Nostalgia, Memory, Experience and Mental Disorder

There’s a recent article in the New York Times about nostalgia and its role in human psychology. It’s an interesting article in which the author takes us briefly through the idea of nostalgia, melancholia and its relationship to psychiatric diagnoses. The prevailing wisdom is that nostalgia is a bad thing, making us feel lonelier and more isolated, and can lead to mental disease. But that’s changing, in large part, thanks to Constantine Sedikides, who pioneered the field of psychological study.

Actually, it turns out, nostalgia is good for your mental health, allowing you to feel comfort in strange surroundings. By reminding you of troubled times before and showing you that you’ve overcome them just fine. Or by reminding you of good past experiences. And with friends, reminding you of the experiences you’ve shared. Nostalgia can cheer you up and bring you happiness when you’re down, instead of the other way around.

The natural conclusion, which they posit in the article later on, is that one strategy is to purposefully create situations which will build nostalgia. A related field, which Daniel Khaneman talks about here at TED. Point is since we never recall experiences truly accurately, we should instead strategize for optimal memories, not experience. (Side note: Daniel Khaneman recently won the Nobel Prize in Economics but he’s actually a Psychologist. He’s got a book called “Thinking, Fast and Slow” that goes into lots of detail about the strange ways in which our mind really works, versus how we think it does.

My favorite line in the original article is “Military physicians speculated that its prevalence among Swiss mercenaries abroad was due to earlier damage to the soldiers’ ear drums and brain cells by the unremitting clanging of cowbells in the Alps.” This story is from 1688, but nostalgia has been observed around the world across human history. Most people say they experience nostalgia at least once a week.

A recent podcast is along the same lines, The Memory Palace: Origin Stories. It’s about a man thinking back on the stories his family used to tell. They were mostly set around the time the matriarch and patriarch (his grandparents) met. And eventually the stories were shortened to a few words that, for someone who knows the stories very well, would bring on all of the old nostalgia, a warm feeling and a smile. I particularly like the Origin Stories angle, since it’s not far from those stories to a cultural Mythos, if the experience is widespread enough. From legend and myth to faith and religion is a conceivable jump, looking back in the history of mankind. You can see its potential role in superstition, shamanistic practices, ancestor worship and even polytheism. A couple of good books, “The Evolution of God” and “The Faith Instinct” speak to this, arguing that this process is entirely natural. More reason why nostalgia shouldn’t be sloughed off as just a road to depression.

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Poem On A Hof Window

Even if I die a hundred times so my bones become thick muddy soil, no matter. My spirit still exists, my heart toward my love will never go away.

-Korean poet, ㅋㅋ

Poem on a hof window

Poem on a hof window

A Recipe For Kudzu Soju

Kudzu is native to Korea. The scourge of the South, as we call it in America (not to be confused with General Sherman). Here they infuse an alcoholic drink with the roots. And it’s not bad.

It was introduced to the US from Japan and used in the South, supposedly, to fight soil erosion. The theory was that the fast growing vine would spread lots of roots into the soil, thus keeping it from washing away in the frequent heavy storms. Of course the problem is that it lays down only one root, meaning soil erosion still happens. But the vine grows over everything in sight, including cars, homes, telephone poles and trees. So that’s kind of a problem.

But I digress. Here is the recipe.

  • Harvest in late spring. April or may.
  • Chop the root.
  • Fill the container about 1/3 of the way with the chopped root and soju for the rest.
  • Age for 100 days before filtering.

Supposedly if you take the kudzu that comes from that process and repeat, but age it for 5 years it is more delicious.

Casual Nightlife In Mexico City

I’ve been in Mexico City for a month now and I’ve had the chance to check out lots of great places. At night the city comes alive and Chilangos (residents of Mexico City) and travelers alike casually stroll around for a bite, a drink and a genial evening out with friends. The weather here is perfect for that – once the sun goes down the temperatures are just perfect for long pants and a light jacket. It’s really a nice lifestyle.

Of course being alone here most weekends I’m left to my own devices. Which suits me fine! I like nothing better than discovering a city by night. Strolling around, getting recommendations from people and the Internet and just going based on instinct. While I’ve marked most of the places below as bars, they all sell food as well so can make for a great stop after work or a dinner spot.

Crime in Mexico City

Mexico City has an undeserved reputation of being violent and unsafe at night. But I’ve never felt in danger here, day or night. While it’s not the safest place in the world, it’s a far cry from its reputation. As long as you take some basic travel safety precautions you’ll be just fine. The level of security and surveillance here (1 police officer per 100 people; 11,000 cameras) means the chances of committing a crime without anyone seeing it is low.  The murder rate is lower than in Atlanta. (Crime statistics provided by Wikipedia.)

Mezcal Bars

They say that with the first kiss of Mezcal you are introduced to it; with the third sip you fall in love. That’s true for me. Having never tried any type other than Tequila before arriving I both got to know and fell in love with the specialty drink.  If you haven’t already, check out my short primer on Mezcal to find out why I like it so much.

Okupa 205 – This bar is located along a quiet street in the Colonia Roma area. It’s not well marked and inside it looks like somebody opened a bar in their studio apartment for their friends and forgot to close the door. Small and intimate, with a jukebox to hold in high regard, packed with surf, old hip hop, early punk, etc.

They have a variety of Mezcals and beers, as well as cocktails. This includes standards like mojitos and others, plus some Mezcal cocktails. It’s the only place I’ve seen a lassi cocktail, and it’s fantastic!

Phil is the guy to talk to here. He’s got a passion for Mezcal, music and movies. He learned to speak English by watching old VHS tapes and listening to the Beatles.

Thursday they have 3 for 2 Mezcal. Wednesday is 50 pesos for any drink. Tuesday 2 beers for 50 pesos.

La Clandestina – This may be one of the best bars in the world! It’s incredibly popular with hipsters and the well-dressed Chilango set both. The wall behind the bar is filled with glass jars of Mezcal, from which portions of various sizes are sold. You can also buy the ones that are bottled for retail sale. Unfortunately my favorite, the Mezcagnac, isn’t among those for sale. In fact, about half of the varieties here aren’t for sale – they’re simply not made in quantities large enough to bottle and sell.

I’d say more about this place, but you need to experience it for yourself. Look for the place with no sign that’s too busy to get into with patrons spilling out onto the sidewalk enjoying craft brews and sipping Mezcal and you’ve found it.

Beer Bars

Mexico loves beer. That’s the conclusion I’ve drawn from the explosion over the last few years of craft breweries – up to 20+ now. And they turn out good beer with influence from around the world. This is increasingly replacing the giants like Corona and Modelo in bars and fridges around the country.

The Beer Box – “We wanted a place that doesn’t serve Corona,” the owner of the latest of the franchise store/bar told me. It has been very successful. Serving dozens of Mexican craft beers as well as about a hundred other beers from around the world, this place is a clean, modern spot to pick up some fine beers.

El Trappist – A beer bar for connoisseurs of Belgian style beers, as well as other fantastic brews from around the world. They also serve great meat and cheese platters.

Cafes

More than just coffee shops, cafes in Mexico City are as likely to be open at 1AM as 8AM. Many sell beer and wine alongside pastries and java. They’re a nice, quiet place to be at the end of the night with friends talking and enjoying the cool night air. This lends the city an European feel. Mexico City has quite a few local chains, as well as many independent coffee shops.

Cielito Querido – A Mexican chain that’s quickly become my favorite place to go for a caffeine fix, these are springing up in quite a few places. They make excellent coffees, as well as horchata – a cold Mexican drink made from sweetened rice, milk and nuts that has a slight melon flavor.

Cafebria El Pendulo – A combination coffee shop and bookstore with a few locations. On weekends local musicians play soothing tunes for brunch. Very classy places that make Barnes and Noble feel like Walmart.

Restaurants

La Cervecería de Barrio – More restaurant than bar, this chain has decent Mexican food and is always popular at night.

La Casa de Toño – Cheap, tasty eats.

Others

Cueva de Lobos – Cave of Wolves. It’s a loud rock and roll bar with live music upstairs and cheap beer buckets for sharing with friends.

Expendio de Pulques Finos – The jugs at the bar are some kind of fermented fruit drink. Don’t want to drink a lot of them but interesting nonetheless. 3 floors. Kinda reminds me of the places in Budapest that just take over an abandoned apartment and turn it into a bar.

Take a walk through the parks – Mexico city has many public parks. Why not have a nice stroll? Have a seat and watch others walking by, enjoy the cool breezes and chat with friends.

Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

Dylan Hard Rain

I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’

Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

-Bob Dylan “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

Monsoon season in Korea is coming. Today is the official start. And it’s a hell of a thing, apparently.

Seoul Jazz At Club Evans

Club Evans SeoulJazz is an art form that, by all rights, should be forbidden to Korean artists. It’s expression of a spontaneous idea that cannot be either right or wrong. That’s the point. there is nothing off limits or teachable or expected. It’s pure creativity and expression. It’s the kind of thing most Koreans publicly disdain. But within the confines of jazz music…well as long as there are some confines I suppose it’s alright with society.

High school girls in Korea have a uniform. Not just a dress code they have a uniform way of standing, acting, cutting their hair. For a decade and a half they’ve been molded into a one-size-fits-all model of the female gender. So what did this one bring to the quintet of free expression, release from expectation and formality?

Sticklike other than the staccato nodding and hand movements, when came her turn to let loose she did so with abandon. (Relative abandon. This is Korea, after all.) Her foot stamped out the beat and stomped on the pedals; her knees bent and rocked back and forth, she took up a stance to play; her head banged as her hands belted out soulful and technical notes, working the bridge like weaving a loom.

The keyboardist, too, had a story. After the first duel against the drummer, he himself took up the sticks and drummed. While the main drummer was like a cat with a mouse – expertly toying with the thing, sure of his limits and its – the keyboardist was a kitten – unsure of his power and skill or the moves of the mouse, but pouncing around the way exuberant youth can.

This is Club Evans (map to location, because it’s hard to locate in English), probably the best known jazz bar in Seoul. You’d never know its nestled above a 7-11 in an unassuming little space. If it weren’t for the windows you’d mistake it for a basement in Brooklyn or someplace. Well maybe the clientele and artists would give it away too. This is Seoul, after all.

Hacking Telcel Recharging in Mexico

So I walked into a Telcel Mexico office and went through the 15 minute process of signing up. Great! Now I’ve got a SIM card and a phone number. This costs $150 Pesos and you get about $60 Pesos credit.

Next step is to add some money to it. You do that by buying prepaid cards for a certain value. You need to know the value of the package you want to buy first. In my case it was the 3GB of Internet for $399 Pesos. So I bought 2x$200 Peso cards (called “fichas”). They can’t apply these in the store or over the Internet, you have to call and apply them manually. The number is *333 and there are voice prompts in English to walk you through it. No problem, right?

Unless the service is down. For several days. Great, now you’ve got a couple of cards that are essentially worthless until somebody gets around to fixing the *333 service. That’s no fun. Internet to the rescue! There’s a way to bypass the system and enter the card codes directly! Here’s how to do it.

Enter *134*<CODE>#
Hit Call/Send

So if the code on the back of your card (what you just scratched off) is 1234 5678 90123 you will type: *134*1234567890123# and hit Call/Send.

Voila! You have now deposited the credit in your account. You can check that on your Mi Telcel account through the Internet. That’s also easy to sign up for, you give them your number and they send you a SMS with your temporary password.

To check your balance you can dial *133# but that seems to cost about $1 Peso each time, so use sparingly.

My biggest complaint is that the upload speeds are pretty low. Normally that wouldn’t have a big effect, but they’re so slow that it effectively means you can’t use data. 60 bytes per second is about my average upload speed. At that rate you make about one webpage request a minute and apps are all but unusable.

A Brief Introduction To Mezcal

If you haven’t tried Mezcal recently, or at all, you’ll probably be surprised to hear and taste how great it is! Its undeserved reputation largely comes from mass produced and marketed junk that makes its way to the US market. Made the traditional way it can hold its own with any of the finest distilled spirits in the world. But very little of the quality stuff seems to be available north of the border.

That’s probably because the traditional methods of manufacture limit production. Here’s a good primer on the history and manufacture of Mezcal. In short, quality Mezcals are made by hand from several year old agave, and many are made from wild rather than farmed plants. This makes them expensive and somewhat rare. Many distillers make less than 1,000 liters per year and some as few as 200.

Mezcal has many different ways of manufacture. The liquid can be distilled 1-3 times, aged (rested for a short time, “reposado”, or for longer “anejo”) or unaged (“joven”). The location, type of ground and species gives a different flavor. The variety in flavor isn’t as great as in Scotch Malt Whisky, but a good Mezcal that has been aged for less than a year can easily match up against a good quality Whisky aged 15 years or more!

This is in contrast to the way Tequila is made. Tequila is mescal, made with blue agave, using a different process, and must be produced in the Tequila region. Typically the blue agave is only a couple of years before harvesting and production is cranked out in massive batches by machine. That doesn’t always make for a bad product, but most of the Tequilas and Mezcals you’re used to tasting in the US are definitely what you’ll get here.

Mezcal is served straight and with an orange slice to cleanse the pallet beforehand. First, eat the orange. Then take a small breath. Touch your lips to the liquid and take in just a bit – this is called a kiss. I’ts said that the first kiss is like a strange encounter. By the third you’re said to be in love.

A Stroll Through Downtown Mexico City And The Zocalo

Panorama: Zocalo in Mexico City
This past weekend I took a walk downtown to the Zocalo. Past the modern and the Art Deco buildings. Past all the nice cafés with open seating and small patios. Past the weekend market and Alameda Central Park. Past the castles, churches and mansions. And into the main town square.

The weekend crowd was large and bustling. The Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral looms over the Zocalo the way most of the churches I’ve run into in Europe can’t seem to impose themselves upon their square. The structure is massive and covers an area at least as large as the huge open area in front of it. Imposing buildings flanked the square, one monolith per side, making the space feel entombing for its openness. And the church here seems to be the center of gravity and attention, with the majority of the action and vibrance drawn towards it and a lesser amount of action orbiting the outline of the square.

There was a stage set up in the square this weekend. The site is often used for political demonstrations and protests so this was no surprise. But this weekend the stage was occupied by dancers and pop music. As I got closer I heard the distinct Psy style. Gangnam Style. Closer still, I saw t-shirts and posters in Korean. The song shifted to Psy’s more recent song, Gentleman. After a minute or so, back to Gangnam Style. The songs swapped back and forth with the people on stage apparently learning the different dance moves for each. Eventually it came to an end and the crowd, mostly Chilangitas (young women from Mexico City), cheered loudly. I’m not sure what this was but it’s clear that there’s a great love of K-Pop in Mexico City.

I continued walking around near the church, through the crowd. And through the buskers with their wares spread on tarps, pushed in carts and hawked with calls about the quality and cost of what was on offer. Hungry and curious I tried a snack I’d seen others eating. Onto a crispy blue corn tortilla was smothered refried beans, cilantro, sautéed peppers, queso fresco and some picante sauce. You eat it by breaking the chip-like tortilla and scooping some of the topping into your mouth. Kind of like nachos you can hold in your hand!

After finishing the snack I went inside the main entrance of the Zocalo church. (The church has many side chapels which seem to be for specific purposes: confession, baptism, etc.) It is as large inside as you would expect. But another difference between it and Northern European churches struck me. This is a pragmatic place, set to be used not just toured. Chairs were set up around the popular altars; a portrait of the Pope who had visited many years ago was an active area; a mass was being conducted. I was a visitor, and even in this touristic area, I was the exception. So I stopped being in the way and walked back into the bright sunlight.

I leaned in the shade and checked where to go next. Quickly I was set upon by a group of teenage girls. Likely many of the same from the K-Pop show. The lead one asked me in Spanish if I spoke English and if I wouldn’t mind answering some questions. I didn’t. So a quick scripted and recorded interview later I was on my way. Kids practicing English often want to speak with a native speaker so it’s not out of the ordinary.

But I was stopped several other times for interviews. At one point there was a line of groups of kids waiting to interview me. They all seemed to be doing this for the same school (I asked several groups)band were all about the same age. I can imagine the giggles as every student realizes that they spoke with me. And the stifled chuckles of the professor imagining how I’d spent my day at the Zocalo speaking with his/her class about my favorite sports, my name, age, favorite Mexican food, and whether I’d like to come back to Mexico some time.

Of all the interviews I gave today one stand out. The boy was alone, except for his videographer mother, in contrast to the groups of girls as most were. He had his questions printed out and carried a pen, rather than written long hand as others. He wore thick glasses and looked like McLovin’s younger Mexican brother. He also asked the most intelligent questions and noted everything on his script as it was being documented. I have the feeling he is going to be either a scientist or a reporter and I wish him luck in either endeavor (or in whatever he chooses).

As the sun dipped below the clouds in the afternoon I walked away. I realized my skin stayed warm even in the shade and that brought back the realization that Mexico City was close to the equator and high in altitude, making sunburn virtually guaranteed on my unscreened skin. So staying in the shade I walked to find a little cafe overlooking the Alameda Central Park. It was hard to find because you have to go through the nine-story Sears to get there. But it was worth it for the view and the coffee frappe. Sitting there (in the shade) overlooking the park and the Architecture Museum while the sun set was beyond just pleasant. The drink was emptied too quickly, as was my energy.

I headed back to the hotel tired but full of appreciation for the things I’d seen and the experiences I’d had. I told all the kids that I had Liked Mexico and would return. That wasn’t just a nicety for their sake, I meant it. Mexico City is a vibrant metropolis with many different sides. It feels both Latin and European at times, which is not surprising given its geography and history. But the two work well together, matching culture and insanity the way a merengue mixes a gas into a liquid with the help of a little sugar and lime juice. A pleasant treat.

One Poor Correspondent

“I’ve been one poor correspondent
I’ve been too too hard to find
But that doesn’t mean you ain’t been on my mind”
-America, Sister Golden Hair

I’ve been both busy and lazy but it’s no excuse for not writing more.

While I was in London everything was a bit too boring, normal and well-explored. And so was I. It wasn’t worth writing, let alone reading.

I’ve been living in Seoul, South Korea for a couple of months and that’s definitely worth writing about. From a Miguk (American) perspective there’s a lot of hilarity to be had resulting from expectation gaps and cultural differences. I’ve got some notes on that and, well, we’ll see how it goes with getting those hammered into reasonable posts.

And for the month of May I’m living and working in Mexico City. And this is what has got me back on the keyboard clackity-clacking out some new posts. A combination with some time on my hands alone and lots of things I want to capture have gotten the juices flowing again and that means new posts. Which is good.

You can always stalk me on Foursquare, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram and Photosynth.

Talk at you soon!