Saturday, December 31, 2005

New Year, New City

by Skald

The clouds just broke.... rain tailing off... sun suddenly lights the streets of SF.

New Years Eve, 2005. A new year begins tonight, and once again I find myself in a new city... starting over. Im forever starting over.

While I adjust to this new place, I find that I am most grateful for friends Ive made all over the globe. Im grateful that now, thanks to the internet, email, Skype, etc... I am able to stay in contact with them. They have supported me from afar... helped me to deal with the loneliness and stress that inevitably comes with moviing.

For me, the best part of this technology is the relationships it makes possible... that I can stay connected to dear friends in Thailand, Japan, Malaysia, Europe, and Georgia.

Thanks to all of you.

And Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Among the Heretics

by Skald

Restless night downtown... sounds of drunks and sirens woke me frequently.... yet strangely happy to be among the mess of humanity. The suburban quiet in south of Mission was killing me.

Now Im where I belong, among the homeless, drunks, weirdos, freaks, and lonely souls. And so the city is growing on me. While this is America... there is something different about this place. SF in some ways seems to be its own little city-state-- far, far removed from realities in Georgia. In SF we've got legal pot clubs, and the most diverse population Ive ever seen in the United States.

Is it a coincidence that the Bay Area is a super-charged economic dynamo of innovation? That the cutting edge tech sector calls it home?

I doubt it. Diversity is SF's power source. Strolling its streets, I hear more foreign languages than I hear English. I see more Asian, Latino, and "Black" faces than "white".


At least there is one such place.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Bread & Circus

Thoughts from a European Hobopoet reader:

Hello Skald,

Just wanted to check in with you and let you know I can totally relate to what you're saying. The worthlessness of some of the things people concern themselves with is a big laughing point of western culture to me. It's by no means an American phenomenon though -- it's a generally western one. People in Germany watch game shows and informercials with the same fervour Brits use to read celebrity magazines, so do Norwegians or Australians.

Recently I got a job working for a company which acts as a broker between paparazzi and glossy celebrity magazines you find in your grocery checkout aisle. I work their IT systems and don't concern myself with the nature of the businesses I work for too much. At the end of the day I think of myself as a "digital plumber" and whether it's stock trades or pictures of Kylie Minogues' ass being sent down the wire doesn't matter. It's all the same to me.

But I've done some thinking on the subject, as you do. I believe you can file the whole stupid celebrity phenomenon under the "Bread & Circuses" category. But in some way it pisses me off.

People are getting killed in Iraq and elsewhere, right as you read this. Corporations are taking over the planet. The environment is being destroyed at an alarming rate. Species are going extinct every day and they are never coming back. Billions of people are living in abject poverty and all you can concert yourself with is... how Britney Spear's marriage is going? Aren't there more important things you could be reading about? When I see a person on the bus reading these trash magazines I have to fight a strong urge to slap it out of their hand and yell "Wake up! There are more important things happening in the world right now than this shit!"

But, people are free, and this means free to be as stupid to be as they'd like. They do their thing and I do mine. I consider it
bubblegum for the mind. Whatever...

I dig what you said about stupid posturing. Check the attached video. It's the ultimate example of retarded posing, possibly the best I've ever seen. Do something that's stupid enough to begin with and then fuck it up, only to try to act all cool about it afterwards trying to appear "tough". Especially check the comments near the end of the video.

Skald, for thinking, feeling people like us it's hard to accept we live in a world full of idiots, and even harder to find a niche in it that makes us happy. Please continue to write about how you get on on your quest, as it might give me clues on how to persevere on mine.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Rich and The Wretched

by Skald

The streets of SF really are mean... at least for the thousands of homeless people who scrape by on the sidewalks. I was almost among them. And that was quite terrifying.

In the past I experimented with what I called voluntary homelessness. The word "voluntary" is extremely important. I chose to live in my vehicle. Thus, I had enough money to buy a vehicle in the first place... and keep it maintained. I also had the time to outfit it for living (blacked out windows, bed and storage containers, extra battery, electric fan, etc.). While difficult at times, in general I enjoyed both of my car/van living experiences.

And thats what I should really call them.. because I was not really "homeless". I had a home-- my vehicle. While tiny, the car/van still gave me privacy, shelter from rain. a place to keep my stuff, and a safe (locked) place to sleep.

Involuntary homeless people, living on the street, have none of these. They are exposed. To the weather. To the whims of the police. To criminals and hustlers. Its a mean existence.... just look into their faces. Most look worn, lined, and desperate.

I was nearly among them. In two weeks I must vacate my friends place.. where Ive been sleeping on a couch (his roommate wants me out). I was (and am) broke... and living in the city with perhaps the highest rent in the world. Over the last two weeks, my apartment search became panicked. I began to contemplate life on the street. Where would I sleep? Would I get hassled?

And how in the world would I keep my job... without a place to shower and keep clean clothes?

Yesterday, thanks to a tip from a student, I found an affordable place. I dodged the bullet and will not become homeless.

But in a strange way I am grateful for the terror.... for it made me much more sensitive to what the hordes of SF homeless are going through. How can they survive in a city where 800 a month is considered dirt cheap (and dont forget the additional 800-1500 required deposit to move in,... plus most places do credit checks)? How do they get by, day to day?

And how in the hell do they dig themselves out of that situation? For thousands and thousands of people here, there simply is no affordable housing. Worse, after a few weeks on the street, homeless people take on a dirty and disheveled appearance... making job hunting nearly impossible.

And so you see them everywhere... usually congregated near upscale shopping areas. They hold out a cup to the city's wealthy. But few give them more than an annoying scowl.

Nor is the city helping... rents just keep climbing and climbing.

I have heard and read many times that SF is at the cutting edge of America... that what starts here often spreads across the country. If true, we can all look forward to an ever widening gulf between the well-off and the impoverished.

Which is kind of ironic. Countries like India and China are growing.... but we are heading towards Indianization-- a small group of very wealthy people (say 40% of the population)... and a large group of ever more desperate strugglers.

The so called "third world" is rising. And we are falling fast.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Fury

by Skald

Im trying to contain my fury... but its not working.

To be blunt-- I dont like America and Im not thrilled about being here. Everyday I ask myself, "why am I back here?". At first I tried to convince myself that it was a good decision. But Im running out of believable positive answers.

What I see is a civilization in its death throes. Some Americans ask, "Why do they hate us?". Im amazed when I ponder, "Why dont they ALL hate us?" Just what the hell do some foreigners admire? In truth... mostly its an image of boundless wealth. In other words, lies and propaganda.

My first impressions are of a sick, infantile society. Americans... and particularly American men... strike me as emotionally and intellectually retarded compared to their Asian peers. My "conversations" with men here have been confined to the following topics:

Dumbass jokes about bodily functions... not unsimilar to the conversations I had when I was 12 years old.
Vile demeaning comments about women.
Idiotic posturing to appear "cool".
Jokes about "fags" or "homos" (which always makes me suspect the teller is repressing something :)
Endless chatter about media virtual-reality (bands, movies, TV shows)... ie. "Did you see Survivor last night. Wow"

That pretty much covers it. I return to my own country... where everyone speaks my native language... and find I have nothing to say to people.... and can't bear to listen to them. I had much better conversations in Thailand and Japan.. with non-native English speakers. They may have struggled for words, but they had ideas. Americans, on the other hand, talk all the time... but say nothing. And so I find myself sitting silently... Occasionally shaking my head and wondering, "How can grown men act like this?"

To escape the awkward silence, the guys will often turn on the TV. Last time, they switched on Comedy Central. For three hours I was bombarded with despicable "jokes" about ethnic stereotypes and insulting comments about women.... this is the American norm for "comedy".

When I walk outside, everywhere I look I see fat people.... overweight, self-indulgent, spoiled, bratty, impatient, cranky.

Within the country, Americans cling to the notion that they live in "the best country in the world". For decades, their immensely powerful media convinced a lot of foreigners of this notion too. But no longer. Americans may still believe the bullshit, but the rest of the world is waking up to the truth. In Europe. In the Middle East. In Latin America. In Asia.

They are seeing what I see. And it aint pretty.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Poverty, Deprivation, Surface Wealth, Diversity

by Skald

SF is a great and wretched city. My first nervous impressions: hordes of beggars, bums, and homeless people filtered throughout the downtown area. Compared to their Thai and Japanese peers, these folks seem more beaten... more aggressive... less dignified.

They gather in clusters in the Van Ness/Civic Center area. Some have signs. Some approach you. Many approach you.

They tend to be blunt-- with attitude. In Athens, most beggars either sat quietly, or offered a sad story. Generally, they were polite (now theres a nice Southern trait). But the folks here border on unfriendly. When Ive declined to give, some mutter or grumble under their breath.

Then there are the stories of crime. My good friend was beaten up by a group of guys in the Mission district. A Thai student at my school was robbed, in his apartment, at gunpoint.

After two years in Thailand and Japan... this place FEELS dangerous. I can now imagine how Asian tourists perceive American cities... and why they have the impression that this is a dangerous country (which it is, compared to most Asian countries).

This collection of human misery is in the middle of the upscale core of the city. These folks shuffle along in front of Macy's, The Apple Store, Old Navy, etc.. Wealthy Californians and tourists stroll side by side with the poorest of the poor. Its a sad situation. Hard not to ask, "Cant a little of this wealth be diverted to help these people?" (I suppose we need all the money we can get to keep the Iraqis under our thumbs).

Finally, a very positive observation. SF is an extremely diverse city. In many ways, its a mix of Asia and American. The Asian population is huge here. Huge! In some neighborhoods its easy to imagine that Im back in Japan or Thailand. In addition to the many Asian-Americans and Asian immigrants, there is also a huge Latino population (mostly concentrated in The Mission, it seems).

Of course there are many African-Americans... and the city is rightfully famous for its large and diverse Gay population.

The diversity, and the international flavor of the place, is why Im here.

SF is the progressive, multi-cultural, leading-edge capital of America. And while the worst of the country's poverty and inequality is on display here.. so too is the promise of a new America... one that finally embraces the potential of its immigrant roots.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Awareness

My girlfriend and I live in Washington, DC, and lead busy lives that are entirely too focused on our jobs. I'm a geology professor; she works at a nonprofit organization downtown. I'm nearing the end of the semester, and as classes wind up and my schedule eases up a bit, I had a realization. For the past several years, I've been really focused on my job, on going to graduate school and doing well, and then starting my "career" and wanting to do well, and kicking it into high gear in the office/classroom/lab at the expense of the rest of my life. I used to be a fairly introspective, contemplative fellow. But the past couple of years? Not so much. "Not enough time!"

Last week, one of my students gave me a copy of the most recent National Geographic, because it contained an article about giant Mesozoic reptiles in the oceans ("Sea Monsters"). That same issue also had a decent piece on Buddhism, which got me to thinking...

I like a couple of Buddhist precepts, and while I cringe at the thought of labelling myself an anything-ist, I am definitely keen on being aware of my world in the present, of diminishing my attachment to my desires, and I've always thought the idea that "the illusion of separateness is the root of all human suffering" is a pretty apt summation of the way human societies maintain their dysfunctionality. So, suddenly, I've been thinking, maybe I'll try being Buddhist for a while, see what it gets me.

We went to see the new Johnny Cash biopic last night, Walk The Line. Lisa thought it was better than Ray. For my money, they were about on par with one another -- both excellent. We took the Metro home, along with plenty of Saturday night revellers. On the train, I closed my eyes, and I guess you could say I meditated -- or maybe "entered a Zen-like state"? I don't know. People on the DC Metro never look at each other; it's weird. But when my eyes were closed, I no longer had to be preoccupied with the avoidance of other peoples' gaze. Instead, I could explore the rail car, listen in on other people's conversations, and "explore" the car acoustically. It was neat. I felt anchored in that present moment, not thinking about the movie I'd just seen, or the home I was on my way to. Just there -- in the subway, shifting my consciousness from the left to the right, across the aisle, far up towards the end of the car and the emergency exit.

Didn't last long, but it was nice. Reckon I'll give it a shot again sometime.