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.