On Applying to Be The New York Times’ Travel Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Four Ways the World is Changing

To paraphrase the Greek philosopher Heraclitus and the vocal artist Otis Redding: “Change is the only constant (and yet) everything still remains the same.”

I feel a change lately. The changes feel negative, far-reaching and unavoidable. How can one balance an individual existence during global complications, how to protect positivity when assaulted by negativity? The reality bruising author, Cormac McCarthy, said, “Sure I’m pessimistic, but that’s no reason to be gloomy.”

Our brains have developed enormous powers in the past century. We’ve created the method with which to evaporate humanity, the power of flight and space travel, electricity, new and exciting art. We’ve explored the land and sea, investigated the human body and mind and developed powerful hand-held computers. We’ve answered ancient mysteries of physical forces and we’re only beginning to understand the possibilities of quantum mechanics and CRISPR technology, but we haven’t solved the tribal instincts which lead to racism, sexism, bigotry, nationalism and illogical hatred. We don’t know what will happen when the oceans rise or when some giant asteroid approaches. We don’t know how to solve fundamental questions of exorbitant wealth and piteous poverty. We confuse ourselves with questions of sexual identity and sexual preference in an over-sexualized world. Amid all the progress and scientific advancements of humans lies the confusion of apes shouting at a fire. We’re a few hundred centuries beyond our homo sapien origins and a few hundred decades into the Anthropocene. It’s a juncture moment. It’s a moment of bizarre dread flush with menacing omens and no new-age positivity, or Steven Pinker tome about this current peacefulness can push the horror away from the reality that things change. And some big changes are coming.

Let’s examine a few worrying trends of the 21st century and if there is room left to hope:

Politics:

We begin with our 45th president, Donald J. Trump. He’s a douchebag. A douchebag is a fitting word for him; the nickname he should have been labeled by the poor, misguided Hillary Clinton campaign. “Hillary, which do you like better, Donny Douchebag or Douchey Donny?” (Dirtbag is a good second place if you’re worried about copyright infringement from South Park.) If you’ve never used the word, you might want to start, because it’s a good non-specific insult. So, Trump, our first, and certainly not last, reality show president, was undeniably more charismatic, blunt and candid than any of the republican sloths put forward, breezed through the primary, slogged through the general election and is now schlepping his way through the White House briefings and international conferences while remaining thoroughly, a douchebag.

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From: knowyourmeme.com

He’s arguably (scandal prone, uninspiring and bullyish) a crap president (and subjectively a crappy person). But, that’s the worry, crap in, crap out. How could there be 40 million people willing to vote for a douchebag with poor elocution, lacking in general knowledge with a penchant for pussy grabbing and an overall slick dick demeanor of a guy who just bought a yacht but hates the water? Crap in, crap out. American people have been fed crap literally (from fast food) and metaphorically (from politicians) that we don’t recognize crap when it’s served to us, as long as the portions are good.

I believe that there were three kinds of Trump voters: 1) Republican die-hards who’d vote for a Mexican if he wore a red tie and promised tax cuts 2) fervent anti-Clinton people who hate her “shrillness” (code: possession of ovaries) and 3) the deplorables. Deplorable was a bad choice, the phrase more apropos is “bucket of degenerates.” (Check the definitions, she meant degenerates. Degenerate means a decline of or lacking in; deplorable means deserving condemnation. We don’t need to condemn those with whom we disagree, rather just accept that the white working class is in decline and distress. Trump recognized it and jumped on it.) Their middle-class union jobs were in decline and their opinions on the world were lacking in, to be polite—elegance. “Lock Her Up” and “Build that Wall” are a bit more combative and a bit less harmonious than Obama’s “Yes, We Can” while also more specific than Hillary’s empty action feminist call to arms of “I’m With Her.” It’s the people who have gotten screwed throughout the rise of free trade, globalization and immigration. The people whose American Dream of middle class status with a middling education/skill base was eradicated by the forces of automation, clean energy or outsourcing are who became degenerated. The All-American families of Detroit carmakers, Pittsburgh iron workers, Kentucky coal miners, Midwest farmers, New England haberdashers, Carolina furniture makers, coastal longshoremen et al. have been affected by robotic techniques or cost-cutting moves abroad.

The time of immigrants pulling themselves up by the bootstraps went away when work boots were replaced by wing tips and the assembly lines left for Asia. The new blue-collar jobs are mostly service industry with hourly wages, rarely as high paying as those salaried jobs of the 1950’s when today’s poor degenerates were just racists with good jobs. As the world changed, the degenerates watched the factories that employed their parents close. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy speaks of this loss. George Packer found this in The Unwinding. Trump gave these degenerates a voice, a condemning voice, not against them, but against Mexicans, Muslims and the “dishonest” media. Truly, it wasn’t the working poor who were entirely at fault for the colossal changes of the past half century.

CEO pay has increased 997% since 1978 while worker pay went up an insulting 10%. CEO’s are an integral part of a company; however, since the 1970’s, have they become 1,000% better at increasing sales or just 5,000% better at padding their pockets? America’s biggest employer, Wal-Mart, is notorious for meager benefits and low pay. A minimum wage job in 1968 used to be enough to cover a family of three; now, minimum wage is barely enough for a bachelor in a studio apartment. Opioids were dispensed by friendly, in-the-cut doctors, addictions formed, until the development of a crush proof pill pushed street prices higher, and we get a resurgence of cheap, dirty street heroin followed by the devastating power of Fentanyl. One quarter of Americans live alone, and loneliness reports have doubled in the last decade. Government subsidies to corn, wheat and meat farmers fuel production of cheap, processed foods. A man who earns less than his father did, who can’t afford a house, riddled with back pain from a factory job that closed down, living alone because his wife left from the stress, coping by eating expensive OxyContin and cheap Big Macs is NOT the picture of health. But it may be a picture of some of the degenerate class of Americans beset by radical changes and seeking to place blame. Such bleakness may explain the rise in suicide of over 40 white men. Such feelings of being ignored by the politicians elected to help may explain the popularity of Trump.

Our president is fueling that fire of depression by blaming Chinese for stealing jobs we want (true), Mexicans for stealing jobs we don’t (also true) and Muslims for changing society (could become true). Throwing blame without solutions stokes the helplessness instead of inspiring and motivating that change could provide new opportunities. America has always been a country in flux. Immigrants did the dirty jobs, and as they moved up the ladder, they cut the rung below for the next group. However, the dirty jobs are slowly evaporating or becoming extremely unsustainable for long term development. Crop picking and animal slaughter areas employ the majority of undocumented workers. Without supportive unions or stable status, illegal immigrants will be hesitant to report poor farming or unhealthy slaughter techniques. What will low wage earners do when robots learn to pick blueberries and slice tenderloin? The problems now go up the ladder affecting all on the way, from producers to consumers—an unhealthy chain of consumption.

Climate Change:

The longest ladder of problems which will affect the whole world soon enough is the great mystery of climate change. The mystery isn’t so much will it happen, but what will happen. An iceberg the size of Delaware just calved from the Larson ice shelf in Antarctica. Icebergs break off all the time, but the increasing rate is the worry from climatologists. The calving icebergs open more Greenland and Antarctic glaciers to the open sea, followed by sea rise and pH changes. We can see the pictures, hear the stats and understand the repercussions, but we don’t really know what to do. (Removing one of the most populous countries and one of largest polluters (U.S.A.) from the Paris Climate Accords is definitely NOT going to help.)) Even if we knew exactly what to do, it would merely slow what is already occurring.

The delicate balance of modern life along the coasts, the essential farming communities in the plains and the magical medicines of the rainforest are all in danger from climate change. Extinction from climate change is part of the historical record, and humans are no less susceptible to such souring weathers just because we wrote those historical records. Arctic sea ice has reduced by 65% in the last 40 years where temperatures are soaring and by having less white sea ice, there is less reflective surface and more heat absorbing dark black water. With the extra sun in the north, the 1.8 million tons of carbon locked within tundra permafrost is at risk of melting, releasing its highly concentrated methane gas which is 34 times as powerful as regular CO2. The fifteen hottest summers of the last millennia were every summer since 2002. The warming Earth, sustained carbon release and growing population creates an existential problem for those living there.

A new film on Netflix, Chasing Corals, following the name brand of 2012’s Chasing Ice, where the latter used time-lapse to watch evaporating glaciers and ice sheets, this movie uses photography to witness the changes in our life-giving oceans. The oceans that consume a substantial amount of our CO2 emissions, provide a myriad of protein variations, and control the winds, waves and weather of our world are struggling to maintain homeostasis. 29% of the Great Barrier Reef was lost to bleaching in 2016 alone. The statistics are shocking, but it’s hard to understand what it means for one person thousands of miles away. The largest coral reef in the world provides tens of thousands of jobs, billions in tourist revenue and a home for many ocean creatures. The ocean is a gigantic cycle from plankton to blue whale, from mackerel to dolphin; thus, if you cut a rubber band, it loses its functionality and you chuck it. We can’t afford to cut the bands of the ocean cycles.

American Exceptionalism:

In America, far from the bleaching corals of Australia and the melting icecaps of Antarctica, we find a nation lost between reviving its historical greatness and retreating into partisan squabbling. A partial list of our nation’s problems reads as a catalog of the stale prince, Jared Kushner’s, job description: solving Middle-East peace, fixing the opioid epidemic, creating stronger relationships with China and Mexico, reforming the massive, bloated criminal justice system, as well as the infuriatingly slow and anarchic VA, oh and if you have time on Friday can you make the U.S. government function less like an elephant picking flowers and more like a business?

Those are not small issues for an amateur; they’re some of the biggest concerns for our century. Things that require life experience, negotiating experience and diplomatic tact might not be in the wheelhouse of that little stooge. He’d be better off locked out of the Oval Office thinking of solutions to problems more suited to his skills–like creating the first flak jacket blazer.

It’s hard for me, as someone who’s been away from America for around seven years to truly understand the vibe there. Reading and watching news paired with first-hand accounts from friends and family seem to paint the same picture. Things be cool, but things be cray. It may stay like that for a while, but nothing lasts forever. Eventually, a terrorist will slip past those talkative TSA agents, or a natural disaster will hit, or another stock crash will come, or some hostile foreign country will make a blunder, or most likely of all—Trump will misjudge, misfire, mistweet, misstep, misspeak or mistake his egocentric thoughts as solid policy and we’ll all pay for it. In this hyperbolic world of crises, stable leadership is needed, but no president is going to save the planet, no group of informed citizens under a clumsy acronym is going to change the world, and no amount of planning can predict the unknowns. Essentially, we all have to remember we’re carbon blobs, floating on a blue ball of iron, gas and water in one of millions of galaxies and nothing really matters.

A.I.:

Artificial intelligence is the greatest example we have of a self-inflicted punishment or pleasure. If we are successful, we find The Jetsons—robots cooking, driving, cleaning, and teaching us; and if we fail, we find The Matrix—robots using our body heat for batteries. Self-driving cars are coming, and they will erase the need for millions of jobs around the world of loquacious men wearing vests. There may be a way to make robots do our dirty jobs too. Those horrible animal slaughter jobs, or backbreaking farm jobs may get automated eliminating the need for low wage immigrant labor. Fast food burger artists and French fry pouring employees with be extinguished in place of a stable A.I. who never calls in sick. Nursing may become an industry of waving a multi-purpose wand over the patient and interpreting the results. Teaching might transform into a professional internet guide, leading students to self-guided informational sites and waking them up from their virtual reality lessons because the robot bus is here to drive them home to a meal cooked by a microwave bot before watching social media events on their corneal implants until their internal clock releases a wave of melatonin proscribing the necessary amount of sleep for their individual metabolic function.

The benefits of an automated world are tangible. But, with the loss of so many service industry jobs, manufacturing, nursing and teaching, we’d be forced to find a solution for such extreme unemployment. That answer is a universal basic income, an idea kicked around for centuries and recently espoused by governor of the internet, Mark Zuckerburg, during his Harvard commencement address. It would allow all humans a guaranteed income on which to live despite not “working.” Handcrafted everything would become normal as more people could create their craft. Carpenters, artists, welders, photographers and anyone with a talent could pay rent and eat even if they didn’t get a contract that month. Let the robots cook, until you want a special handmade ravioli from the restaurant down the street. Let the robots teach grammar and the creative writers lead weekend retreats of fireside poetry readings and fictional character studies.

If we figure out ways to curb climate change by using our ingenuity such as science fiction answers like carbon filtering clouds or even the pragmatic switch to renewable resources, will we find a livable equilibrium? If we make desalinization cheap and comprehensive, will we worry less about droughts and access to clean water? If we manufacture robots effectively to be helpful instead of the Skynet Terminators, will we have a cheap workforce with millions of new jobs in computer tech and robot repair? If we replace the worries of 99% of workers living paycheck to paycheck with a standard of living given to all…that’s something I can’t really imagine what will happen. Will we reach utopia? Will racism stop when we all find ourselves on a level playing field? Will hatred for immigrants stop when countries unite into a singular currency?

I just don’t think it’s currently possible for seven billion people in almost 200 countries with two million years of evolutionary tribal hatred bred into us to magically swing it around and live together in John Lennon’s imaginary world. There’s too much competitive testosterone. There’s too much jealousy. There’s too many limited resources. There’s too much religion. There’s not enough desire to give without taking. There’s not enough tolerance.

It’s human nature. But, as we incorporate more robotics into our bodies and lives, melding into relative cyborgs, perhaps our negative human responses might be replaced with Spockian logic. Maybe things will change—they always do.

“Heaven is high and the emperor is far away.” –Chinese proverb

Everybody Is a Winner

George Costanza once sold his “show about NOTHING” to a bunch of cold NBC execs, including his doomed fiancée Susan, by answering why the couch potatoes of America would watch a show without a purpose; “Because it’s on TV.” It’s on TV used to be a plausible reason to watch TV. When the show aired in 1992, before the limitless possibilities of DVR, DVD’s, podcasts, Kindle, YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, HBOnow, and the endless variety of entertainment available via streaming internet channels, what was “on TV” was a good enough reason to watch it as any. We used to ask, “What’s on TV?” Now, we ask, “What should we watch?” The former reveals our passive helplessness to the TV gods; while the latter gives a power punctuated with the anxiety of too many options. We are the catalyst of our entertainment. We see the next two hours of our lives determined from algorithms selected to help us make the click. We stand astride the abundant mountain of mirth, murder or mystery. We sit in Plato’s cave with shadows so enjoyable, so personalized and so dynamic, there may never be any reason to turn around.

Yet within the immensity of amusement available to us, it appears some have sunk into a morass of moronic distraction. I’m aware of tastes and preferences. I’m aware of age differences, motivations and political affiliations. I’m aware that RuPaul’s Drag Race and Real Housewives are as (if not more) popular as what I’d consider quality programming like House of Cards or Game of Thrones. Reality TV finds the untamed characters from Rodeo Dr. to Main St. to MLK Blvd. and puts their faults and charms on display. They are, ostensibly, real people “acting” like themselves. The episodic shows mentioned above find actors acting. But the aims of all producers remain the same—make it watchable, make it interesting, make it dramatic. Whatever you choose to watch, there is a reason to watch—namely, some story or problem that must be solved in a predetermined amount of time. Thought was given, production values were managed, behavior was defined in a way to help the viewer enjoy their valuable time spent inside the magic screen.

Here, we find the younger generation who have come of age with closets full of plastic participation medals, teachers offering safe spaces for reflection on Mark Twain’s language and a siren calling smartphone in the pocket since 12 years old. James, my 14-year-old stepson, godson, protégé, mentee, ball of irrepressible energy and general frustration factory, has hipped me to the videos he likes these days. He likes watching people destroying iPhones, computers and electronics in various ways. He also likes watching people eat various foodstuffs, piano tutorials and the ever-present animal videos of the internet. The bulk of his YouTube time is watching videos of other people watching themselves playing video games, commenting and cursing profusely. I watched one where a guy with a heavy Cockney accent cursed an impressive nimbus cloud of ‘f’ words around his first-person shooter character. It was objectively unwatchable; however, 1,650,423 people disagree with me as that was his watched count. I asked James why he likes it. “Because it’s on, and it relaxes me.” He said as a giant robot was disintegrated in a hail of lightning fast bullets, action darting across the screen in a rapidly rotating dizzying display. Yeah, looks relaxing.

There may be quite a bit more that James doesn’t show me, doesn’t know about or doesn’t watch. The internet is like our hive mind buzzing with relentless diligence to satisfy the unique queen bees inside all our heads. Why produce a show when people will watch a cell phone crushed in a vice? Why work hard on a story when people will watch you curse while playing Bonestorm? Why create dialogue when millions will watch you putting on makeup? So, who am I to judge why one thing is quality and another is crap? Who am I? I’m not the universal judge. I’m from the generation between sit-com and webcam. I’m from the generation between pay-phones and smart phones. I am from the generation where the wave broke on the championship trophy, cascaded back in sullen pieces and reformed into those terrifying “awards” for participation.

I’m old enough to remember ribbons only for first, second, third and in the case of middling talent but above average achievement in effort, honorable mention. Hundreds of us plebs used to go home empty handed after elementary “field day.” I remember such enormous friggin’ pride when I finally won third place in the 50-yard dash in 5th grade. I was like, “Okay, I’m not Rich Luckowski, but I am third fastest and also not a jerk.” It was a bronze, but felt good. Everyone tried, but I tried better. It seems natural. Who wants to go home and show their parents a ribbon for existence?

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The transferred disappointment can lead losers to greatness through determination (as well as the possibility of mental turmoil, lifelong anxiety, personality disorders, or unstable relationships). Contrasted with the current crop of kids who attain an award for participation or certificate of achievement by not crying and kicking the winner and taking his blue ribbon (which in less moral, less evolved days might have been the Darwinian winner) it appears we merely switched one undesirable result for another.

From the age of four, when personality is established, humans know winning is everything. It is the basis of evolution, conflict and survival. Our enlightened minds may try to jam inclusion into the equation of a solo victory, but that just skews the results, creating a domino effect that leads to confusing trophy ceremonies, such as the one I saw in my kindergarten spelling bee yesterday.

We passed out 24 Spelling Bee Champion certificates to all 24 participants. Not everyone acted like a Champion. The kids who won jumped for joy. The losers hung their heads in discontent. This is as it should be. The teachers cheer the winners, console the losers and assure everyone that life goes on and we will all enjoy the pizza party. The feeling of, and getting over loss, without hostility, is as important as being a congratulatory and appreciative winner.

I was in 3rd or 4th grade when they piled all the kids into our tiny auditorium for a spelling bee. I was a great speller and stile 😉 am. Earlier in the year, the teacher asked me how to spell school, and I flubbed it. The children all laughed at me, and eager to explain how I could misspell something that hangs above the entrance of which I see every day, I exclaimed, “I had a fun summer!” I guess the carefree memories of a ten-year old’s summer vacation of night swimming and ice cream had pushed out all the practical knowledge of addition and grammar. So, I was hyped up to prove my spelling acumen to my class of ball-breaking chums. I made it through round after round with easy words until I got a stumper: cushion. I’m pretty sure I spelled it with a ‘u’. I finished in 9th place, which is decent, but there can be only one winner, only one champion; lest we engage in “excellence bias.” In the never-ending lesson of “Simpsons Did It!” This season The Simpsons tackled the issue…”with sexy results.” Lisa won and got the smallest trophy. When she complained, poor Ralph Wiggum cried that she was “loser shaming” him.

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Thank you Simpsons (Season 28 Episode 18)

That idea, a zero-sum game of a winner and a loser is usually applied to sports or contests, not to modern politics. Our president, who dominates headlines with his special brand of idiosyncratic vulgarity, conforms to the zero-sum idea. “So much winning.” “[Other countries] won’t be laughing at us anymore.” The “Benito Cheeto” (thanks @GregProops) shows his commitment to America first by making the world last. Pulling out of a voluntary agreement to decrease carbon emissions (which might not even be enough to stop the destructive forces of climate change) leaves U.S.A. alone, but “winning” by being the first to quit. The global embarrassment that “Sweet Potato Stalin” (@GregProops) has become, won’t result in a natural win or loss scenario, because 21st century political ideas are blended; Trump’s are welded shut. Personality is formed at a young age, and we must ask ourselves, was Trump a habitual winner, timid loser or a cautious participator? What made him Trump? Did he love to win or hate to lose more? Would a participation trophy from his 2nd grade science fair stopped the cackling monsters in his head from laughing at him and insulting his smallish inept hands? If his mother had shared the vanilla ice cream (because of course the Trumps ate vanilla) evenly when he was a boy, would he still be proving triumph over others with a second scoop at dessert?

It’s admirable that our society has tried to find a place for everyone on the victory platform. But, there’s simply no room for seven billion people on the podium. For millennia, there have been evolutionary winners and losers. Homo sapiens are the indisputable winners. We live on all seven continents and in space. We are the apex predator and the pinnacle of organic creativity. Couldn’t we all be participants, equal parts winning (birth) and loss (death) in this experiment of being? As humans cultivate our android world of Google blood cells, gene editing, neural uploads and artificial organs, will we worry about rewards, equality and doing our best if everyone thinks on the same software program? Perhaps, “Who is the best ______” will be an irrelevant concept as we become a singular mind—a non-competitive human union.