Going for broke in the Bay

Almost anyone visiting San Francisco is struck by two things: first, the enormous influence of the tech industry. This is noticeable in everything from the high cost of rent, to the ubiquity of digital technologies, for example the fact that you can use PayPal in some restaurants and feed a parking meter by SMS, as well as the numbers of people walking around wearing Google Glass(es).

And the second thing most striking thing about San Francisco is the street people.

Well, maybe not necessarily in that order. Because the street people are more immediately visible, both in their numbers and in the assertiveness of their presence.  It makes some people sad, others angry, and still others simply confused. “Why are there so many of them?” you’ll hear the tourists asking. Visitors from abroad get particularly rattled by this view of American life so at odds with their image of it. “I just don’t understand…”

As a recent transplant to the Bay Area, I have been puzzling over this myself. Because it does seem inconsistent, or, depending on your politics, even iniquitous at first glance. But today it struck me: what if these two seemingly opposite worlds have more in common than we think? Consider:

Tech entrepreneurs                                                                  Street people

Ask for money from venture capitalists                                     Ask for money from passersby

Often have several failed ventures behind them                     “Failed” citizens

Tend to be mavericks or extreme individualists                       Alone almost by definition

Startups are ephemeral, booming or going bust quickly          Live in temporary situations

What was most interesting to me about this is that, in some ways, all that really separates the homeless and tech entrepreneurs is social class and the scale of their activities. (I wouldn’t say that mental illness forms a distinction here, because the affluent are equally afflicted by mental illness; they just have access to drugs, doctors and effective treatments.)

Social class isn’t just about money and education, however. It’s also a way of relating to the world – privilege comes down to a sense of being cushioned, knowing that you will always be taken care of in some sense. People who feel this way never doubt they have options, while people who don’t feel the reassurance of privilege tend to act in the belief that, “I have no choice,” which are the kinds of actions that get them into trouble.

Scale plays an interesting role here too. A person on the street usually asks strangers for spare change, at most a dollar or two. A tech entrepreneur typically asks VCs for tens of thousands of dollars – sometimes millions. But in doing so, they are not shamed or labeled a beggar.

But finally, I think what interests me most about the parallels between entrepreneurs and street people – in some cases you might even call them synergies -is what they reveal about these social roles in our culture. It’s that old romantic notion of the individual hero: going out there to make it on his own terms, no matter what happens. Going for broke!

If you’re a middle-class (probably white) guy with a good education and great confidence in your own abilities and ideas, you can go out there and start hitting people up for huge sums of money, which you can then put into your personal projects for years at a time. Even if these projects are not successful in themselves this will not necessarily make you unsuccessful in getting even more money from people for other ideas later on. Failure is not applied as a term in these situations, either to the entrepreneurs or their projects.

Whereas the homeless are the very embodiment of failure in American culture: no home, no job, no possessions with social value or status.

Yet what the homeless do have is time, which is the one resource that every entrepreneurs would beg, borrow or steal if they could.

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Not by bread alone

This was my first Thanksgiving back in the US after being overseas for the last few years, and I decided to celebrate the holiday by volunteering at a church serving a community meal in Oakland.

A lot of other people had the same idea. Just as when I’ve helped out in a soup kitchen or similar at Thanksgivings  in the past, it’s quite striking to notice the volunteer-to-diner ratio. It makes you start to wonder about who the “needy” really are.

This year, something else struck me too. Maybe because holidays have a quieter sense about them in Norway - everything is closed, sometimes for the better part of a week, and there is often little to no traffic on the streets – I was taken aback by the level of activity here, both the fact that I passed so many businesses that were open on my walk through Oakland, from grocery stores to cafes, as well as the frenetic scene in the church when I arrived. In the dining hall, people scurried about with plates of food, pitchers of water, and trays of desserts. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, orders were being shouted back and forth as though in a restaurant: “Dinner rolls! Do we have more dinner rolls?” “Salad’s up!” “How’s the line out there?” while other folks scrubbed pots, carved turkey and carted away the recyclables.

It was just the opposite at the tables themselves, however.  There were a few volunteers chatting with the “customers”, but otherwise it seemed most people were eating alone. And that left me scratching my head a bit.

The ostensible purpose of Thanksgiving is to gather together and celebrate a symbolic feast in gratitude for the bounty and blessings we otherwise take for granted. But what the scene at the church showed me is that we are really looking for a sense of communion, both with one another as well as with the Divine, in these holidays (holy days). Yet we shy away from really doing it, from looking into another human being’s eyes and asking them how they are. It’s much easier to hand them a plate. None of us can say too much when our mouths are full of food.

America is a very action-oriented culture. We know how to get things done. Organizing initiatives, delegating tasks, defining goals and outcomes. We are not so good at being, without any doing involved – simply spending time with each other, without any particular result in mind. And so when it comes to our neighbors not having anything to eat or anywhere to go at the holidays, we want to organize all this activity around the problem: We’ll set up shelters and put on dinners! We’ll have tables of boxed goods and clothing for them to sort through! We’ll minister to them and provide them services!

But in doing so we risk forgetting that “man does not live by bread alone.” How do we truly feed the hungry – who are not just ‘those poor people’ we see on the streets, but we ourselves, who hunger for  each other’s company – for real community, and a sense of meaning?

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Small world

Paul Virilio is a philosopher who specializes in thinking about the impact of technology. In this 1996 interview with Wired magazine, he discusses the evolution of technology from outside in, large to small, or as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur recently put it, “the trajectory from persuasive to pervasive.” Here’s the Virilio quote:

There have been three industrial revolutions. The first important revolution on the technical plane was that of transportation. The second, which was almost concomitant, was the transmissions revolution, including Marconi, Edison, radio, television. The third, which we are on the verge of, is the revolution of transplantations. All these technologies of telecommunications that had been employed in aviation and missiles favor nanotechnology – the possibility of miniaturizing technology to the point of introducing it into the human body. Just as the geographic world was colonized by means of transportation or communication, we have the possibility of the colonization of the body by technology – as if we had the city in the body and not the city around the body. We are on the verge of the biomachine.

This made me wonder: how will we relate to space symbolically if we no longer perceive it as outside of ourselves? Or as though there is nothing to interact with outside of ourselves? Virilio picks up this point too:

I think that the infosphere – the sphere of information – is going to impose itself on the geosphere. We are going to be living in a reduced world. The capacity of interactivity is going to reduce the world to nearly nothing. In fact, there is already a speed pollution, which reduces the world to nothing. In the near future, people will feel enclosed in a small environment. They will have a feeling of confinement in the world, which will certainly be at the limit of tolerability, by virtue of the speed of information. If I were to offer you a last thought – interactivity is to real space what radioactivity is to the atmosphere.

Ironic to think that “interactivity” leads us to a helpless form of narcissism. We can no longer escape our technologically enhanced idea of ourselves… only if, however, we believe that is all there is.

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To find and be found

There are days I struggle to ground myself. Just leaving the house and going out, I feel immediately drunk on sensation, information, the sheer volume of input advertised by the world.

For a long time I thought I was looking for something. (Had to find it.) This took the form of traveling or shopping when I went out, internet research when I stayed in. Searching, seeking, trying to find the thing that I definitively needed.

Then one day it hit me: I wasn’t looking for what I needed. I was looking for something that needed me. But what was it? And where would I find it?

Standing patiently on the shelf of a bodega in Brooklyn?
Waiting under the flapping tarp of a tea stall in the Himalayas?
Tapping a pen on the desk of an office in the Middle East?

And once I found it, would I finally remember who I really was, and why I had come here?

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Floating world diaries – Vienna to Venice

Most of the world – that is, the world that has buying power and voting power, and also enjoys the extra luxury of seeing itself reflected and confirmed in what it watches, reads and listens to – lives in terms of fixed addresses and fixed routines. Its strength lies in rigidity and inertia rather than flexibility and agility. (Qualities that are mostly found in athletes or wild animals, and praised most effusively by large and ungainly corporations.)

I see this more clearly now as a denizen of the floating world which orbits the settled world. And because other worlds are always of literary interest to people who watch and read and listen, I’ve decided to document this state while I’m in it.

At a month-plus of continuous travel, a different perspective sets in. You lose your customary frame of reference of home, or whatever place you’re in the habit of going back to, stop waiting for this time of up in the air to be over, and become preoccupied instead only with what’s next. The road just keeps rolling, rather than coming to an end.

And so, yesterday, I left my very kind friend’s place where I could have stayed longer, and where in fact he had invited me to join in a large and multi-day family celebration happening later this week, and got on the overnight train from Vienna to Venice.

The sleeper car turned out to be a “mixed dorm” – 4 young men and me, and then finally another woman who clambered onto the other top bunk sometime in the middle of the night (or Salzburg), tossing her coat over my legs. Humid, alcoholic air and the train’s rocking combined to create the feeling of being inside a drunk’s head, wishing the spins would wear off.

Hours later (several hours later) a knock on the door brought in rolls and tea, which everyone seized upon like lower-level bureaucrats in a Gogol story. A few minutes later, we pulled into Santa Luzia station in Venice, in the midst of a chilly fog. The other woman’s coat remained on her bunk, an unloved layer, until I had to force it upon the confused fellow (“We have to get out here?”) who seemed to be traveling with her in some capacity.

This is something else that happens when you are no longer in a normal routine, have a fixed address, or the other usual boundaries of a settled life – you start to feel more responsible for other people. At least that’s what happens to me. A little while later, as I joined the crowds climbing the bridges and squeezing along the narrow lanes of Venice, I nearly stopped to help one guy carrying a refrigerator through a low entrance, as well as an incredibly stooped old man who was holding keys to a set of very tall doors.

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To leave home

Photos of women holding babies. Dusty villages of mud huts and rope beds. I walk from one placard to the other, reading the brief stories of war refugees, survivors of natural disasters and economic ones.

But it’s not a feeling of pity or first world guilt that grips me as I walk through the outdoor exhibition outside Karlsplatz station in Vienna.

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It’s a feeling that I can, in some sense, relate.

Every few years I uproot myself and get lost for a while. I always find reasons for quitting a job, leaving a country, but the truth is that it’s more like a compulsion. Almost like something outside me says, “Pack up –  time to go.”

If I look for causes in my life, I guess you could say that growing up, I felt home was not a safe place. So maybe when a place starts to feel like home, I get scared, and I get out.

The paradox is that I’ve been looking all this time for home as a place that makes me feel safe. But is that really possible? How do I learn to reverse-engineer the process, and make home a safe place?

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An object in motion

I have been traveling a lot lately, which means something is up; probably a combination of the following three “drivers,” as they say in the business world.

1) Skipping to the end

In this case, my intention in traveling is all about leaving. I feel oppressed or constricted by the circumstances I found myself in, and so my journeying is cast in the terms of departure, “anywhere but here” being my unofficial motto.

2) Starting from the beginning

New places, new possibilities. The prospect of a new city, a new country, or both (!) is like the delicious sensation of opening a blank notebook to the very first page.

3) Searching for an answer

I know (I know!) that everything I am looking for – the feeling of wholeness, of peace, a sense of fulfilment, or simply an understanding of oneness – is already mine. Such “answers” to the big questions of life can only be discovered within. I know that intellectually, but I don’t feel it yet as a cell-level certainty. I still feel compelled to look for correspondences to my inner ideals in the outer world And what do these consist of? Friends who feel like family – a community of kindred spirits – a landscape that I recognize as my spiritual home.

I have always framed this to myself as a question of “where?” but maybe that is what has turned my years of traveling and moving around into a long goose chase. Maybe a more fruitful question to ask would be “what is home?” Or even who am I there  ?

A few weeks ago, when I was in Berlin, I came across a delightful picture book called Mr. Tiger Goes Wild that addresses some of these questions.

As seen on the table of the Dussmann mega-bookstore.

As seen on the table of the Dussmann mega-bookstore.

At the beginning of the story, Mr Tiger is a very serious and buttoned-up sort of animal; an insurance actuary or mutual fund manager by the looks of it. But then one day it hits him: “I’m a tiger!” He tears off his grey flannel suit and runs away to the jungle.

Things are great at first. After all, he’s not working anymore, he gets to spend his day hunting down prey, taking long naps in the sun and doing lots of other wild-tiger things. His expression at this point of the story is a quasi-stoned look of sheer glee at having made his escape from the trammels of civilization.

But then the novelty wears off and he gets to feeling lonely. (Jungles, it turns out, are not the most social places.) Some days, he even resents having to run after gazelles for lunch and wishes he could just order in sushi. He starts to think about going back to the city.

And in fact, entirely in the manner of the archetypal hero who returns from his quest with a boon for the community, when he does go back, Mr Tiger returns as a being transformed, as an agent of awakening. (Although the book doesn’t say, I think he either goes into advertising or becomes a life coach.) The other animals in the city learn from his example that they don’t have to wear suits and ties. They learn how to express their authentic selves and be free in their hearts, even if they can’t go to the jungle.

That is the question I am pondering today: is that the deeper sense of my serial exits and explorations? Can I be a Ms. Tiger in my own way?

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