Monday, July 16, 2007

Sucking Wind

I visited Cuzco, Peru to hike the Inca Trail, just as fledgling dot-coms everywhere were coughing up blood. My company dropped free lunch, massage benefits, and staff (including me) at nearly the rate it exhausted venture capital. For the first time since “profession” became the accepted shorthand for WHO I WAS – “He studied history? But he’s in computers!” – I was unemployed. Identity-less, I groped around for my second act, fortunate the stigma of joblessness, even among young climbers in Washington, DC, had faded with each astonishing increase in the number of good-looking, well-bred people consumed by the bust.

Pink slips were the new Purple Hearts, to be celebrated, not pitied, a cosmic click of life’s reset button.

I gladly embraced unemployment and the freedom – and possibilities – it provided. I studied the classifieds with the excitement of a college student perusing the course catalog. “Yeah, I think I’ll go after that editor job,” I’d say, as though I needed a Tuesday-Thursday class to work around my Ultimate Frisbee schedule, mindless that I, a long time manager of technology projects, hadn’t the experience normally required of editorial types. Or copywriters. Or hack political operatives. To me, what mattered was that I had the skills – no, the aptitude – for these positions. The actual skills could come later.

After all, years of pop-culture consumption had inverted my once-grounded worldview. My parents were big on humility and hard work, but before long the promise of tee-ball, calculators, and, much later, the morning-after pill had turned me against their shrewd wisdom. Life, it seemed, could be easy. And then there were the films affirming this or that triumph of the human spirit, set, as if by law, in some exotic locale chosen for its epiphany-yielding traits.
In particular, I remember Superman.

As a confused teen, he left Kansas for the North Pole to clear his head and inaugurate what became, in Metropolis, a self-styled Reign of Terror. There was just something, I guess, in all that ice and snow that freed him from his Red State ennui. Yet Superman was not alone. Countless others, on screen and off, in a sort of real and imagined circle of discovery, found meaning in Tibet and Nepal, Patagonia and South Africa, and, more chillingly, Florida. And although I didn’t consider it seriously – would I find my purpose in Peru? – I nonetheless hoped for a major breakthrough on the paved track of the Inca Trail.

The Trail, which extends hundreds of kilometers, for most hikers amounts to the 25 mile stretch between Piscacucho, three hours south of Cuzco, and Machu Picchu, the renowned spiritual center of the Inca Empire. The route promised ample opportunity for my Superman moment, as it passed over diverse terrain winding past several archeological sites far removed from the dim fluorescent glow of everyday life. I was certain the scenery, compounded by the insights of our guide, Carlos, would yield not only my personal watershed, but also an enthusiastic testimonial for the local tourist authority.

“This place will change your life, man!’ Derek, USA”

Carlos, it seemed, suffered from no existential strife. As the English-speaking leader of a desperate gang of porters and back-country cooks, he had definitely made it, and his smile, curled startlingly upward in the corners, proclaimed the shock of his good fortune. His crew –five or six men pulled from a pack of Quechuan day-laborers – was not as lucky, temp workers skilled in the hauling tents and foodstuffs if not word processing or reception. For them, the four-day journey wasn’t proof of their chosen status, but rather an opportunity to make twenty or so dollars, with tips, and dream of something better.

My fellow hikers were all stalwarts of the world’s privileged civilizations, featuring the usual blend of checklist-toting American slackers, upright Canadians, and a perpetually stupefied Dutch couple, who spoke only in exclamatory sentences. Among them was my friend Jesse, with whom I endured the indignities of high school, college, and, now, “1722,” the crumbling home we occupied Stateside with four slovenly and sloth-like trolls. We set out from the ranger station at mid-day and quickly crossed the short footbridge leading onto the path of salvation. I was ready for some signs, and adjusted my cap so the meddling sun, already blinding at 9000 feet, wouldn’t keep me from seeing them.

The first section of trail, winding along the south side of the Urubamba River, doesn’t require much in terms of technique; it’s mostly flat, with a pounded dirt surface, and can be traversed easily. As we quickly passed by the sandy dunes and scrub brush lining the route, I looked down at my steel soled hiking boots, tied tightly around the ankles in expectation of a Bataan-style death march, with boundless pity. Zoo animals were more likely to utilize their peculiar adaptations than my waterproof trail stompers. I loosened my boots and stepped in deep puddles whenever conditions allowed.

After about an hour the path started rising into the mountains, but at a manageable incline which buoyed the confidence of my companions, many of whom dreaded the looming threat of altitude sickness. The arid landscape of the first few kilometers gradually yielded to lush woodland terrain, and then our first glimpse of Inca ruins. We viewed the complex of small stone buildings and terraces from 500 feet above, on a plateau en route to Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest point on our journey. Not much was known about this particular site, as Carlos quickly made clear.

“In this place, maybe the Inca grow food, to feed the people of the Inca. Look at the ground; the Inca build little boxes – how you say… terraces? – for the farming in the mountains. Maybe the Inca make sacrifices to the god of Mother Earth, Pacha Mama, who lives on the mountain, giving thanks for the food… in this place.” Carlos was an unwitting master of symmetry, beginning and ending each of his soliloquies with “in this place.” His conclusion was always whispered, as if not to disturb Pacha Mama, and accompanied by a downcast expression. Arms extended outward, he emphasized the sanctity of the location by bobbing his hands up and down, in case we too didn’t know the English word for “here.”

We knew he was done when he flashed his toothy grin. It was as if to say “Maybe you want a refund? Please, no questions, it’s a long way to Machu Picchu.” With that we’d snap some photos and get moving again.

The Trail was loaded with rousing vistas, the type known well to office drones used to motivational posters and their empowering slogans. “Teamwork” or “Perseverance” they might say.

Pacha Mama was a snow-encrusted spire, almost invisible in the mid-day sun; she towered over the nearby mountains. What concept did she convey to the Inca as they trod by on the path to and from Cuzco? Did they stop as I did, desperate to remember? And what of the next batch of ruins, built on a precipice above the clouds? Did they watch the billowy tufts combine haphazardly with their neighbors, then separate again, like four-year-olds bumbling through a dance routine? I was certain of one thing; unlike those drones back home, they definitely weren’t thinking thoughts of “Determination.”

As our elevation increased, I focused on the metaphor leading us, over precisely laid stones, up to the high pass. It was getting harder to breathe as I neared the top, and the trail narrowed. I stopped several times to catch my breath, but not for too long. The air was getting thinner, and no amount of rest could prevent me from having to stop again after thirty or so paces. At one point, I imagined an ancient messenger, standing in my place, wondering if this was truly what Inti, the Inca sky god, had in mind for him at his birth. “Damn those lucky high priests and scribes!” he might have thought. Did he liken his route, to some temple in the distance, as the path of revival?

I knew that the analogy was imperfect; a winding trail leading gradually upward, toward some far off pinnacle, was not exactly how one experiences personal growth in America, not at the dawn of the 21st century anyway. In school they encourage you to pick a destination – what do you want to be when you grow up? – and then set you about getting there, eyes on the monolith in the distance. Trudging forward on the trail, I found this approach lacking. When I returned home, would I look for another technology job? Where does one find alternative monoliths?

Jesse and I made it to the pass together, and that afternoon settled into our camp on another mountain ridge, still above the clouds. Carlos was telling tales again, and the sun descended behind the peaks across from us, beyond the enshrouded valley. The temperature sank thirty degrees in about an hour, so Jesse and I – the others were huddled in their tents – started a fire and passed a bottle of bourbon between us, fighting the cold and waiting for the darkness.

“Maybe you see all the stars tonight,” Carlos said.

The wind picked up as twilight yielded to the night sky; the campfire and hooch were worthless against the wind, so I laid down flat on my back, and watched the stars come into focus. Back home, they reveal themselves one by one, slowly, struggling to be noticed through artificial lamplight and carcinogenic haze. But in the Andes, at 10,000 feet, the stars appeared in gangs, flashing furiously onto the scene, shoulder to shoulder, as if massing for armed struggle. No wonder the ancients saw warriors in the stars. Through it all a white ribbon appeared, lacing its way through the armies of light.

“Check it out – the Milky Way,” Jesse said.

Looking up I locked on to a tiny star, obscured by the larger, brighter bodies around it, and imagined hurtling its way in some future spacecraft. I wondered if this star could be seen from the streets of DC, or if it was perpetually hidden from my view by too little darkness. I thought onward at light speed. What if, in trying to get there, the gravity of a different star pulled me closer than expected? Would I embrace an orbit in that system, in lieu of my planned destination? Maybe there were no monoliths, and no plodding paths to them, only infinite points of light.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

And Now I Present, "The Money Pit"

In March 2005, I breathed the de-oxygenated air of an overly exuberant housing market and, with the thought I normally reserved for the purchase of gumballs, bought a two bedroom condo in Adams Morgan. Actually, it's a co-op, which means I own shares in a corporation rather than the actual physical space I occupy in the Plaza West.

Confused? Think of your mother picking out your outfit in the morning before you go to school - it's something like that, living here. You can improve your apartment, for example, but all plans must be blessed by the miserly members of the co-op board. They're nice folks, but for them the concept of building maintenance is not a shared but rather individual responsibility, better steered toward an unsophisticated newbie resident than the corporation.

I suppose it makes sense to skimp on the bills where you can, to reduce waste and keep costs manageable for the mixed income hordes packing the building. Yet, despite all this abstemiousness, costs continue to rise at breakneck speeds. Maybe it's the bumps in energy and tax expenses, but all suffer from our ever-increasing association fee - not to mention the rising ground rent, something neither myself nor my real estate agent felt obligated to research and understand prior to the offer I tendered in those insane times; DC's cash-hungry bureaucracy commands income from the gentrified regions in Northwest, and so value of our land inflates like an appendix very much on the outs.

Anyway, a bloated tax bill is usually a good sign - it means things are looking up in our little burg. And I guess you can't really complain about growing fees; inflation is an inescapable constant, right up there with death and that other thing I've been talking about over and over. But all this is to be expected - my problem has to do with the upkeep and renovation of the place.

Wha? Yeah, good question. When I bought this place, in those crazy times, it was quite the shithole. Nasty, matted and stretched carpet ruled the floorspace, and the washrooms resembled the crumbling baths of the Roman era, not the glimmering spas known to frequent visitors of this or that highfalutin showroom. For awhile I thought my limited knowledge of home improvement would deliver, in no time, a restored home at a bargain price. Over time, however, one thing became abundantly clear - there was no way I could, single-handedly, refresh all the water damage and neglect my box in the sky had endured over the years.

So I hired the job out. New bathrooms and window and door molding went up in short order, and, for mere many thousands, I was living the good life. Among the improvements was a repair to my kitchen ceiling, which showed signs of shearing, as if caused by the settling of my 100 year old building. The guys did a fantastic job, or so it seemed, and soon after the fix I'd forgotten all about the gash that once adorned my still outdated kitchen.

Fast forward a few months, say 7 months, and what you find is this: the gash has returned! Not only is it back, but along the exact same fault line it existed before! I bought this place with eyes wide open, convinced I could resurrect it from its neglected state at a reasonable price. I figured an apartment, however crumbled, could be easily revived with a little elbow grease and investment. It's not a house, right?

Well, the Return of the Shear - and all the other stuff, from the difficulty of replacing my interior doors (yes, doors) to the endless saga involving my expired HVAC units - has got me thinking... Maybe there are some things that can't be resurrected. Maybe some things are, and always will be shit. Perhaps this is a dramatic assessment, considering the improvements that have somehow stuck since I moved in, but I feel I'm living on borrowed time, that this place will betray me before I can unload it when the market picks up again.

It makes me wonder about all the other shear in my life - my fear of commitment, my inability to deal with uncertainty and even fear. As I plod through each day, am I merely obscuring my problems, or am I owning up and and addressing the actual causes of those problems? I think about the re-emergence of the cracks in my ceiling, and wonder if they are in some way symbolic of something more. Something personal.

I can't say for sure, but, in my next home repair, the first thing I'm tackling are those blasted ruptures.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Don't be Fooled - I Don't Read

For years I've managed to get by on a lone bookshelf, one of those single-wide Ikea jobs everyone somehow seems to acquire six months on either side of college graduation. It has proven more durable than much of my other furniture from that Big Blue Box - the key, I've discovered, is to never take anything apart - and has been tall enough to absorb the trickle of new material I occasionally toss up on its shelves.

It's only been in the past couple of years, really, that the shelf has begun to fail me. Its inadequacy emerged innocently enough, when in a rush I placed a couple of volumes horizontally across an upright row of like-sized books. I suppose I could have rearranged a few titles and found some unforeseen space, but I viewed this solution as simultaneously expedient and ingenious; not only had it made use of available real estate, but did so without obscuring the names of nearby books, most of which, honestly, I had never read, nor really planned to read. Like Johnny Carson for all those years on the Tonight Show, it was more important for me to know they were there than to actually flip through their pages. For me they were decorations, symbolic of my interests, but little else.

My disinterest in reading, however, hardly prevented me from acquiring new books. I just knew there'd be some speed-reading frenzy on the horizon and I was desperate to be ready. Before long I ran out of horizontal storage on top of the existing rows of upright tomes, forcing me to apply the technique in front of those rows, starting from the surface of each shelf. At this point the strategy became a victim of its own success, with books jutting outward from the shelf face and scaling upward over the spines of everything else. If a visitor had seen this sight in a vacuum, they would think I was quite prolific reader indeed.

Alas, that same visitor, if he bothered to look around, wouldn't find another book in my entire apartment. I'm into periodicals...

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Naughty or Nice?

I started Tuesday, quite willfully, with a simple act of courtesy, holding open a door for an attractive woman passing the threshold behind me. I resisted the urge to exaggerate the gesture, careful not to look too closely at her or break my stride to the coffee counter. This was about kindness for kindness’s sake, not some calculated pickup attempt, and I, extrapolating from that moment, wondered how many karma credits I’d end up earning that day. I repeated the gesture on the way out, and watched as, in my mind, the value of my cosmic assets surged upward.

Every ledger, though, has its liabilities, and before long mine were piling up. The problems began en route to work, at a bus stop in a crumbling part of town, where a white haired man pulled himself past the driver and into the aisle, stopping in front of my seat. Normally, the crossword distracts me from these developments, but my failure to conjure the word for “seed coat” led me to his gaze.

He nodded in an inquiring way, and I looked him up and down for signs of ill health, noting his remarkably erect posture and firm grip on the overhead rail. He was nearly smiling, a picture of geriatric fitness! I quickly made my judgment, deciding the time standing would bolster his youthful vigor, or what was left of it, and I returned to the four-letter crisis taunting me from the grid. Was it “rind?”

Later, long after the soccer game, a homeless-looking man approached me as I entered the corner market. The soles of his shoes had pulled away from their upper halves and at least one or two gnarled and darkened toes peeked out from the openings. He used a rope to tighten his pants and wore a t-shirt decrying unprotected sex. I could tell from his glossy glare that he was very eager to speak with me.

“Got any change?” he said, extending a heavily callused hand. I considered his request and thought of the crisp dollar in the depths of my pants pocket, and how quickly I could pass it from that pocket to his hand. But instead I squeezed my fist around the bill and crinkled it, declaring it unfit for further transfer – if one can assume such things – at the local liquor store.

Now I’d learned from experience that the polite use of “no, thank you” and “sorry, not today” often invited unpleasant retorts from pan-handlers, so I uttered my refusal in the most unambiguous and resolute way possible. I glanced in his direction, but not directly at him, and firmly said “no.”

“Fuck you,” he said, rejecting my reply. I walked into the store and used the crumpled dollar to grab a six-pack, then returned outside. More insight was on its way: “You’re an asshole!” he shouted, and then hurled insults as I plodded towards home. With this I re-assessed my cosmic assets and liabilities; turns out that morning’s surplus had transformed into a staggering deficit. But I was still optimistic – despite all the evidence screaming otherwise, I strongly believed, and to this day am certain, that I’m a good person, maybe even a really good person.

Just don’t ask the old guys on the bus.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Save a Life - Flush the Toilet!

I wish I lived in an era where mankind knew a little bit less about bacteria. I'm not saying I would have preferred the days of ritualized bleedings, but I'm finding the current age, replete with anti-bacterial this and that, a little too empowering for the common man. Nowhere has this excess knowledge proven more inconvenient than in the bathroom, where numerous lawsuit-conscious concerns - and corporations with skyrocketing health insurance premiums - have fed the public's fear of disease carrying microbes.

Of course, public toilets have never quite inspired images of cleanliness. If it were at all possible, I'm sure most people would cinch tight their bladders and sphincters if it meant avoiding a pungent, poo-splattered encounter with a messy public commode. Alas, our high fat, high calorie diet all-too-frequently expands our waste processing organs to their fullest capacity, simultaneously "greasing" our plumbing and forcing many a trip to the nearest sanctioned loo. It's here, in the public space, where we find oversized sheets of paper, meant to separate our bums from the toxic surface of the toilet seat; printed exhortations to wipe properly and wash up afterward; no touch faucets and urinals; yesterday's sports section.

All these innovations exploit our fear of bacteria as a known pathogen, drastically changing the way we behave in the communal space. We suddenly kick open doors to avoid handling their knobs and latches, or contort our bodies to slip through doorways as they slowly close or open. No matter that it's impolite to do such things; what's a colleague's broken nose when you've avoided an encounter with millions of infectious bacteria? But now people, and by people I mean men, as I typically avoid the ladies' room, have taken this "no handle" ethos to yet another extreme - increasingly, folks simply refuse to flush the toilet, preferring to let their urine mellow in the basin for the next person to deal with.

While I've long ago reconciled myself to the unpleasant sights and smells of public restrooms, I find it somehow galling that grown men think it's acceptable to leave unflushed puddles of piss in the toilet. I blame it on the bacteria. Had we not known so much about them, how they live and get around, and what they do once they've climbed through your mouth or anus, we wouldn't have this phenomenon. And frankly, I fear it may not be a simple bacteria-avoidance maneuver - I bet most of these guys pretty much just don't want to wash their hands.

The End of Fun?

Saturday night is all that matters anymore.

The decline of Thursday, while not exactly telegraphed, coincided with the joint rise of low-rider jeans and exposed thongs as the evening-wear of choice, in effect blunting the once-enduring appeal of dollar beer night.

And then, not much later, Friday night and I had a falling out. It was a mutual parting, actually – I couldn’t, with any reliability, summon my liver and kidneys to her service, let alone endorse to her skull-splitting devotion to both binge drinking and fascist conspiracy theories, a.k.a. “blowing off steam.” After too many years, the standard rationalization – “It was a tough week; I earned that puddle of vomit!” – had really lost its luster, and the couch, unfathomably, replaced the bottle as Friday’s cure for fatigue and disillusionment.

With that bombshell I embraced Saturday night, as not only the last redoubt for my youthful indiscretions, but also a portal to something different, more, perhaps even better. Saturday, in fact, is ideal for quixotic experimentation. It’s a blank slate, free from work-week obstacles and the prying mandates of Jesus Christ, allowing ample time for self-realizing pursuits as well as the gutter. And wedged as it is between Friday and Sunday, Saturday night doesn’t suffocate with cast-concrete obligations – stifling deadlines, appointments.

You’re free to do what your body wills and ignore that harpy ol’ mind; if that means gobbling a half-dozen doughnuts, of the variety you typically bypass if left uneaten in the corporate kitchen – “I can’t handle the carbs,” you might say – then guzzle them down! There’s still room for an a la carte steak later! Saturday night doesn’t judge or reprimand; after all, that’s why God made Sunday.

Nyuk Nyuk Nyuk

For all its faults, Hollywood succeeds in providing an important public service beyond simple, direct to consumer entertainment. This service in no way enhances the economy, nor does it unite the harried American citizenry with a common cultural thread. Rather, through catchphrases and clever dialog easily etched into the popular consciousness, it provides a general merchandise trove of pith and wit capable of propelling both the dull and feeble-minded to undeserved heights of social prominence.

Among the media, film is most responsible for this trend. Its products can be consumed in a single sitting, generally in less than two hours, and can be viewed again and again thanks to the butt-numbing wonders of home theater technology. The result is a populace awash in stolen words of encouragement, expressions of love, and, perhaps most frustratingly, laughter. More than ever, any lout with a decent memory and outsized ego can ingest hundreds of punchlines, verbatim, and with practice, casually spin them as products of his own wit. As if it wasn't bad enough, in the previous age, when people merely thought themselves hopelessly funny. Now, with their pilfered catalog in tow, they can regurgitate proven winners and claim it as evidence of their genius.

The result? A population funnier than ever before, but, corrected for inflation, still far less funny than the guys connected to anything featuring Ben Stiller. And as annoying as in epochs past. Thanks Hollywood...