Friday, December 31, 2010

Student video interview

A student in the documentary studies department at Duke did a video interview with me this past semester for one of his classes. I enjoyed it, though I should make a few comments and point out a few corrections before it's viewed:

1. Normally I'm not so puffy-eyed, but I had yet to enjoy my afternoon nap when we did the interview.

2. God, I'm so self-conscious about the way I speak. I have some William-Shatner-esque pauses that really need remedying.

3. I'm touched and tickled that Dominic thinks my van is "the greatest social experiment since Thoreau's Walden cabin," but that's something I hugely disagree with.

4. It's also said that the van is not a lifestyle, but a statement. I'd say it's a lifestyle well before I'd say it's a statement.

5. At the end of the video, Dominik says that a law will be passed to ban all future students from living in their vehicles. This is what I've heard too, but I have no proof to back it up.

6. God, I really hate watching myself on video, but I'm posting this anyway because I'm feeling lazy and I'm looking for an excuse not to write anything this weekend.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

An irreligious education

I've been told that I’m going to hell more times than I can remember.

It’s actually been quite a while since someone has reminded me of my fiery destination, but I thought of the common refrain — which I’d heard so many times in my youth — when I visited a church last week to attend David’s holiday choir recital.

In truth, I've only gone to church a handful of times. I was raised by a mom who's a non-practicing Catholic, and a dad — an uncomplicated Scotsman — who sees no reason to believe in a higher power without sufficient proof.

While religion was more or less absent from the Ilgunas household, I was surrounded by religion. The Western New York town I grew up in was a melting pot of Italians, Germans, and Polish, and almost all of my schoolmates were Lutherans and Catholics, with a few Baptists sprinkled in.

The first time I was told that I was going to hell was as a young boy when a couple of Lutheran schoolmates condemned me for how I spent my Sundays. I was confused by their disapproval. I loved my Sundays: I’d sleep in till 11 a.m.; my mom would make me and my brother waffles; and I’d idle the day away watching football or playing hockey. Not once did I think I was missing out on anything.

But when I was in the third grade, my mother — who was second-guessing her carefree approach to my religious education — sent me to a Bible camp for the summer. I remember having a fairly good time, though my bunk’s counselor kept asking me if I wanted to talk about my “bed-wetting” problem after I'd left a pair of wet swimming trunks to dry on the mattress.

Each night there’d be a service, and the pastor would tell us all about heaven and hell. We were given a fairly cartoonish characterization of the afterlife: he said we’d either spend eternity with our loved ones in heaven, or have our asses habitually branded by Satan in hell. He told us that we were going to hell if we didn’t accept Jesus into our hearts.

The pastor gave those of us who hadn’t accepted Jesus the opportunity to do so at the end of each service. The few who could be counted as heathens — myself included — were encouraged to leave their pews and endure the long, lonely walk up the aisle and onto the stage as everyone looked on. I remember thinking that I was probably the only one in the whole church who didn’t have Jesus in his heart. I wanted so much to be on that stage! Though, at the same time, I was terrified of getting up in front of everyone. On the final night of camp, another boy in my bunk — also destined for hell — asked me if I wanted to join him on the stage at our final evening service the next day.

We both nervously got up and walked up the aisle. One of the counselors met us and made us kneel down. Together we recited a passage from the Bible. And that was that. Jesus was in my heart.

I came home fervent and wild-eyed. I prayed each night, read a special "kid's Bible," and warned my unresponsive father about his soul's destiny. But now that I was no longer isolated at Bible camp, I was subjected to a new kind of brainwashing: a constant stream of secular TV and hours of mind-numbing video games. I quickly forgot about Jesus, kicking him out of my heart, locking the door, turning off the lights, and rejoining my father on the couch on Sundays.

I always had friends, but I was a solitary child from a young age, coveting the time I had to myself. Between my solitary nature and my parents' “neglect,” I was able to develop some of my own beliefs in the absence of formal religious guidance. It wasn’t long before I became skeptical about the beliefs my schoolmates had thoughtlessly adopted.

While many look down on parents who don’t provide their children with proper religious training, I couldn’t have asked for a better upbringing. I had no choice but to craft my own morality, which I based not on some dusty set of rules, but on personal observation and reflection.

Still, whenever I openly criticized religion in front of my mother, she’d castigate me and warn me that, because of my beliefs, I’ll never be able to find a “nice Christian girl.” At first, this worried me a great deal. It seemed like all the girls in my high school were religious. What was a non-Christian girl even like? I feared I’d have to one-day settle for some freak with a blue Mohawk, a face full of jingling piercings, and no discernible sexuality. 

But it was just the opposite. I was quiet and sweet-hearted, and it seemed like the only girls I liked and who liked me were the diehard Christians. My first two girlfriends were very religious.

The first — a kind and gentle soul — was known to quote Biblical passages in moments of intimacy to remind herself of her vow of chastity. The second was a hardcore Baptist. I was aware of her zeal before we made our relationship official, and while our differences gave me pause for thought, I figured it would be close-minded of me to not get involved with someone solely because of her religious affiliation.

She carried in her purse a heavy, full-size Bible that affected the way she walked. We were sitting on a bench at Niawanda Park on a sunny spring day, looking over the mighty Niagara River.

“Do you see how wide this river is?” she said. “If the width of this river is eternity, this is how long of it you spend on earth.” She said this while holding her thumb and forefinger an inch apart.

“You don’t want to spend eternity in hell, do you?”

I was 19 and smitten despite our differences. We rarely brought up religion — as we knew it was a contentious subject that threatened the relationship — but occasionally she couldn’t help herself. Late one night, we were sitting in my ’87 Dodge Aries in a McDonald’s parking lot drinking chocolate milkshakes. The scene was characteristically American: fast food, a car, a panting male, and a female oblivious to the intensity of her boyfriend’s raging desires.

While I was hoping to move past the first base plate I’d been bolted to for months, she had other things in mind. She began describing Christ’s crucifixion in vivid detail, bursting into tears halfway through. I tried to console her, but she held up her Bible, announcing that me and my earthly pleasures were “obstructing her walk with God.”

“You just don't how it feels to have Jesus inside of you,” she muttered hopelessly. It was true: I didn’t know what it felt like to have a man inside me, and I wanted to keep it that way. But Jesus, from what I knew, was a pretty cool guy, and a human being as good as any to model your life after. But for a country obsessed with Jesus — perhaps the most famous ascetic in history — I found it awfully strange with how many Christians there were, yet so few ascetics. In fact, these Jesus worshippers — with houses full of junk and hellfire on their breaths — seemed awfully un-Jesus-like. The paradox baffled me.

So began a period in which I despised Christianity, and all organized religions, really. Not only was religion restraining my sexual progress at the height of my virility, but it began to look more and more foolish. All this talk of heaven, hell, and some grandfatherly Caucasian in the sky just seemed so ridiculous.

In college, I thought more about religion and had engaging discussions with classmates. Those who still counted themselves as practitioners held far more enlightened beliefs than what I was previously exposed to. They interpreted religious texts figuratively; they respected other people’s beliefs; and they were focused more on the social benefits of a church, and less the superstitions and crazy rituals.

But when you’re surrounded by people like this, it’s easy to forget about how deluded the rest of the world is. You forget that 40% of America believes Jesus will return by 2050 and that 50% believe in angels; you forget that people believe that the world was built for man and man alone.

Religion, I thought, could go to hell.

When I moved to Coldfoot after college, my best friend Josh and I — to entertain ourselves and others — created, what we thought was, the first ever “Debaptism.” Josh and I were both baptized as babies, and we each looked with disdain at the ritual since it was carried out with neither our awareness nor consent. So we figured we could right a wrong with a ridiculous ceremony.

I spent three days planning out the ceremony and writing the script in the style of the King James Bible. I would be the Debaptiser, and Josh was to be the debaptised.

We slipped invitations under everyone’s door, decorated my room with every candle we could find, and played a CD of chanting monks as everyone got comfortable on my two twin beds that served as pews.

The ceremony was held at night, and for that whole day I didn’t let anyone see me so as to create an air of solemnity around the ceremony and mystery around the Debaptizer.

Unbeknownst to the congregation, I was standing alone in a vacant room across the hall, draped underneath a white bed sheet that functioned as a shawl. Much to my surprise, everyone who received an invitation showed up, all wearing the nicest outfits they could put together. I could hear their babble through the paper-thin, wood-paneled walls. I paced across the room, reciting my lines.

In the room where the debaptism was to be held, Josh stood in the center, surrounded by everyone else. He wore a dress shirt and tie, and held a candle (signifying nothing, really) as he awaited his purification.

One of the young women who I delegated as a "holy attendant" came rushing into my cell, warning me that the crowd — of a dozen or so — was beginning to get antsy.

“We need to start this!” she exclaimed. “They’re ready for you.”

“Good,” I said, stoically, staring straight ahead. “Thence I shall wait another five minutes.”

She gave me a confused look, and scurried back to the room to make sure everything was in order. The truth was, I was starting to get nervous. I thought it was ridiculous that I was letting myself get all worked up about an absurd ritual that I had created. But there were a lot of different religious backgrounds represented in our audience — a couple of Catholics, a Mormon, a Muslim, an atheist, as well a new-age mystic — and I certainly didn’t want to offend any of them. But it was no time for second-guessing. I had to go in.

The music and lights were abruptly turned off. I walked in with slow, powerful strides.

The room was dark and candlelit. The audience, I could tell, wasn’t sure whether to take me seriously or laugh. My holy attendant stood behind me and removed one white bed sheet, only to reveal another white bed sheet beneath. Josh was standing in the middle of the room trying to suppress a grin. My face, under my hood, was turned to the ground. Slowly, gravely, I lifted my eyes to meet Josh’s. My attendant, at this point, hit the play button on the CD, changing it to my grandiose Last of the Mohicans soundtrack.

“We gather here today,” I beamed loudly, “to renounce the forced corruption of thy childhood, beginning with thy compulsory participation in a religious sacrament, when thou wert too young to refute. (Gimme a break—I wrote this a long time ago.)

“We shall call this ritual, ‘Debaptism,’ and I welcometh thee, my son, today, here where thou hath chosen to ceremoniously discard, what was so unrighteously forced upon thee.

“From thy womb thou wert anointed in water called holy, forced into a cult superstitious in character, and branded as Christian—all against thy will and knowledge. Theretofore  confined in a fortress of antiquated concepts, captive in a dungeon where enlightenment wert disallowed from coloring thy pallor — thou wert shackled in the blinding darkness of religion.

“Baptized thou wert to walk in clouds that did not exist, told to be one with a god who was not there, and forced to continueth the very traditions that clash with basic tenets of logic, reason and nature.

“However… through education, observation, and reason, thou hath awoken to the realization that the only pearly gates thy deceased form shall pass through are those of a cemetery.

“Today I shall release thou from my lingering burden that thou hath shoulderethed for ages. Thou art here today to celebrateth a new beginning.

“Now… I shall striketh the lord from thee…”

At this point I blew out the candle in Josh’s hands. What followed was a bizarre series of rituals: more candles lit and candles blown out; Josh was forced to go down on all fours; I even slapped him across his face at one point. Finally, I poured some water over his head (that I’d obtained from the bathroom sink) to ceremonially cleanse him of his original baptism.

I told him that he's been “purified,” and, to close the ceremony, I read this Buddhist quote:

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

The audience erupted in applause that echoed through the halls. Josh was given gifts, Mormon and Muslim came together, and we all got thoroughly soused on whiskey and Miller High Life. The Debaptism was a stunning success.


As I listened to David and the choir sing, I looked over the audience and felt a twinge of envy. Everyone knows each other in this room, I thought. They show up every week and shake hands. Someone will ask someone else how so and so is doing after their surgery. One family will invite another over for dinner. It reminded me of my distance from my family, and the neighborhood of man that I’ve done without all these years. I looked at some of the pretty girls singing on the stage and fantasized about what it would be like to settle down with one of them and embrace a more conventional version of the simple life.

There are of course many good things about religion: the sense of community it fosters, the sense of charity and compassion it often encourages, or the comfort it gives to the bereaved and those on their death beds. And of course I don’t really think that religion should go to hell. Anyone with a set of beliefs and morals is religious in their own way, even if those beliefs don’t align with those of a major sect.

However, the sort of religion most in our country practice seems destructive. Not only is Christianity wreaking havoc on our planet (there is a stark correlation between religiousness and climate change denial), but it smothers the individual soul. When we blindly accept the dictates of a religion, we are inhibited from living according to our own peculiar natures, from following the choreography of our consciences, and from seeking our own versions of success and happiness.

On a personal level, believing in heaven or hell or in a god or gods is pretty inconsequential. But when a whole society is deluded, the consequences can be huge. Not only does religion encourage conformity, but complacency, too: We trust hypocritical religious leaders and politicians; we place our faith in flagrantly mendacious news outlets; we don't take our president seriously because we think he’s a terrorist. (Do I think religion is the sole factor in the crazy and destructive things our country believes in? No, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn it's the biggest factor.)

This, unfortunately, is how religion works in the real world.

If religion has the tendency to fashion us into conformists and prepare us to be deceived, then heresy encourages individuation and helps us defend ourselves from lies. Heresy, though, can be alienating and unsettling.

Many prefer religion because it provides us with prepackaged principles and a well-worn path. Questions don’t need to be asked, mysteries don’t need to be solved, and as long as we say our prayers, read our Bibles, deny gays equal rights, multiply, spread, and subdue the earth, we get to go to heaven.

But without the path that a religion provides, one must blaze his own. And there is, I feel, no better way to spend one’s youth than doing just that.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

My return to Acorn Abbey

Last week, I got the van up and running again after having a new battery installed. I also quit my job as a tutor, and had my final class for the Liberal Studies program. I am one step closer to graduating debt-free. All that's left is my "final project," which will be my sole duty for the spring semester.

Because I don't have to be on campus for the final project, I decided to move back in with David at his home called Acorn Abbey, situated in the hills and forests of Stokes County, North Carolina. From here, I'll write my final project free of all distractions.

Stokes CountyI will confidently and boldly sayis one of the most beautiful places on earth. The county, home to few humans, is densely populated with every conceivable shade and style of green: On a drive up and down a winding country road, one is sure to come across, at every turn, lush, tree-topped hills blooming like broccoli heads; or bucolic farm country, complete with crisply shaven lawns, cozy hamlets, rows of squat tobacco and stands of erect corn; or impenetrably-thick, howlingly-wild forests so leafy and lush it's easy to forget the Sonocos and strip malls that dominated the landscape I inhabited before.

On gently-sloped fields, wind makes sandy-colored waves of wheat flail as if something were tickling the ground beneath them. If it were a different century, such might be a fitting scene for a trio of mounted and marooned native warriors to “whoop” after wide-eyed buffalo. The soil here is “clay red”soil so dark and rich that it sometimes takes on a purple hue, as if the ground had been anointed with the blood from some ancient genocide.

Now that it's winter, the green's gone, and the growing season's over with. But as any farmhand knows, there's always work no matter the month. I have the great fortune to resume work as David's groundskeeper, for which I will receive room and board.

The arrangement is mutually beneficial: David no longer has to do the outdoors work he loathes, and I get both the pleasures of manual labor and a setting that'll improve my writing and benefit my productivity. And of course a couple of hermits finally have like-minded companions.

Because I intend to stay here all next semester, my vandwelling days are winding down. (Though I must make several trips to campus, so surely I have yet to sleep my last night in the Econoline.) Don't get me wrongI love the van, and I will miss many aspects of vandwelling. Yet I must admit that I've already begun enjoying some of the upgrades of conventional living. No longer must I swaddle myself with every piece of clothing imaginable to stay warm in a frozen vanbecause I now have a warm bed every night.

And no longer must I eat out of the same unwashed cereal bowl every morning with powdered milk (that tends to turn my feces a pale, ghostly green)because I now enjoy David's elegantly prepared mealsoften made with vegetables from our garden. Below, we are about to eat chili, green peppers, sauerkraut, homemade bread, and vegan sausages. The day before, we had beet soup, turnips, and sweet potatoesall of which I planted in August.

David makes his own sauerkraut with locally grown cabbage. It ferments in these two German-made crocks. (You can also see his cat Lily behind one of them. She, upon my returnI'm unhappy to reportgave me a reception best described as "cool.")

What must I do for all these luxuries? My first project was to remove all the pines from his acre of developed landa project I accepted begrudgingly since it was difficult for mea self-avowed treehuggerto justify cutting down a tree for mere aesthetic reasons.

I've openly accused David of being a tree-racist since he has prejudices against certain species. When I casually mention the pine, he becomes uncommonly vulgar, even ogreish. He'll begin to imagine the pines propagating, multiplying, taking over (!) his property, casting his home under a perennial shadow with their sharp, needle-like quills. They'll pop up in his garden, destroy his lawn, and crash through his second-story windows when pretending to be swayed by the wind.

It's then when he begins to seethe; he'll take on a rigid, territorial disposition and cast slurs at my bushy, spiky-haired friends, as if they were a swarm of gypsies he'd caught squatting on his land and sifting through his garbage. His revulsion is so palpable that I begin tothrough my alliance with the pinefeel threatened as well.

Personally, I find most any tree, pines included, quite pretty, especially when they add color to bleak winter vistasbut David can't stand to look at them, calling them "weeds." Hardwoods, on the other handlike the beech, the poplar and the mapleare "noble," he says.

I chopped away anyway sinceI justifiedsome hardwoods would take their place in due time. And also because there may be nothing more fun than chopping down a tree. Here I am taking out a Locust tree to make room for a Persimmon tree so that it may grow and flourishthe latter of which bears fruit that's replete with medicinal goodies.

I'm also in charge of the chickens, but they're fairly self-sufficient; I only have to make sure that they're fed, and that their coop gets locked up at night. The three of them, in total, produce about two eggs a day. Here's Ruth, who looks like she's put on some weight since summer.

None of our scrap food goes to waste. Here, the chickens are eating our leftover grits.

On the left is Chastity, and in the middle, Patience. I never knew that chickens have such distinct personalitiesI figured they'd all be wired the same way. Not so with our chickenseach has a distinct character of her own.

This winter we'llunless David balks at the costinstall a hive and begin keeping bees so that we can produce our own honey. We'll also expand our shiitake mushroom farm, start our crops from seeds indoors, plant two black walnut trees, and make further aesthetic improvements to the landscape.

This all sounds like a ton of work, but I'd say, on average, I'm only outside working for an hour or two a day. The rest, I spend on my scholarly pursuits inside, often in front of the fire reading, which is, for me, a pleasure almost without equal. Here I am reading Walter Harding's biography on Thoreau, which is superb. (Robert Richardson's bio of ThoreauLife of the Mindis equally good.)

Despite my aversion for accumulating a mess of things, I have some strange hoarding tendencies. One of which is my need to always have an absurd amount of books at my disposal. From the Duke library, I picked up lots of Emerson and Thoreau, three books by Thorstein Veblen, as well as a good mix of literary fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and travel books of course. While my multi-disciplined coursework has been enlightening, I have been looking forward to going back to books that are more in accord with my particular interests.

I don't want to say I'm done with vandwelling; I will, after all, need to spend some time on campus next semester, but my experiment is most certainly winding down. And now that I've finished my coursework, I enter a new phase of my "intellectual journey."

And so begins my next endeavor, which is, like my last, overly-ambitious and certain to fail. Starting tomorrow, I will begin my final project, which I've decided will be a full length book. It'll be like any good travel book, I hope: it'll be a tale of a journey both without and within; it'll be half about living in a van and staying out of debt, and half about traveling across the continent and getting out of debta journey that, more than anything, made me a vandweller "in spirit." Somehow I hope to tie the two together in coherent fashion. If I deem it worth a damn, then maybe I'll try to publish it.

So I suppose this blog will change in theme somewhat. It'll be less about vandwelling and more about sustainable living, mixed in with lamentations about my anxieties as a wannabe writer, as well as some old adventures I've been itching to put to page. I hope you'll come along.

[For other stories of Acorn Abbey, you can find them in my "Other Travels" section.]

Sunday, December 12, 2010


When I lived in the arctic, I heard a story about a white man and an Eskimo. The white man, overcome with curiosity, asked the Eskimo, "What's the secret? How do you deal with the cold?" The Eskimo thought a moment and said, "I don't."

Tonight, here in Durham, the temperature will drop to 16˚F (-8˚C). Tomorrow, it'll get as low as 13˚F (-10.5˚C).

There are many aspects of the "hard" life that aren't hard for me anymore. Discomforts are no longer discomforting. Adversities, no longer adverse. The cold, however, is always a pain in the ass.

Taking off my clothes to get into my sleepwear will always be something I dread. In such weather, my knees clang against each other, my muscles tense up, my breathing becomes erratic, and my penis turtles into my body. With teeth chattering and fingers as hard and stiff as icicles, I'll—with great difficulty—struggle to get a grip on my sleeping bag zipper.

But within moments of sealing myself in my sleeping bag—now burritoed in my own body heat—a consoling warmth blankets my arms and legs and torso, as if my bag were stuffed with sun rays. The cold on my face and the warmth of my sleeping bag make for prime soporific conditions—a natural tranquilizer that'll, within moments, turn my eyes heavy, as I begin to drift away into dreamland.

But then, in the morning, I'll have to get out again. I'll have to strip off my pajamas, and shiver back into my school clothes. I won't lie: this takes quite a bit of will power—and I've even been late to work a couple times because I've come to dread getting dressed in what feels like a glacier crevasse.

My water jug will be half-frozen. Bananas, if I have them, will have turned a frost-bitten black. My windshield—from the inside—will be coated with ice.

The cold's a pain. But that's all it is: a pain, and nothing more. The minimalist life is not all deprivation and sacrifice. It's not all hardship and austerity. Minimalism, rather, is removing the unnecessaries from your life, not the necessaries. If you've voluntarily reduced your things to the point where your health is adversely affected, you're no longer a minimalist—you're a foolhardy masochist.

This is my third winter in the van. And I can say, quite confidently, that the van has not weakened my health one bit. And dealing with the cold is, and never has been, an issue.

In all my time here in N.C., the temperature has never dropped below 10˚F (-12˚C). I've handled such cold without difficultly, and I will be so bold to state that I could live in my van comfortably—without any other source of warmth—in temperatures as low as negative 30˚F (-34˚C). This I can say because I once lived in Coldfoot, Alaska—60 miles north of the Arctic Circle—with a guy who lived in his Chevy Suburban for 6 years, winters included. He was able to deal with arctic chills by installing a wood stove in his Chevy, but I have more than enough warm clothes and sleeping bags to compensate.

There's not much to keeping warm in a van, but if you're curious, here's how I do it.

First, I put on a set of thermals. I have one "light" pair, and another that is "expedition-rated." My mother sent me these in the mail when I lived in the arctic years ago. I'm guessing they cost a good $50. They work ridiculously well.

Step 2: Put on my jammies (not that I call them that or anything).

Step 3: Another pair of wool socks.

Step 4: Hat and gloves.

Step 5: Selk sleeping bag.

Step 6: Zip up my mummy bag. Supposedly, it's rated to -20˚F (-29˚C), but I don't think it could withstand colds beyond 0˚F (-18˚C).

All warm! By this point, like the Eskimo, I'm no longer "dealing" with the cold; that's because I'm no longer cold.

I've never had to follow all these steps. In fact, I've probably only worn my thermals on maybe a dozen occasions. (My red sleeping bag is quite effective--consistently keeping me warm between the months of Dec. through Feb. when the average low is between 30-33˚F (0˚ C.))

In the morning, if it's really cold, I'll cook up some hot oatmeal with peanut butter, freeze-dried milk, and hot chocolate mixed in.

Believe me, I'd love to walk into a home that's been heated by a wood stove. And when I wake up, I'd love to be in a room warm enough to keep me from seeing my own breath. But there's no sense in living in a constant state of want—hoping for heat in winter, cold in summer—the way so many do. I'm always amused when people shriek about some "horrible" five-day weather forecast. They'll exclaim about the coming weather as if an invading army were positioned on the outskirts of town.

So few in our cubicled culture have to actually deal with the weather—except, of course, for a few menial tasks like shoveling the driveway, scraping the ice off a windshield, or bundling up to get the mail.

Never before in our species' history have we been so cut off from the weather as we are today. Yet it seems like we're in a state of denial—still expressing excitement and exasperation over harsh weather that, at the very most, will force us to get up and turn a dial on our thermostats.

When we bewail "harsh" weather, we do great disrespect to true "harshness." If we peeled off the soft layers of civilization then we might—through exposure to real harshness—see that what bothered us before was merely balmy. Ah, the pampered panoply we privileged don—when wearing it, what's easy becomes difficult, what's cool becomes freezing, what's mild becomes sweltering; sniffles are now diseases, going without is going insane, and luxuries, our dearest longings.

Something's been lost upon severing ourselves from the seasons—a bond, a connection, an intimacy, a "something"—what it is exactly, I don't know. Perhaps it's perspective. Yes, we lose perspective of things—a perspective of what are our true wants and needs; of what are our true physical and mental limits—these questions cannot be answered when hidden under houses, cloaked in polypropylene, and protected from the cold, hard, can't-be-questioned reality of nature.

With all that said, I certainly wouldn't mind a thermostat and warmer quarters. But I do get something out of sleeping in the cold. It's a sacrifice, of course, and a sacrifice that pays off.

Lucian (120 - 180 A.D.), a Greek who championed the simple life, said:

The old cloak, the shaggy hair, the whole get-up that you ridicule, has this effect; it enables me to live a quiet life, doing as I will and keeping the company I want.

If you were to wander into my van at any hour, you'd probably find me reading. Or I'll be laying on my bed, staring at the ceiling, lost in a moment of idle musing—unworried about feeling "industrious" or "useful." Oddly, it is these times—these times when I'm doing nothing—when I'm most productive. I'm able to piece together thoughts, develop new ones, and think of everything from the Milky Way to the fallen crumb on my floor.

The van is my monastery—an abode perfect for reading, thinking, reflection, and contemplation, or just laying there with my eyes shut—basking in my solitude for sometimes hours at a time.

And outside my van is that great big world, and all the turning, burning, buzzing, bustling, shuffling, selling, tree-chopping, mountain-topping, plastic bag Babylonian nightmare of which I have no desire to be a part.

If having a warm home means I need to pay for it with my time and money, there's no question about it: I'll take my shivers and solitude any day of the week.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Images of resourcefulness: Part 3

I am poor.

My last tuition bill ($1,089) is coming up, and my savings continue to dwindle away ($1,933). When I graduate in May, I will--if all goes well--only have a couple hundred dollars left. To fix my money woes, I have upped my hours at my part-time job (from 7 to 13), but these gains have been offset by more van repair costs.

For the past month I haven't been able to start my van without a jump. At first, I thought this was a minor battery issue, but after having the battery charged by a friend for three hours (and it dying soon after), I've been told that I need a new alternator, which supposedly will cost me another precious $200.

I rarely drive the van, so this is no big deal. I have, however, had to begin walking to work, which is 27 minutes each way. Needless to be said, this is inconvenient, but I've enjoyed these long, leisurely walks more than I thought I would. On them, I find myself thinking more clearly than I do on, say, arduous mountain-trail hikes, or on my comparably smaller walks around campus.

Because of limited funds, I decided to cut back in other areas. For one, I haven't done laundry once in the last two months. Laundry can actually be a fairly large expense--sometimes it costs as much as $10 per visit. I've found that the size of my laundry bill is largely determined by the weather. In hot weather, I do laundry every two weeks since I'm constantly sweating; in cold weather, I wash them about once a month.

Above, you can see that my laundry bin has begun overflowing. My goal is to go without washing my clothes until Dec. 17th--the day when I'll finally have access to a free washer and dryer. I started last week with my last two pairs of clean pants. Despite my dearth of pants, I thought that reaching my goal would still be a piece of cake. This, however, became all the more difficult because--when tutoring at the elementary school I work at last week--I'd unknowingly sat in a chair that had been soaked with spilled chocolate milk.

I didn't realize my pants were soaked until I stood up and Tanee--my 9-year-old tutee-- exasperatedly remarked, "Mr. Ken! Whaddyou do to your pants?" I quickly discerned that I was in a precarious situation. I've developed a solid reputation at the elementary school these past couple years, and I knew that, within seconds, that reputation would be compromised if news of me peeing my pants spread to all other tittering classrooms. But after two years of working closely with little kids, I've learned a great deal about child psychology--especially that you can make anything sound cool as long as you say it with a bit of sarcasm and bravado. I responded: "What do you think I did? I peed my pants...... duh."

So now, the only pants I have left are my dress pants that I bought for my 1997 freshman high school homecoming dance. It's the great irony of my situation that the poorer I get, the better I look.

Seeing as how I only have about 7-8 pairs of underwear, you can easily do the math to learn how much use I get out of a pair before it's relegated to the laundry bin. While this normally hasn't been the case, I've been wearing each one until I could no longer trust my pants to keep inside the eye-watering smells steaming from my groinal region. As each week passed, I observed--with due disconcertion--that I'd soon be out of undergarments. I did an inventory of the rest of my clothes to see if it really was time to spend my $10 at the laundromat. But I learned that--as long as my pair of 9th grade dress pants stayed clean--I had more than enough socks and shirts to get me to the 17th.

As you'll see below, I've dealt with the situation by washing my underwear with me in the shower with bar soap, and drying them under the hand dryers, which has worked out fairly well.

This semester I joined the campus farming club. Amazingly, Duke has a small garden and an apiary. Here we are harvesting fall vegetables. I took to the van with me peppers, broccoli, sweet potatoes, squash, and jalepenos.

I think having a campus farm is a wonderful idea. Wouldn't it be great if the dining halls were supplied with homegrown food? What if students were obligated to work five hours a week on the farm, or some on farm-related activity like canning, building outbuildings, milking cows, etc. This way, students could cut back on food costs and learn valuable manual trades to complement their theoretical education. Also, I see that Duke has tons of oak, maple, and dogwood trees. Why aren't there more apple, peach, and pear trees? Not just at Duke, but everywhere? Why not plant a tree in your lawn that looks pretty and produces tasty food? But why bother asking... These ideas probably make too much sense to actually work.

My new parking lot has hardly affected my life, except that I'm no longer within walking distance of some of the libraries. So some nights--when I've been up most of the night working on an assignment--I must find other places to sleep. Here, I've pushed two chairs together in the library and used my coat as a pillow.

I've continued to get meals any way I can. After my op-ed ran in the student newspaper, I got an email from a student inviting me to "Asian food night," hosted by a group of young Christian ministers. I ate from the buffet, gluttonously, like a camel storing water before a long march across a desert. I also filled up my Tupperware so I could eat for free the next day.

Oftentimes I'll go to a new place to study. (I've found that a change of scenery sometimes improves my studying habits.) Once I sat at a table next to a campus restaurant. When they were shutting down, one of the employees--not knowing who or how hungry I was--asked me if I wanted a chicken salad that they hadn't sold and were about to throw away. I can't express how delighted I was; she might as well have been handing over a brick of gold.

After that, I found myself habitually wandering back there at night--around the restaurant's closing time. Much to my delight, they continued to offer me sandwiches, subs, and salads that they didn't sell. Sometimes they wouldn't offer me anything, but that was okay because I'd been observing what they did to all that uneaten food. When I saw them dump it into the garbage, I knew that I'd found a nightly source of good, clean, healthy food--all wrapped in protective plastic. Since then, I've been fishing out my favorites.

Below, I'm eating a turkey and cheese sandwich along with a mozzarella salad with Italian dressing.

I laugh whenever I get away with things like these--perhaps because it feels like I'm breaking the rules or doing something wrong. But I'm really only violating people's perceptions of what's wrong. While finding free food and washing your underwear in the shower may seem aberrant to most, it's far more sensible than going back into debt to me.

And of course I'm not really poor. Real poverty is what 1/5th of the world lives in. No matter what, every day I have food to eat and a warm place to sleep. And even though I will graduate with hardly anything in the bank, I know I have friends and family who I can rely on for help. I certainly will not have a degree that will get me a million-dollar job, but I can always teach or go back to the Park Service--and live more than comfortably on the wages from those jobs. Real poverty is having no way out; I'm just playing with poverty.

But there's more. There's a poverty of the mind. One is not poor because of the size of his wage, or the brand of his car, but because of the makeup of his mind. One is cast into a chronic state of need when he--by comparison--perceives himself to be less well-off than those around him. Put a man in a country club and he will suddenly feel the "need" for a yacht; put him on a solitary island and his only desires will be food, shelter, and companionship. Being "well off" is not a matter of fulfilling needs or hurdling over poverty lines; it's a matter of outdoing your neighbors; and it's a matter of buying into their notion of wealth, without ever thinking of creating your own.

The van, for me, has been a quarantine of sorts. While I am around thousands of students physically, I've severed myself from them in almost all other ways. And while this severance has generated a good deal of personal anguish, to learn that I'm no longer plagued with emulative desires has been one of the great rewards of my experiment. I no longer want what other people want; instead, I can, from my upholstered hermitage, define my own wealth, my own poverty.

But of course you don't have to separate yourself from mankind to alter your perceptions on wealth and poverty; it is, I think, merely a matter of getting in tune with yourself, and impeling yourself to acknowledge what things you seek in order to outdo those around you, and what things actually contribute to your subsistence and happiness.


PS: After the semester ends (in one and a half weeks), I plan on moving back in with David at Acorn Abbey because I don't have enough money to travel home to Niagara Falls, but also because I can't wait to resume work as his groundskeeper.

[Click the following for previous installments of my "Images of resourcefulness" series: 1 and 2.]