strictures and structures

if only we stopped trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time

Month: April, 2018

george orwell, woke dude

It is popular in many circles to deride political correctness as a form of oppression. Here is what the Man Himself, George Orwell, had to say on the subject:

As I Please 2
Tribune, 10 December 1943

“The coloured worker cannot be blamed for feeling no solidarity with his white comrades. The gap between their standard of living and his own is so vast that it makes any differences which may exist in the West seem negligible. In Asiatic eyes the European class struggle is a sham. The Socialist movement has never gained a real foothold in Asia or Africa, or even among the American Negroes: it is everywhere side-tracked by nationalism and race-hatred. Hence the spectacle of thoughtful Negroes getting ready to vote for Dewey, and Indian Congressmen preferring their own capitalists to the British Labour Party. There is no solution until the living-standards of the thousand million people who are not ‘white’ can be forced up to the same level as our own. But as this might mean temporarily _lowering_ our own standards the subject is systematically avoided by Left and Right alike.

“Is there anything that one can do about this, as an individual? One can at least remember that the colour problem exists. And there is one small precaution which is not much trouble, and which can perhaps do a little to mitigate the horrors of the colour war. That is to avoid using insulting nicknames. It is an astonishing thing that few journalists, even in the Left-wing press, bother to find out which names and which are not resented by members of other races. The word ‘native,’ which makes any Asiatic boil with rage, and which has been dropped even by British officials in India these ten years past, is flung about all over the place. ‘Negro’ is habitually printed with a small n, a thing most Negroes resent. One’s information about these matters needs to be kept up to date. I have just been carefully going through the proofs of a reprinted book of mine, cutting out the word ‘Chinaman’ wherever it occurred and substituting ‘Chinese.’ The book was written less than a dozen years ago, but in the intervening time ‘Chinaman’ has become a deadly insult. Even ‘Mahomedan’ is now beginning to be resented: one should say ‘Moslem.’ These things are childish, but then nationalism is childish. And after all we ourselves do not actually like being called ‘Limeys’ or ‘Britishers.'”

There you go. If the guy who took a fascist bullet in the throat, and invented Big Brother and doublethink and Newspeak and all the rest, thought political correctness was a good idea, it IS a good idea.

to write about the planet

Climate change news has become a bigger vice for me than even crappy genre fiction, and in celebration of Earth Day, I’d like to note a longstanding issue I have with these stories.

For some scientifically literate people with a good imagination, it’s enough to know that major disruptions to the mild and stable climate we’ve enjoyed for the past ten thousand years would be disastrous, without needing to know the exact form such disasters would take–but that’s not most people. And there’s precious little in the news that really brings home what the actual lived consequences might be like. Take, for example, the Earth Day article Vox released, the big above-the-fold listicle. Item number one is about the size of the plastic pollution problem. It’s gotten to the point where most drinking water contains microscopically small plastic fibers. Well, so what? Presumably you, and I, and countless others have been drinking it for years without visible side effects. I had to do more googling to find that these contaminants can be carcinogens. And even now that I’ve done this, it’s hard to keep myself from thinking, so what? Doesn’t everything give you cancer? I guess I could keep researching and find the numbers somewhere on exactly how cancer rates have been impacted, but I’m on vacation.

Item number two is a reminder that the last male Northern White Rhino is dead. It then goes on to say that there are Southern White Rhinos left, and the northern one was a mere subspecies. Also, the planet is now short a bat species, a kind of gecko, and two kinds of skinks. I feel vaguely that these must be terrible things, but it sounds like we have more rhinos on the backburner, and I don’t know what a skink is.

Item three is about the ecological recovery of a handful of species, and the discovery of some brand-new ones. Once again, nothing that an actual human’s day-to-day might be impacted by.

Item four is about the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and how it will raise sea levels by twenty feet, but most people who are alive now will be dead by the time that happens.

Item five is about seagrass bouncing back. Whoop de doo, I don’t know what that is either.

Item six is about Hurricane Maria and the devastation it unleashed on Puerto Rico, which is definitely good as an example of the kinds of consequences actual humans might have to live with.

Item seven is about the search for new planets, which to me feels like a sad abdication of responsibility to our current planet, but I suppose could be construed as uplifting to other people.

It is a little unfair of me to crap on these journalists too much, because part of the problem is the reticence of scientists themselves. Their job is to be absolutely correct, and they can’t know with any great confidence the behavior of big, complex systems like the planet and the global society supported by it. With that said, a few things are well-established enough that I think journalists could focus on these to encourage people to actually care, particularly feckless Americans:

1. Climate-driven migration. If you’re an American who dislikes Mexican immigrants, boy have I got some news for you! From “In fact, climate change may lead to a 40 to 70 percent decline in Mexico’s current cropland suitability by 
2030. Worse, this could soar to an 80 to 100 percent decline by the end of this century. We’re talking about Mexico potentially losing over half its workable farms in less than 12 years – and all of them by 2100.” Where are people going to go? Probably here. I’d like to think that America will recognize that its profligate and disproportionate guzzling of fossil fuels is ultimately what’s responsible for Mexican climate migrants fleeing north in search of cooler temperatures, and that it will therefore react in a humane and rational manner, but I’m not stupid.

2. Decreased crop yields. From “Analysing data for US annual harvests of corn, soybeans and wheat, the study finds that yields were approximately 2%, 4% and 4% lower, respectively, in “warm” Arctic years compared to “cold” years.” (Of course, that figure will only get worse as time goes by, and it will be far, far worse for the more southern parts of the globe.) Percentages are such dry things. But hydrating them into stories that can convey what it’s actually going to be like to live in a world defined by those percentages is the kind of thing that journalists can excel at. Not being a journalist, my best guess, alas, is that I won’t get to live in a world where I can continue to have matcha pancakes with lavender syrup for brunch.

3. Disruptions to global supply chains. I have actually never even seen an article about this, and I read a lot. But I’d like to see someone write about this. Is a highly complex, highly interconnected global society that’s getting its ass kicked by climate change going to still have iPhones, or raspberries imported from Chile? Suppose Shenzhen, home to many an iPhone factory, is hit by a massive, climate-change-supercharged storm one year. (As it will be, since it’s a coastal city.) Are the dudes at Apple even thinking about this?

4. What an actually sustainable civilization would look like. What the hell does this look like? Will we still be able to have streaming services like Netflix? I actually think we might not, since the manufacture of electronics and maintenance of data centers are both so carbon-intensive. Probably we won’t be able to travel as much, drive as much, or move as much. There might not be any more flights across country to visit family for the holidays. Certain parts of the country just might become uninhabitable, because the cost of keeping on the AC or the heat will be too high. How would the kinds of homes we build change, how would our urban planning have to change? What will commutes look like? What will happen to art, music, and fashion, when everything becomes more expensive? I think that your average well-meaning liberal thinks that they’ll get to live the exact same lifestyle, but they’ll have to remember to bring their own shopping bags to the store, and everyone will have solar panels. I suspect–I know–an honest examination of this question is going to piss off a lot of people. You can already see this in the battles between young environmentalists who want to build denser housing, and their older counterparts who still think of a single-family home and two cars as the American Dream.

It seems to be de rigueur at the end of most professionally written climate stories to end on a note of optimism, to talk about how there are still rhinos left, or how new technology is imminent, but I’m not a journalist, so I won’t.

bike camping as a savage practice

I had always hated travel for travel’s sake, and assumed that people only did it as some kind of status symbol. I never believed anyone when they said they had grown because of it. How pleased I was, when I had a miserable time in Italy. You can run, I thought, but you take yourself with you, and therefore all travel is ultimately self-refuting. And that’s how I expected it to go when I planned to ride my bicycle from San Francisco to Seattle, alone–an unenlightening experience that would be notable only for the intense misery I was about to bring upon myself, and the subsequent bragging rights. I had done a long-distance bike tour all the way across America before, also for the sake of bragging rights, but that one had been with a luggage van and support crew. On the first day of that trip, I had been feeling pretty good about myself, but that only lasted until I passed by an older gentleman with what looked like the entire camping section of REI strapped to his rear rack, who was going to bike camp all the way from Oregon to Maine. I was left with the nagging feeling that I still had something to prove.

So that was my attitude, seven years later, when I packed my panniers and rolled out from San Francisco–lighthearted contempt for the adventure of it all, and a singular bloody-mindedness to prove that I too, could ride a bicycle long distances, without the help of a luggage van. I arrived in Seattle a thousand miles and a month later victorious, but in a much gentler, much more humble frame of mind.

But I’m not going to tell you that I had a life-changing moment of enlightenment, or even that I changed my mind about travel. I did, however, answer one question to my personal satisfaction–why is every single bike camper so boring when talking about their trip? Every ride journal I’ve seen has been tedious. “68 miles today. 2500 feet of climbing. Good weather.” “72 miles today. Ate bacon for breakfast, yummy. Had a nice descent of about five miles right before camp.” “55 miles today. Fierce headwind.”

I knew most people weren’t practiced writers, but even that was an insufficient explanation. This extended to in-person conversations too. No matter how enthusiastic you are about bike camping, or how skillfully you pry, the most you can ever get out of anyone who’s ever done this kind of thing is that it is “awesome.” A bike camping conversation, regardless of whether it was an overnight trip to Santa Cruz, or a year-long trek from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, is usually good for only two minutes.

At first glance, it’s reasonable that it’s hard to find something to say. Bike camping can be a tedious grind.

Here was my typical day: wake with the sun. Stay huddled in the sleeping bag, until the world warms up enough that it’s safe to emerge, which is usually a couple hours later; eat a dry and demoralizing breakfast of beef jerky wrapped in a crumbly tortilla, washed down with milk powder in water; put on wet clothes that I had hoped would dry on the bushes the night before but didn’t; take two hours to pack because I’m moving slowly because it’s still cold even at 10AM; hit the road finally at noon, pedal slowly for the handful of hours that I am in motion. Get distracted by bad gas station ice cream, realize that I’ve been riding for only a couple hours and the sun is dropping. Ride into camp in time for the sunset. Set up camp, an involved affair that requires fully unpacking both of my rear panniers and single-handedly taking over an entire picnic table. Promise myself that tomorrow, I’ll wake up earlier, pedal faster and longer, and not race the sun to camp, but instead, arrive at camp a leisurely hour before sunset. I make this promise to myself to pedal faster tomorrow, even though I’ve spent a lot of the day squeezing my brakes as tightly as possible, because I am so afraid of going downhill too quickly. Shower, if possible, wash clothes, if possible, find a bush to hang them on. Eat, in the dark, often alone, usually more beef jerky wrapped in tortillas. Go to sleep.

This day repeated itself for a month.

Was any of this awesome, or even fun? Sometimes, something objectively awesome would happen. One day, as I was riding by Defoe Bay, I saw a pile of people sitting on a grassy knoll by the sea, and it turned out that they were watching humpback whales. I spent half an hour watching the whales rising and spouting. I was put into the same sort of meditative mood that I have sometimes felt while watching fire burn. Another day, I saw the signs for an oyster farm, rode over, and ate a delicious raw dozen in the sun, with lemon juice.

One night, camping in Oregon, I met another bike camper who I still think about. His name was Lucas, and he was undocumented. He was a bike mechanic who had dropped out of college, and was making his way from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. He was serenely unconcerned about his finances, even though he had less than eight hundred dollars of cash to his name. He said that so long as he had even twenty dollars left by the time he reached LA, he would be fine. He had friends and a waiter job waiting there. I couldn’t believe him at first. To go on a bike camping trip of over three thousand miles with no health insurance, no money, no documents, to commit to camping the entire way without ever being able to take a break by resting in a motel instead–I could not fathom doing such a thing with so thin a margin of safety. Lucas showed that Maslow was wrong about self-actualization being the top of the pyramid of human needs–because even though he was broke, staring precarity in the face, the urge to leave a town and a life that had no longer come to suit him was undeniable. An inspiration, all the more so because he was no cheap meme on Facebook, but someone willing to pay a high price for his dreams.

But those times were far from the majority. Every moment of serendipitous joy or inspiration I experienced, and there were many, was balanced out by a thousand painful ones. I spent a lot of time quite nauseated, either because I hadn’t slept enough, or because of how hard cardio makes me lightheaded. One fine morning, I moved my head too quickly and I vomited into my mouth. And for the first couple weeks I was riding, my sleeping bag was too cold at night. I hadn’t realized that women and men experience temperature differently. A bag that’s comfortable for a man at 40 degrees at night, will only be comfortable for a woman at 50 degrees. I would fall asleep at night, wake up a few hours in, and fall asleep again for a couple hours only after the sun rose. I ended up buying a new one at a sporting goods store, but then it was too hot, and I would sleep on the cold bare ground with the sleeping bag over me, in a desperate attempt to thermoregulate.

And yet, I never doubted that I would rather be riding up Highway 1, praying that a logging truck wasn’t about to drive me into a ditch, than anywhere else. That’s saying a lot for a nerd like me, who prefers to speak in caveats, exemptions, and qualifiers.

I chewed on this problem a lot, whether or not I was having fun. Consumption of food and entertainment is the usual way people have fun, so was this trip one long act of consumption? I had had to buy a lot of gear before I left, and that seemed like consumption. But I know what true consumption looks like, and consumption this wasn’t. When you’re consuming, the architect of the experience is someone else, not you. (And now you owe them money.) That’s why consumption is a passive activity, even for the most advanced and critically engaged connoisseur. You may consume a gourmet meal, but you were not the chef. You consume a movie, but you weren’t the studio. You wear clothes, but you didn’t stitch them. On the road, nobody else was there but me, deciding when to wake, when to pack up, what to eat, when to stop, when to sleep. I had total control over this experience.

So if not consumption, was it the opposite? Was I producing something? I wanted to believe that I was, because production is held up as a superior activity to consumption. As children, we are told to work hard, that the early bird gets the worm. The history books are filled with the names of inventors, and not the names of people who bought their inventions. Even minor acts of production seem morally superior, somehow. It is more admirable to be a talented cook, for instance, than a talented food critic.

Perhaps one reason production is considered more morally worthwhile than consumption is because of the greater expenditure of energy, and I was expending a great deal of energy every day. I lost four pounds in that month of riding. It seemed plausible to say that I was producing a lot of muscle. But though I desired to feel morally superior to all the couch potatoes, I had to admit that I was not productive, because of the reverse logic. To produce means that you’ve created something external to yourself that can now be consumed, something tangible that has left the confines of your own imagination, that someone else now can experience. I moved north, and I left no trace–nothing anyone could consume, no book, no poem, no painting, no buildings–nothing except some tortilla wrappers, carefully disposed of in the brown Rubbermaid trashcans every campground seems to have, and the waste products of running my body’s engine–carbon dioxide, sweat, and heat.

I was feeling orthogonal to the two halves of capitalism, and not in my usual “Marx was right, eat the rich” kind of way. And here’s why. To be a member of a capitalist civilization is to be forever wrestling with time. You have to save for retirement, you have to schedule going to the gym, the doctor, the grocery store. You arrive at work and leave at the exact same time every day. You have to plan vacations, periods of scheduled relaxation, months in advance, even when your mind and body are screaming at you that you need to rest now. You are forever marking time, trying to save it, and use it, and therefore your own self, efficiently. And the brittle, exact efficiency demanded by a modern civilization has no patience for the natural fluctuations in energy that flesh is heir to.

To be a solid, middle-class citizen, therefore, is to treat time as any other monetary asset–something quantifiable and predictable. But to budget time is to give up on improvisation. You cannot afford to spend it impulsively. You cannot afford to spend time as things come up. The more responsible you are, the more you must give up on your chances to live fully in the present. You must plan out the proper uses of your time over the course of months, years, and even decades. And thus, to be civilized is to be constantly in your head, outside of time.

The result is that a truly civilized human being can no longer function in the present, because their thoughts are always thoughts of the future and the hypothetical. Civilized people need so much help with returning to the present. They need to learn to practice mindfulness meditation, they need to see therapists, they need calming teas, adult coloring books, and a good bedtime ritual. And hardly any of it seems to work.

Bike camping, on the other hand, is nothing like being civilized. Once I’d picked my geographical beginning and ending, I did not need to plot out anything in between. I no longer lived by alarm clocks, but by sunrises and sunsets. And because my chronology was free, all my other actions were free. I did not know where I was going to be sleeping each night, and that uncertainty never troubled me, because so long as I ended the day even one mile farther north than I had started, I knew I would be content. I would look at my paper map every day, and pick out a campsite, but often if I was feeling tired, I would make camp earlier. On one especially energetic day, I even rode nine steep miles farther than I had originally planned.

And somehow, despite the enormous quantities of time and solitude afforded for thinking, riding outdoors day after day was not conducive to introspection. It wasn’t that I had zero thoughts, but I only had them at a pitiful rate, a new one maybe once every three days. Going into my head was useless, even dangerous on roads with high traffic, so I didn’t do it. And it was an unappealing prospect, too, with the sun shining overhead, the cathedral silence of redwood trees on my right, and the cracked mirror of the sea glittering to my left.

For the first time ever, I was living a simple life. I had to live life outside of my head, fully alive and reactive to the challenges around me, and it encouraged a kind of metaphysical nearsightedness that I find myself missing deeply. All my thoughts were of immediate things, and I looked no further than a time horizon of a day or so at most. How was the weather? Was it foggy? How far until the next town with a sporting goods store, so I could buy a new sleeping bag? Should I eat this block of cheddar cheese now, or later?

This was not a happier way of living. It had its problems, and even its life-threatening moments. It was uncomfortable, and racked by inconvenience and discomfort. (That sleeping bag!) That it was exhausting hardly needs saying. I stopped a few nights in Portland and went to see a local band. I was right in the front row, and even though the music was loud enough I could feel the little cells in my inner ear dying, I still fell asleep. But I had peace of mind, because I lived in the present. Whatever problems came up were within my control, and could be resolved quickly, unlike the problems of civilization, where a problem like a bad manager can take months to resolve, and a broken political system can take generations.

I became uncivilized, and for the first time in my life, I had to admit that the Buddhists had a good point about personal identity being a kind of illusion. It reminded me of the experience of being bilingual. I can feel that part of my brain shuts down and another part wakes up when I think in Shanghainese, rather than English, and vice versa. Some part of me went to sleep on that trip and did not wake up until I returned to civilization–the part of myself that needs to be able to plan, that therefore, would ordinarily be a keener observer of the self, the more verbal, analytical, and farsighted part. The part that is outside of time enough to condense a lived experience into abstract words.

Living inside of time is the end of self-consciousness, and the elimination of any need for analytical thinking. I felt as though I were in a long meditation that persisted through states both waking and sleeping. I went on a trip into a different state of mind altogether, a trip that was therefore as hard to describe as a dream, and impossible to convey as a story.

And that’s why no bike camper can talk about their trip. Putting the ineffable into words is the business of poetry, not light conversation.

I might as well give in to the difficulty of the problem, and stick to saying that bike camping is awesome.