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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Junk in My Trunk

August 5, 2010

I was standing on the side of the road just now, changing into my work pants, and I got hung up digging around in the trunk of my car for a quart of oil. The car burns a lot now, 2 quarts or so every oil change, because she’s an old girl and apparently old girls leak a lot – it’s certainly true of the dog anyway.

Still, what caught up to me finally was the realization that I have entirely too much shit in my car. Way too much shit – enough shit to build a house almost. Therefore, I am making a list of all the too much shit I have in my car – here goes:

The interior is clean(ish) because I throw everything into the trunk. Nonetheless, I still manage to carry around a glovebox full of papers and notebooks, old receipts, the near-useless owner’s manual, some melted chapstick, the case to my glasses, a pile of pens, and god only knows what else. I don’t go in here because it’s scary. Under the seats I’ve shoved one of those dusting brushes I never use, a half-dozen copies of my resume, a Thomas Bros guide from 8 or 6 years ago, and some old french fries, which still look brand new but are hard enough to be weaponized. Oh, and there’s a remote for the stereo floating around somewhere, because everyone needs a remote for the things within arms’ reach, right? I used to have a lot of change in here too, but yesterday I went to the bank and turned that into about $16 – at least part of the whole mess paid off.

The trunk is undeniably “where it’s at” in the world of my having too many things – from all of my work clothes, aprons, and dirty laundry to the three towels and the pile of clothes I still haven’t donated to anyone yet, it’s getting rather full these days. There’s also a lot of tools – 2 crates of assorted rags, jumper cables, brake cleaner, a dozen pairs of vice grips and wrenches, a dashboard cover I will never use, carpet spot remover (as a joke apparently) carburetor cleaner for my fuel-injected engine, a volt meter with no screen or batteries, a lot of duct tape, an extendable magnet for the car parts I love to drop into corners of the engine compartment, an oil filter, an air filter, several quarts of various sorts of motor oil, and probably a lot more that I’m done digging for. Next to those boxes is a gigantic funnel I’ve never used that serves the purpose of keeping the 100 piece socket set from sliding around too much – by jamming the funnel between the rock climbing shoes and the running ones, it props the socket box against the back of the rear seat and anchors it from slamming into things while I’m playing speed racer. To the other side is the gigantic towel that never dries and is covered in surf wax, and under that are the shoes I haven’t worn since high school ceramics – they’re really comfortable though! I also have three shopping bags of clothes I will never wear again because they’re terrible, but which I apparently won’t donate either because I haven’t gotten around to it. There’s some dirty socks floating around, 3 work shirts, two pairs of black dress pants, a couple of aprons, a lot of pens, a handful of change, and probably some sort of flesh-eating virus or a gerbil underneath it all. Oh, and let’s not forget the baseball caps (CBG and Census both) which I have not and will not find any need for ever. Not last but also not least, I have the Census office manual that I found in the back, 400 pages of who gives a fuck, which made me laugh and inspired this list.

Here’s the real question – how much better would my mileage be if I didn’t carry an extra person’s weight in crap in the car everywhere I go?

It begins, as it usually does, with a question – an innocuous one at that.  People have asked me a dozen, a hundred times in the 6 weeks I’ve been home, a few thousand before I left, and nowadays it usually comes after I’ve told them some crazy story of my adventures, a love story or an escape, a hike into the jungle or a profound truth revealed to me by dire straits.

“That’s really cool man – I’m happy for you… (pregnant pause) so what are you going to do with your future?”

It’s an awful question.  It’s a terrible question.  Most of all it’s a loaded question, one where nothing I say can be both true on the one hand, and accepted well on the other.  It doesn’t even matter who asks – the answer isn’t going to satisfy you unless you’re the sort of person who would know better than to ask.  Still, I like to think I’m a pretty honest guy, and if someone goes through the motions of asking me a question, I’ll do my best to answer it.  So here’s that – my best answer to that apparently burning question of what the hell I’m doing with my life.

I do whatever feels right at the time.

Salmon ninja hoods - for your discerning masked marauder!

That’s seriously it – I just do whatever I judge to be the best possible action at any given junction.  No grand scheme, no hopes of running the world, no desire to micromanage the universe – I’ve seen and tried enough of that to know it doesn’t work well at accomplishing what I want out of life, because all I really want is to feel happy, fulfilled, and like I’m making a positive difference in the world I inhabit.  This isn’t something I came to out of choice – it just happens that whenever I try to make plans they blow up in my face and leave me worse off than before I started.  This is my reaction, my defense against the great unknown and the greater known – I observe the world, learn what I can, and act as I believe is in my best interest – there’s no end goal aside from doing my best to be my best wherever and whenever the universe throws me.  I mean, so many people are terrified of what they can’t control or foresee, and a lot of that comes from these intricate, well-intentioned plans that people build up.  They don’t work because we can’t possibly plan for every unknown, and when things go wrong and work against our best intentions we have to work harder just to get back to where we wanted to be.   Given enough hurt, enough bad juju, and a long enough timespan, it becomes a colossal effort just striving toward equilibrium.  Thus, the fear – change means adapting the plan, and think of how much effort has gone into that brilliant shining hope!  Keeping the perfect lie alive has become more important than finding satisfaction in reality!

I don’t even want equilibrium.   I equate that with stasis, with decay and with death.  The only way I’ve ever found to keep living is to keep mobile, roll with the punches, enjoy every drop, every instant of my life without getting so attached that I’m unable to function when it comes down on my head.  It’s survival – basic evolution – as life changes we must adapt along with it or perish as we’re left behind.   Every form of life, every idea, everything  that exists must adapt to stay relevant to the matrix of reality that envelops us.  To stop is to become irrelevant, to be cast aside in favor of another who keeps adapting.  A few hundred years it was kosher to duel to the death over an insult, a generation ago it was acceptable to test nuclear weapons in the open atmosphere, a century ago we were overwhelmingly a planet of farmers, twenty years ago the coolest kids around had pagers or car phones – everything changes, and that change is accelerating.  The faster it spins, mutates, evolves, the less stock I put into making any sort of plan – where’s the relevancy?

How many times have you seen someone clearly left behind by the world around them?  A person tied emotionally, financially, or otherwise to a reality that no longer exists isn’t uncommon – I think that most people upon reaching a certain age lose their ability to adapt, settle for whatever satisfies that them in that moment, and spend the rest of their existence fighting against the irresistible current of change to hold onto their past joys.  It doesn’t matter if their chosen path becomes untenable, self-destructive, or even impossible, these people will forever fight to grasp onto that which once fulfilled them.  They’ll die before they change.  The old woman who refuses to drive because that just isn’t done can survive just fine so long as she has a child, husband, or neighbor around to help her or her mobility is good enough.  The same woman, if she loses these advantages, must adapt or starve to death in her house.  Likewise fucked is the holdout against a government Eminent Domain plan to build another bloody bypass – sure, the world has a whole lot of bypasses, sure I can lie down in front of the bulldozers all day, but when it comes down to the wire you’ll get stuck in the mud and run over one day, and even if you don’t the goddam Vogons will just blow up the whole planet to build an interplanetary bypass anyway, so why not grab your towel, fire up the sub-etha Sens-o-matic and just hitch a ride into the stars – it sure beats extinction.  That which does not adapt, which does not change, will find itself outdated, useless, and dead before its time.

Let’s bring it back to the question at hand – what am I going to do with my future?

The way I see it we balance on the precipice, a cliff down into the mist on one side, a jagged body-strewn drop-off on the other.  There’s so much changing, so much shifting and sliding, exploding, rebuilding, dying, reviving, that I’m going to do the only thing that makes any sense at all to me – I’ll walk the razor’s edge, between unknown danger on the one hand and the known I consider worse on the other.  I’ll keep my footing solid, my spirits high, and try to recruit the best companions I can along the way, but as far as where I’m going… well, that’s a question best answered by the path I travel.  I don’t know what comes next, but so long as I keep doing my best along the way, staying happy, smart, flexible, strong, then I’ll find myself where I was supposed to be all along.

It has worked out pretty damn well so far, and I see little chance of that changing in the future.  With the world changing as fast as it is, it’s really a matter of choosing which potential future you want to prepare for, and while I’m not ready to throw my hat in with the canned-food and ammo collectors yet, I do think they have a better grasp on reality than the dumbfucks going into finance degrees hoping to make a fortune screwing the rest of us out of our inheritance.  It’s a matter of faith more than anything else – why invest so much effort into the ether?  Please, don’t ask me what my plans are for the future, because if I’ve learned one thing it’s that anything I promise gets wrecked up real fast.  I work better without the self-imposed chains, have enough of those anyway, and I don’t know what tomorrow holds.  You don’t either, and I reckon I’m better at living on the road, on the ground, in the shit than most of you are.

It’s evolution, dear Watson – why do you think there are so many rats and roaches and so few cute fuzzy panda bears?  You can have you high-falutin’ life map, your 5-year plan, your career and your mortgage and pension.  I’ll keep my eyes and mind open, my baggage minimal, and take whatever I can scrape by on.  Call it a waste of life, but don’t get offended when I laugh at those dull echoing words, and don’t be afraid either – living in the moment is as easy as saying “yes” to the next unexpected idea, starting a conversation with the next interesting stranger.  It’s quitting a job you hate but are working because the money is good, it’s not settling for the things you’re expected to have that don’t make you happy.

What will I do with my life?  Whatever works in the moment, because you never know which moment will be your last.

Make every moment count.

A lot of people don’t know that Mother’s Day was founded not so much to celebrate our mothers but to organize their power and influence in an attempt to end war.  Obviously we’re pretty far into Hallmark holiday territory now, but here’s a plea from Julia Ward Howe from way back in 1870 – the Mother’s Day Proclamation:

Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts,
Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
“We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”
From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says: “Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”
Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.
So in the interest of mothers everywhere, consider this year doing something a bit more meaningful than the flowers, cards, and brunch routine – there’s a lot of war going on right now that shouldn’t be, and we Americans are at the epicenter.  Talk with your friends, your family, your mom, and discuss with them what you can do to get our country off this murderous and self-destructive path.  Every little bit, every aware mind helps.  Thank you -k

Homecoming

March 30, 2010

Isn’t it funny how as the world gets more mechanised there is less and less room for people, for life, for real things? Here I sit at the train station burning to let the writing hands fly, and I’ve forgotten to charge the laptop. No problem – I carry a notebook everywhere I go… oh wait that’s not right – left it behind at home, wanted more space for clothes, a toothbrush, razor, the “basics” of human life I forgot to use because I’m not comfortable having them. Apparently leaving the laptop wasn’t even considered a possibility. I’m left with this rapidly disintegrating notepad, primary purposes; band, book, movie recommendations, poetry, ripping pages out for impromptu business cards. Not exactly the best medium for my epic-length stories nobody actually reads. Nonetheless here goes:

I write for I’s eyes now, because the instant I think about book, publish, author, anything at all about marketing, networking, audience, sales, money I clam up hard and get writing constipation. I’ve been pretty much disabled since I got home – someone turned the creativity machine off – in this environment everything comes back to survival skills. I see this place as a much harder, colder, less human atmosphere now; as if the structures, machines, and televisions have taken over and trapped humanity inside. When NYC is so cold yet so bustling and anonymously alive, it is a shock to see Orange county, San Diego, Santa Barbara – so passive, indoors, climate controlled and isolated. Sitting at a train station is like dreaming – how could public transport be so expensive and yet so terrible? Nobody, 10 people, at a transit hub in a city this size? Where are the vendors, the running children, the pickpockets? My threat sensitive areas work double-time in this sort of place, because it has to be a trap, right? Fuck – pinch me – I’m making this all up. Must be. How can everyone stand to be encased in their private space bubbles to and from cacoons of work, home, fueled by fast food and pushed into ever faster forward?

The barriers we all put up, the public-private divide has grown, grows still, is now too wide for me to leap with these strangers – not for lack of trying. So many people, and I haven’t had a decent conversation with a complete stranger since Nashville and that was cheating – most of them were travelers or musicians. They’re in the eccentric circles, unfortunately don’t represent the world they wander. I’d call it a terrifying realization except that just in coming to this conclusion I also found a worse one – this capsulization, compartmentalization, wasn’t unnoticed or unintended by those around me: most everyone is full aware that they’ve isolated themselves – it’s a conscious decision based on unconscious fear and aversion to risk – America is scared shitless of the unknown, the new, the different, the weird. How can a nation, how can a people, a species survive if they all refuse to adapt to a shifting world?

It all comes back to fear – every story I tell to my traveler friends, to the wild web of dharma bums ends with affirmations, exhaltations of approval, happiness at my accomplishing new and wonderful – whatever it is! Everyone else, the stationary person, asks why and doesn’t understand how “why not?” is the only answer. Tapeworms and parasites scare and disgust, the different are mistrusted, it is the sort of gap as will always exist between those who have lived to the utmost in a moment and those who are afraid to struggle hard enough. Coming from my side, looks like a terrible and cruel fate living so, but they seem to be happy, content, and they’re utterly the same people when we’re together. It is I who have changed, grown wild.

Yet, I’m so happy to be around them, with my dysfunctional family and grown-up-without-me friends because when we’re together it works. We all still get along, interact like people who care about each other. When we reunite like my far-flung friends do whenever we can, like we just did, all is right, ridiculous, and familiar. I’ve been told they call this “stability” – been long enough that I don’t trust the feeling altogether. Comfort in chaos, tranquil when still, I can’t find anything but terror in this constant movement for the sake of movement. I’m wired backwards or everyone else is.

I wonder how people will be in 5 or 8 years when I’m still actively trying not to live their lives – I mean, they find my way of life unattractive too, right? Their desires for good jobs, good TV laughs, cars, clothes, full fridges – those all outweigh desire for the nomadic life I lead; otherwise they wouldn’t be living their way but mine instead! I mean, that’s why I live as I do – the perceived benefits beat out sacrifices for me, I feel contented – not complicated; this is just me acting in my own self-interest like anyone else. These rough crashes into the broke joke yoke are a sacrifice I choose to make so as to live this life. In that regard I imagine my friends have the same “glad I’m not in his shoes” thoughts I do when I try to picture myself as a hard-working, successful not-quite-young individual – car payments, 9 to 5, new possessions – it makes me shiver with aversion, so much greater is my pleasure in my chosen life. Surely they feel the same, right? It is all I can imagine – to have their lot is almost diametrically opposed to what I want, but they’re happy, and we’re all still friends – that’s all that matters, we’re still friends.

Never-random encounters with like minds tell me what I need: I’m not alone. At the train station, the few lingering souls help each other how we can. An older gentleman and his granddaughter come by, playfight, laugh unrestrained. The girl, 3 maybe 4, a miniature African princess in purple and pigtails approaches a woman sitting alone on the next bench, starts a cute kid conversation while hugging her leg. A heartwarming innocent’s smile. Kids don’t fear strangers, have no need. It’s not until later we’re taught distrust, fear, hate – kids do anything, everything until we tell them they’ll die, that the unknown is perilous, the new obscene. Why pretend the children are the only ones who need teaching? If we’re not careful, our myths and beliefs blind us to the world around.

Ten minutes later, a ready-made example of what’s going on in my head walks up and asks a favor. “Please tell me that wasn’t the train to San Diego that just left!” I assure her it isn’t before even looking up – truth is I’m pretty focused here and that train was probably going in the wrong direction, but – no, I’m right. And she’s pretty gorgeous in that way people are when the woman I still think about is so far away she might as well not exist. Desperation gorgeous. Lonely soul gorgeous. First attractive stranger in weeks who starts up a conversation with me gorgeous. “No, we need to be on the other platform,” I point it out with my lower lip, “I was just sitting here and too lazy to move yet.” I’m standing up now, shouldering the bag. “We’ll just walk around to the street, or you can take the tunnel behind you.” “Which one are you taking?” She asks uncertain. “The street – it’s not how we’re supposed to go, and I try to do that as much as possible.” Not much response to that. We walk around the black metal fence separating two platforms – her on the platform, me on the tracks.

“I don’t know when I last walked on train tracks,” outloud to myself, “it seems ludicrous I haven’t.” I get a disapproving stare – “I’m in heels.” she points out. “Too true – not great footwear for this.” and from there I’m playing balance games on the rails and she’s walking her businesslike clip to the benches. The couple I saw from across the way turns out on closer inspection to be a pair of homeless people – their shared shopping car of clothes, blankets, and whatever they deem necessary sits behind the seats, the man charges a cell phone while using it to play country rock songs while the woman sits on a bench reading a battered paperback. I dump my bag, toss jacket and shoes on the end bench and go over to sit with them both – say what you will about transients, but they rarely fail to be good conversationalists. My foil, the businesswoman, sits right next to my things on the end of the bench – she’d be sitting all the way at the corner except that I put things there first and so I grin inward watch the inner battle rage – repressed desire to be as far from horrible disgusting HOMELESS people on the one had, and the impotent ability to ask me to move my precious possessions – as if I gave a fuck about them. Here I am, holey garb and a bag of crap, and her purse outvalues everything I own. She purses her lips and slips in her earbuds – inaction and ignoring reality wins again. The rest of us have a hell of a talk as any humans ought – the overlaps between our lives outweigh the differences, a non-surprise to everyone except those who like to pretend they’re not human and play something, anything – better than facing one’s own unhappy reality.

Jerry and Dona, the two I met, are pretty interesting – Jerry has a cell phone, works when he has to, drifts when he doesn’t. “I’m taking it easy,” he tells me, “Probation ends soon, and I’ve only been out for eight months – nothing serious don’t worry! – and I have to keep it easy, you know? I’m just building things up at my own pace.” At my own pace – by my own standards, my rules – isn’t that what so many of us want, crave after, try to live through? It certainly seems to underly my life. Dona wants to know about me, what I’m doing, but first feels the need to warn me about the cops – “They watch from the other side of the tracks there, by the park. They’ll let us sit here a while, no problem, but if they see you do anything wrong, even walk on the tracks like you just did, that’s excuse to come pick you up. If you’re us, there’s always something – unpaid tickets, little things – that let them pull us off the streets, get us hidden away somewhere. Be careful.” There it is again, my privledge and curse – I can go anywhere in the civilized world, have the right slips of paper and know how to smile and hold myself and dress the right way – I can pass undetected in the world that disdains and tries to bury these people but I can never see how they live. I can never be in their shoes, and I will never be down and out, optionless, on the level they are, have been. I’m fortunate in the sense that it’s easier for me to live and blend in, I’ll never work so hard, but who is to say that their way is so bad? I’m cursed in that I’ll never see it, too busy will I be paying off debts of this other world – I actually can’t afford to be a bum! – what a crazy world.

Both smile, laugh, kid each other back and forth gently. Both tell me they’re living at their pace, are fortunate, live the lives they choose. Jerry and I share a glum look talking about the plight of those driven homeless in worse situations – East Coast bums have it harder than those in sunny Orange. They’re not glue-sniffing hopeless messes, but clean enough, presentable enough, to look innocuous – Suburban camoflage in a decidedly one-sided war. Who are the really fortunate? The businesswoman is showing frown lines and the officeworker complexion that never ought to be found in California, while the other three of us have good-natured grins etching themselves into sun-tanned faces. We’re aging happy, she’s going to work herself old and ugly. We talk about weather patterns and the joys of lying on the beach, and she’s wearing high heels and a short skirt – think it’ll get her promoted? Think the promotion will fill that empty space? Perhaps I’m just projecting my biases onto the world and seeing what I want. One thing is for sure – I melded minds with two saints of the slow life at the train station today, and the woman next to me saw a ratty crazy-haired kid holding powwow with urban savages. The trick is realizing and challenging your own biases – it’s comfortable and easy to pretend one set of rose-tinted glasses show the whole truth.

The train comes, I say goodbyes, lift my bag, we exchange friendly wishes. They both wave at me as I grab my bag and head for the door and somehow despite knowing each other for under half an hour, I feel like they’re friends – they get me anyway. The conductor greets me with a warm “Business class passengers only! You have to go to the other door down there.” – and so businesswoman and I take a walk. “Really know how to make people feel wanted,” I quip. “Just wait until I get in that train and they find out I AM business class!” she replies – haughty indignance. I laugh, settle in to the nearly empty coach on the beach side. Wouldn’t trade places with her either.

Barstool Jockey

March 5, 2010

There are some things you can’t talk to people about unless they already have experienced something similar. Actually, there are a lot of these things, and generally all of the people who have gone through them agree on the salient points. Find a group of young mothers and ask them about the experience of childbirth. Meet a group of former alcoholics and listen to their tales of quitting. Talk with some paragliders, or some surfers, or some X sport enthusiasts, and marvel at how much they all seem to agree on things related to that activity. Repeat ad nauseum.

Then there are travelers. They all have had wonderful experiences, incredible adventures, and shitlow days where nothing seemed worth a damn. Pretty much every one I’ve ever met has expressed their heartfelt desire to do as much traveling, wandering, exploring as they can in this life, and how they can’t wait for the next town/country/trip. None of them want to have a career, relationship, or situation that interferes with their wanderlust, at least “not yet.” Nothing is so important, so drawing, so engrossing as this crazy lifestyle they’re all stuck in, and it’s a secret that none of those poor working stiffs at home will ever understand because they just haven’t been here, haven’t felt this.

Then the travelers all go home, get steady jobs, fall in love, and get married. They pop out kids, take out a mortgage, buy a car, and they’re set in a completely different orbit. It’s like a rite of passage – go out there, see that there’s an alternative to the life you led, live it, love it, be changed forever, swear to never go back and get stuck, then go back and get stuck. Oh, and tell your stories – the ones that mean so much, the ones that shaped your entire life – to a bunch of people who will not get it, will never be quite able to understand what the fuck you’re talking about, nor why you keep telling the same tales over and over as the worry lines spread, as the drinks come one after another after another. Former travelers and bar stools seem well acquianted – like strippers and dollar bills, like rice and beans.

Not surprisingly I have no real desire, even at this late hour, to become another barstool jockey with that old fire dying. I’m sure I could settle down, get a respectable job, and start slowly dying – if I’m not careful, that’s less possible and more inevitable. It takes a lot of work to remain free and mobile. The thing is, there’s no profit in freedom, adventure, rabble-rousing, or doing anything that don’t sell other things. There’s a way for me to fund my travels, probably forever – travel writing, hawking bracelets or artwork or small gizmos to tourists – but I can’t be fucked with to do that, because to me those things are just a different level of the same soul-salesmanship that epitomizes modern existence.

How much is your life worth? That’s the real question being asked when you look for a job, and answered whenever you accept a paycheck or do anything for profit. How much am I willing to sell a chunk of my existence for? For most of us, that isn’t much. When I worked in Honduras, it was $5 a day, plus a bed in a concrete hovel and three squares. In Guatemala about $200 a month and all the leftovers and booze I could sneak. Was I happy with it? No, not really. Not when I thought about it. Thing is, I didn’t think about it much because the other rewards of my life – being in amazing cities, swimming in phosphorescent seas, watching volcanoes erupt from my rooftop and living in foreign lands surrounded by amazing strangers – all made up for the shit pay, and on top of that, life was cheap as dirt. The ability to leave town right now, no notice beyond “I quit”, no more time required than packing a backpack and walking to the bus terminal – none of those hurt either.

Now I’m back stateside and the question looms but the answer is going to be a little more problematic. The rub is that I’m losing every perk – the sense of adventure, the foreign travelers, the ability to tell my future boss to shove this job up his ass as I walk. I’m facing a looming mountain of credit card debt, an awful job market in a city I’ve never really enjoyed living in, and I’m going to lose my biggest advantage, which was being from a far-off land surrounded as all of the foreign travelers and locals that sustained me through the rough times. In Central America everything about me was as exotic, wild, and different as I wanted it to be. My flight and inability to stay put were seen as assets – my refusal to put up with bullshit jobs, my dirty clothes and scruffy look were all admirable to those around me. I was desired, looked up to, praised for my lifestyle. Once I get home I’m nothing – just another post-college bum, broke and hungry, with an awful resume and a useless college degree. Stories and adventures aren’t looked too highly upon here. To say I’m not looking forward to it would be like saying cattle going into the meat factory weren’t much looking forward to the future either.

That’s why I’m think about that former traveler, lined, resigned, fire dead inside, sitting quietly on his barstool. In the near future I’ll be him, unless I’m careful. It shouldn’t be so god damned difficult to live without selling yourself, without giving up your values, hopes, and dreams for a dollar. Especially when that dollar is just going toward the things you need to live.

Who really profits, when it comes down to it? Those business executives, the ones everyone hates for their massive salaries and crazy bonuses are working 100 hours a week straight from school to heart attack, going through their divorces, never seeing their children until they plop over spent and dead. They’re not winning. The burger cooks and maids and strawberry pickers get the shit hours, the family problems, the health destroyed, and don’t even have the pay to show for it – they’re definitely not coming out on top. What about the guy in the middle? He’s working all day, gets his two weeks off, might even be able to skip out of town to go skiing once in a while. Still, he’s underwater on his mortgage, going further in to pay for little Jimmie or Juanita’s college in a couple years, doesn’t get to see the piano recital or the ballgame, and is one paycheck or a broken muffler from falling into poverty. I don’t see him coming out on top either.

Perhaps the guy doing best is the one sitting on a street corner in ragged clothes, singing to himself as he watches everyone rush off to their deaths. He might be the only one who sees the joke. I mean, people are GIVING him free money sometimes, pitying glances, and he’s the only one free to do as he pleases – it would make Kafka smile. Sure, he’s never going to have the nice vacation home, he’ll never get to visit the fancy restaurants, and he certainly won’t make the “25 most influential people of 2010” but have you seen how much Barack Obama has died in a year? The man has aged a decade and a half since he began running for the office! Every action has a price, every movement, everything we do – I’m halfway, barely joking about the bums profiting most from society being as it is. What use is there in having so much, so many nice things, if you spend all of the best parts of your life striving for more, for better, so that you can spend the dimming years in relative, threadbare comfort?

Why not just live yourself ragged, die a few decades earlier, and have something beautiful to show for it? A successful shoe company? A lifetime sales award? Employee of the month? A BMW and a stamp collection? ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?! What use is any of that, what value can it possibly bring you? A poem written on a torn-off piece of a cardboard box has more value in it than any of those things. A kiss at sunrise on a rooftop – priceless. The look a girl gives you as you help her pick up the spilled items from her purse is worth more than any CEO’s pay can buy. There is nothing good, nothing valuable, nothing helpful that comes from the work 99.9% of us do, and yet we all carry on, all push ahead, so that we keep consuming, multiplying, dividing.

Isn’t that what a cancer does? Pushes on ahead, grows, spreads, regardless of the health of the organism or of the system? Perhaps human society has gone cancerous. Perhaps we’re not good any more, have become the very root of the problem. Granted, we need to survive, but does DSL cable, fast food hamburgers, or suburban sprawl really even out against the destruction necessary for any of it? You can’t have modern America if you don’t have modern Haiti – the two must coexist or neither can. Sub-Saharan Africa, for all her woes, is the Siamese twin of Los Angeles, Beijing, and Rio. Those of us on the upper end don’t see it much, but every excess, every luxury we have comes from somewhere else – somewhere there are children starving so that kids in America can eat greasy french fries. This is a zero-sum game, just like selling your time for money, but at much larger scale.

There is X amount of Oil, Y amount of water, Z amount of arable farmland. Every resource has a true value balanced against a limited quantity, and that reality of limits must factor into any discussion of worth. If we factored in the true cost of burning one gallon of the only fossil fuels we have, fossil fuels that cannot be replaced, do you think it would really cost $3.50 a gallon? $10 a gallon? Give me a break – how much do you think the last gallon of oil will sell for? The same can be said of clean water, just look at the water wars that Bolivians were going through a couple years back! Likewise for everything on the planet – at a certain level there is a finite quantity of everything we depend on, because we only have this planet as yet – until we start mining the universe for raw materials, that is a fact.

If we were smart we’d start thinking about what we really need to survive – not video games, not new clothes, not the latest iFuckstick – food, water, shelter, power, medicines, community. Those are things we really, truly need, and so of course those are the things that have such ridiculously suppresed values. Growing food isn’t glamorous, doesn’t pay well, and so nobody even knows where their dinner comes from. It’s cheaper to import it – labor from Central America, off-season foods from the Southern Hemisphere. The true cost of growing a tomato in Chile, packing it in a box, shipping it to the US, and then selling it to me in the middle of NYC should include the environmental impact of every step, just like the true price of one hour working in that dead-end sales job ought include the one hour less you have alive. Why doesn’t it?

For starters, such a revaluation would blow the shit out of everyone’s investments – what sane person would buy a house in the suburbs if gas sold for its real value? Who would ever work at or support one of those big-box superstores? Nobody. The US economy would collapse as the service sector was seen as the useless circlejerk that it is, and the world economy would follow. There wouldn’t be a market for luxury goods if we were serious about saving resources. There would be no fall fashion, no seasonal sales to pump up the numbers. There would rations – life would become a whole lot poorer, dirtier, labor-intensive. The US would have to stop consuming 25% of what the world consumes in a year. Things would be a whole lot less routine, and we’d have to start living as if our actions actually meant a damn thing. A lot could change, and to say it would unpredictable is an understatement at the very least.

That would be uncomfortable. That would be scary. Thus, everyone with a vested interest in the current order of things – be that a house, a fat 401k, or just a truck and an apartment in the city – has a stake in things staying as they are now. Or at least, that’s how it appears on the surface. The guys in the nice seats in front class, with beverage service and the hot air stewardesses have every reason in maintaining the current system right up until the airplane nosedives into the ground. Almost everyone in the US fits that metaphor – we’ll be doing great right up until our brains go through the ass of the guy in front of us. If we were smart, if we were looking ahead, if we thought about what we were really doing, we’d probably all sell our cars and plant a garden, or move off to a place less utterly dependant on scarce resources and imports. I’m not holding my breath…

The wizened old traveler slumps forward on his stool, the glass nearly empty in front of him. The barkeep, a fresh looking kid from another country, stands polishing a glass in front of him. “Another mack?” A shake of his head nearly sends the sodden chap onto the floor. “No thanks – I’ve had too many. We’ve all had one too many.” The bar is nearly empty now, the few remaining patrons all in shit shape and on their way out.

“Say man, whatever happened that stopped you from doing all that crazy traveling you talk about? It seems like you really loved what you were doing, and if you’re still talking about it now, you must regret giving it up.”

“I didn’t give it up – it ended because it had to. There’s not really any way to sustain that sort of life unless you’re born rich or get lucky and inherit some dough. That’s part of the tragedy of it all – you find this life, so beautiful, so rich, so utterly fulfilling and free, and then you have to go back to another one that you don’t agree with, that you hate even. You swear you’re only going to work until you can get out, until you can save up a bit and blow this joint, that you’ll never give in, that you’ll never sell out like all the other suckers.” A tilt of the glass, and it’s empty now.

“So what happened?”

“Same thing that happens to everyone. I fell in love, got stuck in the job. Once I had a kid I wasn’t going anywhere soon, and then the years just fly by with the drink. Now – shit. I don’t think I’d even know how to travel like I used to. You won’t find me wearing a backpack and hitchhiking, that’s for sure.”

“Pretty tragic.”

“You can say that again.”

“Pretty tragic.”

“Hah, fuck off! I’ll see you tomorrow night.”

“Take care of yourself out there.”

The old man staggers out, pauses with a hand on the doorframe and slowly turns back over his shoulder. “You think you’re different, that you’re young, and you’re smart, and you won’t fall into the same traps I did. You might be right, but if you’re going to succeed you need to be relentless – to follow what you want even when it doesn’t make any sense, even when it goes against everything your friends and family say, even when it nearly kills you. Eventually, it will kill you – doesn’t matter what it is, it will eventually knock you down and you won’t get up that time. Just make sure that whatever kills you is worthwhile. That’s the only way you won’t waste your life.”

And with that he’s gone, out the door into the misty night. The young bartender shakes his head, wipes another glass, and smiles to himself. Life goes on, and there’s work he needs to do. Why worry about the ramblings of washed-up old men?

Word Vomit

February 15, 2010

I am a part of everything, and everything is a part of me. Every smile, every cloud, every rock, every plant, every living thing that has ever or ever will exist on Earth shares common heritage with me, with you. We’re of the same cloth, sewn together with common thread, interdependent in a way that we can scarcely fathom. We exist in unison because none of us could exist alone. Don’t fall into your own hype with that batshit stupid lie of independence being desirable, or even possible – if you thought about it, you’d see how ridiculous that is. How can you even claim to support yourself when your air, water, soil came from the world that nurtures you? We are still children, the human race. Bad children in some ways, defiling our home, abusing our siblings. The world that supports us, our loving mother, is too kind to punish us directly, letting us instead come to our logical end, but that doesn’t give us right to act as we do, so callous, so stupidly, without responsibility for ourselves or our world.

We’re so solitary that it makes me scream.

I haven’t the voice to scream much longer.

This is my last gasp.

I’m falling from grace, grasping at the beautiful dream, struggling to pick up the shattered pieces, to fit them back together. It’s no use – I’ve lost the picture, can’t even remember what it was that drew me in in the first place. Nothing left to do but sweep it all into a pile and bin the whole mess. Start over. That’ll help – no use clinging to what was, what might have been. I pretend not to be sentimental, but that doesn’t stop me from slipping one glinting shard into my pocket and carrying on as if nothing has happened. I’m not so stupid as to abandon my own memories, my past. Later, in my room, in the dark, I take the piece out, run my fingers over the edges, trace the small lines and imperfections. There are so many lines, so many imperfections – the flaws are what make this life and not an image of the same.

The edges are sharp.

I cut my finger on the bitter one.

The bleeding lets me know I still live.

Sucking my finger I hobble to the sink, throw open the cabinet – need to staunch this flow, it will only weaken me if I let it all out. I must keep some of this in. Christ, where is a towel? And what happened to that piece of memory I was playing with? Cut forgotten, I have to find that shard of my past! I’m digging frantically through the bed, through my messy filthy present. It’s gone, no matter how I look, and now I’m stumbling drunken back to the bathroom, collapsing at the toilet, spilling my guts to the porcelain god. Purging myself of everything, of all of it. Every fond memory, every small hope, all the heartbreak, the joy, the anger and fear. There She went too, down into the dirty white bowl. I can’t keep it in, can’t hold onto it any longer.

It ends now.

Everything must end.

Yet nothing truly does.

How could I have been so stupid? What was I thinking, trying to run away from myself, from the life I led, from the entire human condition? What an idiot! And aren’t I even worse now, trying to avoid it at the end of all? At least when this started I didn’t know it had to come full circle! Now, knowing beyond certainty, with the dates and destinations carved oracle-like into stony future, I’m just being pathetic. Of course it’s all gone. Of course I can’t remember the brilliant bits. Why would I think myself that special? I’m not – if I’ve learned anything from this it is that I am, you are, we all are nothing special, nothing to write home about, all the same. That doesn’t make me any less likely to do so, to marvel at insignificant and trivial, to fall in love with us, with you, with her and her and also her. Does it make me crazy or a genius to keep hoping, keep pretending, keep living as if this actually matters? No, it just makes me human – self-delusion is essential to surviving the human condition.

We hope to keep from cutting our own throats.

I hope it won’t be too late before I get there.

She’s hoping she won’t be later then she already is.

If I sit here and try to think rationally, calmly, orderly, I freak the fuck out. Chills up the spine, sweating, biting my lip as I fight to ride out the stormy seas of terror I’ve been heaved into. A job, a “normal life”, a steady, regular existence… I’d rather get my teeth knocked in. I don’t desire it, that life – it’s too sterile, too artificial, too saccharine for me. I’d rather go live in a hut somewhere, work the fields, hitchhike and walk my way across the planet, go from place to place on foot with nothing then have the largest mansion, the biggest staff, the richest and most powerful friends. The moral bankruptcy and hopelessness of life like that disgusts me. I’ll vomit it all up, the fakeness, life in plastic. People are afraid to do or say what they really want because of how it might be perceived, and how it might hurt them later. “How will the boss, the neighbors, the PTO, the bourgeois pencil pushers see me?” outweighs what truly satisfies, robs life of joy. Yes, they might judge you, but who cares?

As if they all didn’t wish they could do the same.
They would if they could.

They would if they weren’t stupid with fear.

I tried to escape it, still am fighting, and yet now I’m going right back into the belly of the beast, the center of self-aggrandizing, mental masturbation, and voracious consumption. If you think I’m going to settle down, settle in, tune out, well then you don’t know me quite well enough. I’ll fight as best I can, not against their bullshit or their rules, but for my own survival – I can’t live like that again. It’s not some dramatic pledge, just the realization that I was dying before when I thought I was living, and I’ll die in inches if I try again. To live my own way isn’t some sort of choice any longer – compromising values deep held is betrayal of the self – and really it never was. It’s just that I didn’t realize it before, too wrapped as I was in what I thought was important. I never lived, just died my way through life.

One inch at a time, I slowly die.

Every joy denied.

Each desire unsatisfied.

I wipe my mouth, sit back on my heels. The worst is past, the bleeding slowed. I’ll be ok. Thank whoever, I’ll get through this. I didn’t lose the good bits anyway, just shared some of my insides. I can afford to share those, even if it is just with the toilet. Stumble back to the room, and I realize now I haven’t lost anything – it isn’t really possible. Sure, I can’t look back on it and chart day by triumph by joy by ecstasy by laugh; but that’s not worth two shits except as a nice story to tell people. I can’t carry this life with me, don’t have a printed list, but I have it with me always in the way that I exist. The things I do, the thoughts I have, the very breaths I take are part of it – going back isn’t going back at all – at least, not in the sense that I’ll be headed back to the life I left there. Sure, I’ll be in the same places, the same spaces, the same groups and family and ties, but that doesn’t mean I’ll possibly be the same me that I was then!

It won’t be easy.

Was it ever?

I just hid it better then.

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