Another Eulogy

[Phil’s grandfather Johnny Foard was the other friend we lost this week. He was nearly ninety, a fine country musician, fiddler, and former professional hunter. Phil is in South America but sent this eulogy–SB.]

I’m sorry I’m not there. Selfishly, I’m sorry I’m not there. I’m sorry I can’t see the
outpouring of respect for this man I’ve loved so much. And because there was always
something about my grandpa that seemed like the center of the world. I used to run
away from home when I was little, and I always ran to the same place. I wish I could run
there now. The center of the world.

I remember my grandpa’s birthday, hundreds of people coming from all over the place.
I remember being so amazed by that gravity, the craziness of so many so different
people being drawn so far to celebrate this one man. Not amazed because it didn’t make
sense, but amazed that I wasn’t the only one who felt it. Because for a man who had
hundreds of people adore him, I never once ever felt like I wasn’t the most important
person in his life. I know I’m not alone in that. I also hadn’t know before then that you
could have porta-potties at a private residence. That also seemed a little crazy. You’ve
got a rogue character like Johnny Foard and a few hundred of his closest friends, you
don’t want them running willy-nilly in your house, I understand, but it was surprising.

He was the center of the world. I’ve never felt so elevated, so much more confident, so
much more at ease, just by someone’s presence. I always felt better around him.

And so often that’s all I was, only around him. We used to wake up early and drive
out into the country to check traps and shook coyotes and all good things. We’d spend
hours and hours together. He could talk about anything. I remember thinking that it
was a bit crazy how well he understood me. He definitely had his great stories, and I’m
sure you’ll hear some today. But so often we’d sit in silence. He was always comfortable
with silence, which I think is a high compliment.

I catch myself now switching on music or tv or a movie, anything to make noise. And I
think of sitting in his shop for hours in silence with him, his truck for hours with him,
coyote hunting for hours with him always with these long, comfortable silences. It was
always easy to be at ease with him.

I imagine there was music in his head then. I imagine there always was. And I think of
his music, his silence, the way we all always looked to him, how he was always the center
of the world.

He was always listening.

He carried peace with him, happiness. He lived a long good life and died in the best
way possible. I’m sorry I can’t be there now, and I’m sad that I won’t see him again, but
there is no way to pretend that this amazing man hasn’t been an amazing presence in my
life, more amazing than I deserved, more amazing than any could. I’m glad for his peace
now, his silence, the eternal music. I’ll miss him forever.

And I think we’ll all agree that he was a good, kind man. I don’t know, though, if it’s
really widely known that he also had very ticklish feet. Maybe there’s a connection
there, I don’t know. I discovered this as a toddler, and put that poor man through
hell. When I used to stay with my grandparents, once I was bored with listening to the
crickets, I’d kinda sneak down and tickle his feet. I don’t know how he felt being woken
up like this, but it brought me tremendous joy. Still to this day it makes me smile to
remember it. I don’t know how I survived shenanigans like this, but he was a patient
man.

A good man, a patient man.

That said, I also remember one day out with him, checking coyote traps. In one of them
we’d caught a badger. So, we shot it in the head and threw it in the back of the truck.
A little farther down the road we came to the next trap, got out checked it, replaced the
bait. As we were walking back to the truck, though, we heard this scratching sound, and
then this horrible high-pitched growling. The badger, it seemed, was still alive.

So I’m standing there, I’m too little to see into the back of the truck, so I’m just getting
the sounds, and my grandpa is standing up on the back tire, with a baseball bat, just
wailing on this poor animal until it’s finally quiet. A kind man, a generous man. But I
think I can tell you in confidence here today, he evinced no deep love for that badger.
He drug it out of the back of the truck and shot it again. Throws it back in the truck
bed. Soon, we can hear from the front seats that this badger has been resurrected
again. Pull over, more clubbing, more shooting. He poked it with the bat just to make
sure it’s dead. It comes back to life. “Well hell,” he says, which was his catchphrase. So
we killed it a few more times, though I’m not 100 percent confident that it’s not limping
around out there somewhere today. He’d definitely won our respect. Of course he had.
That much intense passion for life is hard not to admire. The badger had more than
his fair share. He was no Johnny Foard, but still.

In That New York

Phillip here, after a long silence caused by being in one place, I’m about to head out again, and hope to pester you more in the months to come. Thought I’d send a little goodbye/hello before I left.

My grandfather fought in Germany. Not as a boxer, but as a soldier. After the war, he decided not to return home, and instead traveled central and eastern Europe, founding rodeos and learning languages and basically being the kind of 20-year-old man we would all like to think we could be or could have been, fearless, curious, and the master of his own life.

When he talks about it, and he rarely talks about it, he talks about the trip to Europe. He traveled by boat, and he talks about being able to see the curve of the Earth. Imagine you are 18 and a Montana cowboy, and are being sailed away to kill and die in places you’ve barely heard of, and on the boat you realize, you can see for yourself, that the world is really actually round. This is what he talks about when he talks about war.

When I went to Europe I was much older than he’d been, and I flew, and I’d seen photographs of the spinning world taken from space. I saw Paris in the the nighttime, the City of Lights alight, and I landed in Athens.

I didn’t found any rodeos while I was in Europe. I was not the kind of man that anyone would ever want to be. I taught during the daytime and I couldn’t sleep at night. The 3:00 AM sunrise of Poland, the screaming muezzin in Istanbul, the crashing waves, the crashing waves. Instead of sleeping, instead of learning languages, instead of murdering scourges of Nazis, what I did was walk and walk.

In Europe I lost 60 pounds, and in part it was that I could not eat the food, and in part it was that I had sex almost every day for long stretches of time, but mostly it was that I walked, every night, and often for hours on end.

If I cannot be a good man, like my grandfather is and was, if I am not curious, if I am not the master of my life and I am not a good man, it can at least never be said that I was not fearless. Never brave, but always fearless.

I walked, one night, along the traintracks of the Orient Express, where it passed out through Bakirkoy where I lived back toward the heart of the city, under bridges under which sat the men who sell hashish there, to the station where very young boys would carry the massive sacks of discarded flesh from butcher shops to leave on the ground there for no reason I could determine, though on my walks I often walked alongside the very young girls and boys who pulled massive canvas bags in wheeled frames along the streets, collecting the discarded wealth of the city.

In New York trash piles up on the city streets and disappears somehow, during the night.

In Poland I taught myself graffiti one night, walking along the highway that runs out to Warsaw and which was being expanded then for the Euro Cup of 2012. The sound-deflection walls were covered with every possible form and quality of graffiti, slanderous and artistic and obviously bought, the street-level version of the purple-green-red madness that adorned all the rectilinear Soviet buildings of the city. I remembered the fall of the Berlin wall, and how it had to be explained to me then, because I was a child, that the side covered with the scrawls and etchings of eighteen hundred thousand hands was the side of freedom, and the immaculate concrete on the other side was the immaculate concrete of the interior of prison walls.

In New York someone is writing my name all over the place, and I don’t know why. Me and Lou Reed and Jim Joe.

In Greece I had a roommate, and I would sleep with headphones in because I can’t sleep in silence, and I remember the shrine over his bed and cigarettes smoked to the hilt with the ashes intact and lingering. I remember sneaking out, then, tiptoeing past him if he wasn’t sleeping over with the woman who’d become his wife, the crashing waves.

In Athens you turn a corner and are confronted suddenly with the history of western culture, and it looms over you and you think of Michelangelo as an incredibly tall man, whether he was or not, but in Vrahati, where I lived before I was itenerant, there are only very deep gutters and flowers growing through the fences of small multi-story houses, a cemetary covered in flowers, and the stones that line the beach, absorb the crashing waves.

I was fearless then and some nights I’d strip and swim out into the sea until I couldn’t swim anymore, and then try to swim back to the shore.

I can’t ask my grandpa if he thinks of Germany as the Kingdom of Death, because, really, what the hell kind of question is that. And I can’t ask anyone if they think Alfred Jarry predicted my death, because Bolaño is dead too, he’s always been dead. And if I never go to Bolivia, will I never die?

Instead I go out nights and I walk. From Paul’s house in Bedford-Stuyvesant you can see the Empire State building and try to guess what blue and white represents, and from the Williamsburg Bridge you can see the new World Trade Center with its crown of cranes, alight in the night.

Because my grandpa’s war story is about standing on a ship in the middle of the ocean, watching the world become round, and when he talks about the war he talks about Polish peasants binding scraps of rubber to the wheels of bikes to ride from one town to the next. Because there isn’t going to be the explosion you want. I can remember walking back and forth across the Galata Bridge, waiting for an explosion, walking back and forth across the Galata Bridge hoping to arrive somewhere else on the other side, walking back and forth, waiting for an explosion, waiting for a sudden change, back and forth waiting for the movie magic to descend and make this a new place and me a new person, walking back and forth on the Galata Bridge and hoping to be unloved, and to be elsewhere, waiting for an explosion of change, for a violent and explosive revolution. Instead there is a man fishing there, then, throughout the night, with a bucket of old fish still alive and thrashing in a crowded bucket, with a very long fishing line descending into the Golden Horn, a man as old as my grandpa who has never sailed to America. And he’s there every night. Because blind and unwavering undiscipline at all times constitutes the real strength of all free men. At all times. That’s the kicker.

And so we’re leaving. Something there is in us that’s defined by motion still lives on, demands walking all night, demands a new place, a new country, something new. An entirely new nighttime sky, the stars that live below the Earth.

So talk to you soon, kids, next time from the home of our death, that Bolivia.

Beloved, Numbered Wolf Killed!

Salondotcom, which I understand to be relatively widely read, is a fairly sloppy place, or at least seems that way, given the high production values of its web design, which contrasts quite a bit with the writing therein.

That’s not here or there, but they do have a theoretically interesting article about the removal of “wolves” (there’s only one kind, apparently) from the protected species list.
The animals are very much so anthropomorphized in the article, one limpy one in particular:

“Born to the Druid Peak pack, Limpy was wounded in a fierce fight with a neighboring pack, the Nez Perce, before he was a year old. After the injury, he could hardly use his back left leg for the rest of his life.”

Nevermind the very odd fact that a pack of wolves is called the “Nez Perce,” the point is, Limpy, aka 253M, is the hero of the story, and has recently been shot dead by a rancher (apparently the impetus for the piece). I’m sure lots of readers have opinions on this measure that go beyond considering wolves to be people (Native American people in particular, it would seem), and since I have the privilege of writing from complete ignorance, I’m anxious to hear: Should wolves be endangered? Protected? Killed? What the dilly, yo?

The Salon piece is here: http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2008/05/27/killing_wolves/index.html

Swan song, etc

Me, ever since I saw my grandpa chop a chicken’s head off (complete with the runnin’ ’round spectacle that followed) one day, and then the next day saw him chop of a rattlesnake’s head (with the follow-up warning that the head was still deadly, for a long time after life itself was gone), I’ve been what you might call suspicious about the whole denogginizing process. Word is, guillotined Frenchmen blinked a whole lot without the benefit of their bodies, in the name of science.

So imagine this:

Your intrepid reporter is in pursuit of something Eastern European, y’know, werewolf bread, Soviet yams, something. He’s heard mysterious tales of a soup made from blood. Yes! Blood! No kidding! So I looked long and hard. I mean I asked around casually. And guess what, reader, it’s not actually hard to find a czarnina (blood soup!!) recipe. Everyone has one. They’re even like, ‘You have blood pudding in England, don’t you?,’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t, no!’ and they’re like, ‘You use too many exclamation points!’ but in any event, it turns out that the difficulty isn’t in finding something mildly exotic to eat, but rather, in discriminating between the different recipes that every single person gives you. Which is actually the best? And how much homecooked blood can a man eat in a week in the name of psuedoscience? (Or psuedo-psuedoscience, as it were)

Turns out, a lot.

And a whole lot of the whole process involves birds getting their heads lopped off.
I’m actually a picky eater, kids. If I can shake a piece of bacon without breaking it I put it back in the pan. I’m almost positive I ate nothing but chocolate milk and Kraft Cheese n’ Macaroni for at least two months straight at one point in grad school. But I’m traveling, I’m trying to be up for anything, I’m trying to be at the mercy of new places.

So I set out to eat any and every bit of blood soup I could manage to convince a student or student’s mother to serve me.

Have you ever had a really bad bloody nose? With celery in it?

One thing that seemed to be a constant was vinegar. Many questions and increasingly fat Polish-English dictionaries finally revealed that it prevents clotting. I’m almost sad to say that the ‘goose’ blood made the best soup, to my mind. (By goose I almost certainly mean swan, but my chef disagreed, so who am I to argue).

Discard guts, or do whatever tickles your fancy with them, the ‘goose’ isn’t going to mind at this point.

Chill the blood and vinegar.

Pluck the ‘goose,’ then put the meat and organs (sans lungs, as far as I could tell, but with liver, gizard, and heart) into a big pot, pour water over it until it’s full, then boil it all. You take the goo off the top (and I’m sure there’s a name for this stuff, but I don’t know it), then mix in whatever’s in the garden, apparently, for example: onions, celery, peppers, stuff that I couldn’t pronounce in a thousand years and lots of it, with the goo, put it in a little cloth bag and let that cook with the ‘goose’ meat at a low temp for about 3 hours.

Sorry I don’t know the exact cooking temperature, but it was a gas stove and the cook was an 80-year old woman whom I was physically afraid of anyway, and who seemed to like to swing a cleaver around whenever she talked to me (or anyone, for that matter), not necessarily threateningly, but threateningly nonetheless.

Once everything would seem to be done, throw in whatever fruit you have, we had prunes, cherries and apples.

At this point the blood/vinegar came out of the fridge, was mixed with (I think) sour cream and (I know) flour at an excruciatingly slow rate, to prevent, by my translation, ‘life via air,’ which better translators (ie:people who can actually speak both Polish and English) have since called’ curdling’, but whatever. Pour some water from the boiling meat into the blood, stir it, then pour it all over the ‘goose’ meat.

This woman threw a small fistfull of sugar into the pot like she hated it and said something I could only construe as a curse on my flesh as she did.

Serve and eat.

Sorry my measurements are either nonexistent or totally unspecific, but the whole ‘goose’ fed four of us, which included one smallish woman, me (something like 200 pounds) and two elderly folks who ate more than me, with marginal leftovers.

Ducks, chickens don’t make much of a difference, so far as I could tell, but beware, I’m not much of a gourmand.

Enjoy if you dare.

That Vienna

Spent a week in Vienna, thankfully away from all those hideous Englishmen (wink wink, just kiddin’ ha ha), saw all manner of good stuff, a Monet to Picasso show that was an education (not to mention awesome and gorgeous and amazingly empty) a Durer exhibition that was sort of religious, a Max Ernst show that was exactly as expected (that is: Great) and a bunch of Richters that were a fillip to the Monet-Picasso show (starring Munch and Bacon(I mean, god was this a hell of a good day)). So this was Vienna. Did I say I got lost about seven times because I said, ‘Okay, Phill, here’s a big gorgeous Austro-Hungarian Palace, when you see it you’re here,’ only to find out that there’re about seven such palaces all around Vienna and that locating oneself thereby is foolhardy at best, and masochistic at even better than best. If you happen to hate your feet.
No hotel because for those preterite who can’t cop a room in the Four Seasons Intercontinental Hilton on short notice downtown Vienna is unique amongst European tourist locals in having no place to stay. So, like any good tourist, I hit bars, and wound up hitting nails into a stump with the claw of a hammer for sport, then staying up hanging out badmouthing the country I love for free drinks until 10 am with one Eurogreasy bartender and three waitresses. It was grand.
Then: Klimt, and [Ed’s note] I’ve always loved Klimt and ikons both, mainly owing to Kleist (Read Kleist!) but holy god! The Belvedere Palace is the palace taken over by, in its lower quarters, Viennese artists of today who’re super good, and in its real palatial realm, by Klimts, which are far far beyond good.
I don’t want to go on too much here on Steve n them’s spot, but suffice it to say that the way gold and abstraction resolves into the pure uncluttered beauty of a woman’s face tilted to one side and beyond the world in pure contentment, well, it’s something. Saw Mozart Beethoven shows with headphones on, there’s a Museum Quarter that’s nice, saw that, but mainly I saw Vienna as a sort of challenge to any greatness that can’t back it all up with one thousand years. It was sort of cool.
Saw more, but nothing more worth mentioning.

2,000 Poles Walk into a Bar

Okay, kids, let’s talk ’bout that Krakow, aka Cracow, which is wierd if you know that ‘C’s in Polish are pronounced like ‘ts’ in English. So this city has two vastly different names. Cracow is prefered by graffiti artists, which caused me to think for a sec that it was an alternate, Anglicized spelling used by the youth to distinguish them from the ugly old. Turns out it’s just the spelling used by the soccer team o’ the city. Ugh.Someday, mon kinder, I’ll teach you why soccer sucks so bad, but that’s beside the point just right now, so back to Krakow:Come in Nov 1, the Catholic’s All Saints’ Day, which, since almost all Poles is Catholic (ever since, oh, 1943 or so) is a national holiday. Cemetaries are replete all the way with candles, and fairly glow, and are stuffed long after dark (sunset: 4:13 pm) with people who’ve obviously never heard of Zombies or Halloween. They don’t have Halloween here.Let me explain.All Saints’ or, The Day o’ the Dead is the Catholic interpolation on the Pagan end of the year, when cold made the world die, especially in Ireland, and all the ancient dead were allowed to walk the quick earth with impunity. When Christianity came to these vile bastards, it was infinitely easier to give new names to the the things they did than try to change them (see my long disertation on the Inquisition, coming soon) and so Druid New Year’s became All Hallows’ and its eve All Hallows’ Eve.More to the point, it’s not surprising that multiculti USA, Protestant, Buddhist, Muslim USA, don’t really get universally into All Saints’.It’s Halloween that’s notable. The more easily secularized elements. No shock, but let’s think for a sec, eh.
Children dress as immortal characters to intimidate the older generation into giving them free candy, an older generation to whom they are, for all intents and purposes, immortal. (I mean the old will be dead long before the young die, here) It’s a celebration of youth and instant gratification in an atmosphere of immortality. For all the invocations of cemeteries around Halloween, they remain empty, the fearful amongst us afraid of them, because the entire air of the holiday is one in which death is a nonentity, and these houses of it seem apt at any time to break into resurrected evidence that these children, and all the ones before them, will in fact never die. Not really. Not forever.
This is a contrast with the nations where All Hallows itself is celebrated, where citizens flock to cemeteries, light candles, acknowledge the dead and acknowledge that they themselves will die. They seem to adore the older generation here, not the younger. It’s a solemn day wherein our debts to those who came before are treasured, and our entrance into their realm is prepared. For all the ghoulishness of Halloween, it is the denial of death that abounds. It is the eternal present of mountains of free candy, taken with and eaten with impunity, a gift from a generation who will not live to see them die, a token of relative immortality they’ll have to pass along some day, though only in theory. For now.
Some time walking around Krakow, too, I think of this conciet: “The Atheist’s Bible” just a title. No grasp of how to present it as a fictive thing in a fictional thing. I think for a second of the Bible sans the name o’ god, and amidst this train o’ thought I imagine this verse: Thou shalt not take a name in vain, and this seems much more profound all of a sudden than simply saying “god” when you’re not praying, which is what that actually means. That you might owe something to your father and his father and the tons of other dudes who wore your name before you, this is interesting to me, when a whole country or two flocks to light candles above the scentless corpses of thier ascendents. When American kids sleep off the sleepless giddy night of a sugar high that celebrates them as the newest, the unobliged. The wearers of the masks of immortality.
I say this maybe because Krakow sort of wierd in Poland, in that there are parts of it that ain’t less than say 60 years old. Way south it dodged Nazis and Russkies both, and has an old castle that still stands, and a Jewish cemetary with no candles that takes up a few city blocks. It’s an old, history riddled city, I mean, you can see a Da Vinci and some other stuff, there’s an architecture museum here despite the fact that a real architecture museum would have to be like, a city. More interesting, I think, is the city, run down a bit and poor and full of tourists and polyglot beggars, beautiful old buildings, a refreshing dearth of post-Soviet gaudy blue-purple-orange colored apartment complexes.
It’s nice for sure.
British assholes come here to bachelor party becuase pounds v zloties is like 5-1 and it’s actually cheaper to come here and do anything than to spend a night out in Londontown. This sucks especially on national holidays when all the natives are inside contemplating death, surrending the streets to grown-men children. All trick, no treat. Trust me.
The shining fact at the end, though, really, is Krakow, heart, I think, of this most maligned of European countries, the one place where the future is brighter than the past (almost like Halloween), is ascendant, and like the zombies we all dread, that’s pretty cool.

I’ve Just Finished a Month sans Internet and TV

I’ve just finished a month sans internet and tv. No saintly action, just a broken hardrive and an incomprehensible language, respectively.
So I read every book I brought. Ran out fast.
One of the books I brought was this monstrosity of a thing called The Executioners Song. I’d seen the film adaptation (loose use of ‘adaptation’), Cremaster 2, and I was baffled and anxious to read the book.
Of course the ridiculous, hypnotic film didn’t lend much to my expectations, but I’ve been trying of late to catch up on the things I’m embarrassed I haven’t read. The most difficult of these gaps-to-fill is the generation I guess about 2 back, Roth, the aforementioned Updike, Vidal, Mailer, et c, the so-called Great Male Narcissists.
Mailer to me seems the best, but this is a highly uninformed opinion.
So, lacking recourse to anything else at all, I looked at the twelve inches of English language books available in Radom, Poland. There was a short book by Murikami, and Mailer’s latest, soon to prove last, book, The Castle in the Forest. Short books are the enemy of the bored man, so despite loving Murikami and being highly ambiguous toward Mailer, I went with the longer, cheaper book.
Lord, it was awful. Unknown to me the author died as I was reading this book, probably thinking bad thoughts about him and it both.
So here’s just a small word for the man, the great novelist of his generation without a great novel. Apollo astronauts, genius double-murderers, Hitler, Mailer, the man took on the big things, wrote some really long books, and I would say none of the biggest ones are really great, but they fail because he tries too hard, too much, his great books stop just short of great because he takes off from that near-great point to leap toward an impossible height.
To read this man is to see a great writer fail time and time again to write a great book because he cannot help but try to write a book beyond greatness.
Hats off to that.

In the Land of 40-Year Strolls

We fly into the vast devil of the Mid East with this first: a gorgeous verdant beach with the gorgeous Med right there and filled with tiny flawless empty islands, something you couldn’t help but call perfect if you didn’t know you were about 100 miles north of Beirut and risking being shot to shit, flying really crooked from Istanbul so as to not go over that city or any of the others, or Israel at all, because, well…. The first stunning thing is the way the coast is flawless green perfect until the mountains top out and come down their eastern side as nothing but dirt, and pour nothing but dirt on everything else we pass. It’s striking the way from the air mountains are more imposing that they are when you look up at their interminable height. On the other side it’s a vast enough desert to wander in for forty years without seeing the same thing twice, assuming you’re from the desert and can tell red empty hateful desert from pink hateful empty desert, from crimson empty desert, hateful. Inexplicably, over this mass of oblivion, big farms show their faces, nothing at all like the flyover-state farms I’ve seen getting from Albuquerque to the new York or Atlanta or wherever. These are farms by shards, clearly demarked from the air, but by what logic I cannot ascertain. The fields curls and bend and cut into one another. This is west Texas without surveyors, the Wild West when lines of longitude were as mythical as Atlantis (and my poet friend tells me, ‘They lost Atlantis when it got up and moved from the vast Pacific to this mad desert, who can blame them,’ because we’re trying, at his behest, to confuse tourists, calling the whole thing the ‘Trail of Tears,’ where Jesus wept, et c) After seeing a dozen monochromatic cities and pillars of smoke from nowhere and roads that take 90 degree turns in the middle of endless sand flats, I have to think that there’s an order here, some governing force, that is just, simply, different. Stones are piled throughout the desert at what I can only describe as random (clearly not random), like something you would look for if you were the last one out to a deep New Mexican campout and had nothing else to guide you, but these, honestly, seem to have guided 6,000 years’ worth of pilgrims without being taken down. I can see Moses nudging the topmost stones centimeters at a time, coaxing them to balance, knowing all God’s people are relying on these, and they still stand, next to the coincidental chucked off stones of some Bedouin sheepherder who just happens to have the god of coincidental balance on his side. There is some order here, in farms and pastures and even stones, that I cannot guess at. We go to Amman, the capital of Jordan, which is a lot like Istanbul except it is the most boring place in the history of the world. We drink a special mid-east drink, “Not found in Europe or Egypt,” despite the fact that the bottle itself sez it comes straight from ancient Egyptian secrets, and that it is called “Arak” which sounds suspiciously like “Raki,” the official special drink of Turkey (tastes exactly the same, PS), which itself tastes exactly like Ouzo and Grappa, and all the other official special drinks of Mediterranean countries (shh!). Men shout cordially at one another across small rooftop tables. They take off their shoe before they cross their legs. You can’t buy an apple without haggling over the price. (You do get to wash it off right there in the store, though, gratis). Everyone seems very comfortable with this. There is clearly some order here in the kisses and mad traffic and screwy backward writing, something that facilitates society, but it escapes me. All this left me seeing random arrangements I assume must be patterns I just can’t understand, desert djinn, madnesses, appreciating the cosmopolitan nonstop zazz of Istanbul, seeing it in contrast to the pick and choose accommodated by the distance/connection with the west that lets Amman have AC and good roads and a fairly minor amount of anti-Semitism (not to mention ancient decrepit old men with flawless English somehow, working at convenience stores) with none of the madness and conflict and just straight rigmarole of Istanbul, the middle-child of the world, forced to choose and choose fast, and now! The past-as-future, secularism-as-religion Istanbul, so goddamn alive it’s ugly Istanbul, the constantly thinking itself still the most important city in the world Istanbul, to the detriment of just how startling a city it is the world right now…Istanbul. In any event we had a bad night in Amman then missed the bus to Petra by ten minutes (poets and clocks, those eternal enemies) and had to take one of the group taxis that apparently compose the world east of Paris. We slept hungover in this little utility van until around 11 waiting for it to fill up, despite the fact we got to it at around 7, then hightailed it to Petra at long last. Petra is maybe most famous now because of a massive push by the Jordanian government to have it placed on the new list of the seven wonders of the world that Americans don’t care about. (Since then it has been voted, indeed, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.) Other than that, the façade of the most impressive building was the face put on the resting place of the Holy Grail by Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas and Co. in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. So gobs of tourists walk or ride a camel a mile or so down these inconceivable holy canyons to this holy grail of photo ops, then turn around. Us, we climbed some hideous mountain to the other side, and had a world of ruins absolutely and completely to ourselves. It was the anti-Disneyland, we posed on tumbled columns like Greek Gods ourselves, we read English graffiti on the walls of holy holes for the widows of fallen soldiers, we were alone in an ancient, forgotten city, shunned even by the tourists that patronized the accessible half of it, alone outside of time, and for all our talk, beyond words. We took pictures, we wrote words in the sand, we talked self-consciously about Ozimandus (sp?) and reeled from hunger and dehydration and real pure ecstasy, giving candy bars to little gypsy babies that wandered up trying to sell random rocks, the only other people on this side at all, apparently belonging to the tables of necklaces and souvenirs left unattended everywhere, paying something like $3 for a can of coke when we got back to those kids’ well-stocked, refrigerated hovels, (me at least) really, completely happy, taking pictures like mad, gone crazy with heat, thinking that Petra, Jordan, with its vastness, its single-color tonality, its big, New Mexican skies (sans stars, I would later find out, too low) is one of the most photogenic patches on this wart of God we call earth. From there we ran down to the Saudi border, mainly to risk kidnapping, and hit up what they call in Jordan the Gulf of Aquaba, though the Egyptians, Saudis, and Israelis probably all have different names for it. Went scuba diving there, unlicensed, saw a massive octopus, held a seahorse, saw a shipwreck from below and noticed that my air hose was leaking and, ps, I have no idea how to actually scuba dive, and no talent for the thing at all besides stupid fearlessness, and just watch my barometer instead of anything else because some sixth-grade scientist inside of me sez that’s wise. It was amazing. Back that night to Amman, no quick look at the Promised Land, no look at the salt pillars of the Dead Sea, just a quick disappointed look at some worthless scraps of Dead Sea Scrolls in Aquaba, a long bus ride back north, where thousands of people line the freeway having picnics according to some pattern I cannot discern. Sitting in the desert’s weekend night beside the road eating something they must have cooked at home, considering it an escape (I imagine) for reasons I can’t even really guess at. We hoof it out to some castles in the desert that make no sense at all (no pattern I can discern) before hitting our 4 am flight. We meet exactly one person in Jordan who can’t speak English. Not a wit of trouble. Watch something about a Jew boy struggling through Nazi Germany for something ,on TV, remarking about obvious things, impressed. Every single taxi driver we find gives us a colossal parody of American, saying, “AWL-right, HAY-re YA go,” and HAWV-fan,” and, for some reason, “Sayonara,” with big, long, drawn-out American ‘A’s. There’s no doubt some real guiding pattern to this place. We fly back over Lebanon from madmen farms to desert to verdant beaches, without any restoration of familiarity. And it doesn’t go away, this feeling that the cleanliness and orderly beauty of that London and the familiar ease of America are actually not necessarily better than the chaos of arbitrary order laying over these desert expanses. Nor does the trepidation about the intents of certain Muslim nations. You don’t leave Jordan in a blind multi-culti bliss-out, no more than you leave it with a jingoistic hatred of ragheads, you just leave it confused, all too aware of the flexibility of the order that governs life. Or something like that.

Dzien dobry from Polski…or something

As a so-called ‘foreign’ correspondent, yours’ truly feels a very mild need to be odd, to be, as it were, foreign.
At first, this seems a very easy thing to be in Eastern Europe, specifically, in rural Poland. Gone, for sure, is America, and gone, even, is the cosmopolitanism of Istanbul, which has the grace at least to be a ridiculously large city, with party-hardy Americans aplenty, et c.
Gone now is the sense of: when I was young was America and now is Different.
Turns out Different comes in a lot of different forms. Who’d a thunk?
I had tons of things to say about the beauty of the graffiti here (which is beautiful) especially compared to the buildings (which are hideously garish), but from the time I arrived at my petulant-child thesis: Graffiti must at least strive at beauty, since its goal is to overwhelm the aesthetics of whoever wants to paint it over, to make them acknowledge its beauty and leave it alone because they can’t bear to compromise it, whereas building-painters in post-Communist Eastern Europe feel compelled to throw up bright colors as an assertion of the fact that they have no one at all to answer to, no one to paint over them, as it were–An idea that ran, eventually, against the time that I’d spent walking around actually thinking about this nice sounding idea, testing it against reality a bit and finding it severely wanting.
At the same time I was coming to almost hate the things I’d written about a magnificent trip to Jordan.
The flaw’s maybe easy to diagnose, a childish desire for resolution or at least a surmising statement, ‘spose.
But when differences keep coming up and being different from one another, when after a month those hideous apartment blocks start seeming bold and okay, aesthetically, and treks cross-city for awesome graffiti walk you past blocks of ugly graffiti, and you realize that what you thought after one touristic week in the place to be a bold insight is revealed to be a superficial conclusion-jump, you (and by you I mean I) come to the conclusion that the sport of all this vagrant wandering is being constantly wrong. Not just in prejudices or presuppositions, but in analysis and understanding, too. Being foreign, it turns out, is a lot like being 15 and aware of it. Always thinking you’re right. Always being proved wrong.
But that sounds a lot like a grand conclusion, don’t it….