Words and More Words

I often find myself participating in conversations wondering what the point of all of it is.  Sometimes words and phrases just seem like trivial mouth sounds put forth as a desperate plea for the silence to stop.

“Oh, you like blue?  …How interesting!  I’m more of a magenta fan myself.”

“How was your day?  Good?  …Cool.  …Yeah, it’s really raining outside.”

“Words words words …words words words…..”

Even seemingly important topics:

“I think the Donald Trump candidacy reveals a horrifying malaise that has been spawned from a disillusioned American electorate.  What do you think?”

“Perhaps it was when the human species acquired language that we were cast out of Eden, so to speak, forever condemned to experience the world through symbols, and thus detached from the rawness of reality.  Pass the chips.”

“Words words words words words….”

Or sentimental expressions:

“I love you.”

“Words.”

An ex of mine once told me that I’m too concerned with sounding smart.  This blog is proof.  I put a lot of effort into making insights and being eloquent, but really it all boils down to a deep insecurity: if I can’t provide insight for others, then what worth do I have?

“You don’t speak like a normal human being.”
“Your language is affected.”
“Nobody talks like you do.”
“You’ve gone through life with people praising your intelligence; you don’t know how to handle being average.”
“You don’t need to prove to the world that you’re smart.  Nobody cares that much.”
“Words words words words words…”

Not all of this was said by my ex.  Some were said by others I know.  Some were said by nobody but myself.

Seldom do people talk more than I do in a conversation.  I blabber words constantly.  I try to be insightful.  I try to be funny.  But it all comes from a place that’s desperate to prove [to myself] that I have a right to exist, that I have value.  But what is the value in person,  how much others enjoy spending time with them?

Is that to say that if you’re not interesting, if you’re not smart, if you’re not funny, then you are worthless?  That’s horrifying.

The concept of value is horrifying.

But alas, when it comes down to it, most of my words, whether superficial greetings, intimate discussions, or mundane observations, probably boil down to, “I’m afraid of being lonely.”

And yours probably do too.

So when I’m speaking with you…

“Oh my God, today was such a hard day at work.  I had to deal with some terrible customers.”
“You too?  Did you sleep well last night?  Nothing like a good night’s sleep.”

…maybe instead of hearing…

“Words words words words words words words….”
“Words words!  Words words words?  Words words…”

…I should be hearing…

“I’m afraid of being lonely.”
“You don’t need to be afraid of being lonely.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because I’m also afraid of being lonely.  But if you’re here talking to me, what is there to be afraid of?”

I wish I could host a party, or a camping trip, or some sort of experimental social gathering where those present did not speak, just to see what sort of communication becomes possible without words to obscure the true visceral energy that connects us.  I imagine that, after a period of initial discomfort, we would find peace within our company, because there would be nothing to distract us from the blessing of being together at last.

May those that are born lost find a home in one another.

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The World’s Smartest Person

I do not know who the World’s Smartest Person is, but I do not believe we’ll be able to find them where we assume them to be.

They probably aren’t holding some prestigious post at some prestigious university, publishing their findings in prestigious periodicals few will read.

They probably aren’t pioneering the latest gizmos and gadgets, conceiving of new, innovative ways to monetize your information through the veil of technological convenience.

They probably never wrote an eight-voice fugue at the age of four, nor could they play on the piano, blindfolded and upside down, a concerto they once heard last year.

They’re probably none too concerned with the prospect of space travel, of wrapping humans in magnetic tubes and shooting them across continents to save a movie’s worth of commute time.  They might not even be sitting at a fancy desk, wearing a suit, manipulating the economy with their fingertips, buying and selling elections, businesses, people, pasts, futures, or whatever else the enormously powerful seem to be able to control.

They probably don’t have a set of quirky habits and eccentric routines emulated by thousands or millions of fanboys and fangirls who blog about how putting on the left shoe before the right is obviously the key to unleash one’s inner genius, particularly when combined with exactly three eggs for breakfast at 6:24am.

No, the Smartest Person in the World probably doesn’t go chasing accolades.

They probably don’t write enumerated articles on the twenty-five habits of highly successful people, let alone read them.

They might not even know how to play chess.

 

When we meet the Smartest Person in the World, we probably won’t realize it.  They will be dressed as we don’t expect them to dress and speak as we don’t expect them to speak.  They might not have fancy tools, nor a particularly extensive library filled with large books and even larger words.

Their neighbors might even call them a fool, because they will not understand them.  But surely, none of us will understand them.  They are the World’s Smartest Person.  How can we truly understand they who can comprehend what we cannot?

Is it that accolades, fortunes, and innovations are creations of mankind?  Of course the World’s Smartest Person is none too concerned with mankind’s frivolous pursuits (for of course we are but a fleeting blip on the timeline of the universe!).  Or is the World’s Smartest Person also unconcerned with the timeline of the universe (it is but a meaningless abstraction for what otherwise concerns mankind here and now!)?

Perhaps the Smartest Person in the World more concerned with the expansiveness of one’s internal universe rather than the external.

Or perhaps neither?  Maybe they would rather not humor such foolish questions.

Do they use their great genius to seek inner peace?  Does their vast intellect allow them to be content existing anonymously?  Or are peace and turmoil, happiness and unhappiness: are these laughable dualities we’ve invented to keep us occupied chasing after or fleeing from simpleminded abstractions lest we suffocate in our own horrible idleness?

“Hah!  As if happiness could be achieved!  Happiness is a journey, not a destination!” writes somebody who is not the Smartest Person in the World in a widely circulated popular magazine.  It is printed next to an ad featuring a woman snorkeling: “Travel the Caribbean!” because true fulfillment is often found amongst exotic fish.

Alas, the Smartest Person in the World probably finds just as much fulfillment in talking to their neighbor about the weather as they do solving theoretical puzzles.  They probably enjoy watching corn grow just as much as watching a symphony play.  To them, the Great Plains are just as interesting as the Rocky Mountains.  Quantum physics is fascinating, but so is carpentry.

And what is idle banter to most would be for them deep insights into the workings of the human spirit, the mind, the universe: an insight which the World’s Smartest Person would feel no inclination to share with the world.

“But you could make money!” we would say.

“You could be famous!” we would say.

“You could better the world!” we would say.

And they would know we would say this, so instead, they simply smile or frown: Let them think me a fool.  It is no matter.  “Yes, rain is coming this Thursday.  Time to bring the chickens in…  Ha ha, my ears are burning; somebody must be talking about me.  …what was that?  No, I didn’t hear about the fight downtown.  Jimmy’s boy?  Damned shame.  …well, you know what they say: a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush…” and so on and so forth.  Just like the rest of us.

By their death, few will have even known their name, which might be for the best.  They probably would’ve preferred it that way.  Besides, there are some truths we are unequipped to handle.

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Ambition and Humility

Once upon a time, in my starry-eyed youth, I believed I was going to be a great composer, premiering my works in ornate halls around the world.  I was also going to be a great novelist, whose widely-circulated stories would explore the depths of the human spirit.  Maybe by my early thirties, my artistic notoriety would propel me into a prolific life of politics, and by my forties, I would be reluctantly accepting both of my Nobel Prizes, and shortly thereafter the presidential nomination.  After my second term, I would retire into a life of film scoring.  The Academy Awards would stand quite nicely beside the wall of Pulitzers.

If this vision seems rather obnoxious and insufferable, that’s because it is.  It’s also ambitious.  The two are often correlated.

I’m a composer, but I’m not a great composer.  I’ve started many novels and finished none of them.  I’m currently training to be a teacher, and I think I’ll be a pretty good one.  Some have said I lost ambition.  That might be true, but it might not be a bad thing.

In teachers college, we often discuss education as a tool for economic advancement.  It’s one of the ways we justify our industry to policymakers: we need well-funded schools so that our children can learn marketable skills, get good jobs, enhance the economy, and compete with China, Russia, Japan, or whichever international power we’ve crowned as our rivals.  Please give us money.

It is true: we have the ambitious to thank for our world.  But I’m starting to believe ambition to be a cultural disease.  We tell children: “Work Harder!  Achieve more!  Be greater!  More money!  More power!  More influence!” as if our children will one day find true happiness atop a pile of gold while watching the stock market grow like an orchard around them.  (Ironically, we also tell them they’re perfect just the way they are, which I’m sure sets them up for a lifetime of self-loathing when “just the way they are” doesn’t get them all the money and influence they’re supposed to have.)

I am reminded of the Silicon Valley Dream: entrepreneurs, tech advocates, programmers, ambitious young workers eager to innovate, to “disrupt” the world in which we live, and to make bank off selling their small business to Google and retire at thirty-five.

And then what?  To what end is disruption?  Having your own charity?

This year, I’ve had to struggle with the idea of failure as a possible, if not likely reality.  It’s a period in life I imagine many of us ambitious, dreamy youths go through, and the experience is akin to a depressive identity crisis.  But it occurred to me that maybe I’m playing the wrong game.  Maybe most of us are playing the wrong game.

Maybe the struggle should be between peace and turmoil.  Not failure and success.

If I were homeless, sleeping under a tree in a park, and yet woke up every morning feeling spiritually content albeit spending my days hungry and weak, just to go to sleep night after night finding peace in the cycles of joys and sorrows, life and death, and finding comfort in the triviality of my role in the vast, complexity of the universe, how in any way could you say that I’ve failed as a human being?  What if I were an egocentric business magnate, panicking over the prospect of losing his empire, unable to reckon with mortality, hated by one half the world and envied by the other?

Maybe the quality of being ambitious is a curse, more than a positive trait.  The ambitious tend to live lives of discontent, a constant desire to achieve more than what one already has, a tendency to alienate those around them in their quest to ascend the ranks.  I know, because I’ve been ambitious.

Success and failure are determined by society at large.  In order to be ambitious, you have to accept their game.  And like most games, perhaps winning it is empty.

I am reminded of a popular sentiment I see often on the internet: “Surround yourself with positive people / greatness / people who lift you up,” and so on and so forth.  Sure, it’s best we not involve ourselves with those who get some sick pleasure cruelly putting us down, but perhaps surrounding ourselves with positivity feeds the beast of emotional insecurity.  Like with ambition, wherein we seek satisfaction through the relative status of others, excessively valuing positivity forces us to rely on the praise of others for self-esteem.

This is most apparent with body-image issues, and while I admire those who attempt to reject the sinister, manipulative psychological warfare the beauty industry wages on women in particular, redefining beauty as being more inclusive still places supreme value on beauty.  The sentiment, “Big is beautiful,” for instance, is admirable in that it seeks to rectify the damage done by fat-shaming, but what if big isn’t beautiful?  Or worse yet, what if beauty is superficial and fleeting?

What if being told you’re beautiful is merely a cheap and temporary remedy for some deeply unshakable spiritual malaise?  Like a tylenol for a virus.

Instead of, “Oh honey, you’re gorgeous!” we should say, “You’re not gorgeous, but who gives a shit?  You’re still a human being, and I like being around you.”

Instead of, “Don’t worry dear, you’re super talented,” we should say, “Do you enjoy what you do?  Because it doesn’t matter how talented you are or aren’t if you do.”

Instead of, “You’re a genius,” we should ask, Are you pleasant?”

In our world of lavish praise, where great compliments are cheaper than the words that say them, what is the value of sincerity?  Just a needle in the haystack of billions of “You’re Awesome!”s floating around in the stratosphere?

Every so often, particularly in times of depression accompanied by terrible self-esteem, someone, surely with good intentions, reaffirms: “You’re amazing!” or “You’re beautiful!” or “You’re so talented!” or something similarly mundane.  I would encourage people not to do this, because this is what the recipient might think in response: “If this is what amazing feels like, then what do I have to look forward to?”
“If this is what it feels like to be beautiful, then what is beauty?”
“If this is what it feels like to be talented, then to what goal am I working?”

I recently had a conversation with a cousin of mine.  I would consider him successful.  He has a great job and a loving family.  I confided in him about my unhappiness: “I feel that I am great.  And yet, I know myself to not be great.  How does one set aside one’s ego?  How does one give up on one’s dreams and not go insane?  How long does the torment of realizing you’re not better than everyone else last?  How does one stomach the prospect of failure, or worse yet, mediocrity?”

He said to me, “When I worked at Walmart, I believed I deserved something more.  I thought I was smarter than everyone around me.  I thought I was more capable than those around me.  I thought I had talent and ambition and a great future, and that Walmart was an unfortunate stepping stone. I didn’t understand why I was there.  And yet there I was working, alongside everybody else, day in and day out.  Eventually I realized I may end up working at Walmart for the rest of my life.  I can either grow bitter and resent my misfortune, or I can accept it and work hard and cheerfully alongside my equals.  At the very least, I could set an example for my son so that he may too one day work hard and value the people around him as his equals as well.”

Let us strive not for greatness, but for humility.

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Doubt and Freedom

In a normal social interaction, an action usually provokes a single and consistent reaction.

Etiquette

Social behaviors are matters of custom.  In the Real World, into which we awake and generally spend most of our time, social action and reaction are second nature.  Of course there are ambiguous oft difficult social situations, but for the most part, we need not think of such matters.  Most interactions have one logical pathway.

Normal human interaction.

Given pretty much any circumstance, there are only ever one or two appropriate reactions to a social event.  All other possibilities are so absurd as to not be considered.

Wrong Choices

Overwhelming moments of doubt, which may or may not be induced by various illicit substances or extended periods of sleeplessness, can often bring one to question whether or not simple tasks or behaviors are normal or acceptable given a certain set of circumstances.  The appropriate pathways start to break down, and the innate social rules that guide whether or not a pathway is a valid acceptable interaction get cloudy and ambiguous.

Drugs.

Let us call this doubt the Forbidden Fruit.  It casts its victim out from the Eden of social confidence, resulting in an individual who is deeply confused regarding every aspect of routine human interaction.  When every pathway becomes possible, no pathway seems acceptable.  All sorts of questions arise.

“Is it weird for me to be making eye contact with the crossing guard?”
“Do I shake hands with and introduce myself to the person next to me at a concert?”
“Should I ask the cute girl next to me on the airplane if she’d like to get dinner in Terminal 3 after landing?”
“This first date is going poorly.  Perhaps it would be going better if I were naked?”
“Why are my hands in my pockets?  Perhaps they should be out of my pockets.  But where else, if not my pockets?”

This doubt is terrifying, but it should be unbelievably liberating, because it brings forth an infinite number of possibilities as to how we can react to situations, what we can say to people, and in general how we can identify ourselves.

Except, for the most part, every pathway except for one or two are simply unacceptable. 

Drugs are bad.

You cannot punch a street philanthropist in the face.  You cannot strip naked in a coffee shop.  Once these alternate ways of approaching routine social interaction become acceptable you, you become what is known as “crazy” and often times “a felon.”  Our educational, religious, and legal structures are built to eliminate other pathways and reinforce the one established pathway.  The penal system exists for those who refuse to accept the established pathway, and mental institutions exist for those whose pathways are generally dysfunctional.

We are not born into the world as blank slates.  We are born as “Choose Your Own Adventure” books.  Sure, we have some amount of control over our lives, but very limited options that force us to engage in a predetermined script.  From the moment you’re born, you are destined to live out an infinitesimally small percentage of possible lives from the infinite number of lives that are possible to exist.

Our lives are void of true self-determination.

That is language.  That is culture.  That is society.

If we’re not consciously aware of this, we are at least subconsciously aware of it.  That’s why we fantasize.  Fantasy is refuge from the proper pathways.  Fantasy is where we allow our antisocial desires to play out.

But do not be discouraged.  There are ways you, Reader, can free your identity from the grasps of culture.  They may be small.  They may be inconsequential.  You may not be able to greet a stranger by clucking like a chicken and throwing feces toward the sky, but freedom is close at hand.

For instance, just recently, I went to Lake County, California for no other reason than a desire to see Clear Lake.  At Clear Lake State Park, there exists a cove for swimmers.  Families were picnicking on the beach, and all sorts of people young and old were swimming in the greenish, algae waters.

I pulled up to the parking lot and got out of my car.  I was the only one there by myself.  Why on earth would someone go to a state park swimming cove alone, with no swimsuit and fully clothed no less?  What is my business there?

I walked right up to the water between frolicking families and friends, touched it with one finger, turned around, went back to my car, and drove away.

Take that, Society!

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Mountaineering

There exists a certain madness that consumes many who seek adventure amidst their tame and sterile realities.  This madness drives us to jeopardize the lives and safety of ourselves and those we love, and yet we revere those who are possessed by this madness as if they are brave, swashbuckling heroes rather than selfish, reckless egomaniacs.

I of course speak of mountaineers.

The men of my family are avid hikers.  We were born and raised on the dusty trails of the Sierra Nevada, whose peaks form a 400-mile long granite ridge along the arid eastern part of California.  To summit a mountain in the Sierras is to hike along a well-groomed trail for several days until the mountain is conquered by hopping from boulder to boulder or up a shale gully until there is no place higher to climb.

Bishop Pass

But what’s the point of summiting?  The Sierras are a range of valleys and canyons, not of mountaintops.

There are no crevasses.  No bergschrunds.  No seracs.

A while ago, my father decided he wanted to climb Mount Rainier and bring his sons with him.  Naturally, without much thought, we agreed.

Mount Rainier, for those of you unfamiliar, is the most topographically prominent mountain in the contiguous United States, and by far the most glaciated.  It poses certain risks that do not often exist in the Sierras, the Rockies, or the Appalachians.  Beyond sheer altitude alone: there’s the possibility of avalanche, ice fall, rock fall, crevasses, and so on and so forth.  A climber is required to use crampons, an ice axe, a helmet, a rope and harness, and other such pieces of equipment meant to imply you will surely die.

Rainier

There are other Cascades that are similar: Mount Hood, Mount Shasta, and Mount Baker to name a few, but none are as big and bad as Rainier.

The night before the climb, the three of us sat in a sushi restaurant in Seattle, each individually wondering why on earth we were doing this.  It wasn’t just the prospect of toil, labor, sleeplessness, and exhausting effort that lay before us.  It was also the prospect of death.  Of course, any real mountaineer will tell you Rainier is pretty tame in the grand scheme of mountaineering.  It doesn’t even begin to lick the likes of the Himalayas and Andes, or even the Alps.  The chance of death on Mount Rainier is close to zero.  But it isn’t zero.

So why do it?

Other than the unreal views.

I mean other than the unreal views.

Over 100 people have died while hiking on Mount Rainier in its recorded American history.  That is a tiny fraction of people who have embarked upon its summit.  By contrast, Annapurna in Nepal has a 38% mortality rate.  That means for every three people who make it to the top, more than one person dies trying.

And yet people continue to climb it.  And we don’t consider these people mentally ill.

In 2008, there was a disaster on the Pakistani mountain of K2, the second tallest mountain in the world.  It killed 11 people.  Norwegian Cecilie Skog lost her husband in that disaster.  She responded by crossing Antarctica in 2010.  Korean Go Mi-young survived only to die one year later on Nanga Parbat.

What madness drives them to look death in the face and say, “Okay, sure, but what else have you got?”

If a mountain wants to kill you, it will.  No matter how prepared you are, how experienced you are, how safe you are, there exists a certain lack of control over your fate that you hand to Mother Earth when you agree to be a mountaineer, and that lack of control instills reverence within.  It’s a sort of reverence that combats modern man’s disillusionment with his triumph over nature.  On Rainier, I felt enamored with the natural world, because I once again felt that I am at its mercy.  Yet Rainier isn’t even particularly dangerous, and I am not particularly experienced.

And pooping becomes recreational.

Also, pooping becomes recreational.

But for me, it’s two things in particular: 1) the singularity of goal, and 2) the destruction of the superficial.

When you climb a mountain, you have one goal: summit.  And then after that, you have another goal: get down.  That is all there is.  In our daily lives, in our relationships and our occupations, purpose and meaning can be complicated, and we often live out contradictions between what is important to us and what we think is important to us.  Am I in the right job?  Do I love my wife?  Am I a good father?  Am I a good son?  Does being a good father preclude being a good employee?  Do I have a car worthy of my neighbors’ jealousy?  Do I prefer Coke or Pepsi?  And so on and so forth until we go home after work and drink ourselves into a dazed stupor because we can’t handle the bullshit life throws at us with its expectations for us and our expectations for it.

But on a mountain, you go up.  And once you’re done going up, you go down.  The bullshit is stripped away.  There is up.  Then there is down.  There is no promotion.  There is no marriage counseling.  There is no silly quarrel with an in-law.  If you don’t go up, you fail.  If you don’t go down, you die.  It’s really quite simple.

All of life’s complexities melt away.  At least for a little bit.

And with that singularity of goal and simplicity of life comes the destruction of the superficial filth that haunts our daily existences; social codes and norms that seem intrinsic to the society in which we are forced to function are suddenly meaningless.  You don’t care about how dirty you are.  You don’t care about how smelly you are.  Your clothes are hideously unfashionable.  You’re hungry so you eat, and you’re thirsty so you drink.  You pee alongside strangers, shaking it for all the Puget Sound to see, and you shit on an exposed field of ice visible to all who care to watch.  You haven’t shaved in three days.  Snot is frozen to your upper lip.  But you don’t care what anybody thinks, because you’re on a big ol’ mountain, and so is everyone around you.

And suddenly, you come ever so close to finally experiencing a genuine, raw existence.

Likelihood pooping

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Behind the Iron Curtain: Belarus

I recently had the fortune of traveling to the last dictatorship in Europe: Belarus.

Somehow you can tell it's still run by a dictatorship.

The Gateway to Belarus (kind of)

For those of you who don’t know the Who, What, Where, When, Why, or How of Belarus, allow me to share:

Belarus is medium-sized European nation that lies between Poland and Russia, or between Lithuania (and Latvia) and Ukraine, depending on how you look at it.  It is near the geographical center of the European continent.  Historically speaking, there are a lot of different ways one could geographically place Belarus:

– When Chernobyl exploded, most of the fallout landed in Belarus.
– When Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, he actually invaded Belarus.
– When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, they actually invaded Belarus (at the precise location pictured above).
– When the Russians partitioned Poland, they actually partitioned Belarus.
– When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, they actually bombed Belarus.
– That last one is a lie.

As you can tell, Belarus has a confusing history full of turmoil and convoluted national identity issues.  In the last thousand years, Belarus has been a part of Kievan Rus’ (a predecessor nation to modern day Ukraine and Russia as well), Poland, Lithuania, Poland-Lithuania, Russia, and the USSR.

For those of who haven’t stopped reading already, I will entice you to read further by promises of titillating Soviet symbolism:

They still very much love a little hammer and sickle in Belarus.

They still very much love a little hammer and sickle in Belarus.

There’s more where that came from.

As an American, one of the most fascinating things about Belarus is that, at least on an aesthetic level, it behaves as if it’s still living the glory days of the USSR, our sworn enemies of the Cold War.  It is one of the few places that continues to use Soviet symbolism.  Even Russia cut that shit out in the 90’s.  Visiting Belarus is a rare opportunity to observe life and culture as we were unable to see it in the era of the Berlin Wall.  Of course, it’s completely different than it used to be under the Commies, but really, it’s as close as we can get.

And part of that Soviet aesthetic is having huge, monolithic monuments to brave, flawless, proletariat heroes struggling in the Great Patriotic War against Fascism.

The struggle used to be against fascists.  Now it's against disinterested tourists on their smartphones.

The struggle used to be against fascists. Now it’s against disinterested tourists on their smartphones.

I’d say only a post-Soviet nation could be capable of such pompous monuments, but alas, I forget we in the United States have Mount Rushmore.

After a while, he's gonna develop a kink in his neck.

After a while, he’s gonna develop a kink in his neck.

Going back to Belarusian history real quick for a brief summary (skip over this part if you want to just look at pictures):

The old Belarusian coat of arms

The old Belarusian coat of arms

The region of modern day Belarus has, since the beginning of modern European history, been inhabited by a Slavic-speaking peoples.  These peoples spoke what was then known as “Ruthenian,” an East-Slavic predecessor to modern Belarusian and Ukrainian languages.  Eventually, these Ruthenian lands were taken over by Lithuania.  Both the Lithuanian speakers (not a Slavic language) and the Ruthenian speakers (a Slavic language) were known as Lithuanians because that was the political nation under which they existed.

The Lithuanian coat of arms

The Lithuanian coat of arms

Eventually Poland and Lithuania joined into a union of two nations, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which included most of modern day Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine: a multilingual nation of Polish, Lithuanian, and Ruthenian speakers.  Because of the union with Poland, the nobility of Lithuania (some of which may have spoken Lithuanian, and most of which spoke Ruthenian) began to speak Polish, and yet continued to call themselves Lithuanian.

This is why Adam Mickiewicz, Poland’s most famous poet (born in Belarus), was able to write a Polish epic poem whose first line is “Lithuania, my fatherland!”  (Litwo, ojczyzno moja!)  All three nations claim them as their own and erect statues in his honor.

As it turns out, many Belarusians are still proud of their Lithuanian-related heritage.

Many Belarusians are still proud of their Lithuanian-related heritage.

Over time, the Ruthenians who lived under the Lithuanian domain began to evolve their language into Belarusian, and the Ruthenians who lived under the Polish domain began to evolve their language into Ukrainian.  The current political divide between Belarus and Ukraine roughly corresponds to the divide between Poland and Lithuania in the 17th century.

As it turns out, most people in Belarus speak Russian, and Belarusian is actually spoken by an extreme minority.  This is due to centuries of linguistic oppression by the Poles and Russians alike.  However, there is a resurgence of learning and speaking the language among patriotic intellectuals with an interest in their language and history.  My two Belarusian guides, who could only be described as members of an existing Belarusian nationalistic intelligentsia, insist on speaking Belarusian to each other even though both of their first languages was Russian.  At the heart of this is a resentment of the Russian domination of Belarus in recent centuries.  “Belarus” is Russian-applied term, which literally means “White Rus” (or “White Russia” if we wish to get topical), essentially implying that Belarus belongs to the Russian dominion (along with “Little Russia,” aka: Ukraine).  Apparently some Belarusians call themselves “Litvin,” a nostalgic callback to their time as Lithuania and a rejection of the notion of them being White Russia.

In fact, before I went to Belarus, I called its inhabitants “Belorussian” because that was the spelling suggested by my browser’s spellcheck.  My Litvin guide corrected me: “It’s not Belorussian.  It’s Belarusian.  We are not Russian.  We are Rus’.”

Now, if you’re still reading, let me reward you with some more sexy pictures of Soviet kitsch:

So grand.

9th of May is when Belarusians celebrate their grand victory over the Nazis.  So grand.

Hero of the WarOne of the most prominent cultural aspects of Belarus is their obsession with World War II.  No, wait, my mistake: “The Great Patriotic War.”  At every turn, one sees at least a reference to the War, none too inconspicuous, and generally in honor of the heroes who served and died while fighting it.  The first four pictures of this entry all have to do with World War II.  The star is a monument at the Brest Fortress, where the Nazis first invaded the Soviet Union.  The second picture is a poster in Minsk commemorating Victory Day over the Nazis.  The third and fourth are also at the Brest Fortress, although I have no idea what they mean.

It was suggested to me by my guide that, in order to preserve national pride and unity, World War II had to be mythified in Belarus because the October Revolution was too far back in historical memory for it to really be that effective a tool in evoking patriotism.  Hence, why Belarus has many monuments to the Great Patriot War, and few monuments to the October Revolution.

I found a lot of this grandiose art pretty fascinating, especially since we don’t have much of it in the United States (except for, you know, all of Washington DC [and Mount Rushmore]), but there were some things I found rather comically garish.

Party streamer artillery shells in Minsk.

Party streamer artillery shells exploding in Minsk.

There is oh so much more to say about Belarus, but as this is just a blog and not a book, I shall wrap it up for the readers who are actually still reading this with none other than everybody’s favorite way of learning: picture captions.

Go to Belarus.  Really.  It’s something else.

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No Homo

I told a story to a friend:

“This past autumn, I went camping out by Bishop Pass: a rocky and inhospitable ridge in the Sierra Nevada whose landscape is as grizzly and striking as it is cold and indifferent.  The autumn leaves were changing, and I had been yearning to escape my life in the suburbs, to flee that mundane routine of trivialities enclosed in a box we call home.  As miserably lonely as I often am camping alone, I am just as lonely waking up in solitude night after night, in a bed meant for two, feeling the charms of the Earth slowly pass me by.

Fall Foliage

“Each and every person camping on any given night has made the conscious decision to sleep on the ground.  Each person you see huddled by a campfire has chosen, out of their own free will, to be cold.  When confronted with the choice between a warm night of
comfortable sleep and good food within the safety of one’s home, and a sleepless, miserable night tossing and turning on the cold hard ground beneath a volatile wilderness, something has compelled us to choose the latter.  What force drives us to such lunacy?  What emotional and spiritual unrest chases us away from the comforts of civilization into the very world against which we have fortified our lives?  Have we all gone mad?

Camping

“The night at Bishop Pass was blisteringly cold, and I didn’t think to bring anything for a campfire.  In my sorry mood, having once again regretted driving the six hours it takes to get to where I was from where I had been, just to stand by myself in the freezing moonlight, I decided to walk into someone else’s camp, if only to share his campfire for a brief moment to warm up.  He was by himself, roughly around my age, and well-stocked with alcohol and other such delights of those who find themselves often in solitude, and welcomed me into his camp like a brother.

“As it turned out, we were none too different from each other.  We both suffered from the same modern ennui that so often drives us out of our homes into the hills.  We both shared similar anxieties, and a longing for a life beyond which was laid out for us by virtue of our era and our birth, and alternately doubt that perhaps maybe this is the best of all possible worlds after all, and our discontent is more out of foolishness than any sort of grounded reality.

Bishop Pass

“The two of us told stories and shared ideas late into the night, drinking whiskey and tending to the fire.  Then, we parted ways.  We knew each other’s first names, but we didn’t share our surnames.  It was mutually understood that our friendship was for that one night only.  No finding each other on Facebook.  No shooting emails and getting lunch later sometime down the road.  Our bond was born and died with the campfire, as well should that of two passing strangers on a mountain ridge.”

After I told my friend this story, I had to suppress an extremely strong urge to say, “No homo.”

Now, I’m not here to talk about the obvious derogatory and offensive use of the word, “homo.”  You and I both know that the homosexual community has had to put up with bigotry and homophobia since the dawn of humanity, and they continue to face ridicule, bullying, and legislative roadblocks against self-determined happiness.  Using “homo” to denote something you don’t want to be assumed, or saying something like “That’s gay” as an insult only propagates the idea that something is wrong with homosexuality.  We all know this.

And yet, I still had the urge to end my story with “No homo.”  In my defense, it would have been a joke.  My friend would have been amused, and I would have enjoyed the juxtaposition of something so maudlin with something so vulgar.  So what actually stopped me from saying it, if I felt so confident in the contextual harmlessness of my words?

In that moment, “no homo” revealed itself to me as an indicator of a deadly malaise deep within the masculine psyche, and I was disturbed by it.

For readers who have no clue what I’m talking about, “no homo,” whether sincere or in jest, is used to clarify to a listener that the speaker of a story or opinion of sexually ambiguous nature is in fact not gay, just in case there was any confusion.  It was popularized by hip-hop and found its way into the mainstream lexicon of urban and now general youth.

Examples:

“I love you, bro.  No homo.”
“Dude, check out his killer abs.  No homo.”
“I totally care about Princess Kate and Prince William.  No homo.”

I had just told a story about connecting psychologically and intellectually with another man.  “No homo,” because forging any sort of meaningful connection with someone is obviously pretty gay, right?

It’s no secret that the ideal American Man is a child of the strong, silent cowboy type of Western lore.  A man who doesn’t talk about his feelings.  A man who, like Teddy Roosevelt’s military, “speaks softly and carries a big stick.”  Someone who can deliver justice from the barrel of a gun or the knuckles of a fist.  These are our masculine heroes.  They are the idols to which we model our identities as unambiguously straight, manly men.

Real men don’t laugh.  Real men don’t cry.  They are Indiana Jones.  They are James Bond.  They are Batman.  Superman.  The Man With No Name.

So what we have is a population of men who subscribe to the idea that to show emotion is weakness, that to communicate sensitivity is womanly, and to admit to enjoying someone else’s company is to admit dependency.

This model of the Ideal Man is hurting us.  A large number of men would rather hit their wives than talk to them.  Many are alienated fathers, unable to bond in a genuine way with their children, perpetuating an endless cycle of terrible parenting.  Street violence, gun violence, and general psychopathy could be symptoms of the emotional constipation of ideal masculinity releasing itself like explosive diarrhea.

And where does this ideal come from?  Where does this emotional constipation come from?  What prevents us from comfortably bonding with our fellow human beings?

I believe it’s a deep-seated cultural condition of homophobia.  Allow me to call it “linguistic homophobia.”

After all, we do not choose the language and culture into which we are born.  Our brains operate within an endless and impersonal thread of idioms, expressions, and values that are imprinted from external linguistic and cultural forces and cannot be removed.  “No homo,” an expression of wariness regarding homosexuality, is simply just part of the English lexicon now, and has entered my language according to no will of my own.  You cannot choose what language infiltrates your brain, just like you cannot prevent certain mail from entering your mailbox.

And this is what suddenly disturbed me about the phrase, “No homo,” and why I felt the need to use it in this context: it demonstrated that, in general, straight men are petrified of being sincere and open with one another, and ultimately with anyone at all, lest it seem gay.  Our intrinsic, linguistic homophobia creates within us an inability to accept our emotional vulnerability in front of others, and what results is a whole culture of men who can’t admit weakness, who can’t ask for help, who can’t forge meaningful relationships with anybody, and who ultimately resort to explosive displays of violence and abuse as outlets for being unable to communicate.

Homophobia isn’t just damaging to gays.  It’s damaging to everybody.

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