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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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?

fun=won

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.

simpson_0

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.

 

Can America Ever Recover From Its History?

Teaching Korean kindergarteners about Rosa Parks involves a lot of backstory. The story doesn’t begin on that bus in Alabama. Its roots are profoundly sad and incomprehensible. I found myself saying things like, “White people didn’t like black people,” and really struggling to find a simple answer to their, “Why?” It is an oversimplification for sure, but slavery and its legacy in America is both undeniably understood as a construct of capitalism yet difficult to comprehend in a moral context. I’ve been reading lots of articles in reaction to the Charleston shootings and the subsequently justified Confederate flag bashing. That flag, no matter what the Duke boys or Lindsey Graham may say, represents the former Confederate States of America, which implicitly represents the institution of American slavery.

Slavery’s history in the Americas is deep and deadly. In the 300+ years of the African slave trade, around 12 million Africans were shipped (10 million survived the passage) to the New World, of which only about half a million were sent to North America to work the sugar and cotton fields. (Brazil took the bulk with around five million.) The average life expectancy of black slaves was 21, half the average age of whites. Families were broken as children were sold away from parents, wives taken from husbands. The culture and traditions of their African life slowly faded away from memory. There are now over 40 million black people living in USA, many of whom are possible descendants of those initial slaves.

The master/slave relationship was conflicting at best and viciously cruel at the worst. White masters invoked sexual rights upon their female “property”, which created internal color discrimination and confusion within the modern black community. Jim Crow laws continued the debasement and mistreatment of the black population for a century after the end of the war. That knowledge of “otherness” must lay dormant or even actively stewing inside many subconsciouses. “What happens to a dream deferred?” How do we expect to move on together as a country with such gaping wounds festering beneath a Band-Aid of polite prejudices?

White supremacy still exists as exhibited by the recent shooting in Charleston. Black disenfranchisement and intangible exclusion still exists as evidenced by the events of Baltimore and Ferguson. That’s just the past year! Our history is riddled with racial tension boiling into murder from Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin. MLK murdered, Rodney King beaten before acquitting the responsible officers, prompting the L.A. riots. The scab is constantly being ripped away before any healing occurs. The Confederate flag is like lemon in those fresh wounds.

Southerners seem to have more geographical pride than those winter loving Northerners; and the de facto symbol for many is that same (hateful to some, heritage to others) battle flag of Northern Virginia. I’ve always wondered about their pride and where it originates. It may be in defiance of losing a war and holding on to any semblance of power from that loss. It may be the nostalgic memory of the genteel Southern gentleman a la “Gone With the Wind”. It may be the understandable, but misdirected pride for one’s home. I speculate, but it may just be more personal than general in nature. Nevertheless, that flag isn’t helping anything and shouldn’t and needn’t represent anyone or anything besides hate groups now. The rainbow flag has been coopted by the LGBT community and there’s no going back now. It’s theirs. The moment the KKK or now this terrorist douchebucket in Charleston used this flag as their symbol was the minute it no longer represented the feel good NASCAR days of Dixie.

The larger problem within this flag argument is America’s fascination with guns. An old amendment from an antiquated age of armed civilian safeguards ensured that American citizens would always be able to purposefully, hatefully or even accidentally kill each other or ourselves with firearms until the end of time. The powerful lobby of the NRA and the common idiocy of many Americans fearing a helpless country without guns will only strengthen our circle of violence to continue. We’re not getting rid of guns and we’re not getting rid of racism anytime soon. The best we can do is follow Gandhi and our dorky sophomore English teacher’s trite maxim to “be the change we want to see in the world.” For a “Christian” nation, you’d think not killing and loving our neighbor would be second nature, but apparently not if they look different than you.

The even larger picture presents something just as damning and disturbing as our intractable gun laws, deep-seated racism and symbols of hate masquerading as cultural heritage. Slavery still exists! Sexual slavery, wage slavery, bonded labor, abused migrant laborers, child workers, forced marriages, or sweatshops all feature some terrible and familiar horrors. We’ve heard the stories of Bangladeshi girls sewing shirts for 14 hours a day for 50$ a month, indentured servants of Indian brick kilns, or stolen girls sold into sexual depravity. The world can be an ugly place. “Man is the cruelest animal,” said Nietzsche. And we are. But we can and will change. Change takes time, change isn’t easy, and “change is the only constant of life,” said Heraclitus. The pessimist in me is aware of the possibility of pure chaos, pure human suffering, and the absolute terror we could unleash if the precarious balance of mutual comfort is disrupted. However, if we progress through personal evolution and eliminate our prejudiced Ego for our gregarious and collectively beneficial Super-ego, America may find harmony by association.

The following speech from Ethiopian emperor and inspiration of Bob Marley’s Rastaman chant, “Jah Live!” gives us an idea of the enormous mountain we still have to climb. Or have a listen here

“That until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned; That until there are no longer first-class and second-class citizens of any nation; That until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes; That until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race; That until that day, the dream of lasting peace and world citizenship and the rule of international morality will remain but a fleeting illusion, to be pursued but never attained; And until the ignoble and unhappy regimes that hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique and in South Africa in subhuman bondage have been toppled and destroyed; Until bigotry and prejudice and malicious and inhuman self-interest have been replaced by understanding and tolerance and good-will; Until all Africans stand and speak as free beings, equal in the eyes of all men, as they are in the eyes of Heaven; Until that day, the African continent will not know peace. We Africans will fight, if necessary, and we know that we shall win, as we are confident in the victory of good over evil.” 

– Haile Selassie I

The Lynching of Lige Daniels. 3 August 1920, Center, Texas. Without Santuary, plate 54

The Lynching of Lige Daniels. 3 August 1920, Center, Texas. Without Santuary, plate 54

Americans and America

1) “Where are you from?”

2) “America.”

1) “Really, me too!”

2) “What state?”

1) “Argentina.”

Now, I’m in an argument. This idea of “America” being more than the USA was something that I didn’t think was a dispute until I started traveling. And that is precisely the point of many of the people with whom I argued. They said that USAmericans usurp the name that could technically belong to almost 1 billion people. When I thought about it, we both are correct. One use is nominal; one use is conventional.

The United States of America resides in North America. Brazil resides in South America. Or so I was taught. Others are taught that North and South America are one continent–America. They see maps like this or this. It would be the largest continent if that were true. But even the Olympics do it (5 rings=5 continents)! Adding north and south together, ignoring the codifiers of hemisphere, basically creates this argument of American identity. When we have North and South America, we have useful delineations of place.

Besides the educational discrepancies, we can use plate tectonics, whereby we find a Caribbean plate, a North and South American plate and a Eurasian plate among others to really complicate the continent issue. We can say that United Mexican States are shortened to Mexico. We can mention that nobody refers to himself or herself by continent first. People want to know in which country, not continent you live. But, we should acknowledge one thing. Everyone, from Canada’s frozen north to Patagonia’s frozen south, are all from The Americas, making them “Americans” but in a larger, more ambiguous sense.

To answer this tricky semantic question, I find answers in letters. (If you don’t think one letter matters—look at ship and shit.) People from USA are American from North America, which is part of The Americas. People from Colombia are Colombian from South America, which is part of The Americas. It’s a question of who gets to use the “n” in American. I contest that people who live in the United States of America should be called American, in much the same way that denizens of Venezuela should be called Venezuelan.

Some have called me, and others who feel this way, arrogant or nationalistic. I don’t think it’s arrogant to identify your nationality by its name (which just coincidentally has the same name as the continent). I am proud to be American, but never boastful of my birth land. It’s a wonderful, if flawed land with questionable foreign policy and expanding poverty, but it also has great beauty and great people. The country is called the United States OF America. The acknowledgment of the continent on which it’s perched is in the name. The only other continent/country name sharing is Australia (or is it Oceania?). Although, if China was called the People’s Republic of Asia, and called themselves Asians, I bet we could have similar problem. But history didn’t write that chapter.

The name of America comes from the explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who wrote about his travels to the New World. A German mapmaker in the 16th century labeled the new world thusly, and then before the American Revolution (as we call it) or The American War of Independence (as the British call it) the Declaration of Independence was signed before any other countries from the New World were established and so USA took the name of the region for itself.

I don’t doubt it’s hard to be from anywhere south of the Rio Grande River and feel as though you aren’t considered American. Of course you’re “American”, but that just isn’t the way the word is used anymore. When someone asks you where you are from, do you respond: “Asia, Europe or Africa?” No, people use their country. Also, most Canadians I know would not refer to themselves as Americans despite the fact that their country is the biggest one in North America.

United States of America is the name of the country and history/convention has abbreviated it to refer to the people within as Americans. We can be more accurate and refer to North, Central and South America as ALL part of the larger mass known as The Americas. We can refer to the Spanish/Portuguese speaking countries as part of Latin America. And finally, we can refer to the 317 million diverse people, living in USA, without discrediting our various “American” neighbors and without discomfiture, as Americans.

Languages_of_the_American_Continent

Poaching Eggs and Knowing It All

I made poached eggs two weeks ago. They were good, so I tried again today. That previous culinary achievement led me to think of myself as an expert, but most egg-poaching experts know that fresh eggs are the key for success. These particular eggs were now four days away from expiration and therefore far from rancid yet also far from fresh. I went through six eggs before giving up and eating my cold sausages and lonely bread in a frustrated huff. The point is that thinking you know how to do something doesn’t make you an expert. It’s a flaw of my personality of which I’m often reminded.

I like to talk about politics and discuss the never-ending problems. I like to look at people’s hands and pretend to understand how the lines in their palms can determine their fate. I like to analyze dreams and imagine how the subconscious is interacting with our personal lives. I like to chat about movies and music and the symbolism and hidden meanings within them. BUT, simply because I like to do that, it doesn’t make me an expert.

“Often wrong, and never in doubt,” is how my ex-girlfriend’s mother used to describe me. I’ve understood it as part of my personality now. To me it means, “I think I’m an expert on everything.” Sometimes, when dealing with people who know less about a given topic than I do, it’s possible to demonstrate expertise. Yet, when I find myself speaking to an actual authority on a subject, I’m left snorkeling with a straw.

Just because I’ve traveled doesn’t mean I understand an entire country. Just because I’ve been in relationships doesn’t mean I understand yours. Just because I’ve had relatives who’ve died doesn’t mean I understand your sorrow. Just because I’ve done something doesn’t mean I know how it should be done.

These are hard lessons to learn for someone who likes to know it all. I want to know it all. I watch informational videos and documentaries. I read biographies and history books. There is simply too much to learn. A focus is necessary to know it all. But since I’m interested in so many things, I must work hard to avoid being the colloquial “jack-of-all-trades and master-of-none.”

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Faith Doesn’t Help & It’s Killing Us

ISIS spread like across northern Iraq like a fire in a cornfield. We know they sacked the major towns of Tikrit, Mosul and others, commandeering the US supplied arsenal provided for that ragtag national army of deserters. They opened bank vaults, unlocked prisons, murdered civilians, and tipped any sense of balance in the tinderbox that is modern day Iraq. They are looking for a new Islamic Caliphate, ruled by Sharia Law. They are explicitly unhappy with the abstract, abstruse and arbitrary borders drawn following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. They decapitated Syrian army troops. They slander USA. They mock democracy. They worship Allah with a faith that borders monomania. They are another example of when religion goes bad.

Religion is a metaphor; it cannot be literal. The burden of proof lies heavily on religion, mostly because it lacks entirely any proof that any assertion in their holy books is truth and not faith. There is no proof for a man in the sky, no one god, nobody who loves you and created you as well as the entire globe and galaxy. “But I have faith in my god.” Don’t! Don’t have faith in the arrogant, egocentric, science lacking, myth creating desert dwellers from centuries ago. Don’t believe in something that separates you from me and us from them. That faith is the same faith that validates and rationalizes ISIS, Al Qaeda, Taliban and other terrorists’ jihad, only with a different name.

What will happen when ISIS overtakes Iraq? What good can come of a religious state? What advance to civilization does religion offer? Who, but legitimately insane people (religious fanatics), would want to live in that world? Who wants to live in a country with doctors whose prescriptions include prayers? Who wants to live in a country where justice’s rules are provided from a 7th century text? I can’t be sure, but I bet these terrorist organizations don’t offer scholarships or job placement opportunities. They only offer an intangible, albeit amazing, but deceitful future. They offer faith, and more than just faith in 72 virgins. They offer faith in action, in motion, with a direction, with leaders, with a goal. Lacking education, sport, internet, entertainment, a stable environment, sometimes even running water, or many of the decencies of modern life elsewhere, the young generation raised since 2001 in the war-torn Muslim countries only know one direction—faith. Faith to die, faith to kill, faith in your cause, faith in your dubious leaders, faith in your dubious god, faith that this is a useful expenditure of energy.

Learning how to think for yourself is not a priority of religion. Observing rules and strictly following them is. The first rule of jihad is: kill infidels. The second rule of jihad is: anybody but those who revere the correct version of a desert prophet who died over a thousand years ago is an infidel. Go!

Some medieval warriors killed for their kings. Some tribes killed for their chiefs. Some Asian countries killed for their emperors. Some psychopaths killed for their own pleasure, and others killed for loosened screws in their brain boxes. Killing is natural. Animals kill for territory, sexual rights or food. Perhaps it’s possible, when looked at in a certain point of view, that terrorists do the same: kill for space in the promised territory of “heaven,” access to the promised sexual rights of imaginary “heaven women,” and to get something edible from leaders in their parched, stagnant desert landscape where many crops can no longer grow.

When a person has a home, a wife who isn’t in constant danger of being kidnapped or raped, and access to supermarkets, the urge to indulge in jihad must be greatly reduced. How many of those jihadi have a mortgage? You’re not going to go bouncing off in a bulletproofed truck with a machine gun bolted to the hood when you got rent due on Monday. How many of those jihadi are married? No wife, no matter how tolerant of your religious beliefs, is going to let you go hunting infidels when the toilet isn’t working and the baby is sick. How many jihadi ever went shopping for fresh vegetables or watched a rom-com with a coke and a bucket of popcorn? Watching a bad Jennifer Love Hewitt movie might disappoint, but rarely leads to homicide. The point isn’t that Western values or lifestyles are the solution. People can find their own answers to life. But, when the ONLY solution offered to a child is a gun or death, what can he choose? (Apostasy is rewarded with death in many Muslim countries.)

Faith gives answers without asking questions. The opposite of faith is not negative. We can exist without the blind faith of religious isolation. We can express individual vitality through art. We can assert compassion through charity. We can choose to live for now, our impermanent now, our gentle hourglass of spirit. We can understand that those that go are gone, and that we will one day follow. We don’t remember before our birth, maybe we won’t remember after our death. We understand more about science, anatomy, astronomy and physics in 2014 than 2,014 years ago. Is it plausible to believe that there will still be Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus or Buddhist’s 2,014 years from now? How will the world have changed? What will the new terrorism look like without religion? For, we are not a wholly benevolent species, not filled with unending kindness, not brimming with positive vibrations. We are flawed, strange, greedy, and maybe our biggest impediment to sustainability—wildly intelligent—and that intelligence created religion, not the other way around.

Some surprisingly inventive fellows long ago wrote a system of laws to keep these ruthless yet clever and intelligent human beasts in line so that we might have a society. They made seductive promises for following rules, and nasty assurances for those unlucky rule-breakers. It served its purpose. Now, society has transformed and grown; leaving religion fading behind the walls of scientific progress and evolutionary change.

Faith is challenged by that revolution. You need faith to believe in superstitions such as Noah, Moses, virgin births, hell and angels when surrounded by such miraculous new understandings of science such as DNA mapping, photosynthesis, cloning, medicine, or telescopes. Faith is responding to its own death in kind. It is furious as it stares at its own increasing futility in the modern world. After all, Faith in religion had created much beauty in the world: houses of worship, music, painting, poetry, and a communal ideal of living peacefully and worshipping ghosts (the correct ghosts!) together. But, we don’t need it anymore. Now, we can erase the fatuousness of having to believe in this god or that god and try to live in harmony together, and simply marvel at the universe as we move through it…together.

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Suffering

Back in college, at the Blue Hen University of Delaware, I used to enjoy reading on a little bench in the waning sun of autumn. There was a squirrel that would come visit me and I’d throw him a nut or whatever I had. I like to think it was the same squirrel every time, but who knows? The trees would whisper in the cool breezes, the students were wandering all around, oblivious to my bench, and it was a respite from the normal college life of binge drinking, Adderall cramming or generally being cool. But I remember once, I had a strange day sitting there. Winter was fast approaching now, and I saw a bee struggling on the ground. He was fat and as cute as a bug can be, but he couldn’t fly anymore. He could barely walk. I don’t know the exact life span of bees, but I know they don’t last much longer than one summer (except for those lucky queen bees sitting on their honey thrones). So, the question I posed to myself was: “Is this bug suffering, and if so, should I end it?” Suffering, the central avoidance of Buddhism, is subjective or objective? I stepped on the bee, presumably ending his “suffering”, but felt guilty immediately. Did I do the right thing? Do I need to be worried about ending any other suffering besides my own? Am I even capable of helping anyone or anything in ending his or her own suffering?

What brought that memory back to me was a recent YouTube video. YouTube is great for silly and fun things, but there is also a large piece of the YouTube puzzle devoted to social awareness. The video was of Angora rabbits’ hair being harvested in that ever-present realm of animal cruelty—China. They tie and stretch their little fluffy legs on a board and pull the hair right out. The rabbits scream in pain. Their heads tilt back in agony. And that was only the first ten seconds, I couldn’t watch more than that! That was all I needed to see. Those little bunnies with soft, desirable fur were suffering. They were not suffering due to their own fault, or for the benefit of their children, which many animal mothers might willingly endure. They were suffering great torture so that we may have sweaters and scarves. It’s not a debate. Our eyes and ears know when pain is inflicted. In The Princess Bride, when Westley was put on the rack and Prince Humperdink put the “machine” to 50, Westley made the sound of “ultimate suffering” the identical sound Inigo’s heart made when his father was killed by the ruthless Count Rugen. And, the worst part is, it doesn’t have to be that way. I found videos on YouTube of those big fat Angora rabbits calmly sitting on their owner’s lap while they cut, not tore, off the fur, causing no pain beyond a haircut. There has been a universal outcry on this barbaric system as well as numerous other practices of animal cruelty and things will hopefully change.

The next vision of animal cruelty was the movie Blackfish. It’s a documentary of Tilikum, the killer whale who has been responsible for at least two human deaths in his 20 years of confinement. He was captured as a baby, taken aboard the boat as his family bobbed in the water helplessly watching and screeching. The movie outlines how family oriented and emotionally sensitive killer whales are, as well as having virtually human equivalent life spans. Yet, many whales only live one-third of that when interned in a theme park. There has never been one documented attack on humans by an orca in the wild, whereas there have been 82 reported cases in the 30+ years of captivity around the world. Orcas can swim over 100 miles every day, but are forced to live in a tank only 35 feet deep. When I saw Shamu as a child, I was fascinated by its beauty and size, but I remember thinking the pool wasn’t big enough for him, then he splashed me and I forgot again.

We are selfish creatures, the apex of the apex predators and therefore we can do what we want. The Bible says god gave man dominion over the sea and land, and whales and rabbits fall under those auspices. Many use that as an excuse for their own agenda. But, shouldn’t our power be a cause for benevolence to the lesser creatures? We don’t need the Bible to tell us we run Earth. We’ve expanded into every part of this planet and across the solar system! I am aware of my hypocrisy, in that, I eat meat, am aware of the mistreatment of many edible animals, but cannot find it in me to stop being a carnivore.

But, human upon animal is not the only version of imposed suffering in the modern world. The famous Dr. Jack Kevorkian advocated a personal way to end life. “Dr. Death” assisted terminally ill patients in ending their lives, which were full of suffering. He was imprisoned for helping adults step on the proverbial bee of their ailing lives. Assisted suicide is now only legal in four states. The rest of you must wait in pain for the sweet release of death. The recent case of Ariel Castro, the kidnapper of three women in Ohio, is a good example of humans desecrating another human’s right to live a life without suffering. It’s complicated. Sometimes, life is too full of sadness or sickness, and we want it to be over. Sometimes, desire for nice or delicious things causes animals to suffer for us. Sometimes, malicious people hurt others to satisfy a hidden or unquenchable pain inside themselves.

Desire leads to suffering according to Buddha. Unfortunately, the capitalistic, commercial world in which we live breeds desire of all kinds. Desire is what moves product. Desire is the background noise of every commercial and advertisement. Desire is monetary motivation. Desire for something keeps many of us working. If Buddha was right, and desire is the root of all suffering, then abandon all hope, for that is never going away. But, perhaps if we look at it another way, if we desire to end suffering, if we aspire to consistently help others and ethically handle animals, we can move to the next stage of human life, one far away from Hobbes’ nasty, brutish, and short archetype.

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Hunting, Hemingway and Eating Meat

The Internet helps us keep up with trending topics such as Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s amazingly embarrassing but slightly humanizing descent into crack-smoking, drunken hilarity, awesome viral videos like JCVD doing badass splits on the side mirrors of two massive big rigs, and moral outrage through informative posts about gay bashing, dolphin killing or suffering in general. Sometimes there is a post that comes through the newsfeed on Facebook that touches me, or hurts me, or makes me LOL (:>) Sometimes it’s a dog and bird playing nicely together. Sometimes it’s a baby dancing. And sometimes it’s some random chick with a rifle posing with a majestic lion that she had recently killed for fun.

How is hunting fun? I’ve never understood it. I still say Ernest Hemingway is a sadistic twat for bragging about killing all those animals on safaris because it’s such a manly pursuit. I’ll bet he wore ivory cufflinks and ate black bear gall bladder to get a hard-on. I’ll bet he made his lovers lay on his tiger skin rugs and growl during coitus. I’ll bet he thought shark fin soup was delicious. He also loved the remarkably cold, callous art of bullfighting and often indulged in the adolescent adoration of binge drinking. He was a great writer with a laconic style of delivery and wrote candidly about his brutal experiences in life; but unfortunately, his honesty doesn’t save him from being full of bullshit machismo. Yes, he was in a terribly ugly war, and saw countless acts of courage, cruelty and brutality, but shouldn’t that make him want to avoid that type of behavior in the future? (And, to be fair, he owned some animals, famously, his promiscuous six-toed cat. And anyone who owns cats can’t be all bad.) Obviously, I’m speaking out of my arse right now, seeing as how I’ve never been in war, but I have killed things. I was a teenage boy once.

Before we get to me, let’s stay with Hemingway, the most famous hunter I know. So, he was a great killer of large animals. Do men destroy what we love, or do we love what we fear—and then shoot it with a gun? Either way, he hunted and fished for sport. His talent was prodigious. He caught a record 1200lb marlin. He killed lions and elephants and rhinos. He had four wives he allegedly abused, a transsexual son and fought Germans in both World Wars. He had quite a life and was the original “Most Interesting Man in the World.” There are endless, amazing stories about him. But, despite all the thrills, chills and delights in his life. Despite his celebrity and his passion to survive through war, disease and plane crashes, he finally ended his life by hunting himself…with a rifle barrel in his mouth. It was a suitable, yet depressing end to a celebrated life.

I remember hunting in my backyard with my Red Ryder BB gun when I was but a wee lad and eyeing up a squirrel on a branch. I looked through the sights, adjusted for wind and fired. The squirrel fell out of the branch. His legs were flailing as he dropped. I went to check on him but he was gone. I imagine my air-powered fun-gun wasn’t enough to kill that ever so hardy species of brown tree squirrel, or so I hope. But, my overall feeling was one of guilt and displeasure. I wasn’t proud of my aim; I was disappointed in my desire. Why had I wanted to kill that little creature? What was the benefit to me or to the world? Was I aiming to kill out of instinct, out of masculine murderous lust, or because that’s what you do with a gun? I burned ants with a magnifying glass. I poked dead birds with sticks. I tortured bugs and spiders by pulling off legs and wings. So, it wasn’t just a gun that made me aggressive and violent. Perhaps it is the testosterone inside me, forming the impetus that made me want to smash people’s faces into the ground when I played organized sports. Perhaps it was proving myself as stronger and larger than my tiny, prepubescent frame displayed me to be. Perhaps it was youthful energy without a sufficient or appropriate outlet. Perhaps it is just my composition. But, luckily, all my Martian ying was complemented by the Venutian yin. I outgrew those vibrations and found my Libra balance much later in life. That balance could also be called hypocrisy. For, I hate violence toward all animals and people; however, I eat factory-farmed meat. I am well aware of the toll on the workers’ minds who are employed at these 21st century Matrix style consumptive plantations. I am well aware of the disgusting methods of storage and awful devices of death therein. So, why do I continue my carnivore ways? Because I want to eat meat. I want that taste, I crave it. I’m not ready to give up my selfish hypocrisy of decrying hunters for shooting animals for fun and implicitly accepting the suffering of other animals for my dietary benefit. I can be honest with myself by saying that if I had to chop off the head of a clucking hen, pluck it, disembowel it, separate the tasty parts and then cook it in oil, it’s safe to say I might never eat another buffalo wing. Since I am removed from the suffering, since I am far from the production line, I don’t see my food with a face. I see sustenance, vitamins and protein.

Maybe hunters, with a sufficient amount of determination and mercilessness, can look beyond the dark black eyes of those wild beasts, and beyond their own personal demons that led them to joy killing. Maybe they see trophies where conservationists see living beings in nature. Maybe since we are not the only carnivores on this Earth, and predators have the same right to eat as their prey, it is the natural way of things to kill. Maybe it is my own sentimental anthropomorphism that feels too much for each pointless slaying of a big, beautiful cat or a gentle elephant. It seems that eating an animal at least satisfies a need, while hunting an animal satisfies a want. That crazy-eyed woman who posed with the dead lion has a website where she is posed with a slain crocodile, boar, zebra, bear and antelope among others. I couldn’t imagine why killing those animals is more exhilarating than watching it live, but she might have an answer for us. I think the euphoric, stoked faces of humans posing with their lifeless prizes or the smug pride felt when wearing a fur jacket, or the superiority we get from daily meat consumption is desensitizing us to the pain of our animal companions. Or maybe, the truth lies in the opening quote of the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by the aphoristic Dr. Johnson, which says: “He who makes a beast of himself, gets rid of the pain of being a man.”

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The Continual Contrast of Life

It had been a hard month of preparation for an “open class” where the parents of our kindergarten students come to see their children’s progress toward English fluency. We had prepared fun lessons with interactive speaking and listening activities with ample parental involvement and were now ready for it to be over. The night went perfect. All three native English teacher’s classes were fun and exciting. I was riding a high of a small success; tired from a week spent sightseeing and stuffing myself with the best food Seoul had to offer as my sister, Elianne, and her friend, Alycia, had been visiting me. I felt I deserved a pizza. Good things were all around me, nothing extraordinary, just small bubbles of happiness fizzing in my mental soda, effervescent emissions of emotional elation. I get these sometimes. The buzz of self-actualization and being happy in the place you are is a great natural high. I think it’s the feeling of first time parents, sporting champions, and cats that just caught a mouse.

I felt jaunty and jolly. I left the pizza shop with an enormous box and a gluttonously asinine grin. I saw a small woman with a crutch, walking arm in arm with another woman. I just thought it was a grandma strolling with her daughter for a Friday night saunter. As I got closer, I noticed it was not an old woman, but some sort of a Benjamin Button type situation. This was a young girl with an elderly face. She was smiling and telling a story. She walked slowly and deliberately. She might have been fully-grown at about waist height. She didn’t give the impression of self-pity, yet I still had my typical reaction of: “be grateful for everything you have and hope that she is happy.” But, I was overwhelmed. I literally wept onto my pizza box behind a dirty truck. I cried for her situation, mostly because it was hard to imagine myself in her shoes. I am so lucky to have good health, good friends, great family, a decent job, a warm home, clean water, a full fridge (stocked with mediocre pizza), a closet full of clothes, disposable income, and the ability to live a life as I determine. I assume this girl might have most if not all of these things, and I am only being superficial in thinking she is any less happy than I am because she looks slightly different than I do. But, whatever it takes to get a strong smack in the face to remind yourself that the world is beautifully flawed, an irreconcilable contradiction, with a loving detachment for all its inhabitants, the more you can appreciate any brief glimpse of pleasure.

After composing myself, I walked past the BBQ restaurants filled with jovial conversations and satiated stomachs. I saw the cars pass on their way with presumably fit humans. Girls in tight black stockings and men in tight blue jeans walked around in autumnal comfort. And I felt the pervasive oblivion that traps us inside our own trivial problems around every corner. The coffee shops, ice cream parlors, and beauty salons that give us brief connections to distill the true isolation we all feel at times. Then I heard a cat wail. He was under a garage gate and had cute eyes that actually looked at me instead of watched me like the other street felines. He was hungry. He wasn’t interested in my pizza cheese, so I bought him a tuna can and observed his hunger and my desire for a good deed be satisfied together.

I seem to have a real fascination with the modern contrast of life. The simplicity and comfort fused with the complexities and anxieties mixing us into faltering amalgams of artificial confidence and impenetrable neuroses. I suppose it’s the world I choose. Or maybe it’s the world I inherited.