Friday, December 26, 2014

The Magic Carpet of Death

Long before I read books like Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist or Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road, I dreamed of traveling through the desert. This fantasy inevitably took the form of riding a magic carpet through the blue sky above infinite dunes of sand heaped to the horizon in all directions. When I later learned about caravans and camels and such more historically accurate modes of desert transportation, I was fascinated with them as well. Last week I went to the Arabian desert, and, early one morning, got a chance to travel across those endless dunes for real. The desert was just as I imagined it. The preferred method of transport, however, has changed a bit. Outlined below is that method, as I experienced it under the instruction of a local desert dweller, along with the steps necessary to successfully and efficiently utilize it:

1. Locate endless stretch of ecologically pristine, Arabian desert:



2. Commandeer powerful all-wheel-drive vehicle from unsuspecting royalty:



3. Use ratchet-straps to attach doormat to back of powerful all-wheel-drive vehicle; then climb on:



4. Hang on for dear-life:



5. Try to avoid canyons, at least until you've made it across the border with a neighboring princedom, making it easier to avoid capture and retribution:



In the end then, the experience was enjoyable, but didn't bear much in common with my dreams of camels and caravansaries.

The magic carpet fantasy, though, may have actually not been that far off.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

There and back again in Lebanon

This evening I had a small adventure getting to a neighborhood that is quite a long way from mine. It involved a school bus, a fruit-truck and a McDonalds delivery moped.

Actually it's not that far, it's just there's this massive canyon in between it and my neighborhood, so what is only a couple miles as the crow flies turns into a longer and much more maddening journey. None of my friends had ever gone their by any means but a taxi. Hating taxi's, I decided to try to get there by any means other than a taxi. It ended up being every means other than a taxi.

I started at the bus stop right up the road from my apartment, across from the vegetable store where I've tried to make friends with a bunch of very gregarious Syrians. There are these old brightly colored school-buses that have been re-tasked as public transport vehicles that go up and down the mountain all day and will take you all the way from Broumanna on top of the mountain to Borj Hammoud nearly by the sea. To get around the obnoxious canyon, I had to get to the bottom of the mountain, so I jumped on the first school bus I saw parked at the bus stop. Unfortunately, this one turned out to actually be a school bus.

They were not impressed.

Less than three minutes later, an identical bus––but this time the public transport one––passed by and I jumped on. As per usual, it was standing room only, but that didn't matter too much as I intended to jump off as soon as it got to Mkallus at the bottom of the hill. There's a bridge there that I knew went across the sickening, disgusting canyon, and, after one wrong turn on foot that landed me in the middle of a conglomerate of dining-room chair workshops, I arrived.

Next I had to get to the Damascus highway. Looking at Google Maps, however, I misjudged the distance from said bridge to the Damascus highway. Nevertheless, after half an hour of brisk walking and a couple more wrong turns, I made it. I was about to concede defeat and hail a taxi when, up the highway, I saw the glowing arches of McDonalds, which happened to be the primary landmark for getting to where I was supposed to be. Somehow in my wandering, I had ended up closer to my destination than I intended––which is always nice.

After crossing six lanes of traffic on a footbridge, the far side of which I discovered had been turned into a machine-gun nest––not unusual, but there's something uniquely unnerving about descending a spiral staircase into a machine-gun nest––I walked up the side of the highway right to McDonalds, where I ordered a double-cheese burger.

The dilemma now was, while I'd known where this McDonalds was, and I knew the building I was supposed to meet my friends at was near this McDonalds, I had no idea exactly where. Stepping outside, I showed one employee who seemed to be on break a crude map I had on my phone. He couldn't figure it out, and showed it to another employee, who showed it to another one, until there was a whole crowed of McDonalds employees (Lebanese businesses always have a huge number of employees by American standards) looking at my phone, and none of them knew where the building was.

Then the moped delivery guy came over. He didn't speak any English, but he sure as hell knew where the building was. He gestured for me to follow him, and I thought he was going to point me in the right direction. Then he said something like syyarra oo mashee? Which means something like 'did I drive or walk', and when I replied mashee, he led me into an alleyway, gestured for me to jump on the back of the official McDonalds delivery moped, and two minutes later, delivered me right to the door of my destination.

How cool is that?

On the way back I was able to get a ride with a friend around the awful, damnable canyon and back up the mountain. I hadn't gone grocery shopping all week, though, so I had them drop me at the supermarket about a half mile downhill from my apartment. Usually it takes only a few minutes standing outside to catch a bus or service the rest of the way up to where I live, so after buying what I needed, I went and stood out by the road.

Licensed transport vehicles here have red license plates, and I've never seen anyone have luck hitchhiking, so I was surprised when, after a few minutes of standing, a beat up panel van with a civilian license plate pulled over next to me and the guy in the passenger seat opened his door and squeezed against the driver to make room for me.

I was slightly bemused, but got in anyway and we lurched up the steep hill. It wasn't until after a couple minutes of trying to talk to them in Arabic that I realized who they were: two of the Syrian guys from the fruit stand right next to my home bus stop on their way back with fresh produce. They'd seen me standing by the road, recognized me as the guy who comes in every other day to buy clementines and try to speak broken Arabic with them, and now they were taking me back to my bus stop.

So that, is how I got there and back again.




Monday, December 01, 2014

Getting medication in Lebanon vs. in the United States

I've been somewhat ill for the past several weeks. During that time I moved to a new house, ran a 10k, flew to Turkey for ten days, and had lots of smaller but still exhausting adventures. It seems it has finally caught up with me, though. After another night of not being able to sleep, blowing blood out of my nose and coughing up nasty colored phlegm, I paid a visit to my street's pharmacy to see what they could do for me. I'm feeling slightly better already, but intend to spend the next few days laying low. So, since I have some time now, I figured I might pause and reflect the experience of getting basic medication in Lebanon versus in the United States. I am not going to make any judgments on which system is better––I'm sure they both have pros and cons. I will just attempt to chronicle the steps involved as I have now experienced them in both places.

United States:


Call doctor's office and say to receptionist: "I've had recurring cold symptoms for the past four weeks and just started coughing greenish tinged phlegm."

Receptionist gives you appointment.

Drive to doctor's office.

Talk to receptionist. Spend five minutes updating insurance information.

Sit in waiting room for interminable period of time.

Get ushered into exam room by nurse. Tell nurse "I've had recurring cold symptoms for the past four weeks and just started coughing greenish tinged phlegm."

Nurse takes weight and height and blood-pressure measurements. Asks about current medications and allergies. Leaves.

Wait for interminable amount of time.

Doctor comes in, tell doctor: "I've had recurring cold symptoms for the past four weeks and just started coughing greenish tinged phlegm."

Doctor takes mucous sample. Sends to lab.

Wait for interminable amount of time.

Doctor comes back, writes prescription for antibiotic.

Go to billing desk. Billing desk talks to insurance. Find out since this is your first visit all year, deductible has not been met.

Pay $127.00.

Ask billing desk if this includes lab work. Billing desk says no, even though lab work is done in same building, the staff are from regional hospital, so billing handled separately and you should check with insurance company to see the claim.

Drive to pharmacy.

Give prescription slip to attendant.

Wander around Walmart for interminable amount of time.

While waiting, decide to buy a decongestant. Ask pharmacist for decongestant.

Give pharmacist ID to photocopy, sign twice and fax to DEA.

Wait for interminable period of time.

Get approval to buy decongestant.

Continue wandering around Walmart.

Prescription filled. Take to check out. Spend five minutes giving insurance information. $14.00 decongestant was not prescription, so insurance will not cover it. $16.00 antibiotic was, but deductible still not met.

Pay $30.00.

Drive home.

Go online to check status of lab-work claim.

Claim is $370.00.

Call insurance company and ask for explanation of benefits.

Call hospital and ask for itemized invoice.

Spend next two months fighting with both of them.

Lebanon:


Walk up street to pharmacy.

Tell pharmacist: "I've had recurring cold symptoms for the past four weeks and just started coughing greenish tinged phlegm."

Pharmacist hands you antibiotic and decongestant. Explains when and how to take it.

Pay $30.

Walk home.





Saturday, November 15, 2014

Another Day in Beirut

Last night on the winding eight mile drive up the mountain my taxi driver pulled over to get another 24oz beer and asked if I wanted one too, and I was pretty close to saying yes. But let's back up.

Yesterday morning I woke up and played Settlers of Catan. Only it was the most intense game of Settlers I've ever played. My housemates and I have played Settlers almost every evening for the last week and a half, so there was nothing unusual about that. Yesterday, though, we were entertaining a young couple from New Zealand we'd met in Jordan a month before, and when we learned the night before that they played Settlers, a match quickly ensued. They won, which was highly unacceptable, and meant that yesterday morning was the rematch.

The night before we'd stayed up to the wee hours of the morning arguing about theology, so the game got off to a late start, and turned into a race against the taxi that was coming to collect the Kiwis from our doorstep. Catan is not a game that is easily rushed––but if you've never tried it you should. It adds a whole new element of stress. I didn't win, but neither did the Kiwis, which was really the point.

Our guests left, and we jumped on a bus headed for the city. It was Friday, and every Friday I play soccer with Syrian refugee kids down in Borj Hammoud.

After rendezvousing with some other friends of my friends who wanted to come this week, we made it to the school where we play. I was about then starting to feel the fact that while I'd already worked out once that morning, thanks to the unexpected speed game of Catan, I'd eaten nothing all day but candy and hot chocolate. So as most of the kids hadn't arrived yet and there was more than enough help, I ducked out to find some shawarma.

As I was walking back from the cafe in my soccer shorts, I heard a little, far-away sounding voice squeak: "Androus!"––my name in Arabic. I spun around but didn't see anyone. Then a little face popped up over the wall of the flat roof of a building about four stories up. I waved and it giggled and then disappeared. It was one of the little girls who comes to play soccer every week.

It was a such little thing, but somehow it made me feel really strange. Here I am in this completely alien environment––a poor Armenian neighborhood in a city in Lebanon full of refugees––and somebody here knows my name. Actually, a whole bunch of people––albeit little people––do. How weird is that?

I thought about it as I went back to the organized chaos that is helping with two concurrent games of soccer between 70 exuberant little Syrians who all want you to play goalkeeper on their team.

The games ended around dusk so the kids could have time to get home just before it got dark, and my housemates and their new friends and I headed out to find some food. Since we were in an Armenian neighborhood, I took everyone to Mano which is a sandwich shop/deli that specializes in different kinds of Armenian sausage.

Mano is on Armenia Street, which, if you follow it across the bridge eventually splits into Pasteur Street and Gemayzeh Street and leads you through Mar Mkail––which is basically where everyone in Beirut who "goes out" on Friday night "goes out" to. The friends of my friends had to meet someone in that general direction, so, fortified with some Armenian sujuk, we headed over the bridge and started the mile-and-a-half walk.

In a little side street off of Mar Mkail is an establishment named Chaplins themed and decorated entirely around the actor Charlie Chaplin. Despite its slightly off the main drag location and general hole-in-the-wall appearance, it is quite popular. This may have something to do with Charlie Chaplin, but I tend to think it has more to do with the fact that between the hours of six and nine every night, shots cost 2,000 Lira––that is, $1.33.

One of the friends of my friends who I was meeting for the first time was Palestinian, but grew up between Lebanon, Jordan and the States, so it was interesting talking to him about his life experience split between those three places. He remembered Mano from his parents taking him there as a child and was surprised I'd known where it was. When I mentioned Chaplins existence to him off the cuff, he insisted we go there as well––although I'm less sure it was because he remembered it from his childhood.

One of the coolest things about living in such a transient city is how many people you meet. One of the strangest things about it is that you often quickly and casually say goodbye to those people forever. Whether it was the Kiwis who spent the night with us, my friend's friends, the kids we played soccer with, or really anyone for that matter.

Then came the usual struggle of getting back up the mountain. While it was still only 7:30pm or so (basically mid-morning by Beiruti standards) Taxi prices had already gone up and there is no bus that goes directly from Gemayzeh to where I live. In the end we took a service from there to the Doura round-about, where we found a group of taxi drivers standing by a convenience store drinking. One was willing to take us up the mountain for a very reasonable price, and Almaza in hand, got behind the wheel and plunged us into the wild Beirut traffic.

We made it about two blocks when one of my housemates realized he'd forgot his backpack somewhere in the city and jumped out of the car. While my other housemate and I were concerned, there wasn't really much we could do, and so continued on with our driver.

It was now just me in the back and my housemate sitting in the front passenger seat when the driver pulled out his smartphone and handed it to him. Texting and driving is dangerous, especially when you have a bottle of beer in one hand, so the gentleman had fortuitously handed the phone to my housemate with an open text conversation and began dictating to him in broken english. This got  rather awkward when it became apparent that the person on the other end of the conversation was a woman the driver was involved in a rather steamy affair with. The exchange was cut mercifully short only when we pulled in at a convenience store to buy some more beer.

Refueled for another couple miles, we continued on up the mountain and arrived safe and sound at our front gate. About 45 minutes later, my other housemate made it back, backpack in hand, and we put a rather mundane capstone on the day by cooking a light supper and watching TV.

It was another day in Beirut.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Running in Beirut

Running in Lebanon is rather dangerous. Even registering for a race can be somewhat hazardous.

Today I went downtown to pick up my number for the Beirut Marathon 10k event this Sunday and found the entire district was blockaded in what looked like preparation for the D-Day invasion. As it turns out, the invaders were about three dozen posh looking Lebanese, protesting that the national parliament a few blocks away had just voted to reelect itself for two more years. The most dangerous person there was probably the girl with the clipboard [right foreground], yet I still had to run the gauntlet of the Lebanese Army, Internal Security Force, six US Humvees, UN Peacekeepers, and about 200 men with M-16s [not pictured, because they don't like it] to get to the ritzy Beirut Souks shopping plaza where they were doing pre-registration.


It honestly wasn't bad when I lived down in Gemayzeh in a hostel. Then there were actually sidewalks. That is, when they don't completely block the sidewalk to put up a billboard advertising the race you are training for, forcing you for one horrifying second to hurl yourself into the right-most lane of a four-lane highway. But since I moved up the mountain things have got exponentially worse.

There is now nothing but miles of extremely steep, twisting road with barely enough room for two small cars to pass each other and no berm at all, but on which cement trucks and transport buses make up most of the traffic. There are some parts where, when walking, you basically have to just press yourself against the cliff-face, close your eyes and pretend you're somewhere else as a diesel semi-trailor grinds past you nine inches away.

There are still places you at least can run, though. The secret is to find side roads with large military checkpoints. Side road means less trucks, and large military checkpoint means slower trucks. As an added bonus, the view is often quite breathtaking.


Unfortunately, if there is one thing I hate in this world, it is wild dog-like creatures. And out here, in the howling darkness that is everything east of the last Lebanese Army checkpoint on the Beirut city limits, there are wild dog-like creatures.


But every silver lining has its cloud.

Today I helped tutor some Syrian and Iraqi refugee students at an after-school program run by a friend I met at Arabic school last month. The main reason I came was actually to help him and some other friends get back to my apartment on the mountain for a long-promissed dinner that evening, but I was assured I'd be helping the students with only English grammar and the Arabic alphabet. An hour of algebra homework later, and we were piling into my friend's Peugeot hatchback.

I don't have a car, so I'd only ever taken the bus on the 30 minute (without traffic) drive from Beirut up to my place, so just getting to the base of the mountain was somewhat stressful, and could really be a post unto itself. We made it, though, and after getting on the right road at the roundabout at Mkallas, we headed up the mountain and all breathed a deep sigh of relief.

Then the car broke.


After watching a YouTube video on how to pop the hood of a Peugeot, pouring several liters of water into the radiator reservoir, and watching them trickle down the highway back toward Beirut, we discovered that the hose connecting the radiator reservoir to the radiator was ruptured. I'd always rather wondered what it would be like to get stranded on the side of the road in Lebanon. So it's almost a relief to have finally experienced it now. It was also good that it was within a few––albeit extremely steep––miles of my apartment. So after convincing everyone that pouring water all over the red-hot engine block was not a suitable substitute for a functioning radiator, we pushed the car about 40 ft. uphill, abandoned it, and jumped on a passing bus.

I felt quite bad about my friend's car. But dinner was delicious.

And after a succession of Almazas, sitting on our balcony playing guitar and chatting as we looked out over the sparkling on-off lights of Beirut and its suburbs 1,600 ft. below, I felt quite alright about the whole thing. Even the algebra.

As it turns out, though, driving here is still worse than running. And that's really something to feel thankful for.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Compartmentalizable Country

One of the many funny things about Lebanon is how compartmentalizable it is. It's a tiny country, yet there can be a vast array of situations, moods and events from one neighborhood and one village to the next. People can seem to go on with their normal lives without thinking much about what's happening a few miles away.

Today some friends and I wanted go to Byblos to see the Crusader castle there and maybe go to the beach. We caught a bus to the place you can catch another bus headed north along the coast and, after drinking some juice, found one headed in that direction.

I was the first one to the door and was a little hesitant to get on with my group of seven when I realized the entire vehicle was filled with Lebanese soldiers. One of my friends reminded me, though, that there is no such thing as "too full" here––indeed, last night I was in a five-person taxi with eight people, one sitting on the drivers lap and working the clutch while he shifted––and we piled in.

As the bus pulled away, there was some commotion amongst the troops as one read something he'd just received on his phone. There was some shouting and the name of a city repeated over and over again.

As it turned out, there'd been a great deal of fighting in Tripoli today, with artillery and airpower and all that stuff––between alleged IS fighters and the Lebanese Military. A number of soldiers and a civilian had been killed by the time the girl next to me pulled up the local news on her phone––and these guys packed into the bus with us, were reinforcements heading into combat.

Byblos is pretty much exactly halfway between Beirut and Tripoli, so it wasn't as if we were heading into the immediate danger zone ourselves. Still, it was strange to think that these guys, some of them laughing and talking with us, were headed to war on the same bus we were taking to an afternoon of sightseeing.

We got out when the driver announced we were at the stop for Byblos, and spent the afternoon as we'd planned. We went to an outdoor restaurant where I ate a gigantic and entirely disgusting chicken liver shawarma. We meandered around a crusader castle. We drank espresso and ate ice-cream and watched the sun sink into the Mediterranean Sea as a couple of newlyweds had their portraits taken by a team of about seven photographers.

Were it not for the helicopters and––one fighter-jet from whence I know not, since Lebanon doesn't have fighter-jets––that periodically sped north over our heads, I could have completely forgotten that 45 minutes up the road, people like those guys we road on the bus with were locked in a deadly stand-off in the middle of Tripoli.

In fact, after the helicopters stopped coming for awhile, I think I did forget about it. And that makes me feel kind of bad.

If I were at my home in Pennsylvania and found out people were being killed 50 miles away in Williamsport I doubt I'd spend the day doing much but thinking and praying for the people there––and possibly trying to get further away myself. Here though, I went a little closer, and strolled around on the beach.

When you look at a place like this from the outside, you can easily think it's terrible how people can just go on with their normal lives with so much suffering around them. Today, though, I realized I can do it pretty easily myself.


Monday, October 06, 2014

The Rose Salesmen of Lebanon

I try, as a discipline, not to be super-depressing when I write. 

Unfortunately, sometimes––if not usually––the most evocative things in life are extremely depressing. And the more you think about them, the more evocatively depressing they become. Maybe that's why pretty much every great American writer ever was a manic-depressive alcoholic. 

So, hopefully in no way suggesting that I'm a great writer––or a manic-depressive alcoholic––this evening I'm sharing something that I find extremely depressing across so many levels that it's simply poetic in its depressiveness:  

War refugees trying to sell me roses. 

Just about anywhere you go in this country there are refugees. Palestinians from the war in the 80s. Syrians from the war now. Gypsies and Turkmens and Kurds from who-knows-when. Some of them, like the Syrian bartender downstairs I sometimes talk to, are doing alright for themselves. Others not so much. Many of those end up begging, or only slightly better, trying to sell knick-nacks on the street. Water bottles, bracelets, terrifying battery powered plastic dogs from some overstock warehouse in western China. 

Some of them, though, sell roses. 


And that, I feel like, is the worst.

There's an old man who walks up and down my street in the evenings past the bars and the store fronts with an arm-full of them. He never bothers you. Just walks slowly past. On the other hand, there are sometimes kids, like one I met out on a castle in the water down south, who are extremely aggressive rose salesmen. To me. 

Do I look like I want a rose? I really don't. But my best guess is the idea goes: I buy it from them, and then give it to someone special. The immediate problem for both of us at that minute in time is: I have no such person to give it to. So, like the bracelet sellers, and the water bottle sellers, and the terrifying battery powered plastic dogs from some overstock warehouse in western China sellers, I mutter laa, shukran and turn a shoulder. It's sadder though, because in a more perfect world I still wouldn't need any of the latter items. But I would love to buy a rose for someone. 

Of course, in a more perfect world, neither would they be trying to sell me roses, because there would be no war and their houses would still be standing and their families would still be alive. And––while it's ridiculous to compare in any way––if I did have someone to give a rose to, then chances are I wouldn't have ended up here either. 

But there we both are––them trying to survive by selling me something I don't want as a symbol of some affection that I don't have––completely unable to help each other. 

Where is the silver-lining in all that? 

I really wish I knew.   


Friday, September 26, 2014

Intensive

A lot of people who read this blog are surprised when I tell them I didn’t learn to read until I was 12. It’s true, though. I had some tests done when I was ten or eleven and found out I have a type of dyslexia that makes it extremely difficult––painful even––to keep track of multiple letters in a word and multiple lines on a page. Through a few different techniques and ways to visualize what was on a page, I did learn eventually, but it was difficult, and I honestly don’t think I reached a point where it was completely effortless till I was in college. 

With that in my past, it would have been hard for me to imagine that I would ever decide to attempt to learn a completely different script and way of reading. Twice the time of my life since then, though, that’s exactly what I’m doing. 

Last Sunday night I moved into a hostel next to an Arabic institute in Beirut and Monday morning I started Intensive Beginner Urban Arabic in the building next door. Classes go for three hours a day, five days a week, and in addition there’s about two hours of homework. 


Leading up to this I was trying to look at it positively, but, for the reasons mentioned above, I kept finding myself secretly dreading it. Looking back on the week, though, it has in reality been a great experience so far. Everyone in my class is interesting. NGO workers from Europe, Lebanese people who were born abroad but never learned to read Arabic. Expatriate wives of Lebanese. People, like me, who were just interested. A girl who went to college in Ithaca, just up the road from where I live, and is doing graduate work here. They are from all over the place but have come here to learn the same thing, and there's a sense of camaraderie in the group I don't think I ever experienced in four and a half years of college classes back home. 

The people are the main thing that's made it good, but the atmosphere is pretty cool too. The building we are in has a nightclub on the roof and an arguile bar and café on the ground floor. I've never actually gone to the night club at night, but in the afternoon when it's sunny and no one is up there it makes a great place to study. In the restaurant on the ground floor they serve free breakfast to guests every morning––I get an omelet––and then in the evening it is packed with Lebanese eating mezze and smoking arguile. 

A Swiss-Lebenese guy studying Foosah Arabic lived in the room next to mine, and when I found out he works out, he offered to show me the gym he uses. I bought a monthly membership and we started lifting weights together. Yesterday he told me he's moving down south to go to a different school in a Shia controlled area. I've only known him for a week, but somehow it's sad. Last night we had a little party for him down in the café with some of the people from the floor, and over some local beer under a haze of arguile smoke between us and the never quite dark Beirut sky, it felt like we were saying goodbye to an old friend. 


We nearly finished the alphabet today and are starting to be able to have legitimate sounding––albeit verb-free––conversations in class and when we practice together. So looking back on the past five days I'm surprised at both how much Arabic I've learned, and how many friendships have started. So much for my dread right? I guess I shouldn't speak so soon. On Monday we learn the last two letters and plunge into grammar and usage. And it's only five days into five weeks. 

At the rate things are going, who knows what could happen here in that amount of time? 



Saturday, September 20, 2014

The local news

I'm back in Beirut now. Most likely for a long while. The trip over went pretty smoothly. Detour around the Ukraine, but I guess that should be expected. I learned Qatar looks ridiculously amazing from the sky, and that while 14 hour flights to the Middle East are not as crowded as they were three years ago, the percentage passengers who are screaming Arab babies is as high as ever.

I spent all this morning riding buses to nowhere. Cobbled together haphazardly from government run routes, private companies and people with vans, Beirut's bus system is less "system" and more of a randomly evolved organism with very few consistent rules. The only way really understand it at all is to use it, so this morning I was doing just that.

After some shawarma and a stop at Starbuck's in Hamra, I ended up at the Virgin Records store. They will not let you into the Virgin Records store if you are carrying a cup of mango juice. Just FYI. While there I picked up a copy of the Daily Star––Beirut's main English language newspaper.

I occasionally watch cable news and often frequent the networks' news websites––but I almost never read local news. Flipping through the paper this evening though, I had a strange feeling I couldn't quite place. Then I realized: all the local news I was reading was things I was used to seeing on the national news back in the States. It's all happening right here, or just a few miles away.

Sitting in an overstuffed leather chair with a fantastic view of Beirut's cityscape and the Mediterranean behind me while reading the paper, I wasn't quite sure if that feeling was exciting or unsettling. At any rate, whatever happens, I'll be here to see it.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Home is behind
The world ahead
And there are many paths to tread

Monday, September 01, 2014

We Own The Night

I've always loved night photography. About five years ago I got a Lumix point-and-shoot that had a night photo setting as well as a very-wide angle attached lens and while attempting to capture a lightning storm, discovered it was also quite good at catching stars and clouds. A a few years ago, necessity forced me to make the jump into the DSLR world, and while my portrait and action photography improved exponentially, I never had a lens that was very suited to wide field astrophotography (which, as it turns out, is the name for what I'd been doing with my old Lumix). So for a long time, I nearly forgot about it. 

Moving to Lebanon in just a couple weeks, I've been taking stock of things I will need and not have the option of buying there. I've refurbished the things that can be refurbished (like my computer, fortunately!) and replaced some things I couldn't. It's also been a great excuse to buy some things I've always wanted but had never quite been able to justify. One of those things was a true super-wide angle lens, and on a recommendation from a cousin (it's amazing how many good recommendations I seem to get from cousins) I decided on one that was almost absurdly wide and had pretty good low-light capabilities as well: the Tokina AT-X 116 PRO DX II 11-16mm F2.8 Aspherical

The funny thing is, I was not thinking about stars at all, just landscapes like the one's I saw out west last year, or the vistas in the Kadisha Valley I'd never quite been able to do justice to before. This evening though, I arrived home to find the power out and a more-or-less interesting sky shaping up above. So it was that I once again turned my camera toward the heavens. And I got one of the more pleasant surprises in my recent memory:







I think it can see more stars than I can. 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Memories of home, thoughts of friends

This afternoon I watched Gladiator. There's something about the story of that film that always gets me.  I think it's the sense of longing for a past you can never return to even as you're pressed to carry on in the present. It's embodied so beautifully in the movie by the visions Maximus has––often at very climactic moments––of walking through a field of barley toward his home in the Spanish countryside where his wife and son wait for him. It's the one thing he wants at the beginning of the story––and the one thing fate will never let him have as you learn early on that his home has been destroyed and his wife and son killed. That scene of him walking home always resonates with me in a way very few movies ever have.

I certainly haven't yet gone through anything quite as traumatic as losing my immediate family––let alone a spouse or child––or having my home destroyed, but there are certainly moments when something causes me to snap back to times in my life that I remember being happier or more content but that I know, no matter what I do, I can never return to. Relationships end. People die. Groups split. We can look back at them, but we can only move forward. 

Watching the film this gloomy Saturday afternoon, it hit me harder than it ever has before. 

It wasn't until this evening when I was looking through some pictures of friends from the past couple years that it occurred to me why. I'm right now on the edge of closing a chapter of my life. In just a few weeks I'll be leaving my home, my friends and my country for a very long time. It's what I want to do––what I have to do, really––and I'm more excited about it than I've been about anything in a long time. But today I realized it may be more bittersweet than I imagined. 

The home I'm living in is the home I grew up in––and it almost certainly won't be mine to return to when I get back. My family is at a time of transition. One generation taking the place of another, and I'd be a fool to think it will be the same when I get back. While the last two years have been painful in many ways, the friends I have right now are the best I've ever had by far. We'll still be friends (I hope) whenever I return, but chances are it won't be the same. People move––very quickly around here––and while I will see them all individually again, the memories we made as a whole group will be just that: memories. 

So, this is all not to say I expect to be stumbling down bullet scarred alleyways in Beirut while having hallucinations of striding through the green fields of Coryland toward a home I can never return to. Just that there's some sadness in a parting I'd not expected. And while watching a Ridley Scott film this afternoon, I realized that. 

The other thing that struck me in the movie as it always has was what a beautiful imagining of heaven those scenes of Maximus walking home are. I know it's not written from a theistic, let alone Christian perspective, but let's just say that if it ends up looking like that––which I (and I think C.S. Lewis, heretic that he was) tend to believe it will––then I will be a very happy man. It means all those moments of wistful longing for people and places we can never return to are really hopeful instead of sad. 

And what could be more beautiful than that?  

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Unsureness

This morning I spoke at a church. It was the third one in the past month, and I'm somewhat surprised how comfortable it's started to feel.

Not that I ever disliked public speaking (on the contrary, I really kind of enjoy it––it's talking to people that I struggle with––not at them), it's just public speaking about myself that gets me. There's something about talking about myself with sureness that's really difficult. "Wait!" you say, "You blog somewhat regularly, and blogging is by definition about you, isn't it?" Well, yes, and no. When I blog I talk about things I've experienced, things I've done, and, when I do rarely broach the subjects of who I actually am and what I believe about my life and what I want, I can do it with complete honesty about that fact that I'm really quite unsure that I'm giving the correct narrative of those things.

The kind of speaking I've been doing for the past few months just doesn't have room for any unsureness. So I speak with sureness. About myself. And being sure of myself is deeply dishonest.

I'm not saying I have serious doubts about anything that people would normally be concerned about, or that I'm intentionally misleading anyone about anything. It's just whenever I honestly think about my life, there are so many competing narratives that I trip over them. They chase each others' tales and weave in and out of their neighbors and sometimes completely contradict one another. They hide behind themselves so I can never see them all at once and swirl around on all sides so no matter how wide a lens I use I can never see the whole structure at the same time. I couldn't ever say which was right unless I could see them all, and I can never see them all because I'm always living one of them.

How can you say for sure what the Milky Way looks like when you're part of it? How can I look people in the eye and tell them who I am when I am me?

It's disturbing, but somehow I've become comfortable with it.

And I'm not sure what I think of that.

Monday, August 04, 2014

How to fix a high-end grill in three steps or less

It is the very height of outdoor barbecue season. Unfortunately, the gas grill that my parents left behind at the house––a very nice grill at that––is not currently working. Something to do with it being hardwired into the central propane system and the central propane system being empty.

So today, I went to work to fix it, employing what locally might be referred to as the Bungarian method. The results were so staggeringly successful that I feel I owe it to society to make it public knowledge.

Step 1: Inspect grill



Step 2: Remove non-functioning components



Step 3: Carry on as usual with functioning components




Thursday, July 24, 2014

Ode to Nasal Decongestants

I'm awfully congested today.

I only take an over-the-counter nasal decongestant about once every three years. And that's probably a good thing, because whenever I do I'm always like: "You complete me, Love."

It's just something about it. Like what I'm always hoping coffee will do but never quite does. I'm sure it will probably be illegal in a couple years, though. You know, that's how cocaine was introduced, actually. It was (and is) a nasal decongestant.

But then they outlawed it in the 50s and then cracked down on it in the 70s and 80s, so instead everyone started using meth in the 90s (it was invented in the 40s––but nobody wanted it because they could have coke instead). And then in the 2000s they cracked down on the precursor to methamphetamine, pseudophedrine, which is over-the-counter nasal decongestant.

That's why when you have a sniffle these days you need give them your ID so they can photocopy it and then make you sign it and date it in blood and then wait fifteen minutes for them to fax it to a federal DEA fortress somewhere while everyone at the pharmacy stands there and looks at you like you just stole and hawked their neighbor's daughter's training wheels to get money to buy your Advil Cold and Sinus. 

That's also why I'm afraid it will be completely illegal in a few years. So then, when I'm walking around feeling like I have a hiking sock hanging half out my sinuses, I can comfort myself that it's for the greater good, because there will be no more of the demon meth.

But it's all for naught, because the kids are already on bath salts and sprinting around killing people and eating their entrails. Because they took away meth, which is because they took away cocaine, which was an excellent nasal decongestant in its day.

FDR was actually a fan, I hear. He had terrible sinus problems.

So I would attempt stock-piling Advil Cold and Sinus against the coming prohibition. The problem is, just owning more than enough to get you through one cold is actually illegal now. And because I signed and dated those photocopies of my ID, they know.

They know.

They know!

THEY KNOW!

THEY KNOW THEY KNOW THEY KNOW!*

*Andrew jumps through open second story window and takes off sprinting––oblivious to a sprained ankle––and vaults over a moving car and body slams two unsuspecting Jehovah's Witnesses to the ground while screaming something about Orcs before making a bee line for the nearest forest where he collapses and wakes up 19 hours later, facedown with pine needles stuck to the dried mucus on his face. 

It's how every story ends, kids. 



Monday, July 21, 2014

On Eagles Wings & Gimpy Knees

This morning I went out to get the mail and saw this big boy take off over the windrows across the road from my house.

My knee has been in a bad way for the past week, and I've been trying to avoid running and un-level ground. Two minutes later though––after a frantic search for my 200mm lens, I was dragging my uncooperative leg as fast as I could go across the treacherous plow-furrowed and woodchuck riddled surface of the field.

I caught up with our friend in one of the deciduous trees the lines the border of my grandparents' pine forest. I wasn't able to get as close as I'd hoped, but I was able to get a few shots off before he tired of the paparazzi:







Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Pennsylvania & New York As They Ought To Be

This evening I read that the proposal to subdivide California into six separate states has apparently gained enough political traction to be considered on the state's general election ballot. I was previously unaware of the plan, but as I thought about it, my reactions were 1) I'm glad I got to drive through it while was still united, and 2) There's no way it will ever happen, and 3) That's too bad, because it really makes a lot of sense.

But why should only Californians be able to entertain ideas––however improbable––that make sense. Indeed, the West Coast is far from the only place that could benefit from some state-level territory restructuring to make theoretical maps match modern realities.

So, taking into account cultural norms, political leaning, physical geography, tax revenue, linguistic dialect, division of industry, and a variety of other factors; not to mention the simmering frustration of many of my friends in Pennsylvania, New York, New York City, Philadelphia and elsewhere, I began in my mind to redraw the boundaries of the two states in what I feel to be a more equitable manner.

And I give this: Pennsylvania and New York State (and a sliver of New Jersey) as they ought to be:



Feel free to let me know what you have any suggestions, or draw your own if you think mine is completely crazy.



Thursday, July 10, 2014

Like Something Should Happen

I feel strange this evening. Excited. Agitated. Like something is about to happen. Only the problem is I know nothing will happen.

I tried to study, but that seemed almost impossible. I thought about calling someone, but decided that was a bad idea. I thought about going for a run, but remembered I worked out yesterday and don't really need to burn the calories. So I made myself something to eat. Then something to drink. And then something to eat again. And I still feel like I need to go for a run, only I'm not sure if it's a wise idea now. And I still feel like something should happen.

I guess I used to feel like this a lot as a teenager. Most of the reason I started running in the first place if I remember.

Last Friday I was in Atlanta. I'd been at a conference and got dropped off at the airport a full seven hours before my departure. Maybe it was just that it was the 4th of July, or maybe it was that it was strange to be alone again, but standing in the airport I felt the same way I do now. Instead of going through security after I checked in, I turned around and went to the train station and jumped on one heading back into the city.

I didn't feel like walking around the downtown area with my bag, so instead I got on the west-bound train and jumped off at Little Five Points. There was a barbecue place there that someone had taken me to the Sunday before and I figured since I had nowhere to go and no one to meet I might as well go back there.

From the MARTA stop to the restaurant was about a half mile walk, and I ended up behind some guys about my age who kept on taking the same turns I was, to the point I started to feel uncomfortably like I was following them. I eventually just asked where they were going, and when they invited me to come I followed.

Twenty minutes later I was entering through the Emergency Exit Only door of an over-capacity establishment packed with hundreds of screaming, yellow-clad Colombians rearing for the start of the Brasil-Colombia game in the World Cup. It was packed so tight inside that trying to wriggle between people even without my duffle-bag would have been challenging, and we eventually got pushed out onto the patio––where there were a couple hundred more over-enthused Colombians, and finally over the PVC pipe barrier and onto the street.

So we went somewhere else.

And then somewhere else.

At some point we talked, and I learned that the three I was with all worked for a group that works with refugees entering the US and resettling in Atlanta. And I thought how strange it was that out of all the people I could have met in the city I met them. And when I mentioned I was going back to Beirut––hopefully this fall, it turned out one of them had lived in Cairo, and is also going back there soon. So maybe we'll run into each other someday.

At the late hour of 4PM, we began our rather unsteady journey back to the train platform. After declining an invitation to a party that evening in favor of actually getting on my flight home, they helped me transfer to the south-bound train, I breezed through security, got on another train, and made it to my gate with two hours to spare.

Drinking over-priced coffee and watching people from all over the world file past I began to feel again as if something should happen.

A very attractive Brazilian girl wearing a Brasil soccer jersey sat down in the row of chairs behind me, and I wondered what she could possibly be going to Rochester, New York, for. At any rate, in the [1 ÷ (number of seats in a McDonald Douglas MD-88)] chance that she sat next to me on the flight (poor, but it once happened on a flight from Stockholm to Munich––not with her I mean––but it happened) I remarked how serendipitous it was that all those riotous Colombians I'd been pushed onto the street by had been disappointed by the outcome of the match so that when the girl with the Brasil shirt did sit down next to me for the hour and half flight to Rochester I could congratulate her (after offering her the window seat, of course) and recount the entire scenario––which she would no doubt find hilarious and intriguing and then.... My thought was cut short by the Delta Attendant at the gate behind me that I'd completely failed to notice announcing that boarding for the connecting flight to Mobile Alabama had begun and the Brazilian girl got up and boarded that flight.

Hopes dashed, I put my ear buds in and continued to sullenly sip my overpriced coffee.

When we boarded, I thought how it was also sad––if not to a comparable degree––that I would not be getting back to Watkins Glen, New York, in time watch the fireworks with my friends, and would in fact see no fireworks at all this Independence day. To make matters worse, there was a maintenance issue and we sat on the tar for half an hour and it was completely dark by the time we taxied to the runway.

But then, as we accelerated down the runway, I looked in what I think was the direction of downtown Atlanta, and saw a firework out of the corner of my eye. We lifted off and I saw more. We climbed higher and saw more still until there were hundreds of little points of light exploding below us. It looked like the entire East Coast was trying to repel an alien invasion, and it didn't stop till we landed in Rochester. So I got my fireworks, and while there was no Brazilian girl, the middle-age woman who sat next to me turned out to be a national promotional manager for IBM and spent most of the flight––while we weren't staring out the window in silent awe––asking me questions about using YouTube as a platform for affiliate marketing, took my contact info and told me she was going to forward it to someone in their marketing department who was working on a similar program for their Enterprise computing systems. I actually highly doubt anything will come of it, but you never know.

At any rate, I felt like something should happen that day, and things happened. Maybe it's just that I wish I lived in a city. Or maybe it's that I sometimes wish I were in a different stage of life. But I still get that feeling.

Tonight I have that feeling.

Only tonight I'm pretty sure nothing will happen.


Monday, June 23, 2014

Review: Day of the Falcon

I don't often write reviews on here, much less often of movies. Every now and then, though, one comes along that gives me a fresh perspective on something. It may be a subject I've read or watched a lot about––but always from a very objective viewpoint. What a good novel or movie does I think is give you a very human picture of a place or issue. And, for all our best efforts, we are human, so in the end, the human picture is often the right one. "[F]iction illuminating people and culture in a far more intimate manner than any guide book," is how NYT Bureau Chief Neil MacFarquhar put it when explaining why he reads a novel about any country before reporting from it.

And that is definitely what The Day of the Falcon did for me. I'm not sure if it really changed anything I think about the way things are in the Middle East today, but it makes it much easier to understand issues like "Arab identity" and the tension between progress and tradition that seem really abstract or even absurd on paper. I would recommend it based on that alone, but the fact is also: It's just a really good movie. The finest epic I've seen in quite awhile, in fact.

Awesome desert battle scenes, very nuanced relationships, and most importantly, Day of the Falcon avoids the frequent epic pit-fall of being the Arabian version of Avatar, which was the sci-fi version of The Last Samurai, which was the Japanese version of Dances with Wolves. In the first half-hour I was afraid the movie would go down that path, but then the writers surprised me by having a much deeper and more thought provoking plot.

Also, I first watched Day of the Falcon some time ago, but last time I checked, it was on Netflix, so you really have no excuse for not watching it ;)


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A Worm

Now the LORD God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.”

And everyone said Amen.

Because what is the point of life when there are CUTWORMS!

How is it possible that any good or order exists in the universe when your yellow hungarian wax plants look like THIS:



Okay.

My moment of heresy has passed––and aluminum foil collars have been applied to the survivors of the horticultural holocaust.

It's still a tragedy, though, is it not?




Saturday, June 14, 2014

Columbia Cross Roads

Columbia Cross Roads is technically the town I grew up in. The word technically has never been applied with more specificity in its meaning.

I don't know anyone who lives in Columbia Cross Roads. It has never meant anything to me beside an obnoxiously long thing to type into shipping address fields. Believe it or not, despite the fact that it has been my hometown for 21 of the last 24 years, until a few weeks ago, I had never even been anywhere in Columbia Cross Roads aside from Judson's Feed Store.

It has only ever had one redeeming quality in my mind: Much like Barack Obama's one saving grace was that he was not George Bush, Columbia Cross Roads, PA's one redeeming quality was that it was not Millerton, PA.

Now that I have thoroughly alienated my entire readership, let me get to the point.

It has been a distant and disdainful love affair. I have spent my whole life devising ways to get away from Columbia Cross Roads, PA. Some have been more successful than others.

NEVERTHELESS, despite all this, I was moved to emotion when I realized that Columbia Cross Roads, my hometown, was inadequately represented on Facebook.

Until about a year ago, there was not even such a place recognized on Facebook. That has changed, but it still, until this evening, lacked a photo. So today, on my way back from mowing lawns in Troy, I pulled up the hill that overlooks Columbia Cross Roads, pulled into a driveway, walked across the road, and snapped a photo.

It may have been the most dangerous act of journalistic intrigue I've ever attempted. Riga, Amman, Sidon and Beirut, as it turns out, have nothing on Columbia Cross Roads, because in Columbia Cross Roads, when you park your car in someone's driveway to take a photo of something across the road, they sick their German Shepard on you.

Somehow, I survived, and this, pending Facebook's approval, is the face of Columbia Cross Roads, PA:



Monday, June 09, 2014

A Shortcut to Mushrooms

This week I'm house-sitting for some friends in Corning. It's pretty much the same as being at home––myself in a big empty house––only for two differences: Instead of being completely alone, there are two dogs named Patch and Molly (no, those aren't drugs I'm on, there are actually two dogs with me) and instead of being 20 miles from anywhere, it's very close to just about everything I normally spend hours every week driving to get to. That last point isn't something I think of often, but it's amazing what a difference it makes.

Earlier today I decided I would make fish and chips for supper. When I got the stuff I'd bought on my way into town out this evening, though, I realized I'd forgotten to buy potatoes. Normally, this would simply mean I would be eating fish and chips. And so my initial reaction was one of disgust.

Then I realized, however, that if I wanted to go and get some potatoes, it would only take like three minutes. I wouldn't even have to stop pre-heating the oven. In fact, it was really unnecessary that I'd even bought stuff on my way into town. Or that I'd even thought about what I was going to make prior to five minutes before when I wanted to make it.

It's such a small thing, but the difference it makes is kind of mind-boggling when I think about how much time and energy I spend just making sure that I have mushrooms, hamburger, olive oil, paper towels and so on when I'm supposed to have them and in the right order with the right people. It's kind of depressing.

Certainly, it's much cheaper to live where I do––even when you factor in the $250/month I spend on gasoline. But at the same time, I wonder how much more I might accomplish if I didn't spend so much of my schedule just figuring out how to be in all the places I need to be that are not where I live and do so in the most fuel efficient way possible.

But then, it's hardly the worst situation I could imagine. I've been in countries before where the question wasn't how efficiently you could get across town; it was if you could get across town at all. Maybe someday I'll be looking back wistfully at the time when all I had to do to get potatoes was get in my own car and drive half an hour on perfectly serviceable roads and pay for them with a credit card and wonder how much I'd be able to accomplish if I only had to spend an hour a day traveling.

For the next couple days, though, I'll be enjoying only driving three minutes.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Motion Blur

This evening I found myself heading home from New York at sunset while driving at the speed limit. I would never normally be in such a ridiculous situation because, one, it's so close to the solstice that I am usually home (and likely in bed!) by the time the sun sets, and second, I usually drive so fast along the ridge road that winds up from the state line that I'd never have noticed the sunset, were it even there to be noticed. Two things, however, conspired to make it happen.

First, I had a meeting with someone from the Southern Tier Pregnancy Resource Center––only because I'm producing a video for them, naturally––and this made me late. Second, it is running season, which means the possibility of face-to-face meetings with some of my more far-flung neighbors; so while I'm quite content to have them up in arms over the autobahn-esque manner in which I blow by their houses most of the year, these few months necessitate a more diplomatic rate of travel.

So it was that I was driving south along the top of the large plateau that is Judson Hill at 8:30pm at an unusually civil pace when I looked to the east and saw this:


I rolled down my window, picked up my phone and snapped the above image. I figured the entire thing might well be just a blur––despite my seasonally reformed driving. When I reviewed it, part of it was indeed blurred, but as you can see, only the close bit. The foreground, as it were. The farther and farther out you go, the less blurry it gets. The grass further out the field is more discernibly grass. The trees at the horizon line are relatively sharp. The hills beyond are better, and infinity is perfectly in focus.

And then I thought, that's just like life, isn't it?

Friday, May 16, 2014

Beautiful Savior

Yesterday was pretty rough. 

I went to visit my grandma at her care home early that morning. She's been incapacitated by emotional problems for about the last half decade, but in just the past month she's sadly begun deteriorating physically at a very fast pace. I only stayed for a minute or two. The one thing we agreed on was that neither of us really knew what to say––so I just hugged her and told her I loved her. I hadn't expected it to be hard. She'd been so absent the last quarter of my life that I'd only even seen her a handful of times, but somehow in that minute I remembered how much I really do love her and what a wonderful, caring part of my earlier childhood she was. Turning to walk out, it was all I could do to make it the twenty-odd feet through the hallway and past the receptionist before I felt tears welling in my eyes.

Sadness is okay, and I wish I could say that it stopped at that. Over the past week, though, I've been anxious about a number of things I won't burden you with, and as the day wore on––my legitimate grief over my grandma as an excuse––I spent it wallowing in the same thoughts and emotions that I know have held her in a prison in her mind all these years. 

I woke up this morning feeling horrible. All the things troubling me were still the same, and instead of responding to them gracefully, I completely blew it. 

It had rained all night and carried on into the morning and sitting down next to an open window in my living room I could almost feel it falling just a few inches from me. There was some alternative rock song looping in my head from the night and––more to try to break the cycle than for any other reason, I started trying to recall the lyrics to songs that I'd heard often in the past but had gone out of style lately. For some reason, the late 90s Stuart Townend song "Beautiful Savior" came into my mind. And right then, I strangely felt like I was in another place altogether. It was just a memory, but the memory was so strong it felt real. 

I was my twelve-year-old self sitting on the carpeted floor in someone else' living room with all the windows open. Maybe it was raining outside––or it could've just been the noise of a fan. It was at a gathering of people my parents were attempting to plant a church with––but it was early and disorganized enough that the meetings were more like "let's all hang out for five hours some afternoon and maybe we'll have a brief time of worship at some point in there." So I'd just come in from playing some game outside with my friends for hours and felt hot and sweaty and strangely content to sit still on the floor of a crowded room in the cool late afternoon breeze from the open windows. On a high-end electric keyboard, my uncle played "Beautiful Savior" with the energy of a concert pianist playing some piece by Chopin in a packed out hall. Everyone sang out passionately with no real need to look at the song sheets that someone had passed out since it was one of only six or seven songs we ever sang, so everyone knew it by heart. And the room had some calm but powerful energy about it that was more than just my pre-teen body buzzing from three hours of running around in the woods. It was there before the singing began, and then slowly built through the first and second verses and chorus till the third and final verse when I exchanged conspiratorially glances with all the other kids in the room right before the climax on the word "worthy"––which it was understood we'd shout out with enough volume to raise the drop-cieling tiles. That shout used the energy, but it didn't expend it. 

That was the memory. But the strange thing is, it was all positive and calm and beautiful. I'm pretty sure that's how I experienced it when it happened, but I've become so used to looking back on that group, those meetings and that whole time in my life with nothing but cynicism and disappointment that it felt alien and unexpected to remember the emotions that I actually felt back then. 

Yes, even on that afternoon as I sat there and sang that song, there were problems brewing. Yes, it did ultimately end in a sort of disaster. Multiple disasters, actually. Yes, some people in that room would eventually publicly disavow the things they spent years teaching me to believe. Yes, some of them, intentionally or not, would eventually hurt me. Regardless of those facts, though, it was, at that moment, a beautiful time in my life. And sitting watching the rain this morning in my big empty house and feeling the lowest I have in awhile, that was for some reason how I remembered it. 

And somehow, distant and fleeting as it is, I feel some hope in that. Whether it's my grandma's situation, my church experience growing up, my own inadequate attempts at living a worthy life with what I've been given, and many other things that seem to be turning out poorly; there have still been moments of happiness and beauty interspersed throughout all of them. More than that, I still trust––however irrational it may seem––in the Beautiful Savior, wonderful Counselor and Lord of history Townend wrote about in the song I sang in that breezy room 12 years ago and that He is somehow working all these things together to some unforeseeable end in which the good from all of them was really their purpose and will be their ultimate end. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Bling vs. Passion

Passion. I like being around people who are passionate. I like being around enthusiasts.

Unfortunately––even though they are everywhere––enthusiasts are very hard to spot unless they are successful. And to make matters worse, most people who are successful are not really enthusiasts. Therein lies what I think is one of the great tragic ironies of life.

I love talking with people who really care about things. Whether it's cars, trucks, architecture, sound, hunting, fashion, guitars, computers. Whatever. I don't even have to be interested in it myself. There's just something wonderful about talking with people who really know about something, and more than that; people who care about something. Who are enthusiastic about it.

When enthusiasts have money to spend on the things they care about, then they're easy to spot. Yet––whenever I meet them––I almost always come away feeling like people who have a lot of money don't really care about most of the things they have.

Now, certainly, there must be a few Thomas Crowns out there who manage to be extremely successful and then still find time and appetite to really care about things like art, sailing, food, love, etc. By and large, though, I think most of the successful people I know have the things they have and do the things they do not because they care about them; but because they care about success. They get them not because they like the things Thomas Crown liked, but because they want to be like Thomas Crown.

Therin lies the distinction between the enthusiast and the non-enthusiast.

They may both own the 8,000 square foot house. The 200k Ferrari. The $9,000 guitar. For the successful non-enthusiast, though, it's ultimately all just a symbol. They don't give a flying whatever about architecture, motor-sports or music. But they care about success, and sometime before they were successful, they saw in a magazine or movie that these are the things successful people are supposed to care about. So they have to have the things. But it's not really about the things. The French Provincial isn't about architecture. The F12 isn't about driving. The Jimi Hendrix autographed Stratocaster isn't about music. It's about them.

Bling, so to speak.

For the enthusiast, on the other hand, it's not about them––it's about the thing. The care. The passión, as it were.

But the problem: Most of the true enthusiasts I know, though, are terribly poor. And that's understandable. People who are enthusiastic about making money tend to not have time to be enthusiastic about other things. Likewise, people who are enthusiastic about literature, cars, or music, only rarely find a way to become financially successful via those things.

The only problem with terribly poor enthusiasts is: You have to actually get to know them to find out they're enthusiasts. It's only after spending an hour talking with the guy driving the Saab that was new the year you graduated middle school that you find out he is a master-mechanic. It's only after you go to some concert at a bar where you want to keep your hoodie pulled over your head from the time you get out of your car to the time you're in the next county that you find out the girl playing the homemade mandolin is really a muse. It's only after you spend a day working with the guy living in the board-and-batton sided barn that's perpetually unfinished that you realize he knows more about architecture than you could learn in a lifetime.

I guess there's some beauty in that. You have to first care about people before you can find people who care.

But there's also irony. You can almost never have anything you truly want unless you don't truly want much of anything.


Friday, May 09, 2014

How To [Not] Move an Angry Snapping Turtle

Today I was driving down the steep southern side of Coryland Hill on my way to Troy when I straddled a very large cow chip that looked sort of like a turtle. Or was it?

I down shifted, hit the brakes, made a turn in someone's driveway, came back up the hill, parked in the middle of the road, put my flashers on and stepped out to investigate. Lo & behold, the cow chip that looked sort of like a turtle turned out to be a turtle that looked sort of like a cow chip.

This relatively large snapping turtle had somehow got a load of mud on its shell, and then set out to cross the road at a distinctly turtle-like pace. A somewhat inauspicious combination of circumstances by any estimation.


Things got worse for everyone when I saw another car coming––and realized that I'd parked my car in the lane adjacent to the animal, meaning that the entire road was now blocked. Searching around for some kind of lever with which to move the intrepid creature, I came up empty, and when the car crested the next ridge, I panicked and tried to nudge the imperturbable reptile off the road with my foot.

This, was a terrible idea.

What's more, I knew it was a terrible idea, and was not the least bit surprised when the lumbering animal who could not be hurried beyond 1/16mph suddenly lunged with the reflexes of Bruce Lee and buckled its giant blade-like jaws onto my toes.

I just happened to be wearing steel-toed boots, so everything was fine, really. It was just one of those Frodo-gets-stabbed-by-cave-troll moments.

More good fortune followed when the car that had been hurdling toward us came to a complete stop 100 feet back. I believe it crested the hill just in time for the young woman driving to see me locked––quite literally for a moment––in mortal combat with the prehistoric beast in the middle of the road. She did not proceed until I waved for her to come on by, at which point she did so very slowly, and I wasn't quite sure whether to read the expression on her face as one of admiration or mockery. At any rate, disaster was averted, and I went off into woods to search for something less valuable than my leg to move Mr. Grumpy-Pants with.


I emerged with a log just in time to see a box truck swerve into the turtle's lane––and it appeared once again that all might be lost. It missed our friend by about a foot, though, and the angels in heaven cheered.

In case you ever someday find yourself in the situation needing to slide an angry snapping turtle across pavement with a stick, you should know that it is somewhere between landing a 747 with no landing gear, and playing a game of ice-hockey in which the puck is trying very hard to kill you. I eventually mastered the sport, though, and left the unhappy creature in the ditch with the log between it and the road.

Later that afternoon I drove home the same way and observed both that the turtle was not where I'd left it, and that there were no signs of roadkill about.

So I can only presume it lives to snap another day.



Monday, May 05, 2014

How Lawns Were Invented (And Why I Hate Them)

The scene: A country estate in some shire a days journey north of London. The year is 1789, and a group of fashionable young gentlemen have just returned from an early afternoon fox hunt and now sit in the parlor, engaged in what at the time would have been referred to as conversational intercourse.

Lord Darcey sat ensconced on a divan between two surreally beautiful––if somewhat breathless looking––young women, his right arm around one of their shoulders; the left clasping a tumbler of brandy. Across from him, Lord Henry sat in a similar state that could have nearly been a mirror image were it not that his glass contained port. In the corner of the room, by himself, Lord Peabody reclined in an overstuffed chair while sucking a heavily opium laced cigarette and staring at the ceiling with a glassy-eyed expression.

"Now what do you make of all this bloody anarchy down in Paris, Harry?" Lord Darcey directed at Lord Henry.
            "I'm quite sure I don't know what to make of it," replied Lord Henry, wiping port from his lips with a silk handkerchief. "But I can sure as hell tell you what caused it: Idleness. They say it's the devil's workshop, wot?"
            "So, you are essentially suggesting," Lord Darcey said, toying with the silver encrusted brooch of the woman pressed against him, "that revolution is simply a function of the lower classes having enough time on their hands to think about the fact that they live pointless lives of futile subjugation to the more morally worthy class?"
           "Precisely!" exclaimed Harry, downing his entire glass of port. "Between those gah-damned Catholic holidays and the general laziness of continentals as a whole, it's no wonder they're up in arms. And the way things are going here, I wouldn't be surprised if we aren't the ones with our heads getting carted away in baskets next!" he added, holding his glass out to a nearby valet who poured a crimson stream of liquid into it.
          "A fascinating theory," Lord Darcey said, a slightly ironic smile playing on his lips. "What do you suppose we must do to remedy this ungodly state of affairs?"
          "Sure as hell beats me," said Harry, giving his glass to one of the women beside him and gesturing impatiently at the valet to fetch another.
          "What if," the voice came from Lord Peabody in the corner, who until then had remained silently staring at the ceiling and now startled everyone by speaking. "What if we...."––his words were cut off as he took a gigantic hit from his opiate loaded cigarette that momentarily illuminated the entire dark corner in an evil red glow––"we planted the entire front of your estate to some fast growing plant, and then insisted that it be kept trimmed to an absurdly short length. That'd give the bastards something to do, wouldn't it now, Darcey old boy?" he said, still looking at the ceiling as if it were the real intended recipient of his suggestion.
            "Why that is the most capitally imbecilic thing I've ever heard," said Lord Darcey, throwing his head back with deep belly laugh. Harry joined in, and the four ladies might have, but their corsets allowed only a nervous titter.
            "But you know what," said Lord Darcy, sobering so quickly it startled everyone. "I love it." "Pendergast!" he snapped at the valet. "Have my gardner order four-hundred pounds of grass seed."

Thus, the lawn was born.

While the above dialogue is fictional, it is a historical fact that lawns have their roots (no pun intended) in the needs of the victorian aristocracy. When most of the common folk from England emigrated to America and took up the progressive idea that every man is his own master, they imitated a number of things from their former oppressors. Some, such as insisting their children be taught to read, were good things. Others, like planting grass around their houses, I think are more questionable. In fact, as someone who's parents insisted on maintaining multiple acres of lawn, and who now spends several days a week doing lawn care for other people, I would suggest that the entire concept is downright stupid, for three reasons.

1. Lawns have no practical purpose. 

Sure, maybe you imagine yourself playing ultimate frisbee or football on your yard, but the fact is, unless you have a truly gigantic, level and treeless one, you will usually end up heading to the local park instead. Lawns were invented by people who played polo, threw lavish garden parties on a regular basis, and needed to keep their servants occupied. What business do any of us have spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars every year maintaining something that we only ever look at?

2. Lawns are an environmental disaster.

Never in the history of the world have so many tons of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers been applied to such a large area of land covered in a plant that is then kept so short that it recycles only a negligible amount of CO2. Furthermore, lawns destroy environmental diversity by allowing only one species of plant.

3. Lawns aren't really that pretty.

Lawns look nice compared to gravel or concrete, but there are other things that look much nicer. What if you planted clover, or field peas, or crown vetch on the vacant spots in your property and just let it grow? There would be purple flowers and beautiful vines everywhere. It would be better for the environment. You wouldn't need any fertilizer. And you'd only need to mow it once a year. 

Just my thoughts on the matter.