Beer tourism in Qingdao

Aside

From the archives. A short piece on Qingdao, China that I wrote in 2011 but never got around to publishing.

The annual overnight field trip went much better this year than last. No food poisoning, no epileptic seizures, no disappearances in crowded marketplaces. In fact, with the exception of my ADHD student accidentally smashing a few thousand kuai worth of soapstone jade replicas, everything went according to plan. We visited the tomb of Confucius (not actually his tomb) and climbed the mountain where the same man did his historic footwork. On the bus ride through the Shandong Province, we got to introduce the students to American film classics such as Top Gun, which incidentally, was also once used by the Chinese military propaganda office to show the might of their air force (I can’t make this kind of stuff up). It was upon our arrival in the seaside city of Qingdao that my coteacher, Leeds, became visibly excited.

Leeds, seen here making a point

“Sam! Do. You. Realize. Where. We. Are?!” Leeds has a flair for drama, so he would be just as frantic if he saw two Starbucks across the street from each other. Shame on me for not putting it together myself — Qingdao shares the same name as China’s national beer, Tsingtao (both pronounced chingdow). And that’s no coincidence. This is the city where the namesake beer was born!

“Sam! We’ve got to get off this bus, man!” Leeds continued ranting, foam forming at the edges of his lips. “I lived here for three… four… five? Years. I can’t leave this town without a visit to Beer Street!”

“Leeds, we have on the bus with us forty children, aged ten to twelve. We can’t just –”

“Dammit man! I am team lead! We go to the Beer Street!”

I could tell he meant it, but surely, some shred of reason remained in the man, a shred to which I could reasonably appeal. “Leeds, if we abandon our pupils, leaving them at the mercy of our Chinese teachers while we go drown ourselves in pints, we will lose our jobs. Then we will never be able to afford beer again.”

Ach! You’re right!”

“I’ll make a deal with you, Leeds. I promise that one day we will return to this city, and we will drink their tankards dry. In the meantime, we must attend to our duties, and continue watching Top Gun.”

“I’ll be your wingman anytime, Sam.”

So it was. It took months, but with the help of our often confused but nonetheless sympathetic principal, we were able to petition the director to fund a trip for the foreign teachers to spend two days in fabulous, sometimes even sunny, Qingdao.

Unfortunately, the morning the bus left, Leeds was not on it. Issues, he said. He did pop off some final advice as we departed Beijing though: spend your entire time there eating clams and drinking dark ale. This turned out to be the sagest advice I ever got from that insane man.

A little history on the place: Qingdao was a fishing village before zee Germans arrived. Like so many of their European counterparts in that era of glorious pre-Great War colonization, they wanted a Chinese concession all their own. The Portuguese had Macao, the French held Peking, and the British owned Hong Kong and pretty much everywhere else they planted their flag. As is evidenced by smatterings of Hinterland architecture today, Qingdao was granted to them, and they made use of it in the best way Germans know how. They built the most gargantuan brewing empire in the world.

To visit the brewery, though it takes up an entire Chinese city block, it still doesn’t look like much if you’ve seen some of the macro operations by the likes of Anheuser-Busch. However, one must bear in mind that the Tsingtao empire has grown well beyond it’s original brewery, and today supplies beer to the entire nation of China. That’s more than a billion overserved on a nightly basis. Maybe that’s because to buy Tsingtao beer is the patriotic way. After all, the post-colonial period of Tsingtao is much like that of her nation. Read on!

The Japanese brutally occupied China during the wartime years. With greater zealotry than its European predecessors, Japan grabbed up anything she fancied in China. The Germans at this point were long gone, so save for shoving aside the drunkards slouched against the front gate, the Japanese nationalized the brewery with little effort. It was rechristened “Kirin.” That’s right. Like the stuff you drank in the sushi restaurant last night.

Revolutions came and went, and China became the People’s Republic it is today. Though Mao was not a beer fan, he was a heavy imbiber of baijiu, the heavily fortified rice wine that sustained the morale of his troop during the Long March, and the spirit that floored the strong-livered Richard Nixon during his diplomatic visit that would open China to the world. Therefore, instead of turning the brewery into communal residencies for a few hundred families or a rocket plant for the proposed Mars base (the Revolution was an optimistic time for the Mao cult), he kept it as a brewery, reestablishing the original moniker.

Those who know me know that I love history. And if there’s one thing I love more than history, it’s beer. My somewhat pickled tour of Qingdao was turning into the best vacation ever.

I did take Leeds’ advice and spend a day with shellfish and dark beer. I would pass this recommendation along to anyone else who visits the city. The clams are simmered in a delicious broth flavored with Sichuan peppers, ginger, scallions, and garlic. The beer is notably unique to the Tsingtao consumed outside of its hometown. In the lager as well as the stout, the malt is more present, and the hops are livelier. It’s a completely different drinking experience. Best part is, it all comes from giant stainless steel casks that every restaurant seems to be equipped with as a requisite for running shop on Beer Street. Therefore, you are guaranteed the freshest, crispest libation, served ice cold in a glass pitcher.

I could tell you about the beaches, but it was unseasonably cold and a heavy smog filled the skies both days. I could tell you about Fi and I attending the Chinese wedding, but it was just too silly an experience to repeat. I could tell you about our gym teacher using the bedsheets when he realized the maid hadn’t stocked any toilet paper, but that’s nasty. What I will tell you is what I’ve told you already, the best advice that was told to me. When in Qingdao, fill your days with clams, beer, and humble reverence for beer’s ability to outlive the follies of humanity.

Another letter to my senator

Dear Senator

This email is in regards to the proposed deportation of 9000 Nepalis from the US, as reported in this week’s New York Times.

Like you, I am descended from generations of hardworking people who at some point, were given a chance. Today, you’re a senator and I’m an international educator. If it had not been for that distant grandparent who decided to risk everything and pursue an opportunity in a foreign land, you and I would doubtlessly be in very different situations.

For the last three years, my work has posted me in Nepal. I’ve come to know many Nepalis here, and many of them have ambitions to live and work in America one day. They are business owners, technicians, programmers, and parents. In their stories, I hear the stories of my grandfather of many generations back, who journeyed from France, in hopes of making a better living in the fur trade. Unlike my Nepali friends, he arrived to America with no capital and no marketable skills. Yet he managed to raise a family, buy land, and eventually his descendants would go on to attend university, serve in the military, start businesses, and become an essential part of the American tapestry.

I cannot imagine how my life today would be different, had my distant relative established a livelihood, only to be stopped short, branded an “economic opportunist,” and sent back to France on the next boat.

What’s proposed for these 9000 deportations, not to mention the thousands more from Honduras and other problematic countries, is economically ignorant, and anti-American. I urge you to reflect on your own experience as a descendant of immigrants, and do everything in your power to stop this political showboating. 

Thank you for your time and consideration. 

Your Constituent,

Profiles in people I know

Tom showed up as a third-stringer where I worked in Bali. That is to say, he was the third teacher to be hired midyear, replacing previous teachers who’d left in disgust. He was then, and remains today, the most typical Australian I’ve ever met.

Tom was tall, bald, and very present. He loved to knock back a beer or three. His entire wardrobe consisted of Billabong shirts. His most common utterances were “mate” and… “ma-a-ate.” He had an odd sort of crossed-eye on one side. I never held that against him, though combined with his oddly slanted brow, he slightly resembled Sloth from The Goonies. He was a good bloke, I reckoned.

IMG_9764

Australopus afuckupsis

I remember fondly the day he was asked to become Lord Buddha. Not in any transcendental kind of way. It was for Lord Buddha’s birthday, a high holy Hindu holiday, and the school community had organized some sort of event where Lord Buddha would float down the Agung River on a bamboo raft, surrounded by candles. Meanwhile on the hilly riverbanks, fire spinners and traditional Balinese dancers did their thing. It was total sensory overload. When he came floating down that river, his face reflected total serenity.

Most incredibly, I was paid to be there. So it goes with international teaching. No way to really know what you’re signing up for.

At some point that winter, or maybe it was spring (in Bali, the season is always “unbearably hot”), the principal hired a personal assistant. I was keen on the new girl straight away. She had a sassy attitude and bottomless brown eyes. Bali has no shortage of attractive Indonesians, but Betta was a bombshell. We went out once or twice, but things went no further than pizza and beer.

Then there was this one day we went out to one of my favorite hidden beaches. It was a magical day. I was determined to make my intentions known, but even with a stunning scenery, flawless weather, and just the two of us there, everything completely perfect, I could not get the words out. 

We love tourists

“So umm… want to get pizza somewhere?” 

So when we had plans with folks later that night, I would do everything possible to demonstrate social proof. Maybe then, I thought, with the subtle backing of my peers, I would work up the confidence to say what needed to be said. That, with the inertia of our beach day pushing the pheromones forward, smell of sunscreen still fresh in our nostrils, I could not lose.

I worked the crowd of friends and coworkers with deadpan humor and fearless anecdotes. I managed to get myself invited on stage to jam with the musicians at a blues bar. Later at the nightclub, I worked some moves with Betta on the dance floor. Nothing amazing, but corny enough for her to have fun all night. 

Sometime well after midnight, we ordered a fresh round of cocktails and talked about what next. She noted that Sibang Kaja, where we both lived, was pretty far away. It would be such a long drive. And we’d been drinking.

I noted that in Kuta, there was a pretty nice hotel, an easy walk from the bar.

She remarked that a hotel was an interesting idea. Maybe she’d have another drink and we could talk further.

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Then this happened. 

At that moment, Tom loped over and clunked onto the barstool, the opposite side from where I sat next to Betta. His face spoke a thousand beers. His one good eye was half-shut, while the crossed-eye was jerking around slightly, attempting to scan the room. He wore a child’s grin. I’d seen him this drunk a few times before. He was Liability Level drunk. On similar occasions, we’d had to physically force him into taxis, or talk him off tall buildings. I wasn’t too worried though. My escape was already planned, and like James Bond, my escape would land me in the arms of a beautiful woman.

That was until he abruptly leaned in, across Betta’s lap, towards me. Gesturing impersonally towards Betta, he mumbled something about how great of a couple we were. Now, he knew damn well that wasn’t the case. Dude was trying to sabotage my game. But why? Surely, he wasn’t trying to seduce anyone, this drunk? This late at night?

That’s great, ha ha yeah, I muttered, scanning the room for an excuse to break away from this fake Buddha cock blocker.

He continued, “Ah mean… she’s a great bird, mate. And I should knah. Because ah…”

She bolted him a glare so venomous as to poison a thousand men. It clicked just then. The two of them had slept together! Dear god!

Now, I’m not one to give a shit about things such as who’s slept with whom. Everyone can and should sleep with whomever they wish, as many times as they wish, wherever that may be, pending consent, and barring of course, public playgrounds and middle rows of passenger jets. What I gave a shit about was how Tom had managed to torpedo my entire night. From this point forward, any kind of chemistry Betta and I had going on had been dashed across the barroom floor.

But Tom wasn’t done yet. What he said next was precisely what Betta and I hoped to hell he would not say.

“So I waz thinkin’… since we all know each othah… maybe the three of us could ah…”

Oh hell. No.

Betta remembered just then, she had an early appointment. On a Saturday. And suddenly, she felt quite sober. Really, she’d only had two cranberry things, and had been nursing them all night. Maybe she’d just drive home after all.

That said, she’d be happy to give me a lift.

But Tom wasn’t done yet.

“Oi. Give us a lift home then?”

My life on Bali often felt like an extensive episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Long and drawn out. Darkly funny. Full of the most unlikeable people I’ve ever known.

After we rolled Tom out of her jeep, in front of his bamboo yurt, we continued on to my place. It was a long, dead silent, palpably awkward ride home, our minds riddled with images of Tom, naked and aroused. Just as we pulled up, I turned to her, out of shits to give, and stammered out what might be the best romcom speech of my career.

“Listen. I don’t care that you slept with Tom. He’s a complete fuckwit, but none of that matters. What matters is I find you really cool. And smart. And hot. You’re really hot. And I want to keep spending time with you. And I’d like us to be more than… whatever this is we’ve got going on right now. And we talked about me taking you out for your birthday next week, and I still want to do that. So clear your calendar, because we’re going out. On your birthday.”

She was at a loss for words, and said “Okay… thanks,” and I think we might’ve shaken hands or something ridiculous like that and I went to bed thinking about what a total shithead and moron I was. And I began to plot the ways I could murder Tom and get away with it.

A week later, I made good on my promise. Not to murder Tom, but to take Betta out for her birthday. Pizza and beer, as usual. Except this time, it felt like she was sizing me up through all the small talk. She was looking at me differently that before. This time, after dinner, I gave her a lift home. I parked the bike and we walked to her door. I wished her a happy birthday and turned to leave.

“Wait,” she started. “Truth: when you said all that stuff in the jeep the other night…”

Yeah, I said. It was all true.

“Good,” she said. “Very good.”

She took my arm. We went inside.

Bali was an amazing year. That was the year I learned to sort-of surf. The year I lived in a bungalow without walls. The year I learned the value of fermented shrimp paste. However, I’d throw all that away, if I could spend just a little more time with Betta. She might be the coolest girlfriend I ever had. Those five months just weren’t enough.

Strange as it is, things might never have panned out, if not for crossed-eye Tom. What an asshat. 

Who loves ice cream?  WE love ice cream!

She also talked me into growing a beard. What a woman. 

My ongoing love affair with hotels

I have long adored hotels. I love the airiness of a grand lobby, the employees who greet you at every turn, the smartly ironed clean sheets, and even the pool, though I rarely use it. I take my time in the lobby, browsing the local paper, sipping on coffee, in no particular rush to explore whatever city I’ve managed to land in.

A stay in a nice hotel is a reprieve from the angst of daily life. It provides restaurants and bars to take care of hunger and thirst, a gym for physical activity, and maid service so I never have to think about making the bed. 

If there is an afterlife, I’m convinced it looks like a Hilton — a really nice Hilton resort for the good people, a Doubletree for the average folk, and a Hampton Inn for the sinners, because I don’t believe in Hell but I do believe in Hampton Inns. 

I have criteria that determines the overall quality of a hotel stay.

1. Cable. Specifically, Asian cable. Asian cable is the bomb. For one, I get Asian MTV. It’s like American MTV, but from the 1980’s, when it was full of these things called “music videos.” Ever wonder what happened to all those video music directors? They started working for Asian MTV. Music videos still exist, and they are awesome. They also run this show called OK Danceoke. YouTube it. I just stole three hours of your life. You’re welcome. Also, Asian cable has about 100 movie channels. Most of those channels run movies from the last three decades I’ve been meaning to watch forever, but life got in the way, and also, I don’t have Asian cable at home. While you’re busy Netflix binging on the latest season of Broken Mirror, I’m in this hotel, watching “Freddy vs. Jason” and “Another 24 Hours.” No commercials, either. Not sure how their business model works, but it works for me. 

2. Million billion thousand hundred thread count cotton bed linens. I’m not much of an IKEA man, but I know good bed sheets when I’m in them. Some folks are really into the hotel mattresses, but I live in the developing world where mattresses are basically just chewed up newspaper stuffed into a burlap sack, so I’m cool with whatever, far as mattresses go. But bed sheets? I want bed sheets that swaddle me like an infant. I’m kinky like that. 

3. Things work. This should not be a tall order, but I’m often surprised. At the time of writing, I’m in a hotel that’s rated four stars, but there’s a small lake pooling beneath the air-con vent and the internet disconnects if I turn on the coffeemaker. I don’t know what the light switches do, but they don’t seem to have any relevance to the lighting in this room. Maybe they work for the lights in the room downstairs. The remote batteries are nearly dead, so the TV powers on, but it won’t power off, and I can’t find the archaic power button on the box itself, so I guess it’s Asian MTV all night long for me. 

4. Things that should be free are free. Water, mainly. Come on guys. Water. In America, outside of Flint, Michigan, tap water is fine. Europe too, I guess. But the rest of the world, people need to stay hydrated, and you’re a terrible company if you charge minibar prices for a bottle of semi-filtered dookie water that costs 30 cents at the neighboring 7-11. 

5. Things that put me at ease about my loud Western footprint. I like hotels that don’t automatically refresh your towels every day. Even better I like hotels that refill things rather than burn through endless tiny plastic containers. Bonus points if the hotel contributes to charities, uses fair trade products, or sources local sustainable food. 

6. Rooftop bar. Don’t need to say much more about this. Bonus for a rooftop pool.

7. Room service that’s worth the 50-100% markup. When visiting a new place, the best food is found outside the hotel… usually. However, when I’ve just come off an insane 14-hour trans-Pacific flight, starved and half-drunk, and none of the signs in town are in English, or if I’ve just landed at the airport hotel by Dallas-Fort Worth and it’s 10pm and the only nearby eatery is a Denny’s, I’m opting for the hotel food. Denny’s wants $8 of my money for that cheeseburger basket. The hotel wants $15. It had better be a damn good hamburger. 

8. Staff that treats me like George Clooney. I’m thinking of George Clooney’s character Ryan Bingham from “Up in the Air,” but any incarnation of George Clooney, including George Clooney himself, I’m cool with that. Now that George Clooney stuff isn’t going to happen unless you’re either a regular Joe Businessface who checks into the same Kansas City Radisson every Tuesday to make sure his subterranean Bitcoin servers are still running, or you’re someone with a shiny card that bestows upon its holder added value as a customer… like George Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham.

All about the shiny cards

I have a shiny card that skips me past the Chinese tour group at the check-in desk. Sometimes the shiny card can summon a bellhop to seize away my bags and escort me onto a special elevator that goes up to a special floor where  people say “Hello Mr. Campeau,” and ask, “How was your flight?” Their name tags say words like “Tar” and “Pretzel” but I don’t ask questions because this is Asia. 

Pretzel invites me to sink into a velour-upholstered sofa or a studded leather armchair while she takes care of my paperwork and sends my bags up to a room that looks fancier than what I should be able to afford. I enjoy free coffee and scones and read the paper. I’m informed that cocktail hour starts in an thirty minutes, so I can head up to my room now and freshen up, or take my time with the paper while they ice up the booze. 

I go up to the room. I’ve been upgraded. It’s a corner room, far from the Chinese tour group. It’s on a high floor overlooking the high floors in other buildings. The bathtub is fit for two William Tafts. There’s a box of chocolates on the bed. All because of the shiny card. 

Back down in the lounge, a guitarist strums Gilberto Gil while the smart casual crowd gets business drunk on complimentary highballs. This goes on for two hours. Hors d’oeuvres are available, so that’s dinner sorted. Seven PM, time for some Asian cable and free internet. Alternatively, I can throw my feet onto the chaise lounge and watch the city skyline. 

Come morning, any fogginess from cocktail hour is absorbed by a gratis continental breakfast that actually spans the continents. Every country has a sausage, I’ve learned, and they all go well with eggs and toast. While I’m at it, how about that dim sum corner? Or the miso bar? Or the fatty grilled pork with noodle soup? 

All this is Perfect World Scenario. Shiny Card Scenario. This is the standard by which I now judge hotels. I’m not sure if that makes me a pretentious prick — I’m pretty sure it does — but whatever man. I donate to charity every month and have a rescue dog and I think that goes a little further than thoughts and prayers, so I’m going to enjoy my shiny card benefits. 

Let’s talk about that card some more. Yes, it has an annual fee, and it’s not a small fee, but it’s easily counterbalanced by the cool stuff I don’t have to pay for. Like the George Clooney treatment for one. All this this “Mr. Campeau” business, the executive lounge access, the room upgrade, this all comes with the shiny card.

I also get into airport lounges, where I can sit on a couch and drink complimentary wine and eat noodles and watch the Blazers play basketball and think about getting a free massage while other flyers are sitting in plastic seats that they can’t take a nap on, watching the same Samsung ad run over and over on a loud, angry, 70-inch plasma screen, surrounded by nose-picking toddlers and sweaty bald people. 

In the US, I get to stroll past the morose immigration officials who struggle with anger management, blip my passport, and clear the gate without untying my shoes. 

Upon landing, a Hertz guy walks me to the spaces right next to the office, not the spaces across the parking lot. “Mr. Campeau,” he says (I like that part), “That Ford Festiva you ordered is not available. We’d normally substitute a 1990’s Geo Metro, but you get a Jeep Cherokee. Enjoy.” I never much cared for SUV’s. Then I drove one. I still don’t like them… but I like to drive them. 

I do pay for the base rate on hotels, flights, and rentals, but even that is subsidized by points earned just by using the shiny card. I never thought I’d be one of those people who uses a shiny card, but I’m glad to be one now. 

For more information on shiny cards, I recommend you visit The Points Guy. It is an obsessively comprehensive website that analyzes and evaluates the cards out there. Never a better time than the present to get yourself set up for the George Clooney lifestyle, if only while traveling.

A family member visits, anxiety ensues

My dad is here with me in Kathmandu. It feels strange, to have him out here. He’s no stranger to travel, mind. My parents routinely visit my nieces in Spain, or have a fun jaunt in other parts of Europe. But this is Asia. More than Asia, it’s Kathmandu.

Unlike my brother, I’ve grown accustomed to not hosting family out here. I always imagined that to them, Asia seemed like the edge of the world, a no-man’s land. Europe is familiar and friendly; people look the same as we do, but with less body fat. Asia on the other hand, is exotic. 

Indeed, Asia is exotic, but you get over it after a few weeks. End of the day, it’s just another contract, whether I’m in Beijing or Borneo, Qatar or Kathmandu. By the end of my first month in any host city, I’ve learned how to order off menus, get around in taxis, and haggle where needed. I know the location of the local grocery store and the local pub. My flat is set up, a la Fortress of Solitude, and I spend the remainder of my contract descending further and further into the depths of my host culture.

A visitor from home then can be a little unnerving. Even if you’ve never lived abroad, I’m sure you can relate. Ever had one of those moments, when you’re busy being you? Say you’re singing Mariah Carey in the shower, top volume. Your significant other gets home early from work, hears you singing. You feel a little embarrassed but everyone has a good laugh. Now multiply that times several days.

In the days before my dad’s visit, I compiled a mental inventory of what could get weird for him. He hasn’t been to Asia since the 70’s, and he’s never really seen a developing country before. So let’s start there.

Garbage everywhere. I mean everywhere. It’s on the streets, the pedestrian lanes, the rivers… everywhere. Kathmandu is a giant interactive landfill.

The air is chewable. Heavy particulate matter, such as the dust that’s perpetually kicked up from unpaved roads and endless construction projects, combines with light particulate matter, like the emissions from unregulated brick foundries and diesel engines, to create a potent, dull grey cocktail of low air quality. Add a dash of trash fires for extra dioxins, and you’ve got the Kathmandu Valley Swizzle.

These drivers. In a city with no traffic lights, stop signs, or lines in the roads (which may or may not be paved), drivers definitely do their own thing. And the horns the horns always the horns.

Then there’s me. My free time is usually spent in one of the garden bars around town, or in front of my buddy’s bodega, drinking lousy beer and socializing. Lots of dick jokes. To an outsider, this might look depressing. To a family member, it might look concerning.

Fortunately, there was no judgement when my dad came to visit. Indeed, he was more than happy to join in with the loitering and revelry. However, he’s said more than a few times now, in observing the garbage, the air, and the devil-may-care drivers, “You need to get the hell out of this town, man.”

 

 

Social media checkout, Day 1

I’m already doing that thing I do when I write. Think about what this will look like in a year, three years, ten… and so on. Will this entry sound foolish and naive, like my earliest overseas writings? Will I be surprised at the wit and insightfulness and honesty, like when I came across all those folded up letters from high school? Will it seem trite, or timeless?

It is probably fitting that this experiment begins at 3am, on an insomniac morning of the risen Christ. Maybe that’s all his deal was. He wasn’t dead, just tired. But he couldn’t sleep, so he went for a little wander.

But I digress.

It’s 3 am on Easter Sunday morning and a few hours ago I deleted my Facebook account.

I made the decision based on a few factors. For one, there’s been the news: the data harvests, the bots, the manipulation of elections. Furthermore, there’s the wasted time. Wake up in the morning, time for the Feed. Breaks and lunch, check the Feed. Afternoon Feed and evening Feed and just before bed Feed.

Sitting in a cafe waiting for coffee? Feed.

Out with the lads and they start talking about soccer? Feed.

In a taxi by myself? Feed.

In a taxi with companions? Feed.

Thought of something actually important to broadcast, like an announcement for the pub quiz I host? I might start with the intention of writing that announcement, but then comes the Feed and I forget.

By my math, I would sometimes spend hours per day on the Feed. Not just Facebook, but sometimes Twitter, occasionally Instagram. As with any habit, I rationalized.

This is the 21st century. This is how modern humans spend their time.

What if I miss a world changing event? I don’t want to be last to find out.

How will people know I’m still alive?

How will I know about the latest meme everyone at work talks about?

How else can I get people from high school to marvel at my perfect, exotic overseas lifestyle?

Perhaps the most terrifying of all: what do I do if I get bored?

The answer, I propose, is writing. Not just one- to two-sentence blurbs about something funny I saw, or a dish I ate. Actual, meaningful writing where I bare my soul. Or not. Whatever I feel like doing that day, really.

Those who know me well, know this is not the first time. After my wife left the country in 2016, I dropped off for awhile. A few months I think. Then it was, “I’ll just post the odd tweet, but I won’t engage in the Feed.” Then it was only Twitter content, but no Facebook. Then it was Facebook, but only for promoting events. Before long, total relapse.

The pattern repeated over the last few years. Cold turkey for some days or weeks, then back to the Feed, harder than ever. Just like relapse of other vices, every time I returned, it felt a little more shitty. Less content I cared about, more petty bickering from the political chasm. Fewer dopamine moments, more cortisol.

I found myself mentally muttering “shut up shut up shut up” as I scrolled through all the pettiness. The Right: ranting ad nauseum about guns that don’t kill people, about Europe’s no-go zones, about Her emails, and about the Jesus. The Left, about niche gender identifications, about white male privilege (and what I ought to do with mine), about the cultural appropriation in Hollywood and the Brooklyn food scene, and about Donald Fucking Trump.

Every post was a potential rabbit hole. Do I comment on my cousin’s post to say that guns are in fact the number one cause of gun violence? Or should it be this thread, posted by a friend of a friend from Portland, whom I’ve not seen in a decade? Xi (non-binary pronoun here) says that the white guy who founded Pok Pok has no right to cook that cuisine because he’s not Thai. Do I point out that all recipes in the history of humankind are a result of cultural convergence?

Do I pinpoint their logical fallacies? Their inaccurate data? Their confirmation bias? Their grammar mistakes? Or do I retreat to my mantra?

Shut up shut up shut up.

Articles and podcasts linking social media to depression, these tidbits keep dropping into my life. I’ve been thinking about my choices and my vices. I’ve been thinking about life changes. With my time in Katmandu, the years now, drawing to a close, I think about fresh starts. I feel like it’s going to stick this time. I’m done with the Feed.

A dream woke me, just before I began to write. A bluegrass troupe was visiting the school. I’d been asked to session with one of the pickers. I flaked on the time. Dude was pissed. I found him later and apologized. Oddly, he was married to the actress who played Counselor Troi on Start Trek. They had two kids. The five of us got to know each other and after some friendly banter he asked if maybe I’d like to do some strumming right there. I felt honored, but as I looked for my banjo I realized I’d not practiced playing it in two years. I started to feel embarrassed and ashamed. That’s when I woke up.

Reading about my dreams is about as interesting as reading about anyone else’s dream. At best, it’s boring, at worst, it’s awkward because it starts with something like, “I had this dream about you last night… Oh but it wasn’t sexual…”

Despite that conventional wisdom, I shared this dream to make a point. The dream shook me. I realized I’m not doing much to change the things about myself that I don’t like. I’m not pursuing passions like I once did. Maybe this is a cliché midlife crisis, but whatever it is, I don’t like it and social media’s not doing me a lick of good. Yes, WordPress is still social media, but at least there is no compelling Feed that demands my attention. And I used to write. A lot. So let’s see if I can take all this angst and doubt and struggle and turn it into something that’s actually worthwhile. Rather than hours of scrolling and trolling, let’s use those down times for punching some words into a screen, words that will be read not by 417 friends, family, and friends and family of those friends and family, but by 7 people, according to the WordPress data. Let’s see where this goes.

Haikus on Public Education

As I’m back home this month, the inevitable question comes up time and time again.

So when will you come back to teach in America? 

Listen, I’ve worked in America. Do you know what it’s like, working in schools here? I mean, yes, my body absorbs a daily onslaught on airborne contaminants and waterborne microbes, I’m surrounded in dust and poverty, and I have to shower with my eyes shut, but even still, this is way preferable to teaching in the US.

As one point of evidence, I present here a series of haikus I wrote while invigilating exams at my last public school. I have to sit on my ass for hours, so do the students. The test takes forever. The school spends months on test preparation (as opposed to you know, teaching and learning). Yet my state is still on bottom for testing, nationwide.

These haikus say it better than I can.

Barren walls cry out

To students and visitors

Learning stops this week


Once taught in wartime

Mortars, car bombs; but no test

Kept kids from learning


Rules say no food or drink

Because apparently no one

Here is a grown-up


Accreditation

The report that disappeared

Like all the others


Minutes tick on by

Make me wish for a razor

To slice out my eyes

In case you’re wondering why I left, here’s one final haiku:

“Keep up the good work.”

Said the evaluation. 

On page two: “You’re fired.” 

Nowadays, I enjoy a fulfilling classroom position with professional colleagues and managers. Things are better.