Monday, April 21, 2014

Seduction Capital: Why Humans are not Iphones


I watched a TED talk not too long ago. Like most lectures on the site it was dynamic and thought provoking. The topic? Love. 


In the talk, French philosopher Yann Dall'Aglio elaborated on how the nature of romantic partnerships in Western Society have evolved from relationships based on fulfilling gender and societal roles. Before modernity, men were bread winners who deferred to their elders and social betters. Women were caretakers who submitted to the men in their lives. Now, with roles and positions no longer clearly defined according to gender we base our romantic choices on personal preferences and on something else. Dall'Aglio defines this something else as 'seduction capital'.

Indeed,” He says in his rich native language. “our consumer society is largely based on seduction capital. It is said about this consumption that our age is materialistic. But it's not true! We only accumulate objects in order to communicate with other minds. We do it to make them love us, to seduce them. Nothing could be less materialistic, or more sentimental, than a teenager buying brand new jeans and tearing them at the knees, because he wants to please Jennifer. Consumerism is not materialism. It is rather what is swallowed up and sacrificed in the name of the god of love, or rather in the name of seduction capital.”

While consumerism may not be the same materialism, it seems that we are a generation of pure consumers and that we devour everything in our lives like materials, including the people around us.

We are such consumers that we treat people and relationships like products to be bought and adjusted according to our preferences. We buy each other not necessarily with cash or credit but with 'seduction capital', charisma and, inevitably, a large amount of false self-advertising. We market ourselves to others like a drink or a brand new car. Like in all advertising the product is never quite what is show in the commercial or poster. Nevertheless, we buy the illusion. Only to eventually discover a flaw with our latest purchase. The person doesn't fulfill every need as advertised, they don't match the ideal image in the commercial or come with all the features and benefits we thought they did. Eventually many people discard the person, like they would a latte that didn't quite have all the ingredients they wanted. And the cycle keeps going. It will keep going until we realize that people are not lattes, iphones or cars that can be perfectly tailored to all our individual whims.

I realize this is not how many people approach relationships. However, I do think it's very telling that so many in contemporary societies approach relationships in a way they would approach choosing an outfit or selecting a particular brand of coffee.

We live, people from the 1st world, in age where everything is tailored to personal preference, completely, succinctly. Is it any surprise that so many approach romance and partnership with the same expectation of total satisfaction in all fields? We expect a person, our partner, to have all the right apps, to keep us perpetually entertained and provided for. We always expect the best performance. Yet no one can deliver all the time.

It's a sad mentality to be caught up in. I've certainly 'bought' into it to an extent.

I think' like Dall' Aglio, we need more tenderness in our romantic relationships. We need to be willing to remember and be open with our frail humanness. We can't be perfect machines. So why pretend not to have so many weaknesses?

Realizing we are fallible, recognizing our faults and weaknesses doesn't mean that we can't improve ourselves. This also doesn't mean glossing over personal weaknesses and or problems. Actually, I believe being opening to our loved ones about our blemishes means committing ourselves more fully to self-improvement. People can learn. It's one of the best aspects of being human. In certain areas of our lives we can raise the bar. We can alter bad habits and develop good ones. But it takes time; a lot of time. In an age of instant gratification, that can sometimes seem impossible to remember. We can't download a program to make our operating systems run smoother.

However, we can't be an Iphone. We can't ever be it all or have it all. We're human and we shouldn't have to be anything else but that. 



Friday, April 18, 2014

9 Things I Learned While Flying Across the Pacific in 2014

While flying from Thailand to the US I jotted down some thoughts in a notebook. It turns out you can learn quite a lot in those exhausting 15  or so hours. Between all the sitting, waiting and more sitting, there are many things you can reflect on. Here are a few tidbits from my recent journey.   





(1) There are honest tuk-tuk drivers in Thailand

As a Westerner there are many benefits to living in a developing country like Thailand. One drawback though, is the tendency for some people to see you as a walking dollar sign and give you a farang (foreign) price for services. This is especially true with tuk-tuk drivers. Fortunately I got a great driver who was able to take me to the Chiang Mai Airport for this trip. He was helpful and ultimately charged me a fair price for the ride. It goes to show that there are honest people everywhere. 



(2) The connections between people are precious and sacred

At the beginning of the British Rom-Com 'Love Actually' there's a nice montage of people meeting loved ones at Heathrow airport. Hugh Grant provides a touching narration which goes:  


"Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport...It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it's not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it's always there - fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends... If you look for it, I've got a sneaky feeling you'll find that love actually is all around.” 


I had a similar sort of feeling after seeing a couple parting ways at the security checkpoint guarding International Departures. I haven't had the best record with relationships so I can be a bit of cynic when it comes to romance. Still, watching these two prolong their embraces and kisses  before leaving each other made me appreciate just how beautiful the relationships between people can be.


 (3) Loud elderly people are more obnoxious then crying babies

I've been on a lot of planes in my life. In my years of sitting in tight rows of seats for hours on end, I've been lucky to avoid sitting next to disruptive people. That wasn't the case when I boarded the flight from Thailand to Seoul. Three elderly Korean women sat behind me and for the first hour of the flight their loud banter made certain that my headphones were firmly lodged in my ears. They quieted down after the stewardesses talked to them...three times. For the rest of the flight the low hum of the planes engines was broken only a few times, mostly by crying babies. This didn't bother me nearly as much though. After all, an infant has no other way of letting the world know it needs something. They also can't be taught social graces. 



(4) An actor can make you smile instantly when they appear on screen

Long airplane rides are an excellent chance to catch up on the latest films you were too lazy or cheap to see in a theater. One of the films I saw on the Thailand-Seoul leg of my journey was 'Saving Mr Banks.' It featured some of my favorite actors. Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti were wonderful in their roles as usual and as they appeared on screen I realized their mere presence was making me smile.



 (5) Airplane navigational technology is amazing

 As we landed in Seoul the weather was so foggy that I couldn't see the wings out of the cabin windows. When we touched down, it was completely unexpected because I couldn't see that we were approaching the ground. I imagine the pilots weren't able to distinguish anything beneath us anymore than I could. Nevertheless, we landed without a hitch. It's an amazing testament to human technology and skill.




(6) Rice soup is truly the best food for a long flight

On the Seoul-Chicago stretch of the trip my dinner choices were between Chicken Beef and Korean. Since I was flying Korean Air I decided it was only fitting to the pick the last option. I was glad I did. The rice soup they served me was everything airplane-food should be. It was simple, unadorned and filling. I feel I would gain more satisfaction out of the meals served by airlines if they served base meals like that instead of trying to dress up half-thawed microwave dishes as something special. 

 (7) Stephen King's 'On Writing' is amazing

I managed to finish the book between awkward minutes of sleep in my chair. It was one of the most helpful works I've read when it comes to writing. I was pleasantly surprised that I had reached so many of the same conclusions King had on pacing, grammar and character development. I also know I have a lot to improve on. 



(8) Caramelldansen is a decent song to have stuck in your head 

I listened to the song by the Swedish pop group before leaving my apartment in Chiang Mai for the airport. It popped into my head off and on throughout my journey. It's not the best song I could have had stuck but it lightened my mood when I needed it. 



(9) On Korean Air you actually wait for the fasten-seatbelt sign

Often when a plane I've traveling on touches down, passengers immediately get up and start getting their bags out, regardless of whether or not the fasten-seatbelt sign is on or off. Passengers in the Middle East and Thailand tend to that I think. Not so with the passengers on Korean Air. In my view, there's no point in getting up early. It's not like you'll be going anywhere immediately as it usually takes a few minutes for the plane to get to its gate.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Story Corner: The Gate

A story from my 'Memoirs of a Dreamer' collection.


Once, on an auspicious night, I was in the desert alone. I had to reach a destination as quickly as I could. Yet, I had no clue where I was going or why. I scaled dunes as deep as ocean waves and as cold as melting glaciers. The moon, a thin and wily smile on an enchanting ebony face egged me on. Her grin was bright enough to bleach the sand white. 


Transfixed by her, I broke my concentration when I came to a strange and special dune. I had, in all my travels, never beheld sand shaped in such a way. A tall, cone dune was what I saw, ringed by an ensnaring road that seemed to be cut out of its side. At its peak, I two closed mahogany doors, with each hinged on a square column, standing alone like vigilant sentries.

As I recall, I reached the peak in the span of an hour. I could see the moon over the doorway, staring down with her smirk. Gingerly, I approached the doors and pushed them aside. I expected to find the moon and the distant cliff faces I had spotted at the ziggurat’s base. Instead, it was as if I had stepped backwards in time, to the moments before I had reached the gate. The moon was once again opposite me, as were the cliffs. I attempted several more times to pass, but with each try I found myself in the exact same place unable to go anywhere, accept the top of the dune. 


Finally, after some rigorous cursing, I fell on my back. The stars blinked back at my helpless stare for several hours. I rose at the sound of a sputtering tailpipe coming from far below.

Across the dunes, the lone figure of a traveler appeared. He navigated by the moonlight, set atop the seat of an old motorcycle. Dressed in white, he shined in the darkness like a silver minnow traveling across the sea. Eventually, he reached the bottom of the dune. Turn by turn, he made his way to the top. His Bedouin tunic and pantaloons were complemented by a gold and white keffiyeh pulled down over his face and tucked into his collar. Part of his cloth mask was wrapped around the top of his skull like a laurel and tied off behind his skull. The remaining fabric blew loosely in the wind like locks of long hair as he switched off his engine. Somehow, he suddenly seemed less of himself. I didn’t know why that was the case.

He sat back on his mechanical steed and raised his face upward. I could sense the power in his stare, even though his eyes remained hidden from my sight. 


“You can’t get through the gate, can you?” He said, after he had absorbed the scene.

“No,” I said, feeling slightly ashamed, though not greatly.

“It takes time to find the secret.”

“Is there any chance you could tell me?” I wondered.

He extended his, gloved, index finger at me. The rider was so intimidating, even the smallest part of his body seemed solid and unwavering.

“Where are you going?”

The question was benign, so was his tone. Nevertheless, the pointing hand made me feel suddenly vulnerable. 


“I’m following the moon.” I answered. 


“You follow it for its own sake?” 


“I follow it because its light gives me direction; I can’t follow the sun without going blind.”


The rider’s head fell back slightly and he folded his arms; I had a feeling he was smirking.

“Understood, but following another’s light won’t get you through the gate.”

“I can’t follow the moon?”


“You can but the purpose of your journey will never be clear to you. You will only be chasing a destination you can never reach. You may have direction and momentum but no destination.”

I thought about what he had told me.

“Should I know my destination? Rather…what I mean is, do I need to know my destination? They say the journey is what really matters, not the end of it.”

“They do and they are like you, following the moon, or stars or satellites because it’s the only light that seems available. The truth is, they don’t know where they want to go so they follow the path that’s most clearly lit but it isn’t meant for all. Only a few, like me, have the journey as our destination.”

“Like you?” 


“We are born in and die in momentum. Whenever we stop moving, we are, temporarily, away from our home. Most who claim to live for the journey, do so because they forget that they have a home, a place they need to be. That place lies beyond this gate. All come to it eventually, not all pass through and not all realize they have chosen the wrong road to walk.”

I knew I was included in that class of wayward vagabonds. I felt mildly ashamed.

“How can I pass?” I asked him.

“Like any other door worth entering, you need a key.” He replied, moving his hand up to the motorcycle’s handlebars. “The materials are different for each of us, but the make is the same in the end. Once the key is in our possession there’s nothing to stop us from reaching the end.”

“Where can I find mine?”

The rider nodded to the south and for the very first time I saw a ruined city of roofless walls and sand-swamped boulevards. The craggily mud-brick structures seemed as naked and forsaken as an abandoned skeleton.

With nothing more to reveal, the rider bid me farewell and switched on his engine. Home again, he passed gracefully through the gate and vanished. Left alone, I loitered on the hill before swallowing any remaining doubts about this new twist in my long and meandering quest.

I descended, traversing the sands to reach the outskirts of the city. 


I could still see the dune and the gate as I trudged through the sand that had overwhelmed the city’s avenues like a plague. Mud brick windows and doorways hovered hungrily over me like ravenous mouths waiting to be fed. As I found my way through alleyways and what had once been people’s homes and businesses, I decided to feed the blackness with my imagination.

I pictured carpeted and stone floors over the sand, wooden shutters where the doors had been. Old women were soon gossiping in the corners of walls. Children swatted at each other with nimble hands and delighted smiles while lovers kissed and groped in the narrow gaps between buildings away from judgmental or envious gazes. As I traced the path of a donkey cart bumping across coarse cobblestones, my eyes rested on a slender form nestled in a wide chair beside a dry, marble fountain carved from gold and white stones. Only then, did I realize I had come to the center of the abandoned metropolis. I crossed a wide avenue encircling the fountain and approached the figure. 


Like the rider, his head and face were wrapped in a gold and white keffiyeh. Silver streams of white hair poured from beneath the cloth laurel wrapped around his scalp dripping across the jalibaya that covered his spindly body. He put his weight on an ivory cane in his right hand and stood. With his left hand, he clutched a withering book and pressed it to his heart. He pressed the aged text so close to his chest that I wondered if he was trying to slide the book under his ribcage.

“What are you doing here?” I asked him; queerly, suddenly, struck by how the fountain’s stones shined like silk.

The man, whose voice groaned and creaked under the strain of his words spoke.

“Because of my love of history.”

He seemed satisfied with his response; I wasn’t.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“A long time ago, I came to the gate atop that dune. I had to find a key to pass through so I searched the city until I found the amphitheater.”

He pointed over his shoulder and beyond the fountain, to a stone aqueduct partially buried in the sand.

“I searched there and eventually I found my key. Only then did I realize where I belonged.”

“Here?” I asked, wondering how anyone could make their home in an empty city.

“Yes,” He said, tapping his book. “This is the city I always dreamed of finding as a small boy scouring the stories of Alexander and Caesar in my Grandmother’s library.”

I paused and thought, mostly of my own childhood and grand stories I had yearned to be a part of.

“Sir, do you think I can find what I need, beyond this aqueduct?”

“Most definitely,” He answered.

I thanked the man and left him to his book and chair, passing under one of the aqueduct’s many arches. It took only a quick turn of my head to find the amphitheater lying before my feet. I made my way down the many rows of empty seats to the stage in the center. A blank slab of circular concrete, the stage was surrounded by a deep trench filled with treasures looted from the past, gold, silver shattered pottery and the greatest scientific discoveries of humanity. The faces of Roman gods mixed with the stoic eyes of Chinese philosophers, while Khmer heroes stood idly beside the abandoned crown of a Pharaoh.

Slowly, firmly I dug through the rubble and debris. I could find no end to the mass of greatness. Yet I through aside all the great wonders I came across, including the death mask of Tutankhamen’s, Darwin’s origin of the species, Karl Marx’s Das Capital and the various tomes of philosophy and science I had poured over in my youth. I also sorted through the visages of saints and holy men, politicians and revolutionaries, lovers, near lovers and dear friends. 


Finally, behind the portrait of an Ottoman Sultan I found my key. I recognized it immediately but by touch. It was the creased, checkered cover of my grade school notebook. I rested my haunches on the edge of the stage and poured through the pages. Finally, near the very back I found my key written in blue ink. It was the very first tale I had ever put to paper.