About me

Castaway 7: Homecoming

If this strange journey has taught me one thing, it’s that time truly is relative. That it’s possible to notice the passing of an individual day more than an entire month. That doing nothing really does expand time; and that this is not always a good thing. That familiarity can make time contract and vast stretches seem to fall into a void, knitting together edges of your life that stood across vast oceans before. That it takes conscious effort not to allow this familiarity to become complacency.

When I saw the Imua pulling up to the same wharf we’d been left at six months prior, I almost could have forgotten the space between the two events. Its image was so familiar that I might have wondered if I’d dreamt the whole thing in a Dramamine-fueled coma. But the overwhelming delight at seeing new, yet familiar, faces was evidence enough of my isolation. Upon stepping off the ship, one of the Fish and Wildlife employees we love the most handed us all a perfectly ripe banana. Never has a piece of fruit brought me so much joy.

The changeover with the new CAST crew was a whirlwind of social activity. My crew and I filled the new crew’s minds with more information than could possibly have been retained, trying to pass on as much of our knowledge of the strange home they were inheriting before our time came to an end. I was surprised by how quickly my awkwardness at seeing new people after six months faded. As a person with a history of social anxiety, I expected to be especially plagued by those feelings when the insecurity of being unpracticed entered the picture. But it actually seemed that my sheer exuberance at the interactions was enough to cloud the doubts I would normally feel. Though I had to retire early after dinner on the first day to decompress a bit, I felt very socially competent most of the week. In the days that followed I believe I’ve even come close to experiencing what it’s like to be extroverted. I have chosen to sit at a bar twice instead of a table to interact with strangers. I have made pleasant comments that could lead to conversations with line companions. I’ve smiled at babies. Who am I?

When the ship finally began to pull away from Johnston, I was somewhat startled by how little I felt. Though it had been a home to me for longer than several other places I’d lived, I was just so ready to move on. Leaving it in the hands of new friends also made the separation feel less final. I did realize with a twinge of sadness that I’d neglected to say goodbye to my garden. But when I shouted across the growing divide to the new crew members “don’t forget to water!”, they responded with “just did this morning!”and I knew it was never my garden and it didn’t need me. It was on to bigger and better things too.

As Johnston boobies flapped alongside the boat and the island grew smaller and smaller, I felt relief more than anything else. Though I experienced true seasickness for the first time during the return trip (not recommended), I found the opportunity for rest it provided a godsend. Upon arriving in Honolulu, there wasn’t much time to revel in the amenities of civilization. Boat disembarking immediately turned to boat unloading, and the work continued in a frenzy until everything was moved back to the bunkhouse we’d stayed at in November. It was surreal to be back in that place. Once again I started to feel suspiciously like I’d never left. But the new faces that greeted us inside begged to differ.

My first foray into city life was sublime. My crew mate and I made a bee-line for our favorite bar. We ordered the beers and pub food we’d dreamed about so many times on-island. We saw rainbows over Diamond Head and listened to the cacophony of urban sounds. We reveled in a hard job well done and the pleasures that awaited us.

My journey finally came to its climatic close at the Detroit airport. Five in the morning on June 22nd, 2019 stands as the only time I have run through an airport without trying to catch a flight. Throwing down my bags to embrace my parents and partner at the baggage claim will forever be one of the greatest moments of my life.

I don’t know that I’ll visit another of the U.S. Minor Outlying Islands. There are several more with similar volunteer programs that I could apply for. A large part of me is fairly sure seven months is just a little too long to be parted from those I love. But there will always be a part of me that wonders what else is out there. At the very least I know that remote life itself remains wide open to me. Even at the end of the six months, I was still happy living in a tent and most of the physical comforts of society could have been forgotten in comparison with the emotional ones.

Until the next bizarre adventure, thanks to whoever took the time to read these posts. If you’d like to know more about Johnston Atoll or are interested in becoming a member of the Crazy Ant Strike Team follow this link. If you’d like to know more about the other U.S. Minor Outlying Islands follow this link.

Mahalo.

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***This is a personal blog and the opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the US Fish and Wildlife Service***

Categories: About me, Animals, Environment, Lifestyle, Remote Living, Travel | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Castaway 6: Over The Blue Horizon

We are in the last month of our banishment—er, I mean deployment—here
on Johnston. I can feel the desire to be reunited transitioning from a
constant dull ache to actual anticipation. It is finally starting to
feel like it will really happen. Like the end is not some unreachable
horizon but a point on a map we are drawing nearer to, even if the
progress feels slow. In under 30 days, I will see other humans. In
around 40 I will see my humans. I remind myself of all the psychology
that insists the mental pleasures of anticipation outweigh those of
actually getting what you’ve been waiting for. Though I’m inclined to
think it’s a little easier to relish waiting a few hours for a donut
than months for dearly missed loved ones.

Lately I’ve been plagued by strange ominous dreams in which my loved
ones either ignore or scorn me. It’s as if my primate brain is sending
out alarm signals. “You haven’t seen x, y and z in an unacceptable
amount of time! They may not even care for you any more!” I know these
dreams are fictitious and I pay them no heed. But they are interesting
in that they remind me of the dreams that used to haunt my sister and
I as children, in which our parents would abandon us or do cruel
things like destroy our favorite stuffed toys. The irony (and often
hilarity) of these dreams was that they bore no resemblance to
reality. We had some of the most loving and attentive parents children
could ask for. I’ve since found that others experienced these paranoid
dreams as kids. I view it as a marker of an immature, and thus
insecure psyche. These dreams were just another form of nightmare in
which the monster, though just as unreal, was a bit closer to home.
Though I’ve maintained communication with my friends and family
through messages, I don’t believe this contact fully “registers” in
the brain. Logically, I know everyone will be waiting for me with open
arms, but my subconscious roils with insecurity and paranoia for not
having actually seen or heard the voices of every primate’s most
important security blanket: their group.

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I now see the ocean surrounding us as less a beautiful landscape and
more an impenetrable wall. Homebody though I may be, the fact that I
physically can’t leave is starting to get to me. I feel caged. We may
seem to have the run of the island—deciding which invertebrates live
or die and abducting tropicbirds for our nefarious scientific
purposes—but nothing is more humbling than watching the birds fly out
past the horizon each day and remembering that, unlike their kind, we
are stuck on this chunk of rubble with the geckos and mice, for better
or worse. Snorkeling still offers some reprieve, as the majority of
the world comes to meet you at the sea wall. Fish, rays, and sharks
are a wonderful reminder that, though it may seem like it, the blue
mass around us is far from a barren desert. Johnston Atoll belongs to
the ocean and it’s here that it really comes alive. Though
unequivocally important to the seabirds we study, the land and trees
themselves are more of an afterthought.

Tensions have grown between some of the members of the group, an
unavoidable consequence of seeing no-one but each other for months on
end. I find myself clinging to my friends some days, and wanting
nothing more than to be utterly alone others. During the all-island
tropicbird MIC, the largest survey conducted every year on Johnston,
exhaustion and frustration often got the best of us. It can be
difficult to remain cordial when you can feel your back savagely
burning under the relentless sun. Or when you’re tripping through
broken concrete and rebar on top of a hazardous waste landfill. Or
flushing your eye out after the fourth stream of guano to hit you that
morning got you right in the face. Called both lovingly and grudgingly
Trash Paradise by several previous volunteers, there are days when
Johnston earns that name very well.

As the changeover between our crew and the next CAST approaches in
June, we’ve started organizing, inventorying, and generally spiffing
camp for its new inhabitants. This process is therapeutic as it’s a
final push to get rid of the extraneous clutter that’s been hanging
around and make the space as welcoming as possible. But it’s also
strange to think someone else will be living here soon. Sitting in my
favorite spots, caring for (or say it ain’t so, neglecting) my
kombucha-brewing SCOBYs, rearranging my specific brand of
organization. I also lament the prospect of passing on my precious
garden. Tending to and sitting in it has been one of the most
consistent sources of pride and tranquility here. What if there are no
gardeners on the new crew? What if the tomato worms and mice take
over? What if they don’t like arugula?? The possibilities for
vegetable-related travesty are endless. It’s thoughts like these that
confuse the general homesickness I feel most of the time. Like it or
not, I care about this place. I may be ready to return to the greater
world beyond these endless blue walls, but there’s no denying this
place has become a home to me.

 

***This is a personal blog and the opinions expressed are the author’s
own and do not necessarily represent those of the US Fish and Wildlife
Service***

Categories: About me, Blog Series, Remote Living, Thoughts, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

IN LOVING MEMORY OF LITA 2002-2018

It’s been two months since my world fell apart. Every time I’ve even thought about sitting down to write this my mind, and often even my body, has seized up. I suppose sitting in front of a blank page to write about the most horrible experience of your life is not exactly something most people would look forward to doing. But this was a special kind of despondent procrastination. Mixed in with the anguish was fear, even a terror, that I would somehow fail at this task. Just as the fear of failure stalks me in other aspects of my life, I was petrified by the idea of attempting something that could never be done well enough. In this case the lack of confidence stems not just from doubts about my abilities, but also from the sheer insurmountability of the mission.

To commemorate my beloved daughter is impossible. It is impossible in verbal, written, photographic, or any other form. It is impossible to convey the magic of her presence, the softness of her fur, or the intelligence of her gaze. It is impossible to say a damn thing about her that doesn’t pale in comparison to who she really was. But nevertheless I have to try. I cannot go on silently suffering when I have always turned to these blank pages to really feel. I need catharsis and the world needs a record of this miraculous creature.

I am aware that to a large portion of the human population, non-human deaths will never seem earth shattering. I acknowledge this fact and I do not expect those people to empathize or even sympathize with this outpouring of emotion. But, contrary to popular belief, telling someone their feelings are not valid does not actually invalidate them. My experience of grief has been sincere and excruciating. How I feel does not devalue human death, nor does it elevate every non-human death to tragedy status. Every loss is felt in its own way and with its own particular weight. And this loss has been heavy. So very heavy.

I don’t know that I’ll ever feel a love so pure, comforting, and uncomplicated as the love that emanated from Lita (or “The Floof” as we often called her). The greatest gift my parents ever gave me, the tiny grey cat entered my life just as I was falling off the cusp of childhood into adolescence. We bonded to one another with an intensity that can only come when two beings truly need each other. She was my first soul mate. Over the years Lita and I were nearly inseparable. In her kittenhood she would follow me around the house, meowing desperately should a door be closed between us. I wanted to take her everywhere with me, and brought pictures of her when I had to be away for more than a day or two.

Even in those bizarre and torrid teenage years, when many young people lose interest in their family pets, Lita remained a stable and reassuring force in my life. Her presence was invaluable in reminding me that I was not alone, and that I was needed. I will never forget the first time I began to struggle with depression and looked to her as a reason I had to be here. We were in this together. She would go on to serve as one of those reasons many more times in my life.

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Us, circa 2002 and 2015.

In our adult years we still remained tied to one another. Her absence was felt deeply in college, and I returned her to my life as soon as my post-college housing situation allowed it. One of the most exciting times of my adulthood was moving into my first studio apartment on my own with her in tow. I would come home from work and literally dance around the minute space with her in my arms, ecstatic in our simultaneous independence from outside forces but comfortable codependence on one another.

Even when that dream came crashing down as I discovered the apartment to be hopelessly infested with parasites, her reaction is one of the most memorable aspects. I recall sobbing on the phone with my partner while she walked in circles around me meowing incessantly, clearly disturbed that I was so upset. Later, as I sat feeling defeated in my partner’s condo, I held her close and thanked the cosmos that the little life-ruiners hadn’t gotten to her.

The next several years of my life would be marked by indecision, frustration, change, and more defeat. My partner and I decided to make a cross-country move that didn’t stick, and Lita happily accompanied us on multiple nine-hour car trips there and back without complaint. She supported me through the confusion of feeling utterly directionless in life and isolated in an unfamiliar city. Her soft body curled against me each night continued to remind me that I would be ok.

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Lita waiting for me to come home to our DC apartment.

Lita’s health was also a large factor in our intense bond. Her biological brother died suddenly of kidney failure around the same time I moved her back in with me after college. Though his death was shocking and sad, it allowed me to move quickly to get Lita the treatment she undoubtedly needed ahead of the disease’s progression. The extra care I provided for Lita helped me feel even more needed, and I felt in some unexplainable way she knew I was doing a lot for her. Luckily, Lita’s demure nature made her a perfect candidate for the semi-invasive administration of subcutaneous fluids and oral medication, which kept her kidneys functioning for years. It wasn’t until she also developed symptoms of colon cancer that her health truly started to decline.

It would be disrespectful to her character to imply that Lita’s value and impact on my life was tied solely to her service as a de facto emotional support animal. She was so much more than just a comforting presence. She was a brilliant and unique force of life unlike any I ever expect to see again. She weighed all of nine pounds at her heaviest and yet she commanded the respect of all other animals in a room. Never interested in making quadrupedal friends, she generally preferred to boss other cats and dogs around and stick to charming only the humans in the room. But when it came to charming humans, she was a star. She always greeted guests in a matter of minutes from their arrival. She loved the company of her humans and lamented being alone. Lita’s charm came through both in her behavior and her appearance. “Your cat is a person!” proclaimed one of my animal-inclined friends upon first meeting her and looking down at her contented face as she sat swaddled in her arms. There was just something in her eyes that seemed to say, “I may be a cat, but I understand you.”

Lita’s death has been the most painful and destabilizing experience of my life. I’m aware this communicates an embarrassing level of privilege, but I can only say that I wish more people could assign their greatest woes to the loss of a loved one. I’m lucky not to have experienced trauma or neglect in my life, but that doesn’t mean I am impervious to emotional pain. In fact, it is probably part of the reason I feel this so deeply. Her physical decline and eventual loss pulled an existential rug from my feet; making me question whether anything is worth the pain we endure when we continue to open our eyes each morning.

As I held her lifeless body after her euthanasia and wailed into her fur, I thought things could never get any worse than that moment. But the weeks that followed didn’t offer much reprieve. I’ve struggled with hopelessness, desperation, dissociation, sleeplessness, nightmares, and lethargy in rapid succession. I have collapsed into a chair after work and not moved or done anything for hours at a time. I have googled suicide helplines and then deleted my browser history. I have considered trying to convince myself in the existence of an afterlife in order to cling to some shred of hope I might see her again. I have sobbed so deeply I’ve worried my body might collapse in on itself with one final heave.

I wish there was something else I could say. I wish there was some magic word I could use or perfect poem I could write that would instantly communicate the importance of the relationship I had with Lita. The knowledge that my memories of her will fade over time terrifies me. As I pass her ashes each day, sitting atop an altar among our favorite pictures and her favorite toys, I beg the universe to allow me to always remember her the way I do now, even if it continues to hurt this much.

If you or someone you know has lost someone, please remember that the species of that person does not matter. We are all made of the same complicated, bizarre, goopy stuff and our capacity to build relationships does not recognize the boundaries of phylogenetic trees. Love is love.

I love you so much Lita and I will never stop missing you. Thank you.

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Big City Probs

As my time living in a large US city comes to a close, I’m reflecting on my experiences and general observances of life here. Setting aside the astronomical (and totally not worth it, in my opinion) price tag, I found Washington, DC to be clean, well laid-out, and often charming. So why would I almost never consider living in a big city again? People are dicks. 

Are you surprised? Probably not. Everyone says people in New York can be rude as hell, and DC is just a smaller, lamer New York with politicians. Gross. But I think this rule probably applies to almost every large, ambitious city on the globe.

When we live in big cities, we are surrounded on all sides by people. This is what we would traditionally call a “community.” But if you consider yourself part of a community in a big city, it’s likely your neighborhood or profession, not the greater population. It’s literally impossible to befriend everyone who crosses your path in a day, let alone everyone who lives in your city of choice. You can’t possibly remember the details of 600,000 lives. There’s an important difference between being introverted and just recognizing the futility of your social advances. In big cities, people stop being people and become hordes, numbers, and statistics.

Quite often, I just have no interest in talking to other human beings and would rather focus inward. But on rare occasions (typically when I’ve had a good amount of sunshine and food), I could fathom the idea of striking up on conversation with a stranger. Yet I still almost never do. The times I do, it’s with an individual I’m highly likely to see again. The concierge of a building I work at frequently, a person who lives in my apartment complex, you get the idea. The reason behind this is obvious: building relationships with people helps us to not only enjoy our interactions with them more, but to win their favor in the hopes it might benefit us someday.

This is what being a social animal is all about. But what happens when you force human beings together repeatedly, but remove the reward of these relationships? Rudeness. That guy on the subway who takes up two seats for no reason, the person who collides with you on the sidewalk while looking at their phone without so much of an “excuse me.” Anyone who’s lived in a city will probably complain that the people they cross paths with every day just don’t seem to give a fuck.

But why should they? For the vast majority of human history, we lived in small, nomadic hunter-gatherer bands or agricultural communities. Each individual’s survival and wellbeing relied heavily on his or her relationships with others. Be a dick to one of your neighbors, and it would almost certainly come back to bite you in the ass. Be a dick to everyone, and risk ostracization—a prescription for a swift and definitely not painless death. Much like small living spaces force people to pick up after themselves, small communities literally force people to value positive interactions with their fellow humans. Don’t shit where you eat. Once a society or gathering becomes large enough, individuals stop caring as much about how they treat one another. The likelihood that you will have to deal with someone you’ve been unpleasant to shrinks dramatically.

Still, some people in cities seam to be interested in friendship and communication, while others are walking nightmares for everyone around them. It’s not uncommon for city-dwellers to point out that upper-class folks tend to be more dickish. This goes to show that the old rules of human social structures may still apply, but only for those below a certain economic threshold. As a pleb, be a dick to your roommates, boss, or a police officer, and you’ll find yourself in a world of pain and financial trouble. But for many (a shrinking number, I’ll point out), a steady supply of magical green paper ensures beyond any doubt their needs will be met regardless of whom they piss off.

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The recipe for a community of dicks goes like this: Take a bunch of people from all over the world and put them very close together. Add in the privacy obsession of sex-negative and body-shaming cultures for some reclusiveness and paranoia, if desired. Stir in a heavy dose of the individualistic ideals touted by capitalist economics. Simmer for at least a half-century.

Cash flow has replaced social support as a means of overcoming challenges, thus success and independence have eclipsed social interaction as the prime directive. Even lower class individuals will often turn to crime rather than ask family or friends for help. In capitalist society, pride is not a deadly sin but a central aspect of a person’s self worth. People respect “the hustle” more than vulnerability, honesty, and friendship. With no dollar sign on politeness and little opportunity to build lasting relationships, where does the incentive even lie for the average person to be kind? The poisonous result of this cocktail of individualism and population density does not just cause the wealthy to condescend and the impoverished to resort to crime however. It entices absolutely everyone to only look out for number one.

I’m sure many will throw up their hands in frustration and proclaim that I’m ignoring the silent kindness that goes on every day. The people who, to no apparent benefit of their own, are continually kind to every stranger they meet. These people are emblems of altruism, and the true representation of human nature. The others are just assholes. This leads me to two unsavory logical conclusions: 1) the majority, if not vast majority, of humans beings are assholes and 2) kindness is some sort of mental disease suffered by a small, but noticeable, portion of the population. However, these individuals are to be held up as “correct” human beings.

Like many bad logical pathways, this one’s error lies in an assumption early on in the reasoning: the assumption that kind people are selfless. The truth is that kind people have simply decoded the truth about the world: that independence does not make you happy,  relationships do. Many people misunderstand this to mean happiness lies in a perfect romantic partner, family, or the right number of friends. They focus on having “their people” and often end up saying “fuck you” to the rest of the world. They still fell under the spell of self-reliance and isolation that tells us there is no inherent value in non-repeatable positive interactions. And they have been severely misled.

The truth is that positive interactions, be they with strangers or long time friends, have both immediate and lasting effects on happiness. I know this because science. But I also know this because of my own day-to-day struggles. As a severely introverted and under-confident person, I typically avoid social interaction as much as possible. Conversations with people, especially strangers or casual acquaintances, are so stressful and taxing, that I feel I need an hour of solitude to recover from every one I have. However when I’m forced to let this wall down, either by work or an activity I’ve chosen to take part in, every positive experience I have improves my day.

Using cognitive behavioral therapy tactics often referred to as “taking in the good,” I dwell on these positive interactions and they create lasting impacts on my brain, helping to battle the depression and hopelessness I struggle with each day. My motivation for being kind to people could not be any more selfish. I am literally doing it to improve my own mood temporarily and my life as a whole. As far as I know, the person I have been kind to has received nothing tangible from our interaction (except for maybe some awesome customer service at the place I’m working). Yet, when I’m kind to people, they are (almost) always kind in return. My guess, which isn’t really a guess, is that they are receiving a boost from this interaction too, whether they know it or not.

Many people may never realize the degree to which they have isolated themselves. They may have a family, a good job, and friends so society tells them they’ve done everything right. But they continually search for a nonexistent community. Many find supplemental happiness in the tribal institutions of sports teams, churches, or political parties. It definitely doesn’t hurt to have a group to associate with. I know I find serious healing power in the community environment of small music festivals and artistic gatherings. In today’s world, a common interest is often the only tool we have to sift through the masses of people who exist around us, and help us decide who is worth investing our social energy in.

But what these groups really do is take the community process and turn it on its head. They allow us to decide we like people’s hobbies or opinions before we decide if we like them as people. Meanwhile these “friends” probably don’t live near you, and they probably value you more for your utility as someone to spend time with than as a trustworthy and caring member of their extended family.

Perhaps this is part of the reason so many people in the United States struggle to make friends in adulthood. While their school years gave them plenty of time to sort through the people they interacted with, deciding if they were a good fit for them or not, their work life or social group friends are just kind of, well, there. I wouldn’t exactly tell someone to drop everything in their life to pursue their old high school or college mates, but I think everyone could stand to be a little more invested in the community they build around themselves.

And hey, if you do live in a big city. Stop being such a dick. It can’t possible be worth shoving an old lady down the escalator to make your metro car. The place where you’re standing is VERY CLEARLY a thoroughfare and you’re impeding dozens of people a second with your idle chitchat about the weather. It’s rude to stare. Give a homeless person a fucking dollar while you’re standing in line to get into a overpriced club and buy drinks for people you hate. Give someone a hug. A real one. With both arms.

Categories: About me, Culture, Humanity, Lifestyle, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Insufferable Practice of Gifting

Common adages of gift-giving tend to center around the idea that nothing should be expected in return. True gifts are given to elevate the happiness of both the gifter and the giftee, not to further personal agendas. But the Darwinian concept of altruism leads me to believe this is, to put it bluntly, a lot of horseshit. Most who have taken any kind of animal behavior or evolution class may recall that instances of “altruism” in the animal world aren’t so warm and fuzzy. Most “selfless” acts of animals are indeed selfish on the genetic level, as Richard Dawkins has so thoroughly pointed out. Altruistic deeds such as sharing food or grooming a friend have been linked mostly to one of two explanations: kin selection or expectation of return on investment, so to speak.

Adult male birds of some species may forgo having their own “family” in favor of helping mom raise the next generation of chicks. This occurs because the male somehow recognizes better odds in passing on his genes by aiding the survival of his (likely half) brothers and sisters than by trolling for bitches (passing along his genes directly). Why does this happen? Maybe that bird is fugly. Maybe he’s really directionally challenged. Or maybe he’s just more of a grey-ace. Whatever the reason, his nanny-like role in this weird Brady bunch bird family is for his genes’ gain, not charity. This is referred to as kin selection.

In a different example, unrelated primates who live together in troops often groom one another or share food. Now, sometimes the primate in question happens to be one of those adventurous foodie types that like to eat bugs. In this case his grooming is of a bit more symbiotic nature, not altruistic. But in many other cases, the debris removed from the back hair of a comrade are not valued, and the job is being done as a sort of friendly service. How altruistic! Except no…well, sort of. Most biologists and behaviorists would probably agree that primates engage in these activities to strengthen social bonds and up the chance that a friend will come to their aid in the future. In short, they expect a return on their friendly investment someday. Primate friends that are always on the receiving end of these good deeds are more likely to be ignored by their so-called friends, and eventually even expelled from the group.

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“If you find anything good in there Steven, let me know. I don’t know what to get Clarice for Christmas, she has everything.”

If anywhere near thousands of people read my blog (hahaha), hundreds of those people would now be clamoring to say “well yeah, animals are selfish because they aren’t evolved like us, and don’t understand love in the dimension we humans do.” And I would say, that’s a fine argument and a notable possibility. But it’s just a possibility. I’d argue a small one at that. Let’s not pretend to be ignorant to the role so-called “gifts” play in human social record keeping. Folks in business and politics exchange money, goods, and services every day in the hopes of getting closer to a desired outcome, loosely camouflaging their contributions as “gifts.” Most people seem to accept this fact yet refuse to entertain the idea that almost all gift giving might be tainted with similar intentions of self-service. As above, so below.

To me, the question is simply whether these intentions are conscious or not. You may not think you’re giving someone a gift to strengthen a social bond and increase your chance of receiving something (either tangible or intangible) from that person later one, but it’s still entirely possible this motive is buried in your subconscious. If you’ve read anything in this blog before this post, you’re probably aware I’m not of the opinion that humans are a chosen species existing in a moral and emotional realm head and shoulders above all other life on Earth. I recognize that our cognitive capabilities have developed to a level so as to serve as our primary survival mechanism and have thus surpassed those of other species. But I do not believe we have extracted ourselves entirely from survival-oriented mental processes.

My understanding of the biological function of altruism coupled with what I would characterize as moderate to severe introversion have led me to hate the practice of gift giving. I find myself continually searching for exchange rates. If this person gave me an unexpected gift, what is an appropriate gesture to exchange for this at some point down the road? Regardless of whether or not that person “thinks” they want something in return, the imbalance of social cues that has been created in my brain becomes at best an irritant, at worst a source of stress and shame. Sure this can occur in other ways besides gift-giving. Maybe a friend has helped you through an emotional crisis, or helped you out financially and you haven’t had an opportunity to return the favor. This creates and imbalance of social exchange as well. However, nothing seems so direct and superfluous as gift-giving. The imbalance is created for silly, arbitrary reasons and the course of action to even the score is not always clear.

Occasions hardly make the situation better. Those who know me well are probably familiar with my distaste for Christmas. They may also know it arises almost entirely from the practice of giving and receiving Christmas gifts. To me, Christmas time is a social minefield of opportunities to be ambushed by surprise gifts. I take almost no joy in receiving gifts unless I have an equivalent one to give. This explanation of why I hate gifts does not even touch on my hatred of “stuff.” That’s a separate rant though. See this post from 2015 if you’d like that angle.

I don’t really have an agenda here. I’m not advocating we abolish all gift giving in the name of science. Nor am I trying to call bullshit on people who insist they just really like giving gifts and never hope to receive anything in return. If you’re one of those people, I appreciate your intentions and commend your kindness. Mostly I just find it interesting to dissect things that most people find normal but I find odd or uncomfortable and look at why this might be. Furthermore I know there are other people who feel this way. The more validity I can add to our viewpoint on the subject, the more likely people are to start listening to us when we say we don’t want gifts. However, if you’d like a concrete take-home message from this rant let it be this: the greatest gift you can give me is not giving me gifts. Happy holidays or something.

Categories: About me, Humanity, Thoughts, Waste | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Residential Unit

There’s a sign in the elevator of my downtown DC apartment complex that unabashedly refers to my 600-square foot dwelling as a “residential unit.” I looked at the sign for much longer than it took to read the simple arrangement of words, trying to decide why it made me feel strange. Perhaps it’s because the phrase “residential unit” bares hardly any resemblance to the word home. “Welcome to my humble residential unit.” “My residential unit is your residential unit.” Nice.

I’m sure there are others who would find discomfort in the utilitarian nature of the phrase. It does conjure some Orwellian images; humans living in simplistic, identical cubicles packed into an aging brick facade. Yet these notions really don’t bother me. Simple, condensed housing is affordable and sustainable and can be made beautiful.

The sign unsettles me ever so slightly because it reminds me that I live in an epicenter. A human hive. My apartment, though I consider it my current “home,” is one unit of hundreds contained within the same monolith structure, neighbored by countless other monolith structures, creating a man-made landscape that blots out the horizon.

It’s not that I necessarily object to this arrangement. If ants and termites didn’t arrange themselves into hills and towers, their presence would likely overwhelm the spaces they inhabit. Living close by one another, where we can easily access the goods and services we need without burning long-dead organic matters and releasing toxic fumes, is the most sustainable, logical way to support our populations at their current numbers.

I don’t mind my residential unit. It’s the perfect size for two human beings and a cat and requires minimal maintenance. Were it to serve as my entire world however, it would be in desperate need of what a zookeeper would refer to as “enrichment.” Sure there are books on the shelves, a TV, and implements for my various hobbies. But living solely within the confines of any space becomes difficult after too long, regardless of the opportunities for amusement.

I suspect that I am overly aware of my captivity in much the same way that some pets are. While I am not explicitly kept in doors and on asphalt against my will, I am a prisoner of my nature. Just as a golden retriever does not want to be abandoned on the side of a dirt road, I don’t long to escape the shackles of civilization for a proud life of shitting in the woods and eating rabbit meat. I like baths, coffee, and live music as much as the next girl. I have been designed, by both nature and nurture, to exist in this framework of human existence and find little romanticism in the idea of wholly “returning to nature.”

Still, I often look over the railing atop my 11-story building and revel at how exceedingly easy it would be to initiate the fall that would crumple my body and end my brief experience with this world. The image is both a nightmare and a fantasy.

Perhaps someday I’ll find the proper balance of “nature” (this word is it’s own conundrum) and practical human existence. Maybe the lingering, sticking sensation of living in a hamster cage would evaporate if I were to achieve my dream existence in an earthship in the woods, or nomadically wandering the continent in a comfortably compact van. But deep in the recesses of my brain I suspect that wouldn’t be the case. You can always make your dog happier, but you can never make it understand what it means to no longer be a wolf.

Categories: About me, Humanity, Lifestyle, Sustainability, Thoughts, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tiny Vampires

Hello my lovely 20-something followers! It’s been a while. But don’t worry; I have a whole new cornucopia of excuses to justify my lack of commitment to my blog. First and foremost, I’ve started actually getting paid to write (not a lot, but enough to motivate me to choose the gig over blogging). Second, I’ve had a whole host of life changes recently that kind of threw my routine (if I ever had one) out the window.

The most interesting of those is the subject of this post. After quite some time deliberating on the subject—and getting over some embarrassment and mild PTSD—I decided I am comfortable enough to share my experience. Don’t you feel lucky?

So here it goes.

Over the summer, my life was almost destroyed by a creature the size of a flax seed.

Those who’ve been victimized by this agent of Satan probably already know what I’m referring to. For the rest of you lucky, bright-eyed, blissfully ignorant bastards, I’ll elaborate (and ruin your night’s sleep): I’m talking about bed bugs. Sounds creepy right?

Well…

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When I first heard of bed bugs it was probably whilst combing travel websites. Bed bugs are often mentioned in the realm of hostels, dorms, and cheap motels, especially those abroad. I believe I checked for them half-heartedly a few times while staying in hostels in Costa Rica, not really even knowing what I was looking for.

However, everyone seems to forget to mention some very important information about bed bugs, predominantly that they are FUCKING EVERYWHERE. That’s right kiddos, nowhere is safe. Since the 80s, bed bug infestations have exploded in developed nations. Bed bugs aren’t just in hostels or motels, but in high-end apartments, restaurants, laundromats, and even libraries—yes they hide in books, and yes you can get them from these books. Commence psychotic breakdown.

Most attribute this rise to an increase in travel and pesticide resistance as well as a lack of education and the stigma surrounding infestations. Well, I’m going to do my share to tackle the last part of that sentence and school anyone reading this about these little vampires:

 

Bed bugs don’t give a shit if you’re dirty or clean, poor or rich.

Anyone and any place can be infested by bed bugs. My apartment definitely wasn’t what I would consider “high-end” but it also wasn’t a slum. Bed bugs may seem to plague poor areas more than affluent ones due to larger amounts of clutter, less responsive pest management practices, and the circulation of second-hand furniture. This doesn’t change the fact that the evil little shits will live anywhere, hitchhike on anything, and feed on anyone. Anywhere they can find warm bodies is good place to settle down. Oh, and they can also wait around for months without a meal. Like I said, nowhere is safe.

 

Bed bugs aren’t just annoying.

Some sources refer to bed bugs as an “annoying pest.” People who write things like this should try waking up to the feeling of something snacking on you, and then dealing with the knowledge that said something has actually been living in your bed frame for weeks, living off your precious life energy and shitting in your bed the whole time. Then they can tell me just how “annoying” that is. It’s not annoying, it’s fucking horrifying. This is the stuff of nightmares. Though they don’t spread disease, bed bugs can turn normal human beings into paranoid, anxiety-ridden insomniacs. So not exactly a great experience for someone who already suffers from Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Now I have the added delight of experiencing a mini heart attack any time I see something vaguely reminiscent in shape or size of a bed bug or feel an itch while in bed. For more on “Bed Bug Madness”, check out this article.

 

There is hope. Kind of.

The internet and brazen honesty are our friends in the fight against bed bugs. Through my research I found that in addition to professional extermination services, the most valuable weapon against bed bugs is plain old heat. You can purchase a product called the “Bug Zapper.” It’s basically just a portable oven that will heat your possessions (in a much safer and more effective manner than a conventional oven) to a point that cooks the tiny vampires alive. You can also freeze possessions to kill bed bugs, but this takes a lot longer and is less reliable. Most importantly people need to stop acting like this is something that only happens in the third world. All apartment complexes should warn tenants about bed bugs. Parents should teach their kids about bed bugs. President Obama should deliver an address and turn national attention and full military power towards bed bugs. Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Oprah should be solving the bed bug crisis.

 

So maybe I’m just a little bent out of shape about this. But the reality is not that bed bugs ruined my life but that they took something sacred away from it. The second most devastating loss of my bed bug infestation (the first being my sanity, naturally) was my love for second-hand items. I hate buying new things in a world full of unwanted stuff and I love the character of used books, furniture, and clothing. But now that I’ve peered into the rabbit hole of lunacy, desperation and paranoia that is life with bed bugs, my zeal has been replaced with fear. I still buy used clothes, but I throw them immediately into the wash on hot and dry them for 60 minutes to set my mind at ease. I’ve also bought a few used books after flipping neurotically through the pages. But my love affair with used furniture has officially ended. I feel as though my innocence has been taken. I find it tragic that I must pass up a perfectly good futon on craigslist, or a unique end table with a turkey on it at the thrift store for fear of another infestation.

I’m not sure what the answer to the bed bug epidemic is, other than spreading the word to avoid curbside castaways and inspect hotel beds. I don’t know if throwing infested furniture in landfills or using new pesticides will do anything but prolong the inevitable: a hostile takeover of human society by nefarious bed bug overlords.

Ok obviously I’m kidding but it’s still pretty frightening, don’t you think?

 

So for anyone with something important to do today, here’s the ANGTFT (Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That) version of the last six months of my life:

Just when I was starting to really love my new tiny apartment lifestyle, it was unceremoniously demolished by demonic arthropods. My cat and I moved in with my boyfriend, almost infested his place as well, and I salvaged what possessions and sanity I could. Despite all this, we still managed to escape Michigan just before winter truly set in. We now share a small apartment in downtown D.C. where we are hoping to find work before our modest savings run out.

Thanks for reading friends, and may you never wake up in the middle of the night to find a tiny vampire hiding in the pages of your scifi novel.

Cheers.

Categories: About me, Lifestyle, Travel | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Checking in: Six Months of Tiny Living and Carlessness!

So remember that time I said I was going to try to write a little bit each week instead of waiting and then doing a massive thought dump? Well, I did try.

I’m not very good at keeping routines and as much as I liked writing regularly, it didn’t take long for me to become distracted by various other things. You see there are just too many fun activities out there to occupy my time. I have far too many hobbies and not enough (free) hours in the day. So much like meditation, yoga, and waking up early, my newfound habit sort of fell by the wayside. Furthermore since the golden, short time of summer is finally upon us Michiganders, I spend 90% of my day riding my bike, hiking around in woodlots and fields at work, and otherwise recreating outside. Thus, I’m not exactly sitting in front of my computer frequently.

Me, every week.

Me, every week.

Now that I’ve got my excuses out of the way, let’s get to the main purpose of this post. I am officially into month six of my simple living lifestyle design experiment, or whatever the hell you want to call it. It’s not so much an experiment as it is just my life…but since it’s all kind of new to me and more or less uncharted territory as far as my peers go, I’m taking note of the results. I have to say, so far things have gone remarkably well. I’m smitten with my tiny apartment, my job at the university is enjoyable, and the majority of the time I love being car-less. In the interest of organization and keeping up with themes, I’m going to construct this post much the same way I did my pre-move in post. Yup, cliché internet list style. Enjoy.

6 Triumphs and Failures of a Simplified Lifestyle

1. Living a 10-minute bike ride from work is amazing.

If you’re a sane human being you hate commuting to work. Who the hell wants to get early up just to sit in traffic with thousands of other miserable people? Getting to work is basically just like an extra punch in the face on top of the drudgery of the average 8-hour workday. However, biking or busing to work in 10-20 minutes has basically taken all the stress out of this experience. I find that I actually show up to work in a decent mood most days (well, now that it’s above 45 degrees in the morning that is).

2. Living in a small space has helped me prioritize my needs and wants.

When your kitchen is the size of a walk-in closet you really start to learn which cooking implements are really necessary. Spatula? For sure. Strange contraption that peels an orange for you? I’ll pass. I’ve gotten rid of a fair amount of stuff, from video games to clothes to toiletries and it honestly feels fantastic. Not only is a small living space incentive to purge (or not purchase in the first place) unneeded things, it’s a great (and valid) excuse as to why you can’t accept unwanted gifts or giveaways. “Sorry, I literally do not have room in my apartment for the most wasteful coffee maker known to mankind Karen but thanks for the biodegradable K-cups.”

3. Not having a car is surprisingly liberating.

You would think not having a car would be a hindrance, almost impossible depending on where you live. However, due to the fairly reliable bus system in my area, my love of biking and moderate distaste for driving, I’ve found it predominantly enjoyable. Finding parking, paying for parking, rush-hour traffic, wondering if I’d had one too many drinks to get my car home tonight…these are all things I miss worrying about literally 0 percent. My bike is also helping to keep me in great shape, even when I don’t bust my ass at work or take time to exercise. It’s nice not having to think about exercising, instead it’s just part of my existence. If my bike is reading this, I love you!

4. Not having a car is predictably constraining.

For out-of-city needs and adventures however, not having a car is undoubtedly frustrating. Things like the Greyhound, Michigan Flyer (basically a nicer Greyhound), and Zipcar are definitely better than nothing and I’m so glad they exist…but they don’t exactly close the gap. Zipcars get pricey when you need them for more than a few hours, and getting to and from a bus station can be an adventure in and of itself. Thus, I haven’t seen my out of town friends or traveled around Michigan nearly as much as I’d like and I do a lot of mooching off my boyfriend to get to metro Detroit. By far the worst part of this however is getting to medical appointments. My insurance blows and many of the doctors I need or would like to see are 30 minutes or more outside my city. It essentially makes the ordeal of seeing a doctor even more annoying, which I didn’t even know was possible honestly. Still though, I would take these relatively infrequent annoyances over stress and astronomical monthly payments any day.

5. Having more free time is a blast.

Until recently I was only working 32 hours a week. Due to my low rent and lack of car costs, this was more than enough to cover my expenses. However, due to my need to save for my impending move and the increase in workload that comes with field season, I am back up to full time. I was blissfully happy working 32 hours however. That extra day before the weekend hit was just what I needed to do the things I wanted to do, but was always too tired or burnt out to do during a normal 40-hour workweek. I found the extra free time gave me space to be creative, functional, and reflective, as well as relax. Saving money by living simply speaks volumes when it allows you to have this freedom. It’s unfortunate there aren’t more jobs out there that allow 32-hour workweeks.

6. Having less money to spend during it is a drag.

Chances are if you live 10 minutes from where you work and you take the bus everywhere, you live in a city. And chances are if you live in a city, you’re not exactly in range of a lot of free recreation options. Compared to the hiking, swimming, snorkeling, coconut husking free time of Costa Rica jungle living, free activities in the city are a little less enthralling. The ironic thing is that my lifestyle is what allows me to have this free time, yet that same lifestyle limits what I can do with it. Luckily I’ve found a few great low-cost hobbies that I genuinely love, like hula hooping in parks and hanging around campus on nice days. But the glory of sitting on sunny patios, drinking long islands and eating seasoned fries still beckons. Hence why I’ve eaten or drank about a third of the money I was supposed to save this month. Whoops.

So there you have it folks, a quick run through of the pros and cons of my lifestyle. I may also post some pictures of my tiny apartment (if I ever get around to taking them) in a future post, because I think it’s pretty rad. If I had to give the past six months a rating, I would probably say eight out of ten, do recommend. However, I’m still more than ready for a change…and I have a feeling fall is going to sneak up fast. It’s becoming increasingly important for me to save money and focus on how I’m going to get my ass from Michigan to somewhere warm…but that’s for another post. Till next time, Pura Vida!

Categories: About me, Lifestyle | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Four Of The Greatest Things About Pink Mohawks

This past weekend I had the extremely pleasurable and cathartic experience of cutting all my hair off. Although I’ve had very short hair before, last time it was a gradual process from long and curly to medium-length to bob to short. This time, I simply grew it out to my shoulders and then got rid of all of it. Combined with the lifting of seasonal depression that accompanies the transition from winter to spring, I basically felt as if I had been reborn in my sister’s salon chair. I breathed a sigh of relief as she cut the bulk of my mousy brown hair off. I almost graduated to tears of joy as she shaved the sides of my head and I once more noticed the sensation of cool air against the nape of my neck. This may seem like an overly dramatic description of a haircut to some, but for me and a lot of other girls (and guys I’m sure), hair is kind of a big deal. Some of the reasons for which will be touched on below. For me, short hair is a big deal. More specifically short, loud hair. This time I went with a pink mohawk:

"Wild Orchid" to be exact.

“Wild Orchid” to be exact.

Now obviously the pink mohawk isn’t for everyone. It isn’t even really for me in the long run because that color is way too much of a pain in the ass to upkeep. But I do intend to keep the mohawk style in one form or another. My points touch more on the general positive externalities associated with unconventional hairstyle choices. But just for fun, let’s focus specifically on the benefits of the pink mohawk:

1. It’s streamlined. Like a shark fin.

Much like how the cartilaginous dorsal fin of the great white shark cuts through murky waters, pink mohawks allow for ease of movement through daily life. Because you know, fuck hair ties. Like seriously fuck hair ties. And bobby pins. And all those other things that never manage to hold more than like 72% of your hair in place.

2. With a pink mohawk, you’re just an oversized broadsword and small animal companion away from being an anime character.

That’s right, my hairstyle is strange and bright enough that I could almost walk right into an anime convention and someone would start making educated guesses about what series my cosplay was from. Furthermore, going through life with an outrageous hairstyle makes every day feel like the kind of adventure anime-you would have. Like you’re the star of your very own TV show. And hey, no one wants to watch your TV show if you do the same boring things every day, go crazy! If that’s not enough for you, a short hairstyle like a pink mohawk allows easy access to the fun world of wigs (a world which is exponentially more diverse with things like Etsy and Ebay)–you can literally have any hairstyle you want!

3. Confidence, by default.

When you have a hairstyle that more of less blends in, it is possible to do things with minimal confidence or gusto and no one will notice. But when you have a pink mohawk, you have to kind of go big or go home. You have to do things confidently and intentionally. Why might you ask? Well my inquisitive friend, picture someone dancing awkwardly at a club but instead of embracing the awkward and having fun, they shrink themselves down and keep their eyes cast at the floor to avoid drawing attention to themselves. Now picture that person has a pink mohawk. Doesn’t the scene get 100x more awkward and painful to envision? That’s because acting like you don’t want people to look at you while also sporting a pink mohawk is really stupid. So I find that when I do things, regardless of whether I’m doing them correctly or well, when I have a loud hairstyle I do them intentionally and with confidence. Often, just doing something confidently improves the quality of whatever it is you’re doing…or creates a really powerful illusion of quality. And that’s almost the same thing, right?

4. A person with a pink mohawk doesn’t give a shit about being seen as normal.

This is the big one. It’s less of an “I don’t give a fuck about you” (ok Big Sean) thing than it’s a “lets get this out of the way early” sort of thing. I’m not saying I don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks, I clearly do, or else I wouldn’t bother looking a certain way at all. I would probably wear an oversized t-shirt and hippie pants out everyday since that’s the most comfortable ensemble I own; yet I refrain from this tempting possibility. I like to look nice. This is more about me communicating without having to say anything that I’m a little odd. Much like the “Hello, I’m poor” cheat from my previous post, having a pink mohawk skips the several conversations it might take for someone to realize I’m a little “out there” and clues them right in from the start. I like this because I hate smalltalk. I hate the pleasantries involved in trying to appear more or less “normal” to someone you just met. That’s not to say I’m going to launch right into talking about why cats are better than children with someone I just met, it just means that when those things do come up, they can’t really act like I didn’t warn them. I have a fucking pink mohawk after all.

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“Hello, I’m poor.”

The past few weeks I’ve been trying (and succeeding I might add) to sell my old playstation 2 and games since I don’t really play it much anymore and it’s just taking up space at this point. In doing so I’ve had more strangers visit my apartment than I would ever normally expect. It was interesting to observe the reactions of the people when they finally managed to find my teeny tiny remodeled motel of an apartment “complex” and then my teeny tiny apartment all the way in the back. More than one of the strangers said something to the effect of “I didn’t even realize these were apartments” or “I thought this was a motel”, which is totally to be expected, I thought the same thing when I went to visit the place before signing a lease.

I didn’t think anything of it really until today, when the guy who was coming in to buy my controllers had trouble opening the door with my ill-fitted draft protector from amazon wedged awkwardly beneath it. “Sorry” I said, laughing as I fixed the cumbersome thing, “I’m poor and this helps with the electric”. Before he left, he asked why I was selling my playstation. “Well I don’t really use it much anymore and I’m poor, so…” I said, laughing again. He seemed mildly taken aback that I was so fond of referring to myself as “poor” but laughed politely and took his leave.

After the encounter I thought to myself, why am I so quick to say that? By all rational consideration, I am not poor. I work a job that pays well above minimum wage, I live in a safe area of town in an apartment by myself, I’m never hungry, etc. I’m also not ashamed of my lifestyle in any way. I find extravagance to be far more embarrassing and hope that people never assume I’m wealthy or spoiled. I think me countering with “I’m poor” is a sort of shortcut because I don’t want to give the whole answer. I don’t want to explain why I’d rather have a little extra cash than things I don’t really need, or that my apartment looks like a motel because it totally is one and I love the location and size, or why I choose not to work full-time. It’s easier for people to understand my choices if I just communicate in the most clear way that I don’t have a lot of money to throw around.

Being poor in a developing country or in blighted inner-city neighborhoods here in the US can mean spending most of your day worrying about how you’re going to eat or where you’re going to sleep. For that reason, it seems utterly insulting to compare my lifestyle to that of someone who actually struggles with poverty. Yet our culture of consumption is so strong that if a person is not actively consuming as much as they can, people start to question your choices. Amassing things and space you don’t need is a sign of happiness and wealth so by this logic, selling off possessions and taking up as little space as possible must be sign of desperation and poverty.

I wish more people would develop the distaste for extravagance I have and embrace the liberating experience of discovering what you actually need to be happy. Once you start viewing runaway consumption for what it is—an act of violence on the rest of the resource-consuming world for taking up far more than your fair share—it is rather hard to go back to thinking you really need a hummer or three video game consoles. I think the tiny house movement and the “hipster” popularization of thrift shopping, local food, and other money and/or resource-saving escapades are steps in the right direction, but I also think they are often taken for the wrong reasons. Fads can only take a movement so far until they get watered down into completely appearance-based phenomena and suddenly you have people paying two million dollars for designer tiny homes and several hundred for used suits. When this happens, the movement’s credibility is lost entirely and everyone goes back to hating hipsters.

So the question really becomes, how do we make being “poor” acceptable, even cool? By this I of course mean that choosing to work less, spend less, and accumulate less isn’t viewed as being poor or even as being a hipster, but as being sensible and making choices that prioritize quality of life over quantity of stuff.

Categories: About me, Culture, Lifestyle, Money, Thoughts, Waste | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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