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Walking Through Vancouver

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Join me as we go for a walk. The walk I take every morning from my house to work.

We start in Strathcona. Historically the first suburb of Vancouver. Colourful, century-old houses stand tall on every block. Each house uniquely painted. Some red, some green. Blue, yellow, purple. The streets are awash with colour, cherry blossom trees standing tall on each corner. They hang over the paths like pink clouds in the sky. The air smells fresh, the sound of children sliding along with the breeze. When the sun shines, it seems to shine a little brighter here.

Next Chinatown.

Old Chinese families open the shutters of their shops. Some placing red lanterns outside their doorways, some assembling tables covered with exotic delicacies looking strange and foreign. The smell of spices fills the air. My nose tingles with pleasure.

But soon, we find ourselves there. In Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The change isn’t gradual – it’s sudden. One moment an old Chinese shopkeeper is smiling at us, welcoming us to her store. The next moment a dishevelled man with dirty clothes and long greasy hair whispers in our ear “Marijuana? Cocaine?”

As we plunge deeper, those cherry blossoms seem so far away. The sky grows darker, the streets dirtier. Barely a thing is living here. No trees. No plants. No people. These people aren’t living, they’re surviving, some barely existing. On a street corner a man stands twitching, possessions at his feet waiting to be sold – for food, somewhere to sleep, more often than not drugs.

Dozens of sweaty bodies push together to form a line, waiting for a small cup of soup and a stale bread roll. Just another day in the endless struggle. A routine so far from my own:

Wake up. Survive.

Passing by alleys, I see people huddled in doorways, some selling drugs, some buying. Some using. In one alley, a man lies on the floor, screaming wildly into the air, two police officers stand over him, trying to calm him down. He mumbles at them, incomprehensible. His face is an old weathered ball of flesh, distorted by a long grey beard.

In the alley mouth, a man with a torn sweater and spit running down his cheek shakes an empty cup. He speaks so low that he’s barely audible, his old voice worn and defeated. I don’t hear his words, but I don’t need to. I know what he wants. My reply is a shake of the head and an apology, by this point an automatic reflex, my answer to all of the pan-handlers. Shake and apologise. Shake and apologise. Like I’m sorry.

But I’m not sorry, not really.

As I walk away the man mutters under his breath “fucking asshole.” I walk a little faster.

When I reach the end of the street I turn back to glance at the man, only to find myself walking into another. He wears a business suit and talks into his iPhone. He glares at me, continuing his own walk, muttering those same words “fucking asshole.”

Just as suddenly as we found ourselves in the Downtown Eastside, we have escaped. Skyscrapers shoot upwards piercing the clouds. Men and women hurry along, talking into their phones, sipping their Starbucks coffees, eating their croissants. Everybody has a place to be, some cubicle, on some floor, in some building. They jump off their buses and trains, scurrying like ants towards their buildings. More routines. More lives. So different from those lives a few streets away.

Eventually I find myself in my own cubicle, on my own floor.  I wish I could say my journey ends there, but it doesn’t. I sit, staring out of my window at the street below where another man, almost dressed in rags, holds a cup. He waves it at the business people passing by. Some shake their heads. Most ignore him as though he’s invisible. Nobody gives him any money.

For ten minutes he waves his cup. With each passing minute the feeling in the pit of my stomach grows. The man gives up, leaves. But the feeling doesn’t leave with him. It continues to grow. It comes back stronger every time I walk to work.

Now this is a feeling so complex that I struggle to describe it. Some emotions are easy to explain, we can justify them with some real world evidence, or a little psychological analysis, but this emotion is so intricate that no matter how much I search myself for an answer to its riddles, I can never really conclude anything.

The feeling is a cocktail of guilt, anger, hopelessness, compassion, fear, pity, apathy, frustration and confusion. A mixture of emotions for the mixture of thoughts that pass through my head when I’m honest with myself. When I’m really being honest.

Let me start to be honest:

I’ve also started to ignore the homeless.

It’s all I can do to keep myself sane. I see people on the streets desperate for help and I turn the other way. I’ve seen teenage girls turning tricks and pretended they didn’t exist. I’ve seen half-starving men begging for help and I’ve not even sighed. Just walked on by. Shaking my head, apologising.

Yet, no. I’m not being honest. Not at all. Ignoring these people isn’t even the start of it. I’ve not only started to ignore the homeless but I’ve started to think of them as…well…not human.

The world of the homeless is so far from my own, that there’s no human connection for me to make. I can’t (or wont) empathise with the homeless at all. Not because I’m some massive sociopath, but simply because that’s the easiest way I’ve found of dealing with this strange situation which I can’t understand. I’ve fooled myself into thinking there is no connection between their world and mine. That we aren’t just different people, but a different species. I’m in denial. These people aren’t people, so why should it matter if they suffer to me?

One day as I was walking home, an old Japanese man tried to stop me, I just continued to walk, but he called “EXCUSE ME!” so loudly that I finally had to stop in my tracks. The old man looked up at me, and politely asked the way to the train station. Although the whole exchange only took a matter of seconds, it showed me how mistrustful I had become of people on the street. All people. I’ve become prejudice. Judging people not on who they actually are, but on how they look, or how they act.

Oh. I want to be honest. With myself and with you. I am not a perfect person, nobody is, but I’ve always felt that I was somehow good inside. I always thought that if I saw somebody collapse on the street that I would stop to help, but I’m starting to think that isn’t true. I’m instead starting to think I’m the type of person that would instead keep walking, pretending they saw nothing and fighting back the remorse with the words “somebody else will take care of it.”

Those words are the words that most people in Vancouver must use to sleep at night. “Somebody else will take care of it.” One person ignoring the homeless isn’t a problem, but the majority of the city ignoring it – hoping that something will magically sort it out? Pretending there is no problem. That’s a problem. It scares me shitless. Living in a society where everybody is completely in denial about what is around them.

Still. I try to be honest. Because I feel like honesty is the one thing that can save me. Admitting my faults is the first step towards slowly changing things for the better. Maybe all we need to do is change a little. But I feel that admitting I’m wrong is the smallest step, and every step afterwards is harder, and no matter how many steps I take it wont matter, because no matter how much I change, the world wont change with me.

There’s a hopelessness I feel, knowing I can do almost nothing about this situation. One less person ignoring the problem means nothing if everybody else in the world is pretending nothing is wrong.

People find it so hard to admit they’re wrong. Why can’t we all just say: Yeah, we’ve fucked up, there are people in our city, our community that need our help and we’re turning a blind eye and it’s time to change that.

Maybe it just takes too much courage, to stand up and admit to yourself that you’re not as good a person as you’d like to believe. Maybe it’s just too easy to live in denial, to stay at home in your nice warm house and think “yeah, I donated a little to charity this year, they’ll sort it out…I’m doing my bit.” But all the money in the world can’t solve a problem that’s being ignored.

My dad has a saying he always uses. When it’s especially cold outside he’ll shiver and say “I’d hate to be homeless tonight.” At no point in saying this does he actually consider the words. The implication –  that there’s another human being out there on the streets possibly freezing to death. Instead it’s just a thing he says, never really caring to ponder the full meaning. We all do it.

I feel like I might be coming off as high and mighty. But that’s not my motive. I don’t know what my motive is. When I write, and when I think, I try to come up with some reasonable conclusion. I try to find out why things are as they are. I try to understand.

This time though, I can never understand. No matter how much I search. Why we do what we do. Why we are what we are.

I used to think that the homeless just made a wrong decision at some point. That I could so easily have made the same decision, that I could have ended up in their shoes. I used to think that it was nobody’s fault, that some people just fall through the cracks and we can’t pull them back out again.

But that’s not it. Not it at all. I want to be honest. Those people fall, and they scream. They cry for help and we hear their calls. Yet we ignore them. And we wont pull them back out again.

No matter how loud they scream. We wont pull them back out again.

We just shake our heads and apologise.

____________________
Photo is Cherry Blossom by kiuko on Flickr.

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A Mossy Adventure

There’s bad news and there’s good news.

First, the good news.

After a long short, hard easy struggle, I have found myself a job. It pays well, I get to work in a skyscraper and officially my title is Underwriting Assistant. Unofficially I’m an admin again, and will be doing exciting things like typing a lot and sipping tea a lot.

Next, the bad news.

I have found myself a job. I start on Monday. Oh shit…MONDAY IS TOMORROW! BOOOOO!

Today, I feel very much like a child on the last day of the Summer holidays, looking back at the previous 6 weeks and thinking “Dammit, I wish I’d spent less time sitting on my arse, and more time doing exciting things! I’ve wasted 6 weeks!” Knowing you have to go back to the grind after weeks of laziness is a horrible feeling. My response to the word “work” is “UGH!” But it’s got to be done. Something has to pay for my horribly expensive addictions to food and warmth.

Knowing my days of rest are almost at a close, I’ve been spending my time exploring as much as possible, trying to make the most of my freedom while I still have it. One late afternoon, I decided to go and see the sunset. My plan was simple: I’d just keep walking towards the sun and this would eventually mean I’d end up at the coast where I could watch the sun going down.

This seemed like a perfect plan, but was completely imperfect for two reasons:

1. The coast was around 2 inches away on the map. This made me think “Hey, two inches? That’s nothing! It’s probably only a ten minute walk! 2 hours later, with aching legs, I was starting to think I was possibly, maybe wrong.

2. Pacific Spirit Park.

Ah, Pacific Spirit Park. According to some random stranger online, it’s “The closest thing you can get to the wilderness in Vancouver.” Brilliant, I thought, I can go for a lovely hike through the woods on my way to the sunset. All I have to do is remember: follow the sun, follow the sun, follow the sun.

After 20 minutes of walking along random trails, I very quickly realised, I was lost. Following the sun is the most moronic idea ever! Once you go into a dense forest it’s impossible to see the bloody thing! Now I know why the compass was invented.

After 20 more minutes, I realised, I was not lost, I was really lost. I started to panic slightly. The sun was going down rather quickly. The forest was getting dark. I’d heard there were coyotes in Vancouver. What if a coyote ate me?! I tried to think back to all of the survival shows I’d watched on TV. “I’ve got it!” I screamed, “I’ll just check the moss”. Apparently moss only grows on the North side of a tree. So I checked a tree. It was covered in the damn stuff, ON BOTH SIDES. Actually, the whole fucking forest was covered in moss! This was clearly some kind of crazy moss forest of doom!

Another 20 minutes, I felt the need to pee. I wondered if I should drink it to keep my hydration up. I started to hear voices in the forest around me. Possibly somebody walking their dog. POSSIBLY A SATANIC CULT THAT’S GOING TO KILL ME!

An additional 20 minutes and after a lot of deep thought, I decided NOT to drink my pee. Instead I released it all over the moss to punish it. TAKE THAT MOSS! MWAHAHA!

With the sun almost down and the forest ever darkening, I decided it was probably time to write a farewell note to my family, but just as I was reaching in my bag to get some paper, I heard footsteps on the trail behind me. Coming towards me were three dark figures with shining heads. I screeched in terror. Only aliens have shining heads, I’m about to be abducted!

Then a soft voice said, “You ok, man?” It’s then that I noticed they weren’t aliens at all. But three Chinese ecology students with lamps on their heads. I broke down in tears, dropping to my knees “I thought, I was going to die in this horrible mossy death forest!” One of the students rolled their eyes “Pffff, this forest has some of the rarest moss in the world! Don’t diss the moss, man!” “I’m sorry, I’m just so thankful, I was lost…and…and…” “Dude, the road is just there…” The Chinese student pointed to my right, and there the road was, directly beside the trail, metres away.

Standing up and brushing the dirt off my jeans, I thanked the students and walked to the road, finding a viewpoint to watch the sunset from. As I was walking away, I heard one of the students sniffling “fucking tourists, always blaming the moss.”

Dealing With Culture Shock

Train arriving at Cairo's Sadat station

To visit a country is only to skim the surface.

You can never truly grasp a place in a few days. Sometimes understanding can take months, even years. When visiting a new country, the differences are something you appreciate, the differences are why you’re there, they’re part of the experience, you may even say they are the experience. Staring at the queer fruits and vegetables in a market you say, “Wow, we don’t get these back home!” It excites you. Everything excites you. The voices, the people, the food, the streets, the sky, the mountains. Everything.

Later, you leave, go back to the comfort of your own fruits and vegetables. Back to your own voices, your own people. Back home, to what you know and love. Back to comfort.

Culture shock happens when you try to change that home, even temporarily. When you try to make a transition between the new life you’ve started and the old life you’ve left behind. You can visit a country for a week and believe it’s the greatest place on earth. You can stay another week and the cracks might start to form. You can stay for a month and you’ll go crazy.

Those fruits and vegetables that were once so exciting fill you with resentment. Your mind struggles with the way things work in this new place. You don’t know the new systems. The magic has worn off. Nothing excites you. Everything around you is just a reminder of your old home, everything you are used to. You miss the way things were. You miss your familiar life. You miss your fruits and vegetables. You’re homesick.

In the past I worked with the notion that culture shock didn’t exist when going to a country much like your own. I’ve been to America a few times. People spoke the same language, ate the same vegetables and acted in much the same way. Their culture is the same, I thought. But, I was naive.

A culture is more than what’s on the surface, a culture runs deep. Even when the language is the same, the systems are different.

Chances are you’ve never noticed there are systems at all. Everything around you has always been there, you’ve lived in a place so long that you subconsciously know how things work. You instinctively know what to do in any situation. You understand your world.

Culture shock is understanding nothing. It’s being blind in a world where everybody around you can see. Life becomes a challenge. Riding the bus becomes a scary experience. How do you pay the driver? How do you queue? How do you get off the bus? How do you stop the bus (do you put your hand out, or does it just stop?) Everyday situations, in a new country, become obstacles, something you must overcome.

When you are faced with hundreds of new challenges each day, when buying a pint of milk becomes a task which you must consciously think about, that’s when you get frustrated, and culture shock sets in. But you can learn.

Here’s a skill you probably take for granted. If you have coins in your pocket, you can look at them in your hand and within a moment you will know roughly how much money you have. It’s something you’ve learnt at one point or another, but you never think about it. It’s almost always been there. But you must learn it again. You have to learn it all again.

The easiest way to get from A to B, where to go if you need toothpaste, who to ring if your car breaks down, what brand of tea is best to drink, where to go if you break your tooth, how to haggle at the local market.

Guides can tell you where to go, maps can show you how to get there. But there is no map to use for living. The smallest details are the most important and those are the details people never mention, because they never seem noticeable. But you will learn.

Some things come quickly – learning how to cross the street, mastering the bus, finding out how much those coins are worth. Other things come slowly – learning to talk like the locals, mastering your routine, finding out how to cook with those crazy fruits and vegetables.

Eventually though, there’s nothing more to learn. Life is no longer a challenge. Every little skill you’ve mastered is pushed back into your subconscious. You can look at the money in your hand and know what you have. You can feel comfortable knowing where you are.

Home.

——————

Photo is “Train arriving at Cairo’s Sadat station” by modenadude. Published under the Creative Commons license.

Emergency Contact Emergency (E-mail #2)

Hello again,

Has it been a week already? Man, does time fly when you’re sitting on your arse doing nothing – which is what I’ve been doing mostly this week. I’ve already got into the old, productive routine of waking up, then checking my emails for 12 hours straight. I tell myself I’m looking for jobs, but who am I kidding, I’m mostly just looking at cat videos.

Thankfully, I have managed to fill in a few job applications and have signed up for a couple of recruitment agencies. Applications aren’t usually a problem for me, but recently I’ve been struggling with one section a lot, the good old emergency contact.

Back home, my emergency contact is usually my mam (awww), but over here I’ve come to the horrible realisation that I don’t know anyone. You can’t exactly meet somebody for 5 minutes then say, “Hey, by the way, I’m putting you down as my emergency contact!” It’d be a bit awkward, wouldn’t it? It’s almost like proposing marriage, you need to find the right person first, somebody you can trust, somebody you’re close to, somebody that doesn’t mind if you fart aloud in bed.

If you’re in an accident at work, and you’re in hospital about to die, who would be the person you’d want to see before flying into that tunnel of light? Your emergency contact, of course!

But, I have no emergency contact. I’ve met a few people, sure – but I’m still at the stage with most of them where I tend to forget their name and what they look like. Hardly emergency contact material. I can hardly write, “That tall dude with the brown hair who might be named Bob or Rob” on application forms. Plus heaven forbid that I’m actually in an accident and they turn up to the hospital, look at me and say, “Sorry, have we met?” I’d look completely pathetic! Especially when explaining, “Yes, of course we’ve met! Don’t you remember? You’re my best friend. I held the door open for you at the supermarket that one time…and you said ‘thanks’…”

So for now my emergency contact is myself. I’m hoping nobody notices and just thinks I’ve got a friend with the exact same name and phone number. God help me if I’m in an actual accident, I’m the last person I want to see before death.

In other news, you may remember last week that I swore off meat due to its expense. Rather predictably, my vegetarianism only lasted around a week. My friend mentioned to me that I’m here to have fun, not to live like a hermit and I managed to see some sense. I’ve decided to say FUCK IT. Even if meat is too expensive, I’m going to eat it regardless. With that in mind I headed straight for Japadog – a fast food restaurant that sells Japanese hot dogs.

Now you may be wondering, what exactly a Japanese hot dog is. I can tell you that the hot dogs themselves are NOT Japanese, just normal hot dogs. It’s what they put on top that is Japanese. Take a look:

Yup, a hot-dog smothered in sea-weed. Very Japanese. It was surprisingly tasty and the perfect way to break my meat fast (although I guess it was only technically meat, since it was probably made of cow anuses.)

After finishing my hot dog, I thought a little dessert might be in order, which is when I looked up and saw this:

I decided the sea-weed hot dog was enough adventure for one day, and went on my merry way, happy to be back to my meat-eating ways. But I’m unfortunately still not allowing myself to buy one thing due to its expense. Beer. At around $8 (£5!) a pint it’s $8 more than I’m willing to spend. Finally a good excuse to stop drinking the damn stuff!

Anywho, that’s enough for now! Have a good week everybody.

Dan

An Email Back Home (E-mail #1)

Hi guys,

So I’ve decided to send a group email out from time to time, as I think it’ll be a lot easier for me to do that than to talk with you all individually about the same things. If you’re not interested in receiving said emails, tell me so, or I’ll just keep sending them.

Anyway, on to business.

I had the best time over Christmas in Portland and was incredibly sad to leave it behind as after 3 weeks or so it was starting to feel like home. I had so much spending money that I could basically live like a king, and I spent a lot of my time walking around, finding nice places to eat, then walking around some more until I found another nice place to eat. I’ve searched my mind for a way to make money out of walking and eating, as it’d probably be my dream job, but the best I can come up with is a food critic and I don’t think that’s going to cut the mustard really.

Fortunately due to all of the walking I haven’t gained any weight. Unfortunately now that I’m in Vancouver my budget is much tighter and I’ll probably end up losing weight due to malnutrition. Have you realised how expensive meat is? (Hint: really fucking expensive!) Do you know how much bread costs? (Hint: A lot.)

I’ve already taken to shopping at the Canadian equivalent of Netto (Netto being a cheap British supermarket) and buying the cheapest unbranded goods. I no longer drink Dr Pepper, I drink Mr Popper. I no longer eat Cheerios, I eat Cheery-WOAHS. I no longer eat prime sirloin steak, I lay traps to catch squirrels in the nearby park.

Actually this is mostly a lie, I don’t buy pop (soda) because it’s too expensive.  I drink water. I haven’t eaten meat since I arrived because that too seems expensive. Possibly I’m just being really cheap, but I’m now almost a vegetarian. I look back fondly on the days when my parents bought all that yummy food for the house. Times are tough – and I’ve only been here a week.

Apart from the malnutrition, things are good. I’m currently living in the basement of a house in Kitsilano, a nice suburb of Vancouver. In the afternoon I can look out of our back window and see mountains across the water. At night (due to living near the top of a hill) you can see the city lights in the distance. The neighbourhood is lovely and my impression so far of Vancouver is that the further you get from downtown, the nicer it becomes. Downtown is all hustle and bustle, tooting horns and people – not my type of thing.

Today I accidentally found myself walking into (what I have now learnt) is the notorious Downtown Eastside. Imagine a place where dozens of prostitutes, crack addicts and the crazy loiter all day on the street – that’s the Downtown Eastside. I walked out of there pretty sharpish and met a Couchsurfer in the nearby park . I attach a photo I took in the park to give you an idea of the type of place the area clearly is.

In other news, I’m currently looking for jobs in the city. At the moment I’m just searching for office jobs, but in a month or so (or perhaps sooner once I really start to crave meat) I’ll start looking for other jobs. I’ve already contemplated a dish-washing job, that’s how much I want to buy steak and Dr Pepper.

That’s enough from me for now, hope you’re all doing alright.

Dan

Fear of Freedom

Skydiving

My flights are booked. My visa approved. It was the easiest-tough decision of my life. In 9 weeks, 1 day and 14 hours, I will begin a journey, turning over a new page in my life.

At 25 years of age, I will move to Canada. For 8 months, maybe longer, I will move to Canada. Alone.

I have no real plan. Nowhere to stay. No job. No friends. Just a vague itinerary and the ability to put off thinking about most problems until they face me.

Yet, still, I am shitting myself.

It’s strange how our first reaction to freedom is to be scared. People are planners. We love to be comfortable with our tomorrows – we love to see around the next corner – we love to know.

A fear of the unknown is something most people share. We hate mystery, it pulls at our stomach and wont let go. If something is unknown to us, our imaginations can take over, and nothing can be more damaging than our brain on the loose. We can think up such terrible situations that could never possibly happen in real-life, yet we convince ourselves they could.

The best horror movies play on that fear – involving monsters that we never fully see, only glimpsing the features, making up the horror with our minds. When we do eventually see the monster, usually the movie stops being scary. Once you know what that great horror really is, once it can be understood, it’s no longer a threat. When we can compare the reality to what we imagine, we realise that our imagination was far scarier.

This fear of an unknown future is what stops most people from making drastic changes in their life, even when the changes will eventually be better for them.  When the future becomes a blank void, everything becomes scary. We look forward and all we can see is series of ‘what-ifs’ with no pre-determined path. Anything could go wrong. Anything could go right. We can see no reality, only the imagined. We never know what will happen. Scary.

Most people don’t take the leap. They just stay in a comfortable bubble, they know what will happen tomorrow, some know what will happen in 10 years, some have their whole lives planned til their death. There’s no problem with that, but to me there’s something boring in that inevitability.

A book is no longer fun to me when I can tell what’s going to happen. It feels like I’m just going through the motions, reading for the sake of reading. Life with a huge plan is like living for the sake of living. You already know what will happen, so why bother at all?

I’d rather live for the unknown plot-twist. But to do that I will have to conquer that fear. I will have to jump head first into the unknown, with nothing to protect me but the briefest of hopes that everything will turn out good. Knowing that the future is a blank canvas, that I can do anything with it.

Knowing that I am truly, completely free.

——

Photo is titled Skydiving by Kaipullai(கைப்புள்ள)

I Was A Superhero

For the past 6 months I have been leading a secret double life. I am a superhero.

I wake in the early hours of the morning, while the world sleeps, while evil stirs. I stand before my mirror, slip on my costume – a sleek fitted red shirt, blue tights, a cape. I stretch my muscles, ready to roam the streets.

My super-powers?

The power to make dogs go wild on sight. The power to make small children jump up and down with delight. The power to quietly sneak onto private property with stealth. The power of above average-health.

My friends know me as Daniel Baird. But when I suit up, when I put on that red shirt. When I don that cape. I am no longer Daniel Baird. I am no longer weak – I gain the strength of at least TWO 9 year old boys. I am no longer an idiot – I gain intelligence at least comparable to that of a dolphin. I become my alter-ego. I become…

Postman

Do you need a letter delivered apathetically by somebody that doesn’t give a damn? Postman is there!! Do you need a large package delivered sometime between 7am and 5pm, but probably at the exact moment you step into the shower? Postman is there!! Do you need somebody to wake you up at 8am on a Saturday morning because a packet wont fit through your letter box? Do you need junk mail? Shopping catalogues? Pizza menus? Do you need a torn birthday card? Postman is there!!

Whether rain, snow, heat or gale. Postman is there!!

Or rather. I would have been there, because eventually reality set in. I realised I wasn’t a superhero. I wasn’t Postman (upper-case “P”), I was a postman (lower-case “P”). I didn’t have any super powers. I didn’t have a costume. I had an uninspiring job delivering mail.

The word uninspiring is apt. Inspiration has to come from somewhere, and posting mail through doors for 4 hours each day isn’t that somwhere. Monotony destroys creativity. The more monotonous your life, the less your need to think. The less you think, the more challenging it becomes to do those things that require thinking. Thinking becomes tough.

From the moment I started the job I stopped thinking. My enthusiasm for pretty much everything started to wane. I was Lazyman. My superpower was laziness. I didn’t want to get out of bed, I didn’t want to go out with friends, I stopped doing all of the enjoyable things I liked to do. I didn’t read a book in months. My attention span was at an all time low. My energy was gone.

I only had enough energy for miniscule tasks, like posting mail. Anything else was too much, making a full meal was too much, I ate nothing but sandwiches for months. I didn’t think all day at work, so my mind wasn’t ready to think afterwards. Worst of all I stopped writing – you possibly noticed – because writing was too taxing, too much work. I became a zombie. I clicked into my routine, my life was barely conscious. I would drift to work, drift through my day, drift home, drift to sleep. Everything I did was subconscious. My life was a one without thought.

Then one day I ran out of elastic [rubber] bands.

Rubber Bands

To a postman, the elastic band is more than a simple piece of stationery. Each day the Royal Mail goes through 2 million red elastic bands, all used to bundle up mail. But despite this they are still a rare commodity. Postal workers hoard the bands in secret stashes to ensure there’s always a steady supply so that they never run out. I started my own stash. Elastic bands became valuable to me. I always had one eye on my bands. I started to cup them in my hands and purr the words “my preciousssss.” Until the day I snapped too many and I ran out.

Now the only way to get more elastic bands if you’re a postman, is to steal them off somebody else. While a co-worker is away from his desk, you need to sneak over, grab as many bands from his stash as possible, then run back to your own desk.

It was still early in my elastic band stealing career. I didn’t know the tricks. So I watched as a co-worker beside me walked away from his own fitting. I snuck over. I quickly started to search for his bands, and when I couldn’t see any in immediate sight I started to deepen my investigation. Each desk had one drawer, I opened his and started to rifling through it, finally finding the treasure: hidden under a piece of paper, the largest collection of elastic bands in the world. I wanted to jump into the bands and swim in them. But no time! I filled my hands as quickly as possible, then I heard a loud voice behind me.

“WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING!?”

I turned around. My co-worker was standing in front of me, a thin middle-aged man with thick glasses and a buzz cut. The type of guy that looks like he was once in the army but got kicked out for being too crazy (which is pretty crazy). He pushed himself right up into my face. I was scared and I fumbled an excuse “I – um, I just, I needed some elastic bands…” He sneered at me “WELL YOU’RE NOT TAKING ANY ELASTIC BANDS OFF MY FUCKING DESK! THOSE ARE MY FUCKING ELASTIC BANDS! FIND YOUR OWN ELASTIC BANDS SOMEWHERE ELSE! YOU’RE NOT HAVING MINE!!!”

I squeaked an apology, putting the bands back on his desk and slumping away. For a few moments I filled completely with rage. I swore at my co-worker in my mind. Why should he have all the fucking elastic bands? What the fuck was I supposed to do? Why did he have to be so fucking mean? Fuck him. I called him everything I could think of. Fucking this, fucking that.

Then I caught myself in the anger, a short moment of self-realisation. I was shocked at what I could see. My life had degenerated to the point that I was feeling genuine, deep anger over elastic bands. I started to laugh to myself. The whole thing was absurd. They were just elastic bands.

I realised I was no longer in control of myself, I had subconsciously just become like everybody around me. Not focusing or thinking. I was becoming petty, mean and angry about insignificant things. Soon I wouldn’t want to share my own bands. My preciouses.

As the days went by I started to really look around me at my co-workers. I realised that the longer they had been working there, the more they had lost sight of reality. They no longer knew what was and wasn’t of importance. They had stopped thinking of elastic bands as something to tie up mail. They thought of these little pieces of rubber as a sign of power and authority. If you had the most bands, if you could protect your bands against everybody else, then you had some small piece of power. Nobody else.

None of this was conscious, no thinking was involved, it just happened. Like the children in Lord of the Flies, we didn’t become crazed elastic band hoarders overnight. It was gradual. Slowly creeping onto you until it seemed like normal behaviour.

I have seen grown men swear, out-loud, in a rage, because somebody else has told them they have to deliver one more package. I have seen postmen throwing packages against the wall because their elastic bands kept snapping. I have seen men – actual adults, with children – almost get into fist fights over having to deliver a few more letters. And I have seen how the majority of people I was working with thought this was all normal behaviour, I even thought it was normal behaviour myself for a while.

But it’s only normal when you don’t think about it, when you lose your life to a sub-conscious routine. When you no see the world rationally, and you give importance to unimportant things, like elastic bands.

Millions of people do this their whole life. Drift through life subconsciously. Never thinking. Never knowing they aren’t thinking. Losing sight of so many important things. Becoming attached to so many insignificant things without knowing why.

Then one day they hang up their cape. They look around them. They look at themselves. They wonder why those rubber bands were so important. And they quit.

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Photo 1 is titled Now All I need is a Cape by Zach Disner on Flickr.
Photo 2 is titled Rubber Bands by mattscoggin on Flickr.