Is There a Problem with Apu?

The Simpsons are an indispensable part of my life. My sense of humor, so intricately entwined with Springfield lore, that when talking to me, people are often heard muttering through their frustration of being on the outside of the joke, “Is that a Simpsons quote?” Sometimes it is; sometimes it isn’t. I’m not quoting out of nowhere; I’m referencing a relevant moment in the show while engaged in a discussion. The real joy, is a perfectly placed quote, with like-minded individuals, when you don’t need to explain the meaning. I cannot count on my hands the number of people I know who will implicitly recognize Simpsons knowledge and enjoy a good quote placement. The Simpsons are a part of our life, a joyful, playful yet cromulent place, that embiggens our lives despite every character being flawed, dangerous or wildly incompetent.

Hari Kondabolu came onto my radar earlier last week in the New York Times headline, “You Love ‘The Simpsons’, Then Let’s Talk About Apu.” He made a documentary, “The Problem with Apu”, for TruTV, about a fictional Indian character living in a fictional American town voiced by an actual white man. Kondabolu is a stand up, writer and apparently deeply hurt by Apu. He’s not the only one. He got almost all of today’s prominent South Asian actors to participate in the film to express their frustrations and, in some cases, hatred of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon.

Here are some things I learned while researching Apu as a troubling stereotype of Indian immigrants in America or from Kondabolu’s film:

  • Apu’s name is taken from a famous film trilogy set in India from the 50’s about a young boy named Apu and his journey from adolescence to adulthood.
  • Indians don’t like the accent.
  • Some people didn’t know Apu was voiced by a white actor (Hank Azaria).
  • Some see Apu, as voiced by a white actor, equivalent to blackface minstrelsy.
  • Whoopi Goldberg has an extensive collection of “negrobilia” that is, blackface dolls, statues and assorted memorabilia of a bygone era of black representation by white performers.
  • The Indian guy in Short Circuit 2 was not actually Indian.
  • A non-Indian person imitating an Indian accent is called “pantanking.”
  • At least in the Spanish language dubbed Simpsons, Apu’s voice completely lacks any “pantanking.”
  • Hank Azaria, the voice actor, was quoted as saying, when creating the sound, that he was told, “How racist can you make [the voice]?”

I’m glad to have learned these things. I’m sad that Kondabolu likes The Simpsons, but hates the only character from his ethnicity. Apu’s voice truly is, “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy imitating [Kondabolu’s] dad.” For me, Apu’s voice was not what was funny. Apu was funny because of the situations he got into. He allowed Jasper to stay frozen in the ice cream cooler and charged admittance fees to see “Frostillicus.” He pretended to be married to Marge to avoid an arranged marriage, with sexy results. He sells expired meat to Homer. He lied to Homer through song. His penny candy is “surprisingly expensive.”

Apu’s voice is undeniably, albeit a broad stamp, but totally, Indian. I’ve had a few encounters with Indian people in my life. There was Sumanth—a guy at my high school, no accent, pretty funny, good dude. An Indian couple who were my doctors in Austin, TX—very lovely, smart and a full accent. The guys who ran the 7-11 in my hometown—accented, not funny and sour. A guy I met in Australia—wicked rich and bought me a sandwich, no accent, very funny, interesting stories about being in the high class of India. They were all different, and to none I thought to say, “Oh my god, you sound just like Apu.”

It’s hard to be too sympathetic with the idea that Apu led to bullying. Getting, “Thank you, come again” shouted at you doesn’t seem to be on par with the verbal weight behind an N-bomb or belittling Asian slurs. Apu being the only Indian on TV in 1990 makes sense since there were around 450,000 Indian immigrants in the entire U.S. at that time. The choice of a white actor to do his voice makes sense because Hank Azaria also does Moe, Frink, Wiggum, Comic Book Guy, Snake, Lenny & Carl, Dr. Nick, Wiseguy and the Sea Captain. Is it possible that of the half million Indians living in all of America in the late 80’s when the show was cast, that one of them was a voice work actor capable of the range and humor of Hank Azaria? Is it possible that Apu was made with a vocal stereotype of Indians? Is it possible that some young South Asian children were subjected to Kwik-E-Mart insults when they were young? Is it possible that The Simpsons are funny despite some short-sighted typecasting of the wide array of American people? If it is a discussion you want, we can ask those questions. But “The Problem with Apu” places too much blame on The Simpsons and not enough on the entertainment industry in general. Why pick on the one show that actually showed an (admittedly) fundamentally flawed yet intelligent, funny character of South Asian descent?

Hari bemoans the lack of Indians on TV, as does Aziz Ansari in Masters of None. I get it. You looked to TV to see yourself and it wasn’t there. But you were first generation! The TV was literally waiting for YOU! There actually wasn’t anyone there except you. Your parents were too busy being hard working role models for you.

Apu is funny because he doesn’t really understand Springfield, but totally fits into the craziness. He’s part of Homer’s bowling team, barbershop quartet, and the neighborhood watch. He’s not an outsider pushed to the perimeter of episodes only to jump in with a Squishee and make a joke about Ganesh. He took a bullet for James Woods. He was known as the “Fifth Beatle.” He can dance the robot. He once worked 96 straight hours and thought he was a hummingbird.

I get that there were no South Asians on the white dominated TV landscape of the early 90’s, mid-90’s, late 90’s, early 00’s, basically until Aasif Mandvi on The Daily Show. But now, that’s changed; it’s shown to have changed in the documentary.

Apu is a cartoonish cartoon on a globally offensive show. The Australians hated their episode rife with Aussie accents, koalas and allegedly big beers. The Brazilians banned their episode that showed kidnapping and that Brazil nuts are simply called “nuts” there. The Japanese episode included over the top game shows, Godzilla attacks and origami in prison. Everything is a stereotype; does that mean we can’t laugh? Luckily, Judge Kondabolu says, “You’re allowed to like The Simpsons.” Just saying that means that I have to see each character and wonder, does this offend someone? I don’t want to hurt someone for my amusement. I didn’t know The Simpsons did that. For Kondabolu as a Simpsons fan, to bring this up, could be a good thing if we see Apu move in a direction that shows a positive arc. But it shouldn’t have to. He’s allowed to stay working at the Kwik-E-Mart overcharging “for meat, and milk, from 1984.” It’s not a real person. There are other South Asians on TV, so no young Indian kids will be bullied by “Thank you, come again” being chanted at them on the playground by some stereotypically dumb slack jawed yokel like Cletus types.

The main question: Is Apu racist? I think no, but it’s not my ethnicity or culture being parodied. Therefore, Kondabolu is entitled to feel that way. But imagine if all the satirized cultures, personalities, races or countries felt that way. There would be no Simpsons, and what a poorer world it would be.

Is Barney’s alcoholism triggering?

Is Fat Tony or the chef an accurate representation of Italians?

Is Groundskeeper Willie a true Scotsman?

Is Bumblebee Man’s clumsiness insulting to Mexicans?

Is the Sea Captain’s growl characteristic of all sailors?

Is Krusty’s miserly nature offensive to Jewish people?

Is Smithers’ homosexuality being expressed toward the man he serves homophobic?

Is Marge fulfilling outdated gender roles as a stay at home mom?

Is Nelson’s bullying a result of a distant single mother and a deadbeat dad?

Are these kinds of questions necessary when talking about the inarguably greatest show of our generation, Hari?

Do the writers need to discuss the sensitivities of all the microcosms of contemporary American society before deciding if something is funny? The old Aesop Fable of the Miller and his donkey taught that by trying to please everyone, you please none.

Thank you Hari Kondabolu for making me aware that this is a sensitive accent, that a fantasy show can have negative consequences in the real world. I’m glad to learn about you, your stand up and the opinions of the other South Asian actors’ in the movie. I’m happy to talk Simpsons with any of you anytime. I don’t consider this matter closed. It is a discussion. I just wanted to contribute my ideas. After all, “I’m a white male age 18-49, everyone listens to me.”

 

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Can We Talk About Guns? Can We Talk About Anything?

It’s not time to talk about gun regulation when people use guns to kill for fun, politics or revenge. It’s not time to talk about human contributions to climate change when hurricanes sustain category five winds for 36 hours or dump five feet of rain in a few days. It’s not time to talk about health care when GOP politicians are rushing a vote on damaging legislation through secret meetings. It’s not time to talk about the antiquated electoral college despite two of the last five popular vote count winners losing the election. It’s not time to talk about Russia interfering with our election because Trump said there was no collusion. It’s not time to talk with North Korea because we’re not willing to offer anything. It’s not time to talk about obesity because few will listen to a Black first lady telling them to eat their vegetables. It’s not time to talk about certain infrastructure being years past prime and needing major renovations because ‘The Wall’ needs to get built to keep out those shifty Mexicans. It’s not time to talk about university tuition indebting generations, opioid epidemics started from profiteering pharma, police and minority relations continuing to strain communities, poisoned drinking water or the incessant pollution from fossil fuels.

It’s not time to talk about anything because no one is listening! If you are a Hillary voter, could someone convince you that Trump is a good leader because he’s saying honest things that no other politician is willing to say? If you are a Trump voter, could someone convince you that Hillary was going to be good for the country because she is a powerful woman with a moderate and progressive vision for America? If you agree with Kaepernick’s kneeling protest, could someone convince you that it is a foolish objection and that any Black person killed by police must have been guilty? If you think kneeling is an affront to our flag and nation, could someone convince you that Black political, personal, social and cultural suppression is real and present in 2017?

America is becoming separated into little enclaves of beliefs reinforced by segmented and divergent media. There are the extremes of alt-right tiki torchers and antifa black masks, the religious nuts and atheist extremists, also the disagreements of city mice and country folk, with the classic Republican and Democrat finding their own corresponding information. Locked away within our personal confirmation bias of who is wrong and why, there is little room for debate with someone’s opinion because to disagree with his/her opinion means to disagree with his/her reality.

Extreme right ideas: Obamacare needs to be repealed because it was from an illegitimate Kenyan president. DACA should not be allowed because immigrants are criminals. Guns are a 2nd Amendment right and regulation only punishes the innocent.

Extreme left ideas: Transgender bathroom use or military presence represent no problems to anyone. Immigration is good no matter the country of origin. Guns are a 2nd Amendment right and regulation might stop some killers from killing.

All the above are incomplete ideas and open for debate. There should not be a razor’s edge where no reasonable answer can balance. We need a decent mesa of acceptable ranges of solutions, a place to discuss and hear the other while sustaining an openness to find satisfactory resolutions.

The recent terror in Las Vegas will inevitably result in America’s biannual shitshow of arguments after a mass murder between guns are cool beans and guns are weak sauce. The fact that we have laws against murder didn’t stop this man, but the fact that we legally sell semi-automatic rifles with scopes that can be easily manipulated into automatic dispensers of death certainly helped that man. The answer could be metal detectors in every hotel, transit point, school, shopping mall, restaurant, movie theater, and public building. The answer could be to stop outdoor festivals or any massive gathering. The answer could be restricting, limiting or even outlawing some or all guns and accessories.

Guns should face more regulations and controls but laws cannot change in America (see Sandy Hook). If every gun was taken away, those dedicated to homicide could use a 3-D printer to make their own firearms, manufacture homemade bombs and set them off at a tailgate party, drive cars into pedestrians at a farmer’s market, stab people in a crowded subway, throw acid in strangers’ faces, drive a bus off a bridge or a plane into a mountain. We know that guns aren’t the only way to kill large groups of people.

But guns are the most impersonal. I heard a Radiolab podcast that dissected the runaway trolley question. (A trolley is out of control and headed on a track to kill five workers. You can pull a lever to switch tracks whereby the trolley only kills one worker. Do you pull the lever to save five but kill one?) 9 out of 10 people will pull the lever that saves more lives. But, when the situation is changed and you have no lever, and you must push a fat man standing next to you onto the track, now 9 out of 10 do not push the man. The situation is the same, five will die if you do nothing, but most people (True fact: aside from psychopaths and Buddhist monks who both would push the man) feel that pushing a man to his death feels different than pulling a lever.

Take the gun away, and the ease of which they kill may derail some murderous/suicidal plans. While true that guns don’t kill people without a human to pull the trigger, that is some chicken and egg logic there. Would there be over 30,000 gun fatalities (2/3 of which are suicides) every year if America were gunless? Is it our unique culture of violence or our unique culture of gun possession?

We must concede that 7.4 billion humans aren’t going to live together peacefully, at least not yet. There is so much trust involved in daily interactions, utilities, internet and simple rule following that is taken for granted. In a given day I trust the water to run and flush, the electric to turn on, cars to stop for a red light, weather predictions to be accurate, chefs to serve clean food and to not be murdered by a maniac. We expect things to work neatly in our neat little worlds, in our neat little neighborhoods, in our neat little houses.

The world humans created is not always neat and is approaching a cataclysm, a future beyond prediction, overpopulation, unbearable heat waves, fishless seas, ruthless droughts, recurrent floods, unabated migrations, lethal diseases, or any combination of frightful events, including mass killings. The effects of soaring human population with capitalistic winners and losers, factory farming, loss of species and habitat and climate change will certainly have negative repercussions. That is not pessimism, that is reality; however, my dark yin is accompanied by a bright yang. Humans are more than capable of solving problems.

We’ve made a nice little domain here on Earth. We’ve created comfort with entertainment, dispensed vaccines and eradicated diseases. We’ve decreased poverty and global hunger by half in the past thirty years. We’ve sent ships to spy on distant planets, submarines to the bottom of the ocean, investigated the deepest jungles. We’ve made human life an art form. Granted, millions still struggle every day, and until they are brought out of their misery, humanity will communally suffer, some literally and others through that painful knowledge. Violence is just one more problem we seek to solve as a united society. A few governments hold the key to total destruction with nuclear weapons and individuals have the existential power to end their own or another’s life at any given moment.

The fact that people made guns to erase life, but also concocted medical shots to prolong it displays the intriguing yin/yang of a human psyche.

America has too many gun deaths, India has too many untouchables, Yemen has too many starving, Syria has too many homeless, Japan has too many suicides, Congo has too many child soldiers, North Korea has too many prisoners, and Somalia has too many pirates. All forms of tragedies are played out daily around our world. Las Vegas was a tragedy and felt like a turning point for new legislation, but I don’t think it’s going to generate firearm restrictions. The entrenched sides have been dug. It’s sad to accept the unavoidable fact that humans have killed, kill and will kill again—ourselves, each other and millions of edible animals every day.

 

What I Think About the National Anthem Protests: NFL Players Can Kneel & Trump Is a Bum

A grandfather, father and son; three generations of William Sabia’s; three generations of Philly sports fans used to go watch 18 baseball games every summer. We watched them together from our right field seats all through my younger and more vulnerable years. We watched the best years with the mullet brigade of 1993 that lost the World Series to a bunch of Canadian hosers. We also watched the worst years of Philadelphia Phillies baseball. The years when future Hall of Shamers Von Hayes or Steve Jeltz were the best players, the years when the stadium was a non-descript, circular, multi-purpose green hole called Veterans Stadium. The floors were wet even on sunny days, the food was limited to soggy hot dogs or stale pretzels and the bathrooms were intimidatingly filthy, but my memories of those summer nights remain as pure as Kevin Costner’s plan in Field of Dreams.

We’d eat a big Italian dinner at Dante & Luigi’s then make our way to the parking lot. (Later we’d relocate from that eatery to Medora’s Mecca due to an attempted mafia hit in 1989.) The games, as all American sports, began with a rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” I used to take off my hat, stand at attention, hand over heart and peek up at my grandfather who served in the Navy during WW2. He seemed to be rather emotionless and more excited to mark down the bases and strikes in the program book. The song reminded me of him, and my other deceased family members who served.

It was my feelings that I can more surely remember. Beyond the excitement of sitting with my Naunu and Dad with their undivided attention on me and whatever phase of young problems were bothering me at that moment, I was definitely moved by that song every time. To this day, the goose bumps still raise my sparse arm hairs, chilling each nerve during the final crescendo of that contrasting anthem to war and freedom.

Playing Pee-Wee football in my little town, we couldn’t afford helmets or pads newer than the 1970’s dress-up kits in which we used to be outfitted. Thus, our little crappy speaker system, on which my Italian surname was consistently and variously butchered, played a very weak instrumental version of the national anthem. Nevertheless, we all stood, swimming in our oversized helmets and one size fits none shoulder pads. Most of the time, the flag lay limp on the pole, a far cry from the 100 yard flapping inspiration held taught by veterans we see on Sunday Night Football. The “flag was still there” is the way to understand it. We play contact sports under the lights and under the flag. We zone out while pledging allegiance to it. Cheesy American backpackers during the Bush era used to sew Canadian flags to their rucksacks to avoid political conversations about Iraq. The flag is there, even when you don’t notice it or try to hide it.

The flag is boldly symbolic of our unity and passively suggestive of the manifested destiny of struggles our past has provided our future. It means different things to all, just like our country. Some immigrants imagined America as paved with gold, a metaphor for golden opportunities for their children. Other forced “immigrants” found a world of cruelty and enslavement. The “flag was still there” through all those rounds of foreigners coming voluntarily or vice versa. The stars kept growing and history kept moving. The American flag is a visual expression of our pride, or our pain. Surely, we can all understand both sides.

The benevolent peace I experience from the national anthem as a white male, non-veteran yet proud American may be starkly divergent from my cultural opposites. I’ve seen the cellphone videos of police brutality and I watched in disbelief through the Rodney and O.J. affairs. I recently watched Ava Duvernay’s 13th (Netflix) and Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro (Amazon). They are eye-opening glimpses of an American experience where the stars and stripes provide a twisted pride. A pride of earned freedom but never escaping from under a racist thumb, people rising as a Phoenix from their historical ashes only to sink again under the destructive weight of racist oppression.

Enter Colin Kaepernick in 2016, a Super Bowl caliber NFL QB confronting his American confusion from within his bi-racial skin while growing up adopted in a white family, part of an all-Black college fraternity, blessed with superhuman sporting skills and cursed with a mind too curious to just keep his mouth shut and cash the checks. He lives in a world where Obama is president to only half the country, Black men’s murders are being caught on video at a terrible pace and here he is, making millions, wondering what words or even what right he may have to use his celebrity to say something.

He takes a knee. Like the proverbial ripples on a still pond, his kneel reverberated. The ripples cost him his job. The ripples have now flowed from the Bay Area to D.C. This week, our disgraceful 45th president, who never misses a chance to take an uneducated, unthinking, unsophisticated gut reaction into the public without any semblance of nuance called Kaepernick and anyone else kneeling a “son of a bitch.” He called American men, American athletes, American protesters, American heroes—sons of bitches. He called them that because they are looking to enact change, or at the least bring awareness to a decades old problem—some police see Black men as dangerous. Let’s ignore the fact that Trump speaks the way kids imitate their drunk, racist grandfather and just acknowledge that he is a boring, tactless, race-baiting, impulsive, spiteful, incurious, douchebag. His opinions are as useless as a bikini in Saudi Arabia. His face is as paunchy as a hippo duck facing a selfie. Instead of being sympathetic or simply ignoring this story, he blew moonshine into the bonfire.

Johnny Cash was the man in black. “I wear it for the poor and beaten down, living on the hopeless, hungry side of town. I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime, but is there because he’s a victim of the times.” These football players are men in black, men whose blackness defines their life, but not their identity. Many of them came from that hopeless, hungry side of town. Many of them may know someone in prison for a victimless crime like marijuana. Johnny Cash wore black; they are choosing, like Kaepernick, to take a knee, to show that America has not fully reconciled its slave-holding past. We have not fully committed to our motto, E Pluribus Unum. Thirteen letters, thirteen original colonies, thirteenth amendment. America is trying to move forward. Trump is a gold plated, bone spurred step backward.

We all must try to understand that black lives matter doesn’t negate other lives. Taking down Civil War statues doesn’t negate history. Kneeling before the flag doesn’t negate others’ sacrifices. The NFL players are allowed to kneel for the song. The flag will still be there. It reflects what we project upon it. Whatever you see within those Stars & Stripes probably reveals part of your own personal American history, standing, sitting or kneeling.

My Top Ten Best Places to Swim in the World

Ocean creatures nibble on your feet as the wide expanse of seawater pulses with waves for bodysurfing. Nude night swimming as a teenager felt like breaking rules that weren’t meant to be followed anyway. Sunday night swims at the Y.M.C.A, when we were still a family of four, with vending machine ice cream followed by the classic show by the formerly virtuous, presently vilified Bill Cosby.

Swimming was always a part of my life. There are soundless, grainy videos of me as a chubby baby splashing and floating in Styrofoam tubes, later, flat chested, sun browned and endlessly chasing waves and catching rides, picking up horseshoe crabs to scare girls. We would spend every summer weekend and our big two-week vacation at the beach. I remember the crispy crust of seawater kissed skin, the smell of barbecuing meat and steaming corn as we ran around the yard. I remember barely being able to sleep out of excitement the night before we would go to the Wildwood, NJ water parks.

They were the days of pre-9/11 America. They were the days before any premature deaths had forced me to reckon with life’s brief candle. They were the days before girls were significant, when we all looked the same. They were the days of wonder and sleepover nights, before jobs and bills. They were the days of best friends, talking on the phone, riding bikes. This is a list of memories, a catalog of subjective experiences, a way to look back while wondering what is still to come.

I read a story in the New York Times by Loudon Wainwright III, an American troubadour, who has similar feelings for the water. He put down his top ten swimming places in the world. I thought it would be fun to do the same.

Here are my top ten most memorable water filled places:

10. Stuttgart Mineral Baths, Germany—I love a good sauna. When I first arrived in Korea, I’d spend hours slipping in and out of the hot and cold baths, hopping between the steam or the cool showers. But my love for saunas started here, in Germany’s Black Forest. I got naked in front of strange Germans, suntanned unabashedly and relished the nude joy of the healing waters. (I should include that Budapest and Sevilla also had amazing bathhouses, but as a bathing suit was required, it just felt more like a fancy pool with beautiful mosaic tiles.)

9. Lagos, Portugal—Although this was the most hungover I’ve ever been as the local bars offer 2 for 1 everything, the crisp seawater was a lifesaver in the morning. I found some crepes and a bucket of ice water and stared at the shimmering Atlantic Ocean. The massive cliffs beside the beaches make for a spectacular backdrop. I remember swimming out with some friends to a natural bridge in the rocks before remembering a scene from a nature documentary where hundreds of manta rays gathered in a place just like that.

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Courtesy: Western Australia Pinterest

8. Karijini National Park, Western Australia—Hidden among the baked red earth of Australia’s outback was a bright blue pool dotted with waterfalls and trees. There was a good hour hike down the rocks to the pool, heating you up for the cool down. There was a 20-meter cliff jump, shady spots to have a drink and some rock climbing inside the waterfalls. We camped in this remote park, and it remains the most stars I’ve ever seen.

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7. Gwangalli Beach, Busan, South Korea—It’s one of the most famous beaches of Korea and insanely crowded for 6 weeks in July and August. But in any season, you can get some Ramen noodles, beers, chips and shoot fireworks into the placid waters. There are no waves here, but the scenic Gwangan Bridge makes a glimmering seascape come alive at night. (Most of the Korea’s east coast has lovely blue water, white sands and nearby 7-11’s. Plus, the island of Jeju is full of amazing waterfalls, beaches and sex museums.)

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6. Mekong River, Laos—Although the Mekong runs from China to Vietnam, my favorite spot was in the Thousand Islands of Don Det. It’s not easy to get to, as you must ride a shaky diesel-powered longboat with a draft of a few inches to the water. Animals run wild, people are friendly and there is a small swimming spot at the end of the island. It was amazing to walk out a few feet and feel the current begin to take you downstream. A few more feet and you’d need to paddle hard to get back in. (In Kratie, Cambodia, I found a cool spot with thatched huts on pylons where the locals drank and cooled off.)

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5. Otres Beach, Cambodia—This is my ideal paradise beach. It’s quiet, chill, beautifully set on the Gulf of Thailand with a few beachside bars and pubs pumping quiet house music. There are French expats who’ve opened some decent restaurants complete with a boule lawn. Every day, the local women sold me fresh mango, watermelon and a back and foot rub for 10$. I also did a great scuba dive here. I was the only one who signed up, so I got to solo dive with the instructor. Sitting under a thatch umbrella, mangoes, cold beer, burgers and a Kindle. (There are Happy Pizza restaurants and tons of bars in nearby Sihanoukville, the backpacker party town.)

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4. Trieste, Italy—This little enclave of an Italian city with an Austrian heritage has a small sidewalk with access to the Adriatic Sea, called the Barcola. If you remember to bring a cushioned mat and towel, relaxing on the cement will be a breeze. The sea is beautiful here, flat and blue out to the horizon with tree covered mountains behind. (Nearby Croatian beaches are similarly wonderful.)

3. Barton Springs, Austin, Texas—A spring fed pool in South Austin, with lax clothing requirements, few personal restrictions, naturally cold water and a diving board. The only negative might be that it is set upon a grassy hill, which just isn’t as nice as sand. (If you catch the right day, McKinney Falls can be spectacular. But a real gem is down in Wimberley at the Blue Hole or chilling near the Blanco River.)

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2. Phuket, Thailand—It was near the end of a four-month journey in SE Asia, and our last day in Thailand. Jordyn and I wanted to swim. We could see heavy, dark clouds shooting lightning in the distance. The rain was falling, the waves were high and we jumped right in. Walking back, people were covered in rain gear, umbrellas and galoshes, we wore only bathing suits and sandals. (Phuket is nice, but the islands like Ko Lanta, or Ko Tao are much more stunning.)

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1. Avalon, NJ—It’s not the clearest, cleanest or nicest water. It’s not always the most peaceful environment. It’s not the most reliably wonderful weather. And although things are changing there, as it’s become a playground for elites with multi-million dollar houses, and there are sound ordinances where police will shut you down for singing after midnight, and extreme weather pushes the storm surges ever closer to the doorstep, and the restaurants are overpriced, and the bars full of college meatheads, khaki shorts and high heels…well, damn, maybe it’s just our little house there. The little cinderblock paradise on the bay, where so many memories were made, remains my favorite place to swim in the world.

 

Four Ways the World is Changing

To paraphrase the Greek philosopher Heraclitus and the vocal artist Otis Redding: “Change is the only constant (and yet) everything still remains the same.”

I feel a change lately. The changes feel negative, far-reaching and unavoidable. How can one balance an individual existence during global complications, how to protect positivity when assaulted by negativity? The reality bruising author, Cormac McCarthy, said, “Sure I’m pessimistic, but that’s no reason to be gloomy.”

Our brains have developed enormous powers in the past century. We’ve created the method with which to evaporate humanity, the power of flight and space travel, electricity, new and exciting art. We’ve explored the land and sea, investigated the human body and mind and developed powerful hand-held computers. We’ve answered ancient mysteries of physical forces and we’re only beginning to understand the possibilities of quantum mechanics and CRISPR technology, but we haven’t solved the tribal instincts which lead to racism, sexism, bigotry, nationalism and illogical hatred. We don’t know what will happen when the oceans rise or when some giant asteroid approaches. We don’t know how to solve fundamental questions of exorbitant wealth and piteous poverty. We confuse ourselves with questions of sexual identity and sexual preference in an over-sexualized world. Amid all the progress and scientific advancements of humans lies the confusion of apes shouting at a fire. We’re a few hundred centuries beyond our homo sapien origins and a few hundred decades into the Anthropocene. It’s a juncture moment. It’s a moment of bizarre dread flush with menacing omens and no new-age positivity, or Steven Pinker tome about this current peacefulness can push the horror away from the reality that things change. And some big changes are coming.

Let’s examine a few worrying trends of the 21st century and if there is room left to hope:

Politics:

We begin with our 45th president, Donald J. Trump. He’s a douchebag. A douchebag is a fitting word for him; the nickname he should have been labeled by the poor, misguided Hillary Clinton campaign. “Hillary, which do you like better, Donny Douchebag or Douchey Donny?” (Dirtbag is a good second place if you’re worried about copyright infringement from South Park.) If you’ve never used the word, you might want to start, because it’s a good non-specific insult. So, Trump, our first, and certainly not last, reality show president, was undeniably more charismatic, blunt and candid than any of the republican sloths put forward, breezed through the primary, slogged through the general election and is now schlepping his way through the White House briefings and international conferences while remaining thoroughly, a douchebag.

Donald

From: knowyourmeme.com

He’s arguably (scandal prone, uninspiring and bullyish) a crap president (and subjectively a crappy person). But, that’s the worry, crap in, crap out. How could there be 40 million people willing to vote for a douchebag with poor elocution, lacking in general knowledge with a penchant for pussy grabbing and an overall slick dick demeanor of a guy who just bought a yacht but hates the water? Crap in, crap out. American people have been fed crap literally (from fast food) and metaphorically (from politicians) that we don’t recognize crap when it’s served to us, as long as the portions are good.

I believe that there were three kinds of Trump voters: 1) Republican die-hards who’d vote for a Mexican if he wore a red tie and promised tax cuts 2) fervent anti-Clinton people who hate her “shrillness” (code: possession of ovaries) and 3) the deplorables. Deplorable was a bad choice, the phrase more apropos is “bucket of degenerates.” (Check the definitions, she meant degenerates. Degenerate means a decline of or lacking in; deplorable means deserving condemnation. We don’t need to condemn those with whom we disagree, rather just accept that the white working class is in decline and distress. Trump recognized it and jumped on it.) Their middle-class union jobs were in decline and their opinions on the world were lacking in, to be polite—elegance. “Lock Her Up” and “Build that Wall” are a bit more combative and a bit less harmonious than Obama’s “Yes, We Can” while also more specific than Hillary’s empty action feminist call to arms of “I’m With Her.” It’s the people who have gotten screwed throughout the rise of free trade, globalization and immigration. The people whose American Dream of middle class status with a middling education/skill base was eradicated by the forces of automation, clean energy or outsourcing are who became degenerated. The All-American families of Detroit carmakers, Pittsburgh iron workers, Kentucky coal miners, Midwest farmers, New England haberdashers, Carolina furniture makers, coastal longshoremen et al. have been affected by robotic techniques or cost-cutting moves abroad.

The time of immigrants pulling themselves up by the bootstraps went away when work boots were replaced by wing tips and the assembly lines left for Asia. The new blue-collar jobs are mostly service industry with hourly wages, rarely as high paying as those salaried jobs of the 1950’s when today’s poor degenerates were just racists with good jobs. As the world changed, the degenerates watched the factories that employed their parents close. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy speaks of this loss. George Packer found this in The Unwinding. Trump gave these degenerates a voice, a condemning voice, not against them, but against Mexicans, Muslims and the “dishonest” media. Truly, it wasn’t the working poor who were entirely at fault for the colossal changes of the past half century.

CEO pay has increased 997% since 1978 while worker pay went up an insulting 10%. CEO’s are an integral part of a company; however, since the 1970’s, have they become 1,000% better at increasing sales or just 5,000% better at padding their pockets? America’s biggest employer, Wal-Mart, is notorious for meager benefits and low pay. A minimum wage job in 1968 used to be enough to cover a family of three; now, minimum wage is barely enough for a bachelor in a studio apartment. Opioids were dispensed by friendly, in-the-cut doctors, addictions formed, until the development of a crush proof pill pushed street prices higher, and we get a resurgence of cheap, dirty street heroin followed by the devastating power of Fentanyl. One quarter of Americans live alone, and loneliness reports have doubled in the last decade. Government subsidies to corn, wheat and meat farmers fuel production of cheap, processed foods. A man who earns less than his father did, who can’t afford a house, riddled with back pain from a factory job that closed down, living alone because his wife left from the stress, coping by eating expensive OxyContin and cheap Big Macs is NOT the picture of health. But it may be a picture of some of the degenerate class of Americans beset by radical changes and seeking to place blame. Such bleakness may explain the rise in suicide of over 40 white men. Such feelings of being ignored by the politicians elected to help may explain the popularity of Trump.

Our president is fueling that fire of depression by blaming Chinese for stealing jobs we want (true), Mexicans for stealing jobs we don’t (also true) and Muslims for changing society (could become true). Throwing blame without solutions stokes the helplessness instead of inspiring and motivating that change could provide new opportunities. America has always been a country in flux. Immigrants did the dirty jobs, and as they moved up the ladder, they cut the rung below for the next group. However, the dirty jobs are slowly evaporating or becoming extremely unsustainable for long term development. Crop picking and animal slaughter areas employ the majority of undocumented workers. Without supportive unions or stable status, illegal immigrants will be hesitant to report poor farming or unhealthy slaughter techniques. What will low wage earners do when robots learn to pick blueberries and slice tenderloin? The problems now go up the ladder affecting all on the way, from producers to consumers—an unhealthy chain of consumption.

Climate Change:

The longest ladder of problems which will affect the whole world soon enough is the great mystery of climate change. The mystery isn’t so much will it happen, but what will happen. An iceberg the size of Delaware just calved from the Larson ice shelf in Antarctica. Icebergs break off all the time, but the increasing rate is the worry from climatologists. The calving icebergs open more Greenland and Antarctic glaciers to the open sea, followed by sea rise and pH changes. We can see the pictures, hear the stats and understand the repercussions, but we don’t really know what to do. (Removing one of the most populous countries and one of largest polluters (U.S.A.) from the Paris Climate Accords is definitely NOT going to help.)) Even if we knew exactly what to do, it would merely slow what is already occurring.

The delicate balance of modern life along the coasts, the essential farming communities in the plains and the magical medicines of the rainforest are all in danger from climate change. Extinction from climate change is part of the historical record, and humans are no less susceptible to such souring weathers just because we wrote those historical records. Arctic sea ice has reduced by 65% in the last 40 years where temperatures are soaring and by having less white sea ice, there is less reflective surface and more heat absorbing dark black water. With the extra sun in the north, the 1.8 million tons of carbon locked within tundra permafrost is at risk of melting, releasing its highly concentrated methane gas which is 34 times as powerful as regular CO2. The fifteen hottest summers of the last millennia were every summer since 2002. The warming Earth, sustained carbon release and growing population creates an existential problem for those living there.

A new film on Netflix, Chasing Corals, following the name brand of 2012’s Chasing Ice, where the latter used time-lapse to watch evaporating glaciers and ice sheets, this movie uses photography to witness the changes in our life-giving oceans. The oceans that consume a substantial amount of our CO2 emissions, provide a myriad of protein variations, and control the winds, waves and weather of our world are struggling to maintain homeostasis. 29% of the Great Barrier Reef was lost to bleaching in 2016 alone. The statistics are shocking, but it’s hard to understand what it means for one person thousands of miles away. The largest coral reef in the world provides tens of thousands of jobs, billions in tourist revenue and a home for many ocean creatures. The ocean is a gigantic cycle from plankton to blue whale, from mackerel to dolphin; thus, if you cut a rubber band, it loses its functionality and you chuck it. We can’t afford to cut the bands of the ocean cycles.

American Exceptionalism:

In America, far from the bleaching corals of Australia and the melting icecaps of Antarctica, we find a nation lost between reviving its historical greatness and retreating into partisan squabbling. A partial list of our nation’s problems reads as a catalog of the stale prince, Jared Kushner’s, job description: solving Middle-East peace, fixing the opioid epidemic, creating stronger relationships with China and Mexico, reforming the massive, bloated criminal justice system, as well as the infuriatingly slow and anarchic VA, oh and if you have time on Friday can you make the U.S. government function less like an elephant picking flowers and more like a business?

Those are not small issues for an amateur; they’re some of the biggest concerns for our century. Things that require life experience, negotiating experience and diplomatic tact might not be in the wheelhouse of that little stooge. He’d be better off locked out of the Oval Office thinking of solutions to problems more suited to his skills–like creating the first flak jacket blazer.

It’s hard for me, as someone who’s been away from America for around seven years to truly understand the vibe there. Reading and watching news paired with first-hand accounts from friends and family seem to paint the same picture. Things be cool, but things be cray. It may stay like that for a while, but nothing lasts forever. Eventually, a terrorist will slip past those talkative TSA agents, or a natural disaster will hit, or another stock crash will come, or some hostile foreign country will make a blunder, or most likely of all—Trump will misjudge, misfire, mistweet, misstep, misspeak or mistake his egocentric thoughts as solid policy and we’ll all pay for it. In this hyperbolic world of crises, stable leadership is needed, but no president is going to save the planet, no group of informed citizens under a clumsy acronym is going to change the world, and no amount of planning can predict the unknowns. Essentially, we all have to remember we’re carbon blobs, floating on a blue ball of iron, gas and water in one of millions of galaxies and nothing really matters.

A.I.:

Artificial intelligence is the greatest example we have of a self-inflicted punishment or pleasure. If we are successful, we find The Jetsons—robots cooking, driving, cleaning, and teaching us; and if we fail, we find The Matrix—robots using our body heat for batteries. Self-driving cars are coming, and they will erase the need for millions of jobs around the world of loquacious men wearing vests. There may be a way to make robots do our dirty jobs too. Those horrible animal slaughter jobs, or backbreaking farm jobs may get automated eliminating the need for low wage immigrant labor. Fast food burger artists and French fry pouring employees with be extinguished in place of a stable A.I. who never calls in sick. Nursing may become an industry of waving a multi-purpose wand over the patient and interpreting the results. Teaching might transform into a professional internet guide, leading students to self-guided informational sites and waking them up from their virtual reality lessons because the robot bus is here to drive them home to a meal cooked by a microwave bot before watching social media events on their corneal implants until their internal clock releases a wave of melatonin proscribing the necessary amount of sleep for their individual metabolic function.

The benefits of an automated world are tangible. But, with the loss of so many service industry jobs, manufacturing, nursing and teaching, we’d be forced to find a solution for such extreme unemployment. That answer is a universal basic income, an idea kicked around for centuries and recently espoused by governor of the internet, Mark Zuckerburg, during his Harvard commencement address. It would allow all humans a guaranteed income on which to live despite not “working.” Handcrafted everything would become normal as more people could create their craft. Carpenters, artists, welders, photographers and anyone with a talent could pay rent and eat even if they didn’t get a contract that month. Let the robots cook, until you want a special handmade ravioli from the restaurant down the street. Let the robots teach grammar and the creative writers lead weekend retreats of fireside poetry readings and fictional character studies.

If we figure out ways to curb climate change by using our ingenuity such as science fiction answers like carbon filtering clouds or even the pragmatic switch to renewable resources, will we find a livable equilibrium? If we make desalinization cheap and comprehensive, will we worry less about droughts and access to clean water? If we manufacture robots effectively to be helpful instead of the Skynet Terminators, will we have a cheap workforce with millions of new jobs in computer tech and robot repair? If we replace the worries of 99% of workers living paycheck to paycheck with a standard of living given to all…that’s something I can’t really imagine what will happen. Will we reach utopia? Will racism stop when we all find ourselves on a level playing field? Will hatred for immigrants stop when countries unite into a singular currency?

I just don’t think it’s currently possible for seven billion people in almost 200 countries with two million years of evolutionary tribal hatred bred into us to magically swing it around and live together in John Lennon’s imaginary world. There’s too much competitive testosterone. There’s too much jealousy. There’s too many limited resources. There’s too much religion. There’s not enough desire to give without taking. There’s not enough tolerance.

It’s human nature. But, as we incorporate more robotics into our bodies and lives, melding into relative cyborgs, perhaps our negative human responses might be replaced with Spockian logic. Maybe things will change—they always do.

“Heaven is high and the emperor is far away.” –Chinese proverb

Everybody Is a Winner

George Costanza once sold his “show about NOTHING” to a bunch of cold NBC execs, including his doomed fiancée Susan, by answering why the couch potatoes of America would watch a show without a purpose; “Because it’s on TV.” It’s on TV used to be a plausible reason to watch TV. When the show aired in 1992, before the limitless possibilities of DVR, DVD’s, podcasts, Kindle, YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, HBOnow, and the endless variety of entertainment available via streaming internet channels, what was “on TV” was a good enough reason to watch it as any. We used to ask, “What’s on TV?” Now, we ask, “What should we watch?” The former reveals our passive helplessness to the TV gods; while the latter gives a power punctuated with the anxiety of too many options. We are the catalyst of our entertainment. We see the next two hours of our lives determined from algorithms selected to help us make the click. We stand astride the abundant mountain of mirth, murder or mystery. We sit in Plato’s cave with shadows so enjoyable, so personalized and so dynamic, there may never be any reason to turn around.

Yet within the immensity of amusement available to us, it appears some have sunk into a morass of moronic distraction. I’m aware of tastes and preferences. I’m aware of age differences, motivations and political affiliations. I’m aware that RuPaul’s Drag Race and Real Housewives are as (if not more) popular as what I’d consider quality programming like House of Cards or Game of Thrones. Reality TV finds the untamed characters from Rodeo Dr. to Main St. to MLK Blvd. and puts their faults and charms on display. They are, ostensibly, real people “acting” like themselves. The episodic shows mentioned above find actors acting. But the aims of all producers remain the same—make it watchable, make it interesting, make it dramatic. Whatever you choose to watch, there is a reason to watch—namely, some story or problem that must be solved in a predetermined amount of time. Thought was given, production values were managed, behavior was defined in a way to help the viewer enjoy their valuable time spent inside the magic screen.

Here, we find the younger generation who have come of age with closets full of plastic participation medals, teachers offering safe spaces for reflection on Mark Twain’s language and a siren calling smartphone in the pocket since 12 years old. James, my 14-year-old stepson, godson, protégé, mentee, ball of irrepressible energy and general frustration factory, has hipped me to the videos he likes these days. He likes watching people destroying iPhones, computers and electronics in various ways. He also likes watching people eat various foodstuffs, piano tutorials and the ever-present animal videos of the internet. The bulk of his YouTube time is watching videos of other people watching themselves playing video games, commenting and cursing profusely. I watched one where a guy with a heavy Cockney accent cursed an impressive nimbus cloud of ‘f’ words around his first-person shooter character. It was objectively unwatchable; however, 1,650,423 people disagree with me as that was his watched count. I asked James why he likes it. “Because it’s on, and it relaxes me.” He said as a giant robot was disintegrated in a hail of lightning fast bullets, action darting across the screen in a rapidly rotating dizzying display. Yeah, looks relaxing.

There may be quite a bit more that James doesn’t show me, doesn’t know about or doesn’t watch. The internet is like our hive mind buzzing with relentless diligence to satisfy the unique queen bees inside all our heads. Why produce a show when people will watch a cell phone crushed in a vice? Why work hard on a story when people will watch you curse while playing Bonestorm? Why create dialogue when millions will watch you putting on makeup? So, who am I to judge why one thing is quality and another is crap? Who am I? I’m not the universal judge. I’m from the generation between sit-com and webcam. I’m from the generation between pay-phones and smart phones. I am from the generation where the wave broke on the championship trophy, cascaded back in sullen pieces and reformed into those terrifying “awards” for participation.

I’m old enough to remember ribbons only for first, second, third and in the case of middling talent but above average achievement in effort, honorable mention. Hundreds of us plebs used to go home empty handed after elementary “field day.” I remember such enormous friggin’ pride when I finally won third place in the 50-yard dash in 5th grade. I was like, “Okay, I’m not Rich Luckowski, but I am third fastest and also not a jerk.” It was a bronze, but felt good. Everyone tried, but I tried better. It seems natural. Who wants to go home and show their parents a ribbon for existence?

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The transferred disappointment can lead losers to greatness through determination (as well as the possibility of mental turmoil, lifelong anxiety, personality disorders, or unstable relationships). Contrasted with the current crop of kids who attain an award for participation or certificate of achievement by not crying and kicking the winner and taking his blue ribbon (which in less moral, less evolved days might have been the Darwinian winner) it appears we merely switched one undesirable result for another.

From the age of four, when personality is established, humans know winning is everything. It is the basis of evolution, conflict and survival. Our enlightened minds may try to jam inclusion into the equation of a solo victory, but that just skews the results, creating a domino effect that leads to confusing trophy ceremonies, such as the one I saw in my kindergarten spelling bee yesterday.

We passed out 24 Spelling Bee Champion certificates to all 24 participants. Not everyone acted like a Champion. The kids who won jumped for joy. The losers hung their heads in discontent. This is as it should be. The teachers cheer the winners, console the losers and assure everyone that life goes on and we will all enjoy the pizza party. The feeling of, and getting over loss, without hostility, is as important as being a congratulatory and appreciative winner.

I was in 3rd or 4th grade when they piled all the kids into our tiny auditorium for a spelling bee. I was a great speller and stile 😉 am. Earlier in the year, the teacher asked me how to spell school, and I flubbed it. The children all laughed at me, and eager to explain how I could misspell something that hangs above the entrance of which I see every day, I exclaimed, “I had a fun summer!” I guess the carefree memories of a ten-year old’s summer vacation of night swimming and ice cream had pushed out all the practical knowledge of addition and grammar. So, I was hyped up to prove my spelling acumen to my class of ball-breaking chums. I made it through round after round with easy words until I got a stumper: cushion. I’m pretty sure I spelled it with a ‘u’. I finished in 9th place, which is decent, but there can be only one winner, only one champion; lest we engage in “excellence bias.” In the never-ending lesson of “Simpsons Did It!” This season The Simpsons tackled the issue…”with sexy results.” Lisa won and got the smallest trophy. When she complained, poor Ralph Wiggum cried that she was “loser shaming” him.

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Thank you Simpsons (Season 28 Episode 18)

That idea, a zero-sum game of a winner and a loser is usually applied to sports or contests, not to modern politics. Our president, who dominates headlines with his special brand of idiosyncratic vulgarity, conforms to the zero-sum idea. “So much winning.” “[Other countries] won’t be laughing at us anymore.” The “Benito Cheeto” (thanks @GregProops) shows his commitment to America first by making the world last. Pulling out of a voluntary agreement to decrease carbon emissions (which might not even be enough to stop the destructive forces of climate change) leaves U.S.A. alone, but “winning” by being the first to quit. The global embarrassment that “Sweet Potato Stalin” (@GregProops) has become, won’t result in a natural win or loss scenario, because 21st century political ideas are blended; Trump’s are welded shut. Personality is formed at a young age, and we must ask ourselves, was Trump a habitual winner, timid loser or a cautious participator? What made him Trump? Did he love to win or hate to lose more? Would a participation trophy from his 2nd grade science fair stopped the cackling monsters in his head from laughing at him and insulting his smallish inept hands? If his mother had shared the vanilla ice cream (because of course the Trumps ate vanilla) evenly when he was a boy, would he still be proving triumph over others with a second scoop at dessert?

It’s admirable that our society has tried to find a place for everyone on the victory platform. But, there’s simply no room for seven billion people on the podium. For millennia, there have been evolutionary winners and losers. Homo sapiens are the indisputable winners. We live on all seven continents and in space. We are the apex predator and the pinnacle of organic creativity. Couldn’t we all be participants, equal parts winning (birth) and loss (death) in this experiment of being? As humans cultivate our android world of Google blood cells, gene editing, neural uploads and artificial organs, will we worry about rewards, equality and doing our best if everyone thinks on the same software program? Perhaps, “Who is the best ______” will be an irrelevant concept as we become a singular mind—a non-competitive human union.

 

Una Vista di Roma, Italia

I found this hidden amongst my old emails. It was a writing made upon my cell phone notes as I walked around the beautiful splendor of Rome.

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If Italy is like a painting disguised as a country, Rome is a statue disguised as a city. The colors all blend into a fabulous symmetry of life in perpetual sunset. Storefronts whose only advertising is a large window, trees like elderly men listlessly leaning in the Lazio winds, cobblestone streets whose scarred surfaces speak of the sumptuous Roman past. The buildings of Rome, mostly gilded by spectacular carvings, stand guard over the streets. Gypsy people sit marinating in their own filth with friendly dirty dogs at their feet. Fashionable people who deal in professionally looking good pass by the Gypsies without a glance. Rome is a blend of life. It is the eternal city because of its unmatched ability to combine the power of religion with the freedom of thought; the historical genius of DaVinci with the modern corruption of Berlusconi;  the intangible secrets within the histrionic sculptures giving a sense of life within the inanimate marble. You can walk among the ghosts of history here.
The magnificent Colosseo imagines itself as a relic, but it is alive in our minds. We can feel the anticipation and palpable excitement of those pagan days whenever we visit a modern stadium. 70,000 people cheering and pleading for action. What has changed in two thousand years besides the game? Spectators are still divided by class and there is always someone who loses.

The Vatican poses behind the vastness of St. Peter’s Square as a peaceful place of pious worship. But beneath the columns, under the mosaics, and below the imagery of a gentle religion lies the secret of corruptible power, irascible personalities, and an undeterred search for money. The church has power beyond the limited walls of Vatican City. They reach into the pockets of paupers in Piedmont, or the breeches of cowboys in Argentina. They’ve allowed themselves the financial gratuity of the trusting faithful, the miracle seekers who pray on blessed rosaries and sanctify themselves with “holy” water. Rome went from pagan capital to holy shrine in less than a millennia.
Rome’s power lies in the ancient aura. Satisfaction is almost guaranteed to all those who enter. No inclement weather, pushy tourists or expensive hotels can take away the private experience of seeing the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Trevi Fountain, Colosseum, or Spanish stairs with your own eyes. Perhaps that could be said for any travel, yet it’s hard to compare anything to Rome.

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Park Geun-hye’s Troubled History Led to Her Impeachment

To begin, we go back in time to the end of WW2. The Japanese lost the war and were forced to relinquish control of their annexed Korean territory which they had established in 1910 and cruelly administered. The Soviets, who had only entered the Pacific theater of the war weeks before, were given temporary authority over lands north of the arbitrarily decided 38th parallel whereas U.S.A. was given the lands to the south. The Soviet prop was Kim Il Sung, a revered Communist figure from the peasant class, having served in the Red Army as well as due to his bona fide anti-Japanese record. He had fought guerilla battles against the Japanese imperialists through Chinese aegis since his teens. The U.S. army found their own man, opposite in almost every way. Syngman Rhee was highly educated, of royal stock, virulently anti-communist and had spent years in exile in the States and China away from the horrors of Japanese colonial activity in Korea.

This cursory glance at the past provides so many gaps needed to fill in to get a full understanding, nevertheless, we move on. Both countries were keen on reunification in their own guise. But with incompatible ideas of government, conflict was inevitable.

The Soviets provided enormous military contributions to the emerging North Korean state. America was more focused on re-building a destroyed Japan across the water leaving an opening that was breached in June 1950 when the North Korean tanks steam rolled across South Korea in mere weeks.

After three years of brutal fighting and devastation, leaving millions of dead in Korea and China plus thousands of others from the U.S. and U.N. contingent, the DMZ was established, nothing gained but much lost from the initial 1945 treaty and the cold war had begun.

Into this arena stepped Park Chung-hee, the currently impeached president (Park Geun Hye’s) father. He was an autocrat intent on transforming the decimated country. From 1960-1979 he ruled with a contrasting iron fist and a golden touch. Although authoritarian and unelected, Korea began to build a modern country with skyscrapers, highways, trains, and new manufacturing jobs focused on exporting. Hyundai, Samsung, Daewoo and LG were born, becoming known as “chaebols” which translates to “wealthy clan.” These chaebols were and continue to be completely rife with nepotism and historically resemble the ancient “yangban” (educated class) of men who were from wealthy families and were able to pass the rigorous government tests giving them high places in the old Joseon kingdom.

In 1974, a North Korean sympathizer assassinated Yuk Young-soo, the wife of Chung-hee and mother of Geun-hye. Geun-hye became the de-facto first lady at 22. Her father was then killed in 1979 by a South Korean CIA agent, largely in part to his intense relationship to a shady cult leader and mentor to both Parks, named Choi Tae-min, a central figure of this current political catastrophe.

Choi was a five times divorced Buddhist who converted to his own form of Christianity blended with shamanism. Following the death of Geun-hye’s mom, Choi told the young first lady that he could convene with the dead via dreams. Eager to talk to her deceased mother, she invited this shadowy fellow into her inner sanctum where he quickly filled the void of two murdered parents with visions and rituals. Having spent the majority of her life in the gated, insular Korean presidential residence: “Blue House,” she wasn’t very cognizant of con men and trusted the man whom her strongman father trusted.

After the 1979 assassination left her without a family, Geun-hye retreated from public life, but remained close to the leader Choi Tae-min and his equally suspicious daughter Choi Soon-Shil. Right wing generals ruled the country for years as Korea grew into a tech powerhouse. They held their first democratic election in 1987, hosted the 1988 Olympics, the 2002 World Cup and joined the “Asian Tigers” to become a top 15 economy.

Geun-hye was elected to Korean Parliament in 1998, slashed in the face by a madman as she unsuccessfully ran for president in 2007, before winning in 2012 and becoming the first woman president in a highly male-centered country. No doubt she held additional prestige from her family name, but she had also, unknown to the populace, held onto her ties to the Choi family.

I was in Korea at the time of her victory, yet unconcerned with regional politics except for the recent death of Kim Jong Il and his baby faced, pudgy successor. However, it was impressive to see a woman president who seemed to have a certain polite gravitas below her pant-suit exterior.

In April 2014, an overloaded, under-regulated and mismanaged ferry (Sewol) left the northern port of Incheon bound for the magical island of Jeju in the south. After leaving late, they rushed the transport through faster but rougher waters. The captain retired for a nap. The unaccompanied rookie third mate turned too fast to overcompensate for choppy water, the ship listed, capsized and eventually sunk. Park Geun-hye was nowhere to be seen for hours. Speculation ran wild. Anger intensified. Without proper rescue efforts, the passengers were doomed. The passengers included hundreds of high school students going on an extended field trip. Things got worse as investigations went up the crooked ladder of responsibility.

The “Quick, Quick” culture of Korean business led to poor choices on the part of the captain to rest before escaping himself after ordering everyone to stay onboard, the ferry operator to overload, the port authority to fail to check weight regulations, and ultimately the government to moderate them all. Park was seen as obliquely culpable or at least ineffectual. She responded to this criticism by invoking her father’s strongman tactics and blacklisting artists, musicians and movie makers. The Busan Film Festival, Korea’s largest international festival, lost half of its government subsidy after screening a documentary about the Sewol Ferry Disaster.

Two years later, a portable hard drive was discovered in Choi’s office containing secret state documents, revised speeches of the president as well as the daily schedule of meetings to be conducted with the president. Choi was unelected, unknown and unconnected to the government yet she had improper, profound knowledge and influence upon an increasingly unpopular president who had seemed to be listening to this woman as a magic 8 ball of poor decisions.

It was particularly embarrassing to proud Koreans that their president could be abused and manipulated by a glorified tarot card reader. Then it was revealed that Choi solicited donations from the giant Chaebol companies to her private charities in return for favorable government regulations. Then it was revealed that Choi bought Park’s cheap clothes with government funds and kept the change. Then it was revealed that Choi edited Park’s speeches. Then it was revealed that Choi’s daughter was given unearned entrance to a prestigious university, EWHA, and concurrently given passing grades despite lack of attendance. At the time of the scandal, the daughter was living like a queen in Germany riding million dollar horses basking in the glow of an Asian Games gold medal and swimming in millions of elicit euros.

Every weekend, for months, millions of Koreans descended on downtown Seoul with candles, masks, effigies, signs, and a singular desire to oust the weakened leader. It came to a head this week as the Korean parliament confirmed her impeachment.

Choi is currently in jail awaiting trial, as her daughter waits for extradition orders in Denmark. Jay Y. Lee, the head of Samsung was also arrested for his role in the scandal. Korean law prevents a sitting president from trial. But, in two months, she will be a private, pension-less citizen and presumably will face trial.

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Losing a Pet

 

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Her name was Hanil (하늘). In Korean, it means “sky.” She was a Shih Tzu, which in Chinese, I imagine means “Sits on You.” She loved to sit on me. If I was on the couch, she was on the couch; if I was in bed, she was on my foot mat. Before she got sick, she would try with grunty zeal to jump up on the couch or bed. She followed me around the house and barked if I closed the bathroom door. She followed only me on dog walks. She needed no leash, because she never strayed from my feet. When we drove, she would jump across the dead man’s zone of used cups and chocolate wrappers in the elbow console just to get to my warm lap. She was brown and white with big black cataract eyes. She used to roll and rub all over my scattered clothes trying to absorb the smell. She loved me and I loved her back.

Hanil was fifteen when she moved into our new apartment this March. Jordan’s mom couldn’t take care of three dogs alone, so Hanil came to live with us. She got along with the two boys, Hershey and Alvin, but used to try to eat their food if they were too slow to the bowl. She loved food. She ate in gulps. She ate everything you put in front of her. She had recently gotten mouth surgery to fix a broken jaw. Now, all her food had to be soaked in water to allow it to soften because chewing was no longer an option. She still ate well for a while. Then, when she stopped voluntarily eating, we had to feed her with a small syringe. Jordan would cook vegetables, eggs, and meat, then blend them into a healthy slurry. I’d hold her head tight as Jordan tried to slyly sneak the food into her growling maw. We knew she was really sick if she didn’t want to eat.

She got sick in the kidneys and used to pee almost hourly on the tiled bathroom floor so we could wash it down the drain. I’d hear her little feet with overgrown toenails clicking her way on the hardwood floors to the bathroom. We’d have to wipe up her feet after to prevent pee prints, and that includes the midnight hours. She was so sick and could barely jump up the raised step out of the bathroom. I’d give her a little push from her belly.

The vet said she had very little chance to live because of how far along the kidney disease was. We took her for a last trip to the beach. She did okay with the heat of the day and chill of night and relished the chance to sit on my lap for extended sessions of Korean weekend traffic. I complained about the traffic, but should have just enjoyed the lap time. We don’t always realize the impermanence of life while stuck in traffic. When we got home, I researched the internet and found a cocktail of Azodyl, kidney purifier, and vitamins B & C could help. After one day of treatment, her faced perked up, her step got bouncier, she started eating again. She still looked old, but was acting young. We got our hopes up.

I ordered another three-month supply of everything, since she was doing so well, I could save on the shipping. The hot summer days and humid nights passed as she snoozed in the A/C, she slept by my bed, sat on my lap for preseason football, we went to the park, we walked at night, she barked for me to open the bathroom door, and things seemed normal.

The disease was stronger than the medicine. On Thursday night, I took her out for a moonlight walk. She used to keep up with me, only stopping to pee or poop. This time, her head was down and she was just going through the motions, a sort of mechanical walk. She wasn’t sniffing the bushes or wandering around, she was just trying to keep up. She didn’t pee or poop. I picked her up, rested her on my arm, she wrapped her front paws around my wrist and we went inside.

Friday morning, I’m rushing around after walking the boy dogs, brushing my teeth, styling hair, drinking coffee, taking morning pills, eating yogurt and getting dressed in my daily rush of daybreak. Hanil usually followed me from task to task. That day, she only made it to my closet to say good morning before laboring back to her bed on top of my workout shorts.

At work, I got a message that Hanil was very sick and needed to go to the hospital. She’d been to the hospital a few times before, got an IV drip and was released. Cautiously optimistic, I went to my Friday night work dinner with all the teachers, but left early to try get to the hospital. Hanil was resting.

Saturday afternoon, we got to the vet clinic after a big pizza lunch. It was clear something was different. Her head didn’t leave the pillow when I touched her. Her back didn’t arch when I rubbed between her shoulder blades. She was very still save for breathing.

We sat for a few hours beside her little cage. I was under the impression she was going to get better again, so we went upstairs to hit golf balls at the fenced driving range to relieve some stress. Later, I took Hershey and Alvin, who had been patiently waiting in the parking garage all day, out of the car for their night walk. I got slightly lost meandering thoughtlessly, thinking of the little pup’s life with us. I thought of how, years ago, when Jordan and I were first dating, Hanil sat with me, creating a calming influence for me in a strange new house. I remembered, during my interview for James’ TV show, Hanil sat with me on camera, giving my nervous hands something to do. I thought of all the naps I’d taken with her as an armrest. Basically, if I was in her vicinity, she was next to me. She’d given her love, affection and attention to me constantly. That’s the thing with love from pets, it’s always there, so you think it will always be there. I got back to the clinic around 22:00. Jordan managed to get us a private room. Hanil was still hooked up to the machines and randomly twitching from the ammonia poisoning that was now soaking her insides. The odor was pungent and upsetting.

An hour passed, I had to move the car out of the garage and feed the dogs dinner. Moments later, I got an urgent call beset by panic. “Come in, Hurry!” The mind doesn’t prepare you for death’s horrorshow. Hanil was receiving CPR and in the process, her eye had nearly burst out of its socket, her white tongue hung listlessly out of her sad jaw and they were pressing upon her chest in a brutal, rhythmic pulse. I exclaimed curses and begged them to stop. The last few minutes were terrible as I waited for someone to translate to me what happened. But, I knew.

Back in the little private room, we wrapped her in a blanket and sat sobbing. I wanted this terrible day to end, so we began the 70-minute journey to World Pet, a crematorium near the ocean. In the countryside, crying and confused, Jordan asked, “Where is she now?” I began a sentence when from our right, out of the cornfield, a meter-wide wing span swooped in front of the car, forcing us to brake in terror amid our stunned screams. It was a beautiful owl. We cried and trembled in fear before imagining a wonderful thought. It was our hope than Hanil traded in her sub-par eyes through re-incarnation for the animal kingdom’s best.

World Pet had a nice, clean candlelit altar, incense hung in the air. The man brought us a small box into which we placed a flower and her body. A long, lugubrious half hour later, we had a tiny urn and box which read “Hanil is in the origin of the soul. September 11, 2016.” The general burden of that date was not lost on me as we exited to the sound of deep rolling thunder. There was distant lightning as a misty rain fell. The rain fell harder as we drove away. It stopped suspiciously quickly after we mentioned how it felt like Hanil was crying with us, and the road was dry the rest of the way home.

Our little apartment was full of painful reminders: Tupperware full of blended foods, medicines and syringes scattered on the table, mesh shorts piled in a cozy circle beside my side of the bed, wet tissue for cleaning up accidents. I was home, and finally able to cry, unabated into my pillow.

The sun rose in a gleaming yellow flood upon our living room. We hugged and stared the distant gaze of loss that all pet owners feel at some point. We whimpered in sadness and tried to assure ourselves of her good life. We grieved and thanked her for her love. We wondered if she heard.

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Trump Is a Fool, and Part of a Larger, Global Problem

2016 has been a good year to be cynical. We’ve seen breakdowns in American politics, policing, and public opinion. We’ve seen furious demands by some for xenophobic demagoguery or others for socialistic rearrangement. We’ve seen the impromptu videos of police brutality. We’ve seen gay and transgender activism topple the delicate social balance of liberal and conservative beliefs. We’ve seen a new wave of terrorism brought from the distant desert lands to the concrete jungles of Europe and America. We’ve seen political correctness become a rallying cry for freedom to be intolerant, disguised as first amendment rights or an all-encompassing battering ram for social justice but stained by self-righteousness. We’ve seen fear, distrust and a rise of “otherness”, placing us all in a state of anxiety while being forced to choose sides.

Maybe it’s always been like this. Maybe the media, with its 24-hour cycle, clickbait headlines of terror, and the relentless supply of bad news provides us with more than enough fodder for our daily dread. Maybe it’s human nature, a result of thousands of years of tribal warfare, to pick a side, a side that looks like you, talks like you and acts like you. Maybe our technology evolved faster than our dinosaur brains could handle. Maybe the freedoms of modernity moved faster than the regulations of religion. Maybe it’s just the beginning of true globalization and these are the growing pains, the revolution of respect for one another. Or, maybe, things really are different. That there is no chance of escaping the growing pains; that this version of Earth, the Anthropocene, is doomed to end in a worldwide suicide. That is the creeping cynicism that has been harder to explain away by cheer-up positivity or humanistic benevolence.

It was over a year ago. Donald Trump came down the escalator of doom waving his little hands and sneering his greasy smirk. I remember being embarrassed for the escalator. Trump slowly glided down the steel stairs in a faux gold haze, Melania behind, gleaming like a statue with eyeshadow. Doesn’t that memory haunt you? Don’t you remember thinking how silly it all seemed? Do you remember being happy that Jon Stewart had someone to jab for his last month? Well, it didn’t last one month. Little by little it dawned on those blue states by the water how much his disdain for decorum represented an ideology never given voice by a plethora of flyover country. Those living in Palin’s America were seething in their hatred of Obama, frustrated by the lack of representation from government and watching their parents’ America fade away in a sea of Mexican immigration, mosque construction, gay parades and non-gender pronouns.

The non-college, working class white man is losing his traditional role in America. He built the cars that drove us, he dug the coal that kept the lights on, he made the factories across America hum with production. That was the “great America” Trumpets want to “make again.” Things made sense in that fantastical whitewashed world that never really existed. The Victorian England illusion of collective happiness localized in American nostalgia. The postwar American culture was not some flawless moment of racial harmony, political prudence or familial coherence deserving of nostalgia. There were lynchings, assassinations, over-hyped red scares, wars, gender imbalance and of course, lots of advertising pushing the portrayal of the White American Dream in washing-machines, Marlboro cigarettes or crispy pie crusts. Jon Hodgman, the deranged millionaire, podcast host, and overall know-it-all put it wonderfully: “Nostalgia is at best, unproductive, and at worst, poisonous.”

There was never a time when America wasn’t great; there was never a time when America wasn’t sinning. It was and is a radical experiment, yet since day one, it’s been and continues to be wholly unbalanced in race, gender and class. However, the beauty of our country is that we move forward, embracing, albeit slowly and sometimes painfully, all who enter the wide, bounteous shores. It would be a shame to stop now.

Trump proposed a view of immigrants that was myopic and fearful. The soundbite of the campaign announcement was: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…they’re sending people that have lots of problems…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” It was the last part, the assumption that some might be good that surprised me. Like some of them are good enough, by implication, to mow a lawn or trim some hedges. Some of them are good enough to cook a burrito bowl or clean hotel lobbies. Some of them are good enough to pick fruit or act as low-wage caregivers. It seemed like a random thing to say, a weird tangent off into drunk uncle territory. Yes, some Mexicans, by simple law of numbers, must be drug dealers, criminals or rapists; in the same way that some German, Irish, Italian, Chinese et al. immigrants of the last century were criminals. It’s a non-starter sentence. It’s true of some, but not factual for all. Like saying pizza is the best food.

It was the first of so many gaffes, that in hindsight, were actually campaign platforms and Trumpistic platitudes to garner the support of the baser brained folk. I’ve watched with bemused amazement over the past year, digesting his anti-charm, listening to the pundits’ prognostications and shrugging my brain shoulders in awe. Here’s a man with a bizarre list of verbal diarrhea, running for president, gaining more Republican primary votes than anyone else in history, pushing imagined fallacies on the gullible, eager and most importantly—furious voters—of the “blame it them” camp. Not despite, but because of those times when he has insulted war heroes, the handicapped, women, immigrants, Muslims, journalists, politicians, and babies that he is the Republican nominee. His appeal is possible to understand when you look at current trends affecting his fans. There are many circles, some overlapping in a Venn diagram of foolishness: “new poor”, anti-government, pro-‘Murica, gun activists, pseudo racists, full-on racists, anyone but Hillary, and many more drifting among the hostile morass of his cult of personality. This Trump fantasy didn’t begin in a bubble.

Rates of suicide and preventable disease are up among poor whites, Muslims face daily prejudice, African-Americans struggle against discrimination in every area of their life, while distrust in government grows as incumbents continue to win 90% of their elections. Everybody is struggling. Trump and Sanders’ success laid in their proposing a change to more of the same. If Hillary is elected, the presidency appears driven by nepotism. Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Clinton. America isn’t the only place affected by turmoil. There are multitudes of dispirited and outraged in the world right now. We’ve seen the problems of austerity in southern Europe, lifelong dictators destroying African populations, sweatshop labor proliferating in Asia, radicalism in the Middle East, financial turmoil and corruption in South America. Trump’s hard rhetoric unites those struggling and promises, with empty slogans and tough talk, to “Make America Great Again” and “Build a beautiful wall.”

The history of America, rooted in a deep, unspoken, but palpable class system where money is king has grown into an unsteady, wobbling beast of influence. The 1% is highly visible today. Their conspicuous consumption is sickening to the 50 million in poverty, frustratingly distant to the new poor of the “middle class” and basically unattainable for most despite ambition or hard work.

Trump has capitalized on those feelings. He’s trying to hold a mirror to the corruption, by showing his own reflection in the tainted pond of D.C politics. He’s banking on his tough guy image as someone who is SO cool, he could fire “celebrities!” He is so strong, he can tell the aristocrats of American pop culture, the pretty faces of the big screen, the sexy reality stars, the hunks and vixens of the glitterati to take a hike.

Fame is the cherished currency today. Trump has been famously infamous for decades. Trump has 33,000 tweets of varying indecency tweeted to 11 million followers. His pithy nicknames work well with Twitter savaged brains. His dim Hemingway terseness captivates the dictionary deprived. His “You’re fired” catchphrase was the power line for the powerless dreaming of making their own jerk bosses redundant. Unfortunately, this isn’t TV. It’s international politics, where a certain level of intelligence and sympathy is a job requirement instead of an impediment.

We cannot force our racist cousins, fearful grandparents, or indoctrinated Fox & Friends to think, read, listen, debate and then decide. Trump is the candidate of feelings, not facts. Anyone who’s said, “He tells it like it is—” you’re wrong. He tells it like you think it is. The problem is that half the country bought his sour, combed over, straight talkin’ Kool-aid. Who can blame them?

People were duped and lost their houses; the banks were bailed out. People work hard every day; the CEO’s get the bonuses. Kids go to university; they find jobs gone missing on graduation day and a letter of debt in the mailbox. Working class folks go broke when factories close down; then see immigrants driving bigger, better trucks. Most of us can’t understand the larger trends driving all these problems, but we sense the inequality. We don’t know the facts, but it feels pretty shitty.

In comes Hillary 2.0, a relic of the Democratic party, a shapeshifting, blindly motivated, suspiciously innocent, demonstrably intelligent, overtly capable candidate who wants us to make her dream come true, when much of America wakes up in a nightmare every day. Alternatively, we get The Donald, an awkward, impolite, uninformed, unenlightened B-side reality show star, tabloid quoting, self-tanned twit. Who are we to trust to save our country from the brink of unending debt, civil war, or financial collapse?

The truth used to be both parties were two arms of the same twisted, shady body. The Dems fought off the onslaught of Bernie Sanders’ socialist influenza and now the Republicans are trying desperately to distance themselves from the pancreatic cancer known as Trump.

Here we are, the two most despised candidates in history, third parties relegated to obscurity, and we get to vote for a leftover or a bigot.

It’s easy to think, “things will get better.” It’s easy to blame the other side. The brave choice is to understand that only by giving up all we know and understand, expanding on wisdom, rebuilding the system and establishing parity will we get a glimpse of the communal ideal. I doubt we could ever be brave enough or unified enough as a country to actually do that. I doubt that the wealthy elites would ever allow us close enough to the gates to tear them down.

The populace tried to send a message this year with the outpouring of support for “outsider” candidates. Unfortunately, politics in D.C. is crammed into a tiny clown car of collusion, with no room for “outsiders.” It doesn’t matter if they claim to “build a wall” or “break up the banks.” Nothing will happen unless the moneyed interests steering that clown car decide to do it. But that clown car is their ride to the bank.

That is the general cynicism I take away from this absurd election season: powerful money and the illusion of choice. Although this year we have an actual choice between bigotry and status quo, we’ve allowed money behind the scenes and force fed two choices for so long, regardless of our choice, it only results in the same stationary inactivity and partisan disputes that drove us to look to irrational outsiders incapable of fixing an intractable situation.

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