Ancestry DNA, and some family history

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

As of late I’ve been using Ancestry.com to put together a family tree - and wow, this sounds like I’m sponsoring the damn website - and to discover more about my relatives and forebears. Here’s what I know so far: My nationality is a mixture of Slovak, Austrian, Circassian, likely Italian, and possibly Hungarian.

It gets a little confusing, because countries in the area my family is from have changed hands several times. First you had the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, then you had Czechoslovakia, parts of which were annexed to Hungary, Poland, and Nazi Germany at various points, and then of course that country split into Slovakia and the Czech Republic in 1993. For example, my great grandfather, Nicholas Lazorchak, was born in 1891 in Starina, Hungary - but that land is now part of Slovakia. Confusing indeed!

I know that my grandparents come from a village in what is now Slovakia, called Bačkov, near Košice. I’ve done my research, and that place has existed since at least 1245 (!), a few years after the royal Braničevský hrad castle (Branicky castle) was built (it lay just northwest of the village). The castle was partially destroyed sometime around the year 1317, during a battle that took place there when Zemplín oligarchs revolted against Hungarian king Karol Roberta (I think I’ve got this right, but my Hungarian history is rather spotty). Sounds like something out of Game of Thrones. Only I could come from a place this epic. On a not so epic note, the castle was apparently fully destroyed during World War II, when the Nazis invaded Bačkov and virtually exterminated the Jewish population there - although there are survivors. I’m told that my own grandfather’s brother was made to carry dead bodies and do other work for the Nazis, under threat of death. Once again, Bačkov became the site of a large battle, part of the Eastern Front conflict between the Axis powers and the Soviets, called the Battle of Lúke near Žarnovčík. The German troops were defeated here and forced to retreat further west.

Bačkov has just over 600 inhabitants, but I probably have some distant relatives who are living there to this day. It would be really interesting to go there someday, not just to see the castle ruins, but also to check out the nature. There’s supposed to be good hiking right near the village, and I’m not surprised. Bačkov is adjacent to the Slanské Hills, a mountain range that is part of the Inner West Carpathians. There are natural mineral springs there, a mixture of forests and meadows, and natural resources including gold and silver (but I’m glad no one has decided to tamper with this land in order to mine for it).
Branicky castle
So after doing this research and linking together some distant relatives, I decided that it was worth ordering an Ancestry DNA kit, which I have just done tonight, so it should arrive in a few weeks. I’m really interested in knowing more about my ancestors, and who knows? I might be related to someone of historical importance. After all, I’ve read that the name of my family’s village was taken from Stephen Bocskai, the Prince of Transylvania (yes, really) during 1605, and whose nephew was named Sigismund Bathory (yes, Bathory - if I discover I’m related to someone with the name “Bathory,” my kvlt status will truly be complete!). Whether it was named specifically after Stephen Bocskai or not, the village definitely belonged to the Bocskai family at some point during the 17th century, according to Bačkov’s official website.

Michael Stroka
I also have reason to believe I’m related to Michal Murin, a new media artist in Bratislava, Slovakia who I think could be linked with Susana Murin, my great great grandmother. Oh, and I’ve always known that I’m related to a Hollywood actor - Michael Stroka, who played a character on the vampire soap opera Dark Shadows. Like me, he was born in Passaic, New Jersey and grew up in the nearby town of Garfield, though he later moved to Los Angeles when he started his acting career, marrying an actress named Karen Jensen. He’s a distant cousin of mine.

I won’t know much more about my ancestry until I get the kit, send my DNA sample in, and then wait about a month until I get the results back. At which point I’ll probably make another blog post with whatever information I’ve discovered. It’s pretty interesting, though, and I’m rather proud of my Central/Eastern European heritage and the history around it. More info coming soon.

Jersey vs. Chicago: My impressions (Pt. 2)

Saturday, December 9, 2017

This is the conclusion to my previous blog post, where I compared aspects of Chicago, where I currently live, with those of my home state, New Jersey. It’s just an interesting little personal analysis that I decided to do, after having spent many years in both places. Last time, I awarded one place (CHI or N.J.) a point if I found it superior in some area to the other. I ended yesterday’s post with five points in Chicago’s favor, and six in Jersey’s. Let’s see which of the two I really like best, overall. Bear in mind that what follows is just my opinion.

NOTE: See Part 1 HERE.

Education

Books
I shouldn’t have to reiterate my appreciation for books, and when it comes to places to buy them, Chicago has these types of stores in spades. Not only do more people generally seem to enjoy reading in the Windy City, but the ease of access to book stores means that this is probably not going to change anytime soon, even as America as a whole continues to experience a decline in readership and the death of print magazines and newspapers. In my neighborhood, Hyde Park, there are at least four book stores that I know of - all independent (not that there are many book store chains left in the U.S.). Meanwhile, it isn’t hard to get to a Barnes and Noble if you’re looking for a larger storefront - there’s a huge one right downtown.


As for Jersey? The absolute dearth of available book stores is reflective of a population that has an aversion to reading. It’s rather scary, actually. People in my home state tend to actually laugh or look at you strange when you ask if they read books, and men in particular see it either as something “feminine” or “boring.” It’s sad to see, and it goes hand in hand with the steady collapse of intellect I’ve been seeing in Jersey over the past 10 years or so. If you’re looking for some books, other than libraries you’ll have to travel to some larger towns, like Clifton or Wayne, or NYC itself, which, compared to Chicago, also has less book stores.
CHICAGO: 6
JERSEY: 6

Conversations
It looks like I’ll have to be a little bit hard on Jersey this time around. You see, I’ve noticed that people back home (apart from my friends, who are actually quite smart!) often struggle to maintain a conversation about anything other than very small-minded topics. Petty gossip and stupid humor seem to be the prevailing subjects when you talk with the average Jersey resident, at least in the areas I’ve been through - and I’ve been around a lot of the state.

Meanwhile, typical conversations in Chicago might range from science to world issues to pop culture. Once you know someone in this city, it’s relatively easy to discuss larger or more complex matters, but the downside is that in my experience, Chicagoans seem much colder and more standoffish - they’re not very approachable, whereas by contrast, Jerseyans are admittedly quite down to earth and eager to “shoot the shit.” So I suppose there’s always a trade-off. Still, in recent years, when talking to random folks in N.J., I’ve actually had to try to dumb down my sentences and not use as many “big words,” because people just don’t understand what I’m saying, so I guess I really have to award the point here to Chicago.
CHICAGO: 7
JERSEY: 6

Xenophobia
I usually don’t like jargonistic terms that end in “-phobia.” I prefer that people just say it straight, like “hey, this guy’s prejudiced,” or “that guy’s very disrespectful toward women,” rather than slap folks with all these buzzwords. Still, when it comes to a lot of Jersey residents, the term “xenophobia” is definitely applicable. Many people in my state don’t just come off as ignorant of matters outside their own towns, state, or country; the fear they seem to have of things they’re unfamiliar with is actually palpable. Do you not eat Italian food? Expect people to get their faces twisted and ask you if you’re crazy. And if you mention some other ethnic food you’re having, they might go so far as to insult the nationality of whoever made the food. I’ve heard a lot of crude and disrespectful comments made about Indian people and Middle Eastern people, along with their foods. It’s sad, and also obnoxious.

What’s even scarier is that some of these people back home actually seem to want to be ignorant. They’re proud of it. Are you traveling to another state or city? For example, Seattle or something? Expect to hear “Seattle?! What the fuck is in Seattle? Why would you go there?” People even bash each other’s towns, let alone other states. If you told someone you wanted to visit other countries, a lot of these people would probably have a fucking seizure. There’s just so much fear of anything outside their little cultural bubble, if you can even use the word “cultural.” Don’t get me wrong, I personally know a lot of intelligent people in my state who are not like this, but yes, xenophobia does seem to prevail.

Chicago has its own forms of this phobia, but to a lesser extent. I’ve seen people who have traveled here from Germany, Sweden, and France. I’ve struck up conversations with British folks coming here via Amtrak. People are generally excited to try different foods and meet people from different parts of the U.S., and the world. Despite the myriad problems this city has, which include violence and yes, Chicago’s own form of insular ignorance, on the whole it seems that intellectualism and cultured attitudes triumph over closed-mindedness.
CHICAGO: 8
JERSEY: 6

Crime & safety

Shootings/guns
Look, I’m going to get shit for this from a lot of people, but I don’t care. I support responsible gun ownership. I don’t support the crazed Second Amendment lunatics who need to talk about guns 24/7, but I also don’t support the idea of banning concealed carry or gun ownership in the home. I support hunting and shooting ranges, and I also support background checks and firearm registration. Now, Chicago is obviously one of the shooting capitals of the country, but there is an immutable hatred around here for guns themselves, when things like jobs, gang violence, drugs, and mental illness are closer to the core of the problem than the actual weapons. The irony that the city that has one of the strictest, most limiting gun laws, also has some of the worst gun violence, is not lost on me, proving that something in the system itself is broken or dysfunctional.

And it goes way beyond just guns. You can’t even carry a taser, brass knuckles, or a pocket knife in Chicago! How the hell are people supposed to defend themselves? As far as I’m concerned that’s a civil liberties issue, but I’m not going to get too much into it here. Let me just say that, despite also having pretty tough gun laws, the culture in my home state is generally much more pro-gun, and hunting, especially, is common in the Northwestern part of the state. And with the exception of dangerous areas like Newark, Camden, Paterson, West Orange, etc., there isn’t nearly as much gun violence as in Chicago. Most people I know have actually never heard a single shooting in their entire lives. The worst thing that ever happens in a typical N.J. town is a robbery or car theft. Meanwhile, more people tend to own guns in the rural parts of Jersey, and in these parts, gun violence is completely unheard of. Jersey, in both law and cultural attitude, wins here as far as I’m concerned.
CHICAGO: 8
JERSEY: 7

Night hours
I sometimes hesitate going out too late at night in Chicago. It’s fine if you’re taking public transit or Uber and getting from one place to another. And if you’re on the North Side or even Downtown, you don’t usually need to worry. But in some of the other neighborhoods, where shootings are common, you could take a big risk if you decide to go out for a stroll at 2 or 3 in the morning. Not that many people do it. Unlike Jersey, getting a bunch of people together and just hanging out in the park or on a street corner isn’t part of the culture here, unless of course you’re involved in something illegal, like drugs or gang activity.

Jersey has this culture that I’m really fond of, where you can just step outside late at night in your pajamas and head to the 24-hour diner for a late-night snack, or sit on the hill of a park with a friend or partner and just talk and enjoy the cool air on your face, beneath a dark sky. It’s just not as easy to do that in Chicago, and it’s just as hard to find people who want to do that with you. If people aren’t headed somewhere specific (clubs, bars, etc.), they seem to just want to get home, and I can’t say I blame them. I wish things in this city were quieter and safer, but then, it is a city. Still, I feel less anxious when I’m out at night in an NYC neighborhood, compared to one in Chicago.
CHICAGO: 8
JERSEY: 8

Nature & weather

Hiking, nature
It’s a lot easier to get to places to go hiking in Chicago, and that might seem a bit ironic, since Jersey has more woods, parks, hills, and mountains. Even in the city-adjacent suburbs back home, like Garfield or Elmwood Park, you can still take a train ride to someplace in the sticks. But it’s a bit easier to do that in this city, for some reason. I can easily get out to a forest preserve to do some hiking in Illinois, even if the trip there can be rather time-consuming. Still, if I take an Uber instead of public transit, I can trim an hour out of the trip there. Overall, I just struggle a lot less when I want to go hiking in Chicago vs. when I feel that need in Jersey.
CHICAGO: 9
JERSEY: 8

Biodiversity, scenery
Jersey comes out on top when you compare its wildlife variety and scenery with that of Chicago (or that of Illinois overall). This might be colored by my own preferences, though, since I prefer the beautiful mountain ranges of N.J. to the dull, flat landscape in the Midwest. There are times when I truly miss the rolling green hills back home, as well as the animals. There are no bears in Illinois, and I miss seeing birds of prey, like eagles and falcons, which I could easily see on a scenic bus ride from rural Jersey to upstate New York. 

And the fall colors? In Jersey they’re so much more vibrant than in Chicago. In this city, you’re lucky to see yellow and orange before the leaves drop off. In Jersey, expect to see those, but even brighter, along with blood-reds and purples. Suffice it to say that when you’re driving through towns like Upper Greenwood Lake, you feel like you’re living inside a postcard. Illinois definitely has its own natural scenery that I can appreciate, but it just doesn’t hold a candle to that of the Northeast.
CHICAGO: 9
JERSEY: 9

Weather
So, as I’ve said previously, sometimes things are a trade-off, in terms of one area vs. another. In the case of Chicago, you get very, very cold winters, with lots of ice (including black ice) and brutal wind. In fact, there’s a particularly sharp, cold wind that people around here refer to as “the Hawk,” which makes it feel like your skin is being repeatedly sliced off and peeled away. Some icy hail will often hit you in the face too, to complete that lovely feeling. Now, Jersey gets much more snow, but it doesn’t get nearly as cold there, and wind in the winter, unless you’re having a big snowstorm, is not a big issue. So I’ll take snow over wind and ice, any day.

Beyond that, Jersey does admittedly get hurricanes, but with the exception of Sandy, there hasn’t really been a bad one since Floyd in ’95. Flooding can be an issue, but it’s never been something that has ever put my life in danger or caused any problem for me. Illinois occasionally gets tornadoes (even Chicago), but again, it’s only ever been an inconvenience to me at best, so CHI and N.J. are kind of tied on this matter. Still, because of the harsh and unforgiving Chicago winters, I have to hand the winning point to my home state.
CHICAGO: 9
JERSEY: 10

Aaaaaand Jersey wins! But just by one point, surprisingly! I honestly wasn’t paying attention to the amount of points each place was getting as I was writing and comparing. It says something that, despite how I complained about Chicago in years past, there really are things about it that I rather like, just as with New Jersey. Overall? I will always prefer my state, because it’s where I was born and raised, and I feel a natural comfort and ease when I’m there. Plus, some of my best and closest friends are from there. Still, I can’t fully hate on Chicago, can I? I’ve learned, as I’ve grown older, to just appreciate the positive things about a place, and understand that everywhere you go, there’s good and bad. You just need to focus on the good.

Jersey v. Chicago: My impressions (Pt. 1)

Friday, December 8, 2017

I was born and grew up in New Jersey, and spent about 18 years of my life in total living there. They say that New Yorkers are very full of themselves, and don’t really pay attention to any other places or cultures, and in Jersey it was much the same. Not all of us are intentionally closed-minded or xenophobic (though many are), and I no longer am, after 7+ years of becoming cultured and traveling to different areas.

But when I was growing up, I didn’t realize that we in N.J. spoke with accents - I thought everyone in the U.S. talked that way! And I didn’t realize there were people who held their pizza differently, or didn’t know what pierogis were, or had highways without jug handles, or who didn’t have the option to just hop on a bus and be in NYC in under 30 minutes. Well, I figured all that out soon enough, especially after moving to Chicago. Well, I also noticed that the Windy City has its own insular-isms - they, like New Yorkers and Jerseyans, are very much wrapped up in their own way of doing things.

Well, after spending a good number of years in both my home state and Chicago, I’ve decided to compare things that stood out to me about each place, and for each thing, pick which place I like better. Here goes.

Food & culture

Pizza
...the hell?!
Okay, let me first say that I recognize that deep dish pizza is the “Chicago pizza.” It’s not really my thing. I mean, I’ve had it and it’s not bad, but what I’m going to discuss is Chicago’s version of “New York style pizza.” Now, this is bizarre: They cut a round pie into squares. The first time I saw it, I thought I was imagining things. It makes zero sense! I could understand if you had a Sicilian pie, which is supposed to be square, but taking something round and cutting squares out of it seems to me to indicate that the person responsible is a little geometrically challenged! It’s like the kid trying to put the square peg into the round hole. It just doesn’t work!


And, you know, I would add that with these little square pie slices, you can’t fold it and hold it properly, but no one does that here anyway. Even if the slice is cut the right way, they hold it with two hands and kind of just feed it into their mouth. I’m not knocking it, but I definitely prefer how it’s done back home. Moreover, the pizza just doesn’t taste good. There’s too much cheese (which I understand is a good thing for a lot of people) but not enough sauce or oil, and instead of having that thick flour on the bottom of the crust that I love, a lot of places will use this kind of corn flour instead. Nope! Not for me.
CHICAGO: 0
JERSEY: 1

Diners
Jersey is famous for its 24-hour diners, and it’s an inextricable part of our culture. You start drinking late at night (or for some people, smoke weed), get the munchies, and head over to the local diner around 2 a.m. to have a greasy plate of food. Well, Jersey and New York are two of the only states that really have this. Lots of other states have diners, but it’s not the same. They’re not open 24 hours and they don’t have the same foods that, as a kid, I assumed all diners had. In Jersey, every town will have at least one or two diners, but in Chicago, diners are very few and far between. And there’s no chance of finding the foods I’m used to at them, like taylor ham, triple deckers, disco fries, or - for dessert - fried oreos. I’ve tried diners in nearby Indiana, too. Same problem.
CHICAGO: 0
JERSEY: 2
A friend of mine took me here. Great food.

Food choices
In this area, Chicago definitely has Jersey beaten. People here are much more cultured and there is much greater diversity of food. In my neighborhood alone, the ethnic/cultural food choices include Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Jewish, Italian, Mexican, Jamaican, American, BBQ, Cajun, and French, and in other neighborhoods, you also have Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Czech, Romanian, Kyrgyzstani, Pakistani, Cuban, and Puerto Rican places, among so many others that I’m probably omitting.

Now, I recognize that NYC has just as many choices or more, but Jersey? Not so much. An average town there will have mostly American, Italian, Spanish, or Polish food, and the occasional Chinese place, which is fine, but you’d be hard pressed to find good Indian or Mediterranean food in many of these areas.
CHICAGO: 1
JERSEY: 2

Pacing
I don’t know if any other East Coast transplants have noticed this as much as I have, but man, Chicagoans are slow as hell! I’m not talking about disabled people, those with health problems, or the elderly. I’m talking about average people in their 20s and 30s. Millennials, fit-looking grown men and women, and even people who are supposedly rushing to and from work on the streets. You’d think people would move a bit faster, but nope. It can get very frustrating. And here’s the thing: I don’t consider myself a New Yorker. My life is not ruled by anxiety and a rush to get somewhere. I’m honestly not in any hurry, I was just raised to walk at a fast pace and I enjoy doing so. It’s normal and healthy to me, and even after 7 years in Chicago, there will be times when I accidentally collide into someone in front of me, because I just haven’t learned how to slow down my pace in order to “adjust” and assimilate into the Windy City way of doing it. Sorry, Chicagoans, I’m that guy.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that when you walk around someone, to get around them if they’re walking slowly, people here get really offended by that. I don’t know why. I mean, I usually do take care not to bump into or jostle anyone, I’m merely making a beeline around them to get to where I’m going. People often angrily say “excuse me!” behind me, though, or they’re like “pssh! Really?!” as if I did some horrible thing. Guys, chill out! No one is telling you to speed it up a bit, but don’t be so wounded if someone likes to walk at a different pace than you.
CHICAGO: 1
JERSEY: 3

Convenience & transportation


Transactions
Okay, I love this about Chicago: You can pay almost anywhere with your card. Or, for that matter, your phone, if you’ve got Google Wallet. I don’t understand why Jersey - and even much of New York - has not evolved to keep up with what they’re doing here in the Second City yet. Go to any town in Jersey, and you’ll have to pay in cash at a lot of stores. Same deal in NYC neighborhoods. Granted, there are small mom and pop stores in Chicago that will occasionally require you to spend $5 or more in order to pay with your card, but I get that they’re just trying to make a living. But when larger stores (I’m not talking about department stores like K-Mart) won’t take your card, that can get aggravating. But I haven’t encountered that problem in Chitown, so I can insert my card or tap my phone and it saves me the trouble of dealing with bills and coins.
CHICAGO: 2
JERSEY: 3

Taxes
Don't tell me what the fuck to do!
What the SHIT, Chicago!? (I’m betting Chicagoans who read this will also chime in and agree!) Your taxes are fucked! (Harsh language totally called for!) You’ve got a sugar tax and a cigarette tax, and when you’re already charging somewhere close to 19 bucks for a pack of smokes, that’s adding insult to injury. By contrast, you can often get a pack in Jersey for under 8 bucks. And a bottle of soda? Jesus fuck, it’s like $2-something for a two-liter, not including your “sweetened beverage tax”! In Jersey, you can go to a dollar store and get a three-liter bottle for one dollar! Chicago also taxes you for buying vape pens, even though there’s no tobacco involved. It’s ridiculous, but it’s only a symptom of a larger problem: the state of Illinois is very fond of legislating morality. Whatever people here self-righteously deem “unhealthy for you,” can be taxed so that your life is made much harder if you want to buy those “unhealthy things.” It’s an attack on your civil liberties and overall, it’s an attack on hard-working people who just want to buy a damn bottle of Coke.
CHICAGO: 2
JERSEY: 4

Internet
I’ll make this one short and sweet: Internet access is so much better in Chicago. Here you’ve got Xfinity, which always provides very decent service (unless you’re in a neglected neighborhood, but that’s part of a separate systemic problem). I’ve got 100 mbps here. I can play 1080p and 4k videos on YouTube without any problems, and streaming isn’t an issue, either. In Jersey, it’s a very different story. They have shitty unreliable services like Optimum and RCN, and they just don’t cut it. Get with the times, Garden State!
CHICAGO: 3
JERSEY: 4

Uber
Uber in Chicago sucks! I have no idea why, and I will admit that service is better on the North Side, but if you’re in neighborhoods like Hyde Park or Bridgeport, forget it. I know there are problems with ridesharing, but I got used to it while staying in Jersey this past year. In towns like Garfield or Hoboken, I’ve never had to wait more than 2 minutes for an Uber. In Chicago? I’ve sometimes waited up to 14 minutes, and the drivers don’t always know where you’re located. It’s weird.
CHICAGO: 3
JERSEY: 5

Public transit

On this point, Chicago and Jersey are actually tied, and I’ll explain why, but the apparent cultural difference between mass transit here and back home is worth commenting on. You see, in Jersey, the cities have great and efficient public transit, but the suburbs have shitty service. For example, Hoboken, Garfield, and Jersey City, you can get buses and trains right away to wherever. In West Milford or Pompton Lakes, forget it. You really need a car out there. But in Chicago proper, it’s the opposite. The city itself has some of the slowest and most dysfunctional public transit I’ve ever seen (the routes a lot of the buses take, for example, are so out of the way compared to going by car), and it’s also fucking expensive. Now, the suburbs are mainly served by Metra trains and Pace buses, and both of these seem to provide comfortable and excellent (though still pricy) service. So while CHI and N.J. both have efficient transit, it depends largely on what area you’re in.
CHICAGO: 4
JERSEY: 6

International travel
Chicago wins here. With two airports that are very easy to get to (trains connect directly to either of them), you can fly from Chicago to another country - or another U.S. state - without much hassle. Now, if you’re in the right spot in Jersey, you can quickly and easily get to Newark Airport, but if you’re in any other part of the state, you’re screwed. You’ll have to commute to that airport, or commute all the way to NYC to get to one of the airports there. Note that if you’re in South Jersey, or the Northwestern part of the state, this is not always an easy task.
CHICAGO: 5
JERSEY: 6

So far Chicago seems to be just one point behind Jersey. As much as I’ve knocked the Windy City in the past, it does have a lot going for it. So does Jersey, of course, and the state will always be my home, but it doesn’t hurt to point out its flaws, as every place has them!


I’ll write Part 2 of this in my next blog post, where I’ll compare Education, Crime, Nature, and Weather. That’s all for now!

A new traveler’s guide to traveling

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Think of this as a sort of follow-up to my previous post. Now, I don’t claim to be any sort of seasoned traveler, though I do consider myself somewhat experienced in this matter. I’m definitely not an international traveler; I’ve only been outside of the U.S. on one occasion (so far), but I have visited places all over America. I’ve been in the following states: New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, California, and Washington. And I’ve been to Paris, France (as well as some nearby suburbs) and - very briefly - Dublin, Ireland.


The following is a little travel guide I’ve put together based solely on my own knowledge, wisdom, and experiences. It is in no way any kind of definitive thing to rely upon, but rather, something to read and consider if you plan to travel abroad - and you should! Also note that this guide is based exclusively on travel to Europe. This, at the moment, is the place I want to go to the most, and as such, it’s the place I’ve researched and read up on (as well as been to), so I can only give advice concerning European countries. If you want to visit someplace in Latin America, Asia, or elsewhere (and more power to you if you do!), I would not recommend the tips that follow, as they are not particularly relevant to those parts of the world - though there might still be helpful info here that you can use, I honestly don’t know.

For those who read and appreciate this, I hope it helps! Without further ado, here are some important things to bear in mind when traveling to our friends across the pond.

PART I - Preparations:

Pack light
It’s something of a humorous stereotype that American travelers always pack everything but the kitchen sink. It has a grain of truth to it. Throughout America alone, you’ll often see folks dragging enormous pieces of luggage and overstuffed backpacks. By contrast, most Europeans pack one backpack with a couple sets of clothes and the essentials, and that’s enough. It should be enough for you, too. After all, roughing it a little is a part of the travel experience! A friend once gave me good advice, which I will now pass on to you: after you’ve packed, reopen your backpack and review its contents. Take half of it out and leave it behind. Then open up your wallet, and double what’s in there!

Buy or bring plug adapters
Most travel advice websites I see don’t actually seem to cover this part, but it’s important, especially when you’re traveling abroad and need to plug in your laptop or charge your phone. Depending on what country you’re in, there are different types of outlets than the ones you’re used to in America. France has one with two round prongs, and accordingly, you’ll need to buy an adapter (pictured) to attach to the plugs of whatever electronic device you want to use. Don’t worry if your plug has three prongs, you can usually just clip the adapter onto the two main prongs and it should work fine. And make sure you bring the specific adapters that you need. The U.K., for example, has outlets with three square-shaped holes. Try buying a universal adapter. You can get them on Amazon, and some airlines (like Aer Lingus) carry them as well, so they can be purchased on board your flight.

Don’t use a currency exchange before you go
You might hear older folks who have traveled tell you, “Make sure you go to a currency exchange and trade your dollars in for the right currency, before you leave the country!” In other words, if you’re going to Paris you’ll want to change U.S. dollars into Euros, if you’re going to Iceland you’ll want Icelandic krona, etc. Look, that advice might have been good decades ago, but it no longer applies.

Now, in many European countries, cash is king, so you likely will need that physical currency. However, just wait until you get there, and then hit up the nearest ATM. Don’t take out a ton of cash before you leave the states, because you don’t want to visit a currency exchange, even one in the country you’re visiting, and end up paying an exorbitant rate. Just use your debit/credit card and take out what you need from the ATM - you’ll get it in the local currency of whatever country you’re in. There might be a bank or ATM fee - but nowhere near what you would pay for a rip-off currency exchange in America.
Toilet accompanied by a bidet (left).
Pack toilet paper
Bathrooms in Europe are a mixed bag; you never know what you’re going to get! In Dublin and Paris, I only encountered regular restrooms like the ones we have, but outside tourist areas, for example, French toilets might be accompanied by bidets instead of toilet paper. If you’re not comfortable with that, keep some TP in your pocket in case nature calls while you’re at a bar, restaurant, or cafe. And in Central and Eastern Europe, public restrooms often ration out toilet paper - and not in generous amounts - so that’s even more reason to BYOTP - Bring Your Own Toilet Paper!

PART II - Culture:

Learn some of the language
This isn’t mandatory in all countries. In Iceland and Germany, almost everyone under 30 speaks English, but in France, for example, not everyone does, and people generally appreciate it when you learn a few phrases of their language. It shows respect for their culture and a willingness to socialize a little bit on their terms. And in Poland or the Czech Republic, people have told me that some folks might not understand English words, so do yourself a favor and learn a few basic sentences of the language of whatever country you’re going to.

Don’t get offended
There are plenty of things you should pack, but please, leave your hypersensitivity at home! People in other countries have different values, and it’s rudely presumptuous to expect theirs to automatically be in line with your own. You’ll quickly learn that the “American way” is not necessarily the right way.
You may find restaurants serving the meat of exotic animals. You may find that religion isn’t very important or commonplace here. You may see sex shops and brothels. People may sit directly beside you on a train, or approach you and touch you as they introduce themselves. People may tell you there is no “vegan option.” And, as I have previously said on this site, many Europeans smoke. Take this all in stride and don’t get bothered by anything. Again, what’s different is not bad or wrong, it’s just that - different!

When in Rome . . .
. . . do as the Romans do. This is kind of an add-on to the above, but it’s also good advice. Don’t be a loud, obnoxious tourist. Part of embracing and respecting a culture is adapting to it. If everyone is quiet and polite on a train, don’t talk loudly or scream on your cellphone. If someone in a store says, “Bonsoir!”, don’t ignore them - engage with them! Don’t turn your nose up at a new or exotic food; try it, and you might enjoy it! Don’t complain about the values or customs of a country and say, “Well, in America, we do things this way . . . ” If you want to keep doing things the same way, go back home! But don’t be a complainer. I think you’ll find that assimilating into a place you’re visiting, and really getting to know the people and their way of life, will be the most rewarding approach you can take. So don’t make yourself stick out like a sore thumb, try something new!

PART III - Safe and smart:

Watch your things
In places like France, Italy, Germany, Slovakia, Iceland, Norway, etc., the level of crime is nowhere near that of the U.S. In terms of safety, these places are like completely different worlds. There just isn’t violence and danger there the way there is in America. That alone might shock you. And yet, all countries have their particular problems. For example, pickpocketing is much more common in places like Paris and Rome, and people are very good at it. The last thing you want to do is lose your passport or your wallet. So keep both in your front pocket(s) when in large crowds or on public transit, or else keep your hand close to your back pocket, checking periodically to make sure your stuff is there!
Avoid tourist traps
If you’re staying a few weeks in Paris, don’t buy your groceries three blocks from the Eiffel Tower. Go a little out of the way and explore the smaller neighborhoods. Not only will it give you more of a taste of the local culture, and challenge you to speak more of the language, it will also get you away from tourist traps! Just like with U.S. cities, European ones are designed to separate visitors from their money. So don’t be afraid to stray a little off the beaten path. If you lived in New York, you wouldn’t spend a lot of time in the middle of Times Square. So don’t let yourself get stuck in a tourist zone. Check out the small neighborhoods and the mom-and-pop stores. After all, you want to make sure you get the real deal; an authentic experience!

Stay smart
Remember that you’re not in America. You might not have some rights that you have here in the U.S. (and in some cases, you might have rights you don’t have back home!). So be careful what you do and say. Avoid heated arguments or political discussions if you think it might be a sensitive topic, or escalate into some sort of violent situation. 

You really don’t have much to worry about, because people across Europe tend to be so much nicer, more intelligent, and understanding than Americans, but even so, adhering to basic safety instincts never hurts. And don’t expect things like public drinking, brothels, or smoking weed to be legal everywhere! Not every place is Amsterdam! It’s true, many parts of Europe allow you to walk around with your beer anywhere, or visit red light districts, but that is not the case everywhere, so please, properly research a place before you go there and do something that could be incredibly stupid - and illegal.

PART IV - Final tips:

- Get the emergency number for whatever country you’re visiting (like 911 in the U.S., it varies depending on where you are - in France, for example, it’s 112), just in case you ever have any trouble.

- Get the address of the local U.S. embassy of the country you’re visiting. If you lose your passport or something else bad happens, where you’re stranded and can’t get home, you need to go here.

- Brush up on military time. Many countries still use it. So, for example, 15:00 = 3:00 p.m.

- Be aware of countries fraught with danger. I’m sure Ukraine is beautiful, but there’s a lot of political unrest there.
- Budapest, Prague, Bratislava, Warsaw - don’t skip these cities! It doesn’t always have to be Paris or Rome!

- Going to another country just to eat at the McDonald’s is sad. Eat local and try local foods.

- Unless you’re in Germany, don’t expect trains to always be on time. DO expect random passport checks.

- Shops and places often close on Sundays and Mondays. Check times online before going to them.

- Some cities, like Berlin, are very vegan-friendly, but don’t expect it everywhere.

- If you stay a hostel or hotel and they ask you to give up your passport until the end of your stay, don’t be alarmed. This is common practice. You can ask the clerk if it’s possible to store your passport in an office safe if you’re really worried.

 - In places like France and Slavic countries, it’s customary for women to greet men and women with a kiss on each cheek (often just kind of an “air kiss”). This is not sexual, so do not take it as flirtation. It is just a greeting.

- Notify your bank before you leave for another country. Give them the dates you’ll be gone and, if possible, ask them to allow you to withdraw more money from an ATM per day, if you have a limit. These things will, a.) prevent the bank from flagging your card when it’s used in another country (a common security measure), and b.) never be stuck in a situation where you can’t get cash out when you need it. Also, I used to think this went without saying, but recent experiences have taught me otherwise: take ALL bank cards you plan to use! You must show them at a hostel or hotel where you’re staying.

I hope this has been a helpful blog post. It’s certainly been a long one. Thanks for reading!

Things American travelers complain about

Sunday, November 26, 2017

I’m planning on filming a video for my YouTube channel that will address the topic I’m about to write about. In the meantime, I felt the urge to vent a bit about some of the ignorant things my fellow Americans say, think, or do in regard to traveling internationally, or in regard to other countries and cultures in general.

To any and all of my online European friends who read this, you would not believe how culturally conservative and closed-minded people are here in the states. Forget traveling to other countries, mere cities and states within America are divided by cultural and political clashes. Nine times out of ten, someone from Chicago would make fun of someone from Texas, and people from New York City would think themselves somehow superior to those from the Midwest. I’ve met people from California who mock New York, people from New Jersey who make fun of the South, and people from Illinois who think that anything not related to Chicago is beneath their interest. And on and on it goes. It seems like every micro-culture in this country is largely represented by people who have chips on their shoulders, who are always determined to put down or dismiss anything that is even a little different from what they’re used to, or just a little outside their comfort zones.

I feel like I say this a lot, but this is largely an American problem. Someone from Norway would have a deep appreciation for the cultural differences of a place like France, while someone from Germany has nothing but respect and wonder for a beautiful city in the Czech Republic. Europeans love to travel, and they enjoy and revere other lifestyles and cultures, they don’t insult them. So think about how backward Americans are in terms of even accepting their own country’s various diverse cultures, and then imagine their reactions to witnessing or experiencing the multitude of European cultural differences that exist. I don’t have to imagine; I’ve seen and heard this firsthand.

Here is a short list - in no particular order - of some things Americans will most often complain about, make fun of, be shocked by, or simply not understand when they visit parts of Europe.

- Paying to use bathrooms
Look, most countries across the pond don’t have the same obsession with bathrooms that we have in America. They see our preference for having big, fancy, comfortable bathrooms as being a bit weird, and who can blame them? People here like to read magazines while they’re sitting on the toilet, women like to spend an hour or more getting all done up in front of the bathroom mirror, and middle- and upper-class people spend a lot of money on fancy showers with all kinds of jets and knobs and massage settings and whatnot.

In much of Europe, doing your business is something that you simply do and get over with. This is why many public restrooms in Italy and Russia are literally just holes in the floor. As for why you have to pay a (very) small fee to use public restrooms in places like France, Germany, and Czechia, it’s because it’s seen as a service. Somebody has to clean up after you and has to be paid for that work. Public transit costs money, and it costs money to eat at a public place. The Europeans don’t place any special value on a bathroom like we do, so they see no reason to let people be freeloaders with it. I heard several people complain about this while I was in Paris, but really, how big of a deal is it? Bear in mind that even if you have to pay the equivalent of 25 cents USD, you’re usually getting a restroom that is 50 times cleaner than any you might see in the U.S. Sometimes cultural differences can be disruptive at first, but try and see the positive side to it, too.

- Public nudity
Granted, nudity is mostly confined to nude beaches in Europe, but in general, our friends in places like Germany and the Netherlands usually have no compunctions about showing a bit of flesh. People in Europe aren’t ashamed of their bodies and they aren’t bothered if they see someone’s genitals. Kids often still bathe together in some of these countries. 

It’s just a different view of things, it’s true, but Americans have always been particularly prudish and easily offended. Yes, nude advertisements and sex stores are quite common. Red light districts exist in many cities of many countries. A woman might walk around topless in France. And while we’re at it, prostitution is also legal in many European cities; it’s not associated with crime, abuse, or disease the way it is in the states. It’s seen as a legitimate profession, not something to be ashamed of, and sex workers are required to get medical check-ups. In Germany alone, sex work brings in roughly 15 billion Euros per year.

I’ve heard about many Americans being horrified by any or all of this. Parents will cover up their kids’ eyes (note: we also have shitty, inadequate sex education in the public schools in America). Americans will look down on women (or men) who take pride in their bodies, or else make baseless assumptions about them. It’s really not fair and it’s not right. Uncultured American “travelers” are automatically putting their own way of doing things on a pedestal and then comparing - and judging - Europeans. And, ironically enough, it’s often the people from the U.S. who end up being rude and disrespectful toward people in the countries they visit. So clearly, being puritanical does not make you morally superior. Europeans aren’t afraid to loosen up. Nothing wrong with that!

- Smoking, eating meat
Modern America is probably engaged in one of the largest anti-smoking/anti-tobacco campaigns of any country, ever. In places like Chicago, they also go after sugary drinks like soda (they recently implemented a “sugar tax” that is driving people crazy and forcing them to cross the border into Indiana to cheaply buy a bottle of Coke). The way it seems to work in the states these days is, “If a vocal majority believes that something is immoral, they have the right to legislate their beliefs and make others pay for their self-righteous opinions.” Europeans don’t tolerate that.

In Paris, for instance, you’ll find that many, many people smoke. Proudly and openly. You can do it in some restaurants, and outside almost all restaurants. A cigarette and a cup of coffee is still seen as a nice way to end a nighttime meal, and if people “are offended” or “triggered” by the smoke, they can simply go somewhere else.

While we’re at it, let’s also tackle the issue of veganism: it’s currently a craze that is sweeping the U.S., and I would not have a problem with that if it weren’t for that handful of vegans who ruin it for everyone, by trying to shove their views down the throats of people who disagree. Back off, guys, okay? You eat your rabbit food, I’ll eat my rabbit. But yeah. You’ll find that many countries across the water, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, still have diets that largely consist of meat, and it would be arrogant and ignorant of you to expect them to change the way they do things just for you. Grow up!

- Everything else
There are so many other things that surprise, shock, or offend Americans when they travel (if they’re closed-minded). People are proud to speak their own languages (so while many Europeans do speak English, they are not required to, and don’t expect them to just because your dumb ass can’t learn a few words of another language!). People actually sit next to each other on public transit. People take things slow; a meal might be expected to take an hour, and people don’t yell and have a panic attack if they miss a bus or a train. Waiters don’t make forced smiles and cater to your every whim at a restaurant; again, don’t expect everything to be like it is in America!

In short, people all over the world have their own values and ways of doing things, and if they didn’t, the world would be a pretty boring place. So, to those Americans who take issue with anything and everything, either change your ways or stay home! Don’t give the rest of us a bad name!

A day, or a week, in the life

Sunday, November 19, 2017

It’s a funny thing about people who are semi-introverted and who cherish their solitude: they are often the object of both curiosity and resentment from others. One who has never met me, and who has only read my blogs and watched my videos, might assume that I’m the stereotypical loner, the introspective and reclusive dude who likes to be left alone. And while I do very much enjoy and work hard to preserve my alone time, I’m actually quite sociable when I want to be. The ‘when I want to be’ being the operative phrase here. You see, I’m not an introvert. I’m an ambivert.

An ambivert is someone whose personality lies somewhere halfway in between introvert (socially withdrawn) and outrovert (an outgoing, social butterfly). Ambiverts enjoy interacting with people, but we do so selectively. Meaning, we pick and choose the people we engage with, and the times during which we see them. After reading up on this psychological term, it made sense to me why I find it difficult to share living space with another person, but not to see that same person, say, maybe once or twice a week. In fact, I don’t want to be alone all the time, no matter what I might say when I’m romanticizing living in some isolated cabin in the woods. Rather, I want to be alone a lot of the time, but have friends to see and socialize with the rest of the time. And I do!

But I’ve digressed, here. Point is, people often fail to make the distinction between introvert and ambivert, and anyway, if you’re not being “hip” and you’re not seen in some “super important” social clique, and if you don’t have an in-your-face, ultra-opinionated, trendy presence on social media, people these days wonder just what the hell you actually get up to in your free time. So I’m writing this bit in order to try and answer that.

I hate schedules. Always have. I tend to hate any strict form of structure, in fact. It makes me feel like I’m being weighed down, as though by an anchor, and I can’t be free! But yeah. Work tends to be pretty structural, so I am scheduled to do that five days a week. I’m not complaining, of course. The job has done nothing but benefit me. So there’s that, and it typically takes up a big chunk of each day, Monday through Friday. After work, I usually come home, make dinner, watch any TV shows that I keep up with (like Supernatural or Arrow), and if I have time or feel up to it, do some quick exercising, either by taking a walk on Promontory Point, the area outside my apartment building that is situated on Lake Michigan, or else working out on the treadmill in the laundry room/mini gym downstairs. That’s my evening, 9 times out of 10. If it’s a Friday, I might do some special thing once in a while if I have enough money, like go see a movie with a couple friends or coworkers, or go to a black metal show.

When it gets to be later at night, I make the mistake, time and again, of not getting to sleep early, and then regretting it and being exhausted, in every sense of the word, the following morning. You know, I’ll just never learn. But I use this time to get some reading done, work on my own book or other writing I feel like doing, binge-watch a few episodes of something or rewatch a movie, work on my occult studies, or listen to music. Usually, I’ll have to pick one or two of these things, because there isn’t enough time in a night to do it all. But I’m a night person; nocturnal. Always have been, always will be. The late hours are when I’m the most awake and focused, when I get my bursts of inspiration, and when I do my best writing. I’m hardwired that way, and I can’t change it, nor do I want to.

Now, the weekend, is usually more of what I just mentioned on late weeknights, except that I have two whole days to fill with these hobbies and activities. I try and make the Saturdays and Sundays stretch. But I do get out, too. I like to go hiking, if not every other weekend, then at least once a month (it’s in an area at least 45 minutes away from me, even by car). Or I might decide to hang out on the North Side of Chicago, or hit up a bookstore, or take a walk locally, or go to another show. Weekends are often spent indoors, but definitely not always. And again, I have to pick and choose: will it be a hiking day or a writing day?

In a nutshell, I keep myself plenty busy. When it comes to reading, if you know my Goodreads page, check it. You’ll see that I’m currently juggling three books: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, and The Shadow Rising and New Spring, both entries in the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan (New Spring is a prequel to the entire series). Having this many books going at once is par for the course for me, and there is still a stack of unread (or un-re-read!) books on the bookcase beside me, currently taunting me and waiting to be enjoyed.

When it comes to writing...oh man, what to say here? I’m working away on my book as much as I can, and also continuing to be my own worst critic, going back and editing or rewording parts I don’t like or feel are not “100 percent perfect.” I’ve written 47,824 words since early October. I can’t say much more except that I’m making my way through this manuscript, making it exist. I’m also writing rough drafts of a couple short stories and trying to determine whether they should be scrapped, rewritten, or kept as they are. Such is the struggle of a writer-slash-perfectionist.
And when it comes to hiking, I managed to do it just before the leaves fell off the trees. I usually hike up in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, in the Ned Brown Forest Preserve. Fun fact: there are elk there! They were brought there from Montana in 1925, and the herd currently there are descendants of those very animals. There’s plenty of other interesting wildlife and nature there, and on slightly cloudy or rainy days, when there are less people about, it makes for a very peaceful hike indeed.

Oh, I forgot to mention I also make videos to add to my YouTube channel whenever I get the chance.
I have the utmost sympathy for anyone who is dealing with depression or problems in their life. But personally, I just don’t have time for depression, boredom, or some of the (in my opinion) petty things people seem to do these days to occupy their time. Gossip, reality TV, interpersonal drama, crime and delinquency, Facebook arguments, etc., etc. To each their own, of course, and whatever floats your boat! But I prefer more artistic pursuits and things that are healthy for my mind and spirit.

So that’s most of what encompasses my time. There are other things I do whenever I get the chance, like traveling, and there are new hobbies I’d like to add, like painting, but things take time and, more often than not, money. We’ll see what the future holds, but my present is pretty satisfying.

“Duhh, what’s a book?” Why don’t Americans read?

Saturday, November 18, 2017

I believe that one of the quickest ways to ascertain the overall intellectual presence of a populace is by determining its literacy rate. Let me preface the stats I’m about to give by saying that many, many people I’ve met who are in my age group (I’m 28) either show no interest in reading books, have never read books for pleasure, or actually believe that reading a book is either a.) a waste of time, b.) somehow inherently effeminate, or c.) is just something that holds no interest for them. That being said, I have found that this varies by area. Out of the places I’ve been, New Jersey is one of the absolute worst offenders when it comes to people who don’t read. Independent book stores are scarce, as are major book stores like Barnes and Noble (the closest one is in Clifton, Wayne, or New York City). In Illinois, meanwhile, there are small book stores all over the place, and they’re quite popular and have remained in business for a very long time. There are also many more Barnes and Noble storefronts around.

According to demographics obtained by the Pew Research Center, 26 percent of Americans say they have not read a book in the past year, whether in paper, electronic, or audio form. That might not seem like much, but it is, and it’s a big increase from a previous Pew survey in 2011. At that time, just 19 percent of Americans had not read a book during that year. This means that more and more people are choosing not to read, and that’s a bit disturbing. But let’s move on, and take a look at the people in this country who can’t read, as well as those who have a hard time of it.

As a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy found, 32 million adults in the U.S. don’t know how to read. 32 million! That’s 14 percent of the population. Meanwhile, 21 percent of adults read below a fifth grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates cannot read. The literacy rate in this country has not gotten better for the last 10 years. It’s actually gotten a bit worse. And the ripple effect of illiteracy is so much worse than many would believe. According to the Department of Justice, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” As confirmation of that statement, here’s another stat for you: 70 percent of America’s prison inmates cannot read above a fourth-grade level.

On the other hand, there’s Europe. Across the pond, countries there - particularly the Scandinavian ones - have much higher literacy rates than we do, and guess what? People there actually do it for enjoyment/as a hobby. In countries like Norway, Finland, and Luxembourg, 100 percent of the population is literate. 100 percent. Everyone. Russia and Poland are also very high up there, and Slovakia, the country where my family is from, has a literacy rate of 99.6 percent. That beats out America’s 86 percent rate (based on data collected in a 2013 survey by the U.S. Department of Education). Ukraine, Slovenia, Estonia, and Belarus also have high literacy rates. Basically, every single one of these 10 European nations I’ve mentioned has more people that know how to read than does the U.S.A.

Look, I’m not trying to attack the country in which I live or the people in it, but I am incredibly disappointed, deeply embarrassed, and worried about the intellectual future (if any) of a nation whose people elected Donald Trump as president, don’t know when the Declaration of Independence was signed, think that Christopher Columbus discovered America, and can’t tell you where the Panama Canal is, who Julius Caesar was (I’m not even joking), or name the capital of their own state. And the most infuriating thing is that things were not always this way.

I’ve said before that there has been a significant dumbing down of American people and culture over the decades, and I have figures to back me up. In 1960, the illiteracy rate in the U.S. was 2.4 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Now it’s 14.

According to journalist Charles Pierce, who wrote Idiot America, “the rise of idiot America today represents the breakdown of a consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people whom we should trust the least are the people who best know what they are talking about.” This is very much in line with reality, with people left and right (no political pun intended) claiming that “climate change is a hoax,” or that “we never landed on the moon.” We are living in a very scary time, in which scientific fact is disregarded by a portion of the populace who do not understand it, or who are simply incapable of doing so. I mean, when people believe that space travel never happened, carbon dating is “wrong,” and that there’s no such thing as evolution, how do you possibly argue or reason with a person like that?

There’s no getting around it. Modern America is fucking stupid. And the fact that so many people cannot read, do not read, or will not read, plays an enormous role in that stupidity and ignorance. 18 percent of America believe that the sun revolves around the Earth. During Obama’s term as president, 29 percent of Americans could not identify Joe Biden as the vice-president. 56 percent of Americans think that vaccinations cause autism. This is some scary shit, and I, for one, am deeply ashamed of the people in this country who contribute to these percentages. And I do not blame Europeans if they look down on the United States.

We should aspire to be well-educated, well-informed, and well-read. We should hone deductive and reasoning skills, learn how to properly research a subject, and learn how to discern well. We should crave knowledge, not shun it in favor of outdated and regressive macho or know-nothing mentalities. But much of my generation, in particular, those “Millennials” who older folks see as being so advanced and forward-thinking, are major contributors to The Stupid Problem. You’re all too engrossed in your smartphones, too wedded to your narcissistic ramblings on social media, too reliant upon Google for all your answers. You’re too accustomed to instant gratification, and have lost your self-reliance. Your expectation of having every question answered by an iPhone app has left you incapable of, or unwilling to, actually sit down and thoroughly educate yourself on a subject, so that it might forever stick in your brain, rather than fall out immediately after you’ve “Googled it.”

I’ve said this time and again, both on this blog and in the various videos I have made. But I encourage people to open a book. Whether it’s historical or fictional, scientific or fantastical, academic or in leisure. Don’t be a poor example of our country. When next you travel (and I hope that you do travel!), show our friends across the pond that there are smart Americans out there. Don’t be like one of the characters in Fahrenheit 451; be like the man who wrote it! Remember: The only knowledge that can hurt you is the knowledge you don’t have.

Fantasy, sci-fi, comics: Escapism or lifeblood?

Friday, October 20, 2017

In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Act 5, Scene 3, it is said that “the gods are just, and of our pleasant vices make instruments to plague us.” On the other hand, what does a playwright craft other than pleasant vices? So, what am I even talking about? Speculative fiction. Science fiction. Fantasy. Horror. Comic books. Fictional dramas. Animation. Graphic novels. Manga. So on and so forth. Vices these may be to some, but to an increasing number of people, they’re important forms of entertainment. And there’s a certain amount of naysayers out there who want to take it all away from us.

Creativity and imagination are the bread and water of the mind. Whereas matters of computation, calculation, and problem solving require deductive and reasoning skills, and real-world dealings with events, situations, and people, require scrutiny and discernment, art and entertainment force the mind to work in a different manner altogether. It forces the brain to contemplate and juxtapose ideas and concepts in a way that it otherwise would not, and it increases a person’s overall empathy, as following the narratives of various fictional characters forces one to “see, live, and experience things” through the eyes of another being, albeit a fictitious one. It encourages abstract thinking and often gives birth to ingenuity and inventiveness. And those are just a few reasons why fictional works are so important.
I felt prompted to write this post in response to some articles and essays I had been reading (mostly online) as of late, which has criticized modern pop culture as being representative of “the infantilization of society.” Such critics have likened comic book/superhero fans in their 20s, 30s, and 40s to “man-babies,” who apparently can’t grow up and get a grip on reality.

The merit of a story

To equate comics with imbecility and immaturity, as so many would-be high brow snobs seem to do, is a view that is cold and clinical, cynical, and tragic. It’s these sorts of critics who often display a logic-only, nuts and bolts utilitarian view of writing (and even of fictional works), often judging the merit of a speculative work by what social or political message it offers (if any), or what is says about people and/or society as a whole; a pragmatic, unimaginative search for things that only specifically relate to the material world in which we live, and what intellectual, academic, or philosophic benefits we might glean from such works. Never does it occur to them that the very merit of a story might be the story itself! So that the reader or viewer might laugh, gasp, balk, feel afraid, or cry as they attach themselves to and follow the protagonist(s), or experience the joy of leaving the “realistic” and the “material” behind, at least in thought, for a short while, so as to travel to fantastical realms and universes made of impossibility and wonderful, unabashed absurdity.

What has become clear to me is that the following two arguments almost always cross streams: 1.) the supposed oversaturation of fantasy, sci-fi, and comic book movies, shows, and books has rendered “juvenile” the majority of modern adults; and 2.) there is a significant dumbing down of America taking place, and this is represented - amongst other places - in popular culture. While I agree with the second point, I do not agree with the first, and furthermore, I fail to see a correlation between the two, though every critic or blogger who brings up these points seems to imply (or outright claim) that there is one. But I will address these points.

Firstly, the dumbing down of society is largely owed to social, economic, and educational problems. Stupid people, of course, produce and are attracted to more stupidity, which is why so much of today’s popular music, television, and film is sordid, simplistic, ignorant, crude, or intellectually vacant. This occasionally is evident in fantasy, sci-fi, and comic book stories/shows/films, when that stupidity finds its way into the particular property, or worse, when the writer, producer, director, or company associated with said property feels the need to cater to the expected simple-mindedness of its target audience. When such a property is intellectually or artistically lacking, this can also be contributed to the greed-motivated meddling of whatever capitalist corporation greenlit the project in the first place. (I’m looking at you, Batman v. Superman!)

However, speculative fiction is usually by its very nature fashioned from creativity. A legal or medical drama, by contrast, simply takes what is already in the real world and serializes it. I’m not knocking these types of fictional shows, of course, merely demonstrating the difference between how their narratives come into being, versus how a fantasy or sci-fi-based work develops. What I’m saying is that the requirement for narrative preconditions is greater, when it comes to fantastical stories. Creations like Harry Potter, Star Wars, and The Lord of the Rings are by no means removed from material reality, nor do they exist in a vacuum, but they are incredibly complex and demand a significant deal of investment in suspension-of-disbelief storytelling. This is opposed to the aforementioned dramas, which may be complex and well-written, but which ultimately do not deviate from that which is possible and/or probable - and thus are deeply familiar to a casual viewer - in today’s world.

Brilliant and captivating stories

Whether it’s Spider-Man or The Hobbit, none of these sorts of brilliant and captivating stories need to justify their consumption by readers or viewers, or for that matter, their very existence. They do not have to be To Kill a Mockingbird, or Schindler’s List, or Dances with Wolves, in order to be deemed “relevant” by a closed-minded and pretentious peanut gallery of stuffed shirts. The proliferation of fun, fantastical, romanticized, and patently absurd media, and the stupidification of America, are not mutually exclusive! More older men - and women! - are into superhero films and fantasy series partly because the cultural conservatism and pomposity of American society is slowly fading, but more importantly, also because it truly entertains them, engages them, and brings them joy.
I should add that I’ve never much liked the term “escapism” or “escapist entertainment,” that is so commonly slapped on these types of stories. When you look up and appreciate a beautiful tree, is that escapism? When you draw or paint a picture, is that escapism? When people dress up to cosplay at comic conventions, or for that matter, when kids dress up to go trick-or-treating on Halloween, is that escapism?

Why are we taught or expected to believe that whatever brings us joy, and which takes us away from the mundane or stressful aspects of our lives, is some sort of “escape”? We do not seek pleasure in life in order to escape from the bad times, or our responsibilities, or what others may expect or require of us. We do it because it is an indispensible part of life! Did workers fight for the weekend (yes, dear readers, at one time that didn’t exist!) because they sought an “escape” from labor? No, they did it to give us extra free time, that we might pursue the wonders and joys and fantasies of the world. The common phrase “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” might seem silly, but put it in perspective and it takes on quite a significant meaning! No wonder Jack Nicholson typed it 500+ times in The Shining!

So no, I refuse to believe that the fantasy novels and superheroes that have colored and enriched my life make me “infantile,” or part of any sort of perceived societal or cultural “problem.” The yearning to write amazing stories and to produce my series of fantasy novels, is amongst the most important driving forces in my life. It is literally what gets me out of bed in the morning, and it makes me dream the impossible, providing me with excitement, fervor, and optimism. Where would I be without the pile of Spider-Man and X-Men comics that lit the fire under my childhood imagination? Or the Harry Potter series, the very first books that inspired me to write fantasy? Where would I be without Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, or The Chronicles of Narnia?

I feel sorry for the stuffed shirts, because they will never again dream, or wonder, or idealize. One must remember that just because we live in a material world, and because we must be realistic and pragmatic, this does not render idealism an invalid notion. For what do we reach, to what do we aspire, if not an ideal? What do we strive for? What is our purpose for being? I sense that I’m beginning to get a little bit too philosophical with this now, so allow me to conclude by thanking you for reading, and wishing that you would take away something from this; that this simple blog post from a mere 28 year-old aspiring writer in Illinois might implant in you some seed of imagination, that I can only hope would bloom into a veritable garden of creativity. But that’s what fantasy is all about, isn’t it? Wishing and dreaming? Ironically enough, however, it is my belief that we require the fantastic and the impossible, in order to ever truly be awake.