My Year Abroad

If this were a record, it would be the album of the year.

I’m not talking about a worthless Grammy, I’m talking about the one everybody would be talking about, would be wowed by, something that would push the envelope and herald the dawning of a new age.

Kind of like “Nevermind.”

But even after that we had “Jagged Little Pill.” Twenty five years later, Alanis Morissette is safe, but when you first heard “You Oughta Know” it was dangerous, talking about giving head in a theatre? This twenty one year old was not only intelligent and incisive, she was provocative and confident and unwilling to observe perceived boundaries. Push the boundaries today and you fear being canceled, misunderstood. Hell, all breakthrough artists are misunderstood at first. I’m talking about ones who have an impact, change the culture, don’t just sell tonnage.

Have you listened to this Julien Baker album?

For those not paying attention, it’s the holy grail of 2021. And then you push play and you immediately scratch your head…THIS? Now it becomes more palatable as it plays on, but not so much that you want to listen to it. In the old days, albums like this were promoted properly. As fringe, possibly approaching the center. When you promote them as mainstream you do the public a disservice. You just turn people off to new music. We’re looking for one listen wonders, like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the aforementioned “You Oughta Know,” that you have to listen to again and again, that become phenomena.

And speaking of phenomena… Morgan Wallen just notched his eighth week at number one. They keep releasing new product, but people still want Wallen. And if you divorce yourself from his faux pas/misstep/bad behavior and actually listen to “Dangerous” you’ll know why. And why do critics always excoriate that which is mainstream? Just because people like it doesn’t mean it is bad. But if critics like what everybody else does how can they feel superior, then they’re no different from the hoi polloi!

And it was a review that got me to reserve Chang-Rae Lee’s “My Year Abroad,” not that I could remember what it was about when Libby told me I could skip the line and have seven instead of the usual twenty one days to read it.

I was hooked right away.

Reading “My Year Abroad” I did not think of this crazy world of ours one bit. Not Biden, Trump, Covid… It took me away, and not only was that a relief, it made me want to go deeper. Actually, the plot did, it was so WILD!

Now the writing is kind of dense. As in if you like to breeze through a book and catch all the meanings and references, “My Year Abroad” will not satisfy you. Sometimes you have to reread a paragraph to know what is going on. Other times you just plow forward hoping for the best. But one thing’s for sure, you want to keep reading!

Do you say no or yes?

The truth is the rewards are in saying yes. But so are the dangers. Go off course and you can have exciting experiences, even make a big buck, but you could also O.D. or be killed by gangsters. Unfortunately I usually say no. But the winners say yes. Tiller says yes, he doesn’t check himself, he’s all-in.

But Tiller is positively average. He doesn’t go to the best college, he’s not the best looking. He doesn’t live in the best part of town. Nor is he a self-hating upper middle class person, afraid of evidencing any wealth, nor is he a holier-than-thou poor person, thinking they’re better than the rest of us just because they’re broke. Which is why the upper middle class is constantly self-denigrating, because if they flaunt their possessions or their lifestyle they’re going to be excoriated, especially online.

Not that anybody is paying attention to Tiller.

So the book opens with him meeting Val in the Hong Kong airport and then making a life with her and her eight year old boy. Yup, one chance encounter and his whole life changes.

Just like his meeting with Pong.

And really, all that’s just the set-up. And I don’t want to tell you any more because the twists and turns are what make “My Year Abroad” great. And the story is enough, but the wisdom sprinkled throughout bonds you to the book, because of the insight. Today either you’re playing to the masses or afraid of the masses. You’re either one of the group or letting your freak flag fly. But what if you’re so inconsequential, no one cares about you? That’s Tiller. And his insights are our insights. Those of us who don’t count, who don’t matter, but wonder what is truly going on.

“the 2-iron-thin ladies, who might eat just two jumbo shrimp out of five”

Makes you crazy! You’re at some restaurant, the shrimp cocktail is exorbitantly priced, and these ladies leave most to be thrown away. You want to rush by their table and steal them. They believe they’re superior, because they’re controlled. But get these same women home alone with a cheesecake or some other dessert and you’ll see different behavior. Wait, is that sexist? Have we come so far that the truth is off limits? Can we only think about this stuff and not write it down? As for a 2 iron, if you’ve ever played golf, it’s the hardest iron to hit, except for the 1, which is extremely rare. The head is small and vertical and…thin.

“You’d think the town would be bedbuggy with its hard-driving, self-overscheduled students, but they almost exclusively stay on their idyllic campus because there’s no time left for them to do anything else.”

He’s talking about a college in New Jersey, but that was my experience at Middlebury. If you went to the bar in town on a Sunday or Monday night…crickets. Those nights were for STUDYING! As if some book could substitute for life experience.

“Lots of overcharming, overarticulate children.”

You’ve met them! Their parents are well to do boomers. The kids have been enriched since birth. They don’t have jobs during high school, they go save the world, or study in England. And you can talk to them just like adults!

“Or protein-loaded broccoli for all those steadily starving vegans.”

You need protein to survive, never mind so many other nutrients. But these holier-than-thou vegans think they do not!

“Val wasn’t poking at her phone or listening to music or sipping a takeout coffee, which at this point are pretty much the compulsory modes for any Frist World human being.”

Come on, hang out in an airport lounge. Anywhere between stops in life, if there’s a free moment, people are staring into their phones.

“the moms who aren’t yet single-parenting”

Get it? They’re on the way to divorce. They’re gonna do it alone.

“Be greedy in your appreciations.”

Soak up life, be proud of it. We’re constantly told to keep ourselves in check. To be seen, not heard. Not to be loud. But the rewards of life come from being all-in and aware of what’s going on.

“I wanted to say something suitably salty, to connect and not have to connect in the way men do…”

They never outgrow this, boys continue to be boys, snapping towels, making scatological jokes. And you grow up and if you’re one of them, you have no idea there’s any other way. But if you’re not one of them, if you’re a loner, not popular, the kind of kid others make fun of, you feel completely different. You want to reveal your feelings, to the bros this is anathema. To play in their world you must not be serious, you must be looking for the laugh in every endeavor, you must twist every encounter into a sexual reference…

“though part of me was unsettled by all the male bonding, being raised and educated in a well-to-do progressive enclave and demographic that championed egalitarian ideals like inclusion and justice.”

These people can’t wait to go to college. And if you move up the educational food chain, there is no bro-ness at the top. There are popular and unpopular, but other than the jocks, intellect is key, along with analysis. Then again, when some of these boys graduate they adopt the language of the bros to survive in the business world.

“I noticed how to the man Spideyface and his guys were exceedingly polite and solicitous, with none of the rudeness or crass behavior you might expect from semi-gangsters but are more likely to get from the finance and corporate types, who are the real gangsters in this world.”

People have now realized this. We’re waiting for the screw to turn, for the world to flip, for these self-righteous pricks to get their comeuppance.

“breathe her in like she was a freshly baked Toll House cookie.”

You get the picture? Appeal to you? YES!

“because when a real song arises between you there’s not just a connection but in fact a sudden breach in the world, an opening that lets you touch a mystery.”

If only all those people waxing rhapsodic about Julien Baker could coin the above, nail the experience.

“the kind who can’t do anything or go anywhere without a full round of social media due diligence.”

You’ve got to see what your peers think. God forbid you take a risk on a new place.

“She was very frugal but smart about it, unlike her husband, who cut corners no matter what.”

This is how you become rich. You don’t downsize across the board. You see what can be cut and what cannot. You don’t want to cut that which will grow, but the money spent on appearances and good times? You can drop that right away. 

“I believe this happens to a lot of men my age. One is quite settled in every regard, but you look around your circles and wonder if you’ve made any truly close friends.”

Without women, most men would be home alone, every night. Or be on the couch with a guy talking women and sports and no true feelings. The truth is women have girlfriends, best friends. As they get older, most men do not.

“The thing about crazy folk is that either they’re truly crazy or they know something nobody knows, or can even detect.”

This is SO true. But you don’t know it unless you spend a lot of time around a crazy person. In so many ways they’re inadequate, they can’t function in society, but somehow they can see right through you, detect the flaw in a situation, it’s eerie, almost supernatural. Either you know this or you’ve never experienced it and probably never will. Freaky.

“I assumed that he’d ply me with the data-heavy information download that marks an autodidact…”

People feel inadequate, substandard, less than because they didn’t get a college degree. So they read and educate themselves and they’re constantly talking about what they’re consuming, whereas those who’ve actually graduated never talk about their college courses. That’s in the past.

Now the truth is all of these insights are secondary to the enjoyment of “My Year Abroad.” It’s really about the plot. The roller coaster. Only this roller coaster is out in the desert and you’re riding it at night in the pitch black and nobody knows you’re doing so and nobody cares either.

Welcome to real life.

Social media is a ruse, it’s just a way to fight our loneliness. Our constant companions are our brains, our minds, and we’re in them all the time. And everybody keeps telling us we’re missing out on the show. And then we feel even worse, as outsiders.

This book is the story of one little life. And the truth is every life has twists and turns worth telling. But most of them go unheard. Which means when you read this book about an ordinary guy who sometimes enters the extraordinary realm…you pay attention, you can resonate, you share a common bond.

Now I had no idea who Chang-Rae Lee was, but after finishing the book I decided to do some research. There was a review in the “New Yorker,” which gave away a ton of the plot and put the book in the context of Lee’s other work and then poked holes in the novel, pointing out its flaws, its inadequacies.

Have you ever hung with a household name beauty? They’re imperfect, they’re flawed, all human beings are. So, books are not evaluated by these wankers for the reading experience, instead they’re held to some standard no one can meet that is agreed upon by the New York cognoscenti, who never really reveal what the rules are. They’re like rock critics. But since books sell a fraction of the number of records, and take longer to consume, albeit not being repeatable, these royals get away with it. The same way the bosses at the ever consolidating publishers get away with their insane pricing model. Yes, the hardcover edition of this book is only ninety nine cents more expensive than the Kindle version. Even though there’s no printing, shipping or returns with digital assets. The music business is in a frenzy over NFTs and the book business is smugly doing its best to keep its marginal business stuck in the pre-internet era. To the point where aforesaid wankers can’t even acknowledge genius when they see it.

Was every track on “Jagged Little Pill” or “Nevermind” an A+? No, but that doesn’t matter. These acts were hewing to their own standard, not anybody else’s, that’s what made them so fresh.

“My Year Abroad” is fresh.

Here’s the deal. You can read the sample chapter free, that’s what Amazon provides. You can even check it out on your smartphone, and everybody’s got one of those. So I don’t want to hear from those idiots who said they bought the book and disliked it. You don’t have to do that anymore. And truthfully, few of my own readers have even gotten this far. But those who have are looking for a nugget, something special, something to make their little lives complete.

And that’s “My Year Abroad.”

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