Archive for the 'Thoughts' Category

Time & the Lost Art of Cruising

photo by 摩根

WE ARE TIME POOR, to borrow the words of Rolf Potts. Or rather, in all seriousness, we can call ourselves time anorexic. As a generation, we starve our activities and endeavours of the attention they deserve. This leaves us tired, creatively drained. The irony is that the more we try to shove into the seconds the sooner they evaporate.

This idea commonly circulates in discussions about the value of slow travel; the reasoning behind not trying to cram ten countries into two weeks is easy enough to understand. But the heart of that philosophy seems to fizz out once we edge back into home routines. The digital age further enables the work-addicted, and our fragmented mind lessens the quality of our experiences.

I noticed this in my own life during my recent trip to Chicago. Though I had barely 36 hours in the city, I filled a backpack with a laptop, dress clothes, etc., anticipating all the work I would accomplish. The reality of the time frame checked me, however, after a mostly sleepless night drained both my inspiration and my ambition. I was left pedaling around a cold city with a ridiculously heavy bag, annoyed that it hadn’t been the productive trip I’d hoped for.

Even in the day-to-day, it seems the more hurried I feel the less I get done.

As a journalist, I’ve learned that the story can’t (and shouldn’t) be forced. Deadlines aside, we need to make sure we understand what’s really going on. We ought to allow the same kind of time to understand ourselves and to evaluate what we’re working towards in life.

In the past, if I was out on my bike and had some spare minutes, I would just float around the city streets. During the last few months I’ve done none of that, and I’d lost something because of it — a simple enjoyment, a sense of life’s randomness. But as the spring sun becomes warm, I’m beginning to get back to the art of cruising.

Culture for Sale

REAL ESTATE BILLIONAIRE SAM Zell’s reiteration of his willingness to sell the naming rights to Wrigley Field along with the Chicago Cubs baseball team is just another reminder that our culture is up for grabs to the highest bidder. While the field might already bear the name of a corporation, a quote in a Tribune article today hits on why that’s missing the point:

Fans argue the Wrigley gum company could solve the problem and generate goodwill by ponying up to preserve tradition. The company — which has had its name on the stadium since 1927 when it was named for team owner and gummaker William Wrigley Jr. — has no comment, a spokesman said.

Brad Sarna, a sports valuation analyst at Absolute Brand LLC in Milwaukee, thinks the Wrigley company wouldn’t get enough out of a deal.

“I don’t even think of Wrigley gum when I think of Wrigley Field,” he said. And calling it Orbit Stadium, after a Wrigley brand, would defeat the purpose.

What this is really about is tradition, about the memories that we have tied to names, words and places. Yet across our society these ties are shamelessly being severed and rearranged to serve consumerism. Seattle’s old football stadium was simply called the Kingdome; now it’s Qwest Field. I can’t hear the Beatles’ “Hello, Goodbye” without thinking “Hello, Goodbuy.” And as these companies gain by hijacking our culture, we can only stand to lose.

Photo: wrigley field north, by nytejade. chicago.

This Land

IT WAS AN UNEXPECTED TWIST of language. I was explaining to Hanju (in Korean) my concerns about Barack Obama, whom I’d recently seen at a rally, when I used the term uri nara – our country – in reference to the United States.

That might not seem at all strange, except that uri nara is a phrase that is only ever used to talk about Korea. The words are almost symbolic, an expression of solidarity and collectivism, two things rarely if ever associated with American culture. Yet at a time when our nation’s communities seem irreparably disconnected, that was the exact feeling I sought to evoke.

As I stumbled through a politial dialogue in my adopted language, I learned a few new words. Hanju learned a new one as well: rhetoric – by one definition, the art of making persuasive speech. The night before, Obama had spoken about the importance of young people reinvesting in their communities. In his words there were echoes of Kennedy’s famous line: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” These ideas resonate with me as I’ve long felt that what ails this country is growing apathy and a general disinterest in our fellow man.

But amid Obama’s talk about changing the culture I was forced to wonder, is it just rhetoric? Uri nara is faced with so many problems, I said to Hanju, that we can’t afford four years of pretty words.

I talk a lot on this blog about wanderlust, about my desire to pick up and get lost in the big world, yet I have to admit to my affection for this land. As travelers it’s easy to lose touch with the romance and wonder of our own nation – to get bogged down by our misanthropic foreign and domestic policies. But every now and then something comes along to remind us of what we have here, and what we lose when we stop caring. How strange that my heart’s ties to the homeland were made plain while speaking the syllables of another tongue.

Photo: sunset over a wheatfield, by jfhatesmustard. eastern washington state.

Where We’re From…

AS SOON AS I HEARD the title I reached to turn up the volume. I was listening to a podcast released by Seattle’s KEXP when the DJ announced that the next song was called “Northwestern Girls,” sung by one-man-band and former Brooklynite Say Hi. It was a beautiful track and, despite a lack of much description of the song’s subject in the lyrics, the simple utterance of the syllables north-west seemed to resonate.

I grooved to the song a bit more than perhaps I would have if it had been named, say, Southwestern Girls, not because of some nostalgic or romantic reason (my fiancee is, in fact, a Midwestern girl) but because of something that is more subtly ingrained in the hearts of statesiders – regionalism.

The US is a big country. We may be tricked into thinking the nation is monocultural because of the homogenizing effects of mass media and nationwide chains, but deep down we feel the differences in texture, in speech, in values and in thoughts. I didn’t really notice this until – duh – I left the Northwest.

At my study abroad program in Korea I was not only thrown into the mix with Koreans, Dutch, Australians and Chinese, but also with Americans hailing from all corners of the country. Even as we acknowledged the vast differences in culture between our nations, we statesiders began to take note of the differences between our home cities.

Kids from the east coast commented on the relaxed manner of those from Southern California, while Northern Californians piled on criticisms of LA. Northwesterners got the dubious reputation of being “granola,” Midwesterners got called out for their flat pronunciation of words like “bag” and “Chicago,” and there was at least one terrible mix-up over slang terms (On the west coast to “kick it” means to hang out, in New Jersey to “kick it” means to have sex).

While this expression of regionalism was more playful than anything else, it was at least partly responsible for the bonding of new friends and even the creation of small cliques – where we were from became the common denominator.

The strange thing is that as soon as we returned home all notions of regionalism seemed to evaporate. Walking the streets of downtown Seattle I felt no immediate sense of connection to the people I passed, nor any inclination to give friendly acknowledgement – despite the fact that we all lived in the same community.

Of course we can’t expect to bond with every person in our home city simply by the virtue of cohabiting a few square miles; yet the idea that we might warmly greet a stranger from our hometown while traveling some foreign road but coldly pass the same person on a normal day warrants some reflection. We are not as disconnected as we think.

Photo: seattle dreams by Slightlynorth.

The Immeasurable Value of Simply Doing

MADISON – IT WAS EIGHT DEGREES OUTSIDE. Fahrenheit. The briskness of the wind was enough to cut me down. But I shuffled along the street, rice wine and Korean blood sausage tucked into my bag, en route to a friends’ apartment – where we would probably sit and commiserate over how goddamned cold it was.

Hanju greeted me at the door. Up in his overwarm apartment I shed a few layers: coat, undercoat, sweater, thermal. His brother JJ was at the computer in the midst of an Internet video chat with their father. “Hey,” he called out to me, “Want to say hi to my dad?”

A bit taken aback, I sat down, put on the headphones and faced a shifting image of an elder Korean man. I bowed gently in the direction of the camera. Ahnyonghaseyo! I greeted him. He cracked a smile, and we began to talk about, of all things, the weather. For someone like myself who grew up with the Internet, it felt surprisingly strange to be shooting the breeze, face-to-face with someone who was thousands of miles away.

***

The night rolled on and and the rice wine - makuhlli - flowed in our bowls (out of which the drink is traditionally taken). Hanju and I assessed the quality of the sausage (soondae), which was bought in Chicago; it was O.K., edible at least, but nothing compared with our memories of Seoul street vendors. JJ came out of his room and sat down looking haggard; he stole a swig from Hanju’s dish.

There had been a few words between him and his father. JJ, after a year of paying tuition and busting his ass trying to make grades at the university, had not made it into the business school. His plans were unraveling, and he was having doubts about what he was even doing in America.

As JJ stared into his bowl, his brother nodded in sympathy. Just a few weeks earlier Hanju had expressed similar sentiments – his English, he said, wasn’t getting much better. He wondered if at this point he ought to just go back, finish his degree in finances and start making money. But his thoughts had tumbled down a well; would doing so make him happy?

So there we all sat, mulling over pork and the directions of our lives. Despite all their doubts, I just couldn’t believe that my friends’ time spent here in Wisconsin had been a waste – any more than my time in Korea had been. It terms of credits and degrees, my experiences abroad had gotten me nowhere special, and had certainly set me back a bit financially. But in terms of developing my sense of self and determining the course of my life, the value of those times was immeasurable; traveling was a pressure cooker for my personal enrichment.

I turned to Hanju. “This is the time to question things,” I said.

He nodded, and we all shared another drink.

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

TOM HODGKINS THINKS FACEBOOK is trying to take over the world – sort of. The Guardian journalist writes today a scathing criticism of the men behind the social networking empire, accusing venture capitalist headman Peter Thiel of an insidious neoconservative agenda and, perhaps more relevant to person on the street, of cheapening the relationships we have with the people we know:

Clearly, Facebook is another uber-capitalist experiment: can you make money out of friendship? Can you create communities free of national boundaries – and then sell Coca-Cola to them? Facebook is profoundly uncreative. It makes nothing at all. It simply mediates in relationships that were happening anyway.

Thiel’s philosophical mentor is one René Girard of Stanford University, proponent of a theory of human behaviour called mimetic desire. Girard reckons that people are essentially sheep-like and will copy one another without much reflection. The theory would also seem to be proved correct in the case of Thiel’s virtual worlds: the desired object is irrelevant; all you need to know is that human beings will tend to move in flocks. Hence financial bubbles. Hence the enormous popularity of Facebook. Girard is a regular at Thiel’s intellectual soirees. What you don’t hear about in Thiel’s philosophy, by the way, are old-fashioned real-world concepts such as art, beauty, love, pleasure and truth.

What underlies this, of course, is the idea that as we increasingly interpret the world through digital media that we are losing something dear. As travelers we know well the value of real experience – but how often are we carrying this lesson with us in other parts of our lives? Especially in the downtime between our journeys, when we are stuck at our desks – wandering only in the world of blogs and imagination – are we in danger of unwittingly losing touch with our physical and personal relationships?

Hodgkins sincerely doubts the quality of friendships kept up by “little ungrammatical notes and amusing photos in cyberspace,” and I’m inclined to agree. In this vein I’m adding another couple resolutions to my list – to get more face time with friends, and to write letters.

However many miles away I may find myself, I want my friends to see my handwriting, to have pictures they can hold, and to get a dash of my personality and thoughts in an envelope. Because what a shame it would be if in this shrinking world we ended up feeling more distant from each other than ever.

NG Adventure & Travel in Burma

THE IDEA OF ROAMING throughout Burma is alluring – especially after having recently read Emma Larkin’s gorgeous and haunting investigation of what life is really like within the borders of the reclusive state. Yet the current political situation is such that traveling and spending money in Myanmar – with a tourism industry controlled by the government, and movement restricted and surveiled by a web of military bureaucracy – would likely give the traveler a skin-deep impression of life in the nation while pouring dollars into the coffers of a brutal regime.

It is for this reason that I was disappointed to stumble upon National Geographic Adventure’s blip about a near $4,000 vacation package to Myanmar – a nation copywriters euphemistically described as being “Preserved in Amber.”

The package, offered by Country Walkers, is a 10-day trek through the country and costs $3,898 (not including airfare to Yangon). According to the NG article, guide Rachel Baker tries to ensure that dollars go towards local people and not the regime. Yet the company Web site describes the accomodations as ranging from “lakeside chalets to deluxe hotels designed to evoke an exotic charm,” venues that likely demand relatively high rates, from which the generals are sure to scrape off the top.

I admittedly feel mixed about the idea of travelers foregoing Burma for political reasons – there is, after all, the possibility that some of the money spent might trickle into the hands of locals. I guess that this is less likely in the case of vacation packages such as Country Walkers’. But at the end of the day such little compensation will not pull the Burmese out of their suffering. We might do better to show solidarity with the people by not allowing the junta to have at our dollars and not indulging in the fantasy of an exotic Burma preserved in time, when the reality is much more grim.


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