A lot of different stuff has happened, and I’ve failed to blog about it. The main reason for this is that I got a job. It’s a temporary job, but a job nonetheless, and it has made me money, as jobs do. Well, let’s talk about that. The job is at the USPS’s Cincinnati Network Distribution Center, formerly known as the Bulk Mail Center. There are I think sixteen of these things around the country: big warehouses where very large numbers of packages and letters get sorted and sent to the right place most of the time. There are others in Des Moines, Pittsburgh, and Seattle: kind of random locations, only important for being in the right place, not for being crucial American cities. I got into it thanks to Grandpa, who mentioned he’d done some work for the post office when he was about my age. I didn’t know if there was a possibility of such an opportunity for me in the here and now, but I had been thinking of taking on a temporary job, and this one sounded not too bad. I didn’t know until I went in for the interview what I’d be doing, and I didn’t really get it until I started working the first day. I’m not delivering letters, as I thought I might be; that goes to people with far more training and career prospects than my lowly self. Instead, I’m hanging out in the warehouse on the night shift, 12:30 to 9:00 (with an unpaid half-hour for lunch, 6:30–7:00), moving around boxes and carts that are full of boxes. There are a few different variations on this. Sometimes I move boxes out of carts into bigger boxes, sorting them by the first three digits of their ZIP code. (The three-digit beginning of each ZIP code corresponds to a regional sorting building, I think, or at least the situation is something like that.) Sometimes I move boxes out of carts onto a conveyor belt, which takes the boxes to a machine that can read barcodes, those square barcode things, printed information, and even (impressively) handwriting, and uses this to sort packages very quickly into very big boxes full of mail all going to the same ZIP code. The boxes that are first to fall into each empty box fall about seven feet into the empty box, and then probably at least a hundred other boxes fall on top of them before the big box gets dispatched. Keep this in mind the next time you’re deciding how thoroughly to package something you’re sending through the mail, or when you pick up a package from your porch and it’s been crushed. Since working for the Post Office, my new guideline for packaging things is, “Pack your box as though it were going to be thrown off a building and then have a dictionary thrown on it from that height.” Sometimes I move carts full of boxes off of trucks, and then stage them in the appropriate area of the loading dock until someone else puts them onto another truck, or sorts them using the conveyor belt. That’s a word I’ve newly learned from this job: “to stage” means to put something in a place for a little while. More vocabulary: apparently “destinate” is the opposite of “originate”. There are two kinds of carts: the little APCs, All-Purpose Containers; and Over-the-Roads, which are about twice as big. That’s a flavor.
The NDC is full of people who look to be at the bottom of their barrel. There are people who’ve been there for forty, fifty years, longer than the building has existed; they used to work downtown. Ted, who’s only been there six years or so, told me there used to be an old-timer who had worked there since the days when they would sort mail into bags and then take it on a train and leave it on hooks by the track in each city. Some people aren’t ruined yet. Ted and Martha have witty repartee and play lots of rummy during the fifteen-minute breaks. Then there are the other seasonal workers like me. Jim used to work for a Ford plant until it closed down; now he’s working here, but he doesn’t mind it too much. Zac is the son of a guy who works there, and is also the lead singer of a Christian deathcore metal band. He has one-inch gauged ear piercings, and seems to have an interesting rest of his life to keep him going. Aletha knows this is a temporary thing, and looks forward to devoting full attention to the numerous other things she’s doing: college night classes; her own barbershop; a vegetable farm; hunting; mothering. I’m wiped out after a day at the NDC, and can’t do much outside of the house, just sleep. But she finds time to go to college, be a mom, and cut hair, and sometimes sleep a little. I don’t know how she does it. She seems to have a superhuman work ethic. She says if she stops working, she’s out cold and doesn’t want to wake up, and that’s why she keeps looking for somthing to do even when there doesn’t seem to be any, like if the conveyor belt stops.
This is where I’ve been spending eight hours a night, or ten or twelve just before Christmas when they had us all do overtime. When I get home, I sleep, then I wake up and maybe do something interesting, or maybe read a book, or maybe just do stuff on the internet. I’ve been too exhausted most days to do the really fun stuff, like building a snow sculpture. Micah and I were going to build a ziggurat in the front yard, but we had to stop when it was just a few big balls of snow. We plan to come back to it and finish it, but for now, it’s just a pile of stuff in the front yard. Three of the balls form a rudimentary, faceless snowman, but it’s still nothing interesting. Since the job started, I’ve gone dumpster-diving with Micah only scarcely. Dumsptering is something Micah really loves. He’s gotten totally into it. Even at an unpromising dumpster, he’ll jump right in and dig around until he finds something—preposterous amounts of candy, or shampoo, or electronics. He’s made is room a storehouse of dumpstered goods. He has half a Ping-Pong table nearly covered with cans of tea and energy drinks, and drawers full of candy. He tells me whenever we go dumpstering that it’s basically the funnest thing he does, and he’s going to keep doing it the rest of his life. But I’ve only gone once or twice since I started working at the NDC, because I have to leave at 12:05, which is too early to do real dumpstering, so I can only do it on my days off, and even those have a tendency to get rescinded. I’m basically selling all of my life-force to the Post Office, and I’ve been unable to have the kind of interesting life I want lately because I just don’t have the time or energy. Work is eating my life and destroying my soul. But I’m getting paid, and you can’t argue with money, right? Can’t you?
If giving away my entire life to the government or a company is what’s entailed in work, I have no interest in it. Of course, there exist much better jobs than the one at the NDC. But if I’m working for a company, chances are I’ll be spending the majority of my time doing something I’d rather not be doing, for decades. Decades! My only reprieves will be weekends and vacations. Those are the times I’ll have for going outside and enjoying the wilderness and foraging and hunting and exploring, and, less selfishly, for spending with my family, raising kids, taking them to do something they’ll have fun doing. I’ll have to try to concentrate the part of my life that matters—the part that I’ll lie on my deathbed wishing I’d done more of—into the evenings, the Saturdays and Sundays, and the two weeks or so afforded me by whatever overlords I choose.
But that’s the way things go. People go to work, because they need money to pay the bills. That’s life. Better accept it and find the job that will make you the least miserable.
People go to work, because they need money to pay the bills. What about the bills? The bills finance the American Dream. A nice car, a big house, a good-looking lawn, a wife to argue with daily like the sitcom characters all do, a big TV to come home to and stare at until you fall asleep so you can avoid thinking about what could be different. I have no interest in the American Dream. I want a house with just enough room to sleep and cook in. “What is a house but a sedes, a seat?” Outside, a garden, and what good a riding lawnmower there? My thoughts about TV aren’t secret, and as for the wife, family should be what makes life great, not something that’s tolerated. “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.” In giving up all the trappings of the storied good life of the American Dream, I’ll have fewer bills to pay. If there were no such thing as ownership of property, my expenses would be limited to seeds and whatever foods my neighbors grew that I didn’t grow. But until industrial civilization finally gasps and collapses, I’ll need to make do with minimalism, craftiness, and caginess. Of course, living below one’s means isn’t a new invention, and I’m not the discoverer. It does seem that when people do it these days, it’s often to atone for a previous life of living recklessly far above their means, but that’s not always true. But what a lot of people don’t consider is that if you live below your means and get really good at it, you don’t, by any means, need to have such high means. A little bit of money that most people would describe as earned “on the side” should be plenty enough for the wise person. Why sell away more of your life than you have to? Life is for the living.
But then that leaves you in a troubling position in our society. Because most people accept nine to five to sixty-five as a foregone conclusion—even though nothing like it had ever been seen on the face of the Earth until the 1900s—anyone who doesn’t submit to this lifestyle is shiftless, a bum, not making an Honest Living. The Protestant Work Ethic assimilates everyone around it, extracting the highest conceivable cost—their lives. Not so long ago, America was full of farmers who spent their days outside, doing hard work, it’s true, but doing it with their families, and having a sheaf of wheat or a bushel of corn to show for it at the end of the season. Longer ago, what we now call America was full of the people we stole it from, and they were all foraging and hunting and yes, even farming—the Mexicans invented corn nine thousand years ago—and they did it with their families and they had plenty of time left over for dances and powwows and storytelling. This continent, before it was platted and sliced into countries, states, and townships, grew its own greenery and provided everything its inhabitants needed. (The same goes for the rest of the continents, but I know more about this one.) And it can still give us what we need; we just don’t look for it anymore, because we decided that it’s a better strategy to take what we need forcibly instead. And anyone who tries it a different way finds a hard road to stay on, and a lonely one. That’s why I still don’t know what relationship I’ll have with work in the future. All I can say for sure right now is that I’m not going to go about it unthinkingly, like a lot of people do, like the wrecked souls in the NDC have been doing for impossible, irreplaceable amounts of their lives.
You may recall that, at last writing, I was planning to ride from Chicago to Georgia with my friend Ethan. Ethan was spearheading that plan, and let me know from the beginning that it hinged on whether he was going to have a job lined up for him after graduation, because he was doing an early graduation, finishing college in the winter. A couple weeks before it was time to go, he called me to let me know he was canceling it. As it happened, it wasn’t so much because of job worries, though those were a contributing factor, as it was because his family was worried about his sanity and safety if he went on a three-week-long bike ride in the grip of winter. He and I were both pretty confident we could conquer all the problems that would crop up, but his family got about as worried as mine did when I was planning to go trainhopping, and he decided not to worry them. It’s understandable, but he knew I’d be disappointed, and I told him I couldn’t pretend I wasn’t. This means that, of my Semester of Adventure, about seven days of a potential 145 were actually spent adventuring. Ten if you count the hunting. All of it due to circumstances I couldn’t control. As we’ve seen, when I finally got the opportunity to adventure, I hit the road pretty hard, and kept going despite the cold and the obstacles thrown at me (broken tire pump, occasionally terrible directions). But then I kept having to do other stuff—usually that damn MAP application, which I’ve finally been able to forget about for a while (but not entirely, because I still have to do a fair amount of work on it before I get back to school so I can hit the ground running and immediately start giving everyone surveys).
Some of the other stuff I did was a little interesting. For example, I made a hat. It’s one of those Russian ones with the ear flaps, an ushanka, because I lost mine somewhere in Grinnell last year (to my eternal shame). I made it out of real animal fur, supplied by Aunt Tami. She got it when she went to Alaska. There was some sort of place that made stuff out of furs, and she persuaded them to give her their odds and ends, which I had to stitch into big enough pieces to make a hat. I ended up being too liberal with the seams and causing the hat to be enormous, but I’ll fix it soon enough, once I’m done at the NDC and I have a little time on my hands. I could have done some of it today, but I’m sick and I needed the whole day to sleep. Once I’m done with this blog I’ll sleep a lot more. Sleep is great medicine.
But all in all, my wanderlust hasn’t been even close to quenched. Today, while I was lying in bed trying but failing to sleep, I came up with my new big plan. First, I’ll go to Korea, presuming still that it’s not at war and not looking too dangerously like a powderkeg. That’s a year. That year will feature something that looks suspiciously like a job with a forty-hour workweek, but I’ll be teaching English, which is something I’ve always wanted to do, so hopefully it won’t feel like grinding myself into oblivion. I’ve heard that a fair amount of the eight hours per day is spent with nothing in particular to do, so I suspect I’ll get a lot of books read, and if I come up with the right idea, perhaps I’ll even write one. This part of the plan is nothing new. The new part comes afterward.
I’ve known for a while that I want to spend a long time getting much better acquainted with the outdoors. I was born and raised in suburbs, and I’ve spent a little time in the wilderness, but for all my naturalism, the forests and the deserts are still almost a foreign land to me. I only know a few plants, I don’t have a good sense for day-to-day changes, and I’ve never really lived off the land—its water, plants, and game. These are all things that I want to do, and I need to learn them by experience. So I’m going to spend a year or so being nomadic. After I get back from Korea I’ll have about $10,000 saved up, which will go mainly toward defraying college bills that pile up while I’m out. I say a year or so because if I go to Korea right after I graduate, I’ll be back at the beginning of the next summer, and after a year it’ll be the beginning of summer again, and I suspect I’ll find that I don’t want to stop traveling just before summer gets into swing. And I say the money will mainly go to paying for college because this year will be an exercise in low-cost living. I’ll buy food I suppose, when I can’t find any in the dumpsters. And I’ll keep a few bucks on hand to give to people who give me rides. But I won’t pay for places to sleep. To me that’s ridiculous. Paying to sleep? Instead I’ll camp out wherever I am, maybe stay on top of buildings, or make use of Couchsurfing, a network of people who offer their couches to travelers in exchange for chores or good conversation. In the winter I’ll go south, maybe help build houses in Galveston or New Orleans; for that I might even get paid and sheltered for the season. And besides food and shelter, what else do I need? The outdoors, and people, that’s all. I need to get down to the essentials.
I don’t have many specific destinations set up, but they’ll present themselves to me. A lot happens in a year, and I want to see all of it happen. I do know of a few things I want to do. I want to go to the Rainbow Gathering, maybe twice. It’s an annual gathering, always on National Forest Service land from July 1 to 7, where tens of thousands of hippies get together and spend a week hanging out and teaching each other what they know about how to be even better hippies. This has been going on since 1972. I’ve never been to one, but from what I’ve read, it looks like one of the most beautiful things ever. No leadership, no official anything, no money exchanged, just a spontaneous gathering of people who want to love each other and the Earth. Another thing I think I’ll probably do is the house-building thing; I’d like to know how to build a house, and I might as well help out hurricane victims and learn at the same time. I’ll also probably do some in-country WWOOFing, for several weeks I imagine, and maybe at an array of different farms, because I’m lately very interested in gardening and farming. What else? A wild food gathering somewhere in there. Maybe a visit to Grinnell, to see whoever’s still there that I know, including all my GOOP kids. I could go to the Annual Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa, in August. And of course I’ll spend a lot of time on my own, out in the woods, or out in the desert, or wherever, getting to know the land. On my own, or with a friend. I’m sure I’ll meet someone along the line, perhaps at the Rainbow Gathering, perhaps even in Korea—lots of Americans go there, and they all want to speak English to someone, so they get to know each other. So much to do. Trying to satisfy my urge to do it all during a month-long train trip this fall, I now realize, would never have done it; I need the full year, and maybe more. And this time I won’t have a MAP interfering with me. Or anything else, for that matter. This is the year I need.