Monday, October 24, 2011

OWS, the soul, and Melville

This past weekend I finished reading Billy Budd, Sailor and went to hear a speaker in Zuccotti Park. In conjunction, I have the following thoughts:

The speakers, Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, discussed the incompatibility of environmentalism with capitalism. They had a lot of interesting points and, as the framing of the topic suggests, fixated upon politics and economics. I think this mode of thought, that our current economic inequality, or environmental crisis, necessitates a political or economic remedy, is a main-stay of many OWS discussions.

While I agree that certain policy reforms are necessary (inclusion of external costs in accounting, better taxes, etc...), I believe there is a more pressing arena that needs attention. It is not something we can fix by shouting and demanding that our politicians write better laws, but something that requires personal effort and introspection.

When I listen to my inner voice, I often hear it saying, "I want, I want, I want!" What does it want? It wants food and girls and clothes. It wants to be praised. The more things I give to this voice, the more it wants. This is greed, and I think greed is the fundamental problem.

Can you fix greed with better laws? Different economic systems? Does greed disappear under socialism? Under a progressive tax code? These conditions clearly affect the prevalence of greed, but I think they're secondary compared to every individual's personal state.

Check out Melville:

Though the man's even temper and discreet bearing would seem to intimate a mind peculiarly subject to the law of reason, not the less in heart he would seem to riot in complete exemption from that law, having apparently little to do with reason further than to employ it as an ambidexter implement for effecting the irrational. That is to say: Toward the accomplishment of an aim which in wantonness of atrocity would seem to partake of the insane, he will direct a cool judgment sagacious and sound. These men are madmen, and of the most dangerous sort, for their lunacy is not continuous, but occasional, evoked by some special object; 

Melville could easily be describing the behavior of the bankers who initiated the mortgage crisis, the corporations that are responsible for the impending global environmental crisis. Irrational greed doesn't play by the rules of what Melville calls the "law of reason". Why? Because "in heart" they "would seem to riot in complete exemption from that law." The heart is exempt from the rules of law, and the condition of the heart is immune to legislative panaceas.

My point is not that protesters should stop shouting at corrupt politicians and destructive corporations, but that we're fooling ourselves if we think blaming others is the only answer.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Friday, October 14, 2011

Near Minot (Part II)

A tanker truck rumbled by, and a blast of wind punched me in the side. Its red tail-lights slid ahead on the straight-line of highway two, streaking across the flat grass-land.

One should really never ride at night, but the cool, and calm air was too much to resist after a hot and windy day. I slipped my bottle out of its cage and drank down my last few drops of water. I was still riding with zeal at 10 pm on this mid-July night, the stars starting to twinkle on over-head.

Somewhere ahead–it was hard to say how far–an outpost glittered against the black back-drop of North Dakota night. I decided to make those lights, whatever they were, my destination for the night. I hugged the diminishing shoulder, shuddering each time a vehicle raced by. It was impossible to see the occupants, I imagined they were all single drivers, and each vehicle simply became a hurtling mass of metal, projecting a blinding light in its direction of travel.

Perhaps an hour later, I arrived at a gas station. It had closed for the day, and I wondered how I would refill my water bottles. As one always does when he wishes a business were open, I peered inside and read the hours of operation. Neither was of any help.

Rolling around the side of the building, I discovered a parking lot of idling oil tankers, and humming RVs. I was witnessing my first expression of North Dakota's oil boom. The Bakken formation, buried beneath the states of Montana and North Dakota, contains billions of barrels of oil, perhaps hundreds of billions according to some estimates. With recent developments in fracturing technology, and a state-wide tax break for oil drilling, the pace of oil extraction has sky-rocketed in recent years. North Dakota now has 3.2% unemployment, the lowest in the nation. The infrastructure of North dakota is buckling under the stress of job-seeking immigrants, most notably in the housing sector. So people live in hotels, if they can find them, and, more often than not, they simply live in their cars, filling up the parking lots of gas stations and Wal-Marts. Oil rig drivers frequently sleep behind the wheel, at work 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week. Many such workers were dozing in this parking lot.

My housing prospects for the night were equally dismal, and I decided to set up my tent in a field behind the gas station. Before doing so, I found a 24-hour water filling station, contained within a small wooden structure. I thankfully filled up my bottles, and gulped down the water before bedding down.

Sometime during the night I was awoken by the percussive slap of rain-drops against my tarp-tent's rip-stop nylon. I was surprised, given the calm night I had fallen asleep to hours before. Nevertheless, I was still dry and I covered my head in my blanket, waiting for the rain to end.

Then thunder exploded over-head, and a wind began to ripple the side of my tent, blowing its dampening folds into my face. I heard engines in the parking lot rumble to life. The wind became deafeningly loud, and I understood that I was in a bad situation. I felt the rain beginning to blow inside the tent, which was straining to remain rooted in the ground. Then, the strengthening wind began to rip my tent's stakes out of the moist ground. Once the first stake was gone, I was no longer in a tent, but caught up inside a wet ball of nylon.

Amidst this chaos, the scene blazing with flashes of lightning, I quickly rolled up my sleeping bag and emerged, bleary-eyed and confused, into the roar of the storm, horizontal rain stinging my face. An oil-tanker shined its headlights meanly onto the side of the gas station, and then pulled out of the parking lot and onto the freeway. My tent flapped, wild in the wind, with only one stake remaining in the ground. In the next ten seconds, my brain now pumping with adrenaline and fear, I disassembled my defeated shelter. Clutching my sleeping bag and my tent, I sprinted, barefoot, towards the water filling station, swerving across the warm and wet asphalt.

The door was difficult to open, locked into place by the steady and powerful push of rushing air. Straining to pull it open, I struggled into the wooden shelter, now groaning and creaking. Inside, the air was suddenly calm, and I stood, dripping in a flickering, white fluorescent light.

I felt sick with fear and with the surprise of awakening. Looking down, I noticed a red pool around my left foot and the smell of blood filled the room. In the preceding minutes, something had sliced open my heel, and I watched the resulting blood intermingle with the water on the floor. The door rattled back and forth as sheets of water swept over the ground.

I crouched down and held my knees, feeling the intensity of the storm surge against the shaking walls. The water dispenser buzzed and vibrated, a strange and vocal machine.

Feeling wasted from my longest day of cycling yet, and the sudden stress of the storm, I collapsed to the floor. I wrapped my quilt around me, making sure that it didn't come in contact with the water or the blood. Outside the storm raged, and overhead, white light bore down upon me. In spite of it all, I fell asleep for some time.

Then I woke up to find that the weather was calmer. So I went out, and walked over to the field to set my tent up again.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Near Minot (Part 1)

Minot, North Dakota, population 40,000, was the biggest city I would see until Spokane, Washington, still 900 miles away. As such, I decided it was worth it to take a detour into the city center. I veered off of the highway onto "Business 2", a main road that promises to take one through the heart of a city, and then reconnect on the other end with highway 2. 

I knew that Minot had been severely flooded this year, and that the highway around it had only just re-opened, sparing me a lengthy detour. In fact, earlier in the day, I had pedaled through flooded farm-lands, trees and telephone poles poking their heads out of the unwanted water which lapped the side of the cross-country highway. 

As I approached Minot's downtown, something seemed amiss. There were few cars on the road, stores were shuttered, pools of standing water lurking ominously in their parking lots. Finally I reached an army check-point, camouflaged soldiers chain-smoking around humvees which solidly blocked the road. Further along, the road dipped into murky water, disappearing below the flooded river. 

"Is there anywhere to get dinner around here?", I asked a soldier. 
"No, everything is closed," he responded tersely. 
"So, army, wow," I said, "how long have ya'all been here?" 
"Just a few days, we're only now letting residents back into their homes," he said, puffing vigorously on his cigarette. "There's a Wal-mart back on highway 2," he said, implying that the conversation was over. He turned his back and walked away. 

So much for seeing Minot. I turned around, my heart actually soaring with the thought of a Wal-Mart dinner. The night before I'd had stale donuts, coffee, and a micro-waved sandwich from a dusty gas station on the highway. Wal-mart, once known to me as Decimator-of-Local-Business and Dealer-of-Disposable-Plastics, had now provided $1.25 Odwalla smoothies, fresh-baked bread, bike parts, tent-repair materials, and comfortable benches upon which to enjoy these marvelous consumer goods. Unfortunately, as I climbed out of Minot and into the strip-mall plateau above town, legions of big-box stores passed by with no sign of Wal-Mart, and as the last Target-Starbucks-Blockbuster-BestBuy slipped into the distance, I was confronted, yet again, with a gas station dinner at the last commercial outpost before another great stretch of North Dakota emptiness. 

West of Minot, the road meandered through river-hewn hills, turning golden in the day's last light. Yet, it didn't take long for my golden mood to be smothered by the dunk-ga-dunk-ga-dunk of, yet another, flat tire. At a bike shop in Bemidji, Minnesota, a mechanic had fixed my flat tire with such degree of confidence that he offered to pick me up in his car if I should get another one. I had travelled too far for a ride, but I nevertheless left a frustrated message on his cell-phone. Having removed the now-shredded puncture strip which he had installed, I tried to fit the tire back onto the rim of the wheel, but my fingers, exhausted from a week of fixing flats and a day of gripping handle-bars, didn't have the strength to finish the job. 

I sat on the side of the road, sweat pouring off my forehead, but simply couldn't muster the thumb-strength necessary. As desperation was beginning to take hold, a kindred spirit on two-wheels pulled his motorcycle to the side of the road. 

"Need any help?" he asked. 
Understanding my situation, he pulled out a screw-driver, and tried to pry the tire onto the rim. 
"C'mon," I said, "you're just scratching the wheel. Why don't you just help me push?" 
So we both pushed with our thumbs and the tire inched its way onto the wheel. A success. 

Flush with this small victory, and heartened by the kindness of the motorcyclist, I began riding with renewed enthusiasm. Soon it was dusk, scrubland lining the side of the road. As usual, I had no planned stopping point, and simply wanted to go as many miles as possible. 

It soon became apparent that there would be nothing but barren steppe for many miles. The cool night was a sensuous relief from the mind-numbing heat of the day, and there was little wind, riding conditions that I rarely enjoyed. So I kept going as dark fell, and a few lights twinkled on along the horizon, somewhere ahead. I decided to keep pedaling until I reached them. This would later prove to be the right decision, though I had no clue of its importance as night fell over North Dakota...