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December 6th, 2016 / 1:12 pm
Author Spotlight

Everyone Please Stop Listening to the Money: An AOL Instant Messenger Interview with Mark Baumer

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It is 19 days after the election. I go to the gym. I run on a treadmill. There are 26 screens. As I gaze into them, I enter podcasts where Americans speak about how they want to be seen. My body propels itself forward in place. I stare at a yellow wall, practicing Zazen. I want reality to fall away so that my listening and movement are symbiotic. In spite of this, I experience a cavernous feeling. It is a feeling like an architectural rendering where the edge of a building blurs into the sky.

On three of the 26 screens, CNN reports that the President-elect may terminate the agreement between the United States and Cuba. This possibility was announced in a tweet.

My body, running in place, accumulates miles.

Before and after the election, Mark Baumer is walking. Mark Baumer is crossing America with his bare feet. In a Snapchat message to Mark, I type: Do you have shoes with you, and if so, what kind are they? Slip ons called fit kicks, he says. I only put them on when I go into stores.

This is not the first time Mark has walked across the country. He did so six years ago, but not without shoes. Walking is part of Mark’s writing practice. Have you ever seen someone write with their feet?

As he walks, Mark nonviolently protests. “My goal […] is to stop the earth from dying because of climate change,” he writes. “I’m sure a lot of people don’t think I can make it across America barefoot and probably even more doubt I will be able to defeat climate change with this journey, but something deep inside of me is telling me to do this so I will do my best to listen to this voice inside of me and ignore all the voices outside of me who don’t believe in me.”

In a time of black mirrors, cavernous feelings, and running in place, Mark’s project strikes me as both very funny and dire in its seriousness—a source of light in the dark. If anyone can perform the super-heroic act of stopping climate change without shoes, it’s Mark.

From 2009-2010, I attended graduate school with Mark in Providence, RI. Over the years, he has shown me numerous gestures of kindness. Does he know this? I once ran into Mark near a diner-themed restaurant franchise on our campus’s commercial strip, and he invited me to the gym. No one taller than me had ever invited me to the gym!

Years passed. Mark wrote books. Some of them were self-published. One of these books, Holiday Meat, won a contest. “For most of my life I ate way too much meat,” he writes. “A lot of money is spent to make sure we eat too much meat. Everyone please stop listening to the money telling you to eat meat.”

Mark adds: “And Earth is also more likely to die because of meat.”

Mark and I kept in touch via our computers. During these years, I experienced what felt like an increased sense of connectivity with people in and outside my life. Was this connectivity true, false, or occupying space on either side of these thresholds?

In March 2016, Mark gave me a lemon the color of a yellow highlighter:

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To travel is to drain the immune system. A lemon is an naturopathic form of medicine.

Mark, who once ate too much meat, is now vegan. He once went on a silent hunger strike in the Providence Place Mall. He held a sign that said SILENT HUNGER STRIKE and stood in front of the Apple Store. I remembering seeing this image for the first time on the Internet and feeling a deep sense of admiration.

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Every year, 300 million people eat 30 billion pounds of meat. 200 billion tweets are sent out. 21.9 billion Instagram photographs are posted. 4.7 billion snaps are distributed. Mark insists there is a connection between social media, climate change, and the country that we stand on and for.

As he walks, Mark passes roadkill.

As he walks, Mark does not eat animal products.

As he walks, Mark talks to strangers.

As he walks, Mark passes a meadow in rural Pennsylvania.

As he walks, Mark greets cows and horses. Hi puppies, he says.

As he walks, Mark erodes the false dichotomy between nature and culture.

As he walks, Mark records videos.

As he walks, Mark takes photographs of his feet.

This is what my feet look like the night before I begin crossing America barefoot, Mark posts on October 13th. Since then, Mark has taken 49 photographs of his feet.

It is difficult for me to look at the photographs of Mark’s feet.

Mark posts his photographs and videos to corporate networked space: Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat. Subsequently, these photographs and videos become part of feeds, which are what we are, what we’re being fed, how we give our labor without remuneration, and how all of us are working: you, me, Mark, and everyone we know. Via our feeds, in our machines, we are all becoming-feed. Perhaps, then, we are more akin to hogs than cogs.

To my friend who wants to be a Tamagotchi, I type: Is Soylent there because we don’t need food because we now have feeds? 

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Like pigs awaiting slaughter, feeds are how we are consumed, how we become metaphorical food. This consumption is part of our production, which is also a performance. The poet Oliver Strand helped me think about this.

I interviewed Mark on AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) from 7:08pm to 8:21pm on October 2, 2016. He was getting ready to cross America barefoot on October 13th, so the platform—however outmoded it may be—felt like a good place to have a conversation.

The day before I interviewed Mark, I lay naked in a sensory deprivation tank. The tank was lightless, quiet, and filled with salt. When I downloaded AOL Instant Messenger, I logged in. At first, I had no contacts. Right away, I started to think about AOL Instant Messenger as the Internet’s sensory deprivation tank.

Today, Mark is on two feet, and I am running in place. Mark is practicing Transcendental Meditation by a living horse, and I am editing video of a slaughtered pig. Mark is eating a can of garbanzo beans for breakfast, and I am smearing avocado onto toast. Mark is in a motel room somewhere in the Rust Belt, and I am typing on my computer from the C train that runs between Manhattan and Brooklyn. The subway car moves, and the city is scrolling. Which is to say, New York City is unraveling. The only difference between Mark and I is how we record ourselves doing things.

In his videos, Mark takes slow and careful steps. It’s as if he is Phillipe Petit or Jesus crossing a very still body of water. Alone in my apartment, I also tread lightly, leaving behind the footprint clear energy demands. When I think of footprints, I think of a Christian poster many of my friends’ parents had in high school. Then I think about how, several weeks ago, I was 25 miles away from Mark. In close proximity, we Snapchatted one another like a human being and a living horse whose paths appose but never meet. What is the opposite of a feed? At the very least, we scrolled past one another.

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