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After spending six relaxing weeks vacationing in India, I’m ready to board the first of four planes back to Southern California. It’s an epic trip to an epic land. I’m about to enter the meat grinder of being glued to a plane seat for the next thirty hours, but every rose has its meat grinder. If I’m lucky and get a window seat on the last plane, I’ll be anxiously awaiting familiar landmarks:

“Oh wow, there’s Big Bear Lake. They tell me it snowed a lot when I was gone … I’ll bet San Gorgonio looks like giant bowl of vanilla ice cream sprinkled with pine trees. I can’t wait to go hiking in the Big Bear high country. Oh, there’s sapphire blue Lake Arrowhead … it’s amazing how the mountains blend right into the high desert. It looks like the desert could just overtake those mountains … but not with that snow on the ground.”

“There’s the 210 Freeway, the one I take to Old Town Pasadena. I can’t wait to get a wood-fired pizza margherita at Settebello … and that’s downtown LA, home of the Grand Central Market. India has great food, but there’s every kind of food down there—it’s been way too long since I’ve had a really good falafel sandwich or Thai street food. There’s the 405 Freeway—oh no, it’s jammed—speaking of a meat grinder.”

Soon, I’ll be standing on the curb at LAX, and the first thing I’ll notice is that special shade of Southern California sunlight. I’m no Claude Monet, I can’t paint an Impressionist painting of sunshine; I can only say that the Southland sunshine has a special, cheerful quality to it. I said it last year and I’ll say it again next year: There’s no place I’d rather live than Southern California.

The sunshine insists on it.

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I’m in Pondicherry, India, staying at a bed and breakfast and I’m looking at a fascinating creation designed to keep ants, spiders and scorpions from crawling into the house. It was invented and built by the owner, Arjun.

The bug barrier is about 300 feet in length and completely surrounds the house. You might think it’s a high-tech electronic device, but it’s an age-old invention: a moat. It’s made of concrete and is about ten inches wide by eight inches deep. Arjun calls it the “ant channel.”

Now, a moat alone won’t stop determined ants; they can build a living bridge of floating, interlocked worker ants, then cross over into the house. What’s the X factor? Fish. Arjun stocked the channel and they gobble up bugs that enter the water. The fish do double duty by eating mosquito larvae.

But the ant channel needs yet another X factor because fish in this tropical climate multiply fast and could overrun the channel. What’s Arjun’s solution? He does nothing; snakes in the yard eat the fish. But what if they eat all the fish? “The fish need a sporting chance to hide from the snakes,” Arjun says. “so I placed water lilies and groupings of ceramic pots at regular intervals to give them hiding places. The ant channel is a delicate balancing act.”

Does it all work? Not exactly. Every morning I see teeny red ants on my bathroom sink. How do they beat the ant channel? They likely tunnel under it, then squeeze into the house through cracks in the slab floor. Luckily, most ants are too big to pull off that trick.

When I return home, I could try selling ant channels: “Hey homeowner, are you tired of ants and scorpions invading your home? Then call Home Defenders today and we’ll build a moat around your home that will be the talk of the town.”

Just, uh, ignore all those deadly snakes in your yard.

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At first I didn’t notice him—he just blended into the colorful, chaotic street circus that is Chennai, India. Then, he suddenly stood out.

The character in question is a dog. He’s a medium-sized mutt with short brown and white fur. He wears no collar. He snoozes on the sidewalk at the bus stop near my hotel, and every day I see him as I walk to my favorite lunch eatery, Saravana Bhavan. The next day at lunchtime he’s back again. In the evening he disappears.

I started to wonder: Where does he go at night? Does he have an owner? Or is he just another of Chennai’s thousands of street dogs? If he is homeless, where does he get water? Where does he find food? How does he know to stay out of the busy street? And why does he choose to sleep the afternoon away at a bus stop? I’m just a traveler in a faraway land and those questions will never get answered.

One day he was gone. Just gone. I kept looking for him, but I didn’t see him. Again, I had questions: Did he get hit by a car? Did he find another spot? Did someone kick him and scare him off? Or did a rival dog push him away? There are lots of strays roaming the streets, looking for a territory of their own.

Then, just yesterday, out of the blue, he was snoozing in his favorite spot again. I stopped to look at him; my foot was inches from his nose. He didn’t even flinch. I felt accepted by India—I was a foreigner no more. And for a small moment all was right with the world.

I’m coming back to California in a few weeks, back to my spot, but that bus stop dog will linger in my mind. It’s been a great trip so far.

 I just hope no one took my spot.

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 India is an old country filled with fascinating sites, but I’ve been on vacation here for two weeks now and I haven’t even visited one temple. I get so bored being a spectator. What do I do in my free time? I burn new synapses.

I go on vacation, not to have fun, but rather to break from my daily routine and rejuvenate my brain. I do that by learning new things. I’m no scientist, but I’m sure that intense learning makes millions of new neural pathways and fresh synaptic connections. I call that kind of travel “neural tourism.”

There are many ways to practice neural tourism. Some of my favorites are: learning the neighborhood near my hotel; reading a local newspaper; watching the news; trying new foods. Is there a more enjoyable way to expose our brains to new tastes, smells, and sensations than eating foods from exotic destinations? Also, we learn new words.

Which leads to my favorite kind of neural tourism: learning a new language. Ten years ago, I spent two months in Paris learning French. I rode the Metro, read books, went to French conversation classes, and watched TV. No, I didn’t become fluent in French, but I did come home bursting with energy. Mission accomplished.

Any time we travel to new destinations we are practicing neural tourism, whether we realize it or not. But it’s important to think about the process; do it consciously. Don’t we get more out of any activity when we know exactly what we’re doing and why we’re doing it? 

I’ll be heading home in a few weeks, along with millions of young neurons that were born in my brain here in India. And they’re clamoring to see the exotic land they’ve heard about but never seen called “Cal-ee-forn-yuh” (That’s hard for a baby neuron to pronounce). I can’t wait to show them around.

Ah, the excitement of children never gets old.

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You know what’s best about being here in India? I’m slowly taking on Indian characteristics; turning into an Indian man. Now that’s a vacation!

Oh, and just because I’m here doesn’t mean my business has shut down. My workers are busy battling mountain pests. Call us anytime you need help.
Here’s some differences between “America Mike” and “India Mike”:

America Mike eats most of the foods you eat, and is especially fond of wood-fired pizzas, scrambled eggs, and buttermilk pancakes. India Mike eats dosas, oopma, pongal, and is especially fond of maha raj bhog flavored ice cream.>>America Mike is a professional exterminator who prudently avoids contact with poison chemicals. India Mike fears getting malaria and fills his hotel room with a mosquito-killing fog so thick it could cause brain damage to small mammals.

America Mike fears being run over by a car and gets upset when some reckless driver almost kills him as he walks across the street. India Mike, like the locals, doesn’t bat an eye when a maniac comes within inches of hitting him. After all, if you’re not dead, injured, or lying unconscious in the street, what’s the problem?

America Mike owns a business and pays up the wazoo for an expensive AAA rated insurance policy. India Mike rents a motorcycle with a handshake and no one’s gonna be suing him now are they.

America Mike sets the example for his employees by obeying all of California’s stringent traffic laws. India Mike’s motorcycle headlight is broken, he has no Indian driver’s license, wears no helmet, drives barefoot, and rides on the wrong side of the road when traffic is bad, just like the locals.

India Mike will come home soon enough and transform back into America Mike, but please be patient, it may take him a while to readjust.

I just hope the CHP understands.

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Boy, the sky sure is a marvelous thing, isn’t it? If you could only see the sky from one part of earth, say, from a small town in the Rocky Mountains, people would flock from all over the world to behold its wonders. On a great day in “Blue Sky National Park”, visitors would see puffy white clouds as far as the eye can see. A lot of grandchildren would be hearing those stories, you better believe it. 

Why am I waxing philosophical about the sky? Because without the sky there would be no planes, and without those wonderful flying cocoons, I wouldn’t be heading to India tomorrow for my annual vacation. I’ve waited patiently for a whole year.

India is the land of infinite patience. There’s lots of people and lots of waiting in line. Indian people have learned to wait and they do it with grace, as I learned last year when I arrived in Chennai at my usual hotel.

The laundry manager saw me and headed straight towards me. “Sir, remember last year, I brought your clean laundry when you were checking out? I didn’t get the bill into the office in time and they took 400 Rupees (five dollars) out of my paycheck.”

“Yeah, I remember,” I said, marveling that he had waited a year to hear me speak those words. Five dollars is a lot of money to an Indian working man.

Did he ask for the money? No, he was too modest for that. I gave it to him, of course. He thanked me, bowed, and went back to work. For the next few days, he smiled whenever he saw me.

Tomorrow, I’ll be patiently flying to the other side of the world, swallowed up in that blue sky. 

So, what will I do with myself all day long on vacation? Hopefully not repay last year’s debts!

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(The following is the back cover of my upcoming book, A Rat Catcher’s Guide to Creative Inspiration. Available this spring from Amazon.)

  

Life is most majestic when childhood’s joy meets practiced skill.

         —Jun-Ar Qa’a (tunnel builder, philosopher, sewer rat)

  

My name is Michael A. Nolan and I want to teach you how to capture, not rats, but rather that elusive critter called “creative inspiration”. What are my credentials? Did I graduate from a prestigious university or paint the Mona Lisa? Nope. I learned about creativity in the best possible way: by catching rats and writing about my adventures in the newspaper. Hey, Leonardo da Vinci, I’d like to see you do that!

  

The rave reviews are flooding in like rats in the New York City Subway:

  • “We can honestly say that this is the best book ever on the subject of creative inspiration and sewer rat control.”

     —Pest Management Quarterly

  • “So, a professional exterminator is taking on the daunting subject of creative inspiration. Really? Rest assured,  Mr. Nolan, we in the fine art community are convinced of your rodent catching skills. We will certainly call you should the Guggenheim get invaded by vermin.”

     —The Monthly Review for the Creative Arts 

  • “When I picked up this book, I thought, ‘Is this a joke?’ If it is a joke, it’s no joke. Oh, and thanks, Mike, for the tip on keeping rats away from tomato plants without using poison.

      —What on Earth is Bugging You? A Guide for Organic Gardeners

  • “Michael, enlightened beings don’t harm rats, but rather gently guide them with sacred circle chants. Please stop trapping rodents. You wouldn’t want to be reincarnated as a rat, now would you?

      —The Journal for Self-Realization and Cosmic Yoga

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“Oh boy, a wild critter!”

I glanced out the window to my back deck last week and saw the backside of a furry animal running down the steps. The mystery creature was much bigger than a squirrel. That always adds spice to the sighting.

I made my move. I quietly hurried outside and peered over the handrail to the ground below. I immediately spotted the critter.

“Oh, no,” I thought. “It’s that master hunter, no doubt stalking the squirrels eating peanuts on my back deck.” 

He was a handsome devil, but then again, all bobcats are beautiful. Luckily for the squirrels, his jaws were empty.

I love seeing bobcats, hawks, golden eagles, owls, coyotes, foxes and all the gorgeous predators in our mountains. Have you ever seen one of our adorable pygmy owls? I have. Google them and you’ll see one of the cutest animals ever.

Whether you appreciate their beauty or not, predator animals, like Home Defenders, do the important work of hunting rodents. We work inside the home, and they work outside. That’s man and nature working in harmony. Call us when furry pests invade. (Don’t worry, though, we won’t bring a bobcat.)

I tried following my bobcat visitor. Calling softly and walking gently, I crept closer and closer. To my surprise, he walked nonchalantly ahead. When I was thirty feet away he really surprised me because he turned to face me, sat on the ground and playfully folded his paws in front. I stopped in my tracks.

For a minute, he looked at me and I looked at him. It was a Mexican standoff of sorts, with no hint of hostility. We were just two professional rodent hunters going about our business, two peas in a pod … one of us young, handsome, regal, and the other, well … maybe not so much. You guess which is which.

Aw, come on, people! 

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Planes are pretty neat, huh? We walk into a long metal tube and in a few hours we walk out into another world. It’s a miracle.

I’m flying to India soon for my annual break from running Home Defenders, and I’ve been thinking about planes. But, they’re not the only modern miracles I reflect on …. 

 

Plumbing — We turn the tap and water comes out. What’s so great about that? Everything.

Modern plumbing amazes me. Massive volumes of water have to be collected, stored and pumped up mountains, under streets and into our homes. Every sink, toilet, and bathtub needs shutoff valves and hoses that are under enormous pressure. Hundreds of little things could go wrong, or big things, like earthquakes.

What amazes me most is that there’s no central authority running the show. Water companies manage the pipes under the street, but the system also depends on homeowners, plumbers, handymen, and do-it-yourselfers. We’re like a giant colony of bees that keeps a mammoth nest humming, with each bee doing their part.

Modern plumbing is the human brain at its most brilliant and practical.

Freeways — Wait, hear me out. Sure, the Southern California freeways are notoriously jammed, but I drove to Santa Monica last weekend and only encountered two minor accidents. That is phenomenally amazing!

I passed tens of thousands of drivers. Some were teenagers, others elderly, some were undoubtedly under the influence of alcohol or drugs, most were licensed, some surely unlicensed, most were competent, others not. Yet only two accidents? Why not a thousand? Two thousand?

If you went back a hundred years and described a modern freeway to people, most would shake their head and say, “You’re off your rocker.” Remember that the next time you’re a stuck in traffic.

I’m awed by so many aspects of Southern California life I could even consider canceling my vacation to India just to stay here and appreciate it all.

But not quite.

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Hello, reader, how was your Thanksgiving vacation? I hope yours was great because I ended up spending much of my vacation getting mice out of my parents’ kitchen. So, after a hard summer battling pests, I ended up battling pests on my first break in six months. You can always count on mice to ruin a good time.

Have you ever noticed how dumb those little hellions are? We humans have been oppressing mice for millennia and you’d think that a Spartacus mouse would have risen up by now and started a revolt, but nope, the boneheads keep bumbling into our peanut butter laden traps.  

Mind you, incited by a fearless leader, they’d be a force to be reckoned with. Imagine heading to your kitchen for a late night snack when suddenly you feel pinpricks in your ankles. You look down and see a platoon of mice shooting teeny arrows. You shoo them off with a broom and they retreat into your crawl space where their secret army base is located.

I guess the mouse rebels would have barracks and canteens that serve cheap grain alcohol. Fights would break out and blood would spill. Lady mice of ill repute would be hanging around, showing lots of cleavage. I don’t know if I’d be fascinated by that or just plain disgusted.

Hey homeowners, are drunken soldier mice singing lewd songs in your crawl space? Are they ruining your good times? Call Home Defenders now and we’ll put down that rebellion like those Roman legions of old. Hail, Caesar! (Sure, he had his faults, but at least he was a human being.)

Anyway, I got the critters out of my parents’ home. I don’t have to worry about guerrilla mice ruining our Christmas with their bawdy carols or whatever it is those lunatics do at the holidays.

Hurry up, Christmas, I need a vacation now!