The Considered Life
We are prisoners.
Not of any penal institution in particular but of self-perception. And stuck there by obvious, lazy, predictable comfort. Lucky or unlucky to have been dropped off by the holy vagina in a land that we grow to alternately love or hate, a lot of us seem to willingly glue our own feet to the ground in the name of patriotism, xenophobia, or transportation angst and, in so doing, forego what is, in my opinion, a tremendous opportunity to discover and understand the connections between the microcosmic world of our little lives and the macrocosmic world of everything else: foreign-soiled experiences. Mere traveling pales in comparison for it presupposes a journey timelined, bursting with tours along the way, photos in front of leaning towers and guide-recommended cafés. I believe that our current set of circumstances, chiefly technological and financial, affords us the luxury, unheralded for the most part, to benefit from the globe and pay less attention to the trotting.
Nothing helps our predictable species to step out of ourselves and make considered choices better than stepping out of the over-valued, over-flattered, and over-sung country in which we were born. Escaping our familiar contexts seems to me one of the better and most tangible reset buttons that life, in its wise wisdom, has seen fit to make us believe was our idea. Better than movies, better than meth, better than the internet. It was instrumental in my, and probably every immigrant’s, path to re- considering not only the possible causes of a self unborn but notions of citizenry and how they might affect identity. Such migrations do not necessarily have to mean visa-stamping and language-learning, they can start within the hallowed boundaries of a single country, city, or even block. The foreign-soiled experience can be had anywhere that feels alien to whoever you think you are or home to whoever you want to be. It can also be between neighbors who learn, in a way not unfamiliar to eighties-sitcom families, from each other’s otherness. The foreign-soiled experience can be had from a quick round trip from France to Belgium for a bellyful of delectably mayonnaised fries, as I once had the daybreak pleasure to try with my brother and cousin on a dare that finished well and fat. It can be had by journeying from nowhere to somewhere and vice versa depending on one’s need for difference in order to evolve or restart one’s life at any time. There exists a sense, in thinking about people like Orson Welles, born and raised in Kenosha, Wisconsin, or Andy Warhol, born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that, somehow, opportunities for greatness will abound when away, especially coming from a perceived-to-be small place to a perceived-to-be big place. That is a chance not only to move the body geographically, which, lord knows, my wine gut could use, but to actually move the self. I really should think about this more …
I travel as much as I can possibly afford, for I know that the crossing of borders and the changes in points of view, literal and metaphorical, supply me with a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of what has come to mean so much to me: the quest for quality of life.
Now, keep in mind, I was born in France, a country that not only made a cultural choice but a self-defining one to prioritize quality over all other considerations, yet it seems that growing up with socialized medicine, tits in prime time, and four hundred kinds of cheese made me feel arrogantly invulnerable to the lure of quantity. Then again, I had not met America … As I write this, back at my desk in upstate New York, surrounded by too many things and a fridge full of stuff, I cannot help but wonder what happened to my cherished and aforementioned innately assumed sophisticated standards, surrounded, as I find myself, by vulgarly pasteurized pre-grated cheese packaged in a bag with eleven (!) fonts on it, particle-board furniture, and children who speak a hideously bastardized version of my mother tongue. Mediocrity, as far away as I thought I had kept it, certainly seems to have caught up with me.
And how could it not? The bar was placed ever so high by a people who have eleven thousand and six ways to mature grapes, so that voluntary departure from its center of gravity could only result in corruption of the palate. That is why, a few years ago, I sat up in bed and gently asked my wife to allow me to decree a new family initiative premised on re-discovery. Soon after, we emptied our savings, packed our bags, and started what has now become a yearly tradition in the form of systematic engagement with alien lands. During one such European break, an unscheduled stop in the unassuming town of Bolgheri, Italy, thankfully set the clocks back to where they should have remained as the simplest pappardelle with a simpler still tomato/basil sauce brought my taste buds to forgotten heights, reminding me how much excellence in apparently small things mattered to me and has been neglected by fancy technicians the world over. We are so busy adding layers and complexity to the ambitious endeavors we take on each day in a misguided search for value that we forget to master the basic nature and aim of our multitude of crafts. Food is only one example but a particularly meaningful one, as no skill is needed to understand or savor it. Oh, how I do wish I could fight back complexity and do anything in my life as well and simply as the strands of wheat and eggs I ate that day.
That bowl of pasta reminded me that good does not have to equal expensive or complicated, but simply, perhaps, engrossing. And one has to willingly and consciously embark on a quest to get involved. Good work, like good cheese, should be worked for, not merely bought, a goal worth suffering through, for life will seem more tasteful as a result, more vivacious, more meaningful if we do not simply accept what we are given, accept the status quo with a sheep’s resolve, but change conversations and discover for ourselves what quality means, personally. And beyond the quality of things, of course, lies the quality of life, a journey long and often begun but seldom sustained because of fear.
Sadly and simply put, people do not travel enough because they fear leaving comfort behind, the unknown, the confusion brought about by the lack of control inherent to foreign soils. An apprehension understandable when felt about Sophie’s choice but not really when it comes to the choice of, you know, France or Sweden. Just picture proposing a trip to your parents, telling them that they have been twiddling their arthritic thumbs for far too long and that they might gain from seeing a bit of the world before they are summarily disposed of by life. I imagine that conversation would go a little something like this:
“We’re not going to freakin’ Sweden, what are we going to do in Sweden?! Shut up and pass the Tic Tacs, will you? … Wintergreen!”
Now, obviously, the fictionalized events above have been carefully crafted for your pleasure, but still, at the core lies truth, that we humans, by and large, are afraid to invest too much in the understanding of our own planet and the people who populate it for fear of grave disappointment in who we are and what we’ve done. Sure, we’ll talk at cocktail parties or the pulpit at the Security Council till we’re blue in the face or the Israeli delegation walks out, about the fact that we are nothing if not committed seekers of harmony, togetherness, and culture, but so rarely do we actually act on these promises. A sad observation, which might have been justifiable in eras less open than ours, less navigable, less aware, but unforgivable from the age of steam on.
It is rather astonishing that we seem to cultivate fear of the unknown as a matter of honor, sadly influencing in the process forthcoming generations who never asked to be scared. Thankfully, some of them will traditionally rebel and disavow us and everything we stand for and, through the wonders of the web that is world wide, discover a broader realm than we could ever present to them. Because of how we now communicate, the world is becoming smaller every day, and getting on a plane to Stockholm where we may already have a Facebook friend seems a tad easier than it used to, when the only thing you could be sure of when getting off the Statens Järnvägar in Central Station was a stare- down from Nils Ericson’s statue. But whether you have use for digital friends or not, what sense do obstacles above and beyond those already provided by customs and border agents make for an illusory feeling of self-preservation? None. The point is that geographical discovery is one of our most enriching tools for culture, individual and collective, a process during which we learn empirically that which could not have been learned or felt any other way, a process at work within all of us since the day of our birth, a process that we have been nourishing while getting lost in books, listening to music, reading magazines, watching movies, or navigating windlessly to Google.com for what we believe is information but really is exploration, all the while immersing ourselves within worlds unknown. We are already predisposed via imagination to assimilate other cultures, other stories, other scents, other peoples, so it really should not be that big a leap to jump on a plane. But, for some reason, for too many, it can be.
Of course, a lot of people do travel, but the gap is wide and getting wider between fulfilling such predisposition to exploration and mere vacationing. Being a tourist has demeaned the travel industry. “Sightseeing,” a pitiful term that came into popular use at the beginning of the nineteenth century to describe the nascent trend of solely visiting places of major and acknowledged interest, has come to symbolize the travel industry as a whole, perhaps now better dubbed the tourist trade, the willful understanding of a different culture and its people getting left far behind. Today, we come home with a stack of pictures so that stories may be weaved around static memories that tell our friends, around a less-than-typical meal made from duty-free ingredients celebrating our return, that “I’ve been there, also here,” and that “this is the statue of so-and-so,” et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Mostly, it means that you arrive in situ already knowing what is afoot, having already read the brochure, taken the virtual tour, and watched the National Geographic exposé before boarding the steel bird of death. You know that hour-and-a-half guided tour squeezed among other ironic-tee-shirted collectors of visas is going to suck but you tell yourself that you have to go through it in order to say you did and pass off any new information gleaned as martini-shaking banter at a later soirée. Are you just checking off a box? Your soft feet are fouling the hard soil of another land, offering you the opportunity to imagine yourself in the shoes of those who have come before you, and, through imagination, attempt, however futile the ambition, to understand where you come from! And you would rather perspective yourself holding the Great Pyramid of Giza on your head as a hat just so you may relish in your pseudo-friends’ comments when you post it on your wall upon your return to the hotel?! Through wherever you have chosen to pass, you are experiencing being one of probably too many who have walked in the steps of other men and women and, probably like them, are not taking stock of the chance to expand your notions of humanity beyond what the guide is telling you is interesting? That is a shame.
The long-lost-and-found-and-lost-again-and-found-again city of Pompeii is a very good example of this conundrum. I was lucky to visit in the late nineties and, if you have as well, I am sadly sure your experience was similar to mine. There are a hundred guided groups and people with cameras who seemingly do not use their own eyes much since the dumb ocular cavities are yet unable to send to printer. And these people (including me) run from place of predetermined interest to place of predetermined interest and all seem to miss the bigger picture. Surely you were told, as I was, to look on the ground at a crossroads and gaze in admiration but without so much as a slowdown in pace at the rudimentary plumbing system buried in the ground, right? Right. That blew my mind. We moderns take so much for granted that the fact that they, in the actual seventies, had indoor plumbing doesn’t jog something in your brain? People in my group just went on to the next supposedly exciting artifact, never to look back again. It is the reflection of a civilization that cared about hygiene, cared about cleanliness more than the people who had come before them and most after, so that they bothered to engineer an underground network of pipes from house to house which dispensed people from the need to slum to the common trough to wash themselves in the morning and risk contracting Plasmodium falciparum. Of course, not everybody could afford such luxurious indoor facilities; only the rich had plumbing. And what did that mean for the evolution of ancient social strata, for the disparities in all matters of citizenry? And how have we evolved in present society from such inequality, when rich nations today leave poor ones unassisted when it comes to something as basic as what we now consider running water to be? Any relevance worth pointing out between the passing historical anecdote and the downright criminal will of current global policymakers? By my group’s standards, none, I guess. But it can and should at least trigger some questions as you are being boringly lectured while standing on the side of such discovery. Fact is, it rarely happens. When you are shown the erotic frescoes that have long fed the Christian right’s arguments that overt sexuality will be punished by a prude god in the form of murderous lava, people have the choice to snicker or to think about the impact of such nascent liberty and morals in the context of our present life. Most people snicker. And so, as we both take the shuttle back to the airport, you have the same memories as I do of Pompeii. And that is a shame. Because I was not able, and neither were you or the hundreds of thousands of people who visit this important site, to make my own memories, distinct and specific, thoughtful and argued, introspective and useful. We are being told what to remember, given bullet points about all that we saw, even get to take home a show to tell. And that is what travel has turned into, the standardization of memories.
If we were only to look around and wonder about what we are seeing, if we used our eyes instead of our cameras, if we used our common sense and not the guides, I believe we would be inching back to what travel was supposed to be in the first place, a consequence of curiosity. Travel simply started as a hopefully careful adventure out of the cave and exploration of the borders of the adjunct territory, which might have been but a half-mile radius but terrifying nonetheless for fear the great saber-tooth tiger was ready for lunch. Really, foreign-soiled experiences, or, if you prefer, the travel industry, started because of courage, not fear. What has happened to us forward-looking bipeds, that we are now scared of jumping lands and oceans in the search of otherness? Is it that traveling today is being sold as too comfortable for mere curiosity to win us over as it once did?
Put away the travel algorithm, shut down your computer, shelve the guide book, and, while you’re at it, fold the map back up. Let us not trust, for now, any form of curation, selection, or other editorial put upon our world by dubious tastemakers, and instead take our dusty globe out of the attic. I’ll wait … Now, point to where you are, at present. Your country, your city, your town, your block, your bedroom. Now put your finger on it and look where you stand in relation to the rest of the world. Try to recall how and why this became your port of call in the first place. Were you born here? Were you moved here? For pleasure, convenience, work, or significant other? Were ancestors in boats involved in any way? Probably. What was their deal? Where did they come from and why? This is not merely a bunch of questions, this is a way to put you in your place, literally. So that you may know where, at least until who comes along, you are.
An itinerary always must start somewhere if it is to go anywhere. Hence the first logical step should be to consider from, not the predictable to.
Now ponder again where you are, your own culture, your family tree, the reasons you stayed or didn’t, and attempt to make sense of origins before contemplating destinations. It is backbreaking work for which deadlines matter little and the journey is best started early, but the rewards, collected sparsely along the road, are irreplaceable, for they allow you to examine your place within the state of things. Within the state of politics, religion, philosophy, and then, only when assured of your understanding of said context, pick a target for the future according to your level of courage that is either the closest or the furthest from where you presently stand, not in terms of geography but in terms of the state of things.
Next, because you are modern, you get to choose transportation. And there again, there is a plethora, all of them inadequate because the people in charge do so rarely care for the needs of the traveler but mostly consider their ability to fill a space-defying aluminum can with as many victims as possible, a goal which fails extraordinarily to tickle the curiosity meant to elicit departure. Ever since the arrival of a certain train at La Ciotat Station in the Lumière brothers’, and humankind’s, first film, people have perceived travel as somewhat of a romantic notion, filled with tremendous mystery and excitement as well as rife with danger, risks which we then weigh against the cogency of our yearnings to witness the variety of the human race. If we took a very big step back and imagined all of the earth’s people as one group that only subdivided in order to each take care of one aspect of humanity’s requirements, each doing what they must, not for profit but prosperity, shouldn’t we have figured out a way for all of us to say hello to everyone else by now in a way that was easier than what we have to deal with at Newark Airport? But we are not doing that, it is not even a stated ambition. And it seems we might never want to, for it would signal a reversal of the social contract and that is something no one is ready to do yet, not until we are divided between Elois and Morlocks at least. And I think one of the main and most basic culprits of this crime is good old-fashioned prejudice.
The tragedy is that most people do not like each other because they do not know each other, another way in which fear of the unknown turns into xenophobia, thereby cock-blocking discovery. “It’s dirty over there!” or, “Those savages eat dog!” are lines often uttered by grandparents of all sides to the detriment of our species’ understanding of itself. In fact, we portray other collectives in our imagination mostly as evil empires robbing us of what we have that is most precious, our individuality. Whether communists, hippies, or borg, we fear any hint of a philosophy that might point to our basic and irrefutable sameness as a positive thing. This is not a political observation but rather explicit wonder at how little we allow ourselves to use our identical organic material to our advantage, humanly, simply, categorically.
I wonder at what age parents in Japan pull their impetuous children over, sit them down, and tell them:
“Look, kid, I know all this running around screaming is fun and all, but you are Japanese, and that comes with certain responsibilities. You just can’t be all loud and acting crazy like the round-eyed children. I know it’s probably hard to understand now, but we were meant for a higher purpose, a more meaningful one, a purpose for which a whole island has been set apart. You must now learn respect, care, your place in the universe, and, most importantly, about the intersecting confluences that we men and women are a part of as a birthright and at the table of which you must take your rightful seat. And for the sacrifice of your individuality, young Naoki, you will be rewarded with the knowledge that your unique contribution to the whole is leading our people toward a heretofore presumed impossible societal harmony that could not even be dreamed of without the tacit agreement I am now asking you to apply your moral signature to like so many before you. Is that understood?”
Poor Naoki, that’s some pretty heavy shit, but one thing stands the test of time: the choice that Japanese culture seems to have made to compromise what we in the west perceive as most precious, our supposedly god-given right to individuality, to the profit of a harmonious and perfectible society made in their image. Whatever their position or status in life, it remains stunning to me, even more so in light of the catastrophic tsunami and subsequent desolation of two thousand and eleven, to observe their dignity in any situation, be it merely demoralizing or downright desperate. Actually, I think the term I am looking for is pride. And above and beyond pride, care for the responsibility that comes with their territory. When you walk the streets of Japan as a foreigner, you will be acknowledged, helped with kindness, made to feel welcome, and all of it simply, easily, with what seems like the smallest of efforts. Even at customs, and in light of most other painful entries into other lands, how dare they make it so painless for visitors to be admitted into theirs?
Hmmm … Seems Naoki’s still getting a talking-to from his parents, let’s listen in …
“Naoki, look at me when I’m talking to you … So, I know you’ve seen it and that it looks pretty cool, but you can forget about the fork! Over here we eat with these thin pieces of wood, sharpened on one side, which … Oh, come on now, stop crying …”
Obviously, that exchange had to be translated from its native tongue because you probably never bothered to learn Japanese, or any other language for that matter. Why are we so disinterested in learning languages that are not our own, a failure of which the school systems are absolute accomplices? Why do we not integrate ourselves within the global population in some way? Why do we care so little for those whose despair we do not see and cries we do not hear? Are we not the same, all of us? Said one Shylock, “If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” We discriminate against ourselves and largely ignore the lessons and advances that others might have made, simply because they are not ours. It would be merely scandalous if it weren’t actually keeping us back as a species. But what can we do? Is it that we do not care simply because we do not see?
Foreign. Soiled. Experiences.
Go! Take a chance, a very powerful impulse when delving into discoveries large and small! Do not prepare or plan for everything, for that is not a considered life, that is an expected life, and you do not have as much to lose as you think you do. The idea is rather to assess possibilities and be ready for life to impact at its own pace, in its own time. Such an outlook prepares you for the unfathomable, because if you have already embarked on the supposedly terrifying journey that leads to self-knowledge, most other obstacles along the way will seem trivial. You will never again be afraid of surprise, of the unknown, of the unpredictable. That sometimes means being awakened by a friend at three in the morning to visit the smelly fish market before you can even have your coffee and finding yourself in the middle of screaming fishermen and women hurling seafood at each other as you try not to be hit with sole — and having an experience like no other. Sometimes it means sitting down to a five-hour meal with strange locals in the middle of nowhere, without the slightest hint of cell reception, and reaching unforeseeable levels of affection with people you barely know. And sometimes it means being waited on hand and foot in your suite at the Four Seasons, tipping the masseuse, generously. It is all of those things, not any one. The considered life does not advise on matters of taste, merely encourages complete experiences.
Admittedly, travel is seen as luxurious, financially taxing, and most people, they tell us, do not have the time to take a great trip that might thus open their minds. But that is not the point, it need not be a great trip. You do not have to book the seven wonders of the world in order to stumble upon the one within. De-contextualization is personal and unique; it is just that most people, usually, do not treat discovery as an important enough part of their lives.
Fact is, the lease on these bodies, when taken into the context of Earth’s many revolutions, is excruciatingly short, and we do with it the absolute minimum, merely attempt to deliver on the promises we are told to make by societies small and large for ourselves. And so we make goals up for the first twenty years, work on them for the next twenty, hope to enjoy the fruits the twenty after that, and finally ludicrously expect to retire on them for the last. Is it not strange that we define said goals but once in a lifetime? And that they are mostly professional in nature, self-advancing against a checklist mostly written by others? Strange does not even begin to describe it, it is in fact thoroughly disgraceful. If understanding and not mere opportunism should be but one goal of conscious life, then experience is a prerequisite and we must put down the remote and jump in. Perhaps I have reached an age at which even active spectatorship no longer fulfills a brain so thirsty for first-person awareness, perhaps I feel my own body slowly slipping away under the weight of such morbid daily consumption of cheese, or perhaps it is, simply, that the sense of risk and adventure that got me to jump the pond from France at eighteen years old has not completely been snuffed out by the middle-aged need for safety that parents are too often convinced to accept as normal.
We cannot let that happen.
Such experience cannot be had merely by living well and traveling, as pointedly aforementioned, but by existing in new environments in order to understand them, by learning and gaining from them, something that cannot be done solely from the balconies of hotels or the comfort of the guided tour. It is the only way I have found to take full advantage of the short time we have, to connect as many dots as possible, each experience adding to a catalog of experiences without necessarily replacing the one that came before. We must remain open to new manners of being, new opinions, new ways to look outward in order for the culture within to expand without fear of losing who we thought we were.
To live a life considered that endures and carries interest and fascination with it, one must continually forge new paths devoid of fear and lined with possibility, put the brakes on useless nostalgia and senseless hope, and give the present a try, with the recognition that the last twenty-four hours might have been amazing and that the next twenty-four might also be, but looking no further for explanations or reasons for why we want or deserve the things we do. The good life is not, as HGTV would have us believe, filled with chic living rooms; it is, rather academically, acquiring the qualities required for a particular role that we must choose for ourselves. We may be the willing prisoners of an organic machinery, but it is our responsibility to teach it things, take it places, make it feel otherness so that it may no longer scare as easily as originally programmed. We know the beginning and we know the end but seldom do we truly care for the time in the middle, where it all happens, where the characters take shape, fall in love, disagree with it all, taste a nineteen ninety-eight Châteauneuf-du-Pape, unnerve one another, cry but for no other reason than to hear the melody of life for the first time, all of which makes the beginning worthwhile and the end complete. We must care again for what we make happen, we must care again for the middle, we must go forth and explore, if at first intellectually, but let us not forget our bodies.
We. Must. Know. Our. World.