Doing Things

We spent two nights in Caye Caulker -- a small limestone coral island off the coast of Belize. When I say "small," I mean you can easily walk the length of it -- in fact, that's really the only way to get around. The roads are made of sand-dirt-mud; the houses are all wide open and breezy and choked with swinging hammocks and candy-colored Adorondak chairs and reggae music. Every single building is either a place where you can have sex on your honeymoon, or a place where you can buy dirt-cheap grilled lobster. It's heaven. 

On our first day on Caye Caulker, I could recognize almost all of the birds. Shore birds are kind of my specialty, having spent the last six years staring out at water in New Orleans. Pelicans, egrets, kildeer, sandpipers, purple herons, easy. But there was this one big, black bird that looked like a vulture but MORE, with splotches of white feathers at the throat. Carrie said, "Ask anyone on the street. Everyone here knows every bird." We asked a man with a hat he made himself out of banana leaves. "A frigate bird," he said. 

Everyone here knows every bird.

Everyone on Caye Caulker knows every bird, because the people who live on Caye Caulker live on Caye Caulker -- I mean they really live there. Everyone walks everywhere, so everyone knows where everything is. Everyone knows everyone else by name. All the signs are hand-painted; everyone made their own houses. We walked along the beach and a man who was knee-deep in the the ocean caught a lobster with his bare hands (lobsters don't have claws in Belize).

We went out to dinner at a restaurant that was like all the restaurants: made out of slats of waterlogged bright orange wood with rusting nails and a big chalkboard out front boasting variations on the catch of the day. It smelled like smoke and pepper and you could hear something searing in the back. Yes, I'm trying to make you jealous.

At one point, Carrie's mom sat down at the table and her chair fell backward and part of the fence smashed through. It was the kind of funny that wouldn't have been funny if someone had gotten hurt (and someone had really ALMOST gotten hurt). The man grilling lobsters in front grabbed Carrie's mom and set her up somewhere safer; and someone from the back came out with a hammer and a nail and fixed the fence, right then and there. Then we all had salad.

We had to take a water taxi to get somewhere the next day. I learned quickly to bring magazines and books on excursions in Belize because you have to wait a long time for everything, and everyone is just kind of OK with that. I would be OK with that, except that when I'm not occupied doing something for five minutes I basically have an aneurism. This is super unhealthy, and I live with people who can meditate for an hour and a half, so I am really, really aware that it is super unhealthy. But anyway, I have lots of cheap subscriptions to smart-sounding magazines, so I never don't have something good to read. For this water taxi ride, it so happened, I had the Technology Issue of The Atlantic.

Mostly this issue had standard fare: moody book reviews, a list of the top 50 innovations of all time as decided by white people with Ph. Ds (number one was the printing press, surprise surprise), and an article lauding the guy who founded PayPal. But there was one article, hiding near the back, titled "All Can Be Lost: The Risk of Putting Our Knowledge in the Hands of Machines." It was unassuming and had boring graphics, so I almost didn't read it. But it started with a bunch of paragraphs about plane crashes, so I was drawn in. That's good journalism, right there.

The article ended up being excellent: it was about the importance of learning to do things, and not pre-programming machines to do everything we want to have done. The last paragraph is beautiful and powerful:

Whether it’s a pilot on a flight deck, a doctor in an examination room, or an Inuit hunter on an ice floe, knowing demands doing. One of the most remarkable things about us is also one of the easiest to overlook: each time we collide with the real, we deepen our understanding of the world and become more fully a part of it. While we’re wrestling with a difficult task, we may be motivated by an anticipation of the ends of our labor, but it’s the work itself—the means—that makes us who we are. Computer automation severs the ends from the means. It makes getting what we want easier, but it distances us from the work of knowing. As we transform ourselves into creatures of the screen, we face an existential question: Does our essence still lie in what we know, or are we now content to be defined by what we want? If we don’t grapple with that question ourselves, our gadgets will be happy to answer it for us.

I put the article down and thought about all the things I am glad I know how to do myself: I'm glad I know how to sew my own clothes. I'm glad I know how to make bread. I'm glad I know how to read a map, and how to grow eggplant, and how to write things by hand.

But if a part of a fence fell off, I would not know what to do.

And in New Orleans, there are a lot of plants and birds and animals I don't know by name, because I have a reliable electronic field guide that can figure things out for me. There are plenty of times I use a GPS when I think I might know where a place is from memory. One day, I might find that I don't know where everything is from memory. As the article explains: those are the things we lose.

Part of the joy of being alive is doing, and failing. You must get your hands wet and muddy and screw things up before you can really do anything great. The great inspiration of Caye Caulker was bearing witness to the peoples' joy; the aliveness that came from being separated from screens. I will carry that back with me.

As I write, a machine is telling me I've gotten "Caye" wrong with a red dotted line. In many ways, I have forgotten how to spell because of this "wonderful" machine. But here's the thing: I know I haven't gotten "Caye" wrong; spell check has just not spent enough time in Belize.