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.

 

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Kalahari Capitalism

November 6, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-k

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

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?

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.

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.

Confession

March 24, 2010

From my notebook, 2-2-10:

I confess that I have lived. That I have been. That I have seen. I confess that I have done. That I have laughed, and cried, and run. I confess, that I am me, and I am real, and I can see. I confess that this is true, and ask – not forgiveness – but that all might try to do as me. -k

And then some phone pictures:

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