Unnatural In Nature

I was always supposed to love camping. That’s how it went in my mind, anyway. I desperately wanted to be thrilled by the thickets of forests, elated by the clear nights and the fresh air filling my lungs. I wanted to find the pleasure of cooking my food on a fire, pitching my own tent, being my own woman on my own Oregon Trail. Leave for the day to hike, come back to eat. Sleep on the ground under an open sky. Repeat.

My dad and I used to go to camping in Wisconsin with a friend of his when I was a kid. For a few weekends out of my young life, I ate canned beans and freeze-dried beef and hiked. I had to learn to pee outside; I pissed all over my shoes the first time for lack of spatial understanding (my dad was able to stand up, I reasoned—why couldn’t I do the same?). We went stargazing at night, but for the life of me I couldn’t reason out any of the constellations. They were just a series of bright dots.

And in the end, canned beans were just canned beans. And when the weekend was over, I would bound into my house, unaffected by the lack of flora and fauna. It was fun while it lasted, but I sure am glad to sit on my sofa again.

Camping as an adult has been a similarly puzzling experience. What am I supposed to be getting out of this? I would wonder as I twisted around on my sleeping mat trying to find a good position, almost crying at the prospect of washing the dirt and sweat and smoke out of my hair and body in a hot shower. Desperate to be able to take a shit in a clean bathroom with a toilet I could actually sit on. Peeing outside loses its charm when you’ve drip-dried for the fifth time that day. Beans aren’t that fucking good.

Is it human nature to seek comfort and ease? Or have we been dulled by a post-agrarian lifestyle, the hunter-gatherer stifled inside us, waiting to emerge—if only we just disconnect. The nobler answer would likely be the second; as Henry David Thoreau conceded in every bearded man’s guide to finding himself, “We need the tonic of wildness.” There are plenty of tales of enlightenment that pour forth from experiments in divorcing oneself from the superficial quotidian minutiae. How much fuller, more rounded we are for stepping outside of our cushy, over-stimulated lives. I get it—I should feel bad about enjoying sleeping in a bed indoors and having fast Internet.

I’ve been camping a fair amount of times. It’s always with an open mind, trying to capture the wanderlust—or whatever ten-cent word a mediocre blogger might use to describe their roaming heart—that I seemed to be missing. I fear my own disenchantment with nature. I worry that the annoyance of gnats clouding my nose outweighing the beauty of sun dapples patterning the trees at just the right angle is an indication of an intense vapidity.

There seems to be a cognitive dissonance: we should all unplug and be better for it—but at the same time, as a friend of mine put it when talking on the subject, “no one wants to fucking do that.” It’s certainly not a universal strife; I’ve met people in my life who truly prefer the company of a forest to the bustle of a city. But should those of us who don’t pretend that we do for the sake of relieving our weird guilt about enjoying the comforts we built for ourselves—comforts that we’re certainly lucky to have, and privileged to give up when it suits us, for a day or two.

I may never discover the secret of the outdoors; that simultaneous vitality and peace that Thoreau wrote about. It’s surely attainable for some, but I think the rest of us may just be scratching at it. And I don’t know that I want to spend the time I have grasping at a concept that doesn’t resonate with me because I feel it ought to.

I’ll go camping with you. I’ll eat freeze-dried beef stew and stumble out of my tent at 3 AM to piss in a bush. I’ll do it, and maybe I’ll have some fun, but I won’t pretend to find myself. Not when I’m right here.

 

 

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Fresh Mouth

I’ve always had a fresh mouth. I don’t mean in the minty sense; more in the fabulous way a shopkeeper in the 1940’s might reprimand an impudent youth on their choice of words. I suppose one would say my mouth is more foul than fresh—but I prefer to look on the brighter side of life.

I’m enchanted by expletives; always have been. When I was about two or three, my parents apparently sat me down and gave me a verbal list of all the words I wasn’t allowed to say. They liked to lay things out early. I listened intently and then replied, in what I assume was a sweet, angelic voice, “So I can’t say ‘fuck,’ ‘shit,’ ‘bitch,’ ‘asshole…’” They cut me off before I could finish the list. I continued to gleefully shout “fucking A!” (my dad’s favorite obscenity at the time) from my bed until I was kindly asked to stop.

It all came to a crashing halt in first grade when I gave my best friend at the time the finger. It was not out of malice. I was truly flummoxed that a gesture, or any word behind a gesture, could carry such weight, and this was my attempt to combat that. Unfortunately, my crusade to crush cultural taboos went unappreciated. I got into trouble. After much explanation and reprimanding, I apologized to my friend in tears.

The literal fear of God was put into me. The nuns at the Catholic school I went to ran a tight ship; no fucks or shits were allowed in school or out—they’d know, you see. They always knew. And if they didn’t, you could bet the Lord above would. I didn’t rekindle my foul mouth until fifth grade, when I switched schools and discovered eleven year olds foaming at the mouth with horrible, vicious, adult words.

And in public! On the bus! At recess! At the corner! I could give the finger any time I wanted to and no one would cry. I could call someone a bitch, or an asshole; tell that the moronic boy who sat to my left in English who asked what my bra size was, “Go fuck yourself, please!”

It’s been that way ever since. Because I love swear words. I fucking love them. I think they accentuate a sentence, make it so your point is so goddamn perfectly heard. They round a phrase. Some might argue that gratuitous use of expletives renders them meaningless. If six-year-old me is any indication, I’ve never thought they had much meaning in the first place. But the fact that it’s so improper to say, “I’ve got to shit,” instead of “go to the bathroom,” so indecent to say, “We fucked,” instead of “slept together,” so jarring to say, “What a fucking cunt he’s being,” instead of “He’s not being very nice”—well, that draws me in.

And it draws other people in. I’m hard-pressed to find anything recent and relevant in pop-culture that doesn’t drop a “fuck” into every tenth sentence. Wolf of Wall Street has 506 of them—and that script was nominated for best screenplay at this year’s Oscar’s. We’ve spent so much time bleeping and censoring and substituting, denying ourselves the satisfaction of raw expression—and for what? Because it’s not nice? Fuck that; neither is life. Innocuously gratuitous profanity is the least of anyone’s problems.

Of course, not everyone feels this way. I’ve gotten a few urgent looks from friends as I talk about all of the fucking assholes driving on the fucking road too loudly in public. I’ve seen eyebrows raise and heads snap back and lips purse in a “shh” gesture. But I don’t care. We could all be Holden Caulfield, scrambling to erase the “fuck yous” scribbled all over the world; or, we could just fucking get over it. Embrace the expletive. I’ve been doing it for about fifteen years and let me tell you: it fucking rules, assholes.

The Seduction of Snapchat

“I love Snapchat,” my friend tells me as we sit on her sunken couch. “I do it all the time.” She is slightly ashamed, like she has admitted to some off-color habit, something not to be revealed unless in deep confidence. Later, she snaps an excellent video of her lifting her old, overweight cat up and down. The caption: “Kitty Kettlebells.” Twenty-odd people receive it.

Evan Spiegel and Robert Murphy, the two Stanford grads who developed the application, tapped into something special with Snapchat. Known to have suspicious origins as a tool for sending easily disappearing nude pictures, Snapchat has morphed into a widely accepted means of communication. There’s an irresistibility in its ephemeral quality.  The way arbitrary images and videos flit into our consciousness for seconds at a time before exiting our minds eye forever speaks to an even newer way of communication that I’m not sure anyone has really explored yet. The future is now, and we’re sending out four-second pictures of our dogs with hats hand-drawn on them.

As I edit this piece, I’m snapchatting. The last one was a selfie, with the caption “I’m going to push you off a cliff,” sent to a friend in response to his enthusiastic picture of a snow-covered ground. Every time I walk onto a train car in the morning, I catch people making goofy faces into their phone. I’m periodically hit, throughout my day, with videos of funny stuff happening at a friend’s workplace, or pictures of cute dogs, or photos of a Red Lobster menu captioned, “Dreams do come true.” I live for this shit.

There’s no true importance in knowing that a friend of mine is ironically enjoying Red Lobster. Most snaps sent are arbitrary shots of peoples’ days and lives, there for seven seconds and then gone forever. That is what makes it an absolutely perfect mode of communication. It allows us to be intimate and distant all at once. It’s an ideal middle ground in a world where people simultaneously spill their guts on the Internet and don’t bother to look up from their phones during dinner.

People of my parents’ time bemoan the fact that no one interacts on a personal level anymore. I’ve always been of the mind that it’s fairly useless to complain about the way culture and advancements in technology collide; the juggernaut is barreling down the road, and there’s no stopping it. We communicate through screens now. That’s the way things are.

But Snapchat is different; it’s almost a response to that impersonality. Its unqualified transience—the potentiality of losing the picture or the video or the message—forces us to truly focus for those six, or eight seconds, on what the other person has sent us. We’re in that instant. I’m here, with you, and your drunk roommate, and your breasts in the bathroom mirror, and the video of you kettlebelling your cat; I’m enjoying a moment with you, no matter how incredibly banal. Triviality is the true spice of life; let’s share it together.

So keep sending snapshots of your pets, or videos of weird guys on the bus, or nude pictures (solicited ones, mind you, don’t make it weird) with abandon. Because it’s fun. And because it makes you laugh. We’ll see how some 45-year-old at Time Magazine frames it in a few months—whether it will be the downfall of modern communication, the representation of increasing superficiality of the millennial generation, or both.

In the meantime, I have snaps to respond to.

People Who Like Snow

Who did this to you?

Who gave you cold, graying, wet mush and told you it was magic? Your lumpy, unfinished snowmen that neighborhood dogs peed all over and the clammy mess that went down your pants when you made a snow angel should be enough proof that this weather is not a benevolent God. Remember standing at the bus station when that clump of snow fell into your face like bird shit from a cumulus cloud? Did you enjoy that?

Listen. When you say that you love snow, you sound like a hostage suffering from severe Stockholm Syndrome. You have been abducted by snow, and you like it. You are sad to see it go when it finally releases you from its icy, damp grip, and you make vague, pathetic excuses. Well, my feet are soaked through and freezing, I can’t park my car anywhere or leave my house, and there’s cold, wet shit flying into my eyes, but it just feels so right this time of year.

I grew up in Chicago. Snow is a regular visitor. It does not just come on December 24th and leave December 26th. No, snow is the empty-handed friend that shows up early to your party while you’re still getting ready and says, “Oh, don’t worry about me, I’ll just make myself a drink!” Snow is that same friend, two hours later, who just puked on your couch and is sobbing into a toilet. The person they like didn’t call them. You are not surprised, but you pat their back anyway.

Snow is the friend who stays over after the party, doesn’t help you clean up in the morning, and reads aloud every text they sent while you try to get their vomit out of the throw pillows. Then they sit there, on that same spot, every day for a month trying to recreate the magic of that party that wasn’t even great to begin with. They start to smell weird and they eat all your food. You hate them. They won’t go away.

That’s what snow is like.

Snow has never done anything good for me. It has, however, caused me to be in a minor car accident, ruined several pairs of my shoes, deterred me from leaving the house on the weekends, and prevented me from wearing tube tops every day—the last hindrance offends me most of all, as I look amazing in tube tops and stupid in large sweaters.

And yet, some feel compelled to defend this weather. A coworker and friend of mine recently expressed his disbelief and shock when I dismissed snow as the Devil’s weather. “Snow is magical!” he exclaimed, before I punched him in the face and set him on fire.  Snow is not magical. Capitalism, however, might be, as it has the amazing ability to turn horror into enchantment. The evils of marketing have warped this dead, cold nothingness into a cozy romance, recapped in 30-second images that flash constantly on our TVs during the winter. We feel like we really should enjoy the snow, because look, look at us! We are sledding down hills, our hair perfectly coiffed, our hands cutely mittened, little flakes adorning our eyelashes. We are sipping hot cocoa and looking into our lovers eyes by the fire while the flurries flurry gracefully outside. We look really great in large sweaters.

We are not sitting in a car for two hours driving seventeen miles an hour, trying not to skid on black ice and yelling, “Hey, fuck you, asshole!” to the dickhead who tries to make a one lane road into a two lane road. We are not shivering uncontrollably trying to scrape frost off our front windshields while snot nosed brats bombard each other with snow covered rocks, barely missing our heads—heads with decidedly uncoiffed hair, and unadorned eyelashes. We are not wearing sweatpants tucked into combat boots and food-stained college sweatshirts.

No, the commercials and the TV specials and the magazine advertisements seem to miss that bleak reality. But we have no excuse; we live this, day in and day out, for months at a time. Even spring isn’t really spring. Once, when I was in high school, it snowed on April 24th. I cried.

You’ll probably tell me to fuck off to southern California, where people don’t suffer this disgusting mess. But I don’t like to exercise, and while I think I would enjoy being constantly surrounded by hot people, I might lose perspective. What do people in California have to write about? Being too fit? Not finding a good bunch of kale? These are struggles that I cannot identify with.

I stay in the tundra to give voice to those whose voices have been snuffed out by the exhaustion of constantly shoveling out their parking spot and placing ugly lawn furniture to mark their territory. They are the ones who spend seven hours trying to get home on slick, unsalted roads only to be barraged with commercials depicting several models piled onto a snowmobile having the time of their lives. This is for those people: those models are not you, and that white stuff is not fun. Step one is acceptance. Take a stand; join the revolution—because you don’t have to pretend to like snow anymore. It’s okay.

Your Body in The Dark

It’s hard to carry around your body all day. It sweats and it chafes, and there’s an impossible itch in the middle of your back that you can’t get to because your arms aren’t long enough. Everywhere you look, someone is thinner than you, or has bulkier muscles than you do, or a smaller nose or fuller lips or smoother hair. The sun is a harsh companion, exposing the red blemish on your left cheek, and the fluorescent lighting in the office bathroom is harsher still; your eyes seem simultaneously sunken and bulbous.

And even when the girl behind the counter at Starbucks smiled at you, even when the cute guy on the train checked you out, even when you look at yourself in a mirror and feel a million bucks or more, sometimes there’s still that frustration. That, no matter what, your jeans will always leave indents on your stomach, and sweat will always run down your back in the most uncomfortable way possible, and you will never feel easy carrying this body around. Sometimes you just want to pull your skin off, hang up your limbs in the closet, and float.

And you don’t want to look in the mirror, you don’t want to constantly catch your shirt un-tucked and your skirt riding up, you can’t stand the dissatisfaction seeping from your eyes every time you see your reflection; you are tired. But every time you pass a window, you check to make sure what you’re presenting to the world is good enough. Good enough.

One February night, dark falls. You lay in bed with someone you love. Neither of you can sleep, midnight drifting into 1 AM. The someone looks at you. And looks at you.

“Have you ever noticed how perfect people look in the dark?” they ask. Awe tinges the question; you look down at yourself. You look at yourself. You find that the dark is forgiving. You can only see good curves; the crook of your hipbone, the round of your shoulder, the keel of your calf. Your lay on your back, watching the arc of your stomach rise and fall. Sharpness and soft are balanced in shadows; in dark sweeping lines, night’s charcoal draws you confidently. You look down and see your toes, perfect toes, perched atop graceful feet—even your feet are perfect.

You feel a pressure on your back and a crick in your neck that accompanies a long day, but the feeling seems farther away now. Your skin is soft. Your hair is a little sticky with the sweat of being next to someone, but you don’t mind. It feels natural. You look at the someone next to you and find that their ear slopes delicately, their chin sits strongly, their forehead is a crescent. They stretch their arm up, revealing their hand with five perfect fingers; plush, lithe. It amazes you. It amazes the someone, too. You both revel in each other’s silhouettes. In your own.

You know the sun will rise while you sleep. You know that when you wake up, white light will slant through the blinds. You’ll be able to find that strange yellow, purple bruise on your thigh, the pimple on your chin. When you stand up, you’ll be able to feel the heaviness on your feet again. You will mind. You will miss the dark. But maybe, when you’re putting on your tights or tying your shoes, your eyes will find your calf. And you will see it the way you saw it in the dark. It will be enough. 

Up In The Air

I’ve spent a lot of time on airplanes. It depresses me sometimes, to try to count the hours of my life I sat in uncomfortable seats trying to pretend I can’t feel the booger flaked kid behind me kicking my seat incessantly. I arrive on flights with a game plan of distraction, armed with two or three books, my iPod, a preparedness to sit through lame rom-coms, because flights are a drag.

Air travel is funny. There’s this sense of urgency surrounding it. The doors to the airplane close when they close, and they don’t open again. We’re all busy trying to find our gate in time, get through security quickly, squeeze past two strangers to sit in your seat. Busy trying to find a way to pass the time while we’re up in the clouds. The hours we spend on planes are days, weeks, wasted worried about where we’ll be next, anxious about how we’ll amuse ourselves in the meantime.

They make it easy for us; in-flight entertainment. A gargantuan list of movie titles, allowing us to watch hours of films to our hearts’ content. Video games, radio, magazines, episodes of 30 Rock—now even WiFi is available: your emails sent down to Earth from thousands of miles above. Distractions abound, because why would it occur to anyone that passengers would want to savor the journey?

And why would you? It’s boring. There are no buildings zooming by, no trees, nothing but the clouds the nose of the airplane cuts through. Nothing but the plane and the clouds. And, I guess, our thoughts.

Sometimes I wonder if people are just terrified of being stranded in the air, thousands of miles above everyone they love, with their own thoughts.  Maybe that— not boredom, not anticipation— is why we have in-flight movies, why we curse ourselves if we forgot our iPods, why we sleep and read and eat and talk instead of just sitting. Instead of catching up with ourselves. Instead of checking in. When there’s nothing but sky—no physically discernable point of origin, no visible destination—it’s easier to watch a movie than to go into your own head.

The last flight I took was coming home from college after I’d graduated. I read a good portion of my book on the plane. I slept a little. But when I woke up, the sun was going down, and I didn’t feel like reading my book anymore. So I looked out the window, something I haven’t done in a long time, and just caught up with myself.

I asked myself how I felt about going back home permanently for the first time in four years. How I was going to deal with being away from the person I loved. How weird it would be to just be floating along in Chicago, no job, no direction. When my flight touched down, I would be once again living with my parents, but this time without anything tangible to work toward. What was that going to be like? I didn’t have any answers, but I knew that now was the time to ask the questions. While I was suspended in space. While I had the time.

 I’ve heard we live in a world where we need constant stimulation. Academics mourn the loss of downtime, an “interruption free space,” a creative pause. They blame our inability to detach from our devices. “Are We Too Connected?” posit blogs and editorials all over the country.

Maybe they’re right. But the fear that we may have to spend some time with ourselves, that we may have to confront truths we don’t want to confront, is a powerful one. It isn’t just a symptom of the information age—it’s the consequence of being human.

Planes get us to where we’re going. Not just in space, though. In time. We don’t savor that transition; we don’t bother to wonder about what will be different —about our destinations, about our departure points, about ourselves—once the plane rattles into the runway. We should. It might make for an easier landing.