I remember this blender, though I didn’t remember owning it. In another box I find my emergency medicine textbooks. Among my former desk contents, a box of staples and a rainbow plastic slinky. Enameled Japanese-style soup bowls come out of newspaper. Everything comes out of boxes.

Is this my life?

I’m finally back “home.” I finally have an apartment. I can now own more than I can fit into my backpack, and suddenly I have a great many jackets and an abundance of fresh memories. I unpack more books and try not to think of these objects as my life. My stuff is not me, I keep insisting. A friend of mine says he learned this very clearly when his house burned down. How marvelously zen. I can’t throw out my first girlfriend’s leftover lingerie.

Or my iPhone, which traps me. I’m secretly ashamed of it, not because of the geek lust I feel, but because of its semiotics. To the casual observer, it pegs me as exactly what I am. Is some part of me an iPhone?

Hence the Chinese grocer.

Not only is the produce cheaper, but I don’t recognize most of it. I stand in front of bushels of something leafy and green, and discover that I can’t even read the name. I like this. Behind me there are tentacled things on ice, and sea snails. I had an excellent plate of sea snails in back alley of Saigon, and some others steamed on a beach near Danang. Those two incidents are the extent of my associations.

Not so for my distant counterpart. Is there, I wonder, some Vietnamese kid who even now is returning home and going out with his friends? He grabs a plate of food, reveling in familiar tastes, and at the same time thinks: is this really me? This home cooking, is it my life?

Because he got home that afternoon and started pulling all his old familiars out of big nylon duffels. He finds his old clothes, and a familiar pair of shoes. Knickknacks. Some books. But what books? What knickknacks?

I have no idea, and this excites me tremendously.

Everyone gets my jokes here; everyone grew up on the same cartoons and more or less the same food. Qarly found fish balls in my fridge the other day and said, ewww. What? Everyone eats them in Korea. I think. I don’t really know. They have completely different stuff there. If I was there I’d have completely different stuff too. I’d read different books and watch different movies and my nightlife would run in different neon veins.

I might be someone else. Do I really want to keep unpacking?

New Apartment Adventure

You close the door behind you in your new apartment. Your housewarming is in one week. It is pitch black.


You cannot see the light switch.


You walk along the wall with your hands. Fortunately, there is nothing to trip over in your empty apartment.  You find a switch.


Nothing happens. Have you an account with Pacific Gas & Electric?

Continue reading New Apartment Adventure

Moving Things With my Mind

I used to think I could move things with my mind. I could postulate parking spots into existence. I walked beneath streetlights and they would suddenly go out, victims of my weird and powerful energy. I was taught to believe this. I was taught that I could anything, and I excelled in everything I tried. The world is a wondrous place when nothing is impossible.

Then there was a moment, or perhaps a period of my life, when I lost this. I shed the mysticism I had been raised in; I raged at its flaws and threw it out entirely. It bound me too much and I had to get rid of it. I no longer believed that I could will the world into existence. I realized that I had no idea how often streetlights mysteriously went out when I was not standing under them.

I remember a night shivering in my apartment like the newly sober.
Continue reading Moving Things With my Mind

Campaigning for Myself

If I was an anarchist skate punk I’d tell you that the whole system is so fucked it doesn’t matter who gets in. Or I could be a Berkeley vegetarian and see loving animals as the road to peace – as in actual world peace. Or I’d say that repealing the drug war will save us, or green energy, preschool programs, fair trade, mothers against drunk driving, online privacy, and a crosswalk on 4th street. To which my response is, screw all that. I’ve seen too much for causes. You permaculture freaks can bite me.

I’ve seen the world and I’ve lost religion. I know that no single victory will save us. Also: no one ever does anything for completely selfless reasons, and it’s a mistake to think that they should. This is the only standard I think I can actually live up to, and it’s more honest anyway: saving the world is just too easy a way to feel good about yourself, to feel different and special, or to forget the girl who dumped you.

Nonetheless, I spent four hours yesterday afternoon calling voters for Barack Obama. I did not expect to feel good about it. I do not even really expect that it will make a difference. But it seems a bloodless sort of way to support the world I want to live in. Also – and this is the real reason – I was damn curious. About myself, mostly.

I’ve seen better and worse governments, and while they all seem sort of fucked, some are far more fucked than others. In the United States, no one is getting shot for their politics, and that’s not nothing. Not every country is like this. That is civilization, my friend. That and clean water. So it’s easy for me to believe that the system isn’t completely screwed. My toilet flushes. Seems like a minor thing, until you don’t have it and people start dying of cholera. True story.

I don’t need people to believe. I don’t believe myself. I just want a president who at least talks about sustainable energy and universal health care. I don’t give a shit that the guy’s charismatic, other than the fact that it’s an asset in his game. I just want to live in a certain world, and I think that Obama will bring us closer to it. Fun fact: while Obama’s domestic support is around 50%, something like 80% of world citizens want him to be president. Curious, isn’t it?

So I stepped into the system and made those calls, because I wonder just how far within the status quo it’s worth working. And I wonder how I’ll feel about participating in utterly mainstream politics, the CNN circus. I called voters in Nevada and tried to convince them to vote for Barack Obama, and I did it mostly because I wanted to see how I felt about myself at the end of the day.

This made me somewhat reckless on the phone. And that made me real, because I could say whatever the hell I wanted. I’m still working out what that is.

Hitting Rice with Sticks

In the developed world, everything works. The power is always on, and most things are on time. The economists tell us we’re actually more efficient at just about everything; a quick look at a table of GDP per capita shows that the developed countries make dozens of times more money per person than the poor countries. Now I know that GDP isn’t everything; I know that money doesn’t always measure what actually matters. Still, I have to wonder at the implication that some countries do so much more per person than others. Now that I’ve traveled a bit, I know that it’s completely true. It really does take more work to get anything done in a less developed place.

In the West-African country of Mali, the staple food is rice, which has a husk that must be removed before eating. The women do this work, manually, by using large mortars and wooden pestles. It takes hours to prepare a single meal this way.

Hitting Rice with Sticks in Mali

There are other examples.

Continue reading Hitting Rice with Sticks

Future 4th of July


I am about to run away for the weekend with some friends to play with fire art and motorcycles. There will be no ball games, fireworks, or kegs for me. There will be no Janet Jackson, no proud Amerfican Eagle, no barbecues, and no flags. I just never could connect with the symbols of the American Good Life. We do have propane, admittedly, but we have 800 pounds of it. We’re running a thing we built called 2piR, a sort of interactive magic platform. Standing on it, you can direct huge gouts of flame from 16 nozzles ranged around you in a 50 foot diameter circle. This is what we do for fun. This is our little piece of the future we’re building for ourselves — not the hardware, but the fact that we built it.

Continue reading Future 4th of July