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Urban Philosophy

by Eric Anderson
Eric Anderson, aka the Sesquipedalian Dumpster Diver, lives in Victorian Village. He digs deep, writes about urban topics, and relates them to our larger life experiences. Sometimes he uses large words needlessly. Want to read more? Go to and click on “The SDD.” email

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January/February 2108 Issue

Lying on our kitchen counter next to our back door is a pile of coupons and “to do” items, one of which is a generous Lindey’s gift card that I received for my birthday last June. I genuinely appreciate the gift, and my wife and I like the idea of going, but we haven’t gone, even though we’ve had the gift card for over six months. Since billions of dollars in gift cards go unredeemed each year, we’re in good company. Most of our gift cards and coupons end up getting thrown in the trash because they expire, releasing me from the pressure to use them. Apparently I just like the idea of getting them.

This concept of “liking the idea of something” runs deep in me. We bought a treadmill several years ago because we really liked the idea of improving our cardiovascular health, but today it is mainly used by our overweight cat; it shortens the distance he needs to jump to his elevated food bowl. We have used the treadmill for its intended purpose perhaps five times in the last 15 years. I still like the idea of using it for walking, but in practice, I don’t. People regularly join health clubs, often as part of a New Year’s resolution, but they join because they like the idea of a health club; they like the idea of being healthy. They don’t join because they actually want to do the work of getting healthy, or even because they plan to.

When I was in high school, I thought I wanted to take a cross-country bicycle trip, and I also thought I wanted to live on my own in the wilderness someday. I read books on the subjects, planned my route for the trip and for the location of my desolate wilderness cabin, and looked in catalogues for equipment I would need. But even worse than my treadmill experience, I never even took one overnight bicycling trip, and I never practiced cooking even one meal from plants I could have found in the woods near my childhood home. I also was (and am) way too squeamish to kill and gut animals. Still, there was something about these ideas that I liked, although I wouldn’t take even the first step to realize them. Was it too much work? Or did I just enjoy romanticizing and daydreaming?

Sometimes we do follow through, but we find that our actual experience isn’t as rich as our idea of the experience. A few years ago, a friend of ours got a pass to meet Harry Connick, Jr. back stage. She loved the idea of meeting him and talking with him, imagining the fabulous conversation they would have when he reached her in line. But when they met, she was dumbfounded and couldn’t think of anything to say. The idea of talking with him was much richer than the actual experience. Weekends have always been like this for me. All through school I liked Fridays more than Sundays, because I liked looking forward to the weekend. But it was more than that. I liked the idea of the weekend. The idea of the weekend, like a conversation with Harry Connick, Jr., is better than the actual event. The idea of the weekend is limitless, with infinite possibilities. It’s an ideal, while the actual weekend (or conversation) must conform to the unfortunate limits of reality.

I recall from one of my freshman college courses that Plato shed light on this concept of the “ideal” versus the “actual.” He called ideals a “universe of forms,” but we’re talking about the same concept: perfect aspects of things. I remember most clearly the idea of the perfect chair, of “chairness” which each of us holds in our mind if someone asks us to think of one. It doesn’t contain detailed sensory information; the image isn’t the kind that lends itself to our specifying the subtle shades of color in paisley upholstering, or counting the tacks holding hypothetical fabric to a frame. It is an idea, or an ideal. Real chairs can never reach the theoretical perfection of that idea of a chair, although each contains a piece of it. Likewise our actual experiences of a weekend or a health club membership are mere shadows of our ideas of what the experiences could be.

And what is our obligation if we know with certainty that an idea is better than the potential experience? During a recent lunch, a friend told me about her mom who has Alzheimer’s, and her dad who plans to take all three of them on a cruise. Her dad is planning this because every time a cruise commercial appears on TV, her mom leans forward in her living room chair and says, “I want that!” And so he feels that this is a wish that he can grant her. But it gets complicated. Her mom said the same thing a couple of years ago and they did go on a cruise, but she hated it. Of course, she doesn’t remember that. Sadly, she doesn’t even remember her most recent meal. My friend’s dad feels obligated, because he believes that this might make his wife happy. But he really knows it won’t. He knows that she likes the momentary idea of going on a cruise when it is presented in commercials, but that she won’t like the actual experience of a cruise. An aspect of this is true for his entire family; he likes the idea of taking his wife on the cruise (as a “good husband”), and my friend likes the idea of her family spending vacation time together, but no one will enjoy the actual experience of the cruise, since mom will be miserable.

I morbidly suggested to my friend that for everyone’s sake she Photoshop her mom into some pictures and tell her that they went on a cruise with her last week. Knowing that she will hate the actual cruise, might it be kinder to provide her with this enduring pleasant idea of a cruise? Her imagined idea of the cruise is ideal and is therefore more perfect than the reality of a cruise could ever be. And with Alzheimer’s, a photo can be a gift that keeps on giving.

In spite of my awareness of all this, I bought a salon spa treatment for my wife last Christmas. I like the idea of her taking that time to relax, and she likes the idea of doing something fun like this with one of her friends. Maybe we should just leave it at that. But my belief in the possibility of a positive experience and a lasting memory of relaxation and fun for her keeps me vigilant at the window of hope.

Perhaps my wife’s experience with her spa gift card will differ from our Lindey’s struggle, which involves one last paradoxical snag. I should probably just throw the gift card away, regardless of my genuinely liking the idea of dining there, but I don’t want to be responsible for permanently destroying the hope that we might go. Deep in my heart I know that we won’t go; it’s just too difficult to remember to use it. But I can’t justify dumping the card in the trash, because its existence keeps the guilt at arm’s length. I’ll continue to procrastinate, but unlike the clear success of this strategy with our other coupons, there will be no release this time from the pressure to use it; unfortunately this gift card has no expiration date.

November/December 2017 Issue

The flies should have been my first clue. A cloud of them puffed out from under the lid of the 300-gallon container as I barely eased it up, like they were giddy from a feast and starved for air at the same time. I cracked the lid open some more with the heel of my right hand, my left hand holding a Giant Eagle bag full of cat litter and breakfast debris. As I swung my bag into the trash can, I glimpsed something.

It was something that I wished I hadn’t seen. I can describe “what I saw” to you, but I can’t describe the feeling that accompanied it, because it has no words. It was a feeling that was experienced before my ego-mind could filter it. The feeling was, I believe, a glimpse of reality.

And so, this is what I have come to talk about. Pure experience. Unaltered reality. We are almost never able to experience this because in the infinitesimal moment between the actual raw experience of the Self and the experience that is perceived by the Conscious Mind, reality is cleverly altered by the Ego-Mind, which then produces our world of illusion. Our terms may differ, but regardless of our lexicon, most of our conscious waking life is obscured by a filter.

But sometimes it isn’t.

William James said that our normal waking consciousness is separated from other realities (“potential forms of consciousness”) by “the flimsiest of screens.” I believe that this flimsy screen can be drawn aside in two situations:

Limitation of Language – when our brain simply can’t translate an experience into English.

Some things are beyond words: a particular piece of art or a scene of such extraordinary beauty that you must simply take people to see it for themselves; a feeling of love so rich, full and nuanced that words would ruin the response. Using words would be like the Zen idea of “the finger pointing at the moon” instead of experiencing the moon itself.

Surprise – when our usually vigilant Ego-Mind is caught dozing for just a second.

It is, for example, the moment when I realize that I’m going to vomit. George Carlin says about the act of puking, “I don’t care about my shoes!” I would take that one more step and say, “I’m not even aware of my shoes.” When we are able to experience the raw feelings, we have taken shoes out of the equation. The cognition ends with the horrid pre-vomit thought, “I think I…” and then the vomit episode begins, obscuring everything else.

What I saw were thin, rigid, hairy animal legs. In that quick glance, just before I let go of the lid and it slammed down and I was speechless, I thought that they were deer legs. But upon further reflection, it really didn’t make sense that (1) a deer would be in Victorian Village, and (2) that an entire deer could fit in a 300-gallon trash container and leave lots more room for trash. The stiff legs were poking up through some other trash, so I didn’t see a body. I never expected to ever find a large dead animal in the trash. I reacted with a raw feeling that was part grisly, part shocked, part curious, and some other things I can’t identify. None of them does justice to the reality.

At this point, some questions might be emerging for you, as they did for a friend: Since I saw legs poking up from under additional trash, who before me came along to dump in their rubbish, and how did they react to the discovery (if at all)? Additionally, someone must have interred the beast in the first place. What thoughts must have accompanied that act? A good samaritan cleaning a sad sight from the alley? A furtive hit-and-run assailant tampering with evidence? A callous disposal of a family pet?

I’m glad you asked. I didn’t think of any of those questions until later. I had the pure experience, free from contemplation and questioning, totally in that moment. You’ve had a secondary experience, shaped and controlled by my words. I’m sorry. Or, you’re welcome.

I never know what’s under the lid. It could be a wordlessly beautiful piece of art, or it could be a sack of some child’s car puke. I’d like for this realization to provide my “300-gallon container relationships” with an air of expectancy. I’d like to approach each trip anticipating that I might have an occasion for a pure experience, or that I might experience a moment of reality. Ever since the legs, though, I’ve been more willing to settle for a slightly sullied version.

September/October 2017 Issue

This title is a phrase that was introduced to me as a child; I understood it to be a well-known guideline from the entertainment industry. More recently, it has reminded me of my carbohydrate addiction. If I start breakfast by pouring a bowl of cereal, I’d better just keep the box and the milk carton close by. I can’t seem to “fill up,” even on so-called healthy cereals; carbs always leave me wanting more. This is true of any addiction, whether it’s alcohol, chocolate, or Netflix. But this phrase also speaks more generally to a core tenet of consumerism that we embrace in this country: “make them want to buy more.” Corporate America has been very successful at convincing us that we want more of almost everything, whether it’s shoes, video games, or the latest phone.

Consumerism is about our desiring and craving, and this phrase reinforces what has been ingrained. But in some situations we might begin to ease ourselves in a new direction; in serendipitous moments we might choose to incline ourselves toward a different reaction – sharing. Unexpected discoveries are a special kind of gift that I have often demeaned by responding with greed. When I unexpectedly uncover interesting items, might I instead choose to respond in a way that speaks to my membership in a community?

I open the lid of a 300-gallon trash container to discard my bag of dog poop, and am surprised to see a new snow shovel waiting for me. But instead of being grateful for the gift, I wonder if there’s more in the next container. I get an extra bottle of pop from a vending machine, and instead of appreciating the satisfaction of sharing this with my friend, I try to shake loose a third bottle. I find a pair of 1928 OSU-Michigan tickets behind a fireplace mantel while I’m renovating, and instead of experiencing joy at my discovery, I want to find out what’s behind our other mantels.

When I have experienced these serendipitous gifts, I have rarely accepted them with gratitude. Not content to enjoy them, I have immediately been tempted by the possibility of “more,” and have misinterpreted each gift as a starting block for a familiar greedy sprint. As an American, I’m used to this; I grew up instinctively wanting more of everything.

In third grade, after I spotted a quarter on the playground revealed by the melting snow on my way home from school, I spent the remainder of my walk with my eyes firmly fixed on the ground in front of me, hoping for more. As it turned out, I didn’t find any more, and I also wasted every walk home for months with my head swinging and my eyes scanning the playground for change, instead of noticing the world around me.

When I was eleven years old, my grandfather gave me an arrowhead that he had found on a walk in a cornfield on his farm. Not content with the gift, I wanted to find more arrowheads, and I consumed much of my weeklong vacation wandering his fields in a fruitless pursuit of Native American artifacts.

These reactions were ironic, because prior to each unexpected discovery I was satisfied (with throwing trash, buying a drink, renovating, returning home, and vacationing). But something in my ego was not satisfied: “How many more quarters or arrowheads might I find?” Compelled by some force, I lost sight of grace-filled moments in exchange for the dubious possibility of “more.” I have heard that the gold rush affected people in the same way.

Sometimes my greed did lead to my finding more, but it never led me to find “enough.” For example, a few years ago we stayed with friends at their cottage on a remote part of Lake Michigan, and as we spent time walking along the beach, I chanced upon a patterned stone in the water. It was beautiful, and I found out that it was not uncommon to find these “Petoskey stones,” the state stone of Michigan, formed by the fossilization of coral. I was drawn to their interesting markings, and as we walked I found (and kept) one more, then spotted another one, and another, until my bag was bulging, and both hands were full. I felt that I needed to bring home every one of these amazing stones that I could find, although I couldn’t possibly use them all.

I should have been satisfied when I successfully found more, but I wasn’t. There is always more that could be mine. When I find one gift and want more, but fail, the craving perhaps understandably remains. But why is it that when I found plenty – more than I could ever use – I still wanted more? When this happens, I believe that there can be no end to my greed and craving. I will never be satisfied. I will never have “enough.”

Does anyone ever become truly satisfied with what they have? In our Western society it seems unlikely. But what about those who might have avoided the consumerism brainwashing? Do the professional dumpster divers, probing daily with their sticks, find “enough”? Living outside the maelstrom of mainstream consumerism, are they immune to the greed? Are they able to experience a more pure form of the serendipity of an unexpected gift? Given their overloaded shopping carts, barely able to move under the strain of the black garbage bags lashed to the sides, I think they suffer with the rest of us. Maybe it’s not consumerism after all; maybe it’s genetic. And maybe it follows an evolutionary path that is more ancient than we imagine. This desire for more may be even more broadly experienced by our mammalian cousins, as evidenced by the hoarding behavior of squirrels, who never consider how many stored nuts would be “enough,” and by the gorging of black bears, swallowing just one more berry before collapsing in their hibernal stupor.

Though this may be in our genetic code, it is amplified by our culture, and this worldview driven by a philosophy of scarcity is dangerous for the long-term survival of our species. The ability to gratefully accept serendipitous gifts requires a philosophy of abundance and thankfulness, and this could be the first step in a broader awareness that allows us to further evolve. Greed has never made us great. But grateful acceptance of unexpected gifts can allow us to participate in the balance of the universe, accepting each gift with the serenity that allows us to leave the next treasures for someone else, in spite of our desire for more.


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