“I saw six men kicking and punching the mother-in-law. My neighbor said, ‘Are you going to help?’ I said, ‘No, Six should be enough.’” – Les Dawson
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” – Elie Wiesel
“A man only becomes wise when he begins to calculate the approximate depth of his ignorance.” - Gian Carlo Menotti
“If it’s true that our species is alone in the universe, then I’d have to say the universe aimed rather low and settled for very little.” – George Carlin
“All generalizations are false, including this one.” – Mark Twain
“Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.” – Douglas Adams
“Our attitude toward life determines life’s attitude towards us.” – John N. Mitchell
“What you perceive, your observations, feelings, interpretations, are all your truth. Your truth is important. Yet it is not The Truth.” – Linda Ellinor
“The unreal is more powerful than the real, because nothing is as perfect as you can imagine it. Because it’s only intangible ideas, concepts, beliefs, fantasies that last. Stone crumbles. Wood rots. People, well, they die. But things as fragile as a thought, a dream, a legend, they can go on and on.” – Chuck
“By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.”― Franz Kafka
New Music Friday is a tradition that my brother and I have shared since I left home to attend college. Every Friday (or as often as we are able), we trade albums that we believe will be worthy of discussion or debate. They don’t have to be new releases – just new to both parties. Sometimes we come across music that is just too interesting to keep to ourselves, and so I will share here, for you, dear readers, my impressions of a recent New Music Friday listening session.
This week’s selection: twin concept albums Heliocentric and Anthropocentric from The Ocean.
The Ocean (sometimes referred to as The Ocean Collective) is a heavy, sludgy, experimental metal band from Berlin. These two albums were released in April and September of 2010, respectively, and were my first real exposure to the band. Musically, they remind me of other acts like Between the Buried and Me (aggressive vocals and thoughtful lyrics), Ihsahn (spooky saxophone) and ISIS (sludgy riffs), as well as a dash of Hurt (piano and violin interludes) and, if you can believe it, a single track (“Ptolemy Was Wrong”) that reminds me of Coldplay’s “Fix You.”
But lyrically, they are like nothing I’ve ever listened to.
Both of these albums tackle the tricky subject of religion. I hesitate to say most (but let’s face it; I’d be right) metal bands out there attack Christianity with about as much poise and finesse as an underage drinker parking his mom’s Toyota in the produce section of the local Wegmans. They pose and posture and create such intense impressions of Godless heathens that they end up looking like laughable parodies of themselves (I’m looking at you, Cradle of Filth. And you, Dimmu Borgir – although I found your 2010 album Abrahadabra to be uncharacteristically thoughtful.).
The Ocean has instead constructed two albums that critique Christianity and indeed, faith in general, in an exceedingly grown-up manner. They don’t rail against God and Providence – they attempt to understand Him and His, and find out along the way that the Christian Argument doesn’t hold a lot of water.
It’s heavy stuff, and it’s certainly not for everyone. But no matter what your religious persuasions are, it remains a moral imperative, as far as I’m concerned, to step outside our comfort zones regularly and immerse ourselves in perspectives that differ from our own.
I think the point at which the lyrics started demanding my absolute and undivided attention was “Metaphysics of the Hangman,” from Heliocentric, as it was the first pointedly critical song on the album. Following it up is “Swallowed by the Earth,” which seems to be using the Old Testament flood as a condemnation of God’s oftentimes disturbing idea of morality. Bass riffs reminiscent of Tool abound here. But natural disasters are one of the go-to arguments against the “loving and caring god” theory. So is there nothing new here?
I’m not exaggerating when I say that tracks 9 and 10 – “The Origin of Species” and “The Origin of God” – are two of the most important songs I’ve ever heard in my life. I said earlier that these albums are thought-provoking on every single level. Let me explain one of these levels.
Screaming. There are thousands of bands in the world that utilize vocals like these; some better than others. But as I listened to these albums, I was, for the first time, debating the purpose of death metal vocals. Oftentimes the subject matter of a so-called “screamo” or “hardcore” or “black metal” – or any genre with “death” as a prefix or “core” as a suffix – doesn’t really gel with the vocal delivery. Mikael Akerfeldt of Opeth has always understood this; his music would not make the kind of sense it does if he screamed every single lyric. It seems to me that deep and guttural screaming needs to be used sparingly to mean anything at all; you can’t scream about everything and expect to be taken seriously. It would be like typing everything you ever write with caps lock on. No one wants to read that. No one will ever give you the time of day.
I am not, generally speaking, a fan of this vocal style. But there are a handful of artists I love that do it spectacularly well. Full disclosure: I found some of the death vocals on these albums to be distracting and unnecessary. That is, until I got to “The Origin of Species.” I feel that using such harsh vocals on this track go beyond a stylistic choice and become representative of a veritable crisis of faith; the narrator admits as the song opens that it’s difficult to imagine the world coming into being without an “engineer” and then begins to systematically dissect and defeat his own premise. Damn! That’s the most metal thing I’ve ever heard! How could he *not* be screaming until his throat bleeds? As he wrestles with his own interpretation of the world around him, he reminds us that no one on earth can begin to fathom the hugeness and complexity of the natural processes we pretend to be able to understand. Our lifetimes, after all, are just an instant. The universe will never know we were here.
But that’s not enough. It’s followed up with “The Origin of God.” I knew I was in for a ride as soon as I read the title.
“A prime mover only shifts the problem.” Holy hell, this is brilliant. Let’s face it: belief in God is a cop-out in so many ways. In grappling with our origins, mankind chooses to cleave to the belief that some man in the sky created us. Like Richard Dawkins (who they later quote), in Ben Stein’s 2008 documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, citing alien intervention in the creation of the human race.
But where did God come from? This track makes me realize that this question, which I’ve wondered idly about since I was a child, and have managed to be satisfied with evasions or non-answers, is actually the single greatest blow to religion, and probably the most important question anybody could ask.
I’m not sure I’ve ever been tempted toward a crisis of faith by metal before… and God knows how many metal bands there are out there who have tried… poorly. I quite simply am astounded at how well this band vocalizes the questions that have always been in the back of my mind, that I’ve never been able to ask, or didn’t know how to ask, and the answers to which I’ve always, on some level, feared.
And that was just the first disc. Deep breath.
The opening/title track of Anthropocentric is ferocious right out of the gate. And the screaming here represents…what? Triumph? Perhaps. A man finally come to terms with the questions he’s been asking. As I listened to this album, I was jotting down quotes that struck me particularly hard. This song has several of them:
“[Christianity's] legacy of fear and submissiveness prevails in many brave man’s heart and soul.”
“Condemned to inertia.”
He’s putting Christians in their place, isn’t he? And it makes me wonder if it isn’t the ultimate expression of narcissism to believe that mankind is sanctified and blessed and singularly important in this gigantic, unfathomable universe.
The airtight arguments continue in “The Grand Inquisitor II: Roots & Locusts”:
“Who would want to worship such a maker anyway?” In speaking to the notion that mankind was put on earth solely to worship Him (many Christians will tell you that this is our singular purpose), the singer asks the simple question: is such a being worthy of our praise?
“It is not God that I do not accept; it’s this world of God’s, created by God, that I cannot agree to accept.” An interesting turn here. There’s a faint suggestion that the notion of God is not at the root of the problems he describes, but instead he objects to the circumstances that God allows to exist and persist, despite the fact that He’d have us believe that He is loving and just. These are familiar arguments, but here they somehow feel fresh and novel and yes… haunting.
“Sewers of the Soul,” while musically not as interesting as other tracks, and in fact slightly tedious, has some of the most important lyrics: “Christianity has been from the beginning life’s nausea and disgust with life… merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as faith in ‘another’ or ‘better’ life.” This is brilliant. And it makes the image of millions of Americans getting up early and going to sit in pews among other believers every Sunday to get in God’s good graces and one day escape this mortal coil look so suddenly depressing, craven, and possibly insane. He reminds us that we ought to make every single second of this life count; it is, after all, the only life we can ever be sure we’ll have. Anything else is a gamble.
The main character in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, after expounding his convictions and moral beliefs and describing the truths and absolutes that define his life, is asked, “What about the afterlife?” His (paraphrased) answer: “This is the life I am living, right now. I am concerned with no other.” Something I’ve often thought about.
“The Almightiness Contradiction” is another headtrip and an awesome closer for these two albums, and another nearly airtight argument. “For if He knew everything, He could not do anything different from what He knows.” God is, then, either omnipotent or omniscient; He cannot be both.
I was reeling as the final notes played out. I don’t know if I’d say that my faith is actually shaken, but I know that this is the closest I’ve ever come. I find myself torn between two ideas:
(1) Unanswered questions are what life is all about. That’s why they call it “faith.” Faith is the name we give to filling in the gaps of our very imperfect knowledge with unquantifiable beliefs that, in truth, have no basis in reality and can never be tested or verified.
(2) Nothing about God adds up; belief in Him is not an answer in and of itself, and organized religion is a deeply imperfect, hollow, and ultimately meaningless exercise that gets us no closer to heaven than we already are.
There are profound and simultaneous feelings of joy and absolute horror to be found in reveling in such huge questions. And I suppose that in a weird way it takes the pressure off; these albums are a reminder of just how small we are, and that we don’t understand anything at all in the grand scheme of things. And maybe life’s ultimate goal is to learn to be okay with that.
Christians and agnostics alike learn different versions of humility: Christians humble themselves with the knowledge that there is a power greater than our comprehension, who set the worlds in motion. We are as nothing compared with Him. Agnostics are humble in the understanding that they (and humanity as a whole) are powerless to understand anything at all, from the origins of the universe to its innermost workings. The march of science and progress will provide some of these answers, but they remain comfortable, somehow, knowing that certainty is a myth.
In short, I don’t think I’ve ever been affected by lyrics quite this way before. The music itself ranges from bold and captivating to dull and uninspired, but at every turn it’s the lyrics that challenge and intrigue and inspire and infuriate me. I was born and raised in a Christian household, and even now it’s the faith with which I associate most closely.
So I think I have an answer to one of life’s important questions: why am I here? Because God allows me to be. To what end? I don’t have a damn clue.
Wonderment is asking questions. Faith is accepting imperfect answers to impossible questions. But without anything to challenge our faith, our answers don’t mean anything at all.
Well, seems you couldn’t get enough of our resident Hobo – an oxymoron if I ever heard one. So, after a four-year leave of absence, he’s a-back. Hard times, people, hard times. Our Hobo – hereafter mostly referred to as “me” – had a change of fortune two or three times over and back again. It seems the Big Hobo in the Sky saw fit to strike me down in the prime of my hobo youth. A mere 30 years old and humbled like a Wall Street con man.
Sometimes people think when that big fellow hits he’s a-gonna wallop you like a thunder strike. Well, there I was, sleepin’ all restful-like in my environs, dreamin’ of the Big Rock Candy Mountain, when little by little I was stirred from my sleep. Just some back pain, I thought. So I rolled over and went back to sleep on that hard-scrabbled makeshift bed o’ mine. Next time I woke up with back pain and fullness in my solar plexus. Now this was highly uncommon for a hobo of my constitution. And the consumption was not afoot in these parts, so far as I knew. So at this juncture – I’m not ashamed to admit – I was afear’d.
First thoughts were the heart attack. For a long time before I switched tracks over to a transient lifestyle I was a self-professed hypochondriac. A bit like Redd Foxx in the Sandford and Son sitcom, I feared the “big one” three or four times a day. But I was a recovering hypochondriac, so I tried awful hard not to panic.
Pretty soon I was in a fix. My split-second list of possible ailments included the heart attack, the pulmonary embolism, the pheochromocytoma, or just plain old hypochondria (otherwise known as “the fits”). But then I remembered my own father’s 30-something spontaneous hemothorax. That’s when your lung just up and starts bleeding on its own, voodoo-like. Then, if you don’t get help, you drown in your own blood. My father’s episode ended with a scared-outta-his-wits junior doctor plunging a scalpel into my father’s chest at the last minute to drain the blood which was more like bursting a blood-filled balloon releasing a shocking six foot crimson geyser, leaving a Pollock-esque souvenir art piece on the hospital ceiling. And he lived to tell the tale. True story. Still smokes non-filtered cigarettes, too. The grizzledest most hardscrabbledest man I ever knew.
Upon this consideration, my hypochondria was held in check and I resolved to break camp early and ride my bike to the emergency room. If a hobo can’t out-hardscrabble his own father or die trying, why live? I figured the worst that could come of it was a true and worthy hobo death either behind a vacant gas station lot among the overgrown vegetation and water-filled tires with skeeter larvae or on the side of the road – literally in the margins of society, which would leave the hobo poet soul brimming with a deep satisfaction, I might add. It was also a solid test of my hypochondria recovery, which I passed.
I pedaled about eight miles or so – not to the nearest hospital, but to the second-nearest. By the time I passed within eyeshot of the first hospital – a place known for its nuns, reforming alcoholics, and a killing off of the hobo spirit – why, I was hurtin’ bad enough to want to live, but not bad enough to want to die. So I pedaled on further to another hospital known by many a hobo as a place to get warm, vomit, and maybe sober up occasionally. It so happened that this hobo had family employed there, as well – a small comfort indeed.
By the time our Hobo landed, he could barely walk. Standing up straight hurt the most, as it does for many hobos or others in such an ostracized social state. But this was much more than usual. Furthermore, he noticed a peculiar cough, one he likened to a whoopee cushion which rattled as he exhaled. As he breathed for the doctors and nurses who were fussing over him with tubes, electrodes, and other doodads, his heart warmed to the hobo credentials he was earning and he smiled a wide hobo grin of snaggletooth delight. Hobos have a way with descriptions. And this one did not disappoint with his whoopee lung. It was a whoopee lung’d pedal journey that would be his ticket to hobo hall of fame. This surely could trump his grandpa’s being born six months premature and incubated in a cigar box next to a wood stove, being too poor to know there was a Great Depression on, and living to tell the tale.
Hobo had many reasons to smile. He was yet alive, still earning hobo points while pilfering some creature comforts in an honest to goodness bed. Bathed in a sterile white, and being unknown to the hobo nature, was otherworldly and only added to the heavenly attributes of the entire experience. Mark Twain wore entire suits of white in his older years. Hobo knows why.
It was soon revealed that a spontaneous pneumothorax had visited Hobo in his sleep, and nearly wrested his eternal spirit through a hole in his lung as Hobo, himself, was resting his very transient body.
Like father like son.
As it was in the beginning and so forever shall be… and all that other happy horse hooey.
People keep telling me to cheer up.
Some of my friends teased me throughout college because I’d sometimes wear a frown during class. I’d be staring at nothing in particular; just sitting and listening and thinking. I was never conscious of it; I am certain that it was a default expression of mine; eyebrows knitted in thoughtful contemplation, maybe arms folded across chest, all devil-may-care.
“Why do you look so angry in class?” They’d ask me. “Why do you frown so much while you brush your teeth?”
“I’m not angry,” I’d answer. And it was always the truth. Well, almost always. But people tend to notice when I’m angry. I tend to notice.
A woman at work the other day – somebody I’d never spoken to (I didn’t know her name and still don’t) – asked me, not exactly politely:
“Are you always that intense?”
She asked this based solely on whatever expression was on my face. My answer should have been something like this:
“I’m at work. What the hell is there to be grinning about?”
But I turned it into a joke, like this:
“I’m at work. I’m in the zone. It isn’t any fun in the zone.”
She just looked at me like I’d threatened to shoot up a post office.
What the hell kind of thing is that to say to a perfect stranger? Suppose I accosted somebody I’d never met and asked them any one of the following questions:
Excuse me; do you always look that pregnant?
Hello. Why do you smell like cat poop and raspberries?
Hi! Are you gay? You look pretty gay.
I see people on a daily basis who seem to arrange their faces purposefully in as unpleasant an arrangement as possible. It can’t happen by accident; it’s the sort of expression that takes practice and effort. I stay away from these people. I skirt around them at work, avoid eye contact, avoid anything that might require dialogue. They’re off-putting. They all look like walking great depression-era photographs with a great deal less personality.
So when I am treated like these many dour people, I’m a little offended. I got the usual pleading from my mother to “smile nicely” in photographs, and the same from my father, who was eager to see the return on his investment in my teeth; the cost of my orthodontic treatments throughout the years could have bought a modest palace somewhere in the middle east. Despite this, I’d keep my lips shut and smile with my mouth closed. I have to believe it looked more natural than throwing my mouth wide open in an alarming grin like I’d just discovered masturbation.
But maybe I’m not actually treated the same after all. Perhaps I remain approachable anyway regardless. There’s evidence for this. For some reason I’ll never understand, people want to talk to me. I don’t make any effort to avoid conversation – I just don’t pursue it. A terrible trait for a writer, I’m sure. So I’m astonished anytime someone reaches out to me. What is it about me? I have no idea and I may never know.
But people at work make conversation, and not even what I’d call polite conversation. Which is not to say that the conversation is impolite. What I mean is that it’s not smalltalk. They want to know me. Several of them know details of my recent personal history that one or both of my parents don’t. And I know stuff about them, too. This guy at work – we’ll call him Fred – sidles up to me at startup in the mornings and makes the smalltalk. And then we’re back loading trucks in the afternoon and he’s spilling his guts about lost hopes and dreams and an absentee, alcoholic wife and a gifted kid that he wants to give the world to. He’s 37 years old, and has a perspective that I’ll not have for quite some time. And I value it highly.
And there’s other stuff, too, like the number of times he and his brothers hit each other in the head with shovels and other blunt instruments. One day in his childhood he stole a bike from one of his brothers (he is one of nine children) for a day of riding. That evening as he slept in his bed, the wronged brother snuck up and hit him in the head with a brick. How is it that I know this now? Why must I know this? Fred laughs about it now and I laugh about it. He claims it was even funny at the time, even with all the blood on the pillow and the sheets. I’m torn between wishing my parents allowed this sort of thing to happen under their roof and being real damned happy they didn’t. But I guess I’m glad to have dodged the brain damage bullet. Fred seems to have dodged that bullet somehow, too, though I can’t imagine how.
And there’s “Bruce Lee” Nguyen, a 47-year-old Vietnamese man who I’ve managed to grow close too. He was born without a filter, so he asks me pointed questions about my relationships and for some reason I answer candidly and calmly, glad to have another pair of ears at my disposal. It only got weird after he told me he had a dream about the two of us working in an ice cream factory together. But the creepiness subsided quickly enough and I went back to marveling that this man who’s seen the world for what it is can still have the uncomplicated, joyful dreams of a child.
There are people who were born to share. I’ll never be one of them. I’ll spill my guts if I’ve had a few drinks (it takes considerably fewer now than it did in college) or if I know somebody particularly well. I believe I have a longer than usual warm-up period.
Back to the subject at hand, I have to believe that the expression on my face that my friends (and strangers!) affectionately call “anger” is my face’s neutral state. I’m not about to go around grinning like an idiot. Only people who own windowless vans do that. And it isn’t a scowl that deters or discourages essential human interaction. I’m not conscious of it. I’m not creating a persona. I’ve seen people who do this, who cultivate a personality that is not their own; it’s in their face, in the way they move. And sometimes I see them when they think nobody is watching. And they’re still doing it. They have substituted their personality with a false one – perhaps the most tragic amputation of all.
I am not one of these. I don’t try to appear as anything other than what I am. Not really. Maybe sometimes I bend the truth and maybe I can choose to feign calm when it doesn’t come easily, but that’s really the extend of the deception I’d bring to bear on a perfect stranger.
So much of what we do depends upon our understanding that we exist, physically – that we are seen by others, that we know ourselves to be standing upon this floor with these feet and are holding this box with these hands. What else could we be capable of, if we were not possessed of such a need to accommodate our physicality, to wonder and stress and live and die according to how we are seen by others, and to how we see ourselves?
Every time you open your mouth to speak, you take a gamble. Human beings are so reliant on social interaction, and we go to great lengths to make sure we come off as important, intelligent, and worthy of attention. That’s really what it comes down to: attention. We crave it like we crave sex, money, and bacon.
Really, it is very much like how we love money, that wants and needs can be taken care of immediately with little green paper whenever we so choose. Each of our interactions are really a business transaction in its basest form. We give in order to receive, and there is always a risk that what you receive is not equal to what is given. Therefore, we gamble.
In the time it takes for you to transmit a thought to your lip/tongue/jaw muscles, fill your lungs with speaking-air, and tune your vocal chords, you have already accepted this risk. Luckily, you’re not in Vegas and you’ve learned a few tricks about how not to get ripped off. You know which words are appropriate and conducive to positive attention-receiving (“Would you like to accompany me to a movie this evening?”) and which ones are not (“Would you like to accompany me to a movie this evening, you foul-smelling two-bit whore?”)… or at least you hope/believe you do.
I’ve recently become more aware of the following phrase: “Don’t be ignorant.” I started to realize its increased use in my surroundings after having started a new clerical job in a large office setting. With the new job there were, obviously, new people with whom I’ve had to learn to communicate. Every group of people has their own language, their own set of go-to words and phrases that transcend larger society’s already extensive language (usually comprised of pop-culture references and internet memes).
Out of all of the new things I’ve heard coming from my new coworkers’ lips, the one that truly stuck out like a sore thumb was that one, “Don’t be ignorant.” This has bugged me (as it has countless other grammatically-conscious people) for a long time. This command is most commonly used to tell people off for being rude or inconsiderate, not for being unaware of something, which is the basest definition of “ignorant.” Could you possibly mean, “Don’t be unaware of the social constructs that deem your actions rude, inconsiderate, and/or unacceptable?” Because that would then make sense, and we can continue our conversation about how you indeed are unaware of how rude it is to, say, call someone’s mother a slut or take a drunken piss in the kitchen sink.
But let’s be honest; most people don’t differentiate between the words “ignorant” and “rude” anymore. They just want to tell you off for doing something they don’t like. They take the gamble of trying to communicate their anger in a way that makes them feel superior, and both sides lose chips because the speaker was actually, ironically, the ignorant one. We work so hard to make ourselves feel as if we’re smart, and so often (just when we think we’ve got it!) we come off as the opposite. So what can we do to change this?
I’ve decided to try a little experiment in my mind: I take a moment to think before I speak. Frankly, this should be neither a new nor groundbreaking suggestion. It’s something we’ve had repeated to us like a skipping record since our playground days. And yet, along with all of the other early-taught rules we disregard (don’t forget to say “please” and “thank you,” don’t chew with your mouth open, don’t hit grandma in the face), we’ve somehow reverted back to aimlessly shooting our words into the air in hopes of hitting anything and everything. But I found that retraining myself to actually take a second to consider how my words are received has produced wondrous results. I’ve stopped stumbling through conversations so much, I sound a lot smarter than I know I actually am, and people seem genuinely more interested in what I have to say. While it’s a work in progress, I am more aware of how I seem to be making less noise, how I seem to be communicating. If only those around me could see that communicating efficiently is not a matter of being more intelligent, just less ignorant of how their words are interpreted. Then maybe we could hold more productive–more interesting–conversations.
I have to leave the house to check for packages.
Though I suppose it could be worse. And frequently was. Back in my college days (as though it were all that long ago) I lived in barely on-campus housing for my sophomore and junior years. It was a once-classy old house, probably built in the thirties or forties, down the road from campus proper and probably a quarter-mile walk from the nearest academic building. The Writers Institute had taken possession of the building and it was afterwards reserved for writing majors, although it from time to time was home to biology majors whose loud and possibly disease-ridden girlfriends frequently spent the night and made loud retching noises in the mens’ bathroom late at night on the weekends and every so often left a mess for housekeeping in the only upstairs sink that cannot be accurately rendered verbally. Bucket of cream of broccoli soup is the nearest visual touchstone I can provide.
Generally, the house itself had been kept in good condition, though our imaginations ran wild with the permanently closed-off attic. Nothing good ever happens in attics. And there was that one unfortunate incident with the tart warmer – a sort of plug-in candle that melts delicious-smelling wax in a ceramic dish that diffuses scent through the room. I’ll tell you it wasn’t my fault (because it wasn’t) and that alcohol wasn’t involved (because it was), but a certain friend of mine blundered himself against the mini fridge and upset the tart warmer, splashing molten, emerald green wax all behind the fridge and on the wall and the floor. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to clean wax off something after it’s been left to dry all night, but it’s about as effective as playing whack-a-mole with an Italian sausage. We scratched off what we could and then made the trip to Lowe’s to get some ill-matched interior paint to hide the rest.
But the house was comfortable, for the most part. It would get hot in the summer, what with the lack of air conditioning, and got even hotter in the winter, with the girls downstairs screwing around with the thermostat, attempting perhaps to replicate the climate of the forest moon of Endor. I frequently left more than one window open in the long winter months and slept quite comfortably.
The student mailboxes were located at the campus center – probably yet another third-of-a-mile away. Mail was not delivered directly to the house, unless it was a large parcel (like a television or a birdbath) and you trusted your housemates to let the delivery man inside and sign for it in your absence. So we had to walk that lonely walk across campus to check for mail, which even after four years in attendance at that school still arrived at a schedule that I found completely inscrutable. While expecting some parcel of great importance, I’d frequently make that trip multiple times throughout the day, knowing that the emails they send to students informing them of newly arrived packages frequently arrived several hours after the package had. And more than once I’d make the trip and even recognize the particular size and shape of the item I was expecting, piled back there in the mailroom only to be informed by the work-study student that it hadn’t yet been passed through whatever computer system tabulated and recorded the comings-and-goings of parcels, and that I would have to leave empty-handed and return in an unspecified time, despite the fact that my next class ended shortly after four o’ clock – that is, after the mailroom closed every day – and I’m here right now and I can see my package back there on the desk and why can’t you just give it to me now, damn you?
College has come and gone; my framed diploma hangs on the wall. A very expensive decoration. But I’m getting along well enough to be renting a house in a quiet little suburb and living comfortably enough, tucked behind the landlord’s house. Packages are delivered to his front porch along with the daily mail, and so I have to get shoes on and possibly fish the umbrella out of the closet because it’s of course raining at the precise moment that my preternatural parcel-sense informs me that UPS has just come and gone. Parcel-sense is 100% effective 30% of the time. Just as Amazon.com’s parcel-tracking text messages arrive when the parcel does 30% of the time, 100% of the time.
I wish there was some paradigm-altering lesson to be learned here. If anything, it’s the realization that stepping outside is frequently more trouble than its worth. I’ve also begun counting the times where I reach for my smartphone to consult the Weather app for the current temperature instead of poking my head out the front door. And I don’t take walks because I don’t like walking without a destination in mind. This is the reason I’m fond of backpacking; when it’s over, I’ve accomplished something that I can describe in the language of absolutes: I climbed that mountain. I only brought n changes of underwear.
I experience the great outdoors piecemeal, when it suits me. Any other time it’s a distraction and a nuisance and an inconvenience, as when about thirty yards of it separates me from whatever lovingly packaged book or CD or video game I’ve ordered and paid for with mere money and patience.
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