The Scat in Eschatology

There are people stockpiling guns, batteries, solar panels, burying shipping containers, buying gas masks, dehydrating food, filling hidden tanks with water, and lining underground shelves with food all around us. You may have seen their outposts in sun-blasted wastelands, have heard about surging weapon sales, or seen survivalist literature in your local bookstore and wondered. The people behind this movement, self-described ‘preppers,’ are generally hard to see due to their penchant for camouflage clothing, but my work gives me the privilege of direct contact with them: I primarily build commercial photovoltaic (solar) systems, but also off-grid and backup power systems. Preppers comprise a significant portion of our customer base for the latter portion of the business.

The internet, conveniently for one looking to learn more about this culture, is a breeding ground for communities of paranoid people; it creates a marketplace for fringe theories and products that would otherwise not exist in society. A cursory glance on the internet reveals that there are a few people with legitimate concerns regarding ecology and the sustainability of our industrial economy, but the overwhelming majority of the adherents seem to have already been attacked by some sort of brain-sucking amoeba that has left them constantly oscillating between schizophrenic fight or flight outlooks on life. Articles abound like: “When Colera Comes to Town.” “Martial Law Survival Strategies You Should Know.” “Body Disposal in a Crisis.” “Backcountry Belt Kit: Essential Tools to Carry Around Your Waist.” “How The Zika Pesticide Spraying Could Eventually Kill Us All.” There are a hundred times as many discussions about Chinese-made LED flashlights as there are about Malthusian economics.

I am accustomed to the preppers asking questions like, “Will this equipment withstand an electromagnetic pulse?” I have learned how to discuss Faraday Cages with them and to avoid voicing my questions about what they imagine the apocalypse will be like. I had perceived these people as benign and merely victims of marketing and politicking that breeds paranoia to generate sales and votes, until a recent conversation with an intelligent coworker, who is a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon), made me realize I might want to rethink my opinion. We had just finished building a backup power system on a McMansion, for a man who makes and sells Biblical interpretive videos, when there was a blurb on the radio about climate change. I couldn’t resist making a remark about how we need to make some dramatic economic and cultural shifts to avoid creating a living hell, that the alternative energy industry needed to grow by leaps and bounds.
“There are billions of dollars spent each year by people like Al Gore to make you think that we need to act immediately and change what we are doing,” he expressed with skepticism.
“Yeah and there are billions of dollars spent each year to make you disbelieve that it is happening. I saw it with my own eyes when I was visiting islands in the Indian Ocean a couple years ago. It is a terrifying prospect for hundreds of millions of people and we will not be immune to its effects here either.”
“I don’t deny that it is happening, just the cause.”
“So you don’t believe that humans are causing it?”
“Not necessarily.”
“Then what is happening?”
“The Rapture, The Second Coming of Christ,” he said without irony.

IMG_0752From that point on I have been fascinated. As you can imagine, I was elated when I saw a billboard on my way to work the other day that advertised the Ready2Go convention – the first gun, auto, and preparedness show in Utah. The same fairgrounds would also be home to the Patriot Film Festival. That is how I found myself tearing down I-15 through rising concrete skeletons and past an endless stream of cars piled high with outdoor gear and pickups towing dilapidated campers headed out for the long weekend. Riding a motorcycle is, for better or worse, a heightened sensory experience, particularly with regard to smell. It smelled of food smoking, then of sausage, then of raw sewage, then of just plain exhaust.

Before we get to the convention, it is worth touching upon theology for a very brief moment. Almost every religion employs, as humans have an affinity for them, traditional narrative arcs that have a beginning, a series of crisis, a climax, and then a resolution. In religious parlance: a creation myth, trials and tribulations involving the believers and the non-believers, an earthly crisis, and then the an end brought about by a deity. The field of theology devoted to the study of the final events of history or the ultimate destiny of humanity is called Eschatology.

The Bible has many passages that reference catastrophe or apocalypse for followers to emphasize. The Gospel of Matthew 24:21-22 records Jesus saying that upon his return “There will be great tribulation, such as has not been seen since the beginning of time to this world, no, nor ever will be. And unless these days were shortened, no flesh would be saved, but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened.” Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:3 “For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape.” From Isaiah 66:15-16, “For behold, the lord will come in fire And His chariots like the whirlwind, To render His anger with fury, And His rebuke with flames of fire. For the lord will execute judgment by fire And by His sword on all flesh, And those slain by the lord will be many.”

Mormonism uses the King James Version and the Book of Mormon as primary texts. The Mormons have a long-standing tradition of prepping that is deeply rooted in their theology. Prophecy holds that there are certain events that inevitably will precede the second coming of Christ, the most relevant here are: earthquakes, widespread warfare, social unrest, and climactic weather. There are storage facilities, with billboards along the side of the highway, that specialize in food storage. The church requires each member to store a minimum of a three month food supply.

In both cases it appears that Christ will lift up the believers, scorch the earth, and punish the non-believers. I am not sure where the earth-scorching fits in, maybe it is like how the right to destroy a sandcastle is reserved for the child who builds it.

IMG_0731I arrived at the gate of the convention and I was slightly nervous that they would know I was unprepared, a Pollyana, a part of what preppers calls The Golden Horde. The Golden Horde is the teeming mass of unprepared losers that will desperately swarm the prepared in the event of disaster, and a Pollyana is someone who is irrationally optimistic in contrast to their irrational pessimism. There was a sign at the entrance table that says, “NO AMMUNITION CHECK YOUR GUNS HERE.” The man in front of me, who wore a black T-shirt with Hillary Clinton transmuted into The Joker, patted his pants and told them that he had a handgun on him. He showed his concealed carry permit and was allowed to keep it with him. I paid my entrance fee and was given a voucher for a free box of ammunition to be redeemed at the Armitek booth inside.

I continued to the booths and nearly jumped in the air at the crack of an overweight man testing out a taser to my left. IMG_0736I wandered through booths selling handguns, fudge, weight-loss pills, caramel apples, devices for food preparation, sniper rifles, solar panels, Chinese-made knives that look like they are exclusively made for slaying carnivorous reptiles, backup batteries, The Republican Party, purses and belts covered in glittering rhinestones, Senator Mike Lee, portable emergency communication platforms, and dog clothing. Generally, it was as if Sharper Image’s designers became deeply paranoid, abandoned producing clever desktop entertainments with swinging balls and automated vacuums for more violent products, and then were forced to hawk their wares at a county fair.

I walked past the Armitek tent, but I did not redeem my voucher for a free box of ammunition.  I got the impression that the free box of ammunition was for dealing with The Golden Horde, which I am a part of, therefore I felt it wasn’t right.

IMG_0739There was one booth of particular interest that sold underground shelters impervious to nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, biological weapons, and the screams of others on the outside. The price list on the wall had prices running upwards of $65,000 for a shelter, not including a backup power system. I walked in and was immediately engrossed in conversation with a woman who is surely the high priestess of the prepper cult.

“How many of these do you sell each year?”
“We are constantly busy, we have a factory that stays busy and we are always upgrading or working on other shelters.”
“Where are people building them?”
“Everywhere. We work all over the US, Canada, even in the Bahamas. I have one up in the mountains here that you can come see.”
“What are your customers primarily worried about?”
“Electromagnetic pulse,” she answered emphatically.
“The shelters aren’t cheap. Who are these people?”
“Well you don’t have to be wealthy to afford one. You can do a lottery with your friends where 65 people put in $1000 each, and then you draw straws for the ten or fifteen people that are allowed in.” I found this so strange that I lost my train of thought as I contemplated it – my mind went immediately to my friends and family screaming outside the hatch.

We proceeded to discuss nuclear weapons; shelter theory; alpha, beta, and gamma rays; nuclear fallout; how EMPs function; and nuclear winter. I learned that the optimum place for the Soviets to detonate an EMP is at roughly 400km about the surface of the earth and situated above the center of Kansas as this would affect a radius of roughly 2200km. I did not dare to inform her that the Soviet Union had broken up and that we had entered the 21st century. The woman was convincing, her answers were cogent and pragmatic. There was a creeping concern on my part after half an hour in the tent, a feeling that I was naive and naked. The logic is contagious when it is grounded in our contentious, violent geopolitical reality and appeals to one’s innate distrust of power structures and human decision making. I couldn’t argue. I left the tent with a price list and a five part installment entitled, “Nuclear Weapons: Who, What, When, Where, How?”

IMG_0744Once outside of Utah Shelter Systems tent, I sat on the grass and looked around at the guns, the food dehydrators, the armored Corvette, and the fudge. I stepped out of the milieu of paranoia generated therein and contemplated the allure of prepping. I was suddenly reminded of that fact that I don’t want to preside over or repopulate a vast wasteland of death and decay.

I reflect upon the convention on my ride home through the sprawl of Salt Lake City. Apocalyptic thinking intrigues and frustrates me as it is a denial of a continuous trajectory to history. It is waiting for a tumultuous break, when breaks are merely convenient narrative devices used to interpret history: The Depression, World War II, and The Renaissance. We currently are dealing with famines, seemingly interminable warfare, climactic weather events, the curtailing of freedoms, tens of millions of refugees, and suffering on a massive scale. Apocalyptic thinking is a convenient philosophical device for absolving ourselves of agency or any responsibility for what is occurring around us; it allows one to deny reality. I simply want to ask what if we let these things continue to gradually worsen and there is no break in history? No savior, no dramatic apocalypse? How do you prepare for that?

The Rapture of Digital Truancy

Dear Dr. Bacastow from Penn State,

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

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

-Introduction to Clinical Neurology -Digital Systems

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

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

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

Could this count as my Final Project (capstone)?

Thank you,

Alex

Licking a Banana Slug in the 21st Century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shit.”

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

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

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

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

He waited a moment. “Hey Nance.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey dad.”

“Stevieeee – what’s going on?”

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

“How was school?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Year of the Hotdog

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

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

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

A Setting of One Foot in Front of the Other

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Coyote and The Combine

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lake Forest: Hillbillies and Satanists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fishing in Lesotho

I arrive in the early morning, after driving all night from Terre Haute in the wood paneled AMC Eagle that serves as both transport and my residence currently. I haven’t been to the city in fifteen years, not since I had been drawn to a place that even its denizens described as the ‘armpit of Indiana.’ It appeared during my years of exile there that there was no shortage of competition for this degrading title and that Hoosiers had contentious debates regarding this matter. The university where I worked had to put up signs around the dormitories exhorting students not to defecate in the shower and try to stomp it down. This helped maintain Terre Haute as the forerunner in my mind. I pull off of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway onto McGuiness Boulevard and stop to get gas. I try to quiet my mind as I watch the numbers climb on the pump. Didn’t we start a war to deal with this?

The car won’t start as I try to pull away. I am chastised in broken English before several other strange foreigners materialize to push the car while I guide it into an empty parking space. I feel like it would be pointless to ask them where to get another starter. I debate asking them to help me push start it, but I am deterred by thoughts of the barrage of irritated protests that would emerge. I crawl under the car and bang the starter with a tire iron, but it dawns on me that someone else needs to be trying to turn over the engine as I do this. I grunt and worm out and set out on foot towards an area that I remember from many years before as having a preponderance of mechanics shops and warehouses that seemed to deal in nothing but piles of disorganized metal trash. I walk West towards Williamsburg. I skid my boot through yellow dog poo on the sidewalk. I look for some leaves of grass where I can wipe it off, but everything is fenced or paved. I walk to Bedford Avenue.

The prostitutes and drug addicts are gone, but what remains? The poverty still seems palpable in the cacophony of competing buskers that occupy each block. There appears to be little work as men and women alike lean against buildings exhaling smoke. Young men listlessly shamble through the streets wearing pubic beards and tattered clothes. Several women pass me with a radiant pallidity and muscle tone that leaves me thinking of color inverted National Geographic photos from the fringes of the Sahara. Many enter and exit blighted industrial buildings that do not appear fit for human habitation.

I overhear two striplings speaking a barely intelligible language.

‘We went to this new space that just arrived in Gpoint. It has no name and they aren’t even on yelp yet. It is called 455 Noname. It is an orgogastropub with walls decorated in flea market fare and artisanal art. Standard, right? But every night there is a different band playing Tuscan Noisegrass.’

I see piles of cars in varying degrees of disassembly – most of them similarly from the late seventies and early eighties – inside a rollup garage door in an old warehouse. My Eagle is an ’84 and I figure this bodes well. There are rusted parts littered everywhere and an overwhelming smell of gasoline.

I approach a counter and am greeted with a glare from a man with the hair shaved off of one side of his head and a veritable suit of black leather. He drums immaculately clean nails on the counter top. I am strangely obsessed with hands. Bitten nails, dirty finger nails, calloused hands, scars, knuckles shaved by a slipped wrench…soft supple office hands.

‘Uhm… I am trying to find a starter for my AMC Eagle.’

‘We have Americanos, macchiatos, breves and lattes. It is all microroasted.’ I struggle to hear him over the grating electronic music.

‘Yeah… I just need a rebuilt one from an AMC, a pulled one, anything to get it out of the gas station on McGuiness before someone steals the fake wood panels for firewood.’ I am confused, so I just repeat myself and hope that will smooth things over.

‘You can get a tall, venti, or grande.’ He rolls his eyes.

‘Do you know where I can just get a normal starter for a 1984 AMC Eagle?’

‘No, look you are holding up the line.’ He moves his tapping fingers from the countertop to a small handheld computer. There is nobody behind me.

I walk back out onto the street and find myself stopping in front of a strange piece of graffiti that hooligans have made advertising Rayban sunglasses.

‘Where did you get those patches?!’ I turn around to see a guy and his girlfriend staring at me.

‘Uhm… at an outdoor store. I slept next to a fire and some embers burned holes in the jacket.’

‘Amazing. It is beautiful. I don’t do any camping, but I love outdoor fashion. I shoot men for a living.’

‘Oh…..Hah…Yep.’

‘Can I take your picture?’ Some light is shined on the previous sentence at this moment.

“Can you stand with your arms crossed? So I can see the patches better. Oh amazing!’

I walk on. I realize that I haven’t eaten anything in hours and look around. I had seen half a dozen natural, organic, whole food type markets in the past two blocks and I find myself serendipitously standing across the street from a leafy green neon sign that reads ‘Natural Organic Land.’ I cross the street and enter through the chrome doors.

The isles seethe with shoppers, eyes roaming and scanning for edibility. I feel self-conscious as ravenous eyes greedily survey me. I am not sure where the checkout line begins and the shopping ends, nor what I would like to buy. I wonder if there a natural disaster looming? I grab a few items swaddled  in plastic and stare at labels proclaiming pastoral simplicity, wholesomeness, and naturalness. Boutique Brazillian coffee syndicates, Belgian chocolatiers, pink seasalt evaporating schemes, black pepper merchants of Malabar. While stuck in my reverie, a few shoppers repeatedly elbow and ram into me, ostensibly on purpose, while muttering apologies. I begin walking in a rapid frenzy to simulate what the other shoppers are doing; I am trying to exude purpose and importance. Mindlessly I grab a box of Monkey O’s and get in line. The box informs me that 10% of the proceeds from each sale are actually directly handed, in cash, to Marmoset Monkeys in Madagascar to recompensate them for habitat destruction.

I breathe deeply as I exit the frenzy and quickly ram my hand into the box of cereal. I absentmindedly stuff fistfuls into my mouth and walk until a massive pile of junk catches my eye. I enter through the gate of a boarded up, rusted out rat den. There is a sure to be a starter that would work amongst the scrap heaps that loom on either side of the path as I walk towards the entrance. A cheap one. I see a man welding a gas lamp onto a 35 foot tall penny-farthing while wearing a vintage brass scuba helmet. He looks up as I approach and opens to door of the mask to greet me.

‘Hey. Osiris. What do you need?’

‘Uh.. yeah… I am Alex…. I am looking for a starter for my 1984 AMC Eagle? I thought maybe you could help me since it looks like you have a pretty good junkyard.’

The curls of his mustache burst forth as he raises the helmet over his head. I think of the circus.

‘Wait is it a real AMC Eagle? Or is it a replica?’

‘It is definitely real and really not starting right now.’

‘It has the original PlastoPine panels?’

‘Yep. Hopefully they are still there when I get back.’

‘I need to make a call real quick. Gimme a sec.’ He walks around behind a what appears to be a small zeppelin that is connected to a tank of hydrogen. I can barely hear his conversation as it bounces off the bricks and iron.

‘…Yeah… Yeah…A real Eagle… He looks like a vintage dealer. He has some pretty nice threads and definitely knows what he is sitting on.’ I am wearing my dad’s jacket that I found in his apartment after he passed away, and an old pair of corduroys.

‘Look…I’ll give you ten.’

‘I just need one.’ Repetition seems to be the key with these difficult people.

‘Ah… Oh… Nobody has one of those anymore. It is a such a time piece. It is moving art.’

‘I do and I don’t even want to imagine myself in it.’

‘Alright. Twenty thou.’

We went back and forth, me wanting a starter and him wanting the car. Eventually we came to an understanding and I sold the AMC Eagle that had served as my home for the past few months. I used the money to buy a house outright in Detroit where the Eagle was produced thirty years ago. Osiris wrote me a letter thanking me for my generous support and letting me know what became of the car. He installed the car in a gallery in Soho, without even cleaning the cigarette butts out of the ashtray, before selling it for $200,000 to an investment banker who made a fortune betting heavily against the Lesotho deep sea fishing industry.

White and Blue

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Small slab I undercut on Coalpit Headwall.

2010-2011. It started to snow in early October and did not cease until the following summer; the storms were relentless and were drawn to the Wasatch mountains in Utah from the Southwest, from the Northwest. At this point in my life I did very little other than ski; I spent five or six days a week working as a ski patroller and every other moment I could in the backcountry of the Cottonwood Canyons. I skied all but a few days between Halloween and Easter, trying to take advantage of a once in a lifetime winter.DSC01609 The amount of snow that fell can be quantified in the number of cups of coffee that I drank per day, which topped out at roughly 12 before I decided that I had a problem. I would wake up before 5am for both avalanche control and days in the backcountry; I tried to keep going, always knowing that it was bound to stop at some point. But there were so many lines and chutes that I had been lustfully eyeing for years, waiting for the right moment to approach.

DSC01852Monte Cristo, The Hypodermic Needle, Mount Dromedary, Thunder Bowl, lines off Mount Superior; memories of deep powder shimmering under a blue sky, of hours of trailbreaking, of stable conditions, of standing atop monochrome monoliths remain as pleasant, but hazy recollections.  Although there is one foray into the backcountry that has endured as it is of a different character; it has a tinge of danger and disaster. The mind understandably works this way; its self preservation instinct is better served by searing threats to life and limb into the memory than the tranquil and pleasant.

pfeiffphoto1msrkrThe Northwest Couloir of the Pfeifferhorn. Steep. Narrow. Classic. An hourglass shape, the upper end of which feeds you into a constriction that terminates with a cliff, typically requiring a rappel, before opening into a vertiginous apron. The line consists of a 1000 foot descent with an average pitch of 50 degrees. The approach to the remote 11,326 foot peak is long and committing. The couloir itself is noted for its often treacherous conditions, something that I hoped to avoid by skiing it after the right storm.

In the middle of February a storm was approaching that promised to drop a significant amount of snow on top of what was a stable snowpack. My friend Joel and I had decided that we were going to make an attempt on the Pfeifferhorn the following day; for me this meant calling in sick to work, something that I didn’t lose any sleep over. Joel and I had undertaken a few different adventures together and our demeanors were well matched. Joel has a love of skiing that is matched with fearlessness and intelligence, despite his Australian origin. His ability to carefully navigate the perilous backcountry with savvy can lead to nothing other than thoughts of a snowbound version of Mick Dundee.

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Pfeifferhorn in the background.

I woke in the morning darkness to take a look at the weather stations around the Wasatch and the avalanche report; it looked like it was going to be a perfect day. The Northwest flow had dropped a foot of snow without any terrifying wind or other irregularities from what we could gather.

We parked in Little Cottonwood Canyon and started skinning towards Red Pine Lake in the predawn glow, slowly making our way upwards with our headlamps aglow. We broke trail through the fresh light snow, sweating despite the morning chill. The surface began to shimmer as the sun broke over the crest of the range, the pristine blanket covering every surface took on a blinding pure whiteness. We assessed the conditions perpetually; everything seemed stable and lacking in spatial variability. The peak was within sight, intimidatingly looming over us, growing with each lunge forward.

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Looking at Mount Dromedary

Touring in the Wasatch gives me a feeling of remoteness and peril despite the hum of cars in the canyon below and the thunder of Howitzer artillery up the canyon. It is a different world beyond the road; it is harsh and unforgiving.

There is a very little that I remember from the approach despite the many hours that elapsed; I often go into a strange meditative state as I step and breathe. We bootpacked the shoulder before standing on top and peering out upon the rugged and serene landscape as a gentle wind swept over and chilled us. It was noon. We put on our harnesses. I prepped my daisy chains to clip into the anchors, and checked the rope.

‘Do you feel good about it?’ I asked Joel as we looked over the seemingly vertical precipice that lay in front of us.

‘It looks a little icy and scoured, but I feel good about it. You?’

‘Yeah, it just looks like the entrance to any couloir.’

‘Who is going first?’ Joel asked me.

‘Uhhhmm….I’ll go? I’ll back off if it gets sketchy.’ These moments are always strange. You are putting yourself up against your own judgments about the conditions. The first person is the canary.

Joel turned on his helmet cam and I cautiously stepped into the couloir. Adrenaline coursed through my veins, a temperamental chemical that can either go the way of fear or focus; I channeled it as I moved out towards the right shoulder of the couloir to check its condition. The sound of my edges grinding against the icy surface filled the air as I cut across; it was slightly terrifying. I stopped to take a deep breath at the shoulder, which held some snow, but I decided to traverse back and forth across the couloir rather than trying to make turns. There was nothing that a normal human being would identify as skiing yet.

The slope got steeper and the walls began to close in. The couloir at this point consisted of nothing but sheer ice, something that is typical in the upper end of couloirs. I meticulously worked my edges on the surface; I tried my best to keep my doubts and concerns at bay. The anchors were within sight, as was the powder field below. The cliff did not look substantial and a fall, as long as I didn’t hit any rocks, would mean nothing but landing in the soft cushion of fresh snow that covered the lower end.

I worked my way down into the choke point, moving with slow deliberateness. I muttered gratefully about how sharp my skis were and yelled my plan up to Joel. As I neared the choke point my ability to hold an edge was progressively compromised by its concave shape, I was only holding an edge with my tips and tails.  I committed too far before realizing that I was precariously balanced above a cliff on ice, unprepared to take a fall. Moments slipped away as I held my edges at a ridiculous angle perpendicular to the 50 degree slope and stared at the anchors that were several feet beyond my grasp, with a rope someone had left behind strung through. My legs started to burn and quiver as I schemed to get out of this predicament. There was no boot packing or side stepping back up; the ice  and shape of the surface made these options out of the question. The cliff was just an icy ten foot waterfall and there should be perfect snow below. There seemed to be only one option; I quickly thrust my hand out for the rappel anchors and rope, hoping to quickly clip my harness in after I got a grip. Ice is best understood from a tipping point perspective, you have purchase until you don’t; it isn’t something that is gradual or forgiving. I felt the tails of my skis give out as I reached forward over the tips of the skis. The rope was doubled over through the anchors. I only managed to grab one end.

I didn’t have enough time to fully appreciate what was happening or I was simply to disoriented by the way in which it happened. As my tails lost their edge I fell backwards, meaning I was on my back with my head downslope as I went over the icy, rocky chokepoint. My arm ricocheted off of several rocks as I tumbled and gained speed. The whiteness that I had appraised from above as comforting, soft snow received me with the harsh thud of blue ice. I began to gain speed, feeling the irregular surface of the ice below me grating against my back. I tried to stop myself with my skis, tried to catch an edge, but they simply exploded off my feet. My head remained downslope; I starfished outwards, swinging my arms and legs wildly in an effort to create friction.

I tilted my head backwards and saw myself headed towards rocks at a speed that I would place at around 30 miles per hour. My mind didn’t panic as there wasn’t time. Huuuuuuuuuuu Ahhhhhhhhhhhh Huh huh Huh Oh I remember making some guttural animal sounds as I continued futilely flailing.  Everything unfolded rapidly, but with an intense and clear focus. The last thought I remember: I never thought I would actually see my own death or that it would be so easy. The rocks came near, but contour of the couloir cradled me, carrying me safely past. As soon as this disaster was averted I found myself rotating through the air, white, blue, white blue. I hit a wind lip built up on a minor fork in the lower portion of the apron headfirst. I cartwheeled nearly to the bottom of the ski line before stopping. I remember having some sort of strange moment as absolute silence enveloped me; the world had stopped turning. I slowly stood up and looked in fascination at the hundreds of feet that I had descended in seconds. There were no alarm signals yet, just shock. I looked down to see red slowly spattering the snow below me; blood was running off of my arm that stilled griped the rope that I pulled through the anchors.

I didn’t have time to look at where the blood was coming from before the panic set in. Joel! The shape of the couloir meant that he was only able to watch me disappear over the lip from his vantage. I needed to get within ear shot of him; I needed to let him know I was alright and that he shouldn’t descend. I was gasping, fighting to get enough air as I kicked my boots into the ice, adrenaline pushing me upwards.

I caught sight of him standing at the choke point; he had gotten ahold of the anchors. We shouted back and forth, although I don’t think we were close enough to understand one another. Suddenly he jumped off the lip of the cliff and hit the sheet of ice. He had a Black Diamond Whippet Self-Arrest ski pole that he drove into the ice with his weight until it was ripped from his hands. I stared on in silent horror as I watched him gain speed, taking the same ride that I had just miraculously survived, and pass within a few feet of me at incredible speed. There was no sound other than the roar of his synthetic ski gear over the ice.

I found myself running down back towards the same point where I had found repose. Joel had managed to pass another 20 feet beyond my mark and lay in a heap with his avalanche airbag deployed.

‘Are you alright?’ I shouted down.

‘You need to go get my ski.’

‘Where is it?’

‘It is stuck in the choke point.’

I accepted this gravely and started upwards without asking any other questions. My arm began to stiffen and get cold from the blood that ran down it. My lungs and legs burned as I tried to work quickly under the assumption that Joel had probably sustained some kind of injury. I was running on nothing but adrenaline at this point, although I started to shake with a freshly conditioned Pavlovian fear  as I approached the cliff once more, carefully toe pointing as I went. I grabbed Joel’s whippet that had been ripped from his hands and then began ascending the blue ice below the cliff.

I saw the ski jutting out from a crack in the rock above my head and understood why Joel jumped. I kicked out and carved handholds to ascend the final icy pitch to the ski. I carved out a sturdy handhold as I stood perched over the icy abyss and began to swing the ski pole at the ski to try and dislodge the ski. On my third strike it broke loose and began a chattering bouncing ride downwards towards Joel. I yelled in vain with the hope that it would miss Joel.

I began my descent, working my way across slope to recover poles and skis that were incredibly separated by hundreds of feet. One of my skis had come down vertical and with such force, that only a few inches protruded from the snow and ice. I eventually reached Joel again and collapse into the snow next to him.

‘Holy shit! Are you alright? What’s going on?’ I let out in release.

‘I am good, but I am not sure if I can move my knee, I think I tore something. We need to get out of here though, get me that ski and we will see what I can do.’

I finally looked at my arm. It had swollen to what seemed like twice its normal size and had a significant injury exposed at the elbow from hitting rocks that managed to rip through three layers of clothing. I was convinced it was broken, but accepted it with calm resignation. Everything was not all seriousness though; we were laughing hysterically within minutes, lost in shock and adrenaline.

‘I cannot believe we are alive. Did that really just fucking happen? To both of us?’

‘Are you jealous that I made it further than you?’

A significant amount of time had elapsed in this whole episode; we were well into the afternoon. We still had a run out down Maybird Gulch that was not short or simple. Joel tried moving his knee and had some range of motion and not too much instability. I helped him into his skis and watched in gratitude as he was able to carefully begin working his way downwards. An inability to ski would have likely meant spending an evening out.

Joel, with an injured knee, skied with skill that left me astonished. We reached the car in the twilight, both shivering and drained, mentally and physically. I took off my gloves and looked on in horror at my bloody hand and the pinky finger that was completely black and waxen with frostbite.

‘Whoops!’ I hold out the claw to Joel and start laughing.

We descended the canyon and recounted our respective stories over a pitcher of beer, looking haggard and talking manically, oblivious to the other people in the bar. We realized what had been our undoing: the storm system had arrived from the Northwest, the direction that the couloir faces. It had come in slightly warm with brief rain that had served to bond the fresh snow to the existing snowpack everywhere else. In the Northwest Couloir it had frozen rapidly, due to the direction of the couloir and the wind, and merely created a sheet of ice that attracted no snow. Joel clarified another part of the story, he had lost one of his skis as he tried to kick his ski into the sheet of ice to get purchased; it chattered down the couloir and became lodged in a crack midway through the cliff. Joel decided to jump and try to dislodge it with his ski pole before taking his downward journey. He realized that we needed that ski to get out of the backcountry and there simply was no decent way of getting it.

Joel had to go to the hospital the next day and found out that he had indeed torn a ligament in his knee. I returned to work and tried to continue on like nothing had happened despite my inability to move my elbow joint. I had no insurance, so going to the hospital had to be avoided. I hid my broken wing out of fear of getting caught in my lie and out of a certain degree of shame over what had happened.  I did not want to recount the tale, but after a few questions from people on my patrol team, I spun the tale with a grin. Stories eventually just become a piece of you, telling them helps the process along.

I have since developed a deep seated fear of slippery surfaces above precipices; a fear that I find to be completely rational. I have been on an endless summer since that winter finished. Joel has gone on to more ridiculous feats, including supporting his ski habits through the practice of law.

All photos and the video are credited to Joel.