China Bans Halloween and Steals My Ties

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blog china bans halloweenIt’s been a hectic week here at Topiclessbar, as the Chinese government has stepped in twice recently, prohibiting me from taking public transport in a Halloween costume and from wearing a nice stylish tie. That’s how China rolls sometimes. While other, more intelligent writers can document the massive, sweeping oppressions of the Chinese government over its people, I shall instead document two instances of relatively minor oppression that are more odd than infuriating.

Let’s start with the ties.

When shopping for ties in Beijing, one basically has two options. Either you can pay a ridiculously high price at a department store, or you can go to a black market and haggle. Now, personally, I absolutely hate haggling, so that’s out of the question. I’m just very uncomfortable with it. Even when I do successfully get the price I want, I still somehow feel as though I’ve been ripped off. Anyways, I needed ties and the two methods I just mentioned seemed unappealing. So I ordered ties online, which I thought would be an easy alternative.

Yeah, not so much.

Thanks to UPS tracking, I’ve learned that my shipment of five ties and two pocket squares has been detained at customs. Why? Well, perhaps China has something against pocket squares that aren’t pre-sewn into the suit. Or, more likely, they just want to milk more money out of me and my imported ties, as there’s a message on the UPS thing about how I need to pay some sort of fee to get my ties out of detention. My ties have been held hostage in a warehouse for almost two weeks now. Whether or not I ever set them free is anyone’s guess. In the meantime, I’ll stick to sweaters.

Now on to Halloween.

For years, the Beijing expat community has famously held its “Halloween Subway Party” on Line 2 of the Beijing subway. The idea is fun and simple: people dress in costumes and meet up on one particular subway platform, and then they sort of take over the subway car and have a costume party while riding the public transportation system. Line 2 is a loop, and eventually everyone gets off and the party continues. This has become something of its own tradition and there have never been any incidents of lawbreaking or disorderly conduct. But Halloween costumes are frightening, and so obviously the government had to step in and put the kibosh on the whole thing.

Here is the (somewhat confusing) statement that was released Friday prior to the subway party:

“Beijing transit police crew, tonight is Halloween to western traditional festivals. In order to avoid panic caused by subway, Beijing Subway will ban the costume or terrorist makeup in the passenger station. {People who} refuse to correct and thereby causing serious consequence may be detained.”

The news of the Halloween costume ban spread quickly. I’m not sure if anyone tried to get on the subway anyways, but I decided to stay away, as going to jail for dressing like Luigi from Mario Bros wasn’t how I wanted to spend my Friday night. I didn’t hear any stories of mass arrests the next day, although I did find this amusing photograph posted on We Chat. It’s a guy in a panda outfit getting taken away by a police man.

blog panda

Why ban Halloween costumes, you ask? Who knows? Because they have the power to, I guess. And, you know, who wants any kind of chaos on the Beijing subway? Cause usually it’s pretty low key and orderly.

blog chaos on subway

Okay, that’s all for now. The two lessons to take away from this blog post are as follows:

  1. It’s hard to buy ties in China, so just wear your D.A.R.E. or your Coed Naked Golf t-shirt to work.
  1. Halloween costumes (especially pandas) are scary and synonymous with terrorist activities. Be on the lookout for Isis members at your local costume or party store.

Hope everybody had a great holiday! See ya!

(Credit to Beijing comic Frank Monday for making the panda meme)

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30 Seconds at Stonehenge

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blog stonehengeOur bus was stuck well outside of London. An hour earlier, I’d been standing at the foot of the Roman Baths, looking down into the murky green water and seeing my silhouette floating on the surface like it was a rubber duck. That was neat, but now I was sitting in the window seat of a bus, right next to an older man from the States, a vet from the Korean War who had a camera dangling around his neck the same way rappers used to wear gold chains. I’d use the word “trapped” to describe what it was like being on that bus, only I actually liked the war vet sitting next to me and so I refrain from using such rhetoric, as to not offend him should he ever read this. Our conversation was pleasant, his stories interesting, and so, instead of saying “trapped,” I’ll instead use the phrase “charmingly immobilized.”

I looked at his camera and thought about how it, in its small digital cartridge, held exactly the same images that I did in my memory. The halls of Windsor Castle, with their grand excess. The city of Bath and its lovely medieval charm. But what we were waiting for, all three of us – me, the vet, and his camera – was the last stop on our guided bus tour, the mysterious monument known as Stonehenge.

stonehenge spinal tapIn truth, I’d wanted to see Stonehenge mostly because I’m a big fan of the movie This is Spinal Tap and any mentioning of Stonehenge makes me giggle. This was my motivation. Not to see an ancient monument shrouded in mystery, but instead to see the thing Nigel Tufnel drew too small on a napkin and some midgets almost knocked over. While we sat motionless in traffic, I kept myself excited by repeating the lyrics to the song in my head.

“Stonehenge/Where a man is a man/And the children dance to the pipes of Pan.”

The man running our tour was a handsome English chap around the age of sixty named Owen. He wore a bowler hat and made clever jokes, which is exactly how I assumed the British people would act. Thirty minutes into the Bath traffic jam, Owen got on the bus’ PA.

“Yes, it seems we’re a bit stuck at the moment,” he said, “but rest assured, we will be arriving at the great enigma that is Stonehenge within the next hour or so.”

Then, two hours later, he was back on the PA. “Ladies and gentlemen, I am relieved to inform you that we’ll be arriving at Stonehenge shortly. Regrettably, we’ll be arriving approximately fifteen minutes before the park closes. So please, be quick, enjoy the monument, take your pictures, and move swiftly towards the exit.”

Soon the bus pulled up at the entrance to Stonehenge and Owen rushed us off. People were literally running from the bus door to the entrance gate, the staff at Stonehenge looking woefully displeased at our arrival.

“We close in ten minutes,” one of them shouted. “Take one picture and go!”

And so this would be my experience at Stonehenge. I walked rapidly down the roped path, stopping now and then to snap photographs of the tall grey stones. My mind raced through thoughts of druids and sun dials and Michael McKean in a blonde wig. The sun was setting and the Stonehenge staff ushered our tour group in a large circle around the monument. I thought of rituals, ancient ones, the druids gathering around Stonehenge and doing whatever the heck they did, and then I thought about how lame our rituals have gotten, going from spiritual and mystical to just plain reasonable and economical, the ritual of clearing out the last tour group from the Stonehenge site so that the workers can go home without having to get paid overtime.

blog stonehenge vacationBack on the bus, I looked through my photographs. There it was, Stonehenge, locked in my camera, only a hundred or so pictures after a shirtless selfie I took of myself in the hotel. I’d only spent about seven minutes at Stonehenge, and while I felt as though the place required more time…maybe it didn’t. I mean, what else was there to do? What would I have done there with, say, an hour? Try to climb the rocks? Stare at them more? Knock them over in dominos fashion like Clark Griswold?

Perhaps, despite the weight of the place’s name and reputation, a few minutes was all one really needed to grasp the complexity of Stonehenge. Maybe this place – while iconic and world famous – required less time to take in than an episode of Saved by the Bell.

Stonehenge was a quickie. A satisfying quickie. I thought of other things, tried to make a quick list of everything that takes longer to enjoy than Stonehenge. A Starbucks coffee. A hot shower. Listening to one Grateful Dead song or three songs by the Ramones. Scratching an itch that’s been driving you crazy, located somewhere in the middle of your back.

I thought about how people say life is short and, as I did, Owen got back on the PA and apologized, saying he wished we had had more time.

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The Black Elephant of Death

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blog black elephant of deathIt was well after two in the morning and the pain in my stomach was only getting worse. The room was completely dark and I clung to the blankets, felt the sweat dripping down my forehead. Hours had passed since the nausea and the pain set in. I’d spent most of that time in the bathroom, where I’d gone through an entire roll of toilet paper like it was Halloween and I’d just covered a house.

I would later discover that I was suffering from what is known as “Bali Belly.” It’s a common condition in which the food in Bali, Indonesia, causes a person, typically a tourist, to empty out their insides through any and all willing orifices. ‘Bali Belly’ got me my second night in Ubud, after I’d eaten some mahi-mahi and washed it down with several Bintang bears. This seemed enjoyable at the time. Little did I know I’d just mixed a lethal cocktail, a more expensive and exotic version of ipecac.

blog bali bellyBut all these epiphanies didn’t come to light until later. All I knew at the time, or prognosticated I should say, was that I’d been food poisoned and I couldn’t stop going to the bathroom. Internally, I wished it would stop and that this had happened to the Julia Roberts character in Eat. Pray. Love. during one of those romantic nights with Javier Bardem. Because that would’ve been amusing. As with the the title of that book, I myself had in fact eaten and now I was praying, although I did not believe there would be any love taking place, especially since I was out of tp.

Externally, I wished that someone would help me. My girlfriend sat up in bed and asked me if I needed to see a doctor.

“No,” I said. “I just have to stay hydrated. That’s how food poisoning kills you, you know? Dehydration. As long as I’m drinking water, I won’t drop dead.”

“Stop it,” she said. “You’re not going to die. You’re being dramatic.”

That was quite an accusation and, after protesting briefly, I ran to the bathroom again. When I returned, my stomach felt much better (that’s how the cycle works) and I curled up in the bed to try and get some sleep. This would prove futile. Ten minutes went by and I was back in hell again, sweating and shaking, bent over in torturous pain in our darkened room.

Turning onto my back, I looked across the room and I thought I could see – damn it, I really do believe I saw it – an enormous elephant standing there. I know how that sounds but bear with me. It was huge and black and had tusks the color of coal. The elephant hovered over the bed, its colossal head filling the air above me, its trunk dangling by the luggage that sat at the foot of the bed.

“Oh my God,” I said. “It’s here. The Black Elephant of Death. It’s come to take me.”

“What?” my girlfriend mumbled, half-asleep.

The size of the animal was terrifying. I sprang out of bed and flipped the lights on, my heart pounding. To my relief, the elephant disappeared with the darkness. I fell back on the bed, my head spinning and my body woozy.

I grabbed my cell phone and quickly Googled food poisoning in Bali. The first headline jumped out at me and grabbed me by my upset stomach linings.

AUSTRALIAN MOTHER AND DAUGHTER DIE OF FOOD POISONING AFTER EATING FISH IN BALI

blog food poisoingEating fish? I’d eaten fish! I shook my girlfriend awake and told her that this was it, the end for me. Coolly and calmly, she got dressed and walked to the nearest convenience store, where she purchased some pills to help my stomach. I was still panicking when she returned; she gave me the pills with some water and twenty minutes later I was fine and fell asleep and dreamt about the Indonesian transvestite show we’d seen earlier in the night.

In the morning I began to understand things. I thought about the Internet and the Australian mother and daughter and I thought about paranoia and how I’d searched out something to legitimize my worst fears and I’d found it. Rather easily too. Maybe that’s one of the dangerous things about the Internet. That one can search for something, trying to locate support for whatever argument they have, and they can probably find it. Whatever terrifying thing that you’ve imagined, someone else has likely imagined it too, and has written about it online. There are people in the world that live in states of permanent paranoia, terrified that the world is evil and out to get them, and for those people, the Internet will always tell them that they’re right.

blog elephant number twoTake the Black Elephant of Death, for instance. Of course there isn’t such a thing. It’s ridiculous and totally moronic. But now, as soon as I publish this, it will go into the cyber world, where it will be real. Witnessed. Maybe in another year someone else will do a search for it, some other idiot that thinks an elephant god in Bali has come to claim his soul.

And to that person, I only have this to say:

The Black Elephant of Death is real. Don’t try to fight him. You’re screwed.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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