Life on the Outside

After an epic set of days in the capital, it’s hard to resist the urge to elaborate on our experience here. But in an effort to remain chronological while giving time to process before immediate reflection, we’ll pick up where we left off in the last entry.

New Jersey warranted little worth mentioning beyond its fabled stank-lore that pretty much everyone is already aware of. Worthy of note, still, is the remarkable landscape of cookie-cutter corporate chains amidst a vast swath of concrete and industrial monstrosities shat out upon a landscape once known for its agricultural richness. Ah well. We’ve all seen the tele. Strip malls, like fake tans, remain the fresh standard for beauty in our misguided culture.

On the border with our evening’s destination state, we stopped off in Frenchtown- a quaint and quirky breath of fresh air along the Delaware River and home to What’s Brewing at Maria’s. Seeing we hadn’t earned any money yet on the trip, we thought it time to propose bartering something unconventional in exchange for a coffee, indoor warmth, and wifi.

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Adam did the brave work of ad-libbing his way through a sheepish request. “Soo- we don’t have any money. But we were wondering if we could trade you a book or two for some coffee?”

“You can just have some coffee,” replied the lady behind the counter matter-of-factly before turning to her left to continue a conversation in Italian. We were taken aback. We gushed our thanks, learning through a brief chat that she was Maria, as in the Maria; yet another example of a business owner not bound to notions of dog-eat-dog, compassionless capitalism.

After taking in the nifty European-looking architecture and the river, we set forth to Grantville, where our friend Romeeka left us the keys to her place for the night. As the next 24 hours drizzled along cold, damp, and gray outside, we laid low indoors and made some dinner for our host to come home to.

Jesse met Romeeka through Couchsurfing and she epitomizes the CS ethos. When she’s not playing music or working for her solar energy consulting company, she spends a lot of her time writing letters to prisoners. She writes to men and women either serving short sentences or life sentences; she doesn’t check what the lifers are in for because it “doesn’t really matter now anyway.” She discovered that people in jail are often more interested in talking about her life than their own and she says most people write back and stay in touch quite diligently until, for whatever reasons, they tend to stop writing once they are released.

These pen pal relationships help the prisoners feel like they’re still worth a damn to the outside world, the importance of which we probably have trouble grasping as free people. Romeeka told us of many things that never occurred to her to even consider until her letter exchanges. One woman, in prison for life, has a husband she can only see for occasional conjugal visits. They never had a wedding and will never have a date in the outside world. They’ll never pose for a cute smooch to nauseate their friends with on Facebook. So the woman had her husband take a photo of himself with his arm out to one side, and she asked ‘Meeka to photoshop it with a relatively recent photo she had from her previous life, so that she could hang a picture of them as a happy couple on the wall of her cell.

These exchanges can do wonders for those inside, and certainly benefit the writer on the outside as well. What better way to drive home our common humanity than to share it with people shunned and removed from our society, routinely belittled and regarded as horrible? So many awful things happen in the world because of the facile classification of people into worthy and unworthy, good and bad. As with terrorism, it’s easy to ignore our own role in creating the social contexts that foster these problems when we regard these people as naturally evil and inherently different from us. Convincing ourselves that everyone in prison is a “bad person,” solely responsible for their condition, is about the only way to ignore the pressing contradiction of a “land of the free” that has the world’s highest incarceration rate. Tack onto that an astonishingly high recidivism rate and it seems clear that our societal problems aren’t being solved by our penal system.

Simply developing a written relationship with a prisoner seems like a relatively easy way to better our understanding as well as their situation. As Adam’s grandmother D-D pointed out, “There is no one so good that there is no bad in them, and no one so bad as to lack goodness.” As we continue to wander aimlessly, it’s humbling to remember this. Not long ago, we’d have been wrangled up for vagrancy and put to task for a year or so of slave labor. Maybe we’d be the ones you see picking up garbage on the side of the highway. In fact, that’s how some of the highways we’re driving on now may have been built in the first place.

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After some epic billiards, we spent the night singing songs about Romeeka’s cat, Theo.

Let’s Hear It for New York

We were all born and spent a majority of our lives in Massachusetts. So it only made sense to depart from the Bay State together and consider that day, January 13, 2013, as the beginning of this trip, though arguably it started some months earlier for each of us separately. Leaving our worried parents behind in Sturbridge, we set forth into the world, wherever the winds (or fossil fuels) may carry us. In the week since Sunday, we’ve thus far made it to the city of Washington in the District of Columbia, our empire’s densely populated and Congressionally unrepresented capital. Today begins a series of posts playing catch-up.

We’ve been operating under a couple of self-imposed guidelines beyond our usual kindness and curiosity: no interstates and no spending of money that pre-exists the beginning of the trip. Both of these have required some flexibility in our living experiment, some evaluation of their validity and viability, and indeed have led to some refreshing surprises about the abundant goodness in people’s hearts.

A week ago, our first dose of road magic was sprinkled upon us by the gracious pixies fluttering from above no further than Shelton, CT as we passed the glorious Wiffle HQ off Route 8. Like obese toddlers outside the Wonka factory, we gaped and gushed about the machinery: pallets and pallets of Wiffles, tubs of Wiffle powder, window-strings anchored by Wiffle balls. Disappointingly, no one was home. Our initial plan was to look sketchy all about the building for long enough to elicit an incredulous employee (maybe Old Man Wiffle himself?) or a bemused cop. When this didn’t yield any results we wrote them a reverential letter, packed with sincerity and naïve optimism about the future of the world, and moved along.

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It’s hustle, it’s bustle, it’s New York, bitches! And behold! Castle Braid, an artists’ haven nestled in Brooklyn complete with an epic tower (as is required of all castles) and a plethora of aesthetically stunning sculptures assembled from repurposed societal waste, more often than not doubling as functional furniture and fixtures. We spent two nights there with the theatrically-centered, intellectually-grounded, and sarcasm-challenged Rebecca and our new robot-sympathizing comrades, Jay and Zac, overflowing with similarly artistic dispositions and rife with rock/roll. Our first night set the tone for what we anticipate to be a recurring theme in our wanderings: an engaged, exciting, and, of course, lengthy discussion about humanity and the universe which, in this instance, dealt an awful lot with the potential of artificial intelligence.

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While our pals toiled the next day at their various day-jobs, we trekked over the Manhattan bridge to its eponymous island and picked up a game of basketball with some local kids in Columbus Square, next to Chinatown. Games were four-on-four, so we snagged a kid named Armando to better our team, and faced off against some exceptionally talented Chinese boys who could sink threes like it was baby Skee Ball at Chuck-E-Cheese. After an invigorating loss and an elaborate series of clumsy fist bumps and coded handshakes, the language of which Jesse and Mark deciphered about as well as Basque, we left with the satisfaction not only of having been active, but also of having bridged what we initially perceived as a gap between self-segregating groups of Asian kids and black kids on the courts. What’s funny about all this is that while the games before us were seemingly divided by race, no one seemed to think even half of twice about the fact that we were the only white kids and that ours was the first game incorporating all races present. It’s unclear whether this was a divine example of people simply not even noticing race (I mean why should we anyway? Biologically, there isn’t even such a thing), or people doing a really good job of deliberately acting as if they didn’t notice. Either way it was refreshing.

Shortly thereafter, we met up with Jay in the looming shadow of his Zuccotti Park-adjacent place of wage labor, aka Wayne Enterprises. He had particularly interesting insights on Occupy Wall Street by virtue not only of his insuperable proximity to the movement’s primary encampment, but also by working in one of the very industries targeted by the protests. Jay does IT for a corporate law firm. While agreeing that his job in the ebony tower facilitates the continuance of societal structures that make the world worse more often than they make it better, he does this arguably bad thing in order to afford the good things of living in a place like Castle Braid and, especially, creating his art, currently a rock musical version of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Rebecca, too, performs actions that she herself considers an undesirable means to an end: working in private equity to finance acting. Such difficult decisions define us, and it would be lazy to argue in favor of or against such choices without a whole lot of reflection and a whole lot of words. But we can’t escape the necessity of considering the consequences of our actions, whether it be working questionable jobs or not working jobs at all. For their part, Jay seems more or less settled in his acceptance of the current arrangement, while Rebecca seems more to be seeking the courage to quit.

As far as OWS itself, Jay struggled daily with the irony of sympathizing with the protestors philosophically, while working for his company concretely. He spoke of occasionally visiting the friends he had at the camp during lunch or after work, while also having to walk by it every day to go to work. When threatened with arrest for not using the designated entrance to the Batman building in the lead-up to the police attack on the camp, he found himself frustrated with… everything. He came to see the protests as a kind of ineffectual mockery of what he was doing, even as he views much of his own behavior as a quiet mockery of our society.

And then the camp was gone.

Jay described going to work past the suddenly empty park as feeling “creepy”  and found himself regretting ever having wanted it to be over. He still works in that tower. Occupy- as a physical presence- no longer exists.

Overall, we were left with the impression that Occupy, for many, lingers mostly as a ghost– a charming memory in the minds of progressives resigned to continued compromise in the face of an apparent lack of better options. No one we talked to seemed content with the status quo, but ideas on how to move forward seem tentative and incomplete at best.

Rebecca came to meet us after work and we walked over the Brooklyn Bridge, talking, taking in the skyline (including the Orwellian horror that is the Verizon building… who sits on a planning committee and actually approves this crap?), and enjoying and adding to the popular art. Después de una cena vegetariana deliciosa por cortesía de Rebecca, otras cuantas discusiones, una sesión de improvisación musical, otra carrera de Adam, unos juegos en el cuarto de juegos y una buena noche de sueño, cruzamos Manhattan y seguimos con nuestra exploración mundial a través del paisaje bonito de New Jersey.

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The Pull Is Stronger Than the Push

There are many reasons for each of us as independent humans to set out on this indefinite journey to indefinite places, living differently and learning about humanity. This entry fits in the densely filled space where our reasons overlap.

Taking off indefinitely is the kind of thing that prompts questions like, “What are you running away from?” But we’re not running away from ourselves or anything else; we’re running to other places and people, to things we’ve dreamed of and read about, to the things we would’ve rather been doing while toiling at Market Basket or FedEx.

There are some factors pushing us away from the lives we’ve led to this point. There’s a deeply held conviction that we should limit, as much as possible, our participation in actions and systems we feel are more destructive than constructive. There’s a commitment to not let our lives be dictated by momentum and convention when we’re more than capable of creating our own, hopefully more useful, paths. There’s a recognition of the difference between being comfortable and being happy. And there’s the pressure of time, the knowledge that we don’t live forever and that our life situations might not be as conducive to this in the future.

But what’s pulling us is so much stronger. We’ve both slept til 4 in the afternoon on probably too many days after reading Wikipedia articles about Comoros or debating the feasibility of an anarchist society until sunrise. We want, intensely, to experience things on a human level, first-hand. And we hope that we can be more productive facilitators of a better future by spreading our ideas, and our questions, beyond the relatively local and homogeneous gardens we’ve thus far been pollinating.

Unlike the oft-referenced Chris McCandless, we are not turning our backs on, or experimenting with dropping out of, society. We are investing ourselves in society by filling what seems to us a necessary yet largely underplayed role in it. It’s certainly true that many of our opinions diverge from the mainstream or from generally accepted ways of looking at things. But they are the products of years of earnest, fervent reflection on ourselves and the world we live in, and we think that sharing them with the people we encounter is a real contribution to our common endeavor of bettering the human condition. And while we have a responsibility to share the insights that our genes and our experiences have combined to create, we also have a responsibility to take what others have to offer, to incorporate it into our ways of seeing the world, and to share it widely.

In terms of our utility, we’d argue that we do more good via idea pollination than through a more conventional role as a cog in the material economy. Our society has more than enough stuff. What we can work to provide on this journey are the novel experiences and social connections that our isolated and routinized society so dearly lacks. These oft-belittled opportunities in everyday life are what the social sciences have consistently and convincingly shown to be the more important components of happy lives.

As idealists, we strive to live out not only our ideals, but also the questions hovering around them. Doing so requires repeatedly asking ourselves how necessary compromising those ideals may be. There is a constant struggle between idealism and reality, between the perfect and the good, between the good and the merely less bad, and between personal convictions and the status quo. We also can’t forget that the status quo represents, to various degrees, large parts of the human race with which we feel so intimately connected.

We are often told, if not by people we know then indeed by the droning rhythms of our societal machine, that we have our heads in the clouds, that dreams and ideals can only go so far, that we need to come down to Earth and acknowledge the need for jobs, for money, for routines. To this we ask, what makes those things so necessary? It seems those things are at least less necessary for us than for most, as we are, for whatever reasons, more comfortable than most with having less, with giving in to chaos, and with challenging so many of the arbitrary conventions our society disguises as obvious truths. The supposed guarantees of capitalism, routines, and isolation are not on par with gravity.

This exploration is both something we want to do and something we think is right. This may indeed be a rare convergence of those two things, desires and convictions, but for us these things have come together quite well, both as individuals and conjointly. Our friend Zach Peckham has a song that says something to the effect of, “I don’t believe that you can be anything you set your mind to, but I do think you are the only authority on your own life.” That sums it up pretty well for us too.

Ultimately, we know we have the capacity to have an impact on our world. Actually, it’s unavoidable. (All actions have consequences, inaction is action, and all that.) We all have a responsibility to one another. We feel that this responsibility exists to an even greater degree for people like us, given our relatively privileged roles and our personal tendencies toward intellectualism and activism. A world built on exploitation can only succeed at perpetuating an unjust, prejudicial, and damaging status quo for as long as we remain ignorant of others and the many ways in which we are so constantly and significantly tied to those people.

We may indeed find that our future selves will better serve the world in some different way. Until that moment arrives this will be a learning experience, and a shared experience, that hopefully leads us to an even better understanding of the world and how we can best live as part of it.

So yeah, we aim to contribute as wholly as possible to the happiness of humanity. This includes not forgetting that we are a part of humanity, and that our own happiness is as valuable as anyone else’s. This adventure, done in this way, seems to us at this time to be the best means of accomplishing that end. And it’s certainly refreshing to live lives in which, moment by moment, our means and our ends look an awful lot alike.

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