Panic and Public Pools: Looking Back/Forward

Having reached what is statistically speaking the midpoint of my life, I’ve learned a few things: good shoes are important, Indian food is better than Chinese, going to bed early is a delightful privilege, people notice your clothes, Tuesdays suck, and recently, that I don’t particularly care for public pools. Continue reading

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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?” Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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.

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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 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. Continue reading

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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