Saturday, December 11, 2010

I want to be a farmer.

I want to be a farmer when I grow up. My vision is not to toil on the land to sell a product that is highly undervalued due to the current injection of fossil fuels into agriculture. No, I want to have a homestead, a subsistence farm. Really, a small piece of land where I have a large veg patch, some chickens and/or goats, some woods for fire and for my goats to eat in. I want to have days filled with milking and canning and harvesting and making cheese and jam and bread. I want the sound of birds and water running and dew on my toes on cool summer mornings. I want a farm dog. A collie, or two, who stays on the porch or in the barn, who watches over the farm like a little soldier always at arms. I want some turkeys too, and some geese and ducks for delicious and gigantic eggs. Oh, and some scraggly farm kitten, grey tabbies, who are always having babies and always finding and killing all the rodents and bugs that pester us.

I want a wood burning stove that sits in the middle of my house and becomes a meeting place for all those with cold toes. I want to chop down our wood, and feel it burn to warm us. I want to always have some water warming on it- and have tea which transfers the life of the tree inside me to warm me from the inside. I want to witness the transfer of life and energy. From wood to fire to tea. From seed to plant to stew. From duck to egg to omelet.

I want to feel the seasons change. To eat according to what nature provides. Nature has a way of providing food that is perfectly satisfying in season. The rich sweetness of pumpkins and squash in fall, the soft, light berries of summer, the thick and meaty potatoes and carrots and kale of winter, the fresh new herbs of spring.

This is the first time in human history when the majority of farmers entering agriculture were *not* raised on farms themselves. I'm a little bit scared, but ready for the challenge.

Friday, December 3, 2010

life is long

I felt for the very first time today that life is long.

It is a very abrupt and distinct sensation. Food doesn't taste as brightly as it once did. I know a lot more useless facts that are part of the ritual entry into adulthood - these guardians of the status quo and I nod at each other in mutual understanding of our shared monotony. Oh yeah, we all know about the Soviet Union. Sweet. The places that I know so well - train station, office, bedroom - are just places through which my body moves, having no real interaction with the space I am in. I never pause to look at the sky anymore; why bother looking up at the mess of suffocating gray clouds? I am now in the long slog of adulthood.

I feel the break from childhood palpably. I feared this moment my whole life. I spent the twilight of my teenage years signing you can't be twenty on sugar mountain and was terrified of the day when twenty would arrive. But twenty didn't come with any large transition, no kick in the ass to get off the mountaintop. Just more brightness, even more brightness and excitement, really, than I had ever had in my life.

Going to Rome and my subsequent travels staved off adulthood for a few years, I realize now. Oh so THIS is what everyone means when they tell me to become an adult! Food tastes like cardboard now, and life seems long. Like an endless hamster-wheel of death. We go through these motions again and again, these behaviors we learned so very long ago that have now become the rote reality of our existence. We don't think, we just act. We wake up with the alarm, morning routine, commute, sell our bodies for money, eat to stay alive, come home and schedule in relaxation and pleasure time.

It makes me feel tired. Or the opposite of that, like the spark for life is being extinguished. Like I have so much energy, so much joy, joie de vivre that is being pulled out of me by this thing called adulthood, by this long-life-syndrome.

I watch all the other people who move around me, and I wonder if they've resigned themselves to this too? Can I be the only one who feels it, or are they so far gone that they don't even remember that they've forgotten?

I will not resign to this thing that is called adulthood but should more appropriately be called the trap of death. I refuse to have a long-feeling life. I refuse to wake up each morning and think oh, right, this again. I will not surrender to this crap. I will not live any version of my life but the most fantastic, brilliant, heartbreakingly luscious one. Time to start planning the escape.

Friday, November 26, 2010

moderation itself can be a kind of extreme

being alone, it can be quite romantic
like Jacques Cousteau underneath the Atlantic
a fantastic voyage to parts unknown
going to depths where the sun's never shone
and I fascinate myself when I'm alone

This year I have to spend many, many more hours alone, or in the company of strangers, than I will ever have to again. I must spend hours away from sincere conversation and plunged into the fast-paced busyness that keeps us all forgetting what it is like to sit and think. It will be several months before I will be able to break free from this measured and constant existence, so I have decided that I must make something from it.

I haven't had this many hours in the pleasure of my own company at any point in my life. I have always been surrounded by family, then friends, then partners - mixed into the cacophony of other people's thoughts. Due to this, among other reasons, I never developed a deep sense of my own thoughts. I instead became an excellent listener, thinker, re-arranger of other people's problems so that they may be able to see them anew. I became so good at this, and felt so satisfied in being helpful to others, that I rarely spent time in the depths of my own mind.

This year is different. Although I could have probably gone my whole life in this previous state if given the right situations, the circumstances of this year make this impossible. So, I am going to make like Andrew Bird and learn to fascinate myself. I must first remind myself that this is a useful endeavor, and not get caught in the pull of meaningless socializing. I want my relationships always to be sincere, and must truly fight against getting caught in the tides of insubstantial gatherings.

There is so little sanctity for time spent alone in the comfort of one's own thoughts. It is like people are afraid of what they'll find. Any time alone is spent flooding the senses with input from phones or tvs or computers. No great philosophy has ever been written in the state. Only when I respect this act of being alone can I then learn to use it for growth. I can let myself indulge in the sensory history that is revealed in novels, I can learn to stand over a flame in the kitchen and use it to magically transform food, I can just gaze at the blazing afternoon late fall sunlight that pierces through the water glass on my counter, setting it aglow in warmth and life. Quite romantic, indeed.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

endless expanses of humanity

When I first began to learn the power of new ideas, I opened myself up to that burning sensation, like peering into a new and more brilliant world and not being quite sure what you're looking at. It is taking the red pill, stepping out of the dark cave and into the overwhelming brightness of sunlight. At first everything was white and I ambled through this state of over-exposure, but as time wore on and I became adjusted to the blaze, it became clear how I wanted to learn.

In this state of immersion, I only wanted to learn about non-fiction. I wanted the plain facts. Tell me the history of fossil fuels, of food consumption, of empires and art movements and how hunter gatherers live and why. I needed to know how people moved from forests to farms to cities and what impelled them to do so. I longed for a basic illumination, a story, a baseline from which to create theories or assumptions about the way the world works.

For example, learning about the agricultural revolution -- when people shifted from being primarily nomadic pastoral people to settling on a particular piece of land to grow their own food -- gave me a basis to ask why did this movement happen? After much searching, I found that it was mainly due to population pressures and this impelled people to try to grow more food than was available as a herder.

Great. So since the beginning of my learning life I have been adding to this narrative. I am just now feeling confident in my basic narrative of reality, enough to share it with others and to feel confident in articulation. 

I spent all of these years proclaiming and insisting that novels were worthless pieces of crap. I would accost people: why read about a made-up reality when our reality is so intricate, endlessly fascinating, and illuminating? What are you running away from? Face the world, the truth of it all. Reading a non-fiction account of the history of all the great ideas in the past two centuries was to me much more interesting and enlightening than delving into the lives of people who have never existed.

But now I am not so sure. It is clear to me that there is a set of people who do run from reality by reading novels. They indulge in the fantasy of another story but their own, and this gets back to my last post on it is not what you consume, but why.  This is not what I want to discuss here.

I want to talk about the value of fiction. Having created my own narrative of the world, I thought I would be more satisfied.  Although I do feel a tremendous amount of confidence, clarity, and assuredness in my thoughts, I am missing something fundamental - the details. I am missing what Milan Kundera calls 'the fascinating imaginative realm where no one owns the truth and everyone has the right to be understood . . . the wisdom of the novel.'

Having just read that line in Richard Rorty's excellent article "Trotsky and the Wild Orchids," it became clear to me where I must go next. At the expense of losing clarity (more details in learning always means more confusion), I must fill in the picture. The endless expanses of human (and non-human) emotions, beliefs, behaviors, thoughts; these can only be captured in living a full life which seeks to explore the range of human experiences, or for those that are too difficult of dangerous to access - exploring the novel.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

not what but why

Ruminating on a recent discussion over at Morris Berman's blog, I have been thinking a lot about the things people consume.  Not that this is a new topic for me, I am endlessly interested in political economy - or, what people buy, eat, use up, and throw out. The problem is that for a while I had a thesis that there are certain things that are more right to consume. more healthy. good for the soul.

But I have come to re-think this truth. One rule that certainly does still stand is that the less we consume the better off we are.  Less food, less things, less trash, less health problems, etc. I have harped on this enough here. I think you get the point. Consume less = health more.

What's changed for me is in the realm of those things we do choose to let into our realm of influence. I thought before that there was a sort of universal list of things that were better or worse. For example, I thought that it is universally better to read something like Noam Chomsky than, I don't know, comic books. Or listen to Wilco instead of Britney Spears. There Will Be Blood over Step It Up 2. Now, even typing it out here makes it clear that this is an impossibly snobby thing to think.

The real truth, I think, is that it is not what people consume but why. It is infinitely more important that the person is sincere about their consumption, looking to grow and that it is not another form of mindless entertainment, part of the numbing calmness each of us has chosen to partake in to calm the nerves and loosen the tension in our necks. The problem here is that this is a very amorphous thing, very hard to gauge. It is much easier for us all to say Oh you are just so stupid, reading those superhero stories than it is to say why do you like those stories? what do you learn from them? what do they mean to you?

What gets me most about this conundrum is that, to me, it seems infinitely better to ask someone the latter question at, say, a party, than to make the former comment. I would much rather get right into the sincere truth of the matter, but somehow I have found this kind of talk has made its way out of party conversation in favor of judgments and superficiality.

I am now, as of this post, going to attempt to throw off this smothering blanket of thoughtlessness and instead be sincere, care, and ask the question why before I ever judge the what.

Friday, August 13, 2010

the art of living

 What is it we all do on a daily basis but practicing the art of living.  Some of us are more aware of it than others, some more engaged, some less. But learning how to live, how you want to live, it is an art form. It takes practice, diligence, skill, attention. It is the ultimately rewarding art, that most fulfilling creative act whose end point is true growth (even through pain), and ultimately, happiness. 

I have no illusions that this is a simple task. It is incredibly difficult. I would argue that is the most difficult of all art forms. It takes consummate discipline. It requires that everyday when you glimpse your own reflection in the mirror you consciously desire to grow today, to attend to your weaknesses with care, and to make a plan to change them.

Well, I have made a long list and a short list of how to practice the art of living. The short list is more behavioral, little reminders of acts that can help me grow each day. It goes something like this: take walks, drink water, smile, take time to taste your food, be good to someone, notice the weather, stretch, read, watch very little tv, don't consume anything that doesn't nourish you, remind someone how much how love them.

The long list is more of a work in progress. It is those things I believe will make my life the best life I could lead. It is this:

A. Let curiosity rule you. Make everything a question and take time to find every answer.

B. Let your mind expand and be cultivated by the plethora of information that exists in our scientific society.

C. Always be open to viewpoints that are not your own, and be able to make clear rational arguments against them in order to strengthen your own.

D. Oscillate between routine and spontaneity: find space for the extremes of solitary meditation and travel and the gradations in between.

E. Create. Find a skill and hone it. Become a master at many things.

F. Do not become indoctrinated; and try to break yourself from falling into a categorization.

G. Constantly strive to improve.

H. Keep your daily emotions rational and stoic, reserve extreme emotions for extreme situations.

I. Have at least one person in your life whom you can speak openly and honestly with.

J. If possible, live in a community where you know and can rely upon your neighbors.

K. Believe in yourself and your life choices and fight for them.

L. Interact with nature daily: animals, plants, weather, etc.

M. Keep constant awareness of the tyranny of the status quo and confront it.

N. Be present and aware in every thing you do.

O. Only acquire material possessions that have a necessary function or have deep meaning; be able to think about the things you have.

P. Learn to love learning about the past, and decipher meaning from human and natural history.

Q. Be able to explain yourself. Have an opinion. Argue rationally for what you know and believe in. Learn more to be able to make stronger points.

R. Respect your body and use it to create (by farming, carpentry, dance, painting, etc). Be cognizant of the food you put into your body.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

the wheel of fortune

For a whole host of intimate reasons that don't belong on this public blog, I have left trucking and am now back home in Chicago and again grappling with all the most important questions in life (it seems this grappling never ends).

What kind of life do I want to lead? Who am I? Who do I want to be?

First, there is always the shock of transitioning to a new kind of life, and this one was particularly shocking. So, I took some time to recover from the deep wounds and kind of allowed myself to flow in the tide of Chicago summer. I was ruled by moments of sunlight splashing my face and cool breezes on evening bike rides. Now, as the heat peaks, the whisper of summer's end is blowing gently through the moist treetops and reminding me to face reality.

Now what is reality, exactly? Is it any job at any cost? Is it just making money or finding something official to do with my time? I think it is more like learning to care for oneself fully. Practicing the art of being in the world. Managing the balance of your own expectations, beliefs, desires.

I am in the process of opening my mind to something new and learning - through trial and error - where exactly I belong. So, I attempted to get an office job through a temp agency to try out this world that so many of my peers are immersed in. I mean, they all seem to stick with their jobs, so it can't be that bad, right? Wrong. The moment I found myself under the sterile glow of fluorescent bulbs and shivering from the endlessly wasteful icy air conditioning, I knew I could not subject myself to this fishbowl of terror. The more I listened to my co-workers, the more I read between the tortured lines:

How are you today, honey?

Well, I'm getting better now that it's close to 5!

Heh, yep, I hear you girl.

I cannot count the number of times I heard, in just one week, a variation on this theme. Then why stay? Why are you doing this to yourself? Never subject yourself to consistent unhappiness if there is any other way. Break free. Take risks. Life is nothing more than an endless challenge to grow or die. Never choose death. Choose life.

So, I told them a horrible excuse, and then I quit. And the wheel of fortune spins on and on.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

on the road in Florida and Georgia

In the midst of Colby madness in South Haven - my family spends the 4th of July weekend in a state of overconsumption and sun overexposure each year at our cottage in Michigan - I got a call from my Dad.  He had been looking for a used car online for months after our sad little Hyundai station wagon died, and he finally found the perfect Florida.

So after very little convincing (he didn't have to do much, free trip!), he asked me to find someone to travel with and he would pay for our flights down and we could drive the car back. This seemed like an impossibly awesome offer to me, but nearly everyone I knew had plans or work. The only person available, Patrick, had a job our society likes to call full-time even though the lazy jerks get to lay around for 3 months each summer (ha ha, like this isn't my consistent way of life)! 
So, we planned out the logistics and were on a plane within a couple of days. We flew down to Jacksonville, Florida to meet the car-owner Janeen and her friend Lee. Now, I don't know if you have ever been to the Florida panhandle area, but around these parts Lee is a three-syllable name. Lay-ee-eh.

We drove in the very comfortable new car to Janeen's house, where she offered to let us stay for the evening. Upon seeing our sleeping quarters, a lofted bed placed very strangely over the kitchen, and smelled the odoriferous creation of five large dogs which wafted through the house, we quickly decided that we would be on our way. 

We signed papers, listened to Lee explain how 'this is the only place in America where you'll see guys with confederate flags 'cross the back of their trucks blasting rap music...BUHH hawhawhaw!' Grinning with a mix of politeness and self-consciousness, we quietly planned our escape. 

Never wanting to miss an opportunity to see the best the world has to offer, we were split between New Orleans and Savannah - both world-class sightseeing cities, both indulgently beautiful, both out of our route back to Chicago. We decided to go with Savannah as it was less out of route and more accessible for a one-day visit.

We slipped away from the strangers and the excited pack of doggies and hopped behind the wheel of our fantastically comfortable brand new car and headed north. Out of the South with shanties and rednecks and overt racism and into the more dignified, more proper and more veiled-racism South. 

We traveled over flat, soggy marshland with windows down and an endless summer sun lasting deep into the evening lighting our way. We got to Savannah just at the end of twilight and found a hostel run by a sweaty, out-of-place New Yorker who wearily showed us into his home. With his kids squealing in the kitchen, he took our information inside a room with impossibly high ceilings that must've once belonged to the aristocracy of the early Industrial Revolution era, but has fallen - like the city itself - into decay. 
After leading us into our room in a detached coach house, we dropped our things and headed for the water where we found a city all draped in heavy moss and cockroaches scurrying through the cracks in the cobblestone. We went to the promenade, which has now (along with every other quaint and characteristic part of every American city) been turned into a bunch of boutiques and tourist shops. Sinking into a late-night restaurant, we get enough fried seafood to feel like we never wanted either again.

The next morning, we were up with the bright, hot, oppressive Savannah sun and onto a walking tour of this place that just drips with beauty. It seems no one came to wring her out like other American cities. No developers with strip malls or city planners choosing to put cars at the center of city life. Like a respectful and gallant belle, she sits waiting through the years with hopeless and untouched beauty, only growing more unbearably irresistible through the years.
There were cemeteries with mossy headstones, churches with spires reaching to pierce the clouds, and so many public squares. Arising from the torture of being indoors in Savannah in the summer, these squares provide public spaces to feel a breeze and meet your neighbors.

Having to leave the city as quickly as we came, we headed out of the city and back north, upwards toward civilization. We briefly stopped to get some just-picked Georgia peaches and with the juice running down our chins, we sped off to race the sunlight to Chicago.

About halfway home our bellies began a-rumbling and what better place to quench our primal needs than with some down home country barbecue in Music City, USA. We got off the highway and immediately found parking smack in the middle of downtown Nashville. We stretched our cramped legs and filled our tummies with an incredible amount of protein and molasses.
We sped like Jack Kerouac towards the promised land, fulfilling the inborn American desire to hit the road as if there were no destination.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

curiosity and loathing

Standing amongst this immense complex of wires and shining pipes, water is dripping into the red sand where I stand and the brightest white steam pours from stacks into the gleaming Florida summer sky. A high-pitched mechanical whine fills the air, taking away all ability to have thoughts, and so the time passes quickly in a state of perpetual escape. Get away from this. Not a conscious thought, but burning inside me as if it's the energy that keeps my heart beating.

I am filled with a strange battle between immense curiosity and loathing. I want to see this infrastructure, I want to know about it, to truly feel the hideous face of all that I hate so that I may never come to love it again. But I really hate being exposed to all that I most oppose.

I almost feel like anthropologist Colin Turnbull, who attempted to spend some time with the Ik tribe in Africa, whom he calls The Mountain People, who are probably the most hideous people ever documented. They laughed when others got hurt, they disowned their children when they turned 3, they hid and stole food from one another, they were compulsive liars, manipulative, deceptive. I wonder how long you can live amongst such ugliness without being affected by it. How much repulsiveness can one experience in the name of inquiry, thought, knowledge?

military-industrial complexity in trucking

With trucking, more than probably any other career I can think of in the entire world, you are exposed to the very depths of the sinister military-industrial complex that our prescient president Eisenhower warned us about so many years ago.

We are at the crux of the most consumptive group of people in the history of the planet, and our job is to haul around the shit these people consume.

I am starting to get the idea that what an individual, family, or nation chooses to consume not only says something about who they are, it makes them who they are. And by 'consume' here I don't just mean what you eat. It is what you buy, how you spend your time, what you prioritize, what you hold most dear, the little actions that add up and as a whole are your life.

Thinking this has lead me not only to an extensive examination of my own consumer habits, but has thrust me to be deeply curious about the habits of others and what it means both for the individual and process that made that consumption possible for them.

Strangely enough, trucking has provided a little peephole into this masked side of our economy. Every time we haul something, I get to ask the shipper what the commodity is, where it's coming from, what it's used for, where it's going.

We picked up sand that was being mined - er, dug up and bagged - in Florida and brought it to Mexico. They need sand in Mexico? We visited a plant in Northern Michigan that processes - um, grinds out of limestone - a chemical called calcium chloride, a chemical used in many facets of our little world you don't think about - it goes into food, on roads, in pools. In a less complex transaction, we brought potato chips from Massachusetts to KMart in Florida. Brought engines for 18-wheelers from a plant in upstate New York to Mexico so it can be assembled into a truck by cheap(er) Mexican labor and then brought back over to the US to be sold.

It is the sum of all these little interactions that make what we call the economy.  And we take part in it everyday. We've heard this before. But do you really know what it means to consume what you're consuming? Where did it come from? How was it made? How did it get here? How many lives, places, things are destroyed so that you can enjoy that cheap product?

Monday, May 24, 2010

a guide to coming a truck driver, part two. how.

Even though I explained how unnecessary and monotonous a full-time-job-life can be in my last post, many people still want this kind of life.  People want stability, extra things, something constant. This dream has been the reality of the Baby Boomer generation. They wanted work, they got work. They got a stable job, a steady income, the promise of money to live on and health care during retirement.

The generations following the Baby Boomers, well, we aren't so lucky.  Many people who want the same job for the rest of their life can't get it. That is why we must become resilient, creative, and think outside of the parameters defined by our parents' generation for what consists of a successful and productive life. I did this, and decided the only way to get this life is to temporarily become a truck driver.

Here's how.

My search began on the internet - jobs websites, craigslist, etc. However, much of what is found on the internet is impersonal and often lacking details.  Whenever I really want something done, I find a way to talk to a person. That's when Alex and I found ourselves in the Tuolumne County employment office.  We met with Pat, a rosy-cheeked plump woman with bright, beady eyes and a wonderfully sympathetic affect. Like a female Santa Claus with the disposition of a caring social worker. We came in with questions, explained our situation, interests, needs. Together, we worked out a plan.

Lucky us, there was a job that would fit us perfectly. Let us travel, be together, save loads of money, and the training would be paid for by the government (who is spending in an effort to re-train people to bolster employment). It was trucking.

The only catch? We had to fill out a personality questionnaire which told the employment office that we were the type of people who would do well at this job. They needed to know that they were giving the money to people who wouldn't freak out at the sight of a shock absorber.

Now, this was a $10,000 test, so we had better get it right.  Our training would cost five grand each, plus a few hundred extra the employment office would give us for commuting the 100 miles each day.  So, we buckled down, and answered each of the personality questions with the mind of a trucker.

Do I like to work with machines? Sure. Do I like creative writing? No, no.  Do I enjoy working alone? Yep. Do I feel comfortable in a leadership position? Never.

I had to lie, be somebody else, plunge myself into a career that is deeply opposed to all that I believe in, all in the service of a higher good, a larger plan, a deep wisdom about the state of my future.

Pat went through our tests with an amazed bewilderment. "It's almost like you guys knew what to answer, because, I mean, gee, you got the answers just right." That's right, Pat, we knew what to answer. We just smiled and nodded and with a vaguely surprised look Alex faintly muttered "that's neat." With that we moved a step closer to our ten grand in tuition and on towards our fiscally-secure future.

There are two truck schools the employment office contracts out with, the least bad of all of the seedy, nasty truck schools that exist in the area, and we chose to apply to the closer one as we waited to hear back from Pat's boss if our funding would be granted.

We went into the school and met with Jeannie, an older latino woman who put extra emphasis on the second-to-last syllable of every phrase she uttered.

How aaaaare you? 
Welcome to Western Pacific Truuuuck School.
So good to meeeeeeet you.

Already falling in love with this little present of Americana, she introduced us to Bianca, the campus' recruiter. Bianca is tall and busty, very pretty with dark eyes and long black hair.  She was dressed in things Elaine Benis from Seinfeld would wear - long floral-patterned skirts or black leather jackets or chunky-heeled boots, but around this office she was clearly the pinnacle of style and grace. She was wildly effusive and bubbly, giving us the quick pitch on trucking and her school. It was lost on us, we already had our minds made up, and could usually see very quickly through sales pitches. So we just sat and stared at the strange subculture we were now immersing ourselves in.

The whole thing was so ethnic, so American. It is illuminating to be away from home, seeing these other cultures from a distance and studying them. Like the different mannerisms in places. In India, for example, people nod yes not by shaking their head up and down as we do, but by tilting it slightly forward and to the right and back and forth like that. It is the sum of these mannerisms that make up a culture, that make the people and their habits part of something larger, some meaningful identity that is probably unknown to them until they go outside of it and see that someone else doesn't nod like they do.

So, being back here I am seeing again and possibly for the first time those things that are uniquely American. The coffee mug on the desk with pens in it. The overly-firm handshake. The usually very loud introductions. Fake plants. Sign-in sheets. Excessive brochures. and business cards. So many business cards.

After a week or so we got word that our funding had been granted, so I put away my tall leather boots and took out some raggedy t-shirts to get ready for my first day of school. Our class was surprisingly diverse, which really made me happy. There's nothing worse for me than spending my time with a handful of low-class white people. They're usually so angry and I just don't feel like listening to them spew hatred.  There were a couple of them in the class, but they kept their voices down as there were too many different kinds of people who would be offended by their ravings.
There were a couple of black guys, a middle eastern guy from Jordan, many Mexican-Americans, a couple of angry white guys and one upper-middle class white guy, plus my teacher was a woman (not all of them are pictured here, obviously). We first had to take a written test to get our permits, which would allow us to drive the truck on the street with an instructor. We basically spent a week memorizing the DMV's Commerical Driver Handbook - something that would have probably taken me an afternoon of full concentration.

We then took the test at the DMV, blew the examiner's mind with our scores (Alex and I are a little too competitive when it comes to one-upping each other on these kinds of things), and were ready to get behind the wheel of a truck for the first time.

Alex and I spent the next six weeks in separate small groups (one or two other students and an instructor) learning how to drive the truck. We learned shifting on isolated country roads (where I kept getting distracted by the endless sea of central valley almond blossoms), and moved onto busier roads, city driving, difficult turns, freeways, emergencies.

We memorized the DMV-approved pre-trip inspection that every truck driver is supposed to do each time before they begin driving their truck for the day. Alternator belt, pitman arm, tie rod, u-joints, castle nuts and cotter pins.  I now know the names of things I will never again see, but feel empowered by the knowledge.

We learned backing skills, including parallel parking the truck, backing at a 90 degree angle, and stopping our rear bumper (which is nearly 60 feet away from where we sit in the driver's seat) directly above a painted white line on the asphalt.

Testing day came and we demonstrated these skills for out DMV tester. We did a pre-trip inspection, drove the truck to a backing skills site, demonstrated backing, then drove back to the DMV. My tester mostly just asked me about my life, and sat in amazement, as most people do who hear our story, as I told him that he should really take some time to visit Egypt.

I would get my Commercial Driver's License in the mail within the next two weeks.

Now, to get a job.  While we were in school, I spent time voraciously researching every moderate to large sized trucking company in existence, calling them, and hassling their recruiting department to see if they would hire us. Our most limiting factor at this point was that we had no experience.  Many, many companies do not hire people just out of school due to the extremely high liability, so that would be the first question I asked.

There were companies recruiting at our school, but they seemed to us to be like army recruiters who come into schools and give sales pitches to entice poorly-educated people into a job that may not be the best one available to them.  Plus, these companies hired people with DUI's and felonies, so we thought we could use our much-cleaner records to our advantage.

I just determined that if there were a better paying job out there hiring students, I would find it. Otherwise, we would take one of these crappy jobs and get 6 months of experience and then jump on with another company. The companies recruiting at my school were offering something like .28 to .32 cents per mile, one company even quoted something like .22 cents per mile.  So when I called Con-way for the first time and they told me they hired students (only if they were a couple and wanted to drive team), and they paid .44 cents per mile, I was so shocked I had to re-ask them the question. Yep. .44 cents, plus an extra .05 every time you go into the Northeast, and extra .03 if you carry any HazMat loads, and a .01 safety bonus on all of your miles every quarter that you don't have any accidents.

Okay, so we have to work for this company. We put in our applications a week or so before the end of school, and found out on, ahem, 'graduation' day that we got hired. This was it. At the same time this happened, we were experiencing a whole different side-drama about graduate school which I won't get into right now, but the moment we found out about being hired on to this company, it was like the Sisyphean task of making a secure future was over. No more struggle over very-slowly dwindling bank accounts, no more fear of a life in an office, no more uncertainty about being able to provide for ourselves a home, some land and a future.

It was a feeling of rapturous independence. After only a year or so of working, we would have made for ourselves a small dowry with which to begin a future. I can endure anything for a year. Anything to even slightly lift the burden of financial chains we all live so constantly under.

And this wouldn't even be so bad. It may even be a little fun. Maybe I'll get audiobooks and listen to Crime and Punishment and Anna Karenina and Moby Dick and the Jungle and Notes from the Underground. Maybe I'll listen to tapes and really learn Italian. Maybe I'll get to visit my family more. Maybe I'll explore the country. Or take my time off each month in a different city. Or maybe I'll just keep going back to New York, drinking in the culture and the museums and the ravenous movement of the city. I have always wanted to be young and free in New York City.

It was all there before me at once. The endless possibilities of the American landscape and hope for my future and culture and nature and salvation. All of this in a truck.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

a guide to becoming a truck driver, part one. why.

We are all struggling to exist. To find a way to provide ourselves with basic needs, and if we're lucky enough, more than just the basic necessities.

Finding a balance in this struggle is I think where most of us get caught up.  Some of us have too little, some have too much. Some of us choose to spend all of our time working with no time in life to really take pleasure in our own existence. Some of us work too little and lose the appreciation of simple pleasures by indulging in them incessantly.

Now, maintaining this balance must also fit into larger time-of-life planning.  For example, I plan to begin having children no later than my early thirties, so I have to think about my necessities now, and how they will change, and how to maintain order in all of this.

I have personally made the choice to be physically around my children while I am raising them, so I cannot have a career or any sort of employment for more than part-time hours.  Since this will translate into less money, I have to be able to provide for myself things that I would have bought with money but can produce using another resource I will have: time.  I must learn to grow food, mend clothing, milk animal(s), preserve food, cook, plan, cut wood, etc.

This comes back to a basic point that I have been thinking about a lot lately - the idea that you have to have a job where you get paid and work 40 hours a week and commute and wear a blouse and heels is a lie. You don't have to have a job your whole life. No one is making you work.

Work equals money which equals groceries, clothes, rent, cars, vacations, jewelry, etc. Everyone has the ability to strip their lives of all unnecessary things, learn to provide themselves with a good chunk of their own necessities for living, and then work very little or barter for the rest. Why more people don't choose this life is a whole other sociological/anthropological can of worms.  Suffice it to say here that it is a possibility, a life choice.

It became clear to me, however, that in order for this existence to go along as planned, I must first have a home and some land on which to carry out this little pastoral fantasy. And unfortunately this is not the old country where parents passed on a dowry or some land onto their children which they use to begin their life. This is America. Each of us must make our own way. So, I've gotta find the capital to procure this most basic of necessities, a roof over my head.

Again, let me emphasize that taking out debt in order to get a mortgage is not an option in my scenario. I do not want to be forced to work when I could be spending time with my children or tending my garden, so I will not be a slave to a bank, who could force me to do just that. I must own land and a home outright for my life to be what I consider balanced.

So that puts me here, in a truck stop in El Paso, TX, feeling the hum of the engine, crouching on the top bunk of my trainer's truck, musing about the necessities of balance and order in life. This is where I begin my ravenous scrounging for savings that I can put towards my idyllic creation. Working now so I don't have to later.

Now that's the why. Next time on the how.

riff-raff in southeastern missouri

Our nomadic existence won't be completely lost. We are signing up to be truck drivers, after all.

Staring out the window as we ride to the airport, I am getting that feeling again. Like floating in the sea, facing toward the shore, and a swell comes and sweeps you up from behind and just for a moment you lose it all - your stomach drops out beneath you and you forget where you're from and what you're doing here. You lose the sense of yourself and think only of the movement of the waves and how your body feels in that intangible transience. That sweeping charge of reality in the monotonous dream of life.

From tiny plane to tinier plane to greyhound bus. My day was filled with the least-exotic names of any of my journeys: Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Tulsa, Joplin. Okay. This is my new life, I had better make the best of it.

Having studied the cultures and civilizations all over the world, it was time to delve into my own. Now, for me, Americans are scary.  In other places, people speak to one another and since I can't understand them, I just go along happily thinking that they are saying wonderful and deep things to one another.  It's a sort of unique traveller's delusion. But here, oh boy, I get to hear all of the folksiest riff-raff that's ever been said. I get to wade into the very unique psyche of the American people. This is going to be interesting, and probably terrible.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


On the verge of entering into what most closely resembles what civil people would call a career (can trucking and grad school be called that?), I have been wanting to look back on my foray out of the grinding, all-encompassing flow of a life within the system. Alex and I made a conscious opting-out of this magnetic path of internships and formal education, jobs and meals at 6 and an ever-increasing pace of accomplishments, children, accolades and, eventually for us all, death. After graduation, we took a quick breath into the intoxicating world of a nomadic life, an existence without a home, family, community, or routine and into madness, newness, sensory and experiential explosion.

It all began in Rome, the eternal city that could make anyone fall deeply and quickly away from all of their Anglo-driven ethics of hard-work and stick-to-itiveness. Up until that point it was all good grades and the praise of others, but over there it was long wine-soaked lunches and pouring through the golden cobbled streets to nights of ceaseless and enveloping beauty. There was no return from that first journey, no way to go back to straight A’s and straighter conversations.

Upon returning home, this drive for a more paradoxical (as opposed to conventional) existence took the form of a new insatiable curiosity about the world. There was an abrupt shift in my chosen courses.  I went from studying Core Biology and the Principles of Mathematics to The Politics of Gender, Is Development Sustainable?, Hurricane Katrina and American Politics.  I brought the wistful sheathe of Rome inside myself in the form of new knowledge, challenges, intellectual frontiers.

Then we spent part of a summer in Ecuador, the most obvious next-step in a logical trajectory of naïve youthful idealism. There, we worked in an orphanage, and got our first taste of the truly comprehensive hopelessness of it all. With the bright glances of dozens of tiny little watery eyes, I truly realized how little we can do, how very much suffering exists, and the rampant and unfeeling disparity between the rich and the poor throughout the world.

After that, we ventured to the Yucatan, where the historical nature of suffering was displayed to me in all its horrendous splendor. The Mayan ruins we came to see, once tall and proud, were built on the backs of the poor for the glorification of the rich and powerful. The Classical Mayans were war-like, imperious, and also maintained a disparity between those who had and those who didn’t. I was beginning to see a theme here.

Yet, for all of their blood-lust and hierarchy at the end of their civilization, they began with balance, egalitarianism, and without colonial ambitions. They lasted for many millennia in this healthy state, so it made me wonder why. Why would they give up this sustainable equilibrium for the state of war, conquest, kings, monuments and rapid population growth that eventually spelled the end of their existence?

This question has followed me through the rest of my journeys and into the present day. Why do we now (in remote villages in Tibet, for example) give up that which is healthy and sustainable (milking your own Yak, for instance) for the seething, all-encompassing tentacles of globalization and modern consumer culture (Chinese department stores, in this case)? Why leave the farm for the city? Why choose Pringles over potatoes?

After graduation, we stuck around for a few months of work to save up the funds and then took off to Europe, where aesthetic beauty abounds and this ugly aspect of humanity is hidden deep in the cracks of time and behind closed doors. This was the first time we fully committed to a migratory life - drifting over the better part of a continent (North Africa to Southwest Asia, the Arctic Circle to the British Isles) and breathing in its history, art, music, and food.

We gazed upon the ebb and flow of civilizations each with their time in the sun and each making the same mistakes as the one before. First the Greeks, then the Romans, the Franks, the Muslims for a while in the South, the Catholics, the Austro-Hungarians.  But it was here in Europe where I added a new layer of complexity to the narrative of human hubris I‘d been harboring: with civilization comes art, music, architecture, poets and philosophers. Without Greece there would be no Plato, without Rome no Virgil, no Islamic Alhambra palace, no Sistine chapel, no Beethoven’s Fifth. Without the current empire there would be no Hubble Telescope, no Picasso, no Frank Sinatra. Can the destruction and war, alienation and pain be worth the sensation of standing before Leonardo’s Last Supper?

We returned from Europe and went back to work for a couple of seasons to prepare for another epic excursion to Asia. Across this vast continent we deepened our understanding of ancient civilizations, seeing the same problems, the same arrogance that brought down socities from the classical Chinese to the Khmer in Cambodia to the Mughal in India. Still, it was Asia that first bared to us the grotesque state of our own living civilization.

Our current empire differs from those of the past mostly in terms of scale and energy. Before, the most a single ruler could conquer was some part of a continent surrounding the capitol, but due to the exploitation of fossil fuels, our society (which I will call globalization, but it is called by many other names) knows no boundaries, and it is creeping across the earth like an odorless poison gas.

It is rapidly killing species, languages, cultures, poisoning water, air, land, destroying ecosystems, climate systems, and generally wreaking havoc on any people or resources it comes into contact with. Now, this isn’t anything new. Civilizations have been conquering and destroying their environments and other cultures for all of human history. Again, the difference here is purely the scale, which is global; and boy I saw the effects no where before so much as in Asia.

We saw tiger reserves in India that no longer had any tigers (poached by destitute Indians for the Chinese’s use in folk medicine), floated over coral reefs once abundant with life now bleached and colorless and smothered with plastic refuse and fishing line, worked at a refuge for gibbons (a kind of lesser ape) once ripped from their natural habitats to be sold as pets or circus animals.

I spent time in the homes of women from China to Vietnam to India, learning their food traditions which are slowly being choked by cheaper industrialized packaged foods. I watched Tibetan women, donning brilliant fuchsia headscarves, become captivated by the opening of a new Chinese department store. I saw the Dong people of China’s Guangxi province degrade their culture by putting on a song and dance show for the Han Chinese tourists coming to witness something exotic.
Again, as in Ecuador, I was overcome by a sense of inevitability and hopelessness, but this time I understood why. The scale is just too great to combat, the destruction too widespread, the people are just too captivated by the pull of wealth to see the filth building up all around them.

I mean, there are still pockets of pristine nature - as in Thailand’s Surin Islands, and some remaining intact cultures - like the Indians in the desert of Rajasthan, and these are incredibly brilliant and moving to see. But, they are the exception rather than the rule. It is like looking at the past, into a world so bright and diverse and exotic and clean and abundant that it makes the present look like a stinking heap of television and candy bars and smog and polyester clothing and plastic.

At the end of our Asia trip we took a brief detour to Taiwan, looking for jobs as English Teachers. We were thwarted for many reasons, the greatest of them being the global economic collapse, but mostly I just don’t think we were ready to give up the constant enlightenment of a nomadic existence.  After weeks of failing to procure any decent interviews, we bundled ourselves in a chilly, gray Taipei hostel, looking out into the wall of smog and hearing the soft ever-present honking and revving of a place seemingly trying to impersonate a city, we thought about the globe, and our ever-dwindling pocket-money and where we would land next.

Running low on funds, we left and attempted to find work and settle down in San Francisco.  This proved impossible as well.  There were some offers of long-term babysitting for wealthy tyrants, or door-to-door begging for environmental organizations, but we could find nothing in this world that was worth our precious time. We do have only this one life to live, only one youth, only one chance to be healthy and childless and free.

So we gave up, saved up a little bit of money from odd jobs in San Francisco, and sat in a bar where the Beats once drunkly contemplated life.  Where to go next? What to do? How to spend this precious youth? With the help of Jack Kerouac, we decided on a good old-fashioned American road trip - seeing national parks, small towns, cities, and working on organic farms. So we did. We got a car (thanks to Alex’s mom’s infinite generosity), an atlas and a tent and we hit the road.

We wandered over the vast and varying west, taking advantage of some of the planet’s last remaining intact ecosystems. Civilization came to the Americas late enough that large tracts of land were left uncultivated, not that that fact isn’t trying to be changed by members of our current civilization.  So, we wandered around the national parks of the west, watching the buffalo roam and the stars light up the night sky.

Sadly, this American Road Trip became doomed soon after its inception.  I think it did not match up with the intensity of learning and growth of our other trips, mostly because it is our own country and is therefore inherently dull to us. Not only that, but it is much more expensive to travel here than, say, India.  So, once again, we found ourselves sitting in a leaking tent in Yellowstone National Park during an incredible downpour, wondering what to do next.

After all of those countries, all of those lessons about civilizations and globalization, we were starting to get an idea of how exactly WE wanted to live.  We found that the city is a place of alienation, anxiety, and detachment, but also one of culture, art and thought.  A place to visit, we figured, but not to live.  That way, we wouldn’t have to bare the constant strain of car horns and concrete, but would be able to put up with them when we do visit the world’s best cities, taking in their museums and symphonies and cafes.

It has become clear that the life we want is in the country (close enough to a city or town), with a little bit of land and a little house and a vegetable garden, some chickens, maybe even a goat or two.  It is a simple life, but one filled with fresh food and  quiet and natural beauty. So, we decided, there was no better place to study this way of living than Italy, the country where all our travels began, known for its traditional foodways and gorgeous pastoral landscape.

Once there, we hopped from farm to farm, pruning olive trees, fermenting wine, herding goats, learning the land.  We met an array of like-minded people, all searching for that balance of solitude and stimulation, culture and nature, provinciality and cosmopolitanism. Here it was in front of us, the life we’ve been searching for: long meals and even longer discussions, fresh eggs and ripe tomatoes, and access to treasures of art and history and culture just a short train-ride away.

But there was one caveat. These people were all attempting to make their living from the land by selling their hand-crafted organic products.  All of them were struggling. There remains too much competition from energy and machine heavy industrial food processing, which will always be cheaper than the product produced through care and individual attention. There is no way to compete with globalization, and no reason to wrack your brain trying to figure out how.

We would have to find a another way. A kind of existence isolated from the fear of an unstable system. Still trying to get a sense of HOW this can be done, we decided to get on with the business of doing it.  Like pilgrims, we had finally had our epiphany. It took nearly four years, dozens of countries, several continents, thousands of pictures, lots of money, conversations, blog posts, sweat, courage, tenacity and self-reliance, but we finally got it.

With our resources mostly depleted and our hearts nearly ready to give up this nomadic, searching existence, we decided to head back home to make it happen.  But before we went, we had to squeeze in one remaining journey, to the place where civilization began. We bound onto an entirely unsustainably-cheap flight to Cairo, and we began our journey into the Middle East.

All of our preconceptions about civilizations were ratified in Egypt.  We saw the rigorously documented metamorphosis from simple agricultural people to an empire powerful enough to construct the first ever permanent monuments in all of human history, to build temples rivaling any that have ever been built since, and to erect the still-incomprehensible pyramids.

It was inside one of these feats of imperial power where our plans for domesticity became cemented.  Buried in the depths of the temple Karnak, we became engaged.  Although strangely incongruous, it was Regina Spektor’s song US that made the gesture coherent:

We’re living in a den of thieves
Rummaging for answers in the pages
We’re living in a den of thieves
And it’s contagious. It’s contagious. It’s contagious.

All of the ills of civilization, the anxiety, alienation, competitiveness, greed, over-consumption, lying, stealing, hatred, pain, they’re contagious. There’s no way completely out of it, no real dropping out, no escape. All we have to combat it is personal strength, knowledge, courage, and in this struggle we have each other. This journey, this battle, has now begun.