Subscriptions Are Eels

After John's experience from Outward Bounds, he is calling subscription models for eels, because every time his phone offers him an opportunity to make his cloud bigger, he has a feeling like there are leeches in his shorts.

John’s eel story from Outward Bound (RL160)

In 1983 John was on a three week summer trip with Outward Bound, canoeing through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of Northern Minnesota and Southern Ontario. John was in a group of much older boys who had all been sent there by various juvenile detention facilities and everyone on that trip hated each other. At choke points where one lake fed into another, they would sometimes meet some other squads who were singing their song, camping out and learning skills, while John’s group consisted of ten total bullies and felons with knifes in their boots. John's folks had sent him there to straighten him out, but compared to the kid from Baltimore he was not anywhere close to being on the wrong path. He was neither smoking cigarettes, throwing knifes nor holding other kids’ heads under the water, but he was sulking, which was just as bad in his culture. John doesn’t know what box they checked that got him into the penal group, but maybe because he was big-sized? In the airport of Duluth, Minnesota a kid sat down next to him who ended up being in his squad and he was escorted by a corrections officer, while John’s crime was that he had read too many Archie comics.

Several weeks in, right at the point where they were living on brown sugar and butter because all the bigger kids had stolen all the food, they arrived at a tiny slow moving river with a 10 foot waterfall. They pulled their canoes over and portaged them around while it was incredible hot and humid. It was a beautiful, undiscovered waterfall in the middle of Canada and they took off their clothes and jumped in. You could duck under the waterfall and pop up on the other side. It was one of the few moments on this whole long trip where there was any feeling of camaraderie and one of three times when nobody was trying to kill anyone else and when John didn’t fear for his life. As the first kid got out, the rest of them could see that he was covered with leeches the size of Coke bottles. The kid couldn’t see it himself, but they all realized that those leeches were all over them, too. They climbed out of there in a state of complete panic while trying to figure out how to get those leeches off. Somebody had to get a lighter. Afterwards John was right back in a tent with a kid that was trying to kill him. Even if it was no PTSD, he had some very strong feelings.

When you get a leech on you, it will leave a little bloody spot when you take it off, just like in the movies. They got teeth as big as western slugs and they are biting into you, sucking your blood. It is horrifying, even if you are not somebody who is already horrified by most things, which John was back then. He was horrified by strange foods, by sounds in the night, in some ways even by nature, even though he was growing up surrounded by nature. He was never horrified by wolves, but he was always horrifies by bugs. Merlin is troubled by birds and how they move, like pigeons when they are walking over the ground.

In order to be effective, Outward Bound is supposed to be hard to some degree and they do have some qualified guides and counselors, but there is a lot of variation among them. At first blush they thought they had lucked out with their guides, because one guy had his hair down the middle of his back and a long beard, while his co-guide was a really strong woman with a flattop haircut. They were really hardcore outdoor superstars who could live off of moss, but they were no violence counselors. They missed all the interpersonal shit going on between the kids, they did not counsel them and they had no way to impose discipline. When they were telling the kids to unpack and get a fire going, four kids would be like ”No, fuck you!”. You can’t exclude them from the group at that point and you can’t refuse to feed them either. None of the kids could escape, because if they left, they would die in the wilderness. They were bound together, but that tipping point where you would feel like a family and where you would treasure the dependence on one another never took root. Those kids were just petulant, stealing and fighting.

John was such a nerd and he really wanted that transformative experience. He had read the literature and thought this was going to be the thing that would make him a man. He was ready to survive and be a survivalist, even though he hated his parents for being forced to do this. At every turn the other kids would push his face in the dirt or take his foot out of his hand, because although John was big, he was two years younger. Their guides were operating under the assumption that this Lord of the Flies stuff would eventually mutate into brotherly love, but it never did.

They were a group of kids who, left to their own devices, would rather have starved to death and died of exposure than ever bond together to do something. It only takes one person to go off the reign to endanger a lot of people. Not intervening was not a strategy, but it was the only thing their guides were capable of. Up until the point where he saw the other group of kids paddle past them singing, John thought that everyone's experience was like that on purpose. You would come out the other side like you went to Camp North Star where all the rich kids went. It was like going to jail, except there were also mosquito bites. Seeing those other kids was John's first experience with the feeling that he still had 11 more days to survive, but he couldn't look 11 days into the future, because he would panic and be paralyzed. When you are 14, then 11 days might as well be a million days. When John was walking across Europe, he had a much bigger problem, because he still had 3,5 months to go and he just had to keep his head down and put one foot in front of the other.

Since that time at the waterfall, John has this terrible leech memory. Every time his phone offers him an opportunity to make his cloud bigger, he has a feeling like there are leeches in his shorts. He can never shake that feeling.

After having heard that story for the first time, Merlin started to look at John’s other self-imposed survival stories like his big walk across Europe in a new light. John was out there feeling desperate and yet he put himself into similar situations many times afterwards. John wonders whether that Outward Bound thing cast the die a little bit. If he had had a merry old time, maybe he would have a different relationship to the survivalist adventures that he is playing now. He knows other people who had wonderful experiences at Outward Bound. Still, he is glad for the experience. It was an example of what happens when you try to modify your kid by putting it through a very grueling experience rather than a) not trying to modify your kid or b) trying to modify your kid by finding a place where it can bloom.

Trying to straighten people out using punishment (RL160)

John's and Merlin's kids are young and what matters is the accumulation of what happens every day, what happened yesterday and the day before and the day before. When did somebody get addicted to cigarettes? Was it the first time they heard about cigarettes? No! The first cigarette they had? No! After the first pack? No! It was some time between their first pack and the day they died. It is very difficult to pick out that one day when it became harder than not to stop smoking. Would sending somebody out on Outward Bound make that addiction go away? Possibly! We are the accumulation of so many micro-decisions. Merlin finds it amazing that any kind of cold water therapy like that works out at all, unless it is turned into a feel-good TV-show about some Captain Kirk character who is actually independent, but has a hard time fitting in in school and who then discovers that they have leadership skills once they are put to a challenge. How do you know what is going to be right for somebody and how do you know that it is not going to make them horribly bitter and covered with leeches?

Outward Bound did talk a lot about leadership, but John was 14 in a group of 16-year olds and he was never going to be accepted as a leader. When he would say ”Can’t we just stop fighting for a minute and get this fire built?”, it would turn their attention back to him just long enough for everybody to agree that they should all throw rocks at him. There was a Jewish kid from Salt Lake City and the other kids agreed during the first hour of the first day that his name was bagel. It confused them a lot that he was from Salt Lake City. Imagine being called bagel for a month! He had been sent there for some kind of juvenile reformation, but he wasn’t violent. Still, he couldn’t ally himself with John, because John was the weakest. When the time came to dump on John, the kid needed to join in on that, because all he was hoping for was that they wouldn’t turn their attention on him.

John spent enough time looking at the criminal justice system. There is this cold water therapy thing where you bust some kid for selling pot, but because he is a black kid, instead of slapping his hand and sending him home to his mother you put him in juvenile detention. When he gets out, his next crime will be not showing up for his meeting. Then he gets a fine which he can't pay and that will turn into a serious problem because he is going to default. This comes with another charge and pretty soon you get somebody in big trouble who never really did anything! Think about the number of people who go to jail in the US because of pot while we are on the verge of legalizing pot nationwide. It is certainly legal in Washington. There are people standing in front of the jail smoking legal pot while there are people inside the jail who had been sent there for pot looking out the windows at them. When they got out and forgot to report to their parole officer, they went back to jail for a parole violation and they can’t find a job because they have a jail record. All of that is based on the idea that sending somebody to jail the first time is going to straighten them up which is such a faulty notion based in that strange Calvinism that is buried 100 feet deep in the American psyche, largely unexamined. It is very medieval to say that a person has some kind of ill-humors that have to be worked out of them by dunking them in the pond!

Being afraid of books moving to subscription models (BW205)

The whole capitalist model these days is attached to subscriptions. Everybody has decided that they are not selling you anything to take home, but they are selling you a monthly subscription to things. As soon as the first novelist will write a book like that, the next novelist will write a book that is proprietary to Kindle because the Kindle has features that allow you access to the meta-levels of the novel that other devices don’t do. Then we are down the rabbit hole where novels are dependent on proprietary technology that will pretty soon require you to be constantly paying international space dollars to engage with the culture. It is such a departure from going into a bookstore, paying for a book, walking out the door, sitting in a park and reading the book!

You and a book can be alone in the world together. You can go to a cabin in the remote Alaskan wilderness, read your Louis L’Amour novels and some old 1970s Playboys and feel like you are connected to the world. It is an old-person problem, but there is a creeping acceptance of the idea that the corporation who built the gizmo should also be involved in all other aspects of our lives. These companies are now corporate friends of ours, they give us presents and all they ask in return is our money, loyalty, and all the information about ourselves. With every step we are getting more and more invested in a relationship with them that we can never really get divorced from. That is a sea-change! We are all just acquiescing to this idea that we are in an emotional, committed relationship with Apple, Amazon, YouTube and Twitter. These relationships are emotionally complex and they are fulfilling our human needs.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License