Message In A Bottle
I have not written here for a long time. This is because for two months I was in blissful reclusion in Southern Chile. I use the word blissful intentionally, hoping you will pick up on my meaning… ignorance equals, dot dot dot. The world slows to a dull murmur in the rainforest. Things like race, guns, police brutality, and various forms of discrimination and repression slip away into that nebulous arena we call “the real world.” And if I stay away from those things long enough, I am able to convince myself: no, that is not the real world. The rainforest is the real world. And that feels good, because in the rainforest—at least in the one I’m talking about—nobody dies, comparatively few atrocities are committed, and everyone has enough to eat and drink. I can feel my brain settling down into a less battered state. Is this what it feels like to be an animal? I wonder.
Then, after six weeks with zero news from the outside world about goings on in the homeland, I go to town to carry out some work. I’m immediately struck… that is, rammed in the skull… by the news of the school shooting in Florida. This sends me into a funk for the final two weeks of my trip, and the first few weeks of being home. The news strikes me at once as comic, and tragically predictable. I might have sardonically guessed at this calamity, had you asked me what news I thought I might bump into upon my return to “civilization.”
It’s like I am living in an Onion article. But I am the butt of the joke. I do not feel I have the right to care, because I have chosen to escape that world, at least for the time being. Yet I do care. I am disturbed and distraught, and I feel bulldozed by a country out of my control. My response to this feeling is to desire still more time in blissful ignorance. More rainforest. More desert. More mountains. More places where people do not exist, and I do not have to face the realities of a culture that I find increasingly out of concert with my system of morals and values.
In the throes of my depression, I lash out at the only aspect of my life I feel any autonomy over: my relationship. I am fortunate to have an extravagantly patient and tolerant partner; and again, she accepts my bullshit and does not dump me. I need to be closer to the mountains, I tell her. Why the hell do we live in this god forsaken country anyway, I ask her. We don’t need to be witness to this, we don’t need to participate in the next world war, we don’t have to share governance, land, water, and bread with neo-Nazis, fascists, racists, homophobes, bigots, and other breeds of cowards. We can go to the rainforest and live as sheep herders. We can raise bees. Or else, if we must live in this country, we can do it somewhere quiet where the radio does not continually blare God-fearing evangelists, or NPR – both of which give me indigestion and migraines.
My girlfriend has a stronger constitution than I do, and suggests that what would be truly cowardly would be to run from the world. She has finished her master’s degree in global social and sustainable enterprise, which she chose because she thinks that maybe one way to make the world a better place is through sustainable and responsible business. I can’t argue with her logic. Working through government or nonprofit channels doesn’t seem to accomplish nearly as much as making billions of dollars. If you sell enough clothes to enough outdoorsy people you’ll amass enough capital to strongarm the world into complying with your ideology. See Tompkins Conservation, for exhibit A. And so she wants to do something with her degree. This involves, for the time being, looking for jobs.
I fight her on this tooth and nail because the jobs are all in the cities, and the cities fill me with fear. I fear the city will chew me up, and spit me out in an amorphous mass I no longer recognize as myself. I fear the city will rob me of my ability to see the truth, to tell the truth, to care about the truth. I fear that the path of employment and cities will settle us comfortably in to some tolerably liberal version of the American Dream—the version with Priuses and organic produce—and that any increase in financial stability will do what money has always done to me: it will erode my morals, and make me complacent.
I feel backed up against a wall, and the gun to my head is my own life, and so I do not write for my blog. Besides, I have work to do. And I am thankful for the opportunity to work in the career of my choosing. I am thankful to be able to afford rent doing work I can carry out in my underwear in bed. I am thankful for Whole Foods, and the champagne mangoes which arrive this time of year from Mexico for $1 each. They are so sweet, so ripe, so delicious, that for at least as long as I am savoring them, I can simply forget about the fucked up country from which they come, and the idiotic wall and foreign policy we are pursuing with it. The mangoes are $1 each because of NAFTA, and American drug consumption, both of which are partially responsible for thousands upon thousands of murders each year to innocent people, the relations of whom are treated like criminals when they flee to the country responsible for their condition for refuge. This I know. But it is easy to ignore while I savor that sweet yellow flesh.
What I write for my various assignments is not untrue. I’m not a liar, I don’t fabricate events or happenings. I try not to exaggerate details. But the truth is only part of the truth. It is the part that I believe people want to hear when they say, “hey man, how was Cochamó?” They don’t want to hear about how hard it is for me to deal with my white guilt, or my American angst, or my confusion about how to exist in this world. They want to know what it is like to be so high. To be runout above my gear. To make it after all, to not die. To feel so alive.
And so I tell them. I sprinkle in a liberal dash of conservation talk to help me feel like less of a hedonist. I tell myself that my trips to Cochamo are not purely a fuckoff because: a.) I need them to sustain my mental health, and b.) I have a vested interest in the future of this rapidly changing place. All of this is true. But it is not the whole truth.
Part of the truth – the part I am writing now – people don’t tend to know what to do with. I could pass this story around to various outlets I have working relationships with, but I do not believe they would publish it. Nor do I want to ask them to, because I don’t want to further pigeonhole myself as that guy. I perceive that part of my ability to procure work in my industry derives from being generally agreeable, smiling, and uplifting. In the end, even if it’s just through email, anyone you work with, or for, has to deal with you. And nobody wants to work with someone who is perpetually depressed, complaining, and negatively opinionated about the line of work we are all engaged in.
I’ll tell you how it feels to be runout above your gear. You fear you may die. In a moment of twisted anguish you stab out for the hold that will save you. And even if you are only ten feet above a bolt, you get to feel, for just a moment, what it might feel like to be a black American getting pulled over by a cop, or a Mexican American getting interrogated by INS, or a transgender American in the armed forces, or a muslim American followed home from the mosque by a truck waving the stars and bars, or a female American getting grabbed by the pussy, or a Native American getting the same treatment they’ve gotten since some smart white guy came up with the kitschy idea of Manifest Destiny.
But of course, all of this is a lie. Because you have chosen to experience this fear. No one in the above group has done the same. One cannot simply quit their skin, gender, religious beliefs, or sexual preference when things get too real.
What happens next tends not to matter, unless you get unlucky. Either you snag the hold, or the rope catches you. Either way, you are filled with joie de vivre. You feel great. The world is fresh, and pure, and you are in it, still breathing, still living. There’s nothing that feels better. And it feels good to me to feel that kind of fear, because I am a middle class white American male, and nothing else in this world instills in me the same form of dread. This leaves me feeling guilty, and curious in equal parts. Even if this sounds stupid, it’s true: I would love, just once, to be the oppressed instead of the oppressor. I feel that all I am able to achieve is made illegitimate by the unfair advantages I’ve had. I want to have to fight as hard to make my way in this world as everyone else. I want to know what that kind of fear feels like.
I haven’t written here for a long time because this is where I go to write the truths I feel compelled, but increasingly afraid, to share. I have grown protective over my little career, and I am afraid to say the wrong thing, to piss off the wrong client, to burn the wrong bridge. I am afraid of the casual troll whose flippant remark makes me doubt myself, my work, and my worth as a human. I am afraid to gain a reputation that does not fit in with any potential client’s branding strategy. I want everyone to feel safe being associated with me. Safe working with me. Safe putting my name on their blog, or instagram account, or whatever.
I haven’t written here for a long time because I am still trying to work all of this out in my own head. Writing is part of how I come to understand and refine my own beliefs and opinions. So is seeing the way people respond. Reading the comments and watching the emojis roll in, or listening to the crickets chirp. I never know before I publish an article what anyone will think. If anyone will read it at all. If it will touch a certain nerve. Sometimes clicking the publish button, and sharing on social media, simply feels like sending a message in a bottle. Or praying. I don’t know if this will reach its intended target. In fact, usually I’m confident it won’t. But it doesn’t hurt to try.
Besides, I’m too curious what it would look like if the message actually gets through not to at least give it a shot.
What you have just read differs slightly from what was originally published. This is because I was imprecise with my writing, and did not adequately communicate the idea I was trying to get across. I made it sound as if I thought the fear you got from intentionally putting yourself in harm’s way was in any way analogous to the fear someone has due to the color of their skin, their gender, or other things out of their control.
For the record, the original paragraph is copy-pasted below.
I’ll tell you how it feels to be runout above your gear. You fear you will die. In a moment of twisted anguish you stab out for the hold that will save you. What happens next doesn’t matter. Either you snag the hold, or the rope catches you. Either way, you are filled with joie de vivre. You feel great. The world is fresh, and pure, and you are in it, still breathing, still living. There’s nothing that feels better. And even if you were only ten feet above a bolt, you get to feel, for just a moment, what it might feel like to be a black American getting pulled over by a cop, or a Mexican American getting interrogated by INS, or a transgender American in the armed forces, or a muslim American followed home from the mosque by a truck waving the stars and bars, or a female American getting grabbed by the pussy, or a Native American getting the same treatment they’ve gotten since some smart white guy came up with the kitschy idea of Manifest Destiny. And it feels good to feel that kind of fear, because I am a middle class white American male, and nothing else in this world instills that kind of fear in me, and I find myself feeling guilty, and left out.