Tag Archives: travel

An American Expat Visits The Occupy Auckland Protest: Part 2

 

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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Protesting
My Life Stories (in chronological order)

 


An American Expat Visits The Occupy Auckland Protest: Part 1

Photo of protesters sitting on park benches, surrounded by tents and signs at the Occupy Auckland protest

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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Protesting

My Life Stories (in chronological order)


You Can And Should Live Somewhere Awesome

Picture of a garden gnome sitting on a beach looking at the waves with the caption, "Wish you were here"

Life is infinitely valuable yet agonizingly short. Every fleeting second of your life is worth as much as life itself, and you only have once chance to make the most of each moment. Life is never going to be perfect. The universe isn’t going to hand peace and fulfillment to you on a silver platter. It’s up to you to make the changes in your life that will bring you happiness. You’ll never have complete control of your environment. So you’ll never be able to create the perfect life for yourself as you imagine it, and even if you could, it wouldn’t last forever. So being happy depends more on your ability to enjoy life right now, as it is, than your ability to control the world.

Having said that, there are situations where this philosophy doesn’t apply. Being dogmatically optimistic when there are legitimate external problems in your life isn’t a virtue. That’s insanity. You’re not helping yourself by deluding yourself into believing everything is okay when it’s not.

If you live in the ghetto or suburbia, your life isn’t as good as it could be. Ghettos and suburbs are designed so that you’re far away from work, shopping and leisure. You may have a micro park near you, but that’s about it. You’ll be forced to spend time and money driving anywhere, and wherever you go, everything you do will cost as much money as possible. So you’ll likely spend most of your free time at home where your rent, mortgage, utilities, food and home furnishings will be as expensive as possible. This will limit your options and force you to buy low quality goods and services, which will provide you a lackluster quality of life. If you live in a community that has cultural values that you disagree with, you’ll probably enjoy life even less.

If none of that applies to you, then congratulations, you’re the exception. The rest of society lives in a sensory deprivation pressure cooker. If you’re one of the unlucky people who live in a ghetto or suburb, I have good news. You can live somewhere awesome, and if you haven’t proven it already, you will eventually. At some point in your life you’re going to move houses and change jobs. If you can do that in one city, you can do it across cities. Moving to another country isn’t even that complicated. If you’re in good health, have a bachelor’s degree and are under 30 years old, you can emigrate. All you have to do is file some paperwork and then move your body from one place to another. It’s not as easy as baking a cake, but it’s within your capabilities.

The only thing holding you back from living in a beautiful town with lakes, forests, rivers, ocean waters, nice people, clean air, good food, beautiful culture and freedom is your excuses. You can make all the excuses in the world for why you’re stuck in a dead end town working at a dead end job surrounded by dead end people, and your reasons might sound inarguable on paper, but all of those perfect excuses aren’t going to do you any good 30 years from now when all you have to look back on is a lifetime spent waiting for your real life to begin.

Your only shot at life is happening right now. This is the only chance you’re ever going to have to spend today somewhere you love. This is the only chance you’re going to have to build the memories of today that you’re going to carry with you for the rest of your life. There’s nothing more important going on in your life than making the most out of your life. If you can’t afford to move, then you’re doing something wrong, and you need to read “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill. There’s nothing you can’t accomplish if you put your mind to it and never give up. You can and should live somewhere awesome, because the cost/benefit analysis of spending your life in an oppressive, stifling environment just doesn’t add up.

 

Photo of a disgruntled office worker sitting at a computer pretending to hang himself by his telephone cord

 

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Growing up and Becoming You
Happiness and Peace
Self-Esteem
Health
Drugs and Addiction
Achieving a Healthy Work/Life Balance
Leadership and Authority
My Tweets About Self-Help

The Time The TSA Humiliated Me For Fun

"I got to second base with a TSA screener"

 

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.

 

 

Images of a human body taken by a TSA body scanner. The facial features look like a skull, and the genitals are clearly visible

 

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.

 

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My Life Stories (in chronological order)
Police Brutality
America is not the good guy

Tales From My Life: The Time I Worked As An Apple Picker

Picture of me standing in an apple orchard in New Zealand. I'm wearing a floppy hat, dirty T-shirt and jeans. In the distance behind the orchard are rolling hills.

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.

Picture of a man's dirt-covered hand, holding a half-eaten sandwich

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.

Gif of Stewie from the TV series, "The Family Guy," wearing a straitjacket in a padded room. He is shaking and blinking with unfocused eyes

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.

 

If you enjoyed this story, you’ll also like these:

My Life Stories (in chronological order)
The Life of the Poor

My Life Stories: The Time I Got HIV

In 2005 I was a Senior Airman (rank E-4) in the U.S. Air Force. My job title was 3C0X1, aka Communications Computer Systems Operator, aka all-purpose computer nerd. I was stationed at Sembach Air Base, which is located in Southwest Germany, about a twenty minute drive from both Ramstein Air Base and the Army’s Landstuhl Medical Center.

Picture of me wearing a military cold-weather uniform in the snow behind my office in Sembach Germany. In the distance are pine trees and a weather radar

Since Ramstein is the largest Air Force base in Europe, and Landstuhl is the largest military hospital outside the continental United States, this is where the military sends all the wounded soldiers from the Middle East. Several times a year, Sembach would have a blood drive due to the high volume of blood needed for all the incoming wounded soldiers. I love the idea of giving blood, but every time I do, my blood spews out so fast I get light-headed, nauseous and almost pass out. They always have to elevate my head and put a cold pack on my neck, which is pretty embarrassing. However, that first world problem pales in comparison to soldiers needing emergency transfusions. So I did my duty and opened my veins for my brothers and sisters.

Another reason I’m hesitant to give blood is because I had hepatitis when I was four years old. It wasn’t sexually transmitted, and I recovered from it. Multiple blood tests have shown it’s not in my system anymore. I couldn’t have enlisted if it was, but I always worried my blood might be dirty. However, this didn’t stop me from giving blood, because they test every donation for diseases. So if there was anything there, they’d catch it.

Since the military had already tested and inoculated me for everything you can be tested and inoculated for, I didn’t give my blood donation a second thought until a few weeks later when I stopped by the base post office to check my mail on my lunch break. That day I received an official letter from the military, which I had to sign for. This was highly unusual. So my heart rate was a little elevated when I opened the letter. My mind raced, trying to guess what I may have gotten in trouble for.

The news was much worse than I imagined. To my horror, the letter said my recent blood donation had tested positive for HIV, and I needed to contact the medical squadron as soon as possible to have another test done to confirm the results. By the time I finished reading the document, my head was spinning and darkness filled my peripheral vision.

I went back to work and tried to go through the rest of my day acting like nothing was wrong, but my head felt like a black hole, as if everything good had been sucked out of my life, leaving an existential vacuum in its place. Nothing mattered anymore. I was no longer working towards retirement. All of my hopes and dreams were unreachable. There was nothing left for me to do but wait to die… and give the bad news to my family, friends and most recent sexual partners.

Unable to face reality, I let a week pass without contacting the medical squadron. I walked through each day in a daze, watching what happened to me from a thousand miles away. I made a list of my sexual partners, which wasn’t long. I decided who the most likely culprit to give me this horrible disease was, a promiscuous Air Force girl from my previous base. I obsessed over who else I may have accidentally infected by having any kind of physical contact with, which I knew wasn’t possible, but my mind was stuck in panic mode.

I’d already had my last will and testament drawn up by a military lawyer a year earlier. So I didn’t have to worry about that, but I spent dozens of hours plotting my final words and trying to decide what to do with the few years I had left. As I ate tasteless food or carried on pointless small talk with my coworkers, I thought about my regrets and everything I wouldn’t get to do in the future. I didn’t try bargaining with God, because that would have been pointless. I was already a dead man walking. All I could do was make the most of my fleeting time and try to cry as little as possible. Mostly I thought about those poor souls I’d infected and needed to hurry up and pass on the tragic news to.

I didn’t want to tell anyone my secret until I knew for sure I had HIV. Lucky for them, even though I was dragging my feet, the Air Force wasn’t. A female nurse called me at work and asked if I’d received an official letter recently. I said, “Yes.” The nurse asked me what it was about, and I replied I’d rather not say out loud. I knew my boss, whose office sat caddy-corner from my desk, eavesdropped on my conversations. The nurse asked me to say the first letter of the pertinent word, and I said, “H.” After confirming she didn’t need to break the bad news to me herself, she scheduled an appointment at Ramstein a few days later for me to give more blood for further testing.

On the day of the test I told my boss I had to go to Ramstein for a routine medical checkup. Twenty minutes later I sulked into the medical clinic. As a male nurse quietly drew my blood, I asked how accurate the initial test was. He looked me in the eyes and said in a meaningful tone of voice, “Ninety-seven percent.”

I went home that night and got drunk, as I’d done every night for the past week. Even with all the lights in my apartment on, everything looked dark. It was like living in the Twilight Zone, where the rules of the universe were different for me, and not in a good way. The only ray of hope my mind could latch onto was that there had been a mistake, but I couldn’t take a three percent chance of a fluke happening seriously.  I’d have better odds of winning the lottery.

Fast forward several more months of bleakness, despair and blood tests. As fate would have it, I did win the Twilight Zone lottery. A ninety-seven percent accurate HIV test means three percent of the people who take it, win an existential nightmare that ends with them receiving a new lease on life. I’ve had more STD tests since then, and they all confirm I never had HIV. Plus, all of my sexual partners from that time are healthy and alive.

Part of my brain tells me I should be mad at the world for giving me a false death sentence, but in the end, it was a blessing in disguise. I almost feel bad for anyone who hasn’t had to go through that. It’s so easy to take life for granted and let the years slip by without really thinking about what’s important or how you should spend what little time you have on Earth. I basically got my mid-life crisis out of the way at the age of 25.

People told me I was crazy when I immigrated to New Zealand at the age of 29 despite having never visited the country. In my mind, the risk of not experiencing life to its fullest outweighed anything that could possibly go wrong. I only spent three years in New Zealand, and during that time a lot of things did go wrong, but experience has taught me, you’re not having an adventure if everything goes right. And as a wiser man than myself once said, “The summer would not be so sweet, were it not for the winter.” When bad things happen to me, and those two pieces of wisdom don’t put things into perspective, I can always remind myself, at least I don’t have AIDS.

The other thing I took away from this experience is that it’s important to leave something good behind when you inevitably die. I don’t have any money to shower the poor with, but the one thing I do have is wisdom gained through often unpleasant experiences that I don’t want to be in vain. This is a big part of why I’m in such a mad dash to write as much as I can regardless of how little it pays. I hope my blog and books inspire, enlighten and entertain you. That’s all I need to take to my grave.

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll also like these:

My Goals
My Life Stories (in chronological order)
My Art

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