Bonus Gardens

Yesterday was my birthday. To celebrate 42 consecutive trips around the sun without dying, my family took me into downtown Melaka to do some touristy stuff. I know, I know…a lot of the local expats poo-poo doing tourist stuff. The way I see it, I didn’t come all this way to not do all the Melaka things there are to do in Melaka. Besides, people with that “it’s not cool enough to be fun” attitude end up having less fun. We headed into town with the goal of checking out this tall sailing vessel we’d passed a few times on other expeditions.

The process of getting to any particular location in Melaka is as follows:

  • Step One: Drive until you can see it

    The Melaka Maritime Museum

    The Melaka Maritime Museum

  • Step Two: Drive until you find parking. This will take longer than you expect, as both traffic and parking are unforgiving here.
  • Step Three: Figure out if you’re paying the city, a business or some other entity for the right to put your car in that particular place. It’s confusing, and there are shakedown scams based on tricking you into thinking you got a parking ticket. These are often run by local security guards.
  • Step Four: Walk to your destination, alert for coolness and the odd impending traffic catastrophe as you go.

We wound down some narrow streets flanked by buildings from the colonial period – 15th century or so — still looking very Renaissance but with air conditioning units in every other window, and we found our tall ship without taking even one wrong turn. This was a family first.

The ship itself is on dry land, a model built to resemble Portuguese trading vessels from the period. The interior had been converted into a really nifty maritime history museum that covers the history of Melaka’s trading from its founding as a port, to its century or so as the most important shipping center in the region, through the Dutch, Portuguese, British, Japanese and second British occupations, into modern independent rule.Bonus Gardens 3

I dig history, and really enjoyed the slice-of-life images the exhibits painted. They did a good job of evoking the sense of Melaka’s busy markets back in a time before Europe and Asia even knew they were only half of the world. I was especially struck by the variety. During its heyday, a year in Melaka’s port saw hundreds of:

  • Ships pass through each month, of different nationalities and designs
  • Languages spoken regularly in port, including many extinct today
  • Varieties of trade goods exchanged, from fine china to pottery to textiles to spice
  • Different types of currency in use, ranging from stamped coins to small jade statues
  • Tons of water and food taken on to sustain crews as they moved on to their next destination

Bonus Gardens 6

After enjoying the interpretive cards, paintings, maps and dioramas, we headed off to dinner. Bev had a general destination in mind so we meandered toward it. On the way, we found our first Bonus Garden of Melaka.

When Bev and I were in China, we spent each day walking from one great and famous place to another. Almost every day, we would stumble through a park between Points A and B that was far niftier than either of the destinations we had planned to visit. For example, between the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven, we walked through an enormous park where classes ranging from tai chi, to ballroom dance, to badmitton were taking place on this broad flagstone path. We dubbed them “Bonus Gardens” and use the term to this day.

Bonus Gardens 2

Merdeka Park — “Independence Park”

The Bonus Garden in Melaka rested at the nexus of three major markets. It sat, landscaped and dotted with benches and play equipment, between a high canopy of shade trees. Their trunks wound in that sinuous jungle tree way, forming nooks and crooks to climb or rest in. The smells, music, and other sounds of the surrounding city wafted through along with a cool evening breeze.

Bev and DJ were hungry, so they dragged us out sooner than I wanted for a dinner of blisteringly spicy seafood soup, saffron fried rice and chicken satay with peanut sauce (All meals Gabe attends must include chicken stay. Left unsupervised he would eat the entire national supply). We washed it down with coconut water straight from the coconut, and pronounced the evening a success. Then we went back to the Bonus Garden.

The soup was spicy enough to ruin a paint job.

The soup was spicy enough to ruin a paint job.

Because here’s the thing about Bonus Gardens.

Normally, I’m a big believer in staying goal-oriented. The life I live and the things I’ve done wouldn’t happen if I wasn’t. But Bonus Gardens are important. They’re opportunities you find between your destination and your starting point…and more often than not they make up your favorite memories, best stories and most important lessons. Remaining on point, but also alert for Bonus Gardens, is a key aspect of Kicking Ass. Ask yourself:

  • How often do you find out later that you missed an opportunity because you were overly focused on what you thought you wanted?
  • How often did your goal in that case not work out?
  • How many of your best friends were people you set out to meet, as opposed to those you ran into along the way?
  • What percentage of the best things in your life are there because of a random chance instead of an established plan?
  • If you went back in time and asked yourself of 20 years ago what he/she thought your life would be like today, would he or she even be able to guess?

I’m not saying the existence and importance of Bonus Gardens mean you shouldn’t aim for and eventually reach your original goal. I’m saying you should remain alert for Bonus Gardens, enjoy them for what they are, and return to them when you have time to give them the attention they deserve. It’s a balancing act, I admit, but one well worth becoming good at.

One final thing about Bonus Gardens. They are everywhere, all the time. If you’re missing them it’s because you’re looking too hard straight forward and not taking time to look side-to-side. Either that, or you’re still on the couch without a Point B to strive for.

The Japan Adventure: Part 1

I am in Malaysia with my family, posting dispatches about that experience. When I lived in Japan 12 years ago, I did something similar only with an email newsletter since blogs weren’t yet a thing. Some folks suggested it would be fun to post those along with my new stuff. See what’s different. See what’s the same. 

Anyway…here’s the first full newsletter. 

Hello, all…

I’ve been in Japan a week and a half now, though it feels like just slightly less than a longish eon.  The schedule so far has gone like so:

  • Thursday:  Get on a plane: a propeller-driven puddle jumper from Portland to Vancouver. Wait a few hours. Get on another plane bound for Narita International.
  • Friday:  Get off a plane, spend the night in Osaka and panic because my first meal is tiny and consists of a bland, half-cooked egg on top of blank, overcooked rice.
Japan Rice

Even less delicious than it sounds.

  • Saturday:  Ride a train to Nagasaki, move into my new apartment.  Eat the first of many dinners at a yakitori bar called Gotsubo. Stop panicking about food.
  •  Sunday:  Tour around Nagasaki with Aunt Lorna, meet my future co-workers and be introduced to various important landmarks, bakeries and coffee shops.
  • Monday:  Ride a train to Fukuoka for a day of fairly easy training and a walk around the city at night, like a journey through canyons of neon.Japan Temple
  • Tuesday through Thursday:  Further training.  It wasn’t nearly as hard as I had been told to expect.   Training was in the afternoons and evenings, so in the mornings I could walk around town. The subway in Tenjin is an amazing warren of shops and tunnels, all red brick and clean glass and dark wood.  I felt rather like Alice, or maybe Harry Potter in Diagon Alley.  I also took the opportunity to visit an ancient castle and several shrines.
  • Friday:  Up very early to catch a train back to Nagasaki and report for a full day of work.
  • Saturday and Sunday:  Full days of work at my new job.  I like the classes, and am learning more than my students do at this point.  Evenings I get to know my roomies and some other staff members.  They’re a good bunch of people and just the right sort of odd.
  • Monday (Today):  Meet Hamid (a workmate) for a workout at Maruya Gym.  Afterwards, I spent the day with Lorna including finishing various bits of business like getting a gaijin card and opening a bank account.  I met her landlady, who is a kind woman and laughs more easily than most Japanese I’ve met thus far.
  • Tomorrow I have the day off, and I plan to wander around town, see the sights and observe an Aikido class preparatory to joining up.

Japan Nagasaki


One interesting thing I’ve noticed so far is the music.  The Japanese appear to have an absolute fixation with cheap electronic tunes.  There’s music in the malls, with each shop playing a different songs.  Vehicles spout any number of little ditties.  The crosswalks play a melody when it’s okay to cross.  All of it tinny versions of American songs, at a level of quality normally associated with a singing birthday card.  On the other end of the spectrum, the cell phones have amazing sound quality and an immense variety of rings.  One co-worker has the theme from The Exorcist, and it sounds like there’s a pipe organ in the room.


Much of my time with the roomies is spent at Gotsubo, where we sit belly up to the counter and eat while being entertained by Masta, who cooks for us while giving Japanese lessons and inquiring about the most recent English slang terms for key female anatomy.

I am settling in nicely, creating a life and looking forward to a chance to settle into something resembling a routine.  What with bouncing around and hitting the ground running, I still have to think to remember what day it is or remember when to get off the bus at my stop.  It is a great adventure.

Malaysia #2: Write What You Know

Warning: the following blog entry contains references to poop. Not German dungeon porn poop, but not tidy little pre-solid-food baby doodies either. If you think this will bother you, go read something else. 


The Great Equalizer.

I’m generally okay with myself in terms of self-image. Some might say overly so. But when those days come where I think too much about how I probably won’t ever be Anthony Bourdain or David Quammen, it helps to know that those guys also poop. Because of their chosen profession — part-time adventure travel writers — it’s likely they’ve had experiences much like the one I’m about to relate. Continue reading

The Terrible Toll of the Treadmill

For almost all of live your dreamus, there comes a time when we end up on the treadmill. The gerbil wheel. The Sisyphean slope. That point in our lives where we are working hard, fully engaged and in motion, but not actually going anywhere.


Are you now (or have you ever been) frequently saying or thinking things like…

  • This gig is a dead-end street
  • I need a change but I don’t know what, or how
  • There’s no room for promotion here
  • I’d be doing great if I just had X more bucks or Y more hours each month
  • Fuck six blue ducks, but I hate my life

The treadmill is often frustrating, rarely rewarding, energy-consuming and more boring than Ben Stein at a stranger’s wedding telling you about this crazy dream he had. But – and here’s the insidious evil of the treadmill – it has just enough advantages to keep you on it.

You’re getting some exercise. We use regular treadmills because they let us run or walk to get healthier. The repetition of most treadmill gigs means you’re getting practice at one skill or another, eating up those 10,000 hours towards mastery.

Routine is comforting…and we love to be comfortable. Even for adventurous types, doing the same predictable thing for the same predictable paycheck cuts our stress. For some people, this is even more important than being challenged or fulfilled.

You’re getting paid.A “goodnuff” job at a “goodnuff” wage is what a lot of people have to live with because they have broader responsibilities or narrower options. We enjoy eating food and sleeping indoors, and a treadmill gig can help us do that.

I spent two years on a treadmill called Demand Studios. This company made money via a combination of gaming Google’s search algorithms and not-quite-lying about their profits for an eventual IPO. The work was boring and the pay just a nudge above insulting by professional standards. I usually love my editors, even (especially) the ones who push me. But editors there would tell me things like “Bruce Lee isn’t relevant to ab workouts” or “This article is about the United States. Don’t write about New Mexico.”

It was a treadmill, but at the time we had just had a baby and my wife suffered health complications that took her out of the contribution equation for half of the first year. What I needed was a comforting, low-stress, low-effort, reliable gig that paid the bills. By the time she was able to work in and out of the house, I’d fallen into that soporific routine and stayed there even when I should have been growing myself as a coach, speaker and writer.

As I discovered, and I imagine most of you know, the treadmill has problems that come along with the things it does all right.

You don’t grow new skills. I got great at writing 500-word online articles, but I didn’t learn how to write longer pieces, or humor, or speeches or white papers. A treadmill gig at a call center builds patience and communication skills, but won’t move you closer to your dream of owning the world’s funniest T-shirt company.

They eat up just that much time so you don’t have the energy or opportunities to pursue other avenues. I made okay money at Demand Studios, but would have been better off spending some of that earning time building other assets. Ask anybody who works at Home Depot or waiting tables “just until that big break” how absolutely true this is.

Comforablet is just an inch away from complacent. Treadmills become ruts really fast. If you stay on one long enough, you find the habits and skills that help you get off of them have atrophied. You become addicted to the comfort, safety and routine. I stayed with that content mill for a year after I needed it, and everybody who’s ever waited tables knows that one 60-year-old who never got around to doing something else.

What if the treadmill breaks? “Steady jobs” are no more stable or dependable than freelance gigs. If your meal ticket stops paying out, you are screwed. When Google bitch-slapped Demand Studios, the whole thing came falling down. I was lucky to have found some other, better clients or I might be working a real job right no. When the mill closes down, this is exactly what happens.

If you want to be the person you wish you were, you must get off the treadmill.

"Please, do as they say! Get off the...treadmill!"

“Please, do as they say! Get off the…treadmill!”

Treadmills give you just enough reward and give an illusion of reduced risk to stay tempting even when you know you should get off. But you want to get off, or you wouldn’t still be reading this. Next week, I’m going to post a five-step you can use to get off whatever treadmill you’re stuck on – writing, working a job, or running a stagnating business.

For now just remember: I’ll show you the path, but you have to take the first step.

Malaysia #2: When in Melaka…

When in doubt, turn left.

Family Travel Stories
This rule isn’t original to me. I stole it from Lawrence Block, the award-winning and multiple best-selling crime author. Not hisownself – he doesn’t know me from Adam – but his character Bernie Rhodenbarr always takes the choice on the left when faced with two equal options. He doesn’t agonize over the decision. He doesn’t complain that it’s hard. He just takes the one on the left and moves on.

It’s not original to Uncle Larry, either. I’m sure Robert Frost had something to do with it, among others, but his Burglar books are where the concept came to me. Years after I made Bernie’s acquaintance, I read in more than one Disney guide how turning left at amusement parks can cut your time in line by half. Everybody else is turning right, and moving against that pattern keeps you in less occupied parts of the park. I’ve done a completely unscientific study of that claim with an irresponsibly small sample size, but as far as I can tell the trick works. That’s another vote for turning left.

My wife and I grew up 90 miles apart, and met while we were both living in Japan. Continue reading