(Radically) Re-thinking Water in the West

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There was an article recently in the NYTimes about the drought in California, and how in Tulare County, “more than 500 [households] cannot flush a toilet, fill a drinking glass, wash dishes or clothes, or even rinse their hands without reaching for a bottle or bucket.” With wells going dry, people are left with no running water, and are living dependent entirely on bottled water or water hauled in from elsewhere. The article describes one family as having spent “hundreds of dollars” on laundromats and disposable dishes. On the other hand, a county emergency services official is quoted as saying “We can’t offer anyone a long-term solution right now. There is a massive gap between need and resources to deal with it.”

As the drought in California continues, and may become worse with climate change, a long-term solution is obviously needed. And, it’s not that there aren’t any solutions. I have neither municipal water nor a well on my property, and even in this drought, I have enough water in my tanks to live off of and even irrigate a small garden.

While there are no silver bullets, here are a few “radical” water conservation techniques I use in my life, that you won’t find in the official suggestions:

  • Rain catchment — Even during a drought, there’s precipitation. Porterville (the town mentioned in the article) receives an average of 11 inches of precipitation from October through May. Let’s say that figure is more like 6 inches in a drought, but if it were collected off of a 1000 sqft roof, that’s 500 cubic-feet or 3740 gallons of water. That may not seem like much, but it’s equivalent to 60 – 100 loads of laundry, or over 2000 toilet flushes (for modern 1.6gpf toilets) or 150 ten-minute showers (with efficient 2.5 gpm heads). Water tanks are somewhat expensive, at $0.60 – $1 per gallon, but it’s a relatively small price to pay to guarantee something you literally can not live without.
  • Be a dirty hippie (or just dirty) — I wash my pants about once a month, I wear the same shirt 2-3 times, I shower about once a week, and I’ve never gotten complaints from friends, girlfriends or coworkers, nor have I suffered any ill effects on my health (there’s even some evidence that exposure to some filth is good for you). Granted, because domestic water use is such a small slice of the overall water pie, this won’t solve the West’s water crisis. But, the less water you can live off of comfortably, the more options you’ll have. If you want to spend 100 gallons per day like most Americans do, rain catchment won’t viably cover your needs. But if you’re happy living off of 5 gallons a day, rain catchment can fulfill your needs, even in many of the driest parts of the country.
  • Composting toilets — According to the EPA, an average American family of four uses 400 gallons of water a day, with almost 27% of it getting flushed down the toilet. So water-less composting toilets could reduce water consumption by a quarter, reduce waste that needs to be processed in sewage plants, while producing valuable compost. Composting toilets are probably impractical in dense dwellings, but it should be an option in more sparse areas, such as those chronicled in the article. Part of the reason it’s not a popular option right now is partially due to the (misplaced) “ick” factor, but also because its legal status is unclear. To help make homes more drought-tolerant, building departments and health officials should not only embrace composting toilets, but should be encouraging it.
  • Eat less beef (and meat in general) — About 80% of California’s developed water supply goes to agricultural use, and a sizable percentage of that goes towards forage and hay for livestock (mostly cows). A pound of beef takes 1799 gallons of water to produce, and in 2012 we consumed 54 pounds of beef per person. In case you’re wondering, at 1799 gallons/pound, that would’ve required 97,146 gallons of water. While vegetarians and vegans might try to tell you to cut out meat entirely, that could be a hard pill to swallow for some of us. But what if we replaced half of our beef consumption with chicken, without even reducing overall meat consumption? Since chickens require significantly less water per pound (468 gallons/lb) than beef, just replacing a half of our annual beef consumption with chicken would reduce our water usage by 35,937 gallons per person per year. Replace 90% of our beef consumption, and that figure goes up to 64,686 gallons. In comparison, shortening showers by 5 minutes a day would only save 4500 gallons over the course of a year (assuming you shower every day, and have a 2.5 gpm head).
  • Don’t play golf (in the desert) — Golf courses account for a disproportionate amount of water consumption for the number of people it serves. The Palm Springs area alone has 57 golf courses that each use a million gallons of water a day. If you love to play golf, more power to you, but I kindly request that you move to a place where it rains enough that the grass doesn’t need to be irrigated.

Ultimately, water is a unique environmental issue in that there is no substitute, and there’s no economically viable way to make more of it. In the coming decades, ensuring water security is probably going to require more than just shorter showers.

Eviscerating a Duck

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Today, I learned how to eviscerate a duck. I worked with a duck that was lovingly raised on a farm, and one that I’d likely seen wandering around. When I encountered it today, it had just been killed and plucked, and it was still warm and soft. As I held its legs, I noticed how the bones and sinew moved under the skin, and I was surprised by how life-like it felt. Going in, I was concerned that I’d feel queasy, but it felt more like a cross between preparing a bird for cooking and a science class dissection. I’m hoping I’ll get the chance to actually slaughter a bird, but this was a good introduction to the process.

Anyway, here’s what I learned (or, at least what I think I learned). Starting with a plucked duck with its head removed:

  1. Remove wingtips and feet.
  2. Make a horizontal cut at the base of the neck, loosen the esophagus and trachea, then cut off both as close to (or in) the body cavity as possible.
  3. Continue the cut around the base of the neck, then peal of skin from the neck. Remove glands around the shoulders. Cut off neck at the base, and set aside.
  4. Flip the bird on its back, and make a wide horizontal cut an inch or so above the anus.
  5. Work your hand into the body and tear or otherwise loosen innards from the rib cage. Take particular care not to puncture the gallbladder. Leave intestines connected to the vent. Once loosened, most of the innards (other than the lungs) should just come out of the incision.
  6. Separate and set aside heart, liver (again, taking caution not to puncture the gallbladder) and gizzard.
  7. Take the gizzard and make a cut around the circumference, and slowly spread open. The inside will contain sand, gravel and possibly undigested food. Remove, and rinse off. Then peal off the yellow stomach lining (but leave the white layer underneath).
  8. Cut around the vent, taking care not to puncture the intestines or cloaca, then remove and discard the remaining innards.
  9. Reach into the body cavity and scrape out the lungs. They are soft, on the backside of the cavity close to the vertebra. Parts of the lungs will be between the ribs, so I found that scraping between ribs from the outside in with the back of my nails helped locate the lung tissue.
  10. Flip the bird on its belly, and locate two bulbous bumps (the oil glands) near the butt, and a hole where the oils are secreted. These are the oil glands. Remove the lumps and the opening.

Dancing Rabbit Visit

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Ducks crossing the main street in Dancing Rabbit

Ducks crossing the main street in Dancing Rabbit

I’ve been back at Dancing Rabbit for a full two weeks, and I’ve made numerous attempts to write about it… but hopefully this one will stick. I wish I’d done a better job of keeping a journal or something, because the past two weeks have been so intense, rich, full and fulfilling that I don’t know if I could possibly condense it all into a neat little blog post. In fact, the days have been so full that I don’t know if I’ve really had the time to process and integrate everything I’ve seen, heard and experienced. Perhaps there will be time for that when I leave– if I leave.

Unlike the last visit to Dancing Rabbit, this time I’m here for the official visitor program, which runs for 3 weeks. The program started off being more structured, and has become progressively less structured, though there never seems to be a shortage of things to do. About half of our scheduled time so far has been in workshops, which covered everything from the history of Dancing Rabbit, its organizational structures and governance models, land use, natural building, the humanure systems, ecological covenants and guidelines, to “softer” topics like communication, conflict resolution, and “inner sustainability” (which covered subjects like emotional self-care, personal growth, etc).

The other half of the time has been spent doing work of all sorts. We’ve had organized “work parties” where we’d help a specific Rabbit (as members and residents are called) do whatever they needed help with. So far, most of the organized work parties have had us working in gardens, but there’s plenty of other work to be found too. On one afternoon, a few of us escaped the official program and headed to Sandhill Farms on rickety bikes to help with the sorghum harvest. On another afternoon, I found myself smearing manure-based aliz onto someone’s home. The other day, I got an in-depth look of Strawtron, a beautiful straw bale and timber-frame house built by Ziggy and April (of The Year of Mud blog). Other than that, I’ve also helped stomp cob, sift sand, haul dirt up onto a living roof, helped replace EPDM on another roof, chopped or cut wood, and later this week, I’m hoping to help slaughter and process some birds. There are also some chores we help with, like hauling humanure buckets, cleaning the Common House once a week, or taking turns to help cook dinner.

Our evenings have also been quite full. There was a talent show a few nights ago, and the night before that, a few people organized a dance, and the night before that, a folk singer gave us a small private concert when he stopped over in his tour. On Sunday nights, I’ve gone to the incredible men’s group they have here, which is something I’d been meaning to do in the city and never got around to. Tuesday night is the community potluck, and Thursday night is pizza night at the Milkweed Mercantile, where they serve delicious homemade pizzas topped with mozzarella cheese made here. On Wednesday night, a few of us visitors organized a little support group for ourselves. And if nothing else is scheduled, there are usually a bunch of people around to play board games with, or have interesting conversations with.

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In short, it’s been pretty amazing. I haven’t felt a single moment of boredom, and if things get too chaotic, I could always go for a walk on Dancing Rabbit’s 280 acres of land (of which less than 20 acres is developed), or go sit by the pond. I’ve also been able to find the right amount and right kinds of human contact, just about whenever I felt the need. What’s more, it feels great to be among people who see the world similarly. In the city, I’ve always struggled with feelings of alienation, like being the one person at a roaring party who wasn’t having fun and was worrying about the fire on the roof that nobody seemed to be paying attention to. Here, I don’t have to explain to people everything that’s wrong with mainstream society — they know pretty damn well. I also don’t have to tell them another lifestyle is possible; they’re already living it.

So, I’m happy here. I’m happier than I’ve been in quite some time, and that’s also unsettling. I guess I’m not really used to happiness being sustainable. I’ve found periods of happiness, but they were also in unsustainable circumstances, such as solitary stints on my property or at time-bounded places like Burning Man. And, I also find myself trying to anticipate ways in which I may not be happy should I stay longer. The visitor program is full of information and experiences, but living here would be a different experience. Maybe different in a good way, but also maybe different in an undesirable way. Maybe I’ll feel differently when the autumnal sunshine is replaced by cold, dark, and damp winter clouds. I also somewhat unwittingly fell into a quasi-relationship with a woman I met here, and that could be clouding my judgment. Yet, there’s also a part of me that’s trying to just savor what is, and not worry too much about the future.

I’m sure I’ll write more soon, but I’ll leave this post here.

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Thoughts on the “Death” (or Avoidance) of Adulthood

I recently read a lengthy (and somewhat meandering) treatise titled “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture” by the film critic A. O. Scott over in the New York Times Magazine, which sparked some thoughts, since the topic of adulthood is something that’s been on my mind.

Scott notes that Hollywood has been pushing a “juvenile vision of the world”, presumably because that’s what consumers want (this comes after he cites another piece where it was noted that a third of young-adult fiction buyers were adults 30-44).

In my main line of work as a film critic, I have watched over the past 15 years as the studios committed their vast financial and imaginative resources to the cultivation of franchises […] that advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world. Comic-book movies, family-friendly animated adventures, tales of adolescent heroism and comedies of arrested development do not only make up the commercial center of 21st-century Hollywood. They are its artistic heart.

[…]

What all of these shows grasp at, in one way or another, is that nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore. Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable. It isn’t only that patriarchy in the strict, old-school Don Draper sense has fallen apart. It’s that it may never really have existed in the first place, at least in the way its avatars imagined.

But he notes that this tendency to idolize adolescence isn’t anything new, and may in fact even be traced all the way back to this nation’s birth:

We Americans have never been all that comfortable with patriarchy in the strict sense of the word. The men who established our political independence — guys who, for the most part, would be considered late adolescents by today’s standards […] — did so partly in revolt against the authority of King George III, a corrupt, unreasonable and abusive father figure. It was not until more than a century later that those rebellious sons became paternal symbols in their own right. They weren’t widely referred to as Founding Fathers until Warren Harding, then a senator, used the phrase around the time of World War I.

… and early literature.

From the start, American culture was notably resistant to the claims of parental authority and the imperatives of adulthood. Surveying the canon of American literature in his magisterial “Love and Death in the American Novel,” Leslie A. Fiedler […] broadened this observation into a sweeping (and still very much relevant) diagnosis of the national personality: “The typical male protagonist of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat — anywhere to avoid ‘civilization,’ which is to say the confrontation of a man and woman which leads to the fall to sex, marriage and responsibility. One of the factors that determine theme and form in our great books is this strategy of evasion, this retreat to nature and childhood which makes our literature (and life!) so charmingly and infuriatingly ‘boyish.’

And this is where I take a deep breath. “Harried into the forest… retreat to nature… infuriatingly ‘boyish'”. If my mom read that, she might be nodding in agreement. And if some women my age were reading this, they also might agree with this perception that men like me “avoid … confrontation of a man and woman which leads to the fall to sex, marriage and responsibility.”

Is that why I run off to the woods? Am I trying to run away from marriage and responsibilities?

For me, it’s a bit more complicated. I actually do want to get married. Getting married, though, requires a willing partner. And after years of dating, one thing I’ve learned is that women want men to not just have traditional features like financial stability and competence, but to also be happy (on online dating sites, a surprising number of women list “you’re happy” as a requirement for a match). For me, that’s a tricky one. Happiness has always been elusive, but what I’ve figured out so far is that to be sustainably happy: I need to be in nature, I need to have a fulfilling purpose, and I need supportive relationships. And, to be honest, I haven’t figured out how to balance those things (I’m interested in rural ecovillages because at least they combine nature with community, while living in the woods combined nature and purpose).

So, marriage requires happiness, which for me requires purpose. This is another reason I have a tendency to avoid civilization: I have a difficult time finding purpose in civilization. This might have something to do with the basic fact that I think “civilization” (which usually implies a predominantly urban society) as we know it is fundamentally flawed, and I’m more interested in investigating life outside the boundaries of what most people consider to be civilization.

To recap, I want to get married, but marriage requires happiness, happiness requires purpose and nature, both of which can be found outside civilization. And that is why I leave civilization.

Granted, my reason for being escapist is probably unique. But, to some degree, I see a similar conundrum among my peers. Whereas our parents’ generation was (apparently) content to have a stable job and stable life, my generation was raised with higher aspirations. We were raised to strive for self-actualization, to pursue our passions and fulfill our purpose, rather than aiming for mere financial stability. We’re simply not content with financial stability the way our parents apparently were.

What’s more, the economics of our times turned out to be less optimistic. In a response to Scott’s article, over on Salon, Andrew O’Hehir notes that:

We now live in a culture (using the word in its anthropological sense) of diminished expectations and permanent underemployment, where many or most young people will never be as affluent as their parents. Lifetime job security is an antediluvian delusion, and in many metropolitan areas home ownership is out of reach for all but the rich. It’s just as useless to object to those changes as it is to complain about grownups reading Harry Potter books, but certainly those things were the essential underpinnings of classic adulthood, and without them it’s no surprise to see the old order fading away.

So, we now have a generation of people who are trying to pursue their passions on the one hand, without access to stable or well-enough paying jobs to afford things like a house or even kids on the other hand. From a certain perspective, this could appear rather adolescent. Older generations might argue that home ownership and raising children was more important than self-actualization; that’s what they prioritized, after all. But that’s just not the world we live in.

Which isn’t to say that I’m defending the self-indulgent man-child of today. And here, I’m speaking less of the “poor but self-actualizing” types, and more the types who, in Scott’s words, “wallow in his own immaturity, plumbing its depths and reveling in its pleasures”. The world is too fucked up for an entire generation of men (and women) to wallow in immaturity and revel in pleasures.

The answer, in my opinion, isn’t necessarily to put on a suit and go to the cubicle farms, either (unless that’s what you want). Nor is the solution necessarily marriage and mortgage. Scott reminds us that the “adolescent” men of old, even as they rejected civilization, served a purpose:

they also, at least some of the time, had something to fight for, a moral or political impulse underlying their postures of revolt. The founding brothers in Philadelphia cut loose a king; Huck Finn exposed the dehumanizing lies of America slavery; Lenny Bruce battled censorship. When Marlon Brando’s Wild One was asked what he was rebelling against, his thrilling, nihilistic response was “Whaddaya got?” The modern equivalent would be “. . .”

Although Scott doesn’t say this, the lesson I drew was this: If you don’t want a stable job, a house, or to get married and have kids, then fine. But do something. Leaving civilization and being on the outside gives us the perspective to see what’s wrong with it, and also the ability to attack it without being caught in it. Not being a “grownup” gives us freedom. But freedom is a privilege, and with that privilege comes the responsibility to help those who are less free. At least, this is something I try to remind myself of on a regular basis.

Error: Cabin out of Square

I recently encountered one of the most difficult challenges on Serenity Valley that I can remember in recent years. Things have been pretty ho-hum up here, at least compared to the early days, with very few challenges remaining to keep me comfortable.

So, when I discovered that my cabin had gotten out of square enough to prevent the door from closing and locking, well, it was almost fun and exciting. Well, ok, it would’ve been totally fun and exciting if it weren’t for the fact that I was trying to get out of there in time to get back to the city for a party. But with the time pressure, it was only moderately fun, and I even at one point thought to my self “Huh, I’m not sure I can solve this”, which is a thought I hardly ever encounter in life (except for when it comes to matters of the heart).

IMG_3518-0As it were, it took a few hours and multiple attempts to solve the problem. My first thought was to anchor a piece of 2×6 in the ground, then lean it against the cabin and pull on it to apply a force on the cabin. That didn’t work. I then got the jack from my car, and jacked up one corner of the cabin. I succeeded in lifting up the corner an inch (and could’ve kept going) but that didn’t seem to be making a difference so I abandoned that plan. I then tried to push the cabin using a 4×4 by jacking one end against a tree, but that ended up too unwieldy to set up alone.

IMG_3519-0Then, I got out the come-along, which hadn’t seen any action since 2009 when I used it to winch the trailer up my property. First, I drilled a 1/2-inch hole in a beam inside to tie one end of the rope, then anchored the come-along against the opposite corner on the outside, and tried to winch the cabin back into shape. This might’ve worked, except with the rope coming out the door, I couldn’t get it shut (duh). So, then, I did the same thing, but this time securing the come-along against an interior post (though, by this time, I was starting to get a bit desperate and didn’t have the presence of mind to take pictures). That didn’t seem to work.

This was around the time I felt stumped. Not to sound arrogant, but I haven’t encountered very many challenges in life where I hadn’t solved it with my 5th attempt. I thought about calling up some neighbors to help, but I wasn’t sure what they could do that I couldn’t.

As a somewhat desperate measure, I decided to try one more thing. I drilled a hole through one of my 4×4 posts, all the way through the exterior siding, so that I could tie a rope to the post from the outside. I then anchored the come-along against a large juniper tree using some rope I found. I started applying tension, then with a BANG the come-along went flying, smashing through a plastic bin that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I checked my fingers– I still had 11 of them.

After taking a deep breath and making a mental note to make sure I got more trucking rope for occasions like these, I got another length of rope, doubled it up, twisted it, then wrapped it around the hook on the come-along a few times (that’s where it failed the first time) and then around the tree. I then started cranking again, applying enough tension that it became quite difficult to pull the lever. I became paranoid so I got another rope and reinforced the anchoring using a trucker’s hitch to take some of the load off the first rope. At this point, I probably had close to a ton of tension, rendering the entire contraption into a veritable siege weapon… pointed directly at my cabin. I gave it a few more cranks, then ran over to the door to see if it would close.

It did, just barely.

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Letting Go

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Heartbreak, unemployment, fire, and now embarking on another open-ended journey (I’m on the way to the airport as I write this draft). If this year has a theme for me, it’s definitely “letting go”.

It’s hard to let go. I don’t know if it’s true, but I heard that newly born babies have such strength in their hands that they can grab something and hold their weight. So it seems that we’re born with the ability to grab and hold on. And then we spend the rest of our lives learning to let go, until our moment of death when we finally let go of life itself.

What makes letting go particularly difficult for me, at times, is the fact that I’m a pretty tenacious guy. In many situations, that’s a virtue. If there’s something I want to accomplish, or a problem that needs to be solved, I’ll keep at it until I succeed. This trait has gotten me pretty far in life, and it’s something I’m proud of. But, sometimes, our gifts can also be vices, when applied in the wrong context. Sometimes, I need to make the difficult decision to let go, rather than to endlessly attempt to solve an intractable problem.

One tool I’ve come to appreciate in such difficult processes, is a ritual of some sort. I haven’t always been a big fan of rituals, having been exposed to quite a few of them through my Japanese heritage. The inexplicably rigid format of old rituals felt mechanistic, and I didn’t understand their underlying purposes or intentions. But, as I grow older, I’ve come to appreciate rituals for what they are: a way to externalize, visualize, embody, or make tangible an internal and invisible process, often in the presence of witnesses.

One ritual I enjoy and actively take part in, is the act of burning, which I experience annually at the Burning Man festival where a giant man-shaped effigy, a large temple, and other large pieces of art are burned every year in the vast emptiness of the Black Rock desert in Nevada. One of the wonderful things about burning is that it can symbolize and represent almost anything you want. To burn something, you need to create something to be burnt, which in itself can be a satisfying and meaningful endeavor. And when you light up a giant (non-destructive) fire, it almost always evokes a sense of wonder and beauty, and a sense of celebration. Or, burning an effigy can represent conquest, victory or at least resistance and rebellion. And burning something of value can symbolize a form of release and catharsis.

IMG_3491So, when I recently made the difficult decision to finally let go of a really amazing lady I madly fell in love with last winter and clung to for way too long after our attempted relationship fell apart, I decided to build something and burn it. After some thought, I felt it would be fitting to build a log cabin-shaped pyre to represent the hopes and dreams I had for a future with her, and then to burn it down to express my commitment to letting go. I told a few neighbors about this plan, who eagerly joined in on the project, and we spent an afternoon collecting fallen trees and felling skinny struggling trees from my pine forest. That process served the triple purpose of supplying building materials/fuel for our project, removing fuels from my woods to reduce the impact of a potential fire, and culling stragglers to give stronger trees more room to grow. Incorporating local sustainable materials and employing forest stewardship practices seemed only fitting considering how our shared love of nature and passion for environmentalism were partially what had brought she and I together. Once we’d collected a large pile of logs, we proceeded to stack them into a vaguely cabin-like shape, then filled it with dry tinder.

After the build, we broke for dinner. As we prepared dinner and waited for dusk to fall, nature gave a helping hand by blessing us with just enough rain to dampen the ground and eliminate our concerns of an un-contained fire. Then the sky cleared, the sun set, the stars appeared in a moonless sky. We trudged back up the hill in darkness, the chilly air moist with the smells of early autumn. We stood by our cabin-pyre, I said a few words, then lit it up. As the fire roared, shooting flames high into the sky, scattering embers among the stars, I let the heat and the light sear into my skin and mind…

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So, am I done? No. But the burn gave me a sense of finality. And every time my mind wanders back to her, the things I said or didn’t say, or the adventures we never went on, I remind myself: Let it go. You burned that cabin, remember?

Glass Half Full?

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Are you a “glass half full”, or a “glass half empty” kind of person? I’m sure you’ve been asked this before. The point of the question ostensibly is about whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist, and the lesson is that any given situation can be seen positively or negatively depending on how you choose to see it. How nice.

But, let’s think about this a bit more critically. Let’s say you arrive at your table at a nice restaurant, you sit down, and you notice that there is a liquid in your wineglass. Whether the glass is half empty or half full is the wrong question to contemplate. What you’ll be asking is “Why is there stuff in my glass that I didn’t ask for?” And if you call over the waiter and they offer to top off the glass, you might respond, with rightful indignation: “No, just give me a clean empty glass.”

As it turns out, there’s a fairly famous Zen parable that touches on a similar issue (adapted from the version found here):

One day an important man, a man used to command and obedience came to visit a Zen master. “I have come today to ask you to teach me about Zen. Open my mind to enlightenment.” The tone of the important man’s voice was of one used to getting his own way.

The Zen master smiled and said that they should discuss the matter over a cup of tea. When the tea was served the master poured his visitor a cup. He poured and he poured and the tea rose to the rim and began to spill over the table and finally onto the robes of the wealthy man. Finally the visitor shouted, “Enough. You are spilling the tea all over. Can’t you see the cup is full?”

The master stopped pouring and smiled at his guest. “You are like this tea cup, so full that nothing more can be added. Come back to me when the cup is empty. Come back to me with an empty mind.”

In the context of Zen, the teacup is a metaphor for the mind, and how, through meditation, we can clear our minds of thoughts, ideas, beliefs, and expectations that often hinder us more than they help us. Once we have cleared our minds, there is finally room for truth and enlightenment.

Emptiness/fullness can also be used to describe life itself. When someone says “my life feels empty”, that’s considered a bad thing. And conversely when someone says “my life is full”, that’s considered good. But, many of us, at one point or another, probably had/have “full” lives that were/are nonetheless stressful and unfulfilling. The fullness might come from obligations and responsibilities that we don’t find nourishing, but nonetheless occupy our minds and bodies from morning to night so fully that it leaves us with no time to connect with ourselves and loved ones. The “fullness” prevents us from working towards or exploring a better life. This kind of “fullness” could hardly be said to be good.

After I quit my job back in mid-May, I’ve struggled with feelings of emptiness. I would wake up in the morning, and there would be no job or purpose awaiting me. No responsibilities, no obligations. Nobody waiting for me or relying on me. Just, emptiness. I found myself oscillating between trying to plunge myself into a project, or distracting myself by mindlessly staring into my computer screen. I doubted my self-worth. It challenged my work ethic. I even contemplated employment.

Instead of doing anything drastic, like getting a job (which I know I would hate as soon as I got), I decided to sit with this uncomfortable feeling of emptiness, and let it run its course. I’ve always had a difficult time dealing with uncomfortable feelings and situations, but one of my intentions over the past months has been to learn to live, confront, and play with uncomfortable things. So, how convenient it was that I would often wake up with this big hairy beast called Emptiness sitting on my chest?

And over the course of weeks and months, an interesting thing happened. I came to see this emptiness for the gift that it is.

For “emptiness” is really just another word for “freedom” and “opportunity”. An empty glass can be filled with anything. I am about as free as any man has ever been in the history of mankind. And that’s no understatement. I am bound by fewer social and cultural norms and obligations than just about anyone in history. I don’t have a boss. I don’t have a wife or kids. I have few financial obligations. I have mastery over some of the most complex and powerful technologies the world has ever seen. I can make practically anything. I have the ability to go anywhere in the world, and do just about anything I damn well please. I can enter any relationship, any occupation, any adventure that comes my way that I choose. And I can do it at the drop of a hat, because I’m an empty glass.

Granted, not everybody is as lucky as I am, but regardless of your circumstances, if you have a glass that is half empty/full, I suspect one of the following two cases is often true: 1) You enjoy what’s in the glass, and you want it to be topped off, or 2) You’re not enjoying what’s in the glass (any more) and you want the glass to be empty, perhaps so it can be filled with something else.

Of course, actual life is never that simple. We’ll never have a life full of just the good stuff, and we’ll never empty our lives completely. But, instead of thinking about whether the glass is half empty or full, we should think critically about what is in there, and what is not. We should be mindful about what we put into our lives, because for every thing that we put in, we reduce space for something else. And we shouldn’t be afraid of taking things out of our lives, to free up space too.

So, the next time someone asks if we’re a “glass half full” or “glass half empty” kind of person, I propose we answer thusly: “I don’t do half-full/empty glasses. I want my glass to be full with something awesome, or otherwise I like it empty and clean so I can fill it with what I want.”