September 10, 2019

Possible opening for a second chapter from the work-in-progress Amateur Kittens Thinking Solar Energy

Chapter Two: Amateur Compassion

I put down the book, realizing that was me. When he was writing about the German he was writing about me, and it was clearly not a flattering portrayal. I’m not German, he obviously changed a few details to protect my identity, but I was there, I remember him clearly, and it is so strange to unexpectedly chance upon an unflattering portrayal of oneself in a random book borrowed from a friend. I stare at the cover on the fold down tray in front of me. The title, which had once seemed so charming and alluring, now seemed to be cursing me out. Helpless Laughter, a book which now will always exist in my memory as the one that contains a thinly veiled portrayal of me on page 246. A travelogue in which I represent everything that hospitality is not. A portrait of a petty, small-minded, paranoid man. A man I know is not me but I can understand how, when we clashed, he might have come to such an impression.

I reopen the book and hone back in on the sentence that bothered me in most: “By asking me to leave he was deliberately putting a life at risk and I admit I have found it difficult to forgive.” In my head, I try putting it in my own voice, just to see how it feels: “By asking him to leave I was deliberately putting his life at risk. And I can now understand how he might find that difficult to forgive.” It’s true I had asked him to leave. And, I suppose, it’s also true I understood that by doing so he might end up in a certain amount of danger. But I never imagined he would die. And, since he lived to write the book, the story of his travels, including his unfortunate encounter with me, not only to write the story but also to publish it, it seems I was correct. But, I wonder quietly to myself, what is really the difference between imagining someone might be harmed and imagining they might be killed. No, I now realize there is no way to let myself off the hook using only such paltry methods.

The reason he might have been injured or killed had to do with the matter of a citywide curfew. They were enforcing the curfew again, and sometimes the soldiers were drunk, and sometimes, or so I had heard, they shot first and asked questions later. But the reason I had asked him to leave, insisted really, is I had good reason to believe he was an infiltrator, that he was being paid to stay with us and sow dissent, or at the very least to gather any information he could and report it back to whatever secret service agency was paying him. In Helpless Laughter he apparently makes it clear that he never was an infiltrator or agent provocateur. But, then again, why should I believe what’s written on the page any more than I believed what he told me all those years ago. (Or maybe he’s right about me, maybe I’m paranoid after all. But I prefer to think that being extra-careful is what has allowed me to survive.)

We were there to set fire to the oil wells. So, as you can imagine, we had many enemies. Setting fire to oil wells almost sounds to me now like the genre of idea an agent provocateur would actively encourage. My thinking on the topic of what’s to be done has changed a great deal since that time. I now believe we have to build something, and we’re not going to get very far tearing anything down before we’ve built something to replace it. But, as I said, those were different times. I look back down at the cover of the book. I really don’t want to be thinking about the past. I would much prefer to be thinking about the future. But I suppose it’s impossible to think of the future without also thinking of the past. They need each other. I still don’t understand why the book is called Helpless Laughter, that must be explained in the last hundred pages, which I still haven’t read. I wonder if I will.

Today is Sunday. Every Sunday I take the train into the city and every Tuesday morning, or sometimes very late Monday night, I take the train back home. I have to bike four hours to the train station and then the train itself takes seven hours, but I feel it’s important for me to be at the gatherings as often as possible. Of course I also miss a gathering from time to time. (I believe I’ve missed the past few weeks.) We’re fairly isolated at home but that is also, it seems, the point. I do most of my weekly reading here on the train. At every single gathering someone brings me at least one or two new books. I sleep most of the way back, I’ve always slept well on trains, and I’m almost always well rested enough when it comes time to get back onto my bike for the four-hour trek home. I keep the books in good condition and always return them, though sometimes they’ve been read by all of us before finally being returned. I suppose you could say we have a system.

If there was an infiltrator these days I’m not sure I would be so alarmed. If I consider that aspect of the matter then it really does seem the person I am now is a significant improvement on the person I was back then. He says I put his life at risk, but if he was an infiltrator, and snitched on us to his superiors, all of our lives would have been permanently destroyed. Nonetheless, I think about what I’ve read in his book so far and now have to admit to myself what I already know. He was not an infiltrator. He was a traveler just like he said and has written a travelogue to prove it. I was in the wrong, sending him out into the drunken soldiers an hour after curfew, and now he has gotten his revenge by transforming me into the small-minded German of his book. There are worse fates.

We have set ourselves up, we hope, far enough away from the city not to be bothered but close enough that fellow travelers can come find us if they so choose. I stare out the window watching the landscape blur by. These highspeed trains have a different quality, almost like science fiction. But they are not science fiction, they clearly exist now, and the fact that they exist is one of the factors allowing me to live as I do, between two worlds. When I think of living between two worlds I think of it as a pleasure, as a pleasure that might not last, as something I should enjoy while I can.

Obviously setting fire to oil wells was not especially good for the environment. But as a form of protest it had a certain logic in that it inflicts a fair amount of damage upon the profit margins of those most invested in the fossil fuel status quo. I fear we were also attracted because it was dangerous, and we were young, and everything about it appealed to our cinematic vision of our lives. Fire and rain practically are cinema. It’s a small miracle that we’re not all still in jail. He, the author of the book on the tray-table in front of me, only stayed with us for a few days, less than a week I’m sure, though in his book the timeline is a bit vague, but in those few days he effortlessly managed to stir up a fair quantity of dissent. I’m not sure exactly how he did so, it all came so naturally. Sometimes it wasn’t even a comment, only a look, often an ambiguous look. If he had been an infiltrator he would have been practicing his trade with an almost infinite subtlety, which I suppose was the tip-off that he was not. If I think about it that way, it occurs to me that, infiltrator or not, he was nonetheless exacting a fair amount of interpersonal damage, and I was right to ask him to leave (though I certainly could have done so at a better time and more carefully.)

He left the night before and the following morning the fires we set reached spectacularly up into the sky and later that afternoon we were already hundreds of miles away, running – at least we feared – for our lives, though there was as of yet no hard evidence anyone was in pursuit. And in all the turmoil I completely forgot him, just as effortlessly as he had first entered our lives. It was strange to remember him again, for the first time, just about an hour ago sitting here on this train, the same train I take every single week. A strange game of memory. One thing I do remember is how, at first, everyone liked him, almost from the first moment he arrived. There must have also been some jealousy involved because, if I knew anything about myself, it was that I had never been so instantaneously likeable. It had always taken time for me to win people over, and I’d always known it was something I had to work at, never something I could take for granted.

I don’t recall how we first gave ourselves the secret name Amateur Kittens. (In the book he comically changed it to the Timid Otters.) It must have had something to do with a joke about what kind of name would seem most innocuous if the authorities were to discover it. The fact that the initials were AK, which might bring to mind a certain historically popular weapon, simply meant that we could never use the initials, we always had to use the full name. Sometimes one of us would say something like “the Amateur Kittens are setting fire to oil wells” and we would all laugh. Was it only the absurdity of the statement, the absurdity of how it sounded to us, that made it funny? Then sometimes we would also make more simple jokes: “the Amateur Kittens are eating sandwiches together.” The group didn’t last very long, just three or four years before we began to feel it had become too dangerous, the degree of surveillance we found ourselves under was virtually total, and we went our separate ways, each of us working to once again merge with the general population, to become indistinguishable from it. Not restarting our individual activism until each of us, personally, felt the coast was clear many years later. And yet, for three or four years, we were Amateur Kittens together.

We don’t have a name for the place I now call home, the community I will find myself biking back into less than twenty-four hours from now. Maybe someday it will have a name, some future generation can give it one. Often we simply call it home, which serves a double purpose in that people who don’t live there with us have nothing to call it. The train begins to slow which means we’ll soon be approaching the station. I prefer to arrive at the gatherings in a relatively calm state, having taken some time on the journey to suitably gather my thoughts, but unfortunately my encounter with Helpless Laughter has left me agitated. I wonder if there is still time to calm down, during the time it takes for the train to arrive or during the short fifteen-minute walk from the train station to the house. Every week is an opportunity to have my thinking and understanding of the world challenged as little or as much as I choose. It is a matter of how open I choose to be, how willing I am to listen and engage. As the train continues to slow, the blurring through the window, at its steady rate, draws into focus. Can I will my thoughts to do the same? Mistakes I made all those years ago are not the same as mistakes made now. And with both kinds of mistakes the point is always to learn from them. I already learned long ago that my own paranoia was of far more danger to my well-being than any agent provocateur would ever be. So it was no time to become paranoid again now.

I step off the train, look to my left, and the first person I see is the last person I expect. It’s not exactly a coincidence, because Marie owns the house, which she inherited, and Marie is the one from my past, from our shared past, who has done the best job of staying in touch with everyone. She does this not because she has any great love of staying in touch but because she has access to a network of lawyers – many of whom support radical lost causes, some of whom are even willing to work pro bono – and if any of us ever need a lawyer Marie is the person we most need to know. As you can imagine, over the years, many of us have needed lawyers. Often people from the old days, when they’re in town, are invited to the gatherings, and most often they are invited by Marie. Still, it felt uncanny that I was just thinking about setting fire to oil wells and right there, at the end of the platform, walking casually toward me, was our expert at striking the match. He greeted me wordlessly, with a smile I remembered as having been even more ironic than it seemed to me now. I was still holding the book in my hand so, for some reason, I hand it to him.

– Have you seen this?

He takes the book, examining first the front and then the back cover, before handing it back.

– No. Why?

– We’re in it.

The walk is relaxed without much small talk and I find myself leading the way, opening the door with my key – we each have our own keys so we can keep the front door locked for the entirety of each gathering – and, after stopping in the kitchen for a bottle of scotch, making our way in single file up the narrow staircase. Coming up around into the large fourth floor room that has become so dear to me over the years, I am surprised to find no one else there. I don’t think I’ve ever been the first one to arrive before. (In fact, since I’m coming from so far away, I’m most often the last.) We pour two short glasses of scotch and sit down to wait for the others, who never seem to arrive, and before long find ourselves curled up together on the couch, our bodies intertwined, just like old times, so much like all those years ago. For many hours, or so it seems to me, we fall more and more deeply into each other’s bodies, and it’s only when we realize there is no more scotch (there was only half a bottle to begin with) that we seriously begin to wonder why no one else has arrived. Every single Monday for the past ten or so years there has been a large group of us avidly discussing and yet tonight there is no one, just The Match and I rekindling former times, and The Match is far from one of our regulars. In fact, when I ask, I’m surprised to learn this is actually the first gathering he has ever attended, and he only dropped by because he needed to discuss with Marie (you guessed it) the small matter of acquiring a lawyer. So while for me it is deeply strange and worrisome that we are the only ones here, for The Match it is not that confusing, since he has no previous experience to compare it to. I get on the phone and call Marie but there’s no answer. I then call a few of the others only to be met by the same lack of response. The Match can see the panic rising within me and suggests we go for a walk, take a look around the neighborhood, there’s bound to be a reasonable explanation and there’s no need to panic until panic is warranted. As we walk we hold hands, it’s been awhile since I’ve held hands with anyone, and it’s only much later that it occurs to me that The Match might have suggested this because he thought it might help me calm down. Remaining calm in difficult situations was always one of his specialties.

The neighborhood is quiet. It’s the middle of the night so this is not unusual. It feels good to walk together. I learn that the lawyer he needs is not for himself, as I had incorrectly assumed, but for a refugee community he’s been living and working with. It’s been so long since I last saw him. He doesn’t tell me much about the community, he actually fears that he should probably talk to a lawyer before he speaks about it to anyone at greater length, which is not to say he doesn’t trust me, he assures me he trusts me as much as he always has, but still, and of course I don’t force the issue, immediately agree that I understand, though I definitely am curious to hear more. We find an open diner and eat something, the alcohol was a bit harsh on our empty stomachs, and when we get back to the house this time we are somewhat less surprised to find it still empty. We look around for a note, or any kind of document or clue that might explain the situation, before he glances at his watch and tells me he has a meeting with a lawyer in an hour. If he leaves now he has just enough time to walk. He was hoping Marie could find him a lawyer for free but, if not, he already has a plan b, and it is with this plan b that he will now walk over and meet.

Standing in front of the house, in the early morning light, as we’re hugging and saying our goodbyes, he asks if he can borrow the book, he wants to read what was said about us, distorted as it might be. I explain it’s only a few pages in a much longer travelogue but he says he wants to read it anyway. Then I try to explain that it’s not my copy, I borrowed it from another friend and have to return it. The Match says “well, that’s all right then” like he always does, like he always used to, at which point I of course change my mind, fish the book out of my bag, and hand it over. It’s funny to see the book perched in the crook of his arm as he slowly walks away. I try to recall, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him carrying a book before. I sleepily walk back to the train station and get on the train. It’s such a familiar ritual yet it seems so strange not coming directly after the stimulation and intellectual destabilization of a gathering. Like having dessert before you’ve had dinner. As we’re pulling away from the station – now with nothing to read since there was no one to give me new books and I’d just given away the one book I had with me – I start to go over in my mind everything that had happened over the course of the last gathering I attended, searching for insights that might in any way help clarify this current predicament.

It had been the one-year anniversary of the unexpected visit – unexpected for the rest of them, of course not unexpected for me – of my dear friend. (Which makes me realize that I had now borrowed her book for one year without returning it. And now that I’d lent it to The Match it would be even longer before she got it back, if ever. There must be a special circle in hell for those who don’t return the books they’ve borrowed.) That meeting shook us to our very foundations, it somehow changed everything, and it was Carl’s idea that we should take the opportunity of the anniversary to revisit it all anew. Marie described it as if for years we had been on one road and then, over the course of one long evening, as if by magic, we had been transported, we had found ourselves on a completely different road. And when she said this, even though I knew I shouldn’t, I indulged myself in a modicum of pride, since I was the one who had both the idea and the connection to bring her. Such magical transportation would have never occurred without that first initiative on my part. We talked about how that encounter had rescued us from our obsession with critique, how there was a before and after, and while before so many of our gatherings were almost fully taken up with the critique of our current realities and institutions, now we never got lost down such rabbit holes. How much more focused we were now on solutions and how we might implement them. All of that, to me, felt like too much patting ourselves on the back. There had been a change in our gatherings but I was far from certain it could be described in this straightforward manner, since it seemed to me it was more like we had been converted in an almost religious sense, though I had also been converted and was therefore mostly all for it. The change was clear but its content remained fuzzy. What was undeniable is that, over the years, we had been imperceptibly growing stagnant and the visit from our friend was like a new jolt of life.

So a one year anniversary. I don’t recall any previous gathering during which we had discussed the anniversary of anything. We were not a nostalgic bunch. I learned that, while meaningful for all of us to varying degrees, the actual meanings of the encounter varied wildly. For Marie it was about what it meant to want to live, and if there was a way that wanting to live on a personal level, as she very much did, could be scaled up to resonate on the level of the larger society. For Carl it was about how to build new structures that reproduced as few aspects as possible of the governmentality of the previous ones. For Inge it was about the degree to which our actions are based on the actions of those who came before. And how more fully understanding this might create different kinds of opportunities for change. And what was it about for me? Or was I only patting myself on the back for bringing her to the gathering in the first place and setting off this cascade of new and contradictory desires? Because all these ideas were already familiar to me. I had known our new friend so much longer than the rest.

For that I had to think back to yet another time and the café I used to go to every single day. Why did I go there so often? Because there were so many others who wanted to talk and think and read and find out if there was anything new, any new ideas, somewhere out there in the world or if we were just going round and round in circles. I wonder for how many years I used to go to that café. This was when I was a teenager, just when I was beginning to figure out who I was in the world (not that I’ve figured it out now.) A lot of environmental scientists used to go to that café. That was also why so many writers and thinkers and artists went, to gather with scientists in some search for how we might make use of their knowledge. There were many misguided ideas. But what kept me going was – misguided or otherwise – the ideas just kept coming. It was in that café one winter afternoon that someone, I no longer remember who, first suggested setting fire to oil wells as a form of active protest. If I remember correctly, I think they were only mindlessly speculating. I don’t imagine they would have ever predicted someone would ever go out and actually do it. If they had known they might have even attempted to dissuade us. But they didn’t known, and now I don’t even remember who exactly they were. Just one of the hundreds of daily suggestions over coffee and then, later in the evening, over alcohol. So many of those ideas I still remember. Even the bad ones. And some of those bad ideas I still find myself pondering, even obsessing over, wondering if there’s any way to transmute them into gold.

Back then we sometimes called her Silverling, because she was the only one of us whose hair was starting to show her age, she must have been twice my age or older, I’m still not sure exactly how old she is or was, but for some reason she took a liking to my young self and, in groups of five or ten, we would all talk endlessly, her opinions always the most trenchant and insightful. We all loved her. She was the one who knew more than the rest of us put together. I suppose it was a kind of informal pedagogy. I wonder why she was even there. It had something to do with being fired from the University. She was fired for being too radical, or for staging ongoing protests, so instead, covertly, without much fuss or fanfare, she came to teach us in the café, and I hope (or do I only flatter myself) to potentially learn a few things from us as well.

Therefore, when I brought Silverling to the gathering, all her ideas felt to me like the ideas from my formative years. They weren’t nearly as new to me as they were for the others. And not only her ideas but her tone, the playful authority with which she always spoke, her sense of play in general, how she always asked and replied with the deep joyous seriousness of someone playing a game, who wants to both win and lose, both at the same time, who knows there might be even more to learn from losing than from making the point. It was a flashback to one of the best times of my life, some of my best memories.

Between reading the travelogue, thinking back to the café and seeing The Match again after all these years, the past twenty-four hours are really turning out to be a nostalgia-fest. And then there was no one at the gathering, no one but us. The gatherings were always – and I’m just realizing this now – my ongoing through-line, my ongoing sense that there might continue to be a future. Last night they suddenly stopped or paused and I still don’t know why. I sleep for a few hours, I’ve always slept well on trains, and it must be more than a few hours because as I awake we’re already pulling into my destination. I drink a quick espresso on my way to the bike racks, to wake me up after such a long nap, then unthinkingly work through the routine of zipping up my jacket, unlocking my bike, and getting it onto the road homewards. The brisk air quickly has me awake again. The road home is always scenic and as I pedal I feel alive. The past twenty-four hours have been troubling. If the gatherings no longer happen there will no longer be any reason for me to visit the city. If that were to eventually occur I wonder if I would even bother to visit the city at all. We get so many visitors at home, we’re never lacking in new ideas or engagements. And perhaps I could even ask some of these visitors to occasionally brings me books.

My mind wanders as I bike, barely even paying attention to my own thoughts, until I see our home as a small speck in the distance and suddenly I’m paying acute attention to how overwhelmingly happy I feel to be back. I find an empty bed in the common room and lie down to sleep for a few more hours. When I awake it’s as if all the troubles of the past day or so have been washed away, as if they never happened. There must be some solution to the riddle of the absent gathering but for the time being I decide to simply put it out of my mind. There is much work to be done here at home and much of it is work that cannot wait. I’ve been accused of shirking responsibilities in the past and promised myself that those days are firmly behind me. Here we pull our own weight, do our part, and I know that when I do so it makes living here all that much more fulfilling and true. I walk down to the kitchen to glance at the weeks chores and double-check which ones I’ve been assigned. The solar radiators need to be cleaned as do the manual water pumps. And the vertical axis windmills need oil. I never knew I was good at such things before I came here to live. And maybe I’m not even especially good at them but it doesn’t matter. I do them well enough and it keeps things smoothly functioning (and sometimes not so smoothly.) Cleaning doesn’t need to be an act of genius, it simply needs to be done regularly, and such everyday acts of maintenance can be especially good for taking one’s mind away from troubling matters. Or for something else I might soon discover as I change into my work clothes and prepare to get on with it.

The following Monday I bike to the train station and take the same, more-than-familiar train into the city. I walk to the house almost too slowly, as if delaying the inevitable, as if afraid to see whatever I might find there, and when I do arrive all my fears are justified, so much worse than I thought I almost cannot believe it. The house is half demolished. A dormant wrecking ball stands idly beside it, ready to finish off the job in the days to come. I once again phone Marie and as many of the others as I can find numbers for and once again there is no reply. I search my mind for possible explanations but have to admit I find none. The front door is still standing, and my key still fits in the lock. (It is only after I’m inside that I realize I didn’t have to use my key. I could have simply walked in through an open section of the wall that had been so crudely bashed away.) It is so strange to now find myself wandering through this house that stands barely half upright. For old times sake, I start my way up the staircase, but after just a few steps it begins to collapse and I think better of it, easing my way back down the few steps I had only managed to aggravate. For a moment it occurs to me that the house might completely collapse with me inside, and it would only be my own fault, the fault of my curiosity, since no one asked me to come in and there is obviously no real reason to do so. What did I think I might find: a group of my former friends and colleagues avidly discussing how to save the world on a fourth floor that no longer exists? There is dust and debris everywhere, reminding me of a natural disaster, but I know this is not a natural disaster, and even our natural disasters aren’t completely natural anymore. Could the entire gathering have been arrested, or disappeared as happens during a military dictatorship? This doesn’t yet seem like the most reasonable explanation. More likely is that for some reason they all agreed to stop meeting and no one thought to tell me. I knew I was never completely a part of the core group, but it never occurred to me before this moment that perhaps I wasn’t part of the group at all. I was a fellow traveler and yet not really part of it. At least that’s what the current evidence seems to suggest.

A chunk of ceiling crashes down a few feet away, perhaps a chain reaction from my earlier agitation of the stairwell, reminding me that, for my own safety, I really shouldn’t be here. I leave the same way I came it, putting the key back in my pocket, perhaps as a souvenir, since I can’t see any reason I might ever need it again. Back to the train station, a good sleep on the train and a beautiful morning bike ride which once again clears my thoughts. Over the weeks to come I once again decide to put it all out of my mind and, for the most part, manage to do so. However, in the weeks and months to come, I also begin to dream about the gatherings, such dreams frequently recurring, and soon I find myself wondering if the gatherings were only ever a dream. Of course I know they were real, that there is a reasonable explanation, and I will find it, or it will find me, in due time. Or are some mysteries meant to remain, perhaps to teach us other kinds of lessons.

Life here is lively and fulfilling as always. I soon realize I don’t need my double life, one life is more than enough. At the home weekly meeting a proposal is made to begin a ‘questions and ideas’ group, and I realize the proposal might be quietly directed toward me, that word must have gotten around about my experience at the half-demolished house, I only told a few friends but word often travels quickly, and someone then had the idea we could recreate here what I had so recently lost in the city. I second the proposal and, as I am doing so, am surprised to hear myself laughing. It seems, at times, my community knows what I need even more than I do.


As well, you can find my first attempt at a preface here.

And find my first attempt at Chapter One here.


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