Anthony Bourdain Showed Us Our World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Losing a Pet



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






Tornadoes, Cancer and The Doors

            Sitting alone eating lunch, hearing the play-screams and silly arguments of children in the room above me, knowing they are stoked on life made me wonder where my childhood stoke went. I remember never feeling depressed. I remember getting sad when I broke a toy, or when a pet died, or when I had to go to school on a snowy day. But sadness isn’t depression, sadness isn’t the angst I feel some days. Sadness is a feeling of loss, but a loss that is possible to replenish, whereas angst is anxiety of eternal loss, knowledge that the life you lead will one day be erased, as will anything you thought, did or wanted to accomplish. Vincent Van Gogh and F. Scott Fitzgerald are viewed as geniuses now, but in their lifetimes were not able to relish the joy and gratification of knowing their work was appreciated. They may have felt the dread of despondency, the worry of wonder and the misery of mortality just like we all do, despite their fascinating contributions to the arts. They are just two examples in a world of creativity, burst into existence only to sputter out in a brief glimpse within this interminable world. We have lost beautiful creatures to extinction, lost works of art to wars, great minds to superstitious sacrifices and yet, it all continues. This world goes on without you, without your ancestors and without the dinosaurs. This world might continue after the sun burns out, just in a new form. Conceivably, as some scientists have postulated, the Big Bang was just another cataclysmic and infinitely powerful collision of all matter that exists, imploding upon itself in the ceaseless expand and contract cycle of this universe. And, by some freak mathematical accident, in this particular sequence, our planet settled, like the proverbial Goldilocks, into a comfortable place next to a dominant star that was “just right” for our lives to be sprung into existence. How can we not gaze into the stars, or into the Grand Canyon, or at the Himalayas, or even stand beside the ocean without understanding the vastness of our lack of true comprehension of our reality? Perhaps, as we have evolved the capability to contemplate mortality and impermanence in our own unique imagination, we have created a strange new anxiety within ourselves.

            Life seems so easy to the children. Their imagination is boundless but ground in tangibility. I think we lose that childish ease the moment we discover sex, or at least the idea of sex. Is there anything else more motivating and distracting to a person? So much great art derives from lust and love that couldn’t be made without those feelings. I have started to incorporate the three Greek versions of love into my life: agape—familial love, philia—friendly love and eros—passionate love. I try to tell all those that fit those roles that I love them, and aim to mean it and show it. But that passion exclusive to eros is a fantastically formidable type. It is the universal desire. It is the reason Buddhism can never work for me (that and pizza not being served in temples). It’s hard to imagine the dedication of a monk to acquiesce to the celibate (and pizza-less) lifestyle willingly. Buddha taught that desire leads to suffering, John Mellencamp taught that sometimes love can “hurt so good.” I think about these questions of love, eternity, inspiration, anxiety and their relevance to my world and therefore they slip into my writing often about the existential dilemma. Our choices determine our life output; and that autonomy can be overwhelming. The decision to talk to a beautiful woman and risk rejection, to walk home instead of a taxi and risk robbery, to spend money instead of saving and risk poverty, to take chances requires courage and confidence. How are we willing to live our only life?

            Last week, I read the news of death and destruction in Oklahoma. I saw the pictures of an exceptionally powerful tornado dynamically and randomly raging through a small suburban city. The damage was extensive, and the deaths unprovoked. The two schools that were hit must have been full of so much young energy and excitement and that charming stoke that kids have. It’s a shame to lose that to a vicious, yet beautiful force of nature. (I wondered how I would have reacted with my students if I had heard the news over the P.A.) Then, a viral video caught my attention of a boy in Minnesota with a rare form of cancer, who was dying with aplomb by making his last days about positivity and happiness. He was inspiring; despite knowing his candle was reaching the end of the wick. He wrote uplifting music with friends, took jaunty picnics with his young girlfriend, played silly high school games and let those around him absorb his generously genial vibrations. (I wondered, not really knowing, if I could have lived while dying so confidently.) Lastly, Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist of the first rock n’ roll band to catch my adolescent fancy—The Doors, died at 74. His skills were prodigious and his life, presumably, was lived in a pursuit of individual passions. He lived a long, remarkable life, full of impressive milestones while making excellent music with one of the most indisputably wild and intelligent characters from the time when American music was at it’s zenith, Jim Morrison. (I wondered if I had the talent to be remembered in a public obituary.)

            Three separate occurrences of death, unconnected to each other, but connected within my purview of reality. Each death held meaning to me for a different reason. Each death was due to differing causes. Each death could have hit any of us. It’s a cliché to talk about ‘how life is short’, or that ‘we must live every day like it’s our last.’ We all know this; we all forget it; we all re-remember it. Those paradigms of a mental mantra are meant to help us see our life as if we had already lived it. When you die, will you be happy with your eulogy? When you die, what will you leave behind with loved ones? What memories exist of you in the minds of those you have encountered? These are not comfortable questions to ask. It adds too much purpose to a life that can sometimes feel like an endless eat, work, and excrete trek to the end. There are always ephemeral glances into the bliss of a life well lived. The vacations, the family photo albums, the late nights with friends, the completed projects, the success of achievements, the audacity of trying after failures, the smiles from strangers all add to our desire to live harmoniously, gregariously. The fact is, no matter what the eternal truth of our existential actuality is, we are here now. One day in the future, when then has become now, we will not be. So, if we generate the positivity within ourselves, it is possible for it to permeate out of us in radiant, invisible light-beams of benevolence and compassion, infecting those around us, creating a chain reaction of happiness that will forever exist outside of time infinitely expanding. It’s hard to believe or even to accept that it starts with you. It sounds so egocentric, but strictly speaking, you can only control yourself. You don’t have to be a world-famous musician, or a fantastic example of precocious maturity faced with inevitability, you must only be your best self. (I wonder if my best self involves having rough days when I feel depressed?)

Guns, Killing, MTV and The American Celebrity

Back in 1992, a new band named Pearl Jam made a seminal video of teenage angst, called “Jeremy.” “The boy was something that mommy wouldn’t wear.” The boy screamed and cried for attention and never got it. He felt awkward at school and felt awkward in his own skin. It’s the high school curse to never feel at ease anywhere you are. Eventually, after receiving many taunting’s, and returning the favor by punching his bullies; he bit the recess lady’s breast, which was something that nobody could forget. He was a troubled youth. One day, he entered class, back dropped by each child’s stark white clothing, representing their pure and innocent nature, and shot them all. “King Jeremy the wicked, ruled his world.” The lesson learned is that he made quite an impact on all of them. Their faces were frozen in terror, instead of laughing, pointing and jeering at him as before. Jeremy created the climax to his own grief, for what is more climactic than a public massacre.

I haven’t seen this video in many years, but I remember it like my backyard. We watched MTV every day of our early lives. There were great videos, shows and teenage entertainment for 24 hours a day. There were young VJ’s speaking our language and rappers who we tried to emulate, poorly. MTV, in the 90’s, was a flashing moment of teen culture, unsurpassed and incomparable to anything today. We watched videos by Nirvana, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, and Pearl Jam. Many of those videos had to do with bizarre, angry or misplaced people in this world. Nobody seemed to fit in; it was easy to identify with as a youngling. Even if you had friends, there was always a group in which you didn’t fit. Those 10 popular kids in everybody’s high school, that were such jerks and specimens of perfection, are now fat and unhappy, reminiscing about the “Glory Days.” Time moves on, only change is permanent, and we learn this after graduation. Only the prescient few can understand that high school doesn’t determine your life—unless you let it.

On April 20, 1999, I was in my friend’s basement eating chips and watching Simpsons re-runs when we were interrupted by a Fox breaking news story. Earlier that day, two armed students in trench coats attacked their classmates with automatic weapons, killing 13. They were “nerds”, picked on by “jocks” and decided to get revenge. Immediately, people blamed Marilyn Manson, video games or depression. These kids had warped minds, possibly strengthened by the deceptive ease of killing, dying and hitting reset in video games, but I doubt that was the main reason. They killed for power. They had no power in their world. They committed suicide, further proof that this was a way out, a way to show they had control and power over their lives and others. They wanted the actions to speak for themselves; they were too timid to face the aftermath. They were cowards, killing unarmed children and teachers.

We have seen other killing sprees like this since then in Norway, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood and now a movie theater in suburban Colorado. Many of these killers destroy themselves, along with their story and motive. We have little understanding of their psychology. The man in Denver, who invaded a midnight movie with bombs and a personal arsenal, was arrested and faces trial. There will certainly be interviews and studies done to figure out what went wrong inside of him. But, I believe it is the desire to be famous, combined with lack of discernible talent, and a dash of psychosis.

Famous for the wrong reasons is still famous. Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton can attest to that fact. Although they didn’t kill anyone, they certainly have a bit of lunacy and a strong desire for fame. Our celebrity-obsessed culture bred into a society of bullied kids creates a potential mixture for fame-led hostility. Not everybody who had a bad time in grade school turns out to be a killer, but every killer had a bad time in grade school. Debatably, our formative years of birth to eight years old, determine our personality with minor fluctuations and changes. Are some people pre-determined, through nature or nurture, to be bullied and insulted? Are some people pre-determined for success, for failure, for fortune, for murder?

The debate also will arise again about gun control. Why were the Columbine and Aurora shooters both able to legally acquire heavy assault weapons? Guns are a part of American society and will never go away. The argument could be on whether we actually need such rapid-fire weapons for public purchase. The argument could be on why America is the global leader in homicide. There is no argument here. We cannot erase guns or homicide. We cannot erase hate or stupidity. We cannot really even hope to contain it. We cannot put metal detectors in every theater, school, restaurant, mall, gym, and nail salon. Trust is implied in society, and when broken, there are the police. As long as there are people who are willing to bring pain into the world, they will do so. It is unstoppable. However, there are also those who bring pleasure into the world.

At the mud festival this weekend, three well-meaning people with hope-filled eyes approached me and gave me a paper with a headline that read PEACE IS: and I had to fill in the blank. They were part of a World Peace Initiative, and had do-gooder written all over their pro-active, diplomatic faces. I know peace is subjective, and to some it may be a nice fire, with a bottle of wine and your lover, but I got the feeling they were hoping to end the world’s wars through charitable thoughts and nonviolent behavior. I don’t believe we are evolved enough to eradicate war. We all claim something as “ours.” As long as you claim something as your own, it can be taken from you, making you angry and wanting to fight for that thing. John Lennon’s “Imagine” is way beyond our capacity to comprehend. Imagine no possessions, imagine no religion, and imagine no countries. John, it’s more than “hard to do,” we simply can’t yet. Today, we meditate to calm our anxiety, we exercise to remove excess aggression, and we take drugs to ease away depression. We are in the middle of the evolutionary chain between the perceptible world of combative cavemen and the inexpressible beauty of ceaseless positive energy pulsing through us as radiating light beams. As long as we have no peace internally, we cannot have peace externally.

Nobody knows if “Jeremy” killed his classmates because he was mad at them or himself. Nobody knows if the V.T. or Aurora shooter was angry with his peers or disgusted by himself. We know that media isn’t responsible for their actions. We know that music isn’t responsible for it. We also know that the shroud of war for the past 11 years in America isn’t responsible for their actions. As the ridiculous t-shirt says: “Guns don’t kill people. I kill people.” It’s a way of ascribing personal responsibility to public actions. Guns aren’t the problem; people pull those triggers. It’s like blaming Ford for car accidents, or McDonald’s for selling fatty hamburgers. Competent adults made a decision, and sometimes, it’s the wrong one.

This wasn’t the first tragedy of people randomly killing in retribution for a shitty adolescence or for their desire for fame, and it won’t be the last. Gun control won’t stop it, friends and family can help, but it is merely a symptom of our society and we should feel indignation toward the perpetrators and sympathy for the victims, but not surprise or shock that it happened again.

A Titanic Question

The Titanic re-release in 3D for the 100th anniversary of the tragic sinking may have been seen as a money grab for either a studio or possibly James Cameron; which it may have been, despite the fact that Cameron, according to IMDB, forfeited his director’s salary and share in the gross to get the extra money needed to finish the film. But the film is a modern classic with amazingly cheesy yet famous one-liners, a thrilling story behind a dramatic love story, all set in an extremely sad historical event.

My fascination with Titanic goes back to my early adolescence when I had a large Nat-Geo hardback picture book depicting Robert Ballard’s extraordinary 1985 recovery expedition. The dark green, ghost-like images of the sunken steam liner miles below the surface evoked some wild feelings in my 8-year-old body. I was so equally terrified and excited. I vividly remember a picture of a pair of boots sticking out from under a large door like the Wicked Witch’s feet, simply freaking me out and staring at them and wondering who wore them, what happened to his body on the way down? I spent lots of time in the ocean growing up and would open my eyes to test my courage at times. I was always so afraid of the unknown depths and the creatures therein. The power of the sea is both a joy and a terror. It can push you to shore surfing with a stoked smile, or pull you helplessly in a rip tide with flailing arms. Imagining myself in frozen waters, with no land in sight and a thousand screaming people beside me in hysteria was not a pleasant thought. The 1500 people who died that day, many of whom are at the bottom of the ocean, cannot tell their story, so I had to imagine it for them.

Here they were, asleep in their cabins late on a peaceful Sunday night, and suddenly awoken by a deep shudder felt throughout the boat. The largest ship ever built, shamelessly provoking fate by calling it “unsinkable”, had just struck a large iceberg condemning many to inevitable death. In the middle of the desolate, expansive North Atlantic, a ship sat stalled, slowly acquiring the freezing waters into her belly. Many unaware passengers, thinking they were riding an invincible creation of man, failed to realize the seriousness of their predicament. Two hours after striking, Titanic was on its way down, leaving well over a thousand stranded in the icy waters struggling to survive.

The pictures and stories are so well known. We all know the tale. James Cameron just added a love story so that we could somehow place ourselves on that boat, in their shoes. The movie is actually quite accurate; several scenes were lifted right from the pages of history. The docks of Southampton, the first class dining room and quarters, the lifeboat almost crushing the other until cut away by a knife carrying passenger, the first smokestack falling, and the splitting of the boat were all immortalized in pictures or paintings from first hand accounts. Unfortunately, there is no record of the love story, but now we can imagine one.

I first saw the movie in 1997 with my high school girlfriend. It was made for high school lovers, because they hate people telling them who they can date or love. Rose’s mother telling her to marry up just so she wouldn’t have to work as a seamstress feels confining to a teenager, but it seems both selfish and smart to a 31 year old now. Sure, marry the bastard, he gave you heart of the ocean for God’s sake and he told you, “There is nothing I can’t give you and nothing I would deny you.” He seemed to care about you in an abstractly detached, rich guy way until you started bumping around the 3rd class quarters. But, alas, the heart wants what it wants and in Hollywood, things don’t have to make sense.

The movie also has some perfectly placed cheese beside wonderful bites of incisiveness. Leo standing astride the bow exclaiming to the dolphins, Fabrizio and the setting sun that he is, in fact, the king of the world, is pure cheesy Cheetos gold dust. When Jack and Rose escape the jerk searching for them and end up in an old-timey car, he asks her where she’d like to go, she replies, roasting with lust, “To the stars.” The hidden gold at the end of the pubescent rainbow certainly seems as unattainable as the stars sometimes. Then, when Rose tells her mother that there are only enough lifeboats for half the people on the ship, and therefore, half of the passengers will die; Cal replies, “Not the better half.” To which we get the underrated gem of “You unimaginable bastard.” If you say it out loud, it feels pretty good. With blueprints out, and a full understanding of the damage to the hull, the ship’s designer tells the captain that sinking is, “a mathematical certainty.” Can you imagine hearing that 400 miles from land?

Titanic is perfectly cast, well acted and contains an understated musical score. 21-year-old Kate Winslet was such a delightfully posh red head whose generously proportionate curves were perfectly suited for nude prostrate portraits. Leonardo DiCaprio was the heartthrob and delivered with plenty of romance and seductive eyes to satisfy the ladies. Billy Zane was superb in his unimaginably bastard-like portrayal of selfish self-loathing. Frances Fisher as Ruth, playing the cold, isolated mother aiming to marry off her only offspring to continue her lavish lifestyle without consideration of her daughter’s changing desires. Many characters resembled the true-life persona, creating a realistic glimpse of the past on the big screen.

Whatever you have to say about liking it or hating it, you most certainly saw the movie. Sure, there may be better movies, but how many people have actually seen Citizen Kane or Casablanca? It was a cultural phenomenon and what I now believe to be a symbol of America upon re-watching.

This giant boat, the first of its kind, seemingly invincible and proclaimed by all to be a paradigm of quality for the world, brought down by hubris and misfortune. We see America in this boat. We see the classes, the myriad of backgrounds and races, and the dedicated workers. It’s a ship built after seeing how others were built and designing it to fix the flaws of others. Thomas Andrews, designer, represents the Jefferson of Titanic, forced to watch the ruin of his creation. I can only imagine T.J. looking at America today, perhaps not thinking it ruined, but maybe unrecognizable from what he imagined. Bruce Ismay, chairman of White Star Lines, pushing the captain to go faster through icy waters just to make headlines as the fastest ship of the day, may be represented by todays Lobbyists. They are working against intelligence and safety for their own gain. Captain Smith, knowledgeable and experienced, represented by our presidents. They may begin with best intentions but are persuaded by a never-ending line of special interests pulling them in too many directions until they are forced to bend to the will of elections or congressional deadlocks. I may be jumping in a pile of sophistic thought here, but once we ask the what if’s, it makes a little sense.

What if Titanic had left a day earlier or later? What if they had not stopped to pick up more passengers in Cherbourg? What if the captain had been awake and on deck during the iceberg warning, or paid more attention to the warnings he received earlier? What if the crow’s nest had been provided with binoculars to assist iceberg spotting? What if the sea had been choppier providing eye-catching whitecaps against the giant icebergs? What if the Carpathia had been closer? They are numerous but futile. Now, many years later, we can ask these questions with the clarity of hindsight. Centuries from now, what questions will we ask of the American generations?

What if we had changed Wall Street culture after the collapse of 2008? What if we had not begun two interminable and expensive wars in the space of 15 months? What if we had not fought in Vietnam or Korea or become surreptitiously involved in Iran, Chile, Mexico, or Afghanistan? What if we had not elected Bush or Obama or whomever? What if we had been more concerned with greenhouse gases? What if we had put more attention into alternative energy? What if we had not initiated trillions of dollars of debt to China and Japan? What if Manhattan, Miami and New Orleans had not been completely flooded by rising seawater? Will the questions existing in the educated future be filled with the futility of our Titanic questions or will we see the advancing icebergs and steer away in time with our modern computers, intellect and acumen?



Kim Jong-Off

We were sitting at lunch, in a kindergarten basement in Seoul, when the school bus driver came in and said one sentence in Korean before leaving, “Kim Jong-Il is dead.”  I waited for the translation and then assessed my feelings.  Obviously, they were anxious feelings of a possible uprising, and the natural anticipation of what will come next in a country that is one of a kind in today’s global economy.  North Korea is the only place on Earth that is completely controlled by a dictator.  African regimes are falling, Mid-East regimes are being toppled and now we wonder if this young, pudgy, rice cake of a man can preserve the same fear and discipline his father and grandfather were able to establish and maintain for the last 60 years.  The trouble is, brainwashing, without the Internet cleansers of truth or at least different opinions, is a powerful stain to remove.  The North Korean people are so dedicated to the cult of their “dear leader” and his omnipotence, that this might just be a passing of the torch with no thought given to what their options are for the future.  The population is not living well and praising the leader for their comfort; they are living in squalor, poverty, starvation, isolation and essential slavery—and yet they still bow in submissive reverence before the ubiquitous framed pictures of father and son leaders.  One of the few documentaries ever to escape from the restrictive side of the Korean peninsula, showed North Koreans, cured from cataracts caused by malnutrition, instead of thanking the generous doctor who cured them for free, immediately bowing and thanking the “dear leader” promising to work harder in the salt mines for him.  The South Koreans at work say they will merely keep quiet through the next few weeks.  They are aware of the belligerent nature of their northern neighbors, and are not interested.

This is not Osama being hunted and killed hiding under bed-sheets in Pakistan, this is not Hitler committing suicide lonely and confused in a bombed out basement, this is not Hussein choking at the bottom of the gallows questioning his past actions; this is a man who probably died in a giant bed, with silk sheets, half empty bottles of expensive French cognac nearby, perhaps struggling with a deadly illness, but nevertheless having lived a life of opulence and regal extravagance.  Kim Jong-Il is dead, and his memory will live on in his squishy, doughy, pastry-like son.  Kim Jong-Il will never be forgotten in the North.  His picture will still hang beside his hero father, golden statues bearing his corpulent, dysfunctional mug will be erected all over Pyongyang, and his people will mourn him for the next three years (as law dictates).  He will remain a worshipped figure until the brainwashing is bleached away by the harsh abrasives of hunger and the knowledge that there is another way.


Leaving the apartment, I saw a dead armadillo, the icon of Texas.  Some may argue that Willie Nelson or bluebonnets or the Alamo or the Cowboys are more iconic of the Lone Star State and they may be right, but the armadillo is the Tasmanian Devil of Texas.  We know he’s there and he represents hard for Texas, the same way the Tasmanian Devil represents the lonesome island south of Australia.  We don’t see either all the time, but we know they’re there.  But the point is, he was dead and gone.  The details can be spared in this note, but they cannot be spared from my mind’s eye.  I saw the terrible images of death in his eyes.  We try to ignore loss and pretend we live forever as people and animals and bugs die every second.  Our eyes are only open for maybe 2/3 of the day and we dream fantasies the other third.  I like to believe the energy we created during our life translates into our spiritual power in the great beyond.  I like to believe that life is truly everlasting and only the body dies.  I understand all things must pass and that matter cannot be created or destroyed.  Hopefully, that little bloated and yet still handsome armadillo found his energy distributed into a baby bird or a redwood sapling for all to feel his special nature.  All life is sacred, all life is fleeting, all life means death, and all life can be is what we make of it.  Even if we don’t make it as remarkable as we want, as long as we try to be happy and compassionate, we did well.