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Cordial Invitations

November 25, 2013

Dear Reader,

You are cordially invited to join me for an evening of rock ‘n roll this Wednesday evening at the Empty Bottle at 1035 N. Western in Chicago. I will be at your  service for all your low-frequency needs by playing the bass guitar in Jet W. Lee at 9pm sharp. Tickets are available for the low low price of ten dollars here. We will be opening the evening, followed by sets from The PhenomsThe Safes, and The Differents. I can’t promise you that you’ll have a good time, but I can promise you that if you don’t, it’s your own fault.

TGE_13-Emma

But that’s not all! I also cordially invite you to join me (and many other inspiring presenters) for PechaKucha Night Chicago, an evening of “design, architecture, art, and beer” next Tuesday evening, December 3rd, 2013 at Martyrs’ at 3855 N. Lincoln Avenue. I will take the stage for 400 seconds to present The Lernen to Talk Show – Past, Present, and Future (or something along those lines). It’s gonna be awesome. Again, tickets are only $10! You can reserve yours by clicking right… here.

The date's wrong in this image, sorry. Actual date is December 2, 2013.

The date’s wrong in this image, sorry. Actual date is December 3, 2013.

Have a very happy Thanksgiving, everybody! See you on Wednesday.

-M.M.

Goofbone Zambonis His Way to a Sweeter Oasis

November 18, 2013
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My friend Chris drew a portrait of me today. He named it Goofbone Zambonis His Way to a Sweeter Oasis, which I feel aptly describes not only this illustration, but my life in general. Thank you very much for this, Chris.

Yes, it was drawn on a piece of cardboard. And yes, my wheels are heptagonal. And if you want to understand what I’m referring to in the picture, you should listen to The Best Show on WFMU.

May all your oases be sweet.

-M.M.

A Year of My Life

November 15, 2013

“I never want to forget another day that I’ve ever lived.” – Cesar Kuriyama

Kitty

About a year and a half ago, I was made aware of a project its creator Cesar Kuriyama calls 1 Second Everyday. It’s a simple concept, but seeing his first video moved me in ways I did not expect. I couldn’t believe how this frantic glimpse into a stranger’s life could evoke such emotion in me. I thought, “what if I actually were to know this guy?” And then I thought, “what if I was this guy?” How amazing would it be to have this six minute record of my own year? I share many of the misgivings Mr. Kuriyama articulates when describing the inspiration for the project in his TED Talk. My whole life I’ve hated the fact that I couldn’t tell you something I did on any given day in my past. I was keeping a daily journal, but days would inevitably slip through. Pulling a camera out of my pocket for an instant every day was something I knew I wouldn’t have an excuse to put off or forget. When I first saw the project last March I resolved to immediately begin my own second per day video.

But for some reason I could not properly get into the habit. I would film every day for a week and then I would suddenly realize I’d missed a couple days. This wasn’t such a big deal because I knew it didn’t really matter when I started, because I would start eventually. For months it continued to be that way. Starting, stopping, justifying.

And then in September of last year something happened that put me in a bad place emotionally. I found myself suddenly unable to enjoy the day to day, despite my day to day being very special. I was on tour with my brother’s band, playing shows every night and  getting to know my country again after a year away. I knew in my head that my life was wonderful, short, a gift meant to be enjoyed. But in my heart I was struggling to feel that. As much as I wouldn’t allow myself to admit it, I was depressed.

The funny (and by that I mean not funny at all) thing about depression is that it intensifies when recognized. I would feel terrible, and then I would feel worse because, well, “how dare I feel terrible? My life is good.” I was in the throes of this feedback loop when I remembered the one second per day project that I was still delaying. I thought about how the moments of those dark days were in themselves wonderful, beautiful. It was my own perspective that was distorting that simple truth. On September 28th I took out my camera and pressed a button twice, knowing that I would appreciate having that moment saved for me to look at later. On September 29th I did it again, and I continued doing it every day. I found myself looking forward to doing it. I found myself seeking images that were especially nice, and for the instant I had my camera out I knew that yes, this is a good moment. That daily positive affirmation became very important for me, and I knew that someday I’d be able to watch these moments and remember the day surrounding it and enjoy it, hopefully untarnished (or perhaps enhanced?) by the memory of the mood I was in.

I continued every day for a year and now I would like to share the result. I am pleased to report that my plan worked. I love looking back on days that I didn’t exactly love living at the time. And that’s a powerful feeling, because the other funny (read: not at all funny) thing about depression is that when it’s there, it does not feel like it will ever go away. But it does. It always does.

I know that talking about being depressed isn’t the coolest thing in the world. But I also know that helping people is the coolest thing in the world. That’s why I wanted to share with you not only the video I made, but the motivation behind it. Maybe someone will read this who doesn’t feel so good today, and maybe he or she will have a shiny new tool to use against that force so many of us don’t dare to admit we feel.

-M.M.

P.S. If you want to make your own video, Mr. Kuriyama sells what appears to be an amazing app that makes it very easy to do it yourself! I would totally buy it if I had a smart phone.

On Love

November 13, 2013

My body is confused. I woke up an hour ago at 10:30pm to the sound of what I thought was my alarm clock telling me it was 5:00am but was in fact my uncle calling me. I had been asleep since 5:30pm. All of this is undoubtedly the result of my recent decision to try Crossfit, a brand of exercise that actually brands itself by eschewing any notion of “brand” and leaving its participants’ bodies craving large bowls of Cheerios at 11 o’clock at night. (Note to self: investigate any possible correlations between Crossfit’s origins and General Mills.)

I couldn’t fall back asleep and instead turned to my ever-growing list of “things to check out later on the internet” and ended up listening to a commencement speech given by a lady by the name of Debbie Millman. In it she encourages the eager graduates to consider making choices that might not be so in line with standard expectations and instead, as seems to be required in commencement speeches, to “do what you love”.

The funny thing about “do what you love” is that the people who say that are almost always older and smarter than the people being told that. It’s a kind thing to say, much like “be yourself”, etc. But it’s also a completely meaningless thing to say to someone who hasn’t had the experience necessary to acquire any confidence in his or her passions. Before you can do what you love, you need to know what you love.

I’m trying to remember the first time it was presumed that I knew what I loved. I feel as though I’ve been told to do what I love for my entire life. It seems absurd to imagine a five-year-old me being given that advice, so it must have been later than that. You know, it was probably at my eighth grade commencement speech. It’s funny now to think about my middle school principal writing a speech for a bunch of kids about to go to high school, but I’d be willing to bet that he told us to do what we loved. What else could he have said?

I know what I would tell a group of fourteen-year-olds, should I ever have the honor to give a middle school commencement address: “Figure out what you love. From now on, a lot of people are going to be telling you to do what you love. It will be meaningless but you should thank them for the good advice and use it as a reminder to keep trying to figure out what you love. You’re fourteen. You don’t love anything. Well maybe you love Rage Against the Machine and low-cut t-shirts, but you don’t actually love those things. I mean, maybe you do, I mean, it’s all relative. But you’ll love other things more than that later in life. Or maybe you won’t. Oh jeez, I should have thought more about this before I got up here. Life’s hard and wait a minute, no it’s not. You are kids in suburban Chicago about to go to a high school that you can walk to and from safely. Why am I giving this speech again?”

Don’t worry about doing what you love. That’s a 21st century luxury that was invented by people who want to give commencement speeches and the kind of people who make stuff like this. Just love. The rest will take care of itself.

-M.M.

I Will Not Be Your Facebook Friend

November 7, 2013

Note: This post originally appeared on my Facebook profile one week ago.

Dear Facebook Friends,

First of all, sorry for the harsh seeming title for this thing I’m writing right now. I don’t mean it to be unfriendly, it’s just a fact. In one week I will once again be deactivating my Facebook account, and I don’t intend to return. Of course, that could change again one day, much like it did six weeks ago when I dusted off my profile to promote that competition I had entered. But I’m inclined to believe that won’t happen.

Facebook is a magnificently useful tool. I don’t doubt that it will endure as one of the things that most significantly changed human history, let alone our generation. On a global scale and on a personal scale, Facebook provides services the value of which no one can deny.

So why should I step away from this part of the internet? It has given me so much! The support I received from so many people for that aforementioned contest is just a fraction of the good that I’ve gleaned from Facebook since reactivating my account. I reconnected with old friends, I laughed at funny jokes, I received heartwarming messages from strangers, I heard some wonderful new music, I went to concerts I otherwise wouldn’t have known about, I saw pictures of my friend’s baby, who I had never seen before! All of this stuff is really, really great.

But at the end of the day, while I love all of these things very much, the fact is, I don’t love Facebook. I’ve tried to determine why that is, and I’ve had many conversations about it with people who enjoy Facebook, people who think it’s a necessary evil, people who’ve never opened Facebook, and people who have also periodically opened and closed their accounts. I’m perfectly comfortable with my decision to not use Facebook, but in the effort to make a cordial departure, I’ll try to explain what it is about it that I’d rather not have in my life.

For me it really comes down to a conversation that I had with a friend of mine shortly before the last time I deactivated my account, about a year ago. She was one of the last of my friends to ever make a Facebook account, and she was the first to deactivate her account entirely and not come back. She explained to me her reasoning, which I feel touches perfectly with my own feelings. I don’t think that everyone will agree. But I agree. She said that when she would visit this website, it would either be A: in order to post something she’s excited about or proud of or interested in or B: as something to do while bored. In case A, she would be met with “likes” and comments and approval in many forms, and she would feel good about herself. She’d feel cool. In case B, she would scroll through and see all of the things that her friends were excited about or proud of or interested in, and she would feel uncool, because she’s not doing anything cool, she’s just being bored on Facebook. These are two caricatured cases to emphasize the extremes, but they are definitely both cases that I have experienced myself. And perhaps that’s more indicative of a personal self-esteem problem than it is of a need to stop using Facebook, but the fact remains that Facebook is, among other things, a stage to jump onto or jump off of in order to compare oneself to others.

Another friend of mine once shared with me the two things he knows to be true in life: You shouldn’t ever think, “if only it had been this way” or “if only I had done this differently”, and you shouldn’t ever compare yourself with other people. I agree with those things, and I think that by not being on Facebook I will do less of the latter. That’s reason enough for me to be leaving.

The most sensible objection I’ve heard and anticipate hearing more is, “why don’t you just go on it less? Why don’t you just use it to keep in touch with friends and that’s all?” My answer to that is, I can’t. When I have a Facebook account I tend to automatically log on like I automatically check my email, and I usually don’t log off until I’ve already missed the chance to do whatever productive thing I was planning on doing when I went to my computer. It’s a weird addiction, and I honestly don’t feel that I can control it. And you might say, “of course you can control it! You just need to try harder!” But I just don’t think it’s worth trying harder. I think I can keep in touch with people well enough without it. And the positive things it brings me and has brought me don’t justify the negative costs.

Again, let me emphasize that I’m just talking about myself here. I do believe there is responsible, positive Facebook use. I just don’t think it’s for me.

I won’t be checking my Facebook account anymore after I post this. I’ll leave the account open for one more week, and then in a week I’ll sign in, read and respond to whatever comments may have been left on this post, and then I’ll deactivate. I apologize for the inconvenience I may be causing anyone trying to communicate with me, but this is a personal decision and it’s important to me. Now, as before, and continuing forever (unless otherwise indicated) I am best reached online by email at m________@_____.com. My phone number is 323-___-_____.

I also will continue writing stuff on my blog at https://fourththing.wordpress.com and on Twitter, where my username is @mickeymangan

And now I will try to provide As to any Qs you might have:

Q: Wait, you have a blog? Isn’t that the same kind of digital self-promoting garbage you are leaving Facebook to avoid?

A: Well, yeah. I guess it is. Isn’t that weird? But it’s also a little different. My blog won’t ever show up uninvited on your screen. You’re simply welcome to go there whenever you want if you’re interested in witnessing me forcing myself to practice writing.

Q: Okay, but how do you explain having a Twitter account?

A: I never said I didn’t like trying to make people laugh or share things I find interesting. Twitter’s really good for that. It’s a fun way to connect with new people around the world while somehow sparing me the feeling of being intrusive that I get on Facebook. Also, Twitter limits the amount you’re allowed to write in a post. I think that limits encourage creativity. Facebook doesn’t have limits. (None that I’m aware of, anyway.)

Q: How are you going to keep up with friends you made while traveling?

A: The same way I’ll keep up with you. We’ll be friends.

Q: This whole post makes you come across as self-important. Why do you think people care so much?

A: Yeah, I guess it is a little presumptuous to think that someone would even care or notice that I’ve left Facebook. I know that many people hadn’t noticed the last time. But I figure that maybe somebody would wonder at some point, and maybe this will save them any concern. Besides, isn’t that what Facebook is for? Feeling important?

If you can think of any other Qs, post them in the comments and I’ll A ’em in a week. That’d also be a good place to post any links to what you’re up to so that I can bookmark them.

Please stay in touch. I will too. And remember, just because I’m not on Facebook doesn’t mean I won’t donate to your charity or back your Kickstarter campaign or run in your 5K or read that thing you wrote or go to your concert or buy your record. Just shoot me an email. 

Peace,

Mickey.

A Few Words on this Whole Thing While it’s Still Relevant

October 18, 2013
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Courtesy of Joseph Altshuler

Good morning dear readers, the sun is shining and the birds are chirping and today I get to see my brother for the first time in eight months. It’ll be a good day. I wanted to update you on a few things  about the status of that job for which I’m applying. As I mentioned previously, I am one of 50 people still in consideration to become the Chief World Explorer, out of over 3000 original applicants. Now we are down to the wire, and Jauntaroo has just made the announcement that they will be making the announcement of the Final Five this coming Tuesday, October 22nd. I honestly feel that I have done everything I can to be one of those five, and I suppose, like with any casting, it’s now just a question of what they’re looking for. Maybe I fit, maybe I don’t.

I’ve thought for a long time about this competition and what it all means, and before I even made my first video I came to the conclusion that I don’t deserve this job. I honestly believe that no one deserves this job. In fact, I believe that Jauntaroo believes that no one actually deserves to be paid $100,000 to travel around the world and make videos about it. Jauntaroo is simply pushing a budget beyond its usual reach by getting a massive amount of talented people to tirelessly promote their company for two months. It’s brilliant, really. Someone will indeed be earning $100,000 in 2014 to do what’s outlined in the job description, but the work that person does will really just be the top of a pyramid, the foundation of which was already built by people like Braden Herndon, Abigail Courroy, John Beede, Ryan Danz, Steve MoracoCassidy Quinn, and, well, thousands of other people. I urge you to browse the Jauntaroo page this weekend to watch as many of the 50 Finalists’ videos as you can because, if it’s anything like the last time Jauntaroo downsized the pool, on Tuesday these videos will all be long gone (or harder to find, anyway). These people are the real deal. Being Chief World Explorer is a job that appeals to dreamers. And dreamers are the people that make this planet worth exploring in the first place. Every single one of those people on that site is going to be doing something awesome next year. So keep an eye on them.

If Jauntaroo chooses me to explore the world for you, I know that I will do the job very well. I’ve put every ounce of energy I have into proving that to you and to myself during the last eight (!) weeks. And you’d better believe that energy will be there when I’m assigned my first mission in January. And if it turns out that someone else is getting on that plane, well, I’ll probably be disappointed for a while. But in the end it would just mean that I’ll have to find an even better job. Whatever happens, I’m glad I entered this competition. Thanks to this company I’d never even heard of until August 22nd, 2013, I have…

1. …gotten a song I recorded to be heard 7,822 times (as of this posting). Well, a fragment of an instrumental version of it, anyway.

2. …learned how to make awesome looking t-shirts using freezer paper and bleach (and t-shirts).

3. …caused a stir in Hudson County.

4. …been called a “nice enough sort” by Tom Scharpling on my all-time favorite radio show/podcast (see October 1st, around 01:21:00).

5. …discovered a new love for poetry.

6. …convinced the weatherman at WGN Morning News to wish my brother good luck on his first meteorology midterm (wait for the very end).

7. …gotten used to being greeted by people I haven’t seen in ages with the word “Jauntaroo!” (I can see this becoming annoying if I don’t get the job.)

8. …grown to trust that I can make sweet stuff.

9. …been grouped with 49 of the most interesting people I probably never would have otherwise gotten the chance to know. #CWETop50, I hope we get to meet in person someday. And don’t worry. If I get this job, drinks are on me any time we see each other, for life.

Thank you to everyone who has clicked that orange “LIKE” button, shared my videos, or given me words of encouragement. I am truly grateful to have gotten this opportunity to explore my creativity in a more public way than usual. If I’m as lucky as I feel right now, then I’ll get to make much more for you in the coming year.

Oh and don’t worry, Poems with Mickey will continue at its regularly scheduled time until the Chief World Explorer is named.

Peace,

-M.M.

The Equal & Opposite Trajectories of the Magnificently Prolific Nate Henricks & T.J. Miller

October 14, 2013

I tend to talk about favorites a lot. Some people are put off by the question, “what’s your favorite book/movie/band?” I can understand where they’re coming from, perhaps considering it a challenge to defend their tastes. Or maybe it’s arrogant to presume that you can say what’s good and what’s not. But for me, “favorite” doesn’t really have as much to do with quality as with memory or nostalgia. Of course, quality does play a major part, but in the end for me “favorite” comes from wherever a product meets that indescribable crossing of memory and love. This post is about two of my favorite things.

My two favorite artists working today are Nate Henricks and T.J. Miller. They both produce work that teeters masterfully between challenging and accessible, and I have a habit of tracking down and consuming as much of each of their massive (and growing) bodies of work as I possibly can. Beyond that, they don’t have much in common. In fact, I would go so far as to say that their careers are anti-parallel. One’s a musician and the other’s a comedian.

I first heard Nate’s music in 2008. A good friend of mine was making a flyer for my oboe recital and we were meeting to finalize the details. He had gone to a concert the night before and he couldn’t believe the energy that the band, the leader of whom he’d gone to high school with, brought to the living room of the Urbana house where they played. Matt gave me a copy of a brown bag-packaged CD-R to take home and listen to and I immediately loved it.

I first saw T.J. perform randomly in 2005 after a high school dance. My group arrived at the tiny Chicago venue very late and very overdressed and were met by the commentary of a curly-haired standup as we slinked into our seats. I was laughing before I even sat down. It was my first time at a small comedy show like that, but somehow I knew that what I was seeing was special. I went back to that theater, Frankie J’s, week after week, thinking that my friends would get to see the set that impressed me so much that first time. But every week T.J. performed a new set of material. Soon I realized that he was improvising the bulk of these performances. The shows were peculiar, intense, and the funniest thing I had ever seen.

On September 12th Nate Henricks released his newest album under the moniker 8 OF CUPS INDEPENDENT RESEARCH COUNCIL and THE LIBRARY OF SPACE-TIME EDUCATION, entitled Warp Times the Zoom Goons’ Kookamunga. That same day, I saw for the first time T.J.’s recent Motorola commercial, which had been released on September 9th. It was then that I realized how bizarrely connected these two artists are, even if only in my head.

That first CD-R I heard of Nate Henricks was an eclectic collection of some of the catchiest, most thought-provoking songs I’d encountered, entitled Cooky Crams (Randomized Edition). It was poppy music but it was exquisitely arranged with poetic lyrics. The first set of T.J. Miller’s that I witnessed was a perfect example of what I only years later first heard described as “alt-comedy”. There was nothing poppy about it. And it may have been expert, but it certainly was not arranged. And if the jokes were poetic, it’s not because they were written that way. Very little of what I saw that night was ever written down.

Since 2008, Nate Henricks has released increasingly strange (and increasingly wonderful) music. The arrangements are denser, the songs are longer, and the instrumentation is wackier. I’ve long since shelved my hope and belief that Nate would become a rock star and a household name. From what I can tell, he doesn’t want that. I’m just happy that I get to hear him as he continues to build his enigmatic discography. And even in WTZGK, which will undoubtedly ostracize even patient listeners, rare talent is evident.

Since 2008, T.J. Miller has risen in the public consciousness, going from touring with Second City to appearances in mainstream movies like Cloverfield and Yogi Bear 3D. Friends have called me after seeing the new Motorola ads to reminisce about those nights at Frankie J’s, and everyone I’ve talked to loves those commercials. With starring roles in several movies coming out in the next couple years, T.J. is hovering on the brink of rock stardom, and it will take a lot for me to shelve my belief that he’ll be a household name before too long. He’s still the hyper absurdist he was back then, as you can hear every week in his concept podcast, Cashing in with T.J. Miller or on his (hopefully continuing) drop-ins on morning news shows. But he also knows what his comedy needs to flourish, and that’s a big audience.

I don’t know what a genius is. But sometimes I come across people about whom I am entirely convinced that they are doing the right thing with their lives (sort of like how David Foster Wallace felt about Roger Federer). I feel that way about Nate and T.J. If you aren’t familiar with them, I’ve included below a brief introduction to their work. I can’t promise that you will like what they do. Nor do I feel comfortable comparing them with any other musicians or comedians. I think the best way I can convey to you what I love about their music and comedy is by saying that it reminds me of something else I love: Calvin & Hobbes. Nate’s music brings you to the alien, colorful worlds of Spaceman Spiff to soundtrack your daydreams and poke at your memories. And with T.J. you’ll careen down a hill in a wagon, pondering philosophy while bracing yourself for impact. Both expertly use their craft to connect with their audiences and transmit their own unique perspectives of this big, weird world. But unlike with Calvin & Hobbes, the best is yet to come from these two.

-M.M.

Nate Henricks shares his music on Bandcamp at http://natehenricksmusic.bandcamp.com/. There’s a lot of it. I suggest you start with “Present Jam”, the best song about a time machine I’ve yet to hear (another connection to C&H!). I’m pretty sure he recorded it when he was eighteen. “That Moment” comes from a few years later when things started getting a little more experimental. “NO REVENGE” kicks off NTH MERIDIAN, his homemade 2011 album of folky soundscapes. “Green Magic” is an epic, ten minute long suite of bipolar rock for people with short attention spans. I think it’s the coolest thing he’s written yet. And his most recent rockin’ LP, Horseradish, takes the energy of “Green Magic” and puts it through the pop machine. See “Animals”. But my absolute favorite song of his is from that first CD I got in the paper bag. I didn’t know at the time, but it’s called “Flying Fish”.

If I could send you to Frankie J’s to watch T.J. perform a set eight years ago I would, because I can’t imagine a better introduction. It’s too bad I can’t, but at least we have the internet. For the longest time I was always dissatisfied by what youtube had to offer with respect to T.J., but recently I found this gem. It comes the closest of anything out there to capturing the magic of those early sets. Almost entirely improvised, the stage is his playground. Also great is his account of a near-death experience he had while filming Yogi Bear 3D. And his Japanese talk show Gorburger could very well be the best use there is of the internet. The lengths he goes to conceal in absurdity his thoughtfulness and intelligence is a performance in and of itself, but that makes the moments where he slows down even more enlightening. If you enjoyed those clips above, check out the relaxed interview he had on the podcast You Made It Weird. And I would of course be amiss not to mention that T.J. is in fact a musician, too.

I hope that you find something you enjoy among these links. If anything else on this blog dir gefällt, I bet you will. So much of what I do has been influenced in some way by their work. And if either of you are reading this T.J. & Nate, THANK YOU.

The Lernen to Talk Show: Episode 53 – A Random Reunion!

October 3, 2013

When something so strange happens to you as what happened to me on Tuesday, you’d dust off your dormant pocket talk show for an episode, too. That’s right folks, The Lernen to Talk Show is back! I’ve been getting back in the groove of life stateside, seeing old friends and applying to new jobs. I was minding my own business at the restaurant I was applying to when suddenly a familiar face walked in the door…

Can you believe it??? I certainly couldn’t. A neighbor of mine from my days in the Tulpenstraße Studentenwohnheim in Duisburg. It’s days later and I’m still speechless.

While I was at it, I figured I would inform any LTTS viewers out there of my other pursuit of a lifetime. I’m on my way to becoming Jauntaroo’s Chief World Explorer! But I need all the help I can get. Even in the form of adorable drawings. Thank you to Alison for your beautiful artwork and to Joe for your adroit cinematography. And to Barbara for the delicious lasagana!

Jauntaroo – ROUND TOO

October 1, 2013

Hey everybody! I’m pleased to inform you that Jauntaroo has chosen me as one of the 50 Finalists (out of over 3000 applicants) still in contention to be their Chief World Explorer. In order to stay in the running, I had to make a second video, this time as the Chief World Explorer, reporting on my own town. But as it turns out, I was not in my home town during the time I had to produce the video, so I had to pick another town. My selection? Bayonne, New Jersey! I’m very thankful to everyone in Bayonne who appeared in the video, and I’m proud to share that video with you now. I hope you like it! And if you do like it, please “LIKE” it and share it with anyone and everyone! You can watch the video by clicking the photo below.

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EDIT (November 5, 2013): I am no longer in consideration for this position. You can still watch my Round 2 video here and my Round 1 video here.

On Travel

September 21, 2013

August 2, 2013

Note: I began writing this post almost two years ago. I have since returned to it and subsequently ignored it several times, mostly because (as always) I was afraid I couldn’t articulate what I wanted to say as well as I would have liked. But today I feel compelled to finish it once and for all, thanks to the eerie convergence of two seemingly unrelated occurrences: first – I am riding a bus to Radolfzell with a group of Americans, the Doppelgänger, if you will, of the group of Americans with whom I traveled this very route exactly two years ago, and second – I am reading David Foster Wallace’s exposé on luxury cruising, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”. The juxtaposition of my own strange nostalgic state of mind with DFW’s balancing act of criticism of and fascination by the American Tourist reminded me of what I tried to write, and very much meant to finish, so long ago. So when in this post I say things like “a couple months ago”, I actually mean “a couple years ago”. Sorry for the confusion.

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A couple months ago I finished reading The Brothers Karamazov. It could very well be the best book I’ve ever read. It’s the kind of book that makes you (me) want to learn Russian, just so you (I) could fully appreciate it in its original language. But even if I learn Russian, I still would not be able to appreciate it as much as if I were actually Russian and could properly understand the cultural subtleties. And even if I were Russian, unless I lived during the 19th century, specifically near Moscow, it’s unlikely I would fully appreciate the social commentaries germane to the politics of the time. And if I were a Russian growing up near Moscow in the 19th century, chances are I would be among the 95% of the population who were illiterate, and, were I lucky enough to get my hands on the the Russian Messenger, the periodical that originally published the book, I would have hungrily burned the paper to survive the winter.

You see, there is no sense in lamenting my inability to fully appreciate the book. I’m lucky enough to have gotten out of it what I did get out of it. No matter how far you go in attempting to identify with a book, the only way you will ever truly understand and appreciate it is if you happen to be that book’s author.

I’ve come to feel the same way about travel.

After my first lengthy period abroad I became something of an elitist when it came to visiting foreign countries. Living in Chile for five months as a, meaningfully enough, sophomore in college was a very special experience, and I told myself that any future trips I made needed to be similarly unique. It isn’t worth it to visit someplace simply as a tourist. Nope, not for me. From now on I would be traveling with intent. Intent to learn the language, intent to meet the people, intent to become accustomed to and dependent on the surroundings. That’s right, from then on my travels would be concerned with one thing: the “genuine article”.

Fast-forward five years and I find myself again in a foreign land. My time in Germany has been brought to me by the number 28 and the letters C, B, Y, and X. Specifically, a scholarship program called the 28th Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals. It’s a year-long program dedicated to the fostering of positive relations between Germany and the U.S. Of course it appealed to me with the chance it offers to really integrate myself with a foreign country, to see Germany as a German might see it.  I would learn the language, live with a host family, brave the ice cold waters of the infamous German bureaucracy. I would embrace the bad as eagerly as I would the good, all with the noble aim of experiencing a culture genuinely.

But a week after I first arrived in Germany, I spent an afternoon with some fellow Americans in Zürich, Switzerland. It was my first time in the country and, aside from my spending nearly sixty dollars on nearly nothing, I have only great things to say about it. I’m a sucker for cities on lakes, after all. The air was sweet, the chocolate plentiful, and the photos of Roger Federer exactly as everywhere as one might hope.

But wait a minute. In Zürich I met a total of zero Swiss. Did I have a wonderful time? Yes. Do I have any deeper understanding of Switzerland? Hardly. But was it worth it? Certainly. What a conundrum. How can I resolve my disdain for tourism for tourism’s sake with my fondness for, well, tourism for tourism’s sake?

To answer that question, I must examine the source of my travel-elitism. The time I spent in Chile in 2007 taught me, through its multitude of linguistic challenges and cultural lessons, that travel is not itself an end, but rather a means by which human connection is made. Thinking back on my time there, it’s not the natural wonders or historical points-of-interest I miss, but rather the people. The places a person sees pale in importance when compared to the people with whom those places were seen. When I realized this, the idea of traveling to see a country suddenly lost its appeal. Appealing are the people in that country. And it’s the relationships one builds with those people that enriches and legitimizes travel. In my mind, I experienced Chile genuinely because I put the people first. And by integrating myself with the local culture, I discovered what it’s like to be Chilean. Right?

Right?

“Yes,” replied my 20-24 year-old selves. I didn’t raise a doubt until about one month into my time in Germany. One of my American friends happened to be living with a “host brother” about our age, and she had been warmly welcomed into their social circle. I was thrilled to be invited to tag along one night to their favorite haunt. It was a great night, and I was excited by how authentic it all felt. We met at an old train-car turned bar in the countryside, drank beer, and listened to music via WinAmp (!) on a homemade stereo system. Aside from my obviously lacking language skills, I was at least living as the Germans lived. I eagerly explained my situation to my newfound friends – I am in Germany because I got a scholarship to come here. I would soon be taking classes at a university and then I would work at an internship and then after a year I would go home. But when I heard the stories of the other people there (apprentice carpenters, newly hired engineers, students, all working towards an actual future in Germany), I realized that I was not having a “genuine” experience by any means. While my visit may be more significant than going on vacation to Munich for Oktoberfest, I am still at heart just a privileged white dude in a foreign country. It took just one conversation with a person my age to realize that my German experience would be nothing like his German experience. I found this troubling, because the whole point of my moving to Germany was to experience the country like a German experiences it.

That was when I realized my goal was unrealistic, and the standards I had set for myself after visiting Chile were naïve. Looking back on my experience in Concepción, nothing about what I did there was really Chilean. Sure I spoke the language, sure I made close friends, heck, I was even issued a Cédula de Identidad! It did not, however, change me into a Chilean. But it still changed me. It changed me into a more open-minded, travel friendly language-lover. But it also changed me into a judgmental snob.

After Chile, I started to feel appalled by people who would share their photos in front of monuments and landmarks, staying in hostels just long enough to check a city off of their list. I thought visiting a place as a tourist wasn’t just garish, it was insensitive. I thought, “They don’t get it.” “They’re doing it wrong.”

You could go to Paris for a week with your family. You’ll climb the Eifel Tower and take pictures and you’ll stroll down the Champs-Élysées and get that song stuck in your head and make each other laugh and you’ll do everything anyone’s ever told you you absolutely must do if you ever go to Paris. And maybe you won’t have spoken any French, maybe you won’t even have met anyone new. You won’t be Parisian or anything, but you’ll have a great time, and it will be a thing that you did once.

You could go to Paris for a semester to study in French and live with a host family. And you’ll do all those things described above when your family comes to visit you, but you’ll also go out at night with your hip European friends and you’ll buy a cool bike and get a cool haircut and maybe you’ll start smoking but only loose leaf tobacco and only in the evenings and you’ll be able to speak French really, really well and then you’ll go home and it will have changed your mind forever. But still you won’t be Parisian. And it will be a thing that you did once.

Or you could go to Paris to get a job and not come back and fall in love with a Parisian woman or man and buy a Parisian flat and raise Parisian children and die a Parisian death and it won’t in any way be just a thing that you did once… but still you won’t be Parisian.

You’ll still just be you.

And that’s more genuine than being Parisian can ever be.

None of these experiences are any more “genuine” than the others. They just are what they are. Genuine isn’t something a person can seek. In a world where people can’t even agree if an apple is an apple if it has been artificially cross-bred in a lab, who the heck am I to judge whether a person on the street holding a map of a city is experiencing that city genuinely or not. The important thing is that he’s experiencing something. And that’s really all that matters.

If there’s one thing I’m genuinely sure of, it’s that I genuinely never want to hear the word “genuine” again.

I guess really all I’m trying to say is, be sure to pick up a copy of The Brothers Karamazov. You might like it. And do tell me about your experience reading it. After all, I’ve never had it.