September 23, 2022 Comments Off on Big descent
One of the biggest climbs in California is right near my front door. It’s the 8-mile climb up the 155 from Wofford Heights to Alta Sierra. It is such a miserable climb that I have only done it a dozen or so times.
But the crazy part is the descent. You hit the 40’s, 50’s, and low sixties in seconds. Disc brakes overheat, and the turns, if overcooked, are lethal. As much as I dislike the up, I dislike the down even more.
The other day I descended and felt pleased that I had again failed to crash or die. Back at home I sat down on the porch and soaked in a little post-ride self-satisfaction.
That’s when I saw him, a little gray-and-white cat just barely out of his kittenhood, scrawny and stringy and hungry with the rail-like appetite that comes when you’re on the edge of starvation. He was feral and he coiled in the dirt for a minute, eyes on a pair of mourning doves pecking at the ground.
Unlike our fat housecat Pepper, who the birds completely ignore, this one had their undivided attention. He made an ineffectual pounce and they flew away. He slunk down the hill out of view while the jays and finches continued eating from the feeder. One jay sat on a branch looking towards the house.
At that moment the cat leaped up from behind the little bluff, a solid four-foot jump, lanced the jay with his claws and pulled him off the branch. It happened so quickly I barely registered it. With dinner secured the cat carried the bird down the hill to eat it.
I felt sorry for the jay and sorry for the cat. And I thought about the cunning and skill of the little feline. Failure meant no food for an animal already running on empty. My amazing descent down the hill didn’t seem so impressive anymore.
September 18, 2022 Comments Off on The trap
At one of the campgrounds I stayed at someone had tied a fly trap to the trunk of a sequoia. It was like a roach motel for winged bugs. You pulled up on the stopper and it released some kind of fly fragrance. The flies would come to the narrow opening, crawl in to get the goodies, and then, due to the shape of the opening, be unable to get back out.
Stuck in the plastic bag, surrounded by the delectable smell of fly yummies, they would fly in a frenzy among their frenzied friends until they died from starvation or from heat, as the bag acted as a greenhouse. About one-third up from the bottom there was a dotted line that said “replace when full to here.” The bottom of the bag was packed with fly carcasses.
I spent a few minutes watching the helpless prisoners, doomed to die in the terrible ecstasy of the fly fragrance. They desperately tried to get out of the bag but could not. As horribly, outside the bag countless more flies hovered.
These flies knew something wasn’t quite right but they too were attracted by the eau d’ fly. Every few seconds a new fly would alight on the rim and hesitate. It smelled so good. But all those other flies were trying to get out and couldn’t. But maybe they were just faking it so they could keep all the goodies for themselves. And then there was the matter of all the dead ones. But perhaps they had simply overdone it, overdosed on the obviously delectable but not exactly visible manna. The pondering fly was certain that he wouldn’t make the mistake the others had, and he distrusted all the flies shouting “No! Don’t!” If it were so bad why were there so many inside?
The fly would get nearer and nearer the opening and I wanted to shout “Don’t do it! It’s certain perdition! No! No!” But the fly would hop into the slot and be trapped, like his friends, to face a most awful death.
“This,” I thought, “is absolute proof that flies don’t communicate.”
But the more I thought about it, the less certain I became. How is it any different from global warming? Scientists and people suffering its effects are screaming at the top of their lungs “No! Don’t do it! Certain death!” but we plunge madly ahead into the narrow opening from which there is no escape.
Or drugs, alcoholism, motorcycles, McDonald’s, badly fitting pants, tattoos, or subscriptions to the Times? We all know that these things are terrible and terrible for you but we cannot help ourselves. The smell is just too strong, regardless of how many stinking bodies are piled up at the bottom.
I thought about all the people I know living miserable lives in pursuit of money, success, security, and comfort. The only difference between them and the flies is that theoretically they can escape.
Yet in reality they can’t. The fragrance is simply too sweet.
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 13, 2022 Comments Off on Bike shop story
Bike shops are quirky places. I should know. I’ve been in tons of them. Quirky isn’t even the right word. They’re downright weird. And more importantly, if they aren’t, or if they don’t have at least one person “in charge” who looks like he bites the heads off chickens or believes that Gondwanaland will eventually be reunified, then run. Fast.
The weirder, quirkier, crazier the person in charge, the better the shop, no exceptions, except this one: It might not be the shop for YOU.
Needless to say, Wal-Mart’s bicycle section is not a bike shop. The bicycle sales and repair department in REI is not a bike shop. Anything owned and operated by Specialized is most definitely not a bike shop. And of course retail spaces whose primary inventory comprises e-bikes-I-mean-electric-motorcycles is not a bike shop.
Bike shops hover on the cusp of disaster but their owners don’t care. Rather, they care, but they care more about the philosophy driving their shop than they do about the dollars-and-cents thing. Bike shop owners are a lot like punk musicians. They would love to sell a million records but not if they have to stop calling everyone a “fucking cunt,” including agents, managers, producers, and record company executives.
I can smell a bike shop from a long way off, and on my recent travels as I entered Three Rivers I spied a sign so small, so tucked away, so camouflaged from the human eye that only a lifer biker like me would have ever seen it. In a car or even on a fast bicycle the speed would have eclipsed the tiny placard that said “Bike Solutions.”
Now let me tell you. A tiny sign on a highway designed for invisibility that doesn’t even indicate that it’s a bike shop is going to be a real fucking golden bike shop. That’s just how that works. And it so happened that after six days I needed two things, air in my tires and a checkup on my disc brake pads. But don’t get me wrong. Just because there was a sign didn’t mean that it was anywhere near the shop, or that the shop itself was signed. Far from it. The owner basically didn’t want anyone walking through the door who he didn’t already know, so after seeing the sign I had to troll around the little strip mall, riding through the outdoor seating section of a Mexican restaurant where I asked the waiter, “Do you know where the bike shop is?”
He thumbed across the way, and the stealth signage was matched by an equally stealth location: A small glass door with no sign on it at all. I peered through the glass door and saw the unmistakable signs of bike shop. Bike stand. Couple of frames hanging from the ceiling. Guy who looked like he had opinions, knew what they were, and wasn’t going to listen to your bullshit.
So I entered, humbly. His name was Tom Riddle and I instantly recognized him for the encyclopedia that he turned out to be. Before that, though, he checked my brakes and concluded they were fine, 50% left on the back, 80% on the front. I asked him if he could replace the rear pad and he nodded. In a few seconds I sized him up as a first-rate wrench. There’s a comfort and fluidity with bikes and tools and parts that comes with skill, and Tom had it.
His questions were circumspect and he didn’t display much emotion. I did my best not to come across as a braggy tourist or braggy anything, and in a few minutes he had given me great intel on where to stay and where not to stay, where to eat and where not to drink. I listened appreciatively as he filled in the gaps. This guy knew the area in amazing detail, and not just his area. I mentioned riding from Coalinga to the coast and couldn’t recall the name of the road that took me to Big Sur or the name of the army base I’d ridden through.
“Fort Hunter-Liggett, then Nascimiento-Ferguson Road,” he said. And that’s like 200 miles away.
He charged me $17 for the brake work and offered me a beer. Then he told me a few stories and admonished me to be sure and camp at the Hideaway, run by his friends. He also told me where I could get camp stove fuel, so upon leaving I headed for the Mercantile. They were out but the person told me I could get some at the Shell, so I rode over to there.
While paying for the propane and groceries, Tom stuck his head inside. “Found you,” he said.
“I didn’t know you were looking.”
“I put in the wrong rear skewer.” He held up my skewer. “I stuck in the one from the other bike I was working on. You were easy to find.”
Was I? He’d had to drive through town and have a pretty sharp eye to find me out. I don’t think the folks at the service bay in REI would have gone to the same effort, somehow.
I continued on to the Hideaway and it was a fantastic place. For $20 I had wifi, water, a great camp spot, and a dammed pool down on the Kaweah River, which I availed myself of in the scorching heat.
The campground also had a camp cat, Tope, and camp turkeys that roosted in the tree across from my tent. Best of all, the campground had a sense of humor. When I told Dave, the owner, that I’d been recommended by Tom, he fake scowled and said, “There’s the door, pal.”
On the way back from the national park I stopped at the shop and thanked Tom for his great advice and told him I’d mention the shop in my world-famous blog. Not sure he was impressed, but he’s a bike shop owner.
It takes more than bullshit to impress guys like that.
September 12, 2022 Comments Off on Home is where the hearth is
Every bike ride comes to an end, some with the glory of a supernova, some with the faded tiresomeness of an aged British monarch, but most with with some mixture of accomplishment and relief, as this one did. It’s always easy to say where you went. Why is it so hard to say where you arrived?
I arrived home, which is anomalous for me. I’ve been homeless since I was a kid with periods of homefulness, and I expect I’ll be homeless again. We all will.
The first thing I did this morning was joyously walk and then do 1-minute sprints in my bare feet. Riding a bike is most excellent, but the sweat inside the socks gradually abrades my hard-earned calluses even though my first act after each day’s ride was to cast aside all footwear and spend my time at camp shoeless. Feet are exquisitely innervated, and a good long walk-jog on a dirt road fires up your neurons like nothing else.
One thing I meditated on was home. What is it?
Home is, foremost, a place infused with love. When you come home, you come to love. Sometimes it’s the love of a person and sometimes simply the love of your cat. In either case, you and another being share a quantum entanglement that merges core parts of your matter. “Is that love?” you may ask, and I’d simply reply with Louis Armstrong’s riposte when he was asked to define jazz. “If you have to ask the question, you ain’t never gonna understand the answer.”
Home is a place of security. Not safety exactly, but security. It is a wall, a roof, an arbor, or a ring of stones that demarcate “here” from “there” and that enfold you, even if it can be easily stepped over or it opens up on the sky. Security is far removed from protection, surveillance, and defense. Security is belonging. Security is the inanimate object’s proxy for love, it is the quantum entanglement between people and the things that demarcate the physical space to which they belong. The emblem of security is not a weapon but the hearth signaling warmth and welcome, its fire reminding you of the hearth’s deep roots in humanity, light against the darkness.
Home is a place of peace. It is almost impossible to have a home with a television, for example, because it’s always several televisions, and because the television is an implement of noise, conflict, and distraction. Peace doesn’t have to mean quiet, though. A home filled with the noise of children is often the most peaceful sound of all. And peace doesn’t mean you never fight. It means that all fights lead to peace, that no feuds simmer, that all passions are eventually overmastered by calm.
Home is always transitory. Some homes, through death or misfortune, eventually lose their love. Some their security. Some their peace. Some become mausoleums, filled with the dead relics of lives you once lived. This doesn’t mean that home is dead, simply that it’s time to move on to the next one.
In any event, when you arrive home, you know it. And if you don’t, the soft cry of the cat and the gentle press of his long, black fur will drive the fact … home.
September 10, 2022 Comments Off on I know a guy
Look, I don’t pretend that riding a bike here and there is heroic or world-changing, certainly not the way that I do it. I’m old, not very fast, not especially strong, and I tire easily. Most importantly, I do it for myself.
Which is a change of sorts.
There was a time when I rode to compete, or to complete arduous events in order to show that I was special, better, amazing. Time was, I couldn’t wait to regale strangers with the exploits of the day, to answer casual inquiries with overboard detail of derring-bicycle-do.
These days I’m tight-lipped about where I came from, where I’m going, and what, if anything, it’s all about. Of course I’ll answer politely, but I’m brief and reserved. What I’m up to is my business, you see.
And with this reticence I’ve been listening more carefully, hearing for the first time things that people have been saying to me since, literally, the first day I ever went touring. And the thing that people have been saying, or rather that (usually) older men have been saying is, “I know a guy …” Or I have a cousin. Or I read about. Or my friend knows a guy who.
A guy who what? Of course, a guy who has done something way more amazing than YOU. Typically, this Super Amazing Guy is ten, twenty, or thirty years older than I am (see, you ain’t so tough). And SAG has ridden a lot farther, usually around the world (see, you haven’t ridden very far). And SAG almost invariably overcame a horrific injury, usually a leg they were going to amputate but didn’t (see, you don’t even ride on ruined, rehabbed legs). And SAG has a bike or three that cost over $10k each (see, you’re on a starter bike). Finally, of course, SAG is a retired astrophysicist/investment banker/brain surgeon (see, you’re a moron).
Of course all these things are true. I’ve not ridden that far, I’ve never been badly injured, my bike is cheap aluminum, and the world is full of people a lot smarter than I’ll ever be.
But what’s annoying is that the person demeaning me is without exception fat or obese, barely mobile, not particularly bright, and desperate for me to know that because they know someone better than me, they are by implication better cyclists as well. Today I was lectured about a cousin who almost lost a leg and who has a garage full of $10k bikes and who is skinnier than me and who can ride 120 miles in one day. And he’s 70.
The person demeaning me always has to throw in something about their own terrible physical condition that prevents them from showing me what’s up, in this guy’s case a torn meniscus, a prior heart attack, and melanoma. Not kidding. And the organ recital was so smooth and firm and polished that it was almost impossible to say, “But that doesn’t explain why you’re so fat.” Almost.
A couple of days ago the demeaner was a young, flabby German man who knew two people who rode from Germany to Greece and then Sweden, and never stayed in a hotel. Had I ever biked to those places? He personally didn’t bike because it was too dangerous, but he was an avid “overlander” and had a tricked-out van, and he had driven to Greece before and camped throughout Albania. The math was simple: he knew presumably better cycle tourists, he has driven to Greece, therefore he was even more badass than some old guy who had merely ridden up to Kings Canyon.
But perhaps the most excellent putdown came from a fat, limping old shit wearing a US Navy cap who walked up, asked me if I’d ever heard of blah-blah-blah, a SAG who had cycled around the world twice, then proceeded to tell me about the Adventurers Club, a group of SAGs so elite that, for admission, you had to have done something that “changed the course of history.”
As an example he told me about a fellow who rowed a boat across the Atlantic. I suppose after that feat rowboats were never the same. Then he half-staggered up three steps to buy his two boxes of wine. He had showed me.
It’s testimony to how weak and out of shape people are that the appearance of an old guy going slowly uphill on a loaded bike sends them into paroxysms of defensiveness. But I suppose after all the times I’ve answered simple questions about my travels with boring harangues, I deserve it.
What goes around doesn’t always come around, but in this case it does.
September 8, 2022 Comments Off on The victory of defeat
I’ve found myself in plenty of difficult situations over the last forty years, but I’ve never stopped to beg a ride. Yesterday I sure wanted to.
I left camp at 4:00 AM. The heat was supposed to reach 114, my 50-mile route had a 23-mile climb, the last thirteen of which were brutal, and there was no way my legs or my water would last without an unusually early start.
I had a taillight but no headlamp, it was pitch black and felt like a real-life video game with only one life. I could barely make out the center stripe and put my faith in dumb luck, heart in my mouth.
I covered the first twenty miles in ninety minutes, a terrifying but exhilarating ride beneath the stars. When the climb began I knew that I still hadn’t recovered from the climb up into Sequoia National Park several days before. My legs ached, and as the sun rose I couldn’t focus on the beauty and instead began telling myself, “Just keep pedaling. Just don’t stop.”
The last two miles up and over the pass took half an hour and when I crested the top I shuddered, pleased with the effort and utterly drained. The remaining seven miles were all downhill to Springville and breakfast. It’s a good feeling sitting down to breakfast knowing you’ve already knocked out a 5-hour ride, but not such a great feeling when, after breakfast, you’re just as destroyed as you were before.
The next leg was another terribly bitter, 16-mile climb up to Camp Nelson, far steeper than the climb I’d just done. I slept for a couple of hours in the park, and remounted. As I’d feared, the food and rest had done nothing. A hundred yards in I was struggling, and after an hour in the blistering heat I stopped, five miles completed, at the Lower Coffee Camp recreation area on the Tule River.
I flopped down on my mat and slept. Then I heard a voice. “Excuse me, sir?”
I turned over and opened my eyes. A smiling man about my age was standing over me with a plate of food. “My wife said you looked hungry.” He held out the plate, which was filled with chicken, bread, and potato chips.
“Oh my gosh, thank you. I’m starving.” I accepted the gift.
“My name’s Juan,” he said. “I wash dishes down at the casino. We don’t have much but we’re happy to share.”
I thanked him profusely and wolfed down the food. Then I got in the river and swam over to where he and his wife were sitting. I thanked them both again.
“No need to thank us,” she said. “We’re blessed by God and just passing on his blessings. It makes us happy to share.”
I told them that in my many travels I had only been offered food by strangers once before. “I used to be homeless,” Juan said. “Can’t nobody live without help from other people. We all need help sometimes. I just put my trust in God and try to live day to day. We don’t none of us know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
I choked up and looked away.
The night was cooler, the full moon was out, and the river roared over the rapids. I wondered if I’d be able to make the final eight miles up to Camp Nelson.
I got up at five and was riding by 5:30. My legs couldn’t get started. The road got steeper and by Mile 6 I was walking. I heard a car approaching and stuck out my thumb. Two guys on the way to a construction site pulled over.
“You okay, bud?” the driver asked. “You don’t look so good.”
“I could sure use a ride up to Camp Nelson.”
“No problem.” They put my bike and gear in the back and I climbed into the bed. As we swerved around the ever-steeper curves, I knew there was no way I’d have been able to ride in this condition. It struck me that the people on this trip who had immediately come to my aid were hard-working people with little money, as if there’s a correlation between a hard life and empathizing with others who are in a bad way.
We got to the cafe in Camp Nelson and unloaded. “Get some rest,” the driver admonished.
Profuse thanks don’t describe what I offered but it’s close.
I had hot coffee, lots of milk, and a huge omelet. I can’t say it erased the ignominy of quitting, but it sure as hell came close.
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.