The bomb fell a mere two weeks after I landed in India, after my friend Alam
and I had already endured a sleepless train ride,
the rigors of air travel, and long hours in the car. Continue reading
The bomb fell a mere two weeks after I landed in India, after my friend Alam
and I had already endured a sleepless train ride,
the rigors of air travel, and long hours in the car. Continue reading
After a noisy, restless 6 hours from New York on an aging Boeing 747, I’m enjoying some silence in London’s Heathrow airport, mercifully uncrowded on this first Sunday morning in February. Continue reading
Sometimes you wake up and you know you have to do something different: Continue reading
The plane ride from Abu Dhabi to Cochin was unexceptional. After the turbulence faded, the plane became very quiet. It seemed to glide without any help from the engines. Everything felt extremely smooth, almost glassy, as though we were flying in a complete vacuum. That’s how I want my inner life to feel, effortless inside with rapid progress outside.
I collected my bag and went quickly through immigration. The officer asked nothing and waved me on. A long line had formed just outside. I slipped into a break in the line, which was getting longer very quickly, ending at another security checkpoint, complete with a body scanner and a disinterested, bored looking attendant. I wondered why everyone would go through security after passing through immigration.
A few people bypassed the line and strode with complete ease right through the checkpoint into freedom. For a moment, I was tempted to follow them, but the sheer numbers standing on line convinced me to stay. They were Indian, and this was India, so I figured they knew something I didn’t. Just about the time the line began to shrink, the attendant spoke loudly. “Go on, go on!” he said, waving us to go through.
And that’s what some of us did.
The Cochin airport is palatial, clean and elegant, but not brutally modern. This Indian culture is, after all, an ancient one. The airport’s structural elements aren’t notably glorified. There are bows to modernity, but it has not been designed to instill awe. Yet it is a striking expression of prosperity and wealth, a shining gateway to the grittiness of the real India. And it is entirely solar powered. Kerala is very proud of this.
Outside its confines, I can feel and smell Kerala’s tropical warmth. Rain has recently fallen. A small older couple waiting outside smiles at me. Their faces glow with the sweet lovingkindness only grandparents have. I wonder what they think. I am the sole westerner, but I do not feel alone as I walk back and forth surveying the hundreds of people waiting patiently outside the ribbon barrier to meet their relatives. I am looking for the man who will drive me to Aatma, about an hour away. After several passes, I realize he is nowhere to be found.
I stand with my bags, simply waiting. The older couple is absorbed in some business of their own. I notice that someone has come near me, a boyish man who looks to be in his forties. He’s dressed simply but neatly as so many Indian men are, in a collared white shirt and the western-style pants of a businessman. He asks, “You need driver?” He instantly engages me. I need the ride, of course, and he shows an innocence and sweetness that tells me there is absolutely nothing to fear. “Yes,” I tell him. “Five minutes,” he says, “I get car.”
It’s 3am. This story has been hitchhiking through my mind for the last hour, just waiting for me to pick it up. I’m terrified that I won’t remember the details that will make it rich, so I get out of bed to write. Outside, an unseen bird has been calling a simple, two-step call for at least an hour, constantly, regularly, untiringly. I want to see him but it is pitch black dark. The air is cool. My face is oily sweaty. I think of the young man who’s a technician here, his sweet nature, his slight build which belies an uncanny strength—and the conflict I know he feels but never betrays. He is Muslim in a Hindu land, 1500 miles from his family in West Bengal. They depend on him to help with the family farm, but he wants to be here in Kerala learning more about Ayurveda. He says his mother feels it deeply when he is away.
The driver grabs my bag and loads it into the trunk of a small diesel-powered Tata sedan. The car’s air conditioning works very well. It’s a necessity in this hot and humid southwestern state of Kerala. It’s monsoon season. That means copious rainfall, with storms that roar like lions as they collide with the broad banana leaves and the metal roofs.
As we drive on the main road, I look for sights familiar from my last ride. But nothing at all looks familiar; India is visually very complex. The driver says he knows my destination. I don’t worry. All I see is the very familiar collection of buildings in various states of occupancy, vacancy, repair, and disrepair, interspersed with lush tropical vegetation, and every so often a large empty plot of land. India’s urbanity is such an unlikely mix, a chaos that will make Westerners wince and wonder.
That chaos is woven through almost every visible aspect of Indian life, and is nowhere more evident than on the roads and streets. This driver, in a word, is an expert, one of many in my experience. He knows exactly how big the car is as he passes a slower, heavily loaded lorry while a faster car passes us, all of it happening in two lanes. He knows exactly how much brake to apply to stop the car a perfect foot behind the car in front. He makes the car dance through the traffic with other cars a foot away. Horns sound frequently in the mad, low-horsepower rush to the next traffic signal. The saving grace of Indian traffic is that most cars are diesel, not very fast. Still, some try to bully their way to the front.
Scooters and motorbikes are everywhere, piloted by very determined-looking men and guys of all ages, some with their wives as passengers dressed in beautiful, colorful, traditional Indian saris. The helmeted men wear black, looking very derring-do on their mount. It strikes me that all these Indian people are very brave, very strong, apparently impervious to the vulnerability that I see as they make their way. There are just so many people trying to get around on so many different ways, on foot, on bicycles, on a great variety of motorized things of widely different sizes. Old men and women walk at the side of the road as giant buses whoosh past right next to them. Perhaps they’ve seen it all. Perhaps all their fear is gone. As I said, these people are brave. Imperturbable. Unflappable. And they look it.
We have to stop for gas. The driver proclaims to me, “Diesel! Five hundred rupees!” It appears I must pay. That’s novel. I know my fare will exceed 500, so I figure I’m safe. He says something to the station attendant. This is India, a land of 1.2 billion people. Everyone has to eat, so, unlike the wealthy US, India has service station attendants who pump your fuel. I hand a 500 to the attendant. He puts the nozzle in the tank, and before anyone can say namaste, the pumping is finished. Five hundred rupees is about $7.38 worth of diesel.
Soon we go through a massive toll barrier. There are lots of windows. I try to make sense out of the sign that lists the fees, because I suspect that I’ll have to pay that, too. But when I try to hand the driver some money, he refuses it. He hands the female attendant a little piece of paper. The exchange a few words, and we are off.
My driver speaks very little English, and I speak absolutely no Malayalam, the primary language of Kerala. The grammar, all the articles and pronouns and such that make English sound correct to English speakers, is a hurdle for the Malayali. He does know enough English to tell me about his financial obligations, which are the main topic as we roll. I listen though I’m fascinated with the scenery, still trying to figure out whether I’m on the right road and where the turnoff for Anandapuram is. He explains that he’s going to leave Kerala for Dubai, where he’ll work as a driver. The pay is much better there. He’ll send money home to cover his father’s medical problems and his children’s schooling. Those migrations are fairly common among people from Kerala.
He laughs a bit after each revelation about his finances. His laugh has a nervous, slightly maniacal quality, but there’s some bliss there, too. I can’t figure out whether he’s anxious or worried. There’s not enough common language between us. Many Indians assume all Americans are wealthy. Most Americans are wealthy compared to most Indians. He does not seem beset with problems. His nature is sweet and his driving is right on. He says he will be in Dubai for a number of years, and we agree that it will be hard on him to be away from his native India. The two cultures couldn’t be more different. My driver has my heart.
The people of Kerala have, in my experience, a sweetness and an honesty that might leave you in wonder. Last year, the barber in the village, who charges a hundred rupees for a haircut, refused the 10 rupee tip I offered him. I bought 4 rupees worth of bananas from a lady who has a small market. I had only a fifty rupee note. She waved me on with a smile. I brought her the money the next day. So you know, there are about 60 rupees to the US dollar.
We continue to roll after the toll barrier. But soon the driver stops the car. He appears to recognize someone on the roadside, and he calls out to the man, but not loudly. I have no idea what’s happening. The driver says something, and the roadside man points in the direction we were driving. I gather we are not lost, and so, apparently, does my driver after the brief conference. We move on.
Moments later, after some silence, the driver again stops the car to confer with someone on the roadside. This time, the man points toward the direction from which we have come. We are lost, but not very lost. That’s what I hope as we drive back through the toll barrier. By this time I could likely do a fairly accurate financial analysis for my driver. There are absolutely no signs for the village, nothing that I recognize. We make a turn onto a side road, and once again, my driver asks directions of a man who he also appears to know. He points in the direction we are driving.
We make another stop to confirm our direction, just before a familiarity comes to me. I realize, at last, that we are not lost. We are minutes away. But though I tell the driver in my most reassuring manner that everything’s cool, that we’re on the right track, and so forth, he doesn’t quite believe me. So we stop a couple more times, and I show the picture of Aatma’s sign to the men we meet through the car window.
After I get out of the car, the driver calculates the cost of the ride. He’s absolutely honest, and the price—1100 and some odd rupees, tallies just right with the 500 I gave for diesel. That’s what I’ve paid in the past.
He tells me to call him whenever I need a ride. “I’ll be there,” he says proudly.
I gave him most of what my wallet held, about 1800 rupees.
He smiles. “This is a good man,” he says. And he drives away.
Well, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I get a mite squirrelly up here in the miasma of the great Northeast Urbanity. With the lack of family and partner and kids and all that, it gets downright depressing sometimes, and I think to myself, “You have nothing to live for”, which is about as true and about as false as I’d like to think it is. Continue reading
Before I reach the meat of this article, I need to get a few things off my chest, things that might help to explain why I write what I do. Most people who know me think I am incredibly lucky. In certain ways I’ve been enormously lucky. What many people struggle for has come fairly easily to me, though not without cost. That’s the way things work in this world: you don’t get something for nothing. And no one gets it all.
It is difficult for me to make friends. It’s not, I think, that I’m unfriendly. I just don’t connect with many people. Either they make little impression on me, or I fall in love with them—and that hasn’t ever worked its way into a lasting relationship. I spend a lot of time alone, too much for my own well-being. I’m reliable at work, good at doing things well, but not much good at the kind of socializing I see around me here in New York. And with at least a few million people around me, it’s astounding that I haven’t made some buddies.
At my tender age of 64, it doesn’t take much anymore: just kicking around the city with someone who’s got something to say, someone who’ll listen, someone observant—that’s more than enough. I don’t need a big blast, a costly restaurant, or late nights on the town. Simple good company will do nicely. I had that a while ago, and I thought he would become a permanent deal even though my heart was breaking all the way through it. I still feel it. I hope against all the odds. I don’t give up.
I’d give just about anything to be a regular Joe, and for years I spent considerable effort, energy, and error to convince myself that I was one. I worked with my hands. I got tired and dirty. I wore workingman’s clothes. I smoked Marlboro cigarettes; that was the error factor in the regular Joe equation. I don’t recommend smoking. The eventual cost is too high, and it’s dirty.
After a raft of hopes, dreams, and wishes that don’t come true, what’s a non-regular guy to do? For one thing—just in case a miracle should descend and I meet someone who’ll stick around—I take good care of myself. I eat well, do yoga asanas, exercise, and I practice Transcendental Meditation twice every day. I help people who need various sorts of directions, and I try to stay out of the way of errant drivers and pedestrians whose eyes are buried in mobile phones. And I love my cat. She’s the most dependable other in my life.
In addition, I read the news and I think about what’s going on and why it’s going on. Lately the news isn’t good. But it is very, very revealing. A beautiful young mother and her baby were mowed down in Florida by teenagers in a couple of fast cars. A woman here in NY died when a speeding Mercedes rammed her cab. And, yes, we had yet another school shooting, a mere week after the last one. Congressmen are undoubtedly sending thoughts and prayers, probably to the NRA, so they can keep their re-election campaign coffers full. Since the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook, about 7000 children have been killed in US school shootings.
This is not an essay about gun control. I have little faith in the rule of law. Laws are like locks. Locks help keep honest people honest. Laws help keep law-abiding people on a certain straight and narrow, but some laws are unjustified and some laws are just plain wrong.
Think about it: 7000 children were killed in their schools since 2012, right here in the land of the free. We spend a significant portion of the nation’s wealth on the military, and we call that the defense budget. In 2015, we spent about $610 billion. Think on that for a moment as you envision yourself as a Congressman confronted with the decision to approve the budget, which Congressmen do every year. You might ask, since it’s obvious that we can’t protect our children while they’re in school, just what is our huge military expense defending? We’re certainly not defending our freedom when our children are at risk of dying in their own schools. That vast military expense didn’t work on that dark September 11, either. We have a great memorial to that disaster down the street from my apartment. But is that what we really want to commemorate? I think it’s sad.
The hardest thing for me to accept is that these shootings continue and absolutely nothing substantial changes. In the most recent shooting, the Santa Fe High School shooting, the firearms used were not locked up. They were readily available right there in the house where the young perpetrator lived with his parents. I’d bet that the people in that household have seen at least one news item about a child who got hold of a gun and shot a toddler, or some similar story. Perhaps more often than not, gun control begins at home. Laws don’t make people more intelligent. And guns usually make people more reactive—especially when they’re holding one.
Could there be a connection between the violence that the US has brought to other parts of the world through unwarranted military action and the violence that we have within our own borders? I think that connection is inescapable; most people understand the expression, “As you sow, so shall you reap.” We have been sowing violence around the globe for far too long. We have ruined entire nations, driven people from their homelands, and caused the migration of millions.
The US Congress controls how some tax dollars are spent. They called it discretionary spending; members of Congress decide where the money goes. The US federal budget is very heavy on defense spending and notably light on things that would make life easier for the millions of people who struggle daily to make ends meet. That’s wrong. It’s destructive. It’s backward thinking. And it shows that we have not learned from history. We look back through the rosy glasses of nostalgia instead of the vitally important critical eye. What that says is this: we are not living in the present, and we are not thinking about the future. Those failures of vision can destroy a culture and a nation. Perhaps destruction is what must happen in order for something new to be created. Perhaps that essential destruction is what we are now witnessing. One can hope only that the forces for good are stronger than those on the evil, destructive side. It is hard to measure.
In response to the apparent threats posed by Germany and Japan, the notoriously isolationist US geared up to enter World War II—and the nation flourished under an unusual period of unity that gave it a huge boost economically, technologically, and sociologically. I’m not here to argue whether WW II was justified or not; one man has done that. I don’t know enough to make that argument, and I’m not interested in looking back unless doing so can give me some tools to create a better future, or at least help me create a vision of a better one.
Since WW II, the wars that the US has created have done little more than drain the nation’s resources. None of those wars—not the Korean, or the Vietnamese, or the Iraq war—were needed to address a threat to the nation. What lives on from WW II is the dilapidated theory that war is a powerful economic stimulus for the nation—and here in the US, the economy is everything, because money is the god. The world has moved on since that last world war, but the US federal government remains mired in the creation of enemies for never-ending war. It costs us dearly.
The US invents reasons to go to war, concocting various threats that it must sell to the people to justify war. The threats are sometimes ideological, such as communism; or physical (but imagined), such as Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. It hardly matters what those threats are, because all were lies, lies concocted to justify ever-increasing military spending, and to give a bored, reckless, and rootless government something to occupy its time. War is very profitable—but only for a few. War is disastrous for everyone else and especially for the young men and women who fight it. Today they return from the US’s military adventures suicidal and homeless, ignored as collateral damage, abandoned by the very government that entices them with money or the glory of military service. Today more soldiers die from suicide than from combat.
The nation’s needs and the nation’s problems are vast. The media report that the great American middle class, a product of the economic expansion from WW II, is vanishing. Homelessness has risen; in New York, where I live, the estimate is that 60,000 people are homeless. That’s a city in itself. The cost of US health care is the world’s highest, and the outcomes rank far below other nations, nations with single-payer health care. At least six US states are suing makers of pain killers because of opioid addictions. Disastrous drug side effects can render the cure worse than the disease. Newborns are vaccinated right out of the womb, shot full of modern medicine’s guesswork cocktail even before their nervous systems have had exposure to the earthly environment. All of these tell the tale of a system in crisis, the result of a serious lack of knowledge about life and health.
The federal government is a veritable ostrich. It keeps its head buried in the sand, obsessed with the notion of creating national security with a big military, as the nation withers from within. Members of Congress are owned by the corporations who finance their re-election campaigns: they vote the way their financiers want them to vote. And who believes that the US was incapable of protecting its election system computers from hackers? Are we really that dumb? And what does that admission do to your faith in our great democracy and our competence as a nation in this very technological age with all those concerns about data and security and privacy?
I’m as much of a dreamer as anyone else. As I intimated early on, what’s a guy to do after all those failed romances, friendships that never were, and dreams that just sputtered and sank? Truthfully, I’d rather be writing about something gorgeous and elevating, like the beautiful Pininfarina-designed Lancia Flavia Coupe I’ve just posted on my Facebook page. But this time moves me in a different, more somber, more reflective direction. This time can be a very painful one. I’d like to think that the world is moving onward toward greener pastures, but sometimes that’s difficult—especially in the case of the untimely loss of innocent life as has recently occurred. I feel those losses deeply in my heart and in my gut.
The price of empire is very high. It has proven too costly for many nations to bear. History is littered with nations conceived in high dreams and lost to broken ones. Where are we going as individuals in this nation? It is we who create it, in every moment. Mark that well.
The Real True Knight—as Seen by Don Quixote
Do not make empty boasts. Take a deep breath and consider how it should be. Call nothing your own except your soul. Love not what thou art, only what thou may become. Do not pursue pleasure, for you may have the misfortune to overtake it.
Look always forward, in last year’s nest there are no birds this year.
Be just to all men—courteous to all women. Live in the vision for Whom all great deeds are done. I come in a world of iron to make it a world of gold. What matters is that I follow the quest. The quest is the privilege to dream the impossible dream and to try to bring it into reality.