The World from a Chair

Today, I spoke to an Iraqi man about the lasting effects of the American intervention in his home country. A half hour before meeting him, I spoke with a Catholic priest from Brazil who was studying “Canon Law”. Every week, I spend hours talking with people from South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other nations.

Madrid is an international hub, but these interactions are all happening online from the semi-comfort of my office. Sitting in the fifth “bedroom” of my flat near Ventas, I speak via my laptop’s camera to people from all over the world while hints of sunlight slice through the wooden slats of the blinds behind me.

As an effort to augment my income, I signed up with an online English teaching website when I first landed in Spain. Now, using it a few hours every day, it has actually become my main source of income in any given month.

There are at least a dozen websites like the one I use – Cambly – where teachers can help students learn English (or another language) from their living room. Some are built for more structured lesson plans where each session is essentially no different than a literal classroom, while others are better suited to causal conversation where students can practice speaking and listening in a no-pressure environment.

Cambly is the latter, though I have certainly had plenty of opportunities to brush up on my Phrasal Verbs and Past Perfect verb tenses. Usually, when I get a call, it’s someone who needs to improve their spoken English for school or their career.

I start with a few basic questions (“What’s your name?” “Where are you from?” “Why are you learning English?”) and allow the conversation to develop from there. Sometimes this leads to weekly discussions with regulars about art, politics, and traveling, and other times I spend five to fifteen minutes pulling teeth out of a reticent partner. And then there are the kids just looking to mess with a foreign teacher. Not every call is a winner.

There are higher paying teaching gigs, certainly ones that provide more stability, and I’ve had my share of frustrations in the six months I’ve been on the site, but I also wouldn’t be paying my bills without it (so much as I am paying my bills…). If my career ambition were to be be a teacher, this gig wouldn’t fulfill that dream, but as a means of traveling to different cultures on a budget, it’s oddly effective.

When not offering gentile critique of my partner’s English, I’m helping people with their writing (like the Buddhist nun in South Korea who needed help with a US Visa application) or listening while someone practices a speech or school lesson they have to give. One woman was a tour guide who gave me a virtual tour of her Korean town so she could practice for a group that would be there the next day.

Then there are the times I’m just there to provide an ear for a broken heart. I vividly remember the Japanese boy the day after Christmas who called because his girlfriend had broken up with him and he just wanted to talk to someone.

I think almost every day of the Saudi woman who had walked in on her husband’s act of infidelity and, eight months later, was still utterly broken up about it. As she wept, she told me she couldn’t forgive the betrayal (no matter how much her friends and family told her to), but she also couldn’t leave. She had no recourse, no clear path forward. And all I could do was listen. 

Of course, I could have worked on Cambly in America. I have one regular student I tutor here in Madrid and a couple other inconsistent or potential teaching gigs, but most of my work is done remote and there’s no specific reason I had to be in Madrid. There’s no specific reason I had to be anywhere, and that’s the beauty of this arrangement. I can be anywhere, and thus I can go everywhere. Theoretically. (Still waiting on that call for the Mars shuttle.)

For anyone looking to make a little extra income or dealing with unwanted downtime, I’d recommend teaching online. Cambly is just one of the options, but it’s as good as any, and hey, if you follow this link and say I (Joseph NY) recommended you, we both get a bonus. You know, hint hint, or whatever.

I’ve got to go now, I’m about to do another hour of online teaching. Who knows who I’ll meet next?

Jack String and the Case of the Strange Influence

It’s been a busy couple of months for me. In addition to my two day jobs, I’ve been working weekends as a server and teaching an ESL class one night a week, all while trying to write (rare), study Spanish (rarer), and have a social life (so rare, it’s still mooing).

Of all those demands on my time, I’m finding teaching the most rewarding. For about three hours every Monday night, I volunteer at El Centro de Educación de Trabajadores in Hell’s Kitchen, an organization that provides a variety of services to help immigrants and those whose first language isn’t English. They provide a good community service, a necessary service, and I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to play a small part in it – as well as a little sad that next week will be the end of the quarter.

Partnered with a co-teacher, I help adult learners with first level English, teaching essential grammar and vocabulary. The students are at varying skill levels, and almost every week we’ve had a new student arrive, so there’s a lot of on-the-fly adaptation and rejiggering of lesson plans.

Every Monday morning, I leave my apartment at 8 to work a full 9-5 (5:30, really) and then immediately take the train a couple stops north to start teaching just after 6. The class ends at 9 and then I have roughly an hour ride home back to my apartment in Crown Heights. Then another six straight days of work. Sunday nights, I go to sleep exhausted just by the thought of the next day.

The strange thing – or not so strange, based on the admissions of my fellow volunteers – is that by the time class has started, I’m re-energized, excited to engage with the students, to hear about their weeks and learn more about them. They come from Venezuela, Brazil, Mexico, Iran, and other locales. Every week we talk about what life is like in their home countries, what they enjoy about New York, and what differences they experience in American culture. These are the conversations I live for.

When it’s my week to lead the lesson, there’s always a wee nervous stirring in my stomach, the weight of responsibility, a sense that there’s more at stake than whether a cheeseburger comes out at the right temperature. The glimmer of excitement in someone’s eye when they understand something that only minutes before they had not is the ultimate gratuity.

I’m sad that I won’t get a second chance to work with El Centro or my co-teachers. I hope to someday return to a similar type of program, either abroad or when (if) I return to the United States. Until then, I’m grateful for the opportunity. I don’t yet think of myself as a teacher, not really, but this was an important stop on that journey.


A Puzzle with No Solution

Ms. Drake turned out to be a surprisingly pivotal person in my life’s direction. I say surprising because, when she was my sixth grade teacher, I always found her teaching style to be a bit juvenile. She decorated her classroom with color paper cutouts that looked more appropriate for kindergarteners. We also had a midday break where she would read different books to us, some of them well below my reading level. I was mostly bored in her class.

Hell, I’m providing her the pseudonym of “Ms. Drake” not to protect her identity but because I genuinely don’t remember it. She only lasted at the school one year.

And yet, Ms. Drake, my Ms. Frizzle-esque sixth grade teacher absolutely changed the course of my life.

Up until sixth grade, when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said a “mathematician.” I didn’t really have a concept of what that meant or how exactly doing math could manifest as a career. I just knew that I liked math problems, any math problems.

When I was still in single digits, I used to borrow my sister, Debra’s, algebra textbook and solve problems from her homework. I enjoyed all math, but algebra appealed to me the most because each problem was like a little puzzle, and boy, I loved puzzles. One summer, I took a school math book home with me to do homework so that I could advance the next year. By the time I was in sixth grade, I had leapt ahead in my math course to be in the same class as my older brother, Daniel. He loved that.

So, every day, usually coinciding with Ms. Drake’s reading period, I and another student, a much brighter boy than me named Juno, would leave our sixth grade classroom and go upstairs to join the upper level math class (our school was a private Christian institution that housed K-9 grades all in one yellow, metal barn-shaped building).

I took great pride in my math proficiency, and was more than a little bit of a shithead about it with my older siblings. But since I was a mortally shy and uneasy kid, it’s all I had; it was my entire identity, other than being the youngest boy from a messed up family – which I also took a weird kind of pride in.

Having that one thing to hang my hat on was very important because sixth grade was also the year puberty body slammed my groin like a Republican congressman and I discovered the most magnificent of life’s horrors: falling in love.

Her name was Laura. She wasn’t the first girl I’d had a crush on. That was Melanie in kindergarten, and there’d been others. But Laura was the first girl for whom seeing her enter the room made me feel like I was dying and being born at the same time. My crush on her is probably the reason I can’t remember Ms. Drake’s real name or most other things going on in my life from sixth grade through much of junior high: she outshone everything else.

As a chunky 11-year-old, I was not a smooth talker, and I was not cute, at least not to sixth grade girls. I was confident that Laura – and every other girl for that matter – was in love with my best friend at the time, Aaron, an athletic, naturally popular kid. That’s how I envisioned him; I’m sure his memory is far less charitable, as no one remembers their pubescent years fondly.

I went through that entire year in complete devastation, certain that I was invisible to Laura, though I know for sure that she actually did notice me: I was the jerk who made up some stupid, rude nickname for her. That’s right, I was the cliché, the boy who didn’t know how to talk to his crush so he insulted her instead. This was the beginning of a phase where, when I couldn’t think of anything funny or witty to say, I would just be mean. I expect that phase to end any day now.

There I was, in love with this incomparable beauty (there are few comparison points for an 11-year-old, Christian boy), and completely unable to break through the barrier between us. I’d met the unsolvable puzzle.

This is where Ms. Drake comes in.

In addition to the reading period, Ms. Drake would also set aside a portion of the day for us to write in our journals. We could write whatever we wanted, and at the end, those who wished to could read what they’d written aloud to the class. I’d never really done any personal writing before, never had a diary or anything, but I took to this activity with gusto.

During one of these writing periods, I created my first character: Jack String, a bumbling idiot of a private eye who always managed to solve his cases by pure dumb luck. I’m not sure where the character came from, but like most everything else about me at that age, I’m sure I stole it from something I watched on TV.

Feeling confident one day, I volunteered to read my Jack String story to the class. That’s when it happened, the most perfect, most beautiful, purest life-sustaining moment of my paltry existence: I read the silly story and the class laughed. Nay, Laura laughed. That was it. Fuck math, I was a writer.

Writing was powerful, it was world changing. It made me funny. Once Jack String came to life on the page, he became all I wanted to write about, all I wanted to do. Entering his world offered the briefest of respites from my uncertain real life. (Years later, when I unearthed the original Jack String pages, I was shocked to find that these “short stories” where barely two paragraphs long.)

As I grew older, Jack String transformed into a more dour detective until I abandoned the character altogether. Though I had loved reading Encyclopedia Brown and other detective stories, it turned out I was lousy at manufacturing meaningful mysteries of my own. My fiction grew less plot heavy as I developed as a writer, more character based. The humor also changed, from pratfalls to sardonic quips that are really only funny to me. It turns out, my sixth grade self knew how to entertain an audience better than current me.

Laura and I became “friends” throughout high school but it was always a walled off kind of relationship. At 18, when I read my poetry for the first time in front of an older, rowdy audience at the Jazzhaus, I invited her as my guest, hoping not too subtly that my exquisite words would wow the audience and capture her heart.

We were the only under-agers allowed in (my brother, Steve, ran the show) and we drank Cherry Cokes together at our separate table. When it was my turn to read, I sheepishly worked my way through the narrow passages between the swiveling chairs and up onto the spotlighted stage.

There I stood, a stick figure child with the blondest of long blond hair, standing before a drunken crowd of adults. I cleared my throat in preparation of reading truly terrible poetry, but before I could get any words out, a disembodied voice from the darkness hollered, “Hey, Hanson!” The crowd exploded into hoots and guffaws. I turned beet red, and then grew redder. Apparently I could still get a laugh as a writer.

Dripping sweat, I managed to mumble out my angsty couplets before leaving the stage to polite clapping. I sat through the rest of the show, every few minutes looking at Laura with a twitchy smile, but there was nothing to be done, nothing to salvage. I’m pretty sure that was the last time I saw Laura.

In School (Album)

For all that humiliation, for all the social anxiety, I have Ms. Drake to thank. But, sincerely so. Getting up on that stage and being roundly embarrassed was a necessary experience. I went up almost every week for the next three years, and eventually grew more comfortable performing before an audience, even if the poetry didn’t improve. It was facing that fear that led the groundwork for other major leaps that I would make in my life, particularly 10 Cities/10 Years.

It’s a strange influence that a teacher can have on a student’s life (and a preposterous society that doesn’t revere and support its teachers). If you were to ask me which teachers I’ve learned the most from or who I had the most admiration for, Ms. Drake wouldn’t be the first to pop into my head, and yet, truly, no other teacher sparked such a fundamental and lasting passion in me.

It’s crazy to think, if not for Ms. Drake, I might be an engineer instead of a writer.

I hope she’s sorry.




…jack of all trades, master of none…

On most days of the week, I stare at a computer, a screen projecting a swath of information I don’t and couldn’t care about. For hours at a time, I figure out how to best formulate that information so someone else can make money. It is my job. For now.

If you are familiar with the term “factotum,” there is a good chance it is because of the author Charles Bukowski. It was the title of his second novel (and a 2005, Matt Dillon-starring film based on it), which tells of Henry Chinaski, an alcoholic ruffian who can’t hold onto a job, or won’t.

If you’re unfamiliar, a factotum is someone who holds many jobs, someone who doesn’t specialize in any one particular occupation but bounces from one gig to the next. Sometimes, factotums are easily bored, always looking for something new to hold their attention. On the hand, maybe they’re just bad at everything and stumble from one failure to the next. And then there are the wanderers.

I’m not sure which category I best fit into, but I am a factotum.

The jobs I have carried:
Stockroom supervisor
Sales associate (books, clothing, music and movies, porn)
Bookstore manager
Fry cook
Data entry clerk
Phone bank operator
Small scale construction (a bathroom; a basement)
Marketing associate

I’m likely forgetting some.

I’m currently in the process of embarking on a new, well, career might be too strong a word, but employment direction. For the last month, I’ve been volunteering as an ESL teacher for a program in Hell’s Kitchen. This is fulfilling my practicum hours so I can complete my certification with the International TEFL Academy, which will hopefully open up teaching opportunities globally.

It’s just the next step in an oeuvre that will likely never settle into one groove.

God Bless You

My First Job

Not counting cleaning my dad’s office, the first job I ever held was at a KOA campground on the outskirts of my hometown. The campground was owned by a family who attended the same church as mine. I was happy to avoid working at a fast food restaurant as my older brothers had for their first jobs (alas, fast food employment was still in my future). I was 16.

My responsibilities at the job were a little ill-defined, but mostly I was there to maintain the fields and long-term campsites. The campgrounds were split into three sections: The first consisted of open fields where overnight visitors could set up tents and cook around fire pits. Moving north across the property, there were three lanes of extended-stay parking where RVs and campers could be hooked up and stay for a few weeks.

Finally, there was the long-stay section, where families would often sit for months at a time. Essentially a trailer park, with all the negative associations that brings to mind, I dreaded going anywhere near that section. Of course, these were all just poorer families making do in a tough situation and providing a home for their children; no shame in that. But as a sullen teen responsible for cleaning around their “lawns,” I was unsympathetic to their plight.

On my first day, my boss, Bob, handed me a pair of gloves and directed me to the long-term sites to pick up trash. Thus, the first task of my illustrious and diverse working career involved picking discarded cigarette butts out of gravel like the bleakest claw machine ever (flashing neon: “Win cancer for a quarter!”). Every day of work since then has just been a variation of that.

There were aspects of working at KOA I liked (cruising around on a riding lawn mower) and aspects I loathed (cleaning out the dog walk trash bin with my hands), a dichotomy of activities that fell under the blanket theme of Just Obeying the Boss; you know, a job.

About halfway through the summer, a friend from church was hired, a guy named David, so I had someone to work alongside. We had a good time working together, but much of the gig was fairly solitary, which I didn’t mind. Mowing lawns, weed whacking, cleaning the public bathrooms, they invoked a kind of zen-like trance through the sheer repetition and simplicity of action. Sometimes, that trance was a little too deep.

One sunny day, I was out mowing the far south camping field, a long and thin rectangle of open grass bordered on each side by gravel roads. Other than a couple trees and a fire pit or two, the field was just open grass, which made it a perfect patch of land for accelerating the riding mower to its limits. Starting from the center, I rode that hog in outward concentric circles, gaining speed all the way.

The important thing to know about this field is that it was formed like a flat bowl, with its immediate edges curving up to meet the road.

I was able to pick up the most speed on the long stretches of the field which I would then use to whip across the short sides and back up the other long side. I had managed to pick up considerable momentum by the time I reached the outer edges. That’s where I met the 45-degree incline. I was fine along the long southern side, but as I took a left-hand turn onto the short eastern edge, I experienced a terrifying sensation: the mower tipping onto two wheels.

In that horrified moment, it wasn’t my life that flashed before my eyes, but a vision of the next ten seconds. I’d heard stories: The mower would flip, taking me with it, either crushing me underneath or, having flung me a few feet, rolling and landing wheels-down – blades-down – on my arms, legs, or neck. I wouldn’t be driving home that day.

As I hung at maybe 80 degrees, instinct took over and I kicked with all my strength to leap as far out of the path of the mower as I could. I hit the ground and rolled, looking up just in time to see my mighty steed right itself onto four wheels and drive off without me. For a moment, I stared in astonishment and relief. Then I pushed myself back onto my feet and ran after the riderless mower as it crested the edge of the field, crossed the gravel road, and descend into the next field.

I leapt back into the seat and took command of the mower. Looking around, I checked to see if anyone had seen my near-decapitation, but I was out in the field alone, no witnesses for my embarrassment. I spun the hefty piece of machinery around and sheepishly finished the rest of the field at half speed.

Most days lacked that sort of adrenaline rush. At worst, I’d weed whack some unidentifiable wire hanging from a camper in the extended parking lot and panic for a second, before shrugging it off and continuing with my day.

My worst days came with the arrival of Phish-heads who swarmed to the campground on a weekend in which their beloved jam band was playing a show nearby. The patchouli stench would have been enough, but when they decamped, they left behind piles of garbage, untended fire pits, and, no exaggeration, a centimeter of caked mud on the floor of the bathroom. These were no hippies.

My two young passions, NYC and puzzles. Ladies.

Despite those unpleasantries, I mostly enjoyed the job, albeit only as much as a 16-year-old can enjoy any job. For one, I liked the physical activity. I was a hefty – nay, fat – teen, so that summer spent working outside in the hot sun was the beginning of a period of dramatic weight loss.

Plus, in general, I like working. I’m happy to have an occupation by which I can pay my own way and occupy my body, if not always my mind. It’s why, during my ten years of relocating, periods of joblessness were so depressing. It wasn’t just that I was anxious about money, I hated feeling so listless and inactive.

I’ve never found a job that I wanted to keep forever, and I don’t imagine I ever will. I’ve had some great jobs, working with good people and completing rewarding tasks. I’ve also had my share of soul-crushing gigs. Every one’s had an expiration date. That’s the life of a factotum.

In my younger years when people asked me what I wanted to do for a career, I told them I wanted to be a novelist. As I got older and came to understand how unlikely it is to become successful enough writing fiction to pay the bills, I expanded my career ambitions to include other writing gigs, maybe working for a magazine, or writing travel pieces. Now, though, I’m no longer holding out for that writing dream. I’ll always be a writer; I may never make a dime from it. That’s okay.

I have two passions in life, writing and traveling, and as I age, it’s the latter one that brings me the most satisfaction. Seeing some place new for the first time is life sustaining for me. Money is the necessary evil that allows me to pursue that passion, so I will continue my factotum ways.

Monumento a Jacinto Benavente (Green)


Teaching English is just another means to an end. I enjoy it; like, a lot. I could see myself doing it for years, as long as it opens up avenues for new homes in new countries. But will it be the occupation that gets me to settle down somewhere permanently? Unlikely.

I hope you enjoy your job. I hope it fills you with a sense of purpose and satisfies you creatively, intellectually, or physically (ideally, some combination of all three). But if not? Well, nothing has to be forever.

Teachable Moments: The Fragility of Manhood

I’m roughly a third of the way through my TEFL Certification course with ITA. The course is designed to prepare students to teach English in a variety of classrooms, both traditional and nontraditional, as well as to work as a private tutor. As I read about different teaching philosophies and method, I can’t help but think about my own experiences as a student.

This particular story isn’t about how a teacher inspired me, or about an innovative teaching style. This is a story about a teacher speaking to his class in an unexpected and, ultimately, sad moment.

(Warning: There is use of a particular slur in this story that some will find offensive.)

When we entered after lunch, Mr. Capp* was at the front of the class as usual, standing straight up in pressed slacks, a button-up shirt, and a solid green tie. He neither dressed formally in suits like Mr. Harkins, the civics teacher, or casually in short-sleeved polos like Mr. Wells who taught English and coached girls’ tennis; he taught Senior Psychology. Having entered into his 30s with an unassuming handsomeness, he watched us in silence.

Of my non-Humanities classes. Psychology was by far my favorite, an interest that would carry on into college. Two sections were of particular interest, the first on human sexuality and the other Depression-related disorders. Mr. Capp approached both subjects with professional nonchalance, covering subjects like homosexuality and suicide – delicate topics in any high school, let alone in the Midwest – with the same matter-of-factness as Ms. Pohl explaining vectors.  As his sartorial choices suggested, Mr. Capp straddled the line between Student’s Buddy and Strict Mentor. He knew how to engage with students, but he would commonly remind us that we were seniors and that meant we needed to act like upperclassmen. He had no patience for laziness or entitled students.

This particular Tuesday, he was uncharacteristically tightlipped as we streamed in.

Two weeks prior, in a discussion on gender norms, Mr. Capp had given a remarkably sympathetic and forward-thinking lecture, espousing the potentially controversial stance that one’s biological sex must not necessarily determine one’s gender or how one expressed it. To illustrate this theme, he split the class up into a male and female group and then had the groups compete in a series of stereotypically gender-specific tasks, such as running in heels and throwing a football. The catch was that the teams picked which member from the other team would compete in each activity.

Being a mostly anonymous student at the school, I assumed (and hoped) I would be able to ride out the whole competition in the background. To my great chagrin, I was chosen to participate in one event: I had to fasten a hinge between two blocks of wood. Apparently the ladies had figured I might not be the “manliest” kid in the class – perceptive, these ones. Their astute observation paid off as I was defeated handily by my female competitor. If it was any consolation to my team, the guys did win the high heels race.

Despite my embarrassment – and I was still young and insecure enough for the loss to feel deeply shameful – I enjoyed the section and found the topic to be reassuring.

This is what made the strange occurrence in Mr. Capp’s class that Tuesday all the more confusing. With all the students settled into their seats, Mr. Capp remained briefly silent. This was already an odd start since he was not one to waste any of the class period. We had just started the section on Bipolar Disorder, but when he finally did speak, it was not to begin the lecture.

“Last night, after school let out, I went to visit my mother.” I think most of us assumed Mr. Capp was telling us a story to illustrate the lesson. We quickly realized that wasn’t the case. “While I was in her house, some coward vandalized her property.” I don’t recall now if he actually said the word or merely suggested it, but either way, we all knew what had happened: Someone spray-painted the word ‘faggot’ on his mother’s driveway. “We know it was a student and the police will be thoroughly investigating.”

He continued through contained rage on the subject of respect and maturity. The entire class listened with the kind of rapt attention most teachers could only dream of. The speech Mr. Capp delivered probably only lasted five minutes, but it felt like it took up the whole class. There was undeniable fury seething behind Mr. Capp’s stony expression, his commitment to total professionalism losing out to filial devotion. He tried to focus his anger through derision, mocking the perpetrator for being dumb enough to not even graffiti the right house, but there was no mirth in his tone.

Then the venting took an unexpected turn.

“If there’s anyone here who questions whether I’m a man, we can go outside right now and I’ll prove it. Are you man enough to fight me? Or just a coward vandalizing an old woman’s house in the dark?” It would have been laughable if it hadn’t been stated with such virulence.

What were we supposed to make of this bizarre presentation? How could someone who had just weeks earlier taught us that gender norms were a societal construct now face us and insist that he would defend his manhood through the most banal display of machismo?

The simplest answer is that sometimes we can know something intellectually but not internalize that knowledge. In heightened emotional states, in those moments when we need them the most, we rarely maintain our grasp on our ideals. The whole display – his anger, his barely maintained façade, his hypocrisy – was in its own way one of the most profound lessons I’ve ever received.

It didn’t take long for someone to find the ID of a student in the lawn of Mr. Capp’s mother. It belonged to Brady, a rich kid who no one seemed to actually like yet who occupied the center of the most popular social circle, an argument for class privilege if you ever needed one. One of those seniors who intended to ride out his final year in pud classes, it’s no surprise that Brady ran afoul of Mr. Capp and bristled at being asked to put in actual effort. 

As Seniors, we thought of ourselves as the elder statesmen, but Brady proved, we were still just kids.

I have no idea if Mr. Capp still teaches or whether anyone ever took him up on his challenge. I also don’t know what happened to Brady, though I suspect very little in terms of punishment or lasting consequence. Despite the disheartening display that Tuesday afternoon, I still think of Mr. Capp’s class as one of the most influential factors in my educational path, one that included many more psychology courses and has continued well beyond the formal classroom.

I wonder if Mr. Capp still thinks back on that day; if so, does he regrets his words? Maybe he’s ashamed, or maybe he feels it was justified.  Perhaps, due to cognitive dissonance – a concept I’d only study later in my college psych courses – he has somehow mentally rearranged the incident into something heroic or even noble, crafting a personal narrative in which he stood before his classroom and displayed the model of an enlightened, post-gender male. I’ll never know. It doesn’t matter.

It might be strange to say this but, I actually did learn a lot from this experience. It was the beginning of a long arc for me, coming to terms with my own idea of masculinity and strength. It’s a lesson we continue to learn every day, as Mr. Capp proved.

It’s also a reminder that, whether in front of a classroom or tutoring a student one-on-one, any moment as a teacher can be significant.

*All names are made up.

[“Calvin and Hobbes” created by Bill Watterson.]

Travel Living

Yesterday, my online course with the International TEFL Academy officially began. This is the first step in my long term plan to live and work abroad indefinitely. Over the next ten weeks, I will be reading lessons, taking quizzes, and completing assignments, the first time I’ve had to do any of this since I graduated college back in 2005. Never too late to try a new path, right?

I don’t know what type of teacher I’ll be; it’s never been something I seriously considered. Not that I’ve ever given serious consideration to any sort of career – other than writing, of course. One of the major forces behind 10 Cities/10 Years was my aversion to chaining myself into a job and settling for a traditional career plan. Eleven years later, can’t say I’ve changed much in that regard.

It’s why teaching English as a second language interests me, and why I’m willing to put down a sizeable investment for this certification. I’m learning a skill, developing a marketable tool that can take me anywhere – anywhere. If it weren’t for the lousy weather, I’d spend a year in the South Pole teaching penguins the indicative mood.

Spain is just the first stop for me. And yes, yes, I hear you asking: The first of 10? In 10 years?


The goal going forward is not to bind myself to yet another schedule. At 22, I needed the structure and form of 10 Cities/10 Years because I was a traveling rube. I had only ever lived in small town Kansas – other than a summer in Washington D.C. – before I moved to Charlotte. Having a rigid plan kept me on track and gave me a finish line to reach for so that I kept striving, especially when the bottom fell out, which it did often.

By the time I had reached the final few cities, though, 10 Cities/10 Years had become a career in its own right. It wasn’t like any career you’ve had, to be sure, but as I swung through many of the same touchstones each year, it grew just as confining and limiting as if I had saddled up to a desk and filled out TPS reports. It’s not something I want to lock myself into again.

All the same, I’ll be forever grateful for those experiences I had through the decade, and more importantly, the skills I gained. I ended the project an infinitely more adaptable person. Traveling was an abstract idea when I set off on my decade tour, but now it’s a fundamental part of who I am. 10 Cities/10 Years was the scaffolding upon which I built my life; now I can stand without it.

One of the most vital adaptations I gained throughout those 10 cities was the ability to compartmentalize time. Everything was temporary – everything is temporary – which was a good reminder to enjoy what I had while I had it. Even more important for my mental survival, though, was the knowledge that if I had landed myself in an untenable situation – a crappy job, a messy living arrangement – there was a finite amount of time with which I would have to put up with it. All things would pass.

The whole endeavor made me profoundly aware of how long and how short a year really is. We divide our lives into years, both in terms of the calendar and our birthdays, but they’re largely arbitrary distinctions, the difference from December of 2016 to January of 2017 being negligible at best. Unless some major life change occurred in a particular period of time, months blur together, and then years.

From my 20s to my early 30s, my memories and associations have distinct time and place markers. There’s no blurring together of Chicago and Nashville, or Seattle and New Orleans. Even when engaged in similar activities in each city, the different backdrops and new companions shaded each year in its own, unique hue. Considering my affinity for whiskey, it’s helpful to have the memory aids.

No idea who any of these people are.

Travel Living

If I’m not launching a second round of 10 Cities or, more ambitiously, 10 Countries in 10 Years, why keep the name? Because it’s who I am now. Everything that I went through and everything I overcame during that decade of itinerancy not only developed me personally, but shaped my understanding of what it is to live.

As I pursue my dream of prolonged expatriatism, my intention is for this website to be more than just another travel blog, more than tourism porn to make people jealous of all the cool things I’ve seen. (I mean, yeah, hopefully it’ll be at least a little of that, but I want it to be more.) Ideally, it can illustrate travel as a way of life.

Over the years, as I’ve read travel blogs, I’ve felt deep jealousy towards those people who just hop from country to country – probably you have, too. Every blogger inevitably writes a post about “How I Do It” and once you get past most of the boilerplate “Just do it” aphorisms, the answer generally boils down to a mix of having lucrative employment (and/or a trust fund) and some form of company sponsorship. I always leave those posts feeling defeated, not inspired.

There’s a great deal of implicit privilege built into the whole travel blogging sphere. Even though I had neither reliable income or sponsorship, I still recognize that without my own privilege as a white male, 10 Cities/10 Years – an already arduous endeavor – would have been so much harder.

With that in mind, here are my goals for this website as I embark on my next chapter of travel:

  1. Provide useful tips on how to travel, not as a sentient billboard but as a real person
  2. Offer more than postcards; experiencing cultures has greater value than taking the quintillionth picture of the Eiffel Tower (you better believe I’ll take a picture of the Eiffel Tower when I get the chance)
  3. Inspire through practical and actionable information; no vague platitudes
  4. Acknowledge where my privilege benefits me and use it positively
  5. Be more than a travel blog; exemplify Travel Living
  6. Enjoy the journey

The next eight months are going to rush by, especially once the summer arrives and plans start to firm up. I hope you’ll follow along with the process. Perhaps it will give you the inspiration and guidance to finally take that trip or make a needed career change.

Here we go.

The Next Road: My plans for 2017.

The finish line was crossed; the journey complete, the mountain conquered.

And with the conclusion reached, I could only ask, “Now what?”

After ten years of travel, I took a job (two, actually), ostensibly as an editor of marketing materials and business proposals, but more generally as a catch all for anything that needs to be done that other employees with more defined roles shouldn’t or won’t do. Now, I sit at an office desk from 9 to 5. My mind wanders.

Last winter, depressed and listless, I impulsively booked a weekend trip to England to visit a friend. It was my first time leaving the country. I flew out Friday morning and returned Monday afternoon, missing a couple days of work to tour York with my friend, with Saturday devoted to sightseeing London. Except, I woke up Saturday morning with a severe case of food poisoning and spent most of the day crawling between the bed and the toilet instead of seeing Big Ben or the Thames.

I returned to New York, still depressed. My first trip abroad had been a flop; now returned the grind.

A couple months passed in a fog. I went on some dates just to occupy my time but otherwise I was living in isolation. I didn’t talk at work, didn’t acknowledge my roommates. I existed, just barely. In April, realizing this form of living was unsustainable, I sat on my bed and Googled, “Cheap ways to travel Europe.” A blog post directed me to Diverbo’s Pueblo Ingles.


I’ve already written about my experience of the program in Spain. Unlike my previous European jaunt, I returned from this September trip re-energized and motivated. Over the next few weeks, I researched teaching English abroad. The week at Pueblo Ingles had reminded me how much I enjoyed talking language, how exhilarating it can be to help someone communicate.

I found the International TEFL Academy. There are numerous outlets for TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification, both online and in physical classrooms. I chose ITA because it fits around my schedule. Their website and alumni pages are also a fount of useful information for people looking to teach abroad.

My two and a half months of online classes will begin in a couple weeks. By April, I will be trained and certified to teach English, and then the search for a job begins. I haven’t made a firm decision on which city I’ll move to, as that will depend largely on where I can find work, but Madrid seems the frontrunner at the moment. I’m happy to live in uncertainty for the time being; it’s familiar.

There is no shortage of people around the world looking to learn English. I could go to a new country every year for the rest of my life – I won’t, but I could (well, I probably won’t…).

I don’t know why it took so long for me to saddle up to this plan. I’ve had friends teach English abroad. I’ve heard about these opportunities for years. I have a Bachelor’s in English for chrissake, I’m pretty much already trained to do the job. But that’s why I initially resisted the idea: It was a job, and I didn’t want to conform my life’s direction to an occupation. When I was doing 10 Cities/10 Years, the travel was always the first concern, with work always secondary.

Pueblo Ingles helped change my perception. For that week when we Anglos were helping the Spaniards develop their conversational English, it never felt like work. It could be tiring, for sure, and some conversations came more naturally than others, but it was always about genuine human interaction first and foremost. As the week progressed, seeing the transformation of the Spaniards’ English ability, from tentative and uncertain to confident and relaxed, was a revelation.

I know teaching in a classroom won’t be the same experience. It will be a job, and there will be days where it will feel like it. I have no illusions that the experience won’t be trying. I expect it. I relish it.

For a decade, my life was a constant challenge. Now, it’s not. Living a simple life is hard.

I’m returning to a life on the road because I crave the struggle, the roadblocks and detours. I love not knowing what will happen next year, and the year after that. I miss uncertainty. There are a thousand ways to live a life. This is mine.

Having a purpose to augment my travels is also highly motivating. To provide a service, to be able to help someone learn, I think that could be fulfilling in a way few things are for me. In a world that is increasingly focusing on walls, both literal and figurative, to separate us, it’s a nice thought that I can help build ladders.

Refugees Welcome in Madrid
These are my plans for 2017. Beyond that, who knows? Maybe I’ll spend a year in Spain, maybe two, or three. Perhaps I’ll follow it up with travels in Asia, South America, Africa. Maybe I’ll never set foot in the United States again; just as plausible, I could return to New York in a couple years. I know only one thing at this moment: I want a life up in the air and out on the road.