Tag Archives: philosophy

Thank You, Christopher Columbus

No, not this Christopher Columbus... though Gremlins, The Goonies, and Home Alone? Maybe we should have a holiday for him...

No, not this Christopher Columbus… although Gremlins, The Goonies, and Home Alone? Maybe we should have a holiday for him…

It’s Columbus Day here in the states and I actually have the day off… paid! The advantages to working for a giant, multinational financial institution are starting to pay off. I’ve decided to celebrate this most worthless of holidays by planting Spanish flags in random objects possessed by strangers, yelling at them to show me where their gold is, and spreading diseases to them that I brought over from Europe. Before I head out though, I feel like I need to sit on my balcony, have some coffee, and take a moment to remember all that Christopher Columbus has done for me.

Here’s a little known historical fact: Columbus came to America because he hated how close everything was. (Warning: historical facts may not be facts… or historical.) Can you blame him? I mean who would honestly want to live close by everything you could possibly want or need? Columbus set sail because honestly, he just needed some fucking space! This attitude has thankfully been implemented into suburban American culture. After having to endure walking to any of the small shops dotting the Parisian landscape and having a relaxing dinner outside with friends, now I get to drive through traffic to a chain restaurant and sit inside while deciding which one of the fifteen televisions I want to watch. Plus, there’s the obvious advantage of already knowing what’s on the menu. Now instead of wasting all that time exploring the menu for new food options, I can spend that time on my phone while waiting for my bloomin’ onion to come.

Another historical fact: Columbus hated water, fresh air, and non-processed food. Since he was born in Genoa, Columbus had grown up with a cool breeze blowing off the Mediterranean every morning, the smells of freshly baked bread he had purchased from the local bakery, and the taste of that bread paired with a locally-produced olive oil and a bottle of red wine from the vineyards nearby. He hated that life so much that he said, “Fuck this shit! I don’t care where I go, but I can’t deal this anymore. I’m just going to sail in the opposite direction until I run into any sort of landmass.” Unfortunately for Columbus, he died long before he could have discovered Cedar Rapids, where I currently reside. Thankfully, I can honor his memory by enjoying the genetically enhanced food at and endless number of supermarkets, all conveniently located outside of walking distance. Instead of the smells of that god-forsaken, award-winning local bakery, I get to enjoy the smells of a massive cereal processing plant that actually set off my carbon monoxide detector last week because my windows were open.

Columbus is having a really tough time of it lately. Some people would say that Columbus didn’t discover America, or that he was a miserable human being who should never be celebrated. However, I just really I just wanted to thank you, Christopher Columbus. If it wasn’t for you, my family might have never traveled to this country. I could have been born in some dump like London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Prague, Barcelona, Stockholm, Florence, or Vienna. I really dodged a bullet there!

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The Five Stages of Coming Home

Iowa: it's not just corn... though there is a lot of it...

Iowa: it’s not just corn… though there is a lot of it…

They say you can’t go home again. They are wrong. You absolutely can go home again… it’s just really, really weird. After spending the majority of the last five months in Paris, I’ve come back to Iowa. Not only that, but I’ve picked up plenty of new followers recently. I’ve been trying to come up with an amazing follow-up to my “Freshly Pressed” debut that will appeal to my newfound fan base. Obviously, my first thought was to just write a series of dick jokes and end it with a statement about how Obama is going to take our guns and force us to eat government-assisted euthanasia candidates. (That’s right. You just got a double dose of Charlton Heston. You’re now ready to defend your property from miscreants or part the Red Sea.) However, I decided to use my experience to help guide others through the grieving process of coming home.

Denial

That moment the voice in the back of your head says, “Hey, so our visa is expired and we’re almost out of money… maybe we should think about going home…” followed by you drowning that voice with enough wine to make it sound like this. Yep, you’re in denial. Enjoy it! Ignorance truly is bliss, but eventually all that drinking will lead to the next stage. No, not that…

Anger

You start cursing the universe. Why wasn’t I born with an unlimited amount of funds and diplomatic immunity? You curse your middle-class, midwestern heritage. If only your parents had been hardened spies or criminals. Maybe you could murder a rich guy and take over his life? Now you’ve entered the third stage.

Bargaining

You start to realize that you probably don’t have the huevos to kill someone. Then you start to realize that you could happen upon an already dead rich man and find his safety deposit box key. The only problem is you have to perform a voodoo ceremony on his corpse in order for it to lead you to the box, which you screw up, limiting his corpse’s ability to walk only when it hears reggae music, only you don’t have enough money to spring for underwater headphones and your ability to handle a spear gun is sub-par at best. (That was the single greatest sentence I have ever penned.) This realization leads you to the fourth stage.

Depression

You now know your fate. You walk around the place you’ve come to love that you will now be forced to leave with a look on your face that’s so heart-wrenching Sarah McLachlan is following you around, filming her next commercial. No one has ever had it more difficult than you. You have to leave this first-world major metropolis for a first-world rural area. No one can possibly understand the depths of your sorrow.

Acceptance

You start to realize the things that you truly missed. Obviously you’re excited to see friends and family, but also the little things you forgot about as well. Like spreadable butter (Seriously France? Even your butter is high maintenance.), some spice to your food (I get it France. Your palates are so sophisticated that my uneducated American tongue could not possibly grasp the levels of your culinary superiority. Would it have honestly killed you to have a bottle of Sriracha somewhere in your country though?), and getting to wear T-shirts and shorts out in public. (Sorry to break this to you France, but not all of you are models.) More importantly you figure out that the grass isn’t necessarily greener, just a different shade. Sure, there are plenty of differences, but your happiness is defined by you, not where you are.

Finishing Last

To start this post I’m going to have to ask you to agree to one basic premise: I am a nice guy. I am one hundred percent confident there will be countless people lined up to fight me on this claim, but for the purposes of this post, please indulge me. We can have the debate about whether I’m a nice guy or not another day.

The old saying “nice guys finish last” comes from an old baseball manager, Leo Durocher, who was talking about his Brooklyn Dodgers team that year. He was talking about how angry players would do more, sometimes playing dirty, to win than nice players. Whether or not you agree with his philosophy is one thing, but what you can’t debate is that there’s more than one way to play the game. Similarly, there’s more than one way to get what you want out of life. That’s where the split between nice guys and other men lie.

There is one question you can ask yourself to determine whether you are a nice guy or not. Would you rather win and achieve your desired goal but give up some of your core values in the process, or would you rather lose everything you wanted but hold onto those tenets? There is no black and white answer to that question, just shades of gray. No person besides fictional villains would give up their morals without batting an eye (hopefully) just as no person besides fictional heroes are truly incorruptible.

The biggest mistake people make is confusing being nice with being naïve. True nice guys know exactly when they’re being taken advantage of. The misconception that nice guys are often insecure and unsure how to articulate how they feel is constantly perpetuated in movies, television, and literature. These “nice guys” are typically chasing after some unrequited love and they often are rewarded for their overtly creepy behavior with the “girl of their dreams.” That’s not what being a nice guy is about. It’s simply about putting the needs or wants of someone else before your own. There is no sense of entitlement that comes from this behavior. I don’t expect anything back in return for my actions, which is what differentiates me from the “nice guys” of fiction who feel their deeds should earn them their desired muse. I act the way I act and do the things I do because I feel like it is right.

There’s a great quote from The Wire, “A man must have a code.” Men may make mistakes, but they will not break their code. They know that no matter what happens, win or lose, that code is the definition of who they are. It defines their character. Men are not defined by whether or not they win battles, but rather how they fight the war. They know there will always be more battles to come. Boys are immature and will do anything they can to win whatever shiny object caught their eye that day. They don’t have a code other than winning at all costs. Losing causes boys to break down or throw tantrums because they have nothing to fall back on. I know that it’s ok to lose to a boy because I don’t want to win something that a boy even stands a chance of winning.

A good test for being a true nice guy is often how adversity is handled. Taking the high road is not supposed to be easy, but rather about doing what you know to be right no matter the consequences. There is only one prize that comes from taking that road, but in my mind it far outweighs any reward that comes from winning, self-respect. I haven’t always felt this way, but luckily I had a great role model for a father. He’s had every opportunity to complain about the adversity he’s faced, but instead he’s stood up to it with his code intact and is winning the war, even if he lost a few battles along the way. The biggest compliment I receive is when people tell me how much like him I am. I want him to be proud of who I am and who I will become, so to me there is no choice about whether or not I should be a nice guy. We all start out as boys; some of us just grow into men.

Risk, Reward, and John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill was one the earliest and most influential supporters of women’s rights. His essay, The Subjection of Women, one of the most important feminist works of the nineteenth century. He was the first member of British Parliament to ask that women be given the right to vote. He also believed in freedom of speech, refused to attend Oxford or Cambridge because of their alliance with religion, and was a huge supporter of civil rights for every person.

The reason I bring him up is that he was buried in Avignon, where I currently am until I head back to Paris on Saturday. I was asked to seek out his resting place for a research project while I was here. I had heard of Mill and respected his opinions and work but did not know much more about him. I was very surprised at what lay atop his grave. While there was a small inscription on the side informing you that this was indeed where John Stuart Mill was buried, the top was solely dedicated to honoring his partner in life, Harriet.

The following adorns the top of the grave of John Stuart Mill

The following adorns the top of the grave of John Stuart Mill

to the beloved memory
of
Harriet Mill
the dearly loved and deeply regretted
wife of John Stuart Mill
her great and loving heart
her noble soul
her clear powerful original and
comprehensive intellect
made her the guide and support
the instructor in wisdom
and the example in goodness
as she was the soul earthly delight
of those who had the happiness to belong to her
as earnest for all public good
as she was generous and devoted
to all who surrounded her
her influence has been felt
in many of the greatest
improvements of the age
and will be in those still to come
were there even a few hearts and intellects
like hers
this earth would already become
the hoped for heaven
she died
to the irreparable loss of those who survive her
at Avignon Nov 3 1858

Harriet Taylor Mill

Harriet Taylor Mill

Mill and his wife knew each other for less than thirty years and were controversially linked while Harriet was married to another man. They were socially outcast solely for being in love with each other. If this had happened in modern times, Harriet and her first husband would have divorced and she and Mill would have been free from judgment by (hopefully) most. The chance they took was immense, and so, it seems, was the reward they were given. We are very risk-averse as a culture now, preferring to be cautious so we can avoid the pain that comes from taking a risk and dealing with the fallout if it does not pan out.

I’m generalizing too much…

I’ve been hurt in the past. I prefer to be cautious instead of risking feeling deep and meaningful things for another person. I would rather avoid the pain that comes from taking a chance and failing. If this pattern remains, I will continue to be good, but never great.

John Stuart Mill died May 7, 1873 and fifteen years later he adorned his grave not with his great and many accomplishments, but with a dedication to the person who meant more to him than any other. Many of us probably don’t remember John Stuart Mill even though his works were extremely important in advancing nineteenth century thought. He is remembered for being one of the early feminists, advancing Utilitarian thought, and probably by a small town in Australia a couple hundred kilometers outside Melbourne named for him. Mill, however, decided that the one thing he wanted to be remembered for more than anything of his greatest accomplishments was his love for another. I know in order to feel that strongly for someone, I’ll eventually have to take that large of a risk again.

Walk It Out

I’ve often complained of the lack of good public transportation in most places in the states. Though there are exceptions, the rule is that driving is most likely the best way to get around. Paris actually has a very good metro system, so did Barcelona for that matter. While it can be very tempting to hop on whenever you have a long walk ahead of you, I highly recommend walking as much as possible.

Besides the obvious benefits of walking/eating mediocre sandwiches, walking a city has numerous other advantages. My current flat is a bit off the main scene in Paris. It’s around five to six kilometers to the Bastille, which is about as far in the opposite direction I’ve been so far. That’s about an hour walk for me and while it may seem more logical to catch the metro and get there much faster, it’s not like when I’m wandering I have a time schedule to keep.

Walking can give you a window into the city’s soul. You see people working, taking walks with their families, shopping, eating, and generally living day-to-day life. You can smell the freshly baked bread or coffee being brewed. You can walk by neighborhoods you had no idea existed and even if you can’t explore them right away, you’ll know to come back and give it a visit.

Small hole-in-the-wall places can have great food, like this place's cous cous

Small hole-in-the-wall places can have great food, like this place’s cous cous

One of my favorite things about walking is happening upon street food stands that have good, cheap bites to eat. Paris is one of the most expensive cities in the world and while it’s very easy to find great places to eat, it can ding the pocketbook quite quickly. I’ve been fortunate enough to have found a few places on my own, and also got some great advice from a friend about a few spots, including the best falafel I’ve ever had! Besides cooking for yourself, knowing a few different street food places can make sure you’re still able to go out now and then and spend money when you want to.

Plus you can eat in amazing places, like the banks of the Seine

Plus you can eat in amazing places, like the banks of the Seine

Too often, we get caught up in the fast-paced lifestyle of the states. If you don’t feel like you have to rush anywhere the city can open up for you in ways you never knew were possible. Take the scenic route, even if it’s a bit out of the way. Feel free to take your time and see what serendipitous moment possibly awaits you. Put some good music on, find some great food, maybe even talk to a stranger and wander around. You never know what you might find.

Like an ice skating rink plopped right in the middle of Paris.

Like an ice skating rink plopped right in the middle of Paris.

Defining Wandering

In order to understand wandering you have to understand what it truly means to wander. There is no point, aim, or direction needed, only desire. Wandering souls truly follow what their heart tells them. Others may think that these nomads have no sense of what they are doing. Actually, it’s the exact opposite.

People who wander are going solely based on sense. They are living and speaking exactly how it feels correctly to them. Often, at the end of a long day, we find it cathartic to let our minds wander, to free it from whatever arduous task had enslaved it that day. Why not embrace that same concept with the heart, body, or soul now and again?

The best part about the idea of wandering is the idea that by following what we feel is the appropriate path, we will always arrive at the appropriate destination. That place may not be one that was thought of, but it always feels correct when we get there.

I’ve heard second-hand knowledge of our brains that I like the theory of, but have no idea about its factuality, so don’t take this as scientific fact on my account alone. The theory essentially states that our brains developed its decision making center far before developing a linguistic center. We’ve all had feelings, whether they are good or bad, about people, places, or events that we cannot verbalize. This concept explains why we are not able to put those feelings into words. Why does locking eyes with one person when you walk to work, class, or into a bar always stand out in your mind long after the fact?

Wandering essentially welcomes these feelings and does not dismiss them. By going with instinctual thought, or “gut instinct”, it can be possible to get to the heart of what we truly want. That does not mean that these initial thoughts are always correct, just that an understanding of our base desires can be beneficial to self awareness.

This is on my mind today because I’ve decided to stay in Paris for a little while instead of continuing to trek around Europe. That doesn’t mean that I’ll stay here forever, or stop traveling the continent. I just know that right now I’m completely in love with this city and I want to stick around. I don’t know why exactly. I just sense it.

Creation in a World of Consumption

After two extremely long days of walking and seeing the Parisian sights, my body informed me it needed a break this morning by making me feel as though I’d been involved in a car accident that I could not remember. That was fine with my brain, which was exhausted from seeing a veritable treasure trove of art and artifacts at The Louvre yesterday. So I creaked out of bed and wandered into the kitchen to make a cup of tea and enjoy one of the delicious croissants I’d bought yesterday, then decided to settle in and see what was going on in the world.

First stop, Facebook, to make sure all of my friends are doing ok and that the Internet is not short on cat memes. I can assure you all is well on both fronts. Next up, Twitter, seeing if any of my favorite writers have a new story I’d like to read or if someone found a new way to make 140 characters humorous. Again, I went two for two. A check of some of my typical news sites (BBC, Yahoo!, and Slate) followed by a visit to Grantland, my favorite sports and entertainment site and I felt reconnected to the world. All this of course while listening to Spotify (I’ve been quite obsessed with The Oh Hello’s recently.)

I decided to pop in the shower and wander around the neighborhood for a nice sandwich and an espresso, which isn’t exactly difficult in Paris. I came home more than satisfied and thought about what to do next. I could read a book that had been suggested to me, watch Flight, which I had downloaded a few days before, listen to a podcast, or write a little and listen to some music. I settled on watching Flight while I downloaded the book and wasn’t disappointed. Denzel Washington is a powerhouse as always and I found myself completely captivated by his character. Add some solid help from John Goodman (who was great in Argo as well), Don Cheadle, and Melissa Leo and some solid directing from Robert Zemeckis and it was a thoroughly entertaining film.

It wasn’t until I was deciding whether to read or listen to a podcast until I started realizing how incredible it all was. Here I am in another country with a backpack and a messenger bag and I can read practically any book or article I want, watch almost any movie or TV show, or listen to nearly any song. Can you really blame people for being more lazy or apathetic than in previous generations? No matter what entertains you (sports, food, science, redneck families who hunt ducks or send their children to beauty pageants), there is a product out there for you to consume.

I personally get the most enjoyment not out of consuming, but creating. There’s a certain level of personal pride that comes from creation that cannot be experienced from consumption. I enjoy writing for myself; it is a form a therapy for me. It means more when I know others read what I write and enjoy it or relate with it. I love to cook, but it’s so much more rewarding to cook something great for another person. The look on someone’s face when they really enjoy something you’ve created is much more rewarding to me than anything that can be consumed. This is by no means a lecture, I just felt like creating something on a relaxing day in Paris. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to consume a good book and some more tea.