And then…

It may or may not be apparent in reading my blog but there are very few things that have the power to make me genuinely happy to be alive.

That is not some confession of crippling depression on my part but a statement of fact — life, in general, is not something I have very strong feelings about.  Existence, as such, simply is.  DFW has that thing about the fish in the water — this is water, this is water, this is water — and he’s right when he says you have to make a concerted effort to realize, at every single moment of your life, that not only do you exist, but you are surrounded by other people that exist, and this in and of itself is pretty damn amazing.

Sometimes there are artists who help me realize this.  They are the ones who affect me the most strongly, the ones I feel the most affection for.  Shakespeare is one of them.  Satoshi Kon is another.

I am not saying Kon was Shakespeare’s equal or anything, but that for me, at least, he was a remarkably important storyteller.  When I heard he died today, I was upset — about as upset as you can be about the death of a person whom you’ve never met and can’t really make any sort of personal judgment on.  I didn’t cry or weep or anything, but I was disheartened in knowing that one of the few bright lights in the pantheon of pop culture I constantly ingest had gone out.

Kon liked fantasy.  He liked showing us how cool fantasy could be, but also how dangerous — how our fantasies can consume us.  When I was in high school, for various personal reasons, this became a very important idea to me.  For other reasons it still is, because I deal in fantasy.  I study fantasy for a living, in a sense, and my eventual desire is to teach it to others.  And our fantasies, the little stories we tell ourselves, can have incredibly important impacts on what constitutes real life.  Kon helped me realize this, and he helped me realize it without being some sort of materialist reactionary.

He knew, I think, that fantasies can be dangerous, but they are also humanizing.  His film Tokyo Godfathers is one of my favorites, and probably near the top on my list of “things that are important to me as a human being.”  I watch it every Christmas.  While it’s his least fantastical movie, I think it’s his best, because it’s the one where I think you see the painful beating heart of Kon’s humanism most clearly.  The fantasies of the characters are harmful, yes, but they’re also how they survive — and in the end the theme of the film seems to be an urge to be discriminating about our fantasies, to be critical of them, and to choose not the ones that simply make our pains and fears and jealousies go away, but the ones that tell us that everyone is subject to pains and fears and jealousies, and that it is only by reckoning our own existence and the existence of others with these inevitable disappointments that we can be healthy people.

We need fantasies that remind us, in DFW’s terms, that this is water.  We need fantasies that help us understand what it is to be alive.  We need fantasies that help us understand the connections we make with each other, and the kind of existence this fashions for us.  We need fantasies that help us understand the world, not hide from it.

There are very few things that make me genuinely happy to be alive.  Satoshi Kon’s films are one of those things.

AtME: A Retrospective

So as of today I have been back from London for precisely one month.  Unfortunately I am at a short summer conference/camp thing for senior college students, so you’re going to get a canned update.  In honor of the anniversary of my return, I thought I’d make a list of all the things I find myself missing about London and the UK in general.

1. Public transport, or transport in general. This is the big one, the one I always mention first when people ask me what I miss the most about the city, and even the country.  To give you an idea: I come from a very small town — a village, really — and the closest metropolitan center is definitely a very small city.  This also happens to be where I go to school and currently live.  Now, given that I live in the Midwest, anything in the state of interest is generally about 45 minutes to an hour away; anything outside the state is invariably two to six hours away.  This is a driving, of course, and as it happens I don’t drive.

Imagine the wonder of London, then, with its Underground and buses that take me the distance from school to home every day and also anywhere else I damn well please.  Also of note was the country’s rail system, which meant I could actually go outside of the city — to Edinburgh, Stratford, Wales, all sorts of wacky places.  It shall definitely be missed.

2. Getting a weekly paycheck. This is self-explanatory.

3. Having things to spend a weekly paycheck on. Well, of course there are all the shops you get in London — clothing, book, whatever.  Forbidden Planet is a real treat and carries some hard-to-get stuff.  The grocery stores in London were better.  I am not kidding.  They have wider variety and it’s easier to eat healthy — and it’s practically required, since there are these loudspeakers in the shops which constantly tell you what you should be buying/eating that week.  It can be annoying, but once you realize that all of the suggestions are 1) sales, 2) good, and you just kind of stop resisting, then it’s completely awesome.

And to balance that out it’s also easier to go out drinking on the weekends with your friends, and not necessarily in some seedy bar but in a halfway decent pub.  You can also go to clubs, but the one time I tried to go the club had been closed by the Night Police because of a fight or something, so that’s how that is, I guess.  Clubs were never really my thing anyway.

4. Theater. Technically part of the above, but it gets its own special mention for being so important to me personally.  Having the opportunity to basically go out and see any play whenever was, again, a definite highlight of my experience in the UK.

5. Beauty, safety, etc. It’s true what they say about Americans, you know: we’re all kind of fat.  Once I landed in Chicago on my flight back I noticed that there really were a lot more obese people here in the States, which is weird.  It’s like you don’t notice them until they’ve been gone for a while.  Anyway, there aren’t many obese people in the UK — probably because of the healthy eating thing — and in general the whole country has a more tranquil atmosphere.  I mean, it’s safer there, publicly.

Don’t get me wrong, where I live it isn’t exactly dangerous, but being in the UK really made me feel safe.  The CCTV notices and the police patrols during the day really let you know you were being looked after.  I know that whenever I was out after dark, walking alone on the streets, I wouldn’t have to ever worry about being mugged — it seemed like there was  a Night Police van around every corner.  And speaking of the Night Police vans…

6. The Lullaby. I’ve had a harder time getting to sleep of an evening since I got back.  At first I thought it was just a readjustment issue, but you see, the Night Police vans don’t just carry the Night Police, but a special transmitter for a subsonic frequency known jokingly as “the Lullaby.”  You don’t even know it’s working, but it takes away all your stress and anxiety from throughout the day and helps you fall asleep in no time flat.  Whenever you wake up you feel great and ready to face the day — and I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that it seems I now have a hard time falling asleep without it!  Every time I’m about to nod off I hear the sound of breaking glass or something like that and I jerk out of bed, wide awake.  Sometimes I can feel tears running down my cheeks.  I just want to sleep, is that so much to ask for?!

7. Flapjack. Seriously this stuff is so damn delicious you don’t even know

Happy Easter. Alive and well, staying in the UK for now.

Doubtlessly if you’ve read/watched the news you know it’s been an exciting time here in the UK.  This is the kind of thing that’s been building for a while, I guess, but nothing anyone expected would happen.  There are other commentators more adept than I tackling the hows and whys of such a thing, but basically you don’t expect a fucking attempted military coup d’etat in a developed first world nation, and you certainly don’t expect it from a nation that’s successfully avoided big government upheavals for the past four hundred-odd years.  (And before you get started, yes, I know, it wasn’t an actual military coup, but it was close enough.  I don’t think the military would be smart enough to stage a coup on April Fools’ Day, anyway — it definitely confused the news reporting for a while.)

Needless to say I’ve spent the past few days at the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, along with everyone else in my program and a few hundred more of my countrymen packed in like delicious American sardines.  This was somewhat troubling, as I normally live in North London, which is a significantly further away from Westminster, and being at the Embassy basically ensured we could hear the sounds of the riots for all three days until they were put down in what the more asinine elements of the media are calling the Holy Saturday Massacre.

Anyway, it looked for a while like we would all be sent back to the States, which I can’t say seemed like a bad idea to me, but now things seem to have settled down and we’ve been given the go-ahead to finish out the month and end our study abroad on the normal date, the 27th.  The kids who were in Mexico back when the swine flu thing happened thought they were having a wild time, but they ain’t got nothing on the England programme!

So what with all the excitement here, you’ll forgive me if I don’t have a proper blog entry this week.  I’ll try to catch a few more plays to write about or something between now and the end of the month.  Happy Easter.

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Still alive, still discontented

I was planning on making the reassuring post that I lived through my week abroad this Friday or Saturday, but I had to get completely pissed off and blow my cover before then.

You see, I’ve finally had a realization, or reached a conclusion.  I will make the declarative statement here very shortly, so if I turn out to be wrong I can read it later and feel like an idiot and you can all be witnesses.

The conclusion is this:

My semester in London is a complete waste of my fucking time.

Yes, I like being here, and I like being able to see the city, I like being able to hit the theater, and I really like the ease of travel.  But academically and professionally this is an utter joke.  My classes, save one, are worthless; the one worthwhile class is taught by a faculty member from my home institution, and therefore has such things as discernible class structure, goals, and competent teaching.  The rest of the classes are taught in three hour chunks by adjuncts who care probably only marginally more than I do.

I am learning nothing.

I take my academics seriously.  I don’t appreciate being spoonfed information during ungodly long class periods just so they can keep up some pretense of me being a student, or their institution being a place of education.

So now that I’ve hit the halfway point and two of my four classes have ended, I must be happy, right?  Well, no, because now that my classes have ended I am required to take on an unpaid internship for “cultural experiences” and “immersion” and so on.  My internship started today.  It was seven hours of combing through Microsoft Access databases updating contact information for journalists.  At no point did I learn anything about British culture or what it’s like to live in London; I can have a soul-crushing office job just as well in the States as I can here.

The program my college has opted to use is basically running a temp agency on the side, shunting students off hither and yon to do unpaid work at various places.

Everything I have learned and experienced in this country about culture I have learned on my own time, outside of the classroom.  The rest of it is busywork.  I could have had a more profitable academic year if I stayed on campus.

It’s starting to look like I should have.

I am going to be homeless for a week, let’s talk about plays

Going to put this on automatic update, just so I don’t miss another week.  See, my abroad program incorporates a week of “free travel” into it, which is supposed to be more or less equivalent to Spring Break back home.  A vacation, if you will, or a holiday as they are called here.

This is where we run into problems.  I’m not much for vacations, you see, and I didn’t have to read any Jamaica Kincaid or DFW essays about lobsters to make me like this.

There’s this horrid little neologism that’s made the rounds recently, the ‘staycation.’  That is, a vacation where you stay home instead of going out somewhere; the thing is, every vacation for me is a staycation, and it always has been.  It may surprise you, given my seething antipathy towards fun, good will, sunshine, and human beings in general, that I really, really dislike going out onto beaches or to theme parks and seeing various things/people/situations that only intensify my disgust and displeasure with life on this earth.  When I have time off I don’t want to fucking go anywhere, I want to lock myself in my house and sleep for twelve hours and read books until three in the morning.  This is how I relax, this is how I unwind.  This is what a vacation means for me.

Not for most other people, unfortunately.  The “free travel week” my program has is a bit misnamed.  You see, it’s a misnomer because 1) if it were truly a “free” week I could stay at my house and sleep, as would be my preference, or 2) if it were “free” in the pecuniary sense, it would be a lot more appealing.  As it happens, for seven days I am required to leave my house and travel either on my own or with friends and fend for myself.  My host family is not being paid rent for that week.  In essence, I am being kicked out.

My program, for whatever reason, thinks it’s a good idea to have a mandatory crash course in homelessness.

This all sounds a bit whiny, I’m sure, as I am a privileged young white male college student in an abroad program, which puts me a damn sight ahead of 80% of my cohort.  I’m in Europe, aren’t I?  I should be taking in the culture and traveling and seeing the sights.  If you’re thinking that right now, then I have an offer: you fucking pay for it.

I’m a goddamn scholarship student.  I’m only on this abroad program because I am incredibly, indescribably lucky — my tuition has been covered, thank god.  But on the other hand, I’ve had to pay for plenty of other stuff out of my own pocket — plane tickets, clothes, supplies, food, various other travel expenses such as cabs and trains.  My personal savings were drained by this trip, and supporting myself as an itinerant for a week will pretty much reduce me to nothing.

If I were the kind of person who read literature as being, in its heart, about class conflict, or if I were the kind of person given to screeching about systemic classist elements of any setup, I would have been bitching about this sort of thing long before now.  So while I normally don’t care about it, I’ve finally come into a situation where it really irks me.  (Enough to blog about it, anyway.)

To put it succinctly, I don’t have the money to live on my own in a foreign country for a week.  My family does not have the money to help me.  This is not something I can do.

But I’m doing it anyway, because I don’t have a choice.

Luckily I have some connections in Stratford-Upon-Avon who are willing to put up with me for a few days, though they’re in the process of moving so I can’t stay there the whole time.  My family back home has managed to get me enough money that I can stay in a hostel (as much as I hate hostels with all my soul they are cheaper than hotels) in London for the remainder of the break.  I’ve been living as a spendthrift over the last seven weeks, saving large amounts out of the grocery stipend I receive, so I have enough money to eat and buy various little stupid things I need, so I should be all right.

I’d still like to lock myself in a house and read all day, though.

Anyway, excitement: while I’m away I’ve used WordPress’s handy autoupdate feature to organize a series of short reviews of plays I’ve seen recently.  These should be popping up at various points during the week, digitally prepackaged and intellectually microwaved for your consumption.  It’s not going to be in the vein of the Psycho series, since there’s less for me to string together, so I figured it wouldn’t be bad for me to throw up all three reviews in a week.  We’re looking at a Monday/Wednesday/Friday thing here, so stayed tuned.