Four Days in the Unfortunate Universe of Having a Job

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blog jason vorheesDay One

Time: late August

Weather: hot

Physical Appearance: wearing blue suit, hair looks good, small pimple on chin

The beginning of a new school year is a lot like the first twenty minutes of a slasher movie.

You meet new people. Everyone is happy and the sky is generally bright and sunny. There are parties. People hook up. Clichés are muttered, like this is going to be a great school year, just as someone in a slasher movie might say this is going to be a great vacation out here in the wilderness. But meanwhile, despite all the pleasantness, there are undertones. Dark undertones. Hints of evil lurking in the near future. On occasion, ominous music plays (like the school chimes). Eventually you begin to wonder which of your teacher friends will be the first to go, and what back story will justify the actions of your psychotic students (overbearing mothers, traumas from the past, they witnessed poor classroom management as young children, etc.).

Keeping this in mind, I have my goal set for the year. Survival. I want nothing more than to make it to the end alive. Because the school year will soon disintegrate into Wolf Creek, and once that happens, I’d like to make sure the engine of my car is checked before all the crazy people start pulling on the door handles.

blog teacher dudeDay Two

Time: early September

Weather: slightly less hot than day one

Physical Appearance: wearing shirt and tie, unshaven, pimple on neck thankfully hidden by collar

It’s a curse to be blessed with talents in an area not of your choosing.

At the risk of sounding like an egomaniac, I’m a pretty darn good teacher. Damn good, even. I can run a class smoothly, limit behavior problems, and get the kids working. They have fun in my class and they cooperate. At times, I feel like this might be my calling. The kids are learning, everything is awesome, and, as much as I hate to admit, I’m sort of enjoying myself.

But, you see, all that is really bad. It’s devastating, actually. Because I never wanted to be a teacher. No, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I mean, who really aspires to be a teacher? No one. People aspire to be writers and end up as teachers. I spend my nights after school writing, slaving away at projects that never seem to get any closer to completion. That’s because, if I’m being honest with myself, my writing isn’t all that great. Sometimes things come out pretty decent and I’m satisfied, but it takes a lot of work and it never comes easy.

So this is my big problem. The torture of being good at something you didn’t ask to be good at. At work, on days where I have one excellent class after the next, I’m just more painfully aware that I’m a way better teacher than I am a writer. That this is my job, my profession, and the thing that I have all that passion for, well, that’s my hobby.

And then I start letting the writing slide, and spend my nights looking over lesson plans like a true loser.

'You're wasting your time. I like my job, but I'll never love it.'Day Three

Time: mid September

Weather: warm, nice pollution fog

Physical Appearance: checkered shirt and tie although I’m not sure they go together and feel somewhat self-conscious

Work can make a person’s dreams fade away.

This is what I’ve learned. Against my better judgment, I fear that I’ve become one of those people. You know the type. I spend hours of my free time doing things that relate to my job. When out with people, I talk about my job. When thinking, I think about my job. When dreaming, I dream about marshmallow people, but that’s only because I have no control over what I dream. Otherwise it would be my job. My job has become the one dominant focal point in my life, and I’m so ashamed of myself.

The real problem is that I’m happy. Yes, I know, it’s a catastrophe. Even though I complain a lot, I’m beginning to realize that I might (sigh) really like my line of work. I might even…dare I say…love it. Oh my God, how did this happen?  I’m like the person that gets kidnapped and then falls in love with their captor. I’m like Patty Hearst. At first I was kicking and screaming, and now I never want to be rescued.

My writing has completely stopped. I tell myself it was only a hobby anyways. I was born to be a teacher, and my lack of writing isn’t laziness…it’s destiny.

blog kids middle fingerDay Four

Time: late September

Weather: chilly, nipples slightly erect

Physical Appearance: wearing long grey trench coat, tell myself I look like Don Draper but think I look more like a flasher

A great thing happened today!

My class was terrible!

Absolutely terrible. The children were out of control, nobody learned anything, kids were giving each other the middle finger, and nobody did any work at all. I think these days are blessings. Granted, this is mostly because they’re few and far between, but when Wolf Creek happens, it’s kind of nice. It makes one pause and take a step back, look at the big picture for a moment.

This is my job. Not my life. I guess I need bad days to remind me of this. There are things that need to be written, projects that need to be completed, dreams that need to be chased. Without all that…I’d only have this job, this thing that pays me and takes up most of my time and occasionally involves children making lewd gestures at each other. And if that’s all I have…I’ll probably go crazy and end up in a looney bin trying to teach grammar in a straight jacket.

I sit in my room and smoke a cigarette. Then I open up my novel, which I haven’t looked at in almost a month. It sits on the same screen where my lesson plans have been a permanent fixture for the last five weeks.

Tomorrow the kids will probably be good again, and I’ll probably feel cocky about triumphantly completing my lesson on the future continuous tense. But for now I’ll write. I’ll take a few hours to dream. Because work is over and, technically, I’m not a teacher again until eight o’clock tomorrow morning.

*

Like Watching Turtles Choose Shells

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blog faceless mannequinIt’s a Saturday afternoon and I need a shirt. Really, I need much more than a shirt – a whole new wardrobe would be better, and maybe a stylist, and maybe an endless supply of socks – but whatever, on this day I’ll settle for a mere shirt. I take the 52 Bus to one of the many malls in Beijing, where I stumble upon a store called ‘Jack Jones.’ The place is darkly lit and features faceless mannequins with shiny non-faces that are better dressed that I’ve ever been in my life. They’re also much more muscle toned, and I debate whether or not I’d sacrifice having a face in exchange for better clothes and abs. Really, if someone looked like one of these Jack Jones mannequins, I’d be willing to bet that he’d score more dates than 2/3 of men with faces.

Anyways, I’ve noticed that there’s a Jack Jones in basically every Chinese mall I’ve stepped foot in. All of them, as though the malls of China are like those faceless mannequins, the exact same replicated mirror image being constructed over and over again. Go into a Beijing mall and you’ll be sure to find a KFC, the Japanese fast food joint Yoshinoya, a Jack Jones, a few clean bathrooms, a few nightmarishly unclean ones, and a strange emptiness that pervades the place and invokes sadness the same way your house might the day you move out of it.

blog waldo mallFor a country with 20% of the world’s population, the malls in China are surprisingly vacant and ghostly. Floor after floor, all connected by inconsistently functioning escalators, you’ll find clean and open space, territory unclaimed, stores sitting idle and bored. At an H & M in Dongzhimen, I explored the racks of clothes completely alone while the salespeople stocked the already overstocked shelves. Or, wandering aimlessly around the mall in Xizhimen, I passed by the same t-shirt shop probably a dozen times, never seeing anyone, consumer or employee, inhabiting it. Then there’s the strange mall around Lishuiqiao station, which requires a short pilgrimage from the subway, a ten minute walk down a desolate road where hopeful shoppers slowly move in droves, staggering in the direction of the mall with the enthusiasm and countenance of someone forced down the Trail of Tears in 1831. 

That’s what I’m thinking as I step into Jack Jones. Immediately, only seconds after I enter, a young Chinese woman in her work uniform approaches me.

“Ni hao!” she smiles. “JACK JONES!”

She nearly screams it, as though she’s shouting out his name in orgasm.

“Yes,” I say, unsure of how to respond. She smiles and walks away, only to be replaced by another shop girl, this one also flashing an oddly frightening smile.

“Hello!” she says in English.

“Hi.”

“Jack Jones!”

“You’ve got that right,” I say.

blog men explore outfitsShe doesn’t say anything else, but parks herself directly next to me. This makes me feel incredibly uncomfortable, awkward, having this salesgirl shadowing me, and I walk towards the back of the store hoping that she won’t follow. My plan doesn’t work. Keeping a safe distance of a few feet, she glides to the back of the store after me, like I’m the sound and she’s the echo. I try and try but I can’t lose her. All these shirts and sweater vests, I can’t even think, all I’m aware of is this stupid salesgirl three feet to my right. She recommends a green flannel shirt and I run. I dart through two full racks of clothes, a tight squeeze, praying that she’ll get stuck between them, but she doesn’t, and moments later she’s practically on my back, the closest I’ll come all day to wearing anything from the store.

I know, I know. This is good customer service, right? I tell myself that. This girl has devoted so much attention to me, it’s amazing, the polar opposite of the neglectful clerks working back home at JC Penny or TJ Maxx. Still, I hate it. I just want to be left alone, by myself, so I can pick something that I personally think is hip, even if it makes me look like I belong in a New Kids on the Block video. It would probably be difficult for her to understand any of this. I don’t really want to be helped. I’d prefer the freedom to fashionably sink or swim on my own.

Without saying anything, I quickly make my way out of the store. I don’t look back to see if she’s tried to follow me. I can still hear that name in my head, over and over, the way they kept saying it.

Jack Jones.

Jack Jones.

Jack Jones.

It’s almost like a siren call, pulling me back. I mean, maybe I should go back, I have no new shirt, and I’m not sure where else to go. But none of that matters, because I’ve returned to the embrace of this empty shopping mall and I’m sure I can find some store, somewhere in the deserted landscape, where the only thing that will tell me I don’t look good in a pink cashmere sweater is the mirror.

*

Sunday Thoughts on Books and Flies

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blog fliesIt’s Sunday afternoon in China and I feel a strange sense of optimism today. Happiness. I think I generally feel this way when my apartment is clean. That’s sort of the key to happiness, I think. Being able to keep your place in a condition that most human beings would want to live in. There have been times in the past when I’ve allowed my apartment to turn monstrous, clothes all over the floor and rotting vegetables on the counter. It’s hard to be happy when that’s what you’ve got. Show me an upbeat individual that’s always smiling, and I’ll show you a person that knows when to throw away lettuce.

Last night it really poured here. Torrential downpour. I sat on my bed and tried to write a blog about people falling in love in Taco Bell, but I just couldn’t concentrate because there was a stupid fly and it kept landing on me. This may sound like an excuse, but it’s really what happened. I literally couldn’t write because this fly kept landing on my knees. And it’s presence wasn’t even logical, because my apartment is finally clean for once and I thought that would mean the flies would go away or something.

So I ended up chasing the fly around my apartment, trying to kill it with a paperback copy of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. The fly kept landing in various locations and I would slam the book down only to realize that the fly had dodged the blow, flown off split-seconds before the words “65 Million Copies Sold” came crashing down on its face. It reminded me of action movies, where the villain fires like 80 bullets at the hero and they all miss. That’s how I felt trying to kill the fly. It was frustrating and it made me wonder if I’m a villainous person, because if I was the good guy, I would probably be able to kill an entire army of flies by myself without much trouble.

Eventually I gave up and decided I’d just have to accept that the fly was going to land on me every few minutes. It was a really smart fly, actually – I mean, landing exclusively on the person trying to kill you is probably the best way to avoid death. Not like I was going to slam The Alchemist into my own head or anything. But then I started thinking about books, and I realized something I hadn’t thought of before.

blog bookI’m not the type to get all romantic about real, actual books versus electronic books. I don’t care about the feel of a book in my hands or any of the stuff I’ve heard friends say. But there is something neat about how a book can become something else in one’s day to day life. I thought about how much goofy nonsense I use books for. I use books as paperweights; I use books as decorations; I’ve used a book as a fan on a hot day; I sometimes use books to put on top of chairs to reach things; I’ve used a book as a pillow before; I use books to kill flies. And that’s what I would love to someday accomplish myself. To write something that becomes old and battered, that a person might scribble something on the inside cover of or put under a wobbly chair leg. Because that’s when your book has really become a part of somebody’s life. When it’s not just about words and themes and all that literary stuff, but is the difference between sitting comfortable and falling over.

These are the things I’m contemplating this Sunday afternoon. The fly seems to have somehow left the apartment, which makes me nervous because I don’t know how it did that and now I believe there must be some hidden entrance/escape route somewhere. Whatever. I’m glad that it’s finally gone. I imagine that it’s in someone else’s apartment, and I wonder what bestseller that person is using to smash the damn thing into oblivion.

Awkwardness at the Meetup Event

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blog meetup sticker“Have you ever gone to a Meetup thing?” Cooper asks me. He’s trying to put together plans for the weekend, figure out something for us to do.

“No,” I say. “What’s a Meetup thing?”

“It’s when you go someplace and a bunch of strangers go there too and you socialize. The point is to meet new people.”

“So it’s the same as going to a regular bar, only you don’t have to come up with an excuse to talk to people.”

“Basically,” he says. “Everybody at a Meetup thing signs up before hand and you wear name tags.”

“Where did you find out about this?”

“On the Internet,” he says. This is no surprise. The Internet seems to have been created to help strange people meet each other. “Anyways, there’s a Meetup thing in Seoul Saturday night. It might be interesting.”

“Right on,” I say. “I’m in.”

How I remember it looking.

How I remember it looking.

A few days later Saturday rolls around and Cooper and I hit up the Meetup event. We arrive an hour late. Enough time, we feel, to seem cool. As soon as we walk in we realize the place is packed. There are tables full of people, all talking to each other. The Meetup organizers are in the front and we pay them a cover fee, then get name tag stickers to place on our shirts like we work at Staples.

“Okay guys,” the Meetup organizer says. “Now go around and meet people!”

This is easier said than done. There are no empty tables and everyone seems to be locked in conversation with whoever they’re sitting with. Cooper and I go to the bar and buy beers. Then we circle around the place two or three more times.

“We should’ve come earlier,” he says. “There aren’t any tables.”

“Should we go and sit with someone?”

“I don’t know, man.”

“Have you ever come to one of these things before?”

“No, man.”

“I think we’re supposed to sit and talk with people,” I say, looking around. “Who do you want to talk to?”

“Nobody, bro,” Cooper says.

“Dude, why did we come to this if you don’t want to talk to anybody?”

“I have no idea. Do you want to talk to anybody?”

“No, not really.”

We go outside and smoke cigarettes. About fifteen minutes have passed since we arrived.

blog meet new people“You want to check out someplace else?” Cooper asks.

“We just got here,” I say. “We’re going to look like the two most anti-social people in the history of Meetup.”

“I don’t care. This sucks.”

“Well, let’s just go back in and talk to somebody. One person. I don’t care who it is. I feel like we paid the cover so we should at least say something to one other person.”

“Cool,” he says. “Then we’ll leave.”

Putting our cigarettes out, we open the door and go back into the Meetup event. We decide to stand in the corner. Eventually a Korean girl comes over and talks to us for a few minutes, then leaves to go talk to people who are actually friendly.

“She was cool,” I say.

“Whatever,” Cooper says. “This place is whack.”

Right as we’re about to go, a big Korean guy comes over to us. He’s young and speaks a little English and he begins asking us questions.

Q1: “Where are you from?”

Q2: “Do you like Korean food?”

Q3: “Do you like kimchi?”

The Meetup event has now become torture. I mean, yeah, the guy is nice and everything – super friendly – but I just don’t want to have this conversation. A few times I elaborate on my answers and he becomes lost, unable to understand things when they drift too far from the short answers he expects.

“It’s nice to meet you,” I say. “But we have to go.”

I look at Cooper and nod my head towards the door.

blog is never good for you“Okay,” the friendly guy says. “What is your number? I will text you.”

“Um,” I say, “I just got my phone. I don’t have a number yet.”

He looks at Cooper.

“Yeah, me too,” Cooper says.

The friendly guy smiles, totally unfazed.

“What is your Kakao Talk ID?”

Cooper and I exchange glances. We both mumble the same thing.

“Yeah, sorry man, we don’t have Kakao Talk.”

Obviously it’s a lie. We’ve both been on our phones half the night. I hope the friendly guy didn’t notice this.

“I see,” he says. “I will friend you on Facebook.”

“Oh, shoot, we don’t use Facebook.”

It’s awful. Downright shameful. We shake the guy’s hand and slide by him out of the place. Afterwards, I can’t help but feel really bad.

Here’s the deal – it’s one thing to reject someone’s romantic interests…but to blatantly reject someone’s friendship is way worse. We’d basically just told that guy that we had absolutely no interest in whatever he had to offer. No interest in chatting. Hanging out. No interest in getting to know him. No interest in merely having each other on Facebook and never communicating apart from liking some status updates. None of that. No, we’d rather lie and make up stories than enter into anything resembling even the slightest of friendships with this guy.

And all this was at an event where the purpose was to make new friends. I felt terrible, maybe worse than I’ve felt breaking up with someone.

“I think we just failed at Meetup,” I say.

Cooper shrugs. We go to another bar, one where the people stand there silently ignoring each other, and everyone seems comfortable.

*

You’re Stunning, Mr. Cabbie! No…I Mean It…You’re Literally Stunning Me!

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blog donkey in cabLiving in China can be bizarre. In the three years that I lived in South Korea, I thought that I existed in some strange parallel universe that only vaguely connected to the rest of the world. Silly me. Compared to China, South Korea feels like one of the quirkier states in the US, like how I imagine Portland or Louisiana being. Weird but with a certain degree of charm. China, while absolutely possessing charms of its own, is not really like that.

That’s because China has an overall ambience of lawlessness and disorder that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. Everyone knows that China is a “communist” country. I knew that. But it turned out, when I got here, that communist countries aren’t all how I imagined them being. For starters, there’s not much in terms of propaganda in China. I’ve been here over a year, and I still wouldn’t be able to tell the president apart from some guy working in a corner store. There are no huge pictures of the blog kim jong unpresident plastered across buildings the way North Korea dresses the country up in Kim Jong Un. Likewise, there’s no sense that people are ‘sharing the wealth’ here, not the way my high school history teacher taught me communist countries are supposed to. No, just like in America, a few people here appear to be really rich, and everyone else is broke as hell.

Especially cabbies. Or, in reality, older guys with cars. Because that’s what most cabbies are. You see, China is so extremely deregulated, almost anyone can do whatever job they want to do. Have no training but you own a pair of scissors? Great! You are now a hair dresser. Want to run a restaurant but you’re worried about inspections and getting a good sanitation score? Don’t sweat it! As long as you don’t kill anyone, nobody is going to bother stepping foot in your kitchen. And even if you do kill someone, just stop serving whatever dish they ordered and I’m sure things will work out fine.

By the same token, owning a car is all you really need to do in order to become a cabbie. Yes, there are real cabs here that have meters and a thing on the roof that says ‘taxi,’ but they’re vastly outnumbered by what are generally referred to as ‘black cabs.’ Getting a black cab is easy and can result in a truly exciting experience. Instead of generalizing, I will instead illustrate this with a quick story:

It was about three in the morning, and I was ready to go back to the hotel. My friends were still out, drinking and partying in Sanlitun. But I was tired. So I made my way to the street and hailed down a cab. I knew right away that it wasn’t a legal cab. I did not care. After some confusion regarding where I needed to go (don’t expect an illegal cab to have things like translation or a GPS), the cabbie put the car in drive and we hit the road.

blog cab gullable touristAbout ten minutes later, we were at my hotel. Thinking back, I knew I should’ve bargained the price before we set out. I hadn’t done that because I wasn’t in the mood and also because I didn’t have a good idea of how far away the hotel was. Anyways, now that we had reached the destination, I turned to the cabbie and asked him how much he wanted for the ride.

“100!” he loudly stated.

I almost burst out in laughter.

“100 RMB for a ten minute cab ride? That’s insane! I’ll give you 20.”

This did not please him. The cabbie was probably in his sixties, an old man with thin arms and a bald head. He gave me the look of death and shouted out his next price.

“50!”

“Now way, man!” I said. “25.”

We argued a little more and then, although he spoke only in Chinese, I could tell that he was threatening to turn around and bring me back to Sanlitun.

“Fine, bring me back,” I said. “I’m not paying 50.”

He yelled in Chinese and started turning the car around. Then he stopped and began negotiating again.

“This is stupid,” I said, and I turned and tried to open the door. It was locked. I moved my hand to the lock and pulled it up.

blog stun gunYou’re right. Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to leave the cab. My bad. The next thing I knew, his bony little fingers were yanking at my collar. I turned to see him reach under his car seat, remove a stun gun, and proceed to stick it in my face.

“What the hell, man?” I said. “Are you serious?”

He was so elderly. I figured I could’ve easily taken his wrist and snapped it in half, then beaten him with his own hand. But I’m a nice guy. I instead offered another price.

“35. Okay?”

“Okay!”

He still had the stupid stun gun in my face.

“Dude, I’m not paying you shit until you put that thing away! Put it away!”

The cabbie returned the stun gun to its spot under the seat, I paid him the 35, and he let me go. I went to my hotel room and found that my friends had somehow gotten there first.

So what’s the point of all this? That illegal cabs are bad? That China is crazy and unsafe? Nope, that’s not it at all.

The point is simply to say that people who are firmly against government regulation of the business world might not understand exactly what they’re getting themselves into. Deregulation is fine in theory, and even in practice, actually. As long as you don’t mind fighting with cabbies from time to time.

Or getting bad haircuts.

Or being served fake tequila in bars.

Or having a restaurant cook your food with reused oil.

Or having the air so thick with pollution you can barely breathe.

Just think about it. As shady as the beef at Taco Bell is, it could be shadier.

*     

How Thai Curry Helped Me Conquer My Fears

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blog funnier plane crashI’ve never been good at flying. In fact, every time I step onto a plane, I immediately transform into a crying little baby. Everything about flying terrifies me – the sounds and the movements and the existence of phrases such as ‘shoe bomber.’ Whenever the plane makes a loud noise, I panic and crotch down, assuming the crash position while everybody else quietly naps. If the plane hits a patch of turbulence, my hands shake and I start praying to God like I’m the Pope or Kirk Cameron or someone. And on landings I’m a total disaster, allowing my mind to envision images of wreckage and wondering if my chipped tooth will help the authorities identify my remains.

So it was with some trepidation that I embarked on what would be about nine hours of flying, from Japan to Singapore, with a layover in Kaula Lumpur. This was on the Scoot airline, which I’d never heard of, and whose goofy name inspired about as much confidence as the phrase “Directed by Alan B. Smithee” does appearing in the opening credits of a movie. United Airlines? Air Asia? Now those don’t sound like airlines that would crash. But Scoot? It’s bound to go down. Let’s just say for a second that these airlines were stocks: who on earth wouldn’t choose to invest their money in American Airlines or Air Asia over Scoot? Investing in Scoot would be ridiculous, like pouring all your savings into a company called Boners Inc.

blog flying cartoon not confidentAll that’s to say, I was a nervous wreck the second the plane took off. I tried to stay cool, flipped through the airplane magazine looking at the pictures, and then I just waited for them to come around with the drinks. And then I waited some more. And some more.

See, Scoot is what’s called a “low cost airline.” That means that all the stuff you expect the airline to do for free – like checking your bag or giving you a thimble of orange juice – is not free anymore. This is how low cost airlines make their money. The tickets are mad cheap, but then you have to buy everything. That’s their clever racket.

“There’s no meal with this flight, right?” I asked the flight attendant, already knowing the answer. “Like, I mean, I have to pay for it.”

“Hahaha, of course!” the flight attendant said, laughing at my foolish question. “There’s a menu right in front of you. We take Japanese yen or Malaysian ringgit or Singapore dollars or credit cards or gold or kidneys or anything else that has value, really – whatever’s most convenient for you.”

I sighed. If only I wasn’t so tight with money, then maybe it wouldn’t have mattered. But I’m cheap, or ‘frugal’ as I like to say, and so this meant that I was going to try and make it through the nine hours without eating, and save money and to spite Scoot and their games. I figured if people can make it through periods of fasting, like Ramadan, then I could get through one flight.

As it turned out, I was wrong. My commitment to frugality didn’t last long. Yes, if this was Ramadan, a mere five hours would’ve passed before I threw in the turban.

“I’m starving,” I said to myself. “I can’t take it anymore. Scoot has defeated me in our war of cheapness.”

blog thai curryDisappointed, I called the stewardess over and ordered the curry meal listed in the menu. She disappeared into the back, then returned only to tell me some bad news.

“It’s going to be about twenty minutes. Is that okay?”

“Sure,” I said. “That’s fine.”

As it would turn out, by ‘twenty minutes,’ she really meant ‘an infinite amount of time that cannot be measured.’ Twenty minutes went by with no sign of the curry’s arrival. I was dying, wiggling around in the chair and staring helplessly at the back of the plane.

'I thought we'd never break through those clouds!'And then, what had been my worst fear began to come true. Suddenly, the entire plane jerked. It was sharp enough to produce an audible gasp from the crowd. The jerk was followed by another jerk, then another. Within seconds, the seatbelt sign went on and the pilot was making an announcement.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve turned on the seatbelt sign,” he said. “We just hit a pretty rough patch of turbulence. All passengers and crew please be seated.”

blog shatnerNow, normally this would be a complete nightmare. Normally, I would have been screaming and freaking out like Shatner in the Twilight Zone. But this time, while the plane bobbed and weaved, all I could think about was eating.

“This better not affect the curry,” I thought, looking at the seated flight attendants. “They better get their asses up and go get it. I don’t care if we’re crashing.”

It was probably the worst turbulence I’d ever experienced and yet I had no anxiety whatsoever. My fear had been displaced, my thoughts spiraling all around the hunger I felt. I began to realize that maybe I’d stumbled onto something brilliant. Maybe fear could be replaced by other things – hunger, thirst, a need to go to the bathroom, the physical discomfort of tight underpants. Minor physical sensations that could work as a distraction, could displace neurotic anxiety, sending one’s focus onto an alternate outcome (eating curry, obtaining water, etc.) that would assist them in achieving the original desired outcome (making it through a flight, robbing a bank, etc.).

The plane was still unsteady when the curry arrived. I couldn’t have been happier. I knew I’d done it – I had conquered my fear, and I’d even gotten a side of brown rice to go with it.

*   

Destiny Can Be So Overrated

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blog hippie guyI might not have noticed them had he played guitar better. There were three of them, sitting together in the hot sun. This was on the island of Gili Trawangan, about an hours boat ride off the coast of Bali. I was there with my girlfriend, S___, while the three strangers sat about fifteen feet from us, the sound of the guitar and their voices coming together into some sort of off-key musical jamboree.

I like the way you walk,” the girl sang. She was white with braided brown hair that sat on the top of her head like the trays of fruit the island women carried. “I like the way you walk, I like the way you talk, oh Susie Q.”

blog bali woman thing on headThe dude playing guitar had blonde hair and a blonde beard, a tan body and the type of posture that suggested he’d spent his life abstaining from laziness. The other guy had all the same features as the first guy – blonde, beard, no slouch to read into – but lacked the first guy’s charisma. They were like two photographs of the same person. The first guy was the picture in which the subject is smiling and has his eyes nicely opened, while the second guy was the picture in which the subject’s mouth is woefully crooked and the eyes have just shut, making the subject look drugged.

“It must be the guitar,” I figured, trying to determine what exactly made the first guy more charming.

Whatever the reason, the brown-haired girl seemed to agree. If she was a moon, she would clearly have been in his orbit and not the other guy’s. She continued to sing as he haphazardly plucked away at the guitar strings.

Give me one reason to stay here,” she sang, stopping now and then when the guitar player screwed up, making it sound as if she was singing while having the hiccups. “And…I’ll…turn right…back around.”

Gili Trawangan photoMore time passed and I wondered why I was drawn to watching them. They were really bad, the guitar and vocals all over the place, and yet they appeared to be having a blast. The girl had this huge smile on her face. The guy with the guitar beamed at her. And the other guy drummed away on his thighs with his fingers and nodded his head like he was witnessing a Lennon/McCarthy songwriting session.

“How cool,” I thought. “They don’t give a shit. They truly don’t. They just dig the vibes of the beach and the island and the music. I think I love them.”

It was about then that S___ turned to me and said she was hungry. She’d spent the last few days eating fruit and island coconuts while I gorged on hamburgers and beer, sort of providing a hint in case any of our waiters were wondering which of us would die first. The sun was starting to go down anyways, and so we got up and went back to the hotel, showered and dressed and assessed the severity of our sunburns.

The whole time, I kept thinking about the trio we’d seen on the beach. I wanted to know more about them. Where did they come from? What did they do? Were they really as free and divorced from the working world, the paycheck world, the non-island world, as they appeared to be?

blog adorable kittenS___ and I walked back down the beach, looking at menus and dodging stray cats. That’s an important part of the story. All her life, S___ has been terrified of cats. They fill her with an irrational sense of terror, similar to how Anne Coulter fears soccer. Every so often I’d point and shout ‘cat!’ and S___ would duck behind me so that an oncoming kitten wouldn’t brush her leg with its adorable head.

Anyways, we ended up eating at a place called Ocean 2, right by the water. We ordered our food and that’s when I looked to my right and saw them, the same trio of people from earlier on the beach. They were seated at a table diagonal from us, the girl sitting next to the guitar player. She was still smiling, he was still shirtless, and the other guy was still there. I ordered some Thai curry and a beer and began wondering if there was more to this than simple coincidence. If maybe, just perhaps, they’d popped up again for a greater purpose, something deeper. To any extent, I definitely enjoyed spying on them.

blog hippie loveThe girl was so drawn to this guy and yet he seemed oblivious. Wait, no, not oblivious, it was more that he was extremely cool about it. He just kept doing his thing, drank his water, chilled out, didn’t desperately try to return her flirtations. I liked the dynamic he’d created. They were obviously going to sleep together but there wasn’t anything sleazy about it at all. They weren’t using each other for pleasure or for ego. This was more real. More natural. They were two people simply being together for one specific moment in time, making a connection.

I drank my beer and secretly nodded in appreciation, although I still wasn’t sure what greater purpose their presence suggested. A few minutes later, I heard the loud, conspicuous cry of a beach cat. Since we were at an ocean front restaurant, it wasn’t unusual for the beach cats to wander around the tables begging for scraps of food. The cat cried again and I saw S___’s eyes widen with horror.

“Where is it?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, sure that it was close.

blog scary catIt cried again. We both knew exactly where it was.

“It’s under my chair!” S___ shouted. After that she screamed. “Aaaaaaaaagh!”

The whole restaurant turned to look. Some people laughed. I took S___’s hand and told her to breathe, that she was okay. And then it happened.

Fate stepped in.

blog fate is sealedThe shirtless guitar guy calmly leaned over and held his hand out. He made kissy sounds with his lips. The cat slinked its way out from under S___’s chair, over to his fingertips. He dropped some bits of fish down on the ground for the cat to come eat. While it did, one of the restaurant staff picked the cat up and bounced it out of there like it was an unruly drunk ass customer.

I was stunned. There it was, my proof that the trio had indeed been brought into our lives for a greater purpose. That purpose being to save my girlfriend from a kitten.

“That’s it?” I thought, a bit disappointed and let down. “That was the greater purpose? To distract a kitten with fish?”

blog coincidenceThen I thought that maybe that’s how fate works. Maybe we all want fate to appear in ways that will change our lives forever, when actually fate just does things so miniscule it’s barely noticeable. Maybe all the great big things in life come about due to hard work or knowing the right people or just plain coincidence, and all the small bits of shrug-worthy minutiae, maybe those are fate.

Met your future husband at the pizza place?

Coincidence. 

Had some guy pick up your sunglasses after they fell out of your pocket on the bus?

Fate. 

The next morning I saw them again at breakfast. It was only the two this time, the guitar guy and the girl. She still smiled. He still avoided shirts. They both still beamed at each other. Like a couple in love. Like two people that were free from everything.

I guess that’s what their significance was. Just to be there, and to not look like everybody else.

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