Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Joe Omundson

strengths and weaknesses part 1

When I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, I met people from all kinds of backgrounds, who held widely varying opinions on many issues. In the absence of the typical social cues that are used to judge people at a glance, it was necessary to put my expectations of them on hold. I couldn't know what someone's story was, or what might have motivated them to get on the trail, unless I talked to them about it.

As might be expected, I met people who were very similar to myself, people who were completely different, and people who were vaguely confusing to me. What I noticed was that no two people were the same, and nobody was unlovable. But what interested me most was a very simple fact that I was forced to recognize as a reality for the first time: everyone has strengths, and everyone has weaknesses.

What is a “strength”? What is a “weakness”? Obviously these are very open-ended words that make some kind of assumption about how a person should ideally act, and different people have different ideals. What I consider a strength in myself, someone else might see as a weakness. The relative severity of different strengths and weaknesses is subjective too. Since there’s no single standard for defining these things, for the purpose of this post, I’m thinking of a strength as a trait that leads the individual and any surrounding people to a place of greater health, truth, and love; a weakness is an irrational reaction to life that destroys health and spreads fear and misunderstanding. It’s never quite that simple, but I think that’s good enough for now.

No two people are born alike, and no two people go through the same circumstances in childhood. As we grow up, we react to our environments through trial and error, and we find ways to act that work for us. We use whatever coping mechanisms we need to get through hard times, whatever those hard times might be.

Though a child’s identity often becomes associated with their strengths and weaknesses, they don’t have much control over how those things develop. It’s really up to the parents. A child might learn to throw a tantrum when they don’t get what they want, and for the kid that’s a perfectly reasonable choice if their parents reward tantrums every time and neglect them otherwise. Maybe a child is punished for crying and learns to be stoic at a young age, or is neglected and learns to take care of themself and their siblings. Maybe the parents reward discovery and healthy expression, and the child learns to be curious and confident. Growing up with healthy coping mechanisms is more about having involved parents than being a "good" person. The complex combination of traits we develop are dependent mostly on our genetics, which are out of our control, and the environment we are raised in, which is also out of our control.

Whatever the case may be, as children we can only see our own situation as “normal”; we don’t know how to imagine that life is different in other families. These years are very formative for us, and set us into patterns that may persist for the rest of our lives. Because families are so isolated, and parents are so different, we essentially grow up in parallel universes to each other. The conditioned responses that have kept me alive thus far make complete sense to me; but in your universe, acting that way might lead to disaster.

When we become adults, theoretically we all enter the same playing field -- one where we all have freedom to make our own choices instead of doing what our parents taught us, where we have the ability to seek whatever activities or careers are interesting to us, freedom to make friends with anyone we choose and travel to any new location. Of course, the reality is that not much about us changes the day we turn 18. All of the habits that we formed in our families' universes are now the tools we have available for interacting with the world. We have the ability to change our habits and become healthier, but doing so is a lifelong process and it happens differently for everyone.

Based on this idea that we all become equal as adults, some people believe it’s reasonable to expect everyone to act a certain way that is proper. Usually these expectations are based on the delusion that everyone else’s family universe was the same as their own. The child who became stoic at a young age might turn into an adult who thinks public emotional displays are unacceptable. The child who threw tantrums might grow up to assume that a stoic person is emotionally unavailable or manipulative. Regardless of how many weaknesses we know we have, when we look at someone else who has a *different* weakness, it’s unnerving and uncomfortable. It feels wrong, incongruous, because it stands out as not matching the pattern of life that we expect. It can trigger a fear response, judgment, correction, hostility, avoidance, or mocking.

It actually makes complete sense that people develop widely varied and highly specialized traits. Part of what makes us special as humans is our individual ability to recognize patterns and learn from our environments. Some animals need no parental input, and are able to rely completely on instinct to get through their lives successfully. Humans are on the opposite end of that spectrum; we have such a wide range of adaptability that our formative experiences lead to highly varying personalities. We specialize and become unique. Since everyone is trained to react to the same stimuli in different ways, it should come as no surprise when other people perform actions that are foreign to us.

If we can learn to appreciate this nature of humanity, the fact that we are all so complex and different, it will be easier to be graceful about differences in our strengths and weaknesses. Our individuality is actually what we have in common. We all struggled to adapt, we all faced challenges, we all have some dysfunctional elements. It’s still very complicated -- some weaknesses lead to more destruction than others, and might require intervention. Some weaknesses are inherent to entire societies, and can be hard to work past (eg. the valuation of money over human experience). But maintaining a high level of anger and judgment against someone simply because their formative years were different than ours is the wrong direction. It only leads to further exclusion and harm.

There needs to be a basic acceptance that diversity of experience is real, and people who are different are not always wrong. We need to let go of the idea that “misbehaving” people are bad and need to be ashamed. They are just acting on what their life experience has been so far.
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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Joe Omundson

order as intelligence

Some people believe that humans are the only intelligent beings on Earth. After spending some time in the deserts, mountains, and forests, I started to believe that this wasn’t true. I noticed that there was a lot of life and wisdom out there. Everything from bugs, to birds, mammals, plants, trees, and fungus, all have their own clever methods of interacting with the ecosystem. They all use very different strategies. Even common insects like mosquitoes, ants, flies, butterflies, and bees are extremely unique in the role they play and the methods they use.

I started to see it like this: maybe any force or system of forces which holds together a pattern in nature rather than dispersing it into uniform randomness, is intelligent. It is acting against entropy to preserve itself. This intelligence can range from anything that self-perpetuates using DNA, to social systems of belief like politics and economy, to galaxies and subatomic forces. Sometimes their intelligence and perception is apparent to us, like in other humans and animals. The more we learn about all different life forms, the more we realize that they are all reacting intelligently, even plants and microbes. The human’s singular mind with complex abstract and logical thinking is not the only way to be intelligent. Swarm intelligence, the hive mind, is one other kind. This whole adaptive learning system we call life has been complexifying in some way for billions of years now. Though it is beyond our comprehension, perhaps intelligence and awareness could exist innately in every system of electrons and atomic nucleus, or in the patterns of every galaxy.

Ideas can become alive, living collectively in the minds of all who participate in them. Maybe that is one reason why it is so hard for humans to do away with some of the unhealthy systems they live in, even when those systems are hurting every person involved; they are like intelligences with a will of their own and they use us to increase their power and influence. Doing battle with a sick ideology is like facing an abstract entity. It's easy for us to view the adherents of certain viewpoints as being the source of the problem, but really they can be victims of something that is beyond individual human control.
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Saturday, March 5, 2016

Joe Omundson

money, part 1

Hiking the PCT shifted my perspectives on money. I had a lot of thoughts, feelings, and ideas about the way we exist in this system of currency, wealth, debt, and poverty. I expect it will be something I explore more deeply with this blog.

 Before I start talking about those ideas, though, I feel a need to be transparent about my own financial situation. When I tell people I haven’t worked in almost two years, and it is apparent that I’m still enjoying my life and not worried about money, I think many people assume that I am able to exist in this lifestyle because I am privileged and have a lot of extra money. It’s an understandable assumption, and it has some amount of truth to it.

 Technically, most of what I am doing is not out of reach for anybody who is willing to make the same sacrifices I have. I’m able to get by without using as much money as I used to, because I’ve learned to lower my requirements and needs. I could get by comfortably on $10,000/year, which I could make with a part-time minimum-wage job, but only because I’m willing to give up sleeping indoors, showering regularly, having a kitchen, being able to entertain guests, and all the other conveniences that people are looking for when they pay to live in a building. Many of these luxuries seem like needs to most Americans, and if they are trying to live a “normal” life and fit in with society, then they are necessary indeed. But they are not necessary for survival, and as I’ve found to be true in my case, they are not always connected to quality of life. Of course, preferences and needs vary, and some people have obligations that are not easy to work around. This lifestyle is not a good option for people who love to own and collect things, or whose happiness is directly tied to being surrounded in luxury. I feel sorry for those people that they have to work so hard to earn enough money to make their desires possible.

 I do come from privilege, and that’s part of what enables me to exist this way. Part of the reason I’m able to stay (mostly) sane and happy living in a car is because the traveling I've done has redefined my requirements, but a big part of it is also because I had a pretty stable childhood. I developed some relatively healthy coping mechanisms in situations where I felt stressed or pressured. My parents usually had enough money, and even when things were tight, I was never exposed to the fear of what would happen if we ran out. It’s easy for me to trust that if money runs out, or my car breaks down, or I get into a hairy situation, everything is going to work out OK. I don’t live in constant anxiety of something going wrong, and when something does go wrong I am pretty good at keeping my cool, finding a good solution, and not letting it get to me. I see mishaps as random events rather than taking them personally. This is a huge privilege. Many people don’t have the same tendency to feel stable in unsure circumstances. They never formed deep trusting connections with people, allowing them to have a certain baseline level of faith in humanity. They often perceive neutral environments as hostile. For these people, thinking about living in a car might induce panic. It’s not as simple as “save up and go do it”, there’s a major emotional element of anxiety that would need to be dealt with somehow. It's ironic because a lot of the aspects of "stable" living are some of the most toxic (constantly being indoors and seated, being subject to advertisements, comparing yourself to other people), yet it feels so hard to start down the path that actually leads to better health.

 Financially, things have worked out for me pretty smoothly in my life. After high school I went to Europe for 9 months, which cost several thousands dollars, and my dad paid for that. When I got back I went to Oregon State University for 4 years and got my degree in engineering physics. Because I got married after my freshman year and the government considered us a separate family unit, my “expected family contribution” dropped to 0, and I was only making a small income as a pizza delivery driver, which meant that we received grants which paid for almost all of my tuition for the rest of my education. My parents didn’t pay my rent or tuition or anything like that. I graduated with $10k in student loans. I worked fairly steadily at the pizza job to pay rent and groceries, but it was manageable.

 The engineering school had a strong internship program. If accepted, you were guaranteed two 6-month paid engineering internships in an industry relevant to your field. This was a big boost to graduating engineers. I interned at SolarWorld for both of my internships, and though I interviewed for 4 positions and was declined for all of them, it was through this program that I learned of a position at Synopsys, where I was hired and worked as a testing engineer for about 3 years. At first I was a contract worker, paid hourly at $25/hour; after several months of this I was hired on as a salaried employee at $70k/year. Sadly, I didn’t have a very good grip on how I was spending my money, and I didn’t save up nearly as much during this time as I could have.

 I had a good job at a young age and a strong career potential. All of this came to me easily, by going to school for the thing I felt most capable of. Not everyone has that good fortune. For some people, getting into college at all is a huge struggle. Others, who are in fact harder workers than I am, also went to school for their most capable field, but had no route to a high paying job from there. Many people would still say “yeah but you got through college in 4 years, worked hard, you earned it!” and I would say: not really. I simply wasn’t a passionate or hard-working student. I got lucky. I paid attention in lectures and rarely missed class, yes, but often my grade was based on test scores, and I’ve always had an easy time doing well on tests. I pretty much coasted through it and as a result I landed $70k/year. That is privilege. Because of my background, I was expected to succeed, and I never met with much resistance.

 Then, my life went through “the transition” --  in the span of about a year, my wife and I separated, then divorced, and I quit my job to hike the PCT. When we split, my ex kept the dog and most of our belongings; it was what worked best for both of us. I’d been planning on doing the PCT for a couple years, and in the last year I did make more of an effort to save money. I think when I left that job, I had paid off my student loan debt down to about $4k, I had a Kia which I’d bought new for $18k and was completely paid off, I had over $21k in a 401k retirement plan, and maybe $7-10k in the bank on top of that. So, I had a decent amount of money, depending on who you ask.

 In the time since the transition, I’ve sold the Kia for $11k and bought my current car for $3k. I’ve put close to another $3k into it for repairs and upgrades. I cashed out my retirement plan, which gave me about $16-17k after taxes. I paid off the rest of my student loans. I loaned a friend $2700. I’ve paid 6 months of rent ($240/month) for my music room. I was given a gift of $2k. I have about $3000 left in the bank, and no debt at all.

 So, if I’m doing the math right, that means I was “worth” a little over $30k two years ago, and I’ve spent close to $30k since then. What have I gotten for my $30k (and erasing my retirement savings)? I spent 6.5 months on the PCT, and 4.5 months driving around the country. That’s almost a year of travel. I got this sweet little car which lets me travel or stay in the city for cheap. I guess that’s about it in terms of measurable results. Was it worth it? Oh, definitely. These 2 years have been the most amazing of my life so far. I gained so much more through these experiences than I could ever explain. If the goal of obtaining money is to provide the opportunity to live a happy, free life, full of opportunity for growth and exploration, then the lessons learned from travel are worth a lot more to me than a sum of money. I was changed fundamentally in such a way that I can achieve my goals much more efficiently, because I have a stronger sense of what they are and because my maintenance requirements are lower than before. I am more confident now, and I made connections with many incredible people I never would have met otherwise. I learned how to do away with much of the material bullshit that drags people down and makes their lives miserable. Is my life "better"? Not necessarily. But it's more truly me, now, at least.

I just kind of wanted to put the numbers out there plainly. That is how money has worked out for me. I have been in a privileged position to be able to enter this lifestyle confidently and I do not deny that. But I hope you can also see that it doesn’t take exorbitant amounts of money to do what I’ve done. Most people who are jealous of my travels probably have the financial ability to save $10k and take several months off work. It's usually other things (emotional commitments, fear etc.) that prevent people from trying a crazy lifestyle change.
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Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Joe Omundson


I wrote this one night in my car when I was feeling silly. :) And apparently a little more paranoid than I've become these days.

When you live in your car everything is an adventure. Lying in bed and remembering that you haven't brushed your teeth yet, you know what is ahead: quietly sit up and find your toothbrush in the front of the car, peek out a couple of windows, try to brush your teeth without rocking the car an obvious amount (which is surprisingly more difficult than it would seem, because the rhythmic nature of toothbrushing finds a resonance in the car's suspension). Keep an ear out for passersby and remain still as they walk by, covering up your light source to remain inconspicuous. As you continue brushing, look through your trash for some kind of relatively watertight container. Spit, rinse, and spit into an empty bag of chips and put it back in the trash. Check the thermometer. It is 38.4 degrees inside your car. Realize that you are about to fall asleep inside what is essentially a refrigerator parked on the street, and sigh contentedly at having escaped from "real life".

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