Thoughts on travel

I’m currently reading Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux, and it has gotten me thinking a lot about people’s relationships to travel, and specifically international travel. My own travel experiences strongly influenced my outlook on life, and it is a thing I find to be genuinely meaningful and yet troublesome in many of its aspects, perhaps almost sickening (not in the [insert historical figure]’s revenge sort of way).

Paul Theroux is a prolific travel writer, and calls himself a “glorified tourist.” I think I understand the mental journey that leads one to such a phrase. One sees a beautiful place filled with tourists with money, who travel thousands of miles to reach a destination and then insist on finding ways to keep everything around them as similar as possible to the place they come from, starting with language. They seem loathsome in their cluelessness, so one labels these others as “tourist,” and oneself as a “traveler,” a dirtier, poorer, more enlightened visitor in a place, seeking authenticity over the tourist’s closed and protected experience.

Drunk on moral superiority, the traveler enters a dark cave. There, in a scene plagiarized straight out of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, the traveler is confronted by an angry drunk tourist, whose face is obscured by a ridiculous Columbia brand sun hat. With a swing of his rolled-up sleeping pad, the traveler decapitates the tourist. The head rolls on the ground to face the traveler, who realizes that the lifeless face looking up at him is his own…

And so, sobered up with a powerful dose of self-consciousness, the traveler can call himself a tourist once more, embarrassed by the pretension and insincerity of rejecting that perfectly appropriate label, which happens to be a convenient word understood in almost all parts of the world.

One funny object that I saw while traveling was a suitcase being loaded into a bus I was waiting to board in Iran. The ostentatiously printed brand name on the suitcase read “JAPAN TOURIST.” I’m guessing the JAPAN TOURIST brand cleverly wishes to associate its products with the glamour of having the money to travel abroad, stay in nice hotels, and eat at nice restaurants. All brands aim to associate themselves with a sort of “idealized you,” so in this sense there is nothing weird about JAPAN TOURIST being used to sell suitcases, although the directness of it caught me a little off guard.

And yet there I was, a real life “Japan Tourist,” with a grungy backpack that was honestly more vain than practical, because I guess you’re not a backpacker without a backpack. I looked generally disheveled (a surprisingly common question I was asked: “You Afghanistan?”) I was in pursuit of a different kind of glamour. Thinking of oneself as poor is central to the backpacker creed, but how many instances of being the richest person in sight (which happens frequently in certain places) will it take before this affectation becomes untenable?

But this just goes to show that not all ideas of glamorous travel fit into the JAPAN TOURIST mold. At the beginning of that trip I opened up the in-flight magazine for British Airways, and a certain ad caught my eye. A tall, blue-eyed white man in rugged clothes, thronged by brown children. It was an ad for a water purification device. Caption: “I came here to help. I can’t afford to get sick.” Make of that what you will.

You can become a traveler in pursuit of an “idealized you.” I know I did. You could try to become a JAPAN TOURIST, or the man in the water filter ad. One ideal of travel tempts the traveler with comfort, bright lights, displays of wealth and hedonistic pursuits. The other, quite opposite ideal tempts the traveler with promises of adoration, and cool stories to tell your friends when you get back home, tinged with an element of righteousness. Irritatingly for post-college me, I see a Nietzschean master/slave morality dichotomy at play here. However, it seems to me that both of these ideals all too often result in the same thing: the intrusiveness that comes from treating others’ living spaces as a playground.

International travel exposes the traveler to severe inequities in power to a degree that you rarely see at home. You step out into the street, and you are surrounded by a foreign language that everyone understands except you, which makes you powerless. At the same time, you come bearing wealth, and depending on where you are you might find yourself to be conspicuously wealthy, and this makes you powerful. These chasms must be navigated with tact, and few people do a perfect job.

What is the point of travel? You leave home, sleep on strange beds that feel like cardboard, discover delicious food, meet angels and crooks (sometimes in the same person), get sick, get in situations that are stranger than fiction (seriously, ask me about the Russian Ice Cream Thief sometime), and then you return home, and not much has changed, except your inner life feels two sizes bigger. Your acquaintances ask if you “had a nice trip” (and for the sake of convenience you may respond, “Yes”).

Is traveling good? Traveling is polluting for the earth, intrusive for others, and embarrassing for you. It also enriches the soul, and promotes world peace. Traveling and being in a strange place makes me feel more alive. I am forced to do things that I would otherwise shy away from. Things are quicker, more condensed, more saturated. More life happens while traveling, so I guess traveling, like life, is good and bad. And maybe, like life, it’s best not to think about it too much.

Life is like a dead car in the middle of winter

My car died recently. On the coldest winter day, it suddenly refused to start. Since it had been running fine the day before, I suspected it was not a major issue. It was probably something I could have eventually fixed myself, which was just as well because I didn’t have money to have it towed to a shop, and in any case I tend to view auto shops with a suspicion that makes John Mearsheimer look like Forrest Gump by comparison. However, street parking, a rapidly approaching major snowstorm, and the relentless onslaught of General Winter’s troops caused me to throw in the towel, so I found my crunchy granola stick-shift Subaru a fitting resting place supporting the fine programming of Minnesota Public Radio. It was probably a poor financial decision, but it was so easy. Afterwards, I felt like how Atlas must have felt when he found someone to watch his globe for a bit while he ran off for a bathroom break.

My current theory, developed after I got rid of the car, is that I fouled the spark plugs by flooding the engine while trying to start it, which, if true, would have entailed a disappointingly easy and cheap fix. I think the reason I flooded the engine in the first place is that the spark plugs already had some carbon deposits due to the fact that I rarely drove, and only for short distances at low RPMs. A good old Italian tuneup may have done some good. Basically, as I see it, my car died because I wasn’t driving it much. A car wants to be driven.

My mind wants to be ‘driven’ too, so in this story of my car I see a cautionary didactic tale. The use my mind gets at my job seems to me like the equivalent of your grandma driving three miles to the pet food store in her gold 1998 Buick Park Avenue, and my time spent outside of work is not much better. Am I fouling up my brain with the low RPM demands I place on it? Will I meet a similar demise on the cold, snowy streets of Saint Paul? I was okay with getting rid of my car because it was old and I wasn’t really using it, but I do need my brain to be there.

I often think back to my last year of college as a contrast to my current state. I remember this as a vaguely unhappy period in my life, but also as the time when life felt the most colorful and substantial. I had outlets for creative expression through playing in a band, drawing comics, and writing a weekly column in the college paper. Back then, if you threw a rock, you would hit a person having a creative idea. Classes were easy and fun, and something electric seemed to be in the air. Who knows how accurate any of these recollections are, but the memory of this time in my life still stands out for me as a sort of Platonic ideal.

There are some things I find helpful in my current life, such as writing this blog and meditation. But I’m still looking for that wide open highway, or at least a decent Italian tuneup every now and then.

What I’m most afraid of is that, 10 years down the line, I’ll find that whatever ability I have to be creative will have atrophied, replaced by the ability to be productive. The more the universe resolves the details of my life and blesses me with comfort, the more this fear in me grows. I guess this is another way of saying that I can always find something to complain about. So instead let’s focus on the bigger issues facing society, and I’ll hopefully find ways to take care of myself. Thanks for reading.

Being (Mindful) and Time

the monkey mind
I started meditating recently as a New Year’s resolution. When I started, I was hoping that it would help me generate better ideas for Get Rich Quick schemes. The image in my mind was of Yoda meditating on a matter, and, with a flash of intuition running through his body, opening his eyes knowing exactly what the proper course of action is. Unfortunately, this has proven to be a wildly inaccurate picture of meditation. However, I still think meditating is a exciting pursuit, and one that I hope to continue.

One cool thing about meditation that I have read about is that it can allow you to develop supernatural powers. There are stories of meditators who can view past and future occurrences, and people whose bodies start generating impossible amounts of heat during meditation. The great thing is that all of the experienced meditators whose advice I have read consider the development of these powers to be nothing more than distractions from the practice of meditation. I like this attitude of regarding one’s own supernatural powers with a slight annoyance.

Meditation has given me an interesting perspective on time. I have been doing baby meditation sessions of around ten minutes. The funny thing is that these ten minutes can feel longer and more substantive than anything else that I do for the rest of the day. Eight hours at work can also feel long, but once the work day is over it leaves absolutely no impression on my mind. It is simply time that has been carved out of my existence, leaving in its place a blank space and some numbers on a biweekly paycheck. I also spend much more than ten minutes a day reading garbage on the internet, but the end result is often the same as the time I spend at work (this time with no paycheck, of course).

All in all, ten minutes of meditation feels as substantive as, perhaps, sitting through a two hour movie. What I’m trying to say is that meditation seems to be a very profitable use of time. At the same time, it casts an uncomfortable light on just how unprofitable the vast majority of my existence is. It is kind of disconcerting when the most meaningful part of my day is sitting with my eyes closed and doing absolutely nothing.

Meditation feels like a constant battle against what is known as the “monkey mind”—that unfocused, squirming movement of a stream of thought chafing under the yoke of imposed discipline. To my knowledge, this is normal and part of the process of training the mind. Weirdly, this process seems to be good for gaining access to new perspectives, or developing half-baked ideas. I often resist the urge to constantly scribble away in a notebook while meditating, although I recently learned of a meditation movement in which this is an encouraged activity. I will have to give it a try…

All things considered, I would give meditation a thumbs up. Pros include low startup cost, gaining credentials to join the Lululemon mafia, and feeling like at least one part of your day wasn’t totally pointless. Cons include the risk of burning the clothes off your body, and arriving at insights too late to save the Jedi Order due to your diminished ability to use the Force.

Afraid of Powerball

Did you buy a Powerball ticket? The staggering sums involved in this current round are certainly exciting: the jackpot is now at a dizzying $1.3 billion. The odds of winning the jackpot—1 in 292 million. Hoping for the jackpot is kind of like hoping your name will be drawn out of a fishbowl containing the names of every American.

On the other hand, why not play? Buying a ticket is cheap, kind of fun, and hopefully at least some of the money goes to support a good cause.

Imagine winning the lottery and becoming obscenely wealthy overnight. I imagine that winning the jackpot would instantly transform you into that generic stock photo of a man in a suit clutching fistfuls of Benjamins with a victorious smile on his face. However, anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that real-life lottery winners tend to lead truly awful existences following the “luckiest day of their lives.”

The worst story I read was about a man who won the lottery whose brother proceeded to hire a hitman to murder him in the hopes of inheriting some of the winnings. In any case, conflict igniting between the lottery winner and family, friends, and even one’s own sense of self seems to be a common theme in these sorts of stories.

If you actually won the lottery, you would probably suddenly be besieged by long-forgotten friends and family members you didn’t even know existed. In every interaction that you had, you would see a financial motive lurking in the background. You would probably no longer be capable of having interactions that you could feel to be genuine, and you would gain a great understanding of what Aristotle meant by his cryptic lament: “O my friends, there is no friend.”

I think suddenly coming across hundreds of millions of dollars would be sort of like turning on god mode for life. My experience with cheat codes for god mode on video games has been that they are only fun for an hour at most, after which the game becomes incredibly boring. Right now, money imposes a great number of constraints on my life. I need to live in a certain location, limit purchases based on price, make career plans, and so on. While all of these constraints are generally pointless and stupid, they probably play an important role in preserving my sanity. I am not sure I would have the strength to live peacefully without these constraints. So I would be able to buy whatever I wanted, do whatever, go anywhere in the world? Reminds me of when I typed in a cheat code in Need for Speed to defeat all of my computer opponents by making them crash. This was admittedly sort of fun, but the canned praise after winning somehow sounded more hollow than usual (if such a thing is even possible).

I recall an aphorism that I saw hanging on the wall of a Buddhist temple: “Being different from everyone is worrisome; being the same as everyone is dissatisfying.” I can imagine the worry of having less money than most people, and I can imagine the boredom of being comfortably in the middle. But I’m curious about the dissatisfaction of being fabulously rich. I read about one lottery winner saying that he wished he had ripped his ticket up after finding out that he was a winner. On the other hand, some people don’t seem to mind being rich at all. I get the sense that people who toiled for years to gain their wealth tend to be better adjusted to the Uncle Pennybags lifestyle. Things you get for free usually end up being horrifically expensive; I have heard this said by multiple wise people, and it has been my real experience as well. And it seems that lottery winners often end up paying for their free millions with the most precious things imaginable: family, friends, and the unappreciated privilege of being “just like everyone else.”

Not that any of this matters, but it’s interesting to think about. Did I buy a ticket, you ask? Not a chance. I think it’s a waste of money, but I do admit that a small, irrational part of me is afraid to win.

The dismal pseudoscience

What is money? We all know it’s a gas, a hit, and a crime, but what is it really?

If you use banking like most normal people, than I guess money is little bits of data somewhere as an abstract representation of paper money that is attributed to you. Paper money has value because most everyone that you meet will agree that it is valuable. In the past, paper money had a predetermined value of a certain amount of gold, but this is no longer the case.

Gold is also a thing that people agree is valuable. It is valuable because there isn’t very much of it in the Earth’s crust, and it is shiny.

All it would take for a briefcase containing a million dollars to become a worthless box of scratchy toilet paper is for everyone at once to stop believing that money has value. Basically the same thing could be said for gold, but at least gold has certain important industrial applications.

The more I think about money, the more it seems to be not a real thing. After graduating from high school, I worked in a store to save money to go traveling. I withdrew $1000 in Benjamins to bring with me on my trip, and I remember being disappointed that so many fairly unpleasant hours of labor could be reduced to these ten tiny pieces of paper. I am comfortable with the concept of money because I have grown up with it, but I can’t help but think that it often fails the “sniff test.”

While I cannot substantiate any of the claims I am about to make, it seems to me that money, perhaps because it is not “real,” can behave in strange, perhaps even supernatural ways. For instance, although it is a basic fact of money that spending it leaves you with less, I can’t shake the feeling that losing money brings more money to me through other channels. And I don’t mean this in the “you have to spend money to make money” sense, which refers to money explicitly spent with a certain return in mind. The phenomenon I refer to is not logical at all.

For example, I once had a large amount of cash stolen from me. I hung up my coat somewhere, and while I was away, someone took the wad of bills that I had left in my coat. Soon afterwards, I got the money back, but not from the thief. Completely out of the blue, I was given a cash award for artistic activity from my college. I was not a particularly artistic person, and I had never even heard of this award, so this money was completely unexpected. The cash amount of the award I received was exactly the amount of cash that had been stolen from my coat pocket.

I’ve seen this phenomenon work in reverse as well. I once bought a cool looking calculator for a few dollars at an estate sale, but later found out that this model of calculator was being sold for almost a hundred dollars on eBay. Naturally, I jumped in on the action and sold the calculator. A few days later, I received a speeding ticket, and the fine was uncannily similar to the amount I had sold the calculator for.

In a more general sense, I seem to always have enough money, and yet I never have as much as I would like. This is unchanging. What changes is the scale of my income and expenditures, which somehow always seem to cancel each other out.

Money leaves you, but then the exact amount that you need comes into your possession. Money comes to you, but then you are obligated to pay out almost all of it for unexpected uses. Although there is no way I could ever prove this, my intuition strongly tells me that it is true. Deepak Chopra writes of money being a sort of energetic flow. If you hold onto it, it withers. The only thing to do with money is to circulate it. Spend, receive, and repeat. Making this flow more voluminous is what we refer to as wealth. It has nothing to do with having a large amount of money sitting untouched in your bank account. Although you could dismiss this idea as hogwash without any possibility of rebuttal, it is nonetheless consistent with my experiences.

It is my suspicion that certain people intuitively understand the energetic force of money and ensure wealth for themselves. Although I’m not sure of the workings of this energy or even of its existence, I definitely plan to be more attentive to the esoteric workings of money. If you find all of this incredibly stupid, then I guess I have nothing substantive to say to convince you otherwise. It would definitely be reasonable to focus instead on boring stuff like gaining marketable skills and paying into your 401(k).

How to make a tiny cup of powerful coffee

A cool thing about capitalism is that you can choose from many different kinds of a given commodity. I remember going to the store recently to buy flour, and feeling overwhelmed by the many different options available to me. These various choices all contained ground up seeds from the same species of plant, so they were all basically the same thing, but it was a mildly fun experience nonetheless.

One of my favorite things that I saw in Russia was a drab gray delivery truck that was simply stenciled with the word “ХЛЕВ” (bread). The purpose of the writing on this truck was to simply state: “This is bread.” There was absolutely no branding nor any effort to distinguish the product at hand. I was struck by how acapitalistic this was. In America, the bread might be branded as a “disruptive wheat platform leveraging crowdsourced consumption to fill the hunger niche.”

Which is to say, or perhaps not to say, that cool things generally come in many kinds, like beer, wine, cars, or coffee.

However, out of these, coffee is the coolest of all, because it allows you to double-dip and be twice as bourgeois: once you are finished choosing what kind of coffee to get, you can then choose a method of brewing it.

Basically, all you have to do is make ground coffee enter and then exit some hot water, but it’s amazing how many different ways of doing this have been invented. There’s your old standby, the Mr. Coffee (as well as the more pretentious models Dr. Coffee and Coffee, JD) the Freedom Press (formerly known as the French Press), as well as a bunch of others that don’t lend themselves as well to jokes.

I seem to have many tools for making coffee in my kitchen. As I mentioned, they all pretty much do the same thing. But in my Sisyphean pursuit of coffee chic, I decided to get yet another tool.


This is a Vietnamese coffee filter dripping into my mini Moomin mug. Moomin is a Finn. This little filter is called a “phin.” I took this as a strong sign that these two objects were meant to be paired. I got this mug as a promotion from Mister Donut in Japan (as they were facing stiff competition at the time from Doctor Donut and Donut, JD.)

How it works is that you put ground coffee into the phin, and then pour hot water over it. The water comes back out of the phin, but the ground coffee stays inside. Does this sound familiar?

Perhaps a little non-standard is the resulting brew volume, which I would describe as “Euro.” Hence the mini Moomin mug. The brew is also very muscular, being darker than the depths of Dick Cheney’s soul. The resulting brew is pretty much interchangeable with a moka pot brew in my mind, but the phin is much less fussy, and much quicker. You do not have to watch the process with an eagle eye, as you do with the moka pot. Since the phin came to my kitchen, my moka pot has been relegated to shelf-warmer status.

The “proper” way to enjoy this brew is to pour it over ice and mix with sweetened condensed milk, which is delicious, but I think it is good black as well.

The best part is that one of these filters will only set you back around $5 at your local Asian grocery store. This is how you know that you are on the leading edge of hipness. Watch out when you see one for sale for $20 in a trendy café somewhere next to some Moleskine journals. Then you will know that it is time to seek the next challenge. Ceremony means nothing to us. The coffee is all.

Taking away

After typing up 1300 words, I remembered the wise words of Antoine de Saint Exupéry: “perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away…”

After taking this advice to heart, eventually I found myself staring at a blank page. Perfection is sadder than you might think.

It’s good to explore all approaches to writing, though. I just might go Full Creed for my next post.

Coffee, anon

I didn’t drink coffee for a long time because I didn’t want to be a part of the weird cult of personality surrounding this beverage. Like, I hope no one ever catches me drinking coffee out of one of those ostensibly funny “if you get between me and my coffee I will bite your torso and give you a disease” type mugs.

Of course, I eventually broke down, and I do actually believe now that coffee is the best part of waking up, although that’s not really saying a whole lot.

While I don’t want to be a coffee snob, I do find myself really confused by how bad the coffee from the S— chain is. It tastes like a delicate blend of Colombian Folgers and Ethiopian cigarette butts. It’s definitely worse than your generic Office Coffee. Although I suppose judging the S— company based on their plain coffee rather than the sugary drinks that the S— chain is known for is a bit like judging Nirvana based on their weird cover of that one song by The Cars.

However, with absolutely no data to back me up, I would like to point out that the S— chain played an important role in making coffee into the hip commodity that we know and love today. It may or may not have been the S— chain that used a vaguely Euro element to market coffee, but let’s just say that it was, and boy was it a clever move. Coffee moved from its traditional realm of the diner to the “café.” Look at that “é”! So Euro!

Though praising S— is nowadays pretty gauche among those who like their coffee “haute,” the appeal of Euro cool in the world of coffee lives on. One fun piece of coffee equipment I have is the Bialetti Moka Express. It is so cool. It takes forever to use and is a pain in your bidet-washed butt to clean, but it definitely makes interesting coffee, and it is so cool.

Perhaps interesting given the fact that a lot of our coffee culture looks outside of the US for inspiration: can you guess the biggest thing that sets the American coffee culture apart from the rest of the world? Apparently, it is that Americans stubbornly refuse to buy instant coffee. Weird, but true. When is the last time that you bought instant coffee? I had never had it, until recently. All I knew was that “true” coffee drinkers would rather drink S— coffee with tears streaming from their hiply bespectacled eyes than be caught near the stuff.

An interesting quote from an interesting read: “The U.S. is entirely unique in its aversion to instant coffee.”

If this is true, doesn’t this put instant coffee in the same category as manual transmission cars, universal healthcare, trains, unlocked phones, and capri pants? I like all of those things! (Except capri pants, although I guess they make sense.) Time to experience the Next Big Thing in hip coffee enlightenment—instant coffee!

No filter
No filter

Soon, I found myself the proud owner of a jar of N—é Clásico. Just look at that “é”! That “á”!

I assume you know this already, but instant coffee is a powder that you drop into hot water. It really lives up to the “instant” part of its name, setting it apart from misnomers such as instant noodles (2 minutes to make), instant cameras (2 minutes of flapping a gray square), and “Instant Karma!” by John Lennon (playing time—3:18).

As for the taste? I think of instant coffee as a different substance from regular coffee. As a drink in and of itself, I think N—é Clásico is pretty okay. But it fails to be Actual Coffee in a lot of respects. It basically doesn’t have any fragrance. I would say the difference between coffee and instant coffee is like the difference between Han Solo and one of those cardboard cutouts of Han Solo that nerds own: pretty similar, as long as you ignore an entire dimension.

But those cutouts are kind of cool in their own right, and in any case, you don’t really think Actual Han Solo would want to hold a dynamic pose in your room all day long, do you? I definitely see the value of cardboard Han Solo—and instant coffee. Instant coffee is easy and quick, and while it may be kind of bad, it is bad in a comforting, passive sort of way. (This makes it way better than Actual S— coffee, which is actively bad.)

I guess instant coffee is kind of like capri pants. Sensible, but just not that great.

Blog days

Thanks for stopping by my blog. No longer content with simply being a Millennial, I have decided to become a Millennial Blogger. This is because I was informed by Your Uncle that the US economy will be largely blog-based by the year 2030.

I will mostly write about things I am interested in, such as food, books, auto repair, music, and places that are far away. Do any of those topics interest you? I hope to keep things fun and enjoyable as opposed to serious and worthwhile.

More than anything, I hope to get better at writing by posting on a semi-regular schedule. But who knows if that will happen. (Ambiguous!)

Skeptically yours,