Ever since I was a child growing up in Long Beach and Los Alamitos, I’ve always been a minimalist. I remember my skinny white legs sweating and sticking to the black vinyl backseats of the cherry red Ford Capri my mom drove me around in as a child. I would crane my neck to look out the window as we passed through Los Angeles county on The 405: Hawthorne, Torrance, Carson, Long Beach, Signal Hill, then into Seal Beach, Westminister, Huntington Beach, Fountain Valley, Costa Mesa of Orange County. This was just before the Strip Mall had really taken over the southern California landscape, but if one looked hard enough the seeds were visible in between the fascist Disneyland “it’s a small world” automaton and the assembly-line homogeneity of McDonald’s “Over one billion served” mentality. These places and their massive parking lots seemed wrong to me. The fact that everyone was copying from their franchise playbook scared me even more, and I was only eight at the time. The strongest memory I have was of all the waste I saw everywhere: junk metal, scrap wood, rusty cars, houses in disrepair. I imagined a future when I would be master of the world and my greatest achievement would be to gather all of the world’s scrap metal, melt it down, and make amazing things out of it. Afterward we would build rocketships which would jettison all the trash on one-way journeys to the sun. The homeless and poor would be put to work building the rockets and collecting the trash and scrap metal. Money would become useless and would be abolished along with nations and borders, so everyone would be able to travel anywhere using a fair bartering system. End of world problems.
20 years later and I’m still trying to figure out how to more or less implement this same plan. True change starts at home. So what kind of world master would I be if I wasted energy, if I had useless items cluttering up my house, if I didn’t try to constantly streamline my life in hopes of improving the quality of life for all?
In 2001 I moved to Nagano, Japan and although I met a few great people and had an overall amazing experience, there was something lacking. Maybe it was the surfeit of snow for a boy raised in the ocean and desert air of California, or maybe it was something else. Truth be told, I never even fully unpacked my bags and boxes of personal items I had taken the time and expense to ship across the Pacific Ocean. I began to wonder 1) why I wasn’t unpacking these things (i.e. was I already mentally moving on from my current place of residence?) and 2) why was I carrying this stuff around the world in the first place?
I decided it was time to put my plan in place. Luckily the time of the year when it’s generally considered cool to have small fires on your front porch in Japan comes in August, when families gather on their doorsteps (or the roadside if they don’t have one) in the time of year called Obon to welcome the spirits of their ancestors back home. I too wanted to take part in this tradition, but not being Japanese or knowing anyone at all where I lived, I decided to go it alone and ransacked my belongings, ending up with a pile of old mementos from ex-girlfriends, college papers, stacks of photos, unnecessary clothes and other fiddle faddle. At dusk as the Japanese families in town lit up their tiny altars to welcome their deceased beloved home for three days, I too cranked up my barbecue, poured on the lighter fluid and proceeded to burn a good 3/4 of my belongings in what turned out to be quite a large fire. Of course I got ragingly drunk on whisky and ended up chanting and whooping up native American raindances shirtless for four hours around the fire until the embers were just right and I could throw on the salmon I had been marinating in dill, lemon and whisky. Fresh Salsa Picada on warm corn tortillas sealed the deal. This has become a kind of tradition I keep whenever I leave a place.
So it was with much excitement and little planning that I attempted the same thing when I left Tokyo a few weeks ago. I separated everything I owned (not much to begin with) into three piles: Donatable, Carryable (i.e. necessary for The Trip™) and Burnable. While donatable was by far the largest of the three I held some possessions back in order to have a proper ceremonial fire on the roof of my apartment. I decided to burn a broken Lomo LC-A camera, all of my photographic prints (in order to move on to another artistic level so to speak), some old trinkets left by ex-girlfriends, some random clothes not even the homeless of Tokyo would want to wear, my other pair of shoes, some of my hair and fingernails and some incense I got on my last trip to China to commemorate my grandfather’s death. Nothing shocking or new here, except that I was doing this in the Tokyo, where secluded natural spots conducive for conflagrations are few and public bonfires are generally frowned upon as “dangerous” and “illegal”. Bah, I say. I’m a Californian, raised in the city yes, but bred on the mountains and the desert, where wildfires (controlled ones anyway) are our birthright.
Waiting until after midnight I carried my cardboard box of keepsakes up to the fourth floor roof, set up the tripod with my Fuji GSWIII 6×9 camera, poured a few massive shots of Chivas into a very large glass full of ice, stripped off my shirt (despite the zero degree wind chill factor) and proceeded to honor the dead and celebrate the ideas of my youth by igniting these things into the atmosphere. Taking shot after shot and photo after photo, the fire began to burn higher and higher and the whisky took strong effect. I noticed the flames curling my belongings into unrecognizable shapes, gnarling familiar forms into mounds of unusable char, melting the images on my photographs into imperceptible blurs until it all amalgamated together into ash carried off by the wind to meld into the darkness of night.
The next day I woke up with the inexplicable feelings of lightness and freedom pervading everything. I felt I could move about more freely, both figuratively and literally. I lit another stick of incense to my departed family members, cleared up the remaining ashes and finally gave thanks that my neighbors were senior citizens who go to bed by nine pm and didn’t call the police to report the continual eight foot high blaze whipping in the wind for better than three hours.
Let the plans for world mastery begin!