A Catapult (Public)

All is utterly desolate and quiet, empty for hundreds of miles, though out there in that nothingness there seems to be the spirit of everything else that exists.


The sky outside the window is an absolutely steely-gray frozen haze, impenetrable and horizonless. In the sea below I can just make out ice flows gliding underneath us like ghosts. All is utterly desolate and quiet, empty for hundreds of miles, though out there in that nothingness there seems to be the spirit of everything else that exists, magic, remote, unrecordable, all fading out into an outer space punctuated with stars. The only color in this scene is imported: the cropped image of a gaily fluttering Union Jack on the upturned end of the wing facing the cabin. Every half second it flashes red. It seems so very strange and out of place, this “woo-hoo” bit of Virgin Airlines advertising flashing, like television, in the frozen nowhere of the North Atlantic sky, and I stare at it for a long time. Untethering myself has been akin to cutting a catapult rope. I’m now hurtling towards London at 500 mph.

Even though I’ve been on the plane for hours and it’s the middle of the night (no matter how you slice the time zones), I’m not tired. I can never sleep during a flight. It’s just good to sit and listen to the rushing drone of the engines. A single spotlight illuminates my notepad, forming an isolated cone of light in an otherwise dim cabin.

To me flying always feels like a preamble to grand change. I remember it from childhood trips to Germany, the internal churn of anticipation awakened by leaving everything behind and dropping wholly into another culture, of everything being different, of every new detail. I felt that my senses, stagnant from the everyday, would soon be shot to life in a flood of sights, tastes and experiences. I felt that everything would be better than it was at home. That’s vaguely how I feel now, that minus a little childhood wonder, plus a bit more adult nervousness... I think we’re over Iceland now.

I have to say, I’m looking forward to living a more ecologically sound lifestyle, to being more aware of the energy I use or don’t use. I’m looking forward to not having to deal with traffic, or pollution, or garbage in the streets. I’m looking forward to living in a small community, knowing my neighbors and working together on whatever needs to be done. That Talking Heads song does come to mind though. I wonder if I’ll miss the honky-tonks and 7-11s.

I’m getting ahead of myself though. First let me first tell you how I decided to spend the winter on St. Agnes, a tiny dot of land in the Isles of Scilly. It started like this: my friend Jon, who I’d met in college, had grown up there and had heard me, this past summer, lamenting my state of affairs. I had been reading books and articles about design ethics and sustainability, and was having a harder and harder time justifying the value of my work which, it seemed to me, existed solely to grease the wheels of commerce, some Internet start-up, for example, whose business I didn’t understand and whose managers always said some version of: “We want our identity/website/print materials to be bold, exciting, and different, but conservative enough not to offend our target market, which is everyone alive in the world today.”

I saw the waste all this consumerism generated, the resources it burned, and here I was staring at a screen for eight hours a day, helping to make it happen. I just started to question what was what.

Jon knew I was interested in experimenting with simpler living, and working remotely, so he suggested I come out to St. Agnes for the winter and give it a try. I agreed that the island, with its rugged, natural setting, would be an ideal place for such an experiment. And the small community, with its friendly people, would be an ideal buffer against not going absolutely bonkers. Did I mention that St. Agnes is about a mile wide?

Me, circa 1999, on the phone, perhaps with Jon discussing my upcoming trip. Not sure this photo exists! :D

The threat of lunacy notwithstanding, I figured this was my one chance to ring in a new millennium on a small island so I took it. For modest rent, I was offered Jon’s family’s 300-year-old, two-story, stone cottage. It sat next door to their house and was rented out to holiday makers in the summers. During the winter it would be vacant, except for a guy named Phillip, who I learned was already there running a similar experiment, and who would be my roommate. I decided to stay for six months, site unseen.

As the date of my departure drew near, I began to wonder. Would I really not go nuts? How would I, a denizen of San Francisco, a city of 750,000, manage on St. Agnes, an island of 75? Or was it 70? I hoped I’d get on well. I was looking for something deeper. What exactly that something deeper was, I wasn’t entirely sure. I hoped for a sense of mystery, a sense of beauty, and the recognition of joy found in simpler ways of life. Whatever it was, I wanted to go and find it.

The time was right. The millennium was fast approaching, and I needed to get off the gut-wrenching theme park ride that was my on-again-off-again relationship with my ex-girlfriend, Beth. I’m not blaming her, mind you. It was a roller coaster of my own making. I’d also been spending a lot of time with my friend Marisol, who’s utterly lovely. Yet my attraction for both of them felt in opposition with my want for independence. It felt like an emotional knot that I didn’t know how to navigate. And yet I pulled and they pulled, unaware of each other. And that didn’t feel good to me. I needed to do some soul searching, hence the untethering...