on stability and people

On stability
I left my job and moved out of my apartment, partially to destabilize my life, and become more flexible. But I didn’t quite realize how I had compensated for stability in other ways, until I was on my own in California last weekend.

On Saturday night, I was in a motel room in Fairfield, CA, freaking out to the point of not being able to sleep, and looking out the window every few minutes. It was then that I realized for the first time how much security I derived from the two constants in my new life: Nikki and the Ryomobile. I feel safer with Nikki than I did alone, both for pragmatic reasons and purely psycho-social reasons. As for the Ryomobile, I had taken measures to make it more dependable, without even thinking much of it. I’d gotten the premium warranty extension, new tires, a premium AAA account, all in addition to plain old insurance. I did everything possible to ensure that the Ryomobile would be something I could rely on, and indeed, I had come to depend on it tremendously without even realizing it. Until, of course, I was alone in Fairfield, California with a rental.

To a large extent, my anxiousness was irrational. I had liability insurance, and I’d gotten loss and damage insurance through a 3rd party. But the thought of dealing with a damaged rental in the middle of nowhere all by myself, and having to deal with a separate insurance company in addition to the rental company, was more than I could take. I doubt I would’ve been as anxious if Nikki had been with me, or I was closer to my friends, or wasn’t going somewhere with no cell reception. I also would’ve been fine if I’d gotten LDW coverage from the rental company, or had my trusty Ryomobile with me. But that night in that motel room, I learned how I, as much as anyone else, need stability, and exactly what my sense of stability depended on.

On friends and family
Since we left the Bay Area in mid-April, Nikki and I have been drawing a tremendous level of support from our friends and family. So much so, that I feel like I have a completely different view on relationships than I used to, when I lead a more insular and independent life. This was really hammered home last weekend as well, when a series of small but potentially annoying problems were resolved thanks to the help of a few friends. Harold had been collecting my mail, but since he would be out of town, he handed it all off to Josh. Josh also gave me a ride from SFO to SJC, then offered me his couch my last night in the area. When I was driving down 101 with Nikki’s bike in the back of the car with no idea where to store it for the summer, I called Jesse and he graciously offered some space outside his house. Prior to that, Nikki and I crashed at Moomers without paying rent. Nikki’s parents are letting me park the Ryomobile in their drive way while I’m away. I can’t imagine how difficult our life would be if it weren’t for all these small but significant favors.

A part of me feels like I ought to be ashamed for relying so heavily on my friends and family. And indeed, I should do my best not to become a burden to them. But then, I don’t think there’s anything to be ashamed of, to ask for favors and be indebted to people. It’s what relationships are for. We live in an intricate web of relationships precisely because none of us can live alone. We all depend on each other, and we all need to help each other. Some times I can help others, and sometimes I need others’ help. Indeed, I feel much closer to my friends and family because my life is more intertwined with theirs, and because I feel grateful and indebted to them. I will do more for them in the future, because of what they’ve done for me.

When I learned about gift giving rituals in a social anthropology class a while ago, I didn’t get it. It seemed like yet another pointless ritual. But now I get it. If you want a society with strong inter-personal ties, you don’t want people to be independent and isolated; you want people to depend on, and be indebted to, each other. Sometimes it feels like modern American society places a little too much emphasis on independence, and we’ve forgotten that the reason why we live in herds is because life’s easier when we help each other. Especially in these hard times, I suspect that’s a lesson we could stand to remember.

Busy day

I flew to SFO on Saturday, rented a car, and headed north to look at property. Tomorrow I fly to Japan. Today was the day where somehow that gap between “being in the woods” and “flying to Japan for a wedding” had to be closed…

Here’s my day in a run on sentence: woke up at 8, boiled water for oatmeal and tea, packed up camp and hit the road at 9, then went to the realtors office and looked at maps and talked real estate for an hour and a half, then drove to Redding, went to the bank to deposit 4 checks into 2 accounts, went shopping for a clean pair of pants (because my current pair is dirty beyond recovery) and a belt (’cause my shorts are falling off), used the internet to send some emails, then drove south with another stop at the Vacaville outlet mall to look at pants, then continued south to Emeryville, to send my camping gear back to Chicago via Amtrak, then drove into SF and went straight to a Safeway to buy some food my mom asked me to bring with me to Japan, then went to Nikki’s old apartment to settle some debt and pick up her bike, then continued south, dropped off the bike at Jesse’s in Palo Alto, then headed further south into Mountain View and stopped for dinner (pho!), then continued south again to San Jose, where I’m crashing at Josh’s. And there, you have my last 14 hours and 270 miles.

Now I go to bed (couch). Tomorrow, I need to get up a 7, go to the storage unit to switch some stuff, drop off the car at SJC, then head to SFO to catch my flight to NRT.

Actually, I had a couple of thoughts during this latest excursion that I wanted to write about, but it’ll have to wait until I have more time/energy.


Being homeless and itinerant, I’m seeing for the first time how prominent of a role one’s residency plays in various aspects of our lives, and how rigid its definition is. My car insurance company wants to know where I live; my health care options vary depending on where I live; Illinois wants me to get a new Illinois driver’s license within 90 days of “moving” there; Illinois and Chicago gun laws have different requirements depending on whether or not I am an Illinois or Chicago resident vs a visitor… It’s assumed that one’s residency, where one lives, is clearly defined with no room for ambiguity. And I suspect that’s true for most people; I mean, it’s where you go home to, duh. But for me, it makes no sense. Most of my stuff is in storage in Mountain View, CA. My mail goes to a friend’s apartment in San Francisco, my ammo component shipments to another friend’s place in San Jose. I am currently in St. Louis, will be in Japan next week, but we’ll be subletting an apartment in Chicago for the summer. Oh, but the sublet agreement doesn’t have my name on it. So, somebody tell me; where do I live? And why does it matter? Even if I “lived” in California, in the traditional sense of the word, I could still drive across the country and require medical care in another state. So why should my health insurance or auto insurance company care? And if I want to possess a firearm literally 4 blocks from Obama’s house, why does it matter whether I “live” there or am merely a visitor from out of state (residents must register their firearms, while visitors don’t)?

There’s definitely a stigma against homelessness in our society, which is ironic when you consider that we’re in this economic recession because we tried to give houses to people who couldn’t afford them. But if you want to lower your living costs, going without a home is a logical choice. People often pay 30% or more of their income on rent (probably more for the working poor), and forego health insurance, or skimp on food. That doesn’t make sense. You can live a healthy life without a big static home, but you can’t live a healthy life without good food or health care. Of course, there are some practical issues with true homelessness (as opposed to the bourgeois version Nikki and I have been enjoying). For instance, it’s hard to find showers that are open to the public. Having occasional privacy is probably good for one’s mental health, and a clean bed is necessary for sanitary reasons. But I feel like these basic amenities can be provided, separately from the traditional notion of a home (or the nearest alternative, the motel) if only we, as a society, were willing to accept the possibility of a respectable, healthy, productive life without a stationary home.

Roadtrip Report

The Google Map embedded above (if you’re reading this in a feed reader and don’t see the map, read this post here) shows the route we took from San Jose (where I returned my apartment keys) to Hyde Park. According to Google’s estimates, the route spans over 2700 miles, although with the little detours we took and circles we drove around in alien towns, my odometer tells me the trip was more like 2900 miles.

somewhere in Montana or South Dakota

Hwy 212 in Montana

I have 3 impressions of this journey that stand out in my mind. The first is: this is a big fucking country. Having only flown or taken the train before for such long journeys, where you’re practically teleported from one side of the country to the other, I’d never truly internalized the scale of this country. But on this trip, I had my foot on the gas pedal for every mile of the way (except for the 400+ miles that Nikki drove). Sure, it’s nothing compared to, say, hiking or riding on horseback for long distances, but I was awake and aware for every mile of it. And now, even with the aches in my knees subsiding, I know how big this country is: It’s fucking big.

Welcome to Montana!

Welcome to Montana!

The second lasting thought I had was of unity, or maybe at least uniformity, both in good and bad ways. Having grown up in Germany where you were never a day or two’s drive (at most) away from a foreign country with a foreign language, customs and architecture, I found myself speaking slowly to people at the market or motel after crossing state lines, half expecting them to respond in a foreign tongue. But in reality, no such thing happened. We’d cross from state to state, and people would still speak the same language, the menus would have the same food, and for the most part, everything would look the same. The same chain restaurants and motels, same strip malls, same customs, same people… Sure, in some places, old men in cowboy hats may have stared at Nikki and I just a split second longer than would be considered polite in San Francisco, but with the exception of people pumping gas for us in Oregon, our experiences weren’t markedly different anywhere compared to anywhere else. Of course, this was also a bit of a disappointment. I had hoped that we’d find the country less uniform, that Idaho would be distinctly Idahoan, Montana defiantly Montanan, South Dakota surprisingly South Dakotan, and Iowa inexplicably Iowan. The only consolation was the natural beauty, or what little glimpses of it we caught, which varied somewhat from state to state. In Montana, we drove through a blizzard, and saw grassy hills with crowns of pine trees. South Dakota had rolling grasslands as far as the eye can see, albeit fragmented by roads and fences. We saw large numbers of prairie dogs and antelope in Montana, a lone mountain goat and many quail in South Dakota. But even the landscape wasn’t strikingly different to what you would see in parts of California. Except, perhaps, there was just more of it.
somewhere in Idaho

somewhere in Idaho

Throughout the whole trip, I was also struck, and saddened, by how detached we are from the land as a society. Most of the people are in cities and towns, but even the large tracts of land and open space out there is owned, fenced in, often torn up or over-grazed. Even on public lands, people are constrained to roads and prescribed trails, restricted from roaming freely as people once did. There were usually no cars within sight on the smaller interstates we mostly drove on; most other drivers were on big major interstates, where their views are obstructed by semis, bill boards and buildings that inevitably line the big highways. So even when people drove through states like Montana or South Dakota, I got the feeling that what people actually saw was often severely limited. And forget even trying to see more by going on foot or horse back as our predecessors once did; you’d be arrested (or worse) for trespassing before getting far, assuming barbed wire fencing didn’t stop you first. As someone who loves to roam in the wilderness, I was saddened by this thought, and it reaffirmed my desire to buy a large tract of land where I can be free, one with the land, unobstructed by no man.