The Rat Race

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Some of you may be wondering what happened to the regular posts on this blog. Just another blip on the radar, just another grain of rice growing in the fields of China, just another pixel in a wide-screen television broadcasting the latest sporting event. To be honest, the rat race had me wrapped up tightly in a chokehold. I was–and am–a slave to the system, whether I like it or not. 

Creative flourishing led into a period of intense creative stagnation, which covered me like sludge from the sidewalk as I stood dripping like a pole in the alleyway. It was an all-encompassing dirt, the kind that never quite washes out. Several thundershowers later, the pepper is flowing through my blood again, albeit without direction.

Inspired by My Ishmael, Daniel Quinn’s sequel to Ishmael, I’ve been considering the way we define success. Many people work part-time, some people work full-time. Most people work enough to get by, while others work enough to support their consumption habits. In a world with hundreds of thousands of different cultures and paths, who’s to say that you should work more if you have enough food? People think we should look to the gods, psychics, or gurus for answers to how to live, but the knowledge is in us. We just think of human nature as fundamentally flawed, but it’s not. It’s the system that’s flawed, and we conform to it because we aren’t presented with other options. 

Taking the GRE last week left me with an overwhelming desire for regression. To renounce all my possessions and work on a farm, living off the land and permanently muting the monotonous city soundtrack. To call this a regression is to apply our cultural norms to an alternative lifestyle–I’ve been brainwashed. Such a drastic decision would take a rebirth and a strong resolve to revolutionise my lifestyle. But why instigate change when things are comfortable ?

They say never to get too comfortable in any relationship or job. Ambition is healthy for the spirit. It is. To strive is to struggle, then thrive, in less-than-perfect surroundings. The question is, how long can we remain complacent living in a world where we have to trade our time for bags of food that are kept under lock and key in storage houses ?

That food used to be free. 

Trade in one situation’s problems for another situation and its set of problems. Or, find solutions. Community gardens, co-ops, and vertical agriculture all seek to eliminate urban food deserts. This topic is near and dear to my heart because I live in a food desert. The West side of Chicago has a beautiful park, but no grocery stores in sight. What comes next ? Indoor trellises with veggies and fruit snaking their way through the gaps ? Petitions ? Start-ups ? 

Living in an up-and-coming neighborhood has its perks. There are no obnoxious drunk people lining the street, the park is incredibly lush and well-preserved, and the culture is purely Puerto Rican. People have each others’ backs, and the bus drivers cut you a break when you need it. But after Riot Fest, we all realized that there would be less of the neighborhood spirit to go around once events started to happen more often. Give it five years, and Humboldt Park will be booming like Williamsburg. It’s a matter of time, evolution, and the rise and fall of civilizations. Maybe this place will find a sustainable way to live in this city, some method forgotten centuries ago. The machines are quieter here, so all you have to do is listen.

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Irvine Welsh at Lit Fest

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When I met Irvine Welsh at Lit Fest in Chicago, the stadium was not packed. I can’t imagine why, considering the man has written some of the best fiction I’ve ever read, including Crime, Acid House, and Trainspotting. We watched Jennifer Day ask the standard questions and corrected them in our heads, thinking we could’ve done the interview better, banter and all.

Welsh told us he moved to Chicago to escape the monotony of London life. Dealing with high-end publishers is so New York, and he and his wife wanted a change of pace. Chicago, Welshit seemed, offered a reprieve from the non-stop hustle of places like London and New York City without the confetti and cake of Los Angeles. With all the Irish influence in the city, he felt right at home.
After spending hours in pubs making his liver beg for sweet mercy, Welsh realized he had to get down to business. He said that some writers have the great task of reconciling their socialite tendencies with their creative sensibility, which requires them to isolate themselves for days on end with people who don’t exist. These fictional characters become a part of them–he even creates a soundtrack for each character to inspire him to write from a particular perspective.
Welsh’s next novel will focus on the serendipitous encounter of an overweight artist and a personal trainer in Miami. The trainer will sequester the artist in order to monitor her caloric intake, and the two will learn loads from each other about life, love, and all the rest. Sounds satirical, no ?
Welsh quipped about frequenting pubs for “character building”, but his most accurate remark was about the quality of life in America, establishing him as a social critic and a classic Chicagoan. Progressive taxation, he argued, is a must for a society that wants to have healthier workers and higher productivity. Take that, Tea Party.
In his book Ill Fares the Land, Tony Judt argues that progressive taxation leads to a more trusting society that is egalitarian. The crux is that when benefits like health care, unemployment, and time off are similar across the board, people trust each other not to screw each other over for a raise at work or a better deal on car insurance.
A slice of the proverbial pie is available to any and all.
This opportunity makes social reform easier to propose on a grander scale. So the higher our taxes, the more likely we are to lead harmonious lives. Associating higher taxes with happiness is unheard of in modern American culture. Maybe what Welsh means is that it all makes for a fitter, healthier, and harder-working community and that should be Big Brother’s number one priority.
Regardless of whether or not we agree with what Welsh said, it’s important for us to have people with diverging opinions in our country, especially when these people are literary boons and social critics. It’s been years since an author spoke out about anything for fear of jeopardizing their sales.
Irvine Welsh waxed poetic on the formation of the world’s most egotistical, innovative, and productive nation, pointing out weakness to a public with a keen literary sensibility. He also told me that his favourite brand of whiskey is the Scottish Highlander. For his courage, his insight, and his sense of humor, he deserves to stay in America.

Pourquoi écrire / Why Write

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“Je crois qu’on écrit pour créer un monde dans lequel on peut vivre… Voila je pense la raison de tout oeuvre d’art… Nous écrivons pour transcender notre vie. Nous écrivons pour agrandir le monde que nous trouvons étouffante. Si vous ne respirez pas en écrivant, si vous ne chantez pas en écrivant, alors n’écrit pas.” – Anonyme

“I think we write to create a world in which we can live… I think that’s the reason for all works of art… We write to transcend our life. We write to expand a world in which we feel stifled. If you don’t breath when you write, if you don’t sing when you write, then don’t write.” – Anonymous

failed writer

Listening to France Inter today, I heard this quote from an unknown writer. The show focussed on Anais Nin’s work, reading excerpts from different poets and writers.

WordPress is your escape from a world of people that don’t write. They don’t notice the same things you do, and they aren’t impassioned by the written word. Your blog and your writing are a way to relate to others, to help you formulate your thoughts better. Without them, you wouldn’t be able to speak as well. Your craft helps you develop opinions, think things through, and make connections between seemingly unrelated ideas.

If you’re a writer, you’re constantly looking for that missing something. No piece is ever perfect. You draft, rewrite, and finally publish it, exposing something you’re scared will never be good enough. Without that hint of fear, though, no one would ever progress. The greater the fear, the greater the gain.

Tonight, this morning, this afternoon, do something that scares you. It could be going out alone, cooking a new dish, or calling someone you aren’t very close with. The more you push yourself out of your comfort zone, the further your comfort zone will be.

 

Second Time Around: Harry Potter Fever

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Harry Potter (character)

Harry Potter (character) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The words “Harry Potter” inspire a morbid cliche in myriad people’s minds: a boy with an eggplant cape, ugly glasses, and a broom who is persecuted for being “different”. This series struck a chord with me long before Harry, Ron and Hermione ever became part of pop culture. Oddballs, eccentrics, and outsiders are among the most likely to identify with Harry’s harrowing tale. I was all three of those growing up.

I started reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when I was 8 years old. I proceeded to read it 8 times and would fall asleep with the illustrated characters’ faces by my side. The fantasy world Rowling allowed me to escape in was my favorite because it was a progression from the one I was in. The human chess games, the boarding school setting, and the intricate plot line about “The Boy Who Lived” had me hooked from the start. Each time I reread the books, I notice a new theme, underlying motif, and latent character development. Reading these books is akin to taking loo powder and disappearing through a fireplace.

The rest of the series was far more intense than the opener. I read the 2nd book 5 times, the 3rd book 4 times, the 4th book 4 times, the 5th book 5 times, the 6th book 3 times, and the 7th book twice. I had a themed blanket and pillow, and I even waited at midnight one night to get the 5th book as soon as it came out.

For a children’s series that’s known outrageous success via movie sales, book sales, and other merchandise, Harry Potter has more substance to it than any other series I know, except perhaps the LOTR books. College courses like “Psychology of Harry Potter” and “Religious Symbols in Harry Potter” are cropping up all over the place, proving that children’s literature is more than just a rite of passage.

With an entire shelf devoted to Rowling, my Harry Potter Fever, though greatly diminished since my adolescent days, lives on.

Reading “Portnoy’s Complaint” at a Jewish Community Center

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Never heard of Portnoy’s Complaint ? Neither had I, until someone lent it to me. The yellow cover made me think of a pizza place owner’s mid-life crisis convertible, and “Philip Roth” emblazoned on the side was the deal-breaker. From then on, every time I looked at it I would think of highly literate, banana-eating apes, our humble ancestors, sporting sideburns and fedora hats with du vraie fierté.

And so came my first day temping as a receptionist at the JCC. The staff is really welcoming, but I have to say “Shalom” every time I pick up the phone. What is this ? It’s like I’m in some hippie commune as a receptionist, but instead of saying “Namaste,” I say “Shalom”. These Jewish people are friendly but distant, like kind aliens from Cuba.

Some are Sephardic, some are Ashkenaz, but all of them have one thing in common : they love matzah balls. One lady even walked in with a pair dangling from her ears. It’s like an epidemic, it’s everywhere. Unfortunately, it can’t be cured. If that rank, stuffy lobby smelled of anything other than these doughy Jewish treats, I would be disappointed. I mean, come on. This is a place where Jews come together to do the things they do best : raise money, cook, and schmooze for hours.

I knew when I walked across the parking lot that this would be different from New Delhi. The women were dropping phrases like Bermuda and botox, not bananas and breast milk. Gone were the days when I would eat red curry paste from the jar and stare at a blob suckling large brown breasts every three hours. The glory of showing a grown woman how to make a frittata has long since faded from my memory.

Instead, I face the Jewish community at large with a smile on my face and a nicotene patch on my arm. I give children pretzels and scan basketball schedules, appeasing North Shore mothers experiencing severe lox withdrawal syndrome. Like Moses, I part the sea of doubt with my good deeds and compassionate will. Unlike Moses, I eat pork and use contraception.

Turns out that life as a Jewish reject isn’t all myrrh and frankincense.

The Hunger Games Trilogy: New Era of Science Fiction

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Imagine a dystopian future in which North America is Panem, a land of districts subjugated by the Capitol located in the former Rocky Mountains. All of the districts have a special trade, and the Capitol exploits poverty-stricken workers by rationing their food supplies. Every year since the rebellion of District 13, the Capitol has held the Hunger Games to make the people its puppets. On reaping day, a boy and a girl from each district are chosen to fight to death against the other districts in an ever-changing arena. Only one victor may win.

I spent months bashing this young adult series only to have myself reprimanded for not having an open enough mind to give it a shot. I tend to reject anything that’s a fad, but there’s a reason why it’s so popular. The Hunger Games trilogy has something to offer to almost every potential fan. For people with a 6th grade reading level and a short attention span, there is simple prose and a riveting story line. For bored people on spring break, there is the time-consuming task of reading all three books, which takes about four days on average. And for intellectuals, there are political undertones and sociological allegories interspersed with just enough romance to cushion the deathly blows brought on by continuous theoretical application. Not everyone will be a fan, but everyone can and should try reading the books, which are available on the internet and at local bookstores.

When introduced to Katniss, it’s hard not to notice that for once, you’re reading a children’s book featuring a strong female protagonist with a will to stay alive. No matter what critics say about the violence in these books, Katniss is a rare example for young people reading the series that girls, too, can be strong, and that having conflicting emotions is acceptable. In juxtaposition to the nature and love infused throughout the story, the violence is politically contrived and wrong. Within District 12, things are more or less calm until the Peacekeepers intervene. Much like NATO troops, these white-clad SWAT teams are anything but peaceful.

The next thing I noticed was an almost immediate focus on animals, wildlife, and food. Katniss lives in tune with nature by hunting and gathering for her family, and Collins describes the food and the environment in detail. By the end of the first book, I have a clear picture of District 12 in my mind.

The second part of the series, Catching Fire, is an elaborated version of the jeux politiques in the first book. It gives a new spin on the games, showing what teamwork and community can provide to competitors, even when they are fighting to the death. It also develops the overarching plot of the trilogy by illustrating the civil unrest among the poorer districts. By the end of book two, Katniss ascends to Peeta’s level when she realizes that they are just puppets in the Capitol’s game. This realization is not only pivotal to the plot, but shows Katniss evolving from a girl concerned with elementary needs into a young adult with heightened political awareness. Just like in our world today, solidarity and opposition are intertwined. Is all fair in love and war ? That’s up to you to decide.

Mockingjay is the last book, and probably the goriest. It’s a sad read, as many of the heroic characters are either killed off or tortured into submission. Katniss goes through ordeal after ordeal; just when her obstacles seem insuperable, the flame in her burns on, conquering the Capitol’s death traps. Katniss reminds me of Assata Shakur, the poster woman for the minority revolution in the United States. Her autobiography, Assata, is a must-read. To see the film, click here.

The Hunger Games have turned into a full-scale war of the districts against the Capitol, but the sides aren’t so clearly defined. Katniss’s family endures the likes of World War II and what I imagine to be the next Armageddon. The concept of the Hunger Games reminded me of the Holocaust and recent genocides in Sudan and Rwanda. When asked whether or not you would inflict the same pain on your torturers, would you pick vengeance, compassion, or something in between ?

Be careful what you assume about this trilogy. It’s different from other sci–fi novels in that it’s not that hard to imagine. This could be thousands, hundreds, or even tens of years down the line. It’s shockingly similar to the world today, and that is what makes it a best-seller. The best sci-fi stories are relatable and fantastical.

If you’re not looking to kill time, you can apply theoretical musings to every facet of the story. Unemployed college graduates, put those 4 years of liberal arts and sciences to good use.

Ten

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Today begins like any other weekday. I rise up from a deep slumber to a tinny ringtone coming from the first Nokia device ever made–a cell phone that I am proud to claim as my own.

I stumble downstairs to have breakfast à la Française–a little French baguette soaked in black coffee and yogurt cushioned with a bed of honey on the bottom. This is all doused in cinnamon, of course.  My host sister comes down to eat with me and we discuss my cinema and literature class at the Sorbonne. I’ve been having trouble appreciating this class purely because of the time-frame, the prof, and the lack of friendly students. Welcome to Paris. All of my speculation leads her to ask me the simple question of whether or not I think of movies as fully anchored in reality or not, to which I respond ‘yes’. This petite breakfast club session makes me re-evaluate cinema’s place in my life. I realize that this class I’m in is actually giving me cultural reference and connecting me to people who have good taste. That’s not so bad.

Next, I work on a cover letter for an internship and head out to Bastille to meet up with a friend for lunch. We eat at a café/bistro while sitting outside in the surprisingly scorching sun until my quiche Lorraine looks like it’s about to refry itself on my plate. It’s a relaxing French meal (read : not a lot of food consumed in an hour) and the walk home consists of a discussion about identity and the intersection between theory and practice. I come to the conclusion that in order for me to live better, I need a delicate balance between the two.

I run upstairs to change my coat because it’s sunny and hot outside while I stroll down the boulevard to get to my Geography class at l’Institut Catholique de Paris.  The building itself is old, yet the kids are hip chain smokers whose parents drop mad cash for this very private, very expensive university in the heart of the city of lights. Basically, ICP is the French version of DePaul, my soon-to-be alma mater. Our airhead teacher is late per usual, and I half-listen to two student presentations–one on Colombia and one on Brazil–as I daydream about the possibilities of mixing cobalt and jade. After class, I partake in a cloppe session with some classmates and take the metro to the Latin Quarter for babysitting at 4:30.

I accidentally take the train one stop too far. The bus outside helps me backtrack, and as I walk onto the Place St. Michel from the metro, I see a small young man playing a grand old piano right in front of the gargantuan fountain. Entranced by the melodic purity of it all, I stay until he finishes the overture. I clap sincerely. It’s during the short duration of time that it takes for me to wait for the crosswalk signal to turn green that a scarf-clad French man wearing Gucci shades tells me that he also loved the piano man and that I look elegant today. Awkward. I spot a classmate of mine just behind him, and I walk over to her side and start chatting her up. Success : the creeper is out of sight.

fontaine st. michel

fontaine st. michel

The two of us spend a few minutes looking at clothes before I excuse myself to meet Madeleine, the seven year old girl I watch and speak English with, at her school. The kid and I mosey on over to the park across the street, which happens to be right in front of the famous Sorbonne. I meet a man on the bench next to me who speaks near-perfect English with an American accent, and I ask him why he doesn’t speak with a posh British accent like most of the other Parisians I’ve met. He tells me it’s because he’s got a musical ear. Turns out he’s in the movie industry.  He gives me some useful tips on screenwriting and teaches me new French words, supporting my conviction that anti-American sentiments in France are exaggerated.  After the park, we go back to the house and Madeleine’s dad, the jolly plastic surgeon, is already there. I’m free as a bird, and I take the bus home to take care of business, eat dinner, and write this blog post.

Freedom : what does it really mean ? After all, Article 4 in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (why man ?) says :

La liberté consiste à pouvoir faire tout ce qui ne nuit pas à autrui : ainsi l’exercice des droits naturels de chaque homme n’a de bornes que celles qui assurent aux autres Membres de la Société, la jouissance de ces mêmes droits. Ces bornes ne peuvent être déterminées que par la Loi.

HUMAN RIGHTS

HUMAN RIGHTS

This passage effectively states that we all have the right to do anything that does not hurt any other person, and that your liberty cannot stop others from exercising these same rights as human beings. Right on.

I enjoy being free, so naturally I like this article. For anyone who speaks French, it’s a spectacularly written declaration. Still, reading it makes me wonder about how free we all really are. One thing leads to another, and my day has turned into a big jumble of connect-the-dots–seemingly unrelated events that I have to think about in order to find causalities.

Still, causality ≠ correlation.

If my head hadn’t been in the clouds, would I have taken the metro one stop too far earlier today ? Would I have evaded being hit on by Fonzie, spent time with my classmate, or sat on the same bench as the French man with the musical ear ?

An insect flaps its wings and a tsunami happens on the other side of the world.

My daydreams are like butterflies, and the chaos that is Paris is beautiful.