The Rapture of Digital Truancy

Dear Dr. Bacastow from Penn State,

It is crunch time this semester. I just received your email regarding Geospatial Intelligence and the Geospatial Revolution. I will be unable to submit my Final Project (capstone) on time or ever. I hope that you can understand that I have had a very heavy course load over the past few months, including Introduction to Thermodynamics – Transferring Energy from Here to There, Physics I with Laboratory, and The Age of Sustainable Development. I would like for you to be aware that my non-attendance to your course was not unique: like last semester, I didn’t make it to a single course this semester. Before you rush to judgment and ignorantly begin throwing digital stones in your virtual ivory tower, I think that I deserve an opportunity to explain myself. I feel like you never took the time to get to know me as all of your emails were addressed to the fake name that I used when I signed up for Coursera. More importantly though, I feel like your course really wasn’t appropriate for someone who is completely uninterested in the subject matter – possibly you could try and throw in something a little more enticing or provocative from a different field to reach a broader audience. It wasn’t just you though. For Physics I the virtual laboratory felt completely inaccessible. And I am going to be frank here about Thermo: the faces that Margaret Wooldridge – Arthur F. Thurnau Professor made in her course description that made me want to stay away from school.

I will be fair though and admit some fault on my part. Each time I received an email from you or Dr. Sachs I felt a tremendous sense of power and a release when I subsequently chose not to attend your lectures. I have never liked school very much and truancy has been a part of my relationship with academia since my storied career began. It was a costly game to play before, but through technological innovation I am able to not attend courses on a scale that was impossible before. I want you to understand that your work is not in vain though as I read each of your emails with relish and downloaded your lectures, but I then mirthfully choose to do something else like going to the beach or making some food. You are giving contrast to my life – thank you for your regular appearance in my inbox. I am thinking about not attending the following courses during this next session:

-Introduction to Clinical Neurology -Digital Systems

– Sistemas Digitales: De las puertas logicas al procesador (Bilingual)

-On Strategy – What Managers Can Learn from Philosophy  – Part 2

-And possibly Theater and Globalization to round it out with a course from the humanities.

Could this count as my Final Project (capstone)?

Thank you,

Alex

Licking a Banana Slug in the 21st Century

“It was really a sad day. I took the camera out and I was going to take some pictures. And then I said, well, he deserves more than that. So I skinned him. I skinned his whole body. It took me all day. It was raining. So it was a really sad time. I’d skin a while, then cry a while. I was just like a baby,” a rancher named Ralph spoke softly out of the speakers of Steven’s car. A re-run of This American Life he guessed.

Steven had tuned in late, but the story seemed to be about a gentle and famous showbull that had passed away…that was then stuffed. He turned out of his driveway and drove towards work.  Steven veered around a broken down truck. He rocked back and forth in his seat – a symptom of a disease his wife called ‘restless head syndrome’ – as Ira Glass explained that the bull had been cloned to create Second Chance; they were physically identical and shared the same mannerisms. His owner Ralph fell in love with him as if he were the original. An emotionally rattled producer of the show narrated watching Second Chance brutally maul his owner Ralph.

The section about the bull ended and some girl, who sounded like a propagandist for The Daughters of the American Revolution, began prattling on with patriotic rhetoric about the Marquis de Lafayette. He turned off the radio and drove in silence. His eyes watered with weltchmerz as he thought about the twisted parable. Steven pulled into the parking lot at work. He stopped as he was about to open the door to his office and winced. He had forgotten, again, to stop by Comcast. He wished he could just tell Nancy that he wouldn’t do it – that he felt like he died a little bit inside each time he went there. Like a conscientious objector.

He took a deep breath and swiped his card. He then hurried towards his office, avoiding eye contact with the security guard – or was he a secretary? – whose name he had learned and embarrassingly forgotten. He made it to his desk without incident. He had just returned from a few days in Miami Beach doing a site visit and didn’t want to be there.

He got out his computer and began giving a cursory reading to the many articles that news aggregators had piled into his inbox. He felt like seeing a hundred articles on the same issue, day after day, for years, made it all seem so trivial and futile. When viewed from a meta-perspective they just looked like trends, rumors, hearsay rippling through the internet. 31 stories one week about how climate change might affect chocolate production, 14 on how the tourism economies of remote small island nations were likely to suffer in the coming decades, 19 on the meaning of the dropping price of oil for global emissions, 15 articles vociferously supporting or rejecting various outlandish geoengineering proposals. Climate change was the perfect news story in a way: no data to parse, not location specific, no characters, no beginning or end – pure echo chamber.

One article announced that the drought in California was not caused by climate change. This, confusingly, came on the heels of months of articles touting it as a tangible manifestation of climate change. Apparently climate change models did not show drought in California as a probable outcome in their projections. Steven could no longer understand what was meant by climate change; it just seemed too nebulous. Computers would decide what was climate change and what was not.

He clicked another email: Meeting with Tim moved up to 9:15. He chuckled mirthfully, thanking the lord that there is Tim Connelly to remind us why we are doing our jobs. Steven grabbed his notebook and walked quickly towards the conference room. The air conditioning made it feel as if he walked into a cryogenics lab. He was convinced that Tim probably had some Californian theory about how cooler temperatures decrease aging and that he was doing the world a favor. Steven grabbed a seat at the middle of the table.

The room gradually filled. Tim entered the room last, as usual, with a flurry of activity that made him seem like a circus performer or some sort of magician.

“Good morning. Thank you all for coming.” He took off his glasses with an exaggerated motion, aware that everyone was watching him. “We have a big week this week. A lot happening. I am hoping that we can all work out our individual schedules on our own time and that we can use this collective space to do some conceptualizing. I mainly want to share some ideas that I am going to discuss at a TED conference later this week. It is just a primer.” He smiled and then said “I’ll send you the link to the talk so you watch a master at work.”

He squared some papers officiously; papers that Steven imagined were blank.

“Climate change is not a tangible thing. It is a set of ideas that are driven by technology. Computers and networking have enabled us to amass information regarding our planet in a way that was completely impossible several decades ago….and to analyze it. In this way we have built an image of a planet in flux, one that is warming due to increasing c-oh-two concentrations. We all understand this point, but bear with me as I am going to explain how this is the theoretical basis for our business.”

“The next step in our field was to build computer models that projected these trends into the future. Then we were able to conceive the possible impacts that these broader trends could have upon different economic sectors, different nations, different locations. We saw more powerful storms, coastal inundation, droughts, and feedback loops. The calculation done by the models is beyond the capability of a human mind. The volume of data and the complexity of the interdependent variables are too vast.”

Tim took a dramatic pause, looked around the room, and then resumed.

“The propagation of these ideas has been advancing almost lock step with the rise of computers as a platform for communication, entertainment, education, and professional work. We have spent decades now working to get people to integrate the theoretical reality of climate change into their thoughts and actions. Call it education, sensitization, scare tactics. We are, in effect, asking people to substitute a computer model for their personal reality, to subjugate their personal decisions to a reality that is not intelligible to them as individuals. Stop and think about this for a moment. This is how we will save this planet. If people do not integrate these ideas into their thought, we are in trouble.”

Stephen looked out the wall of windows at the contrails crisscrossing the sky and had to constrain a rising urge to yell. He wasn’t sure what, but something. Maybe just a primal scream.

“The models describe and prognosticate, but they do not serve to explain. They model a reality given certain initial conditions and project them into the future. They do not adequately model the human economic or political responses – they are in fact intended to inform these responses. We are presented with this model of an almost helpless mass of humans… seven billion of us. Particles in an algorithm. You could log stack seven billion people into a cube two kilometers by two kilometers.”

For a few moments there was nothing but the hum of computers and the click of keyboards. Steven could not tell if people listened with rapt attention or were wracked with boredom. He hoped that nobody was listening or taking notes, and instead writing poetry or sexting.

“The important part for us is that people take this step of internalizing a reality that is anything but intuitive. Our business exists in the space created by this form of thought. The more people are willing to accept this computer generated reality and picture of humanity, the more of a market we will have.”

“Basically,” he boomed in a voice that brought everyone to attention as they knew it signaled a conclusion, “what I would like to emphasize for our business and the protection of this very planet, is how important it is that we continue to emphasize the models. We are in the business of selling solutions to this model of mankind, insurance against these potential realities. We sell ideas and peace of mind.”

One person awkwardly ventured to clap and then the room erupted.

Tim looked around the room briefly. “Any questions? I have to run, barely fit this meeting in today. Thank you for your time.”

Steven wondered if there were never any questions because nobody ever had any fucking clue what Tim was talking about. Tim put his glasses back on, grabbed his papers, and left. Everyone followed suit and hurried back to doing whatever had just been explained.

Steven opened up the information that he had gathered while in Miami Beach regarding the luxury condo building Faena House. He had met with an engineer and an actuary. He looked at similar policies they had written in the area. He felt good about his research and the numbers.

While Steven had been there he saw the streets flooding during high tide. It felt surreal looking up at the shimmering glass and steel as water burbled out of the sewers. Everyone knew the area was devastated by any tropical storm that hit the south of Florida. Yet buyers lined up for some of the most expensive real estate in the world because it could be insured. Steven’s company would not truly insure it, the state would underwrite the policy. Steven, along with the other parties in the transaction knew that the state would not be able to pay out the policies on their books, but as Tim had said, this was the space that they existed in.

His head was awash in numbers and projections. He sighed in relief when he had plugged the necessary information into an algorithms and it spit out a yearly projected cost. He started typing up the contract. He repressed ideas that assailed him about whether this was responsible and ethical. He didn’t get food for asking questions. He wondered if humans could learn to do any task, no matter how illogical and unethical by Pavlovian training? Were there limits?

He nearly completed the contract, but his mind felt frayed and he decided he was done. He had put a meeting on his calendar for the afternoon anticipating that he would need to get out. He got into his Prius and drove south towards the redwoods outside of Santa Cruz.

He parked at the trailhead on a trail that he had hiked often in college. He changed into some shorts, a UCSC t-shirt with holes in it, and his flipflops. He tossed water, snacks, and a book into a small backpack before setting off. The trails were spongy with pine duff, he could hear its murmurs underfoot as he walked in solitude. This park had always been his refuge, a counterbalance against the grinding logic of work and school…or more lately the grinding illogic. Everything in the forest was tangible, it was in order. He laughed at this thought, but it was true. He felt like he was at home there, like he fit into the order of things.

He walked off the trail and started wandering. He passed scattered, rusty iron logging equipment. He stood with his back against the trunk of a towering redwood and stared up the ridges of bark that led towards the upper stories of the tree. He sat down on a felled tree and felt the deep ridges with his hand. He relished the fecund smell of the forest. He snapped a carrot between his teeth and then progressively ate the root down.

He could not properly savor his pear as Tim’s voice kept repeating phrases from the meeting that day; they arose like ripples and swells in his mind. He wondered how much time anyone in his office, each of them likely a self-identified environmentalist, spent in nature. How can we expect people to be proper stewards for something they minimally interact with and therefore have only a rudimentary understanding of, these people who are merely concerned with how resource scarcity or natural variability will impinge upon their lives? Tim’s whole idea of an external, technology-based reality seemed to be driving the problem that it was now striving to solve. He realized that anyone living completely abstracted from nature is unlikely to lead humanity in the right direction. It seemed simple to Steven: there was only one reality, in which man was an integrated part of an environment that he effected and that effected him in turn. How could it be any other way? He shook his head. He wondered whether he should just confront Tim Connelly and ask him whether he was a cyborg. Maybe he kept the air conditioning so low to keep his processors from overheating? A rain drop burst upon his hand and sent him scrambling.

“Shit.”

He shouldered his pack and got back on the trail. The sound of the rain grew into a hushed roar. He ran quicker. Suddenly one massive drop struck him in the forehead and he stopped in his tracks. He peered straight up and let his eyes follow individual drops as they seemed to emerge out of the ether hundreds of feet above. Birds were chattering about the rain. Banana slugs slimed their way across the trail. He laughed, remembering in college when his friends had convinced him, on a backpacking trip to the Lost Coast, that licking one would make your tongue go numb. He put one in the palm of his hand and everyone huddled their faces around his hand. He grinned and then ran his tongue down the entire length of the banana slug.  It didn’t work, but he demanded a bottle of cheap red wine to rinse out his mouth and that started off an incredible night. They howled at the nearly full moon, swam naked in the surf, and laughed at the rest of the world that Jess kept calling ‘a mere simulacra.’ Everyone drifted off to sleep as the fire burned out and the bottles went empty. The heavy bag of weed from a friend’s farm was Steven’s only company as he passed hours transfixed by towering, moonlit waves that seemed to shake the earth as they broke.

He set off running again, this time with a feeling of boundless joy. He reached his car and took off for home. He swung by the co-op on his way and bought apples, walnuts, fresh greens, goat cheese, wine, and chocolate. He was going to make a feast for everyone in celebration of living.

It was twilight when he got home, that meant Nancy and the kids should be there. He intentionally burst into the house still wearing his filthy, soaked clothes. He hoped they noticed and asked him about his day. Nobody was in the kitchen, but there was an assortment of nearly empty takeout boxes from PF Chang’s and white rice scattered about the counter.

He heard voices and saw colors from the television flickering against the windows in the living room. Nancy was watching one of her sitcoms about miserable wealthy people.

He waited a moment. “Hey Nance.”

She continued watching TV and responded distractedly with, “Hey hun. We already ate dinner. I left some out on the counter for you.”

“What are you watching?” Steve was trying to make conversation.

“Oh just that show Revenge. I know you don’t like it, but you could make yourself a plate and come watch.”

“Maybe in a bit. I bought some things to make a salad. What are the kids doing?”

“You know them. School work and talking to friends.”

He walked up the curving staircase towards the kid’s bedrooms. Mika was sitting on her bed wearing headphones. She was rocking back and forth just like Steven – restless head syndrome. She reached for her Iphone and saw Steven in the doorway. She smiled and waved.

He continued on to Stevie’s bedroom. He was at his desk, but saw Steven in the doorway out of the corner of his eye. He quickly closed a few windows on his computer and awkwardly turned around.

“Hey dad.”

“Stevieeee – what’s going on?”

“Oh just doing some trades on fantasy baseball. Too bad the Giants suck so much. We need to bring back steroids.”

“How was school?”

“The same shit that always does. You went to school didn’t you?” Stevie said dismissively.

“Well there were beautiful girls, and fights and I failed tests. We greased pigs and released them and  had massive food fights.”

“Well it is great that you got to be an extra in Dazed and Confused, but we stare at Powerpoint presentations all day and use Facebook to do our bullying and courting.

“Yep times have changed,” Steven calmly answered in jest. “I am going to make a salad – with goat cheese and I’ll make a dressing. You want any? I got some chocolate too,” he asked hopefully.

“No. I gotta get a few things done. Enjoy though.”

Steven went downstairs and ate his salad in a house that felt vacant.

The Year of the Hotdog

As we proceed through life we should never forget that the routine ingredients that flavor our lives would lose their importance if they were not underlain by mystery and shrouded in chaos.

Life is a mystery nestled in a bun of chaos topped with all of the simple, standard ingredients of existence. The universally identifiable toppings give depth and meaning to mystery and chaos, but they cannot be fully understood and appreciated without reflecting upon the mystery of that underlies them. We can only appreciate the mystery though, as it will forever remain beyond the understanding of science and logic. Speculating upon the constituents of the hotdog proceeds under the misguided belief that the object of scrutiny is the mere sum of its constituents. Even if we could agree upon the nature of its contents, the question of how such glorious flavor and beauty could be created out of seemingly nothing would persist.

I propose that this year we no longer idly muse about the nature of the hotdog and instead that we eat of it and relish the mystery.

A Setting of One Foot in Front of the Other

This day I would begin an odyssey that would shake the weltschmerz from my girdle. I would walk the coast of isle peopled with inhabitants whose languages remained completely beyond the ken of my discerning ear and whose clime would test my mettle to the utmost.

I arose with my nerves steeled for the unknown. The day’s heat proved formidable even though the cocks had only just begun to crow. At I had minimal information on the route, but I had at least been assured by various learned acquaintances that the public beaches were fair grounds for the setting of camp and that there was food for the eating.

IMG_3764 (1024x768)I walked out the main gate of our compound and turned to the right, despite the plan that I had to turn left. The sentry who assiduously guarded the entrance paced the road and as a speaker of my native tongue was likely to inquire what my plan was. The reasons being too complicated to explain drove me to bravely change course. I endeavored to head due north on a series of rarely trod bovine paths beset on every side by brambles and vegetables of a rather spiny nature. I was forced to turn back upon my trail multiple times as I navigated these wastes strewn with refuse. My tunic was sodden after a mere ten minutes.

I marveled at inexplicable concrete castles along dirt roads that were not only devoid of nobility or gentry, but there was nary a groundskeep or caretaker to be seen. I was led to wonder what chicanery inspired such frivolity.

IMG_3749 (1024x768)I reached the northernmost point of the island– a sign marked it as Cap Malhereux – and then began walking towards the yoke of the eastern sun. The Orient proved to be sparsely populated compared to the Occident. The paths were rife with mechanical conveyances that threatened my life at high velocities  with little room for refuge.

I walked along the beach when possible and gazed upon uninhabited, rugged northern isles that local lore spoke of as inhabited with the most bizarre and uncomely reptiles imaginable. I shuddered at the mere thought of these blind boas and neon lizards. Previous travelers had assured me that they had exterminated all such fauna from this island.

IMG_3757 (768x1024)I made frequent pit stops at shrines along the coast. I approached one from a distance that was dressed regally and appeared to be of significant import, only to find that upon closer examination the figure had a half simian half man face. I never have seen such a creature on this island. I later found out that this thing was called Hanuman, a beast that once mistook the sun for a mango and tried to eat it in his youth. A story that I venture to say is preposterous.

My feet had already begun to ache and blister. I sought respite in the shade of a food hawker’s stand. I shared a mirthful moment with a group of shirtless men gathered around a booth who laughed at one of the few utterances that I was able to manipulate my tongue into uttering in the local dialect: ‘Un roti de poisson avec beaucoup pimen.’ After saying this the locals will hand you a roll filled with spices, fish, and chili.

IMG_3760 (1024x768)My exhaustive research indicates that prior to 1638 there were no permanent inhabitants of this tropical island. The Dutch had a colony on Mauritius from 1638 until 1715 when the French took control of the island who held it until the British came in 1810. It has a history of being passed around like a lady of the night and appears to have few of its original natural charms left. The creole language that is native to these islands is a mix of African Bantu language, French, English, Arab languages, and Indian languages.

IMG_3762 (1024x768)

The chili in the food left my mouth ablaze and brought tears to mine eyes, which I promptly stifled to avoid doing injury to the perception of my peoples. Thence I tried to hug the coast and avoid the majority of the traffic.  Beads of sweat materialized from the ether upon my forehead and rivulets cascaded down my face. I strode in the darkness granted by the benevolent branches of trees. Many of these trees were brilliant and quite unlike anything that exists in my native land. They loomed magnificently over the road and gave me the impression that I was part of a grand procession. I was marveling at the splendor of existence, when a long ratlike creatures scurried across my path and slinked into the undergrowth and leaf litter. I deeply regretted how this creature befouled the image that I had conjured in my mind.

IMG_3770 (1024x768)The coast retreated from the road, but thankfully the breeze continued to caress me with the gentleness of thousand butterflies flapping their wings. I found myself adrift in a vast sea of sugar cane – what a delicious sight!

I passed through a city called Goodlands. I stuck my hand into the reddish soil and it crumbled into dry dust before sifting through my fingers. The name Goodlands seemed to have been given to the place in jest. It was at this moment that I realized that I was over a league away from the coast, somehow my stalwart navigational skills had foundered.

IMG_3785 (1024x768)I reached a place called Poudre d’Or with the sun having passed west of its apex. After shouting at a local man I was informed that the name of the town translates to ‘golden powder.’ After another bit of time I managed to find cold water and a fried noodle dish called mine frite. I relished both to a degree that would be lewd to place in print and would besmirch my literary reputation.

I laid down in a park and drift into a blissful slumber. I waved a greasy turkey drum stick in my hand at passersby and pontificated on a subject that had been troubling me.

IMG_3790 (1024x768)“Hear ye, hear ye. It is not only the earth’s ancient failure to provide conditions that are conducive to the building of civilization in the untold leagues of deserts, tundra, and mountains that mar her countenance that I wish to discourse upon this day, but rather a topic of more vexing concern: our grand civilizations are now under constant threat from unruly tides that threaten to inundate our coasts, a dearth of water in the hinterlands that makes the sustenance of our barleycorns difficult, and mercurial tempests that terrorize our lands.”

“It is unconscionable, it is abhorrent to the sensibilities of the most brilliant of species for whom this domain was erected. I decry that there is only one thing hindering our limitless expansion and we are therefore engaged in nothing short of mortal combat with this final foe – the earth. I ask thee how shall we respond: Can we subdue this wily savage and gentrify it or will we humble ourselves and accept that parts of it shall forever remain indomitable due to their immutable and uppity constitution?”

“If we accept a position as a mere vassal we will have to recognize and abide by a myriad of constraints and implicit duties of stewardship, therefore I exhort my intelligent and sensible listeners to push onward towards the culmination of a task that began many millennia ago. Our laudable and infinitely brilliant minds – those that have allowed mankind such success in outcompeting every other species and shaping our very environment – shall not prove themselves insufficient to putting an end to this irrational and immoral savagery that we have heretofore put up with. I proclaim that it will be no more difficult than bottling lightning or leashing a cloud!”

The cackle of a group of roustabouts drinking away the afternoon woke me with a start. I was planning on sleeping in the park, but the men sitting around drinking cider and the amount of trash sent me walking. I was disappointed as the isolated pristine white beaches that my mind had conjured and held onto like a prized mirror-finished marble had become tarnished by the corrosive effects of reality.

roostercubeThe inhabitants of the island had pasted a variety of posters along my route with the intent of advancing their chosen candidate for political office. The content of the posters seemed, like many of things on the island, impenetrable to me. One party used a picture of a rooster pecking cubes to represent their party and the primary candidate in this region had a name that is unprintable. I withered under the late afternoon sun. I provisioned in Roche Noir near the coast where the proprietor warned me about the perils of being waylaid on the coast by thieves.

I was walking without relish and had entered a very remote region. My feet felt as if they were being rendered into ground meat as I trod onward under the tangerine sun. It had rotated around the earth and now dipped below the trees with a tangerine tint. I tossed my pack down, took off my shoes, and then hobbled into the ocean like a bipedal crab. The sea trembled with anger and its menacing vibrations broke against the black rocks of the coast. I laid down in the water, casually relieved myself, and stared out at the horizon hoping against meeting a kracken or giant devilray upon this occasion.

I reluctantly returned to the beach to cook dinner while there was still light. I sautéed various vegetables to which I added small fishes. The sun painted the distant isles rouge as I suspiciously eyed the foreboding, dark clouds on the horizon. It seemed prudent that I move with haste to make ready my canvas.

The first drops began to fall. I had obtained a new big top canvas after great difficulty immediately before my departure that I began to assemble, but I was dismayed to find that it would not come together. I sat down in consternation with the realization that this was a death knell for this undertaking – I would have to return embarrassed to my abode and make designs for another journey. I prayed to my normal god, but also ventured to offer a few kind words to that monkey figure that I had seen previously in the day.

IMG_3808 (1024x768)I set off down the beach. Fortune favored me and I was rewarded with the discovery of a vacant beach castle. I approached the building and unloaded my rucksack under a tree. I curled up in the unerected canvas of my big top, but was immediately disturbed by an odor that led me to believe that the place could be nothing other than a feral cat latrine. Sheer indolence left me impotent to move and I hunkered down with unshakable fortitude. I was thankfully able to drift off to sleep each time there was a break in the rain.

I woke up and saw a break in the clouds that permitted me to gaze upon the scintillating night sky. I ruminated on the shapes and patterns that stars created in the sky. What was clearly a bear to me other fools held to be a big dipper or just a random group of stars as if god had merely sneezed them into existence. I began to get damp and shivered intermittently. I didn’t even once think that I was a miserable wretch. Eventually an orange glow in the east lit up my red eyes.

IMG_3798 (1024x768)I went down to the black rocks again to make breakfast and tea. The night had left my mind blank and it was easily hypnotized by the sound of the waves. I peered into small pools that teemed with colorful, furtive fish and gangly, writhing starfish. I saw what looked like a miniature black and white flying Arabian carpet floating through one pool.

IMG_3818 (1024x768)I set off down the beach heading south. The wind misted me with salty air. I reached another beach and I started a conversation with a guard while I waited for the bathroom stall to open up. It seemed to help pass the time as I was in dire need of the toilet. He asked me a few questions about my native land and then asked me about an incident that I had not kept abreast of due to the nature of my travels.

“I was watching the news yesterday and it said that black people were rioting because police shoot a black kid,” he said.

“Yes, but you see it is a really complicated situation,” I was not sure how to respond.

“No. No. The blacks are all bad,” he said confidently and reassuringly. I was soaked in sweat from colonic concentration.

“My friend, life is tough for a lot of people in that part of the world. It would be hard for me to relate the difficulties to you,” I had to pause and take a deep breath to keep the sardines from jumping out of my can. “But I can assure you that the darkness that courses through the hearts of my countrymen exists here just the same. The dodo is just…” I trailed off as I saw a stripling exit the bathroom and ran with the utmost gentility.

Squirting Ink as a Form of Self Defense

While I saved and planned my departure for Mauritius I felt like I was in an extreme delayed gratification study, staring at a mango on a plate for months on end. Why not stay home? What is the sense in all of this wandering? Why is there so much joy for me in caroming off in an unknown direction? My drive to undertake adventures and explore the unknown has always been hard to explain.

IMG_3665 (1024x768)On the plane to Paris I wrote the following: “For me it seems that adventures and the mystery of life unfolding are the single greatest joys in life. There will always be sedentary jobs, possessions to accumulate, things to be learned through perseverance, and debts to amass and service. Death will always haunt us as an omnipresent specter though. The potential ways to live a life seem as limitless like the earth itself. Maybe I am just not meant to sit and work in – as Mark Salouka says – paint factories. I sleep better under the stars. I feel best when I rise with the sun. I often find myself want to run wild and break from the rational non-sense of society. Another justification seems to lie in my perception that society, science, religion, and technology fail to explain the mystery of mysteries. Exploring seems to be the realization of my philosophy regarding life in some way. It could be said to be pointless, self-serving, futile… but this logic can be turned against most of the activities that other people spend their lives doing whether it is working for a financial services company, designing multi-billion dollar Iphone applications that allow teenagers to send one another self-destructing photos of their genitals, of wealth accumulation, or of working in a paint factory.”

But I am not alone. About 3500 years ago it is estimated that Pacific Islanders expanded their territory to islands that would require up to several weeks on the open sea to reach. What made them go into the blue unknown in search of islands that they didn’t even know existed? About 15,000 years ago the first waves of explorers are estimated to have crossed the Bering land bridge and roamed across two new continents. What made them go out into that white unknown of ice and snow?

I recently read a book titled ‘The Song of the Dodo’ by David Quammen, a tome on the history of evolutionary biology and it was there I stumbled across the idea that maybe this part of me is not unique. It appears that many scientists believe that this nagging curiosity is a defining characteristic of homo sapiens. In conjunction with the development of our complex brains and limbs seems to have come about a set of traits that helped us expand out of Africa and to ultimately inhabit almost every tract of land on this planet in about 60,000 years. These traits drove us far and wide; we crossed open seas on boats, we walked across land bridges, we floated down rivers, we flew planes.

IMG_3661 (1024x768)Not every species shares this same propensity though. There are others, like the Mauritian Kestrel, that refuse to even cross small clearings in the forest. There must be evolutionary environments and genetic endowments that reinforce this trait and others that would make it a disadvantage. Explorers of any species have the ability to sow their seed far and wide. An adaptable generalist species would seemingly benefit from this trait and reinforce it as more progeny means a higher proportion of a particular set of genes in the pool.

I began doing a bit of research and stumbled across an interesting National Geographic Article entitled ‘Restless Genes.’ The author, David Dobbs, expands upon this idea. Here is an excerpt about the gene DRD4-7R:

“If an urge to explore rises in us innately, perhaps its foundation lies within our genome. In fact there is a mutation that pops up frequently in such discussions: a variant of a gene called DRD4, which helps control dopamine, a chemical brain messenger important in learning and reward. Researchers have repeatedly tied the variant, known as DRD4-7R and carried by roughly 20 percent of all humans, to curiosity and restlessness. Dozens of human studies have found that 7R makes people more likely to take risks; explore new places, ideas, foods, relationships, drugs, or sexual opportunities; and generally embrace movement, change, and adventure. Studies in animals simulating 7R’s actions suggest it increases their taste for both movement and novelty.”

And this part strikes home for me, it seems to be a natural corollary to the idea of a restless gene:

IMG_3648 (1024x768)“Among Ariaal tribesmen in Africa, those who carry 7R tend to be stronger and better fed than their non-7R peers if they live in nomadic tribes, possibly reflecting better fitness for a nomadic life and perhaps higher status as well. However, 7R carriers tend to be less well nourished if they live as settled villagers. The variant’s value, then, like that of many genes and traits, may depend on the surroundings. A restless person may thrive in a changeable environment but wither in a stable one; likewise with any genes that help produce the restlessness.”

I have always been looking for ways to justify this part of myself, but maybe it is just genetic , maybe it isn’t something that can be subjected to analysis. I think it may have been said best by Hank Williams:

“I can settle down and be doin’ just fine
Til I hear an old train rollin’ down the line
Then I hurry straight home and pack
And if I didn’t go, I believe I’d blow my stack
I love you baby, but you gotta understand
When the lord made me
He made a ramblin’ man.

Some folks might say that I’m no good
That I wouldn’t settle down if I could
But when that open road starts to callin’ me
There’s somethin’ o’er the hill that I gotta see.”

Rambling

My papers were not quite on the up and up, so I shaved my face and cut my hair. I put on a button down shirt, khakis, and placed two pens in my front pocket to lend myself legitimacy under the weary eye of the immigration officials in Mauritius. At this point in my life I can confidently say that I understand bureaucracy pretty well, so I printed out – in triplicate – any and all documents, regardless of how superfluous, that had a seal, signature, or my name on them. On the way from Salt Lake City to Mauritius via Paris I wielded these papers like a weapon no less than three times. I think that their efficacy lies in their threat of monotony.

IMG_3682 (1024x768)I approached the immigration desk in Mauritius calmly and told the woman the following after our pleasantries, “The government just said to give me a tourist visa until they finish processing my visa application.” See what I did there? I presented the outcome that I wanted with no other options. I avoided the hours of waiting in queues that I had heard of others experiencing in similar situations.

The only problem though was that she handed back my passport and then looked up from her papers and asked, “Which company is it that you normally work for here?”

I stumbled here, “I don’t work…for…I have never been here before.”

She stumbled, looked both directions, and then said, “Oh..okay. Well thank you, bye bye.”

I had a 30 day business visa instead of a 90 day tourist visa. I cursed the two pens in my front pocket.

Impressions

I had spent so much time reading academic papers and books about Mauritius, examining numbers that attempted to quantify it, and analyses of its problems that I arrived with a brain filled with sociological mush without a pinch of reality. There are no measures of net beauty, blissful slumber opportunities per capita, food deliciousness index (FDI), gross hammock oscillations per hour, or gross domestic laughter. But I think that Mauritius would score high on all of these measures. There are also never any news stories announcing that the world is okay or exhorting us to do nothing as an overwhelming wave of peace has swept through the region. The remedy for this condition is to taste the mango.

IMG_3673 (1024x768)The birds wake me each morning with the rising of the sun. Mangos are falling off of the trees on our street and my only competition is the birds. A pack of family dogs patrols the street outside our apartment. I pass my first days lazing around in IMG_3670 (1024x768)and about the turquoise sea that merges with the sky if you screw your eyes up in just the right way. I still have not seen a jet ski in Mauritius and I could count on one hand the number of guns that I have seen – both things bode well for a country in my mind. The people are amazing here – friendly, content, and welcoming. Culturally, it is midway between Europe, Africa, India, and China. You hear it when people speak and in the food you eat. Roti – the national dish of sorts – is the best food in the world rupee for rupee. It consists of a fried flour wrap filled with assorted sauces, chilis, and curries that is readily available whenever necessary. Mauritius is a sauce country, this seems to exemplify its culture to me.

IMG_3642 (1024x768)We visited the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden and saw a dozen or so tortoises imported from all over region. Despite their ersatz environment, I was mesmerized by their beauty as they charged at us from the other side of the pen after their lunch was delivered. The largest was 150 years old. It was nearly as interested to watch the packs of French tourists touting IPads descend upon the pen.

We bought a Suzuki motorcycle with 125cc’s of Merlot colored fossil fueled fury. I turned 30 and wanted to go explore the southern part of the island for my birthday. I turned out into the left lane and we started the epic 40 mile journey south on the main highway. Rain began to fall on us early on as midday clouds gathered around the pinnacles of the Moka Mountains. The mountains rise as forested islands in the midst of a boundless expanse of green sugarcane not unlike the blue sea that the islands of Mauritius rise up from. It felt like we were flying with the engine roaring; I wanted to howl and make obscene gestures at the elderly, until a pair of them passed us in their miniature car going twice our speed. We passed mansions on dirt roads in the middle of nowhere, slums, dilapidated colonial buildings, gleaming skyscrapers, textile mills, and a tuna cannery. I muscled the bike through the concrete tandoori oven called Port Louis by splitting through traffic and riding the shoulder. Lauren complemented me on my driving with a flattering comparison to a fictional symbol of masculinity and daring from Hollywood, but I self-effacingly deflected the remark by comparing myself to a cat on a skateboard acting on pure fight or flight responses. We stayed at a friend’s place in Flic-en-Flac, a coastal town along the west coast.

IMG_3707 (1024x768)The mountains around the island are all remnants of the giant caldera that formed the island and then collapsed. Black River Gorges National Park encompasses the majority of the mountains on the southern part of the island. It also happens to contain some of the last remaining old growth forest – less than 2% of it remains on the island – and consequently the majority of the remnant populations of many endemics like the Mauritius Kestrel, Mauritian Flying Fox, Pink Pigeon, and Echo Parakeet. The Mauritius Kestrel population was as low as four individuals in 1974 – the rarest bird on earth at the time. The numbers have rebounded, but remain modest. There is a limited amount that can be done when the primary problems that a species faces are habitat fragmentation and destruction.

IMG_3710 (1024x768)We packed up early and left to explore the park. As we drove into the park a mongoose slinked across the road a disappeared into the brush. The mongoose was intentionally released by the government to help control disease bearing rodents, despite the knowledge that it had previously wreaked havoc elsewhere. It was less than a decade before the government was striving to eradicate the mongoose after it decided that chickens and all manner of other animals were as good as or better than rats.

We walked several well groomed but poorly marked trails that switchbacked up the mountainside. All of the forest through which we passed appeared to have been logged at some point. I didn’t notice it until a few hours had passed, but the forest seemed impoverished of insects; I saw a few butterflies and dragonflies, but not much else. We reached a lookout and looked down valley upon the sea. A few white Tropic Birds with their tendril tails rode currents below us. I paced around the overlook trying to take in everything and then suddenly I saw two bright green birds streak across below me. I tried to contain my giddiness as I hollered for Lauren to come see the Echo Parakeets. The parakeet had rebounded from as few as ten individuals to as many as 300 through the remarkable efforts of a few dedicated conservationists, in fact the same ones that saved the Kestrel. We looped back and hopped on the motorcycle. I hooted in my helmet as a Crab Eating Macaque loped across the road in front of us as we rode back to Flic-en-Flac.

Octopus Project

IMG_3741 (1024x768)We awoke at 5:45 the following morning to return to Pereybere and then catch a ride to the east side of the island where we had a meeting to examine a UN GEF funded project building octopus burrows for fisherfolk out of reclaimed telephone poles. The director of the organization in charge of the program, Environmental Protection and Conservation Organization (EPCO), explained that the program arose after declining fish catches drove many fisherfolk to work for the government mining sand to feed the insatiable demand for concrete on this nearly treeless island. (The concept of sand mining is possibly a better example of a mind numbing and endless task than working in a paint factory.) The problems with sand mining eventually became apparent and the industry shifted to the crushing of mined rocks. This left many fishermen out of work with few directions to turn. The octopus burrow project was designed to both help rehabilitate the fishery and help sustain the fisherfolk. We wanted to see how it was working.

IMG_3738 (1024x768)We boarded a handmade wooden boat with a fisherman named Dost – a Creole word that means friend. We puttered out towards the surging whitewash of the reef break and looked back upon the Bambous Mountains above Grand Reviere Sud Este. The water was absolutely clear and less than two meters deep. I leaned over the gunwale, which listed the boat to one side, in order to peer down at the kaleidoscope of coral.

I jumped into the other splendorous world that covers 70% of the earth’s surface and stuck my snorkel in my mouth. The fish seemed sentient and curious as we examined one another. They let me get close to admire their incredible forms and scintillating scales, and colors that surely exist nowhere else. The fish would disappear and reappear as they wove their way through corals with shapes that seem floral, cerebral, and dendritic. I found one large lobed brain that teemed with a miniature microcosm of colored fish. I gestured Lauren over and we relished the beauty of it in a complete absence of words.

IMG_3724 (1024x768)Dost gestured us over and we followed him over to an octopus burrow. He began prodding into the burrow with a rod and drew an ink spraying ball of arms out that he grabbed as it tried to make its Houdini-esque escape. It grabbed onto his arm and he repeatedly had to tear it loose. I stared with rapt attention as it furiously changed colors and patterns. He let it swim for a moment and it descended to the bottom, felt around, shrunk its size, and changed to match its surroundings. It is not just an octopus. The symbol ‘octopus’ does not begin to convey the beauty and complexity of that animal. Nor does ‘coral reef’ begin to encompass what I saw.

I identify with that octopus – how it changes to reflect its environment and how it strives to defend itself by spraying ink. I think that I might be doing that right now. We ate it later.

Earth is an Island

I am leaving to spend the winter in Mauritius, an island 45km in width by 65km in length that lies approximately 2000km east of continental Africa. The island serves as a rare case study in ecology as it is one of a few places to have remained uninhabited by humans until recent history. It has a robust record from visitors and inhabitants of the native flora, fauna, and changes that the island underwent over the past 400 years. Not only was the island devoid of humans – it was devoid of land mammals all together. A circumstance that came about due to the island’s young age and the challenge that relative isolation poses to introduction of land mammals. This void provided the opportunity for a plethora of spectacular endemic reptile and bird species to evolve. Fascinating account abound from the first human arrivals to the island: they picked up unafraid flightless birds, rode massive tortoises, and then mirthfully clubbed everything to death. Portuguese sailors began using it as a waypoint where they could fill their holds with upside down tortoises – which can live for years and provide fresh meat during their voyage– and hunt goats and pigs that they had introduced.

Early accounts – the first in 1598 – described large flightless birds and included preposterous drawings of them that attracted significant attention in Europe. The bird came to be known as the Dodo. The birds had lost their ability to fly as a result of an abundance of food on the ground and a lack of predators. Many were hunted and noted by sailors, a few explorers documented them over the years, and a couple of them were reputed to have made it to other continents aboard ships. Eventually a day arrived when there were simply no more Dodos to be found. The last reliable account of a sighting occurred in 1662. Sixty years after humans arrived it was gone. The concept of extinction was not understood at the time, therefore many commentators and scientists obstinately argued that the bird was mythical and never existed. It took over 150 years before there was scientific consensus that it had existed and its extinction had been induced by humans.  The Dodo has taken its place in our collective consciousness because it was the first recorded human induced extinction.

Humans, as they have done in every corner of this planet, brought rats, mice, and pigs that predated reptile and bird eggs. Forests were cut to export hardwood, then for building materials, then for tea plantations, and then for sugar plantations. Goats grazed what had been razed. Africans were imported and sold as machinery to work the sugarcane. The population grew exponentially. A few people became wealthy. The patience and resilience of the giant tortoise proved insufficient, the hardwood heart of the forest fell, the exotic birds lost their homes and their cacophony grew faint, and fewer colorful geckos lit up the day. Dozens of species quickly and almost silently went extinct over the coming centuries. Some of the first environmental protection laws in the world sprung up, and then were ignored out of political and economic expediency.

Today 1.3 million people live on the main island, mostly near the coast. The seas are rising and the weather is changing. Annual mean temperature has gone up .74C relative to the 1961-1990 mean. Yearly rainfall averages are down 8% since the 1950s, with more of it coming during extreme events. Resources on the island are strapped. Only 25% of the island remains forested. 90% of the cultivated land is occupied with sugar cane which has to be exported to purchase the 80% of the island’s energy which comes in the form of imported fossil fuels.

It is projected that the mean annual temperature will rise by 1-2C by 2060, 1.1-3.4C by 2090. Decreases in precipitation will continue, but the likelihood of tropical storms and destructive storm surges will increase.  It Is possible that 50% of the island’s beaches will disappear by 2050 due to changes in sea level and more forceful storm surges. Utilizable freshwater resources are anticipated to decrease by up to 13% by 2050. Fisheries are expected to be disrupted as sea surface temperature changes shift migration patterns and ecosystems consequently change. The third largest coral reef in the world protects the islands, but 80%-100% of live corals would perish with a 3.28C increase in temperatures, a realistic possibility by 2100.

Mauritians have recognized the threat that climate change poses and have taken steps to mitigate and adapt to anticipated changes, despite recognizing that the nation is minimally responsible for the plight it faces. In 1991 the island created the multi-sector National Climate Change Committee. In 2010 the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development created a Climate Change division. Through these institutions the nation has created a National Climate Change Adaptation Policy Framework, a tool that guides the government in taking necessary steps to adapt and mitigate with the aims of creating resilience and sustainability. Why haven’t we done the same?

The Nature of an Island

Islands have always gripped the imagination of writers from Aldous Huxley  to Kurt Vonnegut to William Golding. They provide a setting or system with limits that are tangible within the human mind where a chain of actions can unfold and conceivably reach its limits. Islands have allowed us to speculate on inequality, ecology, happiness, evolution, and societal structures.

7.1 billion of us live on an island that is adrift in a vast sea of space.

I remember in my economics courses learning about Robert Malthus, a scholar in the 19th century who postulated that, “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man.” He theorized that earth had a finite amount of land, but people had a seemingly infinite ability to procreate and generate needs. This would one day lead to a catastrophe if we walked blindly into the future. In many of my classes he was dug up just to be refuted as a prophet of non-sense through the invocation of the deus ex machina technology. Was he wrong?

We have been on this island as a species for around 200,000 years and we have thoroughly transformed this planet during that time. In that time frame we have managed to populate every corner of this planet. Elizabeth Kolbert, in The Sixth Extinction, calculates that there are roughly 50 million square miles of land area that is not covered by ice. Of this area, roughly 27 million acres have been directly transformed through agriculture, pastoralism, logging, mining, and the building of civilization. Three-fifths of the remaining 23 million acres is forested, although not necessarily virgin. The other two-fifths are mountains, deserts, and tundra. Kolbert’s primary focus in the book is an examination of our present time, one that many have come to refer to as ‘the sixth extinction.’ There have been five other mass extinctions since the dawn of life on earth, precipitated by various reagents, but climate change has always been a significant factor in the collapse of species and ecosystems.  She estimates that, “one-third of all reef building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion.” The reasons are complex: a warming planet, ocean acidification, habitat destruction, the snowball effect of biodiversity loss, competition from introduced species, the globalization of microbes, and most important of all: the incredible speed at which all of this is occurring – the same problems that Mauritius faces, but on a grand scale.

A parallel concept is that of the anthropocene, one that has been advocated by Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen to denote our ‘human-dominated geological epoch.’ It is clear that we will leave a mark in the geologic record through carbon deposits from our fossil fuel use, from nuclear fallout, from dramatically morphed landscapes, and through the mass extinction event that is currently unfolding. He cites the following reasons for consideration of the concept:

  • Human activity has transformed between a third and a half of the land surface of the planet.
  • Most of the world’s major rivers have been dammed or diverted.
  • Fertilizer plants produce more nitrogen than is fixed naturally by all terrestrial ecosystems.
  • Fisheries remove more than a third of the primary production of the oceans’ costal waters.
  • Humans use more than half of the world’s readily accessible fresh water runoff.

Back to Malthus: It looks like he was wrong in some ways, and right in others. Our island no less has finite limits than any other island does; it is just vaster in terms of resources and its ability to act as a pollution sink. And we have billions of palm trees instead of the proverbial one. The areas, like Mauritius, where limits have been reached are simply able to acquire what they need from elsewhere, but at some point there aren’t any more elsewheres. Technology has enabled us to do more with the finite resources that are on this earth and we have perpetually pushing our limits. A major part of the growth and progress that humanity has made since the industrial revolution began a few hundred years ago was made possible through the exploitation of non-renewable fossil fuels, metals, and minerals. We have also over-exploited resources that are renewable like soil fertility, game, fisheries, and forests. The technology that has enabled this form of growth has been of a kind that merely enables us to use and move these resources at a faster rate to enrich the present at the expense of the future. There seem to be cries resounding from every corner of the globe and in every field that we are approaching or have passed ecological limits, and have entered uncharted territory.

Creating a Better World

I feel a deep connection to this earth, not as a mere philosophical standpoint, rather in a way that completely shapes my worldview. It is grounded in an awareness of reality, of the atmosphere entering and exiting my lungs, of the rainwater that fills my veins, and of the sun’s energy in my food. This is my home. My values and ethics are derived from this connection. I spend months each year sleeping outside, staring at the stars. I travel to other countries to satisfy my curiosity about other landscapes, people, and animals. I enjoy eating exotic and delicious foods. I like being able to explore this place and enjoy a rich life.

Recognizing the reality and depth of our ecological crisis, and not just an abstract concept, has been a difficult road for me. I experienced years of cognitive dissonance, holding discordant views that lead to internal conflict. I saw myself as being enriched by something that was paradoxically destroying the very thing that I loved and was creating suffering the world around.

Many years ago I started the process of letting go of a future that I had been socialized to believe was our destiny. In this dream there were no constraints, humans were in control, technology had an infinite ability to address any problems that humanity faced, and the economy would grow perpetually – we forever would have more freedom and wealth. Inequality was not an issue as there was plenty. In this dream we are all atomized individuals, beholden to no one or anything – without limits. I had to pass through the five stages of the Kubler-Ross Model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.  This dream is dead whether we like it or not.

I wasn’t sure what to do with about it: accept my part and let it rot away, immolate myself (with renewable materials of course) in sacrifice to Pacha Mama, or become a post-apocalyptic ecological warrior waging ideological war clothed in refuse.

The acceptance part comes at little easier if we realize that this conflict is based in a broader myth: that we need an extractive, exploitative economy in order to grow ourselves out of scarcity – the primary driver of human suffering. According to this view, as long as there is poverty and hunger in this world, then to do anything but grow as quickly as possible to ameliorate these pestilences is immoral. It follows that we need to transform this world into a place fit for human habitation. And so we justify every new power plant built, every gallon of carcinogens dumped into a river, every missile launched, every ton of carbon spewed into the atmosphere, and every tank of pesticide sprayed from an airplane.

What takes precedence: the environment or humanity? Mu! The two are one and the same.

We are bound in a symbiotic relationship with everything else on this earth. It is not possible for us to do damage anywhere without damaging ourselves. A relationship requires that both parties give and the beauty is that in do so both will be made better off.  The earth has always been able to provide enough, but it has been misallocated, wasted, or been minimized by the – never scarce – capacity for dissatisfaction in humanity. Will we let the specter of scarcity and our tendency to exploit drive us towards a situation in which we face the true horrors of scarcity? What is the alternative?

To give birth to a new dream. We can grow in a different manner and build something better than we currently have. The solutions already exist. We can have clean energy, water, and air. We can have plant and animal diversity. We can build with what is around us. We can have less things and more time with family and friends. We can live healthier lives with time to cook, walk, farm, read, and bike. We can begin to rebuild our communities.

Evolve – Fast!

Until recently I had been looking towards myself – and each individual – to change our lives with the belief that in this fashion humanity could change overnight and we would avoid the looming catastrophe.  This individual died along with the aforementioned dream – there never was an individual. We are facing a global crisis and we need to look towards collective, community-based solutions.

Revolutions occur when new information appears that is irreconcilable with the dominant framework or zeitgeist. The dominant mover of civilization seems to be the same one that up until this point in history has been on a linear trajectory: the centralization of power.  From groups, to bands, to villages, to cities, to city-states, to nations, to? Through warfare, trade, finance. Civilization in the past few hundred years under the reign of fossil fuels has advanced more towards this goal that at any other point in history through globalized markets, industrial scale production, and almost instantaneous communication. It has also enabled an unprecedented concentration of wealth and power. Power structures are most concerned with maintaining power and therefore action to deal with our ecological crisis simply cannot manifest from within a system that is its driver. It has been decades since we became aware of our current predicament and we have only deepened the crisis whilst our current system has scrambled to assimilate a reality with which it is wholly incompatible.

Our civilizations need to evolve to fit a changing planet and we need to do it fast.  We are currently wasting our days away in contemplation of a variety of pie-in-the-sky options, weighing their pros and cons, but the decision has already been made for us. We just need to go through the five stages of grieving and set about planning for the future accordingly. We need to adapt to limited resources, a variable and warming climate, our interconnectedness as a species, and our dependency upon ecological systems.  We need shift policies to foster localized, small scale production of energy, agriculture, products, and the development of socially responsible and environmentally appropriate technologies.

The issues we face will not become truly political and societal problems– like slavery, racial equality, women’s suffrage, women’s rights, gay rights – until we make them such. Sometimes issues are just inconvenient to deal with. We need to mobilize and make institutions aware that change is afoot. We need to divest. We need to change our social conscience. We need to protest. We need to block development that is taking us in the wrong direction. We need to stand up and come together. The Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report from the International Panel on Climate Change will be finalized on Friday. We can heed its advice or we can just sign this letter:

“Dear future generations: Please accept our apologies. We were rolling drunk on petroleum.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Sources:

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
Climate Change Counts: Mauritius Country Report – South African Regional Universities Association

The Coyote and The Combine

I wrote a book. I delved into writing full time after I quit working construction in New York this past February. There were many reasons why I quit, but mainly it had to do with the company using improper permits to perform mediocre quality work with underpaid undocumented immigrants (and me) in hazardous work conditions (subzero temperatures without a heater) for six days a week. It was blatant exploitation. We were often not paid for weeks on end, despite the contractor running around picking up the tab in Manhattan bars. We were just trying to get by though and there we succeeded. There could be a story here about how this experience inspired me to undertake this project.

When I think about my life, I can see it as nothing but a story that I write. I think that our minds are first and foremost story generating machines. They take disparate, bewilderingly complex events and string them together into storylines, beliefs, and judgments that make reality appear intelligible. We classify them with single words and devise crude chains of causal logic. We ascribe motives, emotions, and traits to individuals and they, to us at least, play the roles that we have scripted for them to play. We go through each day simply fitting events into our storyboard. Thus each person builds the universe.

A closer look, a break with our myopic perspective, reveals a far cloudier and uncertain picture – there are myriad perspectives. Stories have an incredible amount of power in shaping our view of ourselves and the world around us.  I used to believe that I was defective, as if there was some sort of quality control somewhere with an objective measure for determining the quality of a person. I once believed that life was a material quest and that success was having as much as possible; that I had to assiduously work in a box and be a lawyer, doctor, or businessman; that we were created by a god to pillage this earth and that this is to be called progress, that the world is a dangerous place and people are inherently bad; that hitchhikers are straight off skid row – depraved addicts and sexual deviants running from something.

I wrote about myself as an anomalous character running amok and making a mess of a script that had seemingly already been written. The original script did not include: howler monkeys, guns pointed at my head, drugs, motorcycles, hitchhiking, volcanic eruptions, Spanish cokeheads, saintly truck drivers, car accidents, foreclosure, or wandering just for the sake of wandering. I sure am thankful for these additions though.

I turned my journals from a winter of hitchhiking into something in the Bryant Park library over the course of a few months. I am not sure that I am finished with it. I do feel the need to give an explanation for why I did this, but I feel like I would just be composing a story that was an amalgamation of various book jackets.

Some people believe that coyotes are a form of god, others believe that they are vermin that we haven’t won the war against yet. I do believe that if you sleep on the ground it is impossible to get up on the wrong side of the bed.

Here is a PDF.

The Coyote and The Combine

Flying the Coop

Some people call it New York; others call it The Great Satan. I called it The Empire of the Straight Line. Anyways, I knowingly went into the maw of a beast that I had previously contemplated and watched wearily from a distance. It is hard to resist anthropomorphizing the city into a slovenly, unhealthy, greedy blob that perpetually rumbles with indigestion as it greedily ingests and consumes ever increasing amounts of people, energy, and raw materials before belching, vomiting, and sweating out their waste forms in all directions. So I am not even going to bother trying. I am certain it would trade its grandmother into sex slavery for mid-level tickets to a Bruce Springsteen show at Madison Square Garden. It is an obsessive compulsive patient that strives to control everything around it and a self-admiring insomniac. It is left brain biased; possibly afflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome that manifests itself in an uncompassionate and grinding obsession with logic, rules, and order that create a create an awkward social environment.

This spring I left on an Amtrak bound for Salt Lake City via Chicago. As the train exited the station I got an erection that lasted for hours and made walking around the train a challenge. I did not socialize during this entire period, but it wasn’t really an optioon as there was yet no observation car.

I found an audience after leaving Chicago with whom I could share some of the sentiments and ideas that I had refined in New York – a recent college graduate from Wesleyan named Anna on her way West for the first time. She asked what I did when I was in New York. I told her that I founded and ran a non-profit called the Anti-Alliteration Alliance. That we worked to rid the earth of the societal scourge that is rude redundancy and vain verbosity through selling voodoo dolls of Wall Street executives. That being said, I told her that I didn’t want to talk about work though as writing was my passion and I wanted to share some ideas that I had been honing over the past few months. I gently began by explaining that our conception of history and society revolves around the idea of progress measured through material production and technological complexity – more speed, more mobility, more choice. That this gives the illusion that humanity has been on one continuous march towards a better future – effectively justifying the extermination of other cultures, environmental degradation, poverty, and the liquidation of millions of minds. That the quantifying logic of our material society demands exchange for everything, that everything be accounted for, and owned. And I informed her that it is simply impossible to question this conception of history from a materialist perspective that is so deeply socialized into us, as by its very nature it cannot assimilate all of the other essential human functions unless they somehow can be fit into a scheme of material production and consumption. I wondered aloud how you place a value on love or community or peace? I asked of her: Is not a civilization that finds peace, establishes equality, harmony with its environment, takes care of its young and old, meets the spiritual and material needs of everyone, and offers a deep sense of community a superior and highly productive society?

I posed the question of what the hypothetical destination is for this run away train? Is the apotheosis of our society to unshackle ourselves from the limits imposed by the natural world and to live free in the ceaseless hum and glow of a technological cradle strung together with wires and tubes that meet all of our physical needs? It would be the triumph of efficiency, production, and control. We would be machines within this system and corporations would still be people.

I confided to her that this logic needs to be supplanted, that we need to return to our roots in the natural, primal, and animalistic. That we needed a way to demonstrate the true nature of existence. I told her – with a glance in either direction at the baby boomers taking pictures incessantly with their IPads – that we could break with many of the implicit assumptions through ritualized sacrifice. There would be no exchange. There would be no material progress in the act. We would ritualize the reality that death and change are the fundamental characteristics of life. I told her that my idea was to start an institution where we would all sacrifice something that we loved – we would pile it together and set it ablaze. I could see her nervously wringing her hands in her lap. I self-consciously added that people and animals were not within the scope of this idea. Although maybe we could simply eat the baby boomers? I grinned and raised my eyebrows. It would solve a lot of problems as the tribute paid to the top of our pyramid seems rather unsustainable. I added that there would definitely be drums and dancing.

I casually mentioned that New York is the embodiment of this hyperrational, homogeneous, sterilized ideology. The rationality is manifest in the straight lines, in the ceaseless hum, in the endless efficiency, in perpetual striving towards nothing. I informed her that I was not a robot and consequently during my time in New York I regularly had to repress urges to run amok, howling through the logical confines lewdly waving my genitals like a blueballed baboon. I delved deeply into myself and told her that this stemmed from my curiosity and my bewilderment at the nature of existence. That I can see that there is something unknowable and immeasurable coursing through the molecules of everything on this earth.

I told her that the turmoil that we see around the world currently is a manifestation of the irreconcilable nature of our economic, religious, and political institutions and man’s evolving image of himself as an interconnected, monocrop set to overrun the earth. We now see our ability, from many different vantages, to shape our environment. We see the reality of the spaceship earth; interconnectedness and oneness is indisputable. A glimpse of the finite is seen in the confines of our spaceship. The only way to grapple with the problems that humanity faces is by turning inward, not towards technology, further division, and complexity, rather through finding a way as individuals to realize the inherent beauty, joy, and tranquility in simplicity. The perpetually striving and greedy individual mind needs to become a thing of the past. The future needs contentedness that stems from more creation, collaboration, sharing, learning, sex, music, dancing, movement of the physical body, family, and meaningful work.

Her face throughout the conversation seemed marred by an amalgamation of intrigue and terror. I assured her that I was unlikely to do anything in the immediate future.

I left for Colorado and slept outside for the first time in months; for six years I had slept outside for over a hundred days a year. I stared up at the night sky and saw innumerable stars. I realized that if my eyes were more sensitive the entire night sky would be white with light.

I left one morning from Hotchkiss to hitch towards New Mexico to visit my dad. I caught a ride with a lady named Brenda who had me ride the first hour in the back of her pickup bed, but then moved her arthritic husky to the back and invited me up. I reached for the seatbelt and she furrowed her brow before scornfully saying, “Oh you are one of those?” She was wearing her seatbelt though. She alternated pulls between Crown, Bud, and her pipe as she wove along the sinuous mountain roads and occasionally swerved off onto the gravel shoulder. The anonymity of hitching makes it a beautiful platform for storytelling. Brenda had two sons and lived for most of her life in Trinidad, Colorado. She ran businesses – a cleaning service, a thrift store, a small restaurant – and never made it clear if she had an old man. I glanced from her face to the road and felt a small pang of adrenaline each time she swerved outside the lines. Everything felt apart abruptly when her son was shot to death, her other son joined the Navy, and she went on the lam. I am generally a brick wall to sexual innuendo and subtlety, but there were enough overt references to her abysmal sex life to set off alarms. She shouted at an elderly lady hunched behind the wheel of a Volkswagen as she ran her off the road for driving too slow.

I got dropped off in Gunnison and began walking through town in flip flops. I chuckled with the realization that hitchhiking in flip flops had the benefit of being quite disarming as very few serial killers and rapists likely wear flip flops. So I was feeling pretty good about my prospects. I quickly caught a ride in a pickup with a guy named Brian who showed me the carcass of a deer that a snowplow had hit and launched high into the limbs of a tree. I ended up outside of Salida.

An old grey station wagon slowly passed and then stopped ahead. I jogged up and a gravelly voice billowing smoke said, “Take your time, no need to rush.” I tossed my pack in back and jumped into the passenger seat next to a grey haired woman in a peasant dress with a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth.

“Joy.”

“Alex.”

She guided the car up the pass and into the barren and expansive San Luis Valley. She was from Vermont, but had lived out West for a few decades and currently lived in a strange community called Crestone that lay against the mountains near the Great Dunes National Park. It was an intentional community that had never fully developed – a still born hippy dream. Maybe it lacked intent. She at one pointed lived there for a year without any water or power. She had slowly converted a yurt into a permanent structure. She lit each cigarette with the fading ember of the last and carefully answered all of my questions.
“Here and there a few people come into the community and cause trouble. We drive them out ourselves – there are no police there, they never come out our way. Sometimes we have to organize posses, you know, without the horses and rifles, but still a posse, to run ‘em out.”

“What do you do for water and food?”
“Well there definitely isn’t an abundance of either. We get by. There are some wells. We aren’t too sustainable though; we can’t really grow much this high.”

I got dropped on a desolate stretch near the Crestone turn off. My next ride was with a young guy named Dirk who was red-eyed and giggling from the moment that he pulled up. He cracked up at anything that I said. I never could really ascertain why he was out in this area, but he rambled on about exploring some formerly productive mining claims.

I ended up on the roadside in Alamosa. I quickly caught a ride from a guy named Carlos who was streaked with tattoos. I liked him the moment he opened his mouth though and we kept each other laughing. He talked freely and frankly about his time in prison for grand theft auto. He took hits off of his dugout pipe and waxed poetically about turning his life around, the history of the area, his family, and love. He went out of his way to show me the oldest church in Colorado.

I couldn’t find a ride in Conejos as darkness descended. I stood on the roadside next to an abandoned building as the desert wind buffeted and chilled me. My dad ended up picking me up. I lay on his floor and listened to his erratic breathing punctuated with gasps and coughing; he sounded like a dog chasing something in a dream. I wondered what was breathing? He got up at 4:45am in pitch darkness to head to work each day. He then came home late and drank wine with abandon. I wondered later on what it is that he is chasing in his waking dream?

I missed the tranquility, space, uncertainty, heterogeneity, and inherent joy of nature. I missed life’s adventure. I learned that a long distance relationship with the Milky Way doesn’t really work; you have to make eye contact at least occasionally. I had time to slow down for the first time in months. Suddenly I saw that the tempest raging in my mind was just cancerous thinking in which our society was mired metastasizing, a useless and ceaseless spinning of gears. I thought that I would never assimilate into New York, but it colonized my mind instead. If you don’t know who the maniac is on the Amtrak within the first few hours – it is you.

IMG_3621

Lake Forest: Hillbillies and Satanists

For years I would go downstairs at night to fix myself an outsized bowl of cereal. I found a strategy that was foolproof in preventing any harm from befalling me over the years: as long as no one knew that I was scared, then no harm could befall me. I would, exuding tranquility and lack of concern, descend the stairs and walk into the kitchen on the first floor with my heart racing. I would prepare the bowl of cereal, careful to not take any concerned glances at the impenetrable darkness in the windows and to ignore the floor that creaked with my steps. There were innumerable presences whose actions depended directly upon mine skulking beyond my periphery. I would calmly ascend the stairs, but with a little additional quickness added to my step. When I stepped off the plane in Salt Lake last week I felt similar to how I felt when I had made it to my room safely with the bowl of cereal. I no longer had to be scared and pretend.

On Saturday snow began falling early in the morning with wind blowing it sideways. I rode up into the cloud shrouded mountains with my brother and sister to do one of the most amazing and ridiculous of things: skiing.  It makes no sense, it is like being a hampster on a wheel.  It may have been the low light or lack of depth perception, but I felt as if I was floating. I felt weightless on a white cloud with everything else blotted out through its sheer brightness and uniformity.

I saw a few old friends on the mountain and at dinner who crushed me in hugs and laughed as I unselfconsciously rambled at a mile a minute about skiing, New York, relationships, writing, reading, and work. Friends and family piled into my mom’s apartment to make pizzas and have a few drinks. It felt like a summit of immeasurable importance as we made light of our uncertain futures, poor choices, hopes, and fears. We reminisced about life and the years that had passed. We tossed logs in the fireplace and howled in laughter.

One of the stories that came up during the night was that of the Blue Sisters. With the years memories seemingly pass through a sieve comprised of irregular holes that incomprehensibly let some things drop away while others remain. The Blue Sisters saunter into my mind as unpredictably as they did as hooded apparitions into our neighborhood many years ago.

There was slightly less than a decade left in the millennium when I first encountered the twins. I remember waiting at the bus stop with my dad and brother. They came walking towards us in matching dark blue hooded sweatshirts with the hoods raised and framing their faces. We didn’t grow up in a neighborhood where people were friendly or for that matter even knew who most of their neighbors were. No words were exchanged between us as the two walked side by side, pushing a baby carriage. The traffic kept rushing by on Waukegan Road, filling the silence with the whir of tires. As they passed I looked into the carriage, which wasn’t far from my eye level, and saw several cats lazing in a cocoon of blankets.

As these encounters became routine, we became perplexed. They didn’t look like they were ready to go to work, as they were perpetually shrouded in sweat suits, and nobody walked around our neighborhood except with a very clear purpose or in the case of emergency. We found these peregrinations to be ominous and bizarre, even without the addition of the stroller cats.

My brother and I whispered as they passed. Witches. Satanists. Sacrifice animals. Entire house is a litter box. Pet cemetery in their yard. Raise animals to eat them. Drink own pee. Spent time in mental hospital. Child drowned in pool behind their house. Walls covered in carpet. We spun fantastical explanations for local phenomena that implicated the sisters. We talked to other kids, trying to grasp what we were dealing with. We talked big, plotting flaming bags of feces and fireworks through the mailslot. We kept our distance though, as it was preferable to all parties involved that the sister’s remained a mere object of speculation.

My family was the closest thing that Lake Forest, Illinois has ever had to carnies or hillbillies. We lived on the West side of town, where no blue blood would dare reside as people there had to shamefully work for their money. There were six of us kids, a family unusually large for a community of miserable heirs and striving, anxious professionals. We put additions on our house with our own hands. We had a pig that came inside to eat in our kitchen that we predictably named Wilbur. We had chickens, including a fighting cock named Sunny who was involved in three separate traffic incidents; I still laugh imagining our neighbors stepping out of their German sedans with their brows furrowed as they examined the bloody, white squawking animal that would have been as out of place than a black person on our street. Sunny recovered each time. I would tell other kids that my dad was drunk at a cockfight in Waukegan and bought it after it won a six round bout. We had rabbits. We raised grey squirrels. Chipmunks that invariably escaped and homesteaded within our walls to my dad’s chagrin. Birds. Turtles. Snakes. We built tree houses and forts, complicated eyesores that our neighbors called the city building inspector over. We shot guns in the backyard, at bee’s nests or at the boxes on the telephone pole. (We knocked out phone service to the neighborhood one time and I remember lying to the man from the telephone company while my parents were at work after he inspected the bullet riddled box.) My brother and I played with fire regularly and held pissing contests off of every highpoint within a several mile radius.

We were also the type of people that refused to leash our dogs. This led us into frequent confrontations with our neighbors. One of our neighbors was a prominent architect at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill that my dad always described as ‘being so uptight that you could put a lump of coal up his ass and in a week you would have a diamond.’ One day my mom answered the door and he stood in front of her with a gnarly, yellow streaked dog turd on a piece of fine white china. He said, ‘Your dog left this in my yard.’ My mom offered an insincere apology while quickly closing the door to stifle back her laughter. Our laughter poured out the open windows of our un-air conditioned house as he walked down the driveway.

One halcyon fall day, my brother, sister and mom were walking with our German Shorthaired Pointer named Belle. We stopped in front of the Blue Sister’s house to inspect a pentagram painted in red on their mailbox when Belle decided to squat with quaking haunches over their front lawn.  We had to continue walking down Ashland Road as she would refuse to make eye contact and hurry through the act if we did not give her privacy. We heard unintelligible screaming come from their front door, but continued on our way. Belle casually trotted up with us as we were in the midst of discussing the other weird people who lived in an underground brick pyramid of a house at the end of the street. Suddenly, we heard a car coming up behind us at a rapid speed, its engine roaring. We saw a brown Crown Victoria coming at us and we moved to the curb, but something didn’t seem right as the car was going too fast and seemed not to acknowledge our presence.

We hopped into the grass and the car narrowly missed hitting us, an unintelligible howl of language came out the windows at us. We saw the matching dark hoods as they passed. They quickly turned around on the round-a-bout and boomeranged back at us. We were well clear when they flew past in a flurry of tongues and tire squealing rage. We took a back route home and kept looking over our shoulders as we huddled against my mom for safety.

We didn’t know who actually lived under the hoods until we called the police. The police arrived at our house and spoke candidly with my parents about the Blue Sisters. Lake Forest handles legal issues in a different manner, always trying to handle them with a certain amount of discretion. We were told how after a call from a neighbor, the police had staked out the house for several days, waited for the sisters to leave, then freed their mother from a chair to which she was tied and took her into state custody. At this point the police found hundreds of cats and walls painted with pentagrams and other errata. They learned through various encounters that the sisters spoke some sort of ‘satanic language.’ We were told to stay away as the police wanted to do the same.

My dad realized that he had attended highschool with them and had almost asked one of them to prom. He remembered them as cute blonde cheerleaders who were a little odd. How life weathered them into such oddities will remain one of life’s mysteries.

My dad has a penchant for novel, passive aggressive solutions to problems, like using a cell phone jammer to silence other passengers on public transportation. The following morning he waited at the bus stop with us, Sony Handycam in hand. He had decided that videotaping them would both provoke them and provide us with a modicum of security. They walked towards us on the sidewalk with their cat carriage. My dad hit record, aimed the camera at them as they approached on the narrow sidewalk, and we sat in quiet anticipation. He panned with them as they moved and it almost seemed like nothing would happen until one of them exploded. One of them started screaming in the devil’s tongue and the other was yelling for my dad to shut it off. He kept taping them, morning after morning, until they stopped coming past.

Another day we were playing baseball in our neighbor’s large front yard when my dad saw them walking past on the sidewalk at the far end. He quickly grabbed the bat from me and then several baseballs. He proceeded to toss up balls and hit fungos and line drives at them. We laughed and loved him for these antics. Then, one day they were just no longer around. A year or so later my dad stumbled across a newspaper article detailing their arrest with dozens of cats living in a van.

As I sat with friends and family collectively weaving stories and nearly crying with laughter, I suddenly understood life. The questions of purpose and direction that vexed me in New York seemed meaningless, laughable in this moment.Everything seemed laughable as I had everything that anyone could ever want. These dreamers, these cynics, these wanderers, these weirdos are all that I believe in. I love you all.

The Deus Ex Machina Chaos

At the end of November I had been out of work for a while and as much as I would like to use my outsized brain to trap or spear animals, to hew a home out of the forest, to break stallions, or to cultivate a field, I was forced to accept that this was not a realistic possibility at this juncture in my life. I got a call from a friend asking if I wanted to do some demolition work for a few weeks here in Brooklyn. I impulsively answered, ‘Yes.’

After moving to New York from Guatemala I had been doing a lot of thinking and I felt a little unstable, like I was on the verge of something. My mind did sommersalts and wove itself into knots; it vomited forth and then became constipated.  It is just what my brain does sometimes. It isn’t always clear what has emerged from turmoil such as this, but I came up with something and wrote it down. Here is an account of breaking down both physical and theoretical walls and finding something beautiful in the space that was left.

IMG_2681The strangeness of New York and its complexity was reflected in the job itself: I worked with a Croatian who has been here five years named Mate (accent on the e) and a Muslim from Burkina Faso named Ibrahim who had been in the country for less than a year. Mate lived in Queens, had two kids and a wife who was an English teacher. Ibra, as I took to calling him, was younger and was working to make money for his family in Burkina Faso. He was a married man and was saving to bring his wife over someday. Ibra had no papers and Mate had just received his green card. I amused myself by thinking of myself as an indigenous immigrant.

IMG_2687Our task was to demolish a four story brownstone, meaning that we were to gut out the interior down to the structure. I initially walked into the house wanting to decry the waste of our modern obsession with continually reinventing ourselves, but the reality that I came to see, was that the house was a shithole.

IMG_2722On the first day, I grabbed a crowbar and a sledge hammer and set to work without much pomp or circumstance. I swung the sledge and softened the walls and then dismantled them with the crowbar. The drywall shattered, cracked, tore, pulverized. The wood cracked, splintered, screamed as it twisted and clattered dryly as it tumbled to the floor. It was not long before I was several feet deep in debris, panting, coughing in a cloud of dust with wires dangling in my face.

IMG_2725As I pulled down the first of many ceilings, huge chunks of drywall shattered on my head and tumbled to the ground. Construction refuse, newspapers, and panes of glass all rained down upon me. A strange black soot that had accumulated over the past hundred years billowed from the ground after cascading down on my face and through my hair. Some chunks flew out the open window as I swung, tore, ripped, mangled, and mashed. I poked my head out the window and feigned concern for any onlookers, but only once.

I ended the first day blackfaced. Ibra actually became whiter. We laughed at each other. The shower at home ran black and my eyes burned and my hands shook in exhaustion.

As the days passed, we worked our way down from the top floor, breaking everything and then hauling it down to the truck that we fought to park. We loaded buckets full of plaster, hauled them down the IMG_2714stairs, and loaded them into the truck. We worked six days a week. 8 to 4:30 for five weeks. I initially thought about how much I liked work like this as I didn’t have to think. I just had to use my body and whittle the hours away. For better or worse, this left plenty of time to think about other things.

Here are some things that I remember:

Ibra constantly waved his cigarette in the air, using his hands to gesture, while indiscriminately intermingling French and English. On a seemingly hourly basis he stopped to chain smoke and lecture me on the perils of working too hard. We eventually warmed up to one another and I found myself intentionally prolonging lunch each day by asking questions so that I could sit in the warmth of the sun IMG_2698that streamed in through the window for a few minutes longer. Mate frequently recounted stories of atrocities from the wars the ravaged the Balkans in the 1990’s. The deaths of his friends at the hands of snipers, his sister nearly dying from a missle strike, ethnic cleansing, the massacre at Srebrenica.

‘Are you going to bring your wife over here?’ I ask Ibra in slow, patronizing English.

‘If I get papers.’

‘How do you get papers?’

‘I don’t know. There are ways.’

Mate spoke up, ‘Most of my friends, immigrants from Croatia and Poland, got their papers through marriage. It is incredibly expensive now though. When I arrived five years ago you could pay a woman 4100 dollars, but now it is up to 12,000 dollars.’

‘So this is common?’

‘Oh yeah. It is good business. One person makes money and the other one gets papers.’

‘You have to find the right girl. I know one girl that my friend married. Always calling for money. Always want money. She is no good to this man,’ Ibra countered.

‘Some people are better than others. My friend has married three different girls for money. He went back to visit Serbia and fell in love with a girl. He was already married though and had to stay with that girl. So he paid his friend to fly to Serbia, marry the girl, and then come back with her.’

‘He paid his friend to marry a girl he was in love with?’

‘Yeah! And bought him a ticket home!’

Another day Irba and I were looking out the window and I saw a man feeding his chickens food scraps.

‘Look….chickens.’ I pointed at them.

‘You know…Those are the first ones I have seen here in America. The first chickens.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah. You only see dead ones. The meat, never the chickens.’

IMG_2694‘There are some here. My girlfriend has 28 of them.’

‘Now that is a good girl.’ He said this earnestly, but we both laughed.

One day I sat in a patio chair in the half demolished living room of the first floor, transfixed by water cascading out of the ceiling  and spattering upon the dusty floor as Mate disconnected radiators.

Sometimes, for fun, I used the sledge like a battering ram or swung the crowbar like a baseball bat.

One time I stuck my head through a hole that I punched in the wall and twisted it like Jack Torrence.

A dog pooped directly behind the gate of the truck. I stepped in it, Ibra stepped in it, I smeared the bottom of a trashcan through it and then Mate touched it with his gloved hands, I rolled the handcart through it. I dumped a small amount of drywall dust on it with the hopes that it would work like cat litter. I then giggled as Ibra saw me do this, thought it was a good idea and got carried away; he dumped his buckets all over the pavement making a massive mess.

Most days our banter faded as we got into a taxing rhythm of work. In these moments I got unadulterated solitude to focus pointedly on my existence.

IMG_2718One day I leaned over and tilted my face to look in the mirror of the truck and was greeted by two red embers staring back at me from a bearded and lined black face. It precipitated a strange reaction, the reagents of which were being stockpiled over previous weeks: Who am I? What are you doing? Are you crazy? What is all of this about? Am I a meth head and I don’t even know it? What am I going to do with the rest of my life?

IMG_2696Each day I looked on as well-heeled couples leisurely strolled by and young people sat on stoops smoking cigarettes. Often they glanced at me and then averted their eyes. Who are these people? Are they smarter than me? Do they earn a fortune staring at computer screens? Manipulating numbers? Selling more products that no one actually needs by pandering to their innermost dreams and hopes?

Pangs of bitterness coursed through me often. My thoughts whirled around myself: I have many talents and skills, yet this is how I was spending my days at age 29: demolishing the interior of a house on an illegal jobsite in unregulated conditions, sucking in my air through a mask tinged gray with dust as I hauled buckets of trash all day? Look at you now. Did I actually have any talents or skills? Am I just an idiot who cannot recognize his station in life? Like a goose that thinks it is a swan? Everyone else seemed so relaxed, moneyed, and secure.

I found myself despising New York for all its glaring inequity and crassness. I cursed myself for coming here, for deliberately throwing myself into what is the antithesis of my values in many ways. I felt stupid.

My rational brain frequently structured thoughts like this: If I was more _______, I would __________.

I wrote this down: ‘This building is a bombed out hell.’

IMG_2701Still, I tried to lose myself in my work. I used phrases that angry old men used to describe what I was doing like ‘putting my nose to the grindstone’ or ‘keeping my head down and working through the winter.’ I would also try to release the inner turmoil physically: I would I run at a wall and kick my boot through, trying my best to relish the explosion of wood and brittle plaster that resounds on the floor. I eviscerated the snaking conduit arteries within the walls. If you can imagine, the joy even evaporated from these antics.

On cold days, I had to work even harder just to stay warm. I mused that maybe this was a forced labor scheme learned from my boss’s previous life in the former Yugoslavia.

The plaster covered brick walls were the worst. I broke them apart by starting a small necrotic ulcer in the center and assiduously expanding it outward with rhythmic hammer swings.

I found  a slip of paper in my shirt pocket that I wrote one night while I was drunk that said the following:

IMG_2707‘Mate worked with several Natives in Canada in forestry. Many of them had spent time in prison and would unabashedly tell him about murders that they had committed or other strange stories. One day in prison, one of the men recounted, another inmate returned from a visit with friends or family. He sat down in a communal area, but quickly got up and began vomiting. One of the other inmates noticed that the vomit was littered with pills and immediately ran over and started picking them out of the vomit and swallowing them. In no time at all, a crowd of inmates swarmed and ate all of the pills out of the vomit.’

One day Mate and I went to the scrap metal yards. I listened to the radio as we drove around in the truck with the heat as high as it would go. It was the coldest day of the year so far, the kind the radio described in sinister, ominous tones: the cripplingly cold Canadian air mass descended upon New York threatening the transportation system, our elderly, our children, our jobs. It was always there, the Canadian air mass, looming over us, waiting to descend. I hopped out of the truck to unlock the bed at the first yard, which was crawling with a bewildering diversity of mechanical beasts that roamed piles of steel that glimmered in the dim winter sun. I experienced a new sensation of being insignificant, of being too organic. The yard was frantic; it is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We were hurried through by men dressed indistinguishably from astronauts; even the people seemed mechanical.

I was genuinely giddy when we returned to the house to pick up the cream of the crap: copper, brass, and aluminum. The allure of money for producing nothing draws hundreds of people living on the margins of society to scour the city in search of metal each day. They intruded and cajoled us at our job site regularly. They are like blue collar carnies. Before we arrived, we discussed strategy as Mate had done this a few times; we needed to give the impression that we were in the business. If you don’t do this, they will apparently take the chainmail right off of your back.

IMG_2748We took the money load to what I would describe as a quaint community scrap yard, as if there were such a thing. The garage door opened to a few men huddled around a 55 gallon drum with flames licking out of the top. One man had a spider web, the center of which was on his nose, tattooed across his face. A pitbull sat in a reclining chair wearing a down vest, looking the most comfortable of all. The manager approached and helped us to sort the metal into piles. Spidey communicated in grunts and lurched around like a black frankenstein, staring me down if I look at him. We pretended that we knew how much everything was worth and that we wouldn’t settle for anything less than top dollar. The manager pretended that we had an insignificant amount of cheap metal that he was indifferent towards.

‘Where does all of this go?’ I venture to ask.

‘China. All we do here is bundle it and ship it out,’ he answers.

$842. Raw materials from all over the world, manufactured in China, used in America, shipped to China, recycled in China, remanufactured in China by foreign owned businesses, shipped to America.

IMG_2746Increasingly my mind churned about the limitations of growth, climate change, materialism, globalization, energy, the environment, inequality, the cognitive dissonance displayed by my countrymen, how maybe we should just commit to destroying the earth and ourselves, maybe we should blot out the sun with coal fire power plants operating at maximum capacity to power nothing but televisions playing pornography and Die Hard movies twenty four hours a day, dildos, and meth factories; start fighting human beings against one another with antiquated carpentry tools for sport; cut down every last tree; torpedo the whales; shit in our wells; have a Superbowl everyday; fire nuclear weapons at the moon; light the surface of the ocean on fire; rape everyone except for the elderly who we will leave to rot in the acid rain that falls from the sky; eat the vitamin D deficient children; and napalm the polar ice caps.

I wished the anxieties and the stresses of each day would wash off just like the filthy mask that I wore each night in the shower, but they didn’t. I felt beaten, my levity lost.

IMG_2745I read compulsively in every spare second. I tried to think my way out of the misery in which I was mired.

My rational brain also liked to use these thoughtforms:

Everything will be better when _____________.

‘All of those years that you spent laughing and enjoying yourself to the fullest were all for naught since they didn’t prepare you for the real serious world.’

‘You should go to grad school so that you can be a productive member of society.’

I was walking to work one day and I saw a discarded tin can, that someone only bothered to half crush. I empathized with that can.

One day, I rode the train home and several people saw the open seat near me, approached, and then shied away at the last second. It was alright though since they were merely crude automatons. I was enlightened because of my ability to perceive the absolutely purposeless cagelike void in which we found ourselves.

IMG_2736Sometimes I held back tears as I hauled buckets up and down the floors of the brownstone.

My mind can be a whirring maw that consumes everything and turns it all into shit as its gyre tightens around my own little miserable existence.

I walked around overstimulated,  feeling constantly abraded. I didn’t laugh at the rats in the subway anymore. I walked with my head down. I thought rationally about sex.

I descended down into the doldrums of purposelessness, stagnation, and confusion. I wallowed in a dark, deep pit. It was apparent that my mind was broken, completely dysfunctional. Day after day it went in loops about my life, about relationships, about work, about this world. I was stuck in some literal, rational mode, constantly analyzing, critiquing, and reacting. I lived in an algorithm where N goes to infinity. I found myself living in abstraction, all experience filtered through an artificial conceptualization of the world. Recognizing this is not the same as understanding it.

I thought about how canaries that are put in mines might just die because they don’t want to live in a fucking dark and lifeless hole.

IMG_2741It seemed like I would labor in a cold filthy brownstone forever, that was until my boss unexpectedly ran out of money and laid me off to wander the splendorous dog shit strewn streets of New York once more.

One day as I sat on the couch, in the simplest terms possible, everything exploded into a dizzying particolored lollapalooza. There was suddenly infinite subtlety in the myriad of intertwined flavors of the chai tea that I sipped, in the plants that shimmered in the afternoon light and gently swayed in the heat rising off of the baseboard radiators, and in the multilayered music vibrating through the air redolent with all of the telltale smells of life in my apartment. I sat transfixed by my resplendent world. I saw it.

I saw that the world is not the map that I created of it. A Euclidian, linear, limited variable perspective  is a vast oversimplification that ignores the inherently complex and chaotic order of nature and the interaction of limitless interconnected variables. It is a theoretical world assuming smooth planes, rational actors, continuity, and limited physical constraints.

We will be forever unable to model or build a perfect facsimile, we will always be left with an approximation or an incomplete construction. Reality is nowhere but in the infinite recursive complexity of my bodily systems and in the vortexes of steam that twist and dissolve above my mug.

The compulsion to make projections and see finality is just a failure of imagination. It is an abstracted way of viewing the world that ignores the infinite beautiful uncertain complexity that abounds.

The unpredictability of existence means that our lives are a series of choices and actions, thousands each day. In doing this we create ourselves, our conception of humanity, and our world. There are many areas of life where we are unable to exercise choice, but we are wholly responsible for the realms in which we can.

Life is no different than a work of creation or art. Each one of us stands in front of a canvas in the same stupefying confusion of having no idea how we got there or what is expected of us. There is a limited set of supplies that similarly has no provenance.  The background of the canvas has already been filled in before our eyes snap open. A work is created through an accumulation of choices and actions applied over time. There is no ideal work in the same way that there is no ideal life, there is only the one that exists. The bewildering beauty of life lies in the incomprehensible task of creating the completely subjective work that is ourselves.

I am tumbling across a lightless undulating plain.

I am swept onwards by forces that I cannot know.

The terrain is nothing more than that which passes.

Up, down, to and fro.

There is no beginning or end.

The darkness is vertiginous and lonely.

A rational tempest swirls inside of me.

I try to give sense to the senseless.

I strain to discern form in the void.

I conceive and am inevitably confounded.

Then, I am startled from my reverie by faint music in my head.

I suddenly feel the plain, although it passes no differently than it ever has,

the hillocks and declivities of birth, death, love, joy, and sadness.

I sit in quiet contemplation, admiring the melodic progression.

The song is entitled: ‘I am a preposterous half rational half animal chimera stumbling through an abysmal eden hurtling agonizingly fast towards.’