Personal

Worse than gone

There's some county-owned parkland in my city. It's not much, just some gently rolling hills with a few lightly-worn walking paths and occasional rocky bits, but it's nice. It's usually quiet but for the sound of the wind and the distant muted roar of freeway traffic. During the few months each year when the weather relents and we're graced with warm sunshine, it's a great place to clear your mind with an easy hike.

I come up here occasionally, to the back half of the hills, where a handful of old buildings sit, mostly worn down and sagging from age and neglect. The buildings aren't why I come. I come for the butterfly tree.

There's really nothing particularly special about this tree. It's just a tree like any other. I don't even have a photo of it. But it's pretty, and during the summer it's usually host to a rabble of butterflies. There's a small wooden bench a few dozen feet from its base, where I come to sit and relax in the sunshine and breeze. Sometimes I have a book with me, sometimes I have nothing but the butterflies and trees and clouds to watch. And it's peaceful.

Except now there's a massive construction project going right through it. The freeway is being extended, rebuilt, redirected, and its new path will take it past here. One of the old buildings will be preserved, the others will be razed. Presumably the giant tree will be left, though separated from the rolling hills and walking paths by a swath of concrete and steel. On my walk out to the hills yesterday, I was blocked by this sight.

And thus my favorite place to sit and clear my head of all the random thoughts of the day is worse than gone: it's unreachable.

There are similar benches elsewhere on the hills, but none quite like the one under the butterfly tree. The one I can't get to anymore.

Personal

Time for Life

My girlfriend and I recently took a roadtrip to northern Minnesota for a weekend. After an eternity in the car, we arrived to a land of trees, and giant lakes, and more trees. And porcupines.

We got to spend a good portion of the weekend trampling through the woods with her dog, ducking under branches and stepping over fallen trees, breathing amazingly clean, crisp winter air, with leaves and dirt and sticks crunching under our boots.

And then the weekend ended and we returned home, to a world of concrete and asphalt and car exhaust. No me gusta.

After spending even one weekend just enjoying the beautiful outdoors and being free of any real responsibilities, coming back to a life of sitting at a computer all day was jarring and unwelcome and distasteful.

Then I see an article about a 2,650 mile trail from Mexico to Canada that people take five months to hike, and it makes me sad because there’s no way I can take five months off of work to do something like that. (Not that I would survive that kind of hike right now anyway.) I don’t have anywhere near the kind of vacation day availability that such a trek would require. And I came to a realization. I am tired of having my life dictated by when I have to be back at work.

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Things for Other People

I have no need for a kitchen table. The majority of my eating is done:

  1. From the coffee table while sitting on the couch
  2. From the coffee table while sitting on the floor in front of the couch, because couches are difficult
  3. While staring absentmindedly at my reflection in the mirror over my kitchen sink
  4. From the side of my desk as I try to avoid getting crumbs on my laptop while browsing the internet which I could just as easily do in five minutes once my dinner is done but that’s five whole minutes and it’s so long from now

And four chairs? I have no need for four kitchen table chairs. You know why the table or those chairs exist in my home? For other people. For the once in a while occasion where other people come over and expect somewhere to sit that doesn’t involve pretending they’re in an opium den with no opium. Because society, man. Society.

I looked around the apartment and realized that probably three quarters of my belongings have no reason for existing most of the time. I’m one guy – I don’t need a couch and two chairs and a footrest and a beanbag ottoman. You know what the ottoman gets used for the most? Holding the spare PS3 controller while it’s charging.

Very little of what I own is actually for me. It’s for other people. Chairs for other people to sit on. A tiny little overburdened window-mounted air conditioner so other people don’t die of heatstroke when they walk into my tropical apartment in the summer. Blankets so other people don’t lose appendages to frostbite when they walk into my meatlocker of an apartment in the winter.

There are three different sets of plates in my kitchen cabinets. Three. Different. Sets. Know how many I use? One. One set. One set of four identical black plates. Why are the others there? For when other people come over to eat and don’t want to share plates. The nerve of some people.

I could easily get rid of about half of my stuff and move into a cardboard box but it gets cold here and it’s hard to get a permit to install a proper furnace in those. So instead of adopting a transient nomadic lifestyle, it’s time to start stripping some of this stuff out of my life.

Because it’s just stuff.

Stuff I don’t need. Stuff that exists for no reason other than that other people may occasionally use it. And that’s a terrible reason to own things. Fortunately I’ve always had a pretty strong ability to avoid buying stuff just because I want it – if I don’t need it and it’s not a particularly emotionally compelling work of art, it’s staying on the shelf.

There’s a difference between being able to have something, and needing to have something. It’s important to know the difference. Otherwise you just end up owning things for other people, and those things end up owning you.

Personal

White male privilege; Or, the simplicity of equal rights

I rarely consider just how fortunate and privileged I am to be a heterosexual, middle-class white male.

Cops don't pull me over for driving while white. Women don't clutch their purses more tightly as I walk past, fearing that I'll mug them. I've never been killed for looking suspicious on my way back from the corner store with a bag of Skittles.

I get paid on merit, not as a percentage of what someone else makes for the same work. There's very little chance that someone will try to grope me. (Even if I could use a little action sometimes.)

When I go online, I'm not harassed for my appearance, or threatened with violence, or assaulted with slurs based on the type of body I was born with. No one tells me to eat a cheeseburger, go on a diet or make them a sandwich. No one tells me my only place in this world is the workshop or the kitchen or out clubbing gazelles for dinner.

The worst stereotype I might face is my inability to jump.

No one sees the name "Tom" on a job application and immediately judges me like they might for someone named Roshanda.

No one would look at me like a lesser being for buying contraceptives or refuse to ring up my purchase based on their religious beliefs. No politicians have suggested I'm roughly equivalent to a farm animal.

I don't have to endure looks of pity when selecting a form of payment for groceries. So far I've been fortunate enough not to have to choose between a doctor's visit and food. No one is making it impossible for me to exercise my right as a citizen to vote.

I don't have to wait for others to grant me basic civil rights. There are no laws barring me from being in a relationship with a consenting adult1 of the gender to which I'm attracted. There aren't churches full of people lining up with picket signs reading "God Hates Straights". "No hetero" isn't a phrase anyone uses.

I'm a straight, white male from a middle-class background, and that gives me enormous privilege in today's world. It's remarkably easy to take it all for granted, and of that I'm absolutely guilty. But it doesn't have to be that way.

You don't have to be gay to support gay marriage. You don't have to be pregnant to support the ability for a woman to get an abortion. You don't have to be a minority to oppose discrimination. You just have to be a reasonable human being2 with a shred of empathy and the mental capacity to understand that allowing someone to lead a lifestyle of their own choosing will probably not bring down fire and brimstone upon the world.

Humans are humans, regardless of their skin color, their access to bits of paper, their dangly bits or who else's dangly bits they enjoy. That shouldn't be a difficult concept to embrace.


  1. To take it a step further, I'm not even sure why marriage should necessarily be limited to two people. So long as those involved are consenting adults of legal age, who are we to tell someone that you can't love more than one person simultaneously?
  2. This is somewhat kinder language than what I used on Twitter today.
Personal

Death and Your Digital Posterity

You are going to die.

It’s okay, it happens to the best of us. But it is going to happen. We may not know when exactly you’ll succumb to the Reaper, but eventually the bell will toll for thee. Then, presumably, those left among the living will be tasked with handling the aftermath.

It’s likely you’ll have left some physical remnants behind – some furniture, maybe a few books, your prized peanut butter jar collection, whatever. We as a species have had some experience with death over the centuries, so the process of dealing with all that stuff is pretty well defined by now. But what about your digital life?

For most survivors, coping with the physical possessions and conventional assets of the departed can be overwhelming enough, but at least there are parameters and precedents. Even if a houseful of objects is liquidated through an estate sale or simply junked, mechanisms exist to ensure some sort of definitive outcome, even in the absence of a will. And there’s no way of ignoring or forgetting it: eventually the stuff will have to be dealt with.

Bit-based personal effects are different. Survivors may not be aware of the deceased’s full digital hoard, or they may not have the passwords to access the caches they do know about. They may be uncertain to the point of inaction about how to approach the problem at all.

Cyberspace When You’re Dead by Rob Walker, for The New York Times. You should really read that article – it’s quite good.

When my grandmother passed away a few years ago, we started sorting through the various papers and effects she left behind. Among them was a fairly well-documented family tree dating back a couple hundred years, along with a handful of newspaper clippings about this family member or that. But none of it really gives a sense of who those people were, no sense of what their lives encompassed. All those moments have been lost in time, like tears in rain.

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