I’ve been struggling for some months now trying to figure out exactly what I’m suppose to write here, to sort out what the point of writing this is, or worse, the point of what Ive been doing with my time lately. I haven’t figured it out yet, so I might as well just start writing. That’s probably the only way to get it sorted out in the end anyway. With most things you just have to start off without an idea as to where you’re suppose to be going.

So here is the quick summary to get us started:

Sometimes, when the urge takes me, I live in my van with an upright piano. It offers certain advantages over living in a house. Houses are stuck into the ground, and they are rather expensive, which means you have to keep to a strict schedule of financially responsible behavior in order to maintain them. This combination of circumstances does not allow for much mobility, so people who live in houses often get frustrated with the monotony of their routine, and they start to think about just how big the surface of our planet is, and they start to wonder about what interesting things might be going on at other locations far away from where their house is stuck into the ground. They scroll through google images and they see what all these other locations look like on their computer screen, and they imagine what it would be like if their body was physically located in all these wonderful real-life places the images are images of. They realize there is nothing stopping them from moving their body across the surface of our planet until it is located in the very places they are so curious about! Their physical body is very mobile after all, it isn’t large or unwieldy, it packs well, it isn’t stuck into the ground. So maybe living in a house isn’t quite for them after all.

What about the piano though; it seems like a particularly poor choice of travel companion, doesn’t it? One of the functions of a house is, of course, to serve as a giant container for all of the various material things people own. When one decides they will no longer live in a house, this is presumed to be one of the principal sacrifices, that they can take only what they need— a tent, a toothbrush, wool socks, etc.— that the piano is best left behind. It’s a non-essential, it’s for entertainment, it’s cumbersome, it takes up a lot of room, it goes out of tune when you move it, it's sensitive to the weather, it weighs 600 pounds. Aren't these precisely the sort of attributes that make an item unfit for travel? I could tell a story about some kind of madcap idealism and musical passion, but the truth is I like to travel with a piano for practical reasons. When you show up in a new town and role a piano out into the street it is just unreasonably enough that people will pay you money for your effort. You can turn that money directly into fuel for yourself and for your van at the appropriate vendors, which is one of the unfortunate logistical realities you must account for if you want to keep moving and go to all the interesting places you set out to see.

So that is the gist of it anyway, we will hash out the details when we get to them. I do feel like there is something missing from my summary though, some point, some mission, some purpose or message. Maybe there is an obvious message here, one you are expecting to hear when you come across stories like this. Maybe I am suppose to inspire you, to take that jump you always wondered about, to quit your job, to sell all your belongings, to stick your thumb out on the side of the road and see where you end up. Maybe there is this wild, beautiful adventure out there waiting for you, if you could only rid yourself of your banal stability, the 40 plus hours a week in the office, the commute, the grocery shopping, the choice between 21.6 fl oz of Dawn Dishwashing Liquid Original Scent for $2.67 or 75 fl oz of Palmolive Eco+ Dishwasher Detergent Citrus Apple Splash Scent for $4.99, rent, insurance, excel spreadsheets, Netflix original series, washing the dishes, assembling Ikea furniture, scraping the ice off your windshield with your credit card, buying an ice scraper on Amazon, tinder dates, unused gym memberships, your salary, Karen's possibly higher salary, waiting for Saturday, so you can just do nothing, so you can lie in bed until 2 pm Facebook stalking that girl, binge watching 2 minute food-porn video blogs, clicking links because apparently 'The net worth of these Hollywood celebs will shock you', feeling shamefully mediocre, staring at motivational posters with messages like 'The Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with One Step', 'Believe and Act as If It Were Impossible to Fail', 'Don't Count the Days, Make the Days Count', all plastered over the silhouette of a rugged mountain climber who, by the sheer force of his indomitable will, has found himself cast before some celestial power at the top of the world.

Maybe I should write this like one of those posters, and paint a picture of a life that is altogether bigger and better than the one we’ve been living. It’s not that our lives are hard, it’s not that we’ve got to rise above our misfortune, this is the 21st century after all. Real struggle is primitive and we’ve mostly done away with it; we eat maple bacon for breakfast, we have dental insurance, we fly around in the sky at 600 miles per hour to exchange novelty socks with family over the holidays. It used to take people a year to get across the country, back when all one’s earthly possessions fit in a covered wagon, which got towed along by an ox at 15 miles per day. If you wanted to eat you had to track down wild animals and murder them in cold blood, chop up their bodies and store the meat in some salt under the family cot. You had to save the furs, those were valuable, and in the Rockies you could turn a raccoon skin into a silly hat so your ears wouldn’t get too cold and fall off. You wiped your ass with a frayed rope that you washed whenever you came across a river, which—of course—you would then have to ford. Finally, after months of daily struggle, you would get sick with cholera and die from drinking all that shitty water. Things are different now, and we really are grateful for the modern conveniences. Still, the idea of a coonskin capped frontiersmen tracking buffalo across the plain brings with it a distinct feeling, and if you reflect on the feeling for a moment you will find that it is unmistakably jealousy. He lives in a world where the mountains are menacing and the sunsets are deep red and the miles are long because he has to walk them. He is living the proverbial dream, someday people are going to write stories about him. No one is going to write stories about us, no one is going to write about the flight to Oregon to visit the in-laws, not even if it’s the red eye and everyones’ bags get lost.

So yeah, there is that message, that one about taking risks and living life for today and just doing all that stuff you always wanted to do because right now you’re closer to death than you’ve ever been before. I don’t want that to be the message though. It comes from a certain impulse I don’t trust in myself. It’s an impulse that comes very naturally to street performers. Most of us, if we find any degree of success in what we do, inevitably degrade into a certain type, along side the hustlers, the gypsies, the 1850's traveling elixir salesmen. We start making real money and we lose our innocence, we become ruthless in our opportunism, calculated in our business practices, we hoard cash under the mattress and mark out our territory like drug dealers, we become acutely aware of the subtle psychological manipulations that culminate in a sale, the look, the location, the act, all coming together in such a way as to force the desired behavior out of the helpless consumer. We learn the fundamental principle that ties together all marketing, the lowest common denominator between a time-share in Orlando and Britney Spears drinking a pepsi, what separates us from the pan handlers; people don’t give money out of pity, people give money out of envy. People buy into the idea of a better life, so that is what we’re all selling. If you're going to write something write a self-help book, it’s an 11 billion dollar industry in the US. Convince people your life is better than theirs, let them know there is one simple trick, it’s easy, it’s in the book, it’s only $19.99.

My life is not better than yours. I have no advice, I have no wisdom, there is no clear message I want to get across to you. I certainly don’t know what you should do next; I usually end up making the choices I do simply because life doesn’t slow down long enough to let me figure out what the right choices are. Maybe you should go live with a Mongolian clan and learn how to hunt with eagles. Or maybe you should work 100 hours a week at a venture capital firm, find the secret sauce, then dump all your assets into offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands. Or maybe you should work the floor at your Uncle's discount Persian rug retail outlet and watch football on the weekends. Or maybe you should wander around on the surface of the Earth in a perpetual search for meaning that you never quite satisfy, because your moments of clarity always come when you get to the clearing on the trail, and you can look out over all the hills and valleys, and wonder whats way over there, far away from where you are right now. Sometimes you make a choice that sections your life off into a chapter, where one thing leads to another that leads to another, again and again, until a storyline emerges all on its own, without any conscious effort on your part. You write about that, not because you have anything in particular to say, but simply because that is when something finally seemed to actually happen. You have to get it all down, so it doesn't erode into nothing with everything else, so it stays a something, if only just black and white lines on a page.


chrishamblin at fas dot harvard dot edu


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40 Dundee Rd
Arlington, MA 02476