Maybe We Take Ourselves A Little Too Seriously?

Number One:

My friend has started doing Sensory Deprivation Floatation Tank sessions. I’d never heard of these, so I asked him to explain.

He said, “I pay $60 to ‘float’ for 90 minutes. I get in something sorta like a coffin that’s filled with 94-degree salt water.”

“Wait, you get in a coffin?”

“Yeah,” he said, “and the goal is to ‘float’ successfully.”

“How do you ‘float’ successfully?”

“Well, you get into a lucid dreaming state.”

I had to look this thing up. And there were some sketchy sites on the topic. But there was also a Wall Street Journal article, and one on Slate.com. So I read those. And according to Slate.com, floating is a “profound, ecstatic state of nothingness…achieved while floating naked in a sensory deprivation tank.” According to gravityspa.com, floating can help the brain access the mysterious, elusive state of theta wave production.

But I get stuck on words like ‘naked.’ So I go back to that idea. I asked my friend, “So people float naked?”

He said, “The first time it was crazy. I had a dream about owls, man.”

“Okay,” I said, “so let me get this straight: People pay $60 to get in a coffin half-filled with water and salt.”

“Yep, then the workers close the lid, and you don’t know where you are. Total sensory deprivation.”

“Awesome,” I said, “and you dream?”

“Well, if you float successfully, you dream.”

“So,” I said, “is ‘floating successfully’ just a euphemism for sleeping? So people are paying $60 to sleep for 90 minutes?”

“No, no, man. Clearly you don’t understand.”

Clearly.

I told my other friend Corrina about floating and she said, “That sounds a little hipster. Do all the people who work at the floating tanks have mustaches?”

“Probably,” I said.

“Yeah,” Corrina said, “you’d have to pay me to get into someone else’s warm naked tank. You know people jack off in there.”

Clearly, she wasn’t taking this seriously enough either.

Number Two:

On June 18th, 2000, anarchists from around the country organized in my hometown, Eugene, Oregon, to mark the anniversary of an anarchist riot the year before. 400 protesters gathered in a park and smashed a dummy of a police officer using potatoes, skateboards, and boots. Speakers announced that they were calling for an end to capitalism. A dozen anarchists used puppets to reenact violence, while 80 others marched into downtown. It was very organized.

On 7th street, the anarchists gathered in front of the federal building and threw batteries against the windows, chanted “Red Rover, Red Rover, send fascists right over,” hoping for a senator or a congressman to exit the building. But the politicians weren’t coming forward, and riot police had locked down the building ahead of time. A S.W.A.T. team was in the lobby, waiting for the command to arrest the anarchists (which they eventually did).

I was working in the lobby of that federal building – selling coffee and baked goods – when the riot took place. I thought it was hilarious that anarchists – who had chants and slogans against organization – had organized these events. I also thought it was funny that they performed a puppet show. I said, “Do anarchists enjoy puppet shows?”

My friend said, “The puppets were a depiction of the police, man.”

“Oh, that makes it better.”

“Yeah, man,” my friend said. “Fuck the police, you know?”

“Okay,” I said, “but the anarchists have leadership and organization and all that. Isn’t that hilarious?”

“Why?” he said, “Are you, a fascist, Pete?”

“Yes,” I said. “I’m a fascist. Sorry I didn’t take this seriously enough.”

Number Three:

Like I said, during that anarchists’ riot, I was working at the coffee shop on the ground floor of the federal building. I was in there when the S.W.A.T. team locked it down, put zip-ties on the insides of the doors, announced that no one was going in or out, and sent a runner up to the political offices on the upper floors.

I was supervising the café, so I called my manager and asked her if she wanted me to close it down.

She said, “No, don’t close the café. Maybe keep it open for a while and see if the cops end up buying anything.”

So I left the café open. And the cops did purchase goods. They bought doughnuts, all of the fresh doughnuts. Then they started buying the day-old doughnuts, one by one. A cop would saunter over to the counter with his riot gear on, look at the display case as if he was considering what to buy, then go ahead and buy another doughnut. When I was down to my last, day-old doughnut, one of the S.W.A.T. team members walked up with his helmet tipped back, his AR-15 rifle slung across the front of his Kevlar vest.

He pointed to the last doughnut, a crusty little old-fashioned circle that had been there since yesterday morning. As if picking out a fine wedding ring, he said, “I think I’ll just take that one right there.”

“That’s the last day-old doughnut.” I said, “You guys ate all of the doughnuts.”

“Yep,” he said.

“Isn’t that funny?” I said.

The cop tilted his head to the side like he didn’t understand what I was saying. “Why?” he said.

Number Four:

It’s easy to tell other people to take themselves less seriously. It’s harder to follow my own advice. Because, you know, I take myself too seriously.

For the following anecdote to make sense, you have to understand that I am not a tall man. I am, as my students say, “A fun-sized person.”

My sophomore year in college, when I was on the wrestling team, the media-guide director decided to list my height as 5’6”, and I was elated. That is – by far – the tallest height anyone has ever given me. In all honesty, if I woke up in the morning (when humans are the tallest), and went directly to a bar to hang for ten minutes, I still wouldn’t be 5’6”.

People have made fun of me over my height, or lack of height, my entire life. I’m not complaining, it’s just a fact. And I usually don’t mind too much. I’m not a big man. I’m okay with that.

Do I sound defensive?

Anyway, I was in the store the other day. I was in the milk section, where all of the butter, yoghurt, and milk are housed. At our local grocery market, this is sort of an enclosed space where people walk in and walk out. We get in each other’s way back there, but we make do and brush against each other in that tight space.

So I walked into that small milk section, and as I walked in, I heard a kid’s voice. He said, “Thomas, Thomas, look! Look, Thomas! There’s a midget!”

I looked at the kid tapping his brother’s shoulder. They were both grade-school-aged, youngish kids, both really excited.

Then I looked around the milk section trying to figure out where the midget was because even though I’m a small man and naturally tend to defend small people, I like seeing midgets too. So I looked behind the butter fridge, looked out past the orange juice, past the yoghurt, past the chocolate milk. But I didn’t see the midget. In fact, I didn’t see anyone. I was all alone in that section.

I looked back at the boys. They were both staring at me.

“Thomas,” the first one said, “look, it’s a midget.” He pointed.

I just stood there next to the butter.

Then their mother walked up. Apparently she’d heard the kid yelling about me being a midget and she was here to correct the misconception.

I thought she was going to say, “Oh, no, son, that’s not a midget. That’s a smallish, full-size man.” Or something like that.

But instead, she said, “Oh, Sweetie, shhhhhhh. You’ve got to be quieter. They can hear you when you talk about them.”

Practical Outdoor Tip – How To Enjoy Pooping Outside

There’s an excellent book called “How To Shit In The Woods.” If you haven’t seen it, skimmed it, or read it, you might want to check that out online or at a bookstore. It’s detailed, funny, and popular (it’s sold more than 2.5 million copies).

Also, a lot has been written on the internet about digging and using “cat holes” for Leave No Trace purposes, and if you haven’t read about those either, here’s a good link to the Section Hiker blog‘s coverage of that topic.

But this is a practical tip, a simple, quick guide post: How To Enjoy Pooping Outside.

So here are a few quick tips to make your #2 experience more enjoyable:

- First, dig a hole with a broken branch, not a shovel or trowel. Shovels or trowels weigh a lot and only improve the digging experience marginally. So if backpacking in, don’t carry the extra weight. If you really want to carry a digging tool, buy a short, all-plastic trowel at a hardware store because the all-plastic models are much lighter than any kind of metal tool (the worst is the VERY heavy Army-Surplus-Model folding trowel). Carrying something heavy just so you can dig and poop in a hole is not an enjoyable experience. Save the weight.

- Second, if the ground is too hard to dig, don’t fight it, don’t spend half-an-hour digging a rocky hole only to find that the urge to poop has passed. Instead, the proper Leave No Trace method for pooping on hard ground is to poop on top of an elevated, exposed rock, then to smear it around afterward to decrease disintegration time. Rain, wind, and time will get rid of your trace after a while. Plus, you can act like a crazy person while you smear your own poop. I like to hum while I do this.

- This is key for enjoyment: If it’s hot out, poop in the shade. No one wants to be dripping with sweat as she squats over a stinky cat hole.

- Along the same lines: If it’s cold out, poop in the direct sunlight if possible. My friend once pooped in the early-morning shade on a snow-camping trip and passed out from hypothermia. Not a pretty situation.

SUPER TIP: If you want to squat more comfortably, dig your hole at the base of a tree and lean back against the trunk as you go. This will take half your weight off of your legs. Or, dig your hole at the base of a low-lying fallen tree and half-sit on the log…as you drop your own logs.

Practical Outdoor Tip – How To Start A One-Match Fire

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A lot of people spend extensive amounts of time finding fire-building materials and building a perfect fire structure before struggling to light it. But there’s a quicker, easier way, using all-natural materials.

First, go to a big tree or large rock with an overhang. Next to the trunk of the tree or underneath the rock’s overhang, quickly scrape together a one-foot-square pile of dried organic material. For example: Pine needles and pine cones work really well. The base of a large tree or underneath an overhanging rock are two areas that receive little moisture, so that material is often extremely dry. If it’s not dry (green rather than brown or damp to the touch), try a different rock or tree.

Second, dump the pile where you intend to build the fire. Then dig a fist-sized cave in the bottom of the pile.

Third, lay four or five sticks in a tipi shape over the pile.

Fourth, strike the match or flick the lighter and hold it inside of the cave that you dug out. As the pile goes up, you might need to blow a little. But probably not.

This is the method I use every time I build a fire outside, and it’s never failed yet. Even in the rain or snow, there’s usually dry organic material that’s piled up and been protected from the elements.

SUPER TIP: People pay money for Zippo tinder or other all-weather fire-starting products. Don’t. Instead, fill an old pill bottle with dryer lint (which is obviously free). Lint lights like a firework even in the rain. A water-proof match and a ball of dryer lint are magic in any weather. If you want to test it out, take a little dryer lint out to the driveway and light it to see how it burns.

Speaking on “The Art of Failure” (something I know well)

I’m speaking on “The Art Of Failure” as part of the Wordcrafters & Wine on Wednesdays series:

August 20th, 7-9 PM, Territorial Vineyards Tasting Room, 907 W 3rd Ave, Eugene.

Each month features a different professional writer, agent, or editor. More info:

Click here.

A 4th Of July Rant: Is Patriotism Dead?

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This past week, the United States’ World Cup soccer team played Germany in the final round-robin group-play match for each team. It was an important game, with an opportunity for both teams to advance to the World Cup’s final 16.

Before the game, my wife went to the grocery store and bought mini American flags. My daughters got out the face-painting kit and we decked ourselves out in red, white, and blue, head to toe. Then we drove across town to watch the game, and as we drove, all windows on our car rolled down, we sang and waved the flags, chanting “USA, USA, USA,” to everyone we passed on the street.

From an outsider’s perspective, we were waving the Stars and Stripes so fervently that we could’ve passed as Floridians at an NRA convention.

But this is not Florida. I do not live in Alabama or Tennessee or Georgia or Arkansas. My medium-sized town in Oregon is a liberal college town. Elderly men sport ponytails here. Vinyasa Yoga and organic grocers are the norm. Thousands of cars still carry anti-Bush/Cheney bumper stickers as if the past six years have erased none of the citizens’ bitter memories.

So as my family waved its American flags and chanted “USA,” most people we passed either glared at us or looked confused. I thought that was funny – considering the implications of the coming World Cup game AND the fact that the 4th of July was just around the corner – but people here are interested in neither the World Cup nor the 4th of July.

Five quick facts about me so you don’t get the wrong idea:

  1. I wouldn’t generally consider myself a patriotic person.
  2. The 4th of July is probably my least favorite holiday.
  3. My house is not littered with guns.
  4. I teach my daughters that “The Tea Party” refers to a historical event in Boston not a current political party.
  5. I didn’t vote for Obama the first time around because I voted for Hillary Clinton, and I think it’s ridiculous that in 2014, in the great country of THE United States Of America, we have never had a female president.

All of those statements are true for me, yet still, here I was chanting “USA” and pumping the flag at everyone we passed.

The way I see it, patriotism is complicated. While I realize that our country is flawed, and I do know about our atrocities in El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, Iraq, and Afghanistan, I’m still proud to be an American. There are 212 nations on this planet, and every country is evil in some way. But every country is also good.

So while I recognize that the United States has conducted quite a few shady foreign deals, I also know how much good this country does. The United States contributes more in International Aid each year than any other nation on earth, and its total giving is more than twice what the second-best country commits. Or, for a specific example, I know that our government and US citizens stepped up to rebuild Haiti even though there were zero political points to be gained in that situation. Haiti had nothing to offer the United States, no oil, no minerals, no cushy vacation spots, yet the United States committed to post-earthquake relief like no other country on earth was willing to do. So while the US government makes calculated international chess moves, some of which are questionable at best and despicable at worst, this is also the country that performs incredible acts of altruistic philanthropy. We feed the hungry in Africa, we make attempts at peace-keeping in war-torn nations, we support the U.N.

So we must take the good with the bad. And the good in this country is incredible. Take a minute and consider our freedoms. Imagine what might happen if a common citizen of Iran went online and criticized that country’s government. Imagine what might happen if some blogger in North Korea burned a national flag in front of a government building. What would happen to those citizens of those nations?

Consider the freedom of speech in the Untied States and what that includes.

Consider the right to keep and bear arms.

Consider how anyone in the United States can, at any time, drive state to state, all across this country, move anywhere he or she wants, start a business, practice a religion, espouse a variety of political opinions, change his or her mind, blog about the president, come out of the closet, or tweet to promote communism, socialism, or imperialism.

Sometimes liberals forget our freedoms, and I’m saying this as a liberal. I’m a public school teacher, a social justice advocate, and I don’t believe in censorship. I’ve never voted for a Republican presidential candidate, and I write for VICE Magazine. So I’m not a conservative in any way.

But sometimes I get fed up and have to act like a regular ol’ redneck hick. One of my friends told me that she was rooting for Germany in that World Cup soccer match “because,” she said, “you know, I’m just so embarrassed to be an American.”

And that’s when the patriot came out in me. I said, “Okay, you can root for Germany in that match if you also admit that you love Hitler, Auschwitz, European colonialism, and pulling for the overwhelming favorite in all sporting events.”

My friend said, “But doesn’t it make you a little sick to your stomach to chant USA? Do you know how many foreign assassinations we’ve engineered?”

“Yes,” I said, “and foreign assassinations are wrong. But is genocide better? Are you saying that killing a few enemy combatants to gain foreign oil rights is worse than murdering 33 million Jews? Is that what you’re saying?”

Like I said, I get fed-up sometimes. Then I become an absolute jerk.

My wife, who is a better person than me, pointed out that German soccer players are probably pretty sick of Hitler comments. Maybe so. But I wouldn’t know since I rarely play soccer for the German national team.

I just get so tired of people saying they might leave this country. A young person in dreadlocks said to me on the street, “You know, man, if we bomb one more village in the Middle East, I’m fuckin’ leaving this country for good, you know? I’m going to Thailand, bro. It’s so sick there.”

That’s annoying, and that kid doesn’t even know what he’s talking about, but the worst is celebrities who threaten ex-patriotism, the very celebrities who’ve made millions of dollars via the freedoms that this country affords.

During the reign of the Bush administration, Alec Baldwin kept promising to become an expatriate if certain things happened in this country. He listed what those certain things were, and all of his fears and prognostications came to fruition. Yet still, Baldwin never left the good ole U.S. of A. Thankfully for him, freedom of speech covers hollow threats of disloyalty or…could we call it instead “middle-aged-multi-millionaire-loudmouth angst”?

I can say from experience that it is terribly, terribly difficult to be middle class. It is also terribly, terribly difficult to live in this country where I have to pay minimal taxes and only get to do whatever the hell I want.