A Final Note

Well, this is the end. I must say that endings tend to be sad but it also means a new beginning and direction for my creative writing. Thank you everyone who has read this blog. I appreciate it, and I hope it has somehow enriched your life. I hope you will continue to read my stuff at www.thesquidweekly.com.

And so I suppose that’s it. Thanks again.

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Cat-Dog Hybrid Madness

Cat versus dog—an old debate started by people incapable of nuance. Regrettably, we all have had to choose a side, except for the people who like birds, hamsters, or fish. And sure, there’s that strange kid in school who had a rat but we don’t talk about him. C’mon rats? Well, okay, maybe if you’re that prisoner in the Green Mile, but he didn’t have too many other options. Oh, and it was a mouse—not a rat. Mice are cute, despite the fact that they’re essentially very small rats.

We never hear about the potential of a cat-dog, however—especially in an age where genetic engineering makes anything possible, even things we really don’t want like 3-D movies or the Apple watch. We should dream big here people! A cat-dog could be the answer to all of our problems; it could restructure the world of human thought and prove compromise can please both sides.

The science of a cat-dog is fuzzy because it hasn’t been discovered yet, and to explain it to you, we’d have to delve into Einstein’s theory of relativity, a bit of quantum theory, and why bits of plastic bag are impossible to get off your hand. But all you really need to know is one end is a dopey-faced golden retriever, the other a downy calico. Sounds good right? It will be a good idea until whoever decided to make the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean takes over the project and completely ruins everything. Oh right. Disney.

Alas, the feverish, white-coated Disney goons will somehow create a creature that is the worst of both animals, something that will be both dumb and mean, that will chase its tail, catch and maul it, and then bring it to you as a present without actually knowing what it did. The biggest problem and what we’ll all wonder about is where it will, you know, crap. It’s unfortunate that none of the Disney personnel will think of that either (probably because they’re film producers and animated cartoons, not genetic engineers), and the cat-dog will die an awful, awful death three days after creation.

Of course, only the idiots will get the first version. Microsoft will pick up the brand from Disney, and cat-dog 2.0 will be completely rebuilt, fixing a couple of the worst buggy problems of the first cat-dog. The biggest change of the cat-dog will be to combine the features of a cat with a dog into one cohesive animal.

Unfortunately, they will also add a whole host of new problems and make you update your cat-dog with thousands of unwanted features including a fifth paw and a can opener attachment in the cat-dog’s tail, something no one wanted—especially Gertrude.[1]

Then of course Apple will get in the mix, completely redefining what a cat-dog can and should be and thereby making it inaccessible for anyone who doesn’t have three thousand dollars hanging around in their couch cushions. The cat-dog will be renamed Delphi, although no one will really know why.

The main change will be the integration of additional traits from different species like the hamster and the now-extinct Caribbean monk seal.[2] The upside is that the pet will have retractable nipples and the biggest brown eyes you have ever seen; the downside will be it nibbles holes in all of your cupboards and will smell like a dead fish. Also, it will only eat dead fish.

Cat-dog Manganese (the Google version) will cross the DNA with some sub-atomic photons, chromosomal plant matter, and some Cheetos Frazier dropped into the machine “accidently”. The results will be a cat-dog that’s a virulent[3] shade of orange, and the animal will in turn be rebranded as ORANGE. It’s like the RED label, except ten percent of ORANGE proceeds will go to people with orange related diseases, and—come to find out—there aren’t many. Essentially, Timmy from Milwaukee will get over two billion dollars because he will eat thirteen orange crayons. Timmy will also die.

All along the way, third-rate companies will create a bunch of side pseudo animals like the bunny-duckling (a best seller), the pig-rat (not a best seller), the pigeon-bear (the government model), and the Jimmy Choo (actually a pair of overpriced shoes).

The cat-dog will generally be integrated into our homes and families, and we will wonder how we ever functioned without it. With the cat-dog doing all of our shopping, shoveling the walk, and creating new apps for our cell phones, we really won’t know what to do, except play the best selling game: Fetch, the game you can never win or stop playing. That’s essentially where the story ends. We will become the pets, and Rover ahem… excuse me, Delphi and Manganese will become the Masters.

Where the whole thing really went off the tracks, if you ask me, is when tech giants will decide to create an animal. What did we expect anyways? The best thing about any pet is that it’s not a computer, but that’s beside the point—and at least fifty to five hundred years in the future. And if we know anything, we know the future is a weird place full of hover cars, slick urban environments, disembodied voices, and people with really white teeth. Like unhealthily white.

So for the present, let’s stay out of the future. And dear god, let dogs stay dogs, let cats stay cats, and let mice stay undersized rats.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Who’s Gertrude? Just the name of the cat-dog opening fifteen cans of kidney beans for your dietary self-fulfillment.

[2] The Caribbean monk seal (Neomonachus tropicalis) will be kind of extinct before Apple got to it, but it will DEFINITELY be extinct after. Green Peace members will be flustered but appeased when Apple donates 50,000 hemp tote bags to the endangered Western Lowland Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla). The gorillas will use the bags as a funny hat.

[3] What an amazing word. Virulent.

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Holiday Traditions

When you look at most things our society considers “normal,” they actually seem really… weird. Like wearing a hat backwards or getting breast implants or having massive biceps when the heaviest thing you lift in regular life is a gallon of milk. In fact, most of the things we do for enjoyment have no grounding in anything other than that it’s kind of fun.

That’s essentially what fun is: something that’s not exactly useful but scratches an itch that our pure survival instinct can’t—like scrapbooking. No self-respecting backwoodsman has a scrapbook in a survival pack filled with Bowie knives, bug spray, fishing hooks, interesting sticks, funny rocks, and… all the other stuff you need to survive.

If aliens ever get here and they don’t enslave humanity, we’re going to have a lot of explaining to do about our pastimes.

Our Alien Friend: So, just wondering, could you explain this whole thing called Nascar?

Us: Well, you see these cars drive around in a circle really fast, and occasionally they pass each other. And whoever wins gets a bunch of money. A lot of people watch on TV and around the track.

OAF (that acronym was completely unintentional): Do the viewers get to drive the cars?

Us: Well, no…

OAF: And does the track change at all?

Us: Not really… They pass each other occasionally.

OAF: How many times do they go around the same track?

Us: It depends but anywhere from two hundred to five hundred times.

OAF: And nothing much changes?

Us: Uhh, I guess not… But people really seem to like it, so there must be something to it.

OAF: It seems a little pointless to me.

Us: Well, people like it, so it exists.

[Awkward silence]

OAF: [whispers] We’re destroying your planet in three days.

Us: What?

OAF: What?

We’d have an especially hard time explaining all the things we do during the holidays, not to mention the holidays themselves. Take the Christmas tree for example. No other time in the year is it socially acceptable to go into the woods and cut down a perfectly good tree in order to have it die in your living room.

This is the case unless, of course, you’re a professional arborist, in which case you’re probably sick of the whole Christmas tree thing and wish we could have a holiday tradition of putting our presents around a flower. But then we’d have the florists on our ass. And if there’s anything we don’t want, it would be that.

But it’s a sacred tradition, like feeling terrible the day after Saint Patrick’s Day or hating couples on Valentine’s Day (every single person ever), and Americans never mess with tradition, especially when it involves family. Trying to talk someone out of a Christmas tree is like trying to talk someone from Green Peace into hunting a baby deer with an AR-15.

Of course, there’s quite a few ways to scratch that Christmas tree itch, but some are more “authentic”—whatever that means. The best would be to go to an actual pine forest and struggle through five-foot drifts of snow to “The One”, a free-range Adonis of nature destined to have a suburban family chop it down. This is what our forefathers, the American pioneers and settlers, would have done—or what they would have done if they weren’t shivering to death, attempting to grow a couple rows of corn, or appropriating land to not grow corn on.

The next best option is a tree lot where they grow trees in nice straight rows, a kind of puppy mill for non-sentient beings. This is less desirable, simply for the fact that you pay to do most of the work in a simulated environment when it’s painfully obvious you are in anything but a natural environment.

Lastly, we have the grocery store, the option for when you’ve clean run out of options. It’s like buying cage eggs. They’re cheap, but god knows what awful things some chicken had to go through to plop them out. The trees could have been verbally abused, grown indoors under heat lamps, or even worse, put outside where temperatures are known to drop below freezing, the wind sometimes gets above breezy, and moose eat whole branches of needles they didn’t even ask permission to eat.

Then the trees are tied up and shoved in a truck with all of their brethren, squashed so close they can’t even breath—or whatever trees do. Photosynthesize? Respire? Exude fumes? It doesn’t matter. Whatever goes on, you don’t want to think about it.

It’s only after you’ve found the tree that you can put it in pretty much the opposite of a tree’s natural surroundings—a carpeted room surrounded by a bunch of its dead relatives in the form of contemporary Danish furniture. There it will stay for December, January, and parts of February if you’re really lazy, making its slow progression from thriving tree to brown needle-less tree. Then it will be thrown out on the curb for the boy scouts—a patently purposeless expense of anywhere between forty to one hundred dollars in the name of tradition.

But everyone’s pretty okay with it. I’m okay with it. Even the eco-friends, the bleeding heart liberals who wouldn’t slap a mosquito if they could help it, revel in the fact that they have a ten-foot behemoth strapped to the roof of their Prius. The whole thing is a little crazy, a socially acceptable form of lunacy like being in love or after the Cubs win the World Series. Hell, why not spend a whole afternoon staring into someone’s eyes? Why not hold hands everywhere? Why not dye the Chicago River blue?

There’s not one tradition in the whole holiday bag that makes much sense—searching for chocolate eggs, asking strangers for candy, putting colored lights on the house, singing the same songs for a month, eating green bean casserole, dressing up as a pirate, getting pinched for not wearing green, lighting explosives to honor our country… And don’t even start about Thanksgiving and what that day means for turkeys. It’s all a bit mad but also kind of enjoyable, and that’s what really matters. So my alien friends, pointless as it is, the tree stays.

 

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Who Are The Millennials?

I am from the generation that buys an expensive laptop and then puts stickers on it. Don’t ask me why we do this. Maybe we’re stuck in between a desire to be individuals and also part of a group, or we want something unique but all we can buy is the same damn laptop as everyone else. Hell, we could just like stickers. I like stickers.

It’s an millennial thing, aka those born in the 1980s to the early 2000s, aka those in their twenties and thirties, aka what has been deemed the “Narcissistic Generation.” The Baby Boomers keep telling us we’re so entitled, even though they were the ones who wanted to give us a better future in the first place. “Those rotten kids were coddled as children,” they say and shake their heads. “They were brought up to think they’re the best thing since birth control. They’re primed and spoiled and have no knowledge of the ‘real world.’ ”

How do we feel about the whole thing? We’re feeling pretty good about ourselves. The parent’s basement has never been more comfortable and a part time job at Whole Foods keeps the cell phone bill paid. We have a nagging fear that we may never actually get out, of course, but a full meltdown is some years off in the future, and, in Millennial terms, the future is a vague concept.

If the future has been anytime, however, it is certainly now. Things are happening that our grandparents could hardly dream of. Not only have computers been invented but they’re been fully integrated into our homes, or, in other words, Millennials are the first generation to shove that stickered-up masterpiece into our backpack for college.

A computer is like a friendly dog we’ve grown up with around the house, who responds to our call, shakes, rolls over, and helps us do our taxes in April; whereas to older generations, a computer is a mangy adoptee who tears up the newspaper instead of fetching it, runs away when they say “stay”, and frequently shits on the carpet.

Millennials can conceive of how it was done before personal computers sure, just like we know what constitutes a proper independent bookstore enough to be nostalgic about the demise of proper independent bookstores. The generation after us—the super Millennials or whatever they’re called— barely know what books are like or CDs or handwritten letters. Pretty soon, kids will be asking: What exactly were ‘paper books’? Did we used to scrawl things into a stone? What would we have to do to look something up? Did we dance around campfires and hope the sky god would send us rain the next week?”

Our computers have become so much a part of our lives, in fact, we’ve made them small enough to fit in our pocket. In fact, if there’s anything you should know about us, it’s that we love our baby smart phones; we might even be addicted to them.

Lord knows how humanity managed to survive without being connected every single moment of the day. We might have had to talk to the person next to us or be lost in that blissful reverie known as daydreaming. But the smart phone is here to stay, as you can tell from all of the downcast eyes on the subway and the sudden lack of stimulating conversation at the dinner table—or the lack of whatever we did before we could text our BFF Jill at the dinner table.

We’re also the generation that really likes Bernie Sanders (more than Hillary, much more than Trump), which says a lot about us actually. Well, mostly that we’re socialist and don’t like bigoted morons. Hell, when we get old enough to realize we need to vote for things to happen, the U.S. might become the Socialist States Of America or more likely, Los Estados Socialistas when enough of our Mexican brothers and sisters make it over the border.

You can hear our parents and grandparents gasping this past election, flailing around like we’ve spent our college tuition money on a very rare parrot. You… you can’t vote in a SOCIALIST. It’s okay. When we vote in larger numbers, they’ll never know; they’ll be long dead.

We also marry later, in our thirties, possibly even forties, or gasp never—although a passionate fling in our eighties ending in a Vegas marriage is never out of the question. I mean when you’re eighty, you only have to hang around for about twenty years before one or the other, you know, dies. And when marijuana is legalized—and it will be, don’t worry about that—twenty years in matrimony will be a breeze, man.

But when half of marriages fail, who can blame us for not wanting to tie the knot or put our kids through a split home? Hell, why even have kids at all? When the environment is on its last legs and pandas are refusing to breed, we don’t really have time; we’ve got to travel and see some glaciers.

Of course, we’re certainly committed to saving our lovely polar bears, penguins, and blocks of ice. Climate change is near the top of our list for things we’d like to change; it’s unfortunate it’s nowhere near the top ten on anyone else’s. You see, a college education means we’re very passionate about the environment and that we’ve got the benefit of having facts, research, and most of the scientific community on our side. Not that much of that matters in the current political landscape, where facts are “opinions” and scientific consensus is known to have a liberal bias. But we’re not bitter about it. No, no, certainly not bitter.

The whole thing seems a tad hopeless, however, when you painstakingly reuse the same bag two hundred times only to travel to Michigan, where they give you three plastic bags when you buy a gallon of milk. They don’t even ask if you want a bag; they simply assume you need a couple of bags to toss out your window for the stray seagull or sea otter to strangle on.

I suppose you could say we’ve become cynical about our world’s capacity to save much of anything—just as we’ve become cynical about love, politics, the worth of a college education, and religion. And yet we’re still strangely optimistic about our future.

Call it the naivety of youth, but we see how much there is to change and are sure of our abilities to change it. This may come from in part from how globalized the world has become (or was until Brexit, Trump, and the Syrian refugee crisis came along) and how cross-cultural America is. With the advent of cheap airline flights, relaxed borders, and an adventuresome youth, we’ve traveled and seen that most people hate others a lot less than we’ve been told and are actually very kind—kinder, in fact, than quite a few Americans.

We are also the least prejudiced generation, supporting gay marriage and increased civil rights for all, and are especially sensitive to matters of race and privilege. And despite the thorny mess we get in linguistically and socially, it’s a sign we’re trying, which is much better than not trying.

As for religion, we are less likely to profess allegiance to a particular faith even though we hold to much the same values as previous generations—despite what gloom-and-doom people may say about the moral decay of the youth. We generally want to help others or at least like the idea of helping others, and again, even liking the idea of helping others is much better than the alternative.

Of course, once we get out of our parent’s house and start paying taxes, we may hit this bitch called “reality”. As the radical sixties proved, age makes people less orientated towards change, more conservative, and a little less passionate about all that new-fangled, youngin’, hippie, love-and-peace baloney. Real life may just shoot down our soaring Millennial soul with an AR-15 assault rifle, leaving us in much the same mess as before.

But that’s far off in the future. We live in the present, the best time—or would be if we ever looked up from our iPhones. The same thing that’s making us such a force of change could be the same thing that limits us from going anywhere, which—if anyone’s wondering—is the definition of irony.

We need to change a lot of things about ourselves, the world, and the way things are run; every generation has. But I think we want more from our current world. I know I do. The success of Obama’s campaign slogan “hope” shows us a bright cloud that may or may not exist but, at the very least, is worth trying to get to. Only time will tell how close we can get.

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Kombucha, Sauerkraut, And Probiotics

“Kombucha, have you heard of that?”

“The tea, right? Is it like the gummie thing? Where it’s tasty and good for me but really not.”

“It’s a fun beverage; it’s delicious and frizzy. It’s got probiotics.”

I sat in a chair and stared at, well, a wall if you must know, a wall and an empty booth of fake leather. Snow swirled outside the café, the first snow of winter, and a ceramic cup of quickly cooling coffee suggested awesome alliterations. My car window was left open during the night, so the sitting bit was not, shall we say, entirely comfortable, and I was a little self-conscious about the large wet patch on my butt.

My headphones were on; no music was playing. Rather, I listened in on the conversation happening behind me, covertly, sneakily, like a Republican at the DNC trying to see if this whole climate change thing was a scam.

“What is it about fermented foods that will pick up here? Could sauerkraut pick up, like where we find it coming up on social media?”

“Like any fermented vegetable, sure. Sourdough bread, it’s fermented. I would love to have more of that.”

Who were these people? Honestly, beside the fact that they were both women, they could have been anyone. One hosted a podcast on emotion and health for mainly women, and the other had brown hair. Well, I wasn’t actually facing her, so I don’t know what color her hair was but brown seems likely.

It was an interesting conversation. Very few places in this world would

you find someone talking about the marketability of fermented sauerkraut. And it brought to mind quite a few questions, first and foremost: Isn’t fermented just another word for slightly rotten? Apparently not in this woman’s universe, where a peach with a huge brown spot and a little worm wriggling out wouldn’t be just a fetid mess but a fermented fetid mess.

“NO!” She would shout, lunging for the peach you were about to throw away. “YOU COULD MAKE A SLIGHTLY ALCOHOLIC PEACH SMOOTHIE FROM THAT. THINK OF ALL THE PROBIOTICS.”

What exactly is a “probiotic”? It sounds like a robot that’s not quite your friend but not not your friend either—if you get what I mean. It’d be like a robot doctor made to serve humankind but is very close to flipping its shit. And who can blame it? 500,000 liver biopsies without a day off, hell, I’d be ready to flip my shit too.

Probiotics aren’t actually robots, just so you know. If you put that down as an answer on your Biology 101 test, you will be ridiculed. They’re closer to a healthy chemical in food like vitamins or amino acids… although aren’t antibiotics the good ones? If antibiotics kill bad bacteria, do probiotics harbor them in their attic until they pour out and give you a stroke?

All I’m saying is that I don’t know what I’m talking about and neither do you. In health guru territory, most of us are travelers without compasses, our only map a bunch of bad advice from our relatives, friends, the Internet, and things we read on the cover of Women’s Health in the supermarket checkout line.

The two women seemed like people who were more informed on the subject, or at least knew enough to have a health blog and to interview someone who had a health blog. They certainly had a good feeling that people wanted to buy moldy sauerkraut and that gets you somewhere—although where is still up for question.

From kombucha and sauerkraut, the women’s conversation wandered into the effectiveness of supplements and dieting, which seems to be a conversation women have a lot. The podcast woman cautioned against the so called “crash dieting,” which I assume is something other than food you cram down when United Flight 741 to Honolulu is plummeting to the ocean.

From a quick Google search, crash dieting is the one where you reduce your calories to unreasonably low levels in order to lose weight really fast. Well, that sounds like fun. In fact, I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend my weekend. Let’s take the shockingly large diversity of our palatial palate and reduce it to a diet of celery, lettuce, wood chips, and maybe a sliver of strawberry. Just skip all the good stuff like chocolate and ice cream and substitute a lifetime of shame, second-guessing, and self-consciousness. The podcast woman mentioned this sort of thing was “destructive,” and I couldn’t agree more. What a load of crap.

Then the subject of brain clog. I’m not sure how this came up because I was busy not paying attention. They could have overheard someone talking about a clogged drain or seen a brain stroll by… because that happens fairly frequently.

In comparison to probiotics, brain clog sounds exactly what it is, probably because it was a word made up by a normal person and not a scientist who hadn’t talked to anyone for three years. It’s the thing that happens when you are mentally tired and can’t do things like figure out how much to tip the waiter or send a photo of your coffee to your niece. I like that there’s a word to describe that situation.

The blog woman suggested something I couldn’t quite overhear to help it—probiotics would be a good guess or maybe a big glob of anti-gluten. At this point, I stopped listening because there is a point where writing down a conversation is okay and a point where it’s not. And I was swiftly reaching the point where it was not.

The best thing about the whole conversation was that it was something classically Boulder. People here are known for that sort of thing—of being so gluten free it’s surprising they haven’t reached enlightenment, of subscribing to energies, astrology, and crystals, of rescuing overweight prairie dogs, of being a little socialist, of having the cardiovascular system of a war horse. And with all of those things, Boulderites earned a reputation for being high maintenance, arrogant, and overly rich.

It’d be easy to discount these two women as just two more semi-granola women who have too much money, just as it’s very easy to dislike any vague group of people. We’ve heard it before: I don’t really like people from ­­­­­­­­­_________. They are all _________. We can chuck whole cities, coastlines, political parties, or countries into one bucket and then dump it off the edge of a cliff in two sentences.

Intolerance and generalization is sneaky that way. It’s so easy to do and so hard to not do. Sure, there are mean people in Boulder; there are mean people everywhere. But as a whole? Not really. Most of the individuals you take the time to know—and this goes for the world—are pretty kind, although flawed in intricate, strange ways. Just like you and just like me.

I guess all I’m trying to say is I like people who enjoy moldy sauerkraut. I think we could get along. And I hope you can get along with them too.

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Dear Lord, Please Make Gandalf President

Never before have I seen as many people wearing American flag t-shirts than in the voting line at the Clerk and Recorder’s Office. It’s a unique thing in itself; you would never see a French or a German person wearing a shirt with their flag on it, which may be because their flags look more or less the same. God forbid you’re a German confused with a Belgian.

But in America, we’ve got it sorted, and someone wearing a NRA t-shirt with an eagle carrying an American flag and a Glock will make sure everyone knows you’re in the land of the free… or that you really shouldn’t mess with eagles.

Those helping out with the voting process were energetic; the whole place a bustle of governmental employees and volunteers. It seemed bright, happy in a governmental way, with the type of hushed excitement you would find in a game of Scrabble at the library. Usually, the Clerk and Recorder’s office feels more like a testing facility or a school, places you end up bored and quietly frustrated.

But now I felt a sense of breathless anticipation, of fulfilling what this country stands on, of damn right, I participated in a democracy. If I had an American flag shirt, you better be sure I would be wearing it; if I had a gun, it’d be strapped to my hip. I’d probably select my candidate by shooting the corresponding box with my gun.

And we should feel good about voting. Even though to some sense we are all uninformed, misinformed, or just plain brainwashed, the system of democracy is pretty damn cool. It’s flawed, of course; but most everyone agrees this a hell of a lot better than the get-shot-if-you-disagree governmental system.

Think of all the countries that rebel to have the right to vote, who have died or are dying for this exact freedom. It makes you ashamed of those cheese balls who couldn’t quite roll off the couch to scribble in a box or stay moderately informed, and instead stay at home, taking advantage of the very freedoms they refuse to participate in.

I made my way past the voting registration booth to the plastic privacy cubicles with a sheaf of voting paperwork. I opened it up and picked through all the presidential candidates who have somehow managed to get on the ballot but have absolutely no chance of ever being president. The socialists, the greens, the pacifists—all put their bit in. I could even write in my own candidate and be that 0.0000001 of the population who really wanted Gandalf to be president. God I wish Gandalf could be president.

I’m surprised so many people want to be commander and chief, actually. Presidents have to accept amazing levels of stress, make decisions that impact the lives of millions of people (half of whom think they are doing a terrible job), and thrive in situations where they kiss up to people they don’t like and who generally don’t like them.

Most of their time will be taken up with the latter (or diplomacy as it’s commonly called), little of which will actually go anywhere. They have to be away from family, can’t do much they enjoy, and are followed around by security guards who protect them from people who want to kill them. To top it all off, the little they’ve accomplished in four years will be dismantled by the next dickwad who wants the job. It’s no wonder we had the worst grab bag of candidates this year.

The worst parts of the president’s job, however, are sometimes the best for the American people. Most people bemoan the fact that the unwieldy federal beast moves so damn slow and changes over so quickly. Nothing ever gets done unless we really, really want it to get done.

But that can be great. Think of all the misplaced policies that could have been enforced but were saved by people or the next president who thought, Okay, maybe we shouldn’t put in a coal mine in the middle of that playground or Hey, maybe all of our taxes shouldn’t go to a governmental program to save sea turtles. Except Prohibition. Somehow that one got through.

Unfortunately, it does mean that we have to deal with elections every four years. Lord knows this one was tough. No one really needs to be told it either, anyone you meet is going to say, “Thank God that’s over.” And I think if we can’t agree on what direction the country should go, we can start with the fact that we never ever want to have one like this again.

Choosing between Trump and Hillary was like one of those “would you rather…” questions like: Would you rather shoot yourself in the foot or the arm? Would you rather kick a puppy or make a baby cry? Would you rather be chucked kicking and screaming into a furnace or slowly frozen to death in a massive refrigerator?

The only proper response to a “would you rather” question is to scrunch your eyes and shake your head vigorously like you’ve been asked to eat a rat. If you do come to a point where you actually have to decide between the two options in one of those questions, you should seriously re-think the people you hang out with.

But this election happened, although I’m still expecting to wake up sometime soon. Everyone seems surprised to find the country so polarized—as if it’s never been divided before… except maybe oh, in the 1860s during the Civil War, the 1960s during the Vietnam War, the 2000s during the Iraq War, or in the late 1700s when quite a few people thought George Washington was rocking the boat a bit too much. I mean, rebel against England and throw all the tea in a harbor? That’s breaking some serious tradition.

And most of us hated the election and hate our polarized politics, just like we hated division in the America’s past and how we hate how Christmas and Thanksgiving have become so commercialized. Yet, we were still bombarded by awful political banter and gaudy holiday sales, which is either means those who control these things simply don’t understand, or we’re doing something wrong.

Do we have ourselves to blame? We all watched Clinton and Trump; we consumed their mindless banter through TV, Facebook, online news services, newspapers, magazines. As viewers and participants, we certainly need to ask ourselves some hard questions.

The problem is that some part of us likes it—or else they wouldn’t be showing it. It’s exactly why they show more negative things on the news, why they thrive on the next big scare (West Nile, Ebola, Big Foot Disease, Flesh Eating Slug Disorder). We find our fear fascinating, our evil mesmerizing, our scummiest parts to be the juiciest. The people who control these things know this, know we gobble down this trash like a twelve-pack of Krispy Kreme donuts. Is it any wonder why we all feel a bit sick?

It was hard to look away though. Towards the end of their campaigns, Donald and Hillary were like kids who smash pots and pans, scream, and crap on the rug because they want something. For a child, you react and remonstrate. I mean we can’t have that when the Hendersons come over for dinner. But if you give the little buggers what they want, they realize shitting on the carpet gets them attention.

But how do we react when politicians act like three year olds and drop a big steamy one on the carpet? I’m not too sure. Mindless consumption certainly isn’t the answer, but it’s not so easy as turning the TV off or canceling your newspaper subscription. We depend on our news to give information, much as we hate it, and we depend on proper candidates applying for president.

It’s all screwed up in pretty thorny, difficult ways. But hey, we’ve been here before. From the day America started out we’ve had problems; problems, I might add, we’ve overcome—hate, injustice, wars, poverty, idiotic leadership, corruption, depression, violence, cruelty, and lots of awful politics. And I think no matter who is elected, we can take a measure of hope in that.

 

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Farewells And Returning Home

Travelers often debate the relative benefits and disadvantages of going home or of “settling down.” Actually, it’s not a debate at all; it’s a one-sided shitting contest, where settling down are evil words, like “children,” “full-time job,” or “showering consistently.” And I get it. For some, home is anywhere but their ideal place to live, and traveling is an escape from that.

But for these people, as soon as you go home or find a place to call home it’s like you die—or at least all the parts that matter. The drive and optimism is drained out of your system like a kiddy pool with a hole in it, and your soul spreads out on the pavement; it’s only a matter of time before it evaporates.

“It’s just not the same,” they say. “I went back and everything was really great for three weeks or so and then you realize that no one has changed. And you want to go abroad again.”

It’s depressing to hear. I really don’t want all my cool, optimistic parts to die a slow, monotonous death at the local supermarket and the 9-5 job. And I’m sure you don’t either. But as I looked to leave Australia and end my journeys abroad for a while, I was nervous, and the questions ran over in my head.

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The Nunnery. As I returned, buzzing the front door and hearing the soft click of lock as the receptionist let me in, I recollected when I first arrived ten months ago—bedraggled and partly cognizant of the fact that I wasn’t making much sense. I clambered to the top of a bunk bed and lay down. I stared up at a ceiling that would continually change for the next year and reflected that no one on a whole continent knew my name. It was a bizarre feeling.

And now I was back ten months later at the same hostel. It has an ambience here, or rather, it feels how a big city hostel should feel with wood floors, curving balustrades, wandering corridors, rooms and doors tucked away at odd intervals—the whole thing is bit too cramped to be considered comfortable. But—as with any hostel—if you really wanted to be comfortable, you would be at a hotel.

That first night several bedraggled and trampish-looking backpackers were smoking hand-rolled cigarettes in the front entry when I arrived. Such was my state of mind that I took quite a romantic view of the wafting smoke and the acrid smell; somehow it fit with the warm night and the cooling pavement of a new country.

There were no smokers outside today, although the truly dismal collection of stray butts showed that they were puffing right along. By this point, I had breathed enough second-hand smoke to cut my life expectancy down by at least six months. I wouldn’t have received the smokers as kindly now, might have thought something to the respect of, God damn smokers.

Nonetheless, as I made my last lap of Australia, I wanted be back here at The Nunnery, as a bookend possibly, an attempt to try to sum up my travel experience by wandering Melbourne’s leafy boulevards, drinking lattes, lying in the parks, and watching the people meander by. Melbourne, like The Nunnery, defined my expectations of Australia, as someone I caught a ride with commented, “You flew into Melbourne? Well, you’ve seen the best already.”

I was ready to swim in that sea of people, ready to be unknown, ready to be back. Many travelers don’t like to return to places they’ve already seen, but as much as travel is focused on new places, there is something to be said for the process of revisiting. Or put another way, the pleasure of knowing where you are going can be equally as thrilling as not knowing where you are going.

It’s much the same with novels. Some you read once, and once is about good enough. Others return to year after year, taking a different, maturing joy to the same sentences and characters. The rush, the what’s-around-this-corner feeling of the first read fades but a deepening appreciation takes place, as you recognize certain characters and returning themes.

It’s a sign of the certainty and depth of novels or cities in your life, if, when you introduce them to others, you experience the same sort of joy and breathless anticipation as introducing someone to a close friend. You hope they’ll love those books, cities, and friends as much as you do, despite the fact that experiences never translate directly.

Melbourne was one of those cities for me, and like a friend, I wanted to see it again. And so I was back, and there was some coffee to be drunk.

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The Nunnery. Usually “free” is good in the sense that the box labeled “free” at a garage sale is. The problem is quality and more often than not quantity. Do you really want a world atlas when Russia was still the U.S.S.R. or a broken foosball table? Well, probably not, but… it’s free. Suddenly, that little voice that says you actually don’t have any place or desire for a game you never play shuts up—thank God—and the evolutionary impulse to grab and bury whatever you can takes over. Hell, you’d probably take three foosball tables if they were up for grabs.

At hostels, the concept of “free” is no different. A hostel in Adelaide I stayed in advertised a free breakfast that turned out to be two loafs of white bread and a half empty jar of marmalade. Despite the fact that this was the most miserable, miserly meal to qualify as free I had encountered yet in my travels, I still managed to cram down a fourth of a bread loaf with marmalade. I don’t even like marmalade.

It also happened to be sweltering in Adelaide, the main strategy quickly becoming to lie spread-eagle on top of a bed in your underwear with the fan swaying energetically overhead, and it was where I awoke in thrashing terror, thinking there was a spider in my bed. Both of those things certainly made for an interesting night. There’s nothing like watching a fan careen over your head at two o’clock in the morning, dehydrated, certain there’s a spider the size of a baseball mitt under your bed.

At times, free things can work in your favor, however. The Nunnery had free breakfast—and a good one at that. So at eight o’ clock I made sure to be there before the rest of the greedy hostel mongers could get their hands on it.

I soon encountered my first obstacle of the day in front of the tea and coffee. A large chap with blonde hair and a vast billowing sweatshirt draped like a shawl bent over the instant coffee, effectively blocking the route to everything else. But hey, early in the morning, we’ve all been there. I shoved my hands in my pockets and stared out the window.

After awhile, however, my attention drifted back to see if any progress had been made. As I watched him making his cuppa, I decided he was the closest human equivalent to a sloth that I have ever seen.

The process of making an instant coffee is not, shall we say, difficult. You don’t need a degree, dedication, skill, or even the intelligence of your average golden retriever, but this man took an easy task and made it a study in dogmatic intensity. He painfully gathered sugar into a spoon from the sugar bowl and navigated the distance between bowl and the coffee cup with a tenuous concentration, like a three-year-old trying to write his name. Then another wandering spoonful, then… another… then water…

A girl came and stood next to me for a cup of tea, but seeing the situation, stopped and gave me a questioning look. I recognized her from dinner the previous night; I had tried my damndest to initiate a conversation and to draw something out of her day to distinguish her from everyone other traveler.

Twenty-four hours per day is a fairly long time if you think about it; it’s a long time for something, anything to happen. But even with my truly heroic attempts to siphon anything even marginally interesting out of her (and I have pretty low standards), I failed dismally.

We did, however, share this moment—an interesting moment mind you—of staring at the back of the sloth’s head while we patiently turned impatient.

Finally something must have registered in his brain that people were behind him, waiting for him to move one foot to the left. He turned slowly and looked at us with bleary eyes, as if we had just shined a spotlight in his face.

“Oh… sorry. I’m a bit hung over.”

It was then I decided that it would be really grand if I didn’t have to stay in a hostel anymore. While I understand the concepts of drinking, having a good time, and the subsequent vomiting, headaches, and feelings of regret, I was weary of the repercussions of something I didn’t even get to enjoy.

I was sick of a kitchen full of dishes with caked-on goop, of a bedroom full of backpacking shit, of sleeping with eight people in my room, of the same repeating conversation, of dealing with people. And plastic bags. I was really sick of plastic bags.

Those bags are incredibly useful, and most backpackers, including myself, have a sizeable collection at their disposal. But there’s nothing quite like waking up at midnight to some godforsaken soul crinkling and rustling and mashing his bags; it will turn even the most decent chap into a mass murdering maniac.

One evening I lay awake for at least thirty minutes, eyes clamped shut as visions of shooting the backpacker with increasingly large firearms ran on repeat through my brain. When I awoke in the morning, I glanced at the table in the middle of the dorm and saw that every single item had been wrapped in a little plastic bag. Every single goddamn item.

It seems after ten months in a spread of hostels around Australia, I had become a bit of a grumpy old man—an old man with occasional, irrepressible violent thoughts—which is definitely not something Lonely Planet’s Guide To Australia will warn you about. It was a sign to leave. Yes, time to leave.

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The Flying Fox Hostel. As I returned to the Blue Mountains, where I spent eight of my ten months in Australia, I wondered how I would leave. While Melbourne I enjoyed because I didn’t know anyone, because I could melt into the crowd, I enjoyed the Flying Fox because I had connected with the people. I knew individuals from working and living; there were stories behind buildings and faces instead of question marks—the difference between “traveling through” and “living in.”

And it was harder to leave. Living in a hostel, or living anywhere with travelers really, you encounter the question—leave or be left? It’s like the question of when to leave a party, whether to head out early and worry that the party will go on after you leave or risk being the last one with nothing but a half a cup of warm beer and silence as company. Either way, you’re sad the party is over.

A hostel is in constant flux, and you can return relatively easily after traveling the country. However, you may find the place you once knew has completely changed—and not always for the better. Like a footprint on the shoreline, your imprint is washed away with the next wave of people, a story unknown.

I stayed through four distinct generations of long-term travelers, watching them coalesce and disintegrate, as one person decides to leave… then another… then the rest. Each time the hostel reinvented itself, new people came and gave a distinct energy. And with every departure came a goodbye—a process that practice never really made perfect.

The truth is goodbyes are much easier to avoid. They tend to be heavy, filled with memory and nostalgia of past days, the whole process leaving you looking like a washed-up snot rag. It’s much less painful to slip off into the dawn without telling anyone, and I’d done that a few times. But in retrospect, leaving without a farewell said something I didn’t necessarily want to say.

The act of saying “goodbye” is an assertion not only that something happened but that it was good, that the relationship formed was meaningful. Whereas skipping the farewell insinuates nothing happened, at least nothing worthy of note. If a relationship is a sentence, then a goodbye is the period, and leaving without one is the comma, an awkward drifting off into nothing. Goodbyes are hard because the sentence is over, and no one knows if there will be another one. But they are absolutely necessary to complete a sentence.

It took me awhile to realize this, and I’d trailed off into a comma one too many times. But now I was leaving and not looking to come back; and so, this time I made sure to say goodbye.

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New Zealand. As I returned to New Zealand—a country I had spent a deeply enriching and enjoyable year before Australia—I was wary of overwhelming nostalgia, of being lost in looking over my shoulder, of… sadness, really.

Walking out of the airport to pick up my rental car, I gazed in wonder at the snow-capped mountains hustling their way in the misty rain and fading light. There’s really no other way to describe it other than wondrous. Even the air is better, earthy and fresh, like what every Febreeze scent aims for but only real Manuka can provide. As a very wise ent once said, “The smell of the air! I could spend a week just breathing.”

I made my way to the small back lot to find my rental, which was called “El Cheapo” on the rental paperwork. I found it parked conspicuously away from the better models, an old Nissan Sunny that wanted in pep or any defining characteristic besides that of being past its former glory. The Sunny was a car that was never designed to look really good; even right of out of the dealership the average consumer squinted and said, “Meh, I guess she’ll do.”

What it lacks in for body design, however, El Cheapo certainly makes up for in price, although they do warn you about the transmission on the rental contract, a five-page packet with print so small the more clauses you read, the more dyslexic you become.

I can’t say for sure that I was adequately prepared to drive on the left side of the road again. The last time had been six months previous in a godforsaken campervan, but I circled “extremely confident” on the agreement they make you sign before leaving—so on paper I was certainly feeling optimistic. And after a brief unexpected lap in the parking lot, I was soon barreling as fast as my car could go, which was not very fast.

The whole experience was unreal. I expect places to stop existing when I leave, as if I’m a child who hasn’t progressed past the object permanence stage. But now I was here, once again driving the roads I’d thought had stopped existing, with locals hounding me up the steep mountain passes. I swear that Kiwis have no concept of how dangerously fast they are going—or how dangerously fast they would be going if I weren’t in front of them.

I peered through the window as my wipers swished occasionally. I’ll admit the mountains were inspirational, which isn’t anything new really; it’s exactly what every prosaic motivational poster says in dentist waiting rooms. They have “REACH HIGHER” in bold font next to a gorgeous shot of Everest but, of course, fail to address the fact that mountains are inanimate objects. How can a vast edifice of rock, dirt and snow inspire anyone? They don’t have any choice to be mountains. They can no more stop what they’re doing than can large heavy pieces of furniture or climate change deniers.

Nonetheless, I felt inspired by those vast, inanimate objects. I felt good about life and all of the things that involved. Rain, no rain, here, there, now, then. I was happy to be back.

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New Zealand.

“Do you like dogs?”

“I like Bentley.”

Bentley the bull terrier looked at us with doleful, almost bashful eyes, the type of eyes that say “please oh god, pet me, oh please, please, please…”. While I am not prone to loving accolades to dogs, Bentley is my favorite dog and will continue to be so as long as I live.

He doesn’t lick; he doesn’t smell; he doesn’t bark; he doesn’t shove his head in your crotch with the determination of a miner digging for gold. If you do give him a pet—and it’s really all right if you don’t—his tail goes into a barely contained frenzy knocking down whatever happens to be behind him. In essence, he is the best dog I know, and if he still had his balls, I would certainly recommend him to any female dogs I know.

I was bunking with Bentley, so being on good terms with him was a must, as my friend Anke noted,

“If you don’t like sleeping with Bentley, you’re more than welcome to sleep outside.”

It was while curled on the couch, preparing for a night’s sleep without any plastic-bag-shuffling bastards in the room, that I discovered Bentley’s only fault—snoring, the loud grumbling schnucks of an old man. And whenever he’s not snoring, he’s smacking his lips—like he’s in a dream and discovered a giant cache of peanut butter.

The couch itself wasn’t much to speak of either, and I could see why Bentley chose the chair next to it. My feet hung off the side; I could only fit lying down on my side. And it certainly wasn’t the prettiest couch; it was a putrid shade of green popular in the 60s but at no other period in history would have been considered acceptable. The back of the couch curves so that you inevitably have your chin jammed into your sternum, eyes leveled at your crotch—especially when you slouched. And who doesn’t slouch in a couch? That’s what you do in a couch.

And yet despite the fact that the couch was fairly awful and that old man Bentley was suffering a minor nasal meltdown, I was content. The last nights at the hostel had not been kind, more plastic bags and fitful nights of sleep to disconnected music. Not to mention every morning I had awoken at five thirty to greet a Frenchman who was just going to bed, which was fairly bizarre.

More than a night in a room alone, however, I was content with the reconnection with both friends and place. The worry that I couldn’t return or tap into somewhere filled with memory had dissipated. It was an exercise in remembering the past but not being weighed down in it and appreciating who was left here while realizing I wouldn’t stay.

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New Zealand.

“So how long have you been here?”

I turned a bleary eye to the taxi driver. The warm yellow streetlights passed by outside.

“A couple of weeks… I think.”

It was four thirty in the morning—not a time known for stimulating conversation or feeling optimistic about anything, especially taxi drivers, especially taxi drivers that want to talk.

“And you’ve enjoyed it?”

“Oh yes…”

As I offered less and less in the way of answers, he began to understand that conversation was difficult for me at this stage. He turned his attention to the road and careened wildly towards the airport, getting there in record time, in much less time than I had planned actually.

I don’t know why I always get to the airport so early. Well, I do actually. It’s my parent’s fault, who live in perpetual fear of missing the plane. Over the twenty-four years I’ve been traveling with them, I don’t recollect being late or even having to stroll a bit faster to catch the plane. And still, with the anxiety of a baby without a pacifier, we hustle into the car and rush to the airport at god-awful hours of the morning.

Yep, most people are still pouring a bowl of cornflakes while we’re waiting at the gate, waiting patiently for an airplane which is still over southwest Indiana. I’m not exactly sure what they expect to go wrong that could take all that time—whether the car will break down halfway and we’ll have to walk or we’ll have to haggle down the price of the ticket at the check-in desk.

The terrible irony of the whole thing is I’ve inherited the same fear. As the taxi driver sped away into the night, I realized the airport wasn’t even open. The doors were locked; the check-in terminals empty; there was nothing but stretches of empty carpet.

As I slouched on a bench in the cold dark and stared at the phosphorescent glow of the parking lot lights, I decided I was cold and it was dark. And that this was not a good start for a final journey.

But then, far off in the dark, I heard a blackbird, twittering its blessed heart out, keen to be alive. I was—of course—reminded of The Beatles song, and thinking back on it, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a blackbird at night. It was a slightly surreal experience to be having at five in the morning—one that made it seem slightly less cold and slightly less dark.

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Home. People have always said that certain parts are the climax of your life. Childhood is said to be the best thing, the time of untrammeled enjoyment and innocence. No job; no responsibility. It’s downhill after that. Or maybe it was high school? The rush of the new freedoms of driving and voting and smoking, of friends in your hometown, of not worrying about the future, of looking forward to college. But, wait, what about college? Certainly you can’t beat the closeness of friends, of responsibility without serious repercussions, of being independent, of studying and parties and classes you enjoy. Or maybe the rush of new love? It must certainly be the pits after that. Or after your first child? Parenthood can’t be much fun. And after traveling? Jesus, kiss your freedom and happiness goodbye.

The “greatest time of your life” people and travelers who argue against post-travel are usually the loudest and most persuasive. But quieter voices on the edges of conversation actually like the concept of home (wherever that may be), of returning to a place that may not change as quickly, of being with people who remember and hold a place for you.

It’s strange because to me one of the main reasons “home” is comforting and desirable is exactly the same reason many don’t want to go back—the constancy, the people, the routines of family and work. How long can someone last in an environment of constant movement, of no roots, of no continuing friendships?

As I returned to all the places I had been and loved in some respect, I didn’t feel the need to stay anymore. The constant change of travel had been disorientating; the flow of people in and out made me callous. For home to change as well would be even harder. Imagine if you came back and everyone—all your friends and family—were gone, and it was just an empty place. Imagine a life full of empty places. For what is the soul of a place but the people that inhabit it?

And yet for many people travel has an exalted reputation. Travel seems to be the answer, but many haven’t figured out the questions they’re trying to answer. And that matters quite a bit, if you think about it. Environment certainly contributes to happiness, but as far as your problems are internal, it’s near impossible to escape them, no matter where you are. When travel is used as a band-aid for unhappiness or a sick soul, it usually falls off.

I thought about these things as I approached the end of my journey—having said my farewells to New Zealand and Australia. I walked along the sidewalk to my home, the last segment of a long trip. The sky was blue; the weather warm; the last leaves of autumn still drifting off the winter-ready branches.

After two years with a pack on my back and my front, it was the last walk—for a while at least, and the questions of life lay open. Will it be the end of optimism and fun? Will I spend the rest of my life at a job I dislike? Will I while the rest of my days in a grey denouement?

I don’t think so. The truth is there really isn’t a golden year, a fantastic time for everyone, a one-time, use-it-or-lose-it moment. Even when you’re traveling, life is much more mixed than anyone wants to admit, where peace and happiness can occur at any point as well as depression and pain. And I think realizing that is key, wherever you find yourself in life.

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