January 4, 2011

A friend wrote this to me and asked if I might put it somewhere – something about about not wanting to offend friends and family. I haven’t changed any of it, and I rather like the sentiments, so why don’t you take a minute to reflect on the good ole Christmas spirit?
I have a confession to make: Christmas…really bothers me.
I mean, yes, there are the usual erudite bah-humbug reasons why Christmas is ridiculous: most of us aren’t really practicing Christians, the commercialism and competition surrounding gift-giving, the beautiful ideal that is never quite reached that leaves someone, without fail, weeping at the lack of perfection…I’ll spare us the rest of the rambling list about lies to children and poor translation of customs and symbols that has led to the Disney circus parade of characters that swarm over us in a dizzying tornado for just over a month each year.
What I WILL talk about, the part that bothers me most, is the rottenness of the warm fuzzy core of Christmas. More than Little Baby Jesus, Christmas is supposed to be about family and togetherness. It never really was about Jesus anyway: it’s a celebration after a year’s harvest. It’s a time to kick back amid the bounty of a year’s hard work and indulge in a little excess and catch up with people as the busy earth breathes a sigh after birthing of her muchness and prepares to roll over to sleep for a bit.
We get together to celebrate our successful journey through a year and to fight seasonally affective depression in the darkest part of the year. We remind each other that the growing season will return and we praise the sun for consenting to give us just a little more light every day.
We have lost any of the original relevances of our yearly celebration and most of us don’t miss it because that is not our reality anymore. Fine. But the sickness that plagues us now is that we don’t celebrate a job well done, we celebrate our yearly shortcomings and pray to the gods of plastic items that they will somehow help us assuage the guilt we carry for the sin of being too busy to have meaningful exchanges with people throughout the year. We hope that we can purchase something of value, since we’ve failed to make anything of value ourselves.
Our Christmas, with all its stress and expense and etiquette is a thick and glittery plastic sham that we uphold as a sacred social contract: You don’t call my bluff and I won’t call yours. But that emperor has no clothes, friends! Plastic crap and other novelties given under quasi-duress do not create a meaningful exchange.
My brother and his wife (who doesn’t really like me, I don’t think) dutifully got me a present because I am a box to check on the family list. They do not need to get me a present. I don’t really need anything or merit anything just because it’s Christmas, anyway. And besides, they have a new baby girl and Amber quit her job in November, so I know that the money can go to other things. But they did as we
all do: they wrote the list of all the people they are obliged to get gifts for, searched the corners of their minds for some quirk of mine, and went searching for a deal on something – not too expensive but jazzy enough to pass – that would fulfill the responsibility to get someTHING for all blood relatives, even those that have been off in other countries and on the other side of the state for some years now.
The want that gift to communicate that they ‘know’ me. That ‘knowing’ must then represent a bond and a connection. We still know each other, right? See – I know you like tea and art, so I picked out these TWO Thomas Kincaide mug/tea gifty set thingies! (It must not matter that we only see each other if I happen to talk to my sister on a day that they’ve actually come to town). It was the same with the other side of the family – I got a novelty chocolate-making set that is good for approximately 2 oz of prepared chocolate from my fiance’s sister. God help us.
I do not want to demonize my brother or my sister-in-law- they are fine people just trying to do the best they can at being adults. And I know there is a wealth of criticism reserved for those ingrates who would “look a gift-horse in the mouth.” A gift is a gift, right, and one should accept it graciously – that’s what we’re taught. But I think we’re taught that because gift-giving is so often not just wrong-headed, but wrong-hearted. THAT is the problem I see. Giving gifts just to check off the names on the list, or even giving gifts to make up for a year’s lack of meaningful interaction isn’t really giving at all, is it? It’s more like plastering a bandaid on a finger that isn’t cut or, worse yet, shoving a mug/tea gifty set into the hands of a guy who’s just lost a phlange…or his wife – it’s inappropriate. And while that kind of gift-giving may require some kind of monetary sacrifice it doesn’t actually represent love, thought, craft, work, or celebration of much of anything – at least, to my eye it doesn’t.
You see, I don’t WANT a novelty chocolate kit, even if it is Fair Trade Certified. I despise Thomas Kincaide and the cookies that came with each plastic-wrapped set contained milk whey and I’m lactose-intolerant. And I can forgive the whey and the novelty and be happy that these guys were thinking of me and trying so hard to find a match for me and a thing so I would KNOW they were thinking of me. But the unspoken burning truth on my tongue is that I do not WANT things from the people in my life. I don’t care about manufactured crap – in fact I rail against it constantly. Instead, I would like to spend more TIME with my brother. I want him to know just how much I love him and I wish more than anything that I could help him understand me, make me less of an uncomfortable anomaly to him (and the whole stinkin’ rest of the family, if I had my ‘d’ruthers). I WANT to be able to talk more easily with my sister-in-law…like maybe dig up some of the misunderstandings of our early relationship and settle them instead of pasting over them and pretending everything has always been dandy. I want for her to see that me just being me and living and breathing and having opinions isn’t any kind of judgment on HER. But I’ll likely not ever receive any of those gifts; instead I’ll forever get novelty crap that doesn’t even really suit me.
I say this, and I’m going to follow it with a truth about myself that will seem self-righteous, but bear with me: I do the best I can to make gifts for people at Christmas. I figure if I’m going to participate – and, hey, I have to admit that, for all the reasons it’s bullshit, I still like being with people and sharing good food and catching up – if I’m going to participate, I’ll do it on my terms and in a way that feels deeply satisfying. It helps that I am always hijacked and taken over by my right brain in the autumn.
It wakes me up at night and compels me to create. I meditate on the essences of the important people in my life and create things that I present to them at Christmas gatherings. Granted, I am bothered by twinges of doubt and embarrassment that my gifts won’t be understood, that they’re ugly, that they’ll never be used; my packages always look strange and out-of-place…sometimes they are foods or oddly-shaped, bizarrely-trimmed bundles or just naked products amongst the neat and glitzy packages and bows. But people always seem to like my inexpensive hippie-gifts best, and I think that it’s because my gifts represent a culmination and a connection and a communication – from my essence to theirs. It also demonstrates a sacrifice of time and creative energy that mass-produced landfill grist just doesn’t possess. I received a painting from my mother-in-law that she had done from one of my photographs. I was so – touched?, astounded?, overcome? – that I could hardly speak. In her way, she had used her art to give a nod to mine. THAT is a gift that is thoughtful, loving, meaningful, and, in a true sense, an offering of oneself. I think that’s what Christmas is supposed to be.
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Mark Twain

December 2, 2010

There’s a famous Mark Twain quote about the purpose of traveling being not to see the foreign world, but to return home and see your own country as a foreigner would. Now, Mark Twain himself was a pseudonym – a shadow of a real man – and there’s every possibility in the world that this is just a pseudo-quote being mis-attributed to someone famous: perhaps I’m just showing off my own ignorance by leading with the possibly fake words of a fake person. Regardless, in my experience there’s a lot of truth in that sentiment, and so I’d like to write a bit about the strangeness of America from the point of view of one who lived outside her boundaries long enough to notice.

 

It’s a hard subject to broach, because Americans are VERY touchy about our country – it’s as if we feel we must defend her like a kid sister whose honor is at risk. I don’t quite understand that, so I won’t pull many punches, but the ones I’m leaving out are the ones that I know will offend just about everyone without adding much to the discussion.

 

Outside the US, Americans have a near-universal reputation for being fat-assed, fat-headed, boorish, uneducated slobs. Several times out on the road I was complimented in this sort of fashion: “Wow, you sure are smart(well-educated/well-read/polite/in shape/etc) for an American. That little sting at the end lets you know that you’re different, that you’re exceeding expectations or something. It gets under your skin a bit, but not nearly so much as the average American abroad does. They’re just so goddamn blatant, so obvious and in-your-face… It’s like a game of “Where’s Waldo?” except with a 40′ neon sign floating over his head reading “RIGHT HERE MOTHERFUCKER!!!” Once I was out for six months, the average American stuck out in my mental radar only slightly less than the average Israeli, and believe me, that’s not a compliment at all.

 

It got to the point where I avoided Americans out of hand, not just because they didn’t have much worth talking about, but also because I didn’t want that guilt-by-association that comes with hanging out around the loudest, most obvious attention whore in the room. You all know the guy – he’s making a shitshow of himself, doesn’t even realize it, and in the process offending half the people around him while the other half search for a polite exit. I’ve even BEEN that guy once, arguing loudly with an Israeli in a crowded hostel. Ruined family dinner for a dozen people, made a complete ass of myself in front of some friends, and for what? Some pissing contest about Palestinian genocide and the right of all humans to live without a gun barrel down the throat. After that, I learned to keep my opinions under wraps a bit better.

 

Problem was, not many American travelers took the same tack, and I can think of enough instances of American tourists ruining the show for everyone that it makes me uncomfortable to associate myself with group at all. Whether it was racist jokes in English-speaking Belize, mocking half-Spanish in Antigua, or the every American in the entire nation of Costa Rica; the Americans I met who didn’t offend and annoy were so far outnumbered that I – like most adventurers – wrote off the whole damn nation.

 

What’s that they say about stereotypes? I’ve always heard that stereotypes are what they are because they’ve enough gems of truth in them that they become self-reinforcing. You see enough dumb fat Americans throwing money around and it just writes the narrative all by itself. There are some notable exceptions – I mean, I ended up falling in love with an American girl and we’re fast approaching a year together (if living on opposite coasts can be be considered “together”) and there are some truly fantastic Americans I met, befriended, and will forever be indebted to, like S&B out in OK. Still, I digress: my point is that Americans have an absolutely abysmal reputation abroad, and it’s mostly deserved. As a country, we don’t know dick about foreign politics, history, or the effects of our military on the rest of the world; we don’t speak foreign languages very well; we’re richer than anyone, and flaunt material wealth worse than most any other culture; and what particularly irks me is that we have this terrible habit of pushing ourselves – our culture, our language, our customs, values, and worldview – onto the world around us almost unconsciously, and as a result create bubbles – little USAs – in which we live our lives.

 

With all this negative reinforcing, I dreaded returning home. Even with my family suffering, with my friends waiting, with my entire old life calling out to me, I stalled, bobbed, weaved my way home because I knew I wouldn’t like much of what I saw. Colombia ended up saving me in that regard, not only because I found one American who went against every conception I’d been building, but also because that country is pretty damn modern – the difference between Bucaramanga and NYC is one of scale, not type. Sure, I went from mountaintop paragliding school to concrete jungle, but I was flying about a 600,000 person city daily and dancing in the clubes most nights. Certainly the transition from rural Honduras to the USA would have been more jarring. As it was, I’m really lucky to have had those intermediate steps into the country, because without them, without her, without the crazy half-cocked roadtrip across the country, I wouldn’t have seen anything I liked in this place.

 

Here’s what I remember of my first days back in the US – it was freezing cold, I had no worthwhile clothes, and I spent all my time hiding indoors. Coffee shops, mainly, with 25 or 40 other young people, all in nice new clothes, all with brand-new laptops, iWhatever, designer bag. Guys with chic purses infinitely less useful than my ratty old bag casually hitting on girls with designer shades worth more than everything I own, all while sipping $5 lattes. I have lived in entire towns with thousands of people and less overall technology than a cafe with 25 people in it. I remember blowing 2 days living expenses on a single meal for two, knowing it was the best (cheapest) I could get, and feeling guilt for being poor – I never felt that traveling, not once! I befriended taxi drivers, bodega owners, and waiters – anyone who would speak Spanish with me – because my English was strangely accented and halting. It took a few days to find the right words consistently. I remember stepping into Whole Foods for the first time, seeing an entire floor of fruits and vegetables, and almost falling down – I still can’t do supermarkets. The abundance of food is so scary, so viscerally uncomfortable, that I end up running into these places, grabbing whatever I think I need, and fleeing as soon as I can.

 

Abundance in general is unappetizing. I’m unable to make decisions between thirty brands of soda or 200 toothpastes. When I’m with others I manage to force it down, but alone I just stare – how the fuck does anyone decide what to buy? How can there be so much of so little? These things are so trivial, and there are so many people starving in the world… I do not understand what made it OK to stock so much food that it goes bad and must be thrown away, while a thousand miles south there are kids huffing glue living in alleys and stealing to survive. It does not compute, and much as people try – patiently, then exasperatedly – to explain to me how it’s all fair, and how everyone would do it if they had the chance, I simply do not understand. I hope I never do.

 

We all own cars, even those of us who scarcely drive. If not for work being 15 miles away, I would never drive my car, and realistically I could just hitchhike, or take a bus. I’m simply being lazy because I can. There’s shit for mass transit out here, but that’s mostly because there’s no demand – my 16 year old brother bought a car before he even got a license, and he’s not in the minority. If I was a space alien, and I came to California knowing nothing about the culture or the planet at all, I would assume cars are the dominant species and human beings their prisoners. Think about it – from above, the whole place is a grid of roads and giant highways connecting the parking lots of the world. Driving home from LA the very first time after getting back, I remember counting 16 lanes across the freeway – 16 fucking lanes! – Holy hell man… That’s so damn incredible that I cannot believe it just passes for normal among the hundreds of thousands of people who drive it every single day.

 

I guess everything becomes normal once you see it often enough, but it’s just like that bastard arrow in the FedEx logo – once you see it, it can’t be unseen. After seeing the world outside, I can’t unsee the spectacle of America. All this wealth, all this abundance, and yet… what’s missing? Why isn’t anyone smiling? We’re certainly not dying – just looking at all the fat people around, I know that we aren’t starving. There’s nobody forcing guns in our faces, the corruption in our society is manifested by bankers fucking over the entire economy, not politically connected mobsters running over kids in the road and getting off scott free. The problems of our corner of the world, while definitely serious, are so much more subdued than in – for example – Central America. So why aren’t we happy?

 

Is the veneer slipping? Have people started to see the emptiness at the core of this way of life? I wish that was the case, but truly, I think the answer is so much simpler: we have everything we’re taught to want, but can’t pretend we have what we need.

 

Abundance robs us of truly appreciating anything – this is true of the psychological and the emotional just as much as the material. I can’t begin to express how it felt to watch Avatar in 3D in Spanish after not watching a movie in 9 months. It was like being transported into the future and dumped off there for a few hours, and I’ve never before or since been so wrapped up in someone else’s fantasy. I’ve since seen the movie in English, and a hundred other flicks besides, and never come close to that same experience. Right now there’s a movie on in the background – a pretty decent one too – and I can’t give a rat’s ass about it. I’ve watched three movies this week. I have constant Internet access. I see my family every day. I can reach out to my left, pick up my phone, and call damn near anyone I know or have ever known, jump on Facebook, Skype Australia, or take a picture of my goddamn nuts and post it as a landscape of Iraq, and yet I can’t appreciate any of it! It’s always available – food, drink, fun, family, contact, all of it – there’s never a shortage, there’s never a danger of it not being around. Without shortage, there is no way to know what you have.

 

It’s not just me – the difference between me and most Americans is simply that I’ve seen the other side, and I refuse to take all this extravagance for granted. I think that if people could see how rare this abundance is, they might be a hell of a lot happier with their lives. I mean, if you understood just how much effort, how many resources, how much energy and work went into that new laptop or those fancy new shoes, you would love them as I do my 8 year old sneakers or my little netbook here. The lack of what we find most dear is precisely what makes it enjoyable when we do have it. In this land of instant gratification, material overload, and wild consumption, it’s just not possible to love things as you would nearly anywhere else.

 

I don’t mean to preach – I’m not some fucking saint. I can feel all the love being sapped out of me the longer I’m here. I can’t sit and eat 2 eggs and savor the bites like I once could, because a dozen eggs is less than the average table tips me at work. The first night I came home and slept in my bed, I almost died – this is incredibly comfortable! I have sheets with a thread-count, a pile of quilts and pillows that I once felt were necessary. I remember one night in El Salvador sharing this same size bed with three people: right now I’m lying sideways on it and my feet are still off the ground. The thing is, I don’t even think about it at all unless I force myself to. It’s just my bed, you know? Never mind that the Cerrato family sleeps four to this same size mattress every night, never mind that most people on this planet will never ever sleep on anything so nice – it’s always here, and so it’s just my bed.

 

It’s the same for most everything. Earlier today I snapped at my mom because she interrupted my computer game and train of thought. I routinely get irritated because my family members are invading my space, because they dare to force their way into my idle time. What the fuck is that, right? A year ago, right about now, I’m at a little beach hostel in El Salvador, sitting and smoking joints and just wishing I could see my parents, terrified I’m losing their faces. I actually freaked out for a while because I hadn’t spoken to either of my brothers in months. I tracked down Sim cards in ever country I visited, spent precious finite dollars on credits to call them long distance, and drank up every word they said. Skyping home was so rare I only got to do it a handful of times, and several times I was crying after ending the call – not sadness, but just because I was so happy to see that the people I loved were still alive and remembered me. Yet here I am a year later being short with my mother because she dares to come spend time with me. It’s almost like we can’t appreciate anything until it becomes an ordeal to have it.
Perhaps that’s part of the reason I see so much mindless consumption all around me here – people trading out clothes by season, always focused on the new phone, the next gadget or outfit or gizmo. We all are afflicted – unable to truly understand what we have – and when you combine that with the barrage of “YOU AREN’T HAPPY” ads in every possible medium, it’s the recipe for a dissatisfied people constantly searching for the next high. That’s the best metaphor I can write for it – we’re a nation of addicts, chasing that moment of pure satisfaction when we finally have it, with “it” so loosely defined that psychowarfare advertisers are able to bend us to this or that or the other product. Consumption is accomplishment, buying is succeeding, acquisition is the end goal. The problem is that once you have it, there’s no fun any more, and so we drive onward to the next high – that’s addiction at the very core mate, no joke.

 

With all this stuff, all these toys and goodies, Americans are still unhappy – I judge this based off the same index I use everywhere I go – are people smiling? Are strangers laughing or frowning? Take Honduras, for example: while I was there the country had a coup, and the interim government suspended the constitution. Like an idiot I crossed the whole country that day – the people I saw were all frowns, worry-etched brows, inward-turned souls. I managed to hitchhike into Nicaragua that day, slept overnight, and woke up to smiles, shouting, laughter – night and day from the other side of the border. Happy people show it in the same ways everywhere I’ve ever been, and if that holds true, people here aren’t happy. I think it’s safe to say that simply having (goods, close ties to family and friends, a secure life free of want) is not the key to being happy.

 

No; having isn’t enough. Having and appreciating – that’s the ticket. Without perspective, lacking the realization of just how fortunate we are to be in this place, with all these unspeakable luxuries, it all turns to ash. Think about it – how many kings, how many emperors, ever could call across the world? How many noblemen ever had electric lights or refrigeration, enjoyed tropical fruit after their French dinner, then listened to their Aussie friend’s band streaming across the Internet? Goddamn none of them did! Do you think it’s possible to appreciate modern medicine enough? We bitch about healthcare, but a hundred and fifty years ago they would have bled you out to treat that fever, or stuck leeches on your face to cure that nasty cut. And when is the last time someone invaded your home, burnt it to the ground, and claimed the land as their own? We are in the lap of luxury never before seen on this earth, and we’re either too stupid or too complacent to realize it. Perhaps that’s a big part of why so many people here aren’t happy. I hope so, because then the fix is easy – just go somewhere else, volunteer for the unfortunate, then come back home and bam – situation resolved.

 

And yet…

 

And yet…

 

That’s not all of it.

 

There’s another issue here entirely – the issue of what we’ve lost in chasing all this abundance. Community is gone, that’s for starters. One thing I never realized before leaving the US is that community is not a place (or a shitty TV show!) – community is a group of people who know and support each other. Some of the communities I’ve been around, I was lucky enough to become a part of, and that feeling makes up for so much hardship in life. The feeling when you go from the open market to the corner store to the central park and then the bank and meet no fewer than 20 people who know you and want to know about you is indescribable – I haven’t been able to find it here, and trust me: I’m trying. I guess the closest feeling is from my coworkers at the restaurant, but even that is more superficial and detached. Case in point: the other day I realized one of the other waitresses was unhappy and hiding it, and so I tried to get her to open up. The look I got… it was as if I’d slapped her, but all I’d really done is pry past the comfortable surface. In America, we put up barricades between ourselves and the rest of society, and rationalize it a thousand ways. At the end of it all, what we’ve lost is a network of allies and friends and loving relations so deep and wide that nothing we’ve possibly gained could make up for it. That’s a big part of why people feel so unhappy and alone.

 

We’ve also lost an appreciation for the free and open things in life. Think about it – how many people do you know that regularly explore their world? I’m talking long walks, climbing a hill, going into a part of town they have no purpose in being in and just wandering. I count myself among the very few who do, and even with a focus on it, I still rarely manage to get out and ramble – really, deeply ramble – more than once a week if I’m lucky. That’s such a huge loss! We have beautiful parks, wonderful beaches, gorgeous open spaces, but they’re all so unused – the people are gone, stuck to screens and TVs and jesus, it’s 3am and I’m red-eyed staring at a computer screen! We’ve gotten so caught up in the society we’ve built that it’s dangerously close to a prison for the mind. If we don’t get past that, turn off Angry Birds, cut out the TV reruns, and just get outside into this beautiful world, then we’re just going to pass that horrible practice on to our own kids, and then what? This world can’t afford another generation of self-focused in-lookers.

 

Alright, last point, but this one is a doozy – it builds on this last point, about looking outward. My biggest problem with Americans is that they don’t ever look outside their borders to see the effects of their actions on the rest of the world and it’s peoples. Those shiny cell phones and SUVs, those beautiful new clothes and that fantastic meal all came from somewhere, and increasingly that somewhere is far away and dirt-poor. If you’re upgrading your phone every two years, eating meat every meal, driving a block because you don’t want to walk, and then leaving your AC on instead of cracking the window, then I’m sorry to tell you, but your grandkids will grow up to spit every time they say your name. The resource abuse of this nation is sickening, absolutely revolting, and it’s driven by this blindered ignorance of cause and effect.

 

Here’s a quick one – cell phones require rare minerals to function. Those minerals come predominantly from areas like the Democratic Republic of Congo, a war-torn nation where rape is used to control populations, AIDS is endemic, and child soldiers are the norm. These resources, largely taken through companies and organizations controlled by US corporations and the US government, are removed in a manner that leaves almost nothing to the people who rightfully own the minerals being extracted. They are then shipped to China, refined in terribly toxic processes, and shipped to another factory that forms the components, which are themselves assembled by people who work 15 hour days and make less in a month than you would in a couple days at minimum wage. After all this, we ship the phones across the entire planet on container ships that could politely be called the most environmentally damaging vehicles ever created, at which point they’re driven all over the country and sold to you, the consumer, only to be abandoned a year or two down the line. At this point they’re bundled up and sold to India, where 5 and 6 year old children burn them is giant piles to extract the same precious metals that got all those Congolese women raped. Oh, and the kicker? These Indian kids use their family’s cooking ware to burn the phones because they can’t possibly afford another set of pots.

 

All this, so that we in the US can replace our perfectly good phones with the newest, hippest model. Rape, violence, environmental destruction, slave labor, more environmental destruction, off-shoring of US manufacturing, depletion of very rare and precious resources, and the deterioration of unknown numbers of lives, so that you can have the newest phone. Be honest – when you replaced your last phone, was it broken, or did you just want a new one? It’s not like we couldn’t extract US rare earth minerals, manufacture the phones here in-country, and design them to be modular and upgradeable from the ground up. No, it’s simply cheaper to do it abroad, and because we’re all willfully ignorant of the costs of our toys, we aren’t willing to pay more to do things the right (by which I mean humane) way. We’d all benefit! That’s the terrible tragedy of it – we’d all be better off if we simply did all this here in the US and didn’t export the damaging bits to countries that can’t fight back against economic imperialism. Ignorant, uncaring people will be the death of us all.

 

It’s not just phones – where do you think oil comes from? Why do you think gas is cheaper here than nearly anywhere else? Do you think those Arab states are democratically deciding to give us all their resources out of the goodness of their hearts? No – we prop up terrible dictators who oppress their people so that our nation can have their finite resources without the population getting their just share. Why do you think we’re in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan and Yemen and giving weapons to Israel and selling them to Saudi Arabia and Egypt and bribing Turkey and fighting economic warfare against Iran, anyway? It’s so that American politicians don’t have to raise gas prices or explain to the American people that oil is a finite resources and we’re already past the peak extraction rates – in short, we’re risking world war so that Americans don’t have to conform to reality. We have the military and political power to do that still, so rather than face the bitter truths of this world, we simply steal, cajole, extort more than our fair share of the dwindling pile, and cross our fingers for the future. It’s the problem of the commons, taken global. I’m not saying we’re the only ones doing this, but as citizens of the imperial power, we’re certainly the (current) biggest beneficiaries.

 

Everything has a price, and someone must pay for everything we get in life beyond basic needs. If you’re on top of the pile, as we are right now, then you can make someone else foot the bill for a time. However, our nation is broke, our military is overstretched and losing an unwinnable conflict, and our leadership is bought and paid for by the same people who thought dismantling our entire manufacturing capacity for a quick buck was a great idea. This way of life is completely unsustainable, and one day it will come crashing down on our heads. Or really, on your children’s heads, because we’ve probably enough steam to ensure that we get ours before it all falls down.

 

In the end, I have my own delusion – I like to pretend that the prevalent unhappiness and discontent I see all around me is the start of a mass revolt against the emptiness of modern America. I prefer to hope that we can turn this sinking ship around and still make it back to shore. It’s not true – we should have started in Carter’s era – but you know what? I need this. I need to hope that this country won’t keep fighting in 75 countries, won’t keep consuming 25% of the world’s yearly resources for 4% of the population, won’t keep conforming to all the same terrible stereotypes that the rest of the world mocks us for. It’s not true, but it keeps me from abandoning my family and friends and moving off to New Zealand to be a shepherd for a little longer.

 

I’ll stop here – there’s no real point in going on about the uselessness of our politics, or the echo chamber we call news, because nobody here wants to hear it. If you agreed with what I’ve already written, then you’ll keep agreeing to the other bits too, and if you don’t, then you’ve already gone off to do something else. Just know that you’re being lied to constantly by every channel, by every magazine, by every billboard and sign spinner. You Don’t Need Anything More Than You Need To Survive. The sooner you get that into your head, the better off you’ll be in this life – but then again, that’s just this foreigner’s opinion.

 

Kalahari Capitalism

November 6, 2010

I read a news story earlier today that really illustrates my problem with this capitalism we let run our lives. In Botswana, in southern Africa, there is a community called the Kalahari Bushmen. They have lived in the area for 20,000 years, longer than any world empire, longer than we like to admit civilization has ever existed. Now, because of the discovery of the world’s richest diamond deposits on their ancestral homelands, these people are being pushed off their land by the government, which, oh, by the by – is in negotiations with Gem Diamonds, a global diamond mining company. (they call them production, but come on now – these things come out of the ground: you didn’t make them – you cut and polished them.)

The Botswana government is actively pushing the Kalahari out of their homes, capping off wells, taking away water distribution trucks, removing storage tanks and water pumps. The Kalahari Basin is mostly desert, and the people there depend largely on underground water to survive. Without access to water, people and livestock die, and so the people there are slowly migrating, abandoning their ancient culture for the benefit of their government and a giant diamond conglomerate – how much of the $3.3 billion dollar payoff will ever reach the disenfranchised Kalahari people? How many of those diamonds will come here, be sold to American young men to give to their loved ones? It staggers that anyone could do the calculus of diamonds against human and animal lives and come out in favor of this destruction. It requires a dishonest and myopic view of the exchange going on, one which does not value life, which does not value humanity, or history, or culture.

Let’s do that math right here – the government of Botswana stands to gain $3,300,000,000 dollars, or roughly 11 million $300 iPhones. The remainder of the diamond deposit, which surely is valued far about $3.3 billion – else why would Gem Diamonds bother to excavate it? – will go to a London-based Diamond group with no interests in Botswana. Aside from mining jobs, the company will not be putting money into Botswana or the hands of the Kalahari Bushmen, rightful owners of the diamonds being poached out from under them. Look at those mining job pictures; don’t you want to do that? It sure worked out well for those Congolese.

Let’s go a bit more into that math – $3.3 billion dollars is still a good bit of change. There are 2,029,307 people in Botswana, as estimated by the CIA. That means the government stands to gain approximately $1629.17 per person in this deal. Is that impressive? Would you stand by and let one of the most ancient living cultures die out for $1629.17? How many thousands of dollars will it cost the government to throw the Kalahari off their land? What will become of these people, these ranchers, once their livelihood is taken from them? Won’t they become beggars, nomads, a burden on the system they now are forced to survive within? In all likelihood, the government of Botswana will spend much of their ill-gotten gains dealing with the problems arising out of the destruction of a people. Already, they have had the most costly court case in their nation’s history – how many more will there be? Then there are the costs of mining – polluted land, destroyed water tables, demolished ecosystems – generations off damage, all outside the calculation. Thus, does it not seem the calculus of government and corporation is flawed here – they give no value to the damage they do, and thus even from an economic perspective, this is no good deal for the people of Botswana, or for the people of Earth. We are all poorer for the loss of people different than us, for the loss of good land, for the destruction of life.

Capitalism is worthless in determining true values – if the calculation does not include suffering, environmental damage, human and animal loss, culture, art, language, or history, then the value being cited is accepted only through ignorance or conscious malice. Are $3.3 billion in imaginary value and a lot of shiny stones fair compensation for valueless true wealth and beauty? Capitalism says yes, but intelligence, emotion, and honestly will say no.

Yet here it is, in naked violence – a people, the ancient caretakers of their land, are forced by the thousands out of their homes under threat of death by thirst, all so that a soulless corporation and a corrupt government can dip their beaks. A culture is destroyed, a way of life forever shattered, so that people in the richest nations in the world can buy price-inflated rocks they’ve been programmed to need through manipulative advertising. The irony? Diamonds, these supposed gifts of love, would be so common if not for the market manipulation by companies like Gem Diamond that there would no impetus to mine to mine them in Botswana at all. There you have it – naked greed, supply manipulation, open robbery, corruption of government, destruction of true value for artificial, all to fill an demand that was created by the diamond companies themselves within the past 80 years – I can think of no better epitaph for the whole corrupt crony Capitalist system.

When the supposed libertarians and capitalist sympathizers of the world talk about freeing business from government, they are romanticizing the encounter. They mistake who is in command. Capitalism is war, fought by different means. It is the pursuit of profit at the expense of every other value humanity has ever held dear. It is the religion of the libertarian that the government which does not interfere with business is the best sort, but in this world the problem is not governments fighting against or blocking corporations from their actions, but instead from massive multi-national corporations so powerful that they can buy governments and surpass them completely. A land of free capitalism is a land where life does not matter, where profit is God, where all value ceases to exist save ability to money. Money has no real value. You cannot purchase love, you cannot have a life-changing conversation in exchange for any amount of it, and once it becomes the standard of value, then all life becomes valueless.

We are not the first people to have discovered the terror of capitalists run wild, but ours is the first generation to have to deal with the deathless global amoebas of the modern corporations. The governments we have today exist because our ancestors created them – the regulations on business exist because unregulated business creates a feudal state, ruled not by divinity-claiming monarchs, but by the profit motive itself – in the end, everyone loses. There will always be a better competitor, a more efficient, less human method of creating that good or providing this service, and as the dollar signs pile up, so do the bodies. The impoverished classes swell – we have never had more poor on this planet than today. We have never had more wealth on this planet either. The tiny ruling classes of each society shrink, as the very highest among them crush the others to rise ever higher. The actions of all humanity have never supported fewer so well. The bonepile grows, and eventually the last Capitalist will succumb, the final victim of the system we created and which grew to consume us all.

I hope mass consciousness will turn against the cancer we have set loose upon ourselves. I hope that we will stop this suicidal run before Earth is rendered unliveable, before all human life becomes slave to profit. Today it is the Bushmen, tomorrow it will be another people who cannot defend themselves, and one day soon it will be your and my time as well. I will leave it here, with a man who knew what we are dealing with all too well. Benito Musselini -“Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power”

-k

“If you’d like to let Gem Diamonds know how you feel about their business dealings, here is their contact page. Here’s the Botswana US Embassy’s info also, but I’m not sure they want to be involved in this sort of thing.

Reality and Perception

September 30, 2010


When it comes down to it, at the end of your days, no religion, no ideology, no faith or government or science or technology will save you from your own shortcomings. There is no heaven, no hell, no Gods, no afterlife, nothing NOTHING no one who can truthfully claim any power over you – you are your own master, you must own the consequences of your actions and the path of your life.

By you of course I mean me, because I can’t write your circumstances but must instead come from my own perspective on reality. There are people born into near-slavery, there are those whose lives are forever marred by some external variable, (be it circumstances of birth, a masked gunman firing wildly into a crowd, or any sort of unpreventable tragedy) many who can’t claim full responsibility for their positions in life. Even they, for all that the world throws at them, still most accept that their lives are their own property. I am not arguing that victims must find fault in themselves for their terrors suffered at the hands of others – nor am I arguing at all really – I am trying to simply state a problem that has been bothering me for some time. This problem lies in our human tendency to take positive aspects of life as our own while discarding our bad bits as the fault of some other – it isn’t true, and if we were to be honest with ourselves (honesty being a desirable attribute in its own regard) then we would remove some part of the blinders we each wear as we face the world every day.

On the one hand this is terrifying, because almost every one of us is lying about some aspect of ourself. We take certain bad things we have done or harsh consequences we have suffered and pin them upon some “other” in order to assuage some of our guilt and bad feelings. The hurt was due to another’s actions, the failure resulting of sabotage. Responsibility is painful and forces the mind inward, toward flaws and misdeeds and failings – far easier, far more acceptable, to find something else to take that hurt, and salvage what we may.

The problem with this is that it is simply untrue – unless someone came into your life and forced you under pain of death not to succeed, then your failure can only honestly be taken upon yourself, worn as a mantle – not carried as a cross – for only then can we hope to learn from our actions. How can one possibly hope to see her own life truly if constantly veiled by misconceptions of her own history? How can a country for that matter? How can a people?

The small lies magnify, go cancerous as they become the foundation for our own realities. “I lost the job because my boss is a lying asshole” covers up any personal fault, and in doing so primes a person to commit the same mistakes, large or small, that led to the first lost job. Worse, we have to commit to these lies, else we risk cognitive dissonance, and so each bit of evidence falling outside our narrowing field of acceptability must be discarded, rejected with force, and in doing so our vision clouds all the more. Build upon false foundations long enough and all you will have created is shit – rotten through with lies and misconceptions, based on willful ignorance and false perception.

The same is true of accepting responsibility for that which does not truthfully belong to you. The boss who steals the work of a talented underling, the owner who skims the labor off her workers while paying them a fraction of their value, the skillful liar who corrupts those around to serve his ends – these people rise both in society and within their own minds. This dishonestly is no less cancerous, no less disastrously destructive to the individual as that which externalizes blame for misdeeds. No, no, a thousand times NO – we cannot hope to survive without absolute honesty of self to self, for to lie to the mind is to construct a false reality which blinds and binds, rots and decays until there is nothing left but ashes of a once-great spirit.

We run a terrific risk in lying to ourselves, one I have mentioned twice before now, namely the risk of falsifying reality in the name of self-protection. It is not uncommon – perhaps it is our greatest shared human characteristic after breathing, shitting, fucking, fighting, and all those biological functions. We all lie to ourselves, we all judge our actions on a plane of perception that does not coincide with the basic reality of our situation. It’s a terrible trait, perhaps evolved for self-protection from the inevitable and constant clash between action and ideal – simply put, if we never force ourselves to justify actions that cross our beliefs, then there’s no need to doubt our own beliefs or question our actions – quite handy for building confidence in one’s own rightness and superiority. The problem of course is that we’re building facades of shit bricks on poor land, and the whole thing is blocking our view of the beautiful world just beyond. As the walls rise higher, as the mask gets thicker, we lose everything we once valued by simply not admitting doubt or truth into our minds. What a terrible price!

Of course, it’s only terrible if you value truth, and once the veil has completely obscured all that we once valued, it is only a matter of time before we forget what was ever there before. The boss really was an asshole, those Mexicans are stealing our jobs, Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons and supported Al-Queda. It’s so easy to lie to those who lie to themselves, because they want to believe – believe you, believe anything, so long as they don’t have to examine their own faults, or question their own lives. Believing becomes a defense mechanism, and by then the person has lost his mind; not lost forever, but lost beyond his willingness to get it back – belief has become so much less costly than introspection, and the pain of knowing he has based his life on false conceptions keeps him afraid of ever trying. He might as well be a zombie, because once you’re that far down the line you’re hardly ever coming back. Certainly he can’t be a productive member of society, can’t question the things he is told, can’t critically weigh the merits and shortcomings of anything around him, because he sees the world through a filter of what he wishes to be true. Not just him, mind you – we all do it to some degree or another.

How can we stop this destructive process? Certainly we must start early for it to be less painful, but if you wish to open your own mind now, then every day will be easier than the next. I ought mention now that we are incapable of opening any mind except our own – we may guide those around us, we might teach methods and strategies to others, but in the end this is a door that locks from inside, and we may not, for any effort, banging, or screaming, successfully force another mind to perceive reality honestly. Think of times when someone has been so SURE of a point, so dedicated to convincing you of the rightness and truth of it that you find yourself turning off your mind to that person – conviction is a double-edged blade, and without careful use it will cut you just so surely as your target.

No, what must be done is not more evangelizing; prosthelytizing will (at best) gain you followers, and what we need is free spirits. We must aim to be more as Socrates and less as Plato, less dedicated to our views, more self-doubting, less self-confident – for what is it to be self-confident but to have more self-respect than you deserve? We must meditate on our lives, on the good moments and the bad, and question everything we come across. If our entire life’s perceptions are based on dishonest interpretations of self, then let us tear down those facades, accepting as we do the pain, the racking doubts, the anguish and loss of belonging – what are these things except illusions? Is not reality worth hurting for? These growing pains of the mind will pass with time, and what is left behind is nothing less than a stronger, more real, and truer view of the world. The universe is more beautiful, happier, sadder, more alive than any tale we could tell ourselves as comfort. There is no need to cover that beauty – you are strong enough to bear it, and your fears of what may come from tearing off your mask are overwrought – all pain numbs with time, and the rewards are bountiful: a trueness of self, an honest view of what it is to be, to live, to die. What else could possibly be so precious as reality itself?

I don’t know if I’m convincing you, or even myself – I struggle as we all do to keep my own inadequacies from blinding me on a constant basis. Still, by spending some time each day to reflect, to write, to think, or sing, I draw myself inward, examine who and what I am, and come out a sliver more able, a thimble less full of lies and contradictions. Perhaps with an entire lifetime of this I might become worthy of knowing this beautiful reality all around me. What do you use to shatter your own illusions? How do you cope with the hypocrisy of actions and values that do not meet, that run in opposite directions at times? I do not claim to have answers, but I am trying to stumble through this life on my own terms, and I will take what solace there is in that – at least I am not simply swallowing what I am told. Small comfort, but in a society built upon the same lies I seek to rid myself of, what other course can I possibly take?

My Two Lives

August 5, 2010

At the base of it, my problem lies in the mutual incompatibility of my nomadic and sedentary selves. They live different lives, have separate dreams and goals. They have never met, and never will, for one must die if the other is to live fully.

A wandering adventurer can’t have the house, wife, family, stability that society deems necessary to be a normal human being. Already I see my friends couple off, marry, settle down, and work themselves into careers and the associated chains. How on earth could I hope to go off and be a nomad with a wife, child, mortgage, car, dog, cat, garden, house to maintain? There is no way to be that person and still have those things, yet if I commit to that, commit to never being stable, I’m also resigning myself to a life where I will never be understood or accepted by my friends and family. I’m already an outlier, simply for having left. I’m already a weird guy for being alone and happy with it, for having no corporate career ambition and never buying things. It’s unacceptable to bring up my empathy for bums, downright uncouth to dare question whether our society really has the correct path to happiness nailed down, and yet the nomad does all this, and so much more, simply by his existence!

At 24 I am strange and not understood, but that is alright because in the minds of my peers I have not yet found my place (by which they invariably mean their own place) in this strange and wonderful world (by which they mean lower-middle class America.) If I continue this same path, continue to wander at 25, 26, 30, 74, then I will slip past weird to a waste, to a lazy mooch, to a hopeless case who never could quite live up to his potential. “Look at K,” they will say, “such a strong start, such a beautiful life he had ahead of him, and now look how he’s gone and cocked things up. Such a shame… His poor parents.” They will say this and think far worse, because the sedentary mind cannot comprehend her nomadic brother – cannot indeed hope to grasp the edges of what makes the life in motion worth living.

Our lifestyles breed certain blind spots into our thinking, and the chaos, movement, unknown that envelop the wanderer are incomprehensible to those brought up to be steady and stationary. One fears the same things that the other craves and chases after! At a young age, or with an open mind, it is possible to see across the void and perhaps understand part of what endears such a wild life, but the simple truth is that all of us will grow old and most of us will never develop the mental ability to see another’s life from within her shoes. Certainly we are not taught to do so here! No, any student of the American school comes out thinking that her view is shared by all truly good and honest people, and that any who derive from this view are deficient in some way, else they would live and think as she does. Thus as I age, with my friends and family doing the same at their own paces, more and more of my social group will lock themselves into the sedentary life, and I will be pushed further outside of their lives until we no longer have the overlaps called friendship. As a nomad, I will lose the comfortable connections with friends and family – it is inevitable, I see it already all around me. The links are strained now, and one day they will snap – there is no forever in human ties, no matter what the romantic comedies or boys who want to get into your pants will tell you.

This is perhaps the most painful realization of the wanderer – impermanence surrounds all that we do, indeed becomes who we are. A ghost slips into town, makes friends, carves out a niche for a short while, is interesting and attractive, funny, a great addition to the universes of those whom he touches. Then he tells one fantastic story too many, and the doubts slip in. Who is this guy? Why is he lying to us? What is he hiding? The doubt turns fear turns distrust and resentment. The happy audience begins to heckle, and the wanderer brushes them off. Resentment becomes anger – who the fuck does that guy think he is? That cute girl has been around here for weeks, – we’re all lusting after her – what gives him the right to just walk up and start joking with her? He’s full of shit; has to be. Then something happens – some small encounter, brief-lived evidence that the wanderer was telling the truth in at least some small way, brings the crowd back around. Anger fades back into grudging admiration – what a life this guy must have lived! “What lives,” the wanderer corrects, “there have been a lot of them.” Nobody gets that, except those who already have lived a handful themselves. Life goes on, and then one day the wanderer is gone and nobody can quite remember what he was doing there anyway.

All things are fleeting dreams – the rush to cast them into permanence – to marry love, to photograph a beautiful moment, to write out thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams – these all create mere shadows of the existence they hope to capture pristine. No marriage can hold the intensity of falling in love for the first time. No photograph holds more than an image of what was once brilliant, dizzying reality. Words on a page are poor substitute for words spoken, burning kisses, wild actions. Who can ever describe a breeze well enough to negate the need to feel one on your tear-stained cheeks? No one can. There is no permanence, no stability in the universe save everpresent chaos. The nomad embraces this as best he can, but what a bitter pill to swallow! The times I have wanted to stop, to rest a while and build a life for myself are cut forever short by the burning desire to move ever onward, upward; to fill my glass with every beautiful experience I can fit into these despicably short years of my life. One day all we will have left are our memories, and even those are faulty. Far better to let them fly, to cease efforts to hold them to my breast, and simply try to live each present moment as best I can.

I am happy as a nomad – I feel fulfilled because I am not looking for meaning or fulfillment, I have purpose because I do not seek any. There is no existence I have ever found more rewarding, more pleasurable, more healthy and spiritual than that of the wandering soul. Certainly I could be happy in this.

And yet… for this beautiful life there is much that I must lose. The price of being forever able to go, do, be whatever I desire is one that most people would never dream of paying. First there are the friends and family, as I mentioned before – different worlds, separate realities create such a rift as cannot be crossed in the old ways. There is the lack of ownership – the nomad is forever touching upon the world, never standing still, always bouncing along to the next adventure. Societal expectations – designed to keep people from acting out in the first instance – are strong forces on all of us, but the wanderer cannot keep a house, a household, a steady life without failing to be a wanderer at all. Instead, the nomad becomes an outsider to those whom he once called brother, even as he realizes that all are his brothers and sisters. Perceptions are strong, and the wanderer will be perceived as a threat, a nuisance, an ugly blemish on an otherwise unchallenging world view. If I choose to wander, I will lose those close to me – we might still see each other, call one another friend, spend good times together even, but there will never be the same dynamic as before.

How could there? With new experience, with new worlds and languages and peoples invariably comes change, and the biggest changes are in the nomad himself. How could it not be? He runs headfirst into the maelstrom of competing ideas, and some at least will pierce his skin. Others will penetrate deep, change him at the very core of his being. He will experience crippling poverty, unbelievable wealth, systems of government bad and good, religions of all stripes, beliefs completely foreign and uncomfortable – great beauty, ignorance, hate, love, peace, environs so hospitable and unforgiving that his mind will buckle at times. His world will be transformed – not once – but over and again, constantly. The nomad drinks deep of the well of life, and such experience leaves nothing unscathed. How then can such a man re-enter his old life and fit there in the same way as before? I have found it to be quite impossible, that a certain level of pretending and play-acting are necessary simply to survive in this old life.

Now, this is not to say that people kept in the same environments throughout their lives do not also change as well. Certainly changing location does not hold a monopoly over inner development. Society, stable as it is, still permits some disaster and fortune to affect those who live within it. Still, the concentration of change, the timespan upon which one is affected by her changing world is greatly compressed for the wanderer, while stretched quite long for her stationary sister. Take two twins, raised in the same family, in the same city. To a certain point their lives are very similar, but there is one day a split, and they go different directions. One of them continues on with her life, falls in love, is married, graduates college, gets a comfortable job with good benefits, and has a child. The other, in the same time period, drops out of school after catching her fiancé with another woman, hitchhikes the country, works at a dive bar using her body to push drinks unto drunk men, has a number of sexual partners, saves up for a plane ticket, and spends several years living across Eastern Europe, learning languages, making friends different than herself, and finally returns home to her family due to emergency.

Which sister will be the strange one? Which sister will not fit into the same old family mold? Which twin will be the one who works well within the framework of American society, and which will chafe and long to leave? There are several points to be made here – neither sister is “normal” – there simply exists one who found her path by doing what she was raised to believe desirable, and another who had that world come crashing down on her head and had to rebuild by her own rules. The traveling sister will never fit into her old life, but there is no guarantee that the sedentary one will either – how many of us truly stay with the same friends our entire lives? I count myself fortunate simply to have those few friends who do stay true, as who we befriend is a factor of who we are and what we do in a given instance – to find people who truly speak to your soul regardless of circumstance is a rare gift indeed!

With our twin sisters, we will soon find that there is no way to measure who has done right or wrong in life without relying on our own subjective views. There is nothing that allows us to authoritatively say one or the other has done “better” unless we set some sort of strict parameters as to what it means to succeed in life, and even then we run into random chance, to decisions made, to promises left unfilled. If the sister with the kid and career had spent her life prior to having a child dreaming of traveling the world for the rest of her days, can we judge her to have failed? What if the traveling sister has the five most beautiful, wonder-filled years of her life, then dies in a freak accident? There are so many questions precisely because we cannot judge people’s lives except based on the fulfillment and happiness they feel with themselves. As much as I might think you have done things wrong (by which I really mean not as I desired to see them) I am not you, I am not able to judge. Yet chances are good that I will regardless, and that I will make some decision that I pretend is objective, and then I will spread my good or bad opinion of your life among anyone I feel necessary to tell.

In this world of reality TV and virtual social networks we have lost our ability to tell the objective and verifiable from mere opinion, and we must accept that committing to live any life outside of mainstream culture will be viewed as inferior to adherents of that culture. Within America, with American blinders and prejudices, taught history and ethics from an American perspective, alternative lifestyles are incomprehensible – I assure you that once outside our world and into theirs, the behavior of just about anyone makes a hell of a lot more sense. Still, I cannot convert the world to my way of life, and indeed I have no desire to do so – if we were all nomads there would not be so many worlds for me to explore! I merely wish to illustrate the proposition I put forth here:

In order to be a nomad, one must commit to losing oneself, and all that is attached to that self. If we attempt to hold onto anything that we feel defines us then we let it do exactly that, and in doing so jeopardize ever finding who we truly are – we destroy our ability to become all of the people we will one day be. Likewise, if we wish to live the life stationary, we cannot be nomads, for we accumulate possessions and baggage that slowly begin to define us, and eventually become us. The nomad and the stationary man are matter and anti-matter – they cannot come into contact, cannot exist in the same body. One will have to win out, leaving the other destroyed.

In my case, I have the growing suspicion that the battle has already been fought, and the nomad has won out. I say this because the sacrifices I made while wandering – cold water, lack of privacy, the constant feeling of being an outsider, etc – all seemed quite tolerable, while the ones I now face in trying to be a stable, responsible, “normal” being grate on me daily, drive me mad an inch at a time, and all of my free time is consumed by thoughts of escape, adventure, and further wandering. I dream of learning six languages, of climbing tall mountains, of seeing every continent stretch out before me. I do not dream of marriage, of career success, or of raising a family of kids with the love of my life. That, to me, is what best speaks as to where my future lies.

And yet… there are those days; when I see a good friendship blossoming, when all the things in my life are going right for a day, when a beautiful woman and I talk of parallel dreams; those days I find myself wonder “what if?” Then the feelings pass and I’m left alone again and let’s face it honestly – if my life here was one that I desired to live, the pressures to stay would be a whole hell of a lot stronger.

The fight between selves will continue for a while yet. In the meanwhile, does anyone know a good Arabic tutor?

Thinking

August 5, 2010

I wrote this a while back, after meeting back up with my good friend Matt when both of us had tried and failed the west coast thing.  It’s not happy – my writing rarely is – but I do like the sentiments expressed.

Thinking – truly thinking, pontificating, expounding, whatever – is a bit more difficult than it sounds. There are so many mental blocks to deep thought, so many distractions, annoyances, small needs that interfere with the process. Bodily functions take charge over the questions of existence – what a pity.

Even more, there are the man-made interruptions, the ringing phone, the neighbor’s music, the little chirp of iPhone yelling “pay attention damn it!” – there are thousands of these little pests, gnatting around and stinging wherever we lie unprotected. Still, it’s possible to post up in a hammock outside or a tree, turn off the devices of fake-world importance, and just think for a while, and that’s what I intend to do today.

I don’t have work for once – I asked for it off so that I could say goodbye to a traveling friend and not have to be in bed early. We went down to San Diego, hung out at bars and the beach, met some Irish girls and a South African singer, and watched open mic night. It was bittersweet, I don’t know where Matt and I will ever cross paths again, and though our shared history is timeline-short, it is simultaneously experience and memory-long – we are the sort of friends that can only come into being by shared adventure. We hugged goodbye in the middle of the street in Pacific Beach, and that was the end of that.

Something he said last night got under my skin though, enough so that all the drinks and dreaming couldn’t pull it out. We were talking about Los Angeles; her vast shallows of wannabe stars pretending to be the characters they want to play, when Matt turned to me and without pretense let this one fly – “They’re a bunch of liars – that’s what separates them from you and I. They pretend to be like us because it serves some purpose. We just wander because that’s who we are.”

It’s just who we are – hopeless romantics, drifting souls, forever on the road even when we’re standing still. We work best in transit, moving from place to space to state to mood. To remain stationary is to stagnate, to fall apart really. Yet here I am, same place, same space, as I was 3 months ago when I abandoned the road and got immobile. What has happened to this traveling soul?

To start, I’m much less poor (though still overall in the red) – after taxes I make some $600 a week, an enormous, ridiculous sum to me. I was marveling earlier over how I can pull money out of any ATM and it isn’t just a withdrawal against a credit card I can’t afford to pay. In practice, I never actually can do this because all of the money I have is tied up in paying off the bills from when I was just running up oweance, but hey, it’s nice to see the pile of debts subsiding a bit.

The cost I pay in order to pay off my bills is paid in time, energy, and sanity. I work one of my nightmare jobs – 48 hours a week, 4am to 12:30pm Monday through Saturday, overtime near-mandatory some days, business dress, doing motherfucking data entry. Here’s a brilliant idea – let’s take a world traveler, a hitchhiking adventurer, and shove him into a climate-controlled closet. Then we’ll pile on near-completely useless work, the sort that sandpapers heart and soul – just heap it on him. Nothing he does should make any damn bit of difference to anyone, and hopefully what little good he does is so diluted by layers on management, middle-management, upper-management, mid-upper-low-management, and the like that even should he strive to work hard and do better than asked it will never be acknowledged by anyone. Now surround him with an office-load of people so different from him that they might as well be another species – busywork junkies – shake well, and observe.

I struggle to stay motivated.

I struggle to get out of bed most days, as the phone alarm chirps “Wake up motherfucker, it’s time to go do that thing you hate!” and the warmth of bed is countered by formal pants and shirts I wouldn’t be caught dead in anywhere else. The human body isn’t supposed to get up and go sit in a chair for 8-12 hours a day, hidden from the sun, forbidden to pull the blinds or open a window. Instead I stare at a light bulb, sorting, scanning, keying in documents as if it made one iota of difference to anyone, anywhere, ever. “$12.50 an hour,” I think to myself, “$100 a day, a bit more if I work overtime. That’s $600 a week, give or take, and at this rate I should be out of debt in about…” (Scribbling on the notepad, carry the 7…) “8 months.”

Fuck my life.

No, wait, scratch that – I can’t even say fuck my life because this isn’t living at all. It’s dying slowly, the essence of what I absolutely do NOT want to do with my life, what I criticize in others, what I swore I would under no circumstances do once I got back home. Yet here I am, the hypocrite, the critic of the self-serving, circular, pointless existence whenever I see it, living exactly as I tell others not to.
The worst part is that I don’t really see an out. I’m not free until I don’t owe money. I can’t stop owing money until I earn enough to pay off my creditors. I can’t do that until I work some job long enough to earn the money to pay off my creditors. The economy sucks, so I’m competing in every instance against more qualified candidates – it took a month solid of job searching just to find the one I have now! Frankly, I don’t think there is a way out of this without refusing to play and just leaving, which, you guessed it, costs money.

When did we sign away our lives like this? Isn’t there some way to live without doing the things I hate day in and day out? It’s not like I’m gaining some vast convenience and reward for my labors – I can’t do the things I really want to, won’t any time soon, and even then I’m just gaining some small measure of temporary freedom in exchange for the vast skull-fuck of debt that ensues whenever I return. When you can’t even leave without owing them in the end, you’re not free and never will be. The money, and the need for it, isn’t going away. I can cut my consumption (not much more than food, water, oil, shelter at this point) a bit more, but the truth of the matter is that I’ll always need to pay for my existence just like everyone else. How I come about the means to do so – that’s where I still have some freedom.

It comes down to this – I need something, some job, some source of income, that doesn’t make me feel like a rat on a wheel every moment. They do exist, I’m certain, as I’ve found a few from time to time. Still, I’m complicating things because I want my job to support me, not the other way round. I’m sick of this notion of work being the central focus of one’s life! Jobs don’t define you any more than do hairstyles, and since we’re not forced into styling our hair that probably defines you more than a job you need in order to survive. I want to be mobile – I need to travel, to move, to explore and expand my universe – any job needs to take that into account. As is, the only times I get to branch out are when I take off after work one day, spend my day off doing something interesting, then skip a night’s sleep to get back to work again. It’s like committing mental suicide, inch by inch, as my brain turns to mush at work, gets abused on my free time, then rewarded by sleepless nights on the way back to square one!

It’s not sustainable, in any sense of the word – not the temporary job nor the extremely wasteful office (we burn reams of paper, piles of money, and shittons of electricity every day) nor even the attitudes involved – there’s nothing noble, nothing gained in swallowing your desires and loves before diving headfirst into a job that kills you slowly. All of it is just a measure of the weakness of your passions, and the strength of your self-delusion. It will come out, either an anger-quit after a bad day or a mid-life suicide or a late-life stress induced cancer, or perhaps in the very end, as your life fades and you realize you’ve succeeded in denying yourself everything that truly mattered in life, and now you’re alone and a failure.

There is no life when you deny yourself everything important to you – it matters not if your ideal life is far from the mainstream, well outside the “normal” of fake society. If you aren’t doing what makes you happy, fulfills you, propels you into tomorrow, then you are wasting your life, and that is the greatest crime. I know this because I’m doing exactly that, and once I was doing exactly what I wanted. The difference is immense, gigantic beyond words – it is all that truly matters to be happy, and yet I am not doing that. I am actively working against my aims, submitting inch by hard-fought inch into a life that is so pointless, so empty, so stupid and destructive that I question continuing every day. Why do I spend my precious life supporting a society I am fundamentally at odds with?!

I don’t have an answer for that. Perhaps I am simply too stubborn to die, too angry, too determined to be validated by the universe. Perhaps I still hope that I can find my answers, and know that to give up searching is the only thing I cannot do. I know what I need, what I want, what I cannot live without, but I do not know how to get it. That is, at the most basic level, what I lack – not motive, not drive, not goal, but connection between here and there – the ligaments and connective tissues of my life aren’t holding, and I don’t know what my next step is.

I can’t stop wandering – if I am certain of anything it is this. San Diego is mild, pretty, warm, full of beautiful people and wonderful weather. I will always love to visit. I cannot stand to live here any longer. Everyone I loved before I began wandering plans to stay in this part of the world, and I know that I am forever anchored by memory, by family, by love and friendship, to this place. I just wish that I could enjoy it more. Perhaps the secret is just to stay mobile enough that I can enjoy every visit without feeling trapped into the hyper-expensive, shallow, vapid, overtly and covertly elitist, racist, prejudiced society of southern California. I won’t miss this place when I go – only the people here who make it worth staying in.

God I need to hit the open road soon. Another few months and I think I’ll really go nuts. That’s the problem with thinking – it takes you places you’re actively trying to avoid. Maybe that’s why most people don’t do it.

The Wrong Side

June 3, 2010

There’s 2 sides at least to every issue
and I’m sure that each has merits
but my nation picks the worst (or seems to)
and I don’t know how to bear it.

In the game of global politic
the stakes are high as ever
the world is grinding down to shit
with American hands on the lever.

Across the world apartheid reins
a million and a half in the cage
would anyone please try to explain
why we’re on the side of the captors?

Oil slicks the size of nations
set loose by reckless corporations
we have the strength to rein them in
if the politicos weren’t paid-for patsies.

Obama, Osama, who’s worse for your mama?
Who fights the bigger war?
Who takes your rights, privacy, money?
Piece by piece by little piece.

Give up freedom to fight those who would steal your freedom.
Who is the real terrorist here?

One slain in NYC is worth more
than one in Kabul.
Or Baghdad
Gaza or Tehran.

How much more?

A little girl
or a wedding party of dozens
destroyed by remote control.
Is that how to react to terror tactics?

If the one with the gun
to the head of her sister
must shoulder the blame of her actions.
These sister nations all have bloody hands.

Still…

Doesn’t the one who always sides
with violence, funds oppression
courts authoritarianism over freedom
bear the blame a little more?

What if she is the one passing out the guns?
The one with the biggest armies
the most bombs
the biggest stake in the status quo?

Sister America, you’re on the wrong side!
Sister America, you ARE the wrong side.
Sister America, you hold the world against the wall.
Sister America, you must fall.

If we are all to live.

This one will probably get me some heat. Before you react, claiming I hate America, I’m acting unfairly, don’t see this in perspective, use too much hyperbole, realize this – the biggest player in the game (in this case politics) is the one who makes the rules that all others must abide by. Iran, China, Israel, Russia, Britain, everyone must play by American rules right now, because we have the biggest guns and the best capacity to wreck everyone’s day. It’s been this way ever since we took over as global hegemon from the Brits, and will remain this way until another country arises that can take us in a fight. I’m betting on the Indians, honestly.

In this present moment we are the strongest military in the world, and are very open about using that capacity to achieve our goals. It didn’t start with Bush – Clinton bombed and shot cruise missiles at his share of the world – Bush the elder had his Iraq adventure, Reagan his secret wars… it goes back a long while. I would make the argument that we have been at some sort of constant war since the Spanish-American war in 1898! Warfare is our primary means of international relations, of maintaining our position at the top of the hill.

We need war to keep our cheap cars, cheap TVs, cheap oil, low taxes. We’re addicts – to consumption, to abundance, to waste, and to the warfare that underlies it all. We hold the world at gunpoint and reap the resource reward. How else do 5% of the world’s people get to consume 25% of the resources? It isn’t because we’re free and they’re not. It isn’t because we have some god-given right to all this abundance. It’s schoolyard tactics, nothing more – we are the biggest, meanest kid on the playground and until another, bigger kid (or some sort of Karate Kid) comes along to knock us around, we’ll remain atop the dirt pile.

It isn’t just, fair, or equal – lip-service values that every American needs to profess to be taken seriously, but ones unsupported in our nation’s history. Before the ink dried on our Constitution, the revolution was betrayed – equality, liberty, the pursuit of happiness were not, are not, for any except the privileged. Doubt me? We’re suspiciously absent from the French Revolution, leaving Thomas Paine, mother of our country, to rot in jail, and the revolution to fail. Then we funded Napoleon in exchange for land that wasn’t his to give. Haitians were so inspired by our example that they too threw off their colonial masters and became the second republic in the hemisphere – we ignored them then, and have actively worked against their subsequent democratic movements to this day. We massacred a continent’s worth of peoples, destroyed entire cultures, stole homes and lands from every group we came across in our mad rush to the Pacific. At least some of the survivors have casinos now, right?

The Civil War was northern manufacturing against southern agribusiness at the core, with the respective elites of each society vying for influence. The north won out through blockade and systematic destruction of the south’s biggest economic advantage (slave labor) and as history is written by the victors, so did the official account blur out the economic underpinnings and slap on a facade of human rights. Abraham Lincoln put it well – “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.  If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that” War in industrialized society is about power – I can think of very few exceptions, of very few wars where one side at least has not been motivated by gaining power. (Money, land, people being expressions of that power.)

Peering through the lens of costs and benefits, as any good Capitalist ought, America has made spectacularly good returns on her wartime investments. The Mexican-American war, instigated by and pursued almost entirely by the USA, gained us a coast-to-coast empire. The Spanish-American war earned us a global network of naval bases for pennies on the dollar, and sunk one of the world’s faltering empires in the process. We fought a dozen small wars in Central America against weak republics, gaining a century of dominance, control over the Panama Canal Zone, and another resource pipeline from these subject states. In World War One we made our money selling to one side of the conflict, then jumped in to fight the last 6 months against shattered Germany and come out as victors. In World War Two our isolation from the fighting and scorched-earth policies in Europe and Japan led to a stunning victory – a near-monopoly on world manufacturing capacity, and no one to oppose our cultural and economic dominance save devastated Russia. From an investment standpoint, nothing we did before or since can compare with the returns on World War Two. From that conflict we became the world’s imperial master, and every fight since has been a holding action to keep ourselves on top.

The problem is that we’re losing now. We’re broke, owing money to everyone, importing nearly everything. We built up the foreign markets so well that it became profitable to manufacture everything overseas instead of simply importing the resources and making things here. Now we sell knowledge, education, and guns. Lots and lots of guns. We sell them to our allies, to neutral parties, to enemies when it serves some aim or another. We arm the world, in exchange for mountains of cheap goods – an arrangement that has no foreseeable problems or future consequences for anyone. Oh wait, that’s not right… THEY’RE USING THEM AGAINST US?! Who could have seen that coming? The height of folly has been to first drive ourselves into reliance upon far-away colonies, then to build for them the infrastructure and armaments necessary to throw off our yoke. How long before the nations of the world tire of sending us their minerals, their oil, of using their labor to build our entertainment devices? How will we oppose them when they rebel?

It is a cycle in every empire I have ever heard of for the central power to grow and thrive and gain until it is fat, bloated, weak, and dependent on its long-stretched tendrils for survival. At that point another power, be it from within or without, topples the empire and after a period of turmoil and infighting, another power arises somewhere within the system. Looking at the Romans, the Dutch, the Venetians, the Spanish, the Brits, the Russians, and now ourselves – the similarities are there, the biggest difference is our possession of a huge quantity of doomsday weapons. None of the previous dying empires had such a trump card, and as such there is no real precedent to our decline. We’ve certainly gotten more violent, more willing to use torture, assassination, remote-controlled killer drones, undeclared war, accept civilian targets; time will only tell what the American people are willing to accept in order to maintain the social order. If we’ve already accepted torture as necessary, racial profiling and religious violence as means to our ultimate end, and constant war as the way of the world, there is truly no telling what America’s next move is.

We have a situation where any strong, charismatic leader can have near-singular power over the nation, and while Barack Obama is not that leader, can you see the possibility of another him, but stronger and with malicious intent, as leading our country down the path to immolative global war? Certainly the power exists, as do the means – it remains to see whether the American people will demand their leaders take the sensible route – laying down the motorcycle, as it may be – or will continue our collective push toward totalitarian annihilation – and run us all face-first into the brick wall.

This is why I urge America to fall from our high mount – we cannot sustain it without destroying all we once held dear. There can be no American empire without slave labor and an owner class, without the rescission of freedoms, without constant violence to put down unrest, without surveillance and police state; without becoming the very sort of evil empire we portray ourselves as fighting against in film and popular culture. The transition will be rough, surely – perhaps it will be the greatest challenge of the American people, to put this out-of-control machine to rest – but only by acknowledging our internal problems and the fundamentally inconsistent manner in which we live our lives. We will come out of it stronger albeit poorer, and the whole world will benefit.

It begins, however, with us. With this generation. We must stop taking the prosperity for granted, stop charging our lives on credit cards, stop supporting the very things that hold us in this perilous position. Our food must come to us down traceable routes. Our power must come from sustainable sources. Our basic necessities must be produced locally, within a day’s travel preferably, if we are to stop relying on foreign powers with no interest in our well-being. We cannot live sustained on oil and corn (really, more oil) and propped up by our military power. Stop supporting the financial industry that owns our government, stop voting the same corrupt politicians into office, in fact stop voting and start participating. There is no substitute for a good angry protest in terms of inciting change. It is foolish to believe that pacifism and inaction, blog posts and angry letters will ever change the world so well as taking on your elected figures in person. This country was designed so that the highest authority would be the people, but it is run as if the only ones that matter are those with the money and influence to drive events directly. Does this stem from “them” corrupting the process, or is it because we have stopped caring, dropped out, and chained ourselves to TV, microwave dinner, iEverything, stable wage-slavery? When did you last take any action to better your society?

Every people have the government they deserve. Our ancestors faced harder problems than we do today, and came out better. If we wish, as a people, to survive and prosper, then it remains our responsibility to do so. No elected official, no president or congressman, can do that for you. No vote will ever change the world. If we want to leave a world, a country worth living in to our children, then it remains our responsibility to push for that. The status quo is unsustainable. The center will not hold.

I welcome any commentary, but please be prepared to back it up.

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