Almost exactly but not quite ten hundred and a half years ago, I was living in the Bay Area, California. I’ve realised, since I am trying to write something every day, how much of my daily observations are informed by previous experiences. And so; California. My time in NorCal was oriented largely around kitesurfing, as was my want at the time. During one summer I travelled up the PNW coast in a rapidly disintegrating van (a theme that has punctuated my life like a recurring case of the shingles), to Hood River, Oregon.
Perhaps I’ll write more about those experiences at some point, but I’m reminded today of being offered a job teaching kitesurfing, in San Francisco, the epicentre of extremely expensive and well educated brains tucked inside ridiculously thin skulls. The model was simple – I would work for cash in hand, use the kite school’s equipment and infrastructure to teach people to do something that is easier than driving a car, but with a more consequential and vastly wetter learning curve.
I declined. I was in the US legally, with long-as-you like residency (can’t recall its real name) but I did not have a work permit. Perhaps more importantly, I did not have any sort of insurance. The school did not seem to think this was a limiting factor, but I was nervous. The scale and scope of kiteboarding injuries makes 17th century Caribbean piracy look like a wellbeing check-in session on Zoom (although personally I’d prefer the former). I’d only recently watched a young man get dragged sideways into a carpark bollard, shearing his pelvis cleanly in two, the harness holding him together like a rolled roast. Or, the chap at Oostvoorne, in the Netherlands, who snapped his neck hitting the water from an unseemly height.
I could just imagine stage-managing some kind of salt-water flensing and being subsequently sued for both kidneys. When we talk about predatory labour practices this isn’t the kind of thing that springs to mind, but in a litigious environment like California, the potential fleecings are terrifying. Like everyone, I periodically assess the odd poor decision I’ve made along the way, but it’s good to also keep in mind the rare moments of perspicacity.
This puts me in mind of another peculiar trend I discovered while living in the US; egg harvesting. A good friend, Stanford educated, with enormous student loans, was considering ‘donating’ her eggs. Tall, blond, healthy and in possession of a Masters degree from Stanford, she breezily informed me that her eggs would attract around a $100k price tag. Egg ‘donating’ was casually discussed and seriously undertaken, although not by anyone I knew closely. One ‘cycle’ would pay almost all of one’s student debt. That’s a significant inducement to young graduates, many of whom have had to work as (unpaid) interns in their holidays. For these women, aged between around 28-32, egg harvesting looked like an onerous but lucrative undertaking.
I’ve found myself thinking about my time in the US a bit lately, as I reflect on the polemics of the pandemic response in the US – the varying concepts of social contract, bodily integrity, sovereignty, history, slavery and the commercialisation of risk and flesh and blood. How to account for such vastly different approaches? Medicine and science gets you only so far. Anthropology, surely a little further.