ALCStudies Journal

Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies Web Site & Blog

Bon Voyage, Tony

I enjoy cooking. I find it creative and practical, and I’m not bad it it. I used to joke that I wanted Anthony Bourdain’s job. Now I guess that’s more of a possibility.

His death Friday from apparent suicide hit me. He was my age. I have the usual thoughts and questions:

  • He had such a cool job
  • He had a girlfriend and a young daughter
  • He traveled all the world, talked to people, ate with them, got paid for it
  • He kicked heroin

What the hell?

As a survivor of someone who committed suicide, over the past year I’ve reached out to friends, family, strangers, professionals and colleagues. I sought comfort, peace and reconnection. With important exceptions what I encountered disappointed me. Our get-ahead go-ahead society turns our thoughts, feelings, need for intimacy, friends and acquaintances into commodities to be bought, sold and easily discarded. (And thanks for capitalizing on that Facebook.) Most people I tried to connect with did not have time or patience for the grief, loss, nagging thoughts and memories I experienced and am still experiencing. You may have spent a week with someone or a lifetime, known them casually or intimately, said hello at the office or woke up in the same bed, who was enmeshed in so much pain, confusion and despair in their head (or body) that they decided to leave this world. As you struggle to comprehend, to move on, people you’ve known for years throw a few clichés at you. They tell you to see a therapist, ask if you’re on meds, and are gone. No time for conversation, tears, laughter or reminiscences or even a meal together. And sure as hell not serious questions.

I don’t know why Anthony Bourdain killed himself. We’ve created a world that pushes our buttons and makes us constantly doubt and feel afraid and anxious about whether we fit in and at the same time makes us feel isolated. That requires us to do crazy things and pretend to like it. Then, when we act out and feel bad, we sell ourselves services and products and meds and therapy. Nice little business you got going on there. Be a shame if anything happened to it.

I was told that people often don’t know what to say. Certainly this life (and death) can leave us at a loss for words. But people know what to say about plenty of other things, like politics or their sex lives (or other people’s sex lives if they don’t have one). My expectations are not high. Maybe I’m idealizing here (Thank you Big Chill), but give it a shot. Knock on the door of someone who’s experienced a loss like I and millions of others have. Take five minutes to give them a call. Invite them them to lunch or to take a walk or have a beer, or take a bicycle ride. And for the sake of whatever belief system you have, mention the name of the person they lost instead of pretending they never existed. Even if you’re afraid it might upset them (um, what, more?). Grow an anatomically-correct pair of ovaries or testicles. Or a heart. Dare to be brave. Don’t make them do all the work themselves in isolation, which helped create the mess we’re in in the first place.

I don’t know whether Anthony Bourdain was depressed (as if that explains anything) or narcissistic or had a personality disorder. I’ll leave the armchair therapizing to the self-appointed experts. To me cooking and enjoying good food and traveling and telling stories and getting people to share their stories and recipes around the world and having an ego does not mean you have a personality disorder. It means you contributed just a tiny part of the solution in this crazy mixed up world.

In my mind I imagine me and Tony drinking mojitos in Cuba and arguing baseball. Or sitting down in Istanbul for shish kebab or in Barcelona for tapas.

My sense from watching is that he could be a cranky son-of-a-bitch: standoffish, opinionated and garrulous. He also appeared witty, wry and self- deprecating, generous and kind. And to genuinely savor life. We could use more of that in the human species.

So for me now keep your tributes, your marches, your causes, your ribbons, your 1-800 suicide hotlines, your therapists on the clock, your platitudes and statistics, your by-the-book support groups, your medications that distance those of us left behind from our anguish and questions so we can work and buy groceries and feed the cat and ourselves and maybe our kids. Don’t ask me for money, or to write my congress-person.

Show up.

And I don’t want Anthony Bourdain’s job. I’ll skip the heroin, thanks. I think I would hate running a restaurant. But for a long while he seems to have recovered and turned it into a pretty good life and work. I want him back so i can continue watching him show us how it’s done.

Bon voyage, Tony. Buen provecho. – CDL

 

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Our Stars, Ourselves

Nuestra Estrellas, Nosotros Mismos

‘The spirit of sect and bigotry has planted its hoof amid the stars .
H.D.Thoreau, Life Without Principle

‘The fault is not in our stars, Horatio, but in ourselves.
Hamlet, Act I scene 1

In January this year I spent an afternoon walking in Quito, the capitol of Ecuador. Near the cathedrals and shops of the colonial city, I came across the Observatorio Astronómico ( Astronomical Observatory). Completed in 1878, it’s a museum now. The entrance fee was ~5.00 usd, so I went in.

Coincidentally, I recently read American Eclipse by David Baron. I wasn’t sure at first the subject was my thing, but his storytelling is superb. And of course I like most any history of technology. Barron’s book tells the story of the 1878 race to capture a total solar eclipse in the western U.S. The event took place at the start of the gilded age, when the country became obsessed by wealth and figures such as Pittsburgh’s Andrew Carnegie and J..C Frick made their fortunes. The book mentions Samuel Langley of the Allegheny observatory.

A few weeks ago mi novia texted me that drug dealers from Columbia murdered three journalists kidnapped in Esmeralda province in her home country of Ecuador. She and I traveled through Esmeralda on the way to La Costa. It’s a lush green landscape, but poor.

It’s hard for me to ascribe any cosmic meaning to the fates of three journalists unless we address the causes of their deaths on earth. A year ago I couldn’t tell you why events in Ecuador would amount to a hill of beans for me. But looking up at the stars today makes the world seem a very small place. — CDL

But Let’s Not

(Facebook Deletion Notice)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh, what the hell —

An Apology for the Internet from the People Who Built It (Noah Kulwin, New York Magazine)

Shoshana Zuboff: No Escape from the Panopticon (Lance Farrell, Sciencenode)

–CDL

Speaking of Facebook…

Three recent articles on technology. One takes a ‘Don’t worry, trust us’ approach. The other two  are more critical:

Victor Frankenstein Is the Real Monster (Ronald Bailey, Reason)

Uber’s Fatal Crash Raises Big Questions About Self-Driving Cars (Video, Wired)

Does My Algorithm Have a Mental-Health Problem? (Thomas T Tills , Aeon)

And should I be worried about the elevator that keeps closing on me? — CDL

Detaching

— From a variety of things. Including soon, perhaps, Facebook. Bye fly, FB!

The Troubadour & the Gypsy Princess

We live surrounded lately by dark made-up events, people and stories confabulations. I figured I might as well make up one of my own with some light.

The Fable of the Sleeping Troubadour & the Gypsy Princess1

A troubadour lived in a village long ago and far away. He made his way telling stories and singing in return for a meal and a bed for the night. Once he had a family, but something happened and he was alone.

He met other travelers in the village who told him of their adventures. For a night or two they shared songs and stories by the fire. They laughed and drank and entertained each other against the darkness and cold and loneliness. Then the other travelers went out into the world again, bidding each other to be safe and happy until next time, leaving him behind.

The troubadour was no longer young, but neither was he too old to dream. Everywhere he went he encountered ghosts and memories of his former life. Some of these he remembered fondly. Others were so sad he could barely stand to live with them. His friends and relatives told him, ‘Forget the past. Stop dwelling on your memories.’ They were part of his life that was gone. He wondered about the future and what would become of him.


The travelers he met in the village told the troubadour about a land to the south in the middle of the world where the sun shone and winter never came. The troubadour decided he wanted to see it. His friends and relatives warned him, ‘It’s dangerous. Stay here with us where it’s safe’. The troubadour answered, ‘You tell me me to forget sad memories and the past. Alright, I’m going to leave and make new ones.

The troubadour traveled through the jungle and saw strange beasts. He paddled through rivers and lagoons. He drank with local people and ate their food. They spoke a a language he didn’t know, but he laughed and talked with them anyway. They welcomed him. The head of one village offered the troubadour his daughter in marriage. ‘Stay here with us. You’ll have land. You can have many children and become rich.’ The troubadour considered the offer. He thanked the man and said, ‘I am a stranger and traveler in your lands. My settling down days are over.’
After many miles and many days the troubadour arrived at a great city in the land to the south where a gypsy princess lived. The gypsy princess had the face and spirit of a girl but was no longer young either. She had had lovers but never settled down. She enjoyed children, but had none of her own. As a maiden she went to distant lands on her own, carrying her harp and sword. She fought battles and suffered wounds and deep scars. Even those she trusted to care for her had hurt her. Maybe that’s why she left.

After many years she finally returned home to the city of her birth to rest. But she felt strange among her own family and friends. Her aging parents worried about her. ‘What will become of her? ‘There must be something wrong with me,’ the gypsy princess thought. Her family, friends country-men and women told her, ‘Who do you think you are? Why don’t you get married and settle down?” No one knew she was a gypsy princess. Or if they knew, they forgot to tell her.

When the troubadour arrived in the city of the gypsy princess, the journey had begun to make him feel anxious and afraid. He wasn’t sure traveling all that way had really been a good idea. He wanted to rest. Generally people were kind, but it tired him to constantly learn a new language and new ways. On his second day he came across a magnificent mansion. The people there gave him something to eat and a place to stay for the night. In return he sang a song and told a story about his home to the north. When he lay down to sleep, the troubadour didn’t wake up. His songs and stories were silent. His memories went away, both the happy and sad ones. He knew nothing that went on around him in the world any longer. His friends and family forgot about him as though he never existed. Thorns and thick vines grew up around the mansion. The people who owned it went away. What had once been a resplendent home filled with life and happiness appeared as a crumbling ruin to passersby .

Each morning the gypsy princess woke in the bed she had slept in as a girl. Her parents slept downstairs. Possessions of her childhood surrounded her. But now when she had nightmares, no one comforted her. Since her parents were getting older, she decided she would devote herself to caring for them. If that would be her life, so be it.

Sometimes she would take out her harp and sword and look at them. When she did her old wounds twinged. The sword bore the nicks and scars of her battles. The harp was tarnished and missing a string. She would carefully put them away and tell her parents she was leaving. Then she went out into the city to meet her friends. They would go to entertainments and talk about when they were younger. Many of them were married and had children. Her former suitors had gone on to make their own lives. Once she imagined marrying a star in one of the entertainments. When she saw her friends’ comfortable lives, her old scars and wounds bothered her even more. She grew angry and frightened of the busyness of life in the city, and the obliviousness of people. The streets were filled with noise and traffic and people with lives unlike her own. She felt unconnected, floating in the world.

On her walks the gypsy princess often passed a crumbling old mansion covered in vines and surrounded by cedron trees. It had once been owned by a local family. Some tragedy befell them and their home was abandoned. There was a beauty about it that intrigued her. She returned again and again. Sometimes she climbed the wall to get a better look and see what might be inside. But the vines and thorns were too thick to see more.

One evening she noticed dim light shining in one room of the mansion. The next evening she took her sword from the drawer. She lifted down her dusty harp from its place on the wall. She told her parents she was going out for a walk as usual. The streets of the city were quiet. The moon shone strongly through the leaves of the cedron trees. She went straight to the old crumbling mansion. With the harp slung over her shoulder, she lay the sword on top of the wall and hoisted herself up onto it. She peered through the dense foliage toward the window on the second floor where the light shone. Twisted trees with thorns filled the yard like beasts and dragons. Only one spot in the yard near the wall was clear. The gypsy princess leaped down and landed with a thud. Her knees bent and her feet hurt. Her old wounds pained her. She shook her curly red hair and gritted her teeth. She grabbed the sword from atop the wall and began hacking through the undergrowth. Her arm and shoulder found their rhythm. Though nicked and long disused, the blade retained its power to cut. The thorns drew blood from her fair skin. She raised her arm to shield her face. But the sword did its work. Branches fell to the ground beneath her feet. The night was silent except for crickets. The sounds of the city faded. She cleared a path until she stood outside the mansion wall covered in vines. She stood for a moment looking up at the window, then began to climb.

She turned her head to avoid branches hitting her in the face. She inhaled the scent of bird droppings. Her legs and arms shook. Finally she reached the second-floor window. She pulled herself over the windowsill and looked in. Through a gap in the heavy curtains the moonlight revealed a figure on a bed. It was a man. She could see that much. A graying beard covered his face. His arm lay across his face. He was sleeping. The glass was broken from one of the window panes. The gypsy princess reached in and undid the latch, swung the window open, and stepped inside.

The room was still and quiet. Dust and broken plaster covered the floor. As the gypsy princess approached the bed, the man’s chest rose and fell. His nose was straight and his lips full. Lines showed around his mouth, but his chin was strong. His hair, which at first appeared entirely gray, was mostly covered in plaster dust. The gypsy princess reached out to touch his sleeve, but he did not stir. She touched his hand. His skin was warm. She looked down, wondering what to do. Should she she let him slumber? She touched his face gently. She felt his beard with her fingers, touched his strong nose. He was not an apparition. He had flaws and imperfections on his skin, a scar on his cheek. A bit of dried saliva showed at the corner of his mouth. Some impulse made her touch his hair. When she brushed away the dust, gray showed there like frost. She leaned down and kissed his lips, feeling their warmth. She lay her head on his chest. Her heart beat twice to every one of his. She unslung the harp and began to play. Sound filled the room. The strings miraculously sounded notes as she plucked them with her fingers. Slowly at first and uncertainly she remembered a tune from her childhood. The stranger drew a deep breath, then another. His arm moved away from his face and he opened his eyes. A puzzled expression crossed his face.

I’ve been asleep.’

She didn’t understand his words as she continued to play.

He looked around the room, then at her. His eyes were blue in contrast to her own of warm hazel. He spoke again, and suddenly his words were as clear as water.

Yes,’ she answered. ‘I found you.’

You are beautiful,’ he said.

She shrugged. ‘I am a little strange.’

He shrugged. ‘And I am a lost stranger.’

The troubadour touched her face and smiled at her. The gypsy princess took his hand. It was warm and strong. The mansion was no longer derelict. Dust and plaster no longer lay on its floor. Birds sang and the smell of the cedron tree came through the open window. Outside darkness gave way to light.

They stood and embraced. The mansion became a cottage by the sea. And instead of being in the city filled with noise and confusion and worry, they found themselves in a village surrounded by friends. Outside waves rolled against the shore and the delicious smell of the ocean surrounded them. From that day forward the gypsy princess and the troubadour lived together surrounded by light and love and laughter. — CDL

###.

1For all gypsy princesses, hidden or otherwise, and one in particular.

 

Found in Translation

Riqui’s en Quito

I’m in touch with new friends in Ecuador through an application on my phone called WhatsApp. Their English is often far better than my Spanish. I’ve been using Google Translate to help me correspond. When I arrived in Ecuador for the first time in December last year, I knew barely a lick of the lingua franca. My mental phrase book was limited to Hola, Como esta? and Como se llama? I’ve learned a few more words and phrases since then, including some curse words and slang for communicating inspiration, frustration and desire.1

Technologies exist now that purport to remove the necessity for our ever having to learn a new language. A person from a local university showed me an app on her phone that allows her to hold it up to a person in a foreign country, ask them to speak into it, and receive an approximation of the corresponding phrases in her own idiom. While this eliminates the effort (and the fun) of learning a language, I’m not sure shoving your phone in someone’s face to hold a conversation will endear yourself to local residents.2

Douglas Hofstadter rips Google Translate a new one in the Atlantic. Hofstadter’s beef is that GT’s algorithms don’t understand the meaning behind what you are trying to say. Therefore, it can’t really replace a real human translator (and take his job). I find Google Translate useful. Of course GT doesn’t give a rat’s ass about what you are trying to say. I’m guessing it correlates words and phrases based on proximity and context against a history of similar words and phrases in a different language stored in it’s vast Google-ian deep-thought-like3 repository. The actual translation is likely based on probability and pattern recognition. That’s a guess. Anyone with more knowledge in this field feel free to correct me.

Artificial intelligence, natural language processing and machine learning have been around as concepts in business, academia, science fiction and prognostications of the future for years.4 The technology has gone from theory to practice and is finding its way into call centers, banking, medical transcription, and most usefully, assistive devices for the vision- and hearing-impaired and cognitively and physically disabled. It now allows us to look up phrases and get almost instantaneous pretty good okay-ish translations on the web that that give the gist and allows us to understand and be understood.

As Hofstadter points out, speaking and writing across cultures contains idiosyncratic and unique phrases and meaning.5 Even human translators find balancing nuances of meaning against accuracy and clarity challenging. Grammar checkers and thesauri included in word processing software reject work by writers such as Hemingway and (especially) James Joyce as ungrammatical and wrong. Machine-only translation often produces borderline gibberish.6

As a bit of assistive technology, GT has its place for helping those who sometimes want a quick and dirty7 way to communicate in a different language. Replacing real translation with this sort of tool makes us complacent and robs us of the worthwhile work and pleasure of finding and appreciating the beauties and subtleties of another language.

In the utilitarian bottom-line world we live in, too often we believe we have no other choice. The scary thing is when people start taking these pieces of technology as gospel and assuming they are the only game in town. – CDL

1 Which is one of the the main purposes language serves.

2Como dice ‘Vete a la mierda?’ This might kill the mood in more intimate circumstances, but who knows? People can get used to a lot.

3See Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy (the original radio play, not the lame film).

4See Alan Turing (The Imitation Game) Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, and work at universities in Pittsburgh in the 1980s.

5Which lend themselves to delightful wordplay.

6Mi amiga especial, who originally recommended Google Translate, told me over WhatApp, ‘It sounds like a robot’. She resorts to texting ‘GT, phone home.’ whenever the app fails her. Muy adorable.

7Sometimes literally. GT is very accommodating. If you put in the filthiest phrases you can think of, it’s a lot of fun. Try it with a friend.

Political Advice from Poets

Proto Surfer-Dude & Fellow Subversive

From 19th-Century American manly man and poet, Walt Whitman:

The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors; nor even in its newspapers or inventors …  but always most in the common people … the air they have of persons who never knew how it felt to stand in the presence of their superiors… the terrible significance of their elections – the President’s taking off his hat to them them, not they to him…

– DA

 

Joseph Conrad

By Joseph Conrad, writer and traveler par excellence

Graffiti, Quito Ecuador

 

Art … may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect…

 

[My task is] by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see!

Escribiendo El Viaje

 

If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm – all you demand; and perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.

 

The Rains of Quito

Las Lluvias de Quito

Quito sits in the middle of the world on the equator – Ciudad Mitad del Mundo. The climate is changeable. If you don’t like it, wait five minutes, Quitoans say.

A new Ecuadorian friend recommended I visit La Capilla Del Hombre (The Chapel of Man). The museum sits in the Bellavista section overlooking Quito. I walked from my hotel near the Diego de Almagro. People warned me it was a hike, but despite being at a birthday party1 till 2 AM I wanted a little more urban adventuring. Ecuadorians know how to throw a fiesta, by the way.

Google maps shows routes by foot, taxi or bus. It does not show elevation. The museum sits high over the city. A little urban adventuring turned into a considerable urban ascent.

I saw some nice graffiti.

Urban steps like back home.

 And an urban cow.

 Entrance to the museum is eight dollars USD. Ecuador switched to U.S. dollars Several years ago to stabilize its economy. After some initial pain Ecuadorians I’ve met say it has generally worked.

The Capilla Del Hombre museum is a tribute to the work of Ecuadorian painter Oswaldo Guayasamín and the Ecuadorian people. The museum features his work and the work of other artists as well. There is a separate building aside from the capilla (chapel) itself. The docent at the entrance asked whether I wanted a tour en Inglis or in another language. I found myself on the ass-end of a group being regaled ad infinitum with the details of every object on display.

The guide was doing his job. But I’ve gotten a little tired of words lately. I use more than enough of them myself, both written and spoken, personally and professionally, to try and find a narrative to our sometimes crazy lives.2 Maybe we think if we talk (or write) long enough it will all make sense. What I desired was to soak up a little tranquility and appreciate the art and the space. Isn’t that what I hiked up the hill and paid for?

I saw an open door. There was no rope or sign indicating it was restricted. I left the group and went in. I found myself alone in Guayasamín’s studio. I immediately found the tranquility I was looking for. Canvases, tubes of paint and works in progress surrounded me. The docent came in and said for security reasons I had to go back and stay with the group. I explained In bad Spanish that no one had told me this. I said I knew visual and other artists back home and enjoyed the creative process. I said my wife had died in the past year and I wanted some quiet. I said this with a smile. She said there would be another tour in English in ten minutes.

While other visitors filed in and waited, I sat and watched a video in the lobby. I wanted to be alone with my thoughts – or with no thoughts at all. Solitude is an increasingly subversive act of modern life whether in Estados Unidos or in Ecuador. Our crowdsourced society cajoles, pokes and inveigles us to share (or submerge) our innermost ideas and precious attention in the constant media stream, turning our lives and experiences into commodities for sales and marketing.

I decided I’d had enough of the group experience. I left the museum and walked outside. Among the greenery and outdoor sculptures, I felt better. In the distance mist wreathed the Pichincha Mountains that rise above Quito and that Guayasamin depicted in his paintings.

I followed the path and entered the chapel itself, a vast space with Picaso-esque sculptures and paintings by Guayasamín and other artists.

 

Any human being who has a heart and isn’t overly-medicated knows the feeling before tears erupt. One of the most stupid and compassionate questions to ask someone is ‘Why are you crying?’ Half the time we’re not aware ourselves, at least to start. Pressure built up in my chest and behind my eyes. As I wandered through the chapel, tears started to flow – what in our family my father called waterworks .

I liked the view and the graffiti on the way to the museum. I liked the unexpected cow. I liked Guayasamín’s work. I went to the museum because a friend suggested it. I didn’t expect to see reminders of my dead wife’s face in the paintings on the walls.

‘Please don’t cry,’ my new friends tell me. ‘Don’t be sad and dwell on the past with us in this new place in this new year. They tell me this because they care about me and enjoy seeing me happy. But my tears were not pathological but cleansing.

Our society increasingly denies and medicates sadness and insists on normalization and conformity of our feelings to the mean3. Art retains the power to evoke our unruly emotions and memories, joy and pain, that do not conform to its rules.

I emerged from the museum to the mists of Quito around the Pichincha mountains. Nowadays this includes smog from the herds of cars in Quito’s streets. A fine rain started to fall. I was starving and felt lightheaded. I’d bought water but knew I had to eat. I stopped for lunch at a small place. For 2.50 USD I had meatballs with rice and yucca, along with ubiquitous and wonderful Ecuadorian salsa picante. I came out feeling much better .

I descended the steep streets back to the traffic and bustle of the city.

The rain turned heavier, temporarily washing the grit and fumes from the air. It left the atmosphere clear and fresh.

Feliz Año Nuevo. Happy New Year. – CDL

1Fiesta de cumpleaños

2And yet here we are again.

3The statistical mean, as well as in the sense of low and unkind.

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