Friday, March 25, 2011

The Tao of the Black Bag


Being Present, Living Mindfully

"Why aren't you on Twitter," I am asked. "Why don't you blog more often?"

Jean-Paul Sartre asserted that it is necessary to choose between living life and telling stories about life. The never-ending act of transforming existence into a coherent, cohesive narrative is so intrusive and invasive, he suggested, that it prevents the author from simply absorbing sensory, emotional and intellectual input.

For a certain type of person, at least, Sartre is evidently right.

You know the type; they are constantly using their iPhones to update their Facebook status, constantly texting, constantly posting new pictures to the Web. They are, in other words, so busy telling everybody about what they're doing right now that they hardly have any time to enjoy the experience itself. They're hardly even paying attention to the experience at all. To some extent, yes, we all do it. But for some it is a pathology, an addiction.

Fame is often characterized as a disease or disorder. The type of person described above suffers from "micro-fame." Nothing is done for its own sake; everything is done for the benefit of your audience of readers and followers. This attitude separates you from your own life, turns your life into a packaged product.

You must, I believe, be able to immerse yourself fully in an experience -- to commit to it, to invest yourself in it, to engage with it completely. This does not preclude, however, writing about it later. You might operate under the assumption that at some point in the future, after you have had a chance to process and assimilate the totality of the experience and frame it in the greater context of your life, you might (or might not) attempt to distill it and capture it in words. Knowing this does not prevent you from living in the moment.

I reject the idea that one must choose between exclusive modalities. What one must do is know where to draw the line. If your awareness of the need to tell the story is interrupting the experience -- interfering with it -- then you need to pull back.

It has been widely theorized that in this online era people would be able to present themselves to the public in a totally controlled, inherently false and misleading way. We would see not the real person but a Photoshopped avatar -- a loose, malleable representation that can be enhanced, manipulated and distorted at will. Your online persona can be smarter, funnier, more successful and more interesting than you are: you as you wish to be, not as you are -- an upgraded mythology of yourself.

It is no longer the realm of speculative futurism; we now live in that universe. And you know what? The thing that I find ironic and surprising is not how effectively we have each created, modulated, edited, adjusted and fine-tuned this artificial construct -- it's how most people have completely failed to do this!

They post photographs with no captions, no explanations and no apparent relevance. They post images of random celebrities or animals as their own profile pictures. They post bizarre, rambling, incomplete thoughts pockmarked with spelling, grammar, punctuation, capitalization and syntax errors and dripping with omissions, inconsistencies and factual inaccuracies.

In this age of Wikipedia, Google and Spell Check it would be so easy to look smart. You wouldn't be able to tell who was clever, well-rounded and intelligent with so much information (very literally) at everyone's fingertips. It never ceases to amaze me that despite the minimal effort required, people don't take advantage of these things. It's not as if you even have to get up out of your chair, walk across the room and actually get a dictionary down off the shelf. Half the time they don't even bother to proofread. They post comments like, "there was this movie i forget who was in it or what it was called but there was this guy who . . ." Oh, for crying out loud! Just look it up on IMDB!

An increasingly common attitude is, "why should I do it in real life and expose myself to risk when I can play a computer game that simulates the experience with no risk?"


Choosing Experience, Choosing Reality

Since this is a blog about motorcycle travel, I can safely talk about the fact that I ride. I have learned not to bring this up in general social situations. If I mention motorcycles or motorcycling to non-riders, the usual immediate standard response from them is to begin telling me some gruesome, gory tale of horror. It's a weird but consistently predictable reaction. So I have trained myself to avoid the topic. (Years ago I wrote a short essay devoted to the subject of the skewed perception of risk you can read HERE if you are interested.)

It is well documented that human nature causes vivid, dramatic threats like shark attacks seem much scarier than long-term, invisible, intangible threats such as high cholesterol. A shark attack is an extremely remote possibility and hardly worth worrying about for most people most of the time. High cholesterol is likely to kill you. But the shark attack is vivid and dramatic while the high cholesterol is long-term, invisible and intangible . . . so you see some fat person sitting on the beach, afraid to go in the water, eating a double cheeseburger with extra mayonnaise and a jumbo order of fries. That is faulty hazard analysis.

Fear is a poor reason not to do things.

If something involves risk, evaluate the risks. Minimize the risks. Manage the risks.

Don't avoid doing things -- do things right! Do things safely!

People's reactions to hearing about someone else's adventures are often obliquely apologetic and subconsciously defensive, freighted with rationalizations.

    "I wish I could buy a motorcycle but . . . [insert excuse]."
    "I wish I could get my pilot's license but . . . [insert excuse]."
    "I wish I could sail around the world but . . . [insert excuse]."
    "I wish I could learn to skydive but . . . [insert excuse]."

The most common excuse is "my wife won't let me." It's usually followed by a self-deprecating laugh, but I don't think it's humorous; I think it's kind of sad. I don't mean to seem harsh or judgmental, but that doesn't sound like a fulfilling marriage. I would hate to think that I was somehow standing between my wife and actualization. If she really wanted to have an experience, it it were really important and meaningful to her, then I should be supporting, encouraging, facilitating and enabling in every way I possibly can -- that's what best friends are for. Inversely, if my actions or presence in her life were preventing her from achieving her goals I would feel (rightly) very guilty and depressed about it. If Trish wants to do something, then the way I see it it's my job to do everything in my power to make it happen. I fell in love with her because she is who she is. Why would I want to change that? Why would I want to hold her back? That doesn't make any sense.


Setting Priorities, Allocating Resources

The second most common excuse is "I can't afford it." This statement makes me wince. Unless you are living in abject poverty (and some are, but usually not the ones using this excuse) this probably isn't really true.

Ten Levels of Wealth (measured as a function of lifestyle)

Notice that the levels are not associated with hard numbers such as annual gross income. That's because what matters is your CIRCUMSTANCES, not your account balance or net worth. The two key factors are the real cost of living where you reside and your own personal (perceived) lifestyle needs.

The phrase "basic fundamental human needs" as I use it here includes (A) nourishing food and clean water, (B) clothing adequate to the conditions, (C) adequate shelter, (D) health care and hygiene and (E) access to education and work.

Level 1: It is impossible to obtain the basic fundamental human needs.
Level 2: It is extremely difficult to obtain the basic fundamental human needs.

NOTE: For perspective, according to the World Bank, almost half the global population -— over three billion people -— live on less than $2.50 a day. At least 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day.

Level 3: Obtaining the basic fundamental human needs requires all available resources.
Level 4: Obtaining the basic fundamental human needs requires most available resources, with little left over.

Level 5: Some disposable income is available for discretionary purchases.
Level 6: A significant amount of disposable income is available for discretionary purchases -- spending on entertainment and consumer goods becomes a substantial part of the budget.

Level 7: Enough money is available to cover all expenses and still put aside for savings or major purchases (such as a house).
Level 8: It is possible to live comfortably while simultaneously amassing increasing savings.

Level 9: It is no longer necessary to choose between saving and spending; there is enough money to live very well with no great danger of running out.
Level 10: Unlimited extravagance.

As a practical matter, once a household hits Level 10, additional wealth is just a figure on a ledger with no impact on your lifestyle. Let's face it, the difference between having $5 million and $50 million in your personal checking account is effectively nil. (Although I'm sure many millionaires would emphatically dispute that assertion.)

Since there are so many multi-billionaires out there these days, it might make sense to add a ridiculous Level 11 to this list -- more money than you and all your staff, entourage, ex-wives, mistresses and illegitimate children could ever possibly spend.

The disparity is staggering. Roughly 42% of all the wealth in America is held by just 1% of the U.S. population. Most people (the bottom 80%) hold just 7%.

With all this in mind, people who are at the mall buying clothes and music CDs, DVD players and iPods, new cars and new furniture can't logically or accurately use the "I can't afford it" excuse. "I choose to spend my money on other things" would be more correct.

So why do so many people make excuses? And why do others choose to get out there and do things? What makes the difference?

I think it essentially all comes down this: many people prefer to cling to a comforting, idealized, glamorized fantasy rather than embrace an imperfect (and perhaps sometimes disappointing) reality. The truth is usually messy, complicated and difficult. A dream can remain abstract and therefore flawless.

Some people apparently want things to be simple and beautiful. Reality is rarely simple and often ugly. Reality can be dirty, annoying, uncomfortable, boring and challenging -- complex and riddled with paradox, ambiguity and contradiction. Navigating reality requires sacrifice and compromise. Trying to bypass, sidestep or circumvent these aspects of human existence on Earth entails hiding, withdrawing, cocooning, protecting oneself from authentic experiences rather than accepting them or seeking them out.

Take climbing Mount Everest, for example. The statement "I climbed Mount Everest" sounds exciting. The reality, however, involves spending days in a tent at base camp playing poker to pass the time while waiting for the weather to break. It involves altitude sickness and hypothermia. It involves physical exhaustion. It involves great expense. Adventure equals excitement but it also equals adversity, uncertainty, danger and discomfort. But that's not a reason not to go if climbing Mount Everest is your dream.

The distinction between a dreamer and a doer is therefore nothing more than a willingness to overcome that fear of contaminating the perfect fantasy with imperfect reality.

I have been on many, many imperfect trips. But as imperfect as they were, they were still better -- far better -- than all the theoretical perfect trips I didn't actually take. There is never a "right time." We can sit around and wait for the "right time" forever. The "right time" is fiction.

"Go small, go simple, go now," say world cruisers Larry and Lin Pardey, who have been ocean voyaging since the 70s. My own version of that motto, applied to motorcycle touring, might be something like, "keep it cheap and hit the road."


The Black Bag

The Black Bag is my one key piece of equipment. It is no accident that I use a picture of it as the header of this blog, nor is the capitalization arbitrary. It is not just a black bag; it is THE Black Bag. It is emblematic of my travel philosophy. All I need to do is grab the Black Bag, along with a change of socks and underwear, and I'm ready for an adventure.

A few of the most important contents:

  • A bottle of Excedrin. I try to never be without this. If you've ever been sick while traveling, you know how miserable it can be. I get terrible headaches (especially when I forget to eat) and the only thing that gives me any relief is that combination of acetaminophen, aspirin and caffeine.
  • A toothbrush, dental floss, a pack of tissues, nail clippers and tweezers. A minor problem like a hangnail or something stuck between your teeth can drive you to the verge of insanity when you're on a trip and can't take care of it.
  • A comb and a hairbrush. When I stop to eat, get gas or check into a hotel, taking just a couple of seconds to clean up slightly is helpful. When I look like a scruffy, unkempt, disheveled bum I'm less likely to get prompt, courteous service.
  • A pair of sunglasses.
  • A bottle opener. (You can see it in the picture.) It's a souvenir from the Alaskan Brewing Company in Juneau. I picked it up during a brewery tour. Ever been caught without a bottle opener? That can be aggravating. People get mighty creative when they're desperate.
  • A couple of safety pins. These can be amazingly useful in a variety of situations.
  • A battery-operated electric beard and mustache trimmer. I figured out a long time ago that it's much easier to keep my facial hair trimmed than it is to try to actually shave every single day, especially when I'm on the road.
    Shampoo, deodorant and bath soap. Not every motel offers these and most campgrounds never do.
  • A Leatherman multi-tool and a Swiss Army Knife. (Unless I'm going to be traveling by airline. Then I leave them at home.)
  • A small LED flashlight.
  • A pair of earplugs in a tiny protective case. These really save the day when you're trying to sleep in a noisy place.

It is the simple things like this, plus some good, solid, basic riding gear (capacious luggage, comfortable gloves etc.) and NOT the perfect $20,000 touring bike or two weeks of paid vacation, a large travel budget and an exotic itinerary that facilitate a rewarding trip. A great trip can be three days and $100. Just go. Just. Go.

Keep it cheap and hit the road. I'll see you out there.

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