You Animals!


March 20, 2018

Chiang Mai, Thailand


One of the fascinating parts about living here is discovering the different variety of fauna that surrounds me, as opposed to what I was used to seeing back in the States.  I was introduced almost immediately to some of the indigenous wildlife after arriving last year on New Year’s Day in Bangkok.

Into the Wild

My friend arranged to take me to a temple complex outside the city where we dined with the crowd and then walked around. There was a large pond formed by a stream that had been dammed up, and I was gazing down into it, watching the large carp who were feeding on pellets being tossed at them. Just to my left I spotted a good-sized snapping turtle floating lazily with his beak just breaking the water’s surface.

None of this was really new to me. I’d seen snapping turtles while growing up in Florida. I’d seen big fish in ponds, though never this amount at once. It looked as if you could walk across the water by stepping on the backs of the carp, they were so thick.


Monitor lizard. Not the one I saw.

What I didn’t expect to see was a seven-foot monitor lizard to clamber out of the water and up the bank to the walkway.

This was cool. They walk quite the same as the alligators that I had seen as a boy. It seems a little cumbersome for them, and I do believe that they are much more graceful in the water. The monitor lizard pushed himself up off the ground, keeping his legs bent at an odd angle to do so. For some reason I was reminded of the plastic legs that we used to attach to the segmented bodies of Cootie toys.


I watched as he lumbered towards one of the temple buildings, only to freeze in place, then slowly retreat back to the water as a group of three worshippers appeared around the corner of the structure. Evidently most monitors are a bit shy.

Same Same, But Different

Later, when I had settled into my digs at my training course up in Chiang Mai, I began to see (and hear) other unfamiliar creatures.  Birds that I didn’t recognize. Birds that I DID recognize, but were different than the ones I’d seen before. Like chickens.

Usually, when we see chickens in the States, they tend to be more squat and plump, probably based on the breeding and the diet. Here, the chickens stand a bit taller, and are scrawny. You can tell the difference when you order some fried (or roasted) chicken at the food stalls. The pieces (drumstick, wing, etc.) are pretty small in comparison to the ones you’ll find at Popeye’s or Church’s. But the taste of the chicken here is so much better.

Not Quite Godzilla

But before I digress into a story about food…let’s get back to lizards. This place is overrun with small gecko-like lizards.

Your basic, friendly house gecko

Some nights, the outside walls seem to be moving because of the amount of these little buggers running around. And they’re fast. Their movement is almost worm or snake-like.They wriggle when they run. I sometimes find them in my room, which is cool with me, because they are voracious eaters of bugs. I just wish they’d do a better job of getting rid of the pesky ants.

Some species of these creepy-crawlies grow larger. There’s a type of lizard called a “To-Kay” by the Thai people, based on the sound that they make.

Maybe not as friendly?

It’s a very distinctive call. Starts out with a loud “tik! tik! tik! tik!”, then a pregnant pause, followed by a much louder “Toh-Kay! Toh-Kay! “Toh-Kay!” The interpretation of the sound is subjective, of course. The first time I heard it, at about 3am, I thought for sure that it was some kind of bird yelling “Fuck-You! Fuck-You! Fuck-You!” I couldn’t figure out why a bird would be awake to curse loudly at 3am, but every night, that damn thing would be waking me up. It was a few weeks before I asked someone about the bird, and was informed that it was, in fact, NOT a bird, but a lizard. The 3am began to make a bit more sense.

I swear he was bigger in real life.

To-Kays can reach lengths of 8″ or more, and from what I’m told, are quite valuable if you find one big enough. I’ve also been informed that they will bite if provoked. I had one invite himself into the vent window in my shower last year. Startled me a bit.



More Critters

I’ve also been startled (at first) by large, muddy water buffalo standing across the street from me as I got ready to leave for work. Now they seem commonplace.

Howdy, neighbor!

A local farmer will lead them into the neighborhood to graze on empty lots. Sometimes he’ll tie them up alongside the street, and I’ve almost run into them on my motorcycle at night, because those suckers are nearly impossible to see in the dark. Almost always visible, though, are the large piles of bovine shit they leave behind in the middle of the road.

During rainy season, I’ll regularly see large bullfrogs peeking out of the watery rice fields, and smaller frogs leaping great heights and distances trying to make it across the road. It’s always a pity when they jump right in front of a passing vehicle.  Last year, I actually saw a fish “swimming” on the street surface trying desperately to make it to the ditch where there was water.

My students know the words “rabbit” and “squirrel”, even though I have yet to see a (wild) rabbit or a proper squirrel here. (But then, my kids also know the word “snowman”.) Mainly the rodents I see here are rats. Rats are everywhere. In the cities, I’ve witnessed black, plastic garbage bags moving as if possessed by demons. But it’s always a rat or three scurrying around inside. Cockroaches are ubiquitous as well. If you’re a squeamish person, it’s probably best not to walk around at night.


Some of the spiders here are frightening as hell. One species, the huntsman spider, can grow to the size of your hand. I’ve been told that they are harmless to humans, but I believe that is bullshit. I’ve had to kill a few of them in my room, and even though they were much smaller than the advertised “large” size, they still nearly gave me a heart attack.


Planet of the Apes

During my school break back in October, I visited southern Thailand for a couple of weeks. One of the places I visited was Hua Hin, about two hours south of Bangkok, on the western shore of the Gulf of Thailand. While there, I decided to hike up to a popular viewpoint overlooking the city and the water. As soon as I got out of the main commercial/residential area of the town, I was startled to see troops (also called missions, tribes, or cartloads?)  of monkeys sitting along a long concrete wall.

Monkeys in Hua Hin

This was my first experience ever seeing monkeys in the wild. Most of them were about the size of a small dog or a large house cat, though a few of the males were noticeably larger.

Not knowing their nature, I was a bit wary, having heard stories of monkeys throwing their shit at people. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. They are, however, perverts. I witnessed some behavior that would be better suited to a hard-core porn website.

Later, after I had finished taking pictures from the various viewpoints, I saw a large male sitting on the steps that I needed to take to get back to the entrance. I didn’t know what he wanted, and I had no desire to tangle with him. So I simply waited, and made sure that my phone was securely in my hand, since monkeys are notorious thieves.

After the mugging

And sure enough, larceny was on his mind. After about thirty seconds of me watching him, he turned his back to me and loped up towards a small group of Chinese tourists who were on their way to the photo op spots.

One of the ladies was clutching an iced-coffee she had just purchased at the stand near the entrance. Two seconds later, she was clutching only the plastic holder, as the klepto-monkey had jumped up and snatched away the cup of icy espresso. Guess everyone needs their caffeine fix.

Pachyderms on Parade

Getting hugged/mugged?

I was privileged to enjoy an experience with the larger, more majestic wildlife, namely elephants. My friend from Chicago visited me,  and we  booked a visit to a cruelty-free elephant sanctuary where we were allowed to feed, bathe, and play with the beautiful creatures.

Many people come to Thailand or other Asian countries and pay for the experience of riding the elephants or watching them perform tricks like painting and such. What these people (hopefully) don’t realize is that behind the curtain of fun activity for humans is the horrible treatment of the animals, as they are beaten, chained, and gouged with bullhooks in order to train them to perform.

My friend, Kimberly, giving Jumbo a scrub

Fortunately, the information is becoming more widespread, and a few elephant camps are changing to cruelty-free, no-riding sanctuaries as the demand for these grows and tourists are voting with their wallets.

I had intended to use this post to talk about the dogs and cats here, but my word count is already past 1,600, and I’ll have lots more to say about that in a separate post.

The Drowning Pool

March 19, 2018

Chiang Mai, Thailand


When I was a child growing up in the panhandle of Florida, one benefit of being the kid of a medical professional was that my parents could afford to build a swimming pool in our back yard. Twice. Both of the homes we lived in during the years between 1975 and 1987 (when I moved away back to Michigan) had large enough plots for us to have an in-ground, outdoor natatorium, complete with diving board, and in the first instance, a slide.

Example only. Not my childhood swimming pool.

This was a very nice perk, as the tropical heat in Florida is pretty oppressive. My brothers and I were constantly in the water, swimming laps, having diving competitions, and playing Marco Polo with friends whom we would invite over. If we weren’t in our own man-made swimming hole, we were out at the state park swimming in the springs, lakes, or rivers (along with the occasional water moccasin and alligator).

The Blue Hole swimming area at Florida Caverns State Park.

My brothers and I learned how to swim at a very early age. So early, in fact, that I do not remember taking any lessons or my parents teaching us. It seemed as normal as walking or climbing. It never occurred to me that other kids might not have the same experience. As far as I knew, all of my friends were able to swim. None of us were Mark Spitz (yesterday’s Michael Phelps), but at bare minimum we could do a basic doggy paddle and keep our heads above water. It wasn’t until my adulthood that I became aware that there was a large company of people who were unable to swim. Much of this non-amphibious population was made up of minorities who, because of segregation laws and practices of the recent past, never had the opportunity to learn, as they were not allowed to so much as dip their feet into a public swimming pool.

Thailand is also a land of tropical heat. It regularly exceeds 38 degrees Celsius (100F), many times rising into the 40s. That kind of swelter can make life miserable. So I’m lucky enough to have found a nice apartment with air conditioning and a good-size private swimming pool to help escape the heat.

I get to ride the pink unicorn in the pool at my apartment.

There are public pools as well, but I am admittedly a snob when it comes to these, having grown up with pools where we controlled who peed (or rather, hopefully not) in the water.

An informal poll of the kids whom I teach reveals that many of the 7-8 year-olds have not yet mastered the ability to swim. So, it seemed a good thing back in August of last year when workers with jack hammers and backhoes showed up at the school and began breaking up part of the grounds and building forms for pouring concrete to build a pool. Our children would be introduced to proper training for this vital life-skill.

However, as a group of foreign teachers, we were less than gratified to see the construction begin. The reason wasn’t because we are anti-swimming. It’s because the school administration has constantly been claiming how little money they have. “No, sorry, there is no money for the supplies and basic equipment you are requesting.” “An English lab sounds like a wonderful idea, but we just don’t have the money to give you an (already) vacant room to set it up.” “We don’t have money to give you a meaningful raise.” The reason for the swimming pool is nothing but cosmetics. There are larger schools in the area which have cinemas and swimming pools, and our director feels that his school should have the same. It’s not about the education of the kids. It’s about bragging rights. Lipstick on a pig, is what we call it in the West. But, as I have discovered in the past year of living here, much of Thai bureaucracy is more interested in form than substance.

At any rate, we were able to witness the slow progress of the pool construction every day. This pool is above ground, made of concrete, using different construction methods than I am used to seeing. What I did notice, as they were pouring the walls and floor, was that the depth remained the same throughout the entire basin. There is no gradual incline as you would expect to see in a pool of that size. The height of the walls, from bottom floor to the top, where the walkway surface was set, measures about 130cm (50+ inches) by my estimation. Which is taller than many of the students that I teach.  As in over their heads. Yet, construction continued. A steel roof and ventilated enclosure was erected over the pool. The walkway was tiled. Steps leading from the school grounds to the top of the pool surface were built, complete with crooked guardrail. Shower and changing rooms were constructed. A filtration pump was installed, with only one (I counted) circulation port, which was positioned almost right next to the intake. The interior of the pool was painted blue. Yet, no one seemed to notice that there was a problem with the design. During one of our foreign teachers meetings I brought up the matter again in a rather dark way as I suggested that we place bets as to when the first kid would drown.

Sometime in December, the pool was finally filled with water.  The circulation pump ran for a few hours, the jet pushing water out, and the intake sucking it back in almost immediately. The water at the far end of the pool remained still. After a few days, a greenish cast could be seen on the water, which also seemed to contain particulate matter. Chemicals were introduced, and portable auxiliary pump was brought in to help move the water around. During the four-day New Year’s holiday weekend, one of the assistant directors (whom I call Aqualung- we’ll get to that later..) reportedly visited the pool with some guests and had a small private party. Perhaps that’s when the issue was discovered. In early January, I witnessed Aqualung standing up on the pool deck with the school director. They were looking down into the pool and not saying much. I saw the director move his hand in a horizontal fashion, making  imaginary perpendicular lines. I knew immediately what he was conjuring.

The next day, the pool was drained. Workers returned and began drilling holes into the interior walls, near the top. They returned a couple of days later and installed chrome railings around three sides of the basin, leaving the fourth side bare, as that entire wall is for the spill-over filtration intake. So now, the kids who are unable to stand up anywhere in the pool without inhaling water will be able to grasp the rail and make their way around to the single metal ladder which is the solitary means of ingress and egress to the tank. Did I mention that there are no graduated steps to enter/exit? Did I mention that there IS NO SHALLOW END to this fucking pool!!!????

Perhaps you can make out the ladder at the far end. The railing is visible on the left.

A few weeks ago, the regular morning ceremony was extended by 90 minutes for the pool dedication/blessing. The students were sitting on the concrete walkways and driveways, plastic chairs were set up for VIPs in front of mountains of flower arrangements, and a group of orange-clad monks were on hand to perform ritual chants in between grandiose speeches from the big-wigs. I didn’t stick around to witness this. I went home instead, and returned in time to teach my first class at 9:50am.  The pool continues to not be used. It has since been drained and refilled twice. The other day, a new swimming coach was introduced to the gathered students and faculty at morning ceremony. A young woman, fresh out of university. She, among all of the other prospects got the job, not because she was the most qualified, but because every other experienced applicant took one look at the pool and walked away. I’ve been told that the pool is going to be open only on the weekends, and to those who wish to pay for the privilege of using the unique facility. I will have to wait to see if this is true or not. But, as a betting man, I’m wagering that the pool will last less than a year before it is closed again. Hopefully before someone dies.

I can’t wait to see their plans for a cinema.


May 29, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand


I’m in a love-hate relationship. Not with an individual, but with a group. Actually nine groups. Nine groups of 32-38 little individuals that are in my charge for an hour at a time twice a week. I’m supposed to be teaching them how to speak, read, and write English, but at least half of those hours are spent being a cop, judge, and prison warden. It’s exhausting.

First Contact

My job as a teacher at the local government school started on May 16. That was the day that approximately 1500 students, ranging from Kindergarten to 6th grade, began walking onto the school grounds through the front gate at 7:15am.

Students performing the “wai” at the entrance gate.

Each day, they queue up single file into small groups of perhaps 10 or 12 before the Thai teacher who has gate duty stops the line. They are then obligated to wai* in the direction of the teacher as they greet her (usually a her) with the standard “sawaddee ka/krub”, then turn around and repeat the formal gesture in the direction of the small Buddha altar at the entrance of the school.

After that, they are free to walk to the commissary/cafeteria for breakfast or to play on the soccer field or in the outdoor gymnasium until time for morning ceremony. Every other week, I am the foreign teacher scheduled to be there to greet the students with “good morning!”, or “hello!” so they remember that English is an important part of their curriculum.


The morning ceremony begins at 8am with all of the classes lined up around the soccer field with their respective teachers and assistant teachers. That is unless it is currently raining or the field is still soaked from a previous downpour.

Morning Ceremony. Some of the first and second graders I teach.

The ceremony consists of the Thai national anthem, played by the school band while two students raise the Thai flag up the pole. The goal is to have the flag hit the top of the pole at the exact moment the anthem finishes. But this rarely happens. Usually, the white, blue, and red striped standard rises in a jerky slow motion until about two meters from the terminus, then when the music ends, it is hoisted up at a frantic clip to an abrupt stop.

After that, some Buddhist prayers are recited, a full minute of silence is (mostly) observed, and then the King’s anthem is played and sung. If there are no speeches or awards to be given, the ceremony is over in about ten minutes. If there are speeches, then it can drag on for twenty. Bureaucrats everywhere love to listen to themselves drone on, and Thailand is no different. Even if nobody is paying attention.

By 8am, the sun has been powerfully making its presence felt, and it can be stifling unless there is a breeze.

Morning Milk

I’ve witnessed kids passing out in the heat as the school director bloviates about mostly meaningless and inconsequential items. Well, I’ve been told that it’s mostly unimportant stuff. I don’t understand any of it yet.

After the speechifying has completed, and there is no further business, the restless children are now herded back to their classrooms, where they are given a plastic pouch of milk and a straw with which to puncture the container and sip the contents through.

Rest Period

I retreat to the little office that I share with Hans, another English teacher from Holland. It’s not air-conditioned, but is somewhat open-air with vented block masonry. The openings on the lower portion of the wall are covered with tape in an effort to keep rats or other animals from intruding. I doubt that it really works, because the other day my black dress shoes, which I leave at the school, smelled like a cat had peed in them.

I stay in the office until first period ends at 9:30, as I have no teaching assignments during that slot. I’m pretty happy with that. I sometimes work on creating flash cards or other learning materials, but most of the time I’m busy on Facebook. The plastic resin chair that I sit on is uncomfortable for long periods, so I’m going to try to find a nice, cushy, second-hand office chair that reclines.

Because I can spend up to three hours at a time with no classes, I often choose to go out for a coffee during my breaks, or back to my apartment which is only a short distance from the school.

Heading Up the Tunnel

As I head to the classrooms to begin the instruction, I feel both anticipation and dread. Anticipation because I enjoy interacting with 1st and 2nd grade kids who are brimming with eagerness to learn English. Dread, because there is a scarcity of those.

The Thai government has seen fit to require one hour of English instruction each day for all classes from 1st grade on. And that’s great, because Thailand lags far behind most other ASEAN countries in English fluency and understanding.But as we all know, mandating something does not automatically make it work.

There is very little support for the teachers who must now add this to their repertoire of lesson planning. I’m lucky enough to be a native speaker of English, but the Thai faculty assigned to this don’t always speak the language well themselves.

I had to ask repeatedly for a copy of the schoolbooks that the students are using. It seems that there is no teacher’s manual for the books being used in the class. I ended up with used copies of last year’s books that had belonged to previous students. More on those later.

I have yet to be introduced to the Thai teachers who are assigned to the classes on the alternating days that I’m not giving instruction to a particular classroom. It makes it impossible to coordinate a comprehensive lesson planning strategy. It feels like the school is not really taking the teaching of English to their students seriously. So how can I expect the kids to take it any differently?


“Hello, class!” I call out as I enter the front of the classroom. This is a lovely bit that I borrowed from my CELTA classmate, Danna.  “Hello, class!” has been the standard reply from most of them up until now. I strain to listen for and recognize the small voice giving the correct response, “Hello, Teacher Bob!”

From this point on, it’s usually all on me to maintain order and discipline to the class of almost three dozen children. The form (or homeroom) teacher usually quickly heads out of the room to escape for the next hour. I can’t say that I blame them.

Depending on which grade I am teaching, I attempt to alter my lessons. Each class gets a little bit of introduction training. We work on “My name is..” and “what is your name?” Some kids get it. Some still don’t. I drill them on the phrasing as a class, and also individually. I will walk between the cramped rows of desks and stop in front of a random student, crouch down to their level, and say, “My name is Teacher Bob. What is YOUR name?”

Much of the time, I get a blank stare as they try to comprehend what I am saying to them. I find that this is equally true for both 1st and 2nd graders. Sometimes, I am gratified to hear them reply, “My name is POOM” or “My name is MIMI.”

I will say that it’s much easier for me if they have chosen a nickname from the English language. Although, it does lead to some weirdness. “My name is Apple/Cherry/Beer/PingPong/Icy/Mean/Earth.” Beer? I’ve met three Beers since I’ve gotten here. And they were all female.

The Good

Honestly, the Thai kids are beautiful. They are generally very nice and polite. And they really do look up to their teachers, especially the foreign ones. The desire to please is definitely there. If I give an assignment to write their names, fill in blanks, or draw a picture, they are constantly walking up to me with the book or paper to show me what they have done to see if I approve.

Happy Children

I am mobbed from the time I walk into the general population before and after classes. They shout greetings in English to me, run up for high fives and hugs. It feels so weird still to be hugging or even touching a stranger’s kid. I know I’ll get used to it, but I still find myself suppressing the urge to look over my shoulder for the disapproving parent.

I sometimes also will be greeted after school or on the weekend when I’m in one of the local shops or cafes. Here’s my problem: I don’t know the kid’s name. I cannot remember if they are even in one of my classes. The truth is, I have a very difficult time telling the children apart.

I know this will possibly sound cliché or racist, but they kind of all look the same to me right now. Obviously, there are some who are smaller, taller, rounder, skinnier, or with different teeth, but it seems like there are the same dozen kids and their older/younger clones running around the school. It doesn’t help that they wear uniforms. Most every boy has the same short haircut. Practically all of the girls have their long, black hair parted in the middle and braided pigtails with blue ribbons on either side.

The Bad

On the flip side, the kids can also be monsters. Some days, half of my time is spent putting kids back in their seats, confiscating their rulers or other objects being used as swords or alternative distractions, slapping a metal ruler on one of the old, wooden desks to recapture the attention of students who continually turn around to talk to their neighbor. I got myself the metal ruler after shattering one of the plastic rulers that I took away from someone. I felt pretty bad about that.

I’ve had to put repeat offenders in time-out in the corner. Truthfully, I understand why a teacher might be tempted to tie or duct tape a kid to their seat. I’ve seen the Thai teachers smack the kids with their hands or with a bamboo rod when they misbehave.

Time Out

I grew up in the southeastern U.S. at a time when corporal punishment was acceptable in the classroom. I am not going to go down that road, however. I am attempting other means to control the classes.

I’ve proposed the idea of having my own classroom, an English lab, where the kids would have to come to MY turf, where I am in control of the surroundings. If I can control the environment, I will have a much easier time with classroom management.

So far, the assistant director of the school is amenable to the idea, but also non-committal, as he needs to ask the school director and probably go through some labyrinthine Thai bureaucratic quagmire to get it done. I’m going to be patiently optimistic for now. Meanwhile, I’m fighting the battle for supremacy in the coliseum.

The Ugly Truth

I cannot really be angry at the kids. It’s hot in the rooms. The building where my classes are has no air conditioning, and the outside temperatures can easily reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. There are fans, but they only do so much. The classroom doors stay open, as do the shutters on the other side, but in addition to allowing a slight breeze to flow through, the openings also allow for distractions.

Another problem that I have discovered is that the kids may be under the influence of sugar. The commissary, in addition to providing a hot meal, also sells snacks. I’ve seen kids eating popsicles, cookies, and candy for breakfast. I’m pretty sure that is not conducive for a proper physical and mental state that is needed for learning. And I’m also pretty sure that the school makes a profit on the sale of these stimulants, so complaining about it will fall on deaf ears. But it can make my job hell.

So I look forward to my alone time in the small, fan-only lounge with the uncomfortable plastic chair, or my air-conditioned apartment where I can take a respite from my gladiatorial battles with the army of Lilliputians. Speaking of which, it is time for me to take up arms and go forth to the arena.


The Thai greeting referred to as the wai (Thaiไหว้pronounced[wâi]) consists of a slight bow, with the palms pressed together in a prayer-like fashion.   (wikipedia)  The wai is altered depending on the social status of the individual to whom you are greeting. If they are higher status (monk, government official, work superior, etc.), then your hands go higher, maybe up to your face. If you are greeting an equal, you place your hands below your chin. If to a subordinate, you may put your hands together at a chest level. It’s all very complicated to foreigners, and the Thai locals never expect us to get it right. 

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Two Weeks

March 16, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Juggling has never been one of my talents. I’m good with one ball in the air. Not three, not five. One. So if I try to put more balls in the air than I can deal with, inevitably, some get dropped. Hence my 15-day hiatus from posting here in my blog.

(Narrator’s voice): “When we last left Bob, he was still looking for work, bribing traffic cops, and about to go out on a date. How did he do? Let’s peek in and find out.”

My job search has borne some fruit. In a rather indirect way, I might add. A few weeks ago, I walked to a government school on the west edge of the old part of the city in Chiang Mai. The woman whom I met at the first building seemed interested in talking to me about my plans, and made a couple of calls to the English Department and made them come down and bring me up to talk with them. I was surprised that she would bother to put forth that kind of effort, but I didn’t complain. Everything seemed to be going well, until I was asked, “Where is your degree?’

The short answer is, “I don’t have one/” I wasn’t afforded the opportunity to go to college or university when I was younger. I do have lots and lots of life experience, and I have been trained quite extensively on how to teach English, but that wasn’t what they needed. In order for me to work for that school, I would have to produce a bachelor’s degree in something. Didn’t matter what it was- I could have majored in tying neckties- they required it to hire me as a teacher. I was given the apologetic smile and shrug, and I understood, but it didn’t stop the wind from being taken out of my sails. I thanked them for their time and said goodbye. But on my way out, one of the students told me that I needed to stop back down at the office where I previously had been waiting, because I had left some materials there. When I returned to pick up the extra copies of my certificate and CV, the lady who had tried to help me inquired about my plans. I thanked her for her assistance, but told her that I probably wouldn’t be considered due to my lack of degree. She opined that it was a stupid rule, and asked me if she could help somehow. I told her that if she had contacts with other educators or managers at different schools, that I would appreciate her pointing me in the right direction.

Two days later, this woman, who has a PhD in education, called me and put me on the phone with a guy from Slovenia, who is the head of the foreign teachers at a local school outside of Chiang Mai city. He told me to come and talk with him, and that my lack of a degree would not keep me from getting hired at his school. So at this point, I have visited the school twice, been introduced to the students and also the upper echelons of the staff, including the director of the school. I have a mini-demonstration and interview scheduled for tomorrow at 8:30am!

The reason for my interview being scheduled so early is because last week, I was called by the local YMCA to come in for an interview right away. So desperate were they for someone to teach their summer English camp this week, that I was basically sat down and told, “You start Monday, please let us know what you intend to teach and what activities you wish to do with the children.” So, this week, I began working as a teacher and I’m getting paid for it. My class starts at 10am and I teach for two hours in the morning, and two more after a lunch break, ending my day at 3pm.

To top that off, the lady with the doctorate called me again last week to ask me if I would be willing to do a weekend training seminar outside of town this weekend. I didn’t know much information about it, but I said that I would anyway. Hell, it’s an opportunity. I was told that, along with a partner, I would be training about 30 primary school teachers from a remote district 180 kilometers from here on how to teach English to their pupils. I’m really not qualified to do this, but she needed someone, and I wanted the exposure. Then I found out that the 30 teachers were actually going to be 150 teachers, and I almost shit myself. My partner and I have one six-hour day on Saturday to train these teachers to an impossible standard, and then watch and give commentary Sunday as they demonstrate what they learned from us. In order for us to get up there, we leave tomorrow (Friday) at 4:30 pm. So, I have an interview in the early morning, rush back to teach my final summer camp class, then rush back with my lesson plans and weekend clothing (all on my motorcycle) about 18 kilometers from here so we can start the 3-hour trip north for the training seminar. I am exhausted just thinking about it. As the Thai people say, “Mai pen rai.” (“Whatever”, or “that’s life”)

One of my friends who reads this blog chastised me a bit for leaving him hanging on the date story. I haven’t really talked much about my love life in this blog. But for the sake of honesty, I’ll share some of that.

My girlfriend back in the States and I broke up a few months before I left for Thailand. It was a mutual decision, and even though it was not painless, we remain on friendly terms. We were simply in two different places in our lives, and it just wasn’t going to work out being on the other side of the planet. I wish her nothing but happiness and success in her future.

I have said for a long time that I do not desire to marry again, or even be in a relationship for a period of time. I really want to focus on myself and things that I wish to accomplish, without distraction. I have a standing arrangement with a close friend back in the Chicago area that if she hears that I have a girlfriend in the next couple of years, she can buy a ticket to Thailand and come punch me in the face. However, I have a very difficult time in practice being alone. So, when the coffee girl smiled at me, and we subsequently began having daily conversations which ended with her asking me out, I was of course very pleased with that.

May is a beautiful woman and is very easy to like. That night, I met her at the rooftop bar of the mall where she had her coffee stand, and we talked and got to know each other a bit more. She is 35, divorced, with two young daughters. And she is looking for someone to marry. Red flag! Danger! Will Robinson! Shields up! Right?

But there was something about May that made me still want to see where things would go. We went out several times over the course of the past two weeks, and I found myself really being drawn to her. The way she looked at me. The way she held me tight as she sat on the back of my motorbike when we went out. The way she treats everyone so kindly. I found myself at odds within as I struggled with my goals versus wanting to be with her. In the end, it just didn’t work out. She wants to be married sooner than later, and I’m not about to rush into anything again. We ended our brief relationship last night.

While I know it was the right decision -not just for myself, but for both of us- I can’t help but feel badly about it. We chose to part as friends, but I really don’t know if I can handle seeing her again for a while. It was beautiful while it lasted, and I don’t regret trying, but breaking up hurts a bit. Even if it was only for a fortnight.

Stand down, Wendi. My face will stay intact for a bit longer.

Is THAT How it Feels?

March 1, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I was racially profiled today.

Looking for a job here in Chiang Mai is interesting. It’s not like I can look at the want ads for teaching positions that are open. Rather, I have to find out where the schools stand, and then go there in person and apply. And wherever I go, I have to fill out the dreaded application. It’s not that filling one out is difficult, it just seems redundant. Even back in the States, the questions are repetitive and don’t really tell much useful information. Anything that is asked in an application can quickly be covered in a brief interview or by reading the resume that most people would bring with them. Okay, so maybe if you are trying to get a job at McDonald’s, you won’t be bringing a CV or a resume, but you know what I mean. Anything else on the application that isn’t covered will be filled out in the eventuality of you getting hired. Such as emergency contact. Why on earth would someone who hasn’t hired me to do anything need an emergency contact? In case I stroke out during the interview or filling out the application?

There are some pretty striking differences between job applications in the US and the ones that I have been filling out here, though.  In the US, I have NEVER been asked my height and weight. Nobody wants to know my parents’ names and ages. US employers don’t give a shit my kids’ names and ages, not until I get put on a family health plan, anyway. In the US, employers are forbidden to ask certain questions. Like the one I had to answer today: “race.” My marital status. How old I am (in addition to my DOB.) I’m a single, 48-year-old white male. The ACLU would have a field day with an application like this in the States. But this is Thailand. And so those questions are just fine to ask. Interestingly, I wasn’t asked if I was a smoker or if I drank.

Being that I’m still looking for a job, I have not yet received a work permit or a non-immigrant work visa. So I had to go apply for a 30-day extension to my tourist visa. This meant a 30-minute ride to the other side of town where the immigration office sits at the bottom of a pretty big and very sad shopping mall. Yes, I rented that motorbike that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. And I must say, I really like riding it. Okay, to be completely upfront and straight with you, it’s not a REAL motorcycle in the sense that it has a manual transmission. It’s what we would call a scooter. But, it’s a pretty powerful one. It has two wheels, which make it a cycle. It has a 125cc motor, which, TECHNICALLY makes it a (follow me closely here…) a MOTOR-CYCLE. And it goes pretty fast, I guess. I’ve had it up to 80.  Okay, 80 kph, but that’s pretty much as fast as people drive over here anyway. And 80 kph seems pretty damned fast in traffic. Especially when drivers will pull over and park in front of a roadside stand, and you have to edge over into the other lane in front of the car behind you to get past.

Riding a motorbike over here is a trip. Many of the locals don’t wear helmets, even though they are required by law. When traffic ahead comes to a stop at a red light, the riders don’t sit idly behind in the queue. Instead, they pass the line of parked cars on the left and get up as close as they can to the light. Or, they will snake their way between the lanes of cars, dodging the mirrors on either side as they try to make it to the front of the pack. Because when the light finally turns green, the motorcycles take off like a shot, quickly outpacing the cars through the intersection. Usually, they will then merge over to the far left, many times riding in the shoulder lane so that the ultimately more powerful autos can pass on the right after they catch up to cruising speed. I personally thought this was a bit crazy at first, but now I’m getting pretty good at navigating between parked cars on my way to the front. And I DO wear my helmet. Not simply because it’s the safe thing to do (as if anything about riding a motorcycle in traffic is safe..), but because I want to avoid being pulled over for not wearing one. One of the things I neglected to do before I left Chicago was to apply for an International Drivers License. So technically, I’m riding illegally.

So, on my way to the faraway immigration office to get my visa extension, I ran right up on one of the dreaded police checkpoints. I had my helmet on, of course, so there was no reason for the officer to step out and wave me over while other traffic passed by. Except for one. I’m farang. That’s the Thai word for “foreigner.” It’s not a pejorative word, so I’m not offended by it. In the north of Thailand, where they have a big difficulty with the pronunciation of “r”, they call us “falang.” Anyway, I got nicked for not having the proper license. He pulled my white ass over, not because he knew I was breaking the law, but just because he suspected that I might be because of the color of my skin. He told me that the fine was 1000 baht, payable at the police station. I am pretty sure that he said that I could come back after paying the ticket to get my bike. There was no way in hell that I was going to walk or get a taxi to the station and then come back. I acted dumb and told him I didn’t know where the station was and that I needed to get to immigration and I didn’t know what an international driver’s license was. I looked at him and asked if I couldn’t just pay it on the spot. His eyes clicked, and he said, “I make you discount, you pay me 500 baht.” So, I paid the police his bribe, and rode on. He probably had a nice dinner with his wife and family or mistress or whatever. It cost me $14 US to get out of a traffic ticket.

So, yes, I was racially profiled. Now, I realize that it’s different than when it happens to others. There is no comparison to what others have gone through. At no time was I in fear for my life or think that I may be roughed up or put in handcuffs.  I pretty much knew that it was a shake-down for money. I simply rode away a little poorer.

I felt badly about it all the same. 500 baht is still more than I wanted to lose. I’m used to things not costing much over here, and without an income, I’m trying to watch my spending. I could eat for three days on 500 baht. I felt better later, though. I was telling May, the coffee girl with the lovely smile about my experience. And we had a nice chat. And then I accompanied her on her break to go look for something in the mall. And then she asked me out. I’m wrapping up this post so that I can go pick her up and go to dinner with her.  🙂

Learning the Ropes

February 10, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I’m sitting at the desk in my new studio apartment (hotel room, in actuality) looking out at Doi Suthep, the mountain that sits on the northwest corner of Chiang Mai. In the foreground are a few semi-tall buildings, some smaller structures with corrugated roofs, and a lovely green copse of trees that hides most everything else. It would be very peaceful, were it not for the bit of noise from traffic on Huay Kaew Road, and the constant roar of commercial flights taking off from the airport just to the south. The butterflies that are flitting around the trees below seem not to take notice. There is a bit of haze from the city that hangs over the landscape, but otherwise the sky is blue with a few wispy, white clouds in suspended animation.

Nick, my friend and former classmate, and I have just returned from a late brunch at one of the myriad little cafes in the area. For 80 Thai baht ($2.31), I enjoyed a plate of pad see ew and an iced coffee. The portion size was a little small by American standards, but I’m learning to adjust my intake. I’ve got quite a few adjustments to make in order to savor life here in northern Thailand. Some of the things that I must get used to are the sidewalks, the dearth of paper napkins, and the constant temptation to eat the endless supply of street food in front of me. The sidewalks tend to be narrower than what I’m used to, and there seems to be no uniformity in height from one block to the next. A pedestrian is perpetually dodging and weaving between concrete power poles, street signs, and food vendors. It’s many times easier to walk on the street facing the oncoming traffic. It would be maddening to a civil engineer from the west.  As far as the paper shortage goes, if you get napkins at all, they tend to be what we in America would consider toilet tissue. You learn to do the best you can and not make a big mess with your food. This would definitely not work with BBQ ribs. Last night, I went to dinner with another classmate from Shanghai before she left for home this morning. Catherine and I walked to a real-life Italian restaurant that served one of the best Caesar salads that I’ve ever eaten. What I marveled at the most, however, were the proper linen napkins that we had at the table. It’s funny how the otherwise insignificant things make such an impression when you’ve done without for a while.

I’ll have to start a new paragraph for the street food. I’ll keep it short for now, but it will definitely be a topic for at least a few individual posts in the future. It’s almost impossible to walk a city block here without passing a temporary food cart or tiny stall hawking some meat or fish grilling on sticks. Others serve various types of fruit or fresh-squeezed juice. In the evening, the streets change as the vendors come and set up temporary stands complete with gas burners and grills, home-made fans to keep the flies at bay, and folding tables surrounded by colorful plastic stools for customers to sit and eat the dishes that are cooked to order. The smells are a combination of strange and mouth-watering, and it’s difficult to not try something. These ad hoc food courts would NEVER be allowed in America, at least not anywhere I’ve ever been. Many westerners have expressed disdain or concern about unsanitary conditions and unrefrigerated product, but I am starting to believe that we have become too coddled. I’ve lost count of how many times that I have paid 10 or 20 baht for something that looked too good to pass up, and I have yet to get sick.  This is a definitely a place where you can channel your inner Anthony Bourdain.

As I mentioned earlier, I now have a semi-permanent address. Nick, who is from Arizona, and I both wanted to remain in Chiang Mai to teach and live. We decided that it would be good to team up and tackle the challenge of learning a new culture together. After spending the better part of the week partying and hanging out with classmates, we took Tuesday to look for accommodations. We ended up renting two separate studio apartments on the fourth floor of the current place for a month, to give us time to find jobs and look around for a more permanent housing situation. Our goal is to find a furnished two bedroom at an affordable cost, so that we can split the rent and save money for the other things we want to do. Nick is a pretty-well educated naturalist with a masters degree in something-or-other. He’s chill and very easy to get along with, and we hit it off pretty much immediately during the training program.  It’s interesting for me to watch him deal with the fact that all of our former classmates have moved on and back to their home countries. He’s a sensitive soul, and I can tell that it’s a bit distressing for him to lose people that he’s become very close to. I feel it too, having developed deep friendships with those whom I went through so much challenge and stress, but I have moved so many times in my life that I have become a bit inured to leaving friends behind, or vice versa. That being said, I’m really glad that he’s here, because without his company, I’m pretty sure I’d feel more lost than I already do. We’ve been helping each other with our resumes and discovering how to maneuver around our new city. Which leads to a funny story:

Yesterday, Nick got a haircut and a beard trim at a local barbershop recommended by the lady who runs the apartment building. I was very impressed by the job the barber had done, so I decided that I would get my beard trimmed professionally as well. Over the weekend, I had already treated myself to a haircut and a mani-pedi (hey… I do what I like) at another salon close to our hostel. The problem is, I don’t speak Thai, and the lady spoke very little English. So it was difficult to tell her exactly what I wanted. It turned out okay, but she did cut the hair on the sides of my head pretty short. So, you think that I would have learned a lesson from that. Not exactly. I happened upon another barbershop in the alley behind our apartments, and they offered beard trims for 60 baht (less than $2). I sat down and told the lady that I wanted just a nice trim and shaping. She smiled and nodded, and I sat back in the comfort that I was in the hands of a professional. Then she proceeded to take the clippers and shaved the left side of my face down to the bare skin. Another lost in translation moment. I’ve not been clean-shaven since 2013. The lady did ask me if I wanted to keep the moustache, and I VERY carefully showed her that I wanted to keep the chin part, too. So, now I have myself a nice goatee. And the knowledge that my beard will grow back. It was also my very first time being shaved with a straight-razor. I’m not sure why that made me so nervous. I couldn’t help but think that all the lady had to do was to slide the blade across my throat at a certain angle, and I’d be done for. I tried to comfort myself with the realization that the woman who cut my hair in Chicago could have easily driven the shears into my temple had she had the inclination, but that most people aren’t homicidal like Sweeney Todd.

Another plane just roared overhead, and I realize that I still have much to accomplish today. Nick just texted me to suggest that we leave early tomorrow morning (while it’s still cool) to hike to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which is the golden temple on the top of the mountain. We’ll see how that goes. I’m already sore and winded just thinking about it. Please remember that my wishes are to be cremated if I don’t make it back.

It’s Over?

February 3, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I woke up early this morning even though there was no reason to. This is officially the last day of my CELTA program, and there is nothing scheduled until 3pm, when I get feedback on my final teaching practice from last night. It feels a bit weird now, having nothing to do. I got up and showered before 7, hoping that my classmate, Nerissa, would join me for a morning walk again. But I didn’t hear back from her, so I brought my computer out onto the covered veranda attached to the main building. Normally, I would be working on a lesson plan, a written assignment, or some other deadline-induced activity at this time, but not today. It all seems so anti-climactic.

Normally, there would be a party scheduled for this evening. After four weeks of mostly sleepless nights, having information force-fed to us as if from a fire hose, and stressing out over improving our teaching methods to satisfy our mentors, it would be a great chance to unwind and really enjoy being with our classmates, trainers, and the support staff from the school. However, because the school is under the purview of the Thai Department of Education, there will no party, due to the recent death of the King. All government offices are observing a year-long mourning period.

While this is understandable, and we all respect the reasons for the decision, it is a bit disappointing. We have all worked so hard to get through this course. No one, not even those who already have classroom teaching experience, has had an easy time of it. Many tears have been shed, both in public and private, as I mentioned previously. We’ve all had to lean on each other to get through it. And because of that, we have become pretty close as a group. We want to hang out and party with our new family. Because after today, many of us will most likely never see each other again. Sure, we have Facebook, WeChat, and various other ways to keep in touch and share our lives, but as we get back to our regular lives, the message frequency will wane, and we will drift apart slowly.

So for this weekend, several of us have booked a hostel near the city center, and we intend to hang out with one another as much as possible. We have tentatively planned hiking excursions, temple visits, and finding cool bars, good food, and massage places. Whatever we end up doing, we are intent on enjoying the hell out of it.


January 1, 2017

Somewhere over Thai Airspace

As I looked at the neighborhoods of Chicago for the last time from the window of the Lyft that I ordered to take me to the airport, I almost became overwhelmed at the thought of leaving this beautiful city that I have called home for 3 1/2 years. True, I’ve lived longer in other places, but Chicago truly has become my hometown. I love it more than any other place I’ve lived in my 48 years of existence. I talk about it proudly to anyone I happen to meet from other places, explaining the rich history, the charm of the green space and parks, the lovely, unmatched shoreline devoid of commercial or residential high-rises that would spoil the view. I tell them about the food they must try, about the free music, the neighborhood festivals. When I do this, I am reminded of the times that I personally have taken advantage of these, and how much I enjoyed them. Sure, Chicago has her problems, the poverty, corruption, violence, winter… but overall, I am in love with her. Frank Sinatra sang about Chicago being his girlfriend. Maybe she was, but Old Blue Eyes is dead, so…

But as much as I love Chicago, I realized a while back that I needed to change. Change my life, change my habits, my scenery, my occupation. Otherwise, I’d miss out on so much of what else this world has to offer. And that would be a shame. So, I’m taking a leap of faith. The totality of my material possessions now fit inside a suitcase, a large backpack, and a day pack. And I’m on my way to Thailand.

I kept thinking that the day was off in the distance. But it crept up on me when I was busy preparing for it. So I found myself in the Lyft, ready to go, but not ready. Not completely ready emotionally, anyway. And not packed correctly for the trip, either. At the airport, I discovered that my suitcase was overweight. Cards Against Humanity has done me in again at the airport. I wanted to bring my whole set because it’s the only game I have left. And it weighs in at over 6 kilos. So, I had to pull my bags over to the side, sit on the floor, and repack everything. Fortunately, I kept my empty messenger bag instead of giving it away, and was able to fit almost all of the cards into that, thus bringing my suitcase in just under the 25 kilos allowed, and giving me a personal item to bring on the plane in addition to the day pack that served as my carry-on. The cards would subsequently fuck me one more time, as the TSA screening machine cannot tell what the dense boxes of material are. For the second time, I had my bags pulled aside and inspected while the TSA agent assured himself that the contents were simply an irreverent game and not blocks of C-4.

 So, at approximately 1:50pm CST on December 30, 2016, I wistfully enjoyed my final glimpse of the Windy City skyline from over the wing of the big Boeing 777-300, and I was on my way to Shanghai. That’s a long flight. Fifteen hours in the air is a tad uncomfortable. I watched several movies instead of trying to sleep, holding my bladder for the first several hours while the cute couple sitting next to me took turns napping with their heads in each other’s laps. They were very nice, though. Eric, a young guy who grew up in the northern suburbs had taken his Chinese girlfriend, Amy back to Chicagoland for Christmas with the family. Eric has been teaching English in Wuhan for the last two years. (How do I keep meeting these people?) So we chatted a bit about China and Chicago. It was encouraging to hear his story about how he was doing well in his chosen profession and life abroad. 

My plans for Shanghai had consisted of clearing customs and catching a train into the city to enjoy some street food with a friend of mine who lives there. However, those plans didn’t work out as I had hoped. First of all, it was explained to me that I would have to collect my baggage in Pudong airport and find a place to store them before check-in on New Year’s Day. I guess that comes with the 14-hour layover. Getting through customs itself took quite a while. Then trying to locate and grab my suitcase and backpack off the carousel was a chore, because everyone crowded around the  moving belt like they were watching a cockfight. I helplessly witnessed my suitcase going around twice before I was able to muscle my way into the crowd and grab it before it took the long, circuitous journey one more time. Finding the place to check bags didn’t take terribly long, but along the way, I was propositioned by a local man who told me that the bag storage was prohibitively expensive, and that it would be cheaper to book a local hotel and take the free shuttle there instead. But I’ve been conned before, so I told him I’d let him know if the bag storage idea didn’t work. I was correct. He was playing me. Then came the issue with paying for the storage. It was cash only, and the only cash I had was Benjamin Franklins, which don’t work as well for paying for things over there. They like pictures of different guys on their currency. So began the ordeal of trying to get RMB, or Chinese Yuan, to pay the fee. The currency exchange booth shut down early, the ATM next to it only worked for Shanghai bank cards, my new Chase Sapphire Visa card didn’t work in the upstairs international ATM (and the toll-free international number on the back of the card wasn’t in service), so I finally just swiped my debit card and took out 300 Yuan, foreign transaction fees be damned. By the time I got my bag storage paid for, I had been in the airport terminal for over two hours, and I was exhausted. I had already told my friend that I probably wouldn’t make it in time to meet her before the train system shut down for the night, stranding her far from home. So I chalked it up to having an experience, not getting upset about it, and plopped myself and my carry-on down in a leather lounge seat inside a deserted priority ticketing area to try to sleep.

Just when I had given up hope of having a decent time in Shanghai, I got a text message from Ming Lee, a Taiwanese girl from couchsurfing, whom I had contacted to see if she’d like to join my now-abandoned excursion into the city to eat, as her layover was around the same time as my own. She hadn’t been able to contact me using the spotty, free airport Wi-Fi. When she found out that I hadn’t left the airport, she was surprised. She was on her way to a hotel that she had booked for $35US, because she didn’t want to sleep in the airport and needed a shower. She offered to let me split the room with her, and I gratefully accepted, grabbed a taxi (after fending off the predatory, non-metered crooks), and joined her shortly after she arrived. We both showered (separately, of course), rang in 2017 by splitting a bottle of water supplied in the room, then went out to grab some food and beer. Honestly, as dull as that may sound to you, that was the one of the best New Years celebrations I’ve ever done. We returned to the room and talked for a bit before going to sleep at 2am. I got about two hours of sleep and woke up before the alarm went off. 

Surprisingly, I felt great, having stayed up over 30 hours since beginning my last morning in Chicago. I grabbed a hot wake-me-up shower, dressed quickly, said goodbye to Ming Lee, and caught a taxi back to the terminal. Getting through the ticketing counter was a breeze. Then I completely failed at being an experienced traveler going through security. I did a great job of unpacking my laptop and tablet to be scanned separately, off with the belt and jacket (shoes aren’t a requirement over here), and proceeded not once, not twice, but three times to set off the metal detector. I had forgotten that I had been wearing a money belt, forgot my cell-phone and wallet, and forgot the change jingling around in my front pocket. I thought the Chinese TSA-equivalent lady was going to brain me with her wand. 

I still had about 40 Yuan left to spend, and so I grabbed a nice breakfast in one of the airport cafes, joined at the table by a delightful young woman from Hong Kong, who has been living in NY going to university. Yu, as her name turned out to be, hadn’t said anything to me, but then let on that she spoke English when she had to translate to me the question from the waiter, “tea or coffee?” So we got to talking about what we liked about Hong Kong, where she was headed to visit her friends, and about New York, where she doesn’t like the pizza. Oh, well. I guess nobody’s perfect. 

My seatmates in the exit row of the plane promptly passed out as soon as we began taxiing to the runway. The two idiots on across the aisle pulled out a large container of Baileys Vanilla/cinnamon-flavored Irish Cream and began swigging directly from the bottle. They went completely unconscious in flight, not even noticing the fat Chinese man with the short legs and big fanny-pack climbing over them to get to the aisle. It was almost comical to watch, but God help us if we had had to ditch the plane, because I believe this was the most inept group of adults in the emergency exit row that I have ever seen.  Nobody seems to understand or care about the safety rules of flight, because more than one person actually unbuckled their safety belts and walked down the center of the plane towards the bathrooms while we were still climbing to altitude. I thought that the flight attendant was going to blow a gasket, but she just calmly grabbed the microphone and said something in Chinese, then sat in her jumpseat smiling until the wayward passengers finally made it back to the safety of their seats. 

I’m currently still on the flight, and we are beginning our descent into Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport, where my friend Titima will be waiting to pick me up. Scheduled landing is at 12:30pm on New Year’s Day, fitting for me to begin my new life. I’m beginning to get a little excited.