In the presence of the final mystery

black and white, Color, Portrait, travel

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“Culture, in the deeper issues, is no smooth, placid, academic thing. It is no carefully arranged system of rules and theories. It is the passionate and imaginative instinct for things that are distinguished, heroic and rare. It is the subtilizing and deepening of the human spirit in the presence of the final mystery.” John Cowper Powys

Portobello Blues and The Dharma Bums

Color, Edinburgh, Life Philosophy, Photography, Scotland, travel
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Portobello, Edinburgh, Scotland

I hated Hated HATED The Dharma Bums for the first seventy eight pages.  But then, on page 79, I realized that he was disenchanted with California Buddhism as much as anyone, and I suddenly realized that he was ridiculing ALL of society, both the people gladly caught up in conspicuous consumerist culture and the people who rail against that consumerist culture and then, as soon as they get $300 in 1955 dollars in their pockets, will spend an entire day spending it, exulting in what they are able to buy, and then write an entire chapter on it, un-self-consciously hypocritical.  Oh man, did I end up enjoying it.

According to Wikipedia, this was one of the reviews:

“Don’t read Kerouac when you’re too young. Read him as you join that long death march called steady employment. Then look back. Look back to all the people you knew, those people who went here and there, those people who knew odd patches of philosophy and poetry. They fucked. They doped and boozed in desperate self medication. Look back at yourself. Jack travels here and there. He knows people with Odd Knowledge. They have plumbed the breadth and depth of human existence. They get laid in the era before The Pill. They doped and boozed. They had the Knowledge. Read Kerouac and look back. And then it occurs to you. It’s all been done before. None of your old pals will ever be quite what he once was in your memory. And you’ll know Kerouac for what he was. And you know that amidst all the lies, he told the truth. The truth with a little ‘t’. He wanted to fool you, but he couldn’t. It wasn’t in him; he hadn’t the talent for it. He had only enough to tell you the way he had wanted it to be. How he wanted it to be when he looked back on it.”  John Suiter

I’m going to enjoy re-reading this regularly now that I’m no longer in my youth.  If anything, it’s making me far more sympathetic to people; I certainly realize how intolerant, how incomprehensibly and unacceptably intolerant, I have been, and how I need to change, and how so much of the time we have the same goals and just go about it from different angles, or, as Bob said, me, I’m still on the road, heading for another joint; we always did feel the same, we just saw it from a different point of view, and

There was a wisdom in it all, as you’ll see if you take a walk some night on a suburban street and pass house after house on both sides of the street each with the lamplight of the living room, shining golden, and inside the little blue square of the television, each living family riveting its attention on probably one show; nobody talking; silence in the yards; dogs barking at you because you pass on human feet instead of on wheels.  You’ll see what I mean, when it begins to appear like everyone in the world is soon going to be thinking the same way and the Zen Lunatics have long joined dust, laughter on their dust lips.  Only one thing I’ll say for the people watching television, the millions and millions of the One Eye: they’re not hurting anyone while they’re sitting in front of that Eye.  But neither was Japhy…

My Children Are Going To Rule

Color, Life Philosophy, Photography, travel
  1. When I was little, and I had to divide something with my sister, our mom would tell one of us to split up whatever we were sharing; the other would get to choose which half they wanted.  The point was to teach us to be fair, and not to take advantage of the other party.  If the cutter cheated by making one part bigger, and the chooser picked that bigger half, it was the cutter’s own fault for not making the pieces even.  Basic life lesson, right?
  2. The Harvard Negotiation Project has a famous situation involving an orange.  Two teams have to negotiate over an orange; whichever team fulfils its objectives, as dictated by the instructor, wins (and both teams can win).  However, one team is told that they need the whole pulp of the orange in order to make juice; the other is told that they need the entire rind of the orange to get the zest for a cake.  When the teams go into the negotiation, though, they start out thinking that they need to get the whole orange because they don’t know what the other team wants, and they don’t know that each team can get 100% of their individual goals by working together.  The point of the exercise: it pays to know what the other side is going after, since you might get more of your goal by being uneven in some areas.
  3. If I ever have kids, and I have to teach them “one cuts, the other chooses,” I am going to teach them that they have to think about the other party and what he/she might want out of the situation.  In some instances, maybe they have to divide an orange evenly…which is fine, I guess.  But in others, maybe one kid gets the delicious, smooth icing and the other gets the dense, rich chocolate brownie; one gets the apple filling, the other gets the sugar-flecked crust; one gets the golden fried fish, the other gets the twice-cooked chips.  Call it “Cut/Choose 2.0”.  That’s the kind of life skill that rules the kindergarten playground.
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Children dividing something up on a tributary of the Tonlé Sap, Cambodia.

And death

Color, Edinburgh, Life Philosophy, travel

I was running on a trail this morning and came across this:

A moss-covered brick, with flowers and a small football boot, and a plastic memorial plaque.

It seemed an odd way to remember a son – why on the side of a trail?  Why a concrete brick?  What outpouring of pain could have prompted this tribute?  Perhaps this part of the park was where the son had died, or was somehow special to him.

And then I thought: a concrete brick isn’t that different than any other memorial.  Earlier on my run I’d passed this churchyard:

Who was I to determine what constitutes an acceptable memorial?  What kind of gravestone is appropriate?  What kind of worship?  And then I thought: worship.  That’s exactly what this is.  What are Gods but idealized visions of our ancestors?  This poor mother’s brick, and the porcelain bootie, and the flowers, are all symbols, just as the gravestones are symbols, of affection and love.  And that reminded me of India, and the roadside shrines that, while different in appearance, were not all that different in intent:

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And so for the rest of my run I thought about loss, and love, and how similar we all really are in our sacrifice.

July, July

black and white, Color, Edinburgh, Life Philosophy, Month Summary, Photography, Portrait, Scotland, travel

The Books of July:

  • Home Game.  I love Michael Lewis’ books, and this one was cheap on Kindle.  It is a bunch of essays he wrote on fatherhood – and man, it sounds terrible.  I read it just before Alice’s brothers visited with their wives and small children, and in looking at the children, and then the parents, it was…terrifying.  First, these little creatures just dominate everything in your life, and are helpless, and cry at 5 a.m. and force you to just deal with them.  Then, intelligent, intellectual adults suddenly find it perfectly acceptable to make gibberish noises to communicate with small animals who don’t really understand what you’re saying anyway, and to be happy about it?  Back to the book: it’s hilarious.  
  • The Road.  Continuing the fatherhood theme.  The copy I have challenges people to put it down, and that was about what I experienced; I think it took me under 24 hours to get through.  A masterpiece, although I’m not sure I could read another of his books anytime soon.  
  • Sex At Dawn.  This was recommended by my friend Sunny, who is one of the smartest, wisest people I’ve ever met.  I made it through solely based on his glowing recommendation.  I thought it was absolutely horrible.  Summary: people like sex, and other than the fact that it is so common in human society, we don’t have any evidence that monogamy is natural.  There, I saved you seven hours.  
  • Total RecallI spent the majority of my reading time this month on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography, which was surprisingly engaging, well-written, and occasionally honest.  It was fascinating to hear about his business ventures, his career, and the directions he has taken through life, but based on the omissions – a few of which, like the child he fathered with his housekeeper, he has to end up admitting later in the book, a few chapters after he promises California’s voters that he isn’t a philandering pig – one has to face the fact that autobiographies are inherently fictitious, because we only hear what the writer wants us to hear, and we all have very selective memories, and attribute things like success not to luck or chance but to our own skills, abilities, and virtues.  I enjoyed it, but it was a good reminder that everybody lies.  Including superheroes.  
  • The Hard Thing about Hard Things.  Another book someone recommended highly; I’d been looking forward to reading it.  It doesn’t apply to me much just yet, but it was good to read it and think about what I may end up needing to deal with in the future, if I’m lucky skillful, able, and virtuous.  

And that brings me to an even fifty books read this year.  I’m still trying to focus on quality, and utility; I don’t think I’ll hit 100 for the year, but I’m comfortable as long as I get quality thoughts into my brain.

Again, Alice’s brothers and their families visited this month.  It was amazing to realize that we’ve moved from a one-bedroom place barely big enough for the two of us to a four-bed place that can comfortably house eight people and two dogs (and maybe even more, if we got the sofa bed out).  It was also a good test of our hosting; August is going to pick up, what with the festival.

Then Carl and Gene visited.  They were recording in Abbey Road Studios again, and came up before heading back to America.  On their last night in town, we climbed Calton Hill and met a family from Illinois, visiting for a day.  They were talking about where they’d been and what they’d seen, and we traded some stories.  I’m always a bit hesitant to engage other Americans, for some reason – it’s as if I can feel special so long as I’m here, surrounded by Scots, but when I hear an American accent, or see a logo of a real American university (as opposed to the fake ones that pop up in European fashion shops), that illusion of specialness, of uniqueness, is shattered, and so my mouth clamps shut and I scurry away.  Sometimes, if people seem to be lost, I’ll reach out – actually, that happens almost daily – but much of the time I find myself trying to avoid fraternising with my compatriots and sticking to the people of this adopted land.

The Illinois family was a bit of a middle ground.  Gene thought the daughter was cute, so Carl talked to the father and I tried to talk to the mother.  They were normal Americans – careers in business development for an insurance company, and a housewife, two children, a suburb of Chicago, community events, annual vacations.  When they asked us what we did, I felt just like Jake Barnes when he and Bill were on the train in The Sun Also Rises, talking to the family who was visiting France, the two parents and a little boy who loved swimming.  I don’t have a life they could really identify with.  It was a bit embarrassing to say I lived around the corner with my English wife; I wanted to come up with a story that felt less indulgent, like I was a race car driver on a European tour, or an American Football quarterback on an off-season trip to my homeland, or a lawyer from Cleveland just taking a week to see Scotland.  But I was half a flask of Lagavulin in, and I could only come up with the truth.

On the last Friday of the month, Alice surprised me by bringing me to see Sir Ranulph Fiennes speak at Usher Hall. I’d never heard of him before, but he’s apparently a bit of a legend here in Britain – known, at least in this country, as the greatest living explorer. He spoke for almost two hours on his adventures on seven continents and two poles; it was incredible to see him, see his fingers that he cut off himself because of frostbite, and hear his stories.

He had an incredible wit, as well, although it was marred at times by a sharp, blatant bigotry against…well, virtually everyone that wasn’t white, male and English. He’s a big UKIP supporter and Brexit fan, so perhaps that shouldn’t have been a surprise, but his jokes at the expense of others – particularly the Norwegians, the French, and women – cast an uncomfortable pall over the evening for much of the audience. It was a shame, really, as so much of his talk was otherwise fascinating, engaging, and inspiring.

The next day, we flew to Bristol, then drove deep into Somerset. We passed through farmland, and visited an incredible cider farm, and had tea and chocolate cake and played with pottery and felt.  Fiennes’ talk, and his chauvinism, were still on my mind as we flew, and then we broke through the clouds towards the airport.  As much as I thought that his bigotry was unnecessary, I thought: wow, his pride in country is absolutely justified. This is really a beautiful, extraordinary island; loving it could be no vice.

And while it seems to be struggling a bit with the modern world, like many countries, I suspect that it is actually doing better than most, because it has such a deep connection to its own history.  At one point, we were looking over the fields below the Mendip hills, and I thought: five hundred years ago, and even a hundred years ago, the highlight of the year would have been the annual trip across the valley to a market town, to sell produce and cattle and horses, to drink potent foreign brews, and to flirt with people you’d never seen before and perhaps find a match, for the night or for life.  And the local power brokers, with direction from the King or Queen, would have had the burden of deciding lives: judgment of crimes, divvying up proceeds from sales, collecting taxes, allocating land.  And even if telephone wires are strung across the fields, and we’re on the verge of getting driverless cars to zip us around, the landscape here is still ordered by those ancient traditions; land is still bordered by walls and shrubs older than any generation alive today, cows still bred from elderly lines, and trees that were planted as windbreaks for hovels now protect newly built mansions of Londoners who only come down for the weekend to enjoy the country life.

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The absolute highlight of the trip was visiting a cider farm. There were two barrels of sweet cider and two barrels of dry; the sweet barrels tasted different from each other.  When we asked the owner, Roger Wilkins, he said that they didn’t use any artificial yeast – they just let the cider ferment with the yeast on the skins, so no two barrels would ever be the same.  It was extraordinary to think that cider had been made in this way for a thousand years, and we were participating in that tradition.

We ended up spending the last day in Wells.  It was stunning, but I couldn’t wait to get back to Edinburgh.  We have been here a year this month.  Last year, were were fresh off of our six-month tour around the world.  I was just starting CodeClan, learning Ruby.  We were renting a tiny flat and didn’t know anyone in the city; we were trying to learn the geography, trying to get used to cooking in our new place, waiting for a shipment of our basic living necessities to arrive by Seven Seas.  I didn’t even know where North was, or how to buy a train ticket, and I wasn’t sure what I was doing with my life.

I’m still not sure, really.  But a year on, we have so much to be grateful for.

The Oppression of Other Lands

Color, Life Philosophy, Photography, travel

“Like anyone else, I have no death wish and I have no intention of letting them kill me. I can’t mention most of the countermeasures I take, but I will mention one: this book. If I’m killed, you will know who did it. When my enemies read this book, they will know that you know. So if you sympathize with this search for justice, or with Sergei’s tragic fate, please share this story with as many people as you can. That simple act will keep the spirit of Sergei Magnitsky alive and go further than any army of bodyguards in keeping me safe.” (from “Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice” by Bill Browder)

I recently finished Red Notice – an excellent story, well told, which I thought was going to be about economic battles between Russia and the West.  It covered those topics, but then it took a tragic and historically relevant turn with the death of Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian attorney whose name was put on a law sanctioning Russian officials for torturing and killing him, or at least being complicit in his terrible treatment.

During the first six months of last year, when we were traveling around Southeast Asia, at some point I realized that every country we were going to had a repressive, if not totalitarian government, or – in the case of Fiji – was expected by locals to experience a military coup in the near future.  The fear of community espionage was alive in Vietnam; Cambodia’s opposition and media were being hounded by government thugs; the government was simply not discussed in Laos; Thailand seemed socially free, but was still politically oppressed; religion is a minefield in Indonesia and Malaysia; and Singapore’s repression is famous.

It wasn’t difficult to censor myself in order to stay out of trouble.  It merely meant following a few simple conversational rules: don’t criticize the government; complement everyone on how beautiful their country is or, if you can’t, at least praise the food, or the temples, or the friendliness of the people.  If you heard someone else complaining about something, distance yourself.  I didn’t want to end up in a foreign jail, trying to contact the American Consulate.

In retrospect, I’m a bit ashamed for following those rules, because by not voicing opposition, I was just reinforcing the public acceptance of brutal repression.  Without speaking up for concepts like the rule of law, one person one vote, and civil decency, wasn’t I implicitly supporting their opposite?  And by being a foreigner who seemed to love how things were going in foreign countries, wasn’t I, in effect, saying that the West supported, or at least didn’t oppose, these oppressive governments?

And upon returning to the United States, then the U.K., it was as if suddenly the air cleared.  When I thought about it afterward, the west is extremely rare, in history and in the world today, in terms of its openness to free speech, even if that is under attack by Western leaders.

So Browder’s book, describing the terrors of Russia today, and the criminal actions of its leaders, is extremely brave; it also made me remember how much I have to be thankful for, and how important it is for us to fight for civil and human rights.  And it seems that now, in America, the threat is partially from outside, but also internal.

2017 brought with it a lot of changes.  Many older people I know say it was one of the worst years in their memory, mostly due to Trump.  I don’t know about that; it was just new and different, and we’ll see where we end up.  I kind of feel like perhaps it’s like the economy: in the markets, if it’s a down year, that means that there were both a lot of buying opportunities and a lot of opportunities to start businesses.  Perhaps, politically, it’s the same; perhaps 2018 will see the reinvigoration of democratic forces, of free speech, of sanity and law and order.  Perhaps the people who stood up this year and said “We’ve had it” will be the political leaders of tomorrow; perhaps this is the beginning of a crucible that will forge a tougher generation, one that will meet the challenges of the future with strength and resolve.  Perhaps this will be the birth of new ideals, and vision, and light, and truth.

I hope so.  Because the alternative – of political repression, and universal self-censorship in order to avoid trouble – is a world I’ve been in, and not a place I want to live.

On love, and life, and Fiji

Color, Life Philosophy, Photography, travel
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The Intercontinental Hotel Beach, Fiji

“The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost.”  G. K. Chesterton

And this photo.  Out of all of the places that we visited in our six-month trip around the world, Fiji is at the top of my list – and I absolutely didn’t expect that.  It was dangerous; everyone, from cab drivers to hotel workers to other travelers, told us to never go outside after dark without a guide; muggings are apparently common in Suva, the capital.  It wasn’t always the most pleasant place; Levuka, perhaps my favorite place in the country, was tiny, had no beach, and was often overwhelmed by the smell of fish being processed in a giant factory next to the town; our hotel, the largest and possibly nicest in the area, had no hot water and an old, sprung mattress.  And our time at the Intercontinental Hotel, on the west side of the island, was lovely but frustrating – we were surrounded by Australians and isolated from locals, and while we had a nice beach, we could have been anywhere in the world; it was completely devoid of any local flavor.

Yet despite that, I want to go back, and it was only on reading this quote that I thought perhaps I understood why.  In every country we visited the first five months, we had more unknown lands to explore, more time to spend traveling, more things to learn and research and do, but in Fiji, the last new country we visited, we were at the end of our trip.  It was the last place where we needed to learn new words to communicate, the last place where we had to negotiate a new currency and exchange rate, the last place where we had to learn a new map and facts about culture and history and think about our place in the world.  Fiji was when I had to face the fact that you can’t keep traveling forever; at some point you have to settle down somewhere, set up a non-itinerant life, collect a few more things besides a backpack and a few scraps of clothing and a passport.  So maybe that’s why I loved it: because I knew it had to be lost.

On Tuesday, we celebrated a year in Edinburgh.  I scrolled through the photos on my phone to see what I’ve taken pictures of so far here, and then kept going back in history and found this one – taken on the last night of our trip, right before we caught a cab to the airport to fly to America, then London, then pack up for life in Scotland, just over a year ago now.  Then I scrolled back through my more recent photos and realized: just because that short trip was done doesn’t mean the adventure is over; it keeps going, all the way to the end, and it’s up to me to make sure I remember that every day there’s the chance to see a sunrise, and a sunset, and fill all my waking hours with growing, researching, doing, communicating, negotiating, meeting new and wonderful people, laughing, loving, and learning about culture, history, and my place in this crazy world we live in.

Those six months of travel are over, and I loved them, but the adventure is still going strong.