Monday, November 17, 2014

The Art of Keeping Warm

I wondered: What is the lowest indoor temperature I could comfortably live with on a permanent basis? 

I wondered this because, for the first time in 31 years, I’m living in a home in which I control the thermostat. Because I’ve either been living in a van or someone else’s home, I never had to deal with the responsibility of paying for utilities or the guilt of relying on fossil fuels, which are, in my current situation, natural gas and coal-powered electricity.

Since July, I’ve been living in a vacant home on a friend’s property in Nebraska. The house is quite large (three bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a massive living room), and because it isn’t the most energy-efficient house, keeping the temperature at a toasty 70˚F (21˚C), especially for just one person, is unthinkable. Not only would that cost a ton of money, but I couldn’t stomach the idea of wastefully using fossil fuels when I thought a simple hat and sweater might suffice. 

I’ve often wondered: If we all set our thermostats to our own “comfortable low,” how many West Virginian mountains could we save, how many fewer communities would we frack, how much less greenhouse gas would we emit?

That’s tough to calculate, but we do know that we use a lot of (arguably unneeded) energy. In the U.S. and Great Britain, the average bedroom and living room temperatures are set between 65˚F and 70˚F (18-21˚C). When you think of the size of U.S. homes in particular, the amount of energy it must take to maintain that level of warmth throughout a house is flabbergasting. All in all, residential thermostats, UC Davis study reports, are responsible for an astounding 9 percent of all energy consumption in the U.S.

Winter finally hit a little over a week ago, bringing with it temperatures as low as 6˚F (-14˚C). My house’s minimum temperature had been pre-set to 55˚F (13˚C), so I just let it remain that way for a couple of days, figuring I should acclimate to this manageable temperature before I begin testing cooler temps. 

Before I share the results of my experiment, I should elaborate on what I mean by my “comfortable low” temperature. I would consider this low temperature “comfortable” so long as the temperature does not negatively affect my health or productivity.

I know from experience how temperature can affect productivity. In a North Carolina summer, on a 90˚F (32˚C) and unbearably muggy afternoon, I found that my mind would slow down and all I wanted to do was take a naked nap atop my sheets. It seriously affected productivity, and, before long, I'd be hankering for a cool gust of air conditioning. 

On the other hand, I know from living in a van and my tent that it’s extremely uncomfortable to type or do anything with my hands when it's, say, 10˚F (-12˚C) inside. So what's an acceptable indoor low that won't cause any reduction in productivity? 

When it was 55˚F (13˚C), I put on more warm clothes than I'd usually wear indoors: a tee shirt, sweat shirt, sweat pants, and a light coat. For the most part, I was reasonably comfortable when I was lying in bed under the covers or when I was up and moving: cooking, cleaning, exercising. It was only when I was at my computer typing (and I'm on my computer a lot) when it became uncomfortable, especially when my hands were more than half numb. 

I did the obvious thing and put on more clothes, and in due time I was ready to lower the house's temperature even more. 

The lowest the thermostat would go was 45˚F (7˚C), which I figured was a good low to stop at because I had to ensure that none of the pipes in the house would freeze.  

The first day at 
45˚F (7˚C) was fairly unpleasant. My fingers were frozen and they were moving slower than usual, so much that it was affecting my ability to type. My feet were constantly cold, too. For pretty much twenty-four hours straight, my hands and feet were cold to the touch. 

I decided it was time to go all-in on my winter wear, so I dug through my bags and pulled out and put on two pairs of underwear, a pair of wool socks, and then a set of thermal underwear. 

After that, I put on a pair of sweats, though sometimes I wear a thin pair of pants and a long-sleeve tee beneath my sweats. 

Then I put on my light red coat and then a heavy poofy purple coat. 

Here I am in my house-wear. 

Don't forget your hat!

And your second hat!

Still, when you're living in 45˚F (7˚C) for twenty-four hours a day, for days on end, and you're doing a lot of sitting, the cold will eventually set in, no matter how many articles of clothes you're wearing. 

Again, I was having trouble typing because of my frozen hands (even though the rest of me was comfortable), so I pulled out my -20˚F (-29˚C) rated down sleeping bag, and decided to wear it whenever I was sitting. 

I stuck a thermometer in the sleeping bag and when I pulled it out, it read 85˚F (29˚C). I noticed that neither my feet nor my hands were cold anymore, and I was so warm I had to fling off both of my hats. I've been living like this for over a week, and I've grown comfortable enough with the cold and my adaptations that I don't think I'll feel compelled to put an end to my experiment. 

Picture taken just after I pulled thermometer out of my sleeping bag.
While one person experiencing just ten days of a colder-than-normal house is a pretty small experiment, and one from which I ought not draw strong conclusions, I can't help but believe that, if times got hard, or if a hefty carbon tax was instituted, most Americans (let's not include the old and sick) are more than capable of lowering their thermostat by 20˚F (11˚C) without doing any serious harm to their health and efficiency.

There's no great secret to keeping warm. The more clothes, the better. But I think that there is a subtle art to it. A few things to keep in mind:

1. Our extremities (fingers and toes) get cold not just because of exposure, but because our "core" is stealing that heat (forgive my non-technical terms). The body's number one priority is to keep the core warm, so keep the core extra warm and our extremities will have a better chance of staying warm, too. 

2. There are a lot of factors that contribute to hypothermia, and one of them is food and water consumption. A well-fed and well-hydrated person will fend off the cold much more easily than someone who's not.  

3. As I understand it, we don't get colds because of exposure to cold weather. We get colds because the cold weakens our immune system, making us more susceptible to succumbing to viruses spread by human contact. Luckily my hermit lifestyle severely limits my exposure to unpleasant illnesses. 

While I'm at it, here's a quick tour of my new home:


Living room, which I don't keep heated. Notice walls are carpeted, and there's a couch hanging from the ceiling.

Carpeted doors and walls.

The man who built this house was a senior league racquetball superstar.


Kitchen. There are three thermostats in the house. One that covers the kitchen, which is set at the minimal temp of 50. The living room thermostat is turned off and therefore unheated. My room and bathroom is set for 45. 

Kitchen booth. View of corn field, harvested a few weeks back. 
My room. 

Yellow Pad story board for my book.

Boning up on travel literature and all things Great Plains. 

I live next to a corn field, a soybean field, and a cattle feedlot. 

Here we are herding them from the field to the lot a couple of weeks back. 

Pool in backyard.

My backyard, a harvested soybean field.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Book Recommendation: “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate” by Naomi Klein

Climate change fascinates me like nothing else. It is the defining story of the 21st Century. Glaciers are melting, oceans are rising, the earth is warming, people are scared to death. It’s become a war of sorts — one in which conservatives are pitted against liberals; industry against the environment; science against ideology. With the fate of the world and civilization at stake, it’s the 21st Century’s most important story, even if half the world doesn’t care to listen. 

The book I’ve been working on — Trespassing across America — is in many ways an environmental book, so I try to get my hands on all things climate change. I’m most interested in figuring out how we got here from a cultural evolution perspective (i.e., Christianity, neoliberal capitalism) and how we might get out—in other words, can we somehow — politically, technologically, economically, and philosophically — get out of the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into?

Klein’s This Changes Everything is excellent. While most of us already know that our consumptive and wasteful economic system — capitalism — is to blame for our countless environmental problems and is at the bottom of our unsustainable plundering of natural resources, Klein’s book is an eloquent, forceful, no-pulled-punches reminder:

Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.
The book is best at explaining the fundamental causes behind our climate change crisis. If there’s anything to criticize — and I’m nitpicking — it’s that she takes on too much, filling us in on the rather massive international environmental movement, including everything from divestment, to indigenous rights, to the Keystone XL. This scope and attention to detail may have the effect of pulling the spotlight off her most revolutionary (capitalism vs. climate change) insights.

For someone new to the subject of the modern-day environmental movement, This Changes Everything is a superb summary of pretty much everything going on. For those of us who casually follow the environmental movement, like myself, the book at times can come across as a bit ponderous.

Despite acknowledging the many forces working against the environmental movement (increased worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, the waning of media coverage, and widespread climate change denial), Klein is unapologetically optimistic, citing the massive international movement that has for years been challenging our prevailing economic system and energy policies. Klein sees, or wants to believe, that progress is happening.

Indeed, we are seeing progress. Since when do we oppose pipelines because what goes through them affects our climate? Since when do 35,000 people march for the climate in Washington D.C.? Since when is practically the whole world at least aware of the concept of climate change? You couldn't say these things in the 1990s. These are developments of the 2010s.

But are they enough? Based on the results of the 2014 elections, we can say, with certainty, “No, definitely not.”

Republican Mitch McConnell, a climate denier, is now the Senate Majority Leader. Republican Jim Inhofe, the country's most loopy tin-foil-hatted climate denier, now holds the chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Incoming Republican Senator Joni Ernst says, “Yes, we do see climates change, but I have not seen proven proof that it is entirely man-made." (Watch the Bill Maher video below in which he brilliantly illustrates what's happened in Congress.)

Despite the hopeful tone, reading This Changes Everything in the wake of the 2014 elections only left me with a feeling of exasperation. The world is coming to an end, and we're putting the party most responsible back into office?! What the hell...

It's one of those times you can't help but wonder, "So in what direction are we heading: backward or forward?"


Klein on how capitalism and a healthy planet cannot coexist: 

“We have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis. We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe—and would benefit the vast majority—are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.”

“And that is what is behind the abrupt rise in climate change denial among hardcore conservatives: they have come to understand that as soon as they admit that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time—whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task can be left to the magic of the market… Climate change detonates the ideological scaffolding on which contemporary conservatism rests. A belief system that vilifies collective action and declares war on all corporate regulations and all things public simply cannot be reconciled with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces that are largely responsible for creating and deepening the crisis… As Robert Manne, a professor of politics at La Trobe University in Melbourne, puts it, climate science is for many conservatives ‘an affront to their deepest and most cherished basic faith: the capacity and indeed the right of ‘mankind’ to subdue the Earth and all its fruits and to establish a ‘mastery’ over Nature.’”

On climate change denial: 

“Yale law professor Dan Kahan, the lead author on this study, attributes the tight correlation between ‘worldview’ and acceptance of climate science to ‘cultural cognition,’ the process by which all of us — regardless of political leanings — filter new information in ways that will protect our ‘preferred vision of the good society.’ If new information seems to confirm that vision, we welcome it and integrate it easily. If it poses a threat to our belief system, then our brain immediately gets to work producing intellectual antibodies designed to repel the unwelcome invasion. As Kahan explained in Nature, ‘People find it disconcerting to believe that behavior that they find noble is nevertheless detrimental to society, and behavior that they find base is beneficial to it. Because accepting such a claim could drive a wedge between them and their peers, they have a strong emotional predisposition to reject it.’ In other words, it is always easier to deny reality than to allow our worldview to be shattered.’”

“One of the most interesting findings of the many recent studies on climate perceptions is the clear connection between a refusal to accept the science of climate change and social and economic privilege. Overwhelmingly, climate change deniers are not only conservative but also white and male, a group with higher than average incomes. And they are more likely than other adults to be highly confident in their views, no matter how demonstrably false… McCright and Dunlap offer a simple explanation for this discrepancy: ‘Conservative white males have disproportionately occupied positions of power within our economic system. Given the expansive challenge that climate change poses to the industrial capitalist economic system, it should not be surprising that conservative white males’ strong system-justifying attitudes would be triggered to deny climate change.”

On how we’re moving backwards:

“Preliminary data shows that in 2013, global carbon dioxide emissions were 61 percent higher than they were in 1990, when negotiations toward a climate treaty began in earnest.”

“The years leading up to the gathering had seen a precipitous collapse of media coverage of climate change, despite a rise in extreme weather: in 2007, the three major U.S. networks—CBS, NBC, and ABC—ran 147 stories on climate change; in 2011 the networks ran just fourteen stories on the subject.”

“A 2007 Harris poll found that 71 percent of Americans believed that the continued burning of fossil fuels would alter the climate. By 2009 the figure had dropped to 51 percent. In June 2011 the number was down to 44 percent—well under half the population.”

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

On not blogging

There’s nothing more pitiful than a dead blog.

The most pitiful are those that die as soon as they are born. If I had to guess, these fallen infants — with less than two entries — make up over ninety percent of all the blogs out there. The introductory entry is always the same: the blogger is excited, hopeful, and self-effacing, but six years have passed and we’re left wondering if Ashley ever did embark on her South American travels, or if this gleeful entry was merely the regrettable outcome of a fleeting caffeine high. Some of these blogs get covered in dirt without even being named.

Old blogs that are dead are almost as bad. No matter when or why the blogger decided to pull the plug on the blog, the blogger, from our vantage point, is someone who gave up, who became less interesting, and whose life fell into the ranks of the ordinary. We, the living, with our bright futures ahead of us and our blogs that have yet-to-be-written, can’t help but feel superiorly alive.

Still, as someone who starts things more than he finishes them (I gave up on my goal of learning the bagpipes before even squeezing one), I suppose I look back with some pride on this blog, which I kept going — with about an entry a week — for four whole years (or 744 years in blog years).

But around a year and a half ago I more or less stopped writing. I did so, in short, because I no longer felt compelled to write, and I only write now because the compulsion, now so foreign to me, has momentarily become strong enough to break my blogging silence.

I suppose I stopped writing in part because my life had become far less interesting than it had been. I was no longer living in a van or hiking across the country. I was no longer broke and struggling to make my way as a writer. I was back at David’s place in North Carolina, where I resumed living the same sort of existence I’d been living off and on for years. My life didn’t seem new and exciting to me, and, now that I no longer felt as if I was on an interesting journey, I no longer felt that I had material interesting enough for public consumption.

Don’t get me wrong, there was still plenty of interesting stuff happening, but most of it was of a private nature that ought not be shared, even though I knew this personal stuff — the stuff that no one really writes about — would have been supremely entertaining to practically anyone. I speak of romances, quarrels with friends, unflattering observations about myself. But I’ve long known that, when it comes to writing for a public audience, it’s a lot easier to make sweeping statements about cultures and countries than it is about individuals. My need for self-expression, for understanding the world through the act of writing down thoughts, was mostly satisfied, anyway, by writing emails to close friends.

After some post-book fame last summer, and a trip to the British Isles last fall, I went on a brief speaking tour, on which I discovered that I’m a decent but not great speaker, and that speaking probably won’t be an adequate source of income for me, and may not be worth all the stress of standing up in front of a big (and sometimes embarrassingly small) audience. 

Last winter, when I came back to North Carolina, I proceeded to work on my Keystone XL book by not working on my Keystone XL book. I zipped through over one hundred books on the Great Plains, the history of oil, sociobiology, climate change, twenty-first century agriculture, the history of trespassing, and a number of other esoteric subjects, aimlessly wandering through the Wake Forest library book stacks in search of everything and nothing. I wasn’t sure if I was doing hard work or procrastinating the actual writing of my book and living of my life.

Meanwhile, I watched more HBO than was good for me, and dealt with some of the concerns of a thirty-something American: Should I plant cantaloupe this season? Should I upgrade to a Mac? Is that a lump on my testicle? Should I sign up for Obamacare? Should I start a microbrew or am I having a thirty-year life crisis?

Neglecting the blog did feel like I was neglecting an old friend who I really ought to keep in touch with. But I consoled myself with the belief that sometimes it’s best to take a break from writing and books — to let your mind lay fallow — so that it can bloom thoughts more brightly in coming seasons.

I only half-believe that, though. Writing, I know from experience, is just good for the mind and soul, and my day always feels a bit fuller when I’ve forced myself to flesh out some thoughts. That’s because it’s not just that thinking leads to writing, but that writing leads to thinking. In other words, I wouldn’t experience some thoughts — and enjoy the fulfillment of having those thoughts — if I didn’t force myself to work them out on page.

Here’s another reason why this blog has died: I’d rather that people not know how truly ordinary I am. Occasionally I’ll receive an admiring email from a fan of my book and they’ll confuse me for someone of significance. Based on my online persona — which I have much control over — it’s easy to conclude that I am someone who constantly goes on journeys and who lives a wild and exciting and purpose-driven life, and not someone who gets groggy when he doesn’t get his two-hour-long afternoon cat nap and who’s watched Season Four of Game of Thrones twice. Best let them remain inspired by this somewhat-fictional adventurous figure, I'll think.

And lastly, as the years go by, I find that I’m becoming more uncertain about literally everything. Opinions I once held dear to my chest are, with inspection, unsettlingly brought into question. I find that everything is just so complex and ultimately unknowable. And it’s difficult to have a clear opinion on anything the more you learn about it. I remain silent not for a scarcity of thoughts, but for a want of conviction in those thoughts. When researching a subject, one minute I think I understand an issue, and, the next, I feel like I know less about the subject than I did before I started researching it. The only thing I can state with conviction is the degree of my doubt.

It’s why I feel slimy sometimes after sharing an opinion: because, deep-down, I know I really don’t know. The very act of putting words onto page can seem like an act of falsehood.

Think about it. Every word in the English language is a meager and incomplete attempt at describing something ultimately indescribable. Take the word “happiness,” for instance. It describes a feeling of joy, but truthfully what we feel is far more complicated than the simple, three-syllable word we use to describe it. “Happiness,” and every word for that matter, is an imperfect approximation. We can describe the sky as “blue sky,” but that does nothing to describe the literally infinite shades of color, the congregation of different cloud shapes, each changing into something else every second, or the angle of the sun, similarly changing from moment to moment. We could describe the moment we looked up at the sky for years, and never get close to transferring the trillion subtleties of color, touch, smell, and noise onto page. Language may be the best tool we have to communicate, but it always falls short of sharing “the whole picture” with someone else.

Sometimes, when talking with someone, I'll feel an odd sense of guilt for no apparent reason, as if I’m knowingly lying to them or doing something wrong. I won't look them in the eye and it may look like I'm hiding something. I think this is because, unconsciously, I know that everything I say is an approximate truth and thus a falsehood, even if it is my goal to most accurately transfer the truth from my mouth to their ear. So maybe instead of writing half-baked opinions and adding to the heaping piles of Internet drivel, it’s better to write nothing at all.

In the end, that’s probably not true. Even though the act of writing and of thinking may seem like it gets you further away from your subject — as it takes you down the disorienting Wikipedia wormholes of limitless information — it’s likely that you’ll come out the other side a more knowing person, aided by the act writing, even if thoughts must be written in a fog of uncertainty.

This is why I so respect one of the first essayists, the French writer Montaigne. His thoughts are not emboldened with conviction, but festooned with doubt. And somehow he was able to use his doubt as a source of creative energy. Doubt was his reason to write. Doubt, after all, unlike simple-minded faith, requires that we try to paint the complexity of ourselves with a painstaking diligence, so that the skies of our mind are not merely “blue,” but colored, to the best of our abilities and with our feeble palette of English words, with its thousands of subtleties and shades.

I suppose I’d like for this entry to be a declaration that I’ll force myself to write again, so as to reclaim the weekly fulfillment that comes with the expression of a (foggy) idea, but as one who, as stated above, starts things more than he finishes, I’ll spare the reader the excited and hopeful tone, as it’s probably safer to think of this entry as a nighttime “leg kick” — just a jerky sign of life — from a blog that’s fallen into a deep sleep.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The last ride

So I decided to move to Nebraska. 

I've been working on Trespassing across America for ages, and I always knew I had to return to the Plains to finish the book. (How could I write about a region as unique as the Great Plains from a North Carolinian forest?) 

I wanted to write the book with a prairie gale in my hair, within smelling distance of a fresh cow pie, beneath the black skies and their wheeling stars, and I figured that, somehow, by living on the plains, the plains - their very spirit - would end up in my book.

The publishing industry gave it the thumbs up and now that I knew I had money on the way, I knew that it was time to finally pull the trigger: I needed to pack my things and go. I contacted my good friends in Nebraska - the Hammond family (who I'd met on my KXL hike) - and they said they had extra room in a spare building on their property if I wanted a home base for my writing project. 

I took the road up through Virginia to Floyd, so I could purchase some Appalachian wine, beer, and honey for my new hosts, and then proceeded to follow a fairly uninteresting interstate route through West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, while listening to a relentlessly-entertaining playlist of Radio Lab podcasts. 

Years ago, I remember driving over a surprisingly scenic byway of Iowa, so I aimed to cross the state on the morning of the day I'd make it into Nebraska. 

The van, though, was acting a little funny. At first, there was a weird flapping noise under the hood. I was fairly disgusted because I assumed it was yet another serpentine belt problem. I'd had two belt-related repairs and two new belts in the past six months. Not thinking it was serious, I continued on. However, the flapping stopped and the engine just became gradually louder and more vacuum-like. I checked my fluids, bought a gallon of coolant, and continued on, hoping I'd reach Nebraska before any damage was done. 

Despite all the weird noises, the van was still running fine, and I had no reason to believe it wouldn't make it. 

But near Toledo, Iowa, I noticed that the temperature gauge was all the way over on "Hot." It was a Saturday, so no mechanic shops were open, but a cashier at a gas station said there was an Advanced Auto Parts in Marshalltown, the next town over, about twenty miles to the west. I let the van cool down and proceeded to Marshalltown, but the gauge steadily pointed toward the "Hot" symbol again. 

When I drove into the Advanced Auto parking lot, a gangly mechanic who'd been working on his own vehicle gave my van and its weird noises a concerned look, coming over as soon as I parked it. 

He was impressed with the hotness of my engine, and quickly gathered that I knew nothing about the inner workings of vehicles when I unconfidently muttered something about the temperature gauge (which I think I called the "heat gauge"), while sloppily interchanging the terms "coolant," "radiator fluid," and "antifreeze"--the difference of which, if there is one, is and was unknown to me. 

As usual with mechanics, I stayed quiet and knowingly nodded as he explained what could be wrong, which I knew was my best chance at giving him the impression that I wasn't a complete idiot. 

"Hmm. You think?" I said, as if I was weighing the possibilities, but also concealing my own, perhaps superior, theories. 

"You high?" he asked. 

"Am I high?" I said, taken aback. "Mmm. No." 

"You look like it. Your eyes are all red." 

"I've just been driving a lot," I said, before offering the obligatory, "not that there's anything wrong with it."

"I'd be gettin' high all the time if I wasn't workin' on my CDL," he said. 

"What's a CDL?"

He gave me a look of disbelief, and said I needed to add two jugs of coolant and not drive anywhere that evening so that I could have it checked out in town the next morning. I thought I was working with an Advanced Auto guy the whole time, but soon a dapper young man in a red shirt came out, and I realized that my gangly conversant was just a customer, albeit a knowledgeable one whose assessment I trusted. 

Still, I disobeyed his warnings, and continued along the highway as soon as the van had cooled. I advanced only five miles before the van started overheating again. I realized there was something seriously wrong with the van, so I called AAA for a tow. When the AAA guy started the van up so he could drive it onto the towing platform of his truck, the engine rattled noisily. It was a noise I'd never heard before, a faint sputtering of machine-gun fire, a pinball bouncing erratically under the hood. He told me to fear the worst. 

I spent my hours in town at the laundromat, where I pilfered free Internet and watched two episodes of The Wire, occasionally scouring online ads for used cars in Marshalltown, and being generally disappointed with my options. 

A man and woman, whose faces were thoroughly pierced and whose arms were almost completely covered in tattoos, were doing their wash. When I stepped out for fresh air, the man stepped out, too, walking toward a nearby gas station. In mid-stride, he lamented to me about the poor weather coming our way, since it would interfere with his body suspension ritual (in which people hang from metal hooks pierced into their body). When he returned, I asked him, "Did you say 'body suspension?'" He talked for nearly half an hour about how he and his lady-friend had moved from Florida to Iowa because of Iowa's lax regulations on body suspension. He said being hanged from hooks was therapeutic, but it sounded awfully unpleasant to me. He brought his lady-friend over, turned her around, and pulled down her tank top, revealing four dried streams of blood wiggling down her back.  

I slept in the van with all my belongings, parked in the lot of a mechanic who I hoped would give me good news in the morning. As far as sleeping in a van goes, that night was about as bad as it gets: It was unbearably hot, intolerably humid, my forehead was beaded with sweat, and my sheets beneath me were grossly clinging to my skin. Around midnight, I opened the side door for momentary relief, and saw two cars nearby full of quiet people, which scared the crap out of me, especially since I had with me every valuable possession I owned. 

In the morning, the mechanic tried to start the engine, but nothing was happening, and after he tried and failed to give it a jump, he declared it dead. The guy from the salvage yard showed up an hour later and pulled out three one-hundred dollar bills, his offer for the van, which he said he'd use for spare parts. I thought for a moment about telling him about my famous van, that I'd written a book about it, and that it was even featured on The Tonight Show with the hope of wringing another hundred out of him, or at least making them all think I was more than some idiot who'd let his van overheat, but I ultimately deemed that to be beneath my dignity, and obediently took the $300. 

I still had another six hours of driving to get to the Hammond's, yet there was no public transportation, and I had too many boxes of stuff to transport anyway, so I called the Hammonds up, explained what had happened, and before I could beg them to come pick me up, Rick said he was on his way. 

Rick arrived hours later in torrential downpours. We hastily transferred boxes from the van to his car. I jumped in the car, but then quickly jumped back out, as I'd forgotten to say goodbye. 

I took a few pictures and laid my hand on the hood. Previously, I wondered if I'd get emotional. The van had gotten me through grad school. I'd written a book and numerous articles about it. It had in some way become part of my identity. I imagined that I'd grow misty eyed, and Rick would respectfully remain silent as I expressed my grief. 

But I felt nothing. In the end, it was just a hulk of metal that had some major belt problems and that had forced me to spend unforgivable sums on gas on the rare occasions I drove it. 

Honestly, I think I should have said goodbye to it years ago. Since graduating in 2011, I never really needed it for housing purposes. I never thought to sell it because it supposedly contained sentimental value, which it apparently did not. It was a van I never felt compelled to name.

The van was like a girlfriend you know you should break up with, but won't out of concern for the mess a big change would make. And you then enter a sort of "relationship purgatory," in which you have one foot in the relationship and one foot out. Similarly, I think I've sort of been living with one foot in the past and one in the future, and the van was one of several things holding me back: a deterrent to mobility, opportunity, and just about the most cumbersome memento imaginable.  

So when Rick and I rolled away, more than regret there was an odd sense of relief, and the feeling that the dispossession of that which had made me "free" in a past life could itself be a gesture of freedom in the present one. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Seasons of Acorn Abbey

Dan River


Pine Warbler

Dark-eyed Junco, or "Snow bird"

Fanny, a Golden Comet

Sophia, a Red Island Red

Pear trees

Taken from Mt. Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi at 6,684 ft.

From the Georgia-NC border on the Appalachian Trail

Connemara, Carl Sandburg's N.C. home

Connemara, Carl Sandburg's N.C. home