We Come Into & Leave This Life Alone

Stephen F. Dennstedt

We come into this life alone. And ultimately we leave this life alone. What happens in-between is what we call living. After seventy-one years of living I’ve come to an epiphany and understand that: we live the life we’re meant to live.

I never thought I would be a septuagenarian, a person between the ages of seventy and seventy-nine, but here I am. There were a couple of close calls along the way but I made it. Looking back now I thought I knew everything.

But as it turned out I knew nothing—and that’s okay because life is all about learning. It’s what we do with that learning that’s important. During what I call my Buddhist phase (which lasted over fifteen years) my spiritual teacher related a story to me. When asked to define suffering one little seven-year old girl responded: wanting things to be different from what they are. How does a seven-year old come to that kind of understanding and insight? Reverend Jisō added: pain in life is inevitable but suffering is optional. We all experience pain in this life but how we choose to deal with it makes all the difference.

Northern Amazon River Basin

I think many people reaching my age start to contemplate their life, its meaning and its end—because it does end for us all eventually. The one advantage we have in old age is perspective if we’re open to it—we can appreciate the long view. I’ve shared this anecdote before but here it is again—in the movie City Slickers the character Curly Washburn (Jack Palance) holds up one finger and tells Mitch Robbins (Billy Crystal) that: Life is just about one thing. Crystal’s character asks: What’s that? And Curly responds: That’s for you to find out. That’s what life is all about—finding out. For me that one thing is perspective.

Birmingham, England

With sufficient perspective often comes context and clarity—what seems confused, disordered and blurry can suddenly snap into focus. It’s like the autofocus on my camera (you knew I was going to use a photography metaphor didn’t you?)—looking through the viewfinder the scene before me is blurry and indistinct but the second I depress my shutter button halfway the autofocus on my lens snaps into precise focus. Clarity. Life is the same—bring a little perspective and attention (Buddhism: mindfulness, awareness) to a problem and the solution often presents itself in new, surprising and interesting ways.

Quito, Ecuador

When people ask me about my life it’s hard to explain because who & what I was is not who & what I am (it’s an evolution). Yet who & what I am is part & parcel of who & what I was. Have I managed to totally confuse you? What I’m trying to say is that who & what I was in life (all of my experiences, mistakes and successes) made me who I am today. Without yesterday there would be no today or tomorrow. Without those experiences, mistakes and successes I wouldn’t be me. Knowing that, it’s hard not to appreciate even the bad and hurtful things in life because without them I wouldn’t be the person I am now.

Antigua, Guatemala

Would I do some things differently? Of course. Do I regret some of the things I did or experienced—that’s a hard question to answer in light of what I just shared with you. Life is to be lived and I think we live the life we’re meant to live—for whatever reason: God, Karma or Fate (take your pick). For me understanding comes from perspective. Understanding leads to acceptance which leads to peace. My life’s philosophy has distilled to: live simple, live cheap, live free. I leave you with: Suffering is wanting things to be different from what they are; pain in life is inevitable but suffering is optional.

Me Chill’n on the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua: Live Simple, Live Cheap, Live Free

Field Notes: To my younger followers (and maybe even to some of my older followers) I invite you not to spend too much time on regret. We all make bad decisions in life. If it bothers you that just means you’re not a sociopath or psychopath. Congratulations! Life is short and there are no guarantees. Your purpose in life is to live your life—whatever that means to you. Try to do less harm—we all do harm knowingly and unknowingly (to swat a mosquito is to do harm). Cultivate compassion (something I’m not very good at) and acceptance. It’s never too late to make changes in your life. Best wishes. SFD

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Taking a Shower at the Opera Hostel

Steve’s Hostel Shower

Oh yeah—we’re definitely back in a hostel (maybe even “hostile”) environment. I thought it was about time to give the showers a try here at the Opera Hostel—these are shared showers by the way. Not shared like in a prison don’t-drop-your-soap communal shower kind of way. Shared in that you walk down the hall to use the same facilities the other guests use (no en suite bathroom in our private room). We’ve done this plenty of times before so no big deal. I grabbed a change of clothes and my towel and headed to the showers. Entering the bathroom there are three separate enclosed shower stalls.

Each stall comes with an attached changing cubicle—convenient. Until you realise each compartment (shower and changing cubicle) is only about 1½ x 1½ feet in total area—not that great for a couple of fat-assed Americans like us. Be that has it may I stripped down and got ready to get into the shower and noticed there was no soap—putting my clothes back on I trudged back to the room to get my soap from my ditty-bag and then trudged back to the showers and got undressed again. I opened the flimsy plastic accordion door and tried to turn the water on. I pulled on the knob and no go.

Waldorf (Joel) & Statler (Steve)

This would be a good time to mention that none of the showers had a proper shower head—just a pipe more or less. Pulling the knob didn’t work so I pushed it. Bam. That. Worked. About 1000 psi of ice-cold water hit me right in the face and then proceeded to drench the floor in the attached changing area. I quickly closed the door and the water automatically turned off. WTF? I repeated the process about three more times (what’s the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over) and finally came to understand that each push of the knob gave you exactly five seconds of water flow.

I jumped in, pushed the knob (once again) and got blasted with ice-cold water (once again). 5-4-3-2-1 and the water stopped. I turned the knob all the way to hot and pushed again. I don’t even have to tell you do I—I almost destroyed the cubicle trying to avoid the scalding water. Once I got the temperature about right I tried to lather up but in such confined quarters it was pretty hard. And, of course, the water kept turning itself off—swell. I finally managed to get clean after a fashion but I’m not looking forward to the next ordeal. The good news? The shower was clean and the water was wet. That’s about the extent of good.

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Field Notes: Longtime followers know that the Muppet Brothers try to save money wherever they can—that includes spending time in hostels (some better than others). We sometimes score a private room but rarely a private bathroom. Such is the life of a full-time budget trekker regardless of age—and we’re old farts (71 and 68). Hostels have changed a lot since the 1960s but they’re still pretty basic, hence the lower cost. We’re now in Erfurt, Germany and spending two weeks at the Opera Hostel—it’s clean, well run and relatively quiet but it has its quirks like most hostels. SFD

Photography 101: Focus and Recompose

Stephen F. Dennstedt

I would consider myself a run and gun photographer. In other words I’m not particularly deliberate in my shooting when it comes to lens time on target. Tripods and long exposures aren’t really my things. I like spontaneous and quick.

My favourite photography is wildlife and real people doing real things. I can appreciate beautiful scenic photography but lack the patience for (absolutely) perfect composition, tripods, filters and long exposure times. Deliberation.

I’m sure my scenic photography would be greatly improved if I did—like that of Thomas Heaton. Maybe it’s because I like the hunt almost as much as the shot itself. Even so, many wildlife photographers will spend hours in a blind or static site to wait for their subject to approach them. That kind of patience is not part of my DNA—though I was a good shot in the Marine Corps and my fieldcraft was above average I never had the requisite patience to be a sniper. With photography I prefer shooting in a photojournalistic, documentarian style with an artistic flair—I like to hunt for my subject and then shoot it.

Quito, Ecuador

Wildlife photography, sports photography and photojournalism all have that in common—find your subject and shoot it. Focus and recompose is a technique that helps speed-up that process. Simply stated: with focus and recompose you place the centre focus point (dot) on your subject, press the shutter button half way to lock the focus, and then recompose your shot. Once you recompose the shot you simply press the shutter button all the way to actually take the photo. Focus and recompose allows the photographer to quickly capture the image without having to move focus points around the frame.

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

It’s a great technique for shooting fast, accurately focused and well-composed photos. Wildlife doesn’t wait around for you to get your shit together—I focus and recompose almost 100% of the time. In-the-field photojournalists use this same technique to great advantage. I have zero patience for dicking around with focus points in my viewfinder—new camera bodies tout their multitudinous focus points from edge to edge but I could care less. There is a caution when using this method however: when recomposing make sure you don’t move your camera back to front or tilt it when using a shallow depth of field.

Southern Patagonia, Argentina

Other than in critical depth of field scenarios this technique works as advertised. I’m certainly not criticising more deliberative photographers (I admire their patience) I’m just sharing what works for me. Again, I almost always use my single centre focus point (dot), focus and recompose and then shoot. I will, however, use expanded multiple focus points when shooting birds in flight—trying to hold a single focus point on a flying bird is just about impossible (or at least it’s beyond my skill-set). Veteran photographers know all this but sometimes new photographers get lost in the shuffle.

Northern Amazon River basin

Field Notes: My followers range from newbie, amateur, serious amateur, semi-professional and even professional photographers. I certainly don’t want to insult or patronise any of my more experienced photography friends but sometimes newer photographers don’t know this stuff or need a gentle reminder. More importantly, shoot the way that makes you feel comfortable—just because I propose a method or two doesn’t mean you have to do what I do. For instance a lot of experienced photographers use rear button focus these days and I just can’t seem get into it—it’s not what I’m comfortable with. Do your own thing. SFD

The Muppet Brothers Are in Erfurt

Stephen F. Dennstedt

We arrived in Erfurt, Germany (after a fashion) last night. It was a hot travel day yesterday with a high of 35°C/95°F and it was still blazing hot when we checked into our hostel. Thunderstorms also brought high humidity. Sweat, sweat, sweat.

We left Dortmund shortly after 9 a.m. and had a short layover (and bus transfer) an hour and a half later in Siegen. We only had to wait for an hour to catch our bus to Erfurt—then another five and half hours to our destination (we arrived at 5 p.m.).

Our bus was filled to capacity when we left and we ended up sitting separately on aisle seats. The ride was unremarkable but we did mange to change to window seats later on when passengers got off at various stops and new passengers came onboard. European international buses are a far cry from the luxurious long-haul overnight buses in Latin America but they are butt-cheap when compared to other forms of transportation—especially air and rail. Time we have, money we don’t, so it’s buses for us when possible—plus we see and experience more when riding on buses. It’s not for everyone I know.

Erfurt Cathedral – Erfurt, Germany (Not My Photo)

The travel dynamic for those on holiday, from those trekking full-time, is different. One has money but limited time and the other has time but limited money. You can read more about that here. On the way to Erfurt our bus passed through beautiful farm country as well as densely forested areas—the Thuringian Forest. Thuringia is a state in east-central Germany. It is known for its vast forests punctuated with mountain peaks and medieval villages. Its capital is Erfurt, home of 8th-century Erfurt Cathedral, where Martin Luther (father of the Protestant Reformation) was ordained.

Opera Hostel (Not My Photo)

By the time we arrived in Erfurt we were completely knackered (British-ism for being tuckered out) and just wanted to get to our hostel—the Opera Hostel. The first taxi we approached wasn’t accepting passengers but he directed us down the street where we found a second taxi—she was more amenable and got us to our hostel in short-order but couldn’t park in front. We paid her, hoisted our packs, and walked about a half block to the Opera Hostel. We noticed a steakhouse next door featuring burgers and beer and a Chinese restaurant across the street—good start.

Opera Hostel (Not My Photo)

The last four places we’ve stayed (Calais, Bruges, Maastricht and Dortmund) have all been small hotels within our price range (maximum $35 USD pp per night). Opera Hostel is definitely a hostel—younger guests, dormitory-style rooms, shared bathrooms and crappy internet. But beggars can’t be choosers and our last hostel experience was in Dover, England and it wasn’t too bad (except for the internet). Unfortunately (for us) hostels typically aren’t air-conditioned so during the summer you sleep with the windows open which allows the street noise to invade. This is travel on the cheap (see more here).

Room in Opera Hostel (Not My Photo)

We sweltered in our room last night, literally sweating in our beds, and the drunks started roaming the streets under our window at about 1 a.m. to welcome us to Erfurt—hot, noisy and uncomfortable. We didn’t get much sleep. I know I’m sounding negative (and I hate that) but we’re usually in full Muppet Brothers mode the day of (and the day after) travel: old, crusty, cantankerous, with aches & pains and piss-poor attitudes. Usually a tasty meal, beer, Advil and a good night’s sleep brings us around. First order of business today is to enquire about a fan—sometimes they have them and sometimes they don’t.

Texas Steaklounge (Not My Photo)

Thankfully, this week’s weather forecast calls for cooler temperatures (15° to 20° cooler than yesterday’s stifling temperatures) and even cooler at night—so even if we can’t score a fan the room will hopefully prove to be doable (I think it will). We both skipped breakfast today (we just weren’t hungry) and will take a nap now that it’s cooler and head out for an early dinner and beer at about 3 p.m. (maybe Chinese tonight, something lighter, after the big burgers we had last night). I think tomorrow will be our first walkabout this old and historic city of 200,000+ residents. We should have better attitudes tomorrow too.

Texas Steaklounge Burger (Not My Photo)

Eight-Hour Travel Day Tomorrow (Thursday)

Erfurt, Germany

Tomorrow (Thursday) is an eight-hour travel day to Erfurt from Dortmund, Germany. Erfurt is “Dennstedt” country and we hope to visit Bad Tennstedt and Grossen Garten (the general area around Erfurt) where our family originated way back when. We will be spending two weeks visiting our ancestral home—we’re excited. This photo is not mine (because we’re not there yet), it is an internet file photo. I will be away from this blog the entire day tomorrow but will be back sometime on Friday. 

Stephen F. Dennstedt

 

Everyone Has to Have a Label Now

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Have you noticed how everyone has to have a label now? An identifier. As if we can’t know who or what we are without a label. This seems to be a new phenomena. I grew up in the 1950s (born in 1947) and came of age in the 1960s.

I guess the idea of labels isn’t entirely new because I remember young people being labeled as Beatniks in the 50s and Hippies in the 60s. What is new (I think) is modern labels are often tied to a syndrome, neurosis or psychosis.

In other words a mental disorder. Every aspect of the human psyche (no matter how trivial) has to be labeled a mental disorder—seriously? That would, by extension, make everyone crazy. But you can’t say crazy anymore because it’s not politically correct. Which makes me crazy. I hate labels and the boxes they try to force you into. Once you slap a label on someone they become the other (different from the group). And what does society do with different—it tries to eliminate it. Different challenges and threatens the status quo—so being labeled different threatens society at large.

DON’T LET THEM PUT YOU IN A BOX

Labels can lead to ostracization, persecution, violence and even death. Labels are part and parcel of extremism: political, religious and cultural. Any student of history can cite endless examples of minority groups being singled out for persecution by the majority because they were different. The human animal is nothing if not brutally consistent. Another casualty of labelling everything a (mental) disorder is personal accountability. Crazy people (those labeled as suffering from a syndrome, neurosis or psychosis) can’t be held responsible for their actions. That in itself is crazy.

The latest & greatest affliction is Narcissistic Personality Disorder. By clinical definition it is a mental disorder affecting approximately 1% of the population, with a greater prevalence in men than women. It is characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy for others and a great need for admiration. Let me highlight the key takeaway here: it’s a mental disorder affecting approximately 1% of the population—only 1% not every person with an inflated ego. We all demonstrate various aspects of identifiable disorders without them rising to the level of syndrome, neurosis or psychosis.

You’re not necessarily (or automatically) a victim or by extension crazy. And even if you are you can and should be held accountable for your actions. Being a victim or crazy is not a get out of jail free card. But let’s be clear: just because you exhibit occasional signs of depression, manic behaviour, anxiety, social awkwardness, anger or ego gratification doesn’t mean you suffer from a clinical diagnosis like: PTSD, Bipolar or Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It just means you might be human with human emotional feelings. You don’t have to be diagnosed with something to be validated.

There are people who suffer from very real mental disorders and need medical and psychological intervention but the vast majority of us are just expressing various aspects of our personality spectrum. This makes us human not crazy. If that expression of personality is inappropriate we should be held accountable but different doesn’t always equate to inappropriate. The latest fad among spurned lovers is to accuse the offending party of being narcissistic—maybe they’re just assholes. One is a personality trait and the other is a clinical diagnosis. Do you see the difference?

Names and labels are powerful and often dangerous. They are the favourite tools of dictators, tyrants, the ignorant and the truly crazy. To single someone (or a group) out as different (and therefore dangerous) is to subject them to alienation, irrelevance, persecution and worse—be careful about labelling someone (or group). One of the first lessons I learned in the Marine Corps was how to dehumanize my enemy—if my enemy is not human then I can kill him without remorse, regret or conscience. But the Marine Corps can’t make a psychopath (they’re born) and that’s why there’s PTSD in war.

Extremism—whether patriotic, political, religious, racial or cultural—is dangerous. Extreme patriotism often leads to nationalism and fanaticism. Extreme liberalism is just as onerous as extreme conservatism. Atheism can be as abhorrent as extreme religiosity. Racism divides and alienates just as cultural differences and national interests often lead to war. What extremism does is replace empathy, compassion and understanding with bigotry and judgement: if you’re different you must be bad (or evil). Think about that the next time you’re tempted to pass judgement on someone.

Me Chill’n on the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua: Live Simple, Live Cheap, Live Free

Field Notes: You will notice there is no MD or PhD behind my name. There’s a reason for that: I am NOT a doctor (of anything). I am in no way qualified to evaluate or pass judgement on anyone’s mental competency. But I am an old fart who has done a fair amount living and I notice things. For instance—this tendency today to label everything, especially people. I don’t think labels are helpful—at best they’re limiting and at worst they’re destructive. We are multifaceted creatures after all with many different aspects to our personalities. Just because we might be different doesn’t make us wrong, irrelevant or evil. SFD

Who Were My Early Literary Influencers

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Before the internet and social media influencers there were books and literary influencers. We now refer to those times as the good old days—I say this, not entirely in jest, as books seemingly become passé and increasingly irrelevant.

I owe a debt of gratitude to my father who introduced me to books early in life. The first adult book that really blew me away was Call of the Wild by Jack London. I quickly followed it up with White Fang by the same author.

I was still in grade school when I read these two classics of adventure. I would go on to read The Sea-Wolf and almost everything else London wrote. Shortly afterwards I found John Steinbeck of Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat fame. Again, I went on to read virtually everything he ever wrote. Another favourite author of the time, who is now largely forgotten, was Robert Ruark: Something of Value, Uhuru and Poor No More. During my school years I craved adventure stories and these writers gave them to me in abundance. Surprisingly, I didn’t come to Hemingway until later in life.

Jack London

In high school I read a book that had a profound affect on me—it was On the Beach by Nevil Shute. The novel details the experiences of a mixed group of people in Melbourne, Australia as they wait for the arrival of deadly radiation poisoning spreading towards them from the Northern Hemisphere following a nuclear war the previous year; as the radiation approaches each person deals with their impending death differently. It was depressing and my father blamed the book for my increasing depression and anxiety in high school. Maybe he was right. Although the Cold War might have had something to do with it too.

John Steinbeck

I joined the Marine Corps while still in high school and my reading came to an end temporarily. Again my father came to the rescue by sending me the paperback edition of James Michener’s The Source, Hawaii and Caravans while I was serving a tour of duty in Vietnam. He continued to send me new books every few weeks while I was in Vietnam and it helped me to escape the war (for brief moments) and to preserve my mental health. Books have influenced my life for as long as I can remember and they are good friends. I pity those who don’t read. Unfortunately, what often passes for literature these days is pretty lame.

Charles Dickens

If I were to list my favourite authors and books this post would go on page after page ad nauseam. I love the British writers Charles Dickens, Graham Greene, John le Carré (David John Moore Cornwell) and W. Somerset Maugham. American writers include John Steinbeck, Jack London, James Michener, Ernest Hemingway, James Jones and Pat Conroy. I’ve read thousands of books, many of them classics, and there are way too many to name. I even read, in its entirety, Moby Dick and that’s a real accomplishment. I also gave Shakespeare a run for his money but it was tough going.

John le Carre

To Kill a Mockingbird and the Prince of Tides are perennial favourites and I’ve read the Great Gatsby five times over the years. Of Mice and Men is extraordinary as is David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities. Stephen King’s The Stand and The Shining were standouts. Gone with the Wind (a one-off) and The Clan of the Cave Bear were both excellent reads. I could go on and on and on—but I won’t. If you’re a reader you know what I’m talking about. I read many genres by many authors and I enjoy them all. I’ve read many books several times and they always present something new.

W. Somerset Maugham

Don’t confuse watching movies with reading the original books. There is no comparison. Likewise, watching superficial social media influencers on YouTube is nothing like reading literary influencers. To not read is to remain ignorant and that ignorance is clear for all to see. Ignorance, in its many forms, is dangerous—very dangerous. Tyrants try to keep the masses ignorant and book banning and burning is often the first step. Stifling a free press also goes hand-in-glove with tyranny and oppression so beware. I will continue to read voraciously until the day I die—it’s an addiction but it’s a good (healthy) addiction.

Ernest Hemingway