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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The Situation Thus Far

April 16, 2010

Dramatic title, I know.  Really, I just need to write something, anything here and I’m sick of being negative so I’ve by and large refrained from posting anything at all.  It’s hard all over, as the saying goes, and I’m trying not to spread my black moods any further than I absolutely must.

It’s difficult.

There’s a lot I’d like to write about, but without a resolution I really can’t make a story of it.  I’m going to give it a shot anyway, but it’ll probably come out sadder than intended.  No matter – I’m home, got here 3 weeks ago give or take, and I’ve finally carved out a niche in the ole’ homestead.  My room, the one that was mine 5 years ago before I moved out, had become the storage warehouse, semi-permanent office, guest room, and who knows what else.  When I first got here it felt kind of like moving into a mausoleum to my childhood – old trophies, diplomas, bags and boxes I never unpacked; the whole schebang.

Try moving back into your parent’s house after being a wandering bum for a year plus – it’s like attending and presiding over your own funeral, the one everyone else skipped.  I couldn’t do the “here’s your whole old life, the one you never were all that excited about and now can’t stand” thing at first – just getting up was paralyzing.  I’d wake up surrounded by boxes and just close my eyes again, hoping the next time I opened them I’d be in Colombia or Guatemala or even my shithole casitita in Honduras.  No avail.

Still, I’m not so hopeless as to be controlled by my own mess – I just kept living out of my backpack the last weeks as I tore the hell out of the room – shoved 20 years of kids books, schoolwork, paintball shwag, boxes, bins, photo organizers, sacks, socks, dressers into “attic,” “donate,” “toss” piles and now I’m sitting quite happily in a room that is pretty much the cleanest in the whole house  so long as I ignore that one corner where all the art supplies I don’t know how to deal with are.

The hallway full of pillows, blankets, TVs, monitors, and boxes also requires a certain blind eye…  Small victory, but it was weeks in coming.

In this atmosphere I need the small ones to keep me sane, because the big ones just aren’t coming.  I came home to a warzone – there is just no nice way of saying it.  Parents not talking to kids, one brother locking himself in his room all day and wandering the house all night.  Arguments in proxy, anger and fear and hopelessness everywhere.  The love was gone, and nobody seemed to be looking for it.  I hadn’t realized just how bad things were until I was thrust into the middle of it all.  Things are bad.  They were worse when I got here.  That’s my small victory.  Talking is still minimal, there are still angry outbursts, a recent death in the family, our car  carrier trailer got stolen, things are broken and nobody has time to fix them… It’s rough, but we’re making due, and that crucial family cohesion is coming back bit by bit.  Doesn’t make me feel any less of a shithead for leaving right as things started going downhill.

The job hunt is a joke.  Every day I throw applications into the abyss, expecting fully that they’ll never return.  Once every few days I get a near-automated response and that cruel mockery just sends me raging.  Nobody is hiring.  I’m damaged goods in the eyes of corporate America – all the same things that made me an ideal employee in the traveler world, being bilingual, having a wide variety of experiences, being adventurous and open-minded – those all work against me here.  “You left before,” the unspoken accusation, “why would you stick around in our awful entry-level positions that sap the life out of you for peanuts?”

Good point.  Why would I?

The ball and chain.

A credit card debt bomb, fuse slowly inching down, sits at my feet.  Frantic actions are being taken, giant Hurt Locker-esque suits being donned.  Chase is dumb enough to offer me another credit card, zero percent for a year?  Guess what BofA?  Fuck Y’all I’m going with the cop out!  Cain in Nicaragua, eat your heart out – this is your debt-rodeo riding strategy to a T.  Small victories.  Still, with no income the minimum payment is a wall of solid granite looming, and my steering is locked, brakes are out.  I’m heading for a collision and can’t keep my head above water.

Postponing the inevitable, hoping for an out – I feel like that’s all I see going on around me these days.

People are really fucking grim!  We don’t smile in the USA, not on the level of slum kids or homeless men, nor on the level of street tailors or beggars in the streets of Nicaragua.  We’re so unhappy that I can’t help but feel it – a one-two punch in the gut – hollow eyes and a frown as you drive past.  Nobody walks, the people live inside in Southern California, in the beautiful sun.  It’s all just so foreign to me, I can’t bear it.  Where are the adventurers?  Where are the rebels?  What happened to the happiness of being broke and outside, the joy that comes with just doing nothing?  The people here don’t have it.  They wear rebel T-shirts made in sweatshops, listen to the indie bands in the cars they still owe payments on, keep their eyes straight ahead and heads down – don’t make any sudden movements.  It’s like everyone is on their tiptoes because daddy is drinking and we don’t want to make him angry.

I’m such an outsider now that I can’t even find people to talk to about these sorts of observations.  The vast majority don’t notice because they’ve never known anything different, the few who do are cowed into submission by the sheer mass of the topic – “Things sure are fucked up around here there days, aren’t they?” – you have to sneak into discussing the topic, slide around the edges, paint the elephant’s toenails but for fuck’s sake don’t anyone point out that he’s standing here in the room with us!  There’s just a general desire to turn a blind eye to the basic truth of what’s going on here.

Americans have forgotten what it means to be free.

Freedom requires danger, and we’re so risk-adverse that we’d rather run to our trucks than set off fireworks in a field.  I’m looking at you, guys who fled the festivities a couple nights ago because we fired 2, two, dos, one-two rockets off into the air!  BANG theeeeewwwwBOOM and that’s it.  The police might come, sure, but if you’re so worried about the cops finding you and arresting you for shooting off firecrackers that you actually bail a party…  What’s the point of living any longer?  You’re worried about losing your job?  Perhaps the question needs to be asked – where have all the jobs gone, that you are so terrified of losing yours?  Where did those bailout funds go, if not to keep Americans employed?  Why do the top 10% own 50% of the wealth?  Where’s my bailout?  Hard questions, but until we look at root causes we’re just going to permit our government to give the rest of our money to the rich.  So long as we’re divided, so long as we’re convinced the poor are the ones getting handouts, we’ll never question the order of things.

My brother freaked out at me the other day for giving a handful of change to a dirty guy sitting on the freeway offramp.  “Please.  I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t need it.” reads the sign.  “Thanks brother,” he says, the first real smile I’ve seen in a  week on his lips.  “You have no idea how little people give these days.”  My brother next to me yells – “Don’t give him all that!  Look at all those quarters!  He’s faking it, he could just get a job  if he needed money.”  I see his eyes, hard and dark, and think of long days  spent smoking cigarettes and drinking instant coffee to keep the belly full.  He doesn’t get it – he’s never known anything else – the TV tells him that the homeless are dangerous, the beggars all fakes and liars, and who is he to think otherwise.  We all believe our programming until we step outside of it and see the Potemkin village for what it is.  Fear, anger, ignorance, bred on lies and false histories – I  can’t help but feel that this place is going down down down unless some voice of reason and sanity can step in.  The racism and rah-rah USA blow up dem terrist undercurrent is terrifying.

If Barack Obama can be tarred as a socialist (hahahaha really?  Fucking hell…) and Justice Stevens as a liberal lion, then Ronald Reagan becomes some champion of the left, because he was more liberal than both of them.  He was a crazy right-wing nutjob in his day, and now he’s to the political left of Barack Obama.  What hope is there for reason and honest discussion when the far-right party is being tarred as socialist by the fascists?  I think Frank Llewellyn wins my heart today by pointing out on CNN that Sarah Palin was the most socialistic candidate in the 2008 elections.  I only wish that more Americans would get outside the states and see what a real live socialist looks like in the wild.  Err wait, as I was told recently “I don’t care what they do outside the country – they’re not Americans!”  Right, you get em.  The old jingoism still knocks me for a loop when I see it.

Remember when I said I wasn’t going to get super-depressing and ragey  in this?  Whoops.

The shining light of this whole return has come from a good friend I knew since Kindergarten.  He and I have taken up hiking, bouldering, free rock climbing, and just hanging out – it’s pretty much all that keeps me sane these days.  When you’re 10-15 feet up a rock wall with nothing between you and hard ground except that knobby rock in your hand and crack you wedged your left foot into, there’s no thinking.  There’s no debate.  Only action remains at that point, only exertion and climbing and breathing and the next move.  It’s my style too – personal accomplishment, no point to it really, and it requires a certain strain of insanity that I find rather endearing.  Endorphins, Adrenaline, a healthy dose of fear, sweat; shake over ice and serve cool.  It’s the sort of cocktail I’m all about these days, given that I’m too broke to buy booze.  Ah well, I could do to be healthy for a while.  That’s the happy-haps for me now, and yes, I really just did write “happy-haps.”  Sometimes it’s just one person or one small gesture that makes all the difference.  I only hope mine work so well.

Oh, and the internet is EVERYWHERE.  Seriously strange.  I’d gotten so used to it being tiny little pockets strewn across the world like gems, and now there’s a 10 foot wide deadzone in the far end of the house and everyone complains.  Funny stuff.

Dumb American Encounters

March 30, 2010

Two weeks ago Thursday night, or perhaps Friday morning by the time we made our acquaintance, I met a fantastic specimen, one of those people who truly gives you pride in the species and hope for the future. Here’s a story that reflects poorly on just about everyone involved:

It starts out quite innocently – I wake up in the gutted Airstream trailer that I’ve been calling home for my stay in Nashville only to find a group of people sitting in the room playing cards, drinking, and talking. It looks like fun, so despite my waning drunkenness – oncoming hangover looming like storm clouds – I drag myself out of bed, slip into my jeans, stumble over to join them, shaking my head cold away. I have no idea what time it is, but since I fell asleep (passed out hard) around 9pm after playing beer pong all afternoon it must have been later than that. Squinting in the dim light of a tableside lamp, I meet my new roommates – Matt, my travel buddy from NYC; Melissa, the girl I was speaking Spanish-French-bullshit at yesterday; and this new guy Adam whom I’ve never met before, but soon learn is Welsh and lives in town. Cool, friends made, lets play a game.

We’re sitting around, playing Shithead (fabulous card game, we’ll play it sometime) and drinking wine out of the bottle as everyone at the table slips further into a progressive drunken stupor. Matt goes down first, doesn’t say anything, just shakes his head at the wine, wanders slowly to bed and throws himself into it. One down. Melissa for whatever reason isn’t calling it quits, has all the energy in the world perhaps because she wasn’t out drinking with us earlier that day – we’re too stupid to dance but it doesn’t stop us from trying and failing, and Adam eventually gets sick of watching us fall over each other and announces he’s leaving. Fine, cool, party is over. He goes out, we’re sitting at the table again talking about something probably very profound, and I’m playing that game where I realize my eyes have gone somewhat out of focus and I can’t make them come back again. I’m mere minutes from a facedown collapse at this point. Did I mention drunkenness plays a part in this story?

Adam comes back – his car is blocked in and he wants to know who owns that black Toyota in the parking lot. No ideas here – I came with Matt, Melissa flew into town for her research project – but we come outside to “help” anyhow. It is goddamn fucking cold out. I have flip-flips on. My flippy floppies have holes the size of quarters in each heel and are held together with dental floss. The ground is gravel, and it’s drizzling out. This is a profoundly bad idea. I offer to help guide Adam between the parked cars, we almost make it, but the mirrors aren’t going to fit and whoever parked this car did a fantastic job of blocking everyone else in. We’re going to have to move it somehow. At this point, we’ve two really bad choices – we, a pile of drunks, can either go door to door through the hostel, wake up every room one by one, and find the owner by sheer process-of-pissing-everyone-off, or we can find a way to move the car ourselves, presumably by sorcery or something.

That’s when the two Danish guys show up seemingly from thin air. More bad ideas: five people, one small hatchback – how tough can this really be? We start our investigation. All doors are locked. The car is in gear. The car is heavy. We can’t push it, lift it, pull it. People start swearing. “This fucking sucks,” someone says. I agree. People smoke cigarettes, kick rocks. Adam looks grim. It’s cold. Melissa decides to be the voice of reason and suggest waking everyone up again – forty-five minutes, an hour perhaps has passed, why don’t we just find the driver and wake them up? She’s nice enough to not add “dumbasses” to the end, and even phrases it like a question. Future diplomat this one. Nobody has a better idea, so Melissa and I pick a door at random and wake up the occupants of the room.
What a champ this girl – a born bearer of bad news – she just starts knocking like a drug bust and apologizing in that “get the fuck up, no I’m not kidding” sort of way I now associate with New York girls. I stand aside and watch with a grin – it’s pretty clear I’m not needed here, so why get in the way of someone’s fun? Melissa goes into a room that I’m pretty certain is full of Florida college girls in town for spring break – probably not our driver, since the car appeared tonight, but I’ve already decided to stay out of the action. Sure enough, five minutes pass and we leave apologetically. Not our driver.

Another room – no one answers the drug-bust knocking, so Melissa kicks it up a notch – “EXCUSE ME! We’re looking for the driver of a black Toyota hatchback. You need to move your car!” She could have given that clipboard wielding woman in Antigua a decent competition. I’m not up to fill in for the five gunmen backup, but it doesn’t really matter because after a minute she’s inside talking to someone, and then back out on the porch where I’m hopping from foot to foot and trying to stay relevant. Failing that also. Melissa tells me she’s found our elusive driver, and she smokes a Marlboro as I pretend not to crave one. Sure enough a woman – mid-20s, short hair, five foot and a bit, hastily dressed and ready to murder – comes out in a couple minutes and walks toward the parking lot. Mission accomplished, I guess, and not a moment too soon. It is quite definitely bedtime.

Wrong on that one.

Turns out that it isn’t bedtime, but in fact time to get bitched out by an angry person – one of my favorite ways to spend the midnight hours. Now bear in mind, my involvement in this whole circus shitshow has been pretty minimal up until this point – I’ve been dragged out of a drunken stupor, tried and failed to guide a car out of the lot, failed to open car doors, failed to move a car, failed to find the right room full of people to wake up, and sat outside in the cold for far too long simply because it seemed mean to go inside when everyone else was out in the cold. About all I’ve done correctly has been to recognize I’m being useless and step aside. So what happens?

I get yelled at. A lot. It starts like this – Melissa has finished her cig, we’re saying goodnights and going to bed. Right about there our long-lost driver walks up, looking like she’s about to stab someone. “Excuse me! Were you the ones who touched my car?” No. “Those people over there (pointing at the parking lot) said you messed with my car.”

“Well, I’m sorry – nobody here did anything to your car. I tried to guide the other driver out…”

“There was no way to guide another car out past mine!”

“Yeah, I figured that out that the hard way.” Sassing her was a great idea, by which I mean a great way to get your face bitten off. She yelled at me for a while, accused me of putting butt prints on her car and drawing a penis on the windshield. “Someone wrote the world ‘idiot’ on it also – that’s vandalism.” Right there I’m just not willing to put up with this sort of bullshit any longer.

“That’s not vandalism, that’s someone writing in the dust on your car.”

“I could call the cops on you for that!”

“Do it. Call the police. I’ll wait right here.”
“I will!”

“Good. It’s better than having this fucking stare-off and wasting the whole night. Just go call the police. Tell them I drew a penis in the dust on your car. Go.”

“Now you’re admitting to it!”

This ridiculousness goes on for a while. She’s shouting, I’m being a dick, and Melissa is standing off to one side trying to be reasonable. Truth is I didn’t write on her car, but that’s no longer the point of contention – now we’re talking vandalism – VANDALISM – charges, police involvement, all because of finger drawings in the dust on a car, which itself is due to some dumbass who couldn’t park without blocking in someone else’s car in. I love getting into these sorts of situations – it’s like that old saying “no good turn goes unpunished” come to life and spitting in my eye. Fuck it, at least that’s over with, right?

Wrong on that as well.

The next morning I’m up late on account of the drinking and festivities. Oh yeah, that and the shitkicker of a thunderstorm from the night before. If you’ve ever thought that you’d felt a raging storm, I recommend spending the next one in an all-metal box – it feels like you’re inside a great big drum, rain smashing down on the roof, and the reverb off that thunder is pretty intense – add in the ball-ascending cold and you have a real winner of a bedroom. Suffice it to say I didn’t sleep much. It’s just about all I can do to get out of that frigid trailer in the morning. I can’t find shoes. Fuck it – common room, morning grunts, hellos, and jokes. The world is as I left it. A hot shower brings me back to life. Coffee and Ibuprofen – breakfast of champions. Random morning chatter with the other hostel guests. Another day slowly rears its head.

I’m just coming around to the idea of seizing the day or at least facing it without grimacing when my new best friend walks in the door and immediately gives me the stinkeye. And who is with her? The hostel owner, a guy named Ron who very clearly likes me based on his decision to put me out in the trailer park. Fuck my life. “K, we need to talk.” Ron says, “this woman says you vandalized her car.” The whole room gives me looks that say “a vandal! We all just thought he partied too hard and told over-exaggerated stories! How could we have let a CRIMINAL into our midst!?” It’s all I can do to keep from laughing. How do I get into this sort of stuff?

We three head outside and there on the porch Ron – with full seriousface – recites my heinous crimes. “This woman says you drew on her car last night, wrote words on it in the dust.” She breaks in – “And he drew a penis!” I try to just let them talk, hopefully let them see the humor in their own words, but no, not happening. I broach a few questions – is the writing still there? “No, it rained last night.” Well, if it washed away in the rain, how can you claim I vandalized your car? “It was there. I saw it.” How do you know it was me? “Those boys said you did it.” What boys? “The ones from last night! You knew them, stop lying!” It goes circular and makes the brain mushy– I’ll spare you the play by play.

After a few minutes she repeats her threat to call the police on me, and I tell her she’s welcome to. Ron tells me vandalism is a serious matter and I tell him that it certainly is, but that people drawing in the dust on car windows doesn’t qualify, especially after a rainstorm. They both accuse me of not taking the situation seriously, and I tell them both to fuck off, call the cops, and to please put it on speaker so I can hear the dispatcher:

Dispatcher: Hell 911, what is your emergency?

Dumbfucking American: This man wrote a penis in the dust on my car.

Dispatcher: Marm, do you realize we are the police? We handle real emergencies, like people dying.

It probably doesn’t help that I pantomime this to them, complete with cartoony voices, but the satisfaction… worth it. There’s a lot more yelling, accusations, at one point this woman starts crying when I tell her she has no idea what hardship is in life and compare her quite favorably to a teenager huffing paint fumes in the third world to stay warm at night. Ron threatens to kick me out of the hostel, the woman swears she will never come back again. Somehow it all calms back despite my laughing and saying “someone drew a PENIS on her car, and she wants me arrested for vandalism. Do you live in a fantasy world?” repeatedly to Ron. I am not being helpful. The police are never called. Ron gives up and swears he’ll get to the bottom of it. I go out to lunch with the guys.

Matt is driving, Stephen who never was in this story before right now is with us. We laugh about whatever the fuck drives people to throw hissy fits in their mid-20s. “Who do you think did it man?” Mat asks. I have no idea – I never even saw the writing. We let it slide until we pick Adam up from work and head toward the local Tex-Mex joint. “Hey Adam, did you ever see who drew on that woman’s car last night? She went nuts and is trying to get K arrested.”

“Nah man, never saw it – I mean, I was pissed, I kicked her car a couple of times for blocking me in, but I didn’t bother to write on it. Must have been those Danish guys.”

The mystery is never solved. The Danes left that morning early – if it was them, so much the better. Dumb American left the hostel before we got back, and Ron didn’t mention it again. Life went on. I gained a fun story about overvaluing the petty and holding your tongue. I probably won’t apply the second lesson as well as I wish I could – stupid is pretty hard to ignore when it’s concentrated and focused my direction. And that’s the story of my first dumb American encounter in a while– hopefully I won’t have too many sequels soon.

Alone in the Crowd

March 3, 2010

What is it about these cities that makes them so similar, leave me feeling so nearly identical despite their unique identities? Each maintains its own culture, own customs, traditions, and architecture – so many places, so many different interactions, such a wide range of experiences. Every city is its own world. Yet every city I’ve ever been in makes me feel the same. I’ve been in San Jose or Bogota, Guatemala City, Bucaramanga, or Tegucigalpa, and had the same thoughts and feelings as in Los Angeles, New York, or San Francisco.

People in cities act the same – not all of them, but enough so that I notice. They’re busy, driven, motivated to do things I can only guess at, moving through life from point A to point F, and they can’t be bother to acknowledge the existence of any points B through ZZ in between. I dimly remember a psychological study from a few years ago, where people would be asked to walk between various places, under different levels of distraction, and somewhere in the middle a clown in full makeup would ride a unicycle across their path while juggling. Most people didn’t notice it even happen, especially those on their cell phones or told to hurry. People are so focused and busy that they can’t be bothered with or distracted by anyone around them. I feel like I’m the clown in most cities – holey clothes, a big bag, this goofy grin and that stupid curly mop on my head. Nobody even bats an eye. Perhaps if I did handstands…

It’s relieving sometimes, I won’t lie. There are times when I just want to be hidden in plain view, and I won’t pretend to be alone in that. Other times though, I want to be noticed, acknowledged, seen, grinned back at. Rarely do I get that here, rarely in any city. It’s taboo to break into the worlds of others, verboten to interact with them unless in response to some mistaken contact, shove, bump. Try sitting on the subway sometime and just looking at someone else for too long – the ugly faces I’ve gotten back shouldn’t shock me, but they do anyway. “Fuck you,” the look says, “did I give you permission to look at me?” So cold, so troublesome. What if I just liked your hair, or thought you looked relaxed leaning as you were? It’s such a big deal to break into peoples’ bubbles that most everyone doesn’t bother – I can feel myself disengaging, putting my own shell up already, and it scares me so deeply. What if I become so hard I can’t let others in either?

I guess I understand the rationale – there are a million jillion people around, there isn’t any hope of a lasting relationship with most of them, so why bother, why interact at all with those you don’t have to? I just don’t like it. I think it’s a cop-out, a way to justify one’s own callousness and treat one’s fellow humans as undeserving of simple kindnesses. I think it’s a sign of illness, frankly – a deficiency of spirit, of love, a worrisome trend away from connection with one’s species. On some level it’s an abdication of reality. If you wouldn’t glare at your friend for glancing your direction and smiling, why would you insult a stranger so? So many of us, stuck in such a small area, yet instead of allowing this proximity to aid us in knowing one another better, we instead take it the opposite direction, take offense at our neighbors, segregate ourselves out from the mass of humanity. A tragedy, and yet by the numbers, a far more common, far more “natural” reaction.

Is it self-protection? Are we worried that those around us will hurt us, will sap us of something, energy, a resource, that we hold in short supply and must thus ration out? Perhaps if we smiled at, said hello to every person we passed in a given day here it would be exhausting… except that in other places, the small towns of the world, in Central American pueblitos where everyone knows one another, they really do that, really smile at, greet, talk to everyone they cross paths with! Sure, there are fewer people, but the interactions are far deeper, more open, and require a far more intense amount of oneself. Besides, I’m not advocating that – we don’t have to be Hondurans, but we probably ought to know our neighbors by name, return smiles given to us, say hello to people in elevators and when our eyes meet on street corners. That isn’t much, just the barest level of humanity, to treat others as more than part of the scenery. At least, I see it like that. Perhaps I’m the crazy one.

The second thing I notice in cities is that everything has a purpose. Everything around me, from the trees planted in lines to the cobblestones to the power lines, brick buildings, cars, fences, traffic signals… every single thing in this world was built, created, constructed with some purpose in mind, by someone with a mind and a plan. It changes how you think, subtly yet completely, to exist in this sort of place. It makes intelligent design seem possible, probable, irresistably true when nothing around came about naturally, when evolution has been replaced by creationism, when the egg came before the chicken but not until after they were both analysed in subcommittee, voted on, had funding approved, and were built by the mayor’s nephew’s construction company. It must rewire your brain somehow, to have such a lined out, rule-driven, purposeful world. There’s no imagination necessary!

It takes about a week before I start craving open spaces, sky, grass, a tree to climb. I want to see a horse, or a cow, or a man riding a horse with a machete and a woven hat. I start dreaming of dirt roads full of potholes, open highways, hitchhiking in the backs of trucks past the horizon toward… whatever is there. Who cares? Traveling and cities aren’t compatible – the former being a state of existence where destination isn’t important and purpose doesn’t factor in, the latter being a destination whose very existence demands purpose. It feels like my dreams don’t exist in cities, can’t survive the bright lights and movement, aren’t able to sprout up through the asphalt. Instead that life, fragile and real, shakes itself and slinks off defeated to parts unknown – nobody here wanted it around in the first place.

The third thing I notice in the cities is actually something I don’t see – emotions. People are more guarded, treat their true feelings, reactions, thoughts as if they are something to be saved and protected from harsh reality. I don’t see many smiles, I haven’t heard more than a few people laughing outside, don’t see many hugs or kisses, and when someone is outwardly affectionate it’s weird and awkward. My grinning draws suspicious looks. The loud woman laughing on the phone gets pitying glances, my cousin and I get eyes rolled at us when we embrace on the subway. There are so many masks in cities. Is it so hard to be honest, emotional, raw? There must be penalties I’m not aware of, surely. What else explains how hard everyone is, how brittle armor covers their emotional flesh? It protects them from harm, but at the price of deflecting kindnesses and small loves – the emotional barrier isn’t sensitive enough to differentiate between good and bad attention, and so it all is kept out.

It’s a choice, but I don’t know how many people are aware they are making it – how many actually think “today I’m going to be aloof and cold toward everyone so that nobody hurts or bothers me.” I imagine that the number of those making conscious choices is so much smaller than those who do it without thinking, if only because it’s such an easy rut to fall into – even if you did make the choice, you’d only have to make it once or twice. After that routine is powerful, and if you’re not accustomed to having regular interactions with strangers, how would you even know that they were missing? I admit that if not for my life being so different lately I would probably slide through the world as they do, sidestepping past the cold activists on the street corner, dodging the homeless bumming cigarettes, sliding or hopefully moonwalking past the woman struggling to carry a stroller up three flights of stairs. The problem wouldn’t be a problem if I could ignore it too… right?

The romantic drifter in me says “yes, it would still be an issue.” The difference is just that I wouldn’t think about it and therefore wouldn’t be bothered by something that never entered my mind. Still, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect me – it’s just like that dicho, that saying about how there are things we know, those we know we don’t know and those things we aren’t even aware we don’t know – those who put up their shields and glide through the world aren’t even aware of what they’re missing! They roar through their days like a knife through soft cheese, and I take a grater to the whole block. It takes a lot more effort, gives you a whole lot of small bits, but if you don’t take the effort to see it you’re blind to a whole universe right around you, and that’s just not healthy even if you aren’t aware of it.

I really do worry to think about it – how many people do you know that just blow right through life with the blinders on, rushing from home-work-appointments-reunions-meetings-car-cafe-home again without daring to stop on a street corner and chat with a stranger? How much are they missing without meeting Clayton from Alabama, sharing a lumpy cigarette and hearing how he is stuck living on the streets of NYC because his girlfriend threw him out again? He’s never been in a big city before! I told him how to get free meals at the Whole Foods salad bar – hope it comes in handy. What could be more important than these brief, bare moments with others? Then there’s Tim, sitting at the bus stop drumming on the bench and singing his heart out. How is it that out of everyone passing by or waiting for the bus, I was the only one to join in? It’s crazy! Almost as crazy as the looks people give me when I start up conversations in the elevator – though to be fair, I was way underdressed for that place… The point still stands though, that all of the best things in life are free, unplanned, and completely unexpected, and those who don’t leave themselves open to it are going to miss life dancing, laughing, spinning around them. When it comes down to your final breaths, will you really be proud of the time you spent at work, of your schedule, or the things you did to survive?

There’s a scene I remember in a movie I don’t, where one of the main characters in caught in hell as punishment for committing suicide. She’s unable to see anything outside of her own world, shuts herself off from the beauty of the existence, is too busy and self-involved to realize that everything, everwhere, is heaven, and if we only open our eyes to it, everything wonderful lies spread before us, open and inviting. We’re in danger of doing the same here, focusing so tightly on the finish line that we miss the beautiful vista all around. “It’s all in your head,” I want to scream to the pedestrians chasing laser-beam paths, to the blank stares on the subway, to the crowds of emotionless strangers. How much more wonderful it could be if we all just let the world in, accepted the small hurts in order to take in the song-worthy and beautiful as well. Of course, if I did scream that to them, all I’d get in response is rolled eyes and uncomfortable looks. Rocking the boat is strictly prohibited.

Still, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m in the minority here – that most people are content to live the life solitary, ignore the connections we all share, because it is safe and easy to just cut ties and live alone. Or at least, it feels that way. It isn’t bad until the cold night – when your boyfriend hasn’t been returning your calls, when you’ve been fighting with the roommate and your brother and parents are on the other side of the continent and all you want is human connection– that you get that sinking feeling inside, start to feel just the outlines of what you are missing. By then the armor is strong, the defenses protecting you impermeable, and the detachment you relied on to keep the cruel world away now do their job so well that you can’t make the connections you need… I wonder how one deals with that but I imagine one side effect is an alcohol industry that does just fine. I don’t know, don’t want to find out, because to me the true value of small gestures, smiles and winks, shared jokes and smokes, is visible and omnipresent. I can’t be closed any more now that I’ve seen what a joy it is to be open – I can’t relate to those sailing past, faces set. We’re drifting apart, and I’m hesitant to even try to interact…

Wait a second! Perhaps this is how it starts – no conscious decision, just a group feeling of isolation in the face of many unknown faces, so many strangers, and it’s all moving so fast. I can feel the allure of just shutting up, setting my face, and turning up my coat. It tugs at my sleeve like a little kid trying to get my attention would. As the cities grow bigger, the buildings taller, and the faces start to blur, what can I relate to, why bother to try?

Half of all humans live in cities now, some three and a half billion people, living in slums, high-rises, apartments, grouped closer together yet further apart than ever before. We’re so close now we could hug, but how many of us would dare hug our next door neighbor? What is her name anyway? I wonder what happens when this city existence is all we know, whether we will even look at each other at all, or if our lens-implanted-facebook-connected virtual wireless internet-enabled devices of the future will allow us to stay entertained, connected, hooked up, jacked in, completely and utterly isolated a full 100% of the time. Every man an island, with more friends and social connections than ever before, and fewer friendships, less human connection than anyone would have thought possible. Like, unlike, tag, comment, buzz, tweet, connect, network, share, mesh – how did we ever meet anyone before all of these helpful technological advances? Surely we’ve come so far that nobody would ever need to stoop to actually talking to a stranger… right?

Heaven forbid. Not in my future!

The Daydream

February 17, 2010

I’ll spend a lot of time missing this if I’m not careful – lying in a hammock, music in my ears, banana trees swaying softly off my right, beautiful mountain vista ahead. I could, and some days do, spend hours upon hours lying here in silence, thinking, dreaming, letting mind and body wander freely. It’s not something I was used to before this life, but now I question how I ever went without it. A break, siesta, a time for me, my needs, my wants, for my spirit to rest and recover. It fits so well with everything, and yet I know it will interfere with a more traditional American life – who takes an hour break after lunch these days? Only hippies, weirdos, and other dangerous sorts, I’d wager. It’s a pity too, because after a short lounge I find myself a whole lot more motivated and ready to face the world! Well, face this world anyway – I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready to face that other one again.

What sort of world is this? Well, here’s today – wake up before anyone, yoga on a big flat rock overlooking the city below, playing with the ants and practicing my balance, then a cup of strong coffee and another of fresh orange juice. We fly midmorning to just past noon, playing on the thermals with the chulos (vultures) then drive back up to the launch site house where we all live for coffee, tea, or beers depending on who you are. I cook something easy – beans, onions, peppers, and perhaps a couple eggs – while the rest of the family takes off to eat at a little comedor in town. I’m broke past any sense of a budget, and I can cook 4 or 10 meals for the same cost as anything I can get down there. Plus, cooking is meditation. Eat, hook up the computer for some tunes, then it’s hammock time, writing, reading, or napping.

After watching the clouds a bit and relishing in the pure joy of a life lived simply, we’ll fly again around 4 or 5:00, wind depending. Some days it rains and we’re grounded, others we soar for hours, riding the ridges up and down – it’s magical, almost, with the almost coming in whenever my lack of experience leaves me in a shit spot, fighting for altitude and space, hoping not to crash into a tree. With a dozen flights and the nickname “K of the Jungle” one might say I’m not doing so well on that last part. Still, it’s a beautiful sport, and I’m finally living a lifelong dream of flight – no engine, no enclosure, just me, wing, and sky. It’s exactly what I’ve always wanted, and I can feel this sport taking over my life already – I want nothing more then to learn to see the wind like the expert gliders can, to make the whole world my playground, to get into the air and soar like an eagle.

Nights we spend alternatingly crashing into tire walls at the Go-kart track in town or sitting around drinking and telling stories. The Canadian friends have their wild flying tales, Alex her scuba stories, Jake the crazy Alaskan his entire life, and I my hitchhiking and bad decisions. It’s a great group, conversation flows with the shit talking, ebbs with the early night. By ten or a bit most people have retreated to bed, and those of us remaining shift to late-night email on the cranky wifi, or just sit out and watch the skies. I try to end my night by pissing off the cliffside launch, inky blackness over the neon city. It’s primal, the feeling of power that comes from such a stupid act., but you won’t catch me complaining. After that, with the world seething awake below but my tiny corner fast asleep, there isn’t much to do aside pass out, and dream of another day the same as the last.

My question really is this – how can I spend as much of my life doing exactly this? There must be some way, be it working at a launch site, bank robbery, or inheriting some grandiose fortune, where I can live like this forever, right? I don’t feel I’m looking for too much – just a bit of peace, quiet, and good company. Given those, I think I could live quite happily. The only parts that trip me up are the debt, the needs of others, the gossamer strands of past that still yank across distance, time, and space. I’m not truly free of their world, much as I try to hide and deny it – I still need filthy lucre, still must contribute something of “value” in order to live, and believe me, writing, poetry, advice, companionship, and camaraderie are grossly undervalued in this economy, unless you’re telling people what they want to hear. No, truthfulness doesn’t sell, doesn’t satisfy, doesn’t get you ahead – if I could just get more into lying and conniving and scheming I could probably be filthy rich enough to do anything I want!

Yet I’d be miserable then, because the ends quite clearly do not justify the means. If I want to be a writer, to create something beautiful, then a trashy novel will not suffice regardless of how well it sells. I could be a therapist, tell the richest of rich twats what they want to hear about themselves, be a friend-for-hire, but that won’t make me happy if I want to be the best confidante I can. Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig blissful in shit. Better to live by and die doing what I consider irreplaceably valuable than to cower before the painful difficulties that keep most people trapped in lives they do not want. No, I cannot bow before the altar of global capitalism, cannot suck off the golden teat, because the source is something I cannot agree with, and as such, I’ll always have to live around the edges.

Perhaps then, it is best that the things I’m interested in are so marginalized – hitchhiking, paragliding, camping, living in hostels and on beaches and mountains. For me, and for those who feel like me, the margins of society are the best bits. We don’t have to hide here, conform to social pressures to act, live, breathe, behave a certain way. We don’t have to pretend we’re like the unhappy people we’ve been trying to get away from in the first place. We don’t have to guard ourselves, swallow our desires, keep mouths clamped tight to avoid offending people who don’t know any of the things they hold like precious truth. How do you know I’d be better off if I lived like you? You don’t know I was dying when I tried that, you don’t even know me anyway! No, best to get away from that, to stay up here, out there, far from the great vacuum of suck in the middle.

There’s nothing in the center, no value, no soul, no heart, nothing! This isn’t to say that there’s no value in finding your own personal center, no, quite the opposite – what I’m trying to convey is that the supposed middle ground isn’t what they say it is. If I try to be all things to all people, what am I truly left as? I become a chameleon, a poltergeist, a shadow then, representing nothing, holding nothing, not being me, and at that point I have become meaningless. Like pop art, like the music on the top-40s station, like television commercials and the people in movies – I’ll have become just more meaningless drivel, oatmeal for the toothless man. I’m not bland enough, not flexible enough, not stupid or weak enough for that – I actually care about life, live like it means something. My values make me strong, not weak. I am not a coward or an idiot when I say that I will not help destroy the world to propagate one species – my position isn’t based on hysteria or fear or misinformation – I just happen to like the natural world and know that paving it over will eventually kill us as certainly as we kill it.

Yet the pavement spreads, and the fields shrink, the fences go up and the wild world slides down, down, down into the shit. The garbage dump fills day by day, the packs of SUVs roam the concrete jungles, as the real jungles burn, and the packs of real animals are devoured by the mechanical ones. When are we going to have enough? When there isn’t enough left to grow any further? When the world can’t sustain us? What then? It’s madness to build your society around production with the goal of more production when your space and resource pools are both limited. What happens to all the cars when there isn’t any more gasoline, and we can’t make enough fertilizer? Who gets to eat and drive then, and who doesn’t and must die? Am I out of line for noting that we’re going to have to make that decision sometime soon? That we’re making it now? Do we kill the African so that the American can keep driving another few years? We’ve certainly decided that Iraqis and Afghans must forfeit their lives when it suits us!

We have the biggest guns right now, so at the moment these decisions remain ours, but what happens when the people who finance our wars see their interests splitting from our own? The Chinese won’t be content to sit and let us run the world forever, you know? Certainly not while they have us by the balls, producing everything we use, buying our ever-ballooning debt – whenever they’re ready, that bill comes due, and then who makes the decisions? The next biggest gunslinger, and after that the next, and the next, and the next, until someone with the wrong values and his finger on the trigger starts seeing the appeal of mass nuclear warfare. Perhaps I exaggerate, or maybe I don’t understand humans, but I don’t see anyone in power giving it up willingly! No, as the resources dry up, as the starvation and disease and desperation of poverty grip white people instead of only brown ones in far away lands, then the leaders will be pressed – protect us, save us, coddle us, keep us safe. I don’t want to be around when that happens.

The best solution then, as I see it, is not to play – don’t try to get ahead, don’t try to beat them at their own games, don’t fight the crushing hand of dying empire. Emigration seems better, to a place with real communities and people who know their neighbors. A place like here, on the mountaintops, away from the cities, away from the crush and consumption that can’t go on forever. And it can’t go on forever – don’t pretend at such thoughts, comforting as they are. When the oil runs out, when the ships can’t sail around the world, when the trucks full of groceries can’t make it to the supermarket, as the combine sits rusting in fields laid fallow for lack of fertilizer, where will you be then? I hope I’ll remember times like these, the ease, the convenience, the extraordinary complexity that makes life seem so simple.

At least there will still be hammocks, open porches, and banana trees – perhaps if we’re smart we can keep the paragliders around. Actually, this is not a bad place to be in such a time, since the people here still remember life without modern clutter, can still cook and grow crops and work with their hands. Where the average American would be staggered by the thought of growing their own food, the Colombians still have their gardens and orchards, still have the open land and knowledge to feed themselves, the animals to work with, and the community spirit necessary to make such projects succeed. They still know the value of lying back and dreaming, of thinking forward toward what may come instead of rushing blindly toward it, phone to ear, steering with their knees as they eat their fast food. Perhaps here they won’t hit the wall, will slow in time. I just wish I had the same trust in the United States, and in the people there.

Until then, this is my siesta, my stream of consciousness, my worry, my goal, and now I need only to find a way from here to there and back to here. There’s a lot to get to know – sustainable farming, building without depleting scarce resources, community governance in the face of societal collapse, how to play the harmonica, much more about medicine, plumbing, renewable power sources – the list goes for days, but at least I’m getting started! I’d advise others to think about what they’re capable of doing without fossil fuels, without factory food, without the resources and conveniences of industry – they can’t last forever, that’s just a brutal truth you’re going to have to accept! If we don’t have some new fuel source, new pile of resources, new reality-changing moment, then this lifestyle is not sustainable, and we’re going to have to live without most of what we take for granted today. Where will you be? What will you want to keep around? What do you know how to do?

Do you see why I’m going to treasure these moments in the hammock?

Madrugada Rambles

February 1, 2010

I can’t sleep any more.

It’s because I don’t know what I’m doing. This shouldn’t bother me so much – I rarely know what I’m doing.  I’ve spent nearly a year flying by the seat of my pants, doing whatever seemed right in the moment, just living day to day as I saw fit.

It was wonderful.  Truly fantastic, if I am to be honest with myself.  Finally, in the unknowing, in the not planning, I had found a life that made me truly content, happy in the most basic way.
And now that’s over.

It wasn’t my choice – it wasn’t anybody’s choice.  Things just change, ebb and flow, with time.  The universe just does this, and it isn’t our place to whine or bitch about it.  Life back home, the life I left behind, abandoned like a prom night baby, walked out on and never looked back; that life caught up to me again.

Debt was a big part of it.  Family drama is a much bigger one.  People I love need help, and I can perhaps give it.  I might be a freer spirit, a selfish prick living a life based on doing on what makes one feel content and fulfilled, but what sort of complete shithead would I be to walk away from family?

Don’t answer that – I really don’t want to think about it right now.

There here it is, all of these thoughts – am I ready yet? – where will I go? – can I even work in the US? – won’t I just get trapped? – how the fuck will I even eat? – can I, this me, be happy there in that past me’s life? – all this shit, nonsense, worry, pain just rattling around in my head, and I’ve lost my coping mechanisms.

It was easy to quit smoking when I had sex on a regular basis.

All the little things that I take particular joy out of in this life, like singing into the wind in the back of a speeding pickup truck, running into the ocean with my pants on just to float out in the waves, spending an entire day walking circles aimlessly around a bustling city, making lifelong friends over coffee on a small couch, then saying goodbye forever – those sort of things didn’t happen before.  Those sort of things don’t happen in a place where the magic is dead.  Where is the place for someone like me in such a hard, rude, fast place as the US?  People who write poetry and sit around all morning watching the clouds pass by aren’t exactly in high demand.  Where is the productivity, the value, in any of the things I enjoy doing?  What if I just don’t want to become another wake-eat-work-shit-sleep automaton, desperately throwing myself into hobbies, activities, to pretend that I have some sort of meaning in my life?  Where’s the fucking place for that, huh?

Nowhere.  There is no place for that sort of bullshit.

Not in fast-food, fast-cars, fast-forward, faster-than-last-week, can’t-get-fast-enough modern society.  There’s no slowing down there – just full speed ahead until you shatter into a million pieces on the bricks, and everyone says fake shit and sheds crocodile tears over your corpse.  There’s nothing for me when I go back.  Not when I’ve sworn off the advantages of a self-destructive society.  I don’t want what it has to offer – the exact opposite is what I’ve found happiness in.

Is it possible to do what I need to, but also what I need too?

I’m being  a brat about it, honestly.  Just sitting, self-pitying, being a rock.  Me, the guy who tells every tourist, traveler, vagabond in their final days before returning to jail “go 110%, right into the final seconds, so that instead of sitting on that plane regretting the things you didn’t do, you’re that smelly, exhausted-looking guy all the other passengers whisper and point about, but secretly envy.  Live so hard, and so well, that you burn it all up in what you enjoy.  Have the best damn time you can while you can, before you’re stuck back home.”  I truly believe that, and yet I’m just loafing, lying around and wasting myself away.

Why can I give such good advice and then refute it in my actions?

It’s just – well – honestly, I didn’t see this end  coming so abruptly.  Whereas most people have a set date to leave, I haven’t had to plan anything, have deliberately avoided planning anything, since last February.  I tried to a few times, sure, but whenever you plan, you end up doing exactly what you planned to.  There’s no mystery, no adventure, no intrigue or desire or despair, pain, spontaneity, laughter, love, or authenticity to it.  You just do a list of shit, check the boxes and move on – it’s like having sex with your hand, or watching a movie.  There’s the barest outline of what you really want, but the reality, the truth, isn’t there at all.  I just got tired of fooling myself, and vowed no more plans.  Until now, that’s never been an issue.

Everything changes.

Now I need to plan something, or I’ll just be fucked completely whenever I get home.  I need a job, a life, money, an escape route, and above all, I need to be really goddamned sure that I don’t get stuck in that country any longer than absolutely necessary.   And I’ve forgotten how to even do!  What, do I make a list or something?  Should I start brainstorming, strategizing?  The most important decisions I’ve made in months have been decided by coin tosses, bets, sealed with kisses or handshakes.  Job hunting means walking door to door asking if people have work.  A resume?  That’s an insult to even ask for!  Just let me work for you, and if I’m not good enough, throw me out on my head!  What sort of fucked up system decided a contract was needed for that?

I’m used to a better life, that’s the real problem.

Make no mistake, life is better down here.  Simpler, poorer, rougher, harder, but better nonetheless.  It comes to a few things, I think.  People know each other, for starters.  They know their neighbors, who is fucking who, which dog belongs to whoever, when the neighbor’s  kid is going to have her baby, who was kissing in the park last night.  They talk, they keep up on the local goings-on, and they don’t isolate themselves from reality.  In the US, I lived years without knowing the first or last names of people who lived 20, 30, 50 feet away.  No idea who they were at all.  I’m certainly not the only one.  People know each other, and it shows in every interaction.  Further, they trust each other.  I was in a bakery today, buying a sandwich, and everything was on display right next to the door.  Not behind any doors, not covered by cameras or sensor tags, just loaves of bread, rolls, buns of any sort, sitting right next to the big fuckoff roll-up doors.

Bear in mind, this is a city of over 1 million people.  We’re not out in the countryside here.  Any asshole thief could walk right in and load up on free food, and probably even the cash register, since the employees were nowhere near it except when people were paying.  No, not here.  People don’t steal from their neighbors – not from people they know and care about.  And even if they don’t, it’s just not done!  Better to give people something, any day.  I could go for days, but let’s just concentrate on this for now – they have community here.  They have pride in their surroundings, know their fellow humans, respect each other.  You don’t see people stealing cabs, making old folks stand on buses, pregnant women lift ANYTHING.  They see the other humans around them, and live as if everyone mattered.

Try finding that at home.

I don’t know what to do, what I can do, but I do know that I will be just about the worst American in a while.  I’m giving away everything when I get back – everything I  can live without.  Considering I’ve been living from a backpack for a year, it won’t be a small pile.  I’ve been an ignorant, materialist, self-centered pig most my life, and it took this whole other life to realize it.  I can live just fine off of rice, beans, bread, and eggs.  I don’t need fancy designer pants.  I don’t need more then 3 pairs of any pants, really.  I don’t need heaps of things.  Really, all I need are friends, love, adventure, and the very basics of human comfort.  It’s not a tall order – the trick will be remembering it in the mindfuck and bustle of the corporatist world.  I guess I’ll just have to see how well I can hold onto my self and my values in the belly of the beast.

Keep smiling, and never let the bastards keep you down.

I’m going to bed. -k

I Wrote This For You

December 23, 2009

I write this not for you, though there is a chance that you will understand what I write, that it will help you in some way. I do not write it because I want you to do anything, to help me in any way, to respond, or even to read it. I write it because it makes me happy to write, and well, what is more important then to spend life doing those things which make you happy?

I hope that you still have your open mind, for what I write here is strange, alien, uncomfortable to many. What I have here is an idea, a song, and the most rebellious suggestion in the world, perhaps. You might already have had it – I hope dearly that you have – because this is the sort of idea that betters everything it touches. I get ahead of myself – let me start where I really started, where my fingers began:

I worry that now, when torture and murder, aggressive world war, have become commonplace, accepted actions of the country I grew up in, that there isn’t a place there left for me. I’m scared, because I refuse to compromise my values just to live in a geographical region, and yet most of the people I love are right there. I wonder – what can I do, if they won’t leave, and I won’t come back, to ever see my family and friends again?

What scares me most of all is that they don’t even see the problems, so busy are they with the trivialities of each day. They just know I’m off “having a good time” in another world, “being young,” in the “time of my life,” before I settle down to “real life.” I am having fun, and that is good, but to them it is impermanent, irresponsible, and one day must be ended for me to live as a “normal” person – to live as they do.

It isn’t like that – this isn’t a vacation, this is a series of actions taken toward a goal of escaping the crushing, consuming prison of modern American life. I want out, need it, because everything I see outside is alive, and when I was in, all I saw was death – it almost killed me too. I broke out of that life and of that place, and in that I was transformed. I am not who I was, I cannot ever be that me again. I cannot come back.

This isn’t to say I won’t come visit – there are people there that I can help, dying slowly among the already dead – waking zombies, lifeless breathers, the ones too far gone. People too tired, too sick, too beaten and scared to cry out for it, but craving life still. I was one of those, and I can help those still in need. I may return to that place, but I cannot ever return to that life. If I do return, it will be as a free man, and it will not be to stay.

Still – pulling people out of a killing world isn’t good enough – no one should have to live like domesticated animals, like tools. No one should spend their life’s blood, energy, time in unhappiness, in pursuit of goals not their own. No one should, yet almost everyone does, and I can’t save them, because no one can save anyone else – they might be happier, but the problem is just transferred – now they would serve my goal.

I hope you understand what I write here, but I know that mostly you won’t. How could you? Words are an imperfect means of communication, and communication is a dream – we can only hope to spread what makes sense to us, and let everyone else interpret it as they may. I will say only this – modern life, with its obligations, debts, necessities, is not as joyous, or as fulfilling, or as happy, as it could be, and that is our fault. We are slaves by choice before we are slaves out of necessity.

It could be better, happier, richer for all if we simply let it, if we said “no” when we meant it, if we refused completely to be used by others for their ends, if we each did what made us happy. We aren’t required to accept a certain level of misery to live – we can change that through a simple refusal to work, live, or exist in any way that we do not enjoy.

Your goals are all attainable, if you would only stop sabotaging them. “Well that sounds good for other people,” goes the standard reply, “but I have an x and a y and a z, and so I can’t be irresponsible and run off like you.” Irresponsible! Obligations! You build those for yourself, then use them as the reasons for you imprisonment.

Yes, you do have to take care of certain things, you cannot drop your baby on the street and run off to India, but look around you, at the supposed restrictions on your life – who put them there? Whose choices led to their existence? We all create our own reality. You create yours. Those chains which hold you back from your dreams are of your own making, and came from your own choices and actions.

This is a good thing. A joyous thing. For if you created your own chains, then surely you have the power to break them as well. It does not matter how deeply you are indebted, how consumed you are by your job or unhappiness or obligations – all is removable if you desire. If you desire it! – this is key. Freedom is not license, but choice. It is not a belief system, only a simple question – “Am I happy?” – fueled by a raging desire for joy.

It’s true! People the world over have learned this, figured out what I write here of their own accord, and resolved to pursue their own ends forever more. I meet them, we cross paths every day, share stories, lives, hot meals, beds. I know who they are because they are the only happy people I see, the only happy people in the world. It is indisguisable, if you know what to look for. I can tell you what to look for, if you like.

These people are the ones doing nothing, drawing, painting, kissing strangers and running in the rain. They are the ones with holes in their shoes, with beautiful poetry at their lips. They laugh at God, because they have become God. If they discuss politics, theology, philosophy, they do even that joyously, turn handstands in the park, paint on the walls without permission. They are the ones who make living their art.

Make no mistake friend, there is a better way to live your life then the way you live it. There is a more joyous way for me to exist, for him with the guitar, for her with the curly hair and the frown. That better way is whatever makes you happier, allows you to feel and spread more love through the universe. If you want it, it is possible. If you seek it, you will find it all around you.

Courage is needed, great strength of will, an unquenchable lust for life and joy and love. Those things exist inside us all, untapped by most, unknown by many, but there nonetheless, ready to explode outward if and when we call upon them. You do not have to trust me, you certainly don’t have to thank me – this is not my idea, I simply found it lying in the road one day, picked it up, and found it fit me. We can share it – it will grow to accommodate us both, and more beside.

Really, it affects me not at all if you are happy, if you are enjoying your life to the fullest. It shouldn’t hurt me to see you so unhappy, and so unaware of your unhappiness. It is your life to live, but I love you, and I can’t bear to see you hurt as you do. I will help if you want, or leave you be if not, I just felt I had to try. I release you – go free, be who you wish, go fuck, go fight, go sing and dance, go learn, go teach, go travel, go do what you have always desired. Just go.

I love you always. Yours in freedom -k

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