Simplicity

Is this what one used to dread?

“Once you have rid yourself of the affliction there though, every change of scene will become a pleasure. You may be banished to the ends of the earth, and yet in whatever outlandish corner of the world you may find yourself stationed, you will find that place, whatever it may be like, a hospitable home. Where you arrive does not matter so much as what sort of person you are when you arrive there.” – Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

Eleven years ago on this little island, a wealthy local mayor started construction on a large mansion. The mansion was constructed entirely of concrete, three stories high, set amongst a coconut-palm tree grove and overlooking the ocean.

Halfway through construction, the mayor died. The mansion now sits unfinished in the care of the mayor’s niece, slowly crumbling apart. Looters have destroyed anything that wasn’t solidly nailed down, and all the out-buildings and quarters for the guards and servants are roofless and falling down. There is no running water or electricity, and the towering gray citadel is without the luxury of doors or windows.

We called it Castle Grayskull, and for a while, it was home.

A few weeks prior to the castle, we were at our usual base. Some Army Colonel had dropped by for a visit and a meeting. He told us that it was crucial that we have guys on this particular island and he didn’t care if we did it naked in a canoe and armed with a butter knife, as long as we got out there.

Paparazzi (Obviously, none of these names are real) and I got to talking about this. Apparently, we didn’t even need the RIB’s to operate out there. We just needed anything that floated long enough for us to interact with the locals and conduct surveillance and reconnaissance. We had these two little indigenous wooden boats, called bancas, which were purchased locally.

“So, the two of us could take the bancas out there, live on the island and get all these ops done?”

We called it “Operation Butter Knife.”

This was really an excuse to get away from our chain of command and take a little vacation. We figured that an hour or two a day could be used taking all the stupid little pictures the Army wanted, and the rest of it could be spent snorkeling, spear-fishing, napping in our hammocks and otherwise serving our country.

Our Chief loved the idea and was impressed with our initiative, probably because we left out the 90 minutes of work followed by a nap part.

We had created a monster. The op was pushed all the way up the chain of command and came back with an hourly schedule and the usual bureaucratic nonsense. Wednesday night we were given notice that the op was to go through and that we would be leaving Friday on a civilian cargo barge, which would drop us off near the island.

In this amount of time we had to create communications plans, do the weapons and intel-equipment loadouts, conduct gear checks, briefly train the people who would be handling our jobs in our absence, and amass all the stuff we would need to live for about two weeks.

The first thing Paparazzi and I packed was snorkel gear and flip flops.

The trip on the barge took 14 hours. We slept around our gear on the deck of the barge, occasionally being accosted by new and interesting smells emanating from the internal holds of the ship. At one point in the night, I was woken up by the feeling of the ship making a change in course, and looked up at the railing near my head to see the mast of a boat passing by us, coming within a few feet of collision. I slept on a cot, while Paparazzi strung up his hammock near the wall on the edge of the barge. I slept fine on my cot, but the hammock caused Paparazzi some difficulty once the ship hit rolling seas. At about two in the morning, his hammock started swinging, knocking him into the wall with each roll of the ship. Bong… bong… bong…

We arrived at the island the next morning and we dropped the banca boat in the water and headed towards Grayskull.

Four or five SEALs, whom we refer to as team guys, had moved into Grayskull a few weeks ago, and were to be our new chain of command. Apparently, they had been notified of our arrival only the day before.

We were met by the team guy’s LPO (the guy who’s kind of in charge), who gave us a quick brief on the house and surrounding property and showed us the rooms we would be staying in. A few minutes later, we were called to the second floor to meet with the OIC (the guy who’s in charge).

The OIC told us that the brass back at base had no idea what was really going on at the island. Our being out on the water could potentially scare off several targets they had been monitoring over the past several weeks and endanger the ops they had been planning around those targets. The banca boat would not be used by any American personnel, though he would probably be able to loan it to his Filipino Forces and get use out of it that way. He would task us with a mission once it came up, and until then we would just be working in with them and hanging out.

I could not have been happier. Operation Butter Knife was going perfectly.

Paparazzi and I settled into our room and began working with the team guys around the castle.

The only food at the castle was what you brought with you, which consisted mainly of MRE’s andprotein powder. I’m not a huge fan of MRE’s, so I brought a backpack full of protein powder, oatmeal, greens powder and some supplements. Occasionally, we got food from the Filipino Marines who live in the other shacks on the compound. A common offering was sautéed bat adobo. The bats were quite large, and the Filipinos would shoot them with a pellet gun and make dinner out of them. The meat was actually pretty good, but each piece of meat was contained within a mess of little bones and connective tissue, which made it not really worth the work of eating it.

We also brought about 20 cases of bottled water with us, which were to serve not only as our only drinking water, but also as our means of showering.

It takes about five bottles of water to take a shower, or three, if, as in Paparazzi’s case, you only tend to the “problem areas.” This system was working out well enough for us, but by the second day we had decided that it was time to develop some better methods. If the good folks on Gilligan’s Island could make a radio out of a coconut, we could figure out a shower.

Getting Water

Working with one of the team guys, we placed a 35-gallon plastic garbage can on the roof of the castle. We cut a hole in the lid, and ran a hose with a nozzle down to the ground. By siphoning the water, and pressurizing it with the three story drop, we managed a flow of water with just as much pressure as one would find in a house with actual plumbing. The only catch was that the barrels had to be filled daily with water from a well. This was done by dipping a bucket tied to a bamboo pole into the narrow well, then dumping it into a barrel in the back of a pickup. The water was trucked below the barrel on the roof, and raised by way of another bucket tied to a rope. We worked on devising a pulley system made out of bamboo and coconut shells, but the plans never made it out of the theoretical stage.

Our room was on the first floor, and was one of the few in the building with tiled floors instead of bare concrete. The room occupied by Paparazzi and I was about ten by fifteen feet, and featured large, open, arched windows on two sides. Between these windows and the door frame we strung our hammocks. We shared the room with eleven spiders and two geckos. On the first day, we killed a large spider that was traversing the floor and left its remains on display as a warning to the others. From then on, we maintained a loose peace agreement with the remaining eleven and they remained on the ceiling where they were free to stay and catch bugs. Roll call of the spiders was conducted regularly and for the rest of our stay we had no further violations of the treaty.

There was an excellent gym, considering the circumstances, and in order to enter the house one would walk through it and past the large bamboo and palm leaf sign with the words: “Jungle Gym.”

The team guys had a projector which could be connected to a laptop, and each night, as long as the generator was running, we pointed the projector at a large concrete wall on the second story and watched a movie.

All trash had to be collected and taken to a pit where it was doused in gasoline and ignited with amagnesium pencil flare. The team guys were able to solve most problems with the application of some sort of pyrotechnics, a tendency which I found quite endearing.

The bathroom was another adventure. The concept of toilets has never quite caught on in the Philippines, so the bathroom consisted of a hole in the ground inside a little shack. The team guys had already placed a toilet seat on top of an ammo box, which eliminated the necessity of developing good technique in the maneuver known as “The Third World Squat.” Flushing was done by dipping a coffee can into a barrel of rainwater and dumping it down the hole. I recently finished reading a book about a guy stuck for many years in a Thai prison, and after being inside that shack, I no longer have to wonder what his accommodations were like.

There is a clearing of grass next to the castle which is used as a helicopter landing pad. At the end of this clearing is a pair of tree stumps that needed to be removed. This could be accomplished in a variety of ways. A chainsaw seemed most efficient. Burning them was also a viable option. The team guys, however, had a better idea, which proved not only quite entertaining, but also educational, and we spent an afternoon removing the stumps with almost four pounds of C4 plastic explosive.

There was also a large, thick, leafy bush that needed to be removed, and we started making future plans for its removal.

“Ok, so we can fill a bunch of condoms full of gasoline, throw them in the bush, wrap it in det-cord, then throw some C4, connected to the det-cord, in the middle.”

We presented this idea to the OIC.

“Can’t you just use a weed-eater?”

“Well, yeah, but…”

“We’re gonna do that. No demo. Jesus.”

About a mile offshore were two large mooring buoys which we had placed recently for our boats. Each buoy was a large cylinder, about four feet in diameter and maybe six feet high. They sat about halfway out of the water. We swam out to them occasionally for a workout, and on days when we have too much time on our hands, we invented another sport: Buoy Climbing.

As it turns out, getting on top of one of these buoys is next to impossible. If one person grabs a side and tries to pull himself up, the buoy immediately flips over on top of him, flinging him back into the ocean. If another person holds the buoy down on the other side, then the first person will generally make it almost on top of the buoy before it spins in place and smacks him back down into the water.

With enough coordination and the proper timing, sometimes the first person makes it on top of the buoy, but this is almost always short-lived, as the person will then overcompensate by moving too far to the other side. This is a fun one to watch. The guy attempting to climb the buoy will suddenly find himself triumphantly on top, and for a brief moment he will consider himself “King of the Buoy” and let out a joyous whoop of victory. It is at this point that the buoy will reach an upright position and then keep right on going to the other side. Picture the movement of one of those little horsey things on a playground that sits on a giant spring, but about six feet tall.

The expression of elation on the man’s face would quickly be replaced by one of impending doom, and the buoy would continue its swing, pushing the second guy underwater and crashing the first directly on top of him, creating a satisfyingly large spray of water. Occasionally, this would all occur while the rider was still in the middle of his victory yell, and the sound of it being cut short by the impact of the water was always amusing to the spectators.

Somewhere towards the end of our stay there, before we had to return to a life of non-stop sleepless nights and back to back operations on the water, I wrote this in a letter to a friend:

“I’m writing this from my hammock inside Castle Grayskull. Out here, I don’t wear a watch, I don’t carry a cell phone, and my wallet is sitting useless in my backpack. I’m not even sure what day it is. I’ve read three books in the past week, and written one story. I haven’t had a hot shower in several months. I’m bitten by an interesting and sometimes mysterious variety of insects each day. My meals are either cold MRE’s, protein shakes, or the occasional luxury of tuna fish packets or granola bars and jerky sent from home. Every once in a while I have some local food from the Filipino Marines around here. All the clothes I have out here fit easily in a compartment of my backpack, and I seldom wear more than board shorts and flip flops. I work out every day, do a lot of stretching, and usually go for a swim in the ocean.

I have not felt this happy or at ease in years. I have to go back to our usual base in a few days, and the ops we’ll be doing then, and some of the people I’ll be working with, are going to suck. Nonetheless, I feel like years of stress are being melted out of my body. Before I came out on deployment, I wrote about how tired I was of the lifestyle in California. I wanted to be free of commuting, traffic, cable television and shopping malls. Now, I am, and it’s great.

I suppose that I’ll be ready to go back when I have to, but I’m really in no hurry. I look forward to the things in the states that I can’t do here. I miss climbing, mountain biking, camping and training at the MMA gym I go to. I want to spend some time with my family. I hope that when I get back I’ll be able to maintain a level of simplicity in my life that will keep me happy.” 

Happiness is an odd thing. We humans, and I think Americans in particular, are not terribly good at figuring out how to attain it. Numerous studies done by men like Harvard Professor Daniel Gilbert have found that happiness only correlates with financial status up to the poverty line. Beyond that, the ultra rich show the same level of objectively measured happiness as anyone else.

For that brief time before the reality of military life swooped back in, we lived at the castle in circumstances that most people would describe as squalor, and yet I look back on it as one of the most enjoyable times of my military career.

Despite this, money, the corporate ladder, working to afford a bigger mortgage and more car payments and accumulating possessions and material comforts takes up the majority of our time. It’s like we’re not even happy in the rat race. We want to run in the rat race with the newest, most expensive running shoes we can find, and most of us fail to ever stop and look around and wonder why it is we’re really doing it.

I moved to Denver recently, in order to build out our new facility here and get Barefoot Denver running, and got an apartment.

I came here with a duffel bag and a few odds and ends. I’ve got my Ipod, a little Bose speaker for it, a pan, three knives, three forks, a nalgene, a bed, a can opener and a spatula. I don’t own a TV, I don’t have internet and it seems that all my neighbors are clever enough to put passwords on their wireless routers.

In the evenings after I get done at the facility, I come home, put music on and make dinner; which I either eat out of the pan or dump into a Tupperware container since I don’t have plates yet. I don’t have a lamp in my room yet either, so if I go in there I use a headlamp. It’s like camping.

Then I sit on my floor in the living room, against the wall with my pillow behind my back, listen to music and read or write until it’s time to sleep.

During the day, I write down everything I need to accomplish online and spend about two hours at a coffee shop in my neighborhood. This forces me be efficient in my time there, because if you’re sitting in public with your laptop, you tend to feel kind of silly if all you’re doing is goofing around on Failblog. So I finish my checklist and for the rest of the day I’m disconnected electronically.

This level of simplicity is relaxing, and I feel that I can accomplish far more. By starkly dividing my time working online from working at the facility and from the rest of the day, I lose the tendency to constantly “snack” throughout the day on random internet forays and instead have dedicated work time or dedicated relaxation time. Either one is more productive.

It’s still a far cry from Castle Gray Skull and within a few weeks I’ll have furniture, internet and probably even a lamp, but it’s been a nice reminder of how much of what we take for granted in life can actually just serve as mental and physical clutter.

Seneca also wrote in a letter to a friend, “Still, my determination to put your moral strength of purpose to the test is such that I propose to give even you the following direction found in great men’s teaching: set aside now and then a number of days which you will be content with the plainest of food, and very little of it, and with rough, course clothing, and will ask yourself, ‘is this what one used to dread?”

Consider this for a moment and look around at all the comfort and clutter you surround yourself with. How much of it do you really use on a regular basis? What would you do if it was all taken away?

We spend so much time working to accumulate all this stuff when it may not even make us any happier than we would be without it, and it’s quite possible that the toiling we have to do in order to afford it all takes us away from experiences that would be much more fulfilling.

Self-imposed simplicity is a worthwhile exercise. Think of some sort of material comfort that you use regularly and feel dependant on and exercise control over it. Do you check your email every ten minutes, or leave your tv on all day? Try unplugging your tv for a week, or set a timer and only allow yourself one hour of time online each day. Disconnect your modem the rest of the time and turn off the internet feature on your blackberry.

When you check your email after two or three days and realize that you can go through all of your email in about fifteen minutes, you’ll really start to wonder what the rest of that time was for.

Learn to enjoy the real world, physically. That time you won’t be spending watching reruns and looking up videos of fat kids falling down on Youtube can now be spent trying something new and finding out what your body is capable of. Rent a pair of snowshoes, join a friend on a hike, or spend an hour staring at a cloud with the sun on your face and reconnect with the world inside your own thoughts without sedating yourself with the narcotic effect of television.

 

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