race, snap decisions and the ethics of spanging: a rationalization

what do you do when you don't want to assume but you have to act?

i saw him first, wondering if he was a statue, a mannequin, a bad joke taped to the top of a chair in the Fry's grocery store lawn furniture display. as i walked closer, trying not to stare in case he wasn't, he resolved into a real life man, aware of my gaze and looking back, across the color line i realize still exists in our country. i wondered if he was waiting for a ride, enjoying a cool drink on a 110 degree afternoon, or what--but didn't want to look enough to find out, as i didn't want him to think i was staring because he wasn't white--which is maybe much less of an issue this close to the border, where not many people are white. anyways, the throbbing pain of my recently extracted tooth drew me into the store, searching for liquid foods: a can of tomato soup and a box of butternut squash puree, to be exact.

later on, when throbbing-tooth-be-damned i didn't feel right just sitting in the hotel room i hadn't wanted to get anyway (my spot in the desert being much more fun, and about 100% cheaper), i walk to a drug store down the road for mouthwash--and walking out, there he was, a few paces down, leaning against a pillar, bicycle against the wall. this was a better time to greet him: i could have done the white-fear thing and tried to avoid passing him in an eye-contactable way, but that's not my thing: i'd like to be able to eye contact anyone, greet anyone. as i get closer, i see he has a fullish goatee, slightly-grown-out afro, is wearing an olive green shirt and some jeans. our eyes meet. and as i pass, his voice gentle, friendly, defeated, he says:

Can you spare anything?

can i spare anything?

i tell him i can't, really, our eyes still meeting--then spend the next thirty minutes or so wondering if i've lied.

it's not the first time i've thought about it: i got asked for money, for anything, multiple times a day in Uganda, often by people that seemed to have a pretty good case for needing it (and often by people i knew didn't). in the states, if i don't know the person's story, i usually limit myself to giving food, not money, because it doesn't convert as easily into alcohol, and everybody can use it. i have a soft spot for mothers with their babies, though: today i gave money to a few of these sitting on the sidewalk in the hot sun on the Mexican side of US border control. but this guy, here on the US side, i told him i couldn't really spare anything. then bought a used book for six bucks in the next store, drove my dad's Harley Davidson back to an air-conditioned motel room i'm spending 40$ a night on, wallet full of cash i had saved for dental work south of the border...

can i really not spare anything?

i think what i really want to ask is, how in a single moment do you separate the needy from the something-else, whether that something-else is needy-but-addicted, spanging-but-financially-okay, capable-of-work-but-used-to-spanging, needs-help-but-not-this-kind, etc. having the conversation that could lead me to separate these would take an impractical amount of time if i was to do it with everyone. in any case, tonight, the wad of cotton in my mouth and the throbbing tooth-hole from which it was soaking up blood effectively prevent that conversation from happening. and yet, i wonder if i lied.

the problem with giving or not giving money to people asking for it is that you're forced into a snap judgment based on little more than appearance. their bodily presence there, their commitment of time and acceptance of humility says something--but basically it comes down to how honest-and-desperate vs. shamming-for-other-reasons they look. and who can really know or decide that [1]? yet we have to act. should i have the power to define them? it's my money, something i have earned in one way or another (though for some people this merely means being born into a certain family and for most of us merely being born in a certain country), and their perogative to ask, so in a way, that is my power, at least in this instance. nevertheless, it's an uncomfortable one, when he asks if i can spare anything. literally, yes. in this context, repeated so often in a day, involving so many unknowns... no. i guess a well-fed looking guy in his 20s doesn't move me like a mama out there on the street with her baby. or maybe race played into this snap decision, and it's so ingrained in me that i don't even notice it. this is part of the reason i am so troubled by making these decisions--because they come down to appearance, and appearance often involves stereotypes we all know are not true. and yet, how much of our life is lived through snap judgments based on appearance? Which person to talk to at a party, which food to order on a menu, which news story to read online--though they're maybe not always weighty, and other knowledges play in to it, ultimately a lot of the time we are relying on senses and intuition, not logic, to guide our actions. and the rationalizations come later, if they need to.

so i decided i couldn't spare any change. but there is something i can always spare: respect.

just because someone's asking for money, or just because they're not dressed as nice, or come from a different country, or wear a different shade of skin than i do, doesn't determine anything about who they are. it can tell you what kind of environment they might have been raised in, what kind of social problems they're probably up against, but the last thing i want to do is give someone money out of pity. we're both people, and though i often forget it, at some other time in the future i could be the one spanging. maybe that was me sometime in the past. and if you believe society has something to do with poverty, or that people are fundamentally the same everywhere, then it IS us standing there.

so i dont give this guy my money. but i do give him the same touch of my time i'd give anyone else, because he is anyone else, he just happens to be spanging. we make eye contact, we exchange words, i try to show that though we are in different places in our lives, though i don't need to ask for money right now, that doesn't mean i think either of us are better or worse, more pitiable or praiseworthy. we're just people, needy in our different ways. i can't spange for a sense of home, so i do what i'm doing instead.

like it or not, we have to make snap judgments. that's life. but we don't have to keep all the imaginary, appearance-driven veiled stereotypes that might go into those judgments, don't need to let them gel into knowledge about that person, or whatever group we are putting them in. who knows how many black guys i've seen asking for change--lord knows i've seen a lot of white guys spanging in Boulder. this doesn't mean anything other than what it means in each individual case--because such judgments are based on far less than knowledge, because our own abilities to percieve and understand are limited, and because everyone can change. balancing all the uninformed decisions we have to make every day is respect for other people, in all their unknowable, complex and historied humanity. just like us. so i don't give this guy money, though i know from seeing him twice he's been on the street at least five hours. but i don't ignore him either, and i'd like to think that that little i could spare, that eye contact and those few words spoken to a fellow journeyer, they were enough.

[1] this is also a great place for race paranoia to come up--did i give money to the mothers in Mexico and not this guy outside of CVS because they were Latino and he was black? i think that's part of why these snap judgments can be so uncomfortable--because they are based on appearance, across a color line that often means race is one of the more obvious parts of that appearance. and there are racist rationalizations for giving or not giving, so how can you ever be sure?


even after the west is fully faded

these days i sleep in the desert.

arriving at about sundown, i will usually have my site picked out and the tent up before the purples start to replace the blues. it's still hot, so i sit outside and watch the day's colors fade, eating whatever i've brought from town for supper. at some point, it gets hard to see my food, and sometimes i need to use my headlamp to find the lid to the water, or where i put the grapefruit i was eating. tonight, as i was sitting eating my tomato, asiago and stale wheat bread sandwiches, fistfuls of arugula on the side, i was reflecting on friends of mine who are easily spooked by isolation and darkness, and how diferently they might feel if they were out here alone.

and i realized something: darkness is only uncomfortable, only overwhleming and full of unseen somethings, when you turn a light on. until you do, it's just the atmosphere you're in, the general state of the world at night: more ears, less eyes. vague outlines are still there, maybe the moon at some point, lights of a distant city. once you turn a light on, everything goes black: suddenly you are the single point of visibility, drawing attention, light fading on all sides into the unknown, feeling isolated and alone. it's a great time to start worrying about what's out there beyond the reach of your puny headlamp--but it's not the darkness that's unsettling, it's the possibility of those Things, whether they are real (mountain lions) or unlikely (roaming psychopaths), that's scary. the darkness itself isn't, it's... peaceful. makes me wonder if the darkest times in life might not be times to take a breather, sit with whatever unsettling things are going on, and get a sense for how we fit into it, before we get unsettled, grope for a light, a way out, etc.

take our bad economy for instance--i don't actually think it's that bad. at least where i live, not many people are starving, though more might be going to food banks. on the other side of the water, i don't think things are much worse in Uganda than they were ten years ago: we all just might need to wait a little longer to buy that new TV--or accept that we may never afford it. but did we really need it? like the darkness brings out dry desert smells and the quieter stars overhead, poverty and a bad economy bring out the parts of life that don't cost: our good friends, our family, all those books we've wanted to read, a little more free time from work to get to know ourselves. and i think it pushes us to be creative, like the darkness pushes me to use my other senses--this might be a good time to start a clever business, expand on talents we never had to, think harder and smarter about what kind of life we want and how to make the money we need to live it.

so i don't turn my headlamp on much, even after the west is fully faded. lying in my tent, i'm content to look out the screened roof and see distant suns twinkling, to stumble out in my motorcycle boots when nature calls, and stand there for a second totally blind, feeling not like the lonely spot of light i'd be with my lamp on, but another critter in the desert, content, a part, not apart, of where i am and what's going on. maybe this economy is our baby step towards the kind of economy that's normal in most other places, and we just need some time to adjust.

i'm not advocating complacency in the face of the world's problems. i'm saying let's not deny them, not run to get back what we used to have, until we've spent some time with what we've got. let's get a feel for all the good in what at first blush might just look dim and unsettling. it gets dark at night, especially out here in the desert. it also gets cooler, gets peaceful, gives me a chance to be a little differently, be in a way i grow to like more each night.

these days i sleep in the desert, and it gets dark at night. but the more time i spend here, the less i miss those city lights, and the more i start to feel this darkness, this quiet and these nighttime desert smells, are even better.


i met Medusa in the desert: the heart of the trip

traveling alone, you run into yourself. and sometimes you look like Medusa.

traveling with someone else, they are an easy outlet for and fountain of problems: you want to go here, they want to go there. you are comfortable with this, them not so much; you feel money should be shared this way, not that way, etc. if the trip is not perfect, it's easy to imagine how much simpler it would have been if you'd gone it alone. but traveling alone is like living in your own place: you've got no one else to blame for the mess.

i think this is what we are seeking sometimes, in travel: an encounter with ourselves. i don't know if this applies to Ultimate Reality, but there's an idea in my country that people need to discover themselves, who they Truly Are. nowadays, instead of going on vision quests, we do things like journal, talk to shrinks, or take vacations--at least, we say we will. on those occasions when we do, a lot of times the real challenge to 'discovering' oneself is not finding oneself, but facing it. how many people living alone fall asleep to the TV because they are uncomfortable with the silence, feeling alone with their own thoughts? how many unfilled journals, birthday gifts most likely, sit on bookshelves dusting? how many slow-life vacations to the Bahamas are passed half-drunk and seeking diversions? why, when we want to discover our true self, do we keep distracting ourselves from it?

maybe it's because the person we are can be hard to face. Martin Heidegger wrote that living authentically meant acknowledging one of the most uncomfortable facts of our existence: that we will die. in fact, he said authenticity meant not only acknowledging our mortality, but living always conscious of it. He called this being-towards-death, or at other times gazing into the Abyss. Giorgio Agamben writes about certain telling facts in society that we dare not look at, that we cover over, for fear of what we'd see there. In Remnants of Auschwitz, this is the way some camp inhabitants, and the everydayness of the camp for those who lived there, call into question our accepted notions of what it is to be human. He calls facing this facing the Medusa, meeting her gaze, though it turn us to stone.

i think this applies personally too: we all have our own Abysses, whether we are unaware of them, or aware of and trying to ignore them (and modern methods of ignorance are legion). maybe this is the dark place you go to, each time you fail in school or at your job. the issue you come back to when a relationship fails. the trouble you have trusting people. the thing you blurt out when you have no time to consider what it is you're going to say. they are there, whether we choose to look at them or not. but i think, if we are serious about heeding Socrates' claim that the unexamined life is not worth living, we have to look down those Abysses, meet the gaze of the Medusas in the mirror.

we probably don't need a special time and place to do this [1]. in fact, those moments when we are raw and vulnerable, those moments of failure or heartbreak, are probably the unschedulably best times to get to know ourselves. at the very least, those are the moments we need to reflect on when we're composed, and no longer willing to ignore the parts that don't feel quite right. there's no need to fly to the Bahamas or take a long walk in the woods to do this: what better place than on your commute home from work, or the happy digestive period after you've eaten your evening meal?

and yet, travel and vacations are times when we think about doing this, about going out there and finding ourselves, oxymoronic though that sounds. and i'm finding, on this trip, that traveling alone is actually a good way to do this, because you not only get plenty of time alone, but you run into yourself. there's often no one else to blame for the situations you get into, whether good or bad. and sometimes, red flags fly up--we see a tendril of the Medusa's hair, feel the pull of an Abyss just out of sight... these are moments when our 'true self' is there, waiting to be found--we just have to face up to it.

so i want to tell you about an experience i had this trip, an evening when i realized i had my own Medusa, something i knew of but didn't normally want to or have to think about, how it came front and center for a moment, and how i struggled to look it in the eye.

here's the outward story: my plan on this trip was to camp along the way, and stay with friends at different points--with grandparents in Texas, Adam and Hallie in Santa Fe, and in Yuma, the longest stopover, on the property of my Dad's friend Ray. this was a way to cut costs: not only would the dental work across the border be cheap, but i could have a piece of ground for free, not paying for a campsite, let alone a hotel. these are important considerations when you're an unemployed former student.

so it was with an easy heart that i pulled into Yuma, though it was close to 10 pm, because i knew where i was staying, felt i had a place, though i had never been there before. my dad had texted directions to his friend's property, one among many in an area of town basically inhabited only by retirees, and so i spent the first fifteen minutes or so weaving through dark neighborhoods on the Harley, probably making a little noise, finally pulling up to the right property and fumbling with the iron gate. it'd been a long day, i was tired and hungry, and i still needed to find food, then unpack and set up the tent--so i wasn't thinking too much of the impression i was making, though i noticed the house next door still seemed inhabited (most of the retirees are 'winter visitors,' meaning they move back to primary homes elsewhere when it starts getting hot), and anyway the Harley has no option but to make as much noise as it makes, which is quite a bit, though i did my best to keep it down.

i guess i need to tell you a funny thing before i go on: i was a little high that night. as i pulled away from a Domino's Pizza down the street, having fetched some pasta for my late supper, i was positively intoxicated, half-dancing as i rode the Harley down the quiet night streets, singing at the top of my lungs to the music on the stereo (though i cut that out as i got close to camp). i wasn't high on drugs, but high on... the feeling of having arrived. that after long days of riding, barely getting to camp before sunset, always wondering where i was going to stay that night, i had a place. i was safe. i think that's what i felt, the giddiness that was making me sing full-volume to The Black Keys on the stereo: I had a safe place for the next while, a home. in retrospect, this was already a warning sign that something deeper was going on, but it felt too good to think much about (like bad things often feel too bad to think about).

the one thing my spot lacked was electricity. so the next day, sitting in Dr. Ortega's office in Algodones, Mexico, i wasn't surprised when i heard my phone dying. i'm not a stickler on keeping my phone alive, anyway, and the whole medical tourism experience had me a little too bemused to think much of it. later that day, back on the US side of the border and sitting in the retiree community's posh new library, i'd recharged my phone battery and heard the chime of a couple messages, but was in the thick of writing or revising a blog, and didn't think much of it for a few hours. i was in the mode: comfortably out of the 110 degree heat, doing some writing, nothing to do today but sit here and read sci-fi or write. i might find some food later on, maybe try a local Mexican place, then head back and sleep. peace.

so it wasn't until about 5 pm that i checked my messages. Dad had called, 1 AM the previous night: The neighbors are pissed. You can't stay. Find a new place, or Ray will get in trouble.

well, that dropped the floor out from my evening in a hurry. i had about two hours of sunlight to pack up, then go find someplace to camp in an unfamiliar area. and though i maybe didn't realize it at the moment, it dropped the floor out from something deeper too. i instantly had this kind of i-knew-it, resigned, sad emotional drop, as i got my things together to go pack up what i'd thought was home in Yuma, not even 24 hours old. i'd expected it, actually--imagined a couple times in my mind, as i was waking up that morning, the neighbors being disturbed by a young biker rolling in loud and late last night, setting up his tent next door while the owner wasn't there. but in my mind, they would contact Ray, Ray would say it was okay, and I would be vindicated, safe for the duration of the stay.

instead, there is apparently a clause in the area home owner's association that states no one can camp at this time of year. i don't doubt it exists, but whether that was the heart of the neighbor's beef--a rule infraction--or something else (like feeling insecure about having an unknown grimy young biker camped next door), i will never know. the whole thing seemed really Japanese, actually, i reflected as i packed up my tent and things, motions now quite familiar to me. there was once when a neighbor in my flimsy-walled apartment in Sendai had felt i was being too loud--but rather than come tell me, he'd called the landlord of the apartment, who'd called my supervisor at work, who'd called my immediate supervisor, who'd called me the next morning to say there'd been a complaint about the noise, and could i please keep it down. lost in all these layers of translation was the heart of the complaint, and the identity of the person who made it. in its place, a lot of people became aware of and were put out by my inappropriate actions, made to make unpleasant and apologetic calls late at night because i hadn't had the sense to be quiet--though no one would actually say that directly. this felt something like that, and on top of being sorry that i'd disturbed Ray's neighbors, i was sorry i'd disturbed Ray and my Dad, who'd apparently all talked that night, leading up to Dad's 1 AM phone call. and no one to directly apologize to, to talk it through.

but my unease went deeper than that. if you know me, you'll know i'm not an angry person typically. or even atypically. i don't get angry. but putting my things back on the Harley in the hot evening sun, no idea where i was going to go, not excited about finding it, burning up in 110 degree heat, all because the neighbors couldn't handle me sleeping fifty feet away, i was a little upset. enough to think repeatedly about giving them the finger as i was packing, or a long menacing i'm-a-wild-biker-continue-being-afraid kind of stare before i left--since (if i know old people) they were surely discreetly peering out the window.

fortunately, i have enough self-control that i did none of these things. well, i might have stared a bit. but it didn't lessen my thoroughly shitty feeling as i rode away, trying to organize my thoughts about where i could sleep that night, and having a really hard time doing it. it was already getting late, i was tired and hungry again, and i needed to ride all over this unknown town looking for a place to hang my hat. so much for a nice free place to stay: i was going to pay (issues of money have long been another sensitive spot with me, but i'm working on it). maybe the savings from getting work done over the border wouldn't even make up for the bill of having to find somewhere to sleep. i knew one cheap place, i thought, the Quechan Indian Nation's RV park outside the border crossing--but they'd already been ornry to me when i requested use of their shower facilities earlier today, and i knew they'd closed an hour ago.

so i drove. there are a ton of RV parks around Yuma town, and i figured one of those would have space. and they mostly did--for RVs. or if it wasn't specified RV-only, even worse, it was 'age-qualified.' 55 and up. young people not wanted. not great for my already homeless-and-rejected mood. my unexpected emotional reaction to a little setback that i didn't want to think about.

so i tried some motels in the seedier part of town, motels being about the last place i want to stay when i'm on vacation: make it cheap, or make it beautiful, but don't ask me to pay 80$ a night for a boring little room with HBO. that, however, was what even the seedy motels wanted me to do.

and with that, i ran out of options: no RV parks, no motels, no hotels, nothing. and i was still hungry. so i crossed the street from the Best Western Coronado to a little Mexican grocery store and, in a kind of daze, wandered around wondering what i wanted to eat, if i was shopping for breakfast too (camping), or just supper, if i should just go to a restaurant, everything hinging on the unanswered question of where i was going to sleep, me too tired and shitty-feeling to know how to answer. in retrospect, it was like there was something blocking my thoughts: maybe something obvious i didn't want to acknowledge.

still, you have to do something. so i bought an old stand-by, bread and pasta sauce, with some citrus fruit whose smell seemed just the opposite of my shitty mood, and went back to sit on the curb in front of my bike like a regular homeless person, dipping my bread in my pasta sauce, eating out of a plastic bag and hoping no one really noticed and made another awkward call. i needed someplace to sleep. what a simple, good, taken-for-granted thing to have a safe place to sleep.

i didn't know what to do. i could try the Quechan RV park, brave their ire for a chance at least to camp. and beyond that, Dad had mentioned camping out in the desert, though he'd feared the Harley would get stuck in the sand, and i knew that'd be bad. it hadn't been running the best lately anyway [2].

so i headed out to the Quechan park. as predicted, the office was locked. i walked back from it, willing, praying something to happen, to help me. i was at wit's end.

in the distance, an old Lincoln towncar was creeping to a halt on the edge of the residential section of the RV park. it just kind of pulled up there and stopped, a man behind the seat, one hundred feet from me. not getting out.

i waved. he waved.

i walked over and found a scraggly-toothed guy in his early 60s, with a funny way about him. he said he worked for the park, that they wouldn't let me camp even if they were open because this was another RVs-only place, didn't know what i could do. although, there was this one spot... a lot of people camped there sometimes. no one would care if i was there, they called it the pet cemetary, it was back there behind all those buildings, kind of where the hills started, yeah it was on Quechan land, but there were lots of folks in there. they just camped there and nobody cared, i could do that too. one guy named Ray'd been there a long time, maybe he'd let me stay at his campsite. or there was this other place down by the canal, the border patrol passed through there a lot, but nobody'd mind for a night. maybe that'd even be safer, because the border patrol'd be going through so much.

was this what i was down to? the pet cemetary on the Quechan reservation, hoping no one would mind if i just rolled up in my shiny Harley and tented on their land? maybe it was. i thanked him and walked back to my bike, wondering if this was the dragon [1], deciding at least to take a look, but everything felt wrong. judging on how they'd treated me this afternoon, i didn't really think the locals would appreciate me camping for free in their backyard. and as i pulled the Harley onto the back road he'd indicated, i saw it was exactly the kind of gravelly road my dad never wants to take his motorcycles on, because he's afraid they'll hit a loose stone and tip. but maybe there was nowhere else... and this guy was probably watching anyway... but...

i couldn't do it. there had to be something better. maybe i'd just give up and pay for a hotel room, find something tomorrow. and off i drove in indecision, passing over the interstate on a whim to take the cracked old two-lane on the far side, rolling through the desert, to see if maybe there wasn't a spot i could camp there.

well, there were people camped there, long-termers by the looks of it, but i still wasn't sure i'd be welcome; this was still Quechan land. and i wasn't really sure if i'd be safe, if i wasn't welcome... so i kept driving. and ended up back in town, frustrated, Harley making weird sounds [2], sun going down, nowhere to sleep. looking at the map, trying to breathe deep. there was a state recreation area down a dirt road about twenty miles into California. that was the closest thing on the map with a tent sign on it: Yuma was clearly only in favor of the above-55 RV-driving crowd. so with the last rays of the sun in my eyes, i got back on the interstate and headed west, still no idea where i was going to sleep, feeling i had no options left. maybe when it got dark i could just put my blankets next to the Harley in some parking lot and tough it out. if it'd been a car, i wouldn't have hesitated to do the wal-mart parking lot, but the last thing i wanted was a ticket for vagrancy, another late night call to my Dad.

i kept heading west. passed through an immigration check. the sun was down now. i finally found the little highway that was supposed to lead to the road that led to the state park. i knew i wouldn't make it now, with daylight at least, but i was headed north into pure desert, so i started looking around for any little place i could pull off that might have ground solid enough for the Harley, wondering if there were other people out here, if there were poisonous things, if i'd get in trouble if i was found. kept slowing but not stopping anywhere, half-uncertain in the fading light whether this or that wash looked packed enough to support an 800-pound 20,000$ bike. finally, crossing some tracks, i saw a couple roads. passing a third, my headlights reflected off a little sign, and out of the corner of my eye i caught the word 'camping.' U-turn.

sure enough, it was a warning that you couldn't camp in one spot more than 14 days. that meant it was okay to camp less than 14 days; all i wanted was a night. so with the sun's oranges starting to purple, i pulled onto this dirt track and started searching for some place safe i could park, secluded from the road, and put up a tent. not knowing who was out here, what was out here, if there was stuff i should know about camping in the desert, flash floods or scorpions. i just knew i was tired and needed someplace to sleep.

so i chose a spot. and the second i got off that bike, it was like a cloud had lifted: i had a place. all the shitty weight of the last hot pavemented two hours searching for somewhere was gone, and in its place the security that i had somewhere, at least to sleep. i didn't know if it was safe, didn't know if it was a good idea, but there was something exhilirating in that too--this was a step beyond camping in a campground somewhere: this was just empty desert, nobody around, nothing here, me choosing a ten-foot stretch of ground out of endless miles to lay my head.

by the time the tent was up, i was working by headlamp, but the weariness was gone. i was excited, i was safe, i was a little nervous to be out there without anyone knowing, but that was part of the adventure (i texted my friend Gabe just in case i was never heard from again, because the snakes or the psychopaths got to me).

and i felt something deeper than security in having a place to stay: i felt that i'd finally stepped beyond my own borders, a bit, in coming out here rather than going back to a hotel i didn't want to stay in. that was exciting. and maybe deeper than that, was the sense that i had finally made a place for myself, that i knew no one could tell me to leave. it was public land--this was not age-restricted, RV-only, home-owner covenanted, expensive, dependant on an unknown someone else's charity. i solidly had a right to be here, and felt that i'd come under my own power. and something felt really good about that, made the second round of bread and pasta sauce, the grapefruit, the days-old fig newtons taste even better. it made the moonrise (full, no less) that much more spectacular, made my bed (on uneven rocky ground, even) that much more comfortable--even as i worried some animal, human or otherwise, would find me with cruel intent.

no one did: i woke up to the first rays of the desert sun the next day, refreshed and smiling, all the shittiness of yesterday's evening gone.

but that's just it: it's not gone.

whatever made me angry packing up, whatever expected this to happen, whatever kept me from thinking straight about where to sleep, took me on a three-hour chase to find something simple--that didn't appear when i got the voicemail or disappear when i set up camp. based on the facts alone, i shouldn't have had that strong, that emotional, a reaction to having to move base--this is a red flag for something that runs deeper. so that's why i said before that traveling alone, you run into yourself. your unfaceable Medusas come out of hiding. with no one to really blame for how messy that search for a place to sleep--a home--got, i knew it was coming from me.

there are two things you can do, when you notice a red flag like this, feeling the pull of an Abyss or half-froze from a glimpse of the Medusa--you can forget it, immediate crisis over, or you can probe it again, in a safe place, try looking for what it was that reared its head in that moment. self-discovery or self-avoidance--whether that self is feeling pleasure (me pulling into Yuma, or setting up camp in the desert the next night) or pain (the long search for a new place), this is the self we talk so much about finding, that we take long trips to discover. no matter that i happened to be travelling at the moment--if you buy that there is a true self to discover, we are always on a journey to it.

so where do you go from the moment you notice something and decide not to ignore it? i guess we all go different places, but importantly we go inward, following what hurts or feels too good. this takes time [3]; fortunately traveling by motorcycle means a lot of uninterrupted think time. so after some time trying to look my own Medusa in the eyes, i realized i've felt kinda homeless since 11th grade. we moved a lot when i was a kid, but from that time on i felt i moved constantly: new houses, new dorms, new colleges. different summer set-ups. and after graduation, i seemed only to embrace this more--leaving the country, traveling; my last three years in Japan i didn't stay anywhere longer than three months, and spent a year or more of that travelling.

this was fun at first--then it started to get old. about the time i was flying back from a two-month trip and meditation retreat in southeast Asia, not 'home' (US) but just 'back' (Japan), to another uncertain living situation no less, it started to get really old. Actually, it had been old for awhile--this was on my mind constantly during that meditation retreat, the desire to be back in the States, be stable somewhere. i ignored that dragon [1]. instead, i spent another three months in Japan, two months in the States, then flew to Uganda to live for an indeterminate amount of time, knowing still that wasn't and would never be the home i wanted.

the desire for home is not an easy dragon to heed: something in me protests that living in the same place for years and years is so... boring. so like everything i rebelled against when i was younger. but this is what my heart requests, over and over, so it's what i'm doing in Boulder. aside from getting a master's degree, which is done now, i am more importantly making a home for myself. i don't have one: none of my family members live places i ever did; there's no place to go back to, not even an area i can name, really. so i chose Boulder, and now i am trying to make that work. and i think it is working--but it's not home yet. i might have the frame of the house up, but not really the walls, the roof, the floors, the furniture. a few months gone, a year, and i think i would have little to come back to, be starting all over--again. so this thing about having a place to stay, a home, it's turned out to be a little sensitive with me. no wonder i freaked out as much as i did when i got that message from my Dad.

and it's not over: an emotional bruise this deep, it's going to turn a few colors before it goes away. so i keep probing, keep wondering if there was a reason i embraced that lifestyle in Japan, in college, why i felt so few ties to my own country and people. why i feel them now (along with other countries and peoples). what this all means for what i want to do with myself from here on out.

and here's a place where this encounter with myself made a true change: i'd been thinking of returning to Japan this fall, to earn some needed money towards paying off my grad school bills, and to live off as i spend the next year writing. but given my reaction to just a little displacement, and my feeling that my Boulder home is only half-finished, i'm thinking leaving again would just make this area more sensitive, be another bruise. so i decided i'm going to have to make the money work some other way, and stay in Boulder. without looking homeless-Medusa-me in the eye, i might have just kept making this worse: the inertia of habit is strong.

so to you, my dear, who has stuck with me this far, 4800 words later, i wanted to say only that the worst part of your trip can be the best. not only do i have a new lovely campsite in the desert, i have a little better understanding of where the home might be that i go back to after all this, and what that means to me. and a feeling that if i'm strong enough to look deeper into my own feelings, my Abysses and Medusas, there's more to see, more of that proverbial self to discover and enjoy.

travelling alone, you run into yourself, the person you really wanted to meet. i don't think we are all 'really alone,' but we are all in some sense on our own journeys--and i think we have to be ready to see ourselves not only in the happy times, the palm-treed drinks on the beach, but in the Medusas and Abysses we run into on the way. i'm not happy that i am so sensitive about home, but i am happy to know it, because now i can start to recognize this fear when it comes up, get to know it, find out where it came from, keep it from confusing my actions, and maybe eventually put it to rest. or maybe i never will--the jury's out on how easy it is to really change (though i think it's possible)--but knowledge in this case, at least according to Socrates and common wisdom in my country, is surely better than ignorance. the first step is not ignoring our little run-ins with ourselves, whether we're travelling to parts unknown, or on our way home from work.

[1] my first meditation teacher had a poster on the wall, calligraphy given to him by his teacher, which read 'don't fear the dragon.' i asked him what it meant, and he said he had a tendency to look for wisdom in books, and his teacher was reminding him that revelations can come at any time, that he shouldn't turn from the dragon in every day life (or in this case, meditation) to search for it in books. good advice, though i don't fault you for continuing to read this!

[2] in fact, two days later, it totally melted down, and spent the day in the getting its primary case rebuilt. good thing that didn't happen on this night.

[3] whether you are thinking, journalling, discussing, meditating, walking, whatever gets you in contemplative, think-it-out mode.

[4] like a society can't go on ignoring some of its own; if we believe in equality and human rights then we need to believe in them for people radically different from ourselves. and until we face those Medusas we are likely to have inexplicable fears and anxieties too.



and cricket song: i am blessed beyond measure just to lie here. earth warm from the day's heat, tent flaps letting in a cool breeze, light of the full moon. i cannot help suspect i'm happy as i've ever been.


it could have been a bottle of human urine

500 miles of 100 degrees at 80 mph later, sweaty and weary, i am finally at the campground. walking to the sink in the toilets i see what appears to be a bottle half-full of urine next to the sink. being the forever optimist, i open and smell it.

it is far from human feces: this is the sharp tang of peppermint, the earthy odor of hemp, the bursting bubbles of air so fresh my nose gets cleaner. this is dr bronners liquid soap, or some blessed imitation thereof, placed here by the loving hands of Camground Genies.

it's magic.

i can't stop at just my hands, my arms--after seeing the water run gray, feeling the mint tingle like pinpricks of ice in the Texas heat, i close my eyes and lather this soap right into my face, blinded with bubbles and barely able to operate the push faucet. when i manage, a new me breathes deep, appears in the hazy mirror, fresh, clean, simple, alive. walking out into the setting sun, campground alive with kids' laughs and smells of camp suppers, there is no place i would rather be.


my fear was warring with my wonder

riding somewhere in the middle of the sixty mile desolate stretch of highway 54 between Van Horn and the junction wtih US 180, the harley bucks.

just a single fire missed, i think, but not good. engine failure is not good in a sweltering desert with no car seen in the last 20 miles, no cell reception. i lean closer, trying to hear the motor, beginning to imagine i'm feeling little jerks all along, becoming paranoid that my dad and i somehow fatally mistook the oil change we did before i left, etc. if we did, if it's something else, if this complex system of valves, gears and fluids ceases functioning in the desert north of Van Horn Texas, i'm going to have some problems. like not being able to call anyone, hitching in to town to find a tow truck to get the bike back there, then somehow get it somewhere where there's a Harley dealership, probably another 100 miles down the road, and meantime waiting for that samaritan car to stop, have enough food and water, etc. i will survive, but it will suck and not be the end to a very long day that i'm hoping for. so i get a little worried when the engine bucks.

it turns out all right; 40 hot miles later i pull into Guadalupe National Park unscathed. my fear the whole ride was warring with my wonder: highway 54 is a gorgeous and isolated jog between two desert mountain ranges, a place they call Sierra Diablo. it feels beyond civilization in the best way, somewhere between surreal and holy. a place you want to appreciate. standing at the end of Guadalupe campground that night, brushing my teeth and watching the nearly-full moon rise, i reflected that if i was with someone, we might be talking or concerned with some detail of the camp, rather than just enjoying this moment. and i realized that it is very easy to miss the simple good things, because there are lots of other things that can occupy our minds--like worrying about bugs in the tent, food spoiling, if we've got enough water, whether there are mountain lions around, etc. these are all legitemate concerns tonight, but what will be will be.

the same applies to riding the harley through HWY 54's Sierra Diablo earlier today--it is mind over matter, wonder over fear. that desolate stetch of moutains may be one of most beautiful lengths of highway i've ever ridden--certainly on this trip--partially because it was so isolated and lonely. i had some reasonable fears that the Harley was going to stop working there, after running all day in high heat and high speeds on a half-assed oil change 1500 miles ago, and for a bit these worries did cloud my enjoyment of where i was and what i was driving through. but not for long--after all, what could i do about it in that moment but keep driving? and what a waste of that drive, whether the bike broke down or not, to not enjoy it, right? i don't know if it's meditation or irresponsibility or something else that let me shut off the fear-and-worrymaker, but i'm glad i did. after all, all we can do is what seems reasonable to address the concern-- then we should let it go. i knew if the harley was going to stop working, there was little i could do to prevent it, and much i would have to do after. thinking incessantly about it breaking down when it hadn't yet, instead of noticing the beauty around me, seemed a totally foolish act. so i didnt, and the universe pulled through.


manliness, humility and the El Paso special

noon in Pecos texas: 100 degrees and rising. i am off the bike after 210 miles of hot riding, walking into Lucia's Mexican Food, looking like biker trash in leather chaps, sweaty t-shirt and a few days' greasy stubble. the locals eye me as i eye them; no tables are free. taking this as a good sign (for the food), i ask a red-faced, square-jawed man sitting by himself if i can share his table, and he motions me in.

he's wearing a red plaid work shirt, holding a smart phone in one thick hand, his blond hair cut in a military square. i am not much for company: the last hot hundred miles or so i've just been dreaming of a good meal and a quiet corner to read my sci-fi novel, but this appears to be the one open, promising-looking place to eat in town, so i ease with him out of the stereotypes my appearance has me inhabiting, inviting him to pass out of his too. he is politely surprised that i've come 400 miles this morning, then genuinely so to hear i was in north dakota not long ago. i tell him the trip is somewhere between medical practicality, a graduation present to myself and simple wanderlust, and he seems to take that in stride, moreso when i explain i've just come from my grandparents' house in Stephenville.

Rick is an oil field worker laying pipeline from Pecos to Carlsbad, working 12 hour days six days a week, just come from church this Sunday, his day off. I borrow the menu from him as the waitress comes, ordering a water, and by the time she's returned he orders the Pancho Villa burrito plate; i get the El Paso special. A comment about the blazing west Texas weather compared to North Dakota leads him into stories of the day it snowed in Arizona at bullfighting school, then a well-told tale of him getting tossed 20 feet in the air by a bull, sandwiched by comments that he was a wild kid, ready to get rowdy at the drop of a hat. a split disc in his back keeps him from that now, as does a shoulder hurt in the marines. He joined straight out of high school, spent time in Okinawa and was prevented from going to the first Gulf war with his squadron because of his injury, something he's never quite gotten over. "It was like losing family," he says, blue eyes boring into me for a moment, hands turning over his phone. "I'd been with those guys for three years, through training, dealing with Noriega in Panama." He presses the phone to the table. "Then they decide to fix me just as we're going to war."

Rick's been in oil ever since, i learn as waitress sets down our food. the El Paso Special is a tamale, cheese enchilada and taco on a bed of rice and greens; his Green Burrito plate is two unadorned beef burritos in a pool of chile verde. as we eat, Rick tells me he worked near home in Hillsboro Texas for five or six years, then natural gas prices fell, and his work got moved out here, 6.5 hours away. he gets home about once a month, and though he doesn't say it, I can see he misses his family. He tells me his wife is working on buying a new home for them, and a social platitude from me about the wife spending his hard-earned money has him suddenly looking serious. I try not to look surprised as his eyes begin watering, and he tells me that actually they have passed through some hard times. it comes out that money was not always as good as it is now, that he had been spending more than they were making, and his wife, secretary at the church, had started taking money from the church to supplement their income--he pauses here to wipe his eyes and steady his voice. Rick felt partially responsible for this, and tears come again as he describes her confessing what she did in front of the whole congregation--and how the church had forgiven her, how one man had even come and washed her feet.

And I see then the other side of the Texas that has often seemed, in the last few days here, conservative, ideological, uncompassionate, backwards: i see the solid values of this man, as unafraid to cry in front of a stranger as to risk death for his country, passionate about forgiveness and open communication like he is driven to work long days to give his family a good life. Rick said he knew I'd just been repeating a common expression in mentioning his wife spending money, but that it hadn't been easy to admit his part in the stereotypical wife overspending, that they'd had a real struggle learning to communicate again, learning forgiveness for each other, getting it from their church.

our relationship shifted then, for a second, him becoming more like a father than an equal. he told me to be careful in choosing a wife I could talk to, who shared my values. then he apologized for getting emotional, and I thanked him for being honest and giving me that bit of wisdom.

I have been privileged a few times in my life to hear other people's life stories, in their own words. Earlier this spring, I spent five hours talking with 'Grandpa Tom' about his colorful, roller-coaster life, and writing up a version of his story as part of a class on ethnographic methods[1]. A few years ago, sitting with Mama Anderson in a Masaka hospital while she recovered from a near-fatal HIV-aggravated bout of illness, she told me her tumultuous story, from a deprived childhood to living as a positive, single refugee mother of two. When I left university in 2004, i felt i had as much or more to learn from other people than from any books i had or would read--and i still feel, after two years of grad school reading (mainly) good books, that life stories are irreplacable gems, laden with wisdom you won't find elsewhere, if you are ready to listen. The vulnerability of trusting a stranger with difficult parts of your life is not something i expected from a tough-looking oilfield guy sharing a table with me in Pecos, Texas, but Rick did not hold back from me, going so far (which is far, for a normatively masculine military man) as to cry, and talk about lessons he's learned in humility. for the space of our plates, maybe 45 minutes, we are more than strangers, more than friends: we get back to being two human beings, different in many ways but honest with our experiences of life, with no more investment in each other or the conversation than good will. if only all my interactions could be like this.

the waitress came with our checks, and i thanked him as we stood up, shaking hands, becoming again two american men with awkward, masculine ways of carrying ourselves. he apologized again for talking so much, i thanked him for it, then he insisted on paying my bill, a gesture that felt heavy with cultural meaning. i walked back out to the bike bemused, feeling that something much bigger than a little table talk had passed between us, something much better than my sci-fi book and i might have shared at a table in the corner. Rick struck me as everything that is good about pride, the military, nationalism, conservatism and Christian faith--things i don't always see easily. i saw them in him, a stranger, and was humbled. as i pulled my bike up to the stop sign, he was stepping out of the cafe, and we waved a final time, two human beings appreciating each other, and letting go.

[1] i don't know if i will ever do long-term anthropological fieldwork, but i will admit i'm in love with the method: spending time with people, learning from them about their lives, and writing in a way that their particular, culturally-situated knowledge can be shared by a broader audience.


rest stop outside van horn texas, 2pm

brain freeze is better than body meltdown.


life of simplicity, life of complication

there is something sweet and innocent in being exhausted.

after a long, hot, 500-mile 3-state day on the motorcycle, i've come to rest south of Amarillo, Texas. lying here, watching stars out my tent window, feeling a cool breeze pass through Palo Duro canyon, i feel life is simple.

life is simple. isn't it?

i don't always feel this way--maybe this simple good feeling i'm having, lying alone in a tent on a quiet night, surrounded only by bird and cricketsong, is what people are seeking when they go on vacation, because normal life is too complicated, too stressful, too busy. in response, we seek the simple.

but i think we also seek the opposite. don't we? i had a late night last night; friends convinced me to stay one more day in Boulder, so that i could go with them to what has become a weekly ritual: Wednesday night karaoke at (slightly divey) Catacombs bar downtown. it was one of those special nights, when good songs are sung, people are happy, friends meet. the whole day was good for me--i spent it with some of my best friends, sitting, eating, walking, biking, talking, from ten am to 9 pm when karaoke started. just that simple sharing of thoughts, along with food and sunshine, was all that i had needed to really feel good. but i bring you to the catacombs of my last night's memory because, while i think it's true that we all desire the simple, i think we nevertheless often seek complication.

think about it: why do we love hearing stories, in which everything gets complicated/dramatic/dangerous? why get ourselves involved in movies, novels, lengthy television series? because we love it when things get messy--we feel this makes life interesting. in Uganda, i used to think that, in lieu of lots of TV to bring dramatic stories, people tended to make their own lives more dramatic--as well as revel in the act of gossiping [1]. take karaoke for instance [2]. people at karaoke bars, at least at Catacombs, don't sing the simple songs they love, don't "dance like no one's watching," don't applaud purely based on apprecation--they sing outdated and somewhat foolish songs, to elicit a laugh or shock of recognition on hearing a good, forgotten song. if they dance, it is done hyper-conscious of the audience watching, and sometimes becomes a mockery of what dancing should look like, dancing only made possible by the implied hipster dismissal of such dancing, etc. applause too is not just applause--at least at Catacombs, it varies based on friendship/loyalty to the singer, appreciation for the choice of song, and overall performance (theatrics, ad libs, spontaneity, back-up dancers/singers, etc.) not just how well it was sung [3].

and this is all, of course, complicated by the pleasures and pains of human relationships: friends in different stages of friendliness or disagreement, people seeking new friends or sexual partners, even strategic relationships with the karaoke DJ (my friends and I have our suspicions about the Catacombs DJ...) to ensure regular rotation or even getting bumped up in the cue--there is a sense that success in all this rides on how well one does behind the mic (as well as who one dances and applauds to, and how much).

since it's a bar, the ace of all complications is also involved: courtship. guys and girls of a 20something age are dancing together in a dark room drinking cheap drinks: this is a recipe for complication. and yet, simplicity be damned, we seek this too, right? who doesn't want the complicated magic of a sexual/romantic/life partner, unless they've just had an overdose of it? who wouldn't do all kinds of outlandish things--like dress and shape their bodies the ways girls are expected to, or do the foolish manhood-proving things guys feel they're expected to? and this is where the notion that we all seek the simple gets complicated. or at least, this is where we see it's not a simple/complicated either/or. simple and true though it seems to say that all we want is a simple life , our actions in daily life, no less than courtship, show something different. when has it ever been as simple as the Fonz or Snoop Dogg snapping their fingers to get chicks? so dreams of slow days in Tahiti and less stress be damned, we also seek complication.

is it that we feel our lives are boring, too simple, not stimulating, not satisfying... so we seek complication, for its own sake?

maybe sometimes this is the case--but i think simplicity and complication are often more intimately linked than this. think about it: why do we go to the ridiculous lengths we do in order to find mates (other animals do this too, note)? because simple walking up and requesting sexual and/or lifetime favors from someone else is unlikely to work [4]--so we do all the things that might make this work, in our particular social and animal contexts. i think in many cases when we seek complication, we are actually seeking satisfactions of simple needs or wants we have, and have not gotten. our simple desires get complicated because we are trying more and more complex ways of fulfilling them, when simple ways don't work (or we are not courageous enough to try the simple ways).

let's back off from courtship and its extreme complications for a second, and think about the gaining of friends/respect. this seems to be one of the things thats going on in karaoke--people are performing hoping to be liked by those who are listening, but instead of just singing a song they like, they sing a phil collins song they half-like and half think is funny for how dated it is, and their dance moves are also somewhere between purely inspired by the music adn mockery of the times in which that music was popular--sarcastic tongue-in-cheekery for the sake of simple acceptance and approval, or sex appeal. thus do we complicate our actions to seek something we are not otherwise getting. in other cases, maybe we are just not brave enough to do it the simple way: rather than just talk to someone who looks cool, we try and impress them through our karaoke skills [5].

so let me revise my own thoughts to say i think there are two or three things going on, when we seem to think we seek simplicity, but actually seek complication. one might be seeking complication for its own sake--though you could argue in loving stories and dramas, what we are doing is seeking vicarious fulfillment of needs we can't get simply in real life. another, maybe more common, reason to seek complexity is that we turn to it only when we can't get what we want simply--while the need or want in question is itself simple, for whatever reason, satisfying it is not (kids [especially of divorced parents] who go to great unconscious lengths to win their approval might be an example of this--become an astronaut to be sure your parents will love you).

deeper than this, i think there is a third reason: our difficulty sometimes appreciating simple good things. this is a difficulty that makes us, for instance, want to read a good novel while lying on the beach, instead of just lying on the beach. or makes us want to watch TV or surf the internet while we eat, instead of just appreciating our food. or want more friends when we already have good ones we could know deeper and appreciate more. more sauces on our tasty burger or fries. more features on our phones than we'll ever use. more, not better.

so at the end of all this, a return to the simple: maybe we are making things complicated just for the sake of simple needs and wants--but maybe there's a simpler way to get them. if all i'm seeking on this warm summer's evening in palo duro campground is peace and relaxation, why read a book or watch a movie on my iPhone? why not just lay here and breathe deep til sleep comes? maybe there are simpler ways to get to a lot of the simple things we want--including that ace of complication, human relations. one of these simple ways, i think, is cultivating appreciation: taking time to notice where you are, what you have, to find the good in that before you run seeking an imagined good somewhere else. breathe for a second, right where you are, and notice everything that's good. i bet there's a lot more than you were conscious of, down to the joy of functioning hands and the peace of not fearing armed assault.

in the end, there is one simple need that we all want, which is calling me: sleep. isn't it lovely to have a safe place to sleep at night? think about this next time you drift off. good night.

[1]: is this a trace of Christianity's original sin, that we are sometimes just driven to say something troublesome, do something wrong, complicate something just for the sake of doing so? i think fundamental ethical perspectives ride the answer--that is, between those who feel there is evil, people who choose the less-good/bad for its own sake, and others who feel no one would ever consciously choose the less-good/bad, and that all apparent evil is only confusion on the part of those doing it. is there evil, or only misunderstanding?

[2]: this is not the downplay the manifold variances observed between and among karaoke bars and boxes both nationally and internationally--simply to say that a number exhibit the complex characteristics witnessed weekly at Catacombs

[3]: example: a few weeks ago, a staid-looking young lady in thick glasses and a modest dress got up and stone-faced a version of Snoop Dogg's 'Gin and Juice,' including stressed "bee-otch"es; the audience loved it because the match was so comedic, not because she rapped it particularly well

[4]: even the socially-dramatized Fonz/Snoop Dogg power of the the dry-run pickup (nanpa in Japanese) is actually loaded with expectations: you have to be the cultural superhero of the Fonz of Snoop Dogg, or be playing something close to them, to do this at all. For women, in the heteronormative sphere we are used to seeing such dramatizations played out, you have to have all the right kinds of beauty, the right mix of sensuality, purity and power, to attract such a superhero, or have the confidence to take him straight-out. and it pains me that such unlikely dramas play out in everyday lives with feelings of inadequacy, years spent chasing ephemeral goals, much pain and suffering for the sake of something that never had to be that complicated. some churches get this done quick and easy right--what would life be like then?

[5]: A much different example of this is an electronics engineer i tutored in Japan for a few months. deeply concerned with what was going on East Timor, he felt he wanted to do something, but first needed to make his English better to be able to do something there--and then probably to use English to learn their native language, and also to get a better position in his company so he had enough money to take time off to do something, and also this, and that... to my thinking, he might simple have organized a teach-in or fundraiser in his own time, with the skills he had at hand. i had this same hitch in my thinking for a few years, thinking i wasn't ready to go do work like i did in Uganda, that i didn't know enough and hadn't developed myself enough to do it well--eventually, i just decided i would have to do it as i was, half-ready. maybe we are never more than half-ready; we only have 70 years to get this all done, if we're lucky. really, we only have today.


life and chicks

i want you to look at this picture for a minute. just look at it.

what do you see here? the chick in front is less than 30 hours old: i picked her and 149 others up from the Regent, North Dakota post office the morning this picture was taken, packed like fluffy sardines in two holey boxes, shipped on hatching from Mt. Pleasant, Illinois. she is ostensibly one of the dumbest animals out there: not only the hard-wired and notoriously stupid chicken species, but a totally inexperienced one, running purely off instinct.

is that what you see in her gaze--mechanistic instinct, survival only, the famed avian stupidity? i do not dispute these are there; in fact, in taking care of these chicks over the next week, i ascertained they are in fact quite unreflective creatures. but to me there is something more here, looking out of these black eyes, inhabiting every newborn in that converted watermelon box. maybe this is because i held them, watched their baby feathers grow bigger each day, heard their chorus of chirps in the morning as i opened the coop door to bring water and food. but i think this newborn's gaze is eloquent: there is a curiosity here, an innocent wonder, that says much more than we usually do about chickens, about animals (non-human animals, that is) in general. when i look in this hen's eyes, i feel that my gaze is met, returned, by another life--recognize in it the same force that animates me.

maybe i'm anthropomorphizing. it might be easy to look at this being from a distance, from the overheard view people raising chickens get most of the time,

and see only chicken nuggets in the making, a tool for making money, making food, something useful only in its relation to human life. but if you get down on the chick's level, as in the first picture, i think it's hard to deny there's something more, that there is something we recognize in the chick's gaze, because we share it.


we share life. not only in the sense that i, as chicken tender, have power over their lives, nor the sense that we, as consumers, have the power to purchase their dead bodies to eat, in effect giving us all power over their lives. not even in the sense that we share the moments of our life in which i am with them, cleaning their bedding, refilling their water, holding this or that one in my hand, talking idly to them as i do the daily chores. we share life in the sense that while we are different, while i can talk of my own intelligence and boast of many material differences with this baby hen, we are on a basic level the same, animals alive for a short while, making sense and survival of our surroundings.

this means something.

for some, it means meeting this chick's gaze is uncomfortable, because it exists for us to kill and eat, because we support the killing of animals like this every day. for us who feel this way, looking at the first picture may not be comfortable, like thinking about the feathered, breathing body our hermetically-packaged chicken breasts came from may not be comfortable. for others, the life we share means a commitment to not supporting the killing of animals, perhaps out of a sense that we are no more entitled to life than they are, despite our cultures, languages, etc [1].

for me, it means something different still. holding these chicks in my hand, looking them in the eye, i am sometimes uncomfortable with the fact that they are only here because we have plans to kill them and sell their bodies for money. but this is inescapable, if we are to live: animals live by taking other lives, whether they are lives of animals, insects, or plants. i am aware that in eating meat, i am causing more death, because i might have consumed plants similar to those the animal consumed directly [2], deriving much more nutritional value than is eventually passed on to me through the animal [3]. but i do not buy ethics by degree: that one wholesale taking of life is better than another because it is a more efficient taking of life, or a taking of less lives overall--those are practical, not ethical, concerns [4].

if it doesn't mean i should stop eating meat, then, what meaning does this shared gaze, this life, hold? according to my understanding, it means i owe the chicken respect. i do not see a fundamental difference between humans and other animals--we are all equally old and evolved lifeforms; though we exist in different ways, we are all alive. i know how i want to be treated, based on the fact that i'm alive: i want food, water, freedom to do what comes naturally (Marx might have called this control of my own labor), whether that is writing blogs or being able to walk without feeling confined. living things are not machines or tools for us to use. when people treat other people this way [5], i find it offensive (though i'm surely guilty of this sometimes too). Immanuel Kant argued this is because humans are rational, are able to understand right and wrong, and to decide their own courses of action based on this rational understanding--an ability none of us should ignore by trying to coerce or force others to do what we'd like them to. i am not saying chickens would be able to join in this reflection on ethics if they spoke English, but i AM saying they are more than simple stimulus-response mechanisms, and so we should not treat them like machines.

simple as they are, these chicks nevertheless have their own needs and wants as living creatures, and i think insofar as we are also living creatures, especially if we are in positions of power over them, we need to respect those needs and wants. i don't think it's necessary here to invoke the idea of souls, and argue the chicken has a soul, i have a soul, we all have souls, etc. the fact that we both are alive is enough. this is the Golden Rule--treat others as you want to be treated--we just have to understand what 'others' and 'you' mean in this context: treat other living beings the way you, as a living being, want to be treated.'

so this is what we're trying to do for these chicks. we don't scare them for fun, don't keep them crammed in cages with their beaks cut off because it's cheaper; we try and help them be as healthy as possible. our interest is not altruistic: we will benefit from these lives too, as we do from those of all the other plants and animals that have died to keep us alive so far. the point is to treat the animal, or plant, or person, with respect so long as they are alive. aside from one's own species, this respect doesn't include not killing them--that's a way of life that is literally impossible [6] . it includes, while they are alive, respecting them as fellow living beings.

admittedly, part of me still feels bad that these chicks will be killed for food. it's the same part that feels bad that a pig has died to make my brother's barbecuw, that a carrot has to die for me to eat it, that no one gets to live forever. another part of me knows that, unlike factory-raised chickens, ours will be free to wander outside, eating bugs, breathing fresh farm air, moving where they please and generally doing exactly as they wish, til we take them for slaughter. small consolation? this is what i have come up with, my relationship to other living beings, after seven years of being a vegetarian, and many more thinking about it: a promise to avoid eating meat that has not lived a life similar to the one this chick will have. this is what comes from me looking a cow, a chick, an eggplant in the eye--a sense of respected based in shared life. i'm not advocating you or anyone else do the same: what i'm advocating is that you not avoid this chick's gaze, but meet it, and decide for yourself what sharing life means.

[1] some might say especially in light of our cultures of war, languages of difference, practices of environmental destruction, etc.

[2] though i know from talking with ranchers in north dakota that cattle often graze areas that are unfarmable, so this doesn't hold up perfectly

[3] they say around 90% is lost in eating animals instead of plants directly

[4] unless it can be proven that my meat consumption causes food shortages in other places, but my sense of global hunger is that it more about EXCESS food from the US being shipped to other places, and moreso the global economic system that supports that, as the way we consume what is produced here

[5] i mean when we use each other; like when you invite someone to a potluck you don't actually like because you know he makes a mean casserole

[6] unless you know a way to keep your immune system from killing unwanted bacteria and viruses that enter your system--and if you do, then it will likely result in your death, a different sort of impossibility of living this way