Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Under My Feet

The story begins quietly enough. I wanted to visit the Philippines for some time and for many reasons: its presence as the only Catholic nation in the region; the history they share with the US; the natural beauty; the prevalence of English speakers. Our weeklong October break seemed like a perfect time to go.

I want to explore Indonesia of course, but I am trying to cram that in weekends, thanks to cheap domestic flights. Also, my friend in Manila works for the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and she suggested Bohol/panglao Island based on its diving and the fact that she would be there visiting project sites. Perfect.

I booked into a groovy little organic bee farm/ resort for my first night. Wonderful food and a pretty spot on the more secluded side of Panglao Island.

Very much what the doctor ordered- a little bit Primo like in its attempt to source locally and grow much of the produce themselves. 

A jarring experience came in the morning when a kitten began screeching under the deck where they served the buffet breakfast. Thinking it was a cat fight/standoff I was considering pouring water down through the slats to scatter the offenders, but a staff member had already hopped the rail to investigate. Peering under the deck, his eyes went wide and he exclaimed, "Snake! Snake!". 

I clambered down to where he was. Sure enough the kitten, now gone quiet, was fully enveloped in the maw of a wild python. The snake was wound into the rocks - I couldn't gauge its length. Thickness-wise it easily matched my bicep. As the only visible remnant of the kitten were two paws and a tail, nothing was left to do but go back to my coffee. 

Word spread. Many of the hotel staff came down for a look. The women mostly shrieked. A few young men picked up sticks or wrapped their arms in shirts, considering methods of action. The other guests were content to look down through the slats for a glimpse of spotted skin. We went back and forth about how to drive the snake out- I suggested hot water, but a worker responded, "That might kill the snake." It was true. Why kill the snake for simply doing what it does to stay alive? 
The coffee certainly tasted a little differently, as did the morning air, considering the dangers of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

We spent Sunday visiting one of the sites Bohol is known for, the Chocolate Hills. Though green from the recent rains, typically these are dark brown, funky lumps, several hundred feet high each. They are old coral deposits that mounded and then were worn away by water as the sea receded. The structure of these is quite loose as can be seen later.

Then we headed down to my diver digs on Alona Beach, stopping briefly for Joanna to document another well known site, Baclayon Church, built of coral in 1726 by the Spanish. The Spanish influence is palpable everywhere, and there were times I experienced a wave/hallucination that somehow I had been transported to Central or South America. 

In the room at the base of the tower, there was an older woman giving, of all things, foot massages. She had an Italian customer on whom she was working. Though the rickety wooden stairs up the tower were officially closed, I talked her into letting me ascend. I made my way with the flashlight app on my phone, staying on the edge of the steps. The masseuse got nervous, worried about getting into trouble, so I settled for a look out of the third floor, arched windows. I asked Joanna why they had not capitalized on this tower, fixing it up and charging a fee to ascend.

Tuesday I was scheduled for a 'refresher' dive class, since I had not been diving since Thailand in May 2012. Class was in the afternoon. I rented a scooter take Joanna to the airport to catch her flight back to Manila and work. Twenty minutes into riding, sunny day, perfect temperature, grooving on the countryside and all the sights along the road, moving at about 80 kilometers per hour, I got that terrible feeling of a flat tire. The bike went all squishy and squirrelly. 

Shit, could I have two flats? Damn that rental place...I eased off the gas, slowed to a crawl and did my best to get a look down at my front and rear tires. Hmmm. Nothing there to see. I had just experienced a back flat on a scooter taxi in Jakarta and I was sure this had to be it. Still, everything seemed fine. My imagination? 

Anyone who has ridden motorbikes ofteb knows that uncertainty- particular road surfaces- like grooved pavement- cause it. There is a metal bridge in NYC I especially hate for the way it causes the tires to float.  On a bike that rubber to road connection is everything, tickling the edge of the subconscious as you corner, brake, and accelerate.

I resumed speed- wrote it off to a potential acid flashback/mental anxiety creation. Moments later I turned the corner and came up on this:

People screaming, crying, wandering dazed.

Here was the same church the day before when we stopped in to use the WC.

Somehow my disbelieving brain did not yet connect the wobbling of the tires with the collapse. Because I had not felt an earthquake, the church had simply collapsed on its own, a defect of time come to pass. 

We drove around the side, asked if there were any people needing help. Approaching the structure seemed beyond foolhardy. I couldn't hear any screams from inside. I thought about the kitten. 

 Joanna had a plane to catch and by then there were plenty of other people, including police, who had come onto the scene. We rode on across the bridge into Tagbiliran; with each passing meter the reality of what happened crept across my imagination.



In a very poor country where many buildings are dilapidated or only partially constructed, it can be hard to tell where natural disaster leaves off and poverty begins. By now my feeble brain was digesting the bike wobble with the entire city being on the streets in shock. What to do? Even the police seemed dazed. Who to arrest? Where to start?

It wasn't until we reached the airport (which was relatively unscathed) that I got my first full account from an English speaker- well, an Australian speaker- of what had happened. She was an EMT worker on holiday from Melbourne, about to buy her ticket when the shaking began. Experienced with stress, she was ready to wait it out. Everyone else had a different plan. She said the security people ran out first, followed by everyone else. The shaking lasted 42 seconds in total, registering 7.2 on the Richter scale.

As my feet hadn't truly felt this, I continued to feel a measure of remove. A two inch cushion of air between my world and those around me. Since the terminal wasn't damaged much, I thought all would be back on track within a half an hour or so. Joanna would be on a plane. I would head to my dive class.

The first big aftershock was an appropriate slap across my silliness. I was standing between two parked cars which lurched violently enough so that their shocks and springs rolled and bounced. Everyone raced back from under the shade of the buildings.


Then about five more in the span of the next 35 minutes. Pandemonium. The mayor declared the airport open. The guard I told this to said, "The mayor isn't here is he?" Word of numbers of dead began rolling in. A ticket agent from Zest air took the role of making announcements. All flights cancelled. Ferry terminal closed. People began bitching about their connections in Manila. People would drift back to the shade, the world would shudder, everyone would race back out under the hot sun.

It was time to go. We hopped on the scooter. Joanna wanted to go to see the Baclayon church, as someone said it had been damaged as well. We headed ten minutes south, ducked the scooter under the police tape blocking the road, under the downed power lines.

What to do or think? Built in 1726. Gone in 42 seconds. I stood next to an ancient Filipino woman. She couldn't have weighed more than 70 pounds. She was shaking her head, teary-eyed. I put my hand on her shoulder and said how sorry I was. I leaned in to hear her soft voice. "So strong. So strong." I wondered at what she was getting at. She pointed and said, "Mary. So strong. Nothing can take her."

I was focused on the destruction of these old hand-built houses of worship laid to waste. If there was a message, it seemed to me that someone might not be so happy with the religious powers that be. Here was a woman of faith, finding only a message of strength, a way to persevere. A life of poverty putting setbacks into perspective- interpreting the world differently.

Here was my tower.
In the foreground is the wife of the Italian who was getting a foot massage the day before. He had scheduled an appointment for  both of them for that morning. We wondered if the masseuse might be dead under the pile, but he was sure she was not, since his appointment was for an hour post quake.

The news that night relayed photos from the Chocolate Hills.

You can see the same bell in the background of a photo I took 24 hours before the quake.

It turns out that for whatever reason, the tiny resort town of Alona Beach where I was staying was shaken but not stirred. We had power thanks to a German resort owner well prepared for the worst. Within 12 hours we actually had internet and were back on the grid.

Joanna's flight was rescheduled for the next morning, but with the president and the accompanying entourage of mucky-mucks, secret service, and army generals in their helicopters and private planes, we waited for hours and hours of unannounced delay.

Joanna's final comment before boarding the plane was, "I guess I will have to request more money than I thought." 
Making light of a situation that had claimed hundreds of lives, and created billions of dollars of destruction. What else was there to do? 

I went back to Pangalo, did one day of diving, looking up through each of the ensuing aftershocks, some measuring as strong as 5.4, seeing what was overhead, considering as each commenced if I should get off my ass and head towards open air. But none lasted longer than 5- 8 seconds. Strangers got used to looking across tables, giving a shoulder shrug- That was a big one, yeah? 

I got drunk with a German resort manager who was DJing what he called a 'survivor dance'. Trying to get out of under the stress of waiting, of not understanding how to process the experience. 

Sometimes the shudder would be purely in my mind. I could not separate the world beneath my feet moving from an internal momentary swaying. There came a certain uncertainty in the earth being a fixed platform. It was all in flux, all an illusion.

The obvious lessons were here- about everything being luck and timing; about living in the moment because at any given moment even the most permanent of structures and notions can fall into dust; about the brain's perception and the connection to social expectations and group think. The earth round? No way. That big snake thing will eat me? No way.

There was the embarrassing delight in the being there- in making the New York Times, of having a story to tell and a few pictures to show. 

Of course with the telling comes the frustration, the confirmation that no experience can be shared. Really? Wow! Glad you're okay... Hey did you hear about Sally? She's slept with Joe!

But here I am, trying to tell you about it, for what its worth.

“Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” 

Why is that? Because if I am telling it, it is past and gone? Or because you weren't there and I miss you as well?


Sunday, September 1, 2013

First Things First

My father, and he was not unique in this, was a big believer in first impressions. He spent time going over the best handshake, not too firm (aggressive and over-confident) nor too mild (the dead fish, a sure highway to derision and casting out). I don't suppose Stephen Hawking paid too much mind to such things, nor Bill Gates. Perhaps not mean advice though perhaps shallow. It did serve in reading Death of a Salesman - "Because the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want."  Oh Willy, you poor, sad sack of American pipe dreams. I recall a pair of interviewers at my last job fair who said I "presented very well" as a gentle way of telling me they had hired someone else. Apparently they had trained themselves to look past my perfected hello grip. We fathers so desperately want  our sons not to be somehow left behind. Who amongst us is not guilty of promoting, consciously or not, getting ahead.

What is the use of first impressions, really, unless they reveal the longterm self? I know. The proverbial foot in the door. A chance to prove oneself. But there is another, more pertinent idiomatic saying:  Truth will out. Shakespeare, natch. Is there anything the man did not know?

Side bar- you are going to put Shakespeare and Mozart into a room- who is the visual artist included? And should it be Mozart? Child prodigy and musical genius, certainly, but are there others whose depth over time exceeds his? Bach? Beethoven? Maybe it is all simply angels on the head of a pin.

Anyhoo- First impressions. I have seen such a very small slice of Indonesia- of what value can my thoughts be? Acknowledged: my feelings will evolve with experience and time. Still. Above is how this lovely young person who makes delicious egg custards responds to an odd, sweaty foreigner in his silly shorts, asking politely as possible if he may take her photograph. A response of genuine warmth, a gaze without guile. Graceful forbearance. The opposite of a facebook selfie (which, by the way, has NOT officially made it into the OED-subtle distinction is not the stuff of the modern age, needless to note).

This is the response of the bulk of the Indonesian people I have encountered. Whether they are working making small cakes-

or escorting the local version of the armored car-
I don't have photos, but the first remarkable feature of Indonesia, or I should say Jakarta, is the prevalence of bomb searching security, including at my school and every shopping mall. The efforts are neither thorough nor effective, but they are constant- almost a cultural quirk of sorts. It is clear that the guards in question have little in the way of training or interest, but they push the militaristic look and manner to the extreme. Just what the threat is remains a mystery to me at this point.

Yes, we are still in SE Asia, so the bus/truck loading and driving quirks apply. The particular driving mannerism I have noticed in Jakarta is the swerve. They win the prize for coming closest taillight to headlight while changing lanes. The bikes above were headed back to villages for Eid al Fitr, the biggest holiday of the year. My arrival in this country, home to the largest population of Muslims in the world, coincided with Ramadan. Much more on that to come, Allah willing. Suffice it to note, all other concerns aside, I am happy I have come for that part of the experience.

What else? Malls. Lots of malls. Jakarta seems to have the corner on the world market in two areas: traffic and malls. Don't they go hand in hand? Vast landscapes of parking and shopping. Gigantic swaths of neon and macadam. It is what one does here, recreationally, culturally (the latest iteration is marketed as a combination of art exhibit and shopping experience), communally. I direct the cabs by giving mall names. To get home I say Mall Teraskota and though small it serves more reliably as a marker than my actual street name, which I still do not know.

There are malls for every budget and style shopper. Acres of granite and stainless steel. Boxcars of shirts and underwear. Stacks of coffee shops, piles of sushi.

The good side of this is the availability of indulgences.

Though the cost is exorbitant - $6 for this bar(faneffingtastic if I may say so), it means I can, with a little digging, get things like an excellent cup of joe.

...It also means living in this suburb of Jakarta is far from cheap overall. The greatest expense is naturally alcohol, upon which a gouging tax is placed. Yesterday I spent $70 on two Chilean wines I would not have spent more than $6 -8 each in the USA. Believe me, it is a different sensation downing a perfectly average bottle of red with a friend when you know it is setting you back $35. I believe Nicolas Cage would have run out of money long before his liver gave out had he cashed in his pay here.

More on this aspect of life in an Islamic country to come as well. By the way, the porn-soaked culture of the West still feigns mock outrage at Miley Cyrus shaking her ass on tv, so don't pretend Christians have it together, okay?

What, besides wandering the mall, replaces the social lubricant alcohol here? Well, food for one. I also went to a shisha bar one night,  a lively place full of young people socializing and flirting.

Malls and shopping. If you know me, you know my tolerance for this kind of buzz. A buzz that turns to a bomb-dropping drone in my brain, destroying the rustic villages of my psyche pretty quick.

Between the malls and the traffic I occasionally wonder why the hell I am not in Maine, awaiting the arrival of sharp fall air and impending winter. I have to be careful to avoid certain songs and look for what pleasures I can. Luckily there is that Indonesian smile, and the local market my new friend Phil showed me.

So, I will focus my researches there, as my French cousin Jean Baptiste would say, will attempt to get past the initial take and go deeper. Will do my best to get past the hello to the heart of the matter.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Serves Me Right

This is a total side track from my travel entries. I started it and now I am impelled to finish it. Feel free to go back to your web surfing at any time you find your attention wandering...

Around 1984 I was living in a small town, Lacoste, in the south of France. I was romantically involved with the owner of one of two bars in the village, the bar that catered to the night crowd, the wild bar where I once saw a full-on cinematic brawl complete with fighters parting for the passing of a full-term pregnant woman making her way to the door, actual glass bottles shattered on actual human skulls, chairs across backs, the whistling arrival of a phalanx of gendarmarie in their little blue hats straight out of Casablanca, the paddy wagon doing its loading, the unique reflective quiet of a riot's aftermath. 

It was a local thing; no one glanced my way or touched me. The bar owner was a rustic gal, ill-mannered and raucous, cousins in jail and siblings dead by overdose. Anyhoo, this romance meant a lot of free drinking and a lot of drunken, trumped-up drama, a lot of time to perfect my pinball skills (to the detriment of any other skill that might have been perhaps remunerative long term).

Days in my twenties passed as if in a waiting room - waiting for a verdict of some kind as what exactly it was I was meant to do in this life.

There were two songs of that era that pushed me up and pushed me down, like an amphetamine, like a narcotic, like old friends and old enemies. One was a German song, 99 Luftballons, some kind of Cold War protest song by Nena. I wouldn’t have known since it was in German (it did have some kind of resurgence later in English). My other anthem was U2’s New Year’s Day. Over and over. With beer. With coffee. With Pastis.

 I…I will begin again.

The promise of endless new beginnings is also the option to stuff things up to infinity.

I…I will begin again.

Slightly over one year ago, I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, signing on to what I believed destiny had delivered to my digital doorstep. My ideal job. Meaningful, ethical, dare I say it? Noble work. It came with such coincidence, such serendipity. It came so perfectly tailored to my financial needs, my geographical desires, my moral requirements. Work with impoverished children. Work with gifted children. Work towards the  betterment of a nation scarred by my own. 

The kids were shipped straight from heaven. My co-workers and the director? Not so much.

I was off balance, nearly from the outset. I was thrown into the side road ditch by the ambition and cocksureness of youth, by a director not attuned to running a small hands-on program, by my own plan of being flexible and low-key. I spent hours each day wondering, Can this be a nightmare? Is this a strange, unbelievable twist in a sick game in which I am trapped?

I have NEVER personally experienced such joy and misery simultaneously. They say the Lord works in mysterious ways. Considering, it does almost seem impossible that a random universe would contain these polar opposites, these abominable meaningless petty wars and these fabulous orange sunrises over dewy meadows. It is almost as if God's Plan is designed to simply shatter us- leave our hearts and minds in a shamble.

Designed to force us towards...? Such a cruel game.

I was fired in March. Ugly stuff. Blackmailed not to fight for my job in order to gain an important supervisory recommendation. Faced with a choice, my knees buckled. Instead of angrily turning and walking out, I scraped the floor for a recommendation. I was simply afraid I might not get another job.

I lost my dream job. I lost face.

Once a mother at a dinner party, discovering I was an English teacher, accosted me with: Why do kids have to always read such SAD books in class?  A wealthy woman, married to a successful local bigwig. I blah blah blah'd about learning more from suffering than happiness, how it is only in disturbance and turmoil that suspense is generated.

A year later, her husband developed a cancerous tumor in his spine; he was dead within six weeks.

A truer answer would have simply been:  I don't know. Many drawn to work on the police force are simply drawn to power- telling people what to do while armed with a loaded Beretta. Perhaps those drawn to teaching English are drawn to comprehending sadness. I mean the English teachers I love. I mean myself.

One of the great outcomes of this terribly happy/sad chapter in my life, this episode of beautiful happiness/brutal sadness, gain/loss, miracle/catastrophe, was simply acceptance- of moving (or attempting to move) beyond good and bad,  of happy  and sad, into the land of is. Of living in the moment without expectations or judgement.

To contain, to comprehend, the extremes of my happiness and my sorrow would have shredded my soul, would have rent my mind in two, would have been impossible. Thus I became less a participant, more of a witness. Was this an abdication of my humanity? Was it unfeeling? I am not sure. I do feel remorse that I did not stand up to my director and to my young colleagues. That I was not more cunning and active rather than passive, trying to weather the storm by battening the hatches. Still, the impossibility of understanding carried its own gifts. It moved me to love and live and work hard with my beautiful Cambodian students up until the last second, when they got on the buses and their small perfect faces disappeared into the dusty distance. Rather than dwell on our impending parting, on the hopelessness of my position, I became more like the kids themselves, enjoying the exact second our bodies and breaths occurred.

Oddly, I took my next job based on professional career advice, choosing this school in Indonesia because a famous director was at its helm, along with a slew of other highly regarded administrators. I passed over another job at a smaller, less prestigious job in Dhaka my heart was leaning towards. The moment I signed my contract, I had a sinking feeling. I had once again ignored something, though I cannot tell you what that something was.

I signed in March. In May and June all the administrators and the director I had signed to work with were fired in one of the most astonishingly bloody coups ever in the international school circuit. Without exaggeration, individuals among the most highly regarded in the entire industry were in fear of their freedom, advised by the embassy to pack up, keep their mouths closed, and flee the country. It is the talk of our closed town and has been for months.

So now I go to school, putting on my company tag, one of the most powerful and troubling multinational companies in the world, for a board who has quite clearly demonstrated a ruthless lack of integrity and empathy, not to mention due process or legality.

Yet here I am. It is. My ninth graders discussing the ethics of political asylum are there before me- my task at hand. My energy is given wholly to their spark, to uplifting their self confidence and challenging their thinking. The futility of the endeavor is not pertinent, the impending darkness does not diminish the focus, the diminutive girl in rags, begging on the street corner a 1000 yards from my air-conditioned-filled-with-the-privileged-offspring-of-fierce-tiger-moms-bent-on-their-promotion, does not spiral into paralytic despair. Only is.  There only remains what I choose to do right now.

Someone once said to me, God only gives you what you can handle.  Which is bullshit. Poster worthy pablum. Apparently that dinner party woman's husband couldn't "handle" his cancer and died. Yet there is something in the enormity of it- of the extreme nature of the challenge there for us to tap into any time we care to look into the abyss and try to stay upright and uprighteous.

If this were all a strange digital reality game designed to teach the author of this blog how to persevere, how to get out of bed and get dressed and go to work instead of putting  a shotgun into his mouth, I would have to say it is working, still. You could say it serves me...right

If you have stuck through, read this far, I suppose I owe you some sort of acknowledgment. Or is there the possibility of such a thing as debt? Right and wrong, surely. Fair? Serves me right. Serves you right. As Will Munny would say, Deserves got nothing to do with it....