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.
Emily and I spent the weekend in Vermont, with roughly 20 hours in the air (and airports) and 36 hours on the ground. We went to witness and celebrate the marriage of Stina (Robison) Gagner and Dav Gagner. Congratulations!
A wedding is precisely the kind of event that made cryptic, three-line blogging such a joy. Sometimes I would punctuate some occasion like this with a line of congratulations (see above), but often I would write some airy words of wisdom or brief observation that seemed poignant and lyrical. And that would be that.
Trying to do more – to break down the event and do some sort of play-by-play – seems oddly inappropriate for an event like a wedding. I don’t really know why. Maybe it’s because details can really make something mundane, or at least appear more mundane than it felt at the time. Since you weren’t there (unless you were), you may read a narrative about a wedding simply mining it for details. Dress? Cake? Location? And in that, you don’t see the glint of the reflection off the water or the gust of breeze carrying laughter across the grass. Of course, I could just write a bunch of lines like “the glint of the reflection off the water or the gust of breeze carrying laughter across the grass”… but then I’d really just be doing three-liners instead of telling a story.
But maybe that’s okay. I may never escape metablogging. Maybe I’m just not in the right mindset to navigate a story lyrically tonight.
Obviously, the foremost thing one feels at a wedding is happiness for one’s friend(s) who are getting married. I think this is almost universal, except when one doesn’t approve of the match or if one is one of those increasing number who don’t seem to approve of marriage at all. Though those souls tend to be the same type who dislike (or claim to dislike) judgment as a concept, so even if they consider marriage to be a laughable promise mired in mysogyny and hopelessness, they will still wish their friends the best. A bad match is trickier. Fortunately, I both believe in marriage and heartily approve of this match, so all is/was well. It was great to bear witness to such happiness and joy, and the expression of that with others.
The others were a fair source of the joy as well, especially for my own lens of viewing the wedding. I think I may have seen more Brandeisians who I like than I could expect at a class reunion (though still fewer, to be sure, than at a debate reunion). And not just ‘Deisians, but many who I had long neglected to contact… and we all came together like it was somehow the turn of the millennium again. But now the questions we’re expected to answer are “What do you do?” and “Oh, what does that mean?”
I think one of the most exciting parts of getting older is the idea that we will get to see what other people we know or have known do with their lives. Moments like this weekend give me a glimpse into the idea that a great deal is to be learned by how unpredictable the life that unfolded for so many really is. And yet, so many people feel so little control over what’s going on. I’m caught between feeling it’s self-imposed and that it’s an extension of the powerlessness of our generation. I think tunnel-vision trumps powerlessness most of the time, though. And debt. Mounds of debt.
These thoughts must seem very distant from the wedding itself and especially the people doing the marrying. The thing about weddings is that one gets very little time with the prime-time couple… it’s rather like going to a stage play. One spends all their time watching the characters on stage, but the real contact is with the other guests at the show. Whoever you go with, or see when you get there that you know… those are the people who really impact your experience of whatever came up on stage.
Of course, I’m generalizing profusely, and this last paragraph above didn’t really even hold true for this wedding. It was relatively small, and I was blessed to be part of a small cache of people who hung out with the happy duo long after everyone else had retired. A couple couples peeled off toward the end, but four couples remained and whiled away hours in the tavern, then in the lobby, right up till Stina fell asleep. Fortunately the laughing-fit preceded the sleep. Something about shared experience spanning the distance of nearly a decade to dominate twin thoughts on a momentous evening indeed.
The rest of Vermont was peripheral, of course. It was mid-fall, so the reputed verdancy of Vermont was replaced by a blaze of colors made all the more striking under the obliquing fog. And of course the alleged mountains are scant hills in a region of the world that literally attempts the old cliche with the moles and such. Ben & Jerry, long since sold out, sold us ice cream after a tour of their legacy. In America, you do what you need to in order to retire comfortably and start doing whatever it is you actually wanted to be doing. Even if it was something as fun as making ice cream, or mountains from molehills for that matter.
There must be a place, if only imagined, where there is less concern with comfort and more with doing.
But comfort comes with joy, and there is no joy like love. Back in Berkeley, days later, it has begun to rain against my window. The rain comes in at an angle hitting the eastern window, despite the source being ever from the western ocean. There was very little crying at this wedding. Laughter. Cheering. The unbridled wonder of fulfillment amidst a lake and walls made from equal parts of glass.
The cars drive through small roadside pools on University, kicking up the jetting sound of splashed water, carrying students and teachers to their rest.
All right. Turns out that this whole “keeping posts long and narrative” idea works pretty well, but seems wholly unfitting for times like the morning before I depart on a big trip. I have a long-standing personal tradition of firing off correspondence and/or public missives before departing on trips, of getting up a little earlier to do so. Deep down, I know that a large part of the reason for this is the heightened perception of the risk of death during travel. Even though it’s absolutely not true, human beings feel this elevated threat level on planes that in someone like me (even though I know cars are eleventy-billion times more dangerous and life-threatening) makes me want to tie up loose ends… or at least give people awareness of what I was considering on the final day. Truth be told, it’s really amazing how much of my life I spend anticipating and preparing for final perceptions like that.
What a wonderfully cheery thought for five in the morning. But hey, if anything, I’m opening up even more with StoreyTelling than Introspection, because long explanations sort of require back-story, and back-story often requires taking a can-opener to those rusty containers that long ago developed botulism.
Regardless, the point here is that I have all these leftover thoughts and ideas that, now that I’m back in the blogging spirit, would normally have found their home in delicious two-liners on Introspection’s format. But there’s no place to put them. So they’re about to go here… periodically I’m probably just going to have to do posts like this with relatively unrelated assortments. I don’t think any of today’s are cryptic… I already have a whole “Keepin’ it Cryptic” category/tag planned too, since there will be inevitably be times when some other person feels they have a right to privacy, or I don’t really feel like forcing the issue with some person I know right here on this blog. But not today. So this will be like the appendix post.
Speaking of which, they allegedly found the purpose of the appendix this week. Nifty, huh? There’s a reason for everything. The proof for God is in the logical purpose, people.
Baseball is clearly something I’ve still been paying attention to, since it’s October and that’s one of the things that makes October great. And I am blessed to be paying Comcast an inordinate amount of money to get channels like TBS, so I’m not missing out on the playoffs. Hosting the baseball playoffs on TBS makes about as much sense as putting Top Chef on the History Channel. Especially since it’s the second playoffs in 465 years to not feature the Atlanta Braves. You could sort of draw a link between the channel and the show (in the same way that APDA draws links to resolutions), but no one who normally watches the channel will want to watch that show, and everyone who wants to watch will be vaguely frustrated to have to find a channel they never watch. Maybe that’s the strategy though, TBS gets to spam adds for their bizarre shows at a whole new audience. In 20 years, the Anime Channel will bid for the baseball playoffs and we’ll be inundated with ads for the latest blend of medieval fantasy themed Japanese characters with crazy hair and soap opera interactions between innings. And I’ll have to debate with Em about the value of adding the premium Anime Channel for 2 months and whether Comcast will respect our right to cancel it even though they’re already taking $746 a month.
I tend to be exaggerative in the morning.
My only real point in bringing up baseball was to observe how completely unlikely it is that anyone could’ve envisioned a Rockies/Diamondbacks NLCS even a month ago, let alone earlier in the season. And yet it looks extremely likely that this will happen. Granted, the Phillies are in the exact same position as the ’95 Mariners in their Division Series … down 2-0 going on the road. And we all know what happened then. (Or maybe you don’t. The M’s won 2 games in NY, then came home and won the decisive fifth game in extra innings in the greatest game in Mariner history.) And given that the Phils basically are the Mariners from a few years ago (not really, but the pitching staff is… after all, Pat Gillick’s their GM), it’s all possible. But at this point, the Rockies will probably be winning the World Series, so I wouldn’t put much faith in a Philly comeback.
I’m also starting to believe that a 5-game series just might not cut it for baseball. Or if it did, you’d need to have a 1-1-1-1-1 schedule, instead of 2-2-1. But it’s way easier to just go 7 games instead of changing venues for every game. The first World Series was 9 games. You don’t play 162 contests to get ousted by a 3-game losing streak. It’s just too short.
(By the way, the paragraphs directly above will earn this post the category/tag “Let’s Go M’s”. This is not because the M’s were briefly mentioned, but that will be my baseball title in general. I’m trying to limit myself a little here.)
Ack! In finding the link to that series recap on Wikipedia above, I just realized that I’ve been incorrect in my memory about the ’95 ALDS for years! Apparently they used to do a 2-3 schedule for the ALDS!! Two-three?! So the M’s were down 2-0 going into 3 straight home games, which they won all of. I’ve been recapping that series incorrectly for ages. Wow. That really blows my mind. Whoever thought 2-3 was a reasonable schedule for a baseball series? See, this really proves that it needs to be longer than 5 games.
Hm. Now I’ve gotten myself so hyped up about baseball that I’ve forgotten most of what else I was going to say. So it goes. I should go pack and clean out the catboxes anyway.
I’m going to Vermont, by the way, for Stina & Dav’s wedding, which will be in Octobery fall colors confines near the borders with New York and Quebec. It should be beautiful, and a little chilly. Em and I are changing planes approximately 4,000 times on the way out, so we’re loading up the books. The next book I finish will put me over the top of last year’s total (21), which is right about the pace I’d like to maintain for a year. My commute has been very good for keeping me reading… and I don’t want to read much more than 25 books a year, because then I’ll never write. I can’t quite decide if I like David Foster Wallace or if he’s just messing with everyone (or, I suppose, both), but his imagery is some of the strongest stick-to-your-mind kind of stuff ever.
(Gah, now I have to add a book/reading category/tag too! This is getting to be too much. I’m now believing that the way I really should have approached this morning’s posting is to post 4-5 separate posts, all neatly categorized and separated. But that would sort of be like a strobe-light-blog, wouldn’t it? Hrm.)
Thank you, by the way, to everyone who has written me e-mails in the last few days about this blog and welcoming me back into the communication fold. I really appreciate it and I will respond to everyone individually soon, but sadly not before leaving. But I want to acknowledge how touched I’ve been by your reception… it’s good to know I haven’t alienated all my readers by taking a couple months off.
Also, to delve into the slightest metablogging, I can’t figure out why the second post I made here was labeled as the third, and thereafter all the numbers have seemed to be off by one. This is the kind of thing that really bugs me about using automated blogging software and what I was always afraid of. Having an accurate postcount is one of the things that I was excited about with automation, and the slightest inaccuracy (and what could be more slight than an inaccuracy of one?) drives me crazy. When I return (there’s no time now), I will have to delve into the actual files of this database and see if I can alter everything to restore order to the numbers. So be mindful of permalinking these few early posts. If I restore the numbers and they count properly, I’ll never change them again. As I look at it now, though, it’s possible that WordPress is just terrified of a sophomore slump – category #2 doesn’t seem to exist either. Don’t fear the deuce, WordPress!
Okay, now to clean Pandora’s box.
I am not, by nature, someone who is particularly prone to planning ahead. Unlike some people who one might classify as “flaky”, this is a deliberate choice and not something I internally struggle with. I like not planning. I have my reasons, and to me they’re all true. But rather than delve into an expository on those reasons, I think this vignette of my life last night will serve to illustrate. Showing, not telling, they tell me.
Months ago, the Weakerthans let me know via their e-mail list that they would be coming to visit the city where I work, San Francisco, on October 3rd. The Weakerthans are a relatively obscure Canadian band who have chosen to stay on independent labels despite being talented enough to go for the big-time. They’re one of the bands I only know because I’m friends with David Gray (don’t misunderstand the musical mixed metaphor here – I’m talking about my friend, David Gray, not a Scottish folk singer… perhaps it’s best if I just call him Gris from now on). But unlike most of the music I’ve heard only through Gris, the Weakerthans are really good.
So they say they’ll be coming in October and I start to ready the usual suspects of people in the area who would want to go (Em, Gris, Anna) and get people excited about the show. Then I let it go for awhile, right up until this week when it flashed into my head that something exciting was coming up in October. By this time, rechecking with all the usual suspects reveals that no one else wants to go (everyone’s quite busy) and, lo and behold, the Weakerthans snuck a new CD out a week ago that will clearly be the basis for the show’s set and I don’t know it! Double-decker disaster!
(I initially thought that my e-mail list which is supposed to automatically keep me abreast of all things Weakerthans failed to inform me of the new CD, but upon review it seems that I was easily misled by the title of said disc. It’s called “Reunion Tour”. And I think they announced it in the same e-mail wherein they invited me to see them on their… tour. Chalk one up for not skimming the e-mail updates … or perhaps for bands never ever titling non-live album releases with the word Tour. Incidentally, the band has never broken up.)
Swift action was called for. I came to work yesterday with a plan to acquire the new CD at a music store near my place of employ and (gulp) listen to it at work sufficiently to catch up with it for the new show. I gulp not because there’s any sort of restriction on me listening to music at work – it’s all but encouraged – but because I pretty much can’t concentrate when there’s music on. Any noise that I can make sense of makes it almost impossible for me to zero in on anything else. Ambient, non-linguistic noise does not have the same problem, even at high volumes. I have always been amazed by people who legitimately seem to focus better while listening to music.
So the plan rolled out and I was able to find absurdly rote work to do for the first 40-minute run-though of the CD. Not enough to learn it, but at least I could know which songs to get excited about. And then I decided to hang out in my office for 40 minutes after work to more closely repeat the experience. It wasn’t until I was rechecking the show time on the website of the club (Slim’s) during track 7 that I actually saw the words… “PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS SHOW IS COMPLETELY SOLD OUT – THANK YOU!”
I knew the Weakerthans had stayed independent, so there was only one possible interpretation of that sentence. I wasn’t going to get to go.
Just as my heart was recovering from the shocking jolt of this realization (I had really been spending the whole day preparing for and thinking about this show), a plan began to hatch in my mind. So, only slightly fazed, I put together a sign to print out with a collection of Weakerthans song titles reworked to implore concert-goers to give me an extra ticket they might have (e.g. “This is a Ticket Seeker Never Leave Open”). I wrapped it up with a quote from “Pamphleteer” about standing on a corner, trying to get people’s attention, [and a ticket]. And I made it clear that I would pay face value for the ticket and was not seeking a freebie – although I would gladly have paid well more than the $15 face value of the ticket, I was quite concerned about being rung up for some sort of scalping infraction were I to put in writing that I would pay double face value. In fact I was quite concerned with this whole project that I could get hauled in (or at least shooed away) under scalping accusations of some sort or another. There’s a reason actual scalpers don’t entreaty customers with signs.
My larger concern, of course, was with investing hours of time in the cold with my sign and ending up going home without seeing the show. If it sold out in the first place, who knows how many die-hard fans they had accumulated since the last time they played SF? Would there be a fleet of people with signs like mine, boldly bidding $100 for entry? At least if I got shooed away early, I would only be out a brisk mile-plus walk across the city.
So I got there at about 6:20 (doors 7:30, show 8:00), to stand against a pole by the entrance perfectly positioned to face the line. The line had three inhabitants, stalwartly bracing against the wind tunnel formed by Slim’s on the right and… the tour bus on the left! Interesting. The box office was closed, so I couldn’t cajole them. I asked the three line-standers if they had an extras, then hauled my sign, backed with cardboard from my backpack. The wind was blowing such that it pinned the sign against my chest, which was rather fortunate… had the wind or arrangement of the street been reversed, all my hair would have obscured my face and the sign would constantly be in danger of catching the wind on a corner and blowing down the road.
Band members began to filter back and forth between the bus and the club, sometimes glancing at my sign and a couple took time to stop and read it. (The fonts were to small and people have a harder time seeing than I do, so people would often have to stop right next to me and sort of lean in to get the full impact of the sign. But people kept doing it.) Very few actual concert-goers were showing up. And then John K. Samson, the lead singer, turned the corner with an apparent local friend of his and was chatting with him for awhile. Then he popped into the club, then back over to the bus, and then came by to read my sign and say hello.
Dialogue in these situations is always a little strange. I don’t think stars (major or minor) like the fan who just opens up and starts talking about how they think the star is brilliant and speaks to them or some such. It may be true, it may even be implicit in the interaction, but it’s just weird to hear, especially in an off-the-cuff interaction that doesn’t have indefinite amounts of time to explore lyrical interpretation or the symbolism of syntax. My perception that this is the case is drawn from strained interactions with debaters when I was one of the top debaters on APDA… it’s probably the closest I’ve been to feeling what an adult celebrity might feel like. (And I’m not trying to exaggerate here or delve into grandeur – I’m very well aware of what debate was and wasn’t. I’m just explaining a sensation of an interaction that seems vaguely microcosmic.) Novice debaters I’d never met would walk right up to me and start talking about how they felt about a round, or try to get my opinion on a type of case, often with no introduction, warning, or observation of the fact that this was a weird thing to do. The lack of introduction exacerbated things like them knowing my name and my not knowing theirs. And they almost all seemed to come from the school of thought that if you just talk to someone like you’ve been good friends for a long time, then everything will go perfectly. It was often too odd for words, and always left me feeling a little bad about not having memorized the 214 people who might be registered at a tournament and anticipating everything they might say to me.
So I didn’t want to do that.
“How’s it going?”
“Good. (laughs) I like your sign.”
“Thanks. I didn’t think you’d sell out.”
“It’s okay. I’m just hoping to get in to see you guys tonight. I’m sure someone’ll come along with an extra. I’m pretty confident.”
“Well, I’ll see what I can do for you. I’ll see if we can work this out.”
“That would be great! Thanks.”
He stopped by a couple times thereafter, once to tell me that he was “working on it” and another to say that he thought it was going to work out.
Shortly after the last interaction (about 50 minutes from when I’d started standing there and the line had now grown a bit with no extras in the crowd), someone clearly in some sort of band-manager position came up and asked me to write down my name on a piece of paper in a Sharpie I could hardly open because of the wind tunnel cold. Five minutes later, she said I had been put on a list for the will-call line and could buy a ticket!
The rest was history and became like the normal experience of going to a show by myself, one that (like doing many things alone, such as going to movies) I often really enjoy as a uniquely personal event. Going to a show with others is great fun, but the event becomes as much about the people you’re going with as the music itself or the band or even how one as a person experiences the whole environment. Going by oneself really isolates the emotions of the event itself… I wouldn’t choose that kind of approach every time, but it’s nice from time to time. Plus I get to eavesdrop. And I really enjoy eavesdropping on the conversations of strangers. It’s one of the best schools we have and the best ways of grounding ourselves in the perspectives of others outside our sphere or vantage point.
I did manage to write “THANK YOU!” on the back of my sign and get John K. Samson’s attention with it during the second or third song, which he acknowledged with a smile and nod. I say a smile, but John K. smiles more than anyone I’ve ever seen on the stage at a show… he constantly seems elated and giddy to be performing. Which is a pretty reasonable reaction, if you ask me.
Did I mention I was in the front row? I was in the front row. I was the sixth person to get up to the stage despite being the 20th or 25th person in line. Only the first five people in line and I were concerned with actual proximity to the show (as opposed to, say, first in line for T-shirts or drinks).
I filled the rest of the sign’s back with the setlist, which I’ll post at the bottom of this now absurdly granular and lengthy post. The Weakerthans may never play “Sounds Familiar” in concert, but it won’t keep me from calling out for it during the silences. “Reconstruction Site” back-to-back with “Aside” was probably my highlight of this show, though the entire first encore was pretty great too. While I was ecstatic that they came back for a second encore (they haven’t done this in the two prior times I’ve seen them), the actual songs left a little to be desired. John K. even got my hopes up by saying “We haven’t played this song in years” before the final tune, but it was not the aforementioned “Sounds Familiar”. That would be a great way to close a show, but it seems the Weakerthans like to end on an up-note, unlike say, Counting Crows, who would totally close on “Sounds Familiar”. If, y’know, it were their song.
Psalm for the Elks Lodge Last Call
Our Retired Explorer
Relative Surplus Value
Sun in an Empty Room
Left and Leaving
Tournament of Hearts
History to the Defeated
Plea from a Cat Named Virtute
One Great City!
Confessions of a Futon Revolutionist
Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure
Swingin’ Party (cover)
Exiles Among You