Month: August 2013

Welcome to the Jungle

Let it be known that I tried to avoid the cliché title for this post, but there is some sort of residual magic, some Jedi mind trick attached to the title that pushes all others back into the ether whence they came. So there it is in a reasonable facsimile of black and white: my rationalization for not having a more thoughtful title. I suppose this is the same irritating practice as getting in front of a microphone and apologizing for how bad your poetry is before inflicting it upon a group of people. I’m keeping this pre-digression, though, because people need to know: this is what it looks like in writing. No apologies this time, however; just a hearty, derisive snort, transitioning into the first body paragraph.

Now that I’ve been in country for a month and had time to acclimate, I accepted an invitation to go on a jungle hike with a helicopter pilot and a stay-at-home dad. Let’s call them Erik and Joe, because that’s what everyone else calls them and I don’t want to confuse myself. We arrived at the base of the trail at about 8:30 in the morning. Gee, I thought. That looks steep. And wet from lat night’s rain. Indeed, it was steep and wet, and the best hiking gear I had was jeans, a t-shirt and a pair of Vans, the soles partially worn smooth from the Boston streets. But once I’m committed to something, I have the tendency to stay with it longer than is healthy and long after whatever about it made me happy has worn away.

The first stretch was by far the worst. The last time I’d been hiking, truly hiking, was well over a decade ago, when I was in the Boy Scouts, was swimming competitively, and had the body and energy of an action movie hero. Now, though I have begun swimming in earnest almost daily, I have the body and energy of a pale, effete nerd. As we reached the first plateau, my head swam and my heart drummed in my ears. Erik and Joe stretched as if just getting out of bed–this was just a warmup for them, and as I came straggling up behind them, sucking air, I found that shame is a pretty decent motivator. Even though I was still feeling woozy, or perhaps because I was, I put one foot in front of the other and climbed.

You know what else is a good motivator? Monkeys. Seriously, there is something about seeing your first wild monkey that inspires confidence. Granted, monkeys are also not to be trifled with. Common monkey advice given to newcomers to southeast asia follows: don’t smile at the monkeys; don’t feed the monkeys; don’t stare at the monkeys; don’t touch the monkeys; don’t taunt the monkeys; and whatever you do, never turn your back on the monkeys. Injected with innuendo, this advice matches the sex education I received through my Catholic high school. Luckily, I was already self-taught. Anyway, the monkey was not nearly as impressed with me as I was with it, and after a brief pause it kept swinging through the trees, on its way, I want to believe, to meet its monkey friends to play monkey games.

Climbing the steep ridge, which became increasingly salted with jagged quartz and slick roots, I found myself acting more the monkey and using the trees as leverage. They appear wispy and fragile, and are often growing at some bizarre angle, as if permanently blown sideways by a strong wind, but when I grabbed one, my first thought was that it couldn’t possibly be a coincidence that playground monkey bars were made of steel. Not much more than an inch and a half in diameter, these trees could support the full weight of Joe, our heaviest hiker, bending only slightly.

It is fortunate that they are so solid. As we attempted to descend the other side of the ridge, on a steep path consisting largely of mud and moss-covered rocks, one of the ropes put in place to aid in the descent broke, sending Joe sliding toward the edge, beyond which was empty air and, in the distance, the tops of the trees. He slid in the loose soil, and just as he reached the edge, one of these thin, frail-looking trees stopped him dead, allowing him time to collect himself, dig in, and find a way back up the cliff. It was only when we were drinking beers poolside afterward, that Erik related a story about six bodies that had to be picked up by helicopter at the base of the cliff, not too far from where we had been. Good timing, that.

Well, lessons learned: rotted ropes in the jungle will not hold your weight, though hanging vines will, assuming their bark doesn’t slide off like a snake skin (additional lesson: the bark may slide off a hanging vine if you attempt to swing on it like Tarzan); grabbing a quartz outcropping will shred your hand; monkeys have the potential of being dicks, though they seem largely uninterested in the wild; and drinking beer while floating in a swimming pool after a strenuous hike feels amazing.

Somewhere in this photo is a monkey who doesn't give a crap about you.

Somewhere in this photo is a monkey who doesn’t give a crap about you.


We are without a car. In Boston this would be a good thing, but in Malaysia not having some form of powered transportation is a prison sentence. Granted, it’s a prison with a 50-meter pool, a silly brown dog, and internet access, but luxury is pointless without freedom. I could, for example, partake joyfully in the watching of English-language television, but watching the same three episodes of Friends and Law and Order over and over again makes me want to start collecting cats or keeping creepy porcelain doll heads in a burlap sack under the bed. As an alternative, I have been spending a lot of time in my head as an escape–which is weird, since traveling halfway across the world was supposed to be an escape–which makes my little retreats an escape from the escape. So let’s not discount the doll heads quite yet.

I’ve written a few posts, mostly moody and cerebral little bits about culture shock and adjustment to a new lifestyle, but it occurred to me that I never really explained much about why I was writing in the first place. High Definition Fantasy was the best way I cold describe the notion, espoused by some, that the fantasies we create often feel more real than the fleshy matter that breathed life into them. And they’re not all pleasant, either. I bring this up because there was a sincere hope that changing places and putting myself in the middle of a generally alien culture would burn off the dark cloud that always seemed to follow me around.

Rather than a dark cloud that follows me, I seem to be inexorably linked to an imaginary place. An endless corridor of doors stretches on for as long as I can remember. Though some are possibilities and some are memories, all the doors look the same. Behind them are the echoes of screaming, laughter, ecstasy, violence, grief, and everything in between. Tomorrow, I might go surfing for the first time in a decade, but to get there, I have to walk through one of these doors, and the event will be invariably tinted by whatever lies on the other side. I could set out with a sense of exhilaration, passing through the feeling of the first time I ever stood up on a board and let the surf guide me. Alternately, I could start with a sense of sublime terror, with the feeling of my body flattened against the muddy bottom, staring up at the glistening surface with an eerie sense of calm, wondering if the end had come. Or it could be the doors behind which lie unpleasant encounters with brain coral, a scattering of ashes, cold margaritas, or valkyries. Some are memories, others are fantasies. Take your pick.

At some point, the barriers between the memories and fantasies break down and they bleed into each other and reality. Theoretically, it’s easy to keep them straight: this one here happened; that one there did not. But their relationship as opposites–the energy it takes to keep them separate–puts them in the same long hallway, where they might have separate doors, but share a wall.

And then where do altered states fit in? Can I keep the memory of (spoilers) valkyries descending onto a beach, even though it’s a brief hallucination, a figment of the subconscious–or do I have to give it over to fantasy? The knowledge that it was never real directly opposes the lived experience of it actually happening. Yet there it sits, the weird gangly kid, last picked for dodgeball. But of course memory gets this guy, citing the “real enough” clause. In fact, the bleed seems to come from this notion. With enough focus, a fantasy can become as real, or even more real, than the world that created it. And the reality of memory can just as easily become fantasy, altered at a whim by our reconsiderations, desires, and regrets.

So where am I? We’re not the sum of our memories, but are we the sum of our fantasies? Someday, I’ll find the real me behind one of these doors and view the world, finally content, with his eyes. Or so I’d like to think.

Home Row

A few days ago, I caught myself referring to our condo in Malaysia as “home.” It didn’t particularly bother me at the time, and honestly it doesn’t particularly bother me now. However, I did spend quite a long time thinking about why I would do that–or at least why so soon. I considered the idea that it is just a word of convenience; home is where I go when I’m not “out.” Simple, right? As far as I can figure, there are two schools of thought on this, both horribly cliché at this point, but at least decipherable: home is where the heart is; and anywhere you lay your hat is your home.

I always call the San Francisco Bay Area home, and I think I will continue to do so even if I end up spending the rest of my life somewhere far, far away from it. I spent seven years in Boston, referred to my apartments there as “home,” but I would always go home for the holidays. My parents could retire and move to a different city or state or country, but that place wouldn’t be home. I could go on grand adventures, start speaking a different primary language, and have children that bear only partial resemblance to me. My lifeless body could be covered in sand and rocks, or I could be buried deep in the ocean, but my heart would still be at home. Broken in two, my heart could be forever split between places. If we ever wonder where nostalgia comes from, this is it. Instead of a physical place, however, time seems to be the anchor to which we tie our heartstrings. The further we get from that place in time, the tighter those strings get until something plucks them and they resound loudly. But this line of thought seems to be a weird way to live, in a constant state of sorrow for the once-was and could-still-be.

Alternately, we could refer to home, as George Carlin said, as a place to put our stuff. When I was a child and a teen, my stuff was in Oakland. When I was in college and grad school, my stuff moved around a lot, and I called my apartments in Santa Cruz and Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville my home. Now, my stuff is in Malaysia, so it’s home, for the moment. Actually, only about half of my stuff is in Malaysia. The other half is on a boat somewhere, on its way to me. Does this mean I’m only half at home here? First of all, I’ve realized how little stuff I actually need, and I’ve wondered if that changes things. If I had no stuff, except for a house, would I even have a home? It certainly wouldn’t feel like home, just an empty box–or would it? I would go “out,” and when I came back, I would be returning “home.” After a while, the box itself would have meaning, and I would miss its cold, empty embrace when I left.

Malaysia also has its own complications. I have to leave and return every ninety days to renew my tourist visa, and there’s a lingering question on how long the immigration people here will put up with that before they tell me to get married and get a real visa or get out. It’s comforting, in a way, because it solves all these questions. Malaysia isn’t home because it can’t be. But this place here, in black and white, in an endless sea of ones and zeroes, can be a home of sorts. I don’t have much stuff, but I do have my home row.

A list of the crap I brought with me that I don’t need, and what it means. Part 1.

The Crap

Moving is a weird thing. The tendency is to hold on to the past in the hope that it will somehow take the sublime horror out of the future, and generally it works. Family photos, relics, old love letters, and trophies of one sort or another: they all remind us that if or when we return home, we are not forgotten. Then there is the junk we simply can’t get rid of. When we move, we finally learn how tenaciously we clung to the purely transitory. Piles of receipts tend to be my particular vice. In the past, my excuse was, “Hey, it’s got my credit card info on it. I’ll just take them to a barbecue and throw them into the fire.” Now, I’m paying for everything with cash. Unless I’m buying expensive electronics, I shouldn’t need them; and yet, since I’ve been here, I’ve already accumulated an obscene little pile of wispy paper squares. But, hell, at least I didn’t bring any of them with me, right? The following is the list, mercifully short, of the crap I brought with me in my suitcases for which there is no possible use.

1. Some form of AC adapter, black, fairly new. It came tangled with an HDMI cord that I use to connect my laptop to a television. The two appear to have no relation, however, and I fear that I may simply have brought a cord from a long discarded something.

2. An eraser sculpted and colored like a fresh, pink-frosted donut. Japanese, but Chinese-made, bought in the USA. It’s a kitsch item that I never plan to use for its original intent–although I’m not certain whether these highly detailed erasers are actually intended for erasing. Calling it “crap,” I fear, may offend the person who gave it to me, so I’ll call it a memento.

3. A bar-coded swipe key for a California health club I do not belong to, attached by key ring to a key of unknown use or provenance and a decorative metal bangle. The bangle is missing a faceplate that appeared to once be glued in place. I suspect it was for the Volvo I owned in college, and likely through mistreatment, the faceplate was separated from the bangle. This puts the object in context, but since there are no car keys on it, the purpose of the key remains forgotten. Why I would still have a key ring nearly a decade old is a mystery.

4. A receipt for a bottle of wine I bought for my girlfriend’s dad. Although the wine made the trip in excellent condition, there is no particular reason the receipt should have–yet here it is. It does, however, contain references to credit card information, so it is likely to stay with me until I find some way to incinerate it.

5. A large handful (thirteen?) plastic dinosaurs bought for my cubicle at a Boston publishing company. I remember being very perturbed when someone stole the stegosaurus from my cubicle. I tend to carry them around in my camera bag, lacking any other inspiration for their use. After the above photo was taken, I placed all these objects in my bedside table drawer, and it’s likely they will remain there for some time.

Part 2 of this series will likely require a higher-resolution photo, since it will include all the crap I don’t need that made it into the crate of belongings that is currently crossing the Pacific Ocean on a boat.


The Other Side

When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time swimming, and at some point, nearly every time I was in the pool, I would flatten myself against the bottom and look up at the surface. After the vertigo passed, it was easy to switch perspectives and pretend that I was actually looking down onto a world scrambled by an ever-changing surface. Sometimes, very early in the morning or late at night, I might be the only one in, and the surface would be smooth and glassy enough to get a better picture, but even then, the slightest gust of wind would garble the picture. So easily disrupted, it seemed, was the world below. Pressed against the smooth concrete and surrounded by still water, I often asked myself, What’s going on down there? I would stare down for a long time wondering, futilely, if I could just stay and watch. Eventually, my lungs would start to burn, and I’d feel my body begin drifting toward the surface. As I crossed the boundary, the transition would always be disorienting. A cold breeze would lick my face, the light would blind me, and the sharp noises of the surface would once again ring in my ears. For a moment, every gust would feel like needles, every reflection off the water would shine like a solitary sun, and every drop of water would ring like a hammer on an anvil.

I broke the surface tension again recently, but the hammers are still pounding in my head. The temptation to retreat is a constant itch inside the back of my skull, but so far, I’ve been good about keeping my head above water. Breaching the surface should be fun. As a kid, we could always make believe that we were someone–something–else, but somehow that ability gets pounded out of us by most of the things that make us functional adults. That’s not to say that we can’t have fun. I can have fun. I like fun. So, who or what do I think I’m pretending to be now? Adventurer? Vacationer? International businessman? Colonialist? Lost artist? None or all, depending on who you ask. Let’s not ask who I actually am. I could go with the flow here, pretty easily. I could pretend that I’m happy, like that dark cloud didn’t make the trans-Pacific trip with me. You know: fake it ’til I make it. That kind of thing.

Interesting that I would bring myself from a place that could fulfill variations on all my inclinations, to a place where those things are simply no longer possibilities. I think I just heard a door slam behind me. All my needs could be met if only I had less eccentric desires. At least, that’s what I’ve been told. Seems like a gyp, to me, though. Although, I suppose, I could have checked some items of my bucket list long ago if I really had the drive.

Drive. Therein lies the problem. Lying on the bottom of a pool, the only drive is for air–necessary, inevitable, simple. Possibilities before were endless. Now, they still might be endless, but it’s the memory of the what-could-have-beens that drive a person mad.

Next time: A list of the crap I brought with me that I don’t need, and what it means. Part 1.