Here be Monsters

I’ve been walking through my mindscape lately - more than the actual city. Revisiting memories, turning them in my hand and seeing how the light strikes them. Testing boundaries.

I’ve been watching Penny Dreadful, and I’ve been swilling the word monster around my mouth like boxed wine. Monster. What the hell is a monster anyway? They used to be on maps, but science drove them all away (literally, we’ll get to why).

Children are afraid of monsters, we know this. That’s why horror movies are for adults. And we’ve seen enough gore-infused sets to know that monsters are destructive, but I don’t think that’s the heart of them. Explain fake blood and silicon organs away until you’re blue in the face, the monster is still scary.

I won’t play coy, it’s not my nature. Monsters have no fear. Strip the mutated hide from the creature’s bones and you will only see purpose, hunger, need, and nothing to stop them from taking what’s yours. The wolf went from beast to companion when man discovered it feared the fire, the stick, and the thrown rock. Grendel became human weeping at his mother’s feet, because if you think of it, it’s Beowulf who’s the true monster of that tale.

So, if someone scares you, if you lean away slightly when they’re near, watch them closely. Find out what they’re scared of. They’re all more human than you think.

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External Memory

I bought an external memory today. It’s a drawing of Peter Pan, sword drawn, Tinkerbell whispering in his ear.

For those of you not familiar with the concept of an external memory, your brain basically throws out 99% of what you did each day. It has to. Not even you want to remember what your breath smelled like when you woke up. The remaining 1% gets prioritized by emotional tags – the stronger the emotion, the more detail goes into long term storage.

Once it’s there, though, it gets pretty messy. The more things are tied to that memory, the more likely you are to be able to access it when you want to, but if a whole section of your life goes by the wayside, you’ll have that annoying feeling something’s on the tip of your tongue, and not much else. That’s where an external memory comes in – it’s a small object that links directly to that cluster of memories, so you can forget everything that surrounded it and still jump straight to it. I keep a box of these things, check it every once in a while to keep things fresh.

If you’d like to see the concept in action, check out the Ghost in the Shell (2nd GIG) episode called “Affection.” It rocks pretty hard.

Aside from that, my day was pretty normal. I went to a couple different hairdressers to see if they’d cut my hair. The first two were booked solid, and I didn’t bother going in the third (one hairdresser, just started on a coloring job). The fourth place was an uber nice Parisian chain salon where I was offered coffee (no, thank you), coke zero (nope), and then water which I accepted gratefully since I’d just been running.

It came with biscuits, which is delightful, but mostly I’m thinking, “What the heck is a simple hit with the hair clippers going to cost me?” (About the same as my usual place, turned out.)

Once that was out of the way, I wandered. Went to my (now) favorite crepe place for lunch, dessert, and two glasses of fresh squeezed organic O.J. I picked up some coffee from Valmandin for the office. I went to that art gallery and got my prize.

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Favorite Books

The topic of favorite books came up. Whenever that happens, I think of the Old Man and the Sea.

My dad was a fisherman, charter boat captain, and SCUBA instructor, and, from what I’ve heard, he was a pretty straightforward guy. He got a gold stud in his ear to pay for his funeral if he drowned after a year on fishing boats, his favorite saying was “Every good party starts with a shower,” and the only book he owned was a dog-eared copy of the Old Man and the Sea. I think that someone like him loving that book probably says a lot about my father, and it’s a tribute to Hemingway’s skill.

It’s not my favorite book. I’m not ready for it yet. I could say something schmarmy like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes, and I do have a fondness for several books from the Bible, but it’s a workman’s love, a reference. I might as well tell you I loved my flight manuals when I was a pilot – I knew where things were, checked them when I needed to know how something worked, and they probably saved my life.

But when I see a copy of The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, I smile like someone coming home. I’ve owned and given away more copies of that book than any other. I can tell the story of Narcissus from memory, I left my first flock of sheep behind when I was 17, I polished glass wherever I went, and I am still trying to see through the Soul of the World and become the wind. As I get older, I become less the Boy and more the Alchemist, but my love for the story hasn’t changed.

One day, when I’ve found my treasure, when I’ve helped enough people find theirs, when I’ve seen and been and touched, tasted, felt, heard, and smelled, learned and taught, written and sung, and laughed - so very much laughter - I’ll drag myself into a rowboat and find my fish; a child will see the bones of my life and wonder; I’ll slip into a fevered slumber, defeated but triumphant, and dream of lions.

But first, I’m going to become the wind.

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This Is Africa

Or "How to buy a used car in Uganda."

This is a guest post from my friend Thomas Crum, who recently moved to Uganda in East Africa. Drop a comment if you like it, I'll pass it on and maybe he'll write again.

Have you ever seen the acronym TIA? It's an expat catch-all for unexpected problems that arise because... This Is Africa

It was a simple plan. My driver takes me to an Ambassador from an obscure country's house. I meet the broker the Obscure Country Ambassador has hired to sell the car, and the two of us take it to Cooper Motors, the most reputable Land Rover mechanics in Kampala.  Then mechanics tell me if anything is wrong with this vehicle advertised as "mechanically perfect," we negotiate a little on the price, and I have a new 13-year-old car. I expect the whole process to take about three hours, and because I'm not a complete newbie, I confirmed twice with all the major players.

My driver and I arrive at 9 am. No broker. No car. Ambassador is strangely hostile to the idea of me taking his car anywhere and declares he will have a mechanic of his own brought to the house. Already sure of what that mechanic would tell me, I ignore the problem, and we spend an hour watching an Arabic history of France with the older Ambassador, speaking in very broken English until the broker arrives.

The broker is Ugandan, so he speaks better English, and has spent time in my home state of South Carolina, so we have an instant connection and everything is very friendly. Except he doesn't have the car. It's across town. He convinces the Ambassador to allow us to take the car to Ssesanga, a closer Land Rover mechanic. Maybe not as good, but I haven't yet read the writing on the wall.

Ever the optimist, I agree that my driver can take us across town, so my driver, the broker, the Ambassador's driver (because why not?), and I all get into my company Toyota Corolla and head out. On the way, Broker admits that he doesn't actually have the keys to the car. So we pull over and wait for a  minibus to bring the broker's associate. Associate arrives along with a friend, for whom I still have no explanation. So now my driver, Ambassador's driver, World's Most Organized Broker, broker's associate, associate's friend, and I all head out in the Corolla to find the Mechanically Perfect Car.

To be fair, the engine started just fine. My legs had a hard time reaching the pedals since the seat controls were broken on Mechanically Perfect Car, but that's alright, because I needed to be in that position to use the mirrors, which were also broken. On the road, I discovered the power steering was out, though the gas gauge was not, which is how I knew we were totally out of gas. Guess who gets to pay?

So after buying gas for someone else's car, I follow the Corolla back into Kampala traffic, as my driver leads me to the mechanic. During this automotive running of the bulls, I discovered the power brakes are also broken, which led to some moments of excitement. Fortunately, I found that if I stomped hard on the brake, even though the actual brakes wouldn't work, the engine would shut off. That stops an automatic car really quickly!

Naturally, Ssesanga the Mechanic found a few things wrong with Mechanically Perfect Car. He even wrote out a list for me, which I have attached for your viewing pleasure. 

And so, I packed everyone but my driver into Mechanically Perfect Swindle and send them on their way. The two of us stuck around to see some of the cars that Ssesanga the Mechanic had for sale. Then we discover that World's Most Organized Broker had escaped the death trap he was selling and was waiting for us to give him a ride across town.

Which we did. Because I'm a sucker.

And that's the story of my six-hour car inspection.


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Between the Rain

A warm wind was blowing through Geneva on Saturday. The sky was overcast, several layers of dark clouds sliding over each other, the Rhone fast flowing and green like beer bottle glass. I’d decided to go to Birdie for breakfast, because an egg on toast with avocado and smoked salmon sounded like a good idea and they have great coffee.

At this point, my walks are always going to be blog material so I pay attention, which is kind of a win-win in my book because time is precious. I people watched, focused on how I was moving through the city, and hummed the chorus and singing portion of Twenty One Pilots’ “Stressed Out.”

I saw a mostly empty bottle of Beck’s and a plastic cup sitting on a 200-year-old stone windowsill. There were four trash cans within 20 feet, in every direction; the guy or gal who left their trash there had to walk by at least one, or they’d still be standing there.

I saw a crack in a wood-paneled door, and then realized it was too clean so it had been done on purpose, part of the manufacturing process. I saw a spiderwebbed split in a restaurant’s front window where someone had broken the glass, and I thought, is it cracked, or was it split? It’s sophistry, I know, but it tickled my brain.

The clouds broke and it started raining, the kind of fast, heavy downpour that fills the street with sound. People ducked under overhangs and into stores. When I was an active duty Marine, we weren’t allowed to carry umbrellas and training or patrols didn’t stop for rain, so at some point, my brain learned to react to this kind of situation with euphoria.

I ran to the next bit of cover. I peeked around a corner, spotted the next dry spot, and timed the next sprint with a lull in the rain. The wind was still strong and at my back, and for a moment of every step I was flying.

I guess I had this as a kid, but over a decade of obstacle courses and martial arts only made it stronger. There’s joy in movement. For 3 minutes of downpour, in a city that is almost stodgy in what it considers normal and acceptable, I was skimming over the sidewalk, dodging raindrops, humming Chaba’s “Parade” while people hid from the weather and I was utterly happy.

 Fast moving river on an overcast day

Fast moving river on an overcast day

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Synthetic Mountains

My wife grew up in San Diego. I grew up on the French Riviera, at the foot of the Alps. You could spin out a 1000 stories from that fundamental difference – what she thinks of the cheese I like; what I think of the cars she likes to drive - but basically, I gave her crap for her ridiculous mountains, which are secretly fungal hills. You’ll see them if you ever drive around on the West Coast, between Baja and L.A. They're covered in water efficient green stuff and clumps of round, pale boulders that look like mushrooms, and they're short (like my wife - hah). I’m convinced they’re fake. Hippie communes probably store their shag rugs under them.

I was sitting on a friend’s back patio last night, looking up at the Alps. I’d just finished doing a few laps in her saltwater pool (which is awesome btw), so I had that nice I-just-did-light-exercise glow going, a small glass of rosé, and a handful of snacks. There were a couple people there - I think we were talking about work. Then the sun slipped a few more degrees lower and painted the bare rock faces and trees the color of the aforementioned rosé.

That’s when it hit me. I don’t hate my wife’s mountains any more than I hated the elderly gentleman who walked around our neighborhood in New York in purple velour and a top hat. I was just homesick.

Home is where you can feel small and a bit tired but eminently safe. 

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I got lost on the wrong side of the train tracks today, trespassed, jaywalked, and had coffee.

It was supposed to be a 30-minute tram ride to visit one of Geneva's specialty coffee shops. I'd brought a print copy of my first book and a highlighter because it's been about a year since I read the thing and I thought I'd pull some quotes from it for marketing purposes. Here's the first one I highlighted:

That was when Jonas found out what human ash smelled like: incense, charcoal, and chalk dust. It slipped through his fingers like white sand and crushed seashells. It got into his mouth, nostrils, and eyes. It colored his hair and mingled with his tears… but no matter how frantically he tried to gather the pieces back together, his father was never coming home.

When I looked up, I was in a different town. Well, crap. It turns out, of course, that if I'd stayed on, it would have looped back around to where I was going, but I've been experimenting with impulsiveness lately so I got off and started walking.

Geneva is a small city and Lancy is a small town (which is called a municipality). There are no sidewalks in some places, so I warily loped down a bike lane. I ducked under a tree branch. I passed a sign that said, "Private Property" and pretended it wasn't there. I chased a white butterfly down a meandering trail through a field of hip-high ryegrass and purple wildflowers. At that point, the errand had become an adventure. After a few moments when I thought I might be climbing a fence and running across train tracks, I found a tunnel that went underneath and crossed back into Geneva.

I've been walking a lot more lately without a destination or path firmly in mind. I think I spent most of my time in the service and the couple years after that starving for time, so that I filled every free moment with sleep, books, games, movies, or sport. I wanted to escape, to be somewhere else where what I did mattered more. Some of that's whiny navel-gazing, and some of it's justified - anyone who's stood a 24-hour watch knows what I'm talking about. Now, I'm turning down cross streets and checking art galleries because  my instinct tells me I have somewhere to be. Because I'm curious.

I guess I'm as happy as I've been in years.

I made it to the coffee shop. It's called Valmandin, in a municipality called Carouge, which is like Lancy except more pedestrian areas and artisanal shops. The lady running it roasts by feel, not software, and is one of a very few people promoting specialty coffee in Geneva. The coffee I had was creamy, with chocolatey notes that made it almost like a mocha even though it was nothing but coffee. It had the sharp bite of a short espresso and a long lasting finish I could still taste well after I'd left the shop. If you're passing through Geneva (or live here), you should stop by.

I stopped to have crepes on my way home. Because.

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Music for Vampires, Part 2

So there we were, combing through 5,000 rods to bloody our fingertips on a single needle.

And all the while there is fear. Horrible, oppressive, heart squeezing fear. Fear that there are no other vampires like you. Fear that you're beneath their notice. Fear that they're all vampires, and you're the only one who isn't in on the joke. But mostly, there's the fear of irrelevance, that your actions, no matter how magical and strange, have no meaning because you're the only one who thinks they do. That's where solipsism comes into the Black Year, because after going through the entire pile twice, you might decide you don't care if it's real, and that's a very dangerous place to be for someone flammable.

You bring your fingers to your lips in horror. They taste of blood.

Sheer, f-ing panic. Was that a glint in the crowd? Did the pile shift? And meanwhile, the other vampire watching you is thinking, "Stop flapping around, you idiot. You're going to give us away." You take a breath, remember you own the night, and start to dance. I think that might be a glorious moment, if you can shut out the thought you're dancing alone.

Sometimes, I think the Agency was founded to fill out vampires' dance cards, and the monster hunting just a happy coincidence.


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