The Things You Carry

“The title story in The Things they Carried, Tim O’Brien’s classic collection of loosely related short stories about a group of Vietnam-era American soldiers, is one of my favorite pieces of fiction. Here’s a taste:

The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 15 and 20 pounds, depending upon a man’s habits or rate of metabolism. Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April.

While the story is well worth reading for its own sake, what has stuck in my mind since I first read it is the idea that the things we carry reveal a great deal about us. Oddly enough, this has become more true as more of the things we carry get eaten by smartphone apps. The things you carry, both on and off your phone, now say a lot more about you. Because they are mostly not determined by necessity; they are determined by possibilities.”



Keys and Torture

“To undergo eight tortures and become a key is to make yourself unfit for service as an interchangeable part on some industrial default script. This means you must fail enough, quickly enough, and in unique enough ways that you escape the gravity well of the black hole of aggregated, alienated humanity (alienity?).

The point is not to be uncommon, but to be common in an uncommon way. Any old ooga-booga will not do to generate that condition. The right kind of ooga booga is as hard to generate as a good, strong pseudorandom number.

Becoming a key is about rewilding your identity as a human, breaking it out of its domesticated uniformity, putting the variation back into the natural selection, doing your bit to reclaim our species nature from this benighted degeneracy — the mathematical term for a system expressing less than its full potential complexity — that is our premium-mediocre civilization.

Most people fail to further the rewilding of humanity because they err on the side of failing too generically. Because there is not enough entropy in the trials they undergo, not enough new learning in the information they uncover. They end up as dud keys that will open up no interesting variation in the human condition, reinforcing its fragile monoculture (or perhaps oligoculture would be a better word). The human condition as evolution in a parking lot.”