So, we were in the process of applying to a school, and were typically uncertain as to our future location vis-a-vis it’s overlap with work projects in Asia and Africa.
Well, here’s the genesis of the journey, to the day, in the form of an email I sent to Arthur Gugick, a friend, former Penn classmate and teacher extraordinaire teaching in Ohio.
“Arturo. Bonjour and i hope this finds you well.I have a wild question out of the blue. Due to some work demands, Stacia and i are considering taking the next year off and homeschooling our 3 kids. They will be in 2nd, 6th and 8th grade. Here’s the thing. If we do this it will be in Asia and Africa. A wild in region learning experience. Part history. Part science, math and so forth in different countries but based in say Japan or HK for 6 months and Zambia for example (not set in stone) but traveling out of base to Laos, Vietnam, China, Uganda, Tanzania etc. A weird world school in essence. We have contacts all over that could make it incredible. Chimp sanctuary in Uganda, bamboo bike builders in Zambia, robots in China, etc. etc. You get the idea of how amazing it could be. Its kinda the last chance year we could ever do it. My kids are really good folks and pretty worldly. We’ll set up sport and physical activity etc. in each place. So…here’s the question…What we need to find is one great teacher in math and English that can design and execute an accelerated disciplined and documented curriculum and who is willing to travel for a year with our family. I think for the right person its the adventure of a lifetime. The program itself, in my opinion, can be remarkable with the right fit.Question. How/where do i search for teacher availability for such a teaching job? I need one great educator that has vision, energy and cahones. I am searching for the perfect match. Thoughts?Merci. Gracias. GrazieAnd here was his reply…
On Feb 9, 2017 06:18, <email@example.com> wrote:MikeI know the perfect person for you.He started his career working at a K-4 Montessori elementary school (4 years) so he has experience working with younger children. The Montessori paradigm is one of individual curricula dependent upon a student’s personal needs and strengths. I know he took these ideas when he raised his own children. He taught both his children to read by age four. (one is an honors OSU student and the other is a gifted musician heading off to CIM)He has worked in Middle schools (6 years), and in High schools (14 years). Perfect for your children: He’ll know what’s appropriate for their age and has the knowledge to push them to beyond their potentials. And although he’s taught mostly mathematics, he has also taught Computer Science, middle school science, high school astronomy and physics, reading, writing, and everything in between.Great sense of humor. Strong family values. Excellent resume. Amazing references. Vision, energy, and, yes, cahones. And as a bonus: he’s a Lego master.Lets talk more about this.ArthurHe had me at Lego master…And so it was.
Let me be clear. THE VIDEO THAT FOLLOWS IS MEANT TO BE HUMOROUS AND FUN. Period. Unfortunately, in today’s climate, it requires a brief preface.
As most of you know, I detest hypocrisy nearly as much as I detest the main stream media of all colors and stripes whose sole task it seems is to create distraction and discord among it’s fellow citizens to a point that it destroys the very fabric of our nation. And for what, to sell papers? To generate more clicks? “Brand America” be damned, right?
Nicholas and I discussed the tone and angst and messaging of “American Idiot” by Green Day, which captures so much of the current madness we observe. Personally, I find myself humming it often, as if it was written last week. I sometimes feel alien to, and in, the land I love. And the questions one gets all over the world like, “what the heck is going on over there?”, makes it clear that “Brand America” is under assault.
Make no mistake, America has given us fantastic opportunities whose rightful credit accrues to our immigrant Great Grandparents, Grandparents and Parents who toiled, saved and in some cases died for our good fortune. Be they forefathers who died in WWII, or died in a coal mine, under the shadow of dirty unsafe working conditions, we owe everything to America, and those who came before us. And to you Dear Reader, as I strive always to find a pony under a pile of poo, this too shall pass. America will thrive. She has faced far greater foes than the internal strife from our unhealed internal wounds. In the mean time, let’s try not to kill the goose which has been so good to so many all over the world.
Thus, the use of American Idiot here is a subliminal a call not to arms, but a call for the use of brains, and hearts, and goodness. It in no way shades thoughtful citizens anywhere. Moreover, this song selection is in no way meant to point fingers at anyone or anything in a manner as to convey high minded elitism. THE SONGS MESSAGE IS SERIOUS, THE VIDEO IS NOT! We hope you enjoy watching, as much as Nicholas enjoyed making it.
American Idiot, Green Day,
Don’t wanna be an American idiot…Don’t want a nation under the new mania…And can you hear the sound of hysteria?…The subliminal mind-f$ck America…Welcome to a new kind of tension, All across the alien nation
Where everything isn’t meant to be okay…Well, maybe I’m the fa$$ot America, I’m not a part of a redneck agenda…Now everybody do the propaganda…And sing along to the age of paranoia
Welcome to a new kind of tension…All across the alien nation…
As we sail West high over the Pacific, new oceans await. We are all a crucible of giddiness, excitement, apprehension, joy and humility. And Dear Reader, do not think for a moment that a day goes by that the good fortune which we as a family embrace, is not deeply understood and appreciated at the core of each of us. We fully expect that the ultimate proof will be on exhibit in the contributing citizens which spring up from these children and all children who we are striving to teach a better way, be they our biological, as well as the “adopted” we encounter along on our way through life. The kids are well versed in the precept that, “of those that have much, much is expected.” And there is much that needs to be done.
Our first place of orientation is Indonesia, where our tutor (more on him later) will become oriented to the kid’s levels. In advance, he gave the kids one assignment to learn about each of them. The new teacher asked them to each do a video of their choosing about “who they are”. Always interesting to learn how your kids reflect on their lives and personnas.
One day it’s just Legos. The next day it’s Minecraft. Then one day they say, “look what I built!”
And you watch those fidgety hands in the video. The ones about which teachers in France say, “he can’t sit still”. The ones which can drive parents crazy at the dinner table, like say in Sydney, when that fidgeting nearly killed a guy (a story for another days post).
I once said in passing, “i’ll spend as much money as you like on two things…books and technology”. And then comes the request. “I know I’m 12, but I want to build my own machine. I’ve done the research and figured out the configuration, and… and… can I…?
Off they go. Like getting on the school bus for the first day each September. A mixture of pride and sadness, as each step forward is a step further away. Or is it?
Perhaps a step closer. With Mom, straight from the techno-brain of her dad, a nerd at heart. The perfect combination of brains and beauty, there to support, maintain calm and to encourage.
After much dutiful research, patience, and perseverance. Weeks to study, days to build.
This machine has now been constructed and deconstructed so many times I worry about slot leakage and loose contacts. But in the end, the blurt, “I would do this 24/7 if I could”, made the experience priceless.
And then you realize that that lovable geek, that proper nerd, is our geek. Our nerd. And you think about the Dr. Seuss book you read to the kids as babies…(thank you, Butch)
“You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.”
Oh, The Places You’ll Go — Dr. Suess
And you realize, he’s not ours at all, he’s simply on loan. He’s really all his own.
And that makes all the difference.
Much respect to Nicholas “Clickolas” Balog. 2017.
The ninth day of the Chinese New Year is the birthday of the Jade Emperor. The Jade Emperor is the supreme god worshipped by the Taoists. The Jade Emperor rules all Heaven and Earth. In China the number nine is an auspicious number. When number nine is pronounced, it sounds like the word for “long lasting”.
(with Deng Xiaoping, 1986, Beijing. Mom, Dad, and me all on far left)
When multiplied 9 always reproduces itself…
Nicholas February 19
Alexander December 9
Annika July 29
When I was growing up my Mom, Alvina Bartos Balog, owned a travel agency named Watchung Hills Travel. This was a time when a travel agency, as a business was plain lousy, in contrast to today, where it is downright abhorrent. The most outstanding benefit for me and my brothers was that we got to travel places on familiarization trips, or “fam trips” in the trade, boondoggles in most businesses, and what I came to learn about Wall Street types, rampant hedonism. If we were ever unclear as to our good fortune, we were constantly reminded of such by the neighborhood kids who asked, “SO, where are you going NOW?”
And Oh the Places We’d Go. Vail. An early Club Med in Martinique. Kingston, Jamaica. Puerto Rico. Banff Springs, Canada. And Scottsdale, Arizona. I learned “fam trips” were fab trips. And the travel bug infectious. If one ever wonders who was “patient zero” and the origin of our travel bug, it was my Mom. Since then, Stacia has grabbed the ball and run with it like OJ in a white Bronco!
To place this period of time in perspective, one of these trips was in 1965 to Vail, Colorado. Yes, that Vail. In 1965. After it had been only open one year. One. And if I recall correctly Vail at the time had only three ski lifts. The town had two hotels, the Talisman and the Valhalla. We stayed down rent of the two at the Talisman. I will never forget walking past the ‘high end’ Valhalla, and its outdoor hot tub surrounded by a pile of fresh snow thinking, ‘how odd, why would men and women want to sit in THAT, nearly naked, outside in the cold, drinking wine?’.
Skiing was a relatively new sport in America, and I stood on the ground floor. If this were The Graduate and had I had investment chops then, I might well have considered recreational skiing to be my own “plastics Benjamin, plastics”, moment.* But alas…
(Jokake Inn, Scottsdale. Today the quaint entry monument at the Phoenician.)
Around 1975, we were in Scottsdale, Arizona and my father introduced me to a colleague of his named Jean. Jean was a weathered soul, having grown up living through not one but two World Wars which devastated his native France. With no perspective of my own until much later while living in France ourselves, I have come to realize the impact of war in your own homeland, and the deep lasting scars it inflicts on the psyche of its inhabitants. I’ve also come to realize Jean had a certain je ne sais quoi about him that softly whispered ‘very well to do’.
My Dad and Jean were enjoying a glass of wine, chatting, whilst together they prepared the quintessential American staple of grilled animal flesh on the outdoor BBQ. Sirloin steaks.
(du Boeuf pour les cowboys, s’il vous plait)
I’ve since learned that the French have a super warm affinity for all things American West, or les cowboys. Jean must have enjoyed how “charmante” it was to be entertaining Americans on his own spread in Arizona, in the shadows of Pinnacle Peak.
I listened as they spoke of subjects which for the most part were out of my reach. And then I heard him say something that has stuck with me. Jean began, “Jeem…I have learned much in my life from zees wars and zee crazy times. I tell you now…build a band of wealth around zee world. You never know what ees going to ‘appen. Very important you understand zis.” **
Jean was not the type to be arguing for the caching of treasure away from tax authorities, as no Frenchman would ever do zees (cough). He spoke of those that, during the war, lost businesses, art, gold, family, everything. And how it was the smart ones, the educated ones that were able to transport their knowledge elsewhere, and not only survive, but thrive. I have since met example after example of exactly that, in the form of immigrants and survivors alike. Those that adapt, survive. People that do not adapt, perish. And it leads to a guiding mantra, a quote from Eric Hoffer:
“In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”
Forty years later, our family was chatting at the dinner table on a recent February night in 2017, speaking about the kid’s school day, when 5th grade Alexander, often shy, reserved, but always thoughtful, blurts:
“What if school wasn’t school? What if the school, if life, could just be one continuous string of learning wherever you are, wherever you went?”
(Alexander, ahead of his time)
“I wish that I had been that observant and thoughtful at your age”, was all Dad could reply, with a sentient glance to Maman.
And then it hit me. “Build a band of wealth around the world”. Not wealth like “stuff” wealth, but wealth like “real” wealth. The wealth that moves with you, gets better with age, and can’t get stolen or compromised, except through diminution by time.
What if, indeed…
*In truth, skiing wasn’t the play, real estate was, and had I recognized that at the time, I would have my attache typing this missive right now from LogJam Air at 40,000 feet.]
* *And given seeming constant political volatility, and people’s normalcy bias, it makes sense. Today zees is commonly called spreading your bets, or simply, hedging.
My father, James Balog Senior, often gave me sage advice growing up. Thankfully he still does. One such nugget, delivered with his gentle grace and down-home charm steeped straight from the dirty coal fields of Vintondale, in Western Pennsylvania: “You will use every bit of knowledge that you acquire over your life, without exception **. Much of it will seem insignificant at the time. But trust me, it will all come to significance in due time.” He added with a smirk, “And for your lessons? Please do yourself a favor and try and keep the ‘tuition’ to a minimum.”
I don’t recall if this gem was conveyed while cutting the grass, raking leaves, or picking out the seeming endless rocks of the Watching Mountains that had shortly before been hacked in a spark and clank of the power mower. I was fortunate to grow up in a home with a bright yellow power mower that had a hand controlled wheel gear release, making the pushing easier. This machine replaced the whirling manual rotor blade version, like a scaled down wheat field combine, which now sadly sat alone in the tool shed.
The simplified product transition from old ‘tech’ to new ‘tech’ might be what the Finnish today would refer to as, ‘curling parenting’. This delightful term refers to the process in curling of the broom sweeping the ice before the curling granite* (in this metaphor, the kids) gets to its final resting place with greater ease. [warm respectful shout out to Rami and Katja Ahonen]. In America, this would be the precursor to the modern term – helicopter parenting. Even back in the olden days, ‘the easy life’, referred simply to our levels of manual labor. And yes, it’s true, you can take my Dad out of the Ukraine, but you can’t take the Ukrainian out of my Dad.
Regardless, I did what every rebellious teen with raging hormones would do. A grumble, an eye roll, and a gratuitous deferential smirk in reply. But here’s the crazy part. He was right. And it wasn’t the first lesson, nor the last. Learning really is everything. And as much as my kids today say, “awwww Dad, another story, another lesson?”, I smile inside at their eye roll and grumble, knowing that somewhere in there, is a future tale to someone, perhaps even their own children, should they be as fortunate as me. And they’ll tell their kids about how tedious it was to transition from the iPhone 6 to iPhone 7.
So what is this blog about?
Learning. Risk taking. And learning to take risks. It’s about hearing all too often the scornful, “WHAT are you DOING?” And realizing that scorn often represents the winds of consensus. And in life, as with investing, the hard thing to do, and the right thing to do, are often the same.
The anti-question, the correct question is, “WHAT are you NOT doing? And WHY not?”
Lean into the wind.
(and so it begins…)
*Not just any rock: curling stones’ special granite comes from Scotland. Curling, perhaps the oddest sport at the winter Olympics, probably originated in Scotland. The stones used to play it are made from the granite of one tiny volcanic island there. The curling stone is specified by the World Curling Federation, which requires a weight between 38 and 44 pounds (17.24 and 19.96 kg), a maximum circumference of 36 inches (914.4 mm) and a minimum height of 4.5 inches (114.3 mm).
** Don’t worry, you’ll use it, even if it’s to win a beer from your mates.
After living in Paris, France, for the last five years where the children were in French schools for three years (more on that later), becoming fluent in the French language, and the American School of Paris the final two years, we decided as a family we enjoyed living and learning “Off Piste”.
As background, my wife and I met in San Francisco in the Investment Banking world in the 90’s. Stacia and I are in the fortunate position (we are not confused, we count our blessings daily) that our vocation and our avocation are the same. We love to work, invest together, and travel. Our time since leaving the comfy confines of San Francisco (Marin actually) and Greenwich, has yielded extraordinary exposure to people and places and interests and opportunities to which we would never have been exposed had we stayed the traditional course. Since leaving the US, we have invested in Europe, Asia, Africa, and other emerging and frontier markets. Our children have each stamped nearly 40 passport country stamps.
As such, we realized that we have one and only one window in which to take our kids on a crazy, magnificent, immersive learning experience that overlaps our business interests. We will spend the upcoming year traveling to Asia and Africa, with an amazing STEM tutor in tow. But that’s where the story begins. This is by design not “colors of the flag” and “country population” learning. With a big assist from business contacts and knowledge we’ve gained from our travels, we will attempt to expose to a manner of learning which we feel is the future of education. Immersive, experiential, applied learning. And it is this ongoing process which we will capture on this blog, in video, and in photos.
Our Tutor in Tow, Arthur Gugick, is an award-winning STEM teacher who I knew well from Penn. He was once studying to be an astronaut, yet outgrew the then height requirement, and perhaps the fighter pilot mentality proved daunting. He is deep is Math, Astronomy, Physics, and Computer Science. He has taught grade K-4 in a Montessori format, a Middle School principal, and an HS math teacher. And he is a LEGO Master, for real. Look him up!
Our three children are different ages and have different interests, making for an interesting mix of possibility.
Nicholas (13) is best characterized as the kid that loves anything that “plugs into a wall”. If it’s computer related, he’s goofy about it. He is a video and movie making geek, a voracious reader, and a piano player.
Alexander (11) is a soccer fiend and loves writing, singing, space, science and being in front of the camera. Dry-humored, quiet, and observant. The philosopher-scientist.
Annika (7) is a mess of blond madness, sharpening her elbows to fight her way through her brothers to gain attention. Funny, bold, and unstoppable.
These individual characteristics inform our experiential learning locations and ideas. In addition to meeting the necessary traditional required learning, “the checkboxes” of reading, writing, math, and science as it were, each location has an overlapping possibility and will ideally drive an immersive learning experience. Over the course of the 2017 and 2018, we will immerse ourselves in Kampala, Uganda eating lake fly burgers. We will visit Cote D’Ivoire to visit cocoa bean farmers and follow the trade all the way to the factory in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, where rumors of child slave labor persist. Hopefully, this will help keep the kids fresh in their French language. Nicholas will work the kitchen in a Zambian hotel. We will learn photography from a famous photo artist in Sub-Saharan Africa, on a shoot of elephant villages at night. A chimp sanctuary on an Island on Lake Victoria in Uganda will provide the backdrop for documenting chimp activity and socialization research. In short, we are more constrained by time and over commitment, than a dearth of ideas and possibility.
Ambitious? Yes. Exciting? Insanely. But something we felt we must do.
We have chosen six overarching themes that are common to people all over the world, as cues and clues to guide immersive learning topics and our video catalog.
1. Tradition expressed in music, art, and food.
2. Family, and the gift of graciously gifting and receiving.
3. Education, as practiced all around the world.
4. Applied technology. A visit to a robotics development center in the New Territories in China. We look forward to lessons from a videographer and his partner located in Nairobi, Ahmed (Kenyan borne Iranian) and his Egyptian partner Wail, who used to shoot for Vice Media during the Arab Spring revolt in Cairo. They will introduce us to their craft in an effort to begin to learn video storytelling, production, and editing.
5. Soccer, as a universal language. Each part of the excursion will begin and end with the passing of a special globe soccer ball, around the world, to new people and new countries. We discovered while living in Paris, that one can pass a ball to anyone and you get two things in return. A smile and a ball passed back.
6. A world advancing and lives improving. The world is really a small sandbox and improving far faster than most realize. More on that later.
And so it begins.