It was February and we were excitedly honing our questioning skills during a party at the old Sunset House. Sam and his girlfriend Beth were finalizing plans to spend the summer working in Skagway, AK. A port city in the state’s panhandle nestled on the mouth of its eponymous river, Skagway enjoys a hefty seasonal spike in population and capital as various cruiseships dock up for tourists to marvel at the glaciers, learn about the gold rush, and of course, spend their money. They were planning their trip there for the summer, to work for the tourists as tourists. It’d be Sam’s third go at it, but Beth’s first time living away from home let alone ALASKA. She was excited and nervous about her soon-to-be new everything, her job there being an essential factor she still had to fully work out.
Mark and Adam and I grew quickly abuzz with this fresh opportunity to inquire about such an exciting endeavor. She was combining something we certainly were doing (a new and adventurous embarkation across many miles to lands unknown) with something we certainly were not doing (work for a company we don’t care about doing a job we have no personal excitement for just to make money).
We couldn’t help ourselves.
“What do you need a job for?” Beth was visibly uncomfortable as the conversation devolved into a one-sided (three-voiced) rant on the possibilities of a life path that doesn’t center on paychecks and the unreasonable bills and unjust debts they’ll be entirely diverted to. It doubled as an attack – no doubt very eloquently worded – on the basic nature of our capitalist society with a formidable assault on some pretty core aspects of living that she – like most people we ever meet – takes for granted as necessary.
“Is that what you want to do? I mean, ideally what would you want to do? Visit Alaska? Hell yeah! But working for some cruiseline while ya do it? There are other ways! You can see the world and you don’t have to work for the man to do it!”
This was our first time back in Athens since departing the previous calendar year. We’d left behind our jobs and money and the sedentary life in favor of an adventure whose unconventional parameters emerged and evolved as the miles – and kilometers – ticked by. By then we hadn’t yet given up on the use of money entirely, but we knew there were ample dumpsters full of good food, coffee was free pretty much everywhere that you wanted to ask for it, and somehow we’d survived without working real jobs since October. We wanted to share our excitement, our revelations of the possibility, our newfound hope and empowerment. But it was too much too soon all at once. As if packing up for Alaska wasn’t enough already. So instead, Beth felt attacked and overwhelmed – the very opposite of our goal. And Sam had been stewing in mild contempt ever since.
“I just kept thinking, ‘who are these alien people?’” He tells me this, a couple nights ago, a few days past Christmas, as he shuffles his shiny new Munchkin Legends cards. The quality of cardstock used for Munchkin, he says, telling me to give one a flick, is cheaper than that of Cards Against Humanity or Harbinger. “I support what you’re doing. I get it. I just don’t want to be preached to.”
With a little bourbon to help loosen our lips we were finally addressing the fundamental, frictional energy that’s been humming beneath all of our dialogues since the wave of Occupy drenched Athens in 2011 and solidarity entered my common vocabulary. With yet another year of dense experiences, this time coupled with the fleeting experience of travel, I am now readjusting temporarily to sedentaryism to boot. And for a few months as we reunite with our friends and this community, I’m inundated in the alienation that accompanies reintegration with a community of familiar faces that have no familiarity with one’s recent experiences.
Feeling alien isn’t something rare on our trip. In fact we deliberately put ourselves in places that appear alien to us, where we will likely seem alien to the folks we encounter. And when things start seeming too familiar, we invent and attempt scenarios that are deliberately unusual and often uncomfortable. It’s a big part of how we find value in what we’re doing beyond the fun-having that our new roles as minimalistic idea-pollinating vagabonds provides. Awkward as it may be – and practice does make pleasant – strangers reacting to us like we’re aliens just isn’t really unnerving the way it is when friends do.
Yet here we were forging through it. The old adage prevailed as we found our way to each other’s hearts via the stomach, uncanning the worms of our bromantic woe thanks to potatoes. Jess wanted potatoes. I wanted potatoes. Did Sam want potatoes?
“I don’t want to eat your food.”
“Nonsense, there’s no such thing as our food. There’s just food. All food is everyone’s!”
“You know what I mean. I have food at home; I don’t want to take some of yours if that’s all you have.”
[Yes, in conversations with friends, I imagine their pauses in speech as semicolons when appropriate.]
“We have plenty. We have the privilege of being in the part of society that enjoys abundance. In fact, our abundant waste is a main problem! Scarcity is a myth. Besides, most of what we got came from dumpsters. It’s just as much yours as any of ours.”
And there I went again, ranting excitedly, thinking I might be jovially empowering my friend with a bold new perspective. Instead I was making him grimace. The shuffling of his shiny new Munchkin cards grew more deliberate.
“Can’t we just have a normal conversation?”
(Normal? If there is such a thing as normal, I certainly don’t want to be it. Because normal is what’s dealing billions of people shit cards every day as they go to bed hungry. Normal means people in Mexico continue to lack access to potable water unless they buy it from Coca Cola. Normal means we continue to be bombarded by insane marketing for useless and awful products that destroy our self worth. Normal means we keep fighting wars while people profit off them! Normal means we keep medicating five-year-olds for ADD so they can pay attention in their normal classes! Normal is the continued retelling to our children of Disney’s story – you know that one about the impossibly-figured princess that lives happily ever after submissively shut up and bound by her hunk of a man. And those children’s normal parents trample each other over iToy deals on Black Friday while Santa’s elves in Japan’s toy factories commit suicide regularly. Being normal means giving a passive nod to the long history of bloodshed, exploitation, and oppression that gave us black lung, and slavery, and continues to strangle millions of Latinos with the fear of deportation every day while they break their backs picking fruit for a wage middle-class folk can’t imagine surviving on. Enjoying my normality, I could bask in the air not breathed by the millions of prisoners – extremely disproportionately people of color – locked away in privatized penal colonies. We blow up mountain tops in West Virginia to keep our climate controlled to a normal temperature at home. We suck dry the water under our feet to spray it all over our normal lawns in our desert cities. Normal? Fuck normal. Which means, I die a virgin because there’s no such thing as normal! Normal is a myth! Normal is the opinion you have of people you don’t know, because as soon as you begin to know anyone, you realize they aren’t normal.)
Those thoughts and more, in an even less-sensical hurricane of synaptic fervor, bang around the walls of my thick skull and I edit myself. “I’m not trying to be an asshole here. I’m serious.”
“Yeah, but you know what I mean.”
“Exactly. And that’s why I’m saying this. So you know what I mean. After a year of doing what we’ve been doing, how could I do anything but share my potatoes?”
And so we went on for some time about that and more, with me digressing far too much into romantic lamentations about Mexico. We revisited the topic of marriage – and polyamory – which preceded the potato exchange and was likely the main culprit of Sam’s disposition. We made some progress, and ate some potatoes, but as he left with a fond farewell I still felt a gnawing sense of loss as the gap between him and me was clear, and bridging it will be laborious. And it’s clear that such a gap is growing between me and everyone else in my life who isn’t actually in my daily life.
And I get it. Instead of referring to her as my girlfriend, we thanked my partner for her delicious preparation of dumpstered vegetables and mashed potatoes. Sam highlights Rhonda Rousey‘s UFC contract and Haywire during a discussion about feminism, and I see them – along with most corporate sports and movies – as falling short. All the while, I’m elaborating on the dark side of the upcoming World Cup in Brazil and the astonishing number of films that fail the Bechdel test.
But Sam, like most people in my life, is relating to a me of a year ago. How would the me of a year ago relate to the me of today? A year ago I had no idea what the Bechdel test was and the word ‘partner’ felt like forced, awkward, politically correct semantics for me too. While I still would have been reading up on the riots in Rio, I wouldn’t have been seeing things through such an anti-capitalist, anarchist lens.
Now, I am genuinely open to the potentially laughable incorrectness of any or all of my views. I do not think I have answers, though I do think I’m better at asking questions than I was. I try my best to present my views as simply different, coming from a different set of life experiences, and not better. But they’re still not being interpreted that way, which is… disappointing.
With a year of especially experimental, unconventional living behind me, I feel like I can relate to fewer and fewer people with any sort of ease. The more we step outside of society’s boxes and glimpse alternative possibilities, the more difficult it is to reintegrate into “normal” conversation with friends – or anyone – and the more difficult it is to feel anything but alien as my principles grow ever more marginal.
Plus, with friends – and family – there is this whole history to battle which is extra-exhausting. We are hardly ever looking at each other for who is there without attaching a whole back story of who was there. Our preconceptions about each other now are heavily slanted by a whole range of past personal experiences and interactions. Without sharing our latest experiences, without witnessing each other’s recent growth firsthand, we’re left to act as if no growth has occurred or to guess at how we have grown. I, like most everyone I know, relive this frustrating dilemma every holiday season with people I hardly know that recollect me sucking on a pacifier. With a 2013 so chaotic, dense, and outside the spectrum of typical relatable experiences, connecting with loved ones is simply an even greater struggle before we get started.
Alas, as we hop from home to home, I’m generally mindful that most people don’t (yet) regard all food as everyone’s and I try to respect what I assume are typical boundaries until knowing otherwise. But it’s nice to think that when I offer someone food, they might accept it, and not react to the situation they assume I’m in, projecting their pity or misguided support or general misunderstanding, thus neutralizing my gesture.
If the things we think might make the world better – giving freely, thinking openly, acting compassionately – are to ever gain any headway, we have to make space for those things in our daily lives. We have to allow for people to give and share and act in unconventional situations with unconventional means. Otherwise we’re shooting ourselves in the feet before they leave the ground.
So as December wanes and 2014 hovers on the horizon, I’m resolving to a better writing routine. Recently, I’ve made some real headway with jumping jacks and stretching and flossing routines; it’s time to step it up past the basics. Maybe I’ll seem a little less like an alien to anyone who reads this thing. Maybe I’ll get better at articulating my alien ideas. Maybe I’ll even get better at helping redirect our societal momentum toward perspectives and habits that reduce alienation.
I can go on about how awful it is that millions of people are referred to as aliens everyday – illegal ones – and how dehumanizing that is for both the labeled and the labelers. I can better elaborate my condemnation of normality and fumble through trying to be an ally for social justice in spite of my privilege. I can finally explain who the hell Calvin in Paris is and why he meant so much to me, or what it’s like to hide under a bridge during a tornado in the black hole of West Memphis, or how amazing hitchhiking through Mexico was, or how I think a gift economy is at least partially feasible, or why I think self-sufficiency is a farce, or why the hell we’re back in Georgia when we’re supposed to be somewhere in Oaxaca or the Yucatan by now. Those thoughts and stories are to come, in a new year, with a new understanding, something we get with each passing moment if we choose to listen. Right now I’m tired and ready for a drink.
Until next time, here’s to 28 years shared with y’all on this crazy rock, and to a hell of a year ahead… Cheers!
from the Wash House in Athens, GA