There was a time when a simple question could provoke a 45 minute conversation. It wasn’t that long ago. I cannot point to a line of demarcation. After 14 years of teaching, the terrain is all sand. My questions are the same in merit. They still trigger responses, but there are no longer buildups and choruses. What were once symphonic movements have become preludes, and quite frankly, bare notes.
But there was a time not long ago when a simple question could work its way through each layer of the student, the façade, the armored personality, reaching the moist seed of character, revealing more questions and more layers, until there was no layer there.
It was not long ago. I had a small classroom of boys. We were three quarters through Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild”. The boys were facing graduation in a month. This was to be our last book together. I chose it knowing that its hero, Christopher McClandess, would agitate them in some way. After graduating from Emory with honors, he abandoned his family and spent two plus years searching for his primordial self, spending the last 100 days of his life in the Alaskan wild, dying due either a series of misjudgments or misfortune, or both. Depending on one’s constitution, McClandess was either heroic, vainglorious or a fool. I had two talkers in this class: Sławek and Ryszard. They both thought he was a fool.
What was most foolish about McClandess was that he would give away his savings, burn what was left of his cash, and live incognito amongst the fringes of society. He would break contact with those who loved him and call himself by another name: Alexander Supertramp. He would take jobs more suited migrants than a valedictorian. And in his ultimate voyage, he would eat only what he could forage, what he could kill for himself.
“What’s he trying to prove?” Sławek asked while picking strands of imagined meat. “Roasting a squirrel over a campfire? He could be eating a cheeseburger and fries. Why would he give that up for squirrel?”
Sławek spoke about cheeseburgers and fries regularly. He had developed a paunch over the last year, having once been sleek and athletic. Now he prided himself on slack attitude, greasy comforts, and easy laughter. He was a quick wit and future lawyer. Of course he thought McClandess was a fool.
Ryszard rarely made a spectacle of himself. A natural observer, he served as Sławek’s audience and tonic. He listened, chewed things over, and spoke pragmatically.
“Ryszard,” I asked, “where do you stand — cheeseburger or squirrel?”
“Cheeseburger mister,” he said in his monotone. “That’s not really a choice.”
“Ok,” I redirected, “how about killing your own game or eating what has been prepared for you?”
He considered gamely.
“I can’t really shoot a gun,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to nail a squirrel.”
“So it takes some talent to kill squirrel. Not much to eat a cheeseburger.”
Ryszard leaned backwards and nodded. He let stubble grow in patches over his baby face and rubbed his chin. Sławek did not rub. He spoke with his mouth full.
“Mr. Krasner,” he jumped back in, “there are better ways to express a talent than shooting squirrel. Come on.”
“Of course there are. Living off one’s own resources though, without any help from the system, you have to admit that is a kind of talent.”
“Yea, well so is farting into a ziplock bag.”
“Ew!”Jan reacted as if Sławek did fart. I forgot to mention Jan. He was the quiet one.
“And filming it and getting 10,000 views!”
“You did that?” Jan asked.
“No, I’ve seen it! Do you want to see it?”
“That’s not a talent,” I said.
“What about this sir,” Sławek continued, sensing some momentum. “This African preacher, no, he’s really a madman, preaching to a crowd about gays and their diseased habits.”
Ryszard and Jan joined Sławek in a shared spasm. They recited in unison.
“Up to the elbow! They fist it, they fist it!!”
I waited out the laughter.
“Come on sir, let me show you!”
“So easy,” I said, sitting in my corner. Usually I stood before my students, or sat at the side of my desk. I moved positions depending on where they put me.
“What’s so easy?”
“Being entertained. So easy.”
“It’s more than entertained,” Sławek said soberly. “It’s informed. It’s becoming culturally aware. Come on, this guy talks about gays fist-fucking, how they are a satanic…”
“Cult. Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. But it’s just — ”
“No, no! That’s not my point!”
“Oh, what is?”
“I don’t really have one.” Sławek smiled coyly. He did this when he was done joking or realized I was done with his joking. He smiled and shined his deep brown eyes and was excused for any wrongdoing.
I got up.
“Listen class, while we’re so busy being entertained there are squirrels right outside our walls scurrying for acorns. There are birds hovering for seeds in the grass. There are fox sleeping in hollows, exhausted from their nightly hunts. You realize we are the only species that does not live in a constant struggle for life?”
Jan sat closest to the window. He gazed yonder, perhaps spying a squirrel.
“What about dogs?” Sławek asked.
“Oh yea, dogs. Well.”
“Pets, yes. They have it rather easy. This kind of proves my point, doesn’t it?”
Apparently, it did not.
“We’ve become so removed from the struggle for life and death that we own pets, who sleep on padded beds and don’t have to think about where their next meal is coming from. Like us.”
“What about poor people?” Ryszard asked.
“Ah, the poor. What do we know about the poor?”
“Personally? I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know poor people. But they struggle to make ends meet.”
“I know about the poor,” Sławek interjected, “from the internet.”
“Is that knowing?”
“They live like squirrels sir. Worse than squirrels,” he continued. “Worse than dogs and cats for sure.”
“Sir, that reminds me of something!” Sławek said with a spark. “Do you know Nas Daily?”
“He’s a Youtuber..”
“They’re good videos sir! He really is talented. He travels around the world and does these social experiments. Like, he visited Africa and India…”
“The guy’s famous,” Jan said.
“There’s this one where he got his hair cut in the rich side of town, but only one half,” Ryszard said. “And the other half on the poor side.”
“Um, I don’t know.”
“He showed that it cost $10 in the rich part and $1 in the poor part,” Sławek said. “Even though it was the same haircut, essentially.”
I was still stumped.
“Yea, I don’t really get it either. He did the same thing with a shirt. He bought an expensive brand in the shops and some knock-off in the markets.”
“Then he he had someone sew them together,” Jan finished. He looked towards Sławek and Ryszard.
“So he made a metaphor for how the world should be,” I guessed. “More together. Not separate.”
“Let’s just watch it sir,” Sławek said. “He’s kind of a McClandess type.”
Sławek’s phone was out in the swift motion of a policeman reaching for his holster. He laid it flat on the table and we practiced that odd contemporary ritual of circling around a tiny screen, our faces animated by the miniature theatre. I recognized Mr. Nas.
“Oh, this guy.”
“Mister, you spend too much time online,” Ryszard teased.
“I’ve only seen one if his videos. He traveled to Jordan I think, some other places. Maybe the U.S. He didn’t have any money and he tried to get through the whole day depending on strangers. He discovered that people were basically kind.”
“Did he visit Poland?” Sławek cracked.
We watched the clip. The haircut. The tailored shirt. In San Francisco, Nas ate expensive gelato while pointing to the strand of homeless people sleeping across the street from the shop. Nas provided his theme at the end: he wanted people to be more aware of this divide between people. But he also recognized the potential hypocrisy of his work. He was making a lot of money on these videos, observing the poor.
Sławek swiped instinctively to the next video in the cue.
“Wait a second! Can we digest? Do you think this Nas is heroic? Or in some ways, a fool?”
“How is he foolish sir,” Sławek replied. “He’s making pretty good cash.”
“Maybe neither,” Ryszard cut in, sensing my exasperation. “I mean, it’s not the same thing as McClandess.”
“Well, this is just a game.”
“How do you mean?”
“Like in the other video you mentioned. He pretended not to have money to see if people would help him. But he was just playing a game. He was just filming people for their reactions.”
“It wasn’t a game. He died.”
“But it was kind of a game,” Sławek rejoined. “I think that’s why he died. He was playing a game and he didn’t realize that it was not a game.”
“That’s pretty smart.”
“Is that what makes him a fool in your eyes?”
The class was warm. Christopher McClandess hovered amongst us with receding strength. I wanted to keep him alive just long enough to….I wasn’t sure yet. I just knew he deserved more breath.
“We were talking about squirrels,” I said. “And that humans are the only species that don’t live in constant struggle, but that’s not true. Thank you Nas Daily.”
“You see? Sometimes I make valuable contributions,” Sławek quipped.
“Well continue! What will you remember from this video? What sticks?”
“Sticks? I just think it’s a good way to earn money. He’s probably making a good living, and traveling all over the world. Youtube is awesome.”
“That’s what you get from this video?”
“Well you better come up with something better than farting into ziplock bags.”
I readjusted my position.
“You said you know about the poor from the internet. Well, what do you know?”
“That they’re poor.”
“What did you see?”
“The slums! They were piled on top of each other like anthills.”
“No running water. Probably no heating, or air conditioning.”
“Squalid,” he repeated. “Worse than squirrels, like I said. I mean if you think about it, squirrels live rather well. They gather acorns throughout the year and then relax throughout the winter. They have savings accounts!”
Ryszard shook his head.
“Mister, I think it’s a bad idea focusing so much on squirrels,” he said.
“I think you’re right Ryszard. But I’m going to try to dig my way out of this.”
“Like a squirrel!” Sławek continued.
“You’re thinking of moles. They burrow.”
“Listen,” I said, pacing like a rabbi holding his Torah pointer (a blue Staedtler marker). “The video demonstrates both sides of human existence, yea? The struggle and the ease. I don’t mean to say that people don’t struggle. That’s stupid. We all struggle in some way, and the poor, it’s stupid to speak for them. But they struggle.”
“Sir, you just said we shouldn’t — “
“I’m taking liberties Sławek.”
“What I would say is that humans live with certain expectations, which is something quite removed from the natural state. The basic struggle for life, for warmth, for food, has been more or less removed from our own doing. We expect to be warm and fed, whereas squirrels live without expectations. They just live.”
Their expressions suggested a subtle resistance, like I had farted and they didn’t want to acknowledge it.
“Sir,” Sławek responded, “Are you trying to say that squirrels are somehow luckier than us?”
I experienced a schoolroom epiphany. Sławek just expressed the theme of Robert Burns’ To a Mouse, a poem we studied together in the 9th grade, maybe even in the same classroom. He sat in the back row then and wore grey track suits, his head slumped into his folded elbows.
“Is that so shocking?” I asked. “We don’t build our own homes. We live mostly indoors, in controlled climates. We pay bills that somehow light fires for us, or fan the rooms. We spend a lot of time thinking about things that already happened, or things that have yet to happen, and maybe never will happen.”
I thought to retrieve the poem from my MacBook, and add some levels of literacy to the discussion.
“We eat cheeseburgers. In wrappers.”
“It’s called evolution sir,” Sławek finally responded.
“Yes, evolution. I’ve heard of it. But evolution, as we understand it, seems to take nature for granted. Even allows us to forget about nature completely.”
“Well that’s the point,” Sławek said. “So we don’t die there, like McClandess.”
“Sławek, sometimes it helps to remember that it was a tragedy.”
“I just mean — ”
“Do you think the book is teaching us to avoid nature? That sounds more like your resistance to everything Christopher McClandess represents.”
“God, are you happy he died?”
“No! I’m just saying, why praise him? He tried to go back to nature and he failed.”
“He died in the effort. Why call it a failure?”
“Because he died.”
“And the purpose of life is to live as long as possible?”
“Then maybe you should reconsider your love of McDonald’s.”
“Ouch…” Ryszard refereed, “low blow mister.”
Sławek put on his smile, but it had weakening force. I sat down in my chair, and slouched.
“Let’s just think about how far we have evolved,” I said. “We’re so removed from nature that we don’t even think about the food we’re eating while we’re eating it. I am speaking for just us, in this room. The well off. The top of the food chain. That’s who McClandess represents. He’s walking back down the ladder. He wants to be on equal footing with his food.”
“Sir,” Sławek restarted. “I think about my food while I’m eating it.”
“I believe you Sławek.”
He sat upright and gave his full attention to an imagined burger gripped in both hands, biting deep into the bun, juice dripping into his fingers.
“And do you know where it came from?”
“I don’t care.”
“I know you don’t. That’s kind of my point. Do you recognize it as once being a cow, or many cows, that had life in them and the dignity that goes with it?”
“God no. Why would I think all that. I’d never be able to eat it.”
I let him chew.
“Or the seasons,” I said while rising. “When we live under roofs, it’s hard to appreciate the subtle changing of seasons. It doesn’t matter if it’s summer or winter, we’re still going to have six types of apples at the markets.”
“Mister,” Ryszard reentered, “everything you say is so that we don’t have to suffer.”
“At what cost?”
“There’s a cost?” Sławek asked.
I uncapped the marker and wrote the question on the board.
“I think it’s better to think about what’s gained,” Sławek said.
“I know you do.”
“Seriously. Isn’t it amazing to be warm and comfortable in the winter? And to turn mountains into ski slopes? And to have things like ski boots and headsets and waterproof pants. And jacuzzis and wine. And fireplaces with fake wood, hi-def LG screens and Olympic ski jump competitions?”
“Are you describing your most recent vacation?”
“Or Teslas. Ok, you don’t care for Teslas. You probably ride your bike everywhere. Oh here’s one for you! How about cures for cancer? Think of all the problems technology solves.”
“It’s funny how when students want to defend technology, they skip over Facebook addiction and go straight to cures for cancer. Have you ever considered that we, as an evolved species, create the diseases that call for the miracle cures?”
They had not.
“That we have something for example called depression, even with all our comforts…or even because of our comforts. You don’t see what I mean?”
“You’re depressed sir?”
“We’re talking about Christopher McClandess!”
“He was depressed?”
“That’s not the point!”
“Was he depressed?” Jan asked.
“Probably,” Ryszard answered.
I slumped back down in the chair.
“Well, he wasn’t all right was he?” Ryszard continued. “And even if he was, so what? Some people get depressed, some people don’t. There’s good and bad. It’s natural for us to evolve mister. So it must be natural to get further away from nature.”
The remark rousted me from my seat. I wrote Ryszard’s paradox below the question about cost. I remained standing for the rest of the lesson.
“Is it also natural to live so comfortably Ryszard?”
He rubbed his chin.
“We know what evolution gives,” I said, “but what does it take away? What is the emptiness that McClandess is trying to fill? Why would he abandon his family, his conditioned name? Why would he give up an easy life for the struggle of shooting squirrels? He had riches, intelligence, compassion. He could have been a bigger Youtuber than Nas Daily. He could have shopped in organic markets, given Ted Talks, written books. But he chose to remember how to live for himself. At the basic level, how to be alive. What does he gain in that process?”
“Whatever he gained, he lost.”
“We all die Sławek. What you say is true for all of us.”
“Yea, but you don’t need to take such risks.”
“Why not? When was the last time you took a risk?”
“I um, let’s see. Like risk my life?”
Ryszard and Jan turned their heads towards Sławek, shielding the question from themselves.
“Just risk,” I said. “Whatever you consider that to be.”
A silence settled around him. He searched earnestly.
“Ok sir, I got one,” he said. “But I don’t know if I should say it.”
“Oh come on,” Ryszard prodded. “You have something to hide?”
“Ok, well, I entered a club.”
“Some risk!” I said. “What, were you 12?”
“No. Well,” he rung his body like he was withholding the urge to pee. “It wasn’t a normal club.”
“So it was — “
“A gay club.”
The boys raised their eyebrows but did not ask questions. We waited for more details.
“I have a friend who is gay.”
“Of course you do…”
“No, really! I was meeting him there. I wanted to see what it was like, I admit that. I had never been inside one. That’s all. I went in, met him, we had a drink and left. It was a normal place actually. Good music. Except the bouncers. They were really fit and well groomed.”
Ryszard and Jan relaxed their shoulders, a bit disappointed.
“What made it risky?” I asked.
“I don’t know. It wasn’t a big deal. But if someone saw me enter, oh boy. My timeline would have been destroyed! It takes years to recover from that kind of thing.”
And you wonder why McClandess would want to escape to the wild, I thought.
The boys were busy laughing.
“That’s evolution for you too,” I said aloud. “We’ve evolved to such a degree that our greatest risk is to our egos.”
“I gave you a risk sir,” Sławek returned. “What about you?”
“Me? I’ve never been inside a gay club. You are more courageous than me.”
“So you’ve got nothing?”
“No, I have something.”
I rubbed my neck and deliberated where to start. I did not have to retreat too far back in time. The story was always with me, under the surface. As I began to speak, I could not recall if I had ever shared it with anyone before.
“It was 10 years ago,” I said. “I was living in California, with my wife.”
“You were married sir?” Sławek asked.
“Yes. And we had a dog, a German Shepherd. His name was Zooey.”
“What happened to Zooey? Did he die?”
“Will you let me tell the story?”
He piped down and locked his lips for effect.
“Zooey died. Like all dogs do. He did not die on this trip. He was only two years old at the time, full of elasticity and strength. We were all young. The marriage was fresh. We were driving down the coast of California, on Highway 101. It’s a scenic highway, the type featured in Audi commercials, winding like a serpent to the side of the Pacific. The coast hid many coves, where the ocean met the cliffs head-on, preserving small patches of sand for adventurous bathers. We drove, stopped for coffee, took pictures. But there was this one spot near Big Sur that was especially stunning. We couldn’t capture in a frame what we were seeing. The waves began their swell from such a distance….we watched them develop slowly, like whales coming up for air. They became so great that some fear surged up our bodies, even though we were a safe distance away. Then they smacked the rocks with a boom and spray that washed everything over in white foam. My description doesn’t do it justice. You had to experience it. That’s what I felt too. So I parked the car and I remember telling my wife, ‘I want to get as close as possible!’ And I was off.”
I paused while remembering. I could see myself speaking to my wife with a bursting smile. I was springy and suddenly daring. The cliffs rose a hundred feet or so above the surf. I could have walked leisurely to the top where there was a lookout. But I wanted to be with the rocks, where the water would crash directly below my body.
“This is getting spooky,” Sławek said. “Did your wife die? Is that why you moved to Poland?”
“Sławek!” Ryszard scolded. “Let him finish!”
“I wanted to be in the front row, you could think of it that way. As close to the band as possible, only in this case the band was nature. Nature. It’s a funny word. When we say it, we usually think of something tranquil. Mountains, forests, coral reefs. But this nature was explosive, a battle of two elemental forces. The sea was the feminine part, gathering all its subtle movement, building tempo, coalescing in shape and sound, then battering itself against the stoic rocks, the male part. Building, crashing, settling. I couldn’t sit still while in its presence. I was called by something. Maybe it was the beauty, or the danger. Maybe both.”
I turned my attention to the collective gaze of Sławek, Ryszard and Jan. It settled my growing nostalgia.
“So I took off, and my wife and Zooey followed. I raced ahead of them, along a footpath formed by the jutting rocks. I remember reaching a perch that was shielded from the main impact but close enough to hear it personally. I remained there awhile and it seemed very much like my life to that point. Adventurous, to a point. It was possible to keep going. I just had to make one fateful turn to where the rock exposed itself fully to the sea. So I stretched my right leg out in front and there I was on the face of the rock, my back held against it. This will sound corny, but I was like Kate Winslet in The Titantic. There was that iconic scene on the ship’s bow. She also wanted to get as close to the sea as possible. So she’s standing on the rail and holding her arms out wide to embrace it. I was in a similar pose. I had my arms wide to both sides, but not to embrace anything. Rather I was trying to keep my balance and temper my breathing. The sea was roaring right under my feet. And then, well, a tremendous wave came from nowhere.”
“I don’t remember the point of contact. But the wave hit and I was in the water. We were all in the water. Submerged. I remember feeling my feet in the sand and recognizing that the swell had settled and was gathering steam to return back to sea. Instinctively I dug both my hands and arms into the ocean floor. The tide reversed. It swept over me and I clung to the earth, like a young tree in a hurricane.”
“My roots held, barely. I popped up through the surf and frantically looked out to sea, praying my wife and Zooey would not be in my field of vision.”
“Just endless sea. So I spun around and I saw them. My wife, I’ll never forget, her red sweater was stretched well below her knees and coated with seaweed and sand. We had a few seconds to get out of the cove before the next wave hit.”
“What happened to Zooey?”
“When I glanced back I caught the image of his body gliding atop the water like a surfboard. He did not have to resist the wave at all. Instead, he bodysurfed it back to land. When the wave dropped him off, he bounced in ten directions at once. His eyes were wild. I’ll never forget it. He was spastic with joy. Maybe fear and joy both.”
“That’s a pretty good story sir,” Sławek said after a pause.
“But you almost killed you wife. Is that why you divorced?”
“Sławek!” Ryszard admonished.
“It’s okay. It’s true, I did. We stopped at a café to recuperate and learned from locals that this particular cove claimed about 20 lives a year. Just two weeks prior, a couple had been pulled out to sea and drowned. We were incredibly lucky.”
“Sir,” Sławek spoke hesitantly, “I don’t know if this is appropriate, but would you call yourself a hero? Or a fool?”
“Aha, good turn! A fool, definitely.”
“So you’re supporting my point of view. Why take such risks?”
“I didn’t really choose Sławek. I just did. And we’re comparing dissimilar things. McClandess was changing his entire way of life. He put plenty of thought into his choices. He spent two years preparing for his final journey into the Alaskan wild. He had supplies, know-how, books on foraging, books to keep himself entertained and cultivated. But ultimately there is a call that speaks less to reason and more directly to the soul. The call of the wild.”
“I can’t hear anything,” Sławek said.
“Maybe if you wore headphones less.”
“It probably helps to be alone,” I said.
“Sir,” Sławek said, “do you still hear this call of the wild?”
“I hear it whenever I read this book. For sure.”
“So you want to quit teaching and go to Alaska, or something like that?”
“Something like that.”
“So you hear the call but don’t follow it. Then what is the good of the call? Just to torment you?”
I rubbed my neck again.
“I think the call means different things for different people,” I reflected. “Not everyone has to go Alaska and live off the land. But if you hear it, it likely means you have to risk something to follow it. And I think you have to risk not being comfortable. We’re all familiar with our comfort zone, yea? It’s quite powerful, but somehow not real. I think of it more as an idea that keeps us distant from real power. Raw power, creativity and trust. The call is saying, resist your comfort zone and trust in something greater.”
“This sounds religious,” Sławek said.
“Maybe it is. I mean comfort doesn’t make us happy. It just makes us comfortable. And I don’t think that is natural Ryszard. I think this is a failure of evolution in some way.”
“Why don’t you quit teaching sir?” Sławek continued. He liked having me trapped in the air. “It’s not too late.”
“Listen, it’s my job to inspire you! That’s why I get to stand at the front of the class, and you get to sit.”
“But you’ve been teaching too long sir. If you can still hear this call you describe so well, maybe you should do something about it.”
I took a few stabilizing breaths and searched for the rock face behind me.
“You’ve not heard it even once?” I redirected again. “Not even an echo?”
“Not really sir. I mean, maybe the closest is when I took a test drive in a Tesla. That felt pretty wild and free.”
“Were you driving?”
“No…my brother was.”
I settled myself on the floor, room 3 again. Some of the chairs were still parked on the desks, their legs pointing to the ceiling. It had always bothered me that students didn’t bother to take them down, unless told to.
“Can we talk about this call, generally?” I began taking down the chairs. “You know the book wasn’t only about Christopher McClandess. There were other examples of men who followed the call, like the author.”
McClandess still hovered somewhere amongst us. I searched for his vague form.
“Sit up for a second. Sławek — both feet on the floor.”
“Uh come on. Why? I think better like this.”
“You talk better. Or talk more. I also want you to reflect.”
He grudgingly straightened up.
“Do you remember that big chunk of the book about people other than Christopher McClandess?”
“Oh,” Jan suddenly got animated. “You mean that weird guy.”
“They were all weird.”
“From the forest. The philosopher.”
“Rosellini!” I said. “What do you remember about him?”
“I don’t remember him at all,” Sławek said.
“I remember him,” Ryszard said. “He was the guy who tried to live like it was still the Stone Age.”
“Which meant he could only use tools developed to that point,” I added. “So he kind of halted evolution.”
“Real smart,” Sławek said. He crossed his legs again and cradled the neighboring chair back.
“Didn’t he try to cut a tree with a stone?” Jan asked.
“It was a log, ” Ryszard said. “And he was dragging it along the ground and people tried to help him, but he said no.”
“He was trying to make his lodge.”
“With a stone? That’s more ridiculous than living off squirrel,” Sławek said.
“Back to the judgments.”
“Really sir, that’s going a bit far.”
“He was called an eccentric. Even mad. The book is filled with characters like him.” I consulted my book, with its many post-it notes marking a path. “Everett Ruess. John Waterman. And the author of course, Jon Krakauer. Do you remember his story?”
“It was hard to follow mister,” Ryszard said. “To be honest, I kind of skimmed that part.”
“A lot of students do. Right at the moment we’re about to discover how and why McClandess died, he adds three chapters of these parallel stories from other times. Similar characters, similar desires, similar outcomes. Why does Krakauer include their stories?”
“Maybe he is trying to find a pattern,” Ryszard said.
“What kind of pattern?”
“I don’t know. I should have read it more closely.”
“Well, why do you think the book is called Into the Wild and not The Chris McClandess Story?”
“Because that is an awful title,” Sławek said.
“Oh, so that’s the pattern,” Ryszard finished. “Into the wild.”
“Or what calls men into the wild. And the author is one of those men. He related very much with McClandess. He just happened to survive his quest.”
I noticed that my students all had both feet on the floor. I was a few paces ahead of them. Not racing, just taking the next step in front of me.
“Krakauer was a carpenter and mountain climber,” I continued. “And when he was about McClandess’s age, he wanted to climb a peak in Alaska called the Devil’s Thumb. Remember?”
Sławek nodded his head and shined those sweet eyes.
“Can we use your phone again? Google Devil’s Thumb. Go to images. Let’s see it.”
Sławek typed with his thumbs. We gathered back around the screen and squinted collectively at a range of majestic white caps, indistinguishable from the clouds, then one blackened peak separating itself, erect as a building.
“It’s like an ascent to heaven. But you get there by crossing through hell.”
“Too poetic sir.”
“Imagine climbing that alone,” I continued. “This is the antithesis to your man eating cheeseburger Sławek. People die trying, of course. Why take on such risks? Krakauer filled up a chapter trying to answer. Do you remember any details?”
“I just remember him being in a bar and feeling stupid,” Ryszard said.
“Good! That was after the climb. He was euphoric. He nearly died. And then he came back to earth, entered the bar with all these grizzled locals, and realized that nothing really had changed. Whatever he was trying to conquer, it was still there. That’s the after. It’s the before we’re trying to describe.”
“Didn’t he hate his father?” Ryszard asked.
“He wanted to prove something to his dad. McClandess did too. Even if it started with the fathers, it became something greater. Krakauer described Devil’s Thumb like a test of existence. He had to climb it, otherwise he didn’t exist. Maybe he wanted to know a more intense feeling than framing houses.”
“Maybe he had a death wish,” Sławek said.
“Maybe! I’m not ruling that out.”
I reached for my book and filed through my notes.
“You guys have your books? Go to page 143.”
They looked surprised.
“Ohm you forgot you were in English class? I want to read this part. It’s Krakauer describing what it was like to be hanging from that rock we just glimpsed, by his fingernails.”
“You should have read it. He’s a great writer and his description allows you to participate in his experience. The final ascent was a thin ice sheet coating the rock face. He had nothing below him but air. He was held to the rock face by his axe blade and boots. Are you there?”
They nodded reluctantly.
I tried left, then right, but kept striking rock. The frost feathers holding me up, it became apparent, were maybe five inches thick and had the structural integrity of stale corn bread. Below was thirty-seven hundred feet of air, and I was balanced on a house of cards. The sour taste of panic rose in my throat. My eyesight blurred, I began to hyperventilate, my calves started to shake. I shuffled a few feet farther to the right, hoping to find thicker ice, but managed only to bend an axe on the rock.
“Can you picture him?” I asked. “It’s like he’s holding his life in a spoon. If he wavers for a millisecond, the contents of the spoon spill over. How do you manage to keep the spoon completely still while knowing any misstep will kill you? This is not something you can appreciate in everyday life, and perhaps not in civilized life. It’s the risk Slawek, and the risk is one’s death. All lesser forms of risk derive from it. One’s death. It felt like death for you to be caught at a gay bar. But it WAS death staring Krakauer in the face on Devil’s Thumb, not a copy. In that moment, does he not feel himself completely alive?”
Jan’s eyes were wide, if not wild. Ryszard held his spoon coolly. Sławek was restless.
“There’s another part just before that. I think it’s important.”
I heard a couple of moans.
“This is important guys…top of the page….come on….keep going.”
By and by your attention becomes so intensely focused that you no longer notice the raw knuckles, the cramping thighs, the strain of maintaining nonstop concentration. A trancelike state settles over your efforts; the climb becomes a clear-eyed dream. Hours slide by like minutes. The accumulated clutter of day-to-day existence — the lapses of conscience, the unpaid bills, the bungled opportunities, the dust under the couch, the inescapable prison of your genes — all of it temporarily forgotten, crowded from your thoughts by an overpowering clarity of purpose and by the seriousness of the task at hand.
At such moments something resembling happiness actually stirs in your chest…
They looked up from the book. They looked sleepy.
“You kind of get it?”
“Ok, google Hippie Cove Alaska. This is where Rosellini lived. The Stone Age man.”
Sławek sighed and obliged. The first image that came up had the same pristine quality as Devil’s Thumb. Untouched by man, a river cutting through moist expanses, deliriously blue-white mountains, their enlightened peaks in the clouds.
“Did any of these guys ever hear about camping?” Sławek chided. “Maybe I get the mountain climbing. At least you have tools for that. There’s a top to get to. But cutting a log with a stone? Seriously?”
“Seriously. You know, Krakauer described himself as having an agitated soul. I think that term applies to Rosellini and McClandess too. This agitation is not satisfied by camping trips. No test of will. Nor ingenuity.”
Sławek rose from his seat, called by something. In thespian mode, he searched the classroom for a stone with sharp edges. After patrolling the corners, he found a suitable block behind the teacher’s desk. He squatted dramatically and plodded back to the middle of the room. There he proceeded to heave and ho at his imagined wood.
“Three-thousand-one-hundred-seventeen, three-thousand-one-hundred-eighteen, three-thousand-one-hundred-nineteen….”
He exhaled sharply and passed out on a table. Ryszard and Jan turned their attention to me, curious of my reaction. I approached Sławek and gently smacked his cheeks, reviving him.
“How far did I get?”
“Your log will be finished in three weeks.”
He fell gracefully back into his seat, slipped his butt forward, and placed his arm around the neighboring chair back.
“Rosellini was an eccentric,” I said, “but he was not imagined Sławek. Don’t you find his example somewhat interesting? He was a brilliant student, a moral philosopher, and instead of spending the rest of his life toying with ideas, he chose to live by them. He’s asking moral questions about evolution, about man, about all of us. What is he asking?”
“He’s probably asking how he ended up so fucked up.”
“Ok,” I laughed. “I agree these guys are not merely agitated. McClandess never got over his father’s affair. Krakauer did hate his overbearing dad. Rosellini, who knows. Maybe he had a bad marriage.”
“It would be better to say he was run over by a Hummer,” Sławek said.
“They didn’t have Hummers in the 70’s. But good point. Maybe a cable car.”
“How could anyone hate technology?” he asked rhetorically.
“He hated what it had done to man.”
He smirked again.
“Listen, we know what is lost in cutting a piece of wood with a stone. Ease. Convenience. Time. But if stone tools were all you had, you would not know that. So Rosellini is going back in time to forget what he knows. And to remember something else. What do you think he remembers?”
“Maybe respect,” Ryszard said hesitantly.
“How do you mean?”
“Well, I mean the more you spend time with something, the more you gain respect for it. So if you’re cutting a log for like, two days — “
“Two months!” I interjected.
“Yea, then you respect it more.”
“And the stone?”
“I guess both.”
“I don’t get it,” Sławek said. “Why should we respect objects?”
“Oh, that is a big question!”
I added the question to the board. Question, statement, question. I had a feeling we were digging closer to that noise that was blocking any clear transmission of the wild.
“Why should we respect objects? Why should we NOT respect objects? Let’s start with wood.”
“Why shouldn’t we respect wood?” Sławek repeated.
“Because it’s wood. It doesn’t have feelings.”
“First of all, how do we know?”
“How do we know that wood doesn’t have feelings?”
“Yea. Does wood have to scream in pain for us to know it doesn’t like to be cut?”
“First of all, it’s not a living tree. It’s a log. It’s already dead.”
“Ah, so a living tree does feel?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You sort of did.”
“Well, I didn’t mean it. But let’s leave the tree out of it for now. I’m talking about the log. And I’m pretty sure I can say that a log doesn’t feel.”
“Why is that idea so important to you? Why should we only respect people? Because people have feelings?”
“No, I didn’t say that.”
“Well, you sort of did.”
“Well, I don’t know if I will go that far yet. I think we respect people because, well, we don’t respect people. Not all people.”
“Right, only the ones we respect!”
“Hm. So I decide to respect someone — “
“So you can decide to respect something.”
The budding argument provided Sławek a sober focus. He gathered his wits and inched slowly towards me, waves crashing against the stoic rock face.
“But I respect a person based on his or her behavior,” he said. “If he deserves respect, I give it.”
“And does a piece of wood,” I answered, “which will soon be the cornerstone to your house, does that not deserve your respect?”
“Well, it does — “
“Let me finish. I mean, I’m not sure I’d call it respect. I’m just using it, and I’m grateful for it, but I’m not sure I respect it.”
“Do you respect yourself?”
“You’re turning things. This is about me?”
He cocked his head slightly.
“Me? Well, yea I guess.”
“It’s about him.”
“I have to think about it.”
“Go ahead…think about it. Why is respecting the wood, the log or the tree, about respecting yourself?”
“Well, I think Rosellini is crazy. So I don’t want to think about it from his shoes.”
“He didn’t wear shoes…”
“Just think about it from your own point of view. Why respect your pencil, or your MacBook?”
“Well I can answer that!” Sławek said. “That’s easy.”
“Oh, now we have something! You do respect the laptop?”
“Well, of course. It’s valuable.”
“And the log is not?”
“No, it’s valuable too. Wait…”
“So what do you mean?”
“No, I’m joking…”
“I don’t think you are. You said at first, why respect objects? When it’s something as basic and clunky as wood, it’s not very appealing to you. It doesn’t register. It’s taken for granted. It’s like so, nature. But a MacBook! Well that’s new and exciting! That’s something you live with, tangible, every moment of the day. Even sleep with — “
“I don’t sleep with my MacBook — “
He gave a sheepish look.
“Ok, but still, you love your MacBook, yes?”
“Yea, I do.”
“And would you say that is the same thing as respect?”
“And yet the MacBook is not alive. It’s just an object. It’s metal and silicon. There’s nothing intelligent in it. Intelligence is put into it. You see. And also respect.”
“You’re making me think.”
“Well speak your thoughts.”
“I’m not sure I can. But I like what you said about intelligence being put into the object. That’s true. We put intelligence into it and it becomes something.”
“It becomes a MacBook or a Tesla, or a house. Something we can love.”
“But it’s really just ourselves,” I said. “It’s not the ego part of the self — as in, I made this! I don’t think that is our true intelligence. It’s our creativity called into action. Our intentional and best efforts. Our imagination. What philosophers might call our genius. That is what Rosellini is getting in touch with.”
“That’s why he’s got respect,” Ryszard said.
“Well, he’s doing more with what he has. He’s aware that he is doing more.”
“When you take away the technological advance, that’s what happens. You become more aware of your own doing. Like the squirrels scurrying for food. Or the man, hunting the squirrel.”
“So with more technology we’re less aware?” Sławek asked insecurely.
“What do you think?”
“I’m not sure I want to. But with the MacBook, I’d say I’m not really aware of my doing. I’m just like — “
“Well not really.”
“No? Give me an impersonation of yourself on your MacBook.”
“You don’t want to see that Mr. Krasner…”
We shared a therapeutic group laugh.
“You were making a point…”
“Yea, I’m not sure I respect my MacBook anymore.”
“Because I’m not aware of anything! I mean, it’s more like I’m passing time.”
“Not in time, like Rosellini? Like McClandess?”
“You’re not going to convince me that I should be cutting a piece of wood with a stone!”
“No, you’re going to convince yourself of that. Go ahead, finish the argument.”
“I forgot what I was saying.”
“You were saying that you’re not sure if you respect the MacBook anymore.”
“Oh yea, because I’m zoned out when using it. I’m grateful for it, but I’m not really aware of anything.”
“So finish the idea. Rosellini and his wood.”
“You said that it’s not about objects,” Ryszard said. “That’s it’s about ourselves. When we respect ourselves, we respect the object.”
“And the other way around — when we respect the object, we respect ourselves.”
He punched out his bottom lip.
“So there aren’t really two things. Can’t we simplify this? We have respect for ourselves and the object. We have respect. There is no object. We just emanate respect.”
“We are respect Mr. Krasner,” Sławek said proudly. “I knew this was religious.”
Jan had a quizzical expression. How often he had words on the tongue, but needed someone else to pry open his mouth.
“Jan? What do you think?”
“Oh, nothing sir. I was just…”
“I was just thinking. We have respect for everything because we respect ourselves. But you know, how can you respect everything? Like a pencil. Really?”
Jan held his pencil, dropped it to the table and looked back up. Nothing happened.
“Because we’re not disconnected. There’s no me and pencil. Me and wood, me and computer. Me and mountain. We spend most of our conscious time separating ourselves from things. What if we didn’t?”
“There’s just me!” Sławek said, perhaps defeating the point.
“We can take it further. That me,” I pointed at Sławek, “is not separate from this me. You see?”
“Not really. But I think you’re saying I should respect you more.”
“And your enemies.”
“Holy shit, this is about Jesus! I knew it was religious.”
“No, it’s about Rosellini and his wood. You can learn religion from him.”
“But he was crazy.”
“Maybe Jesus was too.”
We were close enough to the waves to hear their crashing. Maybe this was far enough? Unfortunately, there was more time in the lesson. There was always more time. I took another step forward.
“There’s this story of a monk…”
“A monk? Now you’re bringing up monks?!”
“It’s related. Give me a chance. There’s this monk whose daily work at his temple is to sweep the paths. The monk is new to the temple and a little unsure of himself. His teacher showed him the workshop that houses all the tools. There are two brooms there. One has a straight handle and the other is badly bent. The monk chooses the one with the straight handle. Naturally, he wants the one that is newer, better. A couple weeks go by and he notices that the straight broom is gone. He can only use the one that’s bent. He labors with it for days, never getting past his frustration. Then one day it occurs to him why the handle is bent — it’s bent from continual use! The point of the bend is where he gripped the stem and pushed against the ground with force. Now when he held it, he could feel for himself how many other monks before him had used the same broom for the same task. His individual and mundane task suddenly felt communal and timeless. To his eye, the broom’s bow shape gave it the specific character of sweeping. When he used it, he became sweeping. He was no longer separated. This is what is called enlightenment. When the new broom reappeared in the workshop, he never chose it again.”
“Ok, sir,” Sławek began. He was clearly provoked. “If we listened to the moral of this story, we’d still be pulling carts by horses. You’re saying the old tool is superior to the new tool. That’s clearly absurd.”
“I’m saying it’s possible to respect objects, because they are not separate from ourselves. But the more we worship objects, the latest and the greatest tools, the more separate we feel from them. And that has consequences. That same instinct separates us from nature. And ourselves.”
“I just think I’d respect the object more if it did more for me.”
“Yes, that’s the apparent truth. But then do you really respect yourself?”
“I respect myself and the object. Because it is helping me do more. We’re one thing, remember?”
“If your parents did everything for you, would you respect them?”
“No, actually it’s a good one.”
“Do you respect your maid for cleaning your room?”
“I probably should.”
“Would you respect yourself more for cleaning it yourself?”
“With or without a vacuum cleaner? Ok, ok. I’d hate my parents for making me do more things, but I’d probably respect them more too.”
“So right now, it seems you respect objects that demand less of you.”
“No, I started with the idea that I don’t respect objects at all!”
“And Rosellini shows how respect grows when more is required of him. He wants to respect himself, desperately, even though he is insane.”
“He’s trying too hard.”
“Don’t you think we’re trying too little? I mean, listen to the way you guys talk sometimes. You’re in awe of your cars, iPhones, and Playstations. Like they were miracles.”
“Play Station 4 a miracle?”
“Play Station? Sir, you’re in the Dark Ages.”
“So what’s the latest?”
“Console-less gaming. VR headsets. Hologram combat.”
“So what, you can spar with Darth Vader in your own living room?”
“Not yet, but soon!”
“What’s the difference between this example and Rossellini cutting wood with a stone?”
“You really want an answer to that?”
Sławek cracked his neck to the left and right.
“Ok, so Rosellini was insane and me playing with a light saber in my living room is totally awesome.”
“That ‘playing with a light saber in my living room’….you realize that is a Freudian slip?”
“It’s when you let something slip that is a metaphor for something else, something private, secret, and repressed. In this case, some other kind of swordsmanship.”
“Very apt too. Here we are with our technological gadgets, masturbating in our living rooms, and you don’t see the disconnect with Rosellini and his wood?”
“Disconnect? It’s totally the same thing! Rosellini and his wood!”
Sławek made a few gestures but did not dare complete the full impersonation.
“There’s no difference? Ryszard, you need to help out now.”
“Or Jan. Sławek needs to be quiet. He needs to listen.”
“But — “
I shushed him and waited. Ryszard slowly filled the space.
“It’s another odd comparison mister. They’re like worlds apart.”
I remained quiet.
“Well, the obvious difference is that we are wasting time and Rosellini is doing something important. He’s working on his house, we’re playing games inside the house.”
Sławek could not resist.
“Don’t forget about those cures for cancer!” he said.
“I remember them! And prosthetic limbs and stem cell research. I got it. Let’s be clear here, this dialogue is not about technology. Ryszard said it already: it is natural to evolve, so it must be natural in a sense to cheat nature. Christopher McClandess making traps to catch squirrel is technology. It is evolution. But what is unique about his example is that he is discovering and making the trap for himself. He is creating the technology.”
“Not his gun. He had a gun.”
“And a bus for a shelter. He used the handholds available to him. Like I said, it’s not really about technology. It’s about having respect. Do you imagine a moment during his time in Alaska where he did not feel the full weight and burden and beauty of being alive?”
I turned directly to Sławek again. I invited him to speak. He was listening.
“I know you love your Youtube Sławek, and you love playing Luke Skywalker in the living room, but I wonder if deep down you respect what you are doing with your sacred time. Do you respect yourself when you are goofing off? When you are — and I hate to say this — but when you are masturbating?”
“Not really. But I can’t help it.”
“It’s a compulsive act.”
“How do you know so much about it?”
“Maybe we should stop here…”
“So the urge doesn’t go away as you get older?”
“Not if you’re alive.”
“But, if you were to use your computer in another way. You could open a blank page instead of one trying to tempt you. And fill the void with your own voice. Ideas, images. Stories. It’s just about respecting your time and yourself. Which means respecting what you are doing.”
“Or not. But when you do respect what you are doing, you respect the object too, because it’s helping you to do something….you respect. It doesn’t have to be a test of existence. It could be just sweeping the paths.”
Jan held his pencil again, and looked at it.
“I have a personal example. No more monk tales. Would you guys like to hear it?”
They reflexively leaned back in their chairs, kicking out their legs. Class was almost over.
“Does it involve a piece of wood?”
“A lawn mower.”
“Can’t seem to escape it, can we? When I was young, I was no Rosellini. I was not outdoorsy nor really awake. I was more like you guys….playing with my light saber in the living room. Still I had chores. And one was to take care of the yard. We had a sprawling suburban house. Swimming pool, patio…”
“You had your own swimming pool?”
“It was the norm on my block. If we didn’t have a swimming pool, we’d have been ostracized for not having a pine fence defining our boundaries.”
“Yea, so my chore was to take care of the yard. Front and back. That meant trimming the shrubs and mowing the lawn, which I hated at first, but over time I grew to love. This is how it worked. I was reminded that the grass needed to be cut. I procrastinated until the late afternoon, Sunday. I hated going to the garage, hated pulling the lawn mower from its cob-webbed corner, hated filling the tank with gas, and hated the idea of mowing the lawn, which I knew would take two hours.”
“I know, a palace. But this is not about technology and it’s not about wealth.”
“What’s it about?”
“It. Anyway, I really hated starting the mower. It never took on the first pull. I had to crank away 7, 8, 9 times, rapid fire, and even if it turned over it would immediately conk out. I felt incompetent and wanted to quit. It was usually at that point of total frustration that the thing would turn over and keep. From there, slowly, I felt hatred less and less. By the middle of the lawn, I’d start to feel something closer to happiness. I mowed the lawn in different patterns each week. Sometimes so the tracks left a rectangular grid, other times in the other direction. And other times I cut diagonally, which left a diamond shape. This was most fun for me.”
“No, you’re right. Let’s not call it fun. Fun is passive. This was fulfilling. I can’t explain why, but I think it was because I did a good job. After I finished a few rows, and looked back at what I was doing, I could see this developing pattern in the grass, and I was proud of it. The lawn resembled Center Court at Wimbledon.”
“So you respected your lawn mower, right?” Sławek asked with sarcasm.
“It was a Toro. It was red with a greasy sack and a temperamental motor. I had to mix the right proportions of gas and oil. Sometimes a wheel would fall off. It made a rough rambling sound when you rolled it along the driveway. It was old and yes, I grew to love it.”
“Eventually, I got old enough to move away to college and my parents hired people to mow the lawn. The Toro was thrown out. I was not happier for other people doing my job.”
“So this whole thing is all about doing work. You could have said so at the beginning.”
“I didn’t know we’d end up here. Cutting the grass. Funny, but that’s also about returning to nature, isn’t it? Just being in the grass, smelling it, tending to it. Nature is not some carved out reserve on a map. It’s not solely rugged mountain chains or the Pacific Ocean. It’s the backyard. It’s us really. We just forget sometimes. That’s why there is this idea of going back to nature. But it has never left us. It’s right here. Now.”
The boys looked at me and I at them. We waited for Sławek to say something.
“That’s a nice story Mr. Krasner,” he cracked. “Makes we want to go home and do the dishes.”
“No, I’m okay having the maid do them.”
“Really Sławek? Really?”
He stood up and faced me directly.
“Really sir,” he said. “But maybe I’ll change.”
The coy smile was gone. So were the sarcasm and zealous turns of counter argument. Sławek spoke sincerely, a sound free of noise. In it were all the swelling waves and solid rocks of this world.
The boys left the room, years ago. But somewhere in my notebooks I have it written, “Maybe I’ll change”, and I know the words are mine.