Book Review: Bliss More: How to Succeed in Meditation Without Really Trying

Bliss More: How to Succeed in Meditation Without Really Trying by Light Watkins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


First off, there’s no way to know whether the author’s given name is a pun. If it’s deliberate, I hate him. If it’s not, I pity him, and it sucks that his birth name is Light, but when you’re dealt that kind of hand I suppose you have to become a meditation guru.

That said, he’s down-to-earth, for a guru. Watkins disavows the old, traditionalist machinery of meditation where you need to contort your body into the least comfortable positions available to maximize your Enlighteniness and really just compound the hell out your chi. Meditation is meditation, even if you’re in a recliner with your dog in your lap. Just get comfortable and focus on not focusing on anything. Your mind will wander, that’s fine. When it does, notice it, follow the thread of thought to its natural conclusion, and bring your focus back to your mantra (which for Light is a subverbal AHH-HUM sound) or your breath. Repeat for 10-minute increments, no more than twice a day.

Watkins peppers the book with personal anecdotes, like when he wussed out of going skinny dipping with four hotties back in his glory days. Really humanized the dude. A good book that makes meditation more approachable for people who aren’t trying to be full-on Buddhas.



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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: Spirit Hacking

Spirit Hacking: Shamanic Keys to Reclaim Your Personal Power, Transform Yourself, and Light Up the World by Shaman Durek

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


No one to blame but myself for this one.

Here’s the problem. Conceptually, I think biohacking is cool, because I came up reading extensively on evolution, Zen buddhism, and the aggressive cyberpunk revival of the mid 90s. Unfortunately, the community surrounding it is insufferable. Ditto for things like paleo dieting. It’s the Rick and Morty effect. The show is pretty clever, but you can’t tell anyone you think that or you’ll get grouped in with people who like Rick and Morty.

I’ve got an academic interest in shamanism. I say academic to clarify that, as a white, heterosexual cis American male, if I were to announce that I believed myself a shaman, you would have a moral obligation to punch me in my smug mouth.

The other issue is I’ve pretty much exhausted GoodReads recommendations for books related to books I’ve enjoyed, so I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel, and nothing good is on the bottom of the barrel. That’s why it’s the bottom of the barrel.

Walking into a book called “Spirit Hacking”, linked to both biohacking and shamanism in the Similar Books category, penned by a guy whose first name is “Shaman” should have served as more than enough warnings to deter me. And yet, still, fool as I am, I plodded on.

The forward is written by Dave Asprey. For those blissfully uninitiated, Dave Asprey is the conman behind Bulletproof Coffee, which is the sad tech movement supported by cherrypicked and dummied-up neuroscience studies that encourages impressionable Silicon Valley elites with poorly tuned bullshit detectors that putting Super Special Bulletproof Brand Butter in their Super Special Bulletproof Brand Coffee somehow bypasses the blood-brain barrier to allow them to biohack their entire neocortex into some vague and ill-defined “greater functionality”. The nerds, promised that their brains work the same as computers and that doubling up on this scam will allow them to overclock themselves, they eat that shit right up.

So Dave Asprey writes the intro, and it isn’t an intro, so much as a commercial for his scam, but he also brags about how much money he has and how humble he continues to be, and how many cool spiritual adventures he has been on in his quest to be the perfect man, which, of course, he is far too humble and self-effacing to say that he is. However, you certainly can be, if you buy the right coffee, nudge and wink.

I narrowly made it through that when Shaman Durek hit the scene, reading his own book. Ill-advised. He proceeded to tell me that anybody could be a shaman, and he is a shaman, and he knew he was a shaman because he literally died. He goes on to explain this literal death was figurative, since it happened in a spirit journey or drug trance, so not really what literal means. Then he proceeds to get just, really, irrationally angry. Like he’s ranting about pretenders to the throne and fake shamans, gatekeeping ayahuasca use and railing against shamans who say other people can’t be shamans, even as he says that people who take drugs to become enlightened then get road rage can’t be shamans. Same breath. And it’s a wheezing breath, because as he’s reading his own audiobook, he’s getting genuinely angry again. You can hear it in the voice. Why would I listen to a grown man I don’t know throw a recorded temper tantrum for 11 hours?

I made it to the next chapter, when he started talking about how he knew he was a shaman because as a child he would hug random people and burst into tears. I cold-stopped when one of the sections was subtitled “My heritage is mystical AF!”

That’s enough for me, I think. I’ll continue along my wretched life deprived of my personal power. Sorry, dude. The rest of the book might be a transformative, world-lighting tour de force. After that… performance, I’ll never know.



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Book Review: Archery Fundamentals

Archery FundamentalsArchery Fundamentals by Teresa Johnson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A glossary of pertinent archery terms and some confusing but well-intentioned pictures designed to improve your shooting. When I picked it up I was hoping it would be the fundamentals of archery in the sport form, detailed explanations of posture, determining anchor points, improving aim, maybe some specific exercises to zero in on technique. Mostly it was obtuse advice on bow maintenance and modification, punctuated with recapitulatory insistence that I hire an archery coach.

The reason I’m reading a book called “Archery Fundamentals” is because I don’t want to hire an archery coach. If I were at a point where I no longer needed archery coaching, I would probably be reading a book called “Advanced Archery Theory” or “Multi-Arrow Arching”. I like things that I can do alone, like weightlifting or riding bike, and shooting bow seems it would look good on the list. So you can understand why I’m hesitant to pay a personal archery trainer to school me on the approved tournament technique of this solitary activity which I pursue with no goal in mind aside “for funsies.”

If you slog through all the jargonous repair instructions (maybe this was written before youtube was invented) you’ll get a handful of pointers about foot placement, jawline anchor points on “the corner of your smile” and scapular contraction, all of which was new and fundamental information that will probably be helpful. The whole book just had a sort of freshman “how I spent my summer vacation” essay vibe to it. The author is clearly knowledgeable about the subject, especially the subject of compound bows, which stole the show every few pages, but the presentation rankled.

I did learn some things, though, so that deserves three stars.

There are three kinds of bows: longbows, recurve bows, and compound bows.

Longbows are sticks with a string on them. They are used by Zen masters, dudes with ridiculous cargo short/mustache combinations, and wood elves.

Recurve bows are thicc, curvaceous sticks designed to maximize energy output, inasmuch as this is possible via a single chunk of wood. They shoot farther and faster than longbows, and can be heavily accessorized, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Compound bows are comprised wholly of futuristic archery accessories, storing potential energy with some sort of elaborate pulley system of cams and wheels that allow you to shoot way harder than the others with minimal energy expenditure. As far as I could tell, they are independently sentient.

I guess I’ll try the jaw anchor point/open stance thing and if I’m suddenly splitting my previous arrows like Robin Hood, I’ll come back and add some stars.

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Book Review: Zen in the Art of Archery

Zen in the Art of ArcheryZen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A German professor of philosophy gets a job teaching Kant in Japan back in the 1920s, and decides, while he’s there, to look into this Zen business, see what all the hubbub is about. He asks a bunch of natives “How do I get into this Zen thing?” and they all look around, embarrassed, and assure him that he wouldn’t like it because he’s foreign.

Now, you’ve gotta understand, this is before the Beatniks. You couldn’t just smoke mids and Kerouac off in the back of train then claim you’d achieved Nirvana. There was a system, and whenever our professor asked anyone about it, they assured him it was a system of systemlessness, or something equally incomprehensible to his precise prewar German academic mind.

Undeterred, Doc Herrigel keeps demanding Japanese natives teach him to Zen. Eventually somebody cracks and tells him, “You’re not gonna get it. Your only hope is getting involved in one of the traditional Zen arts, and learning Zen by osmosis.” He looks at swordsmanship, martial arts, flower arrangement, and archery, then decides on archery because he was pretty good with a rifle back in the Motherland. It’s probably the same, right?

It is not the same.

He joins up with a Daishadokyo master and begins his agonizing six-year journey toward being kind of good with a bow. Daishadokyo is to Kyūdō, or traditional Japanese archery, as the Spanish Inquisition is to the US Census: they’re both going through the same motions, but one is religious and far more motivated.

From there it follows the formula of every Zen chronicle or kung fu movie montage: The master tells him to do the thing, then stands by and watches as he ballses it up repeatedly and painfully. The master says nothing. The student asks whining questions in an effort to hurry to “the goal” and the master smiles serenely and tells him to keep doing the thing.

Eventually, Herrigel modifies his grip (“I found a better way to do it!”) and surprises his master with a few competent shots. The master is insulted by Herrigel’s attempt to cheat him, and tells him to never darken his door again. Herrigel prostrates himself and begs forgiveness, the master magnanimously grants same, then tells him, “now do the thing”.

For these six years, Herrigel is grappling nonstop with what Zen might potentially be, and how far he feels from getting it. He loses faith. He has doubts. He thinks about quitting a bunch, but he idolizes the master too much to go through with it. Eventually, when he’s going through the motions, the master’s like “That’s it! Nailed it!”

Herrigel releases a mighty “HOOTY HOO!” of triumph, at which point the master recoils in revulsion.

“You can’t be excited about succeeding,” he said. “That’s not Zen. You’re getting your gross ego-grease all over the archery.”

Herrigel is like “A thousand pardons, senpai.”

Master is like, “Now do the thing.”

Eventually, Herrigel manages to get automatic enough in his archery that he gets an inkling of Zen, and the arrow shoots itself. His life is changed. We did it, fellas.

Good book. Good Zen story. I ugly-laughed at the little swordmaster koan at the end, paraphrased as follows:

Young man seeks out swordmaster in his hermitage, says, “teach me to the be the next hokage”. Swordmaster says, “Sure”, and makes him do all of his chores. The kid is the swordmaster’s butler for like a year, making rice, sweeping the dirt floor, washing his stank-ass socks, before he hits his limit and demands the swordmaster teach him swordmastery, damnit! That’s what I’m here for!

Swordmaster says, “Sure”. Everything is the same, though now the swordmaster will unexpectedly hit the kid with a stick as he does the chores. These beatings continue for another year or so, until one day, the swordmaster is facing the fire, working on frying up some eggs. The kid recognizes this as his chance. He grabs the whuppin’ stick, sneaks up on his sensei, and KIYAAAAA brings it down on the back of his head!

Swordmaster blocks effortlessly with the pan full of eggs.

The kid is like “oh shit. I thought this was just weird old man sadism, but you were for real this whole time.” And thus, he gets a little nugget of Zen.

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Book Review: The Zen Path Through Depression

The Zen Path Through DepressionThe Zen Path Through Depression by Philip Martin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Since zen is basically stoicism but further East, and CBT is essentially a cut-and-paste job of stoicism, it tracks that you can use zen to get through depression, too. Less journaling and self-critique, more listening to birds, roughly the same amount of meditation, but all roads lead to Rome. Or to China, in this case.

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Book Review: Digital Minimalism

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy WorldDigital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Eons ago, when the world was young and every website had an animated gif of a skull smoking a cigarette next to the guestbook, there was a website called Something Awful that claimed, fervently, that “the internet makes you stupid”.

Lowtax was right. If only he hadn’t been killed in the ring by Uwe Boll, he would be sweating with pride as we speak.

In addition to stupid, it makes you twitchy, sad, and weird. Sort of like the allegations against toxiplasma gondii. If you have a cat and an active social media presence, you’re a goner.

Cal Newport is a rare breed of academic in that he is young, and seems relatively intelligent. As we know, most academics are wizened absent-minded sorceror caricatures with a mean age of 65. They’re also broke. Cal Newport is not broke, because he’s turned his experiences of “being in school for a long time” into a series of self-help books that mostly focus on improving your ability to study and, thus, be in school for a long time.

And from this well springs Digital Minimalism, the idea that constant tethering to social media results in a cycle addiction identical to, well, every other cycle of addiction.

The central idea is that smartphones are slot machines, by design. Tech companies like Apple and Facebook are deliberately trying to monopolize your time by drawing your attention to your phone as frequently as possible, resulting in your seeing more ads, and their gathering more ad revenue. This produces money from nothing, and also, chicks for free.

The thing is, it’s not from nothing. Nothing can be had for nothing, as promised by Epictetus. You pay for the little dopaminergic zing of digitized social approval with the minutes of your life. Every time you disengage from the present to check how many likes you’ve collected over the past fifteen minutes, you’re putting more money in Zucc’s heat-rock and mealworm fund, and training yourself like a puppy to get dribs and drabs of the feel-good chemical from the glowing space-screen in your pocket.

But you’re not a puppy. You might be subject to the same classical and operant conditioning, but your wiring is infinitely more complex, and thus subject to more opportunities to go haywire. Social approval is one of the most important things to the average human being (average in this instance meaning freshly minted, all other factors controlled for; the fictional human baseline and duerrogotype template), because when ostracized by the tribe, we got eaten by wolves. We turned the wolves into chiuahuas and ostracization means more time to watch Netflix, but we’re still running on that old sapiens hardware. If we perceive our social standing as sinking, the alarm bells start to go off.

Social media creates an imaginary system of social feedback where the highs are virtually nonexistent, but sufficient to reinforce your attention, and continued exposure to the lows can result in long-term psychological disorders. As the author puts it:

“Online discussion seems to accelerate people’s shift toward emotionally charged and draining extremes. The techno-philosopher Jaron Alnier convincingly argues that the primacy of anger and outrage online is, in some sense, and unavoidable feature of the medium; in an open marketplace for attention, darker emotions attract more eyeballs than positive and constructive thoughts. For heavy internet users, repeated interaction with this darkness can become a source of draining negativity — a steep price that many don’t even realize they’re paying to support their compulsive connectivity.”

And then the effect:
Until recently, the mental health center on campus had seen the same mix of teenager issues that have been common for decades: homesickness, eating disorders, some depression, and the occasional case of OCD. Then everything changed. Seemingly overnight the number of students seeking mental health counseling massively expanded, and the standard mix of teenage issues was dominated by something that used to be relatively rare: anxiety.

From there, he long-windedly (academic, remember) draws the connection between suddenly pandemic anxiety and smartphone use among the first generation raised with this level of constant connectivity.

A good argument, but untestable, and so relegated to hypothesis. He rolls in some solid science afterward and it starts to look better, citing research by psychologist Matthew Lieberman whose elaborate PET-scan reindeer games determined that the social parts of the brain automatically switch on when you’re not doing anything else.

He now believes “we are interested in the social world because we are built to turn on the default network during our free time”. Put another way, our brains adapted to automatically practica social thinking during any moments of cognitive downtime, and it’s this practice that helps us become really interested in our social world.”

Lieberman ran similar scans on newborns and found their default (social) network lit up during attentional downtime before the infant’s eyes were even able to focus. It’s instinct for us to think socially when we’re not doing anything else, and the constant Matrix linkup ensures that something is always subconsciously on the line for us, and every time we don’t harvest a fat crop of either heart reacts or Farmville turnips it’s evidence of our evolutionary failure and alienation from our fellows.

But big Cal is not all about shaking his head and ominously whispering, “We live in a society”. He’s got a solution, and it’s dumbing down your phone. He recommends:

a loosely organized attention resistance movement, made up of individuals who combine high-tech tools with disciplined operating procedures to conduct surgical strikes on popular attention economy services — dropping in to extract value, and then slipping away before the attention traps set by these companies can spring shut.

I strongly resent being manipulated, in any context. The concept that minutes of my life are units of currency, converted by Wish into actual legal tender, then given to Mark Zuckerberg, makes my blood boil. I’ve still got a 12-year-old anarchopunk festering somewhere under my sternum, and he absolutely will not abide the prospect of trading time from my life, a nonrenewable resource, to someone else’s profit in an exchange where I get nothing but limbic table scraps. Newport describes it as the social equivalent of “snacking on Doritos instead of eating a meal”.

It seems worth a try to me. I stripped my own phone down to nothing but GPS and Duolingo (and IG, but I hid that in three subfolders, to be accessed only when required for my blog). I’ve caught myself fiending. Every time I check my phone, for any reason, muscle memory tries to flick Messenger or Facebook back open, and that goddamn owl is flailing and screaming at me to get moving on the Russian leaderboards.

Cal was right about one thing, though; when you cut loose the low-quality leisure, you find time you didn’t know you had for things you actually want to do. I got through six books this week. Expect a deluge of reviews.

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Berlin: Ich Bin Ein

December 4, 2017. Berlin, Germany.

The first thing I learned was my normal strategy of walking everywhere is of no use here. Berlin is too big. It’s because there used to be too many Berlins, and once Reagan hulk-punched that wall down it became a single, titanic Berlin.

Hostels were in short supply, but I managed to get my hands on a nice $13 a night dealie right off of the Landwehr canal, called the Grand Hostel Berlin. Their delusions of grandeur didn’t stop at the name. They were under the mistaken impression they were a party hostel, and wanted this party to center around what they called the Gin Library.

Now, ordinarily, those would be great things better together, right? Peanut butter and jelly. Peanut butter and chocolate. Peanut butter and whatever arbitrary nutritional asceticism I’m inflicting on myself at present.

No such luck, beautiful reader. It was most assuredly a library a la Ron Burgundy, leatherbound books and rich mahogany, but it also had bar no one ever wanted to tend, obnoxious techno music that kind of disrupted the whole “library” mystique, and a fucking disco ball.

Do you know why most libraries don’t have disco balls? It’s because you need light to read.

When I entered the Gin Library, there were four people sitting around a coffee table, talking over the bad music in various accents about what their favorite types of alcohol are. Pretty standard cultured frat-boy hostel fare. The girls were middling attractive, the boys were “traveler chic” with whiteboy dreadlocks and dated facial piercings.

Laboring under the mistaken impression I could get some reading done in the library, I stood at the bar and tried to order a beer during happy hour. It didn’t work for a few minutes. I went to reception and said, “Hey, think I could get a beer?” The receptionist smiled, nodded, and shouted rapid German at no one in particular.

I went back to the bar and waited for another couple minutes, then decided the hell with it, I didn’t need one that bad, and started back to the corner seat to chip away at a reread of Stephen King’s It.

It wasn’t until then that one of the girls at the table, still squawking something about how Oh she LUVES tequila, deigned to stand up, approach the bar, and say, “Did you want a beer?”

“You work here?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

I narrowed my eyes. “Are you sure?”

She smiled, thinking I was flirting. I corrected this misconception by deliberately stiffing a service worker on a tip for the first time in my life.

Sorry baby. West Berlin’s always been a capitalism.

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I started at the Brandenburg gate, one of Germany’s most famous monuments despite its relative youth, at least by European standards. Berlin had been a defensible fort with a sequence of unpronounceable names since Germany was Prussia, but the Brandenburg gate didn’t show up until around 1790. For America, that’s all of relevant history, but for countries like Italy or England, that’s basically yesterday.

I hadn’t done a lot of Nazi-centric sightseeing because the weather is depressing enough and I like to have fun, but considering the Germanic bent my recent journeys have taken, it’s not avoidable. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe is about a block from the Brandenburg gate, rising from a concrete lot like a time-lapse cemetery. Catchy name too, huh? It’s got a beat and you can dance to it.

Concrete slabs of varying heights shoot haphazardly from the ground with no inscription, pattern, or real rhyme or reason. Some look like tombstones, some like coffins, some like tiny Brutalist skyscrapers. The architect, a dude named Eisenman, claims that the blocks are supposed to create a confusing atmosphere indicative of a highly ordered system gone wrong, then in the same breath says that the memorial has no symbolic significance. Sounds like your confusing atmosphere worked better than planned.

The designer’s contradictory Zen-koan babbling doesn’t stop visitors from their interpretations, though. Popular opinion is that entering the monument proper was isolating. The concrete absorbed the sounds of traffic and life coming from Berlin, leaving you in this cold, spooky hallway. The alienation, the echoes, and the imposing bleakness of the corridors reminded me of a slaughterhouse, but I’m not the best central tendency metric for this kind of thing.

Some people call that vague feeling of visceral unease the heebie-jeebies, or something comparably cute. I call it draggin’ ghosts, and I felt them like a physical weight on my shoulders as I walked out of that bleak little grid. At the same time, I was reining in an almost irresistible urge to jump from block to block. That was something I liked to do in graveyards when I was young, until someone saw me. Never met anyone who was thrilled about that.

I turned the corner and a giant brain-blimp shone down from a wall.

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“Oh, good,” I said aloud. Berlin’s got a reputation for art, and a lot of what I saw was pretty cool, but we’ll save that for its own post.

I turned another corner.

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agreed

I doubled back to the hostel and sat down for a while since I’d somehow managed to walk four or five miles, thanks to Berlin’s comical immensity. Der Hunger was setting in. I asked a spindly blonde receptionist where I could get some food, and she helpfully said she’d tell me in ten minutes.

She didn’t get the chance. A dude who sounded Ukrainian was scribbling a sort of city-overview to the stoner kid I mentioned yesterday and a middle-aged Japanese couple, and I eavesdropped on that until he circled the areas where “all the best restaurants are”. I leaned in, snapped a picture, and disappeared into Germany’s perpetual freezing rain.

What he meant by “all the best restaurants” was “places you could conceivably locate food”. This walk was only a mile, though, so that was… better? The street was called Bergmannstraße, it was itself about a mile long, and it had nothing but Asian food, one italian restaurant, one Mexican restaurant, and a kebab shop. I didn’t come to Germany for any of those things, but my choices rapidly became branch out or starve. I ate Indian two days in a row, from two different restaurants right next to each other. The first, called India, was bad. The second was incredible. I don’t remember the name.

There were a smattering of tourist shops along Bergmann, and one of them stopped me dead.

Now, my German is not what you would call spectacular. Any doubt about that, ask any of the Austrians or Germans I’ve befriended in my travels; they invariably mock my awful accent and I demand they answer for “feuerzeug“.

I delight in the German language because of the kindergarten way they just staple short, existing words into monstrous yet inexplicably precise Frankenwords.

You’re sick? Du bist krank. Welp, if you’re sick enough, we gotta get you to the hospital. That’s the krankhaus. How we gonna get you there? We’re gonna load you into the krankenwagen.

Absolute poetry.

In my Duolingings, I ran across the suffix –zeug, which essentially just means “stuff”. Your toy? That’s spieltzeug, literally play-stuff. How about a tool? Werkzeug. You can noodle that one out.

Then you got Fahrenzeug which means “driving stuff” and refers to a car. Uh, okay, I guess. But Feuerzeug is exactly what it sounds like, fire-stuff, and it means “a lighter”, and that makes me absolutely furious. You go TOO FAR.

German grammar is a disaster rivaled only by English grammar and their idioms are, as one would expect, deeply nonsensical and often sausage-themed. Every German I’ve encountered has argued they don’t have that many sausage-themed idioms, forcing me to point it out to them when they invariably use one within the following two hours.

These magnets, for those of you who didn’t quite catch up with the bus somehow, are word-for-word English translations of German turns of phrase. I reveled in them, grinning like an idiot in the rain for five minutes, then made the first and last legitimate souvenir purchase of my trip.

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I also encountered this gem.

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Trump halts maul. Well, it didn’t sound complimentary, but it did sound like home. The last I’d heard of the German opinion on Donnie was when the Morgenpost referred to him as… well, as thus:

germany

“please not the Horror-Clown!”

Well, I had to wait until I got back to the rad library party hostel to solve this particular mystery, but I giggled when I did.

haltmaul

It reminded me of one’a my favorite twitter threads.

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Although, in fairness, the t-shirt’s not wrong.

That’s all I can do for today, if I type for too long WordPress’s busted-ass text editor starts flinching away from me every time I hit the enter key like a beaten puppy. Talk to you tomorrow, boys and girls.

Love,

The Bastard

Istanbul, Turkey: Zen and the Eye of the Storm

November 17, 2017. Istanbul, Turkey.

When I was a hood rat fresh out of high school, all combat boots and band shirts and tongue ring, I tempered my aggro hypervigilance by one-shotting it through every Zen book that Barnes and Noble had, and shoplifting those that required further examination. We called it “heistin'”. To the untrained eye, these may seem like diametrically opposed ideals, but the beauty of Zen is its comfort with contradiction. Keep pressing me and I’ll show you the sound of one hand clapping.

When trawling the gutter got stale, I ran the gates out of my hometown like all those pop-punk singers claimed they would. Difference is, I did it. Another difference is, I’m not a statutory rapist. I got a couple degrees and a big kid job and lost all the ways I used to vent the constant high thrum of anxious madness building in my skull. The adrenaline rushes of creepin’ and heistin’ and scrappin’ and breaking everything in this room were gone. I was a goddamn therapist! And when you lose one wing, the center can’t hold. My Zen dropped away just as surely, leaving me a tension battery.

Well, now that I’m on the road and enfolded in a perpetuity of chaos, it seemed like time to get it back. One side of the scale isn’t empty anymore. Let’s balance this bitch.

Couldn’t have chosen a better place to recalibrate. Istanbul is a vortex of spastic activity.

It was a two mile walk from my hostel to the Hagia Sophia, which would compel most to take a train, but I’m inherently distrustful of trains. Especially those with timetables in a language I don’t speak. Besides, walking is still honest.

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okay good start

I made my way to the bridge that spanned the Bosphorous inlet. It was filthy with humans. Rule 1, the Slide-Up, but they were all much too distracted with the views of the river and Old City. The guardrail was lined by fishermen, all of whom seemed to be doing pretty well for themselves. The gallon jug full of fish especially blew my mind. So tidy and space efficient!

 

I was watching the fisherman drop deposit another little fish in the jug like sliding a coin into a piggy bank when I heard a familiar voice say (mercifully, in English), “Hey, what’s going on!”

My boy Canada, from the hostel back in Athens, was coming the other way across the bridge. Big continent, small world. We caught up briefly, talking about the happenings of our past few days.

“Have you tried the taxis yet?” he asked.

“I avoid them like the plague,” I said. “Haven’t used one since I got to Europe.”

“Good call. I got ripped off by one coming from the bus station. I’d been on a plane all day, then on a 2 hour bus, and I just wanted to get to my hostel, so I call a cab. I got in and he kept saying, “Traffic is bad, so we’ll take a shortcut”.  I kept telling him, “No, just take me the normal way”. Then he turns the meter on and I see it jumping up and up and up, and I say, “Forget it”, and I go to get out of the car. He starts saying he’ll give me the ride for 55 lira.”

(that’s about $14).

“So I count out my money — I have a 50 and a 5 in my hand, I looked at them — then I give it to him. He takes it, turns away, puts it in the little money pouch, then turns back and says, “Oh, you gave me two 5’s.” I said I didn’t, and then he demanded another 50, and I told him no, and he started yelling in Turkish so I said “Fuck this” and got out, walked the rest of the way. Like, you hear about it, but I’ve never had it happen to me, you know?”

“Yeah, I hear that.”

“You eat any of the food yet?” he asked.

“Naw. I drank too much beer in Greece, so I’m laying off the calories until I feel less squishy and useless.”

He shook his head. “Be careful, man. I got in and ate a doner, one of those kebab gyro things? I was fine until I woke up at 4 AM and just threw up in the hostel bathroom for like an hour.”

“Oof. I heard that kinda thing about the tap water,” I said.

“I’ve been drinking bottled. It was definitely the food. I’ve been eating McDonalds ever since. It’s not like Greece, man.”

He certainly had that right. We made plans to meet up the next day and I continued toward the capitol of three or four empires that had historically changed hands like a game of Hot Potato.

Let me say this for Old City: It is the most defensible place I’ve ever been. The hills are insanely steep, the streets ridiculously narrow. It’s difficult not to imagine how you could funnel footmen into an ambush, or trap them on unfavorable ground.

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I approached the Hagia Sophia and got an ambush of my own in the form of a cloying little Kurdish man in a used car salesman jacket. He shook my hand, told me about his family and how American half of them are, gave me a guided tour while insisting he wasn’t a tour guide and “it’s all for free!”

He would not leave me alone.

“Here, I take you to the line!” he said. He guided me toward it.

“Thanks, but I was gonna sit for a second.”

“I sit with you!” he said, and did, offering me a cigarette that I refused. His face was twisted around a central point like a Picasso painting and his cauliflower ear was badly infected. Two red flags for a career brawler. I was twenty years his junior and had fifty pounds on him, but that’s still not how I wanted to spend my afternoon.

After he told me his extended family tree and how much he loved Manhattan, he bought a ticket from a scalper with a minimum of words exchanged and rushed me through the entry line. I paid him the 40 lira to him after he pointed the price out on the sign. “See? Is 40! Is 40!”

My bullshit detector was wailing like a siren. They’re in cahoots. Why are they in cahoots?

“Very old building,” he began, scanning himself through the gate with a ticket of his own and gesturing at the Hagia Sophia. “Very old, much history. Seat of many empires!” He started rattling off numbers.

“Listen,” I said, “I don’t mean to insult you, but why are you doing all this for me?”

“Is free! I’m not a tour guide!”

“Are you sure? This seems a lot like a guided tour.”

“I have a gift shop, just down that dark sketchy alley,” he said. “Maybe after, I take you there, give you business card, maybe I sell you a scarf or some jewelry.”

“I appreciate the offer,” I said, “But I really prefer to wander on my own. Tell you what, how about you give me the address and I’ll swing by after I’m done here.”

“No, no, no!” he said. “Is fine, is fine! I go through with you, then I take you there.”

“You don’t have to do that,” I said. “I’d like to see it alone. Why don’t you just give me a business card?”

“I don’t have them with me.”

I squinted at him.

“You don’t carry your business cards with you?”

“They are at the store. I’ll wait for you at the exit, then I show you!”

“You don’t have to do that, but sincerely, thanks for all your help. Teşekkür ederim,” I said, then ghosted into the old mosque.

It was enormous and beautiful, but much less gaudy than the places of worship I’d come to expect from my experiences in Rome and the Vatican. It felt ancient, enduring, less concerned with all the religious fripperies. It was closer to a fortress than a palace, and closer to a palace than a temple.

I took off my Wanderhut and threw a curve into my spine, pulling my shoulders down and dropping into lockstep with the tall Asian man ahead of me. I saw my friend with the checkered coat, but he didn’t see me. I got a reasonable distance away then dropped the Peter Lorre act and headed around the fountain, toward the Blue Mosque.

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I got turned away at the door by a serious looking man in a nice coat.

“My friend,” he said, and the hackles went up. “It is prayer right now, you cannot enter the mosque.”

“That’s all right,” I said.

“Perhaps you are hungry? I have a shop just around the corner, do you prefer spices or Turkish delight?”

“I’ve never had either,” I said. “Thanks anyway though, but I have to go.”

“Where are you from?”

“United States,” I said, walking away as he started to talk about his cousins in the United States.

“Where are you going!” he called after me. “I take you to my shop, free samples!”

“I’m really all right,” I yelled back. “Gotta meet somebody, thanks anyway.”

“Don’t you trust me?!”

This gave me legitimate pause. I stopped walking for a second to process this question. Granted, it was obviously a ploy intended to make me feel guilty — barking up the wrong tree on that one, bud — but more to the point, why the hell would I trust him? What reason has he given me? A punctuated summary of his fictional family tree? A limp handshake and an invitation to literally take free candy from a stranger?

“It’s not looking great,” I told him, and then faded into the crowd, bound for the Great Bazaar.

To be continued, beautiful readers.

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