Yep, that’s the sad truth… I’m going to put Mental Cigaretttes on hiatus for a bit.

Short version: I have a new job in NYC and it’s an actual writing gig. The upshot is I’m going to be working in something I’m passionate about, where I’ll be paid to pick up women, to be my boss’ wingman, and to write! It’s a wonderful opportunity, and that segues nicely into why I’m not going to be posting here for  a bit – I’m under a pretty bulletproof NDA to not write about, talk about, or otherwise spread nasty rumors about the project I’m a part of.

Considering that the last time I was doing something I absolutely adored I fucked it all up by writing about it without permission, I’d be a grand idiot to make that mistake twice. For that, and for other reasons, I won’t be writing here for a while.

Don’t fret – when I come back there will be a wonderful story to be had, I promise!

 

Now enjoy some gibberish ûsíñg my sick new spañish keyboard! ßð↓µðn“” ßðđ ĸ ¢ßæ½ł{ →€nł @€ĸjjħÆı‘Ħ®Jı¢⅝±⅞ª©>ĦJ au revoir!

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Dear friends,

 

Happy New Year, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and holidays to you! I hope you are in good health, warm company, and fine spirits as this letter reaches you – if so, you’ve beaten the odds; and if not, I hope this helps.

 

I am well enough; certainly in good health and in the loving company of my family, though as for spirits, I must confess those dive and soar as the waves of life roll past. I know that I haven’t written you in quite some time – I can say this safely because I haven’t written anyone in quite some time: it just hasn’t been a part of my life lately. Nonetheless, there is a certain tradition to the end of each year; a sense of finality and closure, and I’d like to do my bit to convey some of the fading wonder of my 2010 to you.

 

This time last year, I was in Nicaragua – a lovely country with wonderful, but far from home and family. I spent my Christmas with a handful of travelers and expatriates on a remote beach on the Pacific shore, throwing rocks into the ocean out of cell phone range, as far from the modern world as I could manage. For New Years I got disgustingly drunk with people I barely knew, making a complete ass of myself in front of a girl I had been trying to impress, and ended up burning a long list of everything I wished to remove from my life in a bonfire – I distinctly remember both “my ties to the country I was born in” and “the baggage of my past” being on that sheet of paper. Judging from my present position, that worked out amazingly well, and I’ve had no further problems in that area.

 

After the New Year, I hitched rides down to the capital of Nicaragua, rode buses to Panama City, and spent entirely too much time at border crossings in an attempt to meet up with a good friend and ride the same plane as him down to Colombia. Being as he had all the details on where we were going, it was only fitting I never saw him. Instead, I got into a late-night argument with a fabulous girl from New York, and we ended up traveling together and dating. (Let that be a lesson to everyone – if she opens the conversation with “Oh my God, are you still on your fucking phone?!” she is a keeper.)

 

Anyway, Natalie and I had a wonderful time, and after I convinced her to blow off her trip to Peru, we did a tour of some of the more beautiful parts of one of the more ridiculously beautiful countries on the planet. Seriously – find someone who has been to Colombia who will dispute the awesomeness of this country, and you’ve found a complete curmudgeon – congrats. America has Natalie largely to thank for rehabilitating her image in my mind: I guess I figured that if someone as great as her could come out of the country, then it couldn’t be all terrible. She and I spent about 3, 3 ½ weeks together, and then out of nowhere she was gone and I was alone again. Following a terribly overwrought airport goodbye scene and a crazy cokehead-driven bus ride north, what else was there for me to do except check into a mountaintop paragliding school for the next month?

 

I almost died there – not a joke at all – I’m a bad paraglider. I ended up in the bushes a few times, draped a glider over some power lines, and on my very last flight crashed into a tree and fell 40-50 feet to the ground. It’s no small miracle that I’m still here to tell this story. Still, it was a legendary experience, and nothing I’ve ever done before or since can directly compare. At the end of February, I said my goodbyes, packed my bags, and the very next morning took off to the airport. There I undertook one of the weirdest transitions in my life – torrential rain delay, 12 or 15 hours of flights (Colombian Airlines are great by-the-by) and then straight into “Snowpocalypse” – a huge blizzard with sub-zero temperatures. Did I mention I flew to NYC to visit Natalie in lieu of coming home? Yeah, that happened.

 

So there I am; torn jeans, pack of smelly clothes, t-shirt with volcanoes on it, and I’ve invited myself to come live with a girl I’ve known for less time than you’ve known the guy at your local gas station. Crazy, right? Definitely – crazy is a good descriptive word for the life I was leading. I got a cab to Natalie’s apartment, showed up extremely nervous she would just see me and slam the door, and instead was treated to a fabulous time with a lovely lady. She’d even “borrowed” a coat from some guy who had left it at a bar – good thing too, or I would have died of cold for sure! As it was, I invaded her life, she took me in with striking hospitality, and we made the best of the cold and poverty. It was a great time, made better by that strange sense of transience that comes from knowing one of you is going to bail out of town at a moment’s notice – As it was, I left just before her birthday. What can I say? I am a classy man.

 

What ended up happening is that I had placed a posting on Craigslist asking if someone was headed in the general direction of Los Angeles, and would they be so kind as to take a total stranger along with them? It worked better than I could have hoped: five hours after I sent my message, I received one from a man named Matt, who just so happened to be moving to LA. I called him, he sounded exactly like I didn’t expect a serial killer to sound, and that was good enough – the only drawback was leaving Natalie earlier than I wanted to. We had this fabulous goodbye; just like a romance novel really, and then she went off to school, and I went back into to the coffee shop to wait for my ride. Here’s how good this goodbye was – a little old lady came up to me as Natalie faded into the distance and told me that she only saw people part ways like that in the movies!

 

Then Matt called to postpone our departure – he’d found another rider who wanted to pay for gas. I went back to Natalie’s place, killed some time, and managed to delay leaving just long enough to see her coming home from the subway as I went down to the subway to head into the city. It was… the opposite of a romance novel goodbye. We made out on the cold sidewalk for a bit and then I – stupidly! – headed into Manhattan and let her get away again. As it turned out, Matt was running even later, and I was too broke to do most anything. I hung out with my cousin for a bit, and spent a couple more hours casually hiding inside the Apple store drinking cough syrup to keep from freezing and reflecting on how much better my life would be if I’d just stayed at Natalie’s place. Nonetheless, as a legitimate homeless person, I felt that a certain image had to be maintained – I’m sure the real patrons appreciated it.

 

Sometime after midnight Matt and I finally met up and began driving. The other guy – forget his name – and Matt rode up front, and I passed out almost immediately among the strewn books and bags and detrius of a man’s life uprooted. By the time I woke up, we were in Ohio. Illinois? Ohio. With 3 people you can swap drivers from here til next week, and nobody really gets tired of it, so it only took us 16 or 20 hours to get to Nashville, even after detouring to drop off Adam or Steve or Jesus at his family’s home and eat their peanut butter sandwiches. I took a few pictures – the best being a “Florence Y’all” water tower in Florence, and a street sign with Church going one way and Gay the other. Also, Matt pointed out the eye of Sauron on a local high rise. Finally, we found the Music City hostel, and made ourselves at home.

 

Nashville was a treat – country music Mecca, busking musicians everywhere, country dancing, swing bands, and we happened to pull into town right as the biggest college basketball conference tournament I’ve ever personally seen rolled into the city. Every night it was dance parties, every day strange adventures and surprisingly awesome Mexican food. With the foreign travelers and artists and drifters, I felt right at home. Matt and I enjoyed it all so much that we barely made it out of town with money enough for gas!

 

Lacking funds, food, and with my randomly-imposed March 17th deadline fast approaching, we booked it across the country. If you consider the 12 or so hours we spent at the home of the always-hospitable Becky and Seth in Durant as “on pause”, then it took us just under 48 hours to drive from Nashville to Venice Beach, where Matt and I parted ways forever friends. Speaking of friends, one of my best buddies Rad drove wayyy out of his daily life to come pick me up and buy me dinner that first night, and the gratitude I felt I still feel now. A friend will give you ride, but only a true best friend will come pick you up, tell you that you stink so badly that he’s not allowing you to go to a restaurant, and then buy you pizza! I spent the night with Chad and Rad, their respective girlfriends, and the infamous Jake motherfuckin’ Wood, who I’m sure you’ve heard of. If not, you really need to get out there. They took a lovely shot of me passed out about 3-4 hours after my arrival – It was a bit of an adventure!

 

However, all adventures end, and this one came to a pretty abrupt close just as soon as I made it back home. Little aside here – by this point, I have had a quite respectable epic adventure. I’ve crossed nations, I’ve changed continents, I’ve flown, I’ve crash-landed, I’ve met a girl, fallen in love, and moved in with her, I’ve made a handful of lifetime friends, I’ve been threatened with arrest and thrown out of very nice establishments. These first 3 months of 2010 have set an incredibly high bar for the rest of the year, no? Well, as it turns out, this is where the whole mood changes, and 2010 becomes the hardest year of my life.

 

If you didn’t already know, my younger brother is Schizophrenic. He’s not only schizophrenic – it isn’t a definition – but it’s certainly something you ought to know about the guy before you meet him, because once you do meet him, you’re going to want that sort of an explanation! Otherwise, depending on his mood and medication level, he’s going to strike you as anything from “slightly eccentric” to “Holy shit.”

 

When I first saw Ken after nearly 15 months away, I wasn’t prepared. At the time, he wasn’t diagnosed, wasn’t medicated, and while my mother had sent me many emails about his declining condition and her worries about him, there just isn’t any way to prepare for something like seeing your brother after his descent into madness. He was a wreck – not at first, when he came to pick me up and drive me home, but 3 hours later, when he began vividly arguing and gesticulating with someone imaginary in the hallway, it became very clear that something was horribly wrong.

 

The whole time I was gone, I had this snapshot of my family just as I had left them. In in, we’re all happy, smiling; I’m trying to shove the dog’s head in my mouth – we’re a normal, happy, family even if Dad takes blood pressure pills and Kyle had seizures as a kid. All of a sudden, we weren’t normal. That snapshot was bullshit. I had just been fooling myself all along. I walked into my family home and it was like a whole other family had inhabited the bodies of my parents and brothers. They were automatons going through the motions and each individually seeking to escape the terrible situation thrust upon them, and to come into that as I did, hopeful, ecstatic, energized to take on the world and beat it – well, it took the life right out of me.

 

To be fair, I was forewarned – my entire homecoming had been orchestrated in response to a series of emails received from Ken, mom, and a trusted friend while I was still in Panama. Actually, that moment I met Natalie – “Are you still on your fucking phone?!” – I was reading a lengthy email from Ken about how the parents didn’t understand him and were conspiring to lock him up in prison. It’s not so much I didn’t know, but really that I couldn’t see the situation accurately from afar – I didn’t want to, I wasn’t able to, I didn’t.

 

I abandoned pretty much all my plans upon coming home – Becky has warned me as we left her house that family problems tend to suck everyone in, and I’d sworn up and down that I would never, ever, for any reason, let that happen to me – driving across Arizona I’d sworn it to myself a dozen times. Yet within 48 hours of coming home I surrendered to the task at hand and started rebuilding. I put away all my photos – I’ve never shown traveling pictures to anyone, ever. Most of them never made it out of my camera except to be copied to my hard drives. My pack is still mostly packed, sitting in a corner of my closet, full of memories and trinkets. I swallowed my stories, let the fire in my eyes ember, and went into damage control – and what damage there was.

 

Mostly, I went into a tailspin. Transitioning from travel to home is difficult in the best circumstances, but going from full-on transience to sedentary life, trading hitchhiking for a desk job, and giving up writing, music, singing, and dancing all at once? That’s just a recipe for disaster. I fell apart, got a data-entry job for the Census, and the next few months are a blur of a job I hated, a home life I hated, and brief gems of home – letters from friends out in the world, free rock climbing with an old friend, and occasional escape to my sanctuary with Chad-Rad-Jake at the new “Boy’s House.”

 

I don’t mean to sound as if I wasn’t happy to see my family – I’m sure that comes across, but isn’t true – I was perfectly ecstatic to see them again, but to see them like this hurt like a sword through the chest. You never want to see your loved ones doubting their own existence, blaming themselves for genetics, or squirreling themselves away to hide from the failing family dynamic. Nobody who hasn’t been through a complete family meltdown can quite grasp how it undermines everything else in your life – we were all spending our days just trying to get up, work, eat, and get back to sleep again, and any day where all that happened without something else breaking was a good day. Looking back from right now, in a slightly brighter but still grim present, I have no clue how everyone pulled through that.

 

Slowly, it did get better. Ken got a diagnosis, new medication, birthdays passed, I got a job waiting tables, Dad graduated the police academy (3rd time through, those fucking bastards) and on the whole, things looked like they might be recovering. Also, some long-time friends got married, and celebration always helps to bring up the spirits. I mean, Ken did cold-cock me in the eye at one of the weddings after going cold turkey off his pills, and I started my new job with a fantastically swollen black eye, but we got through all that, and it’s been a gradual upslope ever since.

 

Yes, except for Dad losing his job, and my hours being cut so that I had to take a job washing dishes at minimum wage, and Ken’s recovery hitting a plateau, and Kyle’s grades, and Mom’s mental health, and the stolen trailer, and the broken pool motor, and the money trouble, and the arguments, and the silent malaise overshadowing every instant of our lives, it’s been a steady rise to the present. One might even say we’re quite lucky really – most people can’t take another crisis, whereas we’re so used to them that it’s all taken in stride. “Oh look,” one of us will yawn, “While we weren’t home tonight, the peaceful dottering old dog we all love and cherish fell into the icy pool and drown because she was too blind and weak to get out. How perfectly appropriate.” Don’t you wish I was making that up.

 

I think we’ve been cursed perhaps, or maybe pissed off Apollo or some of those Norse gods – not enough sacrificing, or insufficient lamentation. Perhaps life on the shit end of the stick was just too good for us, so we’ve been downgraded to the shit itself. I don’t really know the answer, but I can tell you that ever since I came home, it has been a struggle simply to wake up each morning and not sob myself back to sleep. What kind of person abandons his family to run off and have fabulous, unbelievable adventures while the people he adores fall apart? Who does that, and then, when it’s his turn to suffer along with them, spends every spare moment dreaming of running away again? Pray you don’t have to wrestle those demons.

 

And yet… I can’t bring myself to really believe that leaving wasn’t the best thing that could have happened to me. When I came back home, I was a strong enough person to deal with all the hardship and misery that this year has thrown my way, and still have inner strength to support my family. The old me, the one who never had to live on coffee for a week, the one who never had to fight parasites or crash paragliders or hitch rides from drunk drivers would never have been able to do what I have. Further, if I hadn’t been out of the picture, what’s to say I wouldn’t have just sunk down into the muck with everything else? As it turned out, my re-entry forced a lot of jolting and adjustment within the family – If I had been around the whole time, that unfamiliarity, that different view, would never have been what small help it was to swing things around for the better. Vagabonding forged me to survive, and it has been a welcome source of strength in these trying times.

 

Now, as the year and this letter come to a close, let me share a few future hopes and plans with you, so that we can perhaps end upon a much happier note. The holidays have been fabulous for us – we took a family ski trip in lieu of material gifts, and the change of scenery certainly helped to level out our mood swings. Tahoe is a very gorgeous area, we managed to visit between the massive storms, and the snowboarding, sledding, and horseplay were all therapy to us. Afterward we drove down to Grandpa’s house, did the family Christmas celebration, and managed to get home before family togetherness got the better of anyone. From there, I headed up to Santa Barbara to visit friends, wear a suit, and ring in the new year like a classy individual. It kind of worked – I spent the entire 31st sick in (someone else’s) bed, but managed to rally before midnight, got dressed, and between surprise visitors and good company, it was a great time.

 

My next step (which I’ve actually started already, since I’ve been slacking on writing this letter) is to take a leave from my job, fly to New York City to see Natalie again, then hitchhike to Oklahoma to live with Becky and Seth and write a book of my adventures. I’m looking forward to the coming year – with the family slowly recovering, I feel comfortable enough to leave again, and I’m looking at a job teaching English abroad. Travel and adventure seem to be my calling, so I’ll be doing as much of that as I can while I’m still able. I will have to work hard – I don’t have much money – but I’m confident that I can find what I’m looking for if I keep searching. For now it is enough to be back on the road, living out of a bag, and unsure of what tomorrow will bring. I hope that you all are living the lives you desire, surrounded by loving people, and happy with your present. If not, it is never too late to change your reality, and I hope that you do not settle for a life that does not fulfill your dreams.

 

I would love to hear from you, so if you ever have the chance, call me, email me, write me, skype me, facebook me, instant message me, (that’s still a thing, right?) send me a carrier pigeon, or send me a smoke signal. We live in the future – it has never been easier to contact each other!

 

Until next we cross paths, -k

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.

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.

 

Schizophrenia

November 5, 2010

I feel obligated to write something – anything – on here to explain how this blog went so suddenly from stories and observations about the world I was so excitedly exploring, to well… nothing. No posts except infrequently, and pretty poor-quality ones at that. It isn’t so much that I’ve given up on writing, but lately it has become difficult for me to write anything that I feel is worthy of being shown to other people.

 

I discovered in traveling that there are experiences which cannot be fully conveyed to anyone who did not experience them. One of my biggest problems is that while I can tell an entertaining story, or write an essay that provokes the reader to think, there simply isn’t a way to telegraph the feelings and raw emotions of some of the experiences I have had without going and doing the same things – even then, you’re likely to run into different people and do different things, and so your adventures will be different than my own. On some level it works, because most people don’t want to have the realizations that come with watching small kids huff glue to stay warm and knowing you could fix the problem except that you’d rather keep traveling and not adopt and raise a street kid, and even if you did, that’s still only one in a million. Trust me when I say that the self-discovery that comes out of walking away from someone else’s problem when you could actually fix it is one of the more unpleasant I’ve had. I’m hard on myself for details, for accuracy, and for trying not to preach, but when I try to write stories about my adventures of the past year and half, I run into an even bigger barricade; one which has prevented me from giving any serious effort to writing about my life of late.

 

I came home in mid-March of 2010, stumbled into my familial home, took some pictures, shared a few stories, and passed out. Between then and now, my life has been divided into work, looking for work, and taking every effort to keep my family from falling apart. What I hadn’t realized in my time on the road, and what they had been too kind to tell me, was that my younger brother George (what my 2-year-old self wanted to name him) had descended into the living hell of schizophrenia, and that this horrible disease had been eating my family from the inside ever since I left. By the time I returned he was holding full conversations with people none of the rest of us could see, drawing massive amounts of graffiti and nonsensical (to me) scribblings on every surface available to him, and had convinced himself that his destiny lay in becoming a professional skateboarder and rapper. He gave up on personal hygiene, developed phobias about sunlight, trimming his nails, or cutting his hair. He’d become nocturnal; sleeping until mid-afternoon and refusing contact with the rest of the family until my parents and youngest brother had gone to bed. At this point, he would emerge from his room, make a hell of a lot of noise, cook some strange meal (an entire pound of pasta with no sauce) and then go off to skateboard around the neighborhood until dawn, after which he’d go back to bed, and the cycle would repeat.

 

The burden of taking care of George fell to my mother, because my father was working 12-16 hour days at a location an hour away. This meant that for over a year, my father was more or less not present in his family’s life. My mother, in addition to her full-time job, had been attending support meanings, reading dozens of books on the subject of mental illness, and trying – largely in vain – to get my brother the assistance he so desperately needed. This left my youngest brother Randy to pretty much fend for himself at 15 years old. His grades crashed, his interest in school also, and he buried himself into video games as a coping mechanism for the terrible life he had been thrust into. Our extended family’s help and advice has been limited – one aunt and uncle offered George a job and a place to stay part of each week, but he couldn’t do the job and eventually cut ties with them as his paranoia led him to believe they too were trying to control him. (his biggest fear in life is that people are out to control him, and he will go to great, self-destructive lengths to avoid these perceived attacks on his sovereignty.) Yet incredibly, all these strange behaviors, screaming fights, and George’s descent into madness were kept largely from me, the exception being occasional tearful emails from my mother, casting herself as the over-reacting mother. From my end, George wasn’t doing great, but in our communications he was distant and sullen, not crazy. Like all of us, I simply didn’t want to believe that my brother the athlete, the architect, the wonder kid could possibly be mentally ill. We all deluded ourselves, internalized the problems, and the whole family sank silently. Coming home was such a shock, because having not seen the transition, George’s condition was intolerable. Here I was, my clearly not-sane brother before me, and I’d been off having the time of my life for a year.

 

The guilt that comes from this is indescribable. I should have been there. I could have helped. I would have made the difference. If not for my self-centered adventures, I could have stopped his slide. It’s all shit; in case you were wondering – my presence here would not have made the difference then any more than it has now, and I am confident that I would have done a far worse job than I have if not for the perspective and strength I gained in traveling. Had I stayed, I would have been in the same condition as my family at the time of my return – soul-bruised, vacant, and hopeless. It doesn’t matter where guilt is concerned – the knife still digs into my chest when I think of their suffering concurrent with my happiness, separated by a few thousand miles and a yearning gulf of uncaring bliss. When the pain and suffering breached my isolation, and brother, mother, and friend all asked me to return with a few days of each other, I did what any good son would, and came home to investigate for myself. By that I mean I flew to Colombia, got a paragliding license, flew to NYC, and hitched a ride cross-country with a now-great friend Matt. I took my time because even faced with the distress of those I loved, I misunderstood the urgency in their words – George was coherent in his communications with me, so how bad could it really be?

 

Life-shatteringly terrible, as it turned out.

 

My original plan in coming home had been to stay here only for a matter of weeks, a few months tops, to visit the family, say hi to old friends, aid George in whatever was ailing him, and then victoriously take off again – to overseas, to live with new friends, or to reunite the wonderful woman I met and fell in love with in Colombia. (I swear, Natalie, I will write our story soon enough!) That plan, like any, never survived first contact with the enemy. My family members did not even speak to each other in my first few days back in the country. They did not interact except at the most basic level of survival communication, and each seemed trapped in a world of isolated unhappiness. Seeing the dire straits of my family I could not help but to abandon my own interests and save the people I love.

 

I have been remarkably unsuccessful in this – good intentions cannot cure mental illness – and to this day George suffers delusions, heightened unpleasant senses, and cannot separate real from fantasy. He lives in a world all his own, surrounded and tormented by demons the rest of us cannot imagine. At times he shakes loose, and for an hour, a day, my brother is back with us – in certain situations, surrounded by lifelong friends and doing activities he has loved his entire life, he will appear almost as I remember him from all those years ago. Then something will shift; his entire body language will slump, his voice will change, and he will be another person altogether. He is gone again, and until another surprise reappearance, the person we must deal with is not the one we love. His other self, the one that we most often see, is angry at the world – we are all assholes, we are crazy, we are the enemy seeking to control and destroy him. If not for us, he would be able to live free, take charge of his own destiny, and fulfill his rap/skate dreams. We hate him, we are obsessed with him, we have nothing better to do with our lives than to destroy is, and that is our purpose in existence. All of these are things he has yelled at my mother and myself within the past 50 hours. He cannot make eye contact, he cannot face the people he is speaking with. His hair – ratty and matted to his head – hangs past his nose now, and he moves stiffly, robot-like, with everything coming from the shoulder and hip joints. When he is like this there is no point in talking to him – his denial of his own problems runs so deep that anything, the slightest comment, will drive him into fits of rage.

 

One of my greatest fears in life is that he will attack my mother or youngest brother, and I will not be there to fight him off. He has twice assaulted me – once in our home, and another time at a good friend’s wedding. I still have the scar from that second attack, my right eye does not open the same as it once did, and I suspect the injury is for life. On his bad days we all barricade our doors and let him rage, because he is an adult, and the rights of parents and family over the mentally ill in this country are non-existent. He has no control of his mind, and yet no one, not the police, our insurance, his school, nor his former doctors will grant anyone the ability to protect him from himself. In this manner, we are given the choice of throwing our own kin into the streets to survive as a crazy homeless man, or to keep him at home. There are no other options until he harms someone to the point of going to jail or a mental facility. We have no money – we have spent many thousands of dollars on medicines, doctors, mental care experts, and there is no cure forthcoming. For a while now he has been medicated, but one of the first things that comes from his medication is an overwhelming feeling that he doesn’t need the pills to control his life. Thus he hides them, refuses to take them for days, misses his dosing schedule, and the meds feed another part of roller-coaster emotions. While unmedicated he is a danger to everyone around him, but while he continues to take his medication on so erratic a schedule he risks permanent harm to himself, and amplifies the wild cycles of his mind. His manner is hostile, his behavior erratic, and his attacks on myself and others leave me little choice but to assume the worst – he will hurt someone one day if he is not stopped. As there are no authorities willing to deal with him, our choice as his family is to keep him close to home and both protect George from the uncaring world, and the world from the insane George.

 

There is no clear path left open to us now – those diagnosed schizophrenics who are caught early and take their medication consistently can oftentimes recover, but for those who persist for years in denial and rebellion against their own minds the hopeful prognoses fade to semi-invalid or death. A full quarter commit suicide – the same proportion which recovers completely. My brother’s condition was discovered when my father and I bailed him out of jail a year and 9 months ago. Talking with his roommates at the time, he had been bad off for many months before that as well. With the medical insurance games and exorbitant fees of private practice doctors, we did not have a diagnosis until some 5 months ago – likely too late. Certainly George has not responded well to the treatments or medication, and his current behavior, while less physically violent than before, is still volatile to the point of grave concern. He has driven away his friends, lost every job offered to him, is on the verge of being kicked out of the local community college, and has convinced himself that his own family is plotting to destroy his life. At this rate, I do not expect him to survive another year – indeed, my mother and I spoke just yesterday about our (previously separate and unspoken) fears that each day will be the one where we discover he has killed himself.

 

There is no way out of this without abandoning my family. My parents are close to divorce, Randy clings to me as a rock of stability in his shattered life, and everyone seems to need my love and advice on a constant basis. They all need me, and in my heart I can feel only hate. I hate San Diego. I hate living here, I hate the people here. I hate the way that this whole world has turned to ashes in my hands. I hate that I cannot help, cannot save, can do nothing more than comfort the people I love as we all spiral downward. We are trapped behind George’s lying brain’s filters – our outstretched arms are obscene gestures to him – our words are horrible to his lying ears. He is trapped in a hell of his own creation, and his powers of creation are so great that all who come in contact are sucked in as well. I find myself simultaneously dreading and hoping for his death – at least then he would not have to suffer so. At least then we could try to recover. I know there is no happiness here, that there may never be happiness again – for any of us. There is no one I can speak to about this – not without paying money I do not have for a counselor whose job is to listen. I don’t need a prostitute.

 

Just as there was once a gulf between myself out in the world and family here at home, so is there now a gulf between my former self and my present. I have never shown traveling photos to anyone, I have never told my story to a friend. I can feel myself putting all those happy times into a little mental box, locking it, and abandoning my dreams. I am being ground into powder my this life, and soon I will be nothing left.

 

Last night I dreamed the happiest thing I have felt in as long as I can remember. I was on the road, in the back of a truck, riding to I-know-not-where. Around me were friends, and we were riding off to some great adventure, laughing and singing into the wind. I took my phone from my pocket, threw it into the road, an explosion of plastic and glass and circuits. We all found his hilarious. Later, sitting around a campfire, I took my passport from my pocket, thumbed the pages, threw it into the hungry flames. Next my photos, of family, friends, a life I no longer wanted. Journals went in, my laptop too. My companions sat silently as I did this, and tears of joy flooded down my face. Afterward, I sat and faced the dimming fire with my wet face, finally free of myself.

 

Do you see what I am getting at here? Do you see where my mind goes? There can be no happiness for me when those I love are in such pain. Coming back here, I though the solution was to help them, to free the ones I love from their chains. Now I see that is impossible, and that I am chaining my body alongside theirs. My only hope lies in flight; in abandoning everyone I have ever loved and beginning anew in another life. I am not even the same man I was when I returned, and certainly that carefree, happy, traveler would hardly recognize me. The few people I still talk to honestly are unanimous in their assurances that what I am doing is noble and good, and will be worth it in the end, but I have lost any faith I once had. My brother is not my brother any more. My family is shattered, without hope, without help. Our friends have their own lives and worries, and as our problems deepen, they bow out one at a time. We are alone in a way I have never been – even being actually alone is less lonely than to be the problem family, the one who brings everyone down. I am sure that the only responses this gets will be good-natured, well-intended missives of help and support, but my own doubts are so deep that it all comes to naught.

 

So you see, writing a book about adventures, love stories, and happy times is quite impossible when the whole world is on fire, and there in no one there to help you put it out. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to put on a fake smile and pretend to be happy for the benefit of others – a man has to make a living somehow.

 

Like a Bad Country Song

October 16, 2010

Life can be cruel. Sometimes the universe hits you when you’re already down, tears something you love away and leaves you gasping for air.

 

Yesterday afternoon I was excited – Fresh off work, pocket full of tip money, full tank of gas, and I’d fallen into some fun – a reunion with good friends, comedy shows on Saturday, and a bit of desperately needed camaraderie. Compared to renovating houses, waiting tables, or getting yelled at by irate mothers of grooms it seemed heavenly. I blew up the 5, played my favorite tunes, made some long distance phone calls, and missed the afternoon traffic jams – not a small feat in Orange county. I even managed to drop by a flower boutique and get a nice bouquet for a friend whose birthday I’d been forced to miss. All told, it was an auspicious start to one of the saddest nights of my life.

 

Of course, it wasn’t all gravy – because I hit no traffic and had gotten off work early, no one was home to let me into Boy’s House, and I spent a good hour nursing a beer on their front porch and fighting the urge to clean the patio – Boys House being what it is, the two-week-old beer pong cups were beginning to get a bit West Nile-y. Still, people came home soon enough, and being among true friends is an experience I treasure. Dinner, catching up, TV, talks; we slip into our old routines so easily, and this was no exception. It wasn’t until about beer 3 that things took a twist for the terrible. My phone rang, it was my youngest brother, and since things have been so awful on the home front of late, I answered expecting something bad. What I got was awful.

 

“K, are you coming home tonight? Spudsie died.”

 

A bit of history is needed here – Spudsie is our old lady dog. She’s been part of the family since I was 8, when we got her from our good friends whose dog had given birth. They were nice enough to save us one of the puppies – A 10 month old dirt-brown ball of sticks and leaves and energy, she captured all of our hearts from the very first days. When we adopted her, all of us boys were adamant we name her Spud, because she was from Idaho, and what the hell else happens in Idaho? Luckily for everyone, my mom put her foot down(-ish). “She’s a girl dog, and she needs a girl’s name. Spud is not ladylike.” Spudsie – much more ladylike! – was the first dog I ever had as puppy, and at only 4 days older than my brother, it was wild seeing his and her different development speeds. Always smart, Spudsie figured out that an infant produces a lot of waste food, and so for the early years of her life she feasted on spilled, dropped, and occasionally stolen food – K3 had a habit of leaving his mouth open a lot when he ate, and Spudsie figured out that she could just clean his mouth out with her tongue, and none would be the wiser! Eventually he passed her by and earned the right to keep his food, but she was always our beloved family pet.

 

When I left home for college, Spudsie waited. For four years, she remembered me, still loved me, still slept in my room – the infrequent visits never made her less loyal, even as she got older. When I left again on my international hijinks, I said goodbye forever – I simply didn’t believe a dog as old as her could hold out until I came home. Stubbornly, Spudsie kept living. Her senses faded, vision, hearing, she couldn’t jump any longer, but still she kept living, kept loving, kept breathing. I came home, and she scarcely recognized me – it took a lot of sniffing before she was convinced I’d come back. Still, at 16 ½ years old, she’s been on her last legs for a while, and we’ve been going through the stages of grief as a family. She’s had a wonderful life with us, and to see her slowly die has been heartbreaking, but at least she’ll die surrounded by a family who loves her, right?

 

This phone call from my brother wasn’t completely unexpected, but it still was a terrible thing – I had wanted to be there, had hoped it would be in her sleep at the foot of my bed where she spent so much time. The one day I was gone… what shit luck. What rotten fucking timing. Why couldn’t I be there? She’d waited so long for me, and I left town the day she died.

 

At least I had that morning fresh in my mind. Spudsie is lying on the floor by my bad, where she’s just fallen to because well – she’s blind and old and shaking herself out near the edge of the bed is a recipe for disaster. I’m two feet away lying on my floor because I do that, so laughing I put my face next to hers and blow air in her nose so she won’t startle when I pick her up. I put her on my chest, lie on my back and pet her slowly, and I can’t believe that she’s still alive – she’s lost so much weight, the weird growths on her head and neck are conquering new territory, she smells like decay, and her skin is so loose I could put another half-dog in it. Still, she’s my puppy, and I don’t know how much longer I have her in my life for, so I lay there and scratch her, and strike up a conversation.
I spoke with my dog about our life together, right there the last time I’d ever see her. We spoke about how much I loved having her in our family as I grew up, about how smart and loyal and loving she’d been. I told her I hoped she wasn’t in pain, and that I couldn’t have ever asked for more in a dog. I asked if she was holding on to life for me, and begged her not to. “You’ve had a full life babe, and there’s no sense in suffering.” I kissed her on the nose, and told her I wouldn’t move away again while she still lived, but that I was going to stay with friends for the weekend and wasn’t sure she would make it until I came back. “I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again, but you’ve been the best dog I’ve ever had, and I’m glad we grew up together.” I hugged her, left her lying in a sunny spot and went to work – that was the last time I ever saw her. If I couldn’t be there in her final moments, at least that’s a decent ending, right? It was finally her time.

 

All this had gone through my head in a few seconds – all the stages of grief, all the thoughts, the deep-seated urge to just lie down and cry, interrupted by the fact that I now have to take charge (via phone) and get something done. My youngest brother hasn’t had to deal with dying animals, and my mom doesn’t handle this sort of thing well – I could hear her sobbing in the background. I started to go over the basics with my brother; she’s old, it will happen to us all, it’s just her time, at least she had a beautiful life with us, etc, etc, but right here he interrupted me.

 

“Spudsie drown in the pool. I was at practice, mom came to pick me up, and while we were all out of the house she fell in and died.”

 

In the pool. A blind, deaf, feeble dog struggling in the darkness, all alone in her final moments. For a dog who spent her entire life in being near us, in loving us, in being a part of our lives, it is the most sick and terrible death I could imagine for her. Nobody to hear her, nobody to help, until she slips below the frigid water and expires. Can you think up a more terrible, unfair way to die?

 

My brother’s voice cracked as he tells me about pulling her body from the water, and my mom is wailing, trying to get the other dog to come look at Spudsie’s body. I tell my brother to wrap her in a towel and put her into a box on my bed – I just figured it was where she would want to be. He’s a great kid, more grown up than I give him credit for, and so he does exactly that, and passes the phone along to my mom.

 

She’s heartbroken – life has not been kind to our family these past years, and something so tragic as Spudsie’s death just feels malicious after all the crap we have to dig through each day. She tells me that she feels guilty about being gone, for abandoning the dog at the end, and I say I feel the same. I offer to come home but she tells me not to, and I agree to come back the next morning. We commiserate, build up each other’s spirits to protect against another day, and then she goes off to help my brother and I’m surrounded by happy friends feeling like I betrayed my dog and family. Why can’t I be happy too?

 

My friends are sympathetic, we make the best of things, but I’ve rarely felt so alone as I did lying there in their living room and trying vainly to sleep. Eventually I drift off, and mercifully I do not dream.

 

This morning I drove home as the radio played everything I needed to hear. The family had gone off to school and work, so the house was quiet, shades drawn. I wandered up to my room steeling myself to say goodbye to my dog, only to find they hadn’t laid her in state on my bed as I’d asked. It took a bit to find her, but outside near the back door I saw a box, and knew exactly what I’d find inside.

 

It’s the meanest thing in the world to see someone you loved once alive and now dead. I don’t care who it is – dog, friend, family, anyone you care about – you never want to see them up close and dead. And yet, I wasn’t there. I missed her death, dammit, and I had to see her. I opened the box, and looking her lying there, still damp, wrapped lovingly in a towel, I could almost trick myself into believing she was just asleep. Only her eyes were open, and everything was so rigid, and I’m not big on deluding myself. I pulled her out of the box – so light, so stiff – saw her eyes and nose still wet, felt the damp fur on her head, and held her, towel and all, as I sat by the pool in another misty morning.

 

That’s life – wake up one morning thinking you’ll have fun for once, and end up the next day holding your beloved dog’s stiff corpse on the edge of the scene of her death.

 

I guess the silver lining of getting hit by so much shit is that we grow resilient. I shed a few tears, put Spudsie back into her box, went inside and made breakfast. She’s a couple yards from me as I write this – we wanted to bury her as a family, and tomorrow is the first day we all have off. We’ll survive, even if life is determinedly cruel to those least deserving. We just have to remember all the good that came of her, all the love Spudsie showed, how she caught rabbits alive by chasing them until they gave up, her speed and her smarts and her daring, that time she took on a bulldog to protect my baby brother, how she grew so entwined with our family, and how she gave her heart to us all. Our family was truly blessed had her with us for so long. Spudsie, I love you, I’m so sorry. You’ll be missed by us all.

She was my old lady dog.

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?

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