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Give what you can, take what you need: A social experiment in generosity

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Rush hour, Union Station, a busy Thursday night. In the long passageway that connects the gates, a crowd is forming; a cluster of iPhones trained on the wall not far from the gold line, where I am heading. Pretty quickly I see what’s causing the fuss: A giant blackboard-sized mural with dollar bills thumb-tacked onto it.


Those who aren’t photographing the tacked-up dollar bills are fumbling for their wallets to pull out cash. A few people swoop by and sheepishly help themselves to a dollar. Two tall blonde guys, clearly brothers, seem to be behind this; I talk to one and he says, “It’s a social experiment.”

A well-dressed woman stops and peels out a $5 bill from a designer purse and says, “I’m so grateful for all I have. This is inspiring. I could be in a position one day where I have nothing.”

More photos are snapped, more dollars are tacked on the board. The other brother tells me, “We started with about $40. More people are giving than taking.” The last time they did this, he tells me, they went to Union Rescue Mission to give haircuts to homeless men.

Why is it so amazing to see people giving away money? Maybe because we don’t usually see the social equation laid out so bare: A billboard asks you to give something or take something. It all seems so simple, and yet for so many people, giving time or money is a strain or a stress or a chore. By spelling it out, the brothers made it easy to participate, and better yet, they made people think.

When I get home, I do a bit of research. Turns out these guys are filmmakers. The haircuts at the Mission got turned into a short film, “What’s the Difference?”  Meaning, what’s the difference between a homeless person and you.

This experiment I happened upon was a way to gather video for a new film, it seems. Doesn’t diminish what they’re doing. In fact, even better: their social experiment will get repeated, in video, and maybe it will inspire others. It sure inspired rush-hour crowds at Union Station on a Thursday. It’s not just the freakishly strange idea of free money. Some people need a reminder that giving is possible, and is so easy.

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Bhutan, without the jetlag: An authentic Buddhist lhakhang completes El Paso’s Himalayan connection

Looks like Bhutan, but it's Texas

The Bhutanese ambassador to the United Nations stands in front of the new lhakhang with the 18 Bhutanese students who attend UTEP

El Paso is the new Bhutan–more than ever.  In April, I had the absolute joy of attending the opening of the Bhutanese lhakhang, or temple, installed on the campus of the University of Texas El Paso. It’s the centerpiece of a campus transformation and it was an incredible experience to be there for the first time people were allowed to step inside this gorgeous structure–something you’d never see outside of the Kingdom of Bhutan.

The temple isn't intended to serve a religious purpose, but rather stands as a cultural artifact.

The temple isn’t intended to serve a religious purpose, but rather stands as a cultural artifact.

That completes the pleasure of having seen it built in the first place on the National Mall in Washington, DC back in the summer of 2008, which I’ve written about in this story.

If you’re asking, ‘what the heck does El Paso have to do with Bhutan,’ then you’re new to this blog–welcome!–and these stories I filed on this momentous occasion will give it some context: One for PRI’s The World and the other for Smithsonian.


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Roundup: A unique student service project, the prime minister, language in peril, and NH refugee legislation

11046395_790635534364410_7360007207253164251_oA group of 35 Canadian students has landed in Bhutan for a service project (building a classroom) at Phajoding monastery, high above the town of Thimphu.  Global Perspectives is a unique humanitarian organization based at a school in Richmond, Canada.  They’ve been in touch with me for years and it’s been fun to watch them plan this trip.  Follow them on Facebook or Twitter: @global_canada

And they arrived just in time to witness Bhutan’s second win over Sri Lanka in the World Cup qualifying.

The Prime Minister of Bhutan is in the United States and last night appeared on the Charlie Rose Show on PBS.

An excellent documentary on dying Himalayan languages, specifically in Bhutan, aired on the BBC World Service.

Today, the New Hampshire Senate votes on a resolution to acknowledge the contributions of Bhutanese refugees to the state, and to ask for the resolution of the ongoing crisis.  You can read the text of the bill here.

Three films from and about Bhutan will be screened at the Environmental Film Festival in Washington DC in April.

Lastly, I’m proud to continue my volunteer work with the Bhutan News Service, a news service created by refugees in diaspora.  Recently, they incorporated as a nonprofit so they could ratchet up their work.

My absent magic wand, or, a note to prospective visitors to Bhutan

I love to hear from people who are planning trips to Bhutan.  Now, for the “but:” please note: I have no magic formula or wisdom to offer, beyond what I share in my book, Radio Shangri-la (which is not a travel book, but offers insights to the Kingdom which, by the way, many Bhutanese take issue with) and have passed along in this blog.

In the early days of my work in and around Bhutan, I spent countless hours trying to help people who wanted to volunteer there to avoid having to pay the tourist visa, and journalists with similar goals of entering the Kingdom and accessing the royalty, etc.—with virtually no luck.

There are a growing number of formalized volunteer opportunities, which did not exist when I first traveled there in 2007 at the invitation of the government (an introduction extended to me by dumb luck and timing), and I try to keep up with them and share what I learn here, when I can.

In other words, feel free to be in touch but please understand that I won’t be able to wave a wand to open the gates.  Similarly, if you’ve planned a vacation to Bhutan, please understand that most tour operators can’t or won’t deviate from a proscribed route–so sending me your itinerary makes my mouth water (I’ve never had the fortune to be a tourist in Bhutan) but there’s little I can suggest, since the travel plans are so rigid.

And of course, if you do read my book, and I hope you will, I’d love to hear what you think.

“Being a small part of something big”

FullSizeRenderTeresa Belton’s book Happier People Healthier Planet: How putting wellbeing first would sustain life on Earth has proven an inspired read to ease into the new year, helping me to re-commit to priorities I’ve personally set (and sometimes struggled with) over the last 8 years, since I first started studying Buddhism and learning about the concept of “gross national happiness.”

This scholarly text is filled with intriguing stories of people who have made choices to live more simply,; to quit jobs they hate and step off the treadmill of consumption; to steer instead onto paths that honor who they are, instead of being who society expects them to be.

As Belton lays out artfully in her text, these choices aren’t just good for the individual; they’re helpful to the planet, overall.  Having control over one’s life, she writes, rather than achieving success in the eyes of others, is what matters for genuine well-being.

One remark from an interviewee hit my recovering Type-A self hard: “The realization and the acceptance that I wasn’t ambitious in the slightest enabled me to pursue work which wasn’t about getting somewhere and more about enabling me to live a more authentic lifestyle.”

“More isn’t better,” concludes an interviewee named Mark, “…I hate waste and greed…nature is free, generous, delightful, uplifting.  Because consuming only what I find I need reduces my carbon footprint and allows me to feel good about myself and my place in this environment.”

You may not finish this book inspired to make radical shifts in your life, like eschewing air travel or bathing, as one woman does to preserved natural resources, using a bucket and soap rather than in the shower.  You may be like one interview subject, who despairs over the use of the word “happiness” when there is intractable suffering and degradation of our natural resources. (Others point out the tremendous good even one person can make in shifting the state of the world.) But if you’re even mildly intrigued by the ideas that recognizing we are “a small part of something big” trumps any house you can buy or promotion you can get at work, and that solitude and silence and nature are more nourishing than pricey handbags, you’ll find this a satisfying read.  It’s good to know there are people out there who are driven by such strong, positive beliefs that take into account their fellow humans, not simply by the grab of cash most of us are instructed to pursue.

Be true to yourself in this year 2015.

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2014: My personal year-in-review


The long road that crosses South Dakota

Before we get too far into the new year, I’d like to publicly review some of my favorite moments of 2014, aside from the day-to-day pleasures of reading, cooking, consuming art and seeing friends that bring such joy to me each day.

Once again, nothing on this list is particularly earth-shattering or headline-making–just lovely reminders that the most nourishing experiences we have are typically the simplest.


1. Seeing George Clinton and Funkadelic perform live in the park adjacent to the Queen Mary in Long Beach, with a drone hovering overhead.  A religious experience.

2. Driving from Rapid City to Sioux Falls by myself in a windstorm, on the road to talk with former acquaintances of the late Joan Kroc, most of whom were in their 80s and 90s and welcoming of this inquisitive visitor.

3. Being invited to join a lama and his entourage of monks as they ate take-out Chinese food in the hotel area at the St. Paul Athletic Club.


Esther, may she RIP, and her little sister Marcie

4. Taking Ted to visit the sisters, Marcie and Esther, who my friend Diane helps out in Tucson and who have become my pen-pals. Esther, 92, passed away a few months later.  The two had lived together all their lives.  Eating potato chips and ice cream with sweet, funny old ladies in their kitchen was a huge highlight of the year.

5. Meeting Bhutanese refugee TP Mishra, a young and inspired journalist who runs the Bhutan News Service while working full-time and attending college.  We’ve been communicating for years but had never met in person. He became a naturalized American citizen a few weeks later.

6. Spending 10 days on a writing retreat in my snowbird Aunt Mary’s lovely, empty apartment in Delray Beach, Florida, which allowed me to have dinner each night with my parents.

7. Visiting my dear friend Katherine at her glorious family home on the sound in Wilmington, North Carolina, a place I used to frequent often but hadn’t seen in years.

Glorious North Carolina

Glorious North Carolina

8. Hosting a BBQ in the backyard of my brother’s house, where we reconnected with Chris, the son of lifelong friends of our parents.

9. Hearing the cover band AC/DCeased perform at a dive bar in High Point with my brother and his colleagues.

10. Playing hymns on my iPod in Ted’s parents’ home, inspiring his mother to sing out loud as if she were in a church choir.  She radiated joy.

11. My work at KCRW, which allows me to meet some pretty incredible people and makes LA seem more like a small town than the sprawling insane metropolis it is.

12. Being recognized for a HALO Award for the cooking group I lead on Skid Row, which meant attending a beautiful luncheon on Valentine’s Day with my college friend and cooking club member Liz.  We were inspired to hear about the wonderful volunteer work happening around town.  The best part of the award was the $25,000 check written to the Downtown Women’s Center.

13. And finally, the reopening of the pool at the Ketchum YMCA after 6 long, dry years.


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Giving (anonymously)

IMG_4516Maybe it sounds weird to some people, particularly this time of year, but I love to give things to people I don’t know, or who don’t know I’ve made a gift.  Maybe that’s why I love our cooking group at the Downtown Women’s Center: Each month, we make a meal for a group of women we never get to see, but we know they need it, appreciate it, and that it’s delicious.

That’s why I went to the USPS facility on Central Avenue the other day and chose a few “North Pole letters” to fulfill.  I don’t know these kids, but can you imagine how cool it is to get something in the mail from someone who may or may not be….Santa? Most of these letters aren’t written from zip codes where good news is necessarily proliferating: If a kid asks for clothing, it’s a pretty good bet he needs it.

In that spirit, I’m sharing this video about someone who lives in our building here on Bunker Hill, Kayce.  She’s a beautiful young woman, in her twenties, who happens to use a motorized wheelchair due to a disease that’s wracking her spine.  I met her in the elevator a few months ago when she got on with about 10 women around my age.  “My moms,” she said.

Kayce and the cupcakes, donated by Big Sugar bakery

Kayce and the cupcakes, donated by Big Sugar bakery

We held a fundraiser for her last week here on Bunker Hill to rally the neighbors, many of whom have dogs they illegally claim to be service dogs, to see if we could help her out. See, Kayce needs a trained, legitimate service dog to help her gain independence.  She happens to have a handsome fiance, but who wants or needs someone with them 24-7 to do what many of us consider basic tasks? (And a local bakery even donated the cupcakes we served, just because we asked.  Nice!)

If you’d be inclined to help Kayce get this dog after watching this video a friend of hers made 

I’d be grateful. (This is the link at which to do so.) And you, too, can learn (if you don’t already) about the joys of giving in this selfless way.

Merry winter holiday (aka Christmas, Hanukah, New Year, etc) to you!

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Report: Bhutan’s struggling media

This very fine video report in The Diplomat by Vishal Arora underscores that media challenges facing Bhutan.

He writes:

“Bhutan’s fourth king allowed private media to be established in 2006, to prepare the nation for its first-ever democratic parliamentary election in 2008. The free media was expected to deepen democracy thereafter, as the nation transitioned from an absolute-but-benevolent monarchy to a democracy. However, under two consecutive, democratically elected governments the press has been stifled by financial crises and threats from powerful figures unhappy at investigative pieces.”

Here’s the link:

Bhutan, Tex-Mex style: Himalayas cast a wide net in El Paso

Prayer wheel behind UTEP's Centennial Museum

Prayer wheel behind UTEP’s Centennial Museum

This morning around dawn, on Veteran’s Day, which also happens to be the birth anniversary of the fourth King of Bhutan, I turned an authentic Bhutanese prayer wheel in an unlikely place: on the campus of the University of Texas El Paso.

The palm tree is the dead giveaway: This is El Paso, not Bhutan

The palm tree is the dead giveaway: This is El Paso, not the Himalayas.

The entire school is built in the distinctive style of the Kingdom’s architecture.   If that wasn’t strange enough, the connection dates back to 1914, long before anyone from Texas could have imagined stepping foot in Bhutan (since the tiny country wasn’t officially open to outsiders until the 1970s.)

Campus library: A giant thangkha of the Four Friends hangs over a 100-foot altar in the lobby.  At the espresso stand on the left, the barista told me the architecture is even starting to seep into other places around El Paso

Campus library: A giant thangkha of the Four Friends hangs over a 100-foot altar in the lobby. At the espresso stand on the left, the barista told me the architecture is even starting to seep into other places around town.

I’ve written about this surreal connection in my book, Radio Shangri-la, and before on this blog, so I won’t detail the interesting history here, but my fascination with this bizarre and wonderful bit of pre-globalization globalization never ends.  This week, I’m on the campus of UTEP to speak to a number of classes and to deliver a talk at the museum tomorrow night at 5pm.

Here are some photos (and if you’d like to see some videos, please click here.)  The first one below is of an authentic Bhutanese temple that was constructed on the National Mall in DC for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2008, and was recently “re-incarnated” here on the campus in El Paso.  Surrounded by dozens of examples of the Tex-Mex interpretation of Bhutan’s architecture.

This lakhang (temple) once sat on the National Mall in DC.  It's being readied for public view in UTEP's plaza.

This lakhang (temple) once sat on the National Mall in DC. It’s being readied for public view in UTEP’s plaza, which as you can see is under renovation.

No where else on earth, not even in Bhutan, is there a parking garage that looks like this

No where else on earth, not even in Bhutan, is there a parking garage that looks like this

Nor would you ever see a stupa fronted by an animated billboard, like this one in front of the Centennial museum

Nor would you ever see a stupa fronted by an animated billboard, like this one in front of the Centennial museum

IMG_4239And if you share my fascination with all of this and would like to know more, there’s also this short story available on Amazon.

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The 100 year-old magazine article that changed the face of an American university

View of bridge outside Punakha, where the 5th King of Bhutan married several years ago.

View of bridge outside Punakha, where the 5th King of Bhutan married several years ago.

One of the most exciting parts of learning about Bhutan has been an odd, wonderful gem I learned from some people, ironically, here in Los Angeles.

The late architect Kurt Meyer and his intrepid wife Pamela Deuel Meyer kindly clued me in to the fact that the University of Texas El Paso is built entirely in the style of Bhutanese architecture.

It’s all because the wife of the provost of the school at the time, then named the Texas School of Mines, was reading this article in the National Geographic 100 years ago, poetically titled Castles in the Air.

The first king of Bhutan was crowned during a visit by John Claude White, who worked for the Brits "next door" in India.

The first king of Bhutan was crowned during a visit by John Claude White, who worked for the Brits “next door” in India.

John Claude White, who built a bridge between Bhutan and El Paso, Texas--without realizing it

John Claude White, who built a bridge between Bhutan and El Paso, Texas–without realizing it

The British explorer John Claude White offered a peak inside the Kingdom that the world, certainly not the west, had ever seen before.  88 pages of photographs made on plate glass, that somehow managed to make it out of Bhutan on horseback.

Tantalized by the architecture and this mysterious Kingdom in the clouds, Kathleen Worrell pushed her husband to model the school he ran after this unique place—long before any tourists could ever imagine visiting it.

NGS Picture ID:1314685

You have to look awfully close, at the center of this photograph, to see the hermit house

Used to be, if you wanted to see that article, you had to plunk down a pretty penny for a back issue, or find it at a library, or in someone’s dusty old collection.  Not as of today.  The good folks at National Geographic have published it online, photographs and all.

The dzong in Thimphu looks much like this photograph from 100 years ago.

The dzong in Thimphu looks much like this photograph from 100 years ago.

If you are at all interested in Bhutan, its history, or UTEP, or the impact of a magazine article to inspire someone half a world away, you must read it: here.

And here’s my piece about the unique connection in the LA Times.

UTEP calls itself "Bhutan on the Border" (of Mexico, of course.)

UTEP calls itself “Bhutan on the Border” (of Mexico, of course.)

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