Nowhere to go but everywhere

The not-so-secret belief behind the Unquantified Self is that once we disentangle ourselves from the impulse to contain and control our lives by measuring everything, all the time, we could refocus that energy on living more adventurously.

Which of course is always easier said than done.

I have the crazy good fortune to work freelance, and to make enough money even if I just work seven or eight months a year. I know I need to be more daring with that non-working time. I used to take on every little job, and dissipated much of that time with half-days and quarter-days worked. I also used to worry a lot, and spent that time obsessing over where the next job would come from instead of just letting go. But after three years of living this unmoored life I’ve gotten more confident.

Which is why I set off to go backpacking in the Republic of Georgia in June, by myself, without husband or child. I’ve loved Georgia from afar for 26 years. I also haven’t traveled anywhere by myself for 22 years, apart from a few smaller North American forays. There was of course some tentativeness to this trip, a trip I have been planning in my head for so many years. Could Georgia live up to my exalted expectations?

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The short answer is yes. I won’t go into long detail. This is not a travel blog. A week of small and large revelations, beauty, friendliness, compulsive walking with a cause (over 20 miles a day\). I finally got to use the crummy amounts of Georgian I had still stuck in my head after all those years. I will be back, soon. This was just the beginning.

Later that summer, Scotland and England. Family vacation to a country I once lived in. I went back to Oxford and got my master’s degree [long story]. Stayed in my London apartment [long story].

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Summer has been brilliant. And I haven’t tracked much. Only my sleep. And distance. Those I cannot help.

I know that this unmoored life can’t and won’t continue forever. I’ll go back to work. I’ll get fearful. I’ll worry. Some things will fall apart.

But for right now I am immensely grateful for a brilliant, flawless Spring and Summer, beautiful, footloose, serendipitous.


Kicking tracking, no picnic

Time for a bit of a personal update. I set out to so confidently last September to get rid of all the numbers, spreadsheets and devices. I mean, how hard could it be to just … be normal?

Not so easy, it turns out. For a while, everything went well. I walked because I wanted to walk and didn’t worry about hitting x steps or y miles. I ate what I merely guessed were reasonable amounts of food. I no longer did complicated regression analysis on my numbers. I stopped reading most health and fitness blogs and feeds and forums – they mostly all just say the same things anyway. I also mostly didn’t step on the scale, just using my clothes to gauge my weight.

This did free up a considerable amount of time and mental real estate. I read more history books (norse, Mesoamerica) and went to see more concerts (early music, experimental/noise) and just generally got more curious about life again.

I started using a teeny little service that asks me once a day to write a short list of all that was good on that day, creating a log of my small and large adventures. It takes less than a minute and there’s no quantification or further analysis.

So far so good, at least until January. I was working a really big freelance gig, for a very large company, helping to create a new program that’s hugely important for them. Crazy hours, lots of redeye flights, living out an admittedly pretty awesome cafeteria (uni, anyone?). Projecting confidence and nonchalance. Transmitting energy and optimism.

No, I didn’t gain weight. But I just had to start tracking and counting steps again. I know it’s crazy and makes no sense. Just that feeling that my life could go out of control made me reach for the comfort of my numbers.

And now the project is over and done, and I’m still tracking. Because after every big project comes a bout of existential angst – will I ever get another gig? Will I be able to feed my family? Why are we here? What should I do with my life?

I love my freelance life, but it is a rollercoaster, and this stupid, pathetic tracking habit seems to be the price I’m paying.

In my defense I will say that I’m spending much less time on it and don’t obsess over the numbers as much. Plus, I’m still doing more adventuring and aimless wandering. And I’ve booked myself for a trip to Georgia, by myself, in June. Which means I’ve dusted off my Georgian phrase books and grammar and been plotting routes. Maybe that’s the next time I’ll un-track? Wish me luck.

Artist: Roman Opalka

From the swamp to the ocean

I spent Thanksgiving with the in-laws and associated family who live deep in the hinterlands of Florida, just a mile from the hard edge between suburbia and wilderness. Staying there makes me sad, I’ll make no bones about it. Nobody moves very much at all, and all the food comes from bags and boxes, and the there are veritable dunes of sweet junk accumulated in various places around the house, which the kids consume at all hours of the day. Not just on Thanksgiving. All the time. Much of day-to-day conversation is taken up by what’s on sale where. Perhaps understandable because they are so barely hanging on economically, having painted themselves into small corner via revolving credit, car leases and no retirement savings. So much fear, barely kept at bay with Xanax and Wellbutrin, and a reluctance to accept it or address it. I try not to judge. Self control comes easy to me, generosity is a bit harder. I try to see my in-laws as heroic but tragic figures within a larger game they haven’t quite figured out how to control. I wish I could figure out how to connect. They think I’m odd and a bit nuts. I probably am, in my own way.

But that’s why I get so restless there. After just a day I’m yearning for escape. In my self-tracking days I used to just wander for miles and miles through the de-peopled “communities”, along the strip malls, trying to make up my daily distances, six miles, seven miles or even eight miles, trying to control what can’t be controlled.

Now that I only walk for pleasure I decided for something more ambitious and perhaps symbolic; to walk from the swamp to the ocean, which happens to be 14 miles. The purpose of the walk was not only to shake off the mental confinement of being trapped between kitchen and couch, but to look at the Sunshine State from a pedestrian perspective rather than from a minivan or SUV, and perhaps impress upon those nieces that the world doesn’t end at the bottom of their cup-de-sac, that there is a way out.

Here are some of the pictures from that epic walk, which took me just over three hours:

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I know the images are pointedly melancholic and not at all how most people experience South Florida, but that’s how it feels to me. I only saw a handful of pedestrians on my walk. Like, a few people standing on the sidewalk with boards announcing bargains. Some unexpected shared humanity there.

Needless to say everyone thought I was crazy, even crazier to take the bus back, but on that bus, humming with conversations, I felt I was somewhere, a real place.

What are you afraid of?

I wandered through big cities by myself day and night, going to concerts and the movies when I was in my mid-teens.

When I was a teenager I quit high school one morning, got myself a factory job, and went home and told my parents.

I went on a television quiz show when I was 17 to make enough money to run away.

Instead of going to work, I took the train to another country, without telling my family beforehand

A country whose language I didn’t speak very well and where I knew no-one.

After working many menial jobs I applied to a famous university and got accepted after finishing high school in evening classes.

I moved to New York City where I knew no-one.

I studied art in my thirties even though I didn’t have a background in art.

I’ve photographed almost a hundred strangers whom I found on the internet.

I regularly present to large audiences, CEOs and senior business leaders.

I quit my job a few years ago and started a freelance career even though I am the main breadwinner in my family.

I’m no daredevil. But I have no fear of big decisions and big changes.

So why the hell am I so deadly afraid of putting on even just a couple of pounds?

Crazy, irrational, self-destructive, bizarre, ridiculous fear.

What are you afraid of?


The art of walking

“Walkers are ‘practitioners of the city,’ for the city is made to be walked. A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities. Just as language limits what can be said, architecture limits where one can walk, but the walker invents other ways to go.” ― Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

I’ve been a walker all my life.

When I was little, I walked from necessity. I spent my childhood outdoors, and to get from home to anywhere you had to walk.

When I got a little older I woke up to the liberating power of walking.

I walked hundreds of miles on the streets of Berlin when it was still fenced in, still somewhat pockmarked from the war, wistful and forlorn. I walked the ruins, I walked the East, I walked the West. I saw it transform over the years, but every time I walk I still discover places I have never seen. I walked there from loneliness, I walked from curiosity, I walked from boredom.

I walked all over London, freshly arrived as a teenage runaway, I kept moving, to grasp the city, to understand England, to understand a culture that was entirely foreign to me and quite hostile. I walked many evenings and nights when I had nothing else to do, when I just wanted to be among people. I walked the East End, I walked the canals, the river, the old industrial areas, the docks, the cemeteries, the Metro-land suburbs.

And I fell in love with New York by walking endless hours until my feet were swollen and blistered, because I couldn’t possibly stop  – the streets were so exciting, so busy, the people so beautiful and odd. I walked the Bronx, the outer reaches of Queens, every neighborhood in Brooklyn from Maspeth to Gravesend, and every block in Manhattan.

Many of my literary heroes used walking for epiphanies, for transformation, for understanding.

Louis Aragon, who wrote so well about the chance discoveries, the peculiar magic and mystery of Paris, creating a larger framework for experiencing the world.

WG Sebald whose books are from the perspective of the solitary walker, the solitary traveler.

I thought nothing of walking 10, 15 miles at a time, and I would have walked longer if my feet wouldn’t give out.

But the point is, I walked because I wanted to.

When I first got a pedometer I was intrigued to learn how much I actually walk. But when I started to set goals everything changed. I began walking for mileage. Five miles every day, six miles every day, eight miles every day. I walked circles in the neighborhood, circles in the park, circles in the cemetery because I had to hit my goal. I’d pace up and down the apartment just hit a round number.

I no longer walked for pleasure, for curiosity, for loneliness. I walked just to walk.

“And once had, the data mind is hard to shake” writes Craig Mod in his essay Paris and the Data Mind, where he describes the abject disappointment of climbing the Eiffel Tower and then realizing that he forgot his Fitbit, making the trek not count.

“Part of me wanted to cab it back to the hotel. Cab it back and clip on the Fitbit and do the walk again. All of it. Mirrored and remapped. Climb the Eiffel steps once more. Ground it. Make it real in the ether.”

I’m trying to rediscover my old way of walking – open to what’s around me, ready to be transformed, open to detours and adventure, unconcerned with mileage.

The basic rules are:

To never walk just for exercise

To walk into the uncharted

To walk with my eyes wide open

To lose myself

“To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away … to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.” ― Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

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The birth of empathy

After having run away I spent ten months working at a McDonald’s on Finchley Road, London. And then went off to India for a few months, avoiding my first full London winter. This was just after the Bhopal disaster and Indira Ghandi’s assassination and travel visas had just become available again, and India was in a strange mood.

Global travel wasn’t as widespread at the time, but the hippies had beaten a trail through the country and back then in 1984 they were still in evidence. We stayed in cheap hotels and ate one thali a day, which meant that my life savings of 250 pounds or so lasted for many months.

I lost a lot of weight, from that frugality but also the local protozoa, ending up at a fragile 106 lbs draped over my 5’9″ frame. I was so skinny it hurt to sit down. At night I would be tormented by vivid dreams of my family and the home I had run away from. It was my first Christmas abroad and I guess I was still getting used to being all on my own in a large and indifferent world. I sent my family one postcard, which must have scared them just a little. Not only knowing that I had run away, but that I was in India, with all its perceived dangers – drugs, Bhagwan, disease.

From Bombay to Goa by ferry, along the coast, to Mysore, Trivandrum, Cochin, Ooty, Kanyakumari, Pondicherry, Tiruchirapallii, Madras, Bangalore and back to Bombay(the old names were still used back then).

I never took any pictures, being too poor to own a camera. Recently I have been going through other people’s pictures from the same places and times, to evoke more memories than I managed to retain. India, before it got run over by global corporations, smelling of diesel, wafts of music from everywhere, the sound of human voices.

I wasn’t bothered by the desperate poverty all around me, the begging children, the cripples, the desperate mothers, the people sleeping on the streets, the seemingly endless slums. When I was 18 I was almost incapable of empathy. I did not really know how to put myself into someone else’s place and to feel their despair or pain. I had never really learned in my many years of reading books. Feelings were something I had only read about.

I went on to study psychology and philosophy, and to choose a career which is built on grasping how others feel. This is surely not accidental. I was genuinely curious, from an outsider’s perspective about how emotions were built.

In college a friend had lost both parents in fairly short succession in the most miserable circumstances. He spent hours sitting with me, talking about it. He said “with you I worry less about sharing all this, because I know you can carry this and not break” and that was very true.

I did fall in love and marry, but it was only when I had a child that my capacity for empathy suddenly broke through, to a point where it became almost painful. I can no longer listen to babies cry, watch sad movies, read books about the Holocaust. It all just destroys me.

I’ve recently discovered a genetic peculiarity:

My genetic profiles states: “You have a SNP in the oxytocin receptor (rs53576) which may make you less empathetic than most people. When under stress you may have more difficulty recognizing the emotional state of others which impacts loneliness, parenting, and socializing skills… people with the (G;G) genotype were better able to discern the emotional state of others than those who carried the A-allele (which is what I have).”
Not the whole story, but interesting.

Further excavations

As I have written before, the village of my birth is a place of layers upon layers. Everyone has been here from the Celts to the Alemanni, to the Romans to the Nazis to the Americans. On a recent visit my father told me that the mystical square mile – his hunting grounds (he’s a hunter), where American Nike missiles used to be buried deep in the ground, where a small labor/sick camp once stood, where planes used to take off heavy with bombs during the Second World War – is about to become an industrial zone.

Porsche already has a large storage facility there and other buildings and distribution centers have gradually colonized the area. But the latest wave of development will obliterate, or at least cover up most of the remaining evidence. He also reminded me of old stories about the village, when had was a military airport, that planes would get stored in the woods for protection. American or British planes would bomb those woods and there is still so much shrapnel in the old oak trees that no-one will fell them. The metal in there would ruin any saw blade, so old oaks grow majestically, undisturbed. It is for those mystical oaks that I first set out, to see what I would find in the dark fairy tale forest of my childhood.

This is what I found. Foundations of buildings, with cellars beneath them. Trees with damage to their bark. Traces and signs.

My town for many years was home to its small American village. Many people harbor happy memories of their time here. But after the Iron Curtain came down many military bases were closed down and dismantled. Few traces remain of the radar towers, the barracks, the compound, or the place where missiles facing Russia were buried deep underground.

Soon, even fewer will be left.

I also tried to find out more about where the camp once stood but did not find out anything further.

Actually, I just found the map that would have pointed me in the right direction

I did however notice a gravestone for the camp’s Jewish unofficial doctor Adolf Levi (who died there, like so many others in 1944), among the gravestones of people who died in the final days of the war.

As I walked back to my father’s house, musing on how inside village limits everything looked as if forgotten by time, a strange apparition entered from left field. A young black man on a unicycle, wearing headphones and a baseball cap. What could it all mean?