October 14, 2022 Comments Off on Morning sounds
The dawn call of a dove is more complex and lovely than any piece of music ever made.
But “The Way You Look Tonight” by Wes Montgomery ain’t too shabby.
September 25, 2022 Comments Off on The gift that keeps on oozing
The last time I got poison oak I was lying in a ditch naked. Two days later my legs were covered with a horrific rash that oozed pus and itches like a million torments for over a month. Even now, years later, when I am stressed my legs break out along the contours of that old rash in a raspberry shade.
This case is much milder. There I was, so proud of having done a dastardly hike off-trail, over boulders, scrambling down ravines, bushwhacking through dry creekbeds … what an amazing Daniel Boone of a guy!
Two days later the first welts popped out, followed by their eager cousins, and it was all I could do to remember The Rule of poison oak, which is Thou Shalt Not Scratch Thine Eyes or Thine Balls. Because poison oak is coated with a thick, invisible unguent that easily spreads by touch. Pretty soon I was covered in pustules, but not nearly as badly as any of the awful cases I saw on Dr. Google. Nor was I in any way comparable to the woman I once met who told me about using poison oak to wipe her butt and her parts while on a camping trip.
Thinking that a bike ride in the hot sun would dry out the sores, I learned that sweat efficiently carries the poison oak oil to other areas.
I suppose after all my nagging to get off the couch, shoot the TV and go explore, it’s fitting that I would get such a miserable and ineradicable rash. Even the cat couldn’t lick it off, but bless him, he tried, and I learned another lesson: Rough sandpaper cat’s mouth rips open the pustules and gets them infected, possibly because cat’s tongue is daily employed in extended sessions of butt licking.
I’m hoping this doesn’t lead to skin grafts, but so far the poison oak is batting 1.000, and I’m just batting the 000’s. Does anyone have a couch and TV I can borrow?
September 21, 2022 Comments Off on Typical conversation
“How are you?”
“Yes. My list seems to have deserted me.”
“How listless are you on a scale of 1 to 10?”
“If 1 means having a lot of list, I’m a 9.”
“Maybe those articles I sent will perk you up.”
“The one on trophic levels and food economy of Middle Paleolithic hominids?”
“I was thinking more of the one on maternal inheritance of mitochondrial DNA and its effect on epigenetics.”
“I only got a few pages into the Middle Paleolithic one. It didn’t really restore my list.”
“Then I guess the mDNA one won’t, either. How are your sores? Are they oozing?”
“No but they itch a lot.”
“Mine too. They’ve spread all over my arms and legs.”
“You know those pants I was wearing?”
“A lady came up to me and said, ‘Excuse me, but do you know you have rents and holes in your leggings all over your backside?’ I told her I didn’t.”
“At least it wasn’t the pair with the giant hole on your butt. I like that one.”
“Me, too, it’s the most comfortable one I have but I don’t wear it to work anymore.”
“Bend the wrong way in those and it would be a public viewing.”
“That’s why when I wear them I tie a shirt around my waist.”
September 19, 2022 Comments Off on Split Mountain
From the back yard you can see Split Mountain. It looks nasty. Craggy, jagged, strewn with huge boulders, slashed by ravines, cut by outcroppings, trail-less, stark, and pockmarked from bottom to top with “Don’t even think about it.”
But since it’s visible from most of the 360-degree viewing angle, and since it dominates all the back yard hikes that lead up into the hills, it cannot be ignored, and you can’t help but thinking, “How in the world would you ever climb that thing?”
Actually, I can help thinking that. But Kristie can’t. She made her first frontal assault over a year ago, before the fire had burned away the brush and she came back looking like she’d run into a raiding band of wild razor blades. She was pissed. “It’s so brushy and hard to climb. Let’s try it together next weekend.”
Seeing someone with giant cuts from their face to their ankles, shredded clothing, and purple bruises from the back-swing of large limbs didn’t make me want to do anything the following weekend besides take a leisurely walk and eat. Or the following weekend Or the next one.
But Kristie is persistent like a bad case of the shingles and she kept reminding me that “we” needed to climb Split Mountain, even though every single time she’d asked me if I wanted to climb it I had said, emphatically, “No.”
So we tried a second time and it was horrible. I don’t like rock climbing or bouldering or bushwhacking, but since the brush was gone lower down all I had to do was rock climb and boulder and hike. For almost eight hours. Kristie had on her climbing shoes, a tattered pair of pink, lightweight Nikes with holes in the soles and untied laces. I had on my terror and it worked flawlessly. I quit about a quarter of the way from the top, after five hours of relentless and frightening climb-scramble-hiking. She left me to drink water and eat oranges while she scouted the best route to the top. I saw her shrinking and shrinking and realized that however frightening it had been to have her leading the way, I didn’t know the way down any more than I had known the way up.
No trails of any kind, of course. We had gotten that far with her scouting, memorization of the topography, and dead reckoning. I broke out in a cold sweat atop my hot one. “What if she can’t find me? I will never make it down from here.”
That wasn’t an exaggeration. The route down was filled with dead-end gorge drops that, once you were in one of the ravines, you couldn’t possibly climb back out. Make that “Seth” instead of “you.”
She reappeared. “We almost made it. Want to try for the top? I can see the route.”
“I want to try for home. Now.”
“Okay,” she said. She was disappointed but not too much. It had been dangerous and we’d gotten scuffed and scratched to hell, enough to call it a partial victory in her mind.
Many long months went by with incessant reminders that we hadn’t gotten to the top and that she thought there was a better approach.
“How could there be a worse on?” I asked, firm in my determination to never approach Split Mountain again with anything more adventurous than a pair of binoculars.
So of course two days ago I was following her on a new route, this time up the back side of the mountain which was green and not nearly as jagged. “Don’t be fooled by the brush,” she said. “It’s just covering up the same treacherous stuff that you can actually see on the other side.”
We followed a trail to its end and began more bushwhacking and bouldering and climbing. My second-favorite memory of the day was crawling on all fours along a ledge about four feet wide, with a sheer drop on the left to certain death and a giant juniper on the right with big, springy branches that tried to push you off the ledge as you passed. “Be careful,” she said. She meant it.
We got to the top of the ridge and saw that we still had another hour of climbing to get to the actual top of it, then we’d descend into a ravine and be at the base of the mountain, where the real climbing would begin. It was 11 o’clock and we’d been at it for almost three killing hours. Worse, our trajectory was towards the actual split in Split Mountain, instead of the gentler peak on its left. The split is simply two smooth granite faces about 200 feet tall.
“We can go to the right and up that ravine,” she said.
“We can’t. You can.”
“What do you want to do?”
“Go home. Now.”
“Okay.” And she started off on a different route down.
“Why aren’t we taking the way we came up?”
“It’s too steep and dangerous.”
“We went up it okay.”
“People don’t usually die going up. They die going down. And that is too gnarly for you.”
We descended quickly down a steep slope, scrambled over a small boulder field, and came to a sheer 10-foot drop down the narrowest of defiles. She threw her backpack down and climbed down the slot. “Okay,” she said. “It’s not too bad. There are tiny footholds like a ladder all the way down. Just brace your body against the walls and make sure you grab the little handholds.”
By “little” she meant “invisible.” I sat on the ledge and literally quaked. I hate rock climbing and although it was only ten feet, imagine falling off the top of a basketball goal onto the court, and the court is covered with giant rocks that will kill you or maim you. I lowered myself until I was wedged. No way up and only two ways down, one of them too terrifying to contemplate, so of course I sat there wedged and frozen, contemplating it.
Finally I made the move, the irrevocable forward motion that will either result in a successful landing or a very bad one. My foot caught the tiny step and my hand, which had anchored my body, lost its grip. I felt the momentum begin to take over, like a piano starting to slide out of control down a staircase, and with my left arm I grabbed with all the strength I owned, forcing my legs out and my shoulders up against the rock to hold the fall. I didn’t care if hands broke, shoulders cracked, knees sundered, it was the complete effort you only muster when you see your life in the balance. Fear taps a wholly different reservoir.
That’s when I felt something under my other foot. I looked down. It was Kristie’s hand. She had raised her arm and opened her hand to make a human stairstep. “I’ve got you,” she said. “You aren’t going to fall.”
I did the arithmetic. I wasn’t big but I’m not nothing. 150 pounds and 5′ 11″ of meat and bone mass aren’t going to be held in check by a girl’s palm. Then I looked again at her arm. The big muscles were taut, tying into ripped shoulders, the neck of a defensive lineman, and a tensed back that looked broad and strong enough to carry Hercules. I put my weight on her palm and it was like stepping onto an escalator. I relaxed myself out of the wedge, found a grip for my hand, and found a cleft for my other foot. In a second I was down.
My whole body shook. I wanted to vomit but I knew that I’d probably need it for the next awful thing on the menu, so I pushed it back down and stood there, twitching.
“Good job,” she said, acting like it was nothing, shouldering her pack, and stomping down the trail.
I followed until we hit a creekbed. “I was looking for this,” she said. It was choked with dead trees, giant stones, and thickets of brushy oak that scraped and cut. At times I was on my hands and knees, but most of the time I was simply cursing and trying not to trip. Even though the certain death was past, a trip or fall at any point would have broken several somethings.
“Here it is!” she said after an hour of the most painful bushwhacking. My legs were so fatigued from going into a complete squat over and over I could barely walk. But then on the trail, I could.
The whole ordeal took less than five hours, and the most pathetic thing about it is that I did it at the same time I’ve been reading “Comanches: The Destruction of a People” by T.R. Fehrenbach. What we had just done was nothing to the nth degree compared to a day in the life of a horse Indian. We had walked a few miles over rough country, THAT’S IT.
And the pathetic thing is that our bodies are made to walk a few miles like that times two every day in half the time, never get lost, and still be able to ride a horse for twelve hours at night with nothing more than water and some dried beef. Oh, and at the end of the ride you have to fight and kill other people with nothing but a bow and arrow. Then ride 500 miles home by memory in the dark with no trail to follow of any kind. However weak and lame you think you are, you’re so much worse than that.
All of the bending, crawling, squatting, reaching, and scrambling left us both scratched, cut, and wrecked. Two days later I am enjoying a training effect of sorts. I’m stronger and feel a little, just a little, more confident about death and its avoidance. And yes, I know, that’s typically the precursor to something really awful. We sat down to a marvelous dinner spiced up and flavored with the taste of having survived. I was kind of proud of myself even though she’d babyproofed the entire route, again.
“We did our best,” I said. “I guess some mountains aren’t meant to be climbed, at least by us.”
She chewed thoughtfully, looking past the yard up at the peak. “I think I finally see a route that’s doable,” she answered.
I stared at my plate. Dinner didn’t taste so good anymore.
September 16, 2022 Comments Off on New tree
I awoke industriously and made a pan of stovetop biscuits. They are easy to make. Flour, milk, baking powder, salt, and a stick of cold butter is all you need, plus an iron skillet. I cooked them in the pan and ate them with marmalade. Kristie gets mad when I make such things.
I used to bake every day, but I still cook every day from scratch. I don’t write every day, and I was reminded that this is an error by the TV.
My TV is the ongoing daily show at the seed feeder, the hummingbird feeder, and the bird bath. You can watch the show all day and never get bored. But this evening I remembered that the basic unit of life is the day.
Birds, trees, insects, people, we all live day to day. When the day is done, we are done. We stick a fork in it, sometimes, like this amazing piece of street art that I noticed, literally sticking a fork in it.
You can skip a day here and there, eating for example, but essentially we live day to day. It’s good that the TV reminded me because I have fallen out of the habit of writing daily. And since I had given up on taking a walk because it was too late in the day, I took a walk.
On that walk I took a new trail and found a new tree, an oak with a spectacular trunk. I share it with you here.
We live day to day, and if we’re lucky, we do it again.
As Bob Rogers used to say, “Enjoy your world. It’s a great place to be!”
And I’d add, “As far as we know, it’s the only place.”
September 14, 2022 Comments Off on Boredom
I will never forget the day that my eighth grade English teacher, Mrs. Geneva Fulgham, handed out class copies of David Copperfield, which we would be reading that semester. She was in her late 40’s, had a pageboy and 1950’s black glasses with the little points up in the corners, and she was fond of wearing close-fitting 1950’s sleeveless dresses with floral prints that stopped right above her knees.
She was sexy and beautiful and loved books and was fierce.
When we all had our books she stared down the motley assemblage of budding breasts and raging pubescent erections. “Some of you are going to read the first chapter of this and say, ‘This is boring!’ Well, I have some news for you. It’s one of the greatest books in the history of the English language. You think it’s boring? YOU’RE BORING!”
Even through the hormone soup I heard her loud and clear and made a note to myself. “Don’t ever tell her you think her breasts are boring. I mean her butt. I mean the book.”
Mrs. Fulgham introduced me to the concept that boredom was never an excuse. Rather, it was a judgment of your acuity. Didn’t like Dickens? Welcome to the Club of Young Eternal Morons.
When I was in the first throes of my separation-turned-divorce, things weren’t boring. Stressful, sad, anxiety-ridden, conflicted, guilty, desperate, clueless, angry, yes, all those things and many more. But it wasn’t boring. That came later.
After I’d put away childish things like life, love, family, duty, decency, morality, and humanity–you know, the disposables–that’s when the boredom set in. It set in kind of like Chicxulub set in, with a mile-high tsunami and a global dust cloud that exterminated several billion organisms and, in a moment, ushered in an entirely new geologic age.
One of Hudie Ledbetter’s many great songs is “Good Morning Blues,” and my favorite part is the introduction where he says “Lord I can’t eat and I can’t sleep/What’s the matter/The blues has got you and wants to talk to you/ And here’s what you got to tell ’em.” In my case you could have swapped out “the blues” for “boredom.” The boredom has got you and wants to talk to you. And what it has to say is vitally boring and tedious. And there was no Leadbelly song lyric instructing me how to answer back, so I sat and listened to the drone of boredom. Hint: It’s infinite.
Well, once you are bored and over the age of 55 you are officially retired. And it hit me hard. I didn’t used to be bored. Before, I was simply boring, and as Kierkegaard pointed out, incredibly boring people are rarely bored, and it is only when you become bored with your own existence that you can become interesting to others. That’s what he thought, anyway.
How bored had I become? Kristie would call and ask, “What are you doing?”
And I’d say, “Hubbing.”
“Staring at the hubs of my bicycle, which is leaning against the wall.”
I would do that for hours. Or I would poster, where I’d stare at a poster for most of the day. This sad state of affairs transcended my reality, which was that I lived in a beautiful place, had near-zero stress, didn’t have anyone telling me what to do or where to be, and also had the company of a cat whose worst habit was purring and liking to be scratched. There was so much to do but all of it was boring. I’d somehow fallen into the Byronic melancholy of life that Bertrand Russell held in such contempt, the tedium of Kierkegaard who claimed to be so bored that his interest couldn’t be aroused by either all the world’s pleasure or all the world’s pain. Like depression, and not wholly unrelated to it, boredom resists the power of positive thinking because it is in fact a very specific mode of thinking that rules out positivity. Boredom is ph-neutral, it is zero on the ruler of mental engagement.
Although the condition of being bored has been around since writing, a thing that arguably arose out of boredom and that has contributed endlessly to it, what boredom exactly consists of no one has been able to clearly explain. The OED says helplessly that boredom is the state of being bored, cf. tautology. Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips says it’s a state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, a mood of diffuse restlessness containing the absurd and paradoxical wish to wish for a desire. Perhaps he’s paraphrasing Tolstoy, who called boredom a desire for desires. Russell does somewhat better in “The Conquest of Happiness,” saying that boredom consists in the contrast between present circumstances and some other more agreeable circumstances while one’s “faculties” must not be fully occupied. James Danckert and John Eastwood, a neuroscientist/psychologist combo, call it a sensation that something is missing, but we can’t say what. Some split boredom into categories, “simple” boredom like that experienced waiting in line at the grocery store, and “existential” boredom, more akin to ennui, melancholy, acedia, or even mild depression, a state that crosses multiple experiences, if not the totality, of daily life.
As you might expect with a condition that no one can define but everyone knows when they see it, the remedies are mostly silly, pedantic, counterproductive, or simply wishful. Russell would have us become people filled with what he calls “zest,” get a hobby like stamp collecting, and start a family. Danckert and Eastwood would have us concentrate more by having fewer distractions. Some have adopted the Charlie Brown solution of “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” by arguing that boredom is an essential dead space that gives rise to creativity and allows us to cognitively work through issues that a more stimulating environment would somehow block. If this were the case, school would be awash with creative children, because studying has almost universally been shown to be the most boring activity you can engage in. David Foster Wallace, whose posthumous novel “The Pale King” about working for the IRS was a 586-page opus to boredom, taught that the best cure for tedium was to hang oneself, which he did. It’s the most practical solution of all except for the nagging probability that death is itself an infinity of boredom, probably the best example ever of the cure being worse than the disease.
Modern boredom researchers, who, one can only hope, find boredom interesting, even suggest that we are in a post-boredom age, where the effluvia of social media and the Analnet have distracted us to such a degree that there is simply no more time to be bored. Instead we are anxious, fractalized, depressed. I think this misses the point, though. The long-term boredom of sitting in a cabin in Kansas in the winter with no heat or electricity may be extinct, but we experience micro-boredom even with computers, where the end of an algorithm’s momentary dopamine buzz leads to an immediate cortisol downer of boredom. In fact, it is the space between the notes where the boredom occurs, in tiny doses, sending us on yet another vain trail of breadcrumbs laid out by the algorithm. And when added up, those micro-moments of boredom become hours, days, months, fucking years.
Boredom today also operates as a fear. Since our capacity to endure it has reduced to almost nothing (one study showed that people would prefer a painful electric shock to being alone in a room with nothing to do for fifteen minutes), the terror and discomfort of being bored drives us to yet more distraction, which completes the vicious circle.
Is boredom, then, created by modern life, as most people who study it believe? Or is it part of the human condition, an emotion that defies the CTRL+ALT+delete of any therapy, drug, or behavior mod technique with the same obstinacy you’d find if you tried to reprogram people not to ever feel fear, anxiety, or pleasure? Russell begins aligning boredom first with humans, observing that uncaged animals do not appear to get bored. Of course uncaged is a massive caveat, since caging results in loss of autonomy and mental engagement, which is exactly the effect of industrialized capitalism on everyone. But it’s a good starting point, and boredom researchers at Michigan State University, ever fascinated by tedium, tried to answer the question of whether boredom can be identified in animals as distinct from apathy and depression, two conditions similar to boredom but different. In a study called “Environmental Enrichment Reduces Signs of Boredom in Caged Mink,” the researchers showed that caged mink who had non-enriched environments responded to stimuli more than caged mink whose environments were enriched, concluding that caged mink do experience boredom.
The problems begin immediately, of course, because as the researchers admit, boredom has no operational definition even in humans. They simply call it a “negative affective state caused by understimulation or monotony.” Contrast that with the definition of Phillips/Tolstoy, that boredom is the “desire to have a desire,” or with Russell, that it is a state of time contrasts, that is, what you’re doing versus what you’d like to be doing, or with Kierkegaard, that boredom is an existential philosophy expressed in a mental state that consciously abjures pleasure or pain, and suddenly you’re dealing with some very clever, philosophical minks. Applying the cause to boredom as understimulation or monotony to animals is also problematic. What is a properly stimulated mink? How do we know that an animal is experiencing monotony?
These last two points are important because when I was going through my boredom phase I would sit around all day staring at the wall, pretty much the same behavior as my cat. He alternated between sleep and waking, as did I. He was mostly prone, as was I. He periodically engaged in activity, as did I. He never skipped a meal, nor did I. Yet he never seemed understimulated. In fact, he seemed completely fucking happy. My cat’s level of stimulation involved gazing out the window at birds he’ll never catch, walking out on the porch and sniffing the air, getting scratched, shitting, and sharpening his claws on the carpet. Limited behavior that seems monotonous in the extreme had no effect on my cat’s “negative affective state.” Given these difficulties, the researchers were left with a single behavior to quantify boredom in minks, which they called the motivation to obtain novel stimulation. In other words, the more you seek such stimulation, the more evidence that you’re bored.
This is circular reasoning, of course. Do you seek novel stimulation because you’re bored, or are you bored because you’re habituated to novel stimulation, and when the stimulation wears off you need another hit? Facebook et al. presume the latter, and they use important psychological markers such as the red notifications icon to stimulate you to click for more stimulation. Regardless, we can’t resolve the issue of whether animals are bored with a definition that chases its own tail.
The big problem with using interest in stimuli as a test for boredom is that mink, like people or my cat, differ individually. One behavior correlated negatively with interest in stimuli was lying down awake. Yet my cat lies down awake all the time, gazing intently at the birds. He is alert, aware, and appears to be completely focused on them in a manner wholly inconsistent with boredom. Who’s to say that the mink don’t also have individual responses to the same stimuli, with one mink running around and the other slyly watching to see what happens? Is he bored or is he a voyeur? Who gets to view the inner life of the mink?
A metastudy on boredom in mice and rodents, similar to that by the MSU researchers, concluded that caged animals experience boredom and that enriched cage environments can provide the stimulation required for healthier, presumably happier lives as helpless creatures await horrific pain, torture, live experimentation, and death. Like the MSU study, “Bored at Home: A systematic review on the effect of environmental enrichment on the welfare of laboratory rats and mice” makes no progress in actually defining boredom, which they simply call “an emotional state that usually relates to individuals having nothing to do, are not interested in their surroundings, and feel that life is dull and tedious.” I think it’s a pretty high bar to try and tease out the emotional state of mice and rats, and impossible to understand how a mouse feels about life. Suffice it to say, the researchers concluded that more comfortable and stimulating cages result in healthier lab animals. Shocking. Mice perspectives on their lives were less forthcoming.
Maybe we’re better off understanding boredom in animals without the peer-reviewed mumbo-jumbo. Maybe Russell said it best with a brief observation and then dismissal of animal boredom: Put them in cages and they appear listless, but otherwise boredom as Byronic melancholy does not appear common, if ever, in animals. Reading Byron to a mouse or mink might change that, of course.
Since riders on the boredom circuit seem convinced that boredom is a modern affect, rather than rodents and mink perhaps we should look at people, and yep, boredom researchers have done that, too. But before delving into boredom as experienced on Native American reservations in the U.S., or aboriginal settlements in Australia, it’s profitable to look at the work of a guy who wasn’t interested in boredom at all, T.R. Fehrenbach and his history “Comanches: The Destruction of a People.”
Fehrenbach’s premise is simple. An unhorsed, Stone Age group of Amerindians numbering only a few thousand acquired equines and put up the fiercest, deadliest, and most effective opposition to Western expansion in history. With the horse, these formerly subsistence hunter-gatherers blocked the French, defeated the Spanish, limited the Mexican expansion to Santa Fe, and blocked the entirety of the U.S. army from conquering the western states until the late 1860’s in a running battle that lasted over 200 years. What Moctezuma’s millions couldn’t do against a small band of Spanish conquistadors, the Comanches did with a few thousand horses, bows and arrows against the entire might of a modern industrialized state.
In setting up this premise, however, Fehrenbach gives a rich and detailed picture of the pre-horse Comanche. They were among the poorest of the Western Indians, had the worst lands, the worst hunting grounds, were small in number, afflicted by terrible health, experienced extreme infant mortality, starvation in winter, and were continually predated by more powerful tribes. Their existence was truly brutish and short. Whether it was nasty or not, Fehrenbach declines to comment.
This relates to boredom because nowhere in this history of the downtrodden Comanche before he got the horse is it even vaguely implied that the Comanches themselves found their lives boring or that they ever experienced boredom. In fact, they could not have. Each day was filled with some measure of arduous physical exertion. Each person moved, exercised, and lived fully exposed to the elements every day. The moment a Comanche’s eyes dimmed or muscles failed, they were on the shortcut to death by suicide or euthanasia. There was no room for anyone who couldn’t provide. Old age, often beginning around age thirty, heralded approaching death. Wives were often immolated with their dead husbands. But bored? Apparently not.
More than anything I’ve read, this account of the early Comanches hints at what boredom is and at its root causes. Unlike Kierkegaard, who thought that boredom was the original sin, boredom cannot exist with the natural state of human life, which is subsistence gathering and hunting. When each day is filled with labor and mental engagement related to survival, there’s no window of opportunity to be bored. Of course situational boredom, where notching an arrow for the five hundredth time or flaking a point for the five thousandth might not have been fascinating and might even have been monotonous. But conflating situational boredom with existential boredom is a mistake because situational boredom changes the moment the situation changes, and for hunter-gatherers, things changed quickly and often.
That’s bad news if you’re serving life in prison in solitary, but most of us aren’t. The situational boredom of standing in a long grocery line eventually ends when you get checked out, find out your card is declined, and leave in a huff. Existential boredom, the desire for a desire, simply could not have existed among subsistence level hunter-gatherers. Survival pushes all such contemplations out of mind. Just try starting a fire in a cold rain at night when you’re hungry and see how much boredom you encounter. Or go on a 150-mile bike ride with nothing but water and come home with the task of making a complicated stew recipe from scratch. Your hunger will make boredom impossible, no matter how much you hate cooking, or even if you’ve never made a stew before.
This brings into play Russell’s observation, that for boredom to occur you must use less than your full faculties. But what faculties? The faculty for play? For dance? For jest? For mathematical reasoning? For metaphysical thought? Doubtful.
The five types of mental faculty that are always in play when you are surviving are those portions of reason devoted to 1) How do I do —–? 2) What is —–? 3) Where is ——? 4) When will —–? and 5) Why did —–? The rest of your mental faculties become subsidiary, and in the case of people who are truly hovering between life and death, they may never come into play at all. Modern research on extant hunter-gatherers confirms, however, that every member of such a group has extraordinary intelligence, far beyond what you would ever expect to find in a similarly-sized group of, say, Ivy League college students.
By intelligence I mean the cognitive ability to perform incredibly complex and precise tasks and to solve extremely difficult problems quickly and efficiently. Any pre-horse Comanche could hunt everything from bison to deer to rodents to fish, and could extract nutrients from a biome containing hundreds if not thousands of plants. That extraction involved a knowledge of plants, their preparation, their seasons, and their locations. And of course hunting larger mammals required precise knowledge of how to prepare the skins, sinews, horns, and hooves, and how to eat the internal organs, since the Comanches derived much of their vegetable nutrients as partially digested grasses and seeds found in the stomachs of bison, deer, and bear. Each Comanche male had an encyclopedic knowledge of flint knapping and the construction of weapons. Each female knew how to prepare skins, turn them into clothing, how to prepare and find food, and how to raise children in one of the harshest environments imaginable.
Relevant to today’s modern moron, who can’t find the store without Google maps, any Comanche knew every bit of topography for hundreds of miles by memory. Streams, trees, rivers, bluffs, deserts, grasslands, hillocks, peaks, cliffs, lakes, seasonal playas, and countless other features were memorized as completely and surely as any satellite. No Comanche was ever lost, and when they acquired the horse, their geographical memory reached thousands of miles; raiding parties traveled from the High Plains as far south as Guatemala to plunder with nary a compass and with virtually all travel done by night.
If none of this counts as intelligence in your mind, consider also this: The pre-horse Comanches, as an inferior and poor tribe, were constantly hunted and preyed upon by more powerful neighbors. Warfare, usually defensive but occasionally offensive, was constant. Every Comanche needed the intellect, skill, cunning, tracking, awareness, artifice, and strategems of hunting equally skilled, better armed, more numerous people and of killing them when attacked. Still doubt the intelligence of these hunter-gatherers who didn’t even have the wheel? Consider that they stopped the world’s most modern army in its tracks and blocked westward expansion for more than two hundred years with nothing but horses, arrows, hardiness, and cunning.
If that doesn’t convince you, nothing will.
The point is that life for such people was not and could not be boring. Anthropologists now understand why. Such people’s lives involve extremely varied tasks requiring extraordinary skill, knowledge, memory, and intelligence. And despite the brutal conditions, the actual labor they expended was far less than any first-year lawyer. Modern anthropologists estimate that hunter-gatherers put no more than 20 hours a week of hard work into their lives. Additionally, virtually all such work activities were cooperative and social, bringing a level of complexity and interest into everything. Autonomy, and each individual’s choice of when or what to do, also provided an antidote to boredom. In short, survival, an intense and deep social life, the continuity of war, short life spans, and an absence of what we think of as leisure time meant that by the time the average hunter-gatherer got bored, he’d already been dead for ten years.
The advent of boredom was not therefore with the industrial revolution, but with agriculture, which created something that the world had never seen before: an excess of people. In the Comanche band, each person was essential. Child mortality was extremely high before the horse, and female fertility plummeted after it because the Comanche lived on horseback, which had dire implications for pregnancy. The Comanches were famous for adopting the children of their victims and the story of Cynthia Ann Parker is one of the most famous in their history: Kidnapped as a child she was raised Comanche, and when forcibly returned to white life at age 33 she hated it, never reintegrated, tried to escape, and eventually killed herself. But before agriculture, all hunter-gatherers lived on a demographic knife’s edge. Each person was vital and there were no resources for the old and infirm. Because each person had to be able to do everything, and life was hard, existential boredom could not exist.
Agriculture created the first slave societies, and with slavery came leisure for the elites. For the first time in history, agriculture began a trend that has continued to this day, the trend of a few people owning the labor of everyone else. Although the agricultural revolution is associated with progress and civilization because it created leisure time, the reality is that it created multiple slave classes whose labor created leisure and wealth for the elites. Slaves were called farmers, artisans, artists, engineers, philosophers, soldiers, workers, or employees, but all shared the common function of having their labor and therefore their time and mental output owned by a king/chief/cleric/emperor/CEO and his vassals. With leisure time came science, sport, novelty seeking, organized religion, writing and developed art, things that were incompatible with the brutal daily existence and early death of a tribe like the pre-horse Comanche.
In other words, far from being the original sin, boredom could only arise when life got easier, and in the entire history of humanity no force multiplier for ease will ever equal the discovery of agriculture. Far from being an affect of the industrial revolution, boredom sprang into existence the moment that people learned to plant and to harvest and to store. The creation of leisure time, practically overnight, invented its concomitant nemesis, boredom. And even though the price of agriculture for most was slavery, it was joyously accepted as a release from the brutal life of the hunter-gatherer. No people, having become agricultural slaves, have ever reverted to hunter-gatherer nomadism.
And because slavery meant specialization, that is slaves to till the earth, build edifices, make clothes, art, and music, the generalist intelligence of the hunter-gatherer disappeared and Russell’s condition of boredom, that you must not make full use of your faculties, kicked in. Whether king or farmer, planter or black slave, agriculture created a buffer between the environment and the human that allowed him to forgo the full use of his faculties.
How do I get food? How do I make clothing? Where will I find shelter? What kind of plant is that? When is it going to rain? How do I get from here to there? How do I kill my enemy and avoid being killed? These and a hundred other rational functions of the hunter-gatherer gradually split up and were divested into separate classes of people, who, like ants, perform such specialized functions that nowadays anything outside their role leaves them helpless. And the non-use of these native human faculties results in existential boredom. No matter how interesting your job, unless you also have a very generalized set of interests that engage fundamental problem-solving neural apparatuses, you are at high risk of existential boredom.
Need proof? Look at what happens when people retire. The pre-horse Comanche had what I like to call the Republican Social Security Plan. When he could no longer do the work of a Comanche, he died. The modern American? When he no longer wants to work, he retires and becomes bored.
None of this is mere speculation. Modern anthropologists such as Yasmine Musharbash in her article “Boredom, Time, and Modernity: An Example from Aboriginal Australia” have confirmed that boredom is an affect of agriculture and the “integration” of hunter-gatherers with Western slave-capitalism. The concept of boredom was previously unknown and indeed in the Walpiri language there is still no word for it; speakers revert to the English to describe the concept. Similar conclusions have been reached by researchers at the Grass Creek Reservation in the U.S. More particularly, looking at aboriginal Australians helps resolve the conflict between Kierkegaard’s observation that boredom is the root of all evil and has been with us since the beginning of time (it hasn’t), versus Russell’s more accurate claim that boredom is a modern affect. Well, not modern in the sense of the industrial revolution, but modern in the sense of the agricultural one.
So what’s the point of all this speculation about boredom?
It’s to share what I believe is the best way to overcome it, which is to go outside and use your physical faculties in conjunction with your mental ones to solve basic outdoor problems such as “How do I get there on foot/by bike?”, “What is that bird/tree/rock?”, “How far can I run/ride/hike?”, “How do I stay active outside despite extreme heat and cold?”, and even more narrowly practical things like “How do I make a fire?”, “Where are the freshwater springs I can drink from?” and many, many more.
One study found that study in school was the most boring thing for most people, and the most stimulating was sports and exercise. I began to return to the world of the interested (though maybe not interesting) when I took off my shoes and began to explore more deeply, not just with my mind, but with my sinews as well. The nerves in the foot produce extraordinary effects on neural activity.
And one of those effects is certainly, absolutely, money-back guaranteed not to be boredom.
September 9, 2022 Comments Off on Redneck ‘Rithmetic
Some things, make that most things, you only get to see if you leave the couch, walk out the door, and amble down the road.
I was never good at math, but this bit of addition was pretty far out there, even for me. And it got me to thinking that really the best thing you can do with numbers is just add ’em up. They’re abstractions anyway.
I was told you can’t add apples and oranges, but of course you can. Haven’t you ever seen a blender?
September 6, 2022 Comments Off on Lake Hume-iliation
National parks are funny places. Unlike state parks or USFS campgrounds, people really make sure to have their best car fashion and outdoor costume when they show up, especially when it’s a big name brand park like Sequoia or Yosemite. Four-wheel drives with extra gas cans, a huge jack, and a shovel for digging out of the Sahara are ubiquitous because you never know when you’ll need the extra torque and traction on these finely manicured roads, or when you’ll have to dig out from your immaculately maintained camp site.
Likewise, national parks are not the place for clothing that looks like it has ever been worn, much less sweated in. As with the car costume, the outdoor costume achieves its effect by looking prepared for crazy hard physical activity, not for actual use during crazy hard physical activity.
The customers here at Sequoia National Park are presumably more outdoorsy and active than the population at large, but that presumption seems demonstrably false. Customers here are fat, barely mobile, and concentrated almost exclusively on sitting, driving, shopping, eating, and alcohols.
In the four days since entering the park I have seen exactly one cyclist, a local ARC riding out of Three Rivers doing the climb to Lodgepole. Despite many cars with bikes strapped to the back, again, giving off the appearance that hard core riding was in the offing, not a single bicycle have I seen up here with a rider atop it.
What this has meant is that on Labor Day weekend, the busiest weekend of the year, the gift shop, cafe, and convenience store have been madhouses and the campgrounds have been full, but the trails and roads eerily quiet. I took the opportunity to explore yesterday and rode down to Hume Lake. Since I don’t have anywhere to stash my stuff I rode with full pack and fully loaded bike. It’s about a thirty mile loop and it took just over 3.5 hours. The last eleven miles were a significant climb back up to Quail Flat. By the top I’d been humbled once more by the harsh ascents here in the park.
That evening I found a closed forest service road and followed it to where it forked; the left branch was an abandoned road blocked with logs and stones and dense brush. This looked like the path to the perfect camp spot, so I navigated the obstacle course and found myself on a gently sloping road covered with a soft bed of pine needles. It seemed cozy, but I noticed that its appeal wasn’t limited to cyclists-errant. A large pile of very fresh bear shit attested to the seclusion of the place. A hundred feet up there was another, larger, wetter pile, so I set up camp in between the poops, ate dinner, and stretched out to watch the sunset.
And magnificent it was. If you can stand the annoyance of the gnats and the ants, sleeping without a tent is so nice. The sun put on the most amazing show, making me think of Albert Bierstadt and the Hudson River school of painters in the late 1800’s. They were critically not well received, especially those like Bierstadt and Moran, who painted many of the iconic California landscapes, because their colors were overwrought and fake; sunsets don’t really look that way.
But lying on my mat in the dirt I realized how wrong the critics were. The colors used by Bierstadt were exactly the colors beneath the sequoias, so intense, so vivid, so cruelly saturated that if you didn’t see it with your own eyes you’d never believe it. I captured the little that I could on my phone and went fitfully to sleep, every snap and crackle waking me in anticipation of Br’er Bear.
No such thing happened though. My only guest was moonrise and the giant white face through the firs and pines, company enough.
September 6, 2022 Comments Off on Getting it all away from you
There’s a happy marketing myth that travel lets you get away from it all. The sales pitch is that once you’re in a different locale, and the more exotic/bragworthy/costly the better, you will be able to distance yourself from the stress and the irrelevancies that consume life. When you get away from it all you arrive at some esoteric mental destination that lets you focus on what really matters.
You return from the journey–it’s never simply a trip–more relaxed, more focused, more centered, and more able to deal with and reduce the nattering negativity, the droning pettiness, and the time sucks of meaninglessness that occupy most of waking life. Like all successful marketing pitches, this one is a scowling, howling, stinking lie wrapped around a tiny nugget of truth.
The nugget is that different environments can help us see, think, and behave differently. Notice the word “can”? Doesn’t mean “will.”
In its most basic form, modern life is dominated, overwhelmingly, by things and services. Cars, houses, gadgets, clothes, TV, shopping, dining, and most everything on the Internet occupy the vast majority of our waking time. And the farther away from those things you get, the more clearly you realize that distance packaged as “travel” doesn’t diminish the domination of things one iota.
Nowhere does this play out more clearly than in outdoor travel, which has become an exercise in taking everything with you, and in never being far removed from food service, Internet service, and lodging. No one seems to care that the more things they take and the more services they avail themselves of, the less time they will have to experience the introspection and recalibration that they ostensibly set out to engage in. Nowadays a true camping experience requires an amazing array of things, none sillier or more emblematic of the non-escape than the changing tent.
The idea that you require complete privacy to change clothes when outdoors is astonishing. Is anyone even looking? And if you are so asses-to-elbows in your campsite, are you really camping? And even if someone sees your drooping gut and white ass for a fleeting second or two, so what? And finally, don’t you know how to change in your tent, camper, or car?
It’s this last point that underscores the utter uselessness of the changing tent, without denting its position as a must-have item, as it recreates the total privacy you have at home. It may seem like the cost and hassle of setting up that one extra item is minimal, but each add-on adds up until your car is packed, the roof is laden with a giant carrier, extra coolers are lashed to the rear bumper, and you’re towing a trailer.
But here’s the shock: No matter how much you bring, you’ve always forgotten something, which is why you need proximity to a store, and after a few badly cooked meals everyone starts whining for a Big Mac, which is why you need proximity to fast food, to say nothing of the fact that the alcohols will always need replenishing long before trip’s end.
What gets recreated is the very thing you left, and what gets left undone are those extended bouts of solitude without which new realizations can never arise. I’m far from being a minimalist and am not even sure what such a person is. What I do know is that the shared consumerist algorithm of “too much is just enough” will always deliver less, never more, and that you can’t clutter the rustling of the leaves with changing tents and Yeti coolers while still expecting them to do their magic.
September 5, 2022 Comments Off on Dinty comes through
… and through … and through.
Eight days in and I was getting pretty tired of my nightly dinner fare, consisting of dried mashed potatoes mixed with raisins and tuna. Not that it’s anything but a luxury meal, but after that long even such a kingly feast gets old.
You can imagine how thrilled I was to see, there on the canned food aisle, Dinty Moore beef stew. “Yum,” I thought. “Now that’ll fill a man up right proper!” I checked the calories, 400 per can, and bought two.
I tried to remember if I’d ever had Dinty Moore beef stew before. Seemed like I had back in the prehistory of childhood, but for some reason it never became a staple; we always had Campbell’s. I got situated and added some hot water so that I wouldn’t be eating cold beef stew out of a can, which is truly the next-to-last-step of having given up all hope, and that was a mistake.
It didn’t affect the taste negatively, but it thinned the chunky broth so that you could actually see what you were eating. There was no visual difference from dog food, but it tasted fine. Maybe Alpo does, too. I wolfed down the first can, ate the first half of the second can with greatly lessened vigor, but hit the wall with the rest of can #2 and literally had to choke it down. Then I had some coffee and went in search of a place to sneak off into the woods and camp.
No sooner had I found my spot than the lower G.I. rumble began, one of those volcanic tremors that starts around your ankles and crescendos about six inches above your gray water port with a speed and shaking immensity that lets you know shit is about to go down. I tore my shorts off quicker than a contestant in a drawers dropping race, and none too soon as the first can of Mr. Moore’s finest came to rest in a pool of fertilizer rich and wide enough to grow a hundred giant sequoias.
Can #2, unsure whether to stay or go, hung out until about 3:00 AM, which is when I concluded that my super stealth campsite behind tall firs on the edge of a granite precipice was fraught with the risk of either defiling the area just outside my tent or, worse, a mis-squat resulting in a 50-foot fall. Preferring death to dishonor, and failure not only being an option but a highly likely outcome, I executed the squat-aim of the century, cleared the ledge, fertilized another sequoia grove, and kept my campsite’s Class A hygiene rating for at least another day.
I promised myself thereafter to stick to the taters, which seem to do a better job of sticking to the ribs … and elewhere.