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. Continue reading

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

It’s not time to talk about gun regulation when people use guns to kill for fun, politics or revenge. It’s not time to talk about human contributions to climate change when hurricanes sustain category five winds for 36 hours or dump five feet of rain in a few days. It’s not time to talk about health care when GOP politicians are rushing a vote on damaging legislation through secret meetings. It’s not time to talk about the antiquated electoral college despite two of the last five popular vote count winners losing the election. Continue reading

Losing a Pet

 

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

I Remember Robin Williams

He made a man dressing as a woman seem like a normal way to avoid the disturbing reality of divorce. He made Vietnam seem like a terribly scary playground. He made genies appear fragile and emotional. He made Walt Whitman’s words come alive. He made developing disposable cameras frightening. He made forced therapy…therapeutic. He made a plausible adult of Peter Pan. He made aliens look like cokeheads. He made me laugh and cry. The two opposite ends of the human emotional range, touched by one hirsute and hilarious man.  Continue reading

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 (:>) Continue reading

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.

Roadkill

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.