Tea and Me

I never really liked Turkish tea. I’m not sure why I always hated it in a particular way. It was probably because of its name. In my head, I could picture my Albanian ancestors fighting in bloody battles, in order to defend their land from the Ottoman Empire. I could see their shields covered in blood, and feel the pain of their red wounds. I could see the black clouds above the ancient castles’ burning in flames that stood erect until the last man alive. Whenever I drank the tea, I would have this strange feeling, that the red wounds were still pouring blood, somewhere far away, in a battlefield that, after five centuries, has a green grass that still smells of fresh blood, and that on some special occasions, maybe when I drink that tea, turns from green to brown, trying to remind me of something.

I always hated the idea that we in Kosovo still drink that tea. I saw it as an invaders’ imposition transmitted unintentionally from generation to generation for five centuries. The tea was not from Turkey anyway, we could have called it Russian or Indian… But somehow, in spite of different customs, different tea, different preparation methods, the name survived. And because of this, I hated drinking it.

I never actually thought about these things, until one of these days. While eating breakfast, I drank a cup of tea, for the first time since I came to college. I wish I didn’t, for it triggered a lot of my memories, in this way exacerbating my homesickness. Flashbacks and random images would blink in front of my eyes, while I was trying to enjoy the taste that I hardly liked. It made me fight with myself through the waterfalls of my sub-conscience, and struggles for adaptation to this strange place. A place where there are no narrow streets and pavements, but only wide straight highways. A place where football is not football, but a strange game played with hands instead of feet. A place where there are no high mountains, but only flat fields. A place where sun rises from the middle of horizon…A place that’s not like home. A place so alien to me!

Sometimes, late at night, when I can’t fall asleep, the silence is deafeningly loud, and the darkness is blindingly gloomy, I remember that last tea I drank back home. It was when my sister and I went to say our farewells to uncle Besim. He was not our uncle, neither a relative, but we still liked to call him that way, for he was an old friend of the family. Back home, the godfathers and best friends are considered the same as family members. I still remember that warm greeting, when an old man, in his late sixties, would stand up from the place he was sitting, and extend his right hand towards us, as a sign of hospitality, while saying: “Welcome! Welcome! Feel as if you’re in your own house!”

Sitting in this garden (that in my opinion was unchanged for at least 50 years), I enjoyed the shade of old trees and the scent of vivid flowers, surrounded by uncle Besim’s whole family. We were served tea in small crystal glasses with extreme care from his son’s wife, who got married not long ago. While drinking the hot tea, you could listen to uncle Besim’s stories. He would say: “Even if a person with whom you are in a blood feud enters your house; you must say ‘Welcome!’ to him and treat him the way you would treat your best friend!”
I now try to fight my homesickness by humor, and I think I’m quite successful, but I still miss my “Turkish” teas. The very ones that I once hated, that now are the only association of my memory with home. I miss the warm feeling when it passes through my chest, causing pleasant chills to my body. I miss hearing the sound of small spoons against crystal glasses which mix that little sugar, while you try to taste the lemon aroma evaporating from this simple, but yet meaningful solution.

On the Meaning of Sports

I have never been a sporty guy. When I was a kid, whenever we played soccer in the neighborhood, the most prestigious position was the offense. Everyone wanted to be the attacker, but only the kids claiming to be the best could play it. Sometimes, there would be a kid challenging the attacker position, were there would be a show-off of skills, and whoever won, was then new attacker, or the captain of the team. I was always stuck with the position of defense, or sometimes even worse, playing the goal-keeper.  For some reason, these positions didn’t really appeal to hyperactive kids and were seen not as exciting as the attacker, who was on constant run up and down the field. Actually, it was an empty parking lot that we played. Whenever there happened to be a car parked there, an occasional side window ended up being broken by hyperactive kids.

I always wanted to know what the meaning of sports was. I figured that it had to be something beyond being in good shape and having a nice body, otherwise people would just do gymnastics. Why play sports then? The answer has to be beyond teaching teamwork, organization, and better communication skills. Answer has to go beyond something that could be learned in a leadership or speech class. What is the meaning of sport that we cannot find anywhere else? The answer has to go beyond the fact that sport is a multimillion dollar business and playing sports is good for economic growth of the country. In order to understand this, maybe we should look back at human origins and the journey we took to arrive at this stage of our existence.

If I was born some 150 thousand years ago, I am not sure if I would be able to survive quite as well, as me and my group (composed of the same kids we played soccer as kids) would be going though the dense forests with spears in our hands chasing our dinners. I would now be the guy carrying the killed pray, while the others, probably the attackers, the ones who run faster, would be the ones hunting the pray. When we would get back to our little cave, somebody would challenge the tribal leader saying that he is not running as fast as he used to. There would be a show of skills (probably a bloodier version) and we would have new tribal leader. Are sports there to satisfy our primeval instincts and urges? Is sport then an illustration of competition and other human instincts? Is sport an illustration of wild life, survival of the fittest?  Establishment of new hierarchies without really killing anyone, or is there something else to it?

Is it possible that sport is a metaphor for the meaning of life?  Sometimes you win, and sometimes you loose, just as in real life. But no matter what the outcome is, no matter how many times the player falls down and looses the ball, he/she may lay on the grass or floor for a while, then stands up brushes himself/herself off, and starts trying again, until the goal is scored or until the pray is caught. This falling and getting up defines the very human nature – Hope. Even when we are not winning, and the odds are logically against us, we just switch on the irrational part of our brains, and keep moving forward, until we exceed the impossible.

Because of these abilities (going beyond the impossible), athletes are like a temple for the fans. Fans adore them like Gods, wear their jerseys trying to identify with them; collecting pictures of their role models; singing songs and cheers to them to give them power. And then, when the goal is scored, all the fans become like one big family, hugging each other (even though they are strangers meeting for the first time). Then again, on special occasions, they euphorically rush to the field and in the spirit of those primeval instincts and urges, tear the goal post off the ground and throw it in the lake.
Finally, whenever I am cheering on the stands, whenever I am yelling at the referee, whenever I am jumping in excitement for the goal scored or missed, I get transported to that stage of my life when we were playing soccer in the parking lot in my neighborhood, as I get enlightened on the meaning of life. All of a sudden the meaning becomes clear as I run on the field feeling as a gladiator fighting against a goal-post. And when I finally conquer it, and it falls down, I feel the cheers of the fans running through my veins, and I am delighted, delighted with my laugh.

Sandwich Revelations, or How I Figured Out America

They say the first impression is the one that will stick the best in your memory. I remember my first impression of Graceland University. I had traveled for more than 48 hours total (with all the connection flights and all), had a terrible jet-lag, and could hardly breathe from Iowa humidity. As my eyes were struggling to remain open (maybe little bored for seeing nothing but darkness since we left Des Moines Airport), I had no choice but to listen to what driver was saying. She was my very first unofficial tourist guide to Iowa. I failed to see how six red lights from far away as seen from the highway were referred to as “Eiffel Tower of Iowa”. I failed to be impressed by vast nothingness as we drove towards Lamoni. I didn’t even seem to move a brow when I was told of a newly opened “dance club”. I don’t know whether it was jet-lag, or I was already homesick, but I slowly started to accept my destiny…

“We also have a Subway in Lamoni”, and at that moment I thanked the God, and blamed myself for being so stupid. Of course, the subway, the Underground Railroad connecting Lamoni with Des Moines, Kansas City, or any other place I wanted to go within the U.S. “There’s still hope after all”, I was thinking to myself “Whenever I get bored, all I have to do is get a subway train and go whenever I want to go…” There was a solution to all my problems.  “Oh, no, no, no… Sub-Way, like sub-way sandwiches is what I meant” replied the driver, as I got absorbed in the never-ending vastness of corn, Midwestern summer humidity and that dark night with couple of red lights which were supposed to be Eiffel Tower. I’m finished I thought. Only later would I understand the significance subway sandwiches would have on my life.
For months afterwards I was trying to escape the whole sub-way thing, probably because I might have been embarrassed about the whole underground-trains-to-Des-Moines embarrassment. I didn’t know what I was missing. There was an entire philosophy to be built on sandwiches, if I only tried them.

It was just one of those hungry nights when I went to the “subway station” with couple of friends, and that’s when the revelation occurred to me: “How can I help you?” and I replied “Yes, I would like a sandwich please”, and then I was overwhelmed by questions “what kind of bread? What kind of meat? What kind of cheese? What kind of sauce? What kind of vegetables? Etc.” It’s funny, back home, if I order a chicken sandwich you get a chicken sandwich (you trust the cook, you have no choice); on the other hand, in U.S. it took me at least half-an-hour to order a sandwich.

After my first sandwich experience I started seeing a pattern. There were so many brands of cereal, and I could not decide whether I needed extra vitamin A and D, or should I go with the other cereal that had extra vitamin C and 12 minerals. So many kinds of insurances, so many kinds of cars, so many kinds of computer brands, so many kinds of everything. I had difficulties calculating all these choices I was making. I didn’t really know whether I liked my sandwich with or without extra tomatoes, with or without pickles, toasted or not toasted…

Sandwiches taught me the basic value of American life – choice. This value seems to be rooted so deep in American culture that one has a choice even in situations of life and death (take medical ethics class if you need more explanations). It seemed that so many ethical decisions that are made everyday in this country are shaped so that they can respect this very value. It is not the place and time to discuss whether culture shapes ethics, or vice-versa, but there certainly seems to be a connection. On a brighter note, I still am not sure what kind of sandwich I like best. Can I proceed to more complicated issues without figuring out my favorite sandwich? At least I have a choice; it’s much better than to go with the taste of some weird guy back home that calls himself a chef. Here, I am my own chef, I am my own medical ethicist, I am my own stock broker, I am my on insurance agent… Here I am my real me, and not some cookie-cutter-mold of a person.

On Censorship

Couple of years ago, on the summer before my sophomore year, I was taking a creative writing class in Prague, Czech Republic. One night during that crazy month, I and a bunch of my new friends were returning home from a party. Since subway ride at that time of night was often boring, one had to find ways to entertain oneself, and what better entertainment for a guy than trying to impress a girl with pretends rhetoric. After all, there’s nothing wrong with it, just a show my creative spirit (for the lack of any athletic ability). I don’t remember how it all started, but this girl was trying to impress me with some story of how she and a friend of hers are afraid of police officers in subways, since they were always hiding from them through New York subways because they were underage.

In cases like this, it is best to fight fire with fire. “I totally know what you mean. I too am afraid of police officers” or something like that were my words at that time, “I actually have a sort of a phobia. I guess it came from the time I was in prison”. Her pupils dilated, “Oh my God!” her heart started beating faster, she sighed in amazement, as I crushed her story to nothingness. “I was a political prisoner… nay intellectual prisoner…” I pretended as if I had difficult time talking about it, “I wrote some things that apparently turned out to be disliked by the government, and I paid a price for it”. I don’t know whether the humidity or the darkness of the subway made my story more believable, but all ten people that were with me stood there hypnotized. “This is difficult for me to talk… I hope you understand”…

Days after that we would laugh and laugh, but something really stuck with me from that night, as if I was entranced by my own story. What if I really lived in a place, or for that matter a period of time, when one couldn’t write freely? What if I lived in Albania during the 1950’s? What if I lived in the middle ages? What if I lived in Communist China or Soviet Union during the period of socialist realism? How would I write? What would be the consequences for me if I wrote, let’s say, a word that wasn’t allowed? Would I have ended up in a prison colony for political prisoners, spending my days building tunnels or railroads with my force labor buddies? Or maybe I would have been executed by a firing squad?

One of the many reasons why I love US of A is because no matter what I write, I would never experience any of the above examples. Or would I? Does censorship exist in places guaranteeing freedom of speech? Maybe not in a traditional firing-squad-sort-of-way, but I certainly wonder what’s on HBO when it automatically unplugs itself. I wonder what’s that sound replaced by a beep. I wonder what is that word replaced by a euphemism.

There’s not much that you can’t talk or write about in a free-speech society. You can tell a nauseating story of blood and violence, talk against politics, or even make fun of the president. This story of censorship is like that of Bluebeard, you can do anything, go to all of the rooms of the house, but one; the one with a big lock on its door, bearing the inscription: vulgarity.
There is something about “vulgar language” that seems appealing to student audiences. I’d say it is probably the fact that it is not considered appropriate and in this way perfect for rebelling spirit of college students. Nowadays, if you want to catch the interest of young audiences, you must mix your philosophical thoughts with little bit of vulgarity. The only thing I regret is that the punishment might not be as noble as a firing squad. In these instances, when you go down, there’s nothing noble about it, and the punishment is author’s worst nightmare: change of text to fit standards!

Meaning of (College) Life according to Titi

Note: The theories expressed in this article are not fully tested, and need further scientific research, and as such are not to be taken literally. If by any chance nothing makes sense you are reading this wrong. If everything makes sense, you are still reading this wrong.

A warm greeting to all my old “fans” (if there are any of you left after a year long pause), and an even warmer one to the new readers. Before Websites and Blogs there was “Titi’s College Journal”, bullshitting in “old school” style since 2001. If you remember, since day one, I was somehow obsessed with understanding college life. Finally, after four years in college, I think I understand it. If you look carefully, college is a short version of Life, and every year is accompanied by a specific set of characteristics. It is like an evolution of an organism through time; like a development of human mind; like the stages of an embryo developing into a full grown person.

Freshman year was my personal favorite. It essentially was like a form of childhood. It involved meeting many friends, having lots of fun, feeling like a part of the family (within a house), doing many “stupid” things, and surprisingly being a model student. At this stage of college life development the only important thing is “the you” (or Ego in Freudian terms). It’s all about “you”, making “you” feel comfortable, giving “you” lots of good Commons food and drinks, introducing “you” to the girls/guys. Now that I think of it, it really was about “me”; that’s probably why I even started writing “Titi’s College Journal” in the first place. In simple words, enjoy the freshman year as much as you can, it is like a return to the stage of your infantile bliss where everything is just so great.

Sophomore year… ah, it’s like adolescence. You are not young anymore, but still you are not that old either. This year could be quite dangerous, so be careful. It involves a lot of partying and drinking. Also you might find yourself in a conflict with the authority. You have a conspiracy theory that “The System” is against you and that it doesn’t want you to be free. Partially you are right, but again beware, it is not worth it. Your best bet is infiltrating the system and learning as much as you can from it. You can do this by maybe participating in House Council, or joining a campus organization. Sometimes, (if you are philosophical) you will realize that you don’t like your current belief system, and you will probably create your own system of beliefs. All in all, be careful, philosophy, partying, and rebellion can be dangerous when mixed and drunk together.

Junior year is like a mid-life. You realize that you have been sucked and incorporated by the system while you were still trying to figure it out, and surprisingly you are fine with that. This stage of college life is all about giving back to the community. You either have to play a role of a parent (in house council) and make sure the freshmen are not doing anything stupid, or that of a politician (in student government or other campus organizations). I personally found myself in the previous role (I was a speaker of the senate), and realized several things: you can never please everybody (the food in the Commons is never going to taste as good as home), upholding the law is the most difficult thing ever (every once in a while there was somebody yelling their lungs out in a voicemail because they got a parking ticket), and there is a great satisfaction once something is done.

Senior year is like old age. Often you think: is there life after college? Certainly, your summer internship didn’t make it look like a piece of cake. You think: What’s the point of all this? Knowledge? What’s the point of all this knowledge if I will be a number in the formula that calculates the unemployment rate? And then, you realize you have only 12 credit hours, and you should take a good use of the situation. You are technically having a paid vacation; it’s like being in a Tropical island: no real responsibilities, you can sleep till 2p.m. if you choose to, it’s the last time in your life that you can pay for meals with flex or meal-plan, you don’t have to pay for the gym or the swimming pool, and it is the cheapest place in the world to have fun.
Finally, while I claim understanding college life, one might ask: What is the meaning of college life? It’s nothing and everything. It’s having fun and learning. It’s satisfying “the you” and contributing to the community. It’s about hating and loving “the system”. It’s about the present and the future. It’s figuring the meaning, and realizing it has no meaning. It’s all these contradictory things put together. It took me four years to realize this, so there it is freshmen, take it, it’s yours!

Next issue: The purpose of Bullshitting, or how to avoid the modern day nihilism.

The Purpose of Bullshitting

Note: The term bullshitting here is used in strictly philosophical terms. This article can be considered as a response (adapted for college audience) to the views of Frankfurt and/or Walters.

In college settings, freshmen and seniors are the ones faced most directly with bullshitting. Freshman before coming to college had to write those tiresome admission essays, while seniors have to write even longer ones for their grad schools or work applications. I don’t think I will make it to go to medical school if I don’t bullshit since I have to write that essay stating “why I want to be a doctor”. Somehow I have to come up with an essay without saying the cliché expression: “I want to help people”. So I must bullshit. I must come up with some kind of touchy-feely story that would appeal to admission officers. If I just write what I really want, I run the risk of being rejected, since my writing might be either too dull for them, or way too eccentric. So I must play their game, by their rules, and instead of foot-ball or basket-ball, I must use bullshitting. No wonder even philosophers preoccupy themselves with this problem; society nowadays is full of Bullshit. In order to get admitted to college, grad-school, or even work, you are judged based on one sole parameter – your bullshitting ability.

On the other hand, practical uses of bullshit are undeniable. I even have a theory that it has to do something with our survival. For example, when there is a bunch of girls dancing at a party, and as time goes by they get surrounded by twenty guys hitting on them. Naturally, they need a way to escape, and they use bullshitting as a tool. All seven of them, at once, announce that they have to go to the bathroom and that “they’ll be right back”. I guess that bullshitting is quite beneficial and practical, but what about it’s philosophical implications?

Generally, bullshit has negative connotation with philosophers. A person that bullshits is termed as one that doesn’t really care about the truth, no matter whether he/she is telling lies or facts. A bullshitter is a person who doesn’t believe in his/her own words. But is bullshitting that bad?

In college you will discover this thing called philosophy. It is like fire, it gives you light, but if you touch it you get burned. Inevitably you will learn new things, and new things can really stir your brain. When learning new things, we risk in abandoning the values that we once had, and in this way creating a vacuum without values (which can be quite dangerous). To prevent this period of non-existing values from happening, we have to bullshit to create a “virtual” set of values that can be turned on and off whenever we want. If we don’t overcome this transition period, it can lead to what is known as nihilism.

When learning today’s philosophy, it is very difficult not to fall in despair of nihilism and loose all your values. In this case, bullshitting is a pretty good transition tool for the rough period (which I think is essential in achieving enlightenment) in one’s thinking. Bullshitting allows the person to “multitask” in his/her philosophical quest when exploring new ideas and not abandoning the old beliefs.

Back to my med-school applications, I am desperately waiting for my MACT scores, as if they are a verdict from a jury about the future of my life. Everybody knows that good scores don’t really determine how good of a doctor I will become, but these scores still keep the fortune of my life written in them. Life is like a game, you have to play by the rules (even if you don’t like them). Because of this, sometimes you have to bullshit your way through. Bullshitting is a tool that enables you to play the game better, hence it (bullshitting) helps us in our survival. It serves not only in protecting our current values, but also protecting ourselves. And by the way, all this was just me bullshitting.