What Might This Be? Two Aliens Giving Each Other a High-Five.

two aliens

This semester I learned how to administer the Rorschach, the famous inkblot test. Disbelief that the test is still used in psychiatric settings is entirely appropriate. Nevertheless, it’s a useful instrument for gathering data about how a person interprets the world because the images are ambiguous, requiring one to ‘project’ what they see onto the inkblots.

Thinking it unfair to administer a test I myself haven’t taken, I asked a colleague to administer it on me. I recorded my responses and turned them over to the Screaming Stars who added ambient backing, resulting in this song: Two Aliens Giving Each Other a High-Five.

Unless you think you’ll ever take the test, you can see all ten cards here.


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Trump Rally Cancelled at UIC Pavilion

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Last night my partner and I attended the protest of Trump’s rally planned at UIC pavilion. As you may know, the event was cancelled. I collected interviews with protesters, Trump supporters, and specators. It was a vivid experience. Please give it a listen.

The song playing in the background is ‘Anxious and Mortified’, written and performed by my dear friend, Mike Glader.

Should you have any thoughts or feedback, please feel free to share your comments below.

– Ben

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The Post Modern Landscape: a view from the parking lot of the largest Cabela’s in the world

Back in 2012, I had a hunch to take my audio recorder and visit Cabela’s and REI, two outdoor sporting goods stores. I thought that the two businesses do a good job highlighting the divide in America.



On the one hand you have REI: individualistic, urbane, and environmentally conscious. Liberal. On the other hand you have Cabela’s: large, sells guns, family-oriented. Conservative. Both companies idealize nature and believe in conservation. REI thinks of nature as a place you go to have an exhilarating, extraordinary experience- just make sure to ‘leave no trace’. Cabela’s thinks of nature as a place to go hunting and fishing- and, continuing the tradition of conservation started by Theodore Roosevelt, believes that nature is best preserved by hunters paying their hunting license fees.

picBoth businesses had giant, fiberglass mountains inside. REI’s was a rock-climbing wall. Cabela’s was covered with taxidermied animals. Both, in their way, represent human kind’s will to overcome and dominate nature.

My project never came to fruition. Nevertheless, I went to the archives and found some audio recorded during my visit to the largest Cabela’s in the world, which is located in Hamburg, PA. I collaborated with the Screaming Stars, who recorded the ambient music on this track. If you have trouble hearing my improvised poem, you can read the transcript as you listen along:

The Post Modern Landscape: a view from the parking lot of the largest Cabela’s in the world

Fresh, black top, parking lot. Huge.
Section A, B, C… you know the rest.
Section for RV, for trucks.
There’s a horse corall. A “pet exercise area”.
A woman plays fetch with her dog.
A Cross, across the way: the Appalachian mountains.
separated by
six lane interstate
long john silvers
burger king
pizza hut
shells… shell

Looks like it would be hard to go there by foot
and once you’re up there, what’s there?
Nothing but disease, trees, threat, danger.
Better to stay here in the car and drive over there.

The actual town of Hamburg, Pennsylvania
is on another hill
across the valley
across the intersate.

It looks like from here we could lob canons
onto Hamburg and from there they would
launch canons onto here.
But I think there’s more guns in Cabela’s.

Standing on opposite hills like this is greater
than a mere town, greater than democracy.
It’s even rivalling the mountains with its presence.



Wherever you fall on that divide, I love you.

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When Republicans are talking openly about this country’s problem with heroin, as both Jeb Bush and Donald Trump did last night after the NH primary, you know we’re getting somewhere. But their logic was absurd, for different reasons. Jeb spoke personally about the addiction problems in his own family, before sharing an anecdote about a craft beer entrepreneur who is unable to succeed because of red tape in Washington. Schizophrenic, no? Trump I won’t even spend any time on, except to say No, Mexico is not to blame for America’s drug problem. In fact, a compelling argument has been made that over-prescribing doctors have contributed to the problem.

But that’s neither here nor there. I want to introduce some talking points to all of you so that you can share them on Facebook or around the dinner table or whatever, because a national conversation is actually happening and it must include data that challenges our assumptions about what addiction is and how it should be handled.

  1. There is a magical medication called Naloxone (commonly known as Narcan) that has a 99+% success rate at reversing opiate overdose. For a long time, it has been illegal to carry Narcan (and in some states it still is) on the premise that giving heroin users an OD antidote would be ENABLING their drug use. The only thing it enables them to do is live! Naloxone must be available in pharmacies w/o a prescription.

Naloxone selfie


2. Detox can increase the risk of overdose. The regular heroin user has a natural tolerance for the drug. Detox eliminates this tolerance. If they renew their use at their former levels, they are at an increased risk of overdose (Denning, 2004). The counter argument to this may be that detox isn’t the problem, but that people who use drugs after detox are the problem. I disagree, for two reasons (1) Many individuals never really wanted to be abstinent in the first place, but were coerced/pressured/shamed into recovery; (2) Even individuals who DO want to quit for good may go through detox dozens of times. Let’s quit freaking out about how people need to stop doing heroin, and instead take simple precautions to reduce the harm of their use (stop overdoses).

3. Relapse prevention and overdose prevention are not necessarily the same thing. Of course, the safest way to prevent an overdose is to not take a drug. However, if we’re pragmatic, we’ll recognize that people are going to take drugs for a variety of reasons. Once we accept that fact we can start talking about tangible ways to prevent overdose. There are a variety of techniques:

a) inform people about their loss of tolerance after detox
b) encourage people to use in the company of other people and have Naloxone on hand
c) “taste” a shot before injecting
d) increase knowledge, not fear, of drugs
e) decrease stigma around drug use

Overdose prevention should come before relapse prevention, because recovery is impossible once someone is dead. If you know someone who has a problematic relation to heroin, don’t shame them. Learn how to administer Naloxone and tell them you would rather save their life than have them die in private. Recovery is a long, non-linear process. 

If you want to learn more, here are some helpful resources:

An 8 minute video that shows you how to use naloxone

Illinois needle exchanges

Wisconsin needle exchanges

A good definition of harm reduction

Good book

Good book number two



Denning, Patt, Little, J., Glickman, A. (2004). Over the influence: the harm reduction guide for managing drugs and alcohol. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.


How to humor your inner critic


Isn’t it interesting that we have the phrase ‘inner dialogue’ and not ‘inner monologue’? You’d assume it would be the latter- that the voice in your head is a soloist. But there’s an audience, too. As the inner voice speaks, we also listen… and respond.

The Buddhists have a phrase, ‘monkey mind’ which refers to the incessant chatter of the inner dialogue, the voice that says “Do this. Do that. Get this. Avoid that”. The aim of meditation is not to have this voice shut up for good (although that does sometimes fortuitously happen, albeit briefly); the aim is to simply get the voice to quiet or tone down.

How, if possible, can this be accomplished? The answer is NOT by attempting to suppress, repress, or ignore the inner voice (for that just leads to more anxiety about it coming back, and sometimes causes the voice to become louder), but rather by listening to what the voice has to say, taking note of it, and moving on without confirming or denying anything it has to say. This is harder to do than it sounds, because my (our) tendency is to engage the inner critic, taking its claims seriously.

But arguing against the voice just makes it even louder and harder to escape. That’s a debate you can never win, because the opponent is yourself!

One solution I’ve come across is to simply change the tone of the argument. Here’s an example dialogue:

“You really screwed that up”
“Yeah, I guess so”
“You’re not taking my claims seriously”
“Oh no” (in a sarcastic tone) “I’m so sorry”

Conversation over.

color skyII

And if that doesn’t work, just hum or do something with your body, to get out of your head. And, ultimately, there is no once-and-for all solution, because the inner dialogue, monkey chatter, and distress are all symptoms of that thing called life.

Photos are of Lake Michigan at Berger Park, in Chicago.


Winter Walk, 2015

Went on a walk around the neighborhood. 2015-12-08 15.44.202015-12-08 16.00.152015-12-08 16.04.382015-12-08 16.09.142015-12-08 16.14.222015-12-08 16.16.372015-12-08 16.19.212015-12-08 16.30.082015-12-08 16.30.472015-12-08 16.40.002015-12-08 16.39.292015-12-08 16.44.082015-12-08 16.44.322015-12-08 16.45.452015-12-08 16.49.422015-12-08 16.51.172015-12-08 16.52.062015-12-08 16.55.122015-12-08 17.03.002015-12-08 17.05.052015-12-08 17.11.53

Vote Democratic.


The 16th annual Windy City Times ’30 Under 30′ recipient, Julia Napolitano

Every year the Windy City Times– an LGBTQ newspaper based in Chicago- releases its ’30 under 30′ which recognizes 30 individuals under the age of 30 who are doing great work in service of the community. Lovely Julia was a recipient of this year’s award! See the article here:


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Dormant We Grow

Dear Readers,

I’m taking a break from Underspecialized. A while ago I started this blog in order to do two things- write consistently, and do so publicly. Having stuck to that method, I’ve explored hundreds of topics, had lots of fun, and hope you have too. Thank you for all the support. I know reading’s hard, especially on the internet. And whether you did it because this was actually interesting or because you didn’t want to feel awkward next time I saw you and asked what you thought, Thank You.

Although it may be undue, I feel the need to give an explanation. In raw terms, I’m going back to school, working full-time, and have little energy to spare. Artistically speaking, I find having to write every week, nay, having to share what I write every week, constraining. Some things need to be incubated for longer periods of time in order to properly develop. But if I go down that line of thought, then there’s pressure for me to top Underspecialized with something even more ambitious. That may happen. But it may not happen (and that’s OK, too). It’s empowering to let something go without conditions, and to wait and see what happens (or doesn’t happen) organically.

Of course I’m afraid of stopping. But I’m also excited to see what happens when I do. This might be the end, or it might be a hiatus before returning in different form. We shall see. Hiatus, incidentally, comes from the Latin word hiare, which also means to yawn. Who knows, maybe it’s contagious?

Just the other day I was sitting under a tree when one of its leaves fell on me. Dead. Bright yellow. I felt sad and thought: it’s not a seed, why does it have to fall? (Because all summer this leaf was receptive to the sun). Its job is over, now it falls to the ground… maybe it will become compost for further growth.

Thank you from all my heart,
Gopher Padfoot

PS- in one last act of shameless self-indulgence, please look to the right at the archives for any posts you may have missed. : D


The Worst Thing

I entered Zagreb Cathedral and noticed a series of posters bearing the picture of Pope John Paul II. The Pope’s image has always been a particularly powerful one in Croatia because of a single fact: despite Croatia’s being next door to Italy and the Vatican and despite its forming the common border of Western and Eastern Christianity whose reconciliation the Pope has long sought, this Pope, who had traveled to the farthest reaches of Africa and Asia, had through his first dozen years as pontiff still not come to Croatia. This was mainly due to the legacy of Cardinal Stepinac… -Robert Kaplan, in Balkan Ghosts


Dubrovnik, Croatia

I’m not a Buddhist, but I want to tell the story of the Buddha before relating it to my time in Croatia.


Once there was a young man named Siddhartha. His father didn’t want him to see any of the suffering of the world, so he kept his son safe in his palace with all of the comforts of the world, forbidding him to go outside. One day, Siddhartha disobeyed, leaving with a friend. The first thing he saw was a sick man.

“What’s that?” he asked his friend. “People get sick, Siddhartha”. The next thing he saw was an old woman hunched over her wobbling crane. “And what’s that?” Siddhartha asked. “Everyone gets old” said his friend. Lastly, Siddhartha looked upon a dead man surrounded by his wailing family. “And that?” asked the young prince, clearly agitated. “Didn’t you know” said his friend, “we shall die, too”.

Torn from the ignorant bliss, Siddhartha was plunged into the truth of human suffering: we get sick, grow old, and die. Rather than return to the palace, rather than despair, and rather than become cynical, Siddhartha developed compassion. The experience transformed him into the Buddha.

Dubrovnik at Night (steps, levels & layers)

Dubrovnik at Night (steps, levels & layers)


After leaving Austria, after the family reunion and the yodeling, I went to Dubrovnik with my sister Kristy. Dubrovnik is a city on the Adriatic coast, in present day Croatia. Traditionally, it’s the eastern rampart of the Catholic Church. Nowadays, many Germans and Austrians make holiday there. It’s like the Florida of Europe, without the assholes and sandy beaches. A Serbian acquaintance of mine from Chicago, lets call him Lazar, recommended we go to a small island named Mljet off the coast of Dubrovnik. Mljet is 30km long, has two salt water lakes and is a national park.

You can only get to Mljet by ferry (or unless, obviously, you have a boat of your own) and the ferry only goes once a day, at about 09:00. Another ferry goes back to Dubrovnik at 4:00. Our first day there in Mljet we walked around looking for a place to stay but couldn’t find anything. In this part of Croatia you don’t stay at hotels or even hostels but at people’s apartments that are converted into a kind of B&B- each participating building has a blue sign in front of it that says ‘sobe’ (rooms). Room after room was full. We panicked, thinking we’d have to take the ferry back to Dubrovnik and not get to spend the night in Mljet. A nice girl told us to be persistent; if we couldn’t find one she’d call someone. That gave us courage and I went up to house after house (there’s only about 30 houses, I might add) and soon we found a room for the both of us for about 30 euros. The proprietor offered to shove the beds together but we told them we were brother and sister.

All the time there the locals kept asking us how we, Americans, heard about Mljet (I guess it’s not that common). I kept telling them my Croatian friend from Chicago recommended me. Again, Lazar’s Serbian. This honest mistake proved to be fortuitous.



Mljet was breathtaking. My sister called it the place everywhere else in the world wants to be. The hills smelled like cedar, pine trees of Colorado. The sound of cicadas was a constant. The water was clear, dark tortoise. The lakes were so salty I, who usually can’t float on my back, could do so for as long as I wanted, marveling at the power of a chest full of air. People skinny-dipped. People brought their little children for a vacation, perhaps the last before their parents were too old. People ate freshly-caught fish and felt at-one with the world. I said to myself: If I had a terminal illness, I’d like to come and die here.

Only 22 years ago, all was different. Yugoslavia, a country that existed from the end of WWI to the collapse of Communism, fell apart into six separate countries (Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Slovenia, Montenegro). In 1991, Serbia went to war with Croatia. As Serbian paramilitaries marched to the Adriatic, atrocities were committed, massacres. Dubrovnik was bombed but held out. Mljet, the beautiful island we rested in, was occupied. The Croatians fought back, extending the border back east. Atrocities were re-payed with atrocities. Two years later, war broke out in Bosnia. “War”. Genocide occurred. First the Serbs against the Croats and Muslims living there, then the Serbs and Croats versus the Muslims living there. Genocide in the nineteen-fucking-nineties. Went on till Clinton intervened. Don’t lose sight and think ISIS embodies a Muslim disregard for life. The tail end of the 20th century saw ethnic cleansing committed against Muslims by Christians.

Sister Kristy

Sister Kristy

I sent “Adela”, my doorperson, a postcard from Croatia. She’s a Muslim Bosnian. Fled Bosnia in the nineties with her family. Like many Yugoslavians, to Chicago. When I got back to the States, she’s so grateful about the card. I asked if it was offensive, I knew the Muslims had problems with the Croats. “No” she says. “Our problems were with the Serbs”. We start talking. She alludes to atrocities, things she’s witnessed but has never told anybody (at least not her kids). “How can’t you tell your kids?” I asked. “How can I tell my kids?” she says rhetorically. “What would be the point in telling them what I saw?”. I push her harder, I say that it’s healing to share your burdens, that maybe one day her kids will want to know what she had to go through.

(She wishes to keep them in the palace)

“How can I tell my kids?”, she says again, “how can I tell my kids that I saw men take a pregnant woman and cut open her stomach like this (she makes a quick stabbing gesture followed by a slice) and then throw the baby up in the air and catch it on the knife before it hits the ground in front of her?” I’m silent. “How can I tell my kids that I see a man cut off all the fingers of a three year old child and wear them around his neck like a necklace”- She’s continuing faster now, as if she’s not even aware of my presence- “how can I tell my kids that I see a man tied to a burning log left to die like that, or that another man has an ax slammed into his asshole and is screaming to be killed but they don’t let him”. I’m shaking my head. “How can I tell my kids? Benny, if I told you everything I saw it would be a book this thick (she holds up her thumb and finger, inches apart).”

(I don’t blame her)

After traveling to Croatia, and having such a beautiful time, and after listening to Adela, hearing about the lived experience of people there in recent years, I decided I needed to learn more. I’ve been reading a book called Balkan Ghosts, by Robert Kaplan, which is a combination of history and travel writing, focused on the Balkan Peninsula, to which Croatia is a part. The violence Adela shared is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The number of horrific things that have happened in the past century, the number of times I had to put down the book and attempt to contemplate the amount of agony a single human can undergo, the number of battles going on today due to wars and empires from hundreds, if not thousands of years ago.

Did you know the Catholic Church supported- and in some cases participated in- the slaughter of Jews and Eastern Orthodox Serbians in Croatia? Did you know a Serbian, Gavrilo Princip, launched WWI with the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand? Did you know the Bulgarian government (putatively) funded the attempt on Pope John Paul II’s life? The Balkans, a forgotten place, keeps popping into history, often covered in blood. Lazar had uncles who were in Mljet during the war, doing things he refused to share… that’s why I’m glad I said he was Croatian.



The worst thing, Adela said, the worst thing was that the people committing these atrocities in front of her eyes weren’t soldiers, weren’t foreigners from Russia or some far off land. They were her neighbors. She knew them and they knew her for years. They babysat each others children and borrowed flour, before the war. “This is what happens, Benny, with war”. Society breaks down, the rules are suspended, and people become not people. The “e” in humane is lost and all you have is human, all-too human.

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Bavarian Dream

When I was in Europe I spent half the time with family, half the time alone. It was a good mixture. Too much of one without the other can make you go crazy… some Buddhists believe in a two-directional type of solitude, whereby you go off and be alone in order to come back and be more fully present to the people in your life. I abide by that entirely. Especially with travel.

Obermässing, Bavaria (with Maypole)

Obermässing, Bavaria (with Maypole)

On one leg of the journey, I was with family in Bavaria, a large state in southern Germany. Bavaria is a distinct region of Germany, almost its own country. It’s the land of beer and lederhosen, the Catholic Church, BMW and Audi. It’s also where the Nazi party originated in the 1920s, in the loud and frothy beer halls of Munich.*

In many ways, Bavaria reminds me of Texas. Bavarians call themselves Bavarian first, then German, much in the same way that Texans belong to The Lonestar State. Actually, many Bavarians identify on even more of a micro-level, since each village has its own dialect- a dialect that might as well be a different language to someone living only 10 or 15 miles away. Neither Texas nor Bavaria is exactly cosmopolitan, either, despite having several major cities.** Their politics are conservative, reflecting their rural, hinterland backdrop.

Saying Hi

Saying Hi

My mom’s dad’s dad came from a small town in Bavaria called Obermässing about 30 miles south of Nuremberg. Great-grandpa Karl Kremel was a blacksmith and served during WWI (for the Germans) taking care of horses. Later he emigrated to Milwaukee. One story his son, my grandfather, likes to tell is how when Karl was living in America and heard about the GI Bill and all the benefits it provided to veterans, he applied. A few weeks later, he received a courteous yet frank letter from Uncle Sam, stating that the GI Bill applied only to soldiers who fought for the United States.

Today, Obermässing has 738 inhabitants, about 38 of whom are my distant relatives. When my family and I came to visit them, they gave us coffee and cake, a tour of the town, and dinner at a beer hall with live Bavarian folk music and steady currents of cold beer. I had a conversation over the long wooden table with Albert, who wore glasses, resembled one of my cousins back in the States, and was one of the few residents who left Obermässing for Cologne, studying to get a PhD. (Southern Germany, somewhat anachronistically, still practices primogeniture; Albert is the second son to his brother Stefan.)***


“Die Blumen ist schön, der Himmel ist schön, alles ist schöne” -Herman the Farmer

He asked me why I was recording everything. I told him about my blog. He asked me why I did my blog, who was I doing it for. I said it was its own reward. He was baffled. He asked if a lot of people in the States do things for the hell of it without anyone telling them to. I said some people do, but not everyone. He asked if I was ever going to stop. I said it was an ongoing process of indeterminate nature, that I am committed to every step of the Way, while simultaneously questioning the entire endeavor.

I said it’s like a relationship or job- you keep going with faith despite the fact that you know one day you may not. He asked if a lot of people in America see things that way. I said no, I guess not, people think something has to last forever or it can’t be meaningful at all. Why else balk at atheism?

Meeting German Family for the First Time (the Austrians are on my mom's mom's side)

Meeting German Family for the First Time (the Austrians referred to in other posts are on my mom’s mom’s side)


* This is not an overstatement. In 1923, Hitler and the nascent Nazi Party tried to seize power in a coup that started, like many of their meetings, in a beer hall. Hence the ‘Beer Hall Putsch‘.
**San Antonio, Dallas and Houston all have populations in the millions. Likewise for Nuremberg and Munich. Additionally, both states have a lot of cash, due to oil and the automobile industry, respectively.
***Primogeniture: The right of the eldest child, especially the eldest son, to inherit the entire estate of one or both parents.

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