THE CONFESSIONS OF FOFI LITTLEPANTS
by Fofi Littlepants
A dear activist friend upon whose doorstep I ended up, filthy and exhausted, near the end of my journeys patiently took me in and gave me all the warm, fuzzy things that one dreams about of home (like high speed wi-fi.)
I hung out with her for a while at her big, old, creaky house, which I found quite charming despite suspicions that it was haunted (the family would hear humongous crashing noises periodically upstairs when no known human was there), and we talked a lot. She eventually confessed to me that she had been worried about me on this trip, not about whether I would get killed by some psycho, but a concern reflecting a much deeper, more primal activist fear. She thought it was great I was traveling, but she couldn’t help but wonder ~ whether perhaps I wasn’t frittering away my time and talents on frivolous pastimes like trainhopping and hitchhiking, when I could have been doing more to help the world?
I could have said that I was working during this whole journey on a giant human rights project, but actually, I don’t think that would have addressed the quintessentially activist angst of “Couldn’t you have done more if [fill in the blank: for example, ‘you didn’t sleep’ / ‘you had no life’ / ‘you weren’t bouncing around on trucks and trains’]?” It was a legitimate question, one that I have been mulling over, and that I still don’t have an answer to. In sharing these reflections, it is certainly not with the purpose of issuing a clarion call to all progressives to quit their day jobs and go trainhopping and hitchhiking. I don’t know if that would be the best of use of their time; I’m not even sure if it was the best use of mine. Sometimes, I envy the way soldiers on the train look at their military watches, they know exactly where and when their time goes.
Though I have to say that I’m not entirely sure that it wasn’t, either. The following are some thoughts about why this trip might potentially have been useful, at least for myself.
I could say that I learned a lot about the United States on this journey, though admittedly, this was inevitable because I was so woefully ignorant in the first place. Until an unspeakably late age, I thought Alaska was an island because it appeared together with Hawaii in a little box at the bottom of U.S. maps. I probably could have learned much of the same information, and more, if I had read a good book.
But I’ve heard it said that travel, like education, is something that adheres to your core ~ it enriches at the foundations and cannot be taken away. In middle school, I remember hearing about a woman that was imprisoned during the Nazi era in a cell only a few feet wide. But being well-traveled, she was able to maintain sanity by walking the streets of Paris in her mind while she paced that little cell.
As did Goldmund, we had much rain and snow fall upon us in our journeys. But could I have stood at the edge of nothingness in the mists of Maine, presenced the moment of spiritual release at a wi wanyang wacipi, or felt the vibration of Texas bugs in my chest otherwise? A Buddhist saying goes, “At the end of snow is Nirvana.” Did these experiences have any value or significance? For increasing my knowledge? My insight?
All knowledge gained must make you a better activist. How can we seek to build a better world without understanding it to the best we can? For myself there are still so many mysteries that I know I’m far from comprehending. But I feel like a bit more of the blinders that hemmed in my understanding have been chipped away by this journey, so that I have a wider field of vision. And this broadening can better embrace more people ~ if ever I meet someone from Idaho or Iowa, and the many other places I passed through that are dismissed as “fly-over states” by some Californians, I can tell them honestly that I’d been there and shared in its feeling for a moment, and ask with genuine interest to hear more about it. And if I meet another trucker, biker, and even white supremacist, I hope I can better see the person less as a cardboard cut-out, to be able to perceive his or her unique complexity with an open heart.
Could those things also open my doors wider to insight?
In the realm of experimenting with social alternatives, I could say that it was useful for me to find out that I could get across the country without a car. Trainhopping and hitchhiking are clearly more environmentally friendly than cars ~ minimal additional fossil fuels were used by us scabbing rides; they might be considered a low-income variation on carpooling.
And resisting car dependency might reveal other alternative benefits. I have long had a sense that car culture contributes to the private bubble phenomenon, which feeds societal fracturing. Most American cities or even towns don’t have central common spaces like the Latin American plaza, thus people from different walks of life really don’t run into each other that much; this is exasperated when people just drive to where they’re going. Cars are in essence a personal gated community that allows you to wall yourself off from the world you don’t want to see. When I lived in New York, I assumed that everyone took the subway cause it’s so convenient, but I eventually learned that many executives (and even peons that work in big corporations) get driven around because their company pays for a car service for them. I’ve often wondered if people might have greater goodwill for each other (or at the very least, an awareness of the consequences of societal exclusion and burgeoning inequality) if everyone had to rub elbows in public transportation on a regular basis. They say that when black people started moving into cities, there was “white flight” to the suburbs. I wonder if there has ever been a study done about whether there was white flight to cars when black people started getting to sit on the bus without having to go to back.
Like public transport, trainhopping and hitchhiking, by departing from private car culture, were windows to different socioeconomic and cultural communities. As a hitchhiker, I ran into incalculably different people and things than I would have as a driver. (This was very clear to me during the few days that I rented cars.) And while I never became a “trainhopper” in its full sense and don’t pretend to have a lot of knowledge about that culture, I did gain some small awareness that I didn’t have before.
As a practical matter, this trip could be said to have been good for me because it forced me to confront the question: how much weight do I want to carry around? I had to apply this examination to the trip as well as to my life as a whole. In packing my penis backpack and moving out of my apartment, I had to go through the exercise of clarifying my values and purging the superfluous.
Trainhopping and hitchhiking may be the most ascetic forms of travel ~ we had to live just with what we could carry on our backs. And since we also weren’t loaded with lots of cash or plastic, we were trying to live as simply as we could. I found this a valuable exercise ~ I’d like to live that way in my “regular” life anyway.
In the U.S., many people seem to think that survival requires a spectacular array of material possessions, from a house in which everyone has a private room, microwaves, dishwashers, washer-dryers, flat-screen television, DVD players, stereos and iPods, multiple cars, clothes for every occasion, with matching shoes and accessories to be changed every season, and the like. It is telling that the federal government offered a subsidy for people to transition from analog to digital television ~ never mind funding for education ~ television is a basic need.
I wonder if people who have a lot of material things might also tend to be unable to let go of emotional weight as well ~ I’ve known some people that seem to cling to their ideas of the things they should have, which appear to correlate with their identities, how they think their lives should be, the place they should have in society and how people should treat them; this seemed to contribute to them being unable to let go of the past, and consequently their loves and their hates, their failed dreams, disappointments, resentments, addictions, and obsessions.
I’m certainly far away from letting go of all unnecessary material or emotional baggage ~ I didn’t do particularly well with it in this trip: I was lugging around my laptop and cornucopia of other electronics, which is why I couldn’t catch more trains, plus I was addicted to my Crackberry and high speed internet.
But Joey and I did eventually shed enough to be able to see that life didn’t need too many specialized accessories. If we subtracted our clunky work implements (laptops and such), in the end we really didn’t have that much: our packs contained not much more than a handful of clothes (for hot, medium, and cold weather, and a swimsuit), just a bit of toiletries, plus a tent, one sleeping bag each, and a miniscule camping stove; our entertainment was the world on stage before us, a few books, a little camera, and ourselves. All together this gear probably weighed less than 10 pounds for each of us.
I found myself, upon arriving in Washington D.C., where I had shipped some business clothes in order to have meetings, longing for the simpler life ~ I was completely confounded by having so many choices of things to wear. I felt it as but a small taste of the magnitude of the crushing burden that fell upon Tarzan, and all humanity, by being hoisted upon with clothing (and civilization.)
Most people that we encountered didn’t have x-ray vision so couldn’t see that our backpacks were stuffed full of electronics, so they just assumed we were poor, and as I described before, some felt sorry for us and wanted to give us money.
We never accepted, except for once. In retrospect I could say it was good I took that one dollar from that recovering co-dependent mom, because now I can’t keep a prideful self-concept that I’m above taking handouts. Cesar Chavez said, “You are never strong enough that you don’t need help.” But American meritocracy attaches strong stigma to handouts and social assistance, and in some people’s minds, there is a divide between the industrious who have worked hard to deserve the fruits that they are enjoying, and those poor people that ask for help, who must of course be lazy bums. If you sit on the subway and watch what happens when someone comes through asking for money, it seems to me that it is often people that look poor that give money ~ maybe it’s because they understand there are myriad reasons why some might have to ask for help. In contrast, the more affluent seem to have no problem saying no, sometimes in a very superior way, but more often by absolutely avoiding eye contact or acknowledgement altogether.
Refusing offers of assistance can also deny other people the opportunity to help. The girl that thought we were runaways was herself probably 17 years old. She seemed to have a lot of cares; we learned that her father was in the hospital. She seemed excited to offer us money, and disappointed when we declined. Now I think we should have accepted something from her, just a bit, within what she could afford. Maybe she would have felt happy that day having helped someone out. Later, someone told me that in some religious beliefs, if you are down and out, the best thing you can do is to give to someone else, and this will bring you heaven’s rewards. I’m sorry I denied her that opportunity.
Also, accepting help from someone binds you inextricably to that person. You carry that debt forever. So for me, to get help from racists, sexists and homophobes and other people that I didn’t normally choose to cavort with, forced my world to open wider because it made me think about and appreciate them as people, recognize that I owed them something, and despite all the things I didn’t like about them, accept that my life was interrelated with theirs.
To some people, especially in middle class American society, the simple fact of not having a car or a television is a radical form of deviance. And trainhopping, hitchhiking, squatting and getting handouts are even worse.
I personally didn’t choose to trainhop and hitchhike and squat because they were considered deviant or marginal things to do, but I didn’t particularly mind that they were either. In addition to giving me insight into foreign worlds, I was aware that dabbling in deviant behavior could serve as good exercise for personal integrity.
I’m surely not on the vanguard of deviance at all ~ I try not to engage in anti-social behavior that will cause harm to someone else, and I’m probably far too polite and concerned about other people’s feelings, all of which mires me in the muck of too many social rules. But I do think that deviance, or more accurately, the capacity to deviate, is important, because it liberates you to make an independent assessment rather than blindly accepting the prevailing paradigm. And while it’s not necessary to engage in strange deviant behavior all the time in order to be able to deviate when it’s called for, sometimes having experience with deviant action that doesn’t harm others is beneficial for building emotional preparedness for the requisite moment. An immeasurable range of rules permeate every dimension of our lives ~ laws, mores, customs, cultural expectations, language, ways of seeing and knowing. I think none of us understand the depths to which we have internalized social rules, and how it circumscribes our lives, and even the reality and possibilities we perceive.
There is a long line of sociological exploration examining the aspects of human psychology that allow social control. For instance, subsequent to World War II, there was heightened interest in exploring the nature of obedience to authority, in order to understand how atrocities like Nazism could occur without more people protesting. A sociological classic is the Milgram experiment, which tested the extent to which people would follow orders given by an authority figure (in a white lab coat), even when they believed they were causing extreme harm to another human being.1 Milgram wrote in his 1974 article “The Perils of Obedience”, that in the studies, even though the participants’ “ears were ringing with the screams of victims, authority won more often than not”, and that “relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority”.2
Another bleak but fascinating study that I remember hearing about is one in which an individual is tested on whether he or she would report the length of a line held up to a ruler inaccurately, when all others in the room did so. The study found that many did: though the line clearly measured a certain length for all to see (I think it was four inches), many individuals would report it to be a different length, mimicking the others in the room (who were actors) who said it was three inches. (!) Einstein said that the world is dangerous not because of the people who do evil but because of the people who sit and let it happen. What hope do we have as a society if more of us are not more comfortable with being deviants, even to assert a scientifically provable fact?
One sociology professor I heard about used to require his students to do a project in which they went out into the world and committed a very public, deviant act. This could be almost anything, and didn’t even have to be particularly dramatic – it could be things as simple as reading aloud to oneself on the bus, cutting in front of a long line at the supermarket, or sitting down to have a picnic in the middle of a busy sidewalk. The theory was that this would make the students more fully aware of what engaging in deviance feels like, and to understand that much social control is internalized ~ it is usually our feelings of consternation that keep us in check.
Even Joey and I, who weren’t particularly conformist to begin with (I think), found it an emotional learning experience to engage in deviance. We realized that one of our barriers in trainhopping was that we weren’t aggressive enough in scoping out the trainyards because we were afraid of getting caught by the bulls, not so much for fear of getting arrested or beaten up, but because we would be embarrassed. And as we stood on street corners with our hitchhiking sign or walked around looking like rags with large backpacks, we had to learn to withstand the reactions that are aimed at “deviants” from some people: one being The Scowl (murderous dirty looks), and another being Invisibility (people magically seeing right through you). I remember hearing an account on the radio by a journalist (I think he was Israeli) who traveled through Israel pretending to be a Palestinian. What he said was the most deeply impacting was not threats of violence or overt discrimination, but that he had suddenly become invisible to many Israelis. This he found most hurtful and dehumanizing of all.
One hopeful thing is that there seems to be some evidence that becoming aware of the pressure exerted toward conformity and obedience may increase fortitude of conscience. The Milgram experiment triggered a maelstrom of discussion and controversy, on interpretations of the results as well as the ethics of testing unknowing subjects ~ many of the individuals reported undergoing extreme stress in the experiment. But additionally, some reported having been transformed. One individual is said to have written Milgram years later to thank him, because the self-awareness that he gained as a result of the study gave him the strength to conscientiously object to the Vietnam War.
And in variations of the 3-inch/4-inch line study, the percentage of people that did speak the truth increased exponentially when one other person in the room (who was also an actor) did so: one voice of courage can unleash a tide.
But I’m not saying at all that Joey and I made any grand contributions to societal liberation because of our little dabblings with deviance. We surely could have found more noble and socially useful (as well as more dignified) acts of deviance to engage in, like a tax boycott against the war. But perhaps this journey was a baby step that will help prepare us for future deviant acts required by our conscience (which may include further baby steps like defending why we were hanging out with racists, sexists and homophobes and why I’m writing sympathetically about them.)
On a related note, I could say that this trip was useful because by engaging in it, I confirmed that, contrary to what sometimes appears to be popular American belief, that a human being does not spontaneously combust if he or she breaks the law.
Yes, I admit it. I trespassed on private property and hopped on a train. I also hitchhiked and squatted, which are illegal in some states. Do I think those are great things? No, but I don’t think they are so incredibly bad either.
It seems to me that the topic of legality and illegality is an important one for progressive discussion, because there is a particular type of objection that I have heard from many lawyers (and non-lawyers) that tends to severely limit intellectual exploration. Sometimes whispered in reverence, the phrase ~ “Well, it’s The Law!” ~ is meant to put an end to all further discussion.
In the Milgram experiment, one of the symbols of authority that stood out to obedient subjects was the white lab coat. In the U.S., the national equivalent of the white lab coat is “The Law”. Americans, in conjunction with their love of order and fear of chaos, place a high authority on law. This can be a good in some ways, but can also be bad when it breeds excessive deference to law that stunts independent moral examination.
Even if something appears to be “The Law”, the analysis shouldn’t stop there. To begin with, there usually isn’t as much clarity as some people say about what the law actually is ~ all laws can be interpreted in many different ways, and there are also many laws that conflict with each other. And even if the meaning of a law is clear, individuals must scrutinize it under the light of his or her conscience. Do any of us think that the current law-making system is perfect? So how can the laws be? Laws comes from other people ~ currently, they are thought to have value if they emanate from the individuals authorized as lawmakers within the nation-state. But the nation-state is a political construct that emerged in the 19th century and is quickly going out of style; further, even if we accept that paradigm, currently the persons issuing laws are not always properly authorized ~ for instance, because election systems are flawed, discriminatory, or manipulated.
Of course, I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said before by others more eloquent than I, including St. Augustine, Gandhi, Emerson, Thoreau, and Martin Luther King Jr. [FN1] And I’m not claiming that my trainhopping and hitchhiking adventure was motivated by a desire to make any intelligent political statements. [FN 2] I’m also not saying that there shouldn’t be any laws at all or that people shouldn’t be punished for violating laws. But it is fundamental in the concept of rule of law (effective operation of a legitimate framework of laws) that laws have to be just, including that they are democratically agreed, respect fundamental human rights, and establish only punishments that fit the crime.
Current American lawmakers (and the populace) don’t appear to care about this, as they barrel along the road of criminalizing more and more people (which tends to disproportionately affect and then further exclude poor and marginalized people), and instituting increasingly outlandish penalties for minor infractions (such as in the “War on Drugs” and “War on Terror”). It’s astounding to me that people designated as “felons” are stripped of the right to vote in many states ~ they are forever banished from the polity. And if they are immigrants, they often get deported, even if they already served their time, and/or if they grew up in the U.S., or have U.S. citizen spouses or dependent children. (And immigants don’t even have to commit felonies to be declared “An Illegal” and stripped of many rights ~ any little infraction will do, including things like overstaying a visa or being late to renew their work permit (often because of errors or delays by the immigration service. I am in love with the Vietnam visa online process they have at the moment, I feel much less error will come from it). And there are paradoxes in other dimensions, such as that even procedures to determine whether or not someone should have the permission to stay in the U.S., such as asylum or green card proceedings (which will determine if someone is designated “legal” or not) are continuously having their due process safeguards eroded ~ I guess immigrants are thought to not even deserve a fair trial before condemnation, because they are inherently “illegal” by nature.)
No human law, or punishment, can legitimately strip a person of the human dignity, equality and fundamental rights they hold as human beings.
So if I get arrested hopefully I won’t get tortured or condemned to death. I would be happy to provide restitution to the train company for the 12 cents I probably owe them for the proportion of fuel I used up by sitting on their property, and to compensate any interested states for the damages that they think I caused by hitching a ride with a consenting driver, and reimburse the rent for squatting under that bridge.
Another form of deviance that we engaged in that might have been useful was the clash we had with that most omnipresent of structures ~ gender paradigms.
I’ve already talked about the fact that a lot of people thought that it was completely mindblowing that Joey and I, two women, were hitchhiking and trainhopping at all. We still find this surprising, but I guess it’s still more a man’s world than we thought.
While the trainhopping and hitchhiking seemed to earn us some respect among some men, a different form of gender deviance probably did not: against all demands of male expectation, socialization, and browbeating by our mothers, during this journey Joey and I ended up letting ourselves look like total, absolute, unadulterated, crap. This was especially the case when we weren’t under pressure to look presentable for the purposes of hitchhiking.
That women are brainwashed to value beauty more than life itself is evidenced by those females that can be seen speeding down the freeway at rush hour putting their eyeliner on in the rear view mirror. This journey may have been useful because Joey and I became living evidence that women do not dissipate into nothingness if they do not look cute. I went through this trip looking for the most part like a dirty dishrag. I didn’t shave my legs or use deodorant, and sometimes slept for days in the same clothes and sweat. In New York City, in which even the people in the worst ghettos are hip and fashionable, I ended up walking around in hand-me-down checkered pajama pants, painfully combined with a baggy brown/beige flower print shirt and clunky hiking boots; my hair, after months without conditioner, was making right angles off the side of my head. The overall effect was that of a depressed, sleepwalking clown ~ but I did not shrivel up and die: I survived this fashion disaster to tell the tale. And as the Power Puff superhero Buttercup said, “Baths are for big fat wussies!”
But I’m not making any grand revelations about the oppression of women that other feminists haven’t already talked about in the past. And it’s not that I was a fashion victim before either ~ for a long time, I’ve been trying to buy recycled clothing as much as I could, so wasn’t that unaccustomed to looking like a dishrag to begin with. But this journey pushed me to a new dimension of dishrag liberation.
But, it would be dishonest if I didn’t admit that I failed to free myself entirely. While wandering around alone for a few days in Texas, I was referred to a friend of a friend, who turned out to be a lovely man with a lovely family with a lovely home with lovely art. I have to confess that I was late to our scheduled meeting because I was washing my face at the Jack-In-the-Box and trying to scrape the sand off my scalp from having slept at the seashore the night before. (But in case he reads this ~ I promise I scrubbed myself really well in the shower before I slept in your daughter’s bed!!!!)
The last potentially useful experiment from this trip that I’ll mention are related to deliberateness and faith.
Thoreau spoke of choosing to live deliberately, in order to not find at the end of life that he had not lived. I’ve wondered though, if sometimes living too deliberately can restrict learning and life. Sometimes there are things to be gained by existing non-deliberately.
It seems to me that a lot of people, especially “middle class” Americans, have gone off the deep-end with deliberateness and future planning. American society is conservative by nature. Watches, calendars, airconditioning, indoor pools, SWOTs, genetic screening, GMOs, life insurance …are all indications of the American desire to control nature, and eliminate disorder and chaos; Americans want to obliterate every known and unknown risk and uncertainty from their lives. This desire to control often goes along with very rigid conceptions of what life should be, and can be a recipe for unhappiness (and oppression of others).
This is of course probably a different “deliberateness” than the self-knowledge and conscience that Thoreau had in mind. So perhaps he wouldn’t completely disagree with the idea that I’m toying with, that maybe living “semi-deliberately” in certain respects would be the ideal. If I could, I think I would want to make deliberate, conscious choices about ethics, values and general direction in life, but try to give myself some freedom to follow the unexpected and end up where the path takes me. (I’m far from reaching such an enlightened balance.)
Trainhopping and hitchhiking are the least deliberate forms of travel ~ you go blown by the whims of the winds. As such it was a good exercise in being comfortable with the unknown, and being open to what comes.
Goëthe said, “Character is formed in the stormy billows of the world.” Joey and I discovered that learning to tolerate uncertainty goes along with strengthening optimism and faith. No matter how dark or strange the road seemed, or how boring or uneventful, and no matter how much rain and snow and rats fell upon us on the way, we were always willing to go on, because we had built an unshakeable belief in discovery ~ the possibility that the next corner and the next day could reveal a sublime treasure. Saint-Exúpery wrote, “What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.” Sometime after the end of our journey I wondered ~ how luminous might all of life be if we carried the same kind of joy and excitement we had had, into every seemingly ordinary day and into every encounter with the scary and unknown?
Perhaps this was a good exercise for us as activists too ~ how can we imagine and experiment with alternatives social structures, new paradigms, and different ways of being and relating with other, if we aren’t willing to walk what appear to be dimly lit paths? Growth and change always involve uncertainty and some discomfort on the road. Part of the problem with many centrists and Democrats, it seems to me, is that they don’t really want genuine change ~ they’re too afraid (or complacent or vested) to depart very far from what they know.
All that being said, it may be that our trainhopping/hitchhiking adventure in actuality was devoid of any social value whatsoever, and in truth merely an idiotic indulgence in absurdity.
But Václav Havel mused: “Modern [humans] must descend the spiral of [their] own absurdity to the lowest point; only then can [they] look beyond it.” And, “Without the constantly living and articulated experience of absurdity, there would be no reason to attempt to do something meaningful. And on the contrary, how can one experience one’s own absurdity if one is not constantly seeking meaning?”
Might there be, then, some hope for us? That perhaps someday we may somewhere surface on the other side of our vortex of stupidity, which certainly revealed itself during this voyage to dive to unimagined depths, and find some meaning in our ridiculous lives?
Here are two final pieces of wisdom that I pondered on this journey:
The first is a text message I received from one of the friends we met on the road, which read,
“I cried today because I got a message that in 2010, they are going to ship off all the retards. Wear your helmet and don’t forget your crayons.”
It sounds un-PC, but I think of it with the word “retard” referring not to individuals with learning disabilities, but to all of humanity ~ this may be the human condition after all.
And here is a last, little jewel of insightful profundity emitted so eloquently by that wise, Asian soul sister and icon revered ubiquitously all over the world:
~ Hello Kitty
FN1. See for instance, King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, which cites St. Augustine to distinguish just and unjust law ~ the first as law that squares with moral law and uplifts the human personality, and the second as a human law that degrades human personality and is consequently out of harmony with moral law. This principle is reflected in international human rights law ~ local and national laws which are contrary to human dignity and international human rights law and principles are considered to be invalid and should be repealed.
FN2. It is possible that anti-trainhopping, anti-hitching, and anti-squatting laws probably target or affect the poor disproportionately and thus may be unjust on that basis, but I have to admit that I didn’t actually do a thorough examination of all those laws to be able to make any grand claims.
Read the complete:
CONFESSIONS OF FOFI LITTLEPANTS