Peter Korchnak

Writer. Immigrant. Traveler.

Author: Peter Korchnak (Page 1 of 5)

Dispatches from Trump’s America, Day 1: Fear and Truth in the USA

Dear Václav,

I hope you are still resting in peace even as the world seems to be circling the drain. A lot has happened in the five years since you left. But I’m not here to gossip.

Before I tell you why I am writing, I should introduce myself. We have never met, and you don’t know me in more than an abstract way, as a fellow former compatriot. For 934 short days you were the President of my country—our country—which, of course, no longer exists. A teenager, shy like you, I watched you steer Czechoslovakia through the transition to democracy and hoped to someday do great deeds myself.

I admit, I was mad at you for not doing more to preserve our country. Yet even after Czechoslovakia split like a loaf of bread torn apart by greedy brothers, you continued to inspire me, even if I didn’t care to admit it until much, much later. You did your best to stay above the political fray, you upheld the values you stood for, and you kept speaking out about things that mattered for the sake of humanity. Philosopher President, they called you.

I should perhaps call you Mr. President. While you will always be my president, I clearly recall there was always a degree of informality about you: I remember the sweaters you wore instead of presidential suits, the pants that were a little too short and even became a slang word deriving from your surname, the stories of you riding through the Prague Castle on a scooter, like the kid I was. I apologize if I’m overstepping any boundaries by calling you so informally, by your given name. I am doing so in consideration of you here as a fellow writer, intellectual (I can only aspire to your level), and, most importantly, a person who speaks truth to power. The times call for the kind of fellowship a first-name basis endows.

As you’ve probably heard by now—how could you not have, with all that yelling heard round the world—on November 8 last year, my adopted country, the United States, elected a president that would put Gustáv Husák or Leonid Brezhnev to shame. Sure, the election was open, free, and democratic, albeit influenced by the Kremlin (I relish the thought of you not being surprised by this at all). And yes, it’s okay to lose sometimes; that’s life. But the despair I, along with more than half the country, felt that night and in the ensuing days was of the same kind and the same magnitude I had felt in Czechoslovakia’s final days. I felt powerless and insignificant.

Thus deflated and hopeless, I was numb for days.

What got me out of it was you and something you once said:

“Truth and love will overcome lies and hatred.” Václav Havel

This, more than anything, is the reason for the words you are reading. That quote, which I first read on a hand-painted poster during the Velvet Revolution, reminded me that, though life, indeed history, is full of periods of darkness, we always emerge on the other side better for it, if we stay true to ourselves and our fellow humans.

Thanks to you, I shook myself off, picked myself up, and decided to do something.

As an American—I became a citizen shortly before you departed this world—I am more empowered than I was in Slovakia to take part in democracy: I can call my elected officials, I can sign petitions, I can join protests. Those things make a difference, and I will do as much as possible.

But as important and constructive as that will be in fighting for a better country, I felt it was not enough.

When your motto came to mind, your writing came to mind, too. Having read your essay collection Open Letters many times, and your most famous essay, “The Power of the Powerless” even more so, I remembered I carry within myself the remedy to my own powerlessness because power is only effective as much as I am willing to submit to it.

I’ve always enjoyed being an observer. After all, this is what we writers do: We watch and listen and smell and touch, and then we describe it in words. I am pretty good at observing too, if I may say so myself (I’m even writing a novel about a kid in the 1980’s on the way to becoming a State Security agent pursuing dissidents like you were; I hope you’ll like it). But an observer, by definition, does not participate; he remains on the sidelines while others do the work. In the new world, that was no longer tenable.

And so I decided I must write.

I must write about this new reality not only as a way of coping with it, for the sake of my own sanity, but also, and more importantly, as a way of living in truth, as you conceived it. It is only when each of us live this way that we can face this version of America and make it through the next four years.

I will use my writing as a tool and an expression of my own, personal resistance against a president and all that he represents, the same way you did when you wrote your plays and essays. I will write my truths, yes, my observations as an immigrant and new citizen about what is going on, to fight hate that’s taking over my adopted country, to overcome the fear this new President capitalized on and sown.

Yes, America today is a country of fear. The consensus in post-election analyses held that the winner harnessed the anger many people felt about the direction the country is going. I think anger and hate are but symptoms. The new President tapped into a rich vein of fear among people who have lost a lot and who are afraid to lose even more. Jobs stolen by illegal immigrants and foreign countries; safety and security threatened by terrorists; white-majority comforts eaten away by people of color; the list goes on. They chose a leader who assuaged their fears by promising to give it all back.

As one half of the country voted out of fear, the other half—for we are a country increasingly divided—was overcome with it. We fear this presidency, and the partisan majority it dragged in with it, will lead to many losses on many fronts: civil liberties; reproductive rights; environmental protection; education; the country’s security; and yes, even jobs. If these fears seemed overblown in the aftermath of the election, you only have to look at what has already been happening since then. Our fears are already materializing.

This is a president of fear; this is a government of fear; this is a parliament of fear.

I am not afraid.

Yours in truth,

Peter

Featured image by Pat Joyce.

Where the Wind Blows

When I left my hometown, for university, I thought there were two kinds of people: those who fled and those who stayed. When I left for graduate school five years later, I was convinced there were those who left and those who were left behind. Both times I was wrong.

*

Within Slovakia, Košice is famous for many things. The beautiful historic core draws both accolades and jeers of envy; its crown jewel, St. Elizabeth’s Cathedral, Europe’s eastermost Gothic church, is finally scaffolding-free after nearly 30 years of renovations. The East Slovak Ironworks, owned by U.S. Steel since 2000, caused a tripling of the city’s population since its construction in 1960. A top-dog ice hockey team, the oldest marathon in Europe (second oldest in the world after Boston’s), and the slang, which injects into the Slovak many Hungarian, Romani, and Eastern Slovak dialect words, further bolster our intense local patriotism. But the feature that defines my hometown for us, its residents, is invisible to the eye.

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finding the right form

Finding the Right Form to Tell a Story

Story does not exist without telling. “The story is in the telling” represents more than a turn of phrase. The story constitutes the What, the content; the telling is the How, the form. The How is the receptacle for the What. The two have to fit perfectly. Only true form gives story life.

This has been on my mind lately as I began writing Bubbles for a Spirit Level [1] mere four years after conception. It took finding the right form to get here.

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emergent orange

Emergent Orange and the Metaphoric Properties of Sunset Pictures

A decade ago, Jim Bumgardner discovered that a composite photo averaging any number of any images on Flickr always yields the same color: orange. Bumgardner offered a few theories why what he termed Emergent Orange exists on his blog, Krazy Dad, including:

  1. Colors blue and green do not occupy large areas of most photographs (pictures of sky and greenery aren’t that exciting, are they?), hence the red shift.
  2. Cameras today are calibrated toward warmer colors.
  3. Photos in artificial light or using flash lean spectrally toward yellows and whites.
  4. The sun is a hot yellow star, so daytime photos lean toward its color.
  5. People like to photograph Buddhist monks whose robes are orange.

More recently Bumgardner suggested that the photos reflected “the average chemical composition of the subjects being photographed.” Others have proposed their own theories, each reflecting their professional biases.

Do Sunset Photos Cause Emergent Orange?

As I read The Atlantic article about Bumgardner’s discovery, I thought the explanation was a no-brainer: the phenomenon was caused by the pervasiveness of sunset pictures, whose color profile, of course, leans toward yellows, reds, and oranges (sunrises are similar, if a bit colder in that regard, but they are photographed much more rarely). Perhaps this idea reflects my own bias: as a traveler I have taken a few photos of sunsets myself and seen a fair share of sunset pics on blogs and social media. Not even jumping photos come close to the popularity of sunset photos (332 million search results as I write this).

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google maps easter egg

An Easter Egg in the Middle of Russia?

Type the name of any country into Google Maps and the tool will render it in the center of the right-hand two thirds of your screen, likely with a red stroke tracing the international border (a sidebar with photos, quick facts and links covers the left-hand third of the screen). The only exception: Russia. As far as I can tell, this is the only country that appears with the familiar red, tear drop-shaped marker stabbed into its territory.

It made some sense for the largest country in the world, whose 17 million square kilometers far surpass Canada’s 10, to be an exception. At first, I thought the point is the country’s geographic center. But I was wrong: that honor belongs to of the Lake Vivi, some 768 kilometers northeast of the marker, where a large monument and cross indicate the spot. I got curious. What’s going on here?

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why i write

Why I Write What I Do

My first attempt at serious writing comprised a few short stories and a portion of a novel, circa 2002 while I attended graduate school in Leiden, the Netherlands. As a teenager I’d been a huge fan of Stephen King and pledged to write like him some day, so when I decided I wanted to write for real, fiction is what came out. I still have those stories saved up in a digital folder.

Setting out to write a novel changed everything. I had the entire thing outlined from beginning to end; I’d done the research and wrote copious notes (I still have those, too). But when, some five or six chapters into the project, I stepped back and looked at what I’d written, I realized I was creating an almost exact copy of my favorite film, The Garden.

All the stories have already been written. Exploring the matter I learned that it’s common wisdom. Even my epiphany wasn’t original.

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Sampling Summer’s Hike-Inspired Beers

The November issue of the Oregon Beer Growler magazine features my article, “Sampling Summer’s Hike-Inspired Beers,” covering a tapping of beers inspired by nature around Portland.

An unusual pub crawl in Southeast Portland on Oct. 10 proved that the ninth time can be a charm, too. After a series of eight walks that invited “brewers to go on nature hikes and make new beer inspired by edible and medicinal plants on the trail,” eager consumers burned a little more shoe leather as they made the trek from pub to pub during the Beers Made By Walking tapping. Oregon Beer Growler covered the original hikes in the August 2015 issue with the article “A Beer Walk in the Woods” and wanted to follow up on the process.

Continue reading in the Oregon Beer Growler

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