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Beyond Blog

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Posted by daniel.venn on June 18, 2017 at 10:40 AM Comments comments (1)

Freshman year I gave a speech for a public speaking class on the perils of international aid. I was young and dumb enough to know everything. Had you told me then about me now, I would have been appalled. I had worked so hard to get into a good college so I could get a good job and make good money and then die, just like I had been told to and just like everyone else. Had I known I’d be traipsing around the world with no discernible plan or income, freshman me might have broken down and cried.

I held the class of other idealistic eighteen year olds who also knew everything rapt while I paced, I can never stay still when I talk, back and forth and preached about destroyed economies and the cycle of oppression. What a frightful name, the cycle of oppression.

Did you know that the money you donate, the meals you pack, the supplies you send don’t help the people you’re intending to reach? It oppresses them. I repeated the word for impact. Oppresses!

That tractor you sent to Africa? It’s probably sitting unused in a field somewhere. Didn’t you think that it would need maintenance and those rural farmers wouldn’t know how or have the resources to fix it? Good thing too, all it did was put those same farmers out of work.

All that food you packed in little, nutritious meal-sized baggies and sealed in boxes with tape and the satisfaction that you just saved a child from starving somewhere? Well, because of that same meal, the kid’s parents won’t be able to sell the scant produce they grow to bring to market. Why would anyone pay them for food when they can get your donated food for free? Mom and Dad will never have the money to buy their own food now, so you better keep packing meals if they’re not going to starve tomorrow.

I went on with example after example of dependency-creating, poverty-reinforcing, havoc-wreaking international aid. Trying to make a difference just makes it worse, I said, implying that you just shouldn’t try. It’s probably true in some respects, but of course, I had never been out of my hometown at the time, let alone seen any of the world.

Aid might have negative consequences here and there, but I like to think now, that I’ve met the people, seen with my own eyes where and with who the aid ends up, I like to think now that it’s better than the alternative. A dependent tomorrow is better than no tomorrow.

It’s easy to sit at home and make excuses for not doing anything for the world, but this might be my favorite. To not only do nothing, but proclaim that I’m doing the world a favor through my nothingness is beautiful self-righteousness.

Now I don’t mean to sound too condescending here (just the right amount), but I firmly believe that anyone who says they wish they could be out changing the world is lying. If you really wanted to be, you would be. It’s as simple as that in my mind.

And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Changing the world isn’t for everyone. I’m not even sure if it’s for me, but here I am, on the road to find out. Just like anything else in life, making a difference is a conscious choice and you can’t wish it into fruition.

It’s easy to make excuses, especially for such a grand, abstract cause like the world. You’ve got a job, a wife, a house, a mortgage, some kids, loans. You can’t just leave it behind and hop on an airplane.

Yes, you can reach the world by going through an airport. But what’s outside your front door is the world too and I’m sure there’s a way to make that better. You don’t necessarily have to go very far.

There is no method to the madness either. How I change the world should not be how you change the world. We all have our own who, what, where, when, why, and how and there’s no wrong way to go about it as long as you do go about it.

If you’re willing to wish it but not willing to do it, get better wishes.

For me, the change doesn’t always have to be some grandiose, earth-shattering revelation either. During my brief stint in the Peace Corps, one of the most profound pieces of advice I received about changing the world was “Lower your expectations”. It was one of the most disheartening yet inspiring sentences I had ever heard. To hear that I probably wasn’t going to make a dramatic difference shook me up, but at the same time knowing that I didn’t have to gave me resolve. Small changes are changes too.

When I first got down to Central America, I was appalled by how people treated dogs and I decided that was a simple change I could make for the people around me. I didn’t have to lecture or preach, I could just be pleasant to the dogs roaming around where I teach and maybe someone would notice.

I picked one dog in particular both for the way it was yelled at, shooed, and kicked on a daily basis and because it was the most pathetic, runt-of-the-litter mangy mutt I’d come across in a country filled with pathetic, runt-of-the-litter mangy mutts. There’s more street dogs than there are streets here.

The little guy would wander into our classroom (I still haven’t decided what to call it given that it's just a whiteboard dangling from the ceiling with rope and a few chairs set up in front of it), tail wagging and puppy dog eyes in full effect, and immediately be met with shouts and someone’s shoe if it didn’t flee fast enough. Occasionally they’d grab a broom and take a homerun swing at him if he was persistent or slow.

He’d yelp and run off until tomorrow and I’d feel bad and keep on teaching and remind myself that cultural differences exist and I only think that it’s wrong because I grew up in America and this isn’t there. I got fed up after a week or two, my pity for the literal underdog and guilt having never lived a day in my life back home without a dog in the house became too much to ignore.

I didn’t do anything extraordinary. I simply gave the pup a pat on the head when I walked in for the morning, tossed him scraps when I had food, and generally let him within five feet of me without freaking out.

He started greeting me at the gate when I arrived, tail flapping back and forth at previously unknown speeds behind him. As soon as I’d give him his daily head pat, he’d lose his mind, sprinting in all directions, running circles around me, too overjoyed by simply having his existence acknowledged to stop long enough to actually let me pet him. He’d calm down eventually and settle himself under my chair for the duration of my lesson each day. When I left, he’d jog by my side through the neighborhood, growling at other dogs and people and trees that got too close to me.

I doubled down on my love for him, naming him (Dobby, after the pathetic but fiercely loyal Potter house elf) and wrapping my bandana around his neck so the world would know he wasn’t another street dog but a cherished family member. I’d hug him when I arrived, holding on until his tail stopped causing his body to seizure so I could pet him for real. When he got too comfortable, sticking his head into my students’ laps during our class, I gently led him away.

Denis, the owner and coach of the softball academy I teach at whose childhood must have been stolen by a pack of roaming, ravenous street dogs because he spends the majority of his days sitting outside in a plastic chair yelling at, throwing things at, and generally not tolerating any dog that gets close enough to his academy to be hit with a shoe, started yelling at Dobby as I led the dog to the gate. His sandal came flying through the air. Dobby yelped and bolted back to the safety of my chair.

“Denis!” the girls shouted. “He was following the teacher! Dogs listen to you if you’re nice to them!”

I sat down and patted Dobby on the head, proud that we had accomplished social change on some level.

I’ve got this friendly (I hope) rivalry going with the local gang. They show up a few days a week after my class and tell me I’m going to play basketball with them. It’s not a question and I don’t argue.

The first time we played, it had been for the court. I was shooting around with a few students and they wanted us out of their way. Winner stays, loser goes home.

Despite being physically imposing in their baggy shorts, wife beaters (if they were wearing a shirt), chains and jewelry, backwards flatbills, and unusually placed tattoos (is anything ever important enough to ink permanently on your face?), it was clear that the gang owned one And1 Mixtape video and had learned everything they knew about basketball from watching it repeatedly. Every possession featured one of them dribbling between their legs and behind their back for fifteen to twenty seconds on the perimeter and then driving and throwing up a no-look circus layup.

We fundamentaled them into the ground with ball movement and boxing out and everything I had learned as a mediocre white guy on a high school basketball team. For an afternoon, we were the San Antonio Spurs of Nicaraguan street basketball.

I ended the game by banking in a mid-range jumper, turning to the nearest gang member, and saying “Don’t fuck with me” in Spanish. In hindsight, it may not have been the best word choice.

It’s probably a given that if you tell a gang not to fuck with you, they will, indeed, fuck with you. A few days later, they were standing outside the academy demanding to see me when I finished class.

“We’re playing basketball now.” Well, alright.

Waiting at the court was one of the biggest, beefiest, baldest rhinoceroses of a man I had ever seen. He wore a single thick gold chain and a Horace Grant jersey and spent the next three hours pounding me into the ground, simply saying “Another” after each game to ten ended and checking me the ball.

It was Dobby that came to my rescue in the most unconventional way. Posting me up in the paint for the hundredth time that day, the giant caught the ball with his back to me. Instead of turning and scoring over me, he dropped the ball and began itching his arms furiously, first his left and then his right. He looked at me intently before unleashing a string of what only could have been expletives at me.

“You have…”I didn’t understand the third word in the sentence and gave him a confused look. He kept repeating the same sentence over and over, louder each time. After the seventh or eighth shouted proclamation, I took off next door to the academy to get an English-Spanish dictionary, partly because I wanted to know what I had and partly because I was scared he might hurt me.

I returned with the dictionary and handed it to him. He rifled through it and then handed it back, a meaty finger pointing out one of the words.


“Why do you think we try to keep the dog way?” my students asked when I told them the story, shrugging their shoulders.

I tried to change the world and now I have fleas.

Suit and Tie Soldiers 2

Posted by daniel.venn on February 21, 2017 at 10:30 PM Comments comments (0)

“You shouldn’t go there. They will rob you,” the man told me. He pointed a finger over my shoulder at the entrance to San Judas. He had waived me over from across the highway, the desperation and adamancy of his motions had convinced me to cross three lanes of traffic and talk to him and not just continue on my way. He gestured to my backpack. “They will take that. And your money. There are bad people there.”


I tried to tell him that I wasn’t worried. I walked through San Judas on a daily basis and, contrary to popular belief, hadn’t been robbed, kidnapped, or killed just yet. I didn’t carry money with me, and my backpack only had my materials for class that day in it. If it got stolen, the only benefit to the thief it held was a lesson on irregular past tense verbs. He kept on lecturing me, pointing to his security guard uniform to validate his knowledge of all things good and safe. San Judas clearly fell into neither category.


It was a popular refrain I had heard near-daily for two months. Whenever I mentioned the words San Judas to a local they practically shuttered and then fumbled over their words, in too much of a hurry to get a warning out to get it out clearly. After thoroughly scolding me for being so careless with my own safety, they always asked the same question.


“Why would you want to work there?”


The fact that they have to ask is exactly why.


I turned back to the man and thanked him for his concern and turned to cross the highway again.


“Wait, one more thing,” he said. I turned back just enough to show I was listening. “My sister, she is very sick. Could you spare 10 Cordobas to help her?”


I had gotten used to being asked for money, even started to expect the question. I typically just pretended like I didn’t speak Spanish and moved on my way. But he clearly knew I could understand him, given the conversation we’d just had in his native language. I reminded him that I didn’t carry money with me when I went to San Judas, but he was a step ahead of me, pointing to the wallet in the front pocket of my athletic shorts, a square bulge against the mesh.


“Anything would help my sister. She’s very sick.”


The Minnesota Nice in me made it impossible to just walk away at that point. I was running late for class and ending the conversation would be worth paying for. I pulled my wallet out and opened it to show I wasn’t carrying much on me. Two American dollar bills were the complete contents of my billfold.


“I don’t have any Cordobas, I’m sorry.”


“Those will be fine,” he said, reaching for the dollar bills. Before I could think of the words to protest in Spanish, he had picked them from my wallet. “Thank you. God bless you.”


The irony struck me as I crossed the highway. He had called me over to warn me that I could be robbed and then left with my money.


They put the garbage dump right on the outskirts of San Judas and the smell assaulted me when I reached the far side of the highway. Buzzards scattered as I stepped around decomposing trash that had blown onto the street, walking fast for my nostrils’ sake. It’s almost fitting, having to walk through the dump to get into the neighborhood. San Judas, the poorest, most dangerous barrio in the city, hidden behind everything else the rest of the city threw away.


I’ve almost stopped noticing the poverty in the city, even in the barrio. Your first couple days, it stands out. The sheet metal houses. The tin roofs held in place by rocks. Dirt roads and cracked sidewalks. The litter. Dirty clothes. The way they look at me. It all just becomes normal after a week or two, the way it is.


It isn’t until I walk through with another American, some volunteer or traveler that ends up passing through the center I live in, and they pull their camera out that I notice again.


“What are you taking a picture of?” I ask, and they gesture to everything in front of us. They look at me like I’m crazy for not noticing the destitution around us and thinking it’s worth remembering. I look at them like they’re crazy for not wanting to forget it.


Bizarre saturation is what a friend called it. After years of travel, he stopped taking pictures, stopped writing in his journals because nothing seemed noteworthy anymore. What had once been shocking and awe-inspiring became average over time. It takes a conscious effort for me now to stop and notice everything on a daily basis that seems so mundane to me now. I take a cold shower each morning that trickles from a single piece of tubing hanging from the ceiling. I wash clothes by hand using half a coconut to scoop water on to my laundry. I happily walk distances each day that I’d have driven without a second thought back home. My classroom is just a whiteboard hanging by rope from the ceiling of a makeshift softball academy, my students’ chairs set up in the dirt underneath the skinny trees outside, some sitting on a broken-down car parked inside the outer walls of the academy for a better view.


It even takes effort to get myself to write at night. To sit back and think about the day and pick out the details that stand out, that I’ll appreciate someday even though I cut my sentences short when I write them down because I’m bored by the idea and writing them down feels like work.


After jotting down my exchange, both verbally and financially, with the security guard, I played my class that morning back through my mind, looking for meaning in the day. We had been learning how to give and follow directions in English and I set up a scavenger hunt at the academy and the park nearby. The kids bounced from clue to clue turning right, left, forward backwards, to get to the next, all in search of a final grand prize I promised would amaze them.


Of course, when the winning team found their grand, grand prize, it was just one Cordoba in an envelope.


The exchange rate hovers between 28 and 29 Cordobas for one US dollar, so the value of a single Cordoba is next to nothing. My students laughed at my outrageous claims of a spectacular prize, holding up the single silver coin worth well less than a nickel.


“Who gets to keep it?” they asked, a question that I hadn’t expected. In the US, if given the choice between winning a few pennies or not winning at all, I’ll take the loss every time. I’d always rather have empty pockets than have a few worthless coins clanging around inside.


I told the students they could figure it out themselves and they began to argue in earnest, not angrily but sincerely trying to justify how they’d helped the team to earn the prize. Eventually, one of the students won out and pocketed the coin.


I walk on dirt roads past sheet metal houses every day, but hearing my students argue over a Cordoba made the poverty here glaring to me. It reminded me how different the worlds we come from are. Here, you argue over who gets to keep a coin. In the US, you argue over who has to keep it.


But I moved on with the lesson with a shrug and little more than a second thought. Trying to remain as functional as I can with the class, I threw lists of vocabulary at them that included everything you could find in your house. All the rooms, bedrooms, and bathrooms, and kitchens and everything you might come across in those rooms. Once their hands were cramping from copying the vocab, I instructed them to design their dream house using the new words we’d learned.


I showed them an example I’d made, fanciful and outrageous, intended to make them laugh. My dream house had a beach in the bedroom, a Jacuzzi set up in front of a movie theater screen, and a petting zoo outside. The students didn’t laugh, but they did look at me funny.


A few minutes later, when they shared what they created, I saw why. Their dream houses were not fanciful. There were no big-ticket items, frills, or helicopter landing pads. Their dream houses were, what us Americans would call, houses. Not even nice ones at that.


“My dream house would have two bedrooms so we wouldn’t have to share a bed,” one student stated when I prompted her to share.


“Mine would have a stove in the kitchen so we wouldn’t have to make a fire,” another called out.


“We would have a TV!” Multiple heads nodded in agreement with their classmate.


I silently count how many TVs are in my parent’s house back home. It took two hands and I immediately felt ashamed.

Suit and Tie Soldiers: Chapter 1

Posted by daniel.venn on January 9, 2017 at 4:30 PM Comments comments (0)

New book? Chapter 1?

I shuffled into work with my head down, my chin tucked into my chest. Part of it was that it was Minnesota in December and if you hold your head too high the cold will take the air right out of your chest and leave you gasping. Mostly, I just wanted to avoid making eye contact with anyone because having to engage in conversation with another person at six-thirty in the morning has the same effect on me as the cold. Snowflakes meandered into my coffee cup, fading into my dark roast. I had spilled some of it onto my slacks while trying to sip and drive and I crossed my fingers no one would notice the stain on my upper thigh.


Once inside, I couldn’t avoid eye contact any longer. Teaching doesn’t work that way. But, I could keep my door closed, a comfortable boundary keeping my eager students outside while I sat alone at my desk, stared off into the distance, and wallowed until the bell brought my attention back. Usually I’d pull myself together, staple something that resembled a smile onto my face, and force myself out of my chair and over to the door when the first bell rang. More and more, I’d been waiting until the second, sometimes longer, before opening up my classroom.


“You look tired again, Mr. Venn,” a student countered when I offered a half-assed ‘good morning’. I just nodded and mumbled something about grading papers and tried to go back to trying to focus on the lesson plan I’d thrown together late last night and not the questions that had kept me up all night. Was I really tired or was this melancholy something more sinister and what could I do about it?


I asked a lot of people what it was: tired or worse. My friends told me to get more sleep. My mother told me that I choose my mood so why wasn’t I choosing happy? My doctor told me where I could pick up my prescription. In the meantime, I woke up in the morning, made my coffee, shuffled into work, realized my coffee had gone cold, shuffled out of work, and hit the repeat button.


I always wondered if I could zoom out what I’d see. If I could fade back beyond my little school, my little town, my little life and take an aerial view of an average morning in the real world. Would I just be one of many suit and tie soldiers fighting the good fight with their heads down, dreading the day ahead of them, stepping out of their cars into the stiff December air, looking forward to 5 PM but not really sure what they’re looking forward to. I assume we’d look like ants. Little insignificant black dots marching our lives away in neat little lines. Would I stand out at all?


Now that I’ve run away, now that I’ve thrown both middle fingers to the wind, now that I’ve decided to stand out (or at least not blend in), I’ve stopped shuffling to work. I think how I walk into work will always tell me if I’m doing the absolute wrong thing with my life. If I shuffle, I’m in the wrong. If I trudge, I’m not even close. If I stumble, it might already be too late (or I’m just still drunk from last night, which poses its own questions).


Nowadays, I walk to work. Walk. Head up, shoulders back, both hands gripping the straps on my backpack. Occasionally I break into a jog when I get particularly brave crossing the highway that stands between the safety of my home and the danger of the barrio I work in. I suppose I use the word work loosely, my job description falling somewhere in the delicate in between teaching and changing the world. The highway stands like proverbial train tracks keeping the haves separated from the have-nots, the wrong side of town separated from everything else. I’m not sure which side of the tracks I belong to yet.


All my friends back home are in the army of suits. They look at me with confusion spread across their face, unsure if they should consider me a hero or a fool. I always advocate for the latter. Was it bravery or stupidity that convinced me to hold my draft card in the air, pull out my lighter, and head for the border leaving the remains of the carefully constructed real world we’d been born and bred to assume our place in smoldering on the ground behind me?


On the rare occasion that they can track me down, they always throw jealous daydreams at me. “If only” has become their catchphrase. If only I didn’t have this job. If only I didn’t have this house. If only I didn’t have this wife. They’d be out there saving the world with me, they swear it.


If only I didn’t have this life, they say. But they do.


And I don’t.


It’s not like I’m bitter or anything. They have a cause worth fighting for, that makes the war worth it, and I simply do not. When we do talk, they want me to tell them stories. To make them laugh. To make them think. To make them gaze outside their window or their cubicle and wonder if this is all there really is. If they could throw it all away and leave it all behind too and see what world exists beyond the comfortable confines of their everyday life.


They want to hear about the wonders of this world. They want to hear about poverty and hot nights on dirt floors. They want to question how anyone could survive without electricity, or wifi, or Starbucks. They want to see me shake my head, my eyes some distant far away, and struggle to find the words to explain what’s out there so they don’t have to risk opening their front door to find out for themselves.


I don’t mind indulging them. If my life is only worth entertainment at least it’s worth something. But me, I want to hear their stories. I want to be reminded of the delicious, mundane life I left behind and lay in bed and wonder if there will be a day I’ll be ready to put my suit and tie back on and take up the good fight again.

Pro Contact Offered To HKRF Ballplayer

Posted by daniel.venn on December 21, 2016 at 12:50 AM Comments comments (0)

Nixon (#17), the first ballplayer sponsored by Helping Kids Round First to receive a professional contract offer with Coach Johnny Alvarez (#55) celebrating his signing.

Johnny’s wife quietly pointed to the knife sitting on the table next to his plate and with a small nod of her head gestured he pick it up, trying not to draw too much attention to the fact that he had no idea how to use it. She picked up her own and turned it over in her hand to show him how to hold it. She delicately held a piece of meat in place with her fork and cut it slowly while he watched intently before trying to do the same with his own meal.

“So, which team would you like to play for?” I asked, trying to break the nervous tension clinging to the 16-year-old boy sitting next to me and steer the conversation back to baseball, the topic we both knew best, the topic that had brought our lives together at a small café diner in Managua, some three thousand miles from my home.

“I’ll play for anyone,” he said quietly, the knife and fork still awkwardly in his hands.

“But if you had a choice, who would you play for?” It was a simple enough question, I thought. I had stared out the window in class as a kid daily, daydreaming of putting on a Minnesota Twins uniform and bouncing across the turf of the Metrodome to strike out the side for my favorite team. Surely he had grown up with similar dreams, the kind that are a universal prerequisite to being a Little Leaguer.

“Anyone. I’ll play for anyone.” There wasn’t desperation in his voice, but something close to it. Beggars can’t be choosers. Beggars don’t have the luxury of picking favorites. I had heard rags to riches baseball stories before, but watching the kid next to me struggle to use a fork and knife, watching him try to decide from all of the choices on the menu with wide-eyes, his first time in an actual restaurant in his life, as we celebrated the start of his career in professional baseball made the poverty in Nicaragua stand out to me again. I had gotten used to it, the dirt roads, the sheet metal houses, the meager meals, over the last few months. They’d just become part of the background of my daily life. Watching the boy try to figure out how to hold a knife and fork, just days away from signing a life-changing contract to play baseball, brought it all back to me.

I watched him out of the corner of my eye as we ate, the boy seemingly not noticing the conversation going on around him, although he was the main subject being discussed, simply focused on the hunk of chicken in front of him and figuring out how to get it from his plate into his mouth without embarrassing himself.

“Boston called and offered 40, but with tryouts with the Yankees and San Francisco next week, I think he’ll get more,” Johnny said, a smile spread across his face. He wasn’t boasting, but there was a well-deserved pride carried in his words. It had been a year since he had quit his coaching job at Nicaragua’s top baseball academy, determined to start his own baseball training ground. It had been a huge risk for his career and his family. There’s no money in Nicaraguan baseball unless your players are signed by Major League teams and getting a scout to notice your ballplayers when you’re at the country’s biggest, most well-connected academy is difficult enough. Doing it solo is nearly impossible. The kid sitting next to me was proof his hard work and faith was going to pay off, both literally and otherwise.

“I want you there,” Johnny said, looking first at Craig and then at myself. “When he signs his contract, I want both of you there. None of this would have happened had you not supported our academy. We’d have no equipment or money without you helping us.”

Doubt isn’t the right word, but at times I had been skeptical of the impact we were making in Nicaragua. Bringing baseball equipment to kids in the third world is a nice project that puts smiles on faces of kids who might otherwise not have all that many reasons to smile, but I had struggled wondering if it was actually changing any lives. Knowing that we had made it possible, in a country where nearly three-fourths of the population lives on under $2 a day, for a kid who had grown up in poverty to sign a contract with a major league team, forever altering his future and his family’s while providing hope to every other kid with a ball and a dream in his community, made every baseball and bat and glove we had handed out matter in my mind in a whole new way.

After dinner, we moved outside to the parking lot. The back of our truck was packed full with bags of baseball and softball equipment we intended to distribute to children across the country. We pulled a few duffel bags out of the load that we had packed specifically to donate to Johnny’s academy. I slung one over each shoulder and the young ballplayer whose signing we were celebrating at dinner did the same. As we carried them across the parking lot to Johnny’s car, he turned to me.

“Are there any gloves in the bags?”

“Of course there are. Do you need a new one?” I rifled through one of the bags I was carrying looking for a suitable glove for a future major leaguer.

“Not a new one, any one. I don’t have a glove.”

I stopped and stared. Here was a kid so talented that multiple major league teams were vying for his services as a 16-year-old, yet he was so poor that he had never eaten in a real restaurant before, never learned to use a knife and fork, and never owned his own baseball glove. Through the game of baseball, his life was about to change in ways too dramatic to imagine. In the grand scheme, our equipment donations to Nicaragua wouldn’t change the world for many, but for one, we had helped make all the difference. An inch is a good start when you’re trying to move mountains.

Thanks to a generous donation by a sponsor, Nixon is now playing with a brand new baseball glove.


Travel Stories: Emma Leyden

Posted by daniel.venn on December 12, 2016 at 7:30 PM Comments comments (0)

"This picture of me hiking through mountains in Southern New Zealand sums up how I felt the entire time traveling. I felt free staring out at whatever was to come. I felt awe at how spectacularly beautiful the world is. I felt small - just a little person in this big, vast world. I had so many moments where I felt like I could be, do, or act any way I wanted because it was just me and the world — thousands of miles away from everything I ever knew. "

Travel Series Part 1: In this multi-part series, experienced travelers will answer some of the most commonly asked questions about long-term travel and seeing the world. In this feature, Emma shares her inspiration to circle the globe, what she learned along the way, tips for aspiring travelers, and three pictures from her adventures that best sum up her 12-country trip.

You spent a year on a global trek after finishing college. Where did you go, what made you decide to take such a grandiose trip, and how did you make it possible?

After finishing college, I set off for a 9-month around-the-world adventure through 12 countries. I started in Australia, then New Zealand, onto South East Asia including Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmmar, then I spent two months in Nepal, and then finished off in parts of Western Europe (England, France, Belgium, Italy, Greece). I had a dream to travel after college since I was 12-years-old. My parents and their love for travel always influenced me while growing up and hearing their stories. As a kid and teenager, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to travel internationally with my family multiple times, and these experiences only strengthened my desire to make my dream a reality. I made it possible through a variety of ways. First, I worked odd jobs every summer and saved as much of my money as I could. I did this all the way through college, so that did add up. Also, my parents gave me a budget used for my airfare, which was a huge, huge break for me financially. Other family and friends also helped me make it possible by giving me money for birthdays and my college graduation, which I used entirely for my trip. Throughout my trip, I stayed on a very tight budget, and also cut financial corners by staying with many friends of friends across the globe to save on accommodations.

"Having a blast with kids in a rural Nepali village. I went with a medical team to a remote village that had not had access to a doctor in years. We did medical exams for 300 women over three days. This pack of kids was hanging around while their mothers waited to be seen by the doctor. I played made up games with them for hours. For me, this was the clear highlight of my entire trip."

Now that you’re back, what impact has your trip had on your life? Has the way you lived or the way you think changed because of your experiences around the world?

My around-the-world adventure absolutely transformed the way I think about the world and my place in it. I have stories in 12 different countries about hundreds of different people who added to my journey in big and small ways. I carry these people with me even while being home. They are memories that are now a part of me. I remember the kindness of strangers, the generosity of those with very little, the excitement of not knowing what’s around the corner, the struggle of living out of a backpack and in a different bed every night, and the list goes on. Transitioning back home was and still is very hard for me. While traveling, I found a deeper part of myself. I found freedom to be who I wanted to be without any distractions. I found a new perspective on my life back home that I removed myself from. I found a sense of awe in the world regarding its vastness, as well as its smallness. It has been hard to take these new findings and insert myself back into the same context I was in prior to my trip, but while my life externally may be very similar, I feel internally, like I'm a whole different person.

"This picture was the first one of my entire trip. I was in the San Francisco International airport, about to say goodbye to my parents, with my backpack (I named her Gloria) all ready to go. I look back at this photo a lot and feel all those feelings again: excited, ready, nervous, and absolutely terrified. Sometimes I feel like I’m looking at someone other than myself."

Most everyone has a ‘but’ that hinders them from getting up and going on an adventure like yours (I’d love to travel, but..).  What advice would you give would-be travelers who are stuck on the ‘but’ in their life, whatever it may be?

DO IT. I promise you will personally grow in a way that is so fulfilling and also so hard to replicate in another setting. The challenge of traveling will be worth it. It will add to your life in ways you cannot even explain on paper. On top of that, you will see things you have never dreamed of, make lifelong memories, and meet incredible people no matter where you go. You will go on a roller coaster of emotions, thoughts, and insights. It is one heck of a ride, but I have yet to meet someone who regretted taking that first leap. There will always be a ‘but.’ Don’t let that stop you from having a transformative incredible journey.

I would also add that many people hold back from traveling due to financial reasons. Most people I met while traveling did not do what I did: save and then travel. Most people, instead, worked while traveling. For example, I met a lot of people who worked odd jobs in Australia for a couple months and then went to South East Asia to travel. Often this is a feasible way to afford a trip like I did. If I did my trip again, I would have worked along the way more, because these are still travel experiences, and saving while home over years is very difficult. I encourage would-be travelers to consider this option.

Have a travel adventure you'd like to share? Hit the 'Contact' button above!

3 Strikes with Jake Reed

Posted by daniel.venn on November 9, 2016 at 1:00 PM Comments comments (0)

Jake Reed, the Twins 2014 5th round draft pick, excelled in the low minors in his first season of pro ball, allowing just 2 earned runs in 43.2 IP.  He struggled in 2015 after an aggressive promotion to AA-Chattanooga, but mechanical changes allowed him to get back on track and post an impressive 1.69 ERA at the AAA-level in 2016. He enters 2017 as one of theTwins top pitching prospects and a prime candidate to compete for a spot in the Twins bullpen. In this 3 Strikes he talks about his success and struggles in professional baseball.

1. You put up great numbers at AAA-Rochester after being promoted during the 2016 season and seem poised to debut for the Twins in 2017. How do you envision yourself helping the organization next season?
Right now, I'm just focused on getting better this off season and getting myself in the best shape possible for spring training and the upcoming season. There's a lot of talent here, and I'm excited to get back to work.

2. You excelled in 2014 after being drafted by the Twins but struggled in 2015 at the AA-level with both performance and mechanics. How did enduring such a challenging season make you a better pitcher going forward?
Struggling in 2015 and parts of 2016 grew me a lot closer to God and my relationship with Him. My mental toughness comes from the fact that God tells us to be prepared for adversity in life and that those moments are going to be used to strengthen us. 

3. The Twins front office is undergoing big changes this off season and there has been a lot of talk about changes to how the team develops young pitchers. What changes do you expect to see in 2017 in regards to pitching philosophy in the organization?
I'm just as curious as you are! I have no idea what's going to happen with those sort of things, but like I said, I'm just preparing myself for another season and doing what I can to be in the best shape possible come spring.

3 Strikes with Denny Hocking

Posted by daniel.venn on November 4, 2016 at 8:40 PM Comments comments (0)

Durable utility player Denny Hocking played 13 years in the Major Leagues, 11 of those with the Minnesota Twins. He was well-known for his flexibility on defense, playing 7 different positions of the course of his career. In this 3 Strikes, he fields questions about his career and what he's been up to since.


1. As a 52nd round pick from a small college, you entered professional baseball as a longshot to ever make the Majors, let alone have a 13-year career. What facets of your game, attitude, and preparation allowed you to have so much success despite the long odds?

Basically grinding everyday and trying to ultimately prove people wrong.

2. You played every position besides pitcher and catcher at some point during your Major League career. How does a utility player prepare for a game to allow themselves to be successful at whatever position they end up playing that night?
Just trying to get a feel for who is tired or will be getting a day off soon and spending a little more time there.

3. You retired in 2005 but have stayed close to the game in coaching roles since. What have been the most rewarding parts of retirement and what has drawn you to stay in baseball?
It's rewarding when a kid trusts you with the development in his career, and I just enjoy being around baseball everyday.

3 Strikes with Zack Granite

Posted by daniel.venn on November 3, 2016 at 11:00 PM Comments comments (0)

Twins minor league centerfielder Zack Granite was named the organization's Minor League Player of the Year following a strong 2016 season in which he hit .295 with 8 triples and 56 stolen bases and was lauded for his outfield defense for the Chattanooga Lookouts (AA). In his 3 Strikes, he fields questions about the recognition he's received this season and his future in baseball.

1: After an all-around stellar season, you were named the Twins Minor League Player of the Year. What was it like receiving such high praise from your organization and what does it mean for your career?
It was an awesome honor to be named Minor League Player of the Year for the Twins. It is definitely a good thing for my career. I cannot wait to get back on the field next year and I hope to continue to progress and get better every day.

2:  Presumably starting 2017 in AAA, what are your goals for the upcoming season and where do you see yourself fitting in the Twins long term plans?
My goal is always very simple: stay healthy. I try not to think about the numbers because the numbers will always take care of themselves. As for my future, I have no control over how the Twins will use me. Whatever I'm asked to do I will do.

3: Twins manager Paul Molitor described you as an 'aggressive' player with 'moxie' who 'gets after it' and 'likes to get dirty and run the bases'. In your own words, how would you describe Zack Granite the ballplayer?
I would like to think he nailed that on the head. I love being on the bases knowing I'm making a difference in the game. I think the word aggressive fits me well because that's how I like to go about the game and I love stealing bases.

Best-Selling Author Jim Campanis, Jr.

Posted by daniel.venn on October 26, 2016 at 6:50 PM Comments comments (1)

Authors and Authorship: When I last spoke with Jim Campanis, Jr. this summer (read our first interview here), he had just published his first baseball novel Born Into Baseball and was just beginning to explore marketing his book and to reflect on the publishing process. Months later, Born Into Baseball is an Amazon #1 best-selling baseball novel. In this interview, he talks about how he has successfully marketed and sold his book and what's next for him as a writer.


Q: Last time we talked, you said Born Into Baseball began completely on accident--you were encouraged to write down baseball stories you told friends and co-workers around the water cooler (well, kegerator) at work. Now it's an Amazon #1 baseball best-seller. Could you have predicted the reception your work has received when you began writing?
This whole experience has been extremely rewarding. Sure, I’ve made a few bucks but certainly not enough to quit my day job anytime soon. But the outpouring of positive reviews and requests for me to speak, teach and consult have been overwhelming! Several readers of the book have asked me to work with their kids with an emphasis on the most important element in sports—the mental side. The reason I was able to go so far in baseball was not by talent alone but rather understanding the baseball situation that presented itself and maximizing my performance by the mental approach, visual focus and aggressive/opportunistic mindset. Now I’m teaching elite baseball players and a golfer these same techniques and each player has improved their game quickly. This has also been very rewarding for me. I could not have predicted these wonderful things that are now happening.

Q: You credit the help of your publisher Summer Game Books for doing an incredible job turning your stories into a book. Since publication, what role have they played in the book's success?
The publisher, Walt Freidman, asked me to send him my “manuscript” when we first were introduced. I laughed out loud when I read that request on an email. Manuscript? It’s 175 random baseball stories—that’s NOT a manuscript in my mind. Well, I sent him all 450 pages and he categorized each story under six different themes which became the chapters. He also whittled down the story count to 100. He then asked me to put each story in each chapter in some kind of order. Once I did that, there was now some order, flow & continuity. He then asked me to go back and make edits to nearly every story. He would send the manuscript back with suggestions like “expound on the theme of this paragraph” or “cut this paragraph down—too wordy”. He also was frustrated with my incorrect grammar. I write the same way I speak. So when I want a dramatic pause, I used the incorrect “…”. I also capitalized too many things and use ALL CAPS for emphasizing. I thanked him for his patience. They are a small publishing house but were able to get me into a number of independent book stores including the Hall of Fame bookstore in Cooperstown, interviews by several reviewers and they continue to push me on their social media handles. He’s also been very helpful getting me dozens of books quickly for book signings. These stories would still be sitting on my Mac’s hard drive if it wasn’t for Walt and Summer Game Books.

Q: Selling books is a grind and you've worked relentlessly to reach readers. What strategies have you found to be most successful to get the word out and attract readers?
Social Media and paid digital advertising have worked the best for me to reach the masses to buy books online, but nothing beats in-person book presentations to large groups of baseball-minded fans to sell lots of author purchased books in a short amount of time. It's like 8 times the profit selling direct versus Amazon! I’ve have done book presentations at Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis Clubs, Elks Lodges, Senior Centers and even the Dodgers and Angels Boosters Clubs. These events turn into a comedy routine as I blow through dozens of photos and tell stories from the book including stories about Jackie Robinson, Winterball, Japan, Joe Maddon, Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., Jeff Nelson, my USC Good Luck Charm and more. These events are so fun and people usually line up with about 60% of the room making a purchase. I’ve also attended dozens of ballgames signing in the concourse areas while running a video of photos from the book on loop. I’ve visited the stadiums in Walla Walla WA, Yakima WA, Everett WA, Bellingham WA, Las Vegas NV, Phoenix AZ, Los Angeles CA, Anaheim CA, the AZ Fall League along with non-baseball events like fairs, tattoo expos, salsa fiestas and community events. People have been SUPER cool to me at these events and very supportive of the book.

Q: You've put on a lot of miles touring with Born Into Baseball. How did the book tour come together and what has the experience of being on tour been like?
I LOVE ROAD TRIPS! Always have and I think I always will. Without really knowing the ingredients for a successful book tour, I decided to try EVERYTHING! By that I mean, I wanted to try signing at stadiums so I set up at the big July 4th weekend fireworks show  at  a team owned by my old USC teammate and 14 year MLB player, Jeff Cirillo. The GM of Jeff’s teams introduced me to Everett and Bellingham and I had the first leg of a tour set. I then added dates in San Jose at a sports bar and an Elks Lodge and more dates were added by simply sending emails to people or getting asked by Facebook friends. Before I knew it, I created a sponsorship program and secured a local tire store chain and even the USC Baseball Alumni supported the tour. The tire store chain let me drive their brand new van wrapped with their company logo for over a month as the tour took me nearly 7,000 miles! USC hooked me up with all of the apparel I would need to represent our prestigious University. I still do my presentations in a USC baseball jersey!!! The legs of the tour where I had to stay in hotel rooms, eat out for every meal and drive hundreds of miles a day chipped away at the profit but I kept reminding myself that there is a cost for the exposure. Sometimes I made a few bucks and others it was break even—but it is ALWAYS fun! I was also able to get interviews on a number of radio and TV shows including the Diamondbacks Pre-Game show as I told my Vin Scully stories. This helped get more interest in my tour and more dates set.

Q: What's next for Jim Campanis Jr. the writer?
The funniest thing I am learning about the book is the old saying, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint”. A good friend reminded me in the second month of release that I’ll be pushing this book until the day I die. That was an eye opener. I did reminded him, there is already another book 75% done and I plan on updating and reissuing my grandpa’s famous baseball instructional book “The Dodgers Way to Play Baseball”. I started a brand extension of the book called “Catchers Union”. This story from my book made an impact on a catcher who had just made All-State in Texas, he’s now a stud at University of Arkansas, Little Rock. He suggested I start a brand for Catchers so I did! Hats, T-shirts, dry fit T-shirts & hoodies are available in multiple colors with two design choices at . I sell these items at my book signings now. MLB Managers have purchased items from the Catchers Union site! I hope to keep the momentum going with more book presentations during the off-season and then several Spring Training appearance in AZ. I have had some introductory meetings with people in TV/Movies to see if there could be a place for these stories on a network cable TV format. There is also an idea for ESPN out there. We will see about that but it’s been fun and exciting to discuss these ideas with people can actually do something with them. I want to release the next book of short stories before February of 2018 and take BOTH books out on the road for another grand adventure!

Check out Campanis' book and the Catchers Union at

I Accidentally Tried Out For The Atlanta Braves

Posted by daniel.venn on October 7, 2016 at 5:10 PM Comments comments (0)

The legend of the Gringo pitcher has gotten out of hand no matter how hard I’ve tried to dissuade it, to talk them down. It would almost be fun to just revel in it, to let them think I’m somebody bigger than this lanky body. And by lanky, I mean pathetic. But running with it would also run the risk of me having to prove it and if today proved anything, it was how awkward that would be for everyone.

It started innocently enough. I was a college pitcher from the United States, they said. It was true enough, even if leaving out the necessary adjectives like “washed-up”, “broken-down”, and “why-is-that-small-child-on-the-field?” was a pretty serious lie of omission. The next time I was introduced, they added the word “star” before the college pitcher part. I tried to stop it then, but they told me I was just being humble.

I became a fishing story, your baby bass growing into a full-blown shark each time you tell the tale, holding your arms wider and wider to show just how big that fish you caught was until your arms can’t go any farther. Today, that shark turned around and bit me.

I went from star college pitcher to soon-to-be professional ballplayer to star professional pitcher each time I met someone new, Denis, the eccentric (understatement) owner of the softball academy I teach at always delighting in the fact that his academy has an English teacher/baseball star and yours does not, stretching the truth and my talent long past their limits. I hope they’re busy bronzing my plaque in Cooperstown right now, because at the rate his story is evolving, I’ll need it soon if I’m introduced to anyone new.

I had agreed to play in a Sunday-afternoon pickup baseball league. Your average just for fun, canvas bag home plate, no uniforms, someone’s little cousin at second base, forget to keep score, sandlot ball league you’ll find anywhere with enough space to call a ballfield on the weekends in Nicaragua. If you win, you can hop on any of the horses grazing in the outfield and take a Wade Boggs victory lap (I’m allergic to horses, so it’s a good thing I’ve never been responsible for many wins on the field).

I was looking forward to the first game, barely able to focus on my daily 6 AM laundry session (gotta beat everyone else to the washing board if you want to be done by breakfast!), just mashing clothes around in a bucket of cloudy water and tossing them over the clothesline haphazardly. I double- and triple-checked my duffel bag as I waited for Denis to pick me up, making sure my glove, cleats, hat, baseball pants, tall socks, and Kershaw jersey I had elected to wear (if I can’t pitch like a star, I might as well look like one) were tucked safely inside even though the majority of the players on my team would be in jeans and polo-shirts, coming to the game straight from church.

When Denis pulled up (forty-five minutes late, as usual) in his pink pickup truck with eyelashes glued on to the headlights (eccentric, remember?), he declared that I would not be going to the baseball game before I had even closed the door behind me.

“That league is not serious enough for you. We will find you a better team to pitch for.”

We drove into Managua, him offering no more information about where we were headed. I always ask and he rarely tells where we’re going when I get into his truck, previous excursions having included spending three hours getting a tire changed at the mechanic and being dropped off at a boxing gym to spend an afternoon awkwardly sitting by myself and saying “No thanks, I don’t want to fight you” in Spanish, completely unsure why I was there, while I waited for Denis to come back and pick me up.

Across town, we pulled up to a square patch of grass with a baseball field in each corner. The four fields all faced the center of the clearing, the outfielders from the different ongoing games standing next to each other, facing different directions. Denis paid no mind to the games being played on each field, parading me into the dugout of each, announcing that I was an American star here to pitch in their league, watching me awkwardly shake hands with whoever he had convinced to listen, and then stating “Danny, vamos” before leading me to the next team.

It wasn’t until we reached the farthest field that Denis announced we had arrived at our destination. The players on it were both clearly much younger and much better than any we had seen at the previous three fields. Their brick red Atlanta Braves jerseys, each with their names embroidered on the back, stood out in stark contrast to the hodgepodge of mismatching uniforms on each of the surrounding fields.

“I’ve brought you to see a scout,” Denis announced before herding me towards the Braves' dugout. “All of the players here are Braves prospects.”

Puzzled looks abounded in the dugout, my face included. Denis introduced me to the coach of the team, a Braves international scout, and I immediately recognized the name he offered.

“Marvin Throneberry Jr., nice to meet you,” he said, offering a handshake.

“Your dad played in the Bigs, right?” I asked. “Marvelous Marv, with the Mets.”A smile crept on to Marvin’s face as he nodded.

“And Yankees, and Athletics, and Orioles,” he added.

The fact that I immediately recognized the Throneberry name probably reinforces the claim multiple ex-girlfriends have made against me, that they can’t be with someone who likes baseball more than them. Marvelous Marv, a facetious fan-favorite in the ‘60s for his mediocre play and light-hearted attitude is most well-known for being the starting first baseman on the 1962 Mets, the worst team in modern baseball history. Following his career, he capitalized on his popularity and mediocrity by appearing in beer commercials. In one, he is shown at the end of a line of celebrities and quips “I don’t know what I’m doing in this commercial!”

Much like Marvelous Marv, I had no idea what I was doing in the dugout of an Atlanta Braves international prospect team. Denis was quick to fill us all in.

“Danny is here to pitch for your team. He is a great pitcher from America.”

Every head that wasn’t already staring at me turned to now following Denis’ claim.

“How old are you?” Marvin asked me. When I responded twenty-four, he politely explained that I really wasn’t what his team was looking for. International prospects can sign professional contracts at age sixteen, so the majority of the players he had playing for him were in their mid-teens.

Denis didn’t take no for an answer, and I wandered off while he continued to try to convince Marvin of my greatness. Sitting on the step of the dugout, I watched the game, the young Braves prospects taking on a much older adult team. Their talent was clear, smoothness and grace in the field, mechanics and velocity on the mound, power at the plate.

It took a few innings, but Denis finally broke Marvin down or at least convinced him that taking a look at me would be the best way to get us out of his dugout.

“Here,” he said, tossing me a baseball. “Go throw ten pitches.”

I jogged down the left field line with one of his catchers, Denis calling for the players to watch the American pitch despite the fact that they were in the middle of a game. I warmed up and then made it about five pitches before Marvin waved a hand to signal for me to stop. The kid on the mound for his team was throwing in the mid-80's. I was lobbing the ball in comparison. It was painfully obvious that I was nowhere near good enough to play for his team.

When I returned to the dugout, embarrassed, Denis eagerly awaited Marvin's thoughts on my performance, assuming I had been stopped early because I had been so impressive. Marvin tried to let him down easy again.

“Our league requires all players to have residency here, so unless he gets a resident ID, there’s nothing I can do.”

“Danny, vamos,” he said, grabbing my arm and steering me out of the dugout. Soon we were back in the pink truck, speeding across town. He was on the phone the whole way.

“Hello, Norma,” I heard him say into the phone, talking to his sister, a local lawyer, in Spanish. “I need your help getting Danny residency so he can pitch for the Atlanta Braves.”