I have spent the better part of the last 2.5 hours finally updating the list for OMBFP. (This stands for One Million Blogs for Peace, but I really only call it OMBFP. That’s how I roll.)
Anyway, updating this list for the first time since 9 September (read: +67 blogs), laboriously copying and pasting into my detailed database (read: spreadsheet), and sifting through the attempted splog signatories (read: many many cialis many) has transformed my mood from, say, somber and reflective to, perhaps, giddy and punchy. (I seem to really lack a giddy-n-punchy post here as yet, but parts of this are close.)
So I was wending my way towards the end of my computer evening by doing my last nightly round-up of websites, many of them to see how the Blue Pyramid’s doing today. (Despite this blog’s resurgence, October is a way down month after a banner September and a very good August.) And I got this post as one of the recent updates, which of course reminds me of the fact that if you type in “best books ever” on Google and click I’m feeling lucky, you get the list I made. And not even the updated list I made or the good list I made with tens of other people. It’s this list I made in 1998. For years now, that has been Google’s definitive #1 answer to the question of what the best books ever are. With quotes or without. Rain or shine. Lucky or discerning. And boom.
The irony? About the not being widely read in fiction (yet) but my opinion on books is my great Google success? Oh yeah.
You’d be amazed at how often people try to find the “best books ever”. A lot. Just since switching to my new servers on 3 October, people have headed for the BP after searching for best books ever 1,095 times, best books of all time 325 times, best books ever written 240 times, greatest books of all time 110 times, and greatest books ever written 83 times. There are seven more similar search strings with 50+ times.
Why me? To what do I owe this bestowal of random authority on books?
One of the only things I’ve ever been able to discern about this supernaturally high ranking (a cool 142 million sites show up for best books ever) is that my posting of this to the web on 22 February 1999 just gave me “dibs”. (Someday I will again be able to think of this phrase and not think of the crunchy ice cream snack. Curse you, Dreyers, for replacing my thoughts of swell 50’s-era phraseology!) I got in the door first, and everyone had to get in line behind me. This is not exactly how search engines work, but it’s close to some principles thereof. It hasn’t held up for the quizzes as much, which have flirted with front-page rankings and since subsided. But dibs in 1999 and dibs in 2003 are way different animals. Ice cream aside. (Incidentally, Dibs the ice cream has overtaken Wikipedia’s article on dibs the calling-aide for the coveted I’m Feeling Lucky spot for dibs. I wonder if they called dibs.)
There has to be more to it than getting in the door first, though. And I think a lot of it has to do with people being afraid of using a term so definitive as “best books ever written”. There has been much made throughout my educational history of it being intellectually savvy to equivocate. It occasionally backfires for politicians, but it’s quite sound for an academic. As long as one is willing to hem and haw, to go back and forth, and to constantly modify every statement (“‘I’ statements, please!”) with qualifiers, then one can’t possibly be driven off their point, however watered down into oblivion. I, being an extremist, had no problem dubbing (note: not dibbing) my list with an incredibly over-the-top phrase. (Though note again, not without some self-awareness, in tacking on the all-important “(More or Less)” to the back end of the list. See, that’s being able to laugh at yourself while still being an extremist! Note also that, to date, not a soul has found the BP by searching for the phrase more or less.)
The point is that anyone else who was willing to make a list of 100 books that they thought were the peachy-keenest (peachiest-keen?) would also be very careful to moderate their title for it so it seemed reasonable. And so it was probably years until anyone else went grandiose on their title. And by then, they had to get in the back of the line.
Not all of my Googular victories are so coveted. It’s possible the Weakerthans already had some inkling of who I was, because I’ve topped the list for weakerthans setlist since shortly after the show in SF in December ’04. Depending on whether you put a space in setlist (please, sir, can I have more semantics?), there are only 5k-19k competitors. I get both, despite the words “set” and “list” not appearing separately in the aforementioned setlist. Google is getting smarter.
Despite feeling so lucky here, only 8 times has someone landed at the BP after searching that string (this October).
I was pleased to note just today that I also top the list for 2008 presidential ticket, mostly (I would surmise) because of the ungainly nature of that phrase. Despite the election year fervor, this string shows up less than a quarter-million times on the interwebs. And I named a quiz after it!
It’s also worth noting, though (lest I feel too lucky), that not once this October, but twice, someone has shown up at the BP after entering the following words into Google:
the parralel between jim crow and to kill a monking bird
Maybe it’s time to start a third incarnation of the Search of the Week. That or start investing in the acquisition and sale of monking birds. I hear they’re like crows.
My father had his second cataract surgery today. There were complications. In the dormant period of time between Introspection and StoreyTelling, you may have missed the fact that I attended his first cataract surgery, an unfettered success. Both were held in Albuquerque, and we decided to forgo me making a second trip because the first went so smoothly. No matter the ridiculousness, one feels a certain amount of responsibility for something like this.
A friend is having communications today. There are complications. In the dormant period of time between Introspection and StoreyTelling, you may have missed the fact that this friend visited Berkeley and imparted to me tales of a series of life-changing events. It seems I am uniquely placed in this world to help this person through this struggle and, in so doing, find another reason for what has transpired in my life. I used to say “happened to me”. I almost did again. One starts to take a certain amount of responsibility for something like this.
Hillary Clinton is running for President today. She is a woman and a Democrat. But she is also complicated. She typifies neither women, nor Democrats, if anyone does. And what would that even mean? I am not prone to doing anything other than laughing at FoxNews, which makes it all the more chilling that they are the source of one of the most compelling political articles I’ve ever read. The man writing it is a libertarian, coming from a vantage point I have significant distaste for. Yet there is something deeply common in our perspectives that allows us to see through all this absurdity of partisan illusion and realize that Clinton is Bush. And Bush is Bush. And Bush is Clinton. And when Hillary extends the dynasty’s reign over America past the twenty-year mark, will anyone take responsibility for this?
My Dad is okay. He had an allergic reaction and is due for a rough night, but the morning’s return visit should fix everything. And my friend will be okay as well, through the choppy surf of sine curves that eventually ease, but never subside. Hillary will be more than fine, but what of the rest of us? Note the definitive tone that Balko uses toward the end of the article, despite raising electoral vulnerabilities of Hillary, taking solace in what will be fun to watch in the destined presidency ahead.
We all like to tell ourselves stories. Things are easy, straightforward, simple, monochrome. There are good guys and bad guys, and we are all good guys. There are villains out to get us, but we can stay strong and triumph.
The truth is a lot muddier than that. Ariel once told me, I think paraphrasing a more well-known source, that one’s “friends are just assholes you like.” I think there’s something to that, although I might be more tempted by “one’s enemies are just people you hate.” It’s complicated.
Doctors, lovers, and Democrats are not here to save us. They are not perfect people, blessed by the right holy hands, ready to bestow their graces in turn on an otherwise hopeless population. They are corruptible, fallible, often terrible people. And getting sick, being betrayed, voting Republican – these are not the unmitigated vices they may seem. Surely they hurt. But sometimes pain is our only hope of positive change.
As we were setting up for our Second Annual Pumpkin-Carving Extravaganza at the house on Saturday, our neighbor intoned in a horrified whisper: “You’re not going to light those, are you?” I choked back a hundred wry comments to instead mumble something about “not during the day…” only to quickly cover it with “We’ll be careful.” She replied with paranoia about fires and thinly veiled threats of police action. For candles. In pumpkins. On Halloween.
Even that which we take for granted is complicated.
But it was my father who told me at a young age that what makes the phrase “Love thy neighbor” so compelling is the fact that one tends to have a really obnoxious neighbor. You might get along well with the whole neighborhood, but there’s that one neighbor… And until recently, this probably wasn’t even her. But love? What’s love got to do with it?
Compassion for complication. Today, it may be our only hope.
My thoughts are scattered and they’re cloudy.
The Blue Pyramid, despite the fact that it’s still deciding what exactly it wants to do with itself and where it’s going next, is quite popular according to Technorati. And Technorati should know. But despite spending at least a week with its listing as being in the coveted Top 100 of Technorati blogs, it still fails to actually show up on this list. It should be about 71st, they say. But it isn’t.
This could be due to many factors, including the gut-check reality that the Blue Pyramid itself is not, strictly speaking, a blog. But this isn’t keeping it from being listed as one anyway. In any event, I will be happy with the BP for exceeding the likes of Andrew Sullivan and CNN’s Political Ticker and Cute Overload.
I really wanted to post yesterday. It was one of those dramatic crazy days where most of the people one knows have become pod-people overnight, often losing their self-awareness in the process. Everyone was able to recognize that it was a tremendously weird day, but also insisted on finding organic reasons for the problem. Including it being close to “the holidays”.
Not even in my world, where Halloween reigns supreme, are we close to “the holidays”.
So what is it about October, anyway?
I spent too much of the other morning and last night trying to track down a foreword or afterword from Ray Bradbury where he succinctly cuts through so much of the October mystique. Bradbury, already my favorite author when I read the passage the first time, cut through so much of what I’d felt about October my whole life in a single series of passages, with bone-jangling clarity. I was taken aback and, like the Watership Down passage I quoted a few days ago, it has stayed in the back of my mind ever since.
But try as I might, especially in a dedicated quest last night, I couldn’t find it among any of my seemingly endless Bradbury tomes on the shelves. Granted, our books are still disorganized 20 months after moving into our current apartment, so searching is not as straightforward or likely to be fruitful. I searched about twelve times through The October Country (the man has a book about October and it’s not in there?!) and just got frustrated.
I went and updated my Facebook profile. Facebook asked me for favorite quotes. All I could think of was the increasingly resonant line from “Magnolia” (the movie), “The book says we may be done with the past, but the past isn’t done with us.”
I went back to the bookshelf. Yestermorrow seemed like an impossible longshot, but let’s give it a go. All I found, buried against the spine like it was trying to hibernate through a long winter, was a movie ticket on page 5 from a special theater showing at Century Rio of “Gone with the Wind” from 7/26/98.
Today, I almost thought it was the prologue from Something Wicked this Way Comes. But it wasn’t quite extensive or thorough as I remember. It might be the one I was remembering, buffeted by the continual references to the seeping of the October world into one’s mind in a novel set entirely in the last week of this pivotal month.
But I somehow don’t think it was. And I still can’t find it.
There is something in this fruitless search that is like the month of October itself. Elusive, frustrating, and yet exciting and seeming perhaps more monumental than it really is. I tried to put some ghost lights up next to my pumpkin lights today at work. They flickered and died shortly after being hung. They spent much of the morning going on and off at will. Now they’re just off.
They are ghosts, after all.
Perhaps I can substitute Bradbury’s exposition on October with my own attempt to capture this fleeting spirit in Loosely Based (not coincidentally the opening paragraph of Chapter Thirteen): “It was the first night in October, but Matt would’ve bet money that it was the last. He had a sense of foreboding that could easily be associated with Halloween, with the prowling night and its wayward spooks. Leaves had already begun to flee the trees, and a large branch, now barren, swung between a lamppost outside his dorm window, leaving a continual silhouette against the cloth shade. The outlines of this haunting shadow were just visible in the descending night, as darkness fell a hair earlier on this eastern side of the building.”
Things come alive in October. That life you always knew you were living, but couldn’t quite place amongst the day-to-day comes ricocheting out of its cocoon at 120 miles an hour, knocking everything in its path sideways. You are in its path, and go sideways, and suddenly see how it was all supposed to be all along, horizontal turned vertical. Sick to your stomach, you wonder why every day can’t be like this, why everything is half-asleep and tepid. After three days of it, you burn for the tepid, or anything calmer and slower than this.
Yesterday, I was burning. Today, the tepidity is challenging me with its own brand of fiery madness. It’s like 2002 has smashed right into 2007. And why not? Five years. Is it time to let go of this phase, this chapter, this repackaged but lucrative version of time in the seat? If I didn’t respect it in school, why do I respect it here? Because I have the illusion of more control and of change? Because I like feeling part of something larger, with many hands on deck? Because a little bit of schedule seems like the only anchor between me and a life of Octobers?
The baseball commercials remind me “There’s only one October.” And how. This is my twenty-eighth, and I promise you they’re all the same.
I think, despite it all, that I live with a lot of illusions.
Key among them, perhaps the biggest of all-time, is that there is some place – a brief stopping point or a full destination – where everyone will have the jump on me. Where I will have to scramble like mad to keep up, where I will constantly be living in the shadow of my inadequacy, and where I will be at risk of drowning in being overwhelmed at every moment.
Needless to say, this would be the best place of all-time.
I do not mean a place that my emotional torment would bring me to the brink of disaster. I’ve been there several times, most notably in April/May ’90, April/May ’97, and April/May ’05. (Not that there are any patterns there. Whatsoever.) Like Tiny House, that is not awesome.
I mean a place where I’m challenged so constantly and thoroughly (for the right reasons, in the right ways – mentally, intellectually, even spiritually) that I can just barely hang on and barely keep up. And I’ve always thought, nay, assumed that it was just over that mountain. That the next step, the next stage, the next chapter would contain this paradise of struggle.
Maybe Broadway was my first introduction to this concept, though I know I had yearned for something like this beforehand (or I never would’ve ended up at Broadway in the first place!). But Broadway was wrapped up in the physical and emotional torments therein, which frankly provided most of the “challenge”.
Or CCC? Maybe CCC really provided the best mix. It wasn’t perfect, but it really set in my mind the idea that there was a place where I’d have to pour out all my energy to just stay afloat. There were some issues wrapped up in the lingering problems with District 10 and the extremely unsupportive administration, but CCC might’ve been the closest I’ve gotten to a pure encounter with this elusive land of challenge. I think to when I was sitting in that computer lab, forcing the paper on success that just wouldn’t come, ultimately turning in two and a half sterling pages for a five-page assignment. I got either a B- or C+ with comments indicating that I had done a near-perfect half-assignment. That moment, that experience may have been my closest breath of this place, wherever or whatever it is.
It’s been all downhill from there. And, in all likelihood, that experience cemented my belief that not only did these things exist, but they were common, even ubiquitous.
I was convinced, despite having no real rational reason to believe this, that college would mark the arrival of this reality. Perhaps because CCC was a college (of sorts). Perhaps because everyone had told me my whole life that college was the promised land. Perhaps because college kids were supposed to be somehow more mature, near-adult people. Perhaps because I was just due for a challenge.
That illusion shattered in about six hours.
Okay, how about work? Surely work, with all its nuances and adult expectations, surely this will be a place of unending raising the bar?
That illusion may have taken even less time to crumble. And Seneca offered its own challenges, but far too many of them were wrapped in the same emotional traumas of yesteryear, and the debilitating lack of support from much of the administration. I had jumped into something I had no experience with and little backing for, and it was indeed hard. But it was hard because the hours were long and the position was emotionally draining. After a few weeks or months, there was no mental stimulus in the challenge. It was simply an issue of emotional survival. And that is a very different beast, which led to the whole April/May ’05 gambit.
And now here we are. Again, I have to slidestep around details, but it’s just amazing to me how much time people waste here. How much time I waste here, and still come out doing as much as anyone (perhaps more). Ultimately, as in so many situations, the only standards and expectations I really seem to be competing with are my own.
And maybe that’s my own design and how I’d want it anyway. At Brandeis, I felt the need to reject the grade game as hollow and meaningless, going out of my way to challenge myself with how far I could push the bounds of my scholarship while still keeping it secure. When I feel the pressure of too much obligation, too much bending to the will or critique of others, I rebel and break out. So maybe I’m blocking myself from the very kind of situation I claim to be craving.
And there are larger challenges that drown me every day. Challenges of my own discipline. It’s not like all of life is somehow on easy mode (it occurs to me that this post might sound very arrogant) and I just don’t have challenges or problems. As this running record back to ’98 can attest, quite the opposite is true. But they are internal wars. They are struggles with my own bars. I search in vain for that place where everyone just expects me to keep up with something I find very difficult to keep up with, and yet I find the pursuit to be meaningful and exactly where I should be. (This last caveat is important, because I could easily go try to become a physicist and get my rear kicked. That’s not quite the challenge I mean, either. It has to be something I find fulfilling, meaningful, and in line with what I want to strive for.)
And now I’ve probably put enough constraints and clarifications on this that it sounds so obvious as to be stupid. “Of course everyone would want something where everything is exactly how they want it!” There is a strong temptation to dispose of this post altogether.
But I won’t, and thus here is some raw mental chaff for you. All this really was about is trying to trace a core feeling of dissatisfaction that not only is no one expecting me to work more and harder at my job, but most people are telling me to do less.
I need some umph. Some verve. Someone to push back. Someone other than the voice in my head.
The following is a direct transcript of the notes I took while immersed in my ~40-hour fast in the woods (41.5 hours of water fasting, 31 hours in the woods). Background information available here and here.
I briefly thought about scanning the notebook pages and posting them here. It would be a more raw reflection of the experience. But it’s not exactly what I want to convey. Besides, there are too many pages (the notebook was very small) and the handwriting is just too unnavigable. Keep in mind that Duck and Cover is the result of me really trying to temper my handwriting into a palatable form… and many of you still complain that it’s incomprehensible at times. The handwriting, not the humor. Okay, that too.
This text is presented unedited, unabridged, in its original syntax. So here we go:
13-14 October 2007 – Marin Headlands, California
13 October 2007
Have arrived at Haypress camp site in Marin Headlands. Emily dropped me off at around 10 AM. I had not eaten in over 8 hours at that point. Last ate ~1:15 AM today.
I think I’ve brought too much water. The journey in was arduous due to weight of pack, but went very quickly (less than 1 mile).
I like my spot and my view. I think I will hike some today since camp is all set up. I am still very time-focused. There are many animal noises and I am not as isolated from humans as I might choose to be. There are 5 groups slated to camp in this area tonight and they are not particularly secluded from each other.
Hungry, but able to delay with water.
I am perhaps explaining things in more detail here than I would normally – I can’t tell how clear things will seem later upon returning to a world of food and time as they seem now. So I’m taking an extra step, just in case.
After putting in ~7 miles today, I think most of the physical exertion portion of our program is over. I initially hadn’t thought I’d even hike that much, but I think it’s good to sweat out the toxins as well as starve them out.
The tent starts out inside the backpack. Then the backpack goes inside the tent. Finally, the tent returns to the backpack. There is something right about this way of living.
I awoke in dark night with the classic dilemma of getting up and going to the bathroom vs. staying “warm” and holding it. Of course the former is the long-term warmest option, so it was taken.
The stars bowled me over. I think I sometimes forget the stars are even there in anticipating the night sky. It sounds silly, but I had really not been expecting the depth and breadth of the stars.
I lingered in the cold to take them in. Even though the distant voices persisted, I was able to fully appreciate the enormity of the universe.
I don’t know how anyone can stare at the stars for a long time and not come away feeling the reassuring grace of God’s presence and benevolence.
It must be. Darkness passed to foggy lightness. Night was an unending span of dreams, hurried overwhelmed awakeness, then somewhat settled sleep. There were brief times that the passage of time was so slow I thought that surely I had died.
I haven’t been able to really divest myself from time-awareness the way I’d hoped. It seems that nature is our first introduction to conceptual time and while it may not demand that we tie ourselves to minutes or even hours, it certainly makes us aware of morning, afternoon, evening, and night. And in so doing, it’s easy for the “civilized” human to take the next step and attempt to extrapolate more granular sands of time.
Far too much of my trip has also been influenced by neighboring campers. It seems most of them will be away early today and I can achieve some solitude. But the cooking of their fires has made me even more aware of the food I’m not eating. Avoiding that temptation was part of the reason for not bringing food at all, even for “emergencies”.
I did get some solitude, though, on the high hills above these headlands. I took off without a pack – just water and a light and many layers – in search of quiet contemplation. I found it in the heavy fog about 1/2 – 3/4 miles up the Fox Trail, almost all steep uphill. A spiderweb was highlighted with dew and caught my bright attention. It couldn’t fool anyone with any vision at all, but the spider remained patient in its center.
I turned uphill from almost that precise location to see a scene of deep-rutted foggy path that almost precisely mimicked a scene of several of my dreams (though none from the night before). There was nothing more momentous from this observation – I continued up the path a bit and decided the uphill was more strenuous than I wanted for my last 10-12 hours without food, so I should get back. Still, I paused for some minutes to simply take in the enormity of the blanketing fog.
Three natural phenomena have overwhelmed me this trip: the ocean, the stars, and the fog. Neither uncommon nor unpredictable targets of adoration and appreciation, but powerful nonetheless.
In any event, I am hungry. Not as severely as I expected to be, but then water can be used effectively to combat the worst of the hunger pangs. I have definitely been much hungrier in my life.
Yet food does seem like a real focal point. I dwell on it. Thinking about having Chipotle tacos when I’m released from this fast has really helped keep me going. My mouth actually has a slight ache from the absence and inaction. I have had meandering headaches, but nothing debilitating. This is impressive, because I haven’t had coffee since early Friday morning, putting me on a scheduled 72-hour fast from coffee by the time I plan to break that.
By the way, take that, people who think my headaches are some sort of caffeine withdrawal! Coffee is good migraine-prevention medicine, but absence of preventative medicine does not equate with immediate sickness.
The fog and my irregular sleep are helping to join forces to make me less aware of time. It could be morning or afternoon right now – I know not which. The foghorns are subsiding a bit, leaving only the ubiquitous quails in the area – there are many and they are in herds (or whatever quail groups are officially called), and they make many noises which neatly balance between familiar bird sounds and bizarre interpretations which are the quails’ alone.
I was wandering around this nearly abandoned campsite when I noticed two rabbits out of the corner of my eye. I danced to approach them – pausing every time they looked up with concern, giving them time to get used to me at this distance, then approaching again until they seemed to need me to pause. One, the larger, was too skittish and eventually bolted for the brush. But the first, smaller one, maintained a watchful eye but stayed outside to forage for food. Both were tiny rabbits, looking almost like pikas. They must have been young.
I eventually reached a bench about 20 yards from the smaller rabbit and sat down to become part of the observant landscape. Over the course of 30+ minutes, I was able to hang out with the rabbit, ocassionally joined by the other rabbit, a number of quails, and a traveling crew of very loud bees or wasps.
The rabbit ate the whole time. I did not. The winde kicked up and seemed to scare the animal more than I did. It gave me my best time of reflection and grounding this whole trip so far.
In the midst, I thought about the wind and the water and all nature’s creatures. They seem to find an ineffable common thread – they take the path of least resistance. This is nature’s way. And given all the things I am out here to find or consider, maybe there is not as much wrong with living by momentum instead of direction. Maybe I am condemning an existence in line with nature’s calling.
But then again, do I answer to nature? Nature eats meat, nature destroys, nature is often cold and harsh and unforgiving. Nature guides by survival above meaning. So how could I adopt a principle of nature, just for its seductive beauty and the wonder of its path-carving? As Professor Hirshman, my second favorite of Brandeis’ philosophers, always graced her classes, “Bears shit in the woods.” Not only did she use this as one of many devices to shock students into thought, but it was her oft-used take-out argument for Aristotle and other naturalists who wanted to embrace whatever they were given by the world around them as what was also right.
And even on my retreat to nature, there is a Port-o-Potty on camp site. 2, in fact. Even I am not retreating to the standards of bears on this, a journey to reject civilization.
So what am I left with? An affirmation of what I already knew? Maybe I should be suspicious of anything else.
And despite their grandeur, the woods aren’t going to give me any concrete answers anyway, even without food or distraction. A bobcat is not going to walk up to me, lick its paw, and tell me what I should do with my job or my website. I know that. That’s not why I’m here.
As I strain for the quiet in the wake of the last other campers here departing, I realize that there is no quiet. There are quiet noises, but no real quiet. I feel I’ve joked with myself many times that this trip would be better pursued in a sound-proof lightless chamber than out in the open. But that’s not really the intent either.
The point is that the wind, the birds, the trees all make noise. Some of it is enhanced by my own tent, but without it there would still be sounds of all variety.
Perhaps nature is just reminding me of others – that we are not on this planet alone. A basic lesson, and one I know, but it bears repeating. To help each other can, ultimately, be our only purpose.
This is neither a new thought nor one terribly tied up in this trip in particular, but when I witness such profound examples of it, I cannot help but take note. Literally.
Ha! It was only 11:54. And the time that’s passed since has been the slowest yet. I’ve checked a couple more times. It’s really starting to crawl. I’m hungry and I think I feel I’ve passed most of the productive or valuable/meaningful time I’m going to get. It’s also colder than yesterday and thus much colder than I’d like. I’m ready to pack it up, pack it in. But I ought not begin too early or I’ll have time waiting in the parking lot, which would be even worse.
I think the bulk of this trip’s impact will really be felt upon return. How will I see time, food, and other people differently? Right now I’m yearning. Upon return, will I be appreciating?
It’s cold and I’m hungry, but I’m very glad to be out of the woods. So to speak.
I had one last good message from the woods on my way out. I had tied my sleeping bag under straps behind the backpack. Quite tightly, I thought. But about 1/3 of the way down the trail, it fell out. Rather than remove my pack and reattach the bag, especially with the understanding it would probably fall out again, I simply picked it up and carried it.
I was immediately delighted by both how much lighter my backpack now seemed and how I was somewhat comforted by the feeling of hugging my sleeping bag to my chest.
At first, I thought “lighten your load!” But immediately I saw that wasn’t quite it – more accurately the message was “shift the weight: your burden will not be any less, but it will feel lighter.”
Now there’s what we call a take-home message.
When it rains in the Tenderloin, it’s easy to lose your footing.
Not only is the rain itself slick in this oft-forgotten neighborhood of San Francisco, but the sidewalks are so often coated with various debris that it mingles with the rainwater to create conditions reminiscent of a Slip-n-Slide. But there are few fun and games when it rains here, only the usual mass of poor, tired, and huddled, alongside the pimps and the dealers.
Everyone, even the pimps and the dealers, look a little more miserable in the rain. When your life is out-of-doors, especially overnight, there’s no such thing as appreciating a rainy day. As Richard Adams notes in Watership Down (my favorite book of all time), “Many human beings say that they enjoy the winter, but what they really enjoy is feeling proof against it. For them there is no winter food problem. They have fires and warm clothes. The winter cannot hurt them and therefore increases their sense of cleverness and security. For birds and animals, and for poor men, winter is another matter. Rabbits, like most wild animals, suffer hardship.”
And since there is no snow in San Francisco, the biting wind-blown rain is our winter.
I’ve been reading Shantaram lately, highly acclaimed by many of my friends. Much of the book is centered in the slums of Bombay. The descriptions and insights remind me much of the Tenderloin, though obviously on a much vaster scale. Which makes me wonder, sometimes, why I’m not in the slums of Bombay, or Baghdad, or the camps of Darfur. Surely there is a deeper need there. The rain falls harder in the land of monsoons. Or perhaps doesn’t fall at all.
I know all my arguments for positioning myself here. The United States remains the epicenter of world influence and thus, obviously, the best place to write, to speak, to be read and heard. One can change the minds of the poor and forgotten, but they have already been disregarded. One can change the minds of the rich and remembered, and watch the ripples fall out from there. I don’t like it, I wouldn’t choose for it to be this way, but I can’t deny practicality out of hand. Besides, it makes a certain amount of sense. The people of the Tenderloin are living much like rabbits, or any other being on the constant brink of survival. Survival does not afford one the luxury to consider larger aims of philosophy or politics. Survival clouds out all other issues and concerns, dominating the landscape with decisions of fight or flight. Part of our mission at Glide is to get people above the survival level, so they can again consider the larger questions. But the landscape of those larger questions will always be dominated by those who have the most time and energy to consider them. And thus, I remain here. Or at least I justify remaining here. Every day, it’s one or the other.
(This post, by the way, has earned the categorization “Read it and Weep” by virtue of discussing books and reading, not by necessarily being sad. The titling of my books/reading category being “Read it and Weep” is my own joke at myself for liking sad books. But this is not meant to imply that you should weep at this post in general. What you choose to be sad about is your own prerogative.)
I lack a window in my crowded narrow office, insulating me from momentary reminders of the rain or the rabbit-people of the Tenderloin. I have a warren. They do not.
Just dropping a note to let everyone know that I am out of the woods (literally), having spent about 31 hours immersed in the woods and 41.5 hours without food.
I wrote extensively in a notebook while I was out there and I intend to transcribe the whole thing here. I think that will tell the story better than I can recount it, at least trying to recount it in too much detail.
Suffice it to say for now that it was a positive experience, but nothing exactly earth-shattering. (I’m not sure I expected it to be.) I didn’t get quite as much solitude as I was hoping for, but was sufficiently detached from the normal routines and distractions that I think I got a pretty good idea of the overall nature of the experience. It will be very interesting to see how I reintegrate with routines like work. I’ve already spent the last hour or so reconnecting with the online life that I detached from for the weekend.
I will say this: Chipotle veggie crispy tacos, already among my favorite foods in the world, never tasted so good.
It’s Friday, I’m in hate.
I didn’t write anything here last Friday, save for posting the week’s final Duck and Cover. It was about an Embassy, which is supposed to be an extension of diplomacy and peace, being unable to open because of animosity toward the US. Which is inspired, in no small part, by the fact that said Embassy would not be about diplomacy and peace, but exerting control and influence, running a shadow government to ensure that Iraq functions as a colony for decades to come. It’s no coincidence that it’s supposed to be the largest embassy structure in world history.
Today’s Duck and Cover is about another subversion of peace, perhaps even more damning because of its source. The Nobel Peace Prize has long been sliding into some strange territory, but it wasn’t until today that I was really willing to concede that the committee has been corrupted or lost its way entirely. I had this debate with my Dad not two weeks ago, and now I have a heaping pile of crow on my plate and it’s time to dig in. I’ll be flushing it out with my fast soon anyway.
I know a lot you are thinking that my objection is laden in distaste for Al Gore as a person, his recent movie, and my disbelief in global warming as a concept (at least the way it’s being packaged to people). And you’re right that this sours an already low moment, but it’s not the core substance of my objection. Even if I were to grant that global warming is the biggest threat facing our planet today and that Al Gore is its leading crusader, there’s no justification for giving him the Peace Prize. Global warming has nothing to do with issues of war and peace, violence and non, human interaction on a basic living-together getting-along level. I know the argument you’re going to levy – global warming will eat our resources and living space, making the struggle for limited quantities that much more painful. So if Al Gore’s work were to figure out a way to divide resources fairly, or to negotiate conflicts based on refugees leaving the bay that was Bangladesh, or anything along those lines, then maybe (but still probably not). But he’s trying to “prevent” something that, if it is to be believed, is inevitable and insurmountable at this point. If you really believe in global warming, it’s time to batten down the hatches, start moving people to higher ground, and figure out how to vacate the Equator.
I’m getting away from my point. The point is that giving Al Gore the Peace Prize in 2007 is like giving Jon Stewart the Nobel Prize for Medicine because, after all, laughter is the best medicine.
And maybe you’d agree with that move. But if your lifetime aspiration were to be a medical researcher who cured something devastating, wouldn’t you feel like your goals were lost upon the announcement of Jon Stewart’s award?
It’s a familiar theme for me this week, despite all the anticipation I have going into this weekend’s fasting trip (see three posts ago, if you missed it). The struggles I have at work are reaching a boiling point (and now check two posts ago…) it’s really hard for me to anticipate where things are going to go. And as much as I love and embrace the unknown, a place of employ is just a hard place to do that. I can’t really engage all the details here, nor am I sure that this is how I want to spend my last few minutes before getting in the shower and starting up the track that inevitably leads to another work day. (Though not full, because I spent 11 uninterrupted hours there yesterday.) Suffice it to say that my pendulum swings radically between thinking I’ll be at Glide for the next five years and wanting to give notice. I can’t tell you why unless I do the latter, and I won’t want to if I do the former. Today, as on many Fridays, my pendulum has swung almost full-arc toward the latter.
Friday is usually a good day for people, especially at work. For a number of factors, some of them explicable, Friday is quite the opposite for me. Part of that may be sincerely wrapped up in holistically enjoying the work that I do and not wanting it to end for the week. I don’t think about it or feel it that way, but I think it must be a subconscious factor. Additionally, there are usually things that need wrapping up before week’s end, and that puts extra stress on its final day. And many people are often gone on Friday, shifting the weight of the workload.
I think it’ll be fine. I need to be on my way. The drum-beat of time still has me in its grip, for less than a day now. It’s decidedly October, and the butterflies in my stomach have the aura of sinister moths.
“Squint with one eye, hum a show-tune, and wait for your ride to say, ‘Oh, that’s where you must have lost your way.'”
All our accidents went purposeful and fell indeed.
When work feels like sixth grade, there’s really something wrong. I didn’t even go to sixth grade! Is this the penance I have to pay for that small feat of elusion?
A house divided against itself cannot stand. So who’s going to fall over first?
Oh John Schneider, where are you now?
When I was in high school, I was something of a firebrand. I won the Bible-beater “award” (really a gag gift of a stolen hotel Gideon) four out of four possible years at the annual New Mexico Model UN conference in Santa Fe. I stood in front of a car full of friends, as though I were in Tienanmen Square facing a tank, refusing to let them pass after one of them had offended me at just the wrong time. I spat on an ex-girlfriend’s car almost daily for a year, usually aiming for the driver’s side door handle. I was often righteously angry, raging or ranting at this or that situation. And, as now, I was quite an absolutist and extremist.
The softer side of this ball of fury included a propensity to push limits. I experimented with not sleeping, growing my hair out, changing my eating habits. I concluded one day that “Americans are obsessed with sitting” and refused to seat myself for a full day of school, standing in the back of the room during classes. I even stood for an entire session of our incredibly stuffy lunch (assigned seating, 10 students per table with one faculty head to generate appropriate mealtime discussion), eating with about 30% efficiency as I precariously carried my food on a fork from my waist to my mouth while standing. By the next day, I had decided that the whole sitting thing made a bit of sense.
Some of these experiments stuck. I still sleep less than most, though I am sleeping vastly more than the alternating sessions of zero and four hours of sleep per night that graced much of high school. Vegetarianism was clearly a good move. I am fond of growing my hair out.
But something that didn’t quite stick was periodic fasting. Fish and I engaged in a Ramadan-style fast during daylight hours of a summer month (July 1997, if memory serves), ostensibly “for” the success of our upcoming play that we co-directed that fall. I joined a Yom Kippur-style fast at Brandeis “for” the people of Bosnia a couple years later. After each fast, I came away refreshed and renewed and, while glad I could eat for the moment, convinced that fasting is really quite useful and beneficial in a variety of ways, from physical to spiritual.
The title of this post was a sincere comment I made to John Schneider, a good friend in high school, when describing the fast with Fish. He laughed uproariously and would proceed to bring it up for years afterward when he wanted to cite something absurd that I had said as the basis for giving me flak about my craziness. Schneider, a bit of a hedonist, saw self-denial as innately laughable and inherently unenjoyable. For him, my line was a bit as if I had said that self-flagellation were fun, or perhaps bathing in live scorpions.
Of course he was the one who ran cross-country.
Well, fasting is back. Having mentally prepared for this and pondered the parameters for a few months, I have chosen this weekend for a journey of sensory withdrawal (deprivation sounds so negative) and contemplation.
I still need to pick out a precise location, but it will be somewhere around a mile up or down a trail from a specified “drop point” in a county or state park not far away. I will bring only water, a tent, a sleeping bag, and paper and pen. No other sustenance of any kind, no electronics, and no books. No stimulus. The paper and pen will not be used to work on some creative or escapist project, but simply to record my thoughts, observations, and feelings as I embark on this 40-hour quest.
And while I take this project very seriously and intend to learn a lot from it, I must admit that I see this as a bit of a trial run, as practice. My hope would be that this be at least some sort of annual event, and that the distances and maybe even the timeframes could be stretched in future efforts. For now, though, I want to stay relatively close to home. And there’s something about the 40-hour span that just sings to me.
There are a lot of reasons that now seems like the time for this journey. My need to examine and make changes is all over this young blog, all over my thoughts and perspectives for the last few months. I feel far too “plugged in” in general, reliant on computers and electronic media, reliant on a constant level of noise and activity that all too often comes out like static. And I’m too caught up with what’s going on. Conflicts at work bleed into the rest of my day, spoiling my mood and my inspiration. I feel a deafening thud of routine overwhelming my creativity and vibrancy. Oh, how I want to break free.
Back in high school, I went on a “wilderness solo” camping trip as part of our experiential education curriculum during my sophomore year. The idea was extremely captivating to me, despite my lack of positive camping experiences and my horrendous feelings about the prior experiential ed trip, freshman year’s Philmont of doom (and torrential rain). The solo was pretty light-core and there was no fasting component, but we were supposed to hike out to our own predetermined spots and be alone for roughly 24 hours. While not required, we were encouraged to not bring books or other stimuli, in an effort to break below alpha and beta waves into our “theta wave state”. (There was actually a very long exposition about these relative brain wave states, which I have learned almost nothing about before or since, from the teachers running our trip.)
Most people snuck in alcohol and just drank. I really tried to honor the parameters of the trip, even though I had initially seen this as a great opportunity to just get away and read for a long time. In my early musings, I started humming the Kinks’ song “Lola” in my head, and it wound up stuck there for no less than 12 hours. It was torture. Eventually I had to break out a book in an effort at distraction, to no avail. I tried to sleep as much as I could.
And the teachers couldn’t even maintain the 24 hours of solo. They came to check on each one of us at about the 12-hour mark, just to make sure we were okay. I think the school’s liability standards were a bit in conflict with the project concept.
I think I’ve made a lot of progress in the last 12 years, especially regarding my perspective about the value of limiting stimuli. I may end up with “Lola” or some equally annoying drivel in my head for the bulk of the trip. I may end up thinking the whole time about what I’m missing, though I believe that would be quite informative in some way. I might just get a migraine and be in a low state of capacitation for most of the time.
But I doubt most of those scenarios. I have a feeling that I will be able to flush out much of what has been bothering me over the last few months, to really reset and focus on what’s important. To, as my Dad put it, “put my ear to the ground and truly listen”.
Obviously, while some of the inspiration comes from that wilderness solo attempt so long ago, some of the inspiration here is from Native American spirit quests, where young adults were dispatched to find their path upon reaching the age of majority. It’s clearly a different time in my life, one where I’ve passed or reached many of the plateaus and perspectives that young Native Americans were seeking. But there is still much to seek, and much to find. And the Native Americans had the advantage of being able to return to a world filled with people and bustle, yes, but devoid of clocks and electronics and infinite distraction. In our current incarnation, we have a much wider bridge to cross to be at home in the world.
Right now, with two days of work, routine, bustle, clocks, and electronics to go, I can’t wait to stand on that bridge, throw my arms to the sky, and just look around.