Book Review: The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations for Clarity, Effectiveness, and Serenity

The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations for Clarity, Effectiveness, and Serenity by Ryan Holiday

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


A one-a-day stoicism situation that mostly tells you to think about how you’re going to die soon. Marcy Marcus and the whole funky bunch are accounted for; Rufus, Seneca, Epictetus. It’s a real star-studded affair, and since they’re broken down into these easily digestible daily affirmations (although that doesn’t feel like the right word, given the grim content), you really get a good idea of the contrast between the different Stoic thinkers. For example, Marcus Aurelius? Deeply dour dude. The misery just seeps right out of his aphorisms.

Seneca, on the other hand? A certified chiller. Much more upbeat. Epictetus’s philosophical style is closer to bullying than anything, and Rufus could have passed for a hire-off-the-street orator.

After 365 days, I am positive that I’m going to die soon. And you know what? 2020 was the right year to read this, because at no point did I feel like soiling myself over the Fungus. Mortality is the price of living. Like Marc said, this life is on loan. And like I said, something’s got to kill me.

I just googled it and none of the stoics are quoted as having said “something’s got to kill me”. That’s a BT original. Maybe that’ll be my Stoic legacy, once I succumb to the Fungus or get cut down in a hail of police gunfire. I wouldn’t care for a headstone, as even things carved in stone aren’t carved in stone, but if I had to get one, “Something had to kill me. And did.” wouldn’t be the worst I could do.




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Book Review: The Courage to be Disliked

The Courage to Be Disliked: How to Free Yourself, Change your Life and Achieve Real HappinessThe Courage to Be Disliked: How to Free Yourself, Change your Life and Achieve Real Happiness by Ichiro Kishimi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’d call it a masterpiece. Why not? Kishimi breathes new life into the uncle that foundational psychology keeps in its basement, Alfred Adler, in the form of a dialogue between a whiny-ass college student and a supercilious old Zen Stoic master.

The kid rails on about the injustice of the world and how terrible and evil it is to everyone, but him specifically, as 20something My First Nihilists are wont to do. The old man is smug, Socratic, and avuncularly pedantic over the next 300 pages as he gently explains why the kid’s worldview sucks.

Psychology was founded by three deeply disturbed Eastern European physicians. You’ve heard of Freud, inventor of Yo Mama jokes. You’ve probably heard of Jung, who was functionally a witch. Odds are you haven’t heard much about Adler, considering I did two degrees worth of psychology and the extent of my exposure was two PowerPoint slides about his birth order theory.

Adler pushed individual psychology, so called because the individual was the smallest component a mind could be reduced to. None of that “id ego superego” horseshit here. Adler wasn’t a big believer in the subconscious as a separate entity, like some frothy little anxiety-inducing daemon rubbing his shady little claws together. Trauma wasn’t real relevant either, which is about as far from psychodynamic theory as you can get.

You can’t explain Adler by outlining what he wasn’t, which Kishimi understood, and that’s probably why he presented this in the form of a dialogue. The format is something like this:

Kid: Bitches incessantly.
Old Guy: Presents contradiction gleefully.
Kid: Overreacts to what he perceives as a slight.
Old Guy: Tells kid to calm down, presents Adlerian concept in matter-of-fact way.
Kid: Presents contradiction. Angrily.
Old Guy: Further explains Adlerian concept, provides some examples, says more nice things to kid.
Kid: “I see. How interesting.”

This allowed Kishimi to address all of the points of argument that would be raised by anyone versed in Freudian (or, to a much lesser extent, Jungian) psychological perspectives.

Adlerian psychology is complex in that it has a lot of simple concepts that interlock. The first point introduced by Kishimi is that you can’t care about praise or conditional positive regard from others. Everybody likes it, but it’s not a guarantee and it doesn’t last. No matter what you do, in a crowd of ten people, at least a couple will always hate you. Nature of the beast. That’s their task, and trying to live to “correct” that in them and sucker them into liking you is a con that sacrifices your own freedom. Disloyalty to the self at the expense of free will is ultimately not worth the price of admission.

The reason you’ll never get everybody to love you is called “separation of tasks”. You get to decide what you do, but you can’t decide what other people do. How other people feel about you is their task. Your task is acting with honesty and integrity. If they don’t like it, okay. Cool. None of my business. Not my pig, not my farm, hoss.

This is not to say we’re incapable of adjusting things we don’t like about ourselves. No pulpy determinism here; in fact, this is about as far from callow reductionist self-excusing that you can get in early psychology, or even modern psychology. If you don’t like something about yourself, stop actively deciding to behave in a way that supports that trait every moment of every day. It falls away without its base and makes room for your next incarnation, no less a “real you” than the current one, but a you that didn’t have an opportunity to thrive, choked as it was by the thorns of your miserable old habits.

Throughout the book, the oldo says “decide to be happy” and the kid responds with high-pitched Lemongrab screeching, for obvious reasons. That doesn’t mean anything! “Happy” is something you aim for, like sanity, but it has no standardized definition outside of self-report, and even there it’s chosen only by the obnoxiously religious. How the hell?

Adler suggests a formula for happiness, or at least for a general sense of contentment that will move you beyond the realm of the big fat sweaty depressive. There’s only two steps.
1. Rely on yourself.
2. Live in harmony with society.

The obvious issue here, especially for anybody who follows my own brand of green-and-black Magic deck doomsaying, is that society is an absolute mess and living in harmony with it makes you complicit. And that’s true, within the paradigm that defines society as “7 billion people drawing invisible lines then drone striking across them”. Living in full-on harmony with our quotidian calamities, ranging from casual Skull & Bones war crime right on down to the antinature of a 40-hour workweek sitting in front of an LED screen, could only make you more miserable, more depressed, possibly even sweatier.

When Adler or Kishimi talk about a society, or a community, their definitions are more flexible and require more input on your part. You choose your own communities, and your communities become your society. If you decide “my community is my school”, that’s too many people, too much data to try to parse, and you’ll retreat from it. If your community is your circle of friends, co-workers you see every day, maybe some local chapter of a club devoted to a shared hobby, that’s manageable. You could live in harmony with these fellas, just as the human animal was programmed to live in harmony with their tribe. (Based on modern hunter-gatherer models, a tribe probably consisted of twentyish roving “bands”, each band consisting of around 25 people, which means you’d have 500 people to choose from but would probably only deal with a maximum of 150, which gives us Dunbar’s number. Neat.)

I’ve tried to adopt this way of thinking in how I spend my money, especially in light of the Coronavirus’s wholesale slaughter of small businesses. Living in the city, you’re surrounded by people you don’t know and businesses that you might not care for, all of which technically make up your neighborhood community. With an Adlerian approach, nope! Target might be closer to my house than Doggie Style Pet Supplies, but that doesn’t mean I accept Target as part of my community. They both carry chew toys. Doggie Style might be slightly pricier, but I’m no longer subsisting off canned tuna and Burger King tacos (who remember?) as I did in my wasted youth, and I’d rather pick and choose what I allow into my definition of community. This is, after all, my task.

This contribution, monetary in this example, is how I give back to this aspect of community. I internalize that I’m able to pick and choose. That’s self-reliance. I give money to Capitol Beer and Sushi, rather than Applebee’s. That’s contribution. If you have self-reliance and contribution, you have all the ingredients for happiness.

Obviously, that’s writ on a detached, macro, somewhat ancap level. It’s less messy when applied to personal relationships, like with your family. You need to know you’re not helpless, and you need to contribute to your family in some way, even if its something as subtle as with positive presence. Otherwise, you’re going to feel bad. Them’s the breaks.

One of my favorite bits is Adler saying “all problems are interpersonal relationship problems”. A sort of shiny spin on Hell being other people. Without other people gumming up the works, our problems would pretty much just be getting food. A life without other people wouldn’t be much of a life, but they certainly bring with them their cost.

I could go on, but won’t. Read the book. Here are some of my favorite excerpts.

“No matter what has occurred in your life up until this point, it should have no bearing at all on how you live from now on.”
Your past trauma, however developmental, is irrelevant. Each moment of a choice you make to continue living the way you always have. If that way isn’t working, choose to live differently.

Trauma is powerful, but only because we empower it with the meaning we extract from it.
“What kind of meaning does one attribute to past events? This is the task that is given to ‘you now’.”

What happened, or happens, to us is beyond our control. The meaning we ascribe to it and how we proceed from that point decides how we will feel, and how our life will go.

As Adler says, “Children who have not been taught to confront challenges will try to avoid all challenges.”

And they become adults who won’t deviate from their comfort zone, and languish in prisons of their own design.

An adult, who has chosen an unfree way to live, on seeing a young person living freely here and now in this moment, criticizes the youth as being hedonistic. Of course, this is a life-lie that comes out so that the adult can accept his own unfree life. An adult who has chosen real freedom himself will not make such comments and will instead cheer on the will to be free.

They are just jealous of your righteous teen styles. Up tha punx.

If you are thinking of school as being everything to you, you will end up without a sense of belonging to anything. And then, you will escape within a smaller community, such as your home. You will shut yourself in, and maybe even turn to violence against members of your own family. And by doing such things, you will be attempting to gain a sense of belonging somehow.

There’s always going to be a larger community, and you need the refuge of people you can trust within it, whichever one you choose.

There are two objectives for behavior: to be self-reliant and to live in harmony with society. The two objectives for the psychology that supports these behaviors: the consciousness that I have the ability and the consciousness that people are my comrades. … In other words, “to be self-reliant” and “the consciousness that I have the ability” correspond to the discussion of self-acceptance. And then “to live in harmony with society” and “the consciousness that people are my comrades” connect to confidence in others and then to contribution to others.

You need to have faith in others to be able to feel good about contributing, otherwise you’re just going to feel like you’re allowing yourself to be taken advantage of. Faith is predicated on trust. Trust only comes with the belief that they’ve got your back, that your quid will be pro quo’d. Hard to apply to humanity at large, but necessary to apply to whatever your community is, if you don’t want to be nuts.

Life is simple, and the world is, too.

Life is a series of moments, which one lives as if one were dancing, right now, around and around each passing instant. And when one happens to survey one’s surroundings, one realizes, I guess I’ve made it this far. Among those who have danced the dance of the violin, there are people who stay the course and become professional musicians. Among those who have danced the dance of the bar examination, there are people who become lawyers. There are people who have danced the dance of writing and become authors. Of course, it also happens that people end up in entirely different places. But none of these lives came to an end “en route”. It is enough if one finds fulfillment in the here and now one is dancing.

An old chestnut, but a good one. The journey is the destination. Having goals is fine, but your life isn’t achieving those goals. It’s living to see them achieved. Or not. Maybe it’s changing your mind along the way. Deciding that is your task, and you get to, because you’re free.

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Book Review: The Happiness Hypothesis

The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient WisdomThe Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Half autobiography, half psych 101 class. Haidt revisits all the psychology experiments you’ve already heard about and ties them together with snippets of philosophers, most of whom you’ve also already heard of, then talks about either being in college, teaching at college, or going to India (for research. for college.)

He’s a respectable social psychologist which is almost like being a scientist, and the book is written clearly and accessibly. There are conflicting schools of thought as to where happiness comes from. Obviously, money can’t buy it, or why would they keep saying “money can’t buy happiness” all the time? They must have gotten it from somewhere. Everybody wants it, nobody knows how to get it.

Haidt suggests it’s a sort of combination of coming from within and coming from without. You’ve got to cultivate your internal rock garden, if you’re Buddhist, or your inner citadel, if you’re more an Aurelius kind of guy. You’ve got to manage expectations and be grateful for what you’ve got. You’ve definitely got to drop that goddamn attitude, I’ll tell you that right now. Also, you’ve got to adopt a moral code and stick to it. You’ll feel better if you do. You’ll be living in accordance with your virtues, and in Current Year we don’t have codified morals or virtues, so nobody knows how to act and it makes them miserable and neurotic.

You’ve also got to stop working all the time and spend more of your time with family and friends. Family especially. You’ve got to make time for hobbies and live within your means, even if that requires you to adjust your stupid daydreams about Lamborghinis and cocaine to something a little cheaper, that could actually contribute to a sense of fulfillment. Waste your money on experiences, not things.

In theory, you follow these rules, as confirmed by both modern psychologists and long-dead Romans, and you should be able to land proper happiness for yourself. But remember. This is just a hypothesis.

See? Practically a scientist.

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Book Review: A Guide to the Good Life

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic JoyA Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A well-read dweeb gives us a play-by-play of his utilization of stoic thought as a means of coping with his fear of death and the inferiority complex that often accompanies being a dweeb. A surprising amount of the text is devoted to avoiding or surviving insults, and vigorous mental exercises one can undergo to prepare for being mocked.

I have to imagine few of the ancient stoics devoted as much mental energy to contemplating how they could be bullied as does our buddy Irvine.

As a philosophical exploration, it succeeds, but it only peripherally captures stoicism, and the bulk of the book is apologizing or overexplaining how the modern world gets it wrong; the stoics weren’t grumpy and emotionally deadened, they were super happy because they were Buddhists but not religious! It’s a translation error bro i swear passion meant something different in ancient greek bro its a different word bro please.

This is then contradicted by his woefully misinformed chapter about grief where he cherrypicks 80-year-old statistics on mental illness rates following WWII in areas without access to grief counseling to demonstrate “a stiff upper lip” is not only a stoic approach, but more effective than therapy.

I believe it was Marcus Aurelius who first said:
“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with misinformation, pandering, callowness, misquoted statistics, and writers for the Huffington Post – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.”

Still, not a total wash. I always like hearing from Musonius Rufus, and he was well represented. This was also the first book with the honesty to scrub off the antiquarian deification and treat philosophical schools as the jockeying popularity contest that they were in ancient Rome.

I might have been too hard on Irvine in this review, but I’d hate for him to have squandered all that preparation.

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Book Review: The Little Book of Stoicism

The Little Book of Stoicism: Timeless Wisdom to Gain Resilience, Confidence, and CalmnessThe Little Book of Stoicism: Timeless Wisdom to Gain Resilience, Confidence, and Calmness by Jonas Salzgeber

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Our man Salzgeber opens this cute little think piece with:
“So you went to school for twelve years, then college for four to ten more, and come out the other side realizing they didn’t teach you dick about how to be alive. All you learned was math, and not even the useful tax evasion math. Well, good news. These four dead guys figured it out two millennia ago.”

And from there, he rattles off the hits. Epictetus, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, and my long-time #MCM Marcus Aurelius. Here’s why:

“When you first rise in the morning tell yourself: I will encounter busybodies, ingrates, egomaniacs, liars, the jealous, and cranks. They are all stricken with these afflictions because they don’t know the difference between good and evil.”

You can imagine him waking up and staring at his saturnine, perpetually drowsy mug in the mirror, as we all do when gripped with existential dread, then heaving a sigh. “All right, Mark. You’re gonna have to see some motherfuckers today. They’re not awful on purpose, they’re just too stupid to know better. All right. Good talk. Carpe diem.”

We call this a meditation.

The book itself has an introductory vibe, and Salzgeber’s deliberate distancing from academic language makes it a quick and pleasant read, despite the volume of content. 225 pages is no longer “little” book status, but it would be immodest to just call it “the book of stoicism”, not to mention misleading since it’s a conjecturing deconstruction of Salzgeber’s opinions on the writings of each philosopher, interspersed with little biographical snippets to give a better understanding of why they think like they do. Besides, the official book of stoicism is basically the Enchiridion.

Salzgeber holds a high respect for the philosophy, especially as applied to hardship. Most of the latter half of the book, the “55 Practices”, are rephrasings of “sometimes life sucks. Think of it as a challenge. And if you can’t control it, whining won’t help.” I’ve got to assume much of this was his experience having the last name “Salzgeber”.

(Fun fact: Catastrophic phonetics aside, Salzgeber is German for “Salt giver”, which also describes anyone who plays competitive overwatch. This philosophy can and must be applied to placement matches.)

The book dwells on the concept of excellence as attained by virtue. The big take-home is play your part and do your best in whatever it is you’re doing. Rather than making that into a middle-aged lady yard sale wooden wall-hanger quote, they called it “arete”. Coupling that with contemplative acceptance of impermanance and a staunch anti-bitching policy, Salzgeber distills an otherwise complex philosophy down to a concise, almost clickbaity list of applicable tenets for living well.

I think my favorite part of the book is how he kept saying, “But don’t tell roll up to the function and tell everyone you’re stoic now. They will bully you.”
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Bratislava: Enter the Labyrinth

November 26, 2017. Bratislava, Slovakia.

What you must understand about Bratislava is it is a machine powered by ghosts and built by the devil. You know will-o-the-wisps? Those lights that appear in swamps and lead men to their doom? They keep those in the streetlamps.

The city is a 4-dimensional M.C. Escher tesseract clusterfuck. Stairs lead to nowhere, walls barricade nothing, tunnels lead to dead-ends, sidewalks dissolve without warning. Every road is five lanes, there are no traffic lights, and there might be one crosswalk in the city, somewhere. God knows I couldn’t find it.

I got off the bus into a rogue arctic storm and made my way along the side of the highway until there stopped being a sidewalk. A sign with a pedestrian on it was posted on the bridge, but there were no sidewalks, no walkways, and about two feet of space between the active lanes and the 60-foot drop into the ice river.

“That can’t… there’s no way,” I said to the cars that blew past me. “What if there’s someone with children? Or in a wheelchair? Or both?”

I hopped the guardrail and climbed down a steep, grassy hill that would also prove challenging for a wheelchair, then found my way to a bike track that wound around another bus stop and to the strange concrete underwalks of the highway bridge.

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It was passing this bus stop that I froze and yelled “FUCK!”, startling the bejesus out of everybody waiting in line.

My hat. My Wanderhut. I left it in the luggage rack on the FlixBus.

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My skull was cold, but at least I didn’t look like a communist any more. I called up Epictetus’ cup speech. For those who don’t know it by heart:

“With regard to whatever objects either delight the mind, or contribute to use, or are tenderly beloved, remind yourself of what nature they are, beginning with the merest trifles: if you have a favorite cup, that it is but a cup of which you are fond, – for thus, if it is broken, you can bear it; if you embrace your child, or your wife, that you embrace a mortal, – and thus, if either of them dies, you can bear it.”

Or, more digestibly:

I popped my collar like a Dracula to get some of the wind off my exposed, delicate skin, then tried to navigate my way back onto the bridge again. And that’s about when I noticed the UFO.

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The hell?

I got closer.

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Yeah, no, there’s just a whole H.G. Wells situation up on the bridge.

After careful consideration, I decided to day drink in it.

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It’s called the UFO Tower bar and restaurant for reasons that should be obvious. You cough up 7 Euro and a terrifyingly fast elevator shoots you like in the Jetsons almost 300 feet (85m) into the air, whereupon you have three options:

  1. Go to the roof deck and die in the wind
  2. Go to the slightly overpriced bar that’s still cheaper than anything in Vienna
  3. Go to the “fine dining” restaurant and get like three mouthfuls of burnt exotic cheese or whatever

Two outta three ain’t bad.

They had exactly one beer on tap, so that’s what I got. It was their national beer, as is standard in Europe, but Slovakia broke the mold by having beer that was kind of good. It was like a lager that had been hanging out with a lot of Weißbier.

I took the rocket tube back to the ground and fought my way over the highway and into the endless, horrible maze that was Bratislava. At first, I had grand aspirations about hiking up to the ruins of Devin Castle, about 5 miles outside of town. I hadn’t eaten since yesterday though, and the cold was starting to set in. It wouldn’t be a hike so much as fives miles of attempting to navigate the Hogwarts-ass shifting walkways that line a major highway. I tossed it into the “maybe tomorrow” column and went looking for food.

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the duality of man

Instead, I found a surly Russian girl who was just as baffled by the “infrastructure” as I was. She was reticent, undoubtedly due to the beautiful weather, so it was only begrudgingly that we joined forces and found our way to Bratislava Castle. A mountain she insisted on climbing in boots with 6-inch heels. We all suffer for our art, I suppose.

That, and iterations of that, was my view for around 45 minutes of uphill climbing. I understand completely how Bratislava Castle has been standing for so long. It’s utterly impregnable. Assuming you somehow bread-crumb your way through the disastrous snarl of a city, you have to untangle the snarl of dead-end paths and unnecessary staircases that loop around Castle Hill, which was, mercifully, open.

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called the Vienna Gate. guess why

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The castle itself now serves as a museum, which was closed, but I wouldn’t have gone in anyway. The courtyard was nothing but high white walls and a well. I tried to take a panorama of it but it turns out panoramas don’t work great with perfectly square vistas.

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calm down Dali, nothing is round

I thought about eating at the Hraz Restaurant (hraz means Castle in every language I don’t speak), but a 15 Euro foie gras didn’t even sound appealing. I just wanted some carbohydrates, man. I’d been running all day on a half-boxtle of Munter und Aktiv.

I climbed down the mountain and dropped back into Bratislava Centrum, aka Behind Lucifer’s TV, and tried like hell to find anything. Food. An open store. A beer. My way. Anything. It wasn’t meant to be. I meandered aimlessly for another frozen half-hour before finding the city’s only crosswalk, crossing, backtracking to Old Town and discovering it was not, in fact, a commercial hub like every other Old Town in every other city in the world, but rather, some weird sculptures and a Subway restaurant.

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the hell are you winkin at

I couldn’t find a single restaurant. I found a minimart, but I wasn’t about to eat Pop Keks for Meal. After orienting myself, I charged through this aerial view circuit diagram directly to my hostel.

The girl behind the desk was as tall as me. My fury dissipated like Bratislava’s sidewalks. I’d heard tales of this, but I’d never actually encountered such a thing in the wild. But she wasn’t built like an Amazon, she was reedy and thin. How could this occur? Isn’t this a natural impossibility, like bumblebee flight or whatever?

“And if there’s anything else you need, we are open 24 hours.”

“I need food,” I said. “So badly.”

She scribbled on a map, alternating between Slovak words I had no chance in hell of reading, let alone pronouncing, and misspelled English words. Turns out, hidden in the catacombs of Centrum, there was a traditional Slovak restaurant (that looked like an abandoned factory) and a craft brewery (that was actually built into the basement of a hotel). I thanked her, dumped my backpack, and scurried back into the night.

Traditional Slovak food saved this trip for me. I got a booth to myself. For some reason, they were playing Alien Ant Farm. I ordered sauerkraut soup and something that was described as “chicken leg and vegetables (served in pan)”.

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The soup was incredible. The sauerkraut took a backseat to the barbecue taste, and I was almost through the bowl by the time I realized it tasted like liquid kielbasa. The fact that disks of kielbasa were floating in it only amplified this effect.

Then came the alleged chicken leg.

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All right, first of all, that’s not veggies, that’s cheesy potatoes and bacon. The chicken was in there, but so were huge cubes of ham, and more kielbasa. How you gonna use kielbasa as a seasoning?

I barely finished it all. Nearly weeping, I requested the bill.

6 euros.

In Vienna, 6 euros won’t even buy you air.

I paid, wrote at the hostel for a while, then opted to check out this microbrewery. The stout was too many colors, and tasted too fruity, but the price was right.

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I staggered back to the hostel and slept with only mild interruption from solipsist mouth-breathers turning on the overhead light. I waited until they started rooting around in their little lockers then climbed down and shut the lights off.

It’s 3 AM. There are other people, you prick. Use your bed lamp or phone light like a human being.

I woke at the crack of dawn, stealthed into the hallway bathroom, and spent a half hour skinning my face with a disposable razor. It was an absolute bloodbath. More blood in the sink than water. But hey, I don’t look like Davos Seaworth anymore. Now I look like a teenage knife fighter who isn’t particularly adept at knife fighting.

I saw the rest of Centrum on my way to the bus station. It was like all other tourist traps. The food was price-gouged and for some reason the t-shirts were 15 Euros. Do they know the beer is 3 Euros? Do they know how many beers equal a t-shirt? In America, it’s a 2 or 3 beer to 1 t-shirt equivalency exchange. Ridiculous. I didn’t want to commemorate my half a day that badly. It’d be like spending 90 chicken nuggets on a souvenir for the Deep Freeze in Mario 64.

 

 

deepfreeze

i went to Bratislava and all i got was lost and pneumonia

So long, Slovakia. Thanks for all the cholesterol. Next stop…

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Love,

The Bastard

Vienna: Empires, Ashes, and the Mysterious Wiener Grant

November 25, 2017. Vienna, Austria.

The Chinese food had only mildly poisoned me. It’s unbelievable that I needed to experience it to give this advice, but listen: Don’t eat the Chinese food in Austria. I was down, but not out, and I decided that only a coward would let some mild food-poisoning interrupt a travel, especially a Bastard one. I hit the gloomy, perpetually moist streets of Vienna.

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when did herbie come thru

 

India from the Metro had been backpacking on the fly. He tailed me to the hostel and booked a room there, then asked if I wanted to head into town together. I was leery. I travel alone. There are more opportunities that way, I don’t have to be double-checking if my co-pilot wants to do this thing, or if they’re comfortable hopping a fence, or if they’re too soft-spoken and respectable to blithely ask the locals dumb questions in lazy American English. But, he came along for part of the morning, and he was utterly transfixed by the palaces.

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Europe is filthy with palaces. You can’t throw a rock without hitting one, and each is ostentatious in its own way. The Austrian baroque style is big into imposing white rock, ostentatious statuary, and just enough gold that you have to do a double-take and say, “shit, is that gold?”

For my own part, I’d had my fill of palaces. I’d been too long away, I was tuning into the old gutter frequency again. I wanted to get lost somewhere seedy and low-profile. Instead, we peeped a couple unpronounceable palaces.

 

He found another palace that I didn’t think warranted photography. It had been repurposed into the brick-and-mortar arm of a QVC jewelry magazine. It was plenty opulent, if you’re into that sort of thing. All my belongings are made of wood, leather, and stone, so…

 

We were trying to get into the city center by way of Albertinaplatz. It was a snarl of foot traffic and odd monument sculptures.

For those of you whose German is even worse than mine, Mahnmal gegen Krieg und Faschismus means “monument against war and fascism”. This chunk of the city is a way of apologizing for Hitler without having to mention Hitler. More on him later.

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this hideous bronze dog is an absolute steal at $3000

I found the Hungarian house, where Countess Elizabeth Báthory harvested her victims in . The story runs deeper than the factoids we got in grade school. Lizzie split her time between her husband’s Hungarian house and Cachtice castle. Eventually she had to flee to the latter full-time after arousing too much suspicion. Everyone knows she bathed in and drank the blood of these virgin girls, but that was the endgame.

She’d send her servant Ficzkó into the market to collect likely peasant maids for employment at the Hungarian house and the castle. Being as they were hired servants, it wasn’t that unusual that she flogged so many of them and left them naked in the snow. It started getting a little more unusual when the servants were walking around with fingers torn off and flesh bitten from their faces. You could hear the screaming echo through the Hungarian quarter at night, but nobody dared question the countess. Government, am I right? The estimated head count was 600 virgins, but there’s obviously no documentation.

From History Today:

“She believed that drinking the blood of young girls would preserve her youthfulness and her looks. Witnesses told of her stabbing victims or biting their breasts, hands, faces and arms, cutting them with scissors, sticking needles into their lips or burning them with red-hot irons, coins or keys. Some were beaten to death and some were starved.”

A Lutheran minister told Hungarian authorities, and by December of 1610 the countess was “arrested”. She wasn’t tried, of course, because she was a countess, but she was locked in a single room of her castle until she died four years later. She dropped off real quick after she stopped getting her blood baths. Maybe she was onto something.

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Unbelievably, they’re still using it as apartments. For Hungarians, I assume. It’s a closed house, no tours or anything, so the best I could do was take a picture of the unassuming door and soak up as much of the aura of 400-year-old evil as I could. It’s a pretty busy street, though. Not terribly conducive to reflection on Renaissance atrocities. Probably why she chose it.

Then I stumbled upon the Kaisergruft, the Austrian Imperial crypt. My travelling companion dipped out at this point. We had both expressed how tired we were of museums, but our definitions of “museum” appeared to differ.

I’ll say this about the Austrians: they knew how to die.

 

 

 

 

 

Even at Sedlec, you didn’t see death glorified like this. Death was incidental there, a sort of means to an end dedicated specifically to the art and then, as an afterthought, Jesus. These crypts were a full embrace of death, a momentous momento mori emblazoned with crowned skulls and gargoyle heads and every kind of Imperial seal, crest, or design you could imagine. I couldn’t help but be awed. All this time, money, and labor, for a suitcase full of bones.

Brings to mind a Marcus Aurelius quote.
“Death smiles at us all; all we can do is smile back.”

Well, Imperial Austria was, and continues to be, grinning like Schwarzenegger.

I made my way out of the crypt and, after the only affordable breakfast I could find in Vienna, I crossed the street and discovered this burrito place.

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Wiener Grant! What the fuck could that mean? Is it that guy? Why is he so mad? Why is his tattoo so incredible? I needed to know more.

I barged into the burrito store without a moment’s hesitation and asked the poor, unsuspecting counter girl.

“Who, or what, is Wiener Grant?”

She looked at her hipster coworker then said, “Was?”

I wasn’t fooled. She spoke English. 75% of the Austrian population speaks English, and it’s a damn certainty that a Viennese girl in her twenties will.

“Outside, on the sign. Over that painting of the dude in his shorty-shorts, it says ‘A burrito a day keeps Wiener Grant away’.” What is Wiener Grant? Is there any other way to avoid him?”

“It is… hard to explain,” she said. Well, yeah, I knew that already.

“It is like…” the hipster said, gesturing. “Vienna is… grumpy?”

“Viennese are cranky people,” the girl said, making a demonstrative face. “Wiener Grant is when you feel blahhhh. Cranky, because you are Viennese.”

“So it’s not a guy.”

“No.”

“Well, that’s a relief. Thank you.”

There’s more to this chronicle, but I have to catch a bus soon. I’ll have another post later today.

Love,

The Bastard

 

 

 

Rome: Slowin’ it Down

November 4, 2017. Rome, Italy.

I read that it was Madrid’s night life that really shines, and since I had to catch a bus to the airport by 5 AM I opted not to book a hostel and spend the night homelessly bar-hopping. I spent an hour in Museo Chicote, Hemingway’s “best bar in Spain, certainly” and had his recommended daiquiri. I imagine when he was there the lighting was less fish-tank neon and they played fewer techno remixes of Sweet Dreams, but I could be wrong. Maybe that’s why he liked it.

I walked down a street grabbing tapas and beer at each place until I felt full for the first time that week, then chased it with a coffee to make sure I’d catch the bus. This proved to be unnecessary, since the entirety of Madrid closed by 2 AM. I don’t know where all these travel writers are getting the idea of “Madrid goes hard until at least 4 AM”, but I imagine probably the on-season. There were, however, so many insistent prostitutes who literally chased me up the Gran Via, trying as hard as they could across several language barriers that I had just happened to discover a stone-sober, sexually liberated young woman who found me irresistibly attractive, and that in this part of the world “how about a blow job?” is a common icebreaker.

“I just feel like it’s too early in our relationship,” I told the first.

“Only one night! One night relationship,” she clarified.

“Tell me, sweetheart, this relationship. Does it cost money?”

“Not even that much! Not even much money!”

I caught the 2:30 bus and slept on the airport floor and a sequence of planes until I arrived in Rome, where they tried very hard to convince me that the only way I would get to my hostel was by $50 taxi.

I explained to them that I could easily just take a $6 bus to center city and walk the half mile to my hostel, but they insisted that it was impossibly far, and my only chance of survival in the unnavigable maze of Rome was to take a taxi. I told them thanks, and took the bus, settled into my hostel, showered, shaved, took a nap, then went down and had free pasta dinner cooked by an immensely outgoing receptionist named Doniella. At dinner, I got drunk off $2 wine with a German med student and a 700-year-old American named Herbie, who extended me this sage advice:

“You gotta slow down. You’re taking this too fast. It’ll all be there, you’re not gonna die next month.”

“You don’t know that,” I said, because I’ve never been able to project myself more than 2 days into the future.

“That’s true, but you’re probably not. You can’t keep rushing around like this or you won’t enjoy anything. Take a week. Really see Florence. You should take at least two if you want to see everything in the countryside, but maybe that’s another trip. You have time.”

I fought him every step of the way during the conversation because my pastiche of personal philosophies draws heavily from zen and existentialism, both of which are really specific about “This day will not come again.”

“You didn’t come all the way across the world to not spend the money,” he chided, which was weird because we hadn’t talked about money. “Slow down, take your time. There’ll always be more time and money. Learn the Greek alphabet. Go to Istanbul!”

His advice became a little meandering from that point on, but it was the thought that counts.

“You don’t have to rush. Just go out, see everything. Then you can die.”

“Hear, hear,” I said, and we clonked (it wasn’t a clink) our plastic cups of grocery store wine.

Then, after a moment, “Welp, the wine’s gone. I’m going to bed. See you all tomorrow.” And off he went.

I was good and drunk and still tired because it turns out sleeping on planes in 1 hour increments is not the same thing as a night’s rest, so I stumbled upstairs and went dead to the world for 10 hours. But as I did, I internalized what Herbie said. I fundamentally disagree. I don’t have time. None of us have time, life is too short to not Go For It, whatever the present It happens to be, but I think he’s right in that I’ll enjoy myself more if I slow my roll a little. You can Go For It strategically. It can be a plan.

I’m going to reread the Stoics while I’m here, I think. Marcus Aurelius was always my favorite, and seeing his colossal, melon-shaped head in a marble bust at the Prada brought his Meditations screaming back to me. I’ll wrap this up with what seems like an unrelated Epictetus quote, but just replace “books” with “travel”, or “making money”, or anything else people collect like Pokemon cards as though the collection is enough.

“Don’t just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents.” 
 Epictetus, The Art of Living 
Love,
The Bastard