Anthony Bourdain Showed Us Our World

In the fall of 2006, news came across my yahoo home page that Steve Irwin had died. I was in my first big backpacking trek, riding the Eurail pass, drinking and eating my way through the European capitals. In the early morning hours, I left the cramped room full of seven other snoring and butt scratching budget travelers and signed onto a shared computer in a quiet hostel in East Berlin. The keyboard had buttons with Spanish, German and English letters. After struggling to find the @ sign, I managed to log in to my first and still existent yahoo account. In those days, yahoo was king. It was like HuffPost, Buzzfeed and Google had a website baby.

The headline of that September morning was that the ‘Crocodile Hunter’ died filming on location in Australia. He died doing what he loved most, pursuing wild creatures to show viewers a glimpse of the world that is out there. A world the majority won’t and might not even want to see. A wild world, a world of crocodiles, orangutans, sharks, giant spiders, massive lizards, sluggish sloths and even those damned sting rays. I saw an episode where he jumped into a crocodile infested river in the dark with only his ubiquitous khaki outfit and a headlamp. The croc swam away! That croc probably could be heard exclaiming to its own reptilian camera crew, “Crikey, didya see that human? He came rawght afteh me!”

He was one of the heroes of my youth, among the incongruous others in the list such as Pee-Wee Herman, Mark Recchi, Chris Farley and Jack Kerouac. I loved watching animals and he seemed to put them at ease, almost telepathically informing them they were on TV and could go about their business after a quick picture. In 2005, I was working in my friends’ sandwich shop in Austin, TX, and every day after the lunch rush, Crocodile Hunter reruns came on. While sweeping up the cracked old floors and wiping off the scattered sesame seeds on the tables, I’d watch ol’ Steve take me far away from that repetitive grind to Australia’s outback, Indonesia’s forests, coral reefs, deserts or even Antarctica.

Steve Irwin revealed a world through his travels, but also with his personality. His passion was unmistakably clear. That feeling of having lost an enthusiastic soul, someone who took us out to show us what we were never going to see, came again last week with the passing of Anthony Bourdain.

He was a New Jersey punk, chef, writer, traveler and recently, an activist, all of which was on display in his globe-trotting semi-documentaries. Bourdain’s shows went way past the sparkling Greek islands and elegant restaurants of Rick Steves’ Europe. They had none of the blatant marketing of Samantha Brown’s check out this fancy hotel show. Even when strange food was presented, it wasn’t to be eaten like a dare a la Andrew Zimmern. Anthony Bourdain is a synonym for adventure and discovery. He looked comfortable in even the craziest situations. South Africans shouting at him, cooking on the Congo River with no lights, hunting in Scotland, he’s cool. Only the Tokyo robot show seemed to faze him, he looked like me at twelve watching A Clockwork Orange.

While reading all the memorials on the internet, I saw one quote that collected my feelings. It came from N.Y. Times travel writer Lucas Peterson: “And if success, respect from your colleagues, getting to eat your way around the world and generally just being the coolest person on the planet doesn’t guarantee happiness, what hope do the rest of us have?” That’s what got me. I know outwardly having it all doesn’t fix the metaphorical inner void that feels so real, but damn. It’s heartbreaking when we see people who give so much of themselves, who in the end, seem to have given so much, there was an insuperable emptiness left at the end of the day. Yet, his terminal sadness won’t be what I remember about him.

Reading Bourdain’s graphic Kitchen Confidential while working in a restaurant made me feel like a soldier among the heat of the ovens or battling the thick steam of the dish room, proud of my working sweat, earning that six pack after work. His shows were always DVR’d on my TV. I’m not sure if there was a conscious notion of wanting to travel because of his show, but it definitely made it seem possible.

He didn’t like particular things or people. I thought that was so cool even when I disagreed with him. He spoke candidly. I’m too Libra balanced to let a situation get awkward. He ate everything. I still don’t think I’d eat live octopus, chicken feet or escargot. He wrote in his voice. I write like it’s for a good grade. My natural jealousy and envy of his work was tempered by knowing how hard travel can be, especially the places he went. But, I always respected him. I respected his reporting from the forgotten corners of the globe. I respected his food knowledge, his ability to talk to anyone and his pure joy of a simple thing like a bowl of noodles.

I was in Vietnam. My crappy hostel had no A/C, so I was up at the heat of sunrise. Marching out with my backpack for a long day of who knows what, I stopped at a street stall and order Pho Bo, beef with noodles. I sat on the small plastic stool, motorbikes whizzing past my table kicking up yesterday’s dust, and I took that first bite. Memorable. So are you my man.

AB

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Spring is Stupid & Obviously the Worst of All Seasons

Spring is obviously the worst season, although most people might think the opposite. You might hear such nonsense as, “Look at the flowers!” “Can you smell the fresh air?” “Isn’t spring wonderful?” Those people are morons. They are the kind of people who like ties in sports because no one loses. They are the kind of people who say things like, “I like Taylor Swift’s early stuff.” They are people who see the ocean waves but forget about the depths below. Spring is an imposter. Those beautiful flowers are actually pollinating the air with their allergenic babies that destroy our sinuses. That lovely, fresh air is actually fully polluted with the dust from northern China (in America, it’s possible to have fresh air, but spring air is no less fresh than the actual best season—fall). So, no, spring isn’t wonderful. I’ll explain.

Spring is actually winter in disguise. Spring is not the season of growth and renewal. Spring is an imaginary line, set between the brutal despair of frozen winter and the blazing summer, and it only lasts for about twenty days in May. March is so obviously still winter it demands no argument, did you ever wear shorts in March, or have a picnic in March? OK. April is debatable, but the cold rains of the first weeks can actually turn into snow at times—not a favorable weather pattern. The end of April can be nice, but again, the pollution and pollen will just play havoc on nostrils if you risk going outside without a mask. (To be clear, I’m living in Asia, other springs may be some bee buzzing, clear, breezy utopia that I’ve forgotten about, but not here in South Korea.) May is known as the Queen’s month in Korea. I’ve got no problem with May, skies clear up, pollution crawls back to China, the trees bloom with a cheery poise and summer starts to roll in. If March and April were like May, spring would be a parade of merriment and joy. People skipping to work in Bermuda shorts and pointing their noses toward the retreating Jack Frost. But it’s not, and spring has fooled us all into loving it.

Spring is also when the SAD (seasonal affective disorder) people start dusting off the walking shoes and oiling up the bikes and shaking out their spring jackets, you know, basically getting in my way. I’ve been riding my bike to work, bundled up in layers, red-faced through the Siberian winds all winter long. I enjoy my solitude on the bike path. Now all the spring walkers are out on the path pointing distractedly at the pretty blossoms, walking in a dreamily preoccupied state not understanding that this is my trail and they just walk here. Then you have the bikers. Many with the same affliction of Korean hikers, namely, bright, expensive gear. They’re flying past me with luxurious bicycles that you’d be insulting by calling a “bike.” They only bother me because where were they all winter? Plus, I’m guilty of all seven sins every day, so they provide my envy an outlet. Then we have the slow basket bikes, the rented cruisers, the tandem riders, the ride a bike in a dress because I must be a lady at all times folks. I’m not even mad at them, they’re out for a good time, just stay in a straight line you bums. The other day, one of them swerved almost right into me, I avoided the crash by turning right into an empty pilon hole. Flat tire. I know, my fault you say; I disagree and point you back to above where I made clear this whole riding trail is mine. (If Steven from Braveheart can have all of Ireland, I’m allowed my 14km stretch to be clear of goobers. We all feel this way with something so familiar. Don’t you see the same people or the same cars on your daily commute and feel something akin to camaraderie through misery with them? But when some stranger bolts in, they must be disclosed as frauds and removed.)

Next, we have the activities associated with spring. What sport begins in spring? Baseball. Yes, the most boring of all big four sports, the sport that is so long and slow, it IS possible to see grass grow before the 7th inning. I love baseball, yet I cannot dispute its dull repetition. But it is, just like spring, an imposter. Somewhere, somehow, some marketing genius called it the national pastime solidifying its place in American leisure. Yet, football, basketball and hockey, in that order, are much closer to national pastimes. What are you more likely to see in a park: some people tossing a pigskin, maybe shooting hoops or two men wearing baseball gloves and Oakley shades throwing a baseball?

Winter has snow sports, sauna time, hot soups, big jackets and warm socks. Summer has swimming, tanning, ice cream, flip-flops and sunglasses. Spring has raincoats, galoshes and cherry blossoms. Sweet; thanks, no thanks. What food goes with spring’s half-assed weather? It could be cold and rainy in the morning and sunny and hot by noon or vice versa! It’s unpredictable, and that is the least fashionable thing for weather to be. At least in the extremes (i.e. winter and summer) you know what’s coming the next day. Cold or hot, possible precipitation in a form corresponding to the extreme, but none of this freezing rain crap you get from April.

Spring is an in-between time with which my sensibilities simply do not jive. I enjoy room temperature water, mildly spicy things and action movies without too much explosions. Spring should match me, but it doesn’t because it’s not actually a medium sized season. It’s all four seasons mushed into three months! In any given spring, look at the daily temperatures. I promise you will see a winter bite, a summer laze and a fall wind in there. How can one season have them all?! You ever see snow in summer or sunburn in winter? No, because they aren’t bipolar annoying seasons.

You might be saying, “What about fall, that’s an in-between season? Don’t you hate fall?” And you my friend, would be wrong and probably like spring. Fall is the best season for so many reasons. Fall is the reminder of the brevity of our lives. But it doesn’t do it in a slap you in your face way with the bloom of spring—ostensibly telling you that you are not young and beautiful anymore like this flower. Fall shows you the beauty of getting old. Fall shows the colors of life, the boundless radiant cool of middle age before finally giving in to the inevitable winter. Fall smells like happy nights by a fire. Fall has pumpkins and apple cider and seemingly invites you to have a whiskey and a pot pie. Spring smells like that lady who wears too much perfume on the elevator. Yeah, it smells good, but it’s too much hon. (Spring does have baby chicks and ducklings, I can’t avoid admitting that’s a great thing.) Fall has football! And, should I remind everyone who the Super Bowl Champions were in 2018? It’s the Philadelphia Eagles. Praise be to Foles.

September is like an extended summer month. The best month to go to a Korean beach is September. The crowds are gone, the water is warmed from the August sun and the nights are cool and lovely. October is my birthday, excellent, plus Halloween, the most random and bizarre night of the year. Then you have quiet old November. He don’t bother nobody. In fact, old November delivers the greatest day of the year—Thanksgiving. A holiday so perfect we tend to forget how great it is by focusing on how stupid Black Friday is. In Korea, Thanksgiving is a buffet at a pub, starch heavy, but still good times with friends. Also, the best street food of Seoul comes out in fall. Cornbread filled with an egg, roasted chestnuts and fried dumplings really hit the spot on a chilly fall day.

Spring is presumptuous. Always telling you to get outside. I don’t appreciate such advocacy by a season. “You’ve been inside all winter watching Netflix and eating chocolate, haven’t you? Well, now that spring is here, you have to go outside and do something! But bring a jacket because I’ll be freezing by sundown even though you were sweating an hour ago. Have fun with that spring cold that will inevitably come.” Summer doesn’t need to ask. The sun calls you out like when Bugs Bunny used to smell something nice and floated away on the tendrils of the food smoke. I don’t need your help to get outside spring. I’m not finished watching Westworld yet.

If, after all this, you still don’t believe me about how dumb spring is; three words that will only mean something to Americans, “Daylight Savings Time.”

bad spring

On Applying to Be The New York Times’ Travel Writer

When I was in elementary school, I had a globe with raised mountains and sunken seas on the surface. The tactile senses elicited by slowly roaming my dirty little fingers over the nubs conveyed a palpable sense of something beyond me, beyond my little town, in the mysterious lands across the Atlantic ocean in which I’d swim every summer. That was my instant and distinct connection to the larger world. What was out there? The New Jersey shoreline was awash in jellyfish and horseshoe crabs remnants, but what washed ashore in India or New Zealand? My little Appalachia Mountains appeared as mere bumps, but the Andes, that great backbone of South America, or the Swiss Alps, or the monstrous Himalayas were like knuckled fists, a menacing presence taunting my young mind. “You’ll never be here. You’ll never be near me.” Like hot girls turning mean, those big hills teased me with their distance and overall foreignness, which, similarly to hot girls, made me want them even more.

Antarctica was too weird to even make sense. You couldn’t really see it as it was hiding above the globe stand and what was there to see? I mean, there were no cartoon penguins there, and that’s the only draw to that frozen land besides the wild-eyed scientists who find snow drifts neat and ice cores sexy.

Australia was lacking in labels as only about 10% of the land is livable, so there were only a few cities even marked. I thought it was just a country for cool animals. Essentially it is. Marsupials with pouches, giant crocodiles, Tasmanian devils, the most poisonous snakes, spiders and orcs in the world. The aboriginals became part of that world tens of thousands of years ago, adapted and thus seemed so strange to the pale English invaders. People and animals change. Imagine how a kangaroo and horse might look at each other and think the other is the strange one.

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Russia was an epiphany. How could there be so much land? Why did they get to keep all of it? As a young kid, I thought biggest equals best, and that didn’t compute as we were taught to fear the evil empire of the Reds.

Asia also made no sense. The names were unknown and I couldn’t make up a vision of what it might be like there. All I could focus on was the massive heart of Asia in the raised and thus distorted land called Nepal. The Himalayas had white tops which meant very tall. Only a few peaks in the Rockies of North America had those white tops.

Winter-Desktop-Wallpaper-Himalaya-Mountain-FreshEurope held all the familiar names: Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland, I could imagine what they looked like. Basically, America with older buildings. They were all part of my elementary history books. South America, vast and long, held the enigmatic and formidable Amazon River. Kids love learning about the massive anaconda or the shocking hunger of piranhas. South America felt like a neighbor to me, the neighbor you never see, the neighbor whose lights aren’t on, so you stop asking questions about who lives there.

And finally, there is Africa, the land of extremes. Giant animals, expansive deserts, bewildering jungles, a history tied by shackles to the New World. All my young mind knew of that continent was the mighty pyramids, mummies and King Tut. Egypt was a consuming fascination since I saw Bert & Ernie walk through the Natural History Museum followed by a dancing mummy.

Maps were my connection to the world, and I was lucky to have that. As a kid without YouTube and before the Planet Earth series, I could only imagine visiting the places scattered around the globe. Over the past fifteen years, I’ve done a bit of traveling and written about some of those experiences. Then, I saw the NY Times was looking for a travel writer to go to one city each week for a year. 52 places, 52 new experiences. Over 3,000 people applied. A young writer for New York Magazine got it. My hopes weren’t high to get the position, but the hope was still there. To be paid to travel and tell others about it is such a modern idea. The tripadvisor and yelp world looks to others who’ve passed that way before to enlighten the first timer. It’s a good system that has led me to many cool places of which I might not have known.

It’s easy to be critical of social media as a tool for inducing jealousy or a mechanism to promote the best photo of the best place with your best friends, but it also reminds us about what may still lie in our futures. The new travel writer for America’s most respected newspaper is one woman chosen from a motivated group of excited wannabe tourists. It’s fun to be a tourist, everything is new even as we bring all our old memories, issues and expectations. Travel gives us a chance to push out the old and invite the new. That remains my favorite part of being mobile in the world. What new will be found? What new is inside of me? What old will be left behind? What old will remain? Travel is searching, exploring, walking, listening, eating, sensing, active verbs in strange places. Travel and vacation are not always the same thing. Traveling requires effort; vacation requires time. Mixing the two is a recipe for a great trip.

The essay section wanted applicants to write a short description of: “The most interesting place you’ve ever been and why.” I’ve been many interesting places, but none more than Roma, Italia. Here is what I wrote:

The most interesting place I’ve ever been was Rome, Italy. There is no secret about why this place is infinitely interesting. The living history, the Egyptian obelisks, carved facades, murmuring fontanas, the Colosseo, the pizza, pasta, gelato and espresso, the youth among the ancient, wandering cats, beautiful women, whistling men, the grandiosity of Vatican City, and the simplicity of an evening café.

I’ve been to Rome three times, never stepping in the same street twice, though visiting several places multiple times. The shifting ambiance and shuffling crowd, stirring the city into a fluid radiance that has kept Rome dynamic for three millennia makes it truly an eternal city. It is a city to conjure history while soaking in the pleasant present.

Throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain to ensure your Roman return. Place your hand in The Mouth of Truth and hope you’ve spoken verità. Amble among the Roman Forum and walk in the steps of Caesar. Drop below ground to gaze into the sunken glare of ancient skulls. I did all those things, looked for sights from Roman Holiday, visited the museums, climbed the Spanish Steps and then saw a jazz show after an eight-course meal and a bottle of cheap, delicious wine.

I experienced a vague shock when confronted with the underbelly of the Colosseum. Gladiators fought to the death in a stadium as big as any pro football arena. It felt so human to know that for centuries humans have cheered for destructive combat. However, I doubt the Romans cared about C.T.E.

On a private tour from an ambassador, we visited some back rooms and private galleries in Vatican City, but mostly I remember the guide’s awful breath, the colorful outfits of the Swiss Guard and the art. I loved seeing the old maps of the “world” before one side of the globe knew about the other. The Vatican frescoes showed varied human perspectives of agony, glory or the mystery of faith.

There is an impression in Roma of a gentle hand guiding you down tiny walking streets, with centuries-old bricks and the hush of a little back alley, before thrusting you into a wide, grand piazza. There will be a statue, a café, a painter, a moment of realization that this city is designed to explore by foot, experiencing the endless beauty, stepping on the stones of antiquity, finding your own Rome.

My family is Italian, and I felt a connection to the land in my grandmother’s home high in the Dolomites; or my grandfather, whose name I carry, in the southern hustle of Naples. Italy is a conglomeration of many diverse regions, but the old saying, “All roads lead to Rome”, places this most interesting city at the heart of a magnificent country.

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Losers. No More. Eagles Are Champions.

I didn’t cry until I heard Merrill Reese, the longtime radio voice of the Eagles, on YouTube the day after the Super Bowl. His call of the Tom Brady fumble with two minutes left in the fourth quarter pushed the release button. The emotions, the memories, the Sundays, the halftime catches in the backyard, the Monday mornings discussing the game, the plastic cups and t-shirts emblazoned with a mean green eagle, the cheesesteaks, the fireplace and TV on cold winter afternoons, the time with my family. Three generations watching our beloved birds struggle toward the excellence other teams seemed to stumble into.

My grandfather watched the Eagles beat Lombardi’s Packers in 1960, my dad was at the Spectrum in 1974 and ‘75 to see the Flyers win the Stanley Cup and I was born during the Phillies World Series win in 1980. Philadelphia sports are passed down through the generations, with a gypsy’s curse, feeling as though some invisible hand always pulled any success away from our teams. The Flyers of the 80’s couldn’t beat Gretzky’s Oilers, the Sixers couldn’t beat Shaq and Kobe, the Phillies beat the weak Devil Rays in 2008 to break that gypsy curse, but then lost to the hated Yankees the next year. Leaving the Eagles who tried to beat the dynastic Patriots of the early 2000’s and fail.

The website fivethirtyeight.com showed that the Eagles have the lowest rating of championships to expected championships. Basically, we field good teams, then lose.

No more.

The 2017 Eagles, led by the talismanic QB Wentz all year before popping in our backup with three weeks left in the season, a stout defense, a monster O-line, three runners—a bruiser, a shaker and a shifty rookie, not to mention a gutsy and clever coach. But they are just the celebrities. What about our first-year kicker who set a team record with a game winning 61-yard field goal, the fleet-footed/sure-handed receivers, the three talented tight ends with one who used to be a college QB, the linebacker from Hawaii who was our kicker for a game, the athletic center, the replacement left tackle, the green hair of Jalen Mills, the blond tipped dreadlocks of Jay Ajayi. This team is like if Rocky and the Fresh Prince had a baby—tenacious and charismatic.

All year was like watching a party. Even when they lost, it was close. They never lost hope, never slowing down the inevitable momentum of 58 years, even with the devastating injuries. The ghosts of Jaworski, Cunningham and McNabb were exorcised by a guy from Austin, Texas who possessed the 4th quarter spirit necessary to make a city’s wish come true. My emotions after this game were cathartic jubilation. After the hail mary pass fell incomplete I screamed a few expletives, danced around my apartment and finally felt the pleasing taste of being a champion. I lost championships in pee-wee football; I lost championships in high school hockey. My closet was full of participation and 2nd place mini-trophies full of broken dreams and dust. If I couldn’t do it, at least let my pro teams do it! Yet, for more than three decades, sour defeat: Flyers lose 1997, 2010; Eagles lose 1981, 2005; Sixers lose 2001; Phillies lose 1993, 2009.

No more.

EAGLES WIN 2018!

In previous years, after watching the Super Bowl, my mind would drift to the draft, who can we get from the colleges to bring us the big win. I would be full of angst, knowing there were seven long months before any more football, another chance to break the spell of losing.

No more.

Now, I have seven long months to bake, broil, roast and marinate in the feeling of finally being a championship city. The anxious waiting for September is missing, replaced by the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for all the fans from Philadelphia.

 

 

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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.

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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

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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What About Freeing the Nipple?

About a decade ago, I was traveling through Europe. Near the Black Forest of Southern Germany lies Stuttgart, an ultra modern town that was completely renovated after being blown apart during WWII, where I visited my first nude spa. I arrived eager to disrobe and let the proverbial sun shine where it usually don’t shine. The day was a lovely and refreshing respite before the debauchery of the impending Munich Oktoberfest. But the thing I remember most as I was lazing on a lounger, legs happily spread in an uninhibited taint exposing position, was sitting up to grab some water and seeing two wonderfully exquisite people showering together. Their bodies were tan, taut and stimulating in a gentle, benign sort of way. The sun’s line spewed rainbows off their backs in the dissipating shower droplets and I watched struggling to remember to unslacken my jaw. I didn’t look too long as decorum requires glances not gawking. The nudity wasn’t the attraction, but rather the absolute normalcy I felt at that moment. For those two dripping exemplars of the human shape were not all that was visible in my periphery. There were plenty of old people stretching in their wilting glory, hairy men emerging from slow laps in the pool or even my skinny ass prostrate on a sunbed. Nobody cared or was aroused in any visible sort of way by the comprehensive nudity.

Then, a few weeks later, at a large outdoor pool in Budapest, where bathing attire was compulsory, I saw a different tale of flesh meeting eyes. A beautiful woman with superficial splendors was prancing about in a shiny silver bikini along the edge of the pool, dipping toes, tying and re-tying her hair. I, as the other men, watched her saunter as though enchanted by the sylphs of some mystical island. Perhaps communal nudity promotes equality and amicable spirits of just letting others go about their business despite any type of libidinous feelings.

I recount this story because the #freethenipple campaign is gaining momentum. My earliest encounter with America’s nipple hypocrisy was Janet Jackson. First in 1993, with her Rolling Stone cover—breasts being held by disembodied hands—and again in 2004 with her “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl. I remember thinking, “Why can we see her side boob, but not the nipple?” Now, I was born in the age of incipient sexual desensitization from MTV, Hollywood and Maxim. Nipples on women were only a big deal because I was a teenager and hormonally curious. I was always able to remove my shirt in most outdoor settings and even be photographed thusly without anxiety. My nipples aren’t very interesting. But, 80 years ago, men had to struggle for the right to remove their tops on beaches and at pools. Today, women are fighting to share that deserved right.

Some of the arguments I see in the #freethenipple argument are flawed. The women fighting want to de-sexualize the breast by making the nipple free to be flaunted at their discretion. That is completely legitimate and will probably happen in the next few years at the dismay of many conservatives. The flaw lies in thinking that breasts are not erotic. Girls Gone Wild, that bead heaping Spring Break beast, showed college-aged girls freeing their nipples years before this campaign began. Millions of men shelled out their $19.99 for a glimpse at what women now desire to give away free. Somebody must be interested in female nipples! As a heterosexual man, I can presumably assure every heterosexual woman that their male partner enjoys and is somewhere between marginally to massively aroused by her breasts, of which the nipple resides. From what I can glean from gay entertainment, lesbians are also quite fond of the breast and occupying nipple. My torso around my nipples can be called chest or pecs, prosaic and matter of fact. But, a woman’s area has many affectionate and creative nicknames, according to the love directed to that base of fatty tissue. Perhaps some men identify breasts as “objects” but I’d imagine just as many women classify certain men by their six-packs or biceps. The body is open to objectification. Why is it different to look at Kate Upton and exclaim her as “hot” as it is to say Ryan Gosling is “hot?”

Another argument is that breasts’ only function is to feed children. That cannot be disputed. But, if honest about sexuality, both male and female nipples can be erogenous zones, thereby making the red zone of the chest effectively sexual. This contention about “protecting the innocence of children” can be dodged when the opponents reference the suffering masses of kids “exposed” to exposed nipples. Anyone can explain to a young child what the object in question is meant to do without explaining the secondary uses of nipples as bedroom foreplay or titillation. “Yes, Timmy, that is where Mommy’s milk comes from to feed your little brother. You drank that milk too when you were young… I should also tell you that Daddy likes to squeeze and lick them when Mommy and Daddy are “wrestling” on Sunday mornings. But, I’ll tell you more about that when you’re older.”

Both naked bodies and sexual intercourse are natural parts of life. Yet, one section doesn’t need to be explained to the pre-pubescent punks we call kids.

Another argument I saw was that the women want to eradicate the “shame” people put on the nipple. The shame lies in the viewer, not the displayer. If a woman wants to reveal her beautiful, biologically gifted boobs and put a picture on the Internet, she should be allowed. Chelsea Handler put a great satirical picture on Instagram of her on horseback, imitating that belligerent coxcomb, Vladimir Putin, to prove she has a better body than him. It was quickly taken down and was a seminal moment in the #freethenipple movement for me. I saw that humor was being affected by this concealment of nipples, and that’s when I get angry. Humor is how we fight hypocrisy and idiocy. Censorship is too subjective to be effective.

I’m happy that women are moving in this direction of self-empowerment and demystifying the areola. Although we must admit that biologically and empirically women’s breasts are different than men’s, it’s still very natural and acceptable to be nude. Due to the shameless character of some men, it may take some time getting used to this new uncovered sensation. Nevertheless, it’s progressive, it’s empowering, it’s encouraging rationality and if it’s what women want, then they should have it. Who does it hurt?

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