Who would’ve thought the national public mood would have reared its head so prominently yesterday in a little race for the state Senate in Northeast Arkansas?
Chad Neill made a big bet that very thing would happen. Problem is, winning his six-figure wager depended on getting dealt an entirely different hand.
In the two weeks leading up to yesterday’s special election in Arkansas Senate District 21, voters simply could not escape Neill’s enormous (likely the biggest ever) media buy for a citizen legislator’s job that pays $14,000 and change annually. Neill engaged a proven strategy that flooded almost every local media venue imaginable. In the last 14 days, he owned local television, radio and billboards. Fact is, this is how you buy name recognition. Everyone knows it.
Furthermore, Neill paid thousands of dollars for professional consultants and research that clearly advised him to take hot-button national political issues such as gun control and national health care and throw them into the campaign mix so he could line up with the perceived pervasive mood of his Republican Party.
One published media report indicated Neill was reluctant to participate in a debate since he’d already invested more than $100k in paid media.
This time, at least, an election would not be bought. Not here. Not today.
Money would not be the thing that would impress Northeast Arkansas voters this time.
After watching Paul Bookout throw $50k and change at designer jeans and high-tech surround-sound systems, playing fast and loose with money was already a soft spot with local voters. They clearly were looking to be impressed with something beyond money.
Then, add a barrage of national media coverage over government shutdowns and debt ceilings at a time when every word that comes out of a politician’s mouth is considered mostly BS by anyone who hears it and Neill’s strategy (that in most other circumstances would’ve worked) got him dead last place in his own Republican Primary, That, despite the fact that he spent twice as much as both his opponents combined.
Neill’s own strategy, became the very thing that beat him.
Enter John Cooper, the unlikely candidate, who spent nothing by comparison, and led the entire field. Cooper’s strategy? Good old fashioned shoe leather. Go figure.
First there were seven. Now, four. Cooper and Dan Sullivan will square off for the Republican nomination in three weeks, while Radius Baker and Steve Rockwell will court their Democratic base.
Yesterday’s election results now offer the candidates some interesting lessons moving forward in the January 2014 general election. They’d be well advised to study hard.
Remember the pop-up videos on VH1?
I enjoyed those little factoids and tidbits because they revealed things you’d never know, even if you watched a hundred times. I’ve always enjoyed knowing the story behind the story. It gives you a whole new appreciation and perspective on what everyone else just wants you to see.
If you enjoy House Hunters International, and tune in to our show tonight, here are a few things you’d never know without reading this post.
*The entirety our show was filmed in chronological reverse. We filmed in Ecuador for three days, came home to the U.S., and filmed the “back story” 10 days later. Furthermore, the first scene we filmed in Ecuador was the “reveal” scene at our home, one of the last things you’ll see on the show. It went backwards from there.
*Two days before we began filming in Ecuador I walked outside to our backyard and smelled a terrible stench. It was as if something had died very nearby, times 10. Further investigation proved that our three-month old septic tank had backed up and was overflowing into the yard and toward the house. Panic ensued. We were unable to flush our toilets for about 36 hours, and some very unfortunate Ecuadorian workers had the job of pumping barrels of raw sewage from our septic tank 12 hours before the HGTV crew arrived. I felt so bad for them. Such is life in Ecuador.
*The “realtor” on our show is an American named Joel Lewis. With his red hair, fair skin and freckles, Joel is a gringo personified. He spends most of his time as an English teacher in nearby Jipijapa. We met only a few days before filming, became good friends, and have stayed in touch.
*One of the opening scenes where we “meet” Joel to provide our wish list was
filmed at Sanctuary Lodge, the very nicest hotel in Puerto Cayo. Sanctuary is owned by our friends Roberto Cristi and Jahaida Delgado, and their daughter Isabella. If you ever visit this part of the world, it’s highly recommended lodging.
*We had the same director, but two different film crews in Ecuador and the U.S. Our Memphis crew had experience filming “Great Balls of Fire,” and worked on several of the John Grisham films made in there.
*One of the homes we filmed in Ecuador was rented by an Australian couple and their three children who spent much of their time on mission for the Jehova’s Witness Church. They are lovely folks, and were actually in the house the whole time we filmed. As we moved from one room to another, so did they, just out of camera sight.
*I’ve always admired talented people who work behind the camera, and our chief videographer in Ecuador, Doron Schlair, is immensely talented. He’s filmed documentaries on Billy Joel, Arnold Schwarzenegger and climbed to the top of Mt. Ararat in search of Noah’s Ark. I sat down for a long conversation with Doron one night and we were discussing his work – the intricacies and interplay between light and dark. In his work all across the world, Doron told me at sunset, it gets darker in Ecuador faster than anywhere he’s been. I’d noticed the same thing, but never thought about it until he mentioned it. I suppose it’s because we’re on the equator and the earth’s bulge at the horizon is more prominent than other parts of the world. But that’s just a guess.
*You’ll see some scenes of us riding our blue scooter on the beach. During the filming I made a turn on some rocks, and Dana and I shifted our weight in different directions. The result was a pretty good tumble with the scooter landing on both of us. It caused quite the scene on the beach. I know the director thought we were going to sue for damages. We were just really embarrassed.
*You’ll see lots of Ecuadorian people in background shots. Every person you see signed a release for the show. The director was very strict about that.
*There’s a scene at the Agua Blanca mud bath where Dana and I jumped in the water for an impromptu swim race. As we jumped in I accidentally swallowed some of the water (which tastes just like sulfur) and nearly choked. I tried not to let the camera see it because we had to get the shot in one take.
*Speaking of takes, it’s interesting that our entire show was filmed with one camera. But each and every scene is filmed from three different angles. This obviously means each scene is filmed three times, and that’s why it takes 40 hours to film 22 minutes of television.
*In the hours before the crew arrived for Ecuador filming, we were working feverishly to clean the house. As we finished cleaning, and just as I was about to take my shower, on cue, the electricity went out, and stayed out. I filmed the entire first day without the benefit of a shower.
*To make the show interesting, the director always wants a little conflict going on between husband and wife. So for us, it was Dana’s focus on a beach house, versus my interest in staying on budget and living close to the locals.
I can hardly wait to watch the show and see which one we choose!
- House Hunters International in Ecuador: Answers to the Questions (stevenwwatkins.com)
- Linda Benya “Breathes in Freedom” on House Hunters International (stevenwwatkins.com)
Setting up living quarters in another country isn’t something you do every day. Dana and I always dreamed about it, but until about 18 months ago never knew if things would come together in such a way that we could actually pull it off. So because written communication is what I do, and is actually the way I process things mentally, we decided from Day 1 to take the unique experience and chronicle much of it on my blog so family and friends could take part, too.
The whole ordeal has made for some interesting conversation, and we get lots of questions almost every day about all sorts of things. People want to know what it was like to do what we did, and what it was like to be on the show.
These are some of the questions we’re often asked, and the answers we give:
Q: Is House Hunters International real? I’ve read it’s fake.
A: The short answer is this: It’s television. HHI is a reality show, and in my opinion, an entertaining and educational one. The television medium has lots of restrictions. It’s not easy to convey a couple’s home buying experience on another continent in 22 minutes. So for the sake of television, concessions are made. No one in their right mind flies into a new country, looks at three houses in a day and decides to buy one at the end of the day. Our actual experience in deciding to build a home in Ecuador was a 10-day process, and I would never recommend anyone move as fast as we did because that’s very fast. Still, the producers worked very hard to replicate our experience as best they could, and I think the show will be an accurate reflection of what it’s like to buy a home in Puerto Cayo. It glosses over a lot of the hard stuff, and our experience in building a home and acclimating to a new culture posed some real challenges, but that’s not what the show’s about. Is House Hunters International real? It’s more real than most of the television you probably watch.
Q: What did you enjoy most about being on the show?
A: Dana and I became fans of HHI during a formative time in our marriage. In 2009, the economy and a few bad decisions forced the closure of my publishing business and a career that I loved. For the first time in my life, I was uninspired, very uncertain about the future and pretty depressed. There were many nights when we’d watch the show, and for 30 minutes I’d be rescued from that depression. HHI actually inspired me to dream again, and ultimately took our life, and our marriage, in a direction I never imagined. The day we learned we’d been chosen for the show, it felt like a victory over something that had been a very hard fight. So being on the show was very much a celebration of that victory.
Q: Have you seen the show yet?
A: No. We will see if for the first time when it airs.
Q: What is life like in Ecuador?
A: That’s a lot like asking what life is like in the United States. It depends on where you live. The coastal region where we built our home is not a tourist or expat destination as you might imagine. Ecuador is a wonderfully diverse country and life can be radically different depending on your locale. The Ecuadorian coast is actually very rural, and has a relatively poor economy. Locals make their living fishing, farming or making crafts. The infrastructure (roads, utilities and other basic services) is in its infancy. We’ve driven lots of gravel roads, and became accustomed to very sporadic electric service. I think many times people believed we were sipping pina coladas by a pool every day, and nothing could be further from the truth. Latin America is not for everyone.
Q: So why would you want a home thousands of miles away in a place like that?
A: Many reasons. First of all, because it is the education of a lifetime. Learning to live a new way, and making friends in a different culture is riskiest, and most educational thing I’ve ever done. Dana and I are never more alive than when we are pushing our comfort zones in Ecuador. Secondly, it gives me an entirely different perspective on my writing, and our lives in general. And finally, even though the economy is still very much emerging and developing, we are going to see unbelievable opportunity on the Ecuadorian coast over the next 15 years. I want to see that, and be part of it.
Q: What do you do when you’re there?
A: Mostly, I write a lot and take a lot of photos. Travel and major changes of environment really inspire my writing. But when we’re there, the culture forces us to slow down a lot, and that’s another reason we enjoy it. We spend a lot of time visiting with local friends, sharing new experiences and we learn something new almost every day.
Q: How did you find a realtor?
A: We didn’t. There are some people who call themselves realtors in Ecuador, but most have no formal training or licensing credentials, and a good number of them are fairly corrupt. Not all, just most. Dana and I conducted our search on our own which made the learning curve even higher.
Q: Is it safe in Ecuador?
A: In the US, I think we unfortunately stereotype Latin America to be unsafe. I’ve never been fearful in Ecuador, but I also always use a lot of common sense, and am very respectful of the culture. Any international traveler I’ve ever visited with said the media almost always paints a darker picture than that which really exists, and that’s true all over the world. Ecuador is quite safe.
Q: Biggest challenges?
A: (1) Driving in the big cities is madness. Crazy madness. If you don’t have nerves of steel, avoid it. (2) Always remembering that even though I’m a property owner there, I’m still a guest. This very much requires us to forget everything we think we know about right and wrong, take one day at a time, lose our judgmental nature, and laugh a lot. (3) Knowing that when someone in Ecuador says that something conforms to US standards, it will never be true. Only two or three people in Ecuador even know what US standards (especially in construction) mean. That’s partly joke, mostly truth.
Q: Biggest perk?
A: Gas prices regulated by the government at $1.48 per gallon. No contest.
Q: Do you have any regrets?
A: I think anyone who builds a home from the ground up knows what it is to have hindsight. We definitely made some mistakes. But do I regret even the most difficult experiences we had? No way. And I’m eager to see what future adventures are in store.
Q: What advice to you have for other people who are even remotely considering doing what you did?
A: (1) Do a lot of research, but understand that no amount of research can substitute an exploratory trip to wherever you may be considering. (2) It’s very easy to get into a mindset that you could never do something like this. Lose that mindset. Barriers are easier to overcome than you think. (3) If you are close to buying a new house in a foreign country, never, never, never close the deal until you personally witness how the property reacts to a heavy rain. Oh, the humanity.
It looks innocent enough, its facade identical to all the others, appearing perfect in both form and function. Few, very few, know its secrets, for they are dark. Hopelessly futile.
It’s the bastard stepchild of all cabinetry.
Wherever I’ve lived, there’s always been a junk drawer.
We have a couple in the house where we now live. Our primary junk drawer is in the kitchen, which is exactly where a primary junk drawer should be. It’s the general catch-all for everything, especially when company’s coming, or when I just don’t feel like putting something where it otherwise belongs. And this makes total sense, because if something’s not where it’s supposed to be, it’s probably, well, you know, in the junk drawer.
Then there’s our secondary junk drawer in the master bath. It’s on the other side of the house, and you need one there for stuff like loose pills, broken shower curtain rings, dull razors and dried up toothpaste containers. Without a secondary junk drawer, there wouldn’t be any place to put this stuff.
Several months back we began the task of appointing another home we have in Ecuador, and I remember laughing at myself when in a newly constructed home on a really nice beach, the very first thing I created was a junk drawer. It was instinctive. Within 15 minutes, I sought out the deepest, longest kitchen drawer I could find, tossed all my loose stuff in it and self-proclaimed it as the junk drawer. It made the place feel like home.
Fortunately, our primary junk drawer is much more accessible than it was only a few weeks ago. More than 50 percent of the time now, we can open it without fighting it.
For many years it was the primary place of safekeeping for the most dysfunctional corkscrew I’ve ever seen. It was Dana’s corkscrew as I’m more of a pop top or screw top kind of guy. It was a big, three-legged contraption that looked more like a small tripod than a corkscrew, and it was for some strange reason called, The Rabbit.
The Rabbit never worked. Never. But we never threw it way, because I suppose we thought it might work one day. And because The Rabbit was multi-dimensional, there was no good place for it – except in the junk drawer. When you tried to open the junk drawer, you couldn’t, because The Rabbit would hang up. But finally, if you pulled in and out, hard, seven or eight times, The Rabbit would shift around and the junk drawer would open.
On the same day, Dana threw away The Rabbit and a several-years-old phone book we had in the junk drawer. It was tattered and torn and the pages were curled up because when The Rabbit didn’t hang up when you tried to open the junk drawer, the phone book did.
I hated the phone book, and The Rabbit, because they really screwed up the junk drawer. And I haven’t used a phone book, in you know, like five years.
A further survey of our primary junk drawer …
-Three electrical charging cords to any number of unknown devices.
-Two checkbooks with checks to accounts we no longer have.
-A 12-inch wooden ruler like I used in the first grade. Seriously, a foot-long ruler.
-An old flip phone.
-Three dispensers of “Scotch” tape. The tape to each of them has slipped off the dispenser and back on to the roll. When this happens, it’s almost impossible to get it started again. Probably why we have three, and why they are in the junk drawer.
-A very small, streamlined and simple cork screw. I’m assuming this one took the place of The Rabbit.
-Three pieces of old chewing gum still in their wrappers. It appears they may have gone through the washing machine before retiring to the junk drawer.
-Three flashlights, in case the electricity goes out. None of them appears to work.
-Dozens of loose nails, about 20 or so batteries, several screw drivers, curtain rod parts, Kleenex, a few of which may have been slightly used, various coupons for things we never buy and about a hundred return address labels for the three pieces of mail we send each year.
I love the junk drawer so much, I started a junk bowl on the cabinet just above.
What are the secrets of your junk drawer?
Any reading of the Gospels reveals this defining characteristic of Jesus: He loved a party. Of course, that raised more than a few eyebrows back then, as it does for many "good, church folks" today. Jesus was often confronted with the way he and his disciples comported themselves, in comparison especially to John the Baptist and his disciples.
So several of you are thinking about, or say you are in the running for the Arkansas State Senate District 21 seat. Contrary to many media headlines, it’s not, and never was, Paul Bookout’s seat. It belongs to the people of Jonesboro and the surrounding area. That’s one thing. Just for the record.
As you move forward in your candidacy, and perhaps beyond in your service … a few suggestions to consider:
1. Your candidacy, platform and service should be based in how you see things differently four years from now. What will have changed for the better, and what legacy will you leave? The fact is, for the most part, we’ve had a horrible group of state legislators from this area, who’ve brought us as much embarrassment as they have good. The truth is, we’ve enjoyed fair success, not because of, but in spite of, goofy and lazy state legislators whom we can only blame ourselves for electing. There were a few decent ones. Not that many.
2. On that note, keep in the back of your mind the state’s most widely circulated newspaper publishes its list of the 10 Worst State Legislators following each meeting of the General Assembly. We had a state senator who made that list not too long ago, They said he was as effective as a “piece of furniture.” Yes, furniture. The best you could say about him is that he was arrogant, yet ineffective. Two days ago, the man who carries that dubious distinction said he is running again. Whichever of you is elected to the District 21 Senate seat, do us a favor and don’t make that list. It embarrasses us.
3. You’ll inevitably say your platform gives high priority to education. Please don’t say that if you don’t mean it. Consider actually doing something that would make a difference in a first grader’s life 25 years from now. Want to ensure that young kids today have a job 25 years from now? Mandate second language fluency for graduation. Students in the European nations will be fluent in three to four languages upon graduation. Most students in Arkansas don’t even know grammatical English. The kids today who have second language fluency 25 years from now will never lack for a job. And have you ever read the educational guidelines from the Arkansas Department of Education? Could they be any more convoluted? Another idea? How about right here in Craighead County, maybe we should have one superintendent of schools rather than seven. I dare you to tackle that one. It’s the right thing, no matter what anyone says, or what turf they try to protect.
4. Lately, some state office holders have said our ethics guidelines are “gray.” Not really. Good ethics are pretty simple. You err on the side of caution. Always. If you can’t properly interpret state ethics guidelines, you probably shouldn’t run for office in the first place.
5. If you raise money for a campaign, spend it on a campaign. Spend it all. Don’t carry your funds over. Nip temptation in the bud. State legislators need not carry over campaign funds.
6. If you make a mistake, admit it, and don’t be so arrogant or self-absorbed with your own well-being, that you refuse to say, “I’m sorry.” It’s not cool, and the voters will never forget it.
7. Don’t try to be a big shot. In this job, you are a citizen-legislator. There’s a reason “citizen” comes first. It’s a part-time job where you are elected to serve and sacrificially give of yourself. Don’t try to be a big shot. It didn’t work out so well for the last guy.
8. If you are running for this office as a spring board to something beyond. Don’t do it. Run because you want to make a difference here.
9. Want to see an example of a pretty good state legislator? You need not look too far to Greene County. Robert Thompson shows every indication of a public servant with integrity, smarts and devotion. I question his decision to give legal representation to Paul Bookout, but it’s not the end of the world. He’s a good example for any state legislator.
10. Please understand the difference between your choice to be a politician, and your duty as a public servant. Politics is a necessary evil and often gets public servants in trouble. Public service, done well, is among the most admirable of vocations. And there is a big difference between the two.
11. When the media calls, call them back. Actually speak to them. Don’t hide behind emails and “press releases.” At the end of his term, the last office holder tried to manipulate his message by having a one-way conversation with the media. Ultimately, everyone saw through that.