Hi friends, I’m no longer going to be cross-posting my Sunday Dispatch to Tumblr (and am eventually going to take away any archival links to the individual dispatches too, but: baby steps). Reason is it works better, I think, as a personal email.
Hi friends, I’m no longer going to be cross-posting my Sunday Dispatch to Tumblr (and am eventually going to take away any archival links to the individual dispatches too, but: baby steps). Reason is it works better, I think, as a personal email.
A film I’ve thought about many times on this trip is Lost In Translation. Specifically the passing scenes in the film, the ones where Scarlet Johansson’s character is wandering by herself in Tokyo, observing a traditional wedding or Japanese kids playing rhythm games in the arcade. What they capture so well, these scenes, is a sense of foreignness, of distance, of having a cultural bubble between you and the place you are. Not merely alien but an awareness that you are the alien, the stranger in a strange land, observing norms that haven’t normalized in you. Yet.
I’ve been on the road for two months now, and can slowly start feeling myself untether from my previous life (and it does feel like a long-forgotten life) in New York. A sign perhaps: I’ve been scheming of ways to stay untethered when I do go back a month from now.
And that feeling of strangeness I’m talking about—I’m starting to feel it when I see the photos and updates my friends back home are posting. New norms are seeping in, making the old ones more apparent, like balsamic vinegar being dripped into olive oil. Maybe time will be the emulsifier here, but for the moment everything is still separate and distinct and sometimes silly.
One example: the shared cab and van rides I’ve been taking here, that I’ve written to you about in my past updates. No fixed schedule, leave only when there are enough people. Would never work if you’re in a rush to get somewhere, you might say. But without a formal alternative, I would imagine that it also begets a different attitude toward punctuality. Makes it less of a value. I’ll see you when you get here. It could be that this more casual way of doing things works only in a society where change happens slowly, and roles and jobs are constant. Some might say third-world, or “uncivilized,” but I would argue against a strict relationship between technological advancement and civilization. A more appropriate word would be informal. The systems that make things run in large parts of the third world are more informal.
On long bus and train rides, the drivers will stop and let onboard women who are selling fruit and sandwiches and rice puffs. Sometimes, the passengers themselves are the ones who, while they’re on the way from the middle of Bolivia to the Argentine border, will carry with them snacks and thermoses of coffee to hawk to the other passengers. On one of my buses in Peru, a woman came onboard with an entire barbecue beef neck and a meat cleaver, and was hacking away as the bus jostled left and right down the winding mountain road. It was some of the best barbecue I’ve ever had, and a hell of a lot better than airline food.
There’s a phrase in interface design: “paving the cowpaths”— taking the most frequently trod trails, the dirt in the grass, and formalizing them, turning them into roads. It’s done to ease movement where movement already exists, smooth the way through the system. But once you pave the cowpaths you have to maintain them. Problems are fixed but others are introduced. The interstate freeway system might have brought us improved commerce, safer transport, spiritual road trips, but it also brought us McDonalds and Walmart and urban sprawl, just as those super-size fries bring us both childhood bliss and type-II diabetes.
Informal systems rely more on trust in other people, whereas formal systems rely more on trust in the built infrastructure of the system itself. What was once a strong interdependence between humans, helped along by flexible tools, becomes a one-way dependence on the tools themselves. And the more time I spend from the distance of societies that have not yet “caught up” with the first world, the more I’m struck by how much fear and hesitation there was and is in my own life, and in the life of others back home. Large parts of that fear, I’m realizing, are regarding systems that have yet to be formalized, or it’s distress from when the formalized systems, which are supposed to be smooth and flawless, don’t work as advertised. What also results from this fear is a pave-happiness, an urge to Skymallify and fix every possible minor annoyance, which only creates further and sometimes greater problems, like building a house to keep out snakes only to attract grizzly bears.
Maybe this is the way the world is going. But while I’m still on the outside and seeing the strange excessiveness of some formal systems, I’m learning to appreciate the strange beauty of some informal ones, and trying to understand how in circumstances where we have a choice, when it’s more appropriate to act, and when it’s better to do nothing.
Although: Slow isn’t quite the right word to describe the internet here. Temperamental is more like it. It seems to work the best at seven o’clock in the morning, and can drop on you on occasion midday but is otherwise manageable, then it progressively degrades later into the afternoon until it’s more or less unusable at dusk and thunderstorms. The internet here works like the sun. And for someone like me who depends on it for sustenance, it practically is the sun. My crops are different and my farmland is infinite, and my uniform unlike the cholita women here who wear shiny skirts and wool cardigans and shawls and bowler hats and their hair in pigtails, but my farm is subject to the same over and underexposure. And as this analogy would have it, procrastinating on the internet, for me, is like suffering a drought. It does me good when the sun is gone, cause then the rain can come. The difference back home is that I’m also the one controlling the weather.
And so I write to you, while I still can today, before I leave this afternoon on a flight for Santa Cruz, in Southeast of Bolivia. I’d like to say I’ve adapted to the new hours of daylight here but I know that, once I settle into the hotel, it will be the same process all over again: asking for the wifi password, connecting, waiting, waiting, waiting.
In describing my trip to someone this week I said that I’m not quite in full “adventure mode” yet, meaning that nearly everything I’ve done so far has been more or less planned, talked about, researched, decided on, at least a few days in advance. I’ve known what’s coming. But the further along I get—as I discovered driving around in the American Southwest last summer—the shorter my foresight gets, and the less I’m reliant on it. Whimsy takes over, I learn to trust in the unknown, and that trust has yielded gifts which have effected significant change in me. I’m not in full adventure mode yet, but I’m close.
I feel I’m on a similar cusp with my novel. I’m at the most difficult part of rewriting the rough draft, because I already know where the story’s going but I have to act as if I don’t, so as not to lose the sense of spontaneity and wandering. I have to go into adventure mode and forget the plans my past self made, and it only hit me recently that I’ve been struggling to do this for months. The struggle seems all the more difficult as I haven’t been able to sustain a writing routine for as long as I’d like due to all my traveling.
Back in New York, the amount of work I did on the novel was for a long time dependent on how closely I stuck to my daily routine. If I woke up late one morning, or missed breakfast, or if a freelance deadline crept up on me, I’d try to reschedule my writing session to later in the day but end up skipping it instead because it wasn’t my habit to write in the evenings. A highly structured and productive routine is like an alternate reality with its own physics; sometimes I’ll slip through a rift in the habit-time continuum and end up in a place where the last thing I want to do was work on the book.
Another thing: being aware of that alternate reality had its own consequences. I see now that over time, my writing sessions had started to shorten, and I’d finish lightly revising even a minor scene and feel that I had put in my work for that session. I’d been using my writing routine as an excuse not to write.
I suppose that given enough time any piece of knowledge becomes a crutch, and once you start down the path of awareness the only way forward is even greater awareness; now that I see I’ve been using my routine as an excuse, I can catch myself doing it and, hopefully, be better at writing outside my usual routine. (Maybe this too will one day be a crutch.)
I’ve had another idea in my head, though. A dream, really. Of what it would be like to be completely habitless, and I don’t mean the wake-at-noon-and-lack-all-purpose kind of habitless, which is more a set of bad habits. The kind of habitless I’m referring to is full of purpose. It means that, regardless of medium or mood or time of day, I would write as if it were total, attentive play, and I would treat writing this same way in all possible realities. What I’m envisioning isn’t measured in output, necessarily, but in the ease at which its own conditions are met.
A metaphysical fool’s errand, maybe. But on the cusp of adventure mode, it feels not impossible.
I’m in Cusco, 11,200 feet in the Andes, the historic capital of Peru and launching post for Machu Picchu, along with numerous other Inca sites.
And I’ve hardly seen any of it. I have probably spent more time inside staring at a canvas done like an Inca remix of Picasso’s Three Musicians, hung by my bed in a room with seven-foot ceilings and adobe walls, two of them painted brick red. I’m showing all the symptoms of soroche—altitude sickness. I’ve been here for thirty-six hours and have slept for twenty-six of them. I’ve had a throbbing headache and my lips and fingernails are turning blue. I feel wobbly from time to time and have very little appetite. I’m making coca tea, taking Diamox pills, drinking water, avoiding alcohol, consuming carbs and salt and trying to keep my food down, drinking more water, resting. I go out briefly during the day, within a five-block radius to avoid too much exertion on the narrow hilly streets, for an hour at a time when the clouds let the sun through between noon and sunset. It thunderstorms in the evenings, and when I wake at various times of night and early morning, I can still hear the pattering of rain, and the wild dogs barking, and people setting off loud fireworks. At dark it gets cold enough here for me wonder, wasn’t the idea to go somewhere warm for the winter?
It’s less the cold itself that bothers me. There’s a portable gas heater in my room, but I haven’t paid for the tank of gas yet as I’m in bed most of the time anyway, and in bed I have
alpaca blankets to keep
me warm and fearless
I take comfort in the thought that I am sleeping more or less the same way that someone in Cuzco slept hundreds of years ago.
Comfort. That’s what I’m seeking most as I cope with the altitude. I stay in bed and watch movies on my laptop with its comfortably warm bottom and read books on my kindle with its comfortably lit screen. I plot crazed, comforting schemes: What if I went somewhere lower altitude for a while, even a few hundred meters lower, spend a night in a hotel with a heated room and bath. Maybe I can cancel my Bolivia plans (La Paz is another two thousand feet higher) and head straight for the Chilean coastline. I could go surfing again. Next time I come here I’m going to travel by bus, I tell myself, because altitude sickness is a technological affliction. Before we could move faster than our feet would take us, we would have enough time to rest and adjust as we ascended. We didn’t have giant metal birds to drop us on the tops of mountains. Does that make me yearn to live the way they did? Or does it make me marvel at the new sensations I am able to feel, that they were not? Either thought is comforting in its way.
I try to rationalize the discomfort away: I wonder if as I grow older I tend to seek more comfort and avoid more discomfort, because discomfort is built on the ruts of experience. When you know nothing, you can’t be afraid of the unknown because everything is unknown. Comfort and discomfort are more the memory-informed anticipations of pain and pleasure than the actual sensations. Maybe continued lifelong learning means facing increasingly uncomfortable situations as you age, so that you can learn the way you learned when you were young.
Thinking this changes little. I stare at the Three Musicians and have comforting memories, mild hallucinations, of lying next to a warm body in a cold room of a house on a hill near a river, and hearing the faint horn of a morning train whisking commuters into the city …
Last night I dreamt I was eating a Big Mac. But the buns were bigger and the meat tasted different. How could they change the meat! When I woke up, I checked for teeth marks on the alpaca blankets.
I’ve quickly settled into my temporary home for the next couple weeks here in Lima. I wake up early in the mornings and walk to a hill overlooking the ocean to sit and meditate, and watch the sky brighten and the fog pull away from shore. I come back, make tea, journal, read a little and then get breakfast: a freshly blended juice and a pastry with an inner lining of manjar blanco. Total cost: ~7 soles ($2.50). I come back, work on the novel—the most consistent writing I’ve done in a month—then lunch, then either freelance work or exploring the city. More or less the same things I was doing in New York but in a warmer climate. Even some of the cultural, societal shocks, like the occasional absence of running water (the water companies will shut off the water for a few hours in certain neighborhoods from time to time) are quickly adapted to. Language is a factor too, but my understanding of Spanish is enough to get by, and a lot of people speak basic English here, and there are always hand gestures to fall back on. After a week here, the magnitude of the change is not much larger, it seems, than changing apartments in New York.
One of the main reasons for this, I think, is that I have reliable internet. A relevant quote, from Travels With Charley:
There was a time not too long ago when a man put out to sea and ceased to exist for two or three years or forever … Three times a week from some bar, supermarket, or tired-and-tool-cluttered service station, I put calls through to New York and reestablished my identity in time and space.
Steinbeck was writing about the telephone and a road trip around the United States in 1960, but in my case, in the case of the internet and an extended stay in Peru in 2014, it feels no longer like a periodic reestablishment of identity, but rather, an infrequent interruption of pre-established identity. Peru is in the same time zone as New York, so I still see the same tweets and such from the same friends. It’s not like being in Asia, when the time difference exposes you to whole swaths of your social networks that are usually asleep. I don’t watch much TV, here or at home, and I still have access to the same books via my Kindle and am not limited to the selection in a hostel or lone english language shelf in a bookstore. The media and online relationships in my life, both of which perpetuate a large part of my self-identity are generally persistent. And I’m still writing these updates to you, dear reader!
Which is why Steinbeck’s words are so interesting to me. It seems that in the past, there were large parts of your identity you were forced to leave behind when you traveled, and in the absence of those things, not only did other people forget you, but you forgot yourself. And rather than being a entirely negative thing, maybe this had the effect of softening that identity, of making you define yourself less from the books you’d read or the connections you’d had with others. Maybe one of the side effects of travel, and for some the main objective, was and still is to peel back some of those layers of identity, so that you can see that the whole notion isn’t built on anything solid or fixed to begin with. And maybe if you see your identity as less fixed, then you’re more open to change, to reinvention, more open to the world as it crashes down on the shore at your feet.
How did I catch it? Could be a lot of things. Could be the thirty-some hours spent on planes in the last two weeks. Could be jetlag, lack of sleep, changes in climate, cold to hot to cold to colder to Lima, where it’s summer, where I am now, staying in the Barranco district southeast of the city center along the coast of El Mar Pacifico. Could be I caught it from my dad, from my brother, both who showed similar symptoms when we were in Australia and Shanghai. Could be allergies, could be side effects of the typhoid vaccine, the hep A and hep B boosters I got before left. The worst part of this cold is the coughing, the kind that keeps me from going to sleep and wakes me up when I do. In the past week and a half I’ve tried hot vegetable soup, ginger tea, garlic lemon tea, cough drops, neti pots, eucalpytus oil, steam therapy, anti-inflammatories, decongestants, suppressants, expectorants, hot showers, sleeping on my chest, sleeping on my side, sleeping on my back, taking a prescription gelcap that the sixty-year-old retired Peruvian man from Fort Lauderdale who was sitting next to me on the flight to Lima and who has four daughters all grown and living in New York or California and working as software engineers or web designers or doctors and who says of Brazil las mujeres son terribles slipped me to see if it would help. These attempts to remedy the cough have been met with limited success, hardly repeatable, and now I’m waiting it out for a couple more days to see if it improves on its own because la medicina para tos I bought from una farmacia using broken Spanish and hand gestures and was instructed to drink “ten milliliters, eight o’clock” in equally broken English isn’t working either. All this means that I’m supposed to be taking it easy, getting some rest, which makes me both uneasy and restless. I’m eating food but not too much, walking around but not too much, postponing plans for sightseeing and going into the city, sitting on a couch in a bed and breakfast reading the Kindle book of Travels With Charley (my first Steinbeck) that I’ve borrowed online from the Brooklyn Public Library. I’m trying and failing to take naps or, like today, sitting and listening to the hoots and chirps and honks of the owls and other birds and street traffic from the grapevine-canopied garden patio of a friend’s landlord’s incredible colonial house where I’m spending the night in a guest room.
Not a bad way to be sick, you might say. But when I’m sick like this the last thing I want is novelty. What I want is the most un-novel, most familiar thing of all: eight hours of uninterrupted can’t-remember-my-dreams sleep in a bed I’ve had for more than a week. Estoy cansado.
Got back to my Brooklyn apartment at two in the morning. My flight from Shanghai was delayed getting to Detroit, and I missed my connection but nabbed the lone available seat on a later flight to Newark. My luggage had to take an even later plane, and is now playing delivery roulette at La Guardia airport. “They’ll call you tomorrow morning,” the attendant at the baggage desk said last night. When they didn’t call in the morning, I called them and was greeted with an automated message that said, essentially, We don’t know anything right now and we can connect you with an agent, but chances are they don’t know anything either.
It’s tough being an airline. I worked on more than one when I was in advertising. As an airline you already have two big things working against you: gas prices (getting higher) and the weather (getting more severe). Everything is dependent on everything else and the system is rife with edge cases and problems that compound with time and load, because hurling four-hundred-ton metal tubes thousands of miles through the clouds, as it turns out, comes with a lot of unpredictability. There are a lot of contingency plans.
When I missed my connection at Detroit, for instance, I was directed to a special area in the middle of the terminal for help. There were only three agents and a long line, but kiosks where you could scan your boarding pass to see what flight you were rescheduled on, and if that failed—in my case, had me going to Baltimore, nearby was a bank of phones that you could pick up to speak to an agent if the ones at the desk were busy. I was connected to a human immediately, put on the Newark flight, with instructions to go to any gate agent to print a new boarding pass. The miracle, i realized, is how many flights I’ve flown that have gotten me to my destination on time and without incident.
Granted, not everyone has worked on an airline and not everyone thinks about the design of airport wait lines, nor should they be expected to. We go out of our way to hide complexity, and a tradeoff is when something goes wrong, we blame the most convenient shell of that complexity. And the nature of the airline business is that the interruptions of service happen when your customers least want them to happen. They’re interruptions that stand in the way of someone and seeing the other half of a rocky long distance relationship they’re hoping to mend, someone and their trip to the Dominican Republic to scuba dive with baby humpback whales at a conservancy that only lets in a limited number of people every year, someone and the first big sales meeting with a buyer at New York department store for their small Midwestern company that makes bird feeders modeled after Frank Lloyd Wright houses. One only need imagine themself on the other side of a search for @delta or @united on Twitter to sense the patience required to work customer service at an airline. And when you’ve had two dozen people yell at you about the same exact thing that’s beyond your control and a dozen more come at you exasperated because they don’t care about the clothes and other junk in their bag but they do care about the gift they bought for that person, you have to have a thick skin, or a diamond patience, and the times when that patience cracks, that skin wears thin, someone somewhere is going to tweet about it.
What this has to do with what I wrote last week, about the Apple holiday ad, and the notion of “clever advertiser manipulating people into buying things they don’t need” is that if you try to trace the source of that manipulation, or the source of how the luggage you just bought got cracked on its way to the carousel or how you were on hold for three hours only to talk to a brusque customer service rep, what you’ll find, usually isn’t an evil corporation trying to mistreat or manipulate someone but a collection of human beings each trying to deal the situation the best way they know how. You’ll find an account manager who’s been having trouble sleeping because her brother’s in and out of the hospital so she stays up emailing everyone and creating unnecessary fires for herself at three in the morning. You’ll find the strategic planner with a Wharton MBA who feels threatened by and finds himself acting passive-aggressive toward the precocious younger planner with a psych degree from Illinois who wrote a stronger brief for the last pitch. You’ll find the copywriter whose dream is writing for the show Girls who seems to live paycheck to paycheck no matter how much she makes and the day before posted Instagram photos of the death metal karaoke thing she goes to with her coworkers every Tuesday night. You’ll find the VP of marketing and the new CEO who, looking to prove that their company still has a soul after the passing of their previous CEO, call up the chief creative officer at their long-time ad agency and tell him, We need to do something that’s us.
If subliminal advertising is subliminal even to the people who made the ads, then who’s to blame?
If after a five hour wait you’re talking to an irritable customer service agent who’s been called in for an extra shift because on top of all the weather-related cancellations a CRJ2 skidded off the icy runway at JFK and shut down the airport, then who’s to blame?
Blame is a response to when things go differently than we had planned. And maybe the reason we blame airlines, companies, people, ideas, is that we have trouble accepting that there will always be things that are beyond our control, and we can’t blame circumstance, because it is simply the way the world is at a given moment. Maybe to see past the opacity and into a complex system we begin to realize that our expectations are built on rocky foundations to begin with, and this can be incredibly frightening. Some of us are more comfortable not knowing.
It’s not to say things can’t be improved with airlines, or with anything. But blame is also counterproductive to that improvement. Engaging in it puts the person blamed on the defensive, closes off the blamer to new possibilities. We don’t see how maybe yelling at the agent isn’t the best way to get our bag, or how we don’t have to wait for delivery and can borrow a car from a friend and pick up the bag ourself, or how the contents of the bag are easily replaced. My point is: Blame is easy (and understandable) but solves little, and understanding is tough but worth the effort.
I ordered Indian for dinner tonight. The guy who delivered my food had the biggest smile on his face. A lot of people, I’m guessing, ordered Indian food on account of the weather. The tips must be good tonight. But this is just a guess, from someone with a father who, the day he got his driver’s license, put his wife and son in a car and drove from Detroit to Washington DC to work his semesters off delivering Chinese food because he had heard from a friend that the tips were better in DC. It’s cold outside but I’m warm in my apartment, and I just got an email from the airline’s delivery company. They have my bag. The website says: Awaiting Assignment to Driver.