A cure for bullshit

Whenever I need a break from bullshit, I go diving. I still remember July 2007, almost a year into the most disorienting and downright wacky job of my life, I took off for a week’s diving in Tobago. After just one dive, the salt cleansed every ounce of bile from my blood. The canned oxygen, sucked in through rented regs, oozed out from my lungs to find and repair frayed nerves. The warm water conducted away all the tension irradiating my body and drowned it like a rat.

And so last Monday morning at 1.30 am I found myself throwing bathing suits and dive gear into a bag. After overpacking in a sleepy delirium, I dug up my dusty passport and called a car service to carry me to the the airport, and freedom.

Twenty hours later I was 20 meters deep, following the bubbles of Ugo de la Sala, co-founder of the  Megalodon Dive Center on the island of Cozumel. It doesn’t matter what we saw, or which dive sites we dove over the past 6 days. What matters is that those 11 dives hammered at my reset button until it took.

It’s been 2 1/2 years since I returned from my experiment with the Range Life, and I’ve been doing a fair bit of flailing. Constructive flailing, however; I did, after all, buy an apartment. And focused flailing; most of it has been experimenting with the right balance of motion for me; always on the road, but not always away.

Now I’m reset. I’ve stopped flailing. Can’t wait to see what happens next.

Travel “The Local Way”

A few nights ago I attended the March gathering of the New York Chapter of Travel Massive, “a world-wide community of locally organised meet ups for travel & tourism companies, travel bloggers, startups, and travel media to connect and share globally.”

Though I’ve been down with the flu, I went because I wanted to connect with my friends Amanda Rogers and and Steve Mann, the co-founders, producers and videographers of The Local Way, a travel video series. The videos follow local guides as they “take” you on a tour of neighborhoods in a variety of cities – so far in Paris, Dublin, New York and L.A.

What I love about the series, beyond the travel aspect, is how its format captures the essence of a city. The hosts focus on authentic, small, local businesses and how those businesses relate to the microculture of the surrounding neighborhood and its residents. These are the things that imbue a city with the sort of rich, layered flavor mostly absent from the suburbs. It’s why city folk pay twice the rent for a quarter of the space. It’s why they endure noisy neighbors and sweaty, smelly subway commutes.

Visitors come for the shopping and (sometimes) stay for the culture.

“I used to rent out my apartment [to tourists] while I was living in the East Village,” says Amanda over post-TM beers and burgers. “They would always leave behind [emtpy] shopping bags. But when they came back after a day of shopping, they would want to know where to go out in the East Village.” The Local Way New York, she hopes, will offer them a more “insider” option than the Lonely Planet and a more personal option than New York magazine.

The cool part, of course, is that New Yorkers – or Parisians, or Dubliners, or the LA-LAs (what do people in L.A. call themselves?) – can watch the videos to discover more about their own city. The key is that the local guides, because they are local residents, offer an authentic point of view. Sure, a video journalist can parachute in, grab a local, and follow them around with a camera. But The Local Way removes that extra layer between the viewer and the cocktail bar, or boulangerie, or Irish music pub.

So far the whole series has been self-funded by Amanda and Steve, who work day jobs to get by. To make their final push, they just started an Indiegogo (crowd-funding) campaign to raise money to complete their series and take the series from project to business. If you would like to support “travel the local way”, small businesses in big cities, and/or “a new form of documentary” (Amanda’s words), I encourage you to throw a dollar or two their way:

http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-local-way

Singapore slings

On Monday evening I didn’t win two free economy-class tickets on any Singapore Airlines flight.  That honor went to Craig Zabransky, who blogs over at Stay Adventurous. Damn him.

Too bad, because thanks to Singapore Air PR guy James Boyd, I now know where to get the best martini in Singapore. And I sure could use a martini right now.

Never mind. I still had fun at the latest New York Travel Massive, the largest travel-industry Meetup in New York. The enclosed rooftop bar at Eventi Hotel was well heated by the exhalations and exhortations of 100-odd travel professionals. The travel industry is set to become much more interesting. Orbitz, Expedia, Kayak and dozens of others broke the first barrier by offering us price comparison. TripAdvisor et al gave us peer reviews to help gauge quality. But no one has quite cracked the nut of the thing that makes us price-hunt on Priceline or book a room at AirBnB: travel inspiration.

Right now, there’s no site I can search for, say, a vacation that during which I can be “active most days but relax other days, with great restaurants, English-speaking, within a 3-hour flight of my home airport and which costs $200 or less per day.” Worse, there’s no site that tells me, “Sure, I can book this trip to Bangkok for you. Bangkok is great. But the Songkran Festival will happen during your trip, and the wildest Songkran party in Thailand, by far, happens up north in Chiang Mai.”

And then there’s the destinations (and service providers to/at the destinations) themselves, trying to find new ways of marketing themselves. The more enlightened are reaching out to bloggers, leveraging social media, and engaging directly with potential travelers. But as in any other industry entrenched in its ways, these enlightened marketers are few and far between.

Speaking of which: I have never had any desire to go to Singapore. It seems a long way to go to eat good food and shop. Plus the famous chewing-gum nonsense. But now thanks to James Boyd at Singapore Airlines, I want to go get a cocktail at the following places:

3. The Ritz Carlton Millenia – “It’s got a good but basic lobby bar,” says Boyd. “And it’s my favorite business hotel in the world. The staff gets it – the needs of a business traveler. It just works.”

2. Blu Bar at Shangri-la – “Extremely glamorous.”

1. Compass Rose bar at the Stamford Raffles Hotel – “It’s on the 65th floor and has a sweeping view overlooking the harbor.” Plus, Boyd assures me, they make a great martini.

 

 

 

 

Bear market

“Are you wearing purple on purpose?” Kirstin asks, interrupting my conversation.

I take a sip of wine, blink, and turn my attention away from Dave. I have no idea what the hell she’s talking about. “Uh, well I knew I would be wearing purple when I put on this shirt,” I snark.

Kirstin is the “organizer” (loosely defined) of the evening’s event — a mercifully untelevised, middle-class version of The Millionaire Matchmaker. The men have paid $100 and the women $25 to be matched by Kirstin with other single professionals. The name of the “service” (loosely defined) is Invest in Love.

So far about ten people have filtered in to the event, held in the salmon-and-grey multi-purpose function room of a high-end apartment complex near MIT. The ambiance suggests urban luxury…of the bland sort favored by real estate developers. I imagine the tenants above us, all financiers and VPs of sales & marketing, who wear suits and khakis and talk bigger than they really are.

Down here on the ground floor, we singles mingle. Our ages range from mid-20’s to mid-50’s. Our attire ranges from tight minidress, to navy suit, to jeans the color of dishwater; both they and the person filling them look like they’ve been salvaged from a Dumpster. “Dress code is whatever makes you feel good,” the invitation had said. I’m wearing ink-black cords, mary janes with a 3-inch heel, and makeup hastily bought from Walgreens the day before. And a purple top.

“Oh, don’t you know?” Kirstin prattles on. “Today it’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender pride day. You show your support by wearing purple.”

Is she asking me if I’m a lesbian? After interrupting a conversation with a man she purportedly “love-matched” to me? Is she insane?

Kirstin, as it turns out, is spectacularly incompetent. She has all the frenetic energy but none of the outrageous personality of Patti, the ridiculous yet oddly compelling title character of Millionaire Matchmaker. Patti gets results. She is the Judge Judy of matchmaking: whiny and demanding and opinionated and self-aggrandizing and self-righteous. She is shiny, collagen-enhanced lips; flat-ironed, glossy hair; 6-inch platform heels; décolletage. Perfect sick-day TV.

Kirstin, on the other hand, is a flowered wrap dress and sensible heels – the event planner, say, for a bar mitzvah. Her wavy, mouse-brown hair is inelegantly tousled. Morning mascara still clings to her lashes, though her peach lipstick is fresh.

It’s 15 minutes into the event and most of the guests have yet to arrive. Kirsten, a furious cloud of manic anxiety, periodically interrupts her guests’ halting attempts at sociability to announce a text or call from an attendee-to-be. “Jane says she’s stuck in traffic,” she shouts over the awkward flirting. The harsh panel lighting illuminates the sweat on her brow. “But she’ll be here in 10 minutes!” None of us knows, or cares, who Jane is.

When she’s not blockading the very reason we’ve all paid her to be here, Kirsten hurries around looking for her phone, perpetually misplaced on the microwave or among the bottles of $20-or-less wine each guest was asked to bring. To ease her anxiety, her customers ask if we can help — find glasses for the wine, perhaps. As we wait, sipping from plastic faux wine glasses, she implores us to eat from the trough of Pad Thai in the kitchen.

In the end, about 25 people show up. Among the men, there’s a lot of greased-down curly hair — nerd-extras escaped from the set of Porky’s IV, perhaps. There’s also Amelie, a bubbly Red Sox fan, and Yvette, an intriguing Japanese/Korean/Mongolian/Polish woman from in Ulan Ude, Russia (“You know it?” she cries, amazed that I have marveled in person at the disembodied concrete Lenin’s head that sits in the town square). Rounding out the group there’s Hair Club For Men guy trying soooo hard to be charming, a frizzy-haired Russian woman wearing a muumuu, and a young Ugandan man who won’t look me in the eye.

And then there’s Mr. Senator – old white guy, greying hair, dark blue suit. Kirstin makes a point of introducing us. “You two have a lot in common,” she says. He smells like talcum powder and aftershave.

“I just flew in from New York,” he starts, by way of explaining the suit. “IBM just bought us.” I sip my wine. Soon we’re talking New York real estate. “Two bedroom, two bath apartment on West 57th Street,” he says. “Guess how much?” (Translation: “What’s the rent in the least interesting part of Manhattan?”)

It’s common knowledge among New Yorkers that all conversations eventually turn to sports, sex or real estate. I’m genuinely distressed to find that the disease has spread north to Boston.

I finish my wine and look around for a refill. “How far west?” I hedge. The stem falls off my “wine glass,” leaving me holding just the bowl. The good news is that I need neither stem nor base; I’m not planning to put the glass down anytime soon.

“Eighth Ave.,” he says.

I throw out a random number, cupping my wine bowl like Shackleton would a hot cup of tea.

“$6800 a month!” he cries. “Do you know what I can get for that in Cambridge?”

The first bright spot of the evening comes when this conversation is interrupted, by Kirstin. Based on a questionnaire we’ve all filled out, she has arranged us into cliques of 4-6 men and women. Over the course of the evening, each clique will spend about 15 minutes talking, aided by party-game conversation starters (Scruples, Two Truths and a Lie, etc.). Then everyone will rotate to another clique, then another. One of the men in one of the groups should spark my interest. In theory.

First session: A Harvard researcher of psychotropic drugs. Cool! Except then he launches into a monologue about how he and his best bud Paul Simon (yes, that one) stole Sting’s limo once. Somehow this story morphs into a lecture on Asian dishes that involve bugs. When I butt in with my own story about sharing a bag of wok-fried bugs with a young Cambodian on a bus to Siem Reap, his eyes dart back and forth in panic. Apparently he’s just realized there’s someone else in the room. To ease his troubles, I let him interrupt and impress me with his Japanese language skills.

Second session: Fifty-ish guy in a comically stereotypical cheap suit, the shininess of which is offset by the matte brown of his hair and goatee, freshly Just-for-Men’d. He wants to hear about my writing, about the places I’ve traveled. But grim, frizzy-haired Russian woman isn’t having it. She keeps interrupting to argue. “My cousin who traveled to Mongolia and wrote about his experience had his story picked up by the Wall Street Journal,” she sniffs. You’re right. I think. I’m wrong. It’s actually really easy to be a travel writer. I change the subject.

Third session: Dave, a film producer/director (in his mind) and real estate agent (in reality), is talking about his favorite subject: himself. Kirstin interrupts to ask if I’m a lesbian. It’s a relief, to be honest. Soon Dave is engrossed in conversation with Amelie. They’re talking about real estate.

The structured part of the evening is over. I fall into conversation with Chris, one of the evening’s “expert” speakers, who also happened to be in both my second and third sessions. He’s the only man here who is relaxed and smiling. He cracks a joke. His eyes sparkle. He’s engaged and confident. Conversation is flowing. I’m interested.

And then he says, “……my wife…..”

Cliche, cliche.

Right now, at this very second, there are 14 just-started, half-assed, or almost-finished blog posts sitting in a cute little folder on my computer. The folder, for what it’s worth, is called “writing.” That number – 14 – is quite impressive, given that over the past 2 weeks, every time I read good writing, or sit down to write, or even think about writing, I feel like puking.

So tonight, in an attempt to end this nonsense, I decided to join the pantheon of writers who have, at one point or another, written about not writing.

I hesitate to call my recent bout of hysteria writer’s block. It’s not that I lack ideas. The words are swimming around, flying about in, and pouring both into and out of my head. I fear they’ll start leaking out my ears. Which would be embarrassing, and possibly cause a stain.

But for all these messy, persistent words, when I sit down to start typing my heart leaps into my chest, my head swims, my eyes roll back into my head. In short, my body performs all sorts of tired old cliches. You should see the cliches my fingers type.

So, I’ve lost my way. The screen is too close for comfort. Something throws a wet blanket on my efforts. It’s an uphill battle. A tragedy of epic proportions.

The only thing left to do, really, is pop a Lorazepam and watch the Red Sox lose. Again.

Kony 2012 and coming to terms with neo-colonialism

I know embarrassingly little about the history and politics of Africa in general – never mind that of specific countries. However, I’m addicted to stories of the politics of influence, international policy, social media marketing gimmicks, and real controversy (i.e. having nothing to do with Kardashian weddings or how many Cadillacs Romney’s wife drives).

So of course I got sucked into Kony 2012. In case you missed it, earlier this week a nonprofit called Invisible Children released this video manifesto with the stated goal of pressuring the US government to help capture Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army and the #1 most wanted man by the International Criminal Court.

Over years of fighting in northern Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic, Kony has kidnapped tens of thousands of children, forced them to kill or mutilate their parents and siblings, and then trained the boys to fight and turned the girls into sex slaves.

Arrest this horrifying thug? Um, duh. Of course we should. So I was quite perplexed by the wave of backlash against Kony 2012. I was particularly taken aback by detractors’ shouts of “neo colonialism.” As it turns out, the story is much more complicated than I originally thought.

To give context (and again, I’m far from an expert), the way Africa and its people are portrayed in Western media is invariably condescending and de-humanizing. Check out this wonderfully ironic post on Granta about “how to write about Africa.”

This condescension also is reflected in how Western relief and development efforts are conceived, deployed and managed. The narrative is: “only white Westerners can Save Darfur!” Just think of all the “poor African babies” “saved” by Hollywood celebrities and you get the idea. No wonder Africans are telling us to piss off.

But let’s zoom back in to this particular video. Granted, it is emotionally manipulative, self-serving, and narcissistic: The campaign is personal vengeance by filmmaker and Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell for a wrong against his friend Jacob, a former LRA soldier who Russell met years ago in Uganda. (It kinda reminds me of the theories that Bush II invaded Iraq because Saddam tried to kill his daddy.)

The video’s power is fed from this personal agenda. And I do think Russell’s video is well-meaning, though its calls to action are goofy at best (bracelets and spamming Oprah? really?).

But the most distressing thing I’ve learned while reading all the Kony 2012 backlash is that the goal of the action – to arrest Kony – is a foolish and probably counter-productive one. (If you read nothing else (including the rest of my own post) PLEASE read this thoughtful, informed piece of journalism by Ethan Zuckerman.)

But neo-colonialist? What I heard from the film is, “We are all human beings, and we should help each other if we can.” A man saw a huge injustice and wants to marshal efforts to stop it. That’s all. Nowhere does the film say this will “save Africa.” It doesn’t claim that Africans can’t do it themselves. He says simply, “This needs to get done. America can help. So let’s do it.”

Think of it this way: during the Bosnian war, when so many atrocities were happening on all sides, the international community howled and howled until Clinton finally got involved. So my question is: If American involvement to halt genocide in Serbia is OK, why is a similar effort called “neo-colonialism” in central Africa?

The answer, I think, lies in history – a build up of local resentment after years of condescension that is still happening today. Evidently it has spawned a sort of isolationism on the part of some African activists. In a scathing blog post about Kony 2012, TMS Ruge, Ugandan-American activist and co-founder of Project Diaspora, wrote: “Africa is our problem, we hereby respectfully request you let us handle our own matters.”

The source of the backlash also lies in Africans’ hope for their future. The bloggers I read seem united in wanting to put the past quickly behind them and focus on what good is happening on the ground, right now. Ruge continues,

“It is a slap in the face to so many of us who want to rise from the ashes of our tumultuous past and the noose of benevolent, paternalistic, aid-driven development memes. We, Africans, are sandwiched between our historically factual imperfections and well-intentioned, road-to-hell-building-do-gooders. It is a suffocating state of existence.”

Put more succinctly by Frank Odonga, Kampala-based poet artist and computer engineer, such campaigns “exploit our past and paint it as our present!”

So finally we get to the neo-colonialism. While I still disagree that video is neo-colonialist in the context of presenting Africans as helpless creatures, what it does do is wipe out the hard work that Ugandans have done since Kony left (years ago!). Right now, they (Africans!) are reclaiming, reasserting, and sharing their pride in Uganda. They are optimistic about their future, and rightfully get frustrated when a man on a self-serving mission presents their country in the context of its history.

As I myself try to escape the gravitational pull of a past life, a history – these themes resonate for me.

And maybe, just maybe, I’ve taken a wee little step towards a better understanding of post-colonial Africa.

USEFUL LINKS
One round-up of African voices on the topic:
http://www.boingboing.net/2012/03/08/african-voices-respond-to-hype.html

Ethan Zuckerman, co-founder of Global Voices:
http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2012/03/08/unpacking-kony-2012/

NYT round-up of the controversy:
http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/09/african-critics-of-kony-campaign-hear-echoes-of-the-white-mans-burden/?smid=tw-thelede&seid=auto

Response by Invisible Children:
http://s3.amazonaws.com/www.invisiblechildren.com/critiques.html

and an IR person interviewed on Good by the always-great Cord Jefferson:
http://www.good.is/post/a-kony-2012-creator-defends-the-film/

The DIY revolution

“We’re still in the punk rock stage,” says Aziz Isham, president of Brooklyn-based digital media publishing house Arcade Sunshine.

He’s talking about the revolution.

No, not in Syria. (Or in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, et al.) Nor is he talking specifically about Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party.

He’s talking about one part – publishing – of the do-it-yourself revolution.

From community-made and driven political upheavals in northern Africa and the Middle East, to out-of-nowhere media sites like Instapundit, Gawker and their bazillion me-too spinoffs. From self-organizing interest groups creating metaphysics Meetups and Ron Paul rallies, to real estate being bought and sold without the involvement of any Realtors (r) (and without paying their commissions).

Much of this activity is driven by free or low-cost technology that has dramatically reduced the cost – in some cases, to zero – of starting a business, running a not-for-profit activity, or just getting things done. Free blogging sites like WordPress (which powers this very site!) let anyone become a publisher. YouTube, Vimeo and such let anyone become a video producer or star. Free Google analytics tools let publishers understand their traffic. PayPal makes it (relatively) easy for individuals to make and collect micro-payments. ITunes, Amazon and the like provide a marketplace for anyone to sell music or ebooks. Zillow was among the first to provide transparency to the secretive info-hoarding in real estate.

And these are just some of the well-known platforms and tools; there is a steady stream of new technology services being launched all the time.

Most critically, these transparent, collaborative technologies allow fellow DIYers to share knowledge and experience, and Google, Twitter and Facebook help them find each other.

This isn’t exactly news. Linux Journal senior editor Doc Searls has been talking about DIY technology since 2004. Four years later, thinker, teacher, and and social technology expert Clay Shirky published a book on “organizing without organizations,” called “Here Comes Everybody.” (I’ve always wondered if he stole – sorry, “borrowed” – the name from the Autolux song of the same name.)

Even so: as Aziz’s quote alludes, we’re still in the playing-the-church-basement, couchsurfing, Our Band Could Be Your Life phase of the DIY revolution.

Much more recently, DIY has gone mainstream…at least by my own observations; as Herman Cain once said, “I don’t have the facts to back this up.” In the US, it’s riding a wave of populism. And as I think more deeply about my own plan, and about what “Taking the Fork” really means, I keep noticing DIY everywhere.

Beyond easier-to-use technology, social and economic forces have driven more types of people – critically, non-techies – toward DIY. The theme here is a growing mistrust of institutions.

In the US, the Tea Party movement, not to mention the activist base supporting the candidacy of libertarian-leaning Ron Paul, reflects a mistrust of public institutions. The general tone of their battle cry is, “self-sufficiency!”

Private institutions have fared no better. Most blame the financial meltdown in the US on unconscionably idiotic risks by private financial institutions, allowed both by deregulation and the underfunding of any regulatory agencies that did exist; our private institutions screwed us, and our public institutions didn’t do their jobs.

A similar theme is playing out in Europe. An economics-obsessed friend tells me that the Greek crisis came about because of the naive execution of the Euro: Monetary policy, he says, is centrally controlled by the European Central Bank, while fiscal policy is controlled by each member state, with little or no central oversight. So once again, great institutions, because they lacked imagination into the worse cast scenario, failed to do what was expected, if not promised.

And then there’s the issue of transparency – from WikiLeaks to Super PACs to the privacy missteps of Facebook to the growing mistrust of Google, people are demanding better transparency from powerful institutions.

I could point to a thousand more examples of institutions letting people down: sex scandals in the Catholic church, airlines charging you to have a wee, the historic flameout of the Red Sox last September (or maybe that was just one institution returning to its old ways? Anyway.).

There’s a million more examples of DIYing: Home-schooling, micro-loans in the developing world, the slow, locally-sourced food movement, and on and on.

Where is all this going? Stay tuned. Long live the DIY revolution!