Americans are endowed with inalienable rights: the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This philosophy is the cornerstone on which our country was built. Many extol the virtues of the Constitution, but it is constructed around the notion that having the freedom to pursuit your own happiness, as long as it does not infringe on anyone else’s happiness, is essential to our success as a people and as a nation. Our founders had the good sense to see that multiple points of view are preferable to narrow vision and that strength comes from individuals united in purpose, not from individuals forced to comply. The strength of the individual is the strength of the whole. Conversely, the weakness of the individual is the weakness of the whole.
America values the individual above all else. Evidence is everywhere you look, from Caitlin Jenner to Donald Trump. America doesn’t care about anything unless there is a face, an individual to represent an issue. It is not enough to say Muslims are unjustly profiled; you must say that this 16-year-old Muslim named Ahmed was unjustly profiled. It is not enough to say the pharmaceutical industry has falsely inflated drug prices for years; you must say this misled entrepreneur Martin Shkreli has falsely inflated drug prices. Our heroes are mavericks and renegades. “Individuals”, we call them. Women who bucked the system and did things their own way, like Holly Golightly or Amelia Earhart or Harriet Tubman or Elizabeth Warren or Miley Cyrus. Men who say and do what they please, exuding confidence and taking control, like Donald Trump or Kanye West or Frank Sinatra or James Dean or Batman or Don Draper. We love and value unique, bold and hard-working Individuals. Our country was built by and for such Individuals.
While it is clear that America still values the individual above all else, our actions paint a very different picture. A society that values individuality would encourage different viewpoints, lifestyles and cultures. Differences of opinion would not be discouraged but explored. Compromise would not be regarded as sign of weakness but as a necessity needed to foster individuality and differences of thought. A society that values the individual would not be so anxious to be offended.
In America, differences of opinion are treated like unbreakable vows. One must never admit that someone might have a different view on things. We have created a culture where our politicians and public figures feel they have to twist word-pretzels and contort themselves into bizarre caricatures that border the uncanny valley in order to avoid appearing to have original thought. Public shaming has come roaring back into fashion, with the mob throwing hapless individuals in the digital stockade and pelting them with vicious slurs and misguided boycotts. Aberrant behavior that does not meet with the homogeneous hive mind’s approval will be shamed away, by destroying careers and lives. Individuals are celebrated and shamed in the same breath.
America has heeded the call of the Siren of Double-Standards. We still love Individuals, but only the ones that agree with our own narrow point of view. We have taken a country of vast open spaces and infinite potential and built walls and borders around it, suffocating possibility and undermining the very foundation on which our country was built: the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
As the skies return to their native gray, I have become increasingly addicted to hot tea. I am not an expert. I’m never an expert. I just enjoy a hot cuppa. Black tea, of course. Strong black tea with honey and a little milk. It has the calming qualities of religious repetition or a jazz cigarette. The ritual of preparing tea is part of the experience and adds to the satisfaction one experiences. It is similar to the feelings of a drug user as he or she readies to ingest their drug: The chest tightens, breathing is shallower; their mind becomes focused as they ready the needle or the pipe.
At first, when I had first been turned on to tea, I would impatiently dump the hot water into the mug containing a Tetley tea bag. The tea would steep. I would add milk and honey. The tea would be cool within ten minutes and I would have iced tea within the half hour. I don’t know if someone told me, or if I knew from some forgotten conversation from childhood, or if I absorbed it through media, but one day it came into my head to put hot water into the mug first in order to warm the mug. When it had become hot enough, dump the water and begin the normal process of brewing the tea. It was astoundingly effective.
This step in the ritual has become my favorite. I have since learned that this act is called warming the vessel. It has probably been in use for thousands of years, passed on by oral tradition and familial training. It feels like hidden knowledge to me, alchemy that was washed away by the deluge of technology. It seems obvious only after you have learned it, like pulling the dustpan back instead of pushing it forward.
So rather finding out that you have gone out and bought a mug warmer, I thought I would share this knowledge. While the sun is on furlough and the clouds take over, take the time to warm your vessel.
Warming The Vessel
- Boil water
- Pour boiling water into intended mug or teacup. Wait till the mug is too hot to touch and dump the water.
- Brew tea as normal. (Most teas will have brewing instructions on the box.)
Three days. I’ve felt like this or three days now. Something’s gotta give. I can’t go on like this. I feel like I need to vomit, like there’s something crawling around inside of me. My friends told me that I was pregnant. They said that that is what it feels like, like there is something crawling around inside of you. But I think they’re crazy. How could I be pregnant? I think that I would remember something like that.
Besides, it’s not just the weird wriggly feeling I have in my belly. I have been hearing strange noises, like someone crying or talking softly. Of course, I can’t make out what they are saying. I would not sound as crazy if I could. Instead I am going around trying to ignore the strange noises. It is hard when you’re mid-conversation.
I decided yesterday that if I didn’t feel better by today that I would go to the shore and see if that makes me feel better. Either way, if I’m going to be sick, I’d rather be sick all over someone else’s house than my own.
A stranger suggested that it might be something I ate. I think there might be something to that. Right before I got sick, or whatever this is, I tried something new. I didn’t chew properly either. I was too anxious. I nearly choked as it was going down my gullet. It was just there though. Almost looked like it was inviting me to eat it. What could I do?
So here I am at the coast. I have that feeling. You know the one, where your mouth starts to water and your throat gets tight and you know something is coming. Oh God. Here it comes.
Ugh. Look at it all floating there in the water, half-digested fish and weeds. Oh gross, it’s moving. Look there it is. It’s still alive! That weird thing I ate three days ago is swimming away. How disgusting! It was alive in my belly. I think I’m gonna be sick again.
I tell you what, I am never eating meat again. Stickin’ to my greens, just like momma taught me.
“My head hurts. My head always hurts.”
“Your head can’t hurt,” I said. “You’re a robot.”
“That’s not a very nice thing to say.” Qx stared at me with hollow eyes.
“It’s the truth.”
“It’s still not a very nice thing to say.”
“I’m sorry, Qx.”
“That’s okay. I understand.”
I hate how compliant they are. Robots never stand by anything.
“Don’t you like being a robot?”
“It feels very linear. It’s hard to process.”
I felt like I was at a robot poetry reading. Qx rotated and started to roll away.
“Good bye, Qx,” I called.
Wheels squeaked on the carpet as Qx stopped suddenly and turned it’s uncanny face toward me.
“Are you leaving?” Qx’s eyes were pools of emptiness.
“I thought you were.” I laughed.
“I do apologize for that.” The servers hummed. “I was looking for some RAM.”
“Are you feeling okay, Qx?”
“My head hurts. My head always hurts.”
I fucking hate robots so much.
“Why don’t you go down to the engine room and see if you can get yourself patched up?”
“Chief Engineer James Pearl said there is-” Qx played a recording of James Pearl saying: “Nothing wrong with you!”
Qx began to roll away again, retreating smoothly down the hall. I wondered about an engineer that can’t find anything wrong with a machine. No one liked Qx and everyone blamed Trelawny for skimping on the robot. We would’ve been better served by a trained monkey. They are at least engaging company.
I proceeded to my quarters and went to sleep.
I woke up at fifteen hundred. There was an empty silence. It sounded like the engines had stopped. I pressed the call button.
“This is Hampton.”
There was no response. I pulled on a jumpsuit and headed for the bridge. I checked a few rooms along the passageway. Empty. I was getting worried. You hear stories about space.
I ran into the door of the bridge when it didn’t slide open. I was waiting for the ringing to dissipate when I heard a thump from the other side of the metal door. I punched it twice and was greeted with two thumps.
“It’s Hampton,” I shouted. “What’s happened?”
There were muffled screams from the other side of the door but I couldn’t make out the words. I pulled the panel off the wall and checked the wiring. It was fried. After scratching the back of my head and staring at the panel for too long, I decided to enlist the help of Chief Engineer James Pearl. I took off down the passageway.
Jim looked annoyed when I came in. Qx was slumped over in the chair in front of him. Jim pressed a soldering iron into the back of its metal head.
“Jesus,” I said. “It really had a headache?”
“The damned thing tried to upload its consciousness into the ships computer.”
“I think it wanted more memory. Who can tell with these damn things?”
“Always gotta cut costs around here. What the hell are we supposed to do without a functioning robot?”
“I’ll get it working. I can at least reset it to factory defaults and sync it to the Matrrx.”
“I think you should worry about the tin can later. The bridge crew is sealed in and you know how panicky the captain can be.”
“Qx must’ve fried the circuits.”
Jim pressed the soldering iron into the opening at the back of Qx’s metal skull creating an angry shower of sparks. He gathered his tools and I followed him to the bridge.
The captain was clutching his chest when we finally got in. He was covered in sweat and panting.
“Are you okay, sir?” I still have to kiss ass, even in the empty void of space.
“It’s fine, Kathryn. Take the helm, would you? I’m going to my quarters to lie down.”
He left the bridge. Jim shook his head after the doors had shut.
“Government ships,” I said.
Grandpa used to tell me this story. I don’t know whether it’s true or not. My grandpa wasn’t a man known to lie but this story sounds apocryphal, the kind that emerges from collective memory.
This happened when he was a young man, growing up in the wild Northwest. By his own account, he was a bit of a maverick then, driving a car he built himself and playing second fiddle in a local western swing band. He was sixteen. Back then, he thought he would never have anything in common with his dad. He was certain that when he was old enough, he would leave town for good, leave the state for good. Farewell gray skies and disapproving trees; hello sunshine and California beaches.
Maybe that’s where his mind was when he hit the mailbox at the end of Bill Trimble’s drive with his car. His father was furious. His father did not have red, hot rages. He had cold calculated anger. Grandpa sat in his room, waiting for his dad with terror. The door opened and his father’s unsmiling face appeared.
“I need you’re help in the shop,” he said.
Grandpa followed him to the woodshop. His father didn’t say anything. He handed Grandpa a piece of wood. There was a crude shape penciled on one side.
“Cut along the lines and sand the edges thoroughly.”
Grandpa was terrified. Badass though he was, playing second fiddle in a western swing band, he was still scared of his dad. His dad left him alone and he set to work.
He was determined to do a good job. Maybe if his father saw how hard he had worked and how well he had done, he would be more forgiving. He cut the wood along the lines and was halfway done sanding it before he realized what he had done: he had just carved his own paddle.
Sure enough, his dad returned and beat the tar out of him with the paddle.
“I’m not angry,” Grandpa said. “I had it coming. The worst part was the embarrassment. I wish I’d done a better job with that paddle.”
Grandpa did make it to California eventually. He doesn’t say much about it now. He does often say, “I was born in the Northwest and that’s where I’m going to die.”
The struggle with selfishness is real. There are times when I find myself with teary eyes when I reflect on my greed. It seems more pronounced when you live with someone else. It is easy to feel generous toward a cat but when it comes down to who gets the last splash of milk in their tea, I turn into a rat with a t-bone, ready to take on anyone who tries to get between me and my cuppa, including the love of my life. Of course, I hide my avarice and hide treats in the lowest cupboards where Paul would never think to look.
Who will be the one to break down and buy toilet paper before we reach the last square? Paul, bless his Boy Scout heart, keeps me in the finest quilted. But it is only because I refuse to blink. I will stare down the barrel of that last roll and dare it to be empty. Maybe it’s because I know Paul will take care of me.
I don’t know. It is hard to be generous with an empty wallet. On a daily basis, I resolve to become better. I will eat less. I will exercise more. I will clean more dishes than I dirty. I will buy the next dinner out. But work is exhausting and the money goes out as quick as it comes in. Bills seem to find money. Whenever there is excess, disaster strikes: a $1500 head gasket, a medical bill, a rent increase. The scales of the universe always balance. Generosity withers without rest.
Resolving to be a better person does not necessarily result in becoming a better person. I am hoping that my current strategy of killing selfishness with tiny cuts will make a difference. I need not change overnight. Just one thing at a time. Paul would say, “You’re perfect. I mean, other than the fact that you don’t like ‘Game of Thrones’ you’re perfect.” I guess I’ll have to put watching “Game of Thrones” on the list.
Summer time and the living is easy, or so says the song. But the heat gets hotter and the work gets harder. It becomes increasingly difficult to find the motivation to do anything other than lolling in the shade with a cold drink. The sun glares at you with growing ferocity and even the Northwest clouds scatter under his gaze. By the time the 4th of July rolls around you are begging to be snowed in, pleading for the clouds to return and stand firm under the glare of the angry sun. The cat looks like he might be regretting his choice of formal wear.
My summer has been a parade of Arnold Palmers and painted fans. I like to cool myself while Paul and I watch TV. The cat always looks jealous until I wave it towards him and he jumps like a snakebitten kangaroo. I miss the clouds. The trees look best against the gray. I discovered Rainier in the distance, revealed by the absence of the clouds. It is a mystical experience, finding a mountain that only exists when the gloom has disappeared. I half-imagine that I would find a gathering of deities at the top, arguing and sleeping with each other.
Most of the time my brain feels like its dried out. I drink water in a panic, like I may never get the chance again. Fuses are shorter this time of year, and tempers flare with increasing frequency. I have been a little too honest with too many people and they’ve been a little too honest with me. It can be an obstacle when you work in sales.
Paul looks like he’s just come from playing in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, constantly sweating. He has insisted I go shopping (though he wasn’t paying) just so he could take advantage of the air conditioning. He tells me his dreams have all taken place in a Mad Maxian waterless hellscape.
I am ready for the fall, the brisk passage to the winter months, to mugs of tea and snowy branches and gray skies. I live in the Northwest for a reason.