Amazon and the Wild West

Recently, Memory got an Amazon package in the mail, and, walking through the house with it, casually mentioned that she’d forgotten what she’d ordered. We both laughed sardonically, sensing the implications.  Oh. My. God. It’s come to this.  

                It made me wonder if America was on the verge of a collapse like ancient Rome.  But, I think the excesses of ancient Rome lacked the nuance of modern indulgence; Romans certainly had technicolor excesses but bread and circuses were simple brick and mortar events. Today’s quest for fulfillment plays out in a long Kafkaesque play where something is always almost going to happen. (Franz Kafka was a writer whose surreal fiction vividly expressed the anxiety, alienation, and powerlessness of the modern individual.)

                The best part of doing cocaine is going to get it. (We’re not talking about Memory anymore, I have, ahem, a friend, who has some experience with this.)  Amazon allows us to always be on our way to the coke dealer and that journey –knowing that something is ordered, and in the mail– is the fix. This personal fulfillment process –running concurrent with all the steps companies must take from the moment they receive an order until the items land in customers’ hands– gives an extended buzz of anticipation and it’s almost a shame that Amazon is making two-day delivery a standard because when the product arrives, something dies.  What remains is good, and maybe even useful, but not so important that you’d always remember its name at a party.     

                I tend an extensive vegetable garden and I can tell you that the harvest is a different animal than watching the vegetables thrive and grow. If I could inject only one of the two into my veins, it would be watching the plants burgeon and stretch out green and lush in the warm brown dirt, soaking up water while reaching hungrily for the sun –and it would not be plopping the basket of picked vegetables on my kitchen counter at the end of the summer.

                Maybe it wasn’t always like this.  I traced Amazon’s lineage on one of those ancestry websites back to Sears Roebuck, and Montgomery Ward.  These catalogs revolutionized mail-order, and credit, and shopping as if in the big city.  This was now done from the distant farm kitchen table miles from nowhere in the great wild West.  Shopping equality came to minorities, and the poor, in a boon that hasn’t subsided.  And I’ll bet that when they ordered a plow, or new shoes, or a rifle, or a wooden toy, or a gingham dress, –I’ll bet that when that box arrived on the weathered front farm porch –they knew what was in the box.

Unhitched

How I feel about fake things has been changing. Initially I began to notice that artificial flowers and costume jewelry began to appeal to me genuinely sometimes, and an historic disdain for these fake things was dissipating. Such disdain in me hasn’t been anomalous- it is the usual mental subordination of something fake versus something real, especially when it comes to beauty or valuables. For example, picture a wedding ceremony bestrewn with all fake flowers or an engagement ring presented that is knowingly fake.

Flowers. I was in the office of the new Governor of the Emam Sahib District in Afghanistan in 2008 and we were having a substantive conversation about how the Americans were going to help him. He was a very intelligent man, college-educated in the United States, and he also had that unique warm hospitality trait so prevalent in Afghanistan that makes a guest feel comfortable and respected. Over his shoulder I noticed a vase of artificial white roses that popped surprisingly against the drear of this landscape and this mission. I must have commented on them at some point. We shared a big joke early during that first meeting when I suggested that we Americans build a tall HESCO barrier wall around his whole municipal district. (These are collapsible wire mesh containers with a heavy duty fabric liner, filled with dirt and topped with barbed wire, and are used as a blast wall against explosions or small-arms.) He looked at me thoughtfully and asked “Why?” I was surprised he had asked this and said, of course, “To make everyone who comes here feel safe!” He then, -elaborately pretending he had just now understood the purpose,- said carefully ” Then, why don’t you just build a pretty little stone wall about waist high?” I laughed immediately and genuinely at the unexpected and profound wisdom of this response and we knew we were going to be good friends. Indeed we were, and we eventually did many great things together to help his District and his people. At the end of my tour, this Governor presented me with this vase of white roses from his office, probably because he knew I liked them. Sadly, this was one of the few things that didn’t make it back with me, lost in transit somehow, somewhere. I’ve had artificial flowers in the places I’ve lived ever since and I can’t think of a good reason why they aren’t quite beautiful and worthy of as much appreciation as anything beautiful. More importantly, I can’t feel a good reason why they aren’t quite beautiful and I do feel that they are.

Next.

Jewelry. When my Mom died, the girls in the family inherited her jewelry and divided it up and I eventually became aware of a large amount of costume jewelry left over from dividing up the real stuff. My sisters let me have about all of the costume jewelry so that I could give it to my little girl, bit by bit as a game, and also as a real remembrance to her of my mother- her grandmother. Much of the jewelry was of a fun nature as my mother was quite festive and therefore had lots of Holiday-themed costume jewelry among other odd things. Now, this was a real trove of treasure to my little girl, as it was, bedecked with gold, silver, sparkly jewels, feathers, and all manner of bangle. Soon, I also thought the jewelry was as nice as any, and soon after that, I felt it. Just like the flowers. The only depreciation of this costume jewelry will have to come from an internal subordination of this jewelry to real jewelry, and the innocence of my little girl prevents it for her, and a new realization prevents it for me.

A couple of caveats: First, I know that these two initial realizations each came within dramatic context and one might reasonably guess that the circumstances created the realizations. But I don’t think so; I think the circumstances uncovered the realizations that were within me. My appreciation for fake things has bled out from these initial ink-spots of revelation onto the other pages of my day-to-day life and I find myself seeing things at first color without reservation as to how they came to be. Secondly, I’m talking about fake things that are nicely made, that are of some quality, and not something so cheaply made as to detract from what thing it purports to represent. For example, the spectrum of artificial flower quality is very wide; some are visibly fake from a distance and some are breathtakingly real from an inch away. And likewise, though some gumball-machine jewelry lacks a certain charm, I find that most costume jewelry is nicely made, though artificial.

Artificial: 1: humanly contrived (see contrive sense 1b) often on a natural model: man-made

Contrive: . . . 1:b: to form or create in an artistic or ingenious manner

So, in light of these definitions, find and replace all the words ‘real’ above and replace them with ‘natural’. We have to also now acknowledge the contradiction in “most costume jewelry is nicely made, though artificial.”

So, if something is artificial it was ‘humanly contrived or formed or created in an artistic or ingenious manner, often on a natural model.’ This was the original meaning at least, but something happened. Beauty and its consort Valuable hitched it’s wagon to Real.

Well, I unhitch that wagon.

Air

Air is thick to birds, so thick that they can push down upon it to rise up.

But to me, air is too thin to stop a fall.

Air is so thick that the seagulls swim in it swoopingly, divingly, and flirtatiously.

But I sometimes forget about air, until moments of difficult breathing, or a fall.

I’m sitting at Good Harbor Beach this early morning with Memory, my girlfriend, and we are watching the waves and the gulls and it is soothing. Things are OK between us now, though we’ve had a rare difficult week together. It is nice to be sitting here in our faithful little beach chairs with our coffee.

I am watching and thinking.

Love can be like air.

The Shir Khan Bandar Bridge

I took the Team to the Shir Khan Bandar Bridge on the Tajik border.   This is a very important bridge linking Afghanistan to the north with Tajikistan. We had two gun-trucks and some extra people from an adjacent Province with me and two interpreters (“Terps”) so I felt pretty good about the combat strength.  This was part of a two-day reconnaissance I had planned, and we expected no more than terrain familiarization and a few photos of this key bridge.  We got close and took a dismounted patrol to the bridge site.  Suddenly, the Border Police Colonel in charge of the site appeared.  What a coincidence. The word is that he paid $500,000 U.S. for the post.  An e-fuckin’-normous sum by any standard and for Afghanistan, where annual income averages $410, this is crazy money.  Why?  So he can profit from, and control, the opium-and-weapons-laden trucks crossing by the minute at this new multi-million dollar Coalition-Forces constructed bridge. 

So, here he is talking to me through my Terp. Of course, I’m acting like I’m out for a Sunday stroll and he is visibly flustered that the Americans are here. He was puffing up defensively but I acted sleepy and slow and suddenly we were drinking Chai in his office a short distance away. A blue bird flew in and out of the room, circling overhead like an ancient Roman portent of great moment, streaking to hate me with his little black eyes at each pass. 

His closest bodyguard stood in the doorway and looked at me curiously the whole time. The bodyguards that guard the Province Generals and key people like this Colonel always seem like wiry little fucks who can handle themselves in any situation. Especially when they squint at you.  So, after all the plastic preliminaries, I got around to talking about things like truck searches, screening criteria for the traffic, and the total amount of criminal activity they intercept.  It turns out that he’s been there a good long time and only “found some wine in a truck once.”  I laughed immediately and involuntarily.  Even my Terp almost laughed.  The Colonel and the bodyguard were not amused with us laughing and the bodyguard clutched his AK-47 rifle tightly and I could suddenly feel how animal-close he was to me. This little Tajik with the rifle, (weathered, Asian, mahogany), would have been at home on a horse with a double-curved bow ranging the central Asian steppes in a great cloud with Genghis Khan. After things calmed down, the Colonel wanted to talk only about how he wants to catch fish from the river and have his people specially prepare it for me. 

Ah, well,. . . there are some things one doesn’t mention in polite society.

Landing

     February 29th, 2008.

The plane landed on the runway and we were there finally. Afghanistan. Camp Marmal airport.  The other side of the world. 

     Sixteen of us, an Army ‘Embedded Training Team’ (ETT), slowly spilled out onto the smooth concrete at Camp Marmal airport amid the high whine of the jet engines ramping down. I was a member of an ETT–a new concept wherein small teams of officers and experienced sergeants embed with a Corps of Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers to train and mentor the ANA.

     As we moved toward the rear of the military jet to help unload equipment, I spun around slowly, taking in the ring of distant mountains, the flat light, the austerity.

  We gathered and sniffed the air warily, like dogs.  We made small jokes about nothing and tried to hide our carnival excitement at being in a ‘combat zone’.  It was a time to hone indifference. 

     I watched a couple of Afghan men a short distance away working on the runway. These were the first real Afghans I had seen, outside of the trainers and interpreters who rotate to the United States to try to train Americans in Afghan language and culture.

     So, I watched these two.  They were both bearded and dressed in Afghan garb, which struck me at distance as girlish.  Each was wearing a housedress over the balloon-like flowing pants of a stilt-walker.  And the hats, dear lord, the little crazy colorful hats.  Sandals rounded out the costume.  All of this in a strange-smelling breeze which moved their clothing in undulations.   

     One guy was holding a very long iron spike and the other had a sledgehammer.  They were breaking up a portion of the runway for some maintenance or repair reason.  I could see no obvious reason why this intact section of the expansive runway needed breaking up, nor could I see any obvious stopping point for them.  I noticed also that they were in no hurry, though, (and maybe because), even a small measure of progress would take forever.  One held while the other struck:  a small chip of concrete would fly.  Kang!  Sometimes a weak or off-center hit would result in a Clink!  I realized how dangerous this was to the man holding the spike.  I wondered why someone, spending God-only-knows how much money over here daily, hadn’t provided a jackhammer, or more men.  Clink!  I wondered what the overall project was supposed to be, and I wondered what these two were thinking as they watched the Americans assemble near them so laden down with weaponry and equipment.  Kang!  It all seemed so elemental–muscle and metal against stone in the thin air.

     Then my mind returned to the big picture.  The complexity of the American mission, and especially that of the ETTs, was incredible, and I had so many questions.  I didn’t know it then, but I had just learned everything. 

Enough

[At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch 22 over its whole history. Heller responds, “Yes, but I have something he will never have . . . Enough.”]

“Enough (adjective): occurring in such quantity, quality, or scope as to fully meet demands, needs, or expectations .”

It seems that we all do a strange slow dance with ‘enough’ throughout our adult lives; it reminds me of an 8th grade first school dance under garish lights and under the watchful eyes of chaperones and, more importantly, peers. Am I dressed well enough? Am I dancing well enough? Is the person I’m dancing with enough?

Typically, in America, money, and the things money can buy, are the ready evidence of success and having ‘enough’ money is the premier goal. Certainly, having a prestigious education, and a successful and beautiful family are also part of this equation–but these are often considered as brought on by the achieved wealth. I went through this process in life, and eventually had a very good job, great cars, a big beautiful home, and wonderful children. But, this all eventually crashed in classic Greek Tragedy fashion. “The primary elements of classical tragedy are a hero (or heroine) with hubris, the involvement of the gods, a reversal or fall, acknowledgement of error and a period of suffering.” And, spit out the other side, I’ve reached a new understanding about success in life, what is enough, and what it takes to satisfy me.

I believe I have enough now.

I’m not sure I ever had enough during the most successful parts of my life.

Per the abovementioned definition, I now mostly feel that my “demands, needs or expectations” are “fully met” now. I don’t demand much from life anymore, I realize how little I need, and therefore my expectations are different. Notice that I didn’t say that my expectations are lower, or degraded somehow–just different. And I think that this expectation recalibration is the key to my newfound equanimity. I expect to notice wildflowers when I hike in the woods, I expect to be kind and to receive kindness, and I expect to bathe in the sun and surf of Good Harbor Beach this summer. I expect to see my family a lot, to have the love of a wonderful woman, and to indulge my penchant for writing. I expect to garden, and by doing so, connect the therapeutic dots on making all the important things in our lives thrive.

That, and a great cup of coffee in the morning, are enough.

The Old Man and the Sea

I came upon an old man on the Trail and, as I approached him on a cold, windswept ridge, I noted that he was standing in place and trying to do something with his pack strap while his pack was still on.

I slowed down and observed that he was very old–much older than me, it appeared. He had liver spots on his skin, his face was wrinkled, drawn, and gaunt, and he could have been in his eighties, though I certainly couldn’t know. I felt concerned for him as he was well away from help and the weather was more than a little threatening that day, especially where we were. But, the advice most often given on the Trail is for everyone to ‘Hike Your Own Hike’ (HYOH is the acronym, and yes, there are t-shirts and bumper stickers.) This means two things to me: do your own thing and don’t too quickly hitch your wagon to someone else’s pace, plans, etc. and conversely be respectful of everyone else’s way of doing the AT. Therefore, I didn’t want to question his situation and so I simply said hello and asked if I could help with anything since he was still working his strap issue.

He looked at me and said ‘yes, thank you’ and I helped him adjust a loose piece of blue foam that he was trying to work back in place under one of his backpack straps. Up close now, I could see that his hands were gnarled and arthritic, that his nose was dripping continually, that his hair and long beard were unkempt, and I felt, guiltily, a slight repulsion. However, upon looking into his eyes, I saw that he had kind eyes and he seemed quite together and unworried, despite the cold wind beating at us on the narrow ridge. So, I lightened up a little bit and then offered him my gloves. It wasn’t a gratuitous offer; I really wanted him to have the gloves since my hands hardly ever get cold and frankly, the gloves weren’t very expensive gloves. They were simple gray wool gloves but perfect for the conditions we were in. He refused however, though very politely. I then insisted that I’d see him somewhere up the Trail and get the gloves back eventually, trying to bury the issue as a gift and resurrect it as a loan so he could save face if that’s what was needed to close the deal. But again, ‘oh no, no thank you though’ said quite amiably as if he were an English Gentleman of old saying ‘Why don’t be silly, my good man–I wouldn’t hear of it!’

As I continued, I thought about how heroic his journey felt to me. At his age, and with his infirmities, he was way out here, hundreds of miles into the Trail with a heavy pack, and was clearly intending to through-hike the whole Appalachian Trail. And, during our earlier conversation, I had gathered that he was not a person of great means and had had his share of ill luck in life. And so I was reminded of the protagonist in Hemingway’s epic ‘The Old Man and the Sea’.

(An old Cuban fisherman, down on his fishing luck and derided by his village for it, finally captures the fish of a lifetime–a giant Marlin–and undertakes to tow it back to his village in his little boat. The villagers will be astounded at his accomplishment, he will make a great deal of money selling the fish, and he will salvage his reputation in the eyes of his fellow fishermen, the village, and himself. But sharks appear, and worry the great Marlin down to the bone on his long return journey and, though he battles the sharks relentlessly, he returns to his little beach at last with only the head and skeleton of the great fish intact. In deep despair, and exhausted, he falls asleep in his meager fishing shack and dreams of his youth. Meanwhile, villagers discover the carcass and realize, with admiration and pride, the gravity of the struggle that the old man must have endured and that it was the biggest Marlin any of them had ever seen.)

And so was this old man’s journey on the Trail a similar effort at restoration of stature late in life? The sharks on the Trail can be numerous and they can attack the impetus for success daily, even hourly. I saw this man only one more time, at a hostel, and he was significantly bruised above his right eye and forehead–clearly the result of a fall–and it looked very bad as bruising in older people can. Yet, he was calmly making oatmeal in the kitchen of the hostel, though sandwiches and other ‘real food’ options were available for sale at the hostel store. He was delighted to talk with me again, having remembered our earlier encounter. I talked with him longer this time and again assessed that his mental condition seemed fine.

I would love to learn that this guy makes it all the way to Mt. Katahdin, the endpoint of the Appalachian Trail. But even if he doesn’t, I hope he takes pride in having pushed his little boat out to sea and hooked onto a great struggle; he is fighting the sharks with dignity and aplomb.

We[blog] still active

Hello. I guess the secret is out that I’m home now, and that my Trail days are over. Well, we had a little fun, didn’t we? I wanted to mention that I’ll still be blogging, at the behest of several people. I do like to write and need the practice so I’ll take them up on their command. Subjects will run the gamut as whim, caprice, and various mood disorders dictate.

Extra credit if you’re still here!