In 2005 I was enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and stationed at Sembach Air Force Base, Germany. The experience was culturally amazing and freezing cold.
Halfway through my two-year tour, my supervisor informed me I’d been selected to receive an all expense paid trip to the largest beach in the world. That was his way of telling me I was getting deployed to Ali Al Salem Air Force Base in Kuwait.
Part of me was relieved to escape Germany’s endless subzero winter nights, but the other part of me was equally dissatisfied with Kuwait’s perpetual 120 degree sand storms. I guess I’m just a spoiled American like that. In retrospect, both experiences were adventures, but I wouldn’t want to spend the rest of my life in either scenario.
I’m confessing these emotions so you’ll understand how euphoric I felt when I was sitting at my desk in Kuwait and got an E-mail informing me that my next duty station would be at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.
I re-read that E-mail 20 times before I believed it was real. Then, I printed out 20 copies and laid one on every person’s desk I worked with to rub it in their faces that God anointed me with orders to paradise.
For the next few months in Kuwait, and for the rest of my tour in Germany, I fantasized about my upcoming life in Hawaii. I imagined grass huts, luau festivals, surfing, cocktails served in hollowed out pineapples, and sex on the beach. God, I couldn’t wait!
These visions were reinforced when I finally arrived in Hawaii, inprocessed into my new squadron, and learned that I would be given a $1,200 per month housing allowance (in addition to my regular salary) to rent a home.
However, reality shattered all those dreams the moment I started house-hunting.
While I was still living in Germany, I invited my identical twin brother to come live with me. Then, when I got orders to Hawaii, it went without saying he would follow me there. So I needed to find a two-bedroom apartment. However, in 2006, the only city in Oahu I could find a two-bedroom apartment for $1,200 per month was Waipahu.
When you imagine Hawaii, you probably conjure up all the same heavenly tropes I did. In reality, Oahu is overpopulated and mostly covered in suburban sprawl and traffic jams.
When I describe Oahu to people, I say, “Imagine if you cut out New York City and put it on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and declared it to be paradise because it’s on an island where the average temperature is 83 degrees.” This analogy is admittedly over-dramatic, but it’s close enough to the truth to be useful.
There are some places on Oahu that can be legitimately considered paradise, but it costs $2000+ per month to live in those gentrified neighborhoods. Waipahu is a straight up ghetto. The whole time I lived there, I never dared to walk down the street after dark because it went without saying that I would get stabbed and robbed.
After leaving Hawaii in 2007, every time I’ve encountered people who lived there, when I tell them I lived in Waipahu, they cringe and ask, “Why the HELL did you live THERE?”
Well, why does anyone live in any ghetto? Because it’s affordable.
The apartment complex I lived in was protected by 8-foot-tall fences and gates that required a key FOB to enter or exit. Plus, there was a guard stationed at the entrance who would ask to see your resident I.D. card during business hours before letting you enter.
One night, I drove up to the front gate in my $2000 convertable Miada and was stopped by a 350+ pound, drunk Hawaiian pretending to be a security guard (even though he wasn’t wearing any kind of uniform). He was obviously friends with the gate guard, who was sitting in the guard shack laughing his ass off and obviously drunk as well. Being a scrawny tech nerd at the time, I had to endure the Hawaiian giant’s abuse of power and tell him whatever he wanted to hear while my ex-wife sat in the passenger seat and judged me for being a submissive beta male. That’s just the kind of place Waipahu is. As they say in the islands, “Might makes right.”
One lazy Sunday morning, I was sleeping in my king-sized bed with my ex-wife. A few feet away, my twin brother was sleeping off his nightly hang-over in his room. Around 9:30 AM, we were all awakened by the sound of semi-automatic gun fire directly outside our apartment followed by a man screaming, “JOHN! JOHN! YOU FUCKING MOTHER FUCKER! COME OUT HERE, JOHN! I’LL FUCKING KILL YOU!”
BANG BANG BANG
Even though I’d been stationed in a war zone, I’d never seen combat. I also didn’t own a gun. However, I knew enough about these things to know that when bullets start flying, your best survival strategy is to lay down flat on the ground. So, as soon as everyone in my house jumped out of their beds and started running around like chickens with their heads cut off, I used my most authoritarian voice and ordered everyone to hit the deck and stay there.
I plastered my face to the carpet and dragged my ex-wife next to me, but my brother ran straight to the window to see what was happening. Despite my vociferous advice, he stood there, fixed to the glass, giving us a play-by-play narrative:
“Oh shit! There’s a big, fat, Hawaiian guy out there with a fucking Ak-47! Oh man! He’s going door to door, knocking on them with the but of the gun and asking random people if John lives there. Oh, shit. He’s knocking on Koa’s door. He’s not going to find John there. Uh, now they’re talking. Now they’re shaking hands. Koa’s going back inside and shutting the door. It looks like they’re all good. Now he’s pacing around aimlessly.”
BANG BANG BANG.
Then we could all hear Mr. AK-47 shout, “JOHN, WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOU!!!!?? I’LL FUCKING KILL YOU, YOU MOTHER FUCKER!!! YOU RAPED MY FUCKING SISTER!!!!”
BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG
Obviously, someone (possibly) from my apartment complex named John raped this guy’s sister, and he came to murder him at 9:30 AM on a Sunday, but since he didn’t know where John lived, he had to go door to door asking everyone if they wanted to volunteer to be murdered for raping his sister.
After the next gun shot, my ex crawled to her side of the bed, grabbed her phone off the night stand, and dialed 911.
Her conversation went something like this:
“911, what is your emergency?”
“There’s a man outside my apartment firing an AK-47 in the air. He keeps shouting that he’s looking for a man named John who raped his sister.”
“Can you describe the man?”
“He’s large. He’s Hawaiian, and he’s carrying an AK-47.”
“Ma’am. I need more details than that.”
“I can’t tell you anything more because I’m laying flat on the floor so I won’t get shot by a stray bullet.”
“Then how do you know the suspect is Hawaiian or that he has an AK-47?”
“Because my husband’s brother is standing at the window looking at him.”
“Well, ma’am. That’s just not enough information for me to go on.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m not giong to get up and go look at him.”
“Ma’am, I can’t help you if you can’t give me a better description of the suspect.”
“Uhhh…. can you just send someone to our apartment complex and look for the guy shooting an AK-47?”
“Ugh. I guess we’ll send someone.” Click.
My ex looked at her phone in amazement and said, “I can’t believe that just happened. She literally said, ‘I guesswe’ll send someone.'”
For the next 15 minutes, we waited on our bellies while my brother watched the meth head circle the courtyard and interrogate any tenet who opened their door when he knocked. We were holding our breath hoping he wouldn’t make it to ours when finally two Hawaiian police officers drove up and asked him to surrender. He immediately gave up his gun without resisting and allowed himself to be put in the back of the squad car.
When it was safe, all my neighbors and I came outside and started talking. It turns out the gunfire and shouting had woken up everyone, and we had all called 911.
A few minutes later, one of the cops walked up to us and asked who called the police. We all raised our hands, and then he told us, “We need each of you to come to the squad car and look in the window so you can positively I.D. the suspect.”
My outspoken Mexican neighbor told him what we were all thinking, “Hell no! I’m not going near him. I don’t want that crazy meth head to know my face so he can come back and shoot me!” The rest of us shook our heads in agreement.
The officer retorted condescendingly, “Then how can we know we have the right person?”
My neighbor replied, “You found the guy who was walking around with an AK-47, right!? So why do you need anyone to identify him?”
The officer scowled and said, “I guess we’ll take him in anyway,” then walked away.
Everyone stood there looking confused, hurt, and angry. After that, life went on, and we never heard anything else about the Sunday morning AK-47 avenger or John the rapist. We never found out if either of them ever got the punishment they deserved.
It goes without saying, I hope John was brought to justice eventually. Part of me suspects the police officers who arrested Mr. AK-47 just dropped him off at his house without booking him, and given the circumstances, part of me wouldn’t fault them too much. However, we can all agree that shooting an AK-47 in the air in a densely populated urban area is bad. I hope at least they took his rifle away. In addition, I hope he got the drug abuse intervention he needed. I don’t know for a fact he was an addict, but I’m pretty confident you don’t go wandering around an unfamiliar apartment complex at 9:30 AM on a Sunday morning firing an AK-47 indiscriminately into the air unless you have a meth problem.
A few years later I left the Air Force and moved back to Texas. I told this story to an old hometown friend of mine and ended it by asking rhetorically, “Where does someone even get an AK-47 from in the first place!?!? Hahaaaaa! AmIright!?!?”
He didn’t laugh at the punchline at all though. He just looked me dead in the eye and said matter-of-factly, “Dude, if you have $300, I know where you can get an AK-47 right now.”
I wrote this blog after spending three months working at various vineyards in New Zealand and asking all my bosses about the process of winemaking.
The biggest difference between good wine and bad wine isn’t age. There’s wine that sells for $100 as soon as it comes off the assembly line, and it’s grown from the same grapes that the same vineyard sells for $9 a bottle. Expensive wines aren’t made from some rare, super grape, and cheap wines aren’t made from inferior grapes.The big difference in quality comes from how those grapes were treated during the growing process.
At the beginning of the growing process, every vine is treated the same. They’re planted in long, straight rows. A wooden post as tall as a grown man sticks out of the ground between every four or five plants. Three or four metal wires run perpendicularly between/along the posts. The reason those posts and wires are there is because grape vines aren’t trees. They’re vines, obviously. So, left on their own, they’ll just fall to the ground and grow in the dirt, but that would ruin the grapes. So workers have to come through the rows of plants and tie them to the bottom wire when the grape plants are tall enough to reach. Then, as the vines get taller and bushier, they’ll naturally grab onto the higher wires if their shoots happen to touch them, but a lot of the shoots just fall back down to the ground. So at some point, human beings have to walk down every row in the vineyard and pick up all the low hanging vines and tuck them up through the wires.
This doesn’t just keep the vines out of the dirt. It also gives the leaves maximum exposure to sunlight, and since grapes tend to grow towards the bottom of vines and not the top, that means when the vines are stretched upwards then most of the grape clusters will grow conveniently along the bottom wire where they can be picked without having to dig through tangled vines. There’s still work to be done before the grapes are picked though, and how that work is done will determine whether the grapes will yield premium or cheap wine.
The leaves on the grape plants need sunlight to nourish the grapes. The grapes themselves also need direct exposure to sunlight to ripen properly, but the leaves cover the grapes. So the leaves around the grapes need to be removed from the vines, but you need to take off as few leaves as possible or else the whole plant won’t get enough light to nourish its fruit. You also need to remove those leaves without damaging the grapes. There are at least three ways to do this:
Some vineyards use sheep. If you put sheep in a vineyard when the grapes are young and sour the sheep will avoid eating them, but they’ll eat all the leaves around the grapes, and since the rest of the vines and leaves are too high for the sheep to reach they pick off just about the right amount of leaves. Inevitably though, the sheep will end up damaging a few grapes and possibly eating too many leaves.
If 100 rows of vines in a vineyard are reserved for making cheap wine then a farmer can just drive a tall, skinny tractor up and down the rows that suck or blows all the leaves off. It’s a cheap and quick method, but it damages the grapes.
The only tool in the universe capable of performing the precision task of delicately removing just the right amount of leaves is a human being. So they’re sent into the vineyards to spend all day, every day in green, roofless hallways shuffling sideways analyzing the bottoms of these walls looking for leaves that cover up the grapes and pulling them off while being careful not to bruise the grapes or remove too many leaves.
It doesn’t sound difficult to spend 9 hours walking sideways pulling leaves off of vines, and it’s true that there are more difficult jobs in the world, but leaf plucking is a unique form of torture, as every job on a vineyard is in its own way. The leaves grow just low enough that an average sized person has to bend over slightly to grab them. This doesn’t hurt if you do it once, but if you do it for 50 hours a week you’ll be in agony. That’s a fact. Once your back starts hurting from bending forward you can switch to bending your knees so it looks like you’re doing the limbo dance, except instead of going under the wall you go sideways…forever. Eventually, that’s going to hurt too. When that happens you can just fall down on your knees and pick out the leaves at chest height. If you’ve lost the will to get back up you can waddle sideways on your knees and/or crawl down a whole row that way, but you don’t have knee pads. So your knees get beat up on the rocks and twigs. And the ground is covered in a thousand doses of weed killer. So you don’t want what’s down there to get into the cuts, scrapes, and blisters in your hands and knees.
After the leaves are plucked and all the grapes are exposed along the bottom of the rows you can walk along them and see where bunches of grapes are growing at odd angles and smashing into each other. Those need to be separated and pruned. You’ll also find other bunches are growing on tiny, leafless branches that won’t be able to nourish the grapes to ripeness. Those need to be removed so the plant can nourish the grapes that are left. Sometimes there’s just too many grapes. If you remove all these extra grapes then the remaining ones will grow plump and sweet. If you don’t remove these extra grapes you’ll still get some good bunches, but you’ll also get a lot of small, under-ripe sour bunches. If simply drive a tractor down the row and harvest all the small, vinegary grapes along with the ripe, sugary ones together you’ll end up with bottom shelf hobo wine.
If your customer expects wine so pure that it doesn’t give them a headache then millions of people all over the world need to pour into their local vineyards and sacrifice the days of their youth (and/or their “golden years”) in purgatory staring at bunches of grapes, studying them, counting them, thinking about how and why to remove them so that all that’s left at harvest time are big, juicy, sugary grapes.
Once the plucking and snipping are done, then all those ripe, juicy grapes will look like a free gourmet buffet to birds. If you’ve already invested months of wages into having your grape vines groomed then you can’t afford to give your crop away to the birds. If you’re making cheap wine you might be able to afford to lose a few grapes, but if you’re making premium wine you need total security. One way you can keep birds away is by buying an airgun that’s hooked up to a tank and makes a loud blast that sounds like a gunshot every minute or so. But that doesn’t keep all the birds away all the time. Since it’s not cost effective to build a glass roof over a thousand acre vineyard, the next best thing you can do is send workers back into the wailing walls and cover the plants with nets.
Until someone invents an efficient way to put nets over plants workers will have to spend the best days of their irreplaceable lives rolling gigantic spools of nets down rows 50+ yards long in the premium section of most vineyards. Each row will have two nets, one on either side. Then two people, one on either side, will take their net and lift it over the plant where they’ll take a little plastic clip (like the ones that hold bread bags closed) and clip the two nets together. They’ll also need to bend over and reach underneath the green wall to grab the net hanging on the other side so they can pin them together underneath so birds can’t fly up through the bottom of the net. A lot of care needs to be taken to make sure the vines are wrapped up so tight that a bird the size of a cell phone can’t get in, and you can be sure they’ll try. So the workers need to end up putting five to nine clips above and below every plant. They’ll have to use more clips to patch up the holes that have inevitably been ripped in net. In nine hours they’ll go through thousands of clips. So they have to carry a big pouch full of them. It takes a lot of thought and attention to detail to clip the nets together properly. It also takes a strong back, but if you’ve been working in a vineyard for very long you’ve already got a pretty strong back.
Even with a strong back, you’re still going to go home with sore muscles every day, especially if you’re getting paid by how fast you work. As a general rule vineyard workers get paid as little as possible and get as few benefits or breaks as the law will allow in whatever country a vineyard happens to be in, and some places are worse than others. Sometimes, instead of getting minimum wage, farmers will have the workers play their own version of the Hunger Games. In this version, the contestants get paid a few cents for every plant they pluck, trim and/or cover with nets. Whoever pushes themselves the farthest past the brink of human endurance and takes the least amount of breaks and cuts the most corners will be rewarded with slightly more than minimum wage. Everybody else will get less than minimum wage, and I guess that’s the point. The only two groups of people who really win these Hunger Games are the vineyard owners (who win a new mansion) and the rich people who drink pretentiously expensive wine (who win a sweet taste in their mouth for a few minutes). You could say the vineyard workers win a job, but it’s the job of a disposable slave. You would have to be completely morally bankrupt to call the work vineyard laborers do for they pay they receive a good opportunity. It’s not an opportunity. It’s a trap. It’s a waste of life.
This raises an interesting question. Who would willingly agree to this trap? Who would take seasonal work that pays as little as possible leaving you jobless halfway through the year with as little money as possible? There are all types, and most of them are more or less homeless. That’s why they can move with the season, and that’s why they’re desperate enough to put up with being treated like an animal.
You could say, “Yeah, but at least they’re getting paid.” The thing about that is, vineyards are making enough money for the owners to buy mansions and sports cars. If there’s that much money left over after operating costs then there’s enough money to pay the workers enough to see the dentist. If vineyards truly aren’t profitable enough to pay its workers more than slave wages then that means premium means wine can only ever exist in a society where income inequality is so bad that the poor are desperate enough to accept being treated and paid like disposable slaves.
Either way, the main ingredient that goes into making premium wine (and which is largely missing in cheap wine) is the tears of the poor. The two main ingredients that go into making cheap wine (and which is largely missing in premium wine) are vinegar and pollution.
I visited the Occupy Auckland protest a few weeks ago when it started and wrote about my initial impression in another post. Yesterday I went back with my tent and spent the night. I participated in the general assembly and offered to teach the protesters how to use my formula plot template to write stories about the issues they were trying to raise awareness about, but nobody took me up on the offer. I ate a fantastic meal from their excessive kitchen facilities and spent the rest evening talking with the other campers. Here’s what I took away from the experience.
The “Occupy Auckland” camp is basically a homeless shelter draped in protest signs, and most of the non-homeless occupants seem to come from very low socioeconomic and educational backgrounds. I’m not saying this to be judgmental. I’m pointing it out as an objective observation, and it needs to be pointed out because it has some important implications.
Don’t go to “Occupy Auckland” to meet the people who are going to change the world. Go there to see why the world needs fixing. If you see mentally ill vagrants and dirty hippies there, don’t jump to the conclusion these are irresponsible, clueless moochers who came to Auckland to blow off steam before getting back to their normal lives. Those irresponsible-looking human beings have been occupying one city or another their entire lives. It’s just that nobody ever noticed them before because society kept them kicked in the gutter out of sight of the good shoppers and rugby fans. Now that the human beings the system has failed have come together in conspicuous numbers and occupied a highly-visible public space the world can’t wait to find any excuse to dismiss them again and sweep them back into the gutters so they can get back to their luxurious shopping sprees, binge drinking, mindless television-viewing and whatever other diversionary activities they can come up with to try to make themselves forget that they’re throwing their lives away in a high-stress rat race to nowhere.
What do the protesters want? What would the government have to give them to get them out of the public eye again? On the most basic level, they just want a chance, not just for themselves but for everyone alive today and everyone yet to be born. The only problem is they don’t have the educational or professional background to articulate how to fix the system that failed them and is setting up a whole new generation of unsuspecting human beings to fail as well. That’s why they’re not in politics. That’s why we rely on politicians to manage the system for us. The only problem is that the politicians don’t have the educational or professional background to fix the system either. These days politicians are professional campaigners. They get elected because they can convince naive voters that they’ll represent their needs and interests, but once they get into office they need someone to tell them how to do their job, and the only people with access to the halls of government are professional lobbyists and campaign financiers who have a vested interest in twisting politicians’ arms to represent the interests of the rich, who have a vested interest in exploiting the common worker/voter.
Why is there economic inequality? Because the only way the rich can get richer is by taking a bigger share of the poor’s income, which the top 1% have made legal by buying out the majority share of representation in government. That’s probably the crux of the protester’s message, but then the heads of state knew that before the protesters did. John Key, the prime minister of New Zealand, could walk down to Aotea Square today, set up a tent and sleep on the ground with the protesters tonight. He could raise the minimum wage, make profit sharing mandatory, raise taxes on the rich and make education free. The fact that he hasn’t acknowledged much less addressed the plight of the bottom 1% should be taken as evidence that (just like Barack Obama) he has no intention to….not until they twist his arm like the top 1% have done.
Unfortunately, the protesters don’t know how to do that. To their credit, unlike the top 1%, they’re committed to nonviolence, which is just as well because they’re so disorganized that any attempt at a violent revolution would just result in fruitless rioting. In lieu of that, they’ve resorted to blowing bubbles in banks and harassing bank clerks, who are obviously, downtrodden members of the 99% themselves. At this rate, all John Key needs to do to shut down the protesters is stand back and let them make such a nuisance of themselves that the public asks for the police to evict them back to the gutters they came from.
I saw one beacon of hope at the Occupy Auckland protest, a professional academic from the Auckland University of Technology who has been trying to inject the voice of reason into the general assemblies but getting hopelessly blocked by obstinate factions and individual, attention whoring naysayers within the assembly. If that professor (or the person who takes his place after he throws up his hands in frustrations and quits) can structure the camp into a professional public relations machine then the protesters have a chance at waking up the rest of society to the fact that the homeless and hungry are not anomalies; they’re an inevitable product of a broken system and are only a taste of what’s to come if business continues as usual.
But the protesters aren’t going to be able to do that on their own because they don’t even have the skills to secure meaningful employment for themselves. But rather than faulting them for that, we should learn this valuable lesson from them: The people most oppressed by the system are not the people most responsible for fixing the system. The people most responsible for fixing the system are those with the most power. Everyone knows money is power, but the wealthiest 1% have already drawn a line in the sand to stand against their fellow man. Luckily, money isn’t the most powerful force in the world; knowledge is.
The people with the most responsibility to speak for the poor and uneducated are the professors and university administrators. The derelict campers shouldn’t be picketing outside banks begging clerks to change the system. They should be picketing in front of the universities and begging the academics to come down from their ivory towers to accept their responsibility as the voice of reason, the voice of history, the voice of the people.
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I had a surreal experience the other day. To understand why it was surreal you need to understand that I was born and bred in the Bible Belt of America. I’m a white, Caucasian male who was named after a white, American, Caucasian, male war hero. I’m an honorably discharged veteran of the Iraq war with three rows of ribbons on my ribbon rack. I’m also an expat who just celebrated my two year anniversary of emigrating to New Zealand, and I left America for all the reasons people are protesting on Wall Street today.
Coming from that perspective, I went to the “Occupy Auckland” protest the other day. For those of you who don’t know or couldn’t guess, the “Occupy Auckland” event was inspired by and is being held in solidarity with the “Occupy Wall Street” “movement.”
At the time there were 40 tents camped in a public park directly off of Queen St., in downtown Auckland, which is sort of like a smaller scale version of Times Square. There were two extremely bored police officers wearing neon green reflective vests loitering in the vicinity of the protest grounds. All they had to look at to amuse themselves was a bunch of empty tents (the residents were at professional jobs and would return in the evening), a few bored hippies and a meandering stream of passing rugby tourists.
In a lot of ways, the protest was anticlimactic. The protesters I spoke with said that most of the pedestrians who stopped to talk with them were either mildly curious what the protest was about or wanted to express their support for the movement. The protesters also told me that on the first day of the occupation they held a march down Queen St, which drew an estimated 2000 participants, and they received $2000 in donations in their first weekend, and there has been a regular stream of old women stopping by giving them free home-cooked meals….not that they seemed to need the food because by the time I arrived they had set up a better kitchen than I have in my house.
I literally paid $160 over the past weekend to camp at a campground for 4 days, and I had access to fewer amenities, less camaraderie, less excitement and fewer picture opportunities than I would have had if I would have camped with the protesters on Queen St.
Now I’m thinking about taking my tent over there and going camping for the fun of it. Needless to say, there are a lot of Kiwis hold that the fact the protesters are so comfortable is proof that they have nothing to protest in the first place and should just go home. Even though life in New Zealand is far from perfect, but it’s a lot better than in America. Kiwis are happier and have a quantifiable better standard of living than Americans because the system works better in New Zealand. There are fewer problems, and the problems they do have, they’ve responded more effectively to. From this perspective, some Kiwis feel the people camping on Queen St. should be celebrating instead of protesting.
Superficially they’re right, but if you trace the problems the Queen St. protesters are standing against below the surface to any depth at all, you’ll understand why all the Occupy movements are relevant and even vital. The root of the problem that all the Occupy movements are protesting against trace back to income inequality. All around the world, it’s the norm for political leadership positions to be given to those with the most money. Laws are passed that maximize profits at the expense of human life. Every business pays their workers as little as possible and charges their customers as much as possible. You literally can’t shit without being taxed or fined or otherwise billed. Poorer people pay a higher percentage of their income to shit. You need a fortune to get an education, and you need an education to get a fortune. People are even getting charged to save their money now, and it’s illegal not to pay the government whatever bizarro number it tells you that you owe the tax collector.
These are universal themes that are getting worse everywhere. Those statements may be less true in some countries, but “as America goes, so goes the world.” If the economic/political climate continues on its current trajectory then every country in the world will end up in the same dystopia within a lifetime. Soon we will all live in cookie cutter houses doing service level work for no benefits and no securities for our entire lives. We’ll have no medical care, no education, and everything we buy we’ll have to go into debt for. The only legal options we’ll have for escaping the monotony and anxiety of our lives will be tobacco, alcohol, sports, and television. Then we’ll numb ourselves to our numbness and kill ourselves as quickly as possible, not because we’re irresponsible, but because we’re unfulfilled and miserable with the unnatural, inhumane environment we’ve been forced to grow up and live in.
Even if none of that happens to any of us, it is happening to billions of people all over the world right now through no fault of their own. Every country uses varyingly modern versions of the caste system, and they’re all moving towards the American model of corporate dependency.
The Pacific Islanders have a long literary history of complaining about how colonial forces took their islands and gave it to foreigners. Well, American commercialization is the new colonialism. If you want to see what Tonga is going to look like in 30 years, just visit Oahu. It’s going to be ghettos and strip malls separated from ultra-wealthy subdivisions by dull grey roads and concrete walls. The entire world is devolving into Office Space under the American economic model. That’s not the society humans have the potential of building. That’s not humane, and that’s not how anyone wants to live.
It may not look like the protesters are changing the world yet, but they’re already changing people’s minds, and the more time they have to get organized the clearer and more persuasive their message will become. The more that message spreads the harder it will be for any single government to silence the overall movement. The protesters are planting seeds right now that may not bear fruit for a while, but the check’s in the mail, and they may prevent all of Polynesia from getting completely turned into internationally owned chains of strip malls.
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1. a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person.
2. a feeling of warm personal attachment or deep affection, as for a parent, child, or friend.
3. sexual passion or desire.
4. a person toward whom love is felt; beloved person; sweetheart.
That definition is nearly vague to the point of being useless. It doesn’t tell us how long it takes to fall in love, what you have to do to get there or how to be sure your feelings are more than just an infatuation. Does it only take a few weeks to fall in love? A few months?
When I was seventeen years old I didn’t know what love was, but I believed it had to be forged by stronger, more meaningful experiences than could be had in a few months. I believed this so strongly that I refused to kiss my high school sweetheart until I was sure it meant something very, very serious. I was even more reserved about telling her I loved her. I didn’t want to undermine the value of our kiss or our words by throwing them around loosely. In the end, my high school sweetheart and I broke up, and I never did tell her I loved her. For years afterward, I congratulated myself for make the right choice because, in my mind, the fact that we broke up proved our love wasn’t real.
Yet, during the time we dated she was all I thought about all day. Seeing her took my breath away every time. The sound of her voice was like an angel singing. When I was in her presence I felt like I’d been let into Heaven early and unworthy. Most of my peers would have called that love, and though I wouldn’t have agreed with them at the time, looking back on that relationship I can say that even if our feelings for each other weren’t forged by the test of time, they were still sincere. I’ve often wondered if I could articulate a reason why my feelings for her weren’t love.
I had a hard time answering that question without a usable definition of love, but my next relationship taught me a few things that helped me better define the concept. Several years after graduating high school I moved to Italy where I dated an Italian girl who introduced me a novel way of defining and measuring love. She pointed out how, in the English language, you can tell a romantic partner that you either like them or you love them. That only gives lovers two ways to define their relationship.
In the Italian language, new couples can tell each other, “Ti voglio,” which means, “I like you.” Just as in English, this statement implies there’s a limit to how much you like the other person. If you like someone more you can tell them, “Ti voglio bene,” which means, “I like you good.” You could escalate that by saying, “Ti voglio tanto bene,” which translates, “I like you good, a lot.” If you’re crazy about someone you can tell them, “Ti voglio tantissimo,” which means, “I like you most.” The final, strongest statement of affection would be, “Ti amo,” which means, “I love you.”
English speakers are free to use the same terms to describe a progression of affection, but the tiers aren’t as institutionalized in the American vernacular/dating customs as they are in Italy. I certainly didn’t see the distinction growing up in America. I wish I would have had the words to tell my high school sweetheart, “Ti voglio tantissimo” at least.
In my early twenties, I found this tiered perspective of love slightly more useful than my original “all or nothing” point of view, but it raised more questions than it answered. In order for this paradigm to be useful to me, I had to define all the stages of a relationship leading up to love in addition to defining what love itself is.
The Italian girl and I eventually broke up, and we both went on to explore new relationships. I studied mine closely to try to pick out their turning points as if I were picking out plot points in a Hollywood sitcom. I could tell there was a definite progression to real-life romances, but the lines between the stages were blurred. I stared at those blurred lines until I accepted the obvious truth: Love doesn’t evolve like a Pokemon. It doesn’t level up into a new and improved creature in a bright flash of light after racking up enough experience points. It grows gradually, but no matter how big or small it is, it still is. On one level there’s no need to label arbitrary points in its growth. Love doesn’t need labels. It can still mature between two people even if they never change their Facebook status or say the magic words. And as I learned the hard way with my high school sweetheart, spending too much time worrying about labeling the stages of your relationship’s growth can hurt it.
Having said that, you can watch the love lives of the couples in your own life and see that relationships do follow fairly predictable patterns, and understanding them will help you get through them. They’re not profound, mystical or based on tiers of obsession. The most successful couples are the ones who have the deepest friendship, not the strongest case of codependency. In a lot of ways, falling in love is simply the process of becoming best friends. So the stages of falling in love are basically the same as the stages of friendship. But long-term romantic relationships are more involved than simply getting to know someone you enjoy being around. Moving in with someone and intertwining your life with theirs effectively makes you business partners. Integrating two people’s lives isn’t easy, but the process follows a logical and predictable series of stages that Disney doesn’t teach children about.
If you’re looking for a time frame for when it’s reasonable to tell your partner that you love them, you can reference the stages of friendship or relationships. But when do you tell other people you love them platonically? Does the evolution of that kind of love follow a different route? How differently should we love others (if at all)/ Should we have a different name for other kinds of love? And does love have to be so confusing?
The Greek language has five different words for five different kinds of love. They’re more nuanced than I’m about to describe them, but for the sake of brevity, we can say that “Mania” is obsessive love. “Eros” is romantic love. “Philos” is platonic, brotherly love. “Storgy” is the bond between providers and dependents, and “Agape” is unconditional, selfless (and potentially spiritual) love.
Every other language humans have invented contain their own nuanced definitions of love. It might seem like all these competing definitions would make the task of defining love more complicated, but actually, all the extra data helps us simplify the problem by revealing a common denominator. Regardless of how intensely you feel or show your affection towards any person or group, you’re ultimately doing the same thing for the same reason: you’re valuing them.
If I had to define love, I would say love is valuing something. Who, when, where, why, and how much are just details.
Using this definition, we can answer the question, “How do you love someone?” One way is by valuing them in your heart and assigning emotional weight to the thought of them in your mind. If your feelings exist, then there’s love in them, and that’s worth something. At the same time, anything you do that helps another person fulfill their potential is functionally equivalent to an act of love regardless of your intentions. If you tell someone you value them and then turn around and mistreat them, the love you feel may be sincere in your heart, but functionally your love will be hollow at best and destructive at worst.
We all live according to our unique understanding of the value of life. So we measure and express value slightly differently. This means everyone lives according to slightly different definitions of love. This makes it hard to know when you can believe the words, “I love you?” It also makes it hard to prove to someone else that even though you’re not meeting their criteria of love, the love coming from you is still genuine.
If you can honestly say that you value the other person enough to commit to making them the happiest and helping them fulfill their full potential unconditionally for the foreseeable future then you fully love that person. Even if you can’t commit unconditionally, every bit of commitment you can give is still love by degrees. If your commitment ever waivers or ends, that has no relevance on the value of past love; since it was genuine when it was given it stands on its own.
So when is the right time to tell someone you love them? Well, if you can commit to a person, then sure, go ahead and tell them you love them. Likewise, don’t tell someone you love them unless/until you’re willing to commit your mind, body, resources, options, and emotions to them.
My name is Travis, and I have an identical twin brother, Eric. We were born in Bryan, TX and spent our childhood bouncing around different small Texas towns. Having grown accustomed to the nomadic lifestyle, we spent our twenties and early thirties hopping cities around the world, sometimes together, sometimes solo. No matter how far we ran, somehow Texas kept sucking us back in, like roaches trying to climb out of a public toilet. A year ago, we moved into a house together in Houston. Three days ago, God decided to take the metaphor of our lives to the next level and give us a Hurricane Harvey-sized swirly.
If you’ve seen the news, you know I’m not exaggerating when I say God didn’t just take a piss on Houston. He waterboarded it. Major freeways are underneath lakes that are still expected to double in size. Two million people are under self-imposed house arrest, huddled behind boarded-up windows, living like there’s a full-scale zombie apocalypse going on outside. The meaning of life has basically been reduced to one goal: Don’t go outside.
You may be wondering, why we didn’t just evacuate when we had the chance. The answer is, evacuating was never a realistic option for most of us. Eric was here for Hurricane Ike in 2008, and he tried to evacuate, but after sitting in traffic for thirty-six hours, he finally turned around and came home. This time, we knew it’d be safer staying in a brick house than getting stuck on a sinking freeway, and we weren’t wrong.
Eric and I have family and friends all over Texas. So if we could have left, we would have had a lot of free options, but most people in Houston don’t have contacts all over Texas. Anyone living paycheck to paycheck and can’t afford to go out to eat, can’t afford to drive a hundred miles and stay at a hotel while they miss work at their hourly-wage job. I believe the main reason most people didn’t leave was because they were too poor.
We didn’t leave Houston, but we did flee our home because we live in a trailer house. Even if it could survive a flood, it wouldn’t provide any protection from the tornadoes created by the hurricane. So we packed up our most valuable possessions immediately and went to stay with a friend who owns a brick house.
The entire Houston area is in a floodplain. So over the years, the city has spent millions of dollars building a vast maze of drainage channels that you can see everywhere. Until a flood tests them, you don’t know if the ones near your house are reason for alarm or relief. By sheer luck, we ended up in a neighborhood with a fantastic drainage system. If the rain continues at its current pace, our host’s carpet won’t even get wet. Honestly, for us, this week has been a morbid vacation, which will be followed by lots of work opportunities.
Part of my subconscious feels like I should have survivor’s guilt, but I didn’t ask for this. It is what it is. Plus, I have no idea if my house still exists. We tried to drive over there today to check on it, but the road into our neighborhood was completely flooded, and rescue crews were boating people out. So our week of white privilege may end with us discovering we don’t own anything anymore. At least we didn’t have much to lose because we perpetually own barely more than will fit in a truck since we’re constantly moving.
Another reason not to panic is that our landlady is a psychotic bitch who lives across the street and spies on us, looking for any excuse to take her anger out on someone she knows can’t give her the punch in the face she deserves. She overcharges us to live next to a railroad track, where train horns scream at 150 decibels all day and night like the souls of the damned being dragged to Hades at 60 miles per hour. If our “home” got swept away, it would set us free more than set us back.
Even after the rain stops, which won’t be for at least another three days, water levels are still expected to rise in low areas as it drains down from higher grounds. It’s a good thing I had the foresight to bring my work clothes with me, because I’ll probably have to go back to work before I get to go home.
In the meantime, we, and most of Houston’s residents have nothing to do but wait. The endless monotony is torture to some people, but I’m an extreme introvert with a passion for writing. I already cut activities out of my schedule to spend more hours typing in solitude. I work at my day job as few hours as I can afford, not because I’m lazy, but because I’d rather spend my life working on my passion than making the rich guy who pays me the bare minimum, richer.
I still have to keep my nose to the grindstone at least twenty-three hours per week. I can do this financially responsibly because my job pays well, but it’s also very physically demanding. So my body always hurts. Since American workers get the least vacation time of any first world country, Hurricane Harvey has been a golden opportunity to have my life back for a full week. I’m sure there are hundreds of thousands of wage slaves in the Houston area who are suffering worse than me but are still relieved to get a break from working themselves to death in 100-degree weather at a thankless, soul-crushing job.
The novelty has probably already worn off for Houston’s extroverts, who are going mad with cabin fever. The past few days have taught many of us that in a long, slow, scary situation like this, you have to find ways to stay active and positive or you’ll go insane.
There are already Youtube videos of people swimming in the streets, which is life-threateningly dangerous. The water is infested with flesh-eating bacteria from human sewage, a hundred tons of pollution, sharks, and alligators, which makes the idea of your house filling up with water a whole lot scarier than it already is.
Once all the flood water drains into the Gulf of Mexico, it will be weeks before it’s relatively safe to swim in the ocean again. Most Houstonians who lived through Hurricane Ike, Katrina, Alicia or Rita already know this, and television news reporters have been warning the Hurricane noobs to stay out of the water. Hopefully they have better luck convincing Americans not to hurt themselves than they did last week when they urged Americans not to look directly at the solar eclipse.
I’d be surprised if by next week, there isn’t a Youtube video of red necks slaloming downtown on jet skis, weaving around gangsters on inner tubes. Texas already has a, “Hold my beer and watch this!” mentality, and the only major city I’ve been to with worse drivers than Houston, is Cairo, Egypt. There are a million bad decisions made on Houston’s roads every day, and two million tigers aren’t going to change their stripes overnight just because of an apocalyptic flood.
Over a dozen helicopters and fifty boats are working twenty-four hours a day rescuing people stranded on top of cars and houses. Fortunately, since Houston is right on the Gulf of Mexico, and Texan culture has a fetish for buying really big toys you don’t need and won’t use very often, like boats, every middle-class neighborhood in the entire metro area has at least one driveway with a boat parked in it.
For such catastrophic flooding, it’s amazing the official number of deaths hasn’t reached double digits yet. There’s no telling how many lives have been saved by Bubba down the street ferrying his neighbors to safety. This is a blessing for Bubba too, since he gets to take a break from the rat race to be a genuine hero while simultaneously getting to live the dream of running red lights in his speedboat and doing donuts in parking lots.
I have this theory that the reason Houston drivers are so reckless, aggressive and violently entitled, is because you can only sit in demolition derby traffic for so long before everyone else’s stress rubs off on you. Well, Mother Nature put a stop to all that madness for a week and reminded us we’re not at war with our neighbors. We’re in this together.
I predict for the next month, we’ll be able to feel the same buzz in Houston as New Yorkers did after the Twin Towers collapsed. They were in pain, but for a short while, it brought the most notoriously rude city in America together. People who used to flip each other off and shout, “I’m walkin’ heeear!” put aside their differences and treated each other like family.
The post-traumatic euphoria will wear off sooner rather than later as everyone files back into the rat race and re-experiences the same stress and disrespect that turned them into road warriors in the first place. The first major tear in the social fabric will come when insurance companies remind a million homeowners and another million renters that our economy is designed to take more from its customers than it gives.
When insurance claims officers start explaining to Houston customers how dedicated they are to not helping them, Houstonians will have to direct their pain somewhere, and since they can’t fight the system because they’re too busy working to pay off all their debt, they won’t be able to direct their anger at the source of the problem. So they’ll take it out on the first person who cuts them off in the morning. It won’t take long before we all go back to force-feeding each other rage pie.
I’m not a Houston native, and if you didn’t catch it, I hate this city. The only reason I’m still here is because I’m waiting for my girlfriend to be in a position to move away with me. I’ve cursed the people here almost every time I’ve driven on the freeway, but so do they. Hurricane Harvey taught all of us different lessons. For me, it put my metropolitan stress rage into perspective.
I’ve made a surprising number of life-long friends in Houston in a very short amount of time. It’s full of good people, but there are a critical number of bad apples in the basket. A lot of those assholes were flood victims.
After driving around town (such as you can), and seeing the cosmic indifference and hopelessness of water covering all our accomplishments, possessions, goals, opportunities, like God just took a dry erase marker and wiped away everything with an indifferent flick of the wrist… I saw a punishment nobody deserves, no matter how big of an asshole they are. But it did happen to them. That’s a mind fuck I can’t unsee.
As much as I hate to admit it, I feel like this experience has made me more of an official Houstonian. For the rest of my life, anytime I meet someone who also lived through this watery nightmare, we’ll be able to nod at each other meaningfully and bond over the fact that we were both there when the shit went down, and we pulled through together.
Having said that, I’m getting the hell out of this death trap as soon as humanly possible, and God willing, never coming back.
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The last week of August 2017, Hurricane Harvey dropped 33 trillion gallons of water on Texas. 9 trillion of that landed on Houston, where I live with my twin brother, Eric, in a humble trailer house. We didn’t try to evacuate because Eric did that in 2008 during Hurricane Ike. It took him 36 hours to drive 30 miles in bumper to bumper traffic before he gave up and turned around.
So we fled our trailer to spend the next five days of rain at a friend’s house, in a neighborhood with good drainage. The lawn flooded, but it never made it to the house. So we just had a morbid vacation, and we didn’t think the flood was that bad until the rains stopped and we finally ventured out.
What we saw was surreal. Most of the roads were open, but they were littered with abandoned cars at odd angles, and flood waters still blocked off random access points. So finding routes could be tricky or impossible.
If I had to summarize the nature of Hurricane Harvey’s destruction in a few words, they would be, “random and polarized.” One street would be completely underwater and inaccessible. The next road over would be completely fine. One house may be sitting in two feet of water, and their neighbor may have gotten four or none. Some businesses were open pretty much throughout the storm, and some won’t ever open again.
Even if you can’t see a waterline on the buildings, you can see how bad each neighborhood got hit by the amount of trash on the side of the road. Blocks that just have carpet and drywall set out by the curb only got a foot or two of water. When you see a yard covered in furniture, you know they got it bad.
Keep a good sense of humor and carry on, Houston.
The house I stayed in through the storm didn’t suffer any problems. It never even lost electricity or internet. Technically, my trailer house didn’t get flooded, since it’s propped up on cinder blocks, three feet above the ground, but the water came all the way up to the floorboards, soaking them, the carpet and the air conditioning ducts underneath. So now the entire house is an unlivable toxic mold trap.
This was the street in front of my friend’s house, where I sat through Hurricane Harvey. No problem.
This is the street to my house. Big problem.
My house after the first day of flooding.
My landlady and brother looking at fish on our front porch a few days after the rain stopped.
Eric and I moved out of our man cave, and now we’re staying with our girlfriends, who are ecstatic to have us closer to them. Thus continues Hurricane Harvey’s Twilight Zone-esque theme of polarized randomness. Everything is a cursed blessing or a blessed curse.
Disaster seems to have brought the best and worst out of the people here. When Harvey was still sitting on top of Houston, the owner of a furniture store opened his doors to anyone who needed a place with a bed to sleep on. At the same time, the owner of a mega church, Joel Osteen, locked the doors of his stadium-sized church until he was publicly shamed into letting refugees in. Then, he asked the refugees to give him donations, even though his $10.5 million mansion weathered the storm just fine.
This is where Joel Osteen lives (tax-free).
This is where the people Joel Osteen is asking for money live.
My landlady is just as greedy and sociopathic as Joel Osteen, and she has the permanent disposition of a drunk biker in a dive bar at 3 am looking for stupid shit to fight about. She won’t let me break my lease because she says my house is livable. She told me when we moved in that if we didn’t have rent on the first of the month, she’d throw all our stuff out to the curb by the end of the night, which is illegal. I could fight her on this, but I’d pay $900 to not have to spend months fighting her in court over $900.
So we paid rent like little bitches, but we get to take our time moving out and figuring out what to do with all our stuff. Most of it came from flea markets and estate sales anyway. We’ll probably just put it out by the side of the road. There are a lot of people driving around in trucks, grabbing all the free stuff they can. For the next year, Craigslist is going to be exploding in Houston with great deals on expensive furniture and household goods with mild to severe flood damage. A lot of people are going to die from the mold.
On a lighter note, both my electric company (Summer Energy) and internet provider (ATT) let me cancel my contracts with them without punishing me. I didn’t expect that, since the whole point of early termination fees is to fuck you in the first place, and ATT didn’t let my older brother, Stephen, out of his contract when he deployed to Afghanistan. Apparently, corporate greed isn’t completely bottomless… when the public is watching.
It seems if you’re more than 50% bad, disaster makes you worse. If you’re more than 50% good, disaster brings out your best. For example, an Army Ranger veteran’s house got F.U.B.A.R. flooded in Dickinson, TX, on the outskirts of the Houston metroplex. So he made a post on an unofficial Army Ranger Facebook page asking for help. Stephen and a bunch of other Ranger vets and their friends and family, drove down from San Antonio to help him fix his house.
This is the first time Stephen has been to Houston since I moved here. He never got to see my old house, but he got to see my new one, where he got to spend the night instead of. sleeping in a stranger’s home with nine other people. You can cut yourself to death with all the silver linings in Houston right now.
My twin brother, Eric, is helping our old neighbor gut his mom’s house, which flooded badly. I feel guilty because I haven’t been volunteering, but my boss put me back to work before the rain stopped. He didn’t even give us one day to pick up the pieces of our lives before sending us back to the salt mines. The joke’s on him though. He didn’t get any customers the first day or two because they were all busy picking up the pieces of their lives, unsurprisingly.
One of my coworkers asked our boss if we’d be getting paid for the time we missed, and he sent us the link to the FEMA website to apply for benefits. I hope he’s not surprised by the loyalty his employees show him in the future. I have a feeling half of them already lied to him and said they were cut off by flood water and couldn’t come to work for a few days, just so they could have a few more days of their lives to themselves.
I started back immediately, mostly because I was bored. Since I choose to work nights, my mornings are free. So I had time to drop Stephen off at the house he was clearing. My jaw dropped when I saw the next door neighbor had a sign in his front yard, facing the main highway in town that said, “You Loot We Shoot.” When I went to take a picture of it, the owner came outside and glared at me. So I took the shot real quick and left him alone, just like all the police who drove by and didn’t tell him to take it down. They didn’t turn a blind eye to it. Texas has “king of the castle” laws, which let you shoot any threatening intruder on sight.
I hoped the sign was just being dramatic until I picked Stephen up at the house where the rest of the volunteers were staying, which had a gun in every room, literally. As I got out of my truck, a lady in a minivan stopped me on the street and asked if I’d seen two young, dark-haired men run by. She said they just stole all her computer equipment. I told her I was sorry for her loss.
I’ve even heard rumors thugs have just started knocking on doors and robbing people at gunpoint. I don’t know anyone who that’s happened to, but I do have a Mexican friend who found out the liquor store next to his house got flooded. The owner couldn’t sell cases of beer in water damaged boxes. So he just put his stock on the back porch and told people walking by they could have it… but to drink at their own risk. Low-class people of every color lined up to help him clear out his damaged property.
Since the boxes were water damaged, a lot of beers fell out the bottoms and smashed on the concrete. After the frenzy, my buddy helped clean up the broken glass. So the old Asian guy gave him an extra three cases of top-shelf Texas honey whiskey. He doesn’t even really drink alcohol, but he took it because it was free. Then he showed up at my new house with a truckload of random beer covered in a thin layer of mold, which washes off easy with soap and water… hopefully.
I gave a few cases to Stephen to give to the Rangers in Dickinson, but for some reason, he didn’t. Maybe they didn’t want it. He ended up giving it to a random black who was also repairing flood damage.
I hope Stephen warned him to wash the bottles.
This is what I kept. It’s about 1/5 of the original truckload.
In the blog I wrote during Hurricane Harvey, I said this disaster would make me think twice about cussing at shitty Houston drivers, and I hoped our shared experience would teach us all that we’re on the same team. Now that danger has passed, Houston drivers are shittier than ever. If they don’t care about anyone on the highway but themselves, I see no reason why I should care about their feelings. That’s a horrible way to look at reality, but that’s what I call, “The Houstonitis.” Everybody’s shit rubs off on everyone until we’re all covered in shit and angry about it. If everybody’s guilty, is anybody?
Yesterday, a man asked me to help him settle a debate he was having with a coworker. He said the mayor should have ordered an evacuation and issued better instructions. His opponent disagreed. I said it wouldn’t have made a difference because nobody cares what the mayor thinks. Most Houstonians don’t even know his or her name, including me.
The guy I was talking to went on to complain about how flood victims didn’t do enough to evacuate and prepare, themselves. He was angry that some people could have left but didn’t. Then the government had to waste resources rescuing them. I explained to him, if you’re too poor to go out to eat, you’re too poor to go anywhere but work, ever.
If any human is to blame for the cost of Hurricane Harvey, it’s the same city planners who saved us all with the world-class drainage systems woven through the Houston metroplex. Unfortunately, we wouldn’t need a multi-million dollar drainage network and disaster response teams hopscotching in and out of flooded areas, if the city was built efficiently in the first place. Houstonians wouldn’t be rabid with Houstonitis if the city wasn’t a clusterfucked maze of economic dead zones connected by congested streets.
The supreme inefficiency of Houston’s city layout makes it necessary for humans to consume tons of resources to survive. Now that flood waters have destroyed half of the infrastructure in town, it’s going to have to be thrown into a landfill and replaced, depleting more of the earth’s resources and creating more pollution, leading to more global warming, leading to more hurricanes, which will lead to more flooding and more waste until we’re all dead.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from Hurricane Harvey, it’s that we need to build more sustainable megacities if the human race is to survive and thrive. It’s not that complicated. I can draw you a picture:
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Note: The events of this story are real, but the names have been changed.
This is the third installment of a three-part series, in which I illustrate why half of all Americans live near the poverty line by using my life as a case study.
Case in point, medical bills are the most common cause of bankruptcy in America. In 2016 I became part of that statistic, and having gone through the process, I shudder to think how normal it is. Nobody should have to go through what I did, because getting health care in America is as frustrating and overpriced as buying real estate.
I started learning this four months ago. One morning, as I was brushing my teeth, I looked in the mirror and noticed a white pustule on my gums. At first, I thought I had cancer. After suffering an existential crisis, I collected myself and recalled that I’d had two root canals done on one of my bottom, front teeth by a military dentist eight years ago. The most reasonable explanation was the root canal had failed, and the tooth got infected.
Since I no longer had access to the military’s socialized medical system, I’d have to pay a civilian dentist. Knowing they charge an arm and a leg, I looked up cheap insurance on the internet and spent several evenings slogging through mind-bogglingly complicated insurance websites. Unable to make sense of all the terms and restrictions, I decided to take another approach.
I searched for a dentist office with good reviews in my area and found out which insurance they accepted. Then I paid $125 for the insurance and waited for it to activate… hoping the pustule didn’t become life-threatening in the meantime. In case you’re wondering, the reason there’s a waiting period for insurance to activate, is so you can’t wait until an emergency happens to sign up.
When I finally got my insurance card, I took it to the dentist’s office, which we’ll call Negan Family Dentistry. The secretary at the front desk told me they accept my insurance company, but not my plan. FML.
Afraid to leave the pustule untreated any longer, I paid $50 for a checkup, which lasted about 15 minutes.
A dental technician led me down a long hallway lined with booths like a hair salon. Walking down the assembly line I started to worry I’d be treated less like a family member and more like a fast food order. My suspicions were confirmed when the technician X-rayed the one tooth with the pustule under it. Then a dentist came in and told me it needed to be replaced and left.I don’t even know what the dentist looked like because he or she stood over my shoulder wearing a mask for the entire forty-five seconds they spoke before dashing back to the salt mines.
After the dental apparition vanished, the tech sent me to the front desk, where the secretary gave me a bill for $250 and the phone number for Negan Family Periodontics, two towns away. Everything happened so fast it made my head spin.
In a daze, I asked what the bill was for, and she said, “It’s for a temporary tooth we put in after the real one is taken out.” I asked why I was paying her when she was sending me somewhere else. She said, “We put that part in.”
I told her I’d think about it and threw the bill away. A few hours later I called Negan Family Periodontics and told them I needed a tooth replaced before I died of blood poisoning. The secretary told me their next available appointment was two weeks away, but she promised to call me if they had any cancellations. She never called.
After fourteen days of worrying I was about to die, I drove to the place “my” dentist referred me to. The secretary who greeted me was an older woman with white skin but Hispanic facial features. She spoke warmly until I told her I didn’t have insurance. Then she snapped into full aggression mode, basically accusing me of not intending to pay my bill. I gave her my credit card and driver’s license, which she copied angrily and pushed back at me.
Afterwards, a nicer lady handed me a bill for $3.5k. By the time I saw my periodontist, Dr. Simon, my head was spinning again. Dr. Simon’s cheerful personality put me a little at ease. He laughed and joked like he didn’t have a care in the world. I wanted to like him, and I tried to act happy but couldn’t stop thinking about how I just paid him six more months of all my disposable income for what would amount to less than half a day’s work on his part.
Pictured from left to right: Dr. Simon’s eternally happy smile, and my life circumstances being the opposite of his, thanks to him
I offered to barter my professional services in exchange for reducing my fees, which is legal, but he responded with a long speech about how he always follows the rules to a fault. As the overpriced laughing gas kicked in, I wanted to say, “It’s too bad there isn’t a rule about not extorting your customers out of their future life savings every time they have a minor medical emergency.”
An hour later, he’d pulled out my decayed tooth, cut it in half, screwed in a metal foundation for a fake tooth, and glued the top of the old one back in place so I wouldn’t look like a jack-O’-lantern for the next few months while my jaw bone healed around the prosthetic.
The next time I walked into Negan Family Periodontics, was for a cleaning I didn’t ask for and wasn’t necessary for the tooth replacement. As soon as I sat down in the waiting room, The Dragon at the front desk told me I needed to pay another $1k to the dentist from Negan Family Dentistry, who would be putting my fake tooth in. Stunned, I asked why I was paying someone else more money to finish the job I thought I was paying them to do. In response, she ripped some papers out of a folder and waved them in my face, telling me I already signed something agreeing to everything, and I better pay up now, with a tone of voice that clearly said she didn’t believe I would.
I reminded her she already had my credit card number. So anytime she needed another $1k from me, she could just keep charging my card, and I’d just keep being bankrupt. Snidely, she replied, “Great.”
When I asked Dr. Simon about the charges, he explained he would only mount a screw in my jaw, and the original dentist who referred him, would take a mold of the mounting plate, send it to a lab to make a fake tooth from, and then screw it in. I asked why he couldn’t do it, and he lectured me about how he specializes in his field, and other dentists specialize in theirs. So it’s best that someone else screws the prosthetic tooth in. The process sounded illogical to me, but he assured me it was normal. So I let the issue go.
On my way out of the building, The Dragon gave me an appointment date a few weeks later to remove the half-tooth and install a screw into the plate. She also said she would schedule an appointment with Negan Family Dentistry for the same day so Dr. Negan could take a mold of the screw to make the final fake tooth from. However, after calling three times and getting a busy signal, she said she’d try again later and relay my appointment time to me. I never heard back from her.
Two weeks later, the secretary at Negan Family Dentistry called and informed me they double booked my appointment and needed to change it, which turned out to be convenient, not only because I didn’t know what my appointment date was, but because The Dragon scheduled my appointment at Negan Family Periodontics one hour before the appointment at Negan Family Dentistry, two towns away, which would have been impossible to reach in time. So I rescheduled the second appointment for the next morning.
The reason the appointments were supposed to be for the same day is because after Dr. Negan made a mold of the screw, he normally would have installed the temporary tooth I never paid $250 for. However, I didn’t pay for it because I couldn’t afford to waste money on a cosmetic enhancement I’d wear for two weeks. My only option was to leave the screw exposed while the third-party dental lab Dr. Negan subcontracts his work to, made my fake tooth and shipped it back to Negan Family Dentistry.
So, the morning after Dr. Simon installed the screw, I showed up at Negan Family Dentistry looking like a James Bond villain. After checking in, I sat down and happily thumbed through an uninteresting magazine. After months of racking up debt, driving all over the Houston area and being treated like an asshole for being poor, the ordeal was almost over. My life was finally looking up.
Then the kind, attractive, secretary politely called me to her desk and asked for another $916. I explained I’d already paid that bill through Negan Family Periodontics. Confused, she said they don’t do that. At my urging, she called The Dragon, who told her they didn’t do that. I thought I already paid this bill, but I knew it would be pointless to argue with The Dragon, and I was already mad enough to say things to her I’d regret.
I don’t know where the miscommunication came from. Maybe The Dragon and Dr. Simon did a terrible job of explaining my fees. Maybe I didn’t understand what they were saying because my head was spinning from getting hit with a baseball bat named, “Debt.” Maybe I’m just stupid, but there is one thing I’m absolutely sure of. Nobody ever said anything about me having to pay another $916 for the appointment in question.
If I had known I’d have to pay more after the initial $3.5k, I might not have agreed to it. If Negan Family Dentistry had given me an itemized breakdown of every step and fee involved in their tooth-replacement process the first day I walked in their office, I probably wouldn’t have ever called Negan Family Periodontics. Now I have to wonder if they consciously chose not to be transparent so they could surprise me with outrageous bills after I’d already committed.
Their surprise worked. I didn’t see the debt bat coming until it hit me between the eyes, sending me into that familiar punch-drunk feeling again. Clumsily, I used my cell phone to check my account balances to see if I even had $916. I didn’t, but I was able to cover the bill by maxing out my credit card and draining all my checking and savings accounts, including money I’d set aside to renew my vehicle registration.
By the time the technician sat me in the exam chair, my net worth equaled $23 in cash and $6k in debt. Financially, it was the lowest point in my life. My body’s fight or flight response flooded my veins with adrenaline causing me to shake as the technician put the bib around my neck. She may as well have injected me with 10 milligrams of fear and charged me $100 for it.
I had a few minutes to close my eyes and try to breathe the nausea away before Dr. Negan casually sauntered in.
Pictured above: a metaphor for my dentist
Without looking in my direction, he asked the wall in a rote, disinterested tone of voice, how my Thanksgiving had been. I said, “Pretty good,” which was a lie. The truth is, I had broken up with my girlfriend that week and moved into a cheap trailer next to a railroad track with my brother, who spent Thanksgiving with his ex-girlfriend while I sat alone at our new “home” writing and wearing earplugs to block the sound of the train horns. Part of me was happy for the solitude, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that the only reason I had to live in a shitty trailer by a railroad track was because my dental bills had erased all my other options in life.
I’d completely run out of fakeness when Dr. Negan asked how I was doing. Exasperated, I replied, “Not good, since you bankrupted me.”
Without missing a beat, he launched into a bitter, condescending tirade, saying, “Oh!? So, you don’t think dentists deserve to get paid? You don’t think ten years of school is worth any compensation? We rack up a lot of debt in medical school, and it’s not cheap to run a dentist office, but hey, if you think our prices are unfair, you can just go to Mexico.”
Dr. Negan gives me a pep talk
He actually said that. I couldn’t believe it. After taking everything from me, he was bitching me out for not saying thank you.
Ironically, he was right about one thing. I had a friend who’d recently returned from a medical tourism resort in Mexico where he spent $4k to fix everything wrong with all his teeth. Plus, he got a two-week vacation at an all-inclusive resort. He wasn’t treated by the dirty, filthy Mexican dentists Dr. Negan was so prejudiced against. He saw American doctors who had moved to Mexico so they could help people without having to charge an arm and a leg and a dream to replace one tooth.
My life would be profoundly better on multiple levels if I had the foresight to go to Mexico. For the same price, I could have even flown to a medical resort in Thailand, where the doctors and staff would have treated me like a god instead of a cockroach.
My appointment with Dr. Negan lasted 30 minutes, most of which he spent bitching me out. The rest of the time he made a mold of my tooth space using the same process Dr. Simon used when he took his mold, which makes me wonder if both of these guys were referring me back and forth to each other to rack up referral charges.
If my final appointment took the same amount of time, I would be paying both my dentists an average of $1k per hour. I’ll have to work 40 hours to pay off one of theirs. If I made minimum wage, then one easy hour of their life would be worth 140 grueling hours of mine. That’s a narcissistic, psychopathic assessment of the value of life, based on a lie.
No human being is so much better than another, that an hour of their life is worth 40-140 times anyone else’s. Plus, if they’re charging $1k per hour and work 8 hours per day, that’s $40k per week. Even if half the money goes to expenses, it doesn’t cost $20k per week to run a dentist office. Even if Dr. Negan only pocketed $200 per hour, that doesn’t make it any less painful for me to pay $1k per hour.
In the end, the truest measure of Dr. Negan and Dr. Simon’s morality is the size of their retirement accounts. They might have taken on a lot of debt in school, but they’re not going to lower their prices after paying it off. They’re going to charge as much as they can get away with for as long as their career lasts. In the end, they’re going to retire in mansions surrounded by space-age luxury that would make a medieval king jealous, and the only reason they’ll get to do that is because their vaults will be full of peasant’s gold.
I’ll spend the rest of my life living in a trailer next to a train track, wearing earplugs in bed and getting stomach ulcers from lying awake, worrying about how long I can put off getting extorted by family-friendly medical professionals.
The last thing the Dr. Negan said to me before he ejected me from the dental assembly line was, “Hey, man. Everything’s going to be fine. Everything is going to work out.” If he truly believes that, then living in a gated community must have disconnected him from reality. In the America where I live, I’ll never be free. Perpetual debt will always force me to work for a boss who underpays me, just to pay off the businesses who overcharge me and add on extra fees for not having any money.
Pictured left to right: Dr. Negan deciding what he’ll do with my life savings, and the look on my face as I watch him horde my hopes and dreams
If medical school, rent, and medical equipment are so extortionately priced that dentists are struggling to keep their practices open, there must be better solutions than passing on the extortion to customers. If medical professionals truly cared about their clients, which Dr. Negan assured me he did, then they would be doing something to fix the problem.
As it stands, they’re just shrugging their shoulders and saying, “If I can pass this problem onto the customer, then it’s not my problem. Fuck em…” just like I metaphorically said to the single mother who rented my duplex unit in Austin.
The simplest solution is, stop fucking your customers in the ass with a friendly smile, but if you can’t afford to do that, then try to imagine how angry and dejected bankruptcy must make all your customers feel. Then take that anger and shout it in the face of the people who are overcharging you. Unionize and boycott those people. Write blogs and give speeches about how you have to double the cost of your products to pay rent or a mortgage that’s twice as expensive as the property is worth.
The least you could do is not be silent, but if you’re smart enough to earn a Ph.D., then you should be able to think of at least one solution to high operating costs other than raping your customers and bitching them out when they say, “Ouch. You’re killing me,” instead of, “Thank you, sir. May I have another?”
If you’ve read this far, you may be thinking, “Hey, Travis. Wake up. The common denominator in all your problems is you. If you were better at adulting, and less angry about life, then you wouldn’t have dug yourself into a pit of debt and made enemies with people who just wanted to help you.”
If you’re underwhelmed with my plight enough to leave a comment telling me what an irresponsible, whiner I am, then you need to take to the streets and shout the exact same speech in the face of the other 6 billion people in the world who live below the poverty line. Maybe I am whiny, but if everybody stopped complaining about normalized extortion, the only thing it would change is how much longer the majority of humanity stays in poverty.
If you believe I can’t blame anyone except myself for my bankruptcy because I didn’t have insurance, then you’ve either never used insurance, or you’ve accepted insanity as normal.
The reason I needed insurance in the first place is the exact same reason why medical tourism resorts exist: because the cost of medical care in America is inflated beyond reason by insurance companies.
If you’ll recall, I did buy the insurance Negan Family Dentistry advertised they accepted. If they’d been more transparent, I would have known the right policy to buy. If they didn’t pick and choose which policies they accepted, I could have just used any insurance.
It wouldn’t have mattered much if I did because all policies are designed to be as useless and difficult to use as possible. The company I work for offers medical insurance for $124 per month, but it has a $6k deductible, which wouldn’t have covered the cost anyway.
If I had paid $124 for medical insurance every month since I separated from the military in 2007, I would have paid $13k by 2016. Even if insurance would have covered the entire cost of my tooth replacement, I still would have saved $8k in the long run by not having insurance since 2007.
Doctors don’t even like insurance even though it pays so well because they have to hire an otherwise unnecessary employee just to file all the paperwork. Since doctors don’t want the extra cost to impact their salary, they pass the cost onto the customers by raising prices accordingly, which I’m sure they feel terrible about.
To make matters worse, doctors have to wait months for insurance claims to be processed and pay out. As much of a nightmare as insurance companies are to work with, doctors should know better than anyone, bitching customers out for not having insurance is blaming the victim.
The problem is that the insurance companies have rigged the system to require everyone to buy extortion protection in the first place, and doctors have chosen to go along with it. I wouldn’t have lost the game if it wasn’t rigged.
I can’t afford anything, because everyone gives me the “fuck you” price instead of “the friend discount,” and you don’t have more nice things because you get treated the same way. So if you’re mad at me for getting extorted, then be mad at yourself too, and be mad that someone convinced you to accept this sadistic system as normal.
My story ends with me going back to Negan Family Dentistry to get my fake tooth put in. Before leaving the house I checked my bank account to see how much money wasn’t in it, just in case I got surprised me with another bill. There was no need to check how much wiggle room was left on my credit card because it was already maxed out. Luckily, the secretary surprised me by informing me they wouldn’t be hitting me in the head with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire again.
The whole appointment took about fifteen minutes, and most of that was done by a tech who makes as little as supply and demand will allow Dr. Negan to get away with underpaying her. The tech put some kind of clip on the screw sticking out of my gums. Then Dr. Negan came in and snapped the crown on. The procedure didn’t even require any cementing or heating, which proves everything Dr. Simon told me about me needing to see Dr. Negan for the final procedure because he was a specialist, was a complete lie. I could have done the final step myself.
At the end of the appointment, I gave Dr. Negan a slip of paper with the address to this blog on it. I told him I didn’t use his real name. I just needed to tell my customer service story, and that it wasn’t glowing, but he could use it to fix the holes in his process.
He didn’t understand what a blog is. So I had to explain it to him. His eyes told me he still didn’t understand. So I wasn’t surprised when he pressed me to just tell him what the essay said.
I told him, the biggest issue, and the reason I was so upset the last time we met, was because his prices were deceptive, and I wasn’t given the total cost at the beginning. When I said that, his eyes bulged out, and he shouted at me, “YOU’RE A LIAR!”
Experience has taught me that trying to give someone advice who doesn’t want to admit when they’re wrong, will only result in them attacking you until they’ve said something ugly enough to convince them-self you’re the problem. So I just turned on my heel and walked out the door. Dr. Negan chased me down in the lobby and tried to bitch me out some more. I’d already said everything I had to say in the blog, and I didn’t want him to ruin my day any more than he already had. So I continued walking, right out the front door.
As I exited the building, he shouted, “Have a Merry Christmas!” His attempt to take the high road didn’t impress me after calling me a liar for trying to point out the flaws in his customer service. It just reinforced my perception that he’s a delusional ass hole.
I don’t even believe in Christmas, and he obviously doesn’t believe in Christian values.
The worst part of the story is that, even though I’ll never go back to Negan Family Dentistry or Negan Family Periodontics, I won’t get a better price anywhere else in America. I’ll just keep getting my head bashed in and my savings looted, just like you… unless something drastic changes.
Before the world can change, people like Dr. Negan and Dr. Simon need to change the way they justify their predatory business practices to themselves.
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I recently flew from Colorado to Texas, and I arrived at the airport 30 minutes before my plane was scheduled to leave. Normally this airport isn’t very busy. So I wasn’t worried… until I reached the security checkpoint, which had about 50 people in it.
Luckily, the line was moving surprisingly fast. So my anxiety was shrinking as I got closer to the body scanner, which I like to call “the dignity evaporation machine” or “D.E.M.” for short.
I’ve traveled around the world, and America is the only country I’ve ever had to walk through these. I loathe these things because they blast you with radiation, microwaves, and/or who knows what. They used to take naked pictures of you, but that was supposedly changed, but how would I really know what goes on inside them? Either way, when you stand inside them, you have to hold your hands above your head like you’re a criminal being arrested. The invasion of privacy and the submissive posture really drives home the point that everyone who attempts to board a plane in America is considered guilty of terrorism until proven innocent.
As I approached the D.E.M. I noticed a male TSA agent standing idly next to the old metal detector that nobody walks through anymore. I knew you can choose between going through the D.E.M. or getting a pat-down. I assumed a pat-down would be quicker, and if I was going to lose my dignity anyway, I felt it would be more just if the TSA had to get their hands dirty taking it from me.
So I told the TSA agent that I preferred a pat-down. He looked at me in disgust and then shouted over his shoulder at nobody in particular, “We’ve got an opt-out.” Then he stood there staring into space for 4 minutes while I watched in horror as people who were originally behind me in the line passed through the D.E.M. Finally, I said to the agent, “I’m running a bit late. If this is going to take a while, I’ll just go through the machine.” He barked at me with a mixture of amusement and disgust, “Too late for that.” Only then did he take me through the metal detector to a place with a floor mat with two footprints on it where I was instructed to stand.
As I assumed the position the agent asked me in a voice dripping with suspicion and accusation, “Why did you choose to opt-out?” I told him, “I don’t know what that machine is. I don’t like it, and I don’t want anyone to see me naked.” He replied, “Eh, it’s not that bad.”
Then he took his time finding a box of plastic gloves, and then he made it a point to show me how slowly he put them on and adjusted them. Then the frisking started. Mind you, I was wearing a fitting T-shirt and fitting blue jeans. Since I was flying on a cheap airline that charged $50 to check a bag and/or carry on anything bigger than a small purse, I had all of my luggage (3 pairs of socks, three pairs of underwear, and three T-shirts) in a plastic grocery bag. So there was nowhere for me to hide anything.
Still, he wrapped his hands tightly around each of my arms and acted like he was squeezing a tube of toothpaste. He even ran his hands down my bare arms past the sleeves as if I could be hiding something under my skin. He stuck his hands down my shirt collar and inspected all 360 degrees of my neck. Then he did the same thing to my waistband. Then he squeezed both my legs like they were tubes of toothpaste. He did that to each leg from the front and then each leg from the back. On each pass, he jammed his hands up into my groin, which meant he made firm contact with my balls 4 times.
After the frisking was over he swabbed his gloves and put the swab into a machine that looked like a futuristic cash register. The machine beeped, and a bright red light started flashing. I said, “What does that mean?” He said, “Nothing good. It means you tested positive for bomb residue.” I wanted to shout at him, “Bomb residue! Bomb residue! Where’s the bomb? I’m just a guy in a t-shirt and jeans with a plastic bag full of underwear, and you just squeezed every inch of my body!” Of course, there wasn’t any need for me to state the obvious. He knew there wasn’t any bomb or any residue for that matter. We both knew I was just a guy getting harassed, and there was nothing I could do about it.m
The agent called his supervisor, who was an older black lady. She looked at the machine and looked at the gloves. Then she started chitchatting with the agent, completely ignoring me. I asked her, “So what happens now?” Without even looking at me she said in a bored, monotone voice, “Sir, your clothing tested positive for bomb residue. So we have to take you into a private room for another pat down.” Then she just walked off and left us to wait for an elderly white guy to come and escort me to a private room along with the agent who had just frisked my balls.
As we entered the room I asked, “Can I just take off all my clothes to speed up this process.” With a mixture of annoyance and glee, my original frisker said, “No. We have to do it this way.” He stood in the corner of the room and nonchalantly picked through my plastic bag while the older agent frisked me in exactly the same way as I had just been frisked out in the open. So I don’t know why we had to go into a private room. He also jammed my balls into my groin a total of 4 times. The only thing he did differently was make me take my shoes off and rub the bottom of my feet. When he was finished he went and tested his gloves in the bomb residue machine while the younger agent guarded the door.
When the second glove test came back negative the agent at the door said, “Ok. We’re done here,” and sauntered off. None of the agents showed any relief or surprise by the outcome, because they knew from the first second they saw me that I was nothing more than a guy in a T-shirt and jeans carrying a plastic bag full of underwear who was critically late for his flight. Needless to say, I didn’t get an apology for wasting my time and violating my personal space.
So I collected everything I brought with me except for my dignity and ran for my gate just in time to board my plane where I spent the next two and a half hours lamenting how much of my tax dollars are spent dehumanizing the American public under the guise of safety. On my return flight to Colorado a few days later I opted to go through the dignity evaporation machine like the powerless peon I am.
There are some people who would say that everything that happened to me was my fault, and I should have arrived at the airport earlier to schedule time to be humiliated, and I should have just submitted to having my body radiated or microwaved or whatever instead of exercising my barely existent freedom of choice because I should have anticipated the TSA agents would be annoyed by the fact that I want to travel.
Call me crazy, but I feel like this is blaming the victim, and it sets a dystopian precedent. How about instead of making humiliation, bullying and sexual assault a normal part of travel, we just get rid of the TSA since they’re completely ineffective at preventing terrorism anyway.
I arrive at an apple orchard at 6:30am Monday through Saturday. My body hurts even though (or possibly because) I get 10-12 hours of sleep a night. I have to. I can’t stay awake because I’m always so exhausted from work the previous day. I used to start work at 7:00am, but my work crew and I agreed it would be best to get to work thirty minutes earlier so we could work thirty minutes less under the hot sun. So it’s cool and there’s dew on the ground when I get out of the van I pay $5 a week to ride to work in.
I put my backpack full of water bottles and snacks next to a row of apple trees. Then I slather SPF 30 suntan lotion on my face, arms, and legs. I put sports tape around my thumbs and pointer fingers to cover the dirty scars around my cuticles where branches have gouged them. I put on a big, floppy hiking hat, and I start picking excess apples off of my row of trees and throwing them on the ground.
Apple trees are strange trees. Some of the branches hang like octopus arms, and some grow at crooked Tetris angles up, down, left, right. Sometimes when I’m weaving my way through them I pretend like I’m a Shaolin martial arts master, and I make chopping and blocking motions with my arms to move them aside. I don’t get too into it though because I need to conserve my energy. Sometimes I pretend I’m a treasure hunter digging through an impenetrable wall of branches looking for treasure…but I’ve never found any treasure. So far all I’ve found is apples… and pain.
Apples grow on the branches in clusters sort of like grapes. Clusters sizes range from 2 to 20. Each tree has hundreds of clusters. My goal is to pick the apples out of those clusters until each cluster contains one or two apples and those clusters are spaced far enough apart to give the remaining apples room to grow. For reasons nobody has explained to me, different apple trees require different sizes of clusters. Also, the tops of the trees need to be picked thinner than the bottoms of the trees; that’s to prevent the heavy apples from breaking the budding branches.
The whole reason apple trees are thinned is because the remaining apples on the tree will get bigger and juicier. Small apples taste bad, and consumers want big, pretty apples anyway. So the trees have to get thinned, and this job can’t be automated. It has to be done by human hands. Unfortunately for the farmers, nobody wants to do this job, because it’s really quite terrible. This is how terrible it is. Child protective service would take away your children if you made your children do a week’s worth of apple thinning for breaking one of your rules. It’s bad enough to be child abuse, but it’s worse than that because it breaks full-grown men and women.
Apple thinning doesn’t require any heavy lifting (though apple picking does), but neither does cross-country jogging. Apple thinning is a physical, intellectual and emotional endurance contest. Before you even touch an apple tree you have to study it like an artist reassessing a work of art. You identify the flaws in the art, decide on a plan of action and execute your plan. Then you repeat that process all day for nine hours. Playing your favorite video game for nine hours a day every day would be torturous. Picking apples is like playing a boxing game on a Nintendo Wee all day, every day… in the hot sun.
When you walk up to the tree and start snapping off all the excess apples with your thumb and forefinger you have to navigate your way around the branches (like a Shaolin Monk). This requires bending over, reaching overhead and getting on your knees. You always have to carry a big, shiny aluminum (or a cast iron) ladder with you, because after you’ve picked all the apples from one side of the tree that you can reach standing on the ground you climb up the ladder and get the apples on top of the tree. When you’re on top of your ladder you can see out all over the orchard district. It’s surreal up there. All you see are rows of green trees all the way to the horizon. Hobbit hills and windmills are the only other thing between you and the big blue, blazing sky. Each orchard is surrounded by a thick line of coniferous trees cut to look like giant hedges. They keep the wind from blowing through the orchard and making the apples smack together and bruise. So there’s never more than a light breeze on the ground, but sometimes you’ll find a cool breeze when you climb to the top of your ladder. Feeling that breeze and looking out over a sea of parallel green waves you feel like you’re outside of the world. It’s a unique experience that I’m glad I’ve had.
But the serenity is spoiled by the fact that you have to thin a straight row of 200 trees in 9 hours in the hot sun while your body is undernourished because you’re barely paid more than minimum wage and can only afford to buy processed food. Even with a healthy diet, repeating the same yoga stretches for 9 hours per day every day will overstrain and hurt your muscles. You certainly wouldn’t want to do 9 hours of ladder yoga in the blazing hot sun. If you attempted that iron-yoga challenge your body would need more than ten minutes of rest in the morning, a thirty-minute break for lunch and another ten-minute break in the afternoon, but that’s all the breaks apple thinners and pickers get. Most apple thinners even cut that short because they’re so desperate to pick more apples and make even slightly more than minimum wage.
Nobody stands behind you and watches you all day. So you can take as many breaks from your ladder yoga as you want, but you have to weigh the value of listening to your body and taking a break against the fact that you have no money, and you get paid by how many trees you thin. So if you push yourself beyond your breaking point and sustain that level of exertion for three to six weeks then you can make enough money to live off of for two months until apple picking starts. If you can’t maintain that pace you’ll be fired anyway.
You don’t want to get fired because you need to eat, and you don’t want to be homeless. Plus, if you impress your boss then in two months’ time you can come back and do the same job over again, except instead of ripping off tiny apples and tossing them carelessly on the ground you pick the full-grown apples and place them delicately in a huge bucket hanging across your chest. Once your bucket is back-breakingly full you climb down your ladder, walk to a plastic bin somewhere down your row, kneel down and pull two strings on either side of your chest bucket, which opens the bottom of the bucket letting the apples tumble out into the plastic bin (just like cherry picking). Then you stand back up and go fill your bucket again for 9 hours in the hot sun. You can make better money apple picking than you can apple thinning. So you definitely don’t want to miss that.
Apple thinning and apple picking would only be mildly excruciating if it weren’t for the ladder. Modern, aluminum ladders are light (as far as 8-foot tall ladders go), but I shudder at the thought of somebody’s grandparents and great-grandparents doing these jobs with iron and wooden ladders. If you’re having a hard time imagining what that would be like, put an A-frame ladder in your backyard next Saturday, and make a goal out of picking up that ladder 200 times at regular intervals over 9 hours and moving it to another part of your backyard and climbing to the top and doing yoga… in the hot sun. Your back will hate you for it…forever, possibly. If you carry stress balls with you the entire 9 hours and squeeze them constantly then by the end of the day your hands will swell and keep you awake at night throbbing in pain, and you’ll have a good idea of what the people who pick the apples in your kitchen go through to survive.
If you do anything outside all day, inevitably you’ll get sunburned. You could cover up when apple thinning, but the more you cover up the hotter and heavier you’ll be. For men, it’s best to wear light shoes and shorts. I’ve seen female apple thinners wearing nothing but bikinis. One of the perks of the job. Another perk of apple thinning is that you can smoke while you work. That perk is undermined by the fact that, if your orchard has a bathroom at all, it’s too far away to go to. You could lose five or eight dollars worth of working time just by walking all the way to the bathroom and back once. So wash the apples you buy from the store. There’s a good chance they were fondled by calloused, burnt, scratched, suntan lotion-slathered, pee-splattered hands. Most of the apples sold at big grocery stores were also sprayed multiple times with pesticides, insecticides and other chemicals you’ve never heard of through the course of their lives.
When you thin or pick apples the dust from the dried poisons rubs off onto your palms until they’re black. It gets into your scratches, it falls in your eyes. You breathe it in. It rubs off of your fingers onto your sandwich at lunch and onto your hand-rolled cigarettes. The farmer assures you it’s harmless poison, but you know you’re going to die of cancer now someday. So you don’t feel as bad about smoking anymore. One of the perks of the job.
You have to find good things to think of when apple thinning. You have to think of something for 9 hours. Something has to keep your body moving forward repeating an action that every muscle in your body and every ounce of common sense is telling you to stop. Of course, what keeps you moving is that you’ve got no place else to go, and if you can’t endure this Chinese torture method then you die of starvation.
So you pick and pick and pick and pick and pick. You try not to think about how mind-numbingly boring it is to just pick pick pick pick all day long. But it’s hard not to think about it when it’s all you do, and there’s never any change in the routine. Every tree looks more or less the same, and after you’ve done enough trees you’ve seen all the variations of cluster sizes and locations. Eventually, it all blurs into one long, timeless moment. The seconds pass like glaciers. Anytime you look to your left or your right all you see are identical rows of apples. There’s no goal you can work towards. There are no checkpoints you can reach where you get to do something different. There’s just no end in sight. It’s pushing a boulder up a hill all day just to push it back up after you finish. But instead of climbing a hill, you climb a ladder, and instead of a big boulder, it’s little apples. The same little apples everywhere. When you close your eyes you see apples. When you dream, you dream about a wall of apples falling on top of you. Sometimes you want to just run the orchard maniacally shouting, “APPLES!… APPLES! APPLES!” Sometimes you want to ball up into a fetal position against a tree trunk and mumble, “applesapplesapples.”
It helps if you listen to music. I shudder to think of somebody’s grandparents and great-grandparents apple thinning with no music or aluminum ladders. Even if you listen to music you end up listening to the same songs over and over again until you hate them. I’ll never be able to listen to Pink Floyd again. The apple orchard took that from me. Now I find it helps to listen to techno music, because it’s fast, and there aren’t idiotic words pounding in your skull all day. I also like listening to foreign music, because I can’t understand the words, and that helps me zone out. A Slovenian I work with gave me some music, and I’ve been listening to Oda Gudeki by MI2 lately. It makes me smile, and I’m going to be sad when I’ve listened to it so many times I hate it.
Sometimes I sing the chorus of “The Lemon Tree” song except I change the lyrics to “apple trees” instead of “lemon tree.” My taste in music would drive some people insane if they had to listen to it all day, as their’s would me. You have to figure out what works for you and hope you have that kind of music available. One thing is for sure, if you listen to slow, sad music it will slow you down and sap your will to go on.
Sometimes you can’t stand the music anymore and you just have to turn it off and try to enjoy the absolute silence of the apple field. Sometimes your music player breaks or runs out of batteries or doesn’t exist and you have to endure nine hours of almost total silence every day without the benefit of music to help you forget that you exist. Then you’re alone with your thoughts. It’s like being in solitary confinement, except you’re forced to do excruciating yoga outside as you wrestle with your thoughts. It can be quite revelatory, and if you’ve got any fight in you, fighting apple trees will wear it out of you. Apple thinning would be a good way to get the fight out of juvenile delinquents. Well, that or it’ll teach them that hard work only pays barely enough to survive and selling drugs is a lot easier and more lucrative. And if you get caught selling drugs and go to jail, at least you won’t have to work in an apple orchard. So… life could be worse.
It was inevitable that some apple thinner out there has and will use drugs at work to speed them up or help them forget where they are, and inevitably somebody is going to fall off their ladder, especially when it’s cold, windy and/or rainy. Of course, the farmer who owns the orchards will do as little as possible to attend to their workers’ medical needs. After all, if farmers cared about their workers’ health then they wouldn’t work them past the limits of human endurance to begin with.
Even if you have a strong mind and good music, everybody breaks a little eventually. You can’t keep up 9 hours of constant mind-numbing yoga torture forever. Every once a while you have to just sit down (even if it’s not break time yet) and curse your life, the apples, the farmer, God and yourself for getting you into this fuck-awful situation.
Sometimes you work for an ignorant country farmer who has been doing backbreaking work all his life and owns a giant country home surrounded by orchards full of disposable slaves making him richer. The only thing standing between the farmer and more money is the physical and mental limitations and pay expectations of his workers. So some farmers pay their workers less money per tree than is fair. Some farmers degrade and harass underperforming workers, then fire them after they’re burnt out so he can bring in a fresh crop of (hopefully more desperate) workers who are willing to put up with lower pay and worse treatment. Sometimes you end up working for farmers who smile to your face and bring you water and even buy you a little beer and thank you for sacrificing your body, mind, and the irreplaceable moments of your life to make him richer while you’re spending the prime of your life in a death race scraping by with one foot in the gutter. Sometimes you get lucky like that.
A wiser man than myself once said, “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” Another man once said, “Life doesn’t suck because you’re unlucky. Life sucks because you’re a dumbass.” (paraphrased) There’s a lot of truth to both of those statements. I work with an ex-con who can’t get a “real” job because of his criminal record. Some people would say he’s sleeping in the bed he made. I can recognize without being told that I, myself, am working in an apple field because I screwed up. I took some joy in the first two weeks of pain by telling myself I deserved to be there, that I was paying penance for screwing up. So don’t feel any sympathy for me or my ex-con friend. But feel sympathy for the billions of other people in the world who’s are spending their lives in orchards, fields, kitchens, warehouses, factories, and offices even though they never screwed up. They’ve been doing what they were supposed to: working. Working at degrading, inhumane jobs and doing a great job of it. They just don’t get to keep enough of the profits from their work to achieve stability in their lives because their bosses (the job creators) wants a bigger house and longer vacations.
More than sympathy for the oppressed, we should all feel ashamed every time we walk into the fruits and vegetable section of our local grocery stores, because everything you see there has blood on it, literally and figuratively. Apparently, that’s not important enough to motivate us to demand better pay, shorter work hours and more profit-sharing for workers. It should also motivate us to reassess our standard business practices to identify and rectify the flaws that cause all business owners to feel pressured to pay their workers as little as possible to make ends meet. The call to action isn’t to throw rotten apples at orchard owners. The call to action is to replace our economy with a more sustainable, more humane model.
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