Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
My childhood hero was Richard Feynman, Nobel physics laureate and trickster god for science students everywhere. Feynman read at some point about a distant country called Tuva and decided that he absolutely had to go there.
Tuva was a part of the Soviet Union, nestled between northwestern Mongolia and Russia. And during the Cold War, the difficulties for an American scientist of Feynman’s stature to travel there were all but insurmountable. The Soviets would hardly grant him a visa, and the Americans would hardly let him go.
But Feynman was determined. He spent a decade trying to obtain the necessary papers even as he grew ill with cancer. His friend Ralph Leighton, who was supposed to accompany him, later wrote a book, Tuva or Bust!, chronicling their quest.
You might say that Feynman felt fernweh for Tuva.
It is by now a cliche that, since January 2017, parody in American life has died. That may be an exaggeration, but it certainly is much more difficult to tell these days what is an Onion article and what is real news coming out of the West Wing.
But now we are living through not parody but a horror film. Specifically, a teen slasher. Think Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, Halloween, The Faculty, and of course related works such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its explicit and oft-referenced antecedent, Scooby Doo.
In these products of pop culture, as a trope, the adults in authority positions are always craven and corrupt or simply clueless as to what’s going on. (OK, some exceptions, like Giles on Buffy as an ersatz father figure.) The teen protagonists, and some of their teen friends, are the ones who know the truth and who fight the forces of evil with what wits they can muster in spite of their hormones.
[SOME SPOILERS TO FOLLOW.]
The past is our guide. Memory is what makes us human. History and culture define a people.
Like millions of people, I saw Black Panther this weekend. Being no expert on either Africa or the African-American experience, I can only comment from my circumscribed perspective. But to my mind the film captures a universal conflict in the migrant experience, the experience of deracination and diaspora.
Indeed, it is the central conflict in the film, which may be viewed as the different ways in which the protagonist T’Challa and his antagonist Killmonger each relates to the past.
John and Tom’s Excellent Adventure: On John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Travel, and the Meaning of an Education
On April 4, 1786, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson set off on a road trip together.
Both in England from which their America had freshly won its independence, the object of their tour was — as dull as it sounds to me — a series of English gardens. Instead of Lonely Planet or even a Baedeker, their guide book was Jefferson’s copy of Observations on Modern Gardening by one Thomas Whately.
As David McCullough recounts in his excellent John Adams, the road trip had no great historical significance. But it was “the one and the only time” when the famous frenemies, the "North and South Poles of the American Revolution,” would spend “off on their own together.” And, perhaps given my circumstances on the road, I can’t help dwelling on this image of the two Great Men driving around the English countryside, John and Tom, just a couple of dudes, a couple of American tourists.
July 1 marked the two-year anniversary of my life of nonstop round-the-world travel. In that time I have visited countries from Ukraine to Uruguay, Armenia to Argentina, Estonia to Ethiopia, the Netherlands to Nepal.
Also in that time, to my surprise, travel has become a political act.
Or perhaps, as we live in the age of the unending War on Terror, travel has long been a political act. Terrorists would have us be too afraid to travel; they would have us avoid airports and train stations; they would have us tremble with anxiety in our window seats, eyeing our bearded neighbor with suspicion.
I like to play music on my laptop when I write. And the other day, for whatever reason, I started playing, over and over, a song from my high school days in New Zealand. I went to a church school, you see, although I’m not religious. An Anglican school, or Episcopalian, as Americans would say. And twice a week and sometimes on weekends we had to go to chapel. And every time we went to chapel we had to sing hymns. Some hymns stuck with me, including this one: “I Vow to Thee, My Country.”
But is it even a religious hymn? Some would describe it simply as a British patriotic song. Some call it one of Britain’s unofficial national anthems. Indeed the song came to prominence in the UK during WWI, when patriotism was all the rage. If you’re wondering why we kept singing it in New Zealand, well, as the New Zealand prime minister during WWII, Michael Joseph Savage, said when declaring war on Nazi Germany, “Where [Britain] goes, we go; where she stands, we stand.”
There is something timid about Costa Rica.
Costa Ricans never fought for their independence from Spain nor even declared it. The Mexicans did the former for them, defeating Spain in the Mexican War of Independence in 1821, and the Guatemalans did the latter when they declared independence for all of Central America. Costa Rica was tentative about independence even after that until its northern neighbor Nicaragua embraced the new state of affairs.
Like other Central American states, Costa Rica had its period of violence. Except civil war in Costa Rica in 1948 lasted all of 44 days. When the war ended, the country abolished its military. To this day Costa Rica remains demilitarized.
A couple of weeks ago I went to Easter Island. The southeastern tentpole of the massive portion of the Pacific Ocean that is Polynesia, Easter Island is as removed from other landmasses as it looms large in the popular imagination. In fact it is over 2,000 miles away from the country of which it is legally a part, Chile. But the local language is similar to Maori in New Zealand, where I grew up, giving the island an unexpected feeling of familiarity.
In 1893, a 32-year-old historian, later of Harvard, presented a paper at a meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago. His name was Frederick Jackson Turner, and the paper was called “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” The essay turned out to be a seminal one. The “Frontier Thesis,” in which American society is thought to have been shaped by the existence of, and its confrontation with, the frontier became a key concept in the study of American history.
In 2017, the Frontier Thesis is once again full of implications.
On the one hand, Turner’s formulation of the concept of the American frontier is nothing short of racist: “the frontier is the outer edge of the wave—the meeting point between savagery and civilization.” The crude dichotomy of US and THEM no doubt captured the thinking of many 19th settlers uneasy about native nations just beyond the frontier. And today it seems to capture the thinking of just as high a proportion of Americans with respect to the outside world.
For some months now, a phrase from Confucian philosophy has recurred to me like an ear worm: “neither obsequious nor arrogant.” (不卑不亢.) Then I realized why I kept thinking about this phrase — it’s a perfect lesson for today’s Americans.
The specific formulation dates back to the early 17th century: “The sages had their middle way, being neither obsequious nor arrogant....” But in substance it reaches all the way back to the time of Confucius and forms a part of Confucian ethics, which concerns itself with the question of how to be a junzi (君子), loosely translated as “gentleman.” I say loosely because the Western concept of “gentleman” devotes more energy to social manners than the Confucian concept, which is mostly about how to live as a good and complete person in a world full of knaves and villains. And although admittedly the Confucian term was gendered for usage in a patriarchal society, the moral concept is applicable to both sexes equally.
Much of America’s present difficulties would disappear if Americans would take this Confucian lesson to heart. The old culture war and racial animosities brought to the point of the astonishing act of self-immolation that took place in November would end.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."