Inside Llewyn Davis

I’ve always loved the movies of the Coen brothers, ever since watching Raising Arizona as a kid and laughing my ass off seeing a young Nick Cage robbing a supermarket with a shotgun and pantyhose on his head. One of their best offerings of the past few years, to me, was the understated Inside Llewyn Davis.

The Coen’s have always had their own darkly eccentric sense of humor that they inject into their movies and Davis is no exception. Not an blood-soaked blockbuster on par with No Country For Old Men, Llewyn Davis simply follows a down and out folk singer in New York’s Greenwich Village during the early 1960s.

My punk musician little sister said she found this movie extremely painful, as it mirrored large parts of her own life in her twenties: crashing on couches, zero money and little if any physical comfort. That lifestyle will make anyone tired after a decade or so, but I’m proud of her for giving it the ol’ college try.

Much like Mad Men, the world of Davis explores this rather uncovered transitional period between the 50’s and the heady late 60’s that always stands out in our collective consciousness as a high water mark of youth counterculture. Instead we see a pre-Bob Dylan Greenwich Village populated by quiet, acoustic songwriters, affordable rent and very little hard drug use and political rebellion.

This is a world of smoky basement cafe’s, corduroy jackets and sentimental folk music- as opposed to loud electric guitars, student riots and psychedelic acid trips. But this was a Bohemia that indeed existed in a certain place and time for its denizens, and the Coen Bros do a fantastic job of bringing this lost world of old New York back to life through authentic location shooting around the 5 boroughs. Many of the haunting musical performances drive the mood, as well as giving us a nostalgic window into a brief, but highly influential underground music scene.

(Photo Credit: Seth Werkheiser via Flickr)

The central fictional character, Llewyn Davis, was modeled on the obscure, real life musician, Dave Van Ronk- the so called “Mayor of MacDougal Street “- as well as most of the music being drawn from Ronk’s repertoire. On a personal level, Ronk was purportedly not unlike his counterpart in the movie, as well as being an early mentor to a young Bob Dylan.

We learn early on that Davis is a supremely talented, yet self-sabotaging musician. A cliched starving artist type living literally day-to-day and hand to mouth. He has no apartment of his own, and merely spends his days crashing on friend’s, patron’s and girlfriend’s sofas (room and board is often exchanged for musical performances). Money seems to be irrelevant for him, just as much as mainstream, commercial success eludes his grasp.

Davis routinely insults and criticizes other musicians on stage who he deems as “inauthentic”, as well as scorning colleagues who sell out for more commercial ventures. He’s a masterful and soulful songwriter, but even at his best comes across as flakey, selfish, and uncompromising. His inability to be flexible, or accept an offer of work that he feels is beneath him, inevitably ends in disappointment for Davis.

Even when a renowned music promoter hears his audition and offers Davis a spot in a trio act going on tour, Davis refuses and makes his way back home jacketless through the cold Eastern winter. It seems everything Davis touches has the reverse Midas Effect, his cantankerous mood swings getting the better of him after every setback, while those around him seem to get lucky with love and musical success.

When he visits his sister to ask for some money, something he’s always without, Davis’s “square” suburban dwelling sibling refuses. She asks him to take his box of things she’s been storing for him, but Davis tells her to simply trash it- so little is he interested in permanence and material things.

On the love side of things, his ex-girlfriend is furious with him for getting her pregnant, and he find out later on that she’s not the first lady he’s gotten knocked up and whom had to foot the bill for an abortion.

At the end of the film, Davis gets the crap kicked out him by the husband of a woman whose performance he drunkenly mocked at a folk club the night before. Ultimately, the source of Llewyn Davis’s misfortune is obvious to everyone but himself. Or maybe he does realize it, but prefers to simply wallow in the gutter as penance for his sins- the cliched, bitter and unappreciated authentic artist till the end…

Is It Possible to Be Both Successful and Authentic as an Artist? Are We As Individuals The Greater Source Of Our Own Problems?

Anthony Bourdain: The Guy With The Greatest Job In The World?

(Photo Credit: Lwp Kommunikáció via Flickr)

Yes, Tony: I wish I could get to do what you do every day. Traversing the globe, knowing new cultures, eating exotic delicacies, and being a borderline alcoholic. I mean, why can’t I get rip roaring drunk with a bunch of Korean businessmen and have people think I’m completely witty and clever? Total career envy.

If Bohemians can be defined as people who “may be wanderers, adventurers, or vagabonds, practicing unconventional lifestyles, involving musical, artistic, or literary pursuits”, then Anthony Bourdain certainly fits that bill. Though like so many, overdoing it in the hedonism department was his downfall for many years…

Equally at home in a 3 Michelin Star Restaurant as he is tucking into stir-fried intestines in a Cambodian street market, I’ve followed Bourdain’s hungover whining like a the hopeless fanboy that I am. Who doesn’t want to drink sake in a snow-covered outdoor hot spring in Japan? And then jaunt off to Rome and eat the best pasta this side of well, Rome. I swear to God, if I ever win the lottery or secure a 100% remote job, this is what I’ll be doing for the rest my days.

And for a guy who gets to do what only most of us could ever dream of for our day jobs, all the while becoming a New York Times bestselling author, Anthony Bourdain still sure is a cranky fellow. Maybe that’s why I find him so amusing. His worldview mirrors my own cynical outlook on the rest of humanity. Still though: there’s exquisite wonder to found in a trash-strewn back alleys somewhere in the Developing World.

However, his path to the top of the cutthroat CNN Travel Host/Foodie hierarchy was not a smooth one by any means.

Here was a guy trapped in the never ending grind of a workaday New York chef: 14 hours on his feet, in his forties, stuck in a disintegrating marriage and, according to his autobiography Medium Raw, only weeks away from being evicted from his rent controlled apartment.

He’d always wanted to travel the world and be successful, but his Punk Rock lifestyle soon got the better of him. Enthralled by the glamour of the nihilistic junkie musicians he idolized, Bourdain quickly descended into a downward spiral of drug addiction and a ruined culinary career.

Slogging it out in low-end, low wage diner jobs, he had to clean up and eventually climb his way back up the ladder again in the fine dining scene. But upon entering middle age, he knew things had to change for him- but wasn’t quite sure how. Something had to change

His side outlet was writing, and as it turns out he had a real talent for it. Starting off with a small column in the NY Times describing the grueling reality of real working chefs, his prose soon found a loyal audience. That led to his breakout book Kitchen Confidential. The rest, as they say, is history.

Bourdain lays open the doors of a world probably most fine dining patrons will never know. And probably they wouldn’t ever eat there again if they did see who was actually cooking their food. Describing the typical kitchen crew as a bunch of “wacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees, a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts, and psychopaths”- sounds like my kind of party. I seem to remember an anecdote about him one day opening the door to the staff bathroom to see some of his ex-gangmember cooks assembling AK-47s in there “as a side gig”.

Nor would his descriptions of the cooking world ever encourage any sane person to want to pursue a career as a line chef. It takes a rare breed of workaholic, and someone who truly thrives under intense stress, to ever make it through a few years of this lifestyle. Most ambitious young Celebrity Chef wannabes probably burn out when they realize what the unglamorous reality really entails.

(Seattle Municipal Archives via Flickr)

Perhaps what really draws readers and fans to Bourdain is his candor. He makes no bones about the complete and utter cockup he made of himself, all driven by his hedonistic excesses and self-sabotaging persona. All unapologetically his own fault. He doesn’t blame anyone else for his problems, and by his own accounts, he’s probably very lucky to have even made it to adulthood at all.

Luckily, his success in the writing world then led to a string of cooking and travel shows on cable TV. God knows where he’d be if he hadn’t. Probably still slaving away on his feet in a kitchen somewhere, evicted from his apartment, burnt out and unable to see all the countries he’d always dreamed about visiting.

I think we can all relate to struggle, setbacks and bad decisions- you’re a liar if you say you’ve never had your fair share of them in your life (though perhaps some have hit bigger extremes than others). Being open about it all can certainly make you vulnerable and relatable in more ways than one.

Bourdain’s made a name for himself by embracing his scars, getting inebriated on television and at least making you laugh along the way (albeit in his own bitter, sarcastic tone). We’re all flawed human beings, so stop trying to pretend that you’re not.

So What’s Your Dream Job? Anybody Out There Doing What You’d Truly Love to Do?

Is Napping Good For You?

I remember traveling through Spain in my early twenties. Probably one of the most beautiful, fascinating and impressive countries I’ve ever been to. Each city had its own unique style, history and culture. The dry landscape of the South of Spain looked like Mexico or the Southwest United States, while the Basque Country in the North was green, rainy and mountainous.

Countless books and documentaries have covered Spain’s food, music, art and architecture, and of course, the language is a joy. I’d seriously love to go back to Spain and explore it more, it really is an incredibly varied place.

But the one thing that really struck me about the Spanish people was their lifestyle. Especially in the Andalucia region of the South where it gets really freaking hot during the Midday, the custom of Siesta was a welcome relief.

At first, I found it mildly frustrating. Being on Anglo-Saxon time, I wanted to go out and eat lunch at 2:30pm, but most places were already all closed down, the shops shuttered, the city dead as a doornail. Why can’t Spanish culture revolve around me and my immediate needs, dammit!?!

Yet once you get used to the rhythm of things it all makes perfect sense. Eat around 12, then go home or back to your hostel and take a power nap. Feels pretty good right? Its too bloody hot to go walking around looking at monuments or running errands anyway.

Later on, feeling refreshed, go out around 10 for dinner (which is when the restaurants start to get packed) and then continue on to the bars. In the middle of the night, out in the streets, young people are out in droves drinking wine, playing guitar, socializing, kissing, dancing, flirting- living life the way it should be led.

There’s a lot we can learn from the Spanish way of life that can be incorporated into our own. Paella is good, Flamenco is better, siestas even more so. Despite it’s well publicized current economic troubles (not caused by taking naps by the way), I wouldn’t mind living in Spain. People there seemed…well, pretty positive, friendly and content.

Personally, I fucking love napping in the afternoon. I swear, the moment I sit in a chair I start to feel sleepy. I also seem to sleep the best when I take a short afternoon kip. My dreams are more vivid, my slumber far deeper.

While in the middle of the night I can often wake up to toss and turn, a good Andalucian-style Siesta always leaves me feeling rested and ready for what comes next. Preferably a large glass of Rioja.

In fact, I may just take a short nap right now and come back later to finish this blog post… While I do that, take a gander at this short video by the media mogul Arianna Huffington and her own experiences with sleep deprivation:

Ouch: a broken cheekbone and five stitches above your eye. That’s what happens when you pass out at your desk from exhaustion. “Among men, sleep deprivation has become a virility symbol”, she says. Well, then call me a limp dick loser. I’ll go back to my sofa without a shred of guilt.

Hell, even Winston Churchill, in between smoking large cuban cigars, drinking scotch and fighting the Nazi’s, was an strident advocate of the afternoon nap. He supposedly would even start his workday in bed dictating memos to his secretaries.

Yet for so many of us, napping seems like a mark of embarrassment. Just like laziness, falling asleep in the afternoon is but for the weak- along with senile old farts with nothing to do except watch soap operas. A nap? You should feel guilty just for even entertaining that blasphemous notion in your entitled little head.

Little kids take naps in preschool (which I always hated being forced to do), but WORK- that’s for real adults who get real things done. Running around in a hamster wheel like a chicken with your head cut off- now that’s BEING PRODUCTIVE.

But if successful, driven people like Sir Winston and Mrs. Huffington can make something of themselves while enjoying an afternoon power nap, then you should be able to as well. And if Spain can produce some of the finest wines, modern cuisine, painting and music this side of, well, just about anywhere- all the while indulging in a ritual siesta, then I see no reason not to celebrate a good old fashioned nap when you feel like it…

When Was The Last Time You Had A Good Siesta?

Why You Can’t Win…

An underground classic, You Can’t Win, is a book worth hunting down- even if takes a little effort. Though in these days of Amazon and rare used book websites, that should shouldn’t be too hard to do. The book was a major influence on Beat writer William S. Burroughs, who wrote the introduction to the reprint. 

You Can’t Win is almost like an anti-On The Road. Instead of seeing the openness and romance of America as a quest for spiritual enlightenment, Jack Black hits the road (and rails) in search of gambling, stolen goods to fence, drugs and cynical criminal opportunities.

It’s the dark side of the American dream, and a haunting one at that. And unlike Herbert Asbury’s historical Gangs of New York, You Can’t Win is an autobiography that gives you the first-hand persoective on life in the darkest of trenches. You can almost smell the cheap whiskey, sawdust and split blood on the saloon floor.

Written by author Jack Black in 1926, it recounts his exploits as a young runaway, train riding hobo, jewel thief, safecracker, convict, gambler, and opium addict in the American West at the turn of the 20th Century. It gives his insider perspective on the underground criminal subcultures that flourished in those days: their slang, rituals, codes, way of life and hideouts. And this guy can write; you’ll have trouble readjusting to your boring life after stepping away from its pages.

It’s an incredibly unique book, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it anywhere, and without Black’s descriptive writing, his colorful and sinister world would probably would be all but forgotten to the mists of time. His description of staking out and robbing houses in pre-earthquake San Francisco, solitary confinement and flogging in a Vancouver jail, and his motley crew of associates: “Salt Chunk Mary”, “Montana Blacky” and “The Sanctimonious Kid” will all stay with you as real as yesterday.

His use of slang that criminals spoke only immerses you further into a place where few of us would ever dare to tread: Yegg (Safecracker), Hobo Jungle (Homeless Encampment), Dr. Hall (Alcohol), Yaffled (Arrested), Bulls (Rail Yard Cops) Skookum House (Jail).

“The thought of working to me was a foreign as the thought of burglary or robbery would be to a settled printer of plumber after ten years at his trade. I wasn’t lazy or indolent. I knew there were lots of easier and safer ways of making a living, but they were the ways of other people, people I didn’t know or understand, and didn’t want to. I didn’t call them suckers or saps because they were different and worked for a living. They represented society. Society represented law, order, discipline, punishment. Society was a machine geared to grind me to pieces. Society was an enemy. There was a high wall between me and society; a wall reared by myself, maybe–I wasn’t sure. Anyway I wasn’t going to crawl over the wall and join the enemy just because I had taken a few jolts of hard luck.”

― Jack Black

However, nor Black doesn’t glamorize his life and the choices that led him there. Indeed, the book is written as a warning to other criminals to go straight and reject the lifestyle that he lived for so many decades. In Black’s opinion, committing crime in the near future will become all but impossible with newly advanced methods of policing and criminal detection. Similarly, his nearly 15 years of accumulated jail time he sees as, ultimately, a wasted life. Hence the title: You Can’t Win. 

Towards the end of his days, Black gets out of the prison and the criminal life, sponsored by and working for the wealthy owner of the San Francisco Call newspaper. He went on tour around the country lecturing on penitentiary reform.

He also tried his hand at playwriting, creating the poorly received “Salt Chunk Mary”. And then… Black simply disappears from history, though it’s surmised that he committed suicide by drowning at the beginning of the Great Depression. Maybe the struggle of life just got to be too much for him in the end.

I actually gave You Can’t Win to my little brother some years back. He liked it so much, he got a massive tattoo of it on his arm (I’m sure my parents will thank me for this):

My brother explained to me that the outer arm at the top depicts a hobo making mulligan stew in his encampment, underneath is a obviously a steam train (the positives of freedom). The inner arm on the right depicts the negatives of a life of crime (death and imprisonment).

You don’t have to rush out and get tatted up like my brother did, but give this classic of counterculture literature a try. Are there any lessons to be learned from it? I’m not sure- other than you’re gonna lose before you leave the starting gate if you follow Black’s path. Still, it makes for a gripping, insiders view of a now long-lost subterranean/outsider culture.

And you: what’s your favorite tome of counterculture literature? What books inspire you?

Is A Skull More Interesting Than A Naked Woman?

(Photo by Albertus Pictor)

The Seventh Seal (1957) is considered one of the greatest films of the 20th Century by one of cinema’s (and certainly Sweden’s) greatest auteurs, Ingmar Bergman. It’s one of the those films that are de riguer on any film school class’s syllabus. Any modern day “white dudes in chainmail” medieval epic, from Monty Python and The Holy Grail to Game of Thrones, owes the Seventh Seal‘s doom and gloom imagery a debt. Hell, just watch it to listen actors speaking Swedish for 90 minutes, always makes me chuckle quietly to myself….

I still find it a thought provoking, disturbing and, at times, beautiful film- you won’t quite walk away from it untouched. Religion, Death, God and The Meaning of Life all get Bergman’s dark, uniquely Scandinavian treatment, leading to few answers by the end of the film. Funnily enough, for such a depressing fellow, Ingmar Bergman lived to be about 89, spending the majority of his life on some cold, windswept island off the coast of Sweden.

The plot of the Seventh Seal centers around a knight, Antonius Block (played by a young Max Von Sydow), freshly returned after 10 years from the Crusades. Plague is ravaging the land. He is sitting on a gloomy beach, playing chess by himself, when Death himself appears to take Block away. Block succeeds in convincing Death to play against him in chess. If Block wins, he gets to live. Death agrees, seemingly knowing that he always wins in the end…

We never see exactly how the game ends, but Death appears again throughout the film to continue the match and hopefully win Block’s everlasting soul. Doesn’t Death look strikingly similar to Death from Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey? Yes, I thought so.

Block, and his cynical squire, Jons, continue on their way home to Block’s ancestral castle. Along the way they pass by some traveling actors, Jof, his wife Mia, their infant son and their actor-manager Jonas. Block and Jons eventually arrive at a small church, inside of which is a local craftsman painting the interior wall with a macabre mural. In one of my favorite scenes of the movie, Jons asks the painter what he’s doing:

Jons: Whats that supposed to be?

Painter: The Dance of Death…

Jons: And why do you paint such nonsense?

Painter: To remind people that they’re going to die.

Jons: Well, that won’t cheer them up any.

Painter: Why try to cheer them up? Why not scare them a bit?

Jons: They won’t look at your paintings.

Painter: Oh yes they will- a skull is almost more interesting than a naked woman.

Jons: If you scare them, they’ll-

Painter: They’ll think. I paint things as they are- people can do what they like…

I think this scene was really Bergman making a subtle, tongue in cheek commentary on his own work. Sure, he could make some amusing, Hollywood-style fluff, but what he really prefers to do is provoke people to make them think. He has no interest in entertaining viewers. I think that’s also what I try to do with this blog too: make people think, and paint things as they are.

In the other more famous scene of the film, Block enters the confessional booth. Suffering from doubts about his faith, and fear of Death chasing his tail, he confides in the priest his story. Block feels that his life was without purpose, and that he wants to perform one last meaningful deed during his reprieve with Death. He then tells the priest about his chess game versus Death and how he plans to beat him. At this moment, Death reveals himself to have been disguised as the priest all along, having tricked the knight into revealing his strategy.

Back to the story: Block and Jons cross paths again with the traveling family of actors in town not far away. Block, is moved by Jof and Mia’s innocent love for each other and their small child. He invites them to weather the spreading Plague at his castle where he believes they will all be safer.

As the caravan of travelers near Block’s castle, Block plays one final game with Death. Jof and Mia see them both and become scared, fleeing for their lives. Block knocks the pieces aside to distract Death, thus enabling the young family to escape. Death thinks Block was merely trying to cheat him at the game, and resets the pieces from memory, then revealing that his next move will be Checkmate. Block smiles ironically to himself, knowing that although he will not escape his own end, he at least tricked Death and performed one last meaningful deed as he had intended.

Death then tells Block that he will be leaving him now, and that when they meet again the hour will strike for him and his companions. “And you will reveal your secrets?” Block asks:

Talk about bleak. Bergman’s philosophy is one of existential angst and ultimately, a futile search for answers in a rather short life here on Earth.

Block and his companions then make their way back to his old castle to be reunited with his wife. But Death is waiting there to take them all away. It is only Jof, Mia, and their baby who escape his clutches, while they see the others, hand in hand, being led away on a hillside in the distance, “dancing with death”.

But in the ending shot, we find that there is some hope after all in Bergman’s world: Love, Art and Family carry on, long after we have danced our way over the horizon…

What films make you think? And is a skull really as interesting as a naked woman?

Frida Kahlo: More Than Just A Unibrow

(Photo Credit: Marko 93 via Flickr)

Frida Kahlo, one of the most recognizable and iconic artists of the 20th Century, and certainly one of Mexico’s greatest painters. What a true original she was! Everything she did: from her clothes, to her art, to her lifestyle, was just so different from everyone else around her.

I think the mold must have been broken the day she was born, and who has come along to replace her? Her instantly recognizable furry eyebrow, traditional indigenous dresses and jewelry, along with her vivid and famous self-portraits make Frida one of those artists whose public image sticks in your mind as an incredibly intriguing person.

Yet like so many talented artists, her life was wracked with pain and the substance abuse that she used to dull that pain. But her torments were those of a physical nature, not so much the stereotypical “tortured artist” that many us of have come to know. Yes, Frida was tortured, but it was her own body and ailments that brought her pain, and perhaps were the drivers behind her creative genius.

An oddball eccentric from the get go, Frida Kahlo was born in 1907 in the village/suburb of Mexico City known as Coyoacán. It has now been swallowed up by the seething mass of the Mexico City, but still retains a pleasant air to go strolling around while visiting her childhood home. Her father, a photographer by trade, was originally from Germany, and her mother was of Spanish and Indigenous descent via Oaxaca.

Kahlo described her childhood home as “very sad” and her parent’s relationship as loveless. Frida was not exactly the luckiest person in the world when it came to physical health either. She contracted polio at the age of six, which, although she was able to recover, left her housebound for a great length of time along with a permanently weakened right leg. Still, her father encouraged her to pursue sports as a way to rehabilitate, as well as home schooling her in philosophy, literature and photography.

in 1922, Frida enrolled in the Elite National Preparatory School, one of only 35 women in a total student body of 2000. She excelled academically and thought about becoming a doctor. She also immersed herself in the politics of the day, surrounding herself with other left-wing student intellectuals committed to Mexican culture, political activism and social justice. It was also at school that she first watched her future husband, Diego Rivera, painting a mural in the school’s lecture hall.

Again however, luck was not with her, and a traffic accident involving a bus she was riding and a streetcar left her with severe, life-threatening injuries. The force of the collision impaled a steel guardrail through her side, exiting out her back above the thigh. Although she survived, the accident left her an invalid for several months, as well as seriously damaging her spine.

As a result of her injuries, she would continue to suffer pain and physical deterioration for the rest of her life. But, at the very least, her long period of recuperation at home left her many quiet hours to develop her budding talents as an artist. Starting with self-portraits and paintings of her family members, Kahlo soon desired to “begin again, painting things just as I saw them with my own eyes and nothing more.”

In 1928 she met Diego Rivera, already a successful muralist, and they began a relationship. They married not long after. He was impressed by her artistic talent and encouraged her to pursue a career in painting. Depictions  of the two of them together always make me laugh: Diego a towering, portly, somewhat unattractive fellow, and Frida, so petite and fragile, looking like a little traditional lady from the pueblo.

They couldn’t have made a more unlikely physical match-up, but soon became Latin America’s most famous artistic power couple. They toured the USA for Diego’s mural projects in San Francisco, New York and Detroit, and Frida’s acclaim as an artist began to gain international attention.

Being that they were wild, bohemian artists, their marriage was far from a traditional one. Diego already had 2(!) common-law wives when he married Frida, and continued to have affairs on the side- including one with her own sister. I think Diego’s philandering only contributed to their already volatile relationship, here’s an except of a translated letter Frida had written her husband:

She should have sent it to him. But what a passionate woman, and I simply love people who simply don’t give a shit what the world thinks of them. And how could Diego possibly reject someone who identified herself as Love, Pleasure and Essence personified?!?

In 1939, tired of his crap, Frida divorced him, only to be reconciled and remarried 1 year later. Yet, they largely went about living their own separate lives. Frida’s health also continued to decline during these years, along with her alcoholism. Numerous surgeries, abortions, miscarriages and gangrene plagued her body and left her addicted to painkillers.

By the early 50’s, she was almost entirely bedridden and confined to her family home, but still continued to paint, hold exhibitions and work for left-wing political causes. She passed away in her bed in 1954, the last words she wrote were: “Espero alegre la salida — y espero no volver jamás” (I joyfully await the exit — and I hope never to return). No doubt…

Her paintings continue to be hugely influential and are exhibited in galleries around the world. She mixed Surrealism, Magic Realism and elements of Mexican Folk Art which in her words consisted of “fantasy, naivety, and fascination with violence and death”.

Frida’s themes always seem to be deeply personal, perhaps this is part of her long lasting appeal. You can really feel her physical pain, injuries, passions and heartaches- her paintings hold nothing back. But maybe that’s what makes great art, right? Honesty.

So, Who’s Your Favorite Painter?

5 Reasons I Hate The Suburbs

Oh Lordy, Lordy, Lordy, Lordy: How can people live in these soulless, plastic, empty Legolands? Every time I drive through the suburbs, it just makes me want to punch a cute kitten in the face.

I guess I’m just a city kid at heart, so I simply cannot fathom how American tract suburbs are appealing to anyone. But apparently 150 million do (and I guess they like it?). Don’t these people want noise, dirt, grit, tall buildings and urban street crime, liquor stores and dimly lit dive bars all within inebriated walking distance?? I tell you, their lives are doomed to a vacuous, empty, unlived existence of emotional and intellectual poverty.

Don’t get me wrong- I like the country too. Mountains, rivers, small towns with history and charm. Natural beauty refreshes me, and I’m always down for a camping trip outta the city. I’m not sure that I could live in a small, rural town my whole life (I think I’d get restless honestly), but it wouldn’t be the worst place in the world. I heard the moonshine ain’t bad either.

I don’t actually know what it is about the ‘Burbs that bother me so much. Perhaps my hatred is plain irrational, but we all have a right to our feelings sometimes and nobody’s gonna dissuade me from my rant at this juncture. Here are some salient points:

1. You Have To Drive Everywhere: I honestly hate driving. The idiocy and incompetence of most drivers on the road is demonstrated to me almost every time I get behind the wheel. I do own a car, but try to use it only for trips out of town or grocery shopping. Otherwise, I’m most content walking and taking public transportation to get around.

The absurdity that every human being on earth somehow needs a 1 ton steel machine to transport their 150lb body everytime they need to simply pick up a pint of milk is galling. Yet, the entire physical landscape of the suburbs is constructed entirely for the automobile. You are NOTHING without a car, and those who cannot drive (the young, the elderly, the poor) are geographically isolated and helpless.

Suburban development is so spread out, that communities feel like they don’t exist at all. They’re just bland swathes of houses, with no corner store, local cafe or plaza where one might meet their neighbors. This empty morass of residences is then connected by a freeway or 6 lane thoroughfare that connects to the strip mall- all of this environment only accessible to cars. Those caught walking on the streets are often viewed as freaks or suspicious deviants only worthy of law enforcement scrutiny.

I just cannot understand how people will drive an hour to an hour and a half to and from work in teeth grinding traffic, just so they can get back to their identical, stucco McMansion. “So my kid can have a yard” they’ll probably answer.

2. All The Houses Look The Same: It goes without saying that all houses look the same in the burbs. Why? Do people prefer this? I guess most people all dress the same too, even when they have the chance to get creative with their appearance. So, perhaps their house is a reflection of this same ethos or their same personality).

Can’t builders have fun with making some sort of statement of artistry on the domiciles they erect? I mean, look at these houses from the late 19th Century in San Francisco:

Light, Beauty, Architectural Detail, Individuality in every home. Nowadays, we just have these:

An endless tide of cheap beige stucco as far as the eye can see. No doubt the people living in these ticky tack boxes have little to say or any original ideas of their own. Might as well just spend their days stuffing their faces with microwaved Hot Pockets and farting on the sofa as the Kardashians stream in on Netflix. The next generation will probably do the same.

3. All The Businesses Are The Same: Same as the houses, all businesses in the suburbs are, by and large chain, stores and chain restaurants. Most of the eateries serve sugary, fattening, non-nutritious food, that (if you’re lucky) is at least some sort of white, homogenized facsimile of spicy ethnic cuisine.

Combined with the driving only environment as mentioned above, fast food and their sit down superiors only reinforce the obesity and diabetes epidemic that’s turning our children into greasy-faced Land Whales. Again, people must find this stuff comforting when they travel to visit other people in another faceless suburban hellhole in some other state. “I’m in a different city, but Thank God for that green Starbucks sign on the horizon! Maybe the world outside of my own cookie-cutter bubble isn’t so threatening after all…”

Drop yourself down in any large modern area of any American city, and you’d be at a loss to actually know where you are; the physical appearance is literally indistinguishable from anywhere else. But if you landed in say, Manhattan- you would instantly know you’re in Manhattan.

4. No Fun: What’s there to do for fun in the Suburbs anyway? Is there anywhere to go? And no: driving to the shopping mall to buy cheap crap made in China at a chain store is not my idea of fun. It seems most people in these areas simply drive home, bolt the door and turn on the TV- not to leave again until work starts again on Monday morning.

Is there anywhere nice to walk with a woodsy park? A concert in the nearby pedestrianized downtown? A street fair? Some cool graffiti to check out? What about Saturday night? There’s nowhere to bloody go! Maybe one bar or music club in the entire 30 square mile area? But even if you go there, then you can’t even get loaded! Why? Because then you would have to drive home in your 1 ton metal death machine, drunkenly mowing down telephone polls and grannies in their pajamas along the way!

If I can’t walk to and back from my nearest pub, what’s the fucking point of life? I might as well just stay home and drink and smoke funny cigarettes in my living room…

5. Paranoia: 

(Photo Credit: myradphotos via Flickr)

People who live in suburbs also seem really afraid. Afraid of shadows creeping up behind them… Maybe its the media that streams into living rooms replete with stories of urban crime, serial killers and terrorists, but guess what? Just being alive is dangerous. Last time I checked: you’re going to die anyway.

My friends that live in suburban areas all have serious gun collections as well. I cannot understand why, but they seriously live in extreme fear of someone “breaking into their home at night”. Myself and my friends that live in one of the most crime ridden urban areas in America don’t own any guns at all. It doesn’t even cross our minds to.

Indeed, there seems to be a bizarre inverse relationship between peaceful suburban living and weapons ownership. When I asked my suburban-dwelling buddy why he owned an assault rifle, he replied that “his neighbor owned one and had a hundred thousand rounds of ammunition in his garage”, so on that basis he needed to have one too.

100,000 rounds of ammunition: What. The. Fuck. Sounds like someone’s been watching too much Walking Dead to me… Zombie Apocalypse anyone?

Do you really buy a military-grade, semiautomatic machine gun just because your neighbor might use the same on you? That’s not civilization: that’s Chaos. You live in the suburbs- there’s no crime there! Nothing!! Its boring as fuck!!! Maybe one day when Ze Germans invade that gun might come in handy, but until then I’m not hiding under my bed at night, cleaning my rifle in the expectation that my wife might walk in with warm milk and cookies in her nightgown…

In short, the suburbs are built for one thing, and one thing only: to buy your house, have your kids and die there. Or the suburban life is simply sold to us through Hollywood movies and TV as the IDEAL EXISTENCE everybody should aspire to. There is nothing else: all human needs one could possibly think of are taken care of there. Or maybe, just maybe, there’s more to life than this…

What about you: does a drive into the Burbs feel like the equivalent of Chinese Water Torture? If you’re growing up there, do you long to break out of your plastic prison and move to the city where eccentric weirdos do interesting things?

Is There A Place For You In This World?

(Photo Credit: Andras Barta via Pixabay)

I was just rewatching a small scene in the TV show Boardwalk Empire, where one of the main characters, Chalky White, asks his mistress, Daughter Maitland, to sing him a song “like you’re tying up a secret inside”:

Maitland: “I don’t know any secrets, I just know how I feel.”
Chalky: “And how dat?”
Maitland: “You spend your life walking all over the world- but you never find your place… cause there isn’t one.”

I can’t explain why, but this snippet of dialogue struck me deeply when I heard it. I guess it’s because I feel like even though I’ve walked all over the world, I still can’t find my place either. Maybe it’s because I was born in one country, and then brought to another as a 10 year old- from the UK to the US.

I think your soul just gets divided between two different cultures when you’re an immigrant, and in the end you don’t quite belong to either one. When I live in the US, I don’t feel very American. When I go home to London to visit old friends and family, I definitely don’t feel British either- though my wife finds my habit of eating baked beans on toast coupled with milk in my tea nauseating.

Even after living most of my life in the Bay Area (discounting travel and living abroad), people almost automatically pick up on my mixed-up London accent and ask me where I’m from. “Oh, do you have an accent?” “Where are you from? Brooklyn? Australia? Ireland?” I must sound like some odd hybrid between Cockney and California surfer dude drawl. I guess it makes me unique and breaks the ice in conversations.

Even after moving with my family to Cali, I still went back to visit London in the summer, and then onwards to do some traveling on the Continent. I moved away for college, and then went further still to study in Scotland for a year. Then to come back.

Onwards to Tokyo, Japan to teach English to kids. Then more working and saving to go backpacking, take Spanish lessons and volunteer in Central America. The only thing that interested me in my Twenties was working my ass off, saving a bunch of money, and then using that for the next expedition to points unknown.

Then I met my wife at a friends wedding in Brazil. 3 years of long distance back and forth (and many miserable Skype conversations!), finally brought me to Sao Paulo, Brazil where I got married and lived and taught business English.

After 4 years, wanting to reconnect with family, I’m now back in the Bay Area again. But the San Francisco has become a place that I’m finding more and more difficult to recognize. As rising costs, obscene traffic and new people apparently obsessed only with money move in, I question whether my future is here at all…

Growing up in San Francisco, I never felt quite freakish or cool enough to fit into the counterculture weirdness of Haight Ashbury. I never quite fit into any defined subculture either; not Punk, nor the Deadheads, nor the Skaters etc etc.

I’m not gay, but I remember being on Castro Street on Halloween (it used to be a serious party before it got taken over by the knuckleheads and shut down), and thinking to myself: “Wow! No matter where you are in this world, if you’re gay: you can at least always call this neighborhood home. This is where you can come and walk down the street, and you’re not a freak, a deviant, a sinner, an outcast or a criminal. There’s always a refuge for you.”

I was actually quite envious of that to tell the truth. I always wished there was a street or neighborhood where everybody was just like me and understood my thoughts and experiences, but I just don’t think it exists. Maybe just online(?)

I like what Emilie Wapnick over at Puttylike.com writes about being what she calls “The In-Betweens”: Those who defy categorization and straddle many different worlds, cultures, identities and groups of friends- but never quite fitting into any one of them 100%. The only thing that unites them is a mutual life “in-between” everything else. Perhaps I’m just an “In-Betweener” then…

I’m not sure if there is a culture or home that truly represents me in the end. Maybe my life has just been too different from most people I meet. After living abroad, discovering new cultures and learning new languages and ways of life, “home” just isn’t quite the same. Your old friends haven’t changed much, they’re still doing the same things they were doing before you left. But YOU HAVE CHANGED in undefinable ways.

(Photo Credit: Dano via Flickr)

And then I also get caught in the trap that the grass is always greener on the other side: That the next romantic place, city or location will be always sound better/more exciting/more authentic/more “real”/more interesting: Dublin! Istanbul! Paris! The World Is My Oyster!

I think it’s important to notice these patterns in my own thoughts. I don’t know if it’s a good thing, or a concept that drives my passions to live an interesting and fulfilling life. But when I do get to that other place, I then find that it’s not really the utopia I imagined it was going to be. There’s always going to be Positives and Negatives, just like everywhere else.

I do try to remember the saying that “Home is Where The Heart Is”, wherever the people are that love me is the most important, but damn, if I still don’t get the bug to see what’s yonder over that hill in the distance…

What about you: have you walked all over, but never to find your place? Is there a “place” for you in this world?

“I Collect Bad Wines…”

(Photo Credit: Greg Lam Pak Ng via Flickr)

Probably all or most of you have heard about the famous plane crash on the Hudson river in New York back in the winter of 2009. Clint Eastwood even made it into a pretty good movie, Sully.

If you have been living in a bubble and don’t know much about this incident, it basically is a worst nightmare scenario for anyone afraid of flying: Upon Flight 1549′s takeoff at New York’s La Guardia airport, both the plane’s engines sucked in flying birds and the plane lost its ability to generate lift. The steady captain was able to make a soft water landing right in the middle of the frozen Hudson, just narrowly avoiding a bridge and half of downtown Manhattan in the process.

The plane floated somewhat, but started taking on water as the flight crew quickly evacuated the passengers. And remember, this is January on the East Coast: the water was straight up ice- you can’t stay submerged in that for too long before hypothermia sets in.

Luckily, the Coast Guard and other passing boats quickly joined in to pick up the everyone off the plane and in the water. Everyone miraculously survived.

Then there’s this guy: Ric Elias. He was actually one of the passengers on this plane- right in the very first freaking row. Not many people get to survive a plane crash, so it’s worth hearing what he has to say about his experience…

Honestly, experiencing something like this would certainly would put me off of flying for a very long time. Fucking terrifying for all those involved. Although I love traveling, going down on a plane is not on my Top 10 list of ways to kick the bucket. Dropping into the drink, no thanks. In fact, I will confess to being a little anxious about flying because of this.

I mean, flying over the Atlantic with nowhere to land in either direction for hours? Yikes, I try not to think about it while I’m locked into a shaking metal tube for 8 hours. But ultimately, these small anxieties aren’t big enough to stop me from exploring new places. It’s always a sacrifice I’ll gladly make to go see some new, exotic corner of the world.

Anyway, back to our video: I used to sometimes use this as an ESL lesson for my students when I was a teacher in Brazil. Most of students were business people, so I tried to at least sneakily influence them by showing them this video about a Marketing CEO who almost died and how it changed his life- though he’s probably still a corporate drone.

I do love how now he describes himself as a Collector Of Bad Wines: “Cause if the wine is ready and the person is there- I’m opening it”

The three things he learned about in the talk are the following:

  1. It Can All Change In An Instant: “I no longer want to postpone anything in my life”. You never really know what’s around the corner for any us right?
  2. Wasted Time: “I regretted all the time I wasted on the things that did not matter with people that mattered”. This led to him trying his best to eliminate all negative energy from his life, whether it be a pointless fight with his wife or being upset over frivolous things.
  3. Try To Be The Best Parent That You Can Be: Well, I don’t have any kids yet. But either way, cherish and nurture the relations of the people around you that you love. ‘Nuff said…

I thought it was really interesting when he says that Dying Is Not Scary: “It’s almost like we’ve been preparing for it our whole lives”. In what he thought would be his final moments, more than anything else, he felt that it was just sad.

Ultimately though, Ric Elias really did receive the greatest blessing of all: a serious opportunity to contemplate all these important things, and then get a second lease on life. Not many of us will ever have that chance at an existential epiphany, so try to have one without nearly dying if at all possible.

If there’s one theme I try to emphasize on a regular basis here at Romantic Bohemian, it’s that Life Is To Be Cherished.

So, collect those cheap wines folks (or even the expensive one), and be ready to bust ’em open whenever the mood strikes you. No point hoarding them in your snobby wine cellar under your 6-Bedroom mansion hoping they go up in value someday.

We never really know what’s around the corner do we? Might as well enjoy some good cheer, do the things we really want to do in this life, pig out on pork rinds and ice cream, and then have some really good sex with the one you love. Because it can all change in an instant…

What Would You Do With A 4-Hour Workweek?

A Four Hour Workweek you say? Is this even possible? I must admit the title certainly did appeal to my inherent laziness and loathing for high stress responsibility. Obviously, Timothy Ferris and his bestseller,The Four Hour Workweek, have already been discussed ad nauseam in the blogosphere for quite some time now. I do like this book though.

It has a lot to say, and I found myself reading along and nodding my head in agreement throughout a lot of it. But there’s plenty of fluff to wade through too, and I think the title probably tends to turn people off as sounding a bit too “Snake Oil Salesman” or “Selling The Dream”.

I liked the line where Ferris talks about how skeptical he is of the old hackneyed concept of “Just Find What You Love And You’ll Never Work A Day Again in Your Life”. That there some sort of endlessly satisfying vocation out there just waiting for every single person on Earth to discover it and transform their lives into a daily passion project.

Ferris writes: “for most people, somewhere between six and seven billion of them, the perfect job is the one that takes the least time.” Nicely put, and certainly something makes more sense to me- although it flips conventional career counseling wisdom on it head in more ways than one.

The core principle of the book is this: to create small scale, online businesses that don’t take up too much of your time. Thereby enabling you more of your own life outside of work to enjoy and make the most of while you still have the health and energy to do so.

By making the internet your launch platform, you can run your online business from anywhere in the world wherever there is an internet signal- foregoing the headache of paying rent, bills and regulations on a traditional “brick and mortar” store. Ferris even suggests outsourcing a lot of your work to freelancing sites like Fiverr and even using remote personal administrative assistants in India.

And the businesses that Ferris describes don’t even have to be large scale. So much of our stereotypes about being an “Internet Entrepreneur” conjure up images of a Mark Zuckerberg-type start up Guru; reinventing the wheel and becoming billionaires by the age of 17.

However, most of us don’t really want (or need) to work the kind hours it takes to be the CEO of some overnight million dollar company- replete with employees, payroll, lawsuits etc etc. What if you could simply create a low maintenance business that paid you your current monthly salary of say $3000-4000 per month? How would that change your life?

This of course leaves you not only more time in your life to travel and do the fulfilling things you’d really like to do, but also endows you with flexibility of location, personal independence and even a lifestyle upgrade. He calls this concept “Geoarbitrage”.

By taking your laptop on the road, to say, Thailand, the money you earn in dollars from your work obviously goes a lot further than it would in any Western country. You get the double benefit of not just traveling the world, but also paying for the kind of luxury apartment and lifestyle you couldn’t afford back home. $3000 a month in many Third World Countries would certainly put you in the top 1% socio-economic class.

Do you need to be a Millionaire, or could you instead live in a small town in Costa Rica with your current salary coming in every month? I know I certainly could. I’m a tightwad by nature and don’t need “a lot” to be happy. Breaking it down even more, could you get rid of your material possessions and simply coast from cool backpacker hostel to a hammock on a beach in Turkey, soaking it all in and living the dream?

Indeed, Ferris and his acolytes have even coined a name for this new kind of worker: the “Digital Nomad” or “The New Rich”. People who have forsaken the capitalist/materialist/suburban paradigm and choosen to fill their lives with experiences rather than things.

The old American capitalist model to aspire to was “live to work”, but Digital Nomads aspire to simply “work to live” and stop wasting their hard earned money on the maintenance of silly possessions they can’t take with them to the grave anyway. Inherently, the idea of the 4HWW is Lifestyle over Money. I would certainly call that “Wealth” by any measure of the word…

These are some heady, and perhaps revolutionary concepts. And I’m sure Ferris wasn’t the first to put these ideas into use, but he seems to have been the first to tie them all together in a catchy popular book format. His story seems to have stemmed from his own experience as an entrepreneur selling energy drinks.

His business took off, but Ferris was soon reaching the edge of a nervous breakdown clocking in 80 hours per week just trying to run it all. This led to his creation of an “automated” remote system whereby he could take a step back from his business and let other underlings take care of the smaller details.

And not to say the 4 Hour Work Week is the be all, end all Bible of how to do all this. Reading through it, I felt that the chapter dealing with starting and testing an online business idea was somewhat vague. I’m afraid it makes the whole endeavor sound just a little too easy- at least for someone like myself with no business experience.

And for those out there with little technical computer acumen, running an online store or web platform is going to require a huge learning curve. However, what is inspiring is that there are actually people out there in the world doing this and living this type of life. The possibilities are illuminating, and certainly make me interested to learn more about how its done.

I did find an interesting blog post by Alexander Heyne over at Milk The Pigeon where he breaks down in a lot more detail how one actually tests a potential online business idea for it’s viability. It’s basically Timothy Ferris’s concept of a Muse, but going into far greater depth than the book does. Very useful at any rate.

If I did achieve a smoothly running web-based business that paid me enough for a basic comfortable life, how would I spend my time? Honestly, I do need a little more focus in my life. I’m think I’m actually perfectly happy to work 40 hours per week (it’s the commute that kills me). And much like a lottery winner, I think I would quickly drink myself into oblivion with having pretty much nothing to do every day.

Freedom, Independence and Time Flexibility: these appeal to me greatly though. I’d be willing to put in the hours to achieve those goals. The rewards, to me at least, would be beyond the riches of my wildest imagination…

What about you: what would you do with a minimal workweek? What about a remote workplace: could you make it happen?