Friday, September 30, 2011

The Middle of the Night Urination Debacle

This episode happened during my last night in the Badlands. I wrote about it the following day in Bozeman, Montana while eating breakfast at the Cateye Cafe. A memorable dining experience and a must, if you ever find yourself in Bozeman. Which, you should find yourself there sometime...awesome town.
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Bozeman, Montana

I awoke in the middle of the night at the behest of the nighttime howlers, who were holding a lively discussion over their latest dinner (pheasant? turkey? baby bison? pronghorn?). I had the unfortunate urgency to urinate. Unfortunate because I would have to remove myself from the seemingly safe sanctuary of my tent and I was still terrified by the proximity of the coyotes. Again, I encountered the mental struggle of facing my own irrational fears. The horrendous fantasies of being mauled with my pants down were just as paralyzing as my previous nights' worries, except now contained a bit of dark humor with the actual mental image of being attacked while peeing. Indeed, quite an undignified way to go out. I'll pause now for you to render your own mental image of this sad, yet in retrospect, humorous situation. (You're welcome.)

After attempting to fight off this pressing bodily function for the eternity of ten minutes ("Just go back to can pee in the morning when it's light out", I thought), I relented and began mustering up the courage through positive thinking. "You will be fine". "They aren't hunting you, dumbass." "It's probably beautiful outside right now." "Just unzip the damn bag and flaps, walk out there, do your business." All of the reassurance I was aiming for with this self-coaching was not congealing into any formidable resistance against my fears. The reassurances would hold the fears at bay while I was consciously thinking them, but the moment I stopped projecting myself away from my situation through these little fantasy games, the dark forces of fear would again take my thoughts hostage. The back and forth struggle between my hopes and my fears was tormenting and just as an untenable situation as the terror fantasies my fearful thoughts were constructing. That struggle prevented from me taking any action, and I became mired down in inner turmoil. I simply lay there zipped up tight, arguing with myself. This argument began to produce a malaise over me...a general anxious state where I was completely in my own head. And once there, I find it very difficult to get out. It's as if the mental conflict creates an inertia against any action in reality, as well as from actually understanding the reality. I found myself no longer appraising the very real physical surroundings and my own condition within it (It is nighttime. I am camping out in a remote part of South Dakota. There are coyotes within earshot. I need to pee. I am scared. I still need to pee.), but was solely contemplating the conflicting fantasies my thoughts had rushed ahead towards...(Everything is going to end terribly and you will die vs. Everything will be alright and life will go on).

Reflecting upon this, I believe this illustrates the general condition of anxiety that many, if not all, people encounter in their day to day lives, in all situations. It does not have to be in the extreme conditions (which truly were not all that extreme, but what I mean is stripped away from the social world) in which I faced the anxiety. It is the general worriedness that permeates the every day mood of modern man/woman. The ungrounded, malleable fear of No-thing, but anything. This anxiety can be applied to one's job, a deadline, a relationship, the weather, financial situation, body image, and on. Let me take one of those and provide a specific example for clarity:

Let me use something as seemingly innocuous as the weather. Person A has a big plan that is contingent upon having "good" weather. Let's say a boating trip. Person A has been diligently checking the weather report for the past week with things, as weather reports often go, looking unclear. Chance of rain/thunderstorms. Every time Person A thinks about this trip, a projection of Person A towards an unlived future, he/she has a general feeling best described as anxiety. He/she is anxious. This may be described in positive terms: "Oh, I just hope everything will work out, the rain will hold off, it will be sunny and beautiful, etc. etc." or in negative terms "I can't believe there is a chance of rain. Gosh, this better not be ruined. If it storms, there's no way we will be able to go, etc. etc. But there is a general worry about a "No-thing". It cannot be about the weather, although that's what it seems to be, because that weather has not yet occurred. It's a future event. Therefore, it is not real. Certainly, the weather being a certain way ("good" or "bad") is future possibilities, but for the here and now of Person A, it does not exist, except as a mental construction. I am not writing here to get down into the details of the Philosophy of logic and as such will scurry ahead to my focus: the psychological implications of projectedness (pushing our Being away from the here and now into the mentally constructed world of past and/or future).

This specific example is just one, and I believe it is one that many, if not all, can relate to very personally. While this one situation seems rather harmless, I argue that this is just one instance of the general mood pulsing throughout the every day lives, in all situations, of modern man/woman. Modern man/woman has responded to the experience of Being and its fullness in the avoidance of it, through the creation of a small, objectified, manageable world that we call our "lives". That is troublesome. We often are like wrapped up tight in things that make us feel comfortable and safe. In everydayness, this is your job, your house, your family, etc. We are taught from an early age that we must create the life we want for ourselves. What does this mean? Life is an object to be constructed? Neatly. Tidy. Pretty. Safe. Stable. Comfortable. Static. This goes against the very nature of Being. But we've pushed on for it because it's what we are told to do...and it is comforting. It's comforting to think we have control of our lives. To have control over our lives. But. We don't. We don't have control of LIFE. Existence. Being. That is an everchanging interaction of forces outside of us and within us. Our lives, the way we think of that word, are simply socially constructed symbols. If I asked, what is your life? the question presupposes a subject and predicate, and means that there is a noun. That life is a noun? Our language here reveals a fallacy in perception. We perceive lives as nouns, objects, things. So we are trying to wrangle and control an ephemeral concept that is more a verb...every day we live out a struggle of trying to tame something that is untameable. No wonder there is a general ennui laying beneath are every day existence. That blah can't quite shake it feeling underlying all of your days. It's a reminder. You cannot control the forces of life. You cannot, and here is the kicker, get away from death. There's the adversary in our minds. Death and all his/her/its little minions of pain, suffering, despondency, anguish, etc. That's the essential reason for us creating and playing this game of creating something called a "life" and trying to manage, control it. To steer ourselves into a nice, comfortable life that limits pain, suffering, and transcends death. To use a wonderful phrase in our lexicon today: Epic Fail. By choosing to try to create a life, we fail to grasp what it means to live.

To return to my situation, it serves as a pretty great analogy. Here we are cooped up nice and snug in our sleeping bags and tents. It's okay. We could wish always want more things to make it better, maybe a nicer bag, bigger tent, electricity, a mattress, and on and on. You see others living large in their R.V.'s and may wish you had that. Maybe not. But these are all Things. Regardless of the type and amount of Things you have, they don't change the essence of existing there in the tent, they just change the objects and level of comfort.
However, There is certainly more to lifeliving, but that is just the "outside" world...and it looks, at times, pretty scary out there. Sometimes the coyotes are howling through the voice of economic unrest and political dysfunction. But you stay wrapped up tight to remain comforted...comforted by living in a world you feel you have control over. A world that is familiar. A small, world, a la a tent out in the big, wild world. But, hey it provides shelter from that uncertainty, dangers, and discomfort out there. You may not have unbridled freedom in that tent, and the sleeping bag may get stuffy or constrictive from time to time, and you may even consider unzipping to go outside for awhile....but fears have a way of holding us back, holding us hostage in our little tent.

Back to my urination debacle...Once I accepted the present for what it was and stopped trying to flee it in my fears or hopes and mental possibilities, I was able to act. I unzipped my bag, the tent and scrambled out of my small world into the all of it. Wow. Jaw dropping wow. The sky was a dark, overwhelming practically on top of me void...but illuminated with piercingly clear diamonds of stars. Everywhere. They seemed to be falling right onto the prairie plain as they stretched out to the horizon. The air was crisp, between cold and cool. Crickets played their songs, sounding off what must be nature's version of the violin. All this time, I was hurriedly doing my business, for the fears were still present. However, I was not letting them take me away from the moment! I did not try to dismiss them. I gave them their allotted place in the moments, and they mingled with the absolute awe I felt for the other aspects of those moments. Now the coyotes howls made sense in All of It. And it was beautiful.

This smacks of cliche...but "cliches are truisms and all truisms are true".

We do live our lives unconsciously on autopilot doing whatever it takes to find a safe, comfortable mode of Being. We do this at the expense of living presently. We sacrifice authentic experience to stay bundled up in our sleeping bags, inside our tents. Being is so much more than that.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Brief Burst of Thoughts on Breaking Point of American Culture

The following entry was written while staying at the Backpackers' Hostel in Bozeman. I was able to have some quiet time to sit, read, and reflect after my Badlands experiences. The reflection that follows is just one example of thoughts surging into a collected, cohesive set of thoughts that I felt compelled to jot down. I wrote the wave of thoughts and the moment they began to slow/recede, I stopped writing. I wanted to leave these intact so as to stimulate thought later on (for myself and others) instead of turning into some kind of lengthy essay or argument. Starbursts of thought for you (&me) to chew on. I encourage you to leave a comment of your own!
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Bozeman, Montana

We are living in a time that is showing the decline of the American empire. The industrial-military complex machine is bursting at its seams from overreaching its influence and resources across the globe. The blind faith in a rational system that depends on irrational human beings to make it run has proven to be disastrous and the resulting economic climate has punctured holes in the consumerism culture's ego balloon. Americans are finding themselves feeling more vulnerable than ever. The slow motion collapse occurring before us of the social, political, and economic structures is leading us to a final, difficult realization about ourselves more devastating than the collapse itself: Our country is morally and spiritually bankrupt (the aptly ironic term to use here).

We are living in a time in which Americans feel they can no longer rely on the social institutions for the means and meaning of their lives. Where do they turn now? These institutions and structures have been inextricably tied to the core of what it means to American. The American Dream has come to be an embodiment of consumerism and economic upward mobility. Americans have been told since their birth and their parents' births, that this Dream was for all to attain, if only they worked hard enough for it. For many, this was always enough to make a life out of, or at least the struggle to do so. While the impoverished have been too close to the truth to completely buy into this and have continued to rely heavily on their spirituality and family for meaning in day to day life, the middle class has for all intents and purposes come to more heavily rely on the principles of the American Dream for grounding their existence and governing meaning in day to day lives. Americans are being forced to confront the deep-seated anxieties that characterize human existence. It will be interesting to exist in these times, experience them myself, as well as witness the reactions of others. This country is in the midst of significant, permanent changes (regardless of any politician or economist telling you otherwise). Yes, the "markets" may bounce back eventually, but there will be humanistic effects to all of this and our culture will be shaped by this period.

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Added on 10/18
Estero, Florida

"I think we've had it very easy materially for a long time and we've gotten very little help in understanding things that are important besides being comfortable. And I don't think anybody knows how we will react if things get really hard here. And the fact that we're strong militarily and economically is a good thing, but it's also a frightening thing." David Foster Wallace, 2003 shown in interview here

We have grown into a culture of consumerism basing value solely on comfort and expediency of desires being met. We neglected cultivating humanistic values and constructing our own meaningful lives in exchange for a ready made paradigm loosely known as the "American Dream". This illusive concept drove people for decades in the quest for a better job, better possessions, and better social status marked by materialistic wealth. But the illusion of the American Dream and the false notion of "upward mobility" were all predicated on a growing economy, low unemployment, a contented middle class. If these things fail, the illusion will be exposed and the people will see that "the emperor has no clothes".

That is where we are now...the current economic, social, and political climate is demonstrative of people not knowing what to do or how to act in the face of existential terror brought about by the crumbling of our institutions. It's because they don't know themselves. The self-image and identity is based on the social institutions! The American is going through an existential identity crisis.

Who am I if I am not my career/job? What is in store for me if my carefully planned future (RETIREMENT) is now in jeopardy or no longer even there? What happened to the life I carefully built and what will I do if it collapses? What happened to this country and what will I do if it collapses? What does my life mean now?

I suspect these are just a few of the startling questions many people are consciously or unconsciously asking themselves. The insinuated point Wallace was making, and one I have continued to espouse, is that these are questions the American people (and all humans) should have been asking themselves all along.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Off the beaten path

The following is a journal entry I wrote while hiking in the Badlands in South Dakota. I left the majority of it as I wrote it that day. However, I did include some edits, such as a few changes in word choice (not many, only where to correct improper word usage), a few instances of explaining a philosophical concept into a little more depth since I have had more time to reflect on the concepts present, and the inclusion of an excerpt from Edward Abbey's novel "Desert Solitaire" which I referenced originally in the entry. I am keeping much of the original entry in order to leave myself an online trail of my development, of sorts, to show the organic process of my intellectual and spiritual growth...well, at least growth in my consideration. I can leave it to others to form their own opinions.

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Badlands, South Dakota
Mid Day

I went off the tidy, constructed trail (aka boardwalk) which is titled the "Cliff Shelf Nature Trail". After hiking up the tallest hill nearby, I noticed a skinny, sloping pasture to my left separated from me by a network of small fluvial erosion chasms and talus. The narrow channels were created from water rushing down the sheer cliff faces that hung just beyond the pasture to all sides. The channels bottomed out in front of me, creating 10-50 foot pits. I surveyed the area, attempting to find a passable route to the opposite side of the pits, where I would then have to find a scale-able portion of the talus. I attempted to scope out my solution but was only finding dead ends to due to questionable sturdiness of the ground upon which I needed to leap upon over the chasms coupled with portions of the talus which appeared too steep or loose to scramble up. Persistence paid off when I found two mounds of sediment that created doable hops over the pits, as well as leading to a decent runoff funnel that I figured I could make my way up without dire consequences if I were to slip and fall back down. (Note: Calculated risk here, loved ones...I did not put myself in serious jeopardy...maybe a twisted ankle or scrapes or bruises, but nothing more.) After deciding it was worth the risks, as well as contemplating how I would feel if I did not attempt (worse than I would feel if I failed), I lunged across the gaps and quickly scrambled halfway up the 45 degree slope. At that point, I had to use the full surface area of my body and lay down against the steep slope, crawling the remainder of the way up sprawled out like a 4 legged spider. But once I made it up, hamstrings aching, feeling a sense of relief and exaltation, I realized there was still more hiking to do. There, I found myself below a 10 foot ridge sprinkled with gnarly Juniper trees. I found a Big Horn sheep path grading against the ridge and followed it, only to be stopped by a freshly fallen tree. I switched back down the ridge, breaking my way through dead branches and back up the ridge, past the obstructing tree. I noted to myself that Abbey was not exaggerating when he described the pleasant fragrance of a Juniper in his nihilistic environmental masterpiece "Desert Solitaire" and was pleased with this firsthand experience. I soon found out that this was not to be the only realization of some of his truths, which he experienced and wrote about in the 1950s and 1960s.

The search, struggle, and any small dangers were worth it. The pasture was nestled in between hills/mounds on my right, jutting cliffs exposing colorful sedimentary layers to my left and behind, and a steep drop hundreds of feet down to the open prairie, dotted by otherwordly plateaus directly in front of me, complete with a small band of wild horses (not the postmodern alt-rock group, but actual animals) grazing below. I sat beneath the much welcomed shade of an aromatic juniper, hearing only the rustle of the tall grass, bees, grasshoppers, crickets, and Canyon Wrens. The same landscape and sounds I had been experiencing back on the paved loop highway and its corresponding overlooks and developed trails, but this seemed felt different. It was if I was now privy to the real Badlands. Not the experience sold to you. As I peered down westward at the serpentine pavement, complete with its pullouts and viewpoints (for your convenience and comfort!), I recalled Abbey's prediction about the development of the National Park system, also known as the destruction of the natural ecosystems and beauty it purported to protect. Here, he is talking about the Arches National Monument, but he was foretelling the development of all of our national parks and I believe applies to my experience of the Badlands.

As I type these words, several years after the little episode of the gray jeep and thirsty engineers, all that was foretold has come to pass. Arches National Monument has been developed. The Master Plan has been fulfilled. Where once a few adventurous people came on weekends to camp for a night or two and enjoy a taste of the primitive and remote, you will now find serpentine streams of baroque automobiles pouring in and out, all through the spring and summer, in numbers that would have seemed fantastic when I worked there: from 3,000 to 30,000 to 300,000 per year, the "visitation", as they call it, mounts ever upward. The little campgrounds where I used to putter around reading three-day-old newspapers full of lies and watermelon seeds have now been consolidated into one master campground that looks, during the busy season, like a suburban village: elaborate housetrailers of quilted aluminum crowd upon gigantic camper-trucks of Fiberglas and molded plastic; through their windows you will see the blue glow of television and hear the studio laughter of Los Angeles; knobby-kneed oldsters in plaid Bermudas buzz up and down the quaintly curving asphalt road on motorbikes; quarrels break out between campsite neighbors while others gather around their burning charcoal briquettes (ground campfires no longer permitted -- not enough wood) to compare electric toothbrushes. The Comfort Stations are there, too, all lit up with electricity, fully equipped inside, though the generator breaks down now and then and the lights go out, or the sewage backs up in the plumbing system (drain fields were laid out in sand over a solid bed of sandstone), and the water supply sometimes fails, since the 3,000-foot well can only produce about 5 gpm -- not always enough to meet the demand. Down at the beginning of the new road, at park headquarters, is the new entrance station and visitor center, where admission fees are collected and where the rangers are going quietly nuts answering the same three basic questions five hundred times a day: (1) Where's the john? (2) How long's it take to see this place? (3)Where's the Coke machine?
Progress has come at last to the Arches, after a million years of neglect. Industrial Tourism has arrived.

-Edward Abbey "Desert Solitaire" (Chapter 5: Industrial Tourism and the National Parks)
The stark difference between my experiences, driving the paved loop and utilizing the pullouts and marked trails versus going off into the undeveloped Badlands, was palpable. I felt it. It was not just a thought or dialectical argument I constructed post-experience (those simply sum up the feeling of the experiences). This became analogous to my experiences the previous night (and entry). I experienced, in my entire search & adventure, human existence in the raw sense. And to say it "feels more real" does not drive the point home enough. Throwing aside the constructed comforts that were readily available for me to assume and consume allowed me to experience the moment; it gave way to a present-mindedness that grounded me there and now. This is drastically different from the socially constructed existence that is known as a "National Park", which feeds you an objectified experience in which you are shielded from actually experiencing yourself in the moment, in that place and time, as one with your surroundings. The objectified experience is dependent upon the spectacle, preconceived expectation of an objectified thing, and you are the observer and the park is the object you are observing. This, of course, is done for the convenience of people not wanting the perceived discomforts and having to get out of their isolated, bubbles of comfort and get down in the fullness of nature. It is also done for the economic machine of the park system because it creates a systematic experience that the government can sell to people and provide as a commodity, much like a ride in an amusement park. There is a sinister detachment lurking below this experience.

The National Park as a product experience is full of these preconceived expectations and obligations. The expectation is for you to Behold this thing for your enjoyment (as opposed to in-vivo experience). There is the way to do it and there are feelings you should feel. You are obligated to be like the family who passes through in the R.V. or car, stopping at the pullouts and their viewpoints for just enough time to behold this thing and snap a picture as if to prove they experienced this thing. Much like the conversation I overheard of a family of a mother, grandmother and four youngsters. The kids complaining because they wanted to go hike up one of the plateaus, but the mother and grandmother were disallowing. The youngsters' response: "But we paid like 25 bucks to drive through here and we're bored. Why are we even here?" Mother: "To appreciate this. And we are getting our money's worth. Now get over here and take a picture so you can show your friends you were here!"

You've purchased this experience so you had better get your money's worth!

I think this is an example of man/woman's folly in the erosion of the fullness of experience for the sake of comfort, to not feel pain, to have a "bad" time, to risk death or injury. We have objectified experience. The modern day manifestation of that is that experience is now to be consumed. It is boxed up and sold to us in tight, neat little packages, if not literally, then figuratively. I am certainly guilty of this kind of consumption, as well. I did drive this loop that I speak of and use the pullouts to gaze upon the land and admire from a distance. I did use the viewpoints to snap some photographs. So I speak of these things not from high up above as if I am giving some sermon on the mount, but mired down in the problematic contemporary Western existence. How do we break free of these voluntary chains and shackles? How do we let go of the objectified and comfortable existence?

Back in the present away from human corruption, by that I mean development, social order, systemization of experience, my experience is a totality of existence as a creature in the world. This is something I wrote of yesterday, but would do well for myself and if I share with others, to elucidate. Using this term, "creature in the world" is a ripoff of sorts of Heidegger's "being-in-the-world", as well as other texts I have read, and my synthesis of this concept that is this reiterated: humans are in the world, not separate from it. Existence is not a place of subjects and objects to be manipulated, but of beings, as Heidegger puts it. Beings are the things which to be, and the totality of existence is what Heidegger describes as Being, which is the verb to be. (Side Note: Now, I merely mention this to give admission to my Heideggerian influences, but I certainly am no Heidegger expert, in fact I have admittedly only read excerpts of his work as well as the analyses of his work by others. But what I have seen is that the way I express my understanding of these concepts does sound Heidegger-like as I come to know more and more of his work.)

So as a creature in the world experiencing the totality of existence I've felt fear (of falling, rattlesnakes, not being adventurous), frustration, happiness, exhaustion, thirst, hunger, satiation, jubilation, wonder, paranoia, worry, anxious, discomfort, longing, satisfaction, and on and on with words to describe the spectrum of human experience. Mostly, I felt I belonged. Home. I'd say in a weird way, but that's only my socialization which governs how I first interpret words. Especially upon further reflection, I used "weird" to describe feeling home, which is a contradiction. One does not feel weird when at home. That's the essence of home. What I realize I meant was that it felt weird to feel home. This exemplifies the serious condition of displacement and alienation present in contemporary Western culture, a collective sense of homelessness that permeates our culture today. (Side note: I think this is derived from our aforementioned objectification of reality, which essentially divorced us from a primordial state of coexistence with our natural home, our planet, but I digress again...) I lay in the grass, no longer obssessively worrying what dangers could befall me. That's socially learned nonsense -- the worrying. Caution is natural; an evolutionary adaption. Worrying is the pathological form of caution, ingrained through social experiences. But I'm no longer in the constructed experience that is a National Park, the Badlands, but I am experiencing. Simply. Here. Now.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Quote Edition: Part 1 (Just assuming more to come)

I am going to do the unoriginal and lazy thing and throw some quotes out here because a) I do not want to expend the energy to write anything of my own b)some things are worth repeating. I do this knowing that these quotes are not as powerful out of context, just as the highlight of the recent soccer match or football game does not carry with it the significance of watching it in the moment. However, for this... I just changed my mind. Don't read any of the following. Instead, check out the following books** and you will find these powerful excerpts and experience them in full (in the context in which they were written to be experienced). I know I could have deleted this all and left it at that; though it would not have left the trace of the thoughts I had. It would have also erased the idea that arose out of this: experiencing things out of context, or secondhand, is never the same as in the original form. Now, this is may seem to be a banal and obvious statement. Though, it is simple wisdom. It is better for us to experience for ourselves and at our own times. I don't want to spoon-feed some quotes that I hold dear, because they will not be experienced in the same way I did. Rather, I should embody the principles/ethics/ideals these nuggets of wisdom inspired in me. I must take these forth and incorporate into my being; create my own new expression. So...

**Books are:
Jack Kerouac - "On the Road" & "Dharma Bums"

Edward Abbey - "The Fool's Progress" & "Desert Solitaire"

Robert Pirsig - "Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"

Well. This is the point at which I wish I could redact the title of my entry.


"...the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes 'Awww!' "

"I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till i drop. This is the night, what it does to you. I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion."

"Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don't be sorry."

"There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars."

"Happiness consists in realizing it is all a great strange dream."

"I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless emptiness."

"I don't know, I don't care, and it doesn't make any difference."

"I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn't know who I was - I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I'd never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn't know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn't scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost."

"I felt like lying down by the side of the trail and remembering it all. The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and the dying and the heartbreak that went on a million years ago and the clouds as they pass overhead seem to testify (by their own lonesome familiarity) to this feeling."

"It always makes me proud to love the world somehow- hate's so easy compared."

"The page is long, blank, and full of truth. When I am through with it, it shall probably be long, full, and empty with words."

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Edward Abbey

"May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds."

"Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit."

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Robert Pirsig

"The only Zen you find on tops of mountains is the Zen you bring there."

"Like those in the valley behind us, most people stand in sight of the spiritual mountains all their lives and never enter them, being content to listen to others who have been there and thus avoid the hardships."

"Sometimes it's a little better to travel than to arrive."

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Monday, September 12, 2011

David Foster Wallace: "This Is Water" with a special introduction by: Me

David Foster Wallace is considered by many to be one of the best, if not the best, contemporary American writers. I only recently became aware of him during a browsing of a contemporary philosophy section in a bookstore in Asheville, NC where I happened to stumble upon this book. The book itself was a posthumously published version of a graduation speech Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2008. I did not purchase the book because it was overpriced ($20) for such a short book. Upon further research (see: stumbled upon another piece of Wallace's writing tonight, which reminded me of my Asheville real life stumbleupon), I found that the "book" (see: speech transcript) could be found in many places online. Free. Happy jameson. I read it. Wallace articulates thoughts, beliefs, feelings I have better than I can. My ego wishes I could have written something as eloquent, yet simple, and most importantly, wise, as this piece. I actually wished I had known about Wallace since college, since it seems I should have come across him then. These private wishes were are examples of the kind of worship I have done for years and I've only fully acknowledged just now. The worship of intellect. As he mentions. This is not an earthshaking revelation by any means, and certainly those who know me well will be shaking your heads, laughing aloud, or possibly even stunned to read my admittance of this.

However, I feel it is important to see things as they are, realize them, accept them, and let go. To be clear, this kind of acceptance is not to be confused with the contemporary Western version of acceptance where it means to be okay with something that won't or you cannot change. Acceptance, here, I mean that I see and understand the present conditions for how they are and do not try to flee or deny them. This is a very difficult, yet simple action to take. I don't want to admit, certainly not publicly, nor even privately, that a foundation for much of my previous action has been in response to a worshiping of intellect, specifically, my intellect. For this kind of admittance immediately leads me to the logical conclusion that the cathedral consists of a leader just as hopeless as the leaders of religious worship that I criticize.

So deeply rooted is this character defense, that this is akin to soldiers at a fort laying down their weapons and opening the gate to the advancing enemies. Here, though, my ego has created the protagonist and antagonists. I, my view of myself, distinctive from the world, constructed through the socially mediated avenues, is the protagonist. The defenses I have from breaking down to the creatureliness has been my intellect, the building of an intellectual self. This served as a barrier between my "self" and the antagonist, which can be any number of manifestations of the ultimate antagonist: death. So my antagonist here is fear of social belittling; the erosion of the solid foundation of the self I had so unwittingly established over the years. The admission is tantamount to ego suicide, or at minimum, self-mutilation. But through this I can see this as a healthy advancement towards my acceptance of the present, being present-minded and the letting go of the egoistic impulses of the socially conceived self.

In reality, there are no protagonists or antagonists. There are no separate, static entities. I, my construction of my "self", is an abstraction that I've created to feel permanence. This is something we all do. We want to feel permanence in the face of the only Truth we know: we will die one day. The rest in between (life & our experience of it) is a bit muddled...we're all left to clear it up as we see fit, knowing, however, it's not a truth with a capital t, but just our own opinion of things as we see them. I am attempting to clear away those aforementioned defenses, the egoistic character armor of the self. They only do more harm by preventing us from seeing reality as it truly is as opposed to what we would like it to be.

So all of this admission is born out of an acceptance of the present, as well as an acceptance that the present is fleeting and ever-changing. Thus, upon this realization and acceptance, I decided to share the speech with you, as well as this "confession" of sorts. I hope you find the speech as enlightening and practical as I did. As for the confession part, well, I hope you find it as enlightening and practical as I did.

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"This Is Water" by David Foster Wallace

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"

If you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude - but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. So let's get concrete ...

A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here's one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness, because it's so socially repulsive, but it's pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you've had that you were not at the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real - you get the idea. But please don't worry that I'm getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called "virtues". This is not a matter of virtue - it's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centred, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.

By way of example, let's say it's an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired, and you're stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there's no food at home - you haven't had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job - and so now, after work, you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It's the end of the workday, and the traffic's very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store's hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it's pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can't just get in and quickly out: you have to wander all over the huge, overlit store's crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough checkout lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can't take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.

Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line's front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your cheque or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn't fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etc, etc.

The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it's going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I've worked really hard all day and I'm starved and tired and I can't even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid goddamn people.

Or if I'm in a more socially conscious form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic jam being angry and disgusted at all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUVs and Hummers and V12 pickup trucks burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers, who are usually talking on cell phones as they cut people off in order to get just 20 stupid feet ahead in a traffic jam, and I can think about how our children's children will despise us for wasting all the future's fuel and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and disgusting we all are, and how it all just sucks ...

If I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do - except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn't have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default setting. It's the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities. The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: it's not impossible that some of these people in SUVs have been in horrible car accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to rush to the hospital, and he's in a much bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am - it is actually I who am in his way.

Again, please don't think that I'm giving you moral advice, or that I'm saying you're "supposed to" think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it's hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you're like me, some days you won't be able to do it, or you just flat-out won't want to. But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line - maybe she's not usually like this; maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who's dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible - it just depends on what you want to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important - if you want to operate on your default setting - then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren't pointless and annoying. But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars - compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true: the only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here's something else that's true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship - be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles - is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things - if they are where you tap real meaning in life - then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already - it's been codified as myths, proverbs, clich├ęs, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power - you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart - you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the "rat race" - the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don't dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness - awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: "This is water, this is water."

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Morning After First Night of Camping: Badlands

This is my first journal entry after arriving in the Badlands. I arrived on 8/30 around dusk. I wrote this entry the following morning.

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Badlands, South Dakota

All things considered, the first night of camping [in my life] was...well an adventure. Given the aforementioned miscues [1. car was not organized well, which caused much digging through during my stop in Iowa, 2. failed to purchase/acquire a compass, hiking pants, flashlight, batteries; 3.failed to complete TFA phone interviewer training, which caused me to stop for an hour in Sioux Falls to try and finish, which I didn't 4. knotted the tie strings on all tent gear, making it difficult to undo 5. arrived at the Badlands at dusk, forcing me to put up tent in dark 6. used a water bottle with cracked lid that subsequently spilled three different the tent 7. continuing to try to use said water bottle]
Given these miscues, as well as the trial and error process of setting up my tent, which included many trips back and forth between the car, I realize the importance of learning from these mistakes. This is especially true when considering my desire to set out on backcountry camping soon. Sleeping in the tent itself was not the most comfortable I have been, but that was to be expected.

The coyotes woke me around 2:00 AM. I know this because I turned on my phone to check the time, as well as to serve as a comfort, I suspect. I was terrified. I immediately began worrying that I'd left food in my pack, which was inside the tent (I hadn't) or that they could smell the jerky and food in my trunk (considering I can smell it when driving). In spite of rationally knowing this was irrational thought, I could not shake these worries. Their howls, yips, and canine moans pierced the tranquil setting the cicadas, crickets, owls, and other non-intimidating critters had so auspiciously created. Fear paralyzed me. I remained motionless in my bag, listening sharply to every sound, including the minute stillness in between their communications. Visions of the vicious pack closing in on me, surrounding me, filled my thoughts. Feeling contrite for ever considering this trip, I attempted to make silent compromises with a God I no longer thought to exist. Finding that to be a dead end route for personal salvation from my impending doom (ripped to shreds, no doubt), I searched frantically for some benevolent being or idea of being to bargain with. Ah, see the burden you carry when you eliminate religious idols from your belief system. You're left to rely on yourself. There, in that moment, I found myself no longer suitable to rely on. Sure, I got by just fine in the social system world. But there, encountering my own death, I found my place: I realized my own creatureliness. I was not above the rest of the creatures. I was bounded by the laws of nature just as they. I was vulnerable. WE are vulnerable. Once our societal cloaks and disguises have are stripped away, you will find yourself in it. The world. Not the constructed world of crafty humans, whom have created abstract symbols to represent what is real, but the raw existence of nature. The totality of being a creature-in-the-world.

That realization was the moment I found acceptance.My mind slowed its running to escape from what I thought was the predicament I found myself in, but as the mind eventually stopped the running, I became focused on the present. No longer fantasizing about grotesque endings to my life, or feeling insecure about my foolishness for putting myself in a situation where I was scared, or any other thought but that present moment, I realized that my mind had stopped running from itself and all of the false realities it constructs. I became present minded. I accepted that I am a creature in the world whose existence has the same natural laws apply to it as all other creatures. I will die. Life is a struggle to survive when you fight death. A struggle presupposes antagonistic forces engaging in conflict. Life is a struggle when we oppose the natural laws, deny them, or skirt them in any way. We create the struggle through our disposition towards an inevitability. Life leads to death. Life contains suffering. The more we fight this, the more life will be a struggle. But life is lived when you accept these conditions and live in harmony with the totality of existence.

I then noticed how the other critters of the night had executed a decrescendo in their song, acquiescing to the cacophony of the wild dogs - in understanding and acceptance of their place as creatures in the world. As the last of the howls pitched forth and receded away from the night, the other creatures resumed the full force of their songs. They realized that since death was not here for them now, they could continue to move on with their life.

In retrospect, I realize the coyotes and other creatures were simply conducting the natural orchestra of life, which is a harmonious concert that plays out every day and night, just as it has for ages and will continue to do so for eons to come. Why should humans think that they are in the audience merely listening in for entertainment? Or worse yet, how can we have the audacity to believe we are the lone conductor, leading this as we see fit and for our glorification?

The night of the coyotes has led me to drop my pretensions and humanistic egocentricity to take the natural stage and join in the beautiful song of the wild.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Road

"I went for many reasons and none all the same."

Why should I embark on a trip where the destinations are superfluous and not the purpose of the trip? Or as is more often simply put to me, "Why on earth are you doing this?". The question itself belies a perspective that I have found is the obstacle in the way of understanding. "What do you want to get out of this?" It is the perspective that puts emphasis on the ends gained, specifically in ends that are some kind of monetary reward or professional advancement.

Nothing. Actually, it's the opposite of gaining something out of this. I want to lose something out of this.

I left Jacksonville Beach on August 2nd, having tied up (most) loose ends and with my car packed full of a second load of my remaining personal belongings. I was leaving behind a life and hopefully a lifestyle. A house I had lived in for the first three years of my young professional life, a "good" job, friends, girlfriend, and most possessions. Those three years and the experiences that came with that way of life weren't all that bad. When you are 25, have established yourself professionally, gained close friends and a significant other with whom you can confide in, as well as enjoy the time spent, and done so without sacrificing too much financially, you would normally consider yourself "happy". A caveat to this point that I should now make clear is that this this is a generally agreed upon conception of the "good life" by those in the working-middle class.. The formula for happiness is pretty simple: Use the resources given to you by your family and work hard for yourself to earn a nice, comfortable life that's just a little better than the generation before you. A time honored tradition, one might say. Of course to mean comfortable is to fill your life with the material, social, and spiritual comforts that you were brought up with, except just enhance them. Buy nicer things, befriend established and respectable people, and be a great Christian. A little experimentation with this plan is okay and even revered, so long as the plan isn't challenged in totality and on its merits.

So, many, including myself, thought I had things pretty damn good. Actually, I had finally come upon the aforementioned lifestyle, which I bought into and sought in previous years. Why would I give it all up now that I was on the path?

I want to rid myself, or at least suspend, that way of thinking. The big purpose, the why the hell I am doing it, is to exist on the margins of the socioeconomic system and my current place in it. I am letting go (admittedly maybe only temporarily) of my position in the middle class. Maybe the cynical way of putting it: I am actually embodying a middle class rite of passage...I am taking a vacation! A vacation from the middle class. Nonetheless, I am challenging myself to give up a way of living and the comfortable habits that go with it and fashion a new lifestyle for myself. A reconstruction of the structure and contents of my daily existence to strip away the habits of my being to continue to figure out just who the hell I am at some existential core.

Upon leaving Jax Beach, with one of the toughest goodbyes ("see you later") I have had to say in my rearview, my existence fused with a dream, fantasy, plan that I had been concocting for some time. I had officially left behind a lifestyle. Social and professional position, along with the obligatory daily habits associated with, as well as my physical environment and the interplay that exists between a creature and its environment. Poof. Gone. To be fair, I was on the portion of my trip which gave me some pretty soft landings. So I was riding a nice wave of euphoria and the ego-pleasing pats on the back that comes with taking risks and setting out on something new, where the change itself is viewed as an accomplishment, and where you have yet to encounter the serious challenges that come with significant change. Yeah, those first several hours were fantastic. Jamming out to my favorite songs, windows down, feeling a self-righteous rebelliousness that pushed me onward through much of that first leg of the trip through rural Georgia and South Carolina. But I was apprehensively aware of the letdowns, setbacks, and general ennui that would certainly come my way. I wanted to hold on to the high spirits that buoyed me. But deep and persistent is the suffering for those who resist the natural pulse coursing through life which we know as change.