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In 1817, a former forester by the name of Karl Drais undertook an excursion on the paved road from Mannheim, Germany to Schwetzingen, just west of Heidelberg, and back. These eight miles took him just an hour (a stagecoach would have needed about four). Instead of merely walking, he drove himself or rode on a special vehicle he had constructed for himself: the Draisine, or dandy horse, made from wood. The local newspaper didn’t even take notice. We don’t know if Drais was aware of the importance of his vehicle, which we remember today as the prototype of the first bicycle — in other words, the first mechanical individual means of transportation without a horse.

The revolutionary aspect of the Draisine was the fact that it had two wheels in a line rather than next to each other. Drais acquired something like a patent in his home state of Baden, and later in Prussia and France. However, his invention was not yet a bike in the sense that we know today. It didn’t have pedals yet, and was propelled by the rider pushing on the ground with his or her feet. This direct connection with the ground gave riders the feeling of being somewhat in control, while the bike as we know it today requires more trust in the device. It was something the people back then simply didn’t have. More… “Revolution on Two Wheels”

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We enter Panem, home of The Hunger Games, a dystopian film and book franchise that centers on the oppression of the 12 mostly impoverished Districts controlled by the Capital. Every year, the Capital holds an event called The Reaping where they make each one of the Districts sacrifice two children to The Hunger Games. During the event, they are forced to kill one another until there is only one left standing. That last child is the “victor” and wins a year’s worth of food for their district. We enter during the 74th Hunger Games, where the focus is on a young, white teenage girl named Katniss. All but two of the 24 tributes are white.

Mainstream dystopian fiction focuses primarily on the white protagonist and white-dominated societies — The Hunger Games is no exception. This trend can be seen in both Divergent (which has a white, female lead) and The Maze Runner (which has a white, male lead). Dystopian literature is defined as a sub-genre most commonly used within speculative fiction and science fiction. It shows a fictional world that explores social and political structures of a world in peril. To live in a dystopia is to be a part of a world that is impoverished, living in squalor, and/or highly oppressed. Dystopian fiction is that which dramatizes what it is like to be a marginalized within a culture, a body, and a world. Which is why it is so shocking that, at the margins, every character is white. More… “The Reality of Rebellion”

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Sitting at yet another job interview for an NGO, the question arises again. After hearing it repeatedly over the past three months, I am prepared for it.

“But, what are you doing in India? What made you move here?”

The interviewer is curious, perhaps because she hasn’t come across many like me. We, the children of Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), who want to live and work in their parents’ respective countries, are a rare breed.

“Honestly, I am here because I see a real need for education reform in this country, but also because I really love India.” The former, a statement that would help me land me the job. The latter, intended to satisfy curiosity.

The interviewer moves on to the next question, but after hearing the second part of my answer, most people press onwards.

“You love India? Compared to America?” they ask, as if it is unfathomable. More… “Going the Right Way”

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“Imagine no possessions,” John Lennon asked in a famous song. Then wisely added: “I wonder if you can.” I note that Lennon was driving a 19-feet-long Rolls Royce when he composed the song “Imagine.” In fact, he didn’t really drive it; he had a couple of chauffeurs available for that. The former Beatle spent his time in the back seat, where he had a double bed installed along with a television and refrigerator.

No, I don’t blame Lennon. He’s not the only person to take pride in ownership while imagining a property-free world he didn’t actually want to inhabit. Bernadette Peters summed up the pervasive attitude best in the Steve Martin film The Jerk, when she faces the prospect of going from wealth to poverty. “I don’t care about losing all the money,” she declares bravely. Then after a pause: “It’s losing all the stuff.” More… “Why Music Ownership Matters”

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I still remember the day I came to Turkey. While making a connection at London’s Heathrow Airport, I happened to glance at a newspaper headline announcing that a bomb in Izmir had killed several people. At the time I had no idea where Izmir was, nor why someone would choose to bomb it, but rather than taking it as an ominous message, I chose to downplay the significance of the event. I felt bad for the victims, but only in the abstract way that we all commiserate with things that do not directly affect us. Besides, I did not want to infect the optimism I felt at taking an academic job in Istanbul, where I had been asked to help found a literature department. I would engage in exactly this sort of hedging and deferral over the next ten years: overlooking bombs, tear gas, the senseless killing of youths during the Gezi Park uprising, the ousting of judges, and the government takeover of virtually every media outlet. But things finally reached a limit with the July 2016 coup d’état attempt by a faction within the Turkish military and the growing restrictions on academics and disturbing social demonstrations that followed in its wake.

I arrived during a relatively stable period in Turkey’s history, but the country has had more than its share of political, social, and economic upheavals throughout the 20th century, including three previous major coups. Being an expatriate in Turkey means sublimating doubts and anxieties over the rise of religious fundamentalism or the shrinking value of the Turkish Lira. I discovered that it is disturbingly easy to accept small changes like restrictions on alcohol sales or increasing government intervention and to think of larger looming problems, like the devastating earthquake that is slated to strike Istanbul or ISIS restoring the Caliphate, as vague possibilities that will never arrive. There is also a culture of postponement and acceptance in Turkey, buttressed by a native Turkish belief that “things will happen if God wills it” that makes it easier to dismiss the future in favor of the present. So I acknowledged disturbing possibilities, stored them somewhere in the back of my mind, and moved on. More… “After the Coup”

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There are three kinds of Gerald Jablonski stories.

The first stars Howdy, a middle-aged, bear-faced (or is it dog-faced? It’s difficult to tell) man and his nephew, Dee Dee, a yellow-skinned lad with tiny dog ears (or are they horns?). Howdy is perennially upset because Dee Dee is playing music by his favorite band, Poopy, too loud and Howdy can’t hear his serial radio program. The pair start to bicker and trade insults. This always, always, always turns into a discussion of Dee Dee’s teacher, who is an ant. As in the insect. There is a third man, “a friend of Howdy’s nephew”, who looks a little bit like Felix Unger, wears a pink apron, and hangs in the back of every panel with a pained expression on his face. He never says anything. More… “Jablonski’s Barnyard”

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The election of 2016 revealed an American electorate more deeply divided than at any time in history — or did it? In reality, there were far deeper divisions among blacks and whites, Protestants and Catholics, Northerners and Southerners, and other groups in the U.S. in 1950 or 1900 or 1850 than there are today. The inflammatory language and hot-button issues that characterize today’s national politics result largely from the conscious strategy of Republican and Democratic politicians and consultants to mobilize a new and invasive species in the American electorate: the partisan zombie.

A partisan zombie is someone who uncritically adopts, as a personal credo, the current platform of the Democratic or Republican Party in its entirety. Partisan zombies come in two types: checklist conservatives and litmus-test liberals. Wherever on the political spectrum they are found, partisan zombies have to sacrifice intellectual consistency to partisanship. Ordinary zombies eat the brains of other people. Partisan zombies eat their own brains. More… “Attack of the Partisan Zombies”

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Ever since single-pane windows have given way to their double-glazed cousins, frost patterns have widely disappeared, but these icy coatings can still be found on other surfaces, like car windows. They used to be common on windows of trains traveling across icy landscapes. Appearing where inside and outside meet, they are always threatened with melting. The frost consists of crystals produced when moisture in the air comes in contact with a smooth surface that is colder than the freezing point of water. The moisture thus goes directly from gas to solid.

The sparkling, glittering patterns, growing from below, are delicate, complex, often fantastic. They immediately capture our attention and divert our thoughts into other directions. Seemingly painted by an invisible hand, they can both delight and irritate. They may even suggest a story. Among the most-heard comparisons are with leaves or ferns. Some observers see coastlines, mountain ranges, fig trees. A spider’s web or a peacock’s tail. Of course, frost patterns never look exactly the same, and the interpretations are almost endless. More… “Crystalline Botany”

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I’ve always been a storyteller. In middle school, I came in every Monday with a story to tell my friends as we sat on the windowsill in our homeroom. At the time, my mother was in prison. I was sharing a small room with my younger brother and living with a family that had three daughters, girls who had been my friends for years. I remember once my half-sister came to visit from Florida. She was an only child who lived with my father and her mother. She marveled at the fact that all us kids lived in that small house. If it appeared fun to her; that’s because, most of the time, it was. This is the thing about being one of the “unfortunates”: If you survive, it’s because you learn how to spin gold from the thread life has given you to hang yourself with. That’s what storytelling is.

In that house, we all wrote stories. We were the children of Caribbean parents who had pushed our noses into books so young that when they stopped pushing, we just stayed there. Writing was naturally the next step. Bringing these stories in to share with my friends at school followed. More… “For Post-Graduate Starving Artists”

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When the stubborn, stabbing nerve pain in her abdomen wakes her in the middle of the night and she can no longer endure it, my 15-year-old daughter quietly calls to me and we descend the stairs together and curl up on the couch, under cover of darkness, and seek out the quiet reassurance of a sure and steady friend: home shopping television.

Home shopping is the best 2 a.m., lull-you-back-to-sleep TV I know. There’s no dramatic music, no cliffhangers, nothing to get you hooked. In fact, they pretty much say the same thing over and over and over again. Talk about staying on message. And even when it doesn’t soothe you back to slumber right away, there is something oddly comforting about it. The hosts are so happy. They’re self-satisfied, but somehow inviting, with their facile stream of conversation punctuated by nearly incessant, yet strangely not unpleasant, laughter. What I wouldn’t do for an ounce of their easy, self-assured chatter at a cocktail party or a school function. More… “Home Shopping Network”