Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Between the gutter and the stars

“We are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” - Oscar Wilde in Lady Windermere’s Fan

“We’re halfway between the gutter and the stars.” - Fatboy Slim in Weapon of Choice  

“Did I ask you for attention, when affection is what I need. Thinking sorrow was perfection, I would wallow till you told me: there’s no glimmer in the gutter, there’s no twilight galaxy.” - Metric in Twilight Galaxy

As is probably apparent if you’re still reading, I’ve had gutters and stars on my mind recently. And these three quotes keep coming back to me.

I tend to agree with Wilde, that we are all in the gutter.

But then, why are we in the gutter? What is it about it that keeps us wallowing there, looking for the stars, when we know that it’s the most ridiculous place to be looking for them? 

Or is it?

Is there really something to be had in the darker side of life?

Could it be true what Kid Cudi says in The Pursuit of Happiness that “everything that shines ain’t always gonna be golden” and we’re all in the gutter because that’s just where it’s at?

Or perhaps, that's not true at all.

Perhaps, as C.S. Lewis writes on the pursuit of happiness in The Weight of Glory, that “[w]e are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea.”

I like Lewis’ picture better. Although it’s devastating how much I can relate to it. 

Is it just that we are half-hearted then? That I’m half-hearted?

I’m afraid I generally am.

And yet what about the times [albeit, few] when I have been whole-hearted in pursuing things that were [at least I think] really good, and I failed? What then? 

And what about all the uncertainties of life and all the controversies even within groups of relatively the same belief about what we should actually be pursuing and how we should go about it? Where then?

In light of the tremendous complexity of life, how can I become more whole-hearted? 

For all its faults, the gutter has a kind of certainty about it. 

Yet it’s not where I want to be, and I do know that with all my heart.

Maybe it’s just that it’s easier to figure out what you don’t want than what you do. 

I really wish I had better answers and could leave you with anything much better than the feeling you just spent two minutes reading a list of questions. Sorry for that. And I'm sorry if I'm being unnervingly honest by admitting I sometimes have these questions at all.

Maybe someday the answers will come to one of us. 

Until then, let's at least try to keep looking at the stars. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

I'm always sick in Cairo - But it's worth it

I'm in Cairo, again, which naturally means I'm on lots of meds. In fact, I think next time I come to Cairo, I will just start taking broad-spectrum antibiotics before the plane touches down.

Why do I inevitably end up having to take antibiotics in Cairo? Because in Cairo, I eat lots of junk.

Why do I eat lots of junk in Cairo? Because it's delicious, and it's even cheaper than it's delicious. I don't know why they don't include it in the tourism information. Honestly, what Bangkok is to junkies and seekers of very non-conventional sex, Cairo could be to binge-eaters.

And it will have a similar effect on your body.

Rather than try to explain further, though, my friend Jacob and I teamed up one afternoon to document my gastronomical misadventures in this paradise of 12 cent sidewalk delicacies:

Egyptian ice tea from a very communal glass.

Gravy. On noodles. On a car. 

12 cent falafel sandwich. 

A tomato man.

Some kind of legume in a cup of salt water.


Egyptian style foul.

Fried eggplant.

The siren call of Felfela. 

Koshari. Koshari. Koshari. 

I can't stop.

This post may be a cry for help.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Why I'm not going to post "He is risen" today

It's a sunny, slightly breezy afternoon in Beirut. This morning I went to a wonderful service at the Anglican Church I go to as often as I'm here. Afterword I ate lunch at a café in the downtown with a friend and then walked the mile or so back to my flat. I realized it's now mid-morning for my friends and family back in the States, and was about to post "He is risen!" on Facebook like I often would have on Easter morning in the past. But something just wouldn't let me.

Traveling around this part of the world for the last half year, I've gotten so used to religious idioms getting tossed around that I almost block it out now. Religion is really loud here. Whether it's getting shaken out of bed around 4am by the Call to Prayer or Roman Catholic saints staring sternly down at me from telephone poles in intersections.

One thing that almost never accompanies the shouting is any kind of explanation. I'm certain that many, many people here have a deeply personal experience and highly thoughtful understanding of whatever their faith is. But as someone who doesn't come from a background in any of the major religious traditions here, the shouting is about all that you hear, and over time it's easy to become annoyed, or even alienated by it.

I love the exclamation "He is risen," but as I thought about posting it just now, I could only think of the fact that many of my friends now are of different faiths or none at all. The thing I think I've started to realize is that, without context, everything is just shouting. Annoying, and probably alienating.

So I really feel like I have only two options: Either not to post it, or else post it with some kind of explanation. I'm going, however feebly, to attempt the second.

Many of you reading this are probably very well aware that I'm a Christian. Other's may have little or no idea––it's not something that I often bring up unless it's as a common point of relation. There was this song that was popular among American Evangelical children in the early 90s with a line that went something like: "Write God's Word on your heart, before you wear it on your sleeve," and I think I tend to rarely even get to the second part of that.

I would like to think, though, that the first part is true. I believe––however absurd it may sound––that the sixty-some books we now strap together and call the Bible are actually God's revelation to us. And I believe that a man who spent a few years wandering around villages just a few hundred kilometers south of where I'm sitting now as a moderately successful religious teacher until he upset the powers-that-were badly enough to get himself killed was the physical manifestation and fulfillment of that revelation.

I don't think believing that means I'm a good person. I'm honestly pretty messed up, and I used to be even worse. I harbor resentment against people I feel have hurt me. I choose pleasure and the search for fulfillment over purity. I spend my money eating at nice cafés in the downtown ensconced behind a line of jersey-barriers and men with Kalashnikovs while just a couple hours drive away people are starving to death. The list goes on. But here's where it gets really crazy: When that man who was wandering around villages in first century Palestine got himself killed, the real reason was to atone for the brokenness that people like me keep creating in the world.

If I'm to be completely honest with you, I think I spend a lot of my time stuck in that part of the story.  With me making mistakes, and this man who didn't do anything wrong in a grave that I deserve to be in. But the story goes on, too. The man miraculously rose from the dead––and by doing so symbolized that we aren't just forgiven for the things we do, but also have the potential to follow him and become the real-world manifestation of the revelation that God gave us in those books. We can be better people. The world can be a better place. There is hope.

Like I said, that sadly isn't often the part of the story that feels most real to me. But there are certain times when I do feel like it. Easter Sunday is usually one of those times, which is why I say "He is risen!"

He is risen.

So there. I said it.

I hope it didn't feel like shouting, and I hope we can still hang out.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Like a Paul Bowles novel

I've been on the road for three weeks now. Heading west across North Africa. 

During two weeks in Cairo, I barely left one neighborhood. And it was still like a kaleidoscope. Then we came to Morocco, and it started to turn. 

A blur of cheap hotels, crowded trains and foaming oceans. Falling asleep under elaborate mosaics at dusk to be shaken awake by the thundering call to prayer at 4am every morning. Falling back asleep and getting up with the African sun streaming in at nine to get breakfast at a cafe where everybody's already on their second joint. Surfing in the Atlantic. Staring at a wall for four hours. 

Like a Paul Bowles novel, but with no sex. 

Different characters. Heated arguments on rooftops. Not making eye contact on long train rides facing across from each other. Getting completely sick of them. Mutual resignation to the fact that you're with them. Forgetting why that is. Complete comfort with each other that could be a sign of deep intimacy, or deep contempt. 

Like some kind of marriage. Or a Paul Bowles novel, but with no sex. 

Rabat, Fez, Casablanca. Somewhere else. Somewhere new. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Cairo: The Dust of Nations

Three days ago I arrived in Egypt. It's a place I grew up always hearing about, and I was eager to experience it for myself and see if it bore any resemblance to the place movies, Bible stories, comics and history classes painted it to be.

My first evening I dined out with a medical doctor from a well-to-do family––currently working as a middle school teacher in Cairo. Over creamy shrimp alfredo and shisha, he painted a rather bleak picture of the situation in the nation since the revolution: Excited idealism turned to disappointment, turned to terror, turned to pleading for a return of the order that had been revolted against.

I learned a lot from the doctor, and from others we met, but after a day and a half of sitting in posh cafés and wandering around titanic shopping malls on the suburban outskirts of the city, I was eager this morning to get in a dirty taxi bound for what I'd heard was the throbbing heart of the nation: Inner-city Cairo and Tahrir Square.

Our official destination was the National Museum, and after an interminable amount of time stuck in a traffic jam in a poorly ventilated tunnel, we emerged, blinking, in front of the imposing neo-classical structure. Scuttling past rows of black masked special ops troops below burned out high rises with a heavy wind gusting dust into our teeth and eyes; the whole city had an eerie, almost apocalyptic feeling.

The museum, once we got inside, was spectacular. Ancient Egypt must've been everything the movies and comic books made it out to be. I was slightly disappointed to learn (from Google) after an hour long search on foot that the one Egyptian artifact I could have identified as a child and which even emblazoned the tickets we'd purchased to get in: King Tut's funeral mask, had, apparently, after millennia of careful preservation, been irreparably lost to history in a still somewhat unclear incident involving a clumsy curator and some misapplied epoxy shortly before my arrival. In the end, though, I think I found one I like better:

Even in the midst of the remains of the grandeur of ancient Egypt, though, it was hard for me to shake the feeling of present apocalypse. Priceless artifacts ornately decorated with delicate hieroglyphics were piled haphazardly in cases with descriptions that looked like they were printed in the 1950s. Crates were piled all over the floor and in some places it felt more like a massive antique warehouse than a museum. As we emerged from the mummy chamber––the only decently maintained corridor of the cavernous building––a stray cat ran across the floor and I could feel the sand driven into the building through the massive double doors of the entrance on a wind that had only strengthened since we entered a few hours before.

We emerged into a gale of grit that made it hard to breath and a crowed of men desperately hawking postcards and tours to us. It turns out, the city was that afternoon, being descended upon by a sandstorm the likes of which are only seen a few times a year.

Determined to see Tahrir square, the place I'd heard so much about on the news since my first time in the region almost four years ago, we pressed forward on foot past the gauntlet of special forces and into the choking, blinding grit. Wen we finally made it we spent an extremely uncomfortable minute gazing around. We then asked a passerby to take our photo––and immediately felt terrible about it––having someone take our smiling picture at the sight of their as yet unresolved national tragedy.

Then, feeling emotionally and respiratorilly exhausted, we piled in another cab. Naturally, we got stuck in traffic again, and the driver––an unemployed electrical engineer and member of the country's increasingly marginalized Christian minority––spent the 50 minute ride telling us his perspective on everything that was wrong with the country.

We arrived at dark and during a power cut. To cheer up we, we went out for pizza a few blocks from our flat and then started to walk back to watch The Mummy on a laptop. The dust storm had got worse still, to the point that trees, cars and sidewalks were all coated in the stuff and the night air illumnated by street lamps had a strange, hazy glow, almost like walking down an empty street back in Corning or Wellsboro on a night with gently falling snow. It would actually have been quite peaceful if it were snow, and not the tiny bits of a country disintegrating.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

How to get the internet

In Beirut, there are really only two ways to get decent internet. One, is to pay for it in the form of cellular data at the rate of about $16 per gigabyte. The other is to sit in extremely posh cafe’s who’s owners likely have some sort of relationship with the right people and order expensive espresso drinks all day while you use their wifi. In the end it probably works out to about the same price, but with one option you get complimentary espresso drinks. 

Today, as I write this, I have chosen the second option.

That is all.

Except that I also would like to apologize for not writing in a long, long time. A two week stint in Germany, the incomparable adventure of moving into an unfurnished apartment in Beirut and countless anecdotes along the way have all passed unwritten about. I’ve been busy––and tired––to be sure, but I’ve also been unmotivated and lazy as well. 

Over the next month and a half, I will––God willing––be going some of the most spectacular places I’ve been yet. It’s going to be crazy, and it’s going to be exhausting. But it’s also, sometimes, going to be interesting, and even beautiful. And I promise to try to be more disciplined in trying to share some little parts of that on here. 

Thanks for reading. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Caught in a Lebanese cat fight

Since I came to Lebanon, one bright spot in my life has been that Misha––one of my many little sisters––started emailing me regularly. Most our correspondence is mundane, consisting of short anecdotes about the weather, school, and daily activities. The other day, however, she surprised me with a one sentence email simply asking if I had "seen any cats at [my] door." I was surprised, because, I in fact, had.

For the past three days, there has been incessant meowing echoing through the stairwell of my building. Very loud, unpleasant meowing. My building is about five stories tall with each floor taken up by a large family flat. Mine is roughly in the middle, and while there are some neighbors downstairs, the two levels above are currently vacant. It was up the large, stone stairwell connecting my floor to those unoccupied levels that the phantom meowing––sometimes verging on human screaming in the wee hours of the morning––came from.

Wondering if some unfortunate animal was trapped up there, last night I left a bowl of milk out on the landing between my floor and the one above. When I returned from a run this afternoon, though, it was untouched. The meowing continued.

About two hours ago, as I was in my room packing for an upcoming trip, a knock came on the door. I came out to find my housemate, Jacob, talking––or attempting to talk––with an older Lebanese woman. After some Arabic, French, and finally, frantic gesticulation, we surmised that she also was concerned about the cat, and wanted us to come upstairs with her. In over two months of living here, I'd never once ventured up those large, echoing stone steps.

The madame led us to the very top floor, where there was a locked door to an unoccupied apartment on one side, and an open window on the other. Outside the window, just out of comfortable reach, was a balcony, and on it sat a cat, meowing away. Apparently the thing had snuck in through the parking garage level door when it was open, moved up the staircase to the window, and never come down. When Jacob started attempting to climb out onto the balcony, the woman––perhaps rightfully––was terrified and pulled him back. She then produced a bowl of water and some small slices of Picon cheese and communicated to us that she wanted us to check the food every day and replenish it if it was eaten.

After going back down the stairs, bidding madame and kind adieu and waiting a few minutes, my three housemates charged back up the stairs to take care of business in their own way. We were met with two surprises.

First, the cat had, of its own volition, moved off the balcony and onto the windowsill in front of us. This was good. Second, there was not just one cat, but two. This, was bad. After a brief scramble, we cornered both of the screeching felines off of the windowsill and onto the landing. There was a short pause in the battle, and for a moment we met eyes with our hissing, clawing opponents, and realized this was going to be more difficult than we'd assumed. And right then:

The lights went out. 

If you've never been trapped in a pitch-black stairwell with two angry cats, then you can only imagine it as something between the mafia nightclub fight scene from The Dark Night, and the part in The Exorcism of Emily Rose right before Satan reveals himself.

Mercifully, the blackout was only caused by the self-timer on the stairwell lamp, and after about 20 seconds of terror, the lights came back. I found myself huddled in a corner with my hood over my eyes, and looked up to see my housemate Justin wedged rather impressively three feet off the ground between the railing and the wall.

More mercifully still, the cats had retreated down the stairwell (not back out the window). There were two more floors before the parking garage and victory, though, and each of them had a landing with a window that the cats tried to dive out of. Armed with nothing but our feet and Justin's sweater, which had come off at some point, we rallied and drove the lightning darting, throat-high lunging little beasts down four flights of stairs, slamming shut windows as we went. At some point the terror-cats got ahead of us and we reached the ground level parking garage just in time to see the last cat dart out the door into the night.

Our home was saved.

For the moment.