by Simons Chase @slchase
[manuscript under construction]
Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel for yourself.
It is not far, it is within reach,
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born and did not
Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land.
– Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
We were first alerted to the news in a text message. Several weeks after the dinner the four of us had enjoyed at a trendy new bistro, Sam drove his Aston Martin DB9 to a hardware store. Exotic European sports cars are an unusual sight at hardware stores in dense urban environments. I pictured the spotless car parked in the blazing sun, its stealthy posture suspended, and the strange anomaly with the windshield that had so distracted Sam for a period of years. He complained of a whistling sound when the car exceeded 30 miles per hour, and on his interpretation of this vexing discomfort, he had initiated an argument and then a litigation concerning the deep flaw that had wedged itself into the otherwise perfect expression of guttural acceleration and high-note interior opulence. Now vulnerable to the horrors of excessive wind, Sam demanded the full value of the car returned to him. At each of our regular fancy dinners out, we got an update about the state of dispute with the dealership (and later the manufacturer) and the new level of psychic turbulence. He expressed it in a half-whispered inventory of dirty words, a circle of darkness at odds with the culinary scene in front of him on that fateful last evening together: quiche Lorraine, frisee aux lardons, orange duck confit, mousse au chocolat and the much-diminished crumbled remains of a cheese platter.
The measure of rope Sam bought that day at the hardware store, perhaps even on the day of our last dinner together, became his method for fixing the flaw embedded within him. The text message announcing his self-inflicted demise triggered the standard array of apostrophized emotions, but it also inflamed my imagination. The faint signals that I had barley perceived to be at odds with his outward, visible signs of happiness now pulsed with higher voltage, stirred into action by an act that demanded explanation, context and resolution. My mind ranged over the times we had spent together. At this point in my life I had developed a refined capacity for indexing past interactions to pick out the signals that contained the truth that is discoverable in a new context of catastrophe. What took shape in my imagination was a mental picture of his sleeping animosities, his grudges and the penetrating hate that he festered internally. I explored the basins of my own despair, the loss of consciousness at a certain burial – the categories of human depravity I learned about in the literary art that has been recorded by the humans who were themselves inspired by the darker forces of oblivion back before happiness was a thin, digital commodity. If I had only known what was on the menu of his thoughts about me at all those empty dinners. He had no specific reason to hate me, but reason is useless in the these situations. For people in Sam’s condition, hate is a religion of self-worship. I speculated about the seething animosity that took possession of his image of me when my occasional aloofness poisoned its way into his mind. The way I held my wife’s hand – an obvious affront to the refrigerated body language between him and his wife of thirty years. The sebaceous cyst on the crown of my hairless head! And of course the stabbing false modesty I projected by suggesting a car’s value can be boiled down to cents-per-mile cost of ownership. If he had only burst out in rage at me, let the grueling hate slip through the cracks of his landscape, shown an ounce of psychological poverty, I may have been able to do something. His emotional rope had run out and so had to be replaced with store-bought rope.
At 50 years old, I know Sam’s suicide is a lot more about life and living than about death because any story about death is in some way a story about life. This was not always the case for me. Manned flight to the moon occurred in 1968, the year I was born. It was from this vantage point that American Bill Anders took the first earthrise photo from the moon while on the Apollo 8 mission. I can remember playing with toy lunar dune buggies and wearing space suits for Halloween. It was only about eight years later that my father took me to see Star Wars. I saw the film at least 12 times the year it came out. I watched with amazement how real the spaceships’ movement appeared against a starry background, the same starry night that painted my own night sky in rural South Carolina. Luke Skywalker was just young enough for me to identify with. His parents were dead, and farm life with his aunt and uncle was confining. The story provided no details about Luke’s parents, but what I noticed was how his ambition for flying produced satisfying defiance and risk-taking. It was like he was trying to fill in for what was missing in his life. Before long, Luke faced another calamity when Darth Vader’s evil Stormtroopers swept through the family farm killing his unarmed, last-remaining relatives. Looking down at the embered remains of his family’s skeletons, Luke resolved to join the Rebel Alliance and support the rebellion against the Empire. Just prior to the massacre Luke met and was introduced to the “force” by Obi Wan. It was the force, some form of super future love force, that shielded Luke from the wounds of death. And for a young boy watching the film, I guess I assumed there was a protective force out there in my world that would turn death into ambition and glory.
Duke University Hospital
I sat in bed at night multiplying my father’s last moments alive as if to conjure and mock the persistence of his disease, cutting out the victim, and inserting death’s own emotional turf. I was a child handling the darkest clay. I imagined what he was feeling, how he processed those awkward, hazy expressions of optimism that betrayed the evidence visible in his wrecked physical person and that vast disorder of the down-coming future. The cracks that slipped into the kind nurse’s voice and who started calling in sick as a practical necessity. I erased the last memory I had of him walking down to hospital hallway with an IV trolley in tow, eager to demonstrate vitality. Instead, I imagined I had sat next to him in his bed. My eyes fixed into his eyes and spilled out heart-tapping truth even before I spoke into an unfolding present. Learn all the planets in the solar system like the way we practiced on the morning drives to school. Try not to fight with your brothers so much. The thing you didn’t even know could happen to you happens to you. The ligatures of a safe world gave way to a wildness that had been suppressed perhaps by conspiracy. In Western society, death’s sterilization means a layer of meaning escapes our lives. Once you’re wrong about something so permanent, you’re probably wrong about everything. When confronted with the adolescent choice of, “Do this or else,” I was most energized by the restless, unsatisfied “else” and would never let the levelheaded adult demand part supersede the plot. The only danger was in not doing it.
Coastal South Carolina
From the low vantage point of the march, the sky appears like a heavy dome. The sun-filled sky is fierce and, in bold relief, buttressed by columns of towering cumulonimbus clouds that seem to march in unison along the South Carolina coast as moist offshore air draws landward with the building up of afternoon terrestrial temperatures. Bolts of sunlight pierce through the doughy ramparts of the boiling clouds like tentpoles as their silver boundaries strain to contain the weight of their rain-pregnant, dark centers. There is no way to purchase shelter from this land when skies hammer down sun or rain. The clouds’ colors merge pleasantly from white to silver to blue, resolving to grey, and only in these brief reliefs from the sun’s direct rays could you raise your eyes above the horizon into the cathedral of the silent sky drama. Emotions mingle with the landscape athwart a sense of isolation brought about through the realization that the land we stood on, an impassable desert of water and mud, is habitable only for a few hours a day and accessible only if reached by boat, a tool subject to its own moods and dangerous delays. When contrasted with the roughness of the local terrain, there is a levity in the presence of a continuous circular horizon like the ones visible there or in the open ocean or in the high, uncut horizon of mountainous terrains with peaks covered in mist wreaths. This marshy land was a gurgling rich nursery, with a womb-like texture, yet for us it was as sheltering as severe dolomite peaks of the West or polar ice. Never seen but always heard March Wrens soar in the shifting wind patterns and sound off in dry shrills at odds with the soft texture of our soggy marsh surroundings. Docile, far-off stares of American Oystercatchers betray the colossal natural abundance surrounding them, their wings folded as if in permanent retirement until the silent overhead calamity plays out. Occasional flyovers by curious Laughing Gull and Clapper Rail cut the sky. I was not then so distracted by the rich shorebird dimension of this habitat nor with my present inability to put a compass on the bare facts of our adventure. The indefiniteness of some details tends to enhance the ones I retain through some subconscious filtration of emotions that speak now in an unlikely form of intelligence within my own permanent mental horizons. One of the memories that stays with me was how the birds’ murmurations wove into the experience of that landscape and how their bodies had no doubt been shaped by the eternal imposition of economy. Now I understand their thin, stalky legs and webbed feet, and how their different-shaped bills allowed them to exploit food sources at non-competing depths of the mud: spoon-bill, curved bill, short- and long-needle bill. Cooperation in relation to nature. Brown shrimp find an ideal nursery environment in the infinitely black murky waters of the salt march tidal creeks. Several times a day, the tidal waters recede below the root zone of the marsh grass exposing a hidden universe of fiddler crabs, snails, hermit crabs, mussels and a wide variety of worms whose wieldy shapes make the mud come alive. At the very bottom of it all is the Mud Dog Whelk. Housed in tiny spiral sea shells of Fibonacci-fractal design, they eat anything that death’s arrival tumbles down on them. Sea creatures that live in the clearer waters around wind-whipped beaches and in the roaring oceans, where light penetrates, use speed and visual acuity to evade predators. The high-voltage muscle action required to survive in the ocean yields in those creatures the thick flesh we enjoy, prepared on a grill or in a pan, or raw in the form of sushi, most often consumed in prideful detachment from the living animal. But in the dark murk of the creek there is far less movement beyond the tidal rhythms. Survival and nutrition take on a stealth quality. Exoskeletons dominate the scene. The main delicacies to be harvested are oysters and shrimp.
Oysters carpet most areas exposed at low tide like teeth. Their sharp edges protrude upward making an impossible surface for nets. Only in occasional places, where the fiercest rush of the tides creates a smooth, sandy surface large enough to beach a boat, can you establish a beachhead and invade the temporary stillness with seining nets. At low tide, shrimp concentrate in the deeper basins of the creeks, and that’s where my father would take us to pull the nets through the black water and over the thick pluff mud. One either side of that tidal window, the strength of the tides makes it impossible to pull the nets. You don’t discover the swamp like you do the sea by experiencing its surface. Instead, the swamp takes you in and makes you vulnerable. Each day was different, but the taste of salt biting your tongue and grit grinding in your teeth were the same. It was as if nature would discover our intrusion and, simultaneously, we would stir into action with the common sensation of time being pressed between the perpetual motion of storm-darkened horizon and the temporary tidal flows. The deeper mud zones were always a topic of conversation for kids like us who were scared of the embedded narratives: slithering snakes hidden in the mud and such. In the call to action, there was a constant challenge among boys eager to defend their bravery by demonstrating fearlessness of the unknown swampy creatures hiding in the mud and black water. Yet when it came to staying out of the deep creek, we spared no amount of effort. We secured one end of the net at the tidal beach’s water level while the other end of the net is pivoted around through the deep channel. The key was to keep the bottom of the net on the bottom of the channel so the shrimp could be herded up to the beach and captured. My brothers and I would silently compromise and agree to secure the shallower end of the net by jamming the wooden net pole down a few inches into the sand, at extreme angular peculiarity, while my father would strike the murky channel diagonally. Sometimes only his head poked out of the water amid a fracas of spitting shrimp as they leapt in every direction to avoid the intruding net. We achieved peak discomfort when the net was under maximum tension of the drag, our willing hands contrasting in red and white against the earthy texture of the wooden pole. Our muscles strained against the net, and the lashing of sun and wind proved equally harsh on our faces, amounting to pain, and we discovered by this effort a new dimension of flavor acquired through the immediate compensation of our effort. We pulled in intervals. Between pulls my father would produce from some corner of the little boat a shucking knife. Oysters must be opened by hand as no two oysters are the same shape. They grow in locking armies on top of each other. Only my father’s hands could pry open oysters. Once open, we were lured to the morsel inside, the lusty color of the dark, grey clouds and the flavor of the march, sweetened by the oyster’s gentle seive. Once ingested, the oyster gave wing to a spark of energy, a temporary renewal ignited by the raw biology of the place and at odds with the dull perpetual abundance of compulsive consumption on dry land. Blisters troubled us, as did the aloofness of those mariner shorebirds, watching us effortlessly, but it was the contradiction inside those muddy, sharp oysters oysters that produced the richest memories. The mood of the birds emphasized our burden and the feeling that a collection of perfunctory tasks had a special meaning because we did them together, and we had no other compelling reason to be there.
The mud’s leathery grip tightens the longer you stand in one place. To escape the subduction with your shoes attached you must point your toes down and with your upper leg repeat a downward and then upward thrusting motion until water fills in the hole made by your foot and releases the muddy grasp. Once immersed, our mud-fleck faces, salty tongues and squinty-eyed excitement met a constant swirl of life that was only partially visible from the surface. The best time to deploy the seining nets was precisely when the flow ebbs and stops and before it starts to refill, a peak period of about thirty minutes depending on the lunar cycle and wind conditions. After a lot of sweating and grunting, our united strength produced a rave-up of brown shrimp, one of the more delicate-tasting species native to the local waters. When we pulled the net up on the sand, the inky water dissolves back into the black leaving little shards of biology, with sunset pink tails and battleship grey heads, totally opposite in tone from their surroundings. The mound of shrimp at the center of the net popped and snapped for several minutes. We would stare and smile and rest between pulls to allow our burning quads to recover and to let the sun bake the mud onto our skin like a layer of protective lard. With bird-like apathy, we would listen and stare off into the seagrass landscape to consider the dozens of narrow unseen channels running like veins throughout this fleshy exposed earth environment and infinite horizon of grass. Sometimes the only way back to our dock was through trial and error navigation of these channels that seemed at first to lead in the right direction but then would suddenly switchback in hairpin turns. Nature rewards patience. The passage between swamp and firm ground often emerged with thunder in our ears. The odor was sulfurous, salty and biological, a mixture that eventually becomes floral and even nostalgic. The system rots without waste. If it weren’t for the subtle sounds coming from mostly unseen fauna, the orchestra of mud, insects, wind and sun would have felt like an industrial process working on our soft bodies, attempting to feed our pink biology to the watery jungle of life surrounding us.
Earlene was rusty-voiced, stubborn-kneed native of Black Mingo Creek that meandered from inland springs down to the coast. She was like a member of our family during our summer visits to the shore when she longed to get away from her perpetually inebriated husband. Unable to read, Earlene carried a bible with her everywhere she went as a matter of protection from death and evil spirits. She was a tall, broad-shouldered black woman whose experience with scarcity and turmoil no doubt shaped her wrinkled face. When she sweat, her skin shadowed a slight blue radiance, and working in the kitchen was her hottest, most able environment. Her cooking skill reached its peak when shrimp and oysters were in the house simply because she had experience with them when seafood was a free food source for her and her 12 brothers and sisters growing up in the woods. Earlene had unquantifiable qualities characteristic of her pure African descent. Her first impulse when faced with danger or love was to hug. Her hands and feet were palpitant earth instruments, calloused, impervious to heat, instinctual caregivers and echoed the secrecy of the tidal march. We would watch with wonder how she could reach her hand into hot water and in a flash remove perfectly cooked corn. She chuckled heartily, delighted in her ability to resist the heat, and she took joy from our fascination. She spoke infrequently, knowing that too many words could lead to trouble. She rejected sweets, and she was suspicious of photography. Instead, her exertions contained her intelligence, her potency and her spirituality, and the spirit moved her into constant action. When we returned with buckets full of still-living exotic sea creatures, Earlene bolted to the table on the front porch to clean the shrimp and prepare the crabs and oysters. Both porches were screened-in but we reserved the back porch for eating seafood among the jungled mash of ivory and bougainvillea growing vertically along the porch’s vertical supports.
Earlene’s individual authorship for cooking seafood was applying the right amount of Old Bay spice. She would sprinkle some in the boiling water and then apply a generous coating to the exterior of the freshly-cooked shrimp and crabs. The cooked catch was then piled high on the back porch tables that had been covered in old newspaper. At sunset, all of us sat out on the porch and picked at crabs and shelled shrimp. The orange spice covered our hands and faces with a faint sting of spicy delight. Earlene talked about the Great Depression, the struggle to survive. She hummed folkloricly when she ate. She described her own shrimp and oyster catching, an all-day event that was more of an expedition than an adventure without the benefit of a power boat. The most remarkable aspect of her submersion in the murk was her doing it without shoes. I realized our shoes were the main discord in the inharmonious navigation of the swamp, and the secret was in Earlene’s feet. I was fascinated how her skin color changed from black to sunset pink along a boundary line in her lower feet where the skin touches the earth. When I got a glimpse her pink feet, I thought she was seafolk, free from mental clutter, cottoned to the terrain, and born sturdy on a bed stones. The love she had for her family calloused her feet, protected them from oyster’s sharp edges, the way sharks’ white bellies hides them from predators looking from below and from above their dark backs blend in the with black ocean depths. The line between white and gray, black and pink, was never a straight line but was also never misplaced, its perceived imperfections fitting perfectly with its purpose of protection or camouflage. With calloused feet, superhuman hands, and warm touch she navigated earth’s three dimensions with always-on attention. She was a human link between my family and nature, and the light of her strength remains vivid like a pearl.
On those sunny, laborious days sleep arrived with nagging tentacles, often while I sat at the dinner table. Earlene would carry me to bed, up two flights of stairs. She folded me over her two arms like a rolled carpet. My eyes would slit as the brightness of the day peeled away into a mantle of mental darkness. The bed brought sand’s assault on my sun-stroked skin, chafing me between the sheets, needling my blisters. You can never really get all the sand out of the beds of a beach house. My aching muscles tugged at me, demanding attention. My mouth buzzed with the sting of Old Bay seasoning. I would reach for circumventing thoughts far away from my bed of nails. I wondered what all the creatures in the swamp were up to in that nocturnal landscape, whether there was a parallel distress in their nightly movements, in the diverse rhythms of their growth cycles, in the effects of seasonality, and in the unification of smooth dark sky and earth’s black texture. In my belly was a mound of consumed creatures, stirred up by a final dark push through my murky insides, now metabolizing with my own biology, scratching from the inside as if to remind me of their ceaseless nutrition.
On rainy days, the world shrank to the interior of the house. My parents invariably left us in the house with Erlene on these rainy days so they could go shopping for all the things the house needed for maintenance and sustenance. For my brother and me, the best part of rainy days was playing physical climbing games with Erlene. We constructed vertical shapes out of our bodies. The only rule was to defy gravity. The summer house was decorated colonial maritime. There were long strands of glass floats strung like Christmas decorations along the spine of the vaulted high ceiling of the family room. They were made of green and blue glass balls the size of honeydew melons and wrapped in rope. These hanging ornaments were originally used as floating supports for fishing nets or for marking navigation channels, and ours retained the visual imperfections common to glass making a hundred years ago. On the walls were ancient wooden crab traps and weather-stained coastal navigation charts. Moody oil paintings clung to the walls, secured by dust-covered twine attached to rusty nails. They depicted tall, storylike clipper ships, sails ablaze, navigating an oily night of searing moonlight and howling winds. My favorite human stack was for Erlene to lay on her stomach, legs bent, so I could climb up and stand on her pink feet, sole-to-sole. My younger, smaller brother would then walk over her back and try to climb up on me with a menacing warlock growl. Erlene’s quavering laughter tugged at his footing as he positioned to climb the polls of her legs. Standing on Erlene’s soles I would hold my arms out and pretend I was at sea, confidently navigating rough waters, pirating a moment of defiance before my brother’s own glory-seeking would wash us down to the floor in a wave of laughter.
Amman, Jordan (Funeral, Part 1)
Darting lizards, grinning dogs and far-off chicken sounds mingle in the breeze: cluck, crow, cheep, chirp. I had become so familiar with the feeling of permanent abundance surrounding the house and the garden and the orchard that the harvesting processes seems to betray the sense that the house now felt emptied of vitality. Inside I could see the many weathered, funerary faces of Abe’s Bedouin family seated in the large room overlooking the fertile orchard scene. Inside, invisible lines of respect determined the seating positions of most of the mourners and revealed the social scaffolding I had only seen previously as faint signals among this family. Tertiary members stood in the rear. The oldest members sat in what can be described as the front row seats. In the center of the room, a large upholstered chair with hand-carved adornments and dense embroidery waited for me to undergo what looked like an examination. The seating arrangement seemed too formal for these people, and I speculated that they too were unsure of protocol. This gathering was not the main event after Abe’s cancer had liquefied his chest cavity, but it was special given the distance I had traveled and the measure of familial closeness in our friendship, even though we were not related.
I could make out Abe’s teen-aged daughter in the back of the room. Her eyes, once jeweled, were like black basins. She was close to Abe, but now she was hardpan, unavailable to the rhythm of the day’s event. I wished I could tell her to take the stings because nature made honey hard to get. Walking in the orchard could have helped her too, like Abe and I used to do almost daily, to dive into the well with thrown stones. I would poke at the tender spot with mystery and curiosity rubbed together, like Abe’s own modus operandi, micro-narratives thickened with soil. No musing fondly about the past – I hoped she would understand life’s equation. Erect a box around a triangle’s hypotenuse and divide the box into four triangles. Those triangles will be the same size as the original triangle no matter how many times you add boxes around the resulting triangles. Pythagoras gets credit for discerning this essential symmetry and basis for the human abstraction towards higher math. But humans across the globe discovered the same thing around the same time, thousands of years ago, likely because of a need to define earthen boundaries. I would explain that topology was developed for calculating irrigation requirements and area crop yields or perhaps in preserving the area of a farmer’s land after periodic floods shifted the grounds around a precious, fertile river basin where humans congregated after hunting and gathering slowed and crops filled in for the daily the caloric budget. No damming, no explosions. Nothing fundamentally lost, despite the appearance of a calamity. Just re-draw the boundaries and plant again. I would mimic Abe’s hand motions like when he used to grasp my hands and arms at points of particular importance. This was his way of focusing attention away from himself and on me. Laughter always cemented his thoughts. As any natural son would do, I learned to hold his words in my hands like worlds. I would tell her the honey in the tiny hexagonal structures, five one-hundred-and-twenty degree angles connected in near circular form (honeycomb), constructed by bees, has been crafted trillions of times over in earth’s living history, and yet it exactly matches the hexagonal molecular structure of a special natural mineral, the subject of my wanderings in the Middle East and my unlikely connection to the Bedouin geochemist, Abe, now earthbound. I would tell her there are perhaps an infinite number of times you can divide the squares into rectangles, but the point isn’t how abstract you can get. After the first few derivations, something essential gets lost. We could have gotten back to Abe, the way he would show us our connection to the dirt just under our feet. But not on that day. I had traveled too far. One day she will find a way hearken forward, to insert her father into the shapes and patterns of her own landscapes. Turn death’s brittle colors into something natural and wild and magic. Maybe we could have helped each other, too. A child can understand little with emotions alone, but an adult can reconcile little from childhood with intellect alone.
I can’t say with total accuracy when “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service entered my memory, but I’m certain about its insertion into my emotional calendar. These were the only words my father ever heard me recite from memory, so I must have been 11 or 12. I packed the words in, learned the contours of the language and enjoyed how Service’s imagination mingled with my own. The question zones that leap out of the poem were out of scale with my age but the emotions moved me like nothing else I had come across at that age.
I learned that Canada’s Yukon region was the setting for an epic migration of men and animals propelled into feverish speculation during a period of gold rush in the late 1800’s. The world’s newspapers screamed, “Stacks of Yellow Metal!” Shack towns of Skagway and Dyea overflowed with novice prospectors unfamiliar with extreme temperatures. Until tramways were built late in 1897 and early 1898, the prospectors had to carry everything on their backs. The White Pass Trail was the animal-killer, as anxious prospectors overloaded and beat their pack animals with a special brutality and forced them over the rocky terrain until they dropped. More than 3,000 animals died on this trail – many of their bones still lie at the bottom on Dead Horse Gulch. Service, an English poet, became the voice of the region and an interpreter for a period that was marked by death more than by riches. My curiosity about the gold rush combined with the poem’s images was probably my first realization that language as art can move like clay through time, geography and emotion and that sources of inspiration can be found beyond the finite boundaries of the known world.
first and last stanza:
“Midnight sun” is the first visual spark. The irregular rhyme scheme approaches free verse, and a child can easily be enticed with all the action happening on the surface. But there is a deeply embedded narrative underneath Service’s story as the poem reaches through the fog and tinkers magically with language and imagery. The first stanza is a handshake with the reader, a salutation that is repeated again at the end of the poem as if to say GodSpeed: the words may drift out of range but the questions will remain. The poem’s internal stanzas approach the boundary line of reality and chaos – in a slow progression. The jurisdiction of the poetic form sustains the mystery of the ballad that seems to roll along with sing-song levity. There is contemplation (“promises are debts”) and writerly craft (“cold stabs like a driven nail”) that at once isolates the narrator’s voice and escalates the tension against the backdraft of a winter squall and men raptured by a furious Yukon gold rush. The debt in this case has to do with a curious promise the narrator makes to an expiring Sam McGee, whose mania can rest only in the licking flames of a funerary fire. “Sizzle,” inserted fang-like near the end of the poem, describes the macabre sound of the cremation, and here the plodding story is thrust off the two-dimensional plane, right out of Service’s molars, out of the dark. With an ease of expression that belies the risk taken with such a poetic twist, the narrator’s lens snaps its focus on the secret locked within, in search of an understanding ear, and puts a demand on the reader to listen to the dead. This is where the ligature between what’s real and what’s “queer,” as Service repeats twice in the first and last stanzas becomes flesh, as if to remind the reader of where the poem’s vital detail is lodged, in open possibilities and emotional extremities. With a sorcerer’s wit, Service chops down death with the tip of his pen.
Once ascended into the realm of pure fire, Sam McGee is more real than ever:
Service’s poem is carnivalesque, winter-demented, volcanically summoned, monstrous with fire and wild energy. His cosmic destruction was looking for a way to get in, and the doorway fit us both.
Inland South Carolina – After the Funeral
Before I knew Abe or the action of industrial earthworks, I had an urge to stir up emotions in the people and friends of my neighborhood. My chronological story began there, in the moist, temperate woods of the Southern United States, behind my childhood home where I experimented with a creative mixture of small amounts of diesel fuel and ammonium nitrate. The organic boundary between subdued American suburbia and untamed forest seemed to me a natural place to speculate about chemistry and life. My senses swelled at the wild pulse of light, the amplified throb of earth, and the smell of sulfur mixing with the ripe organic decay of a forest absorbing my ambitions. What could be better than to blaze with all speed – and wild delight – away from the deep, primal vowel sounds breaking through the woods and then to see smoke plumes, mushrooms even, twisting up through the gloomy moss and the thick canopy of majestic water oaks. With some luck, the police would arrive to inspect and keep the neighbors busy with my radical tendencies. I heaved earth’s fiery air into my stinging lungs, hiding out on the fringe of the action after a bolt of muscular propulsion. There were other forms of unbridled mischief, harmless spectacles. Then, I was more attracted to incubating innocent violence and placing sensitive elements next to each other than to anarchy, unaware of nuances like risk. I only wanted to pull out of people and me some authentic spark, a sliver of Midnsight Sun. I was creating my own earth out of the psychic geographies of my young mind and with it I got in touch with some interior place, an island of time and space that would never be a locked-in-a-loop boilerplate kind of place. I hammer stroked into existence, with childlike lack of awareness, the people they themselves didn’t know, on the boundary lines of the anger and frustration. Rammed through the center of my childhood were nightfalls, funerary ambiguities, landscapes, plowed entanglements and indifferent ant armies dismantling fallen trees – together with a depth of feeling that I could not have known was connected to the force that would snake its way into my father’s DNA and provide the genesis of his leukemia. I would wander into the edge of the woods where giant-eyed summer Cedecas wailed with metallic urgency in a chorus of high-pitched undulating chirps against the infinite silence of the stars.
My adult life began on a gray, rainy day in November 1992 when I shuffled into a seat on the Washington D.C. commuter Metro. We the daily riders, devotees of high-volume repetitive jarring and automated station calling, never seemed to mind the brutal terms of the commute: memorizing all the stops on the line and then, with little direct authority over our thoughts, mentally recall each stop in an internal monologue, too numerous to tabulate. Sometimes our lips would move as the station names coiled around our thoughts, and I wondered about the stories those other lips could tell. One day I occupied my time with two articles published in the Economist. They described the workings of finance and economics in faraway places and were just a few of the many long form survey pieces the Economist published during that extraordinary period when time seemed to gallop here in the West and stop or even regress over there – in the communist world and elsewhere. My initiation to Washington happened earlier. It was closer to the unfurling of pyrotechnics behind my house that I found purchase through a family connection to an internship with South Carolina’s famous Senator Strom Thurmond at his offices on Capital Hill. There I met another South Carolina luminary, Lee Atwater, whose folksy manner and Southern draw I could identify with. On a deeper level, I recognized in him the quality of having several lit fuses going at once. In his case, it was the explosive results he garnered for his political employers by electioneering the use of negative campaign ads. He also had been an intern for Senator Thurmond in his youth. Some years later, after his head took on the appearance of a swollen insect, under the pressure of an aggressive glioblastoma, Lee made some public statements about a “tumor of the soul” and the spiritual vacuum afflicting America. I was one of the few kids who had been both a page in high school and an intern in college and because if this special circumstance, I suppose, he offered to help me navigate Washington and set up a few interviews. But there was something deeper and unspoken that connected us. I suspect it was his childhood experience of witnessing his younger brother tottle up a stove, tug on a pot handle and pour boiling grease all over himself, to his end. It was after reading Lee’s parting words, those shards than spin out from death and sometimes get lodged in the living, that I realized how the dead feed the living.
The following week, I discovered a special graduate program in developing country economics. Jose D. Epstein, a luminary in economics department at American University, and a founding staff member of the InterAmerican Development Bank, came up with the idea for a master’s degree in this esoteric subject matter. I called him at his office, scheduled a meeting the following week and immersed into the literature about economics. Dr. Epstein wore on his face some the convulsion that was happening out there, and he seemed to personify the idea of possibilities discoverable in unconventional spaces. His wise eyes, game warden boots and lean build gave away the rugged credentials of a developing country banker, the opposite of a quiet academic dressed in a coffee-stained tweed jacket. The details of his appearance reflected the vow of poverty required of PhD holders and the ripping-at-the-seams weariness earned by bouncing around endless pot-holed dirt roads where the last road ends and the line on the map turns dotted. He was kind and had a range of knowledge about people and economics and a pear-shaped sense of history to wrap around the printed tables of data that lay around the office. His passions drew him towards essential questions about insatiable wants and needs and finite resources. The tension is settled, he explained, either by the market or by a bloated bureaucrat armed with a communist ideology. Dr. Eptein’s quiet pride and earnest, contemplative manner was pleasant, but more intriguing to me was his eccentricity. I got the sense that the ego games of faster-lane finance didn’t apply here. The empty words and AstroTurf ambitions common to other department heads were secondary to the mysterious internal processes at work in this backwater office. I pleaded my case for acceptance to the program of study despite my lack of academic qualifications in anything related to economics. I was ambitious, and I felt I was already in the undertow of this thing happening. The exotic smells of his office completed the surrealist landscape that lay ahead of me – dried mud, academic paper dust and the stale remnants of cigar smoke. I wanted the hot zones out on the edge of the boundary line between communism and capitalism where the haze of rot and renewal tested everyone. Emotions as a motive for action.
My professional boot camp, the study of developing country economics, transitioned to the theater of actual earth moving in a Middle East mining project. It was probably the only true venture-back mining operation in the world at the time. The Greeks called zeolites boiling rocks and the ancient fascination with this quality extended into modern times in the same way science has always eventually filled in for superstition. This special form of volcanic rock belongs to a tribe of hydrated aluminosilicates (more precisely, Phillipsite Zeolite), born out of rapidly cooling magmatic squirts, resting, like unfinished earth, just below the surface in pimple-like volcanic vents scattered across a desert landscape in unorganized, random dot dot dot patterns. The sharp elbows of shifting plate boundaries resulted in a vicious Oligocene feud about whether to make Jordan’s rift valley rich in dry sand or rich in water. The feud went unresolved for millions of years until, suddenly, the east side of the valley lurched up – pushed by Africa – preventing the sea from flooding the area, and produced the lowest point on earth where bible-writing humans breathed, played and walked on water. Israel sits on one side of this split personality and the Arabs on the other. Breaching the normal rhythm of rock and roll land-shaping processes birthed a deep-earth volcanic tantrum and an orchestral blast of little mountainettes where our mine site was situated. The stirring up of these extreme forces no doubt manifested on humanity’s stage in the form of an equally hot theological cauldron we call the Middle East. In today’s venture-geoscience-capital terms, this meant squeezing the right dot could get you a special form of zeolite, possessing not only great water-holding capacity (the source of its boiling quality) but also a mineral endowed with a honeycombed, hexagonal molecular structure that lends itself to exchanging ions in commercially viable ways – together with the magic of ever-diminishing unit production costs. Into this soup I poured myself, Abe (I forgot to mention, Abe was a Muslim who drank beer out of a coke can) and a self-made billionaire Jew from the United States named Jerry Zucker.
Jerry was a force of nature, something deep and flowing, with arms and legs attached as if for convenience. Electromotive forces emanated from the rapid-spinning thoughts in the coils of his mind. To spend even a small amount of time with him was to witness an impossible thrust of information and a mental vectoring of vast experience, deep intelligence and a fluid imagination. Dots, people, industrial processes, financial statements and an occasional movie script coalesced into flood-prone rivers of deal flow and intricate little streams of economic possibilities, always meeting at the highest possible points, always thinking at the top of his voice, always flashing from a young inner fire. His hair and clothes were the first indication of how fast things deglamorize with this Forbes-list industrialist – far less than on-trend. Jerry’s intelligence went way beyond social graces and feats of photographic memory, and if those two qualities were all you brought to the table, the conversation was going to be short. His real passion and unmistakable style was speculation. He thought about and acted on investments and, when not busy doing that, he collected businesses, some of them large and global and some of them fascinating like the Chatterbait patent and a billion fish lures a year. Like the mining business in which we were engaged, opportunities emerge from unlikely places and have potential that is not apparent to a casual observer. He started out his life with virtually nothing. Both his parents were Holocaust survivors, and in addition to being a philanthropist and a devout Jew, Jerry loved fast boats and was rumored to have some special skills with cards in casinos. His first invention was his high school science project, a revolutionary phase factor for Colinear Electromagnetic Waves, which was used as part of the first lunar landing module. Linking minds together has to be the highest art in the world of commerce. It’s what Karl Marx misjudged about what humans can do when commercial accountability and ambition combine. Money was the crudest part of our plan. How much money can we make? Hopefully, a lot. What can we accomplish? Peace, soil fertility and feats of materials processing? Game on. There was a sense of sheer energy and authority in Jerry’s presence. Authority not based on superiority but rather over mental processes in which you are invited to contribute. He combined generosity and and edgy toughness that some people mistakened for vanity. Years later, Mrs. Zucker said of her late husband that they have long embraced the concept of tikkun olam, Hebrew for “repair of the world” and a key tenet of Judaism. Speaking to this passion, Mrs. Zucker has said “Someone helped our parents to be able to repair their world. Now we want to teach others how to change the world.”
Periodic surprises, like the magic rocks at our mine site, reveal earth’s way of speculating. How else could volcanized Basaltic rock, heaved up from deep earth pulses, sun-stroked and gravity-entangled, rapidly cool into crystallized minerals and then lie inert in a lifeless, treeless desert, where the sky ran out of water, on a 100-million-year journey of absurd irony to become a rain forest. Life emerged from inert matter, from rocks, sand and salt, and through lifeless fundamental processes that relied on processes of selection, purification and an as yet unknown spontaneous self-assembly. At room temperature, with no external source of energy, these processes occur naturally in zeolite at a chemical level through ion exchange, a primitive elegance of manipulation. And moving up from the molecular level to the physical level, a hidden depth of tiny cavities produces great water-holding capacity. And from there the parent material, the basaltic rock that you can hold in your hand, contains iron, magnesium and other life-affirming trace elements. Mineralium vitae. If there were ever a avant-garde mineral, this is it.
The route from geology to biology remains a mystery. Zeolites are just a temporary fleck on the much larger canvas of earthen mineral speculations that have been going on for billions of years. Earth’s early biogeochemical musings likely relied on ion exchange mechanisms that echo today in neuronal ion exchange, the central mechanism active in human brains, even in the glial cells that make up more than 90% of brain matter and that were once thought to be inert. From early man up until the present time, minerals have been mingling with humans’ daily activity and also telling stories of the past. Zircons, crystalline minerals containing silicon, oxygen, zirconium and sometimes other elements, form inside magma and last forever. Today they can tell stories of earth going back three and four billion years. In some cases, the carbon-isotope ratios implicates biological forces at work three and half billion years ago. Igneous rock forms when molten rock material cools so rapidly that atoms are unable to arrange into a crystalline structure. In some ways igneous rock is the opposite of zeolite. It has a distinctive shiny appearance that gives the a “volcanic glass” quality. Fracturing ignious rock can create sharp, curved edges. Evidence among artifacts associated with Stone Age man show that the first factories created by man were likely a collective efforts to produce arrowheads, spear points, knife blades, and scrapers from obsidian. Today, obsidian blades are placed in surgical scalpels used and used in precise surgery settings. Studies indicate the performance of obsidian blades is equal to or superior to the performance of surgical steel.
The actual turning of minerals into cash was a responsibility I embraced. There was no real plan for marketing as the mineral had never before been commercialized at scale. So I fanned out like the trade winds on a old map, spreading indiscriminate fingers of commerce across vast distances. The long haul to market started with samples of various sizes sent via air freight followed by 30 ton containers stuffed with zeolite that had been packed in one-ton bags. When crushed to a size or 1 to 2 millimeters and inserted into a bag labeled “Desert Rose”, zeolite delighted millions of English cats in the form of a premium cat litter. When mixed with manure, it became a whole soil system whereby large patches of desert had youth and possibility inserted, and what came out was fierce green grass and money. This is where I learned that money is just a perception. From the single satellite image, I could see grassy earthen patches like private gardens. One of Dubai’s more fantastical projects in which I supplied product was Plantation Dubai, an equestrian community, built literally on sand and colossal extravagance. I later learned that the quick-witted Arthur Fitzwilliam, a stern-looking expat cut from proper British cloth, was arrested and vigorously questioned by some forensic bureaucrats about the whereabouts of more than $500 million missing from company accounts and owed to Dubai Islamic Bank. He was the leader of the grass-for-cash desert operation. When zeolite is mixed with potassium nitrate, it tickled thousands of Costa Rican banana trees until the trial ended upon Chiquita Banana’s bankruptcy filing, the day I arrived to access the trail’s performance, November 13, 2001. On that day, the company signaled doubt about repaying $862 million in debt, with the crashing of several Saudi-flown planes into the World Trade Center in New York City apparently decimating banana demand. Hope flared anew on the putting greens of many British Ryder Cup golf courses when zeolite, reacted and mixed with ammonium nitrate, was inserted into the surface wholes created by a machine that excavated tiny pellet-sized aeration vents. And when crushed to a fraction of 30 microns (like talcum powder), it was demonstrated by a researcher at North Carolina State University, at the 95th confidence interval, our zeolite bound toxins (ie. removed toxicity) in animal feeds, thereby improving bovine yields. There were bigger ideas too. Set against the purple haze of Earth’s lowest sunset and the mercurial waters of the Dead Sea, Abe, Jerry and I conspired about zeolite’s geo-engineering potential if it could be poured, by the thousands of tons, into the sea, in the gentle wake of lumbering container ships, thereby creating an algal bloom capable of sequestering some of the world’s over-abundant carbon dioxide. After all, earth’s oldest face is a seabed.
Funeral, part 2
Years went by like weeks and one day I’m on a silent drive in a familiar car headed out to the scene of Abe’s funeral I have previously described. I’ve replayed this drive in my head many times. Abbas’s much-repaired car, always clean, showed the signs of extra scrubbing as I noticed the cracks between the door and the jam had been swept clean of the desert that always finds a way to dust-dry your clothes to the innermost layers. Zeolite’s revenge for being disturbed is dust, endless dust. It can sustain refinement to a tiny fraction, barely visible to the naked eye, and when crushed to a large fraction, its tiny offspring fly away in the breeze on a tantrum to tongue its way into your eyes, hair and clothes. On the dash sat the radar detector I had given Abbas the driver a few years prior – not, as I explained, an invitation to speed while I was in the car. There was no banter about business or clunky Arabic language lessons. Instead, I soaked up the landscape and the different-colored brush strokes of brown, red and grey minerals. My minds’ eye shaped Abe’s interred face in the rocks. The porous limestone and fierce igneous rock formations danced with a liquid rhythm against the sun’s playful invitation. I wondered whether earth’s universal language was as much about shape as it is about color. The fault line I was descending into yielded the spell of Abe’s own undiminished interior landscape of imagination, the parent material of his ancient wisdom and modern knowledge that seemed to pour out now like scrabble as I bore my way back in geological time against the slow moving kaleidoscope of earth and sky, earth shining back at me in another point of coincidence.
He was an admired father and geochemist, a gravelly-voiced narrator of earth’s history, and he was gone, or I could say he was part of the earth, no longer a rock slinger, his biology now inserted into the earth. On other trips to Jordan I would drive out to see Abe at the Mars-scape mine site near the border with Syria and get into mechanical sympathy with the dusty production team: lumps of friable volcanic rocks, excavated by bulldozer from a two-million-year slumber, forced into the steely mouth of a hammer mill the size of a house. The geological violence from the mill belched plumes of red ochre dust towards the heat-shimmered sky, fanning out like spindly smoke trails, stirring up squalls of curiosity in everyone within a twenty-mile radius who saw the fire-swallowing earthen carnage as a symbol of opportunity. Something I could understand. It is considered impolite to refuse a Bedouin’s offer of coffee, and since most of our laborers were Bedouins I made a point of showing respect with the elders in a sit down inside a camel hair tent to discuss the gap between our obviously high revenue and the guilt we should feel, as American oppressors, for the shamefully low Bedouin wage rate (no matter that there wasn’t another source of cash compensation for a two hundred mile radius). The only structure, besides our newly built steel warehouse, were camelhair tents that were a combination of shade, pillowed living rooms and coffee houses in the shape of a rectangle. One day a deep-jawed, neckbearded Bedouin intruded on our male bonding session and offered a type of coffee beverage from a dented Chinese-made thermos. Unaware of whether to accept his offer (visitors in the Arab world are like targets for generosity) Abe leaned over to tell me the old man was there to help improve my sex life. His coffee possessed special influence over relations with your wife and is perhaps linked, I thought, with wish-fulfillment. I accepted a tiny white cup-basin of the dark, oily puddle of gold and watched the man smile as I force it to my mouth and swallowed. In that pulsing moment, all sorts of vivid images flashed in my head. Would drinking this mysterious recreational agent invite desire and the honey trap of an unwanted offer of rock-strewn bug action, like the overtelevised circus appetites that my culture pulls everyone towards: to acquire the identity of a trouserless, rootless wanderer capable of responding only to base instincts, empty purchase impulses, bought pleasure and bottom-dwelling jingoistic yelps. I asked Abe what happens next. In Jordan, you signal that you are finished with coffee by wiggling the small cup left and right between your fingers. Abe says to say thank you and to return the cup. No need to stand as he leaves. I had often times gotten Abe to participate with my fun in playing with words, and one of my favorites is to say thankum instead of thank you because, in my mental language, I believe “you’re welcome” and “thank you” should rhyme, to reflect play’s importance. Sometimes the world needs editing and so when I use my half-rhymes and word collisions with another person it means we belong to a little word wizard tribe, and you can never trust people beyond your tribe. As the old sex man leaves, I invoke thankum in respect of the vital importance of his life’s mission. Abe, predictably, translates my thankum into at least a dozen sentences of Arabic. I struggled to sustain my smile as I often have to in moments requiring a show of respect. After lots of laughter and what looked like a full-gallop thankum contest to win the best parting words award, Abe leans over and says has had incorrectly described the old man. Instead, Abe whispers to me that the old man deals in fertility, not sex. I instantly took the depth of his cosmic meaning and the grotesquery of my own judgement about individual desires. I suddenly felt unworthy of the spiritual demands of these people. I was like a drunk falling out of a hammock. Embarrassment vented from my face as I processed my own ugliness like a sentence interrupted by the bluntness of a colon. I squeezed out of this brief encounter the distinction between sex and fertility that I had only previously seen as vague behavioral norms, in the Arab world and elsewhere. In this world it is unsaid but an actively practiced norm that sex is selfish and fertility is inclusive. It’s how sexuality is framed. Fertility invokes the threads of respect for your parents and relatives and the obligation to weave into your children the quality of seeing the good in others, despite any obvious reasons not to, because that’s how you see the good in yourself. Thankum had delivered on its promise to reveal a structure of meaning and connection, and now the font size of my mental language swelled in the new light.
We glide up the driveway with an uncomfortable, exaggerated slowness to show respect for the occasion. Abe’s home is an artful, informal melding of concrete and wood that is a rare sight in a country with only one forest. Outside a worker labors against the weight of a cart full of olives. They must have just harvested from the olive tree orchard, a sign of things not stopping. A goat wonders in the yard, the tiny bell around its neck tinkling in rhythm with its slow, pre-slaughter indifference. Abe’s wife meets me at the entrance and, as we embrace, the tears flow, her wet eyes still smiling from the joy she believes Allah had gifted to her in the answered prayer of Abe’s love. For years I referred to her as Mom and she always treated me warmly, closer to something like a brother-in-law or first cousin, looping me in on the important decisions in which she always participated. For her this would be the end of a life partnership, a gentle vice of earned love that emerged in adulthood after the blanket of a parent’s gift of love recedes. It’s quiet in the room except for the clanking of earthenware pots participating in the olive operations just outside the open window. The house was filled with the familiar, nourishing smell of garlic and olive oil and baked bread. Mom, the world needs more people like Abe – Abe’s son translates my words for benefit of the mostly non-English speakers in the group. Forty pairs of kind eyes look at me with approval and with the concreteness of operating room lights. I slowly make my way over to the appointed chair, shy about the evidence of my man tears, wondering whether Bedouins accept public male crying in a eulogist. There was a moment of long silence and hand staring. I tried to force relaxation by recalling that there were no complicated areas of our relationship. I could hear the whisperings of private, Islamic prayers, an ensemble of enormous unity. Then I am addressed by the eldest woman in the room. She had a permanently turned out lower lip and deep facial lines that were baked by decades of sun exposure. She gave off a counter-intuitive energy of being fully alive at 100 years old – and infinite calm. In Arabic, I discerned her kind welcome to Jordan after my long journey. She says she has one question. Abe’s son translates again. I nod in approval. Do you see this man next to me? She points to her equally-ancient husband. Not sure what to think, I acknowledge with a slight head nod. He won’t stop complaining, she says,…will you take him back to America with you!? I’m stunned, what am I missing in this comment? My eyes slide back and forth looking for answers in the faces of the others sitting next to her. Without warning, a silent, gaping laughter peels down the old woman’s slender form like the ocean seizing the bow of a ship in a furious wallop of frothy you can almost hear. Then the truth-seeking pulse of her words, a huge, wild invitation, detonated an eruption of riotous group laughter that shook even the goat. When I tasted her words, they were like a sweet, deep-earth pyroclastic flow, and I cried with laughter.
If mining implicates earth’s flesh, then drilling taps her blood, and there was no better place to exsanguinate victory and let it course through your veins than in cash-intensive wreckage of the sprawling “old hag” oilfields of the newly-formed Former Soviet Union in the 1990s. I went to Russia as banker of oil and gas projects. You can poke a hole in the ground thousands of miles from a coastline and what comes up first is tears of ancient salt water trapped in dark Pleistocene rock, together with a dirty, high-sulphur crude oil common to Russia. For a banker of these dirty works, the most advantaged place to be was the lobby of the Metropole Hotel. It was deliciously warmer in winter than any other place in Moscow. The sun’s short daily skirt along the horizon can make you question its commitment to shine on this unnatural latitude. Thin sun beams resemble the moon and magnify a sense of isolation, producing a psychotic dimming of the normal rhythm you had with it. Yet beneath the sun-strained frozen tundra lies millions of gallons of the sun’s energy liquefied by organics and time. To compensate for these benthic tensions, Vasily taught me the art of drinking the way any other Muscovite would do, provided he had enough kopeks. We sat at a table in the lobby and ordered a small bottle of Okhotnichya, or hunter’s vodka, the tasting notes of which yielded an earthy, spicy flavor that was consistent with its brown color and floating bits of root detritus. Vasily and I had agreed to meet some men from Smolensk, a city in the heartland, who claimed to have special access to the mysterious Golden Ruble. The monetary chaos let loose in the collapse of the Soviet Union had entered into the daily psyche of a people desperate for some symbol of economic stability, and thus the Golden Ruble was used to turn nostalgia against you in a twisted expression of hope that some believed held magical powers far beyond its precious metallic allure – if such a ruble even existed. This kind of treacherous false hope, along with an endless supply of other shiny mischiefs like it, preyed on rich and poor alike whose naïve immune systems allowed such scams to fill in for the real promise of salvation or security or justice that the church or a Tsar had offered but never delivered in times of past upheaval. For us, the mystery contained in an encounter with these people from the deep interior of Russia was all that mattered. Okhotnichya, the chosen beverage for our meeting, doesn’t deliver a stupefying bolt to the brain like the dimensionless vodkas popular in the West. Instead, it mingles with your thoughts, first by removing whatever vexing problem that seems to be poisoning your outlook and then replacing it with a narrow range of possibilities involving more Okhotnichya, food and sex with no particular order of indulgence. After several vodka volleys and some male peacocking about hidden riches obtainable if only I part with my cash (tomorrow at noon!). That was the only amusing part of the scheme. The men finally sluiced away as quickly as they had arrived, with exaggerated stealth, towards some obviously superior engagement.
I was in Russia on many occasions to work on various oil and gas projects that involved extracting hydrocarbons from deep down. The oil majors were compelled to “get long” Russia despite the lack of any legal framework for production sharing and asset securitization. It was a conditions of general chaos. I worked with a team of bankers specializing in financing projects under a bilateral guarantee, meaning the terms were commercial but in the event of default the two nations – Russia and the United States – would settle the matter on a sovereign basis. Otherwise, there would be no credit available in Russia. These U.S. credit facilities and another one called Nunn-Lugar were meant to spark commercial activity in Russia and also employ former nuclear and biological scientists in safer arenas like pharmaceuticals. Russians were skeptical of the Nunn-Lugar types of financial support because the programs were operated by the U.S. military.
Financing an existing oil field requires a forensic examination of the geology and hydroplogy. It tells a story. When an oil field is first exploited, it contains natural pressure. One goal of the developer is to judiciously tap that pressure so that the hard-to-get resource lasts longe. Once the pressure is gone, it gets a lot more expensive to produce oil using a system of steam injection down into the earth to replace the pressure that has been exhausted. It became clear that the squalor the country had acquired was directly related to the squandering of vital earth forces, like the conditions in many Russian oil fields, in the name of short-term productivity. And the squalor-to-squandering ratio rose fast in the 1980s. Oil was the glue that held the Soviet empire together, so when oil production fell by 50% in the 1980s, it meant less energy for some areas but a cruel denial of existence for other regions like the Ukraine that depended on oil to fertilize crops. The oil records showed that the Soviets never factored in innovation, efficiency gains, or losses from theft. The central planners assumed that peak oil production from over-exploited fields would continue from the 1980s into the future. That blunder brought the whole system down in the 1990s when oil prices collapsed, obliterating the Soviet Union’s foreign currency reserves. And so the 100 million or so who died in the the great communist experiment did so in vain.
Raw hunks of Slavic suffering hung in my throat like undigested meat. Suspension, fashionable conspiracy theories and speculation were rampant in the thoughts and faces of an entire society who had been forced to swallow the whole communist worm and now had turned to crab a new shell from the broken ones discarded in previous calamities. Out of this stew and barely visible on the horizon were the darker forces that would oligarch the fledgling nation into the world’s largest cash machine and, for the Russian people, inflict another prison sentence slightly less onerous than the one just completed. Little of the suffering and all the energy propelling the country forward could be experienced within a radius of a few miles of the Kremlin. During the day, the Metropole Hotel, across the street from the Kremlin, offered a complete perspective of the country’s molting state of criminalization. It was visible in the carousel of clowns wandering around central Moscow and, inevitably, into elegant lobby of the hotel. The hive of scoundrels, willing to sell you a dream, often with a hook of nostalgia from Tsarist Russia, was no doubt reviving the then atrophied authoritarian urges among some former members of the KGB whose slippery identities were twisting around the third leg of the decrepit Slavic stool. At night, the action moved to Night Flight, the city’s first and largest night club, where thugs were said to be disallowed, suits were required, and the kitchen was supplied by daily direct truck deliveries from Sweden. Paul Tatum, a well-known American businessman in Moscow in the 1990s, found it unhealthy to publish in a local newspaper an editorial suggesting his business partner was trying to unjustly squeeze him out of ownership of a successful hotel joint venture. He was shot down in a subway station shortly after publishing his screed. The rule of club and fang offered up acts of bloodthirsty revenge almost daily.
Odd Arne Westad, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, argues in his book, The Cold War, that the West won because it was materially, not ideologically, stronger. This debate is no closer to exhaustion now than it was twenty years ago, but since that time extreme wealth disparities around the world, particularly in the U.S., add to the question of what was won and lost at the conclusion of that long unpleasantness.
Max arrived at the lobby of the Metropole wearing a wool overcoat of no recent vintage and leather jackboots. He was a chess grand master in the world of Blitz chess and member of the 1986 US Olympiad chess team. Max had studied math before turning to chess full-time and so hours went by in which he and Vasily explored various philosophical math concepts in Russian while I did my own Russian thinking-drinking. Max’s partner was another chess champion, Garry Kasperov, who was not nearly well known in the West as he would eventually become, and the two were active in the newly-formed Moscow Stock Exchange. Max was a practiced listener and observer – deeply curious and the opposite of the empty “action oriented optimist” personas worn by so many other finance people I had encountered from the West. I invested in Max’s fund, Moscow Growth Fund and, by luck, it became the best performing equity fund on the Moscow Stock Exchange in 1997. The main thrust of the fund’s strategy was to purchase shares from the new employee-owners of state assets in far away places where liquidity for such shares was thin. It was one of the best “buy a dollar for fifty cents” schemes I had ever heard come across. Since there was always a chance the newly issued shares would become worthless due to a variety of nefarious factors, offering liquidity even at a discount made a lot of people’s lives better and connected them to capitalism sooner than through the slow encroachment of consumer products inching its way Russia’s remote regions. Of course, which company’s stock to buy was the most important challenge and the subject of artful speculation. Later, I learned Max was arrested in Russia and then acquitted of all charges of embezzlement in what looked like a prosecution-for-hire scheme stemming from a dispute with some well-connected Russian shareholders of Solikamsk Magnesium Works, Russia’s second-largest magnesium-producing plant, of which Max’s fund held a controlling stake.
What draws people to speculate often fits into the narrow lens of greed and envy. Sometimes those labels are justified, especially when such speculation has anti-social outcomes, and other times jealously on the part of those who missed benefiting from speculation becomes a way to mask failures or justify sloth, especially when a whole nation’s pride is wounded. I think this is why most people who speculate in commercial arenas are frequently isolated or criticized. Others, never known as speculators, made their name in other arenas before entering the commercial world, especially scientists, Abe and Jerry among them. In these cases, it seems speculation was a necessary part of their success. Patterns emerged in the path I was following.
I had spent four summers in Europe working and cruising around on quasi-vacation with my family. The first summer was spent in London where for a brief period I was a “yellow jacket” FSTE futures trader or perhaps something closer to an observer of the other traders around me in a huge, masculine trading pit. At the time, German bonds served as the proximity for movements in European-wide macroeconomic trends like U.S. treasuries do today the for the U.S. economy. For these people, trading $50m bond positions for five minutes was routine. After weeks of Cockney-accented yelps and an endless supply fried fish doused with vinegar and beer I still had not grasped the contours of anything repeatable, so I decided to focus on the more family-friendly stock market.
One random day in London I was walking head-down towards a meeting, avoiding attention and the messy cacophony of urban chaos around me. I was in Westminster, in central London, and came across a plaque describing the building in front of me as the former home of Sir Isaac Newton. It was in this house and in the nearby coffee houses that one of the great early financial speculations occurred. Newton, recognized as one of the most influential scientists of all time, was a key figure in the scientific revolution that remains in play today. Only Einstein reached heights exceeding Newton’s genius. From optics to calculus to celestial mechanics to a theory that linked gravitational forces to mass, Newton cut new territory of scientific inquiry that sparked mankind’s biggest scientific leaps. Yet his greatest passion appears to have been speculating in securities during the era of early capitalism. For the last half of Newton’s life, he was the warden of the Royal Mint and Master of the Mint. Newton’s hair was posthumously examined to contain high levels of mercury, lead and arsenic, the contaminants that have been attributed to a period of insomnia, depression and memory loss between 1692-1693. Newton’s own notes on chemistry include a recipe that details how to make “sophick mercury,” a substance linked to the Philosopher’s stone, a mythical stone that alchemists of the period believed could change base metals like lead into precious ones like gold. It is uncertain whether Newton invested much faith in alchemy or whether he was just a diligent note taker. But in 1719, Newton brought about Britain’s adaption of the a gold standard, the first instance of a modern monetary authority adopting a ratio of precious metal as a basis for a sovereign currency.
It was the South Sea Bubble that Newton cultivated his greatest speculation, at one point holding a leveraged position for a period of years. Despite its ignominious end, The South Sea Company was a stable investment for many years and allowed Newton, an early supporter and investor, to accumulate significant gains. According to research by Andrew, Newton probably lost $20 million (in today’s currency) first by selling in the early stages of the bubble and then re-investing a larger amount at the top just prior to the bubble’s collapse. The South Sea Company was not a fraud but merely an early form of quantitative easing by the debt-laden U.K. government. The company sold shares and purchased government debt – there was no commercial activity in the “South Sea” despite the appeal among similar investment ideas of that period. New issues of shares, sold at a par value of £100, eventually sold for £300, £400 and finally £1,000. Investors were attracted by the opportunities in the emerging markets of the day – including those that exploited the natural resources of the new frontier, North America. Commodity plays were particularly appealing. Several firms planned to extract silver from lead, a concept I’m certain Newton promoted. Newton’s senior position in the U.K. government netted huge gains for him personally, and despite losing an estimated $20 million in the South Sea Bubble, Newton died a wealthy man. The same can be said for several other figures active in stock market speculation alongside Newton. Danial Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, was a prolific propagandist of stocks at the time. And Thomas Guy, connected to Newton is several ways, is estimated to have profited hugely in the South Sea Company by selling shares early in the bubble and avoiding the crash. Guy became a philanthropist when he built a large hospital in central London. Guy’s Hospital, dating from 1721, remains in operation today.
Hudson’s Bay Company was capitalized and formed by British royal charter in 1670. Today, it is North America’s oldest corporation and has transformed into a sprawling Canadian retailer. By coincidence, Jerry Zucker purchased it while I was working for him, and I got to know the company by traveling to Canada on assignment to bring the joys of Jordanian zeolite to cats all across Canada.
The Zaporozhye Nuclear Power Plant could not pay. I had been working with a group of Ukrainians who were taking advantage of an arbitrage trade that had emerged when Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union. Supplies of nuclear fuel still flowed from mother Russia to Ukraine’s nuclear power plants, but now the new arrangement required upfront cash payment. I had even visited the plant with some surly people from Duke Engineering USA who were deploying air ventilated storage systems to house the menacing inventory of spent nuclear fuel and other atrocious stockpiles of neglect. With these hard-eyed people, calm was absent from any conversation. The word salad that typically spilled out of the English-starved Westerners working in the region was totally absent. A permanent sweat seemed to pervade every piece of these nuclear hobos’ winter utility clothing. The many grain-handling towns of Ukraine have the surface appeal of a bucolic turn-of-the century hamlet, but this place’s dominant feature, an industrial abscess, looked like a fanged mastodon leaking putrefied internal organs, sutured into the landscape. After that experience, I resolved never to visit the aluminum plant again and instead opted to help deploy the proceeds of this nuclear fuel barter-triangle-trade towards investments in promising non-nuclear companies that were undergoing privatization through a region-wide program that was really just a giant yard sale of rusty, broken state assets. The highly valuable resource assets mostly went to a small group of Russians that today make up the Russian Oligarchs, some of the richest men on earth. Our scheme worked like this. My employers purchased nuclear fuel from TVEL, a Russian government entity, with cash, arranged the state-to-state delivery, and then took power output from the power plant as payment. This newly minted power was then bartered for output produced by an equally ugly and insanely inefficient Zaporozhye aluminum smelter just down the road from the nuke plant. The aluminum was shipped overseas for sale to the highest bidder, and then we turned the funds around and invested the proceeds in the region’s most promising assets, which is why I was in Riga, to alloy nuclear fuel into net-interest-margin cash flow. I negotiated approval from the Latvian central bank to purchase distressed Jelgava Bank. The source of its prior distress was unclear. Latvian banking licenses had become valuable to emerging Russian oligarchs for reasons beyond me, but for political reasons it was difficult for a Russian to outright buy a Latvian bank. The idea was to acquire it with the least amount of capital required, reorganize it and then sell it to a larger non-Russian regional bank that could use a Lativian outpost to service its Russian and other regional clients. This was long before Russia became an outlaw nation run as Putin’s personal cash machine.
I met the high-waisted chairman of Lativa’s central bank on an utterly frozen winter afternoon in the dimly-lit capital city of Riga. What distinguished this banker was his youth (he was barely five years older than me) and his degree from a university in Washington DC. In a strange moment of elsewhere reflection and confession that crossed over into the personal, I learned that his limp was acquired on a hike along the sun-warmed muddy shores of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. Besides this detail, events unfolded predictably when I promised an Ernst & Young audit of the bank and an injection of a sum of money in new capital. And so with a slightly raised right eye-brow, the central bank chairman issued a provisional license extension, listing me as the person most responsible for meeting the bank’s new obligations, subject to the fulfillment of the conditions we had just agreed to.
The UNESCO-listed old city center of Riga is a special place. The city’s roots stretch back to medieval times, as evidenced by the circular urban design of its cobbled streets and the out-of-proportion windows and doors of its oldest structures (poor nutrition produced smaller humans 400 years ago). Walking outward from the city center is like moving through time. Successive occupiers of the city built in the style of the era and now those expressions of period architecture fan out like layers, with increasing levels of opulence timestamping the building facades’ parallel path along a bumpy evolution through higher trade and widening cultural exchange. The outermost ring of development, ramparts of the Soviet era, is a brutalist reproduction of Norilsk’s finest architectural specimens. The outskirts abut timbered hills and a tilled earth landscape where in windless conditions you can earwitness taunting isolation in the cry of trains as they peel towards the frozen horizon from the seaport, shattering the rural stillness.
Thirst took hold after my meeting at the banker’s office, and the severe cold meant I had to find refuge within a block of walking distance. There were throngs of desperate, shrunken streetwalkers knuckled over against the stabbing arctic winds. The city sparkled like a frosted toy village. Winter darkness takes hold in Riga before 4pm, and I was interrupted by the natural light fading to lunar ash on the horizon. Luckily there was a pub situated below street level that looked like a rustic but adequate haunt to corral for a few hours and indulge my immoderate capacity for fatty Slavic foods. Below the surface, in the interior warm places where old Soviet propaganda posters arc across mantelpieces like retro-mocking symbols, there exists a dreamy, abundant flow of humanity. Inside the pub, a TV of recent Chinese vintage flickered MTV. The uneven rock walls and the book-worn bindings of ancient timber lattices of the ceiling formed a kind of cellar atmosphere, tinged with the smells of dank mold and spilled beer and spider legs. The stones of the wall glistened with the dank sweat of the place and the scars of past brawls. Amid the smoky blur, a clutch of people grouped around a table in the back corner of the otherwise empty pub. They were drinking coffee while a well-tailored man with an American accent poured words into the group, and from the focus of attention created by the fixated eyes of his listeners there unfolded the sounds of some kind of plan being inhaled. His eyes hurled wildly around the table. I wondered about the subject that so occupied the concentration of this dapper man of commerce. His carefully chosen rant was barbed with emotional triggers in what looked like a choreographed inculcation of ultra-knowledge, spiked with insider psychographic jargon that went way beyond logic and more than adequately masked another purposes that I could not as yet discern. His evidently hot appetites (that no doubt ranging between prosperous and preposterous) clashed against the tiny margin of economic security that was evident among his audience’s gypsy-rags clothing: Pakistan-made shoes and only two layers of winter garments to salve the newly refrigerated hearts from winter’s wounds. They were like children attracted to the sound and smell of frying bacon. In the beginning there was the Word, I thought, as this doorgunner reveled in the heat of the action. I speculated that behind this plot of coming armies was a barrage of angular tactical directives and, for these recruits, the promise of a pilgrimaged grubstake piece of priestly liberty that would someday yield all the outward and visible signs of success like the fashion-infused stylishness of his physical charms, breezy confidence and high-style speed of communication. I thought how feeble was my call to action in the office of the central bank (a total absence of novelty) compared to this timeless one-man-band prophet, an evangelist of the foundational principles of true, true freedom: consumer choice. His movements suggested concrete action and the harvesting of opportunity. The cold-skinned moon faces of the bar staff, heads cocked in a communist stupor and bodies bloated with drink, drifted just outside the outer ring of commerce man’s gravitational force. Storyline: Decapitated stone heads are rolling off formerly-distinguished star gazers, and with the guardianship of souls thus released, demand for products (and identities) is surging. He unloaded in visually-rich hand movements the vital need to show Latvians a delineated world of free market thinking – and you, the chosen ones, will carry streetward with this calling, with this subduction. The pilgrims’ eyes displayed the rawness of the newly-found insertion of permanent want. Uncoiling his legs, the man stood and placed his hand on the table with exaggerated slowness, followed by a spasmic table slam and a suggestion that any future hand banging would enforce the found message. It presumably would also contain wads of cash for a purpose admirably achieved. The surprising aim of this topic of conversation was marketing – and the jewel being offered was U.S. cigarettes.
I got another glimpse of commerce man’s swagger the next day when I visited the U.S. embassy in Riga. He was there, no doubt, to discover the most tax-advantaged import scheme that had been negotiated through bilateral arrangement by the U.S. trustees of freedom and choice, a prize for Latvia’s introduction to industrial consumerism. A few years later I learned, in a chance encounter with the former station chief for Moscow, that the Company had investigated Jelgava Bank for reasons he could not disclose but more relevant to me, and my former executive positon at the bank, was the untimely beheading of the Lativian executive who had preceded me.
Across an unfathomable stretch of ocean, and over the belly of the globe, I traveled to meet Tony. We had spoken only a few times by telephone, and based on those conversations we had agreed that I would take the lead of his company after the recent premature departure of his former CEO. Tony’s slightly bronzed skin, the color of cedar wood, suggested indeterminate ethnicity as most New Zealanders were of Northern European extraction, almost pure white, except for the people whose relatives were native to the island, which Tony was not. His eyes were wide and smart and dark and were capable of holding direct contact for long periods of time, a sign of an unusual ability to concentrate. And I later learned he had a soft spot for underdogs, like himself. After a brief first introduction at the Auckland airport we proceeded to general aviation where his helicopter was waiting. Earth’s tiny details faded upon liftoff, and the horizon swelled to reveal the curvicle signature of its true shape. The smell of grinding metal mingled with jet fuel broke my clammy fatigue and lured me to probe the edges of my tolerance for weightlessness. The canvas hard blue sky I had witnessed from the plane just a few hours prior was now in my hands. I asked the pilot to fly to the height of the clouds and hover. Looking down, I could see the spiraling pinwheels of cloud vapor swirl out of an airy stillness towards earth like little Kelvin-Helmholtz instabilities as we drilled the sky. Tony turned towards his pilot with a man-on-the-run look in his eye, like they were getting away with something, conspiratorially. The molten yellow hue of the sun in the Southern Hemisphere unfurls slowly. You realize a difference with the Northern Hemisphere’s piercing white sunbeams. More striking is the subtle difference in the trees and plants, species that I had never seen before. Tree trunks bulge in odd patterns, gnarled with excitement, unsure of whether to grow wide or tall. Leaf sizes seem incongruous, and conifers’ sharp needles tend to point sternly skyward as if being blown from the ground. And from the vantage point of five thousand feet, it could discern the planetology of cooled-off volcanic action. Land fingers into the sea creating the crannies, chasms, rents and crevasses of ancient lava flow, like two people’s fingers threaded in a grasp. When earth was one ancient land mass, called Pangaea, conifers dominated the vegetative scene. Eventually, Pangaea bifurcated laterally creating a Northern continent and a Southern one. With the split came a separation of the genetic scripting, and since then gravity and sunlight have shaped flora, like distinct accents of the same language, in the now separated hemispheres. The ancient DNA found in some tree species point to a rebellion over gravity stretching back hundreds of millions of years that evolved into a singular, columnar obsession towards a never ending reconciliation of earth and sky. That much is the same. But the biological energy once preserved for buttressing Northern hemisphere plants against icy precipitation is let loose in mellow New Zealand and yields in her trees all sorts of unfamiliar shapes and colors for visitors from the North to admire.
Flying over the Kāingaroa Plains to the mountains reveals the Taupō and Rotorua lakes, formed out of the explosion craters and calderas of former volcanoes that make up the backbone of the tiny continent. Here its miniature vastness is on display. For lunch, we would sometimes fly to Waiheke Island in the Hauraki Gulf of New Zealand, just 12 miles offshore from Auckland. Flying wasn’t a source of vanity for Tony. It was a skill to be acquired as a pilot and an expression of rebellion, like his penchant for car racing, but with the added dimension of the landscapes. As the helicopter approached this offshore wonder, bucolic streaks of green hills give way to villages that looked like they were carved out of tree trunks, a picture of harmony. The land is dotted with vineyards, and little puffs of sheep smear past as the pilot itricates the soft contours of the island with our whirling pod. In the midst of our machined flight, the sound of rotor blades cry out and then reverberate from the ground with a garish, double-barrel announcement of our blazing arrival.
No one really owns the Internet, and in the beginning different computers connected over copper telephone lines based on an IP address that was just a number. It was like there was one giant continent and only a few citizens with special technical skills could exchange information over the network. A few top level domains such as .COM and .NET established the domain name system whereby a unique address is created within a fixed set of letters to the left of the dot. A domain name system, called the DNS, allowed for the translation of IP addresses into words like apple.com and the seamlessly routed traffic to information files we call websites. The formation of the DNS created the massive domain industry and a distribution system of registrars that sell domain names and ancillary services. For many years, there were only a few highly-regulated registars. The registrars are like auto manufacturers and the registries are like auto dealerships. Countries were permitted to operate their own registries, called country level domains, like .DE for Germany, and it was in this backwater area of the Internet that Tony purchased paydirt with a registry, started in his garage, that specialized in country level domain sales.
It was on Waiheke Island that Tony and I agreed on a plan that gave meaning to our improbable meeting. We discovered an instant affinity and passion for digital memorials. During the time I was working in New Zealand, tectonic forces were pushing the development and expansion of the infrastructure of the Internet. The Internet’s governing body decided to permit registries to be formed like new continents in the Internet’s infrastructure. These new registeries could be privately owned and controlled. The one we wanted to control is .RIP. What may seems morbid to some is important to those of us who have been visited by death and whose death, as I have mentioned about Tony, was secretly forming a microscopic attack, even on that day. At lunch, conversations branched off in different directions. At some point Tony’s wife leaned over and asked him, in a tone slightly tinged with judgement, whether we were talking about death again. No, we lied in synchronicity. No magnetic needle was necessary. Tony’s brain was bimodal. It could be in one instance pear-shaped, oiled with alcohol, and in another instance sharp and quick witted and overflowing with energy and keenly imagined options. You could feel the mobility. A new Internet protocol perhaps? What often filled in the troughs between those two peeks was fried food and cigarettes. And eventually disease.
My mind still tingles where the grip of Tony’s tycoon instincts pushed death into my consciousness. I had become familiar with the obliterated trail so many people had traveled before him.
Years later, I got reacquainted with communism but this time in a tropical environment as the co-founder and editor in chief of the Cuba Journal. No one seemed able to understand my career (speculator, adventure capitalist) so I decided to start a niche media business featuring the parts most attractive to an affluent demographic buried in the ruble of Cuba’s slow transition from communism to capitalism. Havana is not a setting for a plot but a container of its own rhythm, neglected parts, gouged with age, a bricolage of stone and concrete and corners, grim without danger and discontinuity stretching over centuries. You can feel the centuries. And for Westerns the first hint of Havana’s texture is the absence of modern advertising. Sunlight detonates a rich variety of patinas and earthy light that interacts with natural materials and hand made paints and colors that lather the exterior faces of most of Havana’s structures. Here, shiny metal is an unaffordable adornment. People mingle with fish, not fish products. It summons a contrast with the decor of instant vinyl leather of pure Americana left behind just a few hours before. Havana is unpredictable and I’m always excited about the the city is going to do to me on every visit.
San Francisco de Paula
From the high vantage point of the Finca Vigía, I could see San Francisco de Paula, the small village outside Havana where Ernest Hemingway lived for decades up until his departure from Cuba in 1960. It looked the same as it did then except now his home is a museum. Set against a flawless sky and the sea in the background, multiple shades of green treetops fan out in gentle layers and give way to the hardness of Havana’s skyline. Tiny drifts of sweet-smelling smoke lift through the trees and scatter in the Caribbean breeze.
Tranquility is a common sensation in Cuba, and here it blooms with little effort. San Francisco de Paula is a typical Cuba town. Animals power most transportation and agriculture, and happiness does not appear to be diminished by material deprivation. Despite an increase in tourist visitors in recent years, this place still pulses with the remnants of Hemingway’s creative energy in a way that is wholly different from the rest of the Caribbean’s industrial tourism machinery. Few artists of Hemingway’s stature have their homes preserved, and even fewer are as well preserved as the Finca. Standing next to his writing table, you can perceive his immense natural abilities – and something way more than luck (Hemingway was superstitious) – that produced the Old Man and the Sea, the novella that is attributed to his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, and numerous other works. The place provokes reflection by relinquishing the abstractness of school room academics. When something studied becomes experienced, the inward landscape reveals some hidden qualities – a land I could walk through – and a freight of details that are both physical and conceptual.
Since first reading Hemingway in high school, then after encountering the work again while studying English in college, I’d searched for the extra meaning in Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory. It explains his minimalist style and penchant for using simple language and short sentence structure to push complex narratives below the surface of the text, thereby placing demands on the reader to perceive the subconscious underpinnings of his work. On that day, I had hoped to add a new aspect to my understanding of Hemingway’s work. This is something that studying art at a young age does to you. I was interested in the big mysteries and the emotional amperage that you find on the shores of those discoveries. You can always teach yourself accounting.
Over my years of travel to Cuba, I had gotten to know Julio, an employee at the Finca, and was delighted to accept his offer to photograph the interior pages of some of Hemingway’s books that are stored in the museum’s library. We had agreed to meet at the Finca on my next visit. Julio approached me wearing a tan pseudo suede jacket and cockpit sunglasses. We exchanged a few words in Spanish, and I handed him my phone and headed over to the Finca Vigia’s veranda to wait for him to return. Soon the place empties of its visitors except for a few people who are speaking in a churchly voice near an open window on the sun-exposed side of the house. “I think he was a bullfighter,” whispers one of the visitors.
Julio returns with several specimens of the books he photographed. I held them and briefly examined the pencil handwriting. Julio’s body language suggested time was running out for my secrete glimpse of Hemingway’s marginalia and with my phone returned and a nod from Julio, I set out to find a place to view the catch. Descending down the hill to the parking lot, nature-made sounds from the surrounding gardens give way to the salsa of a Cuban band. An African-Spanish synthesis of percussion fills the space under a large Ceiba tree in the parking lot. A squall of consumption surrounds a pop-up rum bar. Tourists standing at the bar sway in sympathy with the music. Others are clutched around a table sharing the experience over lyrical vocals and the instruments’ sharp sounds. Chinese miniskirts, baggy sweats and kitschy straw hats sparkle with tiny threads of sunlight that penetrate the tree’s embracing canopy.
Someone said there are few things better than having something good to drink. So over a rum cocktail made from mechanically squeezed cane juice, I sit down in a plastic chair next to the bar and explore the images of the private notes of the Nobel prize winning author.
The first image is a mystery. It’s a written note about his observation of a feline sexual encounter. Hemingway loved cats and had dozens of them as pets in his Key West home and at the Finca. His writing in this note wasn’t the complex, below-the-text narrative I was hoping to find. But I thought the date may suggest an explanation. It could be that this writing reveals more about his mental state in 1957 than any complex meaning in the words themselves.
According to new analysis by Dr. Andrew Farah in his book, Hemingway’s Brain (2017), Hemingway experienced successive concussive blows and other minor brushes with death that likely resulted in medical conditions similar to postconcussive syndrome (PCS) and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Hemingway’s repeated head trauma, combined with the effects of decades of alcohol abuse, led eventually to his permanent dementia. CTE is cited as the culprit in the National Football League’s (NFL) $765 million settlement (2013) with former players with head injuries.
Farah’s analysis breaks with previous scholarly conclusions about Hemingway’s supposed bi-polar disorder condition. Farah constellates primary historical documents, injury history and evidence found in Hemingway’s own writing (based on original hand written manuscripts) to explain the author’s failing capacity to write and the parallel disintegration of personality that unfolded in the final decade or so of his life. Farah’s conclusions fit so neatly that his analysis is a new reference point for any researcher hoping to navigate the waters of Hemingway’s psyche.
According to Farah, many signals echo that Hemingway was progressively being denied access to his cognition by 1957 including disinhibition, paranoia and regression that is evident in uncharacteristic references to adolescent sexuality. In other words, by 1957, he was more like what we made of him than what he was.
Hemingway’s emotional dyscontrol escalated during the 1950’s and with it came his most sexually charged writing. Garden of Eden is his most erotic novel, and this note appears to be another example of this trend.
Correspondence from the author’s friends and editors describe his slow dissolution and diminishing macho mental armoring that would eventually collapse into his suicided, shotgunned end in 1961. Hemingway sought treatment at the Mayo Clinic in the year leading up to his death, but PCS and CTE were not recognized medical conditions at that time. According to Farah, Hemingway’s electroconvulsive treatments were the standard of care for depression but were useless or even harmful because depression was only a symptom of PSC and CTE.
In the distance on the unkept boundary of the property, near the debris of the previous popup bar, a woman approaches from the village. It is never easy to guess the age of Cubans over fifty years old because the hard-earned benefits of caloric restriction and the burdens of forgotten stresses work on people’s faces in unpredictable ways. Her youthful buoyance and firm center of gravity on the rocky terrain betray her advanced age. She was unfamiliar with the new, invisible commercial boundaries created by the rum and music operation. While her withered sandals and lean frame gave the impression that she had swallowed the whole communist worm, up close her eyes blazed with vitality. The woman was hungry – the revelry had gone on for too long by hours – and the unfamiliar scene had stirred her curiosity.
There is no question that the Hemingway family suffered from genetic vulnerabilities for risks related substance abuse, depression and other psychiatric disorders. Hemingway’s son, Gregory (or “Gloria” after his sex change operation) suffered from lifelong mental illness.
According to Farah, in 1957 Hemingway advised Gregory to have electroconvulsive treatments. He believed the treatment had aided Gregory’s older brother, Patrick. In a letter, Hemingway writes to Gregory, “Even though you feel better now, the doctors have convinced me that it would be wise to take the same treatments Patrick had, and which did him so much good, so that you would not have a recurrence of that suicidal feeling and get rid of your anxiety state. They say that treatment cannot possibly do your brain any harm.” (John Hemingway, Strange Tribe).
Like many artists, Hemingway was a keen observer of the world. Taking notes was his favorite way of capturing moments, recording events and tracking expenses. Evidence of obsessive note taking can be found all over the Finca. Besides the many notes and marginalia written inside his books, he recorded his weight and blood pressure on the walls of the bathroom adjoining his favorite room for writing (these artifacts remain today). And on his fishing boat, the Pilar, he kept meticulous records of the particulars of the fish caught on the boat.
The notes that detail furniture inventory in “Jinny’s Room” no doubt date to his time living in Paris while he was married to his second wife, Pauline. Virginia “Jinny” Pfeiffer, the younger sister of Pauline, was a source of controversy in Hemingway’s life. At first, he was supposedly more attracted to Jinny than Pauline but shifted his attention when he discovered Jinny’s preference for women. Yet Jinny and Hemingway remained friends for decades.
The inventory for his “work room” and “dining room” contain a reference to a famous piece of art by Joan Miro, a surrealists living in Paris when Hemingway was there. The two were friends during Hemingway’s time in Paris, and he purchased the piece, La Ferme, on a (struggling artist) payment plan for 5,000 francs, insisting, “It has in it all that you feel about Spain when you are there and all that you feel when you are away and cannot go there. No one else has been able to paint those two opposing things.” The art hung in the Finca’s dining room. I assume the “25,000” refers to the value Hemingway is assigning to it at the time he wrote the note.
Alberto Quintana was one of Hemingway’s closest friends. He stayed at the Hotel Quintana on visits to Pamplona numerous times between 1924 and 1931. It is believed that Quintana was the inspiration for the character of Juanito Montoya, owner of the Hotel Montoya, in the novel The Sun Also Rises (1926). The reference to Lieutenant Roget likely pertains to a film from the period. Roget is played by actor Wayne Morris in Stanley Kubrick’s World War I film, Paths of Glory (1957) . Though the film’s war theme is related to the author’s main subject matter, there is no know connection between Kubrick and Hemingway.
It was after my second cocktail, and the relief from a tired sun, that I was able to access some earlier thoughts about Hemingway’s work. On an artistic level, the sea represents both beauty and treachery for Hemingway. And in his mental landscape, the capriciousness of the sea parallels the randomness of life and requires man to demonstrate his worthiness through noble action. Adherence to this stoic belief underpins one of Hemingway’s most iconic statements from the Old Man and the Sea, “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”
I was reminded of a photo of Hemingway standing with shotgun posture in the Finca. Less easy to dismiss is the scar on his forehead. It was one of the many concussive blows he received over the years – this one from a skylight that fell on his head when he pulled the wrong cord to flush the toilet after a night of drinking.
The shotgun pictured here appears to be his favorite and was possibly his most potent weapon: double-barreled 12-gauge Boss. Silvio Calabi, Steve Helsley, and Roger Sanger argue in the book, Hemingway’s Guns, that Hemingway never owned a Boss, and that the suicide gun was actually made by W. & C. Scott & Son.
As I depart the Finca, a song from the Cuban band lingers in my mind, Guantanamera/Yo soy un hombre sincero/De don de crece la palma….. and I thought about how, for Cubans, music is a social experience, and the old woman wasn’t a beggar.
In 2004 I started trading Apple stock. But it wasn’t until 2007 that I became totally committed to the things Steve Jobs was doing at Apple, and by that I mean committed financially. I had been active in the stock market and even acquired a securities license and had taken on a few clients. Its difficult to explain why I had become interested in Apple prior to Steve Jobs’ return but my records show a lot of trades between 2004 and 2007 (some trades occurred while I was traveling in Dubai and Jordan) and then a whopper of an options position around the time Steve announced the revolutionary iPod and iTunes music store. In fact, because options have embedded in them ten-fold leverage, those options would have converted into common stock and today be worth more than $20 million. This is by far the largest options position I’d ever taken on personally and it feels strange to reflect on the circumstances of my prescience with Apple, which can’t be called anything other than cosmic luck. I think it started with a curiosity surrounding a new technology to beam commercial-free music up to space and then down to earth for subscribers to a new music service that worked only with devices you could install in your home and car. The company was XM Satellite Radio and it was the first time I was able to immerse in music genres without having to purchase dozens of albums. I was struck most by the rhythm and poetry of Reggae. Bob Marley’s words pulsed and vibrated with revolution and catastrophe.
It wasn’t long after my first encounter with XM Satellite Radio’s technology that I convinced the CEO of XM to invite a client and me to an small investor pitch in Detroit. Companies often cultivate adventurous people with excess cash who are willing to buy large blocks of stock in a private transaction as a way to raise cash without the public splash of a totally open secondary offering. The problem haunting XM at the time was progressive degradation problem with the solar array panels on its two in-orbit satellite units, one called Rock and the other called Roll. There was an insurance dispute and the added cost of preparing the two backup satellite units for launch. With years of life remaining on the failing in-orbit satellites, I believed the fledgling company could survive the challenge even if Rock & Roll died in a firey blaze across the horizon.
Bob Marley died in 1981 in Miami, Florida on his way from Germany to Jamaica. He was returning from a failed treatment regime (diet and holistic treatments) administered by Josef Issels, a physician and former Nazi, who promised to cure cancer in a way that would conform with Marley’s Rastafarian belief that the body is a temple and therefore should not be defiled through surgery. A melanoma on Marley’s big toe, first discovered in 1977, had spread with a liquefying force to his brain after he postponed treatment for years.
Marley’s role in turning reggae into a worldwide phenomenon is one of the reasons the category of “world music” was invented, according to Hua Sue, in his article “Manufacturing Bob Marley”. Marley’s 1984 album, Legend, has become one of the best-selling albums of all time. And TIME magazine named Marley’s album, Exodus, as the album of the century in 1977. His short music career included only a handful of albums yet, decades later, his music embodies a cathedral of meaning for millions of people. It moves across time and space and geography unlike music from other artists who enjoy only mass appeal.
For Steve Jobs, treating an illness was also an expression of beliefs and not the administration of statistically significant outcomes promised by modern medicine. For almost a year after his diagnosis, Jobs tried to cure himself by using acupuncture, drinking special fruit juices and visiting “spiritualists.” When Jobs’ biographer, Walter Isaacson, asked why “such a smart man could do such a stupid thing”, Isaacson said of Jobs: “I think he felt: if you ignore something you don’t want to exist, you can have magical thinking. It had worked for him in the past. He would regret it.” Jobs died in 2011 after years of battling pancreatic cancer.
Though Jobs and Marley share a malicious fate in ignoring a cancer diagnosis, the largest measure of coincidence can be found in the way they lived, worked and believed. The men were different in many obvious ways, but there is a rhyme between them and, at the risk of succumbing to magical thinking, perhaps some degree of universal significance to be discovered by comparing them side by side. The obvious first intersection is music. Marley showed his mesmerizing beat and inspirational lyrics about love and redemption had a worldwide audience, and Jobs created the world’s largest digital content store and transformed the way the world consumes music.
“We were very lucky,” Jobs said to Rolling Stone Magazine in December 2003. “We grew up in a generation where music was an incredibly intimate part of that generation. More intimate than it had been, and maybe more intimate than it is today, because today there are a lot of other alternatives……And in our own small way, that’s how we’re going to make the world a better place.”
Jobs and Marley both translated mystical inspiration into action. Their beliefs and practices were supported by deeper values and set them in opposition to behavioral rules that we normally associate with indicators of success. Marley’s advocacy for the oppressed and interest in justice are rooted in his Rastafarian beliefs that have a close affinity to Judaism and early Christianity. “Babylon” was Marley’s focal point as it symbolized Western political and economic injustice, or “downpression,” as he used to say. Rejection of oppressive power structures and dislocation are several of the ancient themes that energized Marley’s music and completed the universal appeal of his lyrics.
Where Marley sought redemption through the peaceful unshackling of mental chains (“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/None but ourselves can free our mind”), Jobs saw technology’s highest calling as the agent of creative individualism and a counterpoint to the ruthless monopolizer: the Darwinian copier of innovation, Bill Gates. Jobs said, “Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is – everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.” Bill Gates was to Steve Jobs what Babylon was to Bob Marley.
Jobs’ spiritual discipline, mostly involving Zen Buddhism, makes sense in the context of the rebellious forces at work in his heart. He regularly practiced meditation, traveled to India in search of a personal guru, and even had a Buddhist monk, Kobun Chino, officiate his marriage in 1991. Some have suggested his obsession with perfection was rooted in the Buddhist philosophy of life as an ever-changing river, constantly in the process “of becoming.” Jobs inserted his “freedom fighter” worldview into Apple’s beliefs: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently .” It’s like Jobs wanted to unify sufferers to, “stand up for your rights.”
For Jobs and Marley, attacking cancer with the secular forces of modern medicine made no sense when the source of their creativity and structure of meaning stemmed from mystical beliefs rooted in rebellion, in challenging the status quo. Their creativity was a cosmically grounded form of artistic expression – a pattern of nature – that we now understand has a universal appeal. Marley called it “good vibrations,” and for Jobs it could have been “karma.” Perhaps this is why people say you can hear Marley’s heart beat in his music today and still “feel” Jobs in the 10th generation of the iPhone. In daily habits, Marley and Jobs were both: vegetarians, non-alcoholic and cannabis users. In an interview with the Department of Defense, Jobs went on record saying that the last time he got “high” was in 1977. Jobs explained cannabis helped him relax and made him more creative. For Marley, cannabis use was a spiritual lubricant advocated by Rastafarian beliefs. And neither were exemplary in some aspect of personal conduct. But abrasive relationships didn’t seem to diminish the wonderment of their accomplishments.
For Job’s, a college dropout, the science behind computer programming was never an interest because it required formal education. He had a passion for calligraphy during his short time at Reed College because it was, “artistically subtle in a way science can’t capture,” according to Jobs. In a similar vein, Marley said, “Reggae music is a people music. Reggae music is news. Is news about your own self, your own history, things that they wouldn’t teach you in a school…”
Neither Marley nor Jobs had their biological fathers present in their lives. In fact, their fathers came from faraway places and from different cultures – and this “mixed blood” impacted their identities that mapped to experiences with poverty, exile, and dislocation and from the margins of society. Bob Marley’s father, Norval Marley, was a white Jamaican originally from Sussex, England, whose family claimed Syrian Jewish origins. Steve Jobs’ father, Abdulfattah “John” Jandali, grew up in Homs, Syria and was born into an Arab Muslim household. In an amazing twist of fate, Jobs was a customer at a Mediterranean restaurant in San Jose, CA without realizing that it was owned by his biological father. The two met on a casual basis, and later, through Job’s sister, Mona Simpson, he learned the man at the restaurant was his biological father. “It was amazing,” Jobs later said of the revelation. “I had been to that restaurant a few times, and I remember meeting the owner. He was Syrian. Balding. We shook hands.” I wondered what would happen if I wandered into a restaurant and met my father decades after attending his funeral.
The first sensation of the significance of my map coordinates (20°24”12.2’N 78°55”26.5’E) occurred while visiting the Gardens of the Queen (Jardines de la Reina), a palm-fringed national park situated along Cuba’s Caribbean coast. There sits a remote fishing and diving center, operated by Avalon, like a floating village tethered to a point in time far in the past.
50 miles south of the fishing village of Jucaro, Cuba, a windswept village itself teetering on the edge of the last century’s middle years, 20°24”12.2’N 78°55”26.5’E is actually anchored to a patch of sandy mangroves and coral that make up this archipelago, the subject of my exploration. The 75-mile-long spit of land is oriented east-west and sits precipitously on the edge of a 10,000-foot drop in the sea a short distance from its rocky shores.
When Columbus encountered the archipelago on his second voyage in 1493, he named it to honor Queen Isabella of Spain, his financier. The distance traveled, combined with the disappointment (my suspicion) in finding the land utterly useless in terms of animal husbandry, agriculture or gold mining, must have inspired the bold declaration of its “garden” quality.
Safe in the knowledge that Queen Isabella would never set foot in her Caribbean garden, the contours of his narrative about the archipelago’s floral qualities seem to betray the reality and is instead closer to something like the shape of the archipelago itself – long and serpentine.
Today, the archipelago looks virtually the same as it did when Columbus arrived – permanently unfinished by nature or man. Experienced mariners of his time were said to plot their course by major star constellations, meaning Columbus was virtually lost when he found and named the place. But the journey says more about the meridians of his ambitions than his navigation skills.
Aboard the live-aboard diving vessel, newly encountered questions paralleled a palpable drift in my daily habits and shifted the way I experienced time over the course of my week-long visit. Certainly some aspects of living at the outpost must resonate with the experience of ship-bound early explorers.
Out there on the water I had escaped the modern day’s grid of predictability and found a fluid inner rhythm that was shaped by the dominant force at the outpost, the pendulation of solar and oceanic cycles. Sleep depended on physical exertion, and hunger drew closer to my nutritional needs. By the third day, I had not worn shoes or clothes (other than bathing suites) in two days. The lack of Internet finally broke my addiction to its brash demands for immediacy.
500 years of civilization had virtually eliminated the hazards of sea travel by the time my journey to 20°24”12.2’N 78°55”26.5’E took place. In fact, I was not denied essential refreshment at any time during my trip. I became acutely aware of the culinary distinction between Maine lobster and Caribbean spiney lobster. These benthic carnivores – Panulirus argus, a marine crustacean – have a fossil record dating back to the Cretaceous period – about 140 million years ago. Today, they are both abundant and legal for catching in small numbers in the Gardens of Queen.
In the evening, the wind freshens out of the East. Cuban flags, scattered ubiquitously around the outpost, pop smartly as if to celebrate. A total lack of light pollution makes the night sky brilliant and mesmerizing. The night’s first feature is not a brilliant starscape but a wink from Venus.
In an outpost like the Gardens of the Queen, the sun rises like a NASA launch video in slow motion. The water’s reflective quality concentrates the amber and white light in the vast zone surrounding the spectacle. Nothing escapes the probing rays of the sun. On the wall just inside the ship’s dining room is a frayed, fading image of a man sitting in the sun with what look like an Audubon society binocular case lying on the table next to his chair. His eyes squint in strange resonation with my morning’s sun. I imagined if music were filling the cathedral-like scene in front of me, the man in the image would be covering his ears, and smiling.
I soon learned why the Gardens of the Queen is considered to be among the best diving locations in the world – and certainly the best in the Caribbean. The depth profiles are numerous. There are shallow reefs as well as drop offs with spectacular walls filled with thriving flora and fauna. Other areas contain a gently sloping shelf that bleeds into a sandy slide into the abyss. These areas form a sort of water highway for turtles, sharks and rays to traverse the archipelago in a near still state, calculating their next feeding.
Diving has the unique quality of putting the traveler closer to exploring than sightseeing. The technical aspects of diving concentrate the mind on the visual sense and therefore enhance perceptual sensitivity.
The shadowed world of the water, so long the carrier of surface dwellers, reveals her nurtured fruit to the newly initiated divers. Virtually none of this Eden-like bounty was known to the early explorers.
Today, the more practiced divers hunt for rare images captured with elaborate, tentacle-like equipment. I learned, for the experienced divers, these images are like seeds to be harvested later.
Perfecting my buoyancy is what allowed me to fly over and float into the features of the underwater world. With childlike curiosity, I communed with sharks, rays, turtles and goliath grouper. Endangered Elkhorn coral soar above a shallow seafloor, giving life to a universe of tiny animals.
My diving companion came across a seahorse. Waving me over to inspect the creature through his camera lens, my body floated into a perfect horizontal position, suspended – without movement – over a shelf with a 30-foot drop below. This jewel was no larger than my smallest finger. The camera’s magnification revealed aspects of intricate shape and subtle colors. There was also a sovereignty about the creature. The jagged lines and fractal shape of its tail suggested an eternal, ancient geometry. Its elegant patterns were the intersection of beauty and exquisite roughness found in rusted iron or broken stone.
Later that evening, I came to understand perhaps some aspect of Columbus’ voyage and the irony of an underwater Eden almost totally unknown to early explorers seeking the lottery winnings of gold discovery. I realized the seahorse’s infinite complexity was an inheritable trait passed down, like mine, through the manipulation of DNA. Contrasted with the brilliance of the new life form I had encountered, the flattering stars above my head – and our star, the garish sun – share none of this living vitality, despite their silent, priestly calling.
Instead, a star’s existence is determined by a lifeless equation that will extinguish its light sometime in a predicable future. Its sparkle is the result of fusion, a process where two hydrogen atoms combine to form a helium atom, releasing energy in the form of light. Compared to the seahorse, stars have an infinitely linear and simple path, worthlessly distant from man’s challenges and now impotent for navigation purposes.
Out of curiosity, I had pulled a string, touched a set of gears that grabbed my body and launched a constellation of reflections. I realized the way you think determines what you discover.