but now I was obligated to stay there as they were responsible for getting me on the plane in the morning.

I’ve had worse over-night stays in airports, but it’s never anything you’re too happy about. Here I could stretch out on a long cushy set of chairs and use my brand new airport pillow, a parting gift from Helene. But the glaring lights and the constant barrage of loud speaker airline information made sleep impossible. That and the paranoia of having all my computer and camera equipment lying underneath me kept me on guard and slightly awake all night long.

Eventually morning came and I was once again poured onto a plane where I fell fast asleep. I awoke as the pilot announced his decent into the brand new Mother Theresa airport in Tirana (finished in 2008). I was shocked by the fact that they actually had a transfer chair for me and,  after a quick pass through customs, I found the taxi driver from my hotel.

Minutes later I experienced my first Albanian traffic jam. For decades these would have been impossible, but now the streets are full of everything from antique Russian cars to brand new BMWs, Audis and Mercedez Benz. Not two minutes after arriving in a surprisingly accessible hotel in the center of Tirana, I was deep in REM. I woke up six hours later and was not at all sure I wasn't still dreaming. 

As a matter of fact, I'm still not quite sure...

Saturday, May 11, 2013

On the Road Again...

I can’t believe my time here is coming to a close. The Rhone Alps region stole my heart long before I moved to Oregon and I still cannot ever find a good reason to leave one home except to go to my other home. I have a feeling that this pattern will repeat several more times before my ashes grace one place or the other.
But seeing as the French government has decided it’s time I go, I have to pack my bags and make my way back to Oregon. But this time it will not be a direct flight. Instead, I will be going on just about as long a road trip as possible, covering four continents over the next eight weeks.

Ten years ago my brother Andy and I created the International Rehabilitation Forum to help organize rehabilitation doctors who work primarily in low-access areas. This includes not only low-resource areas, but also rural and even disaster areas. We've run three international meetings inviting speakers from all over the globe to present papers, brain storm and share ideas with like-minded practitioners.

Whenever we meet with these groups I am invited to come to their clinics and see what is actually happening to real patients. So now, finally, I will be taking a few of them up on the offer. On Sunday I will first travel to Shkodra, Albania and see the work of the Italian Doctor Germano Pestelli. Dr. Pestelli has changed an orphanage into a working rehab clinic. Not only will I be able to visit the clinic and speak with local officials, I will also be able to talk (through an interpreter!) to fellow wheelers who most likely have never left Albania and suffer quite a bit of neglect and discrimination.

From Albania I will continue on to Accra, Ghana where I will spend nearly three weeks with several groups catering to rehabilitation medicine and disability advocacy. I am arriving just in time for their largest annual gathering of wheelchair users so hopefully we will have lots of media attention which will shine some light on the much neglected disabled population in Africa. I will also be accompanied by my guitar which will be pulled out and exercised any time I hear any African drumming.

From Ghana the trip continues all the way to Beijing where I will reunite with a gathering of the International Rehabilitation Forum during the bi-annual convention of the International Society of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine. Andy and I will host a small organizational meeting during the ISPRM that will set the groundwork for our 4th general meeting to be held in Chengdu in 2014.

After Beijing, it’s time to head back to the States, but before making it back to Oregon, I need to stop over in my old stomping grounds of Milwaukee, Wisconsin to check in, deprogram and play guitar for 14 straight hours at our annual 4th of July jam session.

But the purpose of all this travel is not just to check in and visit. I will be filming the raw footage that will eventually become a short documentary on the needs of rehab medicine in low-resource settings. I have been asked why I have not been more consistent in blogging on this latest adventure and the reason is that I’ve been working on film shorts. These take a tremendous amount of work, but in the end, tell a much better story. Taking into consideration the story-boarding, filming, writing, logging, video editing, recording, sound editing – sometimes even composing music, I spend close to four hours for every minute of finished video.  If you’ve got a great subject (which I always do because I pick my own subjects!) it’s a labor of love. But a labor nonetheless!

So I will try to check in from time to time while on the road, but in the meantime I would like to thank all my loyal readers (nearly 16,000 hits to date!) and I promise to publish here when everything is done and in the can.

Hope to see as many of you as possible on the road!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A Boston Marathon Story

The first time I ever got a paid writing gig was covering The 1994 Boston Marathon for the fledgling Adidas America corporate newspaper, L’adidas. Jay Edwards, who was corporate America’s equivalent of Ken Kesey, started the paper to cover the unique corporate culture that defined the early days of Adidas America in Portland, Oregon.

They covered athletes, business departments, corporate events and publicly mocked a deserving employee each issue. In the Feb ’94 issue L’adidas announced its’ first ever writing contest, a 100-word essay on why you want to write an article from the Boston Marathon. The prize, of course, was an all-expense paid trip to Boston to write said article.

I had been a big Bill Rogers fan as a teen and was familiar with some of the legend of the Boston Marathon and Heartbreak Hill. I submitted my entry which was a story of how my mother ran the Boston Marathon pregnant w/me and gave birth to me in the middle of Heartbreak Hill. She never got to finish that race, so I had to go and finish it for her!

A lot of this is his fault. I'm lucky to have had drinks a few times  with Bill Rodgers over the past few Portland Marathons. He is as crazy as this looks. (cheapseat.blogs.starnewsonline.com)

Edwards got a spit take from the entry and I ended up on a plane to Boston. Although my Boston Marathon article was nowhere near as memorable as my entry (some people at Adidas actually believed my story!), it was in fact my first paid writing gig. And I never really looked back. That’s all I wanted to do from then on.

Fast forward to 1998 and I found myself working full time for L’adidas as an actual corporate reporter – albeit still working for the Ken Kesey of corporate America. I was also in a wheelchair having taken a horrific spill on my bike. One day Stephen Hamilton, from the Soccer Unit, came down to our office and announced he’d just signed up for one of the spots on the Adidas corporate team for the Boston Marathon. Adidas has always been the equipment sponsor for the race and is given a few non-qualifier entries. (Qualifying for Boston is VERY difficult.)

Hamilton looked at me and said, “How ‘bout you, Tommy – you in?” I gave it very little thought and said, “Hell yes, I’m in – as long as I can get a racing chair.”

1999 L'adidas Boston Marathon Edition

Edwards over heard the conversation and said, “You just start training and I’ll find you a racing chair.”

And so during the cold damp winter months of 1997-8, I began rolling 5-6 mile lunches and 10-20 mile Saturday mornings. Come Patriots Day I was once again covering The Boston Marathon for L’adidas, this time kneeling in my brand-new Quickie race chair sponsored by Adidas Retail Outlets – which coincidentally was headed up by Jay Edwards. It also must be noted that ARO did not have a promotional budget as such, so you can guess where the money for the chair came from.

At the time, the Boston Marathon was the de-facto World Wheelchair Championships and I was severely out of my league. Not only had I not qualified, I’d never even done the distance before. And I’d only had three weeks to train in the new-fangled racing chair.

But out of the gate I went letting all the big-time wheelers blast ahead of me. After a nervous start, I found a comfortable pace and the wonders of Boston slowly unfolded before me. The craziness of Hopkington was replaced by a bit of rural New England then an actual crowd roar as I rolled into Natick. The timbre of the crowd shifted to soprano as I passed Wellesley and before I even felt tired I came upon the Newton Hills. These hills weren’t as nasty as the ones I’d trained on in Oregon, so when I came upon Heartbreak Hill, where my imaginary mother had given birth to me, I charged it w/all my might. From then on it was all a blur as every magical inch was accompanied by a consistent and deafening roar from the crowd, sometimes 3-4 deep.

Eventually I hopped on Beacon, passed Fenway, and smelled the homestretch. Before I knew it, I turned on to Boylston and saw the greatest stadium in the history of endurance sports – the arrival of the Boston Marathon. Five lanes wide ending in a giant blue sign with those golden letters 'FINISH' dominating the horizon. Spectators were 6-8 deep and the bleachers along the last few hundred meters were packed.  I was greeted with a massive roar which I hadn’t heard since my days as a show diver. I was the 50th and second last chair on the course and I thought to myself, “Man, these people just loves ‘em a crip race!” What I didn’t realize was that the eventual female winner, Fatuma Roba, was just a few paces behind me and the crowd was actually cheering her. But WTF – I had the best seat in the house!

Completing the Boston Marathon led to more significant competitions - like this drag race in the suburbs of Delhi in 2000

Had I arrived at this same point on Monday, this is where it all would have ended. A police man would have come up to me and told me to stop.  In 1998, I ended up finishing the race, getting a medal placed around my neck, then meeting up w/family and friends who showered me w/hugs, praise and beer. It was my statement to the world that I was back! My legs don’t work, but screw that! I just did the muther-fukking BOSTON MARATHON!

It changed me forever. It made me whole again.

And this is the feeling that some deranged freak robbed from thousands of people yesterday. Aside from the lives they ruined, they took away that sense of fulfillment that can only come from crossing the finish line of the muther-fukking BOSTON MARATHON. There is no level of disdain describable that is as low as I feel for the culprits of this cultural rape.

Marathoners being held up just short of the finish.(Boston Globe)

Whatever your sick cause is, you have destroyed it. My cause is hope. My cause is effort. My cause is victory. And even if you blew my ass to kingdom come you would never be able to destroy that.

Tom Haig: International Road Race CHAMPION!

Taken literally this is, in fact, the truth. I DID win an international 10k on Sunday:

But if you look closely my podium is quite empty, the reason being I was the only wheelchair entered in the First Annual Aix Les Bains 10km du Lac. Also, I happened to be the only foreigner in the entire race.

NONETHELESS - I did come in first place and also set the course record! OK, I am in fact the only one in history to have actually registered a time in the event. Basically I finished a relatively smooth local 10k without incident. But having lived in the false-glory world of hand cycling, this really brought me back to where I am as a runner. While it is true that I’ve won a couple of Portland marathons and finished in the top ten in some huge races (Detroit, Seattle, DC), I am still the worst four-year Cross Country runner in the history of my  high school. They actually gave me a charity varsity letter my senior year even though I never once scored a point for said varsity.

My body type just isn’t cut out for running so I gave it up after high school and picked up cycling. Cycling, with its mechanical advantage and reliance on the thighs I’d developed being a catcher and springboard diver, was much more to my liking. Early on in my life as a disabled athlete, I competed in a racing chair, but even that is closer to cycling than running.

But for the 10k this Sunday, seeing as it was a short course and I was the only chair competing, I decided to roll the 6.2 miles in my daily wheel chair, a 22 lb. four-wheeled Quickie. The race director gave me a one-minute head start so I wouldn’t get tangled up with the elite runners. But the eventual winner, Benjamin Cheruiyot (31’30”) passed me before I hit minute number two.

Benjamin Cheruiyot is a Kenyan exile, ex-Auburn Tiger, running for the track club in Aix.(Dauphiné Libéré)

Soon after Cheruiyot blew by me, a familiar feeling I’d repressed decades ago came back. Everybody started passing me. First it was young men, next it was the ladies. A couple of teen agers dusted me, then a pack of gray-haired studs… then a couple of gray-haired not-so-studs. By the time I’d hit the turnaround point I’d settled into a group of nine-minute milers – whom should not be mistaken for a group of nine-minute marathon milers. These people were gasping just to finish the 10k.

If I paid for the pic do I have to credit it?? (OK - Gerald Vagneron Photo)

The turnaround was a bit tough as the course became slightly hilly and broke down into a couple sections of gravel and smooth cobblestone. But once back on the main course, a smooth and wide pedestrian path along the stunningly beautiful Lac du Bourget, I became inspired and started picking off runners. First it was the chubby guy who got me on the gravel. Then it was the granny who took me on the bridge at 6k. Eventually I caught up with the hipster who looked like he was jonesing for a smoke.

Finally the finish line was in sight and I went for my big push. But seeing as nobody in my group wanted to be the guy who lost to the wheelchair dude, all of them unceremoniously passed me on the final rise 100 meters before the finish.

Has that guy in the chair finished yet? 

I have absolutely no idea what my time or place was as I think they may have turned the clock off after the first couple hundred finishers. But being the first chair across the line, I was asked by the race organizer to hang around for the awards presentation.

I really wanted to hit the beer tent, but instead I sat in front of the stage for an hour while they presented fairly lavish gifts and trophies for the winners of nearly 20 categories. All the meanwhile behind me they are scrambling to find something to present to me.

Aix's Homecoming King and Queen - Euro 100m champ Christophe Lemaitre w/Miss Aix Les Bains.

As it turns out, this is actually my SECOND international crown as I won the Herzogenaurach, Germany 8k road race back in 1997. Herzogenaurach is the main headquarters of Adidas as well as Puma. A few of my work friends entered a seriously jet-lagging me into the local road race. As a prank they told me the German announcer had called my race then sent me to the starting line of the kids race just so they could get a hoot from watching me roll back after I realized I'd started the 2k race, not the 8k. But eventually I came away victorious in the 8K! Although there were plenty of foreigners in the Herzo race, I was of course the only chair.

Herzo Track Club! 

After the Herzo race the organizers embarrassingly scrambled around to find something to give to the handicapped winner. They found a Herzo Track Club bathroom cup which I still proudly display. So it was no surprise for me to see the same faces scrambling around on Sunday to come up with something which ended up being a T-shirt that was too small, a key chain and a water bottle – which I will use!

One really cool thing resulting from getting my butt out of bed was that the person giving away the awards was Aix Les Bains' own, Christophe Lemaitre. Lemaitre happens to be the fastest white guy on the planet -> first Caucasian to break 10 seconds in the 100 meters..

So I will leave you this lasting image of the world’s greatest and worst white runners:

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Living the dream... almost!

Had a great time talking to Wayne Chism, Erroyl Bing and Antoine Michone from the Aix-Maurienne basketball team here in Aix les Bains. Take a peek at what life is like for most college players who decide to continue to play.

For full screen push play then double click.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Handisport Savoyarde!!!!

I'm guessing there are plenty of you who would love to come over and ski the Alps. But if you're thinking that because you've got a disability you're S.O.L. -> Well you're WRONG!!

Push 'Play' then double click!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

I live in Aix les Bains and So Should You!

Here's a nice little 8 minute travelogue on Aix les Bains. All the cool kids are watching it!!

Push PLAY and double click on the video if it won't leave the small box. Right click gives options too!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

'IT' World Premiere!

After suffering through blinding snow and ... well... once we got beyond that, London was pretty damn nice...

Double Click for full view!

Monday, February 25, 2013


I’ve had the great fortune to have spent a huge chunk of my life living in or just next to the French Alps. I first set eyes on them from a mountain pass just east of Dijon on my first trip to Europe in 1986. My brother and three other companions (well two, plus one in utero) drove over a mountain pass and, on the first bend in the decent, saw the spikey chain glistening off in the distance, more beautiful than any heavanscape I could ever imagine.

View was something like this (although this is the view from  Le Revard, much farther south)

We spent the next two weeks exploring the fairy-tale cities and hiking as deep into the mountains as our gear (tennis shoes) would permit. We shuffled precipitously along the snow covered icy rails of a wooden trail, that had recently been destroyed by small rock slide. We followed frozen streams that turned into towering frozen waterfalls. In between we slept in Chitty-chitty Bang Bang towns whos streets were cobble-stoned labyrinths that somehow always led us back to ground zero. It was as life-affirming and magical a month as I’ve ever spent.

Hallstatt, Austria. You can't believe places like this really  exist. 

But what we didn’t do was ski. There were several reasons we didn’t ski. The first and most restricting reason is that we didn’t know how to ski.  We were do-tards from Wisconsin who spent our winters in chlorinated sweat tanks known as high school swimming pools. We were actually banned from skiing by our dogmatic (and pretty successful) swimming coach. Secondly we had absolutely no money and actually ended up spending a few days of that trip sleeping (read:FREEZING) in our car in what is now Croatia.

Fast forward to 1988 and once again, I found myself in the French Alps, this time having unpacked my bags for a six-month stay. It was on this trip that I discovered cycling and first heard of the magical town of Courchevel. I worked in an amusement park and a bunch of my friends worked at the ski resort when the park closed for winter. I drove up to the resort once on my day off and came upon a stunning view, but an absolutely dead town. This was before mountain bikes gave ski resorts a reason to open in the summer. We couldn’t even find a café open for lunch. 

I spent four more long summers in the Alps in ’89, ’90, ’91 and ’97.  I also returned for four more short visits before my current stay. I’ve eaten several tons of food, drank several bath tubs of wine, seen a dozen Tour de France stages and bootlegged most of the modern jazz greats. But alas, 27 years after first seeing those mountains, I had never strapped on a pair of skis.

Not until this last month when I joined my local cycling club (Velo Club Le Motte Servolex!) and was eligible to participate in Handisport Savoyarde, the local disabled sports club. Handisport is jointly sponsored by the government of Savoie and some corporate donors. I have to be very careful here and say that it is not ‘state’ sponsored. The ‘state’ is considered the government of France, and this is financed by the government of Savoie. I made the mistake of calling it ‘state sponsored’ once and the once friendly eyes in front of me lanced me with evil daggers. “We are NOT state sponsored!” I was told. 

Claude Raffin, Director General of Handisport Savoyarde
Nonetheless they’ve got a ton of gear and better yet, two amazing paid coordinators, Nicolas and Thierry, who take care of the gear, organize the trips and teach both skiers and volunteer helpers. Our first trip was to an average size resort (Portlanders -> Meadows-sized) just an hour from Aix Les Bains called St. Francois Longchamps. The trip was sponsored by a group of companies that make everything for disabled skiers from skis, to apparel to helmets to dog aids. I got strapped into a mono-ski and made my first couple runs in more than six years w/out incident. After lunch I strapped in again, but tried a new set of out-riggers (small poles with skis on the bottom). This was a major error as they were about eight inches too short and I quickly discovered that I had no control whatsoever. It was akin to riding a bike down a mountain road without brakes. I fell more than 50 times on one run which took more than 90 minutes to execute. I think my guide, Pierre, is still in pain from that run, having carrying me the final half mile. I found my old poles and recovered for a good final run, but it did not help my confidence.

Taking a left-hander on the bi-ski. It helps when the poles are long enough to touch the snow. 

The next week we went to a tiny resort, La Mageriaz, which coincidentally is directly across the Nan d’Aillion valley from where Helene lived for 15 years. It was a freezing cold day with intense fog that limited visibility, but whatever I could see, I could ski. I felt cumfy again in my ski and was ready to tackle the biggest challenge to date: Courchevel.

I had some vague recollections of Courchevel from 25 years earlier, but as we started the climb to the resort, it was obvious the environment had completely changed. Courchevel is the Aspen of France chocked full of movie stars and the super-rich (Gérard Depardieu, Ewan McGregor, Lionel Richie, King of Marocco). The once sleepy town is now a massive expanse of four monster ski resorts with a combined 183 lifts and more than 360 miles of ski-able terrain.

As we continued our climb we drove past three different ‘Courchevels’.  Courchevel 1550, Courchevel 1650 and Courchevel 1850 are each named for their altitude (5085 ft., 5413 ft., 6069 ft.) and each contains several access points to the mountain, as well as bridges and tunnels to ski over and through. It is a community designed so everything is accessible on skis or ski lifts. The homes along these slopes are not cheap by any means, but not astronomical like Aspen. A 4-bedroom house with a view and easy access to the slopes can be had for less than a million dollars.

Yeah, there's a lift up there too. 

Once we arrived at Courchevel 1850 we drove to an easy access lift for the chairs and strapped in. Six of us made the trip and we were accompanied by more than a dozen relatives and assistants. Since this was our third day, we had no gear issues and were quickly on the first lift. As I ascended higher and higher up towards the walls of the peaks, the views of the Vanoise Massif launched my visual cortex into over drive and soon overload. When the resort is called ‘Three Valleys’, that suggests at least three peaks. Not only were there more than three peaks, there were lifts that took the ballsiest skiers up to those peaks for some absolutely insane vertical drops. But also, just next to our lift was a free lift for beginners – as well as one of the highest and most challenging airports in all of Europe. Literally every conceivable range of clientele had been catered to.

If you ever want to volunteer - go to your local handicapped ski club. Coolest people in the world and they have the most fun!

Unbelievably enough it was a stunning sunny day with zero wind. There was no excuse but to have the greatest skiing experience of my life. We skied all morning getting used to the terrain and the lifts, then took a long lunch break (It’s Savoie, there is no such thing as a ‘small’ meal). After lunch I strapped in again and skied another two hours exploring less than 5% of the available terrain. My arms were totally fried, but I did manage to ski the entire afternoon session without one single wipe out - a much-needed improvement from my 50-fall effort of the week before.

Smooth Baby!!

It goes without saying my eyes have never eaten so much scenery in their entire lives. After nearly 30 years, I think I’ve only now just discovered what it means to live here. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Prisoner of Food

To those of you whose favorite thing to do in life is to sit at a table for hours and eat course after course of delicious food, this is going to come off just horribly bad for me.

But the truth of the matter is that I don’t really like food.

What? What do you mean? Don’t like food? What the hell’s wrong with you!

As it turns out, I have a natural propensity to put on weight every time I look at a KFC commercial. This, combined with the fact that from 12 to 30 I spent most of my days in a Speedo in front of at times, thousands of people, has given me a subconscious eating disorder.

Since I dropped the Speedo habit nearly 20 years ago, the way I have avoided putting on 50 pounds is to work out voraciously when possible and to convince myself that I don’t really like food. Food is just something you have to do in order to live. But I can’t like it. So whenever I smell a turkey cooking in the oven or even an exhaust vent from a Burger King, I neurotically tell myself it’s not that great.

But, of course it is that great and therein lies the problem.

When I lived by myself I could deal with my neurosis by just buying the same old crap at Fred Meyers and keeping my refrigerator bacheloresquely clean. If I put in a 100 mile week on the bike (or if I had a raging hangover) I would treat myself with a King-size junk-food meal. But basically my grocery list was down to spuds, rice, frozen vegetables, pork, chicken, eggs and cheese. You can ask my roommates; that’s all I had.

So on the occasion that I would grab some food at a restaurant before a Timbers game or be treated to a killer Portland BBQ, I would guiltily consume at will, knowing that it was just a small treat and  the next day I would be back to  my normal bland diet.

Sure, it's completely neurotic, but it worked. I’d always toss on a few lbs in the winter, but by mid-summer, I’d have ridden it all off and by the first week of October I was downright svelte for the Portland Marathon.

And then came the France thing. Now that I live in the gastronomic capitol of Europe, every day, check that, every hour revolves around food. When I first showed up it was right before Christmas and there were throngs of holiday parties and marathon dinners with friends I hadn’t seen in years.

These dinners go like this (not even the slightest exaggeration either) -> You arrive around 7:30 and are presented with your choice of cocktail and a huge spread of snitchables (enough that I could eat an entire meal of just appetizers). You’ve got chips, peanuts, cheese,  and usually some sort of little  baked seafood spread on crackers. Then you sit down to some soup or a little antipasto or both – again enough to satisfy a normal American dinner requirement. Then comes the baked cheese and potato casserole (gratin) followed by vegetables in some ungodly rich cheese sauce along with a gargantuan chunk of beef, fish or chicken – often times all three.  Not to be forgotten is that with each course you’re probably being served another glass of wine; not so much to get you drunk, just enough to help you process more food than you should be eating.

After that plate is cleared it’s time for cheese (four kinds minimum) then a little salad (read: HUGE complex salad, possibly with more meat or fish) to rinse the palette before desert. Desert isn’t just a scoop of ice cream, but a litany of pies and cakes paraded in front of you like super models on a runway. Since often times the guests bring desert, it’s polite to have at least a little piece of everything. And yeah, a scoop of ice cream too.

Finally the table breaks and the smokers go outside to satisfy yet another craving they may have left, while the host clears the table and sets out shot glasses for ‘digestives’ which are shots of 190 proof distilled fruit spirits. You don’t slam the shot, you milk that baby for all it’s worth. Finally it’s coffee which is normally served with some cookies. And then while everyone mills around the table and splits off into different conversations, they usually toss a basket of fruit out there for you to nibble on.

By this time it’s close to midnight and you’ve been at this for more than four hours. Nobody is drunk, but everyone is beat to death from the effort. You go home (or clean up if you’ve hosted) and feel absolutely gutted by the experience. You lie down and say good bye to your toes, because you may not see them again for a few days.

So the fact that I’m complaining about this might be too much for some of you to bear, but this doesn’t just happen on Thanksgiving. This goes on ALL THE TIME. By the time New Years was over I’d eaten at least a dozen of these meals in the space of three weeks. I don’t know how many kilos I’d packed on, but luckily I’ve been given a hand cycle and the weather wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t ride a bunch of it off.

But a few days after the 1st, I dismounted my ride and came into the apartment to be told that we had a dinner appointment with my girlfriend Helene’s brother.

“Again?” I asked. Helene was stunned.

“What do you mean, ‘Again?’”

“We just ate with them last week – we don’t have to have another huge dinner do we?”

“I thought you like them,” she said. “I thought you said the food was delicious?”

“I do!” I said. “And the food was great. But aren’t we done with the big parties?”

At this point she opened up her date book and showed me the plans for January. We had at least three of these dinners every week. It’s what they do. We get together over beers and watch sports – they eat massive marathon meals. Dining IS their sport. We know the names of all the players, teams and leagues; they know the names of all the wines, cheeses and vegetables. Helene refers to her friends by what they served at dinner – “We’re going to Martha’s house tonight. You remember them - they served the endive salad and the Thom cheese. You loved the boudin in the paillison! ” To which I nod my head and roll towards the car door having no clue as to which of her friend's houses I will end up in.  

When one of us is gone all day and we haven't seen each other, the question upon arrival is not, “How was your day?” The question is, “What did you eat?”

So not only am I living in one of the most beautiful places on Earth, I’m also eating like a king and drinking the finest wines and spirits on the planet. This may sound like heaven to many of you, but all this food is making my neurotic 25-year-old Speedo-wearing conscious explode with guilt.

I have been told it is actually polite to refuse desert or one of the courses, but I’ve yet to see this happen in actual practice. 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Big Purge

The last time I had a stable residence in which I had all of my possessions under the same roof was the apartment I rented across from Irving Park in North East Portland from 2001 through 2007. I’d done somewhat of a purge when I moved into that apartment, but I still had unopened boxes when I left in January of 2007 to go back to school in Pullman, Washington.

My crib in Pullman was a spacious three-room apartment in the Pullman old folks home, the only fully accessible option in the greater Pullman metroplex. My neighbors were in their 70s and 80s and my classmates were in their early 20s. I tended to see more of my classmates than my neighbors as I lived across the street from Dissmore’s IGA, rumored to be the largest beer vender in Eastern Washington. I had plenty of room for visitors, but even after receiving numerous threats from my friends in Portland to come over for a football weekend, I received a total of four visitors during the 30-month period – My Mom, my Dad, my Sister and my friend Pat who randomly stopped in from Paris.

Filling these shelves with beer was nothing short of printing money. 

Seeing as I was in school I accumulated even more junk including books, clothes, some new furniture, and a slew of computer gadgets. Now this was nothing compared to the crap I accumulated when I owned a house and was a member of the American middle class, but it was much more junk than a single dude should be hauling around.

After graduation in Pullman I piled my junk into an empty U-Haul truck that randomly was being driven from Wisconsin to Corvallis by my friend Mary. Mary’s mother had died and she rented the U-Haul to gather up things left to her in Wisconsin and haul them back to Corvallis which, oddly enough was my next stop. When she saw what was in Wisconsin she opted only for a couch which left me with an empty truck to fill up – which I did.

My sister and I drove to Pullman in a van like this on icy streets in the dead of winter. Very happy this was not the result, but it could have been!

The next stop on the limbo-lifestyle tour was my sister Sue’s house in Corvallis, which is already full of other people’s stuff and had little room for my collection. Sue rented a storage unit outside of town and all of my junk got stuffed in there for nearly two years. During this time I went from a bright-eyed prospective journalism graduate to a cliché of the depressed,  early 21st Century American jobless graduate.

After a full year of sending out resumes, getting no interviews and feeling my skill set evaporate w/every passing minute, I decided to leave the country and help a radio station in India get off its’ feet. This meant, more packing, sorting and storing. My collection of boxes was well over a dozen and that didn’t include a slew of guitars, amps and framed posters. I’d also filled up a closet with nice shirts I’d received over the past few years - assuming I was at some point going to rejoin the American middle class.

Off I went to India where I did NOT accumulate a ton of stuff. Instead I returned this time to Portland where I was able to actually unload my sister of much of her burden – although she still held on to a room full of my clothes and a bunch of boxes of old pictures and books.

Two years after finding little work, but instead a fabulous French babe, it was time to move on. But this time the madness had to come to an end. I had possessions I hadn’t seen in seven years, so what was the point of me hanging on to them? Time had come for the BIG PURGE.

After I’d moved out of my apartment in Portland I’d staged 20 boxes of possessions in my sister’s garage and promised her I would thin the herd. The BIG PURGE came in several stages. First I packed a bag for the winter in France which put some clothes in the starting lineup. Once that bag was finalized, I optimistically went through my better pairs of pants and shirts and set them aside still holding onto the idea that I will actually at one point become a member of the American middle class – or even the French Middle Class, but something better than a depressed job seeker.

Seeing as I’ve got a workout habit, I’ve accumulated boxes of T-shirts and sweat pants that had been in and out of the lineup for more than 15 years. For women, this is just a no-brainer: You pitch all that crap out. For men, this things are signs of our perceived athletic glory and ridding ourselves of them is a most horrid reminder of aging. Yeah, I’m fully aware that nobody cares that I finished the 1998 Hood to Coast Relay. But what if there’s a party with my old Hood to Coast team? Wouldn’t it be great if I showed up in the old team T? I was almost tempted to hang on to them until I pulled one of them over my head and realized that 15 years of hand cycling has completely changed my body. This T would never again grace my shoulders. And neither would the dozens of Grateful Dead Ts I’d hauled around with me since the early 80s… or the stack of Tour de France shirts I’ve been compiling from the LeMond era through the Armstrong debacle.

Pretty much my wardrobe over the past 30 years. 
And thus began the Goodwill pile. Unless the shirt was a fairly new wicking-fabric shirt, it went into the pile. Women will cower over this, but in fact, that eliminated three full boxes.Next was the mountain of really nice shirts I’d had very few occasions to wear. Again, many of these shirts had been in my various closets since before I broke my back. These shirts were much more valuable to other people, but carried none of the emotional weight of the Ts. Another couple of boxes easily into the Goodwill pile.

I’ve been on the Portland Marathon committee since 2000 and that committee just rocks when it comes to SWAG. Every year we get LOTS of great quality coats, bags, hats and polos. Another box into the pile. I’ve got doubles, triples and even quadruples on sweaters, sweatshirts and spring  jackets. Gone, gone and gone.

Plates, silverware, kitchen gadgets, obsolete computer hardware and adjoining cords. Signed, sealed and delivered into the back of my van.

Finally it was time to look into my library which I have been compiling since I first graduated from college in 1985. I didn’t own a TV for quite a long time as I was traveling for nearly seven years non-stop. I’m not a ‘No-TV’ guy. I watch too much of the shit. It’s just that during that time I rarely lived in a place where there was any English television so I read tons of books. And I kept them all. Unless the book was a piece of junk, I kept it because I assumed I’d use it for reference at some point. I love reading biographies and history so I thought I’d love to be able to pull out a book from my library and prove a point in an argument.

Unawares to my growing book collection, however, Gore invented the Internet and my assemblage lost most of its cache. Those books remained in the boxes because I never went back to them to check a fact. I’m always on the Google.

So with a very fond farewell, I took a peek at every last book in my library and sent nearly all of them back into the world to enrich the lives of others. This process took a full day but I got to say good bye to Alan Ginsberg, JFK, Miles Davis, Phil Lesh, Hank Aaron, Nike, Freud, Einstein, Gore Vidal, Ravi Shankar, The Battle of the Bulge, Kerouac & Kesey, 10 journeys with Michener, Townshend, Clapton; Funk & Blues. I had a full box of music books which are now obsolete. I had two shelves of travel and language books that no longer are worth porting around.

Before I knew it I’d hauled three van-loads of my former life to various repositories in downtown Corvallis. All that remained were my instruments, old pictures, a box of little statues I've collected from all over the world, the framed posters and just one dresser full of clothes. It’s now been two months since the big purge and I miss exactly zero of those items. The thought that I won’t be hauling three van-loads of junk to my next living space more than offsets any pangs of nostalgia. So if you have any misgivings at all about holding on to old items, SET THEM FREE I say!

(OK if you go into my sister’s house you may just stumble upon some older Packer, Illinois, Grateful Dead and Tour de France shirts… but I ran out of boxes. I swear!!)