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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.

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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***

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Castaway 5: The Weird and The Wonderful

Johnston Island is a contradiction. Beautiful and hideous. Exasperating and comforting. Plentiful and barren. Its vistas are endearing in an absurd way. Plumeria and hibiscus flowers surround a decaying tennis court. Birds nest in the thousands around a crumbling multistory building. Turtles bask on a beach marred by discarded telephone poles and marine debris. I myself am consumed by a striking contradiction in feeling. I love and hate Johnston. I want my sunrises and lazy afternoons to stretch on, but my weeks and months to contract. Half of me wants to use my time here to the fullest, the other to whittle it as efficiently as possible. It takes near constant presence of mind not to live in the future. Many of our survey tasks are somewhat mindless, like walking between points of a memorized route or scratching at the ground to disturb ants. It’s hard not to drift off in these moments, exploring all the lovely people and things that await me upon return. Audiobooks have been one of the greatest life preservers against this temporal drift. Better I be immersed in a story than in some false projection of possible futures, their promises filling me with vacant desire.

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Luckily not all our work is mindless. As we continue not finding yellow crazy ants and the birds in our reproduction monitoring plots grow, we are able to spend time banding the juveniles before they fledge. Banding a bird means applying a small numbered metal circlet to the birds right leg so that it may be identified in future population studies. Banding these birds is the first real wildlife handling I’ve done since college. Though I hate distressing any creatures, the process is quick and painless. And I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fun. Banding is one of the activities that reminds me why I’m here. And my ability to pick it up relatively fast gives me hope I may not be in the wrong career path after all.

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We’ve also started to notice changes in the wildlife and invertebrate composition here on Johnston. Though I wouldn’t say we experience “Spring” at this latitude, the slightly rising temperatures seem to be coaxing certain species out of wherever they were hiding. In some ways this is wonderful, with the arrival of more white, grey, and sooty terns. Or the sighting of more turtles, eels, and sharks. In other ways it is frustrating and even terrifying, with the heat bringing out garden pests, ants, and—my personal mortal enemy—centipedes. I struggle to put fresh vegetables on the table as it is, having produced only two zucchini, one eggplant, and some herbs and arugula for my crew so far. With the coming months bringing even hotter weather, I’m starting to feel as if I’m fighting a losing battle with Mother Johnston.

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I think most people who live here must experience a similar mixture of extreme feelings. For many, this is the most remote spot they will ever set foot on. The pleasure of having a whole island nearly to oneself is undeniable. To be on Johnston is to live someplace almost wholly taken back by nature. And living in an atoll means being more surrounded by that other world—the marine world—than I ever thought possible. But being here also means you’re at Mother Johnston’s absolute mercy. You must roll with the punches, whether that means a perfect rainstorm right when you need it or a boobie shitting on your head.

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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**

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Castaway Part 4: Halfway Heartbreak

Our crew has finally been blessed with the knowledge of our departure date. The boat to deliver us from Johnston Island will purportedly arrive June eighth. Five days of shattering social contact will then take place between my crew and the new CAST, known affectionately as “the changeover,” in which we will train the newbies on all things Johnston. Then we will leave the poor saps behind and head Honolulu.

This puts us almost exactly half way through our stay here. In many ways this makes it easier to grapple with, seeing as we’ve already survived as many months as we have in front of us. The finish line is finally in view and we can stop making jokes about being abandoned here to eat radioactive coconuts for the rest of our days. But initiating the countdown has also drawn emphasis to the time we have left. Though I still enjoy the Johnston lifestyle, I have finally identified some things I really miss, such as couches that don’t have ants perpetually crawling across them and beds not made of air.

Still, the material desires are completely inconsequential and could even be ignored, if it weren’t for the looming shadow of what I really miss. My people. I am not alone, but I am lonesome. I feel an ache that can’t be placed, a desire to search for and ruminate over some unseen affliction. Originally finding it easy to still my mind in the early weeks, I now struggle to meditate. When left unoccupied, my attention bounces erratically from past to future, picking at emotional scabs and obsessing over possibility. It often seems as much a task to focus on the present as if I were in physical pain. I imagine unlikely hazards befalling my loved ones while I sit on this bizarre, impossibly far away hunk of rubble. I make plans and change them. I play the movie of my reunion with my family, partner, and friends over and over again.

Tranquility still surrounds me. The birds still fly in from the ocean every evening. The Milky Way still stretches above. But sometimes majesty is lost in the absence of love. I want to believe I have the capacity to appreciate beauty regardless of company. That it is inherent in my nature. That all else failing, the intimacy between I and the earth will buoy me when I have no one to turn to. But there is a certain sadness in the moment shared between a single human being and a single shooting star. Between a vast ocean and one heart. Perhaps beauty is not a benevolent gift of the cosmos, but of the complex and conniving machinery of natural selection. Perhaps we only revel so that we may draw another closer in our ecstasy.

Or perhaps I am weak. Needy. Perhaps my inability to focus on the beauty that surrounds me displays codependency. Perhaps the desire for the physical proximity of certain individuals is just another aspect of the hedonic treadmill. To say so would be valid considering the life history of the species I belong to. We need one another to survive but our nature does not exactly program us for tranquility and peace, even when we get the things we most desire. But if attachment to the people in my life makes me just a cog in the machine, then so be it. There is no force in the universe I’d rather be beholden to than the love for my people. If I’m destined to always grasp for something, I’d rather grasp for humans than objects, places, or ambitions.

As I stare down the line at that somehow close, yet somehow so very far away finish line I repeatedly tell myself to savor this time. That I will look back and miss the days spent hiding in the ant cave from the midday heat, baking brownies and watching stupid TV comedies with my island sisters. Or seeing the adorable fluff of a tropicbird chick peak out from under it’s striking parent. Or the vastness of the ocean and the silence of disconnection. Though I may have left a lot behind, I’d be remiss to forget how lucky I am to be here.

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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

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Castaway Part 3: Camp Comforts

Shitting in the ocean is one of the greatest things. The first time I waded in about belly-button height and squatted tentatively as if the movement might not occur. The second time I leapt from an aging pier, plunged into deep blue waters and relieved myself while treading and swam back to shore. Yes we have toilets here. The fancy composting kind with the rolling barrels inside. I use them frequently and have no complaints. But sometimes you’re a mile from camp and no more than two hundred paces or so from the most beautiful bathroom in the world. No commode can compare. It’s almost as if the masterminds behind shitting into a white bowl of fresh water were onto something but somehow missed the actual point. Shitting into water is only great when you are also in the water. I remember we used to get frustrated with tapirs defecating in the stream dangerously close to our water source at our field camp in Costa Rica. “Why the hell do they have to shit in the water?!” we’d lament, suspicious this particular offense hinted at a cosmological plan to fuck with people trying to live in the wilderness. But I understand now. Absent of the knowledge that shitting in fresh flowing water obviously ruins the “freshness” of said water, I’d shit in it too.

Living on a deserted island with four other people obviously engenders a somewhat “open” dynamic. Being the kind of person who’s been relatively comfortable with nudity and necessary bodily functions for the last several years of my life (I was not always this way), I didn’t have a whole lot of adjusting to do. You could say I fit right into life on Johnston. Thus, the interesting bit of this adjustment has been pondering the way we do things in “normal” life. The stripped-down (literally and figuratively), no-bullshit lifestyle here brings a magnifying glass to the myriad ways we live in utter stupidity in so-called civilization.

Since I was old enough to comprehend the scarcity of fresh water on this planet (around two percent of all the water, only one being drinkable and the rest jammed up in icebergs that are slowly melting into the very salty, very undrinkable ocean) I recognized shitting in it was probably ill-advised. But it was always the sort of “oh well, what else can we do” feeling that followed this acknowledgment. Now, upon using the workable alternative, I’m completely flummoxed. Not too long ago, I read a Vice News story by a reporter who went to live at an eco-commune somewhere in Canada. She was horrified by the prospect of using a composting toilet. Let me re-iterate that. She was horrified by the idea of shitting into a plastic bin with a rotating drum instead of a porcelain bin full of water. The apparatus the shitting takes place on is almost indistinguishable, especially once you’re positioned on it. I suppose she just hated the idea of being that close to other peoples’ dung. And perhaps she didn’t realize that if properly cleaned and maintained, composting toilettes smell and appear far better than their putrid cousin the port-o-potty and many a public restroom. Either way, she probably could have dug her own cat-hole in the woods had the prospect of other peoples’ shit horrified her so. But my guess is she was even horrified by her own shit; a sad reality to live in. I suspect our penchant for shitting in water and flushing it “away” has more to do with the culture-hangover of puritanical body shame than it does practicality.

Many people probably think I’m roughing it out here. The truth is, life is so easy and straightforward here it’s a stark reminder that human existence doesn’t have to be that complicated. Sure maintaining camp takes some extra time and effort: refilling water filtration devices, hand-washing clothes and dishes, staying one step ahead of the ants and mice. But the tasks don’t loom like their “civilized” counterparts do. Cooking a meal never requires a trip to the grocery store (unless you count walking a hundred meters to a bunker with a little wagon in tow). Taking out the trash happens once every couple weeks if you burn all the paper and fibers (this also brings to light the startling fact that landfills are packed, in part, with things that could have been fodder for s’mores). Doing laundry simply requires doing laundry, not accomplishing several other things before the buzzer sounds and you have to put the next load in. Having limited clothes means the dirty ones can’t accumulate; having limited possessions and no internet means limited distractions. I also usually don’t see eels and spotted eagle rays in my basement, so there’s another perk of the ocean laundromat. There is no such thing as traffic.

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Laughs also come easy out here. The things my crew and I find hilarious have quickly degraded from kitschy to hopelessly absurd. Not long after we arrived, one crew member found a disembodied mannequin head on one of the shores. “Linda” now appears in all our group photos. We spend our nights watching an animated children’s show called “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and make incessant references to the characters the following work hours, giggling maniacally at mixtures of cartoon-world jargon and seabird sounds. We hash out clandestine secret societies such as the “Johnston Flat Fork Society,” named for an inexplicably two-dimensional eating utensil discovered among the conventional kitchen items. I’ve yet to experience boredom.

Setting aside the frequent and ever-stronger pangs for loved ones, living here has been just my cup of tea. We also drink a lot of tea, which is great. Though we still have the civilized pleasure of sitting in front of a glowing screen at night (a solar-generator charged during the day powers a projector at night) my crew and I spend our free time reading, making art, brewing kombucha and baking. Though I must confess I spend a good chunk of my spare hours falling asleep in hammocks.

At the risk of sounding braggish, I’ll divulge that there is work going on here. Previous weeks have had my crew conducting “mean incubation counts” for red-footed boobies, tropicbirds, and great frigate birds. These surveys entail counting every nest with an egg or chick on almost the entire one-square-mile island. The coming weeks bring hand searching and an all-island ant survey, both of which will have us on our hands and knees in the midday heat looking for tiny creatures we all hate. There are definitely weeks in which free time is precious and we have little energy for anything other than just laying around. But as I’m told, a busy camper is a happy camper and we have close to five more months to whittle away here.

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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**
Alyssa Salazar
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Castaway Part 2: Johnston Island—First Impressions of a Forgotten Landscape

 

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It’s been a little over a week since we were marooned. After four days at sea on the Imua, and four more nights sleeping on the docked vessel we finally moved ourselves from ship to shore and waved goodbye to our setup crew last Friday. Second thoughts be damned, we are stuck here for up to eight months with no hope of escape. Though this might sound dramatic, the feeling would have been mutual had you been standing on a deserted wharf as your one link to society slowly pulled away. Barring health or weather emergencies, we expect to be here until around the end of June. No return trip is currently planned however as it will depend on scheduling and boat/crew availability. It is never expected that a strike team will be on Johnston for longer than eight months though.

Our first week has consisted mainly of revitalizing camp and clearing routes for our upcoming monitoring of the ecological health of the island. Camp itself is shockingly comfortable by my standards. Life centers around the Ant Cave, a kitchen, library, lounge, and meeting place all-in-one housed in military bunker designed with nuclear blasts in mind. This means no windows—hence “cave.” It was also highly cluttered when we arrived; filled to the brim with old food, files, gadgets, and mystery boxes and buckets from past crews. Despite this, the Ant Cave maintains a certain charm. The large bunker doors are never closed, so light and fresh air (and, admittedly, pests) filter in at nature’s discretion. This gives a sense of being outside even while in a dark, high-ceilinged dome. There is a medium-sized array of solar panels that provide us with enough juice to consistently light and power electronics in the ant cave. Stove and refrigerators are powered by propane. There is no plumbing, but we have a makeshift sink rig as well as composting toilettes. The front and back areas of the Ant Cave are covered with large tarps to provide additional shade for eating and relaxing.

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Beyond our giant outdoor dining room table lie our personal tents. Each of the five of us has been graced with more personal space than most field camps could dream of. A nine-person camping tent shaded with a large tarp set in a clearing of iron woods. Each setup is a comfortable distance from the next, and only one of the dwellings is even visible from the Ant Cave. I set to work personalizing my own space pretty quickly, and my “yard” is almost too endearing (I sometimes don’t want to leave).

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Johnston as a whole is a bizarre mix of beauty and decay. Having been built up as a military base, the substrate in most areas is concrete. There are crumbling bunkers scattered around and areas that bare indicators of residential use. At one point, over a thousand people lived on Johnston. Undeterred by the seemingly inhospitable conditions, vegetation pushes through the cracks and has overtaken most of the abandoned island. There is no shortage of trees and bushes for seabirds to nest in. Only the runway and main thoroughfares for bicycles and gators remain clear.

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Most of Johnston is enclosed in sea wall. Thus, there aren’t many spots to walk directly into the crystal-clear aquamarine water. But getting over the sea wall in most areas requires nothing more than hopping a small concrete border and descending a sloping embankment. About a dozen feet or so beyond the divide, giant table coral heads teeming with fish cluster just a few feet below the surface. Sometimes the ocean comes to great you in full force at this dramatic separation between island and water. I was scrubbing my tent’s rug at the sea wall one afternoon when a four-foot giant moray swam casually between my legs. It took me fully by surprise since the otherwise striking silhouette of its undulating body was hidden beneath the rug until it was almost touching me. My pre-programmed reaction was to leap onto the sea wall. Though I know morays aren’t looking at people as a source of food, their snake-like appearance doesn’t fail to trigger the amygdala. Once I was out of reach though, I watched in stunned silence as the green-brown predator continued away from the sea wall, likely in search of something more edible than a welcome mat.

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The most powerful emotion I’ve experienced upon being left at Johnston has been relief. A month living in Honolulu did plenty to inflame the anxieties that had somewhat subsided since leaving DC, and the lack of personal space on a merchant vessel didn’t offer much reprieve. The sigh of relief I breathed upon entering my tent the first night felt like a long-delayed exhale to an inhale that had possessed me since my last re-entrance to society from remote living almost five years ago. Subsequently, the moments that have really taken me aback so far have been steeped in solitude. Peering through my tent window at the several stars visible from my pillow. Coming up a hill into a field as the sun rises, flanked on either side by nesting boobies but not a human in sight. Swimming naked off one of the tiny “corner beaches” with only fish for company. Sitting on the sea wall watching the sun and birds return to their respective hiding places. Of course I haven’t forgotten about my crew. I recognize that I live in a small village, not a private retreat. We all have strengths, weaknesses, and quirks and there will be difficulties in maintaining a functioning living space together. But a one square mile island provides quite a bit of room for five people. Obviously, I already miss my loved ones at home. But I will be interested to see if my introversion eventually expires, and I start hungering for some novel human interaction. Only time will tell.

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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***

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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

Failed Submission: 10 Views of DC

So here I am on a lazy Friday morning (fuck me, right? I swear I work sometimes) trying to figure out how to squeeze a blog post out in 23 minutes before I have to go walk some dogs. Realizing I could definitely dump some of the contents of my brain onto electronic paper in 23 minutes but certainly not edit it, I go to the junk drawer of my desktop. The “writing” folder–where all good ideas go to die. It’s not that nothing in my writing folder ever gets shared, it’s just that most things I put in there are so half baked that I’d rather just start on something new than try to shape them up to be viewed by another human being. Or I’ve just read them so many times that I’ve become annoyed by my own whiny, petulant voice seeping through the words and banished them, not having the balls to delete the fruits of minutes (ok, hours) of my precious time.

But sometimes you just have to kind of laugh at yourself and throw shit out there. Not because it’s good, not because it means a lot to you, but because it still exists for some reason. In the spirit of exorcising demons from my desktop, here is an article I spent an embarrassing amount of time on, to submit to one of those goony online buzzfeed-esque listicle websites that somehow managed to count down something different about a certain state (or district) each week. After being invited to submit the article it was promptly ignored, at which point I assumed it was horrible and I was a failure at all things. I constructed the article not more than a few months after moving to the district, so hilariously I hadn’t been to a single one of these places (save for the few I hit during a middle school trip when I was 12). But now I’ve been to a decent chunk of them, and I must say I think I had the right idea. So without further ado,

**Disclaimer: I did not take, and do not own the rights to these photos. I probably shouldn’t be posting them here even. I will take them down if someone asks me to.

 

These 10 Dazzling Views Will Make You Rethink The District

Washington, DC is often known for its cutthroat professional culture and suit-clad populace. But scattered among the city’s monolith government facades and office buildings are true scenic beauties, both man-made and natural. A stroll through the capital city may offer babbling creeks amid flawless fall colors, European-style art and architecture, or waterfront landscapes with flowering trees. Some may be icons while others are hidden gems; either way, prepare to fall head over heals for America’s Rome.

 

  1. The National Cathedral

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Looking as if it were plucked from the ancient histories of Europe and dropping into our young country’s capital, the National Cathedral’s gothic architecture makes it an extraordinary sight not to be missed. The sixth largest cathedral in the world and second largest in the country boasts impressive towers, climbing spires, and mesmerizing stained glass windows.

 

  1. Top of The Monument

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Climb to the top of the world’s tallest stone structure to get a sweeping view of the National Mall and surrounding city. At over 554 feet tall, the obelisk towers over the city. In fact, it’s law in DC that no buildings can ever compete with its height. However, you can see all the way across the Potomac River to Arlington, Virginia where apartments and offices reach for the sky once more.

 

  1. The National Arboretum

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The old National Capitol Columns sit among wildflowers at the expansive and breath-taking National Arboretum. Home to hundreds of species of native and exotic plants, the Arboretum is both a restorative public garden and an important botanical research facility.

 

  1. The Capitol Rotunda

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Don’t forget to look up! The staggering beauty of the Capitol Rotunda is found in all “corners” of this impressive round room. But the undisputed treasure of The Rotunda is the ceiling. At its center, a fresco-style painting by Greek-Italian artist Constantino Brumidi, entitled The Apotheosis of Washington, depicts the nation’s first president surrounded by god-like figures in a heavenly scene.

 

  1. Georgetown/Theodore Roosevelt Island

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Georgetown, both an esteemed private university and the moniker for the area surrounding it, looks colorful and alluring from Theodore Roosevelt Island. Take the footbridge across the river to the secluded, forested island that serves as a memorial to the late president to take in this iconic vista.

 

  1. The Jefferson Memorial

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Flawless pure marble steps lead up to this striking domed monument. For many, its unmistakable architecture makes the Jefferson Memorial the most iconic emblem of DC. Reflections of its impressive façade and the trees that surround it dance across the waters of the Potomac River, which it sits directly on.

 

  1. Rock Creek Park

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Rock Creek Park, a large urban forested region that bisects the city, is a safe haven for stressed professionals and tree huggers alike. Rock Creek, the park’s namesake, babbles and flows throughout, providing scenic vistas such as this one captured at the old stone bridge.

 

  1. The Smithsonian Castle

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The very fist of the Smithsonian buildings to be constructed, the Smithsonian Castle sits tucked away behind the more well-know landmarks of the National Mall. It was artfully crafted using Seneca red sandstone from Maryland and is sure to impress even the most blasé tourists.

 

  1. Meridian Hill Park

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Meridian Hill Park, or as it’s known to many locals, Malcolm X Park, is touted as one of the best examples of neoclassical architecture in the country. The park is situated on an incline, offering staggered recreation areas and picturesque views rivaling the Italian gardens it was modeled after. Swing by on Sunday afternoon to witness drum circles that have frequented the park since the 1950s.

 

  1. The Tidal Basin

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The Tidal Basin, a partially man-made water body between the Potomac River and Washington Channel, offers some of the most impressive views in the District. Sunsets cast glorious colors across the calm waters, which stand as perfect reflection pools for the monuments that line it. Visit the Tidal Basin during the blooming of the cherry blossom trees to be blown away by the vibrant, contrasting colors (and the number of tourists!).

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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

Your One-Word Ideology Sucks

Here I go making brash, vague, and mildly irritated statements with my title again. And here I go attempting to explain the rat’s nest that is my neurotic brain again.

What is a one-word ideology? Simply put, it’s a boring, limiting, and underdeveloped way of looking at the world. It’s allowing yourself to subscribe entirely to pre-conceived ideas instead of absorbing information on a case-by-case basis and developing your own opinion. Probably the most familiar one-word ideologies are religions and political affiliations. However, I think it’s entirely possible to have religious beliefs and political leanings without letting a collection of them become your ideology. Just because you believe in being nice to people and praying to a certain god doesn’t mean Christianity governs your life.

Religion and political profiles aren’t the only one-word ideologies. Basically anything that someone identifies as in a public forum without proper credentials could be an example. By “proper credentials” I mean legitimate, practical reasoning for referring to yourself as such. Do you clean people’s teeth for a living? It’s probably ok to call yourself a hygienist. Have you worked as a researcher and professor at a prominent university for years? You might be an academic. These aren’t ideologies, these are just short, information-packed words that describe what you do with most of your time.

Ideologies are much more nebulous. Despite dictionary definitions, their meanings and rules fluctuate based on whom you’re talking to. It can be difficult to pin down exact meanings for ideologies, but that doesn’t stop people from using them as powerful identifiers. People assume a lot about someone that identifies with a certain political group, philosophy, or lifestyle.

The obvious trouble with subscribing to a one-word ideology is that it deprives you of open discourse and even limits your cognitive ability by refining your thoughts to a matrix of pre-conceived, internally confirmed ideas. Adopting a rigid set of rules that govern the way information is processed by your mind can lead to a warped perception of actual facts such as statistics. If you consider yourself a liberal or conservative, you may jump to an opinion on an issue without even analyzing the facts because others of your “tribe” feel a certain way. We are all familiar with this and I don’t think I need to expound any further. You’ve seen Facebook.

A less obvious drawback to navigating the world through one-word ideologies however is that it can actually screw up your relationships with people. And I don’t mean getting into an argument with your racist, homophobic uncle at Thanksgiving dinner; that guy is a dick and you shouldn’t care if your relationship with him is ruined. I’m talking about assuming you understand someone when you really don’t. I’m talking about accepting a word as an explanation of how someone sees the world when what you really need is a library.

People cannot truly be defined by one-word ideologies. And if they think they can, they’re not thinking enough. If you can really explain the way you choose to live and think in one word, I’m willing to bet your ideology just sucks. Instead of telling me you’re a vegan, explain the mental process you used to determine that eating meat and consuming animal products is wrong. And moreover, is it wrong for you or is it wrong for everyone? These are important details. A lot of people hate vegans because they assume their decision to abstain from something is an indication of their wishes for everyone to abstain from it. This isn’t always the case.

Taking one-word ideologies as an indication of personality is also fraught with peril. You might choose friends because they share your religion or lifestyle, but you may quickly find out these choices aren’t prerequisites to being a decent human being. Jumping too quickly into relationships with people based on their prominent self-identifiers can surround you with individuals who offer you little more than surface-level affinity and confirmation bias.

I feel it’s important to point out that I understand the value of identifiers in the social lives of human beings. With more than seven billion people on earth, it’s kind of hard to be friends with everyone. You need to start somewhere in picking who you choose to spend your time with. It takes a long time to delve into someone’s mental process to determine how they see the world, and it’s a lot easier to build a picture of them based on a collection of cookie-cutter identifiers. But a lot of people are actually starved for good conversation. In a world where the “appropriate” topics of polite conversation leave a lot to be desired, I tend to find many people are relieved to have someone ask them about the deeper workings of their mind, such as their motives and core values.

But good relationships are hardly ever quick and easy to build. Just like good ideas, good relationships take time, thought, and understanding. I believe investing in the quality of our own ideas can help us understand the complexity of others’. If your worldview takes more than a word to explain, why would you accept a one-word label for someone else? Seeing opinions, values, and beliefs in this way opens up a conversation abut the roots of those ideas. I’m far more interested in the logic and reasoning behind someone’s opinion than the opinion itself.

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Why humans run the world

ideas.ted.com

History professor Yuval Noah Harari — author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind — explains why humans have dominated Earth. The reason is not what you might expect.

70,000 years ago humans were insignificant animals. The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were unimportant. Their impact on the world was very small, less than that of jellyfish, woodpeckers or bumblebees.

Today, however, humans control this planet. How did we reach from there to here? What was our secret of success, that turned us from insignificant apes minding their own business in a corner of Africa, into the rulers of the world?

We often look for the difference between us and other animals on the individual level. We want to believe that there is something special about the human body or human brain that makes each individual human vastly superior to a dog, or a pig, or…

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