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Any resemblance to fiction is purely coincidental and does not reflect the ability or extent of the author’s imagination.
Feeling pores through skin and poisons and saves the world in unexpected ways.
Naturally expecting poison, I start in Greece, in 2007, with a broken heart. And shards of heart muscle clinking around the insides of a man can, I fear, let more of him out.
Imagine a gun on every street corner in Beirut. Imagine rockets in Gaza and tanks in Syria – the most dangerous peace in history, the most intelligent people on Earth and you’re one of them. Imagine chest bombs in Jerusalem. Right. Now imagine Greeks in bikinis and do well not to forget, for in a trip across the minds that change the world we begin with the experienced – and few people have brewed and drunk more poison than Europeans.
How to Piss Off a Cretan
There is a thing to be said about the cold a man experiences during the one hundred and fifty-three hour train ride across Siberia, but none more important, I’ve noticed, than the simple delight of rinsing it off with a ferryfull of Mediterranean sunshine and a deckful of Greek bikinis. I would have taken a picture but, you know, I didn’t want to be that guy. After all, I try to be polite when it comes to most things. Be nice, considerate, and helpful, I tell myself. Good boy. Some things, however, I’m glad to be a prick about. Scratch that... some things I’m ecstatic to be a prick about. I don’t mind rocking the boat right off its
timbers as long as it’s full people who are afraid of water. I meet a lady in Athens today. It’s Tuesday, April 25th, 2007 and I figure, hell, this may be a good day to get into a bit of trouble. What’s the best advice to give to a traveler? According to my parents it’s “You be safe, OK?” Which is like telling an ant not to get squashed. According to the official website of the United States Department of State it’s “Don’t be a target.” Which is like telling a turkey not to be delicious. And according to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy it’s “Don’t panic.” Which is like walking into a dance club and, after watching everybody making damned fools of themselves, you see that one dude in the back just kickin it, keepin it real, and tellin no lies. Dig.
Now I’m not saying that the ladies are wrong or even unhelpful, I’m just saying that Douglas Adams can rock it in a way that Mom and Condoleeza just can’t. And I’m staring at this statue of Thesius in the Athenian Archeological Museum wondering why you’re not supposed to take pictures of it. Who would care? It’s so cool, I think. If you look at early Greek art (to the left and previous page) it’s vapid, dull, and basically like all art that came before it. Lifeless. Accurate, sure. Probably the most accurate in history (check out his man), but the fella’s just standing there naked. So what? Put it on my grave and don’t charge me for it. And then these Athenians come around and make real, emotional, beautiful sculptures. I’m staring at a gorgeous one only I can’t take a picture? “Excuse me,” I ask the fat Greek who hadn’t left her post in ten minutes, “do you speak English?” “A leetle,” she says but she probably doesn’t know most of the words I’m thinking.
“Is it OK if I take one picture of this really quick?” “No, no,” she says with no smile, “no pictures.” “Why not?” “No pictures.” Now, to me, this rule doesn’t make sense. I rack my brain for another ten minutes and just can’t figure out why this would be the case. Whom could it hurt? I look at the shape of his bronze muscles, the expression on his ancient face, the apparent motion in the fingers. How does someone make that? I blow off some steam a few rooms over and run into this naked marble lady, opposite. A hundred years earlier, art was either a god standing still or a dude sticking an axe into another dude. And even the best ones looked like parodies of people without unique features to parody.
And how about this one? The most beautiful sculpture in all the land is Michelangelo’s Pietà – but this is nothing to break a lens with. It’s carved out of a rock, for God’s sake. Anyhow, after getting a minor marble man myself I can’t contain the curiosity any more. In my opinion, the best test of stupidity is to put a man in an all white room with a big red button in the middle that reads DO NOT PUSH If he doesn’t push it after five minutes, he’s an idiot. I don’t care what people say, intelligence requires attitude. I walk back. Slowly. I put on my art snob visage. I do this kind of thing that makes me look more dignified than a person should normally look; you see, I have this trick where I put my hands behind my back and grasp them together; then, at the same time, I look
at a slightly more upwards angle than that with which a neck should typically be comfortable. I meander around, showing a clear but trifling disapproval of everything I see, as though nothing were valid enough for my acceptance nor yet quite disturbing enough for my contempt. And she looks at me. Her Greecey eyes follow me around so I just use it as more of a chance to ignore her still more and grant her the regard of contempt still less. La da da da da, I sing to myself. I reach inside my pocket and turn on my camera. Dum da dum dum. Just as she looks away I jump to her left, whip it out of my pocket and shoot. “Hah-HA!” I say after I push the button, but before the two seconds elapse when the stupid son of a flippin motherless piece of crap camera actually takes the shot she puts her hand in front of the lens! Heavyset woman’s hand, foreground. Not pictured: Thesius.
“Click,” says the camera. Embarrassment. Confusion. Still I just stare at her with this I won’t go down without a fight look and back up a few steps. She stands. Glares. Don’t panic, I think quietly. And then I get wise to her whole operation. I hold up my camera like I’m going to take another picture. As predicted, she lunges towards me so I run straight back at her, deek left, and leap to the right. She follows. I do a quick 360 around the sculpture and I find myself smack dab in front of the famed bronze hero who defeated Medusa with an easy two seconds lead before the fat tub of Greece can catch her breath and reach me so I snap the sweetest shot in my quarter of a century on this earth, stare eagle-eyed straight into the backs of her corneas, shout “U.S.A.!” with a smile the size Texas, hightail it out of there as fast as my feet can carry me, and in my own humble experience I’ve found that that’s the best way to piss off a Cretan.
Some people say the best way to lose weight is to exercise? I think if you did something that scared the bejeezus out of you once a day you’d be pumping blood like an Olympian. And as I’m writing this, still with an extra liter or so of hemoglobin flowing through my head, all I mean to say is imagine yourself in a society that has meticulously researched and documented world art history, invented dramatically new industrial means of manufacturing art, and produced revolutionary artists whose works are being bought and studied across the globe as the most beautiful products ever made – the most modern society known to humankind, the most advanced in the history of the planet, and you’re in it. This is Athens in 500 BC and everything this society calls great art, everything they know about ancient masterpieces and modern genius was just about to be turned upside down by a handful of people. What were those people thinking? I am amazed by anyone who can turn marble (marble!) into something like that. But I am more amazed with the fact that that intrigue,
that feeling of personal connection to things, seems to be missing from everyone I know today. That intrigue and connection, which make us curious, may be the first step in creating value from thought. In fact, the way a sculptor must feel before he or she creates wealth from rock is so noticeably absent from our society that I’m inclined to pick up sculpture myself. ...only I don’t have the time. So I hop on another ferry and sail the Aegean.
Hahahahahahaha!!! Thesius, baby. Oh yes. Thesius.
The Last Time You Giggled
“We, too, have too many old people in our country,” the Dutchman says to me this morning, “and too few young people.” I skewer a fresh slice of apple, orange, and pear with my fork and scoop up a large helping of yogurt and granola in this bowl of Anatolian deliciousness that’s just been served to me. Very tasty. “But we are solving the problem,” he goes on as I listen through that sound of granola crunching inside my head that’s much louder for me than it is for everyone else, “free cigarettes for everyone over 65.” . “Skydiving lessons, bungee jumping, rock climbing, no charge,” he says, “all expenses paid visas to Iraq, Iran, Syria – they love it!”
Nice, I don’t say. Nice. And this is how my day starts. Breakfast, jokes, and no water because it’s too expensive. This is the story of the first time I’ve giggled in years. It starts with breakfast. It ends with relaxation. The sky is blue. I wear flip flops now because I lost my shoes in Izmir, and with each of the thirteen thousand five hundred steps (as I have ample time to calculate), I flip and then I flop, swallow no spit down my parched throat, and then vow to take better notice of my stuff. Also I have Let it Be by the Beatles atemporally pacing its way back and forth through my head, for the top of the mountain is where Virgin Mary used to live – and I am on a pilgrimage. It is said she attributes her health to the purity and particular holiness of the natural springs underneath this house.
Some dude sticking a trident into another dude. National Ephesus Museum
I flip and flop and sweat to drink from these springs. But I have far to go. Consider a riddle. You are in a room alone. The room is empty except for a lead pipe sticking twelve inches out of the ground and a ping pong ball resting loosely at the bottom with about an eighth of an inch wiggle room on either side. With me so far? OK. How do you get the ball out of the pipe? You can’t do anything stupid like “go down to the store and buy an ice pick and stab it” because that’s not how good riddles work. You can’t leave the room and you can’t use anything that isn’t naturally apart of you (let’s even say you’re naked) or would naturally come out of you except you’re not pregnant and I’m not sure if that would help anyhow and you can’t damage the ball, the pipe, or yourself. When I find myself in times of trouble... I curse Paul McCartney for writing such a catchy tune and flip and flop another thousand times, as I mentally exaggerate my struggle.
The road to Mother Mary’s. Cave of the Seven Sleepers, one mile to the right.
Flip let it be flop let it be flip let it beee-flop-eeee oh let it flip be... And then I summit. Ahh. Actually, I don’t relax just yet. It feels good, but the real twist in my twine was my thirst. Figure out the riddle yet? Ghandi said that to a starving man God can only come in the form of bread. I know this and so I know these springs will taste lovely even if they came from the sweat glands of Satan’s hound. Or Detroit. And still, I admit that some minor magical ecstasy caressing through my veins is not entirely unexpected from this water. First, I walk through her house/chapel thing, light a votive candle, diligently cross my chest, feel the stones underneath my arid fingertips, and bow my head to the painting of the Mother of Christ. Humility is to observation what rock is to stone. And now to the springs.
This is a good picture ... like it or not.
I futilely strain to wipe away all my preconceptions in an effort to honestly observe the taste of the water. Then I remember the chapel. This helps. I unleash the source of the well, wash my hands, and drink. Ahh. That’s the stuff, I think. But before I tell you what it tastes like, and overly bastardizing your opinion with my own, I should disclose that I devoutly believe in God, but agree with no one as to who he or she is and what he or she does. Making me maddeningly irreligious. I mention this because the water is exactly as crisp, pure, smooth, and magical as anything else I’ve drunk, and that basically says it all about my faith. I drink for about five minutes, burp a slight amount of it up, swallow it back down, and resign to sit in the shade. Ahh.
Mother Mary’s house, partly reconstructed.
That’s the stuff. Observation is the beginning of all things. Confucius said that nothing can be accomplished without honest observation of the world around you. And yet few things are more challenging. I stand up and start flipping and flopping down the other side of the mountain to see the ruins of Ephesus, the city where Saint John brought the blessed virgin. Flip flop flip flop another seven thousand times because flip one step is a foot and a flop half and it’s seven flip miles to the ruined gates of flop Ephesus and... Ever notice how you have more than five senses? You can sense pressure even without a sense of touch, and know the position of your limbs, too. You smell with your tongue. You taste with the roof of your mouth all the way down the back of your throat and you can taste more than just sweet, salt, sour, and bitter – the most famous is the “flavor” of MSG called umami. To the left, Corinthian columns; to the right, tourists; underground, John.
Women living together synchronize their meunstration cycles. People next to you can adopt similar emotions to yours without seeing, smelling, or hearing you. Your brain vibrates at different frequencies, you know, depending on your state of mind. And just as a rattling snare drum resonates with the one next to it – causing it, too, to rattle – your mind travels into other people’s heads. I’m not saying you can read other people’s thoughts, but as I sense the existence of liquid inside my bladder I recall how much goes unobserved because we ignore the possibility of being able to observe it. And it is important to remember this. The amount we know about sensation can be fit into a library. The amount we do not can be fit into the rest of the universe. So I make it to Ephesus but my eyes are set, and have been for the last two months, on seeing my first ancient wonder of the world. Except now I have to pee. Very badly.
And there are no restrooms. Everywhere I turn... to the left are tourists taking pictures, to the right is Caligula’s grave, up ahead is a second-century aqueduct, and behind is the most massive theater in ancient history. Probably better hold it in, I think. But Ephesus is large and by the time I leave my gut is practically beerbellying and my seeing a dried up Roman fountain is not helping. If only it had some fluid in it, I think. Today is a good day for me, but not while I’m walking a solid mile down a road plastered on either side with fruit stands, carpet-bagging huts, and knick-knack shacks. No. No, not at this time at all. This time, for me, becomes unbearable. The flips are worse than the flops, I reckon, and each one seems to percolate more and more fluid out of my lower intestine and into my bladder. The Great Library at Ephesus, large enough to hold all we know about sensation and observation, ruined.
Ungh. I start to walk on my toes because it’s less bumpy. Finally I get to the site. Millennia ago, it looked like the replicas (to the left) but now the only thing that stands taller than three feet is a single monumental pillar. Brigoddamniliant, I think. Now how can this many people be rushing around trying to sell me maps and old coins and necklaces and statuettes and not have a single bloody restroom. Not many tourists, I think. If I can only find some shelter
or maybe hop the fence and head out into the fields and ...
Then it happens. I’m no gastroenterologist but I’m sure there is a scientific term for the mental breaking point after which all social limitations become sidelined by immediate biological needs. This point is reached at 2:35pm on May 7th, 2007 in the ancient grounds of the fallen Rome for one Sean McGowan of Santa Maria, California. At this point my moronic pilgrimage – a plight I would suggest could be of the most sophisticated of all human endeavors – is reduced to a clumsy rush for
cover by an animal literally tripping over his own flipflops, wading through the marshes of the ruined site at Ephesus, and reaching a spot where I finally finally finally observe that no one is watching because I’m hidden behind the massive Corinthian stone column that housed the ancient Temple of Artemis and I let loose like a fire hydrant, expunging a full gallon of Virgin Mary the mother of Christ our Savior’s holy water all over the seventh wonder of the world and, as sometimes happens, I get that funny little tingle up the length of my spine just when that last little bit tinkles out and I surrender myself to that wholesome childish glee, giggling for a good long while like a kid in a pool. Ahhhhhhhhhhhh. Heeheehee. Feeling such a wave of carefreedom, I actually laugh out loud as I make a demonstrable fool of myself lying on the ground trying desperately to get the whole thing into a good shot. Heehee, I think. That’s also the answer to the riddle, by the way. You pee in the pipe.
Ephesus, no longer with working plumbing.
Stupid? Yeah, I know. All riddles are. But at present I’m drinking an ice cold beer, getting the keys on my laptop dirty because I’m massaging my feet in between paragraphs, and for some reason I can’t help but think that everyone is stupid but me. It sounds silly but I’m serious and God poison my water if I’m wrong no one’s opinion is as valid as my own. Same for you. Geniuses are overrated these days, because I prefer a good meal to a great work of art. You take the dumbest man alive and sit him in front of Stephen Hawking for an hour, then take him skydiving and ask him which was more memorable, fun, and helpful. The most accurate – and funniest – stuff comes from direct observation. Everything else, as the saying goes, is dust on a rose. ...or holy urine evaporating into the air we breathe.
A Quick Slice to the Neck
“Don’t take pictures,” the UN soldier tells me, “people will think you are an Israeli.” Across the street a Lebanese clutches his M16, standing on a tank, and stares straight at me. Something tells me, this time, I should listen. I leave the UN envoy and head farther south – into the stronghold of the militia that calls itself the Party of God and America calls terrorists: Hezbollah. Destruction and construction are everywhere. Empathy is important, I think to myself, but almost trite. People kill and people die; I lose the benefit of thought as I keep relating to this same story over and over again. Tyre was razed a thousand years ago. Today, as I look
out the window of my taxi, I see the same stones littering the same streets from the war a few months back. As we slow I see a great photo opportunity ahead. No one is around so I stick my camera out of the cab and take this shot anyway, which turned out rather good. Hezbollah is sponsoring much of the rebuilding here and gaining no small amount of popularity because of it. After the 1996 war they gave $40,000 in American cash to anyone who lost their house to Israeli battle bulldozers. Very popular. This is their stage. Last year, backed loudly by Syria and quietly by Iran, they launch war against Israel. It happens like this. In the midday sun rockets fly across the no-man-zone. Israel invades Lebanon, shells Beirut. Thousands die. Half a million flee. Symbolism in Tyre.
The worst fighting that takes place, according to the Italian UN envoy I am just leaving, is in Maroun er Ras. And so we drive South. The air gets colder. Here’s a woman with a pile of rocks for a home. Here’s an entire demolished neighborhood. No wonder they flee, I think. Sorry if this sounds coldest of all, but I’m tired of empathizing with these people. The story’s been told. Instead I find myself thinking about the person who will end this. I’ve learned nothing from history if not that human creativity can both ruin and grow us in unimaginable ways. The faultline between heaven and hell, here on Earth, is the electricity delicately sparking between your ears. There is someone who can stop this. How does that person feel right now, I think? One hundred and twenty miles south of here Hamas fires rockets into Israel, luring them into all out war.
A I meet the woman who still lives here, and gets a discount on air conditioning.
A slab of muscle no heavier than a grenade pin lies just behind your forehead and with half an hour of exercise each day it can create a law for all humankind – or settle for a quick slice to the neck. Many bombs are falling now. Very sad. Hezbollah makes it hard for bombs to stop them. A decade ago they took to the nasty habit of blowing themselves up and massacring civilians in the process. They also begin kidnapping Westerners. Both of these strategies are exceedingly effective. They wanted the US to leave in 1996. They bomb western embassies. We leave the next week. I get out of the cab into an eerie calm at Maroun er Ras, eight hundred meters from Israel and the no-mansland border. First thing I do? Naturally. I take a picture. Sure, the guy just went to war. Sure, he probably thinks I’m an Israeli spy. Sure, he has a gun and is staring straight at me. Israel – Lebanon border in the immediate background (running left to right). The rules are: Arabs go on this side, Jews go on that side, or this guy shoots you.
I have a person reading this book who is for the moment convinceable that a system of order can be followed that will end all serious war for the next thousand years so now that I’ve shot you you’d better make damn sure that no one publishes this book after you shoot me. He walks up to me. The wind blows. Heavily. Mosquitoes swarm. “Min ayna enta?” He says. Where are you from. The cardinal rule of these situations is to know how to say ‘peace be with you’ in Arabic. I can’t remember. Would you stay? My mind freezes. I forget. I learn that the panic process of my brain (known as the sympathetic nervous pathway) has somehow developed staggeringly strong instincts to increase my heartbeat, sweat, look nervously in all directions, clench my jaw, widen my eyes, and above all pathetically pretend like I’m not panicking.
“Ameriki,” I butcher, “Ana Ameriki.” He doesn’t believe it, I fear, and waves his hand back and forth saying la, la, la, la, la, meaning no, no, no, no, no. What are you doing, he asks me in Hebrew. I’m stupid but I’m no ... well anyway I’m smart enough not to respond. “Who are you with,” he demands in Arabic. Good question. I’m presently on the market, but by myself. “What are you doing?” Also a great question but he doesn’t mean it in a philosophical sense. I assure him with a huge smile that I’m a friend, a tourist, am just here to see what happened, and al-Hamdu lil-Lah. All praise be to God. “There is nothing to see here,” he tells me, in English, “they have destroyed everything.” He tells me about Israeli bulldozers that ran through the entire village last year.
Background: wall ruined thousands of years ago. Foreground: wall riuned last year.
I’m sorry. I notice these tiny little bugs that have amassed themselves by the hundreds on my clothes and my skin. I’ve never seen them before. Like gnats only smaller and stickier. It’s hard to get them off. They start to sting. The man looks around and walks back to his post with a wave of his right hand. I walk away from him and take a few more pictures, shown on previous pages. It is very very quiet here. Stay on the roads, I think. The UN estimates a quarter million cluster bomblets failed to explode on impact in Lebanon last year, and presently litter the countryside. They are shiny, too, so the bigger problem is that children tend to find them. Stay on the roads.
Salaam ‘alaykum, I now remember. Damnit. I wander for an hour and then return for a shower. The little pests eventually covered all my clothes and skin. To see an army so close to war, so ready to pounce at the faintest sign of danger, it helps me to see how much we all want to avoid that situation. In fact, the Lebanese here are the most peaceful people I’ve ever seen, despite – or perhaps because – it’s happened for fifty thousand years. And despite all the guns. Anyhow, they hope I publish this book, I think.
I wake up this morning and Al Jazeera is on. “What’s going on?” I ask. “Jihad,” they say. Ah. They are right. A militant group called Fatah al-Islam is firing mortars and anti-aircraft missiles at the Lebanese army 45 miles North of here. The army has brought in tanks and is shelling the Palestinian compound where the militants are hiding. Jihad if the ones with the weapons will it, the way I see it. This is how my day starts. And it’s all downhill from here as 36 ghosts can attest.
The sun rises and sets. Bodies stay warm for hours, I overhear a local man say in an interview tonight, not understanding the expression used when asked when things will cool down here. The bodies may cool soon, but half an hour ago something snapped two inches above the nape of a guerilla and ten minutes later a bomb explodes twelve blocks south of me. Flames climb the walls and fire extinguisher drips into the gutters. Glass windows and shopfronts are shattered up to three blocks away. As the buildings burn, I think, this may take longer to cool. However, as the country I just bought a kebab in falls into war I want to write this before I change my mind: I don’t want to go. I want to stay. Nuts? Damn straight. I have no idea what makes a perversion. I’ve read dozens of books on neuroanatomy and neuropsychology, hundreds of studies and journals, and thousands of people’s faces and I can’t for the life of me explain the root causes of mental abnormalities.
Some people are just looney and for whatever reason believe the senseless and commit the dangerous. What I can’t figure out, though, is why there’s so many of you out there. Everyone in my family, twenty or so American friends, and five Europeans all seem to agree with the purely absurd principle that when war breaks out I should, of all things, leave. But what could be more dangerous? What could be less sensible? Who’s making this world safe, after all? I take a good hard look in the mirror and all I ever see is my face. But take a look at half a ton of shattered glass that’s sucked into the streets from a colossal drop in pressure and in the reflection I only see madness. Soldiers on every other street corner makes it easy to respond quickly. I see a desire to get away from this and bury it and never speak of it again. I see people telling me this is other people’s problem.
I’m going through my email now. Opposite is what I read. They may sound like the voices of rational, emotional, sensitive human beings but I assure you underneath that veil, which appears to give them the qualities of perfectly healthy people, there is simply a thought which has yet to occur to them. And the beast that prowls in silence prowls wild. This blast, one of many, hits close to me. Very close. But because they don’t see it, it hits much closer to them. Because they aren’t here to smell the smoke churning out of families’ furniture, it threatens them far more than me. My family and I are all close. Really close. When they read this they need to understand that, of course, I mean no harm. Least of all do I expect to recruit them into the Red Cross or anything. But I do expect them to learn one thing from this. The history books for the third millennium have yet to be written, but I predict that when they do this thing will
It’s selfish because you’re doing what you want to do and its [sic] hur ting Mom and Dad tremendously. -Lon (brother) Don’t forget for a second that you are sitting on a powder keg .... [You are] a foolhardy young man who is on some kind of mission that is taking [you] blindly into danger with no obvious benefit nor clear outcome. -Stu (godfather) I had a terrible dream last night about you. I won’t even tell. -Terri (mom) ...please get your ass out of Lebanon. There will be plenty of other times to check it out when it isn’t about to erupt into civil war. -Rob (brother) Ma just called worried sick and going craz y. And Dad’s literally begging you to leave. As is Stuar t. -Scott (brother) Please, please leave that countr y, now. -Paul (dad)
be the first chapter. This thing is not to be ignored, but neither is it to be backed up by ancient history. Those emails in my inbox are powerful so I’m going to have to be equally emphatic about this. I want to be clear. Not only am I going to put a box around it and put plenty of space above, below, beside, and through it to accentuate its clarity and importance, I am also going to put two pages of white space before and after it to further solidify the point that, while I mean no harm, it is above all not meant to be taken lightly. OK? OK. Now, wait. Wait. Alright, go ahead.
I love you but you don’t have
the luxur y of sitting this one out.
Also, don’t blow anyone up. I assume they know that, though. With me so far? I don’t want to lose you and have you start thinking I’m crazy or anything. Good. All I mean to say is that this planet of ours is shrinking in half every 40 years. The maximum capacity of Earth to provide food and water will be reached in under two decades. And most people I know are still making babies. Close or distal this war is all of ours and is fought at home. So we fight. The last thing we need to combat racism, prejudice, and terrorism is, at the end of the day, a military. But oh, the thoughts we think. The things we think. The things you, of all people, think are seconds away from your neighbor’s reaction and only months away from a gentle cascading of ideas trickling it into a great pool of the reaction of all civilization.
So take care, as they say, and think well. Your children will thank you. I’ll work on figuring out the exact nature of your neurosis later. Thanks.
Why I Left
There’s a man playing a lute across the street from me. I’m eating half a chicken. Not just half the meat, mind you... I’m looking at liver, a couple feathers, and half a goddamned tongue. It smells worse than it tastes, though. Really. I’m two hours from the Jordanian border at a busstop and not in the mood for the bus to be stopping. Actually, this is a good time for a breather. Take a few minutes to relax, for you’ve read a lot – and this is not an easy book. And it doesn’t really make sense, so far, does it? You’ve sweated and disagreed with me at every page. I know.
You’ve been disappointed with the allusions to every genre, the morals of every story, and the punchlines of every joke. But still you’ve read on. And here is a fine story. A story of creativity. Here is a story of conquest and, unfortunately, one of irreparable tragedy. It stings. But the tragedy is inevitable... and the brilliance at our disposal is worth it. Here is May 27th, 2007 – the capital of America’s rogue nation “sponsoring terrorism”, the fourth corner in the Axis of Evil, the home of two million Iraqi refugees, and the heart of the world’s oldest living city. Yet it starts with an animal looking out across the savannah. The air is cold.
“Assad! Assad! He’s our man! If he can’t do it...” Bang!
She is in love and has three children. She has no name. She has no food. She lives in fear and lives in astonishment. I see a large white tent in front of me surrounded by armed guards and think about this tale of surprise that ends with the creation of a young woman’s soul, but still I feel no astonishment like she. Flabbergastery, some may even call it. Bewilderment. Her brain fires and fires like gunshots and mortars. She balances when her ears feel gravity and when her mind fills with music she sings to her babies like milk from her breast. As Bashar Assad songs fill the air I watch men run down the streets of Damascus to hole up in canvas tents with doctors and needles to make them bleed thumbprints pressed onto presidential ballots, for it is election day in this dictatorship – and the people must choose. Yet they know no beauty like the tune of a heartbeat heard from inside a womb, and I know no one who does.
Me ignoring the only two bits of advice Condoleeza Rice has on her Syria website: avoid large crowds and don’t take pictures.
The heroine of my story is not always happy, but she is always accepting. She always observes. She sees how sticks and rocks kill people easier than fists and teeth – and heavy sticks are best of all. There is weight in the space that lies an inch and a half behind her left eyebrow and she understands that the wall in front of her cave makes her children safer – and larger walls are better still. I meet a man with a large automatic rifle who has finally agreed to take me – against the law – inside a voting tent and from there he explains to me how much he likes his iron-fisted ruler, Bashar Assad, and how he is proud to vote in blood instead of ink. He is serious. He does like Assad but of course he has no choice in the matter because he’d be shot, imprisoned, or worse if he campaigns against him. “Can I see a ballot?” I ask. “La la la la la,” he says, singing my rejection. The parade outside rages. “Assad! Assad!” The mob shouts within eyeshot of literally hundreds of photos of him.
The mob has no choice and that’s the difference between our heroine and the man in front of me. Knowing their value, she collects rocks. She hears a sound. Uh oh. Fear. Which rock is best for safety, she wonders. Which rock is best of all? As I say, her powers of reason are as sharp as yours shortly after you roll out of bed and so it takes no time to reach a consensus inside the congress of her head. The voices all agree. Yes this one, she thinks. This one is best of all. She waits and waits and the sound stops. Safety. But then something happens. It is a very great thing. An irreparable thing and she is again surprised.
The “Let’s All Take a Day Off Work and Celebrate How Great I Am” Parade, downtown Damascus
Befuddled, even. Astounded. She is ecstatic, for a thought has passed the frail wiring from one side of her brain to the other – and though nothing in front of her has changed, history has been written. This monumental affair, which is silent, is a feeling that then exists in the universe for the first time. Now and never before an animal looks at the rock and sees how it can improve. Now there is creation behind the eyes. She is not satisfied. And dissatisfaction is not an old affair for our ancestors. She breaks two rocks against each other and a sharper weapon is made from a dull one by means of destruction. For once, a tool is made, not just used. At this time a human is made from an animal by means of creation.
Here is the woman who forms the soul which is so weak in the man across from me. The wind blows through the third millennium in Damascus. I ask him again if I can see a ballot for a second. “La.” He’s nice, regardless. He goes to get me a cup of tea. I edge closer to the registration table and record this ghastly display of imprivacy. Men register their ID card, name, address, and thumbprint in front of a government official. The official then watches which way the man casts his vote, publicly records it, and places it in a clear plastic bin. Can I take a picture, I ask the gunman? He asks to see my camera. I give it to him and he shoots me instead (with the camera). Picture on the next page (note the above average composition skills!). Better than nothing, I think. Still, I consider for a second the predicament that Syria
and I are in. Humans are of the very special species of animals who can actually make tools, instead of just use them. To get frustrated is easy. To be dissatisfied and creative takes a particular kind of mild insanity and is one of the most difficult things to do on a consistent basis. Yet that principle is precisely what this book is about. What, you might ask, would this heroine do if she were in Syria today? Well it could be argued that she would line up to vote, register her name and address, and (in front of the government official) mark a big fat “no” in type AB blood and suffer the consequences. This is possible. The optometrist who rules Syria, and me. However, I have unique, disfigured wrinkles on my cerebrum and I personally like to think that she would sneak into a voting booth, befriend one of the militiamen, get him to trust her, and when everyone turns their back to see that a large speaker has just fallen over from the wind outside she’d grab a voting slip, stick it in her pocket and run from the tent that has
a ninety foot poster of the goofiest looking patriarch in the land above it and ten men with ten automatic rifles outside of it and hightail it the hell out of Syria so fast that half of her belongings stay at the hostel which is trying to rip her off anyhow so she can shoot it with her trusty digital camera and show everyone who is willing to get suckered into a thirty dollar book by an unknown author exactly what the only official referendum slip to make it out of Syria looks like and propose to the world that, while there is actually such a thing as an election ballot with only one name on it, there is no such thing as a clear choice. But I never met her so your guess is as good as mine. How does she do it? Time screams through my ear as I sit with another ten minutes to go before we head to the border. I am not in the mood to wait. Busstops are murder for the impatient. My heart was broken 215 ago and this trip is, for me, about discovering why I would impulsively travel across the world and through the Middle East. Today I know the reason why I left America.
However, I have absolutely no idea what that reason is and this phenomenon is not all that unusual. There is in fact a famous term for this irony: insplosivity. A nobel prize winning geneticist puts it like this: When you suddenly see the p roblem, something happens that you have the ans wer – befo re you a re able to put it into wo rds. It is al l done subconsciously. This has happened many times to me and I k now when to take it ser iously, I’m so absolutely su re. I don’t talk about it, I don’t have to tel l anybody about it, I’m just su re this is it. Her name is Barbara McClintock and she is right. Creativity happens under the surface, but it’s simple. First, be dissatisfied. Then wait. Wait. And have faith in yourself. The solution comes. It really happens. It really works.
I’m a natural sucker – most of all for myself – so I have the distinct advantage of being a believer when all hope is lost, tragic dealings comes to heroes and heroins across the world like a Stalin over Russia, and still believe that a brilliance of mind, a sharpened sense of observation, and that part inside of you that lets loose and kicks everyone else’s ass is worth it. Answers come from your subconscious if you welcome the thought. But the wait can be murder. Go, bus, go, I think. “La,” says the bus. Sigh.
What Say We Look Away
A boy looks up at the desert sky with me. The warm breeze walks through the dry valley hills of a little town that goes months without rain this time of year. The white stars and yellow planets plist through the black, blue universe and revolve so slowly it reminds me how my own youth is being so gracefully forgotten. This fragile traveler from the United States of America looks out over the village, slept in moonlight. “Jesus was a good man,” says the fourteen year old Iraqi. I adjust my body, for the rooftops of churches are often not as comfortable as the pews underneath.
The boy and I sit together and wonder at the pure unnameable and purposely unspecific. And we see them. We watch fireworks explode over Jerusalem, for the Shabbat has ended and today we are in the West Bank on the anniversary of the Six Day War. Forty years ago today, the Israelis claimed this land and called it Zion. Today, while Jews celebrate in Tel Aviv, Arabs lay olive branches at the gates of Bethlehem. And so, today, we in the West Bank pity Palestine. “Jews are very bad people,” the boy says. To his right is his old, probably broken M16. “They are the same as me and you,” I say, having heard this often, and look at him, “and you know this in your heart.” I’ve found that saying that can sometimes make someone second guess racism, if only for a few seconds. He sits quiet for a moment.
There’s a train bound for Philadelphia, OK? OK. And it’s going to run over three innocent women who are passed out on the tracks, unless you heroically pull the lever and reroute the train onto a track on which there is only one innocent, unconscious woman. Do you pull the lever? Switch from track A to B? Think about it. Of course you do. It’s not pretty. In fact it’s downright despairing. But If you can pull the lever, you have to make a choice – A or B – and so of course you stitch the wound in pain and pick the lesser of two evils. OK so now here’s a better question. The little town of Bethlehem, with 30% unemployment. There’s a train heading for Philadelphia and five women are passed out on the track one mile ahead, about to get run over and killed by the train. But this time there’s a big fat dude just next to you and the only way to stop the train is to push him in front of it. He will die but it’s sure to save the five ladies’ lives. Do you push him?
Think about it. Of course there’s no good answer, but if you’re not frustrated you’re really missing something upstairs. Also, if you don’t give it a stern effort... “Let me tell you a story,” I say to the kid. I bring out my camera and show him the pictures I took this morning, for this morning I wake up in Jerusalem and see a great many things. “You will see hundreds of tombstones,” I hear, sleep still in my eyes, ”they are for Jewish people, but each one represents an entire city, community, or village that was massacred.” I walk through the Holocaust museum and after the sixth room, lined floor to ceiling with tombstones, I feel faint. I tell this to the Iraqi boy. I show him the last picture I have. It’s a coat, opposite, that a Nazi soldier made out of Hebrew scriptures to humiliate Jewish prisoners.
“Six million dead,” I say to him, “the worst crime of all.” He puts his hand on his rifle, for tonight in Palestine we pity the Jews. I sniff. “You are wrong,” he says, curiously, “but I cannot say why.” On the Palestinian side of what Israel calls the Security Fence (the Palestinians call it the Apartheid Wall) that stingily encloses this land from Israel there is painted for miles the work of brilliant artists. The graffiti, if you can call it that, shows flowering imagery of paradise and judgement. “First they ignore you,” it reads, at Tantur, in English, “then they humiliate you, then you win. –Ghandi.” Emotionally powerful art on the great wall being built by Israel “between” the two nations. A mile from Gaza lies an Israeli town called Sderot. For the last few years, an average of eight Qassam rockets have hit the town a day. According to Amnesty International, Israel killed around 4,000 Palestinians, mostly unarmed civilians,
slaughtered, including around 800 children, in just the last seven years. It’s often said that to understand the Arab-Israeli conflict is to ride two bicycles at once. My two cents is that it’s good practice to skin your knee and give it a shot. This afternoon, after I get scared white at the Holocaust museum, I pack up and go to Palestine. At the wall I see riots (to the right). Police. Protesters. Military. And near a nearby pineapple juice stand is a young Arab with an automatic rifle who clearly wants to talk to the white man taking pictures. “Salaam ‘alaykum,” I say to him, remembering now (thanks to a method better than shock therapy) how to say ‘peace be with you’ in Arabic. He’s not impressed. “Where you are from,” he says. “Ana Filisteen,” I say. I’m Palestinian.
Megaphone vs. Army ... normally this is no competition but the speaker is a left-wing nut so no one cares. Score one for the gun.
He starts shouting. OK kid, kidding kidding just kidding, cool your jets. I’m American, I say, just like you. At this he laughs and the second’s difference between getting into a heated debate about President Bush’s foreign policy and having a good chuckle when he tells me he’s from Fallujah was easily stemmed by a good joke. Score one for the pun. We start talking and before I know it we’re drinking tea in Bethlehem and then he sneaks us onto the stone roof of the church built over the cave where Jesus was born (crib inside the cave pictured to the left). He tells me about his home, a mere five hundred miles away and, for me, closer than ever. I have met no one who likes the fighting down here. Here is a mix of people not wanting to pull the lever on that train and people reasoning that, once they have pulled the lever, they have the liberty, the responsibility, or – scariest of all – the duty to determine the fates of others.
“Will you ever go back to Iraq?” I ask quietly. “Yes,” he says and looks far away, “when the fighting stops.” I also look away. I ask him if I can take his picture. He says no. I listen. The virgin mother that may have been, if she ever was, surely did not chance to miss witness of the moment an Iraqi and an American sit, loaded M16 and all, above the church that shelters the little cave where she gave birth to the tiny Jesus of Nazareth, and, underneath the clouds which no one can see in the darkness, age. We look at ourselves and I like to think that here and now we both take a minute, if only inside our heads, to try and stop all the fighting in all the world. And in between the heavens, we think.
Hire the Shrink, Fire the Rifle
Who are you? For me, it’s an easy question. The simple fact, as any psychiatrist can attest, is that I’m two states away from sanity and a half a klick upstream. Really. Today I trudge through the land of the Hashemites, who claim to be the only true descendents of Moses, and see the temple where Indiana Jones swipes the Holy Grail. I flipflop for over an hour. Oy. I start at the crack of dawn at the crack of a mountain torn in two by the naturally disagreeable attitude of tectonic plates.
The walls are high. After climbing the mountain and traversing the desert I arrive at the valley of the canyon of the Crescent Moon. It’s very impressive but, like meeting a movie star in person, always slightly shorter than you expect. I take a few shots and move on, for a nomad is marrying his first wife tonight – and I’m invited. I flipflop another eight miles. Now, thanks for reading and I’ve tried to keep you in the passenger seat so far but if you want to get off this is your stop. There are some adventures only fit for badass Harrison Fords and me, after all. There are some depths of thought you reach when you don’t want to open your eyes, for there are many frightening creatures to be found in the abyss below your skin – and more still beneath the skin of another. So here is my advice to you. Play it safe. You’ve kept the world from exploding this
long so give yourself a heavy pat on the back and a healthy bloody kick of dopamine to the lump three inches behind your nose for doing such a good job. Nice work. Seriously. Pack your things and don’t forget to check for any personal belongings you may or may not have brought on board. But this is it. Me, I’m different. I’m an explorer. I’m glancing through a dense cognitive psychology book now and I find out that I had Turret’s Disorder as a teenager. Not as comically represented, it involves nervous ticks and involuntary movements (and, less commonly, inappropriate phrases of speech). This was not just a cute thing either, I find out now I was clinically sick. I wasn’t the Easter basket filled with colored eggs Freud got from his mom but I was quite a shy height above the nest.
Tension builds up that I have to release and ticking releases it. Head ticks, mouth ticks, and leg ticks are the worst. No one has perfected self-governance, though, so you know what it feels like to jitter or tap your fingers when you’re bored. It is just more extreme for some. Some patients with Turrets click their tension up so tight they snap their own necks and die on the spot. As I say, this is not the world for you. It’s hot. The sand sticks to my sweaty feet and the sun scorches my newly-shaven head through no protection of sunscreen. SPF-0 we call it. And then I get to the Bedouin village. An Arab in a man-dress waits for me. “Salaam ‘alaykum,” I raise my right hand.
“Min ayna enta?” His eyes are fixed on me. “Ana ‘Ordunni,” I smile. I’m Jordanian. He and his camel stare at me. Then he roars with laughter, signals to his son, who is apparently hiding behind me with an AK47 waiting for me to turn out to be an American spy or some other chap worth firing a couple rounds into, and shakes his head. Eep. I don’t like this at all. Too many guns and too little water, I think. This place is enough to give a good man a headache. They give me a huge embrace and show me to the wedding. Bedouin child who taught me a few swear words in Arabic. When I was a child I was obsessive compulsive. It seems to come down to a lot of little things I thought were normal. When I spun around one way, I had to spin back around the other way... there is an obsessive urge that has to be satisfied. I still cringe at the thought of stepping only one foot
on a crack, and sigh out loud in relief at the thought of “evening it out” by stepping on it with the other foot. Ahhhhhhh. You know what this is like because emotion is only a matter of degrees. If you’ve ever scratched a mosquito bite you know exactly how this feels. It is symmetry to a sculptor and cadence to composer. Hunger, fed. Fools exaggerate our differences but you’re not far from the looney bin and I’m not far from the stock exchange. Instead we are all caught somewhere between death and normalcy in a happy little bell curve of relative insanities. Bedouin folk songs rage. It is an odd thing to attend a wedding and, from start to finish, be entirely sober. It occurs to me that without my spontaneous desire to travel the world and my frequent insistence on humor in inappropriate situations my first sober marriage would likely have been my own. And that is a scary prospect. Bedouin wedding. Jordanians wear the red kuffiah, Saudis wear the white. And they can all shake it.
My Muslim friend to my right tells me that there is no alcohol here because it is unhealthy and unsafe. Untrue. If this were the case, I observe, the Muslims to my left would not be firing their AK47s into the air unless Allah were to see those bullets safely return to the earth and out of my way. As it turns out, He does. At this, he decides that I am indeed a good Muslim and tells me that I also may fire a gun if I wish. I do not. I am comfortable being mad and still staying safe. But you? By all means, you be good little boys and girls and obey the law, OK? Good. Crazy thoughts and original thinking never led to anything but danger and instability. There is after all a great torrent of explosive thought sealed behind our ignorance and contained under great pressure.
To release this requires a special kind of intelligence – a frightening, useful, and fun kind known as initiative. I’ve met many dangerous characters but none like the madmen that flow through my veins. I just prefer to make friends with them. You, though, are surely sane enough not to worry about anything below the glia of consciousness. And now, if you are still on board, seriously get the hell out of my car because it’s mine and I’m sure you’re a fine driver yourself. Just play it safe and don’t go over the speed limit. Me, I’m crazy enough to hike a mountain with a broken foot and a wicked sunburn, even enough to stop at the top of a cliff in raging winds to set my camera up for a delayed exposure knowing that it could quite easily careen down into the nothingness of the canyon at any second so I could get myself in the shot, but not quite enough to hire a shrink or fire a rifle. But that’s me. You, well, call and let me know how the world looks below 60 mph.
Or start catching up.
Insanity, right, against the world.
After The Middle East
If the stars in the sky had ascended from the earth, it is only reasonable to assume that the celestial launching ground from which they began would have left behind some scorched trace of their humbler beginnings. Twelve thousand four hundred and fifty seven years ago today, the sparkles in the atmosphere we call Orion’s Belt aligned perfectly with the sands of Africa where three mighty pyramids of stone now stand, so large that the entire population of Egypt can not rival the weight. I see the great pyramids of Giza point still towards the Milky Way as if three massive balls of burning gas had hardened the surface of the planet, dragging dollops of it behind as a whisk leaves monuments in whipped cream, likely to the wide astonishment of the locals. And here, in the earthly produce of the heavens, I vomit.
I need to go back home. “In the quest for human knowledge,” Confucius writes, “the first step is to learn things by their correct names.” The unfunniest thing happened to me today. At least half a dozen camels watch me practically pass out from sunstroke at the base of the ancient pyramids. “You need help?” A man asks me from the top of a huge beast that is clambering back and forth, inches from my legs. For Allah’s sake, I tell him in Arabic, f*!# off. Good thing I learn languages from little kids, I think. It helps to get the point across. And here goes. I’m nervous and dizzy but I get weaker at the knees every hour I fail to write this down. It’s not funny, either. They nearly spit on me. Cavism, you see, is a word Confucius would have loved. One of the camels that may or may not have made fun of my inability to cope with desert weather.
When we’re young, we often suffer the unpleasant experience of biting our tongue. And when we’re really young our reflex to pain is to clench our jaw, biting harder and harder as we go through a painfully twisted cycle of self torture, from which we arguably never recover. It’s quite serious to the victim, but the audience usually gets a good kick out of it. This is a cavism. Until, later, we realize the clenching reflex is actually in our control and we grow, a little bit, where no one can see, just in that one spot you’d love to show. In fact, we figure out almost every part of our body is like a puppy obediently awaiting our gentlest thought. I twist my stomach and pound my brain against my skull. The sun is slowly burning its way inside my head, it seems, and I need to find shelter fast but it’s hard to think clearly when, you know, the sun feels like it’s slowly burning its way inside my head. A whim is all that’s needed to breathe, to open our mouth, and to cry. More to the point, when we cry as babies, we order our mother around.
There is millenia old vandalism on the pyramids. Second best graffiti around.
In a way, we’ve been caught in another cavism, unaware that we’ve controlled her this whole time. Then we get a job guarding volatile borders or running a patriarchal dictatorship and with an open mind we look back at our life as one continuous discovery of our greater and greater control of the world. Unrecognized power. A cavism is the Earth on the shoulders of a man who can’t stop staring at the sun. The sun stares at me. Too hot, I think, as I crawl down the sarcophagus-sized tomb beneath Kufu’s mausoleum and literally moan in relaxation at the feeling of the pristinely cold grave. I can’t think straight but I can find cold air. After all, our brains can only click and click for so long until something snaps. We click and we click and before we know it we’ve snapped at a Syrian election guard and put our safety at risk for apparently no purpose whatsoever. But it is a fun and useful activity, for the muscles in our mind are cultivated with practice – and spontaneity is always a sweet thing to grow.
“Ha-HA! I AM the camel king!” Just kidding but he’s pretty funny, eh?
We click and we click and sooner or later we’re desecrating monuments and we’ve snapped over four thousand pictures and pissed off a dozen people with nothing to show but a red cheek and a picture of pee. But to think with flexibility is worth it, for it is a building block of our own competent control of the world – and few parts of us are worthier of our building. We click and we click and without warning we’ve snapped at a kid holding a rifle and a soldier with no sense of humor because he lived through the invasion of his home town. But to switch your mental frame of mind from Palestine to Israel may one day save a civilization – and the inability has already destroyed many. I drink water. A kid in with a bucket of Evian is overcharging me. The tallest building in the world before the Eiffel Tower. I buy. An old man once figured out how to excavate the planet and stack two and half million stones on top of one another – and then stack them all on top of him – yet the weight of all the works of all the emotion in all the world is mere petty jealousy compared to me, thirsty, with cold water.
I drink. It’s the first day of summer, the longest day of the year, and today I buy a ticket for the Rocky Mountain sunshine. Ahh... With consciousness fading in and out, my head seeing what I can only hope are hallucinations, and soles as worn as the tops of my shoes, it ends. I’m writing goodbye under African skies and humming the Paul Simon tune so far away from life that nothing can hear me save the mosquitoes I pray have no Malaria, for I have no pills and bleed no vaccine, so as you read this, though I may be scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef or lying in a hospital bed in Kabul (or possibly dead from Malaria or sunstroke), at the time I write I do confess a mountain of sympathy and gratitude for an audience patient enough to read all these words and if I write just one more, it should be my favorite of all and that is initiative. The greatest drive towards safety in a land of overbearance, is, after all, our own overbearance returned. Its name is initiative.
And that is a promising prospect. Imagine yourself in a world with more spontaneity. Imagine a flexible, driven, and motivated, head on your shoulders. Imagine yourself with twice the personality. Imagine creativity. Thoughts and feelings are the winds that wear this world, not mortar shells and landmines, for the former are compounded billions of times over from Washington to Baghdad – and the latter cool off in a matter of hours. So take care and think aggressive thoughts. It even may salvage a bit more peace out of a passively poisoned planet When you’re clicking away the moments that make up a dull day, remember there’s no snap like the snap of your own initiative to create some humanity for yourself, to make some healthy life out of cold steel and computer screens, and grow a safer world.
My dirty, dirty feet, having flipped and flopped too many times, ready to go.
It can really take the monstrosity out of work, I tell you. I stare up at the night sky and across the first, oldest, and only surviving wonder of the world (completely dry, you’ll be happy to know) and it occurs to me how much the heavens truly do affect this planet. The thoughts that twinkle in your skull are the pillars of my family’s home and the steps my children will walk on, so squeeze onto your own initiative as tightly as a kid does his M16, and when you feel like snapping at someone consider it a personal favor to me, and give ‘em hell. Just don’t snap anyone’s neck. Thanks, Sean McGowan June 21st, 2007 Giza
My family and friends help me a very great deal. Most notably, I give enormous credit to Stuart Weiss and even enormouser to Scott McGowan, without the obstinance of whom I’d never have learned to think for myself. This work been released into the public domain. This applies worldwide. I grant anyone the right to use everything in this book for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law. Thanks, Sean McGowan July 4th, 2007 Denver
Why would a publishing house release a book into the public domain?
P u b l i s h i n g
Public Dom ain?
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