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.

AB

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Spring is Stupid & Obviously the Worst of All Seasons

Spring is obviously the worst season, although most people might think the opposite. You might hear such nonsense as, “Look at the flowers!” “Can you smell the fresh air?” “Isn’t spring wonderful?” Those people are morons. They are the kind of people who like ties in sports because no one loses. They are the kind of people who say things like, “I like Taylor Swift’s early stuff.” They are people who see the ocean waves but forget about the depths below. Spring is an imposter. Those beautiful flowers are actually pollinating the air with their allergenic babies that destroy our sinuses. That lovely, fresh air is actually fully polluted with the dust from northern China (in America, it’s possible to have fresh air, but spring air is no less fresh than the actual best season—fall). So, no, spring isn’t wonderful. I’ll explain.

Spring is actually winter in disguise. Spring is not the season of growth and renewal. Spring is an imaginary line, set between the brutal despair of frozen winter and the blazing summer, and it only lasts for about twenty days in May. March is so obviously still winter it demands no argument, did you ever wear shorts in March, or have a picnic in March? OK. April is debatable, but the cold rains of the first weeks can actually turn into snow at times—not a favorable weather pattern. The end of April can be nice, but again, the pollution and pollen will just play havoc on nostrils if you risk going outside without a mask. (To be clear, I’m living in Asia, other springs may be some bee buzzing, clear, breezy utopia that I’ve forgotten about, but not here in South Korea.) May is known as the Queen’s month in Korea. I’ve got no problem with May, skies clear up, pollution crawls back to China, the trees bloom with a cheery poise and summer starts to roll in. If March and April were like May, spring would be a parade of merriment and joy. People skipping to work in Bermuda shorts and pointing their noses toward the retreating Jack Frost. But it’s not, and spring has fooled us all into loving it.

Spring is also when the SAD (seasonal affective disorder) people start dusting off the walking shoes and oiling up the bikes and shaking out their spring jackets, you know, basically getting in my way. I’ve been riding my bike to work, bundled up in layers, red-faced through the Siberian winds all winter long. I enjoy my solitude on the bike path. Now all the spring walkers are out on the path pointing distractedly at the pretty blossoms, walking in a dreamily preoccupied state not understanding that this is my trail and they just walk here. Then you have the bikers. Many with the same affliction of Korean hikers, namely, bright, expensive gear. They’re flying past me with luxurious bicycles that you’d be insulting by calling a “bike.” They only bother me because where were they all winter? Plus, I’m guilty of all seven sins every day, so they provide my envy an outlet. Then we have the slow basket bikes, the rented cruisers, the tandem riders, the ride a bike in a dress because I must be a lady at all times folks. I’m not even mad at them, they’re out for a good time, just stay in a straight line you bums. The other day, one of them swerved almost right into me, I avoided the crash by turning right into an empty pilon hole. Flat tire. I know, my fault you say; I disagree and point you back to above where I made clear this whole riding trail is mine. (If Steven from Braveheart can have all of Ireland, I’m allowed my 14km stretch to be clear of goobers. We all feel this way with something so familiar. Don’t you see the same people or the same cars on your daily commute and feel something akin to camaraderie through misery with them? But when some stranger bolts in, they must be disclosed as frauds and removed.)

Next, we have the activities associated with spring. What sport begins in spring? Baseball. Yes, the most boring of all big four sports, the sport that is so long and slow, it IS possible to see grass grow before the 7th inning. I love baseball, yet I cannot dispute its dull repetition. But it is, just like spring, an imposter. Somewhere, somehow, some marketing genius called it the national pastime solidifying its place in American leisure. Yet, football, basketball and hockey, in that order, are much closer to national pastimes. What are you more likely to see in a park: some people tossing a pigskin, maybe shooting hoops or two men wearing baseball gloves and Oakley shades throwing a baseball?

Winter has snow sports, sauna time, hot soups, big jackets and warm socks. Summer has swimming, tanning, ice cream, flip-flops and sunglasses. Spring has raincoats, galoshes and cherry blossoms. Sweet; thanks, no thanks. What food goes with spring’s half-assed weather? It could be cold and rainy in the morning and sunny and hot by noon or vice versa! It’s unpredictable, and that is the least fashionable thing for weather to be. At least in the extremes (i.e. winter and summer) you know what’s coming the next day. Cold or hot, possible precipitation in a form corresponding to the extreme, but none of this freezing rain crap you get from April.

Spring is an in-between time with which my sensibilities simply do not jive. I enjoy room temperature water, mildly spicy things and action movies without too much explosions. Spring should match me, but it doesn’t because it’s not actually a medium sized season. It’s all four seasons mushed into three months! In any given spring, look at the daily temperatures. I promise you will see a winter bite, a summer laze and a fall wind in there. How can one season have them all?! You ever see snow in summer or sunburn in winter? No, because they aren’t bipolar annoying seasons.

You might be saying, “What about fall, that’s an in-between season? Don’t you hate fall?” And you my friend, would be wrong and probably like spring. Fall is the best season for so many reasons. Fall is the reminder of the brevity of our lives. But it doesn’t do it in a slap you in your face way with the bloom of spring—ostensibly telling you that you are not young and beautiful anymore like this flower. Fall shows you the beauty of getting old. Fall shows the colors of life, the boundless radiant cool of middle age before finally giving in to the inevitable winter. Fall smells like happy nights by a fire. Fall has pumpkins and apple cider and seemingly invites you to have a whiskey and a pot pie. Spring smells like that lady who wears too much perfume on the elevator. Yeah, it smells good, but it’s too much hon. (Spring does have baby chicks and ducklings, I can’t avoid admitting that’s a great thing.) Fall has football! And, should I remind everyone who the Super Bowl Champions were in 2018? It’s the Philadelphia Eagles. Praise be to Foles.

September is like an extended summer month. The best month to go to a Korean beach is September. The crowds are gone, the water is warmed from the August sun and the nights are cool and lovely. October is my birthday, excellent, plus Halloween, the most random and bizarre night of the year. Then you have quiet old November. He don’t bother nobody. In fact, old November delivers the greatest day of the year—Thanksgiving. A holiday so perfect we tend to forget how great it is by focusing on how stupid Black Friday is. In Korea, Thanksgiving is a buffet at a pub, starch heavy, but still good times with friends. Also, the best street food of Seoul comes out in fall. Cornbread filled with an egg, roasted chestnuts and fried dumplings really hit the spot on a chilly fall day.

Spring is presumptuous. Always telling you to get outside. I don’t appreciate such advocacy by a season. “You’ve been inside all winter watching Netflix and eating chocolate, haven’t you? Well, now that spring is here, you have to go outside and do something! But bring a jacket because I’ll be freezing by sundown even though you were sweating an hour ago. Have fun with that spring cold that will inevitably come.” Summer doesn’t need to ask. The sun calls you out like when Bugs Bunny used to smell something nice and floated away on the tendrils of the food smoke. I don’t need your help to get outside spring. I’m not finished watching Westworld yet.

If, after all this, you still don’t believe me about how dumb spring is; three words that will only mean something to Americans, “Daylight Savings Time.”

bad spring

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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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.

 

Four Ways the World is Changing

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

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

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

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

Politics:

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

Donald

From: knowyourmeme.com

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

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

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

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

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

Climate Change:

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

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

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

American Exceptionalism:

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

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

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

A.I.:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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Cecil the Lion and The Social Media Outrage Factor

Some Iowan naturalist named Aldo Leopold made this nice quote, which I will paraphrase, “Ethics is what you do when no one’s watching.”

Nobody was watching Walter Palmer when he boarded a plane to Zimbabwe to kill and behead a wild lion. Nobody is watching as rhinos are becoming extinct because of their horns holding possibilities as prurient penile pumpers. Nobody sees the crude slaughterhouses of America where 9 billion animals are killed every year, or the 50 million rabbits skinned worldwide for their downy fur. Nobody sees the millions of strays languishing or euthanized every year in kill shelters. Nobody noticed when the president for life of the astonishingly poor Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, butchered elephants, antelopes, impalas and a lion to celebrate his 91st birthday in February. That is: until it goes viral.

Social Media offers a great opportunity to the young, restless, constantly outraged and perpetually inactive young generation. We can teach each other about injustice, deception, inequality or discrimination with an idle click of a “Share” or a “Retweet.” Raising awareness is the new achievement of success. But really, what comes next is the important part—acquire information, form a plan and act. The ice bucket challenge of last summer was a way to self-promote yet still feel altruistic. A rare and virtually unknown disease needed money for research, the right links were “shared” and the ALS Association’s coffers were $100 million richer. Joseph Kony was the most hated man in the world for a few days in 2012, and I haven’t heard about him since. A few million people shared a link and it raised awareness for the Invisible Children situation in Uganda. Cecil the Lion’s martyrdom brought a new sensitivity for animal conservation. But those actions were easy and done with a click. To fix race relations, poverty or take on corporate America, we’ll need some real action heroes.

Turn on your Facebook and you’ll see some of the outrage du jour. Last week was about Cecil the Lion’s numbingly pointless murder in a destitute African nation. Yes, it really sucks that some hunt animals for sport, but when the unemployment of Zimbabwe hovers around 90% and the meager food staple of the host country is a bland corn mush called “mealie-meal”, can you blame locals for allowing if not encouraging the chance to take some wild eyed white man’s money in his daft search for the crown of the king of the jungle?

We read the tales, feel the anger, share the story, and then move on to the next victim of public shaming. The lion killer Walter Palmer’s business and house were made public and subsequently trashed and vandalized. He’s an idiot with a stupid hobby, but should his life have been ruined for a legal, if immoral, hunt? What if we reacted like that to the U.S. foreign policy? What if we egged the Capitol, spray painted congressmen’s cars, threw pig feet on the White House lawn and demanded that more than the paltry 1% of the federal budget be spent on foreign aid to help poor countries like Zimbabwe struggling under an autocratic despot whose negligence, avarice and mismanagement of the farming system has all but crippled the country. Their inflation rate in 2008 before abandoning their currency was a staggering 80 billion percent. They actually printed a 100 trillion note. What kind of changes could we enact in the world? Probably whatever was trending and fomenting #outrage that week.

What if we demanded action in America? What if we learned the true reach of lobbyists, cronyism and big money’s position in politics? What if we sincerely wanted to help the struggling food stamp consuming masses? What if we got serious about slowing climate change and curbing pollution? What if we re-invested in education? How can we get people as mad, restless and eager for action for those positive changes in the world, as they were to vilify one man’s hunting exploits?

For what will we use this new power of global outreach? Absolutely, saving wildlife is important, but certainly, we should be concerned for not only our own species’ survival but also the realization of ending poverty and hunger or equal rights or access to clean water or demanding reusable power. What change would you like to see? Ricky Gervais’s Facebook page jump-started this shaming of big game hunters until its climax found a face with that proud, dead lion and the world leapt onboard. Perhaps there will be a renewed interest in wildlife conservation. But, there should concurrently be a newborn interest in the fate of Zimbabweans. No amount of conservation of animals is worth starvation of people. Now that we can see the power of social media and our collective voices, what do you want to change?

Photo: The Independent

Italy vs. Korea: Living Life Abroad

I’ve been to 10 countries this year but spent the bulk in either Italy or Korea. I think somehow I’m fully American diluted with Italian and Korean blood now. My roots spread far. Both countries have their pros and cons, but which is the better place to live?

Food

Italy—Everyone knows Italian food. Pasta, pizza, risotto, cheese and focaccia are staples of the Italian diet and world famous. No food incites more opinionated responses than, “Where is the best pizza?”

Korea—Not many people know Korean food. Korean BBQ has gotten recognition lately, but the diversity of food is what’s most appealing to me. There are soups for every ailment, vegetables for “power,” plenty of soothing white rice and that famous marinated meat is never hard to find. Also, kimchi is a magical food.

*VERDICT: Italy. They win simply because inventing pizza is forever unbeatable; however, whichever country I’m in, I crave the others’ cooking.

Movies

Italy—Famous for La Dolce Vita. There’s plenty of existential 1960’s films of the absurdity of life. Lots of cigarette smoking by men in black suits. At the current cinema, everything is dubbed into Italian, presumably because it sounds great, but makes the film less cohesive and impossible for me to watch.

Korea—Famous for Oldboy. There’s rarely a happy ending in Korean movies. At the cinema, they sell numbered seats to ensure fairness, cheap snacks and Hollywood movies shown in English. Also, they have cozy DVD rooms—win.

*VERDICT: Korea. Unconventional movies, private DVD theaters, and cinema in original language (that includes Russian dialogue in the new Die Hard movie).

Music

Italy—Famous for opera, but Italian MTV is pretty boring. The street performers can be entertaining.

Korea—Famous for K-pop, PSY’s silliness and long-legged lady singers. Friday nights are for watching girl groups parade onstage on muted TV’s in a restaurant, bar or sauna.

*VERDICT: Italy. Although K-pop chicks are contained dynamite, to hear Andrea Bocelli sing “Con Te Partirò” gives me chills every time.

Nightlife

Italy—The night is dominated by hanging out, gesticulating with cigarette in one hand and wine glass in the other.

Korea—People here get bombed wasted constantly and then sing karaoke.

*VERDICT: Korea. Despite the blatant alcoholism, I love karaoke (noraebang/노래방).

Sports

Italy—Four World Cup titles is quite an achievement. Serie A is a quality soccer league. Kids play soccer amid ancient ruins and use cathedral walls as goals, which is cool.

Korea—Sports is only for those with enough talent to play in the Olympics. The other kids must focus on their studies! But, they offer decent competitions in soccer, baseball and basketball leagues.

*VERDICT: Even. South Korea beat the Azzurri in the 2002 World Cup. But neither country dominates this aspect of life.

Friendliness

Italy—Old people are nice and helpful. Young people can’t be bothered with showing you the direction to Piazza San Giacomo.

Korea—Old people (especially the old ladies) push you out of their way. Young people can’t wait to help or talk to you about anything.

*VERDICT: Even. This category is fluid and changes depending on the person.

Ease of Living

Italy—There’s a three-hour daily lunch break in the shops, two weeks off in August, many retail stores close at 19:00, lots of coffee breaks and everything is closed on Sunday. You’d think that is helpful, but more to workers and less to consumers.

Korea—The 24-hour 7-11’s, karaoke, saunas and restaurants work to any time schedule. The >50-hour workweek is stressing and daunting.

*VERDICT: Even. Korea works too much and Italy works too little. (**NOTE: Internet is a major factor in ease of living and Korea wins big time in that area, but not enough to overcome their habit of six 12 hour days per week.)

Price

Italy—Euro. (1$=1.3Euro) To eat well, you have to pay for a first and second plate plus a vegetable, and the recycled water bottle (usually around 50$).

Korea—Won. (1$=1,052Won) To eat well, you pay 10-15$ for meat, unlimited vegetables, rice and free refills of water. Sometimes you get “service”=free food.

*VERDICT: Korea. This one is an easy choice.

Travel Opportunities

Italy—You are within striking distance of mainland Europe via EUrail or Ryan Air as well as anywhere in the magical land of Italy.

Korea—Mountains and beaches surround you, Incheon Airport is the best in the world and many places in Korea are completely unexplored and unspoiled.

*VERDICT: Even. Would you rather explore Europe or Asia? Both are charming.

Public Transit

Italy—Buses and trains are often late and there are decent subway lines in Milan and Rome.

Korea—Seoul has the biggest and longest subway in the world and punctual everything.

*VERDICT: Korea. You are never more than three blocks away from the subway in Seoul.

Language

Italy—Italian is quite possibly the most beautiful language on Earth, and only gets cuter to hear little kids arguing in it.

Korea—Korean is the easiest Asian language to learn to read, but complicated to speak.

*VERDICT: Italy. Ciao vs. Annyeong Haseyo.

Architecture

Italy—This country understands it. Angels hanging off of corners, fountains, piazzas, statues, obelisks, strange faces in the marble walls, naked lady door-knockers, mythical creatures guarding entrances, and The Colosseum!

Korea—They didn’t go from bottom to the top in 50 years by worrying about decoration. They just built for efficiency. Things are changing now, with expanding green spaces, Gangnam’s renaissance and new art projects.

*VERDICT: Italy. The everyday beauty has a salubrious energy.

History

Italy—Roma, Venezia, Marco Polo, Columbus, Caesar, and gladiators: “All roads lead to Rome.”

Korea—They are stuck between two giants of Asia: China and Japan. Koreans were constantly in the middle of the wars of those two ancient enemies.

*VERDICT: Italy. Although Korean history is fascinating, Italian history is undeniably more important in global impact.

People/Dog Watching

Italy—Dogs enter restaurants here with impunity. There are dogs of all sizes and most people are not scared to pet them. Having a coffee at an outdoor café offers great fodder for playful banter about the passing hipsters, fashionistas and archetypical stereotypes.

Korea—Dogs are predominantly small and decorative. Kids/young girls sometimes shriek at the touch of a dog’s tongue. Couples in identical clothing, businessmen in shiny suits and cheap shoes, kids practicing taekwondo in the park or 20 ajumma’s with identical permed hair provide ample opportunity for pithy observations.

*VERDICT: Even. There’s more diversity and acceptance of dogs in Italy, but things are just a bit crazier in Korea.

Women

Italy—They are famous for being hot. But, too many smoke cigarettes, and they do it in an affective manner as if it’s making them seem more attractive. It isn’t. Milano and Roma are sure to find you exceptionally fashionable, skinny model types riding Vespa’s with long hair streaming behind them. EX: Sophia Loren in 1965.

Korea—They are becoming more famous for producing beautiful, forever-young actresses and models. Many are conservative with upper body exposure but adore a short skirt. Visit Gangnam on a summer night for a glimpse of the plastic surgery obsessed climate of Korea. Nevertheless, some understand that their striking beauty comes from embracing their traditional features. EX: Kim Yuna in 2014.

*VERDICT: Korea. What can I say? My girlfriend is Korean, and she’s beautiful.

The answer is: 5 for Italy; 5 for Korea; 5 All Even

Honestly, what did you expect? I actually went at this subject expecting Korea to win because that is where I’ve enjoyed living most. Yet, when you take it all into consideration, Italy has lots of positives too. These 15 subjects are some major indices of quality of life for me. I suppose I love both of these countries too much to decide. (Shh. It’s Korea.)

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What Happens When the Person You Love Is Abusive?

I tried to write about this before and didn’t like the outcome. But, the fact is, this issue is important to me. Today, October 1, marks the 3-year anniversary of when I landed in Seoul, Korea. I wasn’t just a post-grad looking for teaching experience abroad. I’d lived abroad, I’d been a teacher for years by then, I’d also recently escaped a tortured relationship. I was looking for a place where nothing would remind me of the past. I found it. I found good people who thought I was good, despite what I had come to believe about myself. I found my own feet not covered with eggshells, I found my own ideas not littered with scorn, and I found my sense of humor (repressed for fear of reprisal) again. Although I could have gone anywhere, I went to Korea. Within a month, I met the most beautiful woman I know, and now our 3-year anniversary is approaching. 6 years—broken into two parts, have given me a picture of what relationships can be.

This is a personal blog. Yet, this particular topic is personal to a depth that I might never fully devolve to anyone. But the superficial details are necessary to continue. In 2008, I met a girl, we argued constantly; the stock market crashed, my job sucked; she didn’t want to break up, there were no other jobs, therefore, I stayed in my belligerent relationship and stayed in my sucky job. I lived that life for three years. Finding solace wherever I could, video games, sports, cooking, exercise but mostly in three of the best cats I’ve ever known.

This was not a one-sided abusive relationship to be clear. We tortured each other. We loved each other in ways that made no sense to someone outside the situation. We hated that we loved each other, we hated that we fought so much, we hated that we disagreed on almost everything, but we stayed together. The moments of good could get us through the moments of bad. It was verbally and physically abusive on both sides. It was mentally and spiritually draining. It was scary, stupid, but mostly boring. Who wants to have the same argument ad nauseum? Cops would arrive at our door responding to a neighbor’s complaint. Plans would be cancelled with terrible excuses because we couldn’t be seen in public. No security deposit was ever returned back from either of the two apartments due to the broken doors and holes in the drywall. The cats would run into the other room and sit right next to each other in a row with ears tucked back, eyes fully alert in our direction. It makes me cry to think about those gentle little furrballs who loved us and just wanted to lie in our laps as we all watched an “X-Files” re-run. There are more nights than I can remember of staring at the clock, after scream arguing until we both lost our voices, when no alarm clock was necessary, I couldn’t wait to go to my crappy job. Family, friends and dreams became weapons. Hopes and aspirations could only go one way—there was only enough support in the relationship for one person to succeed at a time. Someone had to constantly give and someone had to consistently take—and that is a precarious, unsustainable balance. There was never compromising, only sour capitulation.

I reached a personal limit when I literally heard both the girlfriend and my mother say to me on the same day, “Don’t you f@#%ing do this to me!” I realized when given the option to choose. I must side with my loving, caring, supportive mom. I left the relationship with a battered soul. It took years to get past the derision and contempt spouted at me with spiteful eyes from someone who I used to love. It took a brave, beautiful woman’s love and many nights spent venting over cheeseburgers with patient, tolerant friends to move in my own direction.

Then I saw Ray Rice’s elevator punch, followed by the hollow eyes and callous behavior. I knew those hollow eyes. I knew that feeling of not caring. I don’t know the immense anger to resort to full out haymaker. I would never support his actions. I also don’t think the question, “What did she do to deserve it?” or “Did she provoke it” are applicable. In those relationships, anything or even nothing can provoke abuse. Any misstep, any miscalculation of mood, any eggshell can break leaving both in a terrible mess. These terrible relationships are all over the world. 25% of women, and 8% of men in America have dealt with physical violence. I can only imagine the numbers are higher for verbal abuse. I hear people say, “Why doesn’t he/she just leave her/him?” Leaving isn’t easy. Suicide threats, homicide threats, casual threats, nasty threats, loss of children, loss of property, loss of pets, and the unknown, frightening future among others are all featured prominently in a decision to leave. That strange world of abuse has become your world, and the picture of security isn’t easily imagined. Remember, a person is at their weakest at the moment of trying to leave. The strength you feel today if you are in a solid relationship; it’s the opposite if you are in an abusive one. That’s not even mentioning the religious factor in some relationships.

Where does one turn in those times? Some have alienated their friends and family from years of defending the abusive partner. Some don’t possess friends and family. Some live far away from a support system. Some, despite knowing better deep in their heart, keep hoping for the best, that maybe, their partner will change.

Abuse lives and breathes, grows in private and rots from within. It doesn’t respect gender, race, size, wealth, or religion. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t need motives. It simply exists in the dark, shadowy spaces of previous abuses, unreconciled losses, persecuted minds, arbitrarily punished, systematically brutalized and mistreated souls within us all. There is not one soul inside. There survives the amalgam of all our choices, our memories, and our awareness. The duality of dark and light lives in all things. Some push that evil darkness on others. Many lights are extinguished. Some lights escape. But the light that escapes, gains strength while always cognizant, that one heavy, horrible gust can put that light out again.

Happily, my battle ended in the light. My last three years have been as memorably joyous as my anxious brain and pessimistic outlook will allow. New and old friends seem to enjoy my company thereby giving me confidence that I may still be fun to be around. My adorable and amazing girlfriend continues to shower me with affection that I contentedly return. My wonderfully weird family is a never-ending source of strength. So, I remain forcefully hopeful with grateful moments of acceptance that such a painful past provides the prudence to part with agony, seeking the inclination to limitlessly love the who, what, where, when and why of my life.

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The Continual Contrast of Life

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

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

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

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