Maria Fernanda

This morning I woke to a dream that upon rising I soon forgot. It involved a number of other people but I’m not sure if they were people I met traveling or strangers from Winnipeg. The dream faded as we walked onto the beach in front of the truck and Silvio fought with trying to get the drone working. It required more software, of course, so we drove to Maria Fernanda’s home to hang out with her.

She showed us around the house and told us how her baking business was faring. The heavy unseasonal rain has struck here as well, and she pointed out the leaking roof from the rain coming around the chimney and the sagging ceiling. She indicated the chairs on the porch and then went inside to prepare tea and gave us some more cake as well. We sat and chatted, mostly in Spanish, since she was shy about her English in front of Silvio. Silvio knew that would be the case, so he left us alone, pleading he needed to work on the drone. We talked, still mostly in my terrible Spanish, but it was fun to try. We talked about the vicissitudes of our lives, the choices we have made that have led us to children and the background that we have that makes that choice sensical.

Silvio came back to continue to work on the drone, and Maria Fernanda and I went for a drive to her mother’s place to deliver some tomatoes at the supermarket. We kept going after to the beach where she rents beachfront in order to start a café. She pointed it out and then we came back to Silvio’s drone hovering over the house.  Silvio played with it some more but Maria Fernanda’s work and life was catching up with her. She remembered a cake she had to make, and before long it was time to pick up her daughter.

Silvio mentioned that we could stay in town and meet up with her again, and said he was OK with that, but it was time to go. She is a great woman, but I’m not sure what I have to offer her. Our interests align in a number of ways, but we live worlds apart and do not have that much language in common. A pity though, I would have liked to have had more time with her and met her little girl, but I can’t help but wonder to what purpose. When you meet people on the road it is with the poignant awareness that you will likely never see them again. It is the sad reality of traveling. The meetings are intense but ultimately doomed to sad departures.

We left Maria Fernanda in Caldera, and made our way north, once we fought free of town and we were soon at the strangely curved boulders that make up a roadside national park. We stopped the truck, and while Silvio droned I went into the hills to see the contorted rocks. I took a few photos which may not really capture the place, and then came down to see Silvio’s drone hovering at nearly a kilometre.

I drove when we left, but soon I pulled over to look at the shore. Silvio took a nap and I walked through the rocks along the shore and looked at basura, bones that had washed up, and thick shells from snails. Once I was back to the truck, Silvio was still asleep so I just drove further north. We are now hundreds of kilometres from Caldera, and Silvio is making a salad. I drove most of the way today, and I’m fried. The last thirty or forty kilometres were through construction and even more narrowed roads. Some of the towns we have gone through have been inundated by mudslides, and the road also caught its fair share of the destruction.

We are stopped in Taltal for the night at a gas station and the wind off the mountain slopes is strong and carrying dust. We parked the truck facing downslope so the bunks are more comfortable and then while I wrote on this blog entry Silvio made a salad. Now, after having eaten Maria Fernanda’s amazing cake for dessert, it is time for a shower and to crash. Hopefully we can get to sleep early tonight.

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Lunch with some Chileans

Although we were both tired this morning, we roused ourselves, looking forward to meeting with the Chileans Silvio had befriended from the tourist rest area. We drove north wondering where their town was, and although we were aiming for Caldera, Bahia Inglesa and Lorento, we managed to miss all three. Perhaps we were looking at too many different names.

Finally, once we realized the GPS had shut down, we turned around and drove the sixty kilometres back to where we had ignored the signs. The older couple met us beside a gas plant, and soon were leading us to the market. There the man watched the truck and Silvio, auntie and I strolled the market. Silvio let her identify prices, and he bought vegetables while I watched the crowd. I spent some time trying to identify the metallic origin of hand made tools at one stall, but most of the time I watched people interact and tried to identify thieves. In each culture there are similar identifying features of thieves and some that are different. In this case, I didn’t see anyone who was obviously a thief.

Once we had out food, we went back to their place and auntie made us a big lunchtime meal. I helped her a bit, but mostly we just chatted while she cooked fish for Silvio—after I assured her I didn’t eat meat—and then around the table while we ate. U

Their house sits in a small compound surrounded by a seven or eight foot fence with razor wire on top. They said the place is tranquillo, and seguro, but they also told us about a break-in that was stopped by uncle firing shots at the burglars. The food was great, the decorations of the house interesting—given the black dolls on the chair, the sitting Buddha, catholic decorations, and multiple trinkets including a model ship, and very hospitable people. After lunch we did a tour of the property and the man pointed out where the burglars had entered, and explained where he had shot. He said the word had likely gone out over the neighbourhood and that now the thieves never attempted again. They know he has a gun.

We left their place after many goodbyes and drove back south to Bahia Inglesa, where we are now parked off the main street. We first went to a beach where I walked to the rocks and collected a few shells, and then sat around and chatted while the waves thrashed and the wind blew off the ocean. It is a bit of a drinking beach, so we drove back to the downtown strip to park. There we climbed a rock hill that rears above a beach and took a few photos, and walked part of the beach and the boardwalk. This is definitely a tourist area. There are BMWs parked beside tourist cabanas and happy families on the shore. It is off season however, and the air is a bit chilly, so there are not nearly as many people as there would be in the southern summer.

Silvio ducked out to check the security of the surroundings and came back with a flat cake. He hadn’t paid yet, so he was going back with money, but I had eaten practically all of it by the time he gathered his bag. I asked him for more and he returned with a half cake. It is excellent, some kind of chocolate peanut butter tart.

Once we were settled in to Bahia Inglesa, Silvio went out to get internet and came back with a person, of course. Maria Fernanda is a really interesting single mother of a two-year-old girl. davInterestingly, she wanted a child so she told the father she only wanted the sperm donation and she had the child on her own. She is the cake maker, and before she lived in Mexico where she was a dive instructor. We mostly bonded over my bad Spanish and her worries about her English—which she rarely used—and how we both want children. We talked about adoption in our respective countries as well as about family in general before she left and we slept to the sounds of the crashing waves and the occasional car.

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The Guard Dog

This morning we woke around nine and then had a leisurely breakfast while trucks rolled by and windmills turned lazily in the distance. By the time we were nearly ready to go, Silvio was outside chatting with an older couple traveling with their friend. They chatted about where the ghost towns were and how we could get there, and then exchanged contact information. They are a short distance from home, and up the road for us, so we are going to meet with them this afternoon, apparently. We climbed a long way from where we camped, the road winding up through the hills, and before long Silvio passed the baton for me. The truck is easy to drive, although it is easy to forget that it is a large and heavy machine. The main problem is the tolls. We try to pass as a camionita, or small truck, but occasionally we have to pay the real toll for a dual axle. The difference can be as much as fifteen dollars and sometimes it takes some convincing.

We are at another truck stop now, and just had a huge lunch that Silvio made. He has determined to show me a good time, which is partly about cooking and cleaning up. I am writing this as he cleans up the dishes and prepares the drone that I delivered for him. He wants to configure it today and then try to fly it. Outside the dunes rise in the distance and stray dogs trot back and forth across the parking lot looking for handouts. I gave one a piece of bread but he turned his nose up at it; cuico. Perro de mierda.

Silvio was concentrating on his drone when I went for a walk into the desert. Someone had cut the fence down to two feet from the ground—I wonder what the purpose of the fence would be anyway, given that there are no large animals here—so I was able to cross through easily once I stepped past the half full bottles of amber fluid—you can guess what that might be at a truck stop—and walked onto the shifting sand.

There are few live animals here. First I saw beetles

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shifting sand and walking around, and then something that jumped swiftly out of sight into a burrow when it saw me coming. I went back for my camera, and then went further into the desert, finally walking about two kilometres away from the truck as I traced the lizards that darted into tunnels and birds lighting on rocks. I followed what had been a watercourse, likely only a few days earlier for some of the low ground was still muddy, but there was no more life when I did so. The lizard tunnels are frequent, but few are moving around. Perhaps it is too cold in the desert. There are larger holes as well, but there is nothing stirring around them. As far as animal prints, I only saw some dog tracks, and the stitching that beetles leave on the ground.

I walked back past a large cactus growing on the edge of one of the watercourses and took some pictures of it in the landscape, as well as close-ups of where something had chewed on its bark. By the time I returned to the truck, it was time for us to leave, so Silvio took over the driving and we drove even further north, turning on the highway to see Copiapo, where Silvio has gone into the mall called the Falabella, which for me sounds like Fabella, or slum. He is hoping to get warmer blankets as a backup to the diesel heater, and find internet to download his drone software. I am here guarding the truck, and watching the locals be annoyed that we are taking up four or five valuable parking spots.

Silvio came back a few hours later happy that he`d found two feather comforters and downloaded the software for his drone. I was just walking from a nap so he drove us out of town and before long we were at a copec—gas station chain from here—and he was bringing the manager over to the truck. She was excited to meet the foreigner so I tried not to disappoint. She assured us that the place was secure, and before long we were cooking dinner and readying for the night. I was tired for the nap hadn’t been at all substantial but we still stayed up too late watching The Brand New Testament once Silvio had been unable to get his direct TV antenna working.

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Lunch in La Serena with Argentines

This morning I woke early, and soon Silvio was telling me he was waiting until I was awake. I wanted to put up a blog post so that people would know that I had come back to the land of the wired. Once that task was accomplished with the free wireless from the highway stop, and we’d eaten, we got on the road again, the land gradually drying out, although pools of water lay in the low spots as a testament to an unusually wet fall. In the last number of years the desert had gotten more and more rain, and apparently, according to a guy Silvio talked to at the gas station, the desert is blooming.

We are now in La Serena, and I am in the truck while Silvio is shopping in the grocer. We don’t like to leave the truck alone. I’ve been approached twice but I put them off by speaking English or even worse Spanish than I regularly do.

We filled the two jerry cans that Silvio had bought for the trip, and now that one leaks we need to find another. Right now it is resting against by knee, upside down so the leak is on the top, with a garbage bag over it. Once we fill up on groceries we’ll pick up another jerry can.

While Silvio was shopping I caught up on writing and spoke English for two people who approached. One of them was a guy asking for change in the parking lot, but the other one was a woman in her forties. For both of them, once they heard my English they left immediately. Once Silvio came out pushing a cart, he told me he had spoken to the woman and she’d ignored him until she realized he belonged to the RV where she had engaged with the gringo. Then she was more friendly and before long we were seated at her and her husband’s table while they discussed tattooing, marijuana use, sites we should visit in Chile and why they left Buenos Aires. We were at their place for perhaps an hour or so, filling the water tank for the desert, and enjoying yerba mate.

By the time we left it was later in the afternoon so we picked up a jerry can in a place like a home depot, and left La Serena. By later in the afternoon we were showering in the camper and eating dinner. It was late when we stopped in at a station de servicio. Silvio asked a dad driving his two daughters if the place was safe for the night, then we went to where a cyclist from Germany was stretching beside his bicycle and tent. We drove beside him to ask him if the place was safe but found him as unfriendly as anyone we have met. We established that our language of communication was English, and then discussed his trip. His recalcitrance made him a bit difficult to talk to and when we invited him to share a meal with us he declined. After the friendly Chileans, his lack of socialisation stood out. We left him lying on the rocks in his tent while we enjoyed a hot meal in a heated caravan. As Silvio said, he could have slept inside and hung out and had fun. We would have fed him and taught him how to be a human being, but he was a Bartleby to our invite.

We slept late, for we looked at Silvio’s pictures and were finally asleep by almost two in the morning. Even though we are parked in truck stops, it never feels like we are in a public space, for it is quiet enough inside that we ignore what happens outside except for the sight of the back and sides in the camera’s view.

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Driving North to Socos

I slept like the dead last night, although Silvio shifted around in the night. There was the noise from trucks and the gas station, but after we’d eaten I was so fried that I persevered. This morning we woke late, and had a leisurely breakfast with the treats Silvio had bought in preparation for my arrival. He laid out a meal of bread and dulce de leche and made ginger tea. It was closer to noon than dawn when we hit the road again, and with infrequent stops to pay less than the going rate for the tolls, for the truck’s wheels are hidden by the body so it can pass as a small truck, we wound towards the coast, through the unusually heavy rainfall north. We stopped a few times to eat and hang out, although the best spot was right beside the Pacific, and with the huge waves beating on the rocks, and horses resting on the shore, Silvio discussed our direction with an old working man who bicycled past us.

Silvio survives partly in his traveling by his show of respect for the people he meets. People immediately warm to him, and before long they are telling him what he should stop to see. In this case, the man explained that we should go to see the geyser in Mellos. It is an old volcano which left a lava tube through which the sea surges and sprays salt water into the air. Unfortunately as we went to see it, a rain started, and although we bought some food at a small shop and chatted up the proprietor to see where we might leave the truck, she explained that the weather was bad and getting worse and it would be dark soon, so it might not be worth our while.

We talked to another couple from San Pierdo de Camas who shared information with us about where we should go, and gave us their contact information in case we managed to come their way. They reminded us of the salt mine ghost towns that Felipe had told me about, and we determined that we should go there.

On the way north huge windmills began to dot the hills, as Chile harvests the energy off the winds from the ocean. We took some pictures that do little justice for the vista, for the throbbing of the ocean below, the dry hills around, and the monstrous masts hanging over the landscape made a majestic sight. This is how we could all live, using the wind so freely offered for fuel, and varying the landscape with our accomplishments rather than our trash.

It was dark by the time we approached Socos, and we stopped at a gas station where free bathrooms, trucker 1000 peso showers, and security cameras assured us of a good night’s sleep. True to form, Silvio and I approached a Volkswagen camper van and talked to the driver who proved to be a Brazilian traveling with her girlfriend. They are going to Machu Pichu, and we had a longer chat with them which ended in sharing details and debating traveling together.

They left for La Serena, but we found Socos more than serene enough for us so we settled in for the night.

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The Arrival

The flights felt much longer than they did years ago. I was in the Mexico City airport for seven hours, and I was tired already by that point. I persevered, however, and finally managed, by using each device I brought, to get the internet to work. I updated Silvio on my whereabouts, and choked down the food that the Chilean government doesn’t allow in the country due to a fear of agricultural contamination. Soon I was on the plane sitting beside a Chilean couple and we chatted off and on though the evening until we landed at eight in the evening. It felt much later, however, as though we had flown through the night. The illusion was assisted by the LCD windows which could be darkened by pushing a control.

I was expecting more problems at customs, but the figs I had left, as well as my Chinese ginger candies proved to be no issue for the agricultural customs officer I dealt with, and I was passed through with a wave after they scanned my luggage. I sat on the main floor to message Silvio that I had arrived and received an immediate reply. He told me to go to the second floor and look for his truck—the RV he had built from a Mercedes chassis, and even as I walked through the doors he turned the corner.

In what has to be the easiest arrival ever, I jumped in his truck, we pulled around the corner to set the GPS and soon we were on our way out of Santiago and going north to the coast portion of the Pan-American Highway.

Laughing and talking, we drove out of town, through the smaller towns that had sprung up around Santiago, and were soon in the hinterland. We dropped into a gas station, and Silvio negotiated with an African Columbian who spoke Columbian-accented Spanish and before long we had agreed on a spot to spend my first night in Chile, a gas station parking lot

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tucked out of sight. Silvio’s RV is amazing, I feel like stealing it myself so I can see why he worries about that. He has a cabinet for a bathroom and another for a shower, an oven, kitchen stove, sink, kitchen table, three bunks, cupboards, and tons of storage. A furnace heats the place, solar panels on the roof provide the power.

A video Silvio made of the truck:

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Going to the North with Silvio – Chile

I’ve never been a huge fan of research before traveling. When I first went overseas, to the Cook Islands, the other Canadian volunteer had read what white said about brown until he had some very strange ideas about island culture. He told me I couldn’t wear black, for instance, and even had the temerity to say it in front of some high school students wearing black t-shirts. Some of my friends even, I would call it, over-prepare. My friend went to France on a trip of her own design and every day was packed with activities. The advantage of that was that she saw many things that I’d never even heard of, while when I was in Belgium I stood outside a cathedral pondering whether to pay the entrance fee for a glimpse of Michelangelo’s Mother and Son, only to find out later that if I walked another several steps I could have entered for free.

I’m sure there is a happier medium somewhere between these two extremes. Today I have been wandering around the Mexico City airport on a seven hour layover on my way to Chile. Since I didn’t have internet at home before I left, and I was busy with the house, I didn’t look up Chile, or the airport I’m flying into. Now that I have airport wifi, as well as too much time on my hands, I found that Chile has restrictions on all kinds of food items. Even packaged goods are sometimes taken away and destroyed. Since I knew I was in transit and would likely not have a vegetarian meal, I brought too much fruit. Likely I will have to lose my two packages of figs, and I have already thrown away my peanuts and prunes. The rest of the food I have already eaten, some of it more recently choked down quickly before my flight, but most of the blame for this waste is on my recalcitrance about planning.

In Santiago, I am meeting Silvio, who is also not that great about planning. Only yesterday, when I was in Toronto waiting on the flight to Mexico, did he think to look up where he would be picking me up at the airport. He sent me a photo of an overhang and suggested it was on the second floor. I’m sure we will find each other, and in any event we are much better prepared for our trip, and life itself, than the religious fanatics who just passed me as I was writing this. For them the world is a constant deliberately convoluted mystery wrapped in a thick gutter loaf of ignorance. Everything must seem strange to them. They spent ten minutes discussing their gate. They were in front of the information booth, but perhaps a lifelong habit of putting their trust in the ineffable instead of their fellow humans leads them to striking out alone. They are like the deluded swimmer who eyes the Atlantic crossing with aplomb, only to find themselves choking on salt water ten metres from the shore.

The greatest thing about the Mexican airport is the chairs. They have the usual hostile architecture I have written about before, but in this case they have been modified by weary travelers. The stainless steel arches, used as armrests, have been bent down byhostile seating modifiedl frustrated travelers so they can stretch out on the chairs. Like Thoreau said years ago, the public utility of the seating is being tested by their traveler’s urge to modify.

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Animals in the Cities

Most of our cities, however hostile to animal life, have some hardy species who survive and even thrive amongst us. Perhaps the cockroach, mice and rats come immediately to mind, and then after a moment’s reflection, the raccoon and squirrel, pigeon and seagull. Although we seldom pause in our busy urban lives to reflect on the cultural changes those animals have undergone to live amongst us, we usually notice when the raccoons infest the attic, or a foreign student or tourist takes a photo of an animal we rarely pay attention to. If we ignore them, we think even less about what it means to be a human animal living in our cities. Other than the anthropologist and sociologist, few people consider what cultural shifts we have undergone as a species, or what coping strategies we employ as individuals.

The draw for both human and non-human animal to the urban environment is firstly food. Humans come to the cities around the globe because corporate agriculture has starved them out of agrarian jobs and those animals who can more easily adapt to us have learned to pick through garbage and live in chimneys.

The squirrel has learned that many humans put out food for birds, or—from the squirrel’s point ofkeeping_squirrels_out_of_your_bird_feeder_l4 view—for them, and accordingly reaches into canisters on sticks in backyards all over North America. Likely they accept our irate expostulations as a matter of course, or dinnertime entertainment. The pigeon, which feeds on grains we spill from transport, can also easily leave the granaries and fields near the city for the enticement of old people in the park with bread crumbs and litterers throwing hamburger buns and French fries from windows.

The raccoon 31FFC41A00000578-3482580-image-m-12_1457463100292has learned Houdini like skills when opening trash bins, and employs those in the fall when seeking haven from the winter. Their more traditional homes that are burrows taken over from other animals or the hollow boles of ancient trees, have been destroyed when we clear-cut the forest into concrete and tarmac, but the hardy raccoon is not disconcerted. They merely adapt to what is available. Rats and mice nest in our insulation as though it were produced for the comforting purpose, and typically frequent the too large holes plumbers drill to allow pipes and electrical fittings entrance through the wall.

The human animal is in a similar situation. We were adapted for many different environments around the world, but few of them were urban. We have been agrarian for only ten to twelve thousand years, but most of the preceding hundreds of thousands of years we were hunter gatherers. We learned what was safe to eat, what near poisons we could use as medicine or for recreation, and how to fashion our homes from materials as diverse as dung and mud to wood and stone. Certain of our predilections have emvideo-youtube-V_To4P4hQxcremained stable, however. We spent much of our time eating and socializing, building our own homes and making our own clothing, and learning the whims and habits of less than a hundred people.

Moving to the city has meant that we have had to modify some of those habits, or at least modify our interactions with the city in order to allow behaviours we have followed for centuries and are not yet prepared to replace by television or Facebook. We can no longer build our own homes, and therefore have lost much of the satisfaction that comes from that, and instead we become, as Thoreau claimed over a hundred years ago, “the ninth part of a man.”

We rely on others to build our home, others still to run wiring, plumbers to put in the pipes, and still others to paint. The last strivings of this sort that are left are found in those who wander the aisles of Home Depot and Rona, searching through the raw materials with which to make their mark on prefabricated houses. Because as a society we don’t know our builders well enough to trust them, we have a system in place, city inspectors, who ensure the jobs are done properly. We are so far from being able to build our own house that we don’t even know it is done well when it happens in front of our dumfounded faces. When people find out someone could build, wire and plumb a cabin in the woods on their own, they are shocked, although humanity did that until recently and in many places in the world, are still able to.

Having lost the joy of our craft of hand, we movedbasket_weaver inside to weaving, painting, making music, and sculpting. Those skills as well are increasingly fading, perhaps because we compare ourselves with the many more talented people online and find ourselves wanting. Perhaps also, the urban life demands much of our time, and we spend hours running around the city in order to satisfy some obscure material demand. We have no time or energy, after giving so many hours to the boss, that we can afford some to improve ourselves.

Our food collection skills have also atrophied. Most of us know someone who collects their own wild mushrooms, but at one time that was not something we would have exclaimed explore-004over. Food selection is dependent on trips to massive grocers, who have chosen for their own pecuniary purposes what tomato lasts longest on the shelf, what peppers should come to market, and what foods we will never see or know about. We do not know what is available even in our local environment, but we are so cut off from our ideas about food that many city children do not know the connection between pork and pigs, and beef and cows. Like our atrophied house building skills, we rely on systems we have put in place to protect us from unscrupulous proprietors while at one time we would have known the neighbour well enough to protect ourselves. We scrutinize expiry dates and ingredients lists where once we crept up on unsuspecting hazelnuts hanging from the tree in our yard.

Our ability to make our own clothes has become the ability to shop, where some brag about bargains and others about fashion. I once sat with some friends in Vancouver and chatted while one member of the household fashioned a shirt on a sewing machine. When she held up the finished product and everyone cheered at her accomplishment, I was aghast. She had fashioned what I would be generous to call a pillowcase with holes for arms and a head. The garment—and I use that word as loosely as hers fit—was merely two pieces of cloth sewn together. She made no attempt to accommodate the infuriating curves and bumps of the human form. The applause of her admirers was as dismaying as the result of her labour. The rest of the room also had no idea how to make a shirt, I presumed, and could not even measure her ungainly product against that made by a machine.

Some people are relearning these skills, albeit in the new context. Lars Eighner talked about the skills acquired learning to dumpster dive and some people are eschewing the big box stores and thrifting, or even quilting, knitting, and teasing a shape from fabric and a sewing machine, but whether those people are in the minority it might be too soon to suppose. Dumpstering furniture might be the new version of making it, while shopping in the health food store might replace the bounty of the woods.

Some of those people who are developing survival skills are like the animals that live on the outskirts of human 00homeless-webb-master675habitation. They hunt between the motorways, and gather woodland plants beside the railway lines, dumpster food, and attend talks where free food is to be found. These people—and the largest group would be made up of the very poor—walk through the new environment differently.

In terms of a million years of human habitation, they walk as if they are still in the forest, they watch where they step and walk on the balls of their feet. They make no sound at all, and are dismayed that some are frightened when they suddenly appear behind them. To forestall this, they deliberately shuffle their feet so others won’t be fearful. They pass, barely, as urban dwellers, but when they look in shop windows ahead of them as if they are glancing over their shoulder, listen for the grate of a shoe behind them to detect the size and speed of their follower, and take a deep breath through their nose upon exiting an elevator so they can smell if someone is waiting in the hallway, then they give themselves away.

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I Don’t Need to Change, I Need to Change the World Around Me

Although modern urban societies promote tolerance for the most part, there is a vocal minority who insist that they are entitled to more tolerance than others. Those of us who have read George Orwell’s Animal Farm recognize this logic. We know that it is hard to avoid inflicting our own notions of what is right and wrong on others, but we are also aware there is a danger inherent in the proposition that some equally unsubstantiated ideas are, by their nature, better than others. Unfortunately, those who feel entitled to more tolerance for their foibles or beliefs feel no pressure to prove their ideas are more valuable to society in a measurable way. They are better inherently, so they tell us, because crucially, they hold the beliefs.

The difficulty with this philosophical position—if that description doesn’t overly valorize such an unfounded knee-jerk reaction—is that its implications are very dangerous for both the one holding the belief and those they encounter who may not subscribe to their ideas. The logical result, that their unfounded opinion is inherently more valuable than those held by others, is that all strongly held and unsubstantiated beliefs are now allowed. When the only criterion is the vehemence of the believer, any number of dangerous propositions become viable.

I think this way of perpetuating of our own privilege is deeply flawed. Tolerance is more than the table manners that Thoreau mentioned that kept us from each other’s throats. It is a wide intellectual net which pulls in all points of view for examination on the basis of some evidentiary criteria. It does not mean that anything goes, or that we should respect hatred or nonsense. It means that we are willing to evaluate the new idea the same as we would any other.

To make another comparison, this mentality presumes that one should honour all beliefs that exist without substantiation, but the logical consequence of this is that the KKK gets to decide how we should live. I don’t like their policies and view of the world, so I try to make sure I don’t share their willingness to oppress the views of others. Tolerance is not just an attitude we have toward those we like the views of, we must also, however difficult, extend this franchise to those who hold abhorrent views. Of course, their actions are a different matter.

Most people in the minority understand this. Perhaps because they have little or no power they understand that the entire society around them does not have to conform to their way of thinking. The people in power—and in western society that would be moneyed, white, and corporate—have no such qualms. Why should I make an effort to be tolerant, they unconcernedly ask themselves, when I don’t want to? If the truth be known, they don’t have to. That is one of the privileges of power, that they can deny any rationale that might lead them to understand the point of view of another, or to make a change in their own life. We see this most clearly in the justly famous racism exercises of Jane Elliott. The loudest to declaim and sabotage the exercise are those in power, for they feel unjustly put upon when the oppression they have meted out to others has come home to them.

This type of mentality is particularly fraught when it comes to science and unfounded belief systems. If someone were to declaim a particular piece of scientific discovery, such as the numerical value of Pi, they would find themselves laughed out of the room by the very people who are the strongest proponents of equally mad propositions. Children in most societies are brainwashed from birth to believe one thing and another but our scientific system is a powerful counter to this. We pay at least lip service to the notion that if someone cannot point to evidence to support their claim they don’t get entrance to the science club. The deluded, therefore, must be relegated to the fantasy and wishful thinking group.

Many people who belong to that group find any scientific criticism of their ways of thinking intolerable. Since they belong to dominant culture, they can demand special handling for their fantasies, even while they roundly dismiss the unsupported notions of another. What this means on the ground is that this group feels it can afford to be intolerant of others. Their beliefs take precedence over others, and if they feel put upon, it is the world that must change. Many people online will point out the truism that the reality of the world doesn’t change merely as a result of our beliefs, but for this group, that is not the problem. The problem as they see it is that the society around them refuses to change to accommodate them.

I knew a woman who was studying to be a minister, although few churches allow women to hold that position, and I thought she was extremely disrespectful of the beliefs held by others. She had an inkling that her beliefs were based on what she’d been taught—she didn’t go so far as call it brainwashing—but for the beliefs of others she had only derision. She told me of visiting the Krishas, and finding their holy site ridiculous. She giggled as she told about dolls which one could not turn your back to and therefore you had to exit the room backwards. I am not a great respecter of nonsense, but I believe in the right of people to fill their head as they wish. I found her certainty about her own beliefs, in the context of her utter disregard of the ideas of others, offensive. She seemed unable to see that her religion had its own doll hung on the wall, albeit a much more morbid representation, and they there were certain rules her belief system observed when it came to interacting with the figure of Jesus.

Such people bring their derision to their culture, and want their beliefs held up not to be questioned even while they belittle the beliefs of others. They want prayer in school, regardless of the beliefs or nonbelief of the students, so they try to manipulate the local school boards. They get books banned from school boards which do not deliver the message they want promulgated, and force others into schools which support their erroneous world view. They want the world to shift its thinking to follow their fantasy that dinosaurs and humans coexisted, so they lie about paleontological discoveries, and build monuments to ignorance like the creation museum in the benighted south of the United States.

They want human rights laws overturned for religious reasons, so the society must conform to their way of thinking. Gay people should not be allowed to vote, according to their cherry picked bible, so they try to force legislation that would prevent that. They want a government that governs for them, and promotes their way of thinking, so they see nothing wrong with forcing that upon their fellows.

This is at its root, exposes the failure of democracy. If there is more than merely the rule of the majority, if some other more evidence-based criteria were allowed to enter the public debate, then democracy has a good chance at working. Likewise, it works if the populace is literate and educated to think for themselves. But if their ignorance is combined with the lack of judgement concerning ways of understanding the world, then democracy becomes a large majority stick with which to beat the poor, the disenfranchised, those in minority, those finally who think differently or who disagree.

The problem with this way of thinking is that those engaged in the groupthink don’t actually care what other people want or what other values they have. And, since they aren’t susceptible to logic, or the use of scientific evidence, such arguments have no traction with them. As far as the brainwashing went in their own lives, they have plentiful proof of magic and the fantastic, and they care little that to transform society on that basis they need to conform to an actual rationale.

This is more than a logical error. This is also a danger to society. The online creation of the flying spaghetti monster and the church of scientology are useful examples in this case. If someone can merely create a belief system from whole cloth, in which the paint is so fresh that the plaster shows through, and then force that upon another, then the cracks of the system should be evident. If their rationale makes sense, that you do not require evidence and can though the exercise of power force that upon another, then they truly are slipping down the slope.

At the bottom of the slide lies the Klu Klux Klan and Dianetics, the Nazi purges of the thirties and forties and the denial of climate change. That way lies madness. If evidence is taken out of the equation, then any belief has equal weighting. My belief is old, they cry, but Hinduism is much older and how much weight does that argument hold with them. My belief has millions of adherents, they whine, but since when is the popularity of an ideology how we judge how to run a society. We have done that before, with Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Stalin’s Russia, and Hitler’s Germany. My belief has a book, they claim. Don’t worry, they all do. My belief was what I was taught, they finally admit.

This is the crux of the matter. You have to realize that just because you were indoctrinated doesn’t mean the people who did that to you were correct. You parents also told you about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, and provided you with some of the same proofs. That should suggest that not everything your parents believe, and not everything they have taught you, is true.

With the cultural blindness of privilege, the groupthinkers do not realize that with no evidence for their claim, their beliefs cannot take precedence over that of another, regardless of how much they wish that were the case. That means it behooves them to be tolerant of others. Even if their religion teaches intolerance, they should be careful. For by their own admission, once another ideology has more adherents, a book of its own, and some force in dominant society, someone with different views would be able to force them to conform to a new belief system. If they don’t throw their strength behind the argument that evidence matters, then they are looking straight into a future where another belief system supplants their own. In their mind, they have the truth, but many have thought that before, and many are the adherents to other religions who no longer exist as separate systems of thought.

The way it works intellectually is that they will brook no opposition. Since the existence of a deity of their description is patently true to them, they confound, stone, and otherwise torment all others who dare to use evidence to refute their weak arguments. They think the analogy argument of William Paley’s watch makes sense, and they scarcely dig any deeper than that.

They rejoice when their beliefs seem to be shored up by a scientific argument, but roundly dismiss any argument that does not support them. Intellectually dishonest as a group, their belief systems make them blind, ignorant, intolerant haters of both themselves and others. They cherry pick their bible, the findings of the immensely diverse scientific establishment, until every argument is an argument for their point of view.

Unfortunately, in western society, we are surrounded by this intolerance, and people who believe they have the right to dictate to others. They have the numerical superiority, and in their profound ignorance are not susceptible to logic. In the United States they have begun to hate Muslims, and since they are impenetrable to evidence and merely go with emotionalism and rigid belief systems, they therefore rejoice at the idea of banning them from the country. They relish the thought of thousands of their neighbours forced to leave their own country, or presumably convert, and still others prevented from entering. Because they have the idea that just because they believe something it must be true, they are perfectly willing to engrave their prejudice and ignorance on their fellows. They see nothing wrong in this. Since they are right, it only makes sense that we would listen to them when putting together policy.

It is a slippery slope, and like many slopes, it leads directly to a muddy bottom of deceit, wishful thinking, manipulation, and privilege. Unless we want the KKK to tell us how to live, however, we might want to rein in our more silly fantasies, and concentrate on those explanations of the natural world that when we point to them others can at least see what we are talking about.

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Memory

I’ve been thinking about memory lately for the latest project that I am working on and it occurs to me that memory loss leaves very real and recognizable tracks, although they might not be what we expect. I tried to imagine what it is like to have forgotten a significant life experience and then I pondered the result of that gap, and how the person might think about the loss.

The aching gap that is left after the memory has been lost, or excised, has no precise shape and form, it seems to me. The person may well know they are missing something, but they would not necessarily have any idea what it might be, any more than a puddle knows the shape of the last hole. Likewise, when a memory returns, in that often abrupt and disconcerting way, the person who is suddenly fuller with lost details would not necessary know that the memory wasn’t there before. The new memory is incorporated immediately into felt experience, and the person is none the wiser as to that what they are not experiencing is any different than what they had moments before.

Both memory and its loss leave no tracks. The only way the memory comes to consciousness is the memory that we don’t want found. Then, even if portions of the memory are 2C0B6E3700000578-0-An_eight_year_old_boy_went_magnet_fishing_in_a_canal_and_pulled_-m-90_1441640379372missing, the gap sings to the conscious mind, a constant reminder of what we don’t want to think about. The tracks of memory then, as are what is remembered, not what is lost or was lost. Even if the memory has been deliberately thrown in the canal, even if a weight has been tied to the sack that holds it, memory has a way of resurfacing. The canal might be drained by the local authorities, or a magnet fisher might be prodding where they are not welcome. A child might go swimming ill-advisedly, or drop their toy in and not realize how deep the canal is, or how much debris has already been pitched in that made the bottom slick and treacherous. Canals near the sea are more honest, in a way, for they are flushed of the light material twice a day, leaving on the heaviest lodes for last, the memories that 1412947875700_wps_109_LONDON_ENGLAND_OCTOBER_08root into the mud, the memories that once brought to the surface are but reminders of a bygone era, weapons from a fight long since forgotten, jewellery thrown away once the gift had soured.

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