Giving Thanks

In the course of my journeys over the past several months, I’ve come to see how blessed I am. That word, blessed, is one that is not often used by my friends, for it often implies the hand of a divine entity, whose existence most of my friends do not acknowledge, preferring instead to use a more neutral word like “lucky”, which merely implies chance. I too, am not religious, and do not claim to know whether God does, or does not, exist. But I feel the word blessed is appropriate for how I feel, because it reminds me that life often is influenced by circumstances other than random chance, and while these circumstances may not have divine sources, they still deserve gratitude nonetheless.

So, on this Thanksgiving Day, I would like to say thanks to all that I am grateful for.

For starters, I am grateful for my parents, for having me and raising me in this world, and whether by intent or accident, shaping me into who I am today.

I am also grateful for my few, but supportive friends who have provided me with incredible emotional and logistical support over these past several months. Specifically, I’m grateful to Nikki, for encouraging me to follow my dreams and passions. I am grateful to Harold, for collecting my mail all these months, and for lending me a couch on numerous occasions. I am grateful to Joyce, for letting me use her home as a giant mailbox and accepting a small mountain of materiĂ©l on my behalf. I am grateful to Josh, for his couch, for his advice, and also for his help raising my hut. I am grateful to Keith and Stephanie, for opening up their home to me, and offering me a home away from home. I am also tremendously grateful to my broader network of friends, who I have relied upon for emotional support during some of my darker moments in recent months.

Though it is easy to forget, living on vacant undeveloped land made me grateful for all the technology that we have available. I am grateful for the fact that I can own a vehicle that has allowed me to affordably travel tens of thousands of miles in several months. I am grateful for affordable solar power, for refrigeration, and for efficient battery-powered tools and appliances. I am grateful for the internet, which has allowed me to stay connected with friends and family, and for giving me a medium through which to share my story with a much bigger audience than I could in person.

Last but not least, I am grateful to this country, and to all the men and women who made this country what it is. While admittedly not without its faults, few countries, past or present, have ever offered the individual so many opportunities and freedoms. Close to 9 years ago, I landed at LAX, with nothing more than a couple of bags, a laptop, and less than $10,000 in cash. I started taking classes at a community college, then worked my way up to eventually get a degree from a world class institution, and a job at one of the most coveted companies in the industry, if not the world. This is a country where people come to fulfill their dreams. I came. I did.

While there is much to be grateful for, it is also important to acknowledge that there are many who are less fortunate, and that there is more work to do. Today, there are countless millions who suffer from lack of food, lack of shelter, lack opportunities and freedoms. We are closing our borders to those who wish to join our ranks of dreamers. Budget cuts affecting public education are increasingly closing doors to those who aspire for a better future. Lack of adequate health care threaten the well-being of many. Our disregard for the environment damages the world in which our children and grandchildren will live. So while we say thanks for all that we have, I hope we can take a moment to reflect on our obligations to our friends, our neighbors and our children, to help create a world in which they, too, can share in all that we are grateful for.

Finding a Home in the Urban Forest

As I indicated at the end of my last journal entry, I left Serenity Valley for the winter (rest assured, dear readers, my hut in the woods adventures will resume in a few months). The reason for leaving was almost entirely financial — I’d simply run out of cash… and credit. Without cash, I couldn’t prepare my hut for yet colder and wetter climates. Without cash, I’d have to choose between paying this month’s payment on the (small) loan I took out to buy the land, or health insurance. Not to mention, you know, car payments, food, gas, cell phone, and all those other recurring expenditures.

Yes, the reality is, even though I “lived” in the woods in a $600 hut, I was still not completely free. I still had shackles in the form of bills1

So, I came out of the woods, and headed back to Silicon Valley to start a short-term consulting gig I had waiting for me. The gig is part time, and I can work from pretty much anywhere, so in theory, I don’t have to “live” in Silicon Valley. But I want to. I lived here for 4 years before I moved away, and the roots I established during those years still remain here. I have friends here. My shooting club is here, as are shooting ranges. And, besides, if I’m working in tech again, it makes sense to be here. Oh, and it’s nice and warm here too 🙂

But there’s one problem. Having built a $600 hut in the woods, I’m having a hard time justifying paying for an apartment or room. For those of you not familiar with the area, a 1 bedroom apartment starts at around $1000 here. If I share a place, I might pay $600 instead. Per month. That’s a new hut I could be building every month.

I recently did some calculations, and realized that I’d paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000 in rent during the 4 years I lived here. Some people will argue that that’s why it makes sense to buy a house. Sure, if you considered money to be the most important resource, then buying would likely save you a ton of money. But to me, money isn’t the most important resource; time is. And buying even a cheap condo in the area means taking out a huge mortgage, that would take 15, 20, 30 years to pay off. That’s 15, 20, 30 years of financial obligations. That, to me, sounds like a 15, 20, 30 year prison sentence. I’m not going to prison, just to put a roof over my head2.

So, I’m trying to find the equivalence of my $600 hut in this (sub)urban forest. I even considered buying land out here and, yes, building an actual hut. But that’s simply not feasible. Land around here is scarce and insanely expensive, and, not to mention, I’m pretty sure I’d have city inspectors swarming me the instant I erected a single two-by-four without a permit.

Rather, the same way my hut was an exercise in minimalism, I’m trying to apply the same idea here. That process starts by asking the question, “What do I need?” For starters, I need a place to sleep. I have that covered right now, since my “employer” has graciously offered to look the other way if he were to find me sleeping at the office. Then, what else do I need? I need to bathe, occasionally. Here’s a dirty (literally) little secret: I can go for days without showering before anyone notices. Last night I borrowed a friend’s shower. Perhaps I can keep rotating between various friends’ showers… Or maybe I’ll get a gym membership, to use the showers. What else do I need? I could use a kitchen, so that I don’t waste money eating out. Well, except, maybe I could live off of sandwiches, and eat out occasionally if I wanted a warm meal. Sandwiches don’t require a kitchen to make, and are cheap.

So I have all of the above covered, without paying rent. But there’s one thing missing: it’s that sense of home you get from having your own place. Partially, it’s about privacy. Partially, it’s about freedom. And partially, it’s purely psychological. Whatever it is, it’s somewhat unsettling to not have that. On the other hand, I’ve been practically homeless for the last 3 months, except for when I was living in my hut, and I’ve become accustomed to that feeling. At least, accustomed enough that I wonder if it’s worth paying hundreds of dollars a month to make it go away.

There are also smaller inconveniences. For instance, I went to the range yesterday, and then didn’t have anywhere I could go afterwards to clean my rifle. I probably could’ve done that at the office, especially since there’s nobody there, but there’s a bit of a resistance to bringing an AR-15 to a place of work. Along similar lines, I’ll eventually need a place to setup my reloading equipment. One of the last things I did before moving out of my apartment back in April was to load as much ammo as I could. Nikki and I loaded something like 700 rounds, in between packing up the apartment and hauling things to the storage unit, but now that I’m shooting again, I’ll probably go through that in a month or two. But I don’t need an apartment to clean a rifle or reload. Maybe I could rent a storage unit and setup my reloading bench in there — if I ignore that clause about no hazardous materials…

In any case, I’m still at that stage where I’m looking at various options, and weighing the pros and cons. I’ll keep y’all posted on how things pan out…

Footnotes:

  1. I should note that my total combined (non-cash) financial assets are still greater than my obligations. In other words, if I liquidated my non-cash assets, I could pay off all my debt, and thus “buy” my freedom.
  2. Comparing a mortgage to prison might be a little harsh, since you can get out of mortgages, either by selling your house, or by simply foreclosing. But I imagine there’s a huge mental barrier for that, and I’d rather not build a prison in my head either.

Epiphanies

When you lose someone, sometimes you think you’re okay, but then something happens and suddenly the loss hits you like an oncoming truck, threatening to overwhelm you with grief, regret, and sadness. Some of you might know what it’s like. For me, it’s like a big, deep void opening up in my soul, threatening to suck me in. I’ve fallen into that swirling vortex of emotional doom many times in the past. But recently, after Burning Man, I figured out some things that have kept me from falling into the vortex since, despite losing Nikki as my girlfriend and close friend (something that would’ve surely drop-kicked me deep into the vortex before). But yesterday, the void appeared, and I felt like I was getting sucked in. I fell deeper into it than I have in recent months. There I was, sitting in a cafe in Mountain View, amongst strangers, having lost my one close friend, far away from my few other close friends. Grasping at straws, I tweeted a call for hugs.

Within 30 minutes, I was ok. Not only ok, but happy. But it wasn’t because of the virtual hugs (as grateful as I am for them). I was happy because I had an epiphany. Or a series of realizations.

When I’m in the city, around people, I feel incredibly lonely. Yesterday, as I was teetering on the edge of the vortex, I was IMing a friend, and told her “I need a friend, or two.” When I said that, an alarm went off in my head. Whenever you think you need something to be happy, it is almost certainly false, unless, maybe, that something is necessary for survival. So I thought about that statement some more, and realized how ludicrous that was. I’m a guy who goes off into the woods alone, winches a 1300lb trailer up a hill alone, and loves every inch of the way. I’m a guy who drove 3500 miles over 10 days alone, and loved ever mile and every day of it. I’m a guy who found peace and happiness at Burning Man, on the one day in which I hardly saw any of my “friends.” If there’s one person I know who can be happy completely alone and isolated from other people, its me. If I think I need a friend to be happy in the city, I’m deluding myself.

So I undeluded myself, and felt a lot better.

Later, I started thinking about why it is that I feel so isolated and frustrated in the city, around people, but feel at peace in the woods. And I figured it out.

When I’m in the woods, I accept the world as it is. Nothing phases me, because I don’t expect anything beyond what is. A tree is a tree, a rock a rock, the sun is or isn’t, and the weather simply is. I’ve faced many set-backs, just trying to get my stuff to where I want it on my property, and haven’t been phased in the slightest. Plan A failed when I found the dirt road to be too rough for the Ryomobile. Plan B failed when the truck couldn’t turn a corner with the trailer. Plan C failed when my pulley system failed. Plan D got me close, but still didn’t get the job done because, once I got to the edge of the clearing, I couldn’t find a tree close enough to anchor my winch to. Not once did I get frustrated, or mad. I know it’s silly to get mad at a dirt road for being rough, or at a tree for creating a tight corner, or at a clearing for not having a tree in a convenient location. My land is. And I accept it as it is.

But people. Oh people. People are deceiving. People aren’t inanimate objects. People can communicate. People can be persuaded. People can be won over. People can change. Or so I thought. I had high expectations from people. I wanted things from people. I wanted to be acknowledged, to be liked, to be loved. I had notions of what one should be able to expect from a friend, or a girlfriend. Expectations so lofty that few people have hardly ever met, at least not completely. So I felt unfulfilled, frustrated, and betrayed.

But then, I realized. Of course I felt frustrated and unfulfilled. What I was doing was like going to my land and wishing that a certain tree were located farther north by 10 yards, and this sapling were 30 feet tall, and this clearing had more trees, and that grove didn’t block the light. It’s silly, and pointless. The trees are where they are, or aren’t. They are what they are. And so are people. People are who they are, and do what they do. Just the same way an occasional tree on my property helps me winch up a trailer, an occasional person might help me, befriend me, or love me. But as most trees on my property don’t care I exist, most people don’t either. People simply exist. Independent of who I am, and what my needs and wishes are. Like trees in the forest.

The world looks like a different place to me now. I no longer look at people and feel unfulfilled and alienated. They’re not ignoring me, at least not any more than a tree ignores me. They don’t hate me, any more than a tree hates me. They don’t find me unlovable, any more than a tree finds me unlovable. They simply are. I simply am. The world, simply is.

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.

Residency

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.

Scarcity gives us clarity

The title is an approximate quote I heard from one of the Google founders (or maybe it was Eric Schmidt), but it describes what I’m experiencing these days. Now that I don’t have two fat paychecks a month, it’s getting a lot easier to see what’s important and what’s not. I’ve sold three rifles so far–including the very first rifle I bought on my own–and have two more up for sale. Last night, I packed three boxes of books to sell to a used bookstore downtown–books I’ve hauled with me all the way from Chicago, and from apartment to apartment since. I’m donating a bunch of clothes, and selling my furniture.

Going to the match last weekend gave me a sense of clarity and focus as well. I know what my priority is now, and I know what I need and what I don’t need. It turns out that in order to focus on shooting, I had most of what I needed with me on that trip. The only thing I didn’t have that I’d need is my reloading equipment, but pretty much everything else (that is to say, most stuff in my apartment) is unnecessary.

On the other hand, this new clarity also threw a bit of a monkey wrench into our plans. Nikki and I were planning on spending the summer in Chicago, but Chicago is a rather inconvenient place to be if I want to shoot. Illinois, and Chicago in particular, has some stringent (though perhaps to some degree justifiable) gun laws that make things rather inconvenient for me, and there aren’t any good shooting ranges in the area either. I’m sure I’ll work something out though.

In semi-related news, I posted some pictures from this past weekend’s match.

On the 600 yard line at the California State Service Rifle Championships in Coalinga, CA

On the 600 yard line at the California State Service Rifle Championships in Coalinga, CA

Thinking about money

I haven’t had to think about money for the last few years. The fact of it is, I earned more than I needed, and I’m not an insane spender to begin with. But after a few years of being able to afford pretty much anything I wanted (except for that 160 acre plot of land), I started thinking that my relationship to money had gone out of whack (I mean, who’s hasn’t?). Part of the reason I decided to be unemployed for a while was to re-examine my relationship with money, and scarcity is a good opportunity for such re-examination.

The first step in this experiment is to gather data, and simply pay attention to my spending (something I haven’t had to do in a while). To establish a baseline, I spent money like I have been for our inaugural trip to Seattle and Portland. Our expenditures were as follows:

Food            397.95
Lodging         524.24
Parking         100.75
Gas              98.99
Entertainment    56.85
======================
Total          1298.78

This was for 2 people on a 7 day/6 night trip, and what stands out is our rather ridiculously high food and lodging costs. Including parking fees (common in cities), our lodging cost over $100 a night, and we spent close to $60 a day on food (this included a couple of $60+ meals, and one $100+ meal). This wasn’t unreasonable when I was working, and we’d travel on vacations. But now that traveling is what we’ll be doing most of the time, we’ll have to be a little thriftier. I’ll try to post similar tallies of future trips, but this’ll be our baseline.

Work Life Balance

Quitting one’s high paying job and spending some time traveling and living off of savings might sound like a stupid thing to do. I used to be much more of a conservative person, in terms of life decisions, but changed my mind when I read some research indicating that people don’t regret not working enough and do regret not playing enough. This same research was cited in this recent New York Times article about work life balance, which I thought was worth sharing.

In one study, these consumer psychologists asked college students how they felt about the balance of work and play on their winter breaks.

Immediately after the break, the students’ chief regrets were over not doing enough studying, working and saving money. But when they contemplated their winter break a year afterward, they were more likely to regret not having enough fun, not traveling and not spending money. And when alumni returned for their 40th reunion, they had even stronger regrets about too much work and not enough play on their collegiate breaks.

These days, I don’t understand why people spend their younger years working and saving money so that they could do what they want when they’re old and dying. I would rather enjoy life while I am fit in mind and body, and work in an office when I can’t do much else.

Leaving a mark

snowshoeing

snowshoeing

We’re in the Rockies with some friends (2 from Chicago, 4 of us from SF), staying in a cabin and going snow shoeing. We’ve gotten some fresh snow up in the mountains, and snowshoeing is a perfect way to enjoy the fresh snowy wintery forests.

There’s something oddly satisfying about leaving a track on fresh virgin snow. I suspect this stems from some primal urge to leave a mark on this world, to say “I wuz here,” to give ourselves the illusion that our existence matters. It reminded me of what Kara admitted to Lee in the Battlestar Galactica finale, that her greatest fear was not death, but being forgotten. When I was a kid, I read a lot of biographies of (mostly Japanese) historical figures, and I too once aspired to be someone who wouldn’t be forgotten. I spent years stressing over accomplishing something great enough to deserve (or reserve?) a place in the hallowed halls of The Unforgotten. It is probably no accident that many religions promise an eternal (or at least another) life after this one to appease this common fear.

animals pee to leave a mark

animals pee to leave a mark

Recently, I realized that this quest for immortality, if not in flesh then in name, was an ultimately futile exercise. Some people are remembered longer than others, but civilizations crumble, written records are lost, memories forgotten, species driven to extinction, and planets incinerated by expanding stars that they orbit. No matter what you do, no matter how famous you become, you will be forgotten eventually, if not sooner, then later.

That is not to say that life is meaningless, or that it is pointless to strive to achieve great things. Rather, it is my belief that we should value our lives and the lives of others, regardless of the ultimate outcome. Even if the end result is death, anonymity, extinction, annihilation, incineration and atomic decay, we possess the ability to value life, fleeting as it may be. In other words, while many religions teach that we should be good in this life so that we could deserve a better spot in the next life, we could just as easily choose to be good in this life, even if this is the one and only life we live. In fact, if this is the one and only life we get, it should be more reason to treat it well, live it fully, and help ensure others can do the same.