Saturday, December 26, 2009

Walden Pond

Anything becomes possible when you claim your life as your own. The author of his life not only wields a pen, he wields a power—a power to fill his years like pages of a favorite work; power to decide where chapters begin and end; power to plot glorious triumphs and noble failings; power to draw the arc of his narrative with his own hand.

This is what was going through my head as I entered Thoreau’s replica cabin at Walden Pond, just outside of Concord, Massachusetts this past week.

The holy pilgrimage to my idol’s storied pond hardly felt holy. It was a mere mile-long walk from the town of Concord, which, since Thoreau called it his stomping grounds a century and a half before, has become a bustling warren of cafes, stores, and restaurants where shoppers, turbaned under layers of wool and polyester, exit and enter with exigency as if on holy missions of their own. Not only have some of the businesses borrowed Thoreau’s name, but his iconic mug was plastered on posters, tee shirts, and buttons. Oh, how ironic was my urge to buy!

I was with my old buddy Chuck, a fellow classmate who, a half-year before, had been my first guest in the van. We donned hats, gloves, and winter coats for our amble to the site of Thoreau’s home that is now on state park land.

Cars curled around the curves of “Walden Street” along which—ages ago—horse and buggies clip-clopped and creaked. An intersection, not but a football-field’s distance from the pond, buzzed noisily: tires plowed through slush, SUV’s groaned to a halt, and engines purred while drivers waited for green.

The trails around the pond—during pleasanter climes—are clogged with fellow pilgrims, but freezing temperatures, today, inhibited others from visiting, giving Chuck and I some semblance of a solitary sojourn, ideal for a ramble around the famed hermit’s pond.

Green needles of long, slender pine trees blotched an otherwise bleached sky whose clouds were about to explode and unleash torrents of snow like overcooked bags of popcorn. If I was in a dreary mood, I would have called the scene dreary. But as we edged the perimeter of the pond, I was excited with the anticipation of something; excited about what I'm not sure exactly. Perhaps I imagined the ghost of Thoreau rounding the next bend of the trail on his mid-afternoon traipse, silently nodding to us without slackening his gait.

The pond is actually more like a small lake. Brittle, translucent ice formed along its edges. The wind pushed ripples of water atop and underneath the ice: the pressure causing a musical tinkling. A covey of ducks—agitated by our footsteps plowing through rust-colored leaves—flurried to the center of the pond.

Despite the sylvan surroundings, my strongest impression of his home was how close it was to town. Not only that, but the trappings of our frenetic culture were ubiquitous. An Amtrak train rumbled by. We could hear the hum of traffic from all corners of the park. Planes screamed overhead. While Thoreau certainly wasn’t bothered by these mechanized mumblings of modernity, it was obvious that he was in no way separated from the society that he deemed “insignificant.”

Critics lambaste Thoreau for extolling the virtues of solitude in Walden while maintaining close connections, walking to Concord often, and having his mother do his laundry on weekends. I see the hypocrisy too, but won’t let a fib spoil an otherwise timeless piece of work.

Thoreau—I’ve decided—was not a madman, a recluse, nor the symbol of frugality that we like to attach to him. He was a man. And a storyteller. His greatest story was his life. Thoreau realized—as few do—that his life was his own. And that he could do anything with it.

In his story he played the role of the philosopher-hermit. But Thoreau, undoubtedly, had itches for the other sex, cravings for consumerism. I don’t mean to suggest that Thoreau was a liar. I just mean to suggest that his identity was of his making. He became what he wanted to become.

Once, while pushing carts for The Home Depot—a miserable job I held during my undergrad years—I saw a bumper sticker on one of the many cars in the lot. It read: “Remember who you wanted to be”—a jarring reminder, to say the least. As a film and novel connoisseur, I had a keen understanding of narrative. It was self-evident that I wasn’t living in one of my beloved stories. Far from it, actually.

The van, like Thoreau’s cabin, is merely a chapter in a self-written story. He and I weren’t forced to live in such circumstances; rather, we chose it, just as Henry and I “remembered who we wanted to be”—heroes in our own self-directed stories, not background extras in someone else’s.

But the truth is that few can write their own stories. People are born into inescapable poverty. Children are abused. Disease and war and famine and a million other causes inhibit us from wielding the pen. Choice is a luxury. And choice—though most in our culture have this luxury—is rarely exercised; content are they to live in soulless dramas written by the bland hand of society and parents. Should it not be our duty, our great privilege to live the lives we’ve imagined? To be who we wanted to be?

I quit my job at The Home Depot one May to drive to Alaska. That drive, at the time, was my dream of all dreams. My journey was supposed to last a mere summer, but, five years later, I still have yet to truly come back. Little did I realize that it would become the introduction to a life, a story, and a much larger journey that I've determined to stay on.

Today, when I go into The Home Depot to buy something or other, I still see some of the same sad souls who I worked with five years earlier, slogging through life miserably, each seemingly incapable of wielding the pen either because they suffer from the self-invented “I’m-stuck-syndrome” or because there are legitimate exterior constraints.

In Thoreau’s replica cabin, I thought, while viewing the comically-austere furnishings—the twin sized bed, the wood stove, a rickety chair and desk—just how many things we could do in this life; how we can turn the wildest fragments of our imagination into reality if we so choose.

As Chuck and I walked back to his car parked in Concord, I thought about how the possibilities seemed endless.

Funny—I thought—how Thoreau’s story—despite its author six feet under a tombstone no bigger than his book, and his cabin—first a home, then a roof of a pigsty, then burned as firewood—is still ongoing. We of course never saw the ghost of Thoreau on his mid-afternoon traipse, but it was more than evident just how alive and well his message is today. Perhaps that's what Thoreau knew all along: that some stories are better off without a conclusion.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Article Aftermath

You know you’ve become popular when CBS News photoshops your van flying over Duke Chapel.

It’s been an interesting week. “I live in a Van down by Duke University” was the #1 most read story on Salon this past Monday and Tuesday, tallying well over 200,000 hits—more hits in one day than this blog has received since I started it a year ago.

Some more random numbers:

-200,000 new people have seen my pale, patchy-haired chest

-86 Facebook messages—compared to the usual zero—were found in my inbox immediately after the article

-100 people “friended” me

-2 literary agents offered their services to expand the article into a book (which I most likely will accept)

-1 publishing company did the same

Radio shows On Point of NPR, The Story with Dick Gordon and The Ron Reagan Show requested interviews. So did the TV show Fox and Friends. Inside Edition wants to follow me around at Duke for a couple days. Allegedly, host Deborah Norville was “amused/impressed” with it. The Buffalo News is calling my parents’ home and the Raleigh News and Observer had me on their cover. Rumor has it I was mentioned in USA Today and—most oddly—the AOL Auto Section mentioned me and posted this photo.

At least they didn’t give me a Chris Farley look-a-like. I’ll take that guy’s chest hair any day of the week.
also accompanied their article with a photo of an “I’m-going-to-rape-you-if-you-come-in” van with a caption stating that “Ken Ilgunas lived in a Ford Econoline van a little like this one.” This is of course amusing, but does dishonor to my beloved (and comparatively beautiful) Econoline.

I emailed my mom to tell her that—among my many media requests—Oprah called, but I turned her interview down because I don’t degrade myself to “second-rate” programs now that I’ve gone “big-time”: news so shocking to my mother that I might as well had told her—a devout member in the Church of Oprah—that I was joining the military to be part of the surge in Afghanistan for “shits and giggles.” Her response:


Oprah, for the record, never contacted me.

To be honest, this whole fame thing has me feeling a bit queasy. I’m overwhelmingly ambivalent about it all. If I did go on these shows—would I be doing it to share the boons and drawbacks of my radical lifestyle or would I merely be indulgently reveling in my fifteen minutes of fame? I’m not sure. Really, I have little desire to indulge, but feel some vague sense of duty to give into their requests.

I haven’t been able to give nearly anyone an interview since the article published because I’m in the North Carolinian mountains taking a 9-day Wilderness First Responder course where I have limited internet and no cell phone coverage. This also means that I haven’t been on campus to receive praise or heckles from the student body (or admonishment from campus administration).

In the News and Observer article, though, the writer contacted Duke administration to get a statement about their position regarding my van. Ferreri, the journalist, reported that “a Duke official said that while the university doesn’t encourage Ilgunas’ method of housing, he doesn’t appear to be violating any campus rules.”

Duke spokesman Michael Schoenfeld added this:

“Our first concern is for his health and safety, and we offer guidance and counsel to help him transition to a new home. That said, it is certainly a creative part of his education, though I don't think Thoreau had to worry about parking tickets at Walden.”

A respectable response, given that I just advertised Duke’s “egregiously” high costs to the country at large. I got a giggle out of the “guidance and counsel” line, which is a subtle way—I think—of taking a jab at me. I can just see the counselor and I sitting together; she asking me—in the politest terms—why I’ve decided to live in a van while thinking to herself—as I drone on about Thoreau and dreams and adventure—“This guy’s fucking insane!”

My sanity has been questioned across internet message boards among other criticisms about my article/lifestyle. The most prevalent seem to be:

1. The van is a hoax and I am a liar.

This is a somewhat reasonable response. Living out of a van, especially in this day and age—needless to say—is a bit unbelievable. Naturally I can’t be upset with the accusations. Aside from a personal tour, this blog is my best offering of “evidence.” On another note—wouldn’t you think that Salon would double-check these things? (which they of course did)

2. I live in squalor. Vandwelling is unhygienic and unhealthy.

I am healthier than 99.99% of the population. I never get sick (excusing my one throw-up episode), never take medicine, and I eat healthier than most anybody. I exercise, rigorously, five days a week. My rugged lifestyle fosters a hearty constitution, enabling me to sleep comfortably in temperatures as low as 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Sure, my quarters may be a bit messy at times, but that’s just my style; the state of my van shouldn’t reflect the homes of all vandwellers.

3. I am anti-social and a narcissist.

This is to some extent true. I’m certainly more solitary than the average individual and I am—like any writer/dreamer/adventurer—“narcissistic,” but I wouldn’t go as far to call them dominating characteristics.

4. “We need more janitors, not thinkers” or I that should have declared as a math major

This is easily the most ridiculous criticism. The modern American lifestyle—any style of life, really—is by no means the epitome of existence. Shall we all just complacently settle into lives, careers, and homes just because they're normal and expected of us? I have legitimate reasons to “think.” And I have legitimate reasons to complain about things like student debt, rampant consumerism, and the stanching of dreams. We can do better.

And why should I be a math major? (Note: I have nothing against math majors.) Why—so I can help with the building and the innovating and the “progressing”? Why must our human pursuits lead to this idea of “progress”? What about the pursuit of happiness? The pursuit of adventure? The pursuit of knowledge? No, no, no—the idle of mind thinks—we must pursue the almighty dollar! Fools’ pursuits and fools’ progress, I say!

Even if one wanted to criticize my area of study because it supposedly lacks a “utilitarian purpose,” I only need to point to the article to prove that I’ve “produced” something with my liberal education. While I don’t wish to reduce everything to economical/utilitarian terms, I must point out that it’s a common role for graduates of the humanities to “call bullshit” when it needs to be called. As George Patton said, “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking.”

5. Why did you reveal your secret? And why didn't you wait till you graduated? (less a complaint, more a question)

What if Thoreau went to Walden and kept his thoughts to himself? The ascetical act, though often done in solitude, is a public "performance." Without a large-scale revelation, my year in the van would be meaningless to everyone except me (and the fine readers of this blog).

The ascetic performs his act not only to gain insights and wisdom for himself and to discover the "fundamentals of life," but he also does it to protest or highlight something "off" about his respective culture. The ascetical act is a rejection and an effort to overthrow the "perceived dominant perspective," as ascetic scholar Richard Valantasis eruditely explains.

But why not wait till you graduate? That strikes me as somewhat cowardly. Besides, maybe I thought it would be fun to stir the pot a bit. Also, I have plenty of housing ideas if I'm kicked out of the parking lot. I'm resourceful enough to afford school with or without a van.

Despite the aforementioned criticisms, the responses, overall, have been resoundingly positive.

Some random Facebook messages:

“Your article about living in a van at duke inspired me. I hope to one day have the courage and the willpower to do something as extraordinary as you have”

“Very amazing, you mission is honorable and good luck to you on the rest of your adventure. I'm just starting my journey to break the consumerism side of myself down so this was inspirational to read.”

“It was your picture that caught my eye. I wanted to drop you a note to tell you what a handsome, masculine and sexy guy you are. My heart flutters each time I look at your picture.” (From a dude, actually, but compliment taken nonetheless.)

“You are sooooo the man right now!!”

“I wanted to thank you for inspiring me to maintain my van home. My dad might not appreciate it, but I know now that it doesn't matter; I have to stick to my convictions.”

“I could see it being made into an oscar worthy movie.” (I want a 26-year old Daniel Day-Lewis to play me.)

“you're fucking insane for what you have done, but the fact that you are living and succeeding at your ideals, purely amazes me. Have an amazing, DEBT FREE life. You have already changed mine.”

“Fucking awsome, your like the shining light in the afterlife” (Not really sure what this one means)

(And my personal favorite, though not in the slightest true):

“You’re so getting laid now”

I have 70 more just like these.

The question begs to be asked: Why did so many people read it? Why did it affect so many people?

Thoreau is still alive and well in the 21st Century. Well, maybe not Thoreau—but the idea of thrift and frugality and simple living: these—long-forgotten American ideals—are still American ideals. They’ve merely fallen out of practice.

It isn’t difficult to observe the faults of our consumerist lifestyle. Just as Thoreau wrote that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” 150 years ago, the same is true today. We talk about being a “free” country—a country that loves its liberty and independence so much that we’ll invade other countries to liberate them so they, too, can live freely. But how many people in America actually have freedom? We can’t be free if we’re beholden to pay off student loans, mortgages, or bills from our shopping sprees for what is often the duration of our entire adult lives.

When you think about it, few of us are really free. And if it’s not debt that muzzles our wilder, freedom-loving sides, it’s the common formula we’ve been born into; that being: school/ work/ family/ winnebago/ death—a formula that few have resolve enough to separate themselves from.

People—I think—realize all of this. We all have crazy dreams that do not fit into the prescribed formula. Yet most dreams are put off day after day until they’ve finally transformed into regrets. We recognize the burning desire, a restlessness for freedom within ourselves. But without a frontier or a war, our wildness atrophies without a place to express it.

The American Frontier—once the symbol of our freedom—seems to have disappeared like the buffalo that stampeded over it. Our rugged individualism—hidden under the makeup that the comforts of modern life has applied—appears to be a characteristic lost in the midst of an over-civilized, over-pampered, and overly-effeminate culture.

The Frontier for me, though, is a horizon as endless as it was for the first pioneers. It just takes a little imagination to see it. That which gave us vitality and character and humility can still be seized. It’s merely a matter of seeing opportunity and adventure in everything; of marching with little on our backs but much in our minds into perilous mountains, raging rivers and the blazing glory of a sun that’s yet to set: west—toward the direction of our dreams.

Monday, December 7, 2009

No he din't!

I got printed in Salon today.

What this means:

1. My identity is revealed.
2. Duke knows about the van.
3. I... am... fucked.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Guess my college, win a prize

My secret is out. Well, it will be out soon.

I'm revealing the name of my college in an essay I've sent to which will publish sometime early next week. (And I'm trying to avoid thinking about the consequences of this.)

I figured I'd give my readership a chance to guess the name first. Attentive readers would know that I've accidentally revealed it on 3-4 occasions and that there are plenty of clues to at least make an educated guess.

Here are the rules.

1. You can't guess if you know me personally.
2. You can only guess once.
3. Put your guess in the comment section of this entry by Monday 8am ET.

Winner gets an 8x10 photo, an artifact from the van, or my secret Spartan Student cookbook. Haven't decided yet.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Unidentifiable smell: identified. Or is it?

I’ve had the van for nearly a year. Last week, I gave it my first deep-cleaning.

I have several justifiable reasons for putting off the task for so long. Firstly, I’m lazy. Secondly, I never had access to a vacuum or the luxury of publicly removing all my items—necessary, of course, for any thorough cleaning. And lastly, I was worried about what I might find.

I visited my friend Chris at his home in Charlotte, N.C., where I decided to give the van a good scrub down.

In the back corner above the driver-side tire beneath a stack of old homework assignments I found a pile of…… something. What that “something” was…. Well… Let’s just say it’s still a mystery.

The van has a number of smells, almost all of which are unidentifiable. As mentioned before, this was never a real issue considering my anosmia—a fancy word for my laughably pitiful sense of smell.

Regardless of whether the odors bothered me or not, I thought it would still be nice to know the cause behind the olfactory overload potent enough to send men with more sensitive nasal cavities swooning the same way flashy Japanese anime causes seizures in the optically-vulnerable.

Never did I think I’d actually discover one of the sources.

And there it was. A pile of round pellets—miniature moose poop; each pebble coated with fuzzy lime-green mold. My first thought was: What small mammal took a dump in my van? My second thought: Is it still here?

After scouring the van for other mini mountain ranges (and finding none), I decided that I was still the only vandweller on campus.

It wasn’t more than a handful, but it was enough to make me look away in disgust in order to give me time to reason with my gag reflex. Soon, I imagined that the little shells would start vibrating before little abominable Mesozoic creatures began poking their heads through. Perhaps I’ve found in the squalidity of vandwelling—in the unique blending of dirty laundry, unwashed pans, and a bachelor in such tight quarters—just the right ingredients to originate life like the microbial soup that our single-celled ancestors slithered out of.

After a not-so-thorough inspection, I decided they were M&Ms. To be honest, I can’t remember the last time I had M&Ms. Nor do I remember having M&Ms in the van. In fact, I don’t even really like M&Ms. But—given the list of alternative explanations, to which I refuse to give a second thought for the sake of sanity—they were M&Ms. Case closed.